As consciousness slowly impinged, Duo turned his face into the solid warmth pillowing his cheek. He wanted to remain lost in the comfort of sleep where his dreams told him that his life hadn't been torn asunder and that he hadn't almost made one of the biggest mistakes of his life. But his eyes opened in spite of themselves and he sighed in resignation.
At some point the night before, he and Heero had risen from the floor and had made their way to their bedroom, exhausted from the emotional maelstrom that had characterized their day. Clothes were disposed with haphazard fatigue and they had fallen asleep just as they were now, the braided man held securely in his husband's strong embrace.
Duo lifted his eyes to the sleeping man's beloved face, traces of anxiety still marring the smooth brow. As he traced over his lover's slumbering features, he experienced a moment of panic at the thought of what his despair had almost cost him. Cursing his stupidity once again, he shifted, inching upward to press his lips against the other man's soft mouth.
A shaft of pain lanced through his lower body at the motion and Duo hissed. The sound was still echoing softly in the quiet room when Heero opened his eyes. His attention immediately fell on his husband's furrowed brow and his own twisted in a rush of renewed guilt. It was evident that the other man's assertions the night before, that he'd done no damage during his jealous rage, had been nothing but an empty platitude.
"Are you alright?" he asked in a hushed voice, lifting a hand to brush soothing fingers over the his husband's cheek.
Duo recovered quickly, the lingering ache fading from existence, and completed his stalled advance. His answer was delayed as their lips clung to each other in tenderness rather than passion. They parted with reluctance and strands of loose hair that had escaped from Duo's ravaged braid brushed gently over the other man's skin as he lowered his head back onto his lover's chest, listening carefully to the steady heartbeat beneath his ear. The voice of habit told him that he had to get up and get a certain someone ready for school. He closed his eyes against the knowledge that that someone was gone.
"I've been better."
Heero grimaced. The rage and violence that controlled him the night before had vanished, but its consequences remained to haunt him. He rubbed a slow hand over his husband's back, his conscience shouting that he had betrayed every aspect of the trust the other man had placed in him since that fateful night four years ago. Heero was uncertain why Duo was resting so comfortably against him when he was clearly still suffering from the effects of his violation.
He wouldn't have been surprised if the other man had cringed away in fear, refusing to let him come near ever again. Heero turned his head into his lover's hair, remembering the tearing screams of agony his brutality had prompted. How could Duo ever forgive him?
"I'm sorry," he choked on a whisper, his hand clinging helplessly to the soft strands drifting over him. How many times in the past day had those words passed between them?
Duo's eyebrows came together in confusion. Why would Heero be sorry? It was hardly his fault that they had lost Laura. No, that blame lay solely at his door. He lifted his head to meet his husband's gaze. Again, the movement caused a stab of discomfort, which prompted an involuntary moan though it was ignored. But he saw the remorse that flashed through Heero's blue eyes at the sound and, at last, he understood. Duo's lips curled upward in a sad smile.
"Oh, Heero, I wasn't talking about what happened last night. You didn't really hurt me." He chuckled wryly at the disbelief in the other man's narrowed gaze. "Believe me," he said, running a thumb over his lover's firm, bottom lip, "I've experienced much, much worse than that." He quickly replaced the caressing digit with a kiss, more heated than the last, hoping to divert Heero from the reminder of his past.
The Asian man was more than willing to be distracted from his guilt, his shame slightly assuaged by Duo's reassurance but not completely relieved. The knowledge that the other man was inured to such rough treatment as he'd inflicted in his possessive fury only increased his self-hatred. The promise Heero had made that he would always treat his husband with love and respect had been broken and he wouldn't soon forgive himself for failing in his vow.
Duo lifted his head and met his lover's shadowed gaze with fervent sincerity. "I'm serious, Heero. I'm fine." A wry chuckle rose from his chest. "Hell, I even enjoyed it." He gave into the renewed urge to touch the other man's face. "If anyone should be apologizing, it's me. I'm sorry, Heero. Sorry for leaving you alone. Sorry for running away. Sorry for acting like a fool. Sorry for being a coward..."
Heero opened his mouth to stop the self-degrading litany but Duo suddenly rolled away. The taller man flopped down on the mattress and flung an arm over his eyes, as though trying to hide from the memory of his behavior. Heero raised up and looked down at the other man, feeling the continued pain that seeped from his lover's very pores. He reached out and removed the veiling limb, gazing into the tortured amethyst that seemed unable to return his regard.
"It's just... When the judge took her away from us, I felt like I could just tear off my skin. I couldn't stand it, couldn't stand myself." Duo felt the weight of the compassionate blue eyes that encompassed him. "I miss her so much," the long-haired man whispered. "She should be here, with us. This is her home. This is where she belongs."
Duo found the courage to meet Heero's gaze. He shuddered at the utter lack of blame reflected in his lover's handsome visage. Even after their years together, sometimes, he still found it difficult to believe that he'd been graced with the gift of Heero's love.
"What do we do, Heero?"
Duo's plea was that of a child who had the utmost faith in his infallibility and Heero was humbled. He recalled the sorrow on Quatre's face and the immovable reluctance of the judge. What could they do to get the daughter back? He honestly didn't know, but, the anguish in his lover's voice begged for reassurance, which he couldn't ignore. Heero gathered the other man back into his arms and held him tightly.
"What ever it takes," he replied, his gaze searching the ceiling as though the answers to all their troubles were written upon the cream-colored surface.
The more mundane needs of the body eventually drove them from the refuge of each others arms. Duo stood gazing out of the kitchen window into his garden while Heero scraped together a simple breakfast. His eyes lingered over a slightly ragged row of azaleas. Laura had planted them the month before and, now, they were in spectacular bloom, filling the garden with color and scent. The tall man turned away from the display of pink petals, the beautiful flowers making the girl's absence even more heartbreakingly conspicuous.
The chime of the doorbell pealed out suddenly and Duo headed towards the living room, grateful for the distraction. A brief glance at the security monitor had him yanking the door open, his eyes wide as he stared at the man on the stoop.
The shouted name had Heero rushing from the kitchen and the social worker found himself being assaulted by two intense stares. He'd known that the young men would be worried about their erstwhile daughter but he was unprepared for the hands that fastened on his arms and hauled him inside the apartment.
"Where is she?"
"Is she alright?"
Quatre wasn't certain who'd asked which question. He managed to pull away and put some space between himself and the other men. The social worker took a deep breath, his own emotions affected by the agitation swirling around him. He met the frantic gazes fixed upon him as calmly as he could.
"I can't tell you where Laura is. The law requires that her location be kept confidential until the issue of custody can be resolved."
Quatre braced himself for the abuse he was certain his explanation would engender, but none was forthcoming.
He looked from one young man to the other, noting the defeated acceptance in their postures. It was as though they had come to expect disappointment and would have been surprised by anything else. He silently cursed the strictures that dictated his response. He wished he could console them with some good news but he had none to report.
"Is she alright? Can you at least tell us that?"
The social worker looked towards Heero at the repeated question. The blond man turned and walked towards the sofa, sinking into the cushions. He propped his elbows upon his knees and looked down at his hands.
"I'm not going to lie to you. Laura is in a very distressed state right now. I stayed with her all night. In fact, I just left her before coming here, and she never once stopped crying."
Quatre glanced up at the two men standing before him. Duo's face was bloodless and Heero's jaw was clenched so tightly the social worker thought it might shatter. The thought flitted across his mind - not for the first time - that, sometimes, he really hated his job.
"I tried to explain to her that she couldn't come home with you, but she refused to understand."
The odd wording made Heero's eyes narrow in confusion. "What do you mean 'refused to understand?'"
"I told her the truth about what Delia revealed about Duo."
The tall man made an indistinguishable sound in his throat. Quatre looked at him with sympathy.
"I had to, Duo. She deserves the truth. She's not some shelter, pampered child. I knew she could handle it."
"How did she react?" Heero asked.
The social worker shook his head. "She said that she already knew about Duo."
"What?!" The braided man's pale face was drained of any lingering color.
"She didn't know you'd been child prostitute, of course," Quatre rushed to clarify. "She just said that she knew you'd been through some horrible things as a kid. That's why she warmed to you so quickly, Duo. She knew that you, more than anyone, could truly understand her, understand the trauma that she'd experienced."
Duo turned away, his eyes closing against the sting of impending tears. Yes, he did understand the abuse she'd suffered under Delia's less-than-ideal care. That intimate knowledge was what had made him so desperate to take care of her, to try and wipe away all the unpleasant memories that tortured her in her sleep. But that chance had been taken away.
"But," the social worker continued, "she refused to understand that, because of what Duo had been, she couldn't stay with you. I told her that the judge had to make sure that she was taken care of and that, though he believes you are good, decent people, he couldn't allow you continue as her guardians until your character could be fully evaluated and confirmed."
Quatre sighed. "She loves you both with the intensity and loyalty of which only a child is capable. In her eyes, you can do no wrong, so, of course, she can't see how anyone else could think badly of you."
Heero's eyes narrowed at the knowledge that his child was suffering and that there was nothing he could do to help her. He had always been someone who took his destiny into his own hands and this feeling of helplessness didn't at all suit him.
"Quatre, how do we get her back?" The question didn't allow for the option of failure.
The small blond returned Heero's purposeful gaze. Though the braided man didn't look towards him, he could tell that the tall man's attention was fixed upon him just as surely.
"The permanency hearing is still scheduled for the end of next week. During the hearing, you'll have the chance to prove your parental fitness. You'll need to produce character witness that can convince the judge that you are the best possible parents for Laura.
"I have to warn you, it won't be easy. Trowa, though personally convinced of your character and competence, will have no choice but to be strict in his assessment of you. He has superiors that he must answer to and, frankly, it is still difficult for a gay couple to become adoptive parents. Even though the Gay Family Rights Act allows for same-sex adoptions, there are many who are still overly-conservative in their views on the matter. And, given the fact that there's been criminal activity in Duo's past, well..."
Quatre let the seriousness of his comments fill the young men's minds. He hated to be the bearer of ill tidings, but he could be nothing less that completely honest with them. In the time he'd known Duo and Heero, they'd become good friends and he wouldn't insult them by imbuing them with false hope.
"You'll need to talk to Dorothy right away and get your witnesses together. Make certain that they are completely stellar, for you can be sure that Kushrenada will do everything in his power to discredit them. If he can successfully prove that Delia is competent and can slight you in any way, Laura will be returned to her mother."
Duo's head had begun to ache, his mind railing against the candidly pessimistic recital. He took a deep breath and glanced toward the social worker.
"Quatre..." His voice cracked and he had to swallow before he could speak again. "Is... Is there any chance at all?" The 'please' in his tone went unspoken.
The blond met the overly bright amethyst eyes that looked at him with a desperate need for hope. He hesitated, suddenly wanting nothing more than to reassure them that their daughter would soon be returned to them, safe and sound, and that their family would be reunited. He wanted these young men to be happy and he wanted the girl he'd left that morning, her sobs filling her room at the orphanage with her pain, to grow up in the loving home they could provide. But he forced away the pleasant lie.
"A chance? Yes, there's always a chance." Quatre looked once more towards his clasped hands. "But it's small. Very, very small."
"This place is a complete disgrace." Treize picked his way gingerly through the filth and garbage covering the floor of the dismal room. "It's a good thing Relena got you a decent apartment. If anyone ever got a hint that you lived here, you could just kiss your daughter goodbye."
Delia ignored the tall lawyer, her eyes searching absently through the refuse for any items that she might need.
She had been living in her new home for several weeks but there were a few items that she needed to retrieve from her old place. She picked up a shirt from the floor, one of the few decent items of clothing she'd owned in her previous life. As the fabric slid from the dirty, wooden boards, a flash of metal caught her attention.
Slowly, she reached down and picked up the picture frame, her eyes tracing greedily over the image depicted in the glossy print. A four-year-old Laura smiled back at her with bright, loving, brown eyes. Delia had managed to scrape together some extra money and had spent it on a professional photo. It was one of the last time that the girl's face had harbored such a look of happiness and faith.
No, that wasn't true. It was the last time the girl had looked at her mother in that way. But, Delia had seen that contented look on Laura's face for a brief second in the courthouse before the girl had realized who she was.
The woman grimaced at the memory of the terror that had filled the girl's entire being when she saw her mother for the first time in so many months. It was hardly the happy reunion of which Delia had dreamed.
After she'd dropped her bombshell and the tall, braided man had run from the judge's chamber the day before, she had remained, trying to convince the young magistrate that there was no reason for Laura to go anywhere but home with her. She was still the child's mother and the girl belonged with her. But the tall, green-eyed man had been obstinate in his refusal. Laura would have to go to a child-shelter until the permanency hearing. Her only consolation was that the girl wouldn't be returning home with those young bastards who'd been keeping her. At least they wouldn't be able to continue poisoning the child's mind against her.
The brown-skinned woman was tenacious in her self-delusion. Delia had managed to convince herself that the reason for Laura's vehement reaction was that the girl's guardians had convinced her that her mother didn't love her. Of course, she told herself, the physical abuse, torture, and neglect she'd inflicted on her daughter for so many years had had nothing to do with the child's standoffish behavior. No, it was all their fault: that braided whore and his Asian lover.
She desperate to get her daughter back. During her months of sobriety, the girl's absence had weighed on her conscious night and day, her restored memory plaguing her with the knowledge of her deplorable treatment of her child. All she wanted was a chance to atone, to be a good mother, something she, herself, had never had.
Delia marveled at how satisfying life could be when her mind wasn't drowning in a morass of chemical dependency. She finally had full control over her fate. She was no longer subject to the whims of cruel johns and treacherous dealers.
She had a good job, a nice apartment, and now, the prospect of regaining custody of her child. Both Treize and Relena had assured her time and again that there was no way she wouldn't get Laura back. Given what she'd reveled about the girl's foster fathers, they would never be able to keep her. And the judge was sure to acknowledge the effort she'd put into cleaning up her own life.
If only she could ignore the distant but persistent whisper that dogged her every waking moment. It was the voice of her demons. The ones that told her that she could only survive if she could get another fix. The ones that told her that her beautiful bitch of a daughter could never love her. It was that voice that made her want to inflict pain on the one person over which she'd ever had any power.
Shivering in fear at the force of the violent urges that suddenly filled her, Delia stood frozen in the middle of the hovel. She inhaled the foul air deeply as she tried to find her center of peace, like the doctor at the clinic had taught her. In the quiet of her mind, she could find strength. Drugs were only a crutch and she didn't need them.
The need for aggression was a cry for help which she should acknowledge but not heed. She was strong, she was competent, she was loved, she did love. Delia clutched the frame to her chest, extending her recitation to the girl in the picture.
She repeated the mantra silently, feeling herself gradually calm as the voice faded away. She opened her eyes and sighed. Treize was talking about his fancy apartment on the other side of town - rubbing her nose in it again, Delia thought - and she turned to join him. But before she could take a step, another glint caught her eye.
At first, she though it was another photo and she reached for it eagerly.
She almost recoiled as the syringe fell into her hand. Her rational mind screamed at her to drop the evil thing, to let it fall to the floor and shatter. But the small whispers rose again from somewhere deep within her. They filled her ears with promises of the solace of oblivion and, without conscious thought, she slipped the needle into her handbag before walking away.