Another morning, another splitting headache. Donovan took three aspirin and a quick shower before dressing and stumbling out into the bright morning sunshine, reflecting that he really needed to get some new clothes. He paused in the street, remembering that Julie had said something about Alice and some of the others sneaking into a thrift store the other night and making off with as much clothing as they could. They had left money behind to cover the cost of the clothes, not wanting to actually steal but not able to do the kind of mass shopping they needed to do during the day. Picking up a lot of underwear and socks rarely raised an eyebrow but buying a few dozen jeans in varying sizes might. Now where did they put those clothes ...?
Right. The general store. Where else? Blessing the builders of this mock western town for actually using complete buildings and not just fake fronts, Donovan started over toward the store only to pause in surprise when Tyler stepped from the stable. Over the past few days, Tyler had worn shorts and sleeveless shirts. Now he wore black jeans, a t-shirt with an unbuttoned shirt over it, and boots. He was pulling on gloves as he absently looked around the camp, eyes finally resting on Donovan.
"Something wrong, Gooder?"
"Just haven't seen you in those clothes for awhile."
Tyler smiled slightly. "The remains of the Playa Del Mar Resistance are coming in to finalize the raid and the less people to know about my people being here, the better."
"Why?" Donovan asked sharply.
Tyler looked at him in obvious surprise. "We're giving Earth an edge against the Visitors. Don't want them to find out about it, do we? The fewer people who know, the less likely that'll happen." His eyes slid past Donovan. "That must be them now."
Donovan turned to see a van driven by Chris park at the far end of the street. The side and passenger doors opened and three people stepped out, looking around warily. Donovan started over to them only to pause at a startled grunt from Tyler. He turned to see that Polly had barreled full-force into Tyler and was now gripping his shirt bunched in both hands, looking at him fiercely.
"What was that for, kitten?" Tyler's voice was bemused.
"You were going away again!" Polly accused. "I saw that!"
Donovan blinked, confused.
"She means," Fontana said quietly, almost in his ear. "That Kom was reverting back to his old 'human' self. It upsets the children."
Donovan looked over his shoulder at the man then back at Tyler, who was gently prying Polly's hands from his shirt.
"Sometimes I have to." He said quietly. "You know that."
"Doesn't mean I have to like it." The girl groused, stomping a foot.
"No, it doesn't." Tyler agreed as he started past her.
"You said you'd teach me the Barbarosian alphabet!" Polly protested and Tyler threw her a startled look.
"You did." Fontana said. "Last night. I remember."
Tyler threw him an exasperated look. "You're not helping."
Fontana looked interested. "Am I supposed to be?"
"Fontana!" Polly stomped her foot again and Fontana grinned down at her.
"Y'know, she's beginning to remind me of your komessee n'iishai." He said.
Tyler grunted. "Just what I need. A little human version of Pular Singe. This afternoon, ni'prih." He tousled the girl's hair. "Maybe you and Fontana can get the stuff together." He glanced at the new arrivals, now being lead into the saloon. "Once this meeting is over and lunch is done, we can get together. Fontana, you know where everything is." He turned toward the saloon. "Try not to make a mess or blow anything up."
Fontana scowled at Tyler's back. "Come on, kitten. I'll tell you another story about our cadet days."
"With Pular Singe?"
"Sure. Got lots of them." The two of them vanished into the stable. Tyler looked after them, shaking his head.
"If Pular Singe ever comes to Earth," Tyler muttered. "I will be so very royally screwed."
Donovan threw him a startled look, realizing suddenly that Tyler was once again wearing his 'do-not-approach' expression, the one they'd seen throughout the first few weeks he'd been with the group.
"What does that mean? Komeshe n ..." Donovan stumbled over the alien words and Tyler threw him an amused look.
"Komessee n'iishai. Heart sister. On Earth, I suppose the closest thing would be blood-brother. Sister rather." Then they were stepping through the swinging doors and into the war room.
There were only a few people present, since most of those who were going to be in this raiding party were currently on another assignment. Besides Julie and the three newcomers, Caleb was there, as well as Chris, Maggie and Alice. All stood around one of the tables, studying the maps spread out there. Ignoring the wary looks of the newcomers, Tyler walked to Julie's side.
"What's the situation?"
Julie pointed toward an area on the map. "Item: one Visitor installation being built. Suspected to be a food processing plant but not totally certain. Said installation is currently boosting the local economy so general consensus is that the locals may not be happy about us blowing it up."
"They'll be even less happy if we don't." Alice, now perched on the bar, pointed out.
Julie waved a hand. "No argument there." She glanced up at the newcomers with a slight smile. "Sorry. Bad manners. This is Mike Donovan and Ham Tyler. Ham is our military expert." Julie nodded toward the man standing to the far right. "Pete Nichols is the leader of the Playa Del Mar Resistance. Ex-Army, right?"
"Ranger." Nichols said tersely. Big and brawny, he looked capable of bench-pressing a car. He was eyeing Tyler with a hint of scorn. Over the past couple months Tyler had been letting his hair grow out and while not yet long enough to pull back into a ponytail, it did brush his collar. That, along with the beard, clashed with Nichols' military crew cut and clean-shaven face. Tyler simply crossed his arms and stared broodingly back.
"Luke Tanner." The man next to him was tall but slender, blond to Nichols' dark brown hair. Both men had blue eyes, though of different shades.
"And Susan Lee." Susan Lee nodded coolly, her features as expressionless as Tyler's. Her oriental features were beautiful, save for the puckered scar that ran down the left side of her face, narrowly missing her eye.
"They have seven other people capable of fighting. Caleb?"
Caleb grunted. "I figure to take eight of our people, including me." He rattled off the names of seven of their people, all excellent fighters. Tyler straightened, crossing his arms and listening thoughtfully as Caleb ran through the rough plan they'd worked out. Donovan settled onto a nearby table, watching. He was surprised at what he observed.
While Tyler still gave off the unmistakable 'alpha wolf' aura he'd joined the group with, he also made it very clear that Julie was the leader of the group. When Nichols addressed him rather then Julie concerning the plan, Tyler pointedly directed his attention back to her, a move that turned the former Army Ranger red. Julie ignored the exchange and answered the question as if it had been directed to her in the first place.
"We should be able to supply some explosives." She glanced at Chris, who nodded once. "And we have Visitor weapons your people can use. Maybe keep?" She glanced at Tyler, who frowned thoughtfully.
"We might be able to spare some." He said reluctantly, obviously not liking to trade out their Visitor weapons. Julie just nodded.
"Our people will bring some with them. You said you have spare medical supplies? And propane?"
Luke shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah, some. We can maybe use them to trade for the weapons."
Julie nodded curtly. "That'll do then. Caleb and the others will come down a couple days ahead of time to look things over, especially that dry wash." Tyler had questioned the wisdom of using a dry wash as cover on the way to the installation, subsiding only when a possible alternate plan was created. Julie looked over the trio, her eyes stern. "As well as work with your people some. Caleb will be in charge of the raid, Sancho his second."
"Wait a second ..." Nichols started but Julie cut him off curtly.
"My people are risking their lives to help your people. I want to make sure they get back alive."
"I've been doing this kind of work for a long time." Nichols straightened but if he expected to intimidated Julie into backing down, he was sorely mistaken. She just looked back at him without expression.
"But have your people?" Tyler pointed out. A movement caught his eye and he looked to see Susan Lee pointedly touch the scar on her face. He raised an eyebrow. "That is hardly an endorsement to how good your people might be. In fact, pretty much the opposite."
For the first time, Lee's expression changed, obviously shocked that Tyler would be so blunt. Tyler looked back at Nichols with hard eyes.
"We're giving you eight damn good people on deposit and we expect to get the same eight people back, alive and in one piece."
Nichols stared back, obviously trying to stare the smaller man down but he ended up looking away first. Tyler smiled his teeth-bared wolf's grin, a grin, Donovan suddenly realized, he hadn't seen in days. He looked like he was getting ready to go for the man's throat.
"I think we understand each other." Julie pointedly stepped between the two men and Tyler startled Donovan even more by stepping back and giving her a faintly apologetic look. "Chris will take you back to your car. Our eight will be at the rendezvous two weeks from tomorrow. Good luck."
Chris and Caleb escorted the threesome out, both trying unsuccessfully to hide broad grins.
"It's all big dogs, little dogs." Maggie said dryly and Tyler looked insulted.
"Please! Big wolves, little wolves! Or in this case, infant wolves." He looked after Nichols scornfully.
The three women started laughing. Donovan stared, totally confused. "Aaaaaa ... do I want to know?"
"Probably not." Tyler grunted. Seeing Donovan's expression, he relented. "Essentially, Maggie's saying that the way Nichols and I were reacting to each other is the same way two alpha dogs ... or rather wolves ... react to each other. Which is pretty much correct." He glanced at the doors with a slight smile. "Nichols wants to lead the raid but his idea of leading is to barrel in the front door and blast everything in sight. A good way to get killed." Caleb re-entered the building and Tyler glanced over at him. "If he tries to pull rank or anything, pull our people out. I know his kind and they tend to get people killed."
"Don't worry. I know his kind too."
Tyler nodded then turned back to Julie. "Sorry about the alpha wolf thing ..."
"As long as you're using it to back me up, I don't mind. Just don't let it go beyond the glare and stare stage."
"No fears, ba'ze." Tyler said dryly. He glanced down at his hands then abruptly peeled the gloves off, studying the sharp claws. "If it ever goes beyond that stage ..."
"We'll be cleaning blood off the ceiling?" Alice guessed and Tyler blinked then looked away in obvious embarrassment, curling his hands to hide the claws.
"Men like that just raise my hackles." He muttered, shoving the gloves into a back pocket.
"You used to be a man like that." Donovan pointed out.
"Was I?" Tyler shrugged. "In a way, I suppose I was but that was then, this is now. None of us," He glanced over his shoulder at Julie. "Are the same as we were this time last year." The woman made a face at him in response and he smiled slightly. "I better go make sure Fontana isn't getting ready to blow things up. He's starting to get restless."
"Starting ..." Caleb looked up from where he was fixing a pot of coffee.
Tyler grimaced. "All right. He's been restless for a while. He's not used to being in the same place for so long." He slipped out the door. After a moment, Donovan followed him, stopping abruptly when he realized Tyler was sitting on the step, untying his boots.
"What are you doing?"
"I don't like wearing boots." Tyler grunted as he pulled off a boot. "Claws, boots. A bad combination. Almost as bad as claws and sheets." He paused, smiling suddenly. "Man, did Linn ever used to complain about what my claws did to her sheets. She kept threatening to take a clipper to me. 'First the cat then you' she used to say." He paused thoughtfully. "Of course there was a time or two when she wasn't referring to the claws."
Laughter came from behind them and Maggie stepped over to lean against a nearby post. "A trip to the vet's? For you or the cat?"
"Depended on which one of us she was more pissed at. Usually me." He gave the woman a hard look. "But don't you get any ideas."
"Hey, you still owe me for clawing my legs."
"You know I didn't mean to claw them so badly!" To Donovan's surprise, Tyler really did seem contrite.
"I know. But you still owe me."
Tyler muttered something under his breath.
"So Linn knew? About ..." Donovan nodded toward Tyler's hand.
Tyler threw him a surprised look. "Of course she knew." He held up a hand, claws extended. "You can't hide these from a bed partner. At least not a long term one. Not that I've had too many, here on Earth." He pulled off the other boot, dropping it to the ground with a sigh. "Hookers don't care if you keep your gloves and boots on." He smiled slightly, glancing at the stable. "And a Barbarosian doesn't care, period."
Donovan shifted uncomfortably. Tyler noticed and shook his head. "Like I keep telling Fontana, humans are weird about sex." He grinned suddenly. "Don't tell me you got a problem with me and Fontana?" He asked abruptly then laughed when Donovan flushed. "I don't believe it! Gooder's homophobic."
"I wouldn't put it that way ..." Donovan looked at Maggie for help but she just crossed her arms and looked thoughtful.
"How would you put it?" Tyler shook his head again. Picking up his boots, he rose. "Look, Donovan, what's between Fontana and I is sex. Plain and simple. Well, maybe not so plain and simple but that's a story you probably don't want to hear. Me, on a whole, I prefer women. But the minute these became common knowledge ..." He raised his hand to indicate the claws. "My chances of getting a bed partner in this group dropped considerably. And I can't chance a trip to the red light district."
"Prefers my brother, Chim. So he pretends. And I pretend a little harder. But it's fun. And it's company. Barbarosians aren't meant to sleep alone." Tyler glanced over his shoulder at Maggie, looking as if he'd just remembered she was in hearing distance. She however, was looking at his bare feet.
"How can you walk on that?" She asked, indicating the sharp gravel that was scattered on the street.
Tyler glanced down then moved to lean against the post next to Maggie, bringing his foot up to show her the bottom. "Hard as tanned leather. I spent the first several years of my life barefoot. Common practice." He ran the flat of a claw along the skin. "We always have a hell of a time getting the kittens into boots for the first time. I seem to remember being a terror and a half when the time came." He said ruefully then glanced at Maggie. "Are you coming over tonight?" He asked. "Alice got a hold of some truly awful movies."
"Love to. But I have a ... date."
Tyler's face went expressionless at the reminder of Maggie's relationship with Daniel Bernstein. "Right. Afterwards maybe?"
Maggie smiled slightly. "If it's still going. Should I bring beer?"
"If you want to make it through these movies, you might want to bring something a whole lot stronger." Holding the boots by the laces, he walked across the street to the stable.
Donovan looked at Maggie. "Truly awful movies?"
"Yeah. Every now and then, Chris scrounges some kerosene from somewhere and uses it to power up their generator to run the TV and VCR and we watch some truly awful movies. Or Mr. Ed. Depends on our moods."
"I thought Robert and Tyler talked in the evening."
"They do. Some of the things that come out are really interesting too. You should come over sometime. Julie has."
"She has?" Donovan thought back, remembering that Julie had said something about sitting in on the talks.
Maggie nodded. "I gotta go. My turn to help serve lunch. Then I have to get ready for my ... 'date'. Later, Mike."
Donovan watched her go then glanced at the stable with a frown.
Ham dropped his boots to one side of the stable doors and looked over at the long tables. Fontana was sitting at one while Polly sat cross-legged on the table itself. "What mischief are you two planning?" He demanded.
"Who, us? Mischief? Where'd you get that idea?" Fontana asked, not bothering to look up.
"I know which of the Four Quarters your family follows." Ham said firmly.
"Hey!" Fontana threw him a hurt look and Ham grinned.
"It's almost lunch, Polly. You better go get cleaned up and get ready."
Polly made a face at him but climbed down from the table. "Are you coming for lunch?"
"Not today, ni'prih. Go on."
The girl grinned. "I know that that means! That means 'little rat'!" Then she was out the doors and running for the trailers.
"She's picking up our language way too fast." Ham commented, walking over to stand behind the other man. He slipped an arm around him and Fontana glanced upwards, mildly surprised at this open display of affection in an area where they could be seen.
"What are you looking so reflective for?"
"Memories." Ham said simply. "And wishful thinking."
Fontana reached up to twine his fingers with Ham's. "Change." He suggested. "Come hunting with me."
After a moment, Ham nodded. "I'll be back down in a minute."
"What are you looking at?" Julie asked from behind Donovan and he blinked, suddenly realizing he'd been staring blindly at the stable. He shook his head.
"Just thinking." After a moment, he continued. "I can't figure Tyler out. Half the time he's this guy I've totally loathed over the years, the other half he's someone I could probably ... well, at least not actually hate."
Julie slipped her arm through Donovan's. "I've been trying to tell you that for awhile now."
"Maggie said you've been over there some evenings."
"A few. The last couple we've ended up playing dominos. Beats sitting alone worrying." She pretended not to notice Donovan wince. "Are you going anywhere tonight?"
"No, not tonight."
"Good. Then you can join us."
Tyler and Fontana stepped from the stable then ran toward the woods. Neither man looked toward the couple as they vanished into the trees.
"Going hunting." Julie murmured.
"Is that wise? Some folks don't like it."
Julie shook her head. "They need fresh meat. Not all the time but every now and then. And we need the meat too. Have you seen the price of meat in the stores? What's wrong?"
"They do eat raw meat?" Donovan felt a little sick. He must have look sick as well.
Julie threw him an impatient look. "Yes, they eat raw meat. And some humans eat raw fish. Steak tartar. Frog legs and snails and insects. Not to mention horses and cats, the very idea of which they find nauseating. I thought Fontana was going to lose it when he heard some societies eat cats."
"It's just that ..." Donovan thought back on what his mother had told him two nights ago. He hadn't really believe all of it but now ... He realized Julie was looking at him closely. "You really do trust him, don't you?" He asked suddenly.
She looked startled. "Who, Tyler? I don't have a reason not to. He's done everything he's said he was going to do. He hasn't made any false promises. He hasn't lied."
"You can't be sure everything he's telling you is true."
Julie surprised Donovan by laughing. "Maybe not. But at least he's telling us things. And I'm willing to bet most, if not all, of what he's telling us is true. I don't see the advantage of him telling us things he knows wouldn't be acceptable to the majority of humans."
"True." Donovan reluctantly agreed. "But he hasn't told us why his people come here in the first place."
Julie looked surprised. And, he realized, a little guilty. She glanced around the empty street. "Actually, he has." She admitted. She caught the look on Donovan's face and flushed slightly, though there was a defiant look in her eyes. "We met privately a few days ago. He told me some things he thought I should know. About his people, about him."
"Why keep them secret?"
"Because having Ham here gives us an edge. If you have a mega-weapon in your possession, you don't go around telling everyone what it can do. Not to mention the fact that some people might misunderstand some things."
"Why tell you?"
Julie looked surprised. "Because I'm the ba'ze. The leader. I need to know."
"Is that what that means?"
"I guess it means something like boss. Apparently when Ham accepted me as the leader ... his leader ... he did it all the way." She paused and Donovan saw a mixture of anxiety and doubt in her eyes. "When a Barbarosian gives his loyalty, he does it totally. Completely. It's a little like having a trained tiger on a leash. He'll obey your orders but what orders should you give?"
"It scares you, doesn't it?" 'If it's true', he thought to himself. He had a hard time believing Tyler could give his loyalty to anyone.
Julie gulped air, remembering ... "Yes. But it would scare me more if he hadn't agreed to accept me as leader. As ba'ze." She shook herself, her eyes clearing. "It's ... complicated. And I can't explain it. Not now. I promised."
Donovan hesitated. "Can you at least tell me why he's here? On Earth?" He saw her hesitation. "I need to know."
Julie looked at him, surprised. It was obvious that this was important to him. She thought back on what Ham had said that night and how he said it. Making a decision, she nodded toward the whorehouse, where lunch was being served.
"Let's eat. Then we'll take a walk."
An hour later, they were in the woods, walking along the fringes toward the northern fields. It was one of the few truly private areas to talk.
"You have to promise not to talk to anyone about what we're going to talk about, Mike." Julie said abruptly. "Essentially Ham gave me the discretion on who to tell what but I need to know that the people I tell aren't going to spread it around."
Hurt, Donovan turned to look at her. "You know me better then that, Julie."
"I do. I think I do. But you did let it out that Ham and Fontana really are lovers, didn't you? No one else knew, at the time."
Donovan flushed. "I ... all right, I did say something but it wasn't exactly a secret!"
"It wasn't common knowledge either and I thought you'd have had sense not to talk about it. That's why I want your promise now. Not to talk about this with anyone, for any reason. Ham's trusting me and I need to be able to trust you."
"You have it. I promise."
Julie nodded and started to walk across the field. "Remember, back when we all met with Ham so he could answer questions? God! That seems like a lifetime ago!" Julie burst out suddenly then she shook her head. "He said, 'We go to inhabited non-Confederation worlds -- usually low-tech, usually pre-space travel -- to keep an eye on them.'"
"'So to speak.'" Donovan added.
"Yeah, so to speak. That's exactly what they do. The Outriders' job is to keep an eye on planets and report back to the Confederation on the planet's development. Technically, they're not supposed to get involved in any way but it's almost impossible not to. Apparently William appears in our history books more then once. So does Wolf and someone called Piper and a dozen other Barbarosians as well. The general rule of thumb seems to be that they can't tell us how to do things, they can't give us technology, they can't solve our problems but they can hint and guide and make suggestions."
"And that's why they're here?"
"No, that's just a side-effect. They're here because while we're a species with a lot of potential, we're also a species with a whole lot of really nasty baggage and a tendency for violence that's apparently very alarming. They are here to see if we're going to ... as Ham puts it ... 'grow up or blow up'."
Donovan stopped dead. "Meaning?"
"Meaning if we can grow up enough to accept other alien species, no matter what their appearance, as equal sentient beings and live peaceably with them then we're welcome out there." She gestured toward the skies. "If we blow up then they going to do their best to make sure we don't take any other sentient species with us."
"In other words, they want to ... what? Control us?"
Julie threw him an impatient look. "No, Mike. We can do whatever we please. But just as we have that right, they have the right to have nothing to do with us and the responsibility to protect the less sentient species in their care from us. They won't do a thing to prevent us from reaching space but they will keep their people safe from us. Period." She started walking again, Donovan at her side.
"So you don't think there's a more sinister reason they're here?"
"Same reason the Visitors are here. For the planet."
Julie started laughing again. "Mike, if they wanted Earth, they could have taken any time within the last several centuries! They wouldn't have waited until we have high-tech weapons! Besides, why would they want Earth now? I mean, it's over-populated, polluted ... a total mess! It would cost more to clean it up and/or run it then it would be to simply find some unpopulated, more pristine planet. Yes, Ham said that and in this case, I totally believe him."
"Yeah." Donovan couldn't help but smile. "I guess I do too. But then why are the Visitors here rather then finding one of those unpopulated planets?"
"I don't know. We haven't gotten that far yet." At Donovan's questioning look, she shrugged. "It's one of those things that apparently doesn't get talked about. Along with why the Confederation hates the Visitors so much."
Donovan hesitated then asked. "Do you think the Confederation is the reason the Visitors traveled here, to Earth, rather then a closer planet?"
"Honestly? I think that the Confederation does have something to do with why the Visitors had to come this far. Not the only reason, more of a contributing factor. We're sort of easing into questions concerning the Visitors. I just don't know if he'll answer them. Or if he does, which he would answer. Or how." Julie shook her head. "The questions he does answer, he answers in general terms and sometimes in ways that don't make sense, at least not until you put all the pieces together. Problem being, we don't have enough pieces to put anything together as yet. Once or twice, he's told a story rather then answer the question." She ran her hands through her hair in obvious frustration.
"Why doesn't he just tell us what he knows?"
"I don't know." Julie smiled thinly. "I have a suspicion he doesn't think we'll believe him, among other things. Not to mention a reluctance to talk about an obviously painful time in their history. Maybe even a taboo about talking about it. Sometimes I think he wants to but then he just can't." She stopped suddenly, realizing they'd walked through the field and into the woods. They were now standing on the edges of a large clearing.
"But what ..." Donovan started but Julia waved him to silence. She could hear ... she stepped back into the shadows of the trees, grabbing Donovan's sleeve and yanking him back with her. He threw her a puzzled look and started to speak but she waved him to silence again and pointed to her ear.
Donovan heard it then, a man's quiet laugh then Fontana was bounding into the clearing. Tyler appeared, running full-force into the other man and they tumbled into the thick grass together. Julie stretched up to speak into Donovan's ear.
"They don't just hunt in the woods." She murmured softly. Even so, Tyler must have heard something. He straightened, peering suspiciously into the shadows but then Fontana was on his knees near him, so close they were almost nose-to-nose. They stared at each other in what looked like a contest of wills and Donovan wouldn't have been surprised if the claws came out.
Fontana moved first but not in the expected aggression. He leaned close to rub his cheek slowly against the other man's. Tyler responded in kind.
Julie tugged on Donovan's sleeve and pointed toward the underside of her jaw then to her upper cheek. "Scent glands." She mouthed. Donovan blinked, suddenly realizing that the two men's actions reminded him of a pair of cats. When he looked back, Tyler was rubbing the underside of his jaw slowly along the other's bare shoulder, a look of quiet bliss on his face. Donovan flushed, both embarrassed and strangely excited by the sight. Julie tugged at his hand and they slipped further back into the shadows, both hoping the two men were too occupied to hear them.
Once they were back into the northern field, Julie stopped. "We were downwind. I don't think they knew we were there."
"Would it matter if they did?" Donovan's voice came out in a croak and he flushed.
Julie gave him an odd look and smiled. "To them? Probably not. The Barbarosian are an incredibly social people and very physical with each other. It's very unlikely that ..." She nodded back the way they'd come. "Will actually include any sex. It might, it might not. It's the way they are. They want to touch each other, to smell each other. To be near each other. Need a cold shower?" She asked abruptly then grinned as Donovan flushed deeper with embarrassment.
Julie shook her head and starting walking slowly back toward camp, Donovan next to her. "Before we knew he was alien, before Fontana came, he always projected that 'don't come near, don't touch' aura, remember? A defense mechanism. He had to keep himself rigidly in control because behavior that is common among his people can be seriously frowned upon or misunderstood here. With Fontana here, a lot of those barriers have fallen and when Fontana leaves ..."
"He'll go back to the way he was?"
"God, I hope not!" Julie burst out. She shook her head. "No, we're trying to find a happy medium. Haven't you noticed that he's creating a ... oh, I don't know how to describe it. A ... social circle, you might call it. All people who know what he is and don't really care? People he'll be able to interact with. Not the way he could with his own people, of course, but enough to keep him from slipping back into the emotionally remote man he was before. We hope." She glanced behind them. "Not that social. Unless he finds a human lover. Or another Barbarosian joins us." She grinned suddenly. "Or maybe the cast of Cats."
"Is that likely to happen? Not the cast of Cats part ..." Donovan gestured then paused. "Though that might be interesting, come to think of it."
"A human lover? Not impossible. Another Barbarosian? Maybe possible." She slipped her hand into Donovan's and paused just outside the camp. "I don't think he'll go back to the way he was. We'll do our best to prevent that." She fell silent. "Mike, forget what you know of Ham from the past and look at the man as he is today. Watch him. Talk to him. More importantly, listen to him. You haven't ever gone to the stable, have you? When Robert's been there?"
"I hadn't thought anyone else was welcome."
"At first, no one was. But now ... Robin and the girls go there often enough. Polly hangs around all the time. I've dropped in more then once. Caleb, Maggie, Rico, Sancho, Father Andrew. Some of the others. He doesn't mind. Not a lot of questions get answered but sometimes he'll tell a story." She grinned. "Robert's in seventh heaven. An alien willing to answer questions is an anthropologist's dream. I think he's foreseeing a day when he can publish his work." She looked up to where the mothership could be seen in the distance. "If the other aliens ever leave, that is."
Donovan didn't respond. His mind was whirling with thoughts of what he thought he knew about Tyler, about the things his mother had said, about the things he was seeing now. The sensible part of him knew that he wanted to believe the bad things so he'd have an excuse to go through with the deal. The father part of him insist all the bad things were true.
A finger poked at him. "You're drifting again." Julie accused and Donovan smiled.
"Just thinking. When is this get-together tonight?" He asked, mainly to distract her.
"We usually start between five and seven but folks drift in and out all the time. Especially if it's bad movie night. What's that thoughtful look for?"
"I was just wondering ... how many cast members of Cats do you think might really be Barbarosian?"
Julie started laughing.
It was past mid-afternoon when Ham and Fontana walked out of the woods and back into the town, each carrying a load of game. They had taken time to wash in a creek before returning and both were still damp. Some people stared, obviously wondering what they had been up to.
Fontana reached over suddenly to take what Ham was carrying. "I'll take these to the kitchen. I think you might have some explaining to do."
"Uh ...? Oh. Damn, I forgot." Polly was sitting by the stable doors, glaring at him. "Well, it is afternoon and it is after lunch ... I take it that isn't going to fly."
"No." Polly said shortly.
Ham sighed. "Sorry, kitten. I lost track of time." He shot a glare at Fontana's back.
Polly looked after Fontana as well then shrugged. "Okay. That'll fly." She stood up. "You've got blood under your claws." She said matter-of-factly and Ham looked at his hands in surprise. He had cleaned them but there was still a trace of blood there. He flushed, curling his hands to hide them before realizing that Polly had simply been informing him of that fact. "I better scrub them then. Where's your father?"
"In the saloon. Trying to do up your family tree."
Ham grinned wickedly. "That ought to be fun. Let me get cleaned up and we'll go over there."
"Can't you just start with Tyler's parents?" Donovan asked, looking at the charts Robin and Robert were working on. Aware of a sudden silence, he looked up to see both of them looking as if they wanted to strangle him on the spot. After a moment of imposing silence, Donovan gingerly stepped sideways to finally sit next to Father Andrew, eyes still on the duo. After a moment, they returned to their charts and he finally relaxed.
"How long have they been like that?" Donovan asked quietly.
The big priest grinned broadly as he leafed through a copy of Robert's notes. "Since Ham gave them a basic rundown on his immediate family last night." He answered just as quietly.
Julie, seated on the priest's other side, added. "Not that I blame them. Chris was right when he said they would need a couple walls and lots of chalk." She glanced at the door, nodding a greeting as Tyler and Polly entered the building. Tyler had an ornately carved box tucked under his arm while Polly had several sketchpads in her arms.
"How about over there, ni'prih?" Tyler gestured at an empty table near her father.
"I know what that means!" Katie said suddenly from where she was sitting on the floor, playing with a battered but serviceable dollhouse. "That means 'little rat'!"
Tyler stopped dead, staring at the girl in surprise. "Your kids really do pick up languages fast!" He said to Robert.
"They sure seem to be." Robert grinned. "I think Fontana's teaching them on the sly."
"I wouldn't put it past him." Tyler set the box on the table.
"Little rat?" Natalie Barnes, sitting at another table playing poker with a few others, looked at him in disbelief. "That's not exactly a term of endearment."
"It can be where I come from." He looked at Polly. "You mind I call you that?"
"As long as you're using it to mean a little version of Pular Singe and not the Earth rodent, no I don't." She put the pads onto the table and climbed into a chair.
Tyler laughed and tousled the girl's hair. Donovan noticed some people watching that gesture uneasily. The claws, he realized, that were noticeable even when sheathed, if you knew to look for them.
Slipping into the chair next to Polly, Tyler undid the leather strap that kept the box closed and flipped the top open to reveal neat rows of ink bottles and nib-tipped pens. "Okay, we need a pad of paper ... thank you." He took the pad she offered him. "First thing to know is that we have several more letters in our alphabet then in the English alphabet. Like sh is considered a single letter and so is th. And sometimes a word has it's own symbol so you don't have to spell it out every time. Yes and no, for example but we'll get into those later. For now, we'll just lay out the alphabet."
With swift strokes of the pen, Tyler half-wrote, half-drew a series of slashes along the page. He paused at the end of the first row then smiled before returning to the far left and continuing the sequence. One page full, he carefully tore it out before covering a second and then a third page. "Normally, of course, we write much smaller but for now ..." He tore out the third page and set it aside to dry.
"Ham! Good! You're here!" Linda shoved one of the swinging doors open with her shoulder and stepped into the building, her arms full.
"I didn't do it!" After a moment of silence, Tyler looked up and around at several pairs of staring eyes. "What?" He asked in obvious puzzlement.
"I don't think I want to know where that came from." Julie finally said, amused by the realization that Ham really didn't seem to know what he'd just said.
"Hey, that's nothing." Chris folded his cards and flipped them into the pile. "One time, in Laos, he came out of a sound sleep and his first words were 'You can't pin it on me! I don't know where that spleen came from!'. We never did figure that one out."
"Did you really want to?" Robert asked.
"Hell, no! But it sure scared the new guys."
Ham gave his friend a long-suffering look. "I don't remember that. I really, honestly don't remember that." He glanced at Linda. "What's up?"
Linda grinned back cheerfully, dropping her armload onto an empty table. "Manuals!"
Tyler arched an eyebrow. "Where'd they come from?"
"Another cell got them somehow. When they found out we had someone who might be able to translate them, they sent them over on the condition they get copies."
"That shouldn't be a problem." Tyler rose. "Stay away from the inks, kitten."
"Okay." She said solemnly, eyes twinkling, and Tyler paused, eyeing her thoughtfully. After a moment, he flipped the box closed and took it with him, setting it on the table next to the manuals. Polly made a face at his back.
"Got a pen?" Ham asked Linda, who pulled one from her pocket. He glanced over the top manual. "Food processing. This one will be useful when we can finally reverse the process." He wrote 'Food Processing' on the cover and set it aside, making his way quickly through the stack. "Ah. Here's the one you want." He wrote 'Communications' on a manual and handed it directly to the woman. Linda grinned, holding it close as Ham finished up the stack. "One on shuttle repair, one on weapons repair. Pretty good haul. Now for a chance to translate them."
"Well, we need the communications ..." Linda wheedled and Ham grinned.
"Tomorrow. If I'm free tomorrow, I'll work at translating it. It isn't easy. The languages are similar but there are enough differences that I need to be careful. In fact, if you want to hang over my shoulder, I can teach you to translate it as well."
"How would your boyfriend feel about that?" Hansen asked snidely
"Mine or hers?" Ham asked.
"I don't have a boyfriend. Must be yours." Linda said as she thumbed through the manual then she paused, looking thoughtful. "Of course, from what I've seen of Fontana, his response to that remark would probably be to ..." To the shocked surprise of some in the room and to the amusement of the rest, she leaned sideways into Tyler, flipping back her long hair and looking up at him saucily. "... invite me up into the loft."
Tyler grinned wolfishly, leaning forward until he was almost nose-to-nose with the woman. "In a heartbeat. He has a thing for red-haired ladies with green eyes."
"Hey, kids. Let's keep it clean." Father Andrew rose and stepped hurriedly forward to clamp a hand firmly on each of their shoulders, cutting off what he suspected would be a very raunchy reply on Linda's part. "Young ears are present."
Ham looked at him then leaned close enough to whisper something in Linda's ear. The woman turned scarlet and collapsed into the nearest chair, helpless with laughter. Everyone stared at her with varying degrees of surprise and trepidation.
"I don't think we want to know what he said." Robin said quietly to Julie.
"You're probably too young for it." Julie looked at the laughing woman. "I suspect my great-grandmother might be too young for it."
Scooping up the box, Tyler returned to his place next to Polly. The girl wisely said nothing about the still-laughing woman, just watched as Tyler once again set out the inks and pens.
"What's with her?" Fontana appeared in the doorway, eyeing Linda apprehensively.
Ham said something back in a rapid-fire language that sounded nothing like the language the duo normally spoke. Polly glared up at him. "That's not Barbarosian!" She accused.
"No, it's not." Tyler agreed. "It's cadet cant, sometimes called battlespeak. We learn it as cadets." He grinned, ignoring the girl's glower and looking over at Fontana, who was now eyeing Linda with a speculative expression. "And if you're planning on company, let me know so I can find a rooftop to sleep on."
Fontana looked puzzled. "Why? It's a big loft."
Linda laughed even harder and Father Andrew looked up sternly.
"I am about to ground the lot of you! Now knock it off!" He snapped.
Donovan wasn't sure why such a threat from a Catholic priest would have any effect on the two aliens but it did. Fontana vanished from the doorway and Ham turned back to the pad of paper he'd been working on. Linda straightened but kept collapsing back into fits of giggles as she paged idly through the communications manual.
"Do you have to use those kinds of pens?" Polly asked.
"Nope. They're just fun. Colored pencils or pens would work just as well. In most cases. There are some things you need a very special kind of ink for but we couldn't get it here anyway, even if we did need it."
"Which we don't."
"The different colors can mean different things?"
"Yep. Depending on the context. Here ..."
Donovan watched as Tyler patiently explained the Barbarosian alphabet to Polly. After a while, Robin left her table and joined them, watching as the Barbarosian showed how to write first his name and then theirs.
There was a sudden thump as Fontana dropped down onto the bar and more then one person jumped in surprise. Donovan looked upward, realizing the man had dropped down from the second floor.
Tyler broke off what he was doing and looked over at him thoughtfully. "You read old Sslisslik, don't you, Fontana?"
Fontana looked surprised. "Yes but not well."
"As well as I do, I bet. How about helping Linda translate that manual she has a death grip on?"
Fontana arched an eyebrow, looking over at Linda. "Sure. Why not?" He snatched up a sketch pad from the pile and went to sit next to the woman. Minutes later, the two had their heads bent over the open manual, Fontana writing out notes.
Donovan turned his attention back to what Robert was doing but that got too confusing. He stood, intending to go out and check the parameter but paused when Caleb entered. The older man made his way over to Tyler, bending to speak to him quietly. Tyler listened, nodding every now and then before replying in a soft voice. Caleb nodded and straightened, walking back out of the building.
Donovan watched him leave with a frown then looked at Tyler, his head bent over the pad of paper, the two girls intent on what he was doing. When, he wondered, had the attitude toward Tyler change? Granted, some people in the camp were still wary of him and some wouldn't come anywhere near him but most of the others didn't even seem notice he was alien. Or just didn't care. Weird, considering he wasn't bothering to hide it at all now. At least not within the camp.
Before he could reflect further, he saw Fontana suddenly raise his head, head tilted, listening. He said something sharply and Tyler raised his head to listen.
"What is it?" Julie asked, concerned. "A shuttle?"
"Truck." Polly said before either man could speak. Suddenly aware that everyone was staring at her, she looked up. "What? That was Barbarosian!"
"You're getting scary. Especially since, technically, we don't have a word for truck." Tyler rose. "You girls stay here." He ran out the door. Fontana rose as well but rather than use the door, he ran up the stairs and to the roof.
Tyler slid to a halt, looking left and right, finally turning to the right, heading for the whorehouse. "Binoculars!" He said sharply to a nearby sentry and, without hesitation, the man pulled the pair from his neck and tossed to Tyler. Doubling the strap, Tyler grasped it between his teeth and rapidly claw-climbed up the side of the building. He could hear Julie giving sharp orders as he settled onto the peak, peering through the binoculars. He could see the dust thrown up by the truck and then, finally the truck itself. After a long moment of close scrutiny, he relaxed.
"It's Elias and the others! Something must be wrong with the truck though! It doesn't sound right!"
"I'll look at it tonight!" Paul Leans, the group's mechanic, called up. Tyler nodded, leaning over to hold out the binoculars then releasing them to fall into the sentry's hands. The man re-slung them around his neck and went back to his duty. Tyler climbed down a story then dropped the rest of the way, walking over to join Julie as they waited for the truck.
Elias parked the truck carefully under the camouflage netting attached to the side of the whorehouse and stuck his head out. "We got one wounded! In the back!"
Tyler was already sprinting for the back of the truck, Donovan and a half-dozen others right behind him. Donovan heard Tyler hiss something then the Barbarosian was helping a bloody Sancho from the truck.
"It ain't nothing!" The little Mexican was insisting. "Hardly a scratch! Them damn vests don't work against bullets!"
"They're not meant to." Ham reminded him, glancing grimly at Donovan and the former reporter was surprised at the look of concern in the other man's eyes. "Chair carry." Was all he said and Donovan nodded. Ignoring Sancho's protests, they carried him into the infirmary, where Julie was already setting up. She ordered them out and the two men obeyed, ushering the others before them.
Tyler walked back to the truck. "Where's the other truck?" He asked Elias.
"They took the roundabout way. Should be here in an hour or so."
Tyler nodded, watching as others, directed by Alice, started to unpack the truck. "What happened?"
"Peterson didn't tell his people there would be a raid. Didn't want to chance anyone leaking anything but standard procedure in the company is if you get hijacked, let them take it. Only one of the drivers decided not to follow procedure. Pulled a gun and fired."
"What happened to him?"
Elias looked defiant, his next words almost a challenge. "He got a broken arm and a headache .. maybe some loose teeth ... but he's okay."
To more then a few people's surprise, Tyler just nodded. "Good job. Get your people and go get cleaned up. Get some food." He raised his voice slightly. "You're all off the roster for three days."
Elias looked surprised. Days off from sentry duty and raids were rare and he had no problem accepting it. Donovan watched the younger man walk away then looked at Tyler appraisingly.
"What?" Tyler said, not looking at the other man. "Did you expect me to give him hell about not killing that guy? If Sancho were dead or in danger of dying, I probably would. But, shit, Gooder, the guy was doing his job. Besides, I bet his boss is gonna tear him a new one for not following procedure. Need help?' He asked Alice. She shook her head.
"We got it. A damn good haul!" She said with an obvious air of satisfaction, watching as a line of people tossed items hand to hand and into the feed store, which functioned as their warehouse. "But no meat. I don't suppose you brought in some fresh meat?" She asked wistfully.
"Rabbits and squirrels. Lots of them in the woods. Fontana took a couple squirrels over to the stable. Next time, we'll try for fish." Tyler hesitated. "We're thinking of going out further, several miles, and hitting one of the ranches, rustle some cattle. Maybe goat or sheep. Hell, chicken would be good! Think we have the cash to cover it?"
Alice frowned. "I'll check. That might be a big project though."
Tyler grunted. "It's just a thought right now. We'll work it out later. People are getting a little sick of rabbit and squirrel."
"They should be glad to have it!" Alice snapped. "Go on. We've got this."
Tyler turned and walked away. After a startled moment, Donovan followed him, catching up with him at the infirmary.
"Good lady." Tyler grunted. "Chris's lucky." He paused to peer into the infirmary. They could hear Sancho complaining and Julie speaking firmly and they both grinned. They stepped back, Tyler looking around, ignoring Donovan's obvious study of him.
"Your people don't say good-bye, do they?" Donovan asked suddenly and Tyler looked at him, startled. "You never say 'bye', you just walk away. Like now."
Tyler frowned, eyeing him for a long moment before shrugging. "We don't have words for it. It's too permanent. We usually ..." He hesitated. "Our responses are usually physical. It's safe now, kitten. You can come out."
Donovan realized they had reached the saloon. Polly was in the doorway, peering out cautiously. "Someone got hurt?" She asked anxiously.
"Sancho but not badly. He'll be fine. Come on, let's do some work on the alphabet."
"Do we get to come over and watch the movies tonight?"
Tyler raised an eyebrow. "One movie. Then the kittens go to bed so we can enjoy them properly."
"You mean drunk?"
"Stinking. Go sit down, I'll be right over." Tyler headed for the coffee pot. "Coffee?"
"Sure." Donovan looked around the room. Robin and Polly were once again at their table, Fontana and Linda were back working on the manual. Otherwise the room was empty. "What movies are showing tonight?"
Tyler's lips quirked. "'Attack of the Killer Tomatoes', 'Night of the Lepus', and 'Plan Nine from Outer Space'."
"Oh, god, those are bad." Donovan groaned.
"I think Alice made a special effort to find them. Along with every other campy horror film under the sun. Let's see. Last time, we watched 'The Car', 'Kingdom of the Spiders', and 'Frogs'. You Earthers can make some weird movies. One of my cousins ... he's a smuggler ... swears he comes to Earth just for the movies."
"How about 'Rocky Horror Picture Show'?"
Tyler grimaced. "I told Alice if she brought that one back, I was going to chase her up a tree. Chris seconded me."
Donovan grinned. "I think I can agree with that."
Busy with other things, Donovan arrived late to the stable. He was surprised to see that the stable doors were closed. Easing one open, he slipped in, blinking at what he saw.
Father Andrew and Caleb had the two most comfortable-looking chairs, everyone else were either using lawn chairs or sprawled on several mattresses scattered around the floor. Sancho was laying on the sofa, looking half-asleep but obviously having no intention of missing any of the fun. Julia sat on the floor in front of him, leaning back against the sofa. He made his way over and sat next to her, looking up just in time to participate in a group groan at the sight of a man in a giant rabbit suit attacking a man.
"Where'd the mattresses come from?" He muttered to Julie as some of the others proceeded to call out gratuitous advice to the people currently under siege by the rabbits.
"You don't want to know." Julie muttered back.
Concluding that he really probably didn't want to know, Donovan leaned back against the sofa. He found himself paying little attention to the movies. Instead, he watched the people watching the movie. The children were already gone ... he wondered briefly what movie they had watched ... and what could be called the cream of the crop were left, sprawled out in the make-shift theatre. These people were the ones who formed the solid core of the LA Resistance, with the addition of Fontana, who was sitting cross-legged on a mattress with Linda and Alice. But, he realized suddenly, Tyler was missing.
Even as he thought that, Tyler dropped down to sit cross-legged on Julie's other side. If he was surprised to see Donovan, he didn't show it. He just offered them each a beer before settled back against the sofa, ignoring Sancho's protests.
"You can't have any. You're on painkillers." Julie admonished the other man and Sancho stuck out his tongue briefly before returning his attention to the movie. Julie just grinned and Donovan went back to his people watching, absently sipping the beer.
Almost against his will, Donovan had been taking Julie's earlier advice, not only with present events but also going through the events of the past several days, clearing his mind of what he had wanted to see and deliberately ignored what he knew ... thought he knew ... about Ham Tyler from years past. For the first time, he started to see little things that he had missed or, he forced himself to admit, deliberately ignored because they didn't fit into his view of Tyler. And now, watching Tyler interact with these people, he could see even more.
Chris and Tyler's friendship was undeniable. The two of them didn't even bother to banter back and forth. The majority of their communications was silent, as if every gesture and glance was a complete sentence. It was sometimes unnerving but, Donovan conceded, very handy in the field.
It had been long obvious that Caleb had somehow managed to form a bond with Tyler shortly after the Barbarosian had come out of his long healing sleep, though no one was certain what the basis of it was. He was one of the few people willing to stand up forcefully to Tyler and one of the very few to get the man to back down from something. More importantly, Tyler listened to Caleb.
Actually, Donovan realized suddenly, Tyler listened to all of them. He didn't always agree with what the person said but he did listen. Even now, he was listening to Paul explain something. Donovan didn't know what they were discussing but Tyler was listening intently, if impassively. Father Andrew was listening as well, interjecting a soft word every now and then.
How Tyler reacted to Father Andrew surprised Donovan even more. He treated the man with a kind of gruff respect. It was obvious he didn't follow the priest's religion and Julie had said something about Tyler's people having serious issues with the Roman Catholic Church but he seemed to respect the religion and the man representing it. He even seemed to know the rituals. After one particularly strident meeting, during which the priest had admonished everyone involved to do five decades of the rosary (or the religion-of-your-choosing equivalent thereof), Tyler had actually borrowed a rosary and done it, from all appearances correctly. And while he didn't attend the church services, he did help keep the church in good repair.
Fontana sat on a mattress near Chris and Donovan felt his mind shy away from his relationship with Tyler. He didn't want to know anymore about it. Of course, from the way the Barbarosian was chatting with Linda, their heads close together, he couldn't help but wonder whether the relationship was going to continue. Then again, from what he understood, the Barbarosian weren't monogamous so ...
He wrenched his mind from that line of thought and looked around again. Alice was curled up against Chris' broad frame, more then a little tipsy, which, he had to admit, was pretty much the only way to watch this movie. Elias, Robert, and Rico were leaning back against the RV, taking turns catcalling bad advice to the actors and throwing popcorn. Sancho ... well, Sancho was falling asleep, though he kept waking up at the interesting scenes, sometimes adding his two cents worth. A few other people were scattered about, all watching the movie. Some, he was startled to see, had brought blankets and pillows with them and looked ready to spend the night.
Donovan chewed his lip thoughtfully. When he'd first seen Tyler standing in their old headquarters, he had reacted to him as he'd always done, with an edge of antagonism and hostility fueled by the knowledge of what the man did for a living. The others had followed his lead, not totally trusting the man and definitely not liking him and Tyler's arrogant, contemptuous attitude toward them had helped reinforce that. It had been, he knew now, deliberate, meant to keep them at a distance so they wouldn't realize he wasn't human.
After the revelation of Tyler's alien origins, he had expected people to trust him even less and some did. But, Donovan had to admit, as Tyler shed the tough-guy image he'd worn for so long, he had become more and more likeable and others let the memories of Tyler's old self slide from their minds. Since they only knew him for a short period, it had been easy for them to reform their opinions of him. A number of people had come into the group hostile and shell-shocked only to turn out to be very different once they settled into the group and got to know people.
But his memories of Tyler were longer and more deeply embedded. He found it hard to get past what he knew of him. But he'd always prided himself on being open-minded and he tried his best now. He leaned back, watching the movie without really seeing it as his thoughts spun in a circle.
Phrases: Komessee n'iisha: heart sister, ni'prih: little rat.