What Lies Beyond: Chapter 17

“You've done it!” cried Sister, tackling him. “I knew you'd do it, and you've done it!”
“Hey, go easy”, said Corsair, only now regaining his senses. He patted her head with his paw. “I'm glad you made it back safely.”
“Oh Corsair” she said, burying her head in his chest and squeezing him. “You're wonderful. Whenever I'm in any trouble, I always know you'll be there for me.”
“I don't mean to interrupt”, said Cross, “but Sabre already told me the good news. Shall we set sail for the meeting point?”
“Yes, shouldn't we head back?” Corsair said, hopefully. “We should tell the others what happened.”
“Let them wait.” she said, kissing him. Corsair sighed and held her close, running his paws through her mottled fur as she purred happily.

Back at the meeting point, Lay was pacing back and forth anxiously. “I should have gone with him”, she grumbled to herself, turning around and walking back the other way. “Why did I let him go alone? Why did he WANT to go alone? The Black Ship is dangerous, everyone knows that. That's why we should have gone together...”
She paused on that thought for a moment, furrowing her brow. “...Instead, it was Sister who went after him. If the Black Ship hasn't got them, they're probably together right now. Damn it, why didn't I go?”
That last thought stuck in her mind as she walked down the hallway. Somehow, she found herself at a familiar door, one she hadn't been to in some time. She sighed and pushed it open.
“My Queen!” Petal exclaimed with his usual mixture of mild shock and extreme happiness, “I'm so glad you came, I've longed for you so much”.
Lay, however, had nothing to say, she merely drew him into her arms, kissed him intensely, and then pushed him back onto his bed.

On the other ship, Pack was just finishing his address to his crew: “I know we've all been working hard, but I feel we are close to a breakthrough. Please continue to be diligent on your assignments, and know that your efforts are appreciated. You may go about your regular business.” he concluded. There were murmurs from the crowd as they filed out.
He sighed. They were restless, and he didn't blame them. He closed his notebook and walked towards his cabin. Perhaps he should not have told them how close they were to finding Steven, though he had scarcely been able to resist. He opened the door to his cabin and sat down.
“I hope Lapse is all right, and that we'll find her soon”, he said to himself, solemnly.
Truth be told, he was starting to have doubts himself. He had felt so sure at first that they would quickly find Steven, and hopefully Lapse as well, but it had been several nights now and they had found nothing. Corsair hadn't seemed interested in his theories, but Corsair always preferred to just take action rather than thinking things through. His feelings had been hurt when Sister had left to follow Corsair without telling him, though. Did she think his ideas were rubbish, too?
No, that was unfair. She was probably just worried about Corsair. He had also felt a strange sense of foreboding when Corsair had left, though he dismissed it. “I hope Corsair and Sister will keep out of trouble”, he added, as he sat there and tried to wrap his head around what was going on.

He needn't have worried, though, Sister had rarely been in higher spirits. She leaned out over the railing of her ship, enjoying the cool ocean breeze on her face as they sailed back towards the meeting place. She had forgotten how nice this felt, to feel the gentle tingle of the ocean spray against her fur, but it was all coming back to her. The sun would be up soon, but for the first time in a while she felt unafraid, she was too busy thinking about how to tell the others what had happened. “We'll have a celebration”, she thought. “I want to share this happiness with everyone.”

Corsair put his pen down, having just finished writing about the events of last morning. “You're a cat. You have saved my life”, he read aloud. That had been a very strange conversation, and it had stuck in his mind even after he came back, far more than things usually did. He had only been able to remember small parts of their adventure beforehand, but he was quite sure he remembered that conversation word for word. Somehow, he felt like there was some even greater significance to the words he had just written, but no matter how many times he read it he couldn't come up with anything concrete. “I guess I'll just have to come back to it”, he said, closing his notebook and putting it away.

The trip back was largely uneventful. Finally able to relax and return to their old routine, the days passed by without incident, and the nights were full of conversation and merriment. Sister insisted on visiting Corsair on his ship, and they laughed and recounted their adventures. Even despite his desire to know more about the strangers and what Steven had told him, Corsair could not help but be caught up in the jubilant atmosphere.
“We've earned this.” he assured himself, sitting on his couch, with Sister snuggled up beside him. There was no harm in taking a little time to relax.
She placed a paw on his chest. “This is how it should be”, she agreed.

It was Lay who spotted them first. She quickly turned her ship about and sailed out to meet them. Sister and Corsair went together to meet her.
“So, you made it back”, she said, puffing her cheek with her paw.
“We found Steven!” Sister announced enthusiastically, pouncing and hugging her.
Lay was completely taken aback: “What, really?!” Sister tried to tell her about it, but she was too excited, she simply squeaked happily, grabbed Lay's paws in her own, and spun around before going back over to Corsair.
“It's true”, Corsair assured her, “he understood the message and everything. It's done.”
Lay rested her head in her paw. “Now I know I definitely should have gone”, she sulked.
“This wouldn't have been possible without everyone's help, so I think we should have a party to celebrate our success.” Sister said happily. “When I first met Steven he taught me something you can do at a party, you hold one another in a specific way and kind of spin around and try not to fall, it's fun!”
“Oh, you mean dancing? Yes, that's a good idea.” Lay said, quickly perking up. “We'll need music, I'll see what I can gather from my crew. We have a few singers, and Serenade can play the guitar.” She darted off to fetch them, faster than Corsair had ever seen her move before.
“What was that all about?” He asked, confused.
Sister smiled from ear to ear. “You'll see.” She skipped off happily to collect her crew.

Pack arrived shortly after, and it was Corsair who met him: “Good to see you, Pack.”
“I've heard... is it true? Did you really do it?” he asked, anxiously.
Corsair nodded. “It's true, we found Steven and gave him the message. Now Sister wants to gather everyone together to thank them for their hard work.”
“How? How did you find him?”
“It was all just a matter of looking in the right place, though I must confess I was as surprised as anyone to learn that the stranger was the one we were looking for.”
“So what was he like?” Pack asked, eagerly.
Corsair actually hadn't paid a ton of attention to the stranger before finding out who he was, so he had to think about it for a while. “He was very adventurous and playful, and not at all cautious. He seemed pretty interested in Sabre, though I'm not sure why. You probably would have hated him.”
Pack sighed and shook his head. “In any case”, Corsair continued, “We should all meet back on your ship, it's the largest.”
“Can I trust you not to make a mess?” he asked, warily.
Corsair grinned. “Probably not, but I'm sure it won't be anything you can't tidy up. I'll go collect the others.” He disappeared below deck.
Pack twisted his whiskers in his paw and walked back towards his ship, perplexed.

Shortly thereafter, everyone gathered on Pack's ship. Sister and the crew members Lay had picked out stood atop the helm, and she addressed the crowd below.
“My friends!” Sister called out in a loud voice, “We have succeeded! Steven has been found, and we have delivered the message to him!”
There was a great cheer from the crowd.
“This would not have been possible without all of your hard work. You were given an impossible task, to find a stranger with little more than a name, and yet you gave it your all. To all of those who toiled night after night to find a way, I thank you.”
The crowd cheered again, waving their paws in the air.
Sister took a deep breath. “When all this began, I was in a dark place, with no way out. For a moment, I thought I'd never see my friends again. But in the depths of darkness, there is also light - Steven showed me something wonderful, and I resolved to get out, so I could share it with everyone.” She gestured to the musicians behind her. “Ballad, Crooner, Serenade, if you would.” Serenade plucked at the strange object he was holding, and it made a soft tone. “This is what the strangers call 'dancing'”, she said, and stepped down from the helm. The other two musicians began to sing as Serenade played away.

Just as Sister finished speaking, Corsair felt a pair of arms wrap around his neck from behind. “Someone has to show the rest of them how this works”, she said softly, stroking his chest with her paws. “Shall we?”
“But I don't know what's going on, either.” he protested.
“I'll teach you,” she said, turning him around to face her. She stroked his face with her paw and gazed at him through half-opened eyes. “I'm a very good teacher.”
Corsair wasn't sure what she had done to it, but her pure white fur was practically glowing under the light of the stars. “Take my paw”, she said, holding it out to him. “No, not both of them. Your other paw goes here.” She put his paw on her side, and put her other paw on his shoulder. She drew him close to her. “Now just follow me”, she said, stepping to the side. Corsair clumsily tried to follow, it was unlike anything he had ever done before.
“So tell me”, she whispered to him, leaning in even closer, “did you find the Black Ship?”
Corsair had almost forgotten about the Black Ship in the excitement of the past few nights. He winced at the recollection of what had happened that night. “Yes, we found it, but that wasn't how we found Steven. When we got close, I was pulled into this terrible place, and somehow Sister was there. I realized she was in trouble, and I found her and Steven on the way back.”
“So Sister found Steven?” Lay sped up her dancing slightly.
“I'm actually not quite sure how it all came about. I was the one who met him first, but none of us realized it was him until the very end. It's kind of funny, we spent all this time doing everything we could to find him and getting nowhere, then I finally found him when I was looking for someone else.”
He was moving a bit more confidently now, becoming more used to the pace of their movements. There was a certain rhythm to it, not unlike the steady rise and fall of the tide.
“Maybe that's not so strange”, she said, squeezing his paw. “If you don't know what you're looking for, you won't recognize it even if you find it. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and let things happen. Great things can come from places you don't expect.”
He glanced around them. Dozens of pairs of people from different crews were dancing, while others stood and chatted together. “Like all of this, you mean?” She nodded. It was certainly something different, they had never all been together before, but he had to confess he was starting to enjoy. “And now we know so much more than we did before,” he continued, “I learned more about the strangers during these last few nights than I have in all of the time I've kept my journal. And it's all because we all worked together.”
She wrapped her free paw around his back, pulling him close enough to her that her chest pressed tightly against his. “It feels strange for us not to fight, doesn't it?” She released his other paw and wrapped both her paws around his neck, and he put his arms around her as well. “But I like it like this. I may not show it well, but I really like you, Corsair.”
He had never held her so close before, and he felt a bit embarrassed by it at first, but her fur was so fluffy and soft to the touch that he quickly found himself enjoying her embrace. “It's my fault, I misjudged you”, he said, “I used to think you were selfish, but you really worked hard on this, and you're a very kind person. I like you too, Lay, I hope we can get along.”
He gave her a squeeze and gently rubbed his nose against hers. She seemed to go limp is his arms, but it made it easier for him to avoid stepping on her feet.

Sister shrugged and went to find Pack. “Shall we dance?” she extended her paw to him. He looked surprised, but accepted. Sister couldn't remember how she was supposed to hold his hands, Steven had done that for her, so she just kind of clasped them both and they spun around in a circle, stepping on each others' feet a lot. Pack seemed to have particular difficulty with it, as though he was distracted.
She found out why soon enough: “I don't suppose you found any trace of her?” he asked, desperately hopeful.
“Oh, Lapse!” Sister realized, taken aback. “In all the excitement I totally forgot about her!”
“I knew it was a long shot.” he sighed sadly.
“I'm sorry.” She said, feeling badly for him. “But I did meet Steven – he isn't you, I'm sure of it. He was just different.”
“I was sure I was on to something. I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions like that. I guess I just wanted it to be true so much.”
“I know”, she said, squeezing him tightly. “I wanted it to be true for you, too.”

The music came to an end.
“This dancing has tired me out”, he said, walking to the edge of the deck to take a seat. “I think I'll take a break.”
Sister followed him. “It's fun,” she said “but it was more difficult than I remembered. I was surprised Lay knew so much about it, I thought only I knew.”
“Lapse used to sing and dance like this too. It never made any sense to me, but it made her happy.” He smiled a little, which he rarely did.
“Lapse was... precious to you, wasn't she? More so than myself, or the others?”
“Yes, I suppose she was. Not that I don't care for all of you, but she was... special.”
She nodded. “Do you ever wonder why you felt that way?”
“She was so energetic and free-spirited, always having fun and enjoying life. I guess a touch of that rubbed off on me when I was with her. Being with her made me happy in a way that nothing else ever has.” He closed his eyes, and a single tear rolled down his face. “I just wish I had told her just how much she meant to me when I had the chance.”
“I'm sure she knew”, she said, touching his cheek with her paw. “But I hope you'll find her again some day, so you can tell her everything.” Then she stood up and walked back towards the centre of the deck.

Elsewhere on the deck, Sonnet was eagerly searching out another partner, and he finally found one who caught his eye. “You are not dancing, fair lady?” he said sweetly, extending his paw. “Do you not know how? I can show you.”
“I had been hoping someone would ask.” Sabre replied with a sly smile. ”I've been so bored.” She quickly unsheathed her training sword and assumed a battle stance, beckoning to him with her left paw. “Let us dance.”
“Why do I always get the crazy ones?!” Sonnet cried, turning and running away from her. He didn't get far.

She finally caught him alone, staring out over the ocean, and her heart leapt at the opportunity. “Corsair”, she said, softly, holding out her paws. He took them, and the rest of the crowd seemed to melt away.
“This is really something great you did” he told her, giving her a squeeze.
Sister opened her eyes and brushed her nose against him. “What do you mean?”
“Not only did you help Michelle and Steven, but you brought everyone together, and we learned so much more than we knew before. And it's all because you were so determined to help someone in need.”
“Corsair...” she looked down at her feet. “...I didn't care about helping those people. Everything I did, it was because I was afraid. I was afraid that any time the sun came up, I might be lost again, and this time I wouldn't be able to get back.” A tear rolled down her cheek. “I was afraid I'd never see you again. All I care about is myself.”
He took his paw off her side to wipe away her tears. “Don't be so hard on yourself. I remember when I found you. The first thing you said wasn't 'I'm back!', or 'Corsair!', you were worried about Michelle.” He lifted her chin with his paw, looking into her teary blue eyes. “You're the kindest, most selfless person I know. And it's okay to be afraid. I was terribly afraid when I thought I'd lost you. But I used that to drive myself onward. Just like how you pushed yourself to find Steven. You accomplished something wonderful. Be proud of what you did.”
“Corsair...” Sister looked as though she was about to cry again, but instead she closed her eyes, wrapped her paws around him, and kissed him.
“Why do you do that?” He asked when he had a free moment to speak.
“Because it feels so right”, she said, closing her eyes and kissing him again.
Across the deck, Lay puffed her cheek disapprovingly. “Sure, rub it in.”

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