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Safely Home and Waking Slowly

    Larrikan walks Sakura back to his snug little den in the woods, beaming happily at her and obviously very pleased that she has come back to him. Aedaith and Bandé are actually ahead, with Feina regaling them breathlessly of the adventures she just had. Bandé nods and oohs appreciatively, while Aedaith seems more worried that her little sister was in such terrifying places. The fact that her little sister is growing up fast isn't lost on her, and she obviously views it with mixed feelings.

Sakura stops Aedaith just before they go into Larrikan's den and hugs her. "Thanks for letting me take Feina with me. I couldn't have done it without her."

Aedaith returns Sakura's hug, saying, "Thank you for making sure she came back. I was afraid she'd not want to come home, or worse, be hurt." She nuzzles Sakura's cheek gently, adding, "I hope we'll get to see more of you, too."

Sakura laughs. "Aedaith. I like it here. It's going to take a crowbar to pry me out."

Aedaith and Bandé are staying with Larrikan, and they, along with Sakura and Feina, fill the little cottage right up. This would be more of a problem with other people, but the Shy Folk smile and seem not to be bothered by it. Aedaith and Bandé go off in to the more sleeping corner of the cottage, undress and curl up together. Feina smiles shyly at the alien vixen, and asks Sakura, "So... can I wash your back now?"

Sakura blushes a little and glances over at Larrikan, who is lighting the fire to warm water. His only related comment is, "Both of you need a bath. You'll sleep better. C'mon." Feina nods sagely, and they show Sakura how they'll manage some warm water without electricity. The bath, with both Feina and Larrikan helping, is sort of a standing sponge bath. Neither Larrikan nor Feina seem to think it at all unusual for both vixens to try and get clean at once, nor does it seem odd that Larrikan simply gives up on trying to stay dry and helps too.

Sakura looks a little nervous at first, but relaxes eventually and just enjoys having the two foxes near her. She also very much enjoys finally getting a bath. She needed it, badly.

The bath probably takes longer than it strictly has to, and there are a couple of points where it's difficult to tell exactly who is scrubbing on parts of Sakura's back. Neither of the other foxes seems to object to pretty much any way she might try and wash them, and generally seem pretty happy with the attention. Eventually, though, more water is mixed and poured through fur to work the soap and dregs of travel out. Some big, vaguely odd textured towels are plied with vigor, and they manage to get most of the damp out, even of tails. Feina tries to get Sakura to dry hers.

Sakura grabs one of the towels and help Feina to towel her tail out, grinning a little at the other vixen. She keeps an eye on Larrikan as well, to make sure that he's okay with this. She's concerned about that. Larrikan doesn't mind at all; if Sakura's going to work on Feina, why, it's obvious that he gets to dry Sakura's.

When all are dried and things put away, Larrikan shoos the vixens over to the bed, where Bandé and Aedaith already are snoozing. The sleeping nook is filled with a warm, musky scent, which is quite lulling. Sakura yawns hugely, pink tongue curling up in her mouth. She's looking longingly at the sleeping nook. It would be so nice to get a comfy, warm sleep.

The nook is filled with some warm, soft bedding to lie upon, and many pillows, but no blankets. Larrikan clambers into the nook on the far side, and gestures for Sakura to join him, smiling at her. Feina considers, then moves off to the other side, climbing into the bedding on the far side of Aedaith, who murmurs, "Glad you're back safe." Bandé is cuddled up on Aedith's other side, and there's an inviting space between the two dog foxes.

Sakura climbs into Larrikan's arms, curling up against him with a little mrr. Larrikan snuggles Sakura, gently and wordlessly making it clear to her exactly how much he's missed her.

    The dawn comes normally, unaware and likely uncaring that the heroes who have returned would all appreciate another hour or two's worth of darkness. With its relentless regularity, light comes, and the new day begins. Zildjian is already awake, lying relaxedly with her head on her arms in a spot of sunshine, her tail tangled with Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow's. The huge drake is still asleep, snoozing peacefully, faint hints of smoke occasionally drifting with her exhalations.

Kerry shifts as the light penetrates the little eyrie he shared with the drake and the lamia, grumbles to himself, shifts his wings, and tries to go back to sleep. Zildjian turns her head and grins, fangs gleaming slightly in the sunlight, at the grumpy not-a-morning-bat. Kerry opens one eye and peers at the lamia. "My schedule is all out of synch. I've spent the last few weeks traveling with a bunch of day-people. I was hoping to get back to normal."

Zildjian chuckles quietly, turning her head to gaze contentedly back out the window, "Take y'time, Kerry. Ain't nothin' you gotta do today."

Kerry sighs. "I know, but I'm not sleepy any more. I'll have to stay up till dawn tonight and get back in synch that way." He grins. "So, what have you been doing while we've been saving the world from Drekkie?"

Zildjian smiles, a stretch rippling slowly down her extended body, and yawns lazily, her forked tongue flickering for a moment. She rolls her upper torso over and folds her arms onto part of Dow's coils, resting her chin on them. "Nuthin' p'tic'ly demanding. Just taking it easy here in the Egg an' learnin' stuff. Why d'you ask?" She raises an eyebrow, "Does this have anything to do with your sayin' we needed t'talk?"

Kerry smiles, watching the lamia stretch. "Oh, just making polite conversation. We had an... interesting... message waiting for us in the computers when we got back from dealing with the Hunt. A Dr. Susan Laws, claiming to represent the Federated Civilizations and offering help to retrieve our shuttlecraft. Rather... belatedly unnecessary help. As it turned out... but she offered. Can you contact Yellow Rose and see if she left a message with your ship as well?"

Zildjian tilts her head to look at the bat, her expression a bit surprised, and the sunlight haloes her short golden hair around her face. "Who? Who's that?"

Kerry skrees, "Human-sounding, confident voice. And that's as much as any of us knows."

Zildjian looks thoughtful, one finger absently tracing along Dow's smooth jade green scales as she ponders. She finally looks back up at Kerry and says, "I don't recall ever hearin' anythin' 'bout any Federated Civilizations, Kerry. Far as I know, there's no over-archin' United Nations kinda thingie here at all. What else did she say?"

Kerry skrees, "That was it. It was a radio message from space. I suspect there's another space-faring dimension who's found the Gates. Oh. And one thing that Feina left out of her story, since she didn't understand it. Drekkie had a sidekick who was apparently a dimension traveler, and who claimed to be the one who brought the Egg down. I suspect he's a machine intelligence, and he might have gotten out before the Hunt took Drekkie's castle apart."

Zildjian nods slowly, "Ah c'n assure you Egg's not received anythin' like that. Ah'd know if so. Don' think th'Rose has, but Ah could check later, once Dow's untangled her tail from mine. As far as other space-farin' races..." She looks faintly worried, "Wahl... Ah'd lahk t'think that Crossroads has some defenses of its own... maybe?"

Kerry grins, in a kind of queasy way. "I'm sure it does. Being near tech is starting to make me sick. It's just not a very obvious defense."

Zildjian grins cheerfully at Kerry, "Sucks, don' it?" and laughs softly and hissingly. Then she murmurs quietly, "So... Drekaris had an off-world sidekick... that's real interestin'..."

Kerry skrees, "I tried to get a sonar image of his face... he had some kind of defenses. Sucked up the sound-pulse. But he didn't move quite right for a biological entity."

Zildjian nods thoughtfully, then adds, "Wahl... to someone used ta humans, would I seem right for a biological entity?"

Kerry snickers and lets go of his perch to land in front of his friend. He touches noses. "You don't move like a human any more than I do, Zil. But you do move naturally. This one -- called himself 'the Master', by the way, and claimed to be able to read radio signals -- moved more like a machine. Jerky movements, and unnaturally still between times. And his headquarters mansion had completely unused kitchen and sleeping facilities."

Zildjian smiles quietly at the little bat as he touches noses with her. Her warm, soft tongue flickers lightly across his nose as he leans back, in much the same gesture for her 'base' species. She considers his words, then nods, "All raht, that sounds convincing t'me. Lessee... so, d'you think he'll survive th'Wild Hunt? An' d'you think he's associated with this Dr. Laws?"

Kerry skrees, "He talked to us semi-privately -- Drekkie had us stripped down to fur, and he was the only one there who spoke English. He was trying to persuade us to help him 'overthrow the Overlords'... ranted about having been constructed and enslaved by humans. Understandable, I suppose, but I got the impression he was deranged by it somehow. If he's associated with Laws, it's probably as a fugitive."

Zildjian grins faintly and shakes her head, "Why d'you keep callin' him Drekkie?"

Kerry chuckles. "Because I was rather annoyed with him by the end. And drek's a cussword in German..."

Zildjian raises an amused eyebrow at the smaller bat, then just smiles and shakes her head slightly. She goes silent, thinking again, then says, "Overlords... y'got any idea who that was? Could the Federated Civilizations be at war with 'em maybe? Or... hm. Maybe it's all made up in Dre- no, wait, the 'Master' was real..."

Kerry skrees, "Bingo. I got the impression that Master's obsession had infected Drekaris, rather than the other way around."

Zildjian frowns perplexedly, "Ah don' know of anyone here good enough to build automatons though. Cyborgs neither. This is... kinda strange..."

Kerry skrees, "I'm pretty sure he's from elsewhere."

Zildjian tilts her head at Kerry, "You talk lahk he's still alive?"

Kerry skrees, "I'm not sure he's dead. So I'm not discounting the possibility just yet. He'd left quite some time before the Hunt took out Drekaris and his minions."

Zildjian nods. "Hm. So... guess we ain't th'only ones here." She grins at Kerry, "Let me know if'n you hear more, 'kay?"

Kerry nods. "Of course. That's why I wanted to talk to you first thing. So... any ideas?"

Zildjian frowns thoughtfully, "Wahl... gotta admit, Ah find mahself curious as to whether they're havin' tech-sickness too... an' where they're from, an'... wahl, an' even if they's connected at all." She gives the bat a curious glance, "Y'say he spoke English? That's real curious... 'cause far as I know no one else here speaks it, y'know? Th'English in what we'd call the British Isles is more lahk Shakespearean would sound t'us, from what Ah've heard."

Kerry skrees, "Makes sense. But... did we tell you about Terra Two? That dimension used normal English -- and even the same computer protocols. So it's possible."

Zildjian hms and nods, "True. Kinda creepy... but good point. Y'all gonna go lookin' for this Dr. Laws lady, or what?"

Kerry skrees, "Nah. We're close enough to access Alshain's computers with the handheld radios, so we'll let her contact us. No idea where to send a message anyway, and if Mister Master is still out there, we don't need to broadcast it to him."

Zildjian nods, "'Kay. If'n he comes t'town, what's he look like?"

Kerry sighs. "Man-sized. He was wearing a hooded cloak when we saw him. No idea what he looked like underneath it. But he moves funny."

Zildjian nods slowly again, "Ain't much t'go on, but Ah'll keep an eye out for funny movin' folks."

    The song having been sung, the words having been said, Annifred finally gets Douglas away, with only a few teasing comments -- few want to get between the troll and her friend. They walk through the cool evening back to Annifred's trollhome, with the big troll woman beaming quietly the whole time. A hot bath is easily arranged, and the bath becomes filled with exuberantly happy trolls who want to, at the least, hug the hero who rid them of the Horn. That news spreads quickly through the trollhome.

Douglas manages quite well to not let any of it get to his head, and if questioned about the details, he'll respond truthfully -- he was nervous, yes, who wouldn't be? It didn't exactly go as planned, but then what ever does? He's not used to being lionized -- Maybe that should be "cougarized?" he thinks cheerfully -- after years and years of seeing the plight of the uplifts.

'Plight of the uplifts.' He hadn't thought of it in quite so distinct terms before, but looking back at Earth-Origin, and comparing it to the relative harmony of Crossroads, he has to admit there certainly is a plight of sorts there. The sudden image of that TAG exec shouting at Indra for no reason, almost ancient memory for him, and yet the sudden clarity of it gives him pause for a moment... but then he returns to cheerfully talking with the trolls, enjoying the warm company and hugs and... well.

He'll hold that thought for a later time, for when he figures out what to do. He files away a note in his mind to talk with Captain and Sakura-chan and Pilot about it. But later. He talks freely of the destruction of the Horn, glad at the very least to be able to give good news to the trolls. His version of the story isn't quite so enhanced as Feina's, but mindful of Dr. Zil's quiet noting at the gathering that trolls take things literally, he tries not to let modesty compel him to over-downplay anything or anyone.

The trolls are very pleased by this news, and they want to hear all the details. During the lingering hot bath Annifred never winds up far away, and several folks are very friendly indeed. Someone hands Douglas a tankard of ale, and the hot water and drink work together to make him tired. Recognizing someone who's had a long day, sleep becomes the suggestion of the hour. Many friendly hands help dry the cougar, and shoo he and Annifred into the sleeping room, where she unabashedly curls up with him, murmuring, "Warm fuzzy," and grinning that terrifyingly cheerful trollish grin. Douglas is hardly frightened of that grin anymore, and he returns it; once upon a time, he'd worry that his own smile was disturbing to humans... sleep is not long in coming.

Morning comes, and eventually Douglas gets a chance to stretch and eat some breakfast. He awakens blissfully slowly, then arches his back, stretching mightily. At the apex of his stretch his claws unsheathe just a little bit, he yawns HUGEly... and then he relaxes, sighing contentedly and completely at ease, 'blert'ing a little. Rousing the little kitten that serves as his mental voice (it complains a little, scratching him lightly) he sits up and sniffs -- ooh, breakfast! THAT gets the kitten's attention!

In the trollhome's kitchen, the usual preparation and consumption of food is interrupted by one of the trolls coming over to speak to Douglas. This is one who's more in charge of this trollhome, and Doug knows this troll, Thurn, is a little older than the others, although nothing like Hallifred. "Douglas! You good fellow. We want you join our clan, be of our trollhome. That good?"

Douglas blinks a little in surprise, standing as the troll approaches. Oh, my! he thinks. I hadn't seen this coming...! But, of course, his answer is immediate -- he doesn't need any prompting or prodding (or clawing) from his mental voice. "I'm... I'm honored; I'd love to! Ja, very good, very glad!" He doesn't really notice his drop into using trollisms, nor does he mind; his head is still spinning. "Thank you!"

Thurn beams at Douglas, "Welcome!" and gives the cougar a huge hug. Douglas's eyes don't quite bulge out of his sockets at the impact of the hug. After all, he's starting to get used to it, and he returns the hug cheerfully and firmly. And in that moment... he's home.

The other trolls cheer happily at this good fortune. That, apparently, is about the extent of the ceremony the trolls have, for it's only moments after that that Douglas is dragged back into the sleeping room to finish what they'd started earlier in the day.

The next morning comes, and Douglas finds himself curled up with Annifred and a number of other trolls, in a very warm and companionable way. Annifred nuzzles and murmurs, "So, you troll now. That good, ja." She grins, and says, "We get you real clothes now, ja?"

Wait. The next day...? The kitten does a double-take at the sunrise shining merrily in. That's... quite a welcome to the clan! he thinks, as he awakens to the warm nuzzle. He bobs his head quietly at Annifred's evaluation. Then he blinks. "Real clothes...? Oh! Real clothes!" he murmurs. That's right... I'm still wearing TAG coveralls! He takes a quick mental reassessment: Well... I was wearing TAG coveralls. They're probably... uhm, gosh, where did I leave them? Oh, well!

Annifred says, "Ja, nice things, not hide all fur. We go find some." She stands and stretches, then gestures for Douglas to follow her, both naked. "Clothes in here." She shows him a sort of wardrobe with many different things, only vaguely sorted by size and style, but clean and folded. There may be a method to the exact layout, but it's not obvious. Annifred eyes Douglas a little more critically than usual before she says, "You not so big. And no tail. Breeches have tail-hole; that no good."

She rummages, saying, "See anything you like?" There's breeches, shorter pants, long bits of cloth which can be folded into a loincloth of sorts, skirts, and some loose tops which might be long enough to belt. All of them seem to be made of sturdy fabric in natural off-white colors, although much of it has lots of bright, lovely embroidery around the edges in surprisingly intricate patterns.

Douglas lets Annifred lead him to the... communal wardrobe, it looks like. It certainly makes sense, actually, the trolls share... everything else, after all. He blinks at the variety. Oh, man... I was voted 'least likely to develop fashion sense' in high school. Well, I should have been, at least... "Er... what would you suggest, Annifred?" The loincloth might just startle people overmuch. His eyes fall on the skirts -- er, kilts -- er, something similar to what Captain was wearing. No, wait. These are shorter. MUCH shorter. A mini just doesn't sound like a good idea, at least on me, he thinks.

Annifred, on the other hand, thinks a skirt sounds like a fine idea, although she finds one a little longer than 'mini' when Douglas looks mildly horrified, saying, "Not have tail hole in wrong place." She also offers a pair of the shorts and a loose top, which is hardly more than a square with a hole in the middle. The top is, however, nicely embroidered around the edges and at the neckline in bright and cheerful colors, as are the other garments. They're straightforward but fairly attractive. After all, if the trolls are going to mess with clothes at all, they may as well be pretty, right?

Douglas blinks. Well... I'm at the mercy of the trolls here! He looks at the selection, and immediately tries on the skirt -- kilt! He'll have to remember that! Like the trolls will call it that... And I don't mind it at all, actually. He blinks at the top before he puts it on. "Oh, my... the embroidery is really nice!" And to reflect that appreciation, he pulls it on forthwith. A moment more and he looks down at himself, then up to Annifred, with an inquiring grin. "Do I pass?"

Annifred grins and nods cheerfully. She shows him where he can put clothing when they're dirty or he's tired of them, and mentions that they take turns doing laundry, and that he should work with her, "Nice -- wet and soapy, ja?" She also finds him a leather satchel with a long strap, which can be worn over the shoulder or crossed across the chest. Many of the trolls have bags like this instead of pockets, which seem an alien concept here. She asks, "You like bag, belt, or harness?"

Douglas blinks a bit. Gosh, back home, it was just, 'what tie am I going to have to wear today?' Hey, wait... I'll never have to wear a tie here! Oh, that alone was worth almost getting whacked by the Wild Hunt...! His mental voice begs to differ, though. "Ah... the belt sounds good, thank you!" Oh, the crystal! Well, I'm in the middle of a troll warren; it's not like anyone would walk in here and try to make off with it! They'd have to be overconfident or drunk to think they could walk into a trollwarren and walk out with something like that... with the same number of individual bones that they walked in with... He's certainly not adverse to pulling his share of work; in fact he looks forward to it. Something tugs at his mind... about how trolls do things: To live largely...

Annifred mms, then finds a belt small enough for Doug. There are a number of small pouches and pockets and places to hang things. Someone turns up with Douglas' things in a separate pouch, crystal included. The big spanner is by itself, but hangs nicely from a loop. Annifred grins at the image, her tail sliding someplace likely to be distracting as she says, "Ja, like skirt." Douglas decides he's just NOT going to get away from it being called a 'skirt,' and accepts his fate cheerfully -- and blinks and only squirms a little, discovering perhaps one reason why Annifred chose the skirt for him.

Chuckling, Annifred explains how chores are shared out, and asks if there's any of them Douglas can't do or would prefer. He is also eventually asked, "Everybody do some things. They also have other special thing they do. What thing you do?"

The spanner certainly makes for an odd look to the ensemble, but, hey, he doesn't mind if the trolls don't! He listens attentively to the chores, and notes those he's been particularly good at in the past, although he stays away from cooking -- his idea of a meal after he came home from the office was some instant soba-and-soy-teriyaki pints.

He does, however, think carefully about what he 'does.' "Well... I'm an engineer. I... design and build things. Like engines, and other things like that..." Yes, like nuclear reactors... but I think the Fey Queen would have some VERY choice words about that sort of thing! I'm NOT going to push things here, but at the same time I don't want to hold them back... maybe I should eventually ask someone associated with the Queen's court. Surely they have experience with tech here and how they'd like it handled.

Annifred considers, then leads into the common room and finds one of the other trolls, "Hey! Volker! Got engineer here, ja? We need any?" The other troll looks up and says, "Sure. Got couple rides might have work, and if he help with mining, he better yet. You know architecture or stress relief?"

    The morning sun comes silently, slowly but inexorably brightening the room. Sakura wakes up slowly with the growing light, and finds herself cuddled between Larrikan and Bandé. She stretches a little between the foxes, trying not to wake them up if they're still asleep. She smiles and nuzzles Larrikan.

It's not long before the morning's light has woken the others and, after a round of stretching and subtle (and not so-subtle) admiring, the natives seem to have regained their usual energy, and are once again moving. Stillness doesn't seem to be much a part of their make-up. Larrikan asks Sakura, "Have you any plans for the day? Would you like to come with us?"

Sakura shakes her head, "I don't have any plans for the day... it would be wonderful to spend it with you, though, whatever your plans are..."

Bandé says, "Well, Aedaith and I were going to head southwards a ways, now that Feina's back. We have this exciting news to bear, and we haven't been that way in a while." Aedaith adds, "I've got some cousins that way, last I saw." Feina doesn't look terribly thrilled by this, but doesn't say anything.

Sakura grins at Feina when Aedaith isn't looking. "Larrikan... are you travelling with them as well? I admit it would be nice to see some more of the world. I'm curious."

Larrikan looks tempted as it is, and then more so when Sakura asks. He looks over at his small collection of books and considers. He finally says, "I really need to stay here for classes, but I think we could head out a day or two with you, and then let you go from there. Have you thought about when you might be back this way?"

Feina smiles at Sakura's grin. When Larrikan suggests the escort, she brightens, "Ooh! Come with us!" and bounces.

Sakura smiles at Larrikan, then turns to Bandé. "Thank you for the invitation. I'd love to come for a little while at least!"

Bandé shrugs. He looks at Aedaith, who also shrugs, "We've spent weeks here already. Maybe by the Fall Gather? Maybe next spring's?"

Sakura nods. "I don't think I can spend that long away from the crew, but a few days out would be very nice!"

Larrikan shakes his head, and says, "They'll give up on me at the university if I vanish for a season. I can't go with you that long, either, but we'll see you off."

The foxes pack; Bandé, Aedaith, and Feina have traveling down to an art, and it doesn't take them long at all. Larrikan, out of practice but not going as far, also doesn't take long. He and Feina cheerfully arrange a pack for Sakura, with things she and Larrikan will need. While Feina keeps track of Sakura, Larrikan pauses to toast some bread and cook up a big pile of eggs, both making sure everyone eats and using some of the perishables that might not last a week.

Sakura finishes up the last bite of her meal, swallowing it, before she thanks the other foxes for their help in packing. She's not used to these wilderness expeditions and is glad that someone else was here to help her pack. She'd be hopeless at it. She says, "Should I bring my medical bag?"

Bandé grins, and Feina says, "Never know when you might need it." She tells the others of some of the miracles that Sakura managed to perform before, "She even kept us from being sick on the trolls' trucks!" The others are suitably impressed.

Sakura blushes a little as she slings her pack on. "I expect that a..." she struggles for the word, "-herbalist? here could do the same for you, really. I just used what I had on hand."

Feina looks dubious, but Aedaith says, "Probably true. Some of the wise women know some of the most amazing things." Larrikan says, "We should introduce you to some, Sakura, so you can get to know how to do it here, too."

Sakura unslings the pack and looks at her other things carefully. She's wearing the dress that Larrikan gave her, but decides to pack her ship-suit as well. She also packs her gun into the medical bag, and her sword to the side of her pack. She keeps her datapad in one of the side pockets of the medical bag, so she can get to it easily. She beams a smile at Aedaith. "Oh, that would be wonderful! I'd love to learn the local medicines..."

Bandé looks admiringly at the sword and says, "Looks like you'll be safe on the trip back, Larrikan. I wish she were going with us." Larrikan merely beams. Aedaith, who has apparently been in one place long enough, says, "C'mon, let's go!" and leads the way.

Sakura grins at Bandé. "The wildlife around here scares me. Back home, we eat plants, not get eaten by them." She puts her packs back on and grabs Larrikan's hand.

Bandé and Aedaith set a steady pace southwards. Larrikan is distracted by showing things to Sakura, and is also a little out of shape. Feina, on the other hand, seems to have inexhaustible energy. She keeps up easily, bounding off into the surrounding woods to do something and joining the group again a moment later. She sometimes makes suggestions to Bandé and Aedaith about direction, which they usually listen to, turning a little east, or heading a particular direction around a hill.

Sakura pays close attention to what Larrikan is showing her, going so far as to take notes on her datapad when she's shown something she really wants to be sure she remembers. She grins a little at Feina and her boundless energy. As they walk, Aedaith asks Sakura, "So, you seem pretty happy with Larrikan here. That's nice. Have you thought about what you'll do?"

Sakura smiles at Aedaith. "He's easy to be happy with. I don't know what I'll do yet... I guess it depends on what my Captain wants. We all want very badly to stay though. I'd like to keep practicing medicine."

The other vixen says, "Mmm. Healers are always welcomed, yes. If you do that, I'm sure that there will be no problem with you staying in Karlstrasse or wherever you may want to go." She smiles, adding, "And, if you do stay I'm sure it would make Larrikan very happy. Other than his strange urge to settle down, he's a good fox."

Sakura smiles again, she just can't help herself. "I'd like to make him happy... he's very special to me."

Aedaith says, "He is a very special one, yes. Few of us have the talent for magery, and fewer still manage to learn any of it. It'll be good to know he's not going to be alone."

Sakura blinks, "Is there a correlation? Between his magery and being alone, I mean..."

Aedaith smiles, "Of course, silly. Who could stay in one place like a mage has to? Maybe once he's trained he can travel again, but I've never heard of a magic maker who didn't need a huge collection of tools and ingredients. I'm sure more of the folk will turn up to see you both as word gets out that he's here, but it's not the same."

Sakura grins, "I could stay in one place... with a few little excursions on the side. Besides, if I were to settle down and become a doctor here, I'd probably be able to rival him in 'stuff'."

Aedaith looks very pleased, saying, "You'll make him very happy." She gives Sakura a mischievous grin, "Especially if you..." and gives a couple of very detailed and very intimate suggestions of things that Larrikan seemed to particularly like. Sakura blushes furiously at the suggestions and giggles like a schoolgirl. The datapad comes out, however, and she jots these suggestions down, still giggling.

Aedaith grins and says, "If you have a chance, I can tell you that Bandé prefers..." and continues with the clear suggestions, adding at one point, "I never did see if Larrikan liked that, now that I think of it." She giggles some more. Sakura keeps writing furiously, her blush not fading in the slightest, but she doesn't seem to mind as much as she would have a couple of months, or even weeks, ago.

Aedaith gives Larrikan a long look and says, "Now I wonder..." and giggles. She then asks Sakura, "So, have you traveled much? How far away is your home? How long did it take to get here? Was it an easy trip? How long are you staying? Did you have a large family? Will they miss you?"

Sakura chews on her bottom lip a little. "I came here like Zildjian did. From space. Home is very far away... we traveled a long time to get here. The trip was easy for the most part. I plan to stay forever. I don't want to go home... My family there is small, no siblings and they'll miss me, but I think they suspected that I might not return from my travels."

Aedaith says, "No siblings? How awful." She comments, "That's often how it is; people go away and find something nice and stay. I hope they will be happy that you've found something good." She asks, "So, you came with just the three others, yes?"

Sakura nods, "Yes. Douglas, Kerry, and Vash were my crewmates."

Aedaith asks curiously, "So, which ones were you lovers with? Was it very different?"

Sakura says, "I wasn't lovers with any of them... they're my friends and crewmates, but nothing beyond that." She blushes a little. "Larrikan was... you know..."

Aedaith shakes her head, "You traveled for that long without a lover? That's no fun at all." At Sakura's last statement Aedaith looks confused, and says, "Larrikan was what? I guess I don't know."

Sakura blurts out in a rush of muttered words. "Larrikanwasmyfirstlover..."

Aedaith untangles that run of words, and says, "Oh my! I would have never have thought!" She calls, "Hay! Larrikan! Did you know that you were Sakura's first lover?" Once again, she's forgotten the other vixen might be embarrassed. Sakura coughs and promptly turns an even brighter shade of red, right to her ear tips. She was not expecting that.

Larrikan looks over and says, "She... what?!" He looks slightly mortified, saying, "I'm not trained for that! I'm so sorry, Sakura. I hope I didn't do anything wrong." He looks genuinely worried. Aedaith says, "It's fine, Larrikan, don't worry. She's obviously very happy." She puts her arm around Sakura and gives her a walking-hug and murmurs, "I'm so sorry to hear your family didn't take care of these important lessons for you, Sakura. We'll have to make sure it's taken care of properly."

Sakura can't help herself... she dissolves into laughter. This whole situation strikes her as ridiculous. She would have never had this happen at home... and she finds herself liking that. Home was never this much fun. She grins at Larrikan. "You didn't do a thing wrong, Larrikan! You did everything right."

Aedaith smiles at laughter and says, "That's right, sex should be fun. We'll make sure someone shows you all the things you want to know." Larrikan looks relieved but still a little worried, and comes over to give Sakura a hug. Bandé watches, apparently remembering some of Sakura's initial worries. He says, "We'll take care of it soon." Larrikan asks, "Oh, you're trained, Bandé?" to which Bandé nods. Aedaith says, "Oh, that's right! Bandé can help. He taught Feina, too."

Sakura hugs Larrikan. "Uhmm... trained?"

Larrikan explains that it's usually the responsibility of some indirect family member to introduce people to sex, make sure they know how to do it well and enjoy it, and to be someone the young person can ask questions of. "Those people usually have some extra training to make sure they can answer any question, and be as gentle as they need to be." He looks embarrassed, adding, "I never did have that training."

Aedaith says, "And it's not a problem, is it, Larrikan, because she's not unhappy. We'll make sure it's taken care of." And that seems to be that. She adds to Sakura, "It can be hard in a small family, without aunts or uncles or cousins to help out."

Sakura blushes at all of them. "I think Larrikan is doing a fine job..."

Larrikan says, "I'm glad you're not unhappy, lovely vixen." He kisses Sakura's nose, adding, "But it's important. I'll worry until I know it's been taken care of properly. I'm glad it came up before Bandé had left."

Through the rest of the morning the group continues heading southwards through the forest. As dangerous as the forest may have been in the past, it seems peaceful and calm now, although whether this is because the foxes know how to find a safe route, because of something they're doing, or just because it's safe today, isn't clear. Feina continues scouting ahead, scampering off into the lead to occasionally report back, beaming happily at her sister, Bandé, Larrikan, and Sakura, and occasionally stopping to show or tell one or the other of them something.

Aedaith reclaims Sakura and goes ahead, walking along. Moments ago she had managed to discover that Sakura hadn't been properly trained in the skill and art of love, which the Shy Folk found a little shocking. As it turns out, Bandé is skilled as an instructor, and the other foxes relaxed and simply ignored the problem when they realized that he'd be able to overcome this gap in Sakura's past.

Aedaith smiles as she walks, asking Sakura about things and trying to understand what her world was like, "So, you had no brothers or sisters, you said. Can you tell me about your parents?"

Sakura says, "I was adopted by a human family when I was born. I don't know my real parents. They named me and raised me just as though I was theirs. Michiko Tamagoto was my mother and Kiyoshi Murasaki was my father."

Aedaith looks fairly surprised at this, "Your parents are... oh!" She gives Sakura a cheerful squeeze, "I understand how you might not have been trained like we expect, then." She has other questions saved up, "Were they kind?" and, "How did you become a healer?" and, "How did you meet Vash, Douglas, and Kerry? What made you decide to travel with them?" In the mean time Larrikan and Bandé are talking quietly about something. Bandé stops Feina and quietly pulls her into their murmured conversation. She says, "Okay!" and scampers ahead again.

Sakura says, "They were Japanese, but living in America. They raised me very traditionally according to the customs of their homeland. They were very good to me; always made me feel welcome and loved in their home. I went to school to become a healer because it was what I wanted more than anything... as for Vash, Kerry and Douglas, I didn't meet them until I was selected to go on this journey. We worked for the same company, but had never met. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of places for an Uplift Doctor on my home world. When I saw the posting for this journey I leapt at the chance, because I'd be able to really be a doctor."

Aedaith looks a little confused, "They don't need healers? What is an Uplift?"

Sakura says, "People like you and me are called Uplifts on my home world. We're not as numerous as humans, and the humans look at us suspiciously for the most part. Humans on my world would rather have a human Doctor and there are lots of human Doctors, so I had trouble finding work in my field."

Aedaith says, "Well, you'll be very welcome anywhere you go here." It's clear she doesn't completely understand, and thinks they're obviously a little strange where Sakura comes from.

Shortly after noon the foxes break for a meal, settling down near a pretty stream, breaking out a camp stove, and building a fire. Feina pulls Sakura along with her into the woods, seeking kindling and wood, showing the doctor how to gather it without upsetting the dryads. Sakura listens carefully to Feina's explanation. She doesn't want to offend a dryad!

When the two vixens return they all eat a light meal -- some jerky, some cheese, and some hot tea. After the meal Bandé manages to talk to Sakura quietly, a little aside from the others, who are sniffing about the stream, with Feina wondering if there are fish there. Bandé says, "Sakura? A moment, please."

Sakura stands up and walks over to Bandé, sitting down next to him. "Yes, Bandé?"

"You," Bandé says, "-didn't seem terribly comfortable with the idea of training. We think it's important, though, and if we are going to be able to get it done, now is an excellent time to do so. The final decision is, of course, yours but I think it would help you understand some of the things that happen, and that it would make Larrikan feel better. Are you interested?"

Sakura says, "It's not that I'm not comfortable with it, Bandé, it's just that the idea is so foreign to me that it caught me a little off-guard. I think the training would be helpful, though, if you don't mind doing it for me."

Bandé smiles, "Okay. I would be happy to. Let me tell the others, and then we'll take a little walk." He stands and walks over to Larrikan, saying something to him. Larrikan smiles and nods, and begins rummaging in the baggage. Bandé gathers a thing or three up and walks towards Sakura, wearing one of the backpacks. He offers Sakura his hand, "Shall we walk a little?"

Sakura takes Bandé's hand, nodding as she gets up. "Of course."

Bandé leads the way back upstream from the others, saying, "When a fox comes of age there are a whole lot of new and confusing things that he or she is expected to know. Rather than having everyone trying to figure these things out by trial and error on their own, it is much easier for everyone if someone takes the time to show you. It is also sometimes easier to ask those questions if there is someone who isn't part of your immediate family who you know you can ask things of without worry of embarrassment. That is the role of the mentor." He pauses to see if Sakura has anything to ask or add here.

Sakura nods, "Thank you. I had wondered..."

"So," Bandé says, "-generally someone takes the young person aside, explains things, and shows them the ways of adulthood. This usually consists of some discussion, answering any questions they may have, and any questions those answers lead to." He smiles at her, adding, "I expect you'll have different questions than most."

Sakura laughs, "I'm sure you're right."

Bandé finds a place he likes, out of sight and hearing of the others; a sunny little clearing on the stream. It's a nice spot. He begins to light another little fire as he says, "Before I start just trying to tell you things you might want to know, do you have any questions you'd like to ask?"

Sakura grins, "About a million; maybe it's best if you start while I gather my thoughts..."

Bandé sets a kettle of water over the fire, spreads out a big blanket, and sits down on it in the sun. "All right. First things first; if you don't want to do something with someone, you don't ever have to. You say no. Worst case, you say no and move away. If they follow or persist then they're being churlish, and you can ignore them or challenge them as you see fit. Of course, if someone says no to you, you should back off and respect that, or they will be free to challenge you. Generally that's not a problem. If others see a conflict, they'll generally work to separate the two in question, and perhaps to keep them apart."

Sakura nods, "Challenge them?"

Bandé smiles up at Sakura, "Join me?" He answers her question by saying, "Er, challenge. Generally to a fight of some kind. Rarely do we fight to the point of blood, and even more rarely to the point of actually killing the loser, but it can happen."

Sakura settles down next to Bandé. "Oh, okay, that makes sense..."

Bandé stretches out in the sun and relaxes, continuing to try and explain things, "We Shy Folk are travelers. We walk along and meet up and change direction and companionship and goals easily. It's always better to travel with someone, for ease of travel and safety." He adds, "Between two and six people can travel easily, and eight to twelve can stay together without too much effort. Usually that will be a mixed group of dogs and vixens, and they'll all get along reasonably well, or they wouldn't be traveling together."

Sakura listens quietly to Bandé, soaking all this information in. He continues, "As far as sex goes, inside that group people will generally pair up, although they may take turns or share partners if there's an odd number of foxes. Those groups aren't particularly fixed, and may change from time to time or as the feeling and opinions change."

Sakura nods. Bandé mentions, "Sometimes folks make a longer bond, and sometimes folks choose to have an exclusive pairing. This is pretty much up to the foxes in question, and they will choose to do so after their own discussion and for their own reasons. If it is exclusive, they will simply say "No." to others, without any fuss. Long term bonds are more common than exclusive ones, and even long term partners may split up for seasons and return to one another later."

Sakura says, "Do the Shy Folk marry?"

Bandé says, "Not usually. Some will handfast, and some will stay together, but there aren't many formalities about it. Pretty much if a couple likes each other enough to stay together, they just do, and that's all there is to it."

Sakura nods. "I had wondered. It seemed to me that marriage wasn't a commonly practiced thing."

Bandé shrugs, "It's never seemed really important. It is very bad to have sex with someone in your own clan. That's incest, and it often results in outcasting -- sometimes worse. Someone with no clan is not generally very safe." He asks, "Do you understand the clans?"

Sakura shakes her head, "No. Not at all..."

Bandé says, "The clans are a network of extended family. We each have our personal name, and then the clan of our mother and father. I, for instance, am Bandé, of the Distant Walkers, by the Fishers. My mother was of the Distant Walker clan, and my father of the Fishers. My children will be of the mother's clan, by the Distant Walkers." He adds, "There are many different clans."

Bandé continues to explain, "Anybody who shares your mother's clan with you is your family. They are brothers or sisters, or parents or grandparents, or sons and daughters, or grandsons and granddaughters, pretty much based on relative age. Generally folks guess, and it's close enough." He adds, "Anybody who shares your father's clan with you is also family, although more distantly. They're aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews, again, pretty much based on relative age."

Sakura nods, "So both the Distant Walker and the Fishers are considered 'off-limits' for you then?"

Bandé smiles, "Yes. That's not usually an issue, as there are lot of clans." He moves a little closer to Sakura and smiles again.

Sakura nods. "I think I understand."

Bandé says, "Good. That's not going to be a problem today, is it? You're not of Distant Walkers or Fishers are you?" He smiles as he says it, reaching out to gently stroke Sakura's fur.

Sakura laughs, "No, I can safely say that I'm not of either clan." She sneaks just a little closer to Bandé

Bandé chuckles, "I'm glad. I wouldn't want to do the anatomy lessons otherwise." He has moved quite close to Sakura and is smiling at her as he strokes softly. He asks, "Would you like to start that now?"

Sakura smiles a little nervously. "Yes, please."

Bandé is all too happy to do so. As it turns out, it's a very hands-on lesson -- mostly Sakura's hands. He covers all sorts of interesting things about foxes, both male and female, and lets Sakura's fingers do the walking, as it were. Not only is there much giggling and exploring, but Sakura is able to pick up all sorts of interesting new words in the local language. Sakura is an attentive learner and has managed to (almost) completely get over her shyness with Bandé.

Bandé pauses, spending a few minutes simply cuddled around the red vixen, stroking her fur and being warm and relaxed. He says, "When we first met, you were uncomfortable around Aedaith and I. Are you feeling better about things now?"

Sakura nods, "I'm shy. It takes me a while to get over that..."

Bandé nuzzles gently, grinning. He says, "That's all right. It's nice, even, in contrast to Aed's complete lack of inhibition, at least around other foxes." After a distracted pause, he asks, "Would it bother you if you thought Larrikan and Aedaith were making love right now?"

Sakura looks thoughtful. "Yes and no... let me explain. I was raised to believe that sex was not a 'casual' thing and that relationships were meant to be completely exclusive. It might bother my sensibilities a bit, but it wouldn't bother me because I understand that I'm on a different planet with completely different customs. Does that make sense?"

Bandé considers, then says, "Yes. You might want to discuss that with Larrikan so he knows that if he sees you apparently unhappy he should -- or should not -- continue with what he's doing. There will be other foxes through Karlstrasse; there will be vixens attracted to Larrikan, and tods attracted to you."

Sakura says, "That's the thing, though. It doesn't make me unhappy, honestly. It's just a little strange to me, that's all."

Bandé suggests, "Make sure Larrikan understands that." He smiles and adds, "Anyway, sex should never be 'casual.' You should always be paying attention to what you're doing, so it's as good as it can be." He nuzzles Sakura and adds, "Here, let me show you..."

Sakura says, "I'll be sure to discuss it with him..."

Some time later, after a couple of demonstrations, Bandé winds up sitting on the blanket, panting gently and with one hand resting on Sakura, who is feeling quite relaxed and happy, but not nearly as wrung out as Bandé seems. Eventually he catches his breath enough to make some tea. Offering Sakura a cup and cuddling up again, still getting his wind back, he says, "Uh. So. Larrikan and Aed might make you uncomfortable, but you do understand that it's not a problem. It certainly doesn't mean that Larrikan doesn't like you." He takes a sip of tea and keeps catching his breath, adding, "What if it were Larrikan and Feina who got together?"

Sakura takes the cup of tea gratefully. She thinks for a moment and says, "I think it would be the same as Larrikan and Aedaith, really." She looks at Bandé thoughtfully. She can't believe how worn out he is, when she really doesn't feel so worn out. It occurs to her, though, that Larrikan is often the same way. She nods to herself. It must be the way that she was created; she's stronger than them, and has more endurance, because that's what "they" wanted.

Bandé finishes his cup of tea and says, "Good. It is about the same." Finally having caught his breath, he gets closer to Sakura again and asks, "Did you know that Feina likes you?"

Sakura nods, "I'd been getting that impression, yes."

Bandé chuckles, "So, when she finally screws her courage up and lets you know she'd like to have sex with you, how will you feel? Do you know if that's something acceptable to you or not?"

Sakura looks a little baffled. "I... don't know, Bandé."

Bandé smiles, "Same question applies, really; is she a member of either of your clans? If not, then nobody will be particularly shocked. What trained adults do is pretty much their own business." He strokes Sakura again and smiles, adding, "Would you like to see what she might try and do?"

Sakura shakes her head, "I don't think anyone on this planet is in the same clan I am, Bandé. I don't believe that will be a problem..." She looks curious. "Yes, please?"

Bandé demonstrates some more of the things that work without the particularly male parts, gently and carefully and in great detail, letting Sakura see just how much fun vixens can have. Much later, he cuddles back up to Sakura, obviously having enjoyed showing her as much as she seems to have enjoyed being shown. He says, "Even when there's an odd number of travelers or companions, sex is nicely rewarding."

Sakura blushes furiously... Bandé cuddles up with Sakura again and asks her, "You're blushing. Does that mean I should stop?"

Sakura says, "No! Please, don't mind my blush... it's just a little... unusual for me to be talking about things like this..."

Bandé mmms, then says, "Okay. Why don't you come over here, and I'll show you something similar that Larrikan will probably like. I know I do." He murmurs quiet words, showing the blushing-but-not-unhappy vixen another way or two to make a fellow feel very good.

Even more time passes. Bandé winds up warm and relaxed with Sakura. He murmurs, "Mmm. That's about all the things I can think of that you need to know, or to have been shown." He strokes her gently and asks, "Did you have any other questions, or anything you wanted to try again?"

Sakura shakes her head, "I don't think I have any questions right now, no..."

Bandé nods and stretches, leaning softly against Sakura to do so. He says, "You're an exotic and attractive vixen, Sakura, and very sweet on top of it." He gives her a little kiss, then adds, "And a lot of fun." He leans back and adds, "You can expect foxes to ask you about sex at the Gathers, and when they come to see you or Larrikan. You should ask those who you find interesting, too."

Sakura nods, "I'll try..."

Bandé smiles and says, "You'll do fine, I'm sure." He adds, "It'll get dark soon. We should head back to the others." He asks her if she'd like another cup of tea before they head that way. Sakura takes another cup of tea from Bandé before they go back to the others...

After they've finished tea it's but a moment to pack up the campsite; mostly putting the fire out, folding up the blanket, and getting dressed. Bandé leads Sakura back to where the others are. The walk is quiet and calm, and Bandé is happy to answer any question, or to just walk and let Sakura think about things and see the world around her. When they get back the other three foxes are sitting around the fire. Feina is undressed and looks kind of scraggly, while Larrikan and Aedaith are sitting together and chatting about something. They are all three looking over as Bandé and Sakura become visible through the trees.

Sakura smiles and waves at the other foxes as they come back into the camp. Feina bounces up and over to hug Sakura warmly. Turns out she's a little scraggly looking because she's a little damp all over. Bandé follows and sits on the other side of Aedaith, who puts her arm around him and asks, "Everything go okay?" He says, "Just fine, yes." Sakura hugs Feina, then goes over to the fire and sits down next to Larrikan, leaning against him.

Larrikan puts his arm around Sakura and says, "Hi." Bandé says, "We should camp here tonight and then probably split up in the morning, so you two don't get too far out of town." Larrikan nods, "That sounds right." Feina looks a little down by that, but perks up a moment or two later, "I caught some fish!"

Sakura smiles at Feina. "Dinner?"

Larrikan comments, "This is why she is all wet. She caught more of the stream than she caught fish." Aedaith giggles, and Bandé laughs. Sakura grins... the fish are delicious, and probably worth a wet vixen, especially considering she didn't seem to mind much. The fire dries her and her clothing out pretty quickly. As darkness falls the foxes curl up together and spend a last night all cuddled up.

The morning comes, and the foxes linger together through the dawn. Once up, though, things pick up and the camp breaks down quickly, everybody pitching in. A little sorting between the backpacks goes on so some can continue, while others go back to town. All through this, Feina seems sluggish and kind of unhappy.

Sakura slips an arm around Feina's shoulders. "What's wrong, Feina?"

Feina leans against Sakura and says, "I'm going to miss you. It was an amazing adventure."

Sakura smiles, "Thank you for coming with me, Feina. I wouldn't have been able to do it without you." She chews on her bottom lip. "Will you be coming back for the Fall Gather?"

Feina says, "I don't know." She looks at Aedaith who says, "We've been here for weeks! We should go to a more southern Gather." Bandé stays quiet.

Sakura looks thoughtful... "Maybe you could stay on here for a bit?"

Aedaith opens her mouth to say something, and Bandé puts a hand on her arm. Feina says, "I'd like that." Larrikan says, "You could stay with us for a while, Feina."

Feina says, "Really! I'd like that!" She hugs Sakura, and then bounds over and hugs Larrikan rather tightly. Aedaith, on the other hand, looks unhappy. Bandé says, "Well, let's come back for the fall Gather here, Aed. It'll be fine."

Sakura hugs Aedaith. "We'll take good care of her, promise..."

Aedaith returns Sakura's hug, and kisses her on the cheek, then says, "I know you will. You did through your other adventure, and you will through whatever comes up." She murmurs more quietly, "And she's grown and can go wherever she likes." She sighs, "I'll just miss her."

Sakura smiles at Aedaith... "And we'll all miss you as well, while you wander."

Aedaith smiles quietly at that reassurance, and relaxes a little into the vixen's hug, "Then we'll come back for the fall Gather and see you." Bandé smiles, "That's settled then!" Sakura smiles also. She'll miss Bandé and Aedaith...

After breaking down the camp and sorting out a couple of things from pack to pack when people change destinations, the group splits up with many hugs and reassurances all around. Sakura hugs Bandé and Aedaith. "I'll miss you both. Thank you." Then Larrikan offers Sakura his hand, and Feina skips along and ahead and around, easily leading and scouting the way, confidently knowing the way back and obviously very pleased to be staying with Larrikan and Sakura.

    It's midmorning, and the sun is well risen by now. Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow flew off some time ago, after gently giving the tiny (to her) bat a good-morning nuzzle. Zildjian's helped with the now-departed breakfast rush, and is curled up in the huge fireplace with a soft rag and a small gourd of scented oil. She's applying the oil in long, slow, peaceful strokes to her scales.

Kerry gives up on trying to nap and comes downstairs. He's quite happy to see Zildjian by herself -- well, except for the omnipresent dryad -- and perches on a table nearby to watch her polish her scales. After a few minutes of companionable silence, he clears his throat. "Zil... do you know anything about the drake males?"

Zildjian looks up curiously at Kerry, "Little... why d'you ask?"

Kerry grins. "Because I've been intensely curious ever since that fair a couple months back. Dow talks about her mother and her aunts and female cousins and friends and so on. She never once referred to a male of any sort. It's got my curiosity all hyperactive."

Zildjian hisses in soft amusement, eyeing the bat with a grin, "Okay. What's your question, darlin'?"

Kerry half-spreads his wings, then refolds them. He actually looks a little embarrassed. "If there are males, why doesn't Dow mention them? And if they don't... how do they reproduce?"

Zildjian gives another softly hissing laugh, then smiles ruefully. Her slitted, golden-eyed gaze is far away as she speaks, "Wahl... see, there's a small problem with Dow, Kerr... to the drakes, she's a runt. She's prob'ly the shortest drake alive... an' females only mate with males smaller'n them. Otherwise, since they don't know if the males're comin' at 'em with fightin' or sex in mind -- they just flee." The big lamia turns her head to look at Kerry, "She don't talk 'bout males 'cause she's never gonna see one she don't haveta flee from, Kerr. She won't ever be havin' no natural-laid kids."

Kerry skrees, "Ah-hah. The males aren't fully sapient, then? Or are they just incredibly vicious?"

Zildjian says puzzledly, "Naw, Kerry, it's not like that a'tall. They jus' look at things a li'l different than we do. If'n you're not big enough to defend y'self, or have family, y'shouldn't keep livin' and wastin' food 'n space. They're all as smart -- maybe smarter'n Dow 'n you an' I... they jus' think we put way too much emphasis on stuff, 'n coddlin' weaklings. That's how they see it -- we got so much stuff we forgot the important things in life -- livin' strong an' flyin' free. An' I mean the males an' the females. Dow's mom's one hell of an unusual lady."

Kerry skrees, "Ah. Interesting. An intelligent species with no selection for social behavior. It does make sense if you think about it that way. How about you and 'Dow? Friends, or more?"

Zildjian gives Kerry a curious look, "Kerr, what're you readin' in heah? They're quite social. They spend a lotta time all curled up together 'n groomin' each other. Where you gettin' that they're not social?"

Kerry frowns. "Hmm. I guess I am misreading it. Let's say no instinct for mutual protection, then. Social animals, but not pack animals like humans or wolves, or herd animals like deer or antelope..."

Zildjian giggles, "Um... actually, that's not quite true, Kerr... why d'you think Dow like's hangin' out with me? Ah'm th'closest thing she has to her female siblings, to curl up an' gossip with... an' if she were with her sisters, they'd all stick t'gether to stay safe." She pauses, giving the bat a directly curious grin, "How come y'so down on drakes, anyway? Kinda weird, considerin' how few you've met, don'tcha think?"

Kerry frowns at that. "I'm not down on them... I'm just trying to figure out what makes them tick. I'd like to learn more about them..." He grins after a moment. "Ah, well. Just like me to try to pigeonhole everything. And the drakes just don't want to fit into any of the slots I have ready. But thanks for telling me. I'd hate to ask silly questions and upset her. She's nice folks, and besides... she may be a runt to her kind, but she's still half the length of Alshain and armed with a built-in flame-thrower."

Zildjian laughs! "Ayup, there's that." She grins thoughtfully, then nods once, her smile fading slightly, "Kerr... don' talk t'her 'bout males, 'kay? An' be careful if you're talkin' 'bout female drakes? She's... she's real nice, but she's damn lonely."

Kerry nods at Zil's request, and looks distracted for a moment. "They can fly, Zil. Really and truly fly. I'd love to be able to join Dow up there..."

Zildjian watches Kerry for a moment, smiling... then leans forward to rest her elbows on the top of one of her coils, "Really, Kerry? You really wanna go flyin' with her?"

Kerry sighs. "Of course I do. All I can do is glide, though, and I think the quest feather is wearing out. Either that or it's allergic to the shuttle... if she could haul me up, I'd be able to go quite a ways before landing, though. D'you think she'd like that? Flying with me, as crippled as I would be by her standards?"

Zildjian reaches out a gold-skinned hand to lightly tap a long fingernail lightly on Kerry's shoulder, and her voice is more solemn than usual, "Kerry... Ah'm quite serious here, so don' laugh, please... but you willin' t'... t'not be macho, t'help Dow out?"

Kerry blinks at that. "To help her? How? Certainly, if I can, even if it wasn't you asking, Zil." He gets another wistful look. "She's gorgeous, you know...lovely wings..."

Zildjian says, "Umm..." She looks a bit more hesitant than usual... then finally says slowly, "Wahl... see, you don' look nuthin' like a drake male... but umm... wahl, you're 'bout the right mass for a fingerlin'... one that would just be startin' t'flap, y'know?" She sounds a little embarrassed, "Uh... you see where I'm goin' heah, Kerr?"

Kerry chuckles ruefully. "You want me to be a hatchling for her to teach, eh? Can't hurt. I'll probably learn something, too... most of my flying instincts are... damaged. Adapted to piloting mechanicals."

Zildjian looks quite relieved, "You don' mahnd? Man, that'd be damn cool, Kerry, if'n you didn' mahnd doin' that f'her!" She beams at the little bat, happily adding, "Y'know, Ah think what Ah heard 'bout th'batty pilots bein' all arrogant li'l assholes was highly ovah-stated!"

Kerry grins. "Oh, we are. But that's mainly an act we put up for humans -- 'cause we are a lot better than they are. But we're always looking to learn more -- bats are highly social critters too, after all. And I've had a lot of opportunities to pick up on the humility end of things these last few months..." Zildjian's eyes widen... her lips quiver slightly... and then she can't help it -- she arches back, laughing delightedly aloud!

Kerry snorts. "Not that much humility. I wonder if lamias are ticklish..." Zildjian tries hard not to laugh too long, struggling to stifle giggles that keep bubbling up, covering her mouth -- but at that she loses it and starts helplessly laughing aloud again, stretched out on the warm tiles, even her tail quivering!

Kerry can't help chuckling along with her... it's infectious laughter. Although he's not quite sure if he's being laughed with or at... he eventually decides that Zil is laughing with him and flits down to sit on a spare coil and help her polish her scales. "Anyway. Yes, I'd love to fly -- or at least glide -- with 'Dow, even if she does like daylight to fly in. So if you think she'd like it too, I'll be around for a while now. At least until Dr. Susan shows up -- though I would like to take the Rover and visit Hallifred sometime soon."

Zildjian is quite pleased, both at help in polishing her harder-to-reach scales, and that Kerry is willing to help her friend, Dow... and Kerry gets a chance to find out if lamias are ticklish.

    The Crossroads University
    The University campus is a sprawling place, with tree-buildings similar to 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 building spread out past that, in no really discernable pattern.

Kerry is quite pleased to have an opportunity to fly with 'Dow. Zildjian lets him know when she's willing to try, and in the meantime, he experiments to see if the flight feather he got from his quest-dream still works after its failure near Alshain. The night after the homecoming party, he takes it to the upper branches of the Silver Egg and tests it. The results are... mixed. The first flight it appears to be helping his gliding, but after that it seems to weaken again and his gliding is about the same distance that it was on Earth Home.

After a couple of days at the Egg, Kerry makes his way to the University, to the tree where the fliers -- two crazy trolls and an exiled drake -- tend to do their studying. The dryad tells Kerry that yes, Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow is up at the deck, and also tells him how pleased she was to hear about the ending of the Horn. Kerry grins and sweeps a bow for the dryad. "It was really Douglas who thought of that. I was just along to help." He thanks her and heads up to the deck. 'Dow is not easily visible. Kerry has been practicing the name. "Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow? Are you up there?"

    Kerry Skydancer is tall for a Keero -- nearly five feet in height, counting the oversized and elaborately ridged ears that dominate a short-muzzled face with sharp fangs and solid black eyes. His fur is very dark gray, nearly black, coarse on his body and fine and downy on his wing membranes. The wings attract most folk's attention the first time they meet one of his kind. They unfold to double the length of human arms for a being his size: leathery membranes supported by skeletal frameworks built on the bones corresponding to part of the wrist and the last two fingers of other mammals. Unlike his tiny ancestors they do not allow true flight but only a barely controlled glide. The membranes attach to his body from shoulder to waist, so he wears a poncho-like tunic instead of a shirt, and a rather low-slung pair of shorts. The fabric is medium gray, but dull and glossy in odd patterns. Supposedly the different textures mean something to Keero sonar.

There's a quiet rustling from the leaves above, and the drake comes slithering down from where she was sunning herself, "Hello, Kerry." She smiles, "It's a beautiful day to fly, isn't it?" and grins at him with her mouthful of sharp carnivore's teeth.

Kerry chuckles. "Well, if you like sunlight. But it is beautiful weather, yes." His answering grin is full of equally sharp, if much shorter, fangs. "How were you going to get me up there?"

She settles down a little and examines him, saying, "It's important to be warmed through. The more sun you've had, the more easily you'll fly." To answer his next question, she says, "Let's see. Spread your wings?" When he does so she nods and says, "Okay. Flap?" She considers, then says, "Okay." She gestures over to the edge of the deck and asks, "Look down there. Does the height bother you?"

Kerry shakes his head. "No. Why should it? I've got wings and I've jumped off much higher platforms than this in the past."

The drake looms behind him, saying, "Good, good. It's important not to let the height daunt you." She reaches out and pokes the bat once, then says, "Hmm. Come up here for a little while." She moves back up to the smaller branches of the tree. Kerry follows 'Dow up into the higher parts of the tree. He's used to climbing, and any holds that work for her are easily strong enough to hold him. The only problems come when he has to bridge gaps that she manages easily with her greater length, but he is able to keep up with her with little difficulty.

Stretching out in the sun and extending her wings, Dow says, "Okay. Let the sun do its work, and warm you through. That'll help." She relaxes there, occasionally shaking herself a little. "What flying have you tried before?"

Kerry chuckles again. "I could fly when I was just a kit -- I got too heavy for my wings when I was about six years old. After that -- I glide when I can, but I don't gain height easily even with an updraft. Most of my flying over the last thirty years has been piloting flying machines." He obediently suns, though he's not really convinced it will help him. Never can tell, though -- after all, by our rules, she shouldn't be able to fly, either. And maybe the feather will like it.

'Dow snorts, and doesn't believe that Kerry's too heavy, commenting, "Obviously, you just need a better teacher; more time; and to use yourself, not relying on machines." After about a half an hour, during which she seems to be half dozing in the sunbeam, she says, "The light and warmth should expand your body; make things easier." She stretches lithely, "C'mon," and moves back down to the platform below.

Kerry follows the drake back down. "Well, I'm too heavy at home. Maybe things work differently here."

'Dow stands Kerry at the edge of the platform again, and says, "Okay. See the mark down there, the white square, out past the big gouge the trolls left?"

Kerry nods. "Got it."

Saying, "Fly there," Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow pushes Kerry rather abruptly off of the platform.

Kerry wasn't expecting to be pushed, but he's thinking about flying, and manages to recover quickly. In spite of his best efforts, though, he only gets a little farther than the troll's crash point. Oh well, he thinks... that was about my usual distance without the feather. No surprise.

It's only a moment or two later that Dow circles overhead once, lands next to Kerry, and says, "Interesting." She leans down and tugs at Kerry's tunic with her near-prehensile lips, which are hot and dry. She settles back, saying, "If I pick you up in that, I'll strangle you. How can I show you how to fly if I can't carry you?"

Kerry blinks at that. "Good point. I've got a backpack harness that won't strangle me -- but I left it back at the Egg. Didn't think I'd need it today."

The drake says, "That would be quite handy." She looks off that way, then back at the bat consideringly, then at her taloned feet. She smiles, "Maybe I can pick you up. Let's try." She directs him to stand up and crouch over a little, keeping his wings relaxed and at his sides, adding, "I don't want to tear your membranes."

Kerry looks relieved at that. "I'd rather not have that happen either." He shifts into the requested position and waits for Dow to pick him up.

Dow steps back and considers, at one point reaching out and thoughtfully wrapping some of her clawed fingers around the bat's waist. She decides she won't be able to take off that way, and backs off, leaping into the air. She circles once and comes around behind Kerry, snatching him from the ground as gently as a swooping drake can, which is a bit jarring but that's about all. Her talons, usually used to snatching medium sized game from the air, are present but not piercing, and she keeps a firm grip on the bat. As the rest of her is, her feet are hot to the touch.

That's soon forgotten, though, as the landscape unfolds beneath Kerry, carried by the rising drake high up over the trees, the sound of her wings and rushing air being pretty much all that's at hand for a few moments, until she's gliding along through the sky, apparently effortlessly.

Kerry oofs as he's grabbed, then relaxes and watches the scenery flow past and recede. After a moment he chirrips cheerfully to the drake. "Neat!"

Leveling off and flapping occasionally, circling slowly over the great mass of green which unfolds below the two fliers, Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow's long neck curls back around and she grins at Kerry, "Yes. We'll get you up here yourself." Circling again, she says, "There's the Egg, do you see it?"

Kerry nods, and points with a wingtip. "Yes. That one, with the shuttle in the top of it."

Dow says, "I can't land holding you like this, so you'll have to do it yourself. Ready?" When Kerry nods, she lets him go over the Egg so he can circle down to it. She remains in the air, watching his descent. Kerry circles down to the Egg with no problem, since he isn't trying for distance this time. He backwings to land on the shuttle trapped in the upper branches and enters through the open windows in the control room. Dow looks on approvingly at the control, and lands herself at the ground entrance. She goes in to find the bat and to greet her other long friend, as well as the dryad who is so patient with great flying things landing amidst her branches.

Inside, the few people in the dining room at that hour are quite startled by the large form which enters, and look mildly apprehensive. She settles near the fire and tries to look harmless and inconspicuous, which fails miserably, but does reassure the people in the room that she's not about to eat them.

Kerry finds his rucksack easily, and takes advantage of the opportunity to shed his poncho/tunic in favor of a pair of shorts. Might be a little chilly up there, but Dow's certainly warm enough that I won't freeze. And every little bit helps... He comes back down to say hi to Zil and resume the lesson, and chuckles to himself at finding Dow in the common room. I bet that startled a few folks...

Dow grins cheerfully at Kerry, much to the worry of at least one of the meeker patrons, and says, "Ready? We'll see if we can't figure out what's going on."

Kerry grins. "Ready as I'm going to get. Let's do it." He figures that his nonchalance at going off with the drake will either impress the folks who already think of the spacefarers as heroes, or else convince them that the drake really isn't that dangerous...

Back outside, Dow takes a moment or three to look at the harness to find a place she can hang on to it in the air and leave Kerry free to move around. She tells him to stand still, and comes around behind him again, jarringly catching the metal frame, then climbing high into the air. Once she's gained altitude she looks down and says to Kerry, "Spread your wings, Kerry. Let's see if you've any lift." Kerry complies, opening his wings and adjusting them to the airstream, trying to take the weight off the harness.

Dow flies faster, really picking up speed and angling slightly downwards. Kerry can actually feel the weight starting to shift. Dow suggests some changes for how Kerry is holding his wings, in an attempt to gain more lift. When she's satisfied -- and it takes several tries before she is -- she once again lets the bat go over the familiar flight-field at the University, to which she has returned while airborne.

Kerry does his best to try for distance, and Dow's suggestions seem to work. Interesting. That's the trouble with having no adults who can fly on their own... the kids don't know the best methods. He does do better this time, his glide ratio improved quite a bit by the drake's ideas. Eventually, though, he needs to trade speed for distance, and all too soon he comes in for a landing on the dryad's flight platform.

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow comes swooping in a moment later, and says, "We'll lick this yet." She's breathing heavily from the exertion, but doesn't seem to mind. Rather than going back up to the sun-drenched treetop, she stays in the shade, stretching out in the coolness and radiating heat. She tries to curl her long tail about Kerry, and will draw him in as close as he'll let her.

Kerry is happy to curl up with Dow, going so far as to spread one of his wings out along her side when she draws him in to her side. "I think that was a definite improvement. I just realized that no Keero has ever had an adult flier to give hints on flying under his own power."

The drake is warmer than usual to the touch, which is saying something. She mms softly, "You poor things." She coils up about the bat, at first a bit timidly, but eventually relaxing and settling in to the idea enough that before long she is softly grooming the bat with a hot, reptilian tongue.

Kerry shrugs at Dow's comment. "We're young... only about two centuries old as a race. We're still learning things as we go, and humans aren't the best teachers for fliers. Just as well, I suppose... they created us because they needed better fliers." He startles at the first tentative lick, but quickly settles in and even enjoys it.

    After the return party winds down at the Egg, and Blue happily reclaims Vash, things are quiet and restful. Waking up the next morning with someone who is obviously pleased that you are there is a wonderfully rewarding feeling all in itself, and it looks like Blue could get used to it. That day, Blue begins to take Vash around the spread-out, tree-shaded university town, and introduce him to people. She starts with her roomies, Marie and Hauk, who have rooms in the bottom floor of the little cottage she lives in, and are also students at the University.

Hauk, a tall, thin, blond, human male, says, "It's nice to meet you, Vash! Blue has talked about you." He smiles, adding, "And now I hear you're a hero!"

Vash grins a little. "That's what they tell me. Dunno if I feel like one... it's good to meet you, Hauk."

The tall human grins again, "Well, if you did half the things they're saying, I expect you are. Going to be staying around here long?"

Vash says, "I hope so. My crew seems pretty set on remaining here. I don't know what the plan is exactly, yet, but..." He grins lopsidedly. "We'll work something out."

Blue smiles happily at this. Hauk notices, and says, "Well, I hope so. I think there's several others around here who feel the same way, y'know." He adds, "Hey, I've got to be off to help Grani bringing in another batch of clay." He waves and says goodbye. Marie has also already left, to help someone with some kind of painting.

Vash grins. "Nice kids." He turns to Blue, "So... what's the plan for today?"

Blue shrugs and says, "I haven't got much of a plan for today. I was going to go help gather some things from the forest, which we'll need. Most people can gather berries and such, but I know several of the more unusual plants. Mostly the pigments, really, but there's several of us who need those." She smiles and adds, "Company would be nice."

Vash smiles. "Well, then. Lead the way."

Blue smiles happily. Having packed a lunch to take along and entrusted it and a couple of empty baskets to Vash to carry, she finishes getting ready to go by checking that he has oak, ash, and thorn on his person, and that they're reasonably fresh. She also asks him to bring his sword, adding, "I'm sure we'll be back before dark, but you never know who'll you'll run in to."

Vash nods, and arranges with some fiddling to sling his sword over one shoulder while carrying the load. "Heh... isn't that the truth." He chuckles, not without a little irony.

Blue and Vash head out into the forest. She does a lot of gathering of some very odd things: plants, fungus, and some dark twigs which she tells Vash make excellent yellow pigment. She also shows him several edible things, and a huge berry patch nearby. A couple of people are there already, picking berries from the brambles, and they give Blue and Vash a tentative wave. The lovely day also has Blue stopping repeatedly to sketch something she simply must not leave behind, and several pauses for "rest" which are really comfortable excuses to be cuddly.

Vash offers, perhaps unsurprisingly, very little resistance to rest stops. He listens attentively to what Blue has to say, although having to punctuate at least a couple such lessons with, "You're... sure you can eat this?" For the most part he trails along quietly, just enjoying doing something simple and peaceful for a change. At one of the rest stops he pauses a moment and turns to his companion. "Blue? Can I ask you a question?"

She says, "Of course, Vash."

Vash says, "It's a silly thing, but... I have to admit that I'm curious. I know perceptions are different here, and you don't have the same kind of ugly history we do, but... what was it that drew you to me? I mean... of all the people here, you chose a lost spacefarer." He snickers softly. "And the most battered of the crew at that."

Blue thinks for a moment, then says, "Well, at first I wanted to see you more closely, because you're so different than anyone else I'd ever seen. Once I got to know you, even before you had a translator, I could tell you were thoughtful and kind and understanding, from how you tried to make people not afraid of you, and how you stayed with the people you came with." She smiles, adding, "When you got the translators, that was only more clear."

Vash thinks about that for a while, leaning his head on Blue's shoulder. "I've been doing this a long time... I have an obligation to my crew. They look to me for direction... and I'm afraid of letting them down. Even though we're well outside the roles we made before we came here, I still feel responsible for them. That's why I stayed with them." He smiles just a little. "I guess that means I'm doing an okay job."

Blue hesitates, idly picking at the handle of the picnic basket for a few moments -- then raises her head to say something. However, as Vash speaks she catches herself, closing her mouth to listen... then smiles and nods. Vash says, "I'm sorry... what were you going to say?"

Blue hesitates again, her eyes searching his face almost worriedly... or warily? Finally she says slowly, "Um... if I tell you something, will you promise not to laugh?"

Vash smiles widely. "Of course. You can tell me anything, Blue... anything at all."

Blue nods thoughtfully, still searching Vash's face carefully for a few more seconds. Finally she carefully takes one of his hands, leaning against him but not quite able to meet his eyes. Slowly she speaks, as if she's not sure how to put this into words, "I... I'm an artist, Vash... most people don't realize it, but that's what we do -- the good ones, at least." She looks up at Vash, studying him for a moment, then adds, "I see what's inside. How could I not care deeply about you, knowing that?"

Vash takes a moment to think about that, then smiles just a little, curling his fingers around hers. He leans in slightly and brushes his lips across hers. "I wish there were more like you, Blue." Blue looks a bit worried as Vash doesn't immediately answer -- but reacts with immediate relief when he gives her the light kiss -- she throws her arms around his neck and happily returns the kiss with interest!

Vash holds her very close, arms curled around her waist, and enjoys the moment. Eventually he has to come up to breathe. When he does, he only moves the slightest increment away from her, still so close that his lips brush hers when he says, "I love you."

Blue blinks... then goes utterly still, drawing in her breath suddenly at Vash's statement. Her eyes get very bright for a moment, and then she hugs him tightly, burying her face against his neck. His hearing is good enough to catch her slight whisper of reply, "I love you too, Vashti!" She's very still for a second -- then with nervous intensity she immediately lightens the moment, bouncing cheerfully into his lap with her hands on his shoulders, deliberately tipping him back (if he'll let her) to kneel astride his stomach and giggle at him, threatening tickling. Her hair is sliding free in lazy, silky tendrils from the loose pony tail she'd had it tied back in, brushing Vash's nose lightly, and the sunlight behind her gives a pretty halo'd effect to her face, from the armadillo uplift's viewpoint.

Vash laughs quietly and falls back, resting his hands on Blue's hips, mindful of his talons. He grins up at her, "You win. You got me."

Blue giggles delightedly -- then goes still again, a quiet smile on her face, "Really, Vash? You don't mind that I'm just a little artist? -not a hero, like you?"

Vash studies Blue's face, nodding. "I wouldn't have it any other way. Being a hero... I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Besides... if you weren't who you are... you and I might have missed each other. I love you because you're an artist. Because you can see what I don't."

Blue straightens, her eyes getting very bright again, and rubs the back of one hand across them, sniffling a little as she murmurs, "I'm so lucky..." Then she gasps, her head coming up, "Oh! Vashti, we need flowers!" She looks around with more of that almost nervous intensity -- then grins, dropping a kiss lightly on the tip of his nose, "Hang on, we'll have a crowning in a moment!" She dashes off, gathering flowers in a variety of colors, "Help me pick a bunch! We need all the lovely colors we can find!" She settles down to industriously weave the flowers together into two matching wreathes, although she keeps sending Vash to get more, so the crowns look nice enough.

Vash grins. "Okay... sure. Let's go." He wanders back and forth through the field, looking for just the right sort of flowers. He doesn't quite have an eye for floristry, but Blue keeps sending him for more... so he decides to leave the details to her.

Blue will eventually decide the flower crowns look suitable, and will direct Vash to sit cross-legged in front of her. "Okay... which one do you like better?" The wreathes are small bursts of life and color and sweet-scented-ness, and even though Vash cannot see color he can tell they were woven with an eye to beauty, and that they match nicely.

Vash seats himself as directed, then tilts his head, looking between the two a moment. "This one," he says, indicating the leftmost. "I like this one."

Blue beams, taking that one up, "Okay! Now, you take the other one..." She waits until he's also holding one in his hands, then slowly smiles, her eyes bright with happiness, "Are you mine, Vash?"

Vash looks down at the circle of flowers in his hands. Then he nods slowly, raising his head to look at Blue. "Always."

Blue sighs happily, her eyes getting bright again, then carefully settles the wreath she's holding on Vash's head. She bites her lip, just studying him for a moment with her hands curled in her lap, then says with the smallest quaver in her voice, "Now you."

Vash smiles a little bit, and murmurs, "Are... you mine, Blue?"

Blue swallows, trying to enunciate, her voice suddenly husky, "Yes, Vash." Vash nods and sits up a little, leaning forward to gently settle the circlet on Blue's head. He sits back, watching her eyes for what to do next. Blue can't help herself -- a few tears slip down her face when Vash has settled the wreath on her head. She curls up against him very carefully, as if she's not really sure this isn't just a lovely fantasy, and murmurs dreamily, "Are you happy, Vash?"

Vash gently wraps his arms around Blue as she moves closer, and nods, smiling, when he answers her. "Happier than I thought I could be."

Time passes quietly in the forest, the sun-dappled trees a silent, living bower. Blue seems quite content to just be with Vash, alone and cuddling, for several hours. Finally, though, at what seems like mid afternoon from the angle of the sunbeams, she sighs happily, "We should go back to the university. Some of the herbs need to be relatively fresh."

Vash nods absently, opening his eyes at length, "All right. Let's go back. I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing." Blue beams at the 'dillo again -- she is glowingly happy right now. She cheerfully flits around, gathering stuff up, then carefully checks one last time that their crowns of flowers are on straight and firm. After that she loops one arm through his, and the two of them stroll back contentedly to the University.

The walk through the forest is slow and relaxing, quiet and feeling comfortably alone together, right up until they run across one of the outlying buildings of the University. Blue leads Vash towards the art building he met her outside of before. As they walk, people occasionally seem a bit startled, then stop and congratulate them.

Meanwhile, Dow has stirred, said that she's gotten hungry, and thinks she'll go hunt... she suggests Kerry might not enjoy watching, and flies off, leaving him to make his way home. On his way back, he spies Vash and Blue walking through campus. Kerry looks quite chipper, and waves to Vash and Blue when he sees them. "Hey, Captain! Having fun?"

Vash grins a little. "Just spending some time out, relaxing for a change- uh, Kerry? What are you wearing?"

Kerry grins. "Dow was taking me for flying lessons. The rucksack was to give her something to haul me into the air with."

Douglas too is on campus, having gone to the University to look at a wall they're worried about possibly collapsing. Kerl and Annifred went along at Volker's suggestion, both to make sure Douglas doesn't get lost, and to quietly keep an eye on him and make sure he'll do right for the trolls, this first time out. Annifred had no doubts, and was justified in her lack of worry, but went along cheerfully. Having finished this, they too are ambling through the university, and spy the other three.

Kerl cries out, "Ay! Kerry!" and waves even as they walk over. Blue says to everyone, "I need to get to the art building before these dry out." She nods at one of the baskets of leaves she's carrying, and keeps everyone moving along. As the group approaches the art building, a class lets out and both of Blue's roomies come out, with a throng of other students. They're easy to notice, because they stop cold, then hurry over to the slowly ambling group. Vash hmms. Uh oh.

Douglas is talking animatedly with the trolls; he's home, he's back in his element, and he's comfortable. He's glad this little task went well, and he's looking forward -- good grief, actually looking forward! -- to more engineering work. He really hopes that this level of enthusiasm doesn't ever fade... and he doesn't see that happening anytime soon.

On the way back to the warren, though, he does see Captain and Blue -- What is that they're wearing...? No, they didn't get married, did they...? -- and wonders if he should impose his presence on them, when he hears Kerl's shout of greeting, and spots Pilot nearby them. He grins and walks over to the three. And what in the world is Pilot wearing? It's probably easier to move around in than a TAG jumper, at the very least. "Hello!" he says cheerfully, grinning sheepishly.

    Douglas Percival is a cougar, tall and with the sandy brown fur of all cougars, with the somber features common to that ilk and unusually digitigrade legs. He stands a good seven feet tall, and yet is only somewhat solidly built; there is the slightest of indications in his build that, some time in the past, he wasn't exactly in the best of shape. Another unusual feature of his is the lack of a swishing tail, or rather more than just the barest stub of one. And he wears little in the way of clothing: a sort of plain tan skirt or kirtle which falls somewhere between 'knee-length' and 'mini,' and seems to afford him some modicum of modesty and freedom of movement; and a shirt, short-sleeved and somewhat midriff-baring, of the same material. They're both trimmed with bright and exuberant embroidery. His legs and feet are bare, but he appears to walk unconcerned about that lack.

Kerry grins at Kerl. "Hey, yourself. You and Jurgens get anything done-?" He stops when Blue's roommates hurry over. Okay... what do these flower garlands mean?

Kerl and Annifred also congratulate Vash and Blue, "Ay! Happy crowning, ja!" and both trying to hug the two smaller people. They do remember to be gentle with the fragile folks. Hauk and Marie come over, also congratulate Vash and Blue, and seem to smile genuinely. Hauk asks where they've been.

Douglas blinks to Annifred and Kerl, unable to stop grinning. "I'm sorry... 'crowning'?" he quietly asks Annifred... er, when she stops hugging both Blue and Captain, that is. Kerry looks interested at the new term. Crowning, eh? Silly translators. They really are bad at idioms and technical terms...

Blue beams at Hauk and Marie and says, "We had a lovely day! We went out to gather ingredients for pigments, and look what else happened?" She giggles happily. Marie smiles and says, "That's wonderful, Blue!" Hauk nods his agreement, then says, "Hey, you've got wet ingredients! Let me help you with those!" Blue, reminded of what was going on, nods and says, "Oh! Yes!" Marie forestalls anyone else's going by saying firmly, "We'll wait here."

Vash looks around, a little lost. "Er... alright."

Kerry fixes Kerl with a stern look. "So, what exactly is 'crowning'?"

As Blue and Hauk go into the building, Hauk looking interestedly at the baskets, Marie turns to Vash and says, "Uh... Vash? I know you're a nice fellow, and that you wouldn't want to hurt Blue any... so I thought I have to ask if you've thought about what you'll do now that you're staying a while?" She looks embarrassed, adding quietly, "Artists don't have that much to offer the community as it is. I doubt she could support the both of you, or that you'd particularly want her to have to."

Kerl just grins at the bat and says, "Human thing, ja? Trolls share." Annifred also grins at this statement.

Kerry suppresses a giggle at the troll's comment. "So are they pair-bonded? Engaged? What does it mean?"

Douglas blinks and glances to Kerl. Share? OH! I get it! "They're going steady, Pilot," he provides. Then honesty makes him admit, "Er, maybe."

Marie adds even more self-consciously, "I guess that kind of goes for all of you, not just Vash. I don't know if anyone has talked to you about things like this yet?"

Vash says, "I'm not really sure, Marie. To be honest, I'm really only qualified to labor, which I am admittedly good at, and to be a soldier, which I'm also fairly good at. Unless you're in need of a... a reeve? Or something like that, I'm not really sure yet."

Annifred speaks up, saying, "Is good thing to know, ja. Douglas with trolls. He engineer, help with many things, part of clan now. Not worry 'bout cougar, ja?"

Douglas bobs his head, looking cheerful. "Ja, er, yes. I'm hoping that I can help with engineering. They've got some fascinating..." He lets himself trail off, reasonably sure that now is not the time for espousing the engineering marvels of the trollish.

Marie looks up and down at Vash, then says, "Well, the city guard might need you, although there isn't much call for them lately... maybe you could join one of the hunting parties? Or maybe there's things you know that you can teach us? You're from a very different place, right?"

Vash says, "I'm sure we can think of something." Kerry frowns for just a moment, then wipes his expression back to bland. We are going to need to talk, folks. I don't intend to spend the rest of my life on this world. Unless... well, I'd consider it if Dow manages to teach me to fly... but even so, we need to send Indigo back in that event.

Kerl says, "Oh, and nice vixen, ja? She go off with foxes... they always want more healers. They probably happy with that." He grins, and adds, "Larrikan happy." Annifred giggles again.

Marie nods, looking a little relieved. She says, "Good. I don't mean to sound disapproving in the face of good news," she smiles, "-but I did want to make sure you had something in mind. I've known Blue a long time, and we kind of look out for each other."

Vash shakes his head. "Don't worry about it, Marie. I understand."

Marie nods and smiles, then finally steps in and gives Vash a hug, "I am happy for Blue if she's happy, and she obviously is."

Vash nods and smiles. "That's a relief."

Marie looks at Kerry, then at Vash, and asks, "You do understand what the crowning means, don't you?"

Kerry skrees, "Not exactly, no."

Marie looks a mite worried at Kerry's words, then looks more intently at Vash. Vash says, "Actually, I have a suspicion, but I don't want to assume. I don't suppose you could explain it for me?"

Douglas coughs a little. "We probably have different words for the same thing, where we came from..."

Marie says, "Eep. A crowning is... sort of an announcement of intent to marry. It's not a marriage, and it can be broken, but it makes it clear to everyone what the plan is. They usually last about a year, at which time the couple either marries or separates." She adds reassuringly, "Oh, and if there are any children in that time they're considered legitimate." She then asks Vash, "That is okay, isn't it? Or will Blue be unhappy?"

Douglas listens quietly, his ears flicking a little, his expression interested but unworried. Well... all right, a bit more than just 'going steady.' I can't imagine Vash being nervous about that, though. Vash blushes faintly. "Um... well, I assume so." He sighs a little, admitting, "It was her idea... I trust that she wouldn't do anything I wasn't ready for without explaining it... so yeah. I think she'll be happy."

Marie relaxes again, and asks the armadillo, "Are you happy?"

Vash grins a little. "What do you think?"

Marie smiles finally and says, "I think I'm glad you're not surprised or unhappy. And I hope everything works out."

Vash smiles and shakes his head. "No. I expected it was something like that... and thank you."

Kerry grins. "It sounded like it to me, too. Congratulations, Captain!"

Vash hehs and grins, scratching the back of his head. "Thanks, Kerry."

Kerl murmurs something like, "Silly humans. Easier just share, ja?" to Douglas and Annifred, with a toothy grin. Douglas blinks to Kerl and can do nothing more than smile a little unsteadily and sheepishly. It's about this time that Hauk and Blue emerge from the art building, sans baskets and with slightly stained fingers. Hauk is talking earnestly with the shorter girl, who still seems to be on top of the world -- a very pleased smile returns to her face when she sees the be-crowned Vash.

Kerl chuckles at Douglas' sheepish reaction and Annifred's obvious leer. He turns to ask Kerry, "So, bat, you talk lot, but what you do, eh? How you help?"

Blue slips an arm through Vash's, smiling a little shyly back up at him, then just standing rather proudly next to him. A moment later her lips form a silent 'oh!' and she stands on tippy-toe to whisper to Vash, "Remind me later to teach you the house charm, so you can come in if no one's there!"

Vash nods softly. "Will do."

Kerry snorts back at Kerl. "Good question. Back where we came from, I'm a pilot. I fly machines. That doesn't seem to be an option here, and I'm not sure that 'Dow is going to be able to teach me to fly on my own. I know lots of little things, but..."

Hauk has come back to the group, and overheard Kerl's question. He gives Marie a funny look, and she smiles at him. He relaxes then, saying, "So, now that we've got the pigments soaking, who'd be up for some lunch?"

Annifred raises an amused eyebrow at the apparently stalling bat, "Even nestling of drake pull own weight." At Hauk's comment she turns her attention to him, beaming toothily -- and making him blink slightly, "Food, ja, good!"

Vash lies on his back in the dark, staring up at the window. The moon is partly visible beyond the frame, mostly filtered by the heavy foliage. It's very quiet... not even a night insect. He stares out at the dark, arms folded behind his head, and sighs quietly. Can't sleep well, even here. I'm such an ingrate. He turns his head, watching Blue sleep next to him; the rise and fall of her breathing. I can't even rest with you next to me.

Vash frowns and leans forward a little to brush his lips across hers apologetically. Nothing's ever easy. His thoughts keep returning to the ship, circling in orbit. No, nothing is ever easy. Definitely not as easy as the crew sees it. There's no simple answer. Especially not now. Nothing would make him happier than to stay right here for the rest of his days... be with the person he loves and forget about where he came from. But... that's just too easy. It's not fair. Our ancestors didn't die in El Paso so that just four people could find what they wanted. There's still thousands back home... what about their situation? Hell, he thinks, What about our Mom?

Vash takes another deep breath. I have a responsibility to the Company. And to everyone back home. Even if the Company represents a great deal of what's wrong with the world he came from, he's still been entrusted with care of the Indigo, and he can't in good conscience just vanish with it. And there is the matter of the ones that vanished before. But... there isn't much he can do alone... and he may soon lose the support of his crew if he doesn't broach the problem the right way.

He takes a mental inventory. Sakura's decided without a doubt to abandon home-Earth. Douglas... probably has as well, but he might be reasoned with. Kerry has every intention of leaving... however what he intends to report to the Company and what Vash intends to report may bear certain key differences. He sighs again, and murmurs, "So... what're we gonna do?"

The moonlight gleams on Blue's hair swirled loosely across the pillow, giving it a liquid, silvery sheen. The small human murmurs quietly in her sleep, stretching a bit... then curls up contentedly against Vash's warmth, sighing softly as she slides back into deeper dreams. Vash mms. He turns, curling his arms lightly around her, and breathes, "Yeah, that's what I thought." He rests his head against hers and closes his eyes.

Last modified: 2001-Dec-17 23:41:03

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