At long, LONG last, here is the next chapter! I'm so sorry for the wait. I have no excuse.

Aside from the fact that I've been working two jobs for the past six months and haven't had much free time or the motivation to write much of anything. But I just handed over a two-week notice for the second job so hopefully I won't be so exhausted all the time and will get my writing mojo back. Fingers crossed!

At any rate, to make up for the delay I have an extra long chapter for you. Fifteen pages! I wanted to get it finished and posted yesterday, as the 19th marks the fifth anniversary of when I started posting this beast of a story. Five years. Has it really been five years? Dude.). Didn't quite make it, though. I gave it a quick edit but I didn't ask anyone to beta as I was anxious to get it posted. So if you find any errors feel free to point them out so I can correct them.

Anyway, on with the show!

Chapter Forty-Four

A low boom, as of a distant explosion—instantly followed by the sharp pop of cracking glass and the brief shudder of the building and everything in it—yanked Alley instantly from a restless sleep. She bolted up and squinted blearily around her dark bedroom. Nothing seemed immediately amiss, but a quick glance at her clock showed the time to be two forty-five. In the morning.

She grumbled to herself and snuggled back into the pillows, yanked a blanket over her head and was already drifting off even as her ears picked up faint noises in the hallway; a door opening and quiet footsteps against worn carpet. Somebody hurrying down the stairs to the garage. And then a different sort of rumble roused her again just long enough to wonder why the hell Charley was opening the doors in the middle of the frickin' night.

She drifted in and out of awareness, hovered in that place just between the borders of sleep and wakefulness. A great deal of activity seemed to be going on outside her bedroom and kept her from drifting fully off. The footsteps against the carpet were no longer hushed, now they sounded heavy and hurried. There were also voices. Male voices. Oh, the guys are back, she thought muzzily. And, a second later, she was suddenly wide awake. The guys were back!

They'd been gone almost three full days with little communication and Alley had been just a bit worried, despite Charley's reassurances that they'd be fine. Radio silence was commonplace on missions like these and too much was riding on them successfully capturing Limburger to fall into their usual slipshod shenanigans. Carbine would have all their tails if they let him slither away again.

Alley scrambled from the bed—ignored the twinge of pain in her side from the sudden jostling—and yanked her robe off the hook on the back of her door. She opened it only to find Charley blocking her path into the hallway, voice hushed as she ordered Vinnie and Modo to "put him on the bed". Alley stood on her toes to peer over her cousin's shoulder and her heart thudded painfully when she realized the two mice were hauling the limp form of Throttle between them into Charley's room. They lowered him carefully onto the double-wide. His specs were missing and half of his face had been hastily bandaged, stained pink with blood.

"What happened?" Alley yelped, attempting to shove past Charley, who balked and held her back.

"Calm down, he'll be fine," the mechanic assured her.

"He doesn't look fine," Alley protested.

Charley sighed. "They got into a bit of a scuffle with Limburger and he managed to get in a good hit before Modo took him down."

"He'll be alright, Alley-girl," Vinnie assured her. "Stoker checked him over on the way back. He got a dose of that stuff the stink fish used on you so he's gonna be out for awhile, but Stoke thinks he didn't get enough in his system to cause any major damage or nuthin'."

"Stuff?" Alley's brow furrowed.

Modo held up a small glass vial between two fingers. A crack ran the length of its side, but the remaining dredges of thin yellowish liquid still clung to the bottom. Alley blanched when she saw it, recognizing the strange poison that Limburger had used on her.

"He somehow kept hold of this thing all this time," the gray mouse explained, voice laden with disgust. "Found the chance to use it, too, when we nabbed him by the river. Didn't see it comin' before he caught Throttle 'cross the face. Lucky his aim was wild or he might've done more damage."

"Where the hell did he even stash that thing?" Charley snorted.

"Trust me, doll, you probably don't wanna know." Vinnie shuddered dramatically.

"Just a touch of that stuff was enough to paralyze my entire body," Alley protested, "and you think it won't have any affect on him?"

The mice exchanged glances. "Well, ya know, there's a whole lot less of you than there is of Throttle," Vinnie pointed out.

"Yeah, an' we're made of tougher stuff than … er …" Modo trailed off under the cousins' withering stares. He scratched behind his ear and tried not to look sheepish. "Look, Stoker says he should be fine with some rest an' I trust his judgement. He administered a dose of anti-venom just to be safe, an' the scratches aren't even deep enough to need stitchin'."

"Where is Stoker, anyway?" Charley asked with a frown. "You leave him behind?"

"Nah." Vinnie jerked a thumb over his shoulder with a feral grin. "He's still down in the ship, finishin' up some business."

"I ain't gonna need to hide a body, am I?" Charley deadpanned, only half-joking.

The guys chortled and Alley grimaced, disturbed. She managed to slip beneath her cousin's arm as Vinnie asked, "So, Sweetheart, any chance ya can rustle up some grub for us? I'm starvin'!"

"Sure, Sweetheart. Just as soon as you hop in the shower and hose down. You both smell like you took a bath in an algae pool and, Vinnie, why is your fur so damp?"

The rest of the conversation faded as Alley made her way downstairs. The doors still hung wide open and a cool night breeze drifted in, making her shiver. A hulking shape filled the entrance just outside the garage, blacking out the streetlight.

Somewhat awed, she approached the mass, realized that she was staring at the side of an actual, bonafide spaceship. Stoker had said his ship was small, but it was still a lot larger than she'd expected. Its length filled a good fifteen feet of the thankfully-empty street; its width nearly touched the dilapidated buildings on either side. Any larger and it never would have fit without taking out a wall or two in the process.

When she circled the side, she found an open hatch at the back end through which bright light streamed. She made her way cautiously up a short, grated ramp, hobbling a bit as the cold, rough metal dug into her feet. She poked her head inside the open door…

And ended up poking her nose straight into Stoker's chest as he attempted to exit from the other side. She yipped in surprise and jerked back, would have fallen off the side of the ramp if Stoker didn't reach out to steady her. "What're you doin' out here?" he demanded.

Alley hunched guiltily in on herself, embarrassed to be caught snooping. "I was just … um … I heard you come back and I … I…" she stuttered as her gaze drifted over his shoulder into the ship. She could make out a room lined with flickering monitors and a dark mass hunched in a corner. The mass suddenly slumped over and she jumped, realizing it was a person.

Stoker's expression gentled and he shifted to block her view, gave her good arm a careful squeeze. "How about I give you the grand tour later? You don't wanna go in there right now. Bit of a mess," he explained.

Alley bit her lip. "Is … is that Limburger in there?" she asked timidly.

He hesitated, then nodded. "Don't worry, honey. He won't be hurting you anymore. Or anyone else, either."

"Did you … kill him?"

Stoker ran his hand over his hair, dislodging a few strands from its ponytail. "Naw, he's alive. For the most part, anyway."

Alley bit her lip, then whispered, "I want to—Can I see him?"

He looked startled, clearly not expecting a request like that. "There's no need for you to see him again," he dissuaded, but she stubbornly stood her ground as he tried to urge her off the ramp.

"Yes, there is. I gotta see for myself that it's really him and I don't have to worry about him skulking around anymore." She shivered and wrapped her robe tighter around herself. "It's been making me really nervous, knowing he was still out there. That he might decide to come back to finish the job," she reluctantly admitted.

"I'm not sure he ever realized you were still alive," Stoker replied. He took in the stubborn set of her jaw, sighed and gave her hair a friendly tussle. "Go on in, then. Just … he ain't a pretty sight. And if he weren't completely harmless right now I wouldn't be lettin' you anywhere near him."

She nodded and stepped into the ship when Stoker moved aside to let her through. The metal floor felt a lot smoother, although no less icy, against her bare feet. She wished she'd thought to slip on a pair of socks before leaving her room, at least. She stopped three feet away from the silent form, keeping a swivel chair between them. Just in case. But the creature slumped sideways on the floor, trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, hardly resembled the terrifying mafia boss who'd nearly killed her.

In place of the huge, imposing man dressed in purple, a scrawny, naked, half-starved fishman gazed blankly through eyes swollen half-shut. His entire face was little more than a mass of swelling cuts and bruises that oozed trails of thin, purplish blood. His jaw hung limp to reveal rows of gleaming sharp teeth, trails of spittle glistening at the corners of his wide mouth.

She shivered involuntarily. Despite the swelling that obscured his features, she still recognized those dead shark-eyes. The mask he'd worn had never hidden that cold gaze from her, although now it seemed unfocused, disjointed… Like he no longer saw her. Or anything. He hadn't uttered a single word and that was also unnerving, because if there was one thing Limburger loved, it was to hear himself talk.

"What's wrong with him?" she asked, disturbed. "Did you beat him into a coma?" She turned around to find Stoker leaning against a console, grimacing as he massaged his temples. "What's the matter? Are you okay?" She started forward, alarmed, but he waved her off.

"Bit of a headache. Nothin' to worry about," he grunted. "Just need to sleep it off for awhile."

The tenseness in his features made Alley suspect that his headache was more than just "a bit", but figured his pride wouldn't stand for her fussing over him. She frowned, glanced back at Limburger's prone form … and two-and-two abruptly snapped together. "You mind-wiped him, didn't you?" Her tone came out more accusing than she'd intended and Stoker glanced up with both eyebrows raised.

"I was tryin' to get information outta him," he replied, expression carefully controlled. "Since makin' him talk verbally wasn't workin', I had no choice but to resort to other methods." He grimaced again and rubbed his temple. "Mind-walkin' a Plutarkian is never easy. They got natural defenses and Limburger was fightin' to the very end. Who knew he had that much gumption left in 'im? Finally had to pull out, else risk gettin' my own head turned inside out along with his."

Alley gazed at the floor, mouth in a tight line. "Did you learn anything useful?"

"Not nearly as much as I'd hoped." Stoker sighed heavily. "Limburger wasn't exactly Plutark's most trusted agent. He failed too often and it's no secret that he coveted the position of High Chairman. I doubt the current Chairman ever gave him sensitive information. Most of what I gleaned is already known and won't be of much value to Mars."

"So you gained a throbbing headache for nothing." Alley unthinkingly reached up to stroke her fingers over Stoker's brow. Abruptly realized what she was doing and hastily withdrew her hand even as she felt her cheeks grow hot. "Hardly seems worth the effort," she added, affecting nonchalance and determinedly not meeting his surprised gaze.

"Oh, I did get some things of value." He chuckled darkly. "An entire list of names and numbers belonging to the moles he's used to help keep his empire running. I'll have Charley turn the list over to the FBI in order to investigate further. There are a couple of names in particular that caught my attention, but we'll deal with that later. Right now we should get back upstairs."

Alley reluctantly let him lead her out of the ship. "What'll happen to him now?" she asked.

Stoker shot her a questioning glance. "Feelin' sorry for him?"

She pursed her lips. "A … a little, I guess. Is that weird?" She hunched her shoulders, self-conscious under his watchful gaze. "I know he doesn't deserve any compassion from anyone. He deserves whatever he's got coming to him. It's just … he doesn't even look like the same person." She sighed. "But I saw Throttle's face. The guys told me what Limburger did to him."

Stoker grimaced. "Afraid that one's on me. Damned rookie mistake," he huffed. "I cuffed the stinkfish's hands in front, not behind. Didn't think he had that much fight left in him until he took that swing at Throttle's head. Would've escaped again, too, if Vinnie hadn't plowed into the river and hauled him back out. Took all of us to subdue him. Well … most. Throttle was already out for the count."

Alley winced. "I'm sorry. I'm just glad nothing more serious happened. And I may not like it, but I don't blame any of you for beating the crap out of him."

"Very generous of you, princess," Stoker drawled, amused.

She cracked a small smile, but it faded after a moment. "He'll be okay, right?" she asked softly.

"Who, Limburger?" Stoker snorted. "As okay as any droolin' vegetable can—"

"Not him! Throttle!" She shot him an exasperated glance. "Limburger used that poison on him, right? It won't … cause any permanent damage?"

Stoker's eyes softened and his smile was warm. "Did it leave any permanent damage on you?"

She thought. "Well, the nerve damage in my hands…"

"That was due more to the infection that set in from the contaminated splinters in your fingers," he reminded her gently. "I did my own analysis on your blood back then. The paralyzing toxins from Limburger's drug were powerful, but not long-lasting. Dunno that it was ever intended to kill a target, just render 'em completely helpless. It had pretty much cleared out of your system by the time we got you to the hospital. I imagine any residuals found in your blood work was simply overlooked because of all the other excess bacteria in your system. But if there was any real cause to worry the doctors would've run a lot more tests."

Alley mulled it over. "So, Throttle will recover then."

"He'll be just fine." Stoker chuckled. "If you survived it, he certainly can."

"Yeah, yeah." She rolled her eyes. "Big tough Martian, puny human, blah blah, heard it all before."

He laughed again as he followed her up the steps. "How's your side?" he asked after a few moments. "Any excessive pain?"

She shrugged. "It's okay, I guess. I'm sore, but it's nothing unbearable. I've been careful not to agitate the stitches. Which means just lazing around in bed for the past few days." She wrinkled her nose. "I've been bored out of my mind, honestly."

He hummed. "Mind if I have a look at you then? I wanna make sure you're healin' up proper."

She pursed her lips. "First off, it's still the middle of the night and I'm tired. Secondly, Charley was right when she said you all stink. You smell like a swamp. Your clothes are filthy and you've got sand falling out of your fur. You need a bath. You'll probably infect me otherwise."

"Still not pullin' those punches, eh, princess?" Stoker's eyes twinkled with merriment.

She pulled a face at him to hide her grin. "Aw, did the puny female just flatten the tough guy's ego? I'm sorry. I'll be gentle next time," she teased.

"Bah. Get back to bed, ya cheeky brat," he huffed, swatting at her with his tail as she snickered and ducked down the hall.

The first thing Alley discovered when she woke again was that her window had been broken. The morning sun caught a series of fine, hairline cracks that spiderwebbed across the glass and she didn't dare touch it on the chance of it shattering completely. When she made her way to the kitchen, she discovered the window there had also broken, with large pieces fallen into the sink.

"Mind your step," Charley warned. "There's glass all over the living room."

Probably because both of the small windows had been blown out; large slivers of glass littered the carpet clear across the room. Alley was lucky she hadn't already stepped on any of it.

"What the hell happened?" she yelped. Then belatedly recalled the shudder she'd felt that had jerked her awake, right before the guys came back. She'd thought it was a dream, but… "Was there an earthquake or something?"

Charley, who sat nursing a large soup mug filled with coffee, snorted. "Not hardly." She smothered a wide yawn behind her hand. "The guys were in a hurry to get back here last night. They apparently broke the sound barrier to do it. That 'earthquake' we felt was actually the sonic boom. And every window in the place cracked as a result, as did most of the ones directly across the street. Lucky those buildings are abandoned or there'd be a lot of questions to answer." She scowled into her mug and shook her head. "What were those idiots thinking, parking a spaceship in the middle of the city?"

"Because parking one in the middle of a scoreboard attracted so much attention," Alley deadpanned. "And anyway, how're we supposed to pay to have all these windows replaced?"

"No worries about that." Charley took a long drag from her coffee. "The guys'll pay for them."

An arched eyebrow. "With whose money?"

"Theirs." She ignored her cousin's huff of disbelief, took another pull from her mug. "Remember those gemstones Stoker gave you?"

Alley blinked. Oh. Yeah. In truth, she'd forgotten all about them. "You sold them? When was this?"

"Most of them. I kept a few of the largest stones back. Just in case. They're in the deposit box in my closet," Charley replied. "While you were in the hospital, I asked Chex for her mother's contact info. I figured if worse came to worst, we could use the money to pay off your hospital bills."

"That money was supposed to be put toward future garage damages," Alley scolded. "Like broken windows…?"

"Relax, Naggy Nelly." Charley chuckled. "Since your parents actually managed to convince city officials that the tower collapsing was a result of negligence, shady zoning practices and illegal shortcuts—and there's enough proof to back those claims up—Chi-town is footing your entire medical bill."

Alley relaxed. "See? What did I tell you?" she quipped weakly. "My mother has guilt tripping down to a science."

Charley hummed, finished her coffee and stood. "Anyway, gotta head downstairs now. I'm running behind on work."

"Wait, you're opening?" Alley straightened, alarmed. "What about the bigass alien spaceship parked in front of the garage?"

Charley laughed. "It's gone by now. The guys are moving it out of sight as we speak. There're plenty of abandoned buildings around here that'll hide the ship until Stoker's ready to leave. I think he took it to some factory two blocks over. He probably has it cloaked out the wazoo, for that matter. No worries."

"Throttle went, too?" Alley frowned in concern.

"He insisted." Charley held up a hand to ward off protests. "Don't worry, the toxin cleared out of his system and after some sleep he's pretty much back to normal. Just a few scratches marring his pretty face and those'll heal in no time. I think his ego took a bigger blow than his head."

Alley nodded, unconvinced. "And what about Limburger?"

"Pfft. I've eaten hamburgers with more life in 'em. Trust me, that guy ain't in any condition to cause more trouble."

Well, she could hardly argue that point…

Charley riffled through a stack of papers, pulled one and handed it to her. "By the way, Stoker wanted to know if these particular names rang any bells."

Alley frowned and glanced at the sheet. Three names were circled in black marker, but only one jumped jumped out at her. "Mary Johnson," she murmured. "Employed at the Chicago Institute of… She works for the school?" She glanced at the other two names. Two men, neither of whom she knew. But they were also employed by the Institute. "It was a Johnson who called Limburger and tipped him off." She pursed her lips and let her gaze drift upward as she thought. "And I know I've heard the name Mary before…"

"Well, it's a pretty common name. I'd be more shocked if you hadn't heard it at some point in your life." Charley snickered at her cousin's dirty glance. "Call Chex," she suggested. "That girl has her nose into everything. If anyone'll know who these people are, it'll be her."

"Holy shit! Mary Johnson? Dude, that's my dad's secretary!" Chex screeched, loud enough to make Alley jerk the phone receiver away from her ear.

She sat down on the couch, suddenly limp. "That Mary? But … she was so … normal."

"What, like anybody helping Limburger has to be an alien or something?"

"Well, no, but—"

"I'm telling you, it's totally her." Chex sounded almost as stunned as Alley felt. "Ya know, she's been driving a brand new Beamer to work the past couple of weeks. I mean, the thing is a fully tricked out luxury model. She's been showing it off to everybody. But no way she could afford a ride like that on her salary. Her wardrobe changed up, too. Classy and super expensive. Like, the kind of clothes the step-monster's always trying to shove me into." She snickered. "I dunno, I think Mary's been telling everyone a rich grandma died and left her money or something."

"Maybe she did?" Alley knew it was a false hope, but she didn't want to believe that someone she'd actually sort-of known would deliberately rat her out to the bad guys.

Chex wasn't buying it, of course. "More like payment from Limburger for handing over sensitive information," she snorted.

"Yeah." Alley slumped. "I feel like I'm gonna be sick or something." She swallowed down the bile and smoothed a trembling hand through her hair. "What about the other two names? Do you know them?"

"Uh, I think the one guy is one of the janitors? I don't know the third name. He could be an intern or something. Hey, want me to investigate?"

"No, those guys don't matter, just Mary." Alley tightened one trembling hand into a fist. Shocked at how much rage she suddenly felt toward the traitor. "She's got a hell of a lot of explaining to do. I'd better go find the guys and—"

"Hang on until I get there!" Chex cut in. "If they have something planned for her I want in on it! Mary owes me answers, too!"

"Can you afford to keep skipping your lectures?"

"Uh, it's Saturday, genius. No classes."

Alley scratched her head, sheepish. "Oh. Right."

Chex laughed. "Lemme get presentable and I'll pop on over. You want I should bring coffee and donuts? You definitely need the caffeine."

Alley snorted. "If you bring apple fritters I'll be your slave for life."

"That's the plan, babe. See ya in thirty!"

After hanging up, Alley wandered down to the garage to find Charley. She saw the guys had already returned and wondered why she hadn't heard their bikes. Well, if it was only a few blocks maybe they'd just hoofed it, she reasoned. Then she noticed someone was missing. "Where's Stoker?" she asked.

"He stayed behind in the ship. Old guy needed a nap," Vinnie snickered.

"If you'd taken a psychic hike through Cheesehead's squirmy, convoluted brain you'd need one, too," Throttle scolded, tossing a wrench at him.

"So, Alley Cat, ya got any news for us?" Charley called from the beneath the belly of a huge red pickup.

"As a matter of fact…" Alley proceeded to fill them in on what Chex had told her and even before she'd finished talking, the mice were headed for their bikes with grim and determined faces.

"Hold up, you macho lunkheads. You don't even know where you're goin' yet!" Charley called after them with a laugh.

"Sure we do!" Modo protested.

"We're gonna find this Mary chick and pound some answers outta her!" Vinnie added, cracking his knuckles.

"You most certainly are not. Sit down," Charley commanded. "Keep in mind, guys, that this is a civilian we're dealing with. Who, for all we know, was being blackmailed into helping Limburger the same way Alley was. If she's also a victim, charging in and traumatizing the poor girl further will not help us." She shot them a meaningful glare. "We don't want another Chex incident on our hands, do we, boys?"

Vinnie huffed and dropped his ass onto a stool. "I hate it when ya talk sense," he complained. "Takes all the fun out of it."

"Just wait until I do a little digging, okay? You'll get your answers."

The mice grumbled but complied.

Alley slipped upstairs to grab a long, belted sweater, then back down to wait for Chex's arrival outside the garage. It was cold this morning, the sun barely peeking over the roofs of the surrounding buildings. It was early September now and autumn had settled firmly in, chasing out the worst of the summer heat. She missed it already.

A quiet noise alerted her to another's presence and she turned to find Throttle leaning against the wall, thumbs hooked in his pockets and his gaze turned toward the pink-hued sky. He had bathed at some point; his fur looked extra fluffy and gleamed softly in the dim light. He was also bare-chested and barefooted, dressed only in a pair of old sweatpants instead of his usual attire. Thinking on it, Alley belatedly realized that all of the mice had been dressed in sweats, which meant Charley was probably washing their clothes for them.

Throttle seemed unusually pensive and she wondered if he was still feeling the effects of the drug. The bandages had been removed from his face, specs back in place. She could see thin, red welts through the fur, although they didn't look as bad as she'd feared; in fact, they seemed to be healing already. Martian Mice really did have incredible constitution, she marveled. It was enviable. "How're you?" she finally asked, drawing his attention. "Are you feeling okay? The guys really scared me when they carried you in like that."

"Sorry about that. I'm fine now," he replied with a shrug and a weak grin that faded after only a few moments.

Alley tilted her head and leaned back against the wall beside him. "Then how come you look like someone just died?"

He blinked, chuckled softly. "It's nothin', really. Guess I… Guess I'm just feelin' the guilt, is all," he murmured.

She raised an eyebrow. "What do you have to feel guilty about?" she wondered. "You caught Limburger and completed your mission. Managed to not get yourselves killed in the process… You should be proud!"

He chuffed a soft laugh. "Yeah, but I also got firsthand experience of everything we put you through back then. And now I'm wishin' I could turn back time and take it all back. Find some other way…" He turned to face her, leaned one arm against the wall over her head as he gazed intently down at her, searching her face. "We all owe you a hell of an apology and I don't think that'll even come close to makin' up for what almost happened to you."

Alley worried a lip and glanced around, disconcerted by his sudden proximity. "D-do you mean the tower? The drug?" She forced a faint smile. "Yeah, it's not so fun being completely paralyzed and helpless. Kinda terrifying, isn't it?"

He grimaced like he'd just swallowed something bitter. "Don't play it off so lightly. It is. I couldn't move a muscle. Couldn't even blink. Couldn't say or do anything except watch my bros take' down Limburger while I just laid there like a sack of wet cement."

She peeked up at him. "But you were conscious the whole time?"

"Yeah." His hand tightened into a fist and the leather of his glove creaked in response. "I knew exactly what was goin' on. I could feel my body shuttin' down on me and I couldn't do a damned thing about it." He sighed heavily. "And when it was all over, flyin' back here all I could think about was how you must've felt back then, goin' through the same thing all by yourself. Fallin' into the water and unable to save yourself, nobody there to help you…"

Alley shifted uncomfortably, glanced away. "That's not true. You all reached me in time or I wouldn't be here right now," she pointed out.

"Do you have nightmares?" he asked quietly.

She looked down. "When Stoker walked through my memories, he left behind a sort of block… Well, not a block, more like a … a security blanket. The memories are there, but all the bad feelings I'd associate with them are kind of … detached. It's like something that happened years ago when I was very young and don't really recall. I know what happened but it doesn't scare me like it should. No PTSD or anything like I'd have otherwise. So, no, I don't really have nightmares." She looked up at him again. "All the same, it isn't something I think about too hard, because I'm not sure how strong that blanket is and I don't want to risk accidentally tearing it off. I'm not sure what'd happen then."

He studied her quietly for a long moment. And then he put his arm around her and drew her close, ignored her squeak of shock as he buried his face against her hair. "We never shoulda sent you in there," he husked. "If I'd known—If I coulda seen what he'd do to you—"

Alley sighed, touched by his obvious remorse but also a touch irritated. She was done being fussed over. At least about this particular subject. "Look, I already talked all of this over with Stoker, okay? Nobody knew what would happen. It's just … a tragic accident that could've ended a whole lot worse. It's done now and if you really want to help, I'd rather not ponder on the could-have-beens. I like to sleep at night, okay?"

Throttle stood silently for a few moments, then sighed. "I get it," he replied against her hair. "I won't bring it up anymore. Guess I'm just … frustrated. That bastard took me out before I could even get my licks in. It's … it's…"

"Embarrassing? Shameful? Utterly humiliating?" Alley glanced up and snickered at his expression, unable to hide her amusement.

He snorted and gave her good side a light pinch. "You can yuk it up but I'm still tempted to go back to that ship and finish the stinkfish off once and for all. Nobody'd blame me if I did it, either."

"I would," Alley told him flatly. At his surprise, she continued, "He's totally helpless. He isn't a threat anymore. I'm amazed he can still breathe on his own after what Stoker did to him. There wouldn't be any honor in killing him now. It'd just be flat-out murder and you're supposed to be the good guy, remember? Don't stoop to Limburger's level."

A moment of silence. A soft huff. "Gee, you always know just what to say," came the droll reply.

She giggled. "Well, somebody's gotta have enough common sense to balance out all the raging testosterone around here. It's amazing that nobody's choked on it yet."

"Hah hah."

They fell into silence then and it occurred to her that she was still wrapped rather firmly in Throttle's embrace. He'd tucked her close to his body, chin resting against the top of her head. His fur felt silky and warm against her cheek. One arm rested at her waist but his free hand had come up to twine in her hair, stroking through the loose strands slowly. His fingers trailed softly up and down her back and she couldn't help the slight shiver that trembled over her body at the contact. Her heart kicked up a pace and she couldn't help recalling the last time she'd been in his arms like this, what felt like a lifetime ago. She knew she should pull away but couldn't seem to summon the will to take that needed step back.

As if in response to her thoughts, he shifted to rub his warm cheek against her temple, lowered his head to nose softly at her neck. She felt his teeth graze the spot where her pulse throbbed against her skin and her breath stuttered. The arm around her waist tightened and she felt him draw in a deep breath, exhale shakily against her throat. Her skin warmed further as his mouth traced delicately, nuzzled and explored until he inevitably reached her lips and paused there to press softly. One kiss melted into another. And then a third. And then a fourth and after that Alley lost count as she slowly lost herself to his tender seduction.

Until the sound of a rapidly-approaching vehicle roughly jarred her back to her senses, reminded her that they still stood in front of the open garage door where anybody could walk out and see them. See her making out with a guy who'd already rejected her once, made it clear that he didn't want to pursue any kind of relationship. Embarrassment flooded in and she slipped her arms between their bodies to push firmly against Throttle's chest, forcing him away. He resisted for the barest moment before he slowly withdrew, mouth parting from hers with obvious reluctance.

His heavy-lidded gaze burned into her and she turned her back to escape the disconcerting intensity of it. She could feel the heat in her face, the way her lips nearly throbbed in time with her racing pulse. Her body felt hot and flushed and she cursed herself for getting caught up in Throttle's pace. Again. What was she doing? What was he doing? And why was she letting him do it? Hadn't she already learned her lesson? He might've broken it off with Carbine, but that didn't mean she was about to let herself become his rebound girl!

She knew she ought to say something. Anything. But he'd effectively knocked the words clean out of her. He seemed to have no such problem, however, as he laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Alley…" His voice emerged low and husky, a visceral growl that sent another coil of heat through her stomach. "Alley, I—We should tal—"

But that's all the further he got before he was interrupted by the familiar blue car that came careening around a corner and screeched to a halt in front of the garage, nearly taking out a stray garbage can on the way. Another second before the door flew open and Chex hopped out with a big grin and a cheerful, "So, what'd I miss?"

Alley couldn't help herself; she let loose a nearly-hysterical giggle, quickly catching it behind clenched teeth. Throttle growled something in Martian behind her. She didn't understand the word, but it sure didn't sound polite. Another bubble of laughter slipped out and she pressed a shaky hand to her lips to catch any more escapees. She heard him sigh heavily and the hand that still rested on her shoulder squeezed gently for a moment—A silent request? A promise?—before falling away.

Chex's grin had melted into a confused frown as she took in Alley's flushed appearance, gaze darting back and forth between her and Throttle's retreating back. "No, really. What'd I miss?" she repeated, eyes narrowed with suspicion.

"Nothing much, really." Alley decided it was best to play dumb. "The guys won't go anywhere until Charley finishes researching." She pasted on her most innocent expression and added, "So, did you bring those fritters?"

Chex's smile reappeared and she held up two bulging paper sacks. "As promised! I'm a woman of my word." She tossed the bags to Alley, who hastily fumbled to catch them before they ended up all over the pavement. Reached back into her car for two cardboard holders filled with large paper coffee cups. She hip-checked the door close it and practically skipped toward the garage. "C'mon, slave," she teased. "We got plenty of sugar and caffeine to go around, now let's go catch us a stool pigeon!"

Honestly. Leave it to Chex to crash in on a perfectly good moment... Although I think maybe Alley's more relieved than disappointed about that. ;)