Two hours later, and half the people on board the ship were still missing in action. To kill time, Future Libby and Cindy reviewed some basic karate strikes as the rest of the kids lolled about the cockpit.
"Not that I don't love seeing my precious Libbylicious wave her arms around," said Sheen, picking his teeth, "but this is starting to get old. Where the heck is everyone? If I have to sit in this room much longer, I'm gonna go off the deep end!"
Libby, who was busy thumbing through an old magazine she got from who-knows-where, barely spared him a glance. "Take a chill pill, Sheen. Just...look out the window or somethin'."
"Meh. You've seen one shimmering hyperspace kaleidoscope of ultimate glory, you've seen 'em all."
Cindy whirled around, irritated. "Would you guys shut your yaps? I'm trying to teach a complicated strike here!"
"Sorry, Cind..." said Libby guiltily.
Sheen launched into a monologue on the finer points of female action figures, and Cindy switched her attention back to Future Libby, whose hands were extended in an aggressive pose.
"Now, like I was saying, you need to build up more downward speed. You've got to stop treating every move like it's a block...hitting requires more energy than deflecting a blow. You need power, not just finesse!"
Cindy demonstrated by slicing her arm through the air, and Future Libby dropped her hands with a sigh.
"I know, I know. But it's tough when you've had 'be nice' drilled into your head for so long. Besides, I'm kinda distracted. Sheen's right...we've been waitin' here for ages, and nobody's come back yet. Do you think Aurora is with you-know-who? I know I'm just being paranoid, but after what he did to her, I'm not entirely sold on the idea of leavin' them in a room together unattended..."
"It's cool," shrugged Cindy. "She can take him. Now bend your knees a little more, I could knock you over with one push!"
"I think you're missin' the point here..."
"No, you're the one missing the point. Do you want to practice, or not?"
The door to the cockpit swished open, taking both girls by surprise. Jimmy shuffled through, looking exceptionally weary and dispirited. He dragged his feet as he walked, shoulders hunched and head hanging, and Cindy instantly regretted the snarky comment which left her lips.
"Jeez, Neutron, get hit by a truck?"
"Not now, Cindy. I'm not in the mood." He plunked down next to Carl and Sheen, then jerked his thumb toward the door. "Hey Libby?"
Both Libbys answered in unison. "Yes?"
He shook his head, trying to order his thoughts. "No, not you, Libby...older Libby...your Sheen's out there in the hallway. You may want to go talk to him."
Future Libby's eyebrows furrowed in worry. "Is it bad, then? What you told him?"
"Just go talk to him," sighed Jimmy. "I've had my fill of lengthy explanations for today." She turned to leave, and he called out after her as she approached the exit. "Oh, and if you see Aurora, tell her she's a cold, unfeeling harpy, would you? Thanks."
Cindy berated Jimmy for his comment, and Future Libby had just enough time to see Sheen jump to his feet before the doors closed behind her.
"Woohoo," he shouted, pumping one fist in the air, "no grown-ups! Let's TP the place!"
The exit sealed shut, muting his antics and leaving her alone in the corridor. She hadn't even gone ten paces when she nearly tripped over Future Sheen, who was tucked up against the right wall with his head on his knees. He looked up at her in surprise.
"...What in the world? Sheen, what are you doin' there?"
He groped for an answer. "Uh...counting?"
"By yourself, in the hallway?"
"Y'know what? Never mind. Come on, I'll help you up."
She extended her hand, and he took it, but instead of hoisting himself up, he dragged her down onto him. He wrapped his arms around her, and Future Libby's muddled protests ran together as he tightened the embrace.
"So, Libby," he said after a pause, "on a scale of one to ten, how bummed would you be if I told you this sort of thing was off limits?"
"'This sort of thing'?"
"Ya, you know...the romantical sort of thing."
She frowned. "Why would romance be off limits?"
"Well, it's kind of complicated, and I was raving mad about it earlier - I punched a wall, hope you don't mind - but then I got to thinking, and I think maybe it's not such a bad thing after all."
"Sheen, I have no idea what you're talkin' about."
"Oh. Right. I should probably start at the beginning, shouldn't I? Then, once I've explained, you'll understand why we can't be together."
She flinched as if electrocuted. He took her hand, and she searched his face for an explanation. "What do you mean, we can't be together?"
"Calm down, calm down. I didn't mean that we can never be together. We just can't be together right now. And don't think it's 'cause I don't want us to be. Believe me when I say that there's nothing I want more than to throw you down right here and do things that would make my Grandma blush in heaven. But with the way I am, we can't have a future together."
"But...but...I like you. Even if you're kind of scary, and even if you're messed up in the head, I still want us to be together. Not because I feel like I owe you somethin', and not because the monks want us to get married. Just...because. You make me laugh, and you act like I'm the greatest thing that ever drew breath. I want to get to know you better. I want us to help each other. So please, you don't have to hold off on my account. I'm sure your Grandma has better things to do in heaven anyway."
He dropped her arm abruptly. "You don't get it, Libby. The stuff the Dictator said about me back on the planet...it was all true. I'm not OK. Just sitting here right now, I can pick out the individual scents of everyone in the cockpit. My head is screaming "easy prey!" I want to snap their limbs, just to hear the bones crack. And it's not just them. The Dictator, Aurora, Carl, April... If I weren't restraining myself right now, I would probably hunt down all the people on board this ship, and I would enjoy it."
He brought her wrist to his mouth, then brushed his lips across the skin of her inner forearm. Her heartbeat quickened.
"Don't even ask me what I would do to you if I lost it," he said. "Let's just say, it's not the kind of thing that would make dear old Grams blush in heaven."
She shrunk away. "You were just talking to Jimmy...can't he do anythin' about it? Can't he, I dunno, find a way to reverse the damage that's been done?"
"Not without putting me through another ten years worth of painful experiments...and even that might not fix me." Future Sheen sighed. "Jimmy used all sorts of big psych words to explain it to me, but you don't need it explained. You've seen my killer zombie mode. There's a short in my brain, or something, and the sad truth is that I'm not ready to lead a normal life yet. I could probably suppress the instincts for awhile, but I don't have the skills to keep it up forever. Could you imagine if we got married and had kids, and I lost it one day? I could kill our child, Libby. I could kill my own kid. I could kill the monks. I could kill you. I'm not telling you this to scare you; I'm telling you because I have to. As I am now, I'm too messed up to keep myself in check, no matter how hard I try."
"So...what are you going to do?"
"Well, it's not all gloom and doom. There's no quick fix for what's wrong with me, but it's possible to learn how to control it. Jimmy tells me that, with the right mental and physical conditioning, I could be – what did he call it? – 'socially functional' within a year or two."
"A year or two?"
"I know that seems like a long time, but don't you see? This is a good thing!" He sprung up, forced optimism ping-ponging off him. "Ever since I hurt you back on the planet, I've been going nuts on the inside, wondering how I could ever be happy with you if I had to constantly worry about going off the deep end again. This way, I can finally, finally be free from all that. Jimmy gave me some exercises to start with, and when we get back to Shangri Llama, I'm going to ask the head monk to train me. Meditation and controlled martial arts are exactly what I need to reign myself in." He chuckled a little. "A year or two spent reenacting Kung Fu films in the mountains ought to do the trick. I mean, sure, I'll probably still have to leave town on weekends and go wrestle a tiger or something, but isn't that better than having to worry that I might snap at any moment?"
She looked at him blankly, and for the first time he realized that his news might actually be a deal-breaker. Suddenly terrified, he hung back, preparing himself for rejection and heartbreak.
"Of course, it's up to you," he blurted. "I wouldn't blame you if you decided that we'd be better off as just friends. I 'd even understand if you wanted me to leave Shangri Llama for good. I guess if I were as hot as you, I wouldn't want to be with a guy who was three french fries short of a happy meal either..."
She got to her feet, and he nervously offered her a hand. She walked past it, and his heart dropped into his stomach – until she stood on tiptoe and planted a kiss on his cheek. He touched his hand to his face in surprise.
"I can't say I'm not disappointed," she said, "but I can tell that you're really baring your soul here, and that takes guts."
"Heh heh, you think so? Well, I am pretty much the greatest thing that ever lived, excluding Ultralord, dinosaurs, and Pocahontas. I can see why you'd be impressed."
He made a muscle, and she shook her head in amusement. "Well, now that that's settled, what do you say we head back into the cockpit? I've had it up to here with waitin' for Aurora and the jerkface. I'm gonna ask Jimmy if he can ring 'em up over the loudspeaker or somethin'..."
Still talking, she started off toward the door. Future Sheen extended one arm and planted it against the wall, blocking her exit.
"I don't THINK so. If I'm going to spend the next two years living like a monk, I need to stock up on the good stuff while I have the chance. Now...what would you say to another kiss?"
"All right." She stood on her tiptoes again, dropping a kiss on his other cheek. "There. Now it's balanced."
"That's not what I'm talking about."
He advanced on her, and she retreated a couple of steps, too tongue-tied to shoo him away. He caught her about the waist, and as he leaned forward, the bulk of his shoulder obscured the overhead light, turning his body into an approaching shadow. She could not see his face as he lifted a wayward braid and whispered into her ear.
"Y-You just said this sort of thing was off limits..."
Pulling back, he rolled his eyes in playful reproach. "Psh, ya, once we get back to Earth. Does this look like Earth to you? Looks like a scuzzy hallway to me, and as long as I've got you cornered in a scuzzy hallway, I can do whatever I like..."
He traced his thumb across her lower lip. "I think you know what happens next."
The heat from his body hit her before his mouth did. He dragged her against him, his fingers burrowing into the fabric of her dress, and she sunk into his kiss, a pendulum between forceful and sweet. Heart pounding in her ribcage, her thoughts tumbled backward out of her body and into balmy oblivion.
Occupied as they were, Future Libby and Sheen failed to hear the sound of footsteps coming from around the bend. Aurora glanced up at the precise instant she turned into their corridor. For the briefest of moments her brows knit together in confusion, then comprehension dawned, and she caught her breath and ducked back around the corner. Cheeks burning, she pressed her shoulder blades into the wall. Sheen and Libby, already?
Aurora murmured a sarcastic comment, but it failed to put her back in control of herself. "Jeez, guys, get a room..."
She stared plaintively at the ceiling, as if begging it to explain the sudden constriction in her throat. Hushed voices tipped her off that the coast was probably clear, but she found herself unable to face the pair. She remained flattened against the wall, eyelids pressed together in a combination of embarrassment and misery. Baffled by her own reaction, she chastised herself.
"They're adults, idiot. They can do what they want, and it's none of your business."
Without really meaning to, Aurora touched her own lips. She flinched at the sudden contact, then looked down at her fingertips. She imagined them disintegrating, crumbling into dry sand and blowing away on the wind, and she had to suppress the urge to cry out in despair. Unable to bear her own company a moment longer, Aurora jerked away from the wall and strolled out around the corner.
"Oh...hey guys," she said, feigning nonchalance. "What are you doing out here in the hallway?"
"A-Aurora!" The dark-haired woman tugged at her dress to straighten it, an action which would've appeared innocuous if Aurora hadn't already known better. "I didn't notice you comin'..."
"You probably just couldn't hear me over the sound of your conversation."
Something about Aurora's tone set off alarm bells in Future Libby's head. She squinted at her friend, trying to read her expression, but Aurora donned one of her many impenetrable masks. Before Future Libby could confirm her suspicions, the ship lurched, and Future Sheen jumped a good two feet in the air.
"What was that?" His left eye blazed red, and he quickly covered it with one hand.
"We just dropped out of hyperspace in high orbit around Earth," replied Aurora. "That's why I'm here...it's time to send you two back to Shangri Llama."
"Really?" asked Future Libby, with an air of disappointment. "...Already?"
"Yup. No more waiting for you guys."
Future Libby missed Aurora's subtle dig. "Wait...I know the kids are in the cockpit, which is I assume where we're going, but where's everyone else? Isn't April gonna see us off?"
"To be honest," frowned Aurora, "I haven't the faintest idea where she ran off to. As for the other unaccounted-for individuals on this ship, well...let's just say I figured it'd be better for all parties involved if they weren't around for the send-off."
Aurora gave Future Sheen a knowing glance. "That is, assuming you and little bighead had a serious heart-to-heart while I was away."
Future Sheen let his hand drop away from his face. "We did."
"Must've been a doozy too," chimed in Future Libby, "'cause the last time I saw him, he said to tell you that you're a cold, unfeeling harpy."
"Oh, good. I guess he found a way to outsmart me, then. Shall we?"
Aurora motioned for them to lead the way back into the bridge. The trio entered together, interrupting what seemed to be the punchline to a very lame Sheen joke.
"...and then the banker said, "it's a knick-knack, paddywack, give the dog a loan!" BAHAHAHAHAHA!" Sheen looked from one to the other expectantly. "Get it? Get it?"
The other kids groaned and rolled their eyes. Libby slumped back in the pilot's chair, smacking her head with the rolled-up fashion magazine.
Aurora raised an eyebrow. "That bad, huh?"
"Worse," moaned Libby."Please tell me that the planet behind us is our Earth, and that I can go home to my room now."
"Sorry to disappoint, but...no. I'm just here to pilot the ship into low orbit so I can teleport these two back to Shangri Llama."
Aurora headed for the main controls, while a subdued Future Libby trailed behind. Future Sheen noticed her delay and dropped back to walk with her.
"What's on your mind, baby-cakes?"
"You're not the only one who wants to change, Sheen," she said in a small voice. "Aurora hasn't said anythin', but I know it's my fault her big fight with Jimmy went to heck in a hand-basket." She lowered her head in shame. "I couldn't take care of myself, so she had to protect me, when she should have been protectin' herself."
"Hey, you weren't the one who kicked the crap out of Aurora, so it's not your fault. Besides, you were up against an evil genius and a dude with claws growing out of his hand. You can't really expect a normal person to win against freaks like that."
"That's just it – I'm sick of being a normal person. I've had ten years to do somethin' with my life, but all I've done is sit around and play dress-up with a bunch of nutballs who think you're the Chosen One just 'cause you can stick your foot behind your head. I'm not proud of myself, Sheen. Seeing Aurora fight for survival like she did, with such power and skill, made me realize how small and silly my life has been. I may never be able to make it into the same league as Aurora or April, but I still want to improve. I don't want to sit around like a glorified towel rack while you're off wrestlin' tigers or whatever. I wanna learn to defend myself. I don't care if the monks say it's not proper for a lady to fight. I'm gonna insist. I want to be more like Aurora...except, you know, with a better fashion sense and less rage."
Future Sheen laughed, relieved. "Awesome. We are going to be so hardcore be the time we get hitched, the world won't even know what to do with itself. Space and time will collapse in on themselves when we exchange our vows. KAPOW!"
He belted out the final word, flinging his arms wide. The others, who hadn't heard the rest of the conversation, jumped in surprise.
Cindy exhaled her irritation. "Seriously, what is with you? First you skulk around, whispering and making googley eyes at her, then you just yell "kapow" out of thin air? Are you mental?"
"Sure am," he said cheerfully. "You should be happy that I'm not picking you out of my teeth as we speak."
Future Sheen threw his head back and laughed again, and she cocked an eyebrow at him.
"I'm just going to pretend like you're not a total creep, and get on with my life."
In the pilot's chair, Aurora worked her customary magic at the controls. The Earth, which moments before had been no more than a lustrous blue drop in the distance, swelled in size until its hazy arc filled the whole front window. Aurora set the astronomical equivalent of a parking brake, and scarcely a second later, a flashing light appeared on the dashboard.
"Hmm, that's odd..."
"What's odd?" asked Jimmy.
"Sensors are tripping all over the cargo bay," answered Aurora. "According to this reading, the bay doors are opening. But why would the bay doors be opening?" She whipped around and scowled accusingly at the kids. "Did one of you idiots touch something while I was gone?"
Before they could defend themselves on this account, Cindy pointed out the front window with a gasp.
"A ship! Aurora, it's Nav's ship!"
The streak of the spacecraft registered in Aurora's peripheral vision, and she jerked back toward the window just in time to see the Shahada rocket away in the opposite direction.
"Um, Aurora," began Cindy, "I don't want to jump to any conclusions or anything, but...I think it's leaving!"
"Any chance it's on autopilot?" suggested Jimmy.
Aurora ran a life signs scan on the retreating vessel, then shook her head slowly. "Scan says there are two life forms aboard: April, and – hold on, the other ID is coming through now – Carl?"
The redhead waved. "I'm right here!"
Cindy rolled her eyes. "She means the other Carl, you twit."
"I don't get it!" jabbered Sheen. "Why is skinny Carl carpooling with April on her dead fiancé's spaceship?"
"Not the way I would have worded it," said Jimmy, "but that is an excellent question. Do you have any idea what's going on, Aurora? Would she take him away by force?"
Aurora injected a little too much indifference into her voice. "It wouldn't surprise me if April resorted to a little .24 caliber motivation, if that's what you mean."
"But why hightail it out of here the second we emerge from hyperspace?" pondered Jimmy. "And why take Carl along, willing or not? It's so strange. All signs point to a planned escape, so she must have had a reason..."
"Hold on. We're being hailed." Aurora fiddled with the controls, and a holographic video screen popped up over the dashboard. "It's a recorded transmission. Playing file now."
An image of April appeared, grim-faced, from within the static of the recording. Poor lighting and low-tech video equipment obscured most of the Shahada's cockpit, but Future Carl's shirt appeared as a white patch in the background.
"Aurora, I am sorry that you must find out this way, but I am leaving. I do not begrudge you the freedom to make your own choices, but I cannot continue with you down your current path. Please do not inconvenience yourself by searching for me; I will return home as soon as I take care of business elsewhere. As you may have deduced, Carl has elected to accompany me on the first leg of my journey, though he has rejected my offer to send a farewell message of his own."
The static of the video made it impossible to determine whether the Gorlock woman's next expression was a smile or a grimace.
"Perhaps this is my fault. Perhaps I should have guessed from the beginning that you and I would return to where we began. You cannot come between the pale, homely female and her mate, am I right? Forgive me. That was an unkind remark then, and it is an unkind one now."
She lowered her head. "For what it's worth, Aurora, I wish you happiness. It was never easy, surviving what we did, but I am glad we had ten years together. I will never regret our friendship. In that spirit, I hope you do not mind if I take full ownership of the Desperado once I return to Planet Gorlock, seeing as you now have the Half Life... but perhaps that is a request best left unsaid. One of many things best left unsaid. End transmission."
The screen shrunk and blinked out. Jimmy was the first to find his words.
"That's it? Ten years of friendship, and that's the end of it? An impersonal, one-minute sound bite?"
"Jimmy," said Aurora. "Just let it go."
"But don't you –"
She turned back to face him. "I said, let it go." The barely-concealed heartbreak in Aurora's eyes was so jarring that the whole company fell silent. She took a deep breath, then resumed her usual officious manner. "Anyway, we're wasting time. Let's get this tele-party underway."
"But we just dropped out of hyperspace!" protested Future Libby. "What's the rush? Let's hang for a little while, enjoy the view..."
"Libby, prolonging the inevitable isn't going to help."
"Ya, Libs, " interjected Sheen, "be a man! Rip off that band-aid and get it over with – sure, it'll probably gush blood and raise one heck of a killer welt, but that's half the fun!"
Cindy face-palmed. "Sheen, you're not helping..."
"No, it's all right," said Future Libby. "I get what he's sayin'. Aurora, I'm ready when you are. Where do you want us?"
"I can teleport you from anywhere, really, but it'd be easier if you were standing next to each other."
"Right. Come here, Sheen."
She took Future Sheen by the arm and guided him a few paces away from the others. With his hand in hers, Future Libby felt a sense of timelessness, as though only seconds had passed since he first sent her back to Earth a decade before. Aurora, sensing the parallel, ventured a comment as she activated the teleporters.
"It's funny, isn't it? Here you are, back where this whole thing started, standing on the bridge on Jimmy's ship. Only this time, you'll both be going back to Earth."
Future Sheen squirmed, as if uncomfortable inside his own skin. "Let's just forget about all that, OK? I'd like to pretend the last ten years didn't happen, if that's all right with you."
Aurora considered for a moment, then her expression softened. "Sorry. I didn't mean to bring up unpleasant memories." She snapped her fingers. "You know what? I have a better idea. Let's make a new, happier memory for you guys, shall we?"
Bending over, she fished around under the dashboard.
"Uh...what are you doing?" asked Jimmy.
"Looking for – Aha! This." Aurora flicked a hidden switch, and the whole far wall began to creak and rattle. "All right, noobs, get ready to have your minds blown."
The wall lifted up and retracted into the ceiling like a garage door, and the whole company followed it with their eyes. Libby dropped her magazine; beyond the partition was a room made entirely of glass. Floor, ceiling, and walls twinkled like a prism, catching and refracting every speck of luminescence, from the sun's rays to faraway pinpricks of starlight.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Observation Deck, home of one of the coolest views you'll ever see."
Everyone except Aurora darted into the room, oohing and awwing at the sight. Beyond the kleersteel windows, planet Earth stretched out in a cinematic panorama. Blue waters lapped against the continents, and a vast storm churned over the Atlantic, sparking now and again as lightning rippled through the cloud cover. Bottomless, star-studded blackness extended beneath their feet, while up above the moon formed a softly-glowing roof.
Future Libby rested her hands on the glass. "This is so cool! Almost like a glassbottom boat... except you can look above you, out in front of you, and down below you at the same time!"
Carl cowered at the cutoff point, where the opaque ground of the cockpit gave way to the transparent floor of the observation deck. "I don't like it...it makes me feel like there's no up and down..."
Jimmy poked his head into each of the corners, inspecting the window joints and taking quick measurements using his thumb and forefinger. "The structure of these observation portals is fascinating...Aurora, how did you know this room was back here?"
"I just had two whole hours to mine the ships' log for information. I could dazzle you with my knowledge of the Half Life's inner workings. Now, let's get those teleporters fired up..."
Aurora waved her hand over a section of the dashboard, and a cluster of holographic controls popped up. She muttered numbers to herself, input some data, and then motioned for the kids to join her.
"Cindy, Jimmy, Sheen, Carl, Libby – come back into the cockpit, just while I finish these calculations. I wouldn't want any of you to get sucked down to Shangri Llama by accident. Libs, you ready?"
Future Libby swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded. Aurora finished up the last of the calibrations, then set the switch to initiate a countdown from 00:30. As the numbers clicked down toward zero, Aurora walked onto the observation deck, smiling wistfully at her friend.
"30 seconds to tell me anything you've been holding in for the past ten years."
Future Libby bit her lip. "This is killin' me, girl. I don't want to leave you."
"I know. But someday things will get better. I promise."
"I don't want you to promise that," she said angrily. "I want you to promise me that you won't just disappear again, and that I won't have to spend the rest of my life wonderin' what happened to you. The universe is so empty, Aurora. It will erase you if you wander too far."
"It erases all of us sooner or later, Libs."
"Just promise me!"
"All right," sighed Aurora, "I promise. Stay safe, OK? And try not to be too happy. You'll make me jealous."
"Five seconds. Close your eyes."
"At least give me a hug before I go?"
Aurora wrapped her arms around her friend a second too late. Future Libby disintegrated in a wave of rolling light, and Aurora was left embracing an imprint in the air. After a moment, that too faded, and Aurora's arms dropped to her sides. She stood there, immobile, for a long while, then wandered back over to the pilot's chair and sank into it. Aurora swiveled around to stare out the front window, her breaths rising and falling in the slow rhythm of one weary and close to surrender. At last her head slumped down into her arms, and she buried her face in the crook of her elbow. She didn't speak a parting word, or clench her jaw in anger, or shed tears – she merely laid there in dead silence, as though all the life had gone out of her.
Jimmy drew back a step. "Uh...guys? We should probably, you know, give her some space..."
When Future Libby opened her eyes again, she and Future Sheen were standing not on the observation deck, but on the outskirts of Shangri Llama. Still tingling from the teleporter, Libby reached over and tugged Sheen's arm, and he opened his eyes. A breeze played over them as they stared at the cluster of ornate buildings, bathed in the gold light of early morning.
"So...what do you think?" she asked after a pause.
There was another moment of silence before Future Sheen hit her with his deadpan response. "...They are gonna throw us a CRAZY party tonight, aren't they."
"Yup," she chuckled, then nodded toward the gates. "Come on."
They started off across the meadow toward the town, plumes of sandy soil rising in their wake.
"Chen-Yu ought to be gettin' up any minute for his sunrise meditation, or his 'morning meds', as we like to call them. I can't wait to see the look on his face when the two of us come waltzin' in."
"Do we really have to waltz?" winced Future Sheen. "'Cause I gotta warn you, I kind of have two left feet."
"Who waltzes these days? Anyone with a lick of sense knows that it's all about the hip-hop and the Sri-Nuan."
"It's a kind of Thai dance with gorgeous instrumentals. You'll see."
Future Sheen stopped to pluck a flower along the way, and he offered it to Future Libby with a grin. She tucked it behind her ear as they approached the entrance.
"First order of business is to get us some breakfast," he said, patting his belly, "and I'm not talking about a few pieces of toast and an orange."
"That can be arranged."
"No, I'm serious. I don't want to graze like a cow, I want to eat a cow. And a pig. And a chicken. And anything else the monks feel like piling on a plate and plopping in front of my face. In fact, I'm gonna go out on a limb right now and wager ten bucks that I can eat twice as many eggs as you."
"For ten bucks, I'd say three times as many."
They halted in front of the main gate, and she rubbed the bare spot on her finger where her betrothal ring used to be. "Second order of business is to give you a bath. And find you a shirt. I think Sun-hi would have a heart attack if she saw you like that. I know I would."
"What's this?" said Future Sheen smugly. "Little woman doesn't like seeing this gorgeous chunk of man shirtless?"
"No, it's just –"
"Well too bad! I'll run around in the buff every day for the rest of my life if I want to, and there is nothing you can do to stop me."
She gave him a sly look. "I'd threaten to do the same, but somehow I don't think it'd be much of a deterrent."
"You see?" He slapped his leg. "Gorgeous and smart. How do you cram so much perfection into one body?"
She shrugged. "Born with it. Now c'mon, the sooner we go inside, the sooner we can get you that breakfast."
The main doors creaked as she pushed them open, and the usual sights and smells of Shangri Llama greeted her: the fragrance of plum blossoms and incense, and the airy comfort of houses whose windows never close. He followed her in, oblivious to all the beauty waiting for him on the other side.
"Hey Libs? D'you think you could wear some flowers in your hair at tonight's party? 'Cause that daisy thing you've got on now...it's really nice..."
"Sure thing. I know just the ones..."
Libby cast one last look over her shoulder – up at the sky, up at
limitless adventure and mystery in the stars beyond Earth's downy
atmosphere, up at a galaxy of possibilities. Then the doors closed