Chapter Seven: Accepting
After the sleepover, Sora became a near-permanent presence at the apartment, which delighted Gabrielle, who couldn't have been happier that Sora and Leon had begun dating. Sora stayed over almost every night, and for a while, it was as if they had become a real family.
But the upcoming custody hearing always loomed over them, a topic that both Leon and Sora took care to avoid discussing. Neither wanted to risk ruining their newfound happiness, yet as the court date rapidly approached, the inevitable discussion about what would become of Gabrielle became harder and harder to put off.
"We need to talk," Sora announced one evening about a week before the court date.
Leon, knowing exactly what she wanted to talk about and not wanting to hear it, came up behind Sora and began nuzzling her neck, one of his hands roaming downward. "Less talk, more kissing," he whispered into her ear, hoping to distract her.
"Stop it, Leon. I'm being serious." Sora swatted his hand away and turned around to face him. "We can't keep ignoring the elephant in the room like this. It's time for you to make a decision."
Leon ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "Sora…"
"Do you still intend to sign away your parental rights?" she asked. "The court date is just days away, yet you still haven't told Gabi about the hearing."
"I don't know," he admitted, taking a seat on the edge of the bed.
Sora sat down beside him, reaching for one of his hands and resting her head against his shoulder. "I know it'll be hard, but if you really intend to give Gabi up, she needs to be told."
"Of course, if you want to let her stay…"
"Sora, it's -"
She shushed him, bringing a finger to his lips. "No, you can't say this isn't any of my business anymore," she said. "I'm your girlfriend, Leon. I love that little girl as if she was my very own, and I don't want her to leave."
Leon abruptly stood back up. "I never asked you to become her surrogate mother," he said in a sharp tone, rounding on her.
"You're right." Sora glanced down and began playing with a loose thread on the comforter. "I knew I shouldn't have let myself get so attached to her," she continued in a soft voice, "but she reminded me so much of myself at that age, when my parents died. I just wanted to help her…and you."
His eyes widened. "Me?"
Sora stood and moved behind him, wrapping her arms around his torso. "You've always been so guarded, for as long as I've known you," she said, placing a hand over his heart. "You don't let people into your heart easily, so I thought I would try to help you bond with Gabrielle. Maybe it really was none of my business, but she's your daughter, Leon. You've become a family." She shook her head, correcting herself. "No, we've become a family. Haven't we?"
Leon broke free of her hold. "Don't make this decision even more difficult than it already is."
"But that's the thing. It shouldn't be that difficult. Gabi loves you, and you love her - don't even try to deny it. You have the financial means and the physical ability to take care of her, so what's the problem?"
"You just don't understand."
"You're right. I don't understand, so explain it to me. Please."
Leon's hands clenched into fists at his side. Why did Sora have to keep pushing him about this? If she knew what he had done to Emilie, had almost done to Gabrielle… She would hate him, just as much as he already hated himself for what had happened that night.
"Please," Sora softly begged again. "I want - No, I need to know the truth. Make me understand why you're acting like this."
He inhaled a deep breath, realizing that she wasn't about to let the subject drop unless he finally told her the truth.
"Gabrielle… I almost killed her."
"W-What? Leon, what are you talking about? You've never hurt Gabri-"
"Her mother was the first victim of the so-called 'God of Death'," Leon said, beginning the story before he lost his nerve. "It happened a few months after Sophie's death at the Festival. I joined the Noir Circus where Emilie worked, and we were paired together. It wasn't long before we were sleeping together as well, although my heart wasn't really into the relationship. I liked her well enough, I suppose, but I was mostly just using her to forget my grief. I wasn't a very good boyfriend."
Sora reached out to him, but Leon took a step back, moving away from her grasp. "My main reason for joining that circus was to find someone who would be able to perform the Angel's Maneuver. Emilie had an incredible talent and charisma, so I thought maybe she could be the one," he explained. "Then one night, she wasn't feeling well. We had a show, but she wanted to cancel until she felt better. We fought. I thought she was being weak and told her she wasn't worthy of being my partner if she let a silly thing like an illness get in the way of her performing. She begged me for the chance to prove otherwise, so I told her that during that night's performance, I would give her the opportunity to show off."
Sora brought a hand to her mouth, her eyes going wide at the implication.
"I did to her what I did to May and all the others. I dropped Emilie without warning, expecting she would be able to handle the ab-lib. She couldn't. I tried to catch her, but I was a second too late. She was badly injured." Leon paused for a moment, expecting Sora to say something. When she didn't, he continued, hoping she wouldn't despise him after she learned the worst part. "The last time I saw Emilie was later that night at the hospital. I wanted to apologize for what I had done, but all she did was scream at me all these things that didn't make sense to me at the time. Something about how I didn't know what I had almost done. When I found out about Gabrielle, I finally understood the meaning behind those words. The illness she was complaining about that night was morning sickness. Emilie had found out she was pregnant, and I almost caused her to miscarry the baby."
Sora sat back down in visible shock, not saying anything in response to what he had just told her. Leon, unsure of how to take her silence, thought he might have preferred it if she had yelled and screamed at him instead.
"Do you understand now?" he asked. "I don't deserve to be Gabrielle's father."
After a long moment, Sora's eyes looked back up, finally coming out of her stupor. "But you had no way of knowing," she said. "Emilie didn't even know she was pregnant until after it happened. If you had known, you never would have done something like that! I know you wouldn't."
"It doesn't matter. I shouldn't have done it to her, pregnancy or not."
"That's true, but -"
Leon turned away. "There is no excuse, Sora."
"Maybe not," she admitted. "But even if you did a horrible thing to Gabrielle's mother, that doesn't mean you can't be a good father to her. You're not the person you were back then. You've changed, and I'm sure Emilie saw it too when she came to watch you perform in Swan Lake." Sora came up to him, lightly caressing his cheek. "Emilie obviously forgave you for what happened; if she hadn't, she never would have left Gabi in your care in the event of her death. If she can do it, can't you forgive yourself?"
"Gabrielle is leaving; end of discussion. I'll tell her tomorrow morning."
He shrugged her hand away. "I'm going to get a drink."
Leon exited the bedroom, needing a moment to himself. As he walked down the hall to the kitchen, however, he glanced over at Gabrielle's bedroom door and noticed it was ajar, light poring out into the hallway. He frowned. He had tucked her in over an hour ago; what was she still doing up? Concerned, Leon walked over and poked his head inside.
"Gabrielle, it's past your bed- Gabrielle?"
The room was empty, her bed unmade. Noticeably missing was Emilie's doll, which Gabrielle had slept with every night since they returned from Paris.
Leon checked the bathroom across the hall from her room. It was empty as well.
"This isn't funny, Gabrielle," he called out, beginning a search of all the other rooms in the apartment. "I'm not in the mood to play hide-and-seek. Come out right now."
"Leon, what's wrong?" Sora asked, sticking her head out of the master bedroom.
"I can't find Gabrielle. She's not in her room."
"She has to be around here somewhere." Sora came out and joined him in the search. "Gabi?"
Though they checked everywhere they could think of, Gabrielle was nowhere to be found in the apartment. Leon leaned back against a wall, struggling to remain upright as the realization hit him.
"She's gone," he said, running a hand through his hair. "She must have overheard us talking and ran away. Oh, God!"
"Don't panic," Sora said, taking charge. "She can't have gotten very far on foot. Let's get dressed and look for her."
A few minutes later, they were in Leon's car, driving around the neighborhood. "I don't even know what direction to go in," he muttered when they came to the first intersection. Gabrielle could be anywhere.
"Is there any place in particular she likes to go?"
"I don't know."
"Turn left," Sora said, making the decision for him. "I'm calling Jerry." She pulled out her cell phone and called her long-time friend, the policeman. "Jerry, it's Sora. Leon Oswald's daughter has gone missing. We think she's run away from home. … Her name is Gabrielle Paradis. She's five years old, a little under four feet tall, with green eyes and long white-blonde hair. The last time we saw her, she was wearing a pair of pink 'Hello Kitty' pajamas. … I don't know how long she's been gone. Leon put her to bed around seven-thirty, maybe eight? But we didn't notice her missing until about ten minutes ago. Leon and I are looking for her now. … No, we're already going that way. Check in the other direction. … Yeah, that sounds good. Thanks, Jerry. Let us know if you find her." She hung up. "He's joining the search as well. He's going to check around Kaleido Stage. We'll take the area around her school."
Leon nodded his understanding.
"Maybe she went to one of her friends' houses…" Sora mused aloud.
Without taking his eyes off the road, he reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out his own cell, which he tossed over to Sora. "Their parents' phone numbers are saved in the phone book. Start with the Fiorellos. Melissa is her best friend, and their place is closest to the apartment."
While Sora was on the phone, calling the parents of Gabrielle's schoolmates, Leon kept focus on the search, straining to find any sign of Gabrielle in the darkness. A barrage of thoughts attacked his mind, but the most prominent among them was the fear that she might get hit by a car, just as Sophie had. If anything happened to Gabrielle… He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, willing himself to concentrate on the task at hand.
"Nobody's seen her, but they said they would call if they did," Sora said after finishing the last call. "A few even offered to look for her, too."
"We have to find her, Sora. We have to."
She reached over and placed a comforting hand on his knee. "We will."
A short time later, a streak of lightning flashed through the cloudy night sky, accompanied by a loud crash of thunder. A storm was brewing.
"Damn it!" Leon swore, remembering the night Gabrielle first came to live with him. "She's afraid of thunder."
Sora stifled a cry. As calm as she had been up until then, he could tell that the longer they went without finding Gabrielle, the more upset she was becoming. Leon avoided looking over at her, not wanting to add to his own rising panic. It began to downpour, making it that much more difficult to see in the dark. He was so intent on the search that he nearly jumped out of his skin when one of their cell phones rang. Sora, who was still in possession of both of them, checked the name on the display.
"Leon, it's Officer Jerry!" She quickly wiped away her tears and answered her phone. "Jerry, did you find her? Is she okay?" Sora asked, breathing a sigh of relief when she heard the answer. "She is? Oh, thank you!" She reached for Leon's arm. "He found her. She's scared and a little shaken by the storm, but she wasn't hurt."
"Where are they?"
Sora turned her attention back to the phone. "Where are you?… Okay, we'll be there as soon as we can. Thank you again, Jerry." She hung up. "He found her at the bus stop in front of Kaleido Stage. He's taking her there. They'll be waiting for us in the boss's office."
Leon performed an abrupt U-turn, turning the car back around and breaking all the speed limits on his way to Kaleido Stage. Once there, he jumped out of the car and dashed to Kalos's office, Sora right on his heels. Leon didn't even bother knocking, barging right into the office. Relief washed over him the moment he saw Gabrielle sitting on the couch with Sarah, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders as she sipped from a mug of hot chocolate. She was wet, but otherwise appeared unharmed. Kalos and the police officer were also present.
Gabrielle looked up at the sound of his voice. "Papa?" After handing her cup to Sarah, she stood up. She took a few hesitant steps forward, then ran over to Leon, tears in her eyes. "Papa!"
Leon dropped to his knees, embracing his daughter. A sob shook through his body.
"Papa, don't cry," Gabrielle said. "I'm okay."
He hugged her even tighter and kissed the top of her head. "Don't you ever scare me like that again," he told her.
"I won't. I'm sorry I was a bad girl."
"That's not true." He pulled back and shook his head. "You are a wonderful, amazing little girl, and I love you so much," he said, wiping the tears away from her cheeks with his thumbs. "I was a bad father, Gabrielle, and I'm so, so sorry."
"But I heard you and Sora talking. You're going to send me away."
"No, I'm never letting you go." Leon hugged her again. First thing tomorrow morning, he was going to put in a call to Henri Joubert to cancel the hearing. "Not ever."
Over by Kalos' desk, the hulking policeman started bawling as well. "It's so beautiful! I love a happy ending," Jerry said as Kalos wordlessly handed him a tissue from the box on his desk. "Thanks, man."
"Sorry for the imposition, Boss," Sora said.
Kalos gave a off-hand wave. "It's fine. I'm about to be a father myself in a few months, so I understand a little what Leon must have felt. We're just glad everything turned out alright."
"Oh!" Over on the couch, Sarah gasped and placed a hand against her stomach. "The baby just kicked. I think she's saying she's glad, too."
"She? It's a girl?" Sora asked.
The expectant mother grinned. "We just found earlier today. Isn't it marvelous?"
"Yes, congratulations! That's amazing!"
Leon, though tempted to keep to his word literally, finally did release Gabrielle, allowing her to run over to an overjoyed Sora. He stood back up and looked over at Kalos.
"Yes, it is," he agreed. "I'm sure that little girl is going to steal your heart."
"I'll be looking forward to it."
After thanking Jerry for locating Gabrielle, Leon walked over to Sora and his daughter and took Gabrielle by the hand. "Come on, you two," he said. "I think it's time we head home. It's been a long night."
Sora, who had grabbed Emmy from the couch, reached for Gabrielle's other hand. "Home," she repeated, smiling as they left Kalos' office and headed back to the car. "Yes, I like the sound of that."
So did Leon.
For so long, he had been on his own. Sora was right. After Sophie died, he had closed off his heart to others, afraid to get too close to anybody and risk experiencing such pain again. Now that Gabrielle and Sora were in his life, however, he couldn't imagine his life without them. Somewhere along the way, they truly had become a family.
"Look at her, Leon," Sora whispered when they had returned back to his apartment and put an exhausted Gabrielle back to bed. "Doesn't she look like a little angel when she's asleep?"
Leon came up behind Sora and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. "Yes, she does."
"I'm so glad you changed your mind about sending her away."
"So am I," he said. "You were right. I was being a coward. I was ashamed of what I had done to Emilie and scared to admit my true feelings. All I was doing was running away again, just like I did after Sophie died."
"But you've stopped running now, right?"
Leon smiled and kissed the back of Sora's head. "Right."
He was no longer alone, and he couldn't have been happier.
DISCLAIMER: Kaleido Star doesn't belong to me.