A few weeks later, one evening near dusk, Duo sat in his car, staring at the dismal street corner across from him. It had been three years since he had last seen the sorry spot but for most of his life, that street corner had been his sole means of support. It had witnessed his greatest pain and had been the reason for his greatest joy.
Duo gazed at his old pick-up spot, his mind wondering what had brought him here after so long. However, his heart quickly supplied the answer. Hilde. Hilde was the reason he had returned to his old neighborhood for the first time since Heero had rescued him from it.
It had been three years since Hilde, his best friend and confidant, and many times his savior, had died a lonely, horrible death. She’d been found in a filthy alley, beaten to death supposedly by a customer who hadn’t wanted to pay the slight girl for her favors.
“But that’s not what happened, was it Hilde?” Duo whispered to his friend’s ghost.
An investigation that had taken place after the death of Duo’s former pimp Smoke at the young man’s own hands had revealed more of the ugly blonde’s nefarious activities than even Duo had been aware of. Besides having a bad habit of sampling and roughing up his own merchandise, a habit of which Duo had intimate knowledge, Smoke had also been a small time drug dealer.
Although Smoke had managed to lure a young Duo to a life on the streets with little more than the promise of food, Smoke had often recruited new talent through the poison he sold. Once he had gotten a young girl or a pretty boy hooked on the stuff, it was child’s play to get them to sell their bodies for the promise of more illicit substances.
Hilde had never told Duo that she knew about Smoke’s methods of conscription but she had found a group of young kids that Smoke was grooming for a life of prostitution. Hilde had scrimped and saved her pathetic earnings from her own tricks to try to get the kids into a rehab program and away from Smoke. Hilde’s good deeds might have continued to go unnoticed but, desperate to save the children, Hilde had started holding back some of her earnings from Smoke. She would lie about making less from a job than she really did so that his exorbitant take of eighty percent wouldn’t completely wipe her out.
‘If only she had told me, I could have tried to help,’ Duo mused morosely, his heart crying for his beautiful friend.
Smoke had, of course, become wise to Hilde’s scheme, thanks to his enforcer Bob. Bob had picked up all of Smoke’s boys and girls after their ‘dates’ and when Smoke had complained that Hilde’s offerings had been less than stellar of late, Bob had informed him that she had been turning more tricks than ever.
Smoke confronted Hilde, accusing her of scamming him. She denied it, swearing that her johns had just been cheap. Smoke didn’t buy it and roughed her up to insure her future compliance. Although he didn’t beat her any worse than he’d beaten Duo on numerous occasions, Hilde was a lot smaller than her friend and her injuries had proved fatal.
As Duo thought back over what the not-so-loyal Bob had revealed during the investigation, Duo found himself wishing he could kill that bastard Smoke all over again.
The prosecutors on Smoke’s murder case had been all too eager to let Duo off on a third-person self-defense plea, since he had saved Heero’s life by killing the pimp. Smoke had been scum of the first degree and neither the police nor the prosecutors were sorry that he was out of their hair forever. The records of Duo’s involvement in the incident, as well as all information regarding his relationship with Smoke, had been sealed. Duo’s sketchy past was wiped away as though it had never existed, allowing him to start his new life with Heero without fear.
‘But you’ll never have a new life, will you, Hilde?’
Duo sighed as his mind turned helplessly to futile thoughts of what life would be like if Hilde were still alive. He knew that he could have helped her get off the streets, just like Heero had helped him. But the time for wishful thinking was long past. Now, all Duo could do was to honor Hilde’s memory, which he planned to do by adopting a child and insuring that he or she had a normal, happy life.
Duo blinked away misty tears and started up his car. Not quite ready to end his trip down memory lane, Duo drove the few blocks to his old apartment building.
Ignoring the threatening storm clouds, Duo parked across the street and got out of the car to look at the decrepit structure. He could hardly believe that he used to live in such a dump. It was a far cry from the warm, loving home he had now. ‘Just something else to be grateful to Heero for,’ he thought. Thoughts of his shujin filled his mind, bringing a slight smile to his lips. (1)
From the concealing darkness of a nearby alley, a pair of eyes regarded the young man standing in the street, seemingly staring off into space.
‘Idiot! He’s practically begging for it!’
The skulker snorted in disgust, unable to believe that anyone could be so careless. Especially out here where predators lurked everywhere, looking for easy prey. Sharp eyes picked out the outline of a wallet through the young man’s jacket.
‘Yeah, that’ll be great. Maybe now I can get something to eat.’
Ignoring a pair of sore ribs, the skulker shifted, preparing to make a move on the oblivious mark.
The skulker froze, however, as the young man sighed and seemed to come back to the present. The man raised a hand to scratch at the back of his neck. Unable to relieve the itch, he reached under the collar of the jacket to remove the irritant.
The skulker inhaled at the sight of the meter long braid that was freed from the jacket and now rest along the young man’s back, past his narrow waist.
The skulker tried to shake the errant thought away but was transfixed by the thought that something lovely could exist amongst the ugliness of the L2 slums.
The young man took a step back and turned around, heading towards his car once more. The skulker saw opportunity slipping away and decided to go for it.
‘In and out and away... He’ll never know what hit him.’
The skulker darted away from the safety of the shadows and towards the unaware young man.
Duo was almost to his car when a he caught a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye. He immediately went on alert, his street instincts still sharp even after three years of nonuse. Even so, the small figure that moved towards him was unbelievably quick and Duo was almost too slow in reacting. Almost.
The pickpocket felt a brief surge of victory as the young man’s wallet came readily to hand but the surge turned to one of fear as that same nimble hand was summarily captured.
Duo looked down at the medium-brown hand he held before turning his attention to the small, coat-covered figure. He knew by the size of the hand, as well as the size of its owner, that he was dealing with a child. Duo felt smile bloom across his face, pleased that his own skills at slight of hand hadn’t completely disappeared.
“You know,” he said teasingly, “if you ever want to make any money at this little game, you’re going to have to be a lot quicker than tha...”
Duo trailed off as he raised his eyes and looked into the face of his would-be attacker. A pair of large, frightened light-brown eyes stared back at him, barely visible in the low light of dusk. One eye was surrounded by the fading remnants of a black-eye and another, more recent bruise graced the child’s right cheek. The rest of the child’s figure was completely hidden beneath the voluminous coat but the delicate features obviously belonged to a girl.
Duo stared into eyes that held a look of dread and grim resignation. Eyes entirely too old to belong to so young a person. He felt his heart clench at the evidence of abuse and shivered as a shock of recognition move through him.
‘Her eyes... She looks like I use to feel when it was me out here. No, like Hilde...”
The look of tough determination mixed with an undercurrent of hopelessness indeed reminded Duo of his beloved friend. His moment of empathy caused him to loosen his grip on the girl’s hand and she quickly took advantage of his lapse of diligence. Pulling frantically, she freed herself and took off back down the alley she’d just come from.
With visions of the girl, and memories of Hilde, living on the streets spurring him on, Duo took off after the frightened child. Something in his heart told him that, if he let her get away, he would forever regret it.
He hit the alley just in time to see the fluttering tails of the girl’s coat disappear around a far corner. Marveling at her speed, Duo rushed towards the end of the alley and took the curve at a dead run. However, when he turned the corner, the girl was nowhere to be seen.
‘She can’t have gotten far,’ Duo mused. Slowing to a walk, he cautiously entered the new alleyway.
“Hey, come on out,” he shouted. “I won’t hurt you. I’m not even mad. If you want some food I’ll get you some.”
Duo looked around but saw nothing except trash, broken bottles, and an old fire-escape ladder. Duo looked at the ladder for a moment but dismissed it from his mind. It looked far to rusted to support anyone’s weight, even that of a small child. A chilling breeze blew across his face and he tugged the edges of his open jacket together.
“Don’t you at least want a warm place to sleep?”
Just then, the storm clouds fulfilled their threat and opened, pouring down rain and drenching Duo instantly in cold wetness.
“And a dry place,” he continued, wryly.
Still, the girl didn’t respond. Undaunted and determined to find the child, Duo ignored the cold and the rain and walked up and down the alley, searching for her behind every dumpster and in every shadow.
Laura huddled on a rooftop, looking down at the young man searching the alley and shivering from the cold sheets of rain falling on her. Her heart raced at both the precarious effort it had taken to race up the rickety fire-escape and the nearness of her escape. Given the groans and shaking the ladder had used to protest her use of it, Laura wasn’t certain how many more times she’d be able to use the structure for quick escapes.
The girl knew that if she’d been arrested for pick-pocketing, her mother really would kill her. She could hear Delia’s voice in her head yelling, ‘I don’t care how you get me money, you little bastard! You can steal it or trick for it! Just bring me some cash and don’t come home ‘til you do!!’
Laura could still feel the sting on her cheek from the slap she’d received from her mother two days ago when she’d been literally turned out into the streets. Even though her mother had since disappeared, probably looking to score some crack to feed her addiction, Laura didn’t want to tempt fate. Delia often disappeared but she also always returned. Eventually.
Looking down at the young man with the pretty eyes and incredible hair, Laura marveled at his persistence. He was saying something, but the rising wind ripped away his words before she could catch them. Convinced that the man was still pissed about her failed theft attempt, Laura stayed put. Finally, after what seemed like hours, the man left the alley and returned to his car. Following him from her lofty position, she watched him drive away slowly as if he were still searching. Laura stayed put upon the rooftop, waiting until his car had disappeared down the street before leaving her hiding place. Hoping that Delia was still away, the small girl made her way to the hovel she called home.
(1) shujin = husband