Willie had just finished checking on the last iguana. He'd filled their water dishes and made sure the kale, spinach and cabbage were chopped and ready in the small cooler for the morning feeding, and that their heat lamps were set at the right level. He'd also checked the water in the rat cages but left the more particular details to be taken care of by the others, to avoid temptation. He'd been working on weaning himself from live prey, if for no other reason than to make his new companions more comfortable.
The sudden rush and halt of footsteps in the outer hallway caught Willie's attention. At this late hour it was unusual for the humans to be abroad in the area of the building called "saloon" that was reserved for scientific purposes. The computer lab had been abandoned an hour or so earlier after the raiding party had returned. Willie had been deeply saddened to learn of Ruby's death. She had treated him kindly, when even the most open-minded of the others had remained suspicious. She had been the most comforting presence he had felt since Harmony's death, and he would miss her.
"Who is there?" he asked hesitantly. Willie wasn't armed; the severe Mr. Tyler had successfully argued against that for the time being, anyway. If the intruder meant harm to any of them Willie wouldn't be much help except to speak to any fellow Visitor in his native language.
"Just me, Willie."
"Angie," Willie acknowledged with great relief. "It is late. Our work with the passes need not begin until tomorrow…" he checked his chronometer. It wasn't quite 11 pm. As she entered the animal lab Angie's distraught expression was obvious. "What is wrong?"
"Shit, Willie, what's right?"
He puzzled over this for a minute. "I am sorry, Angie, I do not understand your question."
Angie walked into the lab and paused by the rabbit cage. "Is it okay if I pick one up?"
"Yes, those animals are not engaged in any experiments yet."
She opened the cage and carefully lifted out one of the smaller of the three rabbits. It wiggled a bit until she had it firmly supported in both hands, then relaxed against her. Stroking its soft fur and delicate ears she mused, "I wonder if they know why they're here."
"I think, like us, they know where they are only."
"But we know more, we plan, don't we? We try to figure it all out, and get around it, and make it work to our advantage."
Willie thought for a moment. "I think I understand. I did not mean that we have no thoughts outside of the present, like these animals. I mean that we may live this moment only. We cannot live the future."
"Willie, do you think we're doing the right thing?" Angie asked with a pleading look. "I mean what I came up with and what Robert and Julie agreed to, that maybe a better way to approach this is from the inside, from knowledge and not blind attack?" Willie looked a little sad then, and Angie felt guilty for asking. "I'm not asking the best way to kill your people. Just the best way to end this."
He nodded. "I know that many humans wish to kill all of my fellow beings, my 'people', for what we have done. But we have weapons far more powerful than yours. To fight only, as your friend Mr. Tyler wishes, may succeed. But at great cost. The way you and I are working on together may kill less, on both sides. We are not alone with this idea. There are humans I have heard in my time here who think this. And those of my kind who do, too, and are organizing."
Angie interrupted before he could continue. "Willie, did you notice? Your English was almost perfect."
"I am hapless to know that."
"Happy, Willie. You're happy."
"Yes." He paused, then told her, "But you are not. You are sad for Ruby."
"Yeah, Willie. I'm sad for Ruby. Everybody is." She snuggled the rabbit for a minute longer, hiding her tears in its fur, then returned it to its cage. "Willie, how did you learn to deal with all of this? How long did it take for you to adjust to this new… everything?" If he could do it, having left not just a home but a whole world, she thought she could, too.
He gazed at her in frank confusion. "I have not. When I learn the answer, I will tell you."
She sighed. "Okay. Thanks."
As she walked away Willie called after her, "Angie? Please do not take blame for tonight." When she turned and stared he added, "We did not hurt Ruby. Those who wish to conquer earth did."
She forced a smile. "Sure, Willie. See you tomorrow."
Angie went back to her sleeping quarters. There were still a few theatrical cosmetics left on the small built-in table in the corner. She sat in the chair in front of the mirror, wanting to resent the blame that Tyler had poured out in that chill voice. The problem was, she knew in a way he was right.
"I'm sorry, Ruby, I'm so sorry," she told the empty clothes on the hook next to her, "I just wanted to help." But nobody was there to hear.
Tyler slowed his pace as soon as he'd left the small building that served as the armory. Termites, shit, why did Farber have to remind him of that? Dumping the blame on Angie was easy, it had been her plan. Well, that wasn't quite true. It had been his plan, his and Donovan's. Angie and Willie had planned what to do with the passes, and the rest of the key rebel leaders had agreed. But how to get them had been his plan, and Donovan's. And Ruby thought it was a good one, she'd readily volunteered for her part in the operation, and was the most logical choice anyway. It should have worked. It should have worked. How many times had that been said in the past, when the operation had been a success but someone had died? The plan had worked. Someone who had known the risk had paid the price. Termites, shit… how many people like Ruby had done their thing and gotten away with it? Plenty. More than hadn't, really. 'Perfect' wasn't ever part of the plan, but perfect was what Tyler always demanded of himself, he needed it, even when he didn't expect it. And when perfect didn't happen, he looked for someone to blame. He tried to stay on his own until the urge passed, and he imagined Chris had tried to hold Angie off, but already he knew her well enough to know she'd have ignored it because she had to talk sense to him.
Fucking librarians, computer geeks and intellectuals, they always expect things to make sense. Welcome to the New World, Angel.
As he knocked on the open door-frame Tyler tried not to remember the last time he'd done that, just hours ago.
Angie was sitting cross-legged on one of the fold-down beds in the compartment, staring at the floor. Her eyes were red and swollen and dry as a bone. Her hair was done up in pigtails and she was wearing those goofy rabbit pajamas that never got used at the cabin. She looked confused and beaten down, and he wanted so badly to touch her his stomach hurt. As if that could make up for anything. She didn't even look up. He knocked once more and asked, "Okay if I come in?"
"Go ahead. Plenty of room here now."
"Angie," Tyler began, not knowing exactly what to say.
"Oh, my first name. I guess you're not busy anymore." She was still trying to sound as mean as he had, but it was no contest.
What he saw and heard in her was wounded, not just by him but by Ruby's absence, by her own doubts. And of course he'd seen the weak spot amid those doubts, and jumped on it with both feet because… who the fuck knew. She was handy, that's all. Nice work, Tyler. Fixer, my ass.
She continued to stare at the floor. "Since it looks like you're not in the mood to continue your little lecture, I'll do it for you. I hide in the computer room while other people do the dirty stuff, the dangerous stuff, the stuff that counts." She threw up her hands as if admitting it to the world. "I'm obsessed with being clever while other people die. I checked out books to Elmer Fudd, and my friends in the Resistance died. I lived in fantasy-land with David like nothing else existed, and he died. I drove away when things got ugly, and everyone died. Hell, at least I'm consistent."
"Stop it." Ham took a step into the room. "I'm sorry. I knew just where to slip the knife in and I did it because you were there and it was easy, no other reason. Take your best shot, I earned it."
Finally Angie looked at Tyler, but briefly. "Why be sorry? Like I said, you were right."
"Uh-uh." Ham shook his head and knelt on the floor in front of her. Now she was staring off somewhere over his shoulder. "Lookat me, will you?" He took her face in his hands more roughly than he wanted to, because he had to make her look at him and she didn't want to. "Look at me. I'm pissed off, because of the war and because of old ladies getting shot by lizards, and because of librarians who have to learn to be commandos," his voice was bitter, and Angie tried to back away but he wouldn't let her. "I'm angry as hell but it's not about you, and it wasn't your fault."
He knew she could see the rage in his eyes and that it scared her even though he was telling her it wasn't her fault. He was angry, he still felt the rage boil down deep, but when he pulled her toward him and felt her face contract under his fingers he knew for damn sure whose fault that was. On top of everything else, now he was making her scared of him.
"No, Angie." He stopped still, and his grip gentled. "No." He leaned his forehead against hers and the anger seemed to cool as if she'd drawn it out of him.
"I'm sorry," Angie told him urgently, "you know I wanted..." She couldn't finish because he interrupted with a whispered "Ssh" so she'd stop trying to convince him of what he already knew. She nodded okay.
He sat back on his heels. "How about I stay a while." No question mark. He made it sound like he was doing it for her, but the truth was he needed to feel like less of an asshole. Let me do a little more penance, Angel. When she nodded, the ache in his gut subsided a little.
He shed his jacket and shoes, dropped them in a corner. Angie gestured vaguely. "Not much room in here, I guess."
"I'll manage," he smiled, and reached behind him to shut the door. "C'mere." She went to him, but when he pulled her into a long kiss he could feel Angie start to tremble as if she were about to collapse. He stopped and looked closely at her, and knew those red rimmed dry eyes would be running with tears if she hadn't used them all up already. Tyler felt like an asshole all over again as he realized the last thing he should be thinking of right now was another marathon session of therapeutic sex and self-indulgence.
"I'm sorry," Angie muttered. Having him make love to her would be a welcome distraction… as long as she didn't have to give anything back. But they were surrounded by Ruby's things, and Angie couldn't stop thinking about her, and no matter who told her it wasn't her fault, she couldn't stop thinking about how it wouldn't have happened if only...
He interrupted her wandering thoughts. "It's okay." But the trembling got worse, and she shrugged miserably in disagreement.
Whispering softy, "C'mere," Tyler drew Angie down with him to stretch out on the narrow drop-down bed, his back pressed to the wall. He wrapped around her, arms and legs, the palm of one hand supporting her cheek and the other arm snug around her waist, hand spread on her stomach, thumb rubbing back and forth, "Easy, now, relax, breathe."
Angie felt his every breath, and before long her own breathing settled into synch. The trembling that had seized her diminished, and she relaxed and let herself be supported completely, surrounded by him. This was wrong, this wasn't her, she didn't want to be held and shushed like a baby by someone who'd verbally beaten her black and blue less than an hour before.
But he felt so good, the soft cotton sweater where she gripped his arm, the hard muscle of his shoulder against the back of her head, and the way his legs were scissored around hers, his socks warming her bare feet where they couldn't quite burrow under the afghan (Ruby's afghan) at the end of the bed. As she relaxed Ham eased his grip on her, still wrapped around her but not as tightly. She didn't want this, she didn't want to need this, not from him. Not from anyone, not anymore..
After a while she pulled away and sat up, and immediately felt his hand spread on her back: warm, this thumb moving back and forth.
"Better?" he asked.
Tyler reached up and gave the back of her neck a squeeze. "No wonder you like to keep your mouth shut; you're a lousy liar." When she didn't reply he let go. "Never mind. When my mouth starts swinging it can take a while for the bruises to heal." He rubbed the back of her head and added, "I'm sorry, Angel. I didn't say it just to get into your pants."
Now she turned to look down at him. "You didn't get into my pants."
"See?" he smiled up at her. He sat up, looked her closely in the eye. "We good?"
"Yeah." Angie sighed, and touched his face. It seemed to surprise him, but he didn't pull back. She traced the scar on his left temple. "I used to wonder where you got that, but I think I got it figured out."
He responded with a knowing smirk and invited, "Why don't you tell me."
"I think," she gave him a push so he turned and sat sideways with his back to the wall, then straddled his lap facing him, "that's where a random, unplanned, non-strategized thought tried to get in. Oh, you fought it off..." she was very serious in spite of his obvious amusement, "but it left its mark."
"Bar fight," Tyler corrected. "But good guess." He used both hands to brush her pigtails back over her shoulders, then dropped them to his sides. They sat there for a minute or two, regarding each other calmly and without comment.
"I don't know about you, Tyler," Angie finally observed with a hint of weariness, "but I get the feeling we're kind of stuck with each other."
He nodded, looking thoughtful. "Should I be worried?"
"'Worried'? I'm not the one with a truckload of explosives."
Suddenly Ham began to scan the tiny room as if searching for something.
"What are you looking for?" she asked.
"Lamps," he deadpanned. "You damn near killed Sascha with that lamp. A man can't be too careful, even one with a truckload of explosives."
Angie blew out an exasperated snort and started to climb off Tyler's lap, but he stopped her.
"Don't you dare get up."
In spite of his wiseass tone Angie saw something deep in the dark eyes that she hadn't been paying attention to, something that probably had had a lot to do with the nasty things he'd said to her.
"It wasn't your fault, either," she told him gently. His smile faded and his eyes were so round and solemn that Angie kissed him between them, like he did to her sometimes, and pulled his head to her shoulder. She thought he might resist such direct comfort, but he surprised her by hugging her around the waist and drawing a deep breath, then releasing it in a rush like someone who'd had to stand up for a long time and was finally getting a chance to sit down and rest.
"You know what Ruby told me?" she continued, "That it was no surprise for two people in such a desperate situation to find something worthwhile in each other."
"Ruby was a smart lady." Tyler's voice was muffled against Angie's shoulder until he turned his head to plant a kiss on her neck. "Okay if I stay?"
Angie looked down at him. "You don't have to. I'm okay."
"Well to be honest," Ham explained with a doubtful expression, "bunking with Farber could be a little hairy tonight… he's not exactly pleased with how I mouthed off at you back there. I'd rather be cramped for space than get lectured all night. Besides," he locked his arms tighter around her waist, pressed his face under her ching and inhaled deeply, "you smell a lot better."
"Mmm, okay." Angie got up to shut off the light and give Tyler room to get undressed, but he only took off his belt and sweater, leaving his t shirt and jeans. "You expecting trouble?" she wanted to know.
He shook his head and lay down again, reaching an arm out to beckon her. "C'mere." She thought of what a chore it was going to be to get his clothes peeled off in such tight quarters (she knew too well he was not inclined to help), but figured she'd get a start on herself and unbuttoned the top of her flannel pj's.
"Uh-uh," he stopped her hands and took a look at her where she sat next to him on the bed. With those braids and flannel pajamas, even with her top halfway undone he realized he just couldn't get into it. "Don't take it personally, but I can not seduce a woman who's wearing pigtails and bunny rabbit pj's without feeling like a bigger pervert than I am already." He buttoned her top up almost all the way. "Besides, in a place this size somebody could get hurt." She sat staring at him, completely confused. That had been happening a lot lately. "Don't look so insulted, c'mere," he pulled her down and spooned her back against him, wrapping his arms around her and tucking his legs up behind hers, and reached down to pull Ruby's afghan over them. "You warm enough?" he asked her solicitously.
God he felt so good, Angie didn't know if she'd ever stop noticing that as if it were new each time. "Yeah," she murmured, and settled back against him. "Who knew there were snuggly mercenaries?" she asked sleepily.
"Careful," he warned her, "I have a reputation to protect." When she laughed he nuzzled the nape of her neck. "Nice," he breathed.
The next day the rebels gathered outside for a memorial for Ruby. Father Andrew spoke a eulogy as the camp members joined hands... with the exception of Chris Farber and a hard-faced Ham Tyler, whose hands were resolutely jammed in his pockets. Angie Harper stood between them, and nobody but Mike Donovan noticed her right hand sharing Tyler's jacket pocket with his left, discreetly withdrawn as the rebels said "amen" and returned to the business of war.
"C'mon, Willie, we got work to do," Angie called to Willie, and the two of them went to the computer lab to get started on the pass analysis.
As he and Tyler headed to the munitions shed to finish counting up the inventory remaining after last night's raid, Donovan observed bitterly, "I know we didn't fuck up, and I know Ruby did exactly what she wanted to do. But goddamn it, she deserved better."
Tyler glanced back to catch a glimpse of Angie as she trudged wearily by Willie's side.
"Don't we all, Gooder. Just don't expect to get it anytime soon."