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    The morning after the ship's crew had dinner aboard the Belvengeance, Douglas and Sakura return to Engineering to continue working on the mysterious device that they have been given plans for. Sakura sets up the comm to monitor from there, and they get to work. Work proceeds slowly and carefully. Late in the morning, the comm chirps.

Douglas looks over to the comm, frowning, and checks to see the source of the incoming message. If it's from Belvengeance, he calls Vash and doesn't have a word to say to them; he's busy. If it's otherwise... Sakura excuses herself and goes to work the comm. Seeing it is a public broadcast on general frequencies from Belvengeance, she lets it go to the recording system, but monitors it on speaker. Douglas can hear it too. The voice of Toby Folk, the engineering lead comes across, "Er, hello there. This is Toby Folk, engineering lead aboard the Belvengeance. I was hoping to reach Mr. Percival to, uh, make sure the transport field or drives were not causing damage to your ship or equipment." It sounds hesitant, as if the other engineer had something else on his mind. He finishes, "Please let me know if there's anything I can do for you. I look forward to hearing from you. Folk out." The channel closes.

Douglas frowns slightly. "Damage? I don't think so..." He grimaces as he notifies Vash that he's taking a moment to check the drives. "Hell of a time to think of this," he mutters as he walks across the short catwalk to the Gate drive, multiscanner in hand as he opens the inspection panel.

A few moments later, Douglas' whiskers twitch and he chirps a little in irritation, but still concerned. Odd, he thinks as he closes the panel. Everything seems just fine. No damage being done to the drive. We don't have time to check everything, not and get this doohickey done soon. I wonder what made him think of asking us that?

He taps his fingers on the multiscanner, then goes to the engineering console. "Captain," he says, contacting Vash. "I'd like to call the Belair and 'reassure' Mr. Folk that our ship is doing just fine in their clutches -- not quite that way of course. I also want to find out why he thought to ask us about that. I won't be inviting him over or going over there, or even taking too much time."

Vash takes a moment to come to the screen from the rec deck, where he's been working out in one way or another. He says, a little out of breath, "Yeah?" into the pickup, and listens to Douglas' story. He says, "That is odd. Give him a call back and see what he has to say. Maybe it's important, and maybe he's just concerned about the poor primitive suckers he's towing." The armadillo adds, "Let me know if it's anything important, and he's not just pissing around."

Sakura gives Douglas an odd look, her ears cocked back quizzically, and comments, "I wonder why he called."

Douglas nods, "Sure thing, Captain." He looks to Sakura. "I've no idea, but it bothers me. They must have done this before." His paw pauses over the comm controls. "I'm wondering if I should count to ten first," he mutters, then just dials up the Beldandy, asking to speak with Engineering Lead Folk.

The comm system takes but a moment to transfer Douglas to the engineer, who answers, "Toby Folk here, go ahead." The human engineer sounds bored.

Douglas's whiskers twitch. "Mr. Folk, Douglas Percival here. You called earlier about the status of our drives and equipment."

Over the comm the tone of voice changes amazingly, perking right up, "Hello, Mr. Percival! Please, call me Toby, everybody does. I did call, yes, to see if you were having any sorts of troubles during this trip."

Douglas relaxes just a little. "Certainly, Toby." He tries not to grit his teeth -- and doesn't really have to work at it -- when he says, "And call me Douglas. I've been watching the ship's systems for most of this trip," not entirely true, he's been mostly working on the Master's thingamajig, but he hasn't forsaken his engines, "-and everything appears in good order. Uh, thank you for your concern, though. Part of why I'm calling is that I was wondering if there was any particular reason you were asking? Say, a history of some sort of debilitating interaction between Gate drives across the tractor beam while in transit, or such." Man, I can't believe I just pulled that out of thin air...

The other engineer says, "Oh, gosh no, Douglas, nothing like that -- we wouldn't want to put your ship at any sort of risk like that! We scanned very carefully to make sure we had good structural points to tow from, for instance, so we didn't cause internal damage. I'm not aware of any unpleasant effects like that." Over the comm comes a shifting noise, as if Toby's shifting his weight or sitting down or something is picked up, and the human adds, "So, everything on your ship is normal and working properly? No unusual power drains or fluctuations?"

Douglas frowns a bit. He finds he likes Toby; it's hard not to. Toby's not being patronizing. He didn't make any snide comments about how uber-careful they had to be to find strong structural support points, or anything. There's just something pinging at his mind... or maybe that's just paranoia. He glances over to the workbench where the Brobdignagian device is coming together. It's not plugged in, they haven't tested it yet, and he's made very sure that there's no power at all going through the coils, and that no untoward electromagnetic radiation is being generated by it. In other words, nothing that would make it noticeable to the Belgium. "Nothing outside of normal ship's service," he says helpfully. "We're only running the auxiliary, life support, and computer systems, and everything's about as textbook as it can be."

The voice over the comm lets out kind of a sigh, then says, "Well, I'm glad to hear that. I wish I could say the same thing over here. I guess it was kind of a wild hare to wonder if you were having any of the same problems we are; maybe it's an environmental effect or something... but I knew it was a reach." The human engineer lets out a long sigh, then adds, "We're having the damnedest problem with power surges through the systems. Systems going out, breakers blowing, power levels varying seemingly randomly. When we run diagnostics, nothing unusual shows on them. Everything seems to be perfectly healthy. At least until it's not."

Douglas frowns slightly, even as his heart leaps. The Master! He must be wreaking merry havoc over there! He can -- to an extent -- sympathize with Toby, however, as one engineer to another. "Any idea what it is? Is it because you're towing us?" Sakura looks quite surprised at this development. Her whiskers twitch, but she refrains from speaking, apparently astonished the Belvengeance's engineer is actually calling and asking Douglas for help.

Folk's voice comes over, "It's true that we usually don't run that system so constantly, but it is well within capacity. The weapons and shield systems, not to mention the Gate-drive, take lots more power, and they're all quiescent now." The human sighs. "It's not a power shortage either, but often surges of too much, as if the regulators are failing. But they test out A-OK and we're replaced some, and are still having the same results."

Douglas starts to feel more than just a little sympathy. Toby's stumped; he's not bored, he's tired, faced with a problem, and he hasn't got a clue. As one engineer to another, Douglas thinks, I'm sorry, but I can't help you. The service you pledged your loyalty to usurped our rights and saw fit to kidnap us from our home. It's nothing personal. In another time and place... "I wish I could help you out, Toby, but I know next to nothing about your technology." He doesn't say it as a bitter jibe, but genuine understanding. Plus, it's perfectly true.

The regulators? Power surges? That would mean that their generators are producing occasionally higher levels of power without being told to. Douglas closes his eyes for a moment, making a "hmm" sound. What the hell could the Master be doing? Why generate power surges? Why make an antimatter reactor generate power- Doug's eyes snap open. Holy shit! I forgot about that. They've got an annie plant over there and it's surging! Wait... Toby sounds tired, not panicked. They're okay, it's just a systems problem. "You guys aren't in any danger over there, are you?" he asks slowly.

Douglas starts to find himself wondering if the Master is indeed behind the power surges... but he's the only thing different on the Belvengeance from their normal procedure. Well, that and the fact that they have the Indigo towed along behind.

Toby answers, "Well... we shouldn't be. The worst thing that should happen from any single one of these failures is whatever that system is becoming overloaded and burning out." He sighs, then adds, "There are some pretty high-power systems aboard, but they've all got multiple levels of redundancy, as high-power systems tend to have. Nobody wants their warp drives to say, 'Boom!' you know? The chance that all of any of the really critical paths would fail before someone could get there and yank power manually is very, very small." It's clear, though, that the other engineer is thinking seriously about the question, and didn't just toss off a thoughtless, 'No, there's no danger.'

Douglas frowns slightly. So... in other words, there is some danger, but not that much, at least not yet. Oh, hell... the Master wouldn't do that, would he? Build up system failure after system failure, then once they get out of the Gate on the other end, Boom, no more Belvengeance. Would he do that? Oh, hell... thanks a whole lot for the refresher exam in 'Ethics in Engineering,' dammit. "I'm not sure what to suggest, Toby. I'd want to say look into reactor-side solutions for the time being to keep... anything bad from happening. Manually regulating fuel flow into the reactor chamber. Kind of like scramming a fission pile, if you can do it."

The other engineer says, "That's always a final possibility, but I hope we don't have to go that far. I hope we can get it resolved before we have to ramp power levels up to run the Gate drive, though. We have to bring the reactors up to quite a high level, and to have that much power get dumped into one of the lesser systems could cook it a good one." He exhales slowly, then adds, "Well, it was a long shot that you'd be having these same problems, but you never know. We'll keep fiddling with it here. I'm sure something'll turn up."

Douglas fidgets a little, then glances at Indigo's own Gate drive. We could do it ourselves... open up the gate for them, if they were really having problems that badly... no. I'll talk with Captain first before I even think of mentioning that idea to them. "I'm sorry I couldn't help you more, Toby. I'll see if I can't come up with some possible solutions on our end. It might not be much, and most of it you'd probably have thought of already, or not even applicable to your system..."

Over the comm a sharp beeping begins, in an urgent pattern, and the sound of someone else making unhappy noises across the room is picked up. Folk says, "There it goes again. Thanks for your help, Douglas. If you think of anything that might cause something like this, please let me know. I appreciate the chance to talk it over with you." The urgent beeping comes again, followed by a different, higher set of tones. Toby says, "Ack, gotta go help them with this one. Thanks, Doug!" The connection is abruptly cut.

Douglas frowns again as he leans back in the console's chair. I really feel for you, Toby, honestly I do, he thinks. But... but if that isn't the Master doing all that... even if it is, do we let him blow up their ship? And if it isn't, I'm sure he doesn't want to be blown up with them. If it'll even get to that. He contacts Vash immediately, and lets Captain know what's going on.

Sakura listens to Douglas' report to Vash, while she contemplates the whatever-it-is that they're building. When Doug is done speaking to Vash, she says, "That was odd. Do you think it's the Master?"

Douglas sighs quietly. "I don't know, Sakura-chan. It might be. If it is, I think he's trying to set up the Belvengeance to blow up. The trouble is, we can't really contact him directly."

Sakura chews on her lip concernedly, then looks back at the strange piece of equipment she's helping Douglas build, and deliberately focuses her attention on it, asking, "Where were we? What's next?"

    The building of the strange piece of equipment proceeds well, although hooking it into the bewildering set of antennas it wants to be connected to is a challenge and takes some doing. Sakura is distracted from her work on this a couple of times by beeps from the sensors, as they detect impending collision. After the first time, they don't cause the same sense of panic, especially once she finally figures out what causes them -- little power flickers in the Belvengance's force field are causing erroneous readings.

Douglas has been working steadily on the device. News of the power fluctuations makes him more nervous, and he worries about what's going to happen to the Belvengeance. He can clearly see the Master blowing the ship up just out of spite.But then we wouldn't need this device, if that's what he was planning. Is it...?

On the fourth day, what should be only hours away from entering the gate, Sakura calls to Vash on the comm, "Captain-san, there is a call for you from the Belvengeance. I can't leave them on hold much longer... will you talk to them?"

Vash takes a deep breath and opens his eyes. Falling asleep on duty. I must be going soft. He sits up in the command chair, rubs his eyes... changes his mind and stands. "Don't have much choice, really. Yeah, put them through."

The voice on the comm is familiar as it introduces itself, "Hello, Captain Montoya. This is Conrad McKurtz, the chief medical officer aboard the Belvengeance. I thought I would call and say how much I enjoyed having a chance to meet you and your crew when you had dinner with us the other night."

Vash nods, "Well, we certainly appreciate the gesture, Mr. McKurtz." Well. This is certainly creepy.

The other ship's doctor continues, "Several of us were quite interested in your unusual forms, in fact, and we began to discuss how they might have been engineered." He sounds a bit embarrassed as he adds, "We realized we had samples of your DNA aboard from the sequencer in the transfer beam, and someone pulled them up and we did a lot of looking at them... rather without your permission."

Vash mms. You haven't been exactly begging for our permission from the start, now, have you. "You can't choose your parents, as the saying goes."

McKurtz says, "I hope you'll be able to forgive our indiscretion when I share with you what I believe is something you will be interested in. Some of your stories about the people you've met on Crossroads were fascinating. One thing our specialists have said is that you're quite involved with the people there, and building strong relationships, which is always a good thing..."

Vash holds his tongue as he stands there on the bridge. How much longer are you going to bullshit me, ese? From Engineering, Douglas frowns as he listens in on the conversation, wiping off little bits of zeegee solder from his paws on a rag. Despite feeling rather slimy from having his DNA poked at without his permission -- the witch and the mages were so much more polite about it! -he's starting to feel curious, and nervously waits for the man to get to the point.

"And," Conrad continues, "they have stressed the importance of family and of children to the fabric of the society there. We realized you might be somewhat disappointed by not being able to really fit in with the rest of their culture as well as you could, and the question got asked, 'Can the TAG-Earth uplifts and humans breed?'"

Douglas frowns deeply. The hell?! No! Don't do this, you bastards! Don't try to tempt him into staying with you! He's not going to do it, and it'll just make him miserable for the entire trip back to Crossroads! On the Bridge, Vash doesn't make immediate reply. None of your damn business. But that's never stopped you before. "And this involves my crew how, Mr. McKurtz?"

Conrad says, "As it turns out the DNA is remarkably similar. Not enough that it will ever be able to intermix naturally. However, it doesn't seem too difficult to build a combined human-uplift genome, and bring it to term." He listens to Vash's question, then says, "Well... we figured out how such a merge would be successful. If you would like, I can send you the data. With it, pretty much any of our doctors would be able to generate a mixed-species fertilized ovum."

Douglas tenses, listening for Vash's reply, not realizing he's holding his breath. Sakura looks faintly embarrassed, and pays strict attention to the equipment she's working on. The Belvengeance's doctor mentions a bit timidly, "Dr. Garrity, on Crossroads, would definitely have the equipment and skills at hand. She's quite good with genetics. Naturally, this would only allow uplifts and humans to produce offspring. Without DNA samples of the Crossroads native species, we couldn't produce the right sequencer data to make a viable ovum. But we already know human DNA, and it was both an interesting challenge and something we thought might benefit you."

Vash sits down and closes his eyes. That's a cheap shot. Damn it. "That's a very kind offer, Mr. McKurtz..." He starts to say something, then stops himself, realizing lecturing the doctor on the nature of love would be a waste of time, to say nothing of making him look foolish. He takes a breath, "...but no, thank you. That's not how we've chosen to pass on our legacies. But again, it was kind of you to offer." He leans his head back against the chair and looks up at the ceiling. And now you're wondering why I'm refusing the benefits of your technology. Strange primitives, we are. I wonder, myself... God knows I think about it every day. I hope you'll forgive me, Blue.

Douglas lets out his breath, and starts to return to work with the device. It's almost time, he thinks. Soon, Annifred. Soon I will see you again. And soon Captain will see Blue, and Sakura-chan will see Larrikan. Soon I will again be within the warmth of Broken Horn.

Dr. McKurtz says, "I... I see. I'm sorry, I thought you or one of your crew would be interested." He sounds rather embarrassed and considerably startled, perhaps a little disappointed, when he says, "I won't bother you with it, then. I... well, I'd hoped we could give you back something more personal than just the interspecies interactions training, for having taken you away so forcefully. It really was a pleasure to have met you." So saying, the doctor says as polite a good bye as he can manage, and signs off.

Douglas reaches over and taps the intercom. "You handled that well, Captain," he says quietly.

Vash closes his eyes again. "Let me know when you're done with the device, Doug."

"Yes, Captain. Shouldn't be long now."

    When the time comes, the Belvengeance's Gate drive opens the Gate and tows the Indigo through. The force field flickers badly now, to the point that Sakura disables the confused proximity indicators. A couple of times the field and the tractor beam towing the ship both flicker off for a moment, although the Belvengance's Gate drive and other systems seem stable. Sakura watches the controls as best she can, and frets quietly. The ship feels confining after the open space of Crossroads, and she's obviously missing Larrikan.

The strange device is completed shortly after the two ships enter Gate space. Douglas is on the bridge, his jaw working, the control window for the device open on his screen. No power runs to it yet, and thus he hasn't been able to test it as well as he'd like, but it's been integrated into the systems as best as he could; he just hopes it's not any sort of a Pandora's black-box. The other ship's Gate drive seems somehow slower than Indigo's, with the beacons moving only very sedately by, and the predicted days being dull and quiet. Five of six days go by completely without event, with only sensors outside picking up the beacon satellites.

The far Gate is barely on scanner, and the Indigo is drawing up next to the last Gate-space beacon, when the force field around the ship goes out again, this time for longer than a moment. The delay stretches into minutes. The Belvengance's tractor beams and Gate drive flicker oddly, and both ships come to a halt right at the last beacon.

Douglas is starting to tense, looking over the last of the connections, when the two ships halt in the middle of Gate-space. Douglas blinks in surprise. I didn't even know you could do that! he thinks. He quickly goes over in his mind, reviewing if a ship can make a U-turn in Gate-space safely...

Minutes stretch into half an hour, and then the comm beeps for attention. Sakura answers, "This is Indigo." The voice of Captain Frederick comes across over some background noise -- people talking and the occasional alarm. "Hello, Dr. Murasaki. As you may have noticed, we have brought you to a halt here at the last beacon. We are having some... difficulties... with some of our systems." At this, the Indigo's crew can hear a sarcastic voice say, "You can say that again." Ignoring the heckler, the Captain says, "I fear we are going to have to leave you here at this beacon for a few hours until we can get another ship to come and tow you out."

Sakura stares blankly at the comm, murmurs, "Nantaru..." and doesn't have many other words. She finally looks at Vash for guidance.

Vash says, "If that's what you need to do, Belvengeance."

Douglas blinks, sitting up. Like manna from heaven! No, there's gotta be a catch. For the moment, it doesn't register with him that someone actually heckled the captain, over an open communications channel moreover -- surely an offence worthy of disciplinary action in an Earth military. He calls up some Gate drive studies on his screen, not making a specific inquiry after making a bootlegger's reverse while in Gate-space, but looking up the possible effects of it manually through the data.

Captain Frederick says, "You will be perfectly safe if you stay exactly where you are. You are aware, are you not, of the dangers of losing the beacons in Gate-space? If you are lost... as far as we know you are lost forever. That would be a terrible tragedy, and I urge you not to do anything foolish." With that, and another little burst of alarms over the comm, the Captain says, "Please don't go anywhere. Belvengeance out."

Douglas pauses in his research. Uh... actually, no, we're not aware of that. Foo. Let's see. That tractor beam screwed the mighty crap out of our inertial navigator, but let's see if we have a record of our course in relation to the beacons... He looks up as Belvengeance cuts the communication. "Captain, I'm certain that we can make the trip back on our own; we're already on a beacon path. And we can be back home, er, at Crossroads space in two days."

On screen, the other ship begins to move off, its Gate drive burning hard. Vash says, "Our entire gamble rides on this... black box, on the word of a cyborg Klansman, and our Gate drives being evidently much faster. They'll tear us up in real-space. And there's no guarantee TAG got our beacon... the odds that they sent help are even slimmer. We have until they drop from Gate-space to make a decision."

Douglas nods slowly. "Should we follow the Master's instructions this exactly? Wait for someone else to come into Gate-space and tow us out? Or do we turn and bolt now?

Vash says, "These are bad odds. But it's also the only shot we have at not being 'appropriated.' If we're doing this... wait for them to drop from Gate-space... then fire up the box and floor it."

Douglas does a quick calculation. "Their being able to go FTL in real space kind of negates the advantage we have in Gate-space. We'd be able to go in two days in Gate space what takes them five or six, but they can do in four hours what takes us four weeks. They'd know we'd go right back to Crossroads, and so would follow along." He pauses, then frowns. "Unless... as soon as we got out, we went through another Gate. Tried to lose them in the network, so to speak.

It takes about half an hour for Belvengeance get to the other Gate, which opens slowly when requested. Only after the Gate is open does the Belvengeance gradually move out into real space. Vash sighs. Even if we're not caught and dragged back... God, Zildjian... "If we're doing this... we'll have to rely on this Master." Douglas nods and does what preparations he can for the gate drive without shunting any power to it just yet.

As Belvengeance is halfway through the Gate, it falters for the merest moment, and the Indigo's computer receives one word over the comm: "Now." The next moment, apparently when the Belvengeance tries to run both Gate drive and normal space drives, something goes terribly wrong on board. There is a bright flash from one of the glowing blue drive ports, and then a huge, eerily silent ball of fire that seems to flow through the ship, causing port after port to flare, then go dark. The Gate, no longer asked to remain open, closes, cutting off the view of the burned out wreckage.

Douglas gives a start, almost toppling back in his seat. Oh shit! he thinks. Oh shit oh shit oh shit... he did it, he really did it. Oh, Maker... He swallows, feeling a horrible turmoil within him, the conflict of ethics he had been worried about, a chaos that settles into a roiling, seething numbness. "I'm... I'm starting the black-box now, Captain," he says quietly, feeding power to the device, and starting to bring the ship end-over-end for a recursive course back to Crossroads-space.

Vash blinks once, "Diosmio... what did..." No, I know what. We traded one Faust for another... we helped this happen. Dios nos perdona. "Do it, Douglas!"

Sakura stares wordlessly at the screen for a while. The sounds of Indigo's engines coming on line, and the ship moving under its own power for the first time in days to take them back to Crossroads, only very slowly work through her shock. She finally says, "The whole crew..." and simply lets it lie.

Douglas says quietly, trying to remain professional, "Already done, Captain. We're under way."

The black box fires up with an eerie whine which sets one's teeth a little on edge when close to it, and causes the scanners to flicker a little near its antennas. The ship otherwise seems normal. Turning about is carefully done, and then the trip out of Gate-space back to Crossroads begins, as fast as Indigo can safely go. Compared to the Federated ship, the beacons are flying by.

Vash doesn't say much of anything after that, reflecting that the list is growing steadily longer. God, Grandfather, Zildjian, Blue... I don't know how I'm going to pay for this.

Douglas keeps the inner turmoil under control as best as he can, though it rips and tears at him, a ravenous thing eager for the blood of guilt. We did this -- no! It was the Master! If we'd know this would have happened -- but we did know. You knew it was entirely possible -- but I didn't! Know for certain, that is. And I wouldn't have wanted it to happen! No matter how much bastards they were to us -- so, was the price worth it, Doug? Well?

Was it worth the price?

He squelches the inner voice, swallowing and keeping his attention completely on the engineering console and its readouts -- keeping the Gate drive happy, keeping the device happy, keeping the fission pile happy. Not doing too good a job at keeping himself happy, though.

    The trip back to Crossroads happens without event. When Alshain takes off from Indigo, the effect of the mystery box becomes clear, as the ship is nearly invisible to scanners, and even a little harder to simply see. The trip back to the blue and green planet is quiet, and emerging from the cramped confines of the shuttle into the field that is now so familiar is a welcome relief. Winter has set in, and the sky is clear and painfully bright. The air has a distinct nip in it, even in the full daylight. Walking through the woods to Karlstrasse, the changes the onset of winter brings are clear, although the first snow hasn't fallen yet.

Douglas is pleasantly surprised there was not only no molestation on their way back, but also apparently no pursuit. When the Alshain takes off from the Indigo, he sees perhaps why. Cool, he thinks. Indigo's got a cloak. And I installed it. That might count for some bragging rights back on Earth. He looks out the windows to the planet they descend to. Won't matter jack here. And that suits me fine.

Vash doesn't waste any time, half-stumbling under an armful of emergency blanket and one of the small crates loaded with electric heaters. On the slim hope that he's not weeks too late, he's determined not to let this insanity have been for nothing.

It isn't until Doug is walking with Vash to Karlstrasse, helping to carry the heaters and blankets, that he wonders if there's going to be some price to pay, some karmic reckoning, for the fate of the Belvengeance. He resolves to find some way to ask about it -- if it isn't immediately apparent somehow to some of Crossroads' more magically perceptive folk -- and what, if anything they can do to wash themselves of whatever stain that brought upon them, if any.

One of the changes winter has brought is the height and coloring of the vixen that bursts out of the underbrush, crashing into Sakura and yipping happily, "Sakura!" as she hugs her tightly. Sakura is more than a little startled, but returns the hug with great joy when she finally figures out, "Feina? Feina!" The young vixen is babbling excitedly, mostly along the lines of, "Larrikan will be so glad to see you! Did you have any new adventures? What happened? Where did you go? We all missed you. Aedaith is pregnant! I've been learning to play the lute with the trolls!" Feina is also happy to see Douglas and Vash, and bounces along with them, trying to ask them all everything at once, and leading them as expediently as she knows how back towards the Silver Egg, unasked.

Vash tries to mask his anxiety, waiting, even here where he feels most safe, for the hammer to fall. "Feina, is Zildjian still at the Egg?"

Douglas can't hide his startlement at Feina's... growth spurt, is the most polite and tactful way he can think of putting it. He greets the young vixen warmly and gratefully; despite that, at least some things haven't changed. His ears perk worriedly at Vash's question, and he looks to Feina, his tail twitching.

Feina nods, "She is. She hardly goes anywhere else lately. She says the cold bothers her, and stays close to the fire, or in her rooms, where she can be warm. She's been worried about you. Everybody has."

Douglas lets out a breath. "Thank the Maker!" he says softly and with relief.

A few moments later there's an ear-piercing squeal -- and a young, black, ceremonially painted little boar thunders out of the underbrush, almost knocking the two vixens down in his enthusiasm. He squeals and grunts excitedly, dancing around the small group. Vash stares a moment, all this being a little much for his already overstrained consciousness. "How," he mutters, "...how long were we gone? Dios mio... maybe we should have called him Gordo."

Sakura looks startled, "Kawaii?! You... you've grown!" She listens to the half indignant, half plaintive gabblings of the bouncy young boar, then glances at Feina, "Oh, no! I missed it?!" She looks back at Kawaii, kneeling and putting her arms around his neck, "I'm so sorry, Kawaii." Kawaii sighs gustily, then nuzzles the back of her neck commiseratively.

Douglas blinks, and looks at the... the boar?! "No," he says quietly. "There's no way... we couldn't have being doing anything close to relativistic on the trip out to the Gate. There's no way we were going that close to the speed of light. And even if we were, the Gate is light hours away from here at most, not light months..."

Sakura smiles a bit sadly up at Douglas, then rises again, brushing off her fur tidily, "It's part of the childhood's end ceremony of his people, Doug-kun..." She sighs, picking up her share of the blankets again, and continuing briskly towards town as she nods to Vash and speaks wistfully, "-and I missed it. He wanted me to be there, as part of his family."

Douglas blinks to Sakura. "I'm... sorry that you missed it, Sakura-chan. I hope that he and his family understand that it wasn't exactly our choice to."

Vash shakes his head, "Look at you. You're huge, Niñ-" He stops himself. "I guess I can't call you that any more. Well, c'mon then, hermano... we have to get back, on the quick."

Sakura adds, "That's why he was spending more time in the forest -- to prepare for the ceremony. It's apparently quite important to his people." She sighs and nods to Doug, "They do... but still, I wish..." She falls silent, thinking as she walks along swiftly with the group.

Vash says, "We'll have to make our apologies later... come on. I don't want to get caught out in the open."

Douglas says quietly and quickly, "Feina... how long were we gone?"

Feina reassures Douglas, "No more than six weeks, really. But it was a busy time." She tries to tell everybody everything that happened while they were gone -- in a confusing whirl of details about any manner of people around, many of whom the spacefarers have only met very briefly -- at least until they reach the Silver Egg. Feina bursts in, saying, "Hey, they're back!" As the crew enters, Hotspur is coming out of the kitchen and Aykuh has stepped pretty much out of nowhere to beam at them. Zildjian is stretched out by the fire, warming herself off of the stones of the hearth.

The crowd is growing towards evening, and many of the students are there. There's a lot of happy clapping and many people come up to give the returning adventurers hugs and welcome them home. Food and drink are pressed upon them from many sides. Feina, seeing that they're home safe, darts out again. Hotspur murmurs, "That vixen is never still." although it's definitely an amused comment.

Zildjian looks up slowly, her pupils dilating slowly and her tongue flickering as she tries to identify who Feina's "they" are... then she hisses in sudden surprise, sitting up relatively abruptly and holding her arms out, "You're back! Oh, that's wonderful! Are you all all right?"

Vash lets out a brief sigh, "Zil... thank god." He hurries to her side and sets about opening up the crate. He offers her a lame smile, "Better late than never, hey?"

Zildjian chuckles softly, enveloping Vash in a (somewhat cool-feeling) hug, "Ah, quitcher bitchin, 'dillo-man... you're a sight for sore eyes, that you are."

Vash hugs Zildjian tightly. "I don't know if I'm okay or not, Zil... but I'm damn sure glad you're still here."

Zildjian just smiles quietly as she hugs Vash, then sighs in relief, "Me too, mijo... me too." He can feel her getting a bit warmer where she's touching him.

Douglas finds himself soothed and relaxed and comforted by the mere sight of it all. Six weeks -- no, no funky relativity going on. Just... one hell of a six weeks, both for the crew and for their friends and loved ones. He helps Vash set up the heaters and blankets for Zil, smiling warmly to the lamia. "It's very, very good to see you again, Doctor." He does, however, keep an eye out, looking amongst the crowd for a few familiar faces -- several that he's looking forward to seeing, and two in particular he's really hoping to not see at all. But he saves that... for later.

Vash says, "I brought the stuff, Zil... hold on a little longer, this might all work out after all."

A few minutes of confusion and general queries, with the large form of the lamia sort of centering the whirlpool of confusion go by, until a couple of people come in out of the gathering night. One of them says, "Look, there!" and the other says something incoherent along the lines of, "Eeeeee!" It's about that point that Blue finds Vash again, for a long and long overdue hug.

Zildjian grins at Doug as Blue practically pounces on Vash. The big lamia looks a little worn, but still all there, "Thanks, Doug. Missed y'all."

Vash just stares at Blue for awhile, then smiles apologetically and wraps his arms around her. "I'm sorry, Blue... I'm sorry. I won't do that again, I promise..." Blue is struggling with emotion, trying not to sniffle, tears welling up in her eyes, and hugging Vash as tightly as she can. Her words are mostly incoherent, a vague mix of reassuring, indignant, and relieved. It's a good bet she's not really hearing anyone else much just now -- she's quite busy, doing her best to wrap as much of herself around the larger armadillo as she can in a fervent hug!

Douglas smiles quietly, seeing Blue reunited with Vash, then looks warmly to Zildjian as he sets up the heaters. "We missed you all too, Doctor." He can't keep the sober tone out of his voice. "Like our notes said... it wasn't our choice." His expression hardens, but only briefly. "I guess you got the gist of our messages, at least...?"

The commotion isn't at the door this time, although the crowd is growing as the news spreads, apparently by the fleet messenger of an energetic vixen. This time there's cheerful singing and laughing from outside for several moments, and the sounds of a large group approaching. Or, as it works out, a not-so-large group of large people, as several trolls come in. There is a general cry of, "Douglas!" and the cougar finds himself surrounded by friendly, familiar faces, these unchanged, all showing huge grins full of impressive teeth, all trying to hug him. It takes him a while to sort out who all even made it.

Douglas smiles wider, then -- the sound of the trolls is unmistakable to him. He's quickly up and returning hugs tightly, amazed he had thought he would never feel this closeness again with any of them. He embraces as he is embraced, actively looking for Annifred in the crowd. Sakura smiles and quietly finishes setting up the blankets for Zildjian, aided by Kawaii. He's getting surprisingly dexterous with his snout... the big lamia sighs happily and thanks the two of them quietly.

The crowd is thickening steadily, and Aykuh and Hotspur are moving constantly to keep them all fed. A couple of the teenagers are drafted to help them make sure things get distributed and Hotspur can get back to the kitchen. It's not long before Douglas is collected by Annifred, who is all too happy to see and touch and cuddle him again. Unfortunately for him, she has no shame.

Douglas isn't thinking of shame or embarrassment this time. For him, he realizes that he had harbored the thought that he'd never be with them -- any of them, even Annifred -- ever again, and then he feels as if he is drinking a rich wine, after having been sober for his entire life. Almost giddy, he holds Annifred, losing himself in the mass of trollishness.

The warmth and friends are spreading, and everyone is very happy to see Sakura. Despite the attention around her, a nearly silent red form manages to slip in behind her and slide his arms around her. The relief on her face is palpable; it's clear Larrikan feels the same way.

Vash can't think of anything at all to say, so he doesn't, for a long time. "Blue," he says at last, "I promise I'll explain everything to you tomorrow. For right now... let's not think about it."

Blue smiles a little shakily, tears sparkling on her cheeks and eyelashes in the firelight, and lays a finger across Vash's lips, "No... stop worrying, love. No worries... not tonight, not from a Hero. I... I understand." She leans forward and kisses him, cutting off any further speech. Her kiss is slow and thorough, as if she wants to remember this moment for a very long time.

Larrikan nuzzles Sakura's cheek, and she smiles. He tries to lead her away, humming softly and liltingly in her ear, wooing her off with his quiet charms and obvious desire. She kisses him briefly, then murmurs, "One moment, then I'm all yours." She steps out of his tempting embrace, and moves over to where Douglas and Vash are standing. Larrikan follows, curious and wanting to stay close to his thought-lost ladylove.

Sakura slips up to where Vash and Doug are seated, surrounded by friends and adopted family. She's holding Larrikan's hand still as she murmurs quietly to them, "Captain, Douglas-kun... may I speak freely for a moment?"

Vash says, "Yeah... of course, Sakura." Douglas blinks and nods quietly to Sakura -- well, 'quiet' being a relative term when there're trolls in the room.

Blue blinks over her shoulder bemusedly at the vixen... then slides a bit to the side, so Vash can talk, although she doesn't let go. She smiles slowly, her eyes dreamy, and continues running her fingers along the softer underskin of Vash's throat. Sakura smiles at Blue, then sighs quietly and explains, "I... wish to resign my position with the Aurora Group, Captain. I am giving my two weeks' notice... can you please tell them for me if I am not here when they arrive?"

Vash says, "I'll give them yours when I give them mine, Sakura. I'm done with space... for now, at least. TAG can make the decisions from now on."

Douglas blinks, then smiles again. "It will be three resignations, then."

Sakura smiles warmly at the armadillo and the cougar, "You are both like family to me... I'm so glad you both understand... here is my home now. I missed Kawaii's childhood's-end ceremony... I don't want to miss any more of the lives of the people here that I love. I have Larrikan, I have my studies with Ragna, and I have a new clan -- the Murasaki clan." She gives Vash, then Doug, a tight hug, then says with an almost tearful smile, "You will always be my family... if there is anything I can do to help you, you know to come to me, hai? But I don't want to be just an employee, a cog of TAG. I want to live my new life now. I think we all do."

Douglas chuckles softly, returning the hug warmly and tightly. "Ah, Sakura-chan..." He leaves it at that, though. Nothing more to be said.

Vash doesn't smile. "Provided they don't have their own ideas about what happened. Provided we even get a chance to make new lives. Douglas, Sakura... regardless of what happens, I want you both to try and live the way you want to. When the Group comes... I'll take responsibility for whatever happens."

Larrikan smiles, the tips of his strong canines showing, "They will not find any who do not wish to be found." Annifred grins widely at this and says simply, "Ja."

Vash says, "I hope you're both right. For all our sakes."

Blue smiles gratefully at the dog fox and the troll, then smiles at Vash with quiet confidence. She stands on tiptoe, resuming her slow kiss. A moment later there's a small gust of cool night wind as the door opens, then closes... and although there is no abatement of cheer and merriment, the foxes have obviously taken theirs elsewhere.

Douglas senses the foxes departing, and a faint twinge touches him. He's not at all certain he won't see Sakura again. But there is still the bittersweet sense of something as he feels rather than sees her -- and the other Shy Folk -- evaporate into the evening mists of Crossroads. Good bye, Sakura-chan, he thinks, fondly and warmly.

Vash says, "Two down. Two to go. Hey, Douglas."

His name catches his attention, and Doug blinks to Vash. "Yes, Captain?"

Vash says, "I've got letters already for the four of us... you don't need to deal with them when they come. I think this enterprise is about over with. So... my last order to you is: go home, and think about what you're going to do with the rest of your life. Tomorrow I'm going to go find the Cat... try and make some sense of all this, try and find some permanent help for Zildjian. Maybe find some way to make up for what happened. Maybe do something about the Master. I don't know. But for tonight... I'm going home with my fiancée now." He stands up slowly, and claps the cougar on the shoulder. "I'll see you around, Doug."

Douglas nods quietly. "Let me know, Captain. In that... I'd really like to help. That's a weight I need to work on lifting, as well. For now, though..." He smiles quietly. "Good night, Blue, and good night, Vashti. Welcome home."

Blue beams up at Vash, her eyes shining and one arm still closely wrapped around him, then grins at Doug and cheerfully echoes, "Good night, Douglas!" Vash goes, and doesn't look back. There's all the time in the world for that.

Annifred listens and lets the cougar reply before she says to him, "Hey, Douglas, you want go home now back to Broken Horn? Have some fun, ja?"

Douglas blinks a bit, then smiles to Annifred. "Ja," he says, embracing her tightly. "Ja," he repeats, in a quieter, softer voice. Welcome home.

Last modified: 2002-May-16 21:57:03

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