Author's Notes: I challenged myself to write an Enslaved Christmas story and this is what came out. Eternal thanks to B.C. Daily, who demanded to read a fic about a game she hadn't even played, and Raindog Bride, for all the reasons she knows about and more besides.
I'll Be Home
Monkey leaned back on his bike and wondered—not for the first time—whose bright idea it had been to build a town at the top of a mountain.
Snow wasn't something he'd generally had to worry about. It hardly ever got cold enough in the first place, and even when it did, the blanket of white on the ground was usually gone by midday. He watched out for ice on the road and took his time, but that was the extent of how much Monkey had ever thought about snow.
He was thinking about it quite seriously now. Specifically, the snow currently blocking the main path up to Trip's village. She'd warned him about the mountain weather when he'd left, but he hadn't paid her much mind, especially considering she'd also warned him about roving mechs, road conditions, and keeping warm, as if he hadn't managed it all this time without her there to remind him. Sometimes she seemed to forget that a lot of people didn't have the luxury of a community like hers and they made it just fine. Most of the time, anyway.
Monkey scowled at a snow bank and scratched the stubble on his chin with a finger. There was no helping it; he'd have to turn back and go all the way around to the secondary path. That side of the mountain got more sunlight and more wind and Monkey had some idea that it might have been hit less hard. He'd lose a day, maybe more, and he was already close to running over the estimate he'd given Trip. She might be getting worried.
He snorted. She'd probably started worrying as soon as he'd disappeared from her sight. Maybe one of these days she was going to trust that he could take care of himself without her. And maybe one of these days mechs would start giving piggyback rides to kids, too.
The gleam of the sun on the snow was starting to give Monkey a headache and he didn't want to waste any more time. "All right, let's see if I can catch a break," he said to no one as he awkwardly turned the bike around, twice as heavy with the cargo he'd strapped onto the back. Just another day or two; he could deal with that.
"Just another day or two," Trip breathed to herself for the fiftieth time that morning, give or take a dozen.
"What was that?" Dan looked up from the console and glanced over at her curiously.
Trip flushed and immediately busied herself with her datapad, fingers flying over the screen. "Uh—nothing. Readings for sector seven are normal."
He nodded and turned back to the console to make a few notes. "So we're fine in one, two, four, and seven, but the grid is faltering in the rest."
"Yeah. We should be good for another couple weeks, but after that stability's going to be an issue." She let out a breath and watched it mist into the air, glowing blue in the light of her screen. It was bitterly cold in the main power room. Trip hated spending time in there in winter and lately it might as well have been her second home. A room crowded with humming machinery was normally such a comforting presence, but all the metal made for a pretty bleak environment when the temperature dropped.
Trip swiped at her screen and it winked out of sight. She rubbed her hands together vigorously for a few moments before slipping them into her jacket. Dan was still squinting at the console and typing in the test results and didn't look up when she walked over and peered over his shoulder.
Somehow seeing it displayed on the screen made the situation seem ten times worse. The village had already been facing a tough winter before the main substation had overloaded in spectacular fashion (Trip had been almost as fascinated as she was horrified at the sight of electricity like lightning bolts coursing through the metal grid). Now, though—now they were up the creek without a paddle, as her father had been fond of saying. When he'd ever been on a boat she didn't know; he'd probably picked the phrase up from one of the old books he'd loved so much.
She scanned through the reports with a sinking feeling in her chest. "It's not good."
Dan finished typing and leaned back in his seat. "No, it's not."
"I guess I'd hoped—" Trip ran a frustrated hand down the side of her face and rested her chin on it. "I guess I'd hoped we were going to last a little longer than this."
The console beeped and Dan punched in a few keys to move the report to the backup file system. There were years of data collected there, absolutely invaluable for predicting energy usage and trends. Trip had never found this aspect of running the town all that interesting compared to tinkering with the machines themselves, and her father had generally left her to her own devices. She wished she'd paid a little more attention, before she didn't have her father anymore.
She did have another advantage, though.
"Should be any day now, right?" Dan swiveled around in the chair to look up at her expectantly.
Trip's brain skittered and tried to find context. "What?"
"For Monkey. Shouldn't he be back with the parts soon?"
She did her best to pretend she didn't know not only how many days it had been since he'd left, but the exact number of hours as well. It wasn't as if it was hugely important or anything; she just liked to keep track of things like that. "He said seven days, ten at the most, depending on how long the search would take." She let out a frustrated breath. "I wish I'd gone with him."
Dan shook his head. "You couldn't. You're the only one besides me who knows how to maintain the grid, and we have to have a backup."
"I know." She knew. But that didn't make her feel any less like clawing her own skin off as the days ticked by and there was no sign of Monkey.
"He'll be back soon. When's he ever let you down, huh?"
A non-committal response was on her lips but it died as soon as she saw the look on Dan's face. She refused to acknowledge the heat that suddenly made its way up her neck. "Stop it."
"Stop what?" He gave her his best earnestly innocent look.
"Not you. I'll take it from everyone else, but not you. We have to work together too much."
He chuckled and dropped it, to Trip's relief. Then his expression turned more serious. "I was talking with the Doc yesterday about going ahead with the celebration."
Trip frowned. "You think we should? Even after seeing these numbers? If we can't get the new parts installed in time—"
"I think we should," he interrupted. "Maybe another year, maybe before everything—happened, we would have cancelled. I think your dad would have seriously considered it, as much as he loved this time of year."
Dan got up and walked a few steps away. He ruffled his hand through his hair absently and paused for a moment before speaking again. "The people living here now aren't the people you grew up with, Trip. Not most of them. That's why I was talking with the Doc, about what they'd been saying to her. The holiday they had is different from ours, but it's similar enough, and it means something to them. Maybe even more than it means to us. I think it's important."
Trip suddenly felt like a little girl only pretending to be grown up. She'd been so focused on the power situation that she hadn't had room for anything else, and here Dan was able to both do that and talk to Doctor Mills about the former enslaved, and who knew what else besides.
It wasn't as though Trip ignored the people of the town—far from it. She tried to get to know as many of them as possible and had even worked on learning all their names before the population grew so large she'd had to give up on that one. But the former enslaved were special; they were her responsibility and she took a very personal interest in their welfare. Recently, she'd heard snatches of conversations about the winter holiday they'd celebrated in the old world—even from the kids, the ones who'd adjusted to this new life better than most—but so much else had been going on that she hadn't pursued it.
"I didn't realize," she finally responded. Despite her discomfort, she looked up and met Dan's gaze steadily. "I should have talked to Doctor Mills. I should have—I don't know. Something."
Dan waved her off. "Trip, you're twenty years old. Do you think your dad was running a town this big at that age? Do you think he didn't have help? That's what we're all here for."
He moved closer and his arm twitched as if he were going to reach out to her but changed his mind. "I didn't know your dad that well, but he was a great guy and he took care of us. Maybe he couldn't save everybody when the slavers came, but he saved some. He did the best he could and that's all anyone expects out of you."
Trip didn't know what to say to that. She blinked her eyes a few times, hard, and cleared her throat. "I guess I should get the lights out and start setting up."
Dan smiled at her and started buttoning his coat up. "Good idea. It'll cheer you up, take your mind off things. You don't want to be all mopey when your boyfriend gets back."
He was already halfway out the door before her mind caught up to the end of that sentence. "Dan—"
Monkey was not an impatient person by nature. His life had been defined by delays and detours and waiting until a situation was safe before moving forward. Patience kept him alert and it kept him alive. He'd thought nothing about holing up for an entire day during a thunderstorm or going ten miles out of his way to get around a gap in the road.
People were another matter. Monkey didn't know how to deal with them, had never had enough opportunities, and he'd found himself exasperated more in the past half year than the entirety of his life up until that point. He was more than happy to leave the villagers to Trip and let her handle whatever problems cropped up. She even seemed to enjoy it most of the time. It was just one more thing in the long list of reasons why he'd never quite understand her.
He was not an impatient man. Impatience was risk and weakness and he knew better than to lose control of himself.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Monkey yelled into the uncaring swirl of snow around him. He struggled to keep the bike moving and jerked to a stop in the snow yet again. "Motherfucker!"
The storm had seemed to come out of nowhere in his view, although maybe Trip would have seen the signs. That wasn't much help to him now. Thick, wet flakes were almost raining down on him and it wasn't much better than mud as far as getting his bike through. This was getting worse, fast, and he had to find shelter.
Monkey shielded his eyes and squinted into the snow but he couldn't see much farther than a few yards. There might be something nearby, but damned if he could find it right now. He'd passed what might have been a cave about a half-hour ago—a long way to go back, but it might be his only option. With another string of curses he lurched the bike around and started making his way down the path.
When he finally got back to the half-hidden opening in the mountain, he was wetter and more pissed off than he'd ever been in his life. As luck would have it—and luck didn't seem to have a lot to do with him the past couple days—it was a decent-sized cave, big enough to haul the bike in with plenty of room to spare. It was probably the best he was going to get for waiting out the storm.
Dragging the bike inside after having to physically pull it out every time it'd gotten stuck in the snow took up almost the last of Monkey's energy. He gave it one last push and then leaned against the cave wall for a few minutes, panting and sweating despite the cold. Once he got his breath back, his hands fumbled around the back of the bike until he found the clasp for the compartment he kept his supplies in. He'd learned long ago to always keep a supply of firewood on hand, just enough until he could find more in the area.
It took six tries for him to ignite the pile of wood—far enough from the entrance that the snow wouldn't put it out, close enough that he wouldn't choke on the smoke—and Monkey had just about run out of swear words by the time it finally worked. He tore off his gauntlets and wet jacket and collapsed on the floor by the small fire.
"What a fucking day," he mumbled as he raised his hands to the fire to warm them up.
He'd been expecting to be back by now. Trip was expecting him to be back by now. It was the last day of the worst-case estimate he'd given her and he might as well be on the far side of the moon. He'd already lost a day having to take this other route and who knew how long storms lasted in these stupid mountains?
Monkey rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. It wasn't like he hadn't been in this situation many times before. Usually he spent it catching up on his sleep, sure at least that no mech or animal was going to brave a raging storm to look for prey. Time always passed quickly and before he knew it he was on his way again. All he had to do was close his eyes and relax.
He sat up abruptly and grabbed his gauntlets. There'd been something he wanted to check with his shields and now was as good a time as any to do it. He spent the rest of the day scowling at his equipment and watching the snow continue to fall.
It was stupid. She knew it was stupid. It was most definitively a stupid idea, and she was so worried and frustrated that she eagerly embraced her own idiocy as a way to avoid thinking about anything else.
Trip was sitting at home at her "junk table"—as Monkey had called it when he'd first seen the clutter of half-built gadgets and tools—fiddling with the Cloud. This was not, in itself, a stupid thing. She loved tinkering with machines, especially unfamiliar ones, pulling them apart to see how they ticked and trying to build them back up even better. She wasn't always successful, but most of the time she at least learned something and managed to get them back to their original state (most of the time; she still didn't think Doctor Mills had ever quite forgiven her for what happened to the ultrasound machine).
Trying to hack the Cloud wasn't stupid. It was more the reasons for it that had Trip squirming uncomfortably. About a month ago, she'd asked Monkey if she could take a look at it, ostensibly to study the way it harnessed electromagnetic resonations and possibly replicate them. He'd given it over with only slight reluctance—the man was never eager to part with his equipment, and god help her if she even looked at his bike while carrying some kind of tool—but it had been sitting in her house untouched for the past few weeks while she'd debated about how much of an idiot she wanted to be.
Because she wasn't working on it for her own curiosity or for the village or for any of the usual reasons; she was doing it for him, as a present for the winter holiday, and she was so anxious and embarrassed by this she thought she might die.
Her father had always loved this holiday and he'd passed that love on to his daughter. No one had really known where it had come from or even what its name was supposed to be, so they'd just called it the "winter holiday" and left it at that. It was a time for decorating the village with sparkling lights and giving gifts to people—handmade, since there weren't really any other kinds around. Her own clumsy efforts had always been enthusiastically received by her father, even when she later realized how silly they'd been.
She absently thumbed the necklace he'd given her the year before he'd died. Usually he presented her with some new tool or half-broken mech to tinker with, but that year he'd said he wanted to give her something beautiful.
Trip stared down at the table unseeingly. Going into the holiday without her dad—maybe that was why she'd been so reluctant to celebrate like they'd always done before. Together.
She'd taken the time that day to talk to a few of the former enslaved, the healthier ones, the ones who could talk about the old world without sinking into a despair she was as helpless to prevent as understand. They told her about a holiday called Christmas, and brightly wrapped presents, and an old man wearing a red suit. A lot of it didn't make sense but it was enough to guess that what her father had celebrated here had probably come from this, a hundred and more years in the past. Seeing their faces light up as they described trees glittering with lights was enough to tell her that Dan had been right. They needed this; they all needed this.
And she needed to get to work if she was really going through with this present idea. There were only a couple days left until the holiday and she was nowhere near done. It had to be ready for when Monkey got back. When he got back. It was day eleven now, and—
Trip bent over the Cloud and immersed herself in gadgetry.
Monkey was pretty certain he was going out of his mind. This was a new feeling for him, but he thought it was one of those things you just recognize when it happens.
A day and a half and the snow hadn't stopped. In fact, it looked like it was snowing harder now than yesterday. He'd even ventured out into it to check in case the view from the cave was warping his perceptions. The two hours he'd spent soaking wet afterward reminded him of why that was a really stupid idea.
He'd fixed all the problems with his equipment. He'd checked over every inch of his bike. He'd wiped down the parts he was bringing to the village to make sure they wouldn't start to rust. He'd even found some wood outside that was now drying in a corner of the cave. In short, he'd finished doing every single productive thing there was to do.
When he realized he'd spent the past ten minutes pacing back and forth, trying to remember which side of Trip's face that the one part of her hair always fell into, he stopped short.
"I'm going outta my mind," he said to his bike. The bike was silent.
Everything was silent. There was no steady hum of electricity or the cries of birds circling high above or the distant chatter of townspeople. Monkey was supposed to be used to silence; prefer it, even. In silence, he could hear the sullen whine of a nearby mech, listen for sources of water running clean and fresh. Silence kept him alive.
The only problem was, silence wasn't a bright, enthusiastic voice explaining something he couldn't possibly understand. It didn't mutter the steps of a solution to itself when it thought he couldn't hear and get a bit flustered when it found out he had. It didn't respond to him with a comment or a laugh or just a smile, no matter what he said or when he said it. As if it wanted to listen.
Monkey stopped when he reached the back of the cave and stared at the wall for a moment. Then he rested his arms against it and pressed his forehead to the cold rock, closing his eyes. Eleven days. Trip was either going to hug him or yell at him, and he wasn't sure he wouldn't take either one right about now.
It wasn't exactly a normal occurrence for Trip to be up at three in the morning tearing apart her living room, but it wasn't unheard of either.
"Where is the fucking thing?" she cried out, barely resisting the urge to stomp her foot. It still felt a bit strange swearing in her house, like her father was just around the corner ready to give her a stern look. She hadn't cared much then and she certainly didn't care now. In fact, the more swearing, the better. It may not help uncover the only square-headed screwdriver she owned and absolutely needed at the moment, but it sure felt satisfying.
She ignored the dragonfly watching from its perch, lens focusing and un-focusing as it followed her around the room. She'd wasted nearly an hour trying to program its target specifically enough that it wasn't just pointing out every screwdriver it found, and even after all that it still hadn't succeeded. She rather felt the silent treatment was no less than it deserved for failure. Trip was like that sometimes.
Cupboard after bench after drawer after shelf, and the room was starting to look as if a tornado had come through. Followed by a hurricane. And a decent-sized earthquake for good measure. She had almost, almost given up, ready to fall down on the spot and probably impale herself on something, when the most natural and just of occurrences happened: it was in the last place she looked.
"Oh my god, thank you," she breathed when she caught a glimpse of the red handle on the top of her wardrobe. There was barely enough room between it and the ceiling to even store something; no wonder she hadn't seen it before. She grinned at the dragonfly when she hurried past, feeling a wave of benevolent forgiveness. She braced herself against the wardrobe and stretched on her tiptoes, fumbling around with her hand. Why the screwdriver had been left up there, she had no idea, but finally she could finish the—
Her fingers brushed over contoured metal and she suddenly remembered exactly why it had been left up there.
Trip was frozen for what seemed like several hours to her—actually about five seconds—and then before she even knew what she was doing, she grabbed the hunk of metal and pulled it down. The headband looked just like she remembered: curved and styled burnished metal, far too beautiful for what it was. That she could even appreciate its beauty on some level made her stomach roil uncomfortably.
She walked over to the couch and swept its contents onto the floor so she could sit down. The headband was cold and dark in her hands, had been ever since that day at Pyramid. Neither of them had thought to take it off with all the chaos around them until well after they'd made it back to the village. Then it was just one of many among the former enslaved, the ones who couldn't bear to remove it yet, but it was the one she'd decided to pick apart to see how it worked. Useful technology was useful technology, and Trip couldn't afford to let an opportunity go to waste.
The first night, she'd spent an hour or two breaking it down to its parts—it was the last time she'd needed the square-headed screwdriver; no wonder she'd forgotten—before getting tired and stopping for the day. The next, she'd poked at it for a few minutes and then moved on to something else. The third night she'd ignored it completely. When it got to the point where she'd been avoiding even looking at the table throughout the day, she'd known she was done. Another hour of carefully reassembling the headband until it looked just the same as before, and then she'd shoved it in the most hidden place she could find and stopped thinking about it. It had mostly even worked, until now.
Guilt wasn't something Trip dwelled on. As sorry as she was when she hurt people through her own carelessness, she made her decisions, owned up to them, and moved on. But when she stared at the headband and realized she was wishing more than anything that Monkey had never had to take it off, she felt so guilty she thought she might be sick.
Almost twelve days now. She'd been trying so hard not to think about it, to busy herself with tasks, people, anything at all, but it was a little difficult to do that while wide awake in the middle of the night holding the one thing that could always bring him back to her. It was agonizing not being able to know where he was or talk to him when she wanted. More than that, it felt wrong—like they were just supposed to be near each other, headband or no headband. The village needed the parts he'd gone to get, her people needed them, but right now the village could throw itself off a cliff for all she cared. Why couldn't she be selfish sometimes? Why couldn't she have what she needed?
Trip set the headband gently down beside her and rubbed her eyes. What she needed was sleep. There was a lot of work to do on the power grid and she was supposed to help set up for the celebration. Keeping busy had gotten her this far and it'd get her through the rest of it, however long it took.
Monkey woke up to find the mid-morning sun blaring in his eyes. He squinted and stared stupidly into it for a few moments, as if trying to remember what sunlight even was.
The realization came and he sat up so quickly his head swam. It was sunny. That meant it had stopped snowing. And that meant—
He practically threw on his gauntlets and started tossing supplies back into his bike in a frenzy. He triple-checked that all the parts were securely loaded—no way in hell he was getting back just to find out he'd dropped something—and gave the bike one last check. He had never been more ready to leave a place.
Monkey wheeled the bike out of the cave and almost closed his eyes shut at the blinding white around him. When his sight adjusted he took stock of the situation. It was pretty bad—snow covered the path and there was no way he could ride. But it was a warm day and the sun was already starting to melt a lot of it. If he just pushed on past the worst of it now, it should get better farther up. He set his shoulders back and moved the bike forward.
"You'd better damn well appreciate this, Trip," Monkey grunted as he strained against both snow and gravity. It was an empty threat; he knew she would, but focusing on the frustration of the last few days was the kind of thing that would help keep him moving.
In the end, though, it wasn't frustration he was thinking about as he slowly made his way up to the village above.
"Just a little more left—left—you're going to want to—I'd probably try—okay, fine, that works!"
Trip didn't know why they wouldn't just let her help string the lights across the square. Actually, she did have an idea why—the two boys doing it were young and eager and she thought they wanted to impress her. She actually was impressed; they were almost as agile climbing up poles and buildings as—
She frowned and looked at one of the boys without seeing him until he noticed her watching and almost dropped the cord.
Decorating the town square was a yearly tradition and one she'd always had a big part in. Usually individual houses strung up their own lights, using power they'd rationed over the past few weeks, but her father had always made sure the biggest display was saved for the main gathering place in the village. The pole at the center was spindled with lights that radiated out onto the pennant flags that hung all year round. It lit up the square so well they didn't even need to use the regular spotlights in the area.
Trip hugged her arms around herself and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains in the distance. It had been a warm day but now it looked like snow again. They'd had a lot recently, more than usual, but it had been dry, flaky stuff that didn't really get in the way of any of the equipment. Sometimes it turned wetter farther down where it was warmer, but no one had checked. It shouldn't have been enough to block the paths, at any rate.
The boys seemed to have the lighting under control, so Trip jogged over to the console and brought up her datapad screen. The lights themselves were energy-efficient, they'd long ago made sure of that, but it still required a not inconsiderable rerouting of the grid. Only Trip and Dan had access permission to do this; power supply was a sensitive issue in communities like this, especially now.
"Trip! We're done," one of the boys shouted at her a few minutes later.
"Almost there," she yelled back, finishing up the last of the grid modifications. It was fully dark now and the perfect time to test out the setup. She was just a little nervous; her father had always done this part before. Trip took a deep breath and pressed the buttons on the console.
A burst of light behind her and she heard the excited whoops of not only the boys, but a few other people who'd come to watch. She turned around and couldn't help but grin at the sight of the brightly lit square.
"It's beautiful," she heard someone say as she walked back over to inspect their work. Trip nodded in silent agreement. She felt like she hadn't seen anything so beautiful in a very long time.
The square grew more crowded as people came to see the lights. The kids especially were delighted by the sight and ran around chasing each other and laughing. Some of the villagers came up to Trip, many of them former enslaved, and thanked her. She didn't know quite what to say to that, but she felt their happiness and what it meant to them.
She stayed there for a long time, just standing and looking up at the lights. Almost everyone went home after a while, to get out of the snow, have dinner and spend time with their loved ones. The lights felt more like home right then to Trip than the empty house waiting for her. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath of crisp air.
"You've been busy."
Her eyes snapped open. She whirled around and saw Monkey standing a few meters away, looking up at the lights with a slightly bemused expression on his face. She blinked rapidly several times in case she was imagining things. No, he was still there; solid and familiar and real.
He finally looked down at her. "It's nice, I guess, but why so many? It nearly blinded me coming up from—" He grunted as she threw herself at him and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck.
"Hey, easy, it's been a long trip." But his arms came up around her and he held her perhaps more closely than he usually might have done. They stayed like that for a few moments, the world still around them except for the falling snow, before Trip's cold nose brushed against his neck and he flinched away.
"How long you been out here?" he demanded, pulling back to get a look at her. "You're freezing."
"Sorry," she said, feeling anything but. She was smiling so widely she thought her face might crack. She dropped her arms and leaned back and he did the same, but neither of them moved any farther away. "So what happened? Why did it take so long?"
"Snow," he replied with a scowl. "I got bogged down on the paths and had to wait it out."
"I didn't realize it was so bad down there. At least you made it okay." Trip still couldn't stop smiling, but even her joy at his return couldn't make her forget the reason he'd gone in the first place. "Did you find all the parts?"
Monkey made a motion behind his shoulder and she saw the bags piled at the entrance to the square. She felt a burst of satisfaction and already her mind started whirring and preparing for the installations she'd be able to do tomorrow. The substation could be fully up and running again in as little as a week and—
She looked back at Monkey and all thoughts of the power grid fled her mind. He was staring at her face intently for some reason and she self-consciously pushed her hair behind her ears and cleared her throat. "You must be exhausted, you should get some rest."
He shook his head. "We can't leave these parts out here. I'll move them to the station first."
"That's all the way on the other side of town," Trip protested. "How about you just bring them to my place for tonight?"
Monkey considered her for a moment. "Fine," he finally replied. He really did seem tired, and Trip wondered if he'd been through more than he was telling her.
He hoisted the bags over his shoulder and waved her off when she tried to scrap even this idea once she saw how heavy they were. They didn't speak again as they walked out the square together and through the village. Trip saw him looking at the lights on people's houses but he made no comment. It was doubtful he'd ever seen displays like this before, living like he had. He'd have to have heard people talking about the celebration over the past few weeks, but he'd given any indication what he felt one way or the other about it. She thought about the recently-finished Cloud sitting on her desk and felt her stomach tighten.
They got to her front door, the frame lined with bright white lights, and Trip gave him a quick smile as she opened it. "Just in here's fine," she said, fingers searching the wall for the light. "Then you can—oh no."
She hadn't bothered cleaning up any of the mess from last night and it somehow looked even worse now than it had before. Trip wasn't the neatest person in general, but this went far behind messy; this was a disaster area. She felt a flush spread across her cheeks and refused to look at Monkey as she practically fell into the room and started trying to clear a path.
"I just—ow—one second—I have to—fuck—" She cradled her foot gingerly after stepping on—okay, she didn't even know what that was. When she finally straightened back up she looked around the room somewhat hopelessly before turning back to Monkey. "You could really just toss them anywhere, I guess."
He was so obviously amused she would have wanted to hit him if she weren't so happy he was back. Even then, it was close. He took a large step into a clear spot in the room and tossed the bags onto the couch with a clatter. "So," he started, and she mentally braced herself. "Been working on landmines lately?"
"Har har," she bit back. "I'll have you know I've—" Here she paused for a moment before making a sudden decision and tripping her way over to her junk table. She grabbed up the Cloud and took a deep breath before turning back to him. His eyes widened slightly as he noticed what she was holding.
"I've actually been working on this for you. It's kind of a present. I mean, it is a present. For you. That I've been working on." Monkey was staring at her and Trip mentally slapped herself ten times before soldiering on. "I expanded the electromagnetic resonation field so it'll work on more types of surfaces than it used to, and I also raised the weight limitations. You'll be able to carry things when you're on it, stuff like that."
"Like a person?" he asked.
"Yeah, like another person." It couldn't be physiologically possible to blush this furiously. It just couldn't. "I've been meaning to take a look at it for a while and this seemed like a good time, so I could give something to you."
"For the winter holiday," he said. He was still looking slightly amused and Trip nodded as bravely as she could manage.
"Right. The winter holiday. I don't know if you've run into that before—I don't know if other communities have them—and I know it probably doesn't mean much to you, but it does to me, and I just wanted to—do something, for you, to thank you for being here and helping out so much, and—what's that?"
He'd been rummaging around in his jacket while she was speaking and had finally pulled out a small bag. A small glowing bag, that he was holding out for her. "Take it."
She automatically set the Cloud down and took the bag from him, but she let it dangle from her hand, and looked at it as if she'd never seen a bag before. "What is it?"
"It's for you."
"For me," she said stupidly.
Trip looked up at him in total bewilderment. "But—why?"
She could tell he'd restrained himself from rolling his eyes, but only just. "Didn't we go over this two minutes ago?"
Somehow none of this was making sense to her still. "So...it's a present?"
"Yes," Monkey said in exasperation, patience gone. "Will you just open it already?"
She looked down at the bag for a moment longer. He'd actually gotten her a present. A present, for her, for the winter holiday. Never in a million years would she have expected that from him, and she was almost reluctant to open the bag and put an end to the sheer astonishment she felt.
Almost reluctant, because it was still a present from Monkey and now that the shock was fading she was just dying to know what it was. Trip tore the bag open and gasped when she saw the pulsing blue glow in her hands.
"A power cell! And it looks nearly full! Where did you find this?" She would have been speechless with delight if she'd been anyone other than herself. As such—"I've been trying to get my hands on one like this for ages, I actually know just where to put it tomorrow. I can't believe—"
The amusement was back in his eyes and he let her babble on excitedly until she noticed how much more relaxed he looked now, like he'd actually been nervous about giving this to her. That made her feel so...something, she could barely stand it. She set the cell down beside the Cloud and met his gaze seriously. "Monkey, thank you. It's perfect. Really."
Monkey shifted in place a bit and cleared his throat. "Well, good. And thanks for working on the Cloud. You did a good job."
Trip grinned at him. "You're welcome."
"Even if you only did it so you could ride on it, too."
"Yeah, yeah." Monkey stretched his shoulders back until they popped. "Listen, I'd better get going. It's been a long trip."
She nodded and grabbed up the Cloud to offer it to him. "Of course. Don't forget this."
"Thanks." He frowned at it for a moment and muttered something that sounded like "coulda used this" before hooking it back on his gauntlet.
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing. Night, Trip." He turned and started to pick his way across the room.
"Night. Oh, and—"
Monkey paused at the door and looked back at her inquiringly. She suddenly felt foolish, but it was a good kind of foolish, the kind where she knew no matter what she said or did the worst that she'd ever get in return was an eye roll or a waspish comment. She could live with that. She could happily live with that every day. "I'm really glad you're back, Monkey."
If he had an expression on his face, she couldn't decipher it. But he finally nodded at her. "Me too. See you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," she repeated and gave him a little wave that he returned without looking back before she closed the door.
After he'd left, she turned to her power cell and picked it up again. The blue glow felt like life to her, life and so many other things besides. She could use this and it would help people, but for now, it was hers alone. That was something worth holding onto for just a little longer.
The idea came in an instant and the next second, Trip was out the door. The snow nestled in her hair like stars as she reached up on her tiptoes, hands busy, then stepped back to admire her work. The white lights around the door winked in the darkness, but none as brightly as the blue burst of light sparkling at the top of the door frame.
"Perfect," she said, and it was.