After closing the bedroom door behind him, Heero turned and was confronted not by Duo, as expected. A quick glance confirmed that the tired man was still sound asleep on the sofa in the position he’d left him, his head thrown back on the top edge and light snores coming from his relaxed mouth. Instead, he was greeted by a spunky little seven year old girl in her swimsuit, fists balled up on her hips and wearing a disapproving frown on her otherwise beautiful face. Her wet pigtails dripped water droplets onto her tanned shoulders and arms.
“Did my Dad say you could go in there?” she challenged him, keeping her low voice.
Heero knelt down beside her and whispered back. “Yes, he did. I’ll bet you’re a good helper to your Dad, aren’t you, Eliza?” he asked, inwardly wondering about all the milestones and events he’d missed during the nearly four years he’d been gone from her life.
The girl’s frown remained in place as she stated, “Call me Zazu. Dad only calls me Eliza when I’m in trouble.”
“But Eliza’s a beautiful name,” he said, remembering how he and Duo had debated for weeks over what to call their daughter. When they’d finally gotten down to three names, they’d written them down on separate slips of paper and drew her name from out of one of Duo’s black hats. To his dismay, not moments after she was born, Duo gave her the nickname Zazu, combining parts of her first and middle name, Eliza Suzanne, into a shorter abbreviation. His partner had done the same thing with Alairic’s name, dubbing him Ali, Ali-cat or Ali-oop in the first few moments after their son had been placed in his arms for the first time after being removed from Hilde’s body.
“Are you one of my Dad’s friends?” the girl asked, drawing him back from his thoughts of a happier time.
“Yes. But I’ve been gone for a while.”
“You look a little like Uncle Wufei.”
The name of his former friend brought a surprising and unwelcome stab of jealousy to his heart. Just after the end of the short, second war, it had been hard to miss that the former rigid and stubborn scholar and gundam pilot had developed a soft spot for Duo. He’d cautiously observed their friend with his lover, but thankfully Wufei was disciplined and highly principled. He never once stepped over the line of friendship while he and Duo were together. He wondered at the feeling of jealousy he was experiencing and if Wufei had filled the vacancy in Duo’s life after he’d left. “I know your uncle Wufei also. Do you see him very often?” he asked the girl, keeping his voice low.
“We used to see him all the time back home. He used to stay overnight sometimes to help with Ali.”
“I see,” Heero said absent mindedly while his mind conjured up all kinds of reasons why Wufei would have stayed overnight with Duo.
“Then after we sold the house, we moved in with him for a while. It was a lot of fun, but Uncle Wufei cooks really weird food.”
Heero looked at the girl in shock. “You don’t live in the house on Blossom Hill Road any longer?”
“No. We lived in an apartment for a while that had lots of other kids and a cool playground. Dad says once Ali’s better, we’ll get us a home again.”
His mind frantically tried to deal with the fact that Duo had sold their home. They’d looked at what seemed like hundreds of houses that had been up for sale before they found the one that his lover had felt was the best suited for them and their baby daughter. Duo had chosen it because of the large backyard and for the fact that it was located in a neighborhood of predominantly middle-income families, had excellent schools, parks and a hospital close by. He’d been relieved beyond words when Duo had finally declared with a brilliant grin that they’d found the place that would be their new home.
Glancing down at his watch, he noted it was just after noon. Reluctant to leave before he’d spoken to his ex-lover about seeing the kids again, he looked into the serious little heart-shaped face that reminded him of Duo in his youth and asked, “Are you hungry? Would you like for me to make you something to eat?”
The girl gave him one of Duo’s mischievous grins, making his heart twitch, and answered in a Duo-esque way, “I could eat. But you have to wash your hands first. That’s one of the house rules. We don’t want to accidently give any germs to Ali.”
The kitchen was a part of the living room but a tall counter top/bar separated it from the sitting area. After they both washed their hands with the antibacterial soap set next to the kitchen sink, Eliza sat on one of the two bar stools while Heero went to the refrigerator to scout out what was available for lunch. He opened the door and bent to peek inside. It surprised him to find that most of the food within the refrigerator was healthy: vegetables, fruit, eggs, butter, milk, cheese and yogurt. He noticed a lack of beverages other than milk and fruit juices. For Duo not to have a six pack of beer chilling seemed very out of character. Duo had always made it a habit to have plenty of alcohol around, just in case company dropped by or for the rare moment when the kids were in bed and he could take the time to relax and unwind. There wasn’t even a bottle of wine chilling, he noted. It seemed Duo’s preferences for drink these day went to the more healthy variety of beverages.
“Have you got any bread?” he asked, seeing a large block of cheese.
“Yeah, in the bread drawer.”
Ten minutes later, the two of them were enjoying grilled cheese sandwiches, strawberry yogurt and a glass of milk. Heero studied Eliza from out of the corner of his eye. He had so many questions he wanted to ask her but he didn’t quite know how to start. He guess that it was most likely improper for him to interrogate a seven year old about her family life.
“You make a good grilled cheese, just like my dad,” the girl said around a half chewed wad of food in her mouth.
“It was your dad who taught me,” he told her before taking a bite of his own sandwich.
“Really?” She flipped back her left, still damp pigtail over her shoulder with her free hand while the other clutched the uneaten portion of her sandwich.
Heero’s breath caught in his throat. In that unconscious move he caught a glimpse of what Duo must have looked like as a seven year old, minus the pig tails, of course. Their daughter was beautiful, he thought as he continued to surreptitiously study her. He was enchanted by Eliza’s face and eyes, seeing innocence and happiness there as well as a radiant glow of good health. By just looking at the little girl you could tell she was loved and well taken care of. Duo’s daughter had his impish smile and a twinkle of mischief in her heavily eye-lashed, blue-violet eyes. Heero found himself smiling at her, then felt his grin slowly fade as he thought of Duo’s circumstances at her age. Living on the streets of L2 had no doubt deprived him from having that same look of good health and happiness that Eliza wore. His former lover had told him of his past, of living day to day and hand to mouth on the streets, stealing food and picking pockets in order to survive. He probably never had that look of “I am loved” that seemed to exude from their two children. Seeing Eliza, and even his brief glimpse of Alairic, reaffirmed to him once again that giving Duo custody of the two kids when he’d left had undoubtedly been the best decision he could have made. Even though things had been difficult for them, their children had been loved and well taken care of. Regardless of their past and the mistakes made on both their parts, his ex had proved himself to be a good and loving father.
Turning his head to gaze again at the man sprawled out on the end of the sofa, his braided head still thrown back and resting on the top corner, Heero’s heart seemed to constrict at the mere sight of him, and he was filled with regret that things had gone so badly after he’d left.
Suddenly, the little white box that sat on the counter next to Eliza began emitting sounds of material rustling and a little voice grunting unhappily.
“Ali’s waking up,” Eliza announced. “I’ll get my Dad.”
“Wait,” Heero rushed to stop her before she got off the stool. “Why don’t you and I get Alairic up and allow your Dad a few more minutes of sleep. He looks like he could use it.”
The little girl suddenly looked quite wise as she focused her eyes on him, clearly thinking about what would be the right thing to do. Then she shrugged, a typical Duo move, and chirped, “Okay.” She turned off the white box, climbed off the stool and led him back to the bedroom door.
Entering the room, they were greeted by the sight of the little four year old boy sitting up in bed and rubbing his eyes, his hoard of stuffed dogs surrounding him.
“I want Daddy,” Alairic said, his chin trembling and his deep blue eyes filling with tears.
“It’s okay, Ali,” Eliza soothed him in a little-mother fashion as she went to the bed, turned off the monitor and climbed up on it, putting her arms around the little boy.
Heero stood frozen in place, stunned by the resemblance between himself and his son. All he could see of Hilde was her pale skin tone and petite bone structure. With his own eyes filling with his heart’s emotions and leaking from rusty tear ducts, he moved forward and sat on the edge of the bed.
Big blue eyes rose to look at him warily and Heero hastily wiped the moisture out of his eyes. Eliza felt her brother stiffen in her arms and rushed to ease his worry. “Don’t worry, Ali. He’s not a doctor. He’s one of Daddy’s friends.”
“Uncle?” the little boy asked innocently.
“No, not an uncle. We’ve already got enough of those,” Eliza said, sounding so wise.
Heero finally found his voice and gave into the need to speak to his son. “Hello, Alairic. My name is Odin.” He didn’t know if either child had heard the name Heero before, but he didn’t want to upset them if they had.
A tremulous smile came to the boy’s face, then he turned to his sister. “I gotta go.”
“Are you dry?” she questioned.
Alairic patted the crotch of his shorts and grinned. “All dry.”
“Good boy, Ali,” his sister cheered with a big grin. She then scrambled off the bed, turned and stretched her arms out to him. Alairic leaned forward and slipped into them, allowing his sister to lift him from off the bed and away from the stuffed animals.
Seeing the girl stagger slightly, Heero rushed to her side. “Do you want me to carry him?”
“No, thanks. I’ve got him.”
Staying out of her way, he watched as the little girl carried her precious armful to the bedroom door, exit the room and delivered him into the bathroom, closing the door quietly behind them.
Left outside the bathroom door and in view of Duo, he turned to stare at his former lover once again, drinking in the sight of him like a man who had gone too long without water, suddenly viewing an oasis. There was no doubt about it, he still felt drawn to his former partner. Duo was as handsome and physically appealing to him as ever. But somehow, immersed in all his anger and resentment, he’d forgotten the person inside the attractive package. His former lover had always been loving and playful. His devotion to him, their relationship, friends and then their children had never come into question until he’d confessed his infidelity. Using his former training, he managed to push aside the memory of all the wonderful traits his lover possessed and had focused solely on that one confessed indiscretion.
The slight sound of the door to the bathroom opening brought him back from his thoughts to the present. He watched as Eliza came out of the room, leading her little brother by the hand. “Ali’s hungry,” she announced, remembering to keep her voice down.
Heero smiled at the siblings, his heart feeling like it was swelling with each moment he spent in their presence. “How about we go and fix him something to eat and you can finish your lunch as well. Do you like grilled cheese sandwiches?” he asked his son, and got a nod of the little dark-haired head in reply.
Since he hadn’t yet touched the second half of his sandwich, Heero re-heated it as well as Eliza’s in the microwave while the dutiful big sister got out a small child-sized chair and table set that she explained was for Ali to use for eating. She logically explained to him that their dad bought it because it wasn’t safe for Ali to sit on the tall bar stools.
Finding he’d lost his appetite altogether, Heero didn’t bother making another sandwich for himself, but found himself utterly content in watching the two children eat their lunch. His heart ached as he thought of all that he’d missed during the time he’d been gone, and that it had been his own damn fault. His pride and stubbornness, boosted by his hurt and anger, had caused him to act impetuously. From the moment Duo confessed to him he’d fallen back on his early training and shut out his emotions, effectively closing his ears and heart to the man who’d hurt him... and he’d left not only Duo, but his family as well. He’d gone straight to a lawyer and hired the man to handle the dissolution of their partnership in the quickest manner possible. He’d left everything to Duo and the kids with the intent of severing all contact with them, and continued to use his past training to close off his heart and his emotional need for them. And now, for the first time in years, he found himself regretting that decision. He’d given all custodial rights for the children to Duo, physically, emotionally and financially cutting himself out of their lives. In light of what he’d learned so far this day, he felt ashamed of himself and for his hasty, selfish actions. Duo had shouldered the burden of caring for Eliza and a very sick Alairic while he’d gone off and created a new life for himself. Duo shouldn’t have had to shoulder all of that on his own. But it was too late to do anything about the past, wasn’t it?
A movement from the front room caught his attention and he turned just in time to see Duo jumping up from the sofa and looking frantically around the room as he tried to get his bearings. He ran to the front door of the cottage and called out in a panicked voice for his daughter.
“Here, Daddy!” The little girl giggled from her bar stool, mistakenly thinking her father’s actions were funny.
Duo spun around to face the kitchenette, pale and clutching at his chest. “Thank God,” he whispered as the look of panic began to fade from his face. His eyes then rose to Heero’s, then narrowed slightly. “You’re still here?”
“The kids were hungry so I fed them.”
The braided man’s eyes shifted to the bedroom to see the door open and the bed inside empty. He walked into the area behind the kitchen bar to see his little boy happily munching on his cheese sandwich. “Hey, buddy. What ya got there?” He knelt down next to the miniature table set.
“Cheese sammich,” the little dark-haired boy replied happily with a little grin.
“Um. Looks good.”
Standing, Duo looked at his former partner. “Sorry to drop off on you like that. It’s been a long week and I think it’s finally caught up to me.”
“Don’t apologize,” he told him sincerely. “I’m glad to be of help.”
Suspicion rose in Duo’s eyes again following that remark, but he kept his thoughts to himself, well aware of the children.
“Do you want me to make you a sandwich?”
“No thanks.” Duo waved off the offer. Instead he grabbed an apple from a wire basket on the counter top, took a bite of it and chewed each bite thoroughly while looking anywhere but at the other man in the room.
The rest of the mid-day meal was quiet other than a few comments from the children now and then. Zazu chatted about attending a new school and buying clothes for the occasion and Ali simply stated he was full. Both sets of little hands and the cherub faces were washed and dried, then Duo set to work, cleaning the kitchen. With the dishes loaded into the very small dishwasher, the braided man took out an antibacterial cleanser and sprayed the entire kitchen surface with it, then wiped it off with a clean towel.
“Ali’s immune system is weak,” Duo informed him. “So we have to be vigilant about germs.”
“Can we have a popsicle?” Zazu interrupted, looking hopeful.
“All right,” Duo answered. “But eat it outside, okay?” He opened the lower half of the refrigerator, revealing a small freezer section, and pulled out a box of juice bars. He handed her two of them before putting the box back in place. Zazu unwrapped her popsicle while Duo took the second one from her and peeled down the wrapper until it was bunched up at the bottom of the treat, set to catch any melting drops.
“Okay, out you go,” he said, taking Ali’s hand in his own and leading the little boy to the door. “Sit on the grass while you eat them,” he instructed both while handing the cold treat to the boy to carry. “And don’t get up until your done, alright?”
“K, dad,” the pig-tailed girl answered happily. “Come on, Ali.”
Heero watched Duo as he stood at the screen door to make sure that both children sat down on the lawn. Satisfied that they were set, Duo then turned around and leveled an angry glare at his ex. “What do you really want, Heero?” His voice was kept low as he moved further into the room so that the kids wouldn’t overhear their conversation. “You’ve been gone for over three years without any contact. Why show up on my doorstep now after more or less telling me to get lost when I called you for help? Why?”
Heero knew Duo was had a right to be suspicious of his motives, but for the life of him he didn’t know how to answer. Before he could come up with something, Duo continued, his anger mounting. “You better not think for a moment that you can pop in here from whatever idyllic life you’ve made for yourself and think about getting custody of either one of them. They’re mine. You left, deserted them, and they have no idea who you are. I think it’s better that we keep it that way.”
Heero held up his hands as a signal of a truce. “I’d never try to take the kids from you, Duo. It doesn’t take a genius to see you’re the better parent. Besides, you’re the one who wanted them.”
Before he could react, Heero found himself on lying on the carpeted floor with the left side of his face smarting from having a fist smashed into it. The unexpected blow had knocked him off his feet and onto his ass, thus giving him the view of Duo standing over him, his eyes ablaze and nostrils flaring with anger. “Don’t you dare say that either one of those kids was unwanted. You know you once wanted and loved them just as much as I did,” he hissed.
Slowly, cautiously, Heero climbed to his feet, keeping a wary eye on the angry man while testing his jaw for damage. “Let’s be honest, Duo. If you’ll remember you were the one who felt something was missing in your life. You wanted a home and children.” Gingerly moving the aching jaw, Heero softly added. “All I ever wanted was you. In order to keep you I knew I needed to make you happy. I agreed to Hilde being a surrogate for us because you wanted it so badly, and it did make you happy, didn’t it?” Duo looked away from him, as if he was stung by his honesty. “But that doesn’t mean I didn’t come to love them. I did.”
That admission seemed to placate the braided man somewhat. Still not meeting Heero’s gaze, Duo asked again, “So then why are you here?”
Dabbing at the blood at the corner of his mouth, he answered. “I’m not sure. Possibly for closure.”
Duo’s head shot up and his eyes sparked venomously. “Closure!” he snapped. “You got your damn closure, buddy. You ended our relationship on your terms. I didn’t have a damn thing say about it, not to you or your stinkin’ lawyer. What I did get was a stack of legal papers saying you were done with us, so don’t speak to me about closure. I’m the one who didn’t get closure, but that swelling jaw of yours and my aching knuckles sure feels like a good beginning to me.”
Heero was well aware of his own anger rising to meet Duo’s. “You’re the one who cheated on me,” he said, pointing an accusing finger at Duo’s chest. “What did you think I was going to do? Say it was all right and go on as before? I worked my ass off for you, for the home you wanted and for our family. And for what? To have you cheat on me?”
“It wasn’t all my fault, Heero,” Duo retorted, his face pinking with anger. “It took me a long time before I could objectively look back and see that you had a great deal to do with our relationship falling apart.”
Heero’s eyes widened. He couldn’t believe what the other man was saying. He wasn’t the one who cheated. “What the hell are you talking about? You’re the cheater.”
“Physically, yeah,” Duo conceded, his eyes filled with hurt. “Paulina seduced me. But if I hadn’t been so damn lonely, starved for affection and attention and half drunk that afternoon, it would never have happened. I regretted it immediately and kicked her out of the house. After gathering my wits I called you home. Sure, I made a horrible, very regrettable mistake and I hated myself for it, but you were the one who ruined our relationship over it.”
Heero was still struggling with disbelief at what Duo was saying. His eyes narrowed as he recalled something Duo had just said. “What do you mean you were lonely and starved for affection? I came home every night. We spent our weekends together as a family.”
“You spent a good fourteen hours a day at work or school, Heero, including Saturday. You got home after the kids were asleep and then you were too tired to do anything but eat and go to bed. I was trapped in the house all day with two little kids and there were many days that Paulina was the only one to provide me with any adult conversation. When Sunday morning came rolling around, we usually had a very quick attempt at sex before you rolled over and went back to sleep, then you slept for the majority of the day, making up for lost time, you said. When you finally resurfaced, you spent the evening getting ready for the next week. Dammit, Heero, I was so damn lonely and needy that even an eighty year old grandma could have seduced me just by giving me some time and attention! You physically left me the day I made my mistake, but emotionally, you’d left long before then.”
Silence filled the room and only the sound of the children talking outside about a squirrel in the trees could be heard. Heero didn’t know what to say, but after a few moments, he tried to justify his past action in a calmer manner. “With you not working I felt the need to make more money. There was added pressure to pay the bills from Hilde’s gynecologist and hospital bills that came after Alairic was added to our family. I’d always intended to cut back on my hours after I caught up on things, but then putting extra money in our savings account seemed like a good idea. I honestly didn’t know that you missed me, Duo. You had the kids and they seemed to take all if your time and attention.”
Suddenly, the anger seemed to drain out of the braided man as he listened to Heero’s reasoning. Running a hand though the fringe of hair over his forehead, Duo said wearily, “I’ve always needed you, Heero. You were my rock, my comfort. From the moment you walked out the door I blamed myself for your leaving. When you didn’t call or contact me, I retreated into a dark place. If it hadn’t been for the guys...” He stopped and paused to take a deep breath, then shook his head, dismissing what he was going to say. “Water under the bridge,” he mumbled just under his breath, but Heero managed to pick up on it.
Looking and sounding weary once again, Duo added, “Listen, Heero. I don’t have the energy for this. All I have is given to those two kids out there. I’m sorry if you don’t have the closure you feel you need to go on with your life, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I confessed to what I’d done and asked your forgiveness. You didn’t give it and then you deserted us. The past is behind us and there’s nothing we can do about it now. Go back to your perfect corporate life in San Francisco and your non-committal relationship with your beautiful, redheaded girlfriend and leave us the hell alone.”
With that said, Duo turned and walked out of the cottage leaving Heero standing alone with his thoughts. He wondered briefly just how much Duo knew of his life in San Francisco and for how long. He obviously knew about Madison. He then recalled her visit with Duo, set up by Andrea Olson, and it all clicked together. That’s how he’d gained the information.
Deciding that he needed a few more answers from his ex before leaving, he squared his shoulders and determinedly followed Duo outside only to be surprised by a newcomer entering the yard from the path at the side of the main house. Heero would have recognized that person anywhere. Wufei’s dark eyes shot to him at once and widened in surprise before narrowing. The Chinese man was obviously less than pleased by his presence in the backyard. Wufei’s appearance was then noticed by the other three and their reaction was immediate.
“Uncle Wufei!” Zazu jumped to her feet and ran to the Chinese man who grinned warmly at the young girl, dropped the shoulder bag he’d been carrying and opened his arms to her. Catching her, he flung her around in a circle before setting her back down and teasingly tugged at her pigtails. Zazu kept her arms wrapped around his waist for a continued hug and looked up to give the Chinese man a look of pure adoration.
Heero was distracted by the reunion for a moment when Alairic also climbed to his feet and began to run towards the newcomer. Duo easily reached out and snatched him up into his arms. “Keep calm, Ali. Uncle Wufei will be here in a sec,” the cautious father whispered to his son.
Meanwhile, Wufei managed to free himself from the little girl’s clutches only to take hold of her hand. They walked comfortably together, both smiling happily, towards the waiting three.
“Who’s that big boy in your arms, Duo?” Wufei asked with exaggerated curiosity. “Surely it’s not Alairic the Great. This fellow is just too big to be Ali.”
“It sure is, Wu,” Duo replied with a grin, playing along.
“No,” Wufei scoffed. “He was never this big. Is that really you, Alairic?”
“Uncle!” The boy giggled and held his hands out to the teasing man, still dressed in his Preventer uniform.
Wufei lifted the boy from Duo’s arms and held him close to his shoulder before kissing each of his soft cheeks. Worried onyx eyes rose to meet Duo’s, silently asking how his son was faring.
“Rough week,” was all Duo said, earning a sad, sympathetic smile from his friend.
Heero felt that uncalled for jealousy rearing up again. He knew he had no right to be jealous of Duo or of Wufei’s attention to him. He had no claim on his former lover. Just as he’d firmly told himself that, the almond-shaped eyes turned to him.
“What are you doing here?” Abrupt and to the point. Wufei hadn’t changed much over the last few years, he thought.
“Gathering information,” he replied cryptically, and then inwardly winced at how much that statement reminded him of his past and the wars they’d fought in together.
Shifting his eyes back to Duo, Wufei raised a questioning eyebrow.
“We’re done speaking. Heero was just leaving,” Duo stated, his manner cool.
“I’d like to stay and visit with the kids for a while,” he said, feeling again that sharp stab of jealously in seeing his son clinging so trustingly to Wufei.
“Well, as you can see we’ve got company, so it’s not a very convenient time,” Duo said frostily. “I’m sure you can find your way out.”
Heero didn’t want to make a scene in front of the kids, or Wufei for that matter, but he knew things still needed to be said between Duo and himself. Today had been a start, but it wasn’t the end. “I’ll come back another time,” he said. Then kneeling down, he brought himself to Eliza’s eye level. “Next time I come, I’ll bring ice cream. What kind do you like?”
“Chocolate,” the girl beamed. “But Ali likes vanilla.”
“I’ll bring both,” he said. “Can I get a hug before I go?” He knew he was pushing it with Duo, but for some reason he needed to touch his little girl, to hold her once again in case he never got the chance again.
Eliza had been a affectionate toddler, and he hoped the trauma of his leaving hadn’t changed that. Two arms wrapped around his neck and he received a brief, heart-warming hug, one he easily returned. When the girl pulled back, they both were smiling.
“Thank you, Eliza. It was wonderful being here with you today.” Standing, he turned to Wufei, still holding his son. He moved closer to touch the little one’s dark hair, then leaned over and kissed his forehead.
“Bye,” the little boy said happily, then leaned his head onto Wufei’s shoulder.
“Good to see you again, Chang,” he managed to say politely. Then turning to Duo, he said softly, “I’ll see you soon, Duo.” He more or less forced himself to turn away from them, and with a straight back and his head held high he walked across the lush lawn. Once he reached the side path, he paused at the corner of the house and turned to see Eliza opening the cottage door for Wufei who was leading Duo inside, one arm resting across the braided man’s shoulders while the other one carried his son. He’d never considered himself a jealous man before, but without a doubt he’d experienced enough of it today to convince him otherwise. There was one thing he knew for sure, that he never disliked Wufei Chang more than he did at that moment.
On to Chapter five
Back to chapter three