30

Hallelujah

A/N: You guys must be getting sick of me saying this, but I am SO sorry for taking this long to update, it's disgusting really. What can I say? The last half of the year has been a strange one and I kept getting slammed by writer's block. And it doesn't help that I am a professional procrastinator. But here it is, at last, the second to last chapter of Gargoyles! And it's jammed back with enough unnecessary humor and tooth-rotting fluffiness to give you a cavity. So hopefully the sheer size of this thing will redeem me for the amount of time it took me to finally post the damn thing.

Few quick notes: Is this the end you ask? To which I answer with a resounding 'hells no!'. There will be one more chapter after this and fear not, I promise to get it up much sooner than this chapter took me. I want to finish this story before I turn twenty and as of right now I have exactly twelve days to acheive that goal, so hopefully the final installment will be up within the next week or so. And thank you to everyone who stuck with me through the madness of this tale and waited patiently for me to get my ass in gear.

Also, there is some M rated material going on in this chapter. For anyone who was offended or scarred, I apologize.

And finally this chapter is dedicated to .PhaerynTao., one of the original masters of this fandom (and any other she graces with her writing). To her I present a chapter filled with healing, growth, hope... and love.

It's better now you'll found that life is on your side/ And you know of glory days the vibe you cannot hide/ I'm giving you the chance to make it all alright/ Baby come on walk with me, I know the future's bright/ And now I've found some solid ground/ I thought I'd drowned but now I'm found/ And on the lips of life I kiss/ I find I'm here, this place of bliss

-Bliss, Syntax

When I was a young boy my father took me into the city to see a marching band. He said "Son when you grow up will you be the saviour of the broken, the beaten and the damned?" He said "Will you defeat them, your demons and all the non-believers, the plans that they have made? Because one day I'll leave you a phantom to lead in the summer, to join the Black Parade..."

Do or die, you'll never make me because the world will never take my heart though you try, you'll never break me, we want it all, we wanna play this part, I won't explain or say I'm sorry, I'm unashamed, I'm gonna show my scar, give a cheer for all the broken, listen here, because it's only I'm just a man, I'm not a hero, I'm just a boy who had to sing this song, just a man, I'm not a hero, I don't CARE! We'll carry on, we'll carry on...

-Welcome to the Black Parade, My Chemical Romance

I'll keep my eyes fixed on the sun

-Shake Me Down, Cage the Elephant

x.x.x Falshade x.x.x.

My body seemed to be waking up in sections, one at a time, very slowly, as if it had been asleep for a very long time and it wasn't running on the same wavelength as my brain. For a long time I just lay still, trying to let my mind and body catch up, struggling for my grasp on proper consciousness.

Finally I was aware of a dull white light pressing in softly through my eyelids, trying to draw my brain back to full wakefulness. It took me what seemed like an unbearably long time before I could finally sum up the energy and to pry my eyes open blearily, blinking at the halogen light that was hanging above me. For a long time I simply stared at it, my mind swimming in and out of alertness before I finally tilted my head slightly to get a look at my surroundings.

Past me stretched a long line of cots, the mattresses covered by white sheets and pillows, all the way across a large room until they reached a whitewashed wall, stainless steel trays perched next to beds here and there. I was lying on a similar cot and it was around then that I started to notice the sterile, antiseptic smell of the place and realized I must be in a hospital.

...Oh god I was in a hospital.

My stomach clenched as a wave of panic hit me. For one thing I'd always had an unexplainable fear of hospitals, but more frightening was that fact that I was alone here; where were the others? Were they alright? What had happened to them?

It was then, as I tried to sit up slightly, that I noticed my right arm was in a sling and bound to my chest securely. I blinked at the white plaster cast and then at the tips of my fingers that were poking out at the bottom of it. I tried to wiggle them even though I knew it was probably going to hurt but as hard as I tried there was absolutely no reaction from my fingers. I pushed myself into a sitting position with my left arm and coughed up my voice, my throat dry and sticky. "Hello?"

For a minute I was met by nothing but silence and I started to feel sick as my panic mounted. But then I heard a door swing open somewhere nearby and glanced around to find a man in pale green scrubs standing there, a friendly smile on his face.

"You're awake are you? Excellent." He said, striding between the rows of cots and pausing in front of me, shining a light into my eyes briefly and looking me over critically before asking . "So how do you feel?"

I wasn't exactly sure; my mind still wasn't fully functional so I answered his question before I could select one of my own. "My throat's kinda dry." I said dumbly.

"I thought that might be the case." He said with a fatherly sort of smile and handed me a juice box. I found myself gulping it down desperately, not realizing how thirsty I'd been. The doctor, I assumed he must have been, sat down on the cot across from me and waited patiently for me to finish my juice.

"Where am I?" I asked him finally once I'd drained the juice box.

"You're in the recovery ward of the medical centre on terra Mauruvia." He reported and I glanced around again. Mauruvia... if I recalled the terra was located not far from the Scar.

I looked back towards the doctor, who had a kindly expression on his face as if to let me know he was my friend and prepared to answer any of my questions. "So, um... what happened?" I asked slowly. I meant that in general, hoping the doctor could tell me what had gone on after I'd lost consciousness down in the Heart Chamber, but I think he thought my question was about what had happened to me personally.

"You actually just got out of surgery about half an hour ago." Is what he ended up telling me.

My stomach jolted so violently I thought the juice I'd sucked down so quickly was about to make a comeback. "Surgery?" I yelped and the doctor held up his hand to calm me.

"Take it easy, Falshade, there's nothing to worry about, it wasn't for anything serious. We just had to do some reconstructive surgery on your right arm. It was very badly broken."

I looked back at my arm, attempting again to wiggle my fingers but to no avail. "Oh..." I said, not really knowing what else to say. Luckily the doctor seemed to have more to report.

"Yes, from the elbow down it was practically shattered, we had to put all the bone fragments back in the right places. Now everything is being kept together by some pins but you're young and healthy so it should heal very nicely and in a minimal amount of time." He reassured me. "And while we had you under we took the time to suture up some of your other injuries; you were in pretty rough shape when you came in here."

"Oh, well, um, thank you." I said, not really knowing what else to say, a slight feeling of nausea still pulsing dully in my stomach.

"You're quite welcome, all in a day's work." The doctor said, smiling briefly before his face turned a little more serious and I felt my chest constrict slightly. "Although... Falshade, I have to tell you, your arm was damaged very badly; bone splinters are very sharp and they tore through some of the tissue inside your arm. You're lucky no major arteries were cut open or you might have been in trouble, but they did tear through the nerve pathways. You elbow is a junction for the nerves in your arm, you see, and those nerves were severely damaged with the break. Now bones, muscles, tendons, they all heal with time, but once your nerves are damaged they cannot ever be repaired, the cells do not regenerate."

I looked at my arm once again, staring at my immobile fingers. "So what does that mean?"

The doctor sighed and then looked at me with a mixture of seriousness and sympathy. "It means that even when your bones have healed it is more than likely you'll have no use of the arm again. And if any feeling does return it will be very minimal at best."

I focused intently on my fingers and tried to move them for a third time. Nothing. I felt a swift sense of loss cut through my stomach for a few moments before it abruptly faded. I'd been lucky; things could have turned out worse. Much worse. Considering what could have happened I'd take the bum arm without complaint.

"Well that's not so bad I guess." I said, looking back at the doctor who was waiting for a response almost nervously. "I'm left handed anyways."

The doctor cracked a relieved grin. "That's the spirit." He said, rubbing my shoulder slightly.

I cleared my throat and glanced around at the otherwise empty room again, my heart squeezing painfully. "Doctor... were there other people who arrived here when I did? I mean... my friends... are they here too?"

The doctor gave me a reassuring smile. "Yes, a group of people arrived with you and to my knowledge they all were a little roughed up but we've taken care of them and they're all doing fine."

I blew out a rattling sigh, snaking my still working fingers through my hair; I felt some relief ease the anxiety that had been sluicing through my veins, but I wouldn't feel completely assured until I saw them all in person. "How are they? Can I see them?"

"Of course you can." The doctor said kindly and I felt I could exempt him from my fear of medical professionals; he seemed like an okay guy to me anyways. "In fact I think a couple of them have been waiting for you to wake up; I'll let you talk to them." He added, getting up and approaching the door he'd come through, holding it open wide to let two people into the room. "Let me know if you need anything." He said and then stepped out.

Piper nodded and then moved swiftly across the room towards me almost at a run, wrapping me tightly in her slender brown arms and hugging me fiercely. I wrapped my good arm around her back warmly, relieved and happy to see her. She squeezed me firmly for a minute before letting me go and looking me over with concern in her tangerine eyes. I examined her for injury as well and frowned at the bandage that was wrapped over her forehead. "Are you okay?" I asked, motioning to it.

"Oh, yes." She said, laughing a little and touching her fingertips to the bandage. "That would be a case of friendly fire, actually; Stork clocked me with his energy staff by accident."

I laughed a little too, shaking my head and feeling sorry for both Piper and the awkward Merb. Then I glanced around Piper at the other person who had joined us in the room and felt my pulse stir slightly. Piper looked at him too and smiled, moving aside. "I think you know who this is, don't you?"

I nodded stiffly. "Aerrow." I said, my voice kinda hoarse and extended my hand dumbly. The Storm Hawks' legendary Sky Knight cracked a smile, shaking my hand warmly.

"Yeah, that's me." He said, his green eyes shining with the same fiery light as Stork's, a mirror image of her jade orbs. "And I'm pleased to finally meet you in person, Falshade."

I was feeling slightly overwhelmed here. I mean Aerrow was one of my most idolized of Sky Knights, right up there with my dad. He'd been my hero since I was a kid and I'd admired him for his bravery, loyalty and compassionate leadership all my life. It suddenly occurred to me that he, like Cyclonis, had been watching us all through Stork's eyes all this time and I felt my face heat up. God how many stupid and embarrassing things had I done thoughtlessly around Stork over the years that Aerrow had unknowingly been witness to?

Aerrow seemed to read my thoughts and laughed, his face roguish and handsome. "Don't worry, I liked you right from the start." He said and if anything that made me face heat up even more.

"Oh... well, um, thanks."

Aerrow ruffled my hair in a comradely way, like he'd been my friends for years (and in a weird way I guess he had). "So how you feeling?"

"I'm alright." I said; I was more concerned about the others now.

"What did the doctor say about your arm?" Piper asked gently.

"He said I'm probably never going to be able to use it again." I said and Piper gripped my shoulder comfortingly. I looked up at her and gave her a reassuring smile. "It's not so bad really. I'm a lefty anyways." I went on and then cleared my throat uneasily. "What about everyone else? The other Storm Hawks, how are they?"

Piper stroked my hair soothingly. "We're all okay, Shade. Some cuts and bruises and Junko broke his knuckles again, but other than that we're more or less in one piece."

I nodded. "Good, I'm glad. And... my guys?"

Aerrow smiled. "They're all okay, Falshade. A little banged up but they're gonna be just fine."

I felt a sweeping wave of relief much more powerful then the last one; I had an easier time believing Aerrow and Piper than the doctor. "So what's the damage toll?"

"Well Fraggle was pretty lucky, he's practically unscathed, aside from some minor cuts and of course his ribs, but they were already broken before. I think the worst thing for him was losing the Merlin." Piper said and I felt a pang of grief over our lost, loyal airship. "Varan's going to be on crutches for a while though."

I stiffened slightly. "Why, what happened?"

"We weren't sure at first; we thought his leg might have been broken." Piper said. "But it turns out he had his hamstring muscle almost completely severed; it's going to take awhile to heal but it turns out Terradons absorb more oxygen in their muscles than humans do so it will probably take less time to heal then if it were you or me."

"He's lucky though." Aerrow added. "If Terradon anatomy were the same as human's he would have had his femoral artery severed and bled out in minutes."

I winced; Christ, poor Varan. As if he hadn't already been in rough shape after being caught so close to his exploding Rapture. He was still missing a good chunk of his scales from that whole incident.

"Wasp it alright too, although both her wrists are sprained. I think it must have happened when she was trying to hold back Cyclonis' crystal energy." Piper carried on down the list. "Of course we didn't know she was hurt and she didn't say anything, Angel had to practically drag her in to get them looked at... but anyways she's fine."

I nodded. "And I take it that means Angel's alright too?"

"Oh yeah, they stitched him up and he's fine, although according to Varan he's being... weird." Piper said uncertainly. "I mean I don't know him so I don't know what he's usually like, but he does seem a little... off."

My heart squeezed unhappily as I recalled how disgusted and angry with himself he'd seemed. I felt Aerrow's hand grip my shoulder this time.

"You should talk to him." He said encouragingly and I nodded.

"Yeah, we'll all talk to him." I agreed. Then I swallowed and looked up at the two of them, afraid to ask about Stork. I wasn't sure if Aerrow had included her when I'd asked about the others. Last I'd seen of her she'd been cold and unmoving, crumpled like a bird with a broken neck in the bottom of that hollow in the Heart Chamber. For all I knew she wasn't one of the others anymore.

But I had to know for sure.

"...And Stork?" I asked in a raspy voice, bile crawling up my throat.

Aerrow and Piper exchanged a look that made me assume the worst and I felt like I might puke. Piper sat down next to me on the edge of my cot and wrapped her arm around my shoulder and as much as I appreciated the gesture it only made me more nervous.

"She's alive, Falshade, that's the important thing." She murmured and my heart picked up its pace, hope leaping up the length of my spine. "But... well she's in a coma right now.

Any comfort I felt over the fact that Stork was indeed alive clashed with a sense of cold concern that shot through my veins. "But... but she's okay, right?"

"The doctors say she's doing alright, yes." Piper said with a nod, rubbing my back a bit soothingly.

"How long will it take for her to wake up?" I asked, my heart trembling uneasily.

Piper blew out a sigh. "We're not sure...Varan mentioned something about last time, when... when Cyclonis detached herself from Stork's body, how something like this happened, like her body seemed to go into hibernation?"

"Yeah, she was out cold for three days..." I looked up at Aerrow, hoping he'd have some clarity on all this. After all, he'd been a part of Stork for so long now, he had to know some things the rest of us couldn't possibly tell. "Is this like that? I mean you... well, you're kinda... detached from her now."

Aerrow wrinkled his nose thoughtfully. "I'm not sure if this is exactly the same as last time... I mean it wasn't just me leaving her this time."

I cocked my head. "What do you mean?"

"Well I'm not exactly sure what happened but... I think she may have absorbed the energy from the Eternity crystal. It definitely passed through her anyways when she made contact with it." Aerrow said slowly and I had a flash of Stork's body being engulfed by the brilliant, blazing light of the Eternity crystal. "That's no small feat to say the least." Aerrow went on. "I think what has to happen now is her brain has to sort of... reorganize, she has to get her strength back up and we're not sure how long that may take."

I nodded, trying to process all this and then swallowed uneasily. "But... she will wake up eventually, right?" I said, trying to keep the frantic tone out of my voice and not quite making it.

"Yes, we're quite sure of that." Piper said with a confident nod. "Already her vitals are looking a little better than they did about an hour ago when we first brought her in. Wasp said that was what happened last time, that she slowly got stronger again. She just needs some time, Falshade."

I let out a long, shaky sigh, my muscles unknotting slowly as the reality of everything finally started to sink in. I closed my eyes, counting my blessings as pure, numbing relief washed through me, cleaning all the stress, fear and pain from my worn body. This nightmare was finally over and everyone I loved had made it through alive. It was almost too much to believe; I was suddenly seized by the fear that I might wake up at any moment to face a much more terrible reality. But it stayed, it was all real and god, I felt like the luckiest guy in the universe right about then.

I still had one more thing I wanted cleared up though. I looked at Aerrow, hoping he'd have an answer. "Cyclonis... I think I saw her trying to get back into Stork's body. Mind you I'd hit my head pretty hard but... anyways I guess what I'm asking is she gone? For good?"

"I don't know if Cyclonis' influence on the Atmos will ever be gone; there are always going to be people who will try to follow in her footsteps. That's just the way the world is. That's why there are people like us, to keep a balance." Aerrow said thoughtfully after a moment of selecting his words carefully. "But yes, I believe Cyclonis herself is finally gone. The Eternity crystal is all about balance after all, and she'd warped it to use it for evil, she skewed everything. So I think that's why it pushed her away from Stork like that, it destroyed her and it let me stay. I still don't really understand it but I know Cyclonis is gone. I've been able to feel her spirit for years and I can't feel it anymore."

Piper was looking at him with wide, astonished eyes. "Wow Aerrow, you've gotten cryptic since you've been gone." She said and Aerrow and I both laughed.

"Yeah, sixteen years having your soul housed in someone else's body will do that to you. And if not that then listening to these kids will do the trick." Aerrow said, grinning roguishly and mussing up my hair again playfully.

I felt the last of my unease leave me and was left feeling comfortably tired and I ached for my friends. "Am I allowed to get out of here?" I asked, motioning around the room. "I'd like to go see the others."

Piper smiled warmly. "Of course, the doctor said you should be fine so long as you take it easy; no charging off into another adventure right off the bat now."

"Oh don't worry, I'm alright with just chilling out for a little while." I assured her and she laughed. I moved to slide off my cot when I realized I was decked out in one of those unappealing hospital gown things. "Uhhh..."

Piper covered her mouth to try and stifle her giggles at the look of distaste on my face. "You're clothes are over there." She pointed to a nearby cot on which my filthy clothes had been folded.

"Thanks." I muttered, my face heating up again.

"We'll leave you alone then." Piper went on. "Actually we have some things we have to take care of, contacting the Council on Atmosia and the other squadrons, things like that, so we're going to get going. The others are in the waiting area, it's just down the hall to your left there, you can't miss it. Whenever you guys are ready you can head out to the Condor, it's parked in the dry docks. Just make yourselves at home there, okay?"

"Okay, thank you." I said. "What about Stork though?"

"The doctors want to keep her here for the night for observation." Aerrow explained gently and I tried to hide my disappointment.

"Oh... well can we go and see her?" I asked, trying not to sound too childish about the whole thing.

"I'm sorry Falshade." Piper said, stroking my hair again. "But everything's really hectic up there right now and they're not letting anyone in to see her just yet. But first thing tomorrow morning when visiting hours start you'll be allowed to stop by for sure."

I swallowed down my unhappiness and nodded. "Okay. We'll just head back to the Condor then."

Piper nodded and stood without another word, kissing the top of my head before heading for the door, pausing to wait for Aerrow halfway through.

Aerrow touched my shoulder and leaned in towards my ear for a moment. "Your dad says hi." He whispered and I snapped him an astonished look, eyebrows raised, silently asking if he really was implying what I thought he was implying. Aerrow simply winked and tapped his finger to the side of his nose before following after Piper, leaving me alone and more than a little confused.

I don't know if you've ever tried to dress yourself with only one functioning arm, but I can assure you it's no picnic. But I stubbornly yanked my clothes back on, preferring to be dressed in clothes that were coated in a layer of grim, blood and lord knows what else rather then that stupid hospital gown and after about ten minutes of fighting with them I was dressed in my own attire again. With that I left the recovery ward behind and stepped into the silent, disinfected hallway, shivering slightly at the haunted feel of the place. When I was little I always thought I could see ghosts clinging to the corners of hospitals and to this day I still get spooked by the thought. So maybe that's why I strode a little faster than usual down the empty white hallway. Or maybe I was just desperate to see my friends.

I rounded the corner at the end of the hall and there they were, bruised, beaten and bandaged, collapsed tiredly over the plastic chairs in the waiting area, but they were definitely there, alive and undefeated and I don't think I'd ever been as happy to see all of them as I was right then. My throat closed up and I felt the overwhelming urge to break down and cry with happiness and relief but I fought it back and cleared my throat instead.

All four heads snapped up and Fraggle was on his feet in a heartbeat, dashing past the remaining chairs to slam into me pretty damn hard for a guy with broken ribs; I almost tumbled right over backwards.

"Falshade!" he shouted gleefully right into my ear, overjoyed and bouncing with excitement, squeezing me so tightly he almost pulled me off my feet. "God am I ever glad to see you up and moving about eh, you looked pretty bad about an hour ago."

I smiled, wrapping my good arm around him. "Man I'm happy to see you too." I said, smiling so widely it hurt. After a moment Fraggle moved away and I staggered as Wasp literally vaulted over the row of chairs and crashed into me, burying her face in my neck and snuffling happily.

"I tried to stop them from taking you away." She said apologetically. "They didn't steal any of your organs, did they?"

"Nice to see you too, Wasp." I laughed, squeezing her tightly.

"Yes, yes nice to see you." She said, nodding quickly. Her eyes were shining brightly as she pulled away from me slightly to look into my face. "So I guess this means we get to have that time after all." She said, looking pleased by this notion.

It took me a moment to remember what she was talking about, but then I smiled, ruffling her matted hair. "Yeah, we do. And- oh, Varan, jeez, don't get up."
Varan made a huffing noise as he attempted to pull himself onto his good leg. "I'm not completely infirm, thank you." He said, gathering his crutches under him and making a clumsy half-step towards me. I broke away from the other two and went to him instead so he didn't have to limp over, throwing my arm around his shoulders. Crutches or not he nearly crushed me when he hugged me back, practically pulling me right off the floor. I didn't complain though, I was just too happy to see him.

"Hey, you know what eh, you two could make a joke now, about something costing you an arm and a leg." Fraggle said and I snorted, giving him a half-hearted, tired look to which he shrugged. "Hey I'm just using what you give me, eh." He said as Varan swayed against me slightly. I cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Look, are you sure you're okay? Why don't you sit?"

"Oh he's better then okay, eh." Fraggle said with a mischievous grin. "Tell him the story there, Var."

Varan let out a short sigh but when he couldn't shake my questioning look he elaborated. "Well they wanted to give me some morphine, except they didn't know how to calculate the dosage for a Terradon, so the first shot didn't exactly work..."

"The second one did the job nicely though, eh." Fraggle said, snickering to himself and I felt a goofy grin crawl over my face, looking up at Varan for conformation, only just noting how constricted his pupils were.

Varan sighed again but couldn't keep the grin off his face entirely either. "Yeah yeah, so I'm a little bit stoned at the moment. Kinda nice though, I haven't felt this relaxed in ages."

Fraggle was now giggling uncontrollably. "He's been sitting there rocking back and forth and staring at the lights for like twenty minutes eh."

I started laughing, shaking my head as Fraggle sank into further hysterics. Then I glanced around Varan to seek out my brother, who had remained uncharacteristically quite this whole time.

Angel was sort of standing back from the rest of us, looking like an uneasy animal ready to take flight at any moment. He looked rather small standing there uncertainly, and not just because of the weight he'd lost while he'd been gone either. Fraggle sobered up a bit as I approached him and waited for him to say something. He fidgeted uneasily and remained silent and after an awkward moment I rolled my eyes and grabbed him around his narrow shoulders.

"Get over here, you little punk." I said, sweeping him into me in a tight, one armed hug and I felt him tense up for a moment before he relaxed against me, hugging me back. "...I'm glad you're back, Ange." I muttered in a lower voice. "I...I missed you."

He made a sniffling sound against my collar bone. "Yeah, I missed you too."

I smiled, a feeling a warmth flooding me for a second before I noticed something off about him. It took me a moment to realize what it was. "Hey..." I said, releasing him slightly. "What happened to the wings?"

"Gone." He said, seeming untroubled by this fact. "I guess everything that was influenced by the crystal reverted back to its original state when it was destroyed. Anyways they sort of... what was the word you used, Wasp?"

"Splooshed." Wasp said, spreading all her fingers out wide as if demonstrating an exploding firecracker and I pulled a face, my stomach contracting sickeningly.

Angel nodded. "Yeah, splooshed. So yep, they're gone and to be honest I'm not upset about it in the least. Humans were not meant to fly, I'll tell you that much."

"Well so long as you're happy about the fact that your back's shredded to shit." Varan muttered, looking a little greener than usual. Then he looked at me seriously. "So what's with your arm, Shade?"

My arm was a lump underneath my shirt at the moment, still bound to my chest by the sling. "Well the doctor said the nerves were damaged when it was broken and that I'm probably not going to be able to use it ever again."

"Aw, Shade..." Fraggle said sympathetically but I simply shrugged.

"It's no big deal, I'm not too upset about it." I said. "Doesn't even hurt or anything, so I guess I lucked out."

Silence settled between us for a moment as all our thoughts wandered to the missing member of our team. Then Wasp fidgeted and looked at me. "So... what about Stork?"

"Piper said she's still unconscious..." Varan trailed off as if waiting for a proper verdict on her situation and I blew out a sigh.

"She's in a coma." I explained and Fraggle's eyes got wide. "I guess this is kinda like what happened last time, remember when she was asleep for so long? Her energy is just way down and she needs some time to gain it back."

"Did they say how long that might take?" Varan asked quietly.

I shook my head. "No idea." I said dolefully. "But I think it might take a little longer this time around..."

"Can we see her, eh?" Fraggle piped up. "I mean we haven't seen her since we got here, and I'm kinda worried about the girl..."

I grabbed his shoulder comfortingly to tell him the feeling was mutual. "Piper said they're not letting anyone see her right now." I informed him. "I have half a mind to march up there anyways but that's beside the point. Apparently she's already doing better than she was earlier and we can see her first thing tomorrow."

Fraggle sighed and looked dejected. "Okay, well as long as she's doing alright I guess that's all that matters eh..."

I looked over their collectively worn faces, taking in how stressed out they'd been this whole time, how exhausted and roughed up they were. Fraggle had a bandage plastered over his check where I recalled Zodiac slicing him with his daggers; Varan was still covered in bandages where his scales had been burnt off and I could see blue, bloody patches here and there under his scales from where he'd taken a beating; Wasp's hands were bandaged up to the elbows, as well as a place on her thigh, and her face and neck were scratched and bruised badly, supporting a blackened eye; Angel was heavily bandaged over his chest and back from what I could see and his face was mottled with bruises, and all that aside he was in terrible shape, skinny as a rail with dark circles under his eyes like he hadn't eaten or slept in weeks. They all looked sore and tired and I just wanted to take them somewhere quiet and safe where we could all heal and unwind without any more anxiety or misery to drag us down. My die hard, battle worn squadron, indomitable survivors and heroes of war, their loyalty to me never faltering even though they'd all been brought to the threshold of death because of it. God I just wanted to tell them all how much I fucking loved them right then and I felt tears clogging in my throat again. I wiped at my eyes quickly and looked towards the exit.

"Since we can't visit Stork I can't see much point in hanging around here." I said. "What say we get out of here, the Storm Hawks said we can crash on the Condor and besides, this place is starting to give me the creeps."

"Finally." Wasp muttered, looking like she was prepared to fly out those doors like a bat outta hell. Angel rubbed her shoulder soothingly.

"That sounds like the best suggestion I've heard all day, eh." Fraggle said with a nod and I grinned, tugging the rim of his toque down over his eyes affectionately.

"Okay, well then let's blow this joint." I said, leading the way to the doors. As I pushed them opened I had to squint at the fierce brightness of the sun as it streamed down towards me as if to reassure me it was still up there, shining away. I had to be honest, at some points in time while we were down in those god awful tunnels I'd been certain I'd never see the light of day again.

Wasp sprang past me, breathing in deeply and spinning around in tight circles a few times, glad to be free of the antiseptic hospital air and for that I couldn't blame her. Angel paused next to me as I waited for poor old Varan to gimp his way outside and turned his face up to the sun, closing his eyes and breathing out slowly as if he'd missed its warmth. Wasp came back over to see what he was doing, sniffling at his hair with interest and he blew a stream of air into her face, making her leap back with a surprised squeak.

Varan blinked up at the sun as well when he finally made it outside, sighing peacefully. "God that feels nice." He said. "I don't think it's been this sunny in awhile."

"It's saying hi to us, I bet." Wasp mused, squinting up at the sky.

"Alright since I have no idea where the dry docks are why don't you guys take the lead." I invited.

"Oh that's right, you were still out for the count when we got here, eh." Fraggle recalled, waving towards the street we had to follow and I felt my face heat up.

"Oh, yeah... so, um, what happened then, after... everything?" I strung out awkwardly, feeling bad that once again I hadn't been there to help my friends in their time of need.

"A lot happened, be a little more specific, Shade." Varan said.

"Well what happened after the crystal exploded? I didn't see anything that was happening down below, I was trying to get to Stork..."

"Well for one thing the Berserkers stopped healing." Varan started "I guess even though they were made from its essence when it was destroyed anything that had been a part of it at some point in time or other went with it."

"So like Carrion and Zodiac and all the other ones, what happened to them? Did the all just die or what?" I asked.

"Carrion was dying." Wasp said, a strange note entering her voice. "I guess she really was defective and without the crystal... I felt kinda bad for her, actually."

Fraggle shook his head. "You are a strange one, eh. Anyways no, not all of them died eh, but a few did 'cause they were injured so bad and weren't healing anymore. We gave the ones that were left hell though, eh. Aerrow cut them down six ways 'til Sunday eh, it was pretty badass."

"Yeah, I think that was the crystal's way of trying to fix the balance." Varan mused thoughtfully. "I mean Piper said everything was all about upholding a balance and the way Cyclonis had skewed everything..."

I nodded, remembering Aerrow mentioning something like that earlier. "So then what happened to you guys? How'd you get out of there?"

"Well the terra started collapsing shortly after everything went down." Varan explained. "I think it took one too many beatings, what with us blowing up the Merlin and then the crystal going off like that... Finn went and got Stork and Angel and Wasp dragged you back to where Fraggle, Junko and I were waiting in one of the passages... Christ Shade when they brought you back I thought you were dead for a second there, you gotta stop doing that to me..."

I hung my head, ashamed. "I'm sorry." I muttered.

"Dude you were hurt eh, don't worry about it." Fraggle cut me off before I could add anything else. "Anyways we had to haul ass outta there, lucky we had Cupcake here to guide us out." He went on, throwing an arm around Angel's boney shoulders but Angel didn't look too proud of himself.

"Wasp helped." He muttered, not looking at us and I felt my chest ache slightly; Aerrow was right, we'd have to have talk with him about everything that had happened.

"Yeah, so we made it back to the Condor in one piece and headed here, it was the closest place we could think of. And that pretty much sums up everything you missed." Varan concluded.

Wasp was staring at him with interest as he hobbled awkwardly along on his crutches, trying his best not to slow us down. "Those look like fun!" She declared. "Can I try them?"

"Don't know if you noticed Wasp, but I'm kinda using them right now." Varan said and Wasp looked put out. Then she turned to me with curiosity in her mismatched eyes.

"So what about you, Falshade? What happened up on the platform?"

The others looked at me with interest as well and I tried to pull my memory back together; now that I'd been moving around for a while I found that my skull ached from colliding not once but twice with solid stone and my head was swimming slightly.

"Well Stork... she... Christ I'm going to have to give her a serious talking to when she wakes up..." I seethed, recalling my fear as she'd made contact with the Eternity crystal, the same calm expression on her face that she'd worn in my dream seconds before the monster had crushed her head between its jaws. "She put her hands up against the crystal and... I dunno, it must have drawn the energy out of it or something. Piper said she was the only one who'd be able to unleash its full power. I don't know exactly what happened though, it was like the energy all started flowing into her... Cyclonis tried to grab her and then she started screaming, like she was being burned or something. And then that wave of energy burst free and I couldn't see either of them. I found Stork lying in the bottom of that hole it had been sitting in but she was all..." I trailed off, my throat constricting as I remembered her still, frigid body. Wasp squeezed my elbow comfortingly.

"But Cyclonis wasn't there?" Varan asked, sounding confused.

"No, but then something weird happened... I saw this... thing in the air above Stork and this is gonna sound crazy but I thought for sure it was Cyclonis' spirit trying to get back in." I said, my stomach growing hot with rage at the memory. "But all of a sudden this green light kinda blazed out of Stork's skin and it was like it burned up what was left of Cyclonis, I think..."

"Weird, eh." Fraggle commented. "So it was like the crystal's energy protected Stork?"

"Yeah, something like that; when I touched her it shot through me too. That's how my arm got broken." I explained, recalling the strange, powerful sensation. "Which makes me think... maybe she absorbed some of its energy."

"Yeah but if it did that to your arm... what might it have done to Stork, eh?"

"Falshade wasn't supposed to wield it's energy." Wasp said simply. "Stork was the only one, remember? Maybe Falshade's body couldn't channel it like Stork's could because he wasn't meant for it."

"Hmm... well that makes sense, eh." Fraggle agreed. "But then if she did absorb it, what does that mean for Stork? Will she have like... super powers now or something?"

"Oh god that's the last thing we need." Angel muttered and I had to laugh.

"Who knows? I guess we'll have to wait until she wakes up."

At that moment our street crested a hill and we were able to look down upon the edge of the terra, the dry docks stabbing out into empty sky as the terra wound down towards the Wastelands below. Even from here I could pick out the Condor perched and waiting in an almost welcoming sort of way. Still, I didn't get the same warm feeling I'd always felt when I beheld the Merlin, which had always seemed like a giant, metallic pet waiting for us to come home again. Next to me I felt Fraggle slump dejectedly, emitting a sniffling sound and wiping at his nose with his sleeve. I looped my good arm around his shoulders.

"Aw, Fraggle..." I said. "I miss her too, buddy."

Fraggle sighed. "Yeah eh... gonna be weird without her. It's like we don't really... have a home anymore, eh."

"Of course we do." I said, trying to cheer him up. "As long as we're together we'll always be home."

"I guess that's true, eh..." Fraggle scuffed his foot. "Still, you know what I mean? We don't really have like, a physical home."

"Maybe one day you can get another ship." Wasp suggested encouragingly.

Fraggle nodded. "Yeah, I suppose. I mean I'd like one eh, but just... not right away. I need time to grieve, eh."

"Totally understandable." I assured him. "She was a helluva ship, it's not going to be easy to replace her."
"You can say that again." Fraggle cleared his throat and looked off in the distance in the direction of the Scar. "Permission to have a moment here, eh?"

"Permission granted."

"Alright well... rest in peace, baby. We're not ever gonna forget you, eh." He murmured, saluting the skies that our loyal, departed airship had roamed with us.

"Amen." Wasp added and Fraggle cracked a tiny grin, ruffling her mane of dreadlocks affectionately.

Angel suddenly made a weird twitching motion, his hands jumping to his pockets. "Shit, that reminds me." He said, digging through his cargos. "God damnit, which pocket did I... aha!" He exclaimed, pulling a lump from his pocket and holding it out towards Wasp, whose eyes stretched wide when they took in what was in his outstretched hand and I realized just what it was he'd retrieved from the Merlin before Fraggle had brought her into those tunnels, never to return. In his palm sat Wasp's silver dragon figurine, unscathed.

Wasp gingerly took the figurine from Angel's hand and turned it over slowly as if she wasn't sure she could believe it was the real thing. "Shadowfax... I thought I'd lost you forever." She breathed, rubbing the pad of her finger over the little dragon's head in amazement before looking at Angel. "You saved him."

"Well, um, yeah." Angel said, shifting awkwardly. "I figured you might want to keep it... er, him."

Wasp stared at him for a moment longer before she suddenly sprang forward and without any warning mashed her lips firmly right into his, kissing him full on the mouth right there in front of all of us. Angel started, his eyes wide with shock and I looked away, feeling both awkward and amused at the same time. I mean up 'til now, although we'd had suspicions, we hadn't been exactly sure if those two had just gotten closer in a friendly kind of way or if it was something like... well like this. Even now it was a little hard to absorb, considering what we'd all thought about Angel from time to time and Wasp just being... well, Wasp.

Fraggle caught my eye, a smirk on his face and I think the two of us would have set into some major teasing if Varan hadn't grabbed both of us by the backs of our shirts and tugged us along as the two of them seemed to forget we were there completely, Angel getting over his initial surprise and tucking a hand around the back of Wasp's neck, tilting her head and kissing her back.

"Leave them alone." Varan told us sternly, directing us firmly towards the dry docks to let them have their moment. Fraggle chuckled softly, shaking his head in disbelief and giving me a look as we continued on down the street.

"Ah well. I was always rooting for those two kids, eh."


The Storm Hawks were surprised when we declined their offer to put us up at the small hotel that Mauruvia had to offer. We were all completely wiped out and didn't feel like moving anywhere anymore today for one thing and despite our grief for the Merlin, the Condor had a homey, comforting feeling that we latched on to; an airship just felt more at home to us than some little rented room and at the moment that was all we wanted. That and I think we all just wanted to stick as close as possible to one another. So instead we made ourselves comfortable on the bridge of the Condor; we allowed Varan to have the couch since he seemed to be in the worst shape and the rest of us made ourselves comfortable on the floor, blankets strewn over the cool metal surface as if we were having a camp-out or something. Piper didn't seem to think it was a good idea to have us lying on the hard floor given our conditions and everything we'd gone through in the past few weeks, but we insisted we were fine and eventually she gave up. She was, however, adamant about washing our clothes and for that I couldn't blame her; we were all caked in a thick layer of dried-on gore and I wasn't bothered in the least to shed my clothes and let her throw them in the Condor's washing machine. Varan, Fraggle, Angel and I were now decked out in our boxers and numerous bandages while Wasp was dressed in a borrowed Crystal Expo t-shirt of Piper's and a small pair of girly shorts, since, as it turned out, Wasp didn't actually wear underwear. We'd all taken turns and had showers too, glad to rinse the filth and stress from our worn bodies and even Wasp seemed pleased to be clean. Man I'd really come to appreciate the little things in life; it felt unbelievably good just to be clean and lying on something soft.

However once the lights had gone off I found myself unable to fall asleep, staring into the dark with itchy eyes despite the dull ache of exhaustion I felt in my body. My mind was still painfully awake, thinking over everything that had happened over the past few months and it wouldn't let me have peace. I was having a hard time really accepting that this was finally all over. I mean my whole life had been building up to this moment, the thought that I could finally feel safe without the threat of something sinister creeping up from the shadows, but now that I was here, a place I sometimes thought I'd never get to, I didn't know how to feel about it. I was scared that this was all some sort of dream and that if I closed my eyes I'd wake up to a completely different reality. It was sort of ironic really; it had been so very easy for me to believe that my nightmares were warning me of something terrible that was rising in some forgotten corner of the world, but the notion of that thing being defeated? That was just not computing. Peace, security and hope were three things that lately had been seriously lacking in my life and it was hard to let them back into my arms again. They felt like strangers. Right then I could finally understand why all those people had rejected my beliefs and shunned me despite how certain I was that something bad was going to happen. It was hard to slip back into a world free of war after so much grief and loss; they didn't want to face the thought of leaving that world once again.

After awhile of lying still, trying to coax myself to sleep, I let out an irritated sigh and noted the lack of snoring and slow breathing from the others, telling me that they, too, seemed to be having a hard time adjusting to this new reality.

"Is anyone actually asleep?" I asked into the dark.

"I am." Fraggle grumbled at my left side.

"Believe it or not, I'm not. Must be the insomnia or something." Angel said sarcastically from his place on the floor and I rolled my eyes, leaning over Wasp to cuff him gently, although I was pleased to hear some semblance of his old, sardonic personality anyways.

"I feel like I could sleep." Varan muttered from his place on the couch. "But I just can't stop thinking about everything. I think if I wasn't so, you know, drugged up, I'd feel really paranoid."

"Yeah, I know what you mean." I agreed. "I just... it doesn't seem real, you know? That everything is really... over."
"Well it's not all over just yet." Varan reminded me. "There's still a lot of work to be done."

"Well yeah." I said. "But I mean just the fact that we made it this far, to this point, you know? I guess I spent so much time worrying about how to try and stop my nightmares from coming true, I never really thought about what it'd be like if we did put an end to it."

"You just have to take it all one day at a time." Wasp told me. "After awhile things will all make sense again."

"You think so?" I asked her, feeling suddenly very dependent on her next words.

"Of course. It's just a transition stage, that's all. Change takes some getting used to." She said this with the certainty of one who'd had to accept change a few times over.

"Hmm..." I flopped back, mulling over her words. "I still just feel kinda weird about things. Like I can't relax, I'm not all here or something."
"Shade, no offence, but you were never all there." Varan said and Angel snorted with laughter while I scowled.

"Oh yeah well then no more morphine for you, since it makes you such a great comedian and all." I said and Varan chuckled quietly.

"Yeah, that's probably for the best."

"I bet it's because Stork's not here." Wasp said then. "Why this doesn't feel right yet I mean. We should all be together for something this big. I bet once she's back it'll start to sink in better."

"Yeah..." I said and felt my chest seize up with sorrow as I thought of her all alone. "I don't like thinking of her, all alone in that big old hospital." I said miserably and Wasp rubbed my arm soothingly.

"Aw, don't worry too much there, Shade. I mean after all, she's sleeping, eh. She doesn't know any different." Fraggle consoled me. "Still, it does suck, eh."

"We'll go and see her tomorrow and then we won't feel as bad." Varan assured us. "Look at it this way, she's nice and peaceful at least."

"Yeah, lucky little brat." Fraggle grumbled. "While here we are sleeping on the bloody floor, eh."

"I offered to let you have the couch but you insisted on staying down there!" Varan objected, offended. He really didn't like it that he was up there on the couch while the rest of us were on the floor, but I honestly didn't mind, I was just as comfortable down here. Then again compared to some of the others my injuries were pretty minor; poor Fraggle had some broken ribs that he was now lying on and Angel's back was absolutely shredded. The floor might not have seemed so comfy to them.

"Well Piper did mention they had a spare room too if you'd rather stay there, Fraggle." I reminded him and felt him shrug.

"Nah eh, I'm just being a shit. Besides, down here I get to be all close and cosy with you, soooo..." He pushed in closer to me, hand gripping my chest suggestively and I laughed, shoving him away again playfully. It struck me then that I'd never slept beside either Fraggle or Wasp before, both of whom were now tucked as closely into my sides as possible without things getting awkward. Before we'd had the Merlin I'd usually slept on the ground between Varan and Stork, both of them sandwiching me in the middle as they shuffled in closer during the night for warmth. And even before that, in our room at the Academy Angel would sometimes stay in my bunk rather than his, usually to help me fall back asleep after waking up from one of my nightmares but once because the heat register in our room broke down and the poor kid was freezing, having no body fat to keep him warm; he'd eventually crawled in next to me, seeking heat and shivering like mad. I'd always enjoyed being close to the others, it comforted me and I was glad to be sleeping beside them once again. I didn't want to be very far away from them at all right now, not after coming so close to losing all of them.

"You know what?" Wasp said after awhile. "I bet that sometimes, when you're close enough to people, you can visit them in their dreams. Maybe your spirit can move through the dreamscapes if it wants and join other people's, if it knows them well enough. So maybe Stork can be here with us anyways, in our dreams. We can all be together, sort of."

I smiled, liking the idea. "Can people dream in comas?"

"I think so." Angel said. "Their mind has to do something, anyways."

"I dunno if I want you kids wandering through my dreams though, eh." Fraggle piped up, a mischievous tone in his voice. "Might ruin your innocent little minds."

"Okay, I don't wanna sleep beside you anymore." I said and Fraggle laughed, mussing up my hair. I grinned, feeling a little better about things. Wasp was right, soon enough things would start feeling real and everything would turn up alright in the end. After all, the worst was over, now all we needed was time. And we had all the time in the world.

I felt the others' body heat sinking into my sore body and my knotted muscles started unwinding, my mind slowly sinking into a state of relaxation at last. Tomorrow we'd visit Stork and work things out from there. Everything was going to be alright now; I had enough faith to believe that.

Fraggle started snoring softly after awhile and I felt Wasp shifting, making herself a cosy little nest in her blankets like a large cat. Then she sighed peacefully and extended a bandaged hand towards me, running her fingertips up and down my spine soothingly until I felt my eyes slipping closed.

"Go to sleep, Falshade." She murmured. "We'll all be here when you wake up."

Her soft words did the trick and as if I'd been washed over with a calming spell I finally succumbed to my exhaustion and drifted off into blissful sleep. And Stork was there waiting for me.

x.x.x Angel x.x.x

Ah the night, ever my worst tormentor. Well, right after Stork anyways.

I lay there in the dark, staring at the ceiling and listening to the others' slow, peaceful breathing as they slipped off to sleep and felt my familiar demons starting to creep up on me, back with larger fangs and mocking red eyes. They'd been following me around all day, waiting for things to calm down enough before leaping onto my chest and crushing the air from my lungs. And I let them come, listened to all the nasty things they whispered into my ear and squeezed my eyes shut, putting up no resistance as they slowly tore me apart.

In all honesty, I'd been thinking of leaving. I nearly did while the others were distracted at the hospital. But I'd been dragged in to be sutured up and after that I'd been ready to make a break for it, except then I'd found Wasp huddled in a corner in the cold, bleached hallway, her nose buried in the collar of her jacket and realized she was still hurt. It took me about twenty minutes of coaxing, bribing, threatening and eventually dragging a very displeased Faerieshian who happened to outweigh me in to get checked by one of the doctors and then I stayed by her side while they x-rayed her arms and patched her up. I think the only reason she didn't totally kick my ass for all of that was because she couldn't bring herself to hurt me more than I already was. After that I just couldn't bring myself to slink off, I'd wanted to know how the others were and if Falshade and Stork were going to be okay. So I'd stayed. And now here I was, hating myself for it.

It wasn't... it wasn't that I didn't want to be here. God I was so insanely happy to be back I could barely contain it, overwhelmed by the desire to leap all over the others like an idiotic puppy. But that feeling of happiness was being squeezed to death beneath the enormous weight of my guilt and shame and self-disgust. I felt like no matter how badly I wanted to be here, I didn't deserve to stay. My default, self destructive way of functioning, the need to be alone and punish myself, was telling me over and over I couldn't stay here, that I should get up and leave now, before the others could draw me back in any further.

But I knew that wouldn't solve anything. I wasn't going to push anything else to the back of my mind to rot. I'd told myself again and again I never wanted to be anything like my mother, that I was never going to be as weak and cowardly as she was, turning tail and leaving the people who loved her behind when things got too hard. It was high time I started living up to that; I was sick of running from my own shadow.

If the others would have asked me to leave that would have been different; if they pointed to the door I would have been gone, no questions asked or hard feelings. But they weren't doing that and that was what was making this so much more difficult. I wanted them to be angry with me, to shun me and beat me and drive me away like a flea ridden dog. But of course they didn't; instead they pulled me into their arms tightly and showered me with acceptance, concern and comfort and it made me want to cry. I needed some rebuke here, I wanted to have to fight for forgiveness, to earn it good and proper and not simply have it thrown at my feet. It made me yearn for Stork even more; with her cutthroat attitude I could have at least counted on her for the cold shoulder and maybe even some verbal abuse, which I would have accepted without complaint.

I just really didn't feel like I deserved the love and sympathy of my friends. I didn't feel like I deserved anything from them, period. I felt like utter shit and I didn't deserve to be happy in the slightest.

...God I'd missed them though; I'd been so scared that I'd never see them again, more afraid then I'd ever been of anything in my whole life. The thought of losing them hurt more than anything had ever hurt before, more than my mother abandoning me or all the self-inflicted torment I'd put myself through. There was no point in living without them and maybe that was the real, deep down reason that I couldn't bring myself to leave. The lonely, desperate, selfish part of me knew if I left I'd more than likely just die in some empty corner of the Atmos and I just couldn't bear to go through with it. If I wanted to act like I good person I'd say it was because I'd never have the chance to make up for all the terrible things I'd done to the others if I did that. And if I wanted to be honest I'd say it would be like letting myself off easy. Whatever the reason, I just couldn't do it. I was ashamed and disgusted and I hated myself. But I wanted to be here, too.

Next to me I felt Wasp shift and glanced at her through the shadows; she was curled up in a nest of blankets, her long legs tucked up against her stomach and one of her leathery ears falling into her face. Hard to believe this now seemingly harmless girl was the same warrior who'd torn open the throats of Berserkers with her bare fangs earlier. I felt the corner of my mouth twitch slightly, amazed by just how... cute she could be. On an impulse I reached out with one hand and pressed my palm between her shoulder blades gently, running my hand slowly down her back and feeling the knobs of her spinal column with my fingertips. Wasp stirred slightly and stretched, arching her back into my touch and purring quietly before rolling over to look at me.

I took my hand back quickly. "I'm sorry. I didn't wake you up did I?"

Wasp shook her head. "I wasn't asleep."

"Why not? You're not in pain or anything are you?"

"Oh, no, I feel fine. I'm just not sleepy yet. Although these stupid things are really itchy." She added on an afterthought, chewing at her bandaged wrist irritably. I took her hands gently and scratched along the edges of the bandages with the tips of my fingers. She flopped her head down on her pillow and watched me for a while before looking up at my face.

"So why aren't you sleeping?"

I blew out a low sigh. "I'm just... thinking about some stuff that's all."

Wasp flicked her ear, looking straight into my eyes unwaveringly until I had to look away, sure she could see everything inside my head. She stared at me for a while longer and then tugged her hands out of mine, moving them to tap her fingers along the edge of the bandage that was plastered over my chest. "I'm sorry I had to bite you." She said quietly, licking the tip of her thumb and drawing it in a line all around the edge of the bandage as if sealing it.

I snorted. "Don't be. Probably the best thing you could have done for me..." I watched her face as she continued drawing patterns on my skin with her pale fingertips. In my mind I could still see her screaming at me while I attacked her mercilessly, unable to recognize her, the way she'd begged for me to remember who she was and who I was. I saw her beautiful face streaked with tears, the way she'd collapsed after I'd stabbed her, the desperation and the sorrow and the agony that had etched itself into her features and my heart seemed to wrench itself apart as I felt the pain and misery she'd gone through because of me. I hated myself right then more than I ever had in my life. Wasp was too strong and brilliant to have been brought down like that by a scumbag like me. I knew there was no way I'd ever be able to make it up to her for putting her through that, I could never repay her for saving me nor earn her forgiveness for everything I'd done to her, before and after I'd been taken capture. And the knowledge of that terrified me.

Right then I wished she just would have killed me down there in those tunnels.

Wasp leaned over and bit the edge of my jawbone gently to get my attention. "What's wrong?"

I shook my head, willing myself not to start crying; the last thing Wasp needed was for me to dump more of my shit on her. "Nothing."

Wasp wrinkled her nose, pursing her lips as if she was displeased with my response. "You're not going to be like this forever, are you?"

I gave her a look. "Like what?"

"Like this, so far away. I mean you're right here, but I feel like you're on the other side of the world." She said, pushing the flat of her hand against my chest as if to test that I really was there. "It's just... I missed you, while you were gone. I was worried I might not get to see you again. And now you're back but... you're not, really."

I chewed on my tongue, guilt pushing bile up my throat. "I'm sorry. But... Wasp I just feel so terrible about everything. I feel like I shouldn't be here at all..." I trailed off as her eyes turned mournful. I couldn't stand seeing her sad, least of all because of me. I wrapped an arm around her side and pulled her in a little closer. I told myself I didn't deserve to be this close but I couldn't help it, I wanted to be, I ached to be pressed in as close as possible to her. And I couldn't just push her away, not when she looked at me like that.

"...I missed you too, though." I added hoarsely after a moment. I wanted to tell her how it was thoughts of her that kept me from giving up down in that dungeon, that I'd longed for her so badly it hurt and that I'd been worried out of my mind about her and downright terrified by the thought that I'd never see her again. I wanted to tell her so many things but they all got stuck like a tangle of brambles in my throat. So I pushed my face into the coarse snarls of her hair and clung to her tightly and hoped that was enough for now.

However when I thought back to that dark stretch of time I'd spent in the bowels of Cyclonia I recalled something so abruptly and vividly that it actually startled me and it seemed to clear all the other mess from my throat so I could tell her about it. After all, I'd promised him I would.

"...I saw Rainer, you know." I said and Wasp's whole body stiffened as if she'd suddenly been turned to stone. She pulled herself away from me slightly so she could look up at me, her eyes wide and trembling with something between the desperate desire to believe me and cold reason that told her to think otherwise.

"W-what?"

"Well I was down in this cell after they took me away from the rest of you and... I think I started to go crazy, because I could see you guys down there and talk to you and everything." I started off slowly, not liking to go back to that god awful place at all. But I pulled myself out of my self-pity, determined to tell Wasp what he'd said. "And the one time it was him down there talking to me. Fucking insane, right?"

Wasp's eyes were so wide they looked like they might engulf her whole face. "What did he look like?" she breathed, her voice raspy.

"Um..." I closed my eyes, trying to remember; so much shit had happened since then it was hard sorting through it all. "Like, dark skinned, really dark with white hair and like these really blue eyes-"

"That's him!" Wasp exclaimed, almost forgetting to keep her voice down. Her eyes were shining so hopefully it made my chest ache. "And he talked to you? What did he say?" she asked, excitement thick in her voice.

"He wanted me to tell you he doesn't blame you for what happened to him." I said and I don't think she'd been expecting that; her body jolted as if she'd been shocked and she drew back from me a little more, a look of uncertainty in her eyes.

"...What do you mean?" She asked slowly.

I looked directly into her eyes, trying to pour everything that Rainer had said through myself and into her so she'd believe me. "He told me about what happened to your friend Fli." I said quietly and Wasp flinched, her gaze turning distant as if she were looking over an old memory. "Listen, Wasp, he doesn't blame you for doing what you did, he understands why you did it. And what happened to him, that wasn't your fault. This Buzzard guy who sent his thugs after him, all of it, everything that happened was his fault, not yours. You were upset, you were angry and I don't fucking blame you; if someone did that to one of you guys I'd want to make him suffer too. Rainer gets that, and he was never angry at you because of it. The only thing that he's upset about is that he had to leave you."

I felt like my words were coming through from some other place, something outside of myself and wondered if Rainer were around right now, sending his thoughts to me and putting them to my voice. I still had a hard time believing any of that afterlife kinda stuff but if there was ever a moment when I wanted to believe it, it was right now, telling Wasp all the things Rainer had been trying to tell her for so long.

Wasp was staring at me as if transfixed, hanging off my words, her eyes starting to shimmer slightly as tears welled up in the corners. "He really said all of that?" She asked, her voice nothing more than a whisper.

"Yes." I said firmly, cupping her jaw slightly, fingers brushing gently along the side of her face. "And he wanted me to make sure you heard it. He really loves you Wasp, he doesn't want you to be miserable about what happened or to blame yourself for it. He just wants you to be happy."

The tears spilled over the edge of Wasp's lashes and made slow tracks down her cheeks, a torn yet joyous smile plastered over her thin lips and I almost started choking up seeing such a bittersweet expression on her lovely face. A small part of me was able to feel good about myself right then, knowing I'd brought her a message that she'd evidently needed to hear for years now, freeing her of any guilt or uncertainty she'd harboured since Rainer had died.

Wasp moved in closer to me again, winding her whole body around mine and holding onto me tightly, pushing her face into my chest. "I miss him." She whispered, her voice a muffled sob. "It hurts how much I miss him, it hurts so bad..."

"I know..." I assured her, cradling her and rubbing my hands up and down her back, stroking her ears and hair, soothing her as she cried quietly into my chest. I pushed all my own misery and self-loathing away, fixing all my attention on her, trying to comfort her the way she'd always comforted me before when I'd come to her with all my hurt and filthy secrets. I wanted to show her I could do the same thing for her, that I could be there for her if she needed me to be.

She started murmuring into my chest again after awhile, her voice still clogged by tears and it was difficult to hear her. "I was so scared I was going to lose you like I lost him." She mumbled, her hand tightening around my arm. "I was scared I'd never see you again. I couldn't stand the thought of that..."

My remorse came flooding back in and I squeezed her a little harder. "I'm sorry..." I muttered. "I'm sorry for a lot of things. I thought I might not get to see you again either and... god that fucking killed me. I really missed you..." I trailed off as she pulled her face from my chest and looked up at me, the pads of her spindly fingers touching my chin and drawing it down gently. For a moment I resisted but when her lips touched mine my resolve simply melted, even though I knew this was something I definitely didn't deserve right now. But I couldn't help it, not with her soft lips moulded over my mouth like that. I let all my venomous thoughts slide away for just a minute because god I'd missed this, I'd missed her too much to try and fight it. And as I leaned in to kiss her back I realized I'd screwed myself over, that there was no way I could leave now (and to be honest I think that was part of Wasp's intention). I was staying for good no matter what the little demons that clung to my shoulders said otherwise and I'd just have to make everything up to Wasp and the others one step at a time, somehow.

We abruptly broke apart when Falshade started snoring on Wasp's other side; Wasp hunched her head between her shoulders, giggling. "He sounds like a puppy."
"He's just getting started." I said, knowing full well, unfortunately, how loud that kid could be in his sleep; I was just glad Varan hadn't started up yet. "Hit him would you, before he gets worse."

"I'm not going to hit him!" Wasp whispered, appalled but still fighting down giggles. "He's already all beaten up as it is."

I felt a cold tear rip through my stomach when I recalled that some of that damage had been caused by me but tried to shake the thought away, leaning over Wasp to grab Falshade's shoulder. It was bad enough Fraggle had been making erratic dog-like noises for the past hour, I wasn't about to face a full onslaught of comatose Falshade on top of that; not only was he known to talk, moan and even shout in his sleep, but he had a nasty habit of kicking spastically as well.

"Shade. Hey, Shade, roll over." I said, shaking him slightly.

He made a drowsy growling noise and swatted at me sleepily before rolling onto his side and falling silent once again. I watched him for a moment as his breathing returned to normal, recalling all the nights I'd sat awake at our desk in our room at the Academy and watched over him while he slept. I wasn't quite sure how I was going to manage it yet, but I was determined to pay him back for everything he'd done for me.

I was distracted from my thoughts when Wasp's hands trailed down over my sides and then rested on my stomach, kneading at me like a cat making a nest and slowly easing away the nauseous feeling that had been sitting there heavily. I uttered a sighing sound and lay back down next to her again, gently pushing her matted hair from her face and pressing my forehead to hers.

"Look, um... I know I might not seem like it right now, but I am glad to be back. I really, really am." I told her quietly and felt her smile against my skin, her lip ring nudging at my lower lip. "I just have a lot on my mind, that's all."

"Okay." She said. "I guess I can understand that. But don't try and pull yourself away from us because of it, okay? You might not feel like you should be here, but we do."

I couldn't bring myself to argue with her, not with her striking eyes trained on me like that. "Okay." I muttered. I ran my thumb along her cheek, noting with concern that she had dark rings under her gorgeous eyes, even under the shiner she was supporting. "You should get some sleep, Wasp."

"Hmm, so should you." She told me matter-of-factly but she sounded drowsier then she had earlier, her exhaustion finally catching up with her.

"I'll try to." I assured her, nudging her gently until she rolled onto her other side, her back pressed up against my chest so I wouldn't accidently roll onto her injured hands. I wrapped my arm around her and she laced her fingers through mine, curling back into her ball with a contented sigh. "Thank you. For telling me about Rainer. And for rescuing Shadowfax." She said quietly, relaxing against me.

"Of course." Fuck it was the least I could do the way I saw it. I pushed my face into the back of her neck and breathed in deep her undeniably Wasp smell, oddly clean but unmistakably hers. I told myself then that no matter what I was going to make up for everything I'd done to the others, I was going to try my damndest to turn my life around. I knew it wasn't going to be easy and to be honest that intimidated me, because there were still things I didn't feel safe with about myself, but I was sick of trying to escape myself and only tightening the noose around my throat. I didn't care how hard it was or how long it took me, I was going to fix everything; Wasp had given me my life back and I wasn't going to waste it. Then maybe one day I could feel like I belonged with my friends again, that I did deserve their love and trust and that I could call myself a Gargoyle again.

And maybe one day I could feel like I was worthy of the love of someone as brave and beautiful as Wasp.

x.x.x Falshade x.x.x

Without realizing it I rolled onto my injured hip in my sleep and was jolted into semi-consciousness as sharp pain ripped through my side. Wincing and groaning I rolled off my bad hip and onto my stomach, punching my cast into my ribs and I forgot to feel grateful that I couldn't actually feel anything in my broken arm or I probably would have out and out screamed. Christ it was not going to be easy trying to sleep for the next few weeks...

I turned onto my other side, as this seemed to be the half of me that was least painful to put pressure on. However with all my squirming about I apparently must have jostled Fraggle.

"Mraaaah..." He muttered irritably, barely awake and already grumpy about it. "Get back here." He slurred sleepily. "You're nice n' warm..." He shifted and burrowed in tightly against my back, shoving me forward slightly so that I almost rolled right on top of Wasp. In hind sight this sleeping so close thing hadn't been the greatest idea.

"That's what you got fur for, dumbass." I muttered back in an equally garbled voice, only half awake and trying to cling desperately to the part of me that had not yet rose to consciousness, squeezing my eyes shut tightly to block out the sunlight that was streaming through the Condor's windshield. Until I felt Wasp fidgeting as if uncomfortable and cracked my eyes open grudgingly, noting just how far into her personal space I'd gone; I'd rolled onto her blanket and evidently pinned her tightly to the floor. She was trying to wiggle free without bothering me too much.

"Shit I'm sorry." I muttered, my voice clogged with sleep. "Fraggle get off me." I said, shoving him back so I could move off Wasp's blankets. "I didn't crush your wrists or anything did I?" I asked, slightly more alert when I noticed her bandaged arms.

"Nah." She said, pulling herself free.

"Okay." I groaned irritably, my body rising to full wakefulness without my permission. I still felt like I could sleep for years and didn't want to have to start functioning yet. "Is Angel still asleep?"

"No, he's not." Angel reported sourly from Wasp's other side. "Do you two have to be so loud?"

"That wasn't my fault, Fraggle was trying to cuddle with me!" I objected.

"Shut up." Fraggle moaned, pushing his face into his pillow. "Come on you guys, let's actually sleep in for once, eh..."

"Dude it's already noon, how much more sleep do you need? If it hasn't helped yet then there's not much point in getting more beauty sleep." Angel told him and Fraggle shot him the finger over my shoulder.

I sat up abruptly and wished I hadn't as my sore muscles creaked in protest. "Shit, it's already noon? What time do visiting hours start at the hospital?"

"Probably around nine."

"Christ..." I muttered and reached over to tug on Varan's tail. "Hey, Var, wake up."

"Hmmm?" he said groggily, blinking. "What's up?"

"The kids seem to think it's fucking Christmas morning, eh." Fraggle muttered sourly. "I tried to tell 'em to go back to sleep, but nooooo, nobody listens to my opinion, eh."

"It's like, noon." I reported, ignoring Fraggle. "I was just thinking we should get up and go see Stork soon."

Varan sat up and stretched then winced and grabbed his side. "Ow." He griped and looked over the rest of us critically. "Did you guys sleep okay?"

"I did." Wasp reported cheerfully. "We should do this more often. It's like a sleepover!"

"No, if this were a real sleepover there'd be hot chicks in nighties having pillow fights eh." Fraggle grumbled into his pillow. I rolled my eyes and picked up my pillow, thumping him around the head with it gently. He of course retaliated by smacking me with his own pillow right in the face and pain shot like a bolt of lightning through my nose, which had been broken during my fight with Angel.

"Owwwww, Fraggle!" I cried, tenting my fingers over my nose as it started to drip blood onto my blankets.

"Oh shit!" Fraggle yelped, suddenly wide awake and sitting up, leaning in on me with wide, apologetic eyes. "Oh shit oh shit oh shit I'm sorry, eh, I totally forgot! Oh god please don't hate me..."

"No, it's okay man." I forced out although at the moment I wanted nothing more than to deck him right between the eyes.

Varan winced as I gingerly moved my hands away from my nose. "Well it doesn't look like he made it any worse." He said, sounding both nervous and sympathetic.

"So long as I don't look like a Picasso painting that's good enough for me." I muttered, carefully wiping some of the blood away. I expected Angel to make some sort of joke here but he remained silent, which, although I appreciated the lack of insults directed at my face, sort of unnerved me. Did I actually have complete and total sympathy from the others? Eerie, man.

Fraggle still looked upset. "Jeez, Chief, I'm really sorry, eh. If it'll make you feel better you can punch me in the ribs if you want."

I gave him a look. "Dude I'm not gonna hit you, that's just cruel. Just stay away from me until my nose is better; no offence but you're kinda accident prone."

This of course was coming from me, current lord and master of mishaps and klutziness.

"Will do." Fraggle nodded, shifting away from me slightly to show his compliance and then thinking about something. "You know what would have been nice eh? If when the Eternity crystal exploded that wave of energy would have like, spread its healing powers to everyone in proximity, eh. Or at least if we had a bit of it to use to speed the whole process up, anyways."

"Too bad I didn't keep the little piece of it I had." Wasp said. "But I barfed it up all over the platform."

"Ewwww." Fraggle whined. "I don't think I would use it even if you still had it, eh."

"It would have been destroyed with the rest of the crystal anyways." Varan reminded her. "Actually it's probably a good thing you got rid of it when you did, rather than have it explode in your stomach."

Wasp's eyes got wide. "Oh man I didn't even think about that! I probably would have looked like Hydra!"

Varan covered his face. "Please don't remind me of that, I've nearly repressed that memory..."

"Would it have even worked if we weren't implanted with them?" I wondered. "I thought you had to be bonded with it for it to work like that."

Wasp shook her head. "No that's not true! Angel got the shards to work when he..." Wasp suddenly cut herself off and pulled her knees into her chest, hunching up and glancing at Angel from the corner of her eye. His eyes had clouded over like he was seeing something else and his whole body was wound tight, muscles quivering.

"That was a fluke." He muttered, sounding elsewhere. "The crystal's structure was broken, the energy was escaping. I just got lucky, using it before it dissipated entirely." He wouldn't look at any of us while speaking, staring fixedly at his knee caps while remorse etched itself into every inch of his worn face and I shared a sad look with Varan. I knew we needed to all sit down and have a good, long talk with him about everything but I had no idea how to approach the subject. Even in a good mood Angel had never been very receptive when it came to heart-to-hearts, I couldn't imagine him giving us a chance to confront him about this, short of hog-tying him or something.

"Hey." Wasp said then, looking at him curiously. "You have little nubbies!"

We all gave her a strange look, even Angel snapping out of it enough to raise an eyebrow. "Uh... come again?"

"Nubbies." Wasp insisted, nudging him slightly to get him to turn and tapping at the bandages on his back gently. "See, look, you've got little nubs here."

I leaned forward to see what she was talking about and for the first time noticed two small bumps under the mass of bandages plastered to Angel's back, protruding from his shoulder blades. "Huh." I said. "The heck are those things?"

Angel glanced over his shoulder to see what we were talking about. "Probably just the stitches."

"No, look they're solid." Wasp said, pinching one and Angel flinched.

"Ow! Well that was uncalled for!"

Fraggle started giggling to himself. "Maybe you got like, extra nipples or something eh!" He declared and Angel gave him an ugly look.

"Maybe they're bone fragments." Varan said. "That's where the wings were connected, right? Maybe they're leftover stumps."

Angel sighed. "Great, souvenirs."

I frowned, hating the gloomy, disgusted tone that had been present in his voice since he'd gotten back. Trying to think of something to say I suddenly was made aware of how perfectly unsuspecting he was just sitting there, his back to me and I was struck with inspiration. Or something indeed...

Shifting around Wasp I moved in and gave him a good push and was a little surprised by how easily he just flopped over, like a submissive dog rolling onto its back. Angel had never been known for taking kindly to rough handling and the way he just took it like he thought he deserved it only confirmed my belief that he needed a good talking to. Fraggle raised his eyebrows at me as if to ask what I was up to while Angel simply watched me as if expecting me to lay in with a beating or something.

"What are you doing?" He asked as I rolled him onto his stomach and in answer I promptly sat on him.

His breath left him in a whoosh. "Argh, god damnit Falshade you have a boney ass!" He wheezed, trying to claw his way out from under me as Fraggle, catching on to what I was up to, made himself comfortable carefully on Angel's legs.

"I'm boney?" I said. "Christ you have no cushion at all, I feel like I'm sitting on a pile of sticks here."

"Well then maybe you shouldn't be sitting on him!" Varan said, looking rather alarmed, back to his regular anxious self. "Come on you two, get off him before his organs rupture!"

"And it would seem someone needs another shot of morphine there, eh." Fraggle teased. "Don't worry, Cupcake's a tough guy, he can handle it, right Ange?"

"I'll let you know once I can breathe again." He griped, his voice sounding strained so I took some of my weight off of him; I was a lot bigger then he was after all and he was in rough shape.

"Well since we've got you all nice and conveniently trapped, I think we should take this opportunity to have a nice little chat together." I declared and Angel stopped struggling abruptly, his muscles stiffening and he glanced up at me from the corner of his eye.

"Oh?"

"Yeah eh, consider this something of an intervention." Fraggle added on.

"What for?" Angel asked, stubbornly trying to pull his old avoidance tactics.

"Oh come on Angel, don't give us that bullshit. You've been acting weird since you got back and it's not like any of us are pretending what happened didn't happened. We need to talk about it, get it all out and in the open so we can move past it." Varan explained, taking our side despite the look of concern he still wore for the fact that Fraggle and I were crushing the skinny little bugger.

Angel looked at him and then at Wasp, who simply nodded and then glanced up at me again.

"We really gonna do this, right now?" He asked resignedly.

"Yep, we're really going to do this right now." I said, taking on a more serious tone. Angel blew out a long sigh and then set his chin on his folded arms.

"Alright, let me have it."

I cleared my throat, trying to think of a good place to start. "Look, Ange... I said it yesterday, but I'll say it again. We know it was the crystal that messed everything up; Cyclonis wanted to use one of us against the rest of us to try and breaks us apart and ruin us. She was scared of us. So she did it to fuck with all of us. But we know you'd never intentionally turn on us, not in a million years. All this time it's been her and so... I dunno, I just don't want you acting this way, blaming yourself for everything because it wasn't your fault, what happened."

Angel's jaw clenched and he focused on some spot off in the corner, not meeting any of our eyes. "It's not that simple." He said after awhile, his tone low and dripping with disgust.

"Why can't it be, eh?" Fraggle asked softly. "I mean the moment the crystal was gone you were back on our side, you were yourself again, eh."

"That's not the point." Angel ground out. "The point is I let it take over me in the first place, that I attacked you guys without even realizing what I was doing. The point is that I betrayed you guys, I wanted to bring Stork back to her even though I knew she'd probably kill her and I tried to kill the rest of you myself." He squeezed his eyes shut and I could feel him starting to shake underneath me. My heart constricted painfully at the self-loathing that was thick in his voice and I reached out to touch his shoulder gently but he shook me off. "Don't, Shade."

"...Angel you remember how mad I was at myself after we lost Stork and I went into Sky Shock? I felt like shit for doing that to you guys, abandoning you when we all were suffering but you told me I shouldn't feel bad because what happened was beyond my control, I was in a different state of mind, I couldn't have come out of it if I wanted to. Well this is the same thing, don't you see? Cyclonis poisoned your mind, you weren't yourself, and-"
"Yeah but Falshade when you went into Sky Shock the worst thing you did was give me a black eye. I almost killed you." Angel pointed out sharply.

"Well yeah but say I tried to strangle you instead of just punching you, isn't that the same thing? The point is it wasn't me, my mind was all messed up and that's the same thing that happened to you. You wouldn't let me feel bad about the whole Sky Shock thing so now I'm doing the same with you. I don't want you to be miserable like this."

"Believe it or not I don't like being miserable." Angel said wretchedly. "But I can't just get over it either. It's easy for you guys to forgive me and try and forget about it because you're all fucking insane and way too good to me. But it's not easy for me to forgive myself and get over it just like that. I feel like shit and I'm going to feel like shit for a while and I can't help that."

"Okay, and you know what we understand that." Varan assured him. "But there's a difference between feeling bad about something and punishing yourself for it, and forgive me for making assumptions but you seem to be swaying towards punishing yourself."

A dark look came into Angel's eyes then and it frightened me. He didn't bother to argue with Varan's observation either. "...Look I appreciate you guys trying to make me feel better, I really do. But there's a lot of stuff you don't know about and it goes deeper than how simple you're making everything seem."

"Well of course we don't know. So talk to us about it." I suggested evenly. Angel groaned and put his hands over his head, mashing his face into the floor and tugging at his hair in frustration.

"I don't want to, 'cause then everything's gonna turn into this huge shit-fest angst convention and I fucking hate when it gets like that."

"Welp, that's just too bad, eh." Fraggle said stubbornly. "'Cause Shade and I ain't getting off you until you do talk to us."

"...It has to do with who your dad was, doesn't it?" I asked quietly and felt him gag violently at my words; I took more of my weight off him, worried he was going to be sick. Trembling he lifted his arms to look at Wasp, who shrank down like a guilty puppy.

"I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have told, it wasn't right of me and-"

Angel held a hand up and she fell silent. "It's alright, I'm not mad at you or anything."

"I'm still sorry." Wasp murmured.

Angel chewed on his tongue, refusing to make eye contact with any of us. "So... all of you know?" he asked, trying very hard to keep the agony out of his voice and not making it by a long shot.

"Yeah." I said softly. I felt like plunging into a whole big spiel about how it didn't matter, that none of us cared who his father had been and that we'd never abandon him over something so petty; none of us can control who are parents are after all. But I could say it was no big deal until I was blue in the face and it wouldn't make a lick of difference because it was obviously a big deal to him. All I could do was wait for him to tell us where it hurt so we could start breaking down the issues one little step at a time.

Angel blew out a shaky sigh and stared at the floor fixedly for a long time, struggling with himself. We waited patiently until finally, after biting at his lip until it started to bleed, he spoke up again in a low, raspy voice. "Cyclonis told me it wouldn't have worked on any of you." He uttered at last. "The crystal I mean; it wouldn't have done the same thing to you guys. That's why she picked me. I'd practically set myself up for it, my mind was perfect for it to take over. That's what she told me. Because of how fucking stupid I am about everything I brought it all on myself. The Oracle tried to warn me. You tried to warn me." He directed this last bit at Wasp. "And I still let it all happen anyways..."

My heart contracted and my throat was suddenly sore and clogged, mentally staggering; I had no idea what to say about that. I glanced at Varan, hoping maybe he'd have something to add but he seemed just as at a loss as I did. Luckily Wasp still had the ability to fight against remorse and misery though; she reached out and tapped Angel's jaw, making sure he was looking directly at her before she started speaking in a slow, firm tone, certainty clinging to her every syllable.

"Angel." She said, her voice reaching out with something that made all of us listen wholeheartedly to her next words. "She was lying. She was lying to you. No, listen to me." She cut Angel off as he started to say something. "Look I felt the power of that crystal when I pulled it out of you, she designed it purposely to warp the mind. She made that thing into a toxin and it nearly took over me the same way it did to you, and I only had it in my mouth for a second. She made it solely to poison people and it would have done the same thing to anyone who was exposed to it. She said all of that to get into your head, to fuck with you."

Angel shook his head, although I could see how desperately he wanted to believe her. "Then what about everything the Oracle told me, the whole darkness thing?"

Wasp was silent for a moment before she started up again thoughtfully. "I think... I think when she said that she knew this was going to happen to you. She said your path was going to be a strange one and I think maybe this was a part of your destiny, somehow. I think what she meant about the darkness was about this, about afterwards. I think that if you couldn't get over the darkness then it wouldn't matter if the crystal was still in you or not, you'd still be stuck under Cyclonis' influence, you wouldn't want to come back. But you did, Angel, and what was more you recognized Falshade that first time, and I really think you recognized me at one point too. That's why Cyclonis said everything she did to you, to try and turn you against yourself. The crystal couldn't fully possess your heart, no matter what it did to your mind and that's why she tried to mess with you by saying all those things. If it had worked you wouldn't have come back to us. But you did. That's what the Oracle meant, about not letting the darkness take hold of you like it did to your mother. And it didn't."

Angel chewed on his lip. "I dunno, Wasp..."

"No, I think she's onto something here." I interrupted before he could add anything else. "Look, if you hadn't of been taken away from us we would have never known that Cyclonis was after Stork or why. And you wouldn't have been able to save me like you did. Or Wasp either."

"Exactly." Wasp said, nodding at me. "I mean... I always believe things happen for a reason. Maybe... maybe this had to happen to you."

The look Angel gave her reminded me of how he used to look at her in the old days. "Oh you think so, huh?"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to make it sound that harsh." Wasp backtracked. "I just mean... well you remember some of the things that happened to me?" She asked and Angel's expression softened. "I... I try to look at it like those things happened for a reason. Not because it was 'meant to be' or anything, but more like... well you close a door and a window opens kinda thing? That when bad things happen we can try and scrape something good from them. And so maybe it was like putting everything in perspective for you, you know? It forced you into what you've been trying to avoid all your life and really made you realize how you felt about it deep down."

"Like a really nasty reality check, eh." Fraggle agreed.

"Yeah. I mean when things like this happen to us, the huge, ugly, monumental things we see who we are deep down in ways we never could have before. So... maybe Wasp has a point." Varan said slowly.

"Hmm..." Angel seemed to consider this. "Well it definitely made me think about my priorities, that's for damn sure. But it doesn't change the fact that while I was off having this whole 'reality check' if that's what you wanna call it I tried to kill the rest of you."
"Yes, but that wasn't you then." I repeated, stressing every word to try and get the point across. "But after that you saved us and you fought with us. That's the part that matters, that's what Wasp is saying. I know you'd never want to hurt us, Angel."

Angel stayed quiet, mulling over everything we'd said. "It... it's just... I dunno. Some of the things she said hit a little too close to home." He said after awhile, sounding like his abhorrence towards himself was starting to lessen and instead just letting through blunt, wretched honesty.

"I know." Wasp told him softly, brushing his cheek soothingly. "She said a bunch of things to me too that I didn't like. She did it to get into our heads, that's what she does. Psychological warfare I guess. She was afraid of how strong we were, she wanted to try and break us down from the inside. But you know if you don't like these close-to-home things then you should try to change them. For yourself I mean, not because of what she said."

"Yeah, hell if there's one thing I've learned from all of your collective attitude problems is there are some people who you just have to ignore. What they say doesn't count for shit." Varan added encouragingly. "If you have some issues than you can work them out for yourself, fuck whatever Cyclonis said about you. We'll try and help you however you need us to."

"And Angel?" I added, running my fingers through his hair gently and this time he didn't shrug me off. "Look about your dad... we never would have hated you. I can understand you not wanting to tell us about it but... we'll never hate you because of him, okay? That part doesn't matter to us." I assured him.

I felt some of the tension in his muscles relax, as if this had been something he'd needed to hear for a long time and could finally feel some relief over, a dark shadow finally lifting from him. "...Thanks you guys."

"See that wasn't so bad, was it?" Fraggle said, poking him teasingly and Angel cracked a small grin before turning serious, his eyes distant as if he were looking over some different point in time.

"...So I'm in this dungeon, right? Waiting for this thing to take over me and... it really hit me..." He started, a strange tone in his voice that I'd rarely ever heard from him, something soft and sincere. "Well I guess I always knew it but it really struck me then, just how important you guys are to me. You guys are all I've got, but it's more than just that. It's like you're all I need, more than I could have ever asked for. You're the only family I ever had and if you ask me you're pretty much the best family anyone could ever have. And I thought for sure I was going to die and never see you guys again without having told you all of that. And..." He cut himself off, swallowing hard and sniffling slightly. "I guess I'm just trying to say that I love you guys, because fuck knows I don't say it enough."

"Aw, Ange..." Fraggle said, sounding both touched and accusing as he wiped at his eyes irritably. "Damnit now you're getting me all misty over here eh."

"Sorry." Angel closed his eyes and let out a contented sigh. "I'm just glad to be home." He concluded, sounding uncharacteristically weepy.

"We're glad you're back too." I told him softly, ruffling his hair fondly. "Wasn't the same around here without you."

"Yeah, poor Wasp was downright depressed." Varan added and Angel cracked an eye open to look at Wasp, the two of them communicating silently for a moment before he fidgeted and looked up at me again.

"Alright well with all that mushy stuff being said, would the two of you please get the fuck off me?" He asked wearily and I sighed as if it were some huge task.

"Alright, I guess." I said and rolled off him. He drew in a huge gulping breath and sat up less he be captured and squished again.

"Christ, Angel..." Varan said, looking over him unhappily. "And I thought you were too skinny before... we're going to have to get some weight back on you, spoil you a bit or something."

"Maybe we should get him like twenty pounds of chocolate and just let him go crazy." I suggested jokingly and an actual smile finally showed itself on Angel's face.

"I'm liking this idea." He said and Varan laughed.

"Oh god no, we'll kill him, lord knows he won't be able to stop himself." He said and then looked over the rest of us, his motherly concern back in full force. "Actually all of you are looking pretty thin. We'll have to do something about that..."

In a display of perfect timing Piper poked her head around the corner, her gaze sweeping over us and smiling. "I thought I heard you guys up and about." She said. "How about some breakfast?"

Fraggle and I were on our feet so fast you would never have believed we were supporting a handful of semi-serious injuries. "Oh hell yeah, yes please!" Fraggle said. "Christ can I just up and marry you right now eh?"

Piper laughed while Varan uttered a scoffing noise.

"Oh I see how it is. I make you breakfast every day for almost two years and I barely get a thank you." He grumbled, retrieving his crutches and hauling himself to his feet.

"Aw, well if that's how you feel eh I guess I could always marry you instead, I think it's legal on a couple terras." Fraggle said and Varan swatted at him playfully, laughing good naturedly.

"Always knew you two kids would make it." Angel said, pulling Wasp up out of her nest.

"Come on then." Piper said, leading us down the hallway. "Just to give you a heads up the others and I aren't going to be here for a while today, but you guys can hang out here and-"

"Wait, why not? Where are you going?" I interrupted.

"The Scar, us and a couple of the other squadrons that we could get a hold of are going to do some recon, see if there's anything we should take note of down there before blowing up what's left of the terra. Cyclonia's legacy can rot in the Wastelands and all of the equipment Cyclonis used with the Eternity crystal can be buried along with it. Although I think some of her crystal research may just mysteriously end up in my lab back home." Piper said, a sly little grin curving her lips.

"Well you little rebel, you." I teased before turning serious. "But we're coming with you, right? I mean we've been down there before, maybe we can help find anything that might be important."

Piper shook her head. "No, you guys are staying here. Falshade don't argue with me; I don't think you'll be much help anyways, what with all of you so roughed up and besides, we think you should just stay here and rest for awhile. You guys deserve it."

"Oh yeah 'cause we're the only ones who've been fighting for the Atmos this whole time." I said sarcastically. "Come on, don't treat us like kids."

"Nope, sorry, it's already been decided. The others are actually waiting for me to catch up with them, they're rendezvousing with the other squadrons right now. You guys are on your own for the day here, taking it easy."

I scowled at her. "That's not fair."

"Oh I know, aren't we just so awful?" Piper said, not taking my displeased expression seriously at all. "Anyways since you're being forced to take some leave of absence you can go visit Stork after you've eaten. We went to see her this morning, her pulse is already stronger than it was yesterday."

I stopped sulking at that, having forgotten about going to see Stork. "Really?" I said, hope rising swiftly in my chest. "That's great! So do they know when she'll be waking up then, if she keeps getting better like this?"

"No, they still don't know about that, I'm sorry." Piper told me and Angel rubbed my shouldering condolingly when I slumped again. "But the important thing is she's getting better, right?"

"Yeah." I agreed, although I didn't put much enthusiasm into it. My mood picked up again though when we reached the kitchen and took in the sheer amount of food that was laid out on the table. "Whoa." I said, my eyes stretching wide and my stomach rumbling demandingly, reminding me of just how empty it was. "It's like..."

"Nirvana." Fraggle breathed, taking the word right out of my mouth.

Piper grinned. "Yeah, I went a little overboard, but I thought you guys would be hungry."

Hungry didn't even cover it. "Christ..." I said, turning to her. "I mean thanks but..."

Piper waved a hand. "Don't mention it, I'm used to cooking for teenage boys." She said. "We already ate so help yourselves, whatever you don't finish just put it in the fridge alright? Oh yes, and your clothes are in the dryer. Whenever you get around to it, Stork's room is number eight on the fourth floor, okay?"

"Okay. Thanks a million, Piper."

Piper smiled. "Of course. I have to get going, so just try to relax, okay? We'll be back later and we'll fill you in on everything." She waved at the others and left back down the hallway; a moment later we heard the engine of her Heliscooter start up down in the hanger and then she was gone after the other Storm Hawks.

"Shiiiiiit." Fraggle said, sitting down at the table. "I don't even know where to start, eh. We've got like, six different types of pancakes here..."

Well needless to say the five of us fell on that like, well, five starved teens with voracious appetites and a lot of space that needed filling. I could barely get everything down fast enough, having a hard time remembering when food had tasted this good. None of us had eaten anything for the past three days, too stressed to be able to keep anything down and even before that we hadn't had nearly as much as we usually did. Hell I had no idea when Angel had last had something to eat. Even Wasp, usually so finicky it was hard to get her to eat much of anything, was all over what Piper had laid out for us, although she stayed away from the bacon and eggs, claiming that they were ruined that way. Which didn't really bother me any; just meant more for the rest of us.

"You know what's strange?" Varan asked at one point. "The fact that I didn't actually have to cook for once. It's weird... I feel like you guys."

"Great, isn't it?" Fraggle said around what was probably an entire slice of toast packed into his mouth.

"Well let's hope I don't get too used to it or you'll all starve." Varan said before wrinkling his snout, looking mildly disgusted by the sheer amount of food Angel, Fraggle and I were cramming down our throats. "The three of you are going to make yourselves sick." He informed us with distaste.

Angel gave him a nasty look and swallowed roughly so he could him speak coherently. "God damnit there you were picking at us for being too skinny. Well here we are eating and now you've got a problem with that. There's just no fucking pleasing you."

Well someone was staring to come back around.

Varan rolled his eyes. "Technically I believe eating involves chewing, which the three of you seem to be incapable of."

We were saved from further nagging when Wasp noticed the bowl of fruit that was sitting on Varan's other side. "Strawberries!" She gasped, her eyes growing huge and she stretched out as far as she could, trying to reach them. "Gaaaah, I must have!" Varan sighed and passed her the bowl, evidently accepting the fact that teaching table manners to a Faerieshian was a lost cause.

About half an hour and a few too many pancakes later Fraggle flopped down on the couch on the bridge with a groan. "Ugh, I think I overdid it, eh. Can we just like, stay here and have a nap or something, digest a little?"

I was feeling slightly drowsy again too, my stomach full to bursting and a nap sounded fantastic right about then. But I knew if I laid back down I'd probably be in a coma of my own and I really wanted to visit Stork, so I grabbed Fraggle's arm and heaved him off the couch. "No, come on we've put this off long enough already. We can pass out when we get back, alright?"

Fraggle sighed but got up. "Yeah, let's go then. But may it be declared now that once we get back I am not moving again until the end of the week, eh."

We had to pause for poor Varan a few times on the walk back up to the hospital but eventually we it made with minimal harmless teasing about it. A small group of kids were playing in the square just outside the hospital entrance, kicking a soccer ball across the slabs of stone and tussling with each other as easily as if they didn't have a care in the world. A warm feeling of happiness spread through my veins seeing them like that, carefree and full of life, wrapped in a feeling of security. Right then I felt like if my actions over the past years, all the effort I'd put in to try and make sure Atmos stayed safe, had contributed to insuring that kids like those had futures and were able to enjoy their childhood without the threat of war and destruction hanging over their heads, then I'd done my job as a Sky Knight.

Wasp stopped when we reached the hospital entrance, fidgeting and looking torn as if she'd like nothing more than the simply turn around and go back to the Condor. I wasn't too keen on going back in either, but my desire to see Stork outweighed my unease of hospitals and in the end Wasp's must have won out too; she took a deep breath, covered her nose with her hand and strode in with us, although her ears were tucked in alongside her head and she moved stiffly, betraying her discomfort. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Angel sidle closer to her and take her hand and I smiled.

The disinfectant smell crept up my nose and I had the overwhelming urge to start scratching at my entire body as if I'd broken out in hives. I tried not to breathe in too deeply as I looked around, trying to orientate myself. "So Piper said the fourth floor, right? I guess that means we're taking the elevator." I said, glancing at Varan and the ungainly way he was leaning on his crutches. He had a pinched look around his mouth and I was worried about him, hoping his leg wasn't hurting him. Now that his morphine had worn off the walk back here might have been a little too far...

"Elevator's that way." Angel said, pointing off down the hall. As we moved towards it I felt my throat run dry just thinking about being crammed into such a tiny space with all the hospital vibes pressing in so close but I swallowed and pushed the button anyways. Hell if I could handle my nightmares, Berserkers and Master Cyclonis back from the dead this should have been a walk in the park.

Wasp huddled in the corner when the doors opened, tugging her jacket collar up around her ears. "Ugh, it feels like a coffin in here." She muttered as we pressed in next to her. I rubbed her shoulder sympathetically, letting her know the feeling was mutual.

We made it to the first floor when suddenly the car stopped and the doors opened, revealing a pretty nurse with pale green hair waiting on the other side. "Oh, sorry, I'll wait for the next one." She said, backing away from the doors but Fraggle moved to hold them open and I exchanged an eye roll with Angel.

"Hey, no, that's alright eh, you can ride with us." He invited and the nurse smiled at him and stepped in next to him. "What floor?"

"Third." She said and he pushed the button for her 'cause he's just such a gentleman that way. "Where are you headed?"

"Fourth floor, eh. We're going to visit our friend. She's in a coma." Fraggle reported and I think the nurse's wide eyed look of sympathy had been exactly what he'd been aiming for.

"Oh I'm so sorry." She said, sounding genuinely upset and glancing over the bandage on Fraggle's cheek. "What happened there?" She asked, tapping her own cheek in demonstration.

"Oh, that's a good story, eh. See I was-"

"He stabbed himself with a fork." Angel cut him off. "He's not too bright, see."

The corner of the nurse's mouth twitched while Fraggle stumbled on his words, glaring at Angel. The doors opened and the nurse stepped out.

"I hope your friend will be alright." She said, looking like she was holding back a fit of laughter as the doors closed again.

Fraggle rounded on Angel. "God damnit what the hell did you go and say that for, eh?" He demanded, looking seriously peeved.

"Oh come on, she's probably go a ton of people to look after, you think she needs a mental patient on top of that?" Angel shot back while I coughed into my shoulder, trying to hide my laughter.

Fraggle looked insulted. "See it's stuff like that that doesn't make me happy you're back!" he said curtly.

I thought that might have been going a step too far considering how obviously sensitive Angel still was about everything, but if Fraggle's comment hurt he didn't show it. "Oh well excuse me, I should have realized you didn't need me to make you look like an idiot, you're quite capable of doing it on your own!"

"Oh come on you guys, don't start this already." Varan pleaded as the two of them crossed their arms, looking away from each other childishly. "It hasn't even been a full day yet."

Fraggle blew some of his hair out of his face and glanced over his shoulder at Angel. "...Ange you know I love you, right?"

Angel laughed and put his hand over his face. "Yeah yeah, love you too Fraggle."

"There, all better." I said and Varan nodded contentedly.

The elevator doors opened once again and Wasp practically climbed over me to get out. "Which room?"

"Number eight." I recalled, looking down at the rows of numbered doors. "Down that way." I pointed, leading the way and a sort of hush fell over us as we moved past the doors. The silence pushed in tight against my skin and it felt hard to breathe; it was as if any even slight noise was intrusive to the quiet that existed up here and I felt like some unseen force was glaring at me for even just the soft thuds of my boots against the floor.

Somebody had written 'Feonix' on a dry-erase board that was pegged to the door of room number eight and I felt the urge to wipe it clean and write 'Stork' instead. I glanced at the others who were waiting for me to go ahead and open the door and swallowed again, my throat feeling like it was clogged with nettles. The creak of the door as I pushed it open made me flinch, sounding like a crack of thunder in the silent hallway and I stepped into the cool room beyond with a shiver, feeling like I was walking into a morgue.

And there on the starchy white sheets of a hospital bed lay Stork, wired up to a collection of different machines which were making slow beeping and gasping noises, monitoring her vitals. She had tubes in her nose and arm as well and she looked like she was an alien that had been brought in to be vivisected with all those things hooked up to her. She was ghostly pale and seemed so, so small on that bed, like this place was sucking the life right out of her. I had the sudden urge to run over there, tear all those wires from her and take her away somewhere safe, out of this horrible whitewashed room that seemed to be pulling her closer and closer towards death.

Instead I moved slowly around the foot of her bed and up towards the pillow that had propped her head up at what seemed like a painful angle and crouched down beside her, taking her cold hand in my own gently, careful not to rip the butterfly needle from the back of her hand. "Hey Stork." I whispered, my eyes prickling and stomach knotting tightly. "It's us. We came to see you..."

"Jeez..." Fraggle muttered, his voice abnormally quiet. "I thought she'd look a little better than this, eh... hey kiddo." He said, touching her cheek very gently. "How you doing?"

"Well she doesn't look as bad as she did yesterday." Varan reminded him, trying to cheer us up. He looked over the charts briefly that were attached to the foot of Stork's cot. "Yeah see these say she's already getting stronger... oh, Wasp, look I don't think you should..." he trailed off as Wasp carefully crawled onto the cot to join Stork, curling up against her hipbone like a faithful pet and resting her chin on Stork's stomach, her eyes shining painfully.

"She looks so small..." she murmured, splaying her fingers across Stork's body as if making a little shield over her. Then she caught sight of the thin tube that trailed down to the needle that was embedded in Stork's pale skin and her ears went right back alarmingly, her hackles twitching. "What is that?" she hissed. "What's it doing to her?"

"It's okay, Wasp, it's just an IV drip." Varan assured her, dropping heavily onto the only chair in the room. "It makes sure she stays hydrated and gets the electrolytes she needs. It's helping her."

Wasp was still bristling. "It's not hurting her, is it?"

"No honey, of course not. She probably doesn't even know it's there." Varan soothed. Wasp glared at it for a moment longer before looking up at Stork's face, her lips trembling.

"...My friend Fli fell down three flights of stairs and broke her spine." She whispered, shaking. "When I went to see her in the hospital she looked like Stork does now..." her voice was choked off and she pushed her face into Stork's stomach, fingers gripping at her sheets and uttering a muffled sobbing sound. "Stork's gonna be okay, right? She's going to wake up and be the same old Stork, isn't she?"

I looked up at Varan desperately, my own fears about the same thing taking over any ability I had to try and be optimistic; I urgently needed somebody else's confidence in this situation to tell me everything was going to be okay, like I was five years old again.

"I know for a fact Stork is going to be just fine." He said, sounding very certain of himself for once. "She was fine last time, remember? She just needed to rest. Sure this might take a little longer, but there's no way she's going to be like this forever, or that she's going to be any different when she wakes up. Come on, this is Stork we're talking about here, there's no way she would just fade on us, she's got too much spirit for that."

Wasp sniffled. "That's true." She lifted her head and gave a tiny smile, her fingers making delicate patterns over Stork's ribs and tummy. "Oh little Storky..." she sighed. "I hope wherever she is right now is nice."

"Oh it probably is, eh." Fraggle said, trying to sound positive. "Probably some sort of giant racing convention eh. With lots of good-looking racer dudes."

Angel was standing behind me and put one hand on my shoulder comfortingly; I leaned back against him, gripping his wrist tightly. "God she looks weird with her hair like that..." he muttered and I'd forgotten that he hadn't been there when her hair had made the startling jump to pure blonde. He reached out carefully and ran his fingers through it gently, his teeth tugging at his lower lip as he took in her wane face. "Why did you have to go and do something so stupid, Baby Girl?" he asked her quietly.

I traced my fingers along her arm, feeling her faint pulse thrumming very slowly in her wrist. "Do you think she can hear us?" I asked, concentrating on her face as if waiting for a flicker of acknowledgement.

"She might be able to, depends how deep her coma is." Angel said.

"Well just in case you can, Stork, just know we're thinking of you." I told her softly. Hell there was a lot more than that that I wanted her to know, things I wanted to tell her, but I'd save those for when she was awake.

"Hey, who brought the flowers eh?" Fraggle asked then and I glanced up, only just noticing them. A large bundle of multi-hued flowers was sitting in a vase on the windowsill.

"Must have been the Storm Hawks." I said. It looked like each Storm Hawk had picked their own bunch of flowers and then they'd all combined them in one large bouquet. There were vibrant blue and orange sunflowers that I figured must have come from Finn, some little pink bell shaped flowers that hung below the stalk that I knew must have been Piper's choice and a nasty greenish purple one that kinda looked like a large spider that was definitely from Stork.

"Awww..." Fraggle cocked his head thoughtfully. "Think we should get her some too eh?"

"I dunno, Stork never struck me as a flowery kinda girl." Varan pointed out. "Plus flowers die eventually."

"Thank you for that depressing sentiment, Var." Angel said and Varan rolled his eyes.

"We should get her something though." Wasp insisted. "Like a card or something, so in case she wakes up and we're not here she'll at least know we were thinking of her. It has to be homemade though."

I smiled. "That sounds like a good idea, Wasp. You're really creative, how about you make it and then we'll all write something in it." I suggested, brushing my thumb over a bruise on Stork's upper arm absently.

After that we sat in silence, a collective, unspoken mourning for our absent friend, the only sound the beeping of Stork's heart monitor. I was incredibly relieved to know she was alive and for the most part unharmed, and that she was getting better as well, don't get me wrong. But it still made me ache to see her like this, to have her be so far away from me despite the fact that her body was lying right there before me. I missed her. I wanted her to be with us so we could all step into this new life together. I wanted to hear her laughing and making her stupid jokes and smiling like she used to before all the shit hit the fan. Wasp was right, for something this huge and life changing I felt like we should all be together and at the moment we weren't, making me feel incomplete. And that sort of bothered me; I knew Stork was okay and that should have been enough. I mean it wasn't like the others weren't enough for me, I just... I guess that's just the more childish side of myself, the desire to have everyone together when the really big things started to go down. I needed all five of them at my side to feel properly whole myself.

I don' t know how long we sat there for but at some point another nurse pushed the door open and started to see all of us packed into the tiny room. "Oh, sorry!" she said. "I just came to check her stats... oh, dear, listen, it might not be a good idea for you to be up there on the bed with her." She said to Wasp, whose ears folded back dangerously.

"Why not? And what are stats? You're not going to stick her with anything else, are you? She's not a pincushion you know!" Wasp growled, curling over Stork protectively.

"Wasp..." Varan warned in a low voice. "Calm down, it's okay. She's just going to check Stork's vitals and make sure she's okay."

The nurse's eyes swept over the rest of us as she took a hesitant side step away from the irritable Faerieshian and the side of her mouth cinched. "Oh, um, I hate to tell you this but there can only be four people in this room at a time when visiting. I'm terribly sorry."

I felt Angel bristle next to me. "Hey, look lady, this is our little sisterlying here and if we all wanna see her then we can damn well-"

"Angel." I stopped him, putting a hand on his arm as I straightened up. "It's okay, we can go."

"You sure there, Chief?" Fraggle asked. "I mean I can step out for a bit if you wanna stay longer, eh."

I shook my head. I was glad to have finally seen Stork, but it was making me sad to see her lying there like that, completely cut away and immune to the outside world. "No, it's okay Fraggle. We can always come back tomorrow, see how she's doing then."

Fraggle looked at me as if to make sure I was absolutely positive about my decision before nodding and then turning to the nurse. "Maybe you could leave us be for a second there, eh? I mean she's not going anywhere and you're kinda making this whole thing really awkward."

"Plus I believe you really push us over the four person limit." Angel added snidely. The nurse flushed and backed out of the room without a word and I wasn't sure whether to give the two of them a disapproving look or a grateful one.

"Alright, well..." Fraggle turned to Stork and brushed some of her pale bangs from her face softly. "See you around then, girly. Looking forward to you getting your butt outta here, eh."

"Bye bye, Stork. Hope you get up soon." Wasp said, kissing the tips of Stork's fingers. "I'll start working on your card right away, okay?" Then Wasp glanced with narrowed eyes at the door and licked the pad of her thumb, swiping the digit over Stork's forehead and leaving a streak of spittle. "There, protection." She muttered, nodding in satisfaction as Angel coaxed her off the bed. He looked at Stork's still face for a moment before ruffling her hair without a word and followed Fraggle and Wasp out the door.

Varan heaved himself to his feet, muffling a groan in his throat and stumped his way up to Stork's other side. "She kinda looks like an angel like this, doesn't she?" He said quietly and I had to crack a grin at the irony of his statement.

"Yeah, this'll be the one and only time she'll look anything close to that." I said and Varan smiled.

"I think we should enjoy the quiet while we can." He said. "Just kidding, Stork. Kinda miss your chatter, actually... tell you what, if you can hear me right now, as soon as you're awake I'll make you a big batch of chocolate chip cookies, how's that sound? If that entices you to get up a little sooner I mean."

I chuckled softly while Varan stroked her arm briefly with the back of his scaly knuckles and then glanced at me. "We'll be waiting outside." He added in a softer tone and turned and limped out the door, leaving me alone with my comatose best friend.

I looked over Stork again, not liking how frail she seemed and sighed, taking her hand gently once again. "...Why do you do this to me?" I asked her quietly, my throat suddenly very raw. "You're always getting into trouble and leaving the rest of us to freak out about it. It's not very fair you know. Remind me to kick your ass once you're in good shape again." I swallowed the lump that was rising in my throat and crouched down next to her again. "...God damnit Stork, why couldn't you just have listened to me for once? I mean I know you saved us... hell, you saved us all doing what you did. But Christ, what if..." I trailed off and sniffled, willing myself not to cry. "Anyways I just hope you get up soon. We miss you. I miss you." I stood up again and leaned over her still form, kissing her forehead gently. "We'll be back tomorrow." I promised. I stared at her for a moment longer before prying my fingers from her cooler ones and stepping quietly around her cot, leaving her alone in silence once again.

The others were waiting for me just outside and both Angel and Fraggle wrapped their arms around my shoulders while Wasp pressed her hand into the small of my back briefly. I sighed and wormed a smile onto my face as we strode back down the hall towards the elevator, Angel shooting the nurse a nasty look as she scooted past us.

"There there, Shade." Fraggle said, mussing up my hair sympathetically.

"I'm fine." I assured him. "I just kinda wish she could be closer, you know? Not in this stupid place, all by herself."

"Yeah, I don't trust the people here. What if the try to steal her bones? Or peel off her freckles or something?" Wasp demanded, her eyes widening in horror.

Varan sighed. "Wasp, I don't know what kind of horror novels you've been reading, but I can assure you that real doctors don't do that kind of stuff."

Wasp snorted as if she didn't believe him.

We made it back down the elevator without running into any more nurses and by the time we made it to the square I was starting to feel a little better. Maybe it was just leaving the foreboding hospital vibes behind, or maybe it was how bright the sun was shining, making it impossible to feel too negative on a day like today, despite how much I wished Stork could be enjoying it too, give the sun a chance to put some colour back in her skin.

I heard a scuffling noise next to me and caught the soccer ball beneath my boot as it rolled towards me. One of the kids broke away from his friends and hurried over, panting. "Hey, can I have that back, please?"

I grinned and kicked it back to him. He scooped it up, smiling and showing off a gap where he was missing one of his baby teeth and then paused, looking us up and down with interest. "Are you guys the Gargoyles?"

"Uh..." I blinked. "Yeah that's us. Why?"

The kid's eyes opened wide and he quickly turned and ran back to his friends, saying "Yeah, it's them! See, I told you!"

Varan furrowed his brow. "That was weird. Since when did we become... recognizable?"

"It's probably you, Var, you kinda stick out. Just a little bit." I teased, showing off a small space between my thumb and index finger to show just how little I meant and he rolled his eyes, shoving me playfully.

Angel stretched, popping his back and looking around absently. "Hey you know what I was thinking? I mean a card is cool and all, but maybe we could get Stork some of those gummy frogs she likes too."

"Ew, you mean those nasty things with the juice inside that she pops at us like giant zits and gets all the sticky stuff matted in my fur, eh?" Fraggle said, wrinkling his snout and Varan pulled a face at his description.

"Yeah, those things."

I grinned knowingly. "You just wanna find a sweet shop and get some chocolate."

Angel grinned innocently, a scary sight indeed. "Hey, you promised me chocolate and I'm gonna hold you to it."

I was about to say something about not promising him anything when Varan cocked his head and grabbed him by the shoulder, spinning him around slightly. "...Angel are you taller?" He asked curiously, brow furrowed.

Angel stiffened right up and looked over himself very carefully. "...That didn't change?" he asked slowly.

I looked him over critically; I'd been so worried over his current weight I hadn't really noticed anything else, but now that Varan mentioned it, he did seem taller. He'd seemed larger after getting implanted with that crystal, but I thought that would have changed along with everything else once the crystal was removed.

"Christ." Fraggle commented. "I think he is bigger, eh! He's like, my height now."

Angel lifted one leg as if judging the distance from hip to foot and then suddenly a maniacal grin cracked over his face and he burst into a fit of alarming laughter, spinning around and whooping.

"HA!" He shouted, jabbing a finger at Fraggle and I. "Now you can't call me short anymore! No more putting things on the top shelf to hide them from me, assholes! No more Cupcake!"

"How come that didn't revert like everything else though?" I asked.

"Who cares?" Angel demanded, dancing about and looking happier than I'd seen him in ages. "I've been the same old stupid height since I was thirteen, this is fucking brilliant!" Suddenly he paused in his triumph and stared at Wasp with wide eyes. "Here, hang on, hold still for a second." He instructed, turning her around and standing back to back with her. Wasp cocked her head, confused.

"No, Wasp just stand straight for a second." He insisted and then looked at me for a verdict. I eyed up the distance between the tops of their heads and had to push my fist up against my mouth, clearing my throat and trying not to laugh.

"Sorry, Ange, she's still got about three inches on you."

"Oh you gotta be shitting me!" He said, his face falling. "Fuck me in the ass, that's not fair!"

"What's wrong with me being taller then you?" Wasp asked, looking hurt.

"Nothing I guess." Angel huffed, kicking at a stone on the sidewalk. "Just kinda sucks, I actually get a growth spurt and it barely counts for squat."

"Yeah no offence there buddy but you're still pretty short compared to the rest of us." I pointed out and he glared at me.

"Thanks for kicking me while I'm down, Shade."

"No, sorry, you're right, go back to being all ecstatic and what not."

"Now I don't feel like it." He sulked, folding his arms moodily.

"Hey look at it this way, eh, chicks will think you're cute. You're like, travel sized." Fraggle said and I laughed so hard I thought I might puke at the look on Angel's face at that one.

"I don't wanna be cute, god damnit!"

"Oh and I don't think you're ever gonna shake off Cupcake by the way, not as long as you're still smaller than me." Varan added, grinning. I know it was kinda mean to be picking on the poor kid after everything he'd been through, but by getting a rise out of him like this it brought him back to his old snarky self and that's what we all really wanted to see. It meant the beginning of healing if we could get him to act like himself again, shake some of the guilt from his chest.

"And you're stuck with Angel Cakes for life." I informed him, wrapping him in a headlock with my good arm. He made a grumbling sound in his throat but didn't pull away as I practically crushed him into my chest.

"How come I don't have a nickname?" Wasp asked then, hopping on one leg and mimicking Varan's lurchy movements as we made our way down the street.

"Wasp, trust me, you don't want one." Angel muttered irritably.

"Oh but I do!" Wasp said, her eyes wide and beseeching.

"Alright then eh, from now on I dub you, uh... Waffles, eh." Fraggle decided and we all stopped to stare at him. "What? Oh come on, Waffles is a badass name!"

"I was kinda hoping for something more imaginative." Wasp sighed.

"I think Fraggle should be Waffles then, since he thinks it's so cool." I suggested.

"You're not supposed to just assign someone a nickname." Varan said matter-of-factly. "It has to have some sort of deep meaning."

"How in hell did I get pinned with Angel Cakes then?" Angel demanded. "What kinda deep meaning is that?"

"Well that despite your frosty exterior deep down you're actually all squishy and soft and sweet." Varan invented.

"Wow did you think of that off the fly?" I asked. "I think that deserves an award."

"Oh pshaw, it's Varan job to think of cakes and cooking and that kinda stuff." Angel huffed. "And I am not sweet. Never have been and never will either."

"Sure you are." Wasp said and Angel's cheeks went red.

"You are not allowed to comment on this."

"How dare you speak to Waffles in such a tone!" Fraggle scolded and Wasp laughed.

"You know, the more I hear it, the more I like it."

See this, this had been what I'd needed. No guilt-ridden friends, no stress clogging up my lungs, no cold hospital rooms. Just some normalcy from my crazy-ass friends, even though our standard of 'normal' was considerably stretched. If things could just be like this from now on, no imminent death hanging over our heads and nightmares plaguing our sleep, once Stork was up if we could all just stick together then I was convinced I'd never need anything more in my life than this. I knew it wasn't always going to be peaceful in the Atmos and that even now there was still a lot of chaos going on, but I could handle all that as long as I had a continuous supply of moments like these.


Later that afternoon the Storm Hawks returned to find us sprawled lazily across the bridge. The moment they stepped through the doors I was on my feet and Wasp made an irritated noise at me, as she'd been decorating my cast with some markers she'd found up until then.

"Did you guys find anything?" I demanded and Finn held up his hands to hold me off.

"Whoa, down boy! I mean I'm happy to see you too but could you tone it down just a little?"

I fidgeted, trying to keep out of their space and having a hard time with it. "Well come on, you left us alone here all day, I can't help it if I'm a little eager."

Piper sighed. "I thought I told you to relax." She scolded and I sagged a bit.

"I did for a while." I said defensively.

"Well, good. Did you go and visit Stork?"

"Yeah we did. She looks alright, although she's really pale." I said, my stomach turning cold at the memory of poor little Stork, seeming so fragile and small in that hospital bed, veins leaping out from beneath her pale skin.

"The doctors said that's normal." Piper assured me, dropping a satchel on the table and carefully pulling out a stack of parchment. I cocked an eyebrow at her and her cheeks flushed slightly. "Oh give me a break, we're talking about never before seen crystal technology here, how could I leave it behind while they blasted the place to kingdom come?"

"Yeah Piper likes to act like Miss Goody Two Shoes but deep down her core's just as rotten as the rest of ours." Finn said and Piper glared at him. Then he looked at me seriously. "Did the doctors say anything about Stork? Like has she made any more progress? Did she respond at all to you guys being there?"

My heart went out to the poor guy as I realized that he must be even more worried about Stork than we were, just as disheartened by her current state. "I'm sorry, Finn. A nurse came into the room but she didn't tell us anything." I told him, mentally kicking myself for not asking.
"Actually she told us to get out, if I recall." Angel grumbled.

Finn sighed and sat down at the table, examining one of Piper's research sheets distractedly. "Ah well... maybe I'll go down in a little later and check in on her."

Aerrow put his hand on Finn's shoulder comfortingly and turned to us. "Now I'm just going out on a limb here, but I think you guys had some questions?" he asked and we sort of pounced on him.

"Were there any soldiers still kicking down there?" I asked quickly, finally letting loose the questions that had been building steadily less ignorable in my mind.

"A few. They really seemed lost without anyone to tell them what to do. They were just milling around in the tunnels. I think some of them were still following their patrol routes, like they thought they still had to defend the place." Aerrow said. "We took care of them."

"What about the Heart Chamber? Were there any remnants of the Eternity crystal there?" I asked. This had worried me; if even a small sliver were to be found by the wrong person it could be disastrous.

Aerrow shook his head. "Trust me, we scoured the place with crystal scopes and everything, there's nothing left of it."

"There's not even an energy signature left." Piper added. "Usually when a crystal releases its energy like that you can pick up a signature of it up to a week afterwards, depending on the crystal size, type and strength. But there's nothing there. It's like it never even existed."

"Weird, eh." Fraggle mused. "Uh... what about the Merlin, eh? I mean was there anything left down there that might have been from her, eh?"

"We found this." Junko said, holding out a small chunk of metal, roughly the size of a paperback novel. "I think it might have been a part of her hull."

Fraggle took the piece of scrap metal with trembling fingers and examined it closely before pulling it into his chest and sniffling. Wasp wrapped her arms around his waist and pushed her face into his armpit sympathetically and he dropped his muzzle onto her snarled mane of hair with a shaky sigh. I rubbed his shoulder condolingly.

"What about the Nursery?" Angel spoke up then. "Did you guys find that? Cyclonis had a batch of Blitzkrieg, fuck, I mean Berserkers down there, ready to mature after... well after she thought she'd have defeated you guys." That dark look came back into his eyes and I stroked his hair, trying to soothe him.

"Oh we found it alright." Stork muttered darkly. "Nasty little hell hole. I no longer want any part in advances in medical science."

"They were all dead in the tanks." Aerrow told Angel. "She'd been pumping the crystal essence directly into them through tubes, right?"

"Right, so when it was destroyed the little fuckers didn't stand a chance. Well that makes me feel better." Angel muttered, a slightly manic look passing over his face. "What about the ones she'd deployed to the other terras though? They weren't all there when you guys stormed the place."

"Their regenerative powers died with the crystal; the other squadrons are cleaning up the last of them as we speak." Aerrow assured him.

"Regenerative powers or not you guys are going to have a hard time bringing down Kronos."

"Was that one of her specially designed ones?" Piper asked.

"Yeah, big motherfucker, she designed him to go into a rage at the scent of blood. He's a walking catastrophe."

The other Storm Hawks looked rather worried but Junko scratched his head, thinking. "Wasn't that kid from the Red Eagles talking about something like that? Somebody brought him down, the woman from Vatican's squadron..."

"Ozprey?" I demanded, perking up. "Oh man if that thing tried to mess with her than I feel sorry for it."

Angel's muscles unknotted with relief. "Well that's a load off my mind." He said and I had a feeling he must have been on edge this whole time, having known unfortunately well what Cyclonis had been planning for the rest of the Atmos. Varan ruffled his hair and then peered at some of Piper's plundered research. "So if this is Cyclonis' research on the Eternity crystal do you think it may give us some answers on what's going on with Stork right now?"

"I was thinking the same thing." Piper said, smiling at him. "I'll see what I can find in here... actually Angel..." she looked at him and cleared her throat slightly before continuing. "Um, well I don't want to ask you to do anything that you're not comfortable with, but if you were okay with it I was wondering if you could help me look through some of this? I'm not sure I understand all of it and I wondered if you might since..." Piper trailed off awkwardly and I saw Finn kick her in the shin under the table. I glanced at Angel but he didn't seem bothered. He simply shrugged and glanced over some of her paperwork.

"Sure, I can try. No promises though, I don't even know half the things that little witch was up to."

"You should feel special there, Piper, he's not usually this helpful, eh." Fraggle said and Angel swatted at him irritably.

"So that was it?" I asked. "There was nothing worth mentioning down there?"

"Nope, just some of her old equipment and a lot of corpses." Aerrow said. "It's all lying under two hundred tons of rubble now. Cyclonia's finished once and for all. Now we can focus on the repairing damage Cyclonis wreaked on the rest of the Atmos."

"What's the death toll at right now?" I asked quietly, although I really would rather not know.

Aerrow's face lost its exuberance. "It's reached the thousands. Everything's chaos right now, we've got thousands of people who've lost their homes and we're still trying to find places for all of them to stay, it's hard to keep track of the numbers. There are also terras that haven't been accounted for yet, relief teams are doing all they can but it's hard since we've been stretched across the Atmos. But now that we don't have to worry about soldiers nipping at our heels we're having an easier time getting aid to the terras that need it. It's going to be crazy for a while, but we're going to be alright now, thanks to all of you."

I felt my face heat up. "Oh come on, we weren't the only ones defending the Atmos." I muttered. "Everybody was doing what they could."

"Yeah, but you guys got to the heart of what was going on while the rest of us had to run around like fools trying to defend the front." Aerrow insisted. "If it weren't for you setting out to find out what your nightmares meant, Falshade, Atmos would still be at war right now. And there's no point in denying it, we were losing."

I stared at my boot, my face burning. I didn't think I'd done anything significant, nothing anyone else wouldn't have done in my place. I wasn't personally responsible for the victory of Atmos and I didn't want to be either. I hadn't set out chasing after my nightmares for glory or honour or anything like that. I'd just wanted to make sure my world and the people in it I cared about would be safe.

"That's why you're coming with me to speak to the Council of Atmosia tomorrow." Aerrow went on and my head shot up in alarm.

"I'm doing what?"

"The Council and representatives from the Sky Knight Legion want to hear from you personally a detailed account of the events that led to the downfall of Cyclonia." Aerrow explained, seeming to enjoy my discomfort. "They're calling you and the Gargoyles heroes you know."

I scissored my mouth a few times before the words would come out and out of the corner of my eye I could see Angel snickering to himself. "But... but I can't do that! I'll look like an idiot!"

"More so than usual you mean." Angel added and I cuffed him around the head.

"No you won't. You don't have to impress anybody, Falshade, you just have to tell them the truth." Piper soothed.

"Yeah and since when have we gave a damn what they think about us anyways, eh?" Fraggle added. "I bet they're all feeling pretty stupid right about now for ignoring you all this time, eh."

I sighed, scratching uncomfortably at my scalp. "Still it's just...ugh. When I set out to do all of this I didn't do it to be a hero or anything."

"It comes with the territory, dude." Finn told me, clapping me on the shoulder. "I'd just accept it if I were you. Personally I find it a nice little perk after nearly being decapitated so many times."


My good luck of sleeping in until noon was put to an end the next morning.

I could feel someone shaking me gently and groaned, pulling my covers over my head. "Go away."

"Falshade I'm sorry but you have to get up." It was Piper's voice coming to me groggily but I was having trouble differentiating between hearing what she was saying and actually listening to it.

Angel pulling the covers off me certainly did the trick though.

"Angel!" I whined, hunching up in a ball. "Give those back, I'm freezing!"

"Oh quit whining you big baby and get up already, you have to see the Council today, remember?"

I groaned again, unfurling and sitting up. "Shit that's right." I said, blinking a few times to clear the sleep from my eyes. Then I glared enviously at Fraggle and Varan, who were still deep in peaceful oblivion on the couch. Don't ask me how Fraggle managed it but after refusing to spend another night on the floor he'd made space for himself on the couch; Varan's bad leg and tail were now draped over him lazily and he had one foot resting on Varan's stomach, the other propped up on the back of the couch, each of them using an armrest as a pillow. Despite my grouchiness I felt a grin worm its way over my face and shook my head at the spectacle.

"I know right? I wish we could take a picture." Angel said, putting my blanket over Wasp, who was still curled up on the floor like a kitten. She sighed in her sleep and burrowed under the covers until only one leathery ear was peeking out. I stepped around her quietly and retrieved my boots, following Piper down the hall towards the kitchen, Angel stalking silently along behind me.

"So are Aerrow and I flying all the way out to Atmosia?" I asked, sitting at the table and helping myself to a slice of toast. I couldn't see how that would work though; we were only two hours out from the Scar and last time it had taken us over a day to reach it starting from Atmosia.

Piper shook her head. "No, you'll be meeting the Council on Mesa, it's about three hours from here."

"Home of the Interceptors, right?" I asked as Piper came over to the table and handed a mug to Angel. Aw, she'd made him tea.

"Right." She said. "Sugar's over there, Angel."

Aerrow strode in to join us then and looked at me with a grin. "Ah, he lives!" he teased and Angel snorted into his mug.

I scowled. "Whatever. So I assume we're heading out soon, since you guys insisted on waking me up while it's still dark out."

Aerrow mussed up my hair. "Yeah, soon as your done eating we'll go."

"He's not going anywhere with his hair like that." Piper insisted, coming up behind me with a comb in hand. She gently tugged it through my messy hair, trying to get it to lie flat and her actions sent a shiver down my spine, something that did not go unnoticed by Angel. He smirked at me and I felt blood rise to my face; making sure Aerrow and Piper weren't looking I shot him the finger across the table.

"Piper it's just gonna get messy again when I start flying." I pointed out and she sighed, accepting it as a lost cause and taking her comb away.

Aerrow clapped me on the shoulder. "I'll meet you down in the hanger when you're ready, alright Shade? I should probably go and check Finn's skimmer, make sure there's nothing jammed up in the gears like last time I had to borrow it."

Piper watched him go and shook her head. "He says last time like it was only a few days ago." She said, a strange tone entering her voice and Angel and I looked up at her, concerned. "It's like he doesn't realize it's been almost eighteen years since last time."

"Is it weird, having him back?" I asked her quietly and she leaned against the counter, folding her slender arms and looking at the ceiling, thinking.

"Well at first it wasn't because I guess I was just in so much disbelief to see him back. And then I was just so happy I didn't really think much about anything else. But... yeah it is sort of weird. We've gone through so much and had lives of our own all this time but now he's back and acting like we never missed a day since the way we were before, you know? It almost bothers me a little..."

I furrowed my brow, not sure what to say about that. How must it feel to have a friend been gone for so long and then just walk back into your life as if he'd never been away? I thought about when Stork had come back after a month of us thinking she'd been dead, how we'd made sure to go over everything that had gone on while she was away. I felt like I'd be a little bothered by it too if she'd just come back acting as if nothing had happened. "Well... maybe because he's been with us for so long now he feels like he's still been in a squadron all this time, you know? But then again, he was with Finn for a long time before that, when Stork lived with him. Maybe he feels like he knows what you guys went through and doesn't know how to bridge that."

"Yeah... I'm not even sure how we bridged it, when Stork gathered us all back together. I guess sometimes there are things you can't bridge and you have to just try and accept it."

"I dunno." Angel spoke up, looking at his mug with the utmost of concentration. "Sometimes there are things you shouldn't just leave unsaid either."

I grinned at him, pulling at a lock of his hair playfully. "You're starting to sound like Wasp." Then I started, having just remembered I'd promised to go and visit Stork again today. I know she probably wasn't aware that I'd told her that, but it mattered to me anyways; I'd always tried my hardest to be a man of my word. "Hey, um, are you planning to go see Stork again today, Piper?"

She came out of her reverie and smiled. "Yes, and I'll tell you how she is the moment you get back, alright?"

"Alright, thank you. Can you tell her I said hi too? I know it's kinda stupid, but..."

"I'll tell her for you, Shade." Angel said and I smiled gratefully at him.

"Well, I should go then." I said, getting up and shoving the last of my toast into my mouth.

"Good luck." Piper said as I left the kitchen and I waved at her, my mouth crammed full. Angel followed me down the hallway and I swallowed, turning to speak to him.

"So what are you up to today?"

"Well I figure since I'm up anyways I'll help Piper with those notes she took from Cyclonia." He said and I looked him over critically, feeling slightly apprehensive about it.

"You're sure you'll be okay with it?" I asked him, thinking back on what Varan had observed about him punishing himself; I had a nasty feeling that even if it did dig into the deep wounds he obviously carried from everything that had happened he'd make himself do it anyways and that worried me. "I mean it won't be too much for you or anything, will it?"

"Hey, I'm a tough guy, don't worry about me." He said and then dropped the act when I continued to look at him seriously. "I'll be fine, Shade. Besides, if it makes the time I spent in there useful, well then I'm going to do it."

I paused briefly to wrap my arm around his shoulders, squeezing him slightly. "Alright, if you're sure. But you were their against your will, remember. You don't have to try and make up for that."

"Oh yeah right, you bloody hypocrite, you act like you wouldn't look at it any differently." He said, teasingly but there were some truth to his words as he shoved me away playfully. I shoved him back and was suddenly reminded of something we'd talked about before jumping down that pipe to get to the Heart Chamber.

"Hey, Ange." I said, catching his arm as he attempted to tenderize my side. "I was just thinking, you remember how you told me my mom was supposed to adopt you?"

He stopped trying to wrestle with me and glanced up at me from under his bangs. "Yeah, what about it?"

"You told me I could bother you about it later, about you coming to live with us." I pointed out. "Well, it's later now."

He blew out a sigh and attempted to free himself of my grasp. "I dunno, Shade, I just don't think it's a good idea."

"Well why not? Mom won't have a problem with it and you're already my brother anyways. I think it'd be good for you." I wheedled.

"Shade first of all I'm almost eighteen, I'm too old to be adopted. And besides, I feel like if I did I'd be like, crossing a line with you, moving into your territory, you know? It's your family, not mine."

"Hell are kidding? I've wanted a brother since... well since mom told me I was getting a brother, you're not crossing a line at all. We made a space for you and it's been waiting there this whole time. And nobody's ever too old to have a family, dummy." I told him truthfully, giving him a nougie.

He heaved an annoyed sigh. "I'll think about it, alright? Doesn't mean I'm saying yes." He relented finally and I smiled.

"Alright, that's good enough for now." I studied him for a second and then, without really thinking about what I was doing, leaned down and kissed him on the cheek.

His face turned red and he absently touched the spot on his cheek, seeming rather confused about what had just happened before looking up at me with a raised eyebrow. "The hell was that?"

"That makes us even." I stated matter-of-factly, trying to mock his nonchalant attitude despite the fact that my own face had heated up slightly.

He furrowed his brow for a moment before a taunting grin spread itself over his mouth. "Oh come on, that does not make us even, I gave you a little more action than that." He said, pressing in closer to me mischievously. "You're not even going to give me a walk to first base here, Shade?"

I rolled my eyes and pushed him back out of my bubble. "So we're back to this whole thing, are we?"

"What thing?"

"Your whole man crush on me." I teased him and he pretended to look insulted.

"Oh yeah right, don't even try to act like that's one sided." He said and I laughed.

"Yes Ange, if I were gay I'd totally be all over you. Now before this gets any more awkward than it already is I should probably go." I said, mussing up his hair once more for good measure and continuing towards the hanger.

"Don't try to deny your feelings, Shade!" He called after me and I could hear the grin in his voice.

"I'm leaving now!" I called back.

"Whatever, you can try to hide it but I can see right through your little charade, lover boy."

I pinched the bridge of my nose, trying to keep my laughter at bay. "Goodbye, Angel."

"Yeah, see ya, try not to die without me."

"Oh what am I going to do about him..." I muttered to myself, stepping through the hanger doors and leaving Angel to his satisfied laughter.

Aerrow was waiting for me when I got down there. "All set? Great. Now I know you don't have a skimmer anymore, but Piper said you could borrow her Heliscooter if you want."

I eyed up said sky ride and felt apprehensive; I'd never flown anything like that before and I wasn't about to try and learn with a bum arm. "Uh... I think I'll just take Wasp's Gremlin, she won't mind." I wasn't even going to bother thinking about so much as touching Stork's Hornet; as much as she proclaimed she loved me I knew the moment that girl found out I'd messed around with her precious skimmer she'd claw my eyes out.

The flight to Mesa seemed to drag on longer than three hours to me. Aerrow didn't say much and I didn't really know how to strike up anything with him; to be honest I was still in a state of shyness around him, what with him being my hero and all. Mind you I felt a little more comfortable around him with the knowledge that I'd already sort of known him for a while, but that in itself made me feel awkward too. I was used to flying with the others anyways, trying to sneak up as close as possible behind them to tap them on their shoulders or tug their hair (or tail in Varan's case) when they least expected it or playing Chicken with them, ramming and banging into each other like idiots. It just didn't feel right going to explain to the Council what had happened to us without them there with me; it was their story just as much as it was mine, they'd been up to their necks in it and now to retell everything like they'd had nothing to do with it felt wrong to me. That coupled with my nerves and the fact that Wasp's Gremlin had have the most uncomfortable seat on the planet made the flight seem to go on twice as long and by the time we landed on the dry docks of Mesa my legs were numb and I had to stagger about like a drunk for a moment before the feeling came back, much to Aerrow's amusement.

By the looks of it Mesa was one of the terras that had opened its doors to the masses of refugees who'd been displaced by the war. There was a long, ragged line of weathered looking people waiting for their share of food in one of the streets Aerrow led me down and I could see a mass of tents pitched just outside the city, people milling about between the rows looking sad and lost. I saw a little girl staring longingly into the window of a sweet shop and paused, digging through my pockets until I unearthed some coins and tapped her on the shoulder, smiling and pouring them into her small hand. She stared at them and then looked up at me, beaming so widely her cheeks dimpled and she hugged me tightly around the knees before taking off down the street a little ways and tugging at the hand of someone who looked like her younger brother, showing him the coins in her hand and then pulling him back towards the candy store.

Aerrow smiled at me and put his hand on my shoulder in that brotherly way he had, shaking me slightly. "You're a good kid, Shade." He commented and then looked out towards the refugee camp. "We're lucky the battles didn't drag on as long as they did last time; we've been able to support the refugees so far with food and medical supplies." He said, nodding to the line of people waiting for their rations. "Last time this sort of thing happened by the end people were starving both in the camps and on the terra streets and nobody wanted to take in victims anymore. They hit us hard and we were ill-prepared but at least we had seventeen years to stock up on supplies without Talons raiding us."

I nodded. Mom used to tell me stories about that when I was younger; she'd been on one of the escort crews that guarded the carrier ships that came in to deliver supplies to Vatican during the old war when Vultures and Talons alike would jump the barges and try and steal their cargo to feed their own troupes. She'd only been a couple years older than me way back then and that's how she'd ended up meeting my dad. The rest, of course, was history. "Well that's some good news at least. Are some of these people going to be able to go home eventually?"

"Most of them definitely, once we get their terras cleaned up." Aerrow said confidently. "But some of them are going to have to find somewhere else to live I'm afraid."

I nodded again; more than likely Vatican would be welcoming some new residents in the days to come.

We reached the square where the meeting hall was located, a large white marble building with streaks of blue veins and a tall, spiked tower rising from the back. The Wind Fang, if I recalled, the watchtower of Mesa, it's vantage point said to allow anyone on lookout to see the enemy coming from forty miles away. A large statue sat in the middle of the square, much like the one of Fabian the Peace Keeper back on Vatican and I paused to look at it as we passed. It was carved from the same marble that the Wind Fang was constructed from and it depicted a group of four people, all with fierce, proud faces and weapons held with brave determination in their hands. The gold plaque beneath told me exactly who they were:

'This statue honours the memory of Mesa's esteemed Interceptors, Vallen, Fledge, Mercury and Jero, who gave their lives valiantly trying to aid the distressed people of terra Bogaton. May their spirits rest in peace.'

Aerrow looked up at the statue as well, his emerald eyes shining with sadness. "This was Starling's squadron." He muttered, almost sounding like he was talking to himself as he touched his fingers to the gold plaque. I looked into the faces on the statues, my stomach knotting painfully as I recalled the story of the devastating fall of the Interceptors. That was back in the days of the original Storm Hawks, when a small group of Terradons attempted an uprising against the Raptors, disagreeing with the way they were running the terra and attacking the people of the Atmos. The Interceptors agreed to help the small band of rebels but Repton was tipped off to the attack the two groups had been planning by an insider and both the group of rebel Terradons and all of the Interceptors save Starling were slaughtered in the resulting skirmish. It was this event, coupled with the Raptor's actions thereafter, that made it difficult for people to have much sympathy towards the Bogaton genocide fifteen years later. It was almost like nobody cared about the fact that it all had happened because not all the Terradons agreed with Repton's tyranny. Then again, when facing the loss of some of their most beloved heroes I guess I could understand; it's hard to feel sorry for the people you associate with the death of your soldiers, even if they had shared a common enemy. Varan had explained that to me once, when I asked how he could take the reproach that was aimed at him in the glares of some people and not return it with any of his own. I guess I was able to understand things from both sides and I touched the marble boot of the closest stone soldier, sending the fallen Interceptors some quick thoughts, letting them know I admired them for what they'd done. I was glad this statue had been placed here in their memory, because it was people like this that deserved to be remembered; it just upset me that no one had ever made a memorial for the innocent lives lost in the Bogaton massacre as well, because that too was something that should have been remembered.

Aerrow continued on his way towards the hall after a moment and I followed after him, swallowing down the twitching bundle of nerves that suddenly started struggling in my stomach. "Hey, Aerrow? I was just thinking, well... what are you going to tell them about you? I mean everyone's thought you were, er, well, dead this whole time. How are you going to explain that?"

Aerrow paused on the marble stairs that led up to the massive oak doors and turned to me, something both mischievous and serious glinting in his eyes and for a split second I thought he looked a little like Stork. "I have that all worked out; I'm going to tell them Cyclonis and I were in fact alive all this time. Falshade listen to me for a second, this is important." He added when I opened my mouth to ask him how in hell he thought he was going to pull that story off. "I don't think it's a good idea to tell them anything about Stork's connection to the Eternity crystal. For all they know, she had nothing to do with its destruction, or Cyclonis and I for that matter and I think we should keep it that way. I know that if they find out about her, about how she was created and all that crazy shit, she'll never be able to live a normal life again, they'll always be hounding her, wanting to study her like she's their own little guinea pig, you know what I mean? People with no ethical standards will want to get their hands on her, just like Cyclonis did."

I bristled at this thought and nodded. "Right, good point. What they don't know won't hurt them, and I think they'd have a hard time believing us anyways."

Aerrow winked. "Exactly." He eyed me up and down critically. "You nervous?"

I swallowed again. "A little bit."

Aerrow grinned. "Oh sure, you can take on a whole Berserker army and bring down an enemy commander literally single handed no problem, but the thought of facing a group of stuffy old Council men is what intimidates you?"

I gaped at him, because right then he sounded so much like Stork it actually made my chest ache. He didn't seem to realize this though and placed a hand against one of the doors. "Alright well, here goes nothin'."

I straightened up stiffly, my back cracking in the middle as I followed after him into the cool inner halls of the Wind Fang, rolling my shoulders uneasily. The hall we found ourselves in was lined with statues of the terra's past Sky Knights and squadron members much like the inside of the Honey Comb and I studied each of them briefly as we passed. Aerrow led me along the long, silent hallway until we finally reached a set of doors that had been opened wide, welcoming us. The room inside was circular with a high ceiling and I figured we must be on the inside of the Wind Fang itself. The walls were lined with balconies that were filled with seats, not all but many of them occupied by important looking people who all fell silent as Aerrow and I entered the room and I had to fight down a shiver, feeling like I was in one of those old fashioned operating theatres. Aerrow didn't seem fazed at all as he strode confidently to the centre of the room, stepping onto a raised circular platform in the middle of the room and I tried to embody the same assurance, trying hard not to stumble as I stood next to him on the podium. Glancing up from under my bangs I took in the people who were sitting in the veranda seats, recognizing the faces of the Council men who'd been there the day we'd registered as an official squadron on Atmosia. I also picked Harrier out from the crowd and felt my muscles stiffen, a pulse of dislike thrumming in my veins. As my eyes continued to wander, hoping I might catch a familiar face I spotted a purple haired woman who was watching me intently and felt like I should know her. I didn't have much time to think about where I might have seen her before however because one of the oldest looking of the Council had cleared his throat and stood up, a warm smile on his wrinkled face.

"Sky Knights Aerrow and Falshade I'd like to welcome you to the Wind Fang!" he said, his voice weathered and raspy but clear none the less, filling the entire room. "We are all very pleased that you could make it here to join us today."

"We're pleased to be here." Aerrow greeted in return, dipping in a slight bow and I followed suit. Man this was such a different welcome than the one we'd received last time we'd stood before the Council, trying not to squirm under their scrutinizing gaze. Today I felt as if they were all overly eager to make us feel comfortable, almost frantically willing to please. And for some reason that made me feel angry; I didn't like that just because I was supposedly some big hero that only now I should be shown some respect. I was exactly the same person now as I was before, minus a functioning arm. I straightened up and set my shoulders firmly, casting off any nervousness I'd felt earlier; Aerrow was right, I'd gone through too much shit to be intimidated by these guys.

The Councilman went over some brief introductions before sitting back down in his chair, looking down at me in a sort of grandfatherly way and I stared back unwaveringly, not fretting about how dishevelled I probably looked, my hair sticking up in odd directions and my cast coated in multi-coloured splashes of marker that Wasp had written and drawn all over it with, spouting things like Falshade- Hi! Love Wasp. I wasn't concerned about the Council of Atmosia thinking I looked like a scruffy adolescent punk anymore, not like last time. I'd proven I had substance despite what my appearance and attitude might have said about me and I didn't feel like I had to change that just because of them. I was who I was and if they didn't like it, well, that was their problem.

"So this is the great Falshade Ravenscroft. Let me tell you how honoured we are to be able to speak with you today."

"I'm honoured to be here, sir." I said. Hey just because I didn't feel like I had to impress these people didn't mean I was going to be rude. I wasn't that defiant when it wasn't called for, not like some unruly little punks I happened to know.

"I trust you and your squadron are well? You've all been tended to and are in good shape I hope."

"Oh, yes, we're all fine, thank you."

"Good, good." The Councilman nodded before looking at me seriously, tenting his fingers. "Now Falshade I assume you've been told why we've requested to see you here today? We'd appreciate it if you could tell us your account of everything that you and your squadron experienced while Atmos was under siege. We require this information for our records and there are still quite a lot of grey areas in our knowledge that we were hoping you could clear up for us."

My confident composure slipped a little. "Records?" I repeated hesitantly.

"Yes. The events of this war will go down in our history and that includes the actions of the Gargoyles." Another Council member explained and I felt my stomach drop a few inches. Oh Jesus...

"Um..." I swallowed, my throat suddenly very dry and looked at Aerrow, who nodded encouragingly and motioned for me to continue. I looked back up at the Council. "Well... where would you like me to start?" I asked, trying to keep the unease out of my voice. Speaking to the Council was one thing but knowing that our story was going to be something solidified in the Atmos' history was quite another. I really wished the others were here now, for comfort and support and to make sure I didn't miss anything crucial. God so much had gone on in such a short amount of time it was hard to put everything in order.

"Wherever you think is the proper place to begin." Another younger Councilman told me kindly. I ran my tongue along the roof of my dry mouth and tried to think where the beginning of this whole messy knot was.

In the end I started with my nightmares, giving them a brief synopsis of what kind of things I would see and how this had driven me to put together my own squadron, unable to shake the gut feeling that there was something out there waiting to raise from the shadows and consume us all. I told them about how I'd met all the others and how we'd come to be the Gargoyles, setting off in search of some sort of clue that would tell us what my dreams meant. And then I just went from there, reeling it all out in a long, uninterrupted spool, telling them about all our adventures and encounters since we'd left Atmosia that day as an official squadron. God it was hard to believe that was barely three months ago; so much had happened, so many things had come along and changed our lives since then it seemed impossible that it should all be packed into such a short length of time. I'd nearly died and nearly had my best friends torn from me forever, I'd grown and learned things about myself and the others I'd never known before, I'd experienced so much and done things I'd never thought myself capable of. As I got lost in the story I was telling the Council I had a hard time looking at myself as the same person I'd been before all of this, like the old me and the me standing here now were a little further apart then I'd thought. Deep down I still felt like the same old Falshade, but with a few subtle differences; I felt a little stronger and maybe a little wiser too, a little more mature (although I'm sure Varan would tell me otherwise) and a little older as well. Life lessons had been learned, scars had been made, calluses toughened, bonds tested and deepened. And I suppose all that was necessary; Varan had said it before, if we could change the things that happen to us then we'd never learn anything, never grow at all.

The Council let me go on for the most part uninterrupted, only stopping me once and awhile to ask a question or two. It was weird having them all listen to me so avidly; half the time my own squadron didn't even listen to me this well. It made me feel awkward at some points and I skimmed over anything that was too personal, feeling that some things need only stay between me and my friends. I was as honest as possible for the most part but as Aerrow had advised I left out some of the big chunks that I didn't feel they needed to know. I told them nothing about Stork for instance; I told them about her going missing and her connection to the Storm Hawks of course but other than that to them she was just an ordinary little grease monkey (well, as ordinary as Stork can be of course) with nothing abnormal about her. I edited pretty much everything out of the conversation Wasp had had with Cyclonis down in the lower tunnels of that outpost terra we found, told them nothing about the things we'd discovered about Stork's origin and explained that Stork had destroyed the crystal using the Black Hole device Piper had made and the reason she was in a coma now was that she'd been too close when the crystal had exploded, injuring her head. I also left out everything about what had happened to Angel. It was nobody's business but his what Cyclonis had done to him and the last thing I wanted was for people to start hassling him the way they hassled poor Varan for something that wasn't his fault. The Dark Ace's name was still something of a blight in the Atmos after all and it scared me to think what people might do to him if they found out he was his son.

And I left out all the parts where one or more of us had broken down in fits of despair and hopelessness, not because I wanted everyone to think we were just so tough and hardcore, no. But again those were the things that was nobody else's business but ours. What had happened between us Gargoyles stayed between us Gargoyles, the tender and tearful moments that no one else should have privy to.

By the end of it my throat was starting to feel sore and I was drained, feeling like I'd just explained a whole lifetime of events in the length of only a couple hours. The Council and some of the others who'd been listening this whole time then asked me a bunch of questions which I tried my best to answer, editing some of the more messy of details out. Once they'd seemed satisfied that I'd filled them in on everything they'd needed to know the turned to Aerrow and asked him to explain his version of things. He began by telling them that neither he nor Cyclonis had been killed that day seventeen years ago during the final battle on Cyclonia, but rather when Cyclonis tried to summon the Eternity crystal's energy in a last ditch resort to destroy Atmos' armies they'd been overwhelmed by the flux of power and both had gone unconscious. This part sounded not too far from what had probably happened if you ask me. Later, when he came around, Aerrow explained, Cyclonis was holding him in a prison made by the energy of the crystal deep under the terra itself, deeper than even the Wastelands. There he'd remained while Cyclonis' power over the Eternity crystal grew until she was able to start building a new army of the crystal fuelled soldiers who been attacking us, all while he'd looked on helplessly. When the crystal was destroyed he was finally set free of the bonds that had held him in his terrible prison all this time. His story had some holes in it I had to admit (for one thing he was in rather good shape for someone who'd been held in a subterranean prison for seventeen years) but he told it well and since they had nothing else to make them believe his story was all a thoughtful lie they accepted his answers with minimal questioning. I think they were all too pleased that Aerrow, one of their most legendary Sky Knights in history, was back in action and that the skies of Atmos were safe once again to question him too harshly. I'm sure Angel would have made a comment of ignorance being bliss, but I couldn't blame the Council for wanting a straight forward and simple answer after everything that had happened. I would never be the kind of person who could easily accept things for being what they seemed, but I had my nightmares to thank for that. In fact I sort of envied the people who could take the answers that were given to them, nod and go on their way. Life was probably a lot simpler that way.

Then again it must also be boring as hell.

"Well..." The head of the Council said at last once everything had been recounted, more than three hours after Aerrow and I had first entered the chamber. "This is certainly a long and strange tale indeed. I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say that I am very grateful for you giving us all this information. However that doesn't even come close to how grateful we are for the things you've done for the rest of us. Thanks to you the Atmos has been saved from what surely would have been a nightmarish future. We are forever in your debt, Falshade Ravenscroft, you and your squadron. The Atmos shall honour all of you as heroes. "

I scratched at the back of my head uncomfortably, not sure what to say. I'd never been motivated by things like fame and glory when I set out to do all I did. I could say I just wanted to do it to make sure the things I saw in my nightmares wouldn't come true, and for the most part that was true. But I'd also been driven by the relentless, unquenchable desire for action and adventure. I'd never been the type of person to just sit around and live a quiet life, that just wasn't my cup of tea. I'd wanted to fly and fight and explore the uncharted corners of the world ever since I could remember; I suppose anyone who signs up to be part of a squadron must feel something like that deep down, this undying, uncompromising urge to sink your teeth into the kinda life where you don't know where you'll be the next day and never let go. Whether I'd been plagued by nightmares all my life or not I knew deep down I would have ended up doing the sorts of things I did in the end anyways, hungry for excitement and danger. It was the sort of person my dad had been and it was the sort of people my friends were too. I'd set out on my quest for my own personal needs and reasons with the notion of the Atmos' safety behind me to push me forward when I faltered. When I looked back on it all it was almost like one big high-stakes game, one I was just born to play. I'd been determined to win only to insure the survival and safety of the people I cared about, and the people they cared about; admiration, glory and fortune had never meant much to me.

I cleared my throat and looked up at the Council members. "Well... thank you. But it's not necessary, really. I was always just doing what I needed to do, what I thought was right. Anyone would have done the same. I think everyone who helped fight for the Atmos in one way or another is a hero."

The Councilman smiled at me in that grandfatherly way again. "Well said, Falshade. I know your father would be very proud of you for what you've done."

I smiled as well, always pleased to hear mentions of my father. However it didn't mean as much to me this time hearing it from the Council. Somehow it just meant more from the people who'd actually known my dad, knew what he'd been like and how he'd think and act. From them it was always said with real, honest feeling and I took it deep to heart. From the Council though it just seemed like formal words.

"Thank you, sir. I know he would too."

"Now that we've finished asking you our questions we would like to ask if there's anything either of you wish to discuss with us. Is there anything you and your squadrons might need? Anything pressing matters to be attended to? If there are please speak up." The Head of Council invited and I shared a look with Aerrow, who shook his head.

"No, thank you sir but I think we'll be alright." I assured him.

"Are you certain? From what we've heard you've all been through so much, are you sure there's nothing we can do to..." He trailed off as I held up my hands, shaking my head.

"No, thanks for your concern, but we're fine, we've got all we need."

"Alright." The Councilman stood once again. "If that is all the matters that need be addressed I think we can release you back to your squadrons now." He looked over the rest of the present audience as if waiting for anyone to say otherwise. When no one added anything he nodded and extended a hand towards the door. "Well then we will let you go on your way. Again we thank you for coming here today and for your services in the name of the Atmos. We extend our gratitude and hope you and your squadrons recover and find yourselves well."

"Thank you again for having us. May peace find you well." Aerrow returned, bowing again and then turning to leave. I bowed as well and followed after him, eager to be heading home and see how the others were doing when suddenly a thought came to me so violently it was like lightning struck the top of my head; I recalled the statue outside and turned, climbing hurriedly back onto the platform, ignoring Aerrow's raised brow.

"Wait!" I said and those who'd started to get up from their raised seats sat once again, heads cocked curiously and a few mutters travelled between those present. The Head of the Council raised his hand for silence and looked down at me patiently, waiting for me to explain myself. "I'm sorry but there is something I'd like to discuss."

"By all means." The Councilman invited and I fidgeted a little, not exactly sure how to open the subject so I just did what we Gargoyles do best and ploughed right in.

"The Terradons." I said and finally was met with that same sceptical look I'd received so many times before. Ah, familiar territory at last.

"I'm not sure we understand what you're getting at..." The Head of Council said slowly, an uncertain tone entering his voice.

I swallowed and kept on going. "I'm talking about the treaty. We're supposed to be at peace with the Terradons, aren't we? But I've seen how they live on Bogaton and I don't like it. We aren't treating them like we're at peace or that we even trust them. We're keeping them underground and behind walls and it's not right. I made a promise to Repton himself that I'd change that and now here I am prepared to keep my word."

The stunned expressions that rippled through the spectators up in the balconies reminded me of the looks I'd been given my whole life when trying to explain my concerns I'd had about the Atmos' security. I knew I was digging into a touchy subject here; I was standing in the hall of Mesa after all, the terra that had the most reason of any to keep the Terradons locked behind bars, the most reason to hate them. I wasn't trying to pick at old wounds or hurt people's feelings but I just couldn't ignore what I felt needed to be said either.

A different Councilman stood and spoke now, tone even but firm. "Falshade you are young and I understand how you feel, that you want justice and equality for all. But there are things that you don't understand, events in the past that make things more complicated than you may think."

"I understand plenty." I said in the same reasonable yet determined tone. "I know it's not simple, everything that's happened between us and the Terradons. I know very well, probably better than you do, with all due respect. I know about the atrocities Repton and the other Raptors committed. I saw the statue outside and my heart goes out to Starling and all the other people who lost those they loved to the rogue Terradons, please believe me. But I also know about some of the things we as humans seem to want to ignore, such as the horrors that were committed on Bogaton fourteen years ago. My friend Varan can never forget about it; he was there, waist deep in the remains of his people when he was only four years old. A group of humans hurt the Terradons just as badly as a group of them hurt us. But we can't just hold these grudges forever. We all have to try and let it go and start over, on both sides."

"You really believe the Raptors will be willing to let it all go?" Harrier's clipped, accented voice rose from the balconies and I met his disapproving gaze with one of my own. "You are naive, Ravenscroft. Those creatures will not so easily forgive us, even those of us who had nothing to do with the crimes committed on Bogaton."

Harrier was the only one I was going to exempt from any attempt at being polite; full defiance was allowed here I figured. "Actually, Harrier, I think you're the naive one. The Terradons have already proven well enough that they are willing to let things go. Varan, Repton's own son, has grown up with humans and holds no ill will or resentment towards them for the horrible things they did to him and his family, despite the fact that many humans, you being one of them if I recall, treat him like dirt. He's done nothing to deserve the disgust and anger that he receives wherever he goes and yet he accepts it all without complaint anyways. In fact he showed you respect and understanding despite your atrocious treatment of him on your terra, something that you didn't have the decency to return."

Okay so that was a cheap shot, calling him out in front of the Council of Atmos like that but both the appalled and disapproving looks he received from the other members present and the heated look of embarrassment that rose to Harrier's face was totally worth it. I didn't think it was any less than he deserved anyways.

"We believe that your friend Varan is an admirable fellow indeed and we hold him in the highest regard for his tolerance of the actions made by the types of people you mentioned." Here the Councilman shot Harrier a disdainful look. "However he is only one Terradon and although obviously a unique and impressive representative for his species he cannot reflect the feelings of the entire population."

"Repton helped us." I said, refusing to let this go. "We asked him for help in finding terras that used to have Cyclonian activity and he gave us coordinates without being threatened or bribed. He offered us assistance and I'm not going to just forget about that. That matters, it counts for something. The Terradons have made the first step towards putting the past behind them and starting over new, so why can't we as humans try to make a step as well? Don't Sky Knights stand for forgiveness and the belief that people deserve second chances? I know it's not all that simple and I don't think Repton and the other Raptors should just be set free; I don't agree with the things they did in the past. But they don't deserve to stay underground for the rest of their lives either, and what about the other innocent Terradons, the ones who had nothing to do with the actions of the Raptors? Why should they have to live behind walls with armed men hanging over their heads? Why should we get to control their lives? If we really are at peace with them like we say then they should live free on their own terra with their own rules and ways of doing things."

The members of the Council looked at each other, seeming both thoughtful and conflicted. There was some more muttering for a few moments before the violet haired woman stood up and a hush fell over all present. Even down below I felt awed by her presence, compelled to listen to what she had to say.

"Falshade is right." She said, her voice crisp, clear and strong. "I know as well as anyone the horrors that the Raptors were capable of and so I understand the fears that have compelled us to keep them under lock and key. But our fears should not be allowed to control the existence of an entire species. Keeping them caged and under surveillance will never allow the resentment to die, for them or for us. We have to stop looking at them as prisoners and start accepting them as our fellow people. By allowing them freedom and rebuilding the bonds between humans and Terradons we can assure that history will not repeat itself and that a new, brighter future for both of us will rise. I say we make this step as Falshade has suggested and free the Terradons from our regulations."

Stunned silence followed after the woman's speech and I racked my brains, trying desperately to remember how I knew this woman and why on Atmos she felt compelled to take my side. As if she could read my thoughts the woman smiled warmly down at me and identified herself.

"You remind me of your mother, Falshade. You're just as righteous as she is." She told me, her voice carrying a softer edge than it had a moment ago and it almost sounded a little teasing. "I am Starling and the statue you mentioned outside is of my dearly departed squadron."

I nearly fell right off the platform. Holy shit, that was Starling? I felt blood go rushing to my face; I couldn't believe I'd just said what I'd said about her without realizing she was sitting right there the whole fucking time! Lord strike me down now and spare me the humiliation. I mean Starling was up there with my most favourite of Sky Knights, one of my idols since forever and there I'd been rambling like an idiot without realizing she was right there in front of me.

"Uhhh..." I stammered, trying to recover before I made myself look even stupider than I already did while Aerrow laughed under his breath beside me. "I, um... well you pretty much summed up my point there so... I'm just gonna... stop talking." I trailed off and wanted to kick myself as a few good natured chuckles rose from the Council members. Apparently being some kind of 'honoured hero' did not spare you from looking like a flabbergasted moron in front of the Council of Atmos. Right then I was glad the others weren't there or I never would have heard the end of it.

The Head of Council was shaking his head slightly, an expression of both bewilderment and amusement on his weathered face. "Well you've certainly made an impression here today, Falshade." He told me and I had to fight to hold eye contact, wanting nothing more than to turn tail and slink on home with a little bit of dignity intact. "And you've really given us something to think about. We will have to discuss the proposition you've made for it is not something to be taken lightly, but I think you've struck on an important point, one that some of us seemed to have too easily pushed to the back of our minds and we're not just going to set it aside."

I cleared my throat. "Well, um, good. It's not something I just want swept under the rug, you know?"

The Councilman nodded. "Now, I'll ask again, is there anything else you wanted to discuss?"

I felt another flicker of embarrassment but grinned and shook my head. "No, I think that's it."

"Good. Then we will bid you and Aerrow good day." The Councilman extended his hand towards the exit, allowing us to leave and this time I didn't turn back. I meant to head back outside but as we started off down the hallway which we'd come in Aerrow grabbed my elbow and nodded off down one of the side corridors.

"These stairs take you to the top of the Wind Fang." He explained. "You really should see it, the view's fantastic."

I glanced down the hall towards the massive oak doors but then shrugged, following after him up the stairs. I couldn't see why not and after spending all that time in that audience hall with those in the raised seats towering above me and making me feel slightly claustrophobic, I wanted to be outside, somewhere high and clear. The stairs Aerrow led me up wound around in a slowly tightening circle, making me feel dizzy as I lost count of the number of marble stairs we climbed. By the top my injured hip was throbbing slightly and I think it'd started bleeding again but I didn't mind so much, especially when I took in the rewarding view from the top of the Wind Fang.

"Wow..." I breathed, leaning against the stone railing and looking out at the expanse of the Atmos that was cast wide before me. I mean I was used to viewing the world from high up; I'd spent about ninety percent of the past two years in the sky. I practically felt at home up here. But it was nice to just stand still and take it all in from such a vantage point. Below my feet the terra sprawled, streets connected like the threads of a spider web, people little ants scurrying about, tending to their own purposes. Directly below I could see the statue of Starling's fallen squadron and felt a touch of sadness knowing they'd never see the skies from this angle again. I hoped that wherever their spirits had gone after their untimely deaths that they approved of what I'd tried to do for the Terradons. They didn't seem too different from my own squadron really; they too had set out on a dangerous, unusual mission in order to help the repressed Terradons, doing what they felt was right despite the doubts of others. Right then I hoped someday I'd get the chance to be with Starling under better circumstances, to tell her how much I respected her for everything she'd done.

"Pretty incredible, huh?" Aerrow said, grinning and leaning against the railing next to me, his crimson hair flung up in all directions by the wind. "Nothing like the wind in your face."

I smiled. "Yeah. I'm going to have to get myself another skimmer, I'm not going to be able to stay grounded for long." I glanced down at my cast and tried wiggling my fingers in vain. Nothing. I chewed on my tongue absently, wondering how I was going to be able to pilot a skimmer and hold my scimitar if I only had one arm. My stomach shrivelled with unease at that thought, the notion of my Sky Knight days coming to a close because of a bum arm. But then I shoved the uncomfortable thought away; there were ways to work around only having the one arm, it'd just take some getting used to, that's all.

I looked at Aerrow's face then, noting a few old scars on his jaw and cheeks and the fire that danced, roguish and indomitable, in his emerald eyes. Stork's eyes. As he pushed a handful of his fly-away red hair from his face I really saw how much this was his place, the wind rushing across his features and tugging him away to some far off place or other, undaunted in the face of the unknown. He was a vagabond warrior, at home nowhere but besides his friends with adventure and danger calling his name. This was the only life for him, a Sky Knight tied to no one terra but the entire world and everything it had to offer. Maybe it was his influence that had compelled Stork to follow recklessly after me, suturing herself to my side right from the very beginning. Then again Stork had always been an adventurous girl all on her own; I think even if there had been none of this Aerrow/Cyclonis stuff playing a part of who she was she would have chased along after me anyways.

"Hey, Aerrow?"

His green orbs flicked towards me. "Yeah?"

I put my good arm on the cool stone railing and set my chin on top of it, gazing distractedly off into the clear blue sky that stretched before me in all directions. "I'm just thinking... what happens to us now? What are we going to do, now that Cyclonis is back in the grave and there's peace again? I know we have a lot of work to do still, people to take care of, homes to rebuild. But what about after that?" I looked up at him seriously, feeling slightly uneasy, like I'd been cast into open air all of a sudden. What did Sky Knights and their squadrons do, after the danger had passed and the nightmares had come to an end? What did people like me and him and our friends do then?

He put his chin on his hand and stared out at the sky as well, thinking for awhile before answering me. "You know no one's ever mapped out every inch of the Atmos. There's still miles of space out there that hasn't been seen, unexplored corners, terras that haven't been discovered, lost cities, unmapped caves... there's enough unknown territory out there for people to write books about. Maps are always changing. And Cyclonis may be gone, but there's always going to be pirates out there, people who just can't sit still and leave well enough alone, they gotta take what's not theirs, they gotta break things and ruin other people's lives. It's always going to be that way, my friend." Aerrow turned to me and smiled that sort of smile that makes you want to leap up and go along with whatever the wearer has to say, no matter how crazy or risky. The others have cursed me for that smile more times than I can count. "But that's why there's people like you and me, Falshade. There's always going to be a place for us in this world, we just gotta carve it out for ourselves."

I smiled too, his answer more than satisfying me. "That's just how we roll, huh?"

Aerrow mussed up my hair playfully. "Yep. That's just our style, man."

I stuck my hand out over the edge of the platform, feeling the wind crashing against my palm. "Hey, there's something I've been meaning to ask you... about Stork."

Aerrow quirked a curious eyebrow. "Shoot."

I wrinkled my nose, trying to put my words in order. "Well I just... I'm just trying to understand how it all worked I guess, with her and you. I mean she never knew about you or Cyclonis, right? But for you, how did it work?"

"I think the others have been trying to ask me the same thing." Aerrow mused, running his fingers through his hair again. "I still don't really know how to explain it. It was like... like she was an anchor to this world, she tethered me here; I was connected to her and I couldn't become unconnected even if I wanted to. I don't know how Cyclonis did it but then again she knew more about everything than I did, how the crystal had done what it had done and how to change it in her favour. It was only when Stork made contact with the Eternity crystal that I finally got pushed out, like the tie was severed or something. But before that I was always just a part of her, there without her comprehension, able to feel what she felt, see what she saw but I couldn't affect how any of it got processed. I was like a spectator, basically, I couldn't control anything, not how she moved or where she went or what she thought."

I mulled all this over, trying to grasp it. "So... you were like her appendix?"

Aerrow blinked at me and then burst out laughing, clapping me on the shoulder. "That's the perfect way to describe it, yeah!" He exclaimed. "It was like I was a part of her, this dormant, unknown section that she wasn't aware of. I still had all my own thoughts and memories and feelings but it seemed like my wires were all disconnected from hers, she ran on a completely different circuit. Even if I'd wanted her to say things for me, and there were times when I really did..." here his face lost its laughter. "...Shit if I could have only said something during all that time..." He looked so sad then, so worn down by guilt and sorrow that he looked really old all of a sudden, like Finn did in the picture I'd found of him in Stork's room. I grabbed his shoulder and squeezed it gently, trying to convey some sort of understanding. Aerrow sucked in a deep breath and shook the weariness from his face. "Anyways I think it was really like... well I believe that there's a part of you that exists without your body, beyond your body. Your soul, or spirit, or whatever you wanna call it. And mine was attached to her; she was her own being and she just kinda piggy-backed me and Cyclonis around this world with her. I dunno, does that make any sense?"

"...Sort of yeah." I said slowly. "I've really started to believe in all this otherworldly stuff; I mean look at me, all these things I saw in my dreams ever since I was little, things that hadn't happened yet. And then there's people like the Oracle who can connect with this totally other state of reality, she can see and hear the dead, so there's gotta be spirits somewhere, and wherever they go when we die I think sometimes they must be able to step back over and visit the people they left behind, you know? So as much as I'll never really understand it, not in a million years, I can believe it. Hell I've seen too much not to believe."

Aerrow was quiet for awhile, thinking. "...Stork was talking to Varan to, a few weeks ago maybe." He said in a low, almost uncertain tone after an immeasurable length of time stretched by during which I waited patiently and dipped my hand through the wind current. "She was saying she was worried that without me and Cyclonis, she'd stop existing, that she was simply this... shell that was safeguarding our spirits or something like that? And that made me feel horrible. Because all this time she's been her own person. Cyclonis and I, we couldn't touch her, we couldn't influence or decide or make or change anything about her. It's always been her; I still don't really understand it, but however it happened the crystal created a complete, singular person all on its own. Cyclonis and I, we were like little branches off of that, pegged to her but not her. I hope she'll realize that when she wakes up. I hope you realize that." He turned to look at me pointedly. "Do you think I was part of her, Shade?"

I thought hard about this. "...Yes and no. I mean... fuck, you look at me and I can see her face. You talk to me and some of the things you say sounds just like her. But maybe that's just 'cause I miss her. But I know she's her own person, and you're your own person too. But maybe after all this time, little reflections of yourselves wore off on each other, sort of? That happens with everyone who gets close to other people. I think the others and I are starting to blend together at the seams by now, but we're all really different, you know what I mean?"

Aerrow cocked his head thoughtfully. "I like that way of thinking. I'm just... well I guess I'm used to people looking at her and seeing me in her eyes. That's what my friends saw when they looked at her. I guess I'm worried about her having an identity crisis. Hell who knows, maybe I have one too."

Despite the trickle of guilt I felt at his statement (I mean here I'd been looking at him and seeing Stork in his eyes) I smiled, trying to convey sympathy and reassurance. "I wouldn't worry too much about that, Aerrow. You two are completely different people, you'll see that when she wakes up. I haven't known you long or anything, but from what I can see you're a pretty upbeat and reasonable guy, like really cool and easy going. Stork's, well... a cantankerous little grease monkey with a short fuse and an obsession with driving me up the wall."

Aerrow laughed and caught me in a headlock, digging his knuckles into his scalp. "Oh come on, you love that girl despite all of that." He teased and I had to laugh too, attempting to struggle free and finding it difficult with only one functioning arm.

"Yeah, I do. It'll probably be the death of me, but what are you going to do, right?"

"Right." He released me and looked me up and down, smiling. "Man you know, I always liked you, Shade. I'm glad Stork met you that day back at Finch's."

I grinned and flushed a bit, scratching the back of my head. It's not every day your hero tells you he likes you after all. Thinking of my heroes though and of the conversation we'd been having I was struck with another question and looked at Aerrow seriously.

"Hey... back in the hospital you told me my dad said hi. What was that all about? Like could you..." I trailed off, revolving my hand uncertainly in the air, not sure how to express what I meant. It was a weird subject in general to discuss, trying to process how everything had worked all this time that he been a part of Stork, and I was having a hard time trying to find the right words without making anything too uncomfortable. If Aerrow was still having a hard time figuring it all out it must have been exasperating having me asking him all these questions he wasn't certain of the answer to.

"Talk to the dead?" Aerrow finished for me and I nodded awkwardly. "Well... I'm not sure how that worked. It was like... I had a foot on both sides, you know? Or at least... I could hear them here. Like I said, I was tethered to Stork, so it wasn't like I could just wander across the borders but... I think what happened when the crystal absorbed Cyclonis and I is we sort of passed from this world onto the next one for a bit, until Stork was there for us to be attached to. So after that I could feel things from that side, whenever spirits decided to step back over to see someone, I could feel them. Sometimes I could hear them. Your dad would come around once and awhile, to see how you were." Aerrow paused, looking at me with a sad little smile, sorrow shining in his sea green eyes. "I never knew my father either. Guess that's something a lot of us have in common, huh?"

"Yeah..." I returned his grim smile of understanding. "Seems like everyone I know has a sad story behind them."

"Ain't that the truth." Aerrow muttered, snaking his fingers through his hair distractedly. "Anyways when Stork came back into contact with the crystal it was like it reversed the process that had happened the first time and I got pulled back through the rabbit hole I guess you could say. I know it all must have happened really quickly but it seemed to take a long time to me and while I was passing back into my own body I was able to see some of these spirits I'd felt around from time to time and they were able to see me too. Some of them asked me to pass things on to the people who couldn't hear them over here."

"Wow..." I said, not really having much else to comment about such a thing.

The corner of his mouth ticked up into that roguish grin of his "Yeah, my FUBAR adventure through time and space." He joked. "Can't say I didn't enjoy it though. You guys brought me along on way too many adventures to regret it." His face slipped a little then. "I do feel bad though." He muttered, suddenly seeming very small and unhappy, nothing like the confident man he'd been all the short time I'd know him so far; even his untamed hair seemed to deflate slightly. "About my friends, everything they went through, how much they suffered and I wasn't able to do anything for them. It killed me, Shade. Sometimes when I'd watch you guys messing around and looking out for each other like we used to..." He trailed off, unable to sum up the words to describe such a heart wrenching feeling and I ached for him. I understood his feelings of guilt and agony over not being able to help his tormented squadron and knew it would have killed me too. Not really thinking too much about my actions I flung my working arm over his shoulders and squeezed him slightly like I'd always do to my own friends when they were troubled. I know I'd only really met him a few days ago, but after all this time he'd unknowingly been with us and all the things he'd witnessed, I counted Aerrow as my friend now too and wanted to convey my empathy.

"I think your friends know all of that and know if there was any way you could have been with them you would have." I assured him. "What matters now is you're all together again and I'm sure you guys will be able to heal and move past everything together in time."

"Yeah." He agreed, nodding. Then he looked out at the sky again for a long time before blowing out a sigh and stretching, turning to me. "Well, speaking of those guys, I think we should head back and check on them, see what kind of trouble they're getting into."


As it turned out, it didn't take all that long at all for the Council to finish discussing my proposition and come to a verdict.

It had been three days since Aerrow and I had flown to Mesa and for the most part we'd been trying to make ourselves useful, some of us flying out with the Condor to the nearby terras to deliver much needed supplies while two or three would stay behind on Mauruvia, keeping a tab on Stork's progress and staying updated on the news reports that were flooding in from all corners of the Atmos. None of us liked to say anything about it out loud but we all took our turns combing neurotically through the death lists, which were constantly being updated as more and more bodies were recovered, searching for names we knew and hoping to god we wouldn't find them. So far we'd been lucky, but the lists were long and there was still a lot of chaos going on out there.

We'd spent the day delivering relief aid to terra Illaussica, who'd apparently taken in stricken refugees from neighbouring terra Toledos back when the attacks had first started only to be attacked themselves less than a week later. The terra had been struggling to support both suffering populations this whole time and you could see the utter joy on the relieved faces of the people when we stopped by with their much needed supplies, thanking us over and over again. It was bittersweet delivering those crates of food, crystals and medical supplies really; on the one hand I was really glad to be helping out those in need, but at the same time it was awful knowing they'd been in distress all this time and that it had taken this long to get them help. It was such a humbling and frightening experience, seeing this other side of the story that had gone on while Cyclonis had been sending her ghouls after us and realizing it was just as nightmarish and chaotic as the side we'd grown to know so well. I wasn't much help with my bad arm and everything but I did as much as I could all the same, determined to see that these people could embrace peace and comfort once again.

Now, back on Mauruvia, I was sprawled on the couch on the bridge of the Condor, leaning against Angel lazily as he flipped idly through a book Piper had lent him, something about combining multiple crystal types together to create hybrid ones; the two of them had really hit it off, both of them evidently ecstatic to finally be able to talk to someone who understood what all their scientific mumbo-jumbo was all about. Wasp was lying on the floor at our feet, a pair of borrowed headphones clamped over her leathery ears as she worked on Stork's get well card with the utmost of concentration, kicking her feet in the air childishly. Fraggle was playing poker with Finn and Junko at the table, using a collection of small, multicoloured crystals as chips since none of them had any money. I wasn't sure where Finn had got the pouch of crystal shards, a collection of unknown origin, but I had an unfortunate feeling it had come from Piper's lab, which was why I wasn't playing as well, determined to keep on the dark skinned woman's good side. That and as Angel will insist I have a terrible poker face.

The air of tranquility was broken a moment later however when the bridge doors clanged open loudly to reveal Varan, who looked like he was quite unsure how he should be feeling at the moment. He scanned the bridge before spotting me and jabbed a scaly finger at me menacingly.

"You." He said, sounding both disgruntled and incredulous. "What did you do?"

"Like, recently?" I asked, cocking my head, confused.

"Like about this!" He said, limping over and throwing a newspaper at me. I picked it up, baffled about his strange mood and tried to read the first few lines. However the pressure of trying to read the small font as quickly as I could only made the words harder to put in order and after a moment I grunted irritably and thrust it at Angel. He cleared his throat importantly and put on this voice he always used when reading something to me, just to annoy me.

" 'Two days ago the Council of Atmosia called all Sky Knights of the Legion who could attend to the Council Hall to debate a matter of extreme importance and secrecy; no details of what this debate may have been in regards to were released until today, when the Head Councilman finally opened the Hall's doors to announce a conclusion which many are saying will change the ways of thinking of the entire Atmos. After thirteen years of harsh jurisdiction and Legion enforced regulations it has been announced today that'..." Angel trailed off, his eyes flashing across the page at his own rapid reading speed, face growing with steadily more disbelief as he went.

"Hey!" I said, hitting him to get his attention and feeling frustrated. "If I'm gonna ask you to read something it's because I'd like to know what it says too!"

He dropped the paper and looked at me. "They're letting the Terradons go."

I did a bit of a double take, blinking. "What... seriously?"

"Yeah, says right here, they're relocating them to a nearby terra where they're going to be allowed to build their own settlement, no more regulations or anything like that. There goes your breeding programme, Var."

Varan gave him a nasty look before turning his gaze to me. "You had a hand in this, didn't you?" He demanded, looking more displeased then I thought he would given the situation.

"Well, er, yes, I brought it up when I went to see the Council on Mesa." I said, feeling slightly nervous. "I promised Repton I would, remember? Jeez though, I didn't think they'd make a decision this quickly."

"Yeah, imagine that, somebody actually took what you said to heart." Angel commented and I rolled my eyes while Fraggle giggled to himself.

Varan heaved a sigh and dropped into a nearby chair, wincing slightly. Although he wouldn't say anything we knew his leg was hurting him and that's why we'd made him stay behind today; not like he would have been much help with his crutches anyways.

"Dude what's up? Isn't this a good thing?" Junko asked, sounding just as confused as I felt.

Varan's tail flicked back and forth uneasily. "People aren't going to like it. There's gonna be problems about this, I can just see it now. We're talking about releasing the people who've been living behind walls for thirteen years. They're going to have things to say. The humans are going to have things to say. And last time when that happened people got angry and..." He trailed off and swallowed, hugging his arms around himself and staring at the floor fixedly. "...And then people died."

My heart contracted at the brittle tone in his voice. "Varan..." I had to pause to clear my throat to get it working. "Listen the Council's not stupid, they know that this is a really touchy subject, that's why they took two days to come to a decision. It's not going to be like last time. I promise it won't."

"A lot of people didn't like what happened on Bogaton last time either." Finn added helpfully, grabbing Varan's arm and squeezing it reassuringly. "I think everybody's changed since then, grudges have burned down a bit. I mean there'll be work to be done for sure but I really think it's all going to go over better the second time around."

Varan made an uncertain humming noise and seemed to try and think of some way to voice what he was feeling. "...Okay pretend you don't know me for a second." He said to us. "Pretend you're just like the other humans out there."

"Ugh, why do I have to be a human eh?" Fraggle asked and Varan rolled his eye, ignoring him.

"By other humans I mean the ones that didn't like what happened on Bogaton but they also don't like what the Raptors did to all those other humans out there. Pretending all that do you think the Terradons should be set free?"

"Sure." Angel said with a shrug. "I mean why not?"

Varan gave him a scathing look. "I really do love your heartfelt responses." He growled and Angel scowled.

"You want me to get up and have a whole crusade over here? Varan look, there's probably some hard feelings left over on both sides but does that mean that for the rest of their existence Terradons should live the way they do, with people keeping them under wraps and telling them when it's okay for them to fuck? Stop being a righteous little asshole for a second and think about what all those shit-for-brains little cocksuckers have told you over the years, all the 'other humans' who called you a monster and said you should be dead in the ground. You're gonna look me in the face and tell me they were right? Who gives a shit about how they feel! Most of them only do it because they have nothing better to do! But think about that whole 'two wrongs don't make a right' thing you love to preach all the time; can't you just stop trying to be a saint for five seconds and admit that maybe, this time, just this once, two wrongs can lead to something right?"

Varan blinked at him, seeming to be at a loss for words. Fraggle glanced from him to Angel and back again and said "See this is why you shouldn't ask for his heartfelt responses there, eh."

"Yeah, heaven forbid you people should stop and think about something." Angel muttered and I gave him a shove, squishing him into the back of the couch.

"Vocabulary choices aside, Var, he's got a point." I said. "I mean what are you waiting for to come along and prove the Terradons should be set free? I don't think they should have to live like that for another thirteen years. It's just... well enough already."

Varan wrinkled his snout thoughtfully before seeming to unwind a little bit. "You're probably right." He relented. "It just worries me that's all. So many things could go wrong..."

"Maybe. But things might go right too, right?" Junko said in that childish way of his, like it was hard to believe anything could go wrong in the world. I had to admire him for having an outlook like that, especially considering some of the things he'd seen.

"Finished!" Wasp declared suddenly, shouting over the roar of her music and making all of us jump. She clambered up onto the couch beside me and held out her card proudly as if she wanted me to judge it. Then she stared at us and wrinkled her nose, pulling her earphones down to her neck. "Did I miss something?"

"Nothing too important." Varan said, tiredly but amused none the less. "Let's see what you've got, kiddo."

Wasp sprang off the couch and placed her card in the middle of table gently as if it were very precious indeed. I came over and leaned over Fraggle to get a good look at it. The outside simply bore our squadron crest but it was the inside that Wasp had poured in all her efforts. Five gargoyles prowled over the inside panels and on closer examination I realized Wasp had made each of them different to illustrate each one of us: the largest one had a particularly long tail and a few spikes on its head that must have been for Varan and another was wearing Fraggle's toque, cartoon skull and all. I located mine, one with violet eyes and a heart shaped patch sewn onto its arm. Over in the corner of the back panel sat a sixth gargoyle, smaller and distinctly more streamline than the others which I knew had to be Stork; Wasp had even drawn a few freckles on its delicate snout. Stork's gargoyle still seemed to be made of stone, waiting for the sun to go down so she could spring to life again. Next to it Wasp had scrawled a message in shaky, spidery letters: Stork- Please wake up soon so we can all roam the night together! We miss you! Love- Us.

"Wow, Wasp..." I said, marvelling at her artwork. "This is fantastic, Stork's gonna love it!"

Wasp beamed as Fraggle mussed up her hair. "Didn't know you were such an artiste there, Waffles." He commented.

Wasp looked like she was about to object to the name when suddenly the hanger doors opened again and Piper stepped through, back from visiting Stork at the hospital. She opened her mouth to say something when Stork (green Stork) pushed his way past her with a desperate whimper, rushing across the bridge and tearing things from the shelves where the Storm Hawks kept their charts and various other odds and ends, throwing them unceremoniously on the floor.

"Hey Stork, nice to see you too." Finn said sarcastically, watching the Merb's frantic actions with interest. "What's up?"

Stork's entire body seemed to be twitching. "Ack my skin is BURNING! Oh for the love of anti-venom where ARE YOU?"

Finn quirked an eyebrow at Piper for an explanation, who tented her slender fingers on her forehead and shook her head. "He got sneezed on in the hospital." She explained tiredly.

"I wasn't just sneezed on!" Stork yowled, outraged and hysterical. "I was caught in the line of fire of a substantial explosion of billions of unknown germs all encased in a lovely coating of nasal slime! Oh god I can feel them crawling all over me at this very moment!" He scratched viciously at one of his arms before shouting "AHA!" and freeing a canister of disinfectant spray from the shelves. Holding it about a foot from his face he emptied what seemed to be the entire canister in one lethal blast before any of us could stop him and caused the rest of us to double over, choking for air.

"Ju-heeesus, Stork!" Finn coughed, covering his nose with both hands while Wasp buried her face in Angel's hair, gagging. "Gas us all to death why don't you!"

Stork dropped the empty canister, his eyes streaming as he evidently must have forgotten to close them. He turned his bloodshot glare on Finn. "Would you rather I bring some unknown disease home with me? I'm sure you'll have wished I'd sprayed us all when your lungs start rotting from the inside..." he trailed off, a dark look on his face as he rubbed his fingers together thoughtfully. "Although I suppose that's a better way to go than some..."

Piper waved a hand back in forth in front of her face to clear a space where she could breathe and then must have remembered what she'd been about to say before Stork's outburst and abruptly wrapped her arms around Varan's neck.

"We heard about the liberation of the Terradons!" She exclaimed, smiling widely while Varan's face got dark and I suppressed a grin. "That's so great, Varan!"

"Actually he was just telling us about how not-great it was." Angel decided to point out and Piper's face lost all its excitement as she released Varan and stared at him with wide, questioning eyes.

"What do you mean?" She asked and Varan looked uncomfortable, his tail lashing back and forth.

"I didn't say it was a bad thing, per say." He argued weakly. "I just... worry. It's what I'm good at. It's such a huge change to make, especially when things are still so crazy out there and that aside well, I'm not too good at dealing with change."

"Well, yes it is a pretty big deal." Piper admitted. "But sometimes things have to go through big changes to make the world a better place, don't they?"

"I know, these two already kindly pointed that out to me." Varan assured her, waving a hand at Angel and I although he still seemed far from ecstatic. My own euphoric feelings that the world seemed to be making a change for the better dissipated and I worried that Varan really wasn't happy about this at all. It seemed odd to me considering he'd always been a supporter for peace and equality, but then again when it came to his own species he was rather timid about being too outspoken about it. Maybe he felt like being this dramatic wasn't the best way of going about fixing things between Terradons and humans, or maybe, a more heart wrenching thought indeed, he really didn't believe they deserved to be set free. Well maybe that wasn't what he believed but he knew it was what a good chunk of the world believed and Varan was the kind of guy who'd rather keep his own feelings quiet if it meant avoiding turmoil.

Varan glanced up at me and must have seen all this on my face because the corner of his mouth tilted down and he hauled himself back to his feet unsteadily to abruptly sweep me into a crushing hug. The wind got knocked out of me in a combination of both surprise and the fact that Varan effectively punched my cast into my ribs and I gave him a confused look when he released me, holding me by the shoulder seriously while also maintaining his balance.

"Listen... it's not that I don't appreciate what you did." He told me and underneath all the uncertainty and anxiety he wore I could finally see a little bit of his own excitement shining through, the possibilities in his eyes. "And I'm not upset that the Terradons are being set free either. I may seem like it but that's because I'm always thinking of the worst things that could possibly happen and admittedly it's a strange concept to get used to. But you guys are right; it's something that needed to be done and despite everything... I'm glad it did. So thanks, Shade... thanks to all of you, really." He said, scuffing his tail over the floor and not meeting any of our eyes because he'll always be a shy little newt that way. "I mean it's because of people like you guys that things like this are able to happen and I for one am really grateful for it. It's people like you guys who gave me a family again..." he trailed off with a bit of a sniffle and a bittersweet lump welled up in my throat.

Fraggle clapped him on the shoulder. "See this is all we wanted to hear, eh, was some of your classic lovey-dovey speeches that you're so gosh darn good at."

Varan finally loosened up a bit and grinned, tugging the rim of Fraggle's toque into his eyes. "Yeah, sorry for being a buzz kill back there. You know how I get."

"Yeah that ulcer of yours is going to rupture any day now." Angel commented innocently and Varan caught him in a headlock, giving him a ferocious nougie.

"No thanks to you there, Cupcake." He said teasingly before both of them were seized in one of Junko's bone crushing hugs, the Wallop smiling widely, evidently pleased that Varan seemed to have come around.

"Man I think it's so great that we all can like, support each other and stuff." He said cheerfully while Angel clawed at me desperately for assistance. Jeez was it ever weird seeing Varan being oversized by someone; Junko made him seem as helpless as Stork did whenever he actually decided to help us catch and hold the little bugger for some well deserved tickle torture.

Piper's good spirits seemed to have returned now that everyone was in a better mood and she gently pried Junko's massive arms open, freeing Angel and Varan. "Well now that that's been smoothed over I think it's time to discuss what we're going to do with the five of you." She stated matter-of-factly and the five us in question looked at her curiously.

"What'd you mean?" I asked, feeling nervous again.

"We've been talking about you behind your backs." Finn explained with a mischievous look on his childish face. "No offence kiddies but we don't want you hanging around anymore, mooching off us and what not."

"Finn!" Piper scolded, smacking his shoulder with the back of her hand, a reflexive movement. "He's just being a twerp." She added to the rest of us. "We really don't mind having you guys here at all."

"But...?" Fraggle asked what all of us were thinking.

"But despite how much we love your company we've decided that we're going to send you on a bit of a holiday." Aerrow joined us then, stepping from the doorway as if on cue.

"Holiday?" I repeated dumbly.

"Yeah dude. We think it's high time you guys took some time off and went back to see your families for a while." Finn said, more serious now then he'd been a moment ago.

I blinked at the three of them as if waiting to see if they were really serious before shaking my head roughly. "Oh come on, don't get into this again. Seriously you guys act like we fought the whole war ourselves and we didn't. I don't see any of the other squadrons getting time off and they deserve it as much as we do."

"Nobody's arguing with you there." Aerrow agreed with me. "But Falshade look at this logically, you guys aren't really very much help right now, no offence. I mean you don't have a ship anymore... sorry Fraggle." He paused to rub Fraggle's back briefly as the Blizzarian sighed and slumped when he was reminded of the Merlin. "And that means you can't carry any supplies to the terras that need them."

"And Varan's the only one of you who knows much about providing medical aid, which is something a lot of terras need more than anything." Piper added.

"And then of course there's the obvious fact that the five of you are a pack of cripples at the moment and are next to useless at carrying supplies or rebuilding terras." Stork piped up nonchalantly, examining his arms meticulously as if looking for some kind of rash.

"Gee thanks for sparing our pride." Angel grumbled, folding his arms moodily and Junko patted his shoulder condolingly, almost bringing him to his knees.

I felt a little insulted too. "Hey we've been helping these last few days haven't we?" I pointed out indignantly.

"Oh we know, nobody's denying that you guys aren't trying to be helpful." Piper said quickly, stroking my arm soothingly. "We're just saying given the circumstances we think it'd be best for you guys to just take some time to relax and let yourselves heal after everything, you know?"

"Yeah, come on you guys, the Atmos will be alright without you for a little while." Junko added encouragingly.

I chewed on my tongue absently, trying to come up with another argument; I couldn't deny that the Storm Hawks had some good, if ego bruising, points and a guilty little part of me sort of did want to jump on their offer. I glanced at the others, figuring this wasn't just my decision to make after all. "What do you guys think?" I asked evenly.

The four of them were silent for few moments, mulling things over before Fraggle cleared his throat awkwardly and fiddled with his sleeve. "Um... well look, I want to help out the rest of the Atmos as much as you do there, Chief, but... I also kinda wanna go home for a bit there, eh. See how my mum and my sis are doing..."

I felt really bad right then; what with everything else going on I'd forgotten that he had a family outside of us who he hadn't seen in ages and was probably sick with worry over, especially after the attack on Nord. Fraggle more than deserved to spend time with his family and now what I thought about it I wanted to see how my mom and the Beast Keepers were doing too.

I clapped Fraggle on the shoulder and looked up at the Storm Hawks. "Alright you got us. Since you seem so eager to get us out of your hair we'll go. But not for very long, okay?"

Finn snorted. "Jeez aren't you a rabid little go-getter. If it were me I'd be all over this vacation deal."

"How's a week sound?" Aerrow asked me, ignoring Finn's comment and pulling at his hair playfully as he spoke.

"Week sounds good there, eh." Fraggle nodded.

Stork stopped scratching himself and strode over to join us then, his eyes still running slightly. "Alright well since I'm going to be playing the role of chauffer here I suppose I should know where you cretins are going." He said in that nasally tone of his.

"Cretins?" Wasp repeated, rolling this around in her mind. "Well there's one I've never heard before..."

"Well we're going to Vatican, right?" I asked Varan for conformation, who nodded.

"Nord for me, if you guys don't mind making the boot all the way out there, eh." Fraggle said.

"No problem. We're heading down to the south quadrant for a few days anyways." Aerrow said and Stork shuddered.

"Yes, celebrated land of blizzards and hypothermia." He muttered darkly and Piper rolled her eyes, swatting at him playfully. Then she turned to Wasp and Angel.

"What about you two?" she asked kindly and the two of them exchanged a glance.

"...Well I can just tag along with you guys." Angel said after an awkward moment. "I'm not in too bad shape, I can still be useful."

"Me too, I can..." Wasp trailed off and examined her bandaged hands thoughtfully. "...kick things."

My heart contracted miserably for the two of them as Piper's face faltered. Junko looked like a very confused puppy as he stared at them. "You guys... don't have anywhere to go?"

"Sure they do." I interjected before they were forced to answer, refusing to let them stand there like a couple of stray dogs. "You two can stay with me at my place."

"Yeah eh, time off means for all of us." Fraggle added, leaving no room for argument. "No way you two are fucking off while the rest of us spend time at home."

Angel didn't look very forthcoming (big surprise). "You sure you're mom will be okay with that?" He asked me haltingly.

"Of course she will, she'll love having you guys. Besides it's your home now too, remember?" I pointed out and he scowled at me.

"I don't recall agreeing to that." He reminded me sullenly and I rolled my eyes, grabbing him in a headlock.

Wasp seemed to be deep in thought. "Your mom was the pretty lady with the goat, right?" She asked me and Varan snorted with laughter.

"Yeah that's her." I said while Finn raised as eyebrow curiously. Wasp seemed to think this over a little more before nodding.

"Okay. That sounds alright."

"So Nord and Vatican then." Aerrow concluded. "Great. Well then we'll probably be heading out within the hour, if that wouldn't be too much trouble, Stork."

Stork hugged his arms around himself, looking snubbed. "I suppose it wouldn't be too much no, although I did have plans for this afternoon, not that any of you take those into consideration..."

Finn raised his eyebrows. "Oh really, and what might those have been?"

"Well for one thing I have a large quantity of tar traps that need to be laid out, I've been noticing quite a few more spiders around the place than usual, which unfortunately I can't help but think has something to do with you people sleeping on the floor." Stork looked us over critically, eyelid jumping neurotically. "Have any of you noticed any strange rashes on yourselves lately?"

Wasp's eyes widened in alarm. "You can't just kill the spiders! They eat all the other annoying buggies and don't ask for anything in return! And the little ones are cute!"

Stork seemed unfazed by this fact. "The little ones also happen to be of the more poisonous variety. And did you know there's a special kind of your 'cute' spiders that are small enough to borrow under your skin and breed colonies of thousands? At first it just might seem like bad acne, until your skin starts moving."

Fraggle's ears shot up in alarm and I glanced at my own arms subconsciously, looking for any raised marks.

Stork seemed to enjoy watching us squirm, continuing right along as if our discomfort was amusing and he wanted to see more of it. "There's also the larger ones to consider and I have a hard time believing even you would think some of those ones are cute."

Wasp shrugged. "No, but hey once you pull all that hairy stuff off them they're pretty good eating."

"WASP!" the four of us Gargoyles howled while Piper put her hand over her mouth, taking a subtle step away from the Faerieshian and Stork turned a different shade of green altogether.

Junko unexpectedly took Wasp's side. "Hmm, she's right you know. I've had chocolate covered ones before and they were actually really good. A little crunchy, but..."

"Oh please..." Varan groaned, covering his ear slits. "Please just stop."

"What a perfectly good way to ruin chocolate." Angel muttered, sounding both disgusted and outraged.

I shook my head, trying to clear out any mental images of chocolate coated spiders and my eyes fell on Wasp's get well card still on the table. "Hang on a second." I blurted suddenly. "What about Stork?"

"Oh don't worry about her." Aerrow said calmly. "She'll be staying with us. We just talked to the doctors and they said she was in good enough condition that we can take care of her here on the Condor. She can stay in Starling's room."

"It makes more sense than always flying back here and this way she'll be closer to us. Don't worry, we'll take good care of her." Piper added and I felt relieved. This whole time a spot in my stomach had been constantly knotted, worrying about Stork alone in that deathly quiet hospital room. Now I was finally able to relax; I trusted the Storm Hawks completely and I liked the idea of Stork staying with them much more than her being at the hospital.

"And we'll let you know ASAP if she wakes up." Finn added. "Even if you're not here she'll have your card to let her know you're thinking of her."

That made me feel a little better too; I'd hate for Stork to wake up and for us not even to be there to see her (and more than likely maul her as well).

Piper noticed our card then and smiled, picking it up. "Aw, you guys made her a card? That's adorable!" She exclaimed, making the rest of us squirm awkwardly because we didn't really like being adorable. Piper opened the card and blinked in surprise. "Oh wow, this is really-FINN!" she thundered suddenly, making Fraggle and Junko jump as she finally noticed the crystals strewn over the tabletop.

Finn gave her an all-teeth grin, attempting to appear innocent and I swear I've seen Stork pull off that exact same expression. "Yyyyyyes?"

Piper snatched up the empty pouch and began stuffing handfuls of her little crystal shards back into it furiously. "Do you know how rare and expensive these are?" she demanded and the rest of us stepped back from the pair, safely out of range of the dark woman's fury.

Finn scratched the back of his head. "I dunno, they don't look all that special to me."

"Extremely rare and very expensive!" Piper snapped, ignoring his comment, clutching the filled pouch close to her chest protectively. "And how many times have I told you to stay out of my lab? What if these were unstable? Did you know at certain temperatures some crystals turn to acid? Or if they're not refined properly they can spontaneously combust? Did you ever stop to think of that?"

Finn made an irritated noise. "Piper you tell me lots of things. Besides, those things obviously aren't any of those kinds of crystals, they don't even look useful. More like those stones people put in goldfish bowls than anything."

Piper glared at him before turning on her heel and marching off down the corridor, slamming her boots down hard. "You know I think I might just go on a bit of a vacation myself! A very long vacation!" she declared angrily as she stomped off.

Aerrow, Junko and Stork levelled Finn with disapproving and tired looks while the rest of us fidgeted, not sure what to say and trying to hold back fits of laughter. Finn regarded the looks he was getting from his teammates casually and leaned back in his chair with a shrug.

"Oh come on, she's totally bluffing." He said without concern. "She might act all pissy but deep down she loves me."

"Hmm..." Stork rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "We might want to get that checked out. Sounds like a serious case of mind worms to me."


It took us about six hours to get to Vatican and it had already been dark for a while by the time the Condor touched down at the dry docks. As the Storm Hawks had said Stork had been moved from her room at the hospital and was now resting peacefully in the spare room on the Condor that Piper explained to me was meant to be Starling's but had remained empty and waiting all this time. It was a cozy little room although I couldn't say I liked the colour they'd chosen and it made me kinda sad to be in there, seeing how lovingly the Storm Hawks had decorated it only for it to be left unoccupied. However much it depressed me though I found myself stopping in every ten minutes to check on Stork, infected with the delirious hope that maybe she'd be awake each time and unable to stop myself from checking. Eventually the others got fed up with me and Fraggle and Angel pinned me down on the couch, refusing to let me up to so much as go to the bathroom.

Now Varan, Wasp, Angel and I were standing on the wharfs outside the Condor and saying quick goodbyes to the others, who were planning on heading to terra Ray, still another three hours away, where they'd stop for the night and see if the residents there needed any assistance before continuing to Nord tomorrow.

Piper gave each one of us hug as if it'd be a long time since she'd see us again but I didn't really mind, hugging her back warmly. "Make sure to say hi to your families for me." She said. "We'll radio you if there's any updates with Stork, okay? And for god's sake try to just relax and enjoy yourselves, alright?"

I laughed. "No promises. Take care, you guys."

"You too. See you in a week." Aerrow said and Finn added in a salute, waving goodbye before following the others back to the bridge and leaving us with Fraggle.

"Alright well you kids be good while I'm gone eh. Don't do anything I wouldn't do." He said in a fatherly sort of manner which made me laugh.

"That leaves us a pretty broad range of activities." I pointed out and he grinned deviously.

"I know, enjoy it. And say hi to your mom there for me, eh. And Pippa." He added to Varan who smiled and nodded.

"Yeah you tell your sister we said hi too. Anyways have a good time Fraggle, we'll see you in a week."

"Jeez a whole week. I don't think I've ever been away from you guys that long, eh. Gonna be kinda weird." Fraggle rubbed at his toque absently. "Welp I better get going, eh. Try not to miss me too much."

"I'll try my damndest." Angel said dryly and Fraggle swatted at him before heading back into the hanger, waving as the bay doors clanged shut. The Condor lifted gracefully from the docks and I could see Junko waving at us from the bridge. Stork blasted the horn once, effectively deafening us and then the old bird turned and melted into the inky night sky.

I turned and looked over my home terra as it stretched out before me. Even from here I could pick out the silhouette of the Plateau jutting out against the night sky and felt something tug in my heart, happy to be home and eager to see how my mom was doing.

Varan clomped over beside me, still awkward as ever on his crutches and I glanced at him with concern. "The walk won't be too much, will it?"

He shook his head. "I'll be fine. Come on, let's get going before it gets any later."

We made our way down the streets which were lit by the soft glow of the streetlamps without saying much; Varan and Angel were both quiet, seeming to have something on their minds and Wasp usually didn't say much anyways. She was happy skipping ahead and running along the tops of any stone walls we happened to pass. In fact it wasn't until we were staring along the winding dirt path that trailed lazily out of the town proper and led to all the houses that lay beyond that Varan finally broke the silence.

"You know I'm thinking I'm going to fly out to Bogaton tomorrow." He blurted out, apropos to nothing.

I paused to wait for him to catch up, tilting my head. "You are?"

Varan cleared his throat, seeming uneasy. "Um, yes. I mean it's sort of monumental what's going on, isn't it? And I've just been thinking over everything you guys were saying earlier and I think I should go."

"...But you're coming back, right?" I asked, suddenly having a terrifying thought of him staying with the other Terradons for the rest of his life.

He grinned reassuringly. "Yeah, of course I am. I just want to go for a little while, see what's going on over there, you know? Plus I..." he coughed and cleared his throat again, his tail whipping back and forth. "I sort of... want to see my dad again."

"Dude there's nothing wrong with that." I assured him. "I think it's important that you do go, actually."

"So there's going to be a whole bunch of Varans living on a new terra, right?" Wasp clarified, hopping on one leg. "That sounds great."

"Well hopefully it will be." Varan agreed. "And we're called Terradons, Wasp. They're not all like me."

Angel finally spoke up then, a mischievous tone in his voice. "Hey are you going to stop by and see Roo before taking off tomorrow?"

I couldn't see Varan's face in the dark but I knew it must have just turned darker and I grinned. "Yeah what's going on with that? Don't tell me you're going to leave that poor girl waiting."

Varan sighed. "You know I'd feel a lot more inclined to go and see her if you guys didn't keep bothering me about it. Besides it's not like there's really anything going on with her and I anyways, I don't even know what she wants from me."

"All the more reason to go and talk to her." I said matter-of-factly.

Varan made a humming noise but made no further comment. By then we'd reached the fork in the road that divided my mom's house from the rest of the terra and it was time for us to go our separate ways.

I paused, looking down the path to where Varan's house lay. "Well if you're going to Bogaton I guess that means we won't see you for a few days."

"Yeah, I guess so. Say hi to your mom then for me and keep an eye on these two monsters." Varan said and pulled me into a brief hug.

"Yeah, say hi to Marle and Pippa. And Repton too." I added and saw him give a small grin in the dark before pulling Wasp into a quick hug as well.

"Now you be on good behaviour while I'm gone, got it? Or Falshade's mom will flog you." He said and Wasp saluted him. Then he turned to Angel who held up his hands to ward him off.

"Dude please, we'll be seeing each other again in like, six days." He said but Varan caught a hold of him anyways, crushing him and mussing up his hair. "Argh!" Angel said, struggling free but he was grinning anyways. "Alright, alright, get going, Gimpy. And have fun with your Daddy."

Varan rolled his eyes and turned around clumsily, heading down the path into the night. "Stay out of trouble you three!" He called back to us as he left.

I watched him go until I couldn't see him through the shadows anymore and turned, looking down the path towards my mom's lonely house and motioning for the others to follow. Wasp trotted along happily but Angel seemed to be dragging his feet, hanging back slightly until I grabbed his arm, tugging him along.
"What's up?"

"Nothing." He muttered, shaking his bangs out of his face; he needed to get his hair cut again, it was down to his shoulders by now. "You're sure your mom's not going to mind having us hanging around?"

"Of course not, she likes you guys." I insisted. Then in a lower, gentler voice I added. "Are you nervous? Because you know she really did want you to come live with us." I remembered that time after she'd returned from Saharr, how unhappy she'd seemed at times, staring off into space despondently.

"That was almost ten years ago, Shade. People change."

"Not about things like this." I said adamantly.

Wasp had stopped ahead of us. "This is it, right?" She asked, pointing to my mom's house. A light was on at the front porch, welcoming us.

"Yep, this is it." I said, leading the way to the front door. Wasp was craning her neck, trying to get a glimpse of Raphael out at his doghouse. I shook my head, still not able to believe Mom had got a goat of all things. I'd begged for a puppy for years growing up and had she ever said yes to that? Noooo, puppies are messy, Falshade, puppies are a handful, Falshade, and when you leave who's going to look after it, Falshade?

Ahem, anyways...

I stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door, feeling both excited and nervous, wondering if Mom would be angry for not coming by sooner or at least calling to let her know I was okay. I was apprehensive to see her, afraid to see anymore of the loneliness and misery that had been etched subtly around her eyes last time. But I really wanted to see her too; it took me to right then to realize just how much I'd missed her.

I swallowed as the door creaked open and there stood my mom, just as proud and strong as ever but her face looked a little hollowed and there were dark circles under her eyes that made my heart hurt. Still she leaned against the doorframe with folded arms and did a very good job of looking disapproving as she looked me up and down.

"You know you're lucky Piper had the decency to call me ahead of time and warn me that you'd be stopping by or you'd have no dinner waiting for you." She informed me, cool and scolding like I was six years old again and coming home late and filthy. But I could see in her eyes how worried she'd been, terrified that she'd never get that call and that she'd never see me again, just like her husband.

"I'll try to be more considerate in future." I promised. She stared at me scrupulously for a moment longer before striding forwards and wrapping her arms around me tightly as if I were still small enough to be pulled into her lithe body. I hugged her back fiercely, pushing my face into her thick blue hair and breathing in her comforting, motherly smell. God was it ever good to be home; I didn't care if I was a guy going on eighteen, the feeling of warmth and security I always felt when in her arms was something I'd missed. It might have slipped from my mind as I got occupied with fighting against the creatures of my nightmares and looking out for my friends, and I suppose growing away from your parents is all part of growing up, but it wasn't something you ever forgot, your love for them and the occasional craving for their contact.

"You really are you father's idiot son, aren't you?" she murmured, stroking my hair. "But I suppose I wouldn't want it any other way." She sighed and held me tighter. "My boy..."

I swallowed down the lump that rose in my throat and sniffled a bit as she released me, wiping at her eyes briefly before tapping her fingers on my cast.

"What happened here?" she asked, trying to sound reprimanding but there was concern in her eyes.

"It's nothing, Mom. It's broken but the doctors said it should heal just fine." I said, deciding not to mention that I'd more than likely never use it again.

Mom nodded before looking past me at Wasp and Angel. "Ah, so we have guests do we?"

"Yeah, they don't really have anywhere else to go so I thought they could stay with us."

"I see. Well then our home is your home for however long you're staying." Mom said, smiling warmly at the two of them. "Where are the other three?"

"Varan's gone home and Fraggle's heading out to Nord to see his family. Stork's... with the Storm Hawks." I explained.

"Good. I don't know what I'd do if something happened to one of you." Mom said as if all of them belonged to her a little bit too. "Now am I allowed to hug you today or are you going to bite me?" She asked, approaching Wasp.

Wasp seemed to think about this for a moment before shrugging. "No, I think you can hug me." She said and my mom smiled, pulling her into a hug. Wasp snuffled at her hair with interest and nodded to herself as my mom let her go as if agreeing with something. Then she moved aside and Mom focused her attention on Angel.

I don't think I've ever seen him flat out cower like that, shrinking down and taking a small step back as Mom locked him in her sights. I think he was even shaking slightly as Mom folded her arms and took him in critically. The two of them stared at each other for an uncomfortably long time until I started feeling nervous. Finally Mom broke the brittle silence between them.

"Well here we are, nine years down the road." She said. "Do you think you've changed your mind, after all this time?" Her voice never wavered but I saw her fingers grip tightly at her arm and knew she was nervous too.

Angel fidgeted, swallowing uneasily. "...Yeah, I guess so." He said hoarsely and then cleared his throat. "I mean if you haven't changed yours."

Mom's expression softened and she closed the distance between them, pulling Angel into her as she wrapped her arms around his thin frame. He stood ramrod straight for a moment before collapsing against her, giving in to the affection that was radiating from her and dropping his forehead onto her shoulder with a shaky sigh, hugging her back. I smiled, feeling relieved and warm inside and Wasp leaned against me with a smile of her own.

"Yay." She said quietly and I nodded in agreement, tugging on her ear affectionately.

After a moment Mom released Angel, stroking his bangs out of his face and smiling before turning and motioning for us to follow her into the house. "Well I suppose I'd better feed the three of you." She said. "And then maybe you can tell me the real story behind what everyone has been raving about."

I grinned, grabbing Angel around the shoulders and tugging him along as he seemed a little dazed, mussing up his hair playfully. He allowed my rough love for a few seconds before coming back to himself and pushing me away. Behind me I could hear Wasp murmuring to him quietly as we followed Mom down the hallway and I trailed my fingers along the wall absently, soaking up the soft, yellow light that filled the house. I'd been missing that certain homey atmosphere I'd gotten used to on the Merlin and found it waiting for me here inside the walls of my childhood. Deep down I had to admit it, the Storm Hawks were right: I'd needed this.

True to her word Mom had made dinner ready for us and the smell alone was enough to get me drooling; roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy. I grabbed Mom around the waist.

"I love you Mommy." I warbled and she laughed loudly, pushing me away.

"Oh I see how it is. The way to man's heart is through his stomach indeed. Go sit down and stop being a suck up." She instructed teasingly and I did as I was told, helping myself as she set out plates for Wasp and Angel. The three of us were starving, not having eaten since breakfast and Mom waited patiently for us to have our fill before she started asking questions.

"Now I don't expect the whole story tonight. But I would like to know a few things, one of them being why in hell I'm suddenly being bombarded at all hours of the day by people I don't even know, telling me what a huge hero my son is and stuffing my living room full of gift baskets."

I raised my eyebrows. "Seriously?" I said, meaning to get up and see for myself but Mom held me with her gaze.

"That and I'd love to know more about these monsters Ozprey's been raving to me about, something about the walking dead or some bad horror novel material like that."

"So I take it that means Ozprey's okay then?" I clarified before getting into the whole messy story. "And the other Keepers?"

"Oh yes they're fine. In fact tomorrow you can go and see them if you like, they're here for the time being looking after the refugees."

I nodded, tapping my fork on the edge of my plate thoughtfully while Mom waited, watching us. I took a deep breath and started in, finding it a little tiring to have to go through the whole, steadily worsening story again and I had a feeling it wouldn't be the last time I'd repeat it either. Luckily I had Wasp and Angel there to add in points I missed; we started from our first encounter with Halo and Carrion and went along from there, skimming over the hard parts which Mom accepted thankfully without prodding. She listened through it all for the most part silently, only clearing her throat now and then pointedly when Angel or I used language she didn't approve of or stopping us to clarify something briefly. I knew she knew we were leaving lots of holes and I could see her eyes harden or turn glassy now and again as if she knew about all the hard, painful things we didn't mention but she didn't press anything.

It was when we got to the part where Angel was taken capture that I really faltered. I was prepared just to skip through that whole point in time and act like nothing had happened, but when I got to it I found myself stumbling, still having a hard time going anywhere near that dark time. However I needn't have worried because Angel did something that completely shocked the hell out of me and told Mom everything all on his own. It wasn't easy on him that much was obvious; he started shaking violently and his voice got all raspy but he made it through and I was proud of him. Mom's fist clenched subtly at her side at one point and it worried me but she never showed any hostility on her face and when Angel was finished she reached out and touched his chin, making him look at her through his bangs and she smiled at him, her expression caught between sympathy, hurt and pride and I knew the two of them would be alright.

Mom didn't seem to have anything to say when we finally reached the end of our long, blood spattered story. She simply looked over the three of us as we fell quiet and sighed, shaking her head. "You damn kids." She muttered, but there was a thin smile on her lips as she said it. "World's still just as crazy as it's always been I suppose." She stretched and glanced at the clock on the wall. "Well it's late now alright. At the risk of treating you like children, I think the three of should head to bed, sounds like you've had a long day."

I was feeling too tired to argue by then, full and content and ready to just sink into my old bed and sleep. I glanced at the sink when I stood up though and knew I should probably help with dishes, but Mom held up a hand. "Don't worry about them, I'll get them."

I wrinkled my nose. "Aw, Mom, I can-"

"Don't argue with me and enjoy it while you can, because starting tomorrow you're going to get a start on three years' worth of overdue chores." She cut me off and I made a face, which she ignored. "You go show these two where they're staying."

I sighed, motioning to the other two to follow me and waiting until I was out of earshot before grumbling to myself. Jeez you'd think I'd just been goofing off for the last three years they way she made it seem; damnit wasn't I supposed to be on vacation?

I paused on the way to the stairs, staring into the living room with wide eyes. "Whoa." I said, stepping into the room which, true to Mom's word, was crowded with dozens upon dozens of various wrapped baskets and packages.

"Oooh, shiny!" Wasp said, pouncing on a nearby ribbon.

Mom came up behind me, arms folded. "Yes people seem to think I own a warehouse at the rate they're dropping things off here."

I blinked at it all, stunned. "Jeez... I can't keep all of this." I muttered and then looked at her. "Think the Beast Keepers would take it to give to the refugees?"

Mom smiled, an expression that made it all the way to her azure eyes and made them sparkle and it made me just as happy inside to see it now as it did when I was a kid. "I'm sure that can be arranged."

Angel was fidgeting next to me, seeming torn. "Argh...look if you're giving them away then can I have this one?" he asked at last, caving into his desire and pointing at a small wrapped package nearby, which was filled with assorted chocolate. I grinned and handed it to him.

"Merry Christmas. Wasp you wanna pick one?"

"No thanks." She said, seeming more interested in the wrappings than what was actually inside them. I spotted a nearby bow and plucked it from the paper, placing it on her head and she smiled wolfishly, content with the decoration.

We made our way upstairs then and I pointed out where the bathroom was and the closet with the towels like a good host. I passed the door to my room still, complete with its biohazard warning poster, and reached the room that had lain empty at the end of the hall. The door creaked when I pushed it open and the desk and empty shelves had a fine layer of dust on them. I was reminded of Starling's empty room back on the Condor and felt a twinge of sadness looking over the room, which had also remained unoccupied for so many years now.

"You can stay here." I told Angel, moving so he could pass me. "It's, um, yours, actually. Mom and I set it up when we thought you'd be coming to stay with us." My throat ached a little when I remembered how excited I'd been back then, thinking I'd soon have my very own brother. Angel glanced at me and I saw the guilt on his face so I cleared my throat, trying to lighten the mood. "I picked the colour." I informed him proudly.

The corner of his mouth hitched upwards. "Ah, that explains why it's so tacky."

I scowled at him and caught him around the neck, unable to do much more then tussle with him a bit. Man this one arm thing was seriously going to put a damper on how much playful abuse I'd be able to dish out; Angel was able to struggle free too easily for my liking, carefully putting his box of chocolates on the desk before coming back to lay it into my ribs.

Wasp squirmed past us and made a flying leap onto the narrow bed in the corner, rolling over and stretching her fingers towards the ceiling, dark electric blue in colour and definitely not tacky thank you very much.

"I like it!" She declared. "Now if you got some glow-in-the-dark stars it'd be perfect, it'd be like night time all the time!"

"Oh no you don't." Mom said then, placing some blankets on the desk and putting her hands on her hips. "Wasp I've set you up on the pull out couch downstairs, unless Angel or Falshade feel like being gentlemen and letting you have their bed." She told her, kindly but firmly.

Wasp cocked her head, ears flicking. "Oh, no, you don't have to do that, I'm happy here." She said, as if she thought maybe Mom was only offering because she thought she'd be uncomfortable up here.

Mom wasn't budging. "Look don't think I don't know what's going on here." She said, pointing from Wasp to Angel. "And I'm not having any of that going on under my roof."

I started snickering to myself uncontrollably while Angel's face went red. Wasp still looked confused. "Any of what?" she asked with genuine perplexity.

Angel sighed and tugged at her sleeve, muttering something into her ear and Wasp's eyes grew huge.

"We don't do any of that!" she exclaimed and Angel pinched the bridge of his nose with a groan while I practically killed myself laughing.

Mom looked mildly amused too. "Well I believe you, Wasp, but you're still staying downstairs. I don't trust teenage boys, they're nasty creatures."

"Hey!" Angel and I objected while Wasp giggled, sliding off Angel's bed.

"Okay." She agreed at last. Mom handed her another bundle of blankets and then stood on tip toe to drop a kiss on top of her snarled mane of hair. Wasp beamed and scooted out into the hallway and after a quick glance at Angel I followed out after her, figuring Mom might want to talk to him alone for a second.

Wasp was chewing on the bow I'd placed on her head. "Your mom smells good." She reported to me. "Like how I always figured a mommy should."

I grinned. "So I take it that makes her okay in your books?"

Wasp nodded. "Yes. All my favourite people smell good." She looked at me with her large, owlish eyes. "Thank you, for inviting me to come here." She said, that rare form of clarity making it past the shredded ribbon hanging out of her mouth. I sighed half heartedly and tugged it away from her.

"You're welcome Wasp. Hey listen, you sure you'll be okay on the couch? 'Cause I can sleep downstairs if you want and you can have my room."

She shook her head, ears slapping against her neck. "Nah that's okay."

"Alright if you're sure. Goodnight then, Wasp."

"Nightie night." She said, making her way back downstairs. I made sure she was all the way at the bottom before clicking off the light and then ambling back down the hall.

I was stepping out of the bathroom when Mom intercepted me, wordlessly wrapping her arms around me again and clinging to me tightly. I hugged her back, feeling a tug of concern when I realized she was shaking slightly. I could barely count the number of times I'd seen my mother cry on one hand but it had always made me feel so sad inside it made me want to cry too. I don't think she was actually crying today but I could see all the same cracks in her courageous front breaking through and I was really able to feel how much I'd scared her, how downright terrified she'd been this whole time. I felt all the fear and sorrow and ache she had always worked so hard to keep at bay when I was small, determined not to let her pain interfere with my childhood. I'd always admired her bravery, her sheer will to stay strong for my sake and her own. And to feel it all crumble like that because of how worried she'd been about me, how much she loved me, made my entire chest cavity sore, my throat closing up. At the same time though it made me feel really grown up, like I was finally old enough that she didn't always have to be strong and brave in front of me anymore, that sometimes I could be the strong one.

"I love you, Mom." I muttered into her hair and she squeezed me even tighter.

"I love you too, Falshade." She said quietly, letting me go eventually and wiping at her face. I guess she had been crying after all and as always it startled me to see the tears on her face. In the childish part of my mind I always thought that anything that could shake my indomitable mother had to be something very frightening indeed. "I'm really happy you found time to come back and visit."

I felt a wave of remorse wash over me as Mom stroked my hair out of my face like she always did when I was little, complaining that she couldn't even see me under my bangs. We'd both always known I wouldn't stay home forever, that eventually I'd grow up and have to spread my own wings, but I still felt guilty from time to time for leaving my poor, widowed mother here all alone. As if she knew how I was feeling she straightened up, bold and tough as always. "Your father would be so proud of you, for everything you've done." She told me.

"Are you proud of me?" I asked, suddenly finding that this was much more important than anything Falco might have said about me. I'd always been told I was my father's son but right than I wanted to be my mother's son more than anything else.

Something like sadness passed over Mom's face and I worried I'd made her feel bad about something. She gripped my shoulders tightly and looked at me with her fierce, shinning eyes and for a moment I wished I'd have inherited them instead, so I could have a little bit of both my parents in my face. "Yes. I am so very proud of you, Falshade. I've been proud of you since the day you were born. Hero or not you'll always be my son and that's all I need to know to be proud of you."

And that was all I needed to hear.


The next morning I made my way down to the Honeycomb on my own. Angel and Wasp had decided to stay home but that was alright with me; after all they didn't really know the Keepers as well as I did and I wanted to let them settle in a bit since they were going to be staying here all week, spend some time with Mom while I wasn't around.

Now that it was daylight outside the streets in town were crowded with people, most of them people I recognized but some I didn't and I figured they must have been refugees. However it didn't seem to matter whether I recognized any of them or not, they all seemed to recognize me; I could barely make it five steps before someone would stop me, thanking me or congratulating me or asking how I was, occasionally shaking my hand wildly or, in the case of one woman, even hugging me. A few times a small crowd ended up gathering and they all started asking me questions at once: what had gone on in the bowels of the Scar? How had I known this was going to happen? Was I psychic? Where and how was my squadron? Did I know if anything else was going to happen in the near future? They just kept coming and I could barely begin to answer any of them before someone else would throw something else at me, leaving my completely baffled and overwhelmed.

One girl even shyly asked me if I had a girlfriend, which did nothing to calm my frazzled nerves.

It ended up taking me a lot longer than usual to make it to the Honeycomb due to all the interruptions and by the time I got there I was feeling a little dazed, stunned by all the attention. I know Aerrow had told me people were calling us heroes, but I hadn't really believed him up until now, and even then it still completely boggled me. I mean it had only been about a week since we brought down Cyclonia and it seemed everybody and their cousin knew who I was and what I had done. It was just plain weird to go from a nobody to apparently famous Sky Knight almost overnight and I wasn't really all that comfortable with it. I mean I wasn't exactly as shy as Varan or anything but it made me feel awkward to suddenly have all these people paying attention to me.

It seemed the square outside the Honeycomb had been turned into an impromptu refugee camp; the Honeycomb itself had several wings designated specifically for housing war victims, made as accommodating as possible for any who had lost their homes, but several tents had been pitched outside in the square as well and I figured the inside halls must have been packed full. Still, even the people outside seemed comfortable enough, in good shape besides a few scrapes and bruises here and there and most of them were smiling. There was a small medical tent pitched outside as well where volunteer medics were tending to minor injuries, changing bandages and administrating needles, and another tent full of supplies which were being handed out, food rations and clothing and even some toys for the smaller children. Vatican had always been prepared for this sort of thing and I was glad to see that both natives to the terra and newcomers alike all seemed to be in good health and spirits, given everything that had been going on for the last two months.

I asked around inside the Honeycomb to see if the Beast Keepers were there and was directed to one of the chambers at the back of the stronghold, where sure enough I found them, talking to a group of carrier pilots who must have just finished delivering more supplies. I leaned against the doorway, waiting and checking them all over for injury until the pilots left before speaking up.

"Well look at you guys, slacking off as usual." I commented and they turned in my direction, Ozprey looking about ready to bark something nasty in response. Her expression changed dramatically when she realized it was me and she galloped across the room before literally pouncing on me, wrapping her legs around my waist and hugging her arms around my head, slamming into me so hard I staggered back into the wall. "FALSHADE!" she cheered, planting messy smooches all over my face and making my cheeks burn. "Am I ever glad to see you, man! How're ya, little brother?"

"He'll probably be better once you stop killing him." Rayvin commented. "Come on, Oz, let the poor boy breathe."

Ozprey slid off me, bouncing around me like a hyperactive puppy and the moment she let me go Rayvin caught a hold of me, crushing any air I'd managed to regain out of my lungs and giving me a ferocious nougie as if I were one of his own sons before passing me off to Aries, who was considerably more gentle.

"You know next time I might not be as inclined to come and visit." I muttered to him and he laughed, clapping me between my shoulder blades.

"Oh pshaw, you love us, don't try to deny it." He teased before the shadow of Nimbus fell over me and I held up my hands to shield myself.

"Oh god have mercy." I begged and he laughed, totally ignoring my pleas and crushing me between his massive arms and I could feel my breakfast being squeezed back up my throat.

"Well Shade, now that your organs have been properly compressed, how are you?" Rayvin asked once Nimbus had released me while I clutched my side, panting.

"Internally haemorrhaging, but I think I'll be okay." I wheezed, managing a grin. "What about you guys? How have things been around here?"

"Pure insanity but hey, it's what we're used to." Ozprey said with a shrug, her face seeming stuck in a wild grin. Her right arm was heavily bandaged but she'd obviously suffered no serious damage judging by the way she'd been able to jump on me like that. Rayvin looked liked he'd have a few more scars to add to his collection and seemed to be favouring his left leg and Aries' arms and face were plastered with bandages. The hair on the right side of his head had been chopped dramatically shorter than on the left and I wondered if maybe he'd been burned. And of course Nimbus had a patch slung over one side of his face just as Stork had told me, still healing from that shrapnel he'd taken. But they were all smiling like idiots anyways, as full of zeal as always. They were my father's squadron after all; they could have had the shit beaten right out of them and they'd still manage to kick ass six ways 'til Sunday, cracking a few jokes along the way. They were a lot like us Gargoyles really.

And then of course there was Drake, who'd been standing off to the side as if he wasn't a part of anything that was going on. He was roughed up too, supporting a row of stitches across his cheek and patches of bandages here and there, thoroughly bruised. The others fell silent as he cleared his throat uncomfortably, extending a hand in my direction. I met him halfway and shook it, feeling the awkward tension crackling between us that was always present when we did this. However he was exuding something new today as well, something that felt like shame and there was something genuinely friendly in his voice when he spoke, however strained it was.

"Hello, Falshade. It's good to see you."

"Yeah, good to see you too." I said, trying to fight down my surprise; I was pretty sure I'd never been on the list of people Drake was happy to see and to be honest he wasn't high on mine either. "You alright? What happened there?" I asked, motioning to his cheek and he shrugged.

"That's nothing, just a scratch."

Aries snorted. "Bullshit. He had a nice window in the side of his head there for awhile; I swear you could see his teeth through it."

"He took it like a champ though." Rayvin added, clapping him on the shoulder and a wane grin twitched in the corner of Drake's mouth. Then Rayvin looked back at me. "How's your little gang of maniacs doing? We saw Varan this morning but what about the other four punks?"

"Varan was here? You didn't maul him like you did me, did you?" I asked reproachfully.

"Nah we save the aggression especially for you, Shade." Ozprey assured me and I laughed. "Yeah the overgrown newt stopped by to ask if he could borrow one of our skimmers. I guess he's going out to Bogaton, right?"

"Yeah, that's what he said. And the others are alright, a little banged up but they'll live."

"Well, good. We were starting to get worried about you kids, flying off to try and save the world and what not." Aries commented.

"Yeah that reminds me!" Ozprey said, tugging on a handful of my hair. "How's it feel being a big shot, Ravenscroft? What's it like being Falshade, Oh Great Master of Heroics, Good Deeds and All That Rot?"

"I think you've got the wrong Falshade." I informed her, trying to get my hair out of her grip. "My title's a lot smaller."

"Seriously? 'Cause I only know one Falshade and everyone's been saying he's a big hero all of a sudden." Nimbus added teasingly, bodily lifting Ozprey off the ground and moving her aside when she started clambering all over me again.

"You've been sadly misinformed." I told him.

"You see, I told you. That can't be our Falshade I said." Aries said. "Ours is probably off being an idiot somewhere."

"Exactly what I was doing." I agreed. "Anyways look, I don't want to get into all of that. I want to know what's been going on out here, I want to know what everyone else has been up to. Come on, you guys have to have some stories for me."

After a little more prodding I got said stories out of them and I was reminded of when I was a kid, sitting up late with my mom while they'd go on about their old adventures, listening to everything with wide, amazed eyes. Apparently they'd been all over the place, run ragged between fighting against Cyclonis' mutant armies and trying to make sure the refugees that had poured into Vatican were taken care of. They'd been all over the map, escorting cargo carriers delivering relief aid and taking on the enemy soldiers that invaded terra after terra and using any moment they could spare to take care of their own terra. At the time I knew they must have been at their wits' ends, trapped neck-deep in the thick of chaos, but now they made it all seem like it all had been one hell of a party, laughing and recalling personal highlights. And I finally found out what had become of Kronos, the tale told animatedly by Rayvin and Aries.

"-so then out of the smoke comes this fucking mountain that made Nimbus look like a pixie-"

"And I shit you not, Shade, this thing picked up one of the turbines from a battle cruiser that crashed on the terra, tears it from what's left of the airship and threw it at us."

"Yeah and the thing was we were trying to get this group of civilians out of the line of fire, right? And this monster just hones in on us and comes charging towards us like a god damn meteor and we have no idea how we're going to stop this thing before it turns us all into roadkill."

"But then Ozprey stopped and fucking turned around to face the thing, climbed onto a pile of rubble before any of us can stop her and chucks one of her Nuclear Butterflies at it. The bomb goes off practically in this mo-fo's face but do you think that stops it? No way."

"Of course it does do a nice job at pissing it off." Rayvin added, giving Ozprey a disapproving look which she responded to with a big, all-teeth grin. "So then this thing goes after her, which I don't think is what you intended, did you?"

"Well hey, at least I was able to lead it away from you guys." She huffed, folding her arms.

Aries was shaking his head. "Anyways so there's Ozprey running for her life and throwing Butterflies behind her but they might as well have been firecrackers for all they did to stop this thing. And then what does she do? She trips and goes down in front of it!"

"No way." I said, ogling at her while her face twisted, disgruntled.

"You guys make me sound like an idiotic rookie." She said indignantly. "What happened was there was a crack in the ground where the road used to be and I caught my foot in it. I wasn't paying much attention what with that monster on my tail."

"Whatever, the point is she went down and this thing caught a hold of her. At this point the rest of us were pretty sure this would be the last time we ever saw her as it lifted her up and opened its mouth like it was gonna drop her right in." Rayvin carried on and Nimbus looked distressed, pulling Ozprey into his chest tightly as if to make sure nothing had actually happened to her.

"But then in a stroke of sheer dumb luck it turns out she's got one Butterfly left and she throws it right down the bastard's throat a split second before it drops her in." Aries continued.

"Yeah I was close enough to count his molars when the bomb went off." Ozprey added, shuddering slightly. "He finally felt that one when it exploded, that's for damn sure."

I made a face, having a brief vision of Hydra's guts spraying out in every direction when we'd pulled a similar stunt. "Christ, Oz, you must have nine lives or something."

"Well she's got one less now." Drake interjected, trying to seem chastising but not quite achieving it. "Two, actually, considering how close she was to that explosive when it detonated."

"Yeah took us an hour to find her, she got flung pretty far by the shockwave. Scared the crap out of us alright, but wouldn't you know it, by time we finally found her she was sitting pretty on a pile of junk wondering what the hell took us so long." Aries concluded, mussing up Ozprey's hair playfully.

I shook my head, laughing in disbelief. "Wow. You guys have been up to some pretty intense shit from the sounds of it."

"You bet your ass we have. And right when I was starting to think I was getting too old for all that shit too. Willow's going to have me on a tight leash from now on." Rayvin said, stretching and cracking his back.

"Tell me about it." Nimbus muttered. "I could barely handle half the stunts I used to pull when I was Shade's age like they were nothing. I even think I'm getting arthritis..."

"Yeah but you're gonna be fifty in a couple years. That's like, ancient." Ozprey pointed out and then squealed and hid behind me when Nimbus advanced on her.

"Watch who you call ancient, pipsqueak, because keep in mind arthritis or not I can still tie you in more knots than you know the names of." He told her, only half-kidding and I was glad I'd kept quiet, because I'd secretly been thinking the same thing. Then again I wasn't even twenty yet and that seemed almost unfathomable to me.

Aries ran his fingers through his lopsided hair and glanced around absently. "Hey, I hate to break up the reunion special, but we should get to work on organizing those supplies that came in..."

"Right." Rayvin nodded. "Not that we want to send you off so soon, Falshade, but we've still got a hell of a lot of work to do."

"I understand." I said quickly. "Do you need any help?"

Ozprey snorted. "Not from you we don't." She said and I huffed, pouting to myself. Jeez you bust one arm and suddenly nobody needs you anymore. Hero indeed.

"Alright well I can take a hint." I said sourly and Nimbus clapped me on the shoulder consolingly. "Mom told me to say that when you have time you're all invited to the house, maybe have a barbeque or something."

"Sounds good." Rayvin said. "If you want, Shade, you can stop by my place on the way back, Sparrow's been asking about you."

"Okay." I said, wondering absently if Varan had gone to see her or not. "Well I'm gonna get going then. Take it easy you guys."

"Yeah you too, and say hi to your friends for us." Aries called after me as I turned to go. Just as I was entering the hallway again though I felt someone come up behind me and was surprised to see Drake standing there.

"I'll see you out." He said, walking beside me. I blinked at him but said nothing and for a moment the two of us walked in one of the most awkward silences of my life before he spoke up again. "Actually, I was wondering if I could have a quick word with you, Falshade."

I paused and turned to him. "Sure."

Drake glanced around the corridor uneasily as if checking to see if we were alone, seeming on edge. He was twisting his fingers together nervously when he looked back to me. "I..." he paused and cleared his throat, trying again. "I just wanted to tell you... well I've been feeling rather... ashamed, I guess you could say, for these last few weeks. Once everything started happening like it did the realization really hit me that everything you'd been saying over the years, everything I'd scoffed at, had been the truth, that you were right. I got to thinking that maybe if I'd listened we'd have been a little more prepared. Maybe not as many people might have died..."
"Drake..." I started but he held up a hand to stop me.

"Please, let me finish. Anyways what I'm getting at is... well I'd like to apologize for the way I've acted towards you over the years. It was unnecessary and unprofessional of me and I'm sorry that it took me until now to realize that."

I started at him, completely dumbfounded by his sudden change of heart. He looked honestly and deeply remorseful about everything and right then I could really see how hard everything had been for him since the very beginning when he'd first taken charge of the Beast Keepers. He must have had to swallow a lot of pride to come out and say all those things and I was both moved and completely taken aback by his words.

I stared at him for a moment before finding my voice; I think a very small, immature part of myself was pleased just by the confirmation that people had finally begun believing me after the years of ridicule I'd faced because of my nightmares, but that didn't mean I wanted to rub it anybody's face, not even Drake's. "Drake, listen." I started slowly. "There's no need to apologize. I didn't come here to try and make you feel bad about anything. I'll admit we never really saw eye to eye and I probably said some things I shouldn't have too. But I'm willing to put all that behind us." Drake never had been and probably never would be someone I'd call a friend of mine or anything, I could never bring myself to dislike him either. Maybe part of that was because he accepted and respected Varan, in comparison to (for example) Harrier, who hadn't, which was a sure-fire way to get on my bad side. But I also knew that despite how hard it must have been for him, a young man taking on an older squadron who'd never look at him in the same light as his predecessor, he'd given the Beast Keepers everything he'd had and looked out for their well-being since day one. He was a fellow Sky Knight and a good guy at heart and that was good enough for me. "You looked after this terra and I don't think my dad could have had anybody better to lead the Keepers then you."

Drake's eyes got really wide and his mouth trembled and for a second there I worried he might start crying or something; I think somewhere deep down he'd needed to hear something like that since he'd taken over in Falco's place. He composed himself after a moment though and I was relieved; even if it pained me to see them like that I could handle my guys in teary states, but I don't think I'd be able to handle a hysterical Drake. "Well, aside from you." He said, giving a small but sincere smile. "From what I've heard you're turning out to be quite the Sky Knight yourself. Anyways, I'd better get back to the others. You take care of yourself, Falshade." He said, holding out his hand again and I took it, feeling some genuine warmth with the gesture.

"Yeah. I'll see you around, Drake." I said and watched him go, feeling good inside. As much as he bothered me I'd never liked being at odds with the guy, especially considering how close I was with the rest of the Beast Keepers and I figured this would only bring good things from now on, eliminating all the uncomfortable feelings that had always been present when we were in the same room together.

I turned around again and nearly ran right into Ozprey, who must have popped out from one of the nearby corridors without my noticing. "Dawww, look at you two kids getting along." She crooned, throwing an arm around my shoulder. "I'm gonna walk with you here for a moment, dodge some work."

I laughed. "Glad I can assist in your procrastination."

She nudged me in the ribs. "So how're things in the world of Falshade?" she asked as we made our way back towards the square.

I blew my bangs out of my face. "Pretty weird, but not as bad as they were. I guess I'm just not used to standing still and taking it easy, you know?"

Ozprey nodded in agreement. "Yeah, it takes a while for things to get into a rhythm again. I'm really glad you guys are okay." She added, pushing in a bit closer to me. "You Gargoyles dropped off the radar back there, we weren't sure where you guys were or if you were even alive. Last we heard of you was from Nimbus after your little friend Stork stopped by. Your mother was a mess."

I winced. "Jesus, I'm sorry."

"Oh don't be, you saved all our butts, you kids and the Storm Hawks." She said, nudging me again to try and cheer me up. "Oh and did I tell you? I almost managed to convince your mom to come out and help escort the carrier ships." She reported.

I gawked at her. "Shit, seriously?"

Ozprey nodded enthusiastically, grinning maniacally. "Yeah. Man those bastards would have been running for the hills with your mom out for their blood, I'll tell you that much. You do not fuck with Caspia."

"You don't have to tell me." I said, imagining just how fearsome my mom would look with a sword in her hand.

"You still have to show me some of your moves one of these days." Ozprey commented. Then she went quiet for a moment, looking thoughtful. She seemed to try to say something then changed her mind and ended up simply sticking her hand in front of my face, stopping and waiting for me to say something. I stared at her bronze digits for a moment, not exactly sure what she was trying to show me before I noticed a silver band on her ring finger, a glimmering diamond set in the middle like a very tiny star. I stared at it, thinking absently how odd it was for Ozprey to be wearing jewellery when suddenly it clicked and I turned to her with wide eyes.

"Is that what I think it is?"

She grinned, suddenly seeming uncharacteristically shy. "Yeah." She mumbled, turning the engagement ring around her finger absently.

"...Aries?"

"Aries." She confirmed and I could hear the giddiness in her voice. "He proposed last week, once we heard that you guys took down Cyclonia."

I felt a wild grin spread over my face. "Well final-fucking-ly!" I said and she gave me a shove, giggling ecstatically. "About time you two finally stopped pretending and made it official!"

"Shut up!" Ozprey squealed, sounding like a schoolgirl and shoving me again. I couldn't stop laughing. Since I could remember Ozprey and Aries had been attached at the hip; from what Mom had told me they'd been best friends since they'd escaped together from slavery in a Cyclonian crystal mine when they were only sixteen (the years spent underground and with constant exposure to raw crystal energy is what had caused Aries' pigment deficiency- Ozprey hadn't been there long enough to lose her colour, obviously) and they'd been together ever since. It seemed everyone but them could tell how obviously in love with each other they were and I guess after surviving a second war Aries must have finally realized it at last.

"Man that's so great for you two!" I said, grinning like an idiot. "When's the wedding?"

"Next spring. Figured we'd wait until things calmed down again. Oh that's right." She said, grabbing my arm and giving me a bit of a shake as if I hadn't been paying attention. "Aries wanted to know if you'd be one of his groomsmen."

My eyes widened. "Seriously?"

Ozprey laughed as if it were ridiculous that I'd even ask such a thing. "Of course, nimrod. You're pretty much our family after all."

I swallowed around the lump in my throat, feeling a little overwhelmed here. "Oh, well, jeez... I mean yeah of course, I'd be honoured to." I strung out awkwardly, feeling like I was being a total girl about all of this.

"Great!" Ozprey cheered, wrapping me in a hug so tight my broken nose was almost crushed against her collar bone. She was practically vibrating with excitement when she released me. "Now we just have to get a hold of Varan and ask him too, Aries wants you, him and Nimbus up there with him. Ray's already agreed to be his best man."

I nodded, trying to absorb all of this and feeling pretty excited myself; I'd always looked at Ozprey as an older sister of sorts and I was ecstatic for her. "So what about you, who's in your party?"

"Well your mom's already agreed to be my maid of honour, and Willow and Roo are going to be some of my bridesmaids of course but I don't know too many other women is the thing." Ozprey admitted a little sheepishly, then brightened. "Oh hey what about one of your girls? Stork or... oh jeez what was the other one's name... Wasp?" She asked hopefully and I laughed, nodding and she blew out a relieved sigh. "Oh good, you know me, I'm terrible with names and I only met her once so..."

"No worries. I bet either of them would be happy to, but I gotta warn you, I don't think it'll be an easy task getting either of them into a dress." I said and Ozprey laughed.

"Tell me about it, I'm having a tough enough time warming up the idea." Then she glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. "Actually your mom offered to let me use her wedding dress." She added, suddenly sounding a little uneasy and I cocked my head at her curiously. She swallowed and then asked. "Would that okay with you?"

I furrowed my brows. "Why wouldn't it be?"

"Well because it's... the last time anybody wore it was when she and Falco got married. It doesn't seem right, for me to use it. It seems sort of, you know, like, sacrilegious to me." She strung out, fiddling with her bandages awkwardly.

I could see where she was coming from; she'd been there when my parents had gotten married after all, she'd seen my mom wearing that dress. After what had happened to my dad it would probably feel awkward to wear the same dress at her own wedding. It'd be bringing back a lot of bittersweet memories that shouldn't affect such a happy occasion.

"I see what you mean." I said slowly. "But I don't think you should worry about it, if you like it than you should wear it, if you don't want to than Mom will understand."

"Hmm..." Ozprey hummed thoughtfully. "Well it is a gorgeous dress, I'll tell you that much. I like it better than all the others ones I've looked at so far and seems like a shame not to show it off. But hey the wedding's still pretty far away, we'll see how things go." She relented after a moment. Then she perked up once again. "Anyways I should probably get back and help or Rayvin will have my head." She said, giving me another quick hug. "I'll see you around, Shade. Try not to get too much of a swelled head or anything, Hero Boy."

"I'll do my best." I said sarcastically, giving her a gentle shove. "I'm glad you guys are all okay. And, you know, tell Aries I said congratulations and everything."

"Will do." She said with a bit of a salute. I could hear Rayvin shouting from somewhere back in the Honeycomb, demanding her immediate presence or face his wrath and I grinned to myself, heading back towards home. Didn't matter how old the Keepers got or what kind of shit they got themselves into, they'd always be the same.

x.x.x. Fraggle x.x.x.

Kinda sad that I'd finally scored the couch all to myself and now didn't want to sleep on it.

When the Storm Hawks had decided to stop for the night I'd been in a pretty good mood, excited to be heading home and eager to finally get a decent night of sleep without having to share the couch. Not that I minded sharing with Varan, since the poor kid was in pretty bad shape, but he's a big guy and takes up a lot of space. It'd be nice to finally stretch out the old bones and not have to worry if I was kicking him in his bad leg or anything.

But then, with the Condor moored for the night and the others gone to bed I started feeling lonely out there on the bridge. To be honest I'd never really liked being on my own; all my life I'd always been in the thick of people: before the Gargoyles it had been the crew of the Merry Geronimo and my friends at the Shanty and before that it had been my family and friends on Nord. This was just fucking strange, suddenly being all on my own. Well the Storm Hawks were around of course but you know what I mean, I was suddenly by myself at night after spending the last week sleeping next to my buddies. Guess I'd gotten a little too used to it (although I suppose I could have used the alone time, if you catch my drift).

Anyways after tossing and turning for a few hours I decided the novelty of the couch had worn out and got up, moving down the dark hallway to the room where Stork was staying. The narrow bed she was on wasn't much bigger than the couch but I made due, nudging her prone form over slightly and curling up on the edge of the mattress, comforted if not a little creeped out by her silent presence. And after that I was out like a light.

Now here I was the next day, stepping off the ramp of the Condor and the moment my feet hit the snow it was like something that had been laying dormant in me since I'd left suddenly rose back to life.

"So depending on where we are we'll stop by to pick you up first before we head back to Vatican for the others." Aerrow was talking to me but I was only paying part attention to him. The other half of me was busy drawing in deep breaths of cold air, nose prickling with the crisp smell of fresh snow. Aw man, that takes me back...

Aerrow whistled at me and I glanced back up at him, ears pricked to show I was listening. "Yeah eh, heard ya loud and clear. Six days and you should be back."

"Oh you were listening." Aerrow grinned. I'm always listening actually, I just have really good selective hearing. "Alright then, have a good time and say hi to your family for us."

"Will do, eh. Take care, and don't you be forgetting about me in six days." I said and Aerrow saluted me, stepping back in the hanger as the Condor lifted slowly from the docks, heading off once again into the blue-grey skies and I felt a sharp little stab of pain at my heart as I thought of the Merlin.

Throwing my backpack over my shoulder I started trudging my way through the powdery layer of snow; they must have had a few dumps of it since the last time there'd been any cargo ships through because the pathway into town hadn't been cleared yet. Not like I was complaining though, that's the way we Blizzy's like it. Man I'd missed the cold; it always seemed to be a little too warm for my liking back on the collection of airships I'd called home for the last three years (Christ had it really been almost three years now? Felt like it had been longer, and yet shorter too). I'd lowered the Merlin's thermostat on one occasion alone and I might have only changed it a few degrees but you better believe Angel noticed and then I didn't hear the fucking end of it. That was the last time I ever tried that, even though it was my goddamn ship. I paused for a moment now, letting the cool wind glide through my fur with a sigh. You can't ignore your roots I suppose and this was the kinda stuff I'd been built for.

After a few moments of relishing the temperature I carried on clearing myself a trail through the snow, one ear cocked to the tundra listening for wolves. I'd doubt there'd be any out right now what with it being the middle of the day but you never knew. Always better to keep an ear out just in case, or so my mum would always say. Looking back on it I'm still surprised she let Starla and I wander as far as we did as kids, right up to the foot of the mountains.

Kicking the last little pile of snow out in front of me I reached the crest of the steep hill that looked over the town nestled below. The Hollow was practically Nord's only settlement, cradled safely from the terra's vicious winds in the bottom of the dale that stretched before me. Hills closed around all but a third of the small town in something of a bowl; I'm not sure but I think it used to be the mouth of a volcano, long since extinct of course. The opposite end from where I was standing levelled out into the tundra, and beyond that stood the Spine, a jagged range of snow-capped mountains that tore into the skyline. Looking over the little town I'd grown up in I felt my heart cinch, spotting some tell-tale signs of the damage that remained after the terra had been attacked. People here had obviously been hard at work repairing after the attack but you could still see lingering reminders of it here and there, patches of rubble where homes used to be. I was just glad there was no black smoke billowing out in the tundra; I'd learned as a kid that when the smoke was that thick it meant they were burning bodies. Can't bury the dead in the snow after all...

Still, reminders of the devastation my terra had faced aside, I felt a wave of happiness roll through my entire body, my fur standing on end. Not like I'd been constantly homesick the entire time I'd been gone or anything, but still, it was good to be back. I made my way down the slope faster then I'd moved in awhile, slipping and sliding occasionally and sort of wishing I had a toboggan; when I was a kid that had been practically my only mode of transportation and just 'cause I was supposed to be an adult now or whatever didn't mean I'd forgotten what was fun.

The Hollow's streets were unusually busy when I reached them, the snow packed down solid under dozens of boots. The native humans were bundled up against the cold while some of the Blizzarians that had made Nord their home were milling about in t-shirts as if the terra was in the middle of a heat-wave. I recognized a few old friends but decided to stop and chat later; I was on a beeline for home and nothing could distract me. Although, okay yes, I did pause for a moment when I spotted a trio of Hybrids standing in front of a butcher shop. I'd seen some of the reclusive nomads on a few occasions before but it was still always a bit of a shock to see them, especially here in the middle of town. Usually they kept to themselves out in the tundra and that aside they had a way of catching your attention. Nasty creatures those guys, taller than Varan and hulking with muscle under their thick pelts, strong, sharp muzzles filled with wicked teeth. They'd always reminded me of werewolves to be honest; almost hard to believe we Blizzarians are distant cousins to them, considering how cute and cuddly we are. Ah well, they weren't so bad as long as you didn't piss 'em off. I suppose since the attack they must have been mingling with the rest of Nord's inhabitants more than they used to.

Moving away from the main streets of town I finally found myself staring up at my old house. I was relieved to note that it hadn't seemed to suffer any damage during the invasion. I also noted that the front steps had been shovelled rather unprofessionally and shook my head with a grin; tut tut, Starla.

I paused at the front door, swallowing uneasily and shifting my backpack again. It was full of last minute presents I'd managed to collect during the past week, substitution for every missed birthday and holiday, and of course just for bribery's sake. I mean hey, you could be mad at the guy who hasn't been home in (almost) three years and has been a little forgetful as of late with sending letters, but it's a little harder to be mad when he presents you with gifts. I'd had a whole stash of goodies waiting to be brought home in my old room, but of course they'd been lost along with my poor Merlin. But it's the thought that counts, right? For the sake of my sorry ass I better hope it does.

Pushing my inhibitions aside I knocked on the door a little harder than necessary, excitement getting the better of me. Jeez I hoped someone was even home, it'd be just like my family to decide to go out somewhere the day I finally decided to drop by. I fidgeted uneasily and a mound of snow decided to drop off the roof and onto my head. I was brushing it off my toque when I heard someone thumping over the floor inside and the door finally yawned open.

She'd grown some since I'd last seen her and her stubby little ears seemed to have lengthened, sticking out awkwardly from under her customary bombardier hat. She was skinnier than I would have liked, like her baby fat had started to melt away as it often does when puberty first starts to make itself known and she had a scar over her cheekbone that hadn't been there when I'd left but she was still undeniably Starla, blue peach-fuzz and all. I don't know who she'd been expecting but it sure as hell hadn't been me. The moment she saw me her eyes seemed to double in size and her jaw dropped open. She simply gawked at me while icy wind blew in the door and ruffled the pyjama pants that she was wearing. I stared right back, something trembling and close to breaking in my chest as I tried to think of something to say. In the end, unable to come up with anything better I simply said, in that oh-so-suave manner of mine, "Hey, kid."

She gaped at me a second longer before making a sound somewhere between a muffled shriek and a sob and flung her arms around me, nearly taking both of us right off the steps. That trembling thing burst into a thousand little pieces and I practically engulfed her, crushing her into my chest as if I wanted to absorb her into my body and not giving a damn that my broken ribs were screaming under the pressure. I wanted to laugh, I wanted to cry, I wanted to spin her around like I used to when she was small and tell her everything that had happened to me all at once but everything seemed to get stuck in my throat so I just held on all the tighter, face pushed into the leather of her hat.

Starla pulled away from me after what seemed like entirely too short a time, clinging to my arms as she leaned back towards the house and shouted "MUM! MUUUUUUUM COME HERE QUICK BEFORE HE TAKES OFF AGAIN!"

Oh yeah, like I'm the kinda guy to just hug and leave.

"Starla-Louize what on Atmos are you hollering for? And why is this door open? If I wanted to heat the outside I'd..." My mum appeared in the hallway and the words died in her throat when she saw just who Starla was hollering about. "...Fr...Fraggle..." she stammered and for a moment there I was worried she might just faint on me. But then she leapt forward, forgetting all about the open door and sweeping me into one of those suffocating kinda hugs only mothers are capable of, even if you've grown half a foot taller than them. Starla was still clinging to me tightly and seemed more than happy to be crushed between us while my mum all but smothered me, squeezing me around the neck and abruptly bursting into tears. And oh man seeing my mum cry like that nearly made me start bawling, throat closing right up on me.

"Oh Fraggle, I've been so worried, I didn't know if you were alright or even alive and Hail heard you'd joined some squadron and I thought I was never going to see you again-"

"Mum, Mum, calm down, it's okay, I'm alright, see?" I wheezed, trying to sound as soothing as one can when they're being strangled by their own hysterical mother.

Starla wriggled out from between us, gripping Mum's arm gently. "Mum ease up on him, eh, you've got him pretty tight there."

Mum backed off, gulping and hiccupping and trying to quell her sobs before apparently remembering that the door was still open. "Come on, inside, both of you." She said, herding us through the door. Once it was finally shut she rounded on me again, holding me at arm's length while she looked me up and down, tear tracks streaked through her fur. Then she pulled me into her arms again, thankfully a little more gently this time while Starla wound her arms around one of mine as if determined to make sure I wouldn't simply vanish on her.

"Fraggle..." Mum sighed, stroking my ear like she used to when I was little. "I'm so glad you're finally home..."

"I wanna know where he's been, eh." Starla objected, finally starting to sound reproachful, as I predicted she would. She looked up at me, giving my arm a good, reprimanding yank. "Someone told me you're supposed to be a big hero or something. Now tell me how one manages that by sky fishing, eh."

Mum let me go and cocked her head, the same question in her eyes. I coughed a bit, feeling overwhelmed and a little edgy. Usually words come to me pretty easily, I can pretty much talk myself out of anything and I tell wicked good stories. But suddenly I was standing there in this place I hadn't been for almost three years and for the life of me I didn't have anything to say for those years and all the crazy shit that had happened during them.

Scratching at my head through my toque uncomfortably I gave a bit of a helpless shrug. "It's a mighty long story there, eh."

Starla simply grinned, turning me around and putting her small hands on my back, propelling me into the living room. "Well it better be a good one then. We've got all day, brother."

Turns out it did pretty much take all day. I had to keep going back to things that I'd forgotten or trailing off with side stories and since it all had started before I'd even met the others it was a pretty long story indeed. Plus Hail showed up halfway through, returning from a meeting between the Icewind Howlers and the Hybrids where they'd been discussing all that boring stuff squadrons do when they don't actually have something serious going on. He sure had been surprised to find me sitting on the couch drinking hot chocolate and I guess he'd really missed me too because he actually hugged me, something he'd done on only a handful of other occasions. I still got the feeling that he was afraid of me a little bit, or rather was afraid of doing something that would turn me against him. He'd been like that since I was a kid, always being rather uncertain when it came to displays of affection and letting me get away with all kinds of shit as if he was afraid of stepping into territory that should have been reserved for my actual father. He didn't act like I wasn't part of his family or didn't want me to be either, he was just kinda timid with some stuff as if he thought he was on thin ice in my mind. Which couldn't have been further from the truth; I mean yeah I would have liked to have known my real dad, but Hail was a good guy and I liked him, especially since he made my mum so happy. I'd always looked at him like family, even if I didn't call him Dad. Anyways when he showed up there'd been the whole reunion thing again and then I had to backtrack a little since he wanted to hear my story too.

Then of course there was all the stuff I had to catch up on, everything that had gone on in my absence. Mum was a little skimpy on the details of the attack when that finally came up but it gripped at my heart nonetheless and I pulled Starla closer to me unconsciously as Mum and Hail talked. Turns out she'd got the scar on her cheek that day; the reckless, brave-hearted little idiot had run into town when they started evacuating people, determined to find a friend of hers. She'd been running towards her friend's home when a blast from an energy canon tore through the house and she'd caught a chunk of splintered wood in the face. She'd been damn lucky it only grazed her; I've heard horror stories about shrapnel piercing right through people's skulls. But she'd retrieved her friend and both of them managed to get into the mountains with the rest of the evacuees where they'd been safe until the siege was finally over.

And now, stories having come to an end and after sitting down to a good ol' family dinner I dragged myself up to my old room. It hadn't been touched except for the occasional dusting since I'd left and I sighed as I flopped onto my bed. It was nice to be back in some little place I could call my own; since losing the Merlin I'd felt a little lost without a solid, familiar place to call home. With all the madness out there you need something that can keep you anchored, even if it's just a simple place or treasured person.

Starla wandered in through my open door, sitting down next to me. "You know I wanted to make this into a rec room after you left eh, but Mum wouldn't let me."

I snorted, seeing right through her little charade. Starla liked to act like I meant next to nothing to her sometimes but since she could walk that girl had always followed me everywhere.

"Wouldn't mind a pool table eh." I agreed thoughtfully.

Starla grinned, stretching out next to me. "Do you have any pictures of your friends?" she asked after a moment.

"Uh, no, sorry eh. Why?"

"I want to see what they look like. They all sound really cool. Dunno why they'd wanna hang out with you, eh." She added teasingly and I flicked her little human nose.

"Hey, mind your manners there, squirt. If anything I'm the one who brings their collective coolness up to a normal level. They're hosers, eh."

"They don't sound like hosers to me."

"Well tell you what, once Stork's up and running around again and we have some time I'll have to bring them round here for a visit eh, so you can meet 'em and decide for yourself." I said and she beamed.

"Awesome! Do you think you'll have another ship by then?"

I hummed thoughtfully. "Oh, probably. We can't stay with the Storm Hawks forever eh. Not gonna be easy though, replacing the Merly." I sighed, the familiar twinge of pain tugging in my chest like it did anytime someone said the name. Man it was gonna be awhile before I'd get over losing her. I was extremely thankful I hadn't lost anybody I'd loved and to come out of a war with my cruiser as my only causality I was one lucky son of a bitch. But the Merlin was my baby, she'd seen me through thick and thin and did it ever hurt to have lost her; I'd have liked to see her through victory. I wasn't ever gonna forget my gutsy little airship, that was for damn sure.

"I'm sorry you don't have her anymore eh." Starla said sympathetically, tugging on my ear gently. "Was she a nice ship?"

"She was a beauty, eh."

"Sucks that you had to blow her up."

"Had to eh, I never would have got her out of Cyclonia and she would have gotten blown apart with the rest of the terra anyways." I sighed unhappily and Starla nudged at my side dolefully.

"What did Falshade have to say about you blowing her up, eh?" She asked and I quirked an eyebrow.

"He didn't have squat to say, eh, it wasn't his damn ship. Stork gave me an earful about it though."

"Yeah but Falshade's the leader, right?"

"Yes." I said slowly, not sure what she was getting at. "But he's never been one to tell us what to do there, eh. He's a good guy like that."

Starla hummed, smiling, and I sat up. "And that's why you call him Chief, right?"

I stared at her. "Yeah. What're you smiling about there, eh?"
"Nothing." She said innocently but I knew that look and I rolled my eyes. I guess she was getting to that age now when boys suddenly didn't seem so gross anymore and I had an inkling I'd piqued her interest in the aforementioned Sky Knight. "Hey, don't you be getting any ideas there eh, he's almost as old as I am. That's creepy, eh."

"I wasn't getting any ideas!" She argued, although her cheeks had turned a little pink.

I grinned ruthlessly, pinching her teasingly. "Maybe I'm gonna have to stick around and make sure no boys start spending too much time with my baby sister, eh." I said and Starla growled at me, swatting my hands away and pulling on my fur mercilessly.

"Urrrgh, you're such a weenie!" she shrieked in annoyance and I fell back, laughing.

"A weenie? Oh well you just cut me to the heart there, girly." I said, clutching my chest dramatically. "Don't think I've ever been called something as insulting as a weenie, eh. I'm devastated, seriously."

Starla huffed, folding her arms tightly. "Oh I can go ruder, eh, if you don't quit being a twerp."

I snorted. Twerp. She was still so young and innocent. "I'll try to eh, but I can't make any promises. Weenieness is in my blood."

"I know." She said shortly and I frowned at the bitter tone in her voice. Her playful attitude had subsided and been replaced by something else; suddenly she refused to look at me and was grinding her teeth loudly, jaw muscles twitching. I sat up and tried to look her in the face but she kept twisting away until she had her back to me, limbs wound together angrily.

"Hey..." I said, touching her shoulder but she shrugged me off. "What's up?"

She ignored me for a very long time while I waited silently, my stomach twisting uncomfortably. Finally, while staring fixatedly at out the window, she whispered "You didn't write me for my birthday."

That nearly killed me. There are few things in the world that'll make you feel worse inside than the reproachful voice of an injured kid and I felt so bad right then I wanted nothing more than to crawl into a nasty hole somewhere, where a dirty, slimy slug like myself belonged.

"You promised when you left you'd write me all the time." She went on, sounding both angry and hurt and my heart felt like it just might break. "But I haven't heard from you in months, eh. And then all this crazy stuff started going on and I... I thought maybe you weren't writing because you'd..." she trailed off and swallowed roughly like something was trying to force its way up her throat and she was determined to keep it down.

My eyes started to burn and my stomach started cramping badly like it always did when I felt guilty for something. And oh man did I ever feel guilty right then. "...I'm sorry, eh. I'm so, so sorry." I whispered, a pitiful response to her accusations.

Starla glanced at me over her shoulder, her eyes icy but her lower lip was trembling. "Do you still have my necklace?" she asked, changing the subject and I coughed, staring fixatedly at her feet because I couldn't look her in the eye.

"Um... no." I mumbled and she lunged at me, shoving me right onto my back and hammering her little girl's fists into every inch of me she could get.

"You turd!" she yelled, whaling on me and I whimpered pathetically when her knuckles connected with my ribs. "I made that especially for you to keep you safe and you lost it?"

"Starla, honey, please, you're killing me here!" I yelped, trying to catch her flailing arms. "You can hit me all you want eh, but not in the ribs!"

"How could you?" She demanded, completely ignoring me. "I gave it to you so you wouldn't forget about me, eh! What happened to it? You stupid, lousy old fleabag!"

"OWWW, Starla stop!" I pleaded and she paused when she heard the pained, desperate tone in my voice. I think she must have been surprised that she actually had caused me some pain; she used to try and beat me up all the time when we were younger, climbing onto my back by grabbing handfuls of my fur and raining blows down on me with her tiny fists, but she'd never gotten such a reaction out of me before.

Panting and utter small whining noises to myself I kept my hands raised in front of myself protectively in case she decided to start up again while she scowled down on me, waiting. "I gave it to Pippa." I muttered finally after the pain had subsided from my ribcage.

Starla's enraged expression softened slightly and she shifted back slightly. "The little girl you found on that burned down terra?" she clarified.

I nodded. "Yeah. Look I know you made it specially for me, eh. But I thought she needed it a little more than I did."

Starla stared down at me, her mouth twisted in an odd expression that I couldn't figure out. "...She needed a big brother too." She said quietly after a long time and I did a bit of a double-take, surprised by her statement.

"I just wanted her to have something nice to hang on to." I said honestly. "But listen to me, kiddo. I never forgot about you, not even for a minute. I know I stopped sending letters eh, and I'm really sorry for that, believe me. But I'd never just forget about you, eh."

Starla sniffled and rolled off of me, curling up against my side once again. "...Sorry I hit you, eh." She said finally and I grinned a bit, tugging on one of her little baby ears playfully.

"No worries eh. Was pretty rotten of me to have missed your birthday, I deserved it. I'll be home for your next one, I promise. Turning twelve is pretty special, I wouldn't want to miss it."

She smiled and snuggled into my side with a sigh. "Maybe your friends can come too." She said and I grinned, nodding. She was quiet for a while and then added in a very tiny voice "...Did you ever miss me, Fraggle? Even though you were off having big adventures and getting other little sisters?"

I stared at her, feeling terrible and sore inside, wishing I would have just sat my stupid ass down and written her more often, or stopped by when I had the chance. Her uncertain, wounded tone made my heart ache and I felt like the world's worst big brother right then. I felt like I'd failed some sort of crucial test and made her believe I loved her less than I did when I left.

Wrapping an arm around her and squeezing her tightly I twisted until I could speak directly into one of her stubby little half-breed ears. "Starla-Louize I'll tell you something right now that I want you to remember for the rest of your life, eh." I said. "I've met a lot of girls since I've been gone. I can't tell you about some of them, because you'll hate me if you knew what I got into with 'em. I've met pretty ones, boring ones and some real crazy bitches in my time, eh. I met two that could kick my ass into the middle of next week, who I trust with my life and love like crazy, eh, and they made it a little easier for me when I really started missing you. And I met one little girl who stole my heart. But you..." I tapped her nose to really get the point across. "You, little sister, are my most favourite girl in the whole damn world. I will always love you the most. And don't you ever forget it, eh."

x.x.x Angel x.x.x

It's happened now on more than a few occasions that I've thought for sure I was going to get myself killed doing whatever it was I about to do. I've always gone and done it anyways of course because well, hey, it's me. I'm pretty sure that sort of recklessness is listed as a necessity when you sign yourself on with the Gargoyles anyways, so it's worked out for me so far. But I don't think I've ever felt more certain of the fact that this next endeavour was indeed going to get me killed, nor have I ever felt so uneasy about the thing I was risking my life to do in the first place. But as always I found myself wandering into dangerous territory anyways because I'll always be a stubborn idiot that way.

Since the moment I'd gotten here something had started gnawing away in the back of my mind and it had grown more and more persistent as time went on. At first I wasn't really sure of what it was aside from this relentless, ruthless drive that was knocking away in my brain somewhere, but as it got to be less ignorable I realized it was the repressed bundle of unanswered questions that had been sitting like a bloated, dead thing in my subconscious somewhere all this time. There were things I wanted to know about my mother that had always been lost to me and I realized now that Caspia was the one and only connection I had to that piece of history, everything that might have been before I'd come along. Up until now I'd been trying to ignore that fact because I kept telling myself over and over that I didn't care and that I shouldn't waste my time with it because it was just going to bring up things I'd rather avoid. But this insistent, uncompromising drive just wouldn't leave me alone, the want got to be too overpowering and in the end I caved.

So now here I was standing in Caspia's room, shaking like a leaf and calling myself every horrible name I could think of as I crouched down on the floor and started rifling through her closet. I really did despise myself for doing that; Caspia had been good enough to let me into her home despite everything I'd done and not only that but she'd been prepared to make me a part of her family as well. And how was I repaying her? By rummaging through her belongings. God I was scumbag...

I really couldn't help myself though. I was still too scared to tell her I didn't like mushrooms for god's sake, no way I was going to be able to ask her anything about Pegasus (yes I'd actually eaten mushrooms today, which Falshade evidently found hilarious because he made no attempt to save me when Caspia passed them too me). I was being haunted by all these things I needed to know about my mother and I just wanted to put them to rest at last. It had been something that always plagued me, this deep rooted need to know that, if I was at all like her, there had to be more to her than just what I'd known, for the sake of my own identity. If someone like Caspia had been her friend way back when then there had to be something redeemable about her and I needed proof of that. I don't know why it suddenly came over me to be honest; I'd done my best at burying it over the years under loathing and ignorance. But now that I was trying to fit into the place I'd been given here and going through something of a self-improvement kick, the pitiful little need rose up in me from some repressed area of my childhood and I realized it wasn't going to leave me be until I saw it through.

There were a lot of boxes stacked in the bottom of Caspia's closet that I figured were things she needed to keep but couldn't bear to look at. That woman had a lot of secrets and dark history of her own and I felt bile rise in my throat for unearthing it all. I had a feeling any relationship she'd had with my mother was something she probably didn't want to look back on, which was the other reason I didn't want to ask. I didn't really want to know about it either; no doubt it'd bring up a lot of anger and hurt I didn't feel like dealing with. I was supposed to be happy here. But I had to know so I kept digging. I found one long, slender box and out of curiosity cracked it open to find an old sword sitting inside, a little dull from years without polish but still rather impressive. I sliced my finger open running it along the edge of the blade so it was evidently still in good condition. Sucking on my finger absently I moved the box aside and uncovered at stack of photo albums. Ah, here we go...

I swallowed uneasily as I picked one of them up and opened it in my lap gingerly, careful not to get blood all over the pages. My stomach was twisted in painful knots as I turned over the first page uneasily; my need for answers wasn't strong enough to overtake my fear of what I might find.

This first album seemed to be full of newer pictures however and I felt relieved. Most of them were of Falshade throughout various ages of his life before meeting the rest of us and I grinned despite myself. He always appeared to be in the middle of something when his mom had stopped him to snap a picture, halfway up a tree or blowing out candles on a cake. His smile hadn't changed over the years; even when he was really young it was always the same, part reckless charm and part soft-hearted goofball. Christ he'd been a cute kid... I wonder what happened, ha ha. Oh man, I'm a jerk. Varan appeared in more than a few pictures too and man, was it ever weird to see him so small. He looked like he might have only been five in one of the pictures and he barely even had a tail back then, stubby little mohawk-spikes almost non-existent. He had a habit of always looking rather uncomfortable in the pictures; I guess he'd never really changed either. There was a girl in a few of the pictures too, usually climbing all over Falshade and it took me a moment before I recognized Roo. Her black eyes were pretty distinctive but without the bull ring and the orange hair I almost didn't recognize her; I guess she must have been almost normal at one point in her life anyways. She and a few older boys which I assumed must have been her brothers appeared in a few shots, as well as the Beast Keepers from time to time. It seemed Falshade had always had someone at his side during his childhood and for a tiny second there I was jealous of him.

And then, at the back, I found something that surprised the hell out of me. At first I didn't even recognize myself as I stared down at the picture, but the barren landscape in the background was unmistakable. I carefully pulled the picture from its plastic casing and flipped it over: Angel, age six was scrawled on the back. I blinked at it and turned it over again. Christ. I couldn't even remember having this picture taken. Caspia must have asked my mother for one, because I don't think she'd ever taken any pictures of me before or since then. Ugh was I ever a little whelp. My hair was shorter back then because my mother always got sick of the tangles and would simply hack it all off with a pair of scissors and I looked pretty nervous standing there, hands clasped behind my back and a very small smile on my face. Man had I ever been timid as a kid... I replaced the picture and shut the book, not wanting to look at it anymore.

The second album was full of baby pictures. I could tell instantly which ones were of Falshade because there was no confusing his violet eyes, which were always staring at something with fascination. Most of them were of him but a few I think must of been again of Roo and her brothers. Falshade had told me Rayvin and his dad had been close friends so I guess both families must have been tied together since the beginning. I put that one down pretty quickly; I didn't really want to see baby pictures, they made me feel strange. It was hard to imagine any of my friends ever being babies, except maybe Stork since she still kinda looked like a baby sometimes even now, not to mention she acted like an infant. I hoped none of my own baby photos had ended up in there, that would just be embarrassing.

I knew right away that if anything I was looking for was to be found, it'd be in the third album I picked up. The pictures were all older and instead of focusing on Falshade they displayed a much younger Caspia. Whoa. I knew I wasn't supposed to think that way anymore because well, she'd adopted me, but still, permit me a two syllable damn... ahem, anyways, moving on.

She didn't seem to be as guarded back then from the looks of it; she still looked like she could beat the shit out of anyone she wanted but her face was softer and her eyes didn't have that lingering sorrow in the corners that they did now. She looked a lot more carefree, laughing and wearing a reckless grin I'd seen on Falshade's face so often. She had her arms around a teenage Ozprey in one shot and in another, in which she herself was just a teen, she was wearing a leather jacket that suddenly made her seem a lot like Wasp, a weathered girl who could take on the world. Younger versions of the other Beast Keepers appeared throughout the photos too, a young gang of wild punks that didn't seem so far off from us now really.

And then I finally got to see a shot of the legendary Falco and lord, people were right, he really did look like Falshade. At first I couldn't even tell the difference, but of course what would Shade be doing in pictures that had been taken before he was even born? Shade's face was practically identical to Falco's though, right down to the shapes of their mouths and eyes. They had the same jaw line, the same roguish smile, the same violet orbs shining with life. Falco was a little taller than Shade was now I think and his hair, although it still flopped into his eyes and stuck up at odd angles, seemed a little shorter and tamer, but other than that it could have been Falshade standing there, idiotic grin on his handsome face. He had his arm around Caspia's shoulders and the two of them looked so damn happy it made my chest ache. God was I ever thankful I hadn't lost anybody I loved in these last few months...

Then when I turned the next page I found exactly what I'd been looking for and of course I wasn't at all prepared for it.

I was reminded of all those picture booth shots Stork had made us take way back when; both of their faces were pressed up close to the camera as if they had a limited amount of space and like we had been they just seemed to be messing around. And lord when I saw my mother in that picture I honestly thought she was a different person altogether, like maybe she'd had an identical twin or something. The woman in this picture was nothing like the wraith I'd grown up with and suddenly I wished I hadn't come looking for those god damn answers because I remembered exactly how much I hated how she'd been and knowing that yeah, she hadn't always been that way just made it a hundred times worse. It was like I'd come along and wrecked everything.

I gripped at my hair with a shaking hand as I stared down at the picture. Caspia's hair was shorter then, chopped off at the chin and her eyes looked a lot younger, like they hadn't witnessed nearly as many things then as they had now. Pegasus had an arm thrown around her leather-clad shoulders, cheek pressed in against hers with a cunning, daring grin plastered over her face, which wasn't nearly as hollowed as it had always been whenever I'd seen it. Her angular eyebrows were arched suggestively as if she were challenging the camera, her cotton candy hair done up in loose pigtails at the sides of her face and it seemed she was the one taking the picture, part of her arm cut off in the corner. But it was her eyes that really got to me, bright as steel and blazing away with a spirited fire that I had never, ever seen in the eight years I'd spent at her withering side.

My entire body was shaking at that point and I wasn't sure whether I wanted to throw up or cry. Oh fuck help me, that was my god damn face... I slammed a fist into the wall, unable to tear my gaze away. What the fuck had I been thinking? I hadn't wanted to see her happy, it just made it all the more unbearable to know that she... that I... that things could have been different if maybe I'd tried a little harder, that I'd ruined everything and why why why had she been stupid enough to keep me in the first place? I never asked for any of it, damnit, so why was it my fault? I'm sorry, I tried, but you...

"...You stupid little bitch." I wheezed, feeling on the verge of a breakdown.

"Did you honestly think you'd be able to snoop around in here and get away with it?" Someone demanded from behind me and I jumped, my blood running cold as I turned very slowly to the doorway and saw Caspia standing there, arms folded with a formidable expression on her face, her eyes turned to ice.

And here was that part where I got myself killed.

"I'm sorry!" was the first thing I managed to blurt out, wanting nothing more than to get to my feet and run but I seemed rooted to the spot. Shit, run, Angel, run! Oh man it was all over, Caspia would kick me out, Falshade would disown me and I'd forever be forsaken. So much for trying to own up for things, dipshit. I was the goddamn king of fucking things up, that was for sure.

Caspia strode over next to me and I flinched, expecting to be beaten within an inch of my life. She didn't make a move for me though, not yet anyways, but instead leaned over me to see what I was looking at and I felt some of her anger dissipate, her muscles unwinding.

"I figured you'd want to know about her eventually, although I didn't think you were stupid enough to pull something like this." She commented coldly and I cringed.

"I'm sorry." I muttered again, my voice hoarse. My entire chest cavity felt constricted and I wanted to crawl into a hole somewhere and die. God damnit I should have just sucked it up and asked her everything instead of coming to this, now I'd gone and ruined everything.

Caspia let out a long, irritable sigh and glanced over me, her face softening slightly. "You can stop cowering like that, I'm not going to hit you." She assured me but that did nothing to calm me. Then something dark came into her eyes. "She never hit you, did she?" she asked, her tone quiet but lethal and her question caught me off guard. I shook my head; my mother couldn't have been bothered with things like that.

"Alright." To my surprise Caspia sat down on the floor next to me, gently taking the album from my hands. She stared down at the picture in silence until I was finally able to cough up my voice.

"I really am sorry." I muttered and she looked back up at me. I swallowed hard, my throat clogged. "I knew I shouldn't have come poking around in here and I'm sorry, I just..." I trailed off, not sure how to begin explaining myself.

Caspia watched me for a moment longer and I had to fight to hold her piercing gaze before she nodded. "It's alright. Like I said, I knew you'd want to know. I would have preferred if you'd asked me though." She said like she was scolding a five year old but I deserved it so I took it without complaint. She turned back to the photo again while I sat there nervously, pulling it out from the plastic and holding her forehead in her hand. "Lord..." she murmured almost to herself. "It's been a long time since I've looked at this picture..."

I fidgeted uncomfortably, clearing my throat a bit. "...How old were you two there?" I asked hesitantly, still half prepared to leap to my feet and take off like a bat out of hell at a moment's notice.

Caspia bit her lip as if thinking. "I don't think we were much older than you and Falshade here." She said after awhile. "It was before she left for training, anyways. God we were idiots back then." She added, laughing at herself quietly.

I nodded, my muscles seized painfully from trying to keep myself from trembling. I stared at the picture again, unable to look away from the mirror image of my own eyes, shining like frost. "...I never saw her like this." I muttered, barely aware that the words were coming out until I'd already said them. I drew my knees into my chest tightly, feeling very brittle and vulnerable all of a sudden, like all my protective armour and toughened calluses had simply been torn right off and now anything could simply swoop in and slice me to pieces. It scared me; I hadn't felt this way in a very long time and I didn't like it. Like a large hole had been torn into me and now everything was spilling out, slimy and ugly, for anyone to see. I suddenly wanted to be with Wasp more than anything else in the world; at least if I was near her I'd feel a little bit safer, even if the other feelings didn't go away. I twitched and started to stand but Caspia's hand reached out and grabbed mine and the look on her face made me stay. I sat back down, trying to calm my erratic heartbeat and reminding myself that I wasn't supposed to try and block out my feelings anymore. For better or for worse, this had to happen.

No more running, Angel.

Caspia rubbed my arm and I glanced over at her, feeling horribly sick inside. The corners of her mouth were cinched in and there was a hard look in her cerulean eyes like she really didn't want to be doing this either. But something was compelling us both to stay and she sat there silently, watching me expectantly and waiting patiently for me to say something. I swallowed hard and tried to sum up some scrap of courage. I'd wanted answers after all and now I had the opportunity to get them.

"...What was she like?" I finally managed to choke out, sounding strangled. "What was she like, before..." Before it all got fucked up, before death seemed like a much better alternative. Before him. Before me.

Caspia blew out a long sigh and was quiet for a while, like she was trying to decide on the right way to say everything. "She was stubborn." She started at last. "She was stubborn and reckless and never liked staying still very long. She always had to be doing something, picking fights and getting into trouble. Feisty, cunning little thing. Daring to the point of stupidity." She added scornfully but there was something in her eyes that seemed amused by that stupid streak despite her disdain. "She had moxie, I'll give her that much. She was always dragging me into things like she thought it was her job to make sure I had any excitement. I think she had it in her head that she had to look out for me, make me live a little." A tiny smile graced Caspia's lips here and I couldn't tell if it made the ache in my stomach better or worse. "She didn't like Falco very much." She recalled and I cocked an eyebrow curiously. "She was jealous of him I think, of how much time I spent with him. I think that was part of why she decided to run off and join the undercover agents in Cyclonia. I think she wanted to spite me a little."

Well fuck me, did that ever sound like the way I'd been about Shade and Stork or what. Apple doesn't fall far from the goddamn tree.

"So how'd you end up meeting her?" I asked, trying not to draw too many similarities between myself and Pegasus. It scared me to think that we were so alike; if I was too much like her than did that mean I'd end up straying down the same path as her in the end as well?

"She used to live here." Caspia explained and I blinked in surprise, never having known that. "She came to Vatican when she was nine, after her home terra was overrun. She was by herself by then; I never knew what happened to your grandparents."

I shrugged, not really caring. I already had enough trouble with the only two blood relatives I knew, the last thing I needed was more of them to worry about.

"Anyways once I met her that was it, we were attached at the hip. We joined the escort crew together when we were sixteen and we stuck together until Starling showed up one day and told me she was joining the infiltration unit they were putting together. Well Pegasus caught wind of that and decided she wanted to join too. She was like that, she always wanted to be where the danger was, she liked pushing the limits. It was all a big game to her, everything was a challenge." I could feel Caspia's demeanour shifting again, her anger returning in roiling black clouds. "She was an idiot." She muttered, glaring down fixedly at the picture in her lap. "She acted like she looked after me but in reality I was the one who had to look after her. She pushed her luck, she challenged everything, it was always a contest that she just had to win and I always had to be there to make sure she didn't piss off the wrong person, didn't take things too far. I was always worried she was going to get herself killed and there she was laughing about it. She was careless and she thought she was invincible. Arrogant. Stupid." Caspia went on bitterly, tracing my mother's face with the tip of her finger, fury practically radiating from her. "...And I think that's why he ended up doing what he did to her." She whispered, the muscles in her jaw twitching.

I clenched my hands so tightly my nails bit into my palms. I didn't want to hear about this part. I wanted to turn my back on any reasoning I'd had to come here and disappear into the night forever, fuck Caspia, fuck Falshade and the others, fuck everything, I should be dead. I should never have existed in the first place.

But no. Against every fibre of my being I stayed. Because if I left then I was just like her.

Caspia was suddenly gripping my arm very tightly as if she'd heard my thoughts and had to make sure I stayed, that I was still there. She held onto me as if she wished she could have grabbed Pegasus like this and made her stay, never let her join that stupid unit in the first place. She clung to me and stared at the floor, eyes on fire. "He saw her spirit and wanted to crush it. He wanted to prove that she was just as damn vulnerable as the rest of us, the one goddamn time I wasn't there to protect her. And it broke her. She fell too far and she didn't know how to recover from it. She wasn't indestructible anymore and I think she believed she could never gain back her pride and confidence because she'd let someone steal it, she'd failed herself. It completely shattered her inside and that's exactly what he wanted."

I didn't want to hear all of that again. I'd already come to the same conclusion years ago, back when I still tried to understand and justify why she'd done what she'd done. I knew all too well how it felt; someone had gotten past my barriers too, had dug to the very core and exploited the one thing I'd promised myself would never happen. Cyclonis wanted to break me too.

But I was still here. I was trying to put everything back together. So why the fuck couldn't she have tried too? Why couldn't she have even tried?

Caspia sniffed and straightened up, spine a stiff, solid line, chin held high like she was mediating. She turned and looked at me and I got that feeling again that her eyes had pierced right into my mind and could see everything that was tearing me apart in there. "When we found out she was pregnant it put everything in a different light for me." She said and I wished she'd stop looking at me. It unnerved me, how she could just keep talking about all of this. I was struck by the realization that Caspia had known me before I'd even been my own person, before I'd even been aware of myself. It seemed surreal to me. "I... I thought we could take it as something good coming from something so terrible, something to make up for what had happened."

Caspia wasn't so different from Wasp. They needed to hang out more. I found it odd that she kept saying 'we', like she had shared one half of the whole experience with Pegasus, like she was the second parent in the whole messed up situation. Then again I guess she sort of was.

"That's why I thought we should call you Angel." Caspia continued and I winced. What, was I supposed to be some guardian spirit sent from some place on higher, a shining gift from the Fates to make up for the shitty hand my mother had been dealt? Yeah fucking right. Look how that had turned out. In the end I hadn't been a good enough angel.

I think I must have snorted and not realized it, because suddenly Caspia shook me, hard, and I had the fleeting, insane urge to bite her, sink my teeth right into her arm to make her let me go. She was staring at me again god damnit, trying to push something into my mind through her electric blue eyes and for the life of me I couldn't look away.

"It wasn't you." She told me, enunciating every syllable. "I tried to get her to see everything another way, lord help me I tried for eight fucking years to get her to snap out of it." She was seething now, the pot was boiling over with all the things she'd needed to say and have heard for all this time. "It wasn't because of either of us. She just gave up, Angel. She'd given up before we even had the chance to try. She didn't want to get better so she shut us out. Both of us." Caspia's mouth was full of fury but there was something building up like ice in the corners of her eyes too. "In the end I just couldn't take it anymore. I tried to stay in touch when she moved out to Saharr, tried to get her to come back around but she blocked me out. I came out to visit at first but she didn't like that either. And then I finally had enough one day. I just couldn't do it anymore, it was sucking the life out of me trying to get through to her and I had my own life to live, I had Falshade to take care of so... I just... let her go. I had to let her go."

Caspia's body seemed to crumple then like a paper crane and she cradled her forehead in her hands like she'd given up on trying to stay strong and impassive about all of this. The tears crested and broke, rolling down her face and I felt my throat close up. "...And then I got a letter a year later telling me I had to attend her funeral." She rasped and I buried my face in my knees, wishing I could just block out the world. I didn't want to go back there again, never again.

"God the whole time I couldn't stop thinking that maybe if I'd just tried a little harder, if I hadn't dropped out of contact maybe she wouldn't have done it. Maybe I still could have saved her." Caspia's voice wavered and she uttered an almost silent sob into her hand and right then her and I were in exactly the same place, staring down into that casket and asking the question that would never be answered: could I have stopped it from coming to this?

I couldn't stand hearing her cry. Enough fucking tears had already been spilled on my mother's account and I didn't want to see them coming from her, this woman who already had a lifetime's heartbreak. Not really sure what I was doing but knowing I had to do something I reached out and grabbed her elbow, trying to say everything in that one touch. And something must have gotten across because she looked at me and then without warning reached over, grabbed me around the shoulders and physically dragged me across the space between us, pulling me right into an embrace I hadn't expected. I stiffened right up as she folded her arms around me, pulling me into her chest and everything turned to a dull buzz inside me. But then I found myself sinking into her, because something inside me had needed this since I'd been just a little kid, lost and alone in the big wide world.

And for the first time since Falshade had proposed the idea I felt like maybe Caspia could be my mom after all. Maybe I could be her son.

"I'm so sorry." Caspia was muttering, stroking my hair. "I shouldn't have left you behind all those years ago. I just... I saw the way you looked at me and it reminded me of her. I thought if I brought you here you wouldn't want to stay, that maybe you'd even hate me. I couldn't handle that again, not after what I went through with Peg. But I was wrong; I wanted to let go of her at last and I let go of you in the process. And I shouldn't have, I should have come back and looked for you..."

I felt a pang of guilt and another of disgust, knowing that even back then I'd come off just like my mother. "...Look if I hadn't wanted you to you never would have found me out there." I told her. "Don't feel bad about leaving me. I didn't want to be with you back then."

"Has that changed now?" she asked softly and I swallowed uncomfortably. I'd never been any good with this touchy-feely stuff.

"...Yeah." I muttered honestly. I liked it here and as much as she scared the shit out of me I liked Caspia too. Besides, even if she hadn't, Falshade had managed to adopt me in the end anyways. I belonged to him (and yes I know how gay that sounded, thank you) and I guess with our shared history I belonged to Caspia now too. And somehow that felt alright with me. "You know maybe it's better we came to this the long way round anyways." I added on an afterthought. There were a lot of things I wish I hadn't gone through but I think I was really starting to see the truth in what Wasp and Varan had always said. Sometimes the bad stuff has to happen to you, you have to make your mistakes and deal with the hurt or you never really get anywhere, never really grow. That was proving to be the hardest lesson I'd had to learn.

Caspia hummed thoughtfully. "Maybe you're right. Maybe we both just needed time."

I found myself staring at that picture again and chewed on my tongue absently before asking "Did you ever hate her?"

Caspia pushed her hair from her face again, wiping at her nose. "No. I could never hate Peg." She muttered, tracing my mother's face with her fingertip distractedly. "I was angry with her, bitter, and I hated the way she acted yes. But I could never hate her." She sighed, sounding tired and drained. "I think back then I was just too angry and distraught to see everything clearly. But after all this time I think I've come to terms with everything. I can't change what happened and I can't keep asking myself if I could have done anything more. I wanted to let Pegasus go from my heart because it just hurt too much to have her there. But that was wrong of me; what I should have done is let go of who she became, not who she was underneath. I'm going to remember her how she used to be from now on."

I nodded, not really having anything to say. Caspia pulled me in close again and as much as hugs and other affectionate contact had a way of setting me on edge I really didn't mind. "Did you know you have a middle name?" she asked me after a long time, brushing my hair back from my face with an easy stroke of her hand.

I quirked an eyebrow curiously. "No, I didn't. Did you give me that one too?"

Caspia grinned. "No, just the first one."
"Yeah, thanks for that by the way." I grumbled. "You couldn't have picked something more masculine?"

Caspia laughed, digging her knuckles into my shoulder in a way I assumed was gentle teasing. "I think it's a lovely name." She said and I ground my teeth slightly. Lovely was not a word that I wanted on my list of personal descriptions. Then she dropped the taunting tone and turned serious again. "It's Falco." She murmured and I started, staring at her. She smiled grimly, the expression pained but sincere nonetheless. "He... he died a few weeks before you were born." She said, voice holding strong but I could hear the ache in it. "I like to think it was Peg's way of telling me she was sorry, that some part of her was still in there deep down and even if she couldn't salvage it for herself she still wanted to let me know she loved me. Maybe she even wanted to try and say something to both of us, that she wanted us to be connected to each other even without her. Lord maybe she knew what she was going to do even then... I don't know... but it stuck anyways. It's on your birth certificate." She informed me and I felt rattled inside, not sure if this sat well with me. I didn't think anybody deserved to have Falco's name passed on to them, even if it was a tribute to his memory (except maybe if like, Shade ever had kids. God there's a scary thought...). But to give it to me of all wretched people? I felt like I had tarnished it.

"...Why do you have my birth certificate?" I ended up asking because I had nothing else for all the world to say. You better believe that had given me a hassle, trying to register at the Academy without a single piece of identity to verify I was who I said I was. Luckily Atmosia keeps records of everyone who's ever been issued a birth certificate so they were able to find me eventually.

"It was in Pegasus' will that you were to be placed in my care in the event that something happened to her. They gave me everything of yours to hold on to, since you weren't of age. I've been holding onto your inheritance actually, you have a small fortune to your name."

Oh well gee, look at that, my mother had actually paid me some thought after all. Seemed like she'd set up a whole life for me before removing herself from it. How fucking nice of her. The hurt and the anger all came storming back in; it was just salt in the fucking wounds, knowing the only time she'd ever cared about my wellbeing was to insure I'd be alright after she abandoned me.

I was going to give all that money to charity. I wasn't using a cent of her fucking blood money on myself.

Caspia must have sensed my shift in attitude and uttered a sympathetic noise in her throat, squeezing me securely against her warm body. "...You know I'm really happy you came back here." She said softly and I shoved my nasty thoughts away to listen to her. "I've felt bad all these years for leaving you and... even if I couldn't save Peg I still have you. I have this shining, precious thing that survived when everything else crashed and burned. You are special to me, Angel. You are all the good things I remember and loved about Pegasus. And now that you're here, even if we took the long way round getting to it, I can put everything else to rest at last."

I swallowed hard, willing myself not to completely lose it. Until I'd met Falshade and the others I'd never meant anything to anyone. I'd tried to convince myself that this was no big deal, that I didn't need other people to validate myself but despite everything I told myself this crack had always existed in me somewhere, this empty place that craved something I didn't understand. Maybe it was just a leftover childhood defect that would have liked if just once my mother would have looked at me and smiled even just a little bit, just to show that I mattered to her, no matter how little. So when Caspia said that it was like every unrequited thing I'd ever felt got smoothed over in one gentle sweep, filling in the crack with all the right words I never knew I needed to hear. And it was completely too much for me; those big slices of the emotional, heartfelt pie are always too much for me to swallow all at once.

For the life of me I couldn't think of anything to say; I could barely understand how to feel but Caspia didn't seem to expect anything further from me. She'd said her piece and was content to sit there with me, stroking my hair and humming some quiet tune I vaguely recognized. But the longer I stayed there with her, trying to put everything back in order inside, something started to form with slowly brightening certainty in my mind. The way I saw it, Caspia had all these good memories to look back on in terms of my mother, even if they'd been frayed and stained over the years. She had the old Pegasus to cherish, she could let go of her image of what the new one had become. But me, I didn't have that. I only had what Caspia had told me about her and that wasn't enough to satisfy me. I had to let go of all of her, because that broken, pitiful creature she'd become was all I'd ever known. I didn't want to carry that with me anymore; it'd caused me enough misery and occupied too much space in my heart for too long now. Wasp had told me time and again that it's important to hold on to the things that keep you going, even if sometimes they're bad things. But she'd also said that once you have enough good things to pull you back on your feet when you get slammed hard by the weight of the world then you should let go of some of the older stuff. Especially if they're just dragging you into an early grave.

I'd barely acknowledged that the idea had come to me but the words were coming out of my mouth all on their own, as if for once the rest of me had decided on something before my head could warn me otherwise. "There's something I have to do." I said, more to myself than anything to confirm that yeah, I was going to do this.

Caspia answered me anyways though, rubbing my back briefly before letting me go and standing up. "You can take my skimmer."

x.x.x Varan x.x.x

Staring out over the parched scrublands of the terra I had a brief little flicker of nostalgia spark in my chest. I couldn't remember very much about the short time of my life I'd spent on Bogaton, probably because I'd been very young at the time of course but also more than likely any memories I did have of the place had been buried under trauma. Only a few smudges had survived after all that and to be honest I didn't really look back on those very much. Like I said, I'd been too small to really retain much of anything and thinking about those four short years I'd lived on Bogaton only got me thinking of what had inevitably caused me to leave, well, I generally tried to avoid thinking about that. That memory, unfortunately, had been branded permanently into my young mind.

However looking out at what was now the new home of the Terradons I felt something stir in my stomach, some subconscious part of myself that remembered this place. Any of those lingering pieces that remained of my early childhood came to life and I felt a strange, bittersweet feeling sweep through me like a calm breeze. It was both a foreign and yet familiar feeling to be standing here, with these people who I both belonged with and was a stranger to.

Repton moved up beside me then, arms folded over his chest and tail flicking absently. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye, trying to decipher the expression on his face. He looked rather impassive standing there but there seemed to be a lot going on behind his eyes. He was a difficult man to read I'd decided, practically indiscernible if he didn't want anyone to know what he was thinking, very much like Angel. I suppose it must have stemmed from the practice of not exposing signs of weakness; I imagine as someone who was once the leader of a vicious gang of rogues and also under Cyclonian employment he'd have to of been that way.

"Impressive, isn't it?" he asked me after the two of us stood in silence for a while.

I nodded. "Hard to believe a terra this big was left uninhabited for so long."

Repton shrugged. "Most people wouldn't want to live out here. Too hot and dry, never enough rain to grow crops, it wouldn't sustain a human population. Perfect for us lizards though."

I nodded again. The temperature here was high and unwavering, almost as if the sun hung in the middle of the sky all day long and the dry, dusty heat of the place was glorious. It felt perfect here, not like the lukewarm rays I'd catch during our brief expeditions on other terras but like when I'd find the perfect sunbeam on the runway of the Merlin and was able to just sit and soak in it for hours on end. It was as if the whole terra sat in the direct path of a constant shaft of sunlight that never faltered but never became excruciatingly hot either. I glanced at Repton again, wondering if he was enjoying the sunlight as much as I was. After all he'd been stuck underground for seventeen years now, it must have felt incredible to have the sun on his scales again.

Then again he'd seemed on edge the whole time I'd been here, maybe he was too preoccupied with other things to be enjoying his freedom. I knew he was angry too, I could feel it flaring up from time to time off him, the way his muscles would get tense and he'd grind his teeth so loudly it'd make my skin prickle under my scales. There weren't humans here right now but there had been for the past week apparently and there would be more dropping by constantly during the months to come. And that didn't sit well with Repton, that much was obvious. When I'd arrived yesterday he'd been in the middle of working out details of the new treaty with a group of them and I'd been dragged into the whole awkward discussion once they realized who I was. I'd apparently become famous without even being aware of it: Varan the prodigy who rose up from the desecrated remains of his species to defy all stereotypes and judgement. Or something. Anyways I was apparently being regarded as something of a hero by the humans who were organizing everything with the Terradons and they all were practically ecstatic to be able to speak with me. And so I'd spent the afternoon sitting in the temporary council hall on Bogaton III, discussing the terms of agreement that were going into the new treaty, the new, much more liberal rules that were going to be enforced, what sort of involvement the humans would have in the terra's development, etcetera. I'd been quite honoured to be involved in such an important meeting at all and even more so when I realized they were actually taking my opinions to heart; the representatives from Atmosia had been so open to suggestion and willing to compromise it was almost frightening. Still, the whole thing had put my nerves on edge, especially whenever something was brought up that I knew Repton didn't like. He'd sat next to me the whole time and every once and awhile I could hear a low growl rumble in his throat.

To give a brief explanation on what had been agreed upon thus far, this new terra, dubbed Bogatri, was going to be inhabited by the Terradons alone, no more armed guards or imprisoning walls. The Terradons were allowed to live as they pleased with no enforced laws from the Council. That meant the breeding programme had been put to an end as well; it had only been put in place to try and bring back the population of course, since the Terradon species had come very close to being annihilated thirteen years ago. But the programme itself consisted of a lot of outside selection; Terradon DNA was studied (it was a small gene pool we were dealing with after all) and potential mates were paired up based on strong genes, health status and, naturally, fertility levels. Not exactly what you'd call an idealistic relationship; I'm pretty sure, since there were less female Terradons than males, that those who wanted to have more than one child didn't even always end up with the same mate. Needless to say the Terradons were glad to be rid of that whole regime. Of course the humans would still be involved with some of the things that went on on the terra, particularly right now while it was still being built. The Terradons didn't have any of their own supplies yet, nothing to build their homes or even feed themselves with. The Council was supplying them with the materials they needed to get their new settlement functioning and in return they asked that Bogatri trade with the other terras once they had everything up and running. The terras in this general area weren't any good for agriculture, but there was plenty of mineral and crystal deposits beneath the surface of the scraggly landscape. This could mean nothing but good for the people here, in my opinion; the terra would find a steady income through trade and even without sustainable crops no one would go hungry, no one would be forced to turn to piracy to provide for the terra. And by joining the other terras of the commonwealth Bogatri would have allies, they'd be protected by the Legion and have a voice in the Council of Atmos.

Even the former Raptors were seeing far less hostility then they once did. They still had some restrictions binding them however, which I thought was perfectly acceptable all things considered. Repton and his old accomplices were all under confinement on Bogatri; they were allowed to move freely around the terra but that was it. They were not allowed to leave the terra under any circumstances unless given special permission by the Council to do so. Repton was by no way happy to be bossed around and 'put on a leash' as he'd muttered to me later that evening, but deep down he must have grudgingly realized that it was far better than living behind bars and that the Council had every right to keep him somewhere they could keep an eye on him. Or so I felt anyways. Repton himself was still leader of the Terradons it seemed; he made the final decisions about what was going to be done around the place, but even that had changed. The other Terradons all had fair say as to what was decided on their new terra and Repton seemed to be listening to them. He was bitter and standoffish and even rude about everything that was going on but he'd reluctantly agreed to the Council's propositions thus far, swallowing his pride and anger in doing so for the good of the rest of his people and I had to admit, I was proud of him for it. All of it made excitement bubble nervously in my stomach, amazed and overwhelmed with joy at everything that was happening here. I was still uneasy of it all of course, unsure where I fit in with it and paranoid something would go wrong but despite all of that I felt like this was the beginning of a fresh start for everyone. Things were changing in the world and I liked it.

Now, on my second day here, I finally had a chance to see how the terra was progressing. Repton and I were standing on a low, jutting cliff that overlooked the terra's interior, giving me a great view of the activity that was going on below. Terradons were hard at work, moving material and constructing the frameworks for new structures. I'd attempted to help out this morning but I'd been shooed away due to my bum leg. There were Terradons up here as well, most of them carving away with pickaxes at the lone mountain, building tunnels that would soon be hallways into the interior. The small mountain jutted up from the scrubby landscape like a solitary tooth and Repton had decided to build the main settlement in its shadow. Again, I'd wanted to help out, but swinging a pickaxe or pushing a wheelbarrow laden with stone wasn't something I was currently capable of and I'd started to feel rather useless. I wanted to be a part of the construction of this new home and I figured it'd give me a chance to meet some of my fellow Terradons as well. It was astounding to see so many of them milling around and I felt rather self-conscious to be among my own people once again. I'd gotten so accustomed to humans it was almost intimidating to be surrounded by my own species. Most of them were younger than me but they were all strong and healthy, some of them even taller and more muscular then I was. There were some who were older than me too, those like Repton who'd been imprisoned on Atmosia or who were being questioned at the time of the attack on old Bogaton. I'd spoken to some of them briefly this morning, just quick small-talk before we'd both continued on our way and once or twice I'd gotten the feeling I was talking to someone who'd known me when I was a toddler. They all must have known my mother anyways and I think that mixed with my mysterious upbringing made them feel just as awkward around me as I felt around them.

Repton was watching me and seemed to have read my feelings on my face. "They'll get used to you." He assured me. "They all just think you're a little... strange. Being raised by humans and all."

"Yeah, I figured." I said. "How many of them are there here?" I asked, as this had been something I'd wondered for a long time.

"Including you? Eighty four."

My stomach made a weird lurching motion when he included me in the total. I'd wanted to come here because I felt I was a part of what was going on, but once I'd arrived... I wasn't so sure. I felt very separated from the rest of my kind, an outsider returning to a place that was once familiar but had now changed. Maybe it was because I hadn't experienced what the rest of them had, I hadn't grown up behind towering walls, living by strict rules under the watchful eye of armed men. None of them had experienced what I'd gone through either; to my knowledge I'd been the only Terradon who'd been on Bogaton at the time to survive the massacre. Maybe the others all felt too much grief and resentment over that dark place in our history to know how to bridge it. Maybe they didn't know how to talk to someone who'd lived through it. I wasn't sure. I could only hope that eventually the barriers would come down and I'd get to know some of them better.

"So this place here is going to be the stronghold." I confirmed, changing the subject and turning to Repton.

"Yesss. The Dragon's Haunt." He said proudly and I coughed, trying hard not to grin. Repton gave me a look. "What?"

"Nothing." I said too quickly. "It's, um, original."

Repton looked a little confused for a moment or two, as if he wasn't sure he wanted to be angry with me or not, but then he must have realized I was just teasing and gave me a quick, playful snap with the tip of his tail. It surprised me a little to be honest but I found myself smiling slightly anyways. I hadn't spent much time with him since I'd arrived here really, since he was busy directing the other Terradons around and smoothing over details with the Council. And, truth be told, I still wasn't sure how I felt about Repton at all; I felt an insistent, tugging urge to be around him that I couldn't exactly explain, something that wanted the chance to learn more about him and try and build a bond with him. But at the same time I was carrying a lot of unease and wariness in my stomach towards him too, and what with the added stress of not knowing how stable his current temper was, I felt rather hesitant to get too close to him and I had very little I could think of to talk about.

Repton seemed to be feeling the same way and maybe that accounted for some of the tension he carried. He cleared his throat and glanced absently around before continuing. "We're planning on building a forge in the base of the mountain." He informed me.

I hadn't known about that. "Oh really? What for?"

"Airship parts, mostly. Some of the others think we could sell them to the shipyards." Repton wrinkled his snout here as if this notion seemed like pure idiocy to him but I thought it was a good idea. From what I knew Terradon engineers built almost everything that had been used on old Bogaton, manufacturing their own skimmers, weapons and tools. Terradons were pretty well-suited as blacksmiths too, what with our natural strength and love of high temperatures.

I'd just finished thinking that when suddenly I furrowed my brow and looked at Repton curiously. "Mostly?" I repeated uncertainly.

Repton shrugged. "You can't honestly expect us to build a forge and not use it to produce some weaponsss."

My stomach tightened and attempted to crawl up my throat. "...Does the Council know you're planning on this?"

Repton shot me a nasty look, a growl stirring in his throat but I held my ground. Funny how I've been downright terrified of people who, if I ever had the inkling too, I could simply pick up and probably throw a good twenty feet, but Repton didn't elicit an ounce of fear from me. Well, that wasn't entirely true; he did make me feel incredibly nervous and uncertain, but that was simply because I didn't really know how to communicate with him, or how I felt about him at all really. But I didn't actually feel physically frightened by him; I guess I must have some steel nerves somewhere deep down after all.

We held eye contact in a bit of a staring match for a few minutes before Repton snorted and looked away. "They're aware of our plansss, yes." He said shortly, tail twitching irritably. "I told them we were going to build an armoury here and they had no objections."

I held up my hands to try and calm him. Afraid of him or not I really didn't like upsetting people if I could help it, and he had an even shorter fuse then Angel did. "Okay. I didn't mean to sound accusing or anything, I just... well it's important that you and the Council stay on the same page."

Repton made a huffing noise, blasting a puff of air out his nostrils and I could almost imagine smoke curling from his nose like a dragon's. "You sound like the humans do." He quipped.

I was certain that was meant to be an insult but I've never been the kind to rise to a challenge when someone tried to rattle my chain. However as much as I wish it wouldn't have, his words stung. It wasn't even so much that I wanted to impress him or get on his good side, and I certainly didn't take the human association offensively. It was just... I already felt like an outsider here, almost as if I really didn't belong with the other Terradons. I think Repton wanted me on his side about everything that was going on, to share his disgruntled attitude towards the humans who were really just trying to help him and the others out. And since I didn't it was like a barrier had gone up between us and he'd lumped me in with the humans he disliked so much. Which was ironic, since all my life most of those same humans had lumped me into the same monstrous stereotype that they viewed him as. It made me feel as if I wasn't meant to belong anywhere.

Except with the Gargoyles.

I'll never be as good as thinking up witty retorts as quickly as Stork or Angel can so in the end I simply shrugged; Repton had too much pride and bitterness in his heart to change his feelings overnight and I didn't feel like arguing with him. After all I'd come here to try and bond with him, although I was starting to get the feeling that hadn't been a great idea. "You think so? You'll have to meet some of the ones I have then." I said tiredly and Repton cocked his head as if surprised I wasn't fighting back. "I know you don't like them coming here and laying down these rules, but is it really so bad, considering how it was before? At least you get to have an opinion now, and you're not living behind bars."

Repton made that snorting sound again but looked out over the open terra thoughtfully. I figured that by not retaliating to his bad mood and remaining reasonable it didn't give him the satisfaction to get into a fight about anything. Funny, I've been using the same tactic on Angel for years. "I'm still living behind bars. Grounded here on my own terra." He growled, staring out at the horizon.

I let the subject go, since it was obviously bothering him. I guess I could understand where he was coming from; easy going as I am I wouldn't have liked people coming along and telling me what to do, laying down boundaries I wasn't allowed to cross. But of course, I wasn't a criminal. I thought the Council was being pretty fair with Repton on that matter and you know, I'd like to think deep down he was pleased to be out of his underground prison at least. But of course he'd never admit that and I didn't want to push it.

Repton glanced back at me after a moment as if waiting for me to respond and when I couldn't think of anything to say he shook his head and turned around again. "Never mind, forget it."

I sighed, glancing down at the dust bathed stone and scratched at it with my claws absently. I've always been plagued with the ability to see things from both sides, which had led me to declare neutrality in any of the others' petty squabbles less I be torn in two. I knew where I stood about all of this; I thought things were progressing well here, better than I could have ever imagined and I felt like everybody's rights and feelings were being respected. But then, even if I didn't agree with his mentality, I could understand Repton's feelings too. And despite my desire to try and get him to see this all from a different perspective, I really hadn't wanted to upset him or anything. That's me and my marshmallow heart for you.

I shuffled forward on my crutches, glancing over Repton's scowling visage before staring out at the dry, rolling scrublands instead. "I'm sorry. I can see where you're coming from, I just..." I felt his bald gaze on me and swallowed uncomfortably. "I'm just paranoid I guess. I'm seeing everything that's being done here and I like it. But I feel like I'm waiting for it all to blow up in my face."

Repton continued to stare at me for a long time and I shifted uncomfortably, wondering if maybe I should just head home. "You don't trust me do you?" He said abruptly, no hostility this time, just like he was stating a fact and it completely caught me off guard. I turned to look at him and saw a lot going on behind his yellow eyes but I couldn't read any of it. I tried to understand what they were saying but whatever he was feeling it was too closely guarded for me to decipher it and I suppose that meant he didn't trust me either. But there was honesty on his face and I knew there was more to him then what he let show through. Why would he of asked if there wasn't?

"No." I said honestly after awhile. "But I'd like to."

He blinked and looked away again, seeming interested with something below and I wondered how many times before he'd had someone put their faith in him. If he was touched he didn't show it but he dropped his bad mood anyways, looking at me thoughtfully. "How're your friends?" he asked, surprising me. He still said the word 'friends' strangely, as if he weren't used to using such a phrase, but there was sincerity in his voice nonetheless.

"Um, they're good." I said, sort of thrown off by the change in subject, although I was glad to be on a different topic. "They're all in about the same shape as I am but they'll be alright. They're all visiting their families right now."

Repton nodded and wrinkled his snout as if debating on something. "That Sky Knight of yours, what was hisss name again?"" he asked after a few moments.

"Falshade."

"Right... he was the one who did all of this, wasn't he?" Repton said, more like a clarification then a question and again I was taken aback. Repton took in my baffled expression and chuckled dryly, a harsh, grating sound. "I've got a good memory for certain things you know, and I remember him saying something about speaking to the Council if he made it through all this madness alive. I can't really think of anyone else who'd sympathize with a Raptor anyways."

He had a good point there. "Yeah, that was him. I wasn't there, so I've no idea what he actually said to them, but Falshade's always had a way of getting people to go along with his harebrained ideas. I guess now that he's made a name for himself the Council's actually willing to hear him out."

Repton's tail flicked from side to side as if he were struggling with himself. "...Do you think when you see him again you could give him my gratitude?" He asked after a few moments and despite the grudging tone in his voice that said he didn't like giving gratitude to anybody there was honesty in there too. I blinked, more than a little shocked, but tried not to let it show.

"Of course." I said, managing to get the words out without stumbling on my own tongue.

"Good." Repton said and then added in a mutter. "I know you don't think I appreciate the change of events, but despite how much I'd love to chase those miserable little humansss off my terra, I'll admit you're right. It is better than living behind bars."

I was starting to wonder if he'd been replaced with an entirely different person. I swallowed a few times because my throat seemed to have snagged any response I could have made and Repton regarded my stunned expression with a grunt.

"But not much better." He added, just to make it clear he wasn't having a change of heart or anything.

"Right." I said, figuring I should take would I could get for now and acknowledge that at least he was making progress.

"The reason I ask about them is because I was wondering if they'd be willing to assist with something." Repton continued and I cocked my head curiously. "The other Terradons here are still rather wary of humans, and I don't think they much like the ones that have been hanging around." He explained. "So I thought that maybe you could bring your friends here, get them used to outsiders, ones who aren't here to tell them what to do."

"Well if you want it to be a gentle transition I'm not sure if my friends are the best candidates." I said, only half-joking. "They're a pretty odd bunch. Might make them even more wary."

Repton laughed. "I'd gathered that about them." He assured me. "But all things considered, I'd prefer that over nosey little Council bootlickersss. Besides, I wouldn't mind seeing them again. If they're as important to you as you say then I suppose I should get to know them."

And the astonishment parade rolls on. I raised my brow incredulously, wondering if he was honestly trying to adopt a real father role with me. I didn't think Repton wanted nothing to do with me, not at all, but I wasn't sure just how deeply he did want to be involved with me. I didn't even know what I wanted from him; when I'd first met him I'd called him Dad right from the get go, but since I'd gotten here I don't think I'd used the word once. I guess I couldn't decide what and how everything should be right away; everything would just have to go one step at a time and I was willing and patient enough to see that through. If Repton wanted the others to come out here then I was all for it, it seemed like a good idea to me, especially given how comfortable the others already were around Terradons. Besides, I kinda wanted Falshade to see everything out here too, to show him what he'd made possible.

Repton was watching me as if waiting for a response and I snapped out of my reverie. "I'm sure the others would like to come out here and see what's going on." I agreed. "And despite their tendency to get into trouble, I think it's a good idea too. I doubt we'd be able to come out right away though, we've still got a lot of work to do and of course we have to wait for Stork to wake up..."

Repton furrowed his brow. "Wake up? How'd you mean?"

"Oh, well she's... sort of in a coma right now." I explained, my tail twitching unhappily at the memory.

"Is she going to be alright?" Repton asked with what sounded like genuine concern. I don't think he cared personally, since he didn't even know Stork, but it mattered that he cared for my sake anyways.

"I'm confident that she will." I said. "The girl's a fighter, I know she'll be alright. We just don't know how long it'll take her to come out of it."

Repton nodded again and seemed to consider something. "What about that human mother of yours?" He said shortly and I blinked at him in confusion.

"Marle? What about her?" I asked uncertainly and Repton uttered a short, disconcerted growl.

"What did she think of you coming out here?" He asked, sounding disgruntled. I had a feeling he didn't really want to know anything about her at all, maybe out of awkwardness surrounding the whole situation or maybe because thinking of my surrogate mother only reminded him of the loss of my biological one, a subject he didn't seem keen on getting anywhere near. I didn't blame him for that.

"Uh, well, I think she was a little uneasy about it." I said honestly, recalling the nervous look that had come into Marle's eyes when I'd told her where I was planning on going. I think most of it had stemmed from her protectiveness of me, worried that I might get hurt immersing myself in such a tumultuous atmosphere and attempting to bond with Repton. But I think a little part of her had also been afraid that I might begin to distance myself from her now that one of my real parents had suddenly reappeared in my life. That concern was ludicrous though; I loved Marle as much as any child would their mother and no matter what kind of bond I managed to form with Repton I'd never disown her as a parent.

"Oh? And why was that?" Repton asked and now I could sense his temper returning. Something bubbled angrily in my stomach at his tone and I felt myself bristle in response.

"I think she was probably worried that being out here might bring up some bad memories." I said defensively and Repton looked mildly surprised by my reaction. It's not often I get snappy, but when I do it does tends to throw people off. "She knows what I went through after what happened on Bogaton. But it wasn't like she tried to stop me, she knows I'm old enough to make my own decisions."

Repton huffed. "I see. I was just curious. Somehow I can't imagine she was very enthusiastic about you spending time with me."

Just as quickly as it had flared up my anger seeped away again and I shrugged. "I'm not sure how she feels about that." I said earnestly. "Maybe you'll have to meet her someday and the two of you can talk about it." Repton didn't respond so I decided to change the subject. "I have a little sister now." I reported and Repton quirked his brow.

"Human?"

"Yes. Her name's Pippa. We found her on a terra that had been attacked by one of Cyclonis' goon squads. We brought her with us to Vatican and Marle adopted her." I explained and Repton gave a short nod, although I could tell he wasn't very interested. A strange thought burst into my mind randomly then and I realized I was speaking before I could think better of it. "Do I have any brothers or sisters here?" I asked. That got his attention alright; he turned to look at me again as if I'd said something completely ridiculous and I was worried he was going to get angry again. Lord who knows, I might have just probed at a very deep wound. For all I knew I may very well have had older siblings (perhaps from a different mother) and they may have died on Bogaton without my ever having known about them.

But after a moment Repton's mouth quirked into a grin and I could see a few places where new fangs were growing, sharp points among the collection of filed, flat teeth that filled his mouth. "I'm not sure if I should be offended or not." He said and I backtracked quickly.

"Oh, jeez, I didn't mean it like-"

He held up a hand to cut me off, chuckling. "No, you're the only one. I wasn't much interested in being a father, but I'm not the kind of lizard to run out on a woman with an egg in the nest, you know. Give me a little credit here, Varanus."

I cracked a small grin of my own, relieved that I hadn't upset him. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything, I was just curious."

Repton gave me playful cuff on the shoulder, which actually nearly knocked me right off my good leg. "You do have a few cousins." He informed me. "You'll have to meet them before you leave."

"I'd like that." I said. I was going to ask more about them when a bleating sound distracted me and I looked down at the terra below again. A large trailer, pulled along behind two skimmers, had arrived below, coming to a halt a short distance from some of the framework for the new structures. I watched as a ramp was lowered from the trailer and the wooden doors of the crate on top were hauled open. A large billy goat poked his head out from the crate and sniffed the air uncertainly before trotting down the wooden ramp, bleating at the rest of the small herd who followed after him obediently. Once all the goats were unloaded they picked their way across the arid landscape towards a collection of dry, scraggly brambles, spreading out slowly and vanishing into the scrublands.

I wrinkled my snout. "What are they doing?" I asked.

"Goats are really the only livestock that can flourish out here. We figured we'd let them roam." Repton explained, a disturbing grin splitting his face. "After all, they're no fun to hunt if they live in a pen."

"Oh..." I said, suddenly feeling queasy. Clutching my stomach I watched the last of the goats disappear into the dunes and shimmering heat waves and wondered if they even realized their apparent freedom came at a price. 'You can run, little goats, but you can't hide...'

Repton was examining me quizzically. "You don't hunt?" he asked, sounding confused.

I swallowed, trying not to think of how easily Terradon claws would be able to slice through a goat's flank. "Uh... well actually I..." I coughed uncomfortably. "I don't actually eat meat." I said, staring fixedly at a nearby pebble. "I'm a vegetarian."

Repton stared at me blankly for about ten seconds before bursting into loud, rough laughter, clutching his side. However when he realized I was still standing there in complete silence he sobered up and raised his brow. "You're ssserious?" he said incredulously and I scraped my claws against the stone awkwardly.

"Yeah." I mumbled, shuffling with embarrassment while he gawked at me. "It's not really even like a righteous thing." I added lamely. "It just... it makes me feel sick. I physically can't eat it."

Repton continued to gape at me as if I'd just announced I was from another planet entirely and I felt like more of an outcast than ever. I mean as if there weren't already enough strange things about me, by Terradon standards anyway, and now I didn't even share the same diet as the rest of them.

However after a few dumbstruck moments I saw a flicker of something that looked like understanding pass over Repton's face. He shook his head as if snapping out of a trance and to my surprise he clapped me on the shoulder. "Well maybe we'll have to plant a vegetable garden here, if that's the case." He said and right then I knew that despite our difference of opinions, he and I would be able to make this whole father-son thing work.

I snorted. "Out here? Only plants that I could see doing well are cactus."

Repton grinned. "We'll see."

"Repton?" A slightly higher, less-gravelly voice called out hesitantly and the two of us turned to face a slender Terradon who'd joined us on the precipice. It was a female with shiny, dark teal scales, a hue I'd never seen before. I was fascinated by the colour but quickly averted my gaze when I realized she was wearing a cropped leather vest that, worn like pretty much every other Terradon, myself included, hung open at the front. Not that she needed to worry about covering herself, since female Terradons don't have breasts, but it was force of habit of mine after spending so much time around Stork, who'd grilled it into my brain that to look at a girl's chest for any length of time was a serious crime. Of course Fraggle insisted that was a natural impulse for males of any species and got a serious kick out of flashing nudie magazines in my face whenever possible, since apparently my squeamishness is just hilarious.

"Sorry to interrupt but one of the excavating crews has discovered a vein of crystal deposits in the base of the mountain where we're tunnelling. They wanted to know if you'd like it to be left alone for now or if we should just keep going around it." The girl asked and Repton flicked his forked tongue over his teeth, thinking.

"Leave it alone until we know what kind it is." He decided. "Last thing we need is to be swinging pickaxes around unstable crystals."

The female Terradon nodded and trotted off back down to the base of the mountain, leaving us alone once again. I watched her go with curiosity, I couldn't help it; I hadn't yet met any of the females here and I guess after spending so much of my life around human females (and Wasp) she interested me. The difference between the species was pretty incredible really, considering how easy it was to differentiate between gender when it came to humans; with Terradons size was usually the only hint at first glance.

I could feel Repton watching me and when I took in the smirk on his face I felt my stomach knot uneasily. "What?"

"Nothing." He said innocently and I suppressed a sigh, figuring I was about to be made fun of again. "You know there are a few females here who are around your age..."

"I'm going to stop you right there." I grumbled. "That wasn't what I was thinking about."

Repton chuckled to himself. "Alright, no need to get defensive." He said and then looked me over critically. "Is there a reason you're not interested?" he asked and I let the sigh out this time.

"What do you mean?" I asked warily, although I already knew what he was getting at.

"Well you've been all over the Atmosss from the sounds of it. Perhaps you've met someone already?" He said evenly, although I could still hear a taunting undertone in his voice.

I hummed absently to myself, trying to think of something to say. I was still unsure about what exactly was going on between Roo and I, if there was anything at all, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to bring it up. But then, Repton seemed like he was making an honest attempt to get to know me a little better here, and that's what I'd wanted after all. Wasn't it natural for a father to be curious of his son's social life? Not like I really had much of one mind you, but...

I cleared my throat, tail scuffing back and forth over the grit. "Well... I dunno. Maybe. There's somebody I know but I don't know what exactly she wants with me."

Repton seemed genuinely interested by this. "Oh? A human girl, I take it?"

"Yes." I said edgily. I could feel his prying gaze on my scales and elaborated. "Her name's Roo. Or, well, Sparrow is her actual name, but everybody calls her Roo. We grew up together."

Repton nodded. "I see. But there's nothing going on between the two of you?"

You know, you'd think being away from the others would mean I'd be spared these sorts of interrogations. "I'm not sure." I said honestly. "I suppose I should try to find out sometime. The others keep insisting I should, anyways."

The corner of Repton's mouth twitched as if he couldn't decide to grin or not and he looked out at the horizon thoughtfully. I shifted on my crutches, noticing that my leg was starting to throb again. I sort of wished I had my lounge chair and a good book to read so I could simply stretch out my bad leg and relax in the sun for a while.

"Your leg's not bothering you is it?" Repton asked, having noticed my awkward shuffling. I shook my head and he uttered an affirmative noise in his throat. Then, apropos to nothing, he said "You should go home, Varanus."

I staggered back from him in surprise, a shock of hurt shooting through my chest. "W-what?" I stammered, sounding like an injured child. Where had that come from? Had I done something wrong? Had he decided that he'd filled his quota for emotional connection with me for now and wanted me to go away? Or maybe had he suddenly come to the conclusion that he wanted nothing further to do with me at all? Had I been too disappointing for him to accept? I mean I knew I wasn't the poster image of his ideal offspring, but I thought we'd been getting along for a while there...

Repton turned to take in my baffled expression as I stood there stupidly, mentally reeling and rendered speechless, and for the first time since meeting him I saw his face soften just slightly. "I don't mean that I don't want you here." He said quickly. "I... I'm glad you came out here, to be honest. But I think right now you should be with your friends. There's not really much for you to do out here what with your leg the way it is anyways."

I swallowed hard, still feeling rather wounded, although I could see his point. Seemed like I was going to be treated like I was completely incompetent by everyone until my damn leg healed. "But I wanted to come out here." I argued. "I feel like I should be a part of all of this."

"And so you should." Repton agreed. "And once you're off those crutches you should come back. I'd like it if you did. In fact we could use your help out here, especially concerning these terms with the humans. You have more practice at dealing with them than I do, and I think you'll have an easier time negotiating with them. But for now I think you should spend time with your family and take it easy. Go and work things out with that girl of yours."

I felt heat rise to my face at that. "...Aren't you part of my family too?" I pointed out, acting on a sudden spur of recklessness. I saw every one of Repton's muscles tense and he turned away from me again, his tail whipping back and forth agitatedly and I wondered if I'd gone a step too far. Honestly though I didn't really care if I'd over stepped my boundaries; I didn't know if I was really ready to count him as actual family just yet, but, biologically, he was the only real family I had. I needed to know where he stood on that fact.

The two of us stood in silence for a painfully long time and a slight breeze rose up from the dunes below, wedging sand under my scales and grinding it against my eyes. Blinking irritably I slid my clear, membranous second eyelid over my eyes to protect them from further intrusion and waited for him to answer me, feeling like we were on the verge of something very important here. Depending on his next words, this could very well decide if I'd return at all. I wanted to be able to build a better bond between him and myself, but if he wasn't interested then I wasn't going to waste my time on a lost cause; I'd spent too long trying to earn the approval of others to tackle any walls between us all on my own.

"...If that's what you want from me." He said at last in a low tone and a small wave of relief rolled through me. Although his response seemed nonchalant I knew Repton wasn't the type of person to come out with something heartfelt and meaningful and I also knew that the fact he'd responded positively at all was something big from him. That was all I needed for now.

A small smile wormed its way onto my face and I lurched up alongside him clumsily. "How about I stay until tomorrow then? How's that sound?" I suggested evenly, not feeling quite ready to return home just yet.

Repton glanced at me from the corner of his eye and returned my smile with a quick one of his own. "Alright."

x.x.x Falshade x.x.x

As it turns out, Angel decided to take off in the middle of the night. And I was the only one who didn't know about it.

Of course nobody bothered to say anything to me either the next morning; I was halfway through breakfast when it struck me odd that he wasn't up and about yet since he's always up before I am. So I asked Mom if she knew where he was and she simply said 'oh, he left last night' like it was no big deal; I nearly had a fucking heart attack. I started thinking that I'd pushed him too hard to come here and he'd snapped, or that he was still harbouring the self-loathing he'd been carrying when he first came back to us and it had driven him away. I panicked, imagining him running off on his own because he wanted to punish himself and didn't think he deserved to be with us, that he'd taken off into the night and I might not ever see him again. Then Mom took one look at my face and started laughing at me, being such a good parent and all. I think she felt bad afterwards when she realized just how worried I actually was and explained he'd just flown out to Saharr and that he'd be back either tomorrow or the day after. Then she added "He'd better be. He took my bloody skimmer."

Now I doubted even Angel was foolhardy enough to risk facing my mom's wrath, so I figured he would indeed be back. And then of course I felt stupid for freaking out and promised to give the little bugger a good pounding for taking off like that without even giving me a head's up. Making me worry and what not... shit, Stork was right, I did act like I was married to the kid. Sigh.

Anyways due to that little change of plans I ended up spending the day with Wasp, something that turned out to be one of the best days I'd had in awhile. It reminded me of the days I used to spend hanging out with Stork in the terra square back when I was in the Academy, the two of us ambling about with no particular purpose, experimenting with different ice cream flavour combinations (for future reference, never, ever mix liquorice with bubblegum. Just don't do it), poking around through random shops and trying to solve crossword puzzles together (try being the operative word there). There's something nice about girl company, you know? Of course Wasp was a very androgynous being but she had a way of talking and listening that displayed that hidden feminine side of her we didn't often see. So we were able to have that time we'd wanted to get to know each other better. I showed her all around the terra, the scraggly woods that sat beneath the Plateau where I used to play for hours on end as a kid, the caves and the Plateau itself, keeping a fist bunched securely in her jacket when she spread her arms and leaned out over the edge of the cliff. I showed her the stream that wound its way through the pale stone and fed into a shallow pool on the other side and taught her how to skip rocks, something she apparently hadn't known was possible. I think it sort of made her day actually, although eventually she got bored and was more interested in collecting pebbles than throwing them into the water. And I told her every story that came to mind, all the things that had gone on before she'd joined us. It struck me randomly that Wasp had no idea how I'd come to meet the others; after all she'd been the last of us to come along, solidifying us as a squadron and when I thought about it it seemed wrong that she didn't know how any of the rest of us had come to be Gargoyles. So I made sure to tell her all about how I'd met the others; she really enjoyed that and made me go into great detail about everything:

"So Varan lived here too, after what happened on his old terra." She clarified, paddling her feet in the water. We'd stayed at the pond when the sun climbed to its midday position in the sky because the area was well shaded and it was pretty hot out. She'd pulled off her boots and plunged her feet into the water, watching the small sunfish that came to investigate with the utmost of fascination. But she had one ear trained directly on me so I knew she was listening.

I rolled up my jeans and sank my feet into the water too. I almost felt like swimming it was so warm, except I couldn't with all the bandages still plastered to me and my arm as useless as it was. "Yeah. The Keepers were the first squadron to arrive on Bogaton after shit hit the fan, and Rayvin was the one who found him there. He brought him out here, against the Council's wishes." I'd always respected old Rayvin for that; disobeying a direct order from the Council can get you in some serious shit, especially if it's over anything as serious as the Bogaton genocide, but did he care about that? Fuck no. There was no way he was letting the Council take custody of Varan in the traumatized state he was in and he was willing to put his whole career on the line for it.

"How'd you meet him?" Wasp wanted to know, kicking her feet as a few bolder fish tried nibbling on her toes.

"Well he'd been here for a few days and wouldn't say a word to anybody, wouldn't eat or let them touch him or anything and Rayvin was really worried. So he asked my mom if she could bring me to the Honeycomb, since he figured I was around the same age and that maybe he'd be less afraid of me."

Wasp looked at me with interest. "Did it work?"

"Yep, he started talking to me after a little while. They didn't even know his name up until then." I said. I had very little memory of this, as I'd only been three at the time, but I had a few fuzzy little images; I remembered Mom taking me down to the Honeycomb at least, which had been very exciting at the time. And I remembered a little bit about Varan himself; I recalled his eyes the best, which had been so wide they practically took up his whole face. It made me sad when I took the context of the situation into perspective, but it was a fond memory in my mind, my very first meeting with Varan. I guess since I didn't understand what had happened at the time it got imprinted in my toddler brain as simply a good thing to have made a new friend and it had stuck that way.

"How old were you?" Wasp asked.

"I was three, so he would have been about four." I said

"And you've been friends ever since." She confirmed, her eyes wide and enthralled.

"Yeah, we have. He's never been far away from me since then. Well, except for the time I spent at the Academy."

"Where you met Stork and Angel." Wasp clarified and I nodded.

"Unfortunately." I said, joking of course but Wasp didn't seem to get it. "I'm kidding." I assured her. "Meeting them was probably two of the best things that ever happened to me."

Wasp smiled. "Were you all friends right away, like with Varan?"

I laughed. "Hell no." I said and Wasp looked slightly disappointed. I guess she wanted to believe that we'd all fallen for each other right from the get go, as if we knew we were all destined to be together. "I dunno so much about Stork and I... I think we had something from the start anyways. It was hard to get used to her but we got along alright, rough patches aside. But Angel? I think he actually hated me in the beginning."

Wasp seemed to think about this notion for a moment before flicking her ears agreeably. "I guess that makes sense, for him. He likes to act like he doesn't like people."

"Well I assume he didn't like that suddenly he had a roommate. You know how he is: 'don't touch my stuff, stay out of my bubble, don't breathe next to me, mind your own business'." I said, doing a rather good imitation if I do say so myself. I'd have to try it when he was around, just to piss him off. "Anyways he ignored me for the longest time until one day we were doing hand-to-hand training and I got paired up with him because nobody else wanted to spar against him."

Wasp wrinkled her nose. "Why?"

"You seriously have to ask?" I asked dryly and she giggled. "The kid's a nasty son of a bitch when he's in a good mood. Anyways I surprised him, I don't think he expected me to already know how to fight. Tell you the truth I think he was glad to have a challenge. He surprised me too, honestly. Believe it or not he used to be smaller back then, and I underestimated him. Next thing I knew I was flat on my ass."

Wasp grinned. "Always gotta watch the little ones."

"Ain't that the truth." I muttered. "So after that I got kinda serious and we had a good exchange going on and then bam- I punched him right in the jaw." I winced at the memory even today, still able to hear the awful cracking sound. "I thought I broke his jaw at first but he shook it off and he was fine. And after that he started talking to me. All of a sudden he was my buddy."

Wasp smiled widely, fangs glinting in the sunlight. "I like that. It's very fitting of the two of you."

I quirked an eyebrow. "You think so?"

"Oh yeah. It's a testament of how deep your friendship is with someone when you can beat them up on a continuous basis and then hang out with them like you never laid a finger on them." Wasp said wisely and I laughed, mussing up her hair.

"You're just full of fortune cookie quotes, aren't ya kid?"

"Yep, that's me, mistress of proverbs and the answers to the questions you never asked." She said, grinning her werewolf grin while the sun glared into her eyes and made the amber one shine like gold.

Eventually I got her to tell me more about her old life too, since I knew as much about it as she'd known about mine. Probably even less come to think of it. So I learned about the years she spent on Macabre, and how that even though she confirmed it was a vile, crime infested place she'd managed to find a few good things about it, like the club she used to go to almost every night where she'd discovered her love for music. And she told me all about the friends she'd had there, Sketcher, Fli and of course Rainer, someone whose name I'd kept hearing from time to time but had never learned anything more about.

"He taught me almost everything I know." Wasp said, pulling her feet out of the water and lying them on her thighs like she was meditating. "He taught me how to read, and how the outside world works, and about people and why they do the things they do. He knew a lot of things, like the names of the stars and the parts that make up your body, and how things work out here, like machines and stuff. He always had an answer for my questions, and I asked thousands."

I nodded. "When you say 'out here' I assume you mean like, the rest of the Atmos, outside of Faerûn, right? I've heard you mention the jungle before, but I was never clear on it, did you actually use to live there, before?"

Wasp nodded. "Yes, until I was thirteen. Then I left. And when I left the first place I ended up on was Macabre."

"Right." I was tempted to ask why she'd left in the first place but there was a very slight edge in her voice that, while not necessarily hostile, told me she didn't want to discuss the matter further. "Man, it must be weird out here then huh? I mean after spending most of your life in the jungle. Did you guys even use crystals out there?"

"Nope. We only used what the jungle gave us." Wasp sighed, a look of nostalgia crossing her face. She caught my expression out of the corner of her eye and perked up again. "Anyways yeah, it is pretty weird out here, although I'm getting used to it by now. I like a lot of it. Like music and flying and having adventures. It's a very interesting world you people have here. Some of it though I just don't understand."

I grinned. "Oh yeah, like what?"

"Oh just little things I wonder about. Like how do you make things smell like other things? Like you know that squirting stuff Stork would spray on you guys sometimes because she said you smelled? How do they get that to smell like vanilla? And how do they get the little bubbles into soda? And don't even get me started on microwaves."

I laughed. "What's wrong with microwaves? Makes things a hell of a lot easier on those of us with culinary handicaps."

Wasp snorted. "But they're so awful! Doesn't it even strike you a little strange that you can put something in there and it gets cooked without any flames or anything? Ugh, it makes my teeth hurt just walking by it. I can't believe you actually eat stuff that comes out of there, with all those wave things radiating from it, ick!"

"Hmm..." I said thoughtfully. "You've got a point. Remind me to cut back on those microwavable mini pizzas."

Wasp pulled a face but made no further comment. "Anyways Rainer was the first person I met when I wound up on Macabre. I didn't know anything about the world out here so he took me in and took care of me. He fed me and bought me clothes, taught me how to function and survive out here. And that's how I got to know Sketcher and Fli. They were his friends, and then later they were my friends too. Rainer sort of looked after them too, although they didn't live with him or anything. They were both sort of lost and alone in the world too and he took them under his wing, made sure they were always okay, made them happy." Wasp cupped her chin in her palm, looking distant and thoughtful. "I don't know whoever took Rainer under their wing. He lived on Macabre all his life, and I always wondered if someone had cared for him the way he cared for us, and that's why he was like the way he was. Then one day I decided that maybe he'd been alone all his life, and that sometimes people are just born that way, you know? That sort of heart is just something that comes installed." Wasp turned to me and smiled. "Like yours."

I flushed a bit. "Uh, well, thanks, I'm flattered. I guess it all depends on what you have and what you decide to make of it. I mean maybe if I'd grown up on Macabre, or even just differently than I did here I might be different, who knows?"

"I dunno. I think it all comes down to who we are inside and who we want to be. I think you'd be like you are now, no matter how you'd grown up. It comes too naturally to you to be something you had to learn."

"Enough with the compliments, I'm no good at accepting them." I said, nudging her gently with my elbow and she swatted at me with a playful growl. "Anyways I like your line of thinking. Kinda goes along with that whole 'we shape our own destinies' thing. Comforts me, really. Means we all have the chance to be whatever we want to be."

"Exactly."

"So... about your old friends. I don't think you'd ever just leave them behind to start a new life with us on a whim, would you?" I strung out awkwardly after a few clumsy attempts. I was pretty sure I knew that Wasp's old friends weren't around anymore but I didn't want to just out and out ask such a thing.

Wasp seemed to think about my question very seriously and I was worried she might not have quite understood what I was getting at. "I don't know if I would have just up and left them like I did." She said at last. "Although I did feel very drawn to Stork for some reason... anyways it doesn't matter. Fli and Rainer both died and Sketcher... well I actually don't know what happened to him. He might still be around, but he was into a lot of nasty drugs so he might have died too, I'm not sure."

Like I said, I'd already been pretty sure that had been the case but it didn't mean it hurt any less to hear it. I was impressed by the way Wasp was able to keep her voice so steady when she spoke of such heartbreaking things but I could hear a note of sorrow in it too and I wrapped my functioning arm around her shoulders, giving her a comforting squeeze.

"I'm sorry." I murmured and wished I could think of something better to say. The sentiment was there and everything but the words themselves felt so overused and useless.

Wasp gave a grim, crooked smile. "It's alright."

I cleared my throat and tried to think of something else to say. "Hey listen, if you want we can always make a trip to Macabre to see if we can track down Sketcher. I'm sure he'd be happy to see you if he's still, you know..."

Wasp hummed and shook her head. "No, I'd rather not. I mean Sketcher was my friend but I wasn't as close to him as Fli and Rainer were and anyways... there are some things I'd rather leave as I remembered them. Macabre's a part of my past now and I don't ever intend on going back." She looked at me thoughtfully and added "Thanks for offering though, Falshade."

"No problem, I just wanted to put the idea out there in case you did want to go..." I trailed off and a sudden notion popped into my head and I took her hand carefully, squeezing to try and get the emphasis of how important I felt this was across. I guess all this talk of friends loved and lost reminded me of something I hadn't yet had the chance to tell her. "Thank you for bringing Angel back." I said quietly and Wasp flicked her ears at me, wrinkling her nose as if confused. "I don't think any of the rest of us would have been able to do it." I elaborated. "Hell, he and I nearly ended up killing each other, I never even came close."

Wasp sucked on her lip ring absently. "I think Cyclonis wanted to use him against you especially." She said thoughtfully. "I've been thinking about it lately and it makes sense to me. She knew you'd never let her get a hold of Stork, so she made him into a weapon to cancel you out. Kinda poetic really, fighting one best friend to protect the other..."

"Oh it was something alright, but I wouldn't call it that." I muttered darkly. "But I think you've got a point. Cyclonis might have done it to get to me, but what she didn't see coming was you." I grinned and ruffled her tangled mane of hair fondly. "Our little ace in the hole."

Wasp giggled. "That look on her face when I spat that crystal shard at her was priceless."

"I'll bet." I said, grinning. "It's funny looking back on it all. I'll be honest, I had my doubts about you back in the beginning. But if Stork hadn't convinced me to bring you along, nobody would have been there to get that crystal out of Angel. We could have lost him..."

"And if you'd never met Stork she wouldn't have invited me along in the first place." Wasp added, her eyes lighting up with inspiration. "Interesting how it all interweaves, isn't it?"

"Yeah, let's hear it for coincidences."

A bottle green grasshopper miscalculated its leap from a nearby stalk of grass and landed on its back in the pond, spindly legs kicking uselessly. Wasp scooped it out of the water as the fish came to investigate, sunlight skipping off their murky scales. Wasp raised her hand to eye level to peer at the insect now effectively caged between her gangly fingers and I kept a wary eye on her to make sure she didn't pop it into her mouth or anything. After a moment however she let it go and watched it spring away before flopping back, spreading her arms through the grass and blowing out a deep sigh.

"You know, when I think about that night I met Stork... I don't really know even today what it was about her. It wasn't like I sensed anything unusual about her, nothing that screamed 'hey, go with this girl, she's going to be where big things happen'. But something down in my gut got a good feeling from Stork. From all of you, really. So when she asked me to come along... I dunno, maybe I'd been on my own for too long, you know? Some little part of me wanted company again. I mean, I'm good at being alone, I'm good at surviving. But that's not always enough, not by a long shot. I've come to learn that it's no fun going through life by yourself."

"I imagine not." I agreed. Hell I couldn't even imagine spending more than a few days on my own, the others were all permanent extensions of my own existence and I didn't feel complete without them. Not sure what else to say I gripped her kneecap in what I hoped was a warm, comforting gesture and it must have sufficed because she plucked up my arm again and licked at my dead fingers where they were poking out from the plaster before continuing.

"At first I wasn't sure what your game was, what you guys were all about. I made up all sorts of stories about you, like maybe you were renegade undercover agents with a mercenary band out for your blood. Or that Varan was an alien and you guys were all trying to keep him from being captured by scientists or something." She said and I laughed so hard it made my nose hurt.

"Woo ha ha, oh man you're going to have to tell him that one!" I said, holding my sides. "Shit will he ever get a kick out of that! An alien, ha!"

Wasp gnawed on my cast irritably. "I'd never seen a Terradon before!" she said defensively and I patted the top of her head condolingly, trying to rein in my laughter.

"Sorry, I'm not laughing at you, but you gotta admit that's funny! Hell I would have thought if any of us were actually aliens the most likely candidate would be Fraggle. Or, you know, you."

Wasp grinned despite herself. "Maybe."

"So were we a bit of a letdown when you realized what we were really up to?" I asked and her eyes widened in alarm.

"Oh no no no! I thought it was all very interesting! Your nightmares, the mission, everything. The more I learned about it the more I felt myself being drawn into it. It's funny, all my life I've never been a part of something bigger than myself, I've always just tried to find my own way and that was enough for me. But with all of you... it was different, it was big and exciting and I liked it." She tilted her head back and the shadows cast by tangled tree boughs above fell over her face, cutting it into pieces. "You know I don't know when it first occurred to me but somewhere along the line I started feeling like I was where I really belonged. Like I was right where I was meant to be all my life. I don't mean that I think everything else that happened just happened because it was leading me up to this and... well sometimes I wish some of it hadn't happened." She admitted in a very soft voice, almost as if saying so was something to be ashamed of. I looked right into her off-set eyes, trying to push my thoughts into her mind, that there was nothing wrong with longing for the things you'd lost now and again and in that unspoken, instinctual way of hers she must of understood. The small wistful pool that had been forming in the rims of her eyes drained away and she sat up again, pushing herself under my arm and pressing her face against my chest, snuffling me contentedly. "But at the end of the day, when I'm with all of you... I feel like I'm home." She concluded and I smiled, dropping my mouth onto her coarse mane of hair.

"I'm glad." I said. "I've always felt that way too."


"I should have something that'll fit you in here." I said, rooting around through my dresser for an old t-shirt or something that I could lend Wasp. It had occurred to me earlier that evening that not only did Wasp and I both only really have one set of clothing, but Wasp had been wearing hers at night as well as during the day. And as much as she insisted she didn't care I figured it couldn't be nice to be wearing the same grungy old clothes for days on end and she should at least have something different to wear to bed. Problem was any of my old clothes that had not been brought down to the Honeycomb for the refugees by my mom hadn't been worn since I was fourteen, and I'd done some serious growing since then. And since Wasp was around my height and had pretty broad shoulders (for a girl anyways) I doubted my old kiddie shirts would fit her much better than they did me. "I guess we'll all have to take a day and go shopping for some new clothes, huh?"

Wasp was lying on my floor, peering under my bed curiously. She made an uninterested grunting noise at my statement and fished an arm beneath the depths of my bed, pulling free an old lunchbox covered in stickers and a few stray dust bunnies.

"Yeah I'm not so big on shopping either, but hey it means you can get more t-shirts." I pointed out as Wasp sat back and started brushing the coating of grim from the top of the lunchbox carefully as if she were uncovering some ancient piece of artwork. She glanced up at me and grinned slightly.

"That's true. I had a pretty good collection of band shirts you know, I always bought one after a show. Suppose I'll have to start over again... that's okay though 'cause I like to collect things. Hey what's in this thing? Is it a treasure chest?"

"You can open it if you want, I think it's just some junk I used to think was cool. You know, kid stuff." I said, opening up another drawer. Wasp repeated 'kid stuff' to herself with a small nod and popped the latch on the lunchbox open, looking inside with the utmost of fascination. She took out the objects one by one and looked each one over meticulously as if she were trying to learn the ways of some long dead civilization based on what she could find in my old lunchbox. She neatly stacked a collection of trading cards that, having been deemed the best of the best by yours truly, had been stashed away in the box to make sure they stayed in mint condition and were never accidently traded away. A special issue, limited edition of one of my all time favourite comic books was unearthed as well as a handful of small stones that Roo and Varan had painted to look like frogs and given me as get well presents when I'd had pneumonia. Wasp seemed especially interested in those, arranging them in some sort of order that I didn't quite understand but seemed to please her anyways. A few odd photos, a miniature model skimmer, a tiny box with one of my baby teeth inside and an old brass key I'd found one day but had never learned what it opened were all laid out on the floor before her before she began slowly touching each object with her fingertip as if counting it all, completely enthralled. She was just getting back to the stone frogs when suddenly her left ear twitched and trained itself on my closet.

"Oh, here we go!" I said, unearthing a t-shirt with a dark green dragon painted across the front. "This might work, was always kinda big on me back in the day... Wasp?"

I'd turned to find she'd abandoned the lunchbox and its contents and glanced around my room, wondering where she'd gone. Just then my soccer ball rolled out of my closet, which she'd opened without my noticing, followed shortly by Wasp herself, who was clutching something fluffy in her hands.

"Who's this?" She asked, her eyes sparkling with fascination as she held out the stuffed animal in question.

I felt my cheeks start to get hot. "Oh, that's, um, Snarg."

"Snarg." Wasp repeated, nodding as if this made sense to her, cradling the worn out puppy against her chest. Poor thing had been through hell with me as a kid, I used to take him everywhere with me. His stuffing was out of shape and deflated and his lining of fake fur was flattened and matted together from so much handling. I figured he'd welcomed his retirement in my closet.

Wasp seemed completely captivated by the roughed up old thing. "Fli used to have all sorts of stuffed animals." She reported almost dreamily. "I really like this one. Where'd you get her?"

"Oh, Mom got him for me when I had chicken pox." I explained, relaxing slightly when I realized she wasn't about to start teasing me. Stork and Angel pretty much had me trained to prepare for a full onslaught of torment when it came to anything they deemed dorky.

Wasp smiled crookedly. "You must have spent a lot of time with her as a kid."

I grinned a bit. "Well, Mom wouldn't get me a real puppy, so... wait a second. Did you just call Snarg her?"

"Yeah, her."

I shook my head. "No no no. Snarg's a dude, Wasp."

Wasp giggled. "No she's not, she's a she."

"Hey, he's mine, I get to decide what gender he is." I said, folding my arms defiantly. "It's in the rules."

Wasp was still laughing softly, shaking her head and pushing her nose into Snarg's plushy body. "She's a girl." She insisted. "She's got a girl's voice."

I froze, my stomach churning uneasily. "Um... what?"

Wasp nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, it's definitely a girl's voice. Don't worry though, she's not mad or anything. In fact she really missed you; she was calling out to you from the closet."

I swallowed as all the old, unnerving feelings I used to get around Wasp started to swarm back into my chest. "Wasp, honey, listen, I think maybe you should put Snarg back now, okay? Please?"

Wasp hugged Snarg to her chest and backed away from me. "She doesn't want to go back in there." she argued. "She likes it out here. She misses being cuddled."

I chewed on my tongue, trying to keep my discomfort under control. After all Wasp had recounted the Prophecy to us from a voice inside her head and despite the bloody episode that had ensued I'd believed every word she said. And I'd seen her listening to that dragon figurine of hers as it told her things none of the rest of us could hear and I'd taken that in stride. It was just a whole new level of eerie when it was one of my old stuffed animals that she could apparently hear now too.

Wasp, in that innate way of hers, must have picked up on my sudden distress. "...I'm scaring you, aren't I?" she said bluntly.

"No, no, it's just... well I can't hear anything so it's sort of... weird, for me." I strung out awkwardly, not even having to lie.

"Oh..." Wasp looked at Snarg, sucking on her lip ring absently before holding her out to me. "Here, she wants to see you. She says you really loved her." She said and my cheeks flushed again as I accepted the stuffed puppy from her.

"...Hey Snarg." I muttered, taking in her shiny little button eyes. "So you can talk too now, huh?" God this had to be one of the most uncomfortable situations I'd ever been in, right up there with the time I'd had to haul an inebriated Fraggle out of a women's bathroom.

"She says hi. She wonders where you've been for so long." Wasp said.

"Oh, you know, here and there."

"Chasing your nightmares. She remembers those. She says she used to sleep with you to try and keep them away." Wasp went on with a smile and my face burned all the way to my ears.

"Would you kindly ask Snarg to keep certain things a little more private, please?" I asked weakly.

"Oh she can hear you, but she knows you can't hear her, that's why she asked me to say it for her." Wasp explained, then scrutinized my face and frowned. "You're not happy to see her, are you?" she asked, sounding accusing and upset, like it was an old friend I was standing here with and not a stuffed animal. I felt those little button eyes boring into me and suddenly felt an absurd surge of guilt shoot through my chest. Yes she was an inanimate object and no it didn't make me question Wasp's sanity any less to have her giving me messages from said object, but Snarg had always been special to me and if Wasp could really hear her... well... shit, I didn't want to hurt her feelings or anything.

I cleared my throat. "No, I'm happy to see her. She was my favourite thing in the world when I was little." I said honestly.

Wasp looked at Snarg and smiled once again. "That made her really happy. She says you're her favourite person in the world."

I managed to grin slightly. "Hey, tell you what Wasp, since I can't hear her why don't you keep Snarg with you? That way I'll always be around her and she won't have to go back in the closet. Maybe she'll get along with Shadowfax."

Wasp's eyes grew wide. "But she's yours!"

"Yes I know, I'm not giving her away or anything, we can share her. You'll probably be better at looking after her then I was anyways." I said, holding Snarg out to her. "What do you think?"

Wasp scanned my face for a moment before looking at Snarg. She seemed to listen to the voice I couldn't hear before nodding. "Okay, it's a deal. Snarg likes the idea too, but she wants you to still come and visit her and keep her with you sometimes."

Oh lordy... "Yeah, of course I will."

Wasp seemed content with this and took Snarg from me, opening her jacket and sticking her in one of the inside pockets, leaving her head and paws sticking out. "There. A special place for Snarg." She said and I nodded my approval while trying to think of how I could get Wasp out of my room before anymore of my childhood toys started talking to her.

Luckily Mom saved me from any further awkward situations. Leaning through my open doorway her eyes roamed over my already messy room disapprovingly before landing on the two of us. "I don't know about you two but I'm tired. I forgot how much energy young people take out of me."

"I think you're just getting old." I teased and she narrowed her eyes at me dangerously.

"You, my dear, best watch your mouth, because there are several little projects that need doing around here and due to my old age I've been thinking about enlisting someone much younger for the tasks." She warned and I fought to keep the grin off my face. I knew I'd end up doing those odd jobs either way, so I might as well get a few little wise ass comments out of it.

"Duly noted."

"Anyways since I'm feeling so aged and frail I'm heading to bed." Mom continued. "Are you two staying up?"

I stretched, glancing at my bed absently. It must have been the lack of stress or something but recently I'd gotten into the habit of sleeping much more than I used to and to be honest I liked it. I was feeling kinda tired by now too after ambling around the terra all day. "I think I'm gonna call it a night, guess I'm getting old too." I said and Mom swatted me, but she couldn't keep the grin entirely off her face. "Unless you wanted to do anything else, Wasp?" I added on an afterthought, turning back to her.

"Nah that's okay, I think I'm going to start one of my new books." Wasp assured me. I'd shown her around town this afternoon and after noticing her staring longingly into the window of a bookstore I'd managed to coax her into letting me buy some books for her.

"Okay well goodnight then, Wasp. And hey if Angel gets back sometime tonight tackle him or something for sneaking off like that, would you?" I added, passing her the shirt I'd found. She grinned deviously and saluted me on her way out.

"Goodnight honey." Mom called after her and then turned to look at me, hands on her hips. "You know you have an amazing ability to make any room you stay in for more then ten minutes look like a bomb hit it." She informed me and I glanced around my room, feeling snubbed.

"It's not that bad." I argued, insulted. I mean I wasn't perfect but I was a lot tidier than someone like, oh, say, Fraggle.

Mom smiled and ruffled my hair to show she was just teasing, although I knew she'd make sure this place was spotless again before I left. "I have something for you." She said, dropping her displeased attitude and I perked up curiously.

"Oh?"

Mom made a sighing noise as if she were still debating on whether she should actually give whatever it was to me before apparently making up her mind and pulling a folded sheet of paper out of her pocket, holding it out to me before she could think better of it. "This is yours." She said as I took the paper hesitantly. "You're father wrote it for you, before he died. I think you're old enough to read it now."

I stared at the aged piece of paper in my hand and then looked back up at her, suddenly feeling very nervous. "You really think so?" I asked as if I were a little kid again and needed her reassurance.

She nodded. "I really think so. But you don't have to read it right now if you don't want to." She added, taking in my sudden apprehension. "I just think you should have it, for whenever you decide you're ready to see what it says." She stepped forward and kissed my forehead while I stared down at the letter dumbly. "Goodnight, Falshade."

"'Night, Mom." I muttered as she turned and left, closing the door behind her. I sank slowly onto my mattress, turning the folded piece of paper over in my hands and swallowing down the lump that was lodged in my throat. I'd always know this letter had existed; I'd thought about it that night we'd decided the nine of us were going to storm Cyclonia, and I'd thought about it before that too, I used to wonder about it when I was little, what words my father might have left for me. But now that I actually had it in my hands, those secret words from someone long dead, I started to think that maybe I just wanted to keep on wondering. I was afraid to see what he'd written for me. All my life I'd built an image of my dad in my head, what he would have looked and acted like, how he would have spoken and smelled. But that's all I'd had, an image, something pieced together from photographs and the stories others had told me about him. I was scared to see something real, something that had come directly from him, something that would make him actually connected to me, because then the loss too would become all the more real and I was afraid of being sucked into the same kind of grief my mom dealt with every day since he'd been torn away from us. There was a difference between missing someone because you'd never known them and missing someone because you did know them and I wasn't sure if I was prepared to change sides.

I sat there for a long time, staring at the folded letter and mulling everything over, trying to figure out what I felt and how that could change, trying to find the courage to open the letter. In the end though I decided that my dad had written that letter for me because he wanted me to have something, some personal little piece of him that was meant just for me. And I wanted to have that piece of him. If he could really watch over me from time to time like the Oracle and Aerrow said, then I wanted him to know I knew what he'd said.

So with trembling fingers I carefully unfolded the letter and for once my dyslexia didn't hinder me, as if whatever part of my brain was responsible for my reading difficulties knew these words were precious and didn't muddle them. I was able to read the whole thing without any trouble, the first and only thing my dad ever said to me:

Dear Son,

I'd like to start off by saying I hope you never have to read this. Because if you do it means I never got the chance to meet you, and that thought alone makes me want to lay down my sword and go home. I want to meet you more than anything in the world; I already love you and you are the best thing that has ever happened to me.

But if you are reading this letter then that means I never got that chance and I hope you can understand why. Nothing I can say can justify growing up without a father, but I want to at least try and explain. My friends need me and I can't let them face this war alone, but it's more than that. When you're born I want it to be into a world that is happy and peaceful, I want you to be able to grow up in a world that is full of laughter and love. I don't want you to grow up with chaos and tragedy looming over you and if by playing my part I can help this war come to an end then I'm going to do whatever it takes. I don't want you to have to see this ugliness and misery. You deserve better than that. So if you're reading this letter I hope you can understand why I didn't come home and stay with you and your mother, even though right now that's what I want more than anything else. I hope you can understand, and forgive me for having to read all of this instead of having me tell it to you in person.

I don't even have words for how incredible and special you are to me. I desperately hope I'll be able to watch you grow up, because I know you are going to be something amazing. Hell, you already are amazing. It's hard for me to believe something so beautiful and brilliant and golden came from me, honestly. You probably get it all from your mother. I just know every moment of your life is going to be extraordinary and if you're reading this, son, then I'm sorry I've missed it. I want nothing more than to be there to witness every second of it, because I know you are going to be something great, not just when you grow up but for your whole life. Whatever you chose to be and become, I just want you to know that I will always be proud of you, son. Always. Please don't ever think you have to follow in my footsteps for me to be proud of you. Whatever you do, wherever your life takes you, you do what's in your heart. Do what you think is right, fight for what you believe in, cherish those you love, have adventures and never let anyone stand in the way of who you want to be and what you want to do. Live by what you feel inside and I will always be proud. And I will always love you. With every inch of my being, I love you.

Your old man,

Falco

I'll be completely honest, I started crying pretty hard after finishing. I pushed the letter away so I wouldn't get it wet but I kept it close enough that I could still see it, reading it over and over again through blurry eyes until I knew every word by heart. I imagined how hard it must have been for my dad to write all of that, to swallow the grim fact that he might not ever get to meet me and get it all his feelings down on paper anyways. That had taken more bravery then I could ever hope to possess. And god, I loved him too. I'd always loved my dad, even though I'd never met him either, but I started loving him more right then than I ever had before, so much that it hurt. I don't think I'd ever wished he was still around more than I did right then, now that I felt like I finally had met him, even if it was through a letter that had been written nearly eighteen years ago. I'd changed sides and I missed him so badly it made my entire body ache. But it wasn't completely a bad feeling, because despite the tears that were rolling down and soaking into my jeans I was smiling.

I don't know how long it took but eventually I calmed down and wiped at my face with my sleeve. I read my dad's letter over one more time before glancing at the lunchbox Wasp had left lying open on my floor and, after replacing all the other little things that I'd treasured so much as a kid, I placed the letter on top and closed the lid. I knew that lunchbox was going to be coming with me and would probably live under my bed wherever our new home may be. I guess Wasp was right; that silly little stickered lunchbox was my own personal treasure chest.

I wasn't exactly sure how I was feeling, too many bittersweet emotions tumbling through my chest to decide on just one, but I knew I didn't want to just lie here by myself and go to sleep. So, following an urge that had led me there so many times before when I was kid, I left my room and stumbled along down the hallway, my entire body feeling shaky and brittle like I was on a bad sugar crash, to my mom's room. She was still awake, sitting on her bed with the lamp on, reading a book. She looked up at me as I pushed the door open, her surprise turning to concern when she took in my face; I guess I must have looked like a bit of a mess. Without saying anything I moved over to the empty side of her bed and flopped down on my stomach, crushing my cast underneath me and not really caring.

Mom made a soft humming sound and stroked my hair comfortingly. I sighed and glanced up at her. "Am I too old to be doing this?" I asked honestly.

Mom smiled. "I don't think so."

"Good." I said, pushing my face into an extra pillow; she had like, six of them on her bed and I'd never understood why. I figured it must have been a girl thing. I laid there for a long time while Mom rubbed my back like she used to do when I was little and would crawl in beside her after one of my nightmares. I'd kinda missed it really, the more childish part of myself still felt soothed by it. I thought back to when I was nine and had tried to get out the habit of coming to my mom's room for comfort and had to shake my head at my younger self, wondering why I'd been so eager to put an end to such a thing.

"How did Dad know I was going to be a boy?" I asked after awhile. Man it had been ages since I'd last asked anything about him; it made my stomach tighten a little just to use the word, although it wasn't in a bad way. "I thought you always said you wanted it to be a surprise."

"I did, although your father insisted on ruining that for me." Mom said and I moved my face from the pillow so I could look up at her again. Despite the slightly scornful tone of her voice she had a small smile on her face and I felt relieved. "He used to see things in his dreams too." She informed me and I blinked in surprise, never having known that. "Nothing as terrible as you did of course, just little things, but they always came true. He knew Willow was going to have twins before she even did." Mom's smile grew as she thought back on it, closing her book and setting it on the bedside table. "I remember one day I was making a list of names, I had a sheet of paper and on one half of it I'd written boys' names and girls' names on the other. And your father came up behind me, read over what I had and said 'there's no point in thinking of girls' names. It's going to be a boy'." I grinned as Mom rolled her eyes at the memory. "I asked him how he was so sure and he said he'd dreamed of having a son and after that he wouldn't budge on the subject. I even asked him to just humour me and help me pick a girl's name just in case he was wrong but he shook his head and said 'Caspia you can decide on any girl's name you want and I won't argue with it, but you're not going to be using it. Maybe next time'."

I laughed, although I felt a small twinge of pain in my heart, wondering absently if Mom had wanted a bigger family, if she'd have liked the option of having a daughter one day too. This concern must have shown on my face because Mom grinned and flicked my forehead. "Don't worry, I think you're just about as much as I can handle. Besides I look at the pack of wonderful monsters Willow and Rayvin have and consider myself lucky I only have to deal with one." She teased and I made a face at her. Then she paused and seemed to think about something. "Although I suppose I've saddled myself with two now, haven't I?" she mused and I smiled, nodding.

"Yes and quite a monster that one is indeed." I added and Mom dug her knuckles into my scalp playfully. I swatted her away and shifted, rolling onto my side because my cast was staring to bruise my ribs. "Did you ever read the letter?" I asked abruptly. I wouldn't care if she had, I just wanted to know.

"No." Mom said. "I figured it was something that should just stay between the two of you. He did tell me about it though. He said he felt like it was important he leave you something, just in case..." Mom trailed off, her eyes losing some of their sparkle and my throat seized up. "I remember the look he'd get in his eyes whenever he was around Rayvin's boys. I knew he wanted children of his own for a long time. From the day I told him I was pregnant you were all that was on his mind. God was he ever crazy about you... " She sighed, brushing her hair back from her face before looking at me seriously. "I'm sorry you never got to meet him, Falshade." She said quietly.

I rested my head against her pillow again, feeling sore inside. Yes, I was sorry for that too. I knew my dad had been a great guy and I felt like I'd missed out on something special for not having known him. But at least I had all the stories about him, collected over the years from my mom and the Beast Keepers. And now I had his letter too.

I thought about my poor mom then, about how she'd lost the person she'd loved most and how I was sorry for that, too. Looking up at her again I asked her something I'd never asked her before. "Does it still hurt, to think about him?"

Mom looked at me as if she was a little taken aback but thought about it anyways. "Yes. But not as much as it used to." She said earnestly after a few moments. "I mean it still makes me sad but I think I've reached a point now where it makes me happy too. Now whenever I think about him I can smile instead of cry."

I felt both intense admiration and overwhelming sorrow for my brave-hearted mom right then. Despite the fact that her husband had been torn away from her she still managed to hold her chin high and embrace the light, cherishing and caring for everyone she loved. I don't know if I'd ever be able to recover like that from such a tragedy, and I hoped I'd never have to find out either.

Mom must have heard my thoughts or something because she swept my bangs out of my face and looked at me seriously. "I'll tell you something, Falshade. There are very few things that are more rewarding than loving someone, whether they're your friends or family or that one person you want to spend the rest of your life with. But it's also a very frightening thing when you realize that you wouldn't feel fully complete inside if something happened to them. It's a terrible feeling and when you do lose someone who you loved with all your heart it shatters you, it's devastating and I'm still not sure if it's something you ever fully recover from." She said all of that with a distinct ache in her voice and it made me sad right to the very core of my heart. But then she managed a very small smile and added "But you know, I wouldn't take back any of the time I spent with your father if it meant I could make the hurt go away. Not a single second. Because even if all you have left of a person is memories, at least you still have the memories. And concerning Falco, I have nothing but good ones."

I smiled, because although her words made me feel sad they also made me feel comforted somewhere deep down, some of those bittersweet words of wisdom that help you get through when everything else has gone hopelessly wrong. "It's better to have loved and lost then to have never loved at all." I concurred and Mom nodded, stroking my hair again.

"Exactly. I guess I'm just trying to tell you that although loving someone can bring about just as many bad feelings as good, you shouldn't ever be afraid to love someone." She said and I cocked my head slightly.

"Are you trying to teach me some sort of life lesson here or something?" I asked, only half-joking.

Mom gave me one of those infamous Mom smiles that made it all the way to her crystal blue eyes. "No. I think you've already learned that one well enough."

x.x.x. Angel x.x.x

I'd forgotten over the years how hot the desert was.

It was like Saharr was somehow closer to the sun then some of the other terras I'd been too, so close that the relentless stream of unbroken sunlight had bleached the stone so completely that the heat had sunk right into the structure of the terra itself, the sand composed of little granules of solidified solar heat.

Those grains of sand were rubbing against my skin now as I strode across the scorched landscape, scraping against my bare skin as the short blasts of hot wind kicked the loose sand a short distance and left it there in a new heap. I must have been gone longer then I felt like I had because the gritty gusts of wind stung slightly and the heat was a little more intense then I remembered it, but I relished in it anyways, soaking up the pure, untempered rays because I felt like it had been too long since I'd basked in the sun.

Most of Saharr is pretty barren, devoid of vegetation aside from tufts of harsh stalks of grass and the occasionally cactus here and there. For the most part its rock, dunes and the occasional cluster of homes with windows boarded up against the sand storms. I was headed for the only place on the entire terra where fresh, green grass grew all year long and I wasn't very eager to get there let me assure you. With every step I felt the insistent urge to turn back and leave, as this had always been the easiest course of action and it didn't risk bringing back so many desperately repressed feelings. But I kept on going stubbornly anyways, legs working on their own accord and ignoring all the frantic messages my brain was sending them to turn around and run.

I was distracted from the wave of memories that kept tumbling loose from the hidden corners of my mind when I saw a sidewinder making its diagonal way across the loose sand, leaving a winding trail behind it. It stopped and coiled defensively when I passed by, faking a strike at me but I simply ignored it, knowing that vipers tended to bluff when they weren't really being threatened to preserve their precious venom for when they might actually need it. Plus I've been bitten by those buggers more times than I could count on both hands and by now I was pretty much immune to the venom, so I wasn't concerned. A moment later it unwound itself and continued on its uneven course, looking for somewhere to bury itself in the finer sand and wait for an unsuspecting mouse to pass by. I watched it go and could just imagine how fascinated Wasp would be by such a creature, mimicking its strange way of moving. I knew it wasn't nearly as lush and green as the jungle but I figured she'd like it here too, especially after she saw some of the wildlife that called the harsh environment home. She'd love the burrowing owls; I could imagine her lying on her belly all day long, facing the mouth of one of their burrows and chatting away to them, mimicking their large, staring eyes. I'd used to do the same thing for hours as a kid. I'd have to bring her here one day, under better circumstances.

Not today though. Today I needed to be on my own.

Thinking of Wasp gave me fresh strength though and I made it the last leg of distance towards my destination without losing my nerve and turning back. I took pride in that; it was more than I'd ever managed in the past.

The cemetery on Saharr was rather small, as the terra's population wasn't very large to begin with and most people decided to be buried elsewhere when they died, away from what they deemed such a desolate place. The small cluster of headstones that were here sat upon a thick layer of emerald green grass, which was watered three times a day and sprayed constantly with fertilizer to keep it healthy. I, frankly, thought it was a waste of water, being too precious a resource in the desert to be wasted on the dead. I knew that without the grass the sand would eventually blow away and expose the coffins that lay beneath as if they were fossils from some other point in time, but still, three times a day? Come on. I'd never understood what the big deal was with spending so much effort keeping graveyards preened and groomed. I mean if someone you loved passed away then cherishing and honouring their memory was important sure. But spending all the time and money just on upkeep for their tombstone? It seemed dumb to me. Why not give it to the people who were still living?

My boot sank into the spongy layer of grass and a shiver rolled down my spine despite the immense heat. Such lushness was foreign and strange in the desert for one thing and this grass seemed almost too healthy, too verdant. It seemed disturbing that it should flourish so well in a place of death and I got the uneasy feeling that it was trying to suck me glutinously into the earth alongside the buried caskets. Cemeteries had always given me the creeps, knowing the dead were resting right beneath my feet and I had to fight with myself for a few moments, wanting nothing more than to turn tail and flee into the comforting arms of the parched desert.

But I swallowed down that urge and ploughed forward across the carpet of grass, hands clenching and unclenching uneasily at my sides. I was sick of running and besides, I'd told myself I wasn't going back to Vatican until this was finished, so I might as well get it over with now, while I was here and still had some shreds of determination left.

My mother's tombstone was located at the back of the cemetery and it seemed to take me an agonizingly long time to get there, apprehension and nausea coursing through me every step closer I got. But after what seemed like a lifetime I was standing in front of it again. I hadn't stood in this spot since the day of her funeral almost ten years ago now. It seemed like such a long time ago and at the same time it could have been yesterday for all the heart wrenching memories that rushed over me like black water and my heart started to beat so quickly it hurt. I glanced around absently, checking to see if anyone else was here before looking back at the pale grey stone and read over the name that was etched there. Pegasus Thaenshar. There was something there that mentioned her service to the Atmos, honourable and courageous soldier blah blah blah. That was it. Nothing like beloved wife, because she'd never been married. Nothing like beloved mother either, and for that I was grateful. Honouring people's memories was one thing. Lying was quite another.

I blew out a long, shaky sigh and tried to steel myself, searching for some sorely needed bravery. Every fibre of my being was opposed to being here and I was seriously starting to doubt ever having thought it was a good idea. But I knew why I was here and I knew it was important and I clung to that, reminding myself of all the things that had happened since I'd last stood here, all the shit I'd put myself through, my time in Cyclonia and all the nights I'd been plagued and robbed of sleep because of all of this. I thought about Caspia and Falshade and Wasp and how much I admired them and it set my resolve better than anything. Glancing around again to make sure I was alone I then cleared my throat and attempted to start.

"Hey Mom." I muttered, hands deep in my pockets to try and keep my arms from shaking. "Long time no see, huh?"

I shoved back the thought of how stupid this seemed, to be talking to a fucking headstone for god's sake and tried to put aside my pessimistic beliefs about spirits and the afterlife and whatever just for now. I didn't really care too much about what happened or where we went after we died and I still had a hard time believing that our spirits visited this plane of existence after they left their bodies behind, no matter what the Oracle had said. But on the off chance I was wrong and that maybe they did come back once and awhile I figured they had to have anchors to allow them passage between this world and whatever other ones existed. Rainer said he came to see Wasp sometimes through Shadowfax so maybe there were things like portals that allowed them to look into the world of the living every now and then, if I pretended I believed in that stuff. Which, right now, I had to. So maybe headstones were sort of like transistors, things could be heard through them by the people they belonged to. Maybe that was why people made such a big deal about looking after them even when their namesakes were cold and six feet under the ground by then.

Or maybe I just made myself think all of that because it was more credible then simply talking to thin air.

I shook my hair out of my eyes, trying to grasp something from the spinning ball of tangled, bloody emotions that were roiling in my chest. "Look... I dunno if you can hear me or not. But I came to tell you that I'm... I'm letting you off the hook, Mom. I'm letting it all go."

Then, suddenly, as if I'd opened the floodgate words were staring to come out in an unstoppable reel, like my body was trying to purge itself of toxins that had been festering too long deep down, as if they'd been waiting all this time to finally have the chance to get out. And once they started coming up there was no stopping them. "The Oracle told me that wherever you are now you feel regret for how you were when I was younger, for what you did. And... well I don't want you to feel that way. It's time we just let all of this go. I just... I can't do it anymore. It'll kill me if I do. It almost destroyed me once and it's not worth it. Because I've got people now, I've got friends and I have family and I love them but until I let this all go I'm never going to be able to live my life properly with them. I'm just going to end up like you. And I hate that thought." I hadn't wanted to get angry, but suddenly I was and I wasn't holding it back. If I was going to do this then I had to say all of it, no more letting it all rot in the back of my mind. "I hate you, Mom, for what you did, for what you became. I hate that you couldn't just look at what you still had and try, at least fucking try, to fix yourself. Because I..." My voice cracked and was choked off briefly. I could feel tears blazing hot little lines down my face and did nothing to stop them. "I loved you, Mommy. I loved you and you... you abandoned me. You abandoned me and you abandoned Caspia and you abandoned yourself. You just gave up and died because you were weak and stupid and cowardly and you just couldn't see what you had, that you had people who still loved you and wanted to help you. You just turned your back on everything. You destroyed yourself. But I'm not letting it destroy me. That's how me and you are different. It was a long time coming but I realized I've got things worth living for, worth moving on and forgetting about him and what he did to us. I've got my whole life ahead of me and I'm not just going to give up on it like that. No fucking way. So..." I trailed off, feeling the rush of intensity and delirium that had seized me ebbing off. I wrapped my arms around my chest, realizing I was shaking violently like an animal in shock, shedding off trauma. My voice was hoarse when I spoke up again, hoarse but steady. "So I'm just letting it all go, Mom. I'm forgiving you for everything. I don't want to feel bad anymore and I don't want you to feel bad either. So I'm letting go of the grudges and the hurt and the sorrow. I don't miss you, but I don't want to hate you anymore either. I'm sick of feeling this way all the time. It's fucked up my life long enough and I'm putting it to an end. It just needs to be over at last. Someone very wise told me you've got to hold on to the things that matter to you. But sometimes you've got to let go of some of them too. So that's what I doing, Mom. I'm letting you go."

I felt something splash onto my arm and glanced up, wondering if it had started raining. But the sky was as devoid of clouds as it had ever been, the sun beating down relentlessly and I realized my tears had made it all the way down to my chin and now were dripping off in a steady little rhythm. I wiped at my face absently but I didn't make myself stop crying; they weren't really sad tears anyways when I thought about it. My chest was aching fiercely and my stomach was one big twisted knot but other than that I didn't really feel so bad inside. Rather I felt like something huge had finally been lifted from my shoulders, like there had been a splinter festering away deep down inside of me and now it was finally gone, the infection slowly weeping away. I felt relief, a feeling of peace and freedom I'd never felt before sweeping through me and just like the harsh rays of the sun I revelled in it, letting the heat soak through my body and dry the tears from my face.

I breathed in and out deeply for a moment before looking back at my mother's headstone again, knowing this would probably be the last time I ever laid eyes on it. That thought didn't bother me at all. I cleared my throat and bent down so that if she were there, I'd be speaking right into her ear. "Rest in peace, Mom." I murmured, pulling something from my pocket and placing it at the base of her headstone. I stared at it for a moment longer before straightening up and turning around, making my long, slow way back into the desert, my homeland.

And yeah, I knew the sun would probably melt it within minutes and that it might have been a lost gesture, but somehow a chocolate bar seemed more personal than flowers to me. After all, like my eyes and my proneness to insomnia, I must have gotten my love of chocolate from someone.

And despite all the other things that were tumbling without restraint through my mind, one thing was sticking out from all the others, burning with as much certainty and promise as the hot desert sun:

Things... things were gonna be okay now.

x.x.x Varan x.x.x

I didn't realize how much I'd missed Vatican until I was limping my way down its streets and received smiles and warm gestures from everyone I passed instead of the usual quick head turn or dirty look. I'd gotten used to the looks and the comments over the years I'd spent beyond Vatican's borders and I understood where they were coming from, but sometimes they still hurt my feelings. It was just so... nice to see those friendly expressions again. It made me feel warm inside and one day I hoped other Terradons would see those same expressions and be able to return them and feel how I felt and then maybe we'd all understand each other and things... things would get better, at last.

Maybe it was these kind, non-judgemental looks, or the optimism I still carried after my trip to Bogatri, but something was giving me the courage to go through with what I was doing as I made my clumsy way down the street, occasionally catching one of my crutches in the gaps between the cobblestones. Damn things were almost more troublesome than my injured leg...

However the problem was I kept being stopped on my way by people who wanted to thank me or congratulate me or tell me how much they admired me, or something. It wasn't that it annoyed me, although of course I'd never be able to take compliments well and it did unnerve me, but with every interruption I felt a little of my determination slide, all the words I'd been trying to set in order falling out of place again. So needless to say by the time I made it to Roo's house I was a bit of a mess, my intentions and will to go through with them fighting with my raging nerves and it was making me feel sort of queasy. It took me three times before I worked up enough bravery to knock on the door and I couldn't help but feel like my fate had been sealed; there was no turning back now, any chance of escape thwarted by my damn crutches.

It was Roo's mother Willow who opened the door and I couldn't tell if this made me feel relieved or not. Her eyes grew wide and her full lips twisted into a smile. "Varan!" she exclaimed, sounding both surprised and delighted. "My goodness we haven't seen you around here in ages! Would you like to come in?" Then she noticed my bad leg and her smile slipped a notch. "Oh gosh, do you want to sit down?"

"No I'm alright Willow, thanks." I assured her, hopping into the space she made for me in the hall. "I was actually wondering if, um, Sparrow was home?"

Willow's mouth twitched into a charming, cunning little smile that she was famous for and I felt my face heat up, feeling as if she knew what my intentions were. "Yes she's up in her room, one second." She said, moving off down the hallway and calling for Roo. I glanced distractedly at the wall, taking in the row of family photographs that hung there, Roo and her three brothers in various stages throughout their childhood. My favourite had to be the one with all four children gathered together in the backyard, Roo front and center with pigtails in her hair and smiling so widely her whole face was squinched up, both of her front baby teeth missing.

Suddenly from upstairs I heard a muffled scream and then thundering feet coming down the stairs and out of instinct I flinched, my stomach knotting tightly. "You're serious? He's really here?" Roo was shouting before she entered the hallway and screamed again. "VARAN!" she shrieked like I was her favourite rock star or something and I braced for impact. She must have noticed my bad leg, or maybe Willow had warned her, and I think she restrained from actually pouncing on me but she still threw herself at me rather hard and I staggered a bit as she wrapped her arms around my chest. I swallowed uncertainly but let go of one of my crutches to hug her back, happy to see her.

She let go of me after a moment and stood in front of me, bouncing slightly. "Oh my god you're really here, yay! Hi! How are you? What's up with your leg? How long you been back? I heard about the Terradons, that's so fantastic! Everyone's calling you like, a big hero, what's up with that?" She demanded in rapid succession and I was rendered speechless for a few moments, trying to sort out all that she'd said.

"Uh..."

She shook her head as if snapping out of a moment of madness. "Jeez, I'm sorry here I am giving you the third degree. I'm just so happy to see you." She smiled widely at me and my heart skipped a little. "What I meant was how are you?"

"I'm alright." I said, feeling nervous all over again. "How about you? Your hair's changed colour again I note." I added and she grinned, twirling a lock around her fingers.

"I know right? I gotta say I like this one best so far." She said and I had to agree with her. I hadn't thought the orange looked bad or anything but I liked this hue a lot better; it was vibrant purple in colour now, similar to the shade of Falshade's eyes and glossy as if electrically charged. She'd lost the headband for today, her hair parted at the side of her head in a weaved sort of pattern and flared at the bottom. It looked really nice and I had a sudden, insane urge to run my fingers through it. I gripped tightly at my crutches instead, swallowing again. Good lord when had she gotten to be so beautiful and why in hell hadn't I noticed before? My eyes kept roaming over her without my permission and it was making me all the more uneasy.

"Varan? You okay?"

"Yes." I said quickly, snapping out of it and trying to remember what I'd wanted to say. Oh Jesus... "I like it like that too. Your hair I mean." I strung out disjointedly, feeling more uncomfortable by the second. Shit, what had I been thinking coming over here? I should have just stayed at home.

Roo smiled so widely I was reminded of the photo of her younger self. "Really?"

"Y-yeah. Well I mean I like your real colour too, but, uh..." 'Shut up, Varan!' I told myself and cleared my throat, reminding myself of the original reason for dragging my sorry self here. "Hey, are you busy?"

"Hmm let me see..." Roo looked around thoughtfully and then pretended to glance at an invisible wrist watch. "Nope."

"Good. Um... look do you want to come take a walk with me... or something?" I asked clumsily and wanted nothing more than to club myself in the head with something.

"...Is walking a good idea, with your leg the way it is?" She asked me uncertainly and I berated myself for not thinking of that.

"Oh probably not." I muttered, thinking about how much of an idiot I'd probably look like hobbling along on my damn crutches. "But do you want to come anyways?"

She smiled again; actually she hadn't stopped smiling the whole time but her smile seemed to get even bigger and it made my heart start beating faster. "Yeah, of course! Man I've been hoping every day you'd stop by, you kidding me?" She asked as she pulled on a pair of electric blue high-tops and I wondered absently how many pairs she owned. "Going out, Mom!" she hollered before skipping out the door, me following more slowly. She bounced around on the curb for a few moments like she was on a sugar rush before she calmed down a little, walking beside me as I limped along, not exactly sure where I was going.

"So how are you?" I asked awkwardly after a few very long moments of silence. "How have you been during... well, everything?"

"I'm pretty good." She said cheerfully. "I mean things have been absolutely bat-shit around here lately but I've been alright. Was worried about Dad of course, and about you and Shade. I've been checking the death reports every day since shit hit the fan, scared out of my mind that you guys might be on them."

I looked at her as her voice wavered slightly. "I'm sorry." I said remorsefully. "Mom said the same thing and I felt so stupid, I should have tried to contact you or something-"

Roo held up a hand. "Dude it's totally fine, you guys were busy, I understand. I just worried, you know? It sucked being stranded here with no idea what was going on. Everyone was worried we'd be attacked next or something. You know now that you're back I might get you to teach me some of those fancy sword moves or something, just so I know if I have to I can whoop ass."

I grinned a little too, although I still felt bad for having worried her. "Maybe you should ask Shade instead, he's a little more advanced in the whoop-ass department than me."

Roo snorted. "Psh, yeah right, and you got all those muscles doing dishes." She scoffed, running her hand over my upper arm and then giving me a sly look, cocking her eyebrow suggestively. "Which, may I add, give you some serious brownie points in the swimsuit division."

I felt heat rush to my face and I stumbled slightly, missing a step. Roo bit her lip, trying to hold back her laughter for my sake. "Jeez you just can't take a compliment, can you?" she asked and I shook my head, completely tongue tied. I had to scissor my mouth a few times before any words came out and she waited patiently.

"What about your family, are they all okay?" I asked, trying to change the subject and she nodded.

"Oh yeah, everyone's fine. The boys all went to try and help out on the front. Thane ended up joining the reserve teams and poor Mom was hysterical about it. I think she was even more worried about him than Dad, because well at least Dad has what, fifty years of experience with that sorta thing, right?"

I laughed. "Oh come on your dad doesn't look that old."

"Well he seems old." Roo insisted, grinning. "Griffin joined in too, escorting the cargo cruisers and he saw a bit of action but he says nothing too serious. And then Beau, well he's been in school to be a doctor, right? So he joined the emergency teams as a field medic, got some serious hand's on training and I guess because he did such a good job, considering how young he is and all, the school board is gonna grant him full tuition for the rest of his time in school, which I thought was pretty sweet."

"Wow." I said appreciatively. "That's great for him. And all three of them are okay?"

Roo nodded. "Oh yeah, none of them got hurt or anything. Beau was a little shaken up though, shell shocked I guess? He saw some pretty nasty stuff." I grimaced in sympathy, understanding Beau's trauma all too well. "He's at home right now actually, Mom's been babying him." Roo went on. "Thane's fiancé was living with us for a while too, she was really stressed out and scared with him being gone so Mom let her stay. She's a sweetie but she's a little too sensitive if you ask me. Like she'll start crying at the drop of hat: 'Oh no I burned the pasta, oh no I chipped a nail, oh no we have to go with lilac instead of lavender for the tablecloths at the wedding, boo hoo hoo!' No idea how she's going to last in my family I'll tell you that much."

I laughed again. "Well maybe if her future sister-in-law wouldn't be so judgemental she might be a little less sensitive. Give the poor girl some credit, her fiancé was fighting in a war."

"Hmph. Well so was Mom's husband and all her sons and she held together just fine." Roo huffed, but she was still grinning slightly.

"Your Mom's had practice." I reminded her. "Anyways I'm glad your family's safe and sound."

"Me too. I'd get pretty scared for them all every now and then. It'd come and go in waves I guess and some days I'd be a right mess over it." She hugged her arms around herself here, losing some of her cheerful attitude and I paused, putting a hand on her shoulder comfortingly. She sighed and looked around distractedly. "I think what sucked the most was being stuck on this rock with no idea what was going on. I tried to help out; I've been hauling crates of supplies for weeks now and helping around the Honeycomb with all the refugees but it wasn't the same, you know? Like I still felt really... useless. Like any day we could have been attacked and what the fuck was I gonna do about it? Don't get me wrong, I'm one tough little bitch of course but..." she trailed off and then glanced up at me, her dark eyes wide and glassy. "It made me think I should have come along with you when you asked before. I would have felt safer, somehow. Or at least I would have felt like I was making a difference."

"Roo..." I trailed off, my throat feeling sore and dry and I wasn't exactly sure what to say.

"I guess it doesn't really matter." She said, trying to conjure up a brave face. "I guess I just wanted to feel a little more independent, you know? Like I could look after myself if I had to, and the other people I care about. I don't want to ever feel that helpless again."

I wasn't sure what to say but I sympathized with her completely. Hell there had been more than one occasion in which I'd felt completely powerless to help my friends and it was one of the most awful feelings in the world. I couldn't imagine how it must have been here, with chaos crashing around you like a hurricane and with no idea what was going on or when the next attack would be.

On an impulse I reached out and squeezed her hand, hoping to try and convey my understanding through touch. "You know, for the record I always thought you were really independent." I told her, quietly but honestly and the grin managed to worm its way back onto her lips, her face shining as if caught in a ray of sunshine.

"Thanks, Var." She said and when I moved my hand back to grasp the handle of my crutch she left hers on top, fingers curled over mine and it made a warm feeling spread up my arm and into my chest.

"Well enough about me." She said, bouncing once again. "I wanna hear all about you and these insane adventures you've been having! Come on, spill! What happened to your leg? What went on after you left? Did you seriously blow up half the Scar or is everyone making that part up? Man I hope not, please tell me you blew it up, that'd be so sweet!"

I sighed once again but gave her what she asked for, answering her questions to the best of my abilities. I'll never be very good at telling stories, that's more of Fraggle's forte, but I seemed to do a decent job anyways because her eyes grew wide with awe from time to time and she uttered amazed squeaking sounds and choice words at some points too. By the time I finished we'd reached the outskirts of town, our street leading up to a dead end against a low wall. From here I could see the Plateau past all the outlying homes and the small clumps of trees sprawled over the terra. My leg was starting to ache a bit so I sat on the wall and Roo perched beside me, picking at a small clump of grass that had sprouted from a crack in the concrete.

"So Falshade's home, in one piece, and he hasn't even come by to visit me? Prick." She muttered sourly. "And tell me again, you squashed some psycho with her own hammer? Man that's epic!"

I pulled a face. "I didn't squash her, thank you. I just kinda... hit her."

"With a giant-ass hammer."

"Yes."

"That, my dear, counts as squashing."

I sighed, not really liking to think back on that. I had to admit there were some moments that, looking back on, seemed pretty exciting looking at it from an outside perspective, but I'd never be as gung-ho about gore and violence as someone like, say, Wasp. Roo seemed to think everything was just one fantastic adventure but then again I suppose now that we didn't have armies of mutant soldiers swarming in all around us it was okay to look back on some things in a better light. I knew once the others recovered a little more they'd be all about recapping the fighting and close calls, always eager to compare who could kick ass better then who. I didn't mind or anything, nor did I look back on our experiences with total dislike; I guess I'd just seen a little more blood then I would have preferred was all.

"And now they're letting the Terradons rebuild a brand new terra for themselves. Wow." Roo said appreciatively. "Man it all sounds so exciting. Like the stories Dad used to tell. Jeez, you guys are gonna be a legend."

I snorted. "Lord I hope not." I muttered.

"Oh come on." Roo scoffed. "You can act all indifferent about it but I know you wouldn't have gone along with Falshade way back when if you didn't like this sort of thing even a little bit."

I wrinkled my nose but thought about it. There had been times during the last few months when I'd thought my number was up, or one of the others' lives was about to end before my eyes. There had been too much gore and near misses and stress for me to ever simply brush off; I think I was always going to be a little shell shocked now, bruised deep down with sores that would never completely go away. There had been times when I'd just wanted to curl up in a dark corner and let it all pass me by, and even now I didn't like all the attention I was getting because of it. But looking back on it all, I wouldn't take back a second of it. While there were a few scenes I wished I hadn't had to see I knew there was nowhere else I would have rather been then there with the others, through thick and thin. I guess Falshade must have managed to plant a few adventurous seeds in my head when we were kids. And knowing that I had some small role in how things had turned out in the Atmos gave me a good, glowing feeling in the centre of my heart that soothed over the more battered places. "...Yeah I guess you're right." I admitted, not bothering to try and keep the grin off my face. "But you know I'm pretty happy with the way things are now too, just taking it easy."

Roo nodded. "Yeah, I hear that. I mean I wasn't even really doing much but still, the lack of stress is nice." She touched my hand again. "How long are you staying for?" she asked in a more serious tone. "I mean what are you guys gonna do now? Does Falshade have any more plans?"

"I'm not sure. Probably not, knowing him, but he'll think of something." I said, glancing off in the direction of his house where it rested in the shadow of the Plateau. I hadn't thought of that yet, what with everything else that was going on, but I wondered about it absently now, wondered what the other Gargoyles intended to do now that we had no more nightmares to chase after.

Roo hummed to herself, swinging her feet as if preoccupied with something and I looked back at her, suddenly feeling nervous again. I'd been putting off my original purpose of coming to see her and now I wasn't sure if I could come back to it, what with how thick and ungainly my tongue felt in my mouth and how unnerved she made me feel. But there was a tiny little voice inside me somewhere, timid yet insistent, that kept pushing words into my mouth and I cleared my throat, trying to put a lid on the unease roiling in my stomach. "Hey, Roo?" I asked, my voice sounding very hoarse all of a sudden. Roo looked up at me expectantly and I swallowed, trying to get my vocal chords to work properly. "I... I wanted to talk to you about something, actually." I continued after a few awkward attempts.

"Okay." Roo said, her fingers gripping at the edge of the wall. God was she ever gorgeous... I had to stop looking at her, focusing instead on my lashing tail and wishing it would hold still for once and stop betraying my nerves. Then I had to laugh at myself; yeah right, like I hadn't been acting nervous in the first place.

"Um... right, well..." I trailed off, hating how much I was acting like a kid about all of this. Christ I was eighteen, girls weren't supposed to frighten me anymore! Well then again Stork and Wasp could instil a lot of fear in me, but I'd never been this uneasy around Roo before.

Roo was waiting for me to say something and I coughed up my voice. "I guess I wanted to ask you... about us, really." I managed to say. By now I was so far outside my comfort zone that I couldn't even see the line that marked its boundaries anymore.

Roo tilted her head. "Like how do you mean, us?" she asked and I wondered if she honestly didn't know or if she just wanted to see me squirm a little more.

"Well... last time I saw you, you, um... well your toenails were, um... green." I stammered, feeling like a complete idiot. Roo smiled when I mentioned her toes and that didn't help, although I don't think she was laughing at me. "So I'm just...curious... are they still...green?" I asked, my tongue feeling like stone and I could barely push the words past my teeth.

Roo pulled her foot up onto her knee and started unlacing her shoe, smile still on her lips. Pulling off her sock and shoving it into her pocket she turned slightly and put her dainty little human foot on my knee proudly. All five tiny nails still wore the same shiny coat of dark green polish and a warm wave of happiness rolled through my whole body at the sight.

"Still green." She confirmed, her dark eyes shining under her violet bangs. "My other foot is a complete technicolour nightmare, I painted each nail a different colour for Dad and the boys, and Shade too but... yeah, this one's still all green."

"Wow a whole foot, just for me?" I asked, both teasing and incredulous and she grinned, nudging me with said foot.

"Yep, it's yours, take good care of it."

I laughed softly and then looked at her face seriously. "So... what does that mean, then? I'm just asking because... well I don't want to assume anything." I strung out brokenly and Roo shook her head as if she couldn't believe me and my lack of elegance with all this.

"It means I like you, Varan. Hell, I've had a crush on you since I was eight. Then you left and you were always on my mind and when you came back I really realized, shit, this guy's got me completely hooked." She said and I felt blood rush to my face, heart thrashing around wildly. I was in awe of how easily she'd said all of that, like she had no fear at all; I could try all my life and never have that kind of confidence.

"...Really?" I breathed out in a very small voice, unable to believe that I had inspired those kind of feelings in anybody, let alone such a pretty, out-going girl like Roo.

She laughed, hitting my arm softly. "Yeah. Why not? I always thought you were a great guy." She said all of this while looking directly at me with those dark, gold-flecked eyes as if it were the easiest thing in the world and I was envious of her. "What about you?" she asked then and all my organs seemed to recoil.

"What do you mean?" I wheezed.

"I mean how do you feel about me?" She repeated patiently, as if we were just going over some well-rehearsed scene.

I knew that question would come up eventually but I was no more prepared for it when she finally said it. My brain seemed to break into thousands of pieces, leaving me scrabbling to find something to say. My heart was hammering so fast it was making it hard to breathe and I swallowed, trying to clear a path through my clogged throat, get some air in so I could think. How did I feel about Roo? I'd been asking myself that since she'd kissed me all that time ago now. Well... we'd been close when were young, revelling in our shared, outsider friendship, something I'd always treasured. But then we'd gotten older and something had shifted, especially once Shade left. She got very clingy back then and although it made me nervous and even downright uncomfortable sometimes I'd never disliked it. But I'd thrown so much time and energy into training with Owhl, into trying to become what I had to be if I was ever going to go along with Falshade in pursuit of his nightmares, that I didn't pay enough attention to Roo's affection to judge my own reaction to it. But it had started then, a tiny spark of something that stayed burning like a little candle with me when I left, something my mind would wander back to time and again. And then when she'd kissed me that day we'd come here to drop off Pippa it seemed to catch, that little burning spark turned into something bigger and warmer that suddenly made me start noticing things, like certain memories of her that unfolded in a whole new light, or how right now with her sitting there, so achingly beautiful, she could make me painfully nervous and incredibly happy just by looking at me a certain way. Once I paid it enough attention I realized it had always been there, this shiny little collection of feelings for her that had just been waiting to be realized. And I realized them now alright; I liked Roo. I liked her a lot.

My mouth was suddenly working on its own accord. "I like you too." I said. My voice was still quiet and raspy but there was confidence in me now that made the words come out easier. About bloody time. "I mean I've always liked you, since we were kids. But I've got feelings for you now that were different than they were back then." I said slowly and somehow I was able to hold eye contact with her.

The corner of her mouth twitched. "Yeah, puberty does that to you."

I pinched the top of my muzzle and sighed. "Here I am pouring my heart out to you and I'm rewarded with two-bit comedy. I might as well be talking to Fraggle."

Roo giggled, pulling my hand down from my face. "You're right, I'm sorry." She said quickly. When I glanced at her face I noticed a slight pink flush decorating her cheeks and felt slightly more relaxed knowing that even she could be affected by the admittance of feelings. Maybe she was feeling just as uneasy as I was and was just better at hiding it. I suppose it helps when you don't have a tail whipping every which way to give you away.

"So, um..." I coughed slightly. "What... what happens now? I mean if we... if we both have feelings for each other, then what?"

Roo tilted her chin thoughtfully. "I think what happens then is we start seeing each other, like not just as friends. Like date kinda stuff? And if that goes well and the feelings get stronger then we make it official, I guess."

I nodded slowly, having to look away from her again. "Okay. And, um... what's that mean, official?"

I could hear the smile in her voice. "Well it means I'd be your girlfriend, Varan."

My blood rushed around my body at a frenzied rate before shooting straight to my face again. Girlfriend. Oh god was that ever a strange concept to try and get accustomed to. Although the thought made my heart hum, excitement seeping through me.

"Right. Okay." I nodded again. "I get it, I think. So right now we're just sort of going to hang out but not exactly like friends."

"Exactly." She said and I had to laugh at how absurdly we were treating this, like walking through complicated plans for a recon mission or something.

"So... what do I do now?" I asked and flinched at the grin that bubbled over on her face. "Look I've never done this before, help me out here." I pleaded and she swallowed down what was more than likely laughter for my sake.

"Well now you just ask me if I'd like to go out sometime." She said as if it were the simplest thing in the world. "Like you did today, asking me to come for a walk."

"Do girls get secret handbooks on how this is done when they hit puberty or something?" I asked and she laughed, nudging me in the ribs with her foot and I had to laugh too.

"Yeah, we get complete packages on everything we need to know about you males." She informed me. "I assume they just left you guys to just fend for yourselves."

"Ain't that the case." I muttered to myself, sounding eerily like Angel. Then I cleared my throat and examined her carefully. "So, um, in that case did you... want to go out with me sometime and... I dunno, have coffee or something?"

Roo smiled. "I'd like that." She said, extending her hand as if to make it official and I shook it, a strange but not unpleasant feeling thrumming in the pit of my stomach. When her hand returned to her side I glanced her over once again and fidgeted, not sure where to go from here.

"...So now what happens?" I asked, feeling stupid for having to constantly ask.

Roo didn't seem to mind though. "This is the part where you kiss me, Varan." She informed me, leaning in and closing her eyes and just waited there for me. I suddenly felt as if my whole body had been paralyzed as I stared at her lips; if I'd felt flustered before it paled in comparison to what I was feeling now as I gawked at her. She couldn't be serious. She might just turn to stone if she waited there for me to make a move. I had no idea what to do; the only time I'd ever kissed anybody had been because she'd initiated it, I had no idea how to move, how to use my mouth, how to hold her. I felt like there might as well have been a gorge between us for how difficult this seemed.

But then I found myself leaning in towards her anyways, some subconscious instinct forcing my body to move without my being aware of it. I stopped halfway, examining every detail of her face and my stomach made a weird lurching movement. Oh god please don't let me get sick all over her...

I shifted forward a bit more and then worried I was going to jab her with my mohawk spikes or something and hesitated, only a few inches away. Then I sucked in a deep breath and on a spur of bravery closed the distance, brushing my lips over hers before pressing in firmly. And the moment the connection was made it was like everything else just melted away, my nerves and fears and knotted muscles, the background and the wall, everything just faded out until all I was aware of was Roo's delightfully warm body pressed against mine. She sighed and titled her head to a better angle, gripping my arm and pulling me in closer and I tucked my hand along the back of her neck, finally allowing my fingers to run through her hair and wondered absently if they'd ever felt anything softer.

x.x.x Wasp x.x.x

Your love's like rhinestones falling from the sky

-Rhinestone Eyes, Gorillaz

Once, I climbed a tree.

Well not just once; I used to do that a lot back in the old days, forcing my calloused toes into the cracked bark of the ancient trees that lunged into the sky and scaling the rough hide of their backs, a strange flesh invader into the world above. I liked to be up high where the air was fresh and the sun could leave its marks on my skin, where the sweetest fruit grew and I could sit back and watch the dark wedges of eagle wings slice through the sky. I wondered now if maybe some of those far-away eagles had really been airships and looking back on it, it completely blew my mind to think that all the time I'd spent in the jungle there had been a whole other world turning and unfolding out there that I hadn't even known existed. Sometimes I'd look at the stars at night and think 'there has to be more than this', but I'd never realized just how close that more was.

Anyways, on this particular day I pushed myself above the highest tangle of boughs in the canopy, perched like a giant, ungainly bird with my feet on the branch below and the rest of me thrust above the broad umbrella of foliage. From there I could see the whole jungle sweeping out before me, a vast, sprawling carpet composed of every possible shade of green. Up there I could feel the thunder rattle in my bones as it split the heavy air and I turned to watch, hypnotized, as a rolling wall of thunderheads advanced towards me. Cool, damp wind pressed against me with forceful affection, tugging the storm along behind it while the rain fell in one sheer, solid curtain below, painting everything in a warm, wet coat. The foliage turned slick and shiny as the water streamed down, seeking cracks in the vegetation so it could trickle down to nourish the plants below. Lightning lit the tree tops in a violent splash of light and the thunder followed behind, punching into my lungs and taking my breath away. The clouds kept rolling towards me, swirling masses of brooding blues and greys and I found myself rising to my feet, toes wrapping tightly around the trembling branch below as I straightened up, throwing my arms out wide as if to embrace the storm. Every one of my nerves were standing on end, my skin was prickled and my ears were filled with the symphony of the rain, my blood pounding in time to the lilting rush of heaving water.

Seconds later it hit me and it was like I was stripped of every fibre of my being. A hot rush of blood flooded like a bright flash of light through every inch of my body as if I'd become a part of the rain and the energy of the storm, throwing myself into the thick of the seething, spinning core where there was no one definitive thing but the roaring pulse of everything that had ever been or was or would be. In that moment, I had no flesh or bones or feelings or thoughts; I simply was.

Then my branch broke and I was pitched back into the world where things were solid and real. All my life I've always seemed to be falling from something, but that wasn't always a bad thing. If you embrace the fall, the landing's usually not so bad. Especially back in the jungle where the earth was soft and moist and swallowed me up like a warm hug.

I was thinking about that day in the storm when I heard the porch door slide open quietly. I heard Angel kick off his boots and then stalk silently through the house, avoiding the creaking floorboards as if he'd already mapped them all out. I listened to him slink up the stairs like a tom cat returning home after a night of roaming the streets and waited until he was at the top before rolling off the couch-bed Caspia had set up for me and padding after him, as silent as always. That same urge that had always driven me up trees and over rooftops, the insistent, instinctive desire that had pushed me into the thick, bloody center of excitement and danger time and time again was tugging at my stomach, leading me on a little silver thread after him while memories of the rain sparked in my mind. I'm sure it meant something, that there was a reason my brain wanted to remember those few raw, dripping seconds and, determined to find out what, I followed my curiosity without question, even though by now I'd learned well enough that such an endeavour was not always the wisest course. Then again what did I have to be afraid of here? The only thing I could think of was Caspia if she found out I'd disobeyed her wishes. I'd come to learn that females don't really like when you do that.

Angel had left his door open a crack when I reached it, almost like an invitation and I slipped in behind him without a sound, pushing the door shut again behind me with an almost indiscernible click. He'd stopped in the middle of the room and was pulling his shirt off over his head, completely unaware of my presence. In the dark the blanket of bandages that were plastered to his back appeared as a patch of dull blue and I cocked my head, wondering how well his wounds were healing and if they still hurt him. Deciding that they must not, since Falshade had been able to sit on him without consequence, I sprang across the distance between us, ferocious predator coming down on her unfortunate prey, wrapping my arms around his neck and tearing him off his feet. We crashed down onto his bed and I quickly flipped him over, pinning him with my lower body and shoving a hand under his jaw, squeezing his throat gently.

"You are dead." I growled, using my best spooky voice and leering down at him, all fangs and gleaming eyes.

Angel's heart was hammering so hard I was surprised his ribs didn't crack open like eggshells from the force. I took some of my weight off him and let my playful snarl relax a few notches in case I really was scaring him. You never knew with humans after all; the difference between humorous and serious behaviour was hard to judge with them so I figured it might be difficult for them, in turn, to recognize the distinction.

Angel sucked in a deep breath around the light constriction of my hand and fixed me with a steely glare. Oh. So I had scared him.

"Always lovely to see you, Wasp, really." He said, attempting to roll me off of him. "How about next time you give me a bit of a warning before you try to kill me?"

"But that takes all the fun out of it." I explained, letting go of his throat when I heard the annoyance in his voice.

"Does it? I thought it'd be more fun if your prey put up a bit of a fight."

I hummed thoughtfully. "Touché." I looked at him thoughtfully. "Would you like me to go back and do it again?"

"No, that's alright, I think I've taken all the abuse I can for one night."

I frowned. "Are you angry?"

He seemed to think about it. "No." He decided eventually. "But so help me god if you ever do that again I'm not going to take it very lightly, got it?"

I felt my enthusiasm drain away to pool somewhere around my knees. Before, with my old friends, I'd been able to pounce and scuffle with them all the time, tussling with Luka in the dirt back in the jungle like a couple of cubs or clambering onto Rainer's back to bark something into his ear. I guess I'd just hoped I'd be able to do those sorts of things with Angel and the others now; the Gargoyles didn't seem to mind roughhousing after all. But then, I was big and gawky and forgot that humans were sensitive, moody creatures sometimes. Maybe those sorts of things weren't acceptable yet with my new friends.

I don't know if my disappointment showed on my face or not but Angel let out a short sigh and without warning punched the heel of his palm into my side, jerking me back and forcing some space between us. Pushing against my hips with his shin he managed to flip me over onto my back before I could react and suddenly our positions were changed, he was the one grinning down on me. His hand shot out to grab my ear but by now I was ready for him and caught his forearm between my jaws and he froze. I could feel his pulse thrumming against my tongue as I licked the underside of his arm tauntingly and he snorted, easing his arm free.

"Happy now?" he asked, wiping the smudge of drool I'd left on his skin against my cheek and I growled at him, kneading my hands into his stomach in retaliation.

"Yes."

He shook his head, grinning. "Look, tell you what, as soon as your wrists are healed I'll wrestle with you all you want, but you have to give me a head's up first, okay?"

I flicked my ears at him. "My wrists are fine though, see?" I rotated my hands in counter-clockwise circles to demonstrate. Sharp little roots of pain tugged through my arms with the motion but it wasn't intolerable.

Angel grabbed my fingers gently to stop me. "I don't care, until the tensors come off no brawls for you."

I pouted and rolled him off me. He flopped over onto the mattress easily and stretched with a soft groan, joints popping here and there. I looked over him curiously, counting the ribs that stuck out under his dark skin like xylophone keys and wondered if each would make a different note when struck. I tapped some of them experimentally but they all made the same soft thudding sound.

Playing the bones.

"So how you doing, kid? Ya miss me?" he asked.

"Not really." I said honestly and he laughed. "I figured you were doing something of importance." I added in case I'd sounded apathetic.

He shrugged. "I dunno, maybe it was, maybe it wasn't." He said, sounding like he was talking to himself but I nodded anyways.

"All depends on how you look at it." I agreed, even though I wasn't sure what he was talking about. Then I leaned in to sniff at his shoulders and neck, drawing in the strong, harsh scent that was emanating from his skin. It smelled like fierce, hot wind and scorched earth, something almost but not quite burnt. And spicy too, like a collection of herbs I didn't know the names of. I figured this was the smell of the desert, a harder, more concentrated version of his own unique smell. So much different than the heady, lush smell of the jungle, a myriad of different scents all blending together to create something earthy and raw. His was exotic, piquant and I liked it, I wanted to keep breathing it in until it became familiar to me. I drew my tongue along the hollow beneath his jaw, tasting the sweat and grit that was caked on his skin and he shuddered, his breath hiccupping slightly.

"Do you feel better for going at least?" I asked as he blew a puff of warm air into the curled shell of my ear.

"...Yeah, I do." He muttered and I nodded again. That was all that mattered. I wasn't exactly sure why he'd gone or what he'd done there, but when I pressed the flat of my hand against his sternum to feel him breathing I noted that the motion seemed to come easier to him. Something dark and oppressive had been stripped from his aura and it made warmth and pride gather like a tight ball of yarn in my stomach. I slid my fingers into the silky feathers of his hair and pressed my forehead against his, smiling and sending him a telepathic greeting card, drawing a spindling, tangled briar of thistles and roses in my mind, tiny, brightly coloured birds perched amongst the intertwining thorns with the words ' well done' etched in the center.

'Well done, Angel Cakes. It's easy to run away from things; it takes guts to realize you've forgotten your shoes and turn back.'

I felt a slow smile spread over his lips and knew the message was received. That smile arched up and nudged against my own softly and I sank into him, stomachs and ribcages jammed together as I kissed him, feeling the cracks that had surfaced on his thin lips. His whole body felt sort of dry against my own but it felt stronger too, like there was more of him present now than there had been before. I wondered if the desert had drawn it out of him the way the sun draws a sprout from the dark depths of soil. My element was water and Angel's was fire and just like how I occasionally needed a good bask in heavy rain to rejuvenate my worn, bored spirit he needed heat and flame and the good, burning earth beneath his feet to pull his back to the surface.

Right then I felt as if the glowing places of warmth he was carrying had smouldered their way into my own flesh and coaxed a blazing ball of light to life inside me somewhere, filling my whole body with a flighty, gripping feeling. I wanted to spread myself thin like a sheet of paper, press into all the small, foreign places of his body, the nooks between his ribs and boney hollows around his moth wing eyes. I nudged and I dug and I pushed, trying to fit my body into the empty spaces in his, my stomach filling the indent next to his hipbone, fingers tucking in along the curves of his collar bone. He made a raspy noise against my neck when I pressed my face to the side of his head, breathing into his ear and his palm cupped around the knobbly little bone at the top of my spine; Atlas vertebrae, holding my head up to the sky. I pushed my fingers into the gaps between his ribs, fitting them in as if I could tear the skin away and poke my fingers into his chest, stir up his innards. I could feel his organs working beneath the layers of membrane, undulating, contracting, shifting, churning. His hands descended slowly and fit themselves along the indent of my spine, drawing warm paths down the plane of my back. I shifted, squeezing his side with the inside of my thigh as if trying to spur him into a run and his mouth moved and found the contour of my throat and with that it was like something tore wide open down in the core of my heart. Everything became disconnected and my hands and mouth and eyes all had minds of their own, unified somewhere in the back, dark pocket of my mind, drawing out a map of his body in blazing, quicksilver notes. I wanted to commit it all to memory, how many notches made up the line of his spinal column and all the scars that decorated his spiced honey skin. His fingers gripped at me, tracing the whorl behind my knee and the muscles on my arms, drawing designs and leaving messages along my shoulders and the small of my back, exploring, learning, playing, finding. He sighed into my ear, his lips brushing the downy inside of the shell and I curled my fingers in his hair, running my tongue along the thrumming blue highway that ran through his neck. One mouth would occasionally find the other as if our lips were shiny little fish waiting to be caught, some quick, touch-and-go kisses and others that lingered, deepened and melted together like lemon drops in the sun. I felt as if I'd spent my entire life kissing those lips and as his teeth clinked against my lip ring and mine caught on his lower lip, tongue swiping over the thin, split surface, I was dangerously sure I never wanted to taste any others' but his.

I felt like we were falling towards something, I could feel electricity crackling on my skin as if the storm were drawing nearer but before I could even pause to turn over these feelings that were swelling and bursting in my guts like big, gossamer bubbles his fingers brushed over my lower stomach and he pulled away as if he'd been bitten. I ran my tongue over my fangs to test for blood and when I found none I cocked my head uncertainly, wondering why he'd stopped.

His switchblade eyes were fixed on my stomach and I felt his thumb roll over the scar that was printed there. Not the old one but the new one that sat like a stamp for a new life below it, blending with it at the seams. I looked down at it as well and was surprised to find that I was naked from the waist up. When had that happened? For a moment I felt like I should panic, my pulse stirring uncertainly, but then the feeling faded like the last remnants of a bad dream. I hadn't been uncovered like this in front of anyone for a long time but it didn't seem like a such bad thing here with Angel. I assumed that was a good sign; it made me feel a little proud actually, relieved that my gut instincts and bad memories weren't staining this moment with him. I even felt a little excited, thrilled by the newness and secrecy of it, of stumbling into territory that had always been forbidden to me. Fli had once told me most men had an 'installed obsession' (her words not mine) for breasts and although I'd never given mine much thought I was curious now to know what Angel thought of them.

However he didn't seem very interested in them at the moment, although I recalled his eyes lingering on them before he'd tensed up like that. He was still fixated on my lower belly and I watched as his face closed up, his mouth titling into a hard, unapproachable line, cinched in guilty pockmarks in the corners. I looked down at the neat little bundle of scar tissue, a much tidier blemish than my other one and extended little tendrils out to him, trying to catch his thoughts. All it took was looking at the shame that was etched into the minute spirals in his eyes and I knew what he was thinking.

My fingers crawled up to his chest and I picked at the corner of his bandages with my blunt nails. I peeled it back gently, finding a coating of sand stuck to the tape that held it in place and then gently pressed the pads of my fingertips to the sticky, coagulating wound that lay beneath. It was healing well, fibres winding themselves back together, no pus or inflammation to reveal infection. It was red and crusty with half-hearted scabs but it was coming together nicely and I figured the stitches would be ready to come out soon. If I looked closely enough I could still see the jagged edges that marked where my fangs had punctured, a depiction of the alignment of my teeth.

"Looks like we got each other pretty good, huh?" I said, scraping my nails around the edges to chip some of the dried blood off and swiping the dry flecks off with my tongue.

"Yeah..." He muttered, chewing at the inside of his cheek. His fingers traced a soft circle around my scar as if he could erase it if he willed for it hard enough. When it didn't work he sighed and looked up at me. "Look I know I already said it, but I'm so-"

I flattened my palm over his mouth and the final word was smothered beneath my hand. "Don't." I said. "You fixed it afterwards. It's no big deal. It was just an accident."

"An accident that almost killed you." He reminded me, tugging my hand away from his mouth.

I shrugged. "A lot of things have almost killed me and so far none of them have succeeded. I'd rather be stabbed accidentally by a friend over any of those other things any day." I could still see misery and remorse flickering in his eyes like slimy little eels and I leaned in closer again, folding one hand over his where it was laying against my stomach and spreading my fingers wide over the wound on his chest with the other. "The way I see it we both left our mark on the other. That makes us even. So don't be sorry anymore. It's okay."

Angel sighed again but didn't make any further arguments. I drew my tongue over his forehead to try and cleanse any harmful thoughts from his mind and then pressed my mouth against his ear.

"Did you mean what you said, back in the tunnels?" I asked quietly so as not to hurt his eardrum, wondering just how keen his hearing was compared to mine. Probably nowhere near as sensitive, but then, Angel had the best eyes of all of us, so maybe that compensated for the bluntness of the rest of his senses.

I felt his hand whisper cautiously around the curve of one of my breasts before he took it away again as if my flesh frightened him. "What... oh." I felt heat sing through him and heard the click in his throat as he swallowed. "Well... yeah. Of course I did."

I sat back, hovering over him carefully and pricked my ears, sensing he had more to say. He cleared his throat slightly and continued. "I mean I... sorry I can't really concentrate with you..." he trailed off and waved hand at my torso, staring fixedly at the beam of moonlight that was slicing my calf muscle in half.

"Oh, right." I said, folding my hands over myself helpfully, the corner of my mouth twitching, intrigued and more than a little amused by his awkwardness. I wondered if he'd been taught that it was wrong to stare at someone else's nakedness. Back in the jungle if ever a male, for whatever reason, should stumble upon a nude female she had every right to tear him to pieces. I hoped he didn't think I'd do that to him; at some other point in time, before I understood how gender interactions differed here in the outside world I might have, but I didn't feel like that right now. After all, he didn't have a shirt on either and I couldn't see anything wrong with that.

He glanced back up at me and started again. "Anyways I just... well by now I look at you like I do the others you know. I love you just like I love them." His words got a little tangled when he said that as if he weren't used to confessing such a thing but it made my heart hum anyways. "But at the same time there's something different about you. I've got all these weird feelings that I've never had before so... hell I dunno what I'm saying." He muttered, sounding irritated with himself. "I... guess I just figured I should let you know I changed my mind in any case. About what I said that first night we got around to talking. I have no idea what these feelings mean but I've never felt them towards anybody before so I assume that's gotta count for something. And I like them, so..." he trailed off and grinned in a sort of helpless manner, shrugging. "Anyways I just thought I should tell you that." Then he chewed on his tongue as if something had occurred to him. "But hey, look, I know about you and Rainer and everything so it's totally okay if you don't feel the same way back. I get it. I just thought I should tell you were I stand, since I'm taking a stab at being a better person and whatever." He tacked on quickly and I felt the carousel of fuzzy feelings evaporate from my chest as if they'd been physically cut out. Caught up in everything, this private chunk of night severed up just for us, I'd forgotten about that vital piece of information, that pile of glistening sand that was tucked deep down under the rug.

I sat back again, grinding my teeth together thoughtfully. I felt like I was standing on a precipice here and knew my next step was a crucial one. It was unnerving to suddenly be holding the compass in my own hands, watching the needle spin and trying to decide where it should land. I took in all the points of the multi-barbed star, shook all the loose thoughts and lost trinkets from the pockets in my head and collected them into a pile, sorting through them scrupulously. Like a private investigator I followed Rainer's footprints through my heart, collected the discarded cigarette butts and mint wrappers, lifted his fingerprints from the walls of my chest and took snapshots of his personal effects, making sure that Shadowfax gave me a big, toothy smile. I made myself a full report on Rainer and What Exactly He'd Meant To Me, Wasp. When I rounded it all up, submitted the charts and equations for evaluation, I came up with this: he'd been my saviour, the ragged knight in patchwork armour, peeling my sorry carcass from the grimy streets of Macabre and leading me to his nest, a secret, cosy place, a feather lined burrow snuggled deep within the rotten intestines of one of the worst places in the Atmos. He'd been my protector until I'd learned to walk the lesion-riddled back of the city on my own two rangy legs. He'd been my teacher, filling my wild head with solid facts and cocktail trivia, passing on the skills I'd need to survive on my own. He'd been the supplier of good humour and shiny gifts, the conductor who dazzled me with the circus acts of this new, jagged world, the fountain of knowledge and the guiding star. His hands were always steady when I needed to be patched up, his mouth was full of starlight and whimsy whenever it opened, his voice washed clean the bloody crevasses of my weathered soul, his elfish eyes danced and teased and read the pages of the world, interpreting it like a master scholar and his arms scooped me up when I tumbled down, placing me gently back on my feet like a parent righting their clumsy child. His mind was a temple of insight and intellect and his heart was a flaming chunk of gold from the depths of a dragon's keep, rare, tender and priceless.

And he'd been my friend, my dearest of companions through fair and foul weather. The first person I'd felt I could trust with my life. That was, in the end, the most important piece of the puzzle, the part that clicked seamlessly into place and made the whole picture come together.

And yes, I'd been in love with him. I'd jumped on a train without knowing where it was going somewhere along the timeline of my life with him and when I'd finally gotten around to checking the ticket, that's what it said. You Love Him. Destination: unknown. Time of arrival: who cares. It was the easiest thing I'd done in my life, falling in love with him. I couldn't pinpoint where and when, I couldn't even really describe what exactly changed. A switch had simply been thrown in my head and things were different in a way I can't even explain to myself. My thoughts crawled to him in the heaviness of the night and my heart started yearning for things I didn't understand, whispering away in a foreign language that was both beautiful and sad, a dazzling opera on the stage of the deepest, most secret place in my soul. Maybe I was just too naive to understand; I hadn't grown up with fairy tales and teen magazines, hadn't listened to all the best love songs and watched couples pass by with their hands intertwined through the streets at a young age when your brain absorbs and interprets things without you being aware of them. I hadn't been programmed to recognize those trembling, demanding feelings of devotion and affection, it all was lost in translation to me until I was much older and as I've been told, it's a lot more difficult to learn a new language when you're older than when you're young and immersed in the thick of it. So, in short, I simply just didn't get it, didn't realize my heart had a mind of its own and was bent on him until it was much too late to do anything about it. And for his part Rainer had never done anything about it either; maybe he'd grown to look at me like a younger sister during the three years I'd spent with him, maybe the thought of viewing me in a romantic sense seemed wrong to him somehow. He had beenfive years older than me, and perhaps my mysterious origin and lack of comprehension of the outside world made it seem unacceptable, an older, wiser brother taking advantage of his confused, simple-minded sister.

Or maybe he just hadn't felt the same way at all. I knew he loved me, but it was possible that could have been in a completely platonic sense. It could easily be just that simple. I could accept that.

Whatever the reason, we'd never kissed. We'd never whispered our most sacred dreams and desires to each other in the sympathetic folds of the night. We'd never been like those people you read about in trashy romance novels, two lovers caught hopelessly and irrevocably in the blinding sea of their passion and dedication to each other. The love songs never sang true for us and although I'd wiggled in under his covers on countless occasions and clutched his hand as if it were the only thing tethering me to the corporeal world and spun with him until everything else turned to a nauseous blur to the private symphony of our favourite music it had never meant more or less than the truest, most beloved form of unquestionable, unbreakable friendship. He wrote poems for me and drew me pictures of woodland creatures with charming smiles on their ugly faces, he cracked open the hardened, hideous shell that encased our deplorable home to show me the shining, pulsing center that survived in the smallest and most special of places and he put my shattered existence back in order, one splintered piece at a time. When he wrapped his arms around me I was home. But our love story was one that slipped away as silently as it had come, dragging his bleeding corpse along with it to devour it in peace. Boy met girl, boy saved girl, girl fell for boy, girl inadvertently caused death of her brilliant, precious boy, girl melted into the charred, clotted streets of boy's old world, girl met Stork, girl's life began again.

And then girl met new boy. And this new boy, he was something else altogether.

I looked at the other file, considerably smaller and waiting to be filled, of Angel and What Exactly He Means to Me, Wasp. He didn't write me poems or start each day with a quote of inspiration for me to chew on, I wasn't sure if he knew how to dance or if he'd even want to, he didn't construct paperclip chains to hang from my lip ring, he didn't know how to make paper cranes or wind chimes, he didn't collect lost treasures from the alleys and he didn't know any dragons. But maybe that didn't matter. Because Angel was not Rainer and my feelings for him were entirely his own. He'd thrust his thorny heart into my calloused hands and cradled my broken head when I couldn't hold it up on my own. I'd returned him his life and he'd saved mine in turn. And his lips left words on my mouth that had never sat there before, that same secret, muted language of the heart. To me, Angel meant hope and that was enough for me. There were tiny little roots stretching between us, fragile, uncertain things that pushed carefully into the fibres of our hearts looking for nourishment, testing to see if this was a good place to grow. I felt confident that if we swaddled them securely in rich loam, sprinkled them with sweet water and let them bask in the piercing heat of the glowing sun, something amazing would bloom, something full of colour and brilliance. Arching, wheeling canopies shooting spindly, bold limbs into the sky and should there be flowers they'd be made of silver and amber and they'd smell just like him. A tree rearing up from a crack in the sidewalk, a tree just for he and I, me and him.

I felt my lips roll back in a smile as this image flourished in my mind and I grabbed one of Angel's hands, pressing his fingers over my eyelids so that he could see it too.

"It's important that you understand Rainer's always going to have his own little piece of my heart." I started slowly, making sure each word spun itself out right. "It's not something I want to go away. But you know that. You get it. And when I started spending time with you, it kinda tidied everything up in there, made space for new things. And those new things, these feelings, they've got your name painted all over them. They're the same and they're different than what I felt for him and that seems right to me. I've been thinking about them a lot you see and that's my conclusion: they feel right and I like them too. So I guess what I'm getting at here, the case and point of my big spiel, is that I changed my mind too, about what I said, about not being able to feel that way about someone. Because I'm pretty damn sure I do."

I took his hand away from my eyes so I could open them and studied his face. The corner of his mouth was twitching as if he were trying very hard not to grin and I wondered if I'd said something funny. And there was something flickering his eyes, like a tiny star waiting to be born. The look was confused and possibly even a little frightened, like the look of someone who'd suddenly found themselves in unfamiliar territory. But there was excitement in there too, a whole world of possibilities and adventure cast wide for just the two of us and I felt energy sweep up from my stomach and soar through my limbs, fierce exhilaration at the thought of us stepping into unexplored lands together, a vast, daunting landscape waiting to be discovered right out our fingertips.

We were silent for a while, probing each other's emotions as they unfurled hesitantly like a snail from its shell. We trundled through a maze spun of uncertainty and recklessness, the two feelings coupled together to form a reeling web of chambers and corridors just waiting to be explored. We were like a couple of lone wolves deciding to form a pack together, feeling each other out, getting an idea of the size of their fangs and softness of their pelts. I felt like I was meeting a dear friend from years gone by for the first time to find he'd evolved into something that daunted and allured me. Of course I already knew Angel, but I felt like something had twisted slightly, we were standing at a beginning that had sprung up in the middle of our rickety tale, something we'd skipped over the first time because we'd thought it unnecessary. But when I thought about it, I liked that we had come to it this way, a rough path during which we'd skipped along stepping stones and caught thorns in our hair, cracked our knees on the hard earth when we fell down. It just tasted all the sweeter to find this sparkling note lodged in the depths of our ribcages after everything we'd stumbled through before, clinging to each other's hands without ever quite understanding why. In my mind it made more sense to have done everything backwards, it made everything feel more exposed and raw and whole.

Angel finally touched back down from our little tour through the sharp points and liquid depths of the other's eyes. He raised a hand very slowly as if to give me warning that he was doing so and then touched his palm to my forehead, sliding his fingers into the coarse knots of my hair and pushing them back out of my face, smiling. "So we were both wrong." He concluded.

"Yes." I agreed. "Man, guess our past selves weren't as smart as they thought, huh?"

"Guess not. So... look, I feel it only fair to warn you I have no idea what the hell I'm doing." He said, sliding his fingers down over my sternum, all the way over my stomach until they bumped against my belly button and drew a half-moon under the little nub of flesh there. "And I'm probably not going to be very good at being... well, whatever you want me to be. So that being said, I'm kinda looking for something solid here, a sort of starting place, you know?" I blinked at him and flicked my left ear and finally someone was able to interpret what that meant because he heaved a sigh and continued. "In fewer words I'm trying to ask you where we go from here, because I'll be damned if I know. I've kinda reached my limit for heartfelt revelations tonight so I'm passing the ball to you." He elaborated, picking up one of my hands and turning it so my palm was facing up before pretending to drop something into it. I clenched my hand tight, imagining one of the smooth pebbles I'd collected earlier with Falshade sitting there and feeling its weight with my mind.

"So you want me to sort of..."

"Define this for me. It doesn't have to be big and complex or anything, I just want to have a basis so I know what I'm supposed to do." He explained, settling back and waiting with an interested expression on his angular face.

I hummed, pressing my thumb into the thin dusting of hair that snaked over his lower stomach. I liked definitions to an extent; I liked how some words could string together a whole slew of smaller words in a simple, elegant way. Visceral, staccato, cacophony, colloquial, tenacious, viridian, anachronism, haphazard, a handful of my collection of favourite words, all with inner meanings and inflecting sounds that danced and spiked on the tongue and in the ear. Yes I liked symbols and secrets unlocked behind the understanding of those shaky letters. But words were words and sometimes they weren't big enough to stretch across the distorted dimensions that emerged from our chests. There is no way to define love, that elusive, non-language of the heart has no use for proper nouns and pretty adjectives. People throughout time have tried to pin a meaning to it but in the end the only examples and conclusions are the ones we draw for ourselves, each of them different and as tangible as every colour of the spectrum. Love was in all the small things, something that lived in all of us from the very beginning, innate and fearless, without judgement or laws. A living thing that existed indefinitely and was real as we made it to be.

"I don't want to tack a definition to this." I admitted at length. "What we have doesn't need one, don't you think? That's what made it so special right from the beginning. I wouldn't know how to describe it. It just is. It's simple in the most complicated of ways; we're just two people who found each other. And as for where we go... anywhere. Neither of us have had these feelings before, or know what the mean or where they might lead. But that's half the fun, isn't it? I'd like to see where they take us."

I watched the muscles in Angel's throat twitch as he swallowed, not like a reserving swallow but just a thoughtful motion, mulling things over, turning them on their heads to get a better look at them. "Okay. That's good enough for me." He decided after awhile. "After all, all the best things happened to me because I just said 'what the hell' and went for it."

I smiled so widely it made my ears hurt, fangs snicking against my lips and making them bleed healthy, rich jungle blood.

And so it struck me that I, Wasp, had a somebody.

Not sure what to say I stuck out a hand professionally, deciding some sort of pact-sealing was appropriate here. He laughed and shook his head at me, grasping my fingers tightly and pulling me down into a kiss that stretched and rolled back sheer, glossy curtains until the two of us were bathed in light, hidden in our own private orb in the dark, dripping mesh of the night.

And all at once I understood the subliminal messages my subconscious had been sending me, the waking dream of that day in the storm. We were standing on the brink of something cataclysmic and my legs were bunching with the desire to hurl myself right into the throbbing thick of it. The edge of our current world was yawning wide and invitingly just beyond the grip of our toes and if we should step off the edge I knew there'd be something spectacular waiting for us below. It all made sense to me now, because my love for Angel was like the rain, something that bled and wept and cleansed in the darkest hours and fell in full, hearty drops on sunny days. Something to be basked and soaked in, a ravenous torrent on some occasions and gentle song on others, nurturing, invigorating, purifying. Sweet in my mouth and wrapping my skin in a silky, chilling cocoon. Without a voice I could still speak it and if I were blind I could still feel it.

I wanted him to feel it too. So I pulled him into the storm alongside me.

His eyes faded from confusion to nervousness as I coaxed him, tugging at his limbs silently and he tried to mutter something that came out in a string of uncertainty, snaring in my ear like a spider web but I hushed him, making sure he looked into my eyes long enough for the message to pass through. I wanted this and I wanted him to show me, wanted to know the secret of how it was supposed to be. His voice fell away to a low murmur as I worked my fingers into his muscles, chasing the hesitation out and despite his sudden trembling I could feel a tense hum move through him, eyes glowing like dragonfly wings caught in sunlight. His mouth never left mine as we shifted slowly, revelling in this time here on the threshold, bodies hot and achy with a radiant fever. I knew he wanted to know just as much as I did, felt the thunder and lightning crackling against our itchy skin but that didn't stop him from leaning down and touching his mouth to the place where the leathery tissue of my ear connected to my scalp, sending electricity down the inside of my spine. Hanging by our fingernails from the edge of the unknown he exposed his nerves to me in nothing more than a whisper:

"...I've never done this before."

"It's okay. Neither have I."

But god it didn't matter if we'd never done it before because we fit together like we were made for each other. The gears of my brain simply clicked off and thoughts slowed to a halt, everything was slashes of movement and heat that unfurled in feeling and memory. It was simple and instinctual, like the urge to run and climb and slam my body around to the pounding rhythm of all my favourite songs. My heart purred and thundered and all heat became sight, all touch became smell and it unfolded, jagged, elegant, boney, awkward, bloody, pure, glorious and raw, like a solo woven from all the howling, blazing notes that burn softly in that tiny little scrap of soul that can never, ever be taken. His breath was my air and his eyes flashed like rhinestones in the velvet shadows, sweat on our tongues and blood between our clashing, split lips. His scent was so deep in my lungs I could smell it in my own pores and I could feel his pulse moving fiercely, wildly, in time to my own. Thighs locked tight around his waist I jammed my chest against his so I could feel his heart knocking there, punching into me with every violent burst, screaming that it was there. It was harsh but it merged effortlessly at the seams, we were stitched together at all the worn edges. My ragged nails cracked the fragile tissue on his back and my fangs broke his skin on more than one occasion while his mouth burned into my flesh and his grip left blue smudges on my moon-bathed skin but beneath it all we were lambs dressed up in wolves' clothing, soft, woolly hides pressing in and smoothing over the gnarled, weeping patches, love glowing like proud embers in the middle of our strange, scarred heart. We were no longer two people but equal halves of one definitive soul, submerged to the core in the chaotic, beautiful tempest we'd constructed together, heartbreak churned to hope, our solitary auras blending through the veins and solidifying into something as close to perfection as he and I were ever going to get. And this, I thought, must be what salvation tastes like.

'This is us now, Angel Cakes, this is letting go of the dearly departed and broken dreams. This is us seizing hold of what will be better, this is us being and not being, this is us ending and beginning again. Right now we simply are and-'

And as our bodies seized and ripped a pocket of bliss wide open there were lyrics in my head that always meant something to a place they hadn't yet been connected to.

'-and this place here with you is what my spirit has been searching for since it first learned to crawl.'

x.x.x Varan x.x.x

"Var-aaaaaaan." Pippa whined, stopping to wait for me when she realized I was falling behind again. These damn crutches, they'd be the death of me; my tail had never been a problem when I was simply walking along normally or even when I was training with the others, but now it decided to get caught up under my feet or with my crutches every time I made those awkward, shuffling hops forward. And to make matters worse the path was full of stones and pot holes. "Why'd ya hafta be so slow?"

"Because I like annoying you." I informed her, sticking my tongue out at her. "It's what big brothers do."

Pippa stuck her own tongue out at me in retaliation, giggling. Mimi tugged on her leash, romping around in the grass on the side of the path, investigating doggy smells. A butterfly lifted from one of the flowers nearby and Mimi lunged towards it, dragging my little sister along with her.

"Sweetie are you sure you don't want me to hold the leash?" I asked for the umpteenth time as Pippa hauled the pup back towards her.

"No I got it." She insisted. Mimi turned her attention back to her at the sound of her voice and pounced on her, standing up on her hind legs and placing her paws on Pippa's chest, licking her face ecstatically. Pippa squealed with laughter and did nothing to push the pup away despite how many times Marle and I had told her she couldn't let her do that, because one day the puppy would be much bigger than she was now. I sighed and limped forward, nudging Mimi gently with one of my crutches to make her get down and continuing along the trail. Pippa skipped ahead of me, Mimi bouncing along beside her, yapping away. I shook my head, grinning at the two of them; I'd told Mom she was crazy to take on both a six year old and a puppy at the same time but when I saw how happy the two were together I just couldn't believe it was such a bad idea.

The three of us made it to Falshade's house eventually and Pippa led the way toward the porch proudly. Mimi must have caught scent of Caspia's goat right around then however because she gave a ferocious tug and her leash slipped free from Pippa's tiny hand. With that the pup was gone, taking off into the backyard and barking madly. Pippa looked up at me innocently. "Oops." She said, giggling and I rolled my eyes, tugging playfully on one of the pigtails Mom had put in her dark green hair.

"I told you to let me hold the leash."

Pippa thrust her lip out in a manner that reminded me very much of Stork and ignored my comment, grabbing my hand and tugging me along. "Come on!" she said, pulling me towards the porch.

"Go ahead and knock." I told her, trying to manoeuvre up the stairs while she pranced ahead of me. She rapped on the door as if she'd done this hundreds of times before and waited, clasping her hands behind her back smartly. She must not have expected Falshade to be the one to open it though because when she saw him her eyes grew wide and she darted back beside me, clutching my hand again.

"Aw don't be scared, Pip. You remember Falshade, don't you? He's a friend of mine." I told her and she stepped forward again, taking Falshade in curiously. Shade smiled his winning smile and Pippa brightened.

"Oh yeah, I remember him!" She said, wrapping her small arms around Falshade's legs, hugging him just like she hugged everyone she met. He blinked at her as if surprised and then grinned, ruffling her hair.

"Hey kiddo, how you been?"

"I'm good!" Pippa informed him. "Can I come in, please?"

"Yeah, sure." Shade said, moving aside and letting her scoot past him before taking me in. "What are you doing back so soon?" He asked. He must have only just gotten up because he was still clad in his pyjama pants and his hair was even more dishevelled than usual. Lazy little bugger.

I shrugged. "Repton said I should come back. I wasn't much help out there with a bum leg, and besides, I missed you guys."

"Dawww, really?" Falshade said, motioning for me to follow him inside and closing the door. "Come on, Mom will want to see you and I don't wanna leave you standing on a bad leg."

I followed him down the hall, looking around absently. "So how're the kids?"

"They're fine, fitting right in here. Although Angel's being all... weird." He reported. "He's offering to help with dishes and everything."

My eyes widened. "Seriously?" Jeez I had to either threaten or bribe that kid into helping with dishes back on the Merlin.

"Yeah, it's creepy."

Just then we stepped into the kitchen and Falshade slipped into a nearby chair, out of harm's way as his mother rounded on me."Varan what in hell is that thing tearing up my yard and making all that racket?" She demanded, looking rather disgruntled.

"Oh, that would be Mimi." I explained tiredly.

"She's my puppy!" Pippa added proudly. "Hi Caspia! Look, I losted one of my teeth!"

"Hi honey. I like your hair today." Caspia told her, hugging the small girl. Then she stood up and took me in, all faux-annoyance gone as she swept me into her arms with a sigh. "So how're you, Varan? I heard you've been busy."

"I'm alright." I said, hugging her back as best as my crutches would let me. After a moment she stepped back and held me at arm's length, checking me for damage. She frowned at my bandaged leg and clicked her fingers at a nearby chair, which I sat in obediently. "Lots of strange stuff to get used to. Like having this little one around." I added as Pippa climbed into a chair next to me, poking her playfully.

"Varan is my big brother!" she reported importantly.

"Is he now?" Caspia said, eyebrows raised as if astonished. "Well you better take good care of him then, Pip."

"Oh I will." Pippa assured her. "I'm gonna go with him when he leaves again and be a Gargoyle too!"

Caspia gave Falshade a look while he tried to hide his laughter. "See what you've done?" she asked, rapping the side of his head with her knuckles.

"Yes Falshade, how dare you inspire a generation of people to want to follow their dreams and do good in the world." I added and Caspia nudged me gently with her elbow, grinning despite herself.

Just then Angel joined us, looking a little darker than usual and like he'd started to put some weight back on, which pleased me. He glanced around, caught sight of me and quirked an eyebrow.

"The hell are you doing here?" He asked me by way of greeting and I rolled my eyes while Caspia leaned over and smacked him gently.

"Mind your mouth, there are little ones around." She scolded, apparently ignoring the fact she'd used the same word not too long ago.

"I decided to come back early." I informed him. "Why, does it bother you?"

"Not really, I guess. But I thought you were on this whole father-son bonding thing."

"Well I was, but I just missed you so much that I decided to come home. Happy?"

Angel grinned. "S'all I wanted to hear." He assured me. Just then Pippa, who'd been watching him fixatedly for the last few moments, hopped off her chair, trotted across the kitchen and flung her tiny arms around his narrow waist. "Er..." He said, looking rather alarmed.

"I remember you!" Pippa exclaimed, beaming up at him. "You and that girl saveded me!"

Everyone else seemed to flinch at this and stared at the small girl in shock, stunned that she could so simply recall something like that without even batting an eye. She'd come far from the shivering little creature who'd barely uttered a peep when we first found her on that slaughtered terra and it nothing short of amazed me. It had taken me ages to come out of the state of shock I'd been in after Bogaton and even now thinking back to that dark place would make me break out in a fit of shivers and nausea. Pippa had bounced back after only a few weeks, lively and cheerful and impossible to silence. Although according to Marle she still woke up screaming some nights, eyes wild and face tear streaked. Trauma never truly leaves us I suppose, as much as we'd like it to.

"Uh..." Angel looked like he wanted nothing more than to pry the small girl off him. "Yeah..." He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "You seem... bigger than last time we saw you." He strung out awkwardly.

"Mommy says I'm growing!" Pippa reported proudly.

"Yeah she'll be catching up to you soon, Ange." I decided to add and he shot me a dirty look while Falshade snickered into his cereal.

Mimi decided she was bored with romping around in the backyard then and showed up on the back porch, barking at the patio door. Pippa released Angel and he sagged with relief as she skipped over to the glass door and slid it open. Mimi came charging into the house like a hurricane, barking at everyone in greeting and standing on her hind legs to see what was on the table.

"Hey!" I said sharply, flicking my tail at her. "Get down, you!"

Caspia crouched down and Mimi, delighted to see someone at her level, scampered over only to skid to a halt when she came close enough to sense Caspia's stern personality. For possibly the first time in her short life the puppy held perfectly still while Caspia examined her expressionlessly, wagging her tail uncertainly as Caspia opened her mouth and checked her teeth. It seemed even hyperactive puppies were quelled by the will of Caspia.

"Oh lord look at those paws..." She muttered disapprovingly. "She'll be a monster when she gets older. You better train her well." She added to Pippa.

"Oh I will." Pippa assured her, nodding furiously. "Watch, she's really smart. Mimi!" she said, clapping her hands to get the pup's attention. "Mimi, sit!"

So of course Mimi bounded over, pleased to escape Caspia's scrutiny and turned circles excitedly, never even coming close to sitting. Angel snorted with laughter.

"Wow, she's as bad as Stork."

"Take Mimi outside, Pippa, so she doesn't make a mess." I advised as Mimi started sniffing around in the corner with a little too much interest for my liking. Pippa nodded and stuck her hand out, wiggling her pudgy little fingers as I dug the tennis ball I'd been carrying out of my pocket, handing it to her. Mimi's floppy ears seemed to shoot right off her head when she noticed what Pippa had in her hand and chased her out the door, yapping uncontrollably.

Caspia shook her head as she leaned on the counter, although the corner of her mouth had ticked up into a smile. "I can't believe Marle got her a puppy. The woman's mad." She said, pushing her oceanic hair from her face.

"Nobody ever got me a puppy." Falshade muttered sourly, picking at his breakfast.

Caspia pursed her lips and cocked an eyebrow. "I got you a goat." She said, waving a hand towards the backyard. "Who, by the way, was a lot easier to raise than you were."

"Probably smells better too." Angel added and Falshade punched him in the ribs.

Just as I was about to ask about her Wasp slipped through the open door, looking into the yard with wide eyes. "Did you know there are gremlins in the backyard?" she asked, clearly in awe by this fact. "I wonder what it means? Hi Varan." She added, moving to take an apple from the dish on the counter and then paused, turning to look at me more critically. "Oh, hi Varan!" she exclaimed. "What're you doing here? I thought you went to go visit all the other Terra-whatsits."

"If you mean Terradons then yes, I did go to see them, but I decided to come back early, which seems to be a big annoyance to everyone." I said gruffly and Wasp blinked owlishly at me.

"...I'm not annoyed."

"Oh well at least that makes someone." I muttered and Caspia uttered a noise that sounded like feigned sympathy and hugged me around the shoulders. Then she grimaced as she watched Pippa trip over Mimi and do a completely summersault over herself, laughing the whole time. "I think you'd better go outside and keep an eye on that girl before she winds up looking like the four of you." She said and I couldn't argue there, heaving myself to my feet and limping outside; I was supposed to be babysitting after all. Pippa waved at me and then went back to running around the yard, making Mimi chase her here and there. Falshade followed me out and watched as Pippa tried to throw the ball as far as possible, achieving maybe ten feet at best. After a few more attempts he ambled over. "Can I try it?" He asked and Pippa happily passed him the spit soaked ball, which he accepted without complaint before throwing it clean out of the yard and into the scrubby fields beyond. Mimi tore after it as if there were nothing more important in the world than that ball, squeezing under the back fence and leaping through the high grass on the other side, pink tongue flying like a flag from the corner of her mouth.

I sat in one of the lawn chairs that circled the notched wooden table on the shaded porch and smiled at the three of them. Angel sat down across from me and watched them for a moment too, unable to keep the grin off his face.
"Aw, look, Falshade's made some friends." He commented. "About bloody time."

I snorted and swatted at him half-heartedly. I was just glad Pippa was having fun; she didn't really have anybody to play with at home, which was why I assumed Marle had gotten her the dog. Although there were lots of kids on Vatican most of them were either toddlers or a lot older then Pippa was and she hadn't made many friends her own age yet. However, as she was keen to tell me, she had lots of 'grown-up' friends.

Caspia strode onto the porch after a moment, watching Falshade and Pippa out on the yard and smiling to herself before moving over behind Angel, snaking her slender fingers through his hair. He closed his eyes and sighed, leaning back and Caspia fixed her azure eyes on me, displaying a lot more warmth than she had before. I knew by now that Caspia's severe, no-nonsense attitude was mostly a bluff. She was not a woman to be trifled with of course; hell I was still terrified of her now and again and according to Falshade I hadn't even witnessed her at full wrath. But under her gruff attitude she was sweet and compassionate with a good sense of humour.

"So what's your father like?" she asked me with genuine interest.

"Um..." I said, not exactly sure how to answer. I didn't know Repton very well at all really, having only spent a short amount of time with him after all. I still had a lot of tumultuous emotions about him, unsure where exactly I stood when looking at him in terms of my father. I knew a not-so-small part of myself already felt attached to him and I wanted to get to know him better, maybe was even a little obsessive about it, but other than that I was still confused about how I felt towards him. "He's... eccentric?"

Angel laughed. "That's a polite way of calling someone crazy, isn't it?"

"Yes, in fact I use it to describe you guys all the time." I countered and he laughed again. "I don't really know what he's like." I went on, running my finger along the edge of the table distractedly. "I mean he's... he's still really angry about the way the humans treated him. I don't even want to get him started about what happened on old Bogaton... but at the same time I think he wants what's best for his people, so he's willing to try and get past all of that? Or I hope so anyways... he's pretty okay with everything that's going on right now so I take that as a good sign. He's willing to try and change anyways, and that makes him okay in my books..."

"That's the important part, yes." Caspia agreed and I felt extremely grateful for her. It must not have been easy for her to look at Repton in a good light after all. He and the Raptors had still been a terrifying bane to the skies of the Atmos when she was my age and although I wasn't a hundred percent certain on this I think she might have faced him more than once during her days escorting carrier ships. It made me feel more confident about everything knowing that Caspia, someone I held in very high regards, could forgive Repton for his past. "If he can look past his own grudges to see what's truly important then he's got to have a good heart somewhere deep down."

"That's how I like to look at it." I said. I held fast to the belief that my mother must have seen something good about him and that made me confident that I, too, could warm up to him. Maybe even love him some day. It was all very weird to try and comprehend of course, but I was willing to see where it might lead anyways.

Caspia was watching me as if she was reading my thoughts. "In any case, I'm happy for you, Varan." She told me. "You just make sure he's good to you or he'll have to deal with Marle and I."

I grinned; Caspia had always been protective of me, practically my second (human) mother. "A nasty force to be reckoned with indeed." I said and she grinned deviously, an expression I'd seen on Falshade's face time and time again. You forgot sometimes, what with their clashing personalities, but there were moments when you could just tell that Shade hadn't got all of his reckless desire for adventure from Falco alone.

Loud, high-pitched laughter drew our attention back to the yard. It seemed Falshade was under attack; Pippa was literally hanging from his good arm and Mimi had a mouthful of his jeans, trying to drag him to the ground. Falshade pretended to fall to his knees and then onto his side as if overpowered by the two pint-sized creatures. "Argh, that's it! I'm done for! Fatality!" he wheezed, collapsing on the grass. Then he burst into a fit of laughter when Mimi scrambled onto his chest and started licking his face fiercely, her tail a total blur while Pippa looked on, giggling uncontrollably.

Caspia shook her head. "Look at my son over there. You'd think he was five years old."

I grinned, seeing right through her air of disapproval. "You know there were still some puppies left in the litter." I told her innocently and she furrowed her brow, pretending to look displeased.

"Oh no you don't, Varan. Don't even try putting ideas in my head because you know what will happen: I'll buy him one and he'll take care of it for a while, sure. But then he'll leave again and I'll be stuck with the damn thing, and lord knows it'll give me more trouble than he did growing up." She said curtly and I laughed. Then she glanced back out at the three of them and her expression changed dramatically; suddenly she looked very old and defeated. "Then again maybe it'd convince him to stay a little longer..." she murmured as if speaking to herself and there was such a note of sadness in her voice that it made my heart ache. Angel looked up at her with concern, prodding her arm gently. "Well you know now that he's not off trying to save the world I'm sure he'll have more time to come back and visit." He pointed out. "We'll make sure he stops by sometimes."

Caspia shook the look of sorrow from her face and smiled, mussing up his hair. "I assume you meant both of you will be stopping by." She corrected and he rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, that's what I meant." He relented and I grinned to myself.

"Good." Caspia said and then plucked at his hair, frowning. "You know it really wouldn't look so bad a few inches shorter." She added and I had to turn away, trying not to laugh too hard while Angel scowled.

"Would you leave it alone already?" he griped, swatting her hand away. Caspia folded her arms and Angel grimaced. "Please." He added in a mutter and Caspia seemed content with that.

"Well I can tell when I'm not wanted." She said and Angel rolled his eyes (but not before making sure she couldn't see him). "Anyways I have things to do. Keep an eye on those two." She added, jerking her thumb at Shade and Pippa and I nodded. As she stepped back inside I turned to Angel, who was pushing his fingers through his hair absently.

"I think it looks fine." He muttered to himself and I laughed. "That woman's gonna be the death of me."

I knew he was exaggerating but I let it go. "So how've you been doing?" I asked instead. Falshade had let me in on his whole scheme to try and get Angel to join the family back when we were on the Condor and judging from how he and Caspia had interacted I guess Shade had succeeded. It must have been weird for him though; hell it had taken me a long time to accept Marle as my new mother and I'd been a lot younger and less standoffish than Angel was. It couldn't be an easy transition for him.

Angel shrugged. "I'm good. Happy here, which is weird."

I grinned. "Yeah, Falshade tells me you're even helping with chores. You must be in a good mood."

Angel scowled. "Fuck no, I'm just not overly sure if Caspia's above beating me or not."

"She's not gonna beat you." I laughed.

"Everybody else does." He grumbled.

"Well there's a reason for that." I said, leaning over and cuffing him to accentuate my point. "So what have you guys been up to while I've been gone?"

"Hanging around here, mostly."

"Mostly?"

"Yeah... I flew out to Saharr the other day. Took care of some stuff." He said absently and I blinked in surprise. I didn't know exactly what 'taking care of stuff' meant but I had a feeling it must not have been easy, whatever it was. I felt proud of him though, glad that he was making an effort to change the things that had been bothering him, not taking Cyclonis' words to heart.

"I thought you looked darker." Was what I ended up saying, because I really didn't know how to respond to that. Angel had always been touchy about personal stuff anyways.

He snorted. "I know, can you fucking believe it? I'm sunburned." He said, glaring at his arm in disgust. "You know you've been out of the desert too long when..."

"I kinda missed it. Bogatri gets a lot of sun, it's nice, except when you get sand wedged under your scales." I said conversationally, feeling the telltale itch of grit in a few places.

"Yeah, bugger that. I have the same problem, what with my scales and all." He said and I flicked him with my tail, grinning.

Pippa made her way onto the porch then, coming over to me and climbing onto my lap. I winced when she put her weight on my bad leg. "Easy, honey."

"Sorry." She said, shifting onto my good leg and yawning.

"Sleepy?" I teased and she pouted.

"No." She lied. She'd stayed up way past her bedtime last night, scampering around the house with Mimi and talking to me a mile a minute, asking me all kinds of questions and telling me about all the adventures she'd had since coming to Vatican. It had overwhelmed me a little, since I had no experience with kids, but I'd listened amicably through it all because it pleased me that she'd been able to bounce back so quickly after the horrors she'd experienced on her home terra. I was glad to hear that she was adjusting well to her life here. My mom seemed happy too and that made my heart lift. Marle had always wanted children; I guess she was just one of those people who'd been born to be a mom. Caspia once explained to me that she'd been pregnant once but lost her husband in the war shortly after finding out the news. Then, to make things all the worse, she had complications with her pregnancy and lost her baby too. Marle never told me about it but Caspia said she'd been absolutely devastated for years after that. Then I'd come along and it was like a new beginning for both of us. And now, even though I was out of the house, she had someone else to nurture and spoil and that knowledge comforted me.

Falshade wandered back over then as well and dropped down in a chair next to Angel. Mimi scrabbled up the steps and put her front paws on his leg, barking and wagging her tail hopefully. I was about to tell her to get down when he gave in and scooped her up, depositing her on his lap. She licked his chin happily and he pulled a face, laughing.

I sighed. "You're not supposed to let her get away with that." I said tiredly. She already had a bad habit of jumping on the furniture, something Marle and I were trying to break her of but of course it didn't help to have Pippa constantly letting her up when we weren't looking.

"Aw, Varan come on, how am I supposed to resist the puppy eyes?" he said.

"Yeah how do you think I get away with half the things I do?" Angel added and Falshade laughed, giving him a shove.

"So anyways how was Bogaton?" He asked, ignoring my withering look. Mimi, as if to spite me, settled her muzzle on the tabletop.

"Actually they're calling it Bogatri now, 'cause it's the third one and everything." I explained.

"How clever." Angel quipped and I flicked him with my tail again.

"Anyways it was alright. They're building all the new homes right now. According to Repton the Council's even letting them reconstruct the energy cannons."

"Oh, wow." Falshade said, eyes widening appreciatively. "That's quite a jump forward there, considering that last time they wouldn't even let them carry weapons."

I nodded. "I think everyone's still a little paranoid after those Berserkers started hitting us from out of nowhere. Apparently a few other terras have asked if the Terradons will build them energy cannons for their terras too."

"And what did they say to that?"

"They agreed. I guess the Terradons really want to show they're willing to work with the other terras, make an alliance." I couldn't help but smile when I said this, glad that both companies seemed eager to work together. "...Repton wanted to know if I'd be an ambassador for the Terradons." I added after a moment.

Falshade gawked at me. "Like, represent them in the Council?"

I shifted uncomfortably. "Pretty much."

"So what did you say?"

"No, of course." Angel laughed and I grinned sheepishly.

"Yeah, I declined. Although he wouldn't let it go; I'm now an official representative for Human-Terradon interactions."

Falshade whistled, grinning. "Well look at you, moving up in the world. A full-fledged politician and you're not even twenty."

"Yeah, just so you know I can't be your friend anymore, Var." Angel added and I laughed good naturedly.

"Oh that reminds me." I said. "Repton wanted you guys to come by the terra, once Stork's better and everything. He wants the other Terradons to get used to other humanoids and he thinks you guys would be a good first introduction."

Falshade and Angel exchanged a look. "...Us?" Falshade repeated uncertainly. "Is that really a good idea?"

"See that's what I said." I agreed and Angel made a scoffing noise, throwing up his hands.

"Oh thanks, I see how it is." He said, even though I know he'd been thinking along the same lines as Shade. "Now that you're a freaking politic we're just not good enough for you."

"Oh hush, I was kidding." I said. "And as much as I'm sure you guys would probably make a pretty strange first impression I think it's a good idea too. I mean you guys are comfortable around us Terradons already right? And Repton wants to see all of you again anyways."

"Aw, really?" Falshade said, sounding touched.

"Yeah, he asked about you guys, wanted to know if you were okay. Oh, and he told me to tell you thanks, Shade."

Falshade blinked. "He did? Why?"

"He knows you were the one who talked the Council into liberating them." I explained and he flushed slightly, scratching as his scalp awkwardly.

"Well, jeez, I mean that wasn't all me. Other people must have stood up for the idea or it never would have flown." He mumbled.

"Christ would you listen to yourself, Mr. freaking Modest. I have half a mind to smack you." Angel told him and Falshade responded by holding Mimi in his face, letting her attack him with excited licks. "Ack, ptch! Stop that!" he said, holding her muzzle closed with his fingers while Pippa giggled.

"Anyways over all things are going well over there." I concluded as Falshade took Mimi back, fondling her ears. He seemed pleased by this which made me feel better inside; I think my initial reaction to this whole new development with the Terradons had upset him. "Although..." I added, figuring they'd enjoy this. "I did end up telling Repton I was a vegetarian, which I think was pretty much the Terradon equivalent of coming out of the closet."

That got both of them laughing. Pippa looked up at me, small nose wrinkled in confusion. "What's that mean?"

"I'll explain it to you when you're older." I said and she huffed, putting her face in her hands and squishing her chubby little cheeks together in a pout.

Wasp joined us then, sitting in the last remaining chair and pulling her long legs up against her chest, balancing half of some sort of red fruit on her knobbly kneecaps. "Want some?" she asked me, holding it out. "It's pomegranate. Caspia got it for me."

"Oh, well that was nice of her." I said, accepting the segment she handed me.

"Yeah she's been all over Wasp since she got here. I'm starting to get the impression Mom wanted to have a daughter." Falshade grumbled. Wasp frowned and looked at her pomegranate uncertainly before holding it out to Falshade like a peace offering. He laughed and shook his head, passing it back. "No you keep that, Wasp, I was just kidding."

Wasp took it back and pushed a chunk of fruit (peel, waxy flesh, seeds and all) into her mouth, slurping on the juice and then cocking her head at Mimi. "Where'd you get the larva?"

Angel laughed while Falshade hugged Mimi closer as if offended; Mimi, for her part, didn't seem to mind at all. She was sniffing in Wasp's direction with interest, but whether it was because of the whole Faerieshian thing or because she just wanted some of Wasp's pomegranate I couldn't tell you. "Haven't you ever seen a puppy before?" Falshade asked reproachfully.

"Sure. But look at her, she's all wiggly and chubby, like a larva. She does have very nice eyes though." Wasp said, leaning in closer with admiration and Mimi lunged, catching her right across the mouth with a slobbery kiss.

"Ewwww." I whined while Wasp rubbed at her face unconcernedly. "Don't let her do that, lord knows what she's been into."

"She ate a worm yesterday." Pippa reported, eager to be involved in the conversation and proving my point.

"Worm's aren't so bad." Wasp said with a shrug. "Little gritty but lots of protein."

"Oh Wasp." Angel groaned, thunking his head onto the tabletop. "Please, in future, resist the urge to tell us about what kinds of insects you've ingested."

"But what if you need to know? What if you get lost on some unexplored terra and have to eat whatever you can find or else starve?"

"Then I'll starve."

Wasp snorted as if disgusted by how domesticated the rest of us humanoids had become then looked at me with curiosity. "What do baby Terradons eat?" She asked and I suppose I should have seen this one coming.

"We don't eat bugs, if that's what you were hoping." I informed her and she sighed as if disappointed. "And by the way, the whole lizard-habits stereotype might be taken offensively by other Terradons, just to let you know."

"But you guys don't drink milk." Wasp went on undisturbed. "Are babies born with teeth? Can they eat meat? What did you eat then, if that's the case? And what do you call baby Terradons, anyways?"

"I wasn't always a vegetarian." I informed her. "And they're just called hatchlings. You know, like baby birds."

"Was it fun to hatch? I'd love to spend time inside an egg. I bet it'd be all warm and squishy."

"I can honestly say I don't remember." I informed her while Falshade laughed to himself. "Tell you what, Wasp, since you're so interested when we have time we'll go to Bogatri and you can ask the other Terradons all the questions you want. I've kinda forgotten what it's like to be a regular Terradon by now, been around humans too long."

"You say that like it's a terrible ordeal." Angel grumbled.

"Well around some of you it can be pretty draining." I relented and he looked like he wanted to say something pleasant I'm sure but caught sight of Pippa at the last moment and refrained.

"Are there going to be babies hatching on this new terra?" Wasp asked.

"Uh, not sure. There's a few young ones around, one or two years old but I don't think they're expecting any new hatchlings just yet." I said.

"Yeah but they can have kids whenever they want now, right?" Angel said, more like he was confirming something rather than asking. "I mean the Council let go of the whole breeding programme thing, didn't they?"

"Well, yeah, they did." I said, shifting uncomfortably. These are not the sort of subjects I'm comfortable with. "But everyone's busy building this new terra and getting used to everything, I don't think anyone's concerned with babies right now." I scratched at my bandages distractedly, feeling a little awkward. I was still pretty overwhelmed with everything that was happening with my species, having everyone bombard me with questions sort of bewildered me. I didn't mind of course but I was never able to handle sudden fixation and attention very elegantly; even back here with the others I felt a little tongue-tied. "Look I don't wanna talk about just me, you guys will have to come out there with me and see for yourselves, I don't do it any justice. What about you guys, what have you been up to?" I asked, eager to know how they'd been spending their week, even if it had been just doing a whole lot of nothing.

So the others went on to idly tell me how they'd been spending their time off; Wasp was very pleased to inform me that she'd learned how to skip rocks and Falshade mentioned the Beast Keepers, surprising me by reporting that apparently he and Drake were on good terms now. Never would have seen that one coming. He told me about Aries and Ozprey too but I already knew about that, since Marle couldn't seem to stop talking about it. Pippa piped up then excitedly that she was going to be the flower girl at the wedding, a role she insisted was of the utmost importance. After awhile though as we started talking about more things she either didn't understand or had no interest in she started dozing off on my lap, leaning back against me and tickling my snout with her pigtails. I brushed them back slightly and was amazed by just how comfortable the small girl was with me. When I came home I was expecting her to be a little hesitant, maybe even timid, around me like she was when we'd found her on that razed terra. It threw me for a total loop when the first thing she did was grab me in a massive hug, nearly sweeping me off my good leg and then danced around me in excitement, chanting my name. Apparently Marle had told her all about me and gotten her hyped about the fact that she had her very own big brother. In the end I was the one who had to do the most adjusting to suddenly having a little sister, particularly one who couldn't seem to get enough of me. Although it wasn't hard to grow fond of Pippa in a short period of time of course.

It was awhile later, when Mimi had finally started to settle down and her big, dopey puppy eyes were closing slowly that someone started calling out from around the side of the house.

"Hellllllloooooo! Anybody home?"

"We're out back!" Falshade yelled and Mimi sat up as if electrified. She made a flying leap off of Falshade's knees and charged into the yard to head off whoever had shown up, barking wildly.

Apparently Roo had decided to drop by and snorted at Mimi, who was standing with her head low to the ground, growling. "Oh yes, you're a fierce little thing aren't you?" she said, carefully placing the tray she was carrying on the edge of the porch and crouching down. Mimi's posture immediately changed and she bounded forward to greet her, jumping all over her in an effort to lick her face.

Falshade got up and made his was down the porch steps. "Hey Roo!" he said cheerfully but faltered when she straightened up and fixed him with a steely look, folding her arms in an unforthcoming manner.

"So a little birdie tells me you've been home for almost a week now and you couldn't take even half an hour to drop by and see me." She said coldly and Falshade fidgeted guiltily, scratching at his scalp.

"Um... I'm terribly sorry? It's nice to finally see you?" he tried, holding his arm open hopefully and Roo frowned at him disdainfully for a moment longer before shrugging and accepting Shade's gesture warmly.

"Alright, I guess I can forgive you." She said, breaking away from him and delivering two quick punches to his shoulder just for good measure. "But you better mind yourself, Ravenscroft, I might not be in such a good mood if it happens again."

"Duly noted." Falshade grinned.

"Anyways I come bearing food." Roo continued, retrieving her container and coming up the steps. "Mom heard you had company so she made a batch of cupcakes." She reported, setting the container on the table and Angel uttered a whimpering noise in his throat.

"Roo!" Pippa cheered excitedly, evidently awake again. She squirmed off my lap, leaping up to grab Roo in a tight hug.

"Hey Pipsqueak! You've got your hair like mine today!" Roo said as if amazed, grabbing Pippa's pigtails and swishing them to and fro like mini pom-poms.

"Roo, Roo guess what? I have a brother! Do you know him?" Pippa asked, pulling Roo towards me and she met my eye, grinning that sly little grin of hers that made my stomach ties itself in knots.

"Oh yeah, I know Varan alright." She said and then did something that caught me completely off guard, leaning over and kissing me. Just on the cheek but still, jeez, the others were right there and everything. Heat rushed to my face while Falshade and Angel exchanged a smirk. Jerks. Roo pretended not to notice my discomfort, smiling to herself and turning to Wasp and Angel. "Now I didn't get proper introductions last time, so who's who?" She asked.

"Angel's the grouchy looking one and Wasp is the one with the ears." I said and Angel, fittingly, scowled at me.

Roo laughed and held out a hand. "Well it's nice to finally meet you guys." She said politely. Of course Wasp just stared at her hand, nose wrinkled in confusion and Angel always makes it a point to be rude and not return friendly gestures. "Can I have one of these?" he asked instead, pointing at the container.

"Yeah of course." Roo said, seeming untroubled by their lack of response. Well then again she'd grown up with three brothers, I suppose she was used to blatant displays of disrespect by now. I, however, intended to give the two of them a talking to later.

"So how have you been Roo?" Falshade asked, giving Angel a nasty look as he leaned over to take a cupcake for himself. I handed one to Pippa, who'd climbed back onto my lap again while Roo perched on the railing of the porch.

"Good. Haven't been up to anything as awesome as you guys but I make do."

Falshade nodded then gave her a weird look. "Okay I have to ask, what's with the getup? I never pegged you as skirt kinda girl, no offence."

I'd been sort of wondering that too; although not as extreme as Stork Roo had always been a bit of a tomboy and never in the years we'd spent together had I ever seen her in a skirt. Then again lately I'd started to think those girls she'd befriended had managed to rub off on her a little, as she'd seemed to have adopted a taste for fashion. She was wearing a weird ensemble today, a clunky pair of cherry red boots and mismatched thigh-high ripped stockings that ended just below the cut of a rather short skirt that made me feel a strange, fluttering feeling in my stomach; I'd been trying avoid looking at it too much but I couldn't help but notice that it was rather... tiny. She had a baggy t-shirt on top displaying some band logo and long fingerless gloves stretched up to her elbows that looked like they were made from the missing socks. And her violet hair was pulled back in high pigtails that kind of made her look like she had antennae.

Roo grinned, plucking at one of her gloves absently. "I thought I'd try out a new look. I'm kinda going for a Sally Switchblade style here. She's the guitarist from MSI, my newest favourite band." She explained, pointing to her t-shirt in demonstration.

"MSI?" Wasp repeated, who until now had been silently pulling little clumps of fluff from her bandages meticulously. "I saw them play once."

Roo looked at Wasp as if in a whole new light. "Seriously? Man I've been trying to get tickets to a show for ages, I'd love to see them live. They seem like one of those bands who have serious stage presence."

Wasp shrugged. "They were okay, but I thought they were trying too hard."

"Do I want to know what MSI stands for?" Falshade asked as Roo pouted, looking a little hurt.

"Oh, it's Meat Supplement Industry." She explained and Angel snorted.

"I'm sure there's a joke to that, but I don't know if I want to know what it is." I said and Roo giggled, shoving me gently.

"So, Shade." She said, sitting up smartly and clapping her hands seriously. "How long are you staying for?"

"Er..." Falshade seemed a little flustered. "Well the Storm Hawks are coming back for us in a couple of days, so not long."

"Shit, really? Oh, crap, I meant shoot. Honey you didn't hear that, okay?" Roo said to Pippa, who hadn't been paying attention in the first place.

"Hear what?"

"That's my girl." Roo said, ruffling her hair. "Anyways I'm just asking because it's to my understanding that you're rather skilled in the whoop ass department and I am in need of some whoop ass training. Oh damnit, I did it again! Pippa just turn your ears off, okay?" she added quickly when I gave her a pained look.

Angel snorted again. "Who told you that? Shade can't fight his way out a wet paper bag."

"Hey!" Shade said, insulted. "Up yours Ange, I could kick your scrawny ass from here to next Tuesday even with a bum arm."

"Hello!" I interrupted irritably. "Trying not to teach the six year old bad language here!" I said, jabbing a finger at the top of Pippa's head pointedly.

"Oh come on, she's gonna learn it all eventually." Angel said, which I found ironic since he seemed to be the only one to filter his vocabulary choices thus far.

"Sorry Var. Anyways what do you want to learn to fight for? Couldn't you just ask your dad?" Falshade asked, changing the subject back to its original topic.

"Well I could, except my dad's ancient and I'd probably break his dusty old bones by accident." Roo said and I shook my head with a laugh.

"You are so rude. Does he know you say half these things about him?" I asked and she tapped her fingers together nervously.

"No, and if you know what's good for you he won't find out either." She warned me. "Anyways I just thought it'd be good to have some proper skills you know? What with my idiot brothers attacking me all the time and what not I figured it'd be a good idea to have some tricks up my sleeves, you know, in case of emergency."

Falshade grinned. "Well I guess we could show you some stuff, but I doubt you're gonna do much damage with arms that puny."

"Puny?" Roo repeated, offended. "Hey buddy, I'll have you know I've been hefting crates full of supplies for weeks now, I've been building some pretty hardcore muscles." She lifted her arm and flexed it in demonstration. "See, check out those pythons."

Falshade did his best not to laugh, nodding appreciatively. "Wow, yeah, with arms like that you might be able to take on Angel. The two of you are probably in the same weight category."

Angel's hand curled into a fist but he made no move to get up. Rather he helped himself to another a cupcake and said "Don't listen to him, body mass counts for squat if you don't know the right moves. Falshade's just jealous because sure, he's kind of a hunk but he's got a skull thicker than reinforced steel." Angel looked up at Shade's scowling visage and simply grinned. "You wanna mess with me, you come right on back."

"Whatever." Falshade grumbled.

Wasp seemed to have been waiting for someone to go back to Roo's original inquiry and finally ran out of patience. "I can teach you some stuff." She burst out suddenly and Roo looked at her in surprise. "I think it's important for girls to know how to protect themselves." She added in that rare tone of clarity that reminded me just how much thoughtfulness Wasp actually had spinning around in that strange head of hers.

Roo was examining Wasp critically, something mischievous glinting in her dark brown eyes. Abruptly she stepped forward and took Wasp's hand, hauling her out of her seat and leading her into the yard. "I think you and I have to spend some girl time." She declared. "So I'm kidnapping you."

"Oh..." Wasp looked puzzled by this, glancing back at the three of us as if she had to ask our permission.

Roo looked back too. "You guys just hang out together, talk about sports or something else manly." She instructed. "Don't worry I'll take good care of her."

"If she comes back with rings in her nose you and I are going to have words!" Angel shouted after her but Roo simply flicked a hand at him dismissively, leading Wasp around the house out towards the path. Frowning he leaned back in his chair and looked like he was going to put his feet on the table but decided against it (wow Caspia really did have him on good behaviour). Instead he dropped them on Falshade's knees, careful not to kick Mimi, who had somehow managed to weasel her way back up on his lap without my noticing. Falshade gave a resigned sigh but accepted that he was going to be used as furniture and made no comment and the three of them stared at me with bald expectancy, Mimi's tongue lolling inquisitively out of her mouth as if she too were in on it, until finally I sighed and revolved a hand in invitation.

"Alright, let's get this over with." I said tiredly.

The two of them cracked almost identical evil grins. "DAWWW!" they both drawled out obnoxiously and I pinched top of my muzzle.

"You two spend too much time together." I said wearily.

"Don't try to change the subject; we're focusing on your relationship here." Angel said and Falshade gave him a half-hearted cuff around the head before turning his attention to me.

"Soooo..." he started in an annoying voice that I had a feeling he'd picked up from Stork. "What's going on with you two? Are you o-ffical?"

"Uh..." I rubbed at my bandages uncomfortably, blood rushing to my face once again. I suppose I'd just have to accept that fact that I'd never be able to conceal my awkwardness. "Well I guess we're sort of dating? And if that goes well then yeah, I think we're official."

"That's sounds like when someone says they're engaged to be engaged." Angel said dispassionately. "Lame."

I rolled my eyes. "Oh really? Well since we're on the topic what the hell are you and Wasp then, for curiosity's sake?"

Falshade covered his face, laughing, while Angel's cheeks turned scarlet. Funny, in the almost three years I'd lived with the little punk I'd never once seen him blush over anything. I'm not usually a spiteful person but this alone made me feel a little requited for all the clever comments he threw at me constantly.

"Fuck if I know what's going on there." he muttered, breaking his vocabulary filter with the worst one of them all and I cleared my throat, pointing at Pippa again but he didn't seem in the mood to care. "I don't know what it is but I'm not complaining about it, so long as she's happy with it anyways."

Wow. Angel had done so much changing in the last three months it really took me aback. Well, I don't know for sure if it had been changing or just letting more of himself come to the surface but it still impressed me. All the others had been surprising me lately with acts of bravery and maturity and it made me really proud in an older-brotherly sort of way. My gawky little group of wayward, golden hearted kids were growing up... about bloody time.

No I kid. Besides I was still one of those ungainly misfits myself.

"You know, Fraggle was right, you can be really cute sometimes." Falshade teased and Angel made a growling noise at him, kicking at his stomach until Mimi, thinking it was a game, started attacking his feet savagely, chewing on his toes with her nubby puppy teeth.

"Hey! Not cool!" he said, nudging Mimi's belly to get her to stop and she promptly took this as an invitation, clambering across his legs to make herself comfortable on his lap, licking his chin. "Ugh, I didn't mean you could... alright fine." He relented, forcing the pup away from his face but scratching her behind the ears all the same. He liked to act all indifferent towards them, but we all knew Angel had a soft spot for animals of any kind.

Falshade grinned then turned back to me. "Anyways Var I think it's great for you two. I guess this means we'll have to stop by more often from now on."

"I wouldn't mind that." I admitted.

"Varan has to visit all the time." Pippa declared. "Mommy said so."

Angel chuckled to himself at this while Falshade smiled at her. "Well we can't argue with that. We'll make sure he visits."

"Good. Can I have another cupcake?"

I handed one to her and thought about Shade's previous statement. It seemed like almost overnight I'd gained a collection of things that, three months ago, I'd never thought I'd have. Suddenly I had a sister, a father and a possible girlfriend and it was almost too much to believe really. I'd always been perfectly happy with the few precious people I had in my life and never could have asked for anything better. Now my motley little family had grown and although I was delighted to welcome these new people into my heart it frightened me a little too. I mean it had all been so simple before; aside from my friends and family on Vatican, the most important people in my life had all been in the same place with me, together on the Merlin. Now though... things were more difficult. It was obvious that Shade and the others intended to keep doing what we'd always been doing, hunting in the forgotten corners of the Atmos for any danger that might be lurking there. I'd figured as much; that was just what they were meant to do, it was the only life I could ever imagine them living. I myself could imagine a slightly less intense lifestyle, but I knew deep down I'd never be satisfied with just that. I was one of the Gargoyles and I would always follow them from one misadventure into the next, come what may of that. But I had other attachments now that stretched beyond the Gargoyles: I knew, especially in the near future, that I'd be needed on Bogatri, whether it was for more serious matters or just a simple visit. I wanted to check in on the place the more it got developed anyways; I wasn't accustomed to the knowledge yet but I was a part of that place, I was connected to the people there. Then of course there was Pippa, who I wanted to see now and again as well. I hadn't been her brother for very long but I already adored her. I guess it's the same with any older sibling when they meet their new baby sibling for the first time; there's an instant, instinctive bond formed right from the start and I doubt it ever goes away. Pippa was my little sister and I wanted to be a part of her life, watch her grow up and teach her things about the world. And then of course there was Roo, who I wanted to devote time and attention to as well. After all this middle, not-quite-official stage was important and as awkward and shy as I was I really did want to take her out on dates and stuff. But how was I going to be able to find time for any of that? It worried me, I felt like I'd be stretched thin between all the different places I wanted to be. Did it mean I'd have to make little sections of my heart, each dedicated to these new people in my life and to be left behind with them? I didn't like the thought of that much, I didn't want to be torn between different places. The last thing I wanted was to feel incomplete and unhappy all the time.

I sighed contemplatively and played with Pippa's pigtails again while Angel got up and set Mimi down on the porch, determined to teach her how to sit and stay. I was actually surprised when, on the fourth try, she stayed in place when he backed away from her, waiting for his signal before bounding forward excitedly. She was a smart little pup I'd give her that, but her developing brain was stuck in puppy mode and it gave her a short attention span. I grinned to myself as Pippa scrambled off my lap again, eager to try for herself and I put my uncertainty to rest for now. I figured eventually everything would fall into place on its own and even if things were tough I was willing to accept that in exchange for all the wonderful things I had in my life.

That's one thing I'll always pride myself in I suppose; despite my brittle nerves and underlying anxiety I've always managed to find the courage to push on through for the things that really mattered to me.

x.x.x Fraggle x.x.x

I stopped for the sixth time during the very short amount of time I'd been slogging my way through the snow. "Alright, I'm putting my foot down, eh." I declared, turning around to face Starla, who tried to pretend she didn't know what I was talking about. "This is as far as I'm letting you follow me. You go on back home now and quit stalking me, ya little creep."

Starla folded her arms and stuck out her chin formidably. "You gonna make me there, fleabag?"

I took a threatening step towards her and she backed up a few feet out of reach. Yeah, like I really could have given her a good thrashing with my ribs the way they were. Piper had give me some strange root that tasted kinda like liquorice (only nastier) to chew and it had been helping with the pain but just because they didn't hurt didn't mean they were all better, even I knew that. And I think Starla knew it too, although she was willing to humour me. Gotta love that girl.

"Listen, you irksome little munchkin, you notice all the dark stuff around you, eh?" I said, waving my hand at the shadowy tundra. With the snow glowing in the moonlight it wasn't pitch black or anything, but it was getting on into the night nonetheless. "Moon's getting up there and you know what likes to come out and play in the moonlight, eh?"

"Wolves." Starla said in a bored tone that seemed to say 'thanks for the lecture, Mum'. Little twerp was getting an attitude. Can't imagine where she'd picked it up.

"Exactly. I'm not coming back this way and there's no way I'm letting my baby sister walk alone through wolf country in the middle of the night, eh. So you go head on home now." I said in the best serious, don't-argue-with-me-young-lady voice I could summon. Which, unfortunately, was not very convincing; being stern just doesn't come naturally to me.

Starla scoffed. "Since when did you start believing you could boss me around, eh? You got some real big cahones talking to me like that without even saying please."

Yes, yes I did.

I rolled my eyes. "Starla-Louize, quit being a pain in my ass and go home, would ya? Look I know what you're trying to pull here, eh, and it ain't gonna work."

Starla feigned a look of innocent bewilderment. "Whatever do you mean?"

"Oh don't pull the wide-eyed innocence stunt on me, eh, I taught you how to do that one." I scolded. Then, in a softer tone I said "Honey, you can't come with me."

Starla stamped a foot, abandoning her charade. "Well why not?" She demanded, her eyes full of stinging reproach.

"First of all, it's not my call to make, eh. The Storm Hawks have enough of us to put up with as it is without you tagging along and I dunno how the others would feel about having you around. Besides, we've got a lot of stuff we have to take care of, we're gonna be real busy."

"But I can help with that, eh!" she insisted. "I helped out around here after the attack!"

"Yes I know." I said, leaning in to stroke her ear but she jerked away from me again. "But we're gonna be all over the place and if you get bored or homesick I dunno if anyone will have time to bring you back out here. Besides, I dunno what Shade's planning on doing after we're done putting things back together eh, but I know he won't stay in one place for long, the Gargoyles are gonna get up to something or other and I can't bring you with us. You're too young, sweets."

Starla looked outraged. "You were sixteen when you left home!"

"Yeah, and how old are you right now, smarty pants? That's a five year age difference and trust me, that's a bigger gap then you'd think, eh." I told her. "You still got a lot of growing up to do and I think you're going to need Mum and Hail to help you through that."

"But you can look after me!" she said and I could hear an edge of pleading entering her voice now. I swallowed, fighting down the lump that was rising in my throat. Her eyes were wide and shiny and there was such a look of absolute trust and devotion in them that it made me want to cry. "You and the others, we can all be like a family, all your friends can be my brothers and sisters too! Wouldn't that be great?" she went on excitedly and I could tell this had been something she'd been thinking about all week.

"I'm sure the others would love you to pieces, eh." I agreed. "But they get themselves into enough trouble as it is without having to look out for a little sister as well. It's a nice idea, Starla, it really is, but it's just not going to be possible right now, eh."

Starla looked like she was desperately searching for more arguments and when she couldn't find any her face flooded with disappointment. She bit her lip to keep it from quivering and hugged her arms around herself tightly, sniffling and she looked so damn small and heartbroken right then I wanted to go back on my word and take her along anyways, to hell with what the others might say. But I knew as her big brother it was my duty to make sure she was safe, happy and had at least a moderately stable lifestyle. Happiness I was sure the Gargoyles could give her and I'd do anything to keep her safe, but that wasn't always enough. As for the stable lifestyle, that was a joke and a half; hell my life over the past three years couldn't be declared even remotely stable and that was when I'd at least had a ship to call my own.

"I'm sorry, Starla." I said, grabbing her shoulder so she couldn't pull out of reach and when she didn't struggle (much) I pulled her into my chest, patting the top of her leather cap. "I promised we'd stop by sometime soon, right? And, look, I'll tell you what, maybe in a few months once we have some spare time and figured everything out you can hang with us for a couple of weeks, how's that sound eh?" I paused to think about that one and snorted at the absurd thought that popped into my head: 'hey kids, your home life not dysfunctional enough as it is? Well then come join Gargoyles Day Camp! Our activities include kick-ass combat training, playing poker, drama for extremists and belching contests. Sissies need not apply.'

Hmm, actually, that might be an interesting marketing endeavour...

I shook my head, bringing my attention back to Starla, who had pulled out of my grasp. Heaving a mighty sigh she wiped at her face and tried to push her misery aside. "I guess that's good enough for now, eh. I wouldn't want to get in your way or anything." She added the last bit with some snark but I knew she was just trying to lighten the mood. "Here, got a present for you." She said, digging around in her jacket pocket.

"Aw, you don't have to give me anything..."

"Well too bad I am, so you better take it or I'll smack you right upside you're dumb ol' head, eh." She warned and I rolled my eyes, grinning. Gently extracting whatever it was she'd been hunting for she looked up at me and gave me a toothy smile, holding out the little trinket proudly. "Figured you'd need a new one, since you gave the old one away." She said as I tentatively accepted the short string of beads from her. "It's not a necklace this time eh, it clips onto the zipper of your jacket. I thought you might actually wear it if it were a little more manly."

Now I don't know what qualifies as 'manly' jewellery, but I'm sure accessorizing your zipper isn't exactly in the ball park. But I wasn't about to tell that to Starla.

I examined the charm with interest, noting the specific pattern of coloured beads that probably had some sort of special meaning, in Starla's opinion anyways. A couple of them even had weird little symbols painted on and I was touched by the obvious effort that went into it. But it was the tiny ornament at the bottom of the chain that really grabbed my attention. I held the string in front of my eyes to get a better look at it, squinting and cocking my head this way and that until something deep in the back of my mind clicked and I looked at her in disbelief.

"Is this what I think it is, eh?" I breathed and Starla shifted sheepishly.

"Yeah, it is." She said with a satisfied little grin. "I found that chunk of metal in your backpack eh and I knew where it must have come from. I used Dad's tools to cut a piece off and bend it and man was that ever a pain in the butt, eh. Nailed my finger with the hammer." She said, pulling off her glove to show me the purple nail of her middle finger.

I looked at the shiny little diamond of metal that hung from the bottom of the chain again and touched it with one of my claws. I knew it was only a silly, useless piece of twisted alloy steel, but something about that sliver of cold metal made my heart tighten violently.

"Now you can always have a little piece of home with you, wherever you are, eh." Starla said matter-of-factly and I looked into her smiling, bright-eyed eyed face in complete awe. When it came down to it, it didn't matter that I was leaving her behind again or that I'd been a terrible brother and forgotten to write or that I couldn't even give her a rough estimate on when we'd see each other again. Despite all her feigned hard feelings and scornful attitude, in the end she just wanted me to be happy, even if it wasn't with her. I felt like her giving me a new good luck charm after so nonchalantly giving away the old one was her way of giving me permission to leave again, something that I hadn't asked for but had definitely needed.

It seemed I'd been making a record for myself this week; it took a lot for a girl to strike me speechless without taking her top off, never mind managing such a feat twice. But then, Starla always had a way of yanking on my heartstrings so easily it was like she wasn't even aware of her power. She was gonna be a heartbreaker when she got older, my hybrid little sister. So with nothing to say I grabbed her much too tightly and crushed her into my chest, squeezing her for all she was worth; I tried to say everything in that one suffocating embrace and the message must have gotten across because she hugged me just as fiercely and we ended up standing there for ten whole uninterrupted minutes in each other's arms while snow started to float gently down around us. Two oddballs in the middle of a bittersweet snow globe.

Until the wolves started howling from somewhere too close for comfort. With that I gave her a quick smooch on the cheek and we both took off running towards our separate destinations. I suppose it was better that way anyways; I hate saying goodbye.


I felt a trickle of relief loosen the tight coils of my chest as the Condor touched down gracefully on Vatican's docks. I'd been feeling pretty lousy since leaving Nord and although Finn and Junko had tried to cheer me up there was a cold, bruising grip around my heart that could only be eased by the presence of the Gargoyles. Knowing I'd be with them shortly finally made the queasy feeling in my guts start to lessen.

"Remember to tell the others we'll be here by noon tomorrow!" Piper called after me as I ambled down the ramp and onto the wharves. I waved a hand over my shoulder to show I'd heard and felt a blast of warm air rush over me as the Condor lifted once again into the darkening skies, heading off someplace else. Always seemed to be doing something, those guys.

It had taken us most of last night and all of today to get to Vatican and by now the sun was beginning its slow descent towards the horizon. Shielding my eyes from the glare I picked out the jutting ridge of the plateau I'd seen on my last visit here; if memory served me Shade's house was nestled near the foot of that thing so hopefully if I just kept wandering in that direction I'd wind up there eventually. Plonk me down in the middle of a party and I can tell you the names of everybody who was there the next day. But directions? Not so much my strong point. I'd never really cared if I got lost though; I, like any self-respecting male, did not ask for directions unless extremely desperate, but eventually I've always seemed to end up getting to where I wanted to be one way or another. I mean hell, isn't life supposed to be about having adventures and taking the road less travelled?

I wasn't more than five steps down the street when suddenly an arm tightened around my neck from behind and something hard was pressed up against my ribs.

"Give me your wallet." Someone growled into my ear, sounding just like how I always imagined a crazed mugger would.

"I don't have any money, man." I wheezed, wishing I had my energy staff with me and wondering if I'd be able to throw this asshole over my shoulder before he could hook his knife in my ribs.

"You don't? Well fuck me, are you ever a disappointment. I had the spooky voice down and everything." The someone said, all at once sounding familiar. "How about a pizza coupon? You got any of those?"

"God damnit you pint-sized little hoser, you nearly gave me a bloody heart attack!" I yowled indignantly and Angel let me go, springing back out of range and cackling like the evil little bastard he was.

"Oh man you should have seen your face! I thought you were gonna shit your pants!" He laughed, holding his side.

I scowled. "I knew it was you, eh." I scoffed. "You gotta invest in mouthwash or something there, eh, I can recognize your breath from a mile off."

"Uh-huh, sure. And you knew this really wasn't a knife either, right?" He taunted, waving the object he'd jammed into my ribs; turns out I'd been held up by a candy bar.

"Angel knock it off, poor guy's still in bad shape, remember?" Falshade scolded, although he couldn't keep the grin entirely off his face and I wasn't inclined to feel very grateful towards him.

"Yeah eh, takes a real yellow-belly to attack a guy with busted ribs." I pointed out, feeling rather snubbed.

"Oh yeah, 'cause squealing like a girl makes you a big man and everything." Angel said casually, peeling the wrapper off his chocolate bar. He took in my sour expression and heaved an exaggerated sigh, snapping off a chunk of chocolate and offering it to me, which was a mighty huge gesture on his part. That didn't stop me from being standoffish when I took it though.

"What are you kids doing down here eh?" I asked Falshade, deciding to ignore Angel for a while.

"We came to meet you." He said and my heart quivered a bit at the warmth in his voice. "Thought you might have a hard time finding the house, since you've only been here once."

I felt an extra rush of affection for him for not adding anything about my atrocious memory. I was going to ask how they knew I was coming tonight in the first place but decided against it. I had a feeling Piper must have made the call ahead of time while I'd been in the can or something; I had been acting pretty withdrawn and gloomy all day, unusual for me, and it must have worried them.

"Huh. Well I'd be more appreciative eh, but since you tried to mug me you kinda lost some sentiment points." I said and Falshade laughed, giving Angel a much-deserved shove.

"Yeah, sorry about that, I tried to stop him, honestly." He said and I rolled my eyes. Yeah, of course you did, Shade.

"So where's the big guy and the creepy one?" I asked as we started walking up the street again.

"Varan's at the house helping my mom. We're having a bit of a party, actually, pretty much half the terra's in my backyard right now." Falshade explained and I perked up a bit. Nothing turns your mood around like a good ol' party. "Wasp... was here." He paused as if only just remembering her. "Oops."

"We need to get her one of those shock collar things, eh." I muttered, looking around absently. "Anytime she runs off all we gotta do is give her a good zap. She'll learn to stick around pretty quick, eh."

Angel chuckled to himself at that and swallowed the lump of chocolate that was in his mouth before letting out a sharp whistle. We waited for a minute before, sure as gum, Wasp came loping out of the shadows of a nearby side street, knocking over a garbage can in the process before skidding to a halt before us.

"That is such a great trick." Falshade said with a grin.

"I can do better." Wasp said before turning her owlish gaze on me. "Oooh, you smell interesting." She commented, coming in close to sniff me all over.

"That's probably Nord your smelling, eh." I said and then pulled a face when I felt her tongue glide over my ear. "Ew, don't do that, eh, spit always makes my fur mat together."

"Could have gone my whole life without hearing that." Angel grumbled, shoving the last of his chocolate into his mouth.

Wasp's usually large eyes grew even wider suddenly and zeroed in on my chest. Walking backwards so we were pressed in face-to-face I felt her hand grabbing for my zipper.

"Whoa, hey, don't you be playing with that, eh!" I said a little more sharply than I meant to. "Bad girl, down! Sit! Stay!"

Wasp backed off, tucking her hands behind her back respectfully while Shade and Angel turned to see what the commotion was. I glanced at the beads hanging from my zipper quickly just to make sure they hadn't fallen off or anything. "Sorry eh, but my sis made this for me and I don't want it breaking or anything my first day wearing it."

Wasp nodded as if this made perfect sense. "What is it?" she asked with fascination.

"It's my new lucky charm, eh."

"It looks lucky. And like a chrysalis. A little luck pod." Wasp murmured and I fiddled with the string of beads absently, my heart cinching as I thought about Starla.

"How was your family, by the way? How was Nord in general?" Falshade asked and I shrugged, not really wanting to go into great detail about it. I'd kept having spikes of panic all day long, mini anxiety attacks that clawed briefly up my throat and made me want to turn around and go home or find a quiet place to curl up and cry. Eventually the shaky feelings of dread and homesickness would fade I knew, but right now it was all too easy for those sudden spurts of brittle emotions to rear up and consume me and the last thing I needed was to break down like a complete baby in the middle of the street.

"It was alright, eh. Can barely tell the place was attacked by now, they're in good shape out there. Family was good, real happy to see me." I said, trying to sound casual.

"Was your sister as angry as you thought she'd be?" Falshade asked and I snorted half-heartedly.

"She was but she came around after awhile. Hard to resist charms like mine after all." I said and Angel uttered a coughing noise in his throat. "She... she wanted to come with me when I left, actually." I said, kicking a small pebble away and swallowing hard, trying to keep in control of myself. Wasp chased after the pebble as it clattered over the cobblestones and I cleared my throat, trying to put on a brave face because Falshade was watching me with concern. "She really wants to meet you guys." I added in a more light-hearted tone. "She's real interested in you kids, for some reason. I told her when we have time we'd fly out and visit, eh."

Falshade nodded. "That sounds cool, we'll definitely have to leave a spot open for that on the calendar. I'm pretty interested in meeting her by now too."

"Got any pictures?" Angel asked conversationally. Man I really must have looked miserable if Angel was trying to be supportive.

"As a matter of fact I do, eh, she insisted I carry one of her around with me so I can show off how awesome she is." I said, digging my wallet out of my pocket. Extracting the picture without looking at it I handed it over to Falshade, whose face split into a wide grin. Only to be expected concerning my sister of course.

"Aw, she's cute. Seems a taste for bad hats runs in your family." He commented and I laughed good-naturedly.

"Yeah, but she can pull it off better than I can, eh."

"How old is she now?" He asked, passing the photo to Angel.

"Eleven, eh. She's getting big now too, gonna be catching up to me soon." I said. "Thinking I might have to drop by a little more often now; she's getting to that age where boys suddenly don't have cooties anymore."

"Hypocrite." Angel said, handing the picture back. "How old were you when you started chasing people's sisters around?"

"I was a few years older than that thank you very much." I huffed, safely replacing the photo in my wallet. "Besides, that's different, I'm a guy, eh. I know exactly what they're like."

"They're not so bad at that age." Falshade argued. "I don't think you'll have to really start worrying until fourteen. That's a nasty age."

"True that, eh." I muttered. "So, anyways, what's with this party business? What's the verdict on booze, eh? I could definitely use a few nice cold brewskies right about now."

"If you want to try and sneak a few drinks without my mother noticing than be my guest." Falshade muttered sourly. "She already gave me the whole spiel earlier: 'Falshade you're still under age and while in my house I can still boss you around so if I catch you with alcohol tonight so help me god I will...' well I kinda tuned out after that, but there was something about induced vomiting."

I laughed. "I think your mum and my mum would have a grand old time together there, eh."

"Hmm. Too bad the Storm Hawks didn't stick around, actually." Falshade mused, looking back in the direction the Condor had gone. "I'm sure they would have liked to take a break and hang out with the Beast Keepers."

"Oh, that reminds me, eh, Piper wanted to tell me they'd be here by noon tomorrow. I thought about just sticking with them until then, but, well... I was feeling kinda lonely, eh." I admitted, staring fixedly at my feet.

"Dawww." Falshade crooned but there was no taunt to it. "Well I'm glad you decided to come by early. Was actually starting to miss you, believe it or not." He added, throwing his good arm gamely around my shoulders and I smiled a bit. "Hey, any news on Stork?" he asked abruptly as if only just remembering. "How's she doing? Has she-"

"She's still out, eh." I interrupted mournfully and his face faltered. Poor guy, he'd probably been hoping that she'd be up and about by the time we hooked back up with the Storm Hawks. "But Finn says her fingers were twitching the other day, eh." I added. "Might mean she's starting to come around."

"Or not, some people twitch and even open their eyes in a coma." Angel pointed out in that annoying, know-it-all manner of his but backtracked quickly when he noticed the nasty look I was giving him. "But, no, that's good, definitely an improvement." He added hastily.

I could hear the numerous voices and loud laughter coming from Falshade's backyard before the house was even fully in view. Through the lengthening shadows I could make out a large crowd of people and the smell of meat being grilled wafted into my nose, making my stomach growl. I hadn't eaten anything all day but now that I was once again in the company of family (my lovable, fucked up, patch-work other family) I was all of a sudden hungry. I straightened up slightly, trying to will myself into a better mood. This was my kinda territory after all; once I got mixed up in all the confusion, had something to eat, maybe downed a couple of beers I'd be golden. And eventually Starla would recede from my mind and it wouldn't hurt so much to think about her anymore.

"Christ, eh, you weren't kidding." I said, craning my neck to see if I could make out any familiar faces. There had to be over a hundred people milling around Falshade's yard and man were there some good looking chicks around the joint. I'd barely had a chance to scope out a potential target or catch a glimpse of Varan among the throng of chattering humans when what appeared to be a scarecrow leapt in front of us and nearly ploughed right into me.

"Falshade!" the scarecrow yelled, effectively deafening me, and wrangled Shade into a headlock, digging a fist into his hair. "Holy shit look at you, you son of a bitch you! You grew! Christ I remember when you were knee high to a grasshopper!"

Falshade struggled but couldn't quite free himself with only one functioning arm. Angel had stiffened on my other side and I could sense him bristling, prepared to start kicking some ass if it was called for. Dawww, Falshade's own little bodyguard. Cute.

"Quit choking me so I can figure out who the hell you are!" Falshade wheezed and the scarecrow guy let him go, backing up a step. On closer inspection I realized he was just a regular human, tall and gangly with limbs that didn't seem properly attached to their joints. He had a wild mop of sandy blonde hair tousled every which way and one entire arm was covered in intertwining tattoos, black and dark blue.

"Oh come on, don't you tell me you don't recognize me." The guy said accusingly and Falshade bit the inside of his cheek, squinting and examining the guy as if looking for something he could identify. After a moment he titled the guy's head to the side and a grin split his confused face.

"Griffin!"

"There it is!" Griffin, apparently, said, throwing an arm around Falshade's shoulder and mussing up his hair again. "Good, I'd feel really bad if I had to pound the snot out of our little Hero Boy. So how the hell are you? Man it's been ages, huh?"

"About five years, I think." Falshade said, nodding. "And I'm okay, trachea's bruised now but I've come to expect being greeted by way of injury from your family by now so... oh, hey, this is Angel, Fraggle and..." he paused and looked around to realize Wasp had vanished once again. "...Okay just Angel and Fraggle then." He said, waving a hand at the two of us, having just realized we were standing there uncertainly. "Guys this is Griffin, one of Roo's brothers."

Griffin's grin hitched up a few more notches, wide as a jack-o-lantern's. "Are they part of this crazy little squadron I heard you put together?" He asked, holding out a hand which I shook gamely.

"Yep." Falshade said and I felt my own mouth tug into a grin at the pride in his voice. Damn straight.

"Yeah, we're even crazier than he is, eh." I added and Griffin laughed.

"Yes, they'll be booking us into an asylum any day now." Angel said, sounding bored. "Now I really hate these reunion things, so I'm gonna go. Don't take it personally, I'm just rude." He said with a half-hearted wave and disappeared into the crowd, making a beeline for the picnic table over by the porch, which was piled high with so much food I was surprised the whole thing didn't capsize.

Griffin shrugged as if it weren't a big deal and reached around behind his back. "Want a beer?"

I liked the guy already. Falshade shook his head while I accepted the bottle Griffin produced from his back pocket and popped the cap off, enjoying the cool feel of the glass in my palm. I'd gotten so used to sub-zero temperatures that even a breezy evening like this felt a million degrees too hot for me.

"Cheers, eh." I said and Griffin lifted his own bottle in salute. I barely had the bottle to my lips when that oh-so-familiar scolding tone punctuated the background hum of talk and laughter.

"Fraggle!"

"Whaaaaat?" I whined as Varan fixed me with a disapproving look. "Oh give me a break, eh, I've had a long day! And would it kill you to look a little happy to see me?"

Varan sighed but let it go, limping over and gripping my shoulder in a friendly, masculine greeting. Jeez who'd you have to screw to get a hug around here? I mean not like I was desperate or anything, but I would have appreciated the gesture.

"You're back early." He commented. "Hey, Griff."

"Aha! There you are!" Griffin pounced and I took the opportunity to swig some of my beer before Varan could turn his attention back to me. Ah, that's the stuff. "You know I've been hearing a funny little rumour around the mill about you, Var, something to do with you running around with my baby sister. That's not true, is it?"

I nearly choked on my beer, giggling out of habit and more than a little surprise. I knew Varan had a thing for the girl but I hadn't expected him to actually make a move so quickly. I mean come on, it was Varan.

Still, if it was true then good for him! About time he found someone to treat him right.

Varan had turned a dark shade of forest green while Falshade snickered into his sleeve. "Uh... well, um, I guess it's sort of-"

"Griffin! Don't you start giving him the third degree!" A girl's voice chided suddenly and for a moment there I almost didn't recognize Roo as she appeared out of the mob, placing herself protectively in front of Varan and crossing her arms. Her hair had changed colour and personally I thought this one suited her much better than the orange had. She was wearing a cute little denim jacket covered in iron-on patches that hugged in all the right places and I blinked appreciatively. Whoa. Nice one, Var.

"I was just asking a question." Griffin said innocently and I glanced between the two of them quickly, sipping my beer. They didn't look related at first glance; his eyes were an eerie, ice blue colour where hers were nearly black and there were some obvious differences in bone structure. But they had the same face, the same mouth, and judging from how energetic they both seemed to be I didn't have a hard time believing they were siblings.

"I see you've met one of the three terrors." Roo directed this part at me, evidently deciding to ignore her brother. "It's Roo, by the way, in case you forgot."

"I know." Hard to forget that bull ring. "I'm Fraggle." I added, holding out a hand and pushing all my follow-up routines to the back of my mind. 'Hands off, Fraggle old boy, this one's taken.'

"Speaking of which, where are the other two?" Falshade asked as Roo shook my hand warmly. "I haven't seen any of you guys in forever..."

"Well Beau's over there, sulking." Griffin said, pointing towards the small bonfire that was blazing cheerfully in the middle of the lawn. I did a bit of a double take when I noticed what turned out to be Griffin's twin sitting in a lawn chair by the fire, a perfect doppelganger of the guy standing in front of me. "And Thane's over there showing off his fiancé." He continued, pointing over towards the porch. A wiry, good-looking guy with dark hair was talking to Falshade's mom, a pretty young thing attached to his arm, pale, rose coloured hair draped in loose curls over her back.

I whistled. "Wow, trophy wife, eh."

"I know right?" Griffin exclaimed, shaking his head. "Don't know how Thane managed to land one like that."

Roo made a scoffing noise, punching him in the shoulder. "You're just jealous."

Hell, I was jealous.

"Huh." Falshade said. "I'll have to go over and say hi later. What's her name?"

"Echo. Real sweetheart, kinda shy at first until you get her going. She thinks I'm hilarious." Griffin reported. "Anyways yeah, wedding's in the fall. Personally I think he's too young to be surrendering like that, but then again, can you blame him?"

Roo hit him again while I laughed. "God you're rude! They make each other happy, why shouldn't they tie the knot?"

"Happy now sure, but did you know about forty percent of people who get married before they're twenty four end in divorce? Can't argue with statistics, little Roo."

I mulled that over, sipping at my beer contemplatively; I think my mum had been about twenty four when her and my dad got married and they hadn't been the only young love birds getting hitched so early back then either. I guess war has a way of motivating you; sure you could give it a few more years, but there was always the chance that one or both of you may die sometime that month, so why not just make it official now and enjoy it while it lasted? Most of those marriages never had the chance to end in divorce. The good live fast and die young and then leave their widows with children to raise all by their lonesome.

"So what have you been up to since you left?" Falshade asked, changing the subject before Roo could come up with a retort.

"Well actually I just got a tattooing licence. You're looking at a professional body artist." Griffin reported proudly. "Now that I'm finished my apprenticeship a buddy of mine and I are thinking of setting up our own shop out on terra Neon, we just need to wrangle in somebody to do piercings for us. Actually this is some of my work right here." He added, grabbing Roo by the chin and tilting her head to show off the biohazard tattoo. "You know why I gave her that?" he asked, a devious grin splitting over his face. "To warn any guy that starts sniffing around her tree that everything that comes spilling out of her pretty little mouth is pure toxic waste. Guess you didn't catch that one, eh Var?"

Roo slapped his hand away while Falshade and I tried our best not to laugh. Straightening her jacket smartly and sniffing she said "That's because Varan has more substance than jackasses like you." She quipped. "He doesn't see the appeal in girls who just sit there and look pretty. He's a nice boy, right Var?" she looked up at him through her lashes and looped an arm around his waist. Poor Varan looked like his brain had abruptly been replaced with an eggplant, his face nearly black he was blushing so fiercely. Not knowing where to look he made the mistake of catching my eye and I gave him a lurid grin, winking because I love watching that kid squirm.

"I, uh... I don't think it's toxic waste at all." He mumbled, staring fixedly at his clawed feet.

"And that's what makes you so great." Roo said, smiling up at him before shooting her brother a nasty look. "Now I think I've taken all I can handle of you for tonight. Come on Varan, you should come meet Echo and then maybe we'll actually be able to have a mature conversation." She said haughtily, tugging him along gently. Varan gave us a bit of a wave and allowed her to pull him through the crowd. I grinned to myself; man he was gonna have his hands full with that little spitfire alright.

Griffin was chuckling. "Me thinks poor ol' Varan is in over his head. Still, I'm glad it's him she's interested in and not some little punk ass bitch."

I wondered absently how I'd handle it when Starla started dating and then pushed the thought away, not wanting to think about some pubescent douchebag running around with my baby sister.

"I think it's freaking adorable." Falshade said. "I just hope they can handle the long-distance thing. So your dad mentioned you ended up escorting the relief aid teams, Griff, is that right?"

"That I did. When shit hit the fan I figured I should get up and do something but I wasn't exactly qualified to join the reserve squads so they stuck me on an escort crew instead. We got into two skirmishes but that was about as real as it got for me." Griffin said and I saw a bit of a shadow pass over his face. "Beau had a harder time of it than I did. He was with the field medics, saw some pretty gruesome stuff. We're a little bit worried about him to be honest, he's got some... tics he never had before."

Falshade raised an eyebrow, his mouth twisting. "How so?"

"Well it's nothing too serious but he's been having trouble sleeping. Mom's been thinking of bringing him in to see a shrink, maybe get him some soft meds to help him sleep. And then today, well... Mom had some steaks defrosting in the sink to bring over here, right? Well Beau walked into the kitchen, took one look at them and heaved all over the kitchen floor. You know I was lucky, I didn't have to see anybody with fucking shrapnel sticking out of their gut but... anyways he's pretty bummed out, he wanted to be a surgeon and everything and now I think he's second guessing himself. Was just a little too much for him all at once I guess."

"Aw." Falshade said, looking over to where Beau was sitting by himself by the fireside. "Poor guy."

"I think he'll be alright." Griffin said after a moment, trying to sound upbeat again. "He just needs some time to get over it. Apparently he was brilliant out there on the field, saved a lot of injured people. The older medics were all really impressed."

I nodded, not sure what to say since I didn't even know the guy. I'd always admired doctors and medics, people who could stick their hands into gaping, bloody wounds and put everything back together again. I had a pretty strong stomach when it came to gory comic books and slasher movies but if there were an actual real live person lying in front of me with their guts spilling all over the place I don't think I'd be able to handle it.

"Anyways didn't mean to be a buzz kill. So what about you, Ravenscroft, got any stories to show me up with? According to Dad you were right in the middle of the shit storm." Griffin said, looking eager for some tales of adventure and danger but Falshade simply shrugged.

"Maybe I'll tell you about it later, Griff. You hungry, Fraggle, or did you eat on the Condor?" He asked me as I drained the last of my beer.

"I could eat, but it doesn't have to be right now, eh." I said, not wanting to pull him away from his old friend.

"Nah come on, those burgers smell good. I'll catch up with you later, Griffin."

"Oh sure, I get it, don't wanna spend time with me now that you've got your own friends." Griffin teased and then looped an arm around Falshade's broad shoulders when he started to protest. "I'm kidding with you, man. I didn't want to hang out with you all night anyways, there's a brunette over there who's just dying to chat me up. I'll see you later, Shade and hey if you're ever around terra Neon look me up, I'll give you some free ink. And nice meeting you, Fraggle, you make sure my boy here doesn't get himself into anymore trouble, huh?" he added to me and I saluted him before following Shade over towards the porch.

"He seems like a cool guy, eh." I commented.

"Oh yeah he's great, if you don't mind the constant word vomit." Falshade said. "When I was a kid he used to call me his cousin, since my dad and his dad were practically brothers.

"So how'd ya tell him and the other one apart, just for reference?" I asked absently, my mouth watering as we reached the table and took in all the food.

"Griff's got a scar right here." He said, drawing a line over his left eyebrow. I gave him a quick inspection, noting the slight stubble that was starting to sprout around his chin, making him look older. The bruises that had mottled his face were fading to yellow by now and he didn't look as washed out as he had the week before I was pleased to note. "If you want I can introduce you to the rest of the family once you've eaten."

"Sounds good eh." I said, putting a bun on my plate and piling it high with all the fixings. Man I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a cheeseburger; now that was comfort food.

Once Shade and I had effectively polished off what was probably an entire cow I followed him around the yard for a while, letting him show me off to all the people he used to know before he'd saddled himself with me and the others. It was nice at first, losing myself in the sea of new faces and letting the steady thrum of voices wash over me like white noise. But eventually I began to feel like a bit of a third wheel, since people kept jumping up and chatting animatedly with Shade while I stood by his side awkwardly and soon I grew a little weary with all the introductions and positive energy around the place. I was surprised with myself for feeling so drained, as usually I flourished in these kinda situations, but I decided to peg that on a long day of travelling. Snagging myself another beer I decided to go join Varan, who'd moved over to the fireside, maybe recharge my battery a little before trying again. However I'd barely weaved my way through the mob towards him when something blasted it my midriff like a mini freighter and nearly took my out at the knees.

"FRAGGLE!" A high and vaguely familiar voice cheered, clinging to me around the waist and bouncing with excitement. I stared down at my attacker and then felt a rush of joy so intense and overwhelming I had to squelch down something that would have sounded like a shriek(a very manly one though).

"Pippa!" I exclaimed as the small girl beamed up at me. I grabbed her under the arms and meant to scoop her up, wanting nothing more than to pull her right into my chest and smother her with affection like I used to do to Starla when she was smaller, but my ribs reminded me of their current battered state when I attempted the movement so I ended up dropping down onto my knees instead, dropping my beer uncaringly on the grass. Pippa clambered eagerly into my arms, lunging forwards and wrapping her small arms around my neck, pushing her little human face into the side of my head so I could feel her breathing in my ear. I hugged her back tightly, a gushing flow of warm happiness flooding through my entire body. I pressed my face into her hair, drawing in her sweet, human smell and felt the hard little ball of ice that had taken up residence somewhere in my stomach start to break apart. God I could have just cradled her like that forever but of course small children never really understand how desperately you need them to just hold still and eventually Pippa wiggled back a little bit, smiling a huge, cheek-dimpling smile right into my face that made my heart melt.

"Fraggle look, look! I lost some of my teeth!" She said, gushing with excitement and I was blown away by the change in her personality. I remembered the wide-eyed, frightened child I'd carried here what seemed like ages ago and I almost couldn't believe that this exuberant, bubbly little creature standing before me now was the same girl. It made me happy to see how much she'd improved though, so happy it hurt.

"Holy moly you got holes in your head!" I said and she giggled, nudging the gaps in her teeth with her tongue.

"I know, it's 'cos I'm growing!" she informed me proudly.

"I can see that." I noted, impressed. "Almost didn't recognize you there eh. So how've you been, kiddo? You having fun out here?"

She nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, I like it a lot here, I've got lots of friends and Mommy and I make cookies all the time and she reads me stories and Ozprey said she'll take me camping on the Plateau! But where have you been, Fraggle? Varan says you went to visit your family somewhere, right?"

I swallowed slightly, hypnotized by those huge, shiny baby eyes. I felt very brittle all of a sudden, like something was waiting to give out underneath the warm shell of my happiness. "Uh, yeah, that's right."

"Well that's nice." Pippa decided. "But I'm really glad you're back here now, because I missed you!" She said, flinging her arms around me again and my throat tightened dangerously. My damn soft heart was gonna be the death of me, seriously.

"I missed you too, sweetheart." I said weakly, my voice kinda cracking and I was worried I was going to lose it and start bawling like a total baby.

"Really?" Pippa said, looking at me with adoring, sparkling eyes.

"Yeah, eh. Came all the way out here just to see you." I croaked and saw Varan look at me with concern, heaving himself out of his chair and back onto his crutches, limping over towards us.

"Pippa why don't you go and find Mimi, I'm sure Fraggle would like to meet her." He suggested, saving me from further heartache. Christ I didn't know what was wrong with me. It was like I was crashing after a serious caffeine buzz, feeling shaky and lost, my emotions spiking all over the place. It had been rough as hell leaving Starla and Pippa's unconditional adoration was tugging much too sweetly at my fragile heartstrings.

"Okay!" Pippa chirped eagerly and took off into the crowd, calling out for whoever Mimi was.

"You okay?" Varan asked, putting his hand on my shoulder and looking worried.

I sniffled and wiped at my nose, retrieving my beer bottle and straightening up. "Yeah eh, just... kids, you know?"

Varan rubbed my back comfortingly. "I hear you buddy. Here why don't you come and sit?"

I parked my sorry ass in one of the lawn chairs near the fire with a sigh and gave a small wave of greeting to Beau, who looked over and smiled at me when he saw me. Varan sat down again next to me with a low groan.

"You alright brother?" I asked, watching him with concern as he propped his bad leg on a block of wood.

"Oh yeah, I'm fine, just a little stiff that's all." He assured me then gave me a tired look when I snorted. "What?"

"Stiff." I said and he rolled his eyes.

"Christ there's not off switch with you, is there? Anyways I didn't get the chance to ask you how Nord was earlier. How's your family? I note you still have a head, so obviously your sister wasn't that mad."

"Nah, she came around eventually." I said, focusing very hard on cracking open my beer. It comes in handy to have your own built-in bottle openers. "Everything was great but I don't really wanna talk about that right now."

"Okay." Varan said easily, although I could see worry shining in his large, reptile eyes. Guess I couldn't blame him, usually it was almost impossible to shut me up. "I'm glad you got the chance to go, in any case. I actually made a trip out to Bogatri the other day."
"Oh did you now? How was it, eh?" I asked and he filled me in on everything that was going on out there. I tried my best to listen but started fading in and out when he got into the list of new regulations they had out there. I was just glad to be hanging out with him honestly, I could care less what he was talking about. I was pleased to note that he seemed more enthusiastic about the whole thing than he had in the beginning though. Everything seemed to be coming up roses for good ol' Varan and I was happy for him. The guy deserved it after all the bullshit he'd put up with good naturedly for so long.

Angel wandered over to join us eventually, holding a paper plate stacked high with more goodies than I was gonna let him eat on his own. He took in the hopeful, puppy dog look I was giving him and heaved a short sigh, offering me some of his spoils and I decided I could forgive him for the whole scaring the shit out of me thing earlier. Peeling the wrapper off a cupcake I gave him a quick once over out the corner of my eye and noticed a purple mark staining the skin under his jaw. That coupled with the happy sheen in his usual hard grey eyes made me suspect he'd gotten up to some mischief with missy Wasp and I made a note to hassle him about it later. Might have to sit him down and have a little man-to-man chat with him if he was getting up to stuff like that, the little scoundrel.

Still, he seemed to be in good shape and that pleased me; his cuts and bruises were healing nicely too and he didn't look as sickly as he had before. Seemed vacation had done them all some good. Varan looked like he'd filled out more, if that was possible, and Wasp and Falshade no longer had the dark circles under their eyes that they'd been carrying for the past few weeks. I felt as if some little ball of tension I'd been carrying around unknowingly was finally able to dissolve now that the others were on the mend and in good spirits. Like some chunk of leftover stress had been clinging from the days when I thought I might lose them all at any given minute and now that they didn't look like they'd gone through a paper shredder I could finally believe that everything was going to be okay.

Pippa returned after a little while with a small mongrel puppy in tow. "This is Mimi." She introduced proudly, picking the pup up and depositing her in my lap. "Mommy got her for me. She's my responsibility."
"Wow, eh." I said, letting the little creature lick my face and scratching her behind the ears. "I'm sure you take great care of her."

Pippa nodded enthusiastically. "Oh yes, I do. I'm going to train her to do all sorts of neat tricks. She can already sit and lie down and fetch!"

"And she can beg, but we didn't teach her that one." Varan muttered and I laughed, letting the small dog down.

"Varan doesn't like Mimi because she pooped in his room." Pippa explained to me and Angel snorted.

"Bet we don't seem so bad now, huh Var? At least we're house broken." He said and Varan rolled his eyes.

"True, but I can't just lock you in a kennel when you're bad." He retorted. "And I never said I didn't like her, Pippa, I'd just prefer she didn't keep chewing on my things." He lifted one of his crutches in demonstration, showing off the end which was gnarled with tiny teeth marks. "See I was supposed to return these and now I'm going to have to pay for them."

"Ah well eh, might be a good idea to keep a pair of them on hand, you know, in case." I pointed out. Knowing our bunch of rambunctious maniacs, somebody would be using those crutches again before the end of the year.

"Pippa!" A red haired woman I remembered to be Marle was calling out from the porch. "Why don't you come here and show everybody the cookies you decorated so nicely?"

Pippa's big brown eyes brightened and she trotted off once again into the crowd. Mimi chased after her faithfully, her own personal little entourage.

Varan was smiling. "Mom's been showing her off whenever she gets the chance." He told me. "She's taking advantage of the fact that she's finally got a kid who's cute and talkative."

"Was that a hint of jealousy I detect?" Angel teased.

"Aw, don't be like that eh, I bet you were pretty darn cute yourself before the mohawk came in." I added with a grin and Varna jabbed his crutch into my shin chidingly.

"Oh I don't mind at all, keeps some of the heat off me. I mean I love the woman to death but she can get rather... suffocating at times."

"Typical mother trait." I said knowingly. "So... Pippa already calls her 'Mommy', huh?"

"Yeah, it surprised me too." Varan said. "But then, she's pretty young, I don't know if she really understands everything just yet. Maybe it just makes more sense to her."

"Does she ever... you know, ask about her parents?" Angel asked.

"She did at first, apparently, but eventually she just..." Varan trailed off, wrinkling his snout thoughtfully. "I don't think she just forgot about them or anything but maybe it's just easier for her to accept that she has a new family instead of wondering what happened to the old one."

"Hmm..." I said, looking over toward the porch. Nimbus, the big guy from the Beast Keepers, had swung Pippa up onto his shoulders as easily as if she were a rag doll and she was squealing with laughter. I suppose at that age it's easy to let all the bad things slip from your mind when you have a whole crowd of people showering you with love and affection. It was one of those admirable child traits that gets harder and harder to remember as you get older.

"It's incredible how fast she bounced back, isn't it?" Varan mused, looking over to the porch as well. "It's extraordinary how resilient children can be."

"Oh yeah, they're troupers alright." I agreed. "Amazing little creatures, eh."

"I dunno about that, some of them seem an awful lot like demon spawn to me." Angel muttered and I laughed, leaning over to give him a fierce nougie.

"Dude, the kettle just called, it says to say you're black, eh."

The party wore on as the sun gave its last valiant efforts and then gave way to nightfall. I'd gotten back up and spent a little time mingling but eventually returned to the fireside, deciding that tonight I was just gonna take it easy and enjoy the last remaining hours of my holiday. Things would start getting crazy enough again tomorrow, might as well enjoy the tranquility while it lasted. I took up my chair again beside Varan as he talked animatedly with Beau about stuff I didn't particularly care about and eventually Pippa returned as well, offering me a cookie with a big smiley face drawn on in icing before she crawled up onto my lap and snuggled in against my chest. Wasp came back at some point too and Angel decided to teach her how to roast marshmallows, as he insisted it was a necessary life skill and practically a crime that she'd never done it before. Wasp enjoyed spearing the squishy treats and setting them on fire a little too much for my liking but she was enjoying herself so I kept my mouth shut. However she didn't seem to like eating them as much as she liked cooking them and kept feeding them to Angel until I thought the poor boy was going to puke and took the bag away from her. Now fireflies were winking away in the field beyond the yard and the dying fire was spitting sparks into the dark sky. I stretched out my legs, careful not to jostle Pippa, and reached down to rub Mimi's belly, which was full of stolen hotdogs. I leaned back and closed my eyes, feeling good inside at last. I'd had just enough booze to make me feel drowsy and with Pippa's warm little body curled up against mine I felt like I could just fall asleep out here under the stars. I wondered how Starla was doing and was relieved when thinking of her smiling, goofy face didn't make my chest ache quite as much as it had earlier. Things were gonna be alright. They always were for me in the end.

Just as I was nodding off I felt Pippa stir and tug on my jacket. "Fraggle?"

"Yes love?"

Pippa pursed her lips as if thinking and then looked up at me, her big fawn eyes sparkling in the firelight. "Do you think my Mommy and Daddy miss me?"

I nearly tipped my chair right over backwards. I gawked at her and as if she sensed my shock she looked away almost guiltily, her tiny fingers playing with the beads on my zipper absently.

"Sometimes I wonder if they know where I am is all." She said quietly.

I shook my head, trying to get over my surprise. How is it that kids can always come up with these questions that blow you completely out of the water right when you're least prepared for it? I remembered once when I was twelve Starla had asked me where my dad was and if I ever wished I could spend time with him. She was only five at the time and the fact that she'd known I had a different father than hers despite the fact that no one had ever told her I was only her half brother had struck me right dumb. I think she must have thought she'd hurt my feelings or something because she'd quickly grabbed my hand and never brought the subject up again. Pippa's question had made me feel just as flabbergasted and I struggled for words, knowing that this was a crucial moment here and I could not mess it up.

"Of course they do, eh." I said, clearing my throat a bit. "And I bet they're real happy for you too."

"Really? You think so?" she asked, her small hands clamping down around my arm. "You don't think they're jealous, do you? Of my new family?"

"Of course not." I assured her, stroking her hair softly. "Mums and Dads are special that way, you see. They never get jealous, eh. And they never stop loving you either."

I was echoing words that my mum had told me a long time ago, when she and Hail had gotten engaged and I was worried that my dad might be angry with me for liking Hail so much. Sure kids can take all kinds of crap growing up, nightmares, sibling rivalry, illnesses and bad memories. But the moment they start thinking their parents don't love them anymore, that's where it all goes wrong. It disarmed me to think that Pippa was seeking this valuable information from me of all people but at the same time I felt like I had enough knowledge on the subject to handle it. She wasn't so unlike me really; she too had suddenly been placed amongst the midst of a new family while thoughts about the old one still lingered in the back of her mind. She sat there, mulling this over, before looking up at me again thoughtfully.

"Never?"

"Never." I confirmed.

Pippa nodded as if satisfied. "That's good. I just think about them sometimes and I wish I could see them. And sometimes I feel sad. But then I go and spend time with Mommy and I feel better."

My heart contracted painfully at her words and I pulled her in closer, wrapping my arms around her tightly. I remembered feeling like that too as a kid, even though I couldn't remember anything about my own father. "You wanna know a secret, eh?" I asked, trying hard to sound cheerful.

"Okay!"

"When I was just a little thing like you my mum used to tell me that every time it snowed my dad was saying hi to me." I said. I remembered a five year old version of myself running out the door every time it began to snow (and it snowed a lot on Nord) and yelling "Hi Dad!" up at the sky, waving like a maniac and drawing pictures in the snow for him to see. Of course now I knew my mum hadn't meant that literally but it always made me happy as a kid to go out there hollering my head off and even now every time I saw those first few brave snowflakes coming down I'd smile and mutter "Hey Dad" to myself. It was one of those things, like lullabies and made up games, that made all the bad things turn tail and slink away again, even if it was just for a little while.

Pippa crinkled her nose. "I haven't seen snow since winter." She said.

"Oh it's not just the snow." I said matter-of-factly. "When people pass away they go high up in the sky, eh, and so anything that comes down from way up there is messages from them. You see all those pretty stars up there right now, eh?"

Pippa looked up obediently and I could see hundreds of tiny flecks of light reflected in her big round eyes. "Yes."

"Right now your Mommy and Daddy are looking down on you from up there, and they're making the stars shine extra bright just for you, eh." I said. "That's they're way of smiling and saying hi. So anytime you feel sad or you miss them, you just remember they're up there watching over you. Whether it's raining or snowing, when the sun is shining or when the stars come out, that's always your parents waving down at you, eh."

I dunno if the cosmos were listening to me and decided to throw me a bone or if maybe her parents really were up there and wanted to confirm everything I'd said, but as Pippa and I stared up at the vast sea of twinkling stars a shooting star blazed across the sky for about five seconds, leaving a white hot trail in its wake, before winking out and Pippa beamed.

"Hi Mommy, hi Daddy." She murmured and it took every inch of my willpower not to choke up. Then she let out a pleased sigh and leaned back against my chest again, wiggling and nuzzling until she could tuck her head under my chin.

"Varan says that if I ask you you'll be my big brother too." She said, yawning. "So will you, Fraggle?"

I smiled, heat blazing fiercely through every inch of my body. "You betcha I will, eh."

"Good." She said, her eyes closing sleepily. "I'll be a very good sister, I promise."

"Oh I know you will, sweetie." I said. Varan was right, children were just downright extraordinary. I remembered what the Oracle had said about Pippa and smiled, dropping a kiss on the top of her pretty little head. "You're gonna be okay, kid."

x.x.x Falshade x.x.x

I don't quite know how to say how I feel

Those three words are said too much, they're not enough...

...Let's waste time chasing cars around our heads

If I lay here, if I just lay here

Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

-Chasing Cars, Snow Patrol

"Fraggle is feeling way too tired for this kinda shit, eh."

I rolled my eyes. "And here I was under the impression that you wanted to spend some time with the rest of us."

"Well let's go back and play a game of Crazy Eight Countdown or something then! That counts as quality time, doesn't it? I'm just saying it's pitch black out here eh, one of us is gonna go tumbling off the edge of this here mountain and I got a bad feeling it'll be me."

"I'll take that action." Angel said. "Twenty bucks says Fraggle falls to his death. Any takers?"

"I got fifty big ones that it's you who goes splat if you don't shut your mouth there, eh."

"You don't have fifty bucks."

"There's a crack here, Varan." Wasp warned, standing next to it so Varan wouldn't snag his crutches in it.

"Thank you." He said, hopping over it awkwardly. "Man I haven't been up here in ages. I forgot how cool it looks at night."

I was grateful for his enthusiasm. Once the mob of people had finally left my yard I'd been struck with one of my spur of the moment ideas that always makes people groan and shake their heads and decided to bring the others up to the top of the Plateau to get a look at the view. I hadn't spent a night up here in forever and I thought it seemed rather appropriate for all of us to just chill out together on our last day of vacation here at this place where I'd stood so often before, looking out at the sky and imagining that one day I'd be out there somewhere with a squadron of my own. Like one of those full circle kinda deals.

"Wow." Wasp breathed when we finally reached the top. "You can really tell the world is round from up here!" She drew a big arching semi-circle with her arm, tracing the contour of the night sky. "It almost looks like you could just run off the edge and throw yourself into the stars, doesn't it?"

"It does, but that doesn't mean you should try." Angel said, grabbing her by the collar firmly.

"Okay, I'll admit, I'm impressed eh. Something different about seeing it all from up here." Fraggle relented. The five of us stood on the edge of the ridge that jutted like a springboard into the inky depths of the night sky. Millions of stars burned bright little holes into the domed canvas of black and blue and down below we could see the warm yellow lights of Vatican's streets and the green flashes of countless fireflies as they hummed along through the warm night air. God it didn't matter how many times I saw it, this sight always managed to take my breath away. It was different than lying on your back in the grass and looking up at the sky; in the dark you felt like you were standing on your own private pedestal with the whole galaxy thrown wide before you. It was almost frightening how small it made you feel in comparison but the sight of all that space, all that wonder, made my heart soar like few other things could.

Wasp was spinning in circles, her head thrown back so she could take in every angle of the sky. "I wonder if anyone ever sat down and tried to count all the stars." She said dreamily. "I bet this would be a good place to start."

"You'd never be able to count them all." Angel said. "The light from some of those stars takes millions of years to get here. Some of them could already be dead and you'd never even notice them missing."

I gave him a scathing look as Wasp stopped spinning, staring up with horror in her large, shining eyes. He cleared his throat awkwardly and added "Of course new stars form all the time too."

"Hmm, baby stars." Wasp murmured, seeming soothed by this notion. "And there are other planets out there too, aren't there? Whole other worlds with little crawling beasties of their own."

"Yeah, kind of makes one feel insignificant." Varan said, sitting down on the ledge to give his poor leg a break.

"I don't think so. A tiny baby turtle claws it way out of the earth right after hatching from an egg, acting on an inborn instinct that we can't even explain in terms of numbers or chemicals. But that seems insignificant compared to the fact that some guy a long time ago figured out a way to fly. And our lives on this planet seem insignificant compared to the big wide universe with all its secret pockets that we'll never know about. But the fact that we're alive and can create and think and do things with these dumb little flesh pods we walk around in is nothing short of a miracle. So really, everything that ever happens is significant in some way or another. I guess it all depends on what you decided to focus on."

The four of us stared at her. This fantastic little piece of philosophical masterpiece was brought to you by the girl who could blow a spit bubble nearly as big as her own head.

"Wasp, one of these days I'm going to sit you down and get you to write a book. We'll call it 'The World According to Wasp' and when we sell it we'll make a fucking killing." I said and Wasp grinned wolfishly.

"Okay. I'm gonna need one hell of an editor though, I can't spell for toffee."

Laughing I sat down next to Fraggle and let my legs dangle over the edge of the Plateau. I couldn't think of a better way to end my vacation than simply hanging out with the others. It seemed like forever since we'd all been able to just sit down and be nutcases together without danger or misery looming overhead. The last time I could think of was the night Stork had come back from the grave and we'd celebrated the reunion on the bridge. But even then we hadn't been able to completely put our minds to rest, knowing somewhere out there an army of mutant soldiers was growing ever stronger. Now though we were completely free of all that bullshit and I couldn't remember it ever feeling better to be alive.

If only Stork was here too... I'd been hoping she'd be awake and rearing to go by the time we got back together with the Storm Hawks. I watched a shooting star plummet towards the horizon, streaking a long, fiery blue tail behind it and silently wished that she'd wake up soon. Other than that I couldn't think of anything else in the world I needed to wish for.

"Oh are you sulking again, eh?" Fraggle demanded, waving a hand in front of my face to snap me out of my reverie. "Stop thinking about Stork, eh, it kinda makes the four of us feel inadequate."

"I'm not sulking." I said defensively. "And you guys are plenty adequate."

"Heh, that's what she said, eh." Fraggle said and I rolled my eyes. "So back to the old grind tomorrow, huh?"

"Yeah. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed taking it easy this week, but I'll be glad to get back at it." I said. "I'm starting to get sick of just sitting around on my ass believe it or not."

"Then there's something seriously wrong with you, eh." Fraggle quipped. "Still, maybe it's for the best that we get back to work. My mum was seriously spoiling me and without stress eating up all the calories I think I gained a bit of weight, eh."

"I seriously doubt you'd be able to gain enough weight for it to be noticeable in one week." Varan said reassuringly.

"Dude you don't know my mum's cooking, eh. For seriously, I got a roll here that I never had before." Fraggle insisted, pinching at his gut and Angel laughed.

"I think that was always there and you just decided not to notice." He said and Fraggle huffed.

"Anyways I figured since this is our last official day off then it should go out with a bang, eh." He declared and I felt him rummaging around in his jacket.

"Are you going with this where I think you're going?" I asked and his teeth flashed in the dark as he grinned.

"You know me too well, eh." He said and there was a sloshing sound as, predictably, he pulled a bottle free from his jacket. "Ta dah! I'll be taking your gratitude now."

Varan groaned. "Where the hell did you get that?"

"I have my ways." He said mischievously and then rolled his eyes at Varan's reprimanding look. "Oh come on eh, they had enough booze down there to knock out a dragon, they weren't gonna miss it."

"Is that the same stuff you had at your birthday?" Angel asked with interest as Fraggle twisted the cap off his pilfered bottle of liquor.

"Sure is eh. Firecracker, damn good stuff." He said, taking a swig and then leaning around me to pass the bottle to Angel and giving me a good, unfortunate whiff of his armpit.

"I'm going to let the fact slide that you stole what I'm sure isn't cheap liquor." Varan said. "But I feel I should point out that the Storm Hawks are coming for us tomorrow and it's already pretty late now. You're not gonna have the chance to sleep off a hangover. That being said I'm not really seeing the appeal of getting yourself shit faced here."

"Always gotta be the buzz kill, don'tcha?" Fraggle said as Angel passed the bottle to me. Shrugging I took a swallow and then fought to keep a straight face as it burned its way down my throat. Firecracker was cinnamon flavoured whisky and it was so strong it made my eyes water but I took it like a man, swallowing down a cough and taking another smaller sip.

Fraggle was still talking. "Look, I know drinking isn't exactly your idea of fun, but just hear me out for a second here. Way I see it, we're all pretty lucky to be sitting here right now eh. I mean hell, all of us looked death in the eye at some point or another back there but did we lie down and die? Hells no, we said 'thanks for the offer but today's not our day, eh'. I'd call that one hell of an achievement; Christ, we're fucking heroes, aren't we?"

"You going somewhere with this?" Angel asked, tugging the bottle out of my hand.

"Yes, if you'd shut up and let me finish. Anyways my point is, we never actually sat down and celebrated the fact that we're all lucky sons of bitches, did we? Isn't that what you're supposed to do after the war is over, go out and have one hell of a party?"

"Well we haven't done that because Stork's not with us." I argued. "It just wouldn't seem right."

"No I know that, eh. And when she wakes up we'll make sure to have a big victory hullabalooza together. But right now I think the five of us should take the time to celebrate the fact that we're all still alive and, more than that, we kicked some serious ass, eh. I dunno, it just feels like a crime not to appreciate that fact eh."

I mulled this all over. I thought taking a week off to just kick back and put ourselves in order seemed like a mighty fine way to appreciate our triumph, but Fraggle had a point. We'd gone through hell and back again together and that seemed like something we should celebrate together as well. Why shouldn't we take a few hours to rejoice over our shared victories, the barriers we'd smashed through and lives we'd fought tooth and nail to keep?

"I think you're right, Fraggle." I agreed, taking another swig from the bottle. "Sometimes you gotta just sit back and count your blessings."

"Exactly, eh. Stork'll understand, and we'll make sure to have loads of fun once she's up and about again. Hey maybe we could even spend the weekend on Neon or Tropica or something!"

"Maybe." I said agreeably, sounding more enthusiastic than I felt. It was a nice idea and I was sure we'd all have a blast, but we didn't really have the means of getting ourselves out there anymore, not to mention the long list of things we'd need to replace first before we could even think about blowing money at an amusement park. On top of the four destroyed skimmers we needed replacements for there was all the things we'd need once we had a ship of our own to keep them on, appliances, new tools for Stork, crystals, food... and of course I wasn't counting the obvious fact that getting a new ship in the first place was going to be nearly impossible with the meagre sum we had in our bank account. Even a used airship would probably be beyond our price range...

I shook my head and pushed all those stressful thoughts away, leaving them to future Falshade to deal with and washing them down with a mouthful of whisky. I was still on vacation and I refused to be troubled with those issues tonight, not when I had this private moment to share with my best friends. We'd find a way to make it all work out; we always did. Hell the first year out the Academy, before we'd teamed up with Fraggle, we'd scraped enough money together to feed ourselves by running odd jobs for people wherever we could, leaving Stork's earnings from her time at Finch's in the bank for emergency use only (in other words when we really, really didn't want to have to spend another night out in the rain).

Fraggle must have decided I'd been quiet for too long and continued along with his train of thought undisturbed. "Anyways guess what I'm trying to say here is here's to us, eh, and the fact that we all made it through to see our next birthdays. Helluva good job, kids." He said, lifting the bottle in a 'cheers' motion and Wasp lifted her own empty hand in agreement.

"Here's to us." I repeated, nodding and Fraggle tousled my hair, handing me the bottle again. I took a sip and then leaned around his back to hold it towards Varan, who wrinkled his snout in distaste.

"Oh come on, Var, we're having a ritual here, you gotta at least have a little bit." I wheedled.

"Yes, partake you must, eh!" Fraggle insisted and Varan snorted with laughter.

"I was always taught not to give in to peer pressure." He said, grinning despite himself.

"Oh come on Varan, all the cool kids are doing it." Angel said haughtily and Varan gave me the look that translated in Gargoyles language to 'smack him for me, would you?'; I saw no reason not to comply.

"Now lord knows I'm not one to judge, but I wouldn't go say far to say you guys are 'cool'." Varan decided to point out and I laughed 'cause hey, who were we really kidding? If you looked up the word 'losers' in the dictionary you'd find our pictures underneath. Not that I cared, I'd always found the people that some would define as 'cool' were usually douchebags anyways.

"Ouch, cut us to the heart there, eh." Fraggle warbled, putting a hand to his chest melodramatically. "Didn't have to throw us off our high horses dude. Now you have to have a drink 'cos you hurt our poor little feelings, eh."

Varan sighed but took the bottle obediently and tipped it back, his face screwing up tightly when the whisky hit his tongue and coughing, thumping himself in the chest and handing it back to Fraggle almost immediately. "Christ what's in that stuff, floor polish?"

"Yeah, this shit'll put hair on your chest alright, eh." Fraggle said in what sounded like agreement, taking a swig easily and then hesitating before passing it to Angel's outstretched hand. "You just take it easy there, little man, I don't take too kindly to wasting alcohol. No puking, eh."

"Oh blow me." Angel said sourly. "I am not a lightweight."

"Well, technically, you are. What do you weigh now, ninety, ninety five pounds?" I teased and he punched me in the shoulder.

"Since we're on the subject Fraggle, do you recall who it was who hurled his guts all over the kitchen floor after Sky Smash Carnival? Because I'm quite sure it wasn't me."

I started cracking up at the memory as Fraggle fidgeted, rubbing at his stomach unhappily. "We swore we'd never bring that up again, eh!" he whined indignantly. I won't go into gory details, but a word to the wise, even the lactose tolerant should never attempt to consume more milkshakes than they can count on both hands. Especially not on top of onion rings.

"I'm just pointing out the fact that I am quite capable of keeping my stomach in check, thank you. I don't need you babysitting me." Angel said in that irritating manner of one who has witnessed all your most embarrassing moments and gets a good deal of pleasure out of reminding you of them whenever opportunity knocks. Then he paused thoughtfully and held the bottle out to Wasp invitingly. Wasp took a curious sniff and then spat in disgust, burying her nose in her collar.

"You know I've heard of monks who drink a cup of goat urine a day because it's supposed to keep your bloodstream clean. I bet it'd be much better for you guys to drink that instead. I'm sure you wouldn't mind, since I bet they both taste the same."

"Wasp where, where do you pick these things up?" I asked. "If that's the sort of fun facts they print on your bubblegum wrappers then you should probably stop eating it."

"That's not true anyways." Angel said. "Piss is everything your body wants to get out of its bloodstream, toxins and all that junk, anybody with two brain cells to rub together could tell you it's not something you want to be putting back into your body."

"Maybe goat pee is different! They have four stomachs, right? Maybe that makes it special!" Wasp argued and then her eyes lit up with inspiration. "Do you think Raphael would hold still long enough for me to-"

"I am demanding an immediate change in topic!" Varan said loudly to drown Wasp out, sounding pained. "Is it really that difficult for the four of you to hold a conversation for longer than two minutes without bringing up something disgusting? Seriously?"

"I suppose we could try and manage three." Angel mused and Varan gave me that look again.

"Hey Varan, did you know Wasp used to think you were an alien?" I said instead, since he'd wanted a change in subject so badly.

"...What?" he demanded while Angel fell back against the stone he was laughing so hard.

"I'd never heard of Terradons before!" Wasp said defensively. "What was I supposed to think? You're green and scaly and have really big eyes! That's the stereotypical alien poster child!"

Fraggle was holding his side, laughing and trying very hard to stop laughing at the same time. "Oh god stop eh, you're killing me here!"

"I didn't mean it in a bad way!" Wasp insisted. "I like aliens!"

Even Varan was chuckling good naturedly. "Well I hope I didn't disappoint you when you realized I was just a plain old Terradon then, Wasp." He said.

"Oh, nah. Even when I found out that you were just a regular Atmos-noid I still thought you were pretty neat." Wasp said. "I mean, you have a tail. That's just good evolutionary progress, man. Wish I had one, or at least some prehensile toes or something. I mean really, I didn't even get claws."

"I think you're pretty formidable as is without knives permanently attached to your appendages." I told her. "Be thankful for what you've got."

"Hmm, guess I am better off compared to you humans. Poor things, nature didn't even give you a chance." Wasp said, shaking her head sadly.

"And yet here we stand at the top of the food chain. Figure that one out." Angel said wryly.

"Oh bullshit eh, top of the food chain my ass. That's the problem with you humans eh, you're all so hung up on yourselves. Freaking delusional; the only reason you guys think you're the dominant species is because there's so fucking many of you. You buggers breed like rabbits." Fraggle said indignantly.

"I've never thought we were the dominant species!" I argued, wounded, but Angel cut me off.

"Oh don't go into one of those self-righteous humanoid rants on me, like humans have been keeping you horribly repressed all these years or some shit. Unless you happen to be Varan, in which case you have every right." He added as a quick afterthought. "Yeah sure, you Blizzarians and Faerieshians and Terradons all have fangs and talons and superior senses and whatever, but we humans gots the brains." He said matter-of-factly, tapping his temple pointedly. "We don't need built-in biological weapons 'cause we're smart enough to make our own, none of that savagery tooth-and-claw business."

I snorted with laughter. "I can't believe you of all people are giving a lecture about savagery. I've seen you eat a whole steak without even cutting it first."

Angel waved a hand at me. "Oh I'm not saying we're saints or anything. Hell crack open any history book and you'll find some sort of account about the nasty things we humans have been doing to the rest of the world since we first learned how to walk. I'm just saying, sure we might seem like pansies by predatory standards, but we've found a way to make up for all the stuff we lack."

"Would you mind not saying 'we humans' like that?" Varan asked. "Yes throughout history humans have done some pretty terrible things, but the same can be said for all humanoid species. Don't lump yourselves in with the bad apples like that. Most of the humans I've met have all been great people."

"Daww, thanks Var." I said, as touched as always to hear those kind of things from Varan, who had the most reason of anyone to hate humans.

"I guess when you put it like that it's sort of impressive, isn't it? Like you've beaten the natural selection process." Wasp said. "Good job, guys."

"I wouldn't call it that impressive." Angel muttered. "So many thousands of idiots out there that should have just died out are allowed to continue and reproduce. That's the price you pay for progress I guess."

"I'm gonna stop you right there." I said and then, after a second thought, took the bottle out of his hand when I realized he'd gotten a hold of it again. "I'm not about to sit through another one of your 'everything that's wrong with the world' lectures."

"Are you sure? 'Cause I've got some great new material I've been working on." He said with a shit-eating grin and in response I crushed him into my armpit.

"I got a fun little brain teaser then eh, while we're on the subject of survival of the fittest." Fraggle said while Angel gagged and tried to struggle free. "What do you think would happen if you took like, one member from every species, all of whom were in top physical condition, and put 'em all into one big even playing field together, you know, battle royale style. Which do you think would come out on top eh? Who's really on the top of the food chain?"

Angel, Wasp and I all paused to think about that one but Varan made an irritated noise and put an end to our theoretical jam session before it could get out of the gates. "I don't want to even think about that." He said shortly. "I don't like the thought at all of the humanoids fighting with each other, especially not over something as ridiculous as bragging rights, who's superior over who."

"Oh yeah eh, I'm not saying I'd ever want it to happen either." Fraggle said quickly while I felt guilt stir in my stomach. I handed the bottle over to Fraggle, figuring that if I'd already had enough whisky to make me forget how sensitive Varan was about these sorts of things then maybe I should slow it down a bit. "I just meant like hypothetically, eh."

"I know. But I still don't like it. I mean after so many generations of Terradons and humans being at odds we're finally just beginning to see each other eye to eye. I like what's happening out on Bogatri and I don't want to think about what would happen if the two groups clashed again." Varan said, curling his tail around himself as if trying to fight off a chill.

"That's a good point. Sorry Varan, wasn't thinking." I apologized. "That being said I'm glad you've come around about the idea. I'd almost started thinking I'd done something wrong the way you reacted when you first found out."

"Oh no, of course not." Varan said quickly. "You know me, I take the whole 'approach with caution' method way too seriously that's all. I really do appreciate what you did." He said earnestly and I smiled. Then he cocked his head thoughtfully and added. "What did you say to the Council by the way? I've been meaning to ask just how you pulled that one off."

"Well Chief's always had the ability to talk people into going along with his crazy schemes, eh. I bet you he could start a cult if he wanted to." Fraggle said, thumping me between the shoulder blades a little harder than necessary.

"I'm going to assume there was a compliment somewhere in there." I said and Angel snorted. "Anyways I didn't really say anything noteworthy, just what I thought about the whole thing. I told them Repton had helped us and that I didn't think it was fair the way they lived out there."

"So all your typical bleeding heart stuff." Angel confirmed, watching Wasp as she picked at a scab on his arm until it split and began to bleed and then started sucking on it.

"Yes, that's me and my deplorable conscience for you." I said with an eye roll.

"And they really went for that?" Varan asked, sounding surprised. "Don't get me wrong, I've always admired your tenacity when it comes to things like this but I didn't think the Council would make such a ground breaking decision based on something so... well opinionated I guess."

"I was going to go with trivial." Angel decided to report. "Politics have no use for golden boys with righteous attitudes. Honesty and integrity are last generation's beliefs."

"...Golden boy?" I repeated with a mixture of amusement and distaste and Angel stiffened as if only just realizing he'd said such a thing aloud.

"Christ would you two get a room? Too much bromance going on here, it's making me feel nauseous, eh." Fraggle teased and I looked down at all the empty space yawning open beneath my boots, wondering what my odds of survival were if I were simply to pitch myself off the edge. Angel, never one to back down from a challenge, simply leaned in against me, nuzzling his head under my chin and aiming a haughty look at Fraggle.

"I think you're jealous." He taunted, pressing a suggestive hand to my chest.

"Well Chief does have some rocking abs, eh." Fraggle relented and my face burned so fiercely I'm surprised it didn't glow red in the dark. "But it's tits or nothin' for me, so don't you worry, I ain't about to move in on your man."

Okay, scratch that, I'd push the both of them off the edge.

"I don't think they would have gone along with it just based on what I said either." I continued loudly as the other two started snickering to themselves and Varan tried very hard to quell his own laughter so he could listen. "I doubt it would have even got off the ground if Starling hadn't stood up for the idea."

All three of them abruptly turned serious and snapped to full attention at that one. "Starling?" They repeated in unison, eyes wide in disbelief.

"Did I forget to mention that?" I asked.

"Might have skipped over that little detail, yeah." Varan said dryly and I scratched at my scalp sheepishly. They'd all pounced on me with varying degrees of curiosity when I'd returned from Mesa of course but, feeling uncertain about what I'd said about the Terradons, I'd decided not to bring that part up unless something came of it and I guess the whole incident with Starling had gotten shoved to the back of my mind along with it.

"Little detail?" Fraggle repeated. "Dude I'm feeling some serious reproach here! I ought to give you the cold shoulder for leaving that part out eh! Keeping us outta the loop and what not, jeez, some friend."

"So did you actually get to meet her or what?" Angel demanded with much more enthusiasm than he'd usually allow. You may not have picked up on this, but we were all major Starling fanboys.

"Well, no. She was sitting up in the balconies and I actually didn't even know who she was until she told me." I admitted.

"Aw, boo dude! For shame." Fraggle scolded, backhanding the side of my head. "She's only one of the hottest freaking Sky Knights ever and you didn't even recognize her? I'll be taking your man card now."

"I know, I know, I felt like a fucking idiot, I went on this big spiel about the Interceptors and what happened on old Bogaton right beforehand without even realizing she was sitting right there." I said and Angel heaved an exaggerated sigh as if he couldn't believe he hung out with someone so embarrassing.

"Wow. So she... she supported the idea?" Varan clarified, a whole new light coming into his large yellow eyes. If the rest of us admired Starling than Varan downright worshipped the woman and her ideals. I'm sure he must have felt that if Starling, who shared a very similar past to his own and had come to the aid of the Terradons not once but twice despite her bloody history with the terra, had stuck up for the liberation of the Terradons than it really couldn't have been such a bad idea after all. If he'd still been harbouring any doubts I was sure they were gone now (or at least severely lessened).

"Yep, and I think that's what really swayed the Council." I said.

"Aw, you don't give yourself enough credit there, eh. I mean heck, you're a big hero now, ain't ya? That's gotta come with some leverage." Fraggle said, throwing his arm around my shoulders sloppily enough that he almost punched me in the jaw. Realizing he'd had the bottle to himself for quite awhile now I wrestled it out of his hand and took some more for myself. I mean hey, they more I had the less for him, right?

"Well that's what everybody keeps telling me, but honestly I think with something that huge my opinion didn't count for as much as they said it did." I said. "Starling carried a lot more weight on the matter, she was the one who tipped the scales."

"Yes but you were the one who got the ball rolling in the first place." Varan reminded me. "I don't think anyone else would have approached the subject, not for a dozen more years at least. You allowed something really monumental to happen, Shade. I'm not saying you should get a swelled head about it but don't just pass it off so easily either."

I shrugged. "Right back at you, man, you weren't exactly jumping for joy in the beginning."

"Well that's because I have a bum leg." Varan insisted with a grin and I tugged on the end of his tail playfully. "Seriously though, I really do like what's going on out there. It gives me good feelings about the future."

Just hearing him say that gave me good feelings too and I hadn't even seen how they were progressing out there. I guess when he put it that way I could feel a little more awed by everything I'd had a hand in setting into motion. I hadn't single handedly changed the fate of the Terradons nor had any of us been solely responsible for saving the Atmos (except maybe Stork) but still, when I took into consideration how wrong everything had gone and how hard we'd worked to put it right again, I couldn't help but feel proud. We'd all played our part to make the world a better place and I figured there was no shame in feeling good about that.

"Everything's coming up daises." Wasp agreed, her words followed with the snap-hiss of a can popping open. I had no idea where or when she'd gotten a hold of more Buzz Juice (or with what money, for that matter) but somehow she'd managed to get herself a small stock of them again.

"Sweetheart, it's roses. Daises is the one you use when you want to threaten somebody, the whole 'you'll be pushing up'- oh god." Angel cut himself off, eyes growing wide in horror as Varan, Fraggle and I all turned to stare at him in surprise. "Did I just use a petname?"

"You totally did eh!" Fraggle declared while I laughed so hard it made my busted nose start bleeding. Angel slapped a palm to his face and handed the bottle to me in shame as Wasp giggled, digging her heels into his leg playfully. "Here." He said miserably. "I can take a hint."

"Aw don't be like that, this is our chance to see the rare warm 'n cuddly side of you." I teased and he muttered a grisly oath under his breath, folding his arms tightly and sulking.

"No no, it is daises. It's a song by Butcher Shoppe Karnival." Wasp insisted. "Why would you want roses anyways? They have prickers."

"Because 'daises' sounds incredibly lame, eh. So does pansies, posies, violets and those little blue ones I can never remember the name of." Fraggle said and Varan laughed harder than I'd heard him in a long time.

"I do hope you were being ironic." I said and Fraggle wrinkled his brow.

"About what? Seriously, I don't know!"

"Oh my god that's so hilarious it's sad!" Varan gasped, wiping at his eyes. "We ought to charge admission for you, Fraggle."

Fraggle huffed. "I don't know what I'm being laughed at for, but I don't need to take this abuse, eh."

"See, see this is what I mean! Look at all the bad genes getting mixed into the pool! That's it, Fraggle, that last display of idiocy was just one too far. I'm now making it my mission to insure that you never procreate." Angel declared.

"Dude you start cock-blocking me and I'll more than just eliminate your genetic contribution, believe you me." Fraggle warned.

"Oh god stop right now, subject approaching 'don't wanna hear it' territory again." Varan said and I leaned in towards Angel.

"How many minutes was that?" I asked in a stage-whisper and he pretended to check an imaginary stopwatch.

"Oh what eh, the thought of making babies make you squirm? You're gonna have to learn about the birds and the bees sometime Var, 'specially 'cos you gots a guuuurlfriend now." Fraggle drawled out obnoxiously and even in the dark I swear I could see Varan's flush as he spluttered incomprehensively.

"I never really understood why it was called 'the birds and the bees'." Wasp said, sounding interested.

"I assume it's some kind of inside joke." Angel said with a shrug.

"No pun intended?" I asked, grinning and Angel let out of a bark of laughter.

"It's the whole pollination thing." Fraggle said matter-of-factly and Varan groaned, covering his ears again.

"That makes sense for bees, but what about birds?" Wasp pressed.

"Well there's a slang term in there that might explain it, but..." Fraggle trailed off and Angel slumped against me, laughing.

"Really? I've never heard it called that one." Wasp said, looking down at herself and Varan made a noise like he was in honest to god pain.

"Okay, if you four don't shut up right now I'm just going to go home and try to forget the fact that I know you until tomorrow." He vowed and the four of us tried our best to sober up (figuratively, anyways). Or we did until Fraggle snapped his fingers and shouted "Forget-me-nots, that's it!" and sent us all into peals of laughter once more.

Feeling warm and happy inside I leaned back on my hands, craning me head back to take in the stars as Fraggle started up with one of his drinking songs and believe it or not Angel joined in (he'd taken the bottle back again despite his whole cute little slip-up). Neither of them could hold a tune very well but I liked listening to them anyways. Times like these, all of us well-fed, healthy and being maniacs together, were the most treasured things in the world to me, they were the rewards that came from our hard-earned victories. Right about now, I was on the top of the world; it didn't matter that we had no ship or mission or enough money to keep us running for very long, I was young and alive and my friends were young and alive and we had our whole lives ahead of us. I'd seen my mission through to the end and come out the other side intact, a bright new future was dawning for Varan and his people, Angel was making some serious progress on putting his life back in order and Stork would be awake soon. Everything was okay; we were all okay. Things didn't get much sweeter than that.

I had the sudden, strange feeling that Stork was sitting there with us in that moment, drawn to us by our radiating, triumphant attitudes. I felt as if she could have been sitting right next to me, squished between Fraggle and I, smiling her big pixie grin and drawing pictures out of the stars with me. I could see a few of our constellations now, one collection we'd decided was a dragon and another that we still couldn't agree on (I was certain it was a skull and cross bones, she insisted it was a rabbit and Angel, when he actually stopped pretending to be above such things to partake with us, said it looked like a hand giving the finger). I picked out a handful of our specialty named ones too: Pinkie, Charles, Sweet Pea, Mort, Nostradamus, Pretty Boy, Mr. Specks and the Polaris star that she and I had dubbed Sprag the Magnificent, a name that, whenever said aloud, was to be done so in an obnoxious announcer voice. God I could almost hear her saying it now, imagining her making a big, sweeping arm motion to illustrate the importance of said star. And yet it didn't drive that familiar little barb of longing into my heart to think about her now; maybe she really was there with us, commuting from the astral plane, her spirit out for a nice little stroll while her body rested.

'Hey Stork.' I thought, in case she was there and waiting to be greeted. If not maybe she'd be able to hear my thoughts in the strange coma-place she was, or at least pick up the messages when she got back. Or maybe that was just the whisky's logic. 'See all our stars up there? You know what the cool thing about them is? They're always going to be there, for as long as we live. They won't go out, not ours, not ever. They'll keep burning away even when the planet turns to a big ball of ice.'

'Oh you and your pseudo-intellect.' I could hear her say dismissively. Then, in a softer voice 'But yeah, it is pretty cool.'

Angel leaned in against me again, warm and boney, and I felt at peace, sandwiched between my two best friends. "So, do you think I have to start calling her Mom?" he asked me, sounding a little hazy and I weaseled the near-empty bottle out of his fingers.

"You can if you want to." I assured him. "I think she's been hoping you'd say it, actually."

"Really? I thought she'd think it was weird."

"Are you kidding? It'd probably melt right through her whole ice-queen facade." I said and he snorted half-heartedly.

"Would it be weird to you?" He asked and I felt touched, wrapping my good arm around his shoulders.

"Of course not."

Angel hummed and I could tell he was taking this all very seriously but of course he couldn't let that show so he simply said "So I'm the only one who'd find it weird. Figures."

I dug my knuckles into his scalp, deciding to withhold all comments along the lines of 'you totally wanna call her Mommy but are too scared to' (sing-songy voice included) because I knew how he got about these kind of things and didn't want him shutting down about it, not after he'd come so far. In all honesty I was very proud of him for all the progress he'd made and, acting on a whisky-induced spur of over-enthusiastic affection, I dropped a messy, brotherly kiss on the top of his dishevelled hair to tell him so.

He grunted and wriggled away from me a little bit. "We really need to stop doing that." He stated bluntly and I pretended to pout.

"What happened to not hiding my true feelings?" I asked, feigning hurt and he let out a rough sigh.

"Well not in public, jeez."

Grinning I shoved him into Wasp, who snared him in a headlock happily and nodded at me as if to confirm the completion of a business interaction.

"So, Chief, got a question for you there, eh." Fraggle spoke up then, letting one of his lyrics die halfway through.

"Shoot."

"Well, I was just wondering... Starla asked me what we planned on doing, you know, after we finished cleaning up the Atmos and whatever, and I didn't really have a good answer for her. I mean I figured we'd be doing something, eh, but... well, the reason we got roped into this whole freakshow in the first place was because of your nightmares, right?"

"Am I sensing some resentment there?" I asked and he laughed, swatting a hand at me that missed by miles.

"Oh no, course not eh. I just mean that's why you put together a squadron, that's why we did everything we did, right? But now that's all over, nightmares are gone, mission completed, hallelujah and all that rot. So what next? What're we gonna do now, eh?"

"You know, I asked Aerrow the exact same question." I said. "And he had a really good point. Sure the nightmares might be finished, Cyclonis is back in the grave where she belongs and Atmos is safe from disaster for a few years at least. But there are still bad people out there, there's always going to be somebody causing trouble, Vultures or otherwise. And there is miles and miles of space out there that's never been explored properly, all sorts of trouble to get into if we look for it hard enough. So nothing's over, not by a long shot. This isn't the end of anything, it's simply the start of a new chapter."

"Well listen to you, all wise and inspired." Varan quipped. "I was actually starting to miss your little motivational speeches."

"Pep talks." Angel insisted and I rolled my eyes.

"Pep talks." I repeated. "Anyways my point is once we're finished helping out the terras that need it we'll be able to find something to do, I'm sure of it. I mean, since when did we ever sit down and plan everything out? Winging it and running smack dab into some form of shitstorm or other is what we do best."

"True say, eh." Fraggle agreed, nodding. "That oughta be our slogan: We're in the business of finding trouble. And business is good."

"Christ look at us, a crest and a slogan? We're a regular boy scout troop." Angel said and Varan laughed.

"Oooh does that mean we get badges?" Wasp asked excitedly.

"So we're just gonna keep on kicking ass and looking damn sexy while doing so, eh." Fraggle confirmed and I paused thoughtfully as something occurred to me randomly. I recalled how dejected he'd seemed earlier after returning from his family, the homesickness that had sprung up once he'd finally realized how much he'd missed them. Without the dark shadow of looming destruction clouding my mind I realized that, while the thought of hitting the open skies and careening out of one misadventure and into another was more than enough to satisfy me, it might not be what the others wanted to deal with all the time anymore. After all, cheating death and having adventures was all well and good, but when you had friends and family outside your beloved squadron it certainly wasn't the only thing you wanted to be spending your time doing.

"Well, that's what I'm going to do, definitely." I said slowly after a few moments. "I just really can't picture any other life for myself. Maybe in like, twenty years I might feel like settling down a bit, but I just don't feel like doing that right now. But what about the rest of you? It's not up to me to decide what you do with your lives."

"Oh yeah, like you did such a good job at doing that to begin with." Angel commented before putting on a voice that I imagined would be what a puppy dog's sounded like if he suddenly learned how to speak: "'Hi I'm Falshade, I have no idea what the hell I'm doing but if you'd like to come along that'd be much appreciated! No pressure though! Just because I'm at the head of this freak parade doesn't mean you have to follow me!'"

"No offence Shade, but that does sum you up rather accurately." Varan admitted, grinning like a crocodile while Fraggle sank into hysterics.

I huffed. "You use the same lame-ass voice to imitate everybody." I reported moodily and Angel made an 'ouch' face to demonstrate how deeply I'd wounded him with my pathetic comeback. I really needed to start working on those before Stork woke up. "What I meant was it's not just up to me what we do after all of this. You guys all have equal say and I just wanted to know if any of you had something else in mind, since we're all here and talking about it."

I could sense Varan, Fraggle and Angel all on the verge of saying something before they paused to let my words really sink in and mull it over. Suddenly I felt a violent streak of fear and wished I would have just kept my mouth shut; who knows, now that they weren't neck deep in my mission maybe they felt they should take the opportunity to stretch their own wings a bit. Aside from Varan all of them had saddled themselves with me and my harebrained quest completely on a whim; with that under their belts what was to stop them from doing their own thing for a little while? I wouldn't be offended or hurt if they decided to strike out on their own but still, the thought terrified me. I couldn't imagine operating without them, I'd feel lost and lonely all the time and, let's be honest here, who was I really without the rest of them? Sure I could take care of myself but... it just wouldn't be the same.

I was considering unlacing my boot so I could effectively stick my foot in my mouth when, after a few tense moments of pensive silence, Angel showed his true colours, the most loyal guy on the planet when it came down to the things that really mattered.

"Well, I sure as hell ain't going anywhere." He said, stretching and popping his back casually. "You're not getting rid of me that easily, Shade. You're stuck with me for life now, kid."

I let out the breath I'd unknowingly been holding and smiled; this heart warming sentiment coming from the kid who'd joined me in the first place because he had nothing better to do. I wrapped my arm around his narrow shoulders again to let him know just how damn much I appreciated it. "And I'm sure a day may come when I'll regret that." I retorted and he grinned, letting me crush him into my ribs.

"I'm staying too." Wasp added. "I can't really see myself doing anything else anymore either. Besides, where would you be without your psycho?"

"Well I'm sure we'd be under less scrutiny from several insane asylums, anyways." Angel said and Wasp bared her teeth at him, werewolf grin in full force. I stroked her ear softly, silent gratitude, and she rubbed her chin against my hand like a large cat, purring and everything.

"What about you guys?" I asked evenly, turning to look at the other two. "You both have family outside the rest of us, I figured you guys might want to spend more time with them now..."

"Well, that's true, and once we get a ship again I'm going to insist that we fly down to Nord at least once a month eh." Fraggle said and I nodded. "And sure, I could go back to fishing or find something else to do; still wouldn't mind being in a rock band you know. But man, life would be so boring after all the shit I've been through with you punks, eh. I wouldn't be able to just chill without thinking 'this is what I could be doing right now' in the back of my mind. And, you know, I've come to like you guys and whatever." He added nonchalantly but I heard all the words he wasn't saying.

"Thanks Fraggle, we heart you too." I said, tugging his toque down into his face. "So that's one maniacal fuzz ball, one jackassy sharpshooter and one personal attack Faerie." I ticked off on my fingers.

"And one dumb ass Sky Knight." Angel added pointedly.

"Well I wasn't gonna say it like that." I said but added myself to the count anyways. "So that just leaves you, Varan."

The four of us leaned forward a bit so we could get a look at him, sitting there at the end of our little row contemplatively, looking out at the expanse of winking stars and not meeting our gaze. My heart lurched fearfully as I took in the uncertainty on his face and suddenly I wished we would have just shut up and been more mature when he'd asked, kept all those tasteless comments at bay. Maybe he'd been waffling over the idea to stay behind and build a life of his own and our childish behaviour had finalized his decision.

Finally, after what felt like ages, he cleared his throat and started speaking in a soft, hesitant voice. "...They're going to need me out on Bogatri you know, especially in these next few months." He started slowly, his tail flickering over the dry stone like an agitated snake. "Repton isn't very good at dealing with the Council, he'd like for me to be there from time to time when they stop by. And... I want to be a part of what's going on out there. I've grown up with humans yes but I'm still a Terradon and I'd like to be around my people sometimes, learn more about them."

"Well yeah, of course." I said, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice. What was he saying? Had he decided to move out there after all?

"And then there's Pippa, and Roo." He went on, swallowing uncomfortably but keeping his nerve. "I'd like to spend time with them too, when I can. It just seems like it'd be hard, to balance everything. Especially since, as you pointed out Shade, we never seem to know where we're going to be from one day to the next. I'm worried that if I try to be everywhere at once, someone's going to get left out."

I swallowed down the lump that was rising in my throat, telling myself I had to be supportive here and couldn't let my own feelings get in the way of what was best for Varan. He had a very good point, he had his own agenda to take care of and people who needed him and cared about him just as much as we did. It wouldn't be fair for us to hog him all to ourselves.

But, god, what would we do without him? He was the glue that held our reckless circus together, he was the one who stitched our wounds closed when we screwed up and was the level-headed rock we needed to keep our dynamics stable. Not to mention we'd probably all starve to death without him.

Varan finally turned to look at us as if only just realizing how nervously we were waiting for his next words. "You guys know I've never been as gung-ho about adventure and danger as the rest of you seem to be. I think I'd be perfectly capable of making a quiet life for myself somewhere around here. Probably spare me the ulcer in any case." He said quietly and my heart faltered, not sure if I'd be able to handle his next words. "But..." Or not. "But I know I'd never be happy knowing you guys were out there somewhere, getting yourselves into trouble. I'd be worried about you all the time and... well I'd miss being around all of you. So wherever you guys are, that's where I'll be, come what may of that."

I felt relief sweep through me so violently it was even more intoxicating than the Firecracker. "And check one neurotic lizard." I concluded and Varan grinned, small but sincere nonetheless.

"Phew, for a moment there I thought were going to have to bust out the tissues eh." Fraggle said, breathing out a sigh of relief and sniffling a little before glaring at Varan reproachfully. "Well jeez, eh, you didn't have to give us all a bloody heart attack! Could have come to that conclusion in a less round-about way."

"Sorry." Varan said, patting the top of his head soothingly. "I just wanted to make sure you all understand that, because as much as I adore being part of the team I've got some other responsibilities now I can't just pass off."

"We understand." I said quickly. "We'll be as supportive as possible and hey if you have to go off on your own sometimes to take care of things than that's completely fine too."

"Thank you. I knew you guys would get it, and I'm sure I'll find a way to make it all work out." Varan said, gripping my shoulder as if he could sense how scared he'd made me feel with that big spiel of his. You know in hindsight I wondered if he'd planned it all like that, a small slice of vengeance for all the times we'd pushed him to his wit's end and hadn't paused to apologize for it afterwards. Then he raised his brow as if surprised. "Ange? You okay?"

I turned to take in Angel's expression, an equal mixture of alarm and rebuke "...Don't you ever do that to me again!" He snapped, jabbing a finger at Varan, who looked just as taken aback by this outburst as I felt. "You can't leave me, damnit! How the hell am I supposed to make brownies all on my own?"

Ah, now it made sense.

Varan covered his face, laughing his grating, reptilian laughter. "Of course, I should have known. You don't actually care about me as a person, do you?"

Angel rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Eh, you've got your charms I suppose." He relented and I cuffed him around his smart-mouthed head.

"So we're still the Gargoyles then, eh." Fraggle confirmed.

"Still the Gargoyles. All we need now is for our cantankerous grease monkey to wake up and we've got the full roster." I said, draining the last of the whisky and feeling content. Now that everyone had settled down again and we were all on the same page, had as close to a plan as we'd ever get, I felt it was a good a time as any to bring up the next matter on my mind. "So I had another dream last night." I reported and was met by groans and yowls of displeasure from everyone but Wasp:

"Oh dude no, not already eh, we're not even finished recovering from the first doomsday!"

"I knew you had some ulterior motive to all that team spirit bullshit!"

I grinning good naturedly, holding up my hands for peace. "It's okay, it was nothing bad." I explained quickly and the others fell into grudging silence, waiting for an elaboration. "It wasn't a nightmare this time, but it still seemed like them somehow, I got the same gut feeling from it that I always got from them." I went on. "We were standing here, all of us. Stork was here too, and her hair was back to normal. We could see the whole Atmos from here and there was this massive storm of fire sweeping over all the terras. But it wasn't burning them or anything; it was like everything it touched fell away and was replaced with something new again. So we just stood here and let it come, let it catch us all in the middle of it. And once it passed all of our scars were gone." I said, rubbing at the skin of my upper arm as if I could still feel the flames licking at it. The dream had been short and clean, no horrifying images of blood, gore and gruesome monsters leaving bruises on my brain tissue. But it had felt just as real as its grisly siblings always had, clear and sharp and filled with purpose. I'd woken with heat glowing from my skin and a solid feeling in my chest, not necessarily good or monumental, but a simple, tangible satisfaction, one of those indescribable, visceral moments that tells you without a shadow of doubt you're life is right where it was intended to be.

"Purification by fire." Wasp mused after a few minutes during which we'd sat in silence, as if the others could all feel the same feeling of affirmation as I had.

"Yeah, sounds about right." I agreed. "I dunno, to me it just felt like that whatever forces sent me the dreams in the first place were telling me it was over, I'd done what I'd needed to do, we all had, and we'd done it right. Like they were telling me this is the end of bad dreams."

"No." Wasp said and we all turned to look at her. "You said it yourself, Falshade, there are always going to be bad things going on the world." She pointed out in that voice that seemed to come from elsewhere in time, a wise, ancient soul speaking through one crazy young woman.

"That's right, I did." I agreed. "I guess it's just one of those things, what did you call them, an ugly, right?"

Wasp nodded. "Right. As they say, them's the breaks."

"Well in that case maybe it meant the end of nightmares at least." I decided. "No more of those really bad things that shouldn't ever be, not in our lifetime anyways."

Wasp seemed to think about this carefully. "Yeah..." she said eventually. "That sounds right to me."

I watched another shooting star plummet towards the thin grey line where the sun was beginning to peak up over the edge of the world and let the comfort of those words flow through me. It was a strange, almost frightening feeling to finally let go of the certainty that something terrible was clawing its way up from the bowels of the earth, the images of bloodshed and destruction that had pushed me through the majority of my life, sitting like an ugly spider on a thick web in the back of my mind. But it felt good too, like finally letting your muscles unknot after holding them tightly for days on end. Any qualms I'd had about who I was and what I'd do now that the goal I'd been bent on for so long had finally been obtained were washed away under the calming presence of my friends and the knowledge that every ending was connected to an equally promising beginning. The whole world was at our fingertips and we could take our time before plunging in and grabbing hold once again, see where it would sweep us off to next.

I was allowed to bask in the feeling of tranquility and closure for about half a minute before the peace was broken by, of course, Angel, who let out a belch so loud it echoed down in the rocky clefts below.

"Whoa ho, man, did not taste like that when I ate it." He reported and Fraggle started snorting and giggling uncontrollably.

"Oh for fuck sakes." I said, covering my nose. "Is it physically impossible for you to sit through just one of my heartfelt moments without ruining it? I was having a perfectly good Zen moment there!"

"How was I supposed to hold that in?" He demanded. "I told you, I am no good at handling all these touchy-feely moments you constantly insist on having. I can't help it, it's in my DNA or something! I thought I did pretty good there, I let it go for about thirty seconds didn't I?"

I sighed but let it go. "That's true. I suppose that's all I can ask for concerning you, isn't it?"

"Yes." He nodded. "Yes it is."

In the last few moments before we got up to drag our tired bodies home for a few hours of sleep I thought about the truth of that last statement. Not concerning Angel, but the complex workings of the entire world. Wasp was right, there was no such thing as complete peace and freedom from the things that knock you down and make you want to hunker under your blankets until the hurt goes away. There was always going to be patches of ugliness slithering through our lives, nobody was exempt from that fact. It'd be nice if we could all live in a perfect, harmonious world but that paradise was nothing more than a dream of a dream. But that didn't mean the world was a cruel, heartless place either. Light and darkness played an equal part, strung in an interweaving network between us all. Just as often as you'd experience heartbreak or nightmares or the death of someone you held dear there was always the friendly faces of those you treasured, strokes of luck and countless fresh days that you could draw your path across. If you let your collection of victories, precious memories and all the things you loved outweigh your tragedies, fears and disappointments, you'd always be able to gather your feet under yourself again and continue along on the road to wherever it was you wanted to be. The bad things were going to happen and all you could do was grit your teeth and plough on through until things brightened and evened out again and in those times you could sink your teeth into all the things there were worth holding on for, revel in the zest and bliss for as long as it lasted.

In the end, that balance was all we could ask for. That was all we really needed.