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With the heroes and two-thirds of the ship's complement beamed down into the heart of the Curator's central control room, it was just Jill and Vrix-117, and of course Quickstep as well. Vrix wasn't as talkative as Samran or Shepard, and admitted that as she showed Jill how to read the panels that showed everyone's life readings inside the Curator's construct. "Commander's tactical, Shepard's science, but I'm more engineering. I mostly keep the ship running while they're on missions." Vrix had removed her helmet too, revealing bronze skin and hair as red as a lollipop. "I...oh!" she pointed as one of the wall panels lit up to reveal a flash of light from the distant perimeter of the ringworld, a silvery saucer ship flying through the gap. "I don't know that design, but they're not local. Hang on." She tapped a button on the panel in front of her, then shook her head. "Damn. I can't reach the commander, but I got a tachyon squirt out to the fleet. They'll be sending reinforcements. Friends of yours?" she asked, cocking her head Jill's way.

Dorothy peered at the screen and said, "Looks just like a flying saucer from the movies!"

-

The saucer erupted into the Curator's system as it dropped from FTL, spilling a wash of tachyons and neutrinos along with a spray of visible light. They were between the ringworld's star and its structure, and for a moment the sheer size of the magnificent construction, known to be one of the largest structures in the Milky Way, filled the scanners of the ship. Thanks to the Curator's famous paranoia, it had been a long, long time indeed since anyone had ever gotten this close. 'Beneath' them was an ocean big enough to swallow multiple Earths, a storm playing across it that could have covered the entire planet, with distant shores visible even to the naked eye beyond before the ring curved away into invisibility. Trillions of people were down there, living their lives, perhaps never knowing about the Curator.

Above them, close to the star, hung a black sphere the size of the Earth's moon, part of the circle of rotating black squares the size of planets themselves that made day and night for the people below. It was the central control unit of the entire structure, the geniuses aboard could tell at a glance. And inside that sphere, somewhere, was Steve. And attached to the side, visible as they got closer and closer, was a white pod the computer recognized as a Lor military vessel.

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Midnight found he had not been fully prepared for the sheer scope of the ringworld and all is component parts, feeling a brief moment of vertigo as his mind raced to adjust to the scale of the object before the saucer. Simply locating Erin on such an expanse if she wasn't with Harrier when they found him was a boggling prospect even before considering the sorts of forces likely arraying against them. The fact that they weren't immediately beset by attack drones or warships suggested they still had a chance, however. "Redbird, hail the Lor ship."

"Lor craft, we are the independent Earth vessel Nightdragon!" the autonomic intelligence announced heartily, translating into a number of languages as she broadcast a tight beam signal to the white pod. "The Curator has abducted several of our warriors; we have come to retrieve them and repay the insult with righteous fury! What say you?!"

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Gina, too, was entirely boggled by the size and scope of the ringworld, a phenomenon many orders of magnitude larger than any constructed object she'd ever seen. Simply hearing about it had done nothing to prepare her for the scale of the place, which made the Earth entire seem like the blue marble some people called it. Finally she found her voice, or at least enough of it to make herself heard over the hum of machinery. "Activating the locator beacon..." She picked up her makeshift device, slightly strengthened during the hours of the trip, and thumbed it on. "He's in there," she said more loudly, unmistakable relief in her voice. "And still active. He's about five hundred miles from that ship, near the center of the control structure. If we can get closer, we can try to communicate with him."

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"Nightdragon, this is Lor vessel Quantum Singularity. We have assisted in the escape of multiple Earth humans and one Terminus cyborg from the Curator's construct," replied Vrix. "We have a party inside the main control center now engaged in emergency repair work, but they're out of contact with our ship. If you have a comm system with greater than 1.21 gigawatt output, you can reach their communicators."

"Hello!" yelled Dorothy as she suddenly appeared in front of the comm system, "My name is Dorothy Langford, and I'm from Earth! I'm so glad you're here!" The girl called, her freckled face popping up on the Nightdragon's comm systems as Vrix activated the visual. "The others are inside fixing the Curator so everyone on doesn't die. Listen, if you've seen me, or Wander, or Harrier, or Bee-Keeper, or Jill O'Cure, or Blue Jay, we're some kind of clone or robot! The Curator took us away months ago!"

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Dragonfly's heart rose and fell in the same instant, an awfully conflicting feeling that left her disoriented for a minute. Jill! Ellie! Her Ellie, which probably - maybe, hopefully, oh please - meant that she was okay. At the same time...months? [bg=#555555]"We hear you, Dorothy,"[/bg] the armored engineer replied, almost but not entirely keeping her voice level. [bg=#555555]"And we...we know. It's why we're here. Can fill you in later; right now, probably need to-- fixing the Curator?"[/bg]

She'd been looking forward to a lot of things involving the Curator on the way out here; none of them had involved fixing.

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On the view screen a shimmering blue palm the size of a card table gently pushed Dorthy out of the way to make room for a more recognizable face, looking more than a little worse for wear with dusty brown roots grown out and ample smudges of dirt and grime but still lit up with the first genuine hope in a long while. "Fly?! ¡Ah, precioso ángel blindados!" The medic didn't make any attempt to stem the tears rolling down her cheeks although she quickly wiped away the first of them with the crimson fabric hanging about her neck. "Dios, I was so worried about you. It's so good to see you." Taking an uneven steadying breath, she managed to continue, "Wander, Harrier and the others are trying to keep this whole thing from falling apart and sending all those planets in the middle smashing into each other. Apparently the Curator left the shop unattended; we've been playing this by ear for a while now. ...lo juro, you better be real, cariño."

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[bg=#555555]"Jill."[/bg] The strain and anger in Dragonfly drained out of her, the extraordinary relief in the young woman's voice easily audible even through her suit's voice filter. [bg=#555555]"I'm real. We're - real. It...we would have come sooner if we'd known. Only found out recently; almost actually thought you'd---never mind. Can catch up soon. As much time as it takes. Need to get you all home, but...smashing into each other?"[/bg]

Dragonfly had been processing the sheer size of the constructs outside the ship in the back of her mind, but now she turned to give them another look, biting her lip as she did some rough math in her head. [bg=#555555]"That's...a lot of mass. Don't like the sound of that. How are they doing?"[/bg]

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Gina shrank down smaller into her seat as first Dorothy, then Jill came onto the viewscreen and got themselves a look at the flying saucer. She was glad to see them alive and well, of course, but not so glad that they could see back, a problem that was only going to get worse with more and more and more people coming on board. She squared her shoulders and tried to speak, but couldn't bring herself to draw any attention from the screen. She was quite familiar with Jack of all Blade's cutting sense of humor, and suspected his sidekick would have a similar way of dealing with people. Gina didn't really want to spend the rest of the mission under the console and doubting her life choices.

Instead, she tapped a message into the console that crawled to life on the screen below Jill's picture. Doesn't make sense for Curator to leave ringworld untenanted just for Earth. Either unprecedented situation or massive trap. Either way, no abductee engineers. They'll need help.

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"Power surge detected!" called Vrix's voice from off-camera, a conclusion echoed a moment later by Redbird's sensors. Something inside the Curator's construct was beginning to power up again. "Listen, if you can reach your people, we can-"

SHACHOOM!

Five thousand kilometers to the Nightdragon's port, suddenly space rippled and a shimmering red vortex opened. As alarms blared on both the Quantum Singularity and the Nightdragon, a half-dozen red, eerily fluid spacecraft as big as the Nightdragon came pouring out before the vortex closed behind them. There was no mistaking that flexible red surface which warped and rippled alarmingly even as the people outside watched, or those strangely flexible spherical ships and their small forest of tentacles - these were the deep space vessels of the Grue, carved from their own shapeshifting flesh, heavily armed vessels designed for exploration, infiltration, and conquest!

A second after that, with a roar of neutrino engines so loud on sensors that the ship seemed to make a sonic boom as it arrived, the clean white lines of a Lor military vessel hove into view five thousand kilometers to the Nightdragon's starboard - a big, heavily-armed battleship like those the Lor had sent to help Freedom City's heroes during space battles in the past. It was a powerful ship, but could it handle an entire squadron of Grue cruisers on its own?

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Dragonfly stared out at the Grue fleet, blankly, trying to decide whether or not she should have expected something like that. [bg=#555555]"...every time we try to go somewhere, princesse,"[/bg] she quipped, though with a bit more strain in her voice than she'd have liked. At least it was the Grue - that was a known threat. She could deal with that. Hopefully.

[bg=#555555]"If you can get them to hurry up with the Curator, that'd...be good. Will try to buy time. Need to delay a firefight as long as possible - drive the Grue back if we can. If we can't...finish not-blowing-up and be ready to leave, fast?"[/bg]

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The instant Wander's codename was mentioned days worth of fatigue and layers of emotional trauma visibly fell off of Midnight as the black clad hero rose to his full height, his movements once again decisive and sure. "Redbird, bring cannons online," he intoned as the Grue ships undulated through space toward them, a three-dimensional map of the airless battlefield forming in his mind. "Nothing gets through. Nothing." If he couldn't be next to Erin immediately he could at least protect her and her mission from one threat at a time. Still, they had to get someone with technical skills into the Curator's control center. "Teleportation?"

"Not without rerouting power from other systems," Redbird admitted, minor regret tempering a voice practically singing with the expectation of glorious battle. "The battlesmith and attendant seem well able in their trade! Suggestions?"

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"I can do it," Gina blurted suddenly. spinning in her chair to face, sort of, the others. "I can go help them. The Curator's communication network is still operational, I can use it and be in the station in a few seconds. Just keep the wolves at bay till I figure out what they're trying to do in there and how to do it. Emerson," she ordered the little robot, who obediently trundled over. "Watch my body." Just like that, she slumped in her seat, her head lolling forward. The voice that came over the bridge speakers was much stronger and self-assured, not to mention considerably more familiar to anyone who followed heroes or watched television in Freedom City. "You should have the element of surprise on your side, the Grue won't expect a ship this size to be heavily armed. They'll concentrate on the Lor cruiser first. It's an advantage. Good luck."

With that, Gina took a deep metaphorical breath and launched herself into space, riding the thin silver web of communications that connected the massive ringworld with its command structure. Despite her disembodied state, she swore she could feel the cold against her skin in the moments before she reached the giant gray sphere and slipped inside. The networks of the manufactured world were like a ghost town, broad paths that should've been crowded with data were all but empty... except for a mass of data growing in the distance. She angled towards it, hoping it would lead her where she needed to go.

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Outside, the Grue ships didn't waste much time before powering up their weapons and opening fire on the Lor battlecruiser! The Grue used conventional space-going weapons in their wars against primitive planets like Earth, big metal ships and blasting plasma cannons, but this was a different kind of war. Reddish blobs erupted from the spheres and began wiggling their way through space like gigantic electric eels towards the battleship, and not incidentally towards the Nightdragon as well! The Grue weapons seemed to sizzle with pinkish bioelectricity as they writhed across naked space towards the two ships, alarms on the Nightdragon briefly blaring frantically at the energies erupting from the oncoming projectiles.

---

Cyberknife passed through electronic defenses like gigantic alien warmachines, ancient tools of death and destruction that would surely have torn an unprepared avatar to pieces that were now so many museum pieces. She found herself in the middle of what looked like a gigantic robotics factory, bizarrely old-fashioned, automated robots working together to assemble the pieces of a gigantic mechanical automaton that looked like pictures she'd seen of the Curator. But some of the pieces were broken and others were outright missing, and others still were stamped with a familiar wi-fi symbol. From down below came a human shout, and she looked down to see the bizarrely mundane sight of VINCE, the Interceptors' cyberintelligence, floating there over the scene. "Okay, a flying lady made of circuits, sure! I'm guessing we're supposed to stop this? I don't know!"

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<Cyberknife,> Gina introduced herself briefly, most of her attention on the strange amalgamation of Curator parts and repair drones. <And I'm not sure yet,> she admitted. <It looks like something must have happened to the Curator on Earth; I see the handiwork of a friend of mine here. He may have had something in mind. First let me try and move the softbodies along.> It wasn't hard to find a line into the speaker system, and trivial to project Miss Americana's soothing voice through it. "Hello there, Harrier, other abductees, just wanted to let you know the cavalry has arrived and is waiting for you outside. Vince and I will take care of the computer system here, if you want to make your way with all possible speed to the nearest exit. We've got some Grue visitors in-system and sticking around is not a wise idea."

With that said, she turned her attention back to the mass of half-formed Curator. <This is some kind of automated repair program>, she told Vince, <the secret to the Curator's immortality. He seems to have come off very much the worse in a fight, but these subroutines are designed to get him functional again without resorting to backup copies.> She "moved" into the morass of robots, trying to get a better look at the stamped pieces. <This is Citizen's work,> she told Vince, though she may have mostly been speaking aloud to herself. <But he shouldn't be capable of cyberkinesis on this level. And the code...>

She stopped and puzzled over the patches she read on the pieces of programming. The analytical part of her mind read the binary code and translated it into sophisticated programming language, the creative part saw her own coding work, the rather clever bits and bytes she'd used to bound in Sharl's programming and adapt him to Earth's computer system, now ragged-edged and slapped here and there along with dense tangles of Tronikian code. If she let her mind get too creative, those codes began to resolve themselves into fragments of torn uniform and even... She pulled back, forcing herself to not get too picturesque, and focused instead on the code. <He's not a cyberkinetic, but he managed to access his own raw data, used it to corrupt the Curator and change its directives. It ripped itself apart from the internal contradictions.>

She was silent for a little while, bare seconds that ticked by in the outside world stretching out greatly in the speed-up electronic world. <I think we should let it proceed,> she said finally. <The rebuilding process will take quite some time, but it will force a resolution of those contradictions. It may well force a chance in the Curator's behavior. If we stop the process now, we're likely to see a backup restore instead, without even a chance for change. Citizen gave his life for this, we ought to let it play out and see what happens. In the meantime, let's see if we can get the external defenses up and running before the Grue blow us all to smithereens.>

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Dragonfly swore to herself as she built a mental model of the area in her head and suit, rapidly crossing off her standard offensive options - the distance was just too large. The ship itself had offensive weaponry for this kind of fight, but her suit wasn't made for this scale of battle. On the other hand, the fact that it was space - empty, airless, unpopulated space - meant that she could play a little more fast and loose with the quality of the fabric of reality....

Her suit spun up, armor plates flexing outward to vent the heat that the over-stressed inner workings started to generate as she concentrated on the view and her mental model of their surroundings. Little flickers of warped space twisted across her gauntlets and back like distorted lightning, but the real show was outside: the Grue ship unfortunate enough to catch her attention first shuddered to a halt as the universe wrapped in around it, a cracked and fragmented mire of broken, twisted reality growing across its surface like some kind of awful, hungry thing.

[bg=#555555]"Probably not going to hold it for long,"[/bg] she said through gritted teeth, mentally dismissing a half-dozen warnings from her suit. [bg=#555555]"What's the phrase - light it up!"[/bg]

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Dragonfly was answered by beams of vivid blue, red and blinding white leaping across the void to gouge deep into the entrapped Grue ship with devastating accuracy, the shaped flesh of their hulls bubbling as it became violently superheated. Midnight had taken up the weapon console's station, his seat rotating around to face a full ring of read-outs, each of his forearms framed by control systems for the cannons studding the Nightdragon. "Redbird. Hail them."

"Channel is open," the autonomic machine intelligence announced, simultaneously sending the saucer into a series of hairpin maneuvers that would make targeting it nigh impossible.

"Grue," Midnight's flat, emotionless voice intoned, translated for the benefit of the alien attackers, "Situation is beyond you. Disinclined to waste breath explaining. Leave."

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At Midnight's words, none of the Grue ships opened fire on the Nightdragon. Whether they were intimidated or simply planning a new strategy, two of the ships opened fire on the big Lor battlecruiser, searing red laser blasts missing entirely as they zwoop-zwooped past the battleship. Inside the Quantum Singularity, the Lor crew took their positions as the ship inertialessly erupted off the platform and rocketed towards the Nightdragon at fantastic speed. "We'll get you dropped off, then link up with the battlecruiser!" called Samran as the Earth craft loomed large in the windows. "It's been an honor working with you people." Across the way, those red blobs the Grue had fired at the battleship on their arrival splattered against its hull, sparking and writhing ominously but not (from this distance) doing any more damage. The Lor ship itself fired a volley of blue cannonfire that sent two of the remaining ships spinning on their spherical axes and vanishing into their own red wormholes: whether retreating or going for reinforcements, they were out of the fight for now.

The last ship, evidently made of sterner stuff, suddenly seemed to writhe forward in space as it tried to roll its way right into the hull of the Nightdragon, but missed cleanly, rolling its unnatural way right past the Quantum Singularity as the little Lor vessel finally docked on the Nightdragon's dark hull. Behind them, a pattern of three circles formed on the hull of the last Grue ship, almost unnoticeable in the wild melee.

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Deep inside the massive computer, Gina looked over the programs that controlled the Curator's complicated digitization guns. They were loaded for bear and already aiming for one of the Grue ships. <We can't let the beam digitize that ship,> she told Vince, even as she began digging into the code. <For a hive mind like the Grue, being digitized and forever cut off from the Unity would be torture, and they'd just die off anyway. If we're going to fight them, let's do it clean.> Working on a system like this was tiring, but more because it was strange and she was under so much stress than because it was complicated. Really all that had to be done was turning off the part of the gun that digitized the information, while allowing the part that vaporized the physical components to fire.

<I've got to get back to the ship ASAP, she told Vince as she completed the work. <Are you going to be okay here? It'll be some time before the Curator is up and running again. This place needs an AI to keep things running and take care everything. Tough job though, and lonely. You going to be able to handle it?>

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<Good luck!> Gina called to Vince, then took him at his word and flew for the exit. The worst effects of the gun were neutralized, and Vince seemed more than capable of handling himself amongst the mostly barely-sentient programs that serviced the Curator's stronghold. He'd probably be running the place in forty-eight hours. She herself had other priorities right now. Launching herself back across the cold vacuum of space, she tumbled through the Nightdragon's Redbird-infused computer network and thudded back into the bruised and tired sluggishly-responsive meat of her physical body.

"They're out," she reported without moving or opening her eyes. "They're on their way right now. They uploaded an alternate version of the Interceptors' team AI into the mainframe, he's going to stabilize things for the moment. Not sure how it'll all shake out in the long run. But I think my sidekick is dead." She rested her head against the back of her chair and wrapped her fingers tightly around the armrests, eyes squeezed shut as though against a bright light. "Bits and pieces of him all over the Curator's program."

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Dragonfly tracked the progress of the Grue ship as it tried to ram them, glaring at it as if its actions had been personally offensive - not so much because it had tried to crash into them as because it had seriously endangered the smaller Lor vessel and its precious cargo. That wouldn't stand. That wouldn't stand at all.

Her suit lit up again, but this time the space outside that turned in on itself was just a little off-center - the stars just behind the Grue vessel could be seen to bend and warp as her spatial quagmire formed just behind the rolling mass of space-faring flesh. The young engineer growled something unfortunate-sounding in Russian, forcing her creation to lash out: the nearly-invisible disruption in the fabric of space and time grew toward its target like a living creature after prey, and this time there was no escaping.

The young heroine's battlesuit was clearly not quite up to the strain, high-tech glass on one of her gauntlets audibly cracking and its pitched hum turning into one of clear protest. It held, though - and with its flexed plates, built heat, and bright glow, it seemed as irate as its owner.

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Midnight didn't have much attention to spare sorting though the returned technopath's words. Beyond making a mental note that she evidently had a heroic identity he was unfamiliar with the salient point was that Erin and the others were safe at least for the moment. With Dragonfly aggressively removing the most immediate threat from play, he turned his targeting reticule on the remaining pair of Grue ships. Redbird understood his intent intuitively, turning on a proverbial dime to fly right at the first of the enemy craft with a lunging animal, laserfire raining forth in front of them. The unprepared fleshship was torn to seared pieces, letting the Nightdragon fly right through the debris without slowing.

Looping around again, the repurposed saucer came at the lone remaining Grue ship from behind, tearing into what Midnight had deduced to be the alien design's propulsion systems and weapon arrays. Within seconds all that was left was a hunk of red floating listlessly in the void, trails of black smoke blending into the silent vacuum. With that resolved, Redbird brought the vessel over to the smaller of the Lor craft.

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Blasted and battered, the Grue squadron fell away, freeing the Nightdragon for the jump back towards Earth. Guided by its pilots, the Quantum Singularity docked with the Nightdragon's rear access port. The little Lor ship didn't bother with gangways or other such luxuries, instead simply making a direct connection. "Get out fast," said Samran quickly, "we'll make a jump back to the battlecruiser." Both hatchways slid open, opening a door for the castways directly into the corridors of the Nightdragon. "We'll have to look you all up if we're ever out Earth's way."

There was no debate over who got to get aboard the friendly ship first. Though she had no family waiting for her on the other side, little Dorothy was the first of the castaways to set foot in the Nightdragon: her eyes lit up at the sight of the welcoming committee, but she looked around for a moment before saying a little nervously to herself, "Well, okay, sure, my parents couldn't be here, they're not superheroes..." After that she cleared out of the way, her friends and allies coming on board just behind her.

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Tona and Baxter were ushered onto the Nightdragon right behind Dorothy, joining the youngest member of their ragtag group to one side of the saucer's rear portion. As they gathered a beam of light shone down from a node in the ceiling, coalescing into a convincing three dimensional projection of a statuesque red haired woman in a tailored black chauffeur's uniform, her powerful build putting a few inches over even lean Bee-Keeper. Pushing up the brim of her cap with one hand, she bent down slightly to beam enthusiastically down at the trio. "By Scavros' spear, you humans do make up for your shortened lifespans with the courage of your younglings! I am Redbird and I am most pleased to ferry such hale warriors to their home!" she complimented, pumping a fist for emphasis before straightening and gesturing further into the ship. "Come! I have prepared a veritable feast of non-perishable rations in anticipation! Follow!"

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"Thanks for all your help," Ellie nodded to the three Lor crewmembers as the younger escapees made their way across to the Nightdragon. "Next time we see you, you better have gotten those promotions for all this."

Once it was her turn, however, she wasted no time clamoring across the mismatched hatches and the seal holding them together and onto the saucer. Looking around briefly, she hadn't even planted both feet on the far side before she was sprinting over to tackle Dragonfly, throwing her arms around the armored heroine's neck and planting a kiss on a smooth metal faceplate before Mara had a chance to respond. Ignoring any discomfort from the overheated battlesuit, the medic let out a sound that was equal parts laugh and sob, tears welling in the corners of her eyes even as her face struggled to contain the broad smile pulling at her lips. "You're a hot mess, hermosa," she managed to choke out as she tightened her embrace. "Dios, I can't tell you how worried I was about you. I didn't-- We didn't know--" Her ability to form complete words temporarily spent she squeezed her girlfriend again with a touch of desperate relief.

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