The door to the judge's chambers banged open and Duo and Heero barreled out into the hall. As though attuned to their daughter's distress, they immediately honed in on the nightmarish familial reunion. Duo saw Laura pinned against the wall and the woman standing in front of her. Then he saw nothing but the hazy, red manifestation of his rage that suddenly blinded him.
Heero felt the other man's anger pouring from him, augmenting his own. He wanted nothing more than to tear the girl away from the woman who looked so like her. But, hearing the animal growl that emanated from the braided man, he put his own desires aside long enough to grab his husband around the waist just as the taller man began to charge forward.
Duo struggled in Heero's grasp. "Let me go!" he yelled, trying to pry away the arms encircling him like steel bands. The Asian man pulled his lover to him, holding Duo against his chest. He was forced to use all of his considerable strength to resisting the taller man's thrashing attempts at freedom. He was well aware of the damage that his husband could inflict on Laura's mother if he escaped; he felt the same rage and the desperate need to protect their daughter.
But violence wasn't the answer, especially in front of the girl. She'd witnessed enough in her life without having to see her beloved Duo kill her mother. Heero clenched his teeth at the terrified shock marring the child's pretty features. He needed to calm Duo down or get him out of the hall before she took notice of his volatile attitude. Not since the braided man had demolished the pervert in the alley on the night they'd found her had she seen violence from her happy-go-lucky Duo. The Asian man didn't know what seeing him like now would do to her in her fragile state of mind.
"No, Duo," Heero whispered against the back of the other man's neck, trying to absorb some of his lover's fury and fear. Where was Quatre? He couldn't deal with both situations at once and needed the blond social worker to take care of Laura while he attempted to make his husband see something approaching reason. As he grappled with the taller man, he caught a flash of color in the corner of his eye. He glanced to the side and froze, so stunned that he nearly lost his hold on Duo.
The breathy query went unnoticed by all but the blond woman standing so incongruously in the hall. Heero stared at her, unable to fathom the reason or meaning behind her presence. She looked at him with shadowed, blue eyes that revealed nothing. He continued to gape, unable to find words to match the questions tumbling through his mind, when Quatre and Dorothy rushed into the hall.
Quatre looked around quickly, gauging the situation. Duo and Heero had left Trowa's chamber so suddenly, that he and the blond attorney had been too surprised to react for a few moments. Then Treize's comment about Laura's mother coming to the courthouse had penetrated his inertia and he realized the reason for the other men's abrupt disappearance. Dorothy shared his revelation at the same instant and they swiftly followed the young men.
The social worker could almost feel the turbulent emotions swirling amongst those in the hall. The twisted rage on Duo's handsome features hit him viscerally. He followed the burning amethyst gaze and his own eyes narrowed as he saw the woman cornering Laura against the wall. His lips firmed against the inappropriate epithets that came so readily to mind. With a brief, puzzled look at Heero's pale face, and at the strange blond woman he was starring at so fixedly, Quatre stepped towards the mother-daughter pair.
The dark-skinned woman had glanced over at the two who had burst into the hall and she looked nervously at the braided man trying so determinedly to break the shorter man's hold. But she blinked as a slight, blond man suddenly stepped in front of her, standing between her and the girl sobbing against the wall.
"Excuse me, Ms. ..." Quatre paused, his heart wrenching as Laura pressed her hands against his back, as though needing to reassure herself that he was really there and would protect her. He reached behind with one hand and grasped her small, trembling hands in a secure hold.
Delia's head moved to the side as she tried to look around the blond man, but he shifted his body subtly so that she was unable to catch even a glimpse of her daughter.
"Tippen," she replied. "Delia Tippen."
Quatre nodded shortly, his well-ingrained manners holding him in good stead. "Well, Ms. Tippen," he said, formally, "I am Quatre Reberba Winner, a representative of DYFS. I am in charge of Laura's case. If you wouldn't mind coming with me," he continued before the woman could respond, "the judge is ready to meet with you."
He glanced towards the court clerk, who quickly gathered the shuddering child into the protection of her hefty arms. She shot the brown-skinned woman a look of distaste and held the girl against her matronly chest.
Delia wanted to protest as the social worker placed a preemptory hand on her and began to lead her away. She wanted to stay with the girl; it had been so long since she'd seen her. Had it been an entire year? It seemed so. Laura had grown so much and she looked so beautiful with her lovely braids. She glanced over her shoulder, her brown eyes raking over what she could see of her daughter who continued to shake and sob against the gray-haired clerk. She wondered what had made the girl so frightened. She knew the answer, of course, but shied away from it, refusing to admit the truth to herself.
Heero was finally able to tear his gaze away from Relena as he saw Quatre confront Laura's mother. There would be enough time later to solve the mystery of the blonde's appearance. Now, he had to deal with Duo.
"Come on, koi," he said, exerting pressure with his arms as he tried to lead his husband back into the judge's chambers. The Asian man trusted Quatre to deal with the Delia. There would be plenty of time to enlighten her as to the completely undesirability of her existence, but not in front of Laura. The girl looked traumatized enough. He ached to go to her, but now wasn't the time.
Heero maneuvered Duo around, pushing him into the room. Before he entered, however, he turned to meet Relena's gaze. He shot her a withering glare. He didn't know why she was there but if she was in any way responsible for Delia's return, the bitch would pay. His blue eyes bored into the blond woman until the color began to drain from her cheeks. Grimly satisfied, he followed Duo into Trowa's chambers.
Relena sagged as Heero finally released her. Never had she seen such blatant hatred on his handsome face and she was badly shaken. For the first time since finding Delia, she questioned her actions. Her plan had always been to rip the girl away from Heero and his bastard of a husband and then to be there to pick up the pieces when the Asian man dropped the braided piece of trash. She would comfort him for a while and then would dump him, in turn, leaving him broken.
But, now, she wondered how she could have been so foolish. Faced with the reality of Heero's ire, rather than the fantasy she'd built up in her mind, Relena realized that, even if the blue-eyed man did leave his lover, he would never come to her. No, there was no way she would ever have Heero.
But, at least Duo wouldn't have him, either. Delia's revelation would tear their little family apart, and that was some consolation. Heero would end up bitter and alone and that thought made her smile even as the chill of his loathing made her shiver until her bones threatened to rattle in her slim frame.
Duo rounded on his shujin as he was summarily forced into the judge's chamber. Ignoring Trowa's speculative gaze and the other attorney's grating smirk, he glared at Heero.
"What the hell are you doing?! We can't leave Laura out there with her!"
"Duo, Laura's not alone and we'll deal with Delia. But," he paused and shot the tall judge a glance before leaning closer to his lover. "But, you can't very well strangle the woman to death right in front of a judge, Duo." The Asian man's lips turned up in a tight, quick smile. "There will be plenty of time for that after our adoption of Laura is final," he whispered.
Duo was taken aback by the quiet menace in the soft comment. Though the other man was smiling, he recognized that Heero was completely serious. He felt marginally better with the knowledge that his husband was more than willing to assist him in cold-blooded murder. He felt a surge of love mixed in with the terrifying vision of Heero on death-row and managed to calm down.
"No, everything will be alright." He raised a hand to the shorter man's shoulder. "Laura is ours and that's all there is to it."
They gazed at each other, each seeking and offer reassurance and courage. Their renewed composure lasted until Dorothy and Quatre entered the room, accompanied by Delia. Duo lips peeled back, showing his teeth in a feral threat. But he remained where he was, placing a hand over the one that had fastened securely on his arm.
Treize stepped towards his client, taking her arm in a gallant gesture. He led her to the room's only guest chair and handed her into the seat. She peered at him, quite unused to such treatment, but refrained from comment. She could feel the penetrating glares of the two men standing near the door and she resisted the urge to squirm as she glanced at the tall man standing in front of the desk.
Trowa looked at the seated woman, letting his gaze travel over her as he took in every detail of her appearance. The well-dressed figure hardly seemed like a drug-addict capable abusing her child. Rather, she appeared collected, if slightly tense, and her eyes were clear and direct. But the judge vividly remembered the medical reports and testimony regarding the atrocities this woman had inflicted on her daughter. He found himself struggling to keep his objectivity.
"Your honor," the ginger-haired attorney began, "this is my client, Ms. Delia Tippen. She is Laura's mother and has come before you to petition for the return of her child and the complete reinstatement of her custodial rights."
"Your honor," Dorothy interjected, sparing her counterpart a withering glance, "Mr. Kushrenada's request is premature. There is a permanency hearing in a few days, at which time my clients," she waived a hand towards Duo and Heero, "plan to petition for permanent adoption. They have had custody of Laura for over nine months, during which time she has flourished in school and has learned how to read."
The blond attorney turned towards the woman who dared to call herself a mother. "Ms. Tippen, had been missing since Laura's situation was first made known to DYFS. Before our intervention, she was subjected to the most horrible forms of neglect and abuse at this woman's hands."
With a final, raking gaze of disgust, Dorothy looked back at the judge. "Any rights Ms. Tippen thinks she may have towards the Laura are irrelevant. Until a full evaluation of her fitness can be performed, she should not even be allowed near the girl. Not that there is any conceivable way for her to rehabilitate her past behavior enough to regain custody. Ms. Tippen's record speaks for itself."
Treize chuckled, clapping his hands and throwing the blond a condescending nod. "Ms. Catalonia is certainly a gifted speaker; a credit to our profession. However, it is interesting that she should mention 'records.'" He glanced towards the young men watching silently, letting his gaze linger on the handsome, braided man.
"It just so happens," he continued, "that my client has some information that is very relevant to the issue of parental fitness." The attorney stepped behind his client, letting his hands rest on the back of her chair. "Your honor, may Ms. Tippen be allowed to address you as to her information?"
Trowa paused, unaccountably reluctant to grant the request. But, Treize was correct. Though any evaluations were best left for trial, any critical information that had a bearing on the disposition of the case should be brought to his immediate attention. He couldn't help throwing a brief, slightly apologetic glance towards Quatre as he nodded.
"Alright, Mr. Kushrenada. Your client may speak freely."
"Thank you, your honor," the tall attorney said, his smile a masterpiece of confident arrogance. He leaned towards the seated woman's ear. "Go ahead, Delia. You have our undivided attention."
Delia swallowed, undecided as to whether she should stand or remain as she was. Standing would make more of an impact, but she was so nervous she didn't trust the stability of her trembling knees. Clasping her hands together, she kept her attention firmly on the judge.
"Sir, I ... I know I haven't been the best mother." She paused as Duo rudely opined on her understatement. "But, in the past seven months, I've completely kicked my addiction and I've been holding a full-time job for nearly two months." Delia didn't try to hide the details of her past, informed by Treize that everything about her had come out during the CINA adjudication hearing.
"I want my daughter back, your honor. I have so much ... so much to make up for and I need to have that chance. I know that I can be the kind of mother Laura needs. I love my daughter, it's just, I've been haunted by things that she should never have had a part in. I took my self-hatred out on her, and for that, I can only beg her forgiveness.
"But, sir, I want to be with my child. I have been trying so hard to get my life together, for her and for myself. Thanks to Ms. Dorlian and Mr. Kushrenada, I finally have this chance."
Heero jerked at the explanation of Relena's connection to all of this. She'd been helping Delia? But why? He couldn't fathom the reason for her interest. Why did she care? What did she hope to gain? He glanced at Duo, who's look of confusion matched his own.
Trowa made an abrupt gesture, cutting off the emotional narrative. "This is all very interesting, Ms. Tippen. But nothing you've said here today amounts to earth-shattering news. It could have been saved for trial." He glanced at the blue-eyed attorney. "Mr. Kushrenada, if you insist on wasting any more of my time, I'm afraid I'll have to..."
Everyone stared at Delia as she jumped from the chair. Trowa's visible eye widened perceptibly and he straightened from his slouch against his desk as she stepped towards him, her body jerky with agitation.
"No, that's not why I came here. It's not Treize's fault! I came to tell you what I know about Duo Maxwell."
The moment hung heavily in the air. All eyes slowly turned towards the braided man and stared at him until he felt like a specimen under a microscope. He looked at Heero, but no enlightenment was available from that source. He turned to glare at Delia.
"What are you talking about? What could you possibly know about me?" Duo maintained his hostility, using it to mask the growing lump of ice forming somewhere in the region of his heart.
All at once, Delia's demeanor changed. She'd learned much about human behavior during her years catering to the basest of men's desires and she sensed Duo's fear like a shark smelling blood in the water. The dark-skinned woman lifted her head and narrowed her gaze as she looked at the tall man.
"I spent many years of my life as a prostitute." Again, she knew she wasn't revealing any shocking information. Laura was certain to have told them all the gory details of her past. "A few years ago, I had a pimp. His name was Ice."
Delia watched Duo closely, noting with satisfaction the unconscious twitch the name of the nasty little man who used to peddle her had produced.
"Ice had a pretty good trade. He did a decent job getting us work and keeping the customers in line. Ice had a fairly large stable of girls, but after a while, more and more of the johns started looking for, let's say, a bit of variety."
Always closely attuned to his husband, Heero felt the waves of fear that suddenly spilled from Duo's direction. He glanced over, shocked at the other man's pallor. A faint sheen of sweat had broken out over his smooth skin. As Delia continued her story, the Asian man began to see where she was headed. He blinked as a wave of dizziness began to buzz in his ears.
"Ice wanted to expand his clientele, so he started to recruit young men." She snorted. "Actually, they weren't more than boys. Ice did okay in his new venture, but he had a rival. Another pimp named Smoke was seriously eating into Ice's cash flow. Smoke was tricking out this one pretty boy who was taking almost all of the fag johns."
Heero heard a faint choking noise and looked over at the his husband. He stepped closer to the other man, placing an arm around his waist, trying to offer him support. But he didn't know if he could. He felt as though the floor was disappearing beneath him, leaving him hanging over an endless abyss.
"Smoke had had this boy for years, I'd heard. I saw him, once, when Ice went to confront Smoke about blocking his ability to make a profit and drug me along." Delia looked almost relaxed, letting her gaze trace over the braided man's tortured features. His look of righteous anger had disappeared and she decided she liked that scared-little-boy look much better. "Had him since he was only a kid. Isn't that right, Duo." She smiled, ignoring the stunned looks from being thrown her way.
"How old were you when you started whoring for Smoke?"