Heero stepped out of the courtroom into the hall, eyes scanning up and down the corridor for his husband and the child. They were nowhere in sight, but his moment of confused concern was quickly abated as a muted sob echoed down the marbled walls. Tracing the sound to his right, he walked down the hall coming to a cracked door that led to a small room.
The Asian man opened the door quietly, gaze coming to rest on his lover's back as he held the weeping child to him. Duo's sharp ears must have picked up on the slight creak of the door because he looked over his shoulder in his husband's direction, eyes angry but dry. His amethyst eyes glanced down at the girl's head before finding the man standing in the doorway once more.
Silent communication passed swiftly between them. There was nothing and no one that would take the child from them. On this point they were in complete agreement and their resolve was absolute. The promise made, Duo returned his attention to the girl in his arms and Heero fully entered the room, coming to stand next to the seated pair.
At last becoming aware of another presence, Laura looked up and immediately wiped her eyes. While she wasn't reluctant to cry against Duo's solid chest, something in Heero's steady, blue gaze always made her slightly ashamed of her tears. He radiated a quiet strength that spoke to her hard won maturity while the braided man's tenderness reminded her that she was still only a child.
Once uncomfortable with physical contact, Heero now bent to place a kiss on the top of her head with an ease learned from his lover. He noticed the slowing trickle of her tears with something like pride and rested a hand on her small shoulder.
"Are you alright?" Duo asked, voicing Heero's own question. Laura nodded, not wanting to force words past her still raspy throat.
"Good," Heero said. "Quatre and Dorothy are confident the judge will rule in our favor," he added, including Duo in his gaze.
Duo didn't allow his acute relief to show on his face. Instead, he quirked his lips in a grin and looked down into Laura's upturned face. "Of course, he will. I mean, since you did steal my hair style, we can't very well let you go now, can we?"
His silliness won the desired laugh and Laura's sunny smile brightened the small room. Heero smiled as well, ever amazed by his lover's way with people, whether it be a nervous car repair customer or a scared child. His ease with others was even more amazing considering that he'd known only the darkest side of human nature for so long.
Laura did appreciate Duo's ceaseless attempts to calm her fears but the harsh lessons she'd learned regarding the fickleness of fate were not easily forgotten. She knew that the young judge could destroy all her hopes with a word and her sharp eyes examined the young men's faces for even a hint of doubt.
"Are you sure the judge won't make me go back?" she asked, angry with herself for needing the reassurance.
Heero looked into her intelligent brown eyes, unwilling and unable to prevaricate, even in exaggeration. "Laura, what your mother has done to you is wrong and the judge will want to make sure you're protected. So, I don't see any reason for the judge to make you go back to your mother, especially since no one knows where she is. That fact, in and of itself, is a serious crime. But...," Heero paused for a moment, hating to cause the child any concern but respecting her to much to be less than honest. "But, if your mother does come back and can prove that she can take care of you, you may have to return to her custody since the court's main goal is to keep families together."
Laura looked down, grateful to Heero for not treating her like a little kid even as a knot instantly formed in her stomach. Duo, still holding her, felt her tense. He understood Heero's motive but couldn't resist the urge to alleviate her anxiety. The way he saw it, she'd lived her life thus far worried about what disasters tomorrow might bring. Now, he had the chance to help her be a normal child and he fully intended to succeed in that mission.
He picked up a few of her braids and used the neat ends to tickle her nose. He laughed at the cute nose-wrinkle the action produced and then looked over his shoulder, glancing towards the door with the others as it opened.
Quatre peered in. "Just wanted to let you know that the court is about to reconvene."
Heero nodded and reached down, taking hold of Laura's hand and helping her off of Duo's lap. Duo stood and put his hand at his husband's back, letting the other man keep hold of the child's hand.
"Let's see what Mr. Funny Hair has to say, shall we?"
This time, Quatre added a chuckle to Laura's giggle as they left the room.
Quatre entered the courtroom first but Sally and Dorothy fixed their attention on the trio coming through the doors behind him. Dorothy made a quick scan of their faces, satisfying herself that all seemed to be well. She turned her head back towards the front of the court, concentrating on the arguments she would make just in case the judge ruled contrary to her expectations.
Sally, however, was not so restrained. She glanced quickly at the two young men but examined the girl's face in minute detail. She saw the tearstains and the tightness with which she gripped Heero's hand. But she also saw a smile, prompted by whatever nonsense Duo was whispering down to her. The doctor took a breath, glad that hearing the testimony hadn't been too devastating to the child.
"Everything okay?" she asked the social worker as he resumed his seat beside her.
"Yes, Laura's fine." Quatre looked towards the small group for a moment before turning back towards the young woman. "It's just ... I hope their custody of Laura is never threatened, because I'm afraid of what those two might do."
Sally frowned, immediately understanding his concern. She, too, had been amazed by the quickness with which the young men had become attached to the child. Though Laura was definitely easy to love, she'd never known a man, let alone two, to take so strongly to a child who was not his own. It was truly remarkable and Sally hated to think of that fragile bond being jeopardized in any way.
Any further comment was forestalled as the bailiff reentered the room. Dorothy motioned Laura back to her side and Duo and Heero took up their former positions behind the witnesses.
"All rise for the Honorable Trowa Barton."
The judge left his chambers and Duo was not the only person in the room desperately trying to assign meaning to the non-expression on his handsome features. Quatre, however, after a brief perusal of his friend's face, sat back in his seat, completely at ease.
The judge wasted no words. "After reviewing the evidence, I have come to the conclusion that the child, Laura, has suffered both abuse and neglect at the hands of her mother, Delia. As such, the CINA petition will be granted and DYFS is given immediate custody of the child."
"Yes!" Duo exclaimed, grasping his husband's hand and beaming his pleasure to all concerned. Heero's response was more subdued but his smile was just as brilliant as his mate's. Sally, closed her eyes and sighed her relief while the blond attorney simply nodded in acknowledgement of her victory, the girl's hand clasped firmly in her own. Of the adults, only the social worker made no overt reaction. He'd known what Trowa would say from the minute he'd reentered the courtroom.
Laura sat quietly, her eyes fixed upon the scarred, wooden desk behind which she sat. All of the reassurances, all of the confidence expressed by the adults, none of it had reached the core of terror she'd held deep within her belly. If she'd learned nothing else during her short existence, it was that life would take every opportunity to screw you over. Not until the words actually left the judge's mouth did she really begin to accept the possibility that her life had truly changed. For the first time, the knot loosened and she breathed.
Ignoring the braided man's vociferous outburst, Judge Barton turned his emerald gaze upon the social worker. "What arrangements have been made concerning the child's care?"
Quatre stood. "Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell-Yuy, the two young men who first brought Laura to the agency's attention, have petitioned for foster parent status. Their application was approved by me, personally, and they are prepared to take her home with them right away."
The judge regarded the couple, a mysterious smile barely affecting the corner of his full lips. "Yes, I have the approved petition here. Just a year ago, I would have had to reject it, since it was illegal for same-sex couples to adopt or to act as foster parents. However, with the passage of a recent law," he glanced at Quatre who's mouth took on a smile of its own, "such actions are now permitted. Therefore, given the fact that the couple in question is married and that DYFS has approved their petition, evidence of their ability to properly provide for the child, I grant Mr. Yuy and Mr. Maxwell-Yuy foster parent status."
This time, Duo made no outbursts. No sound could get past the lump in his throat. It wasn't that the pronouncement came as a great surprise. Getting their petition granted by DYFS had been the only actual requirement and the ruling was only a formality. But hearing the words, hearing the judge announce in open court that Laura was theirs, made it real. His husband silently shared in the moment, their clasped hands gripping each other with an intensity that might have been painful under any other circumstance. But at that moment, everything was perfect.
Dorothy turned to look at the child at her side, her elegant features transformed as a smile graced her lips. She noted the girl's slightly shell-shocked expression and her smile grew. With a final squeeze, she released Laura's hand and stood.
"Thank you very much, your honor. I wanted to take this opportunity to schedule the adjudication hearing and to announce the Mr. Yuys intentions to adopt Laura as soon as it is appropriate."
The judge nodded. "I have decided to dispense with the adjudication hearing." Dorothy struggled to hide her surprise as Barton continued. "The evidence presented today was more than sufficient to establish probable cause and I believe there is no reason to extend the proceedings.
"As for adoption proceedings, a permanency hearing will be scheduled for one year from today. At that time, I will make a decision regarding Laura's permanent placement. However, I must caution that, at any time up until the permanency hearing, anyone may challenge the Yuys right to custody. And, if the mother files a petition with the court, a full evaluation of her ability to care for Laura will be required. Please keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the CINA process is to reunite children with their parents."
Silence reigned in the courtroom. It was as if no one dared to move lest the judge's warning be made prophetic. Barton let the gravity of his words sink for a moment. Then he looked into Laura's wide eyes and gave a genuine smile.
"However, if the child's mother still cannot be located by that time, I can promise you that I will grant the adoption without hesitation. I order that Laura receive on-going counseling for at least the next full year and that she immediately be registered for school. The court is adjourned."
The gavel banged upon the podium and the judge left the courtroom, followed closely by Quatre after he offered his congratulations. Dorothy went to speak with the clerk about some final paperwork after bending to place a kiss on Laura's cheek. Sally wasted no time coming around the barricade to hug the still quiet child, but quickly relinquished her hold as the young men approached.
Laura looked up into the eyes of her new foster fathers, a question in her eyes. Duo stooped to pick her up. She looked from him to Heero, silently seeking an answer.
"Yes, Laura," Heero replied, "we can all go home."
The light flickered in the dank room, illuminating the bed and the man's spastic movements, as he labored over the woman beneath him, with a disturbing, strobe-like effect. His grunts and groans built in intensity as his hairy backside pumped up and down in the unmistakable motion of sex. In contrast, the woman was silent her eyes fixed, not on the face sweating above her, but on the small vial lying on the bedside table. Finally, the man yelled in gutter satisfaction and collapsed, forcing the woman to push him off just so she could breath.
Delia quickly got up from the smelly bed, her eyes never leaving the vial. She ignored the non-descript motel room, which was located in an equally non-descript section of L2. She'd spent over half of her life in such rooms and they had long ago lost any sense of fascination. Throwing a quick glance at the now sleeping man, she scooped up the vial and walked into the bathroom with jerky movements born of desperation and withdrawal.
Taking full advantage of the man's temporary unconsciousness, Delia reached into a cardboard box that sat on the floor near the dirty, rarely-use bathtub. She removed the necessary paraphernalia, unmindful of the stench rising from her own unwashed body. She didn't have time for such menial tasks as grooming. A much more important endeavor commanded her full attention - getting high.
Delia gently placed the precious vial on the sink so she could take the length of latex in both hands. With efficient movements born of long practice, she wrapped the strap around her left arm, not pulling it taut just yet, but arranging it so one hand could finished the job. Taking hold of the metal spoon, she picked up the vial and opened it, tipping it against the spoon so that a solitary crystal slipped out.
She acted quickly, not knowing how long the steadiness in her hands would remain. A quick flick of the lighter and the crystal began to melt into not-so-pure heroine as the spoon was heated from below. The needle she'd retrieved from the box was incongruously wrapped in plastic. Her dealer, the man who'd been fucking her in lieu of payment for the past week, was paranoid about disease and insisted his more intimate customers use sterile needles. An ugly laugh passed her lips as she though about all of the dirty needles and dirty men that had penetrated her body throughout her long career.
Finally, all was ready. The needle was placed into the bowl of the spoon and, with a draw of the plunger, was filled with liquid death. Delia placed the needle between her teeth and used her freed hand to tighten the latex strap. She inserted the needle into one of the many marks on her arm. Overlapping injections to minimize marking was a valuable trick since many men were surprisingly squeamish about picking up a whore that was also an addict. The needle slid into her flesh, the burning sting easily ignored. Just before the plunger was depressed and her shitty life momentarily forgotten, Delia looked up into the broken, dirty mirror above the sink.
The fractured image of a woman, appearing infinitely older than the twenty-five years the face could truthfully claim, stared back at her. Her sunken eyes, an attractive light-brown, swept over the matted hair, sallow skin, and skeletally-thin frame. She returned to her eyes, wondering why they looked so familiar. She'd seen them before, though not on the care-worn face looking at her from the cracked glass.
Then she remembered. The face of a young girl overlaid her own image, the similarity of features unmistakable. A flash of blinding self-hatred filled her. Why was she here in this filthy motel, fucking that fat bastard for bad drugs? She should be home, with her daughter. Her beautiful Laura. Beautiful like she once had been and would never be again. Jealous anger quickly replaced the guilt but the withdrawal tremors racking her body caused her hand to depress the plunger.
All anger was forgotten. All pain was gone. All that remained was the sweet peace she craved.
Delia sank onto the floor, her mind and body surrendering to the heroine. The feeling of cold tile and porcelain against her skin failed to penetrate her senses. The snores of the dealer in the next room faded away. For a while, she was free. Free of her hand-to-mouth existence. Free from the degrading business of survival. For a moment, she could imagine that the past fifteen years of her life were but a bad dream and she was a young girl again, with no cares to mar her world.
However, as was typical of the poison to which she was enslaved, the euphoria was only short-lived. The guilt and anger soon returned; but, this time, there were images and voices which her befuddled mind couldn't escape. With a whimper, she curled into a huddled ball on the cold floor, assailed by her memories.
The visions were familiar. The smack of her mother's hand against her cheek was expected, as was the painful sensation of her father's cock forever ripping away her innocence. The first trick who beat her up rather than pay her, her first night locked in a dark jail cell. That first hit of heroine, succoring her mind as it destroyed her body, was remembered with fondness.
But, as always, her rambling thoughts never remained long on such relatively pleasant subjects. One person always intervened. Laura. Always Laura.
Delia's whimpering evolved into a keening moan as she struggled to reject the images that assaulted her with relentless cruelty.
What a sweet baby she'd been. Laura had never cried - not when she was cold, not when she needed to be changed, not even when Delia forgot to feed her, lost in narcotic bliss. She'd grown so quickly, always willing to help pick her mother off of the floor when she'd collapse, exhausted from the trials of withdrawal. The small girl had never given her mother a cross word, still believing in her childish innocence that her mother was a god-like being, able to make the cold and hunger that had marked her young life forever disappear.
In moments of lucidity, Delia had fostered the child's worship, bringing her toys salvaged from the trash, turning extra tricks to afford a piece of cake for the girl's birthday. The brown eyes, so similar to her own, that had looked up at her with love had never failed to fill her heart.
But, as Laura grew, the adoring glances were more often filled with pity. As Delia's addiction grew worse, it was the girl who was often forced to find their sustenance, aided by nimble fingers and a quick mind. And when the child grew more beautiful and looked down upon her mother with derision as she lay on the ground, shaking from a bad hit, Delia quickly remembered the lessons learned from her own mother.
The loving caresses she'd been want to bestow on the girl's smooth cheek turned to slaps and hits. As Laura approached the age when her own innocent had been stolen, she grew resentful that Laura had managed to remain untouched by life's seedier aspects. Her envy and self-hatred led her to do things to her daughter that no mother should even contemplate. But the drugs befuddled her judgment and the abuse escalated. Soon, she'd convinced her self that Laura was as worthless as she was, fit for nothing more than a life of selling her body for the merest of crumbs. Trash beget trash; the daughter was surely doomed to follow her mother's fate.
But the girl was different. She had retained a core of youthful dignity behind her jaded gaze that her mother could not destroy. So Delia grew afraid. Afraid the girl would one day realize that she did not need to follow her mother's path. Afraid that one day, the girl would abandon her, even as she occasionally abandoned the child. Filled with dread of being left alone with her misery, Delia attacked the girl's self-esteem. Let her believe that she deserved nothing better and she would never seek it. The hateful words, the debasing slaps, they all grew from her own selfish fear.
Delia's worn body finally succumbed to exhaustion as the drugs continued to course through her. As she slipped into oblivion, still lying on the cold, dirty tile, she wondered where her daughter was at that moment. Was the girl hiding in some alley, waiting for the chance to steal her next meal, or had her worst nightmare at last come true? Had her daughter left her forever? A single tear slipped down her cheek and darkness claimed her.