His fingers were warm as he handed me the cup of tea. "Is there anything at all I can do for you?" He barely knew me, but the compassion and sorrow in his golden eyes was real.
I shook my head. "I just don't know what to do. My father... he never cries, Joey. Never. But now he can't stop and neither can I. How could this happen?"
To ask him that, after what he'd suffered himself, seemed an insult, but he didn't seem to take it like that. "I don't know, Chinagirl. I just don't know."
My mother had called me this morning, in a broken voice asking me to come over immediately. I had assumed it was about Milliardo; in spite of the gene therapy we knew his life could be measured now in perhaps only hours. So I went home, sorrow for Gage and his loss in my heart.
My mother hugged me tightly as I stepped out of the transporter, her eyes red and swollen, and I saw my father and Shan close to each other, holding hands, and Gage appeared to be comforting Shan, instead of the other way around.
"Oh 'Shel." My twin whispered. He tried to tell me what was wrong, but he began to sob loudly.
"Mom?" I asked. "What..."
"Sit down." She guided me to a chair. "Something... something very bad has happened."
"Milliardo..." I asked, but she shook her head no. "No... not him."
"They killed my boys." My father choked. "My sweet boys..."
"There was a shooting this morning on Seta. At the church... Macus and Pell and Adyn were there. A man opened fire." My mother was forcing the words from between her teeth. "Sweetheart, they're gone. Them and the girl Macus was seeing. He...um... he shot them all, and then himself."
I rocked back in my chair, not wanting to believe her. "No... they can't be gone." A thousand memories crashed into me. Riding high on Pell's shoulders as he ran down the beach flying a kite above our heads, watching Adyn do the same with Shan. Listening rapt to their stories about Wroni and what life was like there. And our dear Macus, who would always be soldier in his heart, born to serve those in need. The man who when barely grown had risked his life to protect our little family, and whom we owed our lives to today. Sitting outside with them when they came to visit us on Dera, until long after our bedtime, listening to them talk religion with Baba, until my mother would finally say "Listen, you zealots, I'm taking these kids to bed before you have them selling flowers in an airport or something!"
I collasped in my mothers's arms.
My parents had left for Seta shortly after that to meet with Macus' parents and to make arrangements. Not only for the funeral services, but to also find someone to take over the church. It might have seemed an odd thing to worry about, considering, but my father was sure they wouldn't have just wanted it to close down, and he was right. The message, Adyn had told me once, was the important thing. Not who was relaying it.
We sat together, Gage and Shan and I, watching the news broadcast over the computer, thinking maybe that it might make it real somehow, or less real. I don't really know why. And that's how we learned that shortly after the shootings a note had been delivered to police headquarters. They didn't tell us exactly what it said, but only that it spoke of liberating Seta and Dera from the Wronith and their influence once and for all. It hailed the shooter as a martyr, and it promised more deaths to follow. The Wronith on both planets were advised leave now, or perish.
We went to the farmhouse after that, and found Rosie and Rylan in the middle of a fight. Rosie was demanding that they leave now and head back to Earth, and Rylan was refusing.
"I'm not running away!" He yelled. "Not this time!"
There was something different about him, and it took me a moment to realize that haunted look he always wore around here had vanished into one that was angry and resolved. "I have a right to be on this planet or Seta if that's what I want and damn it, so does everyone else!"
"Rylan, if something happens to you..." Rosie was pleading.
"Let it happen." His tone was cold. "I won't let Pell and Adyn die in vain. If I run away back to Earth now, then I'm saying their deaths don't matter. I'm saying that any other Wronith they kill doesn't matter either."
"I don't CARE about anyone else! I just care about you!"
"I'm fighting. You can go back to Earth if you want." He shrugged. "I'll fight them alone if I have to."
"You don't have to." Jazz promised. "I'm with you."
"Count us in." Duo said firmly, and Heero nodded. "He's right, Rosie. They have to be stopped."
"What if they come after the rest of us?" Luke asked from the doorway. "He's willing to risk his life. That's his choice. But about Nadia? What her brother? Are you willing to put them at risk, Rylan?"
"I would NEVER hurt Nadia." Rylan hissed.
"Well, if you try and take on the Deran Pure, who says they won't come after her in retaliation? She is your niece, after all. So what if she's not Wronith? Macus and that girl weren't Wronith either. Think the bullets cared? She's my niece too, in case you've forgotten!"
"And she's MY daughter." Jazz turned on his brother. "And I'm more than capable of protecting her! And don't you ever attack Rylan around me, you little punk! He was more of a man at 9 than you'll ever be!"
It was only at that moment that I realized as much as Jazz loved his brother, he had almost no respect for him. Looking between them, I also realized Luke had known this all along.
"Jazz!" Duo was appalled, but Luke gave a hollow laugh. "So it finally comes out now, does it? The truth? Well, someone has to protect your kid from the fanatics even if YOU don't think it's very important."
"Luke, that's enough." I tried to warn him, but it was too late.
"Listen to Rosie and go back to Earth, Rylan." My boyfriend warned. "I've got nothing against you personally and couldn't care less about how many Wronith this world has, but right now you're a danger to my family. What about your wife, huh? Even if you don't care about Nadia, I can't believe you're willing to put your wife, MY SISTER, in danger for some vigilante..."
A second later Luke was on the floor, holding a bloody nose. Rylan stood over him, shaking in fury. Luke lunged for his legs, and they both went down on the floor.
"Keerist." Gage muttered. I'd almost forgotten he was there, he'd been so quiet. "I should have brought my sisters, set up a tag team, and sold tickets."
Duo smacked him on the back of the head.
It took a while to separate them. It appeared that once it woke up, Rylan's fighting spirit was strong. My boyfriend had definitely come off the worse for wear; Rylan didn't have a mark on him.
"You're the one I don't want near Nadia!" Jazz was furious, screaming at Luke when he'd finally managed to break up the fight. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
Bloody and defeated, Luke raised his head and our eyes locked. I shook my own head no. I could not support him in this. "Rylan..." I looked up at the man. "Pell and Adyn were my family. I want to help stop these monsters from hurting anyone else. Whatever you do, I want to be a part of."
He hugged me tightly. "You bet." I heard dimly the door to Luke's bedroom slam.
"You know I support you, but I'm scared, Rylan." Rosie wrapped her arms around him when he let me go.
"So am I." He admitted. "But I can't walk away from this. I have to do the right thing. Please understand."
"I do." She was trying to stop crying. "I'm behind you all the way."
I knocked on Luke's door, wanting to comfort him, wanting to be comforted myself, but he didn't answer, and suddenly the house was too crowded, too emotional, and I needed to get away.
Now, sitting in Joey's living room, not sure why I'd even come to him of all people, I let go again.
"He doesn't hate Wronith." I said to him, when I'd managed to get myself under control again. "I know it may sound like he does. I think he's just afraid."
"Chinagirl, can I ask you a favor?"
"Do you think..." he stopped. "Could I meet Rylan? Please? Do you think he'd come and talk with me? I don't know what I can do to help him. Probably not much. I don't even know what he's planning on doing, but..."
"I think he'd like that." I touched his hand. "I'm so sorry to dump everything on you like this, but I loved them all so much. I just can't believe they're gone."
"We're shaped by the people we love. I've been reading about them on the computer. They've changed so many lives for the better. I wish I could give them back to you. I bet they were perfect."
"Not exactly." I remembered, giggling. "I heard it was Pell's turn to give the sermon, but he wasn't feeling good so he took some medication. Then he forgot and took it again. He stood there and gave an hour long cooking lesson. He didn't have any pots or pans or anything, but he sure thought he did. He kept stirring thin air and telling them how important it was not to overcook the decorn. Adyn said he and Macus were laughing so hard they nearly puked, but they just let him talk. The next day he didn't remember a thing. He thought they were making it up until all these little old ladies started thanking him for the recipes.
"Another time the Wronith sent someone to speak to them. They weren't upset about them defecting during the war, and they didn't give a hoot about Nataku, but they were mortified by the fact that they were living openly together as a couple. The VIP kept trying to sell them on the virtues of women. Well, not knowing what was going on Macus happened to walk in. The VIP's eyes got huge. Before Macus could say anything Adyn was dragging 'honey' over to introduce to their guest. The VIP said goodbye and ran out of there like he was on fire!"
Joey's shoulders shook. "Oh I wish I could have seen that! Poor Macus. Tell me more."
He really wanted to hear, I could see. He wasn't just trying to comfort me by letting me talk. As I told him more stories I swore that I could feel my friends there with me, laughing and crying at my side. Keep us alive like this, I could imagine them saying. I could imagine their joy at finally meeting their Goddess, and I knew that someday, we'd all meet before her. And oh the stories we'd have to tell then.
Sometimes it seemed to Milliardo that he had two fathers, each a carbon copy of the other superficially, but inside as different as dawn and midnight.
Born into elegance and refinement and taste, it was fitting somehow that the man destined to be the last of the Peacecraft kings was also the best of them, and the brightest, and the one that outshown them all. Tall and blond and regal, he was a man who gained respect of those around him not by show of force but by force of charisma and grace. The young prince was often forced to attend the stuffy balls his mother threw periodically, and the only thing that made being forced into a suit by his Nana and made to stand still and behave the whole horrid night was watching his father in action. Moving fluidly, whether shaking hands or dancing with Milliardo's mother, or closing a business deal, he was every inch the king fate had determined he should be. This man, this great leader, belonged to the world.
And only a handful of people knew how much he despised every second of it.
In the back of the house, far from where anyone else would ever have need to go, was a workroom. Three sides of it were almost all windows, so that there was almost always light. It would have made a fine sitting room for anyone else, but just as the nursery was the universe to his children, this was Andrew Peacecraft's private haven. He allowed his children to enter if he was present, but no one else ever crossed the sacred threshold. In truth, no one would have wanted to.
It was here, sitting on the floor and playing in a pile of sawdust, watching Andrew sand wood and apply finish and saw boards in perfect halves, that Milliardo saw the other man inside his father. The man he liked far better.
In stained jeans and a ratty tee-shirt, covered in varnish or dust or paint, Andrew cast aside the trappings of his station and became himself for a few hours.
He was talented at the work, and many of the toys in the nursery had been crafted by his own hands. He seldom kept anything he made for himself, bestowing his creations upon friends and refusing to accept anything for them. He worked the wood because he loved it, and because the need within him to create was simply too strong to ignore.
Above the whine of the saw, his voice would rise.
"Any old iron, any old
iron, any any any old iron
You'll look neat, talk about a treat
You'll look dapper from your napper to your feet
Dressed in style, brand new tile
Your father's old green tie on
I wouldn't give you tuppence for your old watch chain
Old iron, old iron."
Relena and Kato were too young to be patient in the room for long, too curious about the tools on the walls, so when Andrew had company it was usually just the older boy. As much as he loved Sungirl and Moonboy, Milliardo treasured these moments with just Andrew and himself. It was also a good time to ask his father any questions no one else would understand.
Today, Andrew glanced down at him, saw the boy tracing absent patterns in the dusty floor, and he smiled. "You're in another universe, Starboy. What's going on inside that head of yours?"
Milliardo chewed his lip, thinking, and Andrew turned off the sander and sat down on the floor next to him, brushing a bit of wood off the boy's cheek. He said nothing, simply waited for his son to put his mind in order.
"I saw something." Milliardo began. "Something weird." His eyes were wide behind the clear goggles Andrew made him wear when the powertools were being used. "Very, very weird."
"Very, very weird? Two verys? Was it a three-headed gila monster in a bow-tie?"
"No." Milliardo was trying hard not to laugh.
"Was it a rubber ducky doing backflips and singing to your mother?"
"No." Milliardo giggled. "Daddy..."
"Well, that's about as weird as I can think of."
"I saw Terrance and Angelo kissing." Milliardo whispered. "Outside in the garden."
Terrance maintained the pool, and Angelo was a groundskeeper.
"Well." Andrew said after a moment. "I don't think that's so strange."
"Daddy, guys can't kiss!" Milliardo protested.
"Sure they can." Andrew half-smiled. "If they want to."
Milliardo gave him a skeptical look, sure he was being teased again.
"Look. You saw them kissing. That means that yes, guys can kiss."
"But they're not supposed to." Milliardo was certain.
"Mom. She saw them too and yelled at them. She said she was going to fire them for it!"
"Well, first of all no she's not. Secondly, it's not any of her business, or my business, or anyone else's business what Terrance and Angelo do as long as they keep doing their jobs."
He looked sad, Milliardo realized. "At least they have the option." Andrew said, almost to himself.
"What do you mean?" The boy was curious.
"Not everyone has the right to be...well... themselves I suppose you could say. Sometimes things happen, things you can't control. Other people or life makes hard choices for you. It's like how you have to wear a tie at parties even though you don't like it. It's just something everyone expects you to do."
Milliardo wasn't sure he understood. His father seemed to be rambling, and stopped, noticing his confusion.
"If Terrance and Angelo are in love, there is no reason in this world the two of them can't be in love and be together. For some people, there are reasons. They're very lucky."
"Even if they're both men?"
"Even then." Andrew assured him.
Milliardo thought a little more. "What kinds of reasons can't people be together over?" He wanted to know.
His father shrugged. "Oh, lots of reasons. Sometimes your family has someone else they want you to be with, and you don't want to upset them. Or sometimes, the person you love doesn't always love you back. You can't force them into it, after all. Once upon a time, there was this man that I knew. He grew with a lot of money, and everyone thought they knew who he was, but they really didn't.
"Well, one day this man, he met someone. Another man. And just like that, whoosh, he was in love. And it scared him, Milliardo. Because it went against everything he'd grown up believing. His family had a nice girl picked out for him to marry, and he was supposed to fall in love with her. How could he love another man?
"But he did. They did a lot together, and had a lot of great adventures, and finally the man decided that he was going to follow his heart. He was going to tell his friend how he felt, and not marry the woman."
The child leaned forward. "So what happened then?"
"He told his friend everything. He was afraid he'd be upset or angry, but instead his friend was very sad. Sad because he had to hurt the man. He had to tell him that he wasn't able to love him like that, the way the man wanted to. That he could only love him as a friend.
"Well, the man was hurt, and his heart was broken. But he only cried when he was alone, and he never let anyone else know about it. He went home and he married the woman his family liked. They had two very beautiful children, and he loved them more than anything else in the world. So it all worked out okay in the end.
"But listen to me, okay Starboy. I never want you to forget this, no matter how long you live. If you fall in love with someone, and that someone loves you back, then no matter what anyone else says, no matter what your mother says or your friends say and no matter what they do, you be with that person. Guy or girl doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what they look like or how much money they have. Don't ever turn your back on love."
"Okay Daddy." Milliardo nodded at the serious look on his father's face. "I won't."
"Good boy." And Andrew became Andrew again, his sad look vanishing. "Come on. Do you want to help me finish this table?"
"Can I run the sander?" Milliardo jumped to his feet. "Please. I'm big enough now. I know I am."
"Well then, let's get to work."
He shivered in pain, trying to twist away from it in the hospital bed. He didn't want to wake up. He wanted to go back there, back home. He wanted to stand there again with his big, powerful, wonderful father guiding the sander in his hands. He wanted his father to come to him now, to make the pain go away.
"Daddy." He tried to speak. "Please."
The darkness wrapped itself around him like a blanket, and suddenly he felt the pain leeched out of him. He was warm and safe and he wanted to stay there. "Not yet." He heard someone whisper, and felt fingers in his hair. "Not yet, Starboy. We never leave a project unfinished, remember. Start nothing you don't intend to complete."
"I'll try." He answered, or thought he did. "It's so hard, Daddy."
"I know. I'm here now. Sleep, Starboy. I'll keep the pain away until she can do it for me."
"She?" He was losing awareness.
"We loved him. We thought we could touch him by reaching out to each other."
"I don't understand."
"Soon you will. Just sleep. Daddy's here."
And whether real or a product of his imagination, Milliardo found peace in the thought, and slept without pain for the first time in days.