2-30…

Archangel

Nova had just enough fuel to make it to old Canada. She was dipping into her reserves now, and Kaitlyn would need those to get to another fuel source at some point. It had snowed here and everything was beautifully white. She saw the lamps of the town and found a wintered field where she could land and hide. With a little work, she put down as close to the woods as possible and powered down before she lost anymore fuel.

She stared at the town. It was just as she remembered it. Timberframe houses, the inn, the belltower. It was a slice of ancient Europe with some modern twists. She sighed, feeling defeated and miserable as she got up.

People were spread out all over her main cabin. She knelt next to Erin, who was wrapped in one of her blankets, some of the cuts on her face dressed by Ember. Erin smiled slowly.

"You came for us."

Kaitlyn smiled. "I'm sorry, Erin." She looked at Meg, who was asleep nearby. "I'm sorry I dragged you both into this."

Painfully, Erin sat up with a grimace. "Don't beat yourself up, Katie." She touched her face. "I dreamed you'd get us out of there, and you made my dream true. Thank you."

Kaitlyn frowned, the tears blossoming in her eyes. She hugged Erin gingerly, sobbing quietly as she did.

Erin held her for a few minutes, until Kaitlyn had regained control. She stood up, looking around. Ember was tending to Athena. She walked over.

"How is she?"

Ember shook her head. "I need to get the skin off her. I think some of it's still inside."

"There are doctors here that can help, too. I'm going to go talk to them."

She hit the ramp key and the ramp dropped. She looked back, seeing if anyone would come with her. No one moved. The entire Lance was drained and dismal. She didn't blame them. They'd lost two friends and their ship. Kaitlyn brushed a tear off her cheek before going out into the cold.

The snow was ankle deep. She walked around her wing and stood facing a large crowd with lanterns coming this way. She held open her arms as they came toward her.

"Why do you come here, nomad?" a tall Wolfine asked, drawing his cloak tighter to her body.

"We are defeated and wounded," she told them. "We need somewhere to stay, to hide and heal."

One of the woman pushed through the crowd. "I don't believe it."

She looked at her, finding herself gazing at a young face she swore she knew.

"Katie Grear?"

"Niomi?"

She gasped. "Guides and Spirits… Your…" she smiled slowly. "We'll gladly take you in. Come. We'll make place for you at the inn, right Tobias?"

Tobias, the huge Wolfine, nodded. "Welcome back to Winterdane, Katie."

"We need doctors. One of my friends has been badly wounded."

"I've removed bullets before," an aging voice called out. "I'll do my best."

She looked around, a tear rolling down her cheek. Winterdane hadn't changed at all. Niomi had grown up, some new faces were here, some old faces were gone, but it was still the same old town she'd seen as a young kitten.

That was when someone emerged from the crowd. She looked at the blonde Tigra, a man with a strong body and warm blue eyes. He struck a remarkable resemblance to Avalon, and herself. He walked up to Kaitlyn and stood before her for a moment. Kaitlyn's mouth slowly dropped as she soaked in his familiar features.

"D-Dasher?"

He embraced his younger sister wordlessly. The villagefolk moved to the corvette, to help move the wounded to the inn. Kaitlyn didn't believe she hadn't recognized him, but when she'd last seen Dasher, he was fourteen, and lacked his present goatee and height.

He withdrew but held to her shoulders. "I can't believe this," he said, a tear creeping down his cheek. "You're alive. You grew up. You're… so beautiful."

She threw herself at him. "I missed you, Dasher."

He held her head to his shoulder as she sobbed softly. Dimly, she was aware of a snowflake touching her ear.

"Snow's coming. We should get inside. Come on."


"Mum 'n Dad?"

He smiled and held her hand, walking her toward the village.

Outside one small house was an old army truck, snow dusting its roof, hood, and bumper. It was put up on jacks and partially covered with a tarp. She stopped to stare.

"It died about two years ago," Dasher told her. "Me n' Dad were always lucky to get it to start, but one day we came up here, and then there was a morning that the old engine just wouldn't turn over anymore. The block split right in two, and there's no extra engines around up here."

"You live here now?"

He nodded. "I should warn you. Mum can't walk anymore. There was an accident. Her leg didn't heal right. It looks okay, but the knee's screwed to hell."

She covered her mouth. "Oh no…"

"Violet moved out with her husband, but Amy 'n me are still here." He unlatched the door and let them into the dark, warm room. A wood stove in the corner ticked as it glowered. He hung his lantern on a peg from the ceiling. Wood creaked, and she looked over to see a man, old but still powerful and touch, edge through. His hair had gone gray and his ear was torn, but he was unmistakably her father.

He didn't take a second to recognize her. There was no real shock, either. He smiled kindly and opened his arms, his eyes starting to glisten in the low light. She walked over and hugged him tightly. He gripped her back with an iron hold, shaking quietly as he started to cry.

"Mystics above…" he breathed. "Thank you for bringing my daughter back to me."

"I'm sorry, Dad," she cried softly. "We were idiots. We were so fucking dumb."

He rubbed her head. "It's okay, Katie. I'm just happy to see you at all." He stepped back, wiping a tear from his eye before wiping one from hers. "You've grown up. How beautiful you are now. Avalon must be marvelous herself."

She nodded. "We really are identical. She's still with the Navy. I haven't seen her in months. It's been…" she sniffed back a sob. "It's been a very long year."

"Katie?"

She looked up just in time to be tackled by Amy as she emerged from upstairs, dressed in a nightgown. Kaitlyn held her the same as she held Dasher and her father, her mind caressing the memories of her and Avalon following Amy as she went to fish.

"Has Mum seen you?"

She shook her head.

Her father smiled and took her hand. "Come."

They walked into a side room. The bedroom was dark but warm, even as the wind moaned outside. Dasher snapped a lighter and put fire to a candle on a table, giving the room a warm, bright glow.

Someone sat there in bed. She had grown frail, unlike the strong, powerful woman she remembered, but she supposed the broken leg was to blame. Kaitlyn sat down on the edge of the bed as her mother put her glasses on and looked up at her.

"You came back," she sighed happily. "You finally came back to us."

Kaitlyn fumbled for words for a moment before she gave up and embraced her softly, knowing that her muscles and the Shadowskin could kill her if she squeezed too hard.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."

"For what?" answered her mother quietly.

"We ran away," Kaitlyn pulled back.

She ran her fingers through Kaitlyn's bangs. "It looks to me you still turned out alright." She smiled. "Thank you for coming back. I wanted to see you and Avalon at least once before I die."

"It's just me. Things have turned out pretty bad for me."

People sat in chairs and on the bed. Her mother gave her a long look with a half smile. After a second she tipped her head.

"Let's hear it. Where have you been for these twelve years?"

Kaitlyn smiled and closed her eyes. "Oh, we'll be up until dawn with my story. But I suppose if you all must hear it…"


Athena was laid out in the inn bed. The floor was covered with a black, shimmering powder, and Kaitlyn looked at it for a second, wondering if it was the Shadowskin. Athena's neck and shoulders were bare now.

Ember slipped in behind her, a creaking floorboard giving her away.

"She'll live," Ember sighed. "I found a way to dissolve the skins without the units." She looked at her. "You'll need to take yours off soon. It's not meant for extended wear."

"I know."

"Are ya okay?"

She sighed, leaning against the wall. "My family is here."

Ember's eyes lit up and her ears pricked. "What amazing fate! Oh, Angel, that's wonderful!"

She smiled distantly. "I can't believe it, either." She looked down. "How's your leg?"

"Stiff. I should be healed up in a coupla days. Athena might take a few weeks. Course, it's cold, and this place isn't very sterile. We need to be careful she doesn't get infected."

She nodded. "Is Diesel about?"

"He's over in Nova with Bit."

She nodded again and patted her shoulder. "Thank you."

Her home was cold. Nova was without power and almost without fuel. She entered the cockpit to find things live, but they were running on a budget, obviously.

Bit sat at the computer, and Diesel over him. They both looked at her as she arrived.

"So… what now?"

"We send a message to Dark Eye," Diesel said. "They'll hear and come to find us." He was quiet for a few seconds, then added, "it could be a few days. It could be months."

She nodded sadly. "I'm sorry you were dragged into this."

"I wasn't aware we were dragged anywhere."

"I mean, it really is all my fault. If I hadn't come along, Fireball and Seraphim…"

Diesel took her firmly by the shoulders, staring warmly down at her. "You are not to blame. You are never to blame."

"I planned it."

"The best thing a commander can learn is when to take responsibility for their actions, and when to realize things were beyond your control. None of us knew. We have you and Mauri to thank for getting us out of there with most of us alive." He pulled her into a warm, fuzzy hug. "You don't know this, Angel, but you are a brave and smart young woman. Not everyone can do the job you just did. I'm proud of you."

"Thank you, Diesel."

He let her go. Bit tapped a little at her computer and Kaitlyn looked at the display. "What's the spin on it?"

He sighed, rubbing his eyes. "The crash they're calling an 'unfortunate accident.' They're urging that the most important thing is that known terrorist vessel was destroyed and everything is fuckin' okay now. The blackout is being labeled a catastrophic electrical failure."

"Any everyone in the Rise just lives on like they used to…"

"'s how it works."

She nodded. After a moment of quiet, she walked back outside, her feet crunching in the snow. The morning was still dim, and the snow was coming down in marvelous, silent clumps. Kaitlyn stopped there, turned her face up into the sky and, spread her arms, feeling the cold wash around her.

"I'm alive," she whispered to the snowflakes. "I'm alive, and I'm in the only place I could want to be right now…"

END PHASE 1

10.8.2006