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Reality Fault

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio..."

    The days pass pleasantly, with the crew becoming more and more involved in their new tasks. People seem excited and energetic about something, and it finally becomes clear that it's the upcoming Autumn Gather that has them so happy. Preparations for it began some time ago, in fact. Days before the Gather, people begin arriving in the area, some coming by caravan from some distance, to trade for winter stores or sell goods to the larger collection of people.

    The caravans tend to consist of horses and mules or oxen carrying heavy loads. Some use large wagons, while other caravans are more flexible and use only the beasts. Most have some outriders to protect the merchants and cargo. As the caravans arrive, they tend to shift and splinter into different groups, reforming after they gather, sometimes with different groups going different places. There is much haggling and discussion.

    Many of the strangers stop at the Silver Egg for a drink or to make contact with others, or for meals, or just to see who's arrived in town. The possibility of seeing the new Heroes doesn't hurt, and the jolly roger shirts are showing up more and more, as Blue and others are being asked for them by many of the strangers.

Kerry has been waiting anxiously to see if Hallifred's trollhome will arrive, but doesn't mind meeting other new folks at the Egg in the evenings. He's been busy with 'Dow as much of the time as she'll allow, trying to learn this business of the non-determinate mathematics of magic, as well as getting pointers on flying on his own wings.

Douglas enjoys the preparations for the Gather, helping at whatever the trollhome needs help in, and keeping an eye out for anyone he or the rest of the crew might recognize. He's not unaware of the spread of the jolly roger 'tee-tunics' and it bothers him just a little -- the skull and crossbones, after all, was a widespread symbol of piracy and mayhem back home, and he wondered why Captain had a T-shirt with it. Still, as symbols go, it's not a horrible one, and nobody's yet looked at it with abject horror, so there's not much to frown upon.

He does keep an eye out, though, for... well, he's not too sure. He's doubtful that the 'Master' will attend the Gather, but he keeps watch for any heavily cloaked persons -- which, he realizes, will probably be quite a few. He also wonders if Dr. Laws and her people might make a showing at the Gather, or attend covertly. Not that he knows what she looks like, but he keeps her on his mind.

One of the newcomers is a slightly nervous rodent, very round, who tends to mutter to himself while fussing with a great many knotted cords that are attached to his belt-sash. He comes into the Egg and finds Aykuh, to make some arrangements for a room or rooms if possible. His dress and species is quite unusual and several people look curiously at him.

Kerry checks out the newcomer, as curious as the locals -- and then frowns and turns on his data-pad, trying to call up anything on the Incas. Something about the fellow's cords reminds him of something he remembers from his study of the Conquistadors.

The roundish rodent fellow turns to leave and sees Kerry pondering him, comparing him to the data-pad, which glows slightly in Kerry's claws. The rodent stops and stares for a moment, then bows very low, saying, "Please, Honored One, forgive me for not offering proper respect. I did not expect to see other of the Most High here." He remains almost prostrate, trembling slightly at his oversight.

Vash sits, more or less by himself at a table off to one side, nursing a drink and catching a breather. With winter on the way, the hunters have been more active than usual making preparation... and he's beat. Emerging from the woods only to meet at least five people wearing the same shirt as he was... off-putting, as well. He catches movement in the corner of his eye, and notices the rodent prostrating himself to Kerry. He doesn't say anything just yet, eyeing the rodent. Wonderful. That's right, stroke Kerry's ego a little more. You don't have to live with him.

Kerry blinks, slightly astonished and then very curious about that comment. "That's all right, get up. I'm not what you think I am." I wonder what I can get him to tell me. He seems scared to death of me. Of... the local Keero? Are my folk here allies of something fearsome? Or are we that fearsome ourselves. Oh, Makers. South America has Home's only vampire bats. I hope that's not it.

    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. 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.) He is also wearing dark goggles over his light-sensitive eyes and a leather anklet adorned with colorful patterns.

Douglas is cheerfully devouring a meat porridge when Kerry's attention turns to the unusual rodent. His ears perk sharply at the rodent's reaction upon seeing Kerry. Gingerly taking a napkin, he slides the bowl a bit to the side and leans forward curiously, not quite interjecting himself into the conversation between the two. He tilts his head to the side.

The capybara straightens and nods, glancing once worriedly at the bat, then hastily keeping his eyes downcast. He starts to sidle nervously towards the door, turning to continue facing Kerry as he does so while murmuring, "Please forgive this worthless one..." The other diners in the Egg's main room are also watching with lively curiosity, murmuring amongst themselves.

Douglas blinks and clears his throat, a faintly rumbling sound. "'Worthless one'? Here, now... that is... I'm sorry, er, Sir... there's a misunderstanding, I'm sure. Come on over, please, if you will, and rest and have a drink? And we can talk about this."

    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. 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; a shirt, short-sleeved and somewhat midriff-baring, of the same material but trimmed with bright and exuberant embroidery. His legs and feet are bare, but he appears to walk unconcerned about that lack.

Kerry is getting more and more worried about what the other local bats are like. "Honest, you're forgiven. Stay, have something to drink. I'm not a High One and I'm not going to do anything to you. Wouldn't even if I could."

The short, rotund capybara is very plainly dressed in a barely decorated cotton skirt and top. He twitches at Doug's words, then gives the cougar a rather desperate glance... almost as if he'd not expected support for the bat from that quarter. However, at Kerry's words he gives a small, squeaking sigh, his shoulders slumping slightly, and trudges over to stand by the table, eyes still downcast. He rattles off, "How may this one serve you, Honored-of-the-Gods?"

Vash takes a long drink, keeping one ear tilted to the conversation. I like this less and less. He glances around for Zildjian or Aykuh.

Douglas blinks, looking at the... well, he's not really sure what the fellow is. He doesn't recall any uplifts from Earth looking quite like this, but that doesn't matter. "Please, relax," he says, smiling. "I don't think any of us are quite 'honored by the gods.' Lucky, perhaps." He nods to Kerry. "I don't think we're quite what you think we are. I'm Douglas, Douglas Percival," he adds with a touch of pride, "-of Broken Horn Trollhome; and this is Colonel Kerry Skydancer."

Kerry is very tempted to take advantage of the opportunity to pump the capybara -- it looks like he might be a capybara -- for information. The problem is that if his real masters find out, he might be in big trouble for that... "I require no service of you, master merchant. You may go or stay, as you wish."

The capybara gives Douglas a somewhat uncomprehending glance, but nods politely -- and then when Kerry speaks his head snaps around to pay complete, respectful attention. He bows politely, still not raising his eyes to the bat, then looks terribly relieved. He starts edging for the door again, gabbling out hastily (almost in one long word), "Thank you kindest of the honored I must attend my mistress bless your humble servant good day!" The last part drifts through the door, in fact, and the pattering of hurried trotters can be heard as it flees.

Douglas blinks quietly at the suddenly empty space in front of him, then looks out at the doorway, then back to Kerry. "I think we could have handled that better," he says quietly. "What do you think is going on with that person?"

Kerry skrees, "Well, that was unexpected. I wonder... that bit about attending his mistress. What d'ya think the chances are that he's got an Aztekan bat in charge of that caravan?"

Douglas blinks. "Az-" He breaks off, looking around briefly, trying to catch Vash's eye to wave to Captain. Then he drops his voice. "Aztekan?" he says softly. "It'd be interesting to meet them, I think, but he seemed absolutely terrified of you. What role did bats or bat-like creatures have in Aztec myth? Er, legend? Er, religion, I should say." Vash stands up slowly, his drink dangling from his talons, and makes his way toward Douglas' table.

Kerry shakes his head at Doug. "I doubt that we could have handled it better. Subordinate patterns of thought -- I'm one of the Master Race in his mind, so he wouldn't know how to interact with me as an equal." The bat looks incredibly disgusted at the idea of being mistaken for some kind of medieval Nazi. "And I'm afraid that if I asked him a question, he would've spilled whatever beans he had and then gotten punished for it when he got back."

Vash arrives at tableside. "Speaking of which," he touches the corner of his mouth with a talon tip, "-you got a meat thing happening there, Doug."

    Standing about five feet, tall for an uplift, Vash Montoya holds himself straight and relaxed, seemingly at ease with his environment, whatever that may happen to be at the time. An armadillo uplift, he is physically spare, compact under a layer of thick natural armor, which covers most of his visible body, beginning at the bridge of his nose and sweeping back over his head. His hands are for the most part unarmored, but come with their own defenses; powerful digging claws. Perhaps for this reason, he keeps his fingers loosely curled at his sides, half-concealing them. His muzzle is a bit shorter than a normal armadillo's, a bit clipped, giving him a somewhat Cerebus-esque look. He smiles a little, his eyes gray and cool, and folds his arms. You may notice, just at the back of his left hand, a slight discoloration; a short, lurid white scar.

Kerry looks rueful. "Aztec mythology -- I looked it up before we came back down -- had bats as messengers of the Gods. If that's really true here... considering the Aztec Gods... I don't want to think about what that means. And if they're..." He looks even more repulsed now than he did a moment ago, "...vampire bats..." He shudders and takes a long pull at his ale. "The only good thing I can think of is that the vampire bats at Home aren't echolocaters. They may not have that ability."

Douglas taps his chin and nods to Kerry. "I think I see what you mean, Pilot." He thinks for a moment, then gets an oddly pained expression before shaking his head. "Anyway..." He looks up and nods to the arriving Vash. "Hello, Captain," he says quietly. "You saw what just occurred. Pilot feels that the person was an Aztekan, and that his mistress is an... Aztekan Keero. Or the local equivalent." He opens his mouth to continue, then blinks and picks up the napkin again, dabbing quickly at his mouth. "Mmmrrmph? Oh! Thank you, Captain. Gah... I'm not normally such a sloppy eater!" He wipes at his mouth, listening, well after whatever it is that Vash spotted on him must have been cleaned off.

Vash says, "I gathered. So... what, you want to go meet her, Kerry?"

Kerry looks at Vash incredulously for a moment, then thinks about it. "Depends. Maybe. Before I met that fellow, I would have said yes without thinking. Now? They don't sound like nice folks. But... I think I would like to, if only to see what's going on with them. But not alone..." Zildjian wanders in with Aykuh, both of them placing more food and drink on tables that have ordered it. The dryad moves quietly and shyly, but the big lamia seems pleased, smiling and chatting with folks.

"I don't know if we can make any assumptions or presumptions about them, Pilot," Douglas says softly, his voice almost muffled by the napkin. Gah... Mom said never to lick-groom-clean myself at the table. So hard to resist sometimes, though, Mom... "I'm not sure what we should do, Captain, or even if we should do anything. But the fellow's reaction to Pilot -- even well before he got to know Pilot! -- seemed to border on terror." Though his mouth is covered by the napkin, there's a faintly unmistakable glitter of humor in the cougar's eyes as he says his last.

Vash has another long pull of his drink. "Then we'll go with you."

Kerry nods. "That's for..." He stops for a moment, then looks at Doug with an injured expression. "Hey!"

Vash ahs, and sets his drink on the table. "But in a minute; just found who I was looking for. 'Scuse me a sec." He wanders off into the crowd to intercept the lamia on her circuit back.

Douglas drops the napkin, and is shown to be smiling merrily. "Sorry, Pilot. I was just joking." He nods quietly to Vash as the 'dillo moves to Zildjian.

Kerry nods to Douglas. "I know. The capybara was awfully scared that I'd rip his throat out for not bowing and scraping. That doesn't sound like friendly folks."

Zildjian sets down the last mugs she's carrying, then grins cheerfully at the approaching 'dillo, "Hey there! How're you doing?"

Vash nods. "Hey, Zil. I'm doin' fine... but Kerry just scared the life outta one of the merchants." He glances back over his shoulder. "You know anything about Azteka? That guy looked like a..." The Captain trails off, looking for an appropriate analogy; the best he can come up with is, "...like he'd just swallowed a watermelon. But he looked like he had a serious bat phobia."

Zildjian slithers neatly with Vash back through the crowd to curl up at the end of the table the other crewmates are sitting at. "Yeah? Hm... well, he's certainly made me and Hotspur happy... he just rented two entire connected suites for the Gather!" She grins happily, adding, "He was speaking the local tongue with a heavy accent, so he's sure not a native. I'm guessing you'll get to see the entire party soon, in fact. He said he was from one of the just-arrived caravans from the coast, and his mistress was tired."

Kerry skrees, "Not a phobia... that'd imply an unjustified fear. He was terrified that I was going to cause him all kinds of grief 'cause he didn't bow and scrape to me fast enough. And he had what reminded me of Incan knot-messages, and a species that on Home is South American. So, put it together..."

Douglas blinks inquiringly to Zildjian. "Then I imagine that after his encounter with us, he will be informing his mistress of whom he has met here."

Kerry nods. "That would be my impression, as well."

Vash says, "You're too literal sometimes, y'know that, Kerry? I heard the conversation. Regardless, Zil's got it; you'll get to meet all of them soon enough, if you're curious."

Kerry mutters, "Or even if we're not..."

Zildjian grins at Vash, then takes a sip from her own large mug. She laughs softly and hissingly at Kerry's comment, then adds teasingly, "What, you don't want to meet a Keero from this world?"

Vash says, "You worried about something? They're traders, Kerry. What's up?"

Kerry sighs. "I did. Now I think they're not quite like the ones at home..."

Vash says, "Nothing here's quite like it is at home. What's biting you all of a sudden?"

Zildjian gives a small hiss of laughter again, "Kerr... ain't nothing here just like-" She laughs again, nodding to Vash.

Kerry skrees, "Ah, well. Let's find out what they're like, I suppose." He grins. "I know, I know. But these guys aren't promising. Still... I do want to meet her; I'm just worried about what she'll be like."

Douglas makes a small sound, and picks up his mug. "Being addressed as 'Honored of the Gods' might be a bit off-putting." He takes a draught, then smiles quietly. "Be that as it may, we'll see them soon enough if it's through here that they must go to get to the suites."

Vash shrugs and picks up his drink. "Worst case scenario, Kerry?" He takes another pull. "You're exactly like one another." He grins, shrugs, and walks back to his table.

Kerry grumbles. "I don't get any respect around here..." He grins as he says it, though.

Zildjian tchs softly at the armadillo, "Easy, guy," although she can't repress a small grin into her mug. Then she grins lazily at the bat, her slitted golden eyes wide and relaxed in the firelight, and murmurs, "We see ourselves mirrored in the eyes of others, eh, Kerry?"

Someone steps through the door... someone short and blocky; with gorgeously patterned, thick fur; wearing a short, decorated kilt; a heavy, wide, decorated necklace; and a scabbarded sword slung about his waist. He looks around for a moment, then turns and nods once, apparently to someone outside. Douglas glances to the doorway, and his ears perk a little. "Oh, could this be them?" he asks the others innocently.

Kerry answers the cougar very dryly. "Wouldn't be at all surprised..." Vash finishes his drink and sets the empty mug down in front of him. He leans back a little, folds his arms, and watches quietly.

The jaguar bows deeply as a small bat steps slowly into the room, turning her head to look around wearily. The jaguar murmurs, "Enter, please, Honored Xochihualpilli, and bless us with your presence."

    Xochihualpilli wears a fine cotton tilmatli, or cloak, thrown over her shoulders. A luxuriant, heavy fringe quivers along the lower edge with her every shift and movement; a gloriously colorful ruff of featherwork shimmers about the tilmatli's upper edge; while rich, elegant figures writhe decoratively across the heavily embellished cloth. She proudly wears a wide, elegant collar of gold and gleaming tortoise shell around her smooth neck, while many, many fine golden wire rings glitter in her ears. More rings, of precious stones and gold, grace her slender ankles and fingers. A fine, dyed, ankle-length, thickly furred skirt gleams about her hips, which sway gracefully with her dignified, deliberate movements. Her dark raven head fur floats luxuriantly over her shoulders and feathered collar, revealing her rather cinnamon hued, serious face, while many delicate, pale scars pick out more intricate patterns on her gracefully folded wings.

Five neatly dressed individuals accompany her. There are, in the end, two of the blocky, sturdy jaguar-folk with brilliantly patterned fur; a tall and graceful llama; a sardonic looking old billy goat with long, twisting horns; and the edgy, graying capybara. Both jaguars and the goat are, perhaps surprisingly, lightly armed with swords, and the older goat wears light, almost decorative armor. The delicate llama is draped with elegantly decorated clothing and some light jewelry. She spends most of her time sticking close to the bat woman and looking down her nose at those around her. The short, rotund capybara is still rather twitchy, quietly muttering to himself while fussing with the great many knotted cords that are attached to his belt-sash.

Vash hms softly to himself, fingering a scar under his elbow. And let it never be said that the Azteka don't bring the party with them... Kerry suppresses a wince at the scars. Now that must have been tricky, doing all that without tearing the membranes.

The capybara trots hastily forward, followed at a slower pace by one of the jaguars, up the stairs to the suites. He's heavily laden with various bags and duffels. A moment later Kerry can clearly hear the soft sonar squeak from the bat woman, and her head turns to regard Kerry for a long moment. Then her gaze travels across the others at the table, finally returning to Kerry as one graceful eyebrow arches.

Kerry stands, peeling off his dark goggles for a moment, and bows to the bat. A moment later the jaguar nods again from the stairs, and the bat woman moves gracefully towards him... up the stairs, and out of sight. The rest of the party follows silently, although only the second jaguar seems at all curious as to the other folk in the room.

Douglas's attention is taken at first more by the jaguars than by the bat. The jags remind him much of uplifts from Earth -- not entirely unlike him, though he seems to be taller than them; their fur-patterns are almost mesmerizing and beautiful to look at. He's never seen an uplift quite like the llama, however. Or the capybara, for that matter. And while he's seen goats, he's never seen an uplift one. Stop it, Doug! he berates himself. They're not uplifts; they're natural to this world. Or if they're uplifts, then technology didn't bring them up, but magic... or maybe something more than that, if they really are 'honored by the gods.' And frankly, right now I shouldn't put that beyond what can happen here...

Then he notices the bat, and blinks. Indeed, she looks very much like a Keero in many ways, though he's never seen one with so much decoration. And the patterning on her wings must have taken forever. But the workmanship of the goat's armor, and her own jewelry- Uhoh. They're looking at us... The entourage disappears upstairs, and Doug blinks. "I... guess they know we're here..."

Kerry listens as the party troops upstairs. "Interesting. She's either used to travel in Europe, or she's not nearly as bad as the capybara acts."

Douglas says, "Keep in mind, Kerry, that she's probably royalty, or close to it. The... capybara? Is that what the fellow was? -he seemed to be her servant or servitor..."

Kerry nods. "And he's honestly terrified of bats. But... he might be terrified of his own shadow, too. We'll have to see."

About five minutes later, the goat and one of the jaguars come back down the stairs. Both of them bow deeply to Kerry, then settle at a table as Zildjian slithers over. Kerry nods to the jaguars as they bow, since it seems that the Aztekan party is going to treat him as one of their nobles. Might as well be gracious about it and not scare them. The jaguar seems to be having trouble not staring in fascination at the little bat -- or everything else around her -- while the goat taciturnly orders food and drink, then also looks around with tired alertness.

Douglas blinks a little, and can't help but spot the jaguar's notice of Kerry. He murmurs, "Looks like you're noticed, Kerry..." He thinks for a moment, then muses, "I haven't yet met a feline uplift -- er, a felinoid? Just Feline. I haven't met a feline here yet." He grins and stands. "Shan't be long, Pilot." He begins to amble over to the jaguar and goat.

Kerry lets Douglas go by himself, since his presence would probably spook the Aztekans. Vash stands up and crosses to the bar, threading through the evening crowd. "One more, Aykuh, if that's okay." He glances back over his shoulder, watching Douglas approach the newcomers. Here we go... first contact.

The jaguar looks up with alert interest at the approaching Doug, then blinks and does a double take. Then she gently nudges the goat with her elbow... who just grunts quietly, and seems completely unsurprised by Doug's approach. He looks up and nods at the cougar, murmuring in a low voice, "Ey, boy. Your lord want to meet our lady, heh?"

Douglas inclines his head pleasantly, smiling but remembering this time to not show his teeth. "My apologies for interrupting," he says to the two, his mind-kitten wondering just what the hell he's doing up and being so darn forward? What's gotten into you, anyway, this isn't like you. He shushes the mental voice, easy enough to do at the goat's surprising response. "Er...?" He glances behind him at Kerry. Pilot? My lord? Oh, dear. I'm definitely not qualified for first contact. "Ah... actually, Sirs, he isn't my lord. That is, I'm not his vassal. Uhm... though I won't say that he wouldn't want to meet... er, your lady. I came over to greet you myself, as in my time here I have not met any other felines, er, cat-like folk." His smile, faltering a little, becomes quiet but warm. "If I may ask, where do you hail from?"

The curiously staring jaguar stops chewing, she's so startled, while the goat's eyes narrow and he just studies Doug silently for a long moment. At the bar, Vash winces a little and sighs. "Better make it a double, Aykuh."

Douglas's gaze flicks between the two, and his mental kitten reminds him, again, that he was not trained in diplomacy or first contact. "Ah," he finally says, uneasily. "I see I have offended you. That was definitely not my intention. I had only wished to be companionable and welcome you to Karlstrasse." It's the bit about Kerry not being my lord, isn't it? That must be it. *sigh*

The jaguar swallows her mouthful and grins, her eyes curious and friendly, "What you think, pretty boy? Azteka, of course." The goat drums dark, short, tough fingers on the table for a moment, still closely studying Doug, then says bluntly, "What you are, then? Slave? Touched by gods? Pet?"

Vash groans softly to himself. "Aykuh, put it on my tab... I'll be right back, I think Doug needs rescuing." He straightens up, tightens the sash he keeps his sword tied on with, and starts toward the Aztekans' table.

Douglas smiles quietly, hiding any bristling he might evince from the 'pretty boy' jab, by the jaguar's grin. "We've... learned not to jump into any sort of assumptions in our time here. With hard experience." He arches his eyebrows and perks his ears at the goat's direct, blunt question, looking over at the older, obviously more experienced man. "Actually... none of them, sir. I was taken in by the Broken Horn Trollhome." Again, that faint bit of pride in saying that. "My name is Douglas Percival." He wonders if the Aztekans will reply to the offering of his name with their own; at that point, though, his ears twitch, and he glances over as Vash walks up.

The jaguar woman blinks, looking bemused as she licks her chops clean and regards the cougar, "How can he be trollish?" The goat simply grunts, "Adopted." Vash can tell by the body language that of the two foreigners, the goat is in command... and quietly aware of the armadillo's approach.

Vash steps up slowly to Douglas' side, and nods once, politely, to each Aztekan in turn. "Please excuse the interruption." Turning, he adds, "Is everything all right here, Douglas? You seem to have put our visitors off slightly." The jaguar looks startled at Vash's approach, then slightly relieved at his words. The goat tilts his head, ears twitching a bit, and nods once to the armadillo.

Douglas lowers his voice a little as he nods to Vash. "Hello, Captain. Everything is... well. I am afraid that I have, and I was going to try to make restitution and leave the gentlefolk in peace."

Vash says, "If you've made your introductions, Douglas... no one here seems greatly offended. Perhaps now would be a good time to head back to the table."

The jaguar looks a bit disappointed, while the goat's eyes narrow even more. Then the jaguar blinks again, "Hey... how you can be family named, but still have Captain?" She whispers to the goat, then gives him a hopeful glance. The goat regards the two crewmates for a moment, then nods once and growls, "Yah, can do." The jaguar beams, turning to Doug and Vash, and happily announces, "Can sit with us if got free time from pilli lord!" The word 'pilli' doesn't translate at all, although the word 'lord' seems to be associated with it.

Douglas says, "Of course, Captain." He looks to the Aztekans, smiling quietly. "My apologies for interrupting your time." He blinks a little at the jaguar's question. "Oh. Ah..." He glances a little askance at Vash. "It might perhaps be a little hard to explain. How do you mean by 'family named'?" The jaguar's offer is surprising, not only in its making but also in the goat's assent, and the apparent enthusiasm. "I'd be glad to, thank you, very much! Ah, Captain...?"

Vash just nods quietly and seats himself. The goat raises an eyebrow, then studies the bat at the other table for a long, thoughtful moment. The jaguar grins with the toothy enthusiasm of a somewhat homesick tourist, "Good for heart to see people from home, even if you raised here and different manners and all. Am property of party of blessed Xochihualpilli... here Sergeant Tenotch," she gestures politely to the goat, "I Kualkan, female guard, and brother guard is Nuakan. Llama is courtesan Tzala. Chichi seneschal is."

She leans forward then, whispering, "Is lord yours cursed heretic? Why eyes covering?" She *oofs* as the goat elbows her roughly, "Sorry." The sergeant growls, "Forgive foolish blabberings of new untrained stupid recruits." The jaguar looks chastened.

Vash says, "It's already forgotten."

The guard looks relieved, although her ears and whiskers are still meekly laid back. The sergeant nods once to Vash, then mutters in an aside to the jaguar, "You lucky, stupid girl."

Douglas sits as well, smiling quietly and pleasantly, though he can't hide the surprise in his eyes when the jaguar, Kualkan, says she is 'property.' Oh, by the Spruce Goose! Property? Here? I thought Crossroads -- wait, wait, Doug... we've only seen Karlstrasse. Yes, here it's perfect for us, but that doesn't mean all of it would be. Look at Nippon, after all! "Oh! I'm Douglas Percival, as I said of Broken Horn Trollhome. This is Captain Vashti Ramos Montoya, and he is my... our Captain, as he is captain of the ship which brought us here...." He blinks again at the rather direct rebuke the captain gives. "Ah... and as for, er, Colonel Kerry Skydancer..." He glances with a touch of lostness in his eyes to Vash.

Vash leans back slightly in his chair, his posture relaxed. He cuts a solid figure, having spent the majority of his time on the hunt in the intervening days. He rather looks it as well, still wearing his black Jolly Roger shirt tucked into a pair of wide breeches bound with a broad black fringed sash, his sword knotted into one side, and soft leather boots. He almost, almost smiles at the discussion of rank; he looks more like an outlaw than a ship's captain. He says, "He's the pilot. His eyes are covered because he's not used to the light."

Both Aztekans give Vash puzzled looks -- then they both turn to study Kerry. The goat recovers first, murmuring quietly to Vash, "Pilot what of?"

Vash mms, "The ship that brought us here. Indigo." He makes the word three distinct syllables.

Kerry has been intrigued, though not surprised that he can't overhear the conversation. Of course... if they have Keero overlords, they'd have figured out by now that we don't hear the lower registers well. As they all look at him, though, he looks back and twitches an eyebrow.

The jaguar woman hastily averts her eyes when Kerry's head movement makes it look like he might look back at her, and she gives the goat a very confused look, "Sergeant, very sorry but no-?" The goat puts one dark hand lightly on her golden-furred paw-hand, effectively cutting her off, as he continues to study Vash... his odd, hourglass shaped pupils are a lambent gold in the firelight. Finally he says slowly, "That Honored One... not your lord must be, hey?!"

Vash sits up just a little, in anticipation of something unfortunate, if it comes to that, but continues to put forward a relaxed air. "That's true, yes. He's not my lord."

Kualkan says puzzledly, "Who then his slaves are?" Her gaze travels around the room, trying to pick out likely candidates. The goat just continues to study Vash, obviously thinking very hard.

Vash says, "He has none." Both Aztekans stare blankly at Vash. Vash smiles faintly. "That I know of, at least."

Douglas ers softly, "He... doesn't have any slaves." He leaves it at that, not saying anything involving the fact that in generations past, back home, he and the other uplifts were very much like slaves.

Vash adds, gently, "If this is a bother to you, we can certainly leave the common area for a while."

The jaguar and the goat turn to look at each other in astonishment... then both turn and stare equally blankly at Kerry. Kerry sighs and stands up. The Aztekans keep staring at him like he's growing celery out of his head or something, so it can't possibly get any worse if he walks over, can it?

Kualkan draws her breath in sharply, hastily looking down at her plate as she whispers, "He looking!" Tenotch stiffens slightly, but mutters under his breath to the jaguar, "If he not Holy -- not matter! Always wanted to hold head high to one..." His ears are pinned back, but he determinedly continues to stare at the small bat, "We see if military 'dillo man speak true."

Vash just studies something on the tabletop as Kerry approaches. "Always," he says.

Kerry nods to the table. "Mind if I join you?"

The jaguar glances timidly sideways at Vash... then decides not to risk it if the armadillo's looking down! She and the goat both twitch slightly at Kerry's words, but don't say anything. Tenotch, in fact, is breathing with the slow, careful deliberation of someone that expects to be attacked very soon. He's still determinedly meeting the bat's gaze.

Vash catches the beat of tension, and looks up. "Kerry. It's not our table to offer. Ask the Sergeant here."

Douglas's ears flick a little as he glances to Vash, then in the direction the Aztekans are looking -- and looks up to Kerry. "Ah... if our guests to Karlstrasse have no objections... Sergeant Tenotch, Guard Kualkan... Colonel Kerry Skydancer..."

Kerry pauses for a heartbeat, blinking behind the dark goggles. "I thought I was." At Douglas' introduction he turns to the goat. "Sergeant...?"

Kualkan gives Vash another timidly astonished look, tucking her shaking paws into her lap. The goat takes a slow, deep breath, his neck ruff rising in spite of himself, then says very carefully, as if he's not sure it will work, "My... my table. Ay." He takes another breath, then adds with growing confidence, "May sit." Kualkan's eyes widen and she winces, leaning slightly away from the goat.

Vash grins faintly. "Well, then. Why don't you have a seat, Kerry?" He makes it a point to look directly at the bat when speaking, and hopes to himself that Douglas does as well. Kualkan blinks again, and she looks like she no longer has any idea where to lean to avoid splash from whatever retribution is coming.

Kerry nods as he takes a seat. "Thank you." He grins at Vash. "So what tall tales were you telling these poor folks? After the way the capybara reacted, I didn't know what they'd think about us." Douglas glances Vash's way, then looks to Kerry, managing a quiet smile despite the sudden increase in tension that seems to be filling the table.

Vash says, "Cultural differences, Kerry, that's all." Sergeant Tenotch's mane ruffles, then starts to settle as the bat seats himself, and there's no lightning strikes or other disasters forthcoming. He takes another deep, slow breath, starting to relax despite his obvious astonished disbelief. The jaguar still looks like she'd prefer to crawl under the table, however.

Douglas nods quietly. "It's certainly... fascinating." He represses his unease; with bad luck, the Aztekans would take it as some sort of discomfit with Kerry being there and he doesn't want to do that.

Kerry nods. "Not unexpected. I was afraid to ask the capybara anything; he looked ready to faint because he didn't bow to me fast enough. You folks look a bit steadier. Can you tell me about your Honored Ones?"

Vash remains quiet and unhurried. Under the circumstances he's not sure if that's more discomfiting or less to the Aztekans, but under the circumstances... best to teach by example, he thinks. He glances to the jaguar and, leaning closer, asks softly, "Are you all right? Would you like a drink?"

Douglas smiles quietly, and looks to the Aztekans, "Ah, as you've probably guessed... we've never encountered a culture with those whom you refer to as 'Honored Ones.'" He blinks at Vash's question, and with a mental rebuke looks with concern to the jaguar guard.

"Steady" might not be quite the word to use just yet... Kualkan's whiskers are still quivering. Tenotch, while more composed, still looks like he's not sure yet if he's dreaming all this. At Vash's comment the jaguar jumps, then gabbles, "Yes! Yes, a big- no, wait, nono, thanks, uh... maybe?!" She looks miserably bemused.

Kerry listens carefully for the return of the llama or Xochihualpilli's sonar. He doesn't want to get the guards in trouble for disrespecting another bat, even one who doesn't want to be groveled at. Douglas blinks, then smiles to Kualkan. "It's all right. If you're on duty, I'm sure we can find something that's not intoxicating, and yet soothing."

Tenotch growls slowly, "Yes. Two, please. Need to settle nerves." Kualkan's shoulders slump in relief.

Vash nods and signals Zildjian the next time she swings past this part of the bar -- on his tab, please. Zil grins and nods cheerfully, and a moment later slides mugs onto the table for everyone. Tenotch, who has yet to look away from his steady, almost aggressive staring at Kerry, takes his and has a sip, still studying the bat intently over the mug's rim. Kualkan grabs hers like it's a lifeline and gulps down several swallows.

Tenotch finally looks from Kerry to Vash, and says slowly, "Where you from, 'dillo man? Where not fucking goddamn holy are bats?" Kualkan gasps softly, her ears flattening and eyes widening again.

Douglas blinks to Kualkan. Maybe this was too much, too soon. I hope we haven't hurt them. Er, culturally. Or whatever it is that gets hurt when running into culture shock. I imagine we'd be very much in the same position if we had blindly gone to Azteka! Gah, the thought of the joking we had with Sakura about 'gold and loincloths' doesn't seem quite as funny, now. "Is this your first time to... Karl... strasse..." He blinks. The goat's rather... uhm, direct commentary seems to speak more volumes than it does.

Kerry sighs to himself and peels off his goggles again, wincing at first as the brightly lit room assaults his eyes. "Unless I miss my guess, sergeant, you've never looked directly at one of your overlords in your life before. One caution -- don't get too used to it, for I don't think She..." he gestures toward the upstairs with a wingtip, "...would understand."

Kualkan nods mutely to Douglas... then her shy gaze travels fascinatedly back, to nervously regard Kerry.

Vash cracks a wide grin. "It's a long way away, Tenotch. Used to be slaves, way back when, but they didn't know what to do with us after we got done fighting their wars for them. Now we don't belong to anyone." Kualkan's jaw drops at Vash's response. Douglas nods quietly in agreement with Vash. Tenotch just sighs deeply, nods once, and gloomily has another drink.

Kerry nods. "We belong to ourselves. But in our world, it's humans who were on top, not bats. We're from... another world entirely."

The goat grumbles softly, "Humans always on top... but not envy that place. Scorched when closest to gods."

Vash mms softly. "Sometimes they don't need the help."

Douglas tilts his head to the side. Humans always on top? "They do seem to do it to themselves, more often than not... there are humans in Azteka?"

The goat sips again, then adds morosely, "Just would like once not in fear living of snotty Holy Bridge between gods and us." Kualkan nods again to Douglas, "Of course. Who else feed gods? No one else worthy."

Douglas blinks again. Feed gods... Oh, Lord... I'm glad Sakura isn't here. Or maybe it wouldn't bother her now, but it looks like our original guesses about sacrifices were reasonably accurate. No, not accurate; here it's very likely that the gods of the Azteka really are listening... and feeding... "Ah, I hadn't thought of it that way, actually. Our experiences with humans have been... different from most."

Vash pauses a moment, then nods to the goat. "Maybe you and I have some things to talk about, if you have some time later."

Tenotch studies Vash carefully... then nods slowly, "Think I will. Think it something worth my heart risking for."

Vash nods softly. "All right then. I'll be here, when you're ready."

Kerry blinks again. Bozhemoi. These folks might know what happened to Texas One. "Might we ask... was there an incident, perhaps two years or so back? Humans who came from the sky, flown by a coyote?"

When Kerry speaks it immediately draws the undivided attention of both Aztekans, almost as if they can't help reacting immediately to that sort of voice... but the goat forces himself to look away with affected indifference. The jaguar nods to Kerry, though, "Haya, Hol- er... uh..." She falls nervously silent, finally just nodding several times at her mug to reply to the bat.

Kerry nods. "Thank you. That clears up a mystery."

Kualkan smiles timidly at the smaller bat, patting one paw-hand nervously on the table, "Honors properly were done, truly... payment for children, blessings to heaven, all worshipping. No angers now, haya, please?"

Kerry grins, then, and stands up. "I'm not going to put you at any more risk. I'm going back over there, and if Xochihualpilli or her llama come down, you can all pretend you've been properly groveling in my direction." He heads back to his original seat with his mug of ale.

Tenotch nods once, slowly, to the armadillo again... then watches Kerry leave the table with a curious, unreadable expression. Kualkan looks both worried and relieved, whispering to the other two, "He... why different he? He no crackling?"

Vash says, "Crackling?"

Douglas shivers quietly and silently. Wait... wait... why do I feel that Tenotch would like nothing better than to start some sort of revolt? Oh, dear... we don't know enough... gah, wait, Doug, you're being paranoid again. Sigh. Relax, and chat with the nice Azteka. He takes a sip of his drink, wondering if his growing stub of a tail is twitching nervously. "I'm sorry... 'crackling'?"

Tenotch mutters, "Lightning. Discipline."

Vash says, "Ah. That's easy. He can't." Both Aztekans stare blankly at Vash again. It's an expression he's getting rather familiar with, from them. Vash smiles a little and shakes his head. "He's not a Holy Bridge. He's just a bat. They made him to fight the war like they did the rest of us."

Douglas glances to Vash, then files away another worry. Paranoia... easy on the paranoia, Doug. They're not going to try anything on Kerry if they know he's not honored by the gods.... He nods quietly. "Like all of us were, several generations ago," he murmurs.

Slowly a grin spreads across Tenotch's long, narrow, bearded face, "Heh." The jaguar gives the sergeant a worried glance, then an even more worried one at Vash. "Heh. Hah. HA! HA!" The goat tosses his head back, laughter slowly erupting from him -- as if he's been holding it back for a very long time. Kualkan nervously edges down the bench a bit from the laughing goat. Douglas watches the goat, his ears cocked and twitching off-kilter, the mug halfway to his mouth. Vash just lets Tenotch go. He understands.

Kerry, in spite of his vow to leave them alone, can't help but stare at the laughing goat... though if Tenotch notices, he'll raise his mug in a salute. People are starting to look and murmur curiously... Zildjian's head rises smoothly above the crowd, a somewhat quizzical look on her face. She raises an inquiring eyebrow at Vash? Vash just shakes his head, as if to say, Don't worry about it... just let him go. Zildjian smiles faintly and nods once to Vash, gives the goat an idly curious glance, then sinks back down to her more normal height, continuing to do her usual work feeding the crowd.

Douglas glances to Vash and nods quietly, trying not to fret... the grizzled old sergeant finally gathers himself together again. He goes back to silently drinking, although there's a bit more ease in the set of his shoulders than there was before. "So," Douglas says as casually as possible, "-you're here for the Gather, then? Will you be leaving shortly after, or staying a while?"

The jaguar glances at the sergeant, and at his quietly smiling nod she turns back to the others, "Um... well, on how successful it depend our lady is, in trading?" She grins shyly at Doug, "Would like staying some... but depends."

Douglas blinks a little at the grin, then nods, smiling warmly. "A Gather is certainly a good time to be here!" I'll have to ask Annifred if the trolls know anything about Aztekans. And Zil, too... gosh, anyone, actually. We've heard them mentioned, but little else. I wonder... I really wonder what'll happen when Kerry meets Xik... er, Xen... er, Xochiwah... er, the Honored One. I really hope it doesn't become incendiary.

Kualkan's ears perk forward in happy interest at Doug, and the goat chuckles quietly into his mug. Vash just grins to himself. Douglas clears his throat a little, smiling sheepishly. "Well, ah... if you... any of you, that is, ah, need anyone to show you around Karlstrasse..."

Kualkan brightens, then glances at her sergeant... who just grins resignedly, "You already know you off, girl. But no shame bring to lady, no matter what here we discover, hey?" The jaguar beams, her curving fangs baring, and bounces to her feet, reaching for Doug's hand, "Heyah, thankings, now let's going!"

Doug's expression is one of stunned surprised, at least in the half-second before he is grabbed and all but dragged out of the inn, though he's certainly not putting up any sort of fight. What in the name of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge...?! is about all that he can think of in bewilderment before the cheerfully eager Kualkan pulls him outside. Vash chuckles softly to himself. "Can't take you anywhere, Doug."


Sergeant Tenotch and Captain Vashti chat for a while after Kualkan drags Douglas off for sight-seeing, but eventually the Aztekan stands and bids a good afternoon to the armadillo. Kerry raises a wingtip to beckon at him, but then changes his mind and stands to join Vash at his table.

Vash says, "Something on your mind, Kerry?"

Kerry slides into -- well, more onto -- a chair. "What'd you find out? The sergeant and his crew have a lot of practice sneaking around bats. I could hear part of your side of the conversation, but they know exactly how to pitch their voices below a Keero hearing threshold."

Vash says, "Find out? I wasn't interrogating them."

Kerry skrees, "I know, I know... but you must have learned something. I caught that from when I was over there. They take the Honored of the Gods bit very seriously, don't they?"

Vash leans back a little, folding his arms. "Wouldn't you? They were expecting divine punishment for looking you in the face."

Kerry nods. "Well, if there were real gods eating people, I guess so. The question is, how do they treat the other... divine punishment? Bozhemoi. Even here, outside Azteka? I wonder if they could actually do it beyond their borders..." The little bat thinks about that. "Or does Xochihualpilli have the power to do it herself?"

Vash says, "Couldn't tell you that. I doubt she's interested in speaking to us."

Kerry chuckles. "From the capybara's reaction, probably not the rest of you. Whether she wants to talk to me remains to be seen. If she assumes I'm the bat-in-charge of you guys..."

Vash says, "Not anymore."

Kerry skrees, "Hmm. But would they necessarily tell her? She might punish them for sacrilege for even suggesting it..."

Vash shrugs. "I don't know how far exactly her 'power' is supposed to go. Could be she shoots lightning, could be conditioning. I doubt they'd tell her. You, on the other hand, are lucky the goat didn't poke you one. They're not exactly willing slaves."

Kerry looks up at that. "Lightning? Hmmm... I think I'll leave my gear behind if I do go to see her. Maybe take my pistol... do you think the goat would have? Being treated like an equal by me has to be at least as much a novelty as poking me one would be. And the capybara couldn't comprehend it at all. Did you get any names besides Tenotch and Kualkan?"

Vash arches an eye ridge. "You don't think he'd take that as patronizing? I wouldn't push it, Kerry."

Kerry shrugs. "I'm sure they have patronizing overlords, too. A seasoned retainer ought to be able to tell the difference."

Vash says, "Okay, let me rephrase that. Don't go around any of them alone, you dig? That's an order."

Kerry grins at a thought. "Besides, if he thinks I'm being patronizing, his normal instincts would kick in and he'd treat me with deference -- 'cause then I'd be just another dangerous overlord." He nods at the order. "This is not something I wish to disobey at the moment. But the data would be interesting. D'you think you all could play loyal retainer if necessary so I could chat with Xochihualpilli?"

Vash frowns. "Kerry, you're not listening to me. He knows you're not a god. I told him." He pauses, then stands up. "And quite frankly I don't care what you wish to disobey or not. I'm telling you this to keep you from getting hurt. For once in your career, shut up and listen to your goddamned superiors, will you?"

Kerry sits up, a bit annoyed. "I have always obeyed orders, whether or not I agreed with them at the time. I was just saying I agreed with that one." He slumps again, pensive. "The bats aren't gods, either. Just favored servitors. What if she asks to see me anyway? What do we do?"

Vash folds his arms. "They won't make trouble outside of their own lands. They're here to trade. Killing the locals makes for bad business. Regardless, Douglas or I will go with you if she asks."

Kerry nods. "Good points... and hell, trade is why we're here. Might be a good place to deal with them -- going to Azteka doesn't sound like a good idea, even for a holdful of diamonds."

Vash says, "Considering what happened to the last expedition."

Kerry sits up again, this time with a wide grin showing needle teeth. "In fact... let's inventory the trade samples on Alshain. We might want to be traders again for a bit, and if we can exchange machine-made goods for diamonds, we'll be way ahead of the game. They don't like machines themselves, from what we've been told, but they probably won't object to woven cloth or machined metals..." He shrugs. "Or maybe they will, but let's find out what they want to trade for. As long as it isn't human immigrants, we ought to be able to deal with them."

Vash says, "Not a bad idea. Might be something to soften up the Company when they show up expecting an explanation. We've got all Gather to work it out with them; we'll have plenty of time to work out an agreement."


It's much later in the day, and the Egg's customers have all headed out for work. As one of the town's hunters, this was more dinner than lunch to Vash, so he's deservedly relaxing, stretched out peacefully alone by the fire with a mug of ale and a plate of honeyed bread that Zildjian left for him. He can hear her and Hotspur cheerfully singing something together, and the splashing of dishwashing water.

Some time later the big lamia comes out, still humming to herself and wiping her hands on a towel. She smiles at the relaxed armadillo, finishing wiping down tables before she slithers up onto the warm hearth herself too. She sighs contentedly, rolling her long form so that as much surface as possible is exposed to the fire, without blocking Vash's heat access as well. Her voice is lazily contented, "So, Vashti my friend... how's life treating you, son?"

Vash smiles a little and sits up. "Very good, happy to say. Very good. I appreciate the food; that wasn't necessary." He folds his hands in his lap. "How's business?"

Zildjian chuckles quietly, "Funny question to ask, in a way, considering it's all barter, but..." she rolls slightly, putting her arms behind her head and staring up at the inglenook's decoratively tiled ceiling with a small smile, "-good. Yeah... life's real good right now."

Vash nods softly. "That's good. Good to hear." He pauses. "Actually, Zildjian, there is one thing that's sort of been bugging me."

Zildjian rolls enough to rest her chin on her crossed arms, so she can look curiously at the armadillo, "Hm?"

Vash takes a breath, then bites his lower lip. He sits back on his palms. "You've been nothing but good to me... to us. To the entire crew. And... it occurs to me that I was pretty shitty to you when we first got here. And... I don't think I ever said that I was sorry." He turns to look the lamia in the eyes. "So. I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that rap."

Zildjian thinks for a moment... then smiles at the 'dillo, "That's sweet. Thank you, Vash... although I certainly don't remember your being that rude."

Vash smiles a little and rolls his shoulders a bit. It might be a shrug. "You've been putting up with more than your share of shit recently... if not from me, then from Kerry... and you certainly don't deserve it. I wanted you to know that I appreciate your supporting us."

Zildjian grins cheerfully, "Aww, you guys are doing just fine yourselves!" She smiles, thinking a bit, then adds lazily, "'Sides... you keep me honest. Occasionally I need a reminder that I'm from Texaszs..." she hisses slightly at that, then continues dryly, "-not one of the native sacred lamia librarians."

Vash smiles and leans forward a little, gently curling an arm around the lamia's shoulders. "Hey," he grins, "-and you can remind me that I'm Vashti first... and the hero second."

Zildjian chuckles quietly, her tail flicking neatly and warmly about the 'dillo's waist, "Ah, we'll just have to keep each other honest, I guess, right? -although... I've watched Blue watching you... you're a hero first to her, you know." She smiles slowly, her eyes a bit dreamy, adding, "I think that's so sweet..."

Vash sighs a little and smiles. "I just hope I never disappoint her. I don't feel like a hero, you know?"

Zildjian nods, her now-serious gaze returning to Vash's face, "Yes... I think I understand. It's how I feel when people look at me like I'm their fortune and the repository of all knowledge and learning. It's... a little scary, but... well, I'd think being in love, in real love, would be kind of wonderful at the same time too?" She watches Vash's face thoughtfully, obviously quietly interested in his answer... as if she's not herself aware of what being in love feels like.

Vash opens his mouth slightly to answer, then closes it. He studies the fire for awhile. "I want to say yes. But... that's kinda trite, you know? I don't know if I've got the right words for it. It's... it's a relief. It's like... knowing that no matter what happens, you've got someplace to come back to. Someone that will still be happy to see you, regardless. And... you know, someone that values you for just being there. That counts for a lot."

Zildjian's head raises sharply to study Vash intently for a long, still moment, her eyes unblinking. It's almost eerie how motionless she is... and then she gives a long, slow, hissing sigh, her head sinking down to rest on her crossed arms again, "I... hope so, Vashti. I think... that sounds... really wonderful."

Vash tilts his head. "Zildjian...?"

Zildjian's slitted eyes slide to focus on the armadillo, and she smiles faintly, "Mm?"

Vash says, "Are you okay?"

Zildjian thinks for a moment... then she nods slowly again, "Mmhmm. More now than I've ever been before in my life." She sighs softly, and then that faintly sardonic smile crosses her face again, "I just... get a little impatient sometimes, I guess. Things have been going so wonderfully that I feel greedy sometimes... I want it all, now, you know?"

Vash smiles and nods. "Yeah. I know. We've all come a long way from... from nothing. It's a big universe, huh."

Zildjian smiles and shakes her head slowly, her eyes introspective, "Ain't it though, Vashti..." Slowly she murmurs, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio... than our philosophies ever dreamed of!"

Vash grins a little. "Yeah. Don't we know it." He laughs softly. "Zildjian... you mind if I ask a stupid question?"

Zildjian grins in quiet happiness, "You don't ask stupid questions, Vash. Go on."

Vash thinks for a moment; how best to put this. "Zil... are you lonely?"

Zildjian opens her mouth with an indignant look -- then pauses, thinking. Finally she says carefully, "In what way, Vashti? I am almost always surrounded by people here, after all...?"

Vash smiles and shakes his head, slightly embarrassed. "Just... the way you asked about me and Blue... and... ah. Heh. I'm sorry. I'm making an ass of myself here."

Zildjian watches the 'dillo unblinkingly for a moment... then gently pulls Vash into a companionable hug. She rests her chin on his shoulder, hissing very quietly, "Yes, Vash, I'd like someone to coil up against, to tangle my tail with, maybe even to someday raise a fingerling with, if I -- if I actually still can... but at least here the option exists that someday I may be able to do that. Back on home-earth... well. My sisters and I are a dying breed, although not many realize it yet."

Vash smiles a bit and hugs the lamia gently. "I understand. Look... Zil... for as long as we're here... if you are lonesome..." He just squeezes softly. "I'm here."

Zildjian's face is close enough that Vash can see her pupils abruptly expand, then contract, rather like a human might blink -- then she turns her face slightly away, a few more coils lapping gently around him and squeezing very carefully. Her voice is a bit husky as she murmurs, "Thank you, Vashti. That... means a lot." Vash nods softly and holds Zildjian close. He can't think of anything else to say... so he just holds on.

After a moment the big lamia hesitates, then says carefully, "Um... Vash? I... there is one thing I'd really like, if you don't mind doing it for me?"

Vash blinks once. "Um... sure, Zil. What's up?"

Zildjian waves a hand around the usually spacious inglenook -- which most of her body is currently filling, "Well... you have hands, and can move around in these tiny, close spaces easier than Dow. Also, as winter approaches it gets harder for me to move around easily. So, um... could I ask you to, uh... give me a back rub... with this?" She raises her torso up enough to reach a high alcove in the inglenook, bringing down a round, stoppered ceramic jar, and gives Vash a hopeful look.

Vash looks at the jar. "Oh..." He grins. "Yeah, of course... it'd be my pleasure. Um... what is this?"

Zildjian looks relieved, answering readily as she hands him the (to him) large jar, "It's medicated oil... keeps my skin from drying out and helps me shed without tearing anything painfully." She carefully uncoils her tail end, lapping it neatly out and around the inglenook as she adds, "Cold's real hard on me too, I'm afraid... I'm not sure what exactly I'm going to do during the winter. Hibernate maybe?"

Zildjian sighs amusedly as she flattens out on the warm stone, "Somehow I don't think wooly body stockings are all the rage here..." All stretched out, she's rather large... she fills the inglenook. She murmurs, "Need smaller hands to get in around the scales... unfortunately the medication makes Aykuh tipsy, and Hotspur's hands are too big."

Vash grins quietly. "Heh. I gotcha." He gently smears a bit of the oil across Zildjian's shoulders and leans in a little. "Maybe just stick around the hearth for the winter? I'm sure there are plenty of folks that'll be happy to see you stick around for another year."

Zildjian mmms contentedly, then reaches fluidly back to pull her tank top up and over her head. As she relaxes, Vash can see the oil soaking in smoothly, darkening and noticeably softening her somewhat pale, resilient skin -- she either wasn't kidding about lamias needing this, or her skin is oddly permeable.

Vash works his hands in little circles, working the oil in with the heels of his hands, kind of leaning in rhythmically to add pressure. "I wouldn't worry about it too much, Zil. We'll work something out for you. I think the town needs you here even more than we do."

Zildjian hisses softly, "Hope so, Vashti... I've heard it snows here a lot. It's one thing to have a special suit, back in Texas... it's another entirely to get trapped in here by the weather for a whole season." She pauses, then adds thoughtfully, "Maybe I can ask Aykuh to seal herself up more, to keep the heat in? Or... maybe some hibernation would be a good idea...?" She sighs in contented relief again, then glances down at her tail, "I'm getting duller colored too." She bites her lip, then adds, "Well... maybe I'll shed nice and normally in spring?"

Vash works his way down to the small of Zildjian's back, near to where the more reptilian features start. "Well... maybe some. Maybe just through the really heavy months." Zildjian's hips are where the 'weird,' nonhuman bone structure starts -- there's something that's sort of like a light, modified pelvic girdle... and then the spreading reptilian ribs continue down her lower body and tail. She doesn't have anything really like human buttocks -- just a smooth graduation from the curve of her lower back, into the reptilian spine. He works a little awkwardly around her hips, not entirely sure where to go; he opts for down and on to the rest of the scales.

Zildjian mumbles muffledly, from where her face is resting against her crossed arms, "Hope so..." Vash can almost hear the smile in her muffled voice as she adds, "Who'd have ever thought an armadillo would help a lamia like this, hm?"

Vash continues on, taking extra care not to miss any spots; he doesn't know how winter's going to affect the lamia, and if she needs this as badly as he suspects she does, he doesn't want to be responsible for her developing something painful later on. He laughs softly. "Yeah... I'm sure my family would be pretty flustered. But... well, I'd just have to make them understand. The war's over. And you've helped me and my crew more than once. Besides... eventually they're going to have to find out what my grandfather knew all along."

Zildjian chuckles quietly. A moment later she says softly, "Vash... do you ever dream about... bringing your family here? Your armadillo family, I mean, not Blue -- she's already here."

Vash pauses a moment... then mms and goes back to work. "Yeah. Sometimes. I don't know if they'd want to come or not. But... sometimes I hope that when the Company comes here... I dream that everything goes as well as it can, that they figure out that they have to treat this world -- that is, the people here -- with more respect than they did the ones back home... and if people from home want to come here, they'll be able to. I'd like to know my family's happy and safe... and more importantly I hope they know I am, too. I don't want my parents and my brothers to worry."

Zildjian is silent for a long time, aside from the occasional soft sighs of relaxation. Finally she says very quietly, "Vashti... when your year of crowning is up... do you intend to marry Blue?"

Vash laughs softly. "I don't know what else I'd do. Why do you ask?"

Zildjian shifts just enough that she can glance over her shoulder and see the armadillo, as she says, "Well... has anyone talked to you about what marriage entails here? Like... the joining of the families, the sharing of resources and responsibilities... stuff like that? I don't want to scare you away from it, but... here it's not just two people deciding to get together, you know?"

Vash sighs a little. "Yeah. Briefly. I don't know what I'm going to do about that... I mean... my family's a whole universe away. I don't know what I can offer to her family."

Zildjian looks a bit relieved as she smiles, relaxing back into her former position, "Good, so you're not walking into anything unsuspectingly." She chuckles softly again, adding, "Oh, I wouldn't worry about what you have to offer her family, Vash... you're a hero. I suspect what they'll be most disappointed about is that you can't have children together the usual way... but they'll probably gladly make sure you and Blue have adopted children to raise, in the hopes that the heroism rubs off on them." She adds a little wistfully, "Although... it would be nice, I think, if both your families could blend, like usual..."

Vash smiles a little, then laughs softly. "Yeah, I've had that thought too."

Zildjian grins quietly, "Which?"

Vash says, "Well... heh. The usual way. I feel bad, a little, that I can't... do that for her. I'd do anything for her... but... well, you can't always fight your plumbing. It would be nice if both families could blend."

Zildjian says, "Heh... plumbing." She chuckles quietly again, then sighs softly, "Well. May I ask a rather, um... personal favor? Will, ah, Indigo be returning to Earth? And... if you do, could I ask you to, um... sort of forget to mention me, maybe?"

Vash mmms again, face serious for a moment. "I can't answer that yet. I suspect... that they'll be coming here first. They pulled a little fast one on us... all the camera logs from inside the ship got dumped onto the last beacon." He sighs. "I should have figured they wouldn't trust us. I expect they'll be wanting an explanation. But... that's my lookout, not yours. And... if it comes to that, then you're under my protection. I'm giving you asylum. Texas will not... can not have you back. I promise." He adds, so softly that it might be just to himself, "...I won't let them."

Zildjian is silent for a moment... then fluidly raises and turns her upper torso to look at the armadillo, in an almost startlingly reptilian movement -- ordinarily she's careful to move her upper torso more like a human. Her voice is almost wondering, "You'd do that... for me?"

Vash looks up. "Zildjian... I know what happens in Texas. I fought them for years of my very short life. So did my brothers, my father, and his father. And he... he knows better than any of us. If I let you go back... none of them would ever forgive me. Least of all myself. I care about you, Zildjian. I'm not letting those savages have you back."

Zildjian watches the smaller 'dillo unblinkingly for several seconds, her slitted golden eyes growing brighter... then she folds herself over enough to reach Vash, drawing him gently into a warm, close hug in her arms and coils. Vash hugs Zildjian tightly, and smiles a little more.

Zildjian sniffles slightly, rubbing her face with a coil of her lower tail as she hugs Vash. It's a slightly medicated-smelling hug, but she's in no hurry... she finally releases slowly, her coils settling loosely around the armadillo's booted feet. She's smiling as she rubs her face -- with a hand this time -- and he can see the sheen of tear tracks on her face for a moment, until she turns and settles back down as she was before. She doesn't say anything... but the most prehensile, very end of her tail coils companionably about his, as he continues rubbing her scales.

Vash just continues methodically rubbing the medicine into Zildjian's scales and smiling quietly to himself. He doesn't need to say anything else.




Last modified: 2001-Dec-05 22:11:33

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