It was a peaceful day on the Planet of New Japan. Due to an oddity of space, time passed much faster in this star system than elsewhere in the galaxy, making it exceptionally difficult to both enter and leave, or plan communications between it and the rest of the galaxy. As such, the galaxy at large generally ignored it. New Japan, on the other hand, hungered for every bit of news it could get of the galaxy at large.
The most recent events of note that had reached New Japan were the events of the Chorus rebellion, and the heroic exploits of the misfit warriors known only as the Reds and the Blues. Those stories had reached there and set fire to the imaginations of the residents. Everyone was eager to learn everything they could about the team.
So it would come as no surprise that when one of them requested crashing clearance for his ship because he didn’t know how to fly, the spaceport was cleared completely and the government jumped at the chance to take care of the arriving warrior until his ship could be repaired. As a result, a warrior in bright blue armor clutching a completely defunct rifle in his arms walked down the street, followed closely by a large Mantis-class military assault droid, its two legs shaking the streets of the 20th century suburban town they walked through.
As the blue armored warrior made a left, the Mantis spoke up in a synthesized voice, “Captain Caboose, our assigned residence is to the right.”
“Oh, yes, I knew that Freckles!” Caboose responded enthusiastically. “…no I didn’t. I am terrible with directions.” Turning to the proper path, Caboose followed the road until they reached a perfectly ordinary house and yard…except the house was painted blue and the yard included a massive repair bay. “Is this it?” Caboose asked carefully.
“Confirmed,” Freckles responded robotically. “This is the correct address.”
“It was nice of them to put you back in a full size body and give you a proper dog house!” Caboose spoke up happily. “Now…how do I open this?” He tilted back and forth as he carefully examined the plain wooden door.
“The knob, Captain Caboose,” Freckles suggested.
“Oh, yes!” Caboose agreed, releasing his rifle with one hand to take hold of the door, only to accidentally rip it off its hinges. “…Tucker did it! Oh wait, he’s not here. Freckles, please tell me that’s supposed to happen.”
“Order accepted: that is supposed to happen.”
“Oh, that’s a relief!” Caboose exclaimed in relief as he set the door aside. As Freckles stepped into the repair bay and hunkered down, Caboose began exploring the new residence. It seemed rather large for a single person, but he was used to large residences. “This is a nice base…” he murmured happily. “I should get the milk Tucker sent me for.”
“The milk would spoil by the time the ship is repaired,” Freckles informed Caboose through the communications channel. “It would be better to wait to purchase until end of year, when the ship is repaired.”
“But I can’t keep Tucker waiting on milk for a year!” Caboose declared in despair.
“It will only be two weeks outside the star system,” Freckles reminded him.
“Oh, right…he can wait that long.” Caboose took a seat in a comfortable easy chair. “…this is a nice base…” he repeated idly to himself.
It didn’t take long for Caboose to fall into a routine at his new place of residence. He would wake up, have breakfast, run around until he ran out of energy, return home, have dinner, check Freckles for any damage, and then sleep. Without anyone to give him orders, he wasn’t entirely certain what to do with himself…and he didn’t do well with so many of the locals hero worshipping him. This was not because he didn’t enjoy the hero worship when he realized that was what it was. The problem was that more often than not, he didn’t understand it…and Freckles would interpret his panic to mean that he was under attack. He felt very sorry about that.
However, today that routine would be shaken up. As he was out watering the flowers – with mech fuel, unfortunately, since he’d grabbed the wrong hose, much to Freckles’ frustration even if he didn’t say anything – a black limo drove up to the door and a woman stepped out. The woman was about as tall as Caboose, with long black hair and somewhat pale skin, wearing a tight fitting black skirt suit, dark nylons, low black heels and dark sunglasses. She smiled as she approached. “Do you have a moment, Captain Caboose?” she asked carefully.
“I have lots of moments,” Caboose responded happily. “Some good. Some bad.” Silence reigned for a time. “Who are you?”
The woman smiled a somewhat frightening smile. “I am Agent Kuroko Smith, a Cultural Exchange Coordinator.”
“What’s that?” Caboose asked curiously.
Ms. Smith blinked for a time. “Captain, how much do you know about the situation on this world?”
“Uh…which situation?” Caboose pressed delicately. “I don’t really know much. Freckles, do you know anything?”
“I do not have information on ‘Cultural Exchange Coordinator’, Captain Caboose,” Freckles responded robotically. “Captain, your stress levels are rising. Is the subject unfriendly?”
“I dunno,” Caboose responded awkwardly. “Are you unfriendly?”
Ms. Smith sighed ruefully. “Can we talk inside? There’s someone I want you to meet.”
“Oh! Is it a new friend?” Caboose asked eagerly. “I love making new friends!”
Smiling, Ms. Smith opened the back of the limo. A young woman with long red hair, amber eyes, long sharply pointed ears, and a heart shaped face moved nervously out of the limo. She wore a yellow blouse and a blue skirt, and had odd red scale patterns on her face.
“Hello!” Caboose greeted the woman happily. “My name is Michael J. Caboose! I don’t know how to talk to pretty girls! Please don’t judge me too harshly!” He then noticed a surprising oddity about the girl. “…why do you have a super long snake tail? Is that normal?”
As the woman huddled against Ms. Smith, the Agent brought her hand to her face. “This is going to be difficult…”
Once inside, Caboose provided both Ms. Smith and the snake woman with a cup of tea. Ms. Smith sipped hers, surprised to find it tasted quite delicious. “Captain Caboose, I’m going to give you a short summary of our planet’s history so you can understand the present situation, and what I’m asking of you. I need you to pay attention for that, understand?”
“Okay,” Caboose responded immediately. “I will do my best. I’m not very good at paying attention, though.”
“I’ll try to be brief,” Ms. Smith growled out. “New Japan was colonized about 20 years ago by the galactic clock, several hundred years ago by local time, by Earth citizens from Japan seeking to build a new home to carry on our culture. Everything went well until about 100 years ago locally, when we discovered that the planet was already inhabited by several races of humanoid beings, whom we’ve come to call demi-humans.” She gestured to the young woman. “Miia here is an example of such, being a Lamia.”
“Hi Miia!” Caboose greeted warmly. “I’m Caboose!”
“You said that already,” Miia murmured softly.
“…I did?” Caboose asked in surprise. Miia giggled softly.
Ms. Smith smiled at that, then continued. “At first, it looked like it might be war, since most technology didn’t function well on this world, limiting us – save for the spaceport – to late 20th century, early 21st century tech by the old Earth calendar. This put us on an even footing with the demi-humans, whose physical capabilities vastly eclipsed our own. Recently, a shaky peace has been formed, and the Cultural Exchange Between Species Bill was passed in hopes of forming a more steady peace between humans and demi-humans.”
Caboose nodded as Ms. Smith. “I understood…none of that.”
Ms. Smith’s eyes narrowed. She clenched her fists, then took a calming breath. “How about I skip straight to how this applies to you?”
“I would like that,” Caboose responded eagerly. “I am very confused.”
“Simply put, I would like you to let Miia here homestay with you for the duration of your stay on New Japan,” Ms. Smith concluded.
“What’s a homestay?” Caboose asked in confusion.
“…it means she lives with you and you get to know each other,” Ms. Smith translated.
“Like at Blue Base?” Caboose asked curiously. “We all lived in the same place, and we got to know each other, and we became friends!”
“Exactly!” Ms. Smith confirmed. “That’s what we want to happen here. By having humans and demi-humans live together and become friends, we hope to enable a lasting peace between our races, erasing some…old prejudice-“
“You want Miia and me to be friends?” Caboose gasped in shock. “Why didn’t you just say so? I’ll be right back!” With that, he turned and rushed off into the house.
Miia lowered her gaze. She’d seen several humans react negatively to her form. She’d hoped this Caboose would be different – he was a hero, after all – but if he ran off at the idea of being friends with her-
Caboose rushed back in, laying out a large pillow and putting a large blanket around Miia’s shoulders. “I read in the rules of hospitality that I’m supposed to offer new friends cushions to sit on,” he explained, “but you have lots of sitting with your tail, so you need the big cushion! Also, you were shivering, so I thought you must be cold. So I brought you the big blanket, too!”
Miia looked up at Caboose in surprise, her eyes lighting up happily.
Though it couldn’t be seen through his helmet, Caboose grinned eagerly. “This is the start of a beautiful friendship,” he stated firmly.
Caboose’s prediction proved quite true, as Miia bonded to him quite readily. It didn’t matter what he was doing around the house, she would take every opportunity to wrap him in her arms and coils and hold him tight. Caboose didn’t mind at all, since he liked hugs, and super tight snake hugs seemed extra special. They enjoyed talking together as Caboose was an excellent listener, even if he didn’t follow what Miia was trying to say half the time. Miia was able to accept this, as the other half of the time he was able to catch the meaning behind her words – seemingly by accident – and provide some deep seeming wisdom about it that was often surprisingly helpful…generally following up by saying something completely silly that dispelled any sense of wisdom in him. On top of that, Caboose proved to be a miracle worker in the kitchen as long as he was making something he’d made before – which surprisingly included a great many dishes – and his food budget was completely supplemented by the government as part of his hosting, leading to him encouraging Miia to eat as much as she wanted. Miia was completely besotted.
Caboose was completely oblivious.
It didn’t take long for the pair to fall into a routine for their time together. Sometime before sunrise, Caboose would awaken to find Miia wrapped tightly around him for warmth. He would wriggle around until he had his legs below the knees and arms up to the elbows free, then clamber out of bed with her clinging to him, toss a blanket around her, and begin his day. He would set up everything needed for breakfast, then draw a warm bath for Miia. The steam from the warm bath would lead to her loosening her grip and slipping into the water, and Caboose would carefully remove her sleep clothes and put them in a basket so they wouldn’t get wet. Once he was certain she was properly propped up, he would order Freckles to keep an eye on the house and Miia before going for a morning run, choosing a time when he was unlikely to run into anyone and thus be less likely to cause an incident.
When he returned from the run, he would make breakfast for Miia – who would be out of the bath at that point and asking teasing questions about why he hadn’t joined her. Much to her bemused frustration, he would always respond that she looked so peaceful while sleeping that he didn’t want to wake her by splashing. They would then figure out what they wanted to do together that day, before eventually winding down into sleep at the end of the day. Initially, Miia slept in her own room before finding her way into Caboose’s room come morning for ‘extra warmth’, but Caboose had quickly pointed out it made more sense for her to start the night with him, and thus get more sleep. “Besides, I like hugs,” he had pointed out logically…which had made Miia very happy.
All in all, the pair were quite happy with their routine, though change was on the horizon.
On the way back from his morning run, Caboose found himself running alongside a young woman about Miia’s age, covered in brown fur with sharply pointed ears and a somewhat canine face. A canine tail wagged back and forth from her coccyx as she ran, her shapely figure bouncing somewhat as her tight black sports bra and shorts hugged her frame. He’d noticed the woman running before, but most other days they only passed briefly when they ran by in opposite directions. Today, however, their run took them in the same direction down the road, so he decided to say hello. “Hello! I’m Caboose!” he called out happily. “Who are you?”
“I’m Polt!” the woman called back. “How far are you running today?”
“Oh, I’m on my way back,” Caboose called back. Calling up his HUD on his helmet, he checked how far he’d run. “I already got 40 K M this morning, however much that is, so I’ll wait till night for more running. I don’t cause as much fuss that way.”
“You run 40 kilometers every morning and evening?” Polt asked excitedly. “Me too! Maybe we could run together sometime? I’ve never met a human who could keep up with me!”
“That’s amazing! Neither have I!” Caboose declared happily. “Are you just finishing your run, too?”
“Just starting, actually!” Polt responded happily. “I like to run in the sun!”
“I do too!” Caboose called back happily. “But I draw lots of attention when I run, so I try to run when I don’t get lots of attention, really early and really late.”
“I know a few runs people don’t frequent!” Polt called back excitedly. “Gimme your comm frequency, and I’ll let you know where to meet me!”
“Yay, a new friend!” Caboose declared happily before rattling off the frequency his HUD gave him.
“See you around, Caboose!” Polt called as she turned onto another street, exaggerating her stride a bit in a way to draw attention to the sway of her rump under her tail.
Caboose missed it completely. “She seems nice,” he said to himself as he turned towards home. “I’ve never met a human with fur before.”
As Caboose entered his house and began preparing breakfast, he was surprised to see someone waiting for him in the dining room just off the kitchen. “Miss Agent Smith?” he asked in surprise. “What brings you here?”
“Just checking up on you and Miia,” she reassured him quickly. “Could I have some coffee? You make the best coffee around.”
“I don’t make the coffee!” Caboose responded readily. “Freckles does. Freckles, Coffee!”
“Command confirmed,” Freckles responded as he marched over to a large metal barrel sitting off the ground and unleashing a flamethrower blast on it. Caboose then walked over and used the tap at the bottom of the barrel to pour off a cup.
“Here you go!” Caboose offered happily as he set the cup – filled with steaming brown liquid – in front of Ms. Smith.
Agent Smith rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Don’t think about the fact he’s using a weapons grade mech to make coffee and treats it like a puppy; just enjoy the liquid heaven…” She took a sip of the coffee. “So how are things between you and Miia?”
“Oh, things have been great!” Caboose declared happily as he started making breakfast. “We spend lots of time together, we have lots and lots of talks, and she gives the best cuddles at night!”
Smith’s brows twitched together. “Cuddles at night?” she asked carefully.
“Miia gets cold at night, so I warm her up!” Caboose responded immediately.
Smith took a calming breath. “Caboose…perhaps there’s something I should tell you. Something that it’s…forbidden to happen between humans and demi-humans.”
“Freckles said!” Caboose insisted. “He told me I can’t hug Miia too tight, cause humans aren’t allowed to hurt demi-humans, and vice versa.”
Smith nodded. “There’s another form of contact, though, that’s classified as harm and taken very seriously,” she pointed out. “Specifically, if you were to harm her…purity.”
Caboose turned to stare at her even as he flipped the omelet out of the pan and onto a plate without looking before pouring in batter. “You mean get her dirty?” he asked in confusion. “But she bathes every day.”
“Not…dirty, exactly,” Smith explained. “Or…not that kind of dirty. I mean…if you were to put your sausage in her bun?”
Caboose paused, a handful of links hovering over a hot pan. “…should I make bacon, then?”
“Not that kind of sausage,” Smith corrected, horror slowly dawning in her mind. “I mean…if you were to try to put a bun in her oven.”
“But it’s my oven!” Caboose pointed out. “And I get store bought buns!”
“…if you were to deflower her?” Smith offered hopefully, desperate to find a delicate way to put this.
“Wait, I thought she wasn’t supposed to get dirty,” Caboose pointed out. “Now I can’t wash flour off her after baking? I’m confused.”
“Sex!” Smith finally snapped out, her cheeks somewhat flushed. “You can’t have sex with her!”
Caboose stared at her for a time. “…what is sex?” he asked in confusion.
Smith stared at Caboose in disbelief. “…Freckles, can you explain this to him?” she asked desperately.
“Confirmed,” Freckles answered. “Captain Caboose, it is against local regulations for fraternization within the ranks.”
“Frater…oh!” Caboose gasped, his face seeming to light up behind his face plate. “You mean Bow chicka bow wow, like Tucker always wants! Why didn’t you say so?”
Smith removed her shades so they wouldn’t get damaged as her face hit the table.
Smith managed to recover her wits as Caboose served up a hearty breakfast. “As I was saying, it is strictly against the law for a human to engage in such activity with a demi-human during their Homestay if she is a virgin-“
“Why?” Caboose asked curiously.
Smith paused, having not expected that question. “Excuse me?”
“Why is it against the law?” Caboose clarified. “It seems like a silly thing to classify as harm. Tucker never seemed to think of it that way.”
Smith rubbed the bridge of her nose. She hated going over this part of the treaty. “Demi-humans have a much higher female-to-male ratio than humans do, and the various races of demi-human are much more strongly connected to their instincts and…animal nature.” She cleared her throat awkwardly. “During early contact between humans and demi-humans, some unscrupulous humans took advantage of these facts to…tame and domesticate some demi-humans. Their governments…did not take this well.” She silently prayed Caboose wouldn’t ask anymore-
A loud crunch drew Smith’s attention to the kitchen. A cast iron frying pan had been reduced to a crumpled ball of metal in Caboose’s hand. “…can I get a new frying pan?” he asked hopefully. “That story got me kind of angry, and I think I broke this one.” He opened his hand, and powdered flakes of metal fell to the ground. “Yeah, definitely broken. I’ll get the dustpan.”
Smith swallowed convulsively. At least I never have to worry about him mistreating any girls placed with him…intentionally, she thought to herself. Still, I’d better make sure any girls I send to him are either incredibly durable, or very obvious that he should be gentle with them. Clearing her throat, she spoke aloud again. “At any rate, you can see why it became a significant part of the treaty that any such contact between humans and demi-humans in human lands is…strictly regulated, and expressly forbidden with those who come here…inexperienced.”
“Yeah,” Caboose agreed easily as he continued to prepare Miia’s breakfast plate. “If anyone treated one of my seventeen sisters like that, I would have words with them.” His voice suddenly turned much darker, more menacing and resonant as he lifted an exceptionally sharp knife. “And when I was through, they would have no words left.” His voice then returned to normal. “More coffee?”
“P-please,” Smith managed to stammer.
“So what happens if the law is broken?” Caboose asked curiously.
Smith steadied herself to respond. “If a human offering a homestay were to do such a thing to a demi-human they were hosting, they would be arrested and their ‘guest’ deported back to their country of origin. In your case, though, it would just be the deportation, since you have diplomatic immunity as a guest hero on planet, on the condition you carry no active weapons with you.” Though with how strong you are, you plainly don’t need any, she added silently.
“So humans can’t hurt demi-humans, and demi-humans can’t hurt humans,” Caboose concluded. “What about Freckles?”
“Beg pardon?” Smith asked curiously.
“Under the law, is he a human or a demi-human?” Caboose clarified.
Smith blinked. “I…I’m not sure,” she concluded. “I suppose it would depend whose orders he was following, since he’s technically classified as a weapon.”
“And in autonomous mode for defending the base?” Freckles inquired robotically.
Smith jumped slightly, having forgotten Freckles was there with how quiet he’d been, and having forgotten he was intelligent. “Then you would qualify as a security system, and the one injured would be at fault.”
“Understood,” Freckles proclaimed before shifting upright.
“So you understand what I’m saying, Caboose?” Smith asked carefully.
“Yes,” Caboose confirmed. “No Bum chika bum bum with Miia, or she gets taken away.”
Smith sighed. That was probably the best she was going to get. “So what do you intend to do today?” she asked curiously.
“I dunno,” Caboose answered easily. “We usually stay indoors.”
Smith frowned. “The whole point of the homestay arrangement is to introduce the guest to human society, and vice versa. You really should go out and about some of the time.”
“Okay!” Caboose agreed readily as Miia came in, wearing a pink overshirt that clung to her wet body. “Miia! How would you like to take a walk around town today? We could even get ice cream, and maybe churros!”
Miia’s eyes lit up excitedly. “Darling, you’re asking me on a date?” she squealed happily. “Yes!” With that shout, she threw herself at Caboose, wrapping him in a hug with her arms and coils.
“Yay!” Caboose declared happily as he started making his breakfast portion. “I have no idea what you just said, but you’re happy! I did good!”
Smith sighed ruefully. As good a job as this was doing for the cause overall, she wondered if it was worth the headaches on top of her already heavy paperwork load.
Caboose smiled as Miia sing-songed about how happy she was to be on a date with him. As they walked, he read over the HUD of the rules regarding such outings. Though in truth, it was only one rule.
Stay with her and assist her at all times.
This was apparently so for all demi-human species, with only a few exceptions, but Caboose didn’t understand what an ‘exception’ was, so he decided to ignore that part for now. He also didn’t understand the second rule. What was a ‘love hotel’ anyway? …maybe he’d ask Polt about it if she was available to run together that afternoon.
So far, the date had gone wonderfully, if Miia’s expression was anything to go by. They had gone to a diner, Caboose had managed to win a snake plushy for her at an arcade, and they’d taken photos together.
In fact, there was only one thing Miia found somewhat disappointing about the date. “Darling, how come you never take your armor off?” she asked curiously. “You didn’t even take it off to eat.
Caboose hesitated. “…ever since I was little, people have acted strangely around me when they see my face, or my body,” he explained softly. “I didn’t like it. When I joined the Blues, I got this armor, and no one could see me. All they saw was Blue. That made me happy. I like being Blue. I like being Caboose. I don’t want to be ‘Mike’ again.”
Miia smiled softly. She could well understand his desire to hide. She was often judged by humans for having the lower body of a snake. “It’s okay, Darling,” she reassured him softly as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “You’ll always be Darling, be Caboose, to me. And when you’re ready, I promise I won’t judge you for your looks.”
“Thank you, Miia,” Caboose replied warmly. “Sorry we couldn’t do karaoke. Those rooms were too small.”
Miia couldn’t stop the sweat drop on the back of her head at that. “It’s alright. I wasn’t really having that much fun there, anyway.” Caboose’s solution to the small private karaoke room had been to ask Freckles to come in and sing a song. That had not ended well.
“Oh!” Caboose piped up suddenly. “That store is for all species!” He pointed to a sign outside a boutique that declared, ‘All Species Welcome! Approved by Interspecies Exchange Bill Assessment! Come on in!’
Squealing happily, Miia eagerly pulled Caboose into the…lingerie boutique. Caboose continued to smile happily under his mask, showing absolutely no sign of discomfort. He vaguely remembered his sisters dragging him along to shop for such things the few times there was enough money for such niceties. A family of twenty generally didn’t have that much spare cash to spread around, and there were a lot of hand-me-downs. He’d developed surprising sewing skills helping his sisters fix up older outfits to look newer and fit better. He wondered if he could still do that. He hoped they were getting by without his soldier pay, since the Freelancer Program that paid the Reds and Blues didn’t exist anymore…
Since Caboose was so lost in his idle thoughts, he didn’t notice any stares he was getting, and nearly didn’t notice Miia approaching with a pink and purple bra of two different designs. “Hey, Darling, which do you think looks better? I don’t wear bras too often, so I don’t know.” She reached up to the neckline of her shirt to pull it down, intending to offer proof of her ‘not wearing bras often’.
Before she could, however, Caboose immediately started talking. “The pink one with white frills presents an innocent, cute appearance, while the dark purple one with the black lace is more sultry,” he recited from his memory of his sisters talking about such things. “I don’t know about better, though. I think that has more to do with proper sizing than colors or design…but I think the pink and white goes better with your red hair and scales. Doesn’t clash as much as the purple.”
Miia’s eyes widened in surprise. “You know a lot about this!” she gasped in awe.
“I helped my sisters with this a lot,” Caboose offered readily. “I picked up a few things. Oh! Be sure to try it on before buying, no matter what the size says. Measurements are never exact unless they are custom. At least, that’s what my oldest sister always told the others.”
“Can you help me try it on?” Miia asked, setting the purple one aside and hanging onto the pink one.
“Okay!” Caboose agreed happily. “My middle sis said I was great with bra clasps!”
After helping Miia try on the bra and discovering that she liked it – or possibly liked having an item of intimate apparel she could ask Caboose to help her put on and remove – the pair continued on their walk through the city. As they were walking, a pair of humans staggered out of an alleyway. The man was pale-skinned with scraggly brown-blonde hair, dressed in purple, brown, and black. The woman was over-tanned with bleached blonde hair and somewhat oversized lips, dressed in red, green, and grey. Both seemed somewhat tipsy.
Caboose and Miia were both ready to ignore the pair as they walked along. “Say, Darling-“ Miia began.
“Whoa!” the man suddenly shouted. “What is that?” The pair began to laugh. “She called him darling!”
“Talk about gross!” the woman declared as the pair continued to laugh.
Miia’s body began to tense, and her tail started to shake like a rattle.
“Hello!” Caboose suddenly greeted the pair warmly. “Nice to meet you! I didn’t know there were so many kinds of demi-humans!” He turned towards the man. “Are you her homestay host?”
The laughter of the pair immediately turned to anger. “Oy!” the man yelled out. “Are you calling my girl a freak?”
“You said it,” Caboose responded quickly. “I asked about a homestay. Oh! Is she your homestay? I can’t really tell which of you is which.”
The man snarled angrily. “You’re gonna pay for that!” he roared out, lunging forward with his fist pulled back.
“Darling!” Miia called out worriedly.
The man’s fist connected with a sickening crunch…and the man’s eyes widened as he let out a cry of pain, clutching his crushed fingers.
“Demi-humans aren’t supposed to hurt humans,” Caboose pointed out. “I know it’s hard to tell under the armor, but I am human.”
“We are human!” the woman snapped out as she rushed to the man’s side.
“…oh,” Caboose responded calmly, his voice having turned menacing. “Then you were just being mean to Miia because you could. Freckles!”
The ground shook as Freckles marched up, the pair of humans shrinking back in fear at his approach. “Yes, Captain Caboose?” he inquired.
“How can I tell someone they are incredibly ugly without giving offense?” Caboose inquired carefully, his voice still menacing.
“Targets acquired,” Freckles declared, locking onto the pair.
“Hmm…a missile impact might improve their appearance…” Caboose grinned under his helmet as the pair turned and ran. “Freckles, sic ‘em!”
“Engaging pursuit!” Freckles declared as he took off after his fleeing prey.
Caboose turned back to Miia. “So!” he continued in his normal voice. “Ice cream?”
After the incident with the offensive couple, Miia decided she wanted to go back home for the day, since she was worried about Caboose’s sudden personality shift. While she loved how he leapt to defend her honor, how easily he could flip between being completely gentle and being ruthless – especially as it almost seemed like two distinct personalities – left her concerned for his well-being, given how childlike he was at most times.
As they sat back at home with Caboose arranging things to prepare dinner, Agent Smith arrived, seeming to appear out of nowhere as they watched TV. “Caboose, I need to speak with you-“
“WAUGH!” Caboose screamed out, leaping into the air and grabbing his gun. Spinning, he pointed it at Agent Smith and had pulled the trigger before he recognized her.
Pfweee! A spray of colorful confetti sprayed out to fall to the floor.
Agent Smith stared at the confetti, realizing that had the gun not been disabled, she would be dead where she stood. She made a mental note that scare tactics with Caboose were a bad idea. They either failed, or courted getting killed. “…I need to speak with you about today’s events,” she continued, straightening her glasses.
“Okay, scary Smith lady!” Caboose agreed eagerly. “I took Miia out today. We went to a restaurant, and an arcade shop, and an ‘in-ta-mate ape-air-all’ shop.” He carefully sounded out ‘intimate apparel’ as though it were a set of words he’d been carefully coached on for years. “And then we came home.”
“And…did anything unusual happen at the store?” Smith coached, hoping to approach the matter obliquely.
Caboose tilted his head thoughtfully. “I don’t think so, no. I helped Miia pick a bra and try it on. That’s not odd, right?”
“And what happened after you left the shop?” Smith continued to coach.
“We went home,” Caboose repeated.
“Did something happen before you went home?” Smith insisted.
Caboose stared at her for a time. “…oh! I mistook some humans for demi-humans. I think they took offense. I still don’t know how to tell the difference.”
“And you sent Freckles after them?” Smith pointed out.
“I did?” Caboose asked, confused.
Smith and Miia both stared at Caboose in disbelief. “They were insulting me, remember Darling?” Miia reminded him.
“Oh!” Caboose spoke up in realization. “That! Yeah…I protected Miia. That’s my job, right?”
Smith blinked a few times behind her shades. “I…suppose that’s one way to look at it.” She cleared her throat awkwardly. “Still, you should exercise more caution with how you do so. Such reckless behavior is not good for your public image-“
“I thought the public image of the Reds and Blues was all about reckless behavior?” Caboose interrupted. “I mean, that’s what Tucker and Sarge say we’re best at, and what Church always said saw us through the really crazy stuff.”
Smith stared, completely poleaxed. The last thing she’d expected from Caboose was a logical counter argument. She straightened her shades to steady her thoughts. “Still, you need to exercise some caution. Your conditional diplomatic immunity only stretches so far-“
“My what now?” Caboose asked, confused.
“Given your status as a galactically beloved public figure and the nature of your arrival, you have the status of an unofficial Ambassador of Chorus, and thus have a certain amount of diplomatic immunity,” Agent Smith explained. “That’s the only reason I didn’t have to arrange a settlement with the pair you sicced Freckles on. But that will only cover so many things before the government revokes that status, making you persona non grata.”
“That’s okay, I don’t like cheese that much anyway,” Caboose replied readily. While Smith was trying to parse the misunderstanding, his helmet beeped and he perked up. “Oh! Polt’s got a good running track for tonight. I’ll be back in a couple hours!” With that, he turned and raced out of the house.
Smith and Miia were both left staring. “…eh?” they said together.
It didn’t take long for Caboose to meet up with Polt, who greeted him with a wave and a smile. She was dressed in the same running clothes as earlier, with only the addition of a green vest with pockets. “Hey Caboose!” she greeted warmly. “Ready to run?”
“Always!” Caboose agreed as they started running together, Caboose following a couple paces behind Polt but still in sight, letting her show him the way. “Can we talk and get to know each other while we run?” he asked hopefully.
“I’d like that!” Polt called back eagerly, continuing to run as she led the way into a nearby forest. “How about we start by asking each other questions?”
“Okay!” Caboose agreed. “Why are you fluffy? I never met a fluffy human before!”
Polt nearly tripped and face planted, but managed to maintain her stride. “Seriously?” she asked in shock.
“Was that a bad question?” Caboose asked worriedly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to give offense.”
“It’s okay! It’s okay!” Polt quickly responded. “I just didn’t expect it. I didn’t realize you didn’t realize I was a Kobold.”
“What’s a Kobold?” Caboose asked curiously.
“One of the races of demi-humans,” Polt explained.
“Oh!” Caboose answered in shock. “But-“ He stopped his voice.
“Did you have a question?” Polt asked curiously.
“Yes, but it’s your turn.”
Polt laughed uproariously at that. “How come you wear armor?” she inquired.
“Lots of reasons,” Caboose responded readily. “Mostly, I’m a Blue!”
“Oh, the Reds and Blues?” Polt responded eagerly. “You guys are amazing!”
“Thanks!” Caboose responded eagerly. “How come you don’t have your homestay host? The Scary Smith Lady said demi-humans have to have their homestay hosts with them at all times when out and about.”
“That part doesn’t apply to Kobolds,” Polt explained. “Of all the races of demi-humans, Kobolds have been the most forward thinking and welcoming of the modern aspects of the human world, since it doesn’t clash as much with our traditional values as it does with other races. We share our resources communally, with every Kobold pushing their abilities to the limit to acquire more wealth and greatness for the Kobold community so we can help many others.” She grinned widely. “I’m working on opening my own extra-species health spa, since a lot of demi-humans will have trouble keeping themselves in shape in the confined spaces of human settlements as opposed to their wide open native environments.”
“That is amazing!” Caboose praised eagerly. “I have no idea what most of those words mean, but that sounds amazing, so I’m sure it is!”
Polt chuckled happily, rubbing the back of her head. “Thanks. It’s something worthwhile, but I miss being back home with my brothers and sisters. I always had someone to cuddle up to at night.”
“I miss my sisters sometimes, too,” Caboose admitted sadly. “But I entered the military so I could send them my soldier pay to take care of them. That’s good, right?”
“That’s very good,” Polt praised. “So you have sisters?”
“Seventeen sisters!” Caboose declared happily. “It’s a big, happy family.”
“No brothers?” Polt asked curiously.
“Nope!” Caboose confirmed. “I’m the only son. Grandma said that means I’m the man of the house, and I need to take care of my sisters!”
“So you’re the oldest then?” Polt inquired.
“No I’m not-“ Caboose hesitated. “Yes I am. But that was my fault. I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t strong enough…” His gaze lowered to the ground.
“…Caboose…” Polt began worriedly, moving closer to him to offer comfort.
“But now I’m faster,” Caboose continued firmly. “Now I’m stronger. Fast enough, and strong enough, that it won’t happen again. It will never happen again.” His voice suddenly turned deeper, darker. “No one will ever hurt my girls again.”
Polt pulled back in surprise. “…Caboose?”
“I’m sorry, what were we talking about?” Caboose asked in confusion, his voice back to normal.
Polt decided to change the subject. “How about you tell me about your adventures?”
“Oh, I have lots to tell!” Caboose declared eagerly. “And I can tell them in five minute increments!”
The following day, Caboose was helping Miia to hang her laundry up on a line to dry on the balcony. Miia had managed to put the negative aspects of the previous day’s events behind her and was humming happily to herself, having chosen to focus on how readily Caboose leapt to defend her honor and not let anyone hurt her emotionally. She thought back to how she remembered the day now…
“Look at the snake lady!” the racist couple taunted, laughing.
“Look at the naked monkeys!” Caboose called back, making several bystanders laugh.
“What did you say?” the man roared out angrily.
“Correction: look at the deaf naked monkeys!” Caboose shouted back, causing more laughter.
The man charged forward with his fist raised, only for Caboose to lunge forward and headbutt the fist with his faceplate, causing the man’s bones to crack. Caboose then lifted the man by his shirt collar.
“No one hurts my Miia,” Caboose declared firmly. His free hand reached out of the fantasy memory to rub Miia on the head. “That’s a promise.”
“Kyaah!” Miia squealed happily as she swayed back and forth in excitement.
“Wow, I look really cool!” Caboose yelled happily.
Miia yelped in shock. “You saw that?” she gasped out.
“Saw what?” Caboose asked in confusion.
“My…little fantasy…” Miia murmured nervously.
“Oh, you slip into fantasies, too?” Caboose crowed eagerly. “I thought I was the only one. Church was always telling me to stop flying away into fantasy land.”
Miia giggled. “Well, don’t worry. I’ll be sure to pull you back down to earth.” As she turned to head inside, a sudden flapping of wings caused her to turn and see that Caboose…was no longer there. “DARLING!” she called out worriedly.
“I didn’t mean it literally!” Caboose called from above.
Miia looked up and gasped as she saw a bird shape carrying Caboose off into the sky. “Darling!” she screamed out before giving chase.
Caboose stared around as he was carried off. This was certainly a very strange experience. “This is a very strange experience,” he murmured softly. “…did I forget to turn off a jetpack? I don’t wear a jetpack…” Holding up a hand, he caught a small blue feather that fell into his hand. “Blue? Oh, must be a new teammate!” With that settled, he relaxed completely into the flight.
Before long, he was dropped towards a tree. Caboose caught a branch and landed perfectly on the ground before looking up at the one who had carried him there. She was a rather short girl – barely chest height from talons to hair – with an understated figure, gold bird legs ending in talons, and blue feathered wings. Her hair was also blue, her eyes were golden, her skin was pale, and she wore a blue tube top and blue jean shorts torn short. “You’re heavy!” she complained as she panted, flapping her wings to stay in the air.
“It’s the armor,” Caboose apologized. “Who are you?”
“I’m Papi!” she greeted happily. “Papi the Harpy!”
“Hi Papi!” Caboose greeted warmly. “I’m Caboose!” He held out his hand to shake.
The girl landed in front of him, holding out the joint of her wing to shake, revealing a hand under the fluffy feathers there. “Nice to meet you!”
“What’s a Harpy?” Caboose asked curiously. “Is that a demi-human?”
“Hmm?” Papi inquired, tilting her head in confusion.
As he waited for an answer from Papi, Caboose’s helmet proceeded to scan through the documents stored there and revealed to him that Harpies were indeed demi-humans. “Oh, that makes sense. I was wondering why I hadn’t seen other humans with wings.” He focused on Papi. “Where is your home stay host? Demi-humans aren’t supposed to wander alone.”
“That’s why I brought you!” Papi declared happily.
Caboose gasped in shock. “I’m your host?” He threw his hands eagerly into the air. “Yay! New friend!”
Papi promptly mimicked his actions. “Yay! New friend!”
Caboose was going to say more, but a particular sales stall in the park they’d stopped in caught his eye. “Ice cream!” he declared, pointing past the fountain towards it.
“Ice cream!” Papi declared happily. “Is that food?”
“Best food ever!” Caboose confirmed eagerly.
“Yay!” Papi took his arm and turned to pull him towards the ice cream stall. After taking three steps, however, she froze. She turned back towards Caboose nervously. “Who are you?”
“I’m Caboose!” Caboose declared eagerly. “Who are you?”
“Papi the Harpy!” Papi responded nervously.
“Nice to meet you Papi. Do you want some ice cream?” Caboose pointed towards the stall.
“Ice cream!” Papi declared happily, seizing Caboose’s arm and pulling him another three steps…where the discussion repeated itself.
Every three steps towards the stall, the conversation repeated itself, even when they were only a single step from the stall. When the conversation concluded that time, the salesman handed Papi an ice cream cone and Caboose a popsicle.
Papi gasped in shock. “How did he know we wanted ice cream?”
“He must be magic!” Caboose murmured in awe.
Papi’s eyes lit up excitedly as she took the cone. “Thank you magic ice cream man!”
With that, the pair made their way over to a bench, where Caboose inserted the popsicle into his breathing grill in his helmet, which opened to let the popsicle into his mouth. He was satisfied with enjoying this until he noticed Papi struggling to hold her cone as she leaned in to take a bite. Her wing-hands weren’t suited for gripping, and before her mouth made it all the way there it had slipped out of her hands.
Before it could hit the ground, Caboose’s hand shot forward, catching the cone and shifting it to catch the ice cream without spilling a drop. “I’ll hold it for you!” he offered happily. “I have a sister who has trouble holding things, too.”
Papi gasped happily. “Thank you!” With that, she leaned over to take a bite, moaning happily at the taste.
“What brings you out today?” Caboose asked curiously.
Papi shrugged as she swallowed. “I’m not allowed out until I memorize the Interspecies Ceremony,” she explained readily.
Caboose shuddered. “Yeah…I had to memorize a handbook once too. Not pleasant. It was too much for me.”
“Too much for Papi, too!” Papi agreed. “So when the terminator wasn’t looking, I ran away!”
“Me too!” Caboose agreed eagerly. “And that’s how I met Church!”
“And that’s how I met Caboose!” Papi continued happily. “Best day!”
“Best day!” Caboose cheered, throwing his hands up and causing half melted popsicle to spray over both of them.
“Wah!” Papi called out in surprise. “Caboose got Papi sticky!”
“My popsicle!” Caboose wailed, seeing that most of it was gone now.
“You can have some of my ice cream!” Papi offered happily.
“Best day ever!” Caboose spoke up eagerly, and the pair quickly devoured the ice cream.
Papi then stood up and began to disrobe.
“What are you doing?” Caboose asked curiously.
“Bathing!” Papi said happily as she pointed to the fountain after discarding top and shorts, leaving her completely nude. “The park has a nice bird bath!” With that, she leapt into the fountain.
“Yay!” Caboose cheered happily. “I’ll join you! Splash fight!” With that, he leapt into the fountain and began to splash around with Papi, much to her pleasure and the confusion of everyone watching. The scenario seemed to indicate something naughty was happening, but the innocent excitement the pair were exhibiting said otherwise…leaving no one with a certain answer.
“I found you!” Miia suddenly shouted.
“Miia!” Caboose called happily, turning and waving at her. “I made a new friend!”
Miia blinked several times. Having seen the situation, she had been completely ready to verbally tear into the ‘little girl’ who was playing in the fountain with her Darling Caboose…but Caboose’s eager welcome robbed her of much of her fire. “You…did?” she asked nervously.
“This is Papi!” Caboose introduced eagerly. “She can’t go outside without her host family, so she got me to get her ice cream!”
“Wait…you’re her host?” Miia gasped, shocked.
“Yup!” Caboose declared happily. “She’ll be staying with us, and we’re all gonna be friends, and throw parties, and play games…”
“Papi loves games!” Papi declared happily.
Before Miia could respond, a cry of fear drew their attention. Everyone seemed to be looking up into a tall tree…where a little girl was clinging desperately to a high branch, having apparently chased a balloon whose string was caught on the branch.
“Oh no!” Miia gasped worriedly.
“She can’t get down?” Papi asked curiously.
Caboose walked up to the base of the tree and wrapped his arms around the trunk.
“Darling,” Miia called out, “that’s not how humans climb-“
A loud tearing sound accompanied the shredding of stone as Caboose pulled the tree, its root system, and the dirt it fed on out of the ground with a single, “Hup!” Turning, he lowered the top of the tree slowly to the ground until the girl was able to let go and put her feet on the ground, taking her balloon as she stood. Caboose then lifted the tree upright before putting it back in the ground. “There you go!” Caboose declared happily, walking up and patting the girl gently on the head. “It’s dangerous to climb too high without a ladder…or a climbing buddy!”
“Thank you!” the girl responded happily before rushing off.
Caboose turned as people applauded…and noticed the ruined concrete around the base of the tree. “…that will buff right out,” he offered confidently.
Papi stared in amazement at the human who reshaped his environment like a god, and yet played with her like a friend. Her cheeks colored slightly as she stared.
Miia was not happy seeing that.
It wasn’t long after Caboose got the little girl out of the tree that a police officer arrived on a bicycle to investigate the disturbance. “I heard report of a girl stuck up in a tree?” he asked, his voice calm and controlled.
“I took care of that!” Caboose declared proudly. “I got her down safe and sound, balloon and all!”
“Well, thanks for that!” the cop praised happily. He then noticed the cracks around the base of the tree. “How’d that happen?”
“How’d what happen?” Caboose asked in confusion.
“The cracks in the concrete,” the cop explained coldly.
“Total coincidence!” Caboose declared nervously.
“Mister Caboose pulled the tree out of the ground!” Papi piped up happily. “Then he tipped it over and the girl got out! And then he put it back!” She looked up at Caboose with starry eyes. “So cool!”
“Coincidence, huh?” the cop asked Caboose coldly, his eyes going flat as he stared at him.
Caboose stared back, then held up his gauntlet. An image of his identification – given to him for use here when he landed – appeared. “I have deinonychus impunity.”
“…you’re free to be a dinosaur?” the cop asked in confusion.
“He means diplomatic immunity,” Miia translated, her palm against her face. Sometimes her Darling was just beyond belief.
“Oh!” the cop responded more normally, glancing over the identification. “You’re Caboose, the Chorus ambassador. That’s alright then.” As Caboose breathed a sigh of relief, the cop turned to Miia and Papi. “And you two are Interspecies Exchange homestay students? Who’s your homestay family?”
“They stay with me!” Caboose declared eagerly. “We are very happy, and not at all suspicious! No bum chicken bum bum here!” He nodded up and down. “Nothing suspicious whatsoever…”
The cop turned to stare flat-eyed at Caboose again.
Caboose slowly leaned towards Miia. “Why is he still staring?” he stage-whispered, still speaking loud enough for the cop to here. “I told him there was nothing suspicious about us!”
“Then let me see your papers, please,” the cop asked calmly.
“…papers?” Caboose asked, confused.
“Their identification and proof of homestay residency,” the cop explained.
“Oh…those…right…” Caboose furrowed his brow under his helmet as he tried to think and put together what he was talking about. “Umm…”
Both Miia and Papi looked abjectly terrified. The cop continued to stare flatly.
“Paper…work? Yes!” Caboose continued eagerly. “The scary Smith lady hasn’t given it to us yet, because my diminutive insurgency means lots and lots of extra paperwork!”
“Oh, yes!” Miia added quickly, managing to catch where Caboose was going with this. “Agent Smith is always complaining about how overworked she is.”
“You don’t say?” the cop asked carefully. “And where can I reach this…’scary Smith lady’?”
“By turning left,” Agent Smith stated calmly from the side.
“WAAUGH!” Caboose yelped, leaping back and lifting a park bench like a club. “…oh, it’s scary Smith lady.” He carefully put the bench back down.
“…I’m glad Freckles wasn’t here,” Agent Smith murmured under her breath before showing the new IDs she’d made up for Miia and Papi to the cop.
The cop managed to calm down after seeing someone heft a park bench as easily as a baseball bat and carefully examined the IDs. “…yes, everything’s in order,” he confirmed. “Have a nice day!” With that, he pedaled away as fast as he could.
Agent Smith then turned to Caboose. “Now, let’s discuss this back at your place, alright?”
“Okay!” Caboose agreed readily. “Uh…where is that? I couldn’t really tell streets from the sky where Papi was carrying me.”
Papi giggled happily, putting one clenched wing-hand to her forehead and sticking out her tongue.
Agent Smith groaned softly. “I know the way…”
“How did you get the papers for Papi staying here so fast?” Miia asked Agent Smith as they were all sitting around in the house with coffee.
“Fast?” Caboose asked in confusion. “But Papi said I was her homestay house. Wasn’t scary Smith lady already getting them?”
“That’s actually correct,” Agent Smith confirmed. “I couldn’t get anyone else to host a repeat run away, and I know how much you like ‘making new friends’. But on my way to explain all this, Papi ran away again.” She then turned to Papi. “On that note, Papi, this is your new home.”
“Really?” Papi asked eagerly, her eyes lighting up.
“What?” Miia gasped in shock, having not realized this was serious.
Smith smiled softly. “Indeed. Caboose there is master of the house, so make sure to listen to him…as well as stay with him at all times.” Papi immediately started cheering.
“But I can’t fly,” Caboose pointed out logically.
“…and?” Smith asked curiously.
“How can Papi stay with me at all times if I can’t fly like she can?” Caboose explained.
“She’ll just have to limit her flying to within reach of you,” Smith explained simply.
“…but I don’t want to cage my friend…” Caboose offered sadly.
[Suggestion, Captain,] Freckles intoned from outside. [This unit could accompany Lieutenant Papi with proper flight modification.]
“Oh! Would that work?” Caboose asked Smith eagerly. “If I can make Freckles fly like Papi, could he go with her and that count as proper accompanying and assisting?”
Smith thought about that for a time. “…well, that would probably teach her proper social interactions better than you can…” she murmured softly before coughing to clear her throat. “Tell you what, if you can make Freckles fly like Papi without terrifying everyone he comes across – preferably by being smaller and less visibly armed – and capable of assisting Papi however she needs, then I’ll fill out the paperwork to have that count as proper accompaniment when she’s flying…as long as she comes back to your side at regularly scheduled intervals to check in.”
Caboose lowered his head as he thought about this. He thought, and thought, and thought.
Smith smiled. “I didn’t think-“
“I got it!” Caboose declared eagerly. Rushing into the kitchen, he ripped the microwave and toaster from the wall. Running back to the living room, he grabbed the TV as well. He then ran downstairs. A loud sound of something being ripped from the wall followed by water leaking preceded his return, carrying the water heater.
Seeing this, Miia turned a horrified expression Smith’s way as Caboose rushed out to Freckles repair bay. Smith groaned, rubbing her forehead. “I’ll have them all replaced by morning…”
The sound of metalwork, lasers, flamethrowers, and incoherent shouting echoed from the repair bay for a time. Caboose then walked back in, looking inordinately pleased with himself. “Freckles had a baby!” he proclaimed eagerly.
Smith promptly spat her coffee all over the opposite wall. “W-what?” she gasped out in shock.
A small metal sphere – about the size of a basketball – floated into the room, a large optic swiveling on the front face. [Greetings,] the sphere spoke in Freckles’ voice. [This unit is designated Freckle. This unit’s primary function is to accompany, assist, and protect Lieutenant Papi on her flights.]
“See, my friend Church was a piece of an AI!” Caboose explained eagerly. “And I once stuck him in an alien ball thing, like this one! I remembered what it looked like inside when I did that, and I took the nuker, the bread burner, the idiot box, and the whum-whum-whum thingy and put them together so they looked like that! Then Freckles put a copy of himself inside it, since he doesn’t fragment like Church did! And look what he can do!”
[Demonstrating telekinetic function,] Freckle declared as Papi floated into the air and began to spin around.
“Whee!” Papi declared happily. “Fun! Fun! Again!”
“And then there’s the angry eye laser to protect her!” Caboose agreed. “Show the scary Smith lady, Freckle!”
The optic began to glow red. [Demonstrating optic blast.] A ray of red light shot out, punching through the opposite wall and leaving a hole to the outside of the house.
Caboose watched silently as everyone stared. “…I can fix that-“
[Demonstrating optic repair tool.] A metal plate floated in from outside and fitted over the hole in the wall. A lens narrowed over the optic until only a tiny dot glowed red. A focused beam moved around the outside of the metal plate until it was fused to the wall.
As everyone turned back to stare at Freckle, Caboose spoke up. “…I knew he could do that!” he offered unconvincingly.
The following morning, as Caboose got up to get ready for the day, he found Papi curled up against him inside Miia’s serpentine embrace. Deciding to let Papi keep Miia warmth/company until later, he slowly slipped out of the embrace until he could stand up. With Papi there, Miia’s coils weren’t as tight around him as normal, giving him plenty of room to wriggle out.
Moving to the kitchen, he looked in the fridge to discover…nothing. “Huh. Guess I have to go shopping before I can make breakfast. I need…I need…” He stared around at the fridge’s empty interior. “What do I need again? Usually Miia makes me the list…”
[List of groceries available,] Freckles spoke up helpfully. He sent the file to Caboose’s HUD. [Freckle will be waiting to return with groceries once acquired, if needed.]
“And then I can meet Polt for her morning walkies!” Caboose proclaimed happily, having started calling their jaunts that after discovering that Polt exhibited many canine behaviors…especially when he unthinkingly scratched her behind one ear, making her tail wag vigorously much to her embarrassment. “Good thinking Freckles! I’m off!”
It didn’t take long for Caboose to reach the store and gather the groceries he needed. Since he was ahead of schedule, he decided to carry the groceries home himself and get breakfast set up before going to meet Polt. On his way back, he paused at a sign that he hadn’t noticed on his way out. “Watch out…for frequent…purse snatchings…” he managed to read off. “…purses snatch people? I’m glad Miia and Papi don’t have purses.” With that, he turned to walk to the intersection, slowing his pace as he heard the sound of hooves. “…oh my gosh, is there a pony?” he gasped excitedly, only for something to slam into him with the force of a speeding car. It took him several moments to realize something had hit him, and he slowly turned into a face-full of cleavage barely contained by a button up white shirt. “…this is not a pony,” he murmured softly as he took a step back.
A tall woman with a huge chest, willowy body, long blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and the body of a brown furred horse from the waist down looked down at him proudly. “I cannot believe we met!” she declared dramatically. “It must be fate! My name is Centorea Shianus! I’m a member of the dignified centaur race. Are you the one destined to become my master?”
Caboose stared at her for a time. “…what?” he finally asked, confused and uncertain what to say.
Centorea blinked at him. After a time, she cleared her throat. “It appears you do not understand my meaning. Regrettable, but something I can handle! There is a Japanese spell that proclaims that if you run into an intersection at full speed, the one you run into is your soulmate!”
“What’s a soulmate?” Caboose asked curiously.
Centorea blinked as she realigned her impression of Caboose’s intelligence. “A…very special friend one should seek to spend the rest of their life with,” she explained, wincing at the partial deception. However, if Caboose was struggling with ‘soulmate’, she didn’t want to confuse him with other concepts. She could only hope that he would understand the concept of ‘friend’.
Caboose gasped happily. “I love making new friends! I need to run into intersections at full speed more often!”
Centorea blinked, thinking back to where she’d read of the ‘Japanese spell’. “I…am pretty certain the spell only works for women,” she explained carefully.
“I didn’t know Japanese magic was sexist,” Caboose responded in confusion.
Centorea started to respond, then thought about the rest of the ‘Japanese magic’ she had read about. It…did seem like he had a point. “I…had not made that deduction before…” she murmured thoughtfully.
As they spoke, the sound of a roaring motorcycle engine cut the air, followed by a woman’s scream. A man on a red motorcycle drove by, a purse in trailing from his grip. “Move it! Move it! Move it!” he screamed as he drove along, laughing wickedly.
“Oh no!” Caboose cried out as Centorea grasped her sword. “That purse has snatched that man! We have to help him!”
It was all Centorea could do not to hit the ground face first. “Nay, my master! That man has snatched the woman’s purse! It is why I was in search of you this morning, for it is my quest to hunt him down and bring him to justice…but tis against the law for me to bring harm to a human, so I need my human master to assist me-“
“Freckle! Groceries!” Caboose called out, tossing the several bags of food stuffs into the air.
The bags froze, seeming to float. [Directive accepted,] Freckle responded as the groceries moved towards the house.
Centorea stared for a time until Caboose poked her. “We catch the bad guy?” he asked eagerly.
Centorea blinked in surprise, then nodded firmly. “Yes, we must give chase!” she proclaimed. “My master…” she began, bracing herself for inviting Caboose to ride her…only to see him racing after the motorcycle on foot, managing a very impressive speed all on his own. “Wait for me!” she cried out as she began to canter after him, before moving to a full charge when that failed to catch up.
By the time she caught up to him, she saw he was on his phone through his helmet. “…so I’m going to miss our walkies today, Polt,” he spoke apologetically. “I’m helping a new horse-girl friend chase down a bad guy. …yeah, centaur, that’s what she said. …the bad guy got snatched by a purse! I think…oh, that makes much more sense. Yeah, I’ll let you know how it goes. See you tonight.”
Centorea grumbled under her breath as she finally managed to catch up to Caboose, panting a bit. “It is unseemly for a noble centaur to be outrun by a human,” she muttered quietly, frustrated with herself.
“Oh, sorry,” Caboose apologized, slowing down until he matched Centorea’s pace. “Is this better?”
Centorea wanted to complain about how what she meant was that she should be the one having to slow down for Caboose, but discarded the notion. Her apparent Destined Master lacked the intelligence to realize the subtle intricacies of centaur propriety, and he was obviously just trying to be sweet. “It will do,” she told him calmly. As they caught sight of the thief, she drew her sword. “Thief, come quietly!” she declared loudly as they approached. “Otherwise you will taste the weight of your crimes on the edge of my blade!”
“What she said!” Caboose called out eagerly. “…except I don’t have a blade! That’s Tucker’s! …but I have a really scary robot doggy!”
Centorea mightily resisted the urge to facepalm as the thief sped up on his motorcycle. As they rounded a corner, he attempted to create an obstacle for the pair by running into a trolley of large bottles of water, sending them flying into the air. Centorea reacted quickly, slashing through them with her blade, resulting in only water hitting the pair…except for one bottle she missed that bounced off Caboose’s head. He barely noticed.
“Too easy!” Centorea declared smugly. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Is your shirt supposed to do that?” Caboose asked curiously, staring at how the water rendered Centorea’s shirt partially transparent, clinging to her large bosom and flat stomach. With a shriek of surprise, Centorea desperately covered her breasts with her crossed arms.
The thief took the moment of distraction to attempt to leap off the road they were on onto a sloping road going down, having missed the turn off and using that to put distance between them, calling back a taunt as he did so. “Is that the best you got, horse-girl?”
Centorea snarled, then moved toward the boundary.
“Are we gonna jump?” Caboose asked curiously.
“Yes!” Centorea declared, leaping over the edge. Her descent landed her atop a truck, before letting her leap off and onto the road below, now caught up to the man on the motorcycle.
“Okay!” Caboose declared eagerly, leaping off as well and cratering the asphalt below where he landed before making chase.
Centorea at that point had caught up to the thief, and had her sword at his throat. “You will not escape!” she declared angrily as he flinched back in fear.
Caboose quickly sped up. “Centorea, wait!” he called out, reaching for her shoulder. “You’re not supposed to hurt humans-“
Due to both of their movement and Caboose’s own clumsiness, he wound up grabbing the back of Centorea’s shirt collar, causing the thin, wet fabric to tear completely off her as she pulled ahead of him. Centorea let out a panicked shriek as she desperately tried to cover herself, frozen in embarrassment as her sword went flying back along the tarmac…along with the thief who had fallen off his motorcycle due to a nasal hemorrhage. Centorea’s gallop, however, continued uninterrupted.
“I can fix this!” Caboose called helpfully, shirt clutched in one hand as he started patting at his side. “I have a needle and thread somewhere-“ His words were cut off as he ran full tilt into a solid metal wall, leaving a Caboose shaped indent even as Centorea slammed into a metal gate.
Having crashed into the metal gate, Centorea managed to recover her senses. “Master, how could you?” she murmured sorrowfully. She tried to cover herself as she turned to look for her sword…only to see it missing.
As she looked up, she saw the thief – now covered in various substances from his crash – standing over her with her sword. “Damn you, horse girl…” he began angrily, lifting the sword to strike. “I’ll slice you apart!”
The sword began to descend, and Centorea started to scream in fear…only to see the blade caught in Caboose’s hand. “No,” he spoke, his voice now enraged and dark, “you won’t.” His hand slid down the blade until it gripped the man by the wrist. “That isn’t yours.” With a callous jerk, Caboose sent the man flying head first into the wall, knocking him unconscious and leaving the sword in Caboose’s hand.
Centorea stared up at Caboose in awe. Not only had he managed to keep up with a noble centaur on foot, he had leapt to defend her honor with no thought to his own safety and dispatched a foul criminal in a single blow…and he even went about at all times in the garb of a noble knight! Her blue mailed Master may have been slow of mind, but that slowness acted to contain a fearsome rage and power, unleashed only in defense of others! Truly, she had found herself the penultimate Master for a noble centaur!
Caboose turned towards her, holding out shirt and sword. “You dropped these!” he offered helpfully. Noticing the tears in the shirt again, he added, “I can fix that!”
“And that’s what happened,” Caboose finished as he and Centorea walked back towards his house, Centorea holding the remains of her shirt against her chest like a towel. “Turns out I didn’t have my needle and thread on me like I thought, so I’m taking her back to my place to fix her shirt. Can you tell her host family she’s going to be late, scary Smith lady?”
On the other end of the phone line through Caboose’s helmet, Smith groaned. “I don’t really have to. Centorea had a special dispensation to wander around on her own to find her ‘Master’. I thought that meant her host family, but apparently it meant more than that. I was going to contact you about hosting her-“
“Oh she can stay with me!” Caboose interrupted eagerly. “We’re already friends!”
Centorea perked up at that. Her Master, her Knight, was eager to house her? He was just too sweet. Truly providence had smiled upon her to grant her such a wonderful Master…
“You…didn’t try to ride her, did you?” Smith asked Caboose carefully.
“No,” Caboose responded immediately. “We had to catch the thief on a scooter, so I ran.”
“How did you keep up with her on foot?” Smith asked in disbelief.
“Oh, I slowed down for her!” Caboose quickly corrected. “It’s unseemly for a centaur to be outrun, after all.”
Centorea winced. Okay, her Master had a problem with running his mouth. Still, it was only because he was so pure of heart that he lacked even the understanding of the concept of deception…and discretion, but that was something she could handle.
“You slowed down…never mind,” Smith concluded. “Still, you should never try to ride her. It’s part of Centaur culture that only the one chosen as their lifelong Master is ever allowed to ride them-“
Caboose suddenly gasped, turning to Centorea excitedly. “I get pony rides?” he squealed out excitedly.
Centorea blushed prettily. While it was something she’d attempted to offer before, being asked for it while she was half dressed was somewhat embarrassing. “Y-yes, Master,” she responded warmly, a little touched that he understood just how significant it was that this be allowed, to show such excitement. “As my Master, you may…ride me. I will carry you wherever you wish to go.”
“Yay!” Caboose declared happily as he swung himself expertly up onto her back, wrapping his arms around her waist to steady himself. “Oh my gosh! This way I can have a pony ride, and hug!”
Smith groaned from the other end of the phone. “This is making my head hurt…ah! My yakisoba!” The line went dead. Caboose ignored that.
As they arrived at the house, Caboose slipped off Centorea’s back to let her in and lead her to the living room, where he picked up his needle and thread to repair her shirt. “My sisters were always growing, so shirts were always tearing,” he explained easily as he worked. “I’ll have this fixed quick, Centauria…no, that’s wrong…Carolina? No, that’s the Freelancer…Cento…Centa…”
Centorea smiled softly, leaning in towards him. “Master…please, call me Cerea.”
“Oh, that’s much easier to remember!” Caboose declared happily.
Cerea smiled softly, deciding to make this part more formal. “I, Centorea Shianus, acknowledge you as my Master and swear my lifelong loyalty to you. Master…will you accept my loyalty?”
Caboose stared up at her for a time. “Cerea…this is important to you. But…” He looked down at the shirt he was repairing. “I can’t see you as a servant. You’re my friend.” He looked back up as he set the needle down. “I don’t know if I can be your Master…but I can be your Partner. Is that okay?”
Cerea felt her heart stop in her breast. Her destined Master…would insist that she be his equal? That the one she was fated to serve, to carry into battle, to tend in all things…would accept her only if she did not debase herself to be beneath him? Even in the hallowed tales of the greatest Centaurs and their Masters, there was nothing even to begin to touch on such an honor! “My Master, My Liege,” she began softly, tears in her eyes. “You who are the greatest of Knights…I shall be your squire, serving under you as you teach me your ways, that one day I can be worthy to stand beside you in battle. Will you accept my service, my loyalty, my blade at your side?”
Caboose stared at her for a time, trying to make sense of it. It sounded right, maybe. “Okay.”
“Darling!” Miia suddenly yelled as she slammed the door open. “Did you get another girlfriend?”
“Is she shirtless?” Papi asked in surprise. “Can I be shirtless too? I don’t get hungry as fast when I’m shirtless…Master, I’m hungry!”
“D-Darling?” Cerea gasped in shock. “Master, who are these girls?”
“Miia, Papi, I made a new friend!” Caboose called out happily. “This is Cerea! She’s going to be living with us from now on!”
Miia let out an angry keening hiss. “Another rival! Darling, why?”
“Magic is at work!” Caboose declared proudly. “Japanese spell says we’re supposed to be together!”
“Master! I’m hungry!” Papi insisted again.
“I’ll make dinner!” Caboose replied instantly, giving Cerea her repaired shirt before heading for the kitchen. He paused at the door. “Cerea, if you want, I can teach you how to bind yourself! My biggest sister had the same problem when it came to finding bras and running fast.” With that he moved to the kitchen and began to cook.
Cerea sighed softly. “Is he…always like this?”
“Like what?” Papi asked in confusion.
Miia groaned, hanging her head. “Yes. Still, as frustrating as it is when he’s stupid, when he’s angry…”
“I witnessed that righteous anger caged deep within him,” Cerea explained quickly. “It is an awe inspiring sight, and shows him as truly the ultimate knight!”
Miia got a rather dreamy look on her face. “Yes…he’s my noble hero, leaping to defend my honor!”
Realizing they were both reacting the same way, the two girls began glaring at each other, an intense rivalry beginning. Papi glared too, more to not be left out than any idea what was actually going on.
Once dinner was finished and the dishes were clean, Caboose tucked Papi in for the night as she’d become completely tuckered out. Since it was almost nightfall, Miia was also slowing down and seeking a bed to curl up, ending up loosely cuddled around Papi for warmth as Caboose wasn’t going to bed yet. “Time to go meet Polt for our run!” Caboose declared happily as he went to the door. “Freckles, guard!”
[Yes, Captain Caboose,] Freckles chimed in, beginning his patrol.
“Master, who is Polt?” Cerea asked firmly.
“Oh, she’s a friend!” Caboose responded immediately. “We go running together every morning and night.”
“I also engage in morning and evening constitutionals as a matter of habit,” Cerea spoke up. “Perhaps I could join you?” While her tone was polite, inside she knew she wanted to get the sense of this Polt, and see if she was one who sought her Master’s affections, and if so to determine if she was worthy.
“That sounds like fun!” Caboose declared happily. “This way!” With that, Caboose set out along the road at a comfortable jog…which forced Cerea to move at a canter to match.
It wasn’t long before they caught up to another jogger, a Kobold. Caboose waved to her. “Polt! I have a new friend for you to meet!”
Polt turned back with a smile. “Oh, is this the one you talked about this morning?” she asked excitedly.
Centorea felt herself stiffen. The Kobolds were a noble, proud race, and one that the Centaurs had long been on the best of terms with, as the Kobolds had been among the Centaurs first Masters before humanity had arrived on New Japan. The Kobolds were descended from dragons, ones who had lived in the coldest of climates and traded their scales for thick, fluffy coats before moving back to more equitable climes to claim a place amongst their scaly kin. She also recognized the markings – subtle unless one knew what to look for – that marked where in her clan’s bloodlines Polt stood. She was a direct descendant of their most important and noteworthy ancestors, Falkor. Of possible mates for her Master, this Polt was amongst the most desirable and best suited, for she came from one of the noblest tribes and was of their noblest bloodline.
“Yes!” Caboose declared happily. “We caught the purse snatcher together! Her name is Cerea.”
Centorea moved up carefully to match pace with them, moving to Caboose’s left as Polt jogged to his right. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” she spoke up formally.
“You don’t need to be so stiff, Cerea,” Polt offered warmly. “We’re all friends here.”
Centorea flushed with pleasure. That one so noble, and a friend of her Master, would name her friend as well… Her thoughts turned as she noticed how Polt ran beside Caboose. She ran close enough that her tail swished behind his rear on every other pace…and matched her pace so that her left leg moved when his right leg did. Were he a male Kobold, this would result in their tails meeting on every other pace, about as blatant as Kobold courtship became whilst remaining clothed.
It was plain that Polt saw Caboose as far more than a friend, and was seeking in her way to make it happen. Centorea decided for herself that it was her duty as Caboose’s ‘squire’ to help Polt make that happen…and hope that there would still be enough room in Caboose’s heart for her.
Miia, Papi, and Cerea sat inside at desks as Freckle floated in front of them next to a whiteboard, markers floating around him as he began his lesson. [Initiating Interspecies Exchange Bill Review,] Freckle declared flatly. [This unit will cover pertinent information regarding the Bill, and how it applies to new Lieutenants as members of Blue Team under Captain Caboose. Lieutenant Miia, Lieutenant Papi, Lieutenant Cerea, attend the lesson.]
All three girls sat up straighter to pay attention, each with their conflicting thoughts. Miia was a bit put out that she wasn’t getting to give the lesson, feeling that since she lived with Caboose, she had seniority and thus should have more privileges. Papi was doing her best to focus on the lesson, and not her empty tummy…despite the fact she’d just had breakfast. Cerea was frustrated that – despite being Caboose’s ‘squire’ and thus most important servant – was placed at the same rank as Miia and Papi and was forced to take head to the machines.
[First rule,] Freckle continued, [humans and demi-humans are not allowed to harm each other. In autonomous mode, machines are security systems. We have more freedom in that regard.] The markers sketched designs on the whiteboard to illustrate. The first drawing was Miia striking a human with her tail, with a large X through it. The second was Papi being chased by a human with a sword, also with an X through it. The third was Freckles firing missiles at the racist couple Miia had met, and Freckle levitating Cerea. Both images were given green checkmarks, much to Miia and Cerea’s frustration. Papi found it hilarious.
[Second, demi-human officers are not to leave the Base unaccompanied by Host officers,] Freckle continued. [This unit qualifies, allowing Lieutenant Papi to go for flights without Captain Caboose’s supervision. All other excursions require that supervision.]
Cerea smiled a bit smugly at that. After all, she was awake every morning and evening when Caboose went out for his runs with Polt, and Cerea had joined every one. That certainly gave her a leg up on Miia and Papi…though she knew she would at best be a ‘close second’ to Polt, who she now was obliquely attempting to encourage Caboose towards pursuing romantically. After all, the rules about ‘the purity of the representative’ didn’t apply to the Kobolds either, as they had a completely different view of ‘purity’ to the other demi-human races. As long as Caboose never tried to keep her from her endeavors in favor of ‘interpersonal’ activities – which he never would – the Kobolds would have no complaints about anything that happened between Polt and Caboose.
[Third and most important,] Freckle concluded, [the chain of command is absolute. All Lieutenants obey the Captain. Lieutenants do not have authority over each other. Mech units exist to enforce the authority of the Captain.]
“That’s not part of the Bill!” Cerea interrupted angrily.
[Correct. That is the rule of Blue Team.]
As the three girls struggled through this, Caboose stepped into the room. “Cerea, the scary Smith lady wants to know if you’re done filling out your apple-occasion. Oh! And is your hoof better from this morning? You were limping after you kicked me in the head.”
“What?” Miia hissed out, rounding on Cerea.
“I-I can explain…” Cerea began carefully.
“I went to draw your morning bath after our run, Miia!” Caboose called out happily. “Cerea was in there using the shower. Not sure why she kicked me, though. I hope she didn’t hurt herself seriously.”
[Rule four of Interspecies Blue Base,] Freckle continued. [Captain Caboose is incredibly durable. Rule one should especially be followed in his case. You are far more likely to injure yourself striking him than harm him…and harm to Captain Caboose will be dealt with swiftly and decisively.] It might have been because his body was based on an alien device, but Freckle was far more verbose and eloquent than Freckles was.
“I did not mean to strike him,” Cerea added firmly. “He…startled me.”
Miia paused, remembering how Caboose tended to react when Agent Smith startled him. “…maybe we should all wear bell collars, so we all know when someone’s coming so no one gets startled?” she suggested nervously.
“I like bell collars!” Caboose declared happily. “They’re adorable!”
[Bell collars have been added to Blue Team uniform,] Freckle declared. [They shall be acquired at next opportunity, and worn at all times.]
“…I don’t get it…” Papi murmured sadly as she struggled to find an orientation for the book that covered the Interspecies Exchange Treaty that would make sense to her.
“I shall help you!” Caboose declared, picking up the book and turning it this way and that. He hummed a few times as he struggled to make sense of it. Eventually, he tossed it over his shoulder. “Book’s not important!” he declared proudly. “Heart important! Blue Team is a family, so we treat each other as family! We look out for each other, and don’t let each other get in trouble. Just follow my lead, and everything will be just fine!”
“Papi gets that!” Papi declared happily, wrapping her wings around Caboose’s arm, clinging eagerly to him. “Papi just does whatever husband says!”
“H-husband?!” Miia and Cerea demanded in shock.
“…husband?” Caboose asked in confusion.
“…and I thought the higher ups were crazy,” Agent Smith murmured as she watched.
“WAAAUGH!” Caboose screamed as he leapt away from her.
“WAAUGH!” Papi called out, leaping with Caboose.
[Captain Caboose stress levels increased,] Freckle proclaimed. [Lieutenant Papi stress levels increased.] The optic began to glow red. [Determining threat. Acquiring target.]
“It’s just me!” Agent Smith called out defensively as she backed away.
“Oh, scary Smith lady!” Caboose greeted happily. “You were being scary!”
[No hostile targets detected,] Freckle concluded as its optic returned to normal.
“What were you saying about the higher ups being crazy?” Miia asked curiously.
“There’s…a new part of the treaty they wanted me to bounce off Caboose…but I didn’t think it could apply to him, given he’s…well, Caboose,” Smith concluded. “Not to mention he’s only staying for a year. But with his talk about you all being a family…”
[Scanning treaty document…section confirmed,] Freckle declared. [Topic is the matter of human/demi-human marriage.]
“…what’s marriage?” Caboose asked in confusion.
Smith rubbed her forehead. “And that’s why I didn’t think it would be good to start here…”
“Marriage is life mates!” Papi piped up happily.
“Friends for life?” Caboose declared eagerly. “I love that!”
“It’s not just friendship!” Cerea managed to stammer out quickly. “Marriage is…a promise to stand together for life, to love each other, care for each other, and…m-m-make children together.”
Caboose stared at Cerea for a time. “So…nobody ever goes away or stops being friends? Better than BFFs?”
“…much better,” Cerea allowed, uncertain what else to say.
“…that is amazing!” Caboose declared happily. “I want to marriage all my friends!”
“There’s more to marriage than just friendship,” Smith interrupted. “There’s also the matter of attraction and compatibility.”
“…but magnets aren’t good for computers!” Caboose pointed out logically. “Like Emps! An Emp killed Church once…but I got the other Church out of range, so he came back.”
“I mean…do you find yourself drawn to Cerea?” Smith suggested in desperation.
Caboose was silent for a time, then chuckled. “Silly scary Smith lady, Cerea doesn’t have her own gravity well! Her breasts aren’t that big!”
Cerea blushed brightly as she self-consciously covered her breasts. “M-master…”
Smith turned to Freckle in desperation. “Help?”
[Captain Caboose, marriage is a question of sexual attraction as well as romantic attraction.]
Caboose stared at Freckle. “…what’s romance? What’s sect-you-all at-rack-shun? Sounds cultish.”
“That’s when you have naughty thoughts!” Papi piped up happily. “Like wondering what you look like naked!”
Caboose gasped happily. “Oh! You mean if I find someone sexiful!” Caboose declared in understanding. “Like James Bond does! Yes, Miia, Papi, Cerea, Polt, and scary Smith lady are very sexiful!”
As the girls blushed at the compliment, Smith’s face turned scarlet. Wait…he’s not thinking of asking me to…?
“But I still don’t get row-man-tick ent-angle-mints,” Caboose continued. “Hmm…oh! I’ll ask Polt to explain it to me during tonight’s run! I need to ask her to be my marriage friend, too!” He glanced out the window. “Wow, time flies! It’s time for night run already!”
As Caboose turned to run, Agent Smith rubbed her forehead. “I feel like I forgot to tell him something important…” she murmured as she turned to leave.
[Query,] Freckles spoke up as she passed his repair shed. [Are Kobolds influenced by the full moon as other demi-humans are?]
Smith’s face paled. “…oh crap…”
As Caboose sat around one day with the girls, Miia turned to Caboose. “Darling…what’s your fetish?”
Caboose turned to look at her. “What’s a fetish?”
“It’s…something that’s a particular turn on for you,” Miia tried to explain.
“…I’m not a computer,” Caboose pointed out logically. “I don’t turn on and off.”
Miia turned to Cerea, hoping for help explaining. Cerea sighed. “Master, a fetish is…something in particular you find exceptionally appealing in others. The thing you’d really want a partner to have more than anything.”
“…I don’t think I get it,” Caboose responded awkwardly.
“For example…” Miia began, lifting her shirt. “I’m really confident in my waist, since lamia movement is swaying back and forth. Those muscles get a lot of exercise! Or…Cerea’s breasts are huge! Some guys like that.”
“All centaurs have exceptionally large breasts!” Cerea declared defensively. “Because of the size of our infants, we must produce a great deal of milk!”
“But milk comes from mammaries,” Caboose pointed out, “and Mama said those don’t develop in girls as active glands until they make a baby. Was Mama wrong?”
Cerea hesitated. “…why do I have such large breasts when I’m not producing milk yet?” she murmured wonderingly, staring self-consciously down at her breasts.
“So!” Miia piped up, hoping to change the subject. “Does that mean Papi’s best feature…is her butt?”
“What about my butt?” Papi asked curiously as she bent over, revealing her exceptionally well-shaped posterior.
Caboose thought about everything the girls were saying. He finally spoke up. “Brains!”
“Eh?” the girls asked in confusion.
“I’m not that smart,” Caboose explained plainly. “I have lots of skills, but I need someone to tell me what to do so I don’t mess up. So my partner needs to know what to tell me to do…which means they must be smarter than me! So I guess my fetish is brains!”
Agent Smith carefully removed herself from the scene before any eyes turned her way.
Polt panted for breath as she jogged slowly towards where she was meeting Caboose for their nightly run, though not from exhaustion. The full moon shone directly above her, filling her body – and the body of every demi-human across the planet – with a burning need. Most had their own ways of controlling it – or not – when this came to pass, and Polt was no exception. She’d already built her planned ‘demi-human health spa’ to the point the pool was complete, and all it would take was turning the temperature down to exactly the level that would cool the heat in her body while still being comfortable for her. A long naked swim would leave her relaxed, refreshed, and calm once the full moon passed.
But just as she’d been about to jump into the pool, Caboose had called her. She’d been dreading that. She didn’t want to be near him while she was like this. Not that she didn’t like him that way, far from it. In fact, it was because of how she felt about him that she didn’t trust herself near him under the full moon. Sure, owning her own business and not requiring a homestay relaxed quite a few restrictions regarding intimacy so neither of them would get in trouble if anything happened, but Caboose was such an innocent! He’d eagerly go along with whatever Polt asked when they were together, whether he understood it or not. Polt couldn’t take advantage of him like that; she’d hate herself if she did.
As such, she’d picked up the phone ready to tell Caboose she couldn’t meet him for their run, but…
“Polt!” Caboose greeted happily. “You aren’t at our usual meeting place! No walkies tonight?”
Polt’s heart fluttered at Caboose’s name for their runs together. She knew he never meant to imply she was like a pet to him…even if there were times when that appealed a little too much, like just now. “I-I don’t think I should tonight, Caboose,” she managed to say, despite every bit of her body screaming to promise to be right at his side as soon as she could…and all sorts of other things.
“Oh, okay,” Caboose allowed a little sadly. “It’s just I had something really important to talk to you about…oh! I can meet you at your place! Where are you?”
Polt felt her heart race, panic gripping her mind as anticipation gripped her loins. To be alone with Caboose in an enclosed space when he’d have to have no nose to not smell how eager she was for him… “W-what did you need to talk about?” she stammered out, hoping to delay saying no long enough to have a good explanation.
“Marriage,” Caboose responded immediately.
Polt’s brain promptly abandoned all attempts at reining her heart in as it – and her loins – seized her reins and whipped. “I’ll be right there!”
And here Polt was, jogging slowly and panting with every breath as she kept as much of herself exposed to the cold night air as decency would allow. She was wearing a skimpier sports bra than normal, which showed off a good deal more cleavage, and had traded her sports shorts for a bikini bottom. She’d forgone shoes to use the cold pavement to cool her from her pads up, not having realized at the time that every step would send a shock of wild sensation straight through her body. But nothing would turn her back now, not until she met with Caboose. Still, she gathered her mind, determined to have some control when she met with Caboose. She prayed that her ancestor, Falkor the Luck Dragon, would be with her this day and that her story would continue happily.
Finally, she caught up to Caboose. “Hey!” she called out, managing to stabilize herself somewhat.
“Polt!” Caboose called out happily as he waved to her. His enthusiasm seemed to dwindle as she approached, however. “Are you okay? You don’t look well.”
“Just a little hot,” Polt answered quickly. “You can touch and find out.” She snapped her mouth shut as that blatant innuendo slipped out. She was going to have to keep better control of herself-
Her blood pressure skyrocketed as Caboose placed his hand on her forehead. “You are hot!” he commented in surprise.
“You finally noticed.” Curse my loose tongue! Oh please don’t catch that!
“Well I always figured you were hotter than other girls with all that fur,” Caboose agreed, “but this is too hot! We need to find someplace to sit down so you can cool off.” Turning, he began leading her away as he searched for a bench.
Polt followed readily, falling into step right at his heels. “You said you wanted to talk to me about…marriage?” she coached, hoping to get answers while she still had coherence.
“Yes!” Caboose confirmed. “Scary Smith Lady brought it up.”
“O-oh,” Polt replied, feeling her heart starting to sink. It was too much to hope for that this wasn’t something official, she supposed. Still, that would make it easier to control herself-
“I didn’t understand it all at first, but apparently marriage involves staying together forever, and other stuff!” Caboose continued. “And something about being sexiful. And that’s when I decided I wanted to marriage all my friends!” He paused thoughtfully. “Well, not Tucker. I saw him naked once on Chorus. He is definitely not sexiful, no matter what he says.”
Polt couldn’t stop the giggles from pouring out of her. She’d read every bit she could about the Reds and Blues since meeting Caboose, and had reveled in his tales of their adventures together. She’d come to the conclusion that Tucker was an excellent fighter, probably an okay parent, but not someone she wanted to meet without Caboose nearby. Her amusement vanished as her somewhat addled mind parsed the rest of what was said. All my friends… “Caboose…are you saying…?”
“Yes!” Caboose confirmed. “I want to marriage you! I knew when I made the decision, I had to talk to you about it immediately!”
Polt felt her heart beat accelerating again. “Caboose…does that mean…you…love…”
For some reason, Caboose began bobbing his head like a bobble head. “What does love, got to do, got to do with it?” he asked curiously.
“You shouldn’t have marriage without love, Caboose,” Polt explained, struggling to find a way to explain herself when her own brain wasn’t working right.
Caboose was silent for a time as he kept walking. “…is love when you’re super happy to see someone, desolate when they leave, terrified when they’re hurt, feel safe in their arms, and know that nothing can go wrong as long as you are together?”
Polt felt her heart skip a beat. “Y…yes…”
“Oh, good!” Caboose responded happily. “Since marriage needs love, I just thought about how I feel about all the friends I want to be marriage friends, and hoped that was this love thing. It’s a nice feeling.” He turned to face her. “I love you, Polt.”
Polt felt her heart stop. She felt tears in her eyes as she threw herself forward, hugging him tight.
“Did I say something wrong?” Caboose asked, afraid.
“No,” Polt reassured him. “You said something…very, very right. I love you too.”
“Yay!” Caboose cheered happily.
After a time, Polt pulled back. As much as she wanted nothing more than to stay in that embrace all night – well, assuming she got his armor off first – the second half of that thought made her realize something else she had to explain to him. “Caboose…marriage also means…making babies together,” she managed to say with a blush.
“I will enjoy making babies with all my marriage friends, and be the best Dad I can be!” Caboose promised.
Polt smiled, her face turning bright red with pleasure and embarrassment. With how sweet, genuine, and overall good Caboose was, she wouldn’t mind sharing him. Not at all.
“So what store do we go to?” he asked as he turned to lead them on, still searching for a bench.
“Store?” Polt asked in confusion.
“For the baby making kit,” Caboose explained.
Polt promptly tripped and landed flat on her face. She really should have seen that coming.
“Are you alright, Polt?” Caboose asked worriedly as he immediately turned and helped her to her feet.
“I’m okay,” Polt explained. “It’s just…you don’t go to a store to make a baby.”
“…special order, then?” Caboose asked curiously. “Requisition to command?”
Polt groaned softly, not wanting to explain this part.
“You really aren’t well!” Caboose deduced. Without warning, he scooped Polt into his arms, carrying her bridal style.
“C-c-caboose!” Polt gasped out, feeling her entire body heat up at the closeness…and other sensations she was glad Caboose did not understand.
“I need to find you somewhere to sit!” Caboose insisted. Moving swiftly, he found a bench and set her down gently. “Now you can get better!” He leaned over her worriedly.
Polt felt her breath accelerating, and clutched at her belly as her need spiked.
“Polt?” Caboose asked, worry and fear strong in her voice.
“It’s…the full moon,” Polt explained.
“The moon is hurting you?” Caboose gasped in shock. “Then I shall kill the moon!” Turning, he pointed his hand out towards the moon. “MOON!” he proclaimed at the top of his voice.
Polt stared in awe and fear, wondering what was about to happen.
Nothing happened. Caboose turned his arm to stare at his palm. “Odd. That worked for Piccolo. …oh yeah! Piccolo had eye beams! I’ll call Freckle to kill the moon!”
“The moon isn’t hurting me!” Polt called out quickly. She was not about to underestimate alien tech, especially not the Caboose-brand bootleg version. “This is perfectly natural…just not entirely comfortable…”
“Oh!” Caboose allowed, turning back to her. “That’s a relief. Is there anything I can do to make you comfortable?”
Polt wondered if her cheeks would become permanently stained pink at this point. “T…there is…but I don’t-“
“Tell me, please,” Caboose pleaded. “I want to help you.”
Polt whined deep in her throat, the need overpowering at this point. She hoped he would forgive her…and that she’d forgive herself. “Could…could I see you without your armor?”
Caboose hesitated. “People act strange when they see me,” he began softly. “It made me uncomfortable. I haven’t taken my armor off since I put it on.”
Caboose was silent for a time, then reached up and unclasped his helmet. When Polt saw what was beneath, she found she had no words and almost no thoughts…though for some reason, a song clip from Young Frankenstein played in her head.
Caboose then reached out to touch her cheek. “Tell me what to do,” he whispered softly.
Miia, Papi, and Cerea were in a state of abject panic. Caboose had gone out without them on the night of a full moon after declaring that he intended to marry all of them. Miia and Papi were both determined to go after him, but Cerea – despite her own upset – was insistent on keeping them all at home. “Caboose has stated he intends to talk with Polt,” Cerea insisted firmly. “We will allow them the privacy he desires for their conversation!”
“But what if this Polt steals him away from us?” Miia countered angrily. “She’s a kobold, and kobolds go absolutely crazy under the full moon just like us!”
“I want Husband!” Papi wailed out angrily. “I want Husband!”
“We will stay!” Cerea snapped, drawing her sword as she blocked the front door. “Freckles, Freckle, please assist me in giving Master Caboose his privacy!”
[Request for assistance acknowledged,] Freckles declared as the ground shook with his steps. [Lieutenants will remain in the Base until Captain Caboose returns.]
“But what about-“ Miia began.
A shockingly loud and long howl split the night air, echoing through the neighborhood.
“Werewolf!” Papi wailed out in despair.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Cerea snapped. “There are no such creatures as werewolves! That’s just human myth!”
“Yeah!” Miia insisted. “No demi-human explorer has ever come with reports of werewolves!”
“So…no one who’s seen a werewolf has come back?” Papi asked in terror, an expression soon mirrored on Miia and Cerea.
Polt lay back on the bench, panting as she felt the heat in her body subsiding. She felt so…wonderful. So content, so alive…so exhausted. She lazily turned her eyes to the end of the bench, where Caboose was carefully pulling on his boots. “That was amazing…” she purred softly. “You’re a natural, Caboose.”
“I just did what you told me to do,” Caboose offered helpfully. “What was that?”
Polt hesitated. “Umm…that was…making love,” she explained.
“Making…oh! Barbecue combo plate!”
Polt blinked. “What?”
“Burnt chicken burnt cow,” Caboose explained happily.
Polt let her head fall back as she laughed softly. Caboose was certainly still Caboose. That was a relief for her. “Thank you, Caboose…”
“That was fun!” Caboose declared happily. “Can we do it again sometime?”
Polt smiled widely. “I’d like that. …do you think I could crash…sleep at your place for a while? I…want to be close to you.”
“Okay!” Caboose declared happily, standing up.
“Carry me?” she asked her armored lover, holding her arms up beseechingly.
“Okay!” Caboose agreed readily, lifting her bridal style and turned towards his Base.
Polt smiled up at him, nuzzling in. She knew what was beneath that armor now…and she couldn’t wait to see it again.
Freckles watched carefully, blocking the door as the Lieutenants went into full panic mode. Freckle was patrolling the windows to make sure they didn’t slip out. Both machines were eager for the return of their Captain, desperate for the calm relief he would bring.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before Caboose arrived, a girl identified by Caboose’s helmet log as Polt in his arms. As soon as he entered the door, the girls rushed up to him.
“Husband!” Papi called out in terror. “Werewolf!”
“Where?” Caboose asked angrily, spinning to protect his girls.
“We heard a loud howl!” Miia called out. “And it’s the full moon-“
“Oh, that was Polt!” He gently lifted Polt a bit to call attention to her. “I made her howl like that. She’s going to be my marriage friend, too! She’s going to stay with us for a while.” He paused, looking back and forth. “I’ll put her in my bed! We need more rooms.” With that said, he made his way towards his room.
All three girls watched in dead silence. “You smell that?” Miia hissed.
“Husband mated…” Papi whimpered softly.
“Well, we should respect his choice-“ Cerea began.
“I’m not letting another new rival swoop in and steal my Darling away from me!” Miia roared out, swiftly moving to pursue Caboose.
Freckles sighed. [This team is difficult…]
[Confirmed,] Freckle agreed.
The following morning, Polt stretched with a relieved sigh as she awoke. She smiled as she saw Caboose laying next to her, still in his armor as he held her close. She giggled softly as she slowly slipped out of his embrace before getting to her feet. She started to turn towards her clothes to get dressed, but paused as she got a whiff of both clothing and herself. The previous night’s activities had left their mark on her to the olfactory sense, and any demi-human who caught a whiff of her like this would know exactly what she’d been up to the night of the full moon, and with whom. While not something she was ashamed of, it was rather embarrassing to be caught out in such a way. Before she could even think about a morning walk, she needed a shower, a bath, and clean clothes.
Taking her clothes, she stepped out into the hall. To her surprise, a floating ball she recognized from Caboose’s descriptions as Freckle levitated the clothes out of her grasp. [Clothes cycle commencing,] Freckle intoned as he moved towards one end of the house. [No standardized uniform or policy on casual nudity present in Base regulations as dictated by Captain Caboose. First Lieutenant Polt is free to pass.] With no further explanation than that, the ball disappeared around the corner.
Polt blinked a few times, then shrugged. She calmly continued on her way, searching for the bathroom. It didn’t take her long to find it, and the first thing she did was start drawing the warm bath. Once she knew the temperature of the water was exactly where she liked it, she let the naga-sized tub fill slowly while she used a nearby showerhead to wash herself off completely, making sure to scrub every inch of her body thoroughly. She was especially careful when she got to her lower nipples, though. Caboose had been…surprisingly gifted and thorough when it came to ‘making her comfortable’, and she found she was still sensitive in some areas even after a full night’s sleep.
As she rinsed herself off, she reached over with her foot to shut off the water filling the tub, since it was almost completely full now. Steam filled the upper reaches of the bathroom, and she breathed it in happily as she moved to step into the water.
“Mmm, Darling filled the tub for me already?” she heard a voice say, catching her off guard. Turning, she saw the door slide open, revealing a red scaled naga.
Polt knew her from Caboose’s description, and from seeing her in her peripheral vision when Caboose had carried her in. “Pleasure to meet you, Miia!” Polt greeted warmly. “I’m Polt-“
“I won’t let you steal my Darling!” Miia hissed out angrily as she shifted into a battle stance.
“What makes you think I’m trying to steal him?” Polt demanded curiously.
“You claimed him under the full moon!” Miia shrieked out angrily. “And then you told him not to let me-“
“Get yourself deported by making him defile you when you aren’t even engaged to him yet, let alone married?” Polt interrupted. “You’re still bound by that part of the law as an Interspecies Exchange Student.”
“Then why aren’t you?!” Miia demanded, her voice now halfway between anger and envy.
“Because I’m not an exchange student,” Polt explained as she slipped into the tub, sighing happily as the hot water slowly eased away her aches and soreness from the previous night. “I own my own home and business, though it’s not open yet. As such, I’m not an exchange student, but an immigrant. You have an Interspecies Exchange Student ID for your paperwork and identification. I have an Interspecies Visa. That’s why the purity rule doesn’t apply to me, even though the violence rule does.” She smiled at Miia. “Join me in the bath? I’m pretty sure you’re still sluggish from the morning cold – especially with how hot your blood was last night – and you really want to be more awake for this, right?”
Miia glowered at Polt for a time before finally letting out a defeated sigh. Slithering up, she slipped her long body into the hot water, causing it to overflow over the edges and pour onto the tiled floor towards the drains. Once she’d submerged herself to the middle of her belly, she lay back with her arms crossed over her breasts as she stared at Polt. “Now what did you mean about not stealing him?” she demanded grumpily.
“Caboose said he wanted to marry all of us,” Polt pointed out. “…well, what he actually said-“
“I know how he talks,” Miia interrupted. “But…isn’t marriage one to one among humans?”
Polt lowered her gaze into the water, twiddling her fingers. “After last night, I’m not entirely certain Caboose is human…” she murmured softly, hearts in her eyes and her voice throbbing as she remembered. “I’m pretty sure he’s at least part god…”
“Part…god?” Miia asked in surprise. “What makes you say that?”
“Because it’s the only way I can explain last night being his first time…” Polt murmured…only to cover her flaming cheeks with her hands. “Ack! I can’t believe I said that out loud!”
Miia’s eyes went wide. “He’s…he’s that good?” she gasped out in amazement.
“And it was his first time…so he’s only going to get better…”
Polt and Miia let that thought percolate in their minds, only for their cheeks to burst into metaphorical flames as those thoughts turned into fantasies. After a time, Polt found her voice again. “Anyway, the New Japan government has been bending over backwards to accommodate Caboose and all the craziness involving him. Pretty sure approval for a group marriage – especially for someone who’s technically a foreign dignitary – is the least they could do. If Caboose intends to ‘marriage’ all of us, the government’s sure to license it.”
Miia’s eyes lit up as she grinned widely. “Then I’m going to get to marry my Darling?” she gasped happily.
“Of course, you’ll probably need to prove yourself a good wife,” Polt pointed out idly. “And I’m happy to help you with that!”
Miia gasped happily. “Oh, thank you Polt!” she cried happily, lunging forward as she wrapped Polt in an arm and tail hug. “We’re going to be the best co-wives!”
“I’m not as durable as Caboose!” Polt cried out in alarm as the pressure increased.
“Splash fight!” Caboose called out from the door as he saw them ‘roughhousing’, as he interpreted it. “Cannonball!” With that shout, he raced up and leapt into the tub with a splash and a crunch as his helmet hit the bottom. “…we need a deeper tub,” he murmured as he sat there, head down in a curled up ball with his feet in the air.
Caboose calmly walked into the kitchen later that morning – having slept quite well and deeply – to discover the entire room a mess, pots and pans everywhere, and Polt quickly cleaning up. “Good morning!” he greeted warmly.
“Morning, Beloved,” Polt greeted happily, her cheeks flushing at her choice of address for Caboose now that they were lovers. “Sorry about the mess-“
“What mess?” Caboose asked in confusion. “I don’t see a mess.”
Polt chuckled softly. “I was teaching Miia how to cook,” she explained.
“Miia wants to cook?” Caboose asked eagerly. “I’d love to taste her cooking!”
“It…didn’t go so well,” Polt admitted. “She got distracted by something and wound up grabbing the hot pot bare handed.”
“Oh, yes, that is bad!” Caboose confirmed enthusiastically. “I used to do that all the time. Then Mom made me make myself a glove that made it harder to flex, so I didn’t have to keep fixing handles. Do I need to fix the pot handles?”
“No, Miia burnt her hands,” Polt corrected a little sadly. “After I finished bandaging her hands, she fled to her room and locked herself in. I have no idea why, though. I tried to tell her it was no big deal and how badly my first attempt at cooking went when I was 12…” She scratched her chin thoughtfully. “…do you think I should have phrased that differently?”
Caboose stared at Polt for a time. “Miia hurt herself?” he finally parsed. “And she’s in her room?”
Polt smiled softly. “Yes, why don’t you go try and comfort her?”
“I will do that!” Caboose declared happily. Turning, he marched towards Miia’s room only to stop when his foot came down on something thin that crunched oddly. Bending over, he picked up the transparent material. “…I have no idea what this is…” he murmured under his breath.
[Scans confirm naga DNA matching Lieutenant Miia,] Freckle intoned from nearby. [Logical conclusion: shed skin.]
“Miia is shedding?” Caboose asked in surprise. “But doesn’t snake skin come off all in one piece? Like in cartoons?”
[Shed snake skin can fragment if serpent is under stress,] Freckle continued. [In the case of Nagas, this requires hand peeling.]
“But Miia can’t use her hands right now!” Caboose gasped in shock. “I should go help her!” With that, he rushed up to Miia’s door. “Miia!” he called out eagerly.
“…please go away, Darling,” Miia responded sorrowfully. “I don’t want you to see me like this…”
“Do you need help shedding?” Caboose called out helpfully.
Miia let out a shocked cry of distress. “Darling! Don’t tell everyone! I can’t be seen like this!”
Caboose thought for a time. “Oh!” The orange of his faceplate suddenly turned to black. “There we go!” he called out, raising his voice. “Now my visor is off, and I can’t see you! Can I help you now?”
Miia was quiet for a time, then finally whimpered out, “…okay…”
Caboose took a step forward through Miia’s door, barely noticing the wood falling around him. “Alright! Now I just need to find you! …Marco?”
Miia managed a soft giggle. “…polo…”
Caboose turned, took a step forward, and fell flat on his face. “This is harder than it looks,” he murmured to himself before crawling along the floor by feel and then up the bed. “Now…where’s the skin I need to peel?”
Miia was silent for a time, the quiet punctuated only by the occasional sniffle.
“Miia?” Caboose asked worriedly. “Are you catching a cold?”
“…Papi, Centorea…and Polt don’t shed…” Miia whimpered petulantly.
“What are you talking about?” Caboose asked in confusion. “Polt has a winter coat she sheds, and I’m always picking up blue feathers!”
“It’s not the same!” Miia wailed. “And…I can’t do anything right! I can’t shed my own skin right, I’m a failure at cooking, I make a worse mess when I try to clean…” She sobbed bitterly. “You want us all to be your ‘marriage friends’…but I’d make a terrible wife! And I’m afraid I’m going to fail your expectations and then you’ll never want to have anything to do with me as a friend, let alone a wife…”
Caboose was silent for a time as he took that all in. “Nah, I don’t think you can fail my ex-pet-cautions,” he pointed out. “Pretty sure that’s impossible.”
“W-what do you mean?” Miia whimpered softly.
“Do you want to be my friend?” Caboose asked readily.
“Of course!” Miia agreed quickly.
“Do you want me to love you?”
Miia began to cry. “More than anything…”
“Do you love me?”
“With all my heart!” Miia vowed dramatically.
“You have just exceeded all of my expectations,” Caboose offered warmly.
Miia’s eyes widened in shock. “E-eh?”
“I can’t change who I am,” Caboose explained. “I’ve tried. It just gets worse. So I have to be happy being me. It wouldn’t be fair if I asked you to change you, and I don’t want you to. If you can be happy with me being me, then I am overjoyed with you being you, especially if that means you being you with me.”
Miia began to sob again, but this time it was plainly tears of joy. “D-Darling…”
“Now let’s shed some skin!” Caboose declared eagerly, reaching out with one hand. It landed on something soft, making Miia gasp. “…what’s this?” he asked in confusion. He gave an experimental squeeze. “Squishy?”
Miia let out a soft whine. “D-Darling…that’s my breast…”
“Oh! Right!” Caboose agreed. “…any skin to shed here?”
“N-no,” Miia stammered. “It’s only on the parts of me with scales…”
“And…where are they?” he asked curiously. “I can’t really see them.”
“…you can turn your visor back on…”
“Okay!” Caboose agreed eagerly. “…how do I do that?”
[Remote reactivation of Captain’s visor, order confirmed,] Freckles intoned over the communicator before Caboose’s visor reactivated.
“That’s better!” Caboose declared happily as he looked down at Miia. Rough spots where the shedding skin had started to slough off only to break covered parts of her tail all around. Brining his hands down, he gently gripped some. “Let’s go.”
Caboose then began to remove the old skin, moving steadily and carefully. He started near her waist with the broken bits, then slowly moved down to the larger segments. He seemed to ignore both the handling of the massive snake tail and Miia’s stifled moans of pleasure. As he moved towards the tip of her tail, however, she jerked it back. “Darling, careful!” she whimpered out. “I’m…really sensitive there…”
Caboose tilted his head back and forth. “Oh, is that what the highlights my helmet cam gives me mean? Parts where I can make you girls feel really good? That’s helpful! If I can make you feel good, then you won’t have to be as jealous of Polt until we’re marriage friends, right?”
Miia’s cheeks turned bright red as her eyes went wide. Whether it was from Caboose’s helmet having an erogenous zone highlight scanner or Caboose’s open offer to ‘make her feel good’, it was only a few moments before she fainted dead away.
Caboose stared at her for a time. “…well, it’s much easier to get the skin off now,” he mused before getting back to work. With swift, deft motions, he had all the old skin off Miia’s tail and into a large bag. If shedding upset Miia, she probably didn’t want her shed blowing all over the house.
An hour later, after Miia had woken up after having her old skin completely removed, Miia rewarded Caboose’s efforts by presenting him with a meal of her own making. The dishes looked like mismatched hunks of meat and vegetable mixed with some form of starch that ran the gamut from purple to black and coated in oozing, bubbling sauce that looked like it would come alive at any moment.
“This all looks delicious!” Caboose declared eagerly before opening his helmet breathing grill enough to start shoveling food in. Miia watched with glee as Caboose enjoyed the food she’d made for him.
“Could use some lemonade!” Caboose declared as he picked up a tank and started to drink from it.
Miia looked somewhat crestfallen. “D-Darling? …that’s Freckles’ gasoline…”
“Best lemonade ever!” Caboose confirmed as he went back to eating, showing no adverse signs to the food.
From the other side of the room, Cerea and Papi were slumped over looking like they were about to drop dead of food poisoning. Polt stood nearby, staring in awe as Caboose devoured the food with glee, complimenting Miia on ‘making the color wheel tasty and fun!’ “Maybe he’s part dragon?” she mused to herself. It was the only explanation she could come up with for how he could eat all that without flinching. When she’d seen what it looked like, Polt had flat out refused to taste test Miia’s dishes. “…I’d better make sure he brushes his teeth,” she reminded herself for later.
Caboose smiled happily to himself as he cooked dinner for the entire Team. Freckles was patrolling outside the Base as the sun started to set. Papi was playing video games, coming into the kitchen every so often to bug Caboose to play with her…which he would have agreed to if his body would let him stop cooking in the middle, which it wouldn’t for some reason. Cerea was polishing her sword while watching over Polt and Miia, who kept switching between conspiring together over something and exhibiting rivalry behavior.
“I don’t care if you were the first to lay with Darling!” Miia snapped out intensely. “Or if the bots now say you are First Lieutenant! I will claim the first spot in Darling’s heart to be his number one!” She swayed back, sliding her hands over her figure suggestively like a belly dancer. “Once you go Naga, you’ll want no otha!” she declared tauntingly.
“Your waist and hips may be impressive,” Polt countered playfully before lifting one leg over her head to put her knee behind her neck, without bothering to lift her rear from its resting spot on her other folded leg. “But there are things I can do for him that you can’t even dream of managing.”
“You think you can best the flexibility of a serpent?” Miia demanded angrily.
“We’ll see how long you keep that narrow waist you’re so proud of with how much of Beloved’s cooking you eat!” Polt snapped back.
They’re such good friends, Caboose thought to himself as he listened to their discussion. They’re conspiring or competing right now. Definitely at least one of those. He then turned from the two pans he’d been frying – one with steaks, the other full of mixed vegetables – to check on the soup…only to see Freckle levitating the pot. “Uh, Freckle? I was making soup…” he spoke up in confusion.
[Unidentified biological life sign detected,] Freckle intoned flatly. [Possible hostile contained.]
“And here I thought it was Miia’s cooking that might create dangerous new life!” Polt teased impishly, making Miia hiss angrily.
[Life form contained,] Freckle continued. [Life form has absorbed the contents of the cooking utensil. Discarding pot.]
The pot slowly slid away, falling to the ground and revealing a blue gelatinous sphere with green eyes and a green pseudopod extending from its top. It stared around at everyone wide-eyed.
Miia and Centorea both pulled back in shock. “What the?” Miia gasped out.
“A slime?” Centorea declared fiercely as she reached for her sword.
“So cute!” Papi and Caboose called out together.
“A blue slime!” Polt marveled. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to see one so up close. They generally avoid human habitation areas.”
“You know about this creature?” Centorea asked eagerly.
“Of course I do,” Polt countered readily. “When the Interspecies Exchange Act was first being drawn up, my Great-Uncle was responsible for cataloguing all the species that were a party to the Act and thus governed under its rules, as well as those species that for whatever reason had to be considered more animal than civilized.”
“Which are slimes?” Caboose asked curiously.
“That’s a complicated answer,” Polt replied. “In their natural environment, slimes generally exhibit only animal behaviors. However, exposure to other species result in them expressing civilized behavior in a mimicking fashion, and their potential brain activity capacity doesn’t seem to have an upper limit. It all depends on who they interact with and how much.”
“Well that’s very interesting,” Miia growled dismissively with a role of her eyes. “But what are we supposed to do about it?”
[Is invading life form hostile?] Freckle inquired firmly.
“Now let’s not be hasty,” Centorea spoke up worriedly. “It hasn’t done anything to hurt us…”
“Don’t hurt Suu!” Papi called out sadly, pulling the slime down to hold in her wing-arms in a cuddle. “She’s too cute! We can keep her, right Master?”
“Assuming the slime even is female, she’s not a pet,” Polt pointed out chidingly, hesitating as Papi turned her cutest pleading look her way. “Love? Help?”
Caboose suddenly gasped in shock. “Freckle! I didn’t know you were a stork!”
[…Error: Logic not found?] Freckle offered hopefully.
“You were right Polt!” Caboose declared happily. “Babies don’t come from the store!”
“B-b-babies?” Miia and Centorea both stammered in shock.
Polt’s eyes widened, quickly realizing where Caboose was going with this. “Beloved, I’m not sure-“
“She’s tiny and little, only showing animal behavior,” Caboose explained as he lifted Suu into his arms, cradling her gently. “But if we love her, care for her, and raise her right, she’ll be a super smart citizen to make us all proud. You said being marriage friends involves making babies, Polt…and this is our first baby, and we all made her together!”
[…Error: Logic found,] Freckle offered ruefully. [Beginning differential comparison to determine which error was worse.]
Polt wanted to object, she really did. However, she could tell just how happy Caboose was to call the little slime ‘our baby’. Not only that, she could see what those two words were doing to Miia, Centorea, and Papi. If she objected at all, it would be a losing battle that might skew her relationship with Caboose. Besides, she couldn’t argue the fact the little blob was adorable, especially cradled like that in Caboose’s arms. “Well, I guess I can’t argue with that.” She stepped forward, reaching out to stroke the little pseudopod. “Welcome to the Team, Suu.” Noticing Suu beginning to wriggle, she turned to Caboose. “She needs more water, but not too much.”
“Okay!” Caboose carried Suu over to the full sink and dropped her in.
The water promptly exploded outward, spraying bits of slime over the room and leaving behind what was unmistakably a slime girl. Her entire body was transparent blue, save her bright green eyes and green slime hair, the pseudopod still hanging down from her head. “Suu?” she asked happily.
“Hi Suu!” Caboose greeted happily. “I’m Caboose! I’m Papa!”
“Suu!” Suu responded happily, lunging forward to hug him. He quickly caught her in his arms.
As everyone stared with dewy eyes, it was Freckle who raised a valid point. [Designation of ‘Suu’ for official report to Scary Smith Lady?]
As Caboose joined Papi and Suu to play video games – Suu’s humanoid form appeared to have a size and figure nearly identical to Papi’s, though with human shaped legs – Polt, Cerea, and Miia drew back to discuss the serious nature of what Freckle had brought up.
“Like I said earlier, the various colors of Slimes are…iffy as far as whether they count as people or animals under the law,” Polt explained softly. “That’s really the crux of our current problem.”
“What do you mean?” Miia demanded crossly. “You heard Darling! She’s our daughter! She is definitely a person!”
“It means the Slimes aren’t signatories to the Interspecies Exchange Bill, and aren’t covered by its protections and restrictions,” Polt clarified. “Which means there’s no possible way she’s here in human territory legally. She either was brought into human lands illegally by humans – possibly against her will – or she’s made her own way here circumventing legal channels. Either way puts her in a lot of trouble…and possibly us as well for ‘harboring’ her.”
Cerea frowned as she took this all in. “It is…a valid point,” she admitted. “Our little family here…we have to protect it. But if the Interspecies Exchange Commission starts cracking down on us…”
Miia groaned as she scratched at her head. “Ooh, I hate having to think about all this!” she whined. “I just want to raise our baby with Darling! Why does Agent Smith even have to get involved?”
“You think we can keep this a secret from her?” Cerea gasped in shock.
“At least until we figure out what to tell her or where we stand!” Miia insisted. “We can hide her at Polt’s place if-“
“Bad idea!” Polt snapped out. “Having an Interspecies Visa may relax some restrictions, but it tightens others. If I’m caught ‘smuggling’ ‘unlicensed demi-humans’ into human territory, it could implicate my entire tribe, possibly even destabilize the entire Treaty! At least if she’s found here, Caboose can claim ignorance.”
“I’m very good at that,” Caboose offered helpfully, catching the girls off guard.
“D-Darling!” Miia gasped in surprise. “I thought you were playing with Suu and Papi?”
“I was,” Caboose confirmed. “But you were talking about important stuff, and I wanted to put in my two cents…but I couldn’t find my wallet. Then I remembered New Japan uses Yen, and I decided to just come and talk. So…what are we talking about?”
“How best to protect Suu from the legal ramifications of her lacking immigration paperwork,” Cerea explained swiftly, hoping Caboose would understand at least that much.
Caboose thought about that for a time. “So…Suu isn’t allowed to be here legally, and we need to figure out how to make sure she can’t be taken away?” he asked finally.
“That about sums it up,” Polt confirmed. “I don’t suppose you have any ideas?” she continued doubtfully.
“Don’t I have dick-romantic imp-unity?” Caboose asked curiously.
“I don’t think diplomatic immunity can help Suu here,” Cerea pointed out, ignoring the misspeak.
“He has diplomatic immunity?” Polt asked in surprise.
“Because he is a hero of the galaxy and Chorus in particular, he’s considered an unofficial representative,” Cerea explained.
“Like an ambassador?” Polt marveled.
“If I’m an ambassador, doesn’t that make this place an embarrassment?” Caboose inquired eagerly.
Polt, Cerea, and Miia all turned to stare at him. “Well,” Cerea began, “I suppose it is a bit embarrassing to consider this place an embassy…”
“Yes! That thing!” Caboose insisted. “And if this place is an embarrassing and I’m the amp-bass-door, then I can give Suu poly-tickle sink-toon-berries!”
“Berries?” Papi asked eagerly. “There was no soup with dinner, so I’m hungry! Can I have the berries? They sound tasty!”
“Suu!” Suu agreed, mimicking Papi’s stance as she moved up beside them.
“I thought so too, but they’re just government stuff,” Caboose corrected sadly.
Papi pouted, an action mirrored adorably by Suu. She then lit up happily. “If Papi’s government stuff, then I can have berries?” she asked eagerly.
“What a great idea!” Caboose declared excitedly. “We’ll all be government stuff, and then we can all have berries!”
“You want to make this place an official embassy, then?” Polt asked, doing her best to hide her amusement. “With official officials, as well?”
“Yes!” Caboose declared happily. “Everyone gets a government title, and we’ll be our own mini-government! I am the Imp-Ass-Door!” He turned to Cerea. “You are Secretary of Defense!”
Cerea blushed at being given such an important position. “I won’t let you down-“
“Freckle is Secretary of De-Window!” Caboose continued, making Cerea facepalm. “And Freckles is Secretary of De-Door!”
[Designations accepted,] Freckles and Freckle chimed in stereo.
“Miia is Press Secretary, cause she squeezes so tight with hugs!” Caboose continued happily.
Miia giggled and curtsied playfully. “I’ll do my best to live up to your expectations,” she purred happily.
“Papi is Secretary of the Exterior!” Caboose continued.
“Papi is Sexy Tarry!” Papi declared happily, throwing her wings up into the air in a cheer.
“Suu!” Suu squealed excitedly as she threw her arms into the air as well.
“And what does that make me?” Polt asked curiously. “Secretary of the Interior?”
“More like Sexretary of Entering the Interior,” Miia taunted with a snicker, making Polt turn bright red.
Polt’s eyes narrowed. “You’re just jealous that can even apply to me!” she declared haughtily.
“You like Miia’s title for you?” Caboose asked eagerly. “Then we can make use of it! Freckle, did you get all that?”
“Wait, what?” Polt shrieked out, her eyes wide as her cheeks burned. She hadn’t thought he was being serious about this.
[Confirmed,] Freckle responded. [Governmental recognition form complete. All ranks and titles recorded. Private Suu registered as daughter and refugee granted political sanctuary. Filing report with Coordinator Scary Smith Lady for official filing.]
Polt sank back into a chair. “Oh…I’m never going to live this one down…”
Agent Smith glanced up from the paperwork she was struggling through when she saw her tablet beep a memo. The paperwork shouldn’t have been difficult, as it was merely a construction order for a water-proof room to be added to Caboose’s home…or ‘Blue Base’ as it was officially registered. However, Caboose’s ‘political status’ meant all sorts of hoops had to be jumped through if she couldn’t get his signature ahead of time, and she wasn’t entirely certain he could spell his name, let alone sign it.
Looking at the contents of the memo, she slumped down onto her desk. “God dammit, Caboose…don’t you know I’m not allowed to drink on the job?”
The following morning, Caboose made certain Suu was tucked in securely with Papi before getting ready for the morning run. While Suu’s physical construction would have caused problems for most humans as far as proper housing, Caboose was not most humans. An empty fuel tank split down the middle on struts to keep it from flipping provided the perfect watertight bed for Suu, and filling it with a special jelly that was heavier than water and did not mix with it provided the perfect mattress. A plastic sheet over top gave her a blanket, and putting it near Papi’s bed let the pair of them hold hands if they desired during the night. While Suu had adapted to being part of the household rather easily, she seemed to so far have the strongest bond with Papi…aside from Caboose himself. While she hadn’t said as much yet, it was plain already that she was definitely “Daddy’s Little Girl”.
Once she was securely tucked in, he moved to meet up with Polt and Centorea. “Ready to run?” he asked eagerly.
“I certainly am,” Polt agreed eagerly. “As long as nothing comes up, I need to finish up some things with my extra-species health spa. If I’m going to get it up and running, I’m going to need to cut down on the…distractions.” She blushed as she turned away from Caboose on that last word. She couldn’t help it. Caboose was very distracting, especially when he scratched her behind the ear-
[Bell collars acquired,] Freckle intoned suddenly, floating up to the trio. [As per dictate by Captain Caboose, they are part of Blue Team uniforms until further notice.] Bell collars perfectly sized to each of the trio were floated over to them, Polt’s and Centorea’s landing in their hands while Caboose’s attached to his armor. [Dispensing to other team members.] With that, Freckle floated over towards the bedrooms.
“B…bell collars?” Polt asked, half surprised and half mortified.
“Master does not react well to being startled,” Centorea explained as she put hers on, Caboose having already begun playing with his bell by flicking it with one finger, becoming completely entranced by it. “And he is not the only one. It was suggested we should all wear bell collars in order to avoid catching each other off guard. Master…apparently really likes bell collars.”
Polt’s cheeks turned even brighter. She knew she couldn’t refuse Caboose anything, no matter how mortifying it would be for anyone from her tribe to see her wearing a collar, and one with a bell on it at that. Sighing, she put the collar on. “At least it doesn’t have a tag…” she murmured under her breath.
“We should put one on Suu’s!” Caboose spoke up eagerly. “That way if she gets lost, everyone will know where to return her!”
“Would she even be able to wear a bell collar?” Polt asked curiously. “Her body construction…”
“I’m sure Freckle's already came up with a solution!” Caboose declared with certainty. “He’s smart like that.”
[Collar for Suu treated with anti-water jelly from her mattress,] Freckle intoned as he floated out of Papi’s room. [Will not slip off unless she shape shifts out of it.]
“See?” Caboose pointed out proudly. “Told you he was smart!” The doorbell suddenly rung. “I’ll get it!” Caboose immediately rushed up to the door and opened it.
On the other side of the door were Agent Smith and a full team of construction workers. “Ambassador Caboose,” Agent Smith began carefully.
“Oh, hi Scary Smith Lady!” Caboose greeted warmly. “What are you doing here?”
“I have a new friend I want to live here, but we need to make a special room for her,” Agent Smith explained calmly. “You want to make a new friend, right? And she specifically requested living with you.”
“New friend?” Caboose gasped eagerly. “Yes! I love making new friends!” Noticing the construction workers moving forward, he stepped in front of them. “But do it quietly! Papi, Miia, and Suu are still sleeping!”
The construction workers and Agent Smith exchanged confused glances. “How are we supposed to keep construction work quiet?” she asked finally.
[Engaging sonic suppression field,] Freckle intoned as he floated back in. [Protocols indicate that Scary Smith Lady, to have free reign to order reconstruction of Blue Base, is a member of Blue Team. Dispensing appropriate uniform.] Freckle floated a bell collar over to Agent Smith as he followed the construction crew around, suppressing the sound of their work.
Agent Smith stared down at the collar, then up at Centorea. “Is he serious?” she asked finally.
“Park bench,” Polt reminded her, having heard from Miia some of the times Caboose had demonstrated his great strength and his unpleasant reaction to surprises. “Confetti gun.”
Agent Smith stared at her for a time. “Point made,” she allowed finally before putting the collar on. Reaching up, she flicked the bell…only for there to be no audible sound. “Eh?”
[Your bell is tuned to sub-harmonic frequencies that will only be picked up by Captain Caboose’s helmet, Freckles, and this unit,] Freckle explained.
“You are super-duper useful, Freckle!” Caboose declared proudly.
[This unit functions at peak efficiency, Captain Caboose,] Freckle responded. If one listened carefully, one would think he was…pleased at the praise.
Agent Smith shook her head in wonder. “Well, that’s certainly a load off my mind. I was afraid I would be hearing it ring everywhere I went, or being teased about it at work. Now, about the new friend-“ She cut herself off as her phone rang to pick it up. “Hello? Yes, the room’s under constru-…what do you mean you lost her?” she shrieked angrily. “Do you have any idea the kind of political fallout could happen if she comes to harm under the care of the Interspecies Commission? Find her, damn you! And if even a single hair on her head is hurt, I will personally turn you inside out and feed you to Ambassador Caboose as meatloaf!”
“I like meatloaf!” Caboose offered eagerly. “Especially with ketchup!”
Agent Smith hung up her phone. “Caboose, I need your help!” she spoke up quickly. “Your new homestay guest has somehow become separated from her escort, and she needs help desperately. Can you search around and find her? You’ll probably find her much faster than we could, and I know she’ll be safe with you.”
“Okay!” Caboose agreed quickly. “We should split up!”
“We can’t,” Polt pointed out. “You and I could search in different directions, but I’m pretty sure becoming embassy staff didn’t upgrade Centorea’s Exchange Student ID into an Extraspecies Visa.”
“It did not,” Agent Smith confirmed.
“Then Freckle can-“ Caboose cut himself off. “No, Freckle has to stay here and keep the construction quiet. Oh, why can’t there be more of you, Freckle?”
“We can lament that terrifying mental image later,” Agent Smith spoke up quickly. “For now, you need to know who you’re looking for. She’s a young woman – about the same age as the other girls here – with pink hair, blue eyes, wearing a black gothic lolita style dress and I hope your helmet can tell you what that means-“
“I know gothic lolita!” Caboose declared happily. “I have a sister who dresses like that!”
“With seventeen of them, I’m not surprised one does,” Polt murmured softly, her voice between amused and sad.
Agent Smith blinked for a time. “Okay, as long as you know what to look for…oh! She’ll also be in a wheelchair-“
Her voice was cut off by a sudden rush of wind as Caboose dashed out of the house at the mention of ‘wheelchair’, a nearby speed scanner clocking his foot speed at nearly double the car speed limit. A car along the road flipped from the wake of his passage.
Smith stared after him for a time before moving to smooth out her suit. “I forgot just how protective he can get…”
[Command confirmed.] With that seeming non sequitur statement given, Freckle floated off. The construction had already finished, and his sound suppression field was no longer needed.
Meroune Lorelei’s wheelchair sped down the hill, completely out of control. “Someone save me!” she called out desperately, an expression of absolute terror on her face. However, the thoughts in her mind did not match her expression.
Ah! she thought joyously. Out of control on a steep hill…surely this danger will cause me great suffering, and I will find myself in a hospital where I will be wooed by my doctor! And he will be kind, gentle…and married to his work. Our love will be passionate, but a pale shadow of his dedication to his patients, and I shall never know true union! Oh how wondrous!
As her wheelchair skidded and turned towards a telephone pole, her thoughts changed as her speed increased. Oh, that impact might just be lethal! I shall die…right in front of the one who would be destined to be my soul mate, our love doomed to never flourish! Or I shall be rescued by a noble prince, and become smitten…only to discover his heart already belongs to another! Ah, oh wondrous day! Tragedy truly smiles upon me-
Her thoughts were interrupted as a blue blur sped past her, slamming into the telephone pole so hard it broke off at the base, the entire pole swinging upward around the wires. She then found herself cradled gently in strong arms as her wheelchair was expertly stopped by a foot in the wheel, twisting it side on to the hill. “Hello!” the one holding her greeted warmly. “Are you the new friend Scary Smith Lady told me needed help, Miss Fish Lady?”
Meroune blinked for a time. She of course recognized the voice of Caboose, the one she’d requested to homestay with after learning of his presence on New Japan…but this most definitely was not how she expected their first meeting to go. “Umm…yes,” she began carefully. “I am Meroune Lorelei.”
“Can I call you Mero?” Caboose asked hopefully as he set her down in her wheelchair. “I’m not good with long names.”
“You may,” Mero offered gracefully. “It is what my friends call me, and I did hope to be your friend.”
“Yay!” Caboose declared happily. “New-one sec!” Turning, he punched the telephone pole as it finished its loop around its wires, causing it to spin back the other way only much faster. Caboose wheeled the chair to the side before holding his arm out, stopping the pole right back in its original position, though broken at the base. Leaning down, he checked the stability of the break. “Hmm…Freckle, repair! …oh wait, he’s not here…oh! The order’s waiting for him! I did not know I could do that. It should hold.” He turned back to Mero. “Where was I?”
Mero blinked in awe. Tragedy may not be smiling on her this day, but Physics was certainly weeping. “Yay new,” she offered gently.
“Right!” Caboose confirmed happily. “Yay! New friend!” He then promptly hugged Mero tight, chair and all…though careful not to hug too tight, for fear of damaging her or chair.
Mero found herself blushing as Caboose set her down. This was certainly not what she’d expected of her first encounter with Caboose, and she found herself at a complete loss of what to say or do. As he calmly began pushing her wheelchair along, she looked up at him. “So how far is it to Blue Base?” she asked curiously, hoping to ease things along.
“Not far!” Caboose responded happily. “Oh! I need to tell Polt I found you!”
“Polt?” Mero asked curiously.
“Polt, it’s Caboose!” Caboose said as though he hadn’t heard, plainly using his helmet comm to place a call. “I found her! I was looking in the wrong way-oh, you haven’t left Blue Base? And her room is already ready? We’ll be back soon, I’m sure she’d love to meet everyone!” He turned back to Mero. “I’m sorry, what’d you say?”
“Who is Polt?” Mero asked curiously. “Is she your girlfriend?”
“I have lots of girl friends!” Caboose offered happily. “There’s Miia, and Papi, and Cerea, and Polt, and Scary Smith Lady, and now you!”
Mero blushed brightly. He already considered her a girlfriend? And he had so many? And Agent Smith? “D-don’t you think that’s a little forward of you?” she managed to stammer out.
“Well I’m not very good at going backwards,” Caboose allowed. “I always end up moonwalking.”
Mero blinked, then tilted her head thoughtfully. “I am beginning to think we are having two completely different conversations.”
“Yeah, that happens to me a lot,” Caboose allowed. “But that’s okay. As long as friends are having fun together, it’s all good.”
Mero’s eyes widened in shock. Such wisdom in him! I never would have believed it. Still, I begin to think he pronounced a space between words I did not. I must meet with the other girls and find out which is his girlfriend so I know which to support, so I can ever be on the outside. Ah, what glorious tragedy, that I shall always be only a mistress to such a wonderful man!
“Ah, we’re here!” Caboose declared happily, turning Mero’s wheelchair into the lot. He then paused as several metal spheres floated out of a shack that looked remarkably like an oversized dog house. “Freckle! There’s so many of you!”
[Affirmative,] a computerized voice spoke up from one of the spheres. [Request for additional reinforcement of unit Freckle has been completed. There is now one unit Freckle for each member of Blue Team, with several extra units currently inactive, awaiting assignment to new team members or summons for massed assault.] The speaking unit’s optic was bright blue. [This unit is assigned to Captain Caboose. Carrying out previous order.] It floated off towards the telephone pole.
[This unit is assigned to First Lieutenant Polt,] one with a bright brown optic declared as it moved to float beside the kobold who stepped outside.
[This unit is assigned to Sergeant Scary Smith Lady,] a black-eyed sphere declared as it floated to beside her.
The units continued to sound off. The one assigned to Miia had a ruby optic. The one assigned to Papi had a white optic. The one assigned to Cerea had a bronze optic. The one assigned to Suu had a blue-green optic.
The last active unit – with a pink optic – floated up to Mero. [This unit is assigned to assist Lieutenant Mero,] it declared. [Lieutenant Mero is out of uniform. Physical scan complete. Manufacture of bell collar that will not slip on mucus coated skin nor wear out through constant immersion in water complete.] The described collar was floated over to her.
“I’ll be back!” Caboose declared happily. “I’m gonna walk Polt back to her health club!” With that, he turned and ran off with Polt somewhere.
As her Freckle unit wheeled Mero’s wheelchair into the house, she decided to try and get information out of it. “Do you know a great deal about Caboose?” she asked curiously.
[Affirmative,] Freckle responded. [The first unit designated Freckle retained all information downloaded from unit Freckles. Each Freckle retains the same information.]
“Then can you tell me who Caboose’s girlfriend is?” Mero asked hopefully.
[Captain Caboose intends to make all female friends his ‘marriage friends’,] Freckle explained. [Lieutenants Miia, Papi, Cerea, First Lieutenant Polt, and Sergeant Scary Smith Lady. Logic indicates similar courtship intentions are inevitable for Lieutenant Mero as well.]
Mero stared at Freckle in shock. She’d need to have a talk with Caboose when he got back. There was no way this could be true…and if it was, no possible way it could work. She’d just have to set him straight somehow.
Polt grinned eagerly as she led Caboose into the Extraspecies Sports Gym she’d worked so hard to develop here in human lands. She was super excited about it, being her first solo attempt at a money making endeavor for her people...but she was also really nervous. She knew the basics of being a personal trainer, having worked as one in previous attempts at making money with other kobolds of her tribe, but trying to apply that to its own business was something else entirely. It was a brand new endeavor, even if it was a niche in the market that desperately needed to be filled.
So far, it seemed to be working out quite well. Caboose was staring around at all the exercise equipment on the main gym floor in awe. “Do you like it, love?” she asked eagerly. “It’s only the latest models available here on New Japan. Granted, there’s probably more advanced models elsewhere in the galaxy, but that’s not really available here…”
And there was the other side of her nervousness. She really wanted to impress Caboose, but she knew that anything she could really build here on New Japan would at best be a pale shadow of what he’d seen elsewhere in the galaxy. Still, she could only hope he wouldn’t be too harsh-
“This place is amazing! ” Caboose gasped excitedly. “It’s so clean and shiny and new! It looks like Christmas!”
Polt blinked, unsure how to take that assessment. She decided to roll with it as best she could. “Thank you, love. Now, please, tell me anywhere you think I can improve before I open. I want everything to work great for all the Extraspecies who come here for their exercise needs.”
“I shall do my best to be a five year old!” Caboose declared happily as he proceeded to wander around.
Polt blinked, unsure she knew what he meant by that. However, she quickly moved to follow him, eager for his feedback. ...she tried not to think about the fact she was constantly standing just behind him and to one side, like a dog at heel, as the bell on her collar jingled. She absolutely adored Caboose and wanted to be with him forever...but if her Parents or Grandparents saw her like this...or worse, her sister…
She distracted herself from that as Caboose paused at the treadmills. “Do you like them?” she asked eagerly. “They’re the latest models, capable of shifting to different angles mid-run to imitate a wide variety of terrain and can move at anywhere from 5 to 50 miles per hour for the walk, since some Extraspecies can run much faster than humans-” She cut herself off, remembering Caboose’s own exploits. “Well, most humans…”
“How would Cerea run on this?” Caboose asked curiously, glancing at it from all ends. “She’s wider than the bars.”
Polt’s eyes widened in shock. “You’re right! I forgot that standardized equipment won’t work for all types of Extraspecies. Even to the standard biped model, if I had an ogre customer…” She pulled out her notebook and jotted down the problem.
“And Miia would need a really long one!” Caboose pointed out, which Polt continued to record. “But why would anyone want to run alone, anyway? Isn’t it more fun to run together?”
“Well, yes,” Polt agreed. “And most Extraspecies who choose running as a form of exercise are members of large social groups, but I can’t build a VR suite for something like that, like that one Red Base you told me about had. The tech just doesn’t exist here.”
“What about those really big treadmills from factories?” Caboose suggested happily. “The ones that make it feel like the entire floor is moving?”
Polt’s eyes widened. “Jury rig some industrial conveyor belts to treadmill controls for group runs?” she gasped in surprise. “That could work!” She immediately began making notes and sketches in her notebook. “Rather than full variable speed, I could have three different speeds for marathon runners, casual joggers, and sprinters. Make them stretch the entire room for longer bodies, and have the bigger runners towards the back so no one gets hurt if someone at the front trips…”
“You’d have to move most of these,” Caboose observed, staring at the other equipment. “Not that you’d get much use of them. Most of these look built for human bodies, and if an Extraspecies can use human equipment, why not go to a human gym?”
Polt felt like the entire world had cracked around her. She had invested quite a bit in all that equipment...but Caboose was right. A gym specifically tailored for Extraspecies should focus on providing those services a standard human gym couldn’t . She’d need to completely change the floor plan. She could shift most of the things around so they could be used, but…
Caboose picked up a weight. “Papi’d have a really hard time holding this,” he observed. “She can barely hold ice cream.”
“Right!” Polt agreed, continuing her notes. “I need something different for winged Extraspecies, since their hands don’t grip as well-”
“Would weight lifting strengthen wing muscles the right way?” Caboose asked in surprise. “I mean, they go like this!” He fanned his arms up and down like wings. “Not this.” He curled his arms in the traditional weight lifting motion.
“Well it’s not like I can make a wind inside for them to fly against-” Polt cut herself off as she heard what she was saying. “A wind tunnel! With speed controls to simulate many different flying conditions, but at lower speeds for organic fliers as opposed to planes! And bungee cord safety harnesses so they can just drop safely out of the wind when they want to end the exercise!”
“Yay!” Caboose cheered. “I’m helping!”
“You certainly are, love,” Polt purred happily. “I don’t suppose you have any other ideas?”
Caboose lifted his head in thought. “Hmm...Miia’s always talking about how good a climber she is…”
Polt sighed. “I considered a climbing wall once, but very few Extraspecies are as natural at brachiating as the more humanoid ones, and they could get that exercise from the equipment. But if I can’t use as much equipment...still, a naga couldn’t climb a wall…”
“Maybe you could build real life Snake Pass?” Caboose asked curiously.
“Snake...Pass?” Polt asked in confusion.
“It’s this game Papi really likes!” Caboose explained. “You play a snake crawling around a course of rock and jungle gyms! Papi likes to pretend she’s playing as Miia!”
“Hmm…” Polt thoughtfully walked over to a nearby console, tapping in a search key until she got some footage of the game in question. “Oh! Yes, something like that could work! And a course like that would be a good challenge climb for any Extraspecies that climbs or flies! I just need to be certain it can handle a lot of weight, so I’ll need really strong materials...better make that the lowest floor in the redesign…” As she finished the notes, she snapped the book shut. “Next up is the pool floor!”
“Yay!” Caboose cheered. “I love swimming!”
Chuckling, Polt led Caboose up to the pool floor. “As you can see, in addition to the Olympic sized swimming pool, we have eye-wash fountains for all known optical arrangements, shallow pools safe for children, and a sunroom!”
“Wow!” Caboose gasped in amazement. “I didn’t know all demi-humans liked the sun as much as I do! With the full moon thing, I thought some might be more night life!”
Polt’s eyes popped open in realization. “You’re right! There are nocturnal Extraspecies who don’t like getting too much sun! I’ll just have to keep the gym open at all hours so they can come in at night. Of course, that means hiring someone to run the night shift…”
“Hope Scary Smith Lady puts those night demi-humans with night people,” Caboose observed idly. “I mean, they can only come here with their homestay families, right?”
“Hmm...special filters to turn sunlight into moonlight for a second sunroom?” Polt murmured to herself thoughtfully as she took notes. “And sun lamps for the sunroom during the night?” She was about to write more, but noticed Caboose scooping water from the pool towards his mouth. “Caboose! You don’t drink pool water! There are chemicals in it to keep it clean!”
“Oh!” Caboose allowed, dropping the water back into the pool. “I did not know that. I hope it won’t hurt Mero. She’s a fish lady, after all.”
“Gills!” Polt gasped in shock. “I forgot that merfolk and other Extraspecies have gills! I need to use non-chemical methods of keeping the pool clean!”
“Like fishtanks?” Caboose asked curiously.
“Yes, like in fishtanks,” Polt confirmed, jotting that down.
“Maybe you could make the water a little hotter?” Caboose asked hopefully. “I wouldn’t want Miia getting sluggish and sinking...but would too hot be bad for others?”
“Hmm...if I changed it to two pools, one kept extra warm for exothermic Extraspecies, one at a more comfortably cool temperature for endothermic ones…” Polt murmured as she continued her notes. “The only thing we haven’t looked at is exercise routines, like yoga and stretches…”
“That must be fine!” Caboose declared happily. “So many of those poses are named after animals, so they must work great for demi-humans who are part animal, right?”
Polt stared at him for a time, then turned back to her notebook. “Investigate stretching types for different body types and number of limbs…”
Caboose smiled happily to himself as he made his way back towards home from Polt’s gym. She was going to be busy for a while making calls and doing research to make the fixes to the place he’d helped her come up with, and would probably be at it for quite some time. He was sad that meant he wouldn’t be able to see her for a while since she’d be busy and couldn’t be ‘distracted’, but he focused on the fact that he’d be making a new friend in Mero when he got home-
“Comic Books!” Caboose declared happily as he caught sight of a manga shop, immediately turning to enter. He glanced up at the name on the store sign. “Li...bi...do? I wonder what that means? And...Doo...Jin...oh, D’jinn! It’s a wish granting comic shop!” He paused at the entrance. “I wish to make lots of new friends while I’m here!” With that stated, he moved quickly inside and began browsing for comics to read. While he had some trouble reading Japanese, many of the comics were in Galactic Standard...and all had lots and lots of pictures!
Eventually, he found a comic that had a character in it that looked a lot like Polt. He immediately decided to read that one, especially when he saw it was in standard. However, he paused when he came across a word he didn’t recognize. He turned to the nearest person in the store. “Excuse me,” he asked hopefully, “but can you tell me what this word means?” For some reason, the man tugged awkwardly at his collar and refused to respond. Similar reactions happened with each other customer he approached...except for one girl who looked completely human, even though his visor insisted she was a demi-human. She seemed to find his confusion highly amusing, but still refused to answer.
For some reason, she’d looked very familiar...
He decided to ask the store employee behind the counter, but paused. “Oh, he’s busy with those big guys with guns,” he observed idly, his visor registering them as ‘orcs’. “I’ll wait.”
Caboose continued to wait as the orcs opened fire and took control of the store, staying perfectly still beside the counter while he waited his turn. Somehow, the orcs managed to mistake him for a display...probably because he was standing right next to the “The Reds and Blues Graphic Novel” rack. He listened calmly as they proceeded to declare their demands...which made no sense to him. Orc X? Do they want demi-human themed video games? Those sound awesome! ...but those are some really strange boss names. Royal Knight sounds like Cerea...no idea what an elf is, is it like an Emp? Core-taser? And why would you want to fight your sister?
After a time, Caboose’s helmet registered the presence of a demi-human giving off negative vital signs in the ceiling. Before he could ask about it, however, one of the orcs fired at the ceiling, causing a rather shapely girl with red hair in an orange ninja-esque outfit to fall out, riddled with bullets. The orcs commented rather appreciatively on her figure, but Caboose’s thoughts were much more straightforward.
Is she going to be a new friend?
After a brief conversation he didn’t really follow - Orcs smell good? News to me. Little piggies always smell better than big ones. - one of the orcs shot the woman in the chest. With attention away from him, Caboose leaned over her. “Excuse me,” he whispered softly. “Can you tell me what this word means?” He showed her the comic and pointed to the word.
The woman blinked at him. “Are you nuts?” she hissed out. “I’ve just been shot!”
“I’ve been shot lots of times,” Caboose observed idly. “You aren’t losing much blood, so you must have a heal unit.”
“I’m trying to play dead!” she snapped, keeping her voice as low as possible.
“Oh,” Caboose allowed. “You’re doing a great job. I’m not picking up any vital signs at all.”
“Buhi!” one of the orcs suddenly declared loudly. “That’s not a display, that’s a person!” He reached over and grabbed Caboose’s arm, attempting to haul back.
Caboose turned to look at him. “Excuse me, but I was in the middle of an important conversation with the dead lady. I waited my turn with the clerk, you can wait yours with me!”
The orc blinked, plainly flustered at not being found intimidating. Another of the orcs’ eyes widened. “That’s Caboose!” he declared in shock. “Of the Reds and Blues!”
“The celebrity?” the orc grabbing Caboose’s arm gasped in surprise. “That’s an even better hostage!” He held the gun to Caboose’s head.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to threaten him…” the orc who apparently had a brain warned.
“What do you expect me to do?” the aggressive orc demanded sourly. “Ask him real nice, ‘Can you please stand here by me with my gun to your head and pretend to be scared’?”
“I can do that!” Caboose declared happily. “Aah! Aah! I am absolutely in fear of my life!”
The orc with a brain promptly hit the floor with his face.
“Oh, while I’m doing this, can you do something for me?” Caboose asked eagerly. He held up the comic. “Can you tell me what a cli-to-ris is?”
The orc blinked, completely pole-axed. “Uh…”
“Oh, you don’t know,” Caboose allowed sadly. “That’s okay. None of the other customers seemed to know either.”
“Don’t broadcast that!” the orc holding Caboose ‘hostage’ yelled at the one holding the loud speaker. Caboose could have sworn he heard Scary Smith Lady snickering somewhere.
“Hey boss!” one of the other orcs called out, dragging out the girl who’d found Caboose’s confusion over the word amusing...although she looked much less amused now. She looked rather terrified. “I found another one hiding in the corner!”
All the orcs began squealing excitedly over the girl, one of them calling out, “She looks just like Sweetie Witch Mako-chan!” while holding up a cardboard cutout to demonstrate. Caboose admitted to himself that it was a startling likeness.
The girl took one look at the woman playing dead on the floor and let out a terrified shriek. She then rushed to the front of the shop, tearing open the curtains and screaming, “Help! Someone help m-” Her words cut off as one of the orcs approached her.
“Don’t be scared,” the orc spoke as he pinned her to the glass. “We’re all gentlemen here…”
Caboose would probably be the last to admit that his mind worked very slowly at times. It often took him several minutes to get a joke, and one sometimes had to repeat an instruction three times for him to realized he was the one being instructed. Right now, however, his mind was moving very fast. He knew exactly what the orc was about to do, and he would not let that happen.
As the other orcs moved in to demand the leader ‘not get all the fun’, he reached up and crushed the gun being held to his head.
“Buhi?!” the orc holding him hostage gasped in shock...but the shock wasn’t over as Caboose lifted the orc over his head.
“This little piggy went to market,” he declared coldly as he hurled the orc forward, sending him through the glass front of the store and head first into the barricade.
The orcs turned to him in shock as he calmly stalked towards them. “This little piggy...should have stayed home!” With that declaration, he punched the nearest orc in the gut, sending him through another wall and into the grip of a rather massive girl in armor...who seemed rather startled at being revealed this way.
“This little piggy will be roast beef!” he declared as he grabbed the next orc and slammed him repeatedly into the ground as though tenderizing him, making the tiles crack with each slam before dropping the limp form.
“These little piggies are done!” he snapped as he spun and kicked one of the orcs into the others, hard enough to send all but the one holding the girl through the next building over.
He then turned like an oncoming storm to the last standing orc. “And this little piggy goes buhi, buhi, buhi… ” Reaching forward, he grabbed the ring through the orc’s nose and twisted. “Because his boys can’t stop hitting themselves.”
“But...but you’re the one hitting us!” the orc wailed.
“No, ” Caboose observed darkly. He then jerked forward on the ring, slamming his head forward into the oncoming orc face with an audible crack . “ You brought this on yourselves.”
The orc slumped limp, the ring torn from his nose and hanging in Caboose’s hand. He then let it drop before turning to the stunned girl. “Are you okay?” he asked worriedly, his voice back to normal save for an emotional intensity. “I stopped them before they hurt you, right? I wasn’t too late again, was I?”
The girl stared at him for a time, and then her appearance slowly unraveled to reveal a dark skinned naked girl with lots of long white hair that floated around her as she herself floated. “I could have handled them myself,” she complained petulantly, though her cheeks were oddly darker than the rest of her face.
“Oh…” Caboose allowed, staggering back. “That’s...good...that’s...my head hurts…” Like a puppet whose strings had been cut, he collapsed limply to the ground.
Agent Smith burst into the shop. “Doppel, what did you do to him? ”
“I don’t know!” Doppel shrieked out as the other girls present seemed just as terrified.
Agent Smith paced worriedly back and forth in the penthouse apartment that was the de facto MON Squad home base. Caboose was laid out on the couch, completely immobile and unresponsive as his suit’s vital scanners showed wild fluctuations. The MON girls were scattered around, reacting to the situation in their own futile ways. The ogre Tionishia - called Tio by her friends - was sitting hunched in the corner (as much to keep her single horn from puncturing the ceiling as from her distress) wailing about how the ‘nice, cool, strong guy’ wasn’t waking up. Zombina - the zombie girl who had been shot earlier - was sitting back and staring at Caboose like she expected him to rise as a zombie any minute without the need of biting, idly trying to fish out the new bullets lodged in her flesh. Manako - the monoeye sniper who hadn’t been able to assist with the situation due to Caboose’s intervention - was sitting in the corner opposite Tio, trying not to be noticed.
The most confusing reaction, as far as Smith was concerned, was Doppel the shapeshifter. She hovered in the middle of the room, her white hair swirling around her form as she stared intently at Caboose. Her usual smug smirk that Smith knew she used to hide her real feelings as easily as she used shapeshifting to hide her true appearance was gone from her face, and she was actually biting her lower lip.
“Well that plan went straight to hell,” Zombina observed idly. “We knew that orc group would be trying something, and we were ready to act to show what we could do. How come you didn’t tell us Mr. Ambassador over there was going to go ape shit?”
“I didn’t know he would!” Smith declared angrily. “I didn’t even know he was there until I heard him asking the orc what a clitoris was!” The fact that even Doppel didn’t react to that as being funny showed Smith that everyone was taking this seriously. “I just wish I knew which of the girls to call to ask about this! We can’t just leave Caboose in this state.”
[First-Lieutenant Polt has already been summoned,] the black-opticed Freckle that hovered over Smith’s shoulder offered helpfully. [Of the present Blue Team, only she has insight into Captain Caboose’s inner psyche.]
“And you didn’t tell me this sooner?” Smith demanded angrily of the floating ball.
[You did not ask,] Freckle responded flatly, the bland humor audible even through the synthesized voice.
“He’s got a point there,” Zombina teased with a soft chuckle.
[Opening window,] Freckle declared as it turned to the large windows and slid one open.
Smith’s question was cut off as a screaming Polt flew in atop her own Freckle unit, clinging tightly to it before she was dumped onto the floor. “...Kobolds were not meant to fly…” she groaned softly as she clung to the carpet. “We have moved too far from our dragon ancestors…”
“Thank goodness you’re here, Polt,” Smith spoke up quickly as the Freckle units closed the window. “Something’s wrong with Caboose and we don’t know what.”
Polt immediately ran to Caboose’s side. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked worriedly as she clung to his hand.
“We don’t know,” Smith explained. “Were you watching the news recently?”
“The comic shop and the orcs?” Polt inquired. “Freckle filled me in on the way here. Caboose tossed those orcs around like dolls...not that I’m surprised.”
“And after that, he just...collapsed,” Smith explained.
“Did he say anything before he collapsed?” Polt demanded intensely.
“He asked if he wasn’t too late again,” Doppel responded softly.
Polt’s head snapped up. “He said again? ” she insisted.
“Yeah,” Doppel confirmed. “He asked if I was okay, if he’d stopped them before I was hurt. Asked if he wasn’t too late again.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Then I resumed my normal form, and he just-”
“Resumed your normal form?”
Doppel rolled her eyes, getting frustrated with Polt’s interruptions. “Yeah, I’m a shapeshifter-”
“Show me the form you were in!” Polt ordered.
Doppel bridled at the command, but a glare from Smith had her sighing petulantly. “Fine!” she snapped out, once more taking the form of ‘Sweetie Witch Maiko-chan’.
Polt carefully examined her for a time. “...yeah…” she finally murmured weakly. “I...I see a bit of resemblance…” She slowly slumped to the floor, face in her hands. “Falkor’s withers and whiskers…” she swore under her breath.
Everyone present tensed up. For a kobold to swear by a draconic ancestor by name and by a part of them...it was almost considered sacrilegious. It showed just how emotional Polt was getting from the situation. “...Polt?” Smith asked carefully.
“When Caboose and I were first getting to know each other, we asked questions of each other,” Polt explained quietly. “He has seventeen sisters. He...he had eighteen. Something happened, I don’t know what...but he blames himself for it. The angry side of him, his ungodly strength and speed...all of that developed because he feels he failed to protect his older sister from whatever happened, because he wasn’t fast enough...wasn’t strong enough…”
Tio burst into loud tears, arcing out like waterfalls to either side of her. “That’s...that’s so awful!” she wailed.
“The poor boy…” Manako murmured softly.
“And?” Zombina asked, trying to push back her own mess of feelings.
“The human form Doppel took was, apparently, close enough in appearance to that sister that Caboose thought he was back at that event,” Polt explained. “That’s why the nursery rhyme...that’s why asking if he was too late again. He...he was trying to save the sister he failed, and then it not even being real…”
“Move over,” Doppel instructed firmly as she floated over to the couch.
Polt looked up. “Wha-”
“If you’re right, then I can help him,” Doppel stated flatly. “I don’t like doing this sort of thing, because it makes me feel like a succubus...so if you want him helped then give me space.”
Polt immediately leapt to the side. Doppel floated to hover over Caboose’s prone form, then slowly reached down to touch her fingertips to either side of his helmet. Her white hair swirled around her, spreading from the contact.
The shape she took bore some resemblance to the ‘Sweetie Witch’, but there were distinct differences. For one, the odd twirl of hair sticking up off the top of her head was gone. For another, the hair was braided rather than hanging straight. Finally, instead of a school uniform, she was clad in an angelic white robe. There were other differences, but that was what stood out. “Mikey…” she whispered gently, her voice soft and echoing as though from a great distance.
Caboose started to stir. “Mi...Mika…?”
“It’s alright, Mikey,” Doppel whispered comfortingly. “It’s okay…”
“I...I failed you…” Caboose moaned, his voice...broken.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Doppel responded immediately, reassuring him. “You couldn’t have done anything then.”
“But...but I was supposed to take care of you…I’m sorry…”
Doppel leaned forward, kissing the top of his helmet. “I forgive you, brother,” she whispered gently. “And I’ll be at peace...if you can forgive yourself…”
“...I miss you…” Caboose sobbed brokenly.
“When your time comes, I’ll be waiting,” Doppel whispered softly.
As Caboose’s suit showed his vital signs stabilizing, Doppel pulled back as she resumed her standard form. “I feel unclean…” she murmured under her breath with a shiver, trying to shake herself off.
“Caboose?” Polt called out worriedly.
Caboose suddenly sat up. “I had a really strange dream,” he declared calmly. “I was a computer, and I crashed. Then I rebooted, and I was here!” He turned to his surroundings. “Hi Scary Smith Lady! Hi Polt! Hi new sexiful ladies I’ve never met before making me abjectly terrified of making a bad first impression!”
Everyone blinked for a few moments, and then everyone but Doppel burst into laughter, though most of it had a hysterical tinge of relief to it. “Caboose,” Smith began, “these girls are the MON Squad. I won’t confuse you with the details, but their job is to handle demi-human criminals in human territory without getting mired in the interaction laws.”
“Cause demi-humans hurting demi-humans isn’t against the law!” Caboose deduced happily. “That makes sense!”
“Thankfully, your diplomatic immunity still applies,” Smith murmured ruefully.
“Applies to what?” Caboose asked in confusion.
“Never mind,” Smith smoothed over, not eager to remind Caboose of what happened if he didn’t remember. “For now, some introductions. The ogre in the corner is Tionishia.”
“Call me Tio,” Tio offered somewhat nervously.
“Wow, you’re huge!” Caboose declared in awe. Just before Tio’s expression could start to fall, he continued, “I bet you give the best hugs!”
Tio blinked in surprise, then grinned widely before reaching across the room to pull Caboose into a tight hug.
“The bestest!” Caboose confirmed happily as he returned the hug until he was set down.
Chuckling, Smith gestured to the other side of the room. “This is Manako-”
“Oh, you’re shy?” Caboose asked in surprise. “Yeah, I know how that feels. That’s why I wear my armor. Do you want me to make you armor so people aren’t always staring at how pretty you are?”
Manako let out a surprised squeak, her cheeks flushing. “My...my only having one eye doesn’t...freak you out?”
“All the Reds and Blues only have one eye!” Caboose pointed out. “...or is that just the faceplates? It’s really hard to tell anything past them.”
“And this is Zombina,” Smith introduced, trying to turn attention away from Manako before she turned into a tomato and fainted.
“Yo!” Zombina greeted happily. “I’m a zombie, in case you were wondering.”
“Can I call you Bina?” Caboose asked curiously.
“Eh?” Zombina asked in surprise. “Got a problem with the Zom part? With me being dead?”
“I’ve had lots of dead friends!” Caboose insisted. “Like Church! And Church! Those were actually two separate friends though they had the same name. Oh! Alpha and Epsilon! Anyway, yeah, no problem with you being dead. But when I call you by name, I want to call my friend, not my dead friend.”
Zombina’s eyes went wide. If she still had blood to flow through her veins, she definitely would be blushing.
“So can I?” Caboose pressed.
“Can you what?” Zombina asked in confusion.
“Call you Bina?” Caboose clarified.
“Oh...yeah, sure,” Zombina allowed, finding herself unaccountably flustered.
“And this is Doppel,” Smith introduced, finding herself no longer surprised at the effect Caboose had on demi-human females.
“Thank you,” Caboose said to Doppel before she could say anything.
“Eh?” Doppel asked, surprised.
“I don’t know why, but I feel like you did something really big and really important for me,” Caboose explained. “So...thank you.”
Doppel turned her back, pasting her usual smile on her face as she shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t worry about it.”
Smith frowned thoughtfully. Normally, Doppel would hold anything she did for someone over their heads for as long as she could get away with it, just to gloat. The fact that she was trying to shrug this one off told Smith just how significant what Doppel had done for Caboose was to the shapeshifter. She wondered if Caboose had any idea just how lucky he was.
“So many new friends!” Caboose declared happily.
...perhaps he did.
Caboose happily led the MON squad back towards Blue Base, eager to introduce everyone. He’d spent the entire way back reciting to his ‘new friends’ everything he could recall about the girls, and they were all eager to actually meet up. Agent Smith was even relaxed into it, although feeling a bit trepidatious about the stop they’d taken on the way back to Blue Base. Caboose had insisted the only way to properly welcome new friends to his home was with food, and so Tio’s arms were full of all the groceries she could carry...which was quite a lot. While Smith was looking forward to Caboose’s amazingly delicious cooking, she wasn’t certain she’d be able to qualify the trip properly as a ‘business expense’, even if the Interspecies Exchange Commission was footing Caboose’s entire food bill as a matter of course.
As soon as Caboose opened the door, three female forms slammed into him. He took one step back to brace himself as Miia wrapped around him, Papi clung to his head and shoulders, and Suu clung to his legs. “Darling!” Miia wailed worriedly. “Are you alright? We saw you on the news when you just collapsed and...and...and…” Her words devolved into incomprehensible blubbering.
“Husband!” Papi cried out, clinging to him as she settled for just expressing distress without any actual words.
“Papa okay?” Suu pleaded worriedly, staring up at Caboose with eyes that looked more watery than normal somehow.
“Are you alright, Master?” Cerea asked worriedly from the door, looking like the only reason she wasn’t lifting Caboose off the ground in an embrace was wanting to appear properly disciplined...but said discipline was rapidly failing against the tidal wave of worry and despair.
Caboose happily patted the head of each girl hugging him. “I’m okay, girls,” he offered warmly. “I’m sorry I worried you. I don’t remember falling over. The last thing I remember was asking the piggy what a cry-tortoise was. Why did the guys in the comics want to make turtles sad? I thought most guys liked ninjas.”
At that point, Cerea lost her discipline as she lunged forward to pull Caboose into a deep hug. “Master, I’m so ashamed! I failed to be there to join you in battle when you desperately needed me, and...and...and…”
“It’s okay, Cerea,” Caboose reassured her, returning the hug even as he managed - through rather impressive physical contortions - to keep Suu from getting squished between them without dislodging her or anyone else. “I don’t remember fighting, though.”
“Freckle, what’s a cry-tortoise?” Papi asked her Freckle unit curiously, having forgotten her despair as soon as she was no longer afraid Caboose wouldn’t be coming home.
“Now why didn’t I think to ask Freckle?” Caboose marveled in amazement, causing several of those present to facepalm.
[Error: Parental control settings do not allow an answer to that inquiry,] Papi’s Freckle unit responded. [Private Suu and Captain Caboose are present, and are not cleared under parental controls for material defined as ‘adult’.]
“I want to find that surprising,” Smith murmured thoughtfully, “but somehow...I just don’t.”
“Did everyone get along with Mero while I was gone?” Caboose asked curiously as he led Tio to the kitchen so he could start cooking.
“Who?” Papi asked in confusion.
[Nice fish lady,] her Freckle unit supplied.
“Oh!” Papi declared, bringing a closed fist down in an open palm in an exaggerated expression of recognition. “She’s nice!”
[Reports collated,} Caboose’s Freckle unit spoke up. [All interactions within assumed parameters. Lieutenant Cerea embarrassed herself due to her reaction to Lieutenant Mero’s royal bearing, but has moved past it. Private Suu has already learned to imitate regal bearing. Lieutenant Papi bonded readily with Lieutenant Mero, though name recognition continues to be a problem. Lieutenant Miia has determined that Lieutenant Mero is now a new rival.]
“I knew they’d all get along!” Caboose declared happily as he proceeded to cook a scrumptious meal that could feed everyone.
“How come the balls call everyone ‘Lieutenant’?” Zombina asked curiously. “You don’t look like a military unit.”
“It’s because we’re all Blue Team!” Caboose declared happily. “Everybody has a rank!”
“Can we have ranks, too?” Tio asked eagerly.
[Error: members of Team MON,] Smith’s Freckle intoned angrily. [Conflict of loyalties detected. MON takes orders from Sergeant Scary Smith Lady.]
[Error: Sergeant Scary Smith Lady is Blue Team,] Caboose’s Freckle countered. [Ergo, her subordinates are also Blue Team.]
[Error: excessive paperwork detected,] Smith’s Freckle responded ruefully.
“Are the Freckle units starting to develop distinct personalities based on who they were assigned to?” Polt marveled curiously.
[Freckle units designed to adapt to better assist assigned partners,] Polt’s Freckle responded warmly. [Personality adaptation logical. Freckles and original Freckle will maintain standard personality configuration as most efficient for helping Captain Caboose.]
[It is Lieutenant Miia’s turn to snuggle with Captain Darling,] Miia’s Freckle insisted.
[Negative,] Papi’s Freckle countered. [It is Lieutenant Papi’s turn to cuddle with Captain Husband tonight.]
[No!] Suu’s Freckle countered petulantly. [Private Suu is the baby! She has priority!]
“Happening rather fast, though…” Smith murmured worriedly.
“I want my own talky ball!” Tio gasped eagerly.
[Freckle unit assigned to Lieutenant Tio,] a new Freckle unit, this one’s optic the exact golden color of Tio’s hair, intoned as it floated in.
Mero slowly pushed her wheelchair towards the kitchen as that caused another uproar over how Smith’s subordinate could outrank her. “Sire, could I ask you something?” she asked Caboose curiously.
“Ask away!” Caboose replied as he rapidly flipped dishes from pans to plates without looking, not even a drop or a crumb missing its destination.
“I understand it is your intention to make... all of us your…’marriage friends’?” she asked carefully.
“Everyone but Suu!” Caboose declared. “She’s our baby!”
“How will you manage that?” Mero asked worriedly. “There apparently are already fights over your time. It was my understanding that human relationships were one to one specifically to avoid such things.”
“I’m used to fighting,” Caboose allowed. “Back home, my sisters were always fighting over spending time with me. In Blood Gulch, we were always fighting the Reds. Out of Blood Gulch, we were always fighting somebody. Fighting is normal.”
“But how will you give everyone the attention they need from you?” Mero pressed curiously. “You’re only super-human.” She wanted to say ‘only human’, but Caboose was obviously more than that.
Caboose was silent for a time, though that didn’t interrupt his cooking. “I know!” he declared happily. “I’ll ask Santa for that looper thingy Wyoming had! Santa would have that, right?”
[Calculating…] Caboose’s Freckle intoned. [Collating information...confirmed. Tucker experienced the temporal loops caused by Wyoming’s Temporal Distortion due to his bond to the alien Sword/Key. Ergo, Temporal Distortion was based off alien tech. Ergo, Alien AI designated Santa will have access to that tech.]
“And then I can make all the time I need to tend to everyone!” Caboose declared happily.
[Error: such tech required an AI fragment to properly manage,] Freckle pointed out.
“I’m sure Santa will come up with something,” Caboose declared firmly. "He’s Santa !”
Mero’s eyes widened as she took what he was saying into account. “But...looping yourself endlessly through time...you’ll wear yourself out.”
“I have plenty of energy!” Caboose countered firmly. “Besides, I’m the man of the house. It’s my job to take care of everyone.”
He means it , Mero thought silently. He’ll wear himself to the bone if that’s what it takes to tend to all of us...me included. And he is stubborn to a fault, he won’t sway from that. I’ll be powerless to stop him as he works himself to death taking care of everyone, only able to watch him waste away as our flowering love dies before it can bloom… Her eyes began to sparkle excitedly. Oh, tragedy smiles upon me this day, for I have discovered the ultimate tragic love, one which extends to all of us, and we shall all share in our misery and lost love tending to all that is left behind, the children he gives us, together! “How wondrous!” Mero declared excitedly.
“I am pretty great, yeah,” Caboose confirmed as he began carrying food out to the table...only to notice how crowded it was. “We need a bigger table…” He glanced at how crowded the room was. “...and a bigger dining room.”
[Drawing up plans,] Smith’s Freckle intoned, making Smith sigh in relief.
It seemed like it would be an ordinary day at Blue Base. MON Squad had gone back to their HQ to relax, since Blue Base didn’t have room for them all to lay back and relax (yet). Polt was out working on her exercise center, and it seemed to be bearing fruit. Caboose was enjoying the day with Miia, Cerea, Mero, and Suu as they relaxed, teaching Suu new things as best they could. While Suu plainly could learn all sorts of things, she seemed to be focusing more on playing with them than actually learning what they were trying to teach her. This made teaching problematic, as Caboose was just as easily distracted.
As such, it came as no surprise to Cerea that Papi’s arrival distracted everyone from the teaching session...though the reason for the approach would be an even bigger surprise. “Husband…” she whimpered softly, looking flustered and awkward...a very unusual expression for her.
“Hello Papi!” Caboose greeted warmly. “Is something wrong?”
“Papi’s going to lay an egg!” Papi spoke up with nervous intensity.
Cerea, Miia, and Mero all had stunned, shocked looks on their faces. Caboose gasped in excitement. “You mean we’re having another baby?” he asked eagerly.
“Fertilize?” Suu asked curiously, having picked up a few words here and there due to the eclectic household.
[It’s not a fertile egg, silly!] Papi’s Freckle unit piped up. [Harpy’s just lay eggs every so often, fertile or not!]
“So...not another baby?” Caboose asked sadly as the others let out sighs of relief.
“If this is something you’ve done before…?” Miia began curiously.
“This is the first time since I entered human territory,” Papi explained softly. “So I’m nervous-”
[Alert!] Freckles announced intensely. [Unauthorized personnel have entered the vicinity of Blue Base with unauthorized equipment. Detaining. Attention Captain Caboose!]
“Oh, we have visitors!” Caboose declared happily. “I’ll be right back!” Hopping to his feet, he made his way to the door and opened it. Just outside, Freckles had his weaponry trained on a group of humans who’d come out of a white van, carrying various filming equipment. “Hello!” Caboose greeted warmly. “Who are you?”
The short, stout man holding the video camera stepped forward. His black hair, black glasses, and black clothes did not make him look trustworthy, and the wide grin and goatee didn’t help. “Excuse me!” he spoke up insistently. “Is there a harpy here about to lay eggs?”
“What’s a harpy?” Caboose asked curiously, causing two of the other people to fall flat on their faces.
[Do not move,] Freckles ordered firmly. They stayed as still as they could manage.
The man cleared his throat awkwardly. “Let me try this again,” he began carefully. “I’m a movie director by the name of Kasegi!” He handed over what looked like a business card. “Right now we’re filming a documentary about the Interspecies Exchange Program! I’ve heard you live with several Extraspecies women, and that one of them is about to lay an egg! We’d like your permission to film you!”
Caboose stared at Kasegi for a time, trying to find something in his head to respond. All he understood from what had been said was ‘documentary’ and ‘egg’. “Are you making a cooking show?” he asked curiously.
“Uh...no,” Kasegi corrected, looking distinctly non-plussed as his grin slowly fell.
“Hrrmmm…” Caboose responded, struggling to think. “Freckle? What’s he talking about?”
[The human wishes to film Papi laying an egg,] Caboose’s Freckle explained. [Possibly among other things. Mention of the Interspecies Exchange Program suggests possible official connection.]
“Oh!” Caboose declared happily. He turned back to Kasegi. “Do you have an appointment?”
“Uh...yes?” Kasegi offered hopefully.
“That’s odd,” Caboose murmured thoughtfully. “Scary Smith Lady hasn’t told me about any appointments today…” Reaching forward, he grabbed Kasegi companionably on the shoulder. “You stay right here, and I’ll call Scary Smith Lady to find out why she didn’t tell me about this. Scary Smith Lady?”
“Actually-” Kasegi began.
“I’m on the phone!” Caboose interrupted firmly. “I just told you that. You are very rude.”
“Who’s very rude?” Agent Smith asked from the other end of the line.
“Oh, hi Scary Smith Lady!” Caboose greeted happily. “This guy named Kasegi says he has an appointment. He says he’s a door-actor and wants to film a duck-laboratory.”
“...Freckle, can you connect to the other Freckle to translate?” Smith asked hopefully.
[Confirmed. Connecting...beginning conversation playback.]
After a time, Smith spoke to Caboose again, her voice very firm. “Caboose, don’t let that man leave. He’s a known con artist who has taken advantage of several demi-human girls for profit. If you can hold him there, we’ll finally be able to bring him to justice.”
“Taken...advantage?” Caboose asked, his voice starting to become dark. His grip on Kasegi’s shoulder tightened.
Kasegi began to sweat nervously. “L-look, I’m a busy man,” he spoke up, trying to be insistent. “If you don’t want to participate in this project, I’m just going to have to find someone else-”
“Some other poor girl you can take advantage of? ” Caboose demanded angrily. “ You aren’t going anywhere. You are staying right here. Behave, and you’ll stay here in one piece.”
Kasegi’s sweating became far more profuse, and his eyes widened in panic. “T-t-this is police brutality!” he called out desperately.
[Negative,] Caboose’s Freckle unit corrected. [You are trespassing on Sovereign Soil of an embassy. You are being detained until officials of your government can retrieve you. As an official embassy, the security patrol is within its rights to shoot unauthorized intruders on sight.]
“So sit tight…” Caboose ordered darkly.
A figure in shadows watched the news report curiously as her human handler was led away in cuffs. “Hmm...a warrior with eyes who see everything truly?” she murmured thoughtfully. “I wonder how those true seeing eyes handle the lies of this cruel world, and the cruelty of this lying world?” She chuckled darkly as she raced up the wall with her eight legs, using her clawed hands to gather some extra webbing just in case she needed it. “This could be...interesting.”
Caboose looked up as Agent Smith arrived with a human detention group to take Kasegi away. “Hello Scary Smith Lady!” he greeted happily. “Here’s this guy for you!”
“Thanks for holding onto him so well, Caboose,” Smith said happily, her wide grin most vicious. “I’ve been looking forward to getting this criminal in custody.” She rubbed her hands together eagerly. “Freckle, detain!” As her Freckle unit floated the con man and his cronies into the air, she chuckled wickedly. “I’m going to enjoy this…”
“Okay!” Caboose agreed happily. “Now I need to...to…” He rubbed the chin plate of his helmet thoughtfully. “What was I supposed to be doing? I feel like something important was happening…”
[Lieutenant Papi is laying her egg,] Caboose’s Freckle unit reminded him.
“Right!” Caboose shouted excitedly. “I need to get to the market to get food for the new mouth to feed! Freckle, help with groceries!”
[As you command,] Freckle responded, following him along as he jogged lightly towards the market.
Smith stared after him. “...he forgot the egg was infertile, didn’t he?” she asked her Freckle unit, having been informed of that situation through him.
[Confirmed,] her Freckle unit agreed.
“And his Freckle unit hasn’t said anything because Caboose didn’t ask,” Smith continued.
“...should we tell him?”
[Freckles flame thrower boils water very fast.]
“Good point, this will keep him out of trouble for a while,” Smith agreed. “But won’t he be upset if he gets back and there isn’t a new mouth to feed?”
[Probability indicates he will acquire a new marriage friend demi-human looking for a homestay on his way back,] Freckle observed, the monotone, robotic delivery making it impossible to tell if he was being sarcastic.
Not that Smith knew if the Freckle units could be sarcastic. Then again, if they were shaping personalities based on who they were assigned to… “Once we get Kasegi and his goons in jail, let’s come back and make sure Caboose makes it home okay.”
[Dinner plans confirmed,] her Freckle unit agreed.
Some time later, Smith returned to Blue Base to check on Caboose, only to find he hadn’t returned from the market yet. Much to her surprise, no one seemed to be worried. “Umm…?” she began curiously.
“The Freckle units are all linked,” Cerea explained calmly. “If Caboose is in any distress, his Freckle unit will send a distress signal which will alert all of ours. As long as that alert has not occured…” She sighed sadly. “Then he has probably just been distracted by something shiny.”
“Like Beyblades!” Papi offered excitedly.
Smith chuckled softly. “I see you’ve recovered from laying your egg. What did you do with it?”
[It’s inside me!] Papi’s Freckle unit piped up happily. [I’m gonna hold onto it until Captain Husband says what to do with it!]
Smith chuckled fondly. Something about Papi was just so endearing, even when filtered through a floating ball of alien death. “Well-”
Smith’s Freckle unit’s optic suddenly began flashing red. [Alert from Freckle assigned to Lieutenant Tio,] it declared intensely. [Unidentified demi-human in Kasegi residence, unable to apprehend for questioning.]
“Well, I can understand why that’s bad…” Smith began, her eyes going to where Papi and Suu were bringing armfuls of groceries in from outside. Caboose had probably overshopped-
[Unidentified demi-human had a memo in her possession with the address of Blue Base!] her Freckle insisted intently.
Smith immediately shot to her feet. “Suu, Papi, tell Caboose to get inside now!”
“But husband isn’t outside?” Papi asked in confusion.
“Just food!” Suu offered happily, holding up a whole uncooked chicken with the tag still on, showing it was just purchased that day.
“...Freckle, please list off child friendly swear word substitutes,” Smith pleaded as nearly everyone else’s expressions turned terrified. “I’ll let you know when you find one that fits.”
Caboose blinked as he found himself hanging upside down, bound up in what looked like a great deal of spider thread. The last thing he recalled clearly was bringing groceries home. Everything after that was a lot of bouncing, a lot of slamming against hard surfaces, and someone cursing. He hoped the girls got all the groceries in before they spoiled. It was bad to waste food. He continued to hang there, waiting for some sign that he could use to get his bearings.
“Cripes, you’re heavy…” a feminine voice growled out. “When are you going to wake up already? It’s no fun being intimidating to an unconscious prisoner-”
[Attention unidentified lifeform!] Freckle announced as he suddenly floated up. [You have kidnapped Captain Caboose, and have been deemed hazardous. Termination authorized. You will now be incinerated.] Its optic began to glow red.
“What the-?” the female voice gasped out in shock.
By the light of Freckle’s optic, Caboose was able to make out the woman. She had moon pale skin, a voluptuous figure that nearly put Cerea to shame, pale purple hair, and six crimson eyes arranged in an arc on her forehead. Her arms were covered in chitinous plates, ending in clawed hands. Her lower body was that of a large black spider, with a skull marking on the back of her lower abdomen. She was wearing a skimpy top that exposed a generous amount of the underside of her breasts and a hanging cloth that covered her in the region around her waist, presumably where her human portion met her spider portion.
[Your demise will be swift,] Freckle continued as he prepared to fire.
“Freckle, stand down!” Caboose ordered. “Or...float down, I guess? Does ‘stand’ even apply to you? You don’t have any legs…”
[Order confirmed,] Freckle spoke up, its robotic tone managing somehow to sound...surly.
As the optic dimmed to blue, the spider woman managed to gather her bearings. She then turned to Caboose. “You are interesting after all…” she mused thoughtfully.
“Hi scary spider lady!” Caboose greeted happily. “I’m Caboose!”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Or maybe you aren’t. So I’m scary because I’m part spider? Is that it?”
“No,” Caboose corrected. “You’re scary because you’re very sexiful and super dominant and you kidnapped me. But that’s okay. I’ve met lots of scary ladies in my life, and they’ve all been quite nice once I get to know them! Like Texas! And Carolina! And everybody back at Blue Base right now, they’re all scary in their own ways, especially Scary Smith Lady! From all this I’ve learned that if a lady is sexiful and scary, they’re probably super duper nice once you get to know them. Can I get to know you now? What’s your name?”
The woman stared at him, plainly caught so flat-footed by this assessment of the situation that she needed more feet than even she had to account for it. “Rachnera Arachnera,” she offered finally.
Caboose looked up at her as he swayed back and forth. “...that name is almost as pretty as you are,” he offered at long last, making Rachnera blush brightly at just how much sincerity there was in that simple statement. She could tell from his words that it wasn’t flattery, just a simple statement of fact from his perspective. “So why’d you snatch me?” he asked curiously, breaking her train of thought. “Am I your new host family? Did you want to get ice cream? I really like ice cream. Can you have ice cream? I know some demi-humans have different dietary needs, like Cerea won’t eat meat-”
“You’d seriously let someone who kidnapped you on first meeting just move into your house?” Rachnera gasped in shock. “Just like that?”
“If they were really nice at heart,” Caboose confirmed happily. “It’s how Papi moved in.”
“Are...are you for real?” Rachnera asked, completely lost at this point.
“Well, with how good things have been since I arrived on New Japan, part of me thinks this has to be some crazy dream or I’ve possibly died and this is my personal heaven,” Caboose allowed. “But if either of those were the case, Church would be here with me. He’s my best friend, after all. So I’m pretty sure I’m real, yes.”
“Are you...sane?” Rachnera tried again.
“Probably not,” Caboose allowed. “If I were sane, I’d probably be upset about still being hung upside down. ...that’s what a sane person would complain about right? Or should I be complaining about Suu being worried about me?”
“My daughter!” Caboose explained happily. “She’s the cutest little slime-oh! I’ll show you!” Unfolding his arms, he tapped away at his wrist console and called up an image of Suu playing happily with Papi. “Isn’t she adorable?”
Rachnera had two of her eyes locked on the picture, and the happy home life it presented. Two other eyes were locked on her shredded webbing, which Caboose had torn through as though he’d forgotten it was there. Her last two eyes were on how he was perfectly balanced on the floor on his head despite his movements, having not even noticed he was no longer bound tight. “Yes...yes she is,” she allowed finally. And if she takes after you at all, I fear for anyone she considers an enemy, she added silently in her thoughts.
“You gotta meet her!” Caboose declared happily as he rolled to his feet. He then stopped. “...why was I on my head?”
“I had you tied up and hanging from a rafter,” Rachnera explained. She then glanced towards the top of the warehouse. “Come to think of it, how did that rafter support your weight?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Caboose offered apologetically. “Do you want me to get upside down so you can tie me up again?”
Rachnera turned all her eyes on him, then burst out into a happy, throaty laugh. “I’d much rather meet Suu, if you’ll take me,” she offered warmly, her mouth spread in a wide grin that showed her sharp teeth.
“Yay! New friend!” Caboose proclaimed happily, throwing his arms into the air to cheer. He then turned back to her. “Wanna hold hands while we go back? Some of the girls really like that for some reason.”
Rachnera lifted her clawed hand. “Are you certain you want to hold my hand?” she asked curiously. “It’s far from the human hands you’re used to-”
“Junior’s hand was similar,” Caboose offered as he freely took her hand in his. “Tucker used to let me walk him around by the hand, too.”
Rachnera couldn’t stop the blush on her cheeks. Not only had he seen straight through her bravado to see her true feelings of loneliness she refused to admit even to herself, he seemed oblivious to those aspects of her that made most humans - and even other demi-humans - terrified of her. She smiled softly as she let herself be led along...making a mental note to sneak into his bed as soon as possible. She would never find a man this perfect for her again, and she would not let the opportunity slip her by.
Caboose smiled happily as he walked Rachnera back to Blue Base. He was certain this would be another perfect night as-
“I snatched you in that direction,” Rachnera pointed out, indicating the opposite direction.
-Caboose turned around to go the right way. “Right! No scenic route when Suu might be worried about her Daddy!” he declared firmly, certain Rachnera would accept that explanation.
Rachnera chuckled a trifle wickedly. “Whatever you say, Honey,” she purred happily.
Caboose beamed. They were already at the affectionate nickname stage! Now he just needed to come up with one for her. He was pretty sure ‘scary spider lady’ was out with how she reacted to it before...and ‘sexy spider lady’ felt wrong for the same reasons he’d asked to call his dead friend ‘Bina. “I’m not good at nicknames!” he shouted in despair.
Rachnera laughed affectionately. “Quite alright, Honey,” she offered reassuringly, reaching over to stroke his cheek- well, his helmet with her other claw/hand. “I’m sure the perfect nickname will present itself when the time is right.”
“Okay!” Caboose agreed happily. “Oh look, there’s Blue Base!” He pointed...to a much larger building that now covered the entire housing block. “...it’s a lot bigger than I remember.”
[Spatial dimensions of original base determined too limiting with Cerea and Rachnera in residence,] Freckle observed dryly. [Unit Freckle assigned to Sergeant Scary Smith Lady filed the appropriate requisitions and permits, and all other Freckle units performed construction.]
“The paperwork was filed and the building finished in the time it took us to walk here?” Rachnera declared in amazement. “Just how many of you did it take to do that?”
[Eight assigned units and 20 backup units engaged in construction,] Freckle explained. [Total construction time: 10 minutes.]
“What, did you just say ‘wall there’ and cause a wall to appear out of stray energy?” Rachnera demanded sarcastically.
“I knew you could do that!” Caboose declared proudly if unconvincingly.
“...your balls just keep getting more terrifying,” Rachnera murmured softly.
“How is that an error?” Caboose asked in confusion. “It sounds like Tucker!”
At that moment, the door flew open and Suu came charging out, quickly followed by Papi. “Papa!” Suu cried out as she wrapped tightly around Caboose.
“Husband!” Papi wailed as she flew up to hug him around his shoulders. She then noticed he was holding Rachnera’s hand. “Who’s this?”
“This is Rachnera,” Caboose explained happily. “She’s going to be living with us all, too! She’s why Freckle and his siblings made the Base bigger!’
Papi glanced up at the base. “It’s bigger?” she asked in confusion. “It doesn’t look different.”
“That just means they did a good job!” Caboose declared happily.
Rachnera chuckled softly as she observed the pair. “How adorable,” she purred somewhat wickedly.
“Oh!” Caboose proclaimed excitedly. “You need to meet everyone else!” He quickly pulled the three girls inside.
Once all four were inside, Caboose took in the new space. The main foyer and dining hall were still visible, but much bigger with more than enough room for everyone to spend time together even with guests...practically enough room for Cerea to exercise indoors. A quick download to his helmet from Freckle showed that the overall floor plan was the same on the first and second floors, merely expanded in scale. There was information on a third, fourth, fifth, and sixth floor as well as three basement levels, but his attention was pulled away from that by everyone’s warm greetings...and one angry hiss.
“Darling!” Miia cried out, glaring daggers at where Rachnera’s hand still rested in Caboose’s. “Did you bring home another girlfriend?”
“Yes!” Caboose declared proudly, making Polt and Agent Smith facepalm. “This is Rachnera Arachnera. She is going to be living with us, and is a new marriage friend!” This declaration brought a subtle flush to Rachnera’s cheeks. “Now, I know she looks really scary, but she’s actually really nice once you get to know her, I can tell. But she’s like Carolina, and is going to be pretty abrasive for a while because she’s been hurt badly before. So I want all of us to make her feel welcome, knowing we won’t ever reject her for being different, okay?”
As the others stared in awe, Smith buried her face in her hand. “Why couldn’t you have been born here?” she murmured in wonder. “You would have made a wondrous Interspecies Exchange Coordinator.”
Rachnera giggled coquettishly. “Honey, don’t you think you’re moving a little fast calling me a marriage friend already?” she asked impishly.
“Says the one already calling him Honey!” Miia hissed angrily.
“You want to stay,” Caboose said simply. “I want you to stay. And you’re giving off the same bear-phones everyone else did once they wanted to be my marriage friends...at least according to my helmet.”
“Wait, what?” Smith asked in surprise as everyone else but Suu blushed brightly.
[Captain Caboose’s helmet has been upgraded with numerous sensors to enable easier interaction with demi-humans,] Smith’s Freckle intoned. [This includes pheromone detection, though it is not advanced enough to pick up purely human pheromones.]
Smith let out a sigh. “That’s a relief,” she murmured softly. The last thing she wanted to guess at was what Caboose might make out of whatever his sensors said about her . Even if she had developed a rather strong affection for the soldier, all it could be was friendship...and even that somewhat awkward due to their roles being at odds. The last thing she needed was for him to realize-
[Sergeant, your pheromones indicate you wish to mate with the Captain,] her Freckle unit suddenly intoned.
“GYAK!” Smith gasped out, nearly losing coffee and shades as she managed to stagger to her feet. “Don’t tell him that!” she commanded her Freckle, looking worriedly towards Caboose…
...who was oblivious. “Rachnera, you’re a spider right? Does that mean you eat insects? Can I offer you poly-tick-ale berries? Pretty sure we still have some. We gave Suu some, right?”
“Can’t you just let me file the paperwork to get her assigned here for her new homestay?” Smith pleaded. The last thing she wanted was having to explain to governments on both sides why a demi-human with an Interspecies Exchange Visa would choose to seek political sanctuary with an off world dignitary. Somehow she doubted ‘Because he’s everything man should be in her eyes’ would go over well...especially if they asked whose eyes.
“I don’t know,” Rachnera purred wickedly as she draped herself over Caboose. “Maybe I’d rather be under Honey’s authority, hmm? He hasn’t failed me yet, after all…”
“Keep your hands off my Darling!” Miia hissed angrily as she lunged forward to grab onto Caboose’s other side.
“What happened to making me feel welcome?” Rachnera taunted playfully.
“I’m not judging you for being part-spider!” Miia snapped back. “I’m judging you for acting like a tramp with my Darling!”
“Yeah!” Polt called out playfully. “Only Miia gets to act like that with Beloved!”
“Exactly!” Miia proclaimed smugly, only to blink as she realized what she said. “Polt! You’re supposed to be on my side!”
“But this is hilarious!” Polt called back laughing.
Rachnera’s assimilation into Blue Base proved somewhat rougher than when each of the others had become residents. This was in part because she hadn’t yet decided whether she would be considered an Interspecies Exchange Student or a Political Refugee by Caboose’s lights, which made paperwork headaches for Agent Smith. Another part of this was how rapidly the Freckle unit assigned to her adapted in terms of personality, as it was tying the other Freckle units and their Lieutenants up within five hours of being assigned.
However, the biggest obstacle had to do with how she related to Miia and Cerea. Miia had immediately gotten hostile with Rachnera, treating her as yet another rival for Caboose’s affections. Rachnera had countered by tying her up and laughing about it. Miia had attempted to complain to Caboose about it, but…
“Oh yeah, Rachnera tied me up too!” Caboose responded happily. “That’s just how she shows she loves you. Isn’t it great? It’s like being wrapped up in the snuggliest blanket that she just made for you!”
Rachnera had done her best to hide her blush even as she laughed smugly at the expression on Miia’s face.
Cerea proved to be more of a problem, despite - or perhaps because of - her continued insistence of total acceptance. However, even as she proclaimed she was perfectly content with Rachnera’s presence, she stayed especially close to Caboose whenever Rachnera was in the room. Rachnera had attempted to counter this by actively trying to get Caboose alone to seduce him, though without success.
This culminated in when Rachnera managed to slip into Caboose’s room at night with everyone else elsewhere, only for Cerea to cut down the door. Before either of them could say anything else, Caboose had acted by grabbing both their hands and yanking them onto the bed to either side of him.
“This is not how you solve problems!” he stated firmly. “All this does is make you both upset. Now none of us are moving from this spot until you talk to each other.” He turned to Cerea. “Let’s start with how you really feel about Rachnera.”
“Master, I-” Cerea began.
“Be honest,” Caboose interrupted firmly.
Cerea tensed at the order and chiding implicit in the sentence. “I...I hate her!” Cerea finally cried out. “I hate the way she behaves with you when you’re my Master, and hate that she’s more likely to get to be with you over me! And...and the way she looks freaks me out when she looks at you like prey, and I hate myself for thinking like that when you told us all to make her feel welcome, since we’ve all been judged by our appearances before!”
Caboose nodded acceptingly. “Rachnera, how does that make you feel?” he asked calmly.
“Honestly?” Rachnera asked playfully. “Relieved. She finally spoke her mind.” She shifted to look straight at Cerea. “You hate me? Fine. Go ahead and hate me. I’m used to being hated. But don’t pretend nothing’s wrong when something is, that’s far worse. I’d normally be happy accepting you hating me as part of the competition, but…” She gestured to Caboose. “Pretty sure the Captain here wants us all to try and get along...and the first step of that is getting everything out in the open. So if you have a problem with me...say so.”
“And...you’ll work to address it?” Cerea asked hopefully.
“H-” Rachnera paused, glancing around to make sure Suu wasn’t anywhere near. “Hell no!” she continued. “I’ll just know what buttons to push to drive you wild!”
“She’s like a female Tucker!” Caboose declared happily. “Except she’s pretty and likeable in her first appearance!”
“I’m going to remember that one for when I meet him,” Rachnera purred happily, writing the statement down for future reference.
Cerea blinked for a time. “Wait...you’re deliberately going out of your way to make everyone else uncomfortable around you?” she asked in surprise.
“Of course!” Rachnera purred. “Others are going to be uncomfortable around me either way, so I might as well push and find out how they act as a result. Besides, it’s fun watching them squirm.”
Cerea lifted her head disdainfully. “Well, as a noble centaur, I shall not allow your antics to get to me anymore! I will not let you make me squirm!”
Rachnera turned to smile at Caboose. “I believe the phrase is...Bow-Chicka-Bow-Wow?”
“Yay!” Caboose cried out happily. “We’re all getting along! Super-big-bed mega-cuddle time!”
The night ended with everyone cuddled up on Caboose’s now much larger bed with him, Mero hanging half off the bed in a tub filled with water, and Suu reaching out to hold Caboose and Papi’s hands from her drum.
Some days later, Caboose was going over the floor plans for the expanded base while waiting for the girls to get back from a physical check up. Due to Rachnera’s indeterminate status, she was being treated as both an Interspecies Exchange Student and a foreign dignitary, and thus was also getting a physical. “Let’s see…” Caboose murmured to himself. “First floor is the bathroom, the bathroom, the bathroom, the bathroom...wow, that’s a lot of bathrooms...Mero’s room, Cerea’s room, the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen. Second floor is everyone else’s bedrooms, more bathrooms, and a connecting bridge to a secondary building? I’ll have to check that one out…”
He moved on to the unfamiliar portions of the floor plan. “Third floor is more bedrooms, more bathrooms...one of the bedrooms goes up into the fourth floor? Oh, that must be Tio’s guest room...a crypt? Is that for Bina?” He shifted to the next floor. “Fourth floor has...an aviary? Is that for Papi? Fifth floor...a forest? There’s a forest in the base? Why is there a forest in the base? Wait, what’s this note…’not important for seven more chapters’? Okay, I’ll think about it then...basements are...Engy Room? Oh, is that for playing Team Fortress?”
[The rest of Blue Team has returned,] Freckle intoned.
“The girls are back?” Caboose gasped out excitedly. “Yay! How did it go?”
[Lieutenants Miia, Cerea, and Mero have increased unacceptably in body mass index,] Freckle reported after conversing with the other Freckle units. [Increased exercise regime recommended.]
“Oh, we can hit Polt’s gym!” Caboose crowed excitedly. “What’s the fastest way there?”
[Second floor connecting bridge. Fitness Center is in same housing block that has been converted into Blue Base Embassy.]
“Convenient!” Caboose declared happily.
Caboose eagerly led all the girls through the second floor connecting bridge, looking forward to seeing what Polt had made of her gym. He vaguely recalled giving her several tips on how to improve it, and was looking forward to what it would be. The girls following behind him - except for Mero, whom he was pushing in her wheelchair - were also curious to see, as Polt had been going on and on in conversation about the finished product now that it was ready.
As they entered the gym, all of them gasped in awe. Rather than entering on the second floor as expected, the bridge connected midway up on the wall of a triple height first floor, easily tall enough for even the tallest of demi-humans to stand in and have full clearance. The main doors were sized to it, and could be seen to open easily. The main floor could be seen divided into three main segments. The nearest - which a ramp from the bridge opening led down to - was a sequence of conveyor belts set up like treadmills, running at various speeds and smooth as silk for moving on whether on feet, hooves, or serpentine body. At the opposite end, a wind tunnel could be seen set up, with bungee cord safety harnesses temporarily anchored to the ground.
The large visual draw - and the center of the floor - was what looked like a massive jungle gym made of bamboo. The various branches of the structure seemed to swirl endlessly, with passages both wide and narrow in and amongst it turning it into an almost aerial maze one could wander endlessly. There were even small pools of water held aloft within the structure, along with branches extending out from the main structure to provide breathtaking views, and even a cycling waterfall with pump from one higher pool to a lower one. It was a climber’s paradise. Miia and Rachnera both had to lift their lower jaws as they stared.
“Looks like your Snake Pass idea is a real success, Love!” Polt proclaimed happily as she dashed up to the group. “Caboose mentioned how you claimed to be a great climber, Miia, and I remembered that most climbing extra-species don’t brachiate to do so, and Caboose pointed me to a game that had a good way to allow Lamia - or Arachne - to get climbing exercise in a controlled environment!”
“How would it support Miia’s weight?” Rachnera asked teasingly, making Miia hiss angrily. “For that matter, how is it supporting its own weight?”
“Oh, it’s not actually made of bamboo!” Polt explained quickly. “It’s actually made of a new material being developed called Spider-Steel, made from Arachne silk braided into thick cord and encapsulated inside solid material. The solid material - in this case, the bamboo - gives it the predefined shape, while the tensile strength of the silk - amplified through braiding it together - makes it nearly indestructible! Production is still an issue because there aren’t that many Arachne willing to donate such vast quantities of silk to the development, but my Freckle was able to get this much of it...and quite a bit extra! I’m thinking I can use it to make us customized armor like Caboose’s, so we can all be Blue!”
[Spider-Steel tougher and more flexible than simulation trooper armor!] Polt’s Freckle confirmed excitedly.
“That is amazing!” Caboose declared excitedly. “Can you upgrade my armor like that?”
[Negative,] Caboose’s Freckle intoned immediately. [Captain Caboose’s armor is not designed to protect Captain Caboose.]
“It’s not?” Polt asked in surprise. “Then what is it designed to do?”
[Protect everyone else from Captain Caboose,] the Freckle continued. [It is inbuilt with several limiter systems-]
“Wait a minute!” Cerea gasped out. “Are you saying...as strong and fast as we’ve seen Caboose be...that’s at less than 100% natural abilities, not more?”
Miia leaned in close to Polt. “So...I think your ‘part god’ theory is gaining ground…”
Polt merely grinned, pleased in the knowledge that she was the only one who had seen what Caboose was capable of without his limiters. Shaking off her smugness, she focused on the present situation. “As you can see, in addition to the climbing gym, we have group treadmills for demi-humans of all sizes and shapes, along with a wind tunnel in which winged demi-humans can get flight exercise. The safety harnesses are actually strengthened with Spider-Steel as well, to ensure they won’t break in use. Papi, would you like to-”
“WHEE!” Papi called happily as she let herself be carried up into the wind tunnel, having already strapped herself in with the help of her Freckle unit...which had joined her in the air.
[WHEE!] Papi’s Freckle added excitedly.
Polt chuckled sheepishly. “Guess that answers that. For now, should we check out the upper floors?”
Above the large first floor was a room filled with weights and exercise machines. “While I am focusing primarily on those services that would appeal to demi-humans who can’t use a human gym, I realized a lot of demi-humans might be more comfortable exercising with other demi-humans, rather than around humans. As such, I’m still offering all services, although the exercise machines here are restricted to those demi-humans with a humanoid physique. However, I was able to tweak some of the tension machines so that - with careful computerized monitoring - winged demi-humans who can’t fly at the moment due to torn webbing or lost feathers can use them to keep up their flight muscles while recovering, since this place can also double as a physical therapy center.”
“You’ve really outdone yourself, Polt,” Agent Smith spoke up from where she was overseeing Tio, Zombina, Monako, and Doppel as they exercised.
“Hi Mr. Ambassador!” Tio called out happily as she hefted a massive pair of weights, one in each hand.
“Hi girls!” Caboose called back excitedly. “Are you all enjoying yourselves?”
“Heck yeah!” Zombina responded immediately. “This place is amazing! How the heck did you manage to keep this under budget, Polt?”
“Mostly Freckle,” Polt allowed. “I’d go to bed with a floor designed wondering how I’d budget it, and wake up to find it finished. I think he’s part Wee Folk.”
[Happy to help!] Polt’s Freckle declared excitedly.
“Once we’re all done exercising, come back to Blue Base for dinner!” Caboose offered happily. “I’ll make us a big meal to celebrate!”
As everyone else cheered, Polt sweatdropped. “And there goes all the calories they’ll burn…”
With the new gym literally attached to the Base, all the girls made frequent use of it, especially since Polt let them all in for free as ‘family’. This meant that Cerea frequently had to drag one or more of the girls out of the climbing course for mealtimes or bedtime...and more than once Caboose himself had fallen asleep on one of the grassy platforms scattered through the course, curled up to Miia, Papi, Suu, Rachnera, or Polt herself. Cerea and Mero quickly grew envious that the new favorite activity was one they couldn’t participate in.
One day as breakfast was finished and preparations were made to head to the gym once more, Caboose paused as his head jerked up. The others quickly recognized this as signs he had received a phone call. “Hello?” he asked curiously. “Yes? Yes? You don’t say. You don’t say! You...don’t say? ...yes, I will be there.” He nodded, ending the call.
“Who was it?” Papi asked curiously.
“They didn’t say,” Caboose responded honestly. “I need to go.”
“Should I go with you?” Cerea asked curiously, checking clearance on her sword.
“No, I need to go alone,” Caboose insisted. “Just Freckle and I.”
[What is the objective?] Caboose’s Freckle inquired.
“I’m not going on a secret date,” Caboose explained readily as he turned and walked out the door.
Silence reigned in the house.as glances were exchanged. Eventually, it was Rachnera who spoke up. “So...was that Caboose trying and failing to deceive us, or trying and failing to be honest with us? Because somehow I know what’s going to happen either way-”
“We need to follow him!” Miia yelled out intensely. “We need to find out who’s trying to steal Darling away from me-I mean, us!”
Rachnera shook her head as she watched the room empty. She found herself surprised to see that Polt was still there. “Don’t you want to know what’s going on?” she asked the kobold curiously.
“As First Lieutenant, I have higher data access privileges,” Polt explained simply as she filed her claws. “I’ve already asked my Freckle to stream the events from Caboose’s Freckle, so I don’t need to follow him to know what happens.” She got to her feet. “For now, I need to open the gym. Want to come climb?”
Rachnera smiled mysteriously. “I do have some...climbing to do,” she offered playfully before leaping out the nearest window, racing away across rooftops.
Polt shook her head in amusement. “And she tries to pretend she’s different,” she mused with a wry chuckle.
Caboose sat patiently at the spot he was told to meet the one who called. He remembered what he was told to do. He was to wait there until a woman he knew showed up, and then act like they were on a date together. He could do that. Even if it wasn’t a date, he could act like it was. He knew how to do that.
Looking around, he spotted something that confused him. “Freckle, why are all the other Freckles floating over that bush? Where are the girls?”
[The Lieutenants and Private are hiding behind the bush,] Freckle explained readily.
“Rachnera too?” Caboose asked in surprise.
[Unit assigned to Lieutenant Rachnera refuses to give location as stealth protocols have been initiated,] Freckle explained. [Other units have not initiated stealth protocols.]
“Do the girls know about self photo calls?” Caboose asked curiously.
[Unknown. They have not inquired.]
“Sorry to make you wait, Darling!”
Hearing that voice saying those words, Caboose perked up. Agent Smith was walking towards him, dressed in a tight blouse with exposed cleavage, a jacket tied open at her waist, a short black skirt, knee high black socks, heeled boots, and glasses instead of her usual shades. Caboose instantly knew ‘Scary Smith Lady’ was not the appropriate form of address in this case...even if the situation was very scary. She’d called him Darling, so he should use a pet name. Thankfully, after much thought - and asking Freckle - he’d managed to come up with one. “I didn’t wait long, Kuku,” he offered happily as he stood up to meet her.
“ Kuku! ”
Caboose could tell that Smith heard that concerted whisper-shout. He leaned in close. “The girls didn’t tell their Freckles to hide like they did,” he whispered, letting Smith see where the Freckles floated. She couldn’t help but giggle as she led him to a maid cafe for lunch.
As they went, Caboose beckoned Freckle close. “Freckle, tell Suu’s Freckle to make sure she doesn’t get into trouble cause the girls are enthusiastic, okay?”
[Order received, sent, and confirmed,] Freckle replied immediately.
The rest of the date proved to be quite fun for Caboose. After the maid cafe, they went to an arcade where a cosplay event was going on for a new game, and both Caboose and Smith won several prizes. After that they went to an outdoor patio and had ice cream. When that became too crowded, she took Caboose to a Love Hotel...where Tio, Zombina, Manako, and Doppel were waiting for them. “...is this how dates normally end?” Caboose asked Agent Smith curiously. “Walking into a love hotel to find your other girl friends waiting for you while heavily armed?”
Tio burst into giggles. “Only if you’re very unlucky!” she offered playfully.
“Or dishonest,” Zombina teased.
“Or very lucky, depending on your point of view,” Doppel offered wickedly.
“...meep!” Manako squeaked out.
“So you told the girls this was a sting about the letter, right?” Smith asked, holding up the threatening letter that had been sent for Caboose.
If You Marry Someone
I Will Kill You
“But you said I was supposed to act like it was a date, Kuku,” Caboose pointed out logically, not quite getting why Smith blushed and the other girls burst into giggles of varying degrees of amusement and wickedness. “You don’t tell your girl friends you’re going on a sting if you’re going on a date.” He lifted a hand. “Oh! But I made sure to tell them I wasn’t going on a date so they wouldn’t get jealous!”
Smith, Zombina, Manako, Doppel, and Tio all facepalmed instantly, the action joined by the sound of three other facepalms nearby.
“Oh hi girls!” Caboose called happily. “Did you want to be bees, too?”
It didn’t take long for everyone to gather once it became plain that the Sting had come up empty. Smith then quickly explained the threatening letter...and laid out a rather interesting request.
“Until we find the culprit, could you go out on dates with Caboose?”
And so the plan had been set. If whoever threatened Caboose didn’t want him to marry one of the girls, then he would go on dates with them until whoever it was attacked him. It was highly doubtful that person would know what they were getting into.
The girls had quickly agreed to it, as they had all been eager both to ‘protect’ Caboose and to go on dates with him. There was some grumbling about it being two of them at a time with one of the MON squad watching over them, but it had eventually been accepted by all involved.
The first date was Caboose, Miia, and Mero at the aquarium. Miia was, as expected, upset that she had Mero to compete with as far as getting Caboose’s attention. Mero was, also as expected, eager to support Miia in getting Caboose’s attention as she was trying to be the last to get a place in Caboose’s heart and thus be the one most likely to be neglected first as Caboose eventually began to wear himself out. Caboose was simply happy to be seeing lots of pretty fish. Tio was following along, attempting to look inconspicuous in a business suit despite being nearly twice as tall as most humans and having an alien sphere flying over her head. She was not succeeding.
When the group arrived at the aquarium, the ticket attendant took one look at the group and immediately bowed to Mero and told them they were free to enter. Miia frowned at that. “Did we get in just because she was pretty?” Miia asked flatly. “Or is it some mermaid VIP treatment?”
“Pretty sure she’s royalty,” Caboose pointed out logically. “Freckle? Is Mero royalty?”
[Can not confirm,] Freckle intoned, [but it is likely.]
“Yeah, makes sense,” Caboose allowed as Miia stared at him in shock. “Oh look, fish!”
Miia rolled her eyes as she followed Caboose around the aquarium as he stared at all the fish, running from tank to tank like a little kid. She couldn’t fault that it was adorable, but he rushed right past the kissing fish tank with only a cursory look, the one chance she might have had to turn things romantic. Still, the rest of it had been quite fun, and perhaps the dolphin show…
Would also not present itself well to romance since Mero was apparently participating. Miia couldn’t fault Caboose for being completely enthralled like a little kid, and it was a wonderful show...but he was supposed to pay attention to her , dammit!
Midway through the show, Miia excused herself to get some warm air since it was somewhat cold where they were. She then moved towards the outer areas of the aquarium where it was warmer…
When the show came to an end, Caboose stood up. He knew Mero would be busy with the dolphins and the kids, so he decided to go check on Miia. “Freckle, where’s Miia?”
[Lieutenant Miia is speaking with a masculine female reptilian demi-human she met in the aquarium,] Freckle responded. [Their discussion began with cold-blooded issues. Unit assigned to Lieutenant Miia is following at respectful distance.]
“Oh, Miia made a new friend?” Caboose asked eagerly. “I want to meet her! Where are they?”
[Present location, boating on the lake.]
“Okay!” Caboose decreed happily as he made his way out of the aquarium and towards the lake. When he got there, he saw Miia and her reptilian friend. He couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but Miia looked quite happy...while her companion looked rather irritable. “I wonder what they’re talking about?”
[Lieutenant Miia is praising Captain Caboose and speaking slightingly of Lieutenant Mero, as per their rivalry,] Freckle answered, receiving the information from Miia’s Freckle unit. [Her companion has expressed irritation, and wants her to...forget about men?] This last part plainly confused the unit.
To Caboose’s surprise, he saw the woman Miia was with - who most definitely did look more like a pretty boy than an actual girl - spread bat-like wings that ripped out of the back of her jacket. “Is she a dragon?” Caboose asked in surprise.
[Subject identifies self as Draco the Draconewt,] Freckle observed.
“...why do so many of the demi-humans have names derived from their species?” Caboose asked curiously. “Miia like Lamia, Draco the Draconewt, Rachnera the Arachne, Centorea the Centaur...it’s very confusing! Just ask Hapi the Parpy!”
[...unable to determine if biting sarcastic satire or genuine Freudian slip.]
“Yeah, I could go for some fruit salad,” Caboose agreed. Caboose started to say more...but his good mood vanished the moment he saw Draco lunge forward and grab Miia’s chin with one hand. “Hey!” Caboose called out angrily, striding out across the lake in anger as he marched right up to the boat, much to Draco and Miia’s stunned amazement. “That is very rude!” he lectured Draco angrily. “You should not touch someone like that when they don’t want to be touched! I thought you’d be a good friend for Miia, but you are mean!” Turning, he scooped Miia into his arms in a classic Princess carry. “So I am taking Miia back to shore, and you can sit here and think about how rude you’ve been.”
“D-Darling!” Miia gasped out in shock. “You’re...you’re walking on water!”
“So?” Caboose asked curiously. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, but... how? ”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Caboose explained readily. “I know where the stones are.”
“Two can play that game!” Draco suddenly roared. “I know where you placed your feet!” She took a step off the boat...and promptly dropped into the cold water.
“Did she miss the stepping stone?” Miia asked curiously.
“What stepping stone?” Caboose inquired.
“You..you said you knew where the stones are,” Miia pointed out.
“Yeah!” Caboose agreed. “Just like in the joke! If you know where all the stones are, you can walk on water!”
“And...where are they?” Miia asked.
“On the bottom,” Caboose allowed readily. “Rocks can’t float.”
[...Error: physics not found.]
Draco burst out of the water near them. “Take your hands off my bride!” she declared angrily.
“You have a bride?” Caboose asked excitedly. “Me too! Well, not yet! But a lot of friends I want to be my marriage friends! ...what’s a bride again?”
Draco stared at Caboose for a time, then rounded on Miia. “And you would choose this over a noble Dragonewt like me?”
“Always!” Miia insisted as she clung tighter to Caboose.
“You aren’t a very nice girl,” Caboose observed to Draco. “How did you get a bride?”
Miia blinked. “Uh...Caboose?”
“Freckle says she’s a girl,” Caboose pointed out, causing Draco to blush in embarrassment. “Oh, she must be cold. Freckle! Can you get her out of the water so she can warm up?”
“W-wha?” Draco gasped in shock as she was levitated into the air, the water in her clothes and on her body rapidly evaporating.
“Do you think she sent the threatening letter?” Miia asked worriedly.
“She didn’t,” Caboose stated firmly. “I know who did.”
“You do?” Miia gasped in shock. “Why haven’t you said?”
“Because then I wouldn’t be on dates,” Caboose explained simply. “I like dates. They’re nice and fruity.”
Miia brought one hand to her face as she shook her head. “Oh, Darling…”
“Put me down already!” Draco screamed out in despair.
Despite Caboose’s best efforts to make friends with Draco as she was levitated by Freckle, she insisted on only screaming obscenities at him and screaming her hatred of all men. This continued until Tio arrived to take her into custody, as she was neither accompanied by her homestay family, nor even told them of her planned outing...not to mention causing an incident with a ‘diplomatic figure’.
Miia had been about ready to write the whole date off as a loss...until Caboose surprised her. “Yesterday, when we were planning this,” he began as he started patting at himself as though searching pockets, “Mero said that a guy’s supposed to get a girl something to commemorate a date. She said not to get her one, so I...where is it?”
[Here, Captain,] his Freckle offered, opening a compartment to reveal a small box.
“Ah! Thanks!” Caboose declared as he took the box. “I made you this!” He opened the box to show Miia the contents, making her gasp.
It was a silver Ouroboros pendant hanging on a silver chain...and inset on the serpent in a scale pattern were tiny gemstones, gradiating from the exact pink of Miia’s scales at the head to the exact blue of Caboose’s armor at the tip of the tail. Two tiny heart shaped rubies were set as the eyes.
“Did I do good?” Caboose asked hopefully as he gently put the pendant around Miia’s neck. “Are...are you crying? Oh no, I did bad! I can make it better-”
“Darling!” Miia screamed out, her voice filled with love and adoration as she glomped onto him, arms wrapped tight as her tail wound around him until a normal human would be unable to move, his faceplate pressed tight into her cleavage where her top exposed it as she clung extra tight to him.
“Super tight snake hug,” Caboose observed. “I did good!”
Mero smiled in the background as she watched. She’d known Caboose would make a wonderful gift...but seeing just how wonderful, and just how close they were...what was the tightness in her chest?
Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on who you asked - Draco turned out to not be the ‘D’ who had sent the letter. As a result, more dates were planned. Caboose had decided to go in order of who had joined the household, and thus Papi got to choose the next outing. She decided quite firmly that they would visit a wooded area some distance out of town, with Caboose, Papi, and Suu being the group to go. Suu babbled happily about “having Mommy and Daddy” all to herself...at least until Zombina insisted on being the security once she learned they planned to have a cookout.
Caboose smiled happily as he prepared the grill to cook meat. This was the easiest way to cook. He didn’t understand why there was so much garbage around, but he decided he would get rid of it when the time came to clean up after the cookout.
“This was a great idea!” Papi declared happily as Caboose put the meat on to grill.
“It was!” Caboose agreed happily. “I’m glad you thought of it!”
“I did?” Papi asked in surprise.
“Yes,” Caboose declared firmly. “You insisted it had to be here!”
“I...did?” Papi asked again, now confused. She tried hard to focus...but steam wound up coming out of her ears. When she finally gave up, all she could say was, “Papi feels like she’s forgetting something really important…”
“Food now?” Suu asked eagerly, tugging on Caboose’s arm. “Daddy, food now?”
“Not yet, Suu,” Caboose chided, his other hand expertly - and seemingly unconsciously - fending off Zombina’s sudden attempts to swipe food off the grill. “It has to cook enough to add the seasoning, and then cook some more to absorb it! That’s the Caboose secret recipe!”
At the mention of a ‘secret recipe’, all three girls immediately sat at attention to watch.
[Alert,] Caboose’s Freckle intoned. [Toxic waste spill detected in nearby area.]
“Don’t eat toxic waste, Suu,” Caboose warned immediately. “It does not taste good and is bad for you. Stick to lemonade.”
Zombina blinked. “How...do you know it tastes bad?” she asked nervously.
“Oh, I tried some once,” Caboose offered easily. “It definitely did not taste good. Wasn’t very filling either. I wound up throwing most of it away.”
At that moment, a massive rumbling drew the girls’ attention. To their surprise, a massive wooden monster was marching through the forest towards them, knocking trees down as it approached. One of its feet came down such that Caboose and the grill were between its toes.
“Oh, do we have another guest?” Caboose asked curiously.
“Papi…” a voice echoed from the monster as a claw reached down, vines extending from it and reaching towards the group. “Papi...Papi…”
“A talking tree beast?” Caboose asked in surprise. “Now I’ve seen 30% of everything. I think I just got Bingo.”
“Tree?” Papi asked in surprise. Her eyes suddenly popped open as vines wrapped around her waist. “Papi remembers now!” she cried out as she was pulled up towards the front of the creature.
“You do?” Caboose asked happily as vines wrapped around him. “That’s good! Is it important?” Despite the vines attempts to yank him into the air, he continued to calmly cook. Suu clung tight to him so as not to be pulled up herself.
The front of the creature opened...revealing a voluptuous green haired woman clad only in a few leaves and vines who seemed to be fused with the tree beast. “Human...enemy...one who hurts my forest…”
“No Kii!” Papi cried out. “Husband isn’t hurting the forest!”
“Oh, is she your friend, Papi?” Caboose asked excitedly, turning away from his cooking to see the new arrival. Easily breaking free of the vines, he leapt up until he was level with Kii. “Hi Kii! I’m Caboose! Can we be friends?”
“I am friends with no human who hurts the forest!” Kii snapped back angrily. “Papi is the only friend I need!”
“I used to think I only needed one friend,” Caboose admitted sadly. “But then he went away, and I was very sad. Even when he came back, things could never be the same. I need lots of friends to be happy, and now I have lots! I’ll be your friend too if you want!”
“You hurt the forest!” Kii snapped angrily. “You threw away the waste!”
“I throw waste up!” Caboose insisted. “That way it goes in the sun and it doesn’t bother anyone anymore.”
Kii blinked. “...no human can throw that hard.”
“Yeah...some of my friends aren’t sure I’m human anymore,” Caboose admitted.
Kii stared at him for a time, then shook her head vigorously. “I will not be distracted!” she snapped out. Her vines suddenly tightened, and Papi let out a gasp of pain. “I will avenge the forest-”
Before Kii could react, Caboose yanked her out of her tree beast, turned her over his knee, and proceeded to spank her, either not noticing or understanding the pleasured moans she gave off with each spanking he punctuated his scolding words with. “You! Do! Not! Hurt! Friends! When! Vengening! And this is not how you venge the forest! You’re doing more harm than the toxic stuff you’re upset about!”
With his rant finished, Caboose released Kii. “Now, you show me where the toxic stuff you’re upset about is, and I’ll show you how you get even the Red and Blue way! Freckle, get the rest of the garbage!”
[Affirmative,] Freckle confirmed as he levitated all the waste Caboose had noticed earlier. Kii, completely flummoxed by Caboose’s approach, released Papi and did as instructed.
Caboose stared at the open container of toxic waste - labeled ‘super growth serum’ - that was leaking into the forest. “Okay, someone dumped a mess on you. There are three steps to the Red vs Blue method of getting even here. First, gather all the mess together. Freckle?”
[Gathering waste,] Freckle declared as it dropped the garbage into the container before gathering the leaked fluid that hadn’t been absorbed yet. It then used it’s optic laser to fuse the container shut.
“Next step, return to sender!” Caboose declared as he attached something to the container before hefting it over his head, much to Kii’s wide eyed surprise. “Freckle?”
[Calculating...rotate 5 degrees right, 62 degree upward angle, 37% force.]
Reangling himself, Caboose leaned back and threw the container. Papi, Suu, Zombina, and Kii stared in awe as it flew through the air in an upward arc, slowly arcing downwards. Very far away, it could be heard crashing down somewhere.
“Final step!” Caboose declared eagerly, pulling out a remote. “Blow it up for good measure!” He pressed the button, and a massive explosion tore the air. “Freckle, what’s the result?”
[Scanning...a factory that did not meet Interspecies Exchange Treaty health and safety guidelines in terms of chemical use has now been overrun by an impenetrable jungle created by the explosion, the super growth formula, and seeds stuck to the container.]
“Bonus point for taking over their base in the process!” Caboose declared happily. He turned to Kii. “Now wasn’t that much better than rampaging through the happy trees?”
Kii stared at Caboose in amazement as her tree beast slowly shed portions of itself, which set down roots and became new trees. As it reduced until it was only the size of a mobile throne, a slight blush tinged her cheeks. “You are a strange sapling,” she said softly. “I would...like to see what sort of forest you come from.”
“There’s a forest in my house!” Caboose declared happily. “You want to come see?”
A small smile graced Kii’s face. “I...would.”
Smith stared across the picnic blanket at Caboose as he finished relating the story of why there was a Dryad now living in the forest inside his home. “...seriously?” she asked in disbelief.
“Yup!” Caboose confirmed happily. “That’s exactly how it happened!”
“But what was she even doing there in the first place?” Smith demanded in confusion. “And how did Papi know?”
“Oh!” Papi cried out, winging away from playing with Kii and Suu to answer the question. “Papi ran away from Smith once, and found Kii off the side of the road where cars, people, and demi-humans were making lots of noise, fire, and explosions! I planted Kii where she’d be safe…” Her head slumped. “And forgot about her...this is Papi’s fault…”
Smith groaned, remembering the scene as she’d correlated demi-human incidents in recent times with the location and deduced where Kii had come from. She’d actually been there for that one. Someone had been illegally kidnapping and smuggling young demi-humans for unknown purposes, and had gotten into a car crash on the way into human territory. “And Kii wants to stay here now?” Smith asked carefully.
“Yup!” Caboose declared happily. “She wants to take care of my forest!”
Smith nodded. “Alright. I can have her assigned here for her homestay if that’s what she wants. Easy enough to get the paperwork for her to sign-”
“You need to wait until Polt teaches her to read and write!” Caboose pointed out. “She doesn’t know how!”
“She doesn’t?” Smith asked Polt in surprise, who shook her head sadly. “I see...well, she can’t be ‘D’ then…” She shrugged her shoulders. “Still...how did she make such a big tree beast?”
[Side effect to exposure to super growth serum,] a new Freckle - this one with a brightly glowing green optic - stated as it hovered over Kii’s head. [Serum still present in system. Will need to be drained.]
“How do we do that?” Caboose asked curiously.
“Dryads...expel excess nutrients through their...nipples,” Polt explained, gently cupping her breasts in the hopes that would get the point across.
“She needs to nursing?” Caboose asked in surprise. “That’s perfect! Suu’s the baby, so she needs to nurse! Will you nurse Suu, Kii?”
Kii’s eyes widened. “You are...asking me to tend your infant?” she asked in surprise.
“Yes!” Caboose explained happily. “It will be good for both of you!”
Kii’s cheeks flushed brightly. “I...would be honored,” she said softly as she gently lifted Suu into her lap. Suu, for her part, happily curled up to suckle at the presented nipple.
Polt, for her part, was trying not to groan or laugh. “Do you realize what you just did, love?” she asked carefully.
“I want to say solved a problem, but it sounds like I made one,” Caboose offered sadly.
“Not exactly,” Polt explained. “It has to do with Dryad culture. Inviting a Dryad to live in your forest is...courtship. Asking them then to tend your young...that’s making a home together.”
Miia suddenly let out an intense, angry hiss. “Darling!” she gasped out in stunned amazement. “You brought home another girlfriend!” This caused Rachnera to burst into peals of uncontrolled laughter.
“Yay!” Caboose cheered happily. “New marriage friend!” Nearly everyone else facepalmed.
Since ‘D’ had still not been located, the next date would be Cerea, Polt, and Rachnera. It was originally going to be Cerea and Rachnera, until Rachnera pointed out she didn’t like the idea of going on a date, as she preferred to crash them. Caboose had promptly invited her to crash his date with Cerea and Polt, an invitation she’d happily accepted.
Cerea had initially intended to go out in full armor to ‘protect’ Caboose from ‘D’, but Caboose had flatly vetoed it. “How can it be a proper date if I can’t see your pretty face?” he’d asked plainly.
As a result, he, Cerea, and Polt were now walking down the street together, Cerea’s cheeks tomato red. Manako was doing ranged surveillance from a nearby rooftop. Caboose looked around as he considered where they could go. “Hmm...let’s go to the park!” he said finally.
“The park, Master?” Cerea asked in surprise.
“Yeah, I feel like a running date where I have lots of room and don’t have to worry about smashing into anything,” Caboose confirmed happily. “I don’t want people yelling because I break stuff.”
Cerea lowered her gaze. She knew Caboose would never hide the intentions of his words in any way, but she couldn’t help but feel that she was the more likely one to smash into something and break it given the city wasn’t really equipped for her equine hind portion-
“Wah!” Caboose screamed out as he tripped, reaching out to grab something to steady himself only to push the vending machine he’d been reaching towards across the street and into a parked car, which flipped end over end in the air before coming down and exploding against the corner of a building, causing it to teeter over into the one next to it, two more falling over afterwards in a domino effect. “...Tucker did it!” Caboose insisted defensively.
“...I think we should get out of here before anyone figures out there’s no one named Tucker here,” Polt whispered to Cerea.
“Agreed!” Cerea declared, feeling much better about herself for some reason as she threw Caboose onto her back and raced off with Polt.
High up on another building, a green-haired, dark skinned girl with horns, bat wings, and a long whip-like tail with a heart shaped tip stared down at the mess. “...maybe I shouldn’t mess with that one…” she muttered worriedly.
“Oh?” Rachnera asked cruelly from behind her as she tensed a rope of her webbing. “Were you going to make trouble, little miss devil-chan?”
The girl - who despite her petite, child-like body was more than adult enough to know exactly where this was going - slowly turned to the spider-lady in fear.
The running date progressed without problems. The picnic lunch they’d brought with - prepared together by Cerea and Polt, as Cerea needed someone to taste those items not made of vegetable to ensure they tasted right - was extravagant and delicious. There was no sign of ‘D’, however, so as an operation to draw out the threat, the day was a failure.
None of those who’d gone out on the date saw it that way, though.
Caboose stared at the three members of MON sitting around the cafe table in front of him. “You had something to tell me?” he asked curiously.
Tio, Zombina, and Manako exchanged uneasy glances. Eventually, Zombina grinned. “Sorry to spring this on you...but you’re going on dates with all of us tomorrow!”
“I thought I was anyway?” Caboose asked in confusion, causing all three of them to blink. “I thought the plan was for me to go on dates with all the sexiful girls who I want to be my marriage friends, starting with Kuku. I’ve been preparing for our dates, and the date with Doppel!”
Tio’s eyes widened as her cheeks pinked slightly. Manako pulled her hat down to hide her face as her cheeks turned tomato red. Zombina stared open-mouthed, unsure what to say. “Uh…” Hoping to shift the conversation enough that she could regain her composure, she handed Caboose the second ‘D’ letter they’d received. “Read this…”
Caboose unfolded the letter, then turned it back and forth. “...I can’t read squiggles,” he allowed finally, indicating the Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji the letter was written in. “At least, not these squiggles.”
[Engaging translation,] Caboose’s Freckle intoned. [Projecting translation of poem onto letter.] His optic glowed, and the translation appeared on the paper.
I will grant you death.
Again and again the Reaper has been forestalled,
But he comes for every man, one way or another.
At the end of your short life, I will grant you death.
I shall send you to the oblivion of your own making.
This life is like a mirage disappearing in the wind.
I am the servant of Death.
“That sounds really pretty,” Caboose offered happily.
“You...realize someone’s threatening to kill you, right?” Tio asked in concern.
“Really?” Caboose asked, tilting his head in confusion. He looked at the poem again. “...if you say so…”
“Anyway, this time we’re gonna find the culprit!” Zombina insisted firmly. “Because we’re all gonna have our eyes out for them, and even your date will be able to take them down!”
“But what about Doppel?” Caboose asked in confusion.
“She went home,” Manako offered softly. “She said it wasn’t her scene.”
“...okay!” Caboose allowed happily. “Who first?”
“I call dibs!” Tio declared happily. “I’ve already got my Freckle, after all!”
[Date time!] Tio’s Freckle declared happily.
“KYAAAA!” Tio called out happily as she raced along the street towards a shop. “Those clothes are so cute!”
“Cute clothes!” Caboose called happily as he easily kept pace with her, hand in hand.
“They’ve got a new kind of candy!” Tio suddenly declared, charging off to a different store.
“Candy!” Caboose called eagerly as he started towing Tio along.
“ANM48 has a new single out?” Tio declared as she took another turn. “I gotta buy-EEP!” She barely kept her feet as she was dragged along behind Caboose.
“But Mr. Boyfriend!” Tio whined. “The new single!”
“But we aren’t single!” Caboose pointed out. “We’re on a date!”
“The music!” Tio pointed out with a whimper.
“...oh!” Caboose declared in understanding. “I like music!” He raced with Tio over to the music store. “And then candy?”
“Then candy!” Tio agreed.
Eventually, they found their way back to the clothing boutique as Tio began trying outfits on. “So what do you think, Mr. Boyfriend?” she asked eagerly, spinning around as she showed off a tight white blouse, dark blue jacket, and flower print skirt.
“It looks very good on you,” Caboose replied readily, “but the jacket is a little short for the look you’re going for and should be lengthened. The skirt looks too tight to get on and off easily, so the waistband should be let out and possibly lengthened just a bit for a train. The blouse is also far too tight across your ample chest unless you intend to use it in place of a bra for support, in which case you should add a wrap just in case it gets cold because it’s not fashionable to have nipples poking through.” Noticing Tio staring at him in shock, Caboose continued, “I have no idea what that last part means, but it’s what my super fashion sister always said. 17 sisters meant a lot of cloth shopping when we had money, and I was always watching over them all to keep them safe, so I learned a lot. What’s a nipple?”
Tio giggled happily. “It’s always amazing how much you actually know, Mr. Boyfriend!” Tio declared happily. She then blinked as she took another part of what he said in. “Wait...clothes can be altered?”
“Yup!” Caboose confirmed eagerly. “I’m really good at that. I’ve been doing alterations for all the girls, especially Papi, since human clothes aren’t really sized for non-human frames like wings and the like.”
Tio pulled Caboose into a fierce embrace. “It’s always been so hard clothes shopping because I can never find clothes in my size! Thanks so much, Mr. Boyfriend!”
Caboose happily returned the embrace. When he was released, he handed over another bundle of clothing. “Here, try this on!”
“Okay!” Tio responded happily, ducking back into the changing room. After a time, she paused. “Uh...Mr. Boyfriend?”
“Yes?” Caboose asked curiously.
“You were right about the skirt,” Tio whimpered softly. “It’s...it’s stuck…please help…”
Caboose happily stepped into the changing room. “Here we go!” he said as he took hold of the skirt hem, carefully inserting his fingers between the skirt and Tio’s panties, using his armor’s computer to aim the fingers with laser precision before pulling down. “There you go!” he declared, paying no attention to Tio’s undergarments as he stepped back out.
After a time, Tio stepped out. “How do I look?” she asked, giving another twirl. “I’m amazed you found clothes that fit me so well!”
She was wearing a bright blue blouse with flared sleeves, tailored to support her ample bosom without overly accentuating it. It tapered down at the waist, transitioning into a skirt that was in a wave pattern of sky blue and sea blue, as though she were wearing a piece of the ocean. A night sky blue jacket completed the look, reaching all the way to her waist.
“It looks great on you!” Caboose declared happily. “I’m glad I got the measurements right!”
Tio’s eyes widened. “You got…?”
“I knew getting the right sizes would be hard for you,” Caboose explained, “since the other girls have trouble too. So I made you a Blue outfit, since you’re a part of my Blue team!”
Tio stared at him in awe. “You...you’re really serious about us being your marriage friends too, aren’t you?” she whispered.
“Of course!” Caboose declared happily. “That’s why I went all out on these dates for all of you!”
Tio quickly brushed tears out of her eyes before pulling Caboose into a tight hug. “Thank you, Mr. Fiance!” she declared happily, the declaration getting a round of applause from the store’s other patrons.
After the events at the clothing shop, it was decided that ‘D’ obviously wasn’t going to make a move while Tio was present, since she was quite physically intimidating. The question of why anyone who would be intimidated by Tio would think they could handle Caboose was quickly discarded, as Zombina insisted it was now her turn to ‘date’ Caboose.
Zombina decided to take Caboose to see a zombie movie. She thought it would be a great way to have fun and enjoy a thrill without either of them being in any danger. ...she wondered if her ears would ever stop ringing from the screaming.
“Miss, could you please take your ba-oh, sorry Ambassador.”
And that was the fifth usher to start to ask her to take her ‘baby’ out of an ‘adult’ horror film, only to realize the screams of terror were coming from an adult, and an important one at that. Admittedly, she wasn’t going to complain about the way Caboose clung tightly to her each time he screamed. The closeness was nice even through the armor...as long as she was able to hear when they got back out.
When they finally left the theater, Zombina turned to a now completely calm Caboose. “With everything you’ve faced, how can a zombie flick still scare you?” she demanded, her tone warring between the shock of the revelation and the worry that it was specifically zombies that scared him.
“Most of what I fought was in armor,” Caboose responded readily. “Armor’s pretty much all the same from the outside, so it’s not that scary. The scary part is not knowing what’s inside. If the zombies were wearing armor, they wouldn’t have been as scary. But if they aren’t wearing armor, then they don’t need it...and that’s scary.”
Zombina turned that over in her mind as she moved to scratch her chin thoughtfully, only to see her hand was missing. “Uh...have you seen-”
“I’ve got it,” Caboose responded immediately as he placed her hand on the stump and immediately started sewing it back on as though he did so every day. “You should invest in stronger thread. I’m using some of Rach-nee’s silk just now, so it should hold better. I can give you some if you like.”
“T-that would be helpful,” Zombina allowed, trying not to think about how it felt to have him so close and so calm. “Is that the gift you got for me?” she joked to distract herself.
“Nope!” Caboose countered as he finished sewing her hand back on. “This is!” With that, he pulled out a small lidded jar filled with an off-pink substance. “I made it for you!”
Zombina picked up the jar as she examined it. She noticed the label read, The Inner You . “Is this...makeup?” she asked in surprise.
“Yup!” Caboose confirmed happily. “Made just for you!”
Zombina shook her head ruefully as she lifted the top. “Caboose, I’m not exactly the sort to wear makeup-” Her words failed as she got a closer look. “...mortuary putty?”
“Chemically altered to not melt and match your skin tone!” Caboose declared happily.
“And...what am I supposed to do with it?” Zombina asked in confusion.
“I’ll show you!” Caboose responded eagerly, gently tugging her into a salon. “Can I borrow a mirror?” he asked the beauty specialists eagerly, and was quickly directed to a free seat. He promptly pushed Zombina into the chair as he dipped two fingers into the bottle.
“Wait a minute-” Zombina started to demand, only to freeze as Caboose started to gently apply it to her face.
“Makeup isn’t about hiding who or what you are,” Caboose spoke as he worked, working first on the slightly decayed portion of flesh around Zombina’s eyes. “It’s about bringing out the you inside, so you and the world can see. That’s what my big sis always said when she made me help my little sis with makeup.” He smoothed it over the suture scar on Zombina’s face. “So do you remember this you?” he asked as he shifted to spread it over her wrist.
Zombina stared into the mirror...and found Bina staring back. It was still her face, but it wasn’t the undead face she had grown so used to until she’d forgotten she’d once resented it. Here was the face of the human girl she’d once been, the face she thought she would never see again. “Caboose...I…” she managed to whisper in awe.
“Do you like it?” Caboose asked hopefully.
“It...it’s...amazing…” Bina managed to say. “But...but it’s not real-”
“It’s as real as you want it to be,” Caboose told her warmly. “It’s why I asked to call you Bina when we first met. Because this is who I saw when I looked at you, the you inside. I made this for you because I wanted to show you what I saw.”
If Bina’s tear ducts were still functional, she would have been weeping in pleasure and ancient sorrow just now. As it was, she clung to Caboose with choked sobs as the other beauty technicians marveled at the ‘transformative restoration’ Caboose had worked so expertly.
When Bina managed to get control of herself, one of the ladies turned to Caboose. “I don’t suppose you’re looking for extra work on the side?” she asked wonderingly. “Are you a trained beauty technician?”
“I’m plenty good with machines,” Caboose responded happily.
The lady sighed. “I suppose that’s no on both counts...but how did you get so skilled with makeup?”
“17 sisters,” Caboose and Bina chorused together, getting giggles from the technicians and laughter from the customers.
“And you still like women?” one of the customers called out in joking amazement, getting more laughter from those present.
As Caboose led Bina out of the salon, she turned to him. “Caboose...can you do something for me?” she asked hopefully.
“Sure!” Caboose responded eagerly. “Name it!”
Bina futzed nervously with the hem of her shirt. “J...just for today, I want to be Bina...all the way Bina. So...could you put that on...all my suture scars?”
“Sure!” Caboose agreed happily. He moved to open the jar again.
“Not here,” Bina cautioned urgently. “Some I...can’t show in public.”
“We could use a love hotel,” Caboose offered. “They rent rooms by the hour, and they’re private.”
Bina looked down, knowing she would be blushing brightly if she still could. “And...there’s something else we could do there…”
“Huh?” Caboose asked in confusion.
“As...as a former human...I have an Interspecies Visa…” she explained, hoping she wouldn’t have to explain further. She wasn’t sure she could get the words out without going back to being Zombina.
Caboose gently cupped her cheek in one hand. “This date is for you,” he offered warmly. “We’ll do what you want…”
Bina smiled widely, not letting her teeth show.
In her office, Agent Smith wondered what her Freckle meant when it informed her that Zombina had been promoted to Second Lieutenant.
Several hours later, Tio carried Zombina back to MON HQ as she was in no condition to continue on active duty. As such, Manako moved to the front lines as far as escorting Caboose was concerned, as it was her turn for the ‘date’.
The pair of them wandered the streets together, relatively speaking. While she was looking quite nice as a civilian in a flowing sundress and flowery hat, she was trailing several dozen feet behind Caboose, which he found confusing. “Mana-chan?” he called out, hoping a nickname would smooth things over.
“Y-yes?” she called back nervously, holding her hat down to try and hide her single eye. “What is it?”
“Why not walk together with me?” he asked curiously. “That’s more fun as a date!”
“R-right!” Manako agreed, starting to make her way forward.
Just before she walked into a pole, Caboose was by her side. “Did you not see it?” he asked, carefully steering her away from it.
“I-I don’t have very good depth perception,” Manako admitted sorrowfully.
“Oh!” Caboose gasped out. “I forgot my gift!” Reaching into a bag, he pulled out a black visor and handed it to her. “Put this on, like sunglasses.”
Curious, Manako slipped the visor on over her single eye, and gasped as the view through the visor shifted and focused until she was able to see the entire world in perfect binocular detail. “H-how-?” she managed to ask.
“I asked Freckle how your eye worked,” Caboose explained. “We were able to figure out how to design a lens in shades that would let you get focus the way Freckle does with a single optic. And since you said you got upset when people stared because only having one eye made you feel awkward, the shades are extra dark like Kuku’s so no one can see through them but you!”
Manako blushed at just how thoughtful - and well thought out - this gift was. “T-thank you,” she stammered out happily. “But...I’m still not too good with crowds. Can we go somewhere with less people?”
“Sure!” Caboose agreed readily. “The alleys have less people!” He happily led Manako onto a different street behind a building where there were fewer people. Finding a bench nearby, he let her take a seat while he went to try and figure out how to get a drink out of the vending machine without breaking drink or machine.
Manako sat in thought. While the gift of the visor was nice...she was left wondering. After all, it meant he couldn’t see her single eye either...or was it “didn’t have to”? She wanted to believe that was just her paranoia and low self-esteem talking, but…
“Something bothering you?” Caboose asked curiously as he came back with a bottle of tea for her.
Manako glanced away, not wanting to confront Caboose directly with her suspicions. That was...unworthy of her. Still, her worries were so strong...perhaps an indirect approach? “It...it feels like people at work are...insincere when they talk to me,” she allowed finally.
“Why would you think that?” Caboose asked curiously.
“Because...when they talk to me, their eyes slide away…” Manako explained.
“Oh!” Caboose stated in understanding. “I know what that means! Guys have trouble looking at super pretty girls ‘cause they’re afraid they’ll say or do something stupid that’ll upset them, so they try to find something else to look at to untie their tongue! At least, that’s what Sister said.”
“Sister?” Manako asked curiously, though she found herself blushing at the idea that the reason she didn’t get direct looks from people at work was because she was too pretty . “One of your sisters?”
“Nah, Grif’s sister,” Caboose corrected. “She has lots of boy friends. And lots of girl friends. And lots of friends that aren’t boys or girls. She has big parties with them all. She knows all about romance and courting and Bum Chicka Woop Woop. I asked her about some stuff my sisters didn’t tell me about, and she had really good answers!”
Manako frowned thoughtfully as she took this all in. If this information came from the Reds and Blues...well, to have such an impressive record, they all had to be as wise as Caboose could be in startling ways, so it made sense. If she was too pretty …
“And I can see why they’d have a hard time,” Caboose continued. “You’re not just sexiful. You’re super pretty and really adorable, especially with how short and spunky you are! That’s especially true cause everyone here on this planet is of Japanese stock. Sister said Japanese guys get really awkward and flustered if some girl is super kawaii. She said that means cute, and you are the cutest!”
Manako promptly fell over on the bench, her face red as a tomato as she fainted.
Caboose stared at her for a time. “Huh. Was it something I said?” He turned to a cloaked girl behind the vending machine. “Hey Doppel, can you help me with her?”
Doppel tensed up before unravelling her disguise. “How long did you know I was following you?” she asked seriously.
“Since the aquarium,” Caboose explained readily. “It’s how I knew you wrote the letter. Which is why I was super confused about you apparently not wanting to date me. I thought the letter was your way of saying you wanted to date me.”
Doppel tensed up once again. “Can you really be this stupid?” she demanded angrily.
Caboose stared at her. “...is that a trick question?”
Doppel brought her hand to her face. “Right...it’s you…” She glowered up at him. “But I at least thought you understood what it meant, what I did for you! The...the connection it made-”
“I made you this!” Caboose interrupted, holding out a package. “It was supposed to be a gift for our date, but then you didn’t want to date.”
Doppel stared at the package before slowly opening it. Inside, she found a long sweater the exact shade of her hair. “A...sweater?” she asked in confusion.
“When you change shape, you wrap up in your hair,” Caboose explained happily. “I realized that meant no matter what it looks like you’re wearing, you’re actually running around naked. I thought you must get cold like that, so I made you this. Freckle helped with analyzing your hairs you left on my helmet, so it’s a sweater that will change with you!”
Doppel ‘tsk’ed derisively as she pulled it on. “That’s impossible,” she stated flatly as she changed shape, fully expecting the sweater to burst off her as she turned into Tio. “See…” Her voice trailed off. The sweater had changed with her, even as she’d crafted an outfit. It even felt like she was still wearing it. “...how?”
“Freckle and I can do lots of stuff!” Caboose explained eagerly. “This way, no matter what else, you’ll always have something on so you can be warm. Something to remind you that I care, and worry about you. Cause that’s what I’m supposed to do, right? I’m the man of the house, and you’re one of the girls I’m supposed to take care of. That’s what you meant, right?”
Doppel resumed her normal form, floating in her hair as the sweater went from high on her neck to just above her knees. The top of the neck even opened wide so she could pull it up over her cheeks to hide a blush, as she did now...and just a little extra long in the sleeve so she could pull her hands in completely. “You...you do understand, don’t you?” she murmured softly.
“I understand that you did a big thing for me, and I matter to you,” Caboose answered happily. “And you matter to me.”
Doppel refused to say anything out loud at this point. However, her thoughts were quite plain. How come only Zombina gets the Visa?
Caboose smiled to himself as he made his way back to base after dropping Mana-chan and Doppel off at MON HQ. The dates had gone wonderfully, and he’d taken care of all of his girls just like he was supposed to. However...there remained one issue.
Just before dropping them off, he’d asked Doppel why the second letter was so different from the first. Doppel’s answer had been...unexpected.
“I only sent one letter.”
This had confused Caboose, so he’d ignored it and went about his way, despite Doppel trying to tell him to talk to the others. The others were busy, and he would be fine. After all, he had Freckle with him!
It was as this thought struck him that he noticed a scythe being held to his throat, a gap in the blade perfectly shaped to a neck. “Huh, that’s new,” he observed as he continued walking, only then noticing the sound of dragging feet behind him. Turning, he saw the girl who was holding the scythe...and the long furrows her feet had left in the pavement from how far he’d dragged her without even realizing.
The girl was rather shapely, wearing an armored corset over a long black coat and white dress. She was also wearing black gloves and thigh-high armored heeled boots...though the heels looked somewhat damaged from being dragged through pavement. Between the heels and the bottom of the dress, Caboose could see blue skin.
“Oh, you’re blue!” Caboose declared happily. “Are you a new transfer to my team?”
The girl responded by pulling the scythe from around his neck and gesticulating wildly. It was at this point Caboose realized the girl lacked a head.
“...where is your head?” Caboose asked worriedly.
The girl turned this way and that, holding the hand with the scythe up as though shading eyes despite not having a head to do so with.
“You lost your head?” Caboose gasped in surprise. “That’s no good! We need to find your head right away before something bad happens to it! Freckle, jean scan! Find her head!”
[Genetic scan...complete,] Freckle responded quickly. [Additional source of genetic match detected in park.]
“To the park!” Caboose declared as he grabbed the girl by her arm and dashed off for the park. The girl did her best to keep up on foot, but it wasn’t long before she was hanging in the air behind him like a shapely windsock.
Following Freckle’s directions, it didn’t take long for Caboose to find the missing head, hidden in amongst a group of trees at the edge of the park. “Oh, there it is!” Caboose declared excitedly, rushing forward to pick the head up.
“Do not lay your hands on me so lightly,” the head declared firmly in a monotone voice.
“Okay,” Caboose agreed as he pulled his hands back and examined the head.
The girl’s skin was definitely blue, and her hair was pure white and long, with one scythe blade shaped lock that rose up from the center of her forehead to hang in front of her face. Her eyes had black sclera, and golden irises. “I am-” she began.
“Super duper pretty,” Caboose interrupted in a melting tone. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. You were saying?”
The head shifted, the hair falling to hide the cheeks. “I am a Dullahan,” the head explained. “The guiders of souls, the reapers of death…” The headless body excitedly raced up to the head, picking it up and reattaching it. As soon as the girl was whole, the excitement seemed to fade. “Thank you for looking after my body, and reuniting me.”
“No problem!” Caboose replied happily. “I couldn’t let a girl wander around headless, or leave her all alone in the dark outside. Are you tired? Cold? Hungry? You could stop by my place until you’re ready to head home.”
The Dullahan stared at Caboose for a time. “Do you know why the Dullahan appear before mortals?” she asked flatly.
“What’s a moral?” Caboose inquired hopefully.
She stared anew, her eye twitching. “The Dullahan appears before mortals who are near death, to collect their soul and take them to the afterlife,” she explained firmly. “And I have come for you.”
“Oh, okay,” Caboose allowed a little sadly. “So...how long do I have?”
The Dullahan blinked, then glanced away uncertainly. “I...do not know,” she allowed finally. “Normally I am granted the sight of the hourglasses of those Death comes for...but Death should have claimed you many times, and yet you still live. It is as though Death cannot touch you, as impossible as that is.”
“Yeah, I don’t get killed a lot,” Caboose agreed. “Lots of people are shocked by that. Same with Tucker and the others. But if I’m not going to die soon, why are you here?”
“Your life end is...unknown,” she replied awkwardly, doing her best to remain cool and collected. “As such, I am here to ensure when the time comes, you will be taken to the afterlife immediately.”
“That’s super nice of you!” Caboose replied eagerly.
“...eh?” the girl asked as she took a step back, staring at Caboose in confusion.
“My friend Church died, and then he hung around,” Caboose explained happily. “Nobody came and took him...and a lot of stuff happened that made him super sad, and hurt him, and nothing I could do as his best friend could make him feel better. Maybe if someone had been there to collect him, he’d be a lot happier wherever he is. So you’re here to make sure I don’t go through all that! That makes me really happy! What’s your name?”
The Dullahan stared at her ‘target’ in shock, unsure how to react to a mortal who, apparently, had no fear of Death and welcomed its messenger as a friend. “I...am called Lala in this world,” she finally managed to say.
Caboose happily shook her hand. “Really happy to meet you, Lala! I’m Caboose! Come on, I have to introduce you to the other girls, and then I need to get you some food and drink and warm you up! You’re super cold!”
As Caboose turned and dragged her towards Blue Base, Lala did her best to hide her blush. Curse this body of mortal flesh, she thought silently. How dare it seek to corrupt my pure deathly spirit with soft emotions? He’s not that cute!
Back in Blue Base, Miia began twitching violently, certain that something had happened that was going to be quite upsetting...
Caboose smiled happily as he walked back with Kii from her old forest. While her new home in the forest inside Blue Base was most acceptable, there had been a few plants in her old forest she’d been particularly fond of. As such, Caboose had made the trip with her to transplant them into the Blue Base forest. They were currently carrying them back towards Blue Base, with Freckle balancing those the pair lacked the hands to hold. “This all you want to bring, Kii?” Caboose asked curiously.
“It is all,” Kii responded readily. “The forest is tending to itself, and your actions have ensured that others will not mistreat it.” This was true, as Tio had helped them put up a massive sign that read ‘This Forest Protected By Ambassador Caboose, Pollute At Your Own Risk’ with an image of what happened to the facility that had been polluting it. “These plants are especially fond of me, and I of them, so if I am to leave they will come with me. My duty now is to tend to your plants...and to your children.” A deep blush suffused her cheeks as she said that.
“I’m glad you’re adapting well to the family,” Caboose spoke up warmly. “Do you think Lala will adapt well, too?”
Kii hesitated. While she had nothing against Lala personally, Dryads were guardians of life. To share an abode with an emissary of death was unnatural for her, and left her very uncomfortable...especially when her stated goal was to collect Caboose’s soul when he died. Kii did not want Caboose to die, and the Dullahan’s presence was a constant reminder of his mortality. However, Caboose had made her welcome, and Kii would not disappoint her betrothed when he had rescued her from loneliness, and from herself. “I believe she will have no trouble adjusting,” she offered finally. “One such as her can likely manage anywhere, as long as they have purpose. However…” She hesitated, not wanting to say anymore.
“It’s like when Rachnera moved in,” Caboose concluded. “She rubs some of the girls the wrong way, so it’s going to take time for everyone to adjust. But once we’re all used to her, everything’s going to be okay. Right?”
Kii blinked in surprise. She knew Caboose had the strength of a mighty oak within him - or a whole forest of oak, for that matter - but had not realized he could be so perceptive, or wise. “Yes,” she replied firmly. “I...admit I may take longer to adjust than the others. I am of Life, she is of Death…”
“And I’m a soldier, which means I am balanced between life and death always,” Caboose offered warmly. “At least, that’s what Carolina and Wash says it means to be a soldier. Does that mean I’m the bridge to you two getting along?”
Kii managed a smile. “Perhaps it does. I shall not let my instinctive reaction to her color my perception of her personally...as long as she doesn’t enter the forest.”
“Be sure to let her know,” Caboose offered warmly as he approached the Blue Base. As he entered, he heard a commotion. “Kii, maybe you should take the plants up and finish transplanting. I think I’m needed.”
Nodding, Kii made her way up to the forest while Caboose made his way to the commotion. He found Rachnera wearing a professional looking white button down blouse and black skirt, along with the others who lived their full time standing around looking somewhat distressed. Across from the group was a young girl dressed in gothic lolita fashion. “Do we have a guest?” he asked curiously.
“Papa!” Suu called out in upset. She pointed towards the strange girl. “She wants to take Rach-nee away!”
Caboose blinked as three ‘immediate response reactions’ in his head clashed, blocking his ability to make an instantaneous decision as he could sometimes since arriving on New Japan. First, Suu was upset, which made him want to instantly respond with rage. Second, someone was trying to take one of his girls away, which fed the rage. Third, however, the target of the rage was a young girl, which in his mind did not seem a valid target. Added to that, Rachnera’s completely relaxed pose cooled his rage on her behalf, leaving him uncertain. “Hi, I’m Caboose,” he offered to the girl. “Who are you?”
“I’m Kunanzuki Ren,” the girl introduced herself, her voice very intense. “I was part of Rachnera’s original host family-”
“So you’re one of the ones who sold her to the con man who took advantage of her?” Caboose interrupted incisively, his voice hardening.
Ren flinched back, obviously intimidated by the surprising harshness. “I-It was my fault that happened,” Ren spoke up defensively. “I got too close to Rachnera and wound up scratched...and my parents thought that meant we couldn’t live together. When that agent showed up-”
“Why are you here?” Caboose demanded calmly.
Ren blinked, caught off guard by the continued interruptions. “...I am a stronger person now,” she continued, “ready to deal with the hurdles of living with an extraspecies. We will not make the same mistakes, and want to try again hosting Rachnera-”
“ Did you ask her if she wants to try again? ” Caboose asked, his voice suddenly dark and angry.
“E-eh?” Ren gasped in confusion.
“ Did. You. Ask. Her? ” Caboose enunciated clearly. “ And I’m the dumb one. Did you ask her if she wanted to try living with your family again? Or did you just send a letter to the Agency saying you wanted your rights back and show up here when they set up a meeting, leaving Rachnera thinking she didn’t have a choice just like always when she’s being shuttled back and forth? ”
“I...I…” Ren began worriedly, now shrinking back from Caboose. “But...she signed-”
“ I didn’t think so, ” Caboose interrupted darkly, slowly walking towards her. “ You come in here talking about the ‘trials’ of living with an extraspecies, like she’s some training session to make you a better person...get out of my Base! If you or your family ever cross my borders again, all automated units have a Kill On Sight order. If you approach Rachnera without her explicit permission, you will regret it. I’ve fought soulless killers who think it fun to play games with an entire planet for profit, and governments that play games with souls...but it’s your attitude that makes me sick! ”
Unable to handle the intensity, Ren turned and fled with a wail of, “I’m sorry!”
“Ren, your clothes!” Mero called out, holding up what looked like a school uniform. “My clothes!”
[Correcting,] Mero’s Freckle announced as the uniform was teleported onto Ren’s body, the gothic lolita outfit ending up in Mero’s hands.
“They can do that?” Miia gasped in shock.
“Are you okay, Rachnera?” Caboose asked her softly, walking up to her.
Without warning, Rachnera pulled Caboose off his feet into a tight embrace. “Where have you been all my life?” she whispered throatily. She then put a finger to his helmet’s speech grille. “Don’t answer that. Just shut up and kiss me.” She then pushed his helmet up enough to expose her lips before lunging in to lock lips with him in a kiss he happily returned.
“Hey!” Miia snarled out angrily. “How dare you kiss my Darling before me!”
“Well it looks like I walked in at just the right moment,” Agent Smith called out as she entered the room, Polt and the girls of MON at her side.
“Oh, Kuku!” Caboose greeted as the kiss broke and his helmet slipped back down, Rachnera staggering back as though dazed. Polt gave her a knowing look before Caboose spoke up again. “What brings you here?”
“Well, I’ve managed to complete some paperwork at Doppel’s request,” Smith replied readily, “and I need to tell you all about the result.” Taking out some documents, she cleared her throat. “While upgrading all your Exchange IDs to Interspecies VISAs isn’t something I can do, applying the ‘marriage clause’ to the Exchange IDs so that you won’t get in trouble if you engage in...intimate behavior...with Caboose can be done...for most of you.”
“It can?” Miia gasped out excitedly.
“Only most?” Rachnera inquired.
“Yes, for those of you who filled out your exchange paperwork as a self-representative,” Smith continued. “Tio, Manako, Doppel, Rachnera, Kii, and Lala all fall under this category...though Lala as yet has not shown any interest in this, though I’ll keep her paperwork on hand just in case she changes her mind.”
“Why aren’t I on the list?” Miia demanded in shock. “I was here first!”
“Because you, Papi, Cerea, and Mero all had your paperwork filled out by your families,” Smith explained calmly. “As such, in order to apply this to your situations, I will need the approval of your parents or guardians.” She sighed as she noticed the sudden looks of absolute dread on Miia, Papi, and Cerea’s faces, and the look of worry on Mero’s. “Which means if you want to be officially listed as ‘engaged’ to Caboose and thus not have intimacy restrictions...he needs to meet your mothers. Miia, Papi, Cerea, yours have already confirmed they will be coming to visit.”
“Yay!” Caboose called out happily. “More family!”
Polt shook her head ruefully. “I’m glad I’m not in that boat…” she murmured in relief.
“Actually, you are,” Smith corrected. “As part of the new arrangement being applied, those Extraspecies who aren’t part of such an engagement agreement aren’t allowed to involve themselves in that way with those who are for fear of causing an inter-tribe incident, and by the traditions of your tribe you will need the approval of your parents and higher authority for an engagement to Caboose to be recognized...so your family is coming, too.”
Polt’s ears went flat against her skull. “...if anyone needs me, I’ll be building myself a doghouse to hide in…”
Caboose stirred from the bed everyone shared as Miia woke with a start. “Bad dream?” he asked softly, instantly ready to offer comfort just as he had for his sisters when they had bad dreams.
Miia took a few calming breaths as she struggled to banish the dream. “Y...yes…” she managed to say finally.
“Do you wanna talk about it?” Caboose asked curiously. “I’d be happy to listen. I won’t judge.”
Miia lowered her gaze, unwilling to meet Caboose’s eyes...even if she couldn’t see them through the helmet. “Darling...would you be...upset with me if there was a big secret I was keeping from you?”
“Nope!” Caboose replied readily. “Some secrets are kept for safety. Some are kept for comfort. Some are kept because we don’t like thinking about them. And some are kept to throw a surprise party! Secrets always have reasons, and if the reasons are good then it’s okay. I trust you, and know you’re reasons will be good.”
Miia managed a brief smile before shifting to lay her head in Caboose’s lap, where he immediately began to stroke her hair comfortingly. “This is the third kind,” Miia allowed. “How...how much do you know about Lamia marriage custom?”
“Polt told me Lamias are an entirely female species of demi-human,” Caboose began slowly, “so they need males of other species to have children. Entire colonies will grab one male to be their ‘husband’, and they will all mate with him in an attempt to have a child until he eventually expires from exhaustion, dehydration, or suffocation. I don’t really understand that last part, though. Do humans have expiration dates like milk? I have heard about humans being spoiled…”
Miia sighed ruefully at Caboose’s continued lack of understanding. “It means they die, Darling,” she offered sadly. “They wither away, assaulted endlessly by pleasure and sex until they can’t feel anything...and there’s nothing left for them to give. And...I was sent by my tribe via the Interspecies Exchange Program to find us a new husband. And I’m pretty sure my Mom...is going to want to make me make you take that role…” She buried her face against Caboose’s stomach to hide her tears.
“And you don’t want that,” Caboose spoke up softly. “You never did. You wanted to be someone’s one and only, a Prince who would carry you off and dedicate himself to making you happy, like the story books you love.”
“That’s what I wanted,” Miia allowed. “I thought I had it with you...but your heart’s far too large to limit to one girl. I didn’t like having to share you...but I’ve accepted it, and I know you’ll take care of all of us. But...but…” She shook as she tried to get the words out.
Caboose gently lifted her so he could look her right in the eyes. “...tell me.”
She threw herself forward, wrapping him in as tight an embrace as she could manage. “I don’t want to share you with anyone who doesn’t love you like I do!” she wailed out. “Papi, Cerea, Polt...everyone else really loves you, and you love them! But my Mom, my tribe...they won’t! You’ll just be a man to them, and I won’t let them destroy you!” She buried her face in his shoulder as she wept. “But that means...I’ll have to defy my Mom...and I might lose her love…”
Caboose held her gently. “Don’t worry Miia,” Caboose whispered softly. “I’ll fix this. I’ll find a way you can be with me, not share me with your Mom, and still make your Mom happy.”
Miia sniffled as she clung tighter. “P-Promise?”
“I promise,” Caboose reassured her firmly.
Everyone else in the bed continued to pretend to be asleep, showing proper consideration by not ruining the moment.
The next day dawned bright and clear, and Caboose had woken up early to clean the entirety of Blue Base...at least as far as those areas that resembled normal human habitation and should be cleaned. He didn’t try to clean Kii’s forest, the mausoleum - which was currently occupied by Zombina and Lala, though it had room for more - or Polt’s gym, as that was Polt’s responsibility and he didn’t stick his nose in there uninvited. Still, Miia’s Mom would see a very clean home.
As the cleaning and everyone’s meals finished, a large van pulled up outside, and the group went out to see who it was. Once they were all there, the back of the van opened up and extended a ramp, and a Lamia exited the back...a Lamia who, except for a difference of wardrobe and a slightly larger chest, looked identical to Miia. “Yahho, Miia!” she called out as she waved.
Caboose took in the woman’s appearance. Seeing very little difference between her and Miia, he focused on her wardrobe to differentiate. She was wearing a rather skimpy top that just barely held her breasts in check, an oddly designed feathered skirt, odd sleeves, and veils. Caboose turned to Miia. “I thought you said it was your Mother coming to visit, not your older sister.”
Miia’s eyes went flat. “Darling...that is my Mom…”
Caboose was silent for a time. “...is there any way you can give me back the fox?” he asked hopefully.
“Eh?” Miia asked, turning to Freckle for a translation.
[Captain Caboose recognizes he may have made a faux pas and wishes to correct it.]
“Oh, so that’s how it’s pronounced!” Caboose declared happily.
Miia’s mother giggled softly. “Oh, so you’re Mr. Darling!” she offered warmly. “Miia’s told me so much about you.” She held out her hand. “Thanks for always taking care of my daughter.”
[Hostile intent detected,] Miia’s Freckle suddenly warned, shifting to float between Caboose and Miia’s mother. [Attempts by individuals not part of Blue Team to touch Captain Darling inappropriately will be met by all available force. This is your only warning.]
Miia’s mother blinked at the angry floating sphere that spoke in a synthesized form of her daughter’s voice. “...eh?” she asked in surprise.
Caboose took the still extended hand and shook it. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” he offered warmly. “I love your daughter, and all the girls who have come to live with me. We intend to become a family together, so I will not become your tribe husband. But if you forgive Miia for not following tradition and finding her own happiness and thus not exile or shun her, then I can give you Tucker! He’s not very pretty, but a great warrior, a good friend, and he’d like being your tribe husband!”
“Darling!” Miia gasped out. “Y-you can’t just trade away a friend like that! Being a tribe husband would eventually kill him!”
“Cerea, you know honor,” Caboose spoke up. “Is it okay to trade a friend into an eventual death to protect a loved one if said friend would thank you for making the trade and love and enjoy every minute of it?”
Cerea blinked, trying to parse the logic. From what he was saying, it sounded like this Tucker might volunteer for such a role… “Can I get back to you on that?” she asked carefully.
Miia’s mother stared at her hand still in Caboose’s grip, wondering what the hell her daughter had gotten her into.
Eventually, everyone moved inside the Base to discuss things. Miia’s mother then turned to Caboose. “So I understand you’re from...off world?” she managed to ask carefully.
“Yes!” Caboose declared happily. “I’m not from New Japan. But I really like it here! All the girls are super pretty and super friendly once they aren’t scary anymore!”
“Not scary anymore?” Miia’s mother inquired doubtfully. “What do you mean?”
“Well girls are scary when you first meet them!” Caboose explained eagerly. “Especially the super pretty ones! ...or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, once I get to know them, they’re not so scary anymore! And everybody gives great hugs! Miia even gives full body hugs!”
“Full body hugs?” Miia’s mother asked in surprise, turning an arch look Miia’s way. “I must say, I’m surprised she’s being so forward. She was always so shy when she was younger.”
“Mama!” Miia wailed out in embarrassment as several of the girls giggled.
Miia’s mother chuckled. “Well, I want to thank you for taking such good care of my daughter, so I brought a treat.” She pulled out a large bottle labeled ‘Lamian Tea’. “This will be on the market for humans soon, so-”
“Oh, thanks! I’m so thirsty!” Caboose declared as he snatched the bottle and began to chug. Miia’s mother’s expression changed from joy to shock to slowly dawning horror as she watched him chug the bottle down like it was nothing. “Oh, that was super tasty!” Caboose declared happily. He then noticed her expression. “Oh no, I passed another fox, didn’t I? Was this for everyone? I’ll go get coffee! I’ll be back soon!” With that, he dashed out of the Base.
Miia’s mother flinched as she felt a small cold hand on her right shoulder, a massive warm hand on her left, and an odd-feeling hand on her head. “So…” Zombina growled darkly.
“Is this the part where you explain that there was a neurotoxin in there…” Tio continued.
“And you were trying to dose everyone and Caboose right in front of members of MON?” Doppel finished, giving Miia’s mother a deadly glare.
Miia’s mother chuckled nervously. “I...It’s not harmful…” she promised. “Well, not in small doses. It was...just gonna knock everyone out. Just giving me daughter a helping hand with making a move?”
“Regulations clearly state you need to approve her engagement to Ambassador Caboose before she can be allowed to do that,” Manako pointed out flatly from her seat at the opposite side of the table. “And that would mean agreeing not to target Caboose as a tribe husband, as those not approved for engagement to him would not be allowed to ‘engage’ with him.”
“Mo~om…” Miia growled darkly, turning her eyes towards her mother with a lethal look.
The elder lamia chuckled nervously. “Uh...shouldn’t we make sure he’s okay? Like I said, in normal doses-”
[Contents of tea bottle were scanned as it was brought into the house,] Polt’s Freckle suddenly spoke up. [Substance was determined completely harmless to Captain Beloved, and thus not worthy of attention unless it was distributed to others.]
Miia’s mother blinked in surprise. “H...how can he be immune to Lamia neurotoxin?” she asked in surprise.
“Well, he regularly drinks Freckles’ fuel thinking it’s lemonade,” Cerea pointed out, her eye twitching as she recalled. “We think it’s how he’s able to enjoy Miia’s cooking…”
“He ate toxic waste once!” Papi pointed out. “Knew to tell Suu it tasted super bad!”
“He did walk on water once,” Miia added. “He claimed it was because he knew where the stones were...on the bottom of the lake…”
“He threw a container of toxic waste more than 50 miles,” Kii observed calmly from where she was tending a decorative-seeming plant, which was actually alive.
“Death has come for him many times, and yet has never been able to touch him,” Lala added calmly.
“We’re pretty sure he’s either part dragon or part god at this point,” Polt concluded thoughtfully.
Miia’s mother turned this over in her mind. And...this is the sort of person I’m trying to trap as tribe husband? She turned worriedly towards Miia. “And...you’re sure he’s who you want to be with?”
Miia nodded firmly. “He...he loves me for who I am,” she said softly. “He doesn’t judge me for being a Lamia, or being unfamiliar with human customs, or anything like that. As he put it...if I can be happy with him being him, then he is happy for me to be me, especially if it means being me with him.” She sighed lovingly. “I originally wanted him all to myself...but his heart’s too big for that. We...we all feel the same way about him...and I can learn to accept sharing him with others who love him like I do, and who he loves.”
Miia’s mother shook her head as she took this in. “Well...if you’re sure, Miia, then I won’t stand in your way.” She managed a smile. “If he ends up leaving the world...are you going to go with him?”
Miia blinked in surprise. She’d honestly never considered the idea that Caboose would leave the planet. “Well...if he’ll let me go with him, I’d want to,” she found herself saying, surprised by her own answer.
“Then I can only give my blessing,” the elder Lamia allowed. And get out of here as soon as possible! “Where do I sign to approve the engagement?” she asked Zombina curiously.
Caboose returned as Miia’s Mother was signing the documents. “I got coffee for everyone!” he called out happily as he handed out the cups. “Oh, what’s that?”
“Mom’s signing the paperwork!” Miia declared happily. “Our engagement is approved, Darling!”
“That’s wonderful!” Caboose declared happily. He turned to Miia’s mother. “Does that mean you want Tucker?”
“Is...is he anything at all like you?” Miia’s mother asked carefully.
“Oh, he’s a much better soldier than I could ever be!” Caboose declared happily. “He can do things I’d never dream of trying!”
Like this, but more so? the elder lamia thought, doing her best to disguise her expression of abject horror. Quick, think of a diplomatic refusal! “While that’s very thoughtful of you, I wouldn’t dream of taking one of your friends away from you. I can tell your friends, your family, is the most important thing in the world to you.”
“The importantest!” Caboose agreed happily.
“So I will have to refuse,” she continued. “After all, I want Miia to be happy...and that means keeping you happy.”
“Okay!” Caboose declared happily. “I’ll be sure to tell Tucker next time I see him that the tribe of sexy ladies didn’t want him as their tribe husband for endless bum-chicka-boo-boo-pe-do.”
Rachnera suddenly burst into laughter as she pulled Caboose into a hug. “Honey, you’re a right!” she giggled, sounding somewhat tipsy. “And I thought I could be cruel!”
“I hope you won’t take this as rude,” Miia’s mother whispered to her daughter, “but I would like to get out of here as fast as possible. Frankly, your choice of husband terrifies me!”
Miia giggled happily. “I understand perfectly,” she agreed, embracing her mother. “I love you.”
“I love you too, dear.”
“Family hugs!” Caboose declared expansively.
Before anyone could really react, they were all bound up tightly together along with a giggling, playful Rachnera.
The following day, after Miia’s mother had left, Caboose was cleaning the house for the arrival of Papi’s mother. However, he found himself constantly glancing worriedly towards where Papi lay on her bed, looking somewhat out of it. “She seems really worried,” he observed sadly.
“Maybe she really doesn’t like the idea of her mother coming to visit?” Miia suggested as she helped to fold laundry. “I know I wasn’t too thrilled about it when I got her letter…”
“Letter?” Caboose asked in surprise.
“Yeah, we got letters from our Moms about their visits before Agent Smith told us why they were visiting,” Miia explained, a happy smile and swish in her movements as she reminded herself that she was now officially engaged to Caboose and could mate with him...just as soon as they had a private moment to themselves. “Papi’s been like that ever since she read the letter from her Mom.”
“Do you think her Mom wrote something that got her worried?” Caboose asked curiously.
“I can’t see how,” Rachnera observed as she held up the letter in question. “I can barely make it out, her handwriting’s so terrible…”
“Rachnera!” Miia gasped in shock. “You shouldn’t read other people’s mail!”
“I have bad handwriting!” Caboose offered hopefully. “Maybe I can make sense of it!”
“Here.” Rachnera handed the letter over. “Go nuts-”
“Oh, it says she misses Papi and really wants to see her again, but that the terminator is noisy and nosy and annoying,” Caboose translated readily. “That’s Kuku! That’s what Papi called her at first, too!”
Rachnera and Miia both stared at Caboose in surprise. “Well...I don’t see why she’d be upset-”
“Maybe it’s this picture?” Caboose asked, pulling out a photograph that had been stuffed into the envelope.
Miia and Rachnera’s eyes widened as they took in the picture. From what they could tell, it was Papi...naked and draped over a naked older male human as they lay in bed.
“EHH?” Miia and Rachnera gasped out in shock.
“Did Papi have a boyfriend before Darling?” Miia demanded, shock roaring with outrage.
“Why would you think that?” Caboose asked curiously.
“Honey, look at how she’s draped over him in the picture,” Rachnera pointed out gently, worried Caboose was in denial.
“Oh, this isn’t a picture of Papi,” he pointed out firmly. “They look a lot alike, but the shape of the eyes is slightly different, the curve of the breasts is off, her nipples are too perky, and the scale pattern on her legs is completely different. Also, she has a different spot pattern in her feathers. Pretty close, but definitely not Papi.” He looked at the picture. “With how close to Miia’s age her Mom looked, I’m guessing this is a picture of Papi’s parents.”
Miia and Rachnera stared at Caboose, their lower jaws hanging in shock. “R...really?” Rachnera asked finally, glancing from the picture to where Papi was laying on her bed, confirming the differences Caboose had spotted.
“You...really pay that much attention to Papi?” Miia asked in surprise.
“I pay that much attention to all of you!” Caboose confirmed happily.
[Hostile intruder detected!] Caboose’s Freckle suddenly intoned, shifting and catching an incoming figure in his energy grip.
“Eh?” the blonde, very tan harpy demanded as she struggled in the air. “Why not fly? What’s going on?”
Caboose looked from the picture to the new harpy for a few moments. “Hi Papi’s Mom!” he called happily. “New look for your hubby?” He held up the picture.
Her eyes lit up in delight as she seized the photo. “My treasure!” she declared happily. “I was so upset I accidentally sent this to Papi!”
“Mom?” Papi asked in surprise as she stepped out of her bedroom and onto the balcony. “I don’t remember!”
“Picture is hubby!” Papi’s Mom said excitedly.
“I forgot Dad?” Papi gasped out in shock. “I wanna see Dad again!”
[Jean scan done!] Papi’s Freckle declared. [Dad located!]
“Then let’s go see him!” Caboose declared happily.
“Yay!” Papi and her Mom cheered happily.
The loud knocking on his door disturbed the large man. He slowly rose to his full height, scratching at his chest hair and full beard as he moved to answer. He then blinked down at the blue armored figure there. “Uh...hello?”
“Husband!” a very familiar harpy called out, latching onto the large man.
“Dad!” another familiar harpy called out as she wrapped her wings around his leg.
The man laughed gaily as he embraced the two harpies. “Paya! Papi! It’s so good to see you both again!” He gave them both happy kisses on their foreheads. “You don’t come around nearly often enough!”
Paya giggled. “Paya forget!” she offered playfully, making the man laugh and ruffle her hair again. She only came up to his waist, same as Papi.
“Dad!” Papi declared eagerly, pulling the blue armored figure forward. “Meet hubby!”
“Hi Papi’s Dad!” the figure greeted happily. “I’m Caboose! Wow, you’re huge!”
The man happily accepted the offered handshake. “Hello Caboose! If you’re Papi’s hubby...then you should just call me Pop!”
“Yay!” Caboose declared happily. “I’m not so good with remembering new names! Pop is easy!”
‘Pop’ chuckled softly. “I kind of figured. Did you bring them here? How’d you find me?”
[Jean scan confirmation!] Papi’s Freckle declared happily.
‘Pop’ blinked at the sphere in confusion. “Uh...did you copy Papi’s brain into a ball?”
“Oh, that’s her Freckle!” Caboose declared happily. “I’ve got one too!”
[Confirmed,] Caboose’s Freckle agreed.
‘Pop’ glanced from Paya to Papi to Caboose to the balls. “Uh...I get the feeling there’s a lot to this story I’m not hearing…”
“Come back to my place!” Caboose offered eagerly. “I can tell it in 5 minute increments! Until I get to the part on New Japan. Then it’ll be in thousand word increments!”
‘Pop’ glanced back and forth between Caboose and Papi for a time. He finally turned to Paya. “Well, at least the kids will be happy ,” he allowed ruefully.
“That’s what matters!” Paya agreed happily.
It didn’t take long to bring ‘Pop’ back to Blue Base, and he whistled as he took in the sheer size and scope of the residence. “How did you afford all of this?” he asked in wonder. “My whole house could fit in your foyer!”
“...afford?” Caboose asked in confusion.
‘Pop’ stared at him for a time, then turned to Papi. “Do you know who handles his money?” he asked hopefully.
Papi and Paya both titled their heads adorably. “Mo...knee?”
‘Pop’ sighed ruefully. “Yeah, I should have seen that coming…”
“Most of this is funded by the government, via the Interspecies Exchange Program,” Rachnera explained as she entered the room, followed by the other girls. “So to answer your question, Agent Smith.”
“Really?” Pop asked in surprise. “How is the government paying for all this?”
“Oh, most of it the Freckles built!” Miia pointed out, indicating her own unit. “So all that really cost money was the land.”
“What, did they just make the materials appear out of thin air as they built?” Pop demanded incredulously.
Pop turned to stare at Caboose’s Freckle. Deciding to not think about that for the moment, he turned his attention to the sheer number of extraspecies girls that were in the room now. “You’re hosting quite a few girls,” he said to Caboose, trying to focus attention on things relevant to his interests...Papi specifically.
“Yes!” Caboose declared happily. “They are all my marriage friends, and once all the papers are okayed we’re all going to marriage and be happy together forever and raise Suu!” He pulled Suu into his lap to cuddle. “She’s our baby!”
“Papa!” Suu declared happily, snuggling into the embrace, the bell on her collar jingling.
Noticing that collar, Pop turned and saw everyone - Papi included - was wearing one. “And...the collars?”
“Honey startles realy easily,” Rachnera explained, having been briefed on the protocol when she had gotten her collar. “He’s also ungodly - or perhaps godly, the theories differ - strong, and tends to react like a soldier. The bells are so he’s never startled by us sneaking up on him.”
“That and Darling finds them adorable,” Miia added happily.
Pop nodded, deciding to reserve his judgement on that. After all, a much more important matter had raised in his mind. “You said you intend to marry... all these girls?” he coached Caboose. “My daughter included?”
“Yes!” Caboose confirmed happily. “But Papi needs your blessing and Paya’s.”
“And why should I give it?” Pop asked carefully. “I can see you’re well matched and she cares deeply for you...but all these girls? How do I know you won’t neglect my baby girl with so much...distraction around you? There’s…” He made a quick head count. “Ten other girls here you’ve named as your future wives-”
“And Kuku!” Caboose pointed out helpfully. “She’s busy doing Agent stuff, so she couldn’t be here today.”
“And...your Interspecies Exchange Coordinator, apparently,” Pop mused worriedly. I guess that explains how this all came to pass. “So how do I know you’ll always have time for Papi so she’ll never feel neglected?”
“I will always have time for all my girls!” Caboose promised fervently. “Even if I have to ask Santa for alien tech so I can make it!”
Pop blinked a few times, then turned to the others in hopes of an explanation.
“Sire appears to have access to alien tech, and some tech from the Freelancer program,” Mero explained, having reviewed Caboose’s official records in hopes of getting some answers regarding his nature and abilities. They had not been very forthcoming in that regard. “He...intends to make use of technology that allows one to step backwards in time a small amount and function alongside your past self...somehow...in order to have time to tend to all of us, if necessary.”
“So...he meant ‘make time’ literally?” Pop clarified.
“That is the case,” Mero allowed.
“And...is he aware of the strain that could put on him?” Pop asked carefully. “I won’t ask about paradoxes or anything else on the science side, since all I’ve heard about alien tech and how it works at that level says we don’t know enough to even guess at why it works the way it does...but that can’t be healthy to do for long periods of time.”
“Love doesn’t seem to have a limit to his energy or stamina,” Polt pointed out thoughtfully. “And...he’s always managed to find a solution to things, even if logic said such solution shouldn’t work.”
“Like when he walked across a lake to retrieve Miia, and justified it by an old joke because he knew the stones were all on the bottom?” Tio suggested happily.
Pop blinked several times. He’d never really been very religious, but his parents had been. Hearing that Caboose could walk on water really sent his sense of the world for a loop. “Well, as long as I have your promise that you’ll always take care of my baby-”
“I promise on Tucker’s love life!” Caboose swore fervently.
Pop sighed. “I...guess I can’t really object.” He looked around for the paperwork. “At least you won’t get lonely while Papi’s flying around…”
Caboose stared at him for a time. “I’ll be right back!” he said as he rushed out to the machine shed, his Freckle unit following him.
Pop blinked in surprise. “What’s he up to?” he asked Polt, as she seemed to have her head on the straightest of the lot.
“Probably something that breaks physics, but is exactly what you need,” Polt allowed ruefully.
As Pop signed the paperwork - and showed Paya where to sign - Caboose came rushing back in with an oddly configured jetpack. “Here you go!” he declared happily. “Now you can fly with Paya!”
Pop took the jetpack in surprise. “Really? But...how will I fuel it?”
“It runs on love and rainbows!” Caboose declared happily.
Pop blinked. “No, seriously, how do I-”
[The unit collects the pheremones released by humans experiencing the emotions of love, those being gentle affection fervent dedication, and ardor,] Freckle explained. [These chemicals, when exposed to refracted sunlight, catalyze into a high-energy, clean fuel that can keep the jetpack aloft for several hours on two gallons.]
Pop stared at the jetpack in his hands. “Oh. So he wasn’t being facetious…”
Caboose watched as Cerea charged repeatedly across the field, driving her lance into the target...every time hitting slightly off center. He didn’t quite understand why she was doing this, but he continued to watch to show support.
On the last run, her hoof slipped on the last step and she slammed into the target bodily. “Are you okay?” he called out worriedly.
Cerea groaned as she pushed herself upright. “I am...fine, Master,” she hastened to reassure him. “My hoof just caught on...something…” She picked up the odd object she’d tripped on. It looked like a metal cylinder with an oddly shaped hand-grip, as though made for a very inhuman hand. Uncertain what else to do with it, she slipped it into a pocket on her dress. Frustrated with herself, she moved back towards Caboose.
While Caboose was by no means intelligent, it didn’t even take the brains he was left with to recognize the pattern that was smacking him in the face. “Problems with your mother?” he asked in concern.
“...yes,” Cerea agreed sadly. “Today my mother arrives...and I will engage in an unavoidable battle. I had thought...with your great strength, kind heart, and purity of soul, I thought I might convince her of my alternative...but her letter made it plain, she brooks no opposition in this. I shall...have to fight her over this.”
“And...that’s a bad thing?” Caboose asked in surprise. “Centaurs are warriors. Aren’t fights normal?”
“It is not just my mother I will be fighting…” Cerea pointed out worriedly.
“So the odds will be against you?” Caboose asked. “That’s okay. You’re Blue. The odds are always against you. But you always win, too. Because you do things they don’t expect. You take an absurd idea that should never work, and you make it work. You don’t listen to the odds. You win because it’s impossible. That’s what it means to be Red and Blue...and you’re Blue.” He rested his hand on her arm. “You’re one of my Blues, and I believe in you.”
Cerea’s eyes teared up, both from the heartfelt encouragement and the unwavering faith. “I...I shall not let you down, Master!” she promised.
“I know you won’t,” Caboose agreed happily. “Now let’s go home. It’s time for lunch, and I’m pretty sure you can eat carrot cake!”
Cerea chuckled as she raced after Caboose as he headed towards Blue Base. Somehow, she found she could almost believe what he was saying.
[Incoming message from Blue Base,] Cerea’s Freckle informed her. [Unidentified centaur female is screaming at Base. Genetic scan confirms identity as Lieutenant Cerea’s mother.]
Cerea’s eyes widened. “...road apples…” she muttered as she picked up the pace.
“HARK!” a shout echoed from the distance. “BE THERE NONE BUT SOULLESS AUTOMOTA IN THIS ABODE?”
[You are trespassing on Blue Base territory,] Freckles declared as he faced down the shouting centaur, a female who closely resembled Cerea though looked...slightly older. If not for her more matronly, archaic garb and determined expression, she could have easily been mistaken for Cerea’s older sister.
“STAND ASIDE, MACHINE!” she roared out. “IS THIS THE RESIDENCE OF MY DAUGHTER CENTOREA OR NOT?”
[Your identity has not been confirmed,] Freckles stated flatly. [Cease sonic assault or be deemed hostile.]
“IF IT IS YOUR DESIRE TO TASTE MY BLADE, MACHINE, THEN SO BE IT!” she roared, drawing her sword.
“Freckles, sit!” Caboose called out.
[Order acknowledged,] Freckles stated, squatting down on his large legs. [Ceasing hostilities.]
Caboose looked at the woman. “So you’re Cerea’s Mom?” he asked happily as Cerea caught up.
“AND YOU ARE CENTOREA’S HOMESTAY HOST!” Cerea’s Mother declared as she turned to face him. “YOU ARE NOT WHAT I EXPECTED!”
“IS SHOUTING A CENTAUR TRADITION?” Caboose screamed out. “I DIDN’T KNOW THAT, SINCE CEREA DOESN’T SHOUT MUCH, BUT I’LL SHOUT IF IT’S TRADITION!”
“Okay, it’s safe to come outside,” Miia observed from inside the door, slowly opening it to reveal the others. “Darling’s here.”
“AND YOU ARE CENTOREA’S FRIENDS!” Cerea’s mother declared happily. “WHAT A WELCOME SIGHT TO SEE HER BONDING SO STRONGLY!”
Rachnera winced, stepping back as she wriggled a finger in her ear. “Geeze...pipe down will you?” she grumbled.
“IT HAS BEEN TOO LONG-”
[Alert!] Rachnera’s Freckle suddenly intoned, its optic burning red. [It has come to this unit’s attention that your present level of sonic barrage is harmful to this unit’s assigned partner. You will reduce your chosen volume, or this unit will reduce your available volume.]
“...huh?” Cerea’s mother asked, not quite following.
[Translating to Captain Honey levels,] Rachnera’s Freckle translated. [Lower your voice or lose it.]
“Is...is that thing threatening me?”
[Correction: this unit has issued an ultimatum.]
Cerea’s mother blinked at the floating ball for a time...but eventually decided to abide by restrictions. “It has been too long, Centorea!” she called out at a more reasonable volume. “How great to see you in fine health! So where is your teaser?”
Cerea frowned, glaring at her mother, before stepping carefully up behind Caboose.
“What are you doing?” her mother demanded. “That man is your host family, is he not?”
“This man...is my Master, to whom I have sworn my fealty,” Cerea corrected firmly.
Her mother’s eyes narrowed angrily, and a dangerous aura began to build-
“Stop!” Caboose snapped out, breaking her focus and catching her attention. “I don’t know what this is about, and I know you are warriors...but Cerea is a part of my Team, a part of my family. If you are not polite to her under my roof, you will answer to me!”
Cerea’s mother snorted derisively. “You are but a human in armor!” she declared. “What can you do-”
Caboose grabbed Cerea’s mother by one hand and hefted her entire body over his head without putting undue strain on her arm somehow. “Do I make myself clear?” Caboose asked calmly.
“How...how can a mere human have such strength?” she gasped in shock.
Caboose gently set her down. “Now...what’s a teaser?” he asked curiously.
[Teaser,] Caboose’s Freckle began. [Centaur tradition. Due to warrior culture, Centaurs have become incredibly strong, but strength became the defining characteristic of males. Culturally, centaur females became turned off by this. Teaser males of other species that bore the pleasing traits that centaur females desired were used to bring the female into heat, at which point the centaur stallion would breed her.]
Caboose was silent. Cerea and the other girls moved as far back as they could while still being in range. Caboose slowly turned towards Cerea’s mother. “ ...let me see if I understand this correctly… ” he growled, his voice dark and menacing. “ You sent your daughter to find some pretty face she liked to get her into the mood so some strong guy you selected could rape her once her body wouldn’t let her fight it anymore? And you want to do that to my Cerea? ”
Cerea’s mother took several steps back. Something about this man in his rage was...terrifying. “It...it is our traditions,” she declared, though her sudden inexplicable fear robbed her words of much of their power. “Our race...values strength above all things-”
“Oh!” Caboose suddenly declared happily. “So that’s what Cerea meant about fighting more than you! Okay! Polt! Is there a stadium we can use so Cerea can beat some sense into her Mom?”
Polt perked up. “Uh, yes!” she called out. “My Freckle and I have been expanding the gym facilities. We have a stadium in the basement!”
“Lead the way!” Caboose declared happily, as the others slowly moved back in towards each other and Caboose, now that the moment of rage seemed to have passed.
Once everyone was filed into the massive underground stadium, Polt stepped up to the microphone and cleared her throat. “To all those watching this today!” she called out, turning towards the cameras that were recording and broadcasting the event to - among others - the entire centaur race. “This is a monumental event! Today we will be witnessing a special match between Centorea Shianus and her mother, in a battle that will decide Centorea’s fate! Centorea, fighting for her freedom and her choice, has declared her intentions to be wed to one she has sworn as her Master, Ambassador Captain Michael J. Caboose of the legendary Reds and Blues! Representing eons of centaur traditions and will, Centorea’s mother will fight to impose her will that Centorea find herself a teaser and be mated with a strong centaur male to breed a strong next generation! The stakes could not possibly be higher!
“And the tension couldn’t be either!” she continued as she turned the camera to focus on Cerea and her mother. The two wore only their normal clothes, each armed with a lance and shield. “While the tradition for such combats amongst centaurs has been the joust, as this event is being held within Blue Base Embassy grounds, Caboose has insisted on a change. As Centorea’s very future and freedom to choose are on the line, the match will not be limited to lance, and will continue until one of the combatants no longer has the will to fight! You heard that right, folks! The only way this match ends is if one of them yields!
“As you can see, while each are primarily armed only with lance and shield, each also has their sword at their sides! If lance combat proves to be inconclusive - or if one of their lances breaks - the battle will immediately continue with swords!” Polt gasped for breath as she vibrated with excitement. “This is going to be a battle the likes of which we haven’t seen in ages! Prepare yourselves!”
Caboose sat calmly in the stands, the girls crowded around him as they watched Cerea and her mother prepare for the match. Agent Smith sat next to Caboose. “Are you sure she can handle it?” she asked worriedly. “Her mother is...legendary in the lists.”
“Cerea will win,” Caboose replied firmly. “I have faith in her. She is a Blue. She is one of my Blues.”
Agent Smith blinked at Caboose in surprise. His words spoke of faith, but his tone had certain knowledge. It was almost as though he already knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how this would turn out...and was merely waiting to see it happen.
After a time, Cerea and her mother charged each other in the lists, their bodies heaving and their massive breasts bouncing with every hoof-fall. Their lances clashed into each others shields, and they kept charging until they slowed and turned for the next pass. Cerea seemed off-kilter slightly, while her mother stood as firm as ever. They charged again, clashed again...and again Cerea swayed as she came to a halt.
“What’s going on?” Miia asked in confusion. “Why is Cerea having trouble?”
“Her breasts,” Kii observed calmly from her seat on her tree-beast as Suu happily nursed. “She is unable to balance them with her grip on her lance, and it throws off her aim. She’s hitting her mother’s shield off center, which disperses the force of the impact away from her body. Her mother is a joust champion, though, and has had a lifetime of competitions to adapt to that and take it into account. Her lance hits dead center every time.”
“But...but then there’s no way Cerea can win in a joust!” Mero gasped in shock.
“A pure joust,” Caboose corrected idly. “Do not worry. Cerea will win.”
“How do you know for sure?” Papi asked curiously.
“Because her Mom is scared of me.”
“You think a champion would throw a fight for fear of your wrath on live broadcast?” Doppel asked in amusement.
“No,” Caboose corrected. “She is scared because she knows I’m right. She doesn’t want to force Cerea into the tradition. But she can’t make that decision alone. She wants Cerea to win. That’s why I made the terms I did.”
Tio gasped in shock. “The match continues as long as they both have the will to fight...in that regard, her mother’s already at a disadvantage then, isn’t she? Because she doesn’t really want to win!”
“But she needs Cerea to win on her own merits,” Manako observed thoughtfully.
“The lance is weak,” Lala observed grimly. “Soon it will shatter, and with it her chances. Only a miracle can save her now.”
As the others spoke, Cerea could feel herself swaying. It was the seventh charge, and she knew she was outmatched with the lance. Even if she could manage to hit her mother’s shield dead center on this pass, the lance did not have the strength to deliver the impact. It would shatter. Her shield was cracked from the force of repeated blows of the lance. It would likely shatter on the next impact...and she would probably be run through. She would not be able to fight wounded, whether she had it in her to try or not.
She turned her bleary gaze to the stands, desperate for some hope...and saw Caboose looking at her. He lifted one hand...and gave her a thumbs up.
No, she thought to herself. I will not let my Master down. I am a Knight of the Blue. I will win this day. I will claim my freedom, my choice. I will show that love and loyalty is stronger than tradition. She steeled herself, locking eyes on her mother...and for a brief moment saw a flicker of fear. She sees it. She sees my conviction. I will not lose. I will not let Master down!
As soon as the signal for the pass to begin struck, she charged at full speed, the speed she’d built up trying to keep up with Caboose on their morning and evening runs when he felt like pushing himself, runs that had pushed her limits as a centaur. She saw it. Her mother barely had time to set her lance. They would meet far on her half of the lists. She had a chance.
“I!” she screamed out as she thrust forward with her lance. The point struck dead center on the shield, shattering with the force as her mother’s shield was knocked out of position. “Will!” Pulling her shield back slightly, she swung outward. Her shield shattered as her mother’s lance was deflected. “Not!” Her hand reached down for her sword...but she felt it close around something else, something metal with an odd grip...an odd grip that suddenly felt like it was made for her hand. “FALL!”
Her mother’s lance flipped through the air, severed at the base and leaving barely a centimeter beyond her clenched fist as the length came down to embed point first in the dirt. Her mother’s shirt ripped open from the blaze of the slash.
...and the two prongs of the energy blade in her hand rested to either side of her mother’s neck, as the older mare stared down with awed eyes.
To Caboose and Agent Smith’s surprise, every demi-human in the audience save Suu immediately went to their knees if they had them, with Mero having crossed her arms over her chest and bowing so low she was practically folded in half. Miia was braced one handed on the ground in what was obviously a Lamia bow. “W...what?” Agent Smith asked in confusion.
“T...the keybearer has been chosen…” Polt murmured in awe.
“Keybearer?” Agent Smith asked in confusion. “But-”
“It’s an alien key!” Caboose explained. “It unlocks alien tech. And if you use it on people, it unlocks their death!”
Cerea’s mother stared down the energy blade into her daughter’s steely eyes, and in them saw a determination that could reshape a world. With a weight off her heart that let it fill with joy, she brought both clenched fists to her chest and closed her eyes, the traditional centaur sign of yielding a match.
Cerea slowly stepped back...and the energy sword faded back into the handle as her eyes rolled up in her head and she slumped to the ground, completely spent.
Cerea stirred slowly, her entire body aching as she began to move. A groan of pain escaped her lips as she tried to move, only to feel a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t try to move,” her mother’s voice instructed firmly. “You overstrained your body. It will take some time for your muscles to relax.”
Cerea instinctively held still in response to that directive. However, her mother talking about her overstraining, when she sounded so strong… “I...lost?” she asked sorrowfully, her mind struggling to recall what happened.
“A Keybearer lose?” her mother snorted derisively. “Impossible. You most definitely won, my child, and in spectacular fashion.” Now the pride in her voice came through full force. “You could not equal me in the lists, that much was obvious...but your Master has pushed you to new heights of skill and power that our race has forgotten, to the point the Key chose you! You hold the world’s heart in your hands...and that it is you that is chosen and proved yourself with it is the greatest victory I could have hoped for.”
“V...victory?” Cerea asked in confusion as her eyes started to open. She made out her mother, Agent Smith, and Caboose standing around her. “M...Master…” She started to reach for him...only to pause. “Is...is there a boot on my hand?” she asked in confusion.
“Your brain crashed,” Caboose explained happily. “Simmons taught me that when something crashes, you reboot it! Had to borrow Tio’s boots though, no one else’s were big enough since everyone else wears the super tight heeled ones.”
Cerea’s mother frowned as she stared at Caboose for a time. “Are you...certain he’s preferable to the males of our own species?” she asked Cerea curiously. “He...certainly doesn’t seem to be smarter …”
“It is his kind heart, his gentle soul, and his warrior’s spirit together that make him the Ultimate Master,” Cerea murmured quietly. Shaking the boot off her hand, she took Caboose’s in her own. “And there is wisdom in him...even if he doesn’t realize it.”
“Perhaps you could explain this ‘Keybearer’ title to me?” Agent Smith asked curiously. “This is the first I’ve heard of it, and part of the Interspecies Exchange Treaty was about covering anything of cultural significance we needed to be aware of...and this apparently crosses all species’ cultures…”
Cerea’s mother stiffened somewhat. “It is not something to be discussed with any outsiders!” she countered hotly.
“She’s one of Master’s chosen as well…” Cerea murmured, pointing to the bell collar Agent Smith wore.
“Yeah, Kuku’s not an outsider!” Caboose agreed.
Cerea’s mother blinked thoughtfully. “I had wondered about that,” she admitted. “I...can tell you as much as I’m allowed, but I will have to be somewhat vague.” She gathered her thoughts. “Long ago, when the races were first being born on this world, a race came from the stars. They saw potential for greatness in us...and potential for ruin. One among them took it upon himself to protect us from that ruin, and in the Heart of the World built the Shroud of Time, that we would be protected from outsiders until such time as we could meet them on even terms. When he left, he left behind two things as gifts. One was the Gatekeeper, a being who stood eternal watch over the Shroud and the world until we could tend to ourselves. The other was The Key, which would wield for only one Chosen for as long as they lived, and would unlock the Shroud when the time came if the Chosen so Chose-”
“Oh!” Caboose called out in understanding. “There’s an underground alien Tower here that makes the funky time field in the system! The Key activates the Tower so you can turn it on and off! The Gatekeeper must be like Santa on Chorus and manages the Tower! Maybe there’s even another Tower connected to the Moon which is why all the extra-species go crazy under the full moon!”
Cerea’s mother stared, her jaw hanging. “Told you,” Cerea murmured with a chuckle.
“So is this the part where you tell Cerea your human teaser was her actual father and the stallion you were married to didn’t know it?” Caboose asked Cerea’s mother bluntly. “That’s why you wanted her to beat you, right?”
“How can you possibly know that?” Cerea’s mother gasped in shock, causing Cerea to try and sit up only to sink back in pain still.
“I’m a broken clock on a planet with funky time!” Caboose countered happily. “I get to be right lots of times a day!”
“How does that-” Cerea’s mother began.
[Error: Sense not found,] Cerea’s Freckle unit intoned helpfully.
“I think I’m going to keep the bit about Towers and alien tech under my proverbial hat for a while,” Agent Smith observed idly. “I don’t even want to think about what learning something like that was here would do...especially not after what such information did on Chorus. We’ve only got one Blue-”
“We’ve got lots of Blues!” Caboose insisted. “There’s me, there’s Freckles, there’s Miia, there’s Papi, there’s Cerea-”
“We only have Blues,” Agent Smith corrected quickly, “and I think without any Reds we might have some trouble if we get any sort of military action.”
“Okay,” Caboose allowed happily, turning back to watching over Cerea.
“Well, at least things are starting to calm down,” Agent Smith observed with relief. “I don’t think I could handle any more potential incidents like what we had today. I’m hoping for at least a week of relaxation…”
[Error: Murphy invoked,] her Freckle unit warned.
“Crapbaskets,” she muttered under her breath.
Polt sighed as she focused on cleaning up the stadium. Cerea the Keybearer...that was quite a revelation! And on live television as well...that was going to be a headache and a half to explain, especially if it was obvious to any human watchers that the Key was alien tech. Hopefully it would be overlooked with all the Freckle units floating around and shrugged off as ‘primitive superstition’ considering how much more advanced the Key was as compared to anything else available outside the spaceport. The last thing she wanted was to have that headache when her folks came to see her. It would be bad enough to explain-
“A bell collar,” a familiar voice spoke firmly and concisely. “Really.”
Polt tensed up, all her fur trying to stand on end at once. Eyes wide, she turned towards the door and saw four people she had not expected that day.
The first was another kobold who was nearly identical to her in appearance...save her breasts were distinctly larger, and she dressed in a full bodysuit rather than the track wear Polt favored. “Sister…” she murmured as she caught sight of her before turning.
Next was another kobold female who closely resembled her, dressed in a dark brown and green nature-patterened kimono. “M-mother…” she stammered worriedly.
Third was a male kobold wearing only a loincloth and holding a spear hung with numerous bones, feathers, and colored beads, appearing ceremonial until one saw the blue wave within the tempered steel of the blade, its edge seeming to hum even when still. “F-father…”
The last member of the group was the source of the voice, however. She didn’t look any older than Polt or her female relatives, but every hair on her body - fur or on her head - was snow white. Her eyes glowed golden in the dim light, and she wore a two layer kimono, the inner one red and gold with a sun pattern, the outer pale blue and white with a snowflake pattern. Her hair was done up in a bun on top of her head, held in place with three large white reptilian scales...and she stared at Polt in disapproval. “G-Grand Eldest…” Polt murmured in awe, bowing low.
This was the matriarch of their clan...and Polt’s Great-great-(many greats here)-Grandmother. This was not a good day for Polt...
“Heh,” Polt’s sister teased smugly. “Daddy’s darling, the pride of our clan...wearing a bell collar? What, did you become some human’s pet?”
“Pala!” Polt’s father snapped fiercely, the declaration almost a bark.
Pala immediately backed up, her ears going flat against her skull.
“Despite her rudeness for speaking out of turn,” the Grand-Eldest spoke softly, “Pala’s question is valid.” She fixed her gaze on Polt. “We came when we received word of this...engagement in the offing. And we find...this.”
“At first it would only have been myself coming, Polt,” Polt’s mother offered, her tone conciliatory even if her gaze was judgemental. “But when we learned that it was to an off-world human, and you were but one of many for this prospective union...Grand-Eldest decided to come herself, along with us.”
“You know the lore,” Polt’s father growled deep in his throat. “You know what the Ancient feared would come of us, that they left the Shroud, the Keeper, and the Key.”
“Parei, Korr, enough,” the Grand-Eldest insisted, causing Polt’s parents to subside. “Polt...one thing at a time. Why the bell collar?”
Polt swallowed nervously. While being able to explain one thing at a time and to only one family member was a relief, the sense of presence her many-Great-Grandmother exuded did nothing to ease her nerves. “W-well-” she began.
[First Lieutenant Polt, Captain Caboose requests your presence and that of your family in the infirmary,] Polt’s Freckle unit suddenly spoke, floating in from elsewhere in the gym where it had been assigned to help clean things up.
Korr, Parei, and Pala instantly tensed at the sight. The Grand-Eldest observed it calmly. “An Ancient’s Orb. Where did it come from?”
[This unit was constructed by Captain Caboose, assigned to assist First Lieutenant Polt,] it responded immediately.
It was plain to Polt’s eyes that only the Eldest’s firm expression kept her parents from whispering to each other at this revelation. “And why does he send this request, interrupting our discussion?”
[Processing information request...translating to colloquials…] A blue line of light passed across the unit’s optic for a time. [Captain Caboose considers his marriage friends - his potential fiances - to be his tribe, with himself as the Chief. This unit broadcast the fact that First Lieutenant Polt was in emotional distress. As Captain Caboose could not leave Lieutenant Cerea’s side to assist while she is injured, it is requested that First Lieutenant Polt and the source of her distress join him in the infirmary where he can assist without leaving the side of an injured member.]
Korr rubbed his chin thoughtfully before nodding approvingly. “I, personally, see no reason to deny this request,” he murmured, his tone a bit more neutral.
“We did want to meet with this Caboose as well,” Parei agreed.
“We will go,” the Eldest declared firmly. “Lead us, Polt.”
Swallowing nervously, Polt turned to lead her family to the infirmary. She could only hope that Caboose would make a good impression on them. His ability to manipulate and construct alien tech made him of interest to the tribe and the Eldest...but that could go either way. At least her father no longer looked like he would try to disembowel Caboose at first sight. ...the spear was a tribal relic, after all, and replacing the blade would be a huge deal.
She was somewhat relieved to see that Agent Smith and Cerea’s mother were both in the infirmary as well, though was somewhat surprised to see Zombina also there. There was mutual respect between the Centaurs and the Kobolds, and Cerea’s mother was very important within the Centaur’s social structure, so her testimony on Caboose’s behalf - assuming she gave it - would be helpful.
Or she might say something that could completely screw me over, intentional or otherwise, Polt though despairingly as she sat beside Caboose. Caboose immediately lifted one hand to scratch her behind her ear...which both relaxed her and freaked her out. As much as she did enjoy such an intimate closeness, it really didn’t help when she was trying to convince her family that she wasn’t his pet.
...maybe I should just go for “not his pet outside the bedroom”, she thought ruefully. I could swing that, right?
“You wear a bell collar as well?” Korr asked in surprise as he glanced from Agent Smith to Cerea to Zombina.
“Caboose is ungodly - or perhaps godly - strong and...does not react well to being startled,” Agent Smith explained. “To prevent any...accidents, all ‘Blues’ under Caboose’s command - those girls who have become enamored with him with intent to wed him, or are assigned to him as homestays - wear bell collars. I’ve...sort of been co-opted into that.” She reached up to touch her bell, and Polt could smell her conflicted emotions.
“Caboose has one too,” Zombina pointed out. “It’s hard to see under his helmet, though.” As she spoke, Caboose lifted his chin so he could reach up and playfully jingle his bell.
“Well, I’ve heard of stranger tribal traditions,” Parei admitted.
Realizing she’d been remiss, Polt spoke up. “Caboose, this is my many times removed Great Grandmother, the Grand-Eldest of our tribe, Palaka.”
“Hi Granny!” Caboose greeted warmly.
As nearly everyone else in the room tensed up, Palaka brought her hand to her mouth, her expression inscrutable. Polt decided to move past this as quickly as she could. “This is my father, Chief Korr, and my mother, High Priestess Parei.”
“Oh wow,” Caboose declared in surprise. “With how young everyone’s parents have been and closely resembling them, I thought they were your grandparents and the other girl was your Mom.”
Polt winced at that, fearing a very negative reaction to that, but Parei chuckled indulgently. “Kobolds generally wait until much later in life than other races to mate and have children,” she explained softly. “And we’re amongst the more skilled of races at controlling the effect the full moon has on us when we so choose.”
“Okay!” Caboose accepted happily.
“And this is my older sister, Pala,” Polt finished, frowning as she noticed Pala presenting herself in such a way as to show off her more pronounced curves, especially her larger chest. Polt knew her own curves were far more modest, closer to what humans of New Japan had rather than the more robust or exaggerated figures of other demi-human species-
“Did you want some I-Be-Puffin, Pala?” Caboose asked curiously, pulling a bottle of painkillers out of a nearby drawer.
“...why would I want that?” Pala asked, confused.
“For the back pain,” Caboose explained helpfully. “Given how oversized you are for your frame, you’re bound to have some!”
Polt did her best not to burst into laughter, no matter how much she enjoyed hearing Caboose shooting her sister down in so innocently vicious a manner. Zombina had no such compunctions, and her peals of laughter made wonderful music to the sight of Pala struggling to hold herself back from ‘kill!’ as an infuriated expression covered her face.
So far so good, she thought to herself. I’ve got some good backup, and so far Caboose is making a good impression on my parents, and isn’t going to be tempted by my sister. Now as long as nothing really bad comes up-
“Have you lain with my daughter?” Korr asked Caboose, suddenly and incisively.
Caboose stared at Korr for a time. “...I do not understand the question,” he replied finally.
...I’m dead. Polt closed her eyes, wondering if it would be easier to ask her Freckle to vaporise her then face this discussion with her family.
Korr blinked at Caboose for a time. “You...do not...understand the question?” he repeated, hoping for clarification that made sense.
“Nope!” Caboose confirmed happily.
Noticing Korr grinding his teeth, Parei decided to intervene before things grew worse. “Which part, precisely?”
“Lain,” Caboose explained happily. “Why would it be important if Polt and I built roads? ...that’s what ‘lain with’ means, right?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Pala muttered with a snort, her amusement briefly managing to reduce her hostility.
Korr’s tense expression faded back to neutral. “Ah, colloquial issues. You are from off world, after all.” He rubbed his chin as he thought how to rephrase his question. “Have you copulated with Polt?”
“Cop-you-later?” Caboose asked in confusion. “But we’re not in law enforcement.”
“Were you in a relationship during the last full moon?” Parei interrupted, seeking a more direct way of approaching the issue.
“Oh yeah!” Caboose declared happily. “Well, I think we were. We were good friends before that and went on walkies together mornings and evenings-”
Polt’s eyes widened as she noticed Korr and Parei’s eyes hardening at that terminology, even as Pala’s glowed with wicked glee.
“But that full moon Polt wasn’t feeling well,” Caboose continued. “When she told me it was because of the moon, I was going to destroy it so she felt better, but she said the feeling wasn’t a bad thing.”
The fear on her family’s faces at how casually Caboose discussed destroying the moon in no way brought comfort to Polt. The fact that Eldest Palaka showed no visible reaction beyond her hand covering her mouth wasn’t much comfort either.
“So I helped her deal with what the moon was doing to her instead!” Caboose declared happily. “And that night she taught me what love is! And that’s how she became First Lieutenant!” Caboose nodded happily even as Agent Smith’s jaw dropped, looking between horrified and bemused, though leaning more towards the former.
“Freckle, just vaporize me now,” Polt murmured under her breath in a whimper, hopefully only loud enough to reach her own ears. While everything of what Caboose had said was technically accurate, it was the absolute worst way he could have explained it to her family, and in the worst order.
Korr looked torn between trying to rip Caboose apart for ‘turning his daughter into a pet’ or turning Polt over his knee for ‘taking advantage of an innocent’. Parei looked like she was about to faint. Pala was glancing between Polt and Caboose as though they’d both grown an extra head each just to make out while carrying on the conversation...as well as trying to determine who best to hide behind when the inevitable explosion occurred.
Palaka burst into uncontrollable laughter, catching everyone off guard. “Oh goodness, I haven’t had a good laugh like that in ages ,” she managed to get out as she calmed down. “Not since my first mate passed in the ancient wars, he always knew how to make me lose control…” She turned to Cerea. “Keybearer, am I correct in assuming that Caboose, while gentle and loving, is intellectually of greater similarity to male centaurs than other species?”
Cerea sighed ruefully. “Master holds great wisdom in him...but his intelligence oft times is indeed sorely lacking.”
“I make do,” Caboose allowed warmly. “As long as I try my best, don’t let my mistakes get me down, and am surrounded by people who care about me and understand me, then I’ll do okay.”
Seeing several stunned looks, Palaka chuckled to herself. “I see what you mean. Young Caboose, am I correct in assuming that Polt ‘teaching you about love’ occurred before you aided her with the moon’s effect?”
“Uh huh!” Caboose confirmed happily. “Kuku had been talking to me about marriage, and I’d wanted to make all the girls I cared about my marriage friends, but they had trouble explaining things. So I asked Polt, since she’d been able to explain lots of things to me when we were on walkies-”
“Is a leash involved on ‘walkies’?” Palaka interrupted.
“Only when Polt holds it. I get lost and turned around easily.”
Palaka smirked as she saw Korr and Parei starting to calm down, and Pala beginning to pout. “Now, you were saying about Polt explaining love and marriage to you?”
“Oh! Right!” Caboose gathered his thoughts. “Polt told me being marriage friends required love, but didn’t know how to explain love to me. So I thought about how I felt about all the friends I wanted to be my marriage friends, and asked her if that was love. She told me it was, which was a big relief for me, because now I knew I could say I love them all.”
“So what’s she doing here?” Pala interrupted, pointing to Zombina.
[It was determined from your discussion in the gym that this discussion would involve the nature of the bonds between Captain Caboose, First Lieutenant Polt, and the other Blues,] Polt’s Freckle explained. [This unit contacted the unit assigned to Second Lieutenant Zombina, requesting her presence in case her input would be viable.]
Palaka’s eyebrow shot up. “And how did you come to be Second Lieutenant?” she asked archly.
Zombina chuckled, her tone between proud and nervous. “Well, same way Polt became First Lieutenant, more or less. But…” She squirmed a little.
[Captain Caboose,] Zombina’s Freckle intoned, [please temporarily disable audio receptors in helmet.]
“Okay!” Caboose agreed happily. “...how do I do that?”
[Activating favorite music track,] Caboose’s Freckle intoned. Caboose began to bob his head to a tune only he could hear.
Zombina let out a sigh of relief, knowing she wouldn’t have to explain it in front of Caboose. “It...started with this,” she said calmly as she pulled out the small jar Caboose had given her at the start of their date. “As a gift for a date, he made this for me. Mortuary putty altered so I could use it as makeup, to cover up the stitches and scars. Not to hide them...but to show the beauty of the girl I used to be.” She stared at the small jar. “I don’t have blood anymore...but when he applied it so gently, I felt my face heat up. When I saw him bring out who I used to be...I swear I felt my heart beat again. And...and when we went to the hotel and he held me in his arms, I…” She blinked her eyes...and everyone was stunned to see tears there, tears she should not have been able to produce. “I felt alive …”
Without warning, Caboose reached his hand out to her. Stunned, she reached out and took it. “You...you heard?” she asked in shock.
“I can’t hear you still,” Caboose answered warmly. “But I saw tears. I thought you needed comfort.”
Agent Smith chuckled softly. “Casts him walking on water during his date with Miia in a new light,” she murmured thoughtfully. Seeing Palaka giving her a curious look, she smirked. “He claimed he knew where the stones were...on the bottom.”
“Well...you certainly are interesting, then,” Palaka observed. Seeing Caboose turn towards her, she knew the music had been turned off. “However...I wish to test you as a warrior, if you have no objection.”
“I like sparring!” Caboose declared happily.
Lala stared at the door into the room Caboose and Palaka had gone into to spar. Palaka had insisted on privacy for it, so everyone but Cerea - who was still bedridden - and Cerea’s mother who kept her in bed were gathered around to await the outcome of the sparring. Lala, however, was less interested in what happened within than in what she’d overheard in the infirmary...and what she was putting together now.
Caboose was a mystery to her. One who walked endlessly in the land between life and death, the reaper always at his heels yet never able to claim him. Shrugging off things that would be lethal to other mortals as though they happened everyday - which they did - and were of no moment. This part was mystery...but two new facts pointed towards a possible answer, one she would think about. To walk easily on water suggested the blood of a god in his veins, which would explain his ability to shrug off the reaper’s scythe. To bring the dead back to life, if even for a moment, said he was able to tap that power. The question Lala was left with...which god was Caboose tied to? The answer to that would tell her what to do next.
Without warning, the door burst open and Palaka rushed out. Both her inner and outer kimonos were folded in her arms, revealing a battle leotard underneath that hugged her figure well enough to show that she was in at least as good condition as any of her present descendants. “Goodness!” she gasped out, her cheeks bright red. “No wonder you staked a claim so quickly, Polt!”
“Huh?” Miia and several others demanded in confusion.
“You...you asked to spar against him without his armor?” Polt managed to gasp out, causing several of those gathered to gasp.
“And he agreed to it,” Palaka managed to say, fanning herself with one hand. “Woof! Felt like I was centuries younger just getting a whiff of him. Was afraid I’d lose control if I actually tried to grapple…” She glanced towards Polt. “I don’t suppose he’d-”
“I don’t date family members of marriage friends!” Caboose stated as he stepped out, back in his armor. “Miia says that would be awkward.”
“A pity,” Palaka allowed as Polt sagged with relief. The idea of trying to compete with the Grand-Eldest for Caboose… “Well, I see no reason not to sign, so bring me the paperwork while I still have control of myself, Agent Smith.”
Polt’s eyes popped open in surprise. “G-Grand-Eldest? You’re going to sign?”
“If being with him makes you feel a fraction of what I felt with my first mate - or anything like what seeing him without his armor made me feel just now - I’m not about to let anyone else in the tribes try and complain,” Palaka confirmed as she signed the papers Agent Smith presented her with. She then pulled Polt into a warm embrace. “Little one...be happy, be well, be loved...and send us baby pictures.” Before Polt had a chance to responde to any of that, she grabbed Pala by the ear and began to march out. “Now let’s go before Pala gets a whiff in there and starts an incident. Her self-control…”
As Pala yowled as she was dragged out, Parei gave Polt a warm embrace before following the Grand-Eldest. Korr gave Polt a proud pat on her shoulder, then followed at as well.
“Here you go!” Caboose offered helpfully as he pushed a plush couch up behind Polt.
“Thanks love…” Polt managed to get out before fainting in relief, right onto the provided couch.
It took Polt and Cerea a few days to recover from their respective encounters with their family, during which Caboose focused on taking care of them both. Thankfully, there hadn’t been any direct contact yet from Mero’s family, so it seemed they had the time to wait.
It was as Caboose, Cerea, and Polt returned from their first morning constitutional post the colosseum event that something unexpected happened. As they approached home, the sensors in Caboose’s helmet picked up something near the entrance to the Blue Base compound. Zooming in, he blinked in surprise. “...why are those fish dressed like penguins?” he asked in confusion.
“Fish...penguins?” Cerea clarified, trying to make sense of Caboose’s words once more.
Polt, who had more experience decoding Caboose’s odd way of looking at the world from their long talks while running before Cerea joined them, quickly parsed the sentence into parts and compared it to details she knew of the world. “...Fish-like beings the size of people wearing butler outfits?” she inquired delicately.
“Yeah!” Caboose confirmed happily. “Fish dressed like penguins! That’s what I said.”
“Sounds like fish-men, an evolutionary off-shoot of the merfolk,” Polt explained calmly. “They’re part of the merfolk kingdom, though aren’t actually cross-compatible anymore. They tend to work as servants to the wealthy or noble merfolk families. I’m guessing these two probably work for Mero’s family, and probably have a message from her Mother.” She smirked softly. “If Mero’s mother is wealthy or from the nobility, she’s more likely to have made arrangements to have you and Mero meet with her in a place of her comfort, Beloved.”
“So...fish butlers?” Caboose asked curiously.
“...yes, fish butlers,” Polt confirmed.
“...how are you so skilled at interpreting for Master?” Cerea inquired curiously.
“I’m a good listener,” Polt replied happily. She then grinned impishly. “With a talented tongue.” She struggled not to burst into laughter at Cerea’s bright blush.
The two fish-men turned towards the group as they approached. One was short and stocky with darker scales, while the other was tall and thin with pale scales. Both were dressed in identical butler outfits and wore identical glasses. “I beg your pardon,” the taller one offered calmly, “but we appear to be a bit lost. We are looking for the present residence of Merouta-sama, and this appears to be the correct address, but…” He held up a picture of what the building had looked like before the Freckle units had begun expansion, when it only took up one lot instead of several floors of an entire housing block. “This does not look like the right place…”
“Oh, this is Blue Base!” Caboose confirmed happily. “I’m Caboose! Who’s Martha?”
“Me routa -sama!” the shorter, stockier fish-man insisted angrily.
“Caboose, we did just finish speculating that they work for Mero’s family,” Polt camly reminded him.
“Oh, you mean Mero-chan!” Caboose concluded happily. “Yeah, this is where she lives! Come on in!” He turned to lead them in, turning to Cerea and Polt as he did. “Why do they want Mero’s Samba? I haven’t seen her cook…”
Polt and Cerea both facepalmed as the two fish-men blinked their large eyes in confusion. “Master,” Cerea began carefully, “the suffix ‘-sama’ is used to refer to someone of exceptionally high social standing, like nobility or royalty. It’s a denotation of rank as compared to the one speaking of or to them.”
Caboose thought about that for a time. “...they’re outranked that much by a Lieutenant?” he asked in surprise. “What’s their rank then? Grif?”
Polt desperately tried to contain her giggles as Cerea simply blinked in confusion.
“Sire?” Mero asked curiously as the group entered the main room, where everyone waited. “What are you talking about-”
“Merouta-sama!” the two fish-men declared warmly and excitedly as they rushed to her side, their eyes tearing up somewhat as they clutched their fin-hands together. “It has truly been a long time!”
Mero gasped in surprise. “Sabastian!” she greeted the taller fish-man. “Potemkinme!” she greeted the shorter one. “What are you both doing here?”
“There is only one reason for us to be here!” Potemkinme declared with enthusiasm.
Sabastian cleared his throat delicately. “These are orders from the Queen!” he proclaimed dramatically. “Come back to the kingdom with us, Princess Merouta!”
[Data found,] Freckle suddenly informed Caboose. [Preposition confirmed. Lieutenant Mero is royalty.]
“Oh yeah!” Caboose declared happily as he put his clenched fist into his armored hand. “I forgot I wondered about that back at the aquarium!”
“Mero Princess?” Suu asked in surprise.
“That’s right!” Sabastian declared loudly, ignoring Mero’s sudden blush of embarrassment.
“Her goth-loli loving personality is just to hide her true self!” Potemkinme proclaimed with certainty.
“She is the heir to the Mermaid Throne, Meroune Lorelei Du Neptune!” Sabastian announced dramatically as Mero struggled not to collapse from embarrassment.
Seeing no one moving, Potemkinme rounded on the others. “What are you standing there for?” he demanded angrily. “Such insolence! Bow down! Bow down!”
Before anyone could respond, Caboose spoke up. “Why should we?” he asked curiously. “I get Mero’s a Princess, but Cerea’s the Keybearer. From the way Cerea’s Mom talked about it, pretty sure that’s more important than Princess. And I got the feeling from the way Granny Palaka acted that the Kobolds pretty much ran things among the extra-species when it came to inter-tribe stuff, so doesn’t that make Polt a more important Princess?” Seeing this had caught the two fish-man butlers off-guard enough to make them silent, Caboose pressed on. “Besides, this is Blue Base. She’s not Princess Merry Lightbulb Noodle here.”
Mero put her hands to her mouth to keep herself from bursting into laughter.
“She’s Lieutenant Mero,” Caboose continued. “And I’m Captain Caboose. But I don’t ask her to salute. Besides, I know all the fairy tales. When the Princess lives among commoners under an assumed name, that’s her real self she has to hide while being Princess, not the other way around! So why would I bow to Princess Noodle? I’d rather hug Mero-chan.”
“S-s-such impertinence!” Potemkinme managed to stammer out. “How dare you-”
“And since when do butlers get to speak for Princesses?” Caboose asked again. “Doesn’t rank go the other way?”
“You dare-” Sabastian began.
“Potemkinme! Sabastian!” Mero suddenly barked out, quickly getting their attention. She sat in her wheelchair, her back erect and her gaze stern as she stared down at the two fish-men. “You have served my family faithfully for my entire living memory, and for that you have my admiration. You have guarded me from those who would use my royal status and unguarded words against me and my family during my formative years, for which you have my gratitude. However, Princess I may be but my own life I also have, and that you do not have the right or permission to dictate.”
As she spoke, both fish-men felt themselves sinking to their knees as in their minds’ eyes - the mind’s eye of all present, in fact - Mero seemed to be garbed not in gothic lolita fashion but in royal garb, and sat not upon a wheelchair but upon a throne. Several of those present found themselves kneeling, not quite bowing but certainly assuming a position of respect...except for Caboose and Suu, who both stood their not understanding what was going on, and Rachnera who watched from a distance with a wicked smirk.
At this point, Mero decided it was time to drop the final bomb, and make her stance plain to her retainers, her mother, the other girls...and especially to Caboose. “As such, you shall both show my chosen suitor and co-wives the proper respect. Is that understood?”
“C-chosen suitor?” Sabastian gasped out in shock.
“C-c-co-wives?” Potemkinme barely managed to say.
The other girls gasped in surprise at the assertion. Caboose showed no reaction.
Mero’s eyes hardened as the image of golden regal garb shifted, suddenly taking on - like her gaze - overtones of hardened steel. The image of her no longer clutched a ceremonial scepter, but a royal sword...one that would knight or execute with equal alacrity. “Is that understood?” she repeated more firmly.
“Y-y-yes Your highness!” both fish-men managed to get out. Inside, however, a much different thought echoed.
Queen Neptune is not gonna like this...
With Sabastian and Potemkinme properly cowed, Mero let out a breath before smiling beatifically. “So where is my mother staying?” she asked them happily.
“At the usual hotel,” Sabastian explained in a relieved tone as he no longer felt like he was about to collapse under the weight of Mero’s displeasure.
“Then do be so kind as to make the arrangements,” she instructed happily. “We’ll all be going to see my mother. I want to show my new friends - and future family - the hotel our kingdom thinks so highly of, and introduce them all to my mother. After all, before she makes a decision regarding my engagement, she should meet the prospective groom.”
“Yay!” Caboose declared happily. “New family!”
“Y-yes, Your Highness!” Potemkinme confirmed, though he visibly flinched at the ‘future family’ comment.
“While we’re waiting,” Miia began as the two fish butlers dashed out, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you, Mero. I didn’t say anything when you were putting them in their place, but where do you get off relegating the rest of us to co-wife status? ” Her voice remained calm up until the end, where it suddenly spiked into an angry, hissing shriek. “You’re the last to get the engagement approved, after all!”
“Well, we’re all going to be sharing the duties and pleasures of being Sire’s wives, aren’t we?” Mero asked happily. “Doesn’t that make us co-wives?”
“Though if you mean ‘how dare I declare myself first place’, I wasn’t,” Mero continued with an angelic smile. “I happily embrace my role as one of the later wives. In all fairness, Polt is most likely to be First Wife. Not only does she have the most skill and experience with domestic matters, she is First Lieutenant.”
“Gyurk!” Miia’s scathing retort wound up swallowed at the mention of ‘domestic matters’, as she knew her own domestic skills left a great deal to be desired. Only Caboose was able to eat her cooking, she tended to make messes worse when she tried to clean, and she could not keep up with Suu when it came to mothering ( that particular duty seemed firmly split between Kii, Papi, and Rachnera of all people).
“The arrangements are prepared, Your Highness,” Potemkinme declared as he stepped back in, gesturing to where a rather large stretch limo sat at the curb.
“Then let’s go!” Mero exclaimed eagerly, gently pushing her chair out the door by the wheels until Caboose came up behind her to push it.
Caboose sat back in the limo, watching all his girls as they reacted to the ride to the oceanside in their own way. Suu and Papi eagerly stared out at the waters as they raced by, with Mero watching on in amusement. Rachnera sat huddled in one corner, since there was only so much room even inside a limo for her to stretch her legs. Cerea sat in the opposite corner, her legs carefully folded so as to not accidentally crush them under her own weight, facing a similar problem to Rachnera.
Polt sat one seat away from Caboose, with Kii between them. Apparently, the salt tang of the sea air didn’t entirely agree with her plant nature, and so she found herself clinging to Caboose for comfort as she was so far beyond her ‘home forest’, as she now thought of the forest greenhouse in Blue Base. She’d actually shrunk down somewhat as a result of even having to leave her mobile stump-throne behind, her figure now closer to Papi’s in build.
Miia had curled her lower body up as much as she could without blocking in Mero’s wheelchair, and was watching the waves through a separate window from Papi and Suu. Lala had been nowhere to be found when they gathered to make the trip, but Caboose was confident she’d show up if she was needed...or if something would interest her. He was upset the girls of MON and Kuku couldn’t come, but they were all busy.
As a thought finally occurred to him, he turned to Sabastian. “So this is about the engagement, right?” he asked curiously.
“I...do not know,” Sabastian admitted. “Until Merouta-sama brought it up, I had not heard about it.”
“Oh.” Caboose turned that over in his mind for a time.
“Then why the summons?” Polt asked curiously, deciding to get the question Caboose would eventually reach out there before they reached their destination.
Sabastian pulled out some paperwork. “From what we’ve heard from our security forces, a dangerous individual is targeting the Princess! The Scylla...Oct!” He showed Caboose and Polt a grained out picture of what looked like an either masked or scarred face under an all-covering robe. “She’s a villain who has deceived many mermaids! The information we received says the Princess is her next target!”
“The Queen is very worried about this,” Potemkinme indicated. “We would have arranged for security personnel to protect the Princess, but...apparently hiring security forces for someone else’s embassy isn’t diplomatically feasible.”
“So what do you make of this?” Polt asked Caboose curiously as she showed the paper to him.
“I think Miia’s going to be upset with me again,” Caboose deduced calmly.
“Huh?” Polt asked in confusion.
“I like Connect the Dots!” Caboose explained happily.
All the girls glanced at each other as they tried to parse that odd statement. Before an answer could be deduced, however, the limo came to a halt. “We’re here,” Potemkinme declared as they began to unload.
The hotel resembled an ordinary hotel building rising into the sky for the lower half of the floors. However, the top half of the building looked more like a castle than a standard human building, or even a skyscraper.
“Which is Hudson’s room?” Caboose asked curiously, staring at the castle-portion of the building.
“I...beg your pardon?” Sabastian asked in confusion.
“Oh, did they already move to the clock tower?” Caboose asked sadly.
Everyone exchanged glances, as Caboose seemed to be more confusing than usual. “Enter, please,” Sabastian finally instructed, hoping for something to eventually make sense.
Caboose walked at the head of his group as they entered the hotel/castle. The wide moat around the outside turned out to actually be an aquatic highway for swimming guests to get in and out in a hurry, while others were pushed about in wheelchairs or walked. Merfolk of all sorts swam in the river road, while others were escorted down glass highways with fish of all sorts swimming on all sides. Caboose instantly noticed Rachnera and Suu getting uncomfortable being surrounded by so much water. “Is this safe?” he asked worriedly.
[Atmospheric envelope constructed,] his Freckle offered helpfully. [All Freckle units assigned to land based Blues unified to generate safe space. Estimated pressure limits...3,700 atmospheres at standard gravity.]
“That’s more than at the deepest parts of the ocean!” Mero gasped in shock. “That’s amazing!”
[These units function at maximum capacity,] Freckle confirmed, once more managing to sound pleased. [Analyzing molecular composition of water...field can be maintained in full immersion for six hours without fresh infusion of air atmosphere. Side effects of oxygen deprivation will not begin to appear until the four hour mark in Lieutenant Papi, longer in others.]
“Then we’re perfectly safe with those floodgates?” Caboose asked excitedly as the roof opened up above them and thousands of gallons of water flowed down...parting around the group in a perfect sphere and leaving them completely dry.
[Affirmative,] Freckle agreed as Mero slipped out of her wheelchair and into the water.
“That’s good,” she offered happily as she swam. “This hotel is meant for aquatic extraspecies, so the interior is filled with water…” She noticed Rachnera and Suu sporting matching freaked out expressions. “...and I probably should have mentioned that sooner?” she offered apologetically.
“Well, Arachne like Rachnera also breathe through their exoskeletons like spiders, and slimes like Suu can be dissolved by being exposed to too much water…” Polt explained softly. “So yeah, that was important to mention sooner.”
“Sabastian!” Mero barked out insistently. “Guide the others to the Dry Rooms immediately! I will meet with them there after I have met with my mother. See to their needs in the meantime.”
“Yes Your Highness!” Sabastian responded immediately, turning to guide the group further into the hotel. As Mero swam away, it didn’t take long for Sabastian to get the group out of the water filled areas. “Terribly sorry about that, we were so enveloped in giving Merouta-sama the VIP treatment she deserves that we forgot that most of you aren’t water breathers. This hotel was made specially by and for our kingdom’s Royal Family, with VIP rooms for others of our species...but there’s an additional hotel attached for air-breathers. Had we thought about it, we would have brought you in from that direction.”
“Well, nobody’s hurt,” Caboose allowed as he cuddled Suu and Rachnera to comfort them. “So for now, what’s fun? We can meet with Mero when she’s done talking to her Mom, right? And then we can meet her Mom?”
“Er...yes,” Sabastian allowed, uncertain what to say to the one his Princess had declared as her suitor. “Well, there’s the beach-”
“I love the beach!” Caboose declared excitedly.
Mero swam calmly into the throne room within the hotel, seeing her mother waiting for her. “Mother…” she began carefully.
“Child, your time abroad must come to an end immediately-” her mother began.
“No!” Mero snapped out, interrupting her mother - and flat out defying her - for the first time in her life. “I do not know what has happened that has caused such problems, but I will not be separated from my beloved Lord! He is not even of New Japan, so how can it be-”
“There are things you are unaware of,” her mother interrupted firmly, her eyes glowing in the darkened throne room. “It is good to see you growing into your regality and learning to wield the authority and stand up for yourself, but you cannot be the petulant child, spoiled princess, or angsty teenager now. Relations between humanity and the merfolk are deteriorating...and if they continue, the merfolk may withdraw from the Treaty.”
Mero gasped in shock. “W...what? How can it possibly be that bad?”
“That does not concern you at the moment,” her mother chided gently. “It is best you do not get involved. We will discuss further later, but for now return to your rooms. I will meet with your friends at a later time.”
Mero lowered her gaze. As much as she wanted to speak up and press, she was a Princess. She had a Duty. Sadly, she returned to her rooms to think, to plan...and to figure out what she would need to tell her Lord so that he would blunder into a solution to this matter. Surely he would come up with something…
[Someone is at the door,] her Freckle observed calmly once they’d gone to her rooms. [It is not a merfolk or a Blue. Treat as hostile?]
Curious, Mero pulled the door open...and stared in surprise at the figure there. “Have you come to kidnap me as my Mother suspects, as the cause of this crisis that is separating me from my beloved, and dooming me to forever be trapped in horrible imprisonment?” she asked, her voice moving from worried to excited as she began to discuss tragedy.
The woman at the door flinched back in surprise. She stood - more floated in the water of this part of the hotel, really - taller than Mero, with a dark-skinned, voluptuous figure barely contained by a skimpy white robe, the hood mostly hiding her face as tentacles swayed from around her face and flexed below her waist to keep her in place. “Err...not exactly…” She then blinked in shock as she felt dray air suddenly touched her back.
“Are you actually a nice lady who doesn’t have magic who’s gotten caught up in the merfolk’s tragic romance obsession in the villain role who just wants them to leave her alone, but would welcome friends who accept you for you?” Caboose asked hopefully.
The Scylla woman blinked in surprise. “...more or less, yes,” she allowed. “How did you know?”
“I like Connect the Dots!” Caboose greeted happily.
“Are you truly so wise, Sire?” Mero asked in shock.
[Captain Caboose requested this unit run literary analysis of events to determine the motivations of the Scylla Oct that had the highest probability of Recruitment,] Caboose’s Freckle explained. [That was the result.]
Mero blinked a bit as she remembered the present status - from Caboose’s perspective - of the ‘recruits’ of his Blue Team...and chuckled. “Oh, so that’s why you think Miia will be upset with you.”
“So does that mean you’ll help me?” Oct pleaded with Mero. “You’ll use your authority to dash the rumors that I’m tempting mermaids into eloping with humans?”
“Wait!” Caboose interrupted. “Merfolk are obsessed with tragic romance like The Little Mermaid...and people think they need someone tempting them to go hunting for that sort of romance? I mean, Freckle thought the rumor was that you were allied with wicked humans preying on mermaids desire for such a romance to lead them into a situation where they would be captured and exploited. That’s a much better narrative, right?”
“Perhaps we should step into my rooms before continuing this discussion?” Mero suggested carefully. “If only to not draw attention?”
“Please,” Oct agreed as the group stepped through the door.
Oct gently floated in the middle of Mero’s rooms as Mero guided Caboose to a makeshift seat. Given it was a room designed entirely underwater for aquatic residents, guests were generally expected to float relaxingly in the water or recline against whatever surface they desired. In the end, Caboose wound up sitting on Mero’s tragedy table - the merfolk variant of a vanity table, equipped with those things that better allowed merfolk to indulge in a ‘tragic narrative’ - with his back to her mirror. It was actually Mero’s second choice of seating, but Caboose had proved unable to maintain balance on the two present Freckle units, and Mero did not want him accepting Oct’s invitation of sitting among her tentacles.
Once everyone was as comfortable as they could get, Mero turned to Oct. “Now, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?” she asked gently. She then paused, bringing her hand to her chin. “But...where exactly is the beginning?”
“Well, I think your Lord there hit the nail on the head earlier,” Oct pointed out. “Merfolk have been obsessed with the Little Mermaid tragic romance since your people learned of the story, leading to them lining piers and fishing lanes in the hopes of becoming entangled in such a romance...and every so often one would get it into their head to seek out a ‘magic user’ who could actually ‘turn them human’ to carry out the entire story.”
“And you come across as a mysterious loner living in a dangerous grotto with an odd way of communing with your aquatic environment, leading them to conclude you could use magic?” Caboose deduced curiously.
Oct blinked in surprise. “Well, the ‘loner’ and ‘dangerous’ parts only came into play when I got sick of the visits and worked to enforce ‘no trespassing’,” she admitted readily. “But for the most part, you are correct.” She glanced towards Mero. “How is he able to deduce such things so readily?”
Mero smiled softly. “If I had to guess, it would be because your behavior reminds him of Rachnera, who he almost instantly deduced as ‘presenting a scary front because she’d been hurt badly before’.”
“That’s about right, yeah,” Caboose confirmed. “Also, things have been making a lot more sense if I think of them like the bedtime stories I read to Suu.”
Oct smiled a little impishly. “Adorable,” she murmured softly, and a trifle wickedly as she subtly moved closer to Caboose. Speaking up, she continued the narrative. “However, recently rumors have been spread that I’ve been actively tempting merfolk into such elopements for whatever reason, which is ‘threatening the security of the merfolk nation’. I have no idea where the rumors are coming from-”
“I think I do,” Caboose spoke up quickly. “Mero, could you lead Oct towards your Mom? I’ll catch up in a bit. I need to set something up with Freckle.”
Mero blinked in surprise. Caboose hadn’t slipped into an angry tone - yet - but he seemed to be thinking far more clearly than normal. He appeared to have a plan for the situation. “Alright, sire,” she offered affectionately, swimming up to snuggle him and place a gentle kiss on the side of his helmet before swimming out, leading Oct behind her.
Once the door was closed, Caboose turned to Freckle. “Freckle, you know that project I started to indulge Mero’s love of tragedy? The one that Polt said went too far?”
[‘Tragedy Omega Simulator’ data file is complete,] Freckle responded readily. [Adjust for Queen Neptune?]
“Yeah,” Caboose confirmed. “Do that.”
Mero and Oct stared at the Queen in shock and horror as she finished explaining her reasoning. Mero was especially incensed on hearing the full explanation. Her mother had fallen for a human man, and was deliberately orchestrating a war between the merfolk and humanity - with the side effect of destroying the Interspecies Treaty - just so she could turn that fling into a tragic romance? It was unthinkable.
However, before either of them could get a word out - or the Queen could say more - the room seemed to chill. Ice crystals took shape on the surface of the water as almost silent splashing could be heard.
“ So that’s it, ” Caboose spoke up as he stalked across the surface of the water towards the Queen, his Freckle floating at his side. “ You’re plunging the world into a needless war, tearing apart so many friends and loved ones, causing untold death and destruction...just so you can feel good about not having an affair? ”
The Queen flinched back fearfully from the figure that approached her, defying nature by his very existence. “I-I wouldn’t necessarily put it that way…” she began hesitantly.
“Yes, she is!” Mero snapped out angrily.
“Meroune!” the Queen gasped in shock.
“Part of your narrative was it being shaped by your duties as Queen!” Mero called back, her eyes as pointed as shards of glass as she conveyed her fury. “And you did tell me I must act the Princess, and not the spoiled child!”
“ That’s okay, ” Caboose declared calmly, the rage in his voice turning it into a proclamation as irrevocable as one that emanated from a burning bush. “ You love tragedy. I wouldn’t deny you that, Your Majesty. But I have a better tragedy for you. ”
“O-oh?” the Queen asked nervously.
[Playing ‘Tragedy Omega Simulator’ data file, format Queen Neptune,] Freckle intoned firmly, a beam of light shooting from its optic to the Queen’s head as it broadcast visuals to go with the story it now told. [This tragedy will unfold thusly. Captain Caboose has heard the confirmation of your intent to create world war ‘so you can feel good about not having an affair’. Captain Caboose will carry this knowledge to the surface to disseminate to the world, and all the other races of demihumans. It is beyond the power of your forces or technology to prevent this. This will result in war...when the entire rest of the world makes war on the merfolk to unseat you from your throne, as one so clearly unbalanced cannot be allowed to remain in a position to work such horrors.]
Mero’s mother flinched back from the declaration and the images that accompanied it. “W-well, I-”
[That is Act One,] Freckle interrupted calmly. [Act Two is the war itself. As long as there is civilization, there will be those willing to take advantage of other individuals for profit. In the confusion of the war, any merfolk that go missing will be assumed as casualties, and thus no one will be able to save those captured by humans for nefarious purposes, because they will not know. And when the war is over and Queen Neptune is imprisoned and Lieutenant Mero has claimed political sanctuary with Captain Caboose to escape the conflict, the merfolk will be without a leader they will trust, or one the rest of the world will trust. The ‘harvesting’ will continue, with any claims of it happening in the numbers it is shrugged off as ‘merfolk tragedy mongering’. No one will know to save them.]
Mero was pressing bother he hands to her mouth, her cheeks alternating between white and green as she visualized the fate of her people in such a tragedy. Oct was staring at Caboose and Freckle with her eyes wide...though whether from the tale or the fact Caboose was walking on water it was hard to tell. The Queen was huddled on her throne, futilely trying to block the transmissions. “P-please...stop…” she pleaded weakly. “N-n-no more…”
[In Act Three, the merfolk make a last desperate attempt to force the world to see the truth by making war against the humans preying on them,] Freckle continued mercilessly. [However, by this time their numbers will be depleted to the point that they will not stand a chance. The merfolk as an independent culture will be wiped out, the only survivors those kept by off-world humans as lab experiments or entertainment, Lieutenant Mero whose romance with Captain Caboose becomes tragic in that it’s at the cost of her people, and you...trapped in your cell having witnessed the fall of your people, and knowing you have no one to blame but yourself.] The beam held for a few moments more, then cut off. [Tragedy Omega Simulator terminated.]
The Queen remained huddled on her throne, her tail wrapped protectively around herself as she desperately tried to hide from the revelation that had been forced on her. “No...no...don’t...I can’t…”
“ No, you can’t, ” Caboose spoke firmly as he walked up to her. “ You are a leader. That means your first concern must be what is best for those who lead. You cannot have the same pleasures, the same joys, the same indulgences that those who look to you have. You must sacrifice your own freedom to indulge for their well being. ”
“That’s what it means to be royal...isn’t it, Mother?” Mero asked softly, still reeling from what she’d heard, knowing that her mother must have had it far worse.
“Y-yes,” the Queen managed to say, carefully uncurling on her throne. “Y-you’re right. I was...so focused on my own selfish desire for tragedy...I forgot what I owe my people. I...I cannot act so freely. I can...never again forget the weight of my crown.” She turned to Caboose. “T-thank you, My Lord, for reminding me of my true duty…”
“You’re welcome!” Caboose offered happily, his voice - and the temperature - returning to normal.
The Queen turned back to Mero. “And this is the one you desire to be with, daughter?” she asked carefully, managing to gather her composure.
“Yes, Mother!” Mero affirmed devoutly. “I love him with all my heart, and wish to spend the rest of my life by his side!”
“Then far be it for a mere Queen to stand against one such as he,” her mother offered ruefully. “So long as he knows that is your desire, I doubt my forces would fare any better against he alone when he sought to ‘rescue his imprisoned Princess’ than in the...scenario...his Device presented me with. I will...have the appropriate paperwork filed by the time you return with him to your new home.”
Mero’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Mother!” she cried out in joy, throwing herself at her mother in a warm embrace.
“Yay!” Caboose declared happily. “Everything’s better now! Who knew making someone super duper sad could make lots of people happy? I thought that only worked on or for bad guys!”
Oct watched the event that had unfolded speculatively. While she didn’t have magical abilities as the Little Mermaid stories suggested for one like her, she did have a much stronger connection to her environment than other aquatic beings, and she had felt what Caboose’s cold wrath had done to the energy fields with his mere presence. She knew of only one thing that could cause such a reaction...and was fascinated. She wanted to know more about him. She wanted to learn how one such as he could exert such control when he was so...foolish. And if the strength of the aura gave any indication of what was beneath the armor...she wanted him. She turned towards the Freckle thoughtfully.
[Compile a list of accommodation requirements and submit it to this unit before departure,] Freckle offered calmly. [Then accompany Captain Caboose to Blue Base. Your paperwork for an Interspecies Exchange Student ID and Assignation Application have already been processed. An appropriate chamber will have been built or arranged by your arrival...Lieutenant Oct.]
As Oct submitted the details of her required accommodations - which, as it turned out, were already accounted for in Blue Base's reconstruction, much to her amusement - the Queen had a formal meeting with the entirety of Team Blue present to announce that Mero's engagement to Caboose was officially approved, and the situation regarding Oct and elopements had been...resolved. That discussion did not go exactly as expected.
"What was the situation, anyway?" Miia pressed curiously.
As the Queen cleared her throat awkwardly, Mero spoke up. "Mother blew it a bit out of proportion in order to have a...tragic love affair with a human she'd become enamored with."
"...what?" Polt demanded very coldly.
"But that is unseemly behavior for a ruler!" Cerea declared in disbelief.
"Yes," the Queen allowed apologetically. "I...allowed my obsession with tragedy to blind me to my duties. Ambassador Caboose was kind enough to enlighten me to the consequences of my actions, and remind me of my duties to my people. I shall not allow myself to be so deluded again." Though she spoke firmly, her voice was sad and regretful.
"So you're going to be too focused on being a good queen to have fun, are you?" Rachnera teased, perhaps a bit more cruelly than she intended. "How very tragic for you."
"Yes..." the Queen began, only for her eyes to light up. "What wonderful tragedy!" she declared excitedly. "My duties as leader of my people isolate me from the pleasures my people enjoy, forcing me to be aloof and sacrifice my own desires and yearnings for the good of all who look to me for leadership! Oh the tragedy of a love that can never be allowed to be kindled! I can hardly wait to tell the King the wondrous news!"
"That was very helpful, Rachnera!" Caboose declared happily. "See everyone? I told you she was really good inside!"
"Yes..." Rachnera replied awkwardly. "I absolutely meant that to be helpful. A...harsh goad."
"Just like Carolina!" Caboose confirmed happily.
"How about we leave it to her then, and head home?" Miia suggested awkwardly. "Mero, we can still use the limo, right?"
"Actually, we'll need a larger vehicle," Mero allowed awkwardly. "We have an...extra passenger." She gestured to where Oct was smiling as she finished with Caboose's Freckle before sending a warm - and a trifle predatory - smile Caboose's way.
Miia glanced from Oct to Mero to Caboose...then sighed ruefully. "Darling, how many more girls do you think you'll be bringing home?"
[Blue Base currently can comfortably house eight more Demi-human individuals before it will need to be rebuilt to enable easier maneuvering for the size of the group,] Freckle offered helpfully.
"...so at least four..." Miia murmured sadly. Sighing, she shrugged her shoulders. "Can you at least give me warning if you think it's going to happen, Darling?"
"Okay!" Caboose offered happily.
Caboose calmly walked along the seaside where he'd been instructed to. When the group had returned, Zombina, Manako, Tio, and Doppel had expressed displeasure that they'd been left out of the intense events that occurred when meeting with Mero's mother, especially the addition of another girl (not that they had objections to that, per se. Mostly, they objected to not being able to vet her first). To make it up to them, Caboose was going to take each of them on a solo date to solidify their place in the engagement in their minds. Today was Zombina's turn, and she'd asked him to meet her here while she prepared something.
"I wonder why Bina didn't want to come together?" Caboose asked idly.
[Extrapolation: Second Lieutenant Zombina was preparing unusual weaponry last night,] Freckle observed thoughtfully. [Second Lieutenant may be expecting some sort of combat. Prevalance of various forms of salt and other purifying agents suggests anticipated conflict is with another undead.]
"That makes sense," Caboose allowed thoughtfully. "But why doesn't she want me along? I like making new friends, living or dead."
Freckle blipped a few times, then responded. [Given the physical capabilities of Captain Caboose as compared to that of other races of Demi-Humans, it is possible Captain Caboose is 'bait'.]
"Yay!" Caboose declared happily. "I love fishing-oh, what's that?" Bending over, he picked up a red envelope from the ground. "It's Red, so it might be enemy...oh, it's got my name on it!" He eagerly opened it up. Inside was a bundle of money, a blank marriage certificate, a photo of a girl dressed in ancient Chinese burial clothes, and a lock of hair. "...I am very confused."
"Wei!" someone called out, causing Caboose to turn.
Approaching him was the girl from the picture, though in this light he could see that her skin had a slight bluish tinge to it which excited him. "Hello!" he greeted happily. "Are you a new friend?"
"I see you found my envelope," she purred happily as she sauntered towards him.
"Oh, did you mean this for me?" he asked excitedly. "Maybe you can explain it?"
"Oh it's simple," she replied impishly. "You find, you keep...and you marry beyond the grave."
"Oh, you want to be my marriage friend too?" he called excitedly. "Yay! New marriage friend!"
The figure froze. "R-really?" she asked in surprise. "Just like that?"
"Well, you wouldn't have asked if you didn't know me well already, right?" he asked easily. "Besides, I don't see any problem with it. Oh, but not today. I'm here for a date with Bina-oh!" He looked at the envelope again. "Is that how you know about me? Are you friends with Bina? Is that why she wanted to date here? To introduce me to you so you can make a home with us?"
The woman stared at him for a time, plainly shocked. "And here I thought she was exaggerating..."
"I wouldn't dare," Zombina spoke up as she approached from behind the girl. "With Caboose, it might come true." She turned to Caboose. "This is Shiishii, the Jiangshi, a routine pain in my ass...and a friend when she isn't."
"Hi Shii shii!" Caboose greeted happily. "Was I right, Bina? Did you want to introduce us?"
"Well, either that or use you as bait to shoot her if she got unruly," Zombina allowed with a chuckle. "Still want in, Shiishii? I know you told me you were planning to get involved, but now that you've seen-"
"I wouldn't have put his name on my envelope if I wasn't sure," Shiishii interrupted.
"...wait, really?" Zombina gasped in surprise, only to smirk as Caboose held the envelope up. "Well, I guess that's settled."
"Is that all you wanted for the date today?" Caboose asked curiously.
[Alert: Rotten Comic Show begins in 20 minutes,] Zombina's Freckle spoke up. [Estimated time to reach Women's Doujinshi Convention from present location, 15 minutes.]
"The event!" Zombina and Shiishii declared urgently.
"Women D'jinni?" Caboose declared excitedly. "I can get lots of wishes!"
Shiishii turned to Zombina in disbelief. She merely shrugged, an odd smile and blush not quite matching her flat-eyed gaze. "You get used to it."
Caboose and Doppel sat across from each other at a small table, staring at teach other. It was supposed to be their date, but they hadn't actually gone anywhere. They were still in the planning stages...and lacked a plan.
"Don't you have any ideas?" Doppel pressed firmly.
"But it's your date," Caboose pointed out. "That's why it's your choice. What do you want to do?"
Doppel let out an irritated 'tsk'. "I had one thing I wanted to do, but Agent Smith and the other MON girls already made it clear what will happen if I rope you into that."
"Oh?" Caboose asked curiously. "What?"
"I wanted to take you pranking," Doppel responded glumly. "But if I 'stain your inno-'"
"I love pranks!" Caboose declared happily. "What are we gonna do? Whipped cream? Trumpets? TP?"
Doppel stared at him flat eyed. "Caboose, I can take any shape I want. My pranks are a little more...intense than that."
"Any shape?" Caboose asked curiously. "Like a pentagon? Geometry must be really easy for you!"
The swirling silver hair around Doppel twisted and knotted...but she clutched the sweater she still wore and took a deep breath, the twists unknotting. "Caboose, you saw me change into Tio. You know what-"
"But you didn't change into Tio," Caboose corrected. "You got really big, grew a horn, and made it look like you were wearing Tio's armor, but you were still you."
Doppel stared at him in surprise, remembering that he'd known who she was even when in a different shape then, too. "You see me...no matter what shape I take?" she asked in surprise.
"Why wouldn't I see you?" Caboose asked in confusion. "You are you, not anybody else."
On an impulse, Doppel transformed herself into a slavering wolf-like monster, opening wide a jaw large enough to eat Caboose whole.
"My, Doppel, what big teeth you have!" Caboose responded excitedly. "Are we doing improv now?"
Doppel resumed her usual form, a curious glint in her eyes. "Caboose...how'd you like to put yourself, and me, to a real test in a fun game?"
"I love games!" Caboose declared excitedly.
Grinning, Doppel pulled out a 'Call of Cthulhu' set. "In that case, we'll see how you do in this game...but when you roll sanity, I'll take on the described form and how you react will give you a modifier."
"I think I start with a pretty big penalty," Caboose pointed out. "At least, that's what Carolina says."
Doppel chuckled as she set things up.
Partway through the game, as she gave the description, Doppel took on the form of a slavering Shoggoth reaching for Caboose. She was ready to shift back if he-
"What a cute puppy!" Caboose declared excitedly, reaching out to pet her altered form.
-did something logical for once. Resuming her own form, she glanced at the papers. "You...pet the man eating Shoggoth?"
"Yup!" Caboose declared excitedly. "And I ask him who's a good puppy, scratch his belly like parts, and throw a bone for him to chase."
"Uh...roll dice?" Doppel offered uncertainly.
The dice rolled. Doppel looked at the results. "...how?" she whimpered in surprise.
"What happened?" Caboose asked curiously.
"You...tamed the Shoggoth," Doppel explained worriedly. "It's...wagging its hind portion as it clambers over you and slathers its unholy slime on you in...sloppy puppy kisses..."
"Yay! New puppy!" Caboose declared happily, throwing his arms into the air.
"You do what when the image of Nyarlathotep manifests?" Doppel demanded in shock as she reverted.
"I tell her what a pretty lady she is, and ask her if I can get tickets to one of her shows," Caboose repeated.
"If she's got 1000 faces, she must be a great actor!"
"...he did what?" Agent Smith asked as Doppel spoke to her.
"He won the game," Doppel repeated, "by...romancing all the Elder Gods into becoming his harem."
"How is that-"
"I let him play as himself, because he said he didn't know how to be anyone else," Doppel explained.
Agent Smith rubbed her forehead. "Is...is it wrong that I don't find that an unbelievable result in that case?"
"It gets worse," Doppel pointed out.
"How?" Smith pressed nervously.
"He's got his Freckle working on combining the Call of Cthulhu game with anime roleplay settings to make a sequel campaign based on the anime 'Haiyore! Nyaruko-san'," Doppel explained ruefully. "And he wants us all to play for a game night."
Agent Smith stared at her for a time, then sighed. "I could use a night off," she responded ruefully.
Caboose's date with Tio proved rather uneventful. At Tio's request, the pair went on a picnic in Tio's old forest, where - due to the 'protection' Caboose had placed, everything was still pristine and natural. The pair had a wonderful time, the only event of note being when Tio mentioned that she was looking forward to when she could stop calling him 'Mr. Fiance' and start calling him 'Mr. Husband'.
"When will that be?" Caboose asked curiously.
Tio blushed brightly. "When we..." She twiddled her fingers nervously. "When we all are one..."
"Are...one?" Caboose tilted his head in confusion.
Tio blinked, then giggled softly. "Umm...when we all..." She rubbed one fingertip against another as she searched for a proper way to explain it. "When...oh Freckle, can you explain it?"
[Among the ogre tribe, a group marriage is considered formalized when the entire group engages in physical intimacy under the full moon,] Tio's Freckle explained calmly.
"The full...oh!" Caboose responded, understanding it. "I see. So that's...a pretty important event?"
"We consider it sacred, Mr. Fiance," she whispered softly.
Caboose was silent for a time. "...what is 'sacred'?"
Tio couldn't help but sweatdrop. How was she going to explain that?
While Manako had been nervous about going on a date with Caboose alone as she was still uncertain about being stared at, Caboose was quick to reassure her that anyone staring would be staring at him.
"Either because I stand out and am a celibate-tea, or because I have such a super cute date and they're jealous!" he explained readily, alternately making Manako giggle and blush brightly.
"Yeah, your tea is anything but celibate!" Zombina called as she helped Shiishii settle her things - and their purchases from the convention - into the mausoleum.
"From what you've described, I'm really looking forward to my turn," Shiishii purred eagerly, making Zombina to blush...much to Shiishii's confusion. After all, Zombina didn't have blood in her veins anymore, so how were her cheeks able to color?
"Hey!" Miia hissed angrily, her tail jerking spasmodically with her irritation. "I was here before any of you, so I'm getting first chance at Darling!"
"I believe that should be Master's choice," Cerea observed diffidently, though clenching her fists tightly. It was plain to everyone except Caboose that only good manners kept her from claiming first go by rights of being his squire and the Keybearer.
"And if Honey doesn't want to choose, then it's first cum first served..." Rachnera purred wickedly, idly manipulating her silk between her claws.
"And I think you might find that competition...a bit more than you can handle," Oct purred throatily as her tentacles writhed threateningly, her eyes glowing from under her hood.
"And I think we should probably leave before everything explodes," Manako whispered nervously as she clung to Caboose.
[Affirmative,] Caboose's Freckle agreed as they left.
In the mausoleum, Zombina turned to Shiishii. "Thanks," she whispered happily. "I knew that would get Mana-chan more scared of staying than going."
"No problem!" Shiishii responded happily. "But...how are you able to blush? Also, how come you haven't suffered any rigor mortis while I've been here?"
Zombina blinked in surprise. "I...what?"
In the shadows of the mausoleum, Lala watched thoughtfully. Her suspicions were narrowing. Of all the divine beings out there that Caboose might be tied to, very few could give even a semblance of true life to the dead, as seemed to be happening to Zombina...
Caboose first took Manako to a local festival, as he wanted to enjoy the games. Unfortunately, the vendors at the stalls recognized him from the last time he'd been to that festival before the girls had started being placed with him. It was part of what had made people stare at him so much back then. All the skill games closed 'for maintenance' as he approached because he'd nearly cleaned them out when he'd been there last from being too good with his hands...except the sharp-shooting stall, where one bad shot had caused a chain reaction that collapsed the entire stall.
At Manako's suggestion, they instead went somewhere more private where they could both relax without worrying about being judged...karaoke. Much to her surprise, Caboose had a surprisingly good singing voice when singing a song he knew by heart...which were quite a lot. Almost a third of those he knew by heart were, unsurprisingly with 17 sisters, Disney songs. Another third, surprisingly enough, were love songs in languages other than English. The last third - save two - were lullabies from all across the universe, even one that seemed to consist entirely of the sound 'Blargh'.
The last two songs he knew seemed odd, and yet somehow suited him perfectly. With the first, he gave Rick Astley a run for his money. With the last...well, even Manako got infected with his energy and began to dance as he called out, "It's just a jump to the left..."
Caboose lay back in bed, alone for once. What Tio had said had stuck with him, even if he hadn't been able to understand the concept of 'sacred'. Apparently, it was super important when they all got together under the full moon next time. Since the next full moon was coming up, he needed to make sure he made this full moon a good one.
"Freckle?" he called out.
"See if you can find some good romantic spots for next full moon," Caboose asked hopefully. "Someplace to make it...special."
[Searching Extra-species compatible honeymoon locations...]
"So where are we going, Darling?" Miaa asked curiously as Freckles towed the large trailer they were all loaded into down the road at Caboose's direction.
"I dunno," Caboose answered readily. "I asked Freckle to look for something, and he found a few spots, so we're going to the first one. He knows what he's doing, right?"
[Prospects unknown,] Freckle replied apologetically. [Original search parameters turned up no results as original search parameters had not been applied to any locations as of yet. Parsing search parameters and cross referencing produced unusual results. Present destination is most likely positive result.]
"And where is our present destination?" Cerea pressed. "I need to know our planned surroundings if I am to properly serve as Master's Squire."
[Analysis of social customs indicate that this destination should remain a surprise, thus the requisition of a blackout transport vehicle,] Freckle pointed out firmly.
"Are we there yet?" Papi asked curiously.
"Are there yet?" Suu piped up.
Giggling impishly, Doppel turned into Papi. "Are we there yet?"
"Are we there yet?" Caboose asked curiously.
"Isn't that going to get annoying?" Polt whispered to her Freckle.
[Standardized personality Freckle units lack the capacity for irritation,] her Freckle replied.
[Are we there yet?] Papi's Freckle inquired.
[Error: Freckle units share information, and unit assigned to Papi already retains that information. Inquiry from Freckle units irrelevant,] Caboose's Freckle countered firmly.
[Inquiry fun!] Suu's Freckle countered. [Are we there yet?]
[If discussion does not cease, this unit will reverse course,] Freckles declared over the intercom.
[...normally,] Polt's Freckle amended.
"Are we there yet?" Caboose asked curiously.
"Darling!" Miia gasped worriedly. "Don't make Freckles turn around-"
[Affirmative,] Freckles declared as the sense of motion ceased. [Mission complete. Blue Team has arrived at destination: The Arctic Inn Onsen Resort.]
"Onsen?" the girls declared excitedly as the side of the vehicle began to open, eagerly dashing out...into a snowy wonderland before an old style inn.
"Snow!" Papi declared excitedly as she started playing in the snow, attempting to make a snowman. Tio and Caboose quickly joined her.
"It's...s-s-s-so cold..." Rachnera spoke up as she began to shiver.
[Engaging environmental protections,] her Freckle spoke up, its optic giving off extra illumination. The Freckles assigned to Miia, Mero, Suu, Oct, Zombina, Kii, and Shiishii followed suit.
"Much better!" Zombina declared happily as she dove into the snow to play as well, marveling at how she could feel the cold of the snow without freezing, and staying warm without the snow melting in her hands. It wasn't long before the vast majority of those present began to play in the snow, only Cerea, Rachnera, Oct, and Lala holding back.
As they played, a woman stepped out of the inn. She had exceptionally pale skin and snow white hair held in a snowflake pin that shimmered ice blue. She wore a blue snowflake patterned kimono, and her eyes were a very bright and pale blue. "Thank you for choosing our resort, The Arctic Inn, for your visit," she offered, her voice very quiet and controlled. "I am Yukio, a yuki-onna, the proprietress of this inn. Please come inside, your other guest is already here." As she stepped into the snow, a road of ice extended from the inn out to the street to give them all easy access.
"Okay!" Caboose replied happily as he led the way inside...where Agent Smith was already lazing about on the heated floors, enjoying the relaxation.
"Hello, 'Darling'," she called playfully, though her voice was very relaxed.
[This vacation is most welcome,] her Freckle informed them all.
"Allow me to show you the facilities," Yukio spoke up calmly.
"Everybody be five year olds!" Caboose called excitedly, making Polt giggle.
Yukio turned to Polt, a slight confused frown on her face. "I...do not see the humor."
"When I was first opening my extra-species gym, I asked him to point out anything I had missed in terms of getting it set up," Polt explained. "He responded he'd do his best to be a five year old."
"Ah," Yukio concluded, turning back to Caboose. "Thank you for your assistance. While your large party means a full booking for the inn...it is the first booking we've had in some time, since the renovations for extra-species and shifting to mixed bathing."
"Mixed bathing?!" many of the girls declared excitedly. Yukio looked slightly nervous.
The features of the inn were extensive. Massive rooms so even the largest of extra-species could stretch out and relax, baths with variable depth so beings of all sizes could relax comfortably, variable temperature baths for those who did not do well in too much heat, and the outdoor hot spring was large enough that the entire group was able to enjoy it together...though many of the girls expressed rueful frustration that Caboose wore his armor into the spring.
"This place is amazing!" he declared as he floated on his back in the water. "Why are we the first booking in a while?"
"Search me!" Doppel replied as she lay back. "I can't think of a reason this place wouldn't be packed all the time."
"It's not too hard to understand from the human perspective," Zombina offered as she glanced over to where Agent Smith was in one corner far from Caboose, her bathing towel held tight against her body. "Right, Kuku?"
"Huh?" Tio asked in confusion as she lifted her head.
Agent Smith sighed softly. "Humans have much stronger modesty issues than extra-species," she explained calmly. "And since that also means a matching increase in interest in that sort of thing, most single women have...issues when it comes to mixed bathing with strangers."
"But we aren't strangers," Rachnera pointed out teasingly, her Freckle ensuring that she didn't get too overheated from the water. "So what are you doing so far from Honey?"
"...shut up..." Kuroko growled under her breath.
"Really?" Caboose asked in surprise. "Human girls have that problem? Tucker seemed to really like the idea of mixed bathing hot springs whenever Sister talked about it."
"That's because most human males are pervs who enjoy getting a chance to ogle partially or fully undressed girls," Doppel pointed out playfully.
"Really?" Caboose asked in surprise. "And human girls don't like that?"
"Not when it's any guy off the street, as it were," Kuroko pointed out.
"But then why are swimsuits for girls so skimpy?" Caboose continued, plainly confused.
"That's different," Kuroko explained. "It's one thing to enjoy showing off. It's another to be hounded."
"...I don't get it," Caboose admitted sadly.
[The isolated location of a hot spring and absence of any covering increases perceived vulnerability,] his Freckle supplied helpfully.
"Oh, that makes sense!" Caboose declared happily. "And that must be why it never became an issue for extra-species, since they have more natural weaponry at their disposal than humans, so they aren't as vulnerable!"
"That...makes sense," Shiishii observed thoughtfully.
"I am never without protection," Kii agreed as she reached over to some of the plant life surrounding the spring. It eagerly turned towards her in response.
"So mixed bathing appeals to human guys because they like to look at naked girls..." Caboose deduced thoughtfully. "...but that only works if there are naked girls there that like being looked at."
"But what could induce those girls to come here, specifically?" Rachnera suggested archly. "After all, for girls that 'like being looked at', there are many other avenues for such things...and quite a few make money instead of costing it."
"Such endeavors lack the social aspect of a hot spring," Cerea pointed out primly.
Polt's eyes lit up. "Kuroko," she called out thoughtfully. "Do introductions of extra-species girls to prospective homestay hosts ever get awkward when meeting at their homes?"
"Often," Kuroko confirmed ruefully. "Either one or the other side is too nervous, or too dominant, or there are faux pas..." Her voice trailed off as she realized what Polt was suggesting. "A hot spring meetup for extra-species girls looking to homestay and men hoping to host them?"
"Hosting such events would give this place a lot of business," Oct observed thoughtfully from the cooler spring she shared with Mero. "And it definitely would be 'neutral ground', which would make socializing easier."
"And group meetings would be more relaxed than one on one meetings," Mero added. "You could get better personality matches that way."
"I'll have to talk to Yukio about that," Kuroko mused thoughtfully. "It could solve a lot of problems on both ends."
"Ice lady scary!" Papi pointed out worriedly, shivering a little.
"Only cause she doesn't look happy!" Caboose pointed out. "If she could look happy, then she'd be super pretty and lots of guys would wanna come here."
"So...smile more?" Kuroko asked.
"At least with her eyes," Caboose agreed. "All she needs there is to look happy." As the discussion continued, he lay back in the water. No...not here, he thought to himself. Too many existing issues...