"I..." Laura squeaked. She took a deep breath, trying to force down the hysteria she could feel tickling at the back of her mind.
"I was nine. I think I was anyway, since I don’t really know when my birthday is." She knew the factual observation was probably irrelevant but she clung to it, desperate to keep herself from being swallowed by her memories.
"I had come home that night after trying to find some food. I’d been looking through garbage dumpsters behind a couple of restaurants, begging from folks walking down the street, doing some pick pocketing." She spoke in a deadened tone, any concerns she may have had at being punished for her illegal activities of survival were banished by the numbness that had overcome her.
"My mo..." The word got stuck in her throat. "Delia," she finally managed, "was actually there for a change. She saw me come in and I could tell that she was high, so I tried to just get past her and go to my room. But she grabbed me, holding my arm real tight so I couldn’t get away. At first, I thought she was just going to yell at me about something, maybe smack me around a bit. I remember that I wasn’t really afraid that she would hurt me that time ‘cause she seemed pleased about something. She was even smiling."
Laura paused, her words trailing off into the utter silence of the courtroom. She looked out into the assembly, but saw nothing except for the disgusting squalor of her mother’s old apartment. A shiver went through her as she thought about that smile, causing her narrow shoulders to shake slightly.
"I was waiting for her to do whatever she was going to do to me, when the bathroom door opened and this big, really ugly man came out. It wasn’t the first time she’d brought a customer home so at first I didn’t think much about him. But instead of hitting me, she just kept holding my arm, looking at me and then at the guy. And..."
Laura suddenly felt her throat close up, as though her body didn’t want to allow her to speak any more. She closed her eyes as her tears suddenly returned.
"And, then I was so scared. I’d never been so scared before."
She just sat, hunched over in the large chair, and cried, unable to do more for several long minutes. Her body shuddered as it was wracked by harsh sobs. Wiping at her face with the backs of her hands, Laura looked up at the judge, her eyes silently pleading with him to let her stop, to ask something, anything but this. But his face was closed, expressionless except for a slight flush along the sharp lines of his cheekbones.
Stop it! she yelled to herself. Stop acting like a baby. Sitting here crying your eyes out won’t help. You can do this! You have to. Duo and Heero are depending on you to help them. Just stop!!
In later years, Laura would be impressed with the way she forced herself to halt her tears and sit up again. As an adult, she would see her moment of childish stubbornness as her greatest moment. But now, the ten-year old girl could only think of looking out into the gallery, frantically searching for the faces she loved most in the world.
Duo’s face was colorless, several escaped strands of hair floating about his shoulders as though caught on the winds of his grief. His pallor made him seem even more ethereal, like a guardian angel weeping as his inability to help his charge. By contrast, Heero had become a statue, hard and immovable. His set jaw was clenched so tightly it seemed as though it would crack under the strain. His face reflected pain and death, leaving no one in doubt as to the fate of the man who’d had the unmitigated gall to touch his little girl and that of the woman who’d allowed it to happen.
But far from being frightened at the naked emotion on Duo’s face or the stony fury on Heero’s, Laura felt heartened. She could feel their concern, their love reaching out to her in waves so tangible it was as though she could just reach out and grab them. They wrapped around her like a warm blanket and she finally was able to find her voice. She kept her eyes on them, knowing she’d only be able to get through this if she could pretend that she was talking to them alone.
"She told me to go to her room even though she usually never let me go in there. But I didn’t think to wonder why she was being so strange. I just wanted to get away from that man. The way he was looking at me made me feel dirty and I didn’t know why. She let me go and I went into her room but he followed me. I was surprised at first and I froze for a second, but then I ran around him and tried to get back to the door. But before I could, Delia had closed it. I think I started crying when I heard her turn the lock.
"I ran to the door and tried to pull it open, even though I knew it wouldn’t. I banged against it with my fist, trying to get Delia’s attention, thinking that maybe she’d just made some kind of mistake. I remember shouting, ‘Mommy! Mommy, please open the door!’ But she never did.
"The man grabbed me, laughing as I tried to pull away. I screamed at him to let me go and I kicked at his leg, but he just kept laughing. He pulled me close to him and tried to kiss me. His breath was so bad, I thought I might be sick. I tried to turn by head away but he wouldn’t let me. When he kissed me, I bit his lip. He pulled back and yelled at me, called me a ‘little bitch.’ He slapped me, harder than Delia had ever slapped me before. I must have blacked out ‘cause the next thing I knew, I was being thrown on the bed."
Laura could feel years of repressed anger and hate rise up within her. She looked away from her stricken fathers towards the older woman who looked so much like her she couldn’t stand it. The bundle of nerves in her gut was slowly replaced by an icy ball of anger as she watched a tear streak down her mother’s cheek. Even though she’d heard Delia relate the horrid details of her own past, Laura still couldn’t help the resentment that filled her. How dare her mother treat her like that, especially when she knew what it was to feel nothing but pain and fear? She continued to hold Delia’s gaze, not letting the other woman hide away as she went on.
"He ripped my clothes, not even bothering to take them completely off. He just ripped them away, first my shirt and then my pants. He grabbed my chest, squeezing hard on my breast until I screamed. It hurt so much that I don’t even remember when he first pushed into me. All I knew what that one pain had been replaced by another one that was much worse." Finally, Delia looked away, a tinge of green beneath the brown of her skin.
"It didn’t last long," Laura continued, looking down at the wall of the witness box that separated her from the rest of the courtroom. "Only a few minutes I guess. I don’t really remember all that well. After that first rush of pain, it was like I was looking at everything and feeling everything through a fog. Guess my body and mind shut down or something. I sort of remember hearing the man grunt and feeling something wet inside of me. But that’s all. I kept laying there when the man got up off of me and pulled up his pants. He said something, I think it was something like, ‘Not a bad ride, little bitch.’ Then he left. A few minutes later, Delia came in. She had some money in her hand. She dropped a bill on my chest and told me to get something to eat. After that, she left and I didn’t see her again for nearly a week."
The silence in the courtroom was broken by a quiet sob. Laura looked back at the judge. At first she thought he had an odd glint in his eye, but she dismissed the notion, convincing herself that it was just a trick of the light. She could tell by his closed off expression that he didn’t want to believe her but she held his gaze, refusing to let him shirk away from the truth. A sense of victory streaked through her when he looked away first.
"Well," the judge said, his voice hoarse. He looked down at the papers on his podium, shuffling them around for a moment as though trying to organizing them. Then, he cleared his throat and looked back towards the girl sitting in the chair next to his dais.
"Well," he continued, "tell me, then, how you felt living with your foster fathers. Were you ever afraid of them? Did they ever hurt you?" A glimmer of hope shone from the old man’s eyes, as though he was expecting her to condemn Duo and Heero as she had just condemned her mother. Laura felt her stomach heave with disgust.
"No!" she said, almost shouting the refutation. "Duo and Heero never, ever did anything to hurt me. I was happy when I lived with them. Even when they made me do my homework when I wanted to play, I was happy. Even when they made me eat spinach, which I don’t like even though they insist it’s good for me, I was happy. Even when I was grounded for a week and couldn’t see my friends or go to karate class, I was happy!"
Laura froze, wishing with all of her heart that she could take back those last words. Idiot! She berated herself even as the judge jumped at her hastily spoken admission.
"Grounded, you say? And just why were you grounded?"
She glanced over at Dorothy, seeking counsel on what she should do. But the attorney just smiled and Laura sighed. That’s right, she was on her own. She looked at her fathers, her mouth twisting into a grimace of apology. Duo returned her look with a wry grin and Heero nodded. They knew the circumstances around the grounding incident, knew that it was a potentially extremely damaging situation. But their faces radiated confidence and Laura felt slightly buoyed as she turned back towards the judge.
"Why were you grounded?" Hervé asked again.
"For fighting in school," she said, her voice having lost several decibels of volume.
"Excuse me?" the judge prompted. She repeated her answer in a louder tone.
"And why were you fighting in school? It isn’t normal for happy little girls to fight, is it?" Laura resisted the urge to growl at the now smirking judge.
"Because a boy insulted me."
"Insulted you, hm?" Hervé easily read between the lines of her abbreviated response. "And why did he insult you? Or did he insult your fathers?"
Laura stared at the judge, amazed at his perception. How had he figured it out so quickly? She didn’t want to answer. The truth wouldn’t look at all good for the truthful image of the ideal home life she was trying to portray. And after a heartfelt discussion with Duo and Heero after she’d been sent home that day, she had easily come to terms with her misplaced feelings of anger and shame at that idiot’s goading comments. But it had to be told.
"Yes," she admitted, "he insulted my fathers."
"And just how did he insult them that made you angry enough to fight?"
"He said that they were a couple of evil faggots."
Dorothy groaned, severely annoyed that she was just hearing this for the first time. The last thing they needed was to give that damned Hervé any ammunition to use against them. But, it was too late now. She sat forward unconsciously in her seat, waiting to see how the judge would proceed.
"Interesting," Hervé murmured. "And how did it make you feel when that boy called your guardians queer?"
Laura wanted to scream at the crotchety bastard. He seemed determined to disparage Duo and Heero in any way he could. She took a deep breath and forced her hands out of the fists into which they’d curled.
"It made me angry because he was a liar. Duo and Heero aren’t evil. They’re my fathers and they love me. And I love them, more than anything in the world!"
The judge watched her with an even gaze, noting the tension in her small form, the emotion-filled heaving of her chest, and the heightened flush on her cheeks. If anyone had been watching him as closely, they might have noticed the inexplicable sheen of sweat that suddenly decorated his upper lip. Hervé cleared his throat and shifted surreptitiously in his seat.
"You say you love your foster fathers. But what about your mother? The woman who gave you life. Certainly she’s made some mistake, but, don’t you love her too?"
"Made some mistakes?!" The outburst made Laura glance towards the gallery. Heero had put a hasty, restraining hand on Duo’s shoulder, for it seemed as if the long-haired man was about to leap from his seat and attack the judge. Laura had never seen Duo so furious and the look in Heero’s eyes was enough to send chills down anyone’s spine. Une shook her head in disbelief at the leading tone of the question. Dorothy clasped her hands tightly on the table in front of her, cursing the fact that she had to remain silent and let this ridiculous line of questioning continue. Quatre had turned and interesting shade of red, indicating the extreme level of his agitation. Trowa, however, remained as calm as ever, though his emerald gaze never wavered an inch from the elder judge’s face.
Laura’s chest tightened as she looked over at Delia. The judge’s question was nothing different from what she’d asked herself time and again over the past week. She’d struggled with conflicting feelings of loyalty and betrayal. Could she honestly say she didn’t love her mother even after everything the woman had put her through? But if she did admit it, would that belittle the love that Duo and Heero had shown her at every turn?
She had wrestled endlessly with the seeming contradiction of her heart. But, back at the start of the hearing, she had come to a realization and she knew it was right and she stood by that decision.
"Yes, I love my mother," she answered, looking at Delia. For the first time that she could remember, she didn’t flinch as the older woman met her gaze.
"And now that your mother has clearly recovered, Laura, don’t you think that you should go back to live with her?"
Laura didn’t bother turning an incredulous stare on the judge like she wanted to do. He wasn’t worth the effort. Instead, she continued to look at Delia to make certain that her mother understood what she was about to say.
"I am very glad that my mother is doing better, for her sake. I want her to be happy. I don’t want her to be sick anymore. I want her to have a good life because I will always love her.
But," she continued before the judge could speak, "that doesn’t mean that I want to live with her ever again. I’m not trying to be mean, but I don’t want to be afraid anymore that one day she might start doing drugs again. I don’t want to be afraid that one day, she might hurt me again. I don’t want to be afraid that one day..." Laura paused until she could continue speaking past the ache burning in her throat. "I don’t want to be afraid that one day she might kill me." She watched through haze of tears at the sadness on her mother’s face.
"I j-just want to go home with my fathers where I know they love me and where I’m never afraid. I just want to go home."
Delia couldn’t stop the tears that streaked down her face as she watched her daughter stumble from the stand after being dismissed from the stand. She knew that she should feel grateful to the judge, since he seemed to believe in her case, but she hated him for making her little girl cry. And she’d notice the unholy lust on his face when Laura related the tales of her rape and it had left her sickened. Sickened at the judge for forcing Laura to relive her terror and sickened at herself for allowing it in the first place.
The hearing was adjourned until the next morning, at which time Hervé had declared that he would announce his decision. Delia barely heard him or the false reassuring platitudes from the smiling blond woman seated next to her. All of her attention was focused on the weeping girl across the room. No sooner had the judge left the chamber than Laura mumbled something to the adults who were with her and ran from the courtroom with tears streaming down her cheeks.
Duo stood as though to follow her but his husband held him back, whispering quietly in his ear. Duo sighed audibly but sunk back onto the bench. Delia waited until the two men were engaged in conversation with their companions before standing and, without a word to Relena or Treize, slipping from the courtroom herself.
After stepping into the hall, Delia looked hurriedly in both directions, catching sight of a small figure disappearing through a door down the corridor to her right. She rushed towards the spot where Laura had flown, briefly noticing the "Ladies" sign on the door before pushing it open and stumbling into the room.
The door swinging closed behind her, a soft sound drew Delia’s attention to the row of sinks lining one wall. Laura was leaning against one of the sinks, bending forward so that her forehead nearly touched the cold porcelain. Her narrow shoulders shook violently from the muted force of her sobs.
Delia froze, her heart beating hard within her chest. She didn’t know what to say. She really didn’t remember the night of Laura’s rape. She’d been so high on heroine in those days that one moment blurred into the next until entire years of her life seemed nothing more than a dream. Had she really done that? Had she really just stood there and let some bastard rape her baby? Her hands started to shake as her breath quickened in her chest. Suddenly, she craved a hit even though she’d been off of that junk for months.
Laura had stunned her with the vehemence of her rejection. Could she have meant it when she said that she never wanted to come home? That she never wanted to live with her mother ever again? Of course she did, after living through what she had. But, even after all of that, couldn’t Laura see that her mother wanted nothing more than to make up for all of the wrongs she had committed. Was Laura so hardened against her that there was no hope? Delia had to cling to something, to more than her nightly prayers that after this was over, she would have a little girl again.
But Laura had seemed so sure, so certain that she only wanted to go back to those men. The hurt that had sliced through Delia at those words lanced at her heart once again, making her gasp at the pain. The unconscious utterance made Laura look up, and Delia found herself staring into a pair of very wide, very frightened light-brown eyes.