by Becky Bain

Cassie Chandler stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Stupid narrow eyes. Stupid yellow skin. Stupid Chinese face. She hated them all.

She flipped off the light and stood in the darkness a moment, fighting angry tears. Only when she was sure her eyes would remain dry did she limp down the short hall and into the living room.

There was homework she ought to be doing, but she didn't feel like facing algebra tonight. Instead, she wandered out onto the wide tiled balcony. A cold wind prickled her cheeks and cut through the fleece of her sweatshirt. She crossed her arms, tucking her hands under for warmth, and turned her back to the wind. It was already starting to get dark and lights were coming on across the city. She hated winter, too.

She was still there fifteen minutes later, huddled in an angle of the brick parapet, when a soft thump and whisper of fabric told her she was no longer alone.

"Cassie?" Vincent sounded surprised. "What is it, little one?" he asked in formal Mandarin Chinese. "What is wrong?"

Cassie shook her head. "Nothing," she mumbled, in English.

He crouched beside her, the bulk of his body sheltering her from the wind. "You aren't out here in the cold with no coat over nothing," he said, also in English. He held out his hands. "Come."

She let him help her up. Her muscles, cramped with cold, protested the movement and he half-carried her into the warm apartment and settled her in a chair.

"Mother's not home yet," she mumbled.

"I know," he answered. "She'll be here soon."

Of course he'd know that. She knew about the strange and wonderful connection they shared. Sometimes... not often, but sometimes... she wished things could be the way they used to be.

Before Vincent came back from a six-year absence with a strange tale of spending a single night in an isolated cavern and emerging to find time had gone on without him. When her adoptive mother had only her, Cassie, to love and care for. And Cassie had only her mother. Just the two of them.

But Vincent was gentle and kind and good, and she loved him. The tears she'd quenched earlier flooded out now in a rush of hot shame.

He held out his arms; she flung herself into them and buried her face against his soft ribbed vest.

At last she stopped crying, but was too ashamed to meet his eyes.

He stroked her hair. "Will you tell me what's troubling you, little one?"

Miserably, she shook her head.

"Please? I want to help."

Before she could refuse again, he looked toward the door. "Your mother is here," he said, an instant before a key scratched in the lock.

Cassie straightened and hurriedly mopped at her face with her sleeve. Vincent kept his arm around her shoulders.

"Hi!" her mother said brightly as she came in. Her first smile was for Vincent; when her gaze moved to Cassie, she drew her brows together. "Cassie? What's wrong? Have you been crying?"

Cassie swiped at her face again. "No."

Her mother looked to Vincent.

"She is fine," he said.

"Oh. Did you tell her?"

Vincent shook his head. "We agreed we'd tell her together."

Distracted, Cassie looked from one to the other. "Tell me what?"

Her mother sank down on the sofa and patted the space beside her. "Come sit down."

Suddenly wary, Cassie obeyed.

Her mother peered at her closely. "You're sure you're all right?"

She nodded with more vigor than was warranted, carefully avoiding Vincent's eyes. He moved to stand behind her mother, his hand on Catherine's shoulder, but said nothing to give Cassie away. She forced her voice to be bright. "What did you want to tell me?"

Her mother glanced up and back, a look filled with wonder and delight. Vincent returned the look in equal measure. Plainly they were happy about something. Something important.

Cassie instinctively held her breath.

"We wanted you to be the first to know," her mother said, her eyes dancing. "There's going to be a new baby here."

"A baby?" Cassie repeated the words slowly. Something inside her drew itself together and became very still. "Will you go to China for this one, too?"

Her mother looked surprised, and then laughed lightly. "Not this time." She patted her stomach, down low. "We're doing this one the old-fashioned way."

"Oh." Cassie felt the odd stillness spread. She'd known for a long time that Vincent spent nights in her mother's room. On rare weekends, he was even there when she woke up in the morning. She had even assumed, without giving it much thought, that they must be doing the things that men and women do together - the things the other kids in her school giggled about. But she'd never thought about a baby.

Their own baby. Not one adopted from another country, another culture. One that would look like them. Not one with slanted eyes or yellow skin. Not one with a hateful limp.

In her native China, families were allowed one child only, and that was all she could think of. Her early training took over and she forced a smile as she rose to her feet. "I am very happy for you," she said formally, and bent to kiss her mother's cheek. "May the fortunes bless you with a son."

She glanced up at Vincent, who was eyeing her curiously. "Please excuse me."

She escaped to her room just in time. The sound of the door closing covered the long, ragged sobbing breath that escaped her. She flung herself on the bed, pressing her face hard into the pillow until she was sure she wasn't going to cry. From now on, there would be no more crying. Tears were a luxury she could no longer afford.

She pushed herself up and surveyed her room. It was a pretty room. She'd chosen the colors and fabrics and furnishings herself, cool blues and greens, light woods. Like her mother's room.

It would be a pretty baby's room, she thought. If they took out her twin-sized canopy bed and replaced it with a crib.

She hoped the baby would like it.

She wondered which of her things she could take with her. And then it occurred to her to wonder where she would go. To Vincent's world? Maybe. She'd been there only a handful of times, but she liked it. The people there were kind and nobody ever teased her about her eyes or her skin or her limp. Maybe there was a place for her in the tunnels.

Or maybe not. Maybe Vincent and her mother - Catherine, she thought fiercely. If she's not going to be my mother anymore, I should to learn to call her Catherine. Or Cathy, like Joe does. Maybe Vincent and Catherine wouldn't want her so close, where they would see her all the time. Maybe it would bother them.

I'll bet there's an orphanage, she thought bravely. Better than the one in China. Cleaner, and with enough to eat. Maybe I'll go there.

She opened a drawer and started selecting sweatshirts and t-shirts, stacking them neatly on the bed. The baby couldn't wear these things, so surely her mother - Catherine - wouldn't mind if she took them with her.

She loved her mother fiercely, and whatever happened, she mustn't let her know how upset she was. Nothing must mar Catherine's joy in the new baby. Certainly not a little thing like a no-longer-wanted adopted daughter.

A light tap on her door made her stiffen. She glanced toward it, then slowly put down the sweater in her hands. "Come in."

Catherine opened the door; Vincent stood behind her, his bulk filling the opening.

"Cassie, what are you doing?" Catherine came into the room and stared at the clothing on the bed in evident bewilderment.

"I am packing my things," Cassie said quietly. "I didn't think you would mind."

"Your things? Packing?" Catherine's expression was one of utter confusion. "Where are you going?"

Cassie looked away. "I don't know," she whispered. "I will find a place. Please don't worry about me."

Catherine stared. "Don't worry? Of course I worry. That's my job. I'm your mother."

Cassie flinched. "It is all right," she said softly. "I understand about the new baby. I know you will not want me anymore."

Her mother's gasp was one of horror. "What do you mean, I won't want you? How can you think such a thing?"

Cassie looked at the floor. "Because I am ugly. I have ugly eyes and skin. Your new baby will not need an operation to walk. It will not be ugly, like me."

"Cassandra." Vincent's voice, deep and low. He must be angry with her. He never called her by her full name. "Please look at me."

Reluctantly she raised her eyes. His were soft and compassionate, not angry at all. "Who has been saying these things to you?"

She twisted her hands together. "No one," she whispered, ashamed.

"Someone has been. You would not think of them yourself."

She squirmed inwardly, cringing. She hated this. "Just some boys. At school."

"Who?" That was her mother, her voice sharp. "I want their names."

"No. Please. They're right. I am ugly."

"You're not..." her mother began, in fierce protest.

Vincent's voice, soft and insistent, interrupted. "Cassie. You must not allow the lies of others to influence your thinking."

"They aren't lies," she mumbled. "I have a mirror. I know what I see."

"Is it possible," he asked softly, "that you do not know how beautiful you are?"

That hurt more than anything, that Vincent, whom she loved, would make fun of her. "Mother's beautiful," she whispered in agony. "Not me."

Vincent took her hands and guided her to the bed. He sat beside her, still holding her hands. "It is true that you and your mother are very different," he said. "But there are many kinds of beauty. Do you know what I see when I look at you?"

Miserable, she shook her head.

"I see almond eyes, dark and lovely. I see your skin, clear ivory with the faintest touch of saffron. I see your hair, thick and black with a texture like heavy silk."

When he described her, she did sound beautiful. She stared at him, afraid to believe. But Vincent never lied.

"But I limp," she faltered. Cries of "Ugly slant-eyed cripple" still rang in her memory.

"So you do," he acknowledged. "But less and less as time passes. It is an insignificant flaw, little one. Much less significant than mine." He indicated his face with a brief gesture.

"But you're beautiful!" she exclaimed. "Don't you know that?"

"I have been told so," he admitted. The corners of his mouth edged upward. "But others have shrieked at sight of me."

"That's because they don't know you," she said, filled with fierce loyalty. "There's nobody better than you."

"Your true friends will look beyond your limp," he said. "Believe me, Cassie. They will."

She thought of Jessica and Richard, who sat with her at lunch every day and told her often to ignore the boys who taunted her. "They do," she admitted. "I have been too blind to see."

"I think I've been blind, too." Her mother's voice was very gentle. "I can't believe you think I would send you away."

Cassie flushed. "I can't believe you would want to keep me, when you can have a perfect child. A son."

"There's no guarantee this child will be perfect," her mother said. "And while it is true we are hoping it will be a boy, it is not for the reasons you think."

"Boy children are always better," Cassie whispered. "Parents want to keep the boys. That is why the orphanage in China had only girls."

"But this isn't China," her mother said softly, "and things are different here." She sank down on the edge of the bed on Cassie's other side. "We have said it would be nice to have a boy, because we already have a girl. You are the daughter of my heart, Cassie. It doesn't matter that you weren't born to me. I love you. I will always love you, and I'll always be your mother. Wherever you go, and whatever you do. That will never change."

Cassie felt her eyes filling again, but this time they weren't tears of pain. "This is true?" she whispered.

Vincent took her hand; she looked at him through a blur of tears. "You know that it is," he promised solemnly. "I wasn't here when your mother adopted you, but I have come to think of you as my daughter, as well. If you will have me as a father."

It was more than she'd ever dreamed. "I would be honored," she whispered, overcome.

"We're a family, Cassie," her mother said firmly. "When the baby comes, it will be part of this family. But it won't change us. And it certainly won't change the way we feel about you."

They meant it. Every word. They had never lied to her; she knew now they never would.

Vincent squeezed her hand. "Are you all right now?"

She nodded and looked at him through a haze of tears. "I am so happy," she explained. "And the baby... when the baby comes, I will be even happier."

"I'm so glad to hear you say that," her mother said, smiling. "I want the two of you to be close."

"Oh, we will be," Cassie promised, and gave a small bounce of excitement. "I'm going to be a sister. It's going to be my baby, too!"

The End