The hour with Anne - the doctor was insistent about Laura not calling her 'Dr. Une' - had flown by. The session had been undemanding and even rather pleasant, Laura had reassured first Duo and then Heero later than evening. The doctor was friendly without being condescending and Laura was actually looking forward to their next meeting.
But her nice, easy session with the doctor was days away. Now, she faced something much more daunting. Today she took her first Karate class and for the first time in her life, she would be surrounded by other kids.
Laura stood alone in one corner of the gym, wearing her white gi with a matching beginners belt firmly around her waist. She watched the other kids talk and laugh, some stretching as they discussed their adventures of the previous week. Several curious glances were thrown her way, but Laura didn't make eye contact with anyone. She wished Heero would hurry up and come back from the locker room where he'd gone to change.
Finally, he entered the dojo, wearing an all black, instructor's uniform. His well-worn black belt was embroidered with kanji characters - his proper name and his nickname "the perfect soldier", he'd told her. Upon seeing their sensei, the students quickly lined up into several neat rows.
Heero looked around for Laura, finally spotting her in a corner. Understanding that she would be nervous, he'd debated with himself how he should introduce her to the class. Although he knew children could be cruel, he trusted his students. He ran a tight ship, demanding that everyone respect everyone else. With a wave of his hand, he motioned the girl to his side.
Laura swallowed as she obeyed his summons. Two dozen pairs of eyes followed her every move and she felt the urge to either yell at them to mind their own *damn* business or to just run out of the room. She did neither, however, coming to stand at Heero's side. He looked down at her with a smile and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
Turning his attention back to the waiting assembly, he said simply, "Everyone, I'd like you to meet my daughter, Laura. She'll be joining the class as a beginner and I want everyone to make certain she feels welcome."
The students looked back at her in silence. Gathering her courage, Laura finally raised her eyes to their faces. Most of the kids were smiling and everyone's expression was open and friendly. Especially a little girl standing in the front of the outermost white belt line. She appeared to be about Laura's age and she lifted her hand in a wave to accompany her sunny grin. Shyly, Laura smiled back.
Heero noticed the exchange. "Laura, go stand in front of Marimaia. She only started last week so you're both beginners." He watched her join the line before turning his attention back to the others.
Laura was glad she was in the last line, feeling less exposed even though she was in the front. A whisper behind her caught her ear.
"Hi, I'm Marimaia. You're Heero-sensei's daughter?" the shorter girl asked. Her voice held nothing but friendly curiosity and Laura responded easily.
"His foster daughter."
"Wow!" Marimaia exclaimed, barely remembering to keep her voice low. "That's cool." She would have continued talking but Heero called out the order for first position. "Oops, talk to ya later."
Laura smiled as she glanced around to determine what first position was. The other girl's easy friendliness reminded her a little of Duo.
Heero led the class thorough the ten basic positions - a standard review which served as a reminder for the more experienced students while allowing the newcomers to ease into things. The dachi stances review was followed by stretches and a few minutes of calisthenics.
"Today, we're going to work on our hand coordination with partner punching. Everyone pair up."
Laura turned around to face Marimaia. She took the opportunity to get her first close-up view of the girl. Marimaia had red hair tied back in a convenient ponytail. Her fair skin was covered with freckles and her wide, blue eyes reflected the smile that seemed permanently imprinted on her lips. She was rather short and had a slight build and Laura hoped she wouldn't hurt the other girl if they were partners for sparring and such.
"Hold up your left hands at shoulder's height with your palm facing your partner," Heero explained. "Form your right hand into a fist." He'd moved over to the white belt lines and corrected their hand positions, making certain they kept their thumbs on the outside of the fist to prevent any broken digits. He noticed that Laura's had made a near perfect fist and shied away from contemplating how she'd learn to do that.
"Alright! At my count, punch at your partner's palm. Make contact but don't hit too hard. Ready?"
"Yes, sensei!" the class yelled, making Laura jump and prompting a giggle from her partner.
"Ichi, ni, san, shi..."
Looking around, Laura tried to mimic the others as she followed the rhythm. She recognized the foreign words as numbers and reminded herself to ask Heero if he would teach her Japanese in his spare time. The count was moderate and she had no trouble keeping time. Marimaia kept the rhythm, as well, though Laura noticed that her fist position was a bit 'girly'. She was beginning to feel comfortable with the exercise when Heero spoke again.
"Yokatta! Good! Ima, motto hayatte. Now, faster!"
Heero sped up the count and things quickly got more comical. Only the upper level students were able to keep their concentration. Everyone else dissolved into wild flailings and helpless laughter as the beat became impossible rapid.
"Yamette! Stop!" Heero yelled, finally taking pity on them.
The rest of the class passed with the same mix of serious practice and fun experiments. By the time Heero called for the final bow before dismissal, Laura was sweaty, exhausted, and totally happy. She rushed to the women's locker room, planning to take a quick shower before meeting up with Heero to head home.
She turned at the shout, pausing as Marimaia caught up with her. The brown-haired girl fell into step with her, immediately resuming their interrupted conversation.
"So, you're Heero-sensei's daughter? That must be so cool! The sensei is such a great instructor, he must be an awesome dad!"
Laura nodded, opening her mouth to respond to the enthusiastic and accurate praise. But before she could speak, Marimaia plowed on.
"How old are you? What school do you go to?"
"I'm ten," Laura answered easily enough. However, the other question gave her pause. "Umm, I've, uh, been out of school. I think I start in a few weeks."
Marimaia didn't notice the other girl's hesitancy. "Well, I go to Victoria Elementary. I'm nine, so I'm in fourth grade. You're probably in fifth grade, right?"
Laura had no idea what grade she would be in since she'd never attended school a day in her life. But that potentially embarrassing explanation was preempted by the request for another.
"Where are your real parents? Did they die in an accident or something?" Marimaia pushed open the door of the locker room, leaving Laura to follow. "How do you like Heero-sensei's friend, Duo? He usually comes to class with Sensei. Isn't his hair wild? Is it true that they live together?"
The tactless inquisition was abruptly halted, Marimaia's gray eyes widening almost comically as she found herself being spun around by a strong hand. She found herself staring into a face tightened with suspicion.
"Why the *hell* are you asking me all of these questions?" Laura grated, keeping her voice low so as not to catch the attention the other girls in the room.
Marimaia swallowed, paling slightly as she realized that Laura was quite a bit bigger than she. The dark-skinned girl looked very angry and the younger girl's freckles stood out even more as the blood left her cheeks.
"I... I... I didn't mean anything," she stammered. "Honest! I-I just wanted to know about you because you seem nice and everything and I was a bit nervous because I don't know you and when I'm nervous I just have this really bad habit of talking too much and I guess I was going on and on, wasn't I, not even giving you a chance to answer and I'm really sorry, honest, I didn't mean to make you mad or anything..."
She cut off her blabbering speech when the taller girl suddenly laughed in her face. Marimaia stood with her mouth agape, uncharacteristically speechless. Slowly, Laura regained her composure and removed her hand from the other girl's arm, meeting her astonished eyes with a genuine smile.
"No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. It's just..." Laura looked down for a moment before raising her gaze once more. "It's just that I'm not use to having anyone ask me questions about myself. Actually, I don't mind. You just have to let me answer, okay?" She giggled again. "You know, the way you talk, you remind me of Heero's friend, Duo." Marimaia's designation of her other father hadn't slipped her notice. She figured Heero had his own reasons for being less than candid about his and Duo's true relationship and she wasn't going to be the one to say otherwise.
Marimaia took a deep breath of relief, quickly regaining her color and her smile. "Okay, I promise to let you answer. So," she continued, "where *are* your real parents?"
Laura momentarily regretted telling the other girl that she didn't mind the questions. Of everything she'd been asked, that was the one thing she really didn't want to talk about. But, she figured, maybe Marimaia could be like Dr. Une, someone she could talk to. Laura didn't even realize how her one session with the counselor had already changed her perspective on sharing herself with others.
"I never knew my father and my mom, well, I don't know where she is."
Laura waited for a sign of disgust or shock from the other girl. She waited for a cry of "freak" or "weirdo" or something equally damning. Or, even worse, she waited for some sign of pity from the younger girl.
Marimaia looked at her for a moment, thinking about Laura's answer. "That must be rough," she said. Then she turned away towards her locker, throwing over her shoulder "But now you have a great dad, right?"
Laura stared after the other girl, surprised at how nonchalantly she'd taken the information that Laura had basically been abandoned by her parents. Then she realized that the girl was absolutely right. It *was* great having Heero and Duo as her fathers. She walked to her own locker which was across from Marimaia's.
"So, what are you doing after class?" the shorter girl asked. "Want to get some ice cream or something?"
Laura laughed at the mention of food. Yep, Marimaia was definitely reminding her of Duo. "I'll have to ask Heero first, but, sure that'd be okay."
Finally rid of their sweaty gi's, the girl's made their way to the showers, Marimaia spouting a ceaseless stream of chatter and Laura wandering if she had actually managed to make a new friend.
"So," Une began, "how was your week?" Their weekly session had been rescheduled for Saturdays so it had been a while since their first meeting. Une regretted the delay but her schedule was set by her superiors. At least this way, when Laura finally started school, they wouldn't have to move their meeting time again.
Laura thought for a moment, not quite sure where to begin. She'd had a rather busy week.
"Well, I went to work with Duo on Monday. He's a mechanic and his boss is this crazy old man named Howard. He gave me a play tool kit, but it was *pink*. I mean, I *hate* pink! But I didn't want to be rude so I thanked him, of course. Duo said we could go to the toy store and exchange it for something I really wanted. I think I would like another tool kit, it was kinda cool, just *not* pink!
"Tuesday," she continued through Une's amused chuckle, "Noin took me home with her. She's Heero's and Duo's friend. She's an interior decorator and she has a lot of really nice furniture and stuff. I was afraid to sit down on anything but Noin said it was okay. She even let me decide what fabric should go on this one couch she was preparing for a client. She said my choice was very "chic" and that I had a real eye for fashion. I don't know though, I think she was just being nice."
Une watched the animation in the girl's face and heard the enthusiasm in her voice. She'd experienced sudden break-throughs with children before but never with those that had suffered the level of abuse that Laura had. As she listened to the girl speak, she was pleasantly amazed.
"Then Thursday, Catherine - she's Noin's friend, a beautician - took me with her to her shop. I couldn't believe all of the stuff those women were getting done to their hair! All of these smelly chemicals and dies and stuff. It was gross! I'm glad Catherine gave me these braids. I wanted them because Duo wears a braid and I wanted my hair to be like his but, now, I really like how easy they are to take care of. No nasty chemicals for me!
"I asked Heero if I could go to work with him someday, but he said I'd be really bored because he works in an office and not in exciting placed like everyone else. I think there was another reason, but I didn't want to seem nosey."
Une wondered why Heero was keeping the girl away from his office. She had met the young man that morning, since he was the one to bring Laura for her session today. Right off, the counselor could tell that he was a person who never did anything without a good reason. She speculated whether it might be something she should be concerned about.
"What about yesterday?" Une asked while Laura caught her breath, resolving to deal with the Heero-issue later.
The girl's cheerful expression dimmed somewhat and Une sat a bit straighter in her chair. "What happened?" she asked softly.
"Oh, nothing really," Laura said. "I had to take a test. An 'altitude' test or something like that."
"An 'aptitude' test?" Une questioned.
"Yeah, that was it. So they'd know what grade I should be in." Laura stopped as her voice suddenly choked up. "What if... What if they put me in kindergarten or something? I mean, they had to give me a test with pictures and stuff because I can't even read!"
Though Une constantly lectured herself about keeping a professional emotional distance from her patients, no sooner had a single tear rolled down the girl's cheek than Une was kneeling beside her chair, enveloping the distressed child in a comforting hug. She didn't speak for several minutes, knowing that Laura's sobs were not just for her potential school situation, but partly at the renewed realization of the true level of neglect she'd suffered from her entire life. Sometimes, it was just better to cry it out and she was sure the girl had years of pent up anguish to release.
Eventually, Laura's cries lessened. Une sat back, looking into the child's face and wiping away her tears with a gentle thumb. "Hey, it *will* be okay, Laura. The school just wants to make certain that you'll get the education you need."
Laura nodded, and Une knew that, superficially, the girl understood. However, her childish fears of peer ridicule were very real. It would look bad if a ten-year-old girl ended up in a class with six-year-olds. She resolved to discuss the matter with Quatre.
To Laura she said, "No matter how much help you need to catch up, I have no doubt that Duo and Heero will get it for you. More than anything, they want you to be happy. Do you believe that?"
Laura looked up at the doctor, her head bobbing rapidly. Any doubts she'd ever harbored about the level of commitment her father's had towards her had long since disappeared. She trusted that they would do the right thing for her.
"Okay," Une said. She went back to her own chair, leaning forward, her elbows on her knees, to convey a supportive attitude. "So, what about last Saturday? You didn't mention what you did then."
"Oh, that was cool!" It was as if her brief crisis had never occurred. Laura's eyes sparkled as she told Une about the karate class. "Heero is the teacher, or rather the *sensei*, and it was so much fun! We practiced punching and kicking and we did sit-ups and we ran. I was *so* tired after we were done! But, I think I...I think I made a new friend."
"Oh? Tell me about her or him?"
"Her," Laura elaborated. "Her name is Marimaia. She's a year younger than me, but that's okay. She's kinda funny and she talks a lot! Even more than Duo!" Laura paused, smiling shyly. "She was nice and she didn't act weird when I told her that I was a foster kid because I don't know where my mom is."
"That was very understanding of her," Une replied.
"Yeah. I have class again this afternoon so I'll see her then."
"Are you nervous about seeing her again?"
Laura looked down at her lap. "A little," she admitted. "What if she's thought about it some more and decided that she doesn't want to be friends with someone whose own mother doesn't even want them?" Insecurity made her sound younger than her ten years.
Une leaned forward and placed her index finger under Laura's chin, lifting her head. She looked straight into the girl's eyes to emphasize her sincerity. "Laura, not everyone in this world is worthy to be our friend. You, more than most people, know that, right?" The girl nodded. "If someone doesn't want to be bothered with you, then you don't have to be bothered with them. But, it's always best to give people a chance. Like you gave me a chance. That's worked out so far, hasn't it?"
Laura nodded. The doctor was right, of course. She would just have to see what happened with Marimaia. And like last week, Heero would be there so nothing bad would happen. What would it be like when she started school, she didn't dare contemplate. She would deal with that when she had to. For now, it was time to see if the other girl was really as sincere as she'd seemed.
"Okay, that's it for today," Une said, glancing at her watch. "See you next Saturday?"
Laura nodded. She rose from her chair and walked to the door. Suddenly, she stopped and turned back to Une. Without a word, she ran over to the young woman and hugged her fiercely around the waist. Then, before Une could speak, she ran out of the office to meet Heero in the waiting room. Une closed the open door of her office valiantly trying to swallow the lump in her throat. Oh well, she sighed, she had never managed to keep that promise anyway, so why start now?