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The upper parlour was light and airy, and the huge box window gave a brilliant view over the city of Firestorm. Midnight sat with her knees drawn up on the window seat gazing out over the view. She had a dim memory of doing something similar as a child, a long time ago in a palace not as far away as she would like. Back then the buildings had been intact, standing tall and proud beneath the fiery Martian sky. Now they were mere husks, mostly inhabited but in pitiable states.

She barely registered the light tap on the door, was only vaguely aware of one of the bodyguards poking his head in. Somewhat petulantly, she wished he would go away. More rationally, she didn't fault him for doing his job. Usually the bodyguards faded into the background so well everyone could go about their business and forget they were there, as it should be. Since Vinnie's little tantrum in the throne room, they had clamped down to the point where the twins had come to Midnight and complained in their own way that their styles were being cramped. If Silverfire and Kitai were unhappy about it they kept it to themselves, and Helios had become sulky and petulant. All Midnight had been able to do was assure her daughers that she was reasonably certain these measures were temporary and everything would go back to normal once their guests' issues had been dealt with.

"Your Majesty?"

"What is it, Tanner?" she responded, not looking away from the window. She couldn't see Vinnie and Harley but she was sure they were down there somewhere. Vinnie had come in late last night again. They had argued again. She had told him to get out again. She had heard all the stories, heard him singing Harley's praises. She knew all about what an awesome wrench jockey and medic Harley was. She knew she couldn't compare to that.

"General Stoker is here as requested, your Majesty."

"Thank you. Send him in."

She heard the gentle clicking of Stoker's boots as he crossed the threshold, heard the low murmur of conversation between Stoker and Tanner, and then the door closed. She listened to the boots click into the centre of the room, where their staccato was abruptly muffled by what remained of the once plush carpet.

"Hey Mid." Stoker's voice was gentle.

"Hey Stoke." She needed to banish thoughts of Vinnie and Harley from her mind. She had spent hours of days crying, and about that much again angsting, wondering what the future was going to hold, if it would still contain Vinnie. She had tried to understand it from their point of view. She knew they had a thing for each other back in the Freedom Fighter days, she knew what had happened. It was understandable that emotions would spill over after so long. It still hurt, knowing that she was only ever going to be second best.

"You wanted to see me?" Stoker left the question hanging. He wouldn't rush her. For all the egotistical jerky brashness he had put on decades previously, it turned out that he had a lot of patience. He probably wouldn't have survived as long as he had if the egotistical brashness was all there was to him. He also wouldn't have been able to practically single-handedly assemble and lead a ragtag collection of soldiers and over-enthused militia in the initial seemingly-hopeless fight back after what had appeared to be a complete coup. Midnight uncurled and turned to face Stoker, enjoying the feeling of the silk sliding over her fur as the dress responded to gravity, falling closer to its original shape.

Middle age spread wasn't unusual in the high ranking officers with age and the more sedentary lifestyle offered by planning and strategics. Stoker remained on active duty and kept himself well honed, moving with the cautious, efficient grace of one who knew his way around battles and danger. His muzzle and dark brown mane were shot through with grey, lending him a distinguished air. He commanded a lot of respect from the soldiers under him, and he made sure they were well trained and disciplined. They wouldn't be handling themselves as well in the three way war if it wasn't for him.

"Yes," she said at length. "I'm appointing you to my personal bodyguard."

Stoker stiffened slightly, blinking in obvious surprise. He opened his mouth, looking a bit like something was choking him. Eventually he cleared his throat.

"Um...I'm honoured but...I'm not sure that's a good idea."

Midnight smiled. "Worried about rumours?" she teased, leaning back against the windowbox so she could cross her ankles. It was tempting to stick her chest out a little bit but she maintained some decorum. If Stoker had been a decade younger she would have seriously considered stooping to Vinnie's level and attempting to seduce him. She knew he would have allowed himself to be seduced once, but wasn't sure about now. She wasn't sure what he would be like as husband material, but he probably would have made at least an equal lover and definitely a much better king.

"More like I don't really wanna be stuck in the middle of your domestic. I'm not exactly Vinnie's favourite person right now and he likes jumping to conclusions." Stoker studied her thoughtfully. Midnight toyed with the little drop pendant dangling below her collarbone, enjoying the smoothness of the precious stone under her fingers. "You're not mad about me letting Windsong see Helios?"

Midnight closed her eyes briefly. Behind her eyelids the image, clear as any video, jumped into her head. The teenager, a bit younger than her own youngest daughter, sprouting tentacles out of her hair and bringing the much taller dark stranger to his knees with apparently little effort. She opened her eyes, and the memory of the horrified expression at what she had just done on the face of the child, the very real terror in her voice as she called out fearfully to Helios and then to Stoker, was replaced by Stoker's much more real visage and presence.

She could understand why Vinnie was afraid of them, even if he would never, ever admit such a thing. Ever. Vinnie would think she was stupid and naive and too much of a bleeding heart, but she didn't think the aliens were a danger. Dangerous maybe, but not a danger. Not yet.

"I trust your judgement, Stoke. Even if my idiot husband is too stupid to."

"That's a bit harsh, Mid." Stoker spoke in a serious tone through a broad grin.

Midnight stood up off the window box and moved to stand in front of Stoker, looking him in the eye. "Vinnie thinks the aliens are dangerous."

"They are." It was a reluctant admission, but Midnight appreciated the truth. He could have tried to convince her that they weren't. "I'm reasonably certain they're reactionary. Did you see what Windsong did to Nightshade?" Midnight nodded. "Well you shouldn't have. We have enough trouble with the males in your family," Stoker admonished. Midnight chuckled. "Anyway she could have done whatever she did at any stage to any of the hospital staff or to me, or Helios when she was alone with him. She had more than enough opportunities and didn't take any of them. Most of the leadup to the incident with the boys was complete misunderstanding. If Nightshade hadn't thought we were threatening Windsong I reckon we would have been able to talk everything out."

Midnight nodded. "I appreciate what she did for Helios. I don't think they mean us any harm, and like I said I trust your judgement. I know you wouldn't put my kids in danger." She paused, dropping eye contact for a moment and instead looking at his broad, adornment free chest. He had plenty of rank badges and
bravery medals he could have decorated himself with. There was a time when he would have proudly strutted around with all of them on display. He had changed so much, despite acting like he hadn't changed at all. She chose her words first, then resumed eye contact.

"Look, Stoker. I don't care what Vinnie says or thinks right now, we need you. He'll realise this when he stops being stupid. Now he can't fire you if he has another tantrum." She smiled.

Stoker arched an eyebrow, then smiled his easy smile. "Maybe I'm gettin' too old for this shit and should retire anyway."

Midnight's eyes sparkled with a hint of mischief. "What would you do with yourself then?" she teased. Stoker shrugged with a low chuckle.

"Go back to the base and make sure Throttle and Carbine are doin' shit properly."

Midnight drew herself up regally, folding her hands neatly in front of her. "You have your orders and your new appointment, General Stoker. Unless you feel like retiring?" She smiled.

Stoker laughed. "I guess I'll hang around a bit longer." He held out his right hand. "Thanks Mid." He grinned his charming rogueish grin. Midnight put her hand in his, he executed a gallant bow, lightly kissing the back of her hand in an otherwise very traditional, proper and formal manner. He righted and squeezed her hand gently, the rogueish grin melting momentarily into a gentle, genuine smile, then he was back to Stoker as usual.

"Well. I got an interrogation to do, and then I guess some rosters to redo. I'll be seein' you sooner than usual."

Midnight smiled as Stoker swept out of the parlour. She often felt rather useless at the council meetings and just in general, she hated politics and wasn't very good at this royal stuff. But it was nice to know that she could make a difference where it mattered sometimes.

-= o =-

The dungeons were no place for a child.

The dark stone walls closed in around them, lending a sense of claustrophobia. Windsong clung tightly to Stoker's hand, pressing nervously against his side as he strode purposefully down the corridor with her trotting beside him.

The royal couple were still actively quarrelling over the current snafu. Modo had gone back to Freedom Rise, wanting to get back to his family. Stoker figured he also wouldn't mind getting out of the middle of the domestics. Throttle and Carbine had also wanted to be getting back, their excuse was to make sure Rimfire didn't blow the place up. Everyone knew Rimfire was quite capable of running things over there, they just wanted to escape the tension as well. But they had stayed, because they didn't want the situation at the palace to blow up either.

Stoker had taken to crashing in with Windsong like she had wanted originally, but her being a young teenager and him being a grumpy old man and society being what it was, there was absolutely no way in fuck he was going to share a bed with her, even if all they were doing was sleeping. The problem was exacerbated by the fact Windsong didn't sleep, she just seemed to have a resting phase, and was highly tactile. She had been growing more and more restless and continually asking after Nightshade. He didn't want to risk her sneaking out, so society be damned.

Everything was one big cockup, and he was really hoping he could avoid it potentially developing into a monumentally epic cockup. Vinnie could be as pig-headed and unreasonable as he liked and he could have Stoker whipped for insubordination if he liked, Stoker's primary concern right now was making sure the three way war didn't turn into a four way one against them, especially if there were more characters like Nightshade. Blasters may be lethal to them, so presumably the larger beam weapons would be even more devastating, but how could one line them up when they moved faster than one could see? Ideally Nightshade and Windsong were just nobodies that had ended up here by chance and the way they had been treating Nightshade wasn't going to cause major political ramifications but there were too many unknowns, too many risks.

Stoker flashed his id at the guards to the room where the glass block was. It was just to fulfil a security requirement, they knew who he was. They both straightened and saluted him.

"General Stoker, sir," one of them spoke up, "you sure you wanna bring the kid in there?"

"The kid's my translator," he replied gruffly.

"You did read the incident report, sir?"

Vinnie had agreed to allow Throttle to interrogate Nightshade. A unit had gone into the glass block to take Nightshade to the interrogation room. Nightshade had grabbed one of them somehow and the scream had been like nothing the guards had heard before. The guard that had been grabbed had fallen unconscious, the floor had been activated which had the desired effect of subduing Nightshade but had also for some reason made the lights flicker. Throttle had ended up not being able to speak to him seeing as the glass was mostly soundproof and nobody was game enough to open the glass block up again. Throttle had had a mind to go in and talk to him but didn't have the security clearance required to order the men to open the door to let him in.

An electrician had been called to check the suspected faulty wiring as the glass block wasn't used often these days. The electrician had reported that there was nothing wrong with the wiring.

The time of the incident had also coincided with Windsong becoming so agitated he'd had to hold her down to stop her from leaving his apartment. She had thankfully refrained from doing to him whatever it was she'd done to Nightshade to drop him, but still hadn't told him what was wrong when he'd finally succeeded at calming her.

Stoker didn't really believe in coincidences.

"Yeah," he replied. "Just make sure you got the recording shit all set up."

The guard pressed his lips together, but they were otherwise used to Stoker's general refusal to explain himself when he didn't want to, and admitted them.

Windsong pressed tighter against Stoker's side as he stepped through the portal into the room containing the glass block.

Plutarkian glass steel was probably the only useful thing to have ever come off that rancid fish-infested excuse for a planet. The feat of engineering stood seven cubic metres, the roof and four walls comprised of Plutarkian glass steel and some breathing tubes which could pump deadly gas as easily as canned air, and a metal floor through which currents could be run to subdue prisoners or provide entertainment for sick, sadistic guards.

Windsong's ears perked up, and she pulled towards the glass block. Within the prison, Nightshade listlessly lifted its head and gazed unblinkingly at them. Stoker frowned. What the hell was wrong with its eyes? They looked like they'd solidifed or something. Also, its fur looked like it had turned purple. He didn't think it was a trick of the glass. He matched Windsong's pace, allowing her to tow him to the nearest wall.

Windsong pressed against the glass as if trying to meld through it. She looked through, up, around, then banged a small fist a couple of times on it. Nightshade eventually slithered off the bed and ambled over to them. His gait was of one desperately trying to conserve as much energy as possible. Stoker got the distinct impression that he was severely malnourished, even though he didn't look any different to when they had first encountered each other. Aside from being purple instead of black.

Nightshade reached the glass wall and collapsed to his knees, one hand on the glass. Windsong placed her hand over his. They made eye contact through the glass, and Stoker jolted. It hadn't been his imagination. There was something wrong with Nightshade's eyes. The entire eyeball was now the colour of his iris.

"Nightshade is dying!" Windsong had her heartbreaking on-the-verge-of-tears voice on. "Stoker please, I need to charge it!"

"What do you mean?"

"I am a Battery, it is what I do!"

Stoker glanced at Nightshade. He couldn't stall too long. "Okay. But we're gonna have to sit and have a chat in there, and you and Nightshade need to answer all of my questions truthfully, okay?"

"Okay."

He had a feeling she would have done anything he asked at this point if she thought it would get her to Nightshade. He led her around the cube towards the door, which was on the opposite wall to where the entry to the containing room was. Nightshade's eyes followed them, even though Nightshade himself didn't.

"Is Nightshade your brother?"

"No."

"What is he then?"

"Nightshade is my Packmate." She was looking at Nightshade all the way round. The inside guards saluted Stoker as he approached.

"Open it up and lock it behind us," Stoker instructed. "Record the entire session."

"Yes sir!"

The glass door slid open. The canned air within smelled funny. Stoker's muzzle wrinkled. Beside him, Windsong twitched and recoiled slightly, again clinging to him and pressing against him as if the smell was frightening. Maybe she found it so. Stoker quietly took a deep breath and led the way in.

Behind him, the door hummed shut, and he heard the releasing air as it sealed. He was now trapped in here with two shapeshifting aliens, at least one of which was deadly. This could be his last day on Mars.

As soon as they were in, Windsong surged to run to Nightshade. Stoker held onto her arm.

"Hang on, sweetling." Windsong looked up at him, a mix of anger and fear flashing across her expressive eyes. He hated being mercenary. "I don't wanna die here."

She frowned, eyes and face simultaneously. He felt a strange rush of pride at her synchronising achievement. "Nightshade will not hurt you. I like you."

Stoker smiled. "I'm really glad you still like me, sweetling." He had way too many days where he didn't really like himself. He hoped he could trust her. He let her go, and followed along sedately as she rushed to where Nightshade was still slumped at the now far wall.

Nightshade raised his head with some effort as Windsong dropped to her knees before him. He held out his arms, she flung herself into them, anxiously nuzzling his muzzle and face. Nightshade nuzzled back, looking like the motion was hard work. Windsong nuzzled into his neck and shoulder, and after gently bumping the top of her head and ears with his muzzle, Nightshade simply rested his muzzle on her head as Windsong settled in his lap.

Stoker was really uncomfortable watching what looked like a teenage child and a fully grown man acting like lovers. It made him slow his approach and wonder how to deal with what was obviously a massive cultural difference, and he only just remembered not to stop when an epiphany struck him. He actually had exactly no idea how old either of them were. He was just assuming and treating Windsong like a teenage girl because she looked like a teenage girl, and the same thing with her strange companion. The repressed memory of the tentacles sprouting from her back when she had subdued Nightshade reminded him that they were aliens, no matter how Martian they looked.

He found a good enough excuse to stop when he felt the low thrum in their corner. He had felt a similar kind of thrum when he had first brought Windsong to see Helios and she had "fixed" him. They weren't moving much now, just sitting and cuddling. At length, Nightshade gently shifted Windsong off his lap and got to his feet, looking a lot healthier than when they had walked in. A LOT healthier. And he was black again. The two of them approached Stoker hand in hand. Stoker casually hooked his thumbs in his belt so he could pull his blaster if he wanted to, though if Nightshade decided to move at light speed again he wasn't sure if he'd have time to draw. Still, it was comforting. He put on the cool as ice demeanour to hide the fact his stomach was doing nervous flips.

Nightshade looked slightly amused on their way over, probably because he knew that it was a front. Mind reading bastards. Windsong looked up at Nightshade, a hint of reproach in her eyes. Nightshade didn't look at her but lowered his eyes slightly as they reached Stoker. Stoker frowned slightly at the exchange, and smoothed his face when they reached him. He held out both hands to Nightshade.

"Hey Nightshade. You all right?"

Nightshade reached out and took Stoker's hands. He recognised the pleasant, cool sensation creeping up his arms.

"Hello, Stoker. I am currently all right. Thank you." That was a reasonably well constructed. As far as Stoker had been aware nobody had been speaking to him while he'd been incarcerated, and from what the Freedom Fighters had been saying, his grasp of Common was tenuous at best. Perhaps he had been lying. But then it would be stupid to come clean now as it would prove he had been lying and that they wouldn't be able to trust anything else he had to say.

"Here. Let's sit down." It was a bit of an effort to remember to speak slowly and clearly, but he thought he'd better make the attempt. He perched on the edge of the bed in the middle of the cube. He had left enough room for them to sit with him, but Nightshade folded his length onto the floor, and Windsong once again curled in his lap. Stoker refrained from asking Windsong to sit up on the bed with him so that she wouldn't get electrocuted if things got ugly.

"So are your names actually your names?" Stoker generally didn't care what people called themselves, it rarely impacted on whether they had anything worthwhile to say or not. Psychologically some people seemed more inclined to speak truthfully after giving a name that wasn't a pseudonym. Not that he thought Windsong would lie, it seemed outside her nature to do so. Though perhaps she could learn, especially as she had worked out that they were not nearly as perceptive as they seemed to be.

"They are as close as we can translate. Yes," answered Windsong.

"What are you?"

The two exchanged a glance.

"I do not understand. Sorry."

"What does your species call itself?"

Windsong thought about it for a little while. "We do not have a name for all of us like you do."

Stoker frowned slightly. "All of you?"

Windsong shifted, obviously nervous. Stoker wanted to say something, anything, to put her at ease, but held back. He had to remain all business for now. "Do other people call your species something?"

Again the aliens exchanged a glance. "Some call us 'shadowshifters'," Nightshade said.

"Okay. Cool." Now they had a label to attach to the aliens. "How old are you?"

"I am one twenty two," Windsong responded. Nightshade glanced down at Windsong, then back up at Stoker.

"Two forty two," he responded shortly.

Stoker looked from one to the other as they spoke in turn. He didn’t recall any species that delivered ages in two numbers. Were they maybe unable to read hundreds? According to Doc Windsong had seemed to grasp the concept of maths readily enough. "I...think I might be missing something. Can you explain the two numbers?"

Windsong looked momentarily confused. "First cycle, twenty two years," she expanded.

"What's a cycle?"

Nightshade's eyes smiled a noticable amount before his face caught up. "From when you are born until you die."

"How long is that?"

The aliens looked puzzled, Windsong moreso as her face reflected what her eyes were saying. How long from when we are born to when we die?"

"Yeah."

"Sometimes we die in accidents. Stories say other species kill us when they find out we are not like them. Some just grow tired of their current cycle and release their energy. Very rarely one of us will deliberately kill another," she twitched, as if the very thought disgusted her, "and they get executed."

If he understood her correctly, they were virtually immortal. "So...how does someone like Nightshade get into a second cycle?"

Windsong turned up to Nightshade.

"Long enough cycle strengthens Core. When energy generated in..." Nightshade paused, looking down at Windsong. Stoker detected fleeting communication between them. "...Egg Ceremony...?" Nightshade's eyes frowned and he looked down again at Windsong. She leaned on him. Nightshade checked Stoker's face
for understanding before continuing. "...strong Core remains intact, memory almost intact. Sometimes all intact."

"How long was your previous...cycle?"

Nightshade's ears flicked. "I cannot remember. Two hundred and fifty years is required to strengthen Core. I know who I am, I remember few things from last cycle, most not clear."

Thinking about their incredible sounding lifespans both made Stoker feel rather insignificant and also did his head in. Time to move on to something hopefully easier.

"Windsong, you said you were a Battery. What is that?"

"Like your batteries. I provide energy to my Pack. And whatever else needs it."

Stoker peered curiously at her for a moment. "...how do you do that?"

"You cannot see the energy stores." More of a statement than aquestion.

"You know we're pretty oblivious compared to you." This earned a smile. She had been a bit short on those lately. "No, I can't see them."

"Batteries have small form structure. Most Battery is energy storage. When we draw energy we can generate more than what we use and store the rest. We can also output a lot of ourselves before it becomes dangerous after we run out of stores, so our role is to fix our Pack and anyone else."

"Are you sayin' you can manipulate energy? Is that how you fixed Helios?"

Nightshade's eyes flickered, and he looked down at Windsong. Windsong nestled back against him. Stoker got the distinct impression that the so-called shadowshifters found the Martians just as strange as the Martians found the shadowshifters.

"Yes. We can manipulate energy." The way she pronounced the unfamiliar word was adorable. "All of us can. Yes, that is how I fixed Helios."

"What's Nightshade then?" Careful with the language. He watched her struggle a little to understand the question, and let her struggle. He would rephrase if she asked or if she didn't give him the kind of answer he was after. She was getting a lot better with colloquial speech.

"Nightshade is a Warrior."

Stoker didn't really need an explanation for that one. He wanted to find out a bit more about them and their culture, but circumstances being what they were, he really needed to know their offensive capabilities and more importantly why they were here.

"Any other kinds?"

"...yes."

"What kinds?"

Windsong looked up at Nightshade uncertainly. Nightshade's eyes frowned, then he looked up at Stoker with some wariness. Stoker sighed internally and shelved it to follow up with leading questions later.

"Why are you here?"

Windsong twitched, cuddling closer in with Nightshade. Nightshade's arms encircled her protectively, he rested his muzzle on the top of her head. "We are here by accident. We were going to the third planet from the sun."

Stoker blinked. "Earth?"

The two shifters looked unblinkingly at him. He had been looked at unblinkingly by many people, but somehow it was unsettling when they did it. "That's what the third planet from the sun's called. Why were you going there?"

Windsong looked away from Stoker. "I told Doc."

"Doc showed me what happened to you. Did you really leave your home planet to get away from one guy?"

"Slider is dangerous," Nightshade spoke up, his voice low. "It can block our communications. Our Pack and Windsong's family should have known it was being attacked. I received because I was nearby. Everyone was further. Our Packleader did not believe us. Slider wanted to Bind Windsong. Slider is stronger than me, I cannot protect Windsong alone. We had to leave."

Stoker looked oddly at Nightshade. "Harley said you didn't speak Common."

"Windsong taught me."

The aliens had not seen each other until now. "When?"

"A little bit before the others brought me here. More now."

"How?"

"Knowledge transfers like energy," Windsong finally looked up at Stoker. "Do you not do the same thing when you antennae?"

"No," Stoker responded, feling slightly light headed at trying to comprehend just what he was dealing with, "we can only show memories and share feelings." Virtually immortal aliens who could instantly learn from each other. They sounded like a rapidly mutating deadly virus. They sounded like something that
could conceivably annihilate them.

"Will there be anyone looking for you?"

Windsong curled into a ball. Nightshade nosed her gently.

"Maybe," said Nightshade.

Stoker arched an eyebrow. "Maybe?" he prompted, keeping his tone only mildly accusatory.

Nightshade looked up and met his eyes. "Slider may call vengeance for me attacking. I do not know if it called vengeance. If it did, yes. Our Packleader may look for us. If so, yes. If not, no."

"If they come looking for you, are they gonna bring an army?"

Nightshade nuzzled Windsong before answering. "No."

"Is this Slider guy like Nightshade?"

Again a reluctant silence. Stoker gentled his tone.

"Look, sweetie," he addressed Windsong, "if we're gonna protect you from Slider we need to know about him."

Once more the aliens looked at each other.

"Slider is an Omega," Nightshade replied at last, not without a lot of hesitation. "It is bigger, stronger and faster than me."

Fucking brilliant.

"In its Pack are four Warriors and two Batteries."

"Okay. Useful to know, thanks. What about the rest of your Pack?"

Nightshade's voice decreased in volume, forcing Stoker to have to concentrate a little to decipher what he was saying. "Our Packleader is an Omega. My twin is a Warrior. Our other Packmate is an Ambassador."

"Are your Ambassadors like ours?"

Nightshade's eyes frowned.

"Yes," Windsong supplied.

"That helps a lot," Stoker said sincerely, already forming shifter defence plans at the back of his mind. "What were you gonna do on Earth?"

Nightshade partially shrugged one shoulder. "Live."

"Just live. Nothing else."

"Make new home?" Nightshade seemed puzzled by the question, and a rising inflection turned what was otherwise a statement into a question, as if asking if this answer was sufficient where apparently the last one hadn't been.

Seemed straightforward enough. Again of course assuming they were telling the truth. Stoker was inclined to believe them given Windsong's previous distress in trying to understand sarcasm and lies. But they were in the middle of a war.

"Aside from Nightshade and presuably other Warriors...and Omegas...being able to move faster than we can see them, what other kind of weapon tech do you have?"

Nightshade's eyes frowned, and he and Windsong exchanged a glance again. They looked at each other for a while, then Windsong spoke up again.

"We do not have weapons like yours." She gestured to Stoker's blaster, a look of terror touching her eyes again briefly at acknowledging its existence again. She had made sure to walk on his left away from it when they had come up.

"Not even knives or slingshots or bows and arrows or anything like that?" All cultures had those.

The two glanced at each other again.

"I do not understand slingshots or bows and arrows," Windsong said, again with that hesitation like she was worried about saying something wrong. Stoker found that one hard to believe. Then again all the "warrior" types he knew usually had some kind of weapon around on them somewhere. If Nightshade had been the kind of "warrior" he was familiar with, he would have had a sidearm or at least a knife. He'd had nothing. And after the guards had told him to take his clothes off so they could do a strip search, they had found out the hard way that the clothes were actually part of him when he'd morphed them back into his body, and that he had no genitals, or any other orifices aside from a mouth. He hadn't been castrated or anything, they had just never been there to begin with. This fact had caused a lot of consternation among the battle hardened men, and even though Stoker made light of it and teased them about it, just hearing about it had freaked him out too. If they could move at that speed and grow tentacles at will and didn't eat or sleep they probably didn't need weapons. Hell from what he'd seen of Nightshade he figured the Warriors themselves were probably the weapons.

"Look," he said, "I'm gonna try and getcha outta here, okay?"

Two set of ears perked up.

"I can trust you, right?"

"I will not attack unless I think you will hurt Windsong." Nightshade's bluntness was mildly startling, but straightforward enough. He liked this straightforwardness. Required less brainpower to process. Assuming of course he could actually take them at face value. He hated his suspicious nature.

"Fair enough. You stay peaceful and we'll be sweet. Okay?"

Two nods.

"I'll come back as soon as I can. C'mon Windsong."

Windsong hesitated. "I want to stay with Nightshade."

There were no words, but she looked at Nightshade as if he had spoken to her. Nightshade touched his nose to hers and then pushed her off, placing her on her feet before unfolding to his full height, looking slightly down at Stoker. Stoker held out his hand, Windsong took it.

"I am sorry I..." Nightshade paused, thinking, then put his hand over his throat like how he had caught Stoker in the strangehold. "Windsong told me it could kill you. I did not know or I would not have held hard."

Stoker snorted, but had to smile. "No worries. Jus' don't do it again."

Nightshade's eyes looked amused, and the corner of his mouth then twitched up into a little smirk. Stoker led the way out with Windsong following him reluctantly, casting many backward glances as they went.

Stoker had his work cut out for him.

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