Reposted (after some years) with additional scenes written for the hard copy version. If you insist on a soundtrack, October Project's "Return to Me" will do as well as anything.
Most of the characters in this story are the property of ABC TV, and I do not have any permission to borrow them. Not that I think ABC will notice; it certainly isn't taking very good care of them. However, no infringement is intended. All other characters are my property, and if you want to mess with them, you have to ask me first.
He had been alone in the dark for so long.
It wasn't just the dark, of course, but everything else as well; he knew that. The chill, his acid thirst, the inexorable captivity; a cage so small he could not even stand upright, icy bars of hardened steel. But the screaming fear at the bottom of his stomach was not for himself, but for Sloan. Had they taken her too, in another vehicle? Was she, even now, being tormented in some other room, helpless before the bland figures that came and went, and commented on his suffering in detached tones? Or had they just shot her and left her to die in the street?
He was able to put off that last image when it came, red hair soaking a darker red against the asphalt, arms limp and warm eyes turned vacant to the sky, with the reminder that they had drugged Ed the same way they had drugged him. They had come to capture, not kill.
But he still didn't know. He couldn't sense her, couldn't sense anyone he knew-not Sloan, and not the others he had learned, Ed and Attwood and even Ray Peterson. There were no others like himself about, unless they were masking, but he didn't think they could. Not for so long. He wasn't sure how long he'd been there anymore.
Somewhere under his fear for Sloan was worry for the others as well-even, reluctantly, Attwood. This was definitely government work, but he had the feeling that their enigmatic boss had himself been tricked. Attwood would do whatever it took to ensure the survival of Homo sapiens-but why this? It made no sense, would be of no use to the scientist. Sometimes he had the feeling that he was at the nonexistent mercy of some malevolent, childlike mind, that actually enjoyed poking sticks through the bars of his cage, and that cloaked its amusement in a shroud of science.
Then he would stop that line of thought, and concentrate on other things. Pain wasn't as much of a problem as his captors obviously thought it would be. He had endured many things in his training. But the disorientation, combined with his weakened body, was beginning to take its toll on his mind. Ed's experimental serum had left him drained and shaky, though he had managed to hide the worst of the symptoms from Sloan. Nothing that a day or so of rest wouldn't fix. Only he hadn't gotten the rest.
When it got really bad, during the dark times, he would curl around himself to conserve warmth, the bare skin of his back rippling with shivers, and remember. He might not have much access to memories of his further past, but more recently his training stood him in good stead. What he did remember was sharp and clear. Alone in the absolute blackness, he would squeeze his eyes shut and call the images up.
Sloan, first and always. The warmth of her smile, her changeable eyes; the smell of her hair, the fine velvet of the nape of her neck. Her mischievous laugh when she told him that ridiculous joke. Exhausted, sleeping with her head in his lap while they waited to see if Ed would recover from his deadly fever. Fitting her hand to his cheek to comfort him after he had failed with young Kevin. The shocking rush of relief he'd felt when she had found him in the basement of his childhood house, and the absolute horror on her face for what had been done to him. The sweet, desperate taste of her, her kiss as much an admission of trust as any of her words.
And when the hurt of her missing grew too much, he would turn to other, less potent memories. The strong grip of Attwood's handshake when he had met the scientist at the pillar-another sign of trust, albeit limited. Sharing a meal-and a peace-making-with Ed, and debating the merits of their favorite places for Chinese take-out. The grudging, but real, smile on Ray's face after the mix-up at the morgue. The hidden worry in Ed's eyes, that he could nonetheless sense like a shout across a room, when he rolled up his sleeve so the scientist could inject him with the experimental serum.
He must be back to 1.6 by now. Once again a Homo dominant. And his captors, who had never expected anything else, had outfitted his cage with a lock he could not break. Infuriating, to be so completely held by a simple padlock, but he had torn at it in the dark until his fingers were bloody, to no avail-and not at all sure that they weren't observing him anyway, and laughing.
He tried not to remember the changes. Those memories hurt too, and they did not feed him the way thoughts of Sloan did. But once or twice he slipped into a trance, fighting sleep, and drifted for a while on the edge of dreams. Everything had been slightly fuzzy, as though he had been a little drunk, but it had been so warm. So many of the knots inside him had loosened, just for a little while, as he drank in the sounds and sights and scents around him without having to analyze each one for useful data. He had been able to smile, even laugh, without caution, without hesitancy, and for a time he had been able to match Sloan's open heart, her capacity for fun. It had hurt to feel it slipping away, to feel the hyper-alertness settling back over him, the inhibitions weighing him down. Sloan had promised him that her feelings for him would never change, and he believed her. But it had been so good to be like her.
One thing he had kept, though. He still had some understanding of the emotions that burned through him, that twisted his gut, that made his eyes prickle and his lips turn up at the same time. There was knowledge gained.
The lump in her throat never seemed to go away, no matter how many times she swallowed. The endless cups of tea she never got around to finishing could not soothe it, it never shrunk to nothing when she took her fitful naps. Sloan knew exactly what it was: fear. Endless, hopeless, stomach- churning fear.
When she had returned from the now-forbidden lab, fuming and alarmed, she had screeched to a halt behind an altercation. Tom was being bundled into a van by gun-toting, black-clad men. It took quite a few of them to get him in the vehicle, and as she found out later, he had been heavily drugged. But as soon as he saw her, as soon as his eyes had met hers, she had recognized that adamantine determination in them. His gaze had never broken from hers as he fought to stay- fought to stay with her.
But before she could reach him, the men had managed to get him inside, and the van fled out of sight. She felt as though her heart had been torn from her body. Everything in her had screamed to follow, but as she ran, another car had peeled away, nearly striking her. And through its window she had glimpsed Walter Attwood's impossible boss, her face expressionless as always, and she knew who was responsible for kidnapping Tom.
It was no good pursuing them, she discovered when she returned to her car. Someone had taken a moment to slash two of her tires behind her back, just in case she might have caught up to them. Sick, dazed, she stumbled into her apartment, to find the door half off its hinges and Ed out cold on the floor.
She was almost grateful for the distraction. Worry about Ed overrode, at least temporarily, some of the wrenching pain. As it was, her friend was deeply unconscious, but all right. Sloan covered him with a quilt and tucked a pillow under his head, half automatically, while her mind raced. Quick calls to both Ray and Walter brought back messages that they were outside of the ranges of their cell phones-surprising, given Attwood's phone, at least. She tried Ray's home, but got only the family answering machine.
Her mind tumbled helplessly, furiously, over questions and ideas-useless, all of them. Sloan had no idea at all where they might have taken Tom, nor would she have any way to break him out even if she did know. There was nothing she could do but wait-for Ed to wake, for Walter or Ray to call-and that was the worst. What was happening to Tom? What would they do to him?
Sloan managed to calm herself after her first burst of angry, terrified tears with the thought that if the government had wanted Tom dead, they could have killed him on the spot. Obviously, he was worth something alive, to somebody. But how long would they keep him alive? She, as would be any other scientist, was naturally curious about the differences between humans and the new species. Other scientists, however, had not had the opportunities that she and Ed and Walter had gotten to examine corpses of Homo dominant. Was that why he had been kidnapped? Sloan shuddered over visions of Tom stretched out, lifeless, as some government scientist took him apart. She already knew what he would look like dead, thanks to his deceased brother, and her imagination readily supplied her with the image.
She took a deep breath and shook her head. This wasn't helping. She could do nothing for Tom right now. Perhaps she could do something for her poor front door. This was the second time in a month that someone had broken it open, and the government had been harder on it than Tom had been when he came after Kevin. When he came for her.
She managed to prop it shut with a chair under the handle and reminded herself distractedly to call the supervisor in the morning. And then she collapsed onto one of the kitchen stools, laid her head on the counter, and cried again.
In the hours it took for Ed to wake, Sloan had time to marvel over Tom's strength at fighting off a similar dose for as long as he had. There was another worry-he was still in the process of reverting from the Homo sapiens serum. Had he stabilized? Was he all right? Or had the crippling fever returned? She kept recalling the look in his eyes when he insisted on a booster dose of the serum, when he told her that she was worth the risk of the experiment.
Ed, when he did wake up, could give her little comfort. He told her what had happened, what little he had seen before the narcotic took effect. The men had been so fast that even Tom had had no time to react.
Ed sat drooping on the loveseat, nursing a splitting headache, and watched Sloan pace. He was nauseated from the drug, and shaken by what had happened, and no little worried over Tom himself. The quiet, grey-eyed man had gotten Sloan into so much danger, which was enough reason for Ed to resent him-though he had to admit that Tom also protected Sloan with an unmatchable ferocity. He wasn't jealous of Tom, at least not in the standard way-Sloan fell into the "slightly pesky younger sister" category as well as the "best friend" slot. Yet it hurt a little to see Sloan turn to Tom instead of him. Still, Ed's reservations had slowly worn down, and it surprised him to realize how much Tom had become a friend.
Now he too wondered how Tom was. The experiment that Tom had talked him into was not yet finished-the last reading Ed had gotten from Tom's blood placed him at a 1.4 percent DNA differential, not yet back to his natural 1.6 percent. He seemed to be progressing well, but Ed couldn't be sure-the whole experiment was so unorthodox. He was still mentally kicking himself for allowing Tom to take the shot before the monkey trial was through, though it had appeared to turn out all right for Tom if not for Philip Macaque. Idiot, he thought. You went against all scientific procedure, and Tom may still pay for it with his life...
"You know," he said suddenly, "I'm surprised that Tom didn't sense them coming."
Sloan paused and turned toward him. "The serum was probably interfering with his...evolved...senses."
"Yeah, but still." Ed frowned. "I can understand that the emotional bit would be difficult, but I wonder about the prolepsis."
"His prolepsis." Ed looked up to see Sloan's confused expression. "Didn't he ever tell you about it?"
Sloan shook her head, running her hands through her hair and wincing at the tangles. "We seemed to have missed that one." She sighed. "Tom does have a different perspective on what could be important."
Ed looked judicious. "Maybe he just didn't want to scare you. The idea creeped me out a bit." Sloan leaned on the counter. "Tell me about it."
It had been the middle of the night, on the long flight back from Alaska. Sloan was curled up asleep in one of the seats, exhausted from the past few days, and Ed opened his eyes to see Tom carefully tucking a blanket around her. Attwood sat near the cockpit, muttering into a tape recorder and scribbling on a pad of paper.
Ed cleared his throat. The Spanish influenza had left him still a little feverish and too weak to stand, but he was bored with lying still. Tom looked up at the sound, and made his way back to the gurney and equipment that held the doctor.
"How're you feeling?" Tom asked quietly, his gaze steady, and Ed wondered briefly if he was motivated by actual concern or if he was practicing human small talk. Maybe both.
"Better." He fiddled with the IV line running into his arm. "I'm really tired of this, though." Tom arched a brow. "You want something to drink?"
"Is there any orange juice left?"
Tom turned away to rummage in the wet bar-Ed had to wonder just where Walter got equipment like the rather luxurious plane-and came up with a can, which he opened before giving to Ed. The juice stung Ed's sore throat but tasted wonderful.
Tom sat down near the gurney, which Ed took as a sign of his willingness to talk for a while. "So, what really happened out there?"
"Sloan didn't tell you?"
Ed shook his head. "Just a little. I haven't really been up to listening much."
Tom hesitated, then sighed, and Ed suddenly realized that the whole episode could be difficult for the enigmatic man to deal with. "Not if you don't want to," he said hastily, a little surprised at himself for caring.
Tom blinked. "No, it's okay. It's-"
The plane lurched, caught in a sudden downdraft, and Ed lost his grip on the can of juice as he clutched at the sides of the gurney. Tom, on the other hand, did not seem alarmed-and he reached out and caught the can before it fell more than a foot. Then the plane steadied out, and Tom handed the can back to Ed, glancing over his shoulder to be sure that Sloan had not awakened.
Ed loosened his grip on the bar and took the can. "That was...you have amazing reflexes." Tom looked back. He seemed to think a long moment, then spoke. "It's not just reflexes."
Ed took another gulp of juice and raised his eyebrows in what he hoped was an encouraging manner.
Tom looked down at his hands. "It's true that our reactions are faster than humans', but there's something else too. Have you ever heard of prolepsis?"
Ed frowned, thinking. "Isn't that another word for precognition?"
"Close enough." Tom sat back in his chair. "It's a sense that is not unknown in humans, but science has regarded it as superstition, as myth. It's stronger in us."
"Wait a minute. You mean you can predict the future?" Ed asked, incredulous.
Tom shook his head. "Only a second or two at most, and not always. For most of us, that is. The science involved is over my head-quantum physics, string theory-it's not my field. But what I was taught is that we can sometimes sense things just before they happen. I heard someone describe it as feeling vibrations on the sidereal strings." He glanced at Ed to see if the doctor was following, and Ed nodded for him to continue.
"Humans have the same sense but much less developed. In fact, I think that we-the new species- make better use of it because our brains process things faster. Humans have deja vu all the time, but they can't usually think fast enough to take advantage of the feeling."
"So we don't realize we've sensed it until the actual event occurs?"
Tom looked approving. "Exactly. As I said, most of us can only feel a few seconds at most into the future. I felt that the plane was going to hit the air pocket before it actually did, so I was able to brace myself. Actually...I didn't really think about it, I just did it. It's almost like instinct."
Ed whistled soundlessly. "Yeah, I can see how that would be an advantage, all right. No wonder you guys are so fast. But it doesn't happen all the time, does it?"
"No. We can't tell when it will work, either, it's not under our control."
"How about this?" Ed held up the can. "Did you sense I was going to drop it?" Tom shook his head, a small smile creeping across his face. "No. That was reflex."
Ed grinned back, oddly pleased at that show of relaxation. This man was one of the most tense people he'd ever met-not that he didn't have reason. "I guess it's like the human sense, in that not everybody has it?"
"I don't know." The smile faded. "It's not something we talk about much, any more than you talk about smelling or hearing. But..."
He trailed off, looking thoughtful, and Ed held his peace. If Tom was in the mood to reveal more about his species, Ed didn't want to jar him out of it. Finally Tom's eyes focused back on Ed, and the scientist shivered a bit under the intense stare.
"I'm going to tell you something else about our prolepsis," he said quietly, "but I don't want Attwood knowing about it. At least not yet."
Ed held up one hand. "My lips are sealed." He glanced toward the front of the plane, but Walter had vanished into the cockpit.
Tom hesitated another long moment, then spoke. "There are a few of us-a very few-who can sense further into the future."
Ed thought about that for a moment, and didn't much like the chill that ran down his spine. "How much further?"
"Years...decades even. They are honored among us, because they can tell us how to deal with some of the things that will occur. They can't see everything, but there are a few events they've pinpointed."
"But are they reliable? I mean, lots of people claim to be able to see the future, but no one really takes them seriously."
Tom's face was very grave. "They are reliable. They've proven themselves. Human science is only just beginning to look into the physics of precognition. We've been studying it for a long time."
Ed blew out a breath. "So...what have they predicted?" Tom shook his head. "I can't tell you."
Ed rolled his eyes, disgusted, and Tom curled his mouth sardonically. "Not won't; can't. I can't remember any specific predictions, just that there are a few who make them. That sort of information was obviously too sensitive to leave inside my head."
It sounded a bit pat to Ed, but he had no reason not to believe Tom. "Must be tough," he offered after a moment. "Not being able to remember."
Tom tilted his head, accepting, and Ed closed his eyes in sudden exhaustion.
"The next thing I remember, we were landing," Ed finished.
Sloan's eyes were wide. "Nope, he definitely didn't tell me about-"
The phone rang, and both started. Sloan pounced on the receiver. "Hello?" she asked breathlessly.
"Your boss says, tell Ed to turn on his laptop," said a strange voice, and then the connection was cut.
Sloan stared at the phone for a moment, puzzled and upset. "What's the matter?" Ed asked. "Who was it?"
Sloan shook her head. "No one I know. She said that Walter says to tell you to turn on your computer. Does that make any sense to you?"
Ed frowned painfully. "The laptop?" He pressed his hands to his temples in an attempt to calm the pounding, and tried to think. "Wait a minute, wait a minute. E-mail!"
In moments they had the computer plugged in. Ed was about to go online when Sloan suddenly put her hand over his. "Ed, hold on a second. Is this a good idea?"
"What do you mean?" Ed peered up at her worried face.
"Well-Walter obviously thought someone might be listening in to that phone call, or else why bother with such an elaborate way of getting us the message?"
Ed sat back, eyes widening. "Unless it wasn't really Walter."
Sloan shook her head. "No, I think it was. And you know how easy it is to eavesdrop on a cell phone conversation, if you have the equipment." They traded grim looks. Both sides of this conflict certainly had the equipment. "But we don't know whether someone is monitoring us as well."
"You mean bugs?" Ed glanced around. "I don't think they had time."
"No. I mean tracking what we do online." Sloan looked down at the laptop. "They-whoever they are-could trace us through your computer."
"Hmmm." Ed frowned again, gratefully conscious that his headache was beginning to recede. "It'd be harder to tap into my machine than yours, but I'd better run that encryption program I got from my buddy Jack at Caltech."
Sloan nodded. "Do it. We need to find Walter and Ray. We can't help Tom without them."
A few minutes later they were reading a brief, chilling synopsis of what had happened to Walter, and to Ray, and to their hoped-for contact with the peace faction of Homo dominant. Ed swore under his breath and sent a reply with a few sentences outlining Tom's kidnapping and who they thought might be responsible.
Walter's answer was a few minutes in coming, and it wasn't just the server slowing things down.
Ray and I can do nothing for Tom right now. We barely escaped with our own lives, and all our energy must be spent on keeping us out of the hands of my boss-my ex-boss, I should say-and the gunsights of the new species. We cannot return home, at least not yet, and we will have to be very cautious in contacting you. You are certainly being watched. Tom is probably alive, or they would not have bothered to kidnap him. Be patient. We will try to get ourselves out of our current dilemma, but it may take a while.
I'm sorry, Sloan.
Ed glanced up at Sloan's slow nod. Tears were running down her face, and she turned and walked away to the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. Ed cleared his own throat and answered Walter. A few more brief exchanges and he logged off, then sat and thought for a while, his mind spinning uselessly over their dilemmas.
Eventually Sloan emerged from the bathroom, eyes swollen, and Ed patted the cushion beside him. She sank down next to him, and silently he enfolded her in a hug. They clung to each other for a time, seeking thin comfort, both dazed by the sudden shattering of their world.
They had to settle for frozen TV dinners-it was way past midnight by the time they got around to eating, and there were no delivery places open. Ed's stomach had settled and he ate with gusto, but Sloan picked at her food, face drawn. She couldn't stop thinking about Tom and what might be happening to him. Ed watched her across the table, but said nothing until she had stirred her mashed potatoes for the tenth time.
"Sloan. You gotta eat something. You can't help Tom if you die of malnutrition."
She glanced up, half a smile tilting her mouth for a moment. It faded quickly, but Ed was satisfied when she managed to swallow a few bites. Then she pushed the tray away, and after a minute he sighed and pulled it to him, forking into it.
"What are we going to do, Ed?" Sloan asked quietly. She gripped her mug harder to try to still the trembling in her hands. "How are we going to find him? It could take weeks for Walter to straighten out his situation."
"If he can straighten it out." Ed dropped his fork onto his tray and stretched gingerly. "We talked for a few minutes after you left. Seems his boss was just about ready to kill them as to take them into custody. They may be on the run for a while."
Sloan shook her head, feeling yet another tear slide past her nose. "And what's happening to Tom? What do they want with him?"
"I don't know." Ed slumped. "We're in real trouble this time, Sloan, and not just because of Tom. We've lost our jobs, the serum, all our research. We're undoubtedly being watched-even if we knew where Tom was, they'd know what moves we were making."
Sloan took a long drink, trying to relax the ache in her throat, then turned the mug around in her hands. "Maybe Walter can give us an idea of where to start looking, anyway."
Ed nodded, though he didn't think the two men would have time to help them. "Maybe."
Suddenly Sloan's eyes narrowed. "I know somebody who can help us," she said thoughtfully. "Walter's boss."
"Sloan J. Parker. You can't be serious."
"Ed, she knows where he is-I saw her in the second car. She's responsible for this."
Ed's stomach sank at the look on Sloan's face. "What makes you think she'll tell you anything? She probably won't even admit to what happened. Sloan-"
"She saw me. I saw her. That's pretty hard to deny," Sloan interrupted. "She's the best lead we have, unless Walter can do something soon."
"What if she kidnaps you too?" Ed's voice rose in frustration. "She had the opportunity already."
Ed recognized that stubborn expression. "First you have to find her. We don't even know her name."
Sloan shook her head, and Ed could almost see sparks flying from her curls. "Tom found her once, and he told me where."
Ed gave up; maybe she would be more sensible in the morning. He fished around for a different subject.
"Ray wants you to do something for him." "What's that?" Sloan looked up.
"He asked if you could go over and see his wife, tell her he's okay, and tell her not to enter the Witness Protection Program if it's offered." He shook his head. "That seems kinda weird-you'd think his family would be safer if they were under cover, rather than out in the open where the new species could get at them."
Sloan thought for a moment. "No-I'll bet I know why. If they go into the Witness Protection Program, the government will have them-and by extension, they'll have Ray."
Ed's eyes widened. "You're right. I didn't think of that. Wait a minute-what if they go after your dad and Annie?"
"They're still in Germany," Sloan said, thinking wistfully of her father and older sister. "I don't think it's likely, and they're not due back until December."
"When's the new species' deadline again?" Ed asked, his head beginning to throb again.
"Second week in October."
They sat in depressed silence for a while. Finally Sloan pushed to her feet, automatically collecting the trays and throwing them into the trash. "You take my bed tonight," she said, giving him a stern look when he opened his mouth to protest. "You're too tall for the couch and you aren't over that drug yet. No arguments."
Ed grinned. "Yes, mother."
He was asleep before she had turned out the lights. She left one dim one on, unwilling to put the whole apartment into darkness-especially with the door broken. As she dug an extra pillow out of the closet, something occurred to her, and she went to check. Sure enough, Tom's jacket was still draped over the chair near the door. She scooped it up and took it and the pillow over to the couch, then sat down and buried her face in the jacket. It smelled of him still-a faint, spicy, male scent.
For a while she just rocked back and forth, inhaling again and again, calling Tom to mind as a talisman against his terrible absence. The memory that came most easily surprised her-the little space of fragile peace they had experienced in the "safe house" cabin where they had tried to hide from the Lynch clone. He had found them easily enough, but Sloan dwelled on the hour before that. She hadn't known that Tom knew how operate a wood stove, let alone split the wood. He had leaned over the couch where she had been sitting with one of her journals, and teased her about never reading anything else. It was rare that he ventured to joke with her, and she'd treasured the unguarded smile on his face. For a little while, they had looked into the future and seen possibilities instead of disaster.
He's not dead. I'd know if he were dead. But would she? The reverse could be true, since he could tell what she was feeling-even if he couldn't always understand it. But would she feel the shock of his death-the emptiness left behind? He could be dead already, and she might never know for sure.
She was too tired to cry any more. Sloan put her head down and bundled the jacket against her chest, holding it tightly. At least it was something to hold.
Sleep crept up on her and stole her from her grief for a while.
The dark times were the worst because they seemed to go on forever, yet promised nothing but more pain at the end of them. He was never quite sure that he had not simply been abandoned in the dark to die of cold and dehydration, or alternately that they-whoever they were-were watching to see how long it took him to succumb. He knew that they were amazed that he had not begged for water long since. So far, they gave him just enough to keep him from going into shock, but not enough to keep him alive, not for the long run.
He was surprised at how much he cared. His own life had never mattered as much to him as it did to most Homo sapiens. After all, he had been trained to lay it down at a moment's notice for the greater cause. Lewis, for instance, if Attwood's boss had put him someplace similar, would have managed to find a way out-a permanent one-rather than allow any discoveries to be made about Homo dominant.
But he could not give up fighting. He couldn't leave Sloan alone-and tangled in his fear for her was a slow-burning rage at the people who caged him and tortured him like an animal-worse by far than the lab's doomed monkeys, worse even than all his fears about what the success of Ed's serum would mean.
And when he did sleep, fitfully, he dreamed-dreamed Sloan weeping hopelessly, endlessly-for him. She cried often, when things moved her, something she found embarrassing but was one of the things he thought most endearing about her. She was a constant spring of strong emotion, catching his attention at the very first, when he had watched her in preparation for killing her. She was honest and open and real, and when she had fought him with words in her apartment, telling him that he wasn't a killer, she believed what she was saying. She had appalled him with her truth, and her pity for him; the tears that had slid from her eyes had wrung some part of him until he could not harm her, no matter the consequences. No one had ever felt for him. Not like she did.
Now, in his dreams, she buried her face in her arms and cried as though her heart were broken, and he ached to reach out and comfort her as he had so many times in the past. Once or twice, he could hear her talking with someone, but he could make out only a few words here and there- -afraid he's dead-Walter and Ray-Sloan, don't cry-
-And he would jolt awake, shivering and miserable. Once it was the snap of the light that brought him up out of dreams, spotlighting him in the middle of nowhere. He was indoors somewhere, but he didn't know where. Just some room, so huge that he could not sense the walls or ceiling, deep enough that his cage squatted alone in a circle of harsh light. His tormentors came out of that darkness in their white lab coats and their remote manners, and they sank back into it, and sometimes he heard a door close, but it was very far away.
Sloan woke to pain, and the draining realization that the past eighteen hours had not been a nightmare. Her head ached; her heart ached. Stumbling into the kitchen area, she started a pot of coffee, then dropped onto a stool and stared blankly at her broken front door, listening to the sound of Ed in the shower without really noticing. Got to call the supervisor, she thought finally, but when she glanced at the clock she realized it was too early. They had slept only a few hours. No new messages blinked on her answering machine, and when she checked Ed's laptop, there were no new e-mails.
"Hey, do I read your mail when you're not looking?" Ed complained behind her, and she turned. He was dressed in the sweats he had retrieved from his van, and he was toweling his hair vigorously.
"What mail?" Sloan stood up, feeling as tired as if she had gotten no sleep at all.
Ed snorted. "Give 'em time. Even Attwood has to sleep sometime." He slung the towel around his neck and went to get mugs out of the cupboard.
Sloan gave a ghost of a laugh. "Does he? Have we ever seen him sleep?"
Picking up the pot of coffee, Ed shot her a humorous look. "Good point. Maybe he's an alien from Mars."
"There's no intelligent life on Mars," Sloan said automatically, taking the cup he held out and dumping sugar into it.
Ed made a face. "Beats me how you can stand to drink it that way."
Sloan's eyes widened. "This from the man who puts half a cow in his coffee?"
Ed just shrugged and dug the milk out of the refrigerator, sniffing it warily before pouring any into his mug. Sloan's fragile humor drained away as she remembered opening the fridge and finding a mummy inside. Tom sometimes had the oddest ways of showing that he cared.
Tom... She set her mug down, her stomach churning again. What was happening to him?
Ed took a gulp of coffee and looked her over, eyes concerned. "Go take a shower, Sloan," he saidquietly. "Then we can try to figure out what to do."
Waiting, however, appeared to be their only option. Ed went out for food as soon as Sloan was out of the shower, and reported on his return that her apartment was indeed under surveillance.
"You know, six months ago I would never have noticed that," he muttered, dropping a bag on the counter and pouring another cup of coffee.
"Ignorance is bliss," Sloan retorted, pulling a comb through her hair. A shower and clean clothes had washed away some of her exhaustion, but she still felt like she was in shock. "I'd guess that it's a safe bet that your place is being watched too."
Ed shrugged and unwrapped a sandwich. "The question is, by who? Us or them?" Sloan's mouth tightened. "At this point, they're both 'them.'"
"Yeah." Ed sighed, and passed her the food. "And for all we know, we're being watched by both sides. Just in case."
Ignoring Ed's protests, Sloan headed out right after breakfast. Tom had indeed told her where he had found Walter's erstwhile boss, when he had been trying to discover who her "reliable source" was in the matter of the orange juice boxes. But the building, when she found it, was dark and locked. Peering through the windows, Sloan saw only a scattering of paper on the lobby floor and one broken chair in a corner. Sick with rage and fear, she leaned her head against the glass and choked back a sob. Walter's boss had packed up and moved out in a hurry, and Sloan was out of ideas.
Ed listened patiently to her fury when she returned, and then held her while she cried. "Walter will come up with something," he told her. "Just be patient a little while longer."
When she was calmer, they decided that Ed would go back to the lab to see if he could get in, and to talk to university administration to see what was going on. "At the very least I can try to get our personal stuff back," he said, pulling on his jacket. "I'll pick up some groceries on the way back here."
"You just want me to make linguine."
Ed shot her a wry look. "Better you than me. Be kind of embarrassing for Ray and Walter to get here and find us both dead of food poisoning."
Sloan rolled her eyes at him, and he waved and vanished out the broken door. She propped it closed again behind him, and shivered. She would rather go out herself, but someone had to stay in case any of their missing called in-and besides, Ed had not gotten himself thrown out of the lab the night before.
Sloan called the supervisor to report the broken door, cleaned up the debris of breakfast, and checked Ed's e-mail for the hundredth time. Then she paced for a while. It was no good trying to do anything that required concentration, she knew, but she had to distract herself with something, before her fear for Tom drove her down into despair.
I don't even have any photos of him...do I? Members of the new species tried to avoid photographs, Tom had told her, unless the pictures were to be used as props. But Sloan remembered something, and went scrabbling through a pile of papers she had brought home from the lab weeks before. There had been a birthday party at the lab for one of the techs. Someone had brought a camera, and had later handed her an envelope with a few prints that Sloan hadn't had time to look at since.
The envelope spilled three photos into her hands: Sloan and Ed, making faces at the camera; Sloan, Ed, and Walter talking; and-yes-Tom and Sloan. They were standing together, his hand on her arm, looking at each other rather than the camera. Sloan didn't remember the photo being taken, but she remembered the moment. Tom had retreated to a corner of the lab, murmuring in her ear that he needed to back off a little from the party, and she had brought him a piece of cake a few minutes later. He had looked at the cake, and then back at her, and the wonder in his eyes at her simple action had put a lump in her throat. Kindness and the small gestures of affection had been totally absent from his life, and something that required no thought on her part often meant a great deal to him.
Sloan stared at the photo as though she could climb inside it, back to a less perilous time. Turn around, she found herself urging the image. Turn and tell me you're still alive!
She tried to laugh at herself. "You're going nuts, Dr. Parker," she whispered. "Now you're talking to people who aren't even there."
She laid the photos carefully aside, so they wouldn't get wet, and wept again.
Ed's arms were full of groceries, so he banged on the repaired door with his foot. A moment later, it opened, and Sloan took one of the bags.
"That was fast," Ed commented, nodding to the door as he closed it behind him.
Sloan set the bag on the counter. "For once. I think the super is getting a little alarmed by all the stuff that's been going on."
"You won't have much of a deposit left after this." Ed slid the other bag next to the first. "Give me a hand with the rest of this stuff?"
"So?" Sloan asked, trailing him out to his van. "What's the party line?"
Ed handed her two bags. "Officially? Administration is cooperating with a classified investigation- -not that they had much choice-and the lab is off-limits to anyone not cleared by the unnamed agency that's taken it over. That includes you and me. Old Schmidt is sweating heavy-they must have scared him pretty good."
Sloan snorted and headed back inside. The college president was a capable administrator but most of the bio lab found him too smarmy to be likable. "Who else did you talk to?"
"Well, with Walter in absentia there's only Dr. Jackson, and he really doesn't have a clue either." Ed set down the last bag. "But he promised to try to get our personal stuff back after it's been examined by the agency. No hope for any of the data, though."
"Or the serum." Sloan shook her head. "This is bad, Ed."
Ed collapsed onto one of the stools. "Tell me about it. It's a good thing I have a trust fund, 'cause I really don't think we'll be able to find jobs anytime soon."
"Not unless it's flipping burgers," Sloan agreed. "Any lab will take one look at us and run screaming." She wasn't too worried about money either; her inheritance from her mother would last her for a while. "We've got to find Tom first anyway."
Ed nodded slowly. "How're you doing?" he asked softly.
Half undone by the gentle question, Sloan sat down. "I'm barely holding up," she admitted. "I keep wondering if he's okay. What are they doing to him? For all we know he's dead!"
Ed reached across the counter and put his hand on hers. "Don't think that way. It's like Walter said, if they wanted him dead all they had to do was shoot him. They'll keep him alive."
"But for what?" Sloan asked, her voice thickening. "So they can run experiments on him? Try to get information out of him?"
Ed's eyes were dark with worry. "I don't know."
Sloan made her promised visit to Ray's family that afternoon, leaving Ed to hold the fort. Grace Peterson had listened calmly to Sloan's explanation, then had gone about efficiently making preparations to leave. "We'll go down to my sister's in the Virgin Islands," she told Sloan. "She runs a resort on one of the British islands. I've been trying to get Ray to go down there for a vacation for years, but we've never..." She had to stop and gulp hard, and Sloan put a hand on her shoulder.
"He'll be fine, Mrs. Peterson," she said, hoping she was right. "He's with Walter, and Walter is nothing if not resourceful. They'll get things straightened out."
The woman exhaled slowly, then nodded. "Will you tell Ray where we've gone?" she asked. "From what he's told me, there's no place completely safe, but at least we'll be out of the country."
"Of course I will," Sloan said. "He'll be so relieved to know you're out of harm's way." She paused as something occurred to her. "Maybe," she said slowly, "you'd better leave the U.S. by car. The agency that's after Ray may be watching the airports."
Grace gave her a dry look. "Don't worry, I'm not stupid. We'll drive down to Baja and go from there. It's still a risk, but not such a big one."
Sloan glanced back into the living room, where Ray's sturdy son was playing a video game.
"Take care," she said softly.
On the drive back to her apartment Sloan found herself watching the pedestrians she passed, searching for a familiar dark form and sharp grey gaze. Don't, she told herself. It only makes it worse. But she couldn't help hoping. After all, the new species was adept at escaping imprisonment-Randall Lynch being an obvious example. Mightn't Tom do the same?
She came home to find Ed online with Ray and Walter again. She reported to Ray about his family, and then Ed logged off. "We've been talking for a little while," he explained, "and Walter still doesn't want to take too many chances. But he gave me the name of a place where he thinks they could be holding Tom, and Ray mentioned someone in his old division who may be willing to help."
Sloan leaned over his shoulder to read, unreasonable hope springing up. "I've never heard of it."
"Well, I think it's a research lab," Ed said, "but the last I heard it was for physics. The problem will be getting inside."
Sloan nodded. "Are you sure you want to do this, Ed? It's going to be dangerous."
Ed swung around in the chair to give her a hurt look. "Give me a break, Sloan. Tom's my friend too."
"Sorry," she said, grateful.
"Besides," he grinned suddenly, "what else am I going to do?"
"Help Walter and Ray?" she suggested. "Is there anything we can do?"
Ed turned back to the laptop. "Not at the moment. Actually, Walter said that they may be out of touch for a while. They've both got a few contacts they want to try out, but Walter's afraid that they could get tracked online if they do too much. They'll get back to us when they can, but we're not supposed to worry."
Sloan let out an annoyed breath. "As though we can just forget about them."
Ed shut the laptop down. "I know, I know, but that's the way it is right now. How about some pizza?"
"What about all those groceries you just bought?" Sloan protested.
"I want pizza," Ed insisted, and picked up the phone. "Can I stay here again tonight?" he asked as he dialed. "I really don't think either one of us should be alone for too long."
"Sure," Sloan said. "That would make me feel better, actually."
Ed placed the order and hung up the phone. "Great. I'll run back to my place for a few things. There's a sleeping bag in the van."
"You can have the bed," Sloan offered, but he shook his head.
"I'm not going to make you sleep on that couch again. You looked like death warmed over this morning. I'll be fine."
Sloan swallowed hard. Her looks when she had woken had less to do with lack of sleep and more with worry and fear. "Okay," she said quietly, and retreated to her bedroom, closing the folding doors before Ed could see the tears in her eyes. She knew she wasn't fooling him, but at least he wouldn't have to watch.
He hadn't realized how weak he was becoming until he brought himself out of a half-daze with a start. The light was still on, but he was lying on his side in the cage. They had left off for the moment-they did that sometimes-though he had no illusions that they were not watching. He rolled stiffly into a crouch, unwilling to be so vulnerable and shocked that he had allowed himself to become so. He had long since noted that none of what was being done to him was life- endangering-humiliating, yes; painful, certainly; agonizing, sometimes-but if he was going to die in here it would be from thirst, or cold, or some deliberate move on their part. He had often wondered if they kept any others like him there, and if they performed even crueler experiments elsewhere. He was well aware of the range of torments that could be inflicted, and the various scientific differences between their species that could be discovered.
That was part of what puzzled him about all this. They might be trying to break him, but not for information he possessed. He knew all about that sort of work, having been trained for it-and in fact having done quite well at it. Those memories were ones that he preferred not to think about very much; the emotions now attached to them were confusing and uncomfortable. His training as an interrogator was one of the things he had not told Sloan about, though his intuition about emotions had been one of the things that drew him to her. But if his captors had any purpose in mind, it was not information. They never spoke to him at all-merely about him, as though he were some animal that could not understand. It made the fury inside him burn hotter.
Sometimes it made that desire to flee all the stronger, as well. As he had explained to Kevin, Homo dominant had an instinct that demanded freedom from the weaker beings around it, that clamored at times until the presence of Homo sapiens could become a sort of dull pain. He'd learned to repress that one early on, since it would be a hazard in his work, and it scarcely troubled him anymore-especially since he began regarding certain humans as friends rather than the inferior, the enemy.
But now there were times when it broke out afresh, making him struggle vainly against what they were doing, made him almost desperate to get away from them and their maddening psyches. Until, as he gasped and sagged in the restraints, his mind presented him with an image: Sloan, standing just outside the circle of people, shining with her own soft light. Not panicked, as he'd last seen her, when he'd done all he could to keep them from taking him away from her. I can tell you I'd never leave you... Her face now was calm, her eyes steady as she met his frantic gaze, pouring strength into him from afar. He knew she wasn't really there, but he drank in what she gave him, relaxing, regaining control. He almost laughed out loud at the puzzlement of his captors.
Every time he neared breaking, after that, she would shimmer into life a few yards away. Once Ed stood behind her, hands on her shoulders, adding his strength to hers-as always. He knew she was a hallucination-knew it-but he welcomed her as he would the real Sloan. More so, in fact- his tormentors could not see the hallucination, let alone harm it. They could buzz and mutter all they wanted about altered brain waves and drops in adrenaline-he didn't care. He laid his head back and drifted into oblivion.
Sitting in Detective Willis' tiny office, Sloan sent a silent thank-you to Ray. His contact, it seemed, was beginning to believe in the new species and its threat. She'd been worried that he would laugh her out of the police station-or worse yet, arrest her.
The tall, balding officer leaned back in his chair, shaking his head. "That's a bad business," he
said. "I hate to think of Peterson on the run like that. You're sure his family's okay?" Sloan looked at her watch. "They should be in Baja by now," she said.
Willis glanced toward his door, which he had closed as soon as Sloan identified herself. "I'd like to help, but we'll have to be careful. This sort of thing got Ray fired, and our lieutenant is not at all happy with the whole business."
Sloan nodded understanding. "Anything you can do, we'll be grateful. We're basically helpless right now."
He leaned forward again, fixing her with an intense gaze. "Now, tell me about this Daniels guy. Isn't he one of...them?"
"Yes, but he's joined us." Sloan didn't like his skeptical expression. "Really. He's saved my life several times, and he's done a great deal to help us."
Willis grimaced. "Well, either way, kidnapping him was a clear violation of his civil rights, and a felony. That alone puts the government on shaky ground, though it may not really do us any good. The feds are notoriously snooty about letting anyone into their territory, or telling us insignificant local forces anything. But we'll see what we can do," he added at the look on Sloan's face. "This lab-" he tapped it-"it's out of my jurisdiction, which means that I'll need to get authorization. Could take a few days. Then we'll go and see if we can find anything."
"Thank you so much," Sloan said gratefully, and he shook his head again.
"It may not work at all," he warned.
Sloan smiled sadly. "We have to start somewhere. It's good of you to help us."
Willis rose, smiling back. "Ray Peterson saved my life a couple of times too. There's not much I wouldn't do for him if it's within my powers. You're his friend."
Sloan stood up, and gripped his outstretched hand. "You'll call us?" He nodded. "Soon as I have something."
It took ten days for Willis to get the necessary authorization, and Sloan thought she would go mad with waiting. She and Ed were beginning to snap at one another, both feeling slightly trapped in the apartment. Sloan was sick with worry, unable to sleep, and Ed was not much better himself. Neither was used to having so little to do. Ed took to going for long walks, circling endlessly around the neighborhood, and practiced picking out the vehicles most likely to be watching them. Once he was sure, he took great enjoyment in going up to them and asking them how things were going with the spying. It never failed to unnerve the feds, though once he got a stare that sent a chill through him and realized that he had picked out a Homo dominant team. That particular van disappeared, and Ed swore at himself for tipping their hand. He was certain they sent another team, but he couldn't find it.
Finally Willis drove by to pick Sloan up. Ed stayed behind in case one of the fugitives communicated, but the detective took Sloan out to the isolated laboratory. She could barely contain her impatience as Willis talked his way from gate to entrance to secretary and so on up the chain. As he had explained to her on the drive up, his authorization was too fragile for him to push his luck.
By the time they got permission to go through the lab, it was closing for the day, and they had to leave without getting any further inside. Willis promised to bring Sloan back to continue the search, but a new case took him away for another week; Sloan tried to control her frustration, grateful that he was able to take any time at all to help her.
Then she began to dream of Tom. It had been almost three weeks since she had seen him dragged off. Ed was out, visiting a friend at UCLA, and Sloan was rummaging through a box of old paperwork. Having so much time on her hands had allowed her to make a stab at organizing the parts of her life that she never had time for. She couldn't concentrate very long, and some of the papers she filed away had tear marks on them, but at least it was something to do. Her eyelids were growing heavy as she sorted out tax forms and old research proposals. Finally, half- unconsciously, she put her head down on the table. Just for a few minutes...
It wasn't an ordinary dream, all jumbled images and illogical events. Nor was it one of the nightmares that had begun to plague her lately, the ones where Tom's corpse played a prominent part. She slid into the dream as into water, and it seemed that she saw everything through a faint haze. There was Tom, trapped in the middle of a clutch of shadowy figures. Sloan's sleeping mind could not make out the details, but she could see that Tom was in distress, almost panicked at the press about him. She couldn't reach him, she knew as one knows things in dreams, but...she caught his gaze with hers, felt his attention lock on her. All her caring for him, her love and worry, seemed to stream through her and along that link. His struggles stilled, the frenzy left his expression, his breathing steadied. She smiled at him, feeling him strengthen somehow.
Sloan jerked awake, dazed and astonished. The dream scattered in her head, and all her mental scrambling recovered only a few scraps. Tom? Alive? "That was so real," she mumbled, pushing her hair out of her face and wincing at the cramp in her neck. Then she laughed dryly. Don't be silly, you're a scientist. That was nothing but wishful thinking.
Still, her heart was curiously uplifted, and when she went to bed that night she hoped against hope that she would dream again; the dream, or ones very like it, did repeat themselves a few times over the next week or so. Sloan hesitated to tell Ed about them; when she finally did he was interested but skeptical.
"I'm glad you feel good about them, Sloan, but I don't know."
Sloan propped her elbows on the table. "Well, neither do I. For all I know it's just my subconscious being optimistic. But they are so real! I forget most of the details within a few minutes of waking up, but they feel as though I were really there."
Ed shrugged. "Whatever. It's not something you can prove anyway. And if you are communicating with Tom, why doesn't he say anything? Tell you where he is?"
"Maybe he doesn't know," Sloan answered. "Maybe he doesn't think the dreams are real either." "Can't you ask him?"
Sloan gave him a skeptical glance. "You try remembering to do something in the middle of a dream. It never occurs to me to speak."
"Hmmm." Ed's expression grew thoughtful. "So you've never tried lucid dreaming?" Sloan shook her head. "Have you?"
"Nah, but I read a couple of articles." Ed shook his head and stood up. "If we had an EEG machine we could hook you up and I could remind you as soon as you began dreaming, but..."
Sloan shook her head. "Sorry. Don't have one of those in the closet."
Why, he wondered tiredly, did his subconscious have to take that particular form when it wanted to play devil's advocate?
Lewis' sardonic voice played over his inner ear, trying to tempt him into doubt. Sloan's forgotten about you. She's a human. Inferior.
He laughed inwardly at the thought. Human Sloan might be, but inferior she was not. She might not think as quickly as most Homo dominants, but her mind was sharp and clear.
Don't be stupid. His former mentor's face rose up in his mind, smiling, cold. She's given up on you long since. Gone away to find someplace safe, where she can continue to plot against us.
Sloan wouldn't leave me alone. She loves me.
He flinched at the cutting chuckle. Loves you! How can she? You're different. To her you're nothing more than a pet, a tame creature running obediently along to rescue her when she gets in trouble.
He thought of Sloan's fierce loyalty, her defense of him against others' doubts, how she had returned his trust with the gift of her own.
Love is a trap, a weakness.
It's not. I don't understand it, but it is a power. He sighed. He'd never expected to love, or to be loved, but the fact of it was as much an alteration as his brief taste of humanity. Sloan fed some deep hunger in him, one he had never realized until he'd met her, and he was moved beyond wonder at the thought that he meant anything similar to her.
No. She's gone. Even if you survive this, even if you get out, she'll be gone. Tate or Attwood will have taken her away and you'll never find her.
That was a possibility, though he couldn't see Sloan permitting such a thing unless she thought him dead. It sent a chill through him. He had already seen that Attwood held both scientists as his children, caring about them enough to protect them-whether they wanted protection or not.
The desire to protect was an emotion he did understand quite well. I will find her. He held the thought firmly, and Lewis' voice faded away. I will find her.
Finally the detective was able to get away for another day. He and Sloan hunted through mazes of corridors and laboratories, trailed by hostile security personnel, searching for some clue, some hint of Tom's presence. Sloan wished more than once for a little of the new species' ability to sense emotion. The complex was absolutely huge, and she could not be sure that they had found everything. Willis' face grew grimmer as the day wore on; Sloan couldn't tell if it was because they found no trace of Tom or from the implications of what else went on at the lab. Physics was not Sloan's field, but she could see that the people there were doing more than particle experiments.
Eventually, however, they had to quit. Sloan held in her frustration as they left. Maybe Tom was being held elsewhere, or maybe they had missed something. Maybe he was dead. I won't give up, she told herself...ignoring the small voice that asked her just what else she thought she could do.
Detective Willis had no further suggestions. Sloan knew he was pushing his luck in taking the time that he did to help her look, and she thanked him again when he dropped her off at her apartment. "I'm sorry," he told her. "I don't know what else to tell you."
Sloan smiled at him sadly. "It was worth a try," she said quietly. "I guess there's nothing left to do but wait."
Once again he snapped out of a daze. Something had touched the edge of his senses, something familiar. He stared into the darkness, straining his perceptions around him. What was it? It was just...there...
Sloan. He rose to a crouch, almost involuntarily. Sloan was somewhere in the building, somewhere nearby. He grabbed the bars of the cage, gripping them tightly. Was she a prisoner too?
It was hard for him to sort through her tangle of emotions at this distance, harder still to put names to them, but he sagged in relief when he found no hint of panic. She was free, then. And she must be searching for him, judging from the fear, anger, worry, and impatience that were tumbling through her. He was torn among fury at her for endangering herself, and breath-stealing awe, and that strange, sharp-sweet, hurting emotion that he thought must be love.
He knew she wouldn't find him. There was no way any civilian was going to find out about this place, let alone someone undoubtedly marked as dangerous to the government's plans. He had long since realized that this secret lab must be attached to something legitimate-too many people came and went for it to be completely hidden. So Sloan had found the outer part, or someone had told her about it. Get out, he thought fiercely at her, though he knew she couldn't hear him. Get out before someone gets too suspicious.
And eventually she faded out of his range. He could sense the despair and frustration deepening in her as she left without finding him, and he was so grateful that she was getting away. But her leaving left a bigger hole inside him, and he curled up again in the blackness. She came looking for me, he told himself, trying to keep warm at this one small flame.
Island of the Spiders, Ed insisted, was just the thing to distract Sloan from her worries. Neither of them was able to concentrate very well, however; halfway through the black-and-white horror film, Ed, sitting on the floor, realized that Sloan had fallen asleep on the couch behind him. He sighed and stretched his legs out, leaning back against the seat of the sofa, and hit the mute button on the remote. It was almost more fun to make up the dialogue in his head anyway, but eventually his head tipped back against Sloan's legs and he dropped off.
Sloan woke to find the TV showing silent static and Ed sitting up with his head in his hands. "I dreamed it too," he said quietly.
She put one hand on his hair. "I know," she said. "I felt you behind me."
Ed lifted his head and looked at her, disturbed. "What's happening to us? What are they doing to Tom?"
"I don't know," she whispered. "I just don't know."
Two days later Ed returned from one of his rambles to report that the surveillance teams were gone.
"At least the ones I know about," he temporized, tossing his jacket onto a chair. "Couldn't find any trace of 'em."
"That's weird." Sloan paused in chopping celery. "Are we no longer a threat?"
"Who knows?" Ed snatched a stalk from the cutting board and began chewing vigorously. "Maybe they'll come back. And for all we know, the Homo dominant team is still out there. I never could find them again."
He sat down at the laptop to check the e-mail, and after a moment his brows shot up. "Sloan- c'mere."
Sloan dried her hands on a towel as she walked over. "What's up?" Ed pointed to the screen. "Walter's found us a safe place to go."
Sloan read the message quickly. Attwood was offering them a sort of safe house out in the desert, a place where they would not be watched and where he and Ray could join them to make plans. But she shook her head and flipped the towel onto her shoulder. "I'm not going."
Ed spun to look at her. "Not going? Sloan, are you crazy? The new species could decide to take us out any minute here, never mind the government!"
Sloan set her jaw. "I'm not going anywhere until we find out what happened to Tom." She saw the expression on his face and unbent a little. "Ed...what if he gets away? How will he find us if we're not here?"
"If he has any sense, he won't come anywhere near here. This is the first place they'll look!" "He'll come." Sloan was certain.
Ed took a deep breath. "Sloan, we don't even know if he's still alive. And either way, he would want you to be safe."
For a moment she wavered, seeing the truth in Ed's argument, but then she sighed. "No. I have to be here. Ed, I won't give up on him. Any more than I gave up on you when Copeland kidnapped you." She looked down into his face, smiling a little at the worry and frustration written there. "You can go if you want."
Ed snorted. "As if."
Sloan thumped him gently with the towel and walked back over to the kitchen. "Tom would kill me if I left you alone, anyway," Ed muttered under his breath, and began trying to compose a reply, wincing at the thought of what Attwood was going to say.
The opportunity came so simply. He shuddered, later, to think how easily he might have missed it.
They had the light on again, though they'd put him back in his cage, and he estimated that they were nearing the end of the current session. They were clustered a few feet away from his cage- out of arm's reach, though, they had learned that very early on-muttering scientific jargon to each other. He watched them. It was always better to know what was coming, if possible. One of them put her clipboard under her arm so she could gesture with both hands, and his eyes widened fractionally as he saw the pen start to slide out from under the clip. He held his breath. The pen tilted-held-
-and then fell. He coughed, loudly, trying to cover the sound of the pen hitting the floor and bouncing, and they all jumped and turned toward him. The pen rolled a few feet to one side and stopped, and he coughed again, so they wouldn't think too hard about it. After a moment, they turned away again, and he huddled in his prison and prayed to the God Sloan had told him about. His body was taut with tension, which only intensified the aches, but he had to control himself. Just a few minutes longer.
Finally, finally, they collected their equipment and filed away into the darkness, and a little while later the harsh light snapped off. He made himself wait, in case it was another test, but he could not sense anything, anyone. At last he moved.
It took him subjective hours to snag the pen and drag it to him. He had to take off his filthy trousers and use them to extend his reach, casting into the blackness in the direction of the pen and hoping that he did not knock it further away. At last he heard it dragging under the cloth, and he strained through the bars until his fingertips touched it.
A silent laugh swelled his throat as he grasped it. It was a good, expensive fountain pen, too, not a cheap disposable. Not that he could pick the lock with it, not at all; but it was sturdy enough that he could use it, and his inherent strength, to knock the pin out of the hinge on the cage. He had noted that security flaw within moments of examining the cage when he had first woken within it, but without a tool he could do nothing. Now he had the tool.
Again, it seemed to take forever. He wrapped his trousers around the hinge, afraid of making too much noise, and banged steadily away. His fingers were bruised and the cloth torn before he managed to work the pin free-but the door swung open at a gentle push, and he stepped out onto the cold floor, breathing a silent thank-you.
It took precious minutes to stretch out his cramped muscles, but at last he headed out into the darkness, in the direction of that far-off door he had heard a few times. Eventually he found a wall, put one hand on it, and began walking. His guess was good. The door was not far away- and it was not locked. He shook his head. The cage may have been secure, but his captors were very careless to use only one layer to keep him in.
He pressed his ear to the door, but could hear nothing. When he edged it open a crack, blinking at the light, he found a long, blank corridor. Empty. Not even-and his eyes narrowed in satisfaction- -any security cameras.
A few minutes of cautious exploration revealed that he was in the heart of an enormously extensive complex-and it was apparently the middle of the night. The inner portion of the complex, a maze of labs and hallways, was deserted, for which he was profoundly grateful. He found a water cooler in one of the labs; the first swallow was a blessing, and he reined in his tearing thirst with difficulty. But too much at once would make him sick, and he was already nearly staggering from fatigue and hunger, and abuse. He had to get out before someone noticed he was gone.
The simplest way, he finally decided, was to take a page from Lynch's book, and just walk out. Humans saw what they expected to see.
He grabbed a lab coat from a hook to cover his bare torso and the worst of the bruises, then slipped out into the outer complex. The floor plan was absurdly simple, and he had little trouble avoiding the few people moving around. Spotting a restroom, he hid quickly in a inside before anyone took a second look at him.
He leaned against the wall of one of the stalls, panting a little. His body was threatening to betray him with weakness, but he had to get out of the building at least before he could take even a short rest. This hiding place was only an illusion of safety, and would probably be one of the first places searched when his absence was discovered.
But then opportunity pushed open the door and walked in. The slender man was dressed in an impeccable suit and carrying a briefcase, with the faint air of someone who was other than what he appeared to be-and the hint of a bulge under one arm, where a holster could rest. A few seconds later, however, the agent was unconscious on the floor.
He dragged the man into the stall and stripped him quickly, then tied and gagged his prize with cloth torn from the lab coat. It would have been easier, and safer, to kill, but he knew that was wrong.
A hollow-cheeked ghost stared back at him from the mirror, face marred by bruises and eyes dull with exhaustion and dehydration. He ran a hand over his chin, wincing, but his control had held and there was no stubble to deal with. A few minutes of splashing and more winces cleaned off the worst of the stink, and he donned his purloined clothing.
If he had believed in luck, he would have marveled at it. The clothes and shoes were too big, but not unmanageably so; the handgun was fully loaded. He examined the badge; the face in the photo was wider than his own, but it had dark hair, and he decided it was better to wear it and risk the comparison than to not wear it at all. His appearance would not hold up under close scrutiny anyway.
He slipped out into the corridor and followed a passerby at a distance. As he hoped, the woman led him to the front door, which had a guard checkpoint. He hung back for a moment, observing; but the guards only watched idly as the woman signed out and left.
He exhaled to calm his racing mind, took a firm grip on his shaky body, and walked toward the checkpoint, projecting the aura of authority that he had employed in his role as a Bureau agent. The guards looked up as he approached, but paid no more attention to his illegible scrawl on the sign-out sheet than they had to the woman. He swallowed, and pushed open the door, and walked out into the night. Sloan...
Sloan's spirits were slipping. It had been nearly a week since the fruitless lab search, and her stock of hope was running low. She returned from a distracted walk to find Ed dressed to go out. "Where are you off to?"
"I'm meeting my pal at UCLA," he explained, shrugging into a coat. "We're still trying to reconstruct the serum data, but it's slow going without the tick samples. I didn't have enough of it backed up on my laptop."
On impulse, Sloan kissed him on the cheek. "Good luck," she said softly, and Ed gave her a hug and left.
Alone again, Sloan wandered through her rooms, restless and uneasy. Despair was creeping up on her. Something awful's happened to Tom, I just know it. Is he hurt? Is he dead?
She shuddered at a new thought, and scooped up his jacket as if for comfort. What if he's reverted? What if something they've done to him has turned him back into the killer he used to be?
It had never occurred to her before, but perhaps he had ended up in the same place as Lewis. We don't know what key Lewis used on Tom to put him in that trance. Maybe Lewis turned him back and they both escaped.
If that were true, Sloan would probably be first on Lewis' list of targets-unless the danger from the government kept him away. But the surveillance teams are gone now. There's nothing to keep Lewis from sending Tom straight in.
She had succeeded in bringing Tom back to himself before, but he had been helpless at the time. Tom, free and armed, might not give her the chance to do anything, and while tackling and kissing him had a certain appeal, she didn't think she'd get such an opportunity.
Sloan shook herself. This was getting her nowhere. She cuddled the jacket against her cheek, feeling the tears rising again. "Tom," she whispered. "I miss you."
Slowly, she stretched out on her bed, the empty ache inside threatening to overwhelm her, and wept herself into a fitful sleep.
He was so tired. It had taken him a very long time to get back to the city, thanks to his exhaustion; first, he had stolen a truck from the complex and abandoned it a few miles down the road-in the wrong direction. Misdirection might buy him a few hours.
When he finally reached Sloan's neighborhood, he cast around him with dulled senses for signs of watchers, but could find nothing. He frowned, blinking at the setting sun. Was he too tired, or were they actually gone? That didn't make sense.
To be on the safe side, he got into Sloan's building the way he always had. It occurred to him that he never had explained to her how he did it. But he stood inside her apartment at last, his hands shaking with fatigue around the gun, straining his senses. Someone was there, but he could not tell who.
He stepped through the dim light toward Sloan's bedroom, and let out his pent-up breath in indescribable relief. The huddled form on the bed was crowned with riotous curls.
She's all right. He staggered a bit, knees suddenly weak, then straightened and walked silently to the edge of the bed. He gazed down, drinking her in. She murmured in her sleep, tears still marking her cheeks, with-he squinted a little-his jacket tucked against her.
His lips turned up at the sight. Carefully, trying not to wake her-she looked so pale and drawn-he set the handgun on the table next to the bed and lay down next to her. He traced his fingers over the curve of her face, lightly, trembling a little. Her skin was warm and velvet soft, and the persistent gnawing in his middle finally eased. He was back where he belonged.
Her eyes opened slowly to fix on his face. Sleepy wonder gave way to that shimmering joy that he coveted so; her arms went around him-tight, tight-her voice repeated his name in shaky syllables against his ear. He pulled her as close as possible, eyes burning and breath coming hard through his constricted throat. Warmth flooded through him, dispelling the lingering chill from his imprisonment. All the days of fear and pain were pushed aside by the feel of her body against his, the scent and sight of her, the relief and love overwhelming his senses as they poured from her. "Sloan," he muttered, pressing his face into her hair, feeling her tears soaking into his stolen shirt. Nothing was more precious than this.
Sloan finally pulled away, just enough to see his face, to cup his cheek in her palm. "I was so afraid you were dead," she whispered.
"I was afraid you'd been taken too," he managed, voice hoarse. "I couldn't tell."
"Ohh..." Fresh tears spilled from her eyes. "No, I was safe. But Tom-what have they done to you-"
He shook his head, and blotted the moisture away with his fingertips. Her heart swelled at his touch, and she traced the bruises on his face, but let the questions lie for the moment. "I didn't know what to do," she said softly.
"You tried," he said, and smiled. She wanted to ask him how he knew, but the tenderness of his expression undid her. Their mouths met, gently, one kiss not enough to undo all the harm. But it was a beginning.
Then Tom pulled her close again, tucking her head under his chin, and she could feel him shaking. She held him with all that was in her, the relief almost unbearable after so agonizing a time. He was thinner, almost emaciated, and Sloan nearly wept again at the evidence of maltreatment. Something terrible had been done to him.
Gradually his trembling eased and his tense body relaxed somewhat. Sloan lifted her head, noting the signs of extreme exhaustion in his battered face. He stared at her wonderingly, his eyes traveling over her as though to refill some emptied cup of memory.
"You should sleep," she told him gently.
His arms tightened a bit. "I don't want to leave you," he said, and she knew he feared to go even as far as oblivion.
"I'll be right here," she assured him. "I don't want to leave you either."
After a moment he sighed, and loosened his grip. Sloan sat up, pushing her hair out of her face, and gazed down at him happily. He smiled again, that small shy smile that always warmed her, and took her hand in his. "Can I have some water?" he asked.
She slid off the bed and stood up, then lifted their joined hands to her mouth and pressed a kiss to his before letting go. "Be right back."
She filled a glass and brought it to him, conscious always of his gaze following her. He sat up as she returned, and her heart twisted as she saw how stiffly he moved. What kind of injuries were hidden under his clothing? As he drank, she removed the shoes he was wearing, wondering briefly where he had gotten the clothes-then deciding that it was probably better if she didn't know.
"Want some more?" she asked, taking the glass. His eyes were already sliding shut, though he was struggling valiantly to stay awake.
"No," he answered. "I can't have too much at once."
Sloan set the glass aside. "Lie down," she ordered, turning back the comforter. His eyebrows rose, but he sank down onto his side, still trying to watch her. She lay down behind him, and his head lifted a little, but she pulled the comforter halfway up and put her arms around him from behind, curving her legs to fit against his. He let out a long breath as she snuggled up close, and his hands covered hers where she pressed one against his waist, the other on his chest. Sleep took him quickly; Sloan felt the tension in him melting into limpness, and she pressed her forehead gently against the back of his head and wept a few last silent tears.
She drowsed for a while herself, opening her eyes every so often to smile at the back of Tom's neck. Finally she eased gently away from him; his hands tightened briefly on hers, but then relaxed again as he slid deeper into sleep. She got cautiously out of the bed and pulled the comforter up to his shoulders. Spotting the gun on the bedside table, she grimaced, then picked it up gingerly and put it in the table's drawer.
Ed had left the number of the UCLA lab where he was working. Knowing him, Sloan thought as she dialed, he would still be deep in experiments; when he got on a roll there was no stopping him for hours. She had to let the phone ring ten times before an impatient male voice answered.
"Ed Tate, please?" she asked, and was put on hold for a moment while the man went to haul Ed out of whatever he was working on. At last he answered. "Sloan? Everything okay?"
She had to bite down a laugh, in case somebody was listening on their line. "Can you come back, please, Ed? I...I don't want to be alone right now." She winced a bit at the lie, but she did not want anybody who might be listening in to know about Tom. Whoever had held him would miss him soon, if they hadn't already.
Ed sighed. "Sure. This is going nowhere anyway." She saw him in her mind's eye, lab coat rumpled, scrubbing his hand through his hair in frustration.
"Thanks," she said, with complete sincerity.
"Be there as soon as I can," he said, and hung up.
She met him at the door when he arrived, one finger on her lips and her eyes dancing. His brows went up in a question, but he held his peace as she let him in.
"On the bed," she said softly, pointing into her bedroom. A grin spread slowly over Ed's face as he made out the familiar form tucked under the covers.
"He made it back?" he whispered, and Sloan nodded, smiling back. Ed enveloped her in a swift hug, and her laugh choked in her throat a moment before she stepped back to look up at him.
"He's in bad shape, Ed. I don't know what they did to him, but he's really hurt."
Ed sobered and fetched his doctor's bag, stowed in Sloan's closet. "Let's take a look."
Tom did not wake as Ed did a quick examination, a fact that worried the doctor. The Homo dominant's hyper-alert senses should have brought him out of anything short of a coma, but Tom's eyes remained shut and his breathing slow as Ed peeled off the stolen shirt.
He swallowed hard at the bruises and abrasions underneath, and Sloan put a hand to her mouth, holding back a sob. Ed had heard of this kind of systematic abuse, mostly in the context of prisoners of war or of politics. But none of the injuries he found appeared life-threatening. Ed decided to wait until Tom woke up for a more extensive examination.
"He seems to be okay, more or less," he told Sloan finally, pulling the comforter back up. Sloan sat down on the edge of the bed and ran a gentle hand over Tom's hair. "More or less?"
"Well, I don't think he's in immediate danger," Ed clarified. "I think we can leave him here for the moment. But he's severely dehydrated, and he probably hasn't had anything to eat since he was taken." He tucked his stethoscope back into his bag, deciding not to call Sloan's attention to the deeper bruises on Tom's wrists and ankles. "I need to get some supplies for him."
Sloan nodded. "Sorry about the phone call," she said.
"No, I understand," Ed answered. "We can't let anybody know he's here. As it is, we'll probably have to move him tomorrow, before they come looking for him."
"How do you know they won't come tonight?"
Ed snapped the bag shut. "I don't. But I don't think it's safe to move him right now either. He's obviously on the ragged edge of exhaustion."
Sloan's mouth tightened at the danger, but there was little they could do. Her alarm system had not kept the abductors out before.
"Did he say anything about where he's been, or who might come looking for him?" Ed asked.
"He didn't want to talk about it," Sloan admitted.
Ed snorted. "I don't blame him."
While Ed was gone, Sloan sent a guarded e-mail to Walter and Ray, telling them the good news. She had a feeling they could use some.
A few minutes later Attwood's reply arrived.
I don't think you have anything to fear from my ex-boss at the moment. Something is going on within that organization-we have not been able to discover just what it is as yet, but it appears to be pulling in enormous amounts of manpower. Nevertheless, I urge you three to get out of town as soon as possible. The safe house I told you about is still available, and I trust that you will not be so stubborn now that Tom is safe.
Sloan bit her lip to suppress a smile at Walter's admonitory tone. He sounds like a teacher scolding a student...but he has a point.
Ed returned a couple of hours later with what seemed to Sloan to be enough supplies to set up a small clinic. "Where did you get all this?" she asked, helping him put an IV stand together.
"Trade secret," Ed replied, and hung a bag from the stand. "Hold his arm for me, will you?"
He cleaned and bandaged the worst of Tom's abrasions, noting with interest that there appeared to be no signs of infection. Finally he straightened, pulling off his gloves and smothering a yawn.
"You should go to bed," Sloan urged. "It's almost morning."
Ed looked down at their patient, and she could see the conflict in his face. "I'll watch him," she added. "I don't think I could sleep anyway."
"Okay," Ed conceded finally, and allowed himself to be tucked up in his sleeping bag. Sloan dimmed the lights and resumed her post next to Tom. She took his hand, feeling his fingers curl slightly around hers even in sleep, and smiled, heart overflowing with thankfulness.
Tom slept for hours, scarcely moving, much as he had after Sloan had rescued him from the basement of his childhood house. Ed, when he woke around noon, theorized that it was a more developed form of healing reflex; if an injured member of the new species knew himself to be safe, he would rebuild strength and speed repair through a deep sleep. He bent over his patient, examining the burns and scrapes. "Look how fast he's healing," he pointed out to Sloan. The lighter injuries were already fading. "One of us would take weeks to recover from this. I'll bet he'll be on his feet within a few days."
Sloan shook her head. "Still. They did terrible things to him." She sat down in the chair she had pulled up to the bed. "How could they? What could justify this kind of treatment?"
"Nothing," Ed returned grimly.
He retreated into the shower and Sloan busied herself making them lunch, finding her appetite for the first time since Tom had been taken. Over the meal, she told Ed about her conversation with Walter the night before.
"He's right," Ed agreed. "I don't want to try to move Tom until he wakes up at least; we know so little about his physiology, I'm shooting in the dark here. But if he continues at his current rate, we should be able to leave tomorrow, probably tomorrow night."
Sloan nodded and swallowed her last bite of sandwich. "I'll start packing, then, and you'd better do the same."
It was early evening when Tom stirred. Sloan, sitting by the bed and reading a scientific journal, heard his breathing change and looked up, taking his hand. Tom opened his eyes at her touch, blinking.
"How're you feeling?" Sloan said softly, smiling at him.
His grip tightened on her hand. "Not too good," he admitted, his voice still hoarse. "But better than I was."
Ed came up behind her, carrying a hypodermic. "Good to have you back, man," he told Tom, and slid the needle deftly into his arm.
"You people are always sticking me with something," Tom complained mildly, and Sloan giggled.
"Hey, you asked for the last set. Besides, this is just vitamins," Ed retorted. "Sloan, get the man some water."
Sloan complied, but Tom barely finished the glass before he sank back into sleep. Sloan caught her breath, worried, but Ed put a hand on her shoulder. "S'okay. That's natural. In fact, I'm surprised he woke up at all."
"You aren't sedating him, are you?"
"No way." Ed peeled off his gloves. "I don't know if they drugged him with anything, and I don't want any bad reactions. He's just exhausted."
"So am I," Sloan said, surprised. Adrenaline and joy had kept her alert all day, but all of a sudden all her energy seemed to drain away.
"Go to bed then. Doctor's orders," Ed said. Sloan obeyed and curled up next to Tom, careful of the IV line. She ignored Ed's raised eyebrow. She needed Tom's nearness almost as much as he needed hers.
Tom woke with a start, half sitting up. "Sloan?" he gasped. He was in her apartment, her bed, but she was nowhere to be seen. "Sloan?"
Ed came into view in the other room. "Hey, Tom, relax. She's in the shower."
Tom let out his breath, panic subsiding, and became aware of stiffness and hurt. Ed walked over to the bed and took Tom's wrist, checking his pulse. "Want something for the pain?"
Tom shook his head, unwilling to muddle his head any further. The pain was negligible compared to the past few weeks, anyway.
Ed filled a glass from a carafe sitting next to the bed and handed it to Tom. "Drink up. You're almost completely rehydrated."
Tom took a few swallows, then looked up at the tall man. "Thank you," he said gravely, meaning more than just the water.
Ed shrugged, looking embarrassed. "I'm just glad you're okay." He wandered back into the living room, and Tom guessed from the rattling of keys that he was working on a computer project.
Tom sat back against the headboard, listening to the shower run, and trying to clear his head. He remembered waking, earlier, to find it nighttime; he had opened his eyes to see Sloan asleep not an arm's length away, hair in her eyes. Reassured, he had laced his fingers through hers and watched her, listened to her quiet breathing, until sleep had taken him again.
Now it was morning, and early, by the slant of the sun coming through the windows. He still felt drained, dangerously exhausted, almost ill, but he knew that his body was repairing itself. He suddenly wanted a shower himself, and equally suddenly wondered if he would be able to stand up that long.
Ed reappeared with his stethoscope, and Tom submitted patiently to his cursory examination. "So, what's the diagnosis?" he asked finally.
Ed sat back on the end of the bed. "You're better than you were; in fact, I think we can get rid of this." He pulled a gauze pad from his bag and carefully removed the IV line, bandaging Tom's arm neatly. "I want a closer look at some of your injuries, though, when Sloan gets out of the bathroom."
Tom thought about refusing, but realized that it probably wouldn't do any good.
Sloan emerged from her shower swathed in robe and towel, and gave him a brilliant smile. "How are you feeling?"
He smiled back, absorbing the sight of her. "Better," he said again.
She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. "I'll fix us some breakfast after I get dressed," she said. Ed jerked his head toward the living room, and she nodded.
Tom's gaze followed her as she pulled clothes from her closet. When she closed the doors between her bedroom and living room, he blinked and looked back to Ed. "I want a shower," he said firmly.
"Checkup first," Ed countered. "Let's see some skin."
Tom had to give Ed credit; the doctor did not articulate his thoughts when he saw further evidence of what had been done to Tom, but his anger and disgust were almost palpable. The latter surprised Tom with its sting, but he waited until Ed was finished before mentioning it.
"I disgust you?" he asked, catching the doctor's gaze.
Ed blinked, looking startled. "What? Where'd you get that?" "It's what you're feeling," Tom pressed.
Ed stared at him, confused; then his expression cleared. "Not you, dummy," he said, and punched Tom lightly on the shoulder. "The people who did this to you. Don't be stupid. Now c'mon, let's get you into that shower. Sloan will have food ready soon, and I want you to try eating a little."
The relief was also surprising, but he had no time to think about it as Ed helped him to his feet. Just walking the few feet to the bathroom left him shaky and breathless, even with the taller man's support. "I don't think I'll be able to stand that long," he said, eyeing the tub ruefully.
"Then take a bath," Ed said, tossed him a towel, and left.
Take a bath. He could not remember ever doing so. Showers were more efficient. On the other hand, it would be easier to keep his bandaged arm dry.
He had just eased himself into the warm water when Sloan knocked. "Tom? I'm leaving you some clean clothes outside the door."
"Okay," he answered absently. The small rubber waterfowl he had found in the soap dish bemused him.
"Shout if you need anything," she added, and he could hear her walking away.
Tom stayed in the bath longer than he had intended; while the water stung his wounds at first, immersion was surprisingly relaxing. His muscles were still cramped and sore from his imprisonment, but some of the knots loosened in the warmth. The clothes he found outside the door were his own, and he realized that one of the two must have retrieved his belongings from his motel room after he had been taken.
He managed to get dressed and back to Sloan's bed on his own, barely; Ed rebandaged a couple of places for him, then went back to the living room for something. Tom leaned against the pillows and watched Sloan moving around the kitchen. She smiled and laughed, teasing Ed, and he could almost see energy sparking from her. The odors of eggs and sausage reached him, a comfortable scent, mixed with the smell of clean sheets. Apparently Sloan had remade the bed while he was bathing. A heavy wave of fatigue washed over him, and he sighed and put his head back, puzzled by the feeling that warmed his insides. As he gave into sleep, he decided it must be contentment.
"Well, so much for breakfast," Sloan said, glancing into the bedroom. "He's fallen asleep again."
Ed forked another sausage onto his plate. "That's okay. Next time he wakes up, give him some of that chicken broth, and maybe a little toast if he thinks he's up to it." He waved toward the cans he'd brought with the medical supplies.
"Where are you going?" Sloan asked, pouring herself another cup of coffee.
"Going to gas up the van," Ed mumbled around a mouthful, then swallowed. "And pick up a few more things we might need. Walter's safe house is kinda far."
"Maybe we should take my car," Sloan said thoughtfully. "Yours is pretty distinctive."
Ed shook his head. "Not enough room. We can put down the seats in the camper so Tom can lie down in the back."
Sloan shrugged. "Your call. Is there anything else I can bring?" A small pile of bags already sat near the door; Sloan had packed for Tom as well as herself, but he did not have many possessions. It was hard to decide what they might need when they didn't know how long they'd be gone. Or even if we'll ever make it back, Sloan thought with an inward shiver.
"Maybe make some sandwiches," Ed suggested. "There aren't a lot of fast food places the way we're going." He put his dishes in the sink and grabbed his jacket. "Back in a few hours."
"Be careful," Sloan cautioned, and locked the door behind him.
Sloan was shaking his shoulder gently, calling his name, tugging him out of the deep well of sleep.
"C'mon, Tom," she cajoled. "You need to wake up and eat something."
He opened his eyes. Sloan was sitting on the edge of the bed, smiling down at him. Tom looked at her, reassuring himself that this was not another wrenching dream, and then on impulse slid closer and laid his head on her thigh. She said nothing, only put her hand on his head and began stroking his hair. He pressed his palm against her leg and listened to her heartbeat, strong and slow.
As usual, she was feeling a mix of emotions, and he tried to figure them out, with only partial success. The flooding warmth, sustaining and indescribable, that he had finally decided was love; a strange, bittersweet sorrow that made no sense to him at all; something brooding and protective, similar to what he felt when he watched her sleep; and a frisson of worry and fear. Then he let them all go and simply enjoyed the sensation of her fingers smoothing his hair, the scent of her skin, her very closeness.
Tears rose in Sloan's eyes when Tom put his head in her lap, but she did not let them fall. For a long while they sat in peace together; his face was turned away from her, but she watched him breathe and reveled in the fact that he was safe. She wondered if anyone-like his strange, cold mother-had ever comforted him when he was a child; or did the new species raise their children without any affection at all?
Finally, though, Tom sat up carefully, rising shakily to his knees. He looked at her a long moment, saying nothing, but that clear grey gaze seemed to see right into her heart. Then he leaned forward, braced his hands on the wall behind her head, and kissed her.
All thoughts of him as a child fled from her at the touch of his mouth, and she put her hands on his shoulders, trying to draw him closer. That unbearable, aching sweetness took her breath as it had the first time he had kissed her, and for an instant she remembered those peculiar, private, stolen moments in the shabby motel room. Then his mouth opened over hers, coaxing her deeper, and she let thought go entirely.
Tom shuddered as she gave herself willingly to him. Every step he took in this direction was a possible danger to the bond between them, but there was no trace of rejection in her, and her lips were so soft, so warm. He didn't want to stop-he wanted to lean even closer, to see how far she would surrender, to wind his fingers in her hair and drown in that complete acceptance. But his arms were already shaking under his weight. He let her go before they gave way and sat back reluctantly, watching her eyes slowly open and focus. He touched her lips with one gentle finger, and she smiled, rueful and amazed.
She had to swallow twice before she could speak. "You need to eat something," she finally managed, and he nodded. She rose to her feet, a little unsteady, and turned to pick up the tray that was sitting on her dresser. Behind her back, he ran his tongue over his lips, familiarizing himself with the taste of her again, before settling back against the headboard.
Sloan put the tray in his lap. He picked up the mug and sipped at the broth, feeling his shrunken stomach expand at the offering. Sloan sat crosslegged on the end of the bed.
"We have to leave soon," she told him. "Walter's found us a safe place to stay, but it's out in the desert and it will take us a long time to get there."
Tom set the mug down. "Where is Attwood?" he asked, and took a cautious bite of toast.
Sloan's smile faded, and she told him what had happened to Walter and Ray the night he'd been kidnapped. "They've been running ever since," she finished. "Walter says they have evidence of the government's actions for the press, but the time isn't right to release it yet."
"Others like me," Tom mused. "So many. I wonder if Shane found them." "I'm surprised they didn't find you," Sloan said, but he shook his head.
"I would have been too dangerous for them to approach. And remember, you were what changed my mind."
Sloan's mouth curved shyly at that. He swallowed the last of the broth, and she rose. "Ed should be back very soon," she said. "Then we'll have to leave."
"Okay," he acknowledged, already sleepy again. Sloan bent to pick up the tray, and he touched her arm. "Stay with me for a while."
"Of course." She put the tray back on the dresser and returned to sit next to him, pulling the comforter up to his shoulders and tucking it in around him. He pulled one hand out of the cover and wrapped it around hers. She squeezed back gently, and he faded easily into sleep.
"The van's in the basement garage," Ed said, letting himself in the door. Sunset reddened the room with slanting light.
Sloan let out a long breath and pulled her favorite hat on over her ears. "You scared me," she said, a bit crossly.
"Government wouldn't have bothered to unlock the door," Ed retorted, picking up three of the bags. "You about ready?"
Sloan forbore to answer as he disappeared again. An itchy feeling had begun crawling up her spine over the last hour, and it was growing. She glanced over at her bed, but Tom was already awake.
"Where did you put the pistol?" he asked, sitting up carefully.
"Drawer by the bed." Sloan pointed, and Tom removed the weapon. Sloan stuffed a last few sandwiches into the cooler and put it near the door. "Is there anything you can think of that we'll need?"
Tom shook his head, looking faintly amused, and Sloan remembered that when they had fled from
the police he had been ready to go with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. She, on the other hand, wanted a few more comforts if possible.
Ed came back in the door. "There's one more thing I want to do," he said, going over to his laptop. "Tom, I never got a last DNA reading from you. I know it's been too long, but I want to finish up the experiment."
"Are you sure we have time for this?" Sloan asked, but Tom ignored her, pushing up his sleeve.
"I want to get it done before we pack up the equipment," Ed answered, bending over Tom. "Who knows when we'll get another chance?"
"Have you been able to reconstruct the data?" Tom asked.
Ed shook his head, busy with his experiment. "Not really; we made a start at the UCLA lab, but we're basically starting over from scratch. There. This'll only take a minute."
Tom made his way slowly from the bedroom to the sofa. His strength was returning, but not quickly enough to suit him. Sloan came over and stood behind him, feeling protective, and he reached up and took her hand. Her itchy feeling went up another notch.
The machine beeped, and Ed rattled keys for a few seconds. Then his hands slid off the keyboard and he stared at the screen, speechless.
"What is it?" Sloan asked nervously. "Ed?"
Astonishment spread over the scientist's face. "That's...but you're..." "Ed." Tom's voice was low, but it snapped Ed's head up to look at them. "Tom..." he said finally. "Your DNA differential is still 1.4 percent."
They stared at each other, and a siren wailed in the distance, underscoring their silence. Sloan's fingers tightened on Tom's hand. That's not possible...