Chapter 33


This is my time
I won't forget it
Won't leave it all behind

This is your crime
I won't regret it
For once I had to fight

~Bleeding; Elysion

After lunch, Modo and Ashlin spent a few hours chatting with his little mama before they finally tore themselves away, though they left Ako with her for the afternoon so the two of them could, as Mama had put it, have some more grandma/grandson bonding time. Just as they were heading outside, Modo was surprised to see two very familiar figures passing by in the distance. Grinning, he grabbed Ashlin's hand and hurried to catch up.

"Glad to see you two finally made up," he noted cheekily as they reached Charley and Vinnie, who stopped walking and greeted them with cheerful smiles. Modo was all smiles too as he looked them both over, noting how Charley-ma'am looked like her pretty auburn-haired self again - and then his eye fell what she had cradled in her arms. "Whoa. You two really made up."

Laughing, Charley brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. "Throttle said almost the same thing a little while ago."

She took a moment to give him a brief rundown of exactly how her little son came to be; Modo listened in mildly stunned silence. "Well, however it happened," he said when she was finished, "I'm just happy the two of you are together now. The way you should be."

Charley clucked her tongue. "Did everybody have us figured out except us?" she wondered.

"Apparently," sighed Vinnie.

Modo just grinned. "Hey, what's right is right. And I don't think there's nothin' else that looks quite as right as the two of you do right now."

The obviously deeply in love couple smiled shyly at each other for a moment, and then Charley-ma'am cuddled their sleepy son a little closer...while Vinnie suddenly took a closer look at the slender Martian standing quietly next to Modo. "Enough about us; who's your friend?" he asked, the mischievous twinkle in his eyes plain.

Modo snaked an arm around Ashlin's shoulders and pulled her closer. "Oh, just somethin' I picked up while I was on vacation," he said slyly.

Vinnie snickered, clearly in favor of his decision. "Good job, bro. Hey - high-five."

Ashlin flushed while they playfully slapped hands; Charley rolled her eyes and elbowed her new husband in the ribs. Smiling shyly, Ashlin shifted her weight a little and slid her arms around Modo's waist. Vinnie's grin suddenly vanished; his gaze had fallen on her tail.

Modo quickly shot him a warning look - which must have been even deadlier than he had meant it to be, because the white mouse took a step back with his hands raised in a sign of surrender. "We'll, um, finish catching up later," he said nervously. "Charley and I, uh, need to go find a place to live now that she's permanently moving to Mars."

His irritation fading, Modo looked at Charley-ma'am in surprise. "Really?"

"Really," she confirmed softly, her eyes on her son. Vector yawned quietly and pointed a stubby finger in Modo's direction. "Unco?" he wondered curiously.

Modo laughed quietly and lightly squeezed his tiny hand between his fingers. "Absolutely, lil bro. You're officially part of the Modo protection program now. Anyone ever bugs you, you just let me know and I'll come runnin'."

The little guy giggled like he understood what he meant; Vinnie smiled as he put an arm around his wife and nudged her closer. Modo looked the two of them over again; there was something personally satisfying about seeing them like this, together and so very happy. "You sure you need a different place?" he wondered. "It's probably dusty by now, but our pad's plenty livable."

Ever since they came back to Mars two years ago, the three of them had been casually sharing a small place, though it had only really served as somewhere for them to sleep when they weren't off goofing around somewhere.

Vinnie smiled knowingly and squeezed Charley's shoulder. "I'm sure. Throttle's off looking for a new place too; why don't you two take it?"

Modo looked down at Ashlin, who smiled it return. "Sounds good to me," she said softly.

"Me too. Thanks, bro."

"Don't mention it. We'll talk more later okay?"

The happy family said goodbye, and Modo, his arm still around Ashlin, turned in the opposite direction, planning to show Ashlin the place in question. But just as they were crossing in front of a section of small businesses that bordered the area, he heard someone call out loudly, "Who let that in here?"

Modo froze. Ashlin, who had been looking happier than he had ever seen her for the last couple of hours, went deadpan as she huddled at his side.

The speaker was a mouse that Modo barely knew, but he had stopped whatever he had been doing and was now glaring at them like he had just been insulted personally. "She has as much business bein' here as any mouse," Modo told him, teeth gritted.

"Don't give me that, I can see her ugly rat tail from here."

By now they'd caught the attention of others who were passing by, and before Modo knew it a small crowd had gathered around them, murmuring unhappily to each other. Gritting his teeth harder, Modo tightened his arm around Ashlin, silently warning anyone from so much as stepping a hair closer. But somebody ignored this warning - and this time it was somebody that Modo did know. He and Modo hung out together at the nearby bar and grill all the time, but now the large mouse was staring at him like he was a stranger.

"Out of everybody I've ever known, you'd be the last one I'd expect this from," he said in a low, dangerous voice.

"Don't push it," Modo advised darkly. "Just walk away while you still can."

The burly biker responded by moving even closer; Ashlin shrank back. "Are you threatening me?" he challenged.

"No...just givin' you sound advice from one mouse to another."

"But he's right," the first speaker cut in. "You out of anyone should know better than to bring a rat-"

"She ain't no rat," Modo snapped, his temper rapidly waning.

He started to say more, but Ashlin suddenly laid a hand on his arm. "That's not true," she said softly. "I am a rat."

"Only half of one," Modo argued.

"That's half too much," somebody said. He wasn't sure who. Still standing in front of him was his ex-friend from the bar, and he had a disgustingly smug, triumphant look on his face. That was too much for Modo - but just as he was lunging forward, fist raised, Ashlin darted in between him and his future punching bag.

"Don't," she said, just as softly as before. Her expression was carefully controlled, but he knew her well enough to know that she was deeply hurt. "I don't want you to wind up getting hurt over me. Just let it go, okay?"

She ducked her head after she spoke - to hide the tears, no doubt - and brushed by him, hurrying off through the crowd, who parted for her like she was poisonous. Her voice came back to him like a whisper...and she said the words, "I'm going home."

Modo felt a feeling like ice water rushing through his veins. Mars had never been home to her, so that could only mean one thing. She was going to contact someone and teleport back to Malteria.

It was stupid of him to have brought her here in the first place. He really should have known better. But the only thought that had been in his mind was that if he could love her so easily, then everybody could - and everybody would. Now he saw that it would never be like that, and that it was selfish and cruel to bring her here and subject her to this.

No, she was better off on Malteria where she belonged. And maybe, he thought bitterly as he shoved his way blindly through the crowd, she was better off without him, too.


"You know," Throttle sighed, "I thought it would be a little while before this happened."

He and Tamerin were heading through the center of the residential district. Michio had run off, already making friends with local young mice, and the two of them were about to start looking into enrolling him in school, plus they needed a new home to move into.

They had only taken a few steps when he caught sight of Carbine, and she was heading straight their way. Judging by the look on her face, she hadn't spotted them yet. Throttle thought briefly about letting go of Tamerin's hand...but in the end he chose not to. What was the point? She'd find out one way or another. It was best to just get it over with.

She noticed him first. Throttle wasn't sure how she managed to miss a willowy figure the color of snow, but her eyes settled on him and she stopped walking, leaving several feet between them. "I'd heard you were back," she said, her tone carefully neutral and controlled.

Then her gaze fell on Tamerin. Throttle watched blandly as her eyes looked her over, her expression growing tighter as they drifted downward to their clasped hands. In the light of the sun, the bracelet and charm on her wrist glittered.

"Well," Carbine said, her tone dryer than Martian sand, "that certainly didn't take you two long."

Throttle just smiled as he turned his head and gazed at Tamerin, who smiled softly in return. Once upon a time an exchange like this would have irritated him; now all he felt was a deep sense of calm. Of peace. "Not really," he responded. "We've been working our way to each other our entire lives."

Tamerin's smile deepened, her blue eyes shining. He lifted her hand and kissed it, his earring dangling from her wrist for all to see. The General made a scoff of disgust. "You know, you could at least have enough respect to-"

"Respect?" Tamerin echoed sharply before Throttle could open his mouth to respond. Her eyes abruptly turned cool as she gazed at the General. "You were the one who locked him up. Twice."

Clearly taken aback, Carbine faltered for a moment. "Yes, but that was-"

"Duty?" Tamerin supplied. "The one who loves you should always be first in your heart, no matter what. Duty is no excuse for betrayal."

Throttle tightened his grip on her hand. Carbine opened her mouth to say something - then shut it, turned on her heel and stalked away. Tamerin smiled faintly and leaned her head on his shoulder. "She'll get over it."

"You think?"

"If my mother can get over my father, then anyone can get over anybody."

Throttle thought about that for a moment, then eased his hand from hers and slid his arm around her waist. "Technically she's my mother now, too," he noted as they started walking again. "You'll have to fill me in on what she was like - your father too. Give me the whole back story."

Tamerin chuckled softly. "There'll be plenty of time for that later, once we're in our new home."

"The one we haven't picked out yet," Throttle added with a grin.

Smiling, she lifted her head and gazed at him, her eyes full of warm affection. She absently laid her hand on his chest as she said, "We've got all day to work on it. There's no rush."

No, Throttle thought, as he rested his head against hers and tightened his arm around her. There was no rush. They had their whole lives to make plans.


Modo's throat was tight and his eye burned suspiciously as he stumbled through the front door of his mama's home. He swallowed a couple of times before he spoke. "Mama?"

"We're in here," came her voice from around the corner.

Swallowing again, Modo headed through the front hall and into the living room. "I messed up," he mumbled, voice cracking. "I-"

He stopped. His mama was sitting in her favorite rocking chair, with Ako perched on her lap - and sitting on the floor at her feet was Ashlin. While he gaped in confusion, she leaped up and ran to him, throwing her arms around his waist and burying her face in his middle. "Don't you dare blame yourself," she told him softly, severely. "It's not your fault."

"But..."

He was almost too stunned to speak. His hands rested on her shoulders as he swallowed back the huge lump in his throat and tried again. "I thought you left," he said in a whisper, not trusting himself to speak any louder. "I thought you went home."

Her arms still around him, Ashlin lifted her face and looked at him. "But I am home," she said, her voice soft and even. Firm. "It's right here with you."

Modo swallowed again and blinked rapidly, but nothing was going to stop the flow of tears that had been threatening to overtake him now. "But after what happened today-"

"I don't care," Ashlin said, with the same firmness as before. "It doesn't matter what they say or think. Maybe I cared once, but I don't anymore."

A smile touched her lips as she reached up to brush his tears away, then tenderly cupped his face in her hand. Modo squeezed his eye shut and gave his head a shake before looking at her again. "How did this happen?" he asked, with a weak laugh. "I'm the one cryin' and you're the one comfortin'."

Ashlin laughed with him softly, then coaxed him to bend forward a little. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held him tightly. "You happened," she murmured into his ear. "You helped make me strong."

Modo let out a shaky sigh. "Darlin', whatever it is you want to do..."

"I want to start our life here," Ashlin said, with conviction. "You, me, and Ako. So long as we're together...nothing else matters."

She kissed his cheek, then slowly let go and stepped back. As Modo straightened up, his mama came quietly forward and passed Ako to him. "Go on," she urged softly, her eyes slightly misty behind her glasses. "Go take your new family home."

And with his new son tucked under one arm and the Martian he loved wrapped tightly in the other, that was exactly what he did.


EPILOGUE


While Charley looked around blankly, Vinnie came up behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders. "Well?" he asked eagerly. "What do you think?"

Charley scanned the room they were standing in again. "It's a cave."

Vinnie started sniggering. "Of course it is; we're mice. You thought we lived in high-rises or something?"

"Yeah, but it's so...empty."

"Of course is it," Vinnie repeated, sounding a little exasperated now. "Nobody lives here. Well, not yet anyway. Come on, can't you picture it? A few rugs here, a couch over there..."

Her bookcases in the alcoves at the back. Bright curtains over the windows. Yes, Charley was picturing it now - picturing it clearly - but when it came down to it, it didn't really matter. As long as she had her son and her new husband with her, it didn't matter where they were. Twisting around, she wrapped her arms around Vinnie's neck and kissed him. "It's perfect," she murmured against his mouth. "Because it's ours."

"Really?" Vinnie asked eagerly.

"Really."

"Good, because it's all I can afford."

Laughing, Charley pushed him away. "Quit while you're ahead," she scolded.

As she turned around and faced the empty living room again, tiny footsteps came running down the adjoining hallway. His little face beaming, Vector scurried in to join them. He pointed a stubby finger behind him, eyes questioning. "Mine?"

Laughing again, Charley scooped him up and squeezed him tight. "Yes," she confirmed, "you have your very own room now. You're a big boy."

Vector looked pleased with this idea. "Ah-sum."

Chuckling, Vinnie reached over and ruffled the top of his head. "That's my boy," he declared with a happy sigh.

Charley looked at Vinnie for a moment - at how the feeling of fatherly love seemed to make his face glow - then handed their son to him. "Here, why don't you take him for a ride?" she offered.

"Really?" Vinnie asked in surprise. "Just the two of us? Don't you want to come too?"

Smiling softly, Charley gave her head a shake. "Not this time. You two still have a lot of father/son bonding to catch up on."

For a moment her husband's smile matched hers - and then he was bursting with that childish excitement only he could exude as he all but ran for the door. "Can you guess what we're going to do?" he asked their son eagerly.

With a giggle, Vector exclaimed, "Wide fee!"

"Exactly!"

Laughing, Charley watched as Vinnie ran off to his bike, then turned back to look around their new home again, her hand drifting up to touch the stone hanging from her neck. It was a little amazing, she thought, just how happy she felt right now. How safe. Just a short time ago she was waking up every morning to a sense of dread, to that fear of not knowing - or wanting to find out - just what the day held.

That feeling was gone. She was where she belonged now - where she had always belonged. Her heart felt full enough to burst as she absently touched the stone to her lips as she thought about how she couldn't wait to see what tomorrow had in store for her.

Because she was home.

~Fin~


Note: And so that's it. I didn't originally plan on it, but there's more story to tell, so keep an eye out for more tangents and a sequel entitled Together On Mars. I'd like to send out a big, BIG thank you to all my readers; I hope you enjoyed this and I hope you enjoy everything that follows just as much.