Laura listened vaguely as the attorney spoke, explaining a bit about the procedure of the hearing. She looked over as Une, who was sitting next to her, took hold of her hand but returned her attention back to the door, waiting for Duo and Heero to come through the door like they’d promised.
“Today, the judge will hear testimony from character witnesses for...” Dorothy paused for a moment. She’d been about to say, ‘for you mother,’ but thought better of that choice of words. “...for Delia. Then, probably tomorrow, Duo and Heero can offer character witnesses.”
“That’s when you’ll be able to speak to the judge, Laura, like we discussed.” Une noticed the girl’s fixation with the door, her gaze concerned though she knew for what, or rather for who, the girl was looking. At the doctor’s statement, the child looked towards her.
“The judge will really let me speak?” she asked. Une tightened her grip on the girl’s hand briefly in reassurance. “Given that you are almost eleven years old, Laura, the judge will be much more inclined to hear from you.”
“And I’ll do my best to insist on it,” Dorothy added. “But that won’t happen until tomorrow, at the earliest. First, Duo and Heero have some other friends who want to speak for them.”
“Noin and Howard?” Laura conjectured.
“Yes, and your teacher, Mr. Chang.” Laura blushed at the Chinese man’s name. Though she was chagrined at her reaction, and her continued crush on the ebony-haired teacher, she was glad he was willing to help.
“How long do you think the hearing will take?” she asked, wanting to know how much longer she’d have to live in the limbo of uncertainty she’d been existing in for the past couple of weeks.
The attorney pursed her lips, understanding the girl’s concern. “I can’t say for certain, Laura. Lots of things can happen during a court proceeding, surprises and such that can make things unpredictable. But, I’m hoping everything will be settled in two days, three at the most.”
Three days, Laura mused, by nature accepting the more pessimistic estimate. Just three more days and she could go home with her fathers, back to her own bed, her books, and her toys. Back to Duo’s singing and Heero’s delicious meals. Back to school and her friends. Back to her karate class and her Japanese lessons. Back to her braids. Back to life.
Her mind, formed by the harsh realities of life on the streets, whispered that there was another possibility, an alternative outcome to her happy fantasy. But she refused to let her mind dwell on it, preferring to think about how she would explain all of this to Marimaia when she saw the little redheaded girl again. She was almost smiling, thinking about how wide her friend’s blue eyes would be as she told her about the orphanage and everything, when the door to the courtroom opened, admitting Heero and Duo into the chamber.
Laura sat up in her seat, opening her mouth to call to them when her eyes rested on Duo’s face. She blinked at his pale skin and his shocked expression. Without conscious thought, her feet carried her to his side. She grabbed his hand, her own face reflecting the ironic, almost maternal concern that often characterizes a daughter’s feelings towards her father.
“Duo, what’s wrong?” she asked, tugging on his hand until she was certain she had his attention. He looked down at her, a smile on his lips that was so obviously fake she didn’t know why he’d even bothered.
The braided man noticed the obstinate disbelief on the girl’s face and knew she wouldn’t be easily distracted. Opting for the truth, he knelt in front of her, grateful that Heero did the same. He looked towards Dorothy, his eyes telling her that there would be no repercussions for her ill-advised omission. The attorney’s shoulders relaxed and she nodded before politely turning away from them.
“Duo,” Laura repeated, “what’s wrong?”
He looked at her worried face, wondering just how many more things would try to take her away from them. It was as if fate were delighting in a cruel joke at their expense. He reached up and rubbed a hand over the girl’s short hair, a more genuine smile crossing his face as he decided that he liked the bushy, springing mat. Regardless of how her hair looked, she was still beautiful. His smile faded as he thought of what Trowa had just revealed.
Seeing that Duo was having trouble forming the words, Heero gathered his thoughts.
“Judge Barton won’t be hearing our case anymore,” he began. Laura looked at him in confusion.
“But, why not? I thought he was the judge.” She liked the quiet, green-eyed man, in spite of, or maybe because of, his funny hair.
“Well,” Heero continued, wishing that Duo’s was the one doing this. He’d never have his husband’s facility with words. “Judge Barton’s bosses decided that he shouldn’t be in charge of this hearing because he’d already heard the facts in your case. They thought he wouldn’t be able to make a neutral decision.”
The area between Laura’s eyes wrinkled as her nose scrunched up. Granted, she didn’t know much about courts and the law and everything, but that reasoning sounded strange to her. Duo saw the expression on her face and managed a wry chuckled. Her intelligence never ceased to amaze him.
“Yeah,” he said, “I didn’t buy that either.” He sighed, wondering if it was right that he told her the complete truth. Yes, he decided, she had the right to know. It was her life that was at stake, her future. Duo looked into her pretty, brown eyes.
“The new judge who’ll be hearing our case asked for Judge Barton to be removed. Barton is gay, like me and Heero, and the new judge doesn’t like gay people. The bottom line is that he didn’t want Judge Barton to have any control in this matter because he thinks Barton will give you to me and Heero just because we’re the same.”
Laura stared at him, her quick mind taking the obvious leap. “And the new judge won’t want to give me to you because you’re gay, right?”
Duo looked at her, trying desperately to think of a reassuring reply. He was saved by the entrance of the court bailiff. Dorothy came over to them and placed a hand on Laura’s shoulder.
“The hearing is about to start,” she said. “Laura, we need to go back to our table.” The girl let the blond woman lead her away but she kept her eyes fixed on the braided man’s face, looking for any sort of encouragement. Her heart sank as she found none even as she appreciated his honesty. He could have lied to her, treated her like a little kid by telling her that everything would be alright. But he hadn’t. He’d told her the truth and a part of her really wished that he hadn’t been so candid.
Heero helped Duo to his feet, his supportive hand squeezing the other man’s arm. He smiled when his husband looked up, his eyes expressing his pride in Duo for facing up to the difficult task. The taller man just shook his head, unable to accept the approbation when he felt as though he’d just killed a baby bird with his bare hands. The anguish on Laura’s face, that she’d tried so hard to govern, had nearly killed him. How much more bad news could they take?
Just then, Quatre and Trowa entered the courtroom. Duo noticed the pinched look on the social worker’s face and rose a questioning brow in his direction. The blond man jerked a thumb towards the door behind him.
“They’re here,” he said. Just who ‘they’ were became clear when the well-dressed trio suddenly came through the door. Duo felt his entire body tense as his eyes locked onto Delia’s face. Only his desire not to make an unpleasant scene in front of Laura kept him from attacking the woman and tearing out the eyes that dared to rest on the girl’s face.
The hand on his arm became restraining and he looked towards his husband to reassure him that he’d keep himself under control. But Heero’s blue eyes were looking elsewhere. Duo followed his fixed gaze, ending at Relena’s smug face. Then he realized that it wasn’t him Heero was trying to restrain but rather his own violent urges.
They kept their eyes on the two woman and the tall attorney until they’d taken their seats on the other side of the room. Relena and Treize turned towards each other in quiet conversation but Delia’s eyes continued to rest on her daughter’s face.
“Come on,” Duo said, his voice tinged with a soft growl as he pushed the other man towards the bench behind where Dorothy and Laura sat. Trowa and Quatre joined Une on the row immediately behind them just as the bailiff mounted the podium.
“All rise for the honorable Judge Hervé.”
The assembly stood and a berobed man entered the chamber, approaching the dais with an unhurried, almost pompous gait. He was tall and solidly built with a nose that appeared to have been used as a dog’s chew toy. Iron gray hair stood straight up on top of his head as though it were appalled to be rooted to his scalp and was trying to escape.
The judge turned steely blue eyes over those standing before him, meeting each person’s gaze one by one. He allowed his attention to linger on Trowa’s expressionless visage for a long moment before moving on. The tall man remained motionless but his companion took hold of his clenched fist, the gesture hidden by the bench in front of them.
“Be seated,” Judge Hervé finally announced, his scrutiny completed. He flicked a final glance at the person seated in the second row on his right, again noting the thick braid that they’d drawn over their shoulder to fidget with nervously. He’d been uncertain at first, but it was indeed a man with that incredible hair and pretty face. Hervé shuddered in disgust.
“This is a permanent custody hearing in the matter of In re Laura Maxwell to determine the final disposition of said minor child.” The judge placed the file back on the surface of the desk and looked out again into the audience. Laura turned to look briefly at Duo, unable to stop the smile that she always got upon hearing her full, legal name. He returned it with effort, his smile disappearing as she turned forward again.
“I want to repeat that this is a hearing, not a trial,” the judge continued. “There will be no opening and closing arguments, there will be no jury, and there will be no theatrics.” His gaze drifted over the two attorneys. “Witnesses will be presented in an orderly fashion, first by Ms. Tippen and then by the colony.
“Before we begin, I feel it important to note that, in the view of the law, a child belongs with his or her parents. It is a rare situation that a child will be permanently removed from the parents’ home. Some of you should be familiar with this ideal,” he said, glancing at Trowa, once more. “For the rest of you, let me make that perfectly clear. And let me state my position clearly, as well. Unless Ms. Tippen can be shown by clear and convincing evidence to be unfit to care for the child, she will be granted custody.”
Heero’s hand, which was resting on Duo’s leg, was clenched hard enough to make the braided man wince if he hadn’t himself been so full of rage. That bastard! It was as if he wasn’t interested in even making the pretense that this was a fair hearing. He flicked his eyes towards Delia, his heart filling with dismay as he noticed the covetous expression in her eyes as she looked at Laura. He rested his amethyst eyes on the back of the girl’s head, feeling as though she were slipping further and further away.
Silence reigned in the courtroom as the judge’s words faded away. Dorothy blinked, unable to believe the man’s blatant disregard for procedure. It was unheard of that a judge in Family Court would make such a statement regarding how he or she would make their final decision. If she’d had the option, she would have stood up right then and claimed that this was a mistrial. Instead, the blond attorney kept her seat, ignoring the smirk from the tall, ginger-haired man she could see out of the corner of her eye. Kushrenada sat across from her with Laura’s mother, completely at ease, a cocky smile imprinted upon his lips.
Satisfied with the looks of anxiety coming from the respondents’ side of the room, the judge glanced towards Treize.
“Mr. Kushrenada, you may call your first witness.”
The tall man rose smoothly from his seat, his suit hanging perfectly on his elegant frame. Dorothy resented the sudden urge she felt to straighten the seam of her own immaculate skirt.
“I call Ms. Relena Dorlian to the stand, your honor.”
Relena threw the dark-skinned woman sitting next to her a brilliant smile as she rose from her seat. Making her way to across the from of the room, she ignored the daggers of blue and amethyst that were being flung in her direction. She sent a flirtatious glance towards the judge before finally turning to look at the two, glaring men. She couldn’t resist the impish need to smile sweetly towards them as she took the stand. The anger on Duo’s handsome face made her want to laugh even as the quiet menace in Heero’s fixed gaze sent a shiver through her.
Damning her lingering attraction to the dark-haired man, as well as her growing fear of the promises his eyes were making as he stared at her, the blond took her seat. She turned towards the bailiff as he approached her with the Bible.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
“I do,” she answered, sitting back in her chair. She watched Treize as he walked towards her, thinking that she might just have to take him up on that offer of a date if everything worked out as she’d planned.
“Please state your name and occupation for the record,” he said.
“My name is Relena Dorlian and I’m a sales manager for Colony Communications.”
“Thank you. Ms. Dorlian, can you tell us how you became involved in this matter?”
“Well,” she began, her rehearsed speech coming readily to her lips. “I am a co-worker of Mr. Yuy’s, and nearly a year ago, it came to my attention that Mr. Yuy and his...his husband,” she paused, portraying feigned distress and more honest disgust, “were attempting to adopt a child.
“Now, I won’t pretend to be the perfect citizen. I’ve had my share of parking tickets, after all, but I just couldn’t condone the thought of a poor, innocent child living with such morally corrupt individuals. I mean, can you just imagine the type of depravity to which the child was being exposed while she lived with these men?” Relena turned her best look of sincerity towards the judge, pleased to see that she had his rapt attention.
“So, I took it upon myself to locate the poor girl’s mother. When I found Delia, she was in pretty bad shape. She was half-starved and had been the victim of some villainous characters who’d forced her into an unfortunate addiction to heroine.”
Duo growled low in his throat, trying not to choke on the stench of the bullshit streaming from the woman’s mouth. He glanced over at Heero, eyes narrowing in concern as the pinched-look on other man’s face. His husband looked as though he was going to explode, a sight he’d only seen once and never wanted to witness again. He turned his attention back to the performance going on in the witness box.
“I felt,” Relena continued, “that all Delia needed was a chance at a fresh start, a new beginning. So I had her enrolled in a clinic and she completed the program with commitment and determination. She has been clean and sober for months now and has held a steady job at The Galaxy Café for that entire time. As Delia’s sponsor in her recovery program, I keep tabs upon every aspect of her new life. I have never once received a complaint from her supervisor or from her doctors at the clinic about her. She goes to work on time, does a stellar job and attends her recovery meetings regularly. She is a beautiful person and I am proud to call myself her friend.”
Treize stood next to the witness box while Relena spoke, hands folded patiently in front of him, ready to prompt her if she forgot any portion of her recitation. But she delivered wonderfully as he knew she would. He glanced towards the judge, smiling at the old lecher’s attempt to keep his gaze from straying towards the low-buttoned front of the blonde’s shirt. He stepped over to his table, drawing attention to himself once more.
“Ms. Dorlian, was there any specific reason that you were so repulsed at the thought of Mr. Yuy and Mr. Maxwell adopting a child?”
The question was a gamble since it left Relena wide open to any attempts at discrediting her testimony. However, Treize had been positive that Catalonia would take this line of attack and thought to derail her by attempting to impeach his own witness. He glanced at the blond attorney, noting her suspicious glare with satisfaction.
Relena sighed, bowing her head in theatric shame. “I have to be honest, I had a fancy for Mr. Yuy before I found out what he was.” A snort of disbelief came from the braided man’s direction but she ignored it. “When I learned about his preference for the company of...of other men, I was devastated.”
“And those feelings had no bearing on your actions with regard to Ms. Tippen?”
“Absolutely not. What happened between Mr. Yuy and myself was years ago. I have completely gotten over any ‘feelings’ I may have once had for him. I could never care for such a pervert,” she said emphatically.
“Ms. Dorlian, may I remind you to please answer the questions directly and to refrain from making any editorial opinions.” Relena sent a wide-eyed gaze of apology to the judge.
“I am sorry, your honor. Please forgive me.” She smiled and the gray-haired man dismissed her contrition with a waive of his hand.
“That’s quite alright. You may continue, Mr. Kushrenada.”
“Thank you, your honor. Ms. Dorlian, how did you even discover that Mr. Yuy and Mr. Maxwell were planning on adopting a child?”
“A friend of mine who has a friend who works for DYFS told me in passing that he’d heard of a gay couple trying to adopt under some new laws that had been passed. Naturally, I was curious, wondering what sort of laws would allow such a travesty to occur. When I realized that I knew the men in question, I couldn’t remain neutral. It’s one thing to hear about things in the abstract, but when an act of such perversion is going on right under your very nose, well, I just had to do something.”
The tall lawyer nodded, expressing sympathy with his witness. A quick glance at the judge showed that he too was understanding of her moral dilemma.
“One final question, Ms. Dorlian. You are aware, are you not, that Ms. Tippen has a history of abuse towards her daughter. Can you say, with all sincerity, that you believe she is fully capable of taking care of Laura should she win custody?”
“Definitely,” Relena answered without hesitation. “I know that, in the past, she was shackled by the chains of drugs and prostitution. But, I am convinced that Delia has rid herself of the demons that used to plagued her. Delia is Laura’s mother, plain and simple, and she loves her daughter. Since I’ve known her, the one desire she has expressed to me above all others is that her daughter be returned to her so that she can be the kind of mother she so longs to be.”
“Thank you, Ms. Dorlian,” Treize said. “I have no further questions.”
“You may step down Ms. Dorlian. I am going to call for a thirty-minute recess after which you may call your next witness, Mr. Kushrenada,” Judge Hervé announced, punctuating the statement with the bang of his gavel. The assembly rose at the bailiff’s prompt, standing as the judge left the chamber.
Dorothy remained on her feet, eyes forward as the sound of shifting bodies filled the room. She looked up at her name, raising her eyes towards Quatre and Trowa. She shook her head.
“It was impressive,” the tall judge agreed. Looking reluctantly away from his husband, Duo turned his attention towards them. “What do you mean ‘impressive’?” he asked.
“Treize basically impeached his own witness, taking away any chance for Dorothy to make an effective cross-examination,” Trowa explained. “He made certain to pose to her every question that could be used to damn her testimony.”
Duo blinked, not completely comprehending the legal jargon but understanding the point nonetheless. He glanced down at Laura’s bowed head and back to Heero’s impassive face, uncertain as to where he should direct his attention. After a brief, internal struggle in his mind, Laura won. Duo abandoned his seat, coming through the witness gate to kneel at the girl’s side.
“You okay, munchkin?” he asked, resting a hand on her knee. She looked up at him, eyes filled with uncertainty.
“Do you think that lady was telling the truth, Duo? Do you think my mother might really be better?” The hope in her voice sent a shaft of pain through his heart. He spoke, hoping none of the jealousy that had sprung up suddenly within him was apparent.
“I don’t know, Laura. Do you want her to be better?”
“Yes,” she nodded. “I want her to be happy and normal. I don’t want her to be sick anymore.”
Duo swallowed the lump in his throat, the pain in his chest stealing his breath. His hand tightened reflexively on her knee.
“And, if she is better, do you think you might want to go back to her?” he rasped.
Laura had looked down, not letting her gaze wander over to where her mother sat on the other side of the room. But, now, she raised her eyes to the man beside her in surprise.
“NO!” Her shout carried through the room, drawing everyone’s attention.
Laura felt the weight of her mother’s eyes. In spite of herself, she looked over, meeting the older woman’s gaze. She hadn’t allowed herself to look at Delia since she’d entered the courtroom and now, she felt a jolt of surprise. This wasn’t the woman she remembered. There was no hint of dazed eyes, no twitches signify withdrawal, no bruises left by greedy pimps. All she saw was a normal woman in a nice suit. A woman who looked very much like herself.
Was this her mother? Was this the same woman who’d beaten her, raped her, torn her self-esteem to shreds? It hardly seemed possible. When she’d seen Delia before, that day she’d been taken away from Duo and Heero, she’d been too scared to really look at her mother closely. But, now, she did and she was amazed. This woman looked like a school teacher, not a child molester. She didn’t look like she could hurt a fly.
Laura experienced a moment of uncertainty. Was she right to be so adamant about never returning to Delia? What if that Relena lady had been right and her mother was better? Shouldn’t she want to go back to her? When it was all said and done, Delia was her mother. And she did love her. That was the painful truth.
She looked back towards Duo and saw the hint of fear in his pretty eyes. He was worried that she’d say she wanted to go back to Delia after all, she realized. Suddenly, her confusion disappeared. What was there to decide? Yes, she loved her mother, but she was tired. Tired of being afraid of the one person she should never have had to fear. Maybe Delia was better, but she deserved to be better, too. Delia may have been her mother, but Duo and Heero had given her a chance at life.
“I don’t want to go back to her, Duo,” she whispered. “I want to stay with you and Heero. I want to go home.” She flung her arms around his neck.
The ache in Duo’s chest disappeared and he thanked God again for bringing her into his life. No matter what happened, he knew that Laura loved him and Heero as much as they loved her. They had already won, no matter what the judge said. Duo turned his head to the bench where he’d been sitting, wanting to share this moment with Heero. But the Asian man was no where to be found.
Relena looked at herself critically in the bathroom mirror. She smoothed down a stray blond strand and smiled at her reflection in approval. Her performance in the courtroom had been flawless, thanks to Treize’s expert preparation. No matter what happened with Delia and her little brat, she had no regrets. The thought of the stunned expression on Duo’s face had made it all worth it. Not to mention Heero’s look of barely controlled rage. She chuckled, walking over to the bathroom door.
She stepped out into the hall, pulling the door closed behind her. She turned around and promptly ran into something very solid. Wondering where the wall had come from, Relena looked up in confusion. Her confusion turned to uncertainty and then dread as she looked up into a pair of stormy, deep blue eyes.
AN: Thanks to Dians, again, for her extreme beta efforts!