Kneeling next to a large pen, Nadia watched the baby bonatars race around the cage, jumping over their mother and tumbling around, yipping and snarling at each other.
A little over two feet long when fully grown, bonatars looked a bit like small, Irnao alligators, except that they were covered in short brown, cream, or golden fur, and were actually very tame. They also had a habit of cheerfully destroying personal property in their play, which meant that not everyone was cut out to own one. Someone had dumped the pregnant mother here last month, and Linra was busy trying to find homes for the kits. So far there had been no takers.
The mother bonatar pinned down one of her kits and began bathing it, ignoring his protests to be allowed to go tackle his sister, who seemed to be laughing at him. The other male and female were wrestling now in the far corner of the cage.
The prettiest one, Nadia though, was the one getting a bath. He didn't look like the others; his fur was snow-white and his eyes were red. Her mother explained that it happened sometimes, that he was an albino. Jazz had named him Flour and he was also the joker of the group; liking nothing better than pouncing on his siblings when they were asleep, or banging the food dish against the cage when he wanted human attention.
"You are incorrigible." Nadia informed the kit, who had run over to lick her fingers once his bath was complete. "You are immature and irresponsible, and a disgrace to your beleaguered mother."
Flour rolled over so that she could tickle his stomach.
"He's that bad, is he?" Someone asked.
"Flour's very bad." Nadia explained as Gage approached the cage and knelt down next to her. "We let him play in the house yesterday and he ate three of my books.
"Well, reading is food for the mind." Gage shrugged, letting the kit sniff his hand. "He's beautiful, even if he is a bit inconsiderate of other people's property. Can I hold him?"
Gage opened the cage and the kit bounded into his arms, licking his face. "Hey, wait a minute. Sir, I'm flattered, but do try and contain yourself." Flour whined in joy as Gage scratched his short, flat ears.
Watching him, Linra smiled. It reminded of her Jazz meeting the cotrefil for the first time, and it was good to see Gage laughing, really laughing, not just faking it for their benefit. He rolled over on his back, dangling the animal above his face and blowing into the soft fur. Inside the cage, the other bonatars watched in jealousy.
"I see you've made a friend." Linra finally spoke up, and Gage jumped to his feet.
"I was assaulted!" He explained. "I was intoxicated. It was all his idea. Please don't tell Shan!"
"Don't suppose you'd be willing to give that brat a home?" Linra asked.
Gage glanced at Nadia. "Well, it's a few years sooner than I'd anticipated, but if you insist. Come on, Poppet. I'll have you speaking Pig Latin by tomorrow."
"Cool." Nadia took his hand and he started leading her away, still holding Flour in the crook of his arm.
"I meant the bonatar! Come back here with my daughter! I don't want her speaking Pig Latin, whatever that is."
"You'll let me have him?" Gage was pleased. "Really?"
"Sure. Hang on. I've got supplies that go with him." She started pulling things off of a shelf, including a small book. "He's already litter-trained. You can order food for him from any online pet store, and he should be allowed to eat as much as he wants for the next few months, and he likes very clean water."
"Did you hear that, Flour? No gin and tonic. Don't give me that look; I didn't make the rules."
"Boy is Shan going to be surprised." Nadia commented.
"He'll understand." Gage snuggled his new pet, who was making little cooing noises now, trying to climb inside his shirt. "At least I hope he will. Thank you, by the way. He's adorable."
"Consider it an early birthday gift. And you're doing me a favor. I was afraid I'd have to end up adopting him myself." The young woman sighed. "I had nightmares about Flour wanting to play with the baby when he's born."
"Bye Flour." Nadia waved. "Don't eat Gage's shoes."
"Oh, I forgot why I came here." Gage stopped. "I was looking for your sister, but she wasn't at the house."
"Rosie was invited to go to a Mentalist lecture, people who knew our mother. They've been waiting years to get their hands on her. I can give her a message."
"Yeah, tell her that I want her to do a Memory Walk on me, when she has the time. I'll pay her for it."
"Are you okay?"
"I'm alright." He promised. "I'll need to speak to my sisters too. I was thinking that maybe we can record our memories of Dad onto something like a video, something we can have for when... " He glanced down at Flour again, who had fallen asleep against his chest.
"I think that's a beautiful idea." Linra said gently. "I think Rosie will be happy to help. You should talk to your mother too, add her memories to it. She'd like that."
"Yeah, I will. Thanks again." He walked off carrying the supplies and the baby animal.
"Mom?" Nadia asked.
"Why do people die?"
Linra sat down on the floor and pulled Nadia into her lap. "To make room for more people, I guess. So new ones can be born."
"Is Gage's Daddy dying so that my brother can be born?"
"Not directly. We all have to take turns, though. It's Milliardo's turn to go, and the baby's turn to arrive. That doesn't mean we have to like it."
"But Gage will cry."
"Yes, he will. And he's going to be sad for a long time, and we'll be there to help him. Sometimes, I still cry because I miss my parents. They were very good people, and I'll always miss them."
"Someday, I'll stop people from dying." Nadia said firmly. "I'll make it where no one ever dies."
"And where are we going to put all the new people?" Linra asked.
"Colonies. Like Irnao. Daddy says outer space never ends. So we can built lots and lots of colonies and people will live forever."
It was on the tip of her tongue to argue, but her little girl looked so serious about it, so earnest, that Linra didn't have the heart. "You know, Nadia, if anyone in this universe can find a way to beat death, I think it would be you."
"I will, Mom." Shinigami's granddaughter promised. "Someday I will."
Wufei had talked to Lucrezia earlier, and she and Meg had already moved into Shan and Meishel's old rooms. Gage's foster parents and Amy had chosen to remain in Gage's house, but no one was home when he arrived with Flour in tow.
The morning had gotten off to a depressing start, and Gage had thought nothing would be able to cheer him up, but the little animal had proved him wrong. He sat Flour down on the linoleum gently.
The bonatar watched as his new friend filled up a litter pan, a water dish, and bowl full of the sample food Linra had provided. "You're in the kitchen for now, Flour. Your Auntie Amy is using your room." He glanced at the clock. "Daddy has to go meet your other Daddy and your Auntie Meishel and get some people kibble. I'll be back soon." He scratched Flour's ears again. "Here." He offered what appeared to be a rubber sheep-thingy to the bonatar. Flour yipped happily and threw the toy in the air, catching it in his teeth.
"Good boy. You stay here and play with that. Daddy will play catch with you when I get home."
Flour watched as Gage left, and then dropped the rubber toy on the floor. He had some exploring to do.
"You did what?" Shan glared at his sister.
Meishel took another bite of her lunch. "Don't use that tone with me, Big Brother. I knew what I was doing."
"You went alone to some strange guy's apartment? Are you insane?"
"No, I am not insane. I can take down a grown man in less than 15 seconds; it wasn't like I was in any danger."
"And what if he'd neuralized you the second you stepped out of that transporter, huh?"
"Blah blah blah. What if Dera crashes into Seta?"
"Meishel, I'm serious. What you did was stupid and dangerous! Anything could have happened!"
"Well, it didn't. Joey is a great guy, and he needs friends. You'd like him."
"That's not the point! If you think I'm mad, wait until Baba finds out."
"He won't." Meishel was certain. "If you value your life."
"I value yours! That's why I'm so upset, 'Shel."
"What's done is done." Gage interrupted, looking up from his plate. "Shan, she's your sister, not your child, and even if it is sewn into your DNA structure to be a busybody, she doesn't need you trying to run her life. Meishel, love, cut him some slack. You are the only sister he has, and there's too much of your father in him to expect him to behave any other way."
"So tell me about this guy, this Joey." Shan relented.
Meishel gave him a brief run-down of her conversation with the young club owner. "He's been alone ever since his parents were killed."
"Meishel, are you sure he's telling you the truth? I'm sorry, that whole story just seems a little too tragic. Guys will say anything to impress someone. Like claiming they once ran away on a family vacation and lived in the jungle for nearly three days before the rangers tracked them down."
"You're welcome to ask my parents." Gage muttered through a mouthful of pasta.
"I know it sounds hokey, but you'd believe him if you heard him talk about it. He's got amazing charisma; I could have sat there and talked to him forever."
"Well, I for one look forward to meeting him." Gage pushed away his plate, which was still nearly full. "Whenever he's ready, of course. If you claim he's that special, then that's good enough for me."
"Are you okay?" Meishel asked, feeling terrible as she noticed he hadn't eaten much.
"The hospital called this morning. They've had to increase Dad's medication because of the pain he's in. They said don't expect him to be very coherent from now on... he was sleeping when I went there earlier. He opened his eyes once but I don't think he knew who I was."
"Sweetheart, is there anything at all I can do?"
"There's more." Shan put his arm around Gage's shoulders.
"They... um... the hospital said there's a note in Dad's hospital file. That the choice is mine if I want to let him die on his own, or if I want them to terminate his life-support early." He shook his head. "How can he ask me to make that kind of choice, Meishel? To let him be a vegetable for whatever time he has left, or to tell them to kill him now? Why didn't he discuss this with me before it got this far? How can he do this to me?"
"He trusts you."
"He shouldn't! I've got a lifetime of bad decisions under my belt! I'm the last person anyone should trust with something like this." He leaned back in his chair and stared up at the lights.
His phone began beeping at that moment and he whipped it out, greeting the caller and listening for a few minutes, a puzzled look on his face. "I understand. I'll be there in a few minutes."
He stood up. "That was the hospital. They said they want to meet with my Mom and my sisters and I as soon as possible."
"Is it... "
"His condition hasn't changed. They said they'd explain everything once I got there. Maybe they need permission to try something new. Will you guys come with me?"
Gage was the last one to arrive. Relena, Lucrezia, and the Peacecraft girls were already there. The twins and Gage squeezed into the crowded office, standing against the wall.
Dr. Loteras, the physician in charge of Milliardo's case, shook Gage's hand warmly. The elderly man had been studying Milliardo's condition for years now. Not assigned to any one place or planet, he went where he was needed, tackling diseases no one else was interested in touching. This case would be his last, though.
"I want you to meet someone. A colleague of mine." He motioned someone forward. "This is Dr. Dalen. He's trained in Wronith medicine, but he's been practicing on Seta for years now. He's taken on your father's case."
"I hope this isn't a problem?" Dr. Dalen, a Wronith in his mid 40's, asked.
"Not at all." Gage shook his hand. "I've heard some amazing things about Wronith medicine. I'm honored."
"I trust it." Shan spoke up. "Our mother can see now because of it."
"As you know." Dalen began. "Harington's Disease is caused by a faulty gene. There are three stages in the progression of the disease. The first is what the victim is born with. It's only detectable by a DNA analysis. Think of it an egg with a crack in it. Then the next stage, which usually hits during middle age. Think of this as an egg that's now leaking. Finally the last stage, when the egg breaks entirely, the stage Milliardo is in. The gene changes with each stage.
"Our first idea was to try removing the gene all together."
"Can you do something like that?" Meg blurted out.
"We can." Dalen assured her. "But in this case, it's a necessary one. It regulates the organ wall thickness; without it he'd die almost instantly. We tried a synthetic replacement in lab animals, but it only worked for a few hours.
"So our next idea is to replace Milliardo's bad gene with a healthy, compatible one. It has to be a perfect match for his existing one, only without the mutation factor. This gene is genderless, by the way. So the match can come from a male or female relative. We'd inject him with a harmless virus and it would replace the bad gene with the good one. His organ thickness should return to normal, and he'll probably outlive us all."
Gage felt the floor sway under his feet, could hear his sisters talking excitedly, but the rush of blood in his ears was too loud. "You can... save him?"
"Theoretically yes. We've treated other gene-related diseases before and we've had quite a bit of success so far. The problem we're going to run into here is finding a gene his body will accept. We'd like to test his blood relatives immediately; that's why we've asked you to come here."
"His sister has the highest chance of matching." Dr. Loteras explained. "Relena, we'd like to test you first. Could you hold out your hand?"
The older woman offered slightly shaking fingers, and Dalen used a small device to prick one, drawing blood. He examined the feedback on the screen, and shook his head. "I'm sorry. You're not a match."
Gage went next. Please, he thought. Please, just let me do this. Let me give him this. He gave me life; let me return the favor. Let me save his.
"I'm sorry, Gage."
"But he's almost a clone!" Amy protested. "Look at him!"
"Appearance isn't everything." Dalen explained very gently. "He doesn't have the same blood-type as Milliardo."
Amy was next, only to be rejected as well. "You're the closest one yet." Dalen noted, however.
Meg went last, and she kept her eyes shut the entire time, knowing that she was the last hope they had, and at Dalen's very soft "I'm sorry, Meg" she began to sob.
"We're going to try Amy's gene." Loteras explained. "It won't cure him, but it might buy him a little more time."
"Test me again." Meg begged. "Maybe there was a mistake."
"No mistake, Meg. However, what is surprising is that you and Gage are a perfect match for each other. For half-siblings, that's rare."
"Wonderful." Meg muttered, and to her surprise Gage chuckled, holding his head. "Is there anything else we can do?"
"We're still working on it. We may be able to perfect a synthetic in time. We're not giving up on him. Not without a fight." Dalen promised.
So close. For one brief moment Gage had believed it would be that simple, and the defeat was crushing. He felt as if he'd failed. Blindly he made his way of the office a few minutes later, trying to force the tears back inside.
"It's okay, honey." Relena was saying, her arm around him. "I understand."
He leaned against her, feeling Shan's hand on his back. She smelled like her usual perfume and soap; a mother-smell he'd taken for granted all those years. She was a lot shorter than he was, but she felt infinitely stronger. Why is it, he mused, that no matter how old we get or how much we try to deny it, a part of us will never stop believing that our mothers can solve any problem?
"Why couldn't you have been good for something for once?" He heard Meg saying. "Just once?"
"Leave him alone. You weren't a match either." Relena reminded her niece, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice.
"Come on, Meg. Let's go see how he's doing." Lucrezia was trying to lead her daughter away. Amy had already gone on ahead with the doctors for more testing. The twins were doing that whole speaking-without-words thing that drove him nuts, with dark glares at his sister.
"I guess you're not interested in joining my project them." Gage sighed. "Too bad."
"What project?" Meg demanded.
Gage quickly explained about the Memory Walk and his plan to make a movie of their memories. "I want us all to be there. That includes you, Aunt Lucrezia, with your earliest memories of him, and yours too Mom. Meg, you don't have to be a part of it, but I think you'll regret saying no."
Meg looked interested. Skeptical, but interested. "When?"
"Tonight if I can corner Rosemary down long enough and she's not too tired to run the thing. If we complete it in time, maybe... maybe we can show it to him. Show him how much we love him. Maybe it might give him the strength to hold on for a little bit longer."
"I'll be there." She promised, and for the first time in nearly 19 years, there was a flash of understanding between brother and sister. A lit match in a dark cave, but for all its weakness, a light nevertheless.
The first thing that Shan noticed upon entering his living room was the large hole torn in the middle of the couch cushion. The foam filling had been scattered all over the room like fluffy confetti. He thought with panic that they'd been robbed, but nothing appeared to be missing.
"Oh boy." Gage muttered. "Not good."
"Umm, redecorating?" Relena asked finally.
"Gage... what happened to our couch?" Shan wanted to know.
Gage started coughing into his hand, and couldn't meet Shan's eyes.
They walked into the kitchen, and the boy groaned. The refrigerator had been forced open and half-eaten food was strewn all around the room. He did note, however, that the litter box had been properly used. Unfortunately, so did Shan.
"Would you like to explain that?" He asked, crossing his arms.
"Explain what, dear?"
"That!" He gestured. "And that." He pointed to the food and water bowls.
"It's for our son."
"Our son." Shan repeated. "When I left this house a few hours ago, I don't think we had a son." He didn't look upset, and Gage felt better. Meishel had started cleaning up the mess, sweeping around a still-gawking Relena.
"Here Flour." Gage called. "Come here, Flour. Come see Daddy."
Something tore down the hallway, unwinding a roll of toilet paper as it went. They followed the trail into the bedroom, and began choking on a cloud of down from what had once been their pillows. Spitting out feathers, Shan knelt and looked under the bed. In the darkness, all he could see were two red eyes staring back.
"Okay... " He drew back. "In the span of a few hours, you've decided to adopt a demon and name it Flour. Anything else I should know about?"
"He is NOT a demon." Gage huffed. "And I'm not the one who named him. Come here, Flour. Come meet Other Daddy." He snapped his fingers.
The bonatar crawled out from under the bed happily, and hopped up on Gage's lap.
"Oh, Gage no, not a bonatar! We'll get you a cat or a dog or a cotrefil. Anything but a bonatar!" Shan groaned. "I should have known."
Gage covered the animal's ears. "Shhhh, I don't want him to know he's adopted."
"Come on, let's take it back where you got it. How about a rabbit? Rabbits are cute."
"I want Flour." Gage demanded. "He's just a baby; he'll calm down when he grows up."
"No, he won't. Gage, you can't train a bonatar, they're too independent. You can teach them to go in a litter pan and that's it. They destroy everything!" He pointed at the feathers. "They're also thieves. They steal things and hide them. You're Irnao-born, but I've been around them my whole life. Some things just don't make good housepets!"
Gage looked to be wavering, but then Flour licked his face and cooed again. "If this bonatar goes I go." The young man said firmly. "I'm not giving up on him. Look how sweet he can be. I'd rather buy new pillows every day than get rid of him." He kissed the animal's head.
Shan looked toward Meishel and Relena for help, only to find them both glaring at him. "You heartless jerk." Meishel accused. "If you make Gage give up Flour I'll never speak to you again."
"Meishel, look at my house!"
"Look at your maclen! Do you really think a couch is more important? Gage, you and Flour can come live in my dorm. I still love you."
"Thank you." Gage held out Flour. "Do you want to hold him? Flour, this is Auntie Meishel. She's very nice."
"Oh, you are so cute. Yes you are. Yes you just are the cutest wittle thing."
Shan was staring at his sister like she was a pod-person. When Gage took Flour over to introduce to "Grandma", his mate caved, feeling like a heel.
"Let me see him." He demanded. "Don't I at least get to hold my son?"
He looked down at the animal a beaming Gage presented him with, and Flour leaned up, nuzzling him and licking his chin. He began stroking the soft white fur with a sigh of defeat. "How can something so adorable cause so much trouble in such a short amount of time?"
"Someone used to say that about me." Gage glanced at Relena, who burst out laughing. "Oh, Mom, he doesn't believe me about that time I ran off in the jungle."
"He did." Relena confirmed. "We were on vacation, and Amy had let him read Lord of the Flies. The next thing we knew he was gone. It took us three days to find him. They finally cornered him in a cave, wearing his shirt as a loincloth. He was fine; just mad at us to for ruining his fun."
"I don't know about the rest of you, but I had a nice vacation. I had a lighter, a pocket-knife, and a canteen. I was considering going after a wild pig when the spoilsports arrived. If they hadn't I'd probably still be out there."
"Well, if they hadn't located you, nitwit, you wouldn't be here with me." Shan reminded him, as Flour rolled over to expose his stomach to easier access.
"True." Gage admitted. "And I was getting eaten alive by insects. I suppose it worked out well. Look, I didn't mean what I said about picking him over you. If you want me to get rid of him... "
"No, it's okay, he can stay. We'll just... buy a lot of new furniture or something. If he makes you this happy, then I'm okay with it."
"Thank you, thank you. I promise I'll clean up after him."
"I've heard that before." Relena said dryly. "Remember Frankfort?"
"When I knew where Frankfort was, I cleaned up after him." Gage was insulted. "It isn't my fault he chose to hide himself in the walls."
"What was Frankfort?" Shan was almost afraid to ask.
"Frankfort was a squirrel." Relena explained. "He found him outside as a baby and decided he just had to have him."
"I thought you didn't like rodents."
"I liked Frankfort. He was cute."
"He kept Frankfort in a cage." Relena continued. "About a month later he decided Frankfort should see the rest of the house. The squirrel escaped, and made his way inside the walls. He'd come out at night and chew something up, and then vanish again. It took us six months to get Frankfort out of the walls. We even tried poison."
"You tried to kill my squirrel??" Gage was horrified. "You monster!"
"Well, it didn't work." Relena defended herself. "He was YOUR squirrel; he was way too smart to fall for it. He was finally caught by one of the maids. He was asleep inside of her purse. She let him go in the backyard."
"At least someone wasn't a cold-blooded killer." Gage grumbled. "Don't worry, Flour. Daddy won't let anything bad happen to you."
"If your sisters are coming over, we should clean up a little." Shan suggested. "We have to have a ground rule. If neither of us are home to watch him, he has to stay somewhere where he can't do much damage."
"Sure. We'll work something out."
"And he has to have his own bed. He's not sleeping in ours." Shan continued.
"We'll make him his own nest. He won't bother us at all."
"Come here. I suppose if I can get used to living with one lunatic I can adjust to two." He hugged Gage tightly as the animal cooed between them, and neither of them noticed Relena and Meishel leaving, shutting the door behind them.
"I knew Shan would give in. He can't tell Gage no about anything." Meishel laughed.
"He made the right choice. I was talked into adopting someone I wasn't sure about. It turned out to be the best decision I ever made. Sometimes it's just fate."
"My mom didn't want Shan and I." Meishel admitted. "She was really upset when she got pregnant. I think you're right, it is fate. Sometimes the universe knows what's best for us, and does it whether we like it or not. Like giving us a sign that maybe we're been beating a dead horse for too long."
"What do you mean?" Relena was curious.
"Nothing. Just rethinking a bunch of things in my life. Come on, let's go see what we can save of Gage's couch."