"Why? Just... just tell me why." Milliardo asked in a pained voice. "What in the name of Earth or Dera or whatever possessed you to DO something like that?" He turned to glare at Shan. "And why didn't you stop him?"
Standing in Milliardo's living room, sipping a cup of coffee, Shan shrugged. "It's his head. He can do whatever he wants to it." He gave Gage a sideways glance. "I don't know why either. I think it's cute, though."
Gage's normally white hair was now streaked with various colors. Red, purple, pink, blue, and green. The colors had bled into each other, forming muddy mixtures where the lines met.
"Why not?" The young man asked cheerfully. "I was bored." He flopped down on the couch, and ran a hand through the colors. "I still think you should bleach yours." He advised Shan. "Then maybe go green."
"Not in this lifetime!"
"Oh, come on." Gage gave him a pleading look. "Haven't I taught you to live a little?"
"I like living! That's why I'm not going to take a chance on my father seeing me looking like a clown!"
"Oh, but just imagine the look on his face, baby... "
Milliardo watched them banter back and forth, enjoying it. If Gage was happy, really happy, and for the first time in his life he seemed to be, then having fright-wig hair was a small price to pay. He almost wished he'd done something like that. Granted, the things he'd done at Gage's age or around there were more along the lines of stupid, criminal, and homicidal. Dying his hair was something he'd never really thought about, given his other issues.
"Don't suppose you have any of that stuff left?" He asked his son innocently.
"A little bit. Why?"
Milliardo shrugged one shoulder and picked up a strand of hair. "You're right. It gets boring after a while. How do you think it would look blue?"
They exchanged twin grins.
"You're not serious." Shan laughed. "You can't be serious."
Gage was delighted. "I'll be back in two minutes!" He took off toward the transporter.
"God, you're just as loony as he is."
"Shan, I'm insulted." The older man winked. "Gage will have to live a long time to get as crazy as I am."
And I want him to remember me like this, he thought. I want him to remember the morning I let him dye my hair. I want him to laugh when he remembers me.
Because I've been so tired the last few days, and that's how it starts. I'm running out of time to make him happy.
The apartment building was well-kept but small, and that surprised her. He'd always liked big, open spaces, and she couldn't imagine him being happy in a cramped apartment.
Then again, she couldn't imagine him being happy here at all, away from everything he knew, away from Meg and Amy.
In spite of the anger and hurt she still felt toward him, she knew that he loved his girls. She had even tried to encourage Meg to go visit her father, as Amy did from time to time, but the younger girl refused. "You don't want to see him, why should I?"
"That's different! We're divorced. He didn't divorce you or your sister."
"He left us. It feels that way to me!"
Three years. Three years since he'd kissed her goodbye and told her that he'd be back soon. The last time she'd seen him, held him, made love to him.
It wasn't a security building. There were no buzzers or doormen. She tried to remember that this wasn't like on Earth. The people here were more trusting, she guessed. She didn't dislike it, but it definitely didn't feel like home. Was he really content here? Did he miss her as well as the girls?
She steeled her nerves as she walked up the short flight of stairs in the building. That wasn't what she was here for. What was done was done. Not only had he betrayed her, but he'd lied to her about it for years. He'd brought his son into their house over and over, and never once told her the truth about Gage. That she could never forgive.
No, she was here today for her own children, for Meg in particular. If she couldn't reason with one stubborn fool, she'd try the other. Lucrezia had never been one to accept defeat gracefully. Reaching the apartment she knew was Milliardo's, she knocked.
From the other side, she heard the sound of laughter, and a muffled voice calling out "Don't you dare open that!" The door swung open anyway.
She started to speak and then froze for a moment, staring up at the festive-haired young man, who looked just as startled to see her. "Gage?" She managed to get out.
He narrowed his eyes and without a word, he closed the door in her face. "Darn Girl Scouts! They'll track you down anywhere." She heard him say to someone.
Furious she pounded on the polished wood. "GAGE! Open this door!"
It opened again, and this time she took a step back. "Oh my god... "
Milliardo's snowy hair was splattered with pink and blue spots. His hands and arms were also streaked with colors, and his shirt and jeans were ruined.
"What?" He broke the silence, recovering from his shock at seeing her there and folding his arms.
"What do you mean what?"
"I was bored."
"I don't believe this." She nudged passed him into his living room.
"Oh, by all means, come in." Gage quipped, rolling his eyes.
"Gage." Milliardo held up a painted hand. "Enough."
"We should go home." Shan, whose hair was still black, although it had taken threats of castration against Gage to keep it that way, tried to lead his mate toward the transporter, but Gage dug in his heels like a stubborn toddler. "I'm not leaving her alone with him."
"This doesn't concern you, Gage." Lucrezia snapped.
"Then I'll be bored to tears, won't I? I'm not leaving."
"What are you doing here?" Milliardo asked softly. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming?" He tried to take her in without staring. She looked the same as he remembered; the stress of the last few years marking her heart but not her features. In his eyes, she was still the young and vibrant woman he'd fallen in love with all those years ago.
The woman he still loved.
"It was spur-of-the-moment." She admitted, sitting down on a chair, and her ex-husband moved across from her. Shan took the couch, but Gage sat down on the floor next to his father's feet. She gave the young man an exasperated look and he grinned in return and blew her a kiss.
"Stop that." Milliardo warned. "Please, Gage."
"Kay." He touched Milliardo's arm for a second. "Sorry."
"You always were the only one who had any control over him." Lucrezia sighed almost to herself. "I guess that hasn't changed."
"Gage has changed a lot." Milliardo said firmly. "He doesn't need me or anyone else to control him now." His eyes were full of pride. "He's married, he's in college, he's building a good life for himself."
"Shan beats me with a dead trout when I slip into my former miscreant tendencies." Gage offered. "It's effective, but I do wish he'd take it out of the bucket first."
Shan snickered, and Lucrezia really noticed him for the first time. Wufei's son, she thought. Married to Gage. The universe never failed to amaze her.
"What are you doing here?" Millardo asked again. He was able to hide the flicker of hope in his eyes from her and from Shan, but Gage noticed it, and it broke his heart.
"I want you to know that our problems are between us, not the girls. I'm asking you to come back to Earth and talk to Meg, since she won't come here. She needs you. They both do. I know you came here to be with Gage, but he's an adult now. You said yourself he's building his own life. There's no reason for you to keep yourself in exile like this." She went on. "We were friends a long time before we were anything else. No matter what you might think, I still care about you. I don't want to see you or our daughters suffer when there's no need for it. This isn't where you belong."
Milliardo stood up and rolled his neck in the palm of his hand. His eyes flickered toward Gage. "I'm sorry, Lucrezia. You know I'd do anything for Meg and Amy, but I'm not going back to Earth. If Meg chooses to act like an adult about this, she knows where to find me."
"You hurt her. She did nothing wrong! You have to make the first move here. You have to apologize to her for what you did!"
"For which thing?" Milliardo asked. "If you want me to apologize for Gage being alive, then you both are going to be waiting for a long time."
"That's not what she's angry about, Milliardo. She's upset about you moving here to be with him. She feels like that you've picked him over her, just like you did when she was a child!"
"What about her dance recital when she was 10? She looked for you the entire time. I was the one who held her afterward when she couldn't stop crying. Do you remember why you weren't there?"
"Because I was at the hospital with Gerry and Relena! Gage fell off the roof of the guesthouse and had a concussion!"
"It was always something. He was always getting into some kind of trouble and you were always putting Meg and Amy on the backburner to deal with it!"
"So you just wanted me to pretend like he didn't exist?"
"You gave him to Relena and Gerry. You should have stepped aside and let them do their jobs!"
"I don't care who was raising him! It didn't mean I wasn't still his father!"
"You were a father to Amy and Meg first! They should have been first priority!"
"Stop it!" Gage yelled. "Both of you!"
They turned to stare at him. "Stop making me the excuse for every problem you had!"
"Gage." Lucrezia said in a very quiet tone. "Like it or not, you were the reason for every problem we had. If it wasn't for you, none of this would have happened."
"No, if it wasn't for me none of this would have ever happened." Milliardo said angrily. "He was a victim as much as you and the girls were. More, really. You were lied to? Why don't you stop and think about what he felt like?"
She surprised him. "Fine. Gage, when you found out the truth, how did you feel?"
"How do you think I felt? I always felt like my uncle was the one person in the world who would always level with me and then all of a sudden he wasn't my uncle; he was my father. I felt like... " he paused. "I wanted to die. But I couldn't." He reached for Shan's hand. "I had a good reason to go on. But I guess I felt like Meg must feel now. He picked you guys over me. He went on living with you and Meg and Amy and he gave me away." Gage took a shuddering breath. "I hated him for it. I felt ashamed, guilty. Especially when he said he was staying here." He stared into her eyes. "You don't think I could feel like that, do you? But I did. Hell, I still do. I'd ship him back now if I thought he'd go." He looked younger than 18. "I'm sorry, okay?" He raised his hand to stop her from talking. "I'm for the things I had control over. For everything I broke, and for going out of my way to tick you off, and for the time I set your car on fire and... "
"You did what?" Milliardo sputtered.
"I was aiming for her flowerbed." Gage shrugged. "The parachute on the rocket got caught in a headwind... never mind. The point is, for that I apologize. But do you really hate me so much that you can look me in the eye and say that my entire life is just a mistake? Because if you can, then his biggest mistake was marrying you, not making me."
She tried to make a lie come out of her mouth, but she couldn't do it. If the boy deserved nothing else from her, he deserved honesty. It was all she could give him. "I wish you'd never been born. I wish I could go back in time and prevent him from ever going to that bar the night you were conceived. I respect that you're trying to turn your life around now, but it doesn't change how many lives you turned upside down right from the start."
Just as Gage had been the only one to see the spark of hope in Milliardo's eyes, only Milliardo was able to recognize the flash of hurt in his. Shan had been too busy staring at Lucrezia in outrage, and Gage had learned very early to mask his heart around the woman.
He didn't hate her anymore, Gage realized. Not like he had when he was a child. She was a mother. Her own kids had been hurt by this whole mess, and he knew that she would have done anything to prevent that. But it didn't mean her comments didn't sting him to the core.
"I'm sorry you feel like that, then." He spoke before either Milliardo or Shan could leap to his defense, silencing them with a gesture. "I'll admit I was a rotten nephew. But over the last few years, I think I've learned to be a pretty good son. Too bad you're not in the market for one." He shrugged. "Come on, Shan. I think we do need to leave them alone to talk. Dad, I'll call you later."
When the boys were gone, Milliardo sank down onto the couch and covered his eyes.
"Are you all right?" Lucrezia asked. "You don't look well."
"Don't you ever attack my son in my house again." He whispered. "Because no matter how I feel about you, I swear I'll pick you up and throw you down the stairs myself."
"Just go." He didn't look up. "Before I say something I'll regret."
"He's changed, you were right." She couldn't make herself walk toward the door. "What's happened to him?"
"He grew up." Milliardo gave her an exhausted smile. "In spite of all the crap you and I and Relena and Gerry made him deal with, he grew up and had the last laugh on all of us. He's better than we'll ever be."
She sat down next to him. "You know, I think in some ways I always knew. Every time I saw the two of you together, even the first time I saw you holding him, I knew. I just didn't want to face it. I remembered how disappointed you were when we found out we couldn't have any more children, how it broke my heart that I was never going to be able to give you a son, and then, someone else did. Why didn't you tell me?" She blinked back her tears. "Why didn't you tell me the truth about him?"
"Because I didn't see any need to destroy all of our lives. The girls were still little. I grew up without my parents. I wanted them to know that their mother and father were always going to be around for them. I thought that with my sister, Gage would have that same kind of security. Maybe Relena had a point. She told me once that she and Gerry would have bonded with him if I'd ever been really able to let him go. But I never was.
"And I never expected to love him as much as I did. I thought I'd just be happy being a doting uncle, but the second I saw him... you know what that feels like. I thought about just taking him and running away, raising him myself. Maybe I didn't make the right choices back then, but I don't think there was a right choice I could have made. Someone was going to get hurt."
"Does he still talk to Gerry? I know he's stayed in touch with Relena."
"No. That's the way they both wanted it. I don't know the whole story between them; when Gage was a baby Gerry spent a lot of time with him. But it seemed like the older Gage got, the more he deviated from the idea Gerry had in mind, the more Gerry tried to avoid him."
"Gage deviated in just about every way possible." Lucrezia said dryly, and to her surprise, Milliardo laughed.
"That's true. The hardest part was trying not to laugh and encourage it. Filling his principal's car with chickens... "
"Don't remind me. He once walked up to Meg's boyfriend when she was in high school, shook his hand, and said 'And you must be the father. Congratulations.' I thought she was going to murder him."
"He once put out a personal ad in the papers... let me try and remember how he worded it. 'Mature woman seeking discreet female companionship', along with Relena's mobile number."
They were both laughing and crying at the same time now. "You were so serious, so driven." Lucrezia remembered. "He's nothing like you." She paused. "Except for the hair. I almost had a heart attack when I saw you today."
"Heart attack. Funny way of putting it." He touched her hand. "That's what it felt like."
"Sorry. I forget when and where we are for a moment." He pulled back. "Do you have a place to stay on Dera? I have an extra room."
His tone had changed, gone cooler, more civilized, and she felt a wave of hurt and confusion.
"I have a hotel room. I hope to be here for a few more days."
He nodded. "Maybe we can get together again before you leave. I'm a little tired; I think I'm going to go take a nap."
Don't look at her. Don't look into her eyes. Pretend you don't see how much she wants to stay. Pretend that she's nothing more than your ex-wife. Pretend it's not killing you not to pull her into your arms right now.
Love, go. Don't let me betray you again.
On to part nine. Back to part seven.