Chapter Twenty

Maddy sensed danger from the moment he entered the room.

Swimming lessons had gone as well as to be expected. She loved being out there on the beach or even standing with her toes buried in the soft sand as waves washed upon the shore, but she despised the feeling of helplessness that being in the water brought. She had no control of the water, no way of knowing how it would move. She was not looking forward to the next lesson come next week.

Everyone else seemed to enjoy it though. Zoe in particularly had been joyful as she recounted her own tale earlier, of how she had floated and it felt like flying when she stared up at the clear skies. She had taken to swimming with ease. Josh had yet to explain where, exactly, he learned to swim, but he too seemed completely comfortable out there in the shallows. Even Ethan had made a grand time of splashing around with some of his other friends.

Perhaps it would just take Maddy a little longer to adjust to the idea of swimming. She had never given up on something before, so she was sure that once she got into the right mindset, she could move passed the mental block and her sudden case of aquaphobia to accomplish the task of at least floating on her own and without anyone supporting her.

Maddy had decided to put it all out of her head for now, instead concentrating on coming up with an elaborate meal to cook for dinner. She felt anxious and eager, because Mark had once again agreed to come over tonight for dinner once he got off of patrol duty. She really hoped everything went to plan this time, because so far two attempts to introduce him as perhaps something more than just a friend had utterly failed.

It was frustrating. She could only imagine how Mark felt about constantly being blown off by her family, despite the fact that he said he understood that everything was out of their control. He seemed honest and genuine, and she was inclined to believe him. But his reassurances did nothing to quell her irrational fears that by the time he did get the chance to speak with her parents, he might have lost all interest in courting her.

However every thought of the impending awkward dinner with her parents and her suitor fled the moment Josh shuffled into the kitchen. She eyed him suspiciously while she absently stirred the pan on the stove, taking in the odd energy he seemed to have around him. His presence was jittery and is constantly fidgeting was making her nervous.

Maddy raised an eyebrow as he randomly opened a cabinet and pulled something out, a bewildered frown on his face. "Can I help you with something, Josh?" she asked doubtfully, blinking in disbelief as the sound of her voice startled him so badly that he ended up dropping the box from his hands.

It fell to the floor, a puff of white powder floating up into the air and all over the kitchen floor she had cleaned earlier. As the cloud of protein shake mix settled, Maddy closed her eyes in a grimace at the mess he had created. She set her jaw, mentally reciting the periodic table in an attempt not to get upset with him; it had been an accident after all.

Josh swore quietly to himself. "I'll clean it up," he said quickly, kneeling to the ground and sweeping handfuls of protein power into a pile and scooping it up. His less than adequate method only managed to smear it all over the floor and when he rose from the ground he left a long trail of white all the way to the rubbish bin, making an even bigger mess than before. "Uh…"

Maddy took in a deep, calming breath and held up a single hand to make him stop. She exhaled her sigh in frustrated amusement, wondering how on earth her brother had managed to survive this long without constant supervision. He reminded her of an overgrown toddler, scuffing his feet with his head bowed contritely, wide brown eyes staring at her pitifully.

Retrieving the dustpan and broom from the pantry, Maddy quickly set about cleaning up the disaster, casting a worried glance at the clock. She finished in record time, no trace of the mess he had caused, and put everything back away, no one the wiser. She then turned to her brother, crossing her arms over her chest and settling him with a stern look.

"Sorry," he said meekly.

Maddy could only roll her eyes at him, a fond smile tugging at her lips despite her exasperation. "It was just protein mix, Josh. I think our bodies have adapted to the richer sustenance here enough that we can make do without the protein shakes from now on." She gave him a curious frown. "Now why don't you tell me what you're looking for and I'll get it for you,"

Josh hesitated briefly. "… Tea,"

Maddy gave him a skeptical look. "Tea?" she repeated incredulously. "You hate tea."

"Hate is a bit of a strong word, don't you think?"

Trying to gauge his intentions, Maddy just eyed him dubiously. She honestly had no idea what to think. She silently reached for the ornate box sitting conspicuously beside the stove and placed it in front of him, her curiosity getting the better of her. He was obviously up to something. He never drank tea. He had gagged the one time he had tried it, vowing to never touch it again.

Hate was not too strong a word for how much he loathed the aromatic beverage. She and her mother liked it and Zoe was slowly becoming accustomed to the slightly bitter, astringent taste as well. But she was under no illusion that her brother was trying to broaden his own tastes. If anything, he wanted to brew her a cup of tea, probably in an attempt to coax her cooperation with something.

"Tea," she supplied helpfully when he only stared at the box in puzzlement.

"Oh," he said, his brows furrowed. He opened the lid uncertainly, pausing a moment later to stare down at the contents with alarm. "I thought tea came in little bags that you just put into hot water," He looked at her with wide eyes. "This is just a bunch of… of crushed leaves," He sounded completely lost and mildly disgusted.

Maddy decided to take pity on him. "Do you even know what tea is, Josh?" she asked him, gently nudging him out of the way so she could grab the teakettle. She may as well help him before he wrecked her clean and organized kitchen beyond repair trying to figure it out on his own. "Tea is a beverage prepared by adding cured camellia sinensis leaves into hot water and letting it steep to infuse the water with the flavor and nutrients of the leaves," She left the water to boil and reached for the next item.

Josh stared at the silver appliance in her hand as if it were a device of unspeakable torture. "What is this? It looks like a deformed spoon," he said warily, accepting it with obvious reluctance.

"This is a tea infuser, Josh," she explained gently, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling at him. She nudged the box of tea leaves closer to him. "Since the leaves are crushed and infused with other herbs and some chamomile flowers, you need to use this to keep it all from floating around in the cup. Just open it like this—" She demonstrated expertly. "—and load a portion of the leaves into it,"

Maddy was just about to demonstrate that particular step as well when an offensive odor reached her nose. "Oh no," she gasped, quickly spinning on her heel and darting around her brother to the stove. She turned the heat off on the pan she had left to simmer, noting that the contents were seared beyond recognition. "Darn,"

Grimacing at the charred color everything had to it, she set the pan aside to cool. There would be no salvaging the burned food, so she would just have to throw it all out. It was such a waste, but she had not been paying enough attention and there was nothing she could do now. She would just have to restart everything now…

"How do I know when the water is done?"

… And wait until her brother was no longer around to distract her. There was still the roast in the oven that was slow cooking and the alarm would alert her when it was done. It would be fine for another ten minutes before she had to pull it out to rest. That gave her ample time to deal with Josh and find out what he was up to.

Maddy turned with a sigh. "The teakettle will whistle," she informed him, elaborating more fully in a way she knew would silence him when his mouth opened to question it further. "Pressurized steam moves through the two metal plates within the spout lid and fills the space between them creating vortices, which causes pockets of oscillating air pressure to travel through the intervening space and erupt from the spout in a loud wail."

Rising his hands into the air in universal surrender, Josh only smirked at her. "Sorry I asked," He slid into the stool at the counter, glancing at the heating water momentarily as he fidgeted in his seat. "Hey Maddy… I was wondering…"

"Yes, Josh?" she prompted when he fell silent.

Josh exhaled loudly, running a hand over his face. He suddenly looked a lot younger and she sincerely hoped that he had not managed to get himself into trouble again. She inched closer to him and placed a hand on his arm, squeezing gently until he looked up at her.

"What is it?" she asked gently, concerned when he lowered his eyes. "You know I'll help you with anything, Josh." He smiled briefly at her conviction, leaning over on the stool to bump against her. His smile faded as soon as it had appeared and he seemed struggle with himself for a moment. His hand slipped inside of his pocket hesitantly.

Josh placed a small sheet of plexipaper in front of her. Peering down to study what was written on it, Maddy suddenly frowned as her eyes registered the odd triangles and circular patterns muddled with script. She reached down and picked it up, trying to make sense of what she was seeing.

Geometric shapes were combined with several small characters, some numerical, some from an alphabet, and others something she could not recognize, though it all seemed to be forming some kind of glyph on the paper. It was a half formed equation. She stared down at it uncomprehendingly, unsure what it was or why her brother had some kind of mathematical theorem that was well beyond his capabilities.

A shrill whistle cut through her concentration several moments later, the teakettle releasing the pressure as steam poured from the spout. Startled out of her thoughts and theories, she looked up in time to watch Josh turn the stove off. He carefully picked the teakettle up, pouring a bit of the hot liquid into the cups he had prepared.

Maddy had been so intent in studying the equation that she had not even noticed that he had made two cups for tea. She was confused, not only why her brother had this, but also because she had no idea what it was. She could recognize a few things written, but it all may have been written in an ancient text unknown to her for how much she could understand it.

Josh nervously slid one of the cups over to her, studying her face carefully. "Well?"

"… What is this?"

"You're the genius," he said with a half-smile, his attempt at humor falling short. "You should be telling me what it is."

"Josh," she sighed heavily, frowning at him. "That isn't what I meant and you know it. What is this?"

Josh lowered his eyes a bit and went about adding heaping spoonful's of sweetener to his tea. He licked his lips nervously. "I found it," he admitted quietly, eyes darting to the sunroom where their parents were helping Zoe feed her plant small insects. He seemed to relax a minuscule amount when he noted they were still out of earshot. "Outside the gates,"

Maddy swallowed nervously. "Josh—"

"No! Not…" he sighed, running a hand through his hair. "It's not like I'm going out there, okay?" He slid his eyes to the side and she wasn't sure she believed him. "It was that night, the one when me and Skye were out there and mom, dad and Taylor came to get us. I saw this—" He gestured to the strange design. "—scratched into the rocks over by Snakehead Falls."

"Scratched into the rocks?" she repeated in bewilderment.

For a quick moment, every conversation she ever had with Ethan about native civilizations flashed through the forefront of her mind. Primitive races used to inscribe whole accounts of their culture onto cave walls and rocky surfaces as archives, a practice that continued all throughout history by various peoples. It was a simplistic way to preserve information.

Maddy deflated a moment later, conceding to the rational part of her brain that cruelly reminded her that a primitive race wouldn't likely be able to produce such a sophisticated equation. She might have had trouble identifying the majority of it, but it was clearly something that seemed to have a purpose and whoever made the calculation obviously had some idea of physics.

"It doesn't make much sense," Maddy admitted to him regretfully. "There are characters written here that I don't even recognize, and the rest just seems kind of…"

Josh only shrugged a bit helplessly. "I might have improvised a little," he admitted with a sheepish grin, raising his hands defensively when she gave him a look of disbelief. "I only saw it the one time."

Maddy shook her head. "Have you spoken to Commander Taylor?"

"… No,"

"Mom? Dad?" she pressed, but he only averted his eyes. She frowned in comprehension. "You don't plan to tell anyone else."

Josh glanced back to the sunroom, slowly shaking his head. "No," He sighed when she stared in disapproval. "We don't even know what it means, Maddy."

"You should talk to someone," she told him. "Maybe Dr. Wallace will know—"

"No! I'm not talking to that guy or anyone else," Josh said sharply. "I only asked you because out of all of those genius scientists, you are probably the only one who could give me any kind of idea what it was. And I trust you. So just… trust me too. Okay?" he requested an almost desperate pang to his voice. "I will talk to someone… just not right now. Too much has been going on and I just want a few days without worrying about pissing someone off somehow,"

Maddy could see where he was coming from. He may not have been in any kind of trouble these past few days, at least none that she knew of, but he had been in the thick of it just a few short weeks ago and he was still dealing with the consequences. She knew he was trying, he really was, and she could even concede that it had been a rather stressful month for their whole family and that he just didn't want to add to it by randomly presenting something he found weeks ago.

"… Do you promise that you will talk to someone eventually?" she asked seriously, watching as his eyes suddenly filled with relief.

"Yes," he agreed, nodding his head vigorously. "I swear,"

"… Fine," she allowed, holding out the piece of plexipaper for him to take back. "But," She pulled it back quickly. "If you figure anything out, you come straight to me." He nodded, reaching for it, but she pulled it even further away. "And no more unsanctioned trips out into the jungle."

Josh rolled his eyes, pursing his lips to hide his smile. "Okay," He finally took hold of it, but as he was taking it back, her eyes caught sight of something, the new angle allowing her to notice something she had initially missed. She snatched it back before he could wonder off with it, turning it slightly so she could read it better. "Seriously Maddy? What else? Do you need me to sign over my allowance every week for your silence as well?"

"Tempting," she said absently, frowning to herself. "Is this part right?"

Josh blinked in confusion at the abrupt shift in the conversation, peering over her shoulder to see what she was pointing at. "I'm pretty sure. Why? Do you know what it means?"

"… It looks like Roman Numerals."

"What are Roman Numerals?"

"It was a system that used a combination of letters from the Latin alphabet to signify numeric values," Maddy explained, studying the symbols with a critical eye. He only cleared his throat, raising an eyebrow in question. "Letter in place of numbers, Josh," she simplified.

"Oh. What does it say?"

"I think it might be a date?" she mused thoughtfully. "MMCXXXVIII is definitely 2138. These here are probably the month and the day. VIII means eight and V is five. Typically the month precedes the day, so August, 5th 2138. If this is correct, anyway. You said you improvised."

Josh met her eyes curiously. "Does that day mean anything to you?"

"… It sounds vaguely familiar," Maddy admitted, narrowing her eyes in thought. "Not sure why though," She wondered what significance the date could hold. There was still the chance that her brother had written something down wrong, which would have made her guess irrelevant anyway.

Taking a sip of her tea finally as she tried to ponder more on it, she hid her grimace at the taste. Josh made absolutely revolting tea. She probably should have ensured he had used the proper amount of leaves before he had poured the water in. It was too strong, much too strong, and he had sealed the infuser improperly, which left the herbs and spices to float around freely within the cup.

Josh took a sip of his own and began coughing. "How do you drink this crap?"

"You make a… mean cup of tea," she told him after forcing herself to swallow the mouthful.

Josh winced. "Sorry."

"It's… fine," she said, lying through her teeth. "Just a little too strong,"

A soft rap on the door caught both of their attention. She gave the clock a startled glance, horror flooding her veins momentarily, until she realized it was still too early for Mark to be here. His work would keep him busy until six o'clock and even then he liked to return to his own house for a while in order to clean up. He probably wouldn't be here for another half hour.

"I'll get it," Josh said, abandoning his vile tea hastily.

Maddy took the cups and discarded them in the sink before checking on her roast. She was just pulling it out of the oven when her brother returned, holding a small bouquet of flowers in his hands with a scowl on his face. His jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed as he held them out for her to take.

"No one was there," he said tightly, shaking them a bit before she snatched them out of his hands. "Is wonder boy trying to impress you or something? Are these your favorite flowers?"

Maddy blushed as she brought the bouquet to her face, silently willing the clock to move faster. "No, they aren't, but they're gorgeous all the same," She inhaled the fragrance, the smile on her face fading slightly as she read her name on the small card. "That's strange," she mused. "This isn't Mark's handwriting."

"What?" Josh suddenly released a curse. "I told Mom we shouldn't have let you outside in that swim suit!" he said with an angry glower. "Who are they from then?"

No one had ever bestowed Maddy with flowers before, but it certainly seemed like a perfect courting gift to her. She seriously doubted that anyone other than Mark would send her flowers anyway. She studied the petals curiously, wondering what made him choose these particular flowers.

They were similar to orchids, though quite a bit larger, and were the loveliest shade of delicate, pastel purples. Maddy had actually never seen them before around the settlement and had to wonder if they were from beyond the gate. She would have to keep an eye out when they resumed survival training out there after the swimming sessions were over.

Josh eventually retreated back to his room to hide out until it was time to eat. Maddy meanwhile resumed her endeavor to salvage the dinner she had been preparing before his interruption. She was eager to finish it, her eyes constantly glancing at the clock which seemed to be mocking her with the slowness that it moved.

Just a little after six o'clock, there was another knock on the door.

Maddy could not keep the smile off of her face as she hurried to answer it, quickly removing her apron and discarding it on the hook in the kitchen. She smoothed out the wrinkles in her yellow shirt as she took a deep, calming breath—ignoring her brother as he scoffed when he peeked out of his room—and finally opened the door.

"Good evening, Mister Reynolds," she greeted sweetly.

Mark smiled ever so slowly, his eyes meeting hers and holding her gaze for the longest moment before he lowered them to the ground. "You look…" He cleared his throat, his face oddly flushed as he returned the greeting softly. His hands were clasped behind his back and he rocked back on his heels, his countenance suddenly shy. "You look beautiful…"

Heat flooded her cheeks and her breath caught briefly. It was the first time he had uttered those exact words. All of her earlier thoughts on what he thought of her appearance now seemed trivial and irrelevant under the intense weight of his gray eyes, so genuine and caring that she couldn't recall why she had been so worried about it to begin with.

"Thank you," she replied shyly. "So do you."

Mark chuckled softly, licking his lips momentarily before he suddenly brought his arms around. In his hand, he revealed a single flower that looked as if it had been plucked from one of the pathways they frequented together on their daily walks. It was lilium paradalinum, speckled petals with deep maroon that gently transitioned into a pure white at the edges, the subtle fragrance pleasantly filling her senses. It warmed her heart to know that he must have retrieved it specifically since it only grew down one particular path.

"May I?" He gestured toward her instead of offering it for her to take, and she nodded her head slowly. He stepped through the threshold of the door, gently tucking a stray tendril of hair behind her ear before he tucked the stem into her hair. "There," he whispered softly, calloused fingertips lingering on the skin of her neck before he finally withdrew. "Perfect."

Maddy ducked her head slightly, smiling as she reached for his hand. "It's lovely," she told him, sighing contentedly as he twined their fingers together. She tugged him further inside and shut the door behind him. "Are you ready for tonight? Both of my parents are here this time and in moderately good health, so you should have the opportunity to speak with them."

"… Has your mother hid all the weapons?" he asked hesitantly, the teasing glint in his eyes proof enough that he was only joking, but she paused to consider the question seriously. His eyes widened a bit, suddenly peeking over her shoulder worriedly. "Did she?"

Maddy giggled before she could stop herself.

"Hey," Mark protested, a relieved laugh escaping him. "That wasn't very nice."

"You two are disgustingly sweet."

Maddy flushed as she heard her brother.

"Seriously, I'm getting cavities just watching you two."

"Joshua!" she hissed, turning to stare at him as he leaned against the doorjamb of his bedroom. He huffed out a breath and pushed away, walking closer with his arms crossed over his chest. She narrowed her eyes at him sternly. "Be nice,"

Josh only rolled his eyes. "Hello Reynolds," he offered his hand, a challenging eyebrow rose. He smiled tightly to himself as the two shook hands, his grip perhaps a bit firmer than it ought to be. He turned to Maddy then, giving her a pleading look. "Is dinner ready?"

"Yes, Josh," she sighed. "Go sit down."

Josh sent one last subtle glare toward the other man, as he backed away.

"Ignore him. He is—"

"Protective," Mark said with a smile. He lifted one shoulder in a shrug, squeezing her hand gently. "It's okay. I get it…" He glanced over to where Josh was now impatiently preparing himself a plate, his features pensive and hesitant. "Did he ever tell you…?"

Maddy furrowed her eyebrows curiously. "Tell me what?"

"Just that we came to an understanding," he told her, smiling at her confusion. "He already knows what my intentions for you are. He's known for a while in fact."

"When did you two even talk?" she wondered.

Mark only raised an eyebrow, grinning at her. "When did you and my brother talk?"

Maddy smiled grudgingly. "Touché," she conceded. "Was he nice to you?"

"… Does threatening to bludgeon me to death with his guitar count?" he mused blithely, snorting when she gasped in outrage. He squeezed her hand again, laughing softly and shook his head. "He was civil enough. We talked for a while and he… understands that I want to be in your life… any way that you'll have me."

Maddy ducked her head, a ridiculously happy smile on her face as she replayed his words. She was glad to know that her brother was at least making an effort to not actively hate Mark for constantly being around her. She would make sure he got an extra-large helping of pie she made for dessert for nonetheless trying despite his obvious reservations.

Standing on the tips of her toes, Maddy pressed a gentle kiss to his cheek. "It is incredibly sweet," she admitted. "That you want approval from my entire family." She had more or less decided to disregard the fact that courting was apparently a rule; although she was still a bit hurt from him not mentioning it, she could easily ignore it when he looked at her like that.

Mark smiled somewhat bashfully, though his face clouded a second later as he spied something over her shoulder. "It looks like I may have to wait a bit longer for their approval," he murmured quietly.

Maddy frowned in confusion, turning to see what he was looking at. Her mother was quickly pulling on a light jacket as she emerged from the master bedroom, her face utterly apologetic and a bit worried as she moved closer to the door. She had promised she would be here this time. What was she doing?

"Are you going somewhere?" she asked uncertainly.

"Oh, Maddy," Her mother exhaled heavily, regret apparent in her voice as she stepped beside them. She placed a hand on her shoulder, smiling sadly as she said, "I am so sorry, love. Lieutenant Washington just called. Your father and I have to get to the hospital immediately."

Maddy had to school her features at the words, knowing that it would only upset her mother to know just how disappointed she was by the news. She was disappointed, yes, but for some reason she couldn't honestly say that she was surprised by the unexpected turn of events. Perhaps she was just growing accustomed to the odd happenings that seemed to occur daily, especially involving her parents in some way or another.

Commander Taylor seemed to have taken a liking to her family over the past few weeks. She supposed it had to do with the fact that her father had saved his life that one time or maybe that both of her parents had been instrumental in that whole ordeal with the pterosaurs and the whole pathogen fiasco the other day. For whatever the reason, the commander did appear to favor their advice and expertise on matters of the colony.

"It's okay," Maddy assured her quietly, a genuine smile twitching at her lips as she felt the coarse pad of a thumb sweep across the smooth skin of back of her hand. It was comforting, both that he was here and he understood that it wasn't that her parents were avoiding the chance to know him or anything, but their lived were just too unpredictable. She squeezed his hand in return, grateful for the silent support.

"Go ahead and start dinner without us, sweetheart," her mother continued, looking back as her father too emerged from the bedroom with his own coat on. "We will try to be back as soon as we can, but…"

Maddy only smiled. "I'll save you a plate,"

"I'm sorry about this, Marcus," Her mother gave him a sad smile.

"Nothing to worry about, Mrs. Shannon," Mark said easily, lifting his shoulder in a shrug. "I'm sure it was important, otherwise they wouldn't have called the best doctor on the base." He finished with a smile of his own and her mother laughed slightly, touching his shoulder as she walked passed them to the door. His smile faltered slightly when her father raised an eyebrow at their joined hands. He nodded respectfully. "Mr. Shannon,"

"Reynolds," he said in acknowledgement, his voice even and a bit tart. He shared a look with Josh as he left. Both of their eyes slanted to the young soldier conspicuously, identical devious grins on their faces that made her worry what they may have in store for Mark when they did all manage to have a quiet meal together, and then her parents were gone.

"Well," Maddy sighed. "Anyone want dinner?"

Dinner was progressing without incident despite the absence of her parents. She was not too worried about them, considering the circumstances; whatever the emergency was, her parents were still on the base so the situation was not of the same magnitude as the past few instances. She was able to relax and calmly enjoy the meal she had cooked, readily attempting to mediate between her brother and Mark.

Zoe was instrumental in defusing any lingering tension. She had instantly latched onto Josh after giving Mark a quick hug and then remained attached to his side throughout the evening. Her constant interference kept their brother from behaving like a brat; Zoe had even taken to giving him reproachful or pouting frowns whenever he said anything remotely snide or catty.

"So, Reynolds," Josh drawled just as they were finishing up with dessert. He eyed him suspiciously, lifting a curious eyebrow as he mentioned, "Someone mentioned that you got into a fight earlier." He flinched as a small, bony elbow dug into his side as Zoe cut enthusiastically into her slice of pie.

Mark tensed slightly.

"Josh," Maddy said quickly, ready to reprimand him. "That isn't—"

Mark nudged her shoulder quelling, smiling gratefully at her quick defense. "Actually, that is just a rumor," he explained easily, his voice honest and sure. He met his eyes unflinchingly. "There was a fight earlier and I was involved. But all I did was end it."

Maddy smiled subtly at how her brother swallowed slightly. "He never even threw a punch,"

"… You were there?" Josh asked, sounding a bit horrified.

"It happened during our lunch hour," she told him.

"Josh let me and Natalie put flowers in his hair for our lunch hour," Zoe chimed in easily, her voice bright as her eyes widened with deceiving innocence. The boy in question suddenly froze at her words, shaking his head vigorously. "He and Tyler sang the bumblebee song with us and let us dance on their toes." She let out a giggle. "He said he felt like a princess."

Josh let his fork clatter onto his place as he dropped his head down beside it, his head impacting with the table with a loud thunk. "Kill me now," he whispered pitifully.

Maddy tried not to laugh at him, her shoulders shaking with suppressed amusement as she pursed her lips to keep her smile at bay. Mark coughed subtly into his napkin and his eyes watered as he quickly took a drink to smother his own laugh. Zoe had no such qualms about embarrassing her brother, smiling brightly at his expense as she giggled into her hands.

Josh eventually retreated to his room once dinner was over, grumbling to himself the entire way before he shut himself inside. Maddy decided to draw a bath for her sister, since it had been a fun and exciting day out in the ocean and there were still remnants of sand in her dark hair.

Leaving Zoe to play for a while, Maddy returned to find that Mark had already cleared the table and was already washing the dishes. "Mark," she sighed as she idled up beside him. "You're the guest."

"You made dinner," he reminded her simply. "You shouldn't have to clean up too."

Maddy smiled indulgently. "At least let me help you," She reached for the plate he was washing, but he only pulled it out of her reach.

"Nope," he smirked, holding it higher than she could reach.

"Mark," she laughed, shaking her head at his antics.

"Not going to happen. Go sit down,"

Maddy retaliated by poking him in the stomach. "I'll tickle you if you don't let me help,"

"You are the ticklish one in this relationship, Miss Shannon." he said, wriggling his eyebrows threateningly. "Now, you go relax, and I'll finish up."

"… Fine," Maddy conceded in defeat, but instead of leaving, she merely just leaned back against the counter and slid up onto it. He raised an eyebrow at her defiance, shaking his head with a small grin while she swung her legs back and forth. "I'm sorry how dinner turned out."

Mark paused in what he was doing, glancing at her. "Dinner was perfect," he said. "Even though your brother looked like he wanted to murder me with the silverware."

Maddy shook her head with a smile. "No, he didn't," she denied. "Maim you, maybe, but he would leave the actual murdering to my father because he wouldn't know where to hide the body by himself." She laughed softly when he gave her a mocking look of fright. "I meant that I was sorry my parents left."

"Trust me," He shook his head. "Family dinners are always dysfunctional. They never turn out right no matter how much planning goes into them. It's better to just go with the flow."

"… I know," Maddy agreed with a begrudging smile. "But at this rate, you're never going to get to talk to them." She sighed and looked at her hands. Cool droplets of water suddenly pelted her from the side and she released a startled gasp as it began to soak through her clothes, her mouth dropping open as she turned to look at him with wide eyes. "Mark!"

Mark only grinned smugly. "No frowning,"

"I can't believe you just did that!"

Mark chuckled at her outrage, shaking water from his hands as he finished up with the last of the dishes. She scowled briefly as the motion flicked more water at her, though thankfully he had not shot at her with the hose once again. "Nothing will stop me from talking to them, Maddy," He inched closer, sliding his hand into hers as he met her eyes earnestly.

"… What if you get tired of waiting for them to actually be around?" she asked jokingly, but he saw through the humor with ease. He could see the genuine worry she had, however irrational it was, and only smiled gently at her. He leaned forward, her position on the countertop placing them at the same height, and he pressed his forehead against hers.

"Never going to happen," he promised quietly, keeping his eyes locked on hers. She inhaled slowly, biting down on her bottom lip. "You know why?"

Maddy shook her head silently.

"Because I—"

"Maddy!" Zoe called from the bathroom.

Mark groaned slightly at the interruption, allowing his head to drop down onto her shoulder. He sighed heavily and slowly pulled away, meeting her eyes in exasperated amusement. "I—"

"Maddy, I'm done!"

"I'll be right there, Zo!" Maddy called back, giving him an apologetic smile. "I need to help her get ready for bed," He only nodded, laughing at their misfortune as he curled his arms around her waist, hugging her as he helped her get down from the counter. He released her gently, leaning forward to place a lingering kiss on her forehead.

"It's getting late anyway. I have work at five in the morning," Mark told her, though he made no move to leave just yet. His eyebrows rose as something occurred to him and he smiled. "You have work tomorrow too, in fact,"

Maddy sighed. "Don't remind me. I am fully expecting to faint before lunch."

"Hey," Mark ducked his head, catching her eye reassuringly. He gently fingered her chin, raising her head. "No more of that. You're going to be perfect."

"You're sweet," she smiled indulgently. "But you're still a bad liar."

Mark laughed, making his way to the front door. "See you tomorrow?"

"Of course," Maddy nodded, seeing him out the door. She leaned against the doorjamb and watched as his silhouette began to disappear down the dark, vacant street. "Goodnight, Mister Reynolds!"

Mark turned briefly, his smile visible despite the distance. "Goodnight, Miss Shannon!"

Maddy smiled to herself as she closed the door, sighing contentedly as she made her way to the bathroom to get her sister out of the tub. She hoped when they met tomorrow he would be willing to finish whatever he had been saying in the kitchen, because just thinking about it now had her eager to know what he would have said.

It took a few minutes to get Zoe dried off, but soon they were sitting on her bed. "Is Mark coming back?" the little girl asked curiously, fiddling with her stuffed dinosaur toy as the comb gently removed the tangles and knots from her hair.

"Not tonight, Zo," Maddy told her. "But we can see him tomorrow."

Zoe huffed out a breath. "He didn't say goodbye,"

Maddy laughed slightly. "You were in the bath," she reminded her gently.

"When will Mommy and Daddy get home?"

As if to answer, a shrill ringing filled the house. "I bet that's them right now," Maddy said, handing her the comb to finish up while she stood. She reached the communicator, quickly pressing a button to answer it. The ringing fell silent as her mother peered out through the digital screen.

"Hello Maddy," she greeted, smiling tiredly. "Could you do me a favor? Set up a bed on the couch and ask Josh to clean up his room?"

Maddy nodded slowly. "Sure. Is everything okay?"

"Yes, sweetheart, everything is fine," her mother assured her, glancing at something beside her. "A little girl was found wondering out in the jungle. She is from the Sixer camp and she ran away. It's a miracle that she made it here without something happening to her."

Maddy tried not to smile at the information. Despite still recovering from her mild illness, apparently Elisabeth Shannon was the only doctor capable of performing a standard checkup. Her father being involved was expected, since his position with security meant he had to be kept informed of the ongoing events, but it amused her that they would personally request her mother instead of another doctor.

"Your father and I—" There was an odd sound off screen, as if someone had snorted. Her mother turned her head, a disapproving and cool look on her face. "Your father and I have volunteered to care for her until we can find a more permanent home for her here."

"Is she going to be okay?"

"She was mostly scared and a bit hungry," her mother admitted."But she will be fine with some rest and a few hearty meals. But if you could just set your brother up on the couch and have him tidy his room up for our guest, that would be really helpful. We should be there in a few minutes,"

Maddy ended the call a moment later. She released a weary breath, wondering just who this little girl was idly, before frantically rushing throughout the house to prepare for their surprise houseguest. She headed straight for the door that had been closed ever since dinner ended, sliding it open without warning.

Josh was lying back on his bed, lounging with both arms crossed behind his head as he tapped his foot to the beat of the loud music pouring from his headphones. "Maddy!" He quickly removed the earbuds, his eyes widening at the sight of her. "What are you doing in here?"

"We have a guest coming, so you're sleeping on the couch," she informed him quickly, taking note of the disgruntled expression on his face at the news that he was essentially being evicted from his own room. "Can you clean up this—" She wrinkled her nose in disgust at his unkempt room. "—mess while I make you a bed on the couch?"

Maddy hurried out of the room without waiting for an answer, knowing he would only try to protest against it, but there wasn't much that could be done now. She grabbed a few spare pillows and blankets to make up the bed on the couch. She had slept on the couch before so she knew it was comfortable enough, but she made sure to give him some extra blankets just in case it got cold.

"Someone is coming?"

Maddy glanced behind her as she was setting the pillows down. "A little girl," she confirmed, smiling as her sister's eyes lit up at the news. "They should be here in a minute."

"Does she like dinosaurs?" Zoe asked seriously. "Or vampires?"

Maddy blinked. "Vampires?" she repeated in confusion, shaking her head. "Mom didn't tell me much, Zo. I don't even know her name yet,"


Josh was still stubbornly in the same position she had left him in. She sighed in aggravation at his noncompliance, tossing more spare blankets down to the bed for their guest to use. "Why do I have to give up my room?" he asked her sullenly, grunting as she leaned forward to give a swift prod to his side to encourage him to move.

"Because Zoe is six and I'm a girl," Maddy countered swiftly, pursing her lips in annoyance as she looked down to his dirty clothes. He was such a boy, discarded shirts and pants scattered on his bed and the floor uncaringly. "Josh," She sighed in exasperation, bending down to retrieve the articles of clothing, piling them together in the hamper in the corner of his room.

Josh sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "What does that have to do with anything?" he asked her in irate confusion.

Maddy could list quite a few things actually. He actually tended to fall asleep on the couch often enough already, so it would not be much to ask him to give up his room for a few short days. He had a single bed in his room, which could offer the little girl some privacy. Not to mention he was just protesting to be difficult. She could understand why he might be upset, but their guest would be here in just a moment, so he would just have to deal with it.

Movement at the backdoor distracted her from actually mentioning anything anyway. "Okay, shush," she said, her eyes darting around to ensure that the last of the dirty clothes were gone. "That's them." She clapped her hands together in success, giving her brother a stern look. "Be nice."

Josh rolled his eyes, and she did not give him a chance to respond, quickly turning her heel and leaving his room. She heard her mother call out for them just as she entered the living area, her parents closing the door behind them as they walked inside, a young girl just in front of them.

Only perhaps a bit older than Zoe, this girl had blond hair that was currently dark with grime, knotted with remnants of braids and absolutely full of tangles. Her complexion was too pale, her figure much too thin and the large clothing she wore was obviously not made for a child, emphasizing just how small she was. She was small, dirty and tired.

Maddy was concerned that above all else, this girl was skittish. Her head stayed lowered the entire time her mother ushered her forward with low, encouraging words to meet them. Wary blue eyes lifted from watching her feet only briefly when Zoe was quick to place herself right in front of the other girl, the dinosaur doll she and Maddy had made clutched closely.

Josh spilled out of the hallway just when their mother questioned his whereabouts, and the woman began introductions before the moment could become awkward. "Hey everyone… this is Leah Marcos," she said warmly. "Leah, this is our son, Josh."

"Hello," he said unsurely, a lopsided smile on his face when the young girl raised her head slowly. She did not return his greeting and his smile faltered. "Welcome."

"And this is our eldest daughter, Maddy," her mother gestured. "She is going to be starting an apprenticeship at the infirmary with me tomorrow."

Maddy smiled when those cautious blue eyes rose to meet hers, and she lifted her hand in a short wave as she uttered a short greeting. It did not escape her the way the child tensed at the unexpected movement, her eyes following the hand until it was lowered… it was almost as if she had been anticipating being struck.

It was suddenly difficult to keep her smile in place, her concern breaking through with a frown. She swallowed thickly, sharing a quick glance with her brother to confirm that he had seen the reaction as well. His mouth tightened into a thin line and she knew he had the same suspicions she did.

"And this is our youngest," their mother continued gently. "Zoe."

Zoe curled her fingers in a hesitant wave, smiling shyly at the other girl.

Leah lowered her eyes back down to the floor silently, her face skeptical and cautious. She clearly had no intention of speaking to any of them, at least not tonight. Perhaps in the morning she would be more open to any kind of interaction, though for now it was probably best not to push her.

Maddy was just about to suggest that they all get some sleep when her father slowly bent down to speak quietly to Leah. His voice carried through the silent room and Maddy made no move to suppress her smile when she recognized his tone as the same warm, comforting voice he used when he was trying to get any one of them to open up to him.

It had worked well a few weeks ago with Zoe. She had barely recognized him when they had first come through the portal, and he had prompted her with a gentle tone and some soft humor. Zoe had taken very little time to warm up to him completely; now it was almost as if he had never been gone.

"You know," he said. "Zoe's got a plant that eats bugs,"

Zoe herself perked up at the mention of her pet plant. She had been taking very good care of it, feeding it and watering it every day, and she was always eager to show off the strange ancestral fly trap. She nodded quickly, a bright smile breaking onto her face when she realized that she now had the attention of her potential companion.

"In her spare time," the man was saying, gesturing to the homemade doll in his daughter's arms. "She makes these toy dinosaurs. Pretty cool, huh?"

Leah did not return the bright smile, keeping silent throughout it all, but her eyes lingered on the toy with interest. She almost seemed as if she wanted to step forward and study it, though was hesitant to actually do so. She lowered her eyes once more.

Maddy shared another glance with her brother in mutual uncertainty. She had no idea how they would even begin to approach this girl. She had obviously been through a lot, even if they were unaware just what her life had been like out in that jungle. It had not been pleasant in any case.

Leah did not seem shy; just uncertain.

"Well, uh," the man rose, sighing softly as he gestured down the hallway. "The bathroom is through there, and the kitchen is over there… in case you get hungry again," he added as he gently nudged her shoulder, one more attempt to entice some sort of reaction from her.

Curiously enough, Leah did not seem to be upset by his contact. She glance at him out of the corner of her eye suspiciously, though she was clearly not scared of him the way she had been of Maddy lifting her hand a moment ago. Even her mother was given a wide berth as well, the child tensing and watching her warily when the woman shifted.

Maddy tried to keep her mind from jumping to conclusions, though what little she knew had already painted a rather grim and foreboding image in her mind. She had to force her fingers flat against her thighs, uncurling them as she tried to keep her face open and friendly because the last thing this girl needed was to see her anger.

"Um," she said, trying to get her attention. "Do you want to see where you're gonna sleep?" She turned her and led the way when Leah gave her a wary nod. Her mother came around behind her to one side of the bed, helping her unfold the spare blankets for their guest.

"Enough blankets, I think," the older woman said, smiling widely as Leah entered the room. Her eyes swept curiously around the room, lingering on the hard floors for a brief moment of scrutiny before she frowned at the bed as if she had never seen one in her life.

Leah slowly approached, keeping her distance to one side of the room, closest to the door that lead out to the hallway. She was careful to keep her back to the wall as the others gathered just outside the room, watching her as she studied the lamp on the bedside table in bewilderment. Small fingers curiously grazed the painted metal, and the child released a soft sound of surprise, startling backwards as the bulb whizzed to life at her touch, illuminating the room with a gentle glow.

Maddy smiled at the reaction, only half listening when her mother offered the girl reassurance.

"It's okay," she told her. "It's only a light."

Leah seemed to be even more uncertain, and her bright blue eyes quickly sought out the only one she seemed to be comfortable with. Maddy saw her father smile gently in return, not even needing to question why Leah trusted her father.

Despite being unable to make Leah feel more at ease around them all, he did have a certain presence, something about the way he stood and carried himself that made it clear he was a protector. No matter how unsure she was, Leah was certainly aware of that truth.

"Here, make up the bed," her mother instructed, and Maddy quickly grabbed a corner of one blanket.

Leah approached the bed before they could get it sorted out, her knuckles digging into the mattress. She pushed down on it a few times as if testing the surface as she climbed up, not even bothering to untie her boots as she curled on the bed. She grabbed hold of one of the spare blankets, quickly pulling it over her to conceal herself.

Maddy smiled sadly at the gesture, because while it was decidedly strange, it was not entirely unexpected given the circumstances. She knew exactly how a good, warm blanket could be used as a shield, considering she had done it herself on many occasions. I can't see them, they can't see me…

"We should… probably let her sleep," her father suggested quietly, smiling as Zoe sighed dejectedly beside him, holding her doll close. Josh had already slipped away without a word, and Maddy simply nodded alongside her mother as they slowly made their way out the door.

Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty-one