Delia looked at herself carefully in the bathroom mirror. She turned her head from side to side, taking note of the careworn lines and the faint traces of old scars. She shook her head, wondering how she was even still alive. For the first time in more years than she cared to count she wasn't concerned about where her next meal was coming from and she didn't feel the need to get high. She was safe and comfortable in a room at a rehab center. For the first time in a long time, her light-brown eyes were clear and sharp; and it was all thanks to the woman who was calling her name just then.
"Delia? Delia, dear, where are you?"
"In the bathroom, Relena," she answered through the closed door.
"Well, come out. I have a surprise for you."
The young woman's lips pursed wryly. The blond loved to bestow gifts on her favorite charity case. For over seven months, Relena had ensured that Delia received the best possible care, completely at her own expense. She insisted that her generosity was without motive.
"I just want to reunite a family. The thought of seeing you with your daughter again warms my heart."
This was the sap that Relena had spewed constantly throughout Delia's long recovery. The brown-skinned woman had no doubts that the blonde's motives were completely selfish. The vindictive vitriol she expressed towards the men keeping Laura made it clear where her true priorities lay.
But Delia did want her daughter back. She wanted her desperately. And if Relena was willing to help her towards that goal, for whatever reason, she would be grateful.
Throughout the months of withdrawal and longing, the only thought that kept her on her path was Laura. Anchored in sobriety, she truly understood the extent to which she'd wronged the girl and she wanted more than anything to be the sort of mother of which Laura could be proud. So she'd given up the heroin and cleaned up both her body and her life. She'd been sober for over a month, had landed a job as a waitress at an upscale restaurant, again thanks to Relena, and today, she was being released from the hospital.
Delia nodded at her image, firming the promise she'd made to herself. Taking a breath, she opened the door onto Relena's smiling face.
"Come and look at what I've brought you," the other woman gushed. Relena sat her purse and a manila envelope on what passed for a dressing table and pointed to a garment bag lying on the bed. Delia picked up the hanger and unzipped the black bag.
Inside lay a beautiful, classy suit in a respectable light-blue. The jacket had the sleek lines of professional tailoring and the knee-length skirt would flatter her long legs. A pair of sensible, matching blue pumps were tucked in a special compartment in a corner of the garment bag and a pair of cream stockings accompanied the shoes. Delia's eyes widened as she examined the lovely ensemble.
"This is for me?"
"Of course, dear," Relena assured. "After all, if you're going to appear before a judge, you'll need to project a certain image. This says 'respectful yet fashionable'. It's perfect. Oh, I almost forgot!"
The blond reached for her purse, lifting it from the large envelope and removing a velvet-covered box.
"Don't want to forget these," she chirped, opening the box to reveal a pair of pearl studs. "Every mother should wear pearls."
Delia blinked and was surprised to find herself touched by the self-serving gesture. Hesitantly, she reached for the earrings. "They... they're beautiful, Relena. But..." She offered the box back to the other woman. "My ears aren't pierced," she explained, gazing wistfully at the creamy pearls.
The blond laughed, pushing the box firmly in Delia's direction. "Of course they aren't, my dear. I knew that, so I got you clip-ons. Go ahead and try everything on."
The brown-skinned woman moved to pick up the garment bag, intending to change in the bathroom when Relena's cell phone rang. She listened in as the other woman answered the call.
"Hello? Oh, Treize, darling! Where are you? Downstairs? Wonderful, I'll come to meet you."
Relena disconnected the call and turned towards her curious companion. "That is my other surprise, my dear. Why don't you try on that suit while I get him."
Before Delia could voice any questions, the blond was gone. She pondered over the identity of this new 'surprise' as she picked up the garment bag. She started towards the bathroom but paused as the mysterious manila envelope caught her eye, once more. Glancing towards the closed door, she reached for it. The envelope was secured with one of those string-wrap fasteners so her nosiness would go undetected. Delia laid the garment bag back on the bed and opened the envelope.
Inside was a large photocopy of a picture of a young man. A very handsome young man. His attractiveness was conspicuous even through the grainy quality of the copy. Delia's brown eyes traced over his features. She wondered who he was and why Relena would have his picture. Perhaps he was a boyfriend. But then, why wouldn't she have a proper photo?
Delia tilted her head, strangely fascinated by the image. From the minute she'd first looked at the man, she'd been feeling a strange sensation; it was almost like recognition. But, she knew she'd never seen this man before. Or had she? A customer perhaps? Hmm, she couldn't be sure, not surprising considering she'd spent the majority of her life lost in a drug-induced haze. But still, there was something...
Suddenly, Delia froze, her mind's eye filled with a distant memory. She knew him. He was...
Relena opened the door, turning from the tall man walking beside her to glance towards Delia. She frowned at finding the other woman still in her terry cloth bathrobe. She should have been changed by now: they had things to do. Then she noticed the shocked expression on her face and that the woman was holding Duo's picture.
"Delia, you probably don't remember when I first showed you that photo. It was the night I brought you to the hospital. That's one of the men who has your daughter..."
"I know him."
Relena paused, shocked at the other woman's announcement. How could Delia know Duo? Surely their paths had never crossed, given what Delia had been and the fact that Duo was gay. He would never hire a woman prostitute. So there could be no connection. Unless...
Relena's blue eyes widened as her jaw dropped. The answer was so obvious she could kill herself for not realizing it before now. She could barely contain herself. This was too much. It was simply too perfect.
Delia looked up from the photo as the blond began to laugh. She, along with the man standing in the doorway, stared at the other woman, shivering slightly at the maliciously joyful sound.
Heero reached for his pen to sign the contract on his desk. It was only one in the afternoon but he was more than ready to go home. The permanency hearing was in two weeks and he was finding it difficult to concentrate. He could hardly believe that he and Duo had had custody of Laura for almost a year already. Soon, they would be able to adopt her legally and put an end to the last obstacle in their path to becoming a true family.
Heero's deep-blue gaze drifted towards the three pictures on his desk. One was an old one of Duo. The second was of he, his shujin, and Laura, taken by a carnival worker at a local fair. But the last was by far his favorite. He'd snuck the photo of Duo and Laura as they cavorted on the beach, braids and sand flying, smiles threatening to permanently stretch their faces. The Asian man felt his heart tighten with love, an emotion that had become so much more intense now that the young girl was a part of their lives. He couldn't recall what things had been like before her dramatic appearance and he had no desire to remember.
The phone rang, interrupting his pleasant reverie, and the dark-haired man glared at the intrusive object. He picked up the receiver with a jerk.
"This is Heero."
"Heero, it's Dorothy."
He was instantly on guard. Never in the time he'd known the cool, blond attorney had he ever heard such a tone from her. Her voice projected an aura of cautious nervousness.
"Dorothy, what is it?" he asked tersely.
"Come to the courthouse right away. I'll explain everything when you get here."
With that, she hung up and Heero stared at the dead instrument in his hand. He felt his heart beat faster, echoing his sense of dread. He grabbed up his jacket and left his office, pausing only to tell his secretary that he would be out for the rest of the day. The unflappable woman could only stare, mouth agape as her boss practically ran towards the lobby.
"Duo! Ya got a phone call!"
The braided man appeared from underneath the car at Howard's summons. He heaved himself up, wiping his greasy hands on his overalls, and went to the office.
"Thanks, Howard," he said as he took the phone from the older man's hand. "This is Duo."
"It's Dorothy. Duo..."
Howard looked up as the other man went stiff. He listened to the one-sided conversation, wondering what had the kid suddenly so uptight.
"Dorothy, what's wrong. Is it Laura? What do you mean you'll tell me later? Talk to me, damn it! Fine, fine, I'll come to the courthouse."
The old mechanic scratched at his beard, glancing at Duo's clenched fists. "What's up, kid?"
The younger man sighed and looked up, his amethyst eyes betraying his uncertain emotions. "Don't know. That was Dorothy, me and Heero's lawyer. She said I have to go to the courthouse, that the judge in our custody case has called an emergency meeting. Howard, I'm sorry but..."
"Get outta here," he interrupted. "Just let me know if you need anything."
Duo's smile was sincere, if a bit tight, and he reached out and squeezed his boss's arm. "Thanks, man. I'll call you." He rushed from the office, stripping his overalls off on the way to his car. He threw the dirty garment in the backseat and drove away, the squeal of the tires matching the sound threatening to force its way from his throat.
Laura listened to Wufei speak, enraptured by his descriptions of how the first colonists left the Earth to search for a new life in space. But then again, the handsome teacher could probably make a description of cleaning a toilet sound fascinating. The girl was well aware of her crush on her Chinese teacher but couldn't help hanging on his every word.
The vivid narrative of the colonists' difficulties and dangers was interrupted as the classroom door suddenly opened. Wufei looked towards the tall figure of the principal and gestured for him to enter the room. Laura's brow furrowed in confusion as the tall blond personage of Principal Zechs moved and the shorter, equally blond visage of Quatre was revealed.
The girl wondered what the social worker was doing at her school and tried to hear the three adults' muted conversation. She glanced down as their attention shifted towards her. For some reason, she suddenly felt that she really didn't want to know what was going on. However, she was obliged to raise her head at the sound of her name.
"Laura," Wufei called, his dark eyes kind as he looked at her, "please go with Principle Zechs and Mr. Winner."
She glanced at Marimaia, who returned her look with a curious, wide-eyes stare. The braided girl packed away her school books and, hefting her bag, followed the blond men from the room. She turned towards Quatre, a question on her lips.
"Laura," he said preemptively, "Dorothy called me this afternoon and said that Judge Trowa has asked us to meet him at the courthouse. Duo and Heero will be there as well." He turned towards the taller man. "Thank you, principal. We'll be off, now."
Laura watched Principal Zechs walk away, resisting the urge to beg him to make her stay at school. Why would the judge want to see them now? Her adoption hearing wasn't for two weeks yet.
"Quatre, why do we have to go there? Is something wrong?"
The social worker paused, the automatic reassurances dying as they were confronted by the girl's frank gaze.
"Honestly, Laura, I don't know. We'll just have to see when we get there."
Laura looked at him for a long moment then lowered her gaze. She nodded and turned away. Silently they left the school and got into Quatre's car. The girl's knuckles remained crowned with peaks of light-brown during the entire trip.
Duo glanced over at the car pulling into the parking space next to him, feeling a small bit of relief as he recognized Heero's sedan. He quickly got out of his car and walked around the hood, meeting his husband as he unfolded himself from the other vehicle.
"Did Dorothy say anything to you? She wouldn't tell me shit."
"No," the shorter man replied. He frowned at the paleness of his lover's face. "Don't worry. What ever it is, we'll deal with it. Okay?"
Duo sighed, rubbing unconsciously at the knot that had formed in his stomach. Heero noticed the gesture and his frown deepened. He knew that nothing would relieve their worry except an explanation. Grabbing the other man's hand, he started towards the courthouse entrance.
"Come on. Let's find out what's going on."
Duo followed meekly, tilting his head to peer up uneasily at the ominous clouds gathering overhead.
Dorothy was waiting in the hall outside of the judge's chambers, and with her were Quatre and Laura. The young men walked towards the trio, trying to appear calm for the girl's sake but her presence increased their concern. There would be no reason for her to be there if this were just some routine matter. What ever was wrong, it must be serious. Duo placed a loving hand on her head as he reached her side.
"Hey, kiddo. You know, if you wanted get out of school so badly you could have just called me at the shop. No need to get the judge involved."
Duo's joke failed to chase away the nervousness on the girl's eyes. Instead, she pressed herself against him, seeking a tactile comfort that mere words couldn't offer. He wrapped his arms around her narrow shoulders and looked at the attorney, also searching for encouragement.
"Dorothy, why did you call us?" Heero asked.
The Asian man's typical bluntness prompted her to respond in kind. "Judge Barton has called an emergency hearing due to the production of some new, potentially alarming evidence. Remember I told you that anytime before the permanency hearing, anyone could challenge your custody of Laura?" The blond lawyer waited for nods of acknowledgement. "Well, apparently, someone has now come forward."
Duo was shocked. Someone was contesting their custody? "Who the hell is it?!"
Dorothy winced at the shrillness of his voice. "I'm afraid I don't know. Judge Barton didn't reveal their identity when he called me. I haven't even seen the judge yet. I was waiting for you. But, now that we're all here, let's go in."
She turned towards the door of the judge's chambers and knocked on the door. Trowa, himself, answered and nodded grimly towards them, his gaze flicking briefly towards Quatre. The expression on his face, unnoticeable to the others, brought a lump of anxiety to the social worker's throat.
"I'm sorry to call you all hear like this but something has been brought to my attention that just couldn't wait. Please, come in. Laura," he said when the girl started into the room, "I want you to wait out here. One of my clerks will wait with you." He stepped aside and a young woman moved into the hall. She smiled at them and put a friendly hand on Laura's arm.
Duo and Heero glanced at each other but resisted the urge to argue. They walked into the judge's office ahead of Dorothy and Quatre. A tall, good-looking man was seated in a chair before the desk, and his ginger-haired head turned towards them as they entered. Trowa closed the door and perched on the edge of his desk. He didn't bother to offer anyone a seat.
"This is Treize Kushrenada, an attorney representing Laura's mother."
The neutral statement had all the effects of a well-placed bomb. Duo blanched, falling against the wall he was luckily standing near. Heero froze, too shocked to notice his husband's reaction. Dorothy inhaled deeply, the suspicion that had filled her since receiving the judge's call horribly confirmed. Quatre gasped, searching his friend's face as if looking for an explanation.
"B-but, when did her mother come back?" the social worker stammered. "The woman's been missing for nearly a year!"
"My client was not missing," the handsome attorney rose smoothly from his chair, blue eyes regarding them shrewdly. "She was simply taking some actions that would place her in a position to regain custody of her child. After all, isn't that what we all want? A family to be reunited?"
"Fuck that bitch!" Duo shouted. "Laura is ours!" His face was flushed with emotion, his braid swirling about his shoulders as he jerked forward, announcing his agitation. "Laura will never again be endangered by that ... that..."
Heero recovered enough to grab his husband's arm in a firm grip. "Duo..." He wanted to tell the other man to calm down but to do so would be the height of hypocrisy.
Dorothy tried to regain her composure. She put on her haughtiest expression and looked down her patrician nose at the other lawyer. "I'm afraid you're wasting your time, Mr. Kushrenada. Laura's mother has a history of neglect and abuse that no amount of rehabilitation could overcome. Unless you have some new evidence, which would, frankly, have to amount to a miracle, this meeting is pointless."
The tall man smiled, his expression that of an urbane shark. "Well, Ms..."
"Catelonia," she provided coldly.
"Ms. Catelonia, in fact my client has brought some new information to my attention that I think his honor will find most interesting. She will be here momentarily to share her news with us."
Heero and Duo looked towards each other, the same terrifying thought on both their minds. If Laura's mother was coming to Trowa's chambers, she would have to pass through the hall, the hall in which the girl was sitting unaware and completely unprepared. They turned as one and reached for the office door.
Laura sat on the bench outside of the judge's chambers, swinging her legs so that her heels tapped against the floor. To her credit, the clerk didn't ask the girl to stop the annoying, repetitive movement. She had worked in family law for a long time and knew that any relief of tension was good when tragedy could, and often did, strike without warning.
A sound of high-heels clicking against the tiled floor caught the girl's attention and she turned her head towards the source. Two women were walking down the hall, approaching the bench. The first lady was tall and blond, as pretty and perfect as an ice sculpture. The woman walking behind her, wearing a nice, blue suit, looked nervous, her light-brown eyes flicking back and forth. She was young but her brown-skinned complexion was ruined with signs of early aging.
But, even with the unexpectedly sedate nature of her appearance, the woman's identity was unmistakable. Laura gasped and leapt from the bench, her eyes, so like the woman's, stretched wide in disbelief and terror. Her heart pounded hard against her ribs, which ached with the dullness of remembered pain. She didn't notice the concerned gaze the clerk turned towards her as she shrunk against the wall, sobbing and trying to meld into the cold marble. The second woman saw the girl and smiled, coming to stand before her.
The woman reached out a hand, gently wiping away the tears coursing down the shuddering girl's cheeks.
"Don't cry, baby. You'll soon be back home with mama."