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Reality Fault

Getting Ready for the Party

    The University
    The University campus is a sprawling place, with tree-buildings similar to the one holding the Silver Egg standing serenely around a central courtyard. Outside the ring of trees are a number of buildings with sod growing on the roofs, most of which are set somewhat down in the earth, rather looking like they're snuggled comfortably into place around the trees. Many of them are obviously large enough to be lecture halls. A path winds around the outside of them and into the central clearing between them, in crooked spokes. More trees and the low buildings spread out past that, in no really discernable pattern.

The campus, as always, is a confusion of students on their way to and from classes. Kerry walks among them, this time able to sort out the babble around him, and discovers that it is very similar to that of home -- classes and tests and jobs and friends being the main topic of conversation. Kerry smiles -- some things are constant even in alternate universes -- and heads back to the flight school area, hoping that Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow has calmed down enough not to mind that he's giving machinery advice to the flying trolls.

The flight school is a quieter corner of the campus. There is no class in session right now, and the dryad is in the classroom, sitting and going through some papers. When Kerry comes in she looks up and says, "Oh, hello," then looks as if she's trying to remember his name.

Kerry grins at the dryad. "I've got a translator now, ma'am, so I can properly introduce myself." He sketches a bow. "Kerry Skydancer at your service. Have you seen Kerl and Jurgens around?"

The dryad says, "Oh. I don't know. They were working on their wreck, and then went up to talk to the drake. I've been paying attention to this." She glances outside, then adds, "If it's as late as it seems to be, they might be in a class too. Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow will probably know."

Kerry skrees, "Well, I guess I can go look. I brought my datapad with me today, to show them some pictures of how we make simple flying machines. I think I can help them design one that works."

The dryad assumes a slightly disbelieving look, "They don't need anyone encouraging them any more, Kerry. They're likely enough to kill themselves as it is."

Kerry chuckles. "They will if they keep trying to build one that flaps. We lost a few folks that way ourselves a few centuries back. There's a simple design they can build that should work."

The dryad shakes her head, "I don't understand what drives you to try and leave the good earth." This attitude might be predictable from a tree, though. She gestures up and says, "See if they're still with the drake, or if she knows where they've got to."

Kerry nods and offers another sketchy bow. "I'll do that, ma'am. Thank you." He heads out then, and up the stairs to the flight deck.

On the upper deck, there is no sign of anyone. Kerry looks around. I'll bet Schnelly is sunning herself again. He clears his throat and tries to remember the syllables precisely. "Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow? Are you up there?"

The drake rustles in the sun above, her head emerging from the boughs of the tree almost immediately at the stairwell. She looks around sinuously before she says, "Oh. Hello again, Kerry."

Kerry nods. "Good afternoon. Did Kerl and Jurgens get back yet?"

The dragon's head vanishes and there is a rustling sound as she comes back down, agilely walking down a large branch and then settling comfortably along the edge of the platform, her tail twining about something. Once she's settled she says, "Not quite. They have a maths class today."

Kerry skrees, "Hmm... that might be interesting. I suspect your notation is different from ours, though. You wouldn't mind if I wait here for them, would you?"

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow shifts again, sliding a coil or two under herself so she can recline against herself, saying, "Yes, I expect it would be." She looks the much smaller bat up and down, then adds, "Of course not. Could I help you?"

Kerry scrambles up the tree and finds a comfortable limb to hang from. "Oh, I'd like to give them some advice now that I can talk to them properly. I've got a simple design for an aircraft that should actually be able to fly for them. No more machinery needed than the one they've got." He thinks about it. "Less, actually."

The drake doesn't move much, but she does say, "Really? And you think this can fly? May I see this design?" She finally sits up a little, curious.

Kerry skrees, "Sure. Just a second..." He pulls out the datapad and calls up the ultra-light design he's reworked from the files. The picture he chooses is an animation, with a stick-figure troll pedaling the spinning propeller in slow motion. "There. The trick is to make it lighter, and with fewer moving parts -- the trolls are strong enough that they should be able to pedal it fast enough to maintain airspeed."

Moving over closer, and craning her long neck over Kerry, the drake considers the image. "How does it work?"

Kerry points at the moving parts. "They pedal here, the chain hooks to the propeller through the gearing there, and the prop pushes air backwards to push the craft forward. Same principle as a maple seed spinning to the ground slowly, but harnessed."

The drake considers, then asks, "A maple seed falls down, parallel to the ground. This is perpendicular to the ground. How will it keep them in the air?" Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow reaches carefully around Kerry with one claw tip to tap gently at the spinning image of the propeller.

Kerry skrees, "It provides the push. The seed falls, but slowly because of the pressure of the air on the shape. This design turns on its own and forces the air to push it forward. The fabric canopy wing -- this thing here -- provides enough lift to keep them from falling. These struts here warp the wing enough to provide control. It's not particularly maneuverable, but it should work well enough to let them get a taste of flight."

The drake settles a little, considering, before she says, "So, the spinning thing pushes forwards? How does it go up then?"

Kerry skrees, "The prop is tilted just a bit. It pushes up as well as forward. Though I think it will be easier to launch from up here..."

The drake ahhs, considering. She says, "You're right. This will be simpler to build. It looks like there's almost nothing to it; very fragile." Glancing out at the crashed one, she asks, "Are you sure that's wise?"

Kerry skrees, "It's stronger than it looks. All that wood in their design just adds extra weight. If they do crash, it'll crush and absorb most of the shock."

Moving back to the sunbeam near the edge of the platform, the drake chuckles, "You'll make them rebuild it completely when they crash it. Maybe that is smart." Settling in the sun again, she says, "It's nice to see a fellow flyer willing to help the trolls. So few others seem interested in flying, if they can't already do it."

Kerry grins. "Well, I can't quite on my own, so I know how they feel. I'm more of a glider than a flyer, I'm afraid... though it's easier here than at home."

At this Schnel looks rather surprised, "You don't fly?" then adds, "Why not? I don't understand."

Kerry skrees, "The Rules are different, I think. My home world -- home dimension, really -- I don't have quite enough power to lift. I can do better here, but I'm not sure why yet. Maybe if I work at it, I'll be able to fly on my own wings here..." He drifts into a grinning reverie for a minute, "... umm. Where was I?"

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow considers this for a little while, then says, "That's a terrible shame, Kerry. I hope you do figure it out." She looks as if she's considering, but doesn't say anything.

Kerry skrees, "If you can do it... I should be able to. Even if it just needs a magic boost of some sort."

The drake nods, "Yes. It might-" but is interrupted by something below. She turns to look and says, "Oh, there are Kerl and Jurgens." It's not but a few more moments before Kerry can hear the creak of the rope-and-plank stairwell as the two trolls ascend.

Kerry waves a wing at the trolls as they arrive. "Hiya, fellas!"

The two trolls stop their discussion -- apparently of the math test they just finished -- and look at Kerry. They smile. Jurgens says, "Hello, small bat!" and Kerl adds, "Hello. Hey, you talk now, ja?"

Kerry skrees, "Yep. Got the gnome professor to make us all translators. I've got a design for you. It's one our folks used to make a non-magical flyer. Simpler and a lot lighter than what you've got there... and light is important if there's no magic involved."

Kerl says, "Ja?" and, "Ja," and, "Ja?" at Kerry's speech. Jurgens says, "Thank you, Kerry. We happy to look."

Kerry drops down to the platform and pulls out the datapad again. "Here we are..." He starts with the animated drawing, then goes through the blueprints, translating the notes as he goes.

The two trolls look dubious at first, and have a lot of the same questions the drake did. Listening to Kerry try and answer the rapid-fire questions of the troll brothers, the drake chuckles rumblingly, then makes her way back into the higher branches, brushing Kerry with her tail tip as she vanishes, sort of a silent goodbye. The trolls keep asking how the craft goes up and why it will stay there. Kerry does his best to explain, though he's honest enough to point out that he's using mathematics that wasn't tested for this universe. "...but everything that I've seen indicates that it should work better here than at home. The propeller pushes up as well as forward; see how it's angled? And the canopy wing slows the normal rate of fall so that the prop can overcome it..."

Each of the two trolls has a lot of questions for Kerry. They take turns, one making the other think of something vaguely related, as they grill him about why it works, then about how to build it. Kerry spends a fair chunk of the day and into the evening giving the inquisitive trolls the basics of Terran aeronautical theory and letting them copy down the drawings to refer to later. Finally he stretches. "Enough for one day! You fellows want to come over to the Silver Egg for dinner?"

Kerl and Jurgens shake their heads no, saying, "Need go back Troll home tonight, sorry. Bring you along, but worry you get broken."

Kerry chuckles. "Fair enough. Say hello to Annifred for me if you see her."

Kerl chuckles, "Ja, we know Annifred. She fun. Oh! You know Douglas? He from other world too, ja?"

Kerry skrees, "Ayup. Douglas is the engineer for our ship... if we can get it back. Here... let me show you the picture..." He calls up a picture of Alshain, or a similar shuttle, in flight. "Beautiful, isn't she?"

Kerl and Jurgens both marvel at the picture of Alshain. Jurgens asks, "How big? So much metal."

Kerry calls up another picture, this one of a shuttle on the tarmac with a prep crew around it. "Those are normal humans, for scale. Quite large... but we've been working on flying machines for over three centuries now."

Both trolls are very impressed. Jurgens asks, "You come here in this ship? How far? How long trip take? How fast ship go?"

Kerry skrees, "About 30 meters long, and about 150 tons. Lots of machinery. This is just the shuttle to our ship in orbit. She'll do 10 kilometers per second in space, but only about 750 kilometers per hour in atmosphere. This is our real ship, but it can't land. It travels between worlds... takes about 2 months to get home from here."

Both trolls look at the picture of Indigo, and are suitably impressed. They both seem, in fact, a little stunned -- somewhat unable to fathom what 10 km/sec or 750 km/hr means; they're big numbers. Finally Jurgens looks up and says, "Hey, it get dark." He nudges Kerl, "We take Kerry back?"

Kerry hmms, remembering what happened to Vash. "I won't say no. I do have a bit of rowan, though."

Kerl says, "Ja, we take back." At Kerry's announcement he grins, "That good. Rowan and trolls better, ja?"

Kerry skrees, "Definitely. Let's be on our way then, before it gets any later."

The walk back to the Egg is uneventful, although the troll brothers begin discussing building of a new craft with some excitement, still asking Kerry questions when they don't know something. Wood and cloth they can get, and they're sure one of the older trolls will help with the propeller and gearing, if they can't crib it from the old one... Kerry nods. "The propeller shape is very important. Make sure you make it exactly, and from a single piece of wood."

The troll-home is a warren of caves and passages cut into the side of a hillside. Inside there are several big common rooms; one for eating and talking, another for sleeping, as well as a huge kitchen. Most of the trolls have a little spot of privacy they've claimed in the seemingly endless maze of warrens deep in the hill. Everything about it is on the scale of the trolls themselves -- a little larger than life and experiencing everything to the fullest.

Annifred has cheerfully brought Douglas home with her again. The interview with the sentry is brief; Annifred says, "Ho, Sighvat!" and gives the ancient, grizzled troll at the gate a big hug. He rumbles something back, and she replies, "Ja, I got Douglas." The big oldster smiles and gives Doug a crushing hug of his own, then rumbles, "Have fun, ja?" and lets them pass. Douglas is this time prepared for it somewhat, and only imagines a few of his vertebrae popping with Sighvat's hug. He's used to it now, though, and used to how the trolls do things, and actually manages a bit of a hug in return, albeit one that is not nearly as strong as the troll's.

Inside the tunnels, the reaction is much the same as before. Everybody they pass says, "Hi!" in one form or another, and most pause to hug Annifred and Douglas. Annifred tells them, "Ja, this Douglas. Ja. He talk now too," then introduces him. Several of the trolls are particularly curious about the big feline, and let their hands meander while they're hugging him. Gender doesn't seem too important to them, either.

That's one part of the greeting that Douglas hasn't quiet gotten the hang of. I can only imagine how the folks at TAG would have reacted if I'd walked in the first day and done that! he thinks amusedly. But he's not meeting the greetings with quite the same amount of trepidation as before. It's still not perfectly natural, but it's comforting, in a way, once one gets used to it, though he doesn't quite let his own hands do meandering of their own.

One of the older women, full of form and tooth, while giving Douglas a particularly friendly hug, stops and asks him, "What happened to tail, Douglas?"

Douglas blinks. That was unexpected... but then realizes that he hadn't really told the tale beyond the (no pun intended) abbreviated version he had asked Dr. Zildjian to translate. "Oh, I... lost it." Well... DUH! "I mean, I had an accident with a machine a long time ago." He blinks to himself. A machine... Here, the machine is starting to be a symbol of destruction, thanks to Drekaris. Maybe... maybe for us, the symbology of the quest goes back even further than the start of this mission... He files that away for later, to ask his crewmates when he meets up with them again.

"That a shame," she says. She then asks Annifred an odd question, "You share?" Douglas nods, smiling so as not to make it seem as if it's a horrible situation that he's tailless -- he's managed for this long, with only some occasional loss of balance -- but the troll's question sets him back, making him blink in the same shock he had when he was cheerfully hugged and groped the first time Annifred brought him to the warrens.

Annifred grins. "Ja," she replies, "he fun!" Douglas' little stumble is more than covered for by another enthusiastic hug/grope from the older troll. She replies, "Ja. See later," then grins a toothy grin and meanders off. Hardly letting Douglas recover his balance, Annifred gets him in to the big room where dinner will be very soon, and the introductions continue.

Douglas isn't sure if Annifred caught his mental trip, there. They share everything else, he thinks, a bit dazedly. Living room, food, personal space or lack thereof... is that really a surprise? Then again, their idea of 'share' might be different from yours. I mean... the translator might miss things, mightn't it? But then again, it's a conceptual translator, after all, not a literal... He shushes the mental voice for the time being, and wonders if before the dinner takes place would be at all a good time to ask Annifred something... Might not get another chance... He glances around the hall. And someone might have more to provide... but I don't want to bring up a painful subject -- it obviously bothered her before...

Annifred introduces Doug to everyone again, a whirlwind of vaguely similar names: Aki, Svein, Finn, Katla, Asta, Olvir, Helgi, and Hallifrid, to name a few who all at the very least hug. Several more people, mostly women, ask, "Ooh, you share?" or some variant thereof. Annifred tells them all the same thing approximately, "Ja, he fun."

Douglas maintains an amicable expression as the hugs and introductions and greetings and questions about sharing come up. When he gets a moment he does ask quietly of Annifred, after one such inquiry, "Just so I know the translator is working right, Annifred... uhm," and he manages a suitably sheepish expression, "-what does it mean, 'share'?"

Annifred looks a little confused at this. "Share is share. Like share food, troll home, each other." She asks, "Is nice, ja?" and grins suggestively at him.

Douglas matches the grin, trying to conceal any worry he has, and nods, "I see. Sorry, just wondering. Sometimes, where I come from, we have too many words." Okay... well, there's your answer, Doug? Happy? Disappointed? He mentally flicks the mental voice into next week, and returns his mind to the here and now. If it seems like the meal is still a bit from being ready, he glances around, then asks quietly. "Annifred... may I ask you a question? It's about... well, Blue. And if now isn't a good time, there's no rush, it can wait..."

Annifred smiles and gives Douglas a big hug of her own, "Share good. Not just have one troll-friend, have many. Is good." She tugs him over to a place to sit on one of the benches being set up for dinner, then says, "Blue? Thought you liked pretty Sakura-vixen." She nuzzles Douglas and grins at him, adding, "You make interested smell when around her."

Douglas returns the hug cheerfully; her explanation makes -- in a sense -- perfect sense, even if he isn't a troll. He nods when Annifred says Blue's name... and stops nodding when she mentions Doctor. His jaw almost drops when she mentions his scent. The little voice in his mind returns a week early and starts hunting about for a suitable startled invocation of deity, but not being a religious cougar, the best it comes up with is, Holy sweet Amazing Grace Hopper! At that point he just tries his best to get control of his thoughts, which run from, That's not at all what I mentioned Blue about! to If Captain had heard that, I'd be a dead cat! to Aiie, I thought I had (forced myself to) put that behind me! and a sprinkling of an incredibly embarrassed, I'm getting my pheromone glands removed... He regains his composure and manages to stammer. "Ah... ah, no, I mean... that's not... that's not what I mean, really..." He swallows, forcing his mind to focus.

Annifred looks bewildered, "Uh. What you mean, pretty-feets?" She happily leans closer to him, cuddling into his fur.

Douglas swallows. All calm now? Yes; all calm, thank you. He shakes his head, clearing it. "It's... actually, Annifred," his voice becomes serious and somber, "-you had... after we were visited, by the-" He blinks and glances around. "Er... by the Hunt," he says in a whisper. "After that... you had... said you were sorry, to Blue. Was it... was it because Drekaris has the horn, and all humans are going to be hurt by him having it?" He adds quickly, "I'm sorry, I should have waited until later before asking. If it's a... bad subject, I can drop it..."

Annifred has to stop nuzzling his cheek to give Douglas a quizzical look. She says, "Not bad subject. Horn bad. Will do bad things to humans. Don't know if it make stone like old trolls, or just kill many with plague or war, but bad things. I sorry for Blue. She nice. Draws many things, ja?"

Douglas smiles and nods quietly. "Yes, she does. And she and Captain get along very well." His smile fades away, and he sighs. "I don't know what will happen. If him holding the horn will affect all the humans here... well, it's bad for anyone to hold onto it..." He blinks, realizing something. Maybe it's as Captain had said on alternate Io, that he has an active imagination, but... if the magic of the quest could reach across the universes in some way... could the magic of the horn breach Gatespace? If it can... Drekaris having the horn, and it affecting all humans... oh, no. The humans in our universe may be affected... whoa, time out, Douglas. Right now, the only reason you have for thinking that the power of the quest reached across universes is some romantic notion about quests.

It's about this time that the conversation is interrupted by a flurry of activity announcing dinner. Food is brought in and passed, and becomes the focus for some time. Annifred delights in feeding Douglas things, most of which are good, and in telling him their names, which become a confusing blur, and in getting him to feed her little nibbles of things too, which is fun.

Douglas loses his mental flailing and settles into the dinner cheerfully. He takes delight in the different foods laid out, and the tasting of them. Some are all right, most are very good. Unfortunately, he discovers what is apparently a trollish delicacy: spiced food. Extremely spiced food. To the point where as soon as he closes his mouth over the morsel he feels his sinuses immediately clearing and what seems like a five-alarm call-out in his mouth. He tries to explain the problem, but finds it almost impossible to talk. And why is everything a watery blur? Annifred beams and says, "Is good, ja?"

Douglas tries to say that it is good, ja, er, yes, except for the extreme spiciness and sinus-evacuating heat. What comes out is a bit of a hacking intake of breath. He starts to ask for water, then remembers (after once being given a cracker with wasabi spread atop it as a joke by, who else, one of the rugby cougars) that starch is better for it, and he manages to rasp, "...bread...? Please...?"

The croak for bread and the running eyes make Annifred realize that it might be a bit spicy for Douglas. She says, "Oh!" and finds a big chunk of bread, then breaks it into bits for him. She also finds a napkin or some other thing for his nose and eyes, and a big tankard of beer, while he sits and concentrates on not melting. Several of the trolls watch, not looking very concerned, but also not laughing at the feline. Douglas eventually, after what seems to him several loaves of bread and more than the legal limit of beer (though in actuality probably much less), recovers his lost and by now thoroughly trounced composure, and manages a weak smile to Annifred. "Thank you. Whooo... that... that had... quite a lot of spice...! What was it called...?"

Annifred tells him the name, "Sashu." She rubs her hand up and down his back, asking, "You okay?" When he nods, she smiles and says, "Spicy, ja? I be more careful," and gives him as reassuring a nuzzle as she knows how. Nothing else in the dinner bites Douglas back when he tries it. Douglas grins wanly to Annifred. "Sashu... I'll have to try getting used to it..." He's better now, and nuzzles back lightly.

The dinner eventually ends, and everybody pitches in to move the benches and tables out of the way. Then everyone collects at the far end of the room and a pair of singers (different than last time) sit on the hearth by the fire, giving everyone time to settle down. People tend to sit at the side or other end of the room, together for comfort and companionship. Annifred stays close by Douglas, who sits by Annifred, warm and happy and filled and comfortable and all. He perks his ears towards the singers and snuggles a bit with Annifred, comfortably.

The two singers, a man-troll and woman-troll begin to sing, a long and careful ballad of the land to the north where the trolls apparently came from originally. This song is about the love between a sailor and his lady, separated for the whole long spring and paradoxically looking forward to the hardship of the bitter winter. It is engaging and beautiful, and quite long. At least once someone strokes Douglas slowly... it's probably Annifred. Douglas's ears flicker slightly, and he lets himself get lost in the song. The theme is not unfamiliar to him -- there've been centuries of such ballads on his Earth -- but the subject itself... and the singers, moreover! -- are much different. He doesn't much mind the random touch, simply enjoying the song, and the companionship, the almost drowsy and subdued ambience of the song. He finds, at one point, that he's giving a quiet, buzzing purr.

The singers finish, and it's gotten quite warm and late. At least one of the other trollish women nearby is also stroking Doug's fur rather contentedly, and he doesn't seem to mind. Several people have already moved off to the dark quiet of the sleeping room, and it's there that Annifred leads Douglas, saying, "Want sleep, or have some fun?"

Douglas smiles wanly to Annifred. "Maybe sleep... well... for now, though." He gently squeezes -- then realizes she might not notice that, and squeezes her hand warmly and more firmly. "Thank you for bringing me here again, Annifred..." Annifred mmms happily at the squeeze and leads Douglas into the darker room, snuggling up with him happily and rather casually trying to undress him in the near darkness. It has only taken her moments to remove her straightforward clothes, and she soon happily curls up with the big cat. Douglas only pauses a moment before helping Annifred with his own clothing -- It's only natural, after all, -- then settles into a nice, comfortable, warm sleep with the troll.

The night passes with few interruptions, other than an occasional trollish giggle someplace. The morning comes as rather a surprise, though, as Douglas wakes up still curled up contentedly with trolls. Two of them, neither of which is Annifred.

Douglas blinks, trying not to move much to awaken the sleeping trolls -- some paraphrase about 'sleeping tigers' or 'sleeping dragons' runs through his mind. He looks around, wondering (a) what happened to Annifred? (b) how did these two trolls get here without me waking up? and (c) beyond going to sleep with Annifred... what in the world happened last night? What was in that 'sashu'?! He settles his head back down gingerly, pretty much awake but not finding any immediate need to be up and running around.

The troll behind him snuggles a little closer and murmurs something like, "Morning, pretty-feets." She does something terribly sensual with her free hand against his fur and asks, "Want have some fun now, mmm?"

Douglas... is absolutely speechless. No significant comeback comes to his mind -- he pictures his conscience, which he sometimes imagines appears as the form of a little non-anthro winged kitten on his shoulder, is just as wide-eyed and speechless as he!

The day before the big gathering is a busy one, with lots of people coming into the Egg and the kitchen doing a booming business. All of the crewmembers have been drafted for various tasks throughout the day by Aykuh. Vash manages to be unnoticed after finishing a task and slips off when Blue shows up at the Egg and wants to show him something.

Vash looks up from his drink, having settled into a shady corner, and grins. "Hey, you. What's up?"

Blue smiles, "Hello, Vash. I was hoping I'd have a chance to show you something."

Vash smiles, "Yeah, sure... I don't think anyone here needs me right now..." He grins, "Y'know me. Go flat and no one notices. What do you want me to see?"

Blue offers her hand and says, "I'd like to just show you, c'mon." She bounces a little with repressed energy.

Vash laughs softly and gingerly takes her hand in his. He stands, and for a moment reflects on how she's never once seemed afraid of his claws. She always seems to take his hand, and not the other way around. "Heh, okay, okay... let's go, lead the way, senyora..."

Blue tugs happily and leads the bigger armadillo out of the tree and into a sunny afternoon, almost skipping along. She says, "It's a pretty day. It'll be nice for the party tonight."

Vash grins a little and winces, fishing with his free hand for his shades. Settling them across his nose, he straightens up a bit and strides along with the young artist, "Should be able to see plenty of stars. Gonna be a nice night." Blue just nods, and continues to lead Vash through the green and sparsely built city. There are more people about than usual, and several places, the Egg included, have a number of wagons in front of them, with teams of horses, while horseless vehicles occasionally dash by as well. It looks like Blue might ask something... but then she doesn't, merely leading a little ways out of town to her own snug little home.

Vash takes a breath, striding to keep up with Blue. What's got into her today? She's practically flying... He smiles, a bit grateful for the shade near Blue's small house, then smirks a little bit. "Um... I think I've seen this before, Blue."

Blue smiles and says, "Yes, but what I wanted to show you is in the back. Neither my parents or grandparents are home, so I thought I could show you." She leads around the back of the little house and into a nicely kept garden, with both flowers and vegetables, and winding gravel paths. Leading him to one corner of the yard, Vash sees the path is littered with oddly shaped bits of gravel, and a big stone block sits at its end. It's been carved into a bust of Vash. Blue says, "I had to do some sculpture for a class, and I had all those studies I'd done of you... do you like it?"

Vash blinks. Then blinks again. He takes off his shades, and stares for several long moments. "Ay... diosmio, Blue... it's... amazing. I... th-thank you!"

Blue beams and says, "I'm glad you like it." She compares it to the armadillo, then adds, "It is better than I thought it would turn out." She then beams at Vash again, "You're not unhappy?"

Vash shakes his head, "Why... no! No, of course I'm not!" He straightens up again and smiles, "Blue, it's wonderful... did you do all that from memory?"

"Well, memory, and all of those sketches I've made since you got here," she says. She beams some more and says, "I'm glad it's all right. I wanted to see your reaction." She just stands there, a little shyly, and looks terribly pleased about things.

Vash grins, somewhat bewildered. "It's... really incredible. I don't know what to say." He laughs quietly. "You really caught me off guard."

Smiling, Blue says, "Shall we walk? Have you seen where the party tonight will be yet?"

Vash snaps out of it a moment. "Oh... oh, ah, no, I haven't. Is there a square or something?"

Leading the way again, Blue burbles happily, "No, it's more of a circle, with a stage on one side, and lights, and places to sit and meet and talk around the other side." She adds, "Oooh, I wonder if they'll use the magelights again this year. That was nice."

Vash mms. "Sounds like it. So... what's this all about, Blue? Why the party? Is it some kind of holiday?"

Blue says, "Oh. Well, there's two of these every spring, and two every summer, and sometimes one in the autumn. They're mostly a chance for people who live deeper in the forest to come into town and talk and trade news and buy things they need and renew their friendships. They happen enough that we all know each other and remember each other, but rarely enough that they're still special."

Vash ahs, and nods. "Staying in touch. I see." He laughs again. "That seems like as good a reason as any to party. People where I'm from... seem to think you need some kinda big reason to do something like this. Silly concept, if you ask me." Tch... come to think of it... that does seem stupid. Who needs a reason?

Blue asks, "What's it like where you're from, Vash?"

Vash ahs. Now that's the question, isn't it. "Well... our world's seen some rough times... just like yours has, I'm sure. People there... they deal with it differently. It's not... hmm. How should I say this." He scratches his head plates absently. "There's less... community, I guess is the word. People aren't as open. They pull together in their own little groups... it's not like here."

"Hmm," says Blue, "I guess I don't understand. People stay apart from each other? Why? Doesn't that make it harder to cope with everything?"

Vash grins a little. "I suppose it does. There's a lot of... I dunno. Some people are ashamed, or afraid... it's hard to say. Different people have different motivations. I kinda struck out by myself... since I was little, I kinda stayed to myself. Then when I got older... I became a soldier. Just another face among thousands, all doing the same job. I think that's what a lot of people do... not just soldiers. They don't participate... so they just lose themselves in all the others." He takes a deep breath. "It's easy to do... where I'm from... we've got cities that stretch farther than you can see. And when you can't build out anymore... you build up. Towers into the sky."

Blue asks, "A soldier? What's that?" Listening to the descriptions of the cities, she says, "It sounds amazing, yet you make it sound unpleasant."

Vash looks puzzled. "A... soldier. You don't have... you don't have soldiers here?"

Blue asks, "What do they do?"

Vash sighs internally. Uh oh. Here comes the Big Ugly Fact. I'm sorry, Blue. "A soldier is... someone who fights. For a country, or a person, or a cause... someone who trains themselves to fight for something. That's... what I am."

Blue ahs, "Oh, a warrior. We have those. They can be greatly respected. I don't know anyone who has thousands of warriors, though." She considers, "...except maybe the Azteka."

Vash smiles a little. "I think we got too many, back home..." He pauses. "Do you know anything about the Azteka?"

"Not too much." Blue says, "Just the stories that everybody tells, about their mad gods who have enslaved everyone there and who commit all sorts of terrible atrocities on their own people." She shudders, and says, "But, I don't really know."

Vash nods softly. "Okay. Just curious. Someone said something about my pilot and I looking like Aztekas... it's probably nothing." He smiles a little. "But... I didn't answer your question. Yeah, the cities can be amazing. Big tall towers of steel and glass... but sometimes they can be pretty awful. They get dirty... they get too crowded... and a lot of times there's just not enough money to go around. And someone's gotta lose, then."

Blue asks, "Why? People don't help each other?"

Vash is quiet for a long moment. He doesn't want to trash the world that gave him birth, but... he can't think of a better way to phrase this. "No," is all he says at last. "Not usually."

Blue ohs, then says, "See. It makes everything harder to be alone," as if that rather ends that part of the conversation. She then smiles, adding, "We're almost there." Vash smiles brightly and lets himself be led on, mostly in silence for the moment. Wow, he thinks to himself. She really told me, didn't she?

The clearing Blue leads the armadillo to is a big round one. Off to one side a stage is set up, with some people moving around on it getting something ready, but what is unclear. There are a large number of tables and chairs set up off to the other side, and a couple of vendors setting up to sell all sorts of different kinds of easily-carried and -eaten foods. There are already some people loafing at the tables, sitting in the sun and laughing. Between the tables and the stage is a large, open space, which will be the dance floor. There are three people standing in the middle of it, messing with some square thing there. Blue says, "Here it is!" and then "Oooh! They are going to do the mage light again!"

Vash grins, "Impressive. Looks like it's gonna be quite a party." He looks around, "Mage lights?"

Blue leads the way over to one of the tables and lithely climbs on top of one, sitting in the middle of it in the sunshine. She points at the group in the center, saying, "That box will be a source of light, to keep the dance floor visible after it's dark. This won't go out, or spill, or need refueling, or have a big ugly post. It's much nicer than using a whole bunch of lanterns."

Vash says, "Ah, I see... sounds safer."

Blue nods, and thinks some more. She looks at Vash and shyly asks, "So, um, do you like it here?"

Vash glances up. "Here... you mean Crossroads?" He smiles. "Yeah. Yeah, I do, Blue. I'm glad we came."

Blue says, "I'm glad you came, too." She smiles a bit, looking across the field, and starts to say something... then stops again.

Vash tilts his head a bit. "Something bothering you, Blue?"

Shifting a little on the table, Blue says, "Well. I... I wanted to show you the bust, so you'd know that I'd made it, and that even after you've gone home, we'll still remember you."

Vash swallows, his mouth dry. "Blue," he begins, and then falters a moment. "I... won't forget this place either." He reaches out and gently takes her hand. "And... if I have to leave Crossroads... I'll come back to you. I promise."

Blue looks up when he takes her hand, and then looks a little shocked at what he says, although pleased. She says, "Oh, Vash..." and then, "That's so sweet." Vash just holds her hand awhile longer. He can't think of anything else to say.

Blue doesn't say anything for a long time either... just enjoys the sun and the company and thinks about what Vash said. After a few minutes she asks timidly, "Will you dance with me tonight, Vash?"

Vash looks up and smiles. "Yes, senyora... I will dance with you. It would be my pleasure." Blue beams again, looking quite satisfied, as if there isn't much more in the world she could ask from this afternoon. "Now I can hardly wait." Vash carefully strokes her fingers, almost timidly, still painfully aware of his claws. He leans against the table and watches the crowd pass in preparation. Blue adds, "Oh, and I have a lovely dress to wear for dancing, too." She looks terribly pleased at having a reason to wear her nice clothes.

Vash grins a little. "I can't wait to see." He ponders a little. "Though... I'm probably going to end up wearing my jumpsuit. It's the nicest thing I've got with me."

Blue says, "I wish I'd have known. Do you have any money or trade goods? Maybe we can get something done about that, if we go right now."

Vash nods, "Um... yeah, actually." He pats his pockets. "I think I do have some."

Blue asks, "Do you want to see if we can find some clothes that will fit you, or would that be too much trouble?"

Vash grins, "No trouble at all. I've got nowhere to be."

Blue grins, "Okay, c'mon!" and stands up, jumps down from the table, takes the armadillo's hand, and cheerfully leads him off, to a hopefully-not-too-busy-to-think-straight tailor's. Vash stumbles a little, still not quite used to Blue's sudden burst of energy, and lets her lead him off he knows not whence. He tries not to think too hard about what fashion on this planet is like.

The tailor's is a short, flat building nestled between two giant trees. It somehow reflects the tailor himself, who is a short, fat human. He's an older gentleman, which Vash can tell from the white, short-cropped stubble of his hair and beard, and the fatherly manner in which he treats Blue. She obviously has known him all her life, "Hello, Stuart! Are you terribly busy with this gathering tonight?" Vash smiles a bit and hangs back as much as he can while still holding Blue's hand, trying to appear as unobtrusive as he can.

The old man turns and says, "Well, Blue, that depends on what the task would be. Do I have time to make matching clothes for the band? No. Can I alter something to fit better? Definitely. What is the scope of the project? And who is this?" The last is directed to Blue, but there's a curious look to Vash.

Vash finds himself grinning a little. Right to the point. I like this guy already. Even a universe away, he knows another professional when he sees one. Blue says, "This is my friend Vash." She introduces Vash, pulling him out, "Vash, this is Stuart McKnorkle. He's been around here just forever, and there's nobody better." The old man beams at the praise, then says, "It's nice to meet you, son. Long time since I've seen an Aztekan around here. You're a long way from home."

Vash smiles as politely as he can, and nods, "It's nice to meet you. My name's Vash Montoya... Blue's been showing me around here. Actually... I'm from a fair bit farther away than Azteka. But I'm told there's some resemblance."

The tailor merely says, "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Vash," and doesn't press about the farther away comment. Blue jumps in, saying, "Vash is new around here, and he's going to dance with me at the gathering tonight, and he doesn't have any good clothes for it, and I was hoping you could help with that." When she finally runs out of steam the tailor is chuckling and already considering Vash professionally. Vash smiles in acknowledgement. That about sums it up; no more input required.

The tailor says, "Well, if we can find some things to start with, and I don't have to make a whole lot of things up, perhaps we can." He stands from the stool he's been perched on, and finds an oft-used cloth tape measure, saying, "Stand up straight and tall, Vash, and we'll take your measure."

Vash nods, "Sir." He straightens up readily, shoulders back and very straight; an at-attention stance that any drill instructor would be proud of. He reflects briefly that it's amazing the uses you find for some skills.

Blue smiles encouragingly, although it's probably not needed, and the tailor goes about his work, measuring and remembering. When he measures Vash's back, he says, "Tail. Interesting," as he makes several other measurements. Stepping back, he considers the armadillo, "Is there anything special I should know, young fellow?"

Vash quirks an eye ridge, "Er, in what way, sir?"

"Anything you prefer or dislike in clothing," Stuart explains. "If you don't like skirts, or prefer long sleeves or won't wear plaid or anything."

Vash ahs, then grins. "I trust your judgement, sir."

The old man smiles cheerfully, "Oh, you're making this just too easy," and goes around a partition, saying, "Come along now." Behind the partition is a huge collection of clothing, most of which isn't finished, but close. He stands and ponders.

Vash snickers softly. "That's me. Real pushover." He follows as bidden, looking over the collected articles. "Quite a collection."

The tailor says, "This may take a few minutes." Glancing back at Vash, he says, "Why don't you tell me about yourself? I'm always curious about new people." He begins to rummage in the racks of clothing, occasionally saying, "Blue, can you come and take this over there?"

Vash hehs. You've no idea what a question that is. "Well... I'm a traveler, sir. Kind of an explorer. My crew and I arrived here somewhat unexpectedly... we're making the best of our situation by learning what we can about your city. It's been," with a sidelong glance at Blue, "-just fascinating."

The pile of possible clothes grows a bit, but not unmanageably. The old man comes out and considers, removing some of the articles from the pile on some specification he doesn't make clear. He lays out a dark green jacket with yellow trim and tails, light green hose, and a light yellow blouse. He pauses to hold the jacket up against Vash, making sure the split in the tails would allow Vash's tail to emerge. He says, "Well, this would be possible." Vash tilts his head a bit, nodding as he studies the pile. Stuart adds, "Although I don't know how well the hose will work with your body. You might be better off with this." The alternative is a green skirt with yellow trim, much like the jacket, made of a velvety material. He shrugs, "Whichever you would prefer."

Blue fingers the skirt, oohing softly at its material. She looks up at Vash and asks, "Which do you like better? Do you want to try them on?"

Vash grins. "Heh. Y'know, let's go with that. I think the hose might itch. Fur, y'know. Besides, you'd have to pretty much slash the backside." He lashes his tail a bit. "Hard to see with my pants here, but it's fairly wide at the base." He nods to Blue, "Sure... if you don't mind, Stuart?"

Nodding in agreement, Stuart says, "The foxes don't like hose either. Ah, well, we'll have to fit them, none of this is hemmed." He smiles, "Off with that, and we'll see what we have here. Let me get pins." He steps back around his partition, rummaging in his desk for a moment.

Vash nods, "Ah... sure." He glances at Blue, then shrugs and steps out of his baggy cut-off shorts. Deck shoes... black shirt... no pants. This must look fantastic.

Stuart comes around and hands Vash the skirt, saying, "Let's see how this works with the tail, yes." Once it's mostly on and being held there, the old man makes several deft marks on it with his chalk and puts a pin or three in it, and there it stays. Blue watches, fascinated, although by what exactly isn't clear. Stuart considers and tugs a little, asking, "How does that feel?"

Vash straightens up a bit with the pressure, then nods. "Yeah, that seems good. How's the tail?"

Blue says, "It looks nice," and the tailor concurs, "Yes, it works well. The tip shows nicely, but doesn't ruin the drape of the skirt." He nods again, saying, "Yes. Wise choice, young man."

Vash grins and refrains from trying the tail's range of movement out just yet. "Great... glad it works. Feels pretty good to me."

The tailor says, "Blue, help him with the shirt," as he kneels down to make a few more small chalk marks and put in a couple of pins, humming contentedly to himself. Blue picks up the shirt and, after unbuttoning it, hands it to Vash.

Vash ahs, "Thanks, Blue." He pulls off the T-shirt, with its silly blackguard logo, and hands it back to her before carefully pulling the new shirt on. He starts to button it more quickly than one would expect from someone with large burrowing claws. It fits well, his frame being rather spare, though a little off in the arms.

The tailor tut-tuts and moves around, tugging at the shirt a bit, "This needs a little alteration." Blue stands in front of Vash and buttons the rest of the shirt up for him while the tailor lifts Vash's arms to look at the fit under them, then makes marks with his chalk. Vash smiles at Blue a bit sheepishly, raising his arms for the tailor and feeling a bit like an Edwardian scarecrow all of a sudden.

The tailor says, "All right, the jacket." He picks it up and looks at it, then says, "Och, this won't work over the shirt until it's altered." He looks up and says, "Can you take it off?" Blue obliges with the buttons, smiling happily and apparently enjoying this excuse.

Vash stands there obligingly, letting Blue take care of the shirt. "Sorry to make this difficult on you, Stuart..."

Stuart chuckles, "Oh, this isn't too difficult. Neither have you been so large or so small that I have nothing at hand to fit you, nor have you been so nasty and demanding as to make the work a drudgery rather than the pleasure one's work should be." Passing Vash the jacket, he waits until Vash pulls it on to walk around the armadillo, looking at the line of the jacket's drape. "Enough challenge to keep it interesting without being daunting, especially considering the time allotted."

Vash shrugs his shoulders a little to get the jacket to lie properly on his shoulders, and grins. "Very professional of you, Stuart. I appreciate it." He turns a little to Blue, "What do you think?"

Blue smiles and says, "I think you'll look very nice, Vash." She giggles, adding, "I can hardly wait!"

Vash smiles. "Me either. I'm actually looking forward to this."

Stuart tugs a little more and makes several marks with the chalk on the shoulders of the jacket, commenting interestedly, "Different yoke shape on you. Different shoulder blade shapes." He doesn't seem to think that a problem. He runs a hand down Vash's back and over his tail, watching how the tails of the jacket fall, nodding to himself and saying, "Yes, that works."

Vash hehs. "Well, there's a lot of armor to cart around there... kind of an adaptation. It was either that or not walk erect."

Stuart says, "It's straightforward to fix, and I shall." He adds, "And I'd better get started if I'll have it done in time for you. Let me have it back and I'll get working."

Vash nods, "Certainly," shrugging off the jacket and handing it back. "What do I owe you for all this?"

Stuart says, "I won't know until I'm finished, but it won't be more than five or six silver."

Vash nods, "Let me know then, and we'll square it." He pauses, considering a moment. "Um... Blue? I think he needs to work on this. Can, ah, I have my pants back?"

Blue giggles and returns Vash's clothes, "Sure, Vash." She sounds very pleased.

Vash grins a little to himself as he pulls his clothes back on. "Looks good, yeah? Now I won't drag you down when you have your dress on."

Blue nods, "You'll look so nice to meet everybody!" and gives the armadillo a quick little hug, giggling happily.

Vash hugs the young woman gently. "Well, we'll see what Stuart can do for me. C'mon, we'll let him work... why don't we go get something to eat?"

Blue smiles and says, "All right. We can go back to the Egg and tell the others." She pauses to hug the old tailor, thanking him for his help.

Vash grins and lets himself be led back out. "Thanks a lot, Stuart. I'll bring the money with, when I come to pick it up. Don't work too hard now." He grins lopsidedly.

The days of preparation pass quickly, and it is soon time for the first of the summer gatherings. The day before, the Egg gets very busy, and the crew is introduced to a large number of people. Everyone seems upbeat and excited. The night of the gathering itself, everybody goes to a big clearing just outside town. There are a number of people who have set up booths selling food and drink on one side of the clearing, with a large number of plank tables and benches. On the other side a stage has been built, with the space of the clearing between. The afternoon is waning, and a ring of cheerfully bright lights on poles is being set up around the edge of the clearing. Others are hanging over the clearing, with no visible means of support... but there they stay, giving the whole area a warm and candlelit feel.

The most notable thing about this clearing, however, is all of the people. Mostly humans, as the population seems to be, there are more here than the spacefarers have ever seen together on this world. Most are a little shorter than home-Earth normal, but all are talking and smiling happily. A large number of children run around and chase each other, or eye one another curiously across the clearing. As people arrive, they circulate amongst each other, talking, waving, and hugging friends whom they haven't seen in months.

There are others here as well. The dryads are hard to spot, looking fairly human-like; there are several trolls who are mostly drinking exuberantly and being careful not to break the humans who come to talk to them. Their visitors, by and large, are happy to see them, if careful. There are at least two other foxes, whom Larrikan smiles happily at when he notices them, but doesn't make an effort to go find right away. All of the non-humans attract a little bit of a crowd. People are curious about them, and want to meet them. Everybody seems friendly and respects any desire for privacy or personal space. The sphinx from the university is there as well, and quite happy to meet everybody. Surprisingly, she seems to love playing with children who want to pet the big kitty.

As soon as it is full dark, musicians take the stage and begin to play, sprightly dance music, which the gathering claps and cheers for. It is not long before the field is filled with dancers. Some seem to be more established couples, dancing together for most of the time, while others dance with many partners. The musicians also play many country-dances, which give people a chance to dance with lots of partners. There are also several dances which simply involve everyone dancing in great circles or long lines.

The drake comes too, although late and causing a tiny bit of stir from those who don't know her. She settles quietly off to one side of the booths and doesn't try to dance, lest she hurt someone. Instead she just quietly watches the antics of all these tasty morsels. Several people go over to talk to her, and it is clear that she too is here to see people and enjoy the evening.

Last modified: 2001-Apr-25 18:11:06

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