The trio walking down the main hall of Victoria Elementary effortless drew attention to themselves without meaning to do so. It was difficult to dismiss the sight of the two extremely handsome young men leading an equally pretty girl by the hand, especially when the child's demeanor fairly screamed reluctance. Several teachers glanced surreptitiously at the intriguing troupe while the students who witnessed the procession weren't quite so circumspect.
Duo felt the small hand holding his tighten its already desperate grip. He looked down at the girl by his side and tried to send her a reassuring smile. Truthfully, he wasn't feeling all that calm either since this was his first time setting foot in any sort of formal educational institution. However, he was determined to put on a brave face. No need to make the girl anymore nervous than she already was.
Quatre had phoned two evenings ago to inform them that Laura's aptitude test scores had finally been evaluated and that it was time she began school. He explained that he had managed to pull some strings to get her into the school where his friend taught and that they were to meet with the teacher and the school's principal to discuss Laura's situation.
Heero paused in front of the door to the principal's office and glanced down at his foster daughter. His smile of encouragement was more subdued than his shujin's but no less sincere. Imbued with the need to not disappoint them, Laura squared her shoulders and tried to ignore the butterflies going crazy in her stomach.
She had been dreading this day ever since the judge declared that she would have to start school forthwith. She'd been plagued both by the fear of the unknown and by feelings of inadequacy. The aptitude test she'd taken the week before had done nothing to improve her level of self-confidence. The only thing she'd been grateful for was that the test - a confusing mixture of meaningless shapes and patterns with which she'd had to do various things - had not required her to be able to read. She had no clue how the peculiar exam could tell anyone anything, and although both her fathers and Quatre had assured her otherwise, she knew she'd probably end up in a kindergarten class with a bunch of babies.
Heero opened the office door and they entered the well-lit space. A competent-looking, elderly woman sat behind a typewriter at a desk on their right and the blue-eyed man release the girl's hand and approached her. She looked up as he stopped before her.
"May I help you?"
"We have an appointment with Mr. Merquise," he explained. "I'm here with Laura Maxwell."
When Quatre had discovered that Laura didn't even know her last name, since her mother had never bothered to divulge that bit of information, he'd immediately arranged a meeting with Trowa. The judge had granted the girl Duo's 'maiden' name so that she could temporarily use the familiar moniker. Once she was officially adopted at the end of the wait period, her name could be changed to Yuy with all appropriate pomp. Trowa had thought everyone would appreciate the symbolism when the final adoption came through, which was why she wasn't just given Heero's last name.
"Yes of course," the woman replied. "Please have a seat. Principal Merquise will be with you momentarily." She gestured towards a bank of chairs along the wall and Heero joined the others as they commandeered a few chairs. The secretary spoke softly into a phone for a moment and then returned to her typing.
"Well this looks like a nice place," Duo chattered, looking at the childish artwork and bright, yellow paint gracing the walls. "Chairs are kinda small, though." He squirmed comically in the kid-sized seat he'd purposely chosen, peeking at Laura's solemn face to determine the success of his efforts. She quirked her lips politely but seemed in no mood to be cheered by his antics. He smiled ruefully and reached out to lift up the girl's bowed head.
"Hey, munchkin, everything will be alright. We just want to do what's best for you, to make sure you get a great education. Heck, I'd have killed for this chance when I was your age, you know?"
She looked at him with sad, brown eyes and sighed. "Yeah, I know. It's just..." She hesitated, lowering her gaze. She'd promised herself that she would try never to burden Duo and Heero with her silly concerns, especially now that she could unload her troubles on Une. They had done so much for her that she almost felt guilty about asking anything of them. She wanted them to be glad that they had undertaken so much effort on her behalf, not to feel like they had acquired an onus of which they couldn't wait to be rid. Laura looked up again and forced her lips into a genuine smile.
"I'm okay. Really!" she enthused when Duo looked a bit dubious.
He knew the girl's tendency to keep her emotions to herself so he didn't press the issue, respecting her attempt at maturity. A door across from them marked 'Principal' opened, prompting them to look that way. Two men emerged from the office and Duo and Heero shot each other a glance as they tried to keep their jaws from hitting the floor.
Both men were utterly convinced that his husband was the most handsome, sexiest man in the world. And, though Duo and Heero still firmly held that opinion, they couldn't help but be affected by the vastly different men coming to meet them.
They were polar opposites: one compact and dark, the other a blond giant. The shorter man studied them with an onyx gaze, his features proclaiming an Asian heritage that Heero classified as Chinese and that Duo simply termed 'hot'. His black hair was pulled back into a neat cue and seemed to reflect his controlled demeanor.
The other man's hair was nearly as long as Duo, though it was unbraided and was so light as to be almost white. Icy blue eyes regarded them kindly as he held out a hand first to Heero then Duo.
"Good morning" the blond man said smoothly, his deep, smoky voice suggestive of things entirely inappropriate for a school. "I'm Zechs Merquise, principal here at Victoria Elementary. This is Wufei Chang, one of our teachers."
Wufei nodded and said hello. Both men paused, waiting for the others to make their own introductions. The expected responses were not immediately forthcoming and Laura glanced from side-to-side, her brow crinkling at the owlish expressions on her fathers' faces. They seemed fascinated by something and at first, she wasn't quite certain what had so captured their attention. Then, she took a good look at the handsome men standing in front of them and pressed her lips together to hold back a helpless giggle. It seems that even her fathers could be diverted by pretty things. She elbowed Duo in the side and he jumped a bit before smiling ruefully as he realized that he'd been staring.
"Hi," he said, standing and glancing at Heero who stood in response to Duo's tacit urging. "I'm Duo Maxwell-Yuy and this is my husband, Heero Yuy." They had decided to be completely frank about their home situation, figuring that they had no desire to put Laura under the care of people who weren't tolerant of families that didn't fit under the definition of 'traditional'. Also, Quatre had probably told them already, anyway.
The dark-haired teacher looked down at the sniggering girl. She sobered under his penetrating gaze. They regarded each other for a moment then he smiled and held out his hand, his entire attitude seeming to change instantly. She found herself shyly returning the gesture.
"Hello, Laura," he said. His voice, though lighter than his superior's, was just as attractive. "It's nice to meet you."
"You too," she replied quietly.
Zechs turned to the side and motioned towards his office. "Why don't we step inside so we can discuss Laura's situation."
He led the way and the others filed in behind him, taking the chairs scattered before a large desk covered with precisely stacked papers. The principal sat behind the desk and folded his large hand on the wooden surface.
"First, let me begin by saying that we are very happy to have Laura here with us. Victoria Elementary prides itself on offering the very best in educational opportunities for our students and we have every expectation that she will excel."
"We have evaluated the aptitude test that Laura took," continued the Chinese teacher. "The test was designed to determine, not what Laura has already learned as most standardized tests do, but her capacity to learn. This is why the test consisted of pattern matching and organizational exercises rather than anything that required reading skills."
Laura blushed and looked down at her lap. Though she was grateful that the purpose of the weird test had been clarified, she was chagrined to have her illiteracy acknowledged so bluntly. Wufei noticed her embarrassment and hurried to finish his explanation.
"According to Laura's performance on the test, she is exceptionally bright, as I'm sure you already knew." He smiled at the broad grin of pride that stretched across the long-haired man's attractive face. "The only thing hindering her at this point is her inexperience with any sort of formal education."
Laura's head jerked up. She could hardly believe it but it seemed that this teacher had just called her smart. She blinked at him with wide eyes. Wufei hesitated under the intensity of the girl's hopeful gaze. Although he was happy to see her joy at his assessment he felt compelled to be perfectly honest with her and her guardians.
"I don't wish to make light of the matter, however. Laura is ten years old and is unable to read, a significant detriment that will take time to remedy."
The girl's face fell and the dark-haired man looked compassionately at her as she blinked rapidly to dispel the tears that threatened her composure. He glanced up at the men sitting next to her, noting the practical acceptance in the Japanese man and the peeved expression in the other's amethyst glare. Wufei shrugged off Duo's hostility. He'd never allowed himself to be less than perfectly honest with any of his students and wasn't going to start now. However, he was grateful to deliver his next piece of information.
"I do have some good news, though. I've discussed the matter with Principal Merquise and with Quatre and we've decided that it wouldn't be in Laura's best interests to place her too far behind her peers."
When the social worker had told him about the girl whose case he was in charge of and the couple that had agreed to take her in, he had to admit that he was skeptical. The girl had been rescued from the streets by the young men and then had become their foster daughter simply because it was too soon for them to legally adopt her, which they had every intentions of doing. The story was almost romantic and seemed impossible to believe. But the proof was sitting before him in the expectant stares locked upon him. The teacher smiled as he continued. He was looking forward to being involved with the girl and her handsome foster parents for the remainder of the child's tenure in his school.
"Therefore," he continued, "Laura will be placed in my fourth grade class, a not uncommon level for a ten-year-old. She will have to attend extensive after school and weekend tutoring sessions to bring her up to speed and I'm expecting you two to help, as well."
Duo beamed, joining Heero in assuring that they would do everything they could. He was immensely grateful that he'd learned to read at the orphanage before it had been destroyed otherwise his situation would have been no different than Laura's. Although he hadn't received any education since the demise of the Maxwell church, he had at least been able to do some self-study, getting his hands on any book he could find in between turning tricks.
Laura was stunned. She wouldn't have to start in first grade or something equally humiliating. She could be with kids her own age. The girl swallowed, both elated that she wasn't being held behind and terrified what her classmates would think about her deficiencies. She listened with half an ear as the teacher and principal discussed the logistics of her tutoring with her fathers. She would stay after school in the evenings with Wufei, who was a certified literacy coach, and would meet him at the Youth Center on weekends after her karate class. Her private musings were interrupted as the men suddenly stood. She joined them, wondering what would happen next.
"I see no reason to delay," Wufei said, turning to look at her. "Laura, I think it would be best if you come with me now to class rather than waiting until tomorrow to start. I have all of the books that you'll need and I'm sure your fathers will get you a book bag and school supplies so you'll be all set."
She nodded in spite of herself, swept along by the force of the teacher's personality. She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up into Duo's concerned gaze.
"Laura, are you sure? If you want to wait until tomorrow that's fine with us." He glanced at Heero, including the other man in his offer.
The girl met his gaze for a moment before looking towards her more reticent foster parent. She knew that they wouldn't force her into anything she felt she wasn't ready for and she was certainly tempted to allow them to just take her home. But, sooner or later, she would have to face her new class and if she'd learned anything in her years under her mother's care was that nothing should be left until tomorrow. You never knew if what you wanted would still be there.
"No," she answered, "I'm fine. I'll start now. Might as well get it over with, right?" She smiled, trying to make light over her nervousness and to reassure her guardians. She could tell that they weren't buying her brave act but they both remained silent, deferring to her decision.
"Excellent," said Principal Zechs, as he'd insisted on being called. He glanced at the shorter man. "Wufei, why don't you go ahead and take Laura with you while I have these young men fill out some paper work."
Wufei nodded and stepped towards the door, looking expectantly at the girl. She nodded and started to join him but paused at the last moment to bestow quick but fierce hugs on her fathers. Then she joined her new teacher and they left the office, her guardians looking after her.
Laura tried to relax, looking at the pleasant examples of student creativity that covered the walls of the hallways. The yellow of the principal's office continued outside, though it alternated with a cool mint green tone. They passed a set of double doors marked 'Library' on the left and another further down the corridor on the right labeled 'Cafeteria'. They reached a side corridor and took a right. A sign over doors at the end of the hall proclaimed that they led to the Auditorium. Her gym shoes squeaked occasionally on the floor tiles and she glanced at the Oxfords that allowed her companion to move silently. Finally, or too soon in her opinion, Wufei stopped in front of a door with the number '172' painted in black upon its mint green surface.
"Here is our class," he explained, looking down at her with his unfathomable but somehow reassuring gaze. "Ready?"
There was a window in the door, made with material that made it difficult to see through the pane. She tried anyway, looking to see if she could distinguish any of the fuzzy shapes moving around within the room. Wufei didn't comment but just stood patiently beside her. At last, she decided to stop stalling and sighed. She glanced at her teacher and nodded.
Wufei smiled softly and opened the door. They were assailed with a multitude of raised voices which quieted instantly when the Chinese man stepped into the room. He walked to his desk, which sat at the front of the room and looked over his students.
"Class, today we have a new student. This is Laura Maxwell and I want everyone to give her a warm welcome."
Laura could feel the over twenty pairs of eyes staring at her and resisted the urge to bolt. It was just like her first day of karate class, she told herself, and that had turned out just fine. But this time, neither Heero nor Duo were there with her. She was completely alone for the first time since they saved her from the disgusting man who'd been trying to rape her in that alley. Laura looked down at the floor, unable to bear the thought of looking into the mocking faces of her new classmates. The room swayed around her, an indistinct jumble of posters and pictures, the smell of the chalk from the chalkboard behind her threatening the stability of her stomach.
She could hear her heart pounding in her ears as the moment of silence stretched interminably. What had made her think she could do this? She should have just gone home when Duo offered and dealt with all of this tomorrow, though, she doubted things would have been any easier. Why wasn't anyone saying anything? Were they just going to stare at her forever? Would Wufei stop her if she ran from the room?
Laura had nearly decided to do just that when a voice cut through the silence.
"Laura! Laura, sit here! There's a chair right here!"
She looked up at the sound of the familiar voice, puzzled until she caught sight of dark red hair, freckles, and a pair of friendly blue eyes. Marimaia! She'd completely forgotten that the girl had said she was in the fourth grade at Victoria Elementary. Laura watched the other girl as she waived towards the empty chair to her right and suddenly felt her anxiety disappear. As she made her way towards Marimaia, she stole herself to look into the faces of some of her other classmates. Several of them were in her karate class and were smiling at her with delight. 'Maybe,' she thought, 'this won't be so bad, after all.' She shot her friend a relieved grin which was returned with the younger girl's typical enthusiasm.
"Today's science lesson," Wufei began after she'd taken her seat, "will be about diffraction. Can anyone tell me what 'diffraction' is?"
Laura glanced around, certain that she was the only one in the room that had never heard the word before. However, to her surprise, and delight, no one raised their hand. Wufei nodded, knowing that the lesson was new to everyone and that Laura wouldn't feel out of place. As he started to explain about the principle of splitting light into its constituent colors, he looked towards his new student. She was trying to split her attention between him and the talkative girl to her left. He was grateful that there was someone who would make her transition into school life that much easier. If anyone could serve as the perfect welcoming committee, it was Marimaia. He smiled and decided not to reprimand them.
Jack walked along the bleak, dirty street, thinking again that if this is where that little girl had come from, she was definitely better off where she was now. But Relena had ordered him to find the girl's mother. She was determined to break up the family of the man who'd rejected her and he had learned it was useless to argue with the blond harridan.
Stepping over a questionable pile of garbage, he approached the ragged-looking woman standing on the corner. Her revealing clothing identified her as yet another prostitute, the fourth he'd spoken to that day. Fully expecting her to be another dead end, he pulled out one of his dwindling pile of $50 bills. At least Relena wasn't being overly cheap in her desire for information.
"What d'ya want?" the woman questioned. She'd seen him walk towards her and knew that he wasn't a john; they never propositioned her on foot. She eyed his trench coat and fedora, wondering if this man honestly thought that detectives actually dressed that way. He clearly wasn't a cop so she held her ground.
"I was wondering if you've ever heard of a woman named Delia?" He'd gotten the name of the girl's missing mother from his contact at Social Services. The woman's eyes widened for a moment in surprise before narrowing suspiciously and Jack knew he'd hit pay dirt.
"What d'ya want with her? She ain't been around for a while."
Jack put on his most sincere face, not realizing it made him look like he'd eaten some bad fish or something. "My name's Jack Peeve and I'm a PI." The prostitute looked unimpressed. Vaguely insulted, he continued in a tone that matched his name. "My client found out that Delia's daughter, Laura?" He noted, with satisfaction ,the woman blink at the name. "Yeah, Laura. Well, she's been put in foster care with some real disreputable sorts. Homos, if you know what I mean."
The woman stared at him apathetically. In her line of work, no perversion was unfamiliar and she had long lost her ability to be shocked. She waited for him to continued, an impatient expression on her face.
"Anyway, I thought that Delia might like to know what's happened to her daughter. My client is prepared to do whatever is necessary to reunite her with her child. I think that, as a mother, Delia would want that, don't you?"
The woman looked at him uncertainly. Although she knew that lots of her 'co-workers' had children and then abandoned them, her own baby had died during childbirth and she'd never quite gotten over it. For a second, she felt a twinge of longing for the son she'd never known. Moved to unaccustomed sympathy, she took the card that Jack was holding.
"Yeah," she mumbled. "If I see her, I'll tell her you were looking for her."
"Appreciate it," Jack said with a smile. He left the woman standing there, looking at his card, and went to find his car and report his progress to Relena.