Flashback

Saturday morning, the Gang was gathered at the Gate Terminus. Rhin was pacing, Tam was twiddling her thumbs, 23 was watching Rhin pace, and Michael and Azami were sitting relaxed and inscrutable.

Tam threw another glance at the chron readout. "She did say she was coming today, didn't she?"

Michael looked at it himself, "Well, there was a reason I told you all to show up at least a half-hour late."

Rhin stopped pacing, "But we've been here for an hour now -- that's at least two hours from when she said she'd come! And the Gates have been clear that whole time."

With a shrug, Michael distanced himself from his sister's lateness. Tam and Rhin let the subject drop, and they waited for another five minutes before a chime and then a voice announcing the incoming Gates spoke of one from Picadarcel coming in on Gate Blue-Three.

"Oh good, that has to be Jacine." Everybody stood up and moved over to the appropriately colored cubicle spaces.

The back of cube number three shimmered as the Gate condensed into view, made up of billions of quarks shooting across the distances, hooked into the telephone relays to connect across thousands of miles. The Gate cleared as the phone lines stabilized and they saw another cubicle like the one they were hovering outside of, with a long line of people and children, who advanced once they saw the Gate had cleared.

The Gang involuntarily took a few steps backward to get out of the way. They stood to one side, watching as family after family came out, but no sign of Jacine.

"There she is." Azami sounded relieved as last of the line came into view. Jacine was at the tail end, talking with a brown-haired woman in the town's Peace Keeper uniform. The Gang couldn't hear what she was saying -- there was too much noise in the terminal with the sudden influx of people for them to hear anyone further away than each other.

Apparently it was less noisy on the other end, for the Peace Keeper looked away from Jacine to the line, frowned, said something, and the last ten adults stopped advancing. They all had slightly ashamed looks on their faces, as they took stunners and holsters off and handed them to the officer. At this point, Jacine saw the Gang on the other side of the Gate, and waved to them.

Michael laughed and shook his head. Speaking in an aside to the others, he said, "Somehow, I think she's going to have a legitimate reason for being late."

23 gazed at all the people around him, vastly amused, "Aren't they all legitimate? Sometimes unreasonable, sometimes silly, but legitimate."

With a smile, Michael conceded the point.

Jacine was the last one left, and she started forward, but a hand on her shoulder stopped her. The Peace Keeper shook her head in mock regret, and Jacine looked embarrassed. She transferred her cane to her other hand and unhooked her holster with stunner and handed it over. The other woman laughed and ruffled Jacine's hair as she moved forward. Jacine took it in good grace, with a wide grin that shared in the laughter.

When she moved through the Gate, it shimmered and faded, revealing the back of the cubicle again. Jacine was instantly enveloped in a bear-hug from her brother, and she tried to return it as best as she could. Despite her smaller size, she managed to give almost as much as she received. The others looked on, Rhin taking the sibling affection as matter-of-fact, Tam and Azami a little less so, and 23 with amazement. He wondered, again, what it would have been like if his brothers had been more like Rhin's clan, everybody getting along together.

"So, sib, what's with all the people?" Michael took a step away from Jacine, and Azami had to move fast to keep from being stepped on. Rhin burst into giggles, but when Michael looked around in puzzlement, both managed to keep relatively straight faces and wouldn't tell him what'd happened.

Jacine's eyebrows raised at the antics, and a slight smile curved her lips, but she let it drop as she answered Michael's question. "Well, the other night I was over at the club, and I mentioned I was going to the City, and it sort-of snowballed from there. Hardly any of the children have ever seen a city, let alone Island City, and in school that week they'd been learning ‘bout it, so..." Jacine shrugged, and grinned disarmingly at them. "But we had to finish the weekend chores before we could come -- the plants are starting to grow like weeds, and the weeds with them. We can't let a single weekend go, or the harvest will be messed up."

They moved out of the Gate cubicle while she was talking. The majority of the families had already disappeared, only a few still hanging around, talking to tourist information and deciding where to go. Tam and the other two females were looking Jacine up and down as they examined her outfit.

"Must be warm in your area." Azami remarked mildly.

Jacine grinned again, "It's been quite a while since our area has seen anything like snow. Today was nice, and I was hanging out with the younger crowd that don't yet know a turnip from a weed, so I didn't want to bother with the boots." She was wearing a tanktop with shorts and sandals, relying heavily on her thick wooden cane to support her left leg. Her walk was more of a jump-lurch as the cane took the place of her leg for support of her body. Jacine didn't seem to notice anything awkward in her movements.

23 and the Twins regarded the left leg with curiosity -- this was the first time they'd ever seen it without the boot on. The lower half had almost no muscle on the calf, making the leg look like a skeletal remnant. The flesh was mostly smoothed over, but there were still white and red lines and patches marking old wounds. Azami and Rhin traded glances with 23, but from the looks they exchanged, none could figure out what sort of injuries could have caused it. Aside from the scars, the calf muscle could have been sheered off with a knife.

Michael and Jacine had moved ahead of the group. Tam saw the other three looking, and she shook her head at them, indicating that she knew, but wasn't going to tell them, at least not right then.

[skip miscellaneous events of the day]

Tam looked over at the blonde engineer, reminded, "By-the-way, Jacine, as long as you're here..." She let the words trail off as she waited for Jacine's reaction to see if she'd be agreeable to working on the weekend.

Jacine laughed, "No problem, Tam -- what needs fixing this time?"

"Well, it's the VR Interactive Analyzer."

Jacine looked up abruptly, with a frown on her face, "De-Bugger? What's wrong with it?"

"It seems like a program flaw, but I can't find anything that I can pick out. When I'm working on a molecule chain, suddenly, all the images will start to recede into the background until they're so small I can't see them. Which pretty much defeats the purpose. It just started doing that at the end of the day on Friday, so I was going to wait until Monday before calling anybody in to check it out."

"And now you don't need to." A grin came and went on Jacine's face, but the frown stayed the whole time as she puzzled over the problem. "Show me."

The two women moved into the computer room, and 23 and Azami followed them. Rhin and Michael stayed in the living room, not very interested in the technical end of things on their weekend off.

Jacine watched the demonstration, then pulled her helmet off with a sigh, "Oh Pickles!"

23 and Azami glanced at each other. Azami raised an eyebrow, "Pickles?"

"Yes," Jacine frowned at the machine absently, "That's a design flaw, not a program one. And I know just where the stupid circuits are." She raised her voice slightly, "Michael -- care to come in and give us a hand?"

Tamlynn had also taken off her helmet, "You do?"

An amused expression replaced the frown, "Actually, we put that thing together in such a hurry, I'm surprised you haven't had to call me in for more maintenance."

23 looked at her in surprise, he knew what she could do, especially after the Skeeters just a couple of weeks ago, but still, "You invented this?"

Michael had walked in, and he and Tamlynn and Azami looked at 23 with a combination of exasperation and amusement at the bluntness of the question. Jacine was still looking at De-Bugger and replied mildly, "It was a team effort. Which reminds me, I know which circuits are fried, but I don't know the details. I'm going to have to call Latisha before we go scrounging."

"Latisha Walker?" 23 quizzed.

Jacine cocked her head to look at him, studying him for a moment before answering, "That's right. Do you know her?"

"She was my Advisor at Hawkings. Can I help?"

Jacine gave that question a few seconds of reflection before answering, "No -- you don't know enough about this system. Tish and Ael and I practically designed the thing from scratch." She looked over at Tamlynn, "I'll call Tish now, and we'll get your parts in a couple of hours."

Michael cleared his throat, "Jas -- what did you want me to do?"

"Oh." Jacine grinned at him, "Move this out from the wall, please. The circuits that need replacing are at the back."

Her brother rolled his eyes, but also smiled. He didn't resent being used for his muscles from his sister, because she obviously couldn't use hers. And Jacine knew him better than anybody -- she knew very well that there was more to him than just the muscles.

Jacine wiggled into a better position under the table. It ended up that De-Bugger couldn't be moved too far from the wall with the number of hookups attached into it. So Michael had moved it out as far as it safely could be, and Tamlynn had cleared out room from under the table next to it. With some maneuvering, Jacine could reach the circuits. That left her lower body sticking out into the main walking area in the computer room, but everybody quickly left her to the work and separated to different areas -- Tam to the kitchen where she was baking muffins, 23 helping her, and the other three to the living room where they were absorbed in the latest episode of 'Knights on Mars'.

Tam laughed at 23's suggestion, "Oh no, that's okay! I'll get them." She put on hot pads, opened the oven, and brought out the tray of muffins.

23 watched with an amused grin. He'd just been joking about him getting them out. His coordination was usually fine for slow, controlled movements, but he and Tam had been friends for a long time, and Tam had a large collection of kitchen near-disaster stories with him involved.

The muffins toppled on the floor, the pan ringing, but there was nobody left in the kitchen to notice as Tam and 23 ran out, towards the computer room where a piercing scream had come from. Tam got in there first, with Michael and the Twins entering from a different door a moment later.

Jacine was sitting on the floor next to the analyzer, shaking her head and weakly laughing. Tam paused to evaluate her condition -- Jacine was the color of skim milk, white and pale, but with a blue translucency to her skin. Michael didn't pause, but went straight to his sister and fell on his knees beside her.

"I'm okay," Jacine hastily tried to reassure her brother, but her voice was shaky. Michael gathered her into his arms and she leaned into his hug, holding on to him tightly.

Tamlynn turned to 23 behind her, "Go heat up one of those fuzzy blankets." 23 nodded, glancing again at the siblings, then he disappeared into further parts of the house.

Rhin crossed the room and asked Tam, "Tea?"

The doctor nodded, "Not too hot, but with lots of sugar and cream. Umm, Orange Spice, I think." Rhin moved into the kitchen.

Azami raised her eyebrows in question, but Tam shook her head -- there wasn't anything else immediately needed for treatment of shock. Right now, Michael was probably the best medicine.

After long minutes of holding Jacine tightly, Michael felt her start to lose some of the tension. He shifted his grip and looked at her. Jacine smiled weakly at him. Moving around, Michael sat down on the floor next to her and she leaned back on his chest, with his arms wrapped around her.

When the change of positions had finished, Rhin moved forward with the tea. With a murmur of thanks, Jacine held the mug with both hands. Michael released one hand and steadied her grip. Leaning down and inhaling the steam, with the warmth moving though her hands, Jacine visibly relaxed some more. Tamlynn finally walked over to feel her pulse. She had judged that doing it anytime sooner would have merely added to Jacine's tension.

23 came back into the room with a couple of fuzzy blankets. He draped one of them over Jacine's shoulders, concentrating on getting it to cover the parts of her upper body that weren't leaning against Michael's higher body temperature. He folded the second one in half, and, first looking for permission from Jacine, slide it under her bare legs and wrapped it over them as well. He settled back in a kneeling position near them, but not so close to cause discomfort if his presence wasn't welcome.

Jacine and Michael were watching their new friends with some amazement, not used to having anybody outside of the family be so caring and attentive. Jacine murmured in a voice too low for the others to hear, "You pick good friends."

Michael tilted his head to look at her and grinned, "You do, too."

His answer was something the others could hear, and they all looked at him, but didn't comment on the ambiguous statement. Instead, Tamlynn cleared her throat and asked, "So... What happened?"

Jacine started laughing in short, hiccupy breaths, and even Michael looked strangely at her. With a last hiccup, Jacine freed one hand. "Well, for starters, I hope you have a tall ladder somewhere around here." She pointed up on the opposite wall towards the ceiling.

All eyes looked that way, and Tamlynn involuntarily exclaimed, "Good God! Dusty, how did you get up there?" A black cat, speckled with grey, was on the very top of a tall bookshelf, crouched in a corner, puffed out to near three times his normal size. His orange-amber eyes were wide as he gazed down at them.

"I think I scared him out of one of his nine lives when I screamed."

"Oh!" Michael looked away from the cat back at his sister with sudden comprehension. He moved the tea mug out of her hands and hugged her close to him again, as if to reassure himself that she was there.

"'S'okay, Michael. Really." Jacine's eyes turned from showing her own distress to worry for her brother. She didn't utter a word of protest at how tight he was squeezing her.

Tamlynn looked back and forth from the cat to the woman, and she slowly nodded. The other three wore identical exasperated looks.

When Michael had pulled away enough from his sister for her to take a couple of long breaths, Jacine looked first to make sure he didn't need anymore reassurance, then she turned to the others. "I was under the table, and Dusty must have seen me here. He's such a friendly cat, he came over and rubbed against my legs."

"And you were startled." Azami nodded.

Jacine looked tempted to leave it at that, but said, "Well, yes, but that's not the big deal." She took a breath, then flipped the blanket off her legs and extended the left one. "That was caused... Umm. That happened... Heck. I lost most of that flesh when I was eight and a coyote decided I was a nice snack for the night. The doctors who fixed me trimmed away the rest because it was gangrenous."

Four faces turned pale at the thought. Tam had known it, but she still didn't like to think of it. Azami gulped and tried to force down her revulsion at the idea. Rhin muttered, "Duwies glan!"

23, despite the whiteness of his own face, reached out from where he was kneeling on the floor, to Jacine and placed a hand on her shoulder. Jacine looked at him in surprise, and then with thankfulness at the reassurance and sympathy in his face.

Michael also was surprised, and when he glanced up to look at the others, he found the same emotions reflected in each of their faces, all directed with tender caring towards his sister. The surprise turning to pleased pride, he thought, We really did acquire some good friends! Each and every one of them... How did we manage that? He smiled with his own thanks.