Chapter Four: Stella
Modo trailed after Roddie and Lance as they left the ballroom. The sorrel-furred mouse moved ahead to get a transport. The grey mouse touched her bare black shoulder gently with his metal hand. "Roddie, I," he faltered. "How's Stella?"
Roddie's solid blue eyes looked up at him, strickenly. "Oh Modo."
His stomach curled up into a ball. "She didn't make it," he whispered.
"She died five years ago. A type of cancer." He could feel Roddie's hand on his flesh arm. "Modo, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"S'all right, Roddie. You took care of her. At least she was safe out here."
"She never stopped loving you."
His throat tightened. If he had anything else to say--which he didn't--it wouldn't have come out. He bent down and gave the smaller mouse an awkward hug and pushed her gently into the arms of her husband. Then he stumbled away down the street, not really caring where he ended up.
"What was that about?" Lance asked with concern.
"Throttle hadn't told him Stella was dead." The black-furred mouse stared out the window of the transport's back seat.
"Why was he asking about Stella?"
"They used to date. Back on Mars."
Lance paused, visualizing the large grey mouse. "Roddie, he has to be Sparks's father. They look just alike."
The transport stopped in front of their apartment building. Lance didn't resume the conversation until they were alone together in the elevator. "Aren't you going to tell them?"
"Stella made me promise." Roddie crossed her arms over her chest and frowned.
Lance ignored her don't-wanna-talk-about-it attitude. "Sparks needs his father. And that Modo's expression looked like he had lost everything in the universe that meant anything to him. How can you not tell them?"
"Stella didn't want Modo to know. She didn't want him coming back out of guilt."
"Stella is dead."
"I keep my word, Lance. To the living and to the dead! Stella made me promise not to tell Modo about Sparks. I told her I wouldn't. She made me promise to take care of him. I told her I would. You knew it was a package deal when you married me." The elevator stopped at their floor and she stormed off.
"Damnit, Roddie! I'm not trying to separate you two. You have to do what's best for Sparks."
She paused outside their apartment door. "I am! Sparks is safe here. He has an opportunity to become something more than a biker bum or a Freedom Fighter caught up in a never-ending war. That's something Stella and I both agreed on; Sparks should stay as far away from the war as possible. I won't have Modo dragging him into the stinkfishes' grasp."
"That's not your decision to make. You're not Sparks's parent."
"As far as this ship is concerned, I am!" She opened the door to their apartment, marched through it, and slammed the door of their master bedroom shut.
Lance sighed and followed her more quietly. The bedroom door was locked. He banged his forehead slightly against the wall. "This is what I get for trying to reason with her."
"Evening ended on a sour note, huh?" Sparks leaned against the doorjamb of his bedroom. The pajamas-clad boy hadn't gone to bed yet; Lance could see the computer game running on the desk in the room.
"You didn't hear us in the hall, did you?"
"Nah, these apartments are pretty solid to cut down on neighborly noise. But when Roddie comes home like that, she's pissed."
"You're right, she is. Looks like I'm on the couch tonight."
"Six months. Hmm, I wonder who won the pool."
"Pool?" Lance looked down at the grey-furred boy.
Sparks pushed his thick grey bangs out of his eyes. "The bridge crew had a pool running on how long it would take y'all to have yer first big fight."
"By the void, I don't think we give some people enough work to do around here. Go to bed."
"Aye, aye, Captain." The boy gave a mock salute as he shut his bedroom door.
Throttle was finding it hard to concentrate on what Charley was saying. The heat generated by her touch on his arm had spread through his body. And he was very self-consciously aware of the throbbing produced by her presence.
They walked down the hall toward the suite. Charley paused near a decorative floor-to-ceiling niche occupied by a large potted plant. "Ship to Throttle. Come in, Throttle." She laughed as she waved a hand in front of his face. "You haven't heard a single word I've said since we got up here."
"You're not still worried about Roddie, are you? I thought you decided to talk to her tomorrow about it?"
I've gotta tell her how I feel. Damnit, the worse she can tell me is that she doesn't feel the same way. And then maybe we can deal with it. "I wasn't thinking about Roddie."
"Then what's worrying you now?"
He swallowed hard and turned to face her. "Something I should admit." His voice was huskier than usual. She looked up at him, her eyebrows crinkling with concern. It wasn't this hard with Carbine. Why is it so hard? He heard the laser shot at the same moment he stepped closer to her.
A searing pain cut across his right shoulder blade as he pushed Charley back into the niche. "Throttle!" She cried at his grunt of pain. He ignored her as he flattened his body against hers. Another shot whizzed near their heads. He turned.
The shooter, a male mouse disguised in an opaque helmet and black jumpsuit, drew back into the doorway he stood in. It was the stairwell door, clearly labeled in Martian script. An overwhelming fury fused with Throttle's desire to protect and the needs his body developed just by Charley's touch. That son of a rat is not getting away! Throttle growled and ran down the hall and into the stairwell after him.
He ran down three flights of stairs before slapping his left hand to his not-present holster. You idiot! He paused on the landing between the third and fourth floors, trying to listen for a sound from the sniper. He had gone downstairs automatically, but the shooter could have gone up or down. But what the hell are you gonna do if you do find him? The fact that you are unarmed should not be something you forget!
He silently shifted his stance and gritted his teeth. His right leg--still not healed from getting shot last week--pounded with pain from all the exertion. He heard something above him--soft slapping footfalls on the concrete. He eased to the center of the stairs to look up.
Charley's face darted over the railing on the floor above. "Missing this?" She tossed his laser pistol to him.
He caught it easily, automatically readying it to shoot as he gripped it in his left hand. "Stay back. I don't know where he went."
A door opened below them. Throttle sprinted after the sound, ignoring the pain in his leg. The door leading to the second floor was swinging shut. He grabbed it and yanked it open. The hall was empty. "Shit!"
Charley joined him on the landing. She had kicked off her high heels and carried Vinnie's laser pistol in her hand. She always does that. Sees what we miss, comes up with plans that require more than a weapon and a target. "He got away?" she asked.
"Looks like it."
She touched his back gently, feeling his red blood on the tuxedo jacket. "It looks bad. We better go find a doctor."
"No. You can patch me up."
"Avoids awkward questions, Charley-girl. And I don't wanna give information out to the wrong people." She sighed but followed him back up to their rooms.
She found a medkit in her bathroom and returned to the main room. Throttle had already shucked off the tuxedo jacket, bow tie, and white shirt, and sat on the edge of the couch. She set the small box onto his lap as she knelt on the couch behind him. "Ruined the suit," she observed.
"Cheese, what a shame."
She ignored the sarcasm in his statement. "My thought exactly."
What is she trying to say? She likes how I look dressed up? It had never occurred to him. He knew he was fairly handsome and that the shades, leather, and bare chest made for a powerful visual combination. But good-looking in a monkey suit? He remembered how the women had fainted at Limburger's costume party when they had seen Modo in a tux. Or is she just teasing? She knows how much we hate dressing up. Or is she serious?
Her fingers gently touched the area around the wound on his shoulder. He felt his skin grow hot as he ignored the throbbing pain from his shoulder and leg. It was unbearable; being this close to her, yet equally unbearable was the thought that it had to end. She started cleaning the wound. The gash that cut across his shoulder blade was about four inches long. Blood still oozed from the deeper tissue. The laser bolt had cauterized the top layer of fur, skin, and muscle. "This is pretty deep. You might need stitches. And that wasn't covered by my first aid badge."
"Can you see bone?" He opened the medkit and started digging through it; glad she had changed the topic of conversation. He didn't have to try to figure out any plays on words or what to say when she pays a compliment. If it was a compliment. Better just to move on.
Charley lifted the cloth briefly. "No." She pressed it back down to help the wound clot.
"Don't need stitches. They still have duraskin." He passed a small jar of a clear jelly-like substance to her. "Fill the hole in with that stuff. When it hardens and turns red-brown, I'm as good as new."
"What is it?" She asked as she carefully followed his instructions.
"Duraskin. Hi-tech Band-Aid. We ran through our supply pretty quickly during the war and the Plutarkians destroyed any way of making more once we started fighting back."
"Maybe we should bring a case of the stuff back to Chicago. For all these times when you're alone with me and get shot or beat up." She recapped the jar and handed it back to him, sitting back on her heels.
He turned slightly to face her. "And I thought you liked playing doctor." His heart pounded. Why the hell did I say it like that? I meant the first aid, that's all I meant! Though she's great in the other sense, the rebellious and lustful voice in his mind added as the context for his pounding heart shifted.
Charley didn't find the unintentional insult. "I'd like it better if I had a license. Maybe we should just avoid being alone together."
Her green eyes were focused on the floor. Her chest noticeably rose and fell with every breath. That strange hot and dizzy feeling was making his head swim. He reached out with his left hand and touched her cheek, turning her face toward him. "I don't wanna avoid being with you." Even though I have, I don't want to anymore. It's taken me a whole week to realize it.
"Throttle." His fingers slipped off her cheek and down to her throat. He could feel her pulse racing to match his own.
"Did I tell you that you looked beautiful tonight?" His voice had dropped again. Instead of muffling the sounds, the blood in his ears amplified them. Her dress rustled with each breath she took.
"Not really," she whispered as she pressed her hands against his chest.
"Well, you are." He cupped his hand around the back of her head and drew her face closer to his. She closed her eyes and slightly parted her moist pink lips. He closed his eyes to savor her sweetness.
The door to the hall opened and slammed shut. Charley and Throttle's eyes flew open as they jerked back from each other. Vinnie stopped humming to himself. "Whoa! I'm not interruptin' anything, am I?"
"Nah, Vincent, you're not," Throttle answered flatly.
Charley got up off the couch and the white mouse was able to see Throttle's back and bloody clothes clearly. He bounded over to the couch. "What happened? Who messed with ya, bro?"
"He got shot," Charley said sharply. "Don't you know that any time we have non-destructive fun, the evening has to end with a life-threatening situation?" She squatted down and snatched her high heels up out of the middle of the floor. "Good night."
Throttle winced and sighed as her bedroom door slammed shut. "Aw hell," he muttered. When did I become the butt of some cosmic joke? I spend a miserable week pretending that nothing's changed between us, trying so hard not to push her into something she doesn't want. And when I decide to be honest and try to explain how I feel, I get shot and Vinnie shows up. It was maddening, infuriating, depressing all at the same time.
Vinnie frowned as he looked down at Throttle's shoulder then up at Charley's bedroom door. "The shooter got away?"
"Yeah." His answer was distracted. He was trying to figure out if Charley was upset because of the interruption or because he made a pass.
"Who was he aiming at?"
Throttle looked up. Vinnie wanted details? A hard glint was in Vinnie's red eyes, his ready-to-rumble glint. The tan mouse frowned as he thought back. "Charley. I stepped into it. What do you know?"
"Only what Tala told me. The non-mouse population has been leaving, and she thinks that Exhaust guy's behind it."
"Does he know about Roddie?"
"Throttle, don't get mad. Roddie's practically family but anyone can look at her and see she ain't all mouse."
"I know. The eyes. Would it piss you off if we stuck around here for a while?"
"Not since Tala's decided to do the same. Gotta grab my chances with her when they present themselves."
Throttle opened his mouth to make a snide comment when the main door jerked opened and slammed shut again. Modo stormed through the main room chasing Vinnie out of his way with a snarl and slammed the door of their bedroom shut. "Aw hell," Throttle muttered. "Roddie must have told him about Stella."
"What happened to Stella?" Vinnie asked.
Throttle didn't answer right away. He closed up the medkit and stood up. I should've told him. I shouldn't have let him get his hopes up 'bout a reunion. He set the medkit on the table near the dumbwaiter and went back to the couch to gather his clothes. But I wanted to get him alone. I know how much he hates anyone to see him broken up.
"What happened to Stella?" Vinnie repeated.
Modo yanked open the bedroom door now dressed in his usual street clothes. He stormed through the main room and back out again.
Charley jerked open her bedroom door just in time to see the grey tail disappear. She wrapped the robe tighter around her dripping form. "What's wrong now? What was that?"
"Hurricane Modo," Vinnie supplied.
Throttle turned toward her, wincing behind his field specs. His leg still hurt. "He got some bad news about someone." He went into their bedroom and grabbed his sleeveless leather jacket.
"Did she marry somebody else?" Vinnie demanded.
Charley's green eyes opened wide. "This is the refugee ship Stella was on? What happened to her?"
Both mice stopped and stared at her. "How in the hell did you know that, Sweetheart?" Vinnie finally managed to ask with his eyes practically bugging out of his head.
"Modo told me about her when we were on Mars last month. What happened?"
Modo told her about Stella? He didn't even tell his mother! Bola found out from Vinnie and me. Throttle was surprised by the resentment he felt. Anger that Modo had shared part of his pre-War life with Charley. But why? Over three years, Charley had proved to be a loyal friend. She had been kind and compassionate with everything else they had shared with her. It wasn't like Modo wanted Charley; he thought of her as a sister that needed watching out for. So why did he feel so upset? "She died," he answered simply, not revealing his conflicted emotions. "Come on, Vinnie, let's go get him before he breaks the ship."
"Wait a minute, let me get dressed."
"Not a good idea." Vinnie shook his head at the human woman.
"Yeah, if Modo's in the mood to bust some heads, he'd really be pissed at us for bringin you. Ur, finish your bath." Throttle felt his face grow hot as his imagination quickly helped her back into the tub. "Wait for us here. We'll bring him back." He grabbed Vinnie's arm and pulled him out into the hall.
Modo had found a bar housed in a portion of the lobby five floors below. By the time Throttle and Vinnie had found him, the grey mouse had finished half a bottle of whiskey. He set it down on the counter, shoved a barstool under his ass, picked up the bottle, and started guzzling again.
Throttle sighed and sat down on the stool to Modo's left. "Don't do this to yourself, bro."
"Go away. Shut up and go away. You got yer family back."
"There'll be other girls, Modo." Vinnie submitted from the right.
Before Throttle could react, the grey-furred mouse slammed the bottle of whiskey on the bar, swiveled around on the stool, grabbed a metal fistful of dress shirt and tuxedo jacket, and lifted the younger white mouse into the air as he stood up. "What girl wants a half-metal freak?" He shook Vinnie as the white mouse tried to pry the metal fingers free. "And what girls are hangin' around for me to date, huh?"
Throttle grabbed hold of Modo's right forearm, mainly to keep him from popping out his arm cannon. "Let him go, Big Fella. You'd feel really bad if you hurt him."
"Nah, I wouldn't."
"Yeah, you would. You know Vinnie can't help it when he opens his mouth and something stupid comes out." Vinnie--wearing an indignant expression--opened his mouth but shut it with a glare from Throttle. "Come on, put him down."
Modo finally released Vinnie and grabbed the bottle off the bar, draining it. "I don't wanna 'nother girl. I want Stella." He sat down heavily on the stool and signaled the bartender for service. "I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Stella."
The bartender, at a subtle nod from Throttle, set another bottle of whiskey in front of the grey mouse. Modo opened it and downed most of it in three large gulps. "She was so beautiful and so smart. And she loved me." He set his head down on the bar and a sob escaped from him. "She loved me and I threw her away."
"Don't do this to yourself, Modo." Vinnie kept his distance.
But Modo wasn't paying any attention to him. "I can't even beat up stinkfish for her. She just got sick."
"If the stinkfish hadn't made things so bad on Mars, you and Stella would've made up," Throttle pointed out. Probably would've had a dozen kids by now. Things never work out like they should. "Come on, bro. Let's go back upstairs."
"You're not my mama. If I wanna get drunk, you can't stop me. And you ain't got any room to talk, Throttle."
Throttle winced internally. Don't bring that mess with Carbine up. You think I'm proud of what she reduced me to? Having to get drunk off my ass to get civil again and having to ask Charley for something I had no right to ask for? He took a deep breath. He doesn't mean anything. He's hurtin, just lashing out. "There ain't enough liquor onboard to get you drunk. Besides, you know Stella wouldn't want you doing this to yourself."
The large grey mouse slumped into himself. "I should've married her. I should've told her how much I love her." Tears squeezed out of his remaining eye.
"She knew, Big Fella. She knew. Come on, let's go back upstairs." The tan mouse cautiously helped him to his feet.
Modo shook his head as he leaned on the slightly smaller mouse. "I don't want Charley seein' me like this."
"It's cool, bro. I'll run interference." Vinnie left the bar in a white blur, leaving Throttle and Modo to stumble their way back.
Charley refused to pace. It never helped her think and it was a waste of energy. She curled up on one end of couch with a blanket wrapped around her and found her thoughts divided between two of her best friends.
The quavering voice of the grey mouse telling her, "She's just the girl I probably would've married. But we had a big fight, then things got really bad with the Plutarkians."
The tan mouse's gentle fingers touching her cheek. "Did I tell you that you looked beautiful tonight?"
Modo's voice continuing. "Throttle, Vinnie, and me decided to join the Freedom Fighters. Stella got on board a refugee ship."
Throttle smiling at her, still holding her hand from the dance. "Want me to get 'em to play it again?"
"The Plutarkians destroyed the ship. It's been a long time, Charley-ma'am. But I ain't over her yet."
Throttle pressing her tight against his chest, protecting her from the laser bolts, as they ducked behind his bike.
The picture in Roddie's office of the younger Modo with his arm around the shoulders of a teenage girl mouse and twining his tail with hers.
Throttle's tail wrapping around her waist, keeping her hips pressed tight against his. Her legs around those bare furry hips and clasping him between them. His arms catching her, supporting her as her back arched and he kissed and nibbled her bare breasts.
The main door burst open, propelled by the one mouse not in her thoughts. "Modo's okay, Charley-girl. You need to go to bed so we can get him in here." Vinnie bounded over to the couch and pulled her off of it.
"What?" She succeeded in stopping him from dragging her and the blanket across the room to her bedroom door.
"It's a macho, he-mouse thing. He don't want ya to see how broken up he is. Please Charley, he's already tried to put me through the ceiling once tonight."
"Is he okay?"
"Yeah, or he will be." He glanced nervously over his shoulder at the still open door. "He's been thinking she's dead for eight years. Now it's official. I really don't wanna be Limburger when we get back."
"All right, I'm getting out of the way."
"Good night, sweetheart."
"Good night." She sighed as she closed her bedroom door. "We should just stay in Chicago," she muttered to herself. "Every time we leave the planet, someone starts having an emotional breakdown."