The victory celebration was in full swing when the communications unit crackled to life.
"FF19 to Stoker, FF19 to Stoker, come in Stoker."
Stoker opened the channel. "This is Stoker. Where are you?"
"Say again all after?"
Stoker fiddled with the dials. "This is Stoker. Do you read me?"
"All clear, coach."
"Where are you?"
"Coming in over the heliopause. Should be there in about 4 hours."
"I read you. We'll be ready." He snapped off the line and turned back to the party.
"Well, that's it kids. Going home." He saw the look on Throttle's face, then he saw Charley's. He tried to smile. "Hey, there's still a party going on, you know."
Stoker listened to Vinnie repeating his great save for the seventh time and watched Throttle out of the corner of his eye. Sure enough, the tan mouse slipped out. "Sorry, Rookie," he thought.
As soon as he could, he slipped away himself and went looking. He stuck his head out into the alleyway but couldn't see the tan mouse.
"He usually sits up on one of the rooftops," said Charley behind him. He turned to her. The moonlight shone on her hair and gave her skin a soft glow. "He likes to be able to see Mars."
"I know how he feels. Although we're usually thinking about different women."
Charley smiled up at him. "A women in every port, hmm?"
"What's a port?"
Charley laughed. "A woman on every planet, then."
"Oh! Well, not really. Okay, maybe one or two. But I'm a sucker for an independent woman."
"And I'm a sucker for an old rogue." Charley teased. Her hands flew to her mouth. "Oh Stoke, I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."
Stoker smiled, somewhat wistfully.
"It's all right, Beautiful. I may not admit it in front of the kids, but I'm well aware of how old I am."
Stoker drew Charley to his chest and rested his chin on her hair. He breathed in her scent; a strange combination of femininity and grease that both calmed and excited him.
"I'd be a better father to you than a lover," he murmured. He pulled away and brushed his lips across her brow, avoiding her tantalising mouth. "It's a good thing the ship is coming tomorrow. Time for me to go home," he said as he released her and turned away.
"Stoke, I...don't go." Charley laid a gentle hand on his arm.
Stoker turned back, wrapped his arms around her and pulled her roughly towards him. He cradled her head in one hand and pressed his lips on hers. He felt her body jerk and then she melted into his embrace. Her mouth was warm, her body pliant against him and her scent filled him, making his heart ache.
Stoker broke off the kiss, breathing heavily. Charley was trembling in his hands and he knew he had to walk away now or there would be no walking out, not now, not ever. It took all the willpower he had to release her, to turn and walk away.
Charley had her emotions under control when Vinnie walked into the garage, but it was a near thing. Her heart was still beating hard and there was a lump in her throat that wouldn't go away. But she returned his greeting with a semblance of her normal smile as she cleaned her tools and packed them into the toolkit.
"Where's the coach?" said Vinnie curiously.
"Walking, I think."
Vinnie nodded, then stood in the doorway. Charley sighed. Vinnie would never have Stoker's smooth charm. He just wasn't the type. But there was something comforting in his uncertainty that soothed her jagged emotions.
"Uh..." he began.
Charley made a non-committal sound, still tidying.
"Hey, babe, uh, Charley, I mean..."
She smiled to herself. He was still trying, anyway.
"Would you look at Sweetheart? She's just not running as perfect as normal."
"Sure, Vinnie." She finally turned to face him, and smiled. He smiled back and she could see him relax. Everything normal again his expression said, but she wasn't sure, anymore, what normal was. It wasn't brown fur and smooth charm, but then it wasn't white fur and ego, either.
"I guess we'll find out," she murmured.
"Nothing. Talking to myself."
"Keep your tail clean, coach." Throttle thumped him on the shoulder. Stoker flung his arm around Throttle's neck and started grinding his fist into Throttle's hair.
"Keep your own tail clean, Rookie." He looked over to Vinnie. "You too, punk."
Vinnie punched him half-heartedly. Stoker grinned. Vinnie obviously had a lot on his mind.
"And don't forget to tell Momma that ah'm thinking of her," said Modo behind them.
"I WILL Modo. Geez." Rimfire looked over at Stoker and gave him the "withdraw" signal behind Modo's back.
Stoker snorted. "Time to go, kids."
Modo turned and thumped him on the back. Stoker tried not to stagger.
"Y'all take care, coach," rumbled Modo.
"You too, big guy." Finally he turned to Charley. She smiled at him and he saw her eyes were wet. Definitely time to run.
"Take care, Beautiful," he said, smiling.
"Take care, Coach." She stood on tiptoes and kissed his cheek.
Stoker put his hands on her waist and brushed his lips across her forehead. Even that made his heart thump and he pulled back and smiled at her. "Goodbye, Beautiful."
Stoker turned and followed Rimfire as he limped up the gangway into the ship. The Freedom Fighter leaning against the doorway gave Stoker a wink. At the door Stoker paused to lift a hand in farewell and then retreated thankfully into the ship.
Rimfire flopped down into a seat and stared at him. "What's eating you?" he said as the engines beneath them rumbled into life.
"Nothing," said Stoker. "I just hate goodbyes."