by Dyna Dee
Eliza flew out the screen door and into Wufei's open arms, her anguished sobs beginning once again as he held her to his chest. After a moment he set her back on the ground and with his arm draped over her shoulder, keeping the clinging little girl at his side, Wufei entered the cottage and led Zazu back to the sofa. Duo disentangled himself from Heero's arms and rose to greet the other man just as Wufei let go of Eliza to embrace him. "I'm so sorry, Duo," Wufei whispered in a shaky voice, obviously as emotionally upset as the rest of them.
"I don't know what to do, Wu. How can I possibly go on without him?" Duo asked in a hoarse whisper.
"You go on because you must," the other man replied, composing himself enough to sound sympatric yet firm. "And because Eliza Suzanne needs you as do I, Quatre, Trowa, Hilde and everyone else who cares about you."
"And me," Heero added, rising to his feet to join them and meeting Wufei's red and watery-eyed gaze.
Movement at the door caught Heero's attention and he looked around the two men and Eliza to see a young and pretty Asian woman standing in the doorway, looking hesitant, like she didn't want to intrude. At a glance, Heero could see she was as upset as the rest of them... and pregnant.
Wufei saw the direction of his gaze and turned his head towards the doorway. With a tender smile and a wave of his hand he beckoned the young woman to come inside. "Heero, I'd like you to meet my wife." He held his hand out to the young woman who walked to his side and fit perfectly under the Chinese man's protective free arm. Duo slowly moved out of his embrace as Wufei's introduction continued. "Jen-Li, I'd like you to meet Heero Yuy."
"Your wife?" Heero asked, taking a good look at the young woman who'd obviously captured Wufei's heart. She was pretty and petite with thick black hair that fell in a glossy mass just past her shoulders. Her dark, almond-shaped eyes openly displayed her sympathy and sadness.
Wufei nodded, then gazed at his wife like a man smitten by love. "We were married over a year ago and our son is due at the end of December."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Jen-li, and congratulations to the both of you," Heero said sincerely and inclined his head respectfully to the each of them.
"Thank you," Wufei replied solemnly, then suddenly changed the subject. "I understand the others are en route."
"That's what I was told," Heero replied.
"Is there anything that I can do to help, any pressing needs to be met?"
An overwhelming feeling of gratitude came to Heero for the ever practical thinking Wufei. He motioned his former comrade to follow him to the kitchenette, and as he turned away he listened to Jen-Li greeting Duo. Showing the Chinese man the card from the mortuary, he said, "This is where..." He stopped abruptly as a lump formed in his throat. He took a moment to collect himself and deal with yet another wave of grief that clutched as his heart. After gaining some control back, he began again. "This is where Alairic is. Could you call them and find out what we need to do?"
With a grave expression on his face Wufei picked up the card and studied it. "I'll take the phone to the bedroom and make the call." But before he turned to go, he paused to visually assess Heero. "How are you holding up?" he asked, surprising Heero with his genuine concern for his well being.
Heero didn't think he had words to describe how broken up he felt inside. His heart felt as if it had been put through a shredder... twice. "I'm..." he looked into the dark eyes of the man waiting for his answer. He put his hand over his heart and let his former friend look into his eyes to glimpse the depths of his grief. Wufei seemed to understand his inability to express himself for he reached forward and clasped his shoulder with a strong hand and said sincerely, "I'm deeply sorry for your loss, Heero. I'll do everything I can to make this easier for both you and Duo." Heero managed to get past the lump in his throat to mumble his thanks. With a curt nod, Wufei let go of his shoulder and turned towards the bedroom with the mortuary's card in his hand.
Wiping away an errant, unwanted tear from his eye, Heero reminded himself that he needed to remain strong for Duo and Eliza. Once he'd gained some control over his emotions again, he turned to look into the living room, his eyes automatically going to Duo. The braided man was standing where he'd left him, in front of the sofa looking lost and bereft with his arms wrapped around his chest, starring at nothing in particular. Heero took note of Jen-Li, now sitting on the sofa with Eliza, who was gently touching the young woman's rounded belly to feel the kicking baby within. A look of delight grew on the little girl's face even as her red and puffy eyes displayed her continuing grief for her little brother. Though the grief that had filled the room all day had lifted somewhat at the arrival of Wufei and his wife, an air of sadness was still present. All of his instincts urged him to go to Duo and wrap his arms around him, not really knowing if it was for his own benefit or to offer Duo what comfort he had to give. After several moments of hesitating, debating with himself whether or not Duo would accept his comfort now that Wufei and Jen-Li were there, he gave into his need and followed his emotions, just as Odin had advised him to when he was a child and had trouble making a decision. Just as he began to walk back towards the grieving man, the Olsens appeared at the open cottage door, their arms laden with the food they'd prepared for their supper. With reluctance he diverted his direction and went to the door and let them in.
The evening passed quietly and Heero became even more grateful for Wufei and Jen-Li's presence. Despite the pall of grief that hung over the cottage's residents, the couple calmly but firmly took over, organizing, comforting and coaxing Duo into eating something and then taking a shower.
The Olsens extended their earlier invitation to Wufei and his wife to stay in their home, and around eleven p.m. the two reluctantly took their leave of the cottage. Heero had already decided to stay the night, planning to sleep on the sofa, but his plans were somewhat subverted when Duo laid down on its cushions, then shifted to his side and curled up into a fetal position.
"Won't you be more comfortable in your bed, Duo?" Heero asked after checking on Eliza to see she was sound asleep on her little cot, exhausted by another bout of crying as she was tucked into her bed earlier that evening.
"Can't," Duo choked out. "He's not there."
Heero understood, but Duo's decision left him in a quandary as to what he should do about the sleeping arrangements. Coming to a quick decision, he shut and locked the front door, took a pillow and blanket from off the bed and went back to the living room, turning out the lights as he went. Without explanation he offered Duo the pillow then settled down on the sofa and pressed his own body up against the grieving man. Laying his head on Duo's shoulder, he wrapped his arm around his waist then sighed with mixed feelings of contentment and relief when Duo's arms rose to hold him securely against his side.
"Thanks for being here, Heero." Duo whispered, his voice tremulous with emotion.
"There's no other place I'd rather be," he whispered back.
Both men lay in the dark for a long while, not talking but just holding each other while fighting off another tidal wave of grief as thoughts of their son's death that morning came back to remind them of their enormous loss. It felt like hours had passed before Duo's often hitched breathing finally evened out, signaling that he'd gone to sleep. Heero followed his example a short time later.
Sometime during the night, still well before dawn, Eliza joined them, climbing over the back of the sofa to lay on top of Duo's right side. It was a tight and close fit for the three of then on the one sofa, but no one complained or offered to leave.
Tangled up together, the three eventually made it through the first night without Alairic in their lives. Wufei returned to the cottage shortly after dawn and Heero opened his eyes when the front door opened almost silently. He watched as Wufei paused after seeing the three of them on the soft together, and a look of surprise showed on his face for just a moment. Then shaking his head, Wufei sighed audibly before walking past them to the kitchenette where he began to make breakfast for everyone.
After they'd all gotten up and eaten what they could, Jen-Li took Eliza out for a pre-arranged walk while Wufei took advantage of her absence to speak with the both of them about the funeral arrangement. There were decisions to be made and forms to be signed. When asked whether he wanted to bury or cremate his son's remains, Duo covered his face with his hands and broke down. He managed to convey to them that he was torn, not wanting to cremate Ali, but he didn't want to bury him in a place that wasn't his home and where he might never return to again. Wufei assured him that once he settled down, Duo could have the coffin exhumed and taken to any location of his choice.
Still dazed and conflicted, Duo gave Wufei his reluctant consent to locate a temporary burial site nearby. With that decided, Wufei then asked other pertinent questions regarding the funeral and stated that the mortuary had requested clothing for Alairic and anything else the family wanted to put into the coffin and buried with the little boy.
Moving numbly, Duo nodded and went to the bedroom with a plastic shopping bag in hand. He returned twenty minutes later and just as Heero was about to go and check on him. With red swollen eyes and a full bag in hand, Duo solemnly handed his selections for Alairic to his Chinese friend.
Wufei left the cottage a short time later to deliver the requested items to the mortuary. Heero led the other emotionally drained and lethargic man to the sofa. They sat down together and, with Heero's comforting arm around the grieving man's shoulders, they silently shared their grief. Neither man spoke. It seemed the time for words had not yet come and frankly, Heero doubted there was anything he could say at the moment that would make either of them feel better. They sat like that until Jen-Li returned with Eliza, then both grieving men attempted put aside their sadness for their daughter's sake.
The overall feeling of grief in the cottage eased momentarily again by the arrival of Trowa and Quatre, who supported a distraught Hilde between them. Heero stood back and watched as the woman who'd given them two children clung to Duo, sobbing softly against his shoulder. Turning from the sad picture they presented, he quietly greeted his former friends and received genuine sympathy and concern from two more people he'd cut out of his life. He'd wondered, since his return to Duo's life, how they would act to his presence. Would they accept him or turn away, not wanting to see or speak with him because of the pain and suffering his leaving had caused? He felt relieved that during this trying time three of his former friends seemed to have put aside any resentful feelings and animosity they may have had for him. He didn't think he was up to a battle of wills at the moment.
Trowa's green eyes were bright with unshed tears as he stood like a strong, stabilizing pillar next to his shorter partner, his arm placed securely around Quatre's shoulders as the blond hand clutched at his own chest, just over his heart. Heero knew his empathic friend's heart was going to get a workout over the next few days and he felt no small amount of sympathy for him. As if sensing his thoughts, two blue-green eyes rose to meet his own and a small, sad smile of gratitude came from the lips of Quatre Winner.
"It's good to see you again, Heero," Quatre said with some effort to compose himself. He then stepped out from Trowa's protective hold to embrace his former comrade. "I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Thank you," Heero said, not knowing how else to respond.
The three newcomers were also invited to stay at the Olsen's home, though Andrea looked like she was about to have a panic attack, not only because she'd recognized who Quatre was, but because she'd also learned that the next arrival might be none other than the well-known Relena Peacecraft-Howell and her husband. In dazed disbelief, obviously overwhelmed by everything that was happening, the young woman could be heard muttering to herself something about what type of food and arrangements she should make in order to serve some of the most famous people on earth and the colonies who happened to be staying in her humble home. Quatre was quick to reassure her that she needn't fuss. He and Trowa didn't require anything out of the ordinary, he told her, and Relena and her husband would no doubt be comfortable staying at a nearby hotel. Andrea left the cottage a bit calmer, thanks to Quatre.
As the small cottage became filled with old friends, Heero felt he could finally return to his apartment to shower, shave and change his clothing. Stating his intentions, Trowa volunteered to accompany him. He was glad to have his company and told him so. He then reluctantly took his leave of Duo, promising him that he'd return shortly.
It felt strange, after all that had happened during the last two days, to be driving back up Highway 280 with Trowa sitting in the passenger seat of his car. Having been gundam pilots, there was so much the two of them had in common, and yet so much that they didn't. He'd always liked Trowa, appreciating his calm manner, his inner strength and stoic resolve. It was clear the former Heavyarms pilot was a perfect match for the emotional and demonstrative blond who was his lover. "How have you been, Trowa?" Heero asked the contentedly quiet man.
"Well enough," Trowa replied, his voice smooth and calm as usual. "And happy."
"I'm glad." And he was.
Now there was a loaded question, he thought. Instead of saying that, he answered, "I've been... coping."
Heero's hands tightened on the steering wheel and he shook his head. He didn't have the words to express how his grief and guilt were tearing him up inside. As usual, Trowa didn't pry, but he did seem to understand anyway, and the rest of the ride to his apartment was made in comfortable silence. Heero didn't feel like talking, but he was grateful for the other man's company, for his strong, undemanding, calm and steady presence.
Unlocking the door to his apartment, Heero held it open for Trowa to enter, then followed him inside. His companion's eyes wandered over the immaculate room, taking in the straight, modern lines of the decor that Heero now felt expressed a feeling of detachment rather than giving off the impression of a comfortable home.
"Make yourself comfortable. I'm going to take a quick shower and pack a few things."
Trowa nodded and moved about the room, studying everything as if it held a clue to Heero's life during the last couple of years. For some inexplicable reason, Trowa's scrutiny of his things, of his life, left Heero feeling uncomfortable as he turned and made his way to his bathroom.
Freshly showered and shaved, Heero felt somewhat better. He dressed in jeans and a dark blue polo shirt then quickly packed a garment bag with enough clothing for three days plus his black suit for the ... He didn't want to think about what was going to happen on Wednesday. He just had to get through the next few days and be strong for both Duo and Eliza. He could fall apart after everything had been said and done and after he returned back to his apartment where he could grieve in private.
He noticed the blinking light on his answering machine, indicating he had messages. He hit the play button and listened to the voices of people from his office expressing their condolences for his loss. His boss called as well and, after expressing his sympathy, he assured "Odin" that he was to receive a generous amount of bereavement time with pay. Heero was somewhat surprised and grateful that there were people in the new life he'd carved out for himself who cared enough about him to call. The last message he played was from Madison. She extended her sympathy once again and offered her support before abruptly ending the call after her voice choked. He knew he'd been fortunate to have found such a lovely person to spend his weekends with, but he knew now, after all that had happened, that she was definitely a part of his past. He didn't know exactly what the future had in store for him, but he was determined to have his former friends and family back in his life once more.
He emerged from his bedroom with his toiletry and garment bags to find Trowa had opened the sliding door and was standing on the balcony calmly looking out over the city towards the bay and the two famous bridges that spanned it. Joining his friend, the two of them stood side by side in silence, taking in the scenic view as the day waned. Heero realized that this was the place where he stood on that early summer morning when he'd received the phone call that would ultimately change his life, the call from Duo looking for a place to stay.
Without turning away from the view, Trowa asked in a soft, level voice. "Do you still love him?"
There was no doubt about who he was referring to. "Yes."
"What are your plans concerning Duo?"
Leaning his forearms on the metal railing, Heero ducked his head down between his shoulders, looking at the street far below. "I don't know," he answered, feeling anguished by his lack of foresight. The past, present and future were intangible things right now. His guilt and sorrow over Alairic and his family overrode any coherent thoughts about the future.
"Nice place." Trowa changed the subject abruptly and turned to lean on the inside edge of the railing, facing the inside of the apartment. "What are you're doing now, job wise?"
The two former friends then spent some time going over their respective lives. Heero had known Quatre and Trowa were together, but hadn't realized that the blond had made his lover an equal partner in his business, which meant equal work and responsibility. Trowa told him that he and Quatre were considering following his and Duo's example, taking Catherine up on her offer to be a surrogate mother for them so they could have a child of their own.
Heero managed a smile for his friend, for his happy life and future.
"Things will work out," Trowa said suddenly, still a man of simple speaking, but like Wufei his words always seemed to hold some deeper wisdom.
"We should get back," Heero said, then turned to enter the apartment. Locking the balcony door after Trowa followed him in, he closed the curtains, making the room dark once again.
Trowa led the way back to the parking garage and to Heero's car, and the quiet drive back to Palo Alto commenced. It wasn't until the car was parked outside the Olson's home and after Heero had turned off the engine that Trowa spoke once again. "We still consider you our friend, Heero. If things don't work out with you and Duo, know that you're still one of us and that we care about what happens to you. Don't shut us out again unless you really don't want to be a part of our lives."
"I was wrong, Trowa," he admitted in a small voice with his eyes averted from the other man's gaze. "I should have stayed and worked things out with Duo. If I had, we'd probably still have Alairic with us."
"We all make mistakes, Heero, and we can't change the past or what's happened. There's no sense in blaming yourself for something that was beyond your control."
Heero shook his head, denying the offered comfort. He opened his door and climbed out of the car. Going to the trunk, he removed his two bags, then locked the doors after seeing Trowa had also gotten out. He knew that Trowa's words made sense, but he couldn't help blaming himself for his son's death. If he'd stayed and worked things out, Duo would have remained home and then Alairic wouldn't have had to go to a daycare center where he'd contracted rheumatic fever that, in turn, damaged his heart. He stood next to the former Heavyarms pilot and gazed absently at the large house before him, not really seeing anything at all.
A hand came to rest on his shoulder and brought him out of his dark thoughts. He looked up into Trowa's sympathetic face as the other man said, "It might not be too late, Heero. I can see Duo gravitating towards you, reaching out once again. He obviously needs you in his darkest hour. Reach back, if that's what your heart tells you to do." Then suddenly, the calm, placid face changed slightly, and a warning sparked from the emerald eyes and the taller man's voice lowered into a tone of warning as he continued. "But if you ever hurt Duo again, like you did when you left him and the kids, I'll hunt you down and sabotage any happiness or success you hope to have in the future." There was no venom in his voice as he uttered his calmly spoken threat, but Heero had no doubt the other man meant every word and that he was more than capable of carrying it out.
He gave a nod to Trowa, indicating that he understood, and together they walked towards the sidewalk at the side of the house and made their way to the cottage in the back yard. As soon as they entered through the front door, Heero had proof of Trowa's earlier words when Duo's eyes locked onto his own. In those incomparable orbs he recognized a look of relief in them. It was clear that Duo was glad to see him. He set his bags down and went immediately to his former partner's side and embraced him. "How are you doing?" he asked, keeping his voice low.
"I don't know," Duo answered with a tremor in his voice as held tightly to him. "But I'm glad you're back." The braided man then paused a moment and took in a deep breath before unexpectedly adding, "You smell good."
For some reason that simple compliment meant so much more than Duo had probably intended. Giving the braided an extra squeeze of gratitude, Heero called on all his willpower to let the other man go and step back. "I'll just put my things in the bedroom and be right back, all right?"
Eliza followed him like a shadow into the other room and watched as he set his bag down in an unoccupied corner. "You're Ali's real dad, aren't you?" she asked timidly, her eyes wide with an emotion that was hard to decipher.
Taking a deep breath, Heero moved towards her and knelt down in order to be at the little girl's eye level. "Yes," he answered sadly. "I'm Alairic's dad."
"Where have you been?" she asked with a trace of anger in her voice. "Ali needed you and so did my Dad."
He didn't know if he had the strength or heart to tell her the truth, but it was clear she needed some kind of explanation from him. "When you and Alairic were very young, your Dad and I had some problems and we split up. I left because our breakup hurt so badly."
The little girl's blue-violet eyes began to water up. "Didn't you love us anymore?" she choked out.
"Of course I did," he rushed to reassure her by gently placing his hands on her slender shoulders. "But I guess I worked very hard to push everything out of my mind including all the hurt and even the love I felt for all of you. I knew your Dad would take care of the two of you, so I didn't think my leaving would be a problem. At the time I thought it was for the best, but I was wrong, Eliza, so very wrong. I hope that one day you'll be able to forgive me."
The little girl sniffed and rubbed at her red-rimmed eyes. "You must be very sad that you weren't around to be Ali's Dad."
"Yes, I am very sad and very sorry for not being here to help."
Eliza then closed the short distance between them and threw her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. "Guess everyone is sad," she said, sniffing again.
"Yes, we all are," he replied, his heart heavy and near to breaking into pieces within his chest.
The five men and Hilde conversed in low voices well into the evening, and after midnight, their guests made their way over to the main house where the back patio light had been left on and the door open for when they were ready to retire. Eliza had been tucked into bed around ten o'clock, emotionally exhausted from yet another day of grieving for her brother. The sofa was once again the place chosen for sleeping that night, but this time Heero rested on his side and against the back cushions of the sofa with Duo resting in his arms, pressed against his chest. Eliza remained in her bed until six the next morning before she woke up and remembered the reason for her sore eyes and ever present tears.
Together, Wufei, Trowa and Quatre made all the preparations for the funeral over the next few days, buying the plot, casket and flowers. At Duo's request, the funeral was scheduled to take place at the local Catholic church on Wednesday at eleven a.m.
With each passing day, Heero felt more in control of his emotions. Duo, too, though undeniably sad and at times depressed, seemed to be coming to an acceptance that Alairic was gone.
The morning of the funeral began with gray, dense fog hovering in the sky overhead. The weather reports indicated it would burn off by noon. Everyone rose from their beds in a somber mood and nibbled without appetite at toast, coffee and juice the Olsen's provided before they dressed in their very best clothing. At ten fifteen, two long and black limousines pulled up to the curb outside the Olsen's residence.
Heero kept his eyes on Duo and Eliza, both pale and barely holding in their grief under the surface of their grave expressions. When at last they arrived at the church, he escorted Duo and his daughter inside. Heero paused inside the doorway to survey the interior of the religious building. He was pleased to see the structure wasn't too large and that it was fairly modern in design, with stain glass windows depicting what Duo described as Stages of the Cross. Even without the sun shining through, the colored glass lent a cheery air to the otherwise solemn gathering. He also noted that the pews were filling up quickly and he recognized some of the people congregating. Howard and many of the Sweepers Duo had known and worked with in the past were in the third and fourth pews from the front. Hilde's family was there as well as was Relena and her husband, Milliardo and Noin Peacecraft, Sally, Lady Une and others from the Preventers organization. He didn't recognize many of the other mourners, but he was certain they had somehow been involved in the lives of Duo and their children after he'd left them.
The immediate family and their closest friends were ushered into a side room where the small, beautifully crafted maple casket sat on a light blue satin cloth that covered conveyance. Heero stood back and watched as Duo and Eliza moved forward to the open casket to say their final goodbye to Alairic. He watched as the two, arms wrapped around each other, looked down on the little boy lying in his eternal state of rest. Heero quickly closed his eyes, unable to bear watching them come to grips with their grief yet again. Once more he commanded himself to be strong, for both Duo and his daughter. He could grieve later when he was back in his apartment and all alone, but for now he had to be supportive. He opened his eyes again in time to see Duo lean over and place a kiss on his son's forehead, then taking his daughter's hand, he led her off to the side and knelt down to gather her in his arm, whispering words of comfort to her.
Heero watched as the others bid their final farewell to his son while he struggled to clamp down on his own rising emotions, determined to stay strong for a couple more hours.
It was Trowa who came to him, wearing an expression of sympathy. Without a word the taller man took his arm and led him forward. Of their own accord, Heero's feet seemed to drag while his heart began to pound violently in his chest, matching the pounding in his head as he neared the small, ornately carved box that held his son. The pressure on his arm didn't relent until he stood at the side of the casket. Trowa then gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder before stepping back, giving him a private moment to say his own goodbye.
Goodbye. That one powerful word hit Heero like the blast of a buster rifle, and somehow the finality of it all provoked a release of all Heero's contained emotions, those that had been trying for days to break out. All of his former techniques at controlling his feelings were shattered by that one word, and his breaking heart was completely rent apart. His vision blurred as he gazed down on the little boy, a innocent miniature of himself dressed in his favorite red dog pajamas, his red puppy covered blanket tucked around him along with all his stuffed animals who would be guarding his eternal sleep. His son looked exactly as he had when he'd first gone to the cottage. He bent over the side of the casket as his grief rose up and overwhelmed him, no longer to be denied. In the back of his mind he heard someone sobbing uncontrollably, matching his own heartbreak perfectly. He leaned over and kissed his son's unnaturally cold forehead and let his tears fall onto the shell that had housed a beautiful soul.
He'd faced death before, caused it and observed its process, but never had death's sting been so acute. He felt an arm come around him as the distant sobbing continued and then felt himself being held. Duo's voice, sounding equally distraught, his heart just as broken as his own, whispered into his ear. Then another pair of arms came from his left, then another from behind and to his right, and he became aware of strength and support all around him. He buried his face into Duo's braid, and held onto the other man as if his life depended on it, and perhaps it did.
Eventually, the desolate emptiness that had filled him began to ebb slightly and he realized that the sobbing he'd vaguely heard had been his own. The arms around him were those of his stalwart, forgiving friends, supporting him, lending him their strength. His sobs slowly subsided, and one by one the arms around him eased away, their touch lingering as if hesitant to pull back completely. Then there was only Duo in his arms, and his face was still buried in the thick, chestnut braid that lay over the other man's shoulder.
"It's going to be all right, Heero," Duo whispered, his own voice cracking as he fought to gain control of himself. "Somehow we're going to figure out how to go on."
"I'm sorry," Heero whispered, holding his former lover desperately. "Sorry for Alairic, sorry for leaving, for being a pig-headed fool. I don't know how you can ever forgive me. I know I can never forgive myself."
He felt Duo's hand rubbing his back. "We'll talk about everything later," Duo assured him. "Let's just try to get through today, all right? We'll do it together, with Zazu and our friends."
He nodded and after a last squeeze, he eased himself back from Duo's chest and wiped the wetness from his face. "I... I'm sorry. I was trying to be strong for you," he mumbled despondently.
"I know," Duo sighed wearily. "This is the hardest thing you or I have ever done, right? It's okay not be strong all the time, not when there are others to hold us up until we can stand on our own again."
Heero nodded again, then took Duo's hand in his own and held it firmly. With a deep hitching breath, he looked to the casket behind him once more, then leaned a bit closer to the little body inside and whispered in a tearful voice, "I love you, Ali. You never had a chance to grow into the strong name I gave you, so forever you'll be Ali, our bright spirit." With his lips and chin quivering, he straightened and fought to not break down again.
"Shall we begin?" He and Duo turned together to face the priest who had come to the cottage the day before to talk over the funeral program with them.
"Yes," Duo managed to answer for the both of them. Their friends then surrounded the little casket and they all clutched their loved ones as the casket lid was closed for the last time. It was a solemn precession that left the small room and trailed after the coffin as it was rolled down the length of the church.
There was a mass to sit through before the eulogy was given, and its foreignness to Heero was a welcome distraction, helping him to gain a bit more control over his unstable emotions. Then Wufei stood, having accepted the honor of speaking about the beautiful, loving boy who had brightened their lives. He spoke briefly of Ali's long illness that had eventually claimed his life, of his loving father and sister's devotion and that the little frail boy had the miraculous ability of being loved by all who had come into contact with him.
As he came to the end of his speech, their Chinese friend stood, with unshed tears glistening in his dark eyes as he said, "While it's been said that death is no respecter of persons, riches or lofty title, he cannot be proud of taking the bright light from our lives and from this world much too soon. Today, at least, let Death be not proud." Heero knew those words would always be attached to his memory of this day just as so many moments and memories of the past few weeks were imprinted on his mind.
Duo had been right, that day, the funeral and the reality of their son's death, had been the most emotionally difficult one he'd ever survived, but somehow they came through it and survived. After the grave-side service, a light luncheon was provided by Quatre for their guests in the Olsen's home. Both he and Duo were emotionally drained and overwhelmingly grateful for the love and support of their friends. Heero thought how unfortunate it was that it took such a sad occasion to bring them all together again.
Keeping a close eye on Duo throughout the afternoon, he watched as the other man spoke briefly to Quatre and Trowa before excusing himself and going out the back door of the Olson's home towards the cottage. Checking on Eliza to make sure she was being taken care of, he was pleased to see her preoccupied by Hilde, Jen-Li and Relena, all fussing over her. Seeing that she was in good hands, he turned to follow the braided man.
He found Duo lying on his bed, in the same spot he'd first viewed his son after his three and a half year absence. Duo's head turned towards him as he entered the room and his eyes, filled with sadness, rose to meet his own. Heero was surprised to see that despite their red and puffy state, Duo's eyes were dry of their usually present tears. Climbing up onto the bed, he stretched out on his side, facing the man who held his heart and future in his hands. They gazed at each other wordlessly for several moments before Heero felt compelled to speak. "I love you, Duo." He'd hoped the heartfelt and straightforward declaration would bring a hint of joy to Duo's face as it once had years before, but the sadness they felt was still too fresh and too strong for either of them to feel or show any form of happiness.
"I love you, too," Duo finally answered with a weary sigh.
"Do you know what you're going to do now?"
Duo's eyes seemed to focus on his chest, perhaps on a button but definitely not on his face. "Zazu and I are going to go to L-4 with Quatre and Trowa and stay with them until I can get my feet under me again."
Heero felt a moment of complete panic, something he'd rarely experienced in his life. "Don't go," he blurted out, sounding desperate. "Stay. You and Eliza can come live with me in San Francisco. We'll enroll her in a private school and if you want, you can get a job, or not, I don't really care. I make enough to support all of us nicely."
Duo reached out and tenderly cupped his cheek. "I'm not in any state to begin a relationship, Heero. My heart is crushed, I'm tired and hurt more than I can say. I think it would be best if I let Quatre and Trowa take care of me for a while. They're really good at that, you know?"
Heero nodded, conceding that the two were indeed very good at taking care of their friends. He'd experienced it enough in the last few days to know he could trust them with Duo's fragile emotional state. Yet shoving reason aside, he placed his heart on the line. "But I need you, Duo. I feel... broken." He placed his hand on his chest, to the constant ache in his heart.
"I know, and I'm sorry," Duo whispered in an agonized voice, his expression pained and regretful. "But I think this is for the best."
Heero's disappointment suddenly seemed to match his grief. "I guess I can't really blame you," he said, feeling broken and hollow. "I know you probably hate me and hold me responsible for Ali's death. I can't blame you for that. It's no less than how I feel about myself."
Duo's eyes widened with shock. "I don't feel that way, Heero. How can you think that?"
"Because it's true."
The braided head shook vigorously, disagreeing with him. "Trowa told me what you said, that you blame yourself for Ali's condition. Sure, I was angry as hell when he first got sick, but I forgave you for leaving because I couldn't be filled with hate or anger for you or myself while I was trying to heal his little body. I made a choice back then, and Ali was it. I gave him my best, Heero, so I have no regrets about it. Now you need to let your self recrimination go. Maybe when I come back we'll be able to talk about our future without all the grief we feel today overriding our common sense."
"You're coming back?" Heero asked, a flicker of light flashed at the end of the dark tunnel he'd considered his future.
Duo's thumb softly stroked his cheek as he answered. "If you want me to, after some time has passed and our hearts can feel something other than sorrow, yeah. If you're sure you want to put up with me and Zazu."
Hope tripped anew within Heero's heart, and he leaned forward to give the other man a gentle, sweet kiss, then pulled him into his arms and held him against his chest. "Take all the time you need," he told Duo. "And once you're feeling better, come back to me. I swear I'll never voluntarily leave you or Zazu again."
Duo pulled back to look into his eyes, his face solemn. "And I swear to you my complete fidelity. I was lonely and weak, Heero, and forgot for a moment why we were so good together. But I'm a bit wiser now and I'll do better the second time around. I give you my word."
There were no words that could express the love and need the two men obviously felt for each other, instead they came together again to share a kiss that expressed for them their hope for the future and sealed the promises they'd just made.
"I'll email and call if you'll give me your contact information," Duo whispered against his lips.
"I'll write back and call everyday, if you'll let me," Heero said as he moved to lay on his back, pulling Duo with him, his braided head coming to rest on his shoulder while half of his body lazily draped over the top of his own with a comfortable familiarity that was welcomed. Heero tried to stifle a yawn as the emotion-filled day began to catch up with him. And soon, as sleep began to encroach upon his senses, a line from one of Eliza's books that he used to read to her before bedtime came back to him, even though it seemed half a lifetime ago since he'd spoken it.
"I'll like you for always, I'll love you forever. As long as I'm living my lover you'll be."
A sleepy chuckle from Duo in response to his declaration. "You remember that story?" he asked, without lifting his head. "I hope you know it didn't go quite that way."
"I only read it every night for over a year," he replied, with a slight smile feeling strange his lips after so many days of grieving. "Just thought I'd make it fit the occasion."
"I like your version," Duo said, yawning tiredly.
A moment later the room grew still with only the slow, rhythmic breathing of the two sleepy men breaking the silence that surrounded them.
"I miss him so much already," Duo whispered. "How is it possible life can go on without him, that the world can keep on turning?"
"Because he didn't take anything away from our lives, he enriched them," Heero answered, his heart still feeling impossibly heavy. "I never got to read that book to him, I'll Love You Forever. He will forever be our baby, won't he? I don't want to forget a thing about him."
Duo's arms tightened around him. "How could we possibly forget him? He's not only in our hearts and memories, but also a part of the people who were here today."
Both men settled against each other, holding each other tightly as they became lost in their own thoughts of their son, of the funeral that day, and what their coming separation would mean to their future, hopeful relationship. Duo was the first to doze off, his exhaustion having finally caught up to him. Heero kissed the top of his head, silently promising the man in his arms the moon and the stars if he would only return to Earth one day and give him another chance. Not long after, Heero also slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep.