It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. That was what Shark said, anyway, and Rio had smiled knowingly and said "Oh, sure, you say that now."
It was just that the other Barians - could he still call them that now, he wondered? The others who had once been Barians, anyway, had not come to their new earthly existence equipped with things like places to live. He felt responsible for them. He was also one of the few people who had room to put them all. The old manor he and Rio had lived in as children... well, he wasn't too sure about that either anymore, but someone had lived there and left it to them, and it had space for twice as many people as he had on hand now.
At least they were all willing to help with the cleanup. The old house had stood the test of time fairly well, and needed only minor repairs, a lot of cleaning, and a few electrical upgrades. Rio got on the phone and browbeat someone into coming in and getting the specialized work done immediately - not later, NOW, and ordered a lot of new appliances. After that, they had pretty much let their companions run wild as far as decorating went. If Gilag wanted to plaster his room with posters of that pop star he liked, or Alit wanted to fill his with workout equipment, or if Durbe wanted enough bookshelves to stock a small library, or little Iris wanted a haven of frills and pink lace fit for a fairy tale princess... well, they'd all earned a little something, hadn't they? Yuma had repaid them with their lives, but Shark still felt he owed them something. No, that wasn't right. He just wanted to give them something.
So the old house that had stood empty for so long now had seven people and a raccoon- dog living under its roof. They were a noisy, unpredictable bunch, and if their suites hadn't all had attached bathrooms, it would have been a complete nightmare. As it was, it was... well, it was better than he would have expected. All the time Rio had been in her coma, Shark had been living completely on his own. He had gotten used to being surrounded by silence. Now he was never really alone. Even when he locked himself in his own room, he could hear the others moving around. It was oddly reassuring. Some nights he would lie awake in his bed, just listening to the sounds of Gilag and Alit pillowfighting, of Iris begging Durbe to read her just one more story, of the shower-and-blow-dryer noises of Mizael fussing endlessly with his hair, of Rio chatting on the phone with Kotori (or, on the rare occasions when he worked up the nerve to call her, Tetsuo) and reveled in the sensation of being surrounded by people who loved him. It was a novel sensation, but he thought he could get used to it.
But there were only seven of them. Shortly after they had all returned to Earth, Vector had slipped off into the shadows somewhere and faded out of sight. Once in a while, someone would think they'd caught a glimpse of him, but he'd always duck out of sight before they could get close enough to be really sure. This had worried everyone for a while, because if there was anything more worrying than having Vector involved with your life, it was not being sure if he wasn't involved in your life or merely off somewhere plotting something unspeakable while you couldn't see him. But days had passed, and then more days, and he'd shown no sign of causing them any trouble. Everyone started to relax. They told themselves that he'd cut ties with them. Maybe he had left the city altogether. Maybe he had become someone else's problem.
Then they'd noticed the door at the back of the house. It led to a small suite of rooms, one with a rather uninspiring view of the overgrown back garden. None of the others had wanted it, so it mostly went ignored, which was why Alit had been surprised to try the door to the room one night while searching for spare blankets and find it locked. Shark had found the key and unlocked it, but a few days later, it had been locked again, and no one would admit to locking. Shark might have chalked it up to plain carelessness or forgetfulness, except for the fact that the window between the room and the garden kept being propped open, no matter how many times someone noticed and shut it. After that, the group began finding other little clues: boot prints in the muddy earth outside the window one night after the rain, food missing from the fridge that no one would admit to eating, occasional signs that someone had slept in the bed and left behind tell-tale red hairs. Once it became clear exactly who had been using that room when no one was looking, there was a debate among the other Barians as to what exactly they should do with the knowledge. Some of them suggested laying a trap, or lying in wait to confront him, or simply boarding up the window and changing the locks.
In the end, what they did was change out the moth-eaten old blankets and sagging mattress for something newer and more comfortable, and leave a box of snack foods on the table where he'd notice them. Sometimes things disappeared from the box. Sometimes things still disappeared from the fridge. No one had expected anything better. Apparently, though, that was the signal Vector needed to let him feel it was safe to stop hiding his presence. Small personal objects started turning up in the unused room. One particularly warm day, they even found a familiar black leather jacket slung casually over the back of a chair. After a while, they all more or less got used to the idea that Vector was wandering in and out of their house without their invitation or permission. As long as he was doing nothing worse than raiding their fridge, they all felt that they were getting off lightly.
Even so, it was a surprise when Shark finally saw him face to face.
It had turned into one of the daily chores: do the laundry, wash the dishes, and feed Vector, as if he were a stray cat they put scraps on the doorstep for. It was Shark's turn to check and make sure he had food and bottled water in his room when he wanted them. Shark juggled the bag of snacks, balancing it in the crook of his arm so he could free a hand to try the doorknob. The room was unlocked today, which made things easier, so Shark let himself in.
Vector was sprawled on his bed, lying on his side, one elbow propped on the pillow with his cheek resting on the palm of his hand. His eyes tracked Shark's movements as he crossed the carpet towards the desk where they kept the snacks. The floor creaked softly with every step Shark took, and even that sound seemed to fill the room.
"So," said Vector at last, "all this time and you don't even have a hello for me?"
Shark rolled his eyes. "Hello, Vector. It's wonderful to see you."
"Aw, where's the love? There's the love!" Vector caroled. He rolled onto his back, tucking his hands behind his head. "Honestly, I don't know why you bother."
"To say hello? You asked for it," said Shark. He dumped his load of groceries on the desk.
"To leave those things," said Vector. He waved a languid hand towards the desk. "You know I'm going to go right on taking the things I want when you aren't looking."
"It's worth a try," Shark replied. "Or are you complaining? Because if you want me to, I can stop." He surprised himself a little by saying, "You should be in the dining room eating with the rest of us, anyway."
Vector sat up. "Are we having the same conversation? Because I'd like to be clued in on what conversation you're having that would make asking me to sit down to dinner with you sound like a reasonable statement."
"It is," said Shark. "I'm sick of making special trips down here to lug food for your sorry carcass. At least if you eat with us we'll only have to set another plate for you."
Vector swung his feet down to the floor so he was facing Shark directly. His expression reflected amazement, wariness, and a creeping suspicion that he might just be serious.
"Why?" he asked. "Why would you want me? You don't even like me."
"Why do you keep coming back?" Shark retorted.
Vector shrugged uneasily, avoiding his eyes. "It's fun to mess with you, that's all."
"Why not mess with someone else?" asked Shark. Without waiting for an answer, he pressed on. "You came back because you belong here. You know that. So do the rest of us."
"I don't belong here!" Vector snapped, eyes flashing. His hands were curled into fists.
"You're one of us," said Shark, holding his gaze. "We don't have to like you. We don't have to trust you. We just have to acknowledge you. You were a part of everything that happened, for better or worse, and we can't just forget about that. Do you know why I was leader of the Barian Emperors?"
"Because you were the one with the biggest ego?" Vector deadpanned.
Shark gave him a long cool look. "Look who's talking."
"What difference does it make?" Vector asked. "You aren't an emperor anymore, and the Barian World is beyond our reach."
"It matters because of what I'm trying to tell you," said Shark. "The reason it was me, and not someone strong like Gilag or intelligent like Durbe was because I wanted more than anything to protect my people. The Barian World was just a place to keep them." He shrugged and started for the door. "As long as there's still one Barian in the world, I'll keep doing what I'm doing. Even if that one Barian is you."
As he opened the door, he heard the creak of Vector sliding off the old bed.
"You're a sentimental sap," he said. His footfalls were light across the thin carpet.
"What can I say?" said Shark. "I took lessons from Yuma."
Shark couldn't quite read the expression behind that single syllable - understanding? Sympathy? Regret? None of those were really emotions he associated with Vector, but of course, it was the nature of Yuma to change things whenever he got involved. Wasn't it easier to forgive - well, say tolerate Vector because Shark knew it was what Yuma would want? He could only imagine how Vector felt about the matter. But when Shark left the room, he continued to hear Vector padding along behind him.
They walked into the dining room to find that the group had already started eating, and chaos reigned as persons of various shapes, sizes, genders, ages, and in Ponta's case, species, all competed to be the first to grab a choice morsel before someone else got it. Business as usual, in other words. When Vector entered the room, though, everyone stopped what they were doing to look at him. He struck a pose and sang himself a fanfare. The silence stretched on.
Finally, Alit said, "So, you're actually going to sit down and eat with us for a change? Good. Maybe this means you'll stop stealing my energy drinks."
"Did we make enough dessert for everybody?" Gilag asked the room in general. "He's not getting my share."
Mizael gave him a deadpan look. "If you're going to eat, quit fooling around and eat. The food is getting cold."
The conversations began winding up again, and soon enough they had apparently all forgotten Vector in the face of more important matters, like dinner. After a moment or two, Shark decided that they probably had the right idea. After all, their battles, at least for the moment, seemed to be over. There were no worlds they needed to defend, no more plans to thwart, no alliances that needed to be made or broken. There was just life, and the business of getting on with it. Thinking about that made Shark think perhaps there was a clue in there as to why Vector kept coming back. He'd never been very good at getting by without a lot of complex plans to follow.
Shark sat down at the table. Vector squeezed into a vacant spot near the end of the table.
"Hey, hand over some of those dumplings!" he shouted.
Rio glared at him. "Can't you at least say please?"
Vector assumed his most angelic expression. "Please shut up and hand over the dumplings."
Rio threw a rice cake at his head. He laughed and caught it.
"Close enough!" he said.
Shark shook his head and wondered if inviting Vector to dinner was really such a good idea after all. After a while, though, their bickering blended into the usual commotion that marked mealtimes in that household. After a while, it was easy to forget he was even there.
Which was probably why no one noticed when he finally vanished. The desserts started around, and Durbe had turned to ask if Vector wanted the chocolate cake or the cherry pie, and he was simply gone.
"Where'd he go?" asked Alit. "He was just there a minute ago."
No one seemed to know. Shark shrugged and reached for the pie plate.
"Good riddance to him," he said.
But a moment later, he felt a tug at the hem of his trousers. He pretended to drop his fork and bent down long enough to see Vector hiding under the table. Vector flashed a grin and held one finger to his lips. Shark responded with a slightly different hand gesture, also involving a single extended finger. A moment later, though, he took advantage of the distraction of an argument between Alit and Mizael to slip the last piece of chocolate cake under the table. He felt it being pulled from his hand. When he looked again, Vector and the cake were both gone.
Shark settled back in his seat, feeling oddly pleased. It didn't really matter that Vector hadn't hung around. He'd be back.
After all, he was one of them. This was his home.