Duo opened the apartment door with a flourish, flamboyantly escorting 'my lady' into her new 'castle'. Laura giggled at his antics, but Duo noticed how the girl again rubbed her hand self-consciously over her unkempt hair.
She'd been repeating the motion ever since they'd left the hospital, especially whenever her eyes happened to land on Duo's own impressive locks. After spending days on the streets, and after years of neglect, she was in serious need of a bath and a good shampoo.
Duo glanced meaningfully at his husband before turning to his new daughter. "How 'bout it, kiddo? Want to take a bubble bath?"
Laura looked up at him, her expression indicating that asking her if she wanted to take a quick trip to the moon would have been less surprising.
"A b-bubble bath? You mean, in a tub ... with real bubbles?!"
Heero suppressed a chuckle while Duo struggled not to laugh at the precious look of awe on the girl's face.
"Certainly! A real, honest-to-God bubble bath!" A smile, underscored by anger and sadness at the child's irresponsible mother, broke across Duo's handsome face as Laura's eyes lit with pleasure at the prospect. "Umm, actually, we don't have real bubble bath stuff," he suddenly realized. "Too girly, you understand," he quipped, making the girl giggle again. "I think dishwashing liquid will probably work, though." (1)
Laura could have cared less. Never having had a genuine bath in her life - usually a quick dousing with water in the kitchen sink was all she could manage - the lack of authentic bubble bath was of absolutely no concern. Duo gathered the dishwashing liquid and led the girl into the bathroom. She followed closely on his heels, eagerly anticipating the chance of watch the extravagance of hot water filling the tub.
While the bath was being prepared, Heero made use of the commphone. After Quatre's departure the previous evening, he and Duo had discussed some of the practicalities of raising a young girl. When both realized that they knew less than nothing about how to do so, Heero decided to recruit a good friend for help. Lucretia Noin - 'just Noin' to her friends - had graciously agreed to render whatever assistance was required.
"Ja?" The female voice was tinged with a slight Germanic accent.
"Noin, it's Heero."
"Ah, Heero! Is the maedchen with you now?" the woman asked excitedly. (2)
Heero smiled at her enthusiasm. "Yes, we just brought her home from the hospital." He grimaced slightly at his words, realizing that they made it sound as though he and Duo had just returned home with a brand-new baby.
"Anyway, is now a good time?"
"Ja. I will be right over. Oh, and I am bringing a little surprise for her."
"Oh, really? What?" he inquired.
"Nein! If I tell you, it will not be a surprise." Noin laughed. "You said Laura has brown hair, right?"
"Yes," Heero replied, puzzled at the relevance of the question. "Sort of medium-brown."
"Good. We'll be there in about an hour."
"Alright," Heero acknowledged before catching the plural. "Um, 'we'?"
Heero sighed as the line went dead, wondering what his friend was up to.
Duo and Heero were sitting on the couch, waiting for Laura to finish her bath and change into some clothing provided courtesy of Quatre and the Colonial Angels when the doorbell rang. (4) Duo bounded to his feet and answered the summons. The door opened to reveal the tall, slim figure of Noin and a slightly shorter, but much shapelier red-head.
"Duo, how are you? Congratulations!"
Noin reinforced the greeting with a tight hug for the younger man. Duo returned the gesture enthusiastically and pressed a kiss to her cheek.
"Thanks so much for coming over, Noin! We really appreciate it. Hey, who's your friend?" he asked, regarding the unknown woman with a curious gaze. His curiosity peeked further when the woman's eyes locked on his braided and he noticed slight twitching motions in her fingers, as though she were aching to touch the long plait.
The woman had a Latin look about her and her accent confirmed this assumption when she responded to Duo's question.
"Olá, I am Catherine. Noin told me about la menina and I begged her to allow me to help!" (4) She waved her hands for emphasis, the shopping bag she held swinging in counter-point to her words.
"Catherine is a beautician," Noin explained.
"A beautician?" A young voice inquired from the hallway. "What's that?"
The adults turned to regard the child peering at them shyly. Duo grinned at the sight of the girl in a clean lavender t-shirt and blue jeans. Though the clothes were second-hand, Quatre had made sure that they were in good shape. The garments were much more becoming than her old rags.
Duo retrieved the girl and brought her into the living room, holding her reassuringly by the hand. "Laura, this is our good friend, Noin, and her friend, Catherine."
"Aren't you a pretty girl!" Noin gushed, causing Laura to return her kind smile with a becoming blush.
"Sim, mui bonita! Very pretty," Catherine agreed, setting the shopping bag on the floor. "A beautician," she continued, responding to the child's question, "is someone who does hair. Makes it look nice."
Laura's hand returned to her hair, her eyes widening at the red-head's explanation. "You would do my hair for me?" she asked, nearly overcome by the mere possibility.
"Sim, and you will look wonderful for your fathers, yes?"
"Sim!" Laura replied, having picked up on the meaning of the Portuguese word with a child's quickness.
"Now," Noin said cheerfully as the group's answering laughter died down, "Duo, Heero, and I will go shopping and buy you some things, Laura, while Catherine does your hair. Maybe later we two can go shopping for clothing and such. A young lady should always pick out her own things."
Laura smiled at the dark-haired woman, trying to suppress sudden tears with increasing futility. Without a word, she ran over to the German woman and wrapped small, strong arms around her waist. Noin smiled gently at the silently weeping child, rubbing a comforting hand over her narrow back. With a quick shake of her head, she forestalled Duo's concerned comment, knowing that the tears were purely joyful.
"It's alright, liebling." (5) Noin raised the girl's face and wiped away her tears. "Now, you go with Catherine, okay?" She smiled brightly at Laura's nod. "Good! Catherine, how long will you need?"
"Umm," she mused, looking a Laura's hair, "about five hours." (6)
Duo looked up from rummaging in the mysterious shopping bag, which contained bags of what appeared to be human hair. "Five hours? My hair doesn't even take that long."
"Sim," Catherine assured, shooing the nosy man away from the bag. "It should take five hours. And, umm, if you ever want me to do your hair, *please* let me know." Duo found himself blushing at the Latina's blatant wink and unconsciously clutched his braid protectively.
"Come on, we've got a lot to do. Oh! I almost forgot." Noin knelt down in front of the girl and leaned over to whisper something in her ear. Laura's eyes widened almost comically and her face flamed, the red hue clearly visible beneath her soft-brown complexion, but she nodded and answered with a mumbled, "Sometimes." Noin smiled and stood, hustling the young men out of the house before they could question the secretive exchange.
Once they were gone, Catherine and Laura looked at each other.
"Now, menina. Let's give you a shampoo and condition and Catherine will work her magic!" Laura giggled when the woman wiggled her fingers playfully. Hand-in-hand, they retired to the kitchen.
Relena sat at her desk, staring blankly into space. It had been over a week since Heero's mysterious request for a temporary leave of absence. What could possible be so important that he would neglect his duties to the company? Heero was usually so conscientious, caring for nothing but Colony Communications and ...
"Duo," she growled in disgust.
No doubt the long-haired man was somehow responsible for Heero's uncharacteristic defection. Thoughts of her self-declared nemesis renewed Relena's desire to eliminate the amethyst-eyed nuisance from her would-be lover's life, thus leaving the field open for herself.
"If only that idiot Peeve would contact me with something I could use..."
As if on cue, the cell phone sitting on her desk began to ring. (7) She read the number on the display and, recognizing the PI's number, jumped from her chair to shut her office door.
"It's about time, Peeve," she grated by way of a greeting.
"Hello, babe. Sorry I..."
"*Babe*? Look, asshole! I am not *babe*!" she shouted, leaning against her desk. "It's Ms. Darlian to you, you jerk."
"Sorry, sorry," Jack said soothingly. "Look, I just wanted to apologize for not getting back to you sooner..."
"You'd better apologize!" Relena interrupted. "I paid you good money to find out something about Duo Maxwell. It's been almost two weeks, so you'd better have a good reason for why I'm just now hearing from you."
"Like I said, I'm sorry. I questioned every possible source but came up blank. I'm afraid the guy is squeaky clean, *Ms. Darlian*. But," Jack continued before Relena's frustrated growl could turn into another shout, "I did just find out something which I think will interest you."
"What?" she snapped.
"Well, I've got a source inside the Department of Youth and Family Service, an old girlfriend. Anyway, she told me something *very* interesting."
"*What*, you little twerp!"
"Relax, don't pop a button! Sheesh! It looks as though as though Maxwell and his, uh, husband - you didn't tell me he was gay - anyway, that they just became foster parents of a little girl."
Relena stared at the phone for an entire minute, mouth agape. "*What*?!" she finally managed. The thought of a fag raising a kid filled her with loathing. (8) It was wrong, it was terrible! Something should be done for the poor child ...
A cunning and thoroughly unattractive smile slid across the blonde's rouged lips.
"Peeve, that's just awful, that pervert raising a child." Relena was, of course referring to Duo, conveniently forgetting that the object of her obsession was also, by her definition, a pervert. "We have to do something to help the poor girl. Where are her parents?"
"Don't know," the PI replied. "According to Celia, my ex, the girl was abandoned by her mother."
"Well then, Jack," Relena purred, "we'll just have to find the woman and offer her our assistance. There were probably extenuating circumstances, forcing her to leave her child. After all, a child's place is with her family. I'm sure the woman would be appalled to know what sort of filth was taking care of her daughter. Will you help me, Jack?" she begged seductively.
The PI felt his trousers tighten at the smooth tone. Although he knew perfectly well that good parents didn't abandon their children and that the girl was probably better off with Maxwell and his husband, the unexpected promise in Relena's honeyed voice was too much to resist. Clearing his throat, he offered his assistance.
"Of course, Ms. Darlian. I'll do what ever I can."
"Wonderful, Jack! Just keep me posted, darling. And keep digging for something on Maxwell. I know that there's something not right about him. Find me something, anything, I can use and I'll be *ever* so grateful. Ta-ta!" Relena disconnected the call before the PI could respond.
Relena sat back and considered this new turn of events. She couldn't have dreamed of more perfect opportunity. Breaking up Heero's little family was only the first step. Everyone knew that couples rarely survived the loss of a child. Once the girl was returned to her mother, especially if the reason was because of something juicy in Duo's past, Heero would surely want nothing else to do with the handsome brunette. He would be devastated but she would be there to pick up the pieces.
The blond took a moment to daydream, imagining how it would be when Heero finally came to his senses. He would come to her on his knees, groveling and begging her forgiveness that he'd ever rejected her. Nothing would soothe her bruised ego better than seeing the proud, Asian man humbled. She would, of course, accept his apology. She would be sympathetic and understanding, easing his pain in the most pleasant way she could. And after enough time had passed and he realized that he loved her more than anything - more than he'd ever loved that braided bastard - she would drop him flat and leave him with nothing. Let him feel the knife of rejection that had pierced her heart all those years ago.
Laughter rang through the office as Relena spun around in her chair, anticipating her delicious triumph. She would have her revenge and then, maybe, she could finally get over her obsession for the blue-eyed man.
Later that night, Duo lay in bed thinking back on the fantastic day. They'd returned from buying out what seemed like half of the drugstores on L2 - toothpaste, toothbrush, child-friendly soap, packages of underwear, *sanitary napkins* - only to find a stranger in their kitchen. Duo had stared in wonder, and even Heero's eyes widened perceptibly, at the vision of loveliness that was their daughter.
True to her word, Catherine had worked miracles. Where once there had been a short, matted, unkempt afro, splendid brown braids now hung down the girl's back, nearly to her waist. Duo smiled, tears again threatening as he remembered Laura's bashful explanation.
"I wanted my hair to be long like yours."
Duo had kept her in a tight embrace for the rest of the evening and for once Heero was the more loquacious of the pair, the braided man fearing that his trembling voice would betray the overpowering emotion and love he felt for the small girl.
After a tasty dinner of fried chicken and corn-on-the-cob, which Noin and Catherine gladly shared, Duo and Heero tucked Laura into bed for the first time, an activity that was certain to become a beloved tradition. The child had kissed her two fathers goodnight and sent them off to bed with smiles on their faces.
Now, Duo lay in post-coital bliss - he'd easily convinced Heero that a round of 'welcome-to-your-new-life' sex was absolutely vital - and smiled up at the ceiling, wincing slightly at his sore bottom lip, the by-product of attempting to stifle his pleasure-filled shouts with his teeth.
A small sound suddenly interrupted his reverie. Duo glanced over at his sleeping husband, dismissing the slumbering man as the source of the noise. The sound, now identifiable as a soft whimper, repeated itself, driving Duo from the bed. Imbued with a newfound sense of propriety, Duo and Heero had pulled on their boxers before falling asleep, so Duo needed only to don an old t-shirt before venturing out into the hallway.
He stood silently for a moment, trying to locate the source of the strange sound. Its origins became painfully clear when the noise sounded again, coming through Laura's door. Heart in his throat, Duo pushed open the door and peeked into the girl's room.
Laura stood in the hovel that was once her home. Wondering why she was back in this horrible place, the girl looked around for her loving guardians.
"Duo? Heero?" she called. "Where are you?"
"They're gone, you little bitch!"
Laura spun around, only to be confronted with a vision from her worst nightmares.
Delia glared at her, looming over her with reddened eyes and hands fisted on her bony hips.
"What, did you really think they would take care of you? Save you? Huh. I didn't think I'd raised you to be so stupid!"
Laura raised her hands protectively over her ears as the tirade continued.
"You brainless, good-for-nothing, idiot! No one would ever want your worthless ass! I'm the only one who could possible stomach even looking at you!"
"No!" she screamed. "Duo and Heero love me! They told me so!"
Raucous laughter grated over her nerves. "And you believed them?! Why should they love you? They have each other. They don't need you! No one could ever love you, do you hear me?! No one could ever love you!"
Laura woke up, screaming. For a moment, still caught in her dream, she fought against the arms that held her. Then reality impinged on her frightened mind as sleep finally released her. She looked up though her tears and into Duo's worried eyes.
"Laura, sweetheart, are you okay?"
"Duo?" she whispered, untold pain in her small voice.
"Shhh," he reassured as the child broke down into wrenching sobs. "It was a dream, that's all. Just a dream."
As he rubbed the girl's shuddering back, he realized that the words were the same as those Heero had spoken to him the night before. And just as he had then, he knew the words were a lie. The child's nightmares, as his had been, were likely the product of a horrid truth. Whatever she had seen in her sleep was more likely based in memory than merely horrific visions.
Eventually, her sobs subsided as her exhausted body demanded rest. Duo picked the child up from the bed and stood with her in his arms.
"You want to sleep with me and Heero?" he asked softly. Laura nodded, head resting against his chest. Duo carried her back to his room and tucked the child into bed, lying so she was situated between himself and the other man.
Heero stirred and looked over into his husband's concerned eyes. He glanced down at the already sleeping girl's head for a moment before lifting his gaze once more.
"Everything okay?" he whispered.
Duo brushed a hand over Heero's face. "It will be," he replied, determined to insure the words' veracity. Heero reached an arm across the child to place a hand on his shujin's waist, holding both Duo and Laura to him with his strong arm. He pressed a kiss to first the girl's head and then his lover's lips before falling back into slumber.
Duo lay awake for a moment, thinking about the long road ahead. As he slowly fell asleep, he swore that one day all of Laura's demons, as well as his own, would finally be conquered.
A/N: I dedicate this chapter to my on-line language dictionaries! ^_^
(1) For those who've never tried this, Palmolive™ makes wonderful bubble bath liquid! (Softens hands...) ^_^
(2) maedchen = girl (German)
(3) My futuristic version of the Salvation Army.
(4) la menina = girl (Portuguese)
(5) liebling = darling (German)
(6) For those who don't know, African hair braiding can indeed take that long. Sometime even longer!
(7) Hey, Relena works for a communications company so of course she gets great cellular reception! ^_^
(8) Please don't flame me for the use of that word. This is Relena and her bigotry speaking, not I!!