"How old were you when you started whoring for Smoke?"
Delia's question, posed with saccharine-filled triumph, echoed in Duo's mind. He could see the startled faces, could hear the gasps of surprise. He heard Dorothy ask the visibly astonished judge for permission to consult with her clients. He felt a hand on his arm, leading him into a private bathroom through a door off to the side of the chamber.
But none of it touched him. The woman's revelation, so devastating in its implications, was surely happening to someone else. It seemed impossible that the most painful, most secret, most dangerous part of his past had been publicly revealed with such nonchalant maliciousness.
"Duo, is she telling the truth? Why the hell am I just now hearing about this?" Dorothy's shouted query was muted, filtered through the growing roar in his ears.
"I ... I don't know what to say." The social worker tried to be as solicitous as ever.
"Yes, it's true. But Duo's record was expunged and should have no bearing on any of this." Heero, always there to offer shelter and support.
Duo looked around at the décor as he absently listened to the words swirling around him, a numb feeling of detachment permeating his mind. 'How appropriate,' he mused. 'Where better to witness my life being flushed down the toilet?'
Heero glanced over at his shujin, noting the dazed look of detachment on the other man's face. His brow furrowed with worry and he moved imperceptibly closer, anxious at the alarming absence of color in his lover's cheeks.
"Duo was entrapped by that pimp at a very young age. He was forced to live his life under Smoke's thumb for over eight years, unable to escape. Duo is an orphan and had nowhere to go, no one to care for him." Heero reached behind the tall man at his side and took hold of his braid, a subtle calming gesture.
"Then, four years ago, I found Duo and helped him leave that life behind. He..." The Asian man paused, wondering how much to reveal. After a moment, he decided that the need for the truth was paramount. Any further secrets could lead to disaster. "Three years ago, Smoke kidnapped Duo, intending to murder him. I found them and Smoke was killed."
The two blonds listened raptly to the enfolding tale. "How did the pimp die?" Dorothy asked.
"I killed him."
Everyone looked towards the braided man, the lawyer and social worker in surprise and Heero with grim concern. Duo blinked, as though trying to awaken from sleep. His face was masked with the calm façade of extreme shock. "He was trying to kill Heero, so I shot the bastard with his own gun." The easy, unconcerned delivery sent a shiver through more than one person standing in the restroom.
Dorothy valiantly ignored her emotional response to the recounted tragedy, turning her attention to the task at hand. Her lips firmed and she bent her head slightly, the gears of thought visibly turning behind her piercing gaze. "Well, given that Duo's lived a respectable life for over four years and that his record was eradicated, perhaps I can convince the judge to overlook this."
She glanced over at Quatre to gauge his impression of her chances. She knew that the blond man knew the young judge better than anyone. The attorney wasn't reassured by the flushed anxiety on his face.
"No," the social worker breathed, shaking his head in resignation. "There is no possibility that Trowa will discount Delia's testimony. It's simply too damaging." Quatre looked over at the two young men who, over the past year, had become friends as well as clients. His heart ached with the knowledge that Duo's past, no matter how distant, could very possibly ruin their chances of obtaining permanent custody of the little girl they loved so much.
"I'm so sorry. For both of you."
Quatre's soft apology cracked the shell of Duo's denial. 'Both of you...' He looked from the social worker to his husband, a tremor growing within his tall frame. Heero felt it and narrowed his gaze.
"Koi, it will be alright."
Duo backed away, rejecting both Heero's touch and the whispered reassurance. His head shook as he moved toward the wall.
"No. No! This is not our problem. It's my problem. This is my fault!" The tall man pounded repeatedly on his chest. He breathed heavily in the close room as his lungs labored.
"Duo, Laura is our daughter. We are her parents. She won't be taken from us, I promise you." The Asian man kept his voice low as he stepped towards his husband, like an experienced trainer attempting to approach a dangerously skittish stallion. "Duo, please. Let's see what the judge has to say."
The braided man watched as his lover came nearer, the outcome already a certainty in his mind. Laura would be sent away from them and Heero would loose his chance to be a father. It wasn't fair! The other man had never done anything to deserve such a cruel fate. All he'd done was fall in love with someone who was destined to ruin his life.
Duo didn't speak as they moved back into the chamber. He didn't need to hear the judge speak. He knew what Trowa's decision would be; it was inevitable. For the past four years, Heero had allowed him to live in a beautiful dream, a dream where he was safe and loved, where he was worth more than his clever mouth and the opening in his ass.
But the dream was over, waiting only for the judge to bring him to the agony of wakefulness.
Trowa searched Quatre's face as the four came out of the restroom. He wasn't sure exactly what he was looking for, perhaps some hint that Delia was the basest sort of liar, that her words had been nothing more than the demented rantings of a desperate woman.
But there was no encouragement on the blond man's handsome features. Only a heartsick expression of confirmation. Trowa closed his eyes, his chin dropping towards his chest as his hands gripped the desk. If Delia's testimony was true, he knew what his decision must be, though he was loathed to do it. He glanced over at the brown-skinned woman and her attorney, resisting the urge to glare.
Tearing his gaze away from their gloating smugness, he looked towards the blond attorney. "Ms. Catalonia, do you have anything to say on behalf of your client?"
Dorothy squared her shoulders as she steeled herself to gather some wisps of a plausible argument. "Your honor, Mr. Maxwell-Yuy has spent the past four years as a completely respectable member of the community. He has no record and his past circumstances were the result of the vilest sort of child-exploitation and ..."
Trowa decided to stop her futile dissertation. "So your client admits that he was a prostitute for eight years?"
Dorothy opened her mouth in automatic denial before she realized that there was nothing to refute. Defeated by the truth, she threw a brief look of apology to her clients then returned her attention to the judge. "Yes, your honor."
Trowa sighed. "In light of such a serious charge of moral turpitude, I have no choice but to remove Laura from the Mr. Yuy's custody." He looked toward Quatre, addressing his comments to the social worker's pale visage. "Laura is to be place immediately into a DYFS-approved facility until such time as a hearing can be held to evaluate both the Mr. Yuy's and Ms. Tippen's parental fitness."
The judge had the dim satisfaction of seeing the look of surprise on Delia's face. Apparently, she'd been under the mistaken assumption that if Laura was taken from Heero and Duo, the girl would return to her. He experienced a small sliver of pleasure at disabusing the woman of this errant notion.
Heero labored to breath under the immense weight that threatened to crush his chest. Just like that, his family was being ripped asunder. He looked towards his husband, needing the visual assurance that he wasn't alone in this. He and Duo had been through so much, surviving only because of their faith in each other. Together, they could endure any trial and they would weather this storm. He'd made a vow to the other man that he fully intended to keep: Laura would be theirs, no matter what setbacks or obstacles were set in their path. He searched for the flashing amethyst eyes that never failed to bolster his spirits.
But there was no comfort to be found. Duo was staring at the judge, his expression a baffling mixture of confirmed horror and petrified disbelief. Heero put a hand on the back of his lover's neck, physically redirecting the taller man's glazed stare.
Heero's voice faltered as he gazed into his husband's eyes. What he saw behind the amethyst panes frightened him as nothing had since the events precipitating Smoke's death so many years before. Duo's eyes contained both an apology and a resigned acceptance that the Asian man was helpless to oppose. He could find no hope in his lover's soul, only pain.
"Duo," he whispered again, struggling to find some way to spark the spirit and defiance that he'd always found so intoxicating. His shujin was a born fighter, surviving a life that would have annihilated a lesser man. Heero knew that, this time, he couldn't be the strong one. He needed Duo's help. The loss of Laura, no matter how temporary, was too much to bear alone. But the braided man retreated from him, a single tear tracing a path of despair down his smooth cheek.
Duo had almost reached the door before Heero gathered himself enough to respond. "Duo, wait. Don't..."
"S-so... I-I'm so..."
Heero's whisper resounded in the quiet room, the tall man's anguish buffeting everyone in the room with waves of pain. The judge maintained his unreadable expression, though a vein pulsing in his temple betrayed his agitation for the ruling his was forced to give. Dorothy's face turned pink, the knowledge that she'd failed her clients flooding her thoughts. But there was nothing she could have done. The facts, as tragic as they were, were simply against them. The social worker turned his head so that no one could see the unprofessional tears welling in his eyes. Even Treize's confident smirk faded away as he lowered his gaze from the scene, unwilling to partake of the messy, emotional scene.
Delia watched the scene in some surprise, her triumph and anger at not being able to take Laura with her melding with a very different and unfamiliar sentiment. For the first time, she realized just how deeply the two young men loved her daughter. The girl was obviously more than just a foster child to them. They had taken her into their lives and kept her safe, something she had never be able to manage.
She wanted to feel hatred towards them, wanted them to suffer for her jealous of their ability to give Laura the stable home she couldn't. But, though the outcome of her revelation was all she could have desired, the brown-skinned woman couldn't stop the swell of empathy she felt for her handsome rivals. As she knew all too well, it was a terrible thing to lose a child.
She glanced towards the window, wanting to be out of the stuffy office and her even stuffier suit. A finger reached up to tug at the buttoned neckline of her blouse. She couldn't afford to feel anything for these men other than contempt. They wanted to keep her baby from her and they could go to hell! Delia forced her self to look back at the pale young man, willing her heart to harden against his anguish.
Duo refused to be moved by his husband's quiet plea, not that he could hear anything above the roar echoing in his head, the cry of his devastated soul. He reached the door and groped for the knob with trembling fingers, his mouth working with the effort to speak. Finally, he managed a shaken utterance.
"I'm sorry, Heero. Please... Oh, God, please forgive me!"
He fled on the heels of the tortured plea. Heero gave immediate chase, refusing to let the thoughts he'd seen on his lover's face persist even for a moment. For behind the apology, he'd heard the entreaty that the other man hadn't dared to speak. Duo's heart had cried out clearly to his own.
'Please don't hate me!'
The Asian man could sooner cut out his own still-beating heart than hate the one person who possessed his soul. Duo had to know that nothing could tear them apart but his own fear and doubt.
Laura had looked up as the door to the judge's chambers opened, ready to run if she saw her mother's face again. But the sight of the braided man filled her with relief and she called out to him.
Her surprised, thankful cry didn't go ignored. The tall man paused in his head-long flight long enough to throw the girl a tortured glance. His entire body quivered, signaling his longing to go to her and carry her away before she could be taken from him. But he had no recourse, their fate was sealed.
Laura deserved to live a normal life with a pair of loving, devoted parents but, because of him, she would be forced into the existence he'd once endured. He had a vision of her brown-eyes staring at him from behind the wire of an orphanage courtyard, her future a landscape of uncertainty. Would she be adopted? She was likely too old for such an easy escape. He remembered clearly the endless parade of prospective parents passing him over for the more appealing softness of an infant or a toddler.
Would she live out the rest of her childhood in the gray, institutional corridors of a children's home? Or, would she be forced to return to her mother, ever in fear of her life should the woman revert to her old ways?
The vision changed, sliding inexorably into a picture of Laura lying in a pool of her own blood, a mass of vicious bruises and raw scars; the victim of one-too-many beatings at her mother's hands. It was this last image that drove a keening cry from Duo's tight throat. In his heart, he felt that, in addition to depriving his husband of the family he'd longed for, he'd sentenced Laura to an early grave. And for that, more than anything, he could never forgive himself. He shook his head, sending her a silent apology that wouldn't force itself past the constriction blocking his throat.
Laura stared after Duo as he flew down the hall, blinking as Heero burst out of the judge's chamber and followed, his loose shirt billowing out behind him. Still traumatized over the sudden reappearance of her mother, her mind was unable to process the bizarre spectacle of her fathers chasing each other like a cop after a thief. But she did know that the bleak misery on Duo's face had sent a spear of icy fear through her that went straight to her gut.
Heero had seen the brief exchange between Duo and Laura and knew that Duo's expression must have scared her as much as it had him. He wanted to reassure her but he was determined not to let the other man out of his sight. They raced away from the judge's chamber, thundering down the hall, passing several startled faces. Heero cursed the length of his husband's legs, watching as he began to pull away.
Duo hit the stairs at a perilous speed and the shorter man hoped that he could catch his lover before he broke his neck. They reached the main floor, the even footing increasing the braided man's advantage. Heero didn't waste his breath calling Duo's name. He focused all his effort on narrowing the gap between them, completely prepared to execute a flying tackle that would, hopefully, bring the other man to the ground and to his senses.
Moments after reaching the lobby, Duo stumbled and the Asian man saw the opportunity he'd been waiting for. But, just when he could sense himself getting closer to his goal, an old janitor rolled out a cleaning cart into the middle of the floor, oblivious to the drama being played out in his pristine, marbled hall.
Heero collided hard with the cart. Pain shot through his knee where he'd made contact with the hard plastic, but he ignored the discomfort. Grunting, he pushed the obstacle out of his way, unaware of the man he sent careening to the floor. The delay lasted but a second, but it was one instant too long. Duo slammed open the entrance door, the glass shuddering under the impact, and raced into the gloomy afternoon.
His blue eyes squinted against the daylight, and taking no notice of the epithets being thrown at his back by the old janitor, Heero crashed his way from the courthouse with equal force. His dark hair swayed around his head as it swiveled left and right. But, try as he might, he could find no trace of his husband. Then, his eyes lit on the other man's car.
Heero raced to the vehicle, his hand already on the handle before he realized that Duo wasn't inside. He blinked, baffled by the other man's absence. If he hadn't taken his car, where the hell had he gone? The Asian man looked around, his heart, barely affected from the chase, beating faster against his ribcage as he realized that the braided man was nowhere to be seen. He closed his eyes, a growl tearing from his throat as he slammed his hand against the roof of Duo's car, leaving a sizable dent in the metal cover.
Then, anger abruptly transforming into a darker emotion, Heero laid his head against the hood. Despite his efforts, he'd lost his husband, and, given Duo's state of mind, he loathed to contemplate what the other man might do.
Laura remained frozen in one spot, her eyes locked in the direction of her fathers' disappearance. The door of the judge's chamber was still open and the sound of raised voices drifted out to her.
Her mother was arguing that Laura should be allowed to come home with her. Another, calmer voice, the judge's, was explaining that it was impossible. Delia's volume increased as she questioned the judge's decision. One corner of the girl's mind prayed that the young magistrate would stand firm while the other called out to her fathers, pleading for their swift return.
The sound of her mother's voice came closer, heralding her reappearance and the fervor of Laura's entreaties intensified. Then, just as Delia stepped into the hall, Heero reappeared as if by magic, walking towards her from the end of the corridor. The girl deftly avoided her mother and ran towards him.
The blue-eyed man grabbed the child up into his arms, holding her securely against his chest. He made no move to join those gathered outside Trowa's office. He rubbed the girl's back soothingly as she buried her face in his neck. Her tears trickled down his skin and he had to force himself not to squeeze her as hard as he longed to do.
Finally, Laura raised her head and stared at him with dazed tear-bright eyes.
"Heero, where is Duo? Why did he run away?"
The man flinched at her lost, hollow tone. A flash of anger raced through him, anger at Duo for leaving him alone to deal with all of this. But the emotion was gone as quickly as it appeared, leaving an emptiness behind. He didn't know how to answer the frightened little girl in his arms.
"Duo, he had to... to go, sweetheart."
"Go?" She asked, her confusion evident. "Go where?"
Heero swallowed down the lump threatening to block his throat. "He was sad because you have to leave us for a while..."
The Asian man felt the shock that ran through the girl's small frame. He wished that he didn't have to do this, to tell her that her home, the safe place they'd provided for her to live freely as a child should, was to be denied her. He looked over her shoulder towards the judge, his blue eyes pleading with the taller man for any possible leniency he could offer.
Trowa's expression showed that he appreciated the request but he spread his hands to indicate his helplessness. The law, something he spent his life trying to uphold, was clear. No matter how much he might wish it otherwise, Laura would have to leave her comfortable refuge.
Heero sighed and closed his eyes, blocking out the sight of the denial for a precious moment. For one final instant, he could pretend that Laura was going home with him and that Duo would be waiting there for them with his beautiful, brilliant smile of welcome.
But the fantasy was interrupted by a hand upon his shoulder. Heero opened his eyes and glared at the blond social worker. His belligerent gaze dared the other man to follow through with the judge's order. Quatre's heart ached for the child and the two men who loved her, but he would not be dissuaded. He met the taller man's gaze steadily and waited with quiet persistence.
Soon, Heero knew he could stall no more. It felt as though his arms were detached from his body as he tried to release his hold on the girl. They wouldn't move and his glare at the social worker turned into a wordless appeal. Nodding in understanding, Quatre bodily freed Laura from the other man's grasp and took her up. Unencumbered, Heero's arms fell bonelessly to his side.
Laura's brow furrowed, confused by her sudden change in disposition. She looked back at Heero and started to wiggle, trying to move away from the blond man.
"Quatre, let me go. I want to go home."
The social worker squinted against the sting of tears as he walked away from the defeated looking man who he'd been forced to hurt. He couldn't respond to the girl's increasingly strident demands.
"Let me go! I said I want to go home!" She held out her arms to the dark-haired man standing frozen in the hall. "Heero! Heero!"
The Asian man found his voice, needing to offer her reassurance, though the gesture was utterly barren.
"Laura, sweetheart, it's okay. You're going to have to go with Quatre for a while. He'll take care of you. I..."
The fleeing wave of a long, chestnut braid flashed through his mind. 'Damn you, Duo, for leaving me here.'
"We love you. Just remember that." His voice cracked, breaking like an adolescent's experiencing the first loss of childhood. "We'll love you, always."
Heero turned and began to walk, the sound of his name echoing down off the marble walls. His stride became faster and faster until he was running as though being chased by a horde of demons.