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Kukuru It's time for a party in Fall! The music is fairly quiet without any fancy speaker systems to speak of, the strobe lights are all from hardware store bargain bins, and the inhabitants of the village where everything's happening are... Mostly dead? Undead, rather, as the hosts of this particular village party are made up of all sorts of classic movie and mythological monsters, ghosts, zombies, demons, the works. Even the most alive and mostly-human of them there has drills sticking out of the side of her head, and she's putting them to good use dangling a fairly complex array of trays off of them.

It's not a wealthy village by any means, looking every part the archetypical 'doomed RPG starter village' complete with windmill, farmer's market, a wide open square/gathering area, and even a weather vane. The only thing indicating it as not doomed, meanwhile, is the fact that  it already appears to have gone through the razing process with the assortment of burnt out buildings mixed in with the ones that are still in good enough shape for its residents to live in, and the people there are still living it up despite quite a few of them having limbs that aren't quite all there.

Kukuru, unlike her usual sleepy self, is actually hard at work getting the rest of the food trays set up over arrays of little tea lights and steaming pots. A skeleton and a suit of armor eventually join her in getting things set up for the guests of honor (and whatever guests they decide to bring along or just show up).
Rubi-Kan Vagrants      Phreak is here, dressed for a party. A white button-up dress shirt left unbuttoned towards the top, with a pronounced collar that draws attention to the neckline. He's paired it with a simple, but cleanly cut black blazer and slacks, along with a pair of matching leather dress shoes. It's his second time, and this time is decidedly a happier occasion than the first. He's got a present tucked under one arm, too. A bottle of an expensive-looking spirit, with a ribbon tied around the neck. The label displays two suns in silhouette over a crescent-shaped dune.

     A tag hangs from one of the ribbons, reading 'HEARTHWARD.' He sets it down on the table where Kukuru, the skeleton and the suit of armor are working. Rubbing his hands together, he eyes the spread. "Two questions, folks. Number one," he says, lifting one hand to extend a gray index. "What've you got going on for tunes?" His golden eyes flick left, then right, and he leans in a little closer. "Number two... you had any trouble from those Order dicks since last time?"
Kale Hearthward Kale's here again, as is his craft and his crew, which altogether have set up another mobile field hospital in town in case anyone literally falls to pieces.

Assuming there aren't further emergencies, they actually are here to enjoy the party, though. Mostly enjoy it, at least, with some precautions.

"Sorry, is this real cheese?" says Kale's medic, poking a mousey finger at some of the food. "Like, actually the collected and processed...?" She doesn't seem to want to say it out loud.

Kale, meanwhile, has headed off to meet Kukuru. "All good?" he asks, watching her go. "It seems like people here are in good spirits, even after... anyway."

And then his attention is drawn over towards the bottle. It's the sort of attention given by someone whose government salary does not often allow for the acquisition of expensive looking bottles.
Rubi-Kan Vagrants      Phreak gestures towards the bottle. "Two Suns white bodum-larga liqeur," he explains. "A lot like vodka. Not a whole lot of character, but no aftertaste, and it goes down so smooth you can mix it with damn near anything." He pauses, giving Kale an appraising look. "You and your people did right by these guys." He offers, by way of explanation. "Cool heads prevail, and all that. A job like that, I figured needed a little professional recognition."
Kukuru "Tunes...?" The skeleton asks while putting the finishing touches on getting the utensils and plates arranged.
"Music, dear." The dullahan explains, setting more of those tea lights out and straightening out the trays that are already out.
"Oh, like the bands!" Kukuru chimes in, looking like she's about to clap her hands together before realizing she still has a tray in her hands.

The skeleton's jaw chatters as he lets out an audible laugh (somehow), then gestures at the band playing closer to the center of the town. It's still pretty hard to hear without speakers, but the heart is there as they play some kind of upbeat folky thing that sounds like it's been ripped straight from an indie game that's not particularly good in any defining way.

"They haven't given us any trouble since then, nope. I think they know better now after you and everyone else came by." Kukuru replies with another cheerful noise, shuffling over to start nudging Phreak and Kale towards the food. "Go on, don't be shy! There's plenty tonight after all that mess~"

Indeed, there's a lot of food, and most of it is even homemade! Not all of it looks or smells safe for human-adjacent consumption, though, perhaps owing to the more monstrous diets of the villagers. Thankfully, there's plenty of space between each labeled tray, so there's little risk of cross-contamination between things like the fried shrimp cakes and the sun-dried horse sashimi.

"It's real, alright! Made from one hundred percent fresh-"
"You're thinking about the other cheese. This one's regular cheese, dear." The armor points at a nearby tray of similarly colored and shaped cheese, although this one actually has a label indicating it as such.
"Oh, yes! We imported that type for special occasions like these."

The first one the mouse indicated has a lot of quotation marks around it for some reason. The second one is that really good melting cheese that's been cut into cubes and seared, but somehow looks the same as the first one.

"It could've been worse, but it wasn't, and that's what matters." Kukuru announces with as much as ease and calm in her voice as she usually does. It seems she really isn't worried about what could have happened now that the danger has seemingly passed. "It's still kinda weird they'd freak out this hard over a rice cooker, though. but as long as they stay away, everything'll be okay."
Rubi-Kan Vagrants      "Good," says Phreak with certainty, nodding his head. There's a definite look of relief on his face, when he thinks no one is looking. The space elf doesn't seem the type to actively seek out 'folksy' music, but nor does he seem to mind it. He gives an upraised, pinched-finger gesture of approval, then focuses on the human-friendly food. Evidently, he's never had shrimp, as the fried cakes elicit a pleased, but curious expression from him. Not one to talk with his mouth full, unlike certain knights, he points a finger at it mid-chew, giving Kukuru an inquisitive arched brow.

    After being answered, he nods. "It's way weird. I'm glad they haven't been back since, but it still makes my teeth itch thinking about it. They know about this place beforehand?" Could the action against the village have been pre-meditated?
Kale Hearthward "Sounds wonderful," enthuses Kale, looking the bottle over.

"And - really, I was just doing my job," he says, with false modesty. This seems to, really, be something special for him. Some sort of milestone for some task he set out to do a few months ago, maybe. (Or possibly that's reading too much into it.)

The mousey medic looks from the 'cheese' to the cheese a few times, before finally settling on the 'cheese', grabbing a piece and tentatively trying it.

Kale gets pushed towards the food. "There's plenty of it after - ah." After the village lost people, maybe. Best not to inquire further.

"So - have you actually made any rice with it yet?" he asks as he peruses the food.
Kukuru Phreak's reaction to the shrimp cakes has Kukuru grinning brightly. She probably made them herself or something. It's mostly shrimp, too, rather than being 80% or more filler like that bullshit from the freezer aisle. Whether that's good for his heart or not is another story entirely.

Kukuru, for her part, is also inclined to talk with her mouth full. She does stop every now and then, though, whenever she gets brief looks from the skeleton (in whatever way a skeleton with no eyeballs might give someone The Look, anyway). "Mph... Oh, if your teeth are itchy, you should brush them and use the special expensive toothpaste. Some of the kids in town might even know which ones taste better if you ask around!" She 'helpfully' suggests, then taps her chin at Phreak's actual question.

"Um... Yeah, they've been around before, but only waaaay over there instead of right up here." She gestures out at the horizon, then right at her chest to illustrate the difference. "It /is/ kinda weird, yeah... But if they were that desperate to get it, then it's even more important keep it away from them."

The 'cheese' actually tastes pretty good. There's the distinct sense that there's something* off about it, but not in a way that would make someone sick or disgusted. It's just not-right enough to register as 'not-actually-cheese'.

"It was a great job, too. If it wasn't for your whole crew-" The armor gestures at Kale, the mouse, and Phreak before pantomiming the shape of something vaguely resembling the VTOL. "-there'd be a lot more blood around here. Of course, that wouldn't be such a bad thing, either, if it meant more neighbors!"

"Oh, come on now. The more important thing is that things have calmed down." The skeleton chides her, drawing an echoing laugh from the armor before shaking his skull at Kale. "I'm afraid not, son. I mean, look at me. We barely get enough to eat as it is. I don't even have the skin in 'skin and bones!'"

The skeleton laughs again, the armor groans, and Kukuru laughs before setting down the last tray. "Oh, that's a good idea. I'll be right back!"

As the eating and drinking and general partying continues, the music starts to pick up a bit. It's still undeniably folksy, but there's some talent there to go with the amped up beats that start getting some of the villagers to dance closer to the square. Kukuru starts to hurry off somewhere, presumably to get the thing that had been the source of so much trouble twice already.

*It's vegan. The good vegan, though, that costs way more than regular cheese and is somehow just as fattening. It'd be hard to tell it apart if it wasn't next to real cheese.
Rubi-Kan Vagrants      Despite the numerous maluses implied by 'ex-mafia fixer on a hoverboard and speed kick,' Phreak's heart can surely afford the indulgence of fried shrimp. He snorts. "It's an expression, lady," he says with a small smile. "It means it makes me anxious. Trust me, I don't need to add bad breath to my list of problems."

     After her explanation, "I don't think it was about the rice cooker," he concludes. "The pieces don't add up, got me? If they were here before, and knew enough to know you picked something up from that auction... nah." Phreak shakes his head. "That was just an excuse." Waving his free hand dismissively. "Could've been a goddamn shoehorn, for all they cared. They were waiting for the chance."

     He nods amiably enough, when she excuses herself. Turning to Kale, "What do you say we work together again, huh? You, me, maybe your pal there," he suggests with a motion of his plate towards the mouse. "I'll make a few calls, see what I can find out about these Order giamokes. Seem like the types to cast a long shadow. They might be done here, but if they got hands in other cookie jars, I wanna know about it."
Kale Hearthward The mouse perks up a bit. "Oh, this is good.." she says, as she goes for more of the 'cheese'.

"... Well - I'm glad I made an impact, but it's still... a case of feeling like if I had been even just a little bit faster, I could have done more."

"... Though this was, really, our first 'real' mission. My unit's first real mission, I mean. There'd been ridealongs and simulations and dry runs, this was the first time we've been pointed at something real, so... I'm really glad it worked out."

As he speaks, his eyes glance over to the bottle with his name on it, but only for a moment.

"...And if you're low on food, there's some Commonwealth foreign aid forms I can help you fill out..." he adds, before Phreak gets his attention. "A team up... Yeah. There's some more unknown things to investigate here..."

He gives this a bit more consideration, and then nods, and holds out a hand. "Alright. I'm in."

"In for what?" asks the medic, who didn't catch all of that.
Kukuru "Just between you and me? They've been angling for this place for a while now." The armor replies to Phreak's suspicions once Kukuru's safely out of the way, glancing towards where she went before sighing lightly through the gap in her armor where her neck would be if she had one. "It's not exactly a secret that our daughter's with the Concord, so this rice cooker business was probably just the excuse they needed to start things up."

"It really did mean lot to her when she brought it back. Ah, you should have seen the look on her face." The skeleton adds, letting out an airy noise of his own. "She was so proud about bringing it back after all the trouble she went through to get it, and... Well, we couldn't just tell her we /didn't/ need one after all that, right? Even if... Well."

The skeleton glances at the buildings that weren't lucky enough to survive the attack. "It wouldn't be the first time this sort of thing's happened, and it won't be the last. Don't go beating yourself up about your speed, though, sonny." He approaches Kale, clapping a bony hand against his shoulder firmly. "If it wasn't for you and your friends, a whole lot more us would be even deader than we already are."

"Plenty more of the Order, too."
"Oh, way more of the Order. We'd have to move just to get away from the smell. Nose joke."

On the topic of food aid, the armor nods headlessly. "We'd appreciate it. One Elite's paycheck can't feed an entire village of growing kids, even if a lot of us adults can't even eat."
"If you could do us a favor, though... Could you keep an eye on her for us? You seem like good kids, and I'd hate to put any pressure on you about that, but..."

Some vague time later, Kukuru can be seen returning with the rice cooker slung under her arm and one of those long sticks with a bucket of water hanging off one side and a bag of rice on the other!
Rubi-Kan Vagrants      "Don't worry about it," Phreak says to the mouse.

     "Yeah, thought so. Bastards," he says in response to the armor's postulation about the Order. There are stormclouds in those golden irises of his, his brow creased. The mouse with Kale should probably worry about it at least a little, what with that look on the fixer's face.

     One word brings him out of it. 'Daughter.' The determined scowl melts away into an expression more fitting for a party. "I don't think we met, actually. Elineve Smith." He extends a grey hand, first to the nearer armor, then to the skeleton. "Hearthward and your daughter call me Phreak. Don't worry, it's an on-the-job name. Not an insult." He grins and winks.

     'Seeming like a good kid' has him looking away. Nevertheless, he nods: "We'll do right by her," Phreak promises the skeleton.

     "Heyhey," the space elf jovially calls as Kukuru returns, putting his empty plate down to give her two finger-guns. "There she is. You don't have to give us the red carpet treatment, you know. If you need any help, say so, got it?" Scuffing a dress shoe idly into the dirt.
Kale Hearthward "Really... here I thought they just cut everyone a blank check over there..." says Kale.

> Keep an eye on Kukuru

"... Yeah. Yeah, I can do that," says Kale, for lack of a better option to take. "Though, she can usually look after herself, so I wouldn't be too worried..." Isn't the Concord's whole *thing* about Elites that can look after themselves? Since when do they need Paladin minders?

Kale raises an eyebrow at Phreak. "I don't think you ever *gave* that name before," he interjects.

And then Kukuru returns, and Kale's about to say something to her, but the medic intervenes. "Here, let me help you set this up, I'm curious too!"
Kukuru Phreak gets handshakes from both the armor and the skeleton. Despite him being the only one with actual physical flesh between the three of them, there's a distinct sense of warmth in their handshakes (if not necessarily literal).

"Should she have an on-the-job name, too?"
"Would she remember it?"

With both Phreak and Kale agreeing to watch her, it's the armor's turn to clap her hands on their shoulders. "Thank you both. Physically, we're not too worried, but mentally..."

She doesn't finish that statement. Instead, she just moves right along. "Just don't let her run you two ragged, either, alright? She can be a bit of a handful if she really sets her mind to it, but..." Somehow, it feels like the armor is looking both Kale and Phreak over slowly despite missing an entire head.

Un(?)fortunately, the mouse doesn't get the same look. "... Well, she could've done a hell of a lot worse."

Without elaborating on whatever that means, Kukuru's parents step back to give Kukuru herself some room once she finally returns with the rice cooker and relevant supplies. "Red carpet? Oh, don't worry. We don't have any carpets that color here, anyway~" She replies, completely missing Phreak's joke. When he and the mousey medic offer to assist, she beams and nods. "Oh, sure! Can you wash this while I figure this out?"

She gestures at the rice and the water as she sets the whole thing down beside her, then sets the rice cooker on the table and starts turning it around a few times. The talisman on it is still faded, but stuck on the lid, and the cord is comically short even for a rice cooker. Kukuru waves over one of the more glowy monsters in the village, then gestures at them to turn around and expose a convenient socket-shaped gap in the back!

Once the rice is fully washed and prepared, it's time to get it all in the cooker itself! When Kukuru plugs it in, however, the electric rice cooker smokes ominously as the talisman burns off moments after the device is turned on. A bright green light bursts out of the top as it bursts open, sending a massive beam swirling through the air and casting an ominous cloud in the sky. A green humanoid with purple accents vaguely resembling a snake appears as the light finally dies down, staring at the gathered Elites and the townspeople alike.

"... Are you the ones that freed me?" He asks while gazing down at the group. Despite just standing their ominously with an intense DANGER aura surrounding him, he makes no threatening moves nor even approaches anyone. He's just staring at everyone intensely, as if trying to gauge something about them without another word or even going near them.
Kale Hearthward Kale feels a bit uncomfortable at how closely he's being examined. It feels like there's some test going on - and he doesn't know the grading scale, and he has a vague feeling that he's the only one in the room without the approved calculator.

"A little bit of a handful," he says, neutrally."

The mousey medic sets about washing the rice. "There we go!"

"Oh - I have a portable generator I can bring out, you don't have to..." she adds, though says so too late. "... plug it into... um..."

And then of course the talisman starts burning and the ancient evil(?) starts releasing, at which point there are more important concerns than power plug etiquette.

The medic stares upwards, gaping. Kale, who's at least had twenty months of multiversal experience, is a bit quicker on the uptake. "... Yes?" he says, tentatively. "We are?"
Rubi-Kan Vagrants      "Oh, did I not? Well." Phreak shrugs. "It's what people called me, back when I made my money running partial grid phreaks for tips. It's like a mechanic being nicknamed 'Clutch.' You know you're in good hands." He smiles a self-assured smile. "So I never really saw a need to go with anything else."

     If Phreak has any thoughts about being 'run ragged' by Kukuru, he has the good sense not to voice them in front of her parents. He is completely clueless about washing rice, as he gives the mouse a look that seems to say, 'wash it? what the fuck?' Thankfully, the medic has it covered. "Oh."

     An ancient... being, of persuasion yet to be determined, emerges from the rice cooker. Phreak doesn't know enough about rice cookers to say for sure, but he is fairly certain that's not supposed to happen.

     "Yeah. That's us. So... you got any plans, now that you're out?"
Kukuru The rest of the town is staring at the strange snake-thing as well, and even the glowy one manages to turn around in time to stare at the new arrival.. Kukuru, snapping back to reality after just gawking at him and upon hearing Kale and Phreak address the strange figure, joins in on confirming their involvement. "Mhm! But how did you...?"

The snakeman doesn't answer the group right away. Instead, he touches down on the ground, still staring at them for several moments before finally speaking. "I see. You have the King's thanks." He speaks calmly as he continues scanning the inhabitants of the town, eventually frowning slightly and turning to Phreak.

"I do. I am going to continue where I left off with conquering this world." He answers plainly, glancing around once more before turning away and staring off into the distance away from the town. "As thanks for your efforts, I will repay this favor to each of you while I build my kingdom. Speak now, and tell me your desires."

Kukuru, still looking clueless as ever, glances over at her parents. They shrug at each other, and then she turns to Kale and Phreak and the medic. "I don't really get it, but... Um... Is there anything you three want? You protected this place, so you probably deserve it, too, right?"
Rubi-Kan Vagrants      "Huh. A wish... well, that's real kind of you." Kale, Phreak knows by this point is capable of keeping a cool head. The medic, however... she's given a 'keep cool' kind of look from the space elf.

     Turning his attentions back to the King, "I do have a wish, actually. I dunno much about conquering or anything like that. But I know good people tend to get caught in the middle of it."

     Hands in his pockets, he smiles at the King. "I know people usually don't get locked up for no reason, either. You must've had some determined enemies." He's very careful not to imply any wrongdoing on the King's part. "So here it is, King-O: you conquer whatever you want, but you make sure to do right by John Q." He pauses. "That's... that's, uh, the general public. Soldiers, cops, all the king's men and all the king's legbreakers, that's a different story. I don't have to tell you about *those* guys, I'm sure."

     Removing his hands from his pockets, he holds both palms out in a gesture meant to allay any concern. "I know that's a big ask, and maybe it's not your style. But it's my wish, you know?" Phreak helps himself to a dumpling. "Mm."

     "Besides that, it's less work for you in the long run if the people you're ruling don't hate your guts. Trust me on this one."
Kale Hearthward "... Oh."

Kale takes a few seconds to think through the realities of all of this. This is the sort of thing that only comes up in a storybook, right?

Then he takes a few seconds to look around the village. The village that, thanks to everyone's efforts, is only a little smaller - but could have ended up as a *lot* smaller if things had gone another way.

And that gets him thinking about actual wishes.

'A wedding venue. The most picturesque place in your kingdom, for a week, as a wedding venue.' They might even be able to set everything up in time for the fall wedding - *this* fall, even, miracle of miracles, like he'd originally wanted. That's what he wants to say. That's the words that are on the tip of his tongue, ready to leave his beak.

And then Phreak has to go make that meaningful wish. Great. He can't just go ask for a wedding venue, now, after hearing that.

Meanwhile, the medic is still kind of slack jawed.

"... Your kingdom joins the Commonwealth," he says, settling on something more meaningful. "That is - an alliance of all of the kingdoms that I protect. There will be requirements of you to join, ones you may find difficult to accept, but that is my wish."

There. That's... not elegant, but if it sticks it'll handle some other potential issues quite nicely.

Aside from the issue of wedding venues, anyway.
Kukuru "This is not kindness. A king is obligated to repay the loyalty of his subjects." The snake calling himself a king replies to Phreak, turning around fully to stare right at/through him when he issues his request. It takes the green man several long moments to consider everything Phreak is saying before slowly raising the equivalent of an eyebrow. "I am aware of the titles given to the king's subjects, and of a king's duty. If they oppose me in combat, they shall be treated as combatants. If they recognize my superiority to their own kings, then I shall show them mercy. If I must be hated by some to create a paradise for my people, then so be it."

It's not quite a full agreement to what Phreak is saying, but it's not a refusal, either.

Kale's wishes, meanwhile, are considered for relatively less time than Phreak's. "I am not familiar with this Commonwealth. I will consider an alliance if it is beneficial to my kingdom, but it will not be subservient to yours. And neither will my kingdom's expansion be impeded, if that is your true goal in asking this. My first and foremost duty is to my subjects, but regardless, I will consider it." He once again states in his calm and somewhat blunt tone, but it's once again not a downright refusal of Kale's request.

He does sound skeptical, though.

"And make sure to eat up before you go! There's a lotta food here, and we won't be able to finish it all ourselves." Kukuru chimes in finally, drawing the briefest of looks from the King before he turns to Kale and Phreak.

"... Are there any human settlements around here?" Regardless of whether they answer in the positive or negative, he does stick around long enough to try the food before finally getting the hell out of there.

It's kind of awkward until he does.