Episode 123

A pair of green eyes sluggishly open, and an infant bundled in a blanket awakens. His gaze wanders as he wiggles within the wrap of soft, brightly colored fabric. Seconds later, sparks of curiosity shape the expression on his tan and light gray face. In a lull of the surrounding conversation, the infant squirms for freedom from his blanket swaddling. Shadeesa gazes down at the baby securely in her arms and smiles lovingly with a bow of her head closer. “Good morning, sleepy.”

The infant’s face flits with recognition and he calms quickly with a look upwards. Shadeesa gently combs the blonde locks of hair slipping out from a warm knit cap and feels a faint pair of bumps near the sides of his forehead. She blinks her similarly colored green on black eyes and grins happily. “I’m beginning to think Cassidy’s horns might come in a little early.”

Across the small table, Kaleb lifts himself up in his chair, cranes his view around leftover breakfast, and smiles proudly at Cassidy. “Before he teethes? Don’t emin horns come in around then?”

Shadeesa gently rocks Cassidy and glances around the small dining area near the kitchen. “Usually. They can come in sooner. His horn beds are developing nicely, but the skin hasn’t thickened yet.”

She spots a filled baby bottle, frees a hand, and motions towards it. “Could you get that for me?”

Kaleb follows the gesture, nods to Shadeesa, and stands up from the table. Picking up the glass bottle, he inspects the milk inside and touches the outside to his wrist. “Feels a little on the cool side.”

Securing Cassidy in her arms, Shadeesa rises up from her chair, nods her head towards the seat, and smirks at Kaleb. “I’ll warm it back up. Why don’t you feed him?”

Kaleb steps over, places the bottle on the table top, and sits down. He reaches out at the ready, and Shadeesa carefully lays the bundled baby into his awaiting arms. Supporting the infant’s weight and heavy head, Kaleb smiles proudly at Cassidy and sways with gentle rocks. “How’s my little boy today?”

Cassidy watches the suntanned face of his father and calms at his voice. Shadeesa blinks her eyes to an illuminated green and swiftly gestures out an incantation. Plucking the bottle off the table, she methodically swirls the contents inside while holding the container over the palm of her other hand. Faint translucent flows of energy wrap around the glass, and Shadeesa directs her full concentration upon the task. Kaleb glances back down at Cassidy and watches the brief moments of curiosity guide his short attention span. Shaking his head with a humored smirk, Kaleb chuckles softly. “Yeah, there’s all kinds of things around. Just starting to see them, huh?”

Faint puffing of air resonates into the area from a fogging window. Lagi’s bright green eyes dart between the Shadeesa and Kaleb. His longing gaze settles upon the infant face peering out from the bundle in Kaleb’s arms. A pining slips in from other side of the glass. Kaleb notices Cassidy’s attempt to tilt his head towards the noise and smirks. “Yeah, there’s also a really big dragon that wants to see his little brother.”

Infiltrating the peaceful moment, flits of irritation and discomfort taint the calm on Cassidy’s round face. Kaleb quirks his brow, glances over to Shadeesa, and chuckles uneasily. “How’s that bottle coming? I think he’s realizing he’s hungry.”

Shadeesa narrows an inquisitive stare at the settling contents in the glass container with a small nipple on top. She swiftly turns the inside of her wrist up, and sprinkles a few drops of milk upon it. Blinking in thought, she nods to herself, pivots around, and presents the baby bottle. Kaleb quickly takes it, readies it, and holds the end near Cassidy. Driven by an instinct, Cassidy latches on. While he feeds, the calm returns and signs of irritation subside, for now. Kaleb eases out a sigh of relief and relaxes slightly. “Whew... Just in time.”

Cracking a smug smirk, Shadeesa rests her hands on her hips, blinks the glow away from her eyes, and shrugs her shoulders. “Gods, we might actually figure this whole parenting thing out yet.”

Kaleb furrows and twists his mouth. “Don’t say that too loud. No need to tempt Fate... Fate might be listening.”

Picking up a plate of breakfast leftovers, Shadeesa pivots around and walks to the kitchen sink. She sets the dish to the side and momentarily stares at the dragon pressing his blue black scaled, bony plated face against the window over the sink. Shaking her head with an amused smile, she lifts up the sash and pets Lagi on his head. “Thank you for waiting patiently and not constantly tapping on the glass.”

Lagi purrs and chitters, while trying to awkwardly fit his head through the confining window. He tries to angle his gaze within the tight space and catches glimpses of Cassidy. Shadeesa sighs with a loving smile and scratches underneath the dragon’s chin. “Your little brother is doing just fine. He’s eating right now.”

Lagi pulls his head back clear of the airspace above the sink at the guiding press of Shadeesa’s finger on his snout. He softly chirps, clicks, and snorts. Shadeesa ponders a moment and perks her brow. “Maybe. Can use your words to ask?”

Narrowing his bright green eyes in thought, Lagi focuses and contorts his mouth in slow, purposeful motions with a rough, strained voice. “Can... brother... come... out-side?”

Shadeesa smiles happily, scratches the sides of Lagi’s face between armor plates, and nods. “Yes, of course. But, he can only be out for a little while right now with me or daddy.”

She gazes into Lagi’s eyes and calmly explains. “He’s very little right now. Smaller than Varan. You know how careful you have to be to play with Varan.”

Lagi nods with a hints of disappointment. Shadeesa cracks a sly smirk and leans close. “We have to be careful until Cassidy is older. But, if you clean up your room and make it nice, I’ll carry him out and you can show him your room.”

The large dragon perks up with a hopeful smile curling at the edge of his large mouth. Shadeesa focuses a parental stare upon Lagi. “Can you do that?”

Lagi nods his head eagerly and trailing purr. “Yes!”

Shadeesa smiles satisfied and picks up a plate. “Good. But first, help me clean some plates.”

After a few sniffs, Lagi opens his maw and waits in anticipation. Shadeesa flicks and shakes off leftovers from the dish into dragon’s mouth. While Kaleb keeps the bottle at the right angle for Cassidy, Shadeesa clears the table. Between deposits of breakfasts remnants, Lagi happily munches down the bits of the meal and purrs his delight. After Lagi departs, Shadeesa glances over from rinsing dishware in the sink and furrows her brow. “Oh, any new jobs on the guild today?”

Kaleb blinks back to attention from gazing at his son, and cocks his head. “Yeah, actually. Strangely, there’s a lot aerial photography jobs lately.”

Hint of relief slips into Shadeesa’s tone, and she smiles over to Kaleb. “Well that’s good! If you can load up on those, it’ll make it easier this winter. Gods, I can almost plan out who is going to call when about what animals. It’s going to be so busy.”

Tilting the bottle up a little more, Kaleb nods his head in agreement and groans. “Yeah. The less time I spend up in the air freezing my butt off the better. The heated gear can only do so much.”

He grits his teeth briefly and twists out stale discomfort on his sun tanned face. “And, I REALLY don’t want to have to chisel ice to get free from the saddle again.”

Shadeesa fights against an ill humored smirk sneaking out on her light gray face, white freckled face. Kaleb perks his brow and frowns faintly. “Don’t you laugh. It could have been a lot of worse if my bladder didn’t hold out.”

Rolling her green on black eyes, Shadeesa glances over while opening up the dishwasher door. “I distinctly remember offering to get you a urinal jar.”

Narrowing his stare, Kaleb tugs at the corner of his mouth with a sarcastic tone. “Oh yeah, as if that was even going to be possible with the wind chill on that day.”

He glances down at Cassidy and inspects the baby bottle level. “Wow, he’s going through this pretty fast. He’s not picky about the bottle.”

Shadeesa steps over, kneels down, and pats her baby’s head. “He’s a growing boy.”

She stands back up, stretches, and adjust her shirt around the chest. “I’m going to need stock up on milk so you can handle the feedings when I’m out on calls.”

Kaleb nods and glances up at Shadeesa. “Yeah, I’ll be hitting the job board pretty hard these next few weeks. Though, it’s weird... There’s been a lot of posts that are almost duplicates of each other.”

Shadeesa blinks and tilts her head to side. “Huh? So, are people wanting pictures from locations in the same region?”

Quirking his brow, Kaleb twists his mouth uncertainly and cocks his head. “Well... There’s a few from different sources that have coordinates that only differ by a few kilometers. I’ll have to check again, but I swear I saw three separate postings that had almost the same exact location.”

Furrowing her confused brow, Shadeesa puzzles to herself and crosses her arms. After searching her mind, she bites her lower lip and tilts her head with shrug. “So, fly over once and take three sets of pictures from slightly different angles?”

Kaleb snorts with a sly grin and averts his eyes guiltily. “Well, I mean... Yeah. That’s what I was thinking, too.”

Shadeesa taps her long, black nailed finger against her chin and ponders out loud. “Still... I wonder what could so many people be looking for that would lead them all to requesting pictures from the same locations?”

When Cassidy slows down feeding, Kaleb eases the bottle away and sets it down on the table. He gently tilts him up and smiles at Cassidy’s wandering gaze. Shadeesa pulls the nearby chair from the other side of the table, brings it close to Kaleb, and sits down. She lovingly smiles at the infant and plays with the bits of blonde hair on his head. “Honestly, as long as the payment clears to our account... I kind of don’t care.”

Kaleb nods and smirks with a chuckle. “Exactly. Plus, I think some of these source IDs are government ones.”

Shadeesa rolls her eyes, brushes back her dark green hair over her upward swept horns, and shakes her head. “Oh. Well, that actually makes sense. Gods forbid they save money and collaborate on sourcing information together. No, each division wants their own copy.”

Kaleb cracks a grin. “I’m not complaining.”

Shadeesa smiles slyly. “Oh. Me neither.”

Isaac gazes across the common room of the inn towards the television screen. He watches the news anchors recite through a scripted discussion on the latest political conjecture. After a minute, the display shows a flashy transition to local events. Narrowing his eyes, Isaac focuses on the screen as video clips of GAA checkpoints play. A neatly dressed woman in a GAA uniform sits at desk opposite of a fvalian woman news anchor. Drawing in a long breath, the newscaster sneaks a peek at her notes on the counter and addresses the GAA officer. “Thank you for taking time to talk with us, Major Lancaster. To get to the point, what prompted these recent GAA checkpoints along the major highways near the Lands Between area?”

After a simple, confirming nod, Lancaster maintains her neutral, stoic exterior and explains calmly. “We have reasonable suspicions that certain individuals may be traveling along these routes and smuggling contraband into GAA territories.”

The fvalian anchor perks her brow, narrows her blue eyes, and tilts her head to the side. “Would this be related to the disturbance we reported on, around the Train station in the area?”

Lancaster straightens her posture slightly, meets the inquisitive gaze, and focuses her stare. “Yes and no. While that incident may or may not have been caused by one of these individuals, this ultimately part of an ongoing investigation. It was determined that recent developments prompted a more assertive approach to handling the investigation. We hope that is will stymie any illicit transportation and aid our cooperative efforts with local law enforcement.”

Contending with bubbling unease on his face, Isaac draws in a long breath through his nose and slips out a barely audible groan. He glances down at his nearly finished plate of breakfast and eyes his mug of coffee. Picking up the beverage, he slowly slips the last remnants of the brew and frowns at the brown stained ceramic bottom. As he sets the mug back down, a middle aged man with a well trimmed beard steps up next to Isaac’s table. He presents a coffee carafe and perks his brow curiously. “More coffee?”

Isaac sniffs the air and the aroma leads his gaze to wisps of steam escaping the spout. He slides his cup to the side and gestures to the container with an appreciative smile. “Of course. Thank you, Johnathan.”

Johnathan fills the mug to a comfortable level. After finishing the pour, he glances over to the television screen and furrows his brow intertested. “What are they saying today?”

Sliding the mug back in front of him, Isaac eyes the packets of sweeteners in a tray in the middle of the table and mulls over the selection of tiny creamer cups. “They state they are simply ramping up some investigation about contraband cargo.”

He glances up towards Johnathan and cracks smirk. “I’m not exactly inclined to the believe them, if I am being honest.”

Nodding his head slowly, Johnathan snorts into a smile. “Well. They’re not lying...”

As Isaac cocks his head to the side, Johnathan cracks a sly grin and chuckles. “But, it’s a Train station. They’re ALWAYS looking for contraband cargo coming out from it. They just use that as a cover for what they really are doing.”

Isaac smirks as intrigue directs his focus upon Johnathan. “Interesting. What do you think the GAA is really doing?”

Without much pause for a thought, Johnathan glances down at Isaac and plainly states. “Manhunt.”

As Johnathan shifts his stare towards the television screen, Isaac fights against an uncomfortable squirm of his body in his seat. Listening to bits of the interview playing out from the display across the room, Johnathan cocks his head and ponders out loud. “They way they are reacting... They’re trying to play it cool and not cause a bit of a stir. So, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If whoever they were after was an immediate threat, they wouldn’t bother with this checkpoint stuff or a cover story.”

Isaac blinks his gray eyes, turns his body slightly in his seat, and tilts his head of wispy white hair up. Studying Johnathan’s demeanor, he lifts up an intrigued eyebrow and inquires genuinely. “You seem very perspective and confident about your assessment. I guess you have experience with the GAA?”

Johnathan cracks an amused smirk and rolls his light brown eyes. “In a way. I worked as a pilot for the Train for quite some time. The Train and the GAA have a...”

He briefly grits his teeth and hisses out a sigh. “I guess a... complicated relationship. I think that’s a nice way of putting it.”

Isaac glances around the common room of the inn and gazes at Johnathan expectantly. “I have to ask, how do go from Train pilot to co-ownership of an inn?”

Shrugging off a bit of old embarrassment, Johnathan chuckles and shakes his head of graying dark brown hair. “Oh... It was Katherine’s idea. When she gave up being a cycle guard for the land trains, she wanted to start a business that would let her work and raise the kids easily.”

Isaac blinks in surprise, glances over to Katherine at the front desk working on paperwork, and puzzles at Johnathan. “I would have never guessed.”

Johnathan nods with a pleased smile. “Good, she’ll be happy to hear that.”

He shifts his gaze back to the television and listens for a moment. Isaac glances between the program on the screen and Johnathan and pries. “So, any predictions on what they’ll do next?”

Contorting his face in thought, Johnathan hums and ponders out loud. “They’re probably expand the search and try to get checkpoints set up further out. At least until they think their target is no longer in the area. Though, they’re probably already got informants further out looking. All this right now is probably stalling, until they get a clue.”

The men watch the broadcast until the interview ends. When the segment changes into a fanciful swipe to animated graphics, Isaac slips his coffee and narrows his distant stare. Searching his mind, he blinks at an idea and turns his gaze to Johnathan. “I have to ask, especially given your experience, are there any used car places you’d recommend in town?”

Johnathan pauses a moment, tilts his head to the side, and shrugs his shoulders. “That depends on what you are looking to buy. I only ever drove short run super haulers.”

Isaac twists his mouth indecisively and mulls over the options. “Well, I’m open to anything that’ll keep me from having to walk. But... If I’m telling the truth...”

He perks his brow and grins slyly. “I have been thinking about a motorcycle.”

Johnathan dons a confident smile, holds up a finger, and pivots around slowly. “Give me a moment.”

He waits a moment as Katherine stretches while brushing back her longer brown hair and calls out. “Katherine?”

Katherine perks up and smiles back at Johnathan. “Yes?”

Johnathan gestures towards an awaiting Isaac and cracks a sly smirk. “Isaac is interested buying a motorcycle from around here. Do you think you could help him?”

An eager glint lights up Katherine’s dark green eyes and she smiles brightly. “Yes, of course. I’ll be right over.”

Captain Hackle’s voice sounds out from Aristespha’s aetherphone upon the tabletop. “So, that’s the latest I have on Isaac Huxley at the moment. We are presently trying to locate him.”

While souring moods drive down uneasy expressions upon team members around the dining table, Hackle’s sigh filters from the other side of call. He presents a calm, explanatory tone. “Unfortunately, we are limited in how aggressive we can search for him, since powers higher than me have severely limited how obvious we can be.”

Sotalia narrows her golden eyes, crosses her arms tightly, and straightens her posture with a unamused frown. While she wrestles to keep her commentary within her mouth, a faint, irritated growl slips out from Dretphi. Sebastian’s ethereal form glances between the emerging upset and stares back down at the aetherphone. “Well, I guess, you can only do what you can. So, what are you all doing right now to figure out where he’s going?”

After seconds of silence from the phone, Hackle explains. “While we are not allowed to bring the public’s attention back to him, information has been sent to different field offices. We are in the process of updating other organizations that have previous knowledge of him. It is our hope that’ll renew their awareness.”

With a brief hem, his cadence slows with an intrigued tone. “Hopefully, we’ll get new leads to follow up on. But, the question that has been on my mind is... Why the sudden change? The reports we were getting from our scouts seemed to indicate he was intent of staying in the northern regions.”

Perking her furry ears, Cideeda drums her claw tipped fingers upon the wooden tabletop and rests her chin upon her propped palm. Her emerald green eyes dart over to stare at the aetherphone, and she twists a suspicious smirk on her light brown face. “Yeah, that is strange. Any idea from your side of things on what could be his reason?”

Hackle pauses a moment and faintly breathes out traces of frustration. “Unfortunately, what I have at the moment is just conjecture and theories from limited information. Most are equally plausible and impossible to make even an educated guess from.”

His voice sounds out from the aetherphone as hint of intrigue infiltrate. “If you all have any ideas, I would greatly appreciate hearing them. Anything would be useful insight. Since you all have had the most direct experience with Isaac, I will take any wisdom you can provide.”

The team exchange contemplative glances and pondering expressions. Moments of idle thought later, Bach’s blue eyes flit wide. He holds up a finger while gazing around at the team. “The convention center incident... I bet that might have gotten his attention. That was something pretty big to happen around here.”

Sebastian nods in agreement and crosses his arms while hovering near Aristespha. “Yeah, bro. That certainly made the news and got a lot of attention. Probably picked up on it even out there.”

Tilting her head of fiery orange, wavy hair to the side, Sotalia searches her mind with a thoughtful curl at the corner of mouth. “Maybe. The news only talked about the rampaging robots. I don’t think much about the golem go out.”

Hackle sighs from the other side of the call. “No, thankfully not. That was a challenging recovery operation.”

Dretphi straightens her posture, darts her steely gray eyes around her mind, and twists her mouth. “It was an unusual occurrence. Strange events often indicate disturbances at undisturbed locations. When you do not find something in a spot, you move to another where something was found.”

Flicking the tip of her long tail, Cideeda contemplates and grumbles. “That makes sense. He’s mixing it up...”

With a suspicious twitch on her face, she straightens up her back, narrows a cautious glare at the aetherphone, and quietly motions to the rest of the team. “Do you know which direction Isaac left the Lands Between area?”

Hackle calmly replies through the speakerphone. “Not at the moment. We are trying eliminate possibilities.”

Cideeda relays a brighter tone in contrast to her expression. “Well, it’s concerning that he might be near us. I don’t think he’ll be seeking us out any time soon.”

Confusion directs puzzling gazes upon Cideeda from the rest of the team. Aristespha perks her brow, tosses back her long, silvery blue hair, and nods to Cideeda understandingly. Hackle chuckles lightly. “I doubt he will. He has been very avoidant of conflict lately, so I can only assume he’s wanting to keep a low profile. Maybe that avoidance will work in your favor.”

He draws in a breath and inquires from the other side of the call. “Have you made any progress in determining what Isaac is looking for and where it might be?”

Aristespha holds up her hand and signals the rest of the team. She leans gradually closer towards her aetherphone and calmly explains. “We have made some progress based what resources we have had, but we hope to make more progress with the documents you have sent over. The best theory we have is that is seems to be a possible large source of power.”

Sebastian quirks his brow, glances at Aristespha, and nods slowly. “Yeah, typical Dark Lord stuff. He’s probably running a little low on power. It’s kind of what he was doing before.”

A distant hum sounds out from the aetherphone and Hackle’s voice resumes his inquiry. “Plausible. That could explain his hesitance for direct confrontation at the moment. I would not be surprised if he was conserving his power until he acquired a new source.”

He pauses and dons a minutely more direct cadence. “If we knew where his goal was, we could definitely stop his plans.”

While Bach, Dretphi, and Sotalia exchange uncertain glances, Aristespha narrows her stare at the aetherphone and presents a reassuring tone. “We are trying to make progress. We’re working on a plan to investigate possibilities near by and hopefully eliminate them from our overall search.”

Noticing the idle silence from other side of the phone conversation, she grimaces and lifts an eyebrow towards the rest of the team. “We have been able to contact a few subject matter experts using my connections at the Grand Library. I believe they’ll be able to assist in determining the least likely locations, so we can prioritize our future investigations.”

Hopeful breath slips above the background noise resonating in from Hackle’s side of the aetherphone call. “Very good. Any updated information you could provide us would be greatly appreciated. If you could give some locations to me, I’ll see about arranging some exploration teams to assist your efforts. As much as I don’t like brute force process of elimination, I think it is our only option until either of us receive more information.”

Sebastian cocks his head and drifts his visage lower to the ground. “We’ll see what we can do for you Captain Hackle. Give us some time to verify what we have and we’ll get it out to you soon.”

Hackle’s tone lightens. “Excellent. Thank you for your assistance.”

He addresses the team via the speakerphone. “Well, I wouldn’t want to keep for you much longer. Both our teams have much to do from what it seems. Again, please keep me updated and we will try to do the same.”

Aristespha gradually nods and maintains an appreciative tone. “Thank you, Captain Hackle.”

After a quick exchange of goodbyes, Aristespha reaches to the phone screen, taps the end call button, and slides the device in front of her. She presses through a few menus, confirms the end of the call, and pockets the aetherphone. Tense silence looms over the gathering around the dining table. Cideeda curls her upper lip into a snarl and grumbles out. “Gods, he was so trying to get us to hand over information without knowing it.”

Aristespha rolls her violet eyes and sighs. “Yes. I got that feeling after you pointed it out.”

Bach clenches his jaw momentarily and tense his shoulders. “Shit, I hope mentioning the convention center thing wasn’t a bad idea.”

Tilting her head of platinum blonde braids, Dretphi smiles reassuring to Bach. “No. Could work in our favor.”

Sotalia chuckles to herself and grins at Bach. “They’ll probably keep a team watching that old base. If Noxian doesn’t show up, it keeps them busy. If he does, it’ll keep them BOTH busy. And, we’ll know where Noxian is.”

She shrugs her shoulders and rolls her golden eyes with a smirk. “Works either way.”

Sebastian eases out a reverberating sigh and shakes head. “Still... We have to be careful. I don’t think they actually know that we are looking for is an access point to the Abstract Prism. And, I don’t think they have any better information about locations than we do.”

He crosses his arms, furrows his brow, and hums ethereally. “I think we need to give them some locations to work on, but maybe some of the outliers.”

Contorting her face to an uneasy grimace, Cideeda huffs out her frustration and flicks back her furry ears. “Yeah. Can’t give them all outliers, otherwise they might take that as a hint for where not to look.”

Bach narrow his blue eyes and snorts with a wry smirk. “Yeah, no need to literally circle out our search area for them.”

Cideeda points a claw tip over to Bach and nods with a toothy grin. “Exactly. Need to make it a little random to throw them off.”

Shrugging her shoulders, Sotalia tosses back her hair, resettles in her seat, and groans. “I still don’t like it. But, even if they manage to check the right spot, that means Noxian will have to get through the GAA. That might slow him down long enough for us to get by.”

Aristespha leans against the back of the chair at the dining table, combs her ivory fingers through her hair, and exhales. “I hope we get an update from Mark soon.”

Nodding in agreement, Bach draws a long breath in and slowly hisses out the frustration. “Yeah. That’d be nice. If we can just find it, disable it, and sneak away.”

Sebastian smiles at Bach and shakes his head. “I hear you, bro. I keep hoping it’ll be that simple.”

Glancing off to the side, he remarks. “It probably won’t be, but I keep hoping anyway.”

A lull in conversation directs everyone to their own thoughts as they ponder around the dining table.

The door to the front porch opens and Chad steps through. Slowly closing the entry behind him, he releases a long sigh into an exhausted groan and shakes his head. Tilting her head up from her aetherphone, Tassilda perks her brow and tilts her head of long raven black hair. “They certainly kept you forever.”

Chad blinks back to awareness from staring out into the night through a window and pivots to face Tassilda on the living room couch. “Oh, yeah... They had me do some long monologue about my thoughts and feelings for the future after the season end... And, they wanted me to sell it in one way... Then... They didn’t like how it turned out, so I had do it another way...”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, he winces with a frustrated sigh. “Finally, they settled for some version I did five takes ago.”

Modoran glances away from watching Deedri fumble with a folded up towel and cracks a smug smirk on his dusky bluish gray face. “They tried that crap with me. After the third take for my bit, I just sat and stared at them. Five minutes later, they got the hint.”

He returns his attention to Deedri and points at a stray corner of the mass of twisted fabric. “You might want to tuck that corner in...”

A hint of a growl slips out from Deedri as her furry, tufted ears flick back. She furrows her brow and narrows her full concentration to each uncertain motion of her hands. After a few attempts, she huffs with annoyed flick of her tail. Restraining a pout, she gazes her auburn eyes at Modoran and sighs with a tinge of frustration. “Do it again. Slowly.”

Modoran nonchalantly reaches out with a loving smile, picks up the crumpled towel, and unfurls it with a flick. Using slow, methodical motions upon the coffee table, he rolls ends of the fabric up, folds them in a calculated order, and positions it. Grabbing another smaller towel nearby, he pleats up the cloth, places it upon the forming fabric figure, and splays out outer edges. After a few quick adjustments, he sits back on the couch and presents the towel swan with dramatic waving gesture. Deedri crosses her arms, rolls her shoulders, and wrestles an irritated frown on her fair face. “I keep seeing it done. But, I just can’t figure it out...”

Modoran rests his arm on Deedri’s back and playfully pulls her close. “It’s okay. I had to do it multiple times a day for YEARS. It takes a little practice.”

Deedri darts her auburn eyes over to meet Modoran’s dark blue and sighs. “I know.”

She rolls her eyes, combs her clawed fingers through her long, multicolored hair, and mumbles. “I can put people back together, but I’m failing to fold a swan.”

Upon another section of couch, Trakenthin glances up from his book and smirks reassuringly. “Not a bad trade off.”

Modoran nods in agreement and rubs Deedri’s shoulder. “I agree.”

Tassilda finishes up typing up a message and taps send with a happy smile. Resting the aetherphone down, she pauses in thought and furrows her curiosity at Chad. “So, what did they write up for you to say about your future plans?”

Chad stands up from kneeling in admiration at the towel swan, scratches the back of his head, and frowns. “Some grand plans about starting up some big team, and taking on all the big dangerous jobs. You know all the stuff that gets the ratings.”

He rests his hands on his side, shakes his head dismissively, and snorts. “Whatever. About the only thing I’m planning on doing before we form up again is take our ride back to my parents and hope to fix it up. Gods, it feels like everything has tried to kill that thing in the last few months.”

Tilting his head to the side, he quirks his brow at Tassilda. “So what are your immediate plans?”

Tassilda cocks her head and searches her mind with her light blue on black eyes. “Going to stay with my father. I have some amends to make...”

A warm smile graces her gray, patterned face. “And big sister time to make up for.”

She grimaces with a roll of her eyes and contemplates. “Eventually, confront my mother... maybe... Might postpone that conflict... for as long as possible.”

Chad nods and cracks a sly smirk. “Just let us know, and we can form the team, um, strategically earlier than expected.”

Tassilda nods appreciatively and shifts her attention towards Trakenthin. “So, what you are going to do during your break?”

Trakenthin blinks back to attention from his book, glances between the rest of the team, and shrugs his shoulders. “Read. Catch up on releases.”

Curling a short, mischievous grin, Tassilda quips. “Recommended by Shayuri, of course.”

A flush of red tints Trakenthin’s dark bronze face, and flits of embarrassment sneak out. A message alert chips out from Tassilda’s aetherphone. Trakenthin narrows an inquisitive gaze and lifts an eyebrow at Tassilda. “What did Daedrican say?”

Tassilda blinks blankly, holds a tight smile on her faintly reddened face, and picks up her aetherphone. Chad shakes his head and turns to Deedri. “Any big plans for you?”

Deedri perks her furry ears up, idly wags her tail, and ponders out loud. “Um... Just go home for a bit. I really haven’t thought about much more than that. It’d just be nice to see my family and relax after everything that’s happened. And...”

She grits her teeth briefly and gazes lovingly over to Modoran. “Maybe see how things go from there.”

Modoran smiles nonchalantly, pulls Deedri close, and chuckles. “After some family business is taken care of, I am under strict orders to coordinate a week vacation at one of my family’s resorts for all of us. Paid for, of course.”

Tassilda and Trakenthin perk up at the announcement, while Veevi slinks down the stairwell and sneaks into the kitchen archway. Pulling away his glance towards Veevi, Chad bows slightly at Modoran. “Wow. Thank you. That’s really generous.”

Modoran shrugs with a smirk. “It’s the off season for a few resorts. There’s a lot of empty rooms that’d just collect dust otherwise. Not a huge deal.”

Trakenthin nods appreciatively. “Generous still.”

From dining area through the other side of the archway, Veevi peeks her pink pupil eyes out from around the corner. Cautiously observing the conversation in the living room, she warily steps out and calmly walks back to the stairwell. With a canned drink in hand and a packaged snack in her other hand, she places her foot upon the first stair. Chad quirks his brow, cranes his head back, and directs his voice. “Hey, Veevi.”

Veevi’s tail fur puffs out slightly, and she sheepishly waves at Chad. “Oh, hey. Um, sorry to interrupt. I was just getting something to tide me over.”

Chad nods with a pleasant smile and tilts his head to the side. “It’s okay, you’re not interrupting. We were actually talking our future plans, and I’m curious what you were going to do.”

Blinking blankly, Veevi sorts through her thoughts and twists a nervous smile. Chad chuckles and smirks reassuringly. “I mean what you are really going to do, not what they wrote for you to say.”

Veevi sighs with relief and shakes her head. “Oh good. Because after the fifth take of the third revision of the script, my mind blanked out and I just used the teleprompter.”

Blinking her light blue on black eyes, Tassilda winces and groans. “Gods, I wish I had thought of asking for that. I remember seeing it nearby, too.”

Furrowing her brow, Veevi sorts through her thoughts, contorts her tan face, and ponders out loud. “As for what I’m going to do... I don’t know really. So much as happened that... I kind of just want to do nothing for a while. I mean... I can’t do that forever. But, just some time to figure out what to do next.”

She bites her lip briefly, and her fuzzy ears perk up. “Oh. I do know I’m going to school. That I’m sure of.”

Deedri contends with her apprehension as she crosses her arms and quirks her brow. “What are you going to study?”

Veevi frowns slightly and sighs in honest, genuine uncertainty. “I haven’t gotten that far yet. I just know that... I want to do something else.”

Chad smiles encouragingly at Veevi. “You’ll figure it out. Take a few general education courses and see what draws you in.”

Veevi nods at the idea. An elaborate ring sounds out from the pocket of Veevi’s shorts. Tucking her packaged snack under her arm, she plucks her aetherphone out. After glancing at the display of the device, she groans and droops her fuzzy ears. “I have got to take this. It’s my lawyer.”

She smiles graciously at the team and waves before departing up the stairs. As the sounds of a Veevi’s phone conversation drift away upstairs, Deedri cocks her head to the side and tugs at the corner of her mouth. She furrows her brow and mumbles. “She is different...”

A gentle breeze blows out from the nearby woods and stirs up fallen leaves across the large parking lot. Isaac walks around the lot between different showcase cars and trucks. After inspecting a few vehicles closer, he wanders his gaze up to the blue skies above and winces slightly as the noon sun peek out from behind a fluffy white cloud. A heavy framed glass door clicks shut behind an emin man in a button down shirt and slacks. He flashes a reassuring grin and holds up a set of keys on a ring. “Sorry for the wait, sir! As usual, the one time you need to find them, they hide themselves.”

Isaac cracks an amused smirk with nod. “That’s usually how it goes from my experience, too.”

The emin salesman motions Isaac to follow and confidently leads the way in an aisle between lines of cars and trucks. “This way, sir.”

The two men travel down the clean looking vehicles. The sun lights up colorful fonts on the pricing placards resting in windows. Isaac glances at a few condensed sales pitch blurbs and smirks at the questionably reassuring verbiage. At end of the row, the emin salesman stops in front of something under a blue tarp. With a flourish and a deft, swift yank, he unveils a motorcycle. Donning an entrepreneurial grin, he motions to the vehicle and directs attention towards its attributes. “After talking with our dear friend Katherine, I knew this exact motorcycle was for you. This here is highly a customized machine. Wonderfully cared for by its previous owner who traveled all over the west. Despite what it may have faced out there, it arrived in beautiful condition, shaped by its experiences to be the amazing vehicle it is today”

He waves his hand slowly out and points to the frame. “What started out life as a rugged, off-road machine slowly, through each of its adventures, grew into a long haul champion. The frame has been reinforced and tuned to be comfortable on the road just as well as the dirt.”

Stepping closer to machine, he pats on the hard case storage boxes on the rear sides with a rack on top. “Plenty of storage that’s weather proof and likely bullet proof.”

He kneels down and guides Isaac’s examining stare along the length of the motorcycle. “Multi-terrain wheels powered by a powerful but fuel conscious bio diesel engine with a very generous tank. You’ll be able to go everywhere you desire and keep the stops to a minimum.”

Standing back up straight, he grants a small bow and gestures Isaac to the seat. “Have a seat. Get a feel for it. Let it talk to you.”

Looking over the machine, Isaac walks up, throws a leg over, and sits down. Guiding a tail of his blue scarf over his shoulder, he places his hands on the handlebar grips, balances himself on the motorcycle, and ponders quietly. Seconds pass as Isaac feels the controls, and he inspects the mechanisms closely. “Definitely feels like it has been cared for. Everything is in just about the right place.”

The emin salesman grins brightly, sweeps back his yellow hair around his curled tipped horns, and winks his yellow on black eye. “As I said, it has been shaped by experience. Saves you the trouble of learning the hard way.”

Isaac smirks, admires the flat brown, tan, and dark gray patterned paint job, and furrows his brow. “So... How much do you want for it?”

The emin man searches his mind, evaluates Isaac with a long stare, and explains. “Well, it is a unique piece of specialized equipment. It is very hard to find such a machine that so rugged and designed to handle the harshest roadways of the world in comfort.”

Narrowing a contemplative gaze at the salesman, Isaac twists his mouth side to side. “Which also means it has been sitting around and woefully taking up useful space.”

A sly smirk creases from the corner of the emin’s mouth. “Indeed. Very true. So, I’ll not only give you a generous friend of a friend discount, but a little extra for assisting me in clearing out my inventory.”

When emin salesman pitches his price, Isaac grants a slow nod, rocks his head side to side, and smiles. “Does that price include the lucrative, and exclusive, cash-today-in-your-hand discount?”

The emin’s yellow on black eyes widen, and an eager, entrepreneurial grin emerges on his gray face. “Why, no. How perceptive you are, sir. I got the feeling I just might be dealing with someone special today. I think I could manage to be quite generous with that kind of discount. Spares me so much paperwork.”

He motions towards the glass wall and brown brick building in the middle of the lot, and presents an expectant smile. “May I suggest we go inside and finalize everything in comfort and privacy?”

Isaac nods, rests the bike on its kickstand, and stands up off the machine. He pauses, holds out his hand, and lifts an eye brow. “Certainly. But, one thing first.”

Emin smiles and shows the keys. “Of course. Start her up, and listen.”

Isaac takes the keys in hand, puts a key in the ignition, and opens up the fuel cutoff. Twisting the ignition key to a marked notch, he holds down a button and watches a pulsating light on the controls. When the light fades completely, Isaac releases the button and turns the switch all the way. The whine of starter sounds out. A sputter of dark smoke from the exhaust shakes machine. The motorcycle rumbles to life in a chorus of rumbling combustion and hint of turbine whine. Isaac throttles up and engine roars to health, muffled growl.

After minute, Isaac turns the ignition off and flicks the fuel cut off. He waits for machine to halt as it combusts the last bits of fuel. Retrieving the key, he smirks confidently at the emin salesman. “That sounds like a sale to me.”