Part Eight

Ham turned in the embrace of his sleeping lover's arms, listening for the sounds of Chris and his lady friend leaving the RV. After a moment he heard the door open and the soft murmur of voices, smiling as he recognized the woman's voice. Alice Reynolds, he thought and his smile broadened. Talk about your mismatched pairs! She had to be at least half his friend's size. Slipping gently from Fontana's side, he reached for his shorts, pulling them on as the couple left the stable. Next to him, Fontana stirred slightly but didn't wake and he hesitated briefly, debating whether or not to wake him up. Finally he decided against it, moving quietly away and dropping down to the stable floor. He slipped into the RV, gathering up clothes and stepping into the small bathroom.

Knowing that the hot water was probably almost gone, he took a quick shower, just long enough to get clean of the night's activities. He dressed, grimacing as he pulled on his boots. A part of him wished he didn't have to wear them but he still had to pretend to be human and humans didn't do a raid like this barefoot. He'd better take gloves as well and he snatched up a pair, along with a stocking cap. Reaching up, he removed the chain from his neck, slipping the medallion into a zippered inside pocket then glanced around. Chris had the weapons they'd be taking already in the truck. He walked out, locking the door behind him.

Ham glanced up at the loft, wondering if he should go back up but then decided against it. He had too much to do and Fontana ... he smiled slightly ... Fontana would do his best to distract him.

Donovan looked up as Tyler stepped from the stable. Dressed in black jeans and a dark windbreaker, Tyler looked as he did when he first appeared at their previous headquarters, cold-eyed and hard-faced. Except ... in all the time he'd known Tyler, the man had been clean-shaven and his hair cut short. Now he had a beard and it looked like he was letting his hair grow out. Of course, that didn't make any difference, the former newsman reminded himself. A change in appearance didn't change what the man was.

Tyler shoved a pair of gloves and a stocking cap inside his jacket and started across the dirt street toward the saloon only to pause at a sudden shout. Little Katie was racing toward him and Donovan straightened, ready to cut Tyler down when he ... but to his jaw-dropping surprise, Tyler caught the girl up in one arm and swung her up onto his shoulder.

"Sleep well, kitten?" He heard the man ask and Katie answered with a loud meow, which made Tyler laugh as he walked over to where Robert was helping Robin from the trailer. Polly jumped down and ran over to the man.

"Fontana says there's a species of cats that walks on two legs and rides dogs!" She said excitedly.

"Well, in this case, he's telling the truth." Swinging Katie down, Tyler straightened. "There is a sentient species that looks like humanoid cats ... few of them bigger then Katie here ... and they do ride dogs. Mastiffs, Dalmatians, various other species of Earth dogs."

"Cool!" Polly hopped in place, looking ready to burst into a series of questions. Robert hurriedly cut her off.

"Robin, take your sisters and go get some breakfast. I'll be over in a few minutes." The teenager nodded and herded her sisters toward the mock whorehouse, Polly still hopping. "Have you eaten?" He asked Ham and the other man shook his head.

"Not yet. I'll get something later." He glanced after the children. "Fontana'll keep an eye on the girls while we're gone. I think I've convinced him to keep the tall tales to a minimum."

Robert grinned. "Think it'll work?"

Tyler chuckled, shaking his head. "No. Just have Robin write everything down and I'll look it over when we get back."

"Sure. Thanks." Robert turned to follow his daughters and Tyler walked over to the saloon, grunting a hello at Donovan as he passed him.

Donovan stared after him then after the Maxwell family. If he didn't know better, he'd think that Robert actually liked the alien-born mercenary.

Donovan was even more startled when he went over to the cafeteria set up in the whorehouse for lunch with Julie and saw Tyler sitting with the Maxwells. Tyler had never come to the cafeteria to eat before, though Chris often did. In fact, Chris was there now, sitting with Alice and a few others at another table nearby.

Picking up a plate, Donovan filled it with food and joined Julie at her table. He glanced over at Tyler, realizing for the first time that Katie was sitting in the man's lap, hanging determinedly onto his hand. He blinked, wondering what she was doing.

"Careful, kitten. Those are sharp." Tyler said suddenly and Donovan realized that the girl was intently examining the claw protruding from a finger.

"I wish I had claws! That would be fun! Nobody would tease me then!" Katie glared at her sisters.

"Can be fun. Can be real inconvenient as well. Gotta be real careful when you have an itch." He winked at Robert and Donovan barely kept his jaw from dropping open in shock.

Katie blinked, looking thoughtful. "Ouch." She said finally.

"And of course if you had claws then your sisters would too."

"Oh." She looked at her sisters and pouted. "That wouldn't be any fun!"

Laughter erupted around the room and the girl pouted even more. Tyler shifted her up to a more comfortable position and offered her part of a brownie, which she accepted, saying something Donovan couldn't understand but that made both Robert and Tyler grin.

"Muah ki." Tyler said clearly.

"Muah ki." She repeated.

"Very good. You pick up languages fast."

"How many languages do you know?" Polly asked.

Tyler looked surprised. "I don't know. Never thought about it. We tend to pick them up. When I was your age. I knew ... let's see ... Packspeak, Barbarosian, English, all three of the Confederation languages, and Taz."

"Why Taz?" Robert asked.

"The Taz can't speak any of the Confederation languages ... something to do with their vocal apparatus ... so if you want to understand what they're saying, you have to learn to understand their language. S'mahe ..." He paused then translated. "Father usually had a Taz or two with him whenever he came home so we'd pick it up from her." He reached for his glass. "On the other hand, learning English was more of an act of self-defense. Until we could understand it, the grownups would use it as sort of a private language."

Robert laughed. "That sounds familiar. But don't you have some kind of translators? For the Taz languages?"

Tyler grinned. "The Taz are the ones who make the translators. And they will not make a translator that will translate their language."

"Why not?"

Tyler shrugged. "Because they're Taz. And the Taz do things like that."

"What's going on?" Donovan asked Julie in a low voice and she looked at him in surprise. "Tyler's never eaten here before."

She shrugged. "I guess no one's ever asked him to before. Polly ... or maybe it was Katie ... asked him."

Donovan blinked, looking over at Tyler with a frown. Tyler and Robert were talking quietly, obviously discussing something in a sketchbook on the table. Katie's head was now resting on Tyler's shoulder and she looked like she was getting ready to nod off, a piece of brownie still in her hand. It was, he thought, a remarkably domestic scene.

Which made Donovan wonder what Tyler was really up to.

Later that afternoon, the raiding party gathered in the saloon, watching the video tape Martin had gotten to Donovan the day before. Tyler gestured at it.

"Here's the tunnel we're going through."

On the TV screen, a tri-beamed laser pulsates malevolently from one end of the long tunnel to the other.

Donovan took over the narration. "That laser beam has one million volts tied up in it ... they've drained half the power of the Pacific Coast to run the damn pumps. It will be turned off for just twelve minutes while they do a power switch to the grid in Vonneville, Oregon."

"When that switch goes on again, anyone caught inside is an instant charcoal briquette." Tyler said. "Watch."

Two storm troopers appeared, dragging a screaming man into view. With appalling casualness, they tossed him into the laser tunnel. He disappeared in a hair-raising singe of voltage.

"That poor kid wandered onto the grounds by mistake. They tossed him down there for sport." Donovan flipped off the VCR.

"We've got twelve minutes to set those charges, get back through the tunnel and get out." Tyler glanced at Chris. "You'd better explain the problem with the explosives."

Chris stood, flipping open one of the two silver cases Fontana had brought and pulling out a small rectangular device. "Small but very effective. We got plenty of these but we gotta use them all."

"Why?" Natalie demanded. "Why can't we hold some back for later use, if they're so good?"

It was obvious Chris expected that question. "'Cause the Taz rigged these little beauties up. You try to open it, see how it works, they'll blow up. Not just one of them, all of them. And they're on a lock-timer. One of them gets set, they all get set. They all blow up." He grinned at the variety of expressions that greeted this announcement. "The Taz are a sneaky and devious people."

"That helps explain why the Barbarosian like them." Robert said.

Tyler grinned toothily. "We like cats, too."

"Well, that's a given." Robert shot back.

Nervous laughter greeted this exchange.

"These explosives beats what we would have had to use. But they're not perfect."

"What's the matter with ordinary explosives?" Julie asked and Chris shook his head.

"Won't make it, lady. Machinery we gotta blow is just too big. It would take a trailer-full to make a dent. We needed something special. This is it. It's something like nitroglycerine ..."

"Which means you don't shake it like a martini." Tyler cut in, glancing at Donovan, who glowered back at him.

"And here's the kicker ... this stuff is stable only between sixty and seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit. So much as one degree over or under that ... it could go up at any time." Chris glanced around then returned to his chair.

Tyler looked around, noting the faintly shell-shocked looks with satisfaction. "Double-check your equipment. Triple-check it. Drivers, check your vehicles. And everybody!" He glanced at the pristine Visitor handgun holstered at Donovan's side. "Blacken up your Visitor weapons and dull down anything shiny, be it gun, knife, metal buttons, anything! We start heading out in an hour." Tyler stood back and watched impassively as the others left the building, knowing full well that some of them would never return.

Even, quite possibly, himself.

He followed the last of the raiding party from the building and walked over to the stable. Chris, he knew, was supervising the checking of the vehicles. He had one last thing to take care before he joined him in a final double-check of the equipment.

Tyler climbed up into the loft, not surprised to see Fontana sitting against the wall of the small room. Wordlessly he sank down next to him, reaching out to stroke a hand gently up the other's arm. He lingered briefly on the wide black bracer, the symbol of Fontana's Confederation citizenship, then trailed his fingers up the inside of his arm and onto his shoulder until he reached the intricate tattoo set in the hollow there, each design in it naming his partners and children. Given time and inclination, his own name-symbol could eventually join the others there. He traced his brother's name-symbol lightly then let his hand drop.

"Hem'sha'ree ..."

"Earthers have so many words for goodbye." He glanced at Ham. "We have none."

"Because we never say goodbye. We will always meet again. In this world or the next." He smiled slightly. "The Earthers say they don't believe in ghosts."

Fontana snorted. "Maybe I should stay through Jubilation. That'll change their minds real fast."

Ham chuckled then grew somber. "Hem'sha'ree, remember your promise. If I don't return ..."

Fontana looked away. "I'll do my best, Komees Ihn'e. That's all I can do."

Ham nodded. "There's paper in the RV. You can keep the children busy by writing up information on our people. And don't be making things up just to turn Maxwell green."

The other man finally smiled. "I haven't accomplished that yet. Even with the stuff that's true."

Ham's lips quirked then he sighed. "Humans don't approve of public displays of affection between members of the same sex so if you want any memories, take them now."

Fontana blinked at him. "Humans are weird." He said before leaning forward to capture the other's mouth in a deep kiss. Ham couldn't protest even if he wanted to. Which he didn't. He'd been thinking that for years.

After a long moment, he pulled free, caressing the other's face lightly and murmuring soft words before rising and walking over to drop lightly to the stable floor.

They had no words for goodbye but they had many words for until we meet again.

Tossing the last of the ropes into the back of the truck, Tyler glanced over at the couple still talking in the shadow of the nearby building. He didn't have to hear what they were saying in order to know what they were talking about. Making plans and designing dreams.

"Come on, you two! Move it!" He ordered more harshly then necessary and they broke apart. Maggie and Mark. He supposed he shouldn't have been surprised. Opening the door, he slipped into the passenger seat. Chris started the truck, waiting for the couple to climb aboard before pulling away. In order to avoid anyone noticing a caravan of trucks, each one was leaving fifteen minutes apart and traveling by a different route. They were the second truck to leave.

Tyler refused to look back but Chris did. Several people were watching them leave, including the Maxwell girls. He looked for Fontana, finally spotting him perched on top of the stable's roof with his double-ended axe, looking vaguely like a gargoyle in the approaching dusk. Despite Ham saying that Fontana wasn't a fighter, he knew the man would defend the camp as well as any of the rebels.

Neither man spoke as they traveled to their destination. Everything they had ever had to say to each other they already knew.

Tyler checked his watch then signaled behind him. The rebels began to creep up the hill, clinging to the cover of the huge pipes like vines to a trellis. Tyler took point, counting on his superior sense of smell to warn him of any Visitors lurking about. Rico and Natalie, paired for this operation, took rear guard.

Behind him, unnoticed by the others, Julie paused, shaking her head to try and rid herself of the feeling of being disoriented.

"What is it?" Donovan hissed.

Julie bit her lip. "Nothing." She whispered back.


"Yeah, sure."

They followed the others up the hill and were soon crawling along the pipes to the base of the catwalks. The entire area was lit up brightly by searchlights and they made their way carefully from shadow to shadow.

A sudden sharp clang rang through the night and Tyler froze in a shadow, mentally cursing. He knew that sound, the sound of a rifle barrel striking metal. Above him, a guard appeared, looking over the area tensely. After a long moment of seeing nothing, the guard relaxed and stepped back again. Tyler looked to where the sound had come from in time to see Maggie slipping from the shadows to the deserted spot the guard had just checked and he smiled slightly in approval. Her crossbow was cocked and ready and she was keeping an eye on him, waiting for the signal. Mark was next to her, rifle ready, covering her.

Julie took careful aim at another guard then realized, to her horror, that she was holding her weapon in her left hand. Quickly she switched hands, looking around to see if anyone had noticed. She didn't think anyone had, though Tyler was giving her a hard look. She aimed again, this time with her right hand but her hand was shaking. The more she tried to control it, the worse it seemed to shake.

Sancho carefully slipped a hunting knife from his belt, rising slowly from his crouch. Holding the knife by the blade, he started to climb.

Tyler glanced upward then signaled. Immediately Maggie and Julie fired. Maggie's bolt hit her target, sending the Visitor over the rail and to the ground but Julie missed badly. Unable to control her aim, her shots went wild then Donovan's hand was over hers, steadying her aim. The next bullet struck the guard and sent him tumbling to join his comrade.

At the sound of the others falling, the third guard spun around, only to catch Sancho's thrown knife in his throat. He fell where he stood and Sancho hurriedly slipped up to retrieve his knife.

Donovan joined Tyler and together they lead the others up the ladders, along the catwalks, and behind the gargantuan concrete knuckles that encased the pipes to the tiny door set in a small concrete abutment. It seemed dwarfed by the massive pipe overhead. A tiny door was set in a small concrete abutment, dwarfed in scale by the massive pipe overhead. The pipe was emblazoned with signs in Visitor and an international "No Entry" symbol. Tyler paused to glanced over the nearest sign.

"'No Entry. Danger.' Not very original." He grunted and Donovan gave him a surprised look.

"You can read that?"

"I can read a number of languages. The Visitors language is enough like the old Sslisslik language that I can reason it out." He looked over his shoulder then back at Donovan. "Keep an eye on your lady friend, Gooder. I still can't trust her."

Donovan met Tyler's gaze squarely, lips thinning but said nothing. He turned to open the door and stepped inside. Gesturing Caleb forward, the two men raised the heavy manhole cover just inside.

A long, narrow ladder lead down to the electric tunnel below. They could hear a loud, thundering rush of noise roaring up from the bowels of the plant below and see the deadly laser gleaming with frightening intensity below.

Donovan checked his watch. "Five seconds. Four, three, two one!" The laser field faded out and Donovan immediately swung onto the ladder and climbed down, sliding the last few feet. Tyler was right behind him. As soon as he was clear of the surrounding cement, Tyler pushed off from the ladder to drop gracefully down the last several feet.

Pulling off his stocking cap, he shoved it into his jacket and pulled free his preferred weapon, working the bolt. The rest of the group climbed down, gathering at the foot of the ladder.

"Eleven minutes, fifty-five seconds. Let's move." He said curtly. Ignoring Elias' muttered 'I hear that.', Tyler and Donovan led them at a quick sprint through the long corridor and past gleaming strips of colored pipe. Stream rolled along the floor as they entered the hydraulic pumping valve room. Ladders and catwalks led off from this room in several directions. Waving the others to a halt behind the gigantic equipment, Tyler signaled Chris forward and the duo eased into the open space, Chris angled to keep an eye behind and to the right of them, Tyler watching forward and left. Steam rolled down the steps from the adjoining floor and many of the rebels nervously eyed their bombs.

Reaching the base of the nearest ladder, Tyler looked up to see two Visitor guards patrolling the catwalk directly above. Silently turning back to the rebels, he directed the various teams to their designated targets, using a prearranged systems of taps and gestures.

As the other teams slipped off, Tyler gestured to the remaining team, his team, and led the way to the pump room, the very heart of the operation. As they hit the bottom of the stairs, Chris fell back to set his back to one of the pipes, crossbow ready. Tyler casually walked down the length of the huge room, looking left and right and up as the pairs raced past him to the huge pipes. Rico, as the last man down, sidled sideways to tap Chris on the shoulder and then raced to join his partner.

In the upper levels of the plant, the other teams scattered to their destinations. On the catwalks above the main room of the plant, the turbine room, Robert shoved the dead body of the crane operator to one side, making room for Julie and Donovan to climb upwards. With them on their way, Robert stepped back into the shadows, keeping an eye on the Visitor workers below. The noise in the huge room was deafening and all the workers wore ear protectors. Despite their situation, the man couldn't help but wonder if the Visitors even had ears.

Elias slipped back to keep an eye on the door they had come through, watching as Julie and Donovan made their way around the catwalk. Catching sight of a movement behind him, he ducked back by the door just as a security guard stepped though. Seeing the two humans on the catwalk across the room, the guard stepped forward, raising his laser rifle and sighting them in the scope. Elias moved, slamming the butt of his rifle to the back of the Visitor's head and sending him over the rail. His heart almost stopped but the body fell between a couple stacks of crates and no one on the floor below heard or saw a thing. He moved back into the shadows.

Julie and Donovan rappelled down to the lower catwalk and started setting their explosives. Julie jumped as the timer started on the one she was holding. Chris must have set the timer on one of his, which had then started the timers on all of them. She gritted her teeth and continued her deadly work.

Down in the electrical room, Mark and Maggie set their charges on alternating rows of consoles, moving quickly.

Mark paused briefly to wipe his face. "Is it hot in here or am I just scared?"

Maggie looked at the gauge on the bomb she was holding and shuddered. "Seventy degrees and rising. We'd better make this fast."

"Or get blown to Kingdom Come."

"Seventy-one. Maybe we should plant these somewhere else."

"No way! I can play hardball with Tyler anytime."

Maggie gave him a desperate look but didn't argue as she followed him to the next panel.

In the pump room, Tyler walked among the pairs, watching them as they set their bombs. He noticed Alice tilt a bomb so Caleb could see the temperature and the man grimaced, glancing at him and jerking his head in a 'come here' gesture. Tyler moved to look over the man's shoulder, lips thinning at what he saw.

"This stuff's starting to bubble."

Tyler nodded and said curtly. "Keep working." He strolled over to Chris' side, leaning casually back against the pipe he was attaching a bomb to.

"What's your reading?" He asked quietly.

Chris glanced over his shoulder and then at his friend. "I get seventy-one."

"Trinity Preserve." Tyler muttered, looking at the people scattered along the huge room then at his watch. "Finish up."

On the catwalk, Donovan and Julie placed their last charge. Julie checked her watch.

"Four minutes. Let's get out of here."

They started for the door but two troopers spotted them from the far door. Both Donovan and Julie dropped to the ground as laser blasts seared the wall above them. Julie rolled onto her side and returned fire, hitting one of the troopers squarely, sending him tumbling over the railing and to the floor, right into a group of Visitor workers. Startled, they looked up, spotting the couple on the catwalk.

Swearing harshly, Donovan climbed back to his feet, Julie right beside him. Together they dodged laser fire as they ran for the door. On the catwalk above them, Robert made his way over to Elias, firing as he went, trying to cover for the couple as they fled. Finally reaching the door, he ducked through, yelling for the other man to follow him.

Maggie looked anxiously at the bomb she held. The explosive charge was bubbling merrily away.

"Will you please stop?! We're about to blow sky-high!"

"Just one more ..." Mark set a last charge. "That's it! Let's go!" Maggie slapped her last bomb on another console and followed him from the room.

Tyler checked his watch, watching as the seconds ticked down. Finally ...

"All right, people! Three minutes! We're outta here! Go! Go!"

Instantly the rebels discarded any bombs they had left and were moving, running for the exit. Tyler and Chris watched, waiting for the last pair to pass before following them.

Other teams joined them as they raced to the tunnel and then through it. Tyler dropped back, spinning to spray the pursuing troopers with gunfire, dimly aware of Donovan and Julie doing the same. Laser bolts ricocheted crazily off the pipes and walls.

"Move, damn it!" He shouted at the fleeing rebels, cursing the lack of any cover in the tunnel. Good planning on the Visitors part, lousy luck for them.

"One minute!" Donovan shouted.

Tyler paused only long enough to check a fallen human ... dead ... then sprinted for the stairs. Only one length of tunnel separated the stairs from the ladder out but the troopers were gaining fast. Laser bolts flared around them and he felt one slam into his right shoulder. He hit the ground, rolling on the concrete to put out any flames then scrambled back to his feet. His shoulder burned but the vest had dissipated the worst effects of the bolt. He started for the ladder then, hearing a shout behind him, turned to look behind him. His face tightened at the sight of Mark sprawled on the stairs, suddenly realizing that the smell of burning flesh hadn't been his. The former cop was holding off the troopers with short bursts of gunfire, all the while telling Maggie, who was trying to look at his leg, to go.

Tyler ran back to them, dropping next to Maggie "How bad are you hit?" He glanced at the wound, his stomach churning at the smell of charred flesh.

"Get her out of here! I'll hold them off!"

Tyler glanced at his watch ... less then 30 seconds ... and ground his teeth together, meeting the man's determined eyes. Without a word, he set his SMG on the step next to Mark, along with a full magazine then reached over to grab Maggie, dragging the struggling woman away. Behind him, he could hear Mark shooting in short, control bursts, forcing the troopers to keep their heads down.

A sudden explosion rocked the floor and Tyler swore, realizing that the explosions were going off early. He shoved Maggie to the ladder.


"No! Mark!"

Tyler shoved her up the ladder, deliberately raking her legs with his claws. "Climb, damn it! Or we're both going to die!" He snarled and Maggie, shocked at the sudden pain, obeyed. Tyler scrambled after her, hearing one last, almost triumphant scream from Mark as the laser field came back on, instantly incinerating everything still in the tunnel in a mad festival of sparkling light. Deadly sparks spit random death in all directions.

Pushing Maggie ahead of him, they ran after the others, Tyler pulling his handgun from its holster. Sirens were sounding and harsh lights swept the area, centering on the fleeing rebels. Troopers shouted, firing at them and Tyler's lips thinned as a couple more humans fell. Shouting to Father Andrew, Tyler shoved Maggie into his keeping and turned to fire at a trooper then cursed soundly when he realized that Donovan and Julie were cut from the main body of rebels by a detachment of Visitor troops.

"Chris! The back way! Go!"

The big man nodded and took the lead, climbing off the pipes and down the hill. Tyler motioned the others to follow.

"What about Donovan and Julie?" Father Andrew asked.

"They know the alternate plan."

"But they're cut off!" Sancho looked back. "They can't get through. I'm going back for them." He started back only to stop dead at the unmistakable feel of a gun pressing into his stomach. He looked up to meet cold hard eyes, as emotionless as a pair of brown marbles.

"Move, slick. Now." Tyler ordered and Sancho grudgingly backed up, finally turning to follow the others.

A laser burst exploded against the catwalk near him and Tyler turned to fire at the troopers, swearing when the gun clicked empty after three shots. "Go!" He ordered the others as the pipes beneath him began to rock and split from the sudden re-introduction of all that water. Tossing the gun to one side and snatching a knife from the sheath on his thigh, Tyler lunged forward, thrusting the sharp blade into one of the pursuing troopers and throwing him off the catwalk. The second trooper tried to use his rifle but Tyler was too close. Instead he slammed the butt into the man's ribs and Tyler staggered back, the knife slipping from his hand. Instinctively, he lashed out, claws slashing the Visitor's throat. Green blood splattered him as the Visitor grabbed for his throat, hands clutching the torn flesh desperately. Tyler reached for the rifle but a laser blast struck the railing, spitting paint chips and sparks upwards, burning his face and he fell back, blinded. The railing hit him mid-back and he followed the path of least resistance over it, hitting the ground in a barely controlled tumble, biting back a scream as something struck the right side of his face hard. Pain lanced through his eye as he staggered to his feet.

"Tyler! Here! Over here!"

Opening his eyes, he tried to blink away the multi-colored spots obscuring his vision. His right eye hurt and he could feel wetness flowing from it but he could see ... barely see ... from his left. Just enough to know where the alternate route was and he sprinted for it, hoping desperately that he didn't trip over anything. He felt a hand grab his arm and he almost attacked before realizing that the hand had the warmth of a human. And the scent of Alice Reynolds.

"How much can you see?" She asked quietly as she half-guided him down the hill and toward where the vehicles were hidden.

"Shapes. Barely. Chris?"

"He and Father Andrew are covering us. Here's the truck."

Tyler felt hands grab him, helping him into the bed of the truck. He moved to sit against the cab, trying to blink his eyes clear. The last of the Rebels scrambled up behind him and the truck pulled away. Behind them was the sound of shooting and explosions and rushing water. He reached up to rub at his eyes but hands caught his firmly.

"You've got something in your eye." Maggie's voice was remote. "Hold still."

He managed not to flinch as she forced his right eye open, gritting his teeth as she worked a persistent paint chip free and then rinsed his eyes with water. "Bleeding?" He asked tightly.

"Not much but I am. You clawed me!"

"Gotcha moving, didn't it?' He said curtly. "Be glad you didn't have a tail. I woulda bitten it."

He heard the slosh of water then a water-soaked cloth was being pressed in his hand. "Sounds like you've done that before."

Gratefully he pressed the cloth against his aching eyes. "Once. To Pular Singe to get her across a suspension bridge. I learned a lot of new words that day. And some very interesting ... if impossible ... sexual suggestions."

"I'll bet. What did she do to you?"

"I'm not telling. You gotta think up your own revenge."

There was silence for a moment. "You caught a blast in the back, didn't you? Are you burned?"

"Yeah. Anyone else hurt?"

"Elias caught a blast as well and Sancho looks like he has a couple fingers broken. Get your jacket off and I'll get some burn cream on it."

Tyler obeyed, working off his jacket then the vest, hissing as he touched a hot spot on the metal. The shirt was harder to remove, the cloth had been burnt onto the wound. He felt Maggie ease the cloth away, using water to help loosen it and he gritted his teeth against the pain, reflecting that if this kept up, his teeth would never grow back properly. A moment later, soothing cream was being spread over the burn and he let his head sag in relief, resting his forehead on his knee. Gauze was taped over the burn and then he felt a blanket being draped around him. For the first time he was aware of being cold and he drew it close.

He could hear the others talking in low tones around him then a sudden sharp cry. Stomach muscles tightening, he looked up. There were still multi-colored spots in his vision and his right eye seemed to be swelling shut but he could see well enough to make out the fighter ship speeding away from the plant, two more in hot pursuit.

"Donovan, I bet." Someone said and Tyler grinned slightly, reflecting that it probably was Donovan. Crazy son of a bitch. He'll be all right and Parrish too, if she was with him.

He looked around the bed of the truck, looking over the occupants. Elias had his own shirt off and Alice was spreading cream on a much larger burn then he had, right in the middle of the man's back. It looked ugly but not life-threatening. Chris and Father Andrew were sitting by the tailgate, keeping an eye out for any pursuit. Natalie, Caleb, and Sancho just sat there, looking numb and exhausted. And Maggie ...

He looked at the blonde woman sitting with her back set in the corner of the truck, legs drawn up against her chest, staring into the distance. A part of him, the part that was still Ham Tyler, reflected that people die in war, that casualties had to be expected, that people die all the time. But he knew these people, they weren't just nameless faces and statistics and ... well, he wasn't just Ham Tyler anymore.

Reaching out, Tyler gently touched Maggie's hand. "I'm sorry." He said quietly. She looked at him for a long moment then the tears came. He let her lean into him, her head on his shoulder, and slipped his arm around her, pulling the blanket close around them both, not noticing the startled looks some of the others gave him. Closing his aching eyes, Tyler tried to remember how long it took for eyes to heal.

He had no idea how much time had passed when a familiar sound caught his attention. Maggie had stopped crying but was still curled up against him and she threw him a puzzled look as he straightened, good eye searching the night sky.

"Shuttle." He said tersely before turning to rap urgently on the truck cab. Immediately the truck pulled over and all lights doused. The rebels ducked their heads, hiding the tell-tale gleam of flesh and eyes from the shuttle lights. Tyler pulled the blanket over his and Maggie's heads, listening as the sound grew louder and then suddenly veered off. He continued to listen as the sound faded then waited a few minutes more before pulling the blanket away and signaling the driver to continue.

"Trinity help us all if they ever start using heat detectors." He muttered then frowned, looking around the bed of the truck.

"What's wrong?" Maggie asked, slipping free of the blanket. Tyler shivered and pulled it closed again, wincing as the rough material scrapped over the burn, even through the gauze.

"My jacket ..."

Maggie glanced down. "It's pretty well ruined."

"My medallion's in an inside pocket."

Maggie reached down to tug the jacket out from underneath her, searching it until she found the medallion. A tingle shivered across her skin as she held it and she froze in surprise then Tyler was taking it from her hand, absently running his thumb over the familiar carvings. He couldn't see them but he could envision them.

Shadow, Nit'shi, H'nor

"What kind of material is that?" Maggie asked quietly and he looked up, startled.

"Kirien ivory." He said, flipping it over and running a thumb over the symbols carved there. "This," He indicated a small, intricate symbol on the lower left of the medallion. "Is the name-symbol of the Kirien it came from. Darkness Rising. See, it's illegal to possess Kirien or Rathorn ivory without the permission of the being it came from. Darkness Rising's an old friend of my mother's so, every time my mother got pregnant, she'd send a chuck of her ivory to be used for Trinity medallions. Otherwise they're made out of gold or silver."

"That ..." Maggie touched the symbol in the center of the back of the medallion. "Looks familiar."

"My name-symbol. You probably saw the tattoo behind my ear." Absently he reached up to touch where the tattoo was once again covered by flesh-colored makeup then turned the medallion back over. Maggie studied the figures on it.

"What is the Trinity?" She finally asked.

He smiled slightly ... he'd wondered when someone would ask that question ... and pointed at the suited figure on the left. "Shadow was a Shikito, a methane-breathing species. That's an environmental suit he's wearing. Nit'shi was a Barbarosian ... Robert calls them elves and that will do. And H'nor was a Chi'tok, an insect race. Hundreds of years ago, the Shikito and the Chi'tok were at war with each other. Why, I have no idea. By that time, I don't think they had any idea either. In their time," He tapped the medallion. "There was an unknown alien species making hit-and-run attacks on pretty much every known planet and species. One day, a Shikito ship and a Chi'tok ship were having a rather intense ... disagreement about something or other when they both received a distress signal from a Confederation passenger ship that was under attack. Much to their credit, the two captains broke off their own battle and went to the ship's aid. They managed to destroy the attacking ship but there were already raiding parties on the passenger ship so both Shikito and Chi'tok sent warriors on board to help."

Tyler paused, remembering the stories told of that day and wishing he'd dare have Fontana bring back some of the movies made about it. "It was a rather memorial battle, especially since both the Shikito and Chi'tok warriors were battling the enemy while doing their best to completely ignore each other. It worked to a point ... there are stories of Chi'tok helping Shikito repair their environmental suits or Shikito dragging Chi'tok to safety while not once actually acknowledging each other's presence." He raised the medallion. "Both captains sent squads to help protect the heart of the ship, one of its most vulnerable areas. What was left of both squads joined up with the ship's security people who were already there. During the fierce fighting that followed, all were killed ... except for three."

"The Trinity." Maggie said quietly and Tyler nodded.

"Well, of course they weren't called that then but yes. When the fighting was all done ..." He paused, throat tightening. There was so much more to the story ... "When it was done, the captains came on board to help as best they could. In the corridor to the ship's heart, they found three warriors of three species ... Shikito, Barbarosian, Chi'tok ... hurt but still alive. For hours, just the three of them had managed to hold off the attackers ... it wasn't a very wide corridor and the attackers were hampered by the fact they were so big that essentially only one, maybe two, could attack at a time. But it was the way the three of them had worked together to fend off the attackers that eventually grew into legend. Now they're a constant reminder that you don't have to be of the same species to work together."

"What happened to them?" Father Andrew asked and Tyler glanced up, startled. It was obvious that he'd completely forgotten about the others.

"They stayed together as a team for decades until their ship disappeared while on a scouting mission. They were the first Trinity but not the last. Trinities are still being formed, always three beings, always of three different species. In fact," He smiled slightly. "Belief in the Trinity is so prevalent that a Deity was said to be created from it ... the Three-faced Deity. You see her/him/it whenever new Trinities are formed." He unhooked the heavy chain and started to slip it on. He felt Maggie take the chain from him and let his hands drop, allowing her to reattach it around his neck. He stroked the medallion's face absently.

Natalie cleared her throat. "Interesting bedtime story." She said, not bothering to hide the sneer in her voice.

Tyler shrugged disinterestedly. "Believe me or not. That's your choice. I really don't care either way." He pulled the blanket tighter, looking behind them with his one good eye. The right side of his face was rapidly swelling, turning a variety of colors it was never meant to be.

Maggie saw Natalie open her mouth to say something else and glared her to silence, helped by Caleb digging an elbow into the woman's ribs. The woman seemed to realize that now was not the time to be baiting Tyler and she subsided into a sulky silence.

An hour later they finally pulled into the darkened base. Figures came out of the darkness to help the wounded to the infirmary and the tired to readied beds. Tyler dropped down from the truck, watching as the others headed for their beds.

"We the first ones back?" Fontana nodded and Tyler sighed tiredly. The earlier adrenaline rush was gone and now he could feel every ache in his body. "Get me a shirt and jacket, will you?"

Fontana looked like he wanted to protest but he didn't, knowing full well that Tyler wouldn't go to bed until all the trucks were back safely. He turned to vanish into the darkness of the stable, returning moments later with the requested clothing, as well as the med kit he had brought with him to Earth.

"Let's go into the saloon." He said curtly. "I can take care of your wounds."

Tyler didn't protest as he followed the man into the darkened building. Fontana turned a lamp on low and gestured for him to sit down. Tyler moved over to a bar stool, sitting down and letting the blanket fall away. Fontana caught it and tossed it to one side, watching as Ham crossed his arms on the bar and rested his head on them wearily. Gently he worked the gauze covering the burn off and cleaned the wound of the burn cream before smearing on a liberal handful of kuta salve and covering the burn with a fresh piece of gauze.

"You can take the gauze off before bed. Here." He offered him the shirt and Ham gingerly pulled it on. "Turn around. I'll get your face." Ham obeyed, leaning back against the bar as Fontana dabbed the salve lightly onto the right side of his face as well as the milder burns around his left eye.

"Want me to bandage that?" He asked but Ham shook his head no.

"Two dead for certain." He said finally. "Maybe more ..."

"A lot more alive." Fontana corrected. "Because of you."

A muscle twitched in the other man's cheek and he shook his head again. Slipping off the bar stool, he took the jacket from the bar and pulled it on but Fontana grabbed his arm before he could take a step.

"Stay." He said firmly. "There's nothing you can do out there right now. Stay until the next truck comes."

"If it comes." Ham said in a wooden voice but he sat back down on the stool, staring out the window.

The second truck pulled in a half hour later and Ham's relief at seeing both Robert Maxwell and Rico Jones still alive was almost palpable, at least to Fontana. They went out to meet the truck, inventorying wounds and the missing, Ham once again impassive. The last truck pulled in an hour later, having had to take a circular route to avoid the sudden appearance of patrols. As the occupants made their way wearily to either the infirmary or their beds, Ham tallied up the final figures in his head, his face totally expressionless.

Eleven wounded, seven missing. Two of the missing were definitely dead, three presumed dead. The last two, Julie and Donovan, were presumed to be on the run. He shoved his hands into his pockets and stared sightlessly into the darkness.

Fontana finally convinced Ham to go to bed, promising to keep watch for any others. His eye aching and face and shoulder throbbing, Ham reluctantly agreed. He made his way to the stable and up into the loft, stripping off boots and jacket before collapsing on the makeshift bed. He was dimly aware of Fontana covering him with one of the thick quilts that had appeared one cold night ... he didn't particularly want to know where Fontana had 'found' them ... then he was falling into a dreamless sleep.

Fontana knelt next to Ham for a long moment, gently stroking his hair, wishing he could join him in sleep. But he had made a promise and he always kept his promises. Leaning down, he kissed Ham lightly on the temple where the crescent-shaped scar was, murmuring soft words before rising and gathering up his double-ended axe.

"There it is." Donovan gasped, pointing and Julie sagged against a nearby tree, looking thankfully at the base camp through the trees.

"About time. My feet are raw! And I want to sleep for a couple of days."

"Just sleep?" Donovan teased, slipping an arm around her. She leaned against him, thankful that they were both still alive ...

"You two look like shit." The dry voice came from above them and Julie and Donovan jumped apart, scrambling for their weapons only to realized that the voice was Fontana's. He was perched in the tree above them, looking down with no expression at all, his double-ended axe in one hand.

"Standing guard?" Donovan asked curtly.

"Someone has to. Everyone else is exhausted." He dropped to the ground. "I thought you might come back this way."

Donovan opened his mouth to say something biting but Julie cut him off curtly. "What's the casualty report?"

"Two dead, three missing, eleven wounded. The worst of the wounded is Elias, he has a large burn on his back. And Rico has a broken ankle. Everyone else's wounds are fairly minor. Some sprained fingers, burns." Fontana started for the camp, the couple falling in beside him. "Though Maggie has claw marks that ended up needing stitches."

"Claw marks?" Donovan said sharply. "Tyler?"

Fontana blinked. "Who else? It was the only way to get her moving up the ladder and he took it. She'll limp for awhile but he keeps his claws clean so she doesn't have to worry about infection." He looked at Julie. "And he'd like to talk to you later. Privately."

"About what?" Donovan asked.

"How should I know? And what business is it of yours?" Fontana said irritably.

"The dead? The missing?" Julie asked hurriedly in an attempt to forestall an argument. "Who are they?"

"Susan Newitt, Mark Bradley, Paul Jenkins, Yi Lee, Scott Nichols."

Julie ran the names through her head, seeing an image of each of them and her heart sank. Luckily none of them had children but most had significant others. She'd have to meet with them. As if reading her thoughts, Fontana continued.

"Kom already met and spoke with their partners."

"About?" Donovan asked.

Fontana threw him an exasperated look. "About their deaths, of course. Though they'd already guessed when they didn't come back with the others."

"I'll get cleaned up and then I'll talk to them as well. Could you let Ham know I'll come talk to him after I get some sleep and some food?"

"Sure. He was asleep last time I checked. He'll be up in the loft." Fontana's lips quirked into a rueful smile. "Chris and Alice have co-opted the RV."

Julie stopped dead. "Chris and Alice?" Despite everything, she giggled.

"They are a mismatched pair." Fontana walked away, heading not for the stable but for the makeshift schoolroom, a long table set outside the trailers where the camp's children were sitting with pads of papers and pencils and a couple adults were giving them a basic education as best they could.

The couple made their way to their sleeping quarters, their progress there slowed by the many people happily greeting them. Donovan took the opportunity to get a rather sketchy report of the other teams' actions, frowning at some of the reports. On a whole, it had gone well but there were some things he found disturbing. He'd have to check into them. Later. Once he got some sleep.

Later that afternoon, Donovan leaned against the corral, watching Julie and Maggie talk in the distance. They had already spoken with several of the others and Donovan was surprised at how many people spoke highly of Tyler, despite the man threatening Sancho with a gun. Even Sancho had professed no hard feelings, insisting that while he hadn't liked it, he did understand why Tyler did it.

After several minutes, the two women embraced then Maggie walked away by herself. Julie watched her for a moment then turned to join Donovan. He walked out to meet her.

"How is she?" He asked.

"I think she'll be okay. In a while. They were planning to get married."

Donovan shook his head. "I didn't know."

"Nobody did." She started to walk back to the base, Donovan falling in beside her. "A big mistake, making those kind of plans, the way things are."

Donovan stopped and turned to her. "Julie ... without something to look forward to, people give up. I'd like to come out of this thing alive, with my son, with some sort of normal life again. I'd like you to be a part of it.

"I can't even think of that, now." She moved away from him.

"What's wrong?" Donovan followed hurriedly.

"I couldn't aim the pistol. I keep using my left hand. They screwed me up so bad I don't trust myself anymore."

"It will get better ..."

"No, Tyler was right. I've got to step down before I hurt us all."

"You can't do that. That's what he wants. A chance to get control of this group."

"Maybe. Maybe not. He'd do a far better job of it than I currently can." She angled for the stable.

"I'll go with you ..."

"No. He asked for a private meeting. And I'd like to hear what he has to say."

Donovan grabbed her arm. "You can't possibly trust him."

Julie threw him an impatient look. "If he wanted to hurt me, he would have done it long before now."

"What he wants is control of this group, you know that."

"No, actually I don't. I don't know what he wants. That's what I'm going to find out. And it's something I have to do. Alone." With that, she turned and walked into the stable. Donovan clenched his teeth and started to follow only to find his way blocked by Fontana. The Barbarosian didn't say a word but the message was clear and Donovan reluctantly backed down.

Fontana stared at him for a long moment then turned to walk away, heading for the woods. Donovan scowled, glancing at the stable but finally turned away, walking over to the makeshift school where Harmony and Jessie were currently taking their turns with the children.

Maggie walked through the woods aimlessly, the events of last night running through her mind, playing a game of what if. What if she'd been hit rather then Mark? Would she have had the courage to stay behind to cover his escape or, more likely, would Mark have stayed behind to cover Tyler as he carried her away? Would Tyler have done that or would he have left her behind as dead weight? And why, she thought bitterly, why couldn't Tyler have been the one who'd been wounded? He, at least, could have survived it ...

But she knew better. Not even Tyler would have survived. A leg wound as severe as Mark's while in the laser tunnel would have been death for anyone, especially with less then thirty seconds left. Tyler would never have been able to make it out by himself and he certainly wouldn't have expected anyone to risk their life for his. Rather she liked it or not, Tyler had done ... if not the right thing .. the only thing that could have been done.

A sudden sound made her stop and she looked around, realizing suddenly that she had walked further then she intended. There was no sign of the town and fear shot through her, remembering that there still might be rabid dogs out here. She reached into her jacket pocket to grip the pistol there as she searched the underbrush.

"Turn left and go straight." Fontana's voice came from behind her and she jumped, just barely stifling a scream. Heart pounding, she whirled around, finally spotting him crouched on a branch above her.

"I thought you were one of the rabid dogs." She blurted.

Fontana grinned. "Never a dog and only occasionally rabid." He said cheekily and she surprised herself by laughing. Fontana dropped from the branch, gesturing the way he'd indicated. "The camp's that way."

"Thanks. I got turned around."

"I thought you might. That's why I followed you."

"Is that the only reason?" She asked curiously. He didn't answer but he didn't need to. She could guess why else he'd followed her. "When Tyler first came to the group, I thought he was the most arrogant, selfish, bigoted bastard I'd ever met. Now ... he confuses me."

"That's sounds fair. Right now, he's confusing himself." He grinned at her expression. "For years, he's had to keep people from getting near him, of ever getting to know him. At first, it was a defense mechanism, to hide the fact that he isn't human. Later," He fell silent for a moment. "Later, it became armor, to keep people from caring about him. To keep from caring about them. This is the first time in years he's let his guard down. To let people come near him in anything other then a physical sense. He has to get used to the pain again."

"And the pleasures?" Maggie looked shrewdly at him.

Fontana smiled ruefully. "You can't have one without the other. But it's not easy for him. Earth can be a remarkably ... painful place." He paused and Maggie saw that they had reached the bluff above the town. Down below, she could see the inhabitants going about their business. "He likes children." Fontana said suddenly. "He has a daughter, in fact. Hasn't seen her in years."

"I didn't know."

"I doubt anyone else here does. Except for Chris, of course."

"Why does he stay? Here, on Earth."

"You'll have to ask him that. He might tell you. Someday." Fontana slipped down the bluff, turning to help her down. "If you want some company later, we're having a get-drunk-and-watch-bad-movies session later. Or a Mr. Ed marathon, we haven't decided yet."

"Mr. Ed?"

"It's hysterically funny when you're drunk."

"I'll bet. Maybe. Thanks."

"Just bring your own liquor. What we drink can be lethal."

"Not surprised. Could we send some to Diana?"

Fontana looked at her in surprise. "Now that's a thought. Unfortunately we only have two bottles and I'm pretty sure we're going to drink them both." But he didn't lose the thoughtful look her remark had provoked.

Julie stepped into the stable, surprised at how homey it appeared. The battered easy chair and lawn chairs had been joined by an equally battered sofa with no legs and an entertainment center with broken off doors. A TV and VCR were set on the latter.

"Parrish?" Tyler's voice came from the loft.

"Yeah." She started for the ladder.

"Good. Bring up an ice pack, will you? In the cooler by the RV's door. Grab yourself a soda if you want one."

Julie blinked, turning to find the cooler. She opened it and pulled out an ice pack and a can of cola, stuffing them into a pocket long enough to climb up the ladder.

Tyler was sitting in a chaise lounge set back from the loft doors, close enough for him to look out but far enough back not to be seen. He was dressed in what she found herself thinking of as his 'human' clothes ... black jeans, t-shirt, an unbuttoned heavier shirt, and boots. As she approached, he removed the melting ice pack from the right side of his face and she whistled.

"That's going to be a beauty when it grows up." She offered him the ice pack.

"What color is it now?" He asked, indicating that she should pull up a lawn chair. She unfolded one from the wall and dropped into it.

"Mostly purples with some blues and greens. And a little yellow. And a bit of orange. A very interesting color combination. What happened?"

"Laser bolt ricocheted paint chips and sparks into my eyes then I tumbled off the catwalk and hit the side of my face against something. At least I can finally see out of my left eye without seeing spots as well. The right one got a nice-sized paint chip in it, scratched it up a bit, did come damage. Nothing serious but I'm only going to have one eye for a couple days. I'm thinking of getting an eye patch so I don't scare the kids."

"If you're serious, you can get one from the Infirmary. You're on your own for a parrot and a peg leg though."

Tyler stared at her in surprise then gave a sharp bark of laughter as he set the new ice pack over his eye, leaning back in the chaise lounge. Almost absently, he reached down to pick up an orange from a basket of fruit next to him, turning it over in his hand.

"The Earth orange," He said almost idly. "Is a very odd fruit. It won't grow on any other planet. Something grows but it's not an orange. It's not edible. Some beings have spend years, even decades, trying to get oranges to grow on another planet." He tossed the orange to Julie. Confused, she caught it, opening her mouth to ask what he was talking about but before she could make a sound, realization hit her.

She had caught the orange with her right hand!

She stared at the orange, speechless, barely hearing Tyler as he continued talking.

"The effects of conversion will eventually wear off. How quickly depends on a number of factors. How strong-willed a being is, how old ..."

"And you've known this how long?" She asked angrily.

"Does it matter? We needed you fighting the conversion, not waiting for it wear off." Tyler balanced the pack over his eye and let his hand drop. "Someone who is strong-willed or older would be very hard to convert and the procedure would have to be repeated periodically. Someone weak-willed or a child ... the conversion would stick better but an older person ... they're too set. Too much experience. Eventually such a person would ..." He paused, groping for the words. "Would absorb the conversion memories into their own and move on. It just becomes part of their experiences. You can't change a being's beliefs permanently overnight."

"So that's why they believe a Barbarosian can't be converted. The only ones they could ever get their hands on would be too old to convert."


"So a lot of that taunting ..."

"Was to make you fight harder." Swinging a leg to each side of the chaise lounge, Tyler sat forward, catching the ice pack as it fell from its perch, using it to gesture at her. "If I ever seriously thought you were a threat to this group, you'd'a been dead a long time ago."

Julie studied him intently. "Mike thinks you want to take control of the group." She said slowly.

Tyler snorted. "I don't want control of this group. I never have." He gestured at himself with the ice pack. "Me, I'm a warrior. A soldier if you like. Or a killer, which Donovan prefers. I'll train people to fight and I'll lead them into battle and I'll do what needs to be done no matter how nasty it can get but this isn't a camp of fighters. There's noncombatants here. Children. They need a leader who can work the finances and the supplies and deal with non-fighters. Someone who can ... soft-soap things and work public relations. I can't do that. I scare people. Even when I'm friendly, I usually end up scaring people. That's just the way I am. If I had wanted to be running a group, I'd find ... or create ... a group composed solely of fighters." He looked at her intently. "As long as you have the sense to let me do what I do best when it needs to be done then I have no problem with you leading."

Julie almost spoke up then cut her words off, thinking fiercely to herself. Everything Tyler had said, she realized, was true. Tyler had objected to her being the leader but he'd never once put himself forward to take her place. "If I wasn't leader, who would you recommend?" She asked.

"Caleb." He said without hesitation. "With Robert and Sancho as his lieutenants. Between the three of them, they'd do just fine."

"Not Mike?"

Tyler frowned, leaning back again and replacing the ice pack. "Donovan takes the high moral ground too often. He can't grasp the concept that sometimes you gotta send people out to fight even if death is certain or that sometimes you gotta kill someone who just plan needs killing. He'd wanna capture Diana and put her on trial. Me, I'd slit her throat and bury her somewhere anonymous. Maybe I'd be wrong but at least we'd know she wouldn't be hurting anyone ever again."

Julie thought it over, coming to the conclusion that, for the most part, he was right. "So you're going to lay off the taunting?"

Tyler's lips twitched. "Where's the fun in that?" He chuckled at her expression. "I'll ease up but until you're back to 100%, I'm gonna be here reminding you to watch yourself. It's not impossible that Diana's put some little mental time bombs in your mind and I don't want them catching us unawares."

The woman shuddered at the thought. "But you'll back me up when needed? And follow orders?"

"If you'll listen to me when needed. And hear what I have to say."

"Deal." She sat back in the chair, absently peeling the orange. "Well, now that we've made a big splash ..." She grinned at Tyler's groan. "Now what?"

"Now what nothing." Tyler said firmly. "We tend to our dead and our wounded and recuperate. We need to lie low and unwind for at least a couple days. Personally, I plan on getting drunk tonight and watch bad movies."

"I didn't think you could get drunk."

"Not on Earth alcohol but Fontana brought in some Barbarosian wine, which he just told me about last night. So we're going to get wasted. Which reminds me ... how are the wounded?" He asked.

"All of them are mobile, though Elias is walking very gingerly. And complaining about having to sleep on his stomach. But at least he's alive to complain." She broke the orange apart and held out a chunk. Ham took it absently.

"True." He popped a piece into his mouth. "A few days rest then we start all over again. We need medical supplies ..."

"But not right now." Julie said firmly. "You're right. We need to take it easy for a couple days. We've supplies enough for now. We'll starting planning for that in a few days." She hesitated then cleared her throat. "When's Fontana planning on leaving?"

Ham's face tightened and he looked away. "Next moonless night. Maybe a week or so." His voice was curt.

There was something in his tone that Julie didn't grasp right away. When she did, she looked at him sharply. "You told Robert that you and Fontana weren't lovers."

"When I told him that, we weren't. Why?" He looked at her. "Does it matter?" There was no challenge in his words, only curiosity.

"No." Her lips twitched as she realized she was blushing. "Most of the camp already assumes you two are lovers so it shouldn't make any difference that you actually are. How did we get into this discussion?" She asked rather desperately in an attempt to get the thought of how two men would make love out of her mind. Though that particular image was rather interesting ...

Tyler grinned and she wondered if he'd guessed at what she was thinking, which made her blush even more. His next words turned her completely scarlet.

"You're wondering how two men have sex." He laughed at her expression. "Don't look so shocked. You'd be surprised at how many women wonder the same thing. I had a lover once ... a lady ... who I always suspected would have liked to have ... directed the action, so to speak." He smiled. "Just don't ask Fontana. He will tell you. In graphic detail. With pictures. And quite possibly demonstrations." By now Julie was sure she'd never return to her natural coloring. "And as for how we got on this discussion ... you asked, I answered. I said I wouldn't lie, no matter what Donovan thinks. Which reminds me. I have to go over what Fontana wrote out while we were gone. Trinity only knows what he put down." He tossed the ice pack to one side and stood, stretching ... well, Julie couldn't help but think ... stretching like a cat. Even to the point of extending each claw. "Finished blushing now?"

"Probably not for several hours." She stood as well, making her way over to the ladder. Looking down, she grimaced. "I'm really beginning to hate heights."

Ham chuckled. Before she could even think of protesting, he had scooped her up in his arms and leapt from the loft.

Donovan was watching Harmony with the children. She really wasn't doing much, just working at keeping the children busy with a variety of art projects.

Julie's startled squeak caught his attention and he whirled to run for the stable, certain Tyler was up to no good, but before he could take a step, Julie appeared in the doorway, leaning against the door as she laughed helplessly.

"That did nothing for my budding fear of heights!" She said over her shoulder.

"Gotcha down out of the loft, didn't it? And stopped you blushing as well." Tyler walked past her, his usual remote expression offset by the colorful swelling of the right side of his face. He nodded curtly at Donovan as he passed him. "Seen Fontana?" He asked Harmony.

"He went into the woods."

Tyler grunted, looking down at what the children were doing. He stepped sideways to stand behind Polly. "Not bad. But if that's a Kitling, you have the legs wrong."

"I do? How?"

"Ever see a cat's hind legs?" Reaching past the girl, Tyler pulled over a blank sheet of paper and picked up a pencil. He leaned over her, bracing his free hand on the table. "See, cats are toe-walkers." To Donovan's astonishment, the man began to sketch. "They walk on their toes, here. This bit is their ankle and over here would be their knee. See?"

"Wow! Cool!"

"Then you just ..." He flicked the pencil rapidly over the paper. "There. That's a Kitling. They only have three fingers and a thumb. And they do have tails. Well, most of them have tails."

"That one has a lot of tail!"

Tyler chuckled. "Yeah, he does."

Both Donovan and Julie walked over to look at the sketch. It was surprisingly good, showing a humanoid cat with medium length gray and white fur and a tail that looked too long for it's body. It wore a loincloth and what looked like a leather cuirass. Tyler set that sketch aside and pulled over another blank paper, sketching on it rapidly.

"Now, this is another toe-walker. But you'll notice that Jester ... that's Jester, the Kitling ... stands upright. This one stoops over." What looked to be a humanoid rat was appearing under rapid strokes of the pencil. "Because of her build, y'see. Prih'enshi rarely stand fully upright. She would stand maybe stomach high to me. There." He wrote 'Pular Singe' on the sketch of the ratgirl and then 'Jester the Kitling' on the other. "You might want to give these to your father."


"Hidden talents?" Donovan asked and Tyler glanced at him.

"Not really. I used to teach art. Years ago. I just haven't had much use for those skills lately. Harmony, if you see Fontana, tell him I want to talk to him."


Tyler turned and walked away, leaving Donovan gaping after him in astonishment and Julie looking thoughtful.

Author Notes: The last section has been moved to the interlude.
Phrases: Muah ki: Thank you. S'mahe: father.

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