by Dyna Dee
Heero didn't go to Palo Alto the next Sunday as Madison suggested. Instead, he got on the internet and, using their old email addresses, attempted to contact his former friends, hoping to find out what was going on with Duo and their children.
It really didn't come as a surprise that Quatre was the only one to respond to his inquiry later that night. In a polite but distinctly chilly note he told Heero that after nearly four years of distancing himself from them he would have to get any information he wanted from Duo. The corporate executive added a warning that he should tread with caution. If he should hurt Duo again, the blond would consider his actions justified in seeing that it would never happen again. He re-read the warning several times and was surprise at Quatre's thinly veiled threat. His own ire began to rise in response to it. Quatre, as usual, was being blindly loyal and biased towards Duo. He'd always had a soft spot for his former lover. Heero bristled at the thought that if any one deserved their former friends' sympathy, it should have been him. After all, he was the one who'd been hurt by Duo's actions. He was the one who'd been wronged when Duo cheated on him. What right did Quatre have taking sides anyway? It then dawned on him that perhaps Duo hadn't told their friends the truth behind their break up. Yet that bitter thought slipped away as quickly as it had come. It just didn't sit right because Duo never lied. It was the one thing you could trust implicitly about the man. If their friends had asked him what had happened between them, why he had suddenly disappeared from their lives, Duo knew would have told them the truth, even if it made him look bad.
He left his room feeling dissatisfied with his brief contact with Quatre. Speaking to the blond had left him feeling a measure of regret at the loss of his former friends. He knew, of course, that he had only himself to blame for he'd been the one who walked away from everything and cut off everyone from his past, and it had also been his decision not to make contact with them.
As he walked into his living room, he noticed for the first time in three years that the quiet surrounding him was absolute, feeling almost oppressive. He stood there a moment and let his eyes scan and the modern decor that filled his apartment. Thanks to Madison's decorating talents, the empty living space he'd purchased upon arriving in San Francisco had become filled with carefully selected items that were bent to his taste. Overall, he thought it was an eye-appealing living space. The entire apartment bore furniture and accessories that had straight, clean lines. There were now pictures on the walls of the picturesque city he lived in plus modern, masculine knickknacks on the tables and shelves that gave the discerning eye something interesting to gaze upon. He even had green silk plants in the corners and beautiful potted orchids that were strategically placed about the room, softening the harder lines. Yet now, for the first time in three years, he realized his home looked like a showroom for some Scandinavian Design ad. Though the room reflected his tastes with stream-lined furniture, predominantly black and white, set in a meticulously clean, uncluttered living space, it was devoid of warmth and charm... so much like himself, he thought.
It seemed strange to him how he'd unwittingly set the decor to reflect his own personality and lifestyle after leaving his family, given that it was in complete contrast to the home he and Duo had once shared. He could still see that first home in his mind after nearly four years absence. It had been a warm and homey place where the furniture had been comfortable and the general ambiance inviting. Only now did he suspect that he'd unconsciously fashioned not only his apartment to be the exact opposite of his former home with his ex-lover, but the rest of his life as well. The change in decor alone was obviously an attempt to forget everything he'd once had by replacing it with something completely different, cold and austere.
Duo, he recalled, had been the embodiment of brightness and warmth in his life, both during and after the wars. The home they'd shared had been filled with not only laughter and love, but also overstuffed and comfortable furniture that you could easily sink into and take a nap on during a lazy afternoon. It was a place that he'd longed to return to after a busy day at work. He'd always thought it was just Duo that he'd craved to be with when he drove home at the end of each day, but he now realized that it hadn't been just his lover, it had been the whole package that had been conceived and put together by Duo, including their home and family.
The ache and pain that he'd buried so deeply within his closed-off heart came rushing back like a tsunami, suddenly and catastrophically. Stumbling back to his bedroom, his fingers fumbled clumsily as he removed his clothing and fell onto his bed, clutching his pillow tightly to his chest to try and ease the pain. He attempted to calm his mind and heart, to get back to the state of numbness he'd willingly lived in for so long, but his former training eluded him this time.
Hours later, his mind finally quieted enough to allow him to slip into a more restful state and sleep began encroaching on his awareness. His last conscious thought was: Please, don't let it be Duo.
It was several weeks later, in the latter part of August, that Heero finally brought himself to follow Madison's advice. She'd sent him an encouraging nudge by emailing him Andrea and Craig Olsen's address in Palo Alto and their phone number. She added the simple message of good luck. Her email had been short and concise, and he figured it was probably the last one he would ever receive from her. He missed her, but their parting of ways hadn't hurt as much he thought it would. He'd begun to wonder if she'd been right after all, that a great part of his heart was already occupied, even unknowingly, with Duo and the kids. It was conceivable that the situation between them was still unresolved, keeping him from truly getting on with his life. He came to the grudging conclusion that he needed the closure she'd spoken of and began to think that perhaps he'd been too hasty in giving Duo total custody of their kids. What would Duo would say if he asked for visitation rights while they were still in the area?
Sunday the twenty-first began in a shroud of heavy morning fog that blanketed the city. Pulling out of his parking spot in his sleek, black sports car, he had to turn on the windshield wipers almost immediately in order to clear the glass of moisture to see the road properly. He drove through the city towards Nineteenth Avenue and eventually Highway 280, going South, and made an effort to try and enjoy the scenic rolling-hills drive to Palo Alto. Despite the soft jazz music he'd put on to calm his nerves, worry and anxiety gnawed at his stomach as he wondered what reaction he could expect from Duo by his sudden, unannounced visit.
He was pleased to see the fog beginning to dissipate as he drove southward and the sun burst through the grayness after he passed the exit to San Mateo. His mood lightened considerably with the arrival of the late summer sunshine and its welcomed warmth. Following the directions he'd gotten from the internet, he took the Sand Hill exit as indicated and eventually found himself driving into the city of Palo Alto. Driving down the designated street, he slowed to check the house numbers against the address Madison had given him for the residence of Andrea and Craig Olsen. With a satisfied sigh, he pulled over, having found his destination.
Parking his car directly in front of the stately home, he noted the small, white station wagon that was parked in front of him with a luggage carrier strapped to the top and a Colorado license plate. It had to be Duo's. He couldn't help but wonder what happened to the SUV he'd bought for him to tote the kids around in. He'd left that as well as his smaller, two door coup behind on the day he'd walked out, opting to take his motorcycle instead. He let the questions regarding the car go, figuring it was only reasonable to assume that during the nearly four years he'd been gone any number of things must have changed in Duo's life.
He walked up the driveway, eying the neatly trimmed, well maintained yard and the house in front of him. It was an older, impressively large two-storey home. He couldn't recall exactly what kind of doctor Craig Olsen was but he had to be pretty successful in his field considering the fine piece of real estate before him, set in one of the most expensive areas in the bay area.
Following the path along the side of the garage (which he'd been told would lead him to the back yard) he felt like a trespasser entering private property without permission. He shrugged off the feeling knowing this was the only way to the cottage Madison had told him about. Rounding the back-end corner of the Olson's home, he came upon a large grassy yard filled with flowering bushes, leafy trees and a lush lawn. At first glance the granny unit, set in the right corner, appeared to be a quaint cottage, painted white and resembling a doll house more than a practical residence. It was small, and he supposed that if it wasn't set up like a studio apartment then it would most likely contain a main room, one bedroom and bath. There was little doubt that it would be a bit cramped for Duo and two kids, for he remembered that along with kids came a lot of clothing, toys and other necessities.
Just outside the cottage door and stretched out on the green lawn was a long blue sheet of plastic with a hose attached to one end. On the other end was a small pool of water. Toys were scattered around the grassy area, evidence of the children living there. A shiver of anticipation as well as nervousness shook his frame in knowing that the toys belonged to his children.
He approached the cottage and heard the sounds of a television game show coming through the screen door. Taking a deep steadying breath, he knocked on the outside door trim and waited. He really wasn't prepared to be greeted by a little person who was the exact replica of his former lover, minus the age and obvious gender differences.
"Who are you?" Eliza asked him. He took a second to observe the girl, his and Duo's daughter. Through the screen he could see she wore a pink and white floral short set. Her slender arms and legs were brown, tanned from time spent outdoors in the summer sun. Her long, thick auburn hair was pulled into two pony tails just above her ears and the ends fell to brush several inches below and over the front her shoulders.
"I'm looking for your father," he told her. "Can he come to the door?"
The little girl frowned. "He's with Ali, trying to get him to take a nap. Can I give him a message?"
"No," he answered, rubbing his sweaty palms against his jeans, a outward sign of his nervousness. "I've come from the city and need to speak with him. Would it be all right if I wait?"
"I can't let you in," the miniature female version of Duo answered. "But you can sit over there on the patio and wait if you want to."
He nodded, noting that the little girl seemed very responsible for such a young age. "Thank you," he replied, then forced himself to turn and leave her, moving across the lawn to the indicated waiting area adjacent to the Olsen's home, noting briefly the impressive rod-iron patio furniture.
Not more than five minutes passed before a door behind him opened and Andrea Olsen came out of her home, dressed in tan khaki shorts and a white, sleeveless cotton blouse. "Odin! Hello!" she greeted him with an unsure smile, barely covering up her surprise at his sudden appearance in her backyard.
"Morning," he answered in a rather clipped tone.
"You're here to see Duo?"
He nodded, not feeling any desire to talk to her. She was, after all, Madison's assistant.
"Oh... good," she said hesitantly and the atmosphere between them became awkward as she sensed his reluctance to chit chat. "I was just going to the grocery store and I thought I'd see if Duo needs me to pick anything up for him."
Heero shrugged. "He's putting Alairic down for a nap, but Eliza's inside."
"Okay. Guess I'll check with her. Enjoy your visit." Andrea more or less bolted for the cottage. Once she stood before the screen door, she spoke in a quiet voice to the little girl guarding the entrance. Heero watched as a piece of paper, no... an envelope was passed from behind the screen to the woman. The petite blond called out a soft and cheery farewell and, to his irritation, she called the girl Zazu. Andrea quickly walked back to the main house, pausing for just a moment to give him a small bit of advice. "You might not want to visit too long. It's been a rough week and Duo's very tired."
Heero nodded, wondering why she was so protective of his ex-lover. His curiosity, however, was overshadowed by the worry that gnawed at his stomach, fearing Duo was the reason they'd come to the area to see the specialists at Stanford's renowned medical facility.
Some time later, the distant sound of a familiar, low-timbered voice caught his attention and it was followed by Eliza's recognizable higher one. Before he was even aware of moving, he was out of his seat, across the lawn and standing before the screen door to the cottage once again. His heart was suddenly pounding rapidly against the inside of his chest.
He knocked at the door once more and watched as Duo, standing inside and no more than ten feet from where he stood, turned to face him. A look of shock and surprise flashed across the familiar face from seeing who it was on his doorstep. The expression was quickly replaced by a narrowing of his eyes and a wary look of suspicion. As he walked towards the door, Heero took in the sight of his former lover. Duo was wearing long denim shorts and a white tee-shirt that hung loosely from his shoulders. His first impression was that Duo looked good, even with his vision blurred by the dense mesh over the screen door. But as his ex-lover came to a stop in front of him, he revised that thought, realizing that Duo was thin, very thin. His cheek bones were more prominent than he'd ever known them to be, even during the war. And the blue eyes he'd once lost himself in were dark circled and pained looking.
"What do you want?" Duo asked, his voice low and sharp.
"Hello, Duo," he replied civilly, keeping his voice calm. He hoped to show the other man that he didn't have any ulterior motives in visiting him. "Can we talk?"
"I don't think we have anything to talk about, Heero. You made it more than clear that you wanted nothing to do with us. I've honored your request, now how about you return the favor and leave us the hell alone."
"Duo, please," Heero began, but stopped short when Eliza peeked around her father's side to get a good look at him.
"What's the matter, Daddy?"
Heero watched as Duo looked down at his daughter and his face softened considerably as he smiled reassuringly at her. "Nothing, Zazu. Why don't you get your swimsuit on and bring out the sun screen. You can go on the Slip and Slide for a while if you promise to keep your voice down so Ali can sleep."
Looking warily towards the stranger, the girl reluctantly agreed and disappeared into what Heero decided was the bathroom. "She looks just like you," he told Duo, but even that simple comment seemed enough to set the other man off.
"Look, Heero. I don't know what game you're playing, but I'm too tired to try and figure it out. Why don't you just turn around and go back to your beautiful girlfriend and the perfect world you've probably created for yourself and forget about us... again. You're good at that, so it shouldn't be so hard to do now."
Duo moved to shut the inside door and Heero knew a moment of panic, seeing his last chance at finding out what was going on diminishing. "Are you all right, Duo?" he rushed to say. "Are you sick?"
He became more concerned as he watched the thin, braided-hair man stiffen a moment only to lean wearily against the doorjamb, putting his forehead against it as he fought to contain his emotions. "Oh, God," he whispered in a shaky voice. "If only it was me. I'd give anything for it to be me."
All the hurt, anger and feelings of betrayal he'd felt towards Duo slipped away as he watched the man he once believed he could never live without struggle not to break down... and fail. Without thinking, Heero opened the screen door and put his arm around the shaking shoulders. With no resistance from Duo, he lead the other man to the blue and white striped sofa, positioned in the middle of the small living room. At a glance, he made a quick note of the interior. As he'd guessed, it had a main room that served as living room and kitchen and two doors, which he believed was the bedroom and bath. He returned his attention back to Duo as they sat down together. His arm remained comfortably draped over the other man's shoulders. For his part, Duo seemed to curl in upon himself, tolerating the contact but not responding to it.
After several moments, Duo seemed to compose himself just as the little girl came out of the bathroom, dressed in a purple, white and yellow plaid one-piece swimsuit. Duo hastily dried his eyes and put on a forced smile, obviously for her benefit. "Come here, girlie. Let's get some sunblock on you."
Appearing somewhat shy by his presence in their temporary home, Heero watched the girl hand her father the bottle of sunblock lotion. She then stood patiently, eyeing him in return from out of the corner of her eye as he sat close to her father while Duo slathered the white creamy substance over her exposed skin.
After Duo decided she was thoroughly protected from the sun's rays, he replaced the cap on the tube while his daughter looked directly into Heero's eyes and asked. "Who are you? Did you make my Dad cry?"
"Zazu!" Duo's voice was soft yet had a tone of chastisement. "That's not polite. This is an old friend of mine and he didn't make me cry. You know how I get when I'm tired."
The little girl studied her father's face with eyes that seemed to take in everything. "You should take a nap, Daddy."
"I will as soon as my... friend here leaves and you're done on the Slip and Slide."
"Okay," the girl said, looking a bit hesitant. "I won't be too long."
"Take a towel out with you," Duo reminded her. With one last look at the both of them, she went to the bathroom and came out with a bright pink and white floral beach towel. Both men watched her leave the cottage and a moment later the sound of water being turned on was heard.
Scooting away from their close proximity, Duo leaned into the far corner of the sofa and let his head drop back to rest on the back cushion.
"Alairic?" Heero guessed, a lump forming in his throat.
"Yeah," the braided man answered wearily.
"What's wrong? Is it genetic?"
Duo's head shook. "No. You're not at fault. You can walk away without that on your conscience." The touch of sarcasm in Duo's voice didn't go unnoticed.
Closing his eyes and leaving his head resting on the back of the sofa, Duo sighed wearily. "After you left, I had to go out and get a job to support us. It was hard but I managed to find a daycare that would take both of the kids. I went back to the Preventers, to a desk job in the Denver office. It was boring and tedious but it was safer than being in the field. I couldn't take a chance on getting hurt or killed with two kids depending solely on me. The job was nine to five with good pay and the promise of benefits after a trial period. Our heath care benefits covered by your job ended two weeks after you resigned.
"Two months after you left and two weeks after I started my new job, I got a call from Ali's babysitter. She informed me that he was extremely fussy and refused to eat. She said he had a low-grade fever and asked permission to give him some fever reducing medicine. I picked him up later that day and the sitter told me that he'd actually been reluctant to eat for several days but that she'd attributed it to teething."
Raising his hands to cover his face, Duo paused to collect himself. "I thought it was just a damn cold. I hesitated to take him to the doctor because I didn't have any sick leave and my insurance hadn't kicked in. I took him home and gave him some children's pain medication. He seemed a bit better and so I went back to work the next day with the sitter promising to watch him closely and let me know if his condition changed. She called me around three, scared and crying. Ali had taken a sudden turn for the worse around two that afternoon and his fever had skyrocketed. She reported that he seemed weak and cried at every movement and that his joints seemed swollen and warm to the touch. She said she'd never seen anything like it before. I ran out of work, picked him up from her house and rushed to the hospital."
"What was wrong?" Heero asked, afraid of the answer.
"A mutated strain of rheumatic fever," Duo moaned, still not looking at him. "They didn't diagnose it correctly at first because he was younger than most rheumatic fever patients and the disease is rare these days. He was eight months old and had contracted a disease that's usually found in children ranging from ages six to fifteen years old. It's caused by a streptococcus bacteria and it's an inflammatory disease." Now turning his head to the side, Duo looked at him with anguished eyes. His voice was low and raspy as he continued. "It got to his heart, Heero, and because he was so young, it caused severe inflammation in the lining of his heart and valves. He's been on low-dose antibiotics since then and with each cold or flu he gets, it worsens. We came to Stanford Medical Center because one of Quatre's sisters knows the country's top juvenile cardiac specialists. Quat got us an appointment and the doctor recommended a heart transplant. We're here with Ali's name near the top of the list, waiting for a matching donor."
Heero's own heart felt like it was turning to stone as he listened to the heartbreaking story of his biological son. He'd left Alairic in Duo's care, never dreaming something like this would happen. "I don't know what to say," he said, feeling numb.
"There's nothing to say." Duo sounded defeated.
"Can I see him?"
The braided man's head slowly rose up from off the sofa back and despite the fact that his eyes opened, his eyelids looked far too heavy for him to resist closing them again. "He's a light sleeper and was up most of the night. I really don't want to wake him."
It was then that Heero understood Duo's look of exhaustion. Not only had Duo borne the burden of carrying the worry for their chronically-ill child, but he'd been alone in tending to his needs day and night for nearly three years. "I'll be quiet," he assured him.
Duo yawned, then nodded. "The kids don't know who you are, Heero. Three months after you left, I stopped talking about you and boxed up all our old photographs."
Heero stood up and paused as he looked down at the emotionally drained and physically exhausted man. "Why didn't you contact me? He's my son, too."
One eye opened to glare at him. "You signed the kids over to me, Heero. Besides, I got the notice of the dissolution of our partnership the day before I found out what was wrong with him. I was mad as all hell at you while trying to be strong and cope with Ali's illness and Zazu's fear. I realized after a while that I had to let go of you and of my anger over your leaving in order to fully concentrate on our children's well being."
Heero felt emotionally adrift, not knowing what to say or even feel after what he'd just learned. His past actions had been based on protecting himself, to lock away the hurt caused by Duo's unfaithfulness. He hadn't known, didn't realize that his departure would hurt those he'd left behind. Sure, he'd known at some level that his leaving would hurt Duo, but he thought it only right at the time that his lover feel the same kind of pain he'd experienced by his confession of infidelity. He'd never imagined that his son would become so ill or that Duo would let them forget him completely. He couldn't really blame the other man, considering what had happened and that the bad timing of the arrival of the papers that ended their legal relationship. No, the blame obviously belonged to him. His leaving and not contacting them was the real reason why his kids didn't know he was their father. For over three years he'd believed he was the only one who'd suffered from Duo's actions, but it was obvious now, after hearing about his family's trials and seeing Duo's weariness, that they'd all suffered in one way or another.
The urge to apologize was sudden and strong, but he resisted doing so as the need to see his son became even stronger. Without another word he stood and walked to the room he guessed was the bedroom. With a quick look back to see Duo staring after him, he entered silently through the bedroom door and carefully shut it behind him.
The room was somewhat dark, with the shutters on the lone window having been closed to soften the brightness of the mid-day sun. Seeing the small figure lying on the far side of the queen-size bed, he walked cautiously towards the sleeping little boy, needing to see him up close. Standing at the side of the bed, his first thought was that the four-year old looked so small. Then again, after not being around children for several years, he didn't know if his assessment of his son's size was correct or not. Gazing down on the angelic face of the sleeping boy, he noted that Alairic definitely had his hair. It was dark brown, soft and silky and cut rather short with a small dark fringe lying against his forehead, contrasting sharply with the pale skin beneath it - obviously a trait he'd inherited from Hilde.
Having kicked off his blanket, Heero was given a view of the compact little body. The little boy was wearing a pale blue tee-shirt that had little red and white helicopters dotting the material. The matching shorts ended halfway up his little thighs and he wore white, folded ankle socks on his small feet. Watching the rise and fall of his son's chest, Heero's vision blurred as unbidden tears welled up in his eyes. Here lay his son, seriously ill, and he didn't know much of anything about him. Were his eyes deep blue like his own? Was he smart and inquisitive? Did he like helicopters and trucks? He swallowed back the emotions that struggled to escape his control as he looked at the multitude of small stuffed dogs that surrounded the petite body. There could be no doubt that Alairic liked dogs.
The need to touch his son became overwhelming, but as his hand reached out, he remembered Duo's exhausted state and his warning that Alairic slept lightly. After a few more minutes of drinking in every single detail his eyes could take in of the four year old boy and implanting them into his memory, he reluctantly made a retreat out of the room and left his son sleeping undisturbed.