"I promised you a ship, so let's go see it, boys." The clack of the Empress' heels echoed noisily off the walls as they walked down a corridor that led to one of the landing bays.
"What kind of ship is it?" Gadget was practically skipping. "How big is it?"
K'non's earrings jingled as she looked back at Gadget. "It's a surprise," she said with a wink. "To be honest, it's a surprise to me, too. I just told my people to get me a ship, and they got me one."
"I wish I had people like that," Shaw murmured, elbowing Gadget.
"You have Kai," Gadget reminded him, elbowing him back.
Gen snorted at the two idiots in front of him. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Kai's quiet smile.
When they reached the end of the corridor, the Empress reached out and pressed a button. The bay door groaned and rose in front of them, leaking sunlight into the corridor where they stood. She waved a ring-laden hand at the ship that was revealed. "So what do you think, Shaw? Is this ship sufficient to replace the one you lost?"
Shaw gaped at the large freighter that sat inside the circular confines of the landing bay. "I… it's…"
"It's cool!" Gadget said, and he pushed past Shaw to run toward the ship. "It's a Barloz, Shaw! It's got almost twice as much cargo space as the Shakujou did—that means we can be out for three whole months at a time!" He jogged toward the rear of the ship and then waved excitedly at Shaw. "It has a Jump-2 drive, Shaw!" he shouted.
"Looks like Gadget approves, anyway," Gen said.
"The Barloz is an older ship, but it's well-engineered," Kai said. He turned to the Empress. "Where did you come across this one?"
"After his arrest, I had Litou's assets seized," K'non replied, "and among them was a trading company that had several ships in storage. It probably needs some work, but my personal pilot brought it here and inspected it, and he said it was space-worthy."
Gadget was still jumping around and calling out the ship's specifications, even though no one was listening.
"It'll do very well, Great Lady," Shaw said, grinning. "Thank you." He bowed.
"I took the liberty of fueling and stocking it for you," she said, "and I put a few credits into both your accounts. Yours, too." She nodded at Kai.
Gadget ran back over, his cheeks flushed from his exertions. "Are we gonna take it, Shaw?"
Shaw ruffled his hair. "Yeah, bro, we have ourselves a new home."
Gadget's laughter echoed through the chamber.
Home. Gen looked at Gadget's happy face, and Shaw's smile. They had lost everything, too, and now they were able to start again—with a new place to call home.
Where would his be? Gen thought. Here, in the stifling opulence of the Palace, surrounded by kowtowing strangers? Back in the smoking ruins of the vineyard? He lifted his gaze to take in the ship that stood behind them. "Do you have room for an extra crew member?" he asked, a little surprised at how easily the question came from his lips.
Gadget's smile rivaled the sunlight that streamed into the landing bay. "Shaw, we could totally use another person—there's all that extra cargo space, and its engines and drive are bigger, too."
"Why the hell not," Shaw said. "We don't have to worry about people chasing you any more, and I'm sure lover-boy won't mind bunking with you."
The Empress touched Gen's arm. "But I thought you would be staying here, with K'zen and me. I can give you a title, and your own suite of rooms—"
Gen shook his head. "I don't belong here," he said. "I've spent the ten years I've been alive working on that vineyard, and all this luxury is foreign to me." He gestured toward Shaw and Gadget. "These two men risked their lives to help me, and they have become my friends. That's something that's mine, and mine alone—Komou didn't create it, and neither did you. My 'real' life can start with them." With him, Gen thought, looking at Gadget.
Gadget's returning gaze held the promise of sleepless nights to come.
"Well, now that you three are situated, it's time I took my leave," Kai said. "Shaw, let me know once you're back on your regular route—since there are four of us, we should definitely schedule more card nights."
"Sure thing, Kai," Shaw said. "It's going to take a good month or so to take care of all the insurance crap from losing the Shakujou and her cargo, but I think we'll be up and running in no time."
Kai turned to the Empress and gave a deep bow. "It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Great Lady. I have given a vidcomm access code to your man Jiro, should you ever need my services."
"You can count on it, handsome," K'non said, and when Kai left she turned to Gen. "I wish you would stay, Gen. We were just getting to know you." She brushed a few wayward stands of golden hair off his forehead. "Please remember that K'zen and I are your family, however strange the circumstances, and there will always be a place for you here. You'll visit us, now and then?"
Gen nodded. "Now and then," he said.
She looked past him, to watch Shaw and Gadget fetch their packs from Jiro. "Will you ever return to the vineyard?" she asked.
He shook his head. "I don't think so. I want a clean start." If the time came that he tired of space travel, Gen decided, he could always find a patch of earth to work, and call his own. And, perhaps, Gadget would come with him.
"Good luck, then," she said, and she kissed him on the cheek.
"Hey, new crew member!" Shaw waved at him from the entry ramp. "Get your ass over here! The galaxy awaits."
Gadget was waiting too.
Gen walked away, without looking back, and went to join his friends.