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Safe Harbors

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"We get a weekend off, and Mom puts us right to work," Jim grumbled as he and Silver trudged down the path that led from the Benbow to the China Pit.  "Typical."

"Typical!" mimicked Morph, who floated along over Jim's shoulder.

Silver only chuckled, but he shifted the basket he carried to his mechanical hand so he could pat Jim's arm with the organic one.  "Yer mum needs the help," he said unsympathetically.  "Otherwise, she'd have to hire someone to do the pickin'."

"B.E.N. could do it," muttered Jim, although he edged a little closer to Silver as they walked.  "I've been picking the stupid dewberries every year since I could walk."  He paused, tugging at Silver's sleeve to stop him, as they reached the first tangle of brambly vines crawling up the cliff face beside them.  "Here."

"Ah, ye got a keen eye, lad."  Silver reached up to push aside a few jagged-edged leaves above Jim's head.  "I wouldn't've seen the berries for the thorns."

"Yeah, well."  Jim blushed a little at the praise as he started picking the first berries from the lower part of the vine.  As in previous years, they hadn't all ripened at once, and Jim had to pay attention not to pick the crimson, unripe berries.  Instead, he plucked the purple-black ones and dropped them into the basket.

"So what does yer mum do with these anyway?" Silver asked as he shifted the basket back to his organic hand and began sweeping whole handfuls of berries out of the thorny vines with his invulnerable mechanical one.

"Bakes them into stuff and makes jelly, mostly."  Jim swore under his breath as he tried to pull an over-ripe berry from the vine; it practically exploded between his fingers, staining them with garnet-colored juice.  He brought his hand to his mouth and sucked the juice away impatiently.  "At least I won't have to help with that too this year.  But she'll probably make us prepare some to freeze tonight."

"She's got a good head on her shoulders," Silver declared with an aside of "Get away, Morphy," as the shapeshifter tried to sneak into the basket for a mouthful of their produce.  "Never turn down free food."

"Yeah, not when you have cheap, abused hand labor to collect it for you."  Jim rolled his eyes and gave the leaves of the vine a final swipe to make sure he hadn't missed any berries.  "Well, one vine down, fifty thousand to go.  Most of 'em grow down around the entrance to the China Pit," he explained as they started back down the path.  "Mom always complains that the workers get to half of them before she does, but I've never noticed any lack."

They worked in silence for a while after they reached the massive patch of dewberry vines that sprawled across the rocks near the China Pit; the noise coming from within the mine made it hard to hear each other anyhow.  When they did snatch bits of conversation, it was mainly Jim's grumbling and Silver's musings on potential recipes for berry-related dishes.

The rest of the time, Jim was trapped with his own thoughts, somehow feeling alone there on Montressor even with Silver and Morph, even knowing that Sarah and B.E.N were nearby in the Benbow, that Camille and Bertrand would be waiting for their return to Crescentia the next afternoon.

I've felt like this ever since we got back from Seven, and that's been two days ago, Jim brooded.  And they all know it too-- that's why Bertrand pretty much forced us to come here this weekend.  Like being around Mom for two days is helping.

His thoughts were interrupted by the silence that fell after a loud whistle sounded from the mine, signaling that work had ended for the day.  Jim took the opportunity to stop picking, instead watching the Benbonians that streamed from the mine, a few of whom called out greetings to him.

"Back to work, lad," Silver said wryly.  "We still got a half-hour of daylight fer pickin'."  Jim made a playful face at him and plucked a few more berries.

"You'd be about as eager as I am if you'd had to do this all your life," he accused the cyborg.

"Eh, I've picked enough fruit in my time," Silver countered.  "There was somethin' similar on Mau, back when I lived there an' worked for that innkeeper.  I'd take his little girl out with me early in the mornin' an' pick those damn red berries for hours."  He gave a chuckle that sounded faintly like a sigh.  "Luna loved it though-- I think her favorite part was gettin' her purty yella dresses stained with juice and makin' her mum pitch a fit, just to see the fireworks."

Luna, Jim thought.  It was like following a string back through the maze of his memory to find her, the little girl Silver had befriended as a young man-- and the future mother of the reborn Rosmunda Grigio, another little girl the memory of whom still made Jim ache a little.  He realized guiltily that he had not thought of Rosmunda in quite a while: his father now loomed in his mind as far greater a villain than Galaxia and the girls who had murdered Mau and Coronis.

The memory was evidently still fresh to Silver, though.  "Ye think she's still alive, lad?" he asked in an almost off-handed way; Jim knew him well enough to understand the emotion he was hiding.  Jim thought before answering, thought of the desperate struggle for sanity he had seen in Tin Kitty's eyes.  No, he didn't think Luna was still alive: Galaxia had won that struggle.  But then, Rosmunda would be reborn; he was sure of it, as sure as he had seen her future self singing in Bastet.

"I. . . I don't know," Jim finally answered.  "Maybe-- maybe death is different for them, for people with star seeds.  Maybe it doesn't last."  It sounded insane to him, but Silver only nodded.

"Maybe so.  And if that's the case, I can think of a few people I hope ain't got 'em."  He finished with a chuckle, then straightened up, bracing his organic hand on his back and stretching.  It wasn't anywhere near dark yet, but even Silver seemed to have had enough of berry picking.

"Let's go back, lad," Silver said, giving Jim's hair a ruffle as they started for the path leading back to the Benbow with Morph following.  Jim felt a little less alone as they walked, especially when Silver let his arm rest comfortably (if a bit heavily) across Jim's shoulders.  There was a lot of pain in the memories of the cyborg, Jim knew, but somehow that made him feel even closer to Silver.

I'm mature enough now for him to share it with me, Jim thought, still with the youth's pride of growing up.  Before, on the Legacy, my problems were more simple, but now. . . I can understand him, at least a little.  And I should share my pain with him too.

"Eh?  Ye a'right, lad?" Silver asked as Jim suddenly pressed closer to him, almost leaning against his side as they climbed the path.

"I don't know what to do," Jim blurted out, the first time since the return voyage from Seven that he or any of them had addressed the appearance of Leland Hawkins.

"I told ye, lad, you don't have to do nothin'."  Silver didn't have to ask what Jim meant.

"But that still means making a decision!"

"What kinda decision, Jimbo?" the cyborg asked gently.

Jim bit his lip, focusing on the dirt path beneath their feet, every step taking him closer to the crux of the matter.  "If I should tell Mom or not."

"Oh."  Silver sounded truly surprised, leaving Jim to question, a little bitterly, the empathy he had felt with the cyborg just a moment before.  "Lad, I don't. . . I don't see why ye would want to tell yer mum.  It ain't gonna make her happier to know where he is-- it ain't gonna change things."

"But I feel like I'm lying to her," Jim explained.  "And-- and more than that--"  He broke off, trying to formulate his thoughts.  "Well, those years you were gone and I was at the Academy-- I would've given anything to know where you were and to know you were safe, even if there was no way I could see you or be with you!"  He looked up at Silver and found the cyborg's organic eye gazing down at him tenderly.  "And if she still loves him the way I love you. . . ."

Silver looked up again quickly, swallowing hard.  "Lad," he said, a little huskily, "it just ain't the same.  At least I hope to the stars it ain't.  I mean, I did run off an' leave ye, I guess, but--"

"No, no, it wasn't the same!" Jim said quickly.  "I didn't mean it like that--"  He stopped walking in order to throw both arms around the cyborg in a tight hug.  "I just meant. . . ."

"I know, Jimbo," Silver whispered.  He hugged Jim back and stroked his hair roughly while Morph, obliviously eager to join in the cuddling, nestled up against Jim's face and nearly suffocated him.  "It's just that in some ways, I was a bit like yer dad, and I remind myself a' that so I won't never go back to it."

"Mmpgh," Jim agreed, finally pushing Morph away and taking a gasp of air.  When he had caught his breath, Silver put an organic finger under his chin and tilted Jim's head up to meet his mismatched eyes again.

"I can't tell ye what to tell yer mum, lad-- it's yer decision, 'cos ye know her better'n anyone else does.  I know ye wouldn't hurt her needlessly for all the treasure in the galaxy, so I know ye'll make the right choice."

"Thanks."  Jim leaned up and gave Silver a kiss-- but only a quick one since that was another secret he was keeping from Sarah.  I'll deal with that one later, he thought, almost smiling as they started once more for the inn.  Silver's confidence in him had strengthened Jim's resolve, and by the time the Benbow's lights were in view, already glowing brightly against the coming dusk, he had decided.

--

There was an unusually heavy crowd at the Benbow that evening.  Jim was busy in the kitchen for some time, dealing with the dewberries while Silver helped Sarah with dinner.  Despite his myriad complaints to Silver, Jim knew better than to utter one word around Sarah, even about the scratches on his hands which stung when he rinsed off the berries.  Afterwards, he spread them out on baking sheets and put them in Sarah's large freezer; once they were frozen in single layers, they could be bagged and stored in the freezer practically indefinitely, giving the Benbow's guests a supply of treats throughout the next year.

By the time Jim finished that job, B.E.N. was already tottering in with the guests' orders for food and drinks.  Jim chuckled when the robot asked for three bowls of fish paste and one of Alponian biscuits in milk.

"I got it, B.E.N.," he grinned, quickly spooning up the requested (and quite unappetizing) dishes and carrying them out to the common room on a tray.  As he had known from the order, the Dopplers were seated at a their usual table.  The children chortled happily when they saw him-- and their food.

"Hi guys," Jim said as he handed out the kids' food.  Tisiphone cooed and beamed up at him, and he patted her head affectionately.  "How's it going?"

"Good evening, Master Hawkins."  Amelia nodded at him.  "I didn't know you were visiting."

"Just for the weekend.  And it's, ah, a working vacation."  Jim gestured down at the chef's apron he was wearing.  "Silver and I-- uh, I mean. . . ."  He trailed off, cursing himself for bringing up Silver: Amelia and the cyborg were still on edge around each other.

Surprisingly, it was Delbert who sidetracked them from the awkward moment.  "Ah, so you left that other friend of yours behind-- the Octopid fellow?"

"Yeah," Jim smirked.  "Camille knew Mom'd put him to work if he came here.  So," he went on, "Do you two want anything to eat, or are you just gonna feed the bottomless pits here?"

"We'll order something later," Amelia replied.  "You'd better see about her first."

"Hunh?  Her who?"  When Amelia nodded toward the door, Jim turned to see another guest there, one he hadn't noticed before.  Unlike the other cheerful, chattering people in the end, she was standing alone and silent.  At least Jim assumed she was a she, though it was hard to tell because she was wearing a long, brown, hooded cloak that revealed little about her body shape.

"Oops!"  Jim hurried over to the door, wondering if the woman had been there all along or if she had come in silently while he was talking to the Dopplers.  When he reached her, he found that she really was a woman: though her eyes were hidden in the shadow of her hood, the rest of her face was visible, sharp-chinned but feminine.

"Welcome to the Benbow," Jim said in his usual greeting spiel.  "Would you like a room for the night, or are you just here for dinner?"

"Hmn."  She gave a short, husky laugh then went on in the same tone of voice.  "Neither, thank you.  I'd just like a glass of water. . . with some sugar in it."

"Sugar?"  Jim blinked, trying not to wrinkle his nose in distaste.  "Uh, I mean. . . sure, not a problem.  How much?"

"Two spoonfuls."  The woman turned her head, presumably to look around the room, then nodded towards a lone chair near the unlit fireplace.  "I will be over there."

"Okay, it'll just be a minute."  Jim watched after her a minute as she drifted to her chair.  Weirdest person we've had here in a while, he thought.  He hurried back to the kitchen, grinning at Silver as the cyborg passed him carrying four huge bowls of stew.  But then, maybe she just wants water because she's heard of Silver's stew.

Jim went back into the kitchen, then paused in the doorway at seeing his mother there alone; it reminded him of his earlier resolve.  I'm going to tell her about finding Dad-- I don't think I can live with that kind of secret.  The problem was getting up the nerve to do it.  He decided to fall back on the strategy he had used as a kid when he had a confession to make: I'll break it to her slowly, he decided.

"Hey Mom, there's the weirdest girl out there," Jim commented as he pulled a water glass down from the cabinet.  "She's wearing some cloak thing that covers her whole body, and she wants a glass of water with sugar in it.  Yech."

Sarah chuckled.  "Could be pregnant.  You know, hiding her weight gain and dealing with cravings."

"I wouldn't know anything about that," Jim declared.  He grabbed a spoon to mix in the sugar, and started back to the door.  He paused there again, as if as an afterthought, and said over his shoulder, "Oh, I need to talk to you about something too.  After dinner?"

"All right.  Until then, I'll be wondering what sort of confession you've got for me this time."

Jim cringed and gave a weak chuckle as he went back into the common room.  Guess she was on to that trick a long time ago.

He carried the water over to his strange guest.  She was seated, silent and alone, with her face turned toward the Dopplers.  Her mouth, made up with deep pink lipstick, was pursed thoughtfully, but she smiled almost gently when she saw Jim.

"Here you are, ma'am."  Jim handed her the glass and tried not to look too curious.  "Do you need anything else?"

"Nothing, thank you."  She took a brief sip of water but went on before Jim could leave.  "What's your name, boy?"

"Jim, Jim Hawkins," he replied tersely, bristling at being called a boy.  "My mom owns the Benbow."

"I see."  After a longer drink of water, she spoke again.  "I'm sorry, I should reciprocate.  My name is Parvana Vidatu."

"You're. . . not from here, are you?" Jim asked tentatively.  He knew he really should get on with attending to the other guests, but his curiosity about the mysterious woman prompted him to keep her talking.  "I haven't seen you here before."

Parvana again gave her low laugh.  "No.  I am from the planet Cocoon, quite far away."  She reached up to grasp her hood, and as the long sleeves that covered her hands shifted, Jim caught a glimpse of long fingers  highlighted with nail polish that matched her lipstick.  The hood had made Jim nervous, as if she might be hiding something hideous underneath, but when she pulled it back, he saw only a rather pretty humanoid female face, several years older than himself.  The only strange thing about her was the color of her thickly-curled hair, a blue-violet shade that matched her eyes.  It was crowned with a dark pink tiara adorned with beads and gemstone stars.

"It must be far; I've never heard of it.  So what are you doing here, in the middle of nowhere?"  Before Parvana answered, Jim heard Sarah call for him impatiently.

"You'd better go," Parvana chuckled, smirking once more.  As Jim turned to go help his mother, he tried to decide whether he liked Parvana or not: she seemed to have the potential to be nice, but she also seemed annoyingly arrogant.

Jim was so busy, he all but forgot about her as the evening went on.  He noticed B.E.N. bringing her another glass of water at one point, but she kept a low profile otherwise.  It wasn't until most of the other dinner guests had gone that she attracted his notice again.

He and Sarah  were sitting at the Dopplers' table while Silver and B.E.N. cleaned up in the kitchen.  Amelia was telling Sarah about one of her voyages-- a story Jim had heard several times before-- and his eyes wandered back to the woman by the fireplace.  As Parvana lifted her glass and tilted her head back to drain the last of the water, the wide sleeve of her cloak slid down to her elbow.  She was wearing a long, blue fingerless glove, but something else about her arm caught his attention.  Jim couldn't place it until she had set down the glass and deliberately covered her arm again.

Then it struck him: Parvana wore a wide golden bracelet on her wrist.

Jim felt as if the blood had drained completely out of his face, even as he tried to talk himself down.  So what if she has a bracelet?  Women all over the galaxy wear gold bracelets!  And it was true, he hadn't seen the multicolored gems that Galaxia's other soldiers had worn on theirs, but the sight-- and the way she had covered her arm-- still chilled him.

"Uh, excuse me a minute," he mumbled to the others; caught up in Amelia's tale, they hardly noticed as he got up and went back into the kitchen.  "Hey Silver?"

"Aye, lad?"  Silver dried off the pot he was washing and turned to look at him.

"Can you. . . come here a minute?"  Silver gave him a funny look but dropped his dish towel and went to him.  "Did you see that woman by the fireplace, the one drinking sugar water?"

"Aye," Silver nodded.  "Strange lass.  What of her?"

"She. . . ."  Jim looked over his shoulder at B.E.N. still working  then whispered, "I-I mean, I don't know and I'm probably overreacting, but. . . ."  At the flat look Silver gave him, he blurted out, "She's wearing a wide gold bracelet, like Galaxia's soldiers did."

Silver frowned, but Jim recognized the worried crinkles around his organic eye.  "But yer not sure?"

"No, but. . . come out here, will you?"  Jim looked up at him, swallowing hard.  "Just in case."  The cyborg nodded and followed him back into the common room.  As they came in, Sarah stood up, smoothing down her dress.

"All right folks, we're closing for the night," she called to the few remaining guests, finishing with a smile,  "If you're not paying for a room, it's time to go!"

Jim looked up at Silver to find him studying Parvana while the other guests filtered out.  She had not moved at Sarah's announcement and sat still shrouded in her cloak.  When even the Dopplers had stood and were gathering up their children, Sarah's smile faded and she moved towards the fire place.

"Ma'am?  Would you like to take a room for the night?"

"No."  Finally Parvana stood, looking past Sarah towards Amelia's family.  "I won't be staying the night."

"Then I'm afraid, I'll have to ask you to. . . leave. . . ."  Sarah trailed off into mute surprise when Parvana suddenly threw her cloak from her shoulders and let it fall to the floor.

Parvana's clothing was shocking enough: a blue bikini covered with sparkling sequins and only a translucent pink skirt over her thighs and hips.  Besides the long gloves Jim had noticed before, she also wore tall black boots that rose past her knees.  However, the most startling thing about her were the wings that slowly lifted and opened once freed from the confines of her cloak.  They were not birds' wings, like Bertrand's; instead they were the wings of a butterfly, fragile and deep blue with hints of gold and pink.

Then Jim's eyes fell on her wrists: both bore gold bracelets dotted with Galaxia's gems.

"Silver--" he hissed, clutching at the cyborg's arm.

"M-ma'am," Sarah stammered, unaware that this was anything but an ill-timed striptease, "please, you must leave.  It's late and your attire is--"

"Ye have no business here," Silver interrupted.  He trod heavily over towards the fireplace, moving between Parvana and Sarah.

"Hmn!  I do, in fact-- a very special assignment."  Parvana looked past him to Jim, drawing her lips back in a smile.  "I thought you all looked familiar-- you're the reason I'm here."

Jim bit his lip and drew closer to Sarah.  "Mom, you-- you need to go to the kitchen--"

"Oh, don't worry," Parvana interrupted.  "I'm not here to hurt anyone.  Lady Galaxia only wants the Star Seeds that Tin Kitty left behind when you drove her out of this backwards little system."  Amelia gave a sharp gasp.

"Delbert!"  He was already holding two of the children, and she scooped up the other two and took a step towards the Benbow's front door.  Before she could get any farther, Parvana raised one arm and shot a warning bolt of energy from her bracelet, narrowly missing Amelia.

"Star. . . Star Seeds. . . ."  Beside Jim, Sarah turned pale, apparently remembering what Jim had told her about Galaxia.  "But no one here is a-- a warrior!"

"No. . . not yet.  But there are Star Seeds here, all the same."

"Who are ye?" Silver growled, lifting his own arm and switching his regular mechanical hand to his bladed one.

"I used to be Parvana Vidatu, but Lady Galaxia has given me a new name."  Her wings waved languidly as she spoke.  "I am her most powerful Animamate soldier, Heavy Metal Butterfly.  The Soul Hunter."

"Soul hunter--!" cried Jim.

"Yes, the one Galaxia sends for the lost Star Seeds-- and the one who sends them to their final rest in the Galaxy Cauldron."  Jim's stomach clenched at those words, and he heard his feelings echoed in a gasp from Sarah.  Before anyone could react further, Heavy Metal Butterfly raised both arms.

"No--"  Jim started to stumble towards her, but no energy rays came from her bracelets.  Instead, only four large, bubble-like spheres appeared, darting towards the Dopplers before Jim could reach Butterfly.  The bubbles surrounded Amelia and her daughters; Jim saw his former captain bare her claws and slash at her bubble's iridescent surface, but they did no damage at all.  And then-- all four bubbles disappeared, the Mauans along with them.

"Amelia!" Sarah cried, turning in alarm to where she had stood.  At the same time, Delbert gave a wail of shock to find that his left arm, which had been cradling Tisiphone, was now empty.  In his other arm, Delbert Jr. looked for his sisters in bewilderment.

"Bring them back!" Jim demanded, stamping his foot though he knew asking anything of Galaxia's soldiers-- her Animamates-- was futile.  Before he even got the words out, Heavy Metal Butterfly too was gone.