Chapter Seventeen

The Great(?) Outdoors

Mike wasn't just worried, he was scared. Not just for his friend, but for the Los Angeles Resistance. If Martin had slipped away under the influence of some sudden unknown signal that triggered a latent conversion, he knew enough to do more than cause trouble.

Ham and Martin were both right, he was too trusting, too eager to see the best in a person, whether they had dark skin, light skin, or scales. At lease Martin had remained enough his cautious self to make sure he didn't know the primary escape routes or their alternate hideouts, so things weren't hopeless. If Philip and Lydia could keep him from talking . . . Philip might not be calculating enough to silence his own brother, but Lydia certainly was.

Mike shivered, realize he wasn't just contemplating but counting on the murder of his best friend. He might not be as ruthless as Ham or Julie, or for that matter Martin, but he was learning. The dim possibility of rescue and de-conversion didn't even enter the equation. His only comfort was that Martin wouldn't just understand, he'd fully condone the decision. The thing his friend feared most wasn't death, as Mike had assumed when Martin all but begged to leave the mothership with him the first time he dragged Mike's ass out of the nearly literal fire. It was breaking under torture, betraying friends and family, likely to have them slaughtered in front of him before his own slow execution. Diana wouldn't waste truth serum on what she would view as a truly enjoyable task, and torture resistance training only helped so much when the one holding the instruments had gone through the same training, had deep scientific knowledge of anatomy paired with an imagination that was twisted the breaking point, and access to technology capable of breaking minds as thoroughly as she could break bodies, with just as much pain.

Now Mike just had to explain it all to everybody else.


Tyler didn't explode when told the situation. He didn't even mutter "I told you so" or wear his usual sneering look of triumph at being proven right. Maybe it was Bethany's expression when she insisted on being the one to tell him and Julie. She sounded steady and kept a stoic expression, but her eyes were hollow and desperate in a face so pale she didn't look real.

Without mentioning why, Mike and Julie quietly spread the world to prepare to run. A few wanted to leave immediately even without knowing details, but after the long, hot flight to freedom just a few days before, most weren't willing to move again unless they had no choice.

The tensions weren't helped when word somehow got around that the precautions were because of a missing Visitor. The human fugitives, already uneasy after the last attack, were furious, both at the reason for the high alert and the prospect of another delay in getting them out. They refused to wait another day and made it clear they had had enough of working with their alien allies.

And I thought they were just quiet and keeping to themselves, Mike thought angrily. He'd never imagined that being hidden in the theater with Boris and Natasha and their kids would bother three adult humans, who were supposed to be rational scientists, to the point of such fury. In the end, Katrina, Chris, and an eager young recruit named Maria agreed to take them to Susie's new hanger so Chris and Justice could pilot them out. Mike had to keep reminding himself that they were scholars caught smuggling scientific equipment, not fighters, in deeper than they'd ever planned to be. They were terrified, one barely out of college and the other two parents with children who'd already been put in danger. But the fact was, he had little sympathy, especially in the face of their fellow fugitives' willingness to not just help, but fit in. He'd be much more than happy to see the humans out of the group go.

"Mike . . ." Julie's soft voice made him jump. She smiled sympathetically, her hand running down his arm. "Everything will be fine."

"I hope so, Julie. I really hope so."

She did her best to enfold him in a hug, though her head barely reached the middle of his chest; the energy of her personality did more to warm his chilled skin than her small body. He let himself sag, holding her close, truly happy for just a moment because he could hold her again.

They'd broken up three times, and once he was sure he'd lost her to another man, an old flame rekindled by a chance encounter, one she thought she'd realized was the love of her life. But the handsome doctor had slipped back into his rather medieval ideas of a woman's appropriate place and Julie hadn't been kind when ending that.

Julie always came back to him, and they finally decided it was too much work to stay apart. She'd even agreed to make it not only permanent but legal once the war was over. God, please let them live to get that chance.

Dragging footsteps pulled them apart. Bethany was empty-eyed but determined as she marched towards them.

"Anything?" Mike asked.

She shook her head. "Alexei sent a message. They made it to the workshop and the fugitives are on the way out, in Lucy since they wouldn't even wait for dark. Alexei doesn't know anything. He doesn't have any suggestions except to not worry so much."

Julie exchanged sad looks with him. "Alexei can be a little spooky at times, but Martin's family. I'm afraid he's letting that influence him, Mike. We can't . . ."

"But you can't afford to not worry." Bethany's voice was clipped and professional. "When do you think you'll evacuate?"

"What do you mean, you?" Julie demanded. "We are all going. We'll wait until it's as dark as possible."

"No. I'm not going with you. If I stay here, I can set off a couple flares. We can set up a few different signals so I can warn you about numbers, direction, how many by air . . ."

"Absolutely not!" Julie folded her arms, legs straddled in a pose Mike was too familiar with. "No one is being abandoned."

"This is my responsibility as much as his." Bethany rubbed her face, her shoulders slumping. "More than his. The minute I saw the kind of shape he was in, hate groups or no hate groups, I should have turned around and dragged him home with me, or tried to sneak him into Freeport. I hoped things would get better once he got back here, not worse. But I should have known better . . ."

"Right. And what would have happened if he'd been anywhere else with that damn tracking device only half dug out of his flesh?" Julie reminded her.

Mike shook his head, a half smile tugging its way onto one corner of his mouth. "If you'd have tried that, Martin would have slipped away and tried to get here alone. I know the guy, kid. He never would have put up with it."

"Maybe so," Bethany sighed. "But you could still use eyes here. I know you have signal flares in the armory. It wouldn't be hard to come up with a signal that would give you some useful information. At least you'd know when . . ."

"Not a bad idea," Ham Tyler drawled, leaning against the wall where he'd slipped up behind them.

Mike scowled. "It's a terrible idea."

"Come on, Gooder, you . . ."

"Julie! Mike!"

They all turned, all of them alarmed; Willie wasn't usually so excitable, but his voice was shaking, the reverberation so strong it almost distorted his words. He and Thelma hurried towards them, both looking anxious. He stopped, oddly out of breath for a Visitor, his gaze flicking from face to face. "Mike, I think you're being a little . . ."

"Hasty," Thelma prompted.

"Yes. Thank you."

"I want to think so too, Willie, but . . ." Mike started.

Willie shook his head, frowning. "You knew him as well as any human could. Can you think of nothing else besides conversion that would make Martin seek sol . . . solid . . . solitude for a few hours?"

"I know he's not exactly a social butterfly, but he's probably the most rational man I know. I can't think of anything that would make him act with that kind of carelessness. Seeking solitude might sound like something he'd do, but not like this, in the middle of a battleground, without telling anybody. What are you getting at?"

Willie made a frustrated sound. "Mood swings, unreasonable temper in someone known for unusually tight control even for one of our people, gorging . . ."

"Gorging?" Julie interrupted. "I know he went a bit overboard on the mice with Robert, but that's hardly . . ."

"He ate two guinea pigs and a rat last night."

"What? When?" Mike asked.

"Before everybody went to dinner and while you were looking for Bethany. Have you noticed his scales looking dry and worn?"

"I still . . . oh. Crap."

Bethany looked confused, then her eyes widened. "He's shedding?" She laughed, a sound of delight and acute relief. "How could I not think of that?"

"But wait, isn't it about fifteen years too early?" Mike ran a hand through his hair. "You don't keep growing like Earth reptiles, and he already went through his second adult shed a couple months after moving in with me."

"And Donovan already said it. Why would the idiot lizard just disappear? Why didn't he just tell someone?" Ham added. "Why run off? I don't buy it. He . . ."

"We don't talk about it," Thelma interrupted, and her tone silenced him.

"I would never heave suggested it to you, but you were talking about moving again," Willie explained, shuffling uncomfortably. "People were angry."

"I kind of forced it out of him back then, come to think of it," Mike mused. "I threatened to kick him out if he didn't cool it. He wasn't happy about it either. But he did explain a little, and it's only supposed to happen every twenty, twenty-five years once you're adult, isn't it?"

"Illness or injury can bring on an early shed. We can even force a shed, but it's . . . unpleasant. Few want to go through it more than necessary, for any reason."

"Look, it's an interesting biology lessen, but even if it is some kind of embarrassing bodily function, he should have told someone. At least his girlfriend," Ham said with a scowl.

"Yes, he should have," Willie agreed, and for a moment he looked angry.

"Especially his girlfriend," Thelma added, echoing his expression.

"And I will be having a nice little talk with him about it," Bethany growled, drawing knowing smiles from Julie and Thelma, and grimaces from Willie, Mike, and Ham.

"Is there any way to prove this theory?" Tyler asked. "You all seem so sure, but I don't like it."

"Only to wait, I'm afraid," Willie said. "But . . ."

"Actually, there might be," Mike murmured, half to himself, his eyes widening. "I never thought to look . . . why didn't I . . ." Meeting Julie's eyes, he wilted, edging a little farther away from her. "Come on, main conference room. I think I've been an idiot."

"No arguments there," Tyler snorted as they followed.

"This is a new thing?" Julie grated.

He grinned sheepishly over his shoulder, but it faded under the glare cold enough to freeze his skin.

The conference room—war room, really, but Julie didn't like calling it that—was still a bit of a mess, half-empty boxes scattered on the floor and tables, but the computers were running and key maps were pinned to the walls. Pausing in the center of the room, ignoring the two young women monitoring the computers, the radio, and any incoming messages, he narrowed his eyes, scanning the tables, the walls, the floor. If it was anywhere, it would be in here . . . ah ha.

Moving to the largest map, a view of L. A. and surrounding suburbs, he unpinned a folded scrap of paper, carefully replacing the pin in the same spot.

Unfolding the paper, he found a scribbled-out pen drawing. It took a moment for the lines to resolve into . . . bones? Yes, leg and foot bones of some kind of animal, done on a page torn from a small notebook. He tilted the page to show Bethany.

"Hey, that's from my journal. But I . . ."

"I guess Martin thought it was too important too lose." Turning the page over, he smiled, a little sadly.

"Is that . . . a little lizard?" Bethany asked hesitantly.

"A chameleon," Mike confirmed. "It's a code we developed. It started because I was teasing him after the first couple times he ran recon for me. Fist time he insinuated himself into a gang of bikers running drugs and weapons for a certain business mogul. Stock market and a lot of business tanked during the first invasion. Funny, or not so funny, really, a few of his business boomed. But he still decided his accounts weren't coming back fast enough, and since he wasn't making enough money legally, he figured he'd line his already well padded pockets faster selling drugs to whoever wanted 'em and weapons to people who shouldn't have them. Everything was such a mess, nobody knowing who to trust, he thought he'd get away with whatever he wanted by waving a bit of green under the right nose." Mike scowled. "Never could run the story, Feds axed it and took everything we had as evidence."

Tyler laughed. "That was you? I should have know, always the do-gooder. Bastard's out and helping Diana now. If he ever realizes you two were the ones who put him in jail and lost him all that money, you're both in for pain. You'd be better off with the Queen Lizard."

"Thinking of selling the information, Tyler?"

Ham grimaced in distatste. "There are some people even I won't work for."

"Yeah, he made Bates look like a downright nice guy. At least New York wasn't stupid enough to make him governor during the last election. Anyway, on top of playing human, Martin made a pretty good bad guy. Blended right in if you can believe it."

"That . . . I can't picture," Ham muttered, brows raised.

"It was downright weird." Mike almost laughed. "Second time we were on a story about poachers in Africa. Mountain gorillas. He could get closer than I could. Thick jungle, lots of green, you get the picture. Funny, most animals don't like Visitors, but the gorillas didn't mind at all. This group had learned to fear humans, but he could get right in there, got some excellent still shots . . ." He trailed off at Julie's impatient sigh, grinning sheepishly at the way relief was making him babble. "Right, sorry Julie. I told him his code name on the mother ship should have been Chameleon instead of Iguana, and it kind of built from there."

"Iguana?" Bethany repeated.

"Really, Gooder?" Ham sighed.

"Hey, we needed something on the fly that wasn't his name. Anyway, a circle around it means good to go, a single slash across means caution, a line top to bottom means help, and an X means . . ."

"Eff off?" Bethany suggested.

"Pretty much."

"Makes sense if it's as private as Thelma says," Julie commented.

"It is." Thelma was firm, bordering on scandalized.

Bethany examined the map. "Bronson Canyon. I assume the placement isn't accidental."

"Nope. Ha, that makes sense. If he had any free time and we were in town, he'd almost always start with a hike there. He was almost obsessed with the place, said it reminded him of home."

"That's a ways from here. Five, maybe seven miles. But still, should he have been gone this long?"

Everyone looked at Willie and Thelma. Willie shifted from foot to foot, his discomfort getting more obvious every time he talked. "Scarring makes it more difficult, quite painful."

"Dangerous?" Bethany whispered.

"It shouldn't be." Thelma's disapproving face softened at her worry.

"Shouldn't be," Julie repeated, focusing on the little Visitor.

"He's still young. When he should be in prime condition. But . . ."

"But he's hardly in prime condition," Julie finished.

"No, but his health is improving."

"So you think he'll be okay?" Bethany asked, her voice too high pitched, frightened. Mike remembered the friends she'd just found out were lost, not to mention the anniversary of the wreck that took her entire family, and flinched.

Julie reached out a hand to give her back a comforting rub. "I'm sure he's fine. Howie did say he's in better shape than he looks."

"He might not show it all the time, but Martin's one tough bastard," Mike added.

"He went through our most stringent physical training," Thelma added, and Willie nodded.

"We should still be ready to run," Tyler interrupted.

Mike snarled at him. "Ham, I'm gonna . . ."

Julie waved a hand, cutting off his threat, which was just was well because he wasn't sure how he was going to finish it. "No, Mike. Better to err on the side of caution. We won't leave unless there's a sign we need to, but I want lookouts doubled and anything that can be packed and taken gotten ready. Keep two monitors and the radio running. Have everyone who hasn't done it already throw together their personal belongings. Pass out guns. One pistol, one rifle, and one blaster to everybody, the rest gets packed and ready to move. Willie, your animals . . ."

"They're already in the transport cages and everything else is crated and ready," he said.

"Good man." She aimed a narrow-eyed look at Tyler. "Just remember, Mr. Tyler, no matter what else, he's a valuable asset, and more importantly, he's our friend and ally."

"I know," Tyler said. "Look, I like the guy too, but you have to remember he's damaged goods."

"So are the rest of us," Julie snapped.

"Every single one of us," Thelma said, folding one small hand around Willie's and the other around Bethany's.

Mike threw a protective arm around the pale paleontologist's shoulders. She leaned into him just a little, squeezing Thelma's hand. "How long do you think it'll take?" she asked Willie.

His eyes skittered away from her face.

"Please, Willie. I know it's not something you like to talk about. Humans have similar taboos, But we need to know when to expect him back."

Willie sighed. "With the fresh injuries, and assuming he has other scars I haven't seen . . ."

Bethany nodded. "A few more, About the same as what's visible. No more burns."

"Then probably four, maybe five hours."

"And the time to get there and back," Mike murmured.

"Two, two and a half hours each way if he moves at the rate we did on the way in," Bethany offered. "Probably faster since he won't be trying to save energy to make a certain number of miles a day."

"If he doesn't run into an obstacle," Julie cautioned.

"Right. So he must have left between six and eight AM, which means it's already been between eleven and thirteen hours" Bethany glanced at Mike. "He should have been back by now."

"Not if . . ."


"Calm down, Gooder, I was going to say if he wanted to lay low until dark. Or if he just wanted to be alone for a while."

Mike's face smoothed into a smile. "I knew you'd . . "

"If the words I said a minute ago ever leave this room, I will kill you all" Tyler promised.

Evan Bethany grinned. It died in a moment, her face settling into a hard expression. "I'll give him until midnight."

"Uh huh. And then what?" Tyler asked.

"Then I go looking." Her tone spoke eloquently about what she thought of the question.

"Oh, no, you won't."

"Not alone," Mike amended before Bethany could reply.

"Gooder, you . . ."

Mike spun, a finger planted in the center of the shorter man's chest. "Damn you, Tyler, don't tell me how soft or sentimental I am. After what I was thinking for the last several hours, I owe him, big. I owe him anyway, more than I can every pay." His voice was hoarse, his throat tight. "I left him for dead without even thinking about the immune, or that the Red Dust might be losing effectiveness. I didn't question why it would have . . . have taken so long." Mike's eyes burned, his breath shuddering. "I just left him there. I didn't even try to check how bad he was hurt . . ."

"Honey, you were panicked, might have had a mild concussion," Julie soothed, her gentle hands caressing his. "After Diana . . ."

"Yeah, let's talk about Diana," Tyler interjected. "Who's the one who let her escape and start the war all . . ."

Mike snarled, his voice a hiss. "That would be you, Tyler. Don't think I forgot about that. You and Bates and your brilliant, money-grubbing scheme . . ."

"Hey, I left her in professional hands. Your green buddy is the one who . . ."

Julie cleared her throat, glancing at Bethany. The girl's eyes flicked to each of them in turn. "I know what happened. He told me during one of his bad days. I think half of his problem is the guilt tearing him apart." Her drifting eyes settled on Tyler, her face turning cold. "He did not tell me you were the one who helped Bates kidnap her. I don't think he knows, and I think you'd better pray he never finds out."

"I . . ."

"We don't leave a man behind unless we have to," Julie said quietly. "The three of us can go."

"No. Not you," Tyler snapped. "As much as I hate it, you're the glue that keeps this group together. Without you it'll fracture, and we're the only thing keeping the lizards from owning L.A., if not all California. Losing it would be a blow to the whole Resistance, and I don't know if it's one that we could survive. This is no vital mission, that's all I'm saying. Yeah, he could do us some damage if he got into the wrong hands, but not as much as a few other lizards. This doesn't need your gun hand, and it won't need your doctoring."

Her expression hardening, Julie crossed her arms. "I'm not going to . . ."

"He's right, Julie," Mike murmured. "You're too indispensable to risk on this one. If Willie's right . . ." his eyes fell on Willie's solemn face, and as often happened, the sight of the loyal, eager-to-please alien was enough to pull out a smile. ". . . and I'm sure he is, we don't need an army. In fact, the fewer the better. The biggest risk in this is accidentally running into a patrol."

Willie and Thelma murmured agreement.

Julie scowled at them all but nodded. "Fine." Her eyes landed on Tyler. "You go."

"I'm not leading some fool's errand."

"Bethany's leading this one, so you shouldn't have a problem with it then."

Bethany's wide eyes snapped to her face. "Me? But . . ."

"You picked out how far it was by glancing at the map. You picked out exactly where Howie's shuttle landed after seeing the area once. You're good with maps and directions, and right now that's what we need, not firepower and . . . and male ego. I think I trust you not to get them lost."

Looking from Mike's delighted smile to Tyler's disgruntled face, she nodded slowly. "Yeah, I can get them there and back. Is the "shuttle shop" on the map Marcus and Alexei's new space?"

"Yeah," Mike answered, perking with interest.

"It's only a mile and a half or so from here, almost on the way. Do you want speed, or stealth?"

"They're gong to notice a shuttle, especially since Susie is gone and we'd have to use a different one."

"I wasn't thinking of a shuttle."

"Then . . . ah. The horses," Tyler murmured.

"Think the engineering crew would let us borrow a couple?"

Mike nodded. "Speed. Definitely speed. And it might be more stealthy than you think."

"What do you mean?"

"You'll see."

It was a tense wait. Ham and Mike took Julie's suggestion of an early bedtime to make sure they got some rest. It did seem like a good idea, but Bethany's nerves wouldn't let her. Neither would her head. She begged an aspirin off Julie, who gave her an entire bottle so she didn't have to search for one every few hours. "I'm going to schedule a physical for you one of these days," the doctor threatened as she handed it over.

"I've had tension headaches all my life," Bethany reassured her. "It could be worse. Mom had full-blown migraines. Those things could get nasty."

"Yes they can. Please, Bethany, promise you'll try to rest. And be careful. I know how protective you are of Martin. Remember to protect yourself, too."

"I will, Thanks, Julie."

Julie gripped her arm. "Any time. I'm sure he's fine, honey."

Bethany just nodded. "Night, Julie."


Bethany suspected they both lied about that. She did try to lay down, but the empty bed only made her more anxious. She ended up pacing, staring at herself in the tiny mirror over the nonfunctional sink, sitting in the upholstered chair that managed to be far less comfortable than the simple folding chair Willie had provided her that first night, and pacing again, all between nervous trips to the bathroom.

Time seemed to pass in ultra slow motion, yet midnight arrived in a matter of nanoseconds. Her own heart seemed to try and strangle her when she opened the door and met Mike and Tyler in the hallway.

"Huh. At least you're not going to spend an hour primping like most females. Maybe you're not as hopeless as I thought."

"Why Mr. Tyler, that's the nicest thing you've ever said. To anybody, I suspect."

She must have looked pretty ghastly because he barely frowned. He did eye the blaster at her hip. "I don't think . . ."

"Lay off, Ham," Mike snapped. "Let's go."

Bethany felt a little better at that. If anyone was more worried about Martin than she was, it was Mike Donovan.

They traveled northwest towards Alexei's new digs. The kid was waiting for them; getting messages back and forth was easier, safer, and more reliable since they'd fled the old shuttle hanger. Mike didn't understand all the technical mumbo-jumbo, but the kids and their science-nerd cohorts had taken the opportunity to boost and scramble the signal, and he was grateful they had.

He glanced at the girl at his side. She wasn't really a girl, she was a woman his own age, but she wasn't much taller than Julie and the height difference sometimes mad it hard to remember. She was pale, obviously tired, but dogged and determined, having no problem keeping pace with the men's longer legs. Her face was set, hard, and he couldn't quite read her expression. "So, when we find him, are you going to kiss him or kill him?" he whispered.

"Haven't decided yet," she growled.

"Just save a piece for the rest of us."

"A big piece," Tyler added.

Her face shifted, a little of the stiffness replaced by a shadowy mischief. "Kiss him. Definitely kiss him."

"Never mind," Mike muttered.

Ham made a sound of disgust.

Bethany didn't even smirk and Mike patted her shoulder sympathetically.

Bethany tried to emulate the way the men seemed to be able to watch everywhere at once, alert for any sign of movement, the slightest flash of Visitor red or the white of a squad vehicle. She gave up after a while; she simply wasn't a match for years of experience in a battle zone. She let them act as their guards and concentrated on getting them where they needed to go.

Oddly, as much as she wasn't fond of Ham Tyler, she trusted him at her back. It wasn't just knowing that Martin trusted the man almost as much as he trusted Mike. As unpleasant as he was—abrasive, rude, sometimes downright mean—he had an air of competence that most of the rest of the L.A. Resistance lacked. And if he wasn't loyal to one particular person, he was loyal to the war effort. And he seemed to trust her with this mission.

She'd gone over the map with Mike and Julie, studied it in detail to find their best route, around areas marked in black as impassible, in red as commonly patrolled, and in orange as having a permanent planetside Visitor presence, all of which meant they took a winding course, frustrating her with the extra time it took.

But they made it the new hanger before two in the morning. She found the hidden side entrance that Julie described with no problem, and was greeted by Marcus's dark face. He managed to give them a welcoming smile and look grim at the same time, turning to yell over his shoulder. "Oi! Brand, tell Alexei they're here!"

The three of them followed Marcus through a low, narrow tunnel composed entirely of rubble and trash, and a few dead things judging from the smell.

"Helps keep the Visitors from looking too close at our door," Marcus explained when he saw her face. "It was Bettina's idea. You didn't get to meet her. She's an outed Fifth Columnist that Philip got off the mother ship a couple years ago. She was just a kid at the time, but she was being trained as an engineer specializing in engine maintenance, so she has some really useful knowledge floating around in her head."

"I bet she does. You guys do okay through the earthquake?"

"Except for a little soul-searing terror. This place is built solid. I thought all three of our Visitors were going to crack, being trapped underground with all the shaking, though."

"It wasn't just us, Marcus." A sleepy-eyed Alexei was waiting for them at the end of the tunnel, which led into what had one been an underground parking garage. Whatever building it was connected to had been long destroyed, but the garage itself was in good shape, and was absolutely massive. Susie, crouched in the center of the space next to two standard shuttles, and all three looked tiny and isolated.

"I know I thought I was going to crack, and we weren't even underground," Bethany commented, earning a grin from Alexei. She smiled back, her chest twisting. There was more of a family resemblance than just their eyes, especially in the smile.

"Nice place," Mike said, looking around appreciatively. "You have everything you need?"

"Yeah. We even have running water this time, which is nice," Marcus said. "And an actual, working toilet, which is a miracle. Bunking arrangements are more comfortable, too."

"But we're not here for a tour," Tyler reminded Mike.

"Of course not," Alexei agreed. He waited patiently as the three of them took turns using their miraculous toilet, taking Bethany's arm in a gallant gesture when they were done. "We have the horses ready. This way."

Leading them to a roped-off paddock strewn with hay and dry grass, he patted the first weary-looking horse on the neck. All three were saddled. The largest, a big, solid mare colored a uniform grey from nose to tail tip, stomped her front hoof.

Bethany cocked her head. The animals were standing on bare concrete in a large enclosed space that made their voices echo; a naked hoof should have made a loud clop, and a shod hoof should have made an even louder sound. There was almost no noise at all.

Alexei and Marcus were watching her, pleased, and Mike was grinning. "Julie made a wish and these two made it come true. We don't use horses often, but if we need to move fast through an area where we don't want to use engines, they're useful. The shoes are made from the same noise-muffling stuff in the shuttles. Keeps the pilot and passengers from going deaf. Not only do they make they mute the sound, they also cut down on the vibrations so they're harder for Visitors to detect from a distance."

"Nice," Bethany said. "Really nice. You guys here are something else."

"Wouldn't know what to do without 'em," Mike added. "I wish I could talk them in to headquartering with us."

"Too risky to have everyone in one spot," Ham said. "And the shuttles take up a lot of space. We'd never avoid notice with that many people and that much technology in one spot."

"Sorry Mr. Donovan. He's right," Alexei said. "We're staying here."

"And if you want to get anywhere by dawn, you should take off," Marcus reminded them.

"You're right. Marcus, Alexei . . . thank you." Bethany reached out and took one of each of their hands. "You're the best."

Alexei ducked his head a bit, as if suddenly shy. "He's my cousin, Miss Bethany. And he's fine. Really."

"I'm sure you're right, and thanks for that." She impulsively tugged the gangly Visitor down so she could kiss his cheek. "And no more of this "Miss" stuff. Just Bethany."

"No more "Mr. Donovan," either," Mike said. "I liked "Uncle Mike" a lot better."

"Sure thing, Uncle Mike, Au . . ."

"Call me Aunt and I will hurt you, Alexei," Bethany warned.

Blinking innocently, Alexei glanced at Tyler, his mouth opening.

"You don't want to do that, kid. You really don't," Tyler said.

Alexei closed his mouth with a sigh. "Be careful. I haven't heard anything from Philip, but there are always patrols around."

"We will," Mike promised. "And don't forget to watch out for yourselves. I know how you science types get when somebody has an idea." He swung himself into the saddle of the dark bay gelding and settled himself comfortably, obviously an experienced rider. As the old cliché said, the man was full of surprises.

Following his example, Bethany pulled herself onto the grey mare. She must have had draft horse blood; her back was wide and comfortable and she waited patiently for Bethany to find the stirrups and pick up the reins. "Let's go, sweet girl," she murmured, stroking the long mane.

Tyler was just as graceful getting into the saddle as Mike had been, and even took the time to give the black gelding a friendly pat, raising her eyebrow. She didn't comment, just turned her borrowed mare towards the front entrance, the only one large enough to accommodate the horses.


Mike expected Bethany to kick her horse into a sprint as soon as they were back in the open, but he should have known better. She kept their pace between a trot and a gentle canter, not a strain for the animals at all. She slowed them to a walk if they skirted anywhere near a Visitor-controlled section or known patrol route, and her eyes kept moving, picking out their path even when the street signs were long gone.

He smiled to himself. At first he'd been surprised and even mildly horrified that Martin kept a completely untrained, wholly inexperienced civilian with him, dragging her halfway across the country straight into the war. He'd thought it had been for completely personal reasons, which he wouldn't have blamed him for but was still something selfishly out of character for a man who'd had more problems with the sudden thrust into civilian life than being stranded on an alien planet. Even Martin had wondered aloud more than once why he'd let her talk him into bringing her to L.A. After a day or two Mike decided it had been her quiet but obstinate stubborn streak that had simply worn Martin down, but it hadn't taken him long to change his mind about that, either. Watching her almost uncanny sense of direction and keen memory for places, he understood a little more why Martin would have been reluctant to lose her as an asset. A fighter she most definitely was not, but she made a heck of a scout.

Of course it could have just been loneliness. It was obvious he'd fallen for the girl long before he admitted it to himself, but it was more than that. He'd cut himself off even from most of the other stranded Visitors, an almost complete break that Mike never quite understood. Thinking back on it, the man's issues had started long before his disappearance. Was it because of guilt? Shame at betraying his own people? Whatever it was, it had worried Mike that even Barbara, the closest family he had on Earth, couldn't convince him to stay in more regular contact.

He'd kept in touch with other members of the Resistance mostly because Mike and Julie had; Mike suspected he and Julie were the only people Martin really thought of as friends. Even with his few friends he could be stand-offish, occasionally downright cold. Too much physical contact made him nervous, at times a friendly pat on the shoulder enough to make him flinch and edge away.

Trying to put himself in the man's place, Mike shuddered. Could he have handled spending his entire adult life working against his own government, putting not just himself at risk but his entire family? Intentionally denying himself any kind of real relationship because it was too dangerous to let anyone get close?

Nope. He couldn't have done it. Giving everything up to fight for your own planet's future was one thing. Giving everything up to fight for an ideal, a set of morals, for the future of someone on another planet that you hadn't even met was something else, and Martin had given up more than Mike, or any of them, would ever have to.


Bethany's soft voice brought him back to the present. She and Tyler were both looking at him, their horses standing patiently, seeming to watch him just as curiously out of their soft eyes.

"When did Martin graduate the Academy?" he asked.


Mike sighed. A Visitor was considered a legal adult at that age, but barely. He couldn't picture Martin as a kid.

Bethany smiled at him, a sad moment of perfect understanding. "Yeah."

"Hey . . ."

She waited. He finally shrugged. "Thanks for watching out for him when I couldn't."

She nodded, turning her eyes silently back to the road.

The three of them were quiet and Bethany nudged her horse back into an eerily silent canter, glancing up to frown at the weeping sky.

The horses cut the journey to a little over an hour. The entrance to Bronson Canyon was so overgrown that the signs were hard to find. Bethany brought her mare to a stop. "Any ideas?"

"He liked it up by the caves."

"Of course he did. You'll have to take it from here. The maps didn't mark out any specific spots and I'm not sure we want to keep stopping to look for signs that might not even be there any more."

Mike slid out of the saddle. "He's got a blaster. Let's go slow and try not to startle him."

His companions complied without protest. They moved to the side of the road where they were screened by trees and shrubs, following Mike along the winding road to a dirt turnoff.

There was no sign of anyone passing, not that it meant anything. Martin wasn't likely to have taken the main paths, and he was very good at hiding evidence of his presence.

Cover became thin as they got closer to the caves. Mike slowed his step as they started up the hill leading to Martin's favorite section of the park. He paused when the caves edged into view, but there was no movement.

He realized Bethany was humming quietly behind him, a familiar tune. Glancing back with a smile, he shook his head. "How did you guess his favorite spot?"

"Everyone likes the Batcave," Bethany whispered back. "Human or not, he's a guy."

Mike chuckled. "You know, I was surprised how true that turned out to be."

They moved cautiously towards the cave, though with three horses in tow amid a stretch of dirt and scrubby plants, caution was relative.

It was also unnecessary. The cave was empty. Bethany sighed in disappointment. Mike had to agree although he wasn't entirely surprised.

Tyler surveyed the space, pulling out a small flashlight. The beam crawled slowly over the walls, pausing when it caught a dark stain. "Someone was here."

Bethany moved towards the green smears as if hypnotized, her hand reaching out, stopping before it touched the blood. It was already darkening to a darker green-brown hue as it dried. Her gaze dropped to the floor, following a trail of green drops that led towards the back egress and she swallowed hard.

"Willie said it would be painful," Mike reminded her. "But not dangerous."

"Probably," she murmured, her voice wavering.

"Well he doesn't seem to be laying dead anywhere near, so let's go find the damn lizard. We want to make it back before dawn if possible."

Bethany glared, even paler than before. "Smooth, Tyler, real smooth," Mike growled, but they both followed the man out the rear of the cave.

Martin wasn't anywhere in sight. Mike had to school his features into a cheerful blank mask, trying to hide his worry. At least they'd lost the blood trail, which meant there weren't any particularly severe injuries. Probably. Their only clues were occasional scuffs in the rocky soil that could have been caused by a paw or hoof as easily as a shoe. They were back under the cover of trees before Mike caught a glimpse of movement, green against the grey of concrete.

They stopped after a few more steps, squinting through the trees. A Visitor stood on the side of the road, dressed in jeans and nothing else, holding a long stick in his hands, He'd frozen, still as if he'd sensed their presence and all three of them flinched, but in a moment he relaxed, swinging the stick like a child with a pretend sword, followed by a series of thrusts, spins, and weaves, a bit like a quarterstaff but more graceful, almost a dance. He recognized it as one of the Visitor's several disciplines of martial art, though not one he'd known Martin had trained in.

Tyler glanced at Mike questioningly and he nodded. He'd seen the pale beige stripes on Martin's back and shoulders, spreading to either side from the line of his spine, and the unusually small, low crest edged with the same dusty hue too many times not to recognize the markings. Mike gulped, shivering.

It wasn't the fact that Martin was without his human facade. Mike had seen too many uncovered Visitors, friends and foes, to feel any horror at the sight. He could even see the shadow of Martin's human features in the reptilian face, in the shape of his jaw and cheekbones, the set of his eyes, and the line of the almost-nose. With or without the human disguise, all Mike saw was a friend.

What made Mike sick to his stomach, almost enough to bring tears to his eyes, were the places where the healthy shine of new, freshly exposed scales was mottled darker and lighter by the worst of his scars. Vicious slashes crisscrossed his back, a blaster burn marred the center of his chest, and a pale, almost white scar slashed across his throat almost ear to ear. Several of the deepest had recently been weeping blood, especially the twisted burn on his arm. Worse than that was Martin's painfully thin frame. It wasn't just the leanness of hard living, it was the emaciation of starvation. Ribs showed through the scales, the silhouette of his shoulders bony even under the overlay of wiry muscle.

"Shit," Tyler whispered.

Mike stayed silent, but he shivered.

Bethany blinked slowly, watching Martin move. "Tyger, tyger burning bright, in the forest of the night," she whispered.

Mike had to smile. "What immortal hand or eye/could frame thy fearful symmetry. There's a reason he was so damned good at not being seen sometimes."

Tyler, of course, couldn't be silent. His gaze raked over Martin, then moved to Bethany. "That's what you've been . . ." he grunted.

"There's nothing wrong with that," Bethany retorted in a hissing whisper. "It's just him. It's your brain that's got something wrong with it."

Mike laughed. Tyler glared at him.

Bethany snorted and ignored him, turning back to watch Martin, her eyes gleaming. Martin crouched, swung the stick in an elegant arc that almost belied the power of the potentially deadly swing, and followed it with a low roundhouse kick.

"His leg won't . . ." Tyler whispered.

An opponent doubled over from the first hit would have been caught in the head, at least if the kick landed. Martin stumbled, his wounded leg simply refusing to finish the move. He caught himself and stood panting in pain, then threw the stick with a scowl of disgust. The sudden motion startled Ham's horse, who danced sideways, a stamping hoof falling on a small fallen branch, breaking it with a loud crack.

Martin spun, drawing his blaster and aiming into the trees in one smooth move, edging towards them, his body controlled, ready. His eyes scanned the trees, but they were too screened by vegetation and shadow on an already dark.

But they wouldn't be screened for long. Glancing at Mike, Bethany raised her hands to cup her mouth and gave a fair approximation of a crow's caw. Martin stopped, took a step back, and turned away with a snarl, jamming the blaster back in place. Arms folded and shoulders hunched, he stood, so tense that the muscles and tendons in his shoulders stood out. Bethany watched him, her face uneasy. "We'd better . . ." she started after a few silent moments.

Shoulders slumping, Martin shook his head. Raising his hands, he answered with the hoarse croak of a raven, the eerily accurate cry ringing loud through the night. Mike looked at Bethany, his brows raised. She nodded, relaxing just a little. "It's a signal we used on the road," she explained, patting her mare and tugging gently at the reins.

"Works," was Mike's only comment.

Martin didn't move to meet them, just stood waiting, his face stiff and angry. The expression cracked for a moment as he watched his little scientist's face. Uncertainty peeked through, fear, near panic. Mike's heart hurt at the sight.

At first Bethany looked almost as uncertain, maybe even a little afraid, but as they got closer the fear changed. Her face flushed, her eyes narrowed, and by the time they reached the Visitor she looked miles past angry. She handed Mike her reins and strode up to Martin, one finger poking him hard in the chest. She kept stalking forward, forcing him back, and her voice was a low, furious rumble. "Don't you ever, ever do that to me again."

Martin looked at her, his eyes wide. Glancing up at Mike, they narrowed in accusation. "I left a note," he huffed.

"Yeah, wasn't the first thing I thought of," Mike said, sharper than he intended. "It's been a while, you know."

"A note?" Bethany sneered, a harder shove making him stumble. "Try again, lizard boy. I was scared to death, and I wasn't the only one. You could have just said something!"

"We don't . . ."

He'd stopped retreating so she was nose to chest with him. "I don't care if you don't talk about it. You didn't have to tell anyone but me. So what if it's some kind of embarrassing bodily function? How do you think I felt when I realized you could smell it every time I was on the rag?"

"Oh, come on," Tyler groaned.

"I didn't need to know that," Mike agreed.

Bethany and Martin both ignored them. She rose on her tiptoes to stare into his face. "If you even think of just taking off and disappearing without telling me what's going on, ever again, I'm going to . . ." She stopped, looking startled, then alarmed. Reaching out to brush the side of Martin's face, turning his head to the left. "Can you see out of that eye?"

Ham glanced at Mike and they both stepped closer. Martin took a step back, but now that they'd seen it, the problem was obvious. His left eye, the one that had been missing its contact, was covered by a whitish film, subtle but enough to make it dull and foggy in comparison with the now also contact-free right eye.

"Too much sun without protection after I lost the contact," Martin muttered grudgingly. "It's fine. I don't even notice it."

Bethany searched his face, not quite believing. Her eyes dropped lower, tracing the rest of his battered body, all anger gone.

Mike couldn't help following her gaze. His throat squeezed and he shoved both sets of reins at Tyler, moving in and pulling the Visitor into a crushing hug. "My god, Martin . . ."

"Get . . . off . . . me, Donovan," Martin grated, but he sounded exasperated rather than angry.

Mike let go and took a couple steps back. "This was my fault . . ."

Martin waved a hand "No. I was so blinded by hate that I was willing to risk everything, including you, without bothering to wait and find out what was happening. I didn't pay any more than I deserved to. Probably a lot less."

Studying his friend's calm, earnest face, Mike saw no blame, but he shook his head. "I need to know what happened, Martin. Please."

Martin looked at him for a long pause. Finally his head drooped. "I owe you that," he murmured. "As soon as we get back to headquarters."

Bethany reached out, hesitant, her shaking hand caressing the blaster burn on his chest. His right hand covered hers, carefully, the wicked claws gleaming. His left, the claws still blunted to fit under his human skin, brushed the side of her face, trailing down her neck. She moved closer, her forehead pressed to his chest. "Promise not to scare me like that again," she whispered.

"I promise."

Her arms slid around his neck and she cuddled close, her breath shuddering. Martin met Mike's gaze, his face soft with surprise, wonder, and something far too personal for comfort.

"Okay, now that that's all sorted out, let's get back," Tyler growled.

Martin scowled at him, the expression a lot scarier with a mouthful of carnivorous teeth.

Mike grabbed Tyler's arm. "Let's go."

"What? We can't just . . ."

"Shut it, Tyler. I've had enough of you for one night." Glancing back at Martin, Mike gave him a hard stare. "We'll meet you back at the garage. If you're more than two or three hours behind us, we will come looking, and we won't be happy. I'll make sure you're permanently posted with the Alaska Resistance, unless Ham can think of somewhere more uncomfortable."

Martin cocked his head, one corner of his mouth lifted, and he nodded. "Three hours," he agreed.

Mike smiled back, winked, and paused to tie Bethany's horse to a sturdy branch, giving the mare enough room to crop a little of the still-green grass that hid at the edge of the trees.

For once, Tyler didn't protest any more, just climbed into his saddle and followed Mike back the way they'd come.

Bethany watched them go out of the corner of her eye. She knew they should go with them, but at the moment she had no desire to let go of Martin. The cool scales were pleasant against her skin, managing to be soft and rough at the same time. She rubbed her cheek against his shoulder, smiling to herself. It was like good, if bumpy, leather, except supple and alive. She heard his breath catch in his throat as his chin dropped, resting on the top of her head.

Her eyes dropped to the hand still cupped over hers, oh-so-gently, and his scarred forearm.

It wasn't bleeding, but it had been, badly. She closed her eyes against a wash of dizziness. "Are you okay? They said it could be bad."

"Who said?"

"Willie and Thelma."

He grunted, and it wasn't happy.

"Don't get mad. They were worried when Julie started talking about evacuating again. I thought someone would try to beat the details out of poor Willie."

"Evacuate? Good grief."

"Hey, even you think you were converted. Mike and Julie were both frantic. And it wasn't just them."

He sighed. "All right, I should have said something."

Bethany blinked, pulling back far enough to examine him. "That was easy. Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine." He smirked, an expression all to recognizable even in the less mobile reptilian features. "Do you need me to prove it?"

She managed to hold his gaze but couldn't stop the blush. Would she ever get over such embarrassing reactions? "Yes," she said simply, her smile echoing his. "Yes, you do."

And he did, quite emphatically. There was something to be said for scales.

Nearly two hours later they were both put back together—a more complex process for him than for her, though faster and easier than she expected—and laying in a patch of soft grass. Her head was pillowed on his stomach, eyes closed to enjoy the feel of his hand tangled in her hair.

"Are you falling asleep on me? We'll need to go soon," Martin warned.

"Not even close," Bethany murmured. "Just listening."

"To what?"

"The quiet. I miss it sometimes."


They were silent for a time, the only sounds crickets chirping, water lapping in a nearby puddle almost big enough to be called a pond, or the occasional squeak of a bat.

Bethany glanced at her watch. She was about to suggest they start back when a low hum interrupted the natural sounds. They both stiffened, staring into each other's eyes, then up at the sky.

The shuttle was flying low and slow. Grabbing her around the waist, Martin rolled with her under the nearest tree, half covering her with his body, his shoulders hunched protectively over her, one eye rolled skyward to watch the shuttle's path.

Bethany held still, watching the shuttle, until she felt something hard and muscular move against her leg with a sinuous slither. Gaze jerking down along her body, she saw a long striped shape curling itself into a defensive posture, a third of its ropy body held off the ground, curved in an s shape with beady black eyes staring straight at her.

Her eyes snapped wide and her body moved without her, launching itself out from under Martin's weight and away from the screening tree.

Martin yelped, rising to his knees and diving in a low tackle, hitting her mid thigh and slamming her to the ground as she leaped into the open. She struggled out of his grip and he tackled her again, sending them both straight into the puddle. Ignoring the sloppy mud, he threw himself on top of her, clamping a hand over her mouth. She screamed against his hand, one long shriek after another, her blind-looking eyes aimed over his shoulder, back at the spot they'd been hidden. Panicked, he searched for the shuttle; it was almost directly above them, tilted just enough to let the pilot scan the ground. He froze, his mouth dry as his eyes met her raking eyes.

He wasn't sure she could see him in the dark without search lights, but her face was clearly illuminated by the shuttle's interior lights—the youth they'd rescued from the burning shuttle. She held his gaze for a few more seconds, looking unsure, then dipped her head in a tiny nod, her gaze sliding away as she turned to murmur something to her unseen copilot. The shuttle increased speed and veered towards the mother ship, in a moment lost behind tall hills.

He let himself relax a little, loosening his grip on the girl under him, but listened, waiting for the ship to turn around, laser cannons aimed. Bethany was still screaming. He could make out a word now, breathless and repeated over and over. "Snake!"

He glanced towards the tree he'd tried to use as shelter. A long, thin shape patterned in alternating dark and light bands was uncurling itself, sliding away from the clump of weeds it must have been hiding in. "It's just a king snake. It won't hurt you," he whispered, wrapping his free arm tight around her, trying to keep her still while he listened for the hum of engines.

She quieted, her struggles turning into shivering and the screams into whimpers, though terrified tears still warmed his hand. A minute passed with no sign of the shuttle and he cautiously let her go, rolling away and pushing himself up on his knees. Still trembling, she pushed herself into a sitting position, breathing fast and shallow, her pulse fluttering visibly in her throat. "It sure looked . . . like it wanted to . . . hurt someone," she gasped, trying to wipe the tears from her face and only succeeding in spearing the splashes of black mud.

Martin glanced down at himself. He was in slightly better shape, the mud mostly limited to his lower legs but for a couple splashes here and there. "Again. I'm in the water again." Then he grinned, a chuckle escaping before he could stop it.

Her feet caught him in the chest and he landed flat on his back in the puddle, dirty water soaking him head to toe and mud oozing itself into any spot it could reach. Her face was twisted in a teeth-bearing snarl, but at least the terror was gone. He must have a subconscious death wish because he couldn't stop grinning. Or maybe it was just a reaction to the physical and emotional highs and lows that had crashed over him the last few days. Or simply relief that they were still alive. "Oh, com on. After what we just did, then a harmless little snake . . ."

"You have the ability to talk," she growled. "And some measure of intelligence, although I question that sometimes. Not to mention arms and legs. Especially arms and legs."

He stood, reaching out a hand to help her up. "Don't touch me," she huffed, heaving herself onto her knees. Shrugging, Martin slogged back to the dry grass and shook himself. Bethany squawked as she was splattered with more water and mud. Dragging fingers through her caked hair, she flung a handful of the malodorous gunk, but didn't do more than add a new spot or two to his shirt sleeve.

He tsked. Struggling to her feet, she staggered through the puddle, the stirred-up mud sucking at her feet. She slipped twice, making a sound somewhere between a hiss and a growl when he took a step to help. Finally reaching the grass, she stalked past him with a toss of her head. The effect would have been better if the long auburn curls weren't plastered to her back by black muck. She used her hands to scrape off what she could and tried to use a bundle of fresh leaves like a rag, with limited success. He managed to find a modicum of control over his suicidal inclination to laugh, and after a single glare she allowed him to help, although in the end neither of them looked much improved.

At least her anger had drained away during the process, leaving her drooping and embarrassed. "I'm sorry," she finally murmured. "I could have gotten you captured or killed. That was stupid."

"That was fear," he said simply, hiding his amused smile by kissing her forehead, grimacing at the foul taste of mud.

She wrapped her arms around his waist, head on his shoulder. "Let's go home."

"Good idea."

She untied the mare, who was prancing nervously after the loud excitement. Martin eyed the horse and she eyed him back, her ears flat. Bethany stroked the long neck until she calmed, then boosted herself into the saddle. Martin hesitated and she raised an eyebrow. "I don't like horses," he finally admitted grudgingly. "Riding something that controls itself is just . . . wrong. I need an engine."

It was her turn for amusement, and her smile was dangerously vicious. "Tough. I'm not walking all the way, and you don't know how to get to Marcus and Alexei's new digs, so neither are you. Get on."

He pulled himself up behind her without further argument. At least the saddle forced them close, keeping her cozily rounded rump pressed tight against him.

Not that he had time to enjoy it. Her heels nudged the mare's sides and the horse broke into a gallop. He yelped, grabbing Bethany around the waist as she laughed.


Tyler was getting impatient, but Mike knew Martin well enough to not expect him until the exact moment three hours was up. Glancing at his watch, he realized it was ten minutes past the mark and frowned. The frown fractured into a smile when a quiet clatter announced the arrival of Bethany's mare at the main entrance and he turned, snarky comment ready, but it died in his throat and he simply stared, mouth still half open.

Martin was by far the neatest person he'd ever met. No matter what the situation, even when he'd been infiltrating the gang of bikers, his hair was always neatly combed, his clothes impeccably clean and perfectly pressed, even the buckle of his belt kept shined. The vision that trotted into the parking garage was more like some primordial swamp monster, mussed and damp and coated with mud. Streaks of it darkened his golden hair and smeared his face, and his clothes were stiff with the stuff. The tennis shoes were a loss for anything but camouflage.

Bethany was in even worse shape. Her long hair hung lank, glued into hunks by the sticky, half dried mess. Her face was hard, less than amused, and her glittering grey eyes dared anyone to comment.

Mike couldn't help it. "What the hell happened to you? You were supposed to be . . ."

Martin seemed to lose some kind of internal battle and his face split into a grin, a half-choked laugh escaping. He slid off the horse, wincing when his bad leg hit the ground. He looked shaky, having to grab the saddle to steady himself, but the grin didn't fade in the slightest. He reached out to help Bethany dismount, but she ignored him after one scathing sneer and slid off the opposite side.

Martin's sparkling eyes met Mike's. "We ran into some trouble."


"Shuttle. I thought we were going to be toasted, but our friend from the earthquake recognized us." His grin widened. "Bethany is afraid of snakes." The laughter restarted and he leaned helplessly against the horse.

She shoved past him to undo the saddle, not even looking at him.

"Oh, come on. You have to admit it's funny. After what we . . ."

An elbow to his midsection cut off his words, but not the helpless laughter.

"Laugh it up, swamp thing," she snarled.

Martin sobered at the hoarse sound of her voice, looking closer at her pinched green-tinged face. "No more laughing. Let's get you back to headquarters."

"Sorry, too close to dawn," Mike broke in guiltily. "We're going to lay low until after dark. We saved dinner for both of you. Breakfast now, I guess. Come on, food, then we'll bunk down in their sleeping quarters." He eyed both his friends sympathetically. "No showers set up here yet, so that will have to wait."

"That's fine," Bethany said, her voice a little faint.

The kitchens, which had once been a pair of small offices, were split into human and Visitor, since humans tended to have issues with small rodents near their food. Bethany picked at the apples and peanut butter, though she ate the cheese-laden powdered eggs with some relish. Marcus apologized for not being able to offer anything but water, but Bethany just said she preferred it anyway. They met Martin and Alexei outside the bathroom, and Martin looked around curiously. "Where do you have room for sleeping quarters?"

"Downstairs," Alexei answered. He grinned, the family resemblance suddenly striking. "You're going to like this, Uncle Martin."