Family, Friends, and Foes

Chapter Eleven
Take a Moment and Catch Up

Charley lowered the gun and tried to ignore the feeling that everything was spiraling out of control. The turtle creature wearing an orange bandanna mask and a belt had disappeared into the ship. She turned to Eight who was carefully setting the shoulder canon weapon away from anything dangerous. "His girl?"

He shrugged and found his paper and pen. Happiness comes in many shapes. Who are we to judge?

He's right, she told herself as she read his note and thought about the happiness she had with Throttle. "You're right. It just threw me for a loop."

Too many surprises in one day. It happens.

The stairwell door banged open and they both jumped. A crowd of people surged through. Another turtle creature--this one in a red mask--and the biker girl that had been beating on Modo and Vinnie earlier were in the lead. "If these aliens have hurt Zack!" His fury was almost enough to knock her over and Charley and Eight weren't in the path to the ship.

"I keep telling you, it's Val Tech. Is your brain waterlogged or something?" Trash retorted.

"What now?" Charley looked up at Eight.

He shrugged wearing a concerned expression.

Throttle came up her quickly, giving Eight a swift look over before almost hugging Charley by grabbing her arms and squeezing them slightly. "You okay, babe?"

"Fine, just dealing with the crisis up here. Who are all these people?"

"Aw, Charley-girl, I'm not ready for a pop quiz yet."

Tala was the last one inside the hanger bay. "The kid is sick. He doesn't need all of this. Not to mention my medbay can't hold over a dozen people. And no one is listening to me and why should they? It's just my medbay, my building, my ship!"

Throttle took Charley's hand and pulled her into the ramp of the ship. "I think we should try to defuse this situation."

"Yeah, before something breaks and Tala makes us pay for it."

Tala stormed up the ramp ahead of them. "You're all trespassing!" And she was ignored.

"What did you do to him?" The red-masked turtle yelled at the person blocking his way into the medbay.

Sparks cringed but didn't back down. "I didn't do nothin'! That scary human woman injected him with somethin' that made him sick. And Tala said you're trespassing so get out!"

"I ain't going anywhere without Zack!"

Modo started shouldering his way through the crowd to backup his son. A blue-masked turtle with a pair of swords sheathed to his back followed in his wake. He grabbed hold of the red-masked turtle. "Will you shut up before you get us shot!" He looked around at the group. "Can somebody start at the beginning? What is wrong with Zack?"

A clean-cut young man Charley guessed was near her own age stuffed his hands into the pockets of his Black Bones jacket. "You really don't know? Allie rode with us until she got tagged in San Diego."

"She has a Black Bones jacket," Charley offered helpfully. The clean-cut Bone shot her an unreadable look.

The blue-masked turtle shushed the one in red. Modo faced the shorter young man with confusion. "Tagged?"

He ran his hand through his short-brown hair with a sigh. "Val Tech has robots they send after Mutates and the norms that fight with 'em. The robots shoot tranquilizer darts that also transmit the DNA sequence for ID."

"Cause once they change your DNA they put it on file." The black-haired girl in a Bone jacket scowled.

"But Allie's not a Mutate," the blue-masked turtle interjected.

"No but they were finally able to match a face to DNA. Making her way easier to track. She took off and disappeared from the Mutates community."

"What does this have to do with Zack?" exploded from the red-masked turtle.

The young man looked disgusted. "Val Tech makes matching mistakes between siblings all the time. So when they tagged Zack in New York they thought they had Allie."

"And 'cause you bozos didn't tell us," the angry black-haired girl interrupted, "he's lying in there mutating into who knows what and the only way to stop it is to make it permanent!"

"No," a hoarse voice said from the medbay door. Allie stood there with a tear-streaked face supported by the orange-masked turtle. "We have to reverse it."

"There's no way to do that," a red-haired nerd wearing a Black Bones jacket said quietly.

"Then we'll find it, Smarts! You don't understand. Zack has a responsibility that I can't take. I can't." She looked at the orange-masked turtle with an expression of such raw need it made Charley wince. "I can't, Mike," her voice dropped. "I can't lose you too." The tears started again.

He wrapped his arms around her and tucked her crying face against his shoulder. "Get them out of here, Leo." The cheerfulness he had shown earlier had been rung out of him. He turned her away from the group and they disappeared back into the medbay.

"That's the best suggestion made all night," Tala said. She grabbed the closest person to her--the Bone with red hair and thick glasses--and shoved him down the ramp and out of the ship.

The red-masked turtle sneered. "Great, now the psycho bitch is having a nervous breakdown."

Modo's eye began to glow red. He lunged forward and grabbed the turtle and carried him forward. Throttle saw what was happening, took hold of Charley, and pulled her down the ramp and out of the way. Eight looked up from the note he was writing curiously. Modo came down the ramp carrying the struggling turtle that looked like he was trying to find the right way to break the hold. Everyone else surged out of the ship behind them. The big grey-furred mouse set him on his feet and shook him hard. "You don't ever call a lady that! And you don't use that kinda language in front of my son!"

He shoved Modo's arms away and snarled back in his face. "You're not Master Splinter and you can't tell me what to do!"

The blue-masked turtle came down the ramp behind the Trash. "Stop it, Raph. You're not helping."

Trash grabbed Raph's shell edge and whirled him to face her. "Goddamnit, you asshole! Don't you get it? He's dying!" She released him with an angry snarl plastered on her face. "There is no cure! The best that can be done is to turn him into a freak like us! And we don't have any way to do that!"

The red-masked turtle reeled back, slack-jawed. The blue-masked turtle looked shocked but managed to ask, "You told Allie?"

"Are you a complete idiot or do you just play one in life? Allie doesn't need to be told anything. She knew this was a possibility as soon as she heard Val Tech had him!"

A movement near the top of the ramp caught Charley's eye. A grey tail disappeared back into the ship. She moved forward but Throttle pulled her back. "Babe, don't get involved in their fight."

Eight moved over to the clean-cut biker and passed a note to him. "You're right," he said looking up after reading the note. He cleared his throat and read aloud. "This isn't helping anything. Our enemies are working together and all we can manage to do is fight. Their care of Zack proves that they are good people and we can trust them. Our fighting the Hounds and worry for Zack proves out trustworthiness. We must work together or our friends will pay the price."

"Everybody's a little hot under the helmet," Throttle said in his calmest voice. "Let's go downstairs and find out who's who."

"Good suggestion," the clean-cut biker agreed.

All eyes turned to Tala. She sighed wearily. "Of course, I get to offer my hospitality. Come on people, before I change my mind."

She led the way back to the elevator and the black-haired girl fell into step beside Charley and Throttle. "Food would go a long way toward calming everyone down," she muttered.

"Shouldn't you give that idea to your leader?" Throttle muttered back.

"I would if he knew the area and the bi... lady who owns the place."

"I'm sure Tala will let you use the phone for takeout," Charley added.

The girl gave her a critical look: one easily read as who are you, how do you figure into this, and what are you to him. Charley bristled and twined her fingers with Throttle's. He's mine. And if you think I won't fight for him, you got another thing coming.

She made no comment about them holding hands. "Well, she didn't seem to be interested in making friends earlier."

"How do you plan on explaining all the bodies to a delivery person?" Throttle asked blandly.

She glanced at her watch. "They'll be gone by now. Got some sorta speedy enzyme to decompose them quickly. So by the time anybody else gets here all that'll be left is a nasty smell and some icky residue."

Tala gave them a suspicious sidelong glance. "What are you three conspiring about?"

Throttle let go of Charley's hand to pull the gate of the freight elevator shut. "Supper. You got a four course meal planned?"

"That's not funny. I don't have any groceries. I just got back to Earth," Tala peered blearily at her arm where a watch face was set into the armor, "four hours ago."

"We were thinking takeout," Charley put in to relieve Tala's mind.

"The bodies of the Hounds will be decomposed. Just point Trash to the phone." The black-haired girl cracked her knuckles.

Trash proved extremely good at ordering take-out, too good. Luckily, Tala had some local currency that she was coaxed into using to pay for the hundreds of dollars worth of Chinese food and pizza.

The boys sat in Tala's living room area. A circular extended sofa filled a sunken area beside the elevator shaft facing a large television set. Charley set her last armload of food on a table Tala had placed between the living room area and the waist-high bookshelves that separated the area from the larger room. She took this opportunity to take a good look. The mercenary hadn't let them in this part of the building before they left for Mars a little over a month ago.

Again two floors had been knocked together. The elevator stopped on what was left of the upper floor. A wide metal catwalk stretched from the elevator to the bedroom that Tala had warned them out of. A metal staircase came down from the catwalk between the sunken corner for the couch and the padded floor of the mirrored corner. A bathroom was tucked in the corner above the training area and was the only part completely closed off from the rest of the room. The kitchen and dinning area was in the last corner above the sitting area. It was all strung together with expensive art objects, comfortable furniture that had nothing in common with each other. And the orange and black Harley Davidson artwork matched nothing.

Trash echoed Charley's thoughts with a sardonic glint in her eye. "Decorating ain't one of your talents."

"It's all mine," Tala growled. "Now, that the food issue's been dealt with, can someone please tell me how this kid ended up mutating, who you are, and what planet you're from?" She grabbed one of the white boxes of Chinese takeout and slammed herself in the recliner on the end of the sofa. "Before I go find my bottle of truth serum."

Charley grabbed a couple of boxes and headed to Throttle sitting on the sofa between Vinnie and Modo. The tan-furred mouse looked relieved to see her, wrapped his arms around her waist, and drew her down to his lap. "Whatcha got?"

"Moo gai pan." She grinned at his doubtful expression. "Come on, I tried Jundland stew. And this isn't even spicy."

"We're from this planet, lady." The red-masked turtle--Raph--had regained his surliness, and glared at Tala.

"Maybe I should start," the clean-cut Bone jumped in. "I'm Ryan. That's Smarts," he pointed to the red-haired nerd in the Bones jacket. "Trash and Eight you've already met."

Charley felt guilty. It hadn't even occurred to her to ask the mute's name.

Ryan paused for a moment to take a bite of pizza. "Val Tech is a bio-engineering company, been around for a while. Tabitha Val took control in 1987 and about two years later, it began to mutate people." He forestalled the question Tala wanted to ask. "I don't know the science of how they do it and I doubt my people do either. There's two shots...."

"Guns are involved?" Vinnie interrupted.

"Injections, Vinnie," Charley explained.

"Sorry," the still-disheveled mouse muttered quickly to all the dirty looks he was being shot.

"Two injections," Ryan continued, "one that starts the mutating and the second that makes it permanent. You'd have to find one of our docs to explain it in more detail."

"So what, you guys escaped from the lab and now hunt them down?" Tala crunched a wonton.

"Sorta. A big group escaped and formed Mutates. Val Tech started dividing and hiding their labs so we had to divide up and find them. Some groups settled down in different cities, others crisscross the country like us. And still others are hidden away like Forsaken." He finished his pizza and grabbed a box of Chinese food.

Charley noticed Vinnie's antennae twitched. That name meant something to him. He didn't say anything though.

Ryan thoughtfully twirled some long noodles onto his plastic fork. "We've been a group for about six years, even though the Black Bones have been around longer. Skulls led before me and Allie was his second-in-command. Well, up until she got tagged in San Diego. I don't need to go into that again, do I?"

"Nah, I think we all got that," Throttle answered.

"That was five years ago. How did she run into you guys?" Trash demanded glaring at the turtle creatures.

"Head first," the red-masked turtle grumbled as the blue-masked one rolled his eyes with a weary sigh.

"In case you haven't guessed, Raphael and Allie aren't exactly best friends," the blue-masked one began.

"She's psycho," Raphael interrupted.

"Yeah, and you're a model of sanity. I'm Leonardo, Leo. Raph is this pissed-off guy. Michaelangelo is upstairs with Allie. Our other brother Donatello is still a prisoner in that skyscraper."

"Renaissance painters," Charley blurted out finally figuring out why their names sounded familiar. Everyone stared at her and she reddened.

"Yeah, Master Splinter named us after them. We're called the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We weren't made by Val Tech. Years ago in Japan, Master Splinter was Hamato Yoshi's pet rat."

"Rat!" Modo spat out. Leo's face gained a what-did-I-say look.

"Earth rat, Modo." Tala's voice was ironically amused. "Not the same species at all. Pre-mutation?"

"Right," Leo continued to shoot the large grey mouse confused looks. "Splinter learned ninjutsu from Yoshi and was brought to America when he and Tang Shen eloped. But Tang Shen was supposed to marry another member of the Foot Clan, Oroku Saki. Saki followed them to America and killed them, and cut off the ear of our sensei when he attacked the killer."

That earned a sympathetic wince from Throttle and Vinnie but Modo was still feeling belligerent. "Master, sensay, what are you to this rat?"

Leo didn't get angry. "His sons. He is our sensei because he taught us ninjutsu. Master is a title of respect. Master Splinter wandered the sewers of New York until one day he found four baby turtles crawling in some glowing ooze. That's what mutated us."

"Fascinating, but what about Allie?" Trash grumbled.

"Hamato Yoshi and Tang Shen had a son and they left him with a family named Baker. He grew up, got married, and had three kids before he died: Billy, Allie, and Zack. Oroku Saki killed Yoshi and Shen but didn't find James Baker. He returned to Japan, turned a lot of the ninjas of the Foot Clan to evil, and started a crime wave there. The leaders of the Foot Clan denounced his actions and the authorities started closing in, so Saki relocated to America. By 1990, he rebuilt the Foot Clan in New York and restarted his crime wave. We defeated him and his brother Nagi took over his mantle as the Shredder."

"The Shredder?" Vinnie chortled. "What kinda super-villain name is that?"

"An effective one," Ryan answered. "The guy almost paralyzed the entire city."

"The Foot Clan of Japan had enough and decided one of Yoshi's descendents should become the leader. Nagi decided to kill them off so no one could challenge him. Allie and Zack had lived with Billy for a year and the Shredder killed him. We stopped him from killing them and kept them safe." Leo gulped down some root beer. "Zack is to become the leader once he proves himself worthy. If he can't, Allie has too. And she doesn't want to."

"Doesn't want to is an understatement," Throttle commented.

"I thought the Shredder was found dead," Smarts added.

"He was," Raph said surly. "She killed him just three months ago."

"Sounds like he deserved it," Trash threw in.

"What about you guys?" Ryan set aside his empty take-out container. "Martian bikers?"

"You haven't seen what their bikes can do," Trash said dryly.

"Terrans ain't ready to know about us yet," Modo declared.

So what am I, the exception that proves the rule? And Four-by, and Manuelo, and Jack, and Pete, and Allie? Charley thought to herself with a worried, slightly hurt expression.

"With a few notable exceptions." Throttle traced his finger along her jaw to turn her face to him and gave her a loving smile.

Vinnie snickered. "Give us a break, you lovebirds." Charley sighed exasperatedly as she rolled her eyes. Throttle glared at him. Not that Vinnie noticed either expression. "The coolest Martians are bikers and the baddest are Freedom Fighters. And I'm a living legend among all of them."

"When did your name change to Stoker?" Tala asked sarcastically.

Throttle jumped in before Vinnie could assuage his wounded pride. "It was the government's policy not to reveal that Mars was inhabited until the majority of Terrans were ready to deal with the idea of aliens."

"Smart move given how well they handle home-grown freaks," Raph grumbled.

"The war might change everything though." Throttle shifted Charley on his lap and loosely wrapped his arms around her waist. "Mars was invaded by another alien race called the Plutarkians. Over time, they bought up our land, strip-mined it, and shipped the resources back to their home world. What they couldn't buy, they conquered. The mouse population fought back but was nearly wiped out."

Charley leaned her head against his shoulder and wrapped her arms around his chest. I know how hard it is for you to tell this story. I can only hope we can get some help out of it.

His arm tightened briefly, letting her know her efforts weren't wasted. "We crash-landed in Chicago about three years ago and met Charley." She gave a small wave so they'd know. "And discovered the Plutarkians are here."

"Here?" Trash yelped. "Shit, as if we didn't have enough problems. They didn't get everything they wanted from Mars?"

"They used that up," Modo's voice was tinged with bitterness. "They wasted all their own resources, so they take from others."

"It gets better," Throttle sighed. "The building your friends are prisoners in is the local Plutarkian's headquarters."

Ryan made a weary growl under his breath. "Why the hell would Val Tech team up with aliens that want to destroy the planet?"

"Limburger is getting mutated goons out of the deal. We ran into some of them."

"Harrumph. Finally found something Karbunkle can't do in a lab." Modo flexed his metal right arm as he grimaced.

"So what is Val Tech getting? And how can they be willing to sell out the entire planet?" Leo rubbed a hand across his face.

"Plutarkians have a knack for finding people willing to sell out." Tala stood up and pulled a binder off a nearby bookshelf. "You're lucky. Apparently the Plutarkians have avoided your base of operations. Maybe your former enemy had something to do with that." She tossed the binder to Leo who opened it curiously. Pictures of Limburger masked and unmasked stared back at him. "Gouda is in Los Angeles by the way." She plopped back into her seat.

Ryan stood up to look at the binder over Leo's shoulder. "Who are you?"

"The name is Tala. Intergalactic jack-of-all-trades, which mean I take on any job for the right amount of money. And luckily for you I have my own gripes with the Plutarkians. And since it's my house I'm offering some advice. You're all exhausted; riding all night would be my guess. You've all ready hit the tower once and flubbed it. They're ready for another attack now that they've seen your fighting techniques. And you've had a major shock learning stuff you didn't already know. Bed down here and we'll regroup in the morning."

"You're gonna let everybody stay here?" Vinnie looked a little surprised.

"There isn't enough room at the garage. Heck, I don't see how's there's enough room at the garage for you five." She stood up. "Come on."

"Oh I get a special room?"

"Yeah, the medbay for bandaging. You're bleeding all over my couch."

Vinnie leaped up, smearing the blood on the back of the couch more. He twisted to try to see the injury on his back. "When did that happen? It better not leave a scar!"

Tala rolled her eyes with a sigh. "I'm afraid you'll have to use the rooms downstairs." She told the others as she dragged Vinnie to the metal staircase.

"We've slept in worse places." Ryan prodded his group to their feet. "If anything else happens tonight, it better not wake me up." The two Turtles followed them out.

Trash grabbed a wet dishcloth from the kitchen area and swabbed Vinnie's blood off the couch. Throttle's hold around her waist stiffened to the point where Charley noticed. "There'll be other nights for other arrangements." She gave Throttle a flirty wink and raised her eyebrows challengingly to Charley before leaving.

Modo stifled a chortle. "That girl don't quit."

Charley felt her anger rising. Who does she think she is making a pass at my man? Making more than one pass? Making a pass with me on his lap? "Is that why you put me on your lap?"

He recoiled slightly from her sharp tone. "Well, I guess there's no point in going with the no-other-seats-left excuse. Yeah, I wanted you to mark your territory--not that it did any good." He set her down on the couch where Vinnie had been sitting and stood up. "Somebody needs to feed Allie and Mike." He walked over to the table of food.

His dejected tone surprised her. The girl made a pass at him with her sitting right there, of course she should be mad. Modo reached over and touched her arm. "Don't be like Carbine," he whispered urgently, then in a louder voice. "Anybody seen Sparks?"

"I think he went back into the ship," Charley answered.

"Thanks. I'll take that food up, Throttle." He took the pizza box and Chinese take-out boxes from his tan-furred bro, added more to the pile, and clumped up the stairs.

Throttle stayed at the table, his head slightly lowered. Charley stared at his slumped shoulders. What did Modo mean by that? I'm not mad at Throttle. But does Throttle know that? She came up behind him and ran her hand down his firmly muscled arm. He liked that, especially the way her fingernails combed through the fur in the crock of his elbow. He sighed softly. "Throttle, I'm not mad at you."

He turned to her, not quite taking her into his arms. "Charley, you are my girl no matter what. No biker tramp who can't take no for an answer is gonna turn my heart."

"I know that." She wrapped her arms around him and pressed her cheek against his chest. And it was true, she had no doubts at all about how he felt.

He wrapped his arms around her. "I didn't do anything to encourage her."

"I know you wouldn't." She loosened her hug and reached her arms around his neck. He inched his face closer to hers but hesitated. So Charley closed the distance between their lips. He picked her up and carried her back to the couch. He managed to sit back down with her on the couch and draped over his lap.

His lips wandered down her jawbone. "I thought you'd blame me."

"Never, love." Her fingers started combing through his hair as her lips began traveling across his cheek. "But that hussy better watch out."

"Don't start a fight," was murmured against her ear.

"I won't start it but I'll finish it. You're my man and she better figure that out real quick." She let herself forget about everything else they had to worry about and focused on kissing and caressing Throttle as much and as needingly as he touched her.

"I love you," was whispered after every kiss and she was sure to repeat it. I'm going to pull Modo aside and find out exactly how bad Carbine treated you. I love you too much to hurt you so badly.

She giggled as he tickled her slightly. "You were afraid you weren't ever gonna get nookie again, weren't you?"

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Speaking of," he cleared his throat as he straightened his back, "we better stop before we do something on Tala's couch that'll really piss her off."

Charley gave him her cute pout face as she slid more out of his arms and laid her head in his lap. "What are the plans for tonight?"

He tweaked her nose. "Some of us should stay here and back-up Tala. She looked more exhausted than the rest of them." He looked up; the set of his mouth betraying his thinking mode. "I think we can trust them but that hot-head, Raph, he might be trouble." He looked back down at her guiltily. "But if you wanna go back to the garage, I'll take you babe."

"Hmm, no, I want to stay with you." She rubbed her hand down his bare chest. "But it needs locking up."

"Nah, I did that already. Turned the alarms on and everything. On our way here from Limburger's."

"Oh, good." She yawned as she took his arm and trapped it against her stomach with her arms.

Throttle chuckled as his free hand began playing with her long, red-brown hair. "Tired, babe?"

"It's been a long day." She yawned again and closed her eyes as he rubbed her head. I'm the luckiest woman in the universe to have you. And I'm not losing you. So that skinny slut better watch out before I take out the trash.

Allie had stopped crying again but still clung to Mike. The little mouse kid was still in the ship; he could hear him moving around. He petted her hair trying to keep her soothed.

A pile of pillows and blankets staggered into the medical room. The pile dropped to the floor and revealed the glum kid. "All the chairs are bolted down so I brought this to make things more comfy for ya. Since its all I can do."

"Works for me. This floor is cold." Mike started to move.

Allie moved out of the way as they set up a pallet. "You got Zack out of that skyscraper."

Tears welled up in his red eyes. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It's my fault."

"Now stop that." Mike sat down on the pallet before pulling Allie back down. "Neither of you stuck the needle in him so it is not your fault. Now I don't know half of what's going on, so who wants to rewind and tell me? What's your story, micro-mouse-dude?"

"My name is Sparks." And with a shaky voice, he related everything that had happened to him that night. Allie added things to explain the Val Tech side of things.

Mike mulled over the information. "Well, we have to get the eggheads to help Zack; we have to get them out anyway, but staging a fight after everything that we just did...."

"Don't ask me to think right now," Allie said softly.

"Dad and the others'll get Limburger. They're good at gettin'." Sparks curled up into a ball on the edge of the pallet.

"We all gotta rest before we do anything. We drove straight here from New York." Mike sighed and gazed up at Zack. If I figured that out, Leo probably already did. Hopefully he can convince Raph that we have to hang back. Well, I guess Eight could sit on him. Need a camera if that happens. He looked down. The mouse kid was already unconscious. "Poor little dude."

"He went through a lot today," Allie said softly.

"Will you be okay if I go find a bed to tuck him into?"


They disentangled and Mike scooped Sparks up. The Martian was near Splinter's height but had a still-growing lankiness. He looked just like his dad: same red eye with strange pupils, same uneven buckteeth, same colored fur only Sparks had hair that kept falling into his eyes. He didn't wake as he moved.

The white-furred Martian and the blonde human woman that had been with him in the street were walking up the ramp and into the spaceship hallway as he carried Sparks out. "He conked out," Mike whispered at their questioning looks. "Bed?"

The woman sighed heavily and pointed to a door up the ship. Mike nodded and laid Sparks on the bed while they disappeared into a door. He spread a blanket over the kid. "Sleep tight, J'onn J'onzz."

He slipped out and almost ran into the red, blue, and black chestplate of the larger grey mouse. "Where's my son?" he bristled.

"Sparks? Right in there, large mouse dude."

He looked down at him oddly but peered into the bedroom and relaxed considerable. "Thought I had lost him. Feelin that way twice in one day ain't good." He leaned against the doorframe.

"Yeah, I'd guess not. The name's Mike and I gotta get back to Allie."

That got the large Martian's attention. "Modo, and I brought you guys some supper." He guided Mike to a long room that had a TV built into the wall and a couch sitting in front of it at one end and a kitchen at the other end. A table with benches was bolted down to the floor in the middle. The Turtle's stomach rumbled loudly despite not feeling like eating. "How is she doing?" Modo asked.

Mike looked up at him as he grabbed a pizza box. Concern radiated from his one red eye. "She cried. Usually she tries to hold that in till the job is done and it just keeps buildin' up. Maybe there won't be as many pieces to pick-up after this is all over."

"And if her little brother dies?"

The Turtle's face fell. "Then I lose her. And there won't be a thing I can do to save her from it." He took a deep breath and composed himself. He had to be strong for Allie. She was already thinking of those possibilities and worse. He carried the pizza back to the medical room.

She had curled up in a tight fetal ball. He sat down on the pallet next to her. With a gentle touch, his fingers combed her light blonde hair away from her face. She sighed in her sleep but didn't waken.

Vinnie craned his neck to try to see the scratch across his right shoulder blade. "It better not leave a scar. Don't know why I didn't feel it before."

Tala quickly covered her mouth as she yawned wide enough to unhinge her jaw. "Your adrenaline is wearing off." She sat on the bed behind him and started swabbing the cut.

He looked down at his feet planted on both sides of the corner of the bed. Alone in a bedroom with Tala, he hadn't expected this development so soon. But no sense wasting the opportunity. "Hey, my adrenaline never runs out." She snorted with disbelief and pressed down. He yelped involuntarily. "Okay, okay, so I'm runnin' a little low right now."

She opened a jar and started smearing a soothingly chilled gel into the cut. "Duraskin. So you don't have to worry about scars."

"Good, hate to spoil your pleasure." He glanced over his shoulder and wriggled his eyebrows.

Her cheeks reddened slightly. "More like you can't stand the thought of imperfection on your body."

Too late for that, Doll-face. His face fell as he turned forward. "Just came back from the Fury?"

"Made a supply run to Mars among other things."

"Where were you at during the height of the war? We could've used supply drops then."

"I was with Rexus...." The last bit was mumbled incoherently and Vinnie couldn't make it out.

He turned around. Tala was laid out across the bed, passed out. The recapped jar of Duraskin dropped onto the mattress. Her face slackened out of her constant wary and determined expression and looked so very exhausted and vulnerable instead. Vinnie scarcely dared to breathe but she was beyond the point of waking up.

Well so much for charmin' her into sharin' the bed with me, he thought ruefully. I don't think she'd notice if Van Halen started playin' right in her ear. He remember something she had said while they had been onboard the Fury, how she always took the opportunity to sleep off of her ship. I'll tuck her into her bed downstairs. That'll be something nice to make up for the mess we've gotten her in.

He rolled his shoulder, decided everything was well enough, and scooped her up. Tala murmured something but didn't waken as she pressed her face against his chest. She had changed out of her armor and into a huge T-shirt and cut-off denim shorts. He carried her out of the ship, noticing that Modo had settled next to Sparks.

He feared the elevator noises would wake her but they made it down to the next floor. He opened the door with his tail. The room was decorated predominately in an icy, pre-dawn blue and there wasn't the mix of colors that were in her ship's bedroom. No pictures were hung on the walls. He whisked the covers back with his tail and gently eased her down. Her head pressed against the pillow and Vinnie leaned over her. A little kiss good-night.

Her steely-blue eyes flew open in a panic. Her fist swung up and connected with Vinnie's left jaw. He stumbled back, grabbing his face. She jumped out of the bed and landed in a martial arts stance. Her chest heaved.

"Ow!" Vinnie straightened and stared at her wild face. "For your information, I wasn't gonna do anything! I was just puttin' ya in your bed!" He turned on his heel and marched out, slamming the bedroom door shut.

Throttle looked down at Charley's sleeping face. She wasn't mad at him. It still felt a little inconceivable, after all the times Carbine reamed him about just saying 'hi' to another girl and the way he'd have to beg to be in her good graces again. Charley loved him and was still levelheaded enough to figure out who had done what.

His heart beat in that odd rhythm he was beginning to recognize as Charley's pattern. I love you more than I can say with words. I need you in ways I can't even comprehend. I can't ever lose you. And I can't let you get in a fight with a girl that can break Plutarkian shrink-wrap steel.

A door slammed shut above them. He craned his neck to see Vinnie clump down the metal stairs, rubbing his left jaw. His bro's expression got even more dejected when he saw Charley and him together. The white-furred mouse slammed himself into the recliner at the end of the couch, still rubbing his jaw.

"What happened?" Throttle asked. "And pass that blanket."

"She hit me."

"What did you do?"

"Nothin'!" He tossed the blanket to Throttle who spread it over Charley. "I was puttin her to bed, that's all. She passed out like Charley there. Then just as I was laying her down she woke up and whacked me."

"Ya know, I've heard about couples miscommunicating but you two do it all the time."

Vinnie looked uncommonly thoughtful and sympathetic as he leaned back in the chair. "She was raped."


"I probably shouldn'tve said anything; I don't think she likes people to know." The light flashed off his metal mask as he shifted his face.

"Who'd be crazy enough to force her?"

"I think it happened when she was fourteen. All I know is what she's told me when she didn't mean to tell me anything." Vinnie sighed, "I can't win. Even when I'm nice to her, I mess things up."

Throttle frowned a little with concern. "Come on, man. She was wakin' out of cold sleep. You've been known to have some pretty violent reactions when we wake you up."

"It's her reaction when she wakes up again that I'm worried about."

"So the Velocity Atrocity is just gonna quit?"

He responded to the mocking tone just like Throttle knew he would. "Hell no, I never quit!"

"But I do wish you two would shut up," Charley's sleepy voice protested.

Throttle petted her head. "Go back to sleep, Charley-girl."

"Lay down."

"And give up being your pillow?" He smiled down at her stubborn but sleepy face.

She sighed, sat up, and started pulling off her boots. "Lay down."

Throttle tugged off his own boots, knowing he couldn't fight with that tone. He carefully set his field specs aside where they wouldn't get lost. He lay down on his back and watched Charley curiously.

She pulled the blanket up more over her shoulders and crawled over him, then laid down on top of him, squirming until they were both comfortable. "Good night, pillow."

He pulled the blanket a little more evenly over them both. He cupped his arms around her and marveled how he could feel her heartbeat. "Night, Charley. Night, Vinnie."

Vinnie chuckled as he got up and turned most of the lights off. "Good night, lovey-doveys."

Throttle sighed and wished everything to go well between his bro and Tala, so he could get some serious teasing payback.

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