Chapter 27 - A Finger-Licking Good Job
After Jenna patched us up (it didn’t take her long to fix my shoulder, but it was almost half an hour before she finished healing Terra’s arm), we headed back out onto the square.
A small crowd of Cleftans were gathered around the chicken, many carrying ropes. One of them spotted me and asked Thyme, “That him?”
Thyme nodded. The Cleftan grabbed me by the hand and dragged me forward. “Stand next to the chicken. No, no, put your foot up on its beak! Yeah, like that. Now take out your sword, and let it rest against your back. Tilt it, so you can see the length. There, perfect! Now hold still!”
He took a running leap back, just as half a dozen Cleftans all bearing a variety of cameras stepped forward. A hail of flashes blinded me as they all started snapping pictures, saying things like, “Great!” and “Perfect!” and “This’ll make the headlines!”
At length they wandered off. The Cleftan who had dragged me forward now shooed me away. “Okay, you had your moment of glory. Now shove off! This bird’s got a date with the kitchen!”
As Terra led me away, my vision momentarily disabled because of the ambush of camera flashes, a troop of Cleftans all wearing chef hats emerged from a large building nearby with a massive fork sticking out of the roof. They marched over to the chicken, took up positions on either side, and lifted it up as one. Bird in tow, they marched back to the fork building.
Smokes tossed the rest of his joint to the cobblestone road and crushed it with his heel before hurrying to join me and Terra. “Metal-babe got you patched up?”
I waved the arm attached to my formerly injured shoulder. “Good as new.”
“How about you, Smokes? Are you okay?” Jenna asked as she looked over Smokes with some concern; he was wet, battered, and his hair was still sticking out in all directions.
He shrugged it off. “I’ve had worse.”
Thyme and Neeko approached, One and the zelestra floating behind them.
Thyme applauded. “Excellent strategy against the chicken, truly excellent.”
“It was Jimmy’s idea.” One said, winking at me.
“Uh, yeah … right. Heat of the battle, and all that.” I tried to sound nonchalant, but it didn’t even sound convincing to my ears.
Fortunately, Thyme didn’t seem to notice. “I’ve been talking with One here about my little invention. He’s gonna field test it for us! I’m thrilled, of course. I mean, the Elsewhere taking an interest in my work?” He shook his head. “Simply marvelous.”
“That’s … good?” I rubbed the back of my head, not sure what to say.
Slapping me on the back, he said, “Ah, enough of that. They’ll spend the better part of the day slicing and dicing that chicken for the festival.”
“The Festival of the Fowl.” Neeko said. “We hold one every time we catch one of the giant chickens. Granted, this is the first one to find its way up here before dying, but hey: who doesn’t like a festival, eh? Fried chicken, baked chicken, chicken fricassee, music, dancing … oh, it’s always a blast. You’re really lucky you know.”
As I was standing next to the woman I love as opposed to slowly digesting in the stomach of a three-story tall chicken, I had to agree with him. Still, I had a mission to complete.
“We should really get Zig back to the center, ASAP.” I said.
“You kidding?” Smokes said, lighting up again, “I ain’t gonna miss this!”
Jenna added, “You and Terra should get a good night’s sleep so your wounds can fully heal up.”
My stomach growled, as though to remind me how long it had been since breakfast. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could feel sleepiness building up, especially after that burst of stream I had used.
“Well,” I said, glancing at Terra, who nodded enthusiastically. “Far be it from me to refuse your hospitality.”
“Excellent!” Thyme rubbed his hands together excitedly. “I’ve got to go notify a few people. Excuse me, would you?”
As he hurried off, Neeko commented, “He’s got a group of cronies he always invites to these things.” Turning to me and smiling, she said, “So, how about some new threads?”
Everyone else seemed keen on the idea, and since we were more or less clean from Smokes’s summoned downpour, I went with the consensus. Neeko led us through Erris to a clothing shop by the name of Quintonic’s Fineries. It was definitely one of the stranger stores I’ve ever entered; the place was packed with all manner of clothing, from the light and airy robes Alcian sentients preferred to the latest Galden and Idestan fashions. Everything was crowded into shelves, on racks, and even stuffed in massive wooden wardrobes.
Terra tried on a great deal of clothing, always curious as to what I thought of various outfits. I thought she was particularly stunning in a black nightdress (I wondered if there were any Cleftans who wore that sort of thing), but I could tell she was uncomfortable with how low-cut the top was, even though it only accentuated her already fabulous figure. Later, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Terra had picked up the black dress anyway, quickly folding it and slipping it into her side pouch after quietly sliding the shop keeper some money. As she turned, I quickly pretended to look at a rack of robes.
One flew around on the zelestra, commenting on our new clothes every now and then. Terra took a swat at him when he mentioned a sweater she was trying on made her look a bit pudgy. I don’t know what he was talking about; she looked as slim as ever, though she was a bit fuzzier.
In the end, all of us ended up with new clothing. Smokes went for a multi-hued robe and Jenna spent the better part of an hour deciding on a fiery red mid-skirt and a frilly blue blouse. Terra picked up a pair of jeans and a sky-blue top. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Terra picked up the black dress as well, quickly folding it and slipping it into her side pouch after quietly sliding the shop keeper some money while she thought no one was looking. I didn’t find any keikogis or hakamas (small surprise there), but I did find a few pairs of baggy cargo jeans and some loose black muscle shirts that were to my liking. The shopkeeper even gave me a pair of black fingerless gloves to go with them, saying it was something known as ‘brawler-chique’.
Once we all made our purchases, Neeko brought us to her house to clean up properly. She hadn’t been kidding about her love of cats; moments after she had walked through the door, a small army of cats were milling around Neeko. The smell was oddly enough not as bad as I thought it would be.
She knelt down, her voice sugary sweet as she said, “And how are my babies doing?”
They answered with a chorus of meows, many rushing to rub against her legs. They seemed less interested in us, though some approached Terra and allowed her to pet them. One or two of the older ones nodded at Plush One, which wasn’t nearly as odd as him nodding back.
Neeko led us through the cats, and showed us to a rather large washroom. “I’m sure you all would like a nice hot bath. Terra, why don’t you go first?”
“No reason to waste water on just one of us. Jimmy and I will both go.” Terra grabbed my hand and pulled me into the room before I could react. As the door shut, I heard Smokes go “Woooo!”
As she turned the taps and started filling the tub with hot, bubbly water, I felt a sudden surge of embarrassment.
She noticed. “Jimmy? What’s wrong?”
“I just … I’m a little embarressed.”
A kind smile on her face, she said, “It’s okay. It’s not like it’s the first time.”
“Yeah, I know, but still-”
She put a finger to my lips. “I’ll turn around. Will that make you feel better?”
Blushing bright red, I nodded. As she turned, I quickly tossed off my clothes and slipped into the large tub. Oh, I wish I could put into words how great it felt to finally have a proper bath. I turned back to Terra to tell her I was in, but she had just taken off her shirt.
She caught my gaze before I could look away. Blushing, she said, “It’s okay, Jimmy. I don’t mind.”
Still, I looked away as she stepped into the tub. As she settled back, soap suds up to her chest, I felt bad. I didn’t want her to think I didn’t think she was pretty.
To my relief, she laughed, still blushing. “So you can just leap into dangerous situations without a second thought, but this makes you nervous?”
“I’m sorry. I think you’re beautiful, really, I do, it’s just …”
“If you’re really sorry, you’ll massage my feet.” She prodded my knee with her foot. My face feeling like it was on fire, I took her foot gently in my hand and massaged it. When I first got to the Saybaro, I used to get horrible cramps from standing on the bridge, which prompted me to order a book on chakra and pressure points. From the expression on her face, I could tell I hadn’t lost my touch.
I remembered my earlier suspicions about her and Terry being one and the same. For a split second, I had a mental image of me trying to massage Terry’s armored foot; the mental image alone made me let out a snort of laughter.
Terra looked at me curiously. I shook my head. “Y’know, back before we fought the dragon, for awhile there I thought that you were actually Terry in disguise.”
“Well, you saw the Wile.” She said, blushing. “Sometimes, you were right.”
“I know. I still can’t believe that worked.”
She chuckled as I switched to her other foot. “It wasn’t easy, you know; configuring those things to be authentic is a massive pain.”
“I mean, I’m surprised that Terry or Mick never caught you.”
“Well.” She said, “I am a Shadow.”
“That you are.” I shook my head. “Honestly, with all the insanity around the dragon, the facilities, the mess in Wukice, and the Nation of teh Noobs, it’s no surprise no one noticed.”
Terra sighed and slid her foot out of my grasp. Leaning forward so that her elbows rested on her knees, she asked, “Why does this keep happening?”
“You went to Wukice to check out a faulty transmission and ended up fighting a rogue core unit. You came here to secure Zig, and ended up getting chased by giant chickens.”
“Don’t remind me.” I rubbed my sore neck.
“It’s almost as though trouble is attracted to you. I mean, you didn’t come here looking to get caught up in that, right?”
“No, but things changed when Neeko and Thyme asked for my help.”
“I understand that, but why run off immediately? You could have at least tried to send me a message in Wukice.”
“I probably should get a proper cell phone one of these days.” I said, “What with the PIM going out all the time.”
She reached out with a bubbly hand and rubbed my cheek. “I get worried about you, Jimmy. You’re a great swordsman and a strong streamer, but all you have is that old sword to defend yourself.”
I opened my mouth to protest (despite the fact that she was right), but she quickly added, “Couldn’t you buy yourself a new sword? The new Galden models are equipped with physical and energy blades. Some can even fire bolts like my spurs. Not as fast of course, but it would give you a better edge and make your streamer abilities that much more effective.”
She was right, and I knew she was right, but Glint wasn’t just a battered old sword; it was my family blade. My father wielded it while helping One and the rest of the Elsewhere Incorporate. My grandfather stood against the Gregast Crime syndicate with Glint in hand. It wasn’t just a weapon; it was part of the Sakamota clan’s history. I just needed to figure a way to sharpen it, and it would be as good a weapon as it had been to the rest of my family.
I snapped out of my thoughts. “Hmm? Oh, sorry. I guess I wandered off for a moment there.”
As she opened her mouth, looking a little annoyed, I said, “I don’t want to worry you, Terra, really. I don’t go looking for trouble; it just seems to always find me. When people are in trouble, I just ... I want to help.”
She still didn’t look very happy, but I had just the thing to put a smile on her face. I took her feet in my hands and started to message them again, this time moving up to her well-toned calves. Even with her muscles relaxed, it felt like kneading iron.
As she started to relax, I began my assault; letting my fingers dance across the pads of her feet.
“Aha! Jimmy, what are … Ah, stop it!” From her grin, I could tell she didn’t mean it, so I moved forward, letting my fingers dance against her sides. She writhed in the water, laughing helplessly and getting water everywhere. I stopped when she started breathing heavily. We stared at each other for a long moment, our lips tantalizingly close.
As I started to kiss her, she suddenly pushed me away. “Jimmy.” She said, a serious tone in her voice. “I know we talked about this after the dragon thing, but ... if we hadn’t bonded-”
“I love you, Terra.” I told her. “Bonded or not, I don’t see that ever changing.”
Happiness radiated from her, a warm rush in my chest that made my mind swim. A shy smile on her face, she pulled me to her. As our slippery bodies pressed together, our lips met. The bond between us surged in anticipation of being complete.
“Hey, are you guys done yet?”
“In a minute!” We both shouted back at the same time. Looking at each other, we both laughed.
I gave her another quick kiss before saying, “We’d better get out.”
She started to ask, “Do you want me to …”
I stood and stepped out of the tub. I still felt embarrassed, but I knew I had no reason to be. After all, if I couldn’t be open in front of her, I couldn’t be open in front of anyone. My cheeks still burning a little, I held out my hand. She blushed too, but let me help her out just the same.
“Thank you, Jimmy.” She said after kissing me again. “and for the record? You don’t have any reason to be self-conscious, at least as far as I’m concerned.”
After a brief fight over the same towel, we dried off and put on our new clothes. It felt nice to have some clean clothes for a change, even if they weren’t what I was used to. Still, it didn’t look silly like the adventurer gear and wasn’t damp, muddy, or ripped. Terra tied her shirt off at her midriff, exposing the cream-colored fur of her stomach. It was a bit big for her and hung off her shoulder, but I thought it looked cute.
Smokes brushed by us as we opened the door, not bothering to even turn before starting to disrobe. I quickly shut the door behind me before I had to see more of Smokes than I ever cared to. We found Neeko and Jenna in the main room, both with two cats perched on them.
“Ah, you’re both done.” Neeko said, rubbing the belly of the black cat lazing in her lap. “You were making quite a bit of noise in there.”
Terra and I glanced at each other, our cheeks as red as fresh apples.
Neeko held up a hand, shaking her head. “I’m just teasing. Jenna and Smokes told me about you two. Well, mostly Jenna.”
I shooed away a few cats on a small couch to make room for Terra and myself. The cats meowed in a disgruntled kind of way, several of them leaping onto our laps once we sat down.
As I petted a large black cat with one hand and absently rubbed Terra’s bare shoulder with the other, Neeko said, “Jenna also mentioned that you found her in the Cylell facility, and that the Computer Core had been taken.”
“Yeah, we think it’s in King Iniagus’s palace. Still, Jenna was the only core unit that was salvageable; all the rest had their cores deliberately taken or shattered. The rest of the place is in ruins. I’m glad Jenna’s going to restore the place, but I see no reason to return the Core, not after three millennia.”
“True. Still, building a new core for the facility might not be a bad idea; fresh facility, fresh CIC. I know quite a few Cleftans who would just love to fix up an old Glyche ruin.”
Jenna agreed. “A new CIC program can be requested from the Yaevin Station once a new computer core’s built, there should be no problem. It would take time, of course, but with skrievers from the other facilities and enough raw materials, we hope to have a functioning core in a few weeks.”
“Jenna?” Terra asked, “You aren’t staying with us?”
Jenna sighed. “I’d love to come with you and Jimmy to the Saybaro, but the Cylell facility is my home. If I can help restore it to what it once was …”
She sighed again. “I know I can’t bring back the past, but at least I can try, right?”
“Of course.” Neeko said, patting Jenna on the shoulder, “And you can count on the support of every Cleftan in Erris.”
Smokes walked into the room, wearing his colored robe and vigorously rubbing his head with a towel. Tossing the wet towel on a cat (who definitely did not appreciate it), he plopped down beside Jenna and asked, “So, what’s next?”
A bell sounded in the distance. “Next,” Neeko told us, “is the festival.”