Into the Depths
He was back in ten. Bethany was standing at the edge of the water, throwing rocks and occasionally glancing in the direction he'd disappeared or at her watch. He thought he'd made plenty of noise, he really did. "We should get back under cover, it's getting pretty bright."
Bethany squealed and turned, too fast. The ridge of dirt under her feet crumbled, her ankle tried to bend the wrong way and she tumbled. Martin lunged, but when he grabbed her arm their legs tangled and he lost his footing, falling with her into the water.
They didn't land in the inch or two he expected. The drop off was so sudden and steep that they plunged in over their heads. It was like being dunked in ice, no more than uncomfortable to a Visitor, at least on the short term, but surprise made him gasp, which filled his lungs, setting off a moment of pure panic.
Swimming did not come naturally to Visitors; their bodies were denser and, coming from a planet with limited water, they simply didn't have the instinct. Fortunately his training had included Earth survival, and his rusty skills were slowly starting to surface. Pushing the panic away, he found the lake bottom with his feet, paused to gather his bearings, and kicked to the surface.
But it had simply been too long since he'd tried anything like this. Without air in his lungs, he had little natural bouyancy. He struggled to keep his head above water long enough for more than a tiny gasp, let alone make it even the couple yards back to shore. He was getting dizzy when hands grabbed his jacket and hauled him in far enough to get traction on the silty bottom. Staggering onto dry ground, he fell on all fours and coughed up what felt like at least a small river.
The spasms finally eased enough for him to feel the fist pounding his back. "Oh my god, oh my god, I'm so s . . . sorry." Bethany babbled. "Are you all r . . . right? You startled me. I d . . . didn't m . . . mean . . ."
"I'm just perfect," he choked. "My fault. I made . . . the mistake of assuming . . . you were paying attention."
"S . . . sorry. I'm j . . . jumpy."
The hands that pulled him up were shaking. Wiping water and wet hair out of his eyes, he looked at her and grimaced. "You're turning blue. Get some dry clothes on and get under the blankets."
She didn't even argue. Either she felt even worse than he thought, or a miracle had just occurred.
She ducked under the tarp, emerging a couple minutes later drier but no less blue-tinged and with chattering teeth. Not a miracle, then.
She pulled one of the army-green blankets around her shoulders. Taking his arm, she tugged him towards the picnic table. "Sit for a m . . . minute. I need to ch . . . change that bandage."
"It's . . ."
"It'll fall off after th . . . that soaking."
Producing the first aid kit from under the blanket, she gave him a push. He let her sit him down and watched her remove the bandage that, as she predicted, was falling off. She swallowed a couple of times and rather hastily rolled up the green-stained remains and tossed them in a rusted-out old garbage can nearby, but otherwise she was patient, her calloused hands incredibly gentle as she reapplied the butterfly strips and taped on a new bandage. "You don't seem to mind," he murmured.
"I faint at the sight of blood. Of course I mind. Apparently green doesn't have quite as intense a vasovagal response, I seem to manage to stay on my feet, but I don't enjoy it, either. But you can't do this yourself."
"No, I mean . . ."
"What?" She glanced up from the gauze she was wrapping around his forearm. "What do . . . oh, you're talking about the scales? Of course it doesn't bother me. To be honest . . ." She stopped, ducking her head low. Snipping the gauze off the roll with a small scissors, she tied it and checked to be sure it wasn't too tight.
"To be honest . . ." Martin prompted.
"Nope. Never mind. You don't want to know."
"I was about to be horribly insulting."
She pressed her lips firmly together. "Hm-mm."
"I won't be insulted."
She peeked at him through her hair and ducked again, a blush bringing a little much-needed color to her face. "I was about to say it reminds me of Toby."
"Okay, Who's Toby?"
She ducked her head further. "Mick's black throated monitor. He's incredibly docile for his species, a friendly little guy. Well, not so little. He likes the back of his neck rubbed."
"Well . . . yeah."
"I wouldn't exactly call that insulting."
She peeked at him again. Her ghostly skin made the healing black eye, with its rainbow of purples, greens, browns, and yellows look all the more garish, and highlighted the deep circles around her eyes. "You should try to get some sleep," he said abruptly.
"I can take first watch."
"You drove all night. No."
"I . . ." her hand was still holding his arm. Her grip tightened suddenly. "You're freezing." Shifting her grip, her fingers pressed into his pulse point. "Your pulse is awfully slow. Are . . . of course it's slow. I'm an idiot. You can't sit in the cold like this, soaked in water that feels like it's temperature is hovering around absolute zero. I picked mid-May on purpose, when it's usually too cool for Visitors to be comfortable at night, less chance of any kind of patrol getting really bored and heading out this way. Get in the car, turn on the heater."
"We can't waste gas like that."
"But . . . oh, all right. At least don't spend the day wet . . . Damn. I don't have anything else that would fit you. Did you save the stuff you were wearing?"
He shook his head.
"Of course not. Can't blame you." She dropped the blanket from around her shoulders. "Okay, jacket and shirt off."
"I don't think . . ."
"I have enough heat to share. Or will eventually. We can't let you go torpid out here. I'd tell you to lay in the sun, but there isn't any." Tsking when he didn't move, she tugged the jacket off. "Come on."
Martin reached for his shirt buttons before she had a chance. She was right; between the near-freezing water, the light but frigid breeze, and the cool day, he was already slowing down, and torpor would eventually become a real danger.
Using a corner of the blanket, Bethany dried him off as best she could and he marveled again at his people's invention. His human skin transferred every sensation—the slight roughness of the blanket, an occasional brush of her hand, the heat at her core, markedly higher than his though she still shivered.
He shook his head firmly. Weariness and a steady drop in body temperature were definitely affecting him.
Wrapping the blanket around both of them, Bethany pressed up as close as she could, all but sitting in his lap, flinched, and jerked back. "Damn!"
"What's the matter?"
"Your jeans are like ice!"
That made him all too aware of the clinging chill of wet denim he'd been trying to ignore. Closing his eyes for a moment, he steeled himself, stood, and unbuckled the belt.
"Um I . . . oh, shit."
"You're the one complaining. Are you going to be shy, or are you going to make me spend all day in wet jeans?"
She looked panicked, her blush deepening.
"I'm wearing boxers. I even washed them before we left camp before you say anything on that front. You humans and your sensibilities."
She still hesitated.
"Fine. Jeans stay on. This was your idea, you know."
He wasn't sure if it was that or the fact that his words were beginning to slur that made her nod.
His body temperature's steady drop did seem to slow once he struggled out of the jeans, and slowed more when Bethany draped the blanket over his shoulders and cuddled against him, arms around his waist and her head, rising not much higher than his chin, against his shoulder. She stayed stiff, though, and kept her face hidden.
"I'm hardly going to rape you," he finally said out of pure exasperation.
"Who would?" Her mumble sounded the slightest bit bitter.
"Sorry. That slipped out and was a really, really stupid and damned awful thing to say. I just haven't had the best luck with guys. Typical chubby kid turns into typical chubby teen turns into weird science nerd who cares more about dead things in the earth than about the latest fashion tips. Then the whole scientists-are-evil thing started. We paleontologists lucked out, at least comparatively, but it didn't help."
"Not your fault. If you're Fifth Column, you were trying to help." She started to melt against him as talking seemed to drain the embarrassed tension. "Hmm . . ." she murmured after a few minutes. "This is . . .um . . ."
"Exactly." Tugging him after her, she laid out her sleeping bag. It was too small for two, so she pulled him down and they lay on top instead, cocooned together in one blanket with the other thrown over the top of that for another layer of insulation. By the time they arranged themselves Bethany had stopped shivering, and as she warmed his temperature stabilized and began to creep up. He started to feel more alive, although still soul-deep weary.
Bethany was growing sleepy. Half aware, she somehow managed to snuggle closer, her head pillowed on his chest. Apparently he was going to spend the day as a mattress. A dry, well-warmed mattress. Things could be much worse.
He couldn't think of anything to do other than wrap his arms around her, stealing just a shade more of her heat. Her mammalian pheromones wafted from that mass of curls and her oh-so-soft human skin. He swallowed a couple times, which made it worse because now he could taste the musky perfume, reigniting the disgust and shame that his people could view humans as a food source. Bethany didn't smell like food. Not in the slightest.
This was going to be a really long, uncomfortable day, but at least it would keep him awake. Fortunately he was too tired and still too cold for his body to have a reaction she most definitely wouldn't appreciate.
She squirmed suddenly, whimpering. Martin glanced down; her eyes flickered under the lids, her face twisted in fear. Her body spasmed and he realized she was in the grip of a nightmare, hardly surprising after her last few days. "Hey, wake up," he whispered, shaking her.
Her breath stuttered and her eyes cracked open. They immediately slid shut again and she didn't really wake up, but the terror faded and she relaxed, her arms convulsing around him for just a moment before falling limp.
He kept his arms around her, feeling suddenly protective. Had anyone other than Mike Donovan accepted so quickly? Mike had seem him without his human skin twice-three times? Green scales were just too good a camouflage to pass up for an investigative journalist in jungle or heavy woods. It hadn't made a difference, they'd only grown closer until Donovan was more a brother than a friend. More a brother, in fact, than his real brother.
His mind was wandering. Forcing his half-mast eyes wide, he gritted his teeth against the tempting comfort of the pocked of warmth Bethany's heat had created. But more than five years as a prisoner had weakened him despite his efforts to keep conditioned, more than he'd realized. He swung between not believing it had been so long to wondering where the hundred years he'd felt slip by had gone. Nothing would quite focus, images and memories slithering around each other until he was dizzy. His body finally said enough and his brain quickly joined it.