by Dyna Dee
Work that week proved to be more challenging than usual. Heero was well aware that his level of concentration was less than satisfactory as thoughts of Duo and his accusation came back to haunt him again and again. The charge that he'd abandoned Duo emotionally, leaving the door open for that conniving adulteress Paulina to take advantage of his weakened emotional state, had never occurred to him. Was it be possible that he shared some of the blame for his lover's indiscretion after all? He debated that question with himself frequently during the week, and dissected his memories of the past including his actions and Duo's. He grudgingly admitted that there were two sides to every story, to every argument and breakup.
By three o'clock Friday afternoon he'd had enough. Closing down his computer and packing up his briefcase, Heero made his way out of the office, stopping only to inform the secretary that he shared with two other associates that he was leaving early.
"Are you all right, Mr. Yuy?" the young woman asked, her voice laced with genuine concern. He realized suddenly that he'd never left work early before and hadn't even taken a sick day during the three years he'd been working there. No wonder she looked worried.
"I'm fine, Stacy. I have some family business to attend to." The woman's expression of concern was quickly replaced by surprise, which could be explained by the fact that he'd never mentioned having a family before. Revealing two sides of his personal life in a two minute time span had to be a new record for him, at least in his workplace. In the act admitting to having a family to attend to, Heero was struck by how right he felt in saying it. No matter how hard he'd tried in the past years to convince himself otherwise, he did have a family, and now that they were nearby and obviously in need he was going to be there for them whether Duo liked it or not. He left the office and walked quickly to the parking garage and his car, eager to be on his way. Before long he was bypassing the street leading to his home and heading to Highway 280 to make his way south to Palo Alto, hating the fact that Friday's rush hour seemed to begin at the same time he'd hit the road.
He arrived at the cottage around five with each arm laden with an over-stuffed grocery bag. Once again, he found the inside door was open and the screen door the only barrier that separated him from those residing inside. "Hello?" he called out, not having a free hand to knock with. He frowned when an answer to his salutation didn't come. Testing the screen door handle with one of his fingers, he found it unlocked. With a quick look around to see if anyone was watching, he slipped through the door and entered the tidy cottage. "Duo?" Still no answer. Thinking the other man might be napping like he had the last time he visited, he went to the tiny kitchen and set the grocery bags down on the counter top.
The promised ice cream went into the lower freezer compartment, the cookies in the cupboard and the beer in the refrigerator. Leaving the large can of mixed nuts on the counter, where he set the rest of the snacks and fruit he'd purchased, Heero stopped to survey the interior of the cottage and wondered where its occupants were. Tip toeing to the closed bedroom door, he stopped in front of it and pressed his ear against the wood. Not a sound came from the room behind the door. A quick glance at the table next to the sofa revealed the baby monitor. Its red light signaling whether or not it was activated was off. Putting his hand on the doorknob, he turned it and opened the door wide enough to poke his head through for a quick glance. Except for the furniture, the room was empty and the bed was made.
Closing the door and feeling a bit guilty for having invaded Duo's space without permission, he thought he should probably wait outside for the family's return. He could only imagine what Duo's reaction would be if he came home and found him lounging in his home. It wasn't a pleasant thought.
Stepping outside, he walked across the lawn to the padded, metal patio furniture he'd become acquainted with the week before. He took off his suit jacket and tie, rolled up his sleeves, then sat down and tried to get comfortable. Slouching down a bit and adjusting his sunglasses on his nose, he stretched out his legs and placed his feet on the chair adjacent to his own and closed his eyes, soaking up the warmth of the mid-August sun as it slowly made its way towards the western horizon.
Not five minutes later he heard Duo's voice as it floated towards the backyard from the walkway at the side of the house. He sat up, took his feet off the other chair cushion and removed his sunglasses in time to see a stroller carrying Alairic being pushed into the yard.
Duo's eyes fixed on him the moment he'd rounded the corner of the house and his smile definitely went south. "What are you doing here?" he asked bluntly and with no trace of friendliness.
"I had to keep my promise about the ice-cream," he answered with a shrug.
"Iz cream!" Alairic cheered. His voice was somewhat muffled behind the white mask that covered his mouth and nose but his blue eyes sparkled through moon-shaped slits, showing Heero there was a smile beneath the filtering mask.
"Calm down, Ali," Duo said softly, his hand reaching out to touch the small, dark-haired head. "Ice cream after dinner. Okay, kiddo?"
Heero felt a tug on his heart at the love he felt for the little boy he barely knew. Alairic was wearing blue jean overalls and a red and white striped T-shirt. If it weren't for the mask over his face, he would be the definitive definition of cute. "Where's Eliza?" He realized the little girl wasn't with them.
"Hilde's in town. She took Zazu for a girl's day out. They're shopping for school clothes."
"Does she do that often? Visit the kids?"
Duo shrugged. "About four times a year. She got married two years ago to a Sweeper named Matt Torkelson. Nice guy. They had a kid of their own last year but Hilde doesn't bring him when she comes. She leaves Zack, her son, with her husband's mother on L1."
"Daddy!" Alairic fussed, raising his arms to be lifted. Heero noticed the little red dog that was clutched in one of his son's small hands.
Instead of lifting their son out of the stroller, Duo reached into the side of it and pulled out a small, white plastic box and removed a tissue from it. He then proceeded to clean his own hands, wiping them and each finger thoroughly before placing the used cloth into a plastic bag he'd gotten of his pants pocket. He then pulled out another wipe and began working on Alairic's fingers and hands. "Are you planning on coming inside?" Duo asked him without looking up from his task.
"Then take a wipe and clean your hands. They're anti-bacterial. We have to try and keep Ali healthy for when a suitable donor's heart comes in. They won't perform the operation if he's sick."
That explained the wipes and Alairic's mask. Heero quickly followed Duo's actions by thoroughly cleansing his hands as he watched the other man take the little boy out of his stroller, kiss his forehead and then settle him on his hip.
"How's the best guy in the whole world?" Duo asked his son in a teasing yet loving manner.
"I think I can fix that little problem." Duo turned and opened the door to the cottage, leaving Heero to follow.
It wasn't until the hand wipes had been tossed into a lidded garbage can in the kitchen that Alairic's mask was removed. The smile that was revealed beneath it sent Heero's heart tripping. He didn't know if he'd ever seen anything so wonderful as that little boy's smile, and the strength of his feelings for his son was as surprising as it was overwhelming.
"I'm going to fix dinner," Duo said, turning to face him. "Would you like to visit with Ali while I'm busy in the kitchen?"
A smile of gratitude easily found its way to his face as Heero nodded and stepped forward to take his son from Duo's arms. Alairic came to him easily and he couldn't help but hold him close to his shoulder for a moment. All the paternal feelings he'd thought were long gone came rushing back, and he blinked away the moisture building in his eyes as he was swept away with a feeling of pure love for the little boy in his arms.
"Why don't you watch T.V. or do one of Ali's puzzles. They're in the basket under the end table." Duo watched as Heero nodded and gave him another grateful smile before he turned to the seating area.
"T.V. or puzzles?" he asked his son after settling them both on the floor behind the coffee table, the sofa to their backs.
"Both," Alairic announced, a ####### in his blue eyes.
Heero reached for the remote and turned on the television that sat on a small table against the wall.
"Channel 29 has his favorite cartoon," Duo said from the kitchen, obviously listening in on their conversation.
Once the appropriate channel was found, a sealed plastic bag containing a large-piece puzzle was selected from the basket and the pieces were quickly spread out on top of the coffee table.
Alairic's little fingers quickly began to assemble the puzzle. His smile brightened his little face as each piece snapped into place. For his part, Heero just watched in wonder of the little boy. He was so pure and innocent. How was it possible that he'd helped to produce such a perfect little person?
The sound of pans being pulled out, chopping and running water from the kitchenette reminded him that he wasn't the only person responsible for the wonder before him, and certainly not for the happiness in his child's eyes. Duo had proven once again that he was a good father. Coming to a quick decision, Heero shifted to his knees as he prepared to stand in the cramped space. "I'll be right back, Alairic. All right?"
"K." The little boy didn't even look up from his puzzle as he answered. Having his permission, Heero stood and quickly moved to the bar where he could watch both the boy and the braided man who was working on dinner.
"I thought all week about what you said, Duo," he began, and his former lover looked up from his task at the cutting board for a moment.
"I believe I owe you an apology. You were right in many respects. The more you threw yourself into parenthood the more pressure I felt to make up the slack in income. I felt left out, Duo, like I wasn't important to you any more. I didn't lie when I said all I had wanted was you, but I did eventually come to accept sharing you. I watched you lose yourself in caring for Eliza and I could understand it because she was fussy and demanding and needed so much care. Then just as things seemed to get better, I went along with you in making preparations for Alairic. I turned to my work after Hilde got pregnant again, doing whatever it took to get ahead and to make more money, knowing that if I did well I could make you happy by providing whatever our family needed. I suppose in retrospect that I was wrong to spend so much time away from you and the kids. I should have spent more time at home, but I just didn't see any other way to deal with the rising stack of bills and the distance growing between us."
"You should have talked to me, Heero, about how you felt," Duo said, sounding sad. "It might have helped. But you know I never did understand why you were always so anal about the bills," Duo interrupted him, then audibly sighed as he turned back to chopping the carrots. "Honestly, a small credit card balance was nothing to panic about."
Heero recalled several arguments they'd had in the past over his worry over money and Duo's use of credit cards then their budget ran a bit thin. "I dislike debt," he replied, frowning. "I think it's a good practice to pay for what you want and to stay free of paying interest."
"Not a bad plan, but debt's not always avoidable," Duo replied casually. "I'll bet you pay cash for everything and that you don't even own a credit card."
"I do. I earn flight miles by charging my purchases on it and pay off the balance at the end of the month." He didn't mention that he'd never used those accumulated miles, had never taken a vacation. As there was no further comment from Duo, he pushed ahead and asked, "What about you? Are you alright financially?"
Duo snorted disdainfully. "With Ali's medical problems, hardly. Quatre's offered to help but I told him I'll exhaust what I've got before I'll accept anything from him."
Heero had to respect him for that decision, but couldn't help but ask the question plaguing his mind. "How much?"
"You don't want to know."
"I can help."
Duo's head shot up, but this time anger was shooting from his eyes. "Why? What business is it of yours after a three and a half year absence?"
"He's my son." It was the most logical answer he could come up with, yet Heero knew it wasn't the only one. He wanted to help Duo, to carry some of the responsibility that had burdened him. He stopped short for a moment, realizing what he was doing. It came as a surprised that he was feeling protective of Duo once again. In fact, he was becoming aware of other feelings re-surfacing for his former lover and their children, emotions he'd suppressed for a very long time. Had he held himself in check so completely and for so long that he'd successfully blocked out all of his feelings for them? "I made a mistake, Duo. In fact, I'm coming to realize that I've made quite a few. I can't turn back time but if you'll allow me I'd like to help you and the kids."
Duo as clearly trying to control his temper as he answered tersely. "Your obligation to us ended with the dissolution of our partnership and when you gave up your parental rights. I guess I should belatedly thank you for leaving us the house and cars. I sold everything when the medical bills for Ali's care needed to be paid. I don't need your help, Heero, not financially or in any other way. The guys have been here for us and Wufei has been more of a parent to the kids than anyone other than myself. He's been consistent and a supportive presence in our lives. Why should I chance letting you get close to us again only to have you get mad at me for something and disappear out of our lives when it suits you?" The carrot Duo had been chopping was in danger of being pulverized as he took his frustration out on the piece of vegetable.
"That's a valid question," Heero said, remaining calm in contrast to Duo's mood. He knew that this moment was a defining one as to whether or not he would have a place in his children's lives. He had to press on, to make promises he would keep absolutely if he were to begin to win Duo's trust again. "I can only give you my solemn word, Duo, that I won't abandon them again. Please, let me be a part of their lives. Let me help."
The chopping action stopped and Duo turned his head to look at him. For a moment their eyes locked and time stood still. Heero could have sworn that nearly four years of pain, worry, stress and loneliness were displayed in those blue-violet eyes. He could only hope that in looking into his own eyes, Duo could read the depths of his sincerity. He knew his former lover could recognize the true intent of his words if he looked hard enough. After all, he'd seen that look before, for it had been present the first time he confessed his love to his fellow gundam pilot during the turbulent first war.
Falling in love and saying I love you hadn't been easy for the boy soldier who'd had his emotions trained out of him. If it hadn't been for Duo, his patience and support, Heero doubted he would ever have been freed from the harsh training that caused him to set his emotions aside in order to accomplish his missions. It had been a risk to fall in love with the brash and attractive pilot from L-2, and yet he had. And even after acknowledging to himself his growing attraction and feelings for Duo, he continued to engage in a mental tug of war, desiring Duo as more than a comrade and recognizing the distraction the Deathscythe pilot posed to his mission to win the war at any cost, even his own life.
The threat of being found out by Dr. J had also been a frightening factor. Being called back to L1 for retraining because of his feelings for Duo precipitated many nightmares that impaired his sleep and performance. He recalled how Duo had cornered him during one of those periods, concerned for his haggard appearance. With Duo standing close enough that he could smell the scent of his shampoo and see the aching concern in those marvelous eyes of his, he'd blurted out his pent-up feelings for the American. Duo had listened to his clumsy confession of love and to his logical reasons for not getting involved. It was the spontaneous kiss the braided teen gave him the moment he'd stopped speaking that had ended the tug of war he'd been waging in his mind. One touch of their lips and he knew he'd risk everything for the other teen, for the promise of being together and discovering what love was all about.
Looking back now and despite their breakup, he couldn't regret having fallen in love with Duo. But that wasn't the way he'd felt on that day well over three years ago when the trust they'd shared had been broken along with his heart. Heero had cursed himself that day for ever letting Duo Maxwell break through his defenses and he'd instinctively fallen back to his training, using the mental tools Dr. J had worked so diligently to instill in him to find comfort in the familiar detached void. He wanted nothing more at the time than to eliminate the overwhelming emotions that threatened to tear his world apart. Somehow, he'd held onto that training for far too long and had pushed to the back of his mind his feelings for Duo, their children and former friends. Well, he mused, he was older now and hopefully a bit wiser. Now that he'd been reunited with Duo and their children, his control over his emotions was rapidly slipping away and he felt ready to try again, to open his heart to the two children he'd once called his own.
"I'll have to think about it," Duo answered, lowering his eyes to the cutting board. His chopping motions having calmed somewhat. "How are you doing, Ali?" he called out to the boy in the other part of the room.
"All done, Daddy!" Alairic replied. Heero turned around to see the completed puzzle and saw that it was a picture of a red barn, farm animals and a farmer on a tractor. "Want to try another?" he asked, moving back to the coffee table.
Scooping up the pieces and putting them back into the plastic bag, he sealed and placed it back into the box. Heero reached for another and studied the pieces for a moment. This one looked like a picture of a fire truck, firemen and a dalmatian. "This looks fun," he said, turning to look at the little boy.
Alairic slapped the table surface, anxious to begin, so Heero gave him the bag and let him dump the pieces out. The little guy did the simple task with relish then set to work with a concentration that reminded him of himself. Seeing that his son was content once more, Heero returned to his place at the bar and watched as Duo started a pot of rice and set up a steamer for the cut up pieces of chicken.
"I see you brought beer with you," Duo said without turning away from his task at the stove.
"I thought we could sit down and have a drink or two while we talk," he answered.
"I don't drink anymore. So could you take it with you when you go home?"
That statement automatically got his curiosity up. "Do you have a problem with alcohol?" In the past, Duo always liked to have beer on hand and enjoyed one every now and. Occasionally, he'd get drunk if they were at a party, but he never thought his lover had a problem with alcohol.
"Not that it's any of your business, but yeah, I did for a while, right after you left." He paused at his task at the stove after putting a lid on the pot of rice, and his voice lowered. "I started drinking a few days after you walked out. I stopped for a while in order to focus on getting the kids set up in daycare a couple of weeks later after being hired on at the Preventer's office. But after working all day and then coming home to take care of the kids, make dinner, take care of the house and pay the bills, I needed something to take the edge off so I could sleep. Then Ali got sick and I spent as much time the hospital only to return to a house that seemed empty and void of the warmth it used to have. The memories of us as a family was in everything around me at home: the furniture we bought, the sofa that had seem more than it's share of lovemaking, the pictures all over the house of you and the kids, and even the T.V. shows we liked... Everything reminded me of you and it just got to be too much. I couldn't stop thinking about what I'd done, how you'd reacted and what a mess our lives had become. That damn house was a constant reminder of what we'd had and how I'd screwed up." Duo paused a moment and to Heero it looked as if he were trying to collect himself. He continued in a strained voice. "With each passing day my hope that you'd call, that you'd forgive me and we could work things out, diminished. I proceeded to drink myself into a stupor each night, even after Ali came home from the hospital. "Wufei was the first to figure out what was going on and he went to Quat and Trowa for help. The guys got together at the house with me and had an intervention, so to speak. Quatre told me in that scary, no-nonsense voice of his that we're all slightly terrified of, that I had a problem. He threatened to take the kids away from me until I got my #### together, and that, if nothing else, knocked some sense into me. He meant every word, and I knew he'd follow through on his threats. I threw out all the booze that night and haven't had a drink since." Duo looked up at him then, his face a picture of determination. "The kids are my main priority and my life, Heero, and I'm not going to jeopardize losing them by giving into a need to blur reality with alcohol."
Heero wondered if it was possible to feel any more guilty than he already did. It was perfectly clear that Duo had suffered greatly from their separation. "I'm sorry." It was all he could think to say.
"My problem, not yours," Duo muttered, busying himself once again, this time in wiping off the counter tops with the anti-bacterial cleaner.
The urge to embrace the other man was so strong that Heero found himself standing right behind Duo before he realized what he was doing. Impulsively, he took the last step that separated them and wrapped his arms around the other man from behind. Duo stiffened in his loose grasp, not expecting the sudden action. "I'm sorry," Heero whispered again. "For my neglect, for not being there and for not listening or talking to you. I'm sorry for leaving without trying to work it out. I was hurt, Duo, and didn't know how to react, so I fell back on my former training and let it blunt the pain I felt. I let that single-minded training of the past guide me, and for the first time in my life it caused me to run away from a problem. I believed at the time that beginning a new life was the only way to deal with the pain of your betrayal."
"I'm sorry, too," Duo whispered back, his voice choked as his arms came up to rest on top of those resting over his chest. "You can never know how much."
"What the hell!" A woman's voice came from the direction of the front door and the two men jumped apart as if they'd been caught doing something they shouldn't. Both turned to see Hilde and Zazu standing in the cottage's doorway.
"Zazu!" Alairic cried out, climbing to his feet and then running to his sister.
"Don't run, Ali!" Duo called out, alarmed at the boy's sudden movement.
"Got him," Hilde said, moving quickly to catch up the little boy in her arms. With Zazu at her side and Ali struggling to get to her, Hilde knelt down to allow the two to embrace. "You've got to stay calm, Ali. You know what the doctor said, no running or jumping."
The boy's bottom lip came out in a pout and began to tremble while his blue eyes filled with tears. He then turned towards Duo who was already headed for him. "Daddy."
The braided man took his son from Hilde and settled him on his slender hip. "No one's mad at you, Ali. You just can't get too excited or your heart will hurt again. When you get your new heart, we'll run and jump and go to Great America to ride on all the kiddie rides and then to Marine World to see the killer whales and seals do their tricks. You just gotta be patient for a little while longer, all right?"
"K," the little boy said, still on the edge of bursting into tears as he buried his face into his father's neck.
Duo then looked to his daughter and noted the many packages that had been dropped on the floor. "I see you two have had a fruitful afternoon," he said, grinning at the girl whose long, brown hair lay loose and fell to several inches below her shoulders. Heero noted that Eliza's returning smile was dazzling and contagious, just like her father's.
"Aunt Hilde bought me the cutest clothes, Daddy. Plus we got shoes, panties and socks. I'm all ready for school to start."
"Thanks, Hilde," Duo said, rising to his feet with Ali in his arms. It was then that he noticed that the birth mother of his children was glaring darkly at Heero.
"What are you doing here, Heero?" she asked with barely hidden spite, clearly unhappy at seeing him there.
"Hilde." Duo's voice held a tone of warning to it, and Heero wondered if he was trying to protect him or if he hoped to keep him from answering the question in front of the children. "Whatever is going on is between me and Heero, and I..." He trailed off before simply somewhat wearily, "Just let it go." Duo's eyes cast a meaningful glance at Zazu and Hilde seemed to get the hint.
"I thought his name was Odin?" Zazu asked, blinking at Heero as if wondering whether or not he was the same person she'd met the week before or not.
"It is," Duo rushed to intervene. "When we were kids we knew him as Heero."
The little girl seemed to ponder that bit of information a moment, then shrugged. "Why'd you change it?"
"I moved to a new city and began a new job," Heero answered. "I guess changing my name seemed like a good thing at the time."
"So is that dinner I smell cooking?" Hilde asked, abruptly changing the subject. It was then that Heero took a good look at the woman who had volunteered two of her eggs and her uterus to carry their children for them. After bearing three children she was still as slender and attractive as she had been when she'd first offered to be a surrogate for them. With straight black hair cut bluntly at her shoulders and her large blue eyes, she was as appealing as she'd ever been but in a more mature way. She was definitely a woman and not the girl he'd met aboard Peacemillion. No matter how she felt about him now, Heero decided he would not get angry or ever think disparagingly of her. Hilde had, after all, given him and Duo the most precious gift of all.
While he'd been looking at Hilde, Duo answered her question and then mentioned to Eliza that he'd brought ice cream for dessert.
"Chocolate?" Eliza asked him expectantly, her face lighting up.
"And vanilla," he added.
"I like nella," Alairic piped up, still in his father's arms, looking like he was feeling better.
Duo turned and began to hand the little boy to him, saying, "Go to Heero so I can finish dinner. Zazu, why don't you show Ali and Heero your new clothes and Hilde can help me in the kitchen."
Sitting on the sofa, Heero showed what he'd hoped was the appropriate amount of appreciation for each outfit that Eliza proudly held up against her petite body. Hilde had even purchased clothing for Alairic, which his sister brought out and displayed with a big smile on her face. The little boy promptly began undressing, insisting he try on the new clothing that had pictures of cartoon characters Heero didn't recognize on one part of the clothes or another. He guessed from Alric's oohs and ahhs that they were his favorite.
Behind him in the kitchenette, he could hear Hilde speaking tersely and under her breath to Duo. His deeper voice answered, but it was too low for Heero to make out, so he turned his attention to helping his son don the T-shirt and overalls. Alric looked happy enough to burst. He began to clap his hands and jump up and down excitedly when Eliza produced a sad-looking blue donkey out of a toy store bag.
"Droopy!" Alairic squealed happily. Then suddenly, the look of joy faded from his face and the little body swayed. Heero caught him before he fell and observed the boy's paling face with alarm.
"Daddy!" Eliza cried out with alarm in seeing Alric struggling to breathe. Duo was suddenly there, grabbing his son from Heero's embrace to hold him in his own arms. He sat on the sofa and held the little struggling body close to his chest, rocking back and forth as he whispered into his son's ear. "It's okay, Ali. Calm down. Shh... please, listen to Daddy and just calm down."
Heero managed to tear his eyes away from the two to look at Eliza. Her eyes, so like her father's, were filled with tears of fear while clutching the stuffed donkey that had excited her little brother in her hands. Heero reached for it and noticed that his own hand was trembling as he turned back to Duo and placed the toy in his son's arms while Duo continued to speak softly, trying to calm the little guy. After a few long and tense moments had passed, Alairic's trembling voice was but a whisper amidst sniffles as he said, "I'm okay, Daddy. Don't cry." He raised his small hand and patted his father's face in a manner that was obviously meant to comfort.
Broken laughter came from the braided man and he buried his face against his sons chest, his shoulders shaking as he released some of the terror he'd just experienced. After several long, drawn-out moments, he raised his wet eyes to see that everyone else in the room had been as terrified as he'd been.
"I'm sorry, Duo," Hilde gasped, openly crying. "I didn't think he'd get that excited. I'm so sorry."
"It's okay, Hild. He's okay now. Here, why don't you sit down and hold him until dinner's ready."
The petite woman was more than grateful to bend down and receive the little boy into her arms and she rained kisses upon his face, wet with tears, as she sat down on the sofa.
Heero stood with a hand on Duo's arm and helped him to rise also. Zazu was there in an instant, throwing her arms around her father's waist, still very much upset by the whole ordeal. "It's okay, honey," Duo said softly, sniffling back his own tears. "Why don't you go put your new clothes away and you can model them for me later tonight, after Ali goes to bed."
"Okay," she said, sniffing. A moment later she let go of him and began picking up hers and Ali's clothing and dutifully took them into the bedroom.
Without a word, Duo turned and walked into the kitchen. Heero watched him go and hesitated a moment before following. From the short distance that separated them, he watched Duo busy himself, stirring the contents of the pans and turning off the gas to all three. As he reached into the upper cupboard for the dishes, the braided man suddenly stopped. Both hands lowered to grab hold of the edge of the counter top and he bent his head below his shoulders. It wasn't until his shoulders began to shake that Heero understood that Duo Maxwell was falling apart. Approaching cautiously, not really knowing how to comfort but wanting to try and give it, he placed his hand on the other man's shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"He's all right, Duo. Everything's going to be okay."
The braided man nodded his head even as he struggled to compose himself. Turning away for a moment, he pulled a paper towel from the standing roll and wiped at his face. "Are you all right?" Heero asked when Duo didn't turn around.
"No," came the emotional whisper. "But I will be once he gets a new heart."
"How long have you been waiting?"
Duo took in a deep, shuddering breath, steadying himself. "He's been on the heart transplant list for a year and a half and at the top of the list for three weeks."
"I'm sure one will come along soon," he told him, trying to be comforting again. When Duo finally turned around, the anguish in his eyes made it clear that he really hadn't helped comfort him at all.
"That's another thing, Heero. In order for our son to live, another child has to die. How can I pray for a heart for him when that's the case? I can't wish for another parent to go through the hell I've been dealing with."
Heero wasn't sure what to say in response to that, but he was spared trying when Duo continued, obviously needing to after his scare. "And every week that passes, his heart weakens. It's a race against the clock and one that we can't lose. I don't think I can survive losing him."
"He's my son, Duo. He's got strong genes and he's loved. He's got every reason to live."
Duo's distraught, water-filled eyes rose to meet his, and even in his sorrow, Heero was taken aback by how beautiful they were, how stunning Duo was. The unusual blue orbs were truly the mirror to the other man's soul, and even after all that had happened between them and all the time that had passed, Heero was still drawn in and captured by what he saw displayed in those luminous depths.
"He's also got your blood type," Duo whispered sadly, and Heero knew instantly why that was not a good thing. Though not rare, being an O negative meant that neither he nor his son could receive blood or organs that were anything but from that specific blood type. If he'd been any other blood type, then there would be other options. Being O negative narrowed the donation pool even more.
"He'll be fine," he reassured the braided man, willing his words to be true. Duo nodded, then turned and busied himself once more. Heero decided then and there that he would go to the nearest blood bank in the morning and donate his blood in Alairic's name.
Hilde came into the kitchen carrying their son in her arms. Alairic looked tired and droopy-eyed. She gave him to Duo, ignoring Heero who turned to set the plates on the counter. Eliza came into the room behind them and began to get out her brother's little table and chair.
"Don't bother, Zazu," Duo told her gently. "I'll hold him during dinner. There's just no space for it tonight."
Heero had an idea there was more to it than that, suspecting Duo just wanted to hold his son close after their earlier scare. He felt the same way, but resisted in asking to hold his Alairic when he saw Hilde tenderly kissing the little guy's cheek, whispering, "Don't fall asleep yet, Ali, or you'll miss your ice cream."
"Iz cream," Ali yawned, trying to fight his sleepiness.
Hilde took over placing the food on the plates in order to avoid the shuffling of serving bowls. Heero noted that the steamed chicken had been given a mushroom soup gravy and was poured over a bed of rice. The steamed carrots and green salad gave each plate a splash of color.
Duo moved to sit on one of the bar stools, holding Ali on his lap and supervising his meal while Zazu took up the other stool and cautiously watched her brother. Heero stood next to Hilde on the kitchen side of the bar, and together the five ate quietly, the mood in the room subdued. The ice cream was brought out promptly after the meal was declared over because Alairic didn't look like he was going to be awake much longer. By seven thirty the four-year old boy had been bathed, dressed in his pajamas, received his medicine and was asleep in Duo's arms. Heero watched it all from a short distance with an ache in his heart, still feeling a desperate need to touch his son, to hold him in his arms.
While Duo had been busy getting their son ready for bed, Hilde had volunteered to take Zazu to an early movie. It was obvious to Heero that she'd been uncomfortable in his presence, that she didn't know what to make of him being in Duo's home. It didn't matter if she resented him or not, if she was wary and didn't trust his motives; he was determined to be a part of this family once again, no matter what Hilde or any other of their friends thought. The only person he needed to persuade of his true intentions was Duo.
Feeling the other man's eyes on him, Heero looked up from the peaceful face of his son to regard his former partner's gaze. A small, sad smile tugged at the corners of Duo's lips as their eyes met.
"Wanna hold him?"
Heero swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded. "More than anything."
He moved to sit next to Duo on the sofa, who promptly yet so very carefully placed the slumbering child in his arms as if he was the most precious thing in the world. In that moment, Heero knew that he was. The feel of the warm little pajama clad body in his arms was wonderful, and the clean scent of his hair and skin had his heart swelling within his chest as he gazed adoringly at the sweet, placid face. "He's so beautiful," he said, his voice filled with emotion. "And I've missed so much. I'm sorry," he said to both Alairic and Duo. "I was so selfish. I've missed so much of his and Eliza's life."
The television show they'd been watching was the only sound in the room as memories of the past and regrets came to both men, but they held back from saying anything, not wanting to disturb the comfortable silence that surrounded them.
For over an hour Heero gazed at the little boy in his arms, taking in every detail of his face and body while trying to cope with his feeling and emotions for both his son and the man next to him. Duo was sitting close enough that their upper arms rested against each other's. It was a touch that was both comfortable and wonderfully familiar.
The phone rang and Duo moved quickly to answer it. From his brief greeting, Heero could tell he was speaking to Wufei. Duo took the phone into the bedroom to talk, and though he knew he shouldn't, Heero strained his ears to hear what was being said. He wanted, no needed to understand the nature of Duo's relationship with Wufei. No doubt they were close, as Eliza had spoken of Wufei's help and Duo talked of his relationship with their children. The fact that Wufei came for a weekend visit spoke volumes about his support for Duo and the kids. He closed his eyes to center his thoughts as a wave of jealousy filled him. He had no right to feel jealous, he reminded himself. If Duo had moved on, who was he to say he shouldn't have? He'd tried his best to do the same, slept with several people, all women, in an effort to forget the long-haired former gundam pilot who had held his heart and crushed it.
Even though it had been three years, he now realized that he'd only pushed aside his thoughts and feelings for Duo, thanks to his former training, and he'd ignored the fact that he still loved him and their children. How could he have ever convinced himself that he was better off without them? As he'd told Duo earlier, he'd more or less run away from them, from the pain, perhaps unconsciously not wanting to give the children a chance to hurt him as their father had. It dawned on him that it wasn't only his family that he'd kept at a safe distance. He'd used his training to keep everyone he'd met during the last three plus years at arm's length, whether at work or in a romantic relationship, to keep himself unaffected and distant. What a sad existence he'd created for himself
Looking down at the little boy asleep in his arms, he knew he didn't want to do that any longer, and he also knew exactly what he did want, and that was Duo and his children back in his life. With all his heart and soul he hoped it wasn't too late.
The door to the bedroom opened and he turned his head to watch Duo put the phone back in place before coming to stand in front of him.
"Here, let me take Ali and put him to bed," Duo said softly, even as he bent forward to accomplish the task. He reluctantly gave up the little boy, still sleeping soundly, and watched as Duo disappeared into the bedroom. A bit of his heart went with him.
When he returned several minutes later, Duo resumed his seat and picked up the remote, changing the channel to some kind of crime investigation show. "Hilde and Zazu should be back soon," Duo said, then let the subject drop.
Heero looked around the small cottage. "There's three of you living here and one bed. Do the three of you share it?" he wondered out loud.
"I've got a small cot in the bedroom that we set up every night. Zazu sleeps on it in her kitten sleeping bag. I share the bed with Ali."
"You've done a great job with the both of them, Duo. They're great kids."
The other man's eyes remained focused on the T.V., but his face softened as he replied. "Yeah, they are."
Several moments of silence passed between them as they both stared ahead at the television screen, but Heero couldn't concentrate on the program. His thoughts were centered on Duo, sitting so close. From the corner of his eye he watched the other man, and before he was even fully aware of it he found himself staring at the familiar profile. Duo shifted in his seat and changed the channel after a commercial came on. Heero realized his former lover was aware of his scrutiny and was trying to ignore him.
Taking advantage of the situation, he leaned towards Duo, just slightly, breathing in the floral scent of his shampoo and the faint musk of his aftershave. The scents were familiar and heady, and a jolt of pleasure ran from his sinuses all the way to his groin.
"What?" Duo asked, sounding perturbed as he turned his head to look at him, a puzzled expression on his handsome face. They were now only inches apart and Heero couldn't stop himself as he closed the distance between them, aiming his lips towards Duo's. He was somewhat surprised to find he'd missed his mark and landed on a hair covered ear instead. Two hands, suddenly placed squarely on his chest, pushed him back.
"Don't!" Duo said firmly
Realizing that he'd over-stepped his bounds, Heero muttered an apology, even if it was only half-heartedly given. He wasn't sorry for almost kissing Duo, just that the other man didn't seem to want it.
"You should probably go."
With a resigned sigh, Heero stood and looked back down at the seated man. "Can I come back tomorrow or Sunday?"
Duo shrugged and answered in a lazy, unaffected manner, "We don't do anything exciting around here, but if you want to, it's alright by me."
Surprised but more than pleased by the answer, Heero felt much better as he left the cottage and began the drive back to San Francisco. He caught a glimpse of himself in his rear view mirror and found himself happily grinning. Regardless of Duo's stand-offish reaction to his almost kiss, he wouldn't let it dampen his hope, because his former lover said he could come again, and he would... tomorrow.