I'd like to think that I don't terrify easily, but that's not true. Spiders that jump freak me out, and I'm not crazy about being alone in a dark room. Those are normal scary things; things any sane person would be scared of.
But getting up from a tumble with Nick and looking around to see a forest of Jello-colored trees would be enough of a reason to scream. I didn't, but that was only because I'd had the breath knocked out of me when we fell. Nick pulled me to my feet and immediately got in front of me, his .45 out as he looked around.
"Where are—" I started but he shushed me. Normally I'd bristle at that, but it dawned on me that not only were we not in Saskatchewan anymore, but also that we weren't even on Earth anymore. And if that was the case, then anything out there would be alien.
Ever been thrilled and terrified at the same time? Yeah, it was like that with a heavy dose of lust thrown in thanks to Nick's kiss and now his super-macho protective stance. I shut up quick and stayed behind him as he circled around, completely focused on the terrain. I took a good look too, even as I wondered about how much oxygen there was and if we were breathing in anything dangerous.
I didn't think we were—I had enough common sense to know adrenaline was responsible for what I was feeling—but let me tell you, those primary colored trees and that long ropy grass was not something you see every day. It wasn't cold—a little misty, and what light there was seemed to be coming from the horizon. So either a sunrise or a sunset.
"Shit," Nick managed, and turned to look at me for a moment. "You okay?"
"Yeah. We're, um, on another planet, aren't we?"
"Given that we just fell through a suspected inter-dimensional portal, it looks that way," Nick admitted reluctantly. "This was not on my agenda today."
"Mine either," I couldn't help adding, and moved over to the runestone. I was about to touch it when Nick caught my wrist with his free hand and pulled me back.
"Look first," he chided. I nodded and we circled around it together, hand in hand. I appreciated how firm his grip was, seriously.
"I don't see anything . . . door-like," I confessed.
"Whatever it was had to be about shoulder-height," Fury muttered. "Must have touched it when I kissed you."
"That's going to be hard to explain when we get back," I told him, more to say something than to chide him. He looked like he might make some smart remark, but we heard something and it wasn't coming from the stone in front of us. The noise was loud and very . . . unfriendly. Nick moved before I could stop him, stepping in front of me again, and bringing his gun up before the sound even died away.
Scared? Check. Not only did I not have a weapon, but I also didn't think I would be a lot of use in any hand-to-hand fighting if it came to that. Oh I can kick and hit and bite—most any Derby veteran can—but I had no idea if it would help in our situation.
Then I got a look at what we were up against.
A chipmunk the size of a freakn' rhinoceros. To my credit I didn't scream, but worse, I got a bad case of fear-giggles. You know the kind—all snorty and weird-sounding because you're half-afraid and half-giddy? The kind you get when you shouldn't laugh but you do? So you try to stifle them and they end up leaking out anyway and everyone still can hear them?
"I do not fucking believe this," Fury muttered, and brought his gun up. The chipmunk was trying to scurry towards us, but something that big sort of makes the ground rumble. "He gets any closer I'm going to take one of his paws off."
"If anyone back at S.H.I.E.L.D. finds out you shot a chipmunk—even a huge one-you'll never live it down, sweetie," I said reflexively.
"Shit." That was his way of realizing I was right, so he raised his voice and yelled at it instead. "Yo! Get the fuck back, nut-hunter!"
I lost it, and bent over because I was laughing so hard. Between my disgustingly loud giggles and Nick's order, the chipmunk decided we weren't worth it and darted off in another direction, his scampers flattening the grass. When he was out of sight I finally caught my breath in time for Nick to glare at me with his one good eye.
"This is not doing my ego a damned bit of good," he grumbled. "Chip fuck'n munk. If that's the size they come in around here, I don't want to see the higher-ups on the food chain."
He had to say that. I looked around and moved closer, and I won't lie; Nick's arm around me felt damned good. "Okay, I'll get serious—what do we do?"
"We camp out right here by the stone. No point in wandering away from our only known reference point and making it harder to get rescued," he grumbled. "We'll need to do a pocket inventory to see what we've got between us that we can use as well."
Between us we had . . . not much. I had a little packet of tissues, some latex gloves, my keys and my cell phone. Nick's pocket contents were sort of fascinating: pass-cards to places I didn't want to think about; an ebony Swiss Army knife; extra ammo rounds for his handgun; his cell phone and an earring I recognized as one of mine that I thought I'd lost. I looked at him—the big, bad unsentimental head of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Was planning on giving it back to you . . . eventually," he muttered, and I could feel his embarrassment at being caught.
"That's really . . . sweet of you. I hope you know I've got a pair of your boxers under my pillow," I told him with a twisted smile.
His eyebrow went up and I shrugged to show him, yeah, I was serious.
Nick pulled me into his arms again, pressing me hard up against him, and I shivered at the way his hot breath tickled my ear.
"Now or never, Jo-seph-ine. I love you."
Sentiment can get people killed. Even knowing that, I still hung onto that earring after finding it on my bedroom rug. And now here it was, a clear sign that I was finally going around the bend in my old age.
Still, it didn't beat the underwear, though.
I won't lie; I knew I was taking a hell of a risk in telling her what I told her right then, but it had to be said. I'd been planning on it anyway, before the whole damned portal business. Telling Josie how I felt had always been in the cards.
Judging by the way she kissed me, it seemed I'd said the right thing. A thing she apparently agreed with in a full-body and aggressive way.
This, I enjoyed. Would have kept at it, too, if little things like our immediate survival weren't on the line, so I had to peel her off of me with a lot of reluctance. "So this is a mutual thing, right?"
"Completely," she agreed, giving me that billion dollar smile of hers. "I didn't even need the chipmunk to confirm it."
"For all we know he could be the Champawat Chipmunk," I pointed out.
She rolled her eyes at me. "Oy. So you love me and I love you; where does that leave us, Nick? It's not like we're the average couple on the street you know."
It was a good question, and I sighed. "Josie, I wouldn't even want to try to be the average couple on the street. You know the damned drawbacks of this thing—I'm half a century older than you, and a job that's twenty-four seven with absolutely no guarantee I'll be alive at the end of any given day. About the only things I've got going for me are common sense, a deep-rooted belief that I'm making a difference in what I do, and now . . . you."
She stood there looking at me, getting pink in the face and I didn't know if she was going to cry or haul off and hit me. I probably deserved both. Josie reached out and put her hand on the side of my face.
"Nick, I had this whole little speech thought up where I was going to thank you for the good times and let you and S.H.I.E.L.D. get back to saving the planet. Seriously—I even rehearsed it in front of the bathroom mirror once—and then you got under my skin. You washed my hair and wrote me poetry, you alter cocker! How the hell was I supposed to resist that?"
She did hit me; a swat on the arm that did not wipe the grin from my face. I reeled her in and kissed her again, taking the splutters right out of her. Sometimes it's better to do than to talk, and this was one of those damned times.
We spent about an hour looking around the general vicinity. A sun rose—big red one—and by daylight the forest didn't seem too threatening. If I'd been alone I'd have done a quick recon into the forest, but I didn't want to leave Josie on her own, especially if we only had one weapon between us. It took a while to get a fire going, but we managed, and it was only once we got some of the kindling going that I started to think about survival. Going without food for a day or three wouldn't kill us, but water was another consideration. If we'd been back on Earth I'd have figured out a few ways to get some, but the rules were different here.
Josie was thinking along the same lines. "We're going to have to scout around before nightfall, Nick. For one thing I'm going to have to pee pretty soon, and so are you."
"I know," I grumbled at her, and she laughed.
"Sweetie, the time to be embarrassed is looooong past, and remember, I look at hoo-hoos for a living so I'm pretty practical."
"This is the part they never cover in all those adventure movies. Blood yeah, and the search for water, but you never see the stranded hero needing to take a piss," I sighed. "Ah well, good think you brought tissues I guess."
We settled on doing what needed to be done along the far edge of the trees—just out of sight. I went first—literally, and then it was her turn. I stood looking at the stone just to give her as much privacy as I could, but I wasn't happy about it. The honest truth? More ambushes have happened during bathroom breaks than at any other time. You're vulnerable, pants down, genitals exposed—that's why one of the first requirements for S.H.I.E.L.D. field training is to have a strong bladder.
Still, we both felt a lot better and when Josie got back I told her I wanted to scout around for about fifteen minutes. She didn't like that, and I didn't expect her to, but our options were limited. I gave her the gun.
"Things have been quiet, and I won't be long," I told her. "If the rodent comes back, give a yell before you shoot."
"He won't be after me; I don't have big nuts."
Sass. It's all I get from her sometimes.
By the time I got back from my quick recon Josie was sitting next to the fire, so I dumped the armful of firewood I'd collected and dropped down next to her. "Couple of feet into the woods there I found a path," I told her. "Some sort of gravel embedded in a definite pattern on the ground." Showed her the pictures I'd taken on my phone and she nodded.
"I'm not anthropologist, or whoever it is that studies stuff like this, but that's deliberately made, yeah. Did you follow it?"
"For a short way," I told her, nodding. "Not a road; not wide enough, and the undergrowth is starting to overlap the edges so it hasn't been used in a while—at least not regularly."
"So?" she asked, looking at me. I tossed a few more branches on the fire, taking my time before answering.
"So we've got a possible sign that beings of a higher intelligence than the chipmunk are here, or were here. The path is narrow—just big enough for two people to walk side by side, so it's not made for a large group."
"Unless they're Sand People, hiding their tracks." She saw my expression and tried not to snicker. "Sorry, I just figured since we ARE on another planet that I could make that joke. Anyway, do we follow it or what?"
"We stay put," I grumbled. "Give the cavalry at least another night to find us. By tomorrow we can decide if we want to do the Hansel and Gretel thing."
Josie nodded and scooted closer so I could put my arm around her.