Talon leaned her head back against the cool metal of the elevator wall and waited for the ride to end. The meeting with the city planning commission had wrung her out completely. Two of the members of the commission had turned out to be Manxs as well, and both had looked nonplussed when she mentioned the name of the contractor she was hiring. Their reaction had annoyed her to the point that when they tried to persuade her to `hire a bigger firm that can devote more resources to your project, my dear’, she’d tartly informed them she’d prefer to have someone’s complete attention on what she was trying to do, a reference which seemed to elude them completely. But her signed permit was tucked safely away and that was what mattered. To top it all off, the air conditioning on her rental car had died on her as she pulled out of the City Hall parking lot, and she’d gotten caught in rush-hour traffic for nearly two hours.
Ready to drop and so hot, sweaty and sticky she felt filthy, even the haven of her rental apartment looked good. She unlocked the front door and stepped inside, and as she did, she sensed T-Bone’s presence behind her and turned to see him standing in her kitchen doorway. Shutting the door behind her, she dropped her purse and keys on the floor as she heard the lock click and all but collapsed into his embrace.
T-Bone looked alarmed at her worn-out state, and slid an arm under her legs and picked her up, dropping onto the couch and putting a hand on her forehead. “Are you feeling all right?”
“I am now.” Her reply was rather muffled, given she had her head buried in his shoulder, but the tone of it reassured him a little. Her forehead was so hot she ought to be delirious. He hugged her tightly, regardless of her grubby state, and she sagged a little deeper into his embrace.
“You feel so wonderful.” she mumbled. She was so exhausted and dirty she couldn’t believe she was thinking this, but all she wanted to do was rip his clothes off and drag him down onto the rug. “I’ve got to go shower, I’m so filthy.”
“You’ll fall over in the shower. But we need to get you in it.”
“Mmmm, you could hold me up and scrub my back.”
A vision of Tally, slick with soapsuds, cool water splashing over her, long hair unbound and streaming, sprang so vividly into his mind’s eye he felt dizzy.
“Don’t tempt me.” His hands tightened on her inadvertently, and in response she raised her head and kissed him so greedily and hungrily he couldn’t think for a minute. She uttered a devastatingly out-of-control purr and snuggled herself closer.
“Why not?” She breathed. “Wouldn’t you help your dirty kitty get clean again?”
“Tally.” Her green eyes were so heavy-lidded with passion and she looked so hungry for him he was going to lose whatever scrap of control he possessed if she didn’t stop.
“Yes?” She pulled herself up by his shoulders and straddled him, her mouth nibbling enticingly on his ear as his hands, seemingly by themselves, slid around her waist.
“Tally, I can’t think when you do that…” This comment seemed to please her, and she nipped at his lip, the sweet scent of her tinged with salt and a faint musky scent that was driving him crazy.
“Do you want me to stop?” she asked teasingly.
“Tally! Slow down for a second, will you? You’ve got a case of heatstroke.”
That seemed to reach her. She pulled back slightly in his embrace and looked confused. “I’ve got what?”
“Heatstroke. We have to get you cooled down. Your forehead’s burning up. Your temperature’s way over normal.”
“What?” She looked so disoriented and faint he began to worry seriously.
“Come on, sweetheart.” He picked her up, and was abruptly reminded how small and fragile she was. She didn’t weigh anything in his arms. He carried her into the bathroom and flipped the shower on as cold as it would go, then sat down on the edge of the tub with her in his lap and peeled her clothes off. Her fur was damp and hot to the touch and she looked so weak and dizzy he set her down on the floor for a moment, stripped, gathered her up and got in under the icy water with her in his arms. She squalled faintly as the cold water hit her, then slumped against his chest. Her breathing slowed and steadied as the water poured over them, and as her body cooled he set her back on her feet and turned her against him so the water pounded down her back. Nearly half an hour later, he put a hand to her forehead and was relieved to feel the feverish heat all but gone.
“How do you feel?” he asked, trying to tip her head up but she evaded his hand, keeping her face hidden in his shoulder.
“Like a complete idiot.” Talon couldn’t believe herself. She’d all but raped him on her couch. She was so embarrassed she wanted to sink through the floor. If it weren’t for the fact it’d probably scare T-Bone to death, and he’d done nothing to deserve that, she would have sunk through the floor. Nova that spawned us all, but she wanted to crawl under a rock and spend an eternity dying of shame.
T-Bone looked down sharply at the mortified and miserable tone in her voice and suddenly understood. “Tally.”
“I’m sorry, T-Bone.” Her voice broke on the last word.
“Crud, Tally, don’t apologize! Tally, look at me!”
As if it took every scrap of courage she possessed, she raised her face to his and he was horrified at the depths of mute humiliation there.
“Stop it! Don’t look like that. Dammit, I love you! Don’t look at me like that!” He crushed her to him, frantic to get that wretched self-disgust of her eyes. Turning her face up to his, he stared helplessly at her. “I’m not mad. You didn’t do anything wrong, please don’t.”
He sat down on the floor of the bathtub and ignored the water running over them as he cradled her close in his lap, soothing her with words and caresses, rocking her gently until the acid mortification started to fade from her eyes. After a while he turned the warm water up a little, uncoiled her long braids and worked her shampoo into the long silvery mass, then coaxed her to her feet and soaped her creamy fur clean too.
At some point she seemed to work her way a little out of her exhausted depression, and although she wouldn’t look directly at him for very long, she cleaned and rinsed the ragged cut on his head, and tended to the long acid burns from Viper’s creature that stretched down his back. After they ran out of things to scrub, they rinsed each other clean again, and then she sighed, reached out and turned the water off. Handing him a towel, she wrapped the long mass of her hair in another, twisting the long tail out of her face, then wrapping a third towel around her body.
“Wait a second.” Hunting under the sink, she came up with a tube of antibiotic cream and a roll of gauze, and proceeded to neatly bandage his forehead again. He put his arms around her as she finished, and looked directly into her face.
“Are you all right?”
Her expression was weary and worn-out, but the vicious self-disgust was gone from her lovely eyes. “I feel like a jerk. but I’m glad you’re not mad at me. Thank you for taking care of me. I didn’t know something was wrong.”
“Tally. what can I say to make you feel better?”
She shook her head. “Just hold me. That’s enough.”
“Tally, would you do something for me?”
She nodded. “Anything.”
“Do that to me again sometime? When you’re not delirious?”
A small laugh broke out of her, and she looked at him, really looked at him, for the first time in hours. “I love you,” she said simply.
A painful knot around his heart eased. “Good.”
Remembering something from the day they met, he gathered her up, towels and all, carried her into the bedroom and set her down on the bed. “Where’s your comb?”
She pointed to the bureau, and T-Bone sat down behind her and unwrapped her heavy hair and began combing it out. It seemed to soothe her as it had that first day, and she gradually quieted and relaxed. To his surprise, so did he. The fine strands were soft and smooth under his fingers, and that faint lemony-sweet scent drifted up again. Pulling the comb through them had an oddly hypnotic, sleep-inducing effect. Interesting.
When she was all but asleep, he tucked her under the covers, pulling the damp towel off her and tossing it over a chair. He locked the doors and windows in her apartment automatically, shutting off lights as he went, then came back to the bedroom and tossed his towel on top of hers as he slid quietly in beside her. She snuggled closer and smiled in her sleep as she curled around him, and he gratefully sank into sleep himself, arms around her, her head pillowed on his chest.
Callie Briggs slunk quietly around the edge of her building into the trash-littered alley behind it. Keeping out of sight of anyone above her by staying beneath the granite overhang of the building, a quick check confirmed the presence of a cyclotron stashed behind the rusty dumpster, hidden beneath a dirty old tarp that anyone’s eye would skip right over as a bit of windblown debris lodged in the alley. Stifling her giggles, she ducked back out of the alley and hopped into her car, idling around the corner. Okay, step one, check; she thought gleefully, step two, ambush the alone and unsuspecting. She hadn’t had this much cloak and dagger, skulk-around-in-the-bushes fun since she’d become Deputy Mayor, and she was enjoying herself so much it ought to be illegal. It certainly was sneaky enough to be! Snickering to herself and humming an off-color ditty dignified Deputy-Mayor Briggs would never know, Callie took off for the city’s salvage yard and the next facet of her plan.
Some fifteen floors higher, the unsuspecting victim of her scouting mission rolled over and nuzzled his sleeping bedmate. Talon mumbled something incoherent and stuffed her head under a pillow, indicating a distinct reluctance to move. Deciding to adopt a more sotto-voice approach, T-Bone pulled the bedcovers down around her waist, and began rubbing her back. A languid purr rumbled up after a few minutes, and as he continued the gentle kneading, Tally’s head gradually reappeared from under the pillow. Her tail twitched out and wrapped around his leg, and she snuggled closer to him as he lay on his side, stroking her long, stiff muscles. Finally, a sleepy green eye cracked open, and she turned her head to look at him.
T-Bone’s hand stopped rubbing for a moment to cup her face for a kiss, and she grumbled softly in protest. “Don’t stop. I’m so stiff and sore.”
“So I feel. How did you manage to pull your back so badly?” he asked, resuming the massage.
“I have no idea. It hurts like hell, though. Should heatstroke do this to me?” She managed to get both eyes open this time, and she stretched a little under his hand.
“I don’t know. The city hospital’s had so many cases of heatstroke that they’re treating everything but the most serious cases on an outpatient basis. You’d never get through to the switchboard with a question. That’s why I didn’t take you in last night.”
A shadow of last night’s terminal embarrassment chased across her face. “Thank you again for that. I’ve never had heatstroke before.”
“Don’t worry about it. The city’s never had a heat wave like this before. The heat’s getting to everybody.” Deciding she didn’t look nearly as upset about her half-delirious reaction to him last night, he ventured gently, “We could continue on that thought if you’d like. It’s Saturday. I don’t have to run off and leave you this time.”
Talon didn’t pretend not to understand, but she looked at him, her face troubled. “T-Bone. it’s not that I have any objection to that thought in principal.”
“But?” he prompted, hiding a small flinch of pain.
She sighed. “I promised myself before we went any further with this, I would lay my cards on the table and be honest with you. There’s a lot about me you don’t know, and if you did, you might not want to go any further with this. I won’t lie to you, even by omission.”
This not being the reaction he had expected, he pulled back a little to study her face. “Tally, there’s nothing you could tell me that would make me feel any different about you.”
“You haven’t heard what I have to say yet.”
Seeing she was sincerely bothered by whatever it was, he nodded slowly. “Tell me then.”
“It’ll be easier to show you. Do you know what teleportation is?”
Thrown by that change of subject, he nodded again, confusion beginning to creep over his features. “Yeah, but what does that have to do.”
A determined look settled over Talon. “Hold on to me, lover.”
He clamped his arms around her, genuine alarm on his face now. “Tally, what are you.” He never got a chance to finish the question as the room around them vanished in a heartbeat, and they were suddenly elsewhere. Finding himself on his feet, still stark naked, he looked down at Talon, who was glowing blue in his embrace. He stared down at her in astonishment. “Where are we?”
“My spaceship. Say hello, Ship.” The darkness around them brightened, revealing an large oval room some twenty meters in diameter without a right angle to be seen anywhere. A disembodied voice said. “Hello, T-Bone. I’m pleased to meet you. You’ve made Commander T’l’nn very happy.”
“Ship!” Talon aimed a play-kick at a control panel. “Mind your manners.”
Realization crashed down around T-Bone. “That was you yesterday! You saved the dam!”
“Ship and I did, yes. I drained his power cells near dry with that stunt. We’ve got a solar power collector in geo-synchronous orbit behind the moon, but it’ll be a day or so before he’s back up to full power.”
“You are an alien, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Her eyes clouded with that declaration. “Do you see why I wanted you to know what I was first?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” He revolved slowly, taking in the scene around him. Her Ship seemed to be made of a strange gel-like construction entirely unlike the smooth metal of the Aquians’ ship. He could see pieces of complex, streamlined machinery embedded in the soft walls and floor. “What’s it. or is it him, made of?”
“Ship is a biogenetic construct. He wasn’t built, he was grown. He’s alive.”
“Alive?” Stunned by this, he knelt down and placed a paw against the floor. It was warm under his paw, and it pulsed faintly.
“He’s a single-celled organism. The machinery you see was embedded in him after he was full-grown. The cell-ships and my species have been symbiotic for millennia.”
“Nobody likes being referred to as if he wasn’t here,” the disembodied voice said dryly, taking on a tinge of emotion for the first time.
“Sorry, dear,” Talon patted the only exposed machinery consolingly, a control panel than ran half the length of the strange, cocoon-like room. “It might take a while to get used to a ship that talks back.”
Staring about as if he couldn’t see enough, T-Bone wished dizzily for a chair to sit down to think it all over for a minute. In response, a section of the floor under his feet humped itself and shaped into a throne-like chair.
“Thanks.” He sank into the chair automatically, and another realization crashed over him. “It.you read my mind!”
Talon nodded, perching on the control panel and wrapping her tail around her feet. “Ship’s a receiving telepath. We both are. I’m a projecting telepath as well. We were permanently linked when we were.chosen for each other.”
“Chosen?” T-Bone looked over at her. “What do you mean by that?”
Ship answered him. “Each ship-self is linked permanently to a mobile pilot when it reaches full growth. T’l’nn and I are a. mated pair, I suppose is the best translation in your language. The link between us can only be broken by the death of either partner.”
“Your girlfriend comes with a very odd in-law.” Talon quipped, but T-Bone could hear the worry and fear behind her careless words.
“Tally.” T-Bone beckoned to her, and after a moment she slid down off the control panel and walked toward him. He put his paws around her waist, lifted her easily and cuddled her into his lap. “That’s better.” She seemed to relax a bit, and laid her head on his shoulder.
“Is there anything else I should know about you and your brother?”
She smiled a bit at that. “Nobody’s ever called Ship that before. It does fit, though. There is one thing. If you and I.” she stalled, and to T-Bone’s shock she blushed furiously, the scarlet wash clearly visible under her creamy fur.
“What `Sis’ is trying to say is, if you and she `make love’. what an interesting linguistic grammatical construction that is. you will be linked into our telepathic union as well. A telepath of T’l’nn’s power couldn’t begin to shield herself against such an intimate moment.” Ship’s voice took on a teasing tone. “I promise I won’t eavesdrop, though.”
“SHIP!!!” T-Bone clamped his arms about her as she started to climb out of his lap, and Talon contended herself with throwing a smoking glare around her. “I’ll get you for that.” she muttered grumpily.
“Never mind.” T-Bone said decisively. “What does he mean by a `union’?”
Talon looked thoughtful. “Part of your mind will. fuse with mine. And with Ship’s as well, since ours are linked already. Your race carries the potential for telepathy within it. Union with our minds will. wake that part of your mind up. And it’ll stay awake. permanently. But only with us.”
“So I couldn’t read some stranger’s mind?”
“No. As you got more comfortable with the link, you could conceivably. enter someone else’s mind using my projective telepathic powers, the way Ship does, but that takes a very strong bond. And a lot of practice.”
“But this’ll happen the first time we.”
“You got it, bro.”
The light around them faded a little, and the room around them seemed to go oddly quiet.
Talon laughed a little. “He’s asleep. Lazy lump. Ah, I shouldn’t criticize. Yesterday took a lot more out of him than me. Do you realize how heavy that much water is?”
“Never mind about him right now. I want to talk about us.”
Talon got up out of his lap nervously, and this time T-Bone didn’t try to stop her, sensing her agitation. Standing up, he followed her over to where she stood, arms and tail wrapped tightly around herself, near the only other object in the room, a strange bubble-formation about three meters high.
“Tally.” He said, laying a paw on her shoulder. She took a deep breath and turned to face him. “I said it before. Nothing you could tell me would change the way I feel about you, and I want to be part of your life. If that means being a part of your mind as well, even better. I love you. Period. And. I want us to be together. Now.” This time he blushed. Searching for a diversion, he pointed to the strange bubble. “What is that?”
Startled, Talon replied, “Huh? Oh, that? It’s a zero-gravity bubble. I sleep in it. It’s very restful.”
Fascinated, Chance walked over to the sphere and experimentally tried to push his hand into the field. It slid in easily enough, and a tingle ran up his arm as the fur on it reacted to the lack of gravity. An image of Tally, sprawled bonelessly naked in the field, drifting like seaweed in the ocean, branded itself in his mind. Suddenly so overwhelmed with desire he could barely stand, he shuddered as Talon’s arms slid around him from behind and her breath warmed his shoulder blades.
“T-Bone. are you sure you want to go through with this? I’ll understand if this is all a bit much to take in at once.”
He turned back to her; so greedy for her touch he didn’t think he could live if she let go of him. “No. I don’t want to wait any longer. I want you. And call me by my name. Call me Chance.”
Her eyes were greenish black with need, burning with a barely-leashed hunger. “Chance. My lucky Chance.”
“My good luck to find you.” He slid his hands down her arms, and as she lifted her mouth to his, he crushed her to him, desperate to hold her. If he died tomorrow he’d die happy to have had this one time with her. Much better would be a hundred thousand days and nights like this one.
Talon pushed him gently back into the bubble-field behind him and the field pulled them into the center of it, supporting them weightlessly as they clung to each other. His hands, at long last free to touch her as they pleased, caressed her back, sliding up and as she floated in his arms he lowered his mouth to taste one tiny dark nipple. She cried out with pleasure, arching her back, and he let his hands slide lower.
She was a vision of enchantment nude, lovely lean muscle and sinew, velvety soft fur and flowing hair, angelic face rapturous with delight at his touch. The sound of her voice crying out his name only made him hungrier for her, wanting to taste every sweet trembling inch of her. He’d wanted to go slow with her this first time, but he was so desperate to feel her, to know what it felt like to be inside her, that he wasn’t sure their first time wasn’t going to be a maelstrom of frantic, greedy passion.
Talon turned in his arms, and she kissed him with a violence that told him louder than any words a slow start to their love affair was not even a possibility. Naked together, mind and body so sensitized to each other they could no longer think, he grasped her shoulders and felt her legs wrap around him. Then she pressed her fingertips to his temples, and somewhere in his head he felt a part of his mind that had slept all his life awaken, and an unbelievable torrent of desire washed over him. Astonished at the strength of her passion for him, he let that new part of his mind pour his own feverish need and desire for her into her mind, and her body welcomed him, wanting to feel him inside her even more than he had been desperate to be there.
Awash in sensation, he was never knew later when they merged, he simply became aware that they were locked together, bodies as well as minds, the pleasure of his body inside her heterodyning with the ecstasy her body felt at his joyous invasion. Drunk on pleasure, minds and bodies twined so closely together they couldn’t have told where one began and the other ended, shuddering orgasms crashing from mind to mind, Chance and Tally cried out together one final time, and lapsed into unconsciousness, minds and bodies overloaded by the strength of their emotions.
Back on land, Callie had reached the salvage yard about the time Talon had first teleported them into her Ship, but she wasn’t pleased to see the garage looked deserted when she drove up. She hadn’t counted on Jake not being there. But as she got out of her car, she saw a shadow flicker in a window, and Jake came out to meet her.
“Hi, Callie. Car trouble?” he asked, noticing she was dressed differently than she normally was, in denim cutoff shorts and a pink tank top, her hair tied in a jaunty ponytail with a darker pink scarf.
She shook her head. “Nope, but I could use your help with something else. If you’re not busy, don’t let me interrupt anything.”
He shook his head back. “No trouble. Chance is. gone, so I was cleaning up the garage a little.”
“Off with his new girlfriend?” She asked lightly, trying mightily to conceal a smile.
Jake grinned at her attempt. “You should see him. Ga-ga doesn’t begin to describe him.”
Forbearing to mention she had seen him, ga-ga look and all, at least once, Callie lifted her eyebrows. “Well, I won’t feel guilty about stealing you away, then.”
“Stealing me away where?” An alarmed look crept over his face.
“Up the road a bit. I’m going to check out my new place. Talon, that’s the new owner I told you about, had a spare set of keys sent over to my office. She got the building permit and found a contractor, and she had a bunch of questions about what I wanted to do with the place. I promised I wouldn’t go over alone, though. The interior floors are rickety in a couple of places, apparently. Would you mind coming along?”
More than surprised, Jake stammered, “Sure. be glad to.”
Callie looked satisfied. “Do you have to lock up or anything?”
“Uh, yeah, gimme a sec.” Jake trotted back into the garage, flipped the lights off, and locked the door behind him as he cudgeled his brain over what to say, alone with Callie for the first time since her astonishing comment to him several days ago.
Callie took the problem of conversation out of his hands as he got into her car. “I understand you’ve met your new neighbor already.”
“Uh, yeah, she stopped by yesterday. She wanted to know where to hire a contractor. I gave her Chance’s dad’s card. He does good work,” he finished lamely.
Callie dazzled him with a smile. “I should have known you wouldn’t steer her wrong. What do you think of her?”
Unprepared for this question, he blurted out, “She’s tiny! Her braids are bigger than the rest of her.”
Callie looked interested at this. “I’ve yet to meet her in person. What does she look like?”
“She’s little, like I said, you’d top her by an inch or two at least, and she’s built like a. like a butterfly. Or a flower. Small and perfect.”
“She’s made quite the impression on you, I see.”
Jake flushed. “Er, well.”
Callie took pity on him. “I was only teasing. What else?”
“Her hair’s whitish-blond and long, right down to her knees, and she wears it in long braids down her back. Um, green eyes, and a sort of pointy face. She sorta looks like an elf should look. Pixie-ish. She’s friendly, though. Not snobby or anything like that. She said we were all invited for a barbecue when you two moved in.”
“Sounds like she’ll be a good landlord. I know you two’ll make good neighbors. I’m looking forward to being able to see you two more, you know. I’ll add a dinner invitation to that barbecue and reserve an evening ahead of time from you two. I won’t take no for an answer. And tell Chance to bring his new girlfriend.”
Jake, unable to deal with the problems of multiple identity that request presented, settled for a weak “I’ll tell him you said so.”
Saved by the end of the ride, they pulled up under the gigantic willow tree that shaded the building, and Jake breathed a sigh of relief. Then felt bad for being glad about it. He was crazy about Callie, why should being alone with her scare him so much? He should be ecstatic at a chance to be alone with her, and instead he was practically hyperventilating. Making a firm resolution to stop being such a chump, he walked around quickly and opened her car door for her.
“What do you want to look at first?” He looked up at the building, hunting for a door.
“The side door’s the only one there was a key to, the rest of the locks will have to be replaced. We’ll go in that way. It’s around the back.” She led the way around the building to the riverside, and sure enough, there was a small door set in the wall, next to the gigantic cargo doors on the first floor. Turning it with a bit of an effort, she muttered, “I guess all the locks will need to be replaced.”
Stepping into the cavernous building behind her, Jake was surprised at how cool it was. “This is great.”
Callie breathed a sigh of relief. “Yeah, if the city has to cut the power again, it’ll at least be livable out here.” Gazing around, she spotted an old staircase leading up. “I guess that’s the way up to my floor.” She put her foot on the first step only to have it crack under her foot sharply. Jake was by her side in a second, looking worried.
“Let me go first.” He stepped in front of her, then reached back and took her paw. “Better hold onto me.”
Behind him, Callie stared in pleased surprise and clasped his hand as they climbed. Despite that first crack, the rest of the staircase seemed sturdy enough, and it gave out onto a second-floor landing with a single door, with the rest of the staircase leading higher.
“Is it open?” The door opened slightly as he tried it, then Jake’s shoulder forced it the rest of the way open. Callie took his paw again as they walked through, and he squeezed it a little as she did. The view out the huge bay windows struck them both speechless. The entire sweep of the bay was visible, and the portion of the river mouth where the bay joined the ocean was dotted with the tiny white sails of kats out on their boats.
“You’re gonna have a heck of a view.”
Callie acquiesced. “That’ll make getting up alone in the morning slightly less awful.”
Privately, Jake thought waking up beside her would be enough to make anyone’s day a complete delight, but merely answered, “Now why should you be waking up alone, anyway?”
Embarrassed, Callie mumbled, “I shouldn’t have said that.”
Curious enough now to push a little in spite of his reticence, Jake looked over at her. “Why did you?”
“Er.” Now she was the tongue-tied one. “I.”
“Sorry, I won’t pry.”
“You weren’t. I.” Deciding to go for broke, she blurted out, “Jake, do you like me?”
So thrown by this question he could only gape at her, she misinterpreted his look and pulled her paw away as she turned, saying, “Oh, hell, Jake, I’m sorry.”
Jake caught her shoulders, turned her around, and kissed her. Her eyes went wide with shock, and then closed as she gave herself over to his kiss. Her body went plaint in his arms, and he pulled her closer, never taking his lips from hers. After an entirely too-short time, they broke apart long enough to look at each other, and he asked huskily, “Does it look like I like you?”
“I. I was never sure.” She pulled his mouth down to hers again, and devoured it sweetly. At length breaking the kiss, Jake led her over to the window, sitting on the windowsill and drawing her against him.
Stunned at his own bravery, he asked her, “Now, how would you like your apartment if you didn’t have to get up alone?”
Callie went red under her fur, but seeing the teasing look in his eyes, relented enough to say, “Well, I’m with my soon-to-be landlord, cutting this up into rooms would be criminal. If you left it open as a loft, you could watch the sunrise every day from your bed.”
“Are you a morning person, Callie?” She squirmed like a kitten caught with her hand in a cookie jar, but finally admitted, “Yes.”
“Me too. It drives Chance crazy. He doesn’t know how we do it. Morning exists for him as something to keep night from bumping into afternoon.”
She had to smile at that. “I.”
“Maybe I’m not that brave today.”
Jake clasped her tighter, and repeated, “You what? Answer or I’ll tickle.”
Looking everywhere but at him, she ventured at last, “Maybe you’d come see it with me sometime?”
She nodded, and he caught her chin and said as he kissed her again, “Only if I get to see the sunset the night before too.”
Chance woke slowly, but with no disorientation this time, pillowed in the strange bubble-field with Talon’s masses of hair drifting around them, forming the aimless patterns smoke makes in still air. She was half-curled on his chest, the field pushing them together as if he hadn’t been holding her tightly, even in his sleep. He ran a paw down her back, loving the feel of the long, lean lines of her, and she shifted a little, burrowing her head deeper into his shoulder. Satiated, he was content to drift and hold her. This zero-gravity bubble certainly had a bed beat all hollow. You couldn’t get a stiff neck or a sore back no matter how you tried. Idly speculating if unfamiliarity with sleeping in a gravity field was the reason for her strange stiffness this morning, he wondered what time it was.
“Hey, Ship,” he said softly.
The room around him seemed to brighten slightly, although the light didn’t change, and he knew without asking Ship was awake again. This mental link was going to be interesting.
Chance smiled a bit. “My name’s Chance, Ship, you might as well start calling me by it now.”
A low chuckle. “Ok, Chance.”
“What time is it?”
“Local time? Three o’clock in the afternoon. Did you. Er. I can feel you, too, a little, so I guess.”
“Yeah. thanks for not listening in.”
“No problem. Welcome to the family, bro.”
“Thanks. I hope you don’t ever regret taking me in.”
“I don’t think it’ll be a problem. Can I ask you something?”
Surprised by this, he answered, “Sure.”
“How’d you become a Swatkat?”
Chance shook his head as he laughed quietly, “That, bro, is a very long story.”
“I’ve got time. And judging from Tally’s REM sleep patterns, so do you. Spill it.”
Cuddling Tally’s sleeping form a little more comfortably against him, he backtracked mentally. “Well, it all started when Jake, that’s my partner; like you and Tally, and I decided to enter Enforcer training. You know what Enforcers are, right?”
“I have access to all information that’s ever been broadcast over any specific wave frequency of any kind from your planet, and I’ve been monitoring your current `TV’ and `radio’ since we got here. But there seems to be a lot of speculation about you and not much reliable or verifiable information.”
“Wow. Is that how you’re so fluent in our language? You’ve got the idioms down and everything. Anyway, we went through Enforcer training together, Jake and I, but he had problems with the high-gee accelerations that might have washed him out of the program.”
Back at the salvage yard, Jake and Callie were reluctantly exchanging good-byes and hammering out a time to see each other again.
“I’ve got piles of paperwork at City Hall to catch up on. If I go in Sunday I can get caught up by late afternoon. Then I should have my evenings free for the rest of the coming week, barring any unforeseen disasters. How about Monday night?”
“Fine with me. The sooner the better.”
“Can I call you tonight?”
“I’d like that.” Ruthlessly squashing a frission of nervousness, Jake leaned forward and kissed Callie tenderly. “I’ll be waiting.”
She smiled back at him, her expression more open and gentle than he’d ever seen it. An expression, he realized with an almost painful thump of his heart, that no one but he would ever see. For kat’s sake, what had he been waiting for all these months. he’d known Callie for almost three years! Damn it, he’d make up for lost time now. He took a step forward and hugged her with a possessiveness he wouldn’t have thought he was capable of. “I miss you already,” he complained.
“Me too.” Her shy expression on a face typically so resolute and determined was disconcerting. But it did make him feel less intimidated to know she found this as overwhelming as he did. It looked like Chance was going to get a chance for revenge in the walking-around-with-a-lovesick-expression department. But if he headed down to the garage right now, he could get the last of the systems checks and final adjustments on the Turbokat done, and tomorrow he and Chance could take the jet for a full test run! That should be enough to get his mind off of Callie. For a few hours, anyway.
“Hi there, sleepyhead.” Chance smiled at Tally as she stretched languidly, contorting herself into half a dozen positions that weren’t possible in a gravity field and made his eyes cross and his jaw sag as he watched.
“Hi, yourself. I feel so much better,” and she did something that resembled a professional diver crossed with a ballet dancer and ended up sitting quietly beside him, dead still in the air. “I needed that nap. Ship-bro, what time is it and do we have enough sunlight left to go swimming?”
“It’s five in the afternoon, and at this point in the planet’s rotational cycle, you not only have time for a good long swim, you will have time for another hour’s nap if you so desire. I, myself, am going to take a nap if you two run off. I’m wrung-out from that damn grandstanding stunt you had us pull at the dam. I was the one doing the work, but do I get the thanks of the pretty reporter, nooo!!!” The rich tones of Ship’s aggrieved plaint made both Chance and Talon groan.
Talon wrinkled up her nose at the room around her. “Why do you think we’re leaving, you big baby. but before we go if you could please lend us an extensor or two? And something for me to wear later?”
“Clothes horse.” Ship teased. But a section of the machinery shifted underfoot and rose to the surface of the floor, the thick gel they were standing on growing a touch softer and rippling. The machinery came to a stop just in front of them, clean and dry and looking as it were brand-new and perfectly polished. Talon tapped a short sequence in a touch panel on the side of the weird unit, and the top slid back and revealed. a pair of swimming trunks in a green and white Hawaiian print, a bikini in a shade of sea-green, a blue minidress, two pairs of sandals and two beach towels in, of all things, spaceship patterns.
“Ship, you have a sick sense of humor. How would I get along without you?”
Ship sniffed disdainfully. “Poorly, I’d imagine. On your way, children.”
Talon and Chance skinned into the clothes and Tally, adjusting a bikini strap, vaulted onto a sitting position on Chance’s shoulders, “Ready? I’ll jump us to the beach on Kat’s Paw Island.”
“There won’t be anyone there, will there?” Chance asked in an alarmed tone.
Talon frowned at him. “Don’t teach your mother to steal sheep, junior. I’ve got it covered.” Grinning devilishly, she chortled, “I absolutely love your language!”
“I didn’t much care for that teleportation thing if you wanna know the truth.” Chance replied doubtfully.
“It’s always a little odd the first time,” Talon assured him blithely.
“I think it might be more than.”
If Chance finished the sentence Ship never knew, sinking into sleep cushioned by the water around him and rocking with the currents, two miles off the coast of Megakat City, lying on the bottom of the deepest sea-trench in the area.
Three hours later, Talon yawned and lifted her head a few inches to check the position of the sun. It was low in the sky, telling her their getaway interlude was nearly at an end. Deciding they could stay for an hour or so longer, she wasn’t about to waste it sleeping. Rolling onto her side, she poked gently at the slumbering heap of fur stretched on the beach towel beside her. A burly, striped arm shifted to reveal one sleepy eye gazing inquiringly at her.
“Hey, sleepyhead… we have to split soon, do you want to nap for the last hour or…” The arm reached out and pulled her quite a bit closer…
“This is crazy, you know,” Talon said later, splashing out of the water, squeezing the water from her knee-length braids.
What is?” asked Chance, openly staring at her as she dropped down on the blanket beside him. He would never, ever get used to how unearthly, vibrantly beautiful she was. No kat ever born could have such perfection of form and such stunning symmetry of face. The mismatched, helter-skelter process of genetics could never have combined to create such as she, which was completely appropriate since genetics had had nothing to do with her and how she appeared anyway.
Strange how everyone else’s reaction to Tally tended to be how small she was. She didn’t seem small and delicate to him. But then, when your first sight of someone was her flattening a cyborg with one shot and ripping another into pieces with her bare hands, it tended to leave you with a very vivid first impression.
“We are.” Talon snuggled closer to him, and he pulled her completely into his lap and cradled her against his chest, running his long claws down her back as she arched against him and purred gently.
“You do have a point there.” Chance laid his head against hers and held her tightly, as though afraid someone would tear her away from him. “We have to tell Jake about you. The real you.” Chance could not see her face, but he felt the convulsive shiver that passed through her body. She took a deep breath, lifted up her head and looked at him.
“Are you sure?” he asked, “I don’t want to rush you or anything.”
Talon sighed. “Chance, Jake is your friend. I don’t want you keeping secrets from him because of me. But what are you going to tell him? `Oh, by the way, my new girlfriend’s an alien, and she’s the new vigilante in town, too.’” Talon glanced away from him. “What if he doesn’t like me when he finds out what I am? What if he thinks I’m dangerous? What if he thinks you shouldn’t be… associating with me?”
“Is that what we’re doing? Associating?” He teased tenderly.
“Don’t be snide. You know what I meant.” Talon shifted nervously in his lap, causing him to temporarily lose track of what she was saying.
“I know.” Chance reached out and turned her face back toward him with a claw tip. “If you don’t believe everything I say then believe this much. I will never, ever let anyone hurt you or capture you or cut you up like a lab rat to see how you work. I won’t… we won’t let anyone do that to you. The fact you come from another planet won’t matter to him any more than it did to me. Razor. Jake will love you as much as I do.”
“Let’s go then.” Gathering up the towels, they clasped hands and without even a blink, were gone. The wind blew over the deserted beach, erasing even the few footsteps left behind.
Chance shuddered as they popped into existence in a quiet corner of the hangar.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.” Talon gazed at him uncertainly, a small
smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
“Does it bother you so much? Or are you trying to make me smile?”
“Both!” Chance growled, and wrapping his heavy paw around her delicate one, led her toward the Turbokat. The bottom half of Jake was visible, under the fuselage of the plane, but the rest of him was belly deep in the Turbokat’s innards. Chance banged on the plane’s armor plating, sending a rolling boom along the metal.
“C’mon buddy, I’ve got something to show you!”
“Hey Chance, where ya been?” Jake started to slide out from under the Turbokat and stopped short as he realized two pairs of sand-dusted feet were visible from his prone position. One pair were Chance’s burly claw-tipped paws, and one set were slim, graceful… and definitely female. Aware it was clich‚d but unable to help himself, he let his eyes pan up long, slender legs with a pelt of palest cream, the white-gold, silky soft brush of a flowing tail, long, white-gold braids still damp and smelling faintly of sea-salt, a scrap of sea-green bikini that matched enormous green eyes, and at last, a heart-shaped face with an uneasy expression lurking in those eyes.
“Good to see you again, Tally.”
She smiled briefly, and then bit her lip nervously. “Hi, Jake. I’m sorry to barge in, but I have something I want to tell you. Something Chance already knows.”
Troubled by the expression on her face, Jake wiped his paws on the grease rag hanging from his back pocket as he got to his feet and offered a clawed hand to her.
“Come sit down.” He led her over to the workbench, but Chance waved away his offer of a stool and simply wrapped his paws around Tally’s waist and sat her on the workbench itself.
“You sit, buddy. You might need to when you hear this.”
Jake perched himself on the stool, and tried to ignore a faint curl of worry. Talon, bothered by the growing uneasiness on his face, decided to go with the fastest, most direct route. She looked over at him and let the shields on her powers drop. A crackle of blue energy sparked in the depths of her green eyes, overran her face and body in the time it took his jaw to drop, and extending a hand, she lifted the Turbokat three feet off the floor telekinetically and held it there.
*You shared your secret with me, I wanted to share mine with you. My real name’s T’l’nn, Jake. My race is called the A’s’t’rr’a. And I’m really not from around here.*
“Oh.” Jake merely stared at her, eyes wide, for several minutes, the echoes of her mind-voice ringing in his head. “Thanks for making me sit down.”
A burst of nervous, grateful amusement surged briefly across at him, then died away to be replaced by a gnawing, worried fear. It suddenly occurred to Jake she was terrified. What would it be like to be alone on a strange planet with a race totally alien to yours? What kind of courage would it take to reveal what you were to one of them? He knew how much she loved Chance, he could feel it vibrating between the two of them like a current. And she was putting that on the line rather than force Chance to keep that kind of secret from him. Jake was so awed by her courage he was speechless.
*Can you hear me?* He asked in his head, afire with curiosity.
*Yes.* Her mind-voice was accompanied by a wave of nervousness, pulsing back at him along the strange mental link.
*Can Chance?* She could feel his curiosity, too, he realized.
*Not unless I let him in the link. For the moment, this is between you and me.*
*You really love him, don’t you?*
His sincerity and concern for his friend underwrote the question heavily.
*More than he knows.*
Her absolute sincerity surged back.
*And you risked all that rather than keep a secret from me?*
A complex and roiled burst of love, conviction, worry, fear and determination.
*For exactly the reasons you were thinking. I love Chance, but forcing him to lie to his best friend for my sake is something I’m not willing to do. And I didn’t want to lie to you either, Jake. I.*
A burst of self-conscious embarrassment.
*I wanted you to like me for me. Telepathic alien and all. I can’t have many people knowing what I am. It’s forbidden. But I wanted you to know. I wanted you to be my friend. And you don’t lie to friends.*
A surge of admiration.
*I think you’re probably the bravest person I’ve ever met.*
A wave of disbelief.
*Jake, you can feel how scared I am! I know you can. How can you say that?*
*Because you were terrified of losing something that meant that much to you and you went ahead and did the right thing anyway. That’s courage.*
*No maybes about it. I don’t know why you’d want me for a friend so much, Chance is the only real friend I’ve ever had. But I’m honored. You’ve made Chance happier than he’s ever been in his life, and I would be pleased, and proud, and happy, to be your friend. Telepathic alien and all.*
Feeling his silent declaration required something more to seal it, he walked over to her and offered her his hand.
*Does being in someone’s mind always make you know them this well?*
Talon took his hand and squeezed it gratefully, her eyes thanking him silently for his ready acceptance as the blue glow around her faded away.
*Actually, a initial link this strong is very unusual.*
Switching back to speech, she told him, “But Chance had told me so much about you, I felt like you were my friend before we ever met.”
“I’m flattered, but you shouldn’t believe everything he says… at least about me. Did he ever tell you about the time he turned into a giant mutated frog and then had to save my tail from drowning?”
Talon couldn’t help herself, she laughed outright. “He turned into what?”
“A giant mutated frog… really! No joke!”
Chance groaned theatrically, “Geez, why’d ya have to bring that up?” Inwardly, he breathed a sigh of profound relief. He had no idea what had passed between them, but he didn’t care, everything was going to be ok, and that was all that mattered.
“Why don’t we grab some dinner and we’ll tell you the whole story, and lots of others- I’m starving… have you guys eaten yet?” Jake stuffed the grease rag into his back pocket and gestured to Chance to lead her out of the hanger. But Talon stayed him a moment with a touch.
“One second first… Chance said you had been doing modifications to the Turbokat. How’s it going?”
Jake’s eyes glowed and he immediately turned back to the plane, still hanging in the air silently. “It’s great, it’s finally done! I beefed up the engine output by 22%, while lowering the fuel consumption ratio by 12%, streamlined the turbo housing, and installed racks for a new type of stun missile. It’s a completely harmless gel that coagulates instantly into a solid mass upon contact with air, but is totally non-toxic and evaporates after six hours. It’ll be great for nabbing those crazy creatures of the Pastmaster’s. And I revamped the stealth unit the Professor fixed for us to be completely invisible to the Enforcers’ IR scanners as well as conventional radar… one of the things we worry about most is someone being able to track us back here to the hanger.”
Talon raised her eyebrows in genuine surprise. “A air-triggered coagulant that passes from a solid to a gaseous form without producing toxic fumes or residue? Very nice.”
“Yeah, I thought so too.” Jake broke off his delighted recitation and grinned at her. “But we’ll tell you all about the Turbokat’s tricks later, and you’ll have to come for a ride right away. Tomorrow, when we test out the new mods. if it’s ok with you, Chance?” He half turned toward his friend, and felt Chance’s paw clap him on the shoulder.
“Great idea!” Catching Talon’s paw and draping an arm over Jake’s shoulder, he turned them toward the stairs leading to the garage above. “But first, we all need a shower. And then, my friends, we are hitting the beach and painting the town red!”
“Oh, and Tally?”
“Would you put the Turbokat down now?”
Disclaimer: SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron is copyright to Hanna-Barbera Cartoons Inc. All Rights Reserved. © 1995. All other characters and material within this page are the property of their respective creators.