Ham scrapped the last of the blood from a claw and reexamined them intently. Yep, all clean. He flexed his fingers, watching the claws slip from their sheaths, razor-sharp and deadly. With a faint smile, he relaxed his hand and leaned back against the chimneystack, watching as the sun rose. He could hear the base starting to stir and reflected that he wasn't going to be able to descend from his perch unnoticed. Ah, well. It hardly mattered any longer.
It was strange, not having to hide what he was anymore. Oh, he'll still have to be careful, of course but at least he wouldn't have to wear those damn gloves all the time. And while he probably should continue to have his teeth ground down to human standards, he wasn't going to. That would spare him the usual three day headache and spare those around him the exceptionally bad temper that always resulted.
Across the street, he saw Chris pull open the door of the stable and look around. More notably, knowing full well that Ham would be on a rooftop, looking up. He grinned and raised a hand, knowing the big man would catch the movement. He saw Chris grin and shake his head before disappearing back into the stable. Ham stretched out his legs and resumed his observation of the sunrise.
This rare enjoyment didn't last long, though, as a low-voiced but heated argument started below his perch. No, more like the argument resumed as Ham realized that the voices were the same from the night before. Only this time he could understand what they were saying. His smile faded along with his good humor as he listened. Not that the couple below him meant to be overheard arguing, especially by him. They must still think him to be in the stable.
His eyes narrowed with anger and he felt his finger-claws instinctively extend at what he was hearing. He lunged to his feet and literally flung himself off the roof, landing with cat-grace a few feet from the arguing couple. Natalie let out a startled shriek and Hansen jerked around, drawing a gun from his waistband. Ham ignored the gun now pointed at him and straightened, holding out his hand.
"Give me the message." He said curtly.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you it's impolite to listen to other people's conversations?" Natalie snapped.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you it's dangerous to steal other beings' messages?" Tyler countered, not bothering to look at the woman. "Give me the damn message!"
"What going on?" Julie shouted from the nearby trailer then she was swinging down to the ground and walking quickly toward them, Donovan behind her. Across the street, Chris appeared in the doorway again, watching from a safe distance. "Jake, put that away! Tyler! Put those away!" She gestured at his unsheathed claws.
Under different circumstances, Tyler would have found her wording funny but at the moment he was too angry. "Like hell. Hansen here has a message that should have come to me and I want it. Unless," He turned his head slightly to look at Julie suspiciously. "You already know about it."
Julie stopped dead. "Message?" She said in bewilderment. "What message? No message came in for you. We would have passed it on to Chris if one had."
Tyler stared at her thoughtfully for a long moment then looked back at Hansen. "So it was your idea to keep the message back then. Hand it over. Now." He continued to hold out his hand, claws still unsheathed.
"Jake?" Julie stepped closer. "What's he talking about? And put that gun away!"
"You're kidding, right? With that damn freak and his claws ...!"
"Jake!" Julie could put a crack in her voice when need be and she did so now, bringing the man's harsh words to a stumbling halt. Reaching out, she put her hand over Tyler's, covering those deadly claws, knowing full well he could tear her hand off with them. He didn't look at her, just continued staring at Hansen but after a moment she felt his hand relax under hers. When she took her hand away, the claws were sheathed. She turned back to Hansen, glaring until he reluctantly lowered the gun. "A message came in for Tyler and you held it back."
Hansen glanced at the gathering crowd of Resistance members and shifted uncomfortably. "Not exactly."
"What do you mean, not exactly?"
"Look, I just wanted to figure out the damn code! He was still out; he couldn't read it! I figured if we could read the message ..."
"You could study it until the sun grew cold and it wouldn't have done you any good." Tyler said shortly. "It wouldn't be written in any code. It would be written in one of my native languages, two of which, I might add, Chris can read."
"The supply run?" Donovan asked hopefully.
"Probably. Anything else would be written using standard WLF code so you can read it. Only one of my people would use something different."
"The message, Jake." Hansen stared at her blankly. "Give him the damn message, Jake! I seriously don't think you want him to search you for it!"
Hansen flushed angrily and looked around, obviously hoping for some support from the others. Seeing little, he shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out a battered envelope, handing it to Julie, who turned and put it in Tyler's hand. Without a word, he pulled out the single piece of paper and read the message, eyes narrowing. Raising his head, he looked for Chris, finally spotting him nearby, leaning casually against one of the trailers.
"Fontana's bringing in the supplies." His voice was oddly remote.
Chris eyed him, sensing something was wrong but not sure what it could be. "Damn! We'll have to hide the women and put chastity belts on the sheep!"
Tyler smiled faintly. "He likes men too."
Chris grinned at the looks that little announcement caused. "So when will he be at the rendezvous?"
Tyler looked at Hansen coldly, crushing the paper in his hand before turning on his heel and heading for the stable. "He's already there. He leaves at noon."
Chris' mouth dropped open and he straightened. "Shit! No way can we get there in time!"
"If we take the bikes and go across country, we can."
Chris opened his mouth to protest but swallowed the words at a harsh look from his friend. Grinding his teeth, he threw an angry look at Hansen and turned to follow Ham into the RV. Slamming the door behind him, he leaned back against it, watching as his friend yanked his boots out from under a chair and sat down to pull them on with angry, abrupt motions.
"Don't say it. I know. But we don't have any damn choice!" He slammed his foot down to settle it firmly in the boot and began to lace up. "Trinity, I hate working with amateurs!"
"Some of them ain't half bad." Chris remarked. "Even Parrish has promise."
Ham grunted. "If it weren't for her time on the mothership. You better get the bikes ready."
Chris hesitated, wanting to argue but knowing there really was no other choice. Grabbing up his jacket, he opened the door, almost knocking Julie over. She jumped back, Caleb reaching out to steady her as Chris slammed the door closed. Tossing his jacket over a nearby lawn chair, he walked over to pull the protective tarp from the two motorcycles.
"I take it riding a bike for several hours in hot weather is not going to do a man who just recently had his guts rearranged by a grenade much good." Caleb remarked.
Chris glanced at him then out the door where the most of the base was watching Donovan pitch a fit at a belligerent Hansen. "Nope, not much good at all. With luck, the worst thing that'll happen is he'll be puking up blood by the time we get there."
"You have an odd idea of luck." Caleb muttered.
Chris looked at him, his face grim. "Barbarosians can take a hell of a lot of punishment and keep going. People tend to forget that being able to heal the way they do doesn't stop them from hurting and that they will eventually pay for it."
"Can't someone else go?" Julie asked.
"Fontana won't give the supplies to anyone else." Julie turned to see Tyler, now wearing a battered denim jacket, shutting the door firmly. "Not even to Chris. Here, catch." He tossed a bottle and roll of bandages to the woman. "Make yourself useful. I need this hand re-bandaged." He held out his left hand. The gashes caused by the mug shards the night before were healing but still open and nasty.
"So we wait on the supplies. You said we won't need them ..."
"If I don't meet Fontana he'll assume something's happened to me. He won't bother to try and contact me again. Which means we won't be able to get any supplies or help from the Confederation until I'm able to contact them again. Which may be never. If I'd gotten the message sooner, I could have sent a response."
"Or we could be taking something a little more comfortable." Chris muttered.
"Damn it." Julie twisted off the bottle's cap and poured the alcohol over Tyler's wounds. Other then a hissing breath, Tyler didn't make a sound. "How long will it take you to get there?" Julie asked as she worked.
"Going cross-country, maybe four and a half, five hours." Chris said
"And Fontana will be leaving at noon. Gives us a little less then five hours to get there." Tyler pulled a pair of gloves from the jacket pocket and worked them on. Chris retrieved his jacket and pulled it on. Swinging onto one of the bikes, he grabbed a helmet and tossed it to his partner. Tyler caught it and swung onto the other bike. "Meanwhile, I suggest that you have a serious talk with your people. Remind them that this is a war, not some damn schoolyard game. And tell Hansen the next time I catch one of his friends watching the stable, I'll hang the mud sucker upside down by their bootlaces!" He pulled the helmet on and kicked up the stand.
"Wait a minute!" Harmony appeared in the doorway, her hands full. "You're going to need these." She thrust a canteen and a wrapped parcel at each of the men. "Just some sandwiches and cookies, I'm afraid. It's the best I could do on short notice." She said apologetically.
Tyler looked at her in obvious surprise before taking the offered items and stowing them away. "Thanks." He said gruffly. Chris grinned and winked at her. "Thanks, hon."
Tyler kicked his bike to life and steered it from the stable. Chris held back for a moment, looking at Julie. "Do me a favor and tell Hansen the next time he points a gun at Ham, I'm gonna shove it down his throat." Then he steered his bike after his friend.
Julie walked to the stable door to watch the bikes fade into the distance. "Good thinking, Harmy."
"Yeah, well. Figured they wouldn't get a chance to eat. Speaking of which, I better go help with breakfast."
"And I better go help cut Hansen down to size."
It was just noon as they pulled up to the rendezvous site. A battered army truck was parked next to a pile of rocks and they could see a man standing in its shadow, watching them warily. Ham brought his bike to a stop, slipping off his helmet and waving it at the newcomer. The other man relaxed, waving back in recognition. Kicking down the stand, Ham barely got off the bike before he was doubling over and throwing up.
"I knew it." Chris muttered, grabbing the canteen from his bike.
"What's wrong? What happened?" Chris looked up, not surprised to see the newcomer now perched on the pile of rocks above them, green eyes narrowed at the sight of blood mixed with vomit.
"Long story." Ham said hoarsely, accepting the canteen Chris offered him. "Tell you later. Fontana, you remember Chris."
"Been awhile but yes." The two men eyed each other, Chris with the uncomfortable feeling that Fontana reminded him of someone he didn't like. He heard Ham chuckling softly.
"Those damn Visitors had to get their ideas for their bodysuits somewhere." He said dryly. "Most of them are totally random ..."
"But some of them aren't." Fontana growled and Chris suddenly realized that Fontana looked like the Visitor, Steven. Or rather, Steven looked like him. Fontana's hair was longer and he had a light beard but still the resemblance was remarkable. Fontana saw his look and scowled, grating his claws against rock. "I'll rearrange that phrashi's real face, I ever meet him."
"What did you bring us, Fontana?" Ham handed the canteen back to Chris.
"Weapons, ammo, explosives ... those are from the Taz ... and a few surprises."
"The Taz sent the explosives? That oughta be interesting. Can you stay awhile?"
Fontana looked at him, surprised. "Any particular reason?"
"I may have something I want you to do but it's going to be a few days before I can set it up. Well?"
The other man shrugged. "You're my last stop. Suppose it won't hurt to stick around a few more days. Except I don't have much experience pretending to be human ..."
"You won't have to. This group knows about us. Part of the long story." He added hurriedly before Fontana could ask.
"How about we throw your bike in the back of the truck and you can explain on the way?" Chris cut in. He caught Ham's amused look and scowled. "I don't fancy scrapping you off the pavement." He muttered.
"Hell, Chris, I'm not arguing. Which I know is alarming to you." Chris flushed slightly and Ham gave a wry grin. "But I'm not stupid. Let's get the bike into the truck and get back to the base. You gonna ride your bike back?"
Chris grinned cheerfully. "Hell, yes!"
Ham laughed, shaking his head. "Fontana, did you bring some medicine with you?"
"Yep. A whole slew full. Your mother and sister packed it up so you can be pretty sure it's got everything "
"Good. I think I need it."
"It's in the cab. Go on, we'll get the bike settled."
Ham nodded and made his way to the passenger side of the truck. The other two men exchanged glances.
"Okay." Fontana muttered. "Now I'm worried."
Chris grunted. "The sooner we get back to the base, the better. Here." He handed the canteen and food parcel from Ham's bike to Fontana. "He should eat something." Fontana nodded. Ten minutes later, bike safely stowed away, Fontana climbed into the driver's seat and tossed the parcel and canteen into Ham's lap.
"You might wanna eat something."
Ham glanced up from his injured hand. He had cut off the bandage and was smearing thick green kuta salve onto the gashes. "I don't suppose you have anything from home?" He asked wistfully.
Fontana shook his head. "Sorry, no. I was luckily to be able to bring the medicine."
Ham looked at the open case between his feet. "How did you manage that?"
"Your mother packed it. And I have never met anyone willing to argue with her."
The other man grinned. "True."
"You guys ready?" Chris pulled up next to them.
"Ready! Let's go." Chris pulled out in front of them and Fontana started the truck to follow. Next to him, Ham tore open the parcel and eyed the food inside.
"So what all did you bring?" He asked.
"Uh-huh. Long story first."
Ham sighed and began to talk.
"I just got word from Martin about the pumping station." Donovan said to the group assembled in the saloon. "In thirty days there will be no water in Los Angeles."
"Damn." Elias said. "I'm not about to trade in my ride for a camel."
The resulting laughter was cut short by a sudden, chilling voice from outside, the curious reverberation identifying the speaker as a Visitor. "Everyone inside, freeze! We have you surrounded! You will be shot at the slightest movement!" The Resistance members snatched up their guns and dove behind the dubious shelter of tables and chairs, shocked at how easily their defense had apparently been breached then the doors were swinging open, to revealed a grinning Chris. Tyler followed him in, also grinning. A third man slipped in behind them and to one side to stand in the shadows next to the door.
"Pretty cool, eh?" Tyler's voice reverberated like a Visitor's. Reaching up, he slipped a device from his throat. "This little gizmo makes the larynx reverberate. Gives you that funny sound they make." He tossed the one he'd removed to Donovan and the few he had in his free hand onto a nearby table.
"Are you always so dramatic, Tyler?" Julie asked as she straightened, slipping her gun back into its holster.
Tyler looked at her coolly. "I like to get people's attention. That way I don't have to repeat myself."
Donovan inspected the device. "Julie and I can test these at the pump station. We'll see if they fool the Visitors as easily as they fooled us."
"You and her?" Tyler's dark eyes flickered between the two of them. "This is a reconnaissance mission, not a picnic in the park."
"You're out of line."
"Like hell." Tyler looked around at the others. "This girl can't be trusted. She thinks like one of them now."
Donovan vaulted over the bar and lunged for Tyler. Before Tyler could react Chris had stepped forward, standing between the two men. Caleb grabbed Donovan's arm and yanked him to a stop. "Easy, Mike. The man may have a point, whether we like it or not."
"I led this unit for a long time before Tyler showed up, and I refuse to step down now because he's paranoid. I'm okay." Julie insisted.
"Tell us about the chamber." Tyler shot back. "Tell us what they put you through. Tell us the secrets you told them."
"I told them nothing!"
"We lost Ruby to get her back. How high does the body count have to go before you people see her for what she is?"
Julie looked as if she'd been slapped but she refused to back down. "Ruby did give her life to rescue me, and nothing I do can ever repay that. But if I walk away now, she died in vain." She looked around the room, aware of Tyler's cold eyes on her. "I don't intend to let that happen."
The others looked at each other, obviously weighing the arguments. Mark finally broke the silence. "I say we stick with Julie. I know I trust her a lot more than I trust him."
"Me, too." Sancho spoke up.
Something disturbing flickered in Tyler's eyes as a chorus of agreements filled the room. Julie saw it clearly when she looked back at him and found herself wondering at the wisdom of allowing him to remain then Tyler broke eye contact, lowering his head slightly and looking back over his shoulder. Julie followed his gaze and gasped involuntarily.
"Don't say it!" The newcomer had stepped out of the shadows and into the fading sunlight. "I don't want to hear it! And if I do hear it, I will throw a chair at you." He added with a snarl that showed an alarming amount of sharp teeth.
Despite the beard and longer hair, the newcomer's resemblance to Steven was disturbing. Of course, she doubted very much Steven would ever be seen in a pair of ragged cutoffs, an untucked sleeveless shirt and bare feet. Apparently he saw no reason to bother with boots. A medallion, similar to the one Tyler wore but made of what appeared to be gold, hung around his neck and broad black bracers covered each forearm.
Julie shook off her shock and stepped forward, offering her hand. "You must be Fontana. I'm Julie Parrish."
Fontana looked at her extended hand then at her.
"What? Not good enough for you?" Elias said resentfully and Fontana threw him a baffled look.
Tyler sighed and reached up to briefly rub at his face. "Welcome to Earth, Fontana." He said dryly as he turned to walk for the door, pausing briefly next to Julie. "Barbarosians don't shake hands." He said to her before clapping a hand onto Fontana's shoulder. "Fontana's brought us some other new toys. Come check them out."
Embarrassed, Julie let her hand drop. They're not human, she reminded herself. They look human, they sometimes act human but they're not human. She watched as the others filed out, leaving her and a pensive-looking Donovan briefly alone.
"What's wrong?" She asked.
"I've seen that guy before. And, no, I'm not thinking of Steven."
"I'll tell you later. Lets go see what he has for us."
Tyler and Fontana were handing one of their motorcycles down to Chris and Rico when they finally joined the crowd around the truck parked outside the stable. Tyler sat down on the tailgate, watching as Fontana picked up a medium-sized box and thumped it down next to the other man. Tyler flipped the top off and pulled out a Visitor handgun.
"Toy number one. Twenty Visitor handguns, twenty Visitor rifles. They can pass for the real thing but these were made in the Confederation."
"That's not very many." Hansen protested.
"We can't bring very many. The Visitors will notice if a sudden large number of their weapons appeared in Resistance hands. These can be passed off as having been stolen from them. All total, Fontana brought in ... what? Three hundred of each?"
Fontana nodded, dropping another box on the tailgate. "Dropped a bundle off in New York, the Bayous ... Gator sends his best, by the way ..." He said to Tyler. " ... Mississippi, and Seattle. That's where I picked up those voice gizmos. But these are what's important." He opened the box and tilted it so what was inside could be seen. "Power cells for the weapons. Enough to power these weapons and a couple dozen more for a couple of years, you use them wisely. I even managed some of the larger power cells for shuttles, if you can use them. If not, you can trade them to other units that have shuttles."
"Now that's great." Donovan said in obvious relief. "I was beginning to wonder how we were going to power these babies."
"We can manage a lot of them because it's very unlikely anyone is going to check power cells. Not that it matters. They are virtually identical to the ones the Visitors actually use. A number of power cells shipments have been hijacked by humans so they'll just think these cells are from them." He stood and moved to a crate, pulling a rifle from it. "Johnny sent these along." He crouched back next to Tyler, handing him the rifle. "A group in New York is working on more powerful rifles and handguns. These are experimental but combine them with Teflon bullets and they'll cut a fully armored Visitor in two. Downside is their range isn't the best. No long-range versions yet, I'm afraid. I only got five of the rifles but I got fifty handguns and eight crates of Teflon bullets. Rifles and handguns use the same kind of bullets."
"Finest kind." Tyler tossed the rifle to Rico. "Anything we can't use, we can trade."
"That's the plan. Explosives." He nodded at two metal briefcases set to one side of the truck. "Small but powerful. Just enough for the job."
"Why just enough for the job?" Elias asked.
"Because these particular explosives can't be created on Earth." Tyler explained. "And they shouldn't be here to begin with. That's one of those careful little workarounds I mentioned last night." He picked up the Visitor handgun he had set down and reached for a power cell. "Johnny's still in New York?"
"Yep. He's coordinating the deliveries. Tom's off-world with his Trinity. Ras is headed back to the Cathedral. Nefti and Rik are both still in Egypt, helping the Bedouins with their Resistance efforts. Allan is organizing the African tribes. Rumor has it that Wolf has been seen in Rome." Fontana opened another box and pulled a bundle of metal.
"And Rome is still there?" Chris and Tyler said in perfect unison, with matching degrees of disbelief.
Fontana glowered at them both. "Hey, she is not that bad!" He paused thoughtfully then shrugged. "All right, she is that bad. But it is still there. So far. Here." He offered the bundle to Tyler. "At least Blackie isn't here. Yet."
"If he shows up, I'm leaving the damn planet." Tyler handed the handgun to Fontana and took the bundle. "And William?"
"Still in Switzerland."
Tyler shook his head in frustration, muttering something under his breath as he, slid off the tailgate. "This is a particularly useful little contribution." He shook out the bundle, revealing what appeared to be a vest of interlocking metal rings and tossed it causally over a hitching post, stepping back a few paces. Fontana aimed and fired three rapid bursts. Sparks radiated off the metal before dispersing.
Tyler stepped back to the post, hooking a claw in one of the metal rings and lifting the vest away, revealing remarkably minor scorch marks on the wood.
"They're not 100 percent effective but whoever wears one will have a better change of surviving. Here, slick, catch. Don't say I never gave you anything." He tossed the vest to Sancho, who caught it then yelped and juggled until he found a cool stretch of metal to hold onto. Tyler grinned. "That's the downside. The metal will get hot and you will get burned but you also have a very good chance of surviving anything but a direct point-blank hit from a Visitor handgun. Rifles are a different story."
"How many of those do you have?" Julie asked sharply.
"Thirty. Well, actually," Fontana pulled a bundle from the box, tossing it to Chris. "Thirty-one. Myra sent this one along special."
Chris caught the bundle and grinned at Tyler. "I always liked your mother."
Tyler grinned back. "Apparently she likes you too."
"And they can be made on Earth. The problem is getting the right combination of metals to make it work. I gave the specs to Johnny and Gator. They'll get them to people who can make them." Fontana glanced around the group. "And that's it, folks."
"Great. Everything will be a big help. Thank you." Julie said in genuine gratitude. "Let's get the truck unpacked."
"I'll take those." Tyler said sharply as Hansen reached for the two containers of explosives. "Fontana, you mind ...?" Fontana handed down the two cases.
"If they're going to the same place ..."
"They're not. Coming, Fontana?"
"I'll get my journey pack. And the med kit." Fontana jumped down and headed around the truck to the passenger side.
"Med kit?" Julia asked with interest.
Tyler shook his head. "Not much you can use. And anything you can use, you already have some variety of." Tyler turned and walked into the stable. Fontana reappeared and followed him, a pack slung crossway across his back and a leather case in one hand.
Julie looked after them and sighed, wishing she could figure Tyler out. Sometimes he seemed more then willing to help, to be friendly but then he'd step back and be the remote, unemotional killer. His response to her in the saloon had surprised her more then she liked to admit.
"Confusing, ain't it?" Chris said behind her and she started. She turned to glare at him.
"Don't do that! I have a hard enough time with him doing it. I can't begin to figure out how you do it." Chris grinned cheerfully then his words sank in. "What's confusing?" Chris nodded toward the stable and Julie understood. "Oh, right. How do you put up with it? Why do you put up with it?"
Chris looked at her in surprise. "He's my best friend." He said simply. Chris scanned the group of people clustered around the truck, finally catching Robert's eye. He gestured for the man to join them before turning back to Julie. "For the past several years Ham's been living on Earth and he's had to act ... no, that's not quite right. He's had to be an Earth human. The fact that you know he isn't human doesn't make it any easier."
"What's up?" Robert asked as he joined them.
"A change in plans, kinda." He paused, obviously wondering how to phrase what he wanted to say. "The next few days are gonna be hell on wheels. Ham had hoped to have at least a month to make sure your people were ready for the big raid." Julie took a deep breath, ready to protest that they were ready. Chris shook his head firmly. "Don't say it, lady. Ham's the expert. You may hate his guts, you may hate what he does but he's gotten more people through hell than you could ever imagine. That's his job. The best thing you can do is stand back and let him do it." He paused then added dryly. "I think I can safely say that pretty much everyone in the base is gonna seriously hate his guts by the time the raid comes around."
"Then why does he do it?" Julie asked.
Chris hesitated then sighed. "Because if he doesn't, someone else will. And that someone might not be as good as he is or as careful. So he puts up with the hate and the curses and the damn ghosts ..." Chris cut off his words and shook his head. "So it would be best, Parrish, if you just let him do what has to be done and back him up 'cause I can pretty much guarantee a whole lot more of your people will be coming back then there would be if he weren't here."
"And the change in plans would be ...?"
Chris smiled slightly. "Major league distraction. We have about seven days left before the raid and it occurs to me that if folks knew more about Ham, his people, the Confederation, things might ... big might that ... go a bit smoother. So I was thinking, maybe in the evenings, Maxwell might like to chat with Ham." His smile broadened as Robert's eyes lit up. "'Course in a couple days, you're likely to hate him as much as everyone else."
"I can deal with it."
"There's a couple stipulations attached to that." Chris added firmly. "Don't ask questions about the Visitors or about what happened concerning them. I know you think it'll help and maybe it can but it's also the one thing that'll get Ham to clam up. Fast."
"Why?" Julie asked.
Chris shrugged. "I know a lot about Ham and his people and he'll tell me a lot of things ... if I ask the right questions ... but that, I don't know. 'Sides, everything they know about the Visitors is a good eight ... ten centuries out of date. They haven't had any contact with them since the split."
"And what else?" Robert asked.
"Ham ain't gonna answer every question. Don't push. Keep in mind that Ham's been having to hide who and what he is for a very long time and this ain't gonna be easy for him. And stick with asking Ham the questions. Don't ask Fontana." Chris grinned ruefully. "Fontana's a bit of a joker. Take anything he tells you with a grain of salt and double-check it with Ham. Ham'll either confirm it or toss Fontana down a flight of stairs. Not for the first time, I might add." He saw the looks on their faces and shrugged. "Barbarosians play rough."
"If that's playing ..."
"Don't worry. Fontana can take care of hisself. I don't start to worry until the blood starts flying and the screaming starts." Chris said. "Do you play chess, Maxwell?"
Robert blinked at this sudden shift in subjects. "Ahhhh, yes." He said, thinking of long evenings in the field, playing endless games of chess with Arch Quentin. He felt a familiar pang of grief. "Not too badly either."
"Good. Ham likes to play chess to relax and that's the best time to get answers. If you're still up for it, come over tomorrow night." He turned away.
"Does Ham know you're setting this up?" Julie asked hastily and Chris looked back at her, grinning.
"He does now." He jerked a thumb upward and the two looked up to the wide-open loft doors. Both Tyler and Fontana were there, Fontana sitting cross-legged in the doorway, Tyler leaning back against the doorjamb, legs stretched out in front of him. Neither man was looking at them but they couldn't have helped but overhear what had been said.
Chuckling, Chris disappeared into the stable. Robert took Julie's arm in a light grip and pulled her away from the building. "Well, I'm not getting bricks dropped on my head so I assume the plan stands." He muttered and Julie laughed.
"So how much did you two hear?" Chris asked as he stepped up into the loft.
"Just from 'Take everything Fontana tells you with a grain of salt ...'" Ham grinned at Fontana's scowl. "Good advice." This time Fontana bared his teeth, a reminder to Ham that his teeth weren't blunted. Ham wasn't impressed. "We're either telling the truth or saying nothing, Fontana. Remember that."
"I'll get the stew started. Or are you hunting tonight?" Chris looked at his friend.
Ham sighed. "As much as I'd like to, I'd better not. Better get all healed up, just in case someone else pulls a stupid stunt."
"Oh, right." Fontana looked down at the dispersing crowd. "Which one's Hansen?"
"Leave off, Fontana."
"Hmmmm?" Fontana continued to scan the crowd.
Ham said something sharply in their native language and Fontana subsided sulkily. "Stew would be great. Thanks, Chris."
"Be a couple hours yet." Chris said as he climbed back down the ladder.
"We'll hand the new weapons out in the morning." Julie rejoined the others in storing away the new supplies. "Thirty vests. More then enough for the raiding party."
Sancho reluctantly folded the vest Tyler had tossed him and set it back into the box with the others. "They'll be handy."
"Everything will be handy. Some things will be life-saving." Julie glanced at Donovan. "Looks like we have a reason to be thankful to Tyler."
Donovan made a face. "Don't remind me."
Julie laughed. "Okay, everyone. Might want to get some rest. I have a feeling the next few days are going to be very ... wearing." Locking up the supply room, Julie shoved the key into her pocket and grabbed Donovan's arm, separating him from the others.
"What's happening over the next few days? Other then multiple anxiety attacks."
"Training. Tyler-style. Chris warned me."
"Ouch is right. Now, what's this about seeing Fontana before?"
Donovan slipped an arm over her shoulders and together they walked toward the woods. "It was back in 'Nam. When Tyler was escorting us. A chopper carrying a bunch of nurses ... maybe a dozen of them ... had engine trouble and they had to stop at the base for repairs. I'm pretty sure Fontana was the pilot."
"So he's the one who killed those soldiers."
"I don't think so. See, I remember wondering, when I first saw those nurses, why the hell anyone would wear gloves in 'Nam." He stopped and turned to look at her. "Every single one of those women were wearing gloves."
Ham stared over the camp, though he didn't actually notice anything, certainly not the gawkers who kept passing by. A part of him dreaded what he knew would happen. He'd been here, on Earth for so long, so cut off from his own people, that he barely remembered what it was like. He shouldn't ...
"Kom. We have an audience."
Ham snapped free of his thoughts and glanced downward. Most people looked hastily away and he frowned. "We should go down ..."
"No." Fontana said sternly. "Kom..."
"I can't." Ham said, not looking at the other man. "I have to ..."
"No." Fontana repeated. "You've been on Earth too long." He rose. "Come." Fontana turned and walked back to the small room formed by the bales of hay.
Ham hesitated but he knew any resolve he may have had was already gone. Reaching down, he pulled off his boots, setting them to one side before rising. As he entered the little room, he slipped off his windbreaker then his shirt, draping them over a bale. Fontana, now shirtless, was standing in the middle of the room and Ham stopped close to to him, close enough to smell his scent. Too close ... a part of him wanted to pull away but it was already too late.
Fontana moved closer, close enough to nuzzle lightly at the side of Ham's face, taking in his scent. Ham shivered and closed his eyes, trying to keep control. Slowly he nuzzled Fontana's cheek, breathing in scent then Fontana's jaw was rubbing sharply, abruptly against him. He gasped at the almost forgotten feeling, instinctively rubbing his own jaw on the other's cheek. After being separated for so long from his own people, it was almost intoxicating to be able to drink in another's scent so freely, to rub long-unused scent glands against another's skin. Their scents co-mingled and Ham sighed, feeling barriers falling away, knowing that he'd crossed a bridge he'd never be able to return to. A part of him regretted it, another part feared what it meant for the future but most of him rejoiced in the freedom.
Drunk on scent, he barely noticed Fontana helping him to the ground, too busy reveling in barely remembered sensations. Fontana pulled him close and Ham found himself laughing softly, unable to stop as he rubbed his jaw and cheek along the other's neck and shoulder. He felt a joy he hadn't felt in years as his human self fell away. Slipping his arms around the other man, he buried his head against Fontana's chest, listening to half-forgotten sounds of contentment, only dimly aware of a number of curious furry bodies joining them.
It was closer to three hours later when Chris climbed back up the ladder, grumbling under his breath at all the unneeded exercise he was getting. The duo had long since abandoned their places at the door and had retreated into the 'room' created by the bales of hay. He peered around a corner, grinning at the sight of Ham and Fontana curled up together on the blanket. Ham had shed everything but his jeans and Fontana no longer wore the faded shirt. They were facing each other, legs entwined, arms around each other, Ham's head tucked under Fontana's chin. Both appeared to be asleep. Maybe a dozen cats, both domestic cats from the camp and a few feral ones from the forest, were curled up with and on top of them.
It was just the kind of scenario that would fuel the speculation running rampant through the camp but Chris knew it was as innocent as a pair of kittens curling up together. If he'd been with his own people when he'd been injured, Ham would have spent his time in the healing sleep curled up in a literal nest of kindard. He'd seen it once, the one time he'd been on Ham's home planet, years ago. One of Ham's brothers had been kicked by an enraged rhi'sar, one of the deer-like creatures they so often hunted. Kicked so hard that ribs had broken and a lung injured. Joachim had spent the next few days with a protective cocoon of sleeping family and friends and even the occasional visitor curled up around him, the members changing as needed. Even a visiting Taz had gotten into the act, although she had lain across the top of the others with her rifle cradled in her arms while she slept.
Ham's mother had explained the reasoning. As long as the injured party knew friends and family were there to protect her, she could sleep deeply with no worries about having to protect herself. That, he suspected, had been the problem when Ham had been injured here. There had been no soothing presence of kindard to make him feel safe enough to let go completely. Chris had done his best, staying with Ham as much as possible and leaving his jacket, laden as it was with his scent, behind when he couldn't be there but it apparently hadn't been enough.
"You could join us, you know." Ham said suddenly and Chris jumped then scowled at his friend's knowing grin. At first, Chris had had a hard time getting use to the way Barbarosians treated each other. They were almost constantly touching in one way or another. Even the most serious of meetings were often held with the participants practically laying on top of each other. The way Ham acted on his home world had been almost the complete opposite of the way he did on Earth. Chris often wondered how much of an ordeal it really was for him to live here.
On the other hand, for a guy who had spent much of his childhood locked in a foster care system that gave little comfort and less love to its charges, the unrestrained affection and acceptance of the Barbarosians was a memory to treasure. Ham had called him komessee s'iishai -- heart brother -- and for his family that had been enough to accept him wholeheartedly into their ranks. For three weeks, he'd been uncle to an alarming array of children, ranging from four-legged to furred and tailed to winged to water-breathing and much more, some of whom had been ten times scarier-looking then the Visitors could ever be. Including, he remembered with a grin, maybe a dozen Tazlings.
"Maybe after we eat. The stew's done."
"Stew's done." Ham poked Fontana in the ribs with a claw. "Grab your shirt and come on."
Chris started back down the ladder. Fontana and Ham simply leapt down to the stable floor, landing gracefully on fingers and toes. "Showoffs." Chris grumbled. "I'm not going up that ladder again tonight."
Ham grinned and gestured out the open doors. "Anything going on?"
"Nothing too alarming. Whatever Parrish and Donovan said to Hansen seems to have subdued him, at least for a time. What's the plan for tomorrow?"
Ham grinned wickedly. "Funny you should ask ..."
Author Notes: This part is longer than the norm. I just
couldn't find a good cutoff around page 10-12. It looks like we are finally
getting to the raid on the water plant, hopefully the next part.
Phrases: Phrashi: A particularly nasty slang word for the Visitors, Kuta: herb used for medical purposes, Rhi'sar: deer-like animal, Komessee S'iishai: heart brother