Ratchet slowly slid into conciousness. As he rose up out of the black, sound began to filter through, distant, muffled voices growing clearer.
"At least he is looking better these days."
"Oh yes, the state he was in at the start, my word…He's lucky to be alive!"
"Why has he not woken up then?"
"Recovery is a slow process, Clank. His body is probably just gathering it's strength…Hello, somethings happening…"
He slowly opened his eyes. For a moment, all he could see was a cracked white ceiling, before his vision was eclipsed by the face of…
"Clank?" His voice sounded strange, thin and distant in his ears. His chest ached with a steady, dull throbbing.
"Hello, Ratchet." Clank said, smiling. "We have been very worried about you. How are you feeling?"
"Kinda sore. Kinda tired. But OK, otherwise."
He struggled into a sitting position, wincing at the sting as he accidentally tugged at the IV line in his wrist.
"Where am I?"
"Fastoon hospital." This voice was one he didn't know. He turned his head. A pearly white Zenithi was perched on his IV stand. His tail was missing, the stump heavily bandaged. "It was a bit of a mess, but there was an operating theatre still functional. Good thing too, or you would not be among us today. It was touch and go for a while there. We've had Zenithi watching over you since you came out of surgery, and Clank hasn't left your side."
"What happened to your tail?"
The Zenithi, a young male named Silver, glanced at the stump.
"What, that? Fenris. Don't worry, it grows back. Shame, though. It was a fine tail."
"The one who attacked you."
Ratchet wracked his brain. It was all rather a blur. He remembered a pair of cold eyes glimpsed through the mists of pain, before that, something smacking into his chest, and before that…
His tiredness evaporated as the memory of his bonding flowed back. He needed to see her, needed her as a plant needed sunshine. He looked around wildly.
"Where is she?"
"She had to attend to her duties, I am afraid." Clank said.
Clank smiled proudly.
"While you were unconscious, Jasmine was promoted. She is a Lieutenant now, and as such, has many more duties. She was not happy about it. The General nearly had to drag her away from your side."
"General…the Lombaxes made it?"
"Oh yes. They have been back for a week now."
"A week? I've been out for a week?"
"Oh yes." said Silver. "Everyone's been quite worried, to tell you the truth."
Ratchet tore out his IV drip, heedless of the pain.
"I'm going to see her."
"Steady on there, Ratchet!" Silver said. "You're injured! And anyway, you have to stay here. Doctors orders!"
"Let him." Clank said quietly. "I have been his friend since the beginning. I know him as well as I know myself. This is one of those times it is best just to stand by. Besides, he looks fine. Ratchet, your clothes are in that cupboard over there. If you try and sneak out in your hospital gown, you will attract attention to yourself."
Ratchet leaped out of his bed, ignoring the tight, dull ache in his chest as he ripped the cupboard doors open. A tiny piece of rationality remained, however.
"Ahem." he said, meaningfully. Clank and Silver looked blank. Ratchet looked at the bundle of clothes in his hands, then back at them.
Comprehension dawned, and they turned their backs. Ratchet quickly changed, tearing off the large bandage around his chest as he did so, blinking in shock at what lay under them. A star burst of fur-less skin stood out plainly in the middle of his chest. Ratchet didn't need to be a doctor to know he'd have that for the rest of his life.
"OK, I'm done." he said, still fingering the scar. It ached, but not badly.
"It seems this mission has left it's mark on you, Ratchet." said Clank.
"Yeah, it has, hasn't it?" Ratchet replied softly. He was silent for a while. "If I'm gonna sneak out, I'll need a distraction."
"Say no more, my good sir." Silver said. "I'll take care of this."
He stepped out of the room, still marvelling about being able to go anywhere with no sneaking or hiding. It was allowed, yet he still felt the thrill of danger, of disobedience. He had always desired that freedom.
He spotted Doctor McAngus at the end of the corridor, and headed in his direction.
Doctor McAngus looked around, saw no one, and went back to his clip board.
He looked down.
"Oh, sorry there, laddie. Ah didnae see ye there."
"Quite alright, sir. I was just enquiring about the health of the patient in room 12. Ratchet, I believe his name was?" Behind Doctor McAngus, unseen, Ratchet and Clank slipped past silently.
"Well, last ah checked, he was still unconscious, but ah'm fairly certain he'll make it. His latest blood test showed-"
"Yes, thank you, Doctor. Just checking."
Silver vanished. Doctor McAngus shrugged. Nice fellows, the Zenithi, he thought. A wee bit odd, though…
Unnoticed, Ratchet wandered through the corridors of Fastoon hospital. Early on in his heroing career, he had learned a useful fact. If you look like you're meant to be there, few people question you. No one looked twice at him. The hospital wing was fairly crowded, mostly with children. They were obviously ill. A few would often pause to erupt in a coughing fit. But they looked cheerful, and were clearly on the road to recovery. A number of relieved looking parents were around as well. It was the most Lombaxes he had ever seen in his life, and he couldn't help smiling at the sight. Then he stepped out of the hospital, and his jaw dropped.
Last he had seen Fastoon, it had been a broken, deserted ghost town, overgrown with weeds and patrolled by Nanophytes.
The early evening air was filled with the endless din of construction. Vast webs of scaffolding had been erected around buildings, and swarmed with workers. Buildings deemed unsaveable had been demolished, usable parts being carted away to build new ones. Whole streets were livable again, as practically the entire Lombax race had rolled up it's sleeves and got to work. Even the children were helping, giggling uproariously as they dragged away the smaller bits of rubble. To them, it was only a game.
Looking at the now bustling city, Ratchet began to get a sense of what it once had been. Of what it could be again…
His instincts nudged him, reminding him of who he was looking for.
"Where's Jasmine, Clank?"
"I believe she is in the Plaza."
"Great!" He set off, Clank hurrying behind him. "I can't believe it's all over, Clank! I'm home now! I'm gonna have a family!"
"Yes…" Clank said sadly. "A family…"
Councillor Silk breathed in deeply, a broad grin spreading across her face. Even after a week, she still couldn't get enough of the warm, spicy smell of the Fastoon breeze. She had savoured every hour, every minute, every second. She had personally overseen the destruction of the Jump-Gate. She couldn't risk it being used again. She was done with dimensional travel. Councillor Silk risked a nervous glance sideways at the person next to her. It took some getting used to…
"A nice day." Emperor Markus said. The Cragmite was quite fascinated with Fastoon. He had always wanted to see it. His arrival had caused something of a stir, and the Guard would have blown his ship to smithereens, had it not been for an unlikely saviour:
She had barrelled down the gang plank with a squeak of joy as she sighted Shona. The gleeful reunion had surprised the Guard, and nicely defused the tension. Now the Cragmites were aiding the Lombaxes with their repair efforts. It was an uneasy truce, but it was holding. Mostly.
"Have there been any more…incidents between our workers?" said Emperor Markus. Councillor Silk shook her head.
"None that I'm aware of, though there's probably a few scuffles here and there."
"Hardly surprising, considering what we have done in the past. Still, times change. Now we aren't fighting anyone, the Cragmites are trying to get some form of culture together. Admittedly, the art we have so far looks like something Zoe would make." He motioned to where Zoe and Shona were playing tag. "But it's a start."
Councillor Silk watched the two at play.
"If those two can get along, then perhaps there's hope for us yet." she said.
"Time will tell." There was a moment of silence. Then- "So what happened to Fenris?"
"Zordoom. It's more than he deserves after what he's done."
They looked over at the Guard's newest lieutenant, sitting hunched over and still as a stone on a fallen beam, ears drooped and tail limp.
"Poor girls having a rough time, it seems." said Emperor Markus, sympathetically.
"You have no idea. I can only imagine what's going through the poor girls head…"
Jasmine turned her shiny new badge over and over in her hands. Her armour was new as well. It gleamed. The trillium mines had been among the first things to be re-opened, and a new set of armour had been forged. She looked every inch a Lieutenant.
And she'd have gladly given it up in a heartbeat.
She needed Ratchet, needed to see his face, hear his voice. She would have given anything to be with him. But Guard duties came first, she knew that. She had no choice, but to be here…
Through the fog of grief, she heard someone come up behind her.
"Hey, Jasmine." Angela said. "Isn't this great?"
"I still can't believe the Lombaxes are back! Look!" Jasmine glanced up briefly. A tail poked out of the seat of Angela's pants. "They made great strides in bionics while they were away. I haven't fallen over all day!"
"I just wanted to apologize if I was a bit catty towards you. I guess we didn't get off to a good start, huh?"
Angela sat down next to her.
"Look on the bright side. You just saved a whole race from extinction! You and Ratchet are the pride of the Lombaxes!"
"Dad tells me you both are getting the Iron Lombax medal for this. Clank too. He offered Mia one too, but she said she didn't need awards. She was just doing her duty."
"Angela?" Jasmines voice was dull.
"Please go away."
Angela got up without a word and left. Sometimes people needed to be alone….
Behind her, Jasmine buried her head in her hands. This was meant to be the proudest moment of her life. She had completed her mission well.
So why did she feel like she had failed?
Mia scratched at her bandage with her horns. The splint on her wing itched abominably. Around her, Fastoon bustled for the first time in years. Not even her itchy wing could detract from her good mood. Next to her, Ginger studied blue prints for the new Praetorian Guard base. Tachyons attack had demolished it. The two had become fast friends, Ginger having finally found someone who could keep up intellectually. The Lombax put the blue prints aside and grinned.
"At the rate of construction, Fastoon should be fully habitable within a year! Isn't that great?" Her face fell. "I just wish Bryant could see this…"
Mia patted her with her good wing.
"I'm certain he wouldn't have wanted you to mope around like this. He made a bold sacrifi- What's he doing? He should be in hospital!"
Mia had spotted Ratchet, heading towards the Plaza with an intense, focused look on his face. She teleported over.
"Ratchet, you shouldn't be out yet, you're still hurt!"
Ratchet hurried past her, not even glancing in her direction.
"I am afraid he is not listening." said Clank, behind her. "He has other things on his mind."
Ratchet was running now, as he caught sight of the small figure sitting slumped on the other side of the Plaza…
Night was falling, the first few stars beginning to appear as Jasmine sighed deeply and got to her feet. She had to report to the council on the day's progress. She used to like Guard duties. Now, with part of her feeling numb and empty, it was a chore.
As she moved off, the wind changed suddenly, and she froze. It carried a scent, faint, but growing stronger. One she recognised. One she missed. She turned, saw the golden Lombax running towards her, and started running herself, heart pounding….
They reached each other halfway across the Plaza, Ratchet's strong arms enfolding her. With a sigh, she buried her face in his shoulder, her fear and worry melting away at his touch. For a moment, they stayed like that, holding each other tightly, afraid to let go in case it was a dream.
Jasmine looked up at him, tears of joy forming in her eyes.
"I…I was so scared, Ratchet…I never thought I'd see you-"
She never finished that sentence, as Ratchet gently took her face in his hands. And kissed her.
For Jasmine, everything stopped. Even her heart skipped a beat for a moment. The whole world melted away. She forgot her duties, forgot the bustling city, forgot the rest of the Lombaxes, some of whom had stopped to watch the reunion, forgot where she was, forgot who she was. There was only Ratchets lips pressed softly against hers. It seemed a million years before they finally drew apart, still holding each other. Deep inside himself, Ratchet felt a change, the filling of a hole in his heart he hadn't noticed. He could see in Jasmines eyes she felt it too. There was a moment of perfect silence, perfect stillness…
Broken by the sound of applause. It rippled through the watching audience, gathered strength, grew louder. Every Lombax knew how they had been saved, and now they cheered and clapped for the heroes who had pulled them from the brink of extinction.
Ratchet looked at Jasmine, eyes shining.
"No, Ratchet. We're home…"