The next morning found Duo and Heero combing the streets of the L2 slums, looking for any trace of the young pickpocket. Heero had called his office and requested the use of some of his months of saved vacation time, effective immediately. Duo had called Howard to ask for time off, as well. Howard was familiar with Duo’s past and was completely sympathetic once Duo explained the situation.
“If you dare show your face around here before you’ve found that little girl, I’ll belt you one,” the older mechanic had warned.
Although Duo still retained his knowledge of the decrepit neighborhood, he was finding it of little use in his search. The two young men looked up and down every avenue and side street but turned up nothing. They gave the girl’s description to every shady character they came across but to no avail. It was as if the child had only been a figment of Duo’s imagination. She had simply vanished.
Duo’s frustration grew as the day wore on. Heero’s calm, steady presence reassured him somewhat, but he couldn’t help feeling an overwhelming sense of anxiety. The longer it took to find the girl, the more Duo worried that something terrible would happen to her.
“She’s probably been living out here for a long time, Duo. I’m sure she can take care of herself long enough for us to find her.”
Duo listened to Heero’s logical conjecture but he couldn’t take the words to heart. Heero called a halt to the search when the sun began to set.
“If we couldn’t find her during the day, our chances of locating her in the dark are very slim,” Heero reasoned.
Duo sighed in vexation but agreed to go home for the night. Heero promised him that they would start again first thing in the morning.
Over the next few days, Laura was forced to use all of her street smarts to keep out of the path of the pretty, longhaired man and his equally pretty companion. She couldn’t believe that the guy was still angry enough about her aborted theft attempt to keep searching for her. Laura usually kept to herself so not many of the neighborhood’s residence knew who she was. That was lucky for her since the two young men had asked everyone they could about her.
Delia had come home briefly one night about three days after Laura had tried to steal from the longhaired man. The woman had been royally pissed that the girl had failed to make any money in the time she’d been gone. Delia slapped Laura around for a bit before torturing the starving girl by eating in front of her and not offering her even one bite. With another warning to the girl, Delia had disappeared once again.
By the next morning, Laura was nearly faint with hunger. She’d gone a few days without eating before, but it had been nearly five days since she’d had anything and she didn’t know how much longer she would last. It didn’t help that she couldn’t steal anything since she was forced to hide from the incredibly diligent two-man search party looking for her. Laura knew that she could probably trick for some money, but she’d done so once before and the thought of some disgusting man touching her and hurting her like that again made her physically ill.
Heero took in the dark circles under his shujin’s eyes with a worried glance. Their continuing failure to locate the girl was eating at Duo. Her despondent light-brown eyes haunted him, affecting his sleep. For the first time since Smoke’s death, Duo had been haunted by nightmares of his own horrific past. For the last few nights, Heero had held his lover after waking him from a nightmare while Duo cried himself into a fitful sleep.
Near dusk of the fifth day of their search, they walked down a street that they’d searched several times before. Though Heero felt looking here again was pointless, he didn’t argue when Duo had turned down the now familiar path.
Duo couldn’t explain why he felt the need to be in that particular location. A feeling of urgency had come over him when they’d approached the street and he’d turned onto it before consciously knowing what he’d done. Duo headed towards an alleyway mid-way down the block, the speed of his steps increasing as he neared the side-street’s entrance. As always, Heero followed closely behind, a silent but much welcomed shadow.
Duo paused at the alley, looking down the rapidly darkening path. He and Heero had looked down this particular alley several times before, since it was the place Duo had lost the little pick-pocket after their first encounter. He thought that she might return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, but the search had always proved fruitless. Duo saw nothing in the gloomy darkness and his shoulders slouched in defeat.
Heero’s heart ached for his lover, knowing that their failure to find the child was causing Duo constant agony. He stifled a sympathetic sigh and started to turn away when Duo suddenly stiffened. Heero turned back to his companion. The young man’s amethyst eyes stared fixedly down the dim path. Heero opened his mouth to speak when Duo interrupted.
“Did you hear that?”
Heero’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Hear what?” he asked.
Duo cocked his head to the side, as if the motion could sharpen his ears. He remained motionless for a moment before abruptly lifting his head and inhaling sharply.
“That. I heard someone crying.” Duo was already moving into the alley before turning his head slightly towards Heero. “Come on,” he threw over his shoulder.
The sound echoed against the walls of the surrounding buildings and Heero heard it clearly this time. It was definitely the cry of someone frightened and in pain. Duo began to run and Heero stayed close on his heels.
They reached the end of the alley and turned down a pathway that dead-ended between buildings. Duo stopped suddenly and Heero nearly ran into him. Duo stood frozen, his face a mask of unreserved fury. Heero followed Duo’s gaze into the darkness.
“What...” he breathed before the words trailed off. The scene before him made his stomach turn in utter disgust.
A large man was standing at the end of the pathway, his front pressed up against the wall of a building. He had someone pinned between himself and the hard stone, someone very small. It was obviously a child and Heero had the feeling that his and Duo’s search had finally ended.
“Come on, sweetie. Give us a kiss. Your mom told me you were a real good lay, almost as good as her. She said you know how to treat a man. Show me what you can do.”
The man’s slimy words ended as he tried to press his mouth to the lips of his reluctant victim. The girl struggled in his hold.
“Get away from me, you fucker!!”
The girl’s defiant scream broke Duo and Heero from their momentary shock. As one, they headed towards the scuffling pair. Duo’s longer legs, and his indignant rage, allowed him to take the lead. Duo grabbed the larger man around the waist in a low tackle, using his momentum to pull the would-be kiddy-rapist away from the girl and to plow the man into a nearby stone wall. Heero reached the now sobbing child and pulled her into his arms.
Duo wasted no energy on words. He hauled back and plowed an iron fist, strengthened by his years of work as a mechanic, into the man’s gut. The punch was immediately followed by another to the man’s face.
The man shouted as pain exploded through his jaw. Using a meaty arm, he pushed his smaller attacker away with a strong shove. He took a second to look at his opponent and scoffed. No way this skinny punk was going to beat him. Now that the boy’s element of surprise was gone, he planned to knock some since into the little jerk’s head. Then he’d take care of the kid’s friend and get back to the luscious little piece he’d been playing with.
Duo staggered a bit when the man pushed him away but he quickly regained his footing. Dropping almost unconsciously into the fighting stance Heero had taught him, Duo waited for the man to make a move.
The large man swung wildly at Duo’s head but he easily dodged the blow. He rammed a fist into the man’s already sore mid-section. As soon as the man reeled back, Duo spun around and scored a powerful back-kick to the man’s ribs, his long braid whipping around in his wake. The man’s breath rushed from him as he crashed into the wall. Not pausing to relish in the resulting sound of ribs cracking, Duo followed up his attack with a roundhouse-kick to the man’s head.
Heero watched Duo work over the slimy creep with a feeling of pride. Heero was a black belt in Karate and, after the events with Smoke a year ago, had taken it upon himself to teach Duo everything he knew. Duo had been an apt pupil. Heero kept the crying child’s face pressed into his chest, shielding her from the brutal beating Duo was dishing out.
After several more minutes, Duo paused to look down at the motionless heap on the ground. The man’s pained moaning faded as he fell into unconsciousness. Duo’s chest heaved with anger rather than breathlessness and he sorely felt the need to break a few more of the man’s ribs.
From the moment Duo had seen the man pinning the girl to the wall, he’d been filled with all the pain and hatred garnered by his own childhood. Duo had punished the man for his own trauma as well as for the girl’s. Growling, Duo gritted his teeth and pulled back a foot to deliver another kick when a soft voice stopped him.
“Duo, he’s finished. Let it go,” Heero said gently.
Chest heaving with emotion and exertion, Duo turned to his koibito. He looked down at the girl in Heero’s arms and then back up into concerned, blue eyes. Duo took a deep breath. He threw one final glare at the downed man and, resisting the urge to spit on him, turned away. He walked quickly towards Heero and knelt down behind the girl. Slowly, he placed a gently hand on her back.
“It’s okay. He can’t hurt you anymore,” he said softly.
The girl looked over her shoulder, pinning him with frightened, brown eyes. As though suddenly realizing where she was, she quickly broke away from Heero’s hold and backed away, looking at the two young men with a suspicious glare while wiping away her tears. Duo could see the girl’s mind working as her gaze flitted between Heero and himself. He knew that she was wondering if she’d just traded one dangerous situation for an even more perilous one.
Duo glanced quickly up at Heero and, taking the silent hint, Heero hunkered down until he too was at the girl’s level. Duo didn’t want her to feel threatened by them looming over her. Placing his hands on his thighs in a non-threatening manner, Duo spoke kindly.
“It’s okay. We won’t hurt you. Are you alright?”
The girl ignored his question to ask one of her own.
“You going to take me to the police because I tried to take your wallet?”
Duo blinked in surprise. He hadn’t expected the girl to be worried about that. He closed his eyes as he suddenly realized that the reason they’d had such trouble finding her over the past week was because she’d been avoiding them, scared that they wanted to turn her in for pick-pocketing. Duo opened his eyes and smiled.
“No. That’s not why I’m here. I was worried about you, about these,” he said, indicating the old and new bruises showing against the girl’s medium brown skin.
The girl flinched back when Duo’s pointed to her face. Then she hissed as the sudden motion caused a twinge in her sore ribs. Heero’s sharp ears heard the expression of pain. He glanced quickly towards his shujin. Duo had noticed as well when he saw the girl place a hand to her side. His jaw clenched but he tried to keep his tone gentle.
“Does your side hurt?”
After a moment, the girl nodded slowly.
“Your ribs?” Duo guessed.
Again the girl nodded, the wariness gradually fading from her eyes. Just then the girl’s stomach growled loudly, prompting a sad smile from Duo.
“Hungry?” he asked.
Again the girl nodded. Her lips twitched as she found that she was not immune to the pretty, longhaired man’s charm.
Duo took a breath and a gamble. “Can we take you to the hospital? They can take care of your ribs and give you something to eat.”
The girl’s smile disappeared, the suspicion back in her eyes. Duo saw her small frame tense as if to flee. He knew that if she ran, he wouldn’t chase after her. It would only frighten her more. No, this moment was about trust, trust she had no reason to give.
Laura looked at the two men kneeling before her. Her street training told her to run away, not to believe the man’s nice words. But something else told her to trust him. He and his friend looked at her with something she’d never seen before, kindness.
Laura stood there for a moment, her side aching, her cheek sore, and her body weak from a lack of food. Suddenly, she knew she could take no more. She looked into the man’s amethyst eyes and nodded.
“Okay,” she whispered. “I’ll go with you.”
Duo let out the breath he’d been holding and smiled brightly. He glanced at Heero and saw a tamer version of his happiness and relief reflected back. Turning back to the girl, Duo stood slowly to his full height. The girl looked up at him steadily.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Duo smiled. “Well, Laura, I’m Duo and this is my husband Heero. It’s nice to meet you.”
Laura’s eyes widened briefly at the word ‘husband’. She’d never heard of two men being married. But then she shrugged her shoulders and decided that she didn’t much care. All she wanted was food and sleep.
Duo opened his arms in a questioning gesture. Laura contemplated him for a moment and then nodded. Duo bent down and lifted her up. Laura blinked, amazed at how different things appeared from this new vantage point. Never could she remember anyone picking her up, not even when she was little.
Duo looked at her with a small smile. “Ready?” he asked.
Laura looked once more at Duo and then Heero. Turning back to Duo she nodded.
“Okay, then. Let’s go.”
With that, the trio moved off down the alley, in search of Duo and Heero’s car and a brand new life.