Duo and Heero made the journey to the courthouse in silence. Heero pulled smoothly into the parking space and turned off the engine. He glanced towards his companion, frowning at the other man’s pallor as well as his uncharacteristic reticence. He reached over and took hold of his husband’s hand, easing it from its clenched posture. He rubbed his thumb over the half-moon shapes depressed into the palm until troubled amethyst eyes finally looked up at him.
Heero could guess what was going in Duo’s head. Both men were well aware of the stakes and of the myriad hindrances they faced. But he knew that Duo’s fears ran deeper. He tightened his hold on his lover’s hand.
“What ever it takes,” he said quietly.
Duo remembered those words, spoken the morning after they’d lost Laura. He’d laid next to Heero, soul bruised and heart broken, and had beg to know how he could fix this mess he’d caused. The other man’s confidence had helped him then and it helped him now, but the knot of fear lodged in his gut refused to be completely assuaged. Duo offered a faded imitation of his usually bright smile before turning away to open his door and alight from the car. Heero followed, struggling to feel at least some of the confidence he’d portrayed.
Duo avoided looking at his shujin during the elevator ride to the third floor. He was trying very hard to keep himself together. If he looked into those blue eyes that always demanded totally honesty, he didn’t know if he’d be able to keep his anxiety, and his guilt, at bay. For Laura’s sake, as well as his own, he needed to be strong. As the elevator doors finally slid open, revealing the too familiar hallway, he stepped out first into the corridor, leaving Heero to follow behind.
Dorothy looked up at the ping announcing the elevator’s arrival. She saw the two men emerge, expressions fixed and grim, and swallowed the acid that suddenly rose into her throat. The attorney hadn’t seen her clients since learning about the unanticipated change in the presiding judge two days ago. She knew full well that she should have informed them of the matter when she first knew of it. But, she had been afraid of adding onto their misery. Now, she was out of time and out of excuses. Was it only a few weeks ago that she’d scolded them for their own ill-fated secrecy? The irony might almost have been funny if it wasn’t so sad.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” she began, trying to inject her voice with its usual tone of confidence. Dorothy narrowed her light-blue eyes as the two men drew nearer, examining their faces with piercing minuteness. Duo’s eyes were tinged with red, dark circles marring the delicate skin beneath them. Heero, while wearing the outward appearance of self-possession, betrayed his own emotional turmoil through the tension-filled line of his rigid jaw.
“Did you two sleep at all?” she asked, her gaze moving from one to the other.
“No, not really,” Duo admitted. He glanced over briefly at his husband, remembering how the other man had held him the night before, strong arms tight around his chest. They had laid the whole night through, sleepless, silent, clinging desperately to each other.
“But, we’ll be okay,” he continued, seeing the concerned look on her face. “We know that you’ll do everything in your power to help.”
“And Judge Barton seems like a fair, reasonable man,” Heero added.
“Yes, he is,” Dorothy sighed, deciding to stop procrastinating, “But, I’m afraid I have some news for you. Some bad news...” The sound of the elevator chimed through the hall and before she could continue, a voice rang out stealing away the men’s attention.
A dark head and a chestnut braid whipped around in tandem at the childish cry. The sight of the three adults exiting the elevator passed unnoticed as they turned their sole focus on the girl running towards them with bright, light-brown eyes.
Duo took a small, unconscious step back. For a second, he felt the urge to run, run like he had that day when they’d lost her. Horrible images of her bleeding and in pain forced themselves into his mind, her tortured face mocking him for his failure. These same visions had haunted him the day his past had been so horrifically revealed. The joy he could see now, sparkling in her eyes as she rushed forward, beat at him. How could he face her? How could she still trust him after he’d abandoned her? Heero had told him how she’d reached out for him, crying when he’d had to leave her with Quatre. He’d been such a coward, fleeing from her just as he’d run from his past, and she’d been the one to bear the burden of his weakness.
But then she was there and he bent down without thought, scooping her up into his arms and holding her close. She buried her head in his neck, her tears wetting the collar of his shirt. He closed his eyes, relishing the feel of her in his deprived arms, unaware and uncaring of the moisture welling up in his own eyes.
He’d missed her so much and he’d failed her so badly. No matter how many times he’d heard it - from Heero, from Quatre, from Howard and Noin - that none of this was his fault, he knew it was. If not for what he’d been, they would never have lost Laura in the first place and he and Heero wouldn’t be here now, praying to have their daughter returned to them.
All he’d wanted, all he’d ever wanted, was to have someone to love who loved him. His early life had been filled with so much terror and pain that he never thought he could truly be at peace. But, Heero had found him and had saved him, giving him everything he’d ever wished for in his most secret dreams. Then, they’d received this treasure, battered and bruised, but still brilliant for all that. Finally, he’d found someone else to love, someone who needed him. At last, he knew forgiveness, the forgiveness he’d sought from Hilde’s memory for not being there for her when she’d truly needed him.
And, then, he’d gone and let down the two people he swore to himself that he’d never disappoint, abandoning them when they’d needed him most. Well, never again. For the first time in weeks, Duo was happy. His little girl was back in his arms and he didn’t think he’d ever be able to let her go again.
Impressions of Laura began to seep into his consciousness. She seemed smaller and lighter than he remembered. Had she been eating properly? It suddenly seemed that he could feel her ribs pressing against his chest. Had someone been starving her? Through his growing anger, he gave voice to the hope that he would always have the right to experience these fatherly concerns. Then he noticed that her hair against his cheek was soft and fuzzy rather than the tight ridges he was used to feeling. Opening his eyes, he gasped. Her braids were gone! Someone at the shelter must have made her remove them. Duo knew how much the girl loved her braids and thought that their absence likely played some part in the tears pooling against his neck.
“It will be okay, munchkin,” he whispered, rubbing her small back as she wept against him. Never again, he repeated to himself, holding her tighter.
Heero stood motionless for a moment, just absorbing the sight of his husband and child. Though his more subdued nature may have made him less vocal than Duo, his love for Laura was no less intense. He’d counted every second she was gone, wanting nothing more than to bring her home again. The house had seemed so quiet without her. He and Duo had often found themselves drifting into her abandoned room, just trying to remember the sound of her voice, the way she wrinkled her nose when puzzled, the way her eyes lit up when she laughed. To see her now, wrapped in his husband’s arms, made him want to capture this moment forever in his heart.
He moved towards them until he stood at Laura’s back. He wrapped his arms around both her and his lover’s slim waist, holding them both as closely to him as he could manage. He rested his brow on the girl’s head, whispering in murmured Japanese, his knowledge of English briefly abandoning him. He told her, how much he loved her and how much they needed her, hoping she would understand.
Opening his eyes for a moment, he met Duo’s tear-bright gaze. They shared a silent promise. ‘She is our daughter,’ they said, repeating the vow they’d made the first night they’d found her. And, gods willing, they’d be able to keep it.
Laura buried her head in Duo’s neck, breathing in the scent of his aftershave, perfectly content to remain right where she was. She’d missed it. The aroma was so equated in her mind with feelings of safety that just smelling it had calmed her. She also craved the sound of the Japanese being spoken softly behind her, hearing the low rumble of Heero’s voice through her body more than with her ears. Daddy and ‘tousan she called them in her mind. She would start calling them that for real, she decided. She thought they would like that.
For two, long weeks, she’d been apart from her beloved fathers, and for two, long weeks, she’d thought about what she’d say when she saw them again. She’d wanted to know why Duo had left her, why he’d looked so scared as he’d run from the courthouse that day? She knew, now, about his childhood and realized that he’d been afraid to tell her the truth. But she hadn’t really understood. He could have trusted her. They were so much alike, she and Duo. They had both been raised to be more familiar with the back of an angry hand than the comfort of a hug.
She’d wanted to ask him these things, but now, all she wanted to do was have him hold her. What did it really matter, in the end. She decided that she didn’t care. She just wanted to go home.
Laura felt Duo’s hand rub over her mid-length afro, kept neat thanks only to Une’s insistences. She’d screamed and cried when they’d made her take out her braids, some stupid nurse saying that they were unsanitary. She knew she’d acted like a baby but she didn’t care. Her braids were the only link she still had with her fathers in that horrible orphanage and she’d felt as if they were being taken away from her all over again as the neat plaits were dismantled by unfeeling hands.
Laura reached around Duo’s back and grabbed the thick rope of hair hanging down his back. How could she be his daughter if she didn’t have her braids? And she could barely remember the Japanese that Heero had just started to teach her. She felt the tears rising in her eyes again, stinging the already raw tissue. If only she could stay here, safe between these two men who loved her, she’d never wish for anything else. She tightened her hold on the braid in her hand, clinging to it like a life line between her future and the past.
Dorothy stood back, watching the two men and the girl as they embraced. She smiled, telling herself that the sudden lightness in her heart was due to the familial tableau before her and not the fact that she’d been granted a momentary reprieve. She stepped around the trio, nodding towards the others in greeting.
“Quatre, Dr. Une,” she began, pausing as she realized who the third person was. “Judge Barton?” She blinked up into the tall man’s emerald eyes. “What are you doing here?” Then she saw that he had the social worker’s hand firmly held in his and her confusion cleared.
Trowa noticed the shift in her focus and sent the attorney a wry smile. “I want to know how things turn out,” he said. “Plus, Quatre convinced me that my presence here was vital, though I can’t say I’m quite certain why that’s the case.” He glanced fondly at the shorter man.
“I’m hoping that Trowa’s presence might shame Judge Hervé into at least giving Duo and Heero a fair hearing,” Quatre explained. Dorothy quirked an arched eyebrow in his direction. She wasn’t sure of the soundness of his reasoning but she appreciated his motives.
“Hmmm,” she replied. She looked over her shoulder at the still embracing trio. “I suppose that’s not entirely proper, since the hearing hasn’t even begun yet,” she mused. Dorothy looked back towards Quatre. “It’s your call.”
“Well, I guess it’s not...” he began, his reluctance clear in his tone.
“Just give them a minute.” The social worker looked at the tall doctor, eager for her to give him any excuse not to breakup the reunion. “Laura needs this as much, if not more, than they do,” she explained, her bespeckled gaze wistful as she regarded the trio. “This is good for her.” She glanced at Quatre. “In my medical opinion,” she continued.
That was enough for him. He nodded. “Fine,” he said. “But let’s at least walk over there,” he added, ever conscious of his duties. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t supposed to allow any contact between his charge and her former guardians until the custody issue was resolved. But, the blond man didn’t have the heart to cause either the girl or his friends any more grief than was absolutely necessary.
Heero tried to ignore the sounds of approaching feet, irrationally annoyed with his sharp hearing. But habit forced him to look up, uncomfortable with allowing unknown persons to walk up behind him unannounced. Reluctantly, he turned around, and froze as he saw who all was there. His quick mind separated out the expected faces – Dorothy, Quatre, Une – and zeroed in on the one irregularity.
“Judge Barton?” he whispered. He still had one hand resting on his husband’s back and used it to gain his attention. “Duo,” he urged, blue eyes locked onto the tall judge’s half-obscured face.
It was a moment before Duo realized that Heero was trying to get his attention. “What?” he said as he looked up, irritated that the world was forcing itself upon his notice when he just wanted to concentrate on the girl in his arms.
Heero cut him off, his attention still fixed on the tall judge. “Duo, Judge Barton is here.”
Duo blinked, following his husband’s gaze. He quirked a single eyebrow, looking askance at Heero and then back to the judge. “Heero,” he said slowly, as though explaining to a child, “of course he would be here. He’s hearing our case.”
Blue eyes turned to glare at him and Duo immediately realized the stupidity of his statement. Yes, Barton was hearing the case. So why would he be standing with them in the hallway? Surely there were some sort of rules about seeing the judge before the trial.
“Judge Barton,” Heero said finally, his directly winning out over his wariness. “What are you doing here?” He threw a suspicious glance at the blond attorney and narrowed his eyes when she gave a slight wince.
Dorothy grabbed Une’s arm and pulled her forward. “I think we should take Laura into the courtroom,” she said, avoiding Heero’s regard. “I think that Quatre has something to explain to Duo and Heero.”
“But...” The social worker sputtered at her sly maneuver, but she ignored him. Walking over to the men, Dorothy made certain that the tall doctor stayed between herself and Heero. She placed a hand on the girl’s arm, which was still locked securely around Duo’s neck.
“Laura, sweetie,” she began, “why don’t you come with me and Une? I’ll show you where we’ll be sitting in the courtroom.”
When Laura heard her name being called and the hand on her arm, she panicked. They were going to make her leave and she didn’t want to go! She tightened her hold on Duo’s neck, burying her face even deeper in his neck.
Duo looked down at the girl’s head as his ability to breath was suddenly impaired. When he realized what was happening, he smiled and ran a calming hand over her back.
“It’s okay, kiddo. You go on with Dorothy. Heero and I’ll be right behind you. Okay?”
Wary, light-brown eyes turned up to meet his own. “Promise?”
Resisting the sudden urge to tell Dorothy where to go, Duo nodded, forcing himself to retain his smile. The girl’s small, uncertain voice tore at him but he knew it would do no good to make a scene. “Promise,” he replied.
He placed Laura on her feet and made his hand release its hold upon hers. She turned to look at him as the blond attorney and the doctor led her away, so, he kept smiling until the door to the courtroom closed behind them. Duo’s mask disappeared in an instant and the intense glare he turned on Quatre and Trowa made the blond wince. The tall judge faced the irate, amethyst stare with his typically reserve.
“Now, what the hell is going on?” Duo grated, consciously trying to keep his voice from carrying into the courtroom. Heero, his face as neutral as Trowa’s except for the gleam of distrust in his blue eyes, crossed his arms over his broad chest, standing silently behind his husband.
Quatre sighed, cursing Dorothy’s sneakiness. She should have told them about this days ago, but now he was stuck with the onerous duty.
“Trowa is no longer presiding over your case,” he said, succinctly.
Duo and Heero stared at the other men, not comprehending Quatre’s revelation. The braided man voiced their shared question.
“What do you mean, he’s no longer presiding? If not him, then who?” Duo’s voice rose in volume and Heero placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.
“I was removed from the case by my superiors,” Trowa explained, speaking for the first time. The shorter, blond man sent him a glance of gratitude as he explained the situation, gladly relinquishing his task to the young judge. Duo stood frozen as he listened, amethyst eyes wide and mouth agape. Heero felt a stab of pain in his jaw as it clenched in unconscious denial.
“So,” he said after letting himself absorb the news, “what you’re saying is that our new judge is a homophobic bigot who not only will have no problem in taking Laura away from us forever but will be thrilled to do it rather than let two fags become fathers.”
Quatre winced at Heero’s bluntness and opened his mouth to soften the supposition, but Trowa nodded, making his efforts futile. The taller man was right. There was no way to put a kind face on it. The social worker reluctantly looked towards Duo, his chest tightening at the other man’s utter lack of color.
“Duo,” he said, voice nearly a whisper, “I’m so sorry.”
Heero said nothing more. He merely took hold of his husband’s arm and led the stunned man into the courtroom. Quatre watched them go and turned towards his lover.
“My God, Trowa, I don’t know if I can stand much more of this. The whole thing is making me sick.” The taller man cupped his pale check in a long-fingered hand.
“It will be alright, Quatre. That’s what you told me, remember?” The blond man nodded, his aquamarine eyes searching the other man’s handsome face. “I believed you, so you’ll just have to trust me, now.”
Quatre smiled but was unable to dislodge the pain in his chest. He felt the taller man take his hand and allowed himself to be led towards the courtroom door. Before they could slip inside, the elevator announced another arrival. Quatre looked over, and before the door could block his view he saw the ginger-haired lawyer, Kushrenada, the blond woman, Relena Dorlian, and Laura’s mother step into the hall. Swallowing down a disgusted epithet, the blond followed Trowa into the courtroom.
AN: For those who noticed my goof regarding Trowa’s trainer in Part 24, gomen!!! ^_^ And thanks to Dians for her extreme beta efforts!