A good night's sleep doesn't come easy to the biker mice - or to Charley's cousin, running from England from a nameless threat. What help can any of them offer?
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a romance which was supposed to be between my character (yet another image of the author, but what's fanfiction FOR, after all?) and Throttle. My characters tend to get out of hand a little, as this one did, and Kim ended up with Modo instead. I wasn't even going to put a Charley/Vinnie pairing in, but it happened anyway, go figure. This was going to be a longer story, with more sex and more violence. But when I went back to it I found it was good enough.
Opinions are welcome, but OMG tHIS IZ SO CRAP!!!1ONE!! doesn't count as a comment or an opinion.
NB: This was my first BMFM fic. All the others fit into the same timeline; this one is slightly different.
BAD DAY'S NIGHT
Charley's phone went blip in the middle of Friends, but she figured that anyone who had anything important to say would have phoned, not texted. Besides, she was sitting back-to-back with Vinnie and, amazingly, he hadn't said anything about it yet - everybody was comfortable, the popcorn was warm and the text could wait.
When Friends finished, Vinnie turned his head and opened his mouth, but Charley didn't wait to see what he had to say. Instead she picked up her phone and checked her messages.
'My god,' she said.
'What's up?' said Throttle.
'Take a look,' replied Charley, throwing him the phone. 'It's my cousin Kimberley. I haven't seen her in five years; I thought she was in England.'
'Crossn yr zone, the babe needs yr lovn touch. bringn him in. luv Kxx.' read Throttle aloud. 'The babe?'
'Kim's bike. Jeezus, that must mean she's been in the country a while. I'll kill her, she never called me. That bike must be a long way gone, though, she's never needed to bring it here before.'
The phone went blip again and Throttle glanced at Charley.
'Go on,' she said. 'It's probably her.'
Throttle leaned back in his chair and checked the message. 'ps lookn forwrd 2 meetn yr friends. nvr met martians b4. CU b4 7 kxx. Wait, what did you tell her?'
'Throttle, you're a six-foot mouse with antenna and you ride a bike so souped-up even NASA hasn't got one like it. This is Chicago, for Pete's sake. You're gonna get on worldwide news sooner or later,' said Charley. 'I'm just amazed we don't have photographers stalking us everywhere we go.'
'Prob'ly scared of Modo,' said Vinnie easily.
'Thanks, bro,' said Modo. 'So, this cousin of yours - she gonna be here before seven tonight?'
'Yeesss...' Charley thought about the state of the house. The engine oil in the carpets she could live with, the fact that there was popcorn all over the kitchen and sitting room and the only drink in the house was root beer was a little different. 'Good point. OK, I'm going to K-Mart. You guys do me a favour and clear up all this popcorn.'
'Hey, wait up, she's your cousin,' protested Vinnie.
'She's pretty...' said Charley coaxingly.
Vinnie cocked an eyebrow. 'I bet she's not prettier than you, sweetheart.'
'Nice try. Do me this one favour and prove to me that you're not a prick. Back in five, guys!' The door slammed behind her.
'Did you hear what she called me?' said Vinnie.
Modo shrugged. 'Better prove her wrong, then.'
Throttle stood up. 'Come on, bro, it's just a little popcorn.'
The house was free of popcorn and the fridge re-stocked by quarter to seven, when the doorbell rang. Charley ran to answer it and her voice and the newcomer's vanished into the garage. After a while she came back.
'Guys, Kim's in the garage - she's just checking her bike. Coming?'
The mice feigned indifference badly as they followed Charley into the garage, and at first they saw nothing but a blood-red Kawasaki Ninja in the middle of the floor. The black helmet hanging from its handlebars had a phoenix painted in purple and blue across the top, but there was no other sign of an owner.
'Hey, Kim, stop tinkering,' said Charley. 'I told you, I'll fix him for you.'
'Right, right, sorry,' said a voice from the far side of the bike and a slim figure in black leathers straightened up. She looked a lot like Charley - at least, you could see they were related - but she was shorter, her eyes were grey, her cheekbones more pronounced and her hair longer and thicker - so much so, in fact, that the braid she wore it in reached to her waist and was as thick as Modo's intact wrist. She looked at the mice, blinked, recovered quickly and smiled.
'Hi,' she said. 'I'm Kim Hartley - you would be, no, don't tell me... you're Modo, Charley said Modo was biggest,'
Modo nodded, once. 'Right, ma'am.'
'And the serious one in the shades is Throttle, yes?'
'Well done,' said Throttle.
'So that leaves... Vinnie. Right?'
Vinnie grinned. 'What did Charley say about me?'
Kim smiled sweetly in return. 'Oh, I couldn't possibly tell you that. The future of my bike is in her hands. Speaking of which - this is the Babe. I'm sorry he's not really up to meeting people right now.'
'Nice bike, Miss Hartley,' said Modo.
'Normally, yes. Now, he's not as impressive as usual. Still a team though, eh, Babe?' She patted the bike fondly on the petrol tank. 'Charley'll sort him out.'
'Later,' said Charley. 'It's freezing out here - come on in, Kim. I'm afraid we'll have to set up the camp bed for you; this lot've got the spare rooms and they'd need fumigating for a week if any of them moved out.'
'You told me they lived in a stadium scoreboard.'
'They did, till the stadium people got paranoid and upped the security. I'd just got a bigger place, so they moved in here. Didn't count on any more fugitives, though.'
'Fine, I don't mind,' said Kim cheerfully. She lagged a little so that she was level with Modo as they left the garage. 'Modo?' she said.
'Please don't call me Miss Hartley. Charley said you would but only my doctor calls me that and it makes me feel like I'm going into hospital or something. Please just call me Kim.'
Modo looked down at her with his one red eye and smiled. 'OK. Cuz you asked. Kim it is.'
Kim went to sleep early, on a camp bed in the tiny room over the garage which served Charley as an office, and almost immediately the others started to talk about the new arrival.
'You were right, she's cute,' said Vinnie. 'Still not as pretty as you, though. Or me.'
'Keep tryin', hotshot,' said Charley. 'Actually, guys, I've got a confession to make. Kim's going to be staying here for a while. Normally I'd have asked you but she only explained properly just before she went to bed.'
'Not much wrong with that bike,' said Throttle. 'We could all see that.'
'Nothing she can't fix herself, no,' said Charley. 'She's had to leave England in a hurry and needs a place to stay till she finds a place of her own. She's in no actual immediate danger, so I think anything else you get told should come from her. No offence, guys, it's just... not my place, you know?'
'Point taken,' said Throttle.
'Wait, back up, back up,' said Vinnie, looking interested. 'No immediate danger? Like, is there gonna be danger eventually?'
'You can ask her in the morning and I'm sure she'll tell you then. It's nothing like as bad as the stuff you normally do for kicks, so you can't tell me you're worried.'
'Course not, just... anticipating, you know.'
'That's good, 'cause I said she could come here because I know she'll be safe with you three. I can tell her you've got enough on your plates if you want, but-'
'You shoulda warned us, Charley,' said Throttle.
Charley sagged. 'I know, Throttle. I'm sorry. Look, tomorrow I'll tell her to hire a professional bodyguard, I know you guys have enough on your plates-'
'Hey,' said Modo. 'Nobody said we were too busy to help a lady.'
'Right,' said Vinnie, 'When have you ever known me ignore a damsel in distress?'
'Just warn us next time, yeah?' said Throttle.
Charley smiled and nodded. 'Thanks guys, you're the best.'
'We know, we know,' said Vinnie. 'But the next drink's on you, right?'
'Vinnie, I'm the only one here with a job. The drinks are always on me.'
The night was filled with the restless memories of a distant war, which were usual; and the fear of a not-so-distant pursuer, which was new - in Charley's house, at least. What was normal was that Charley was the only one who ever got a sleep untroubled by bad dreams.
The morning following, Charley caught up with Kim in the kitchen.
'Hey, Kim? The boys want a word.'
Kim turned a pale face to her cousin. 'Did you tell them everything?'
'No. Just that you're here because you need protecting and there's nothing to worry about for a while. But you need to tell them the truth.' Charley's face softened. 'Are you scared of them?'
'I don't know. I thought I was prepared, I mean, how scary can a big mouse be? But they're... well... big. And I've got no idea at all how to talk to Throttle and Vinnie looks like he's going to start laughing at me, and Modo looks more like a bear than a mouse-'
'Modo? Modo's a big soppy. Really. Wears his heart on his sheet-metal sleeve 'cause the other arm isn't big enough. As for the others, Vinnie's just like your kid brother except with more ego and Throttle... well, Throttle's got a few issues, but he's a real charmer when you get to know him. Go on, really, you've got... well, to be honest you've got quite a lot to lose but you've got everything to gain. You trust me?'
Kim took a deep breath and went into the living room. She almost ran out again - they were all there, watching her come in. But instead she stood there, nervously rubbing her hands together.
'Hi,' she said at last.
'Hi,' said Throttle. 'You gonna sit down?'
The room contained two armchairs, both occupied, and a sofa, so Kim sat down on the far end of the sofa from Vinnie.
'Well,' she said at last. 'Charley says you wanted to talk to me.'
'Yeah,' said Throttle. 'We did.'
'She told us you need a bodyguard,' said Vinnie. 'But she didn't say why.'
'Oh.' Kim swallowed. 'OK. Um, where do I start?'
'Try the beginning, ma'am,' said Modo. Kim didn't press the point.
'Well... The beginning. Right. Um. Let's see. I... I used to work in a garage in Manchester, that's one of England's biggest cities. It was called Steel Demons and people said we were pretty good - we could do almost anything, we'd get orders to build special bikes from scrap with all sorts of stuff on them - kind of like the stuff Charley tells me you guys have on yours, and other things. We worked for the army a couple of times. People said we could fix anything - around Manchester there was a kind of bike that people called Phoenixes - people had brought them in for scrap and we'd built them back up, sort of from the ashes. But anyway... one day someone came in wanting us to make six bikes with hidden compartments, specially for smuggling - have you guys ever heard of heroin?'
'Sure,' said Vinnie. 'C'mon, we've been here a while and we got CNN. So what happened?'
'Well, we knew what the bikes were for - someone else in the garage got a tip - and we refused to do it. So the client upped the price. We still refused, and we were about to go to the police, and then somebody was shot. We thought it was just a, you know, just one of those things, but then I got a message saying we were to build the bikes or there'd be more deaths. So I did it. What could I do, there were six other people besides me working there. And then when the bikes had gone and we'd been paid we sent an anonymous message to the police that there were ten blue Ducatis around Manchester with insulated compartments under the dials. We didn't think we'd be traced, but we were. Four people were killed, Steel Demons is closed and me and the other two mechanics have just had to get out. I've come as far as I could - Charlie said I could come here, she said I'd be safe, but I can almost feel them after me...'
Kim's voice trailed off. She wasn't looking at the mice any more; her eyes were fixed on some other place, possibly a bloodsoaked garage on the other side of the ocean. There was silence for a long time. Vinnie, Modo and Throttle exchanged glances and seemed to reach some sort of agreement, and Throttle broke the silence.
'You're lucky you got a cousin like Charley,' he said.
'Yeah,' said Modo. 'Bright girl, bringin' you here.'
'You don't mind?' said Kim.
'Why the hell would we mind?' said Vinnie. 'Nuthin' we can't handle. Hell, it'll make a change from lobsterlips.'
Kim gave a watery smile. 'Thanks. Charley's so lucky to have friends like you.'
'Yeah, I guess you could say lucky,' said Throttle eventually. 'Or you could say she earned it. Luck's kinda picky like that.' He smiled, not completely humourlessly. 'Stick around and you could be lucky that way too.'
'So, what do you think?' said Charley to Kim later, when they were doing superficial repairs to Kim's bike.
'They're... very strange,' said Kim at last.
'Alien?' said Charley, smiling.
'No. Not entirely. But I can see why you like them. I don't think they like me much, though.'
'You've just been sprung on them kinda suddenly. They're all soldiers, so they're not that good with new people. Not when it's not on their terms, anyway.'
'Yeah. There's this big war going on on Mars, big enough to have repercussions here. Man, you wouldn't believe some of the things I've seen. But you saw their scars, didn't you?'
'Yes. That's pretty weird technology.'
Kim started the bike's engine, listened to it rev and smiled. 'Welcome back, Babe. So no wonder they're prickly, huh?'
'Give 'em time,' said Charley. 'They'll come around.'
That night was another night of memories and bad dreams, and Kim woke with a start as a gunshot went off in her mind. She lay in the darkness, her mouth dry, and remembered that she was at her cousin's house, she was safe for now and she had protection that her cousin swore by. She was safe. Her breathing slowed and she became aware of how much she needed a drink. She got up, slipped her dressing gown over the oversized t-shirt she normally slept in and set off for the kitchen. She didn't get there, halted by a sound coming from a half-open door. Someone was talking in his sleep. She pushed the door a little and found it was Modo, fur streaming with sweat, struggling against something and muttering,
'...over my dead body...no...kill me, see if Ah care...why her, she's done nothing...Blue, no...never...'
Kim stepped into the room, mesmerised, and stretched out a hand to wake him - and someone caught her wrist. She looked up. Throttle shook his head urgently, raised a finger to his lips and nodded towards the door. Kim looked back towards Modo, who looked as though he was about to break, but went anyway. She had little choice; Throttle didn't let go of her wrist until they were both in the sitting room.
'I don't need to know why you were up at this time of night-' he began.
'Thirsty,' replied Kim. Throttle went to the kitchen and came back with a bottle in each hand. The cola he threw to Kim while he popped the top off the root beer with his thumb and sat down.
'Now, I do want to know why you were about to do a damnfool thing like waking Modo.'
'He was having a nightmare. Didn't he want to be woken up?'
'Want has nothing to do with it. Modo's dreams are his own. That goes for Vinnie's or mine, while we're talking about it. Do you have any idea what he could've done to you?' Kim shook her head and Throttle seemed to calm down a little. 'No, you don't, do you. OK, I'm gonna tell you a story and you're gonna keep it to yourself. So far it's been between me, my bros and Charlie. OK?'
'Quiet. Modo has these dreams a lot. We all do. Charlie made the same mistake as you, one time while we were still staying up at the scoreboard, and Modo woke up and fired.'
'Yeah, did you think that arm cannon was there to be pretty? He just missed Charley - got most of the hair off her head and blasted a hole in the wall. Lucky there wasn't any fire or there'd've been a fire crew there, but it took us a while to fix the hole. It's a bad idea to wake Modo. You could get hurt. Understand?'
'I understand. I'm... I'm sorry.'
Throttle sighed. 'Not your fault, I guess. You weren't to know.'
'So... you guys're brothers?' asked Kim. Throttle glared at her. 'Sorry. Just asking.'
Throttle deflated a little. 'Brothers in arms.' He smiled. 'You don't choose the other kind.' He stood up. 'Night. And I told Charley I'd keep an eye on you - that doesn't mean I have to stop you being suicidal.'
There were another three days of peace - or at least, comparative normality. On the second day the mice went out for the morning without telling anyone where they were going; they came back in the afternoon whooping in triumph. The TV news was reporting that Limburger Towers had collapsed again and there was a theory that maybe it was on a thus far undiscovered fault. This, of course, was nothing new - a diversion, if anything, a reason for Charley to be mad that they hadn't taken her with them and an excuse for Kim to help clean and fix the bikes. Only Vinnie's really needed fixing this time; it had come home with a huge rip in the front plating. It was nothing Charley or Vinnie couldn't have handled alone, but Charley persuaded Vinnie to let Kim help, since she 'should keep her hand in.'
'Haven't we got anything else for her to keep her hand in other than my ride?' protested Vinnie.
'Well, sure,' said Charlie. 'We could never let her near the bikes at all. And then next time something really serious happens and we need some experienced help, she'll have no idea. Go on, she's just as good as me, I promise.'
Vinnie sighed. 'Anything to please you, babe,' he said.
'Wonderful. She's just through there.'
Charley pointed at the door and Vinnie leaned through and said, not altogether convincingly, 'Hey, doll, could use a hand. You busy?'
'What?' Kim sounded surprised. 'No, of course not. Just coming.'
Kim stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the bike. 'No way,' she said. 'You can't possibly want me to help you with this.'
Vinnie raised a sardonic eyebrow. 'Why not?'
'This is your bike, man. I mean, come on, I'm not stupid. You are probably more attached to this bike than you would be to any woman, whatever planet she came from. You're seriously telling me that you've known me less than a week and you're going to let me near her for a simple fix like a torn plate?'
Vinnie laughed rauciously. 'Not bad, sweetheart - it was Charley's idea. She said you should get to know the girls in case we take some real damage.'
'And what do you think?'
'I guess she's got a point.'
'But you do love this bike, don't you? I mean, I must be right about this 'cause if you don't, it's just, well...' Kim shrugged wildly.
'Yeah, sure, well spotted,' said Vinnie impatiently. 'You love yours too, right?'
'I love all bikes,' said Kim wistfully. 'But I love the Babe 'cause he's mine.'
Vinnie looked at her in amused silence for a moment, then said, 'Nice answer, sweet thing, you can have a look. I guess. Be nice, now.'
Kim brightened up. 'Really? Oh, wow...' She walked over to the bike, which moved upright as she approached. She stopped. The bike looked wary. 'Um, Vinnie?'
'You're bright, Kimmie-girl, but she's bright too,' said Vinnie, obviously enjoying this.
'Oh. OK.' Kim took a step closer. The bike turned so its headlight was facing her. 'Hi,' said Kim to the bike. 'It's OK, honey, nobody's going to hurt you. Vinnie, she's amazing.'
'Yeah. Like you'd expect anything else of my bike?'
'Course not.' Kim went back to addressing the bike. 'Hello beautiful. That rip must really be getting right up your pipes, huh? I could fix it for you, if you let me - got a brand new shiny red plating right here. Make you all smooth and sleek again. Would you like that?' Kim looked up. 'Vinnie, does she know you're here?'
'Sure,' said Vinnie.
Kim nodded, cleared her throat and took another step towards the bike. This time, it didn't move away. She had a strong sense that it was watching her but it stayed still and let her approach and put a hand on the front plate. 'Good girl,' she said. 'Let's make you all better, eh?'
The job didn't take long and the bike stayed perfectly still throughout, but Kim could still feel Vinnie's eyes burning into the back of her neck while she worked. Finally she stood up and said, 'Done.' She patted the bike on the handlebars and it revved gently. 'Good girl.'
'Yeah,' said Vinnie from just behind her right shoulder. 'Nice job.'
'Um,' said Kim softly. 'Wow... you know, I never worked on a bike that thanked me before.'
The day after this was quiet and peaceful and everyone was sitting watching TV - not that there was anything to watch, but the TV was on and most of them were looking in the general direction of the moving screen.
'What's blue?' asked Kim suddenly. Charlie looked up. All three of the mice were glaring at Kim.
'What?' said Charlie.
'If you tried waking Modo again-' began Throttle.
'No, no,' said Kim. 'He was shouting in his sleep. About something blue. It woke me up. What? All of you shout things in your sleep. Charley says I do it too. Lots of people do it. Look, guys, I'm sorry, forget it, just stop looking at me like that!'
Modo dropped his gaze first, returned his gaze to the TV. 'Tell her if you want, bro,' he said. 'Ah guess it ain't important no more.'
'Nobody ever told me,' said Charley.
'Yeah, but you never asked,' said Vinnie simply.
'You're gonna have to tell her yourself,' said Throttle. 'You never told us much, either.'
'Tell 'em what Ah told you, then,' snapped Modo.
Throttle sighed. 'Fine. Kim, Blue's not a thing. Blue's Modo's wife.'
'You're married?' said Kim in astonishment.
'Once, yeah,' replied Modo.
'She's dead,' said Throttle shortly. 'They killed her. Modo saw her die.'
'Geez,' said Kim. 'God, Modo, I'm... I'm so sorry.'
'Don't worry about it. It was a long time ago.'
'Hell, I... Listen, I'm going to go someplace else...' Kim got no further. A gunshot shattered the window and perforated the wall behind her.
'A distraction!' crowed Vinnie. 'Yeah, there is a god!'
'I'll say,' said Charley, ducking as more shots followed the first. 'What's happening? Limburger doesn't usually bother with bullets.'
'This isn't Limburger,' said Throttle. He caught Kim by the wrist and pushed her behind the sofa. 'Looks like your past just caught up.'
'They don't shoot too straight,' said Modo. A shot pinged off his arm so he raised it and fired out of the shattered window. There was a boom and the shooting stopped. Vinnie jumped through the window and surveyed the wreckage.
'Looks like you got 'em, bro,' he said. 'Him. Whatever. Aw, that was over too quick.'
'No, that was just fine,' said Charley firmly. 'I lost a window and that was it.'
Kim stood up and grinned sheepishly. 'Wow. Um... I'll get that window fixed tomorrow, Charley.'
'Right, thanks,' said Charley.
'I'll get supper, shall I?'
'Can't. There's nothing in.'
'Great! I mean, I guess it's my turn to go shopping, right? I'll just go...'
'I'll come with you,' said Throttle.
'What?' said Kim, dismayed. She'd been hoping to get away from the mice for a while, give them a chance to forget about the previous conversation. 'But you got 'em...'
'No. We just got told that they found you.'
'Sorry ma'am,' said Modo. 'You ain't got a clear road just yet.'
'OK, then. Shall we go, then?'
'I'm really sorry about that,' said Kim when she and Throttle were alone in the garage.
Throttle looked slightly surprised. 'Don't worry about it, it was gonna happen sooner or later.'
'No, not that - what I said about Modo's wife.'
'Oh.' Throttle put on his helmet. 'That. That wasn't your fault.'
'No, I should've kept my fat mouth shut.' Kim sighed and slammed down her visor. 'My mother always told me I had all the tact of a Sherman tank. Hey... did one of you guys do something to my helmet? I can still hear you.'
'Just the same thing we did to Charley's,' said Throttle.
'Cool. And I thought you didn't like me.'
Throttle smiled and revved up. 'Yeah? We like you just fine. Your foot don't fit in your mouth half as well as Vinnie's and we could always do with another bike-jock. Just... stop asking about the dreams.'
'OK. Lesson learned.' Kim started her own bike and they left the garage. 'So, we need dogs, buns, root beer... Am I paying for this? I guess I must be...'
Kim's faux pas wasn't mentioned when she came back - at least, when they got back Throttle looked at Vinnie and they both looked at Modo and Modo stood up, relieved Kim of her bags and said, 'Here, ma'am, let me help you with that.' The tone drew a heavy line under the afternoon's events.
When everybody was sitting around after dinner, feeling agreeably full and relaxed, Modo turned to Kim and said, 'Hey, Miss Kim, can you shoot?'
'Hm?' Kim looked up, surprised. 'Oh. No. Guns're illegal in England.'
'Really?' said Vinnie. He didn't look impressed. 'Man, no wonder they're only famous for dancing chimney sweeps.'
'Ah guess we're gonna have to teach ya, then,' said Modo.
'Right,' said Throttle. 'We do our best but we can't track you all the time.'
'A little after-dinner recreation?' said Vinnie. 'Sounds good. We got a target? We could go find ole fish-face.'
'No,' said Throttle. 'There's a wrecked truck a couple of blocks away. It'll do.'
'Kim needs a gun, guys,' said Charley.
'She can use one of mine,' said Vinnie easily. 'Well? We going or what?'
The wrecked truck was in an area which even the cockroaches were thinking of abandoning. It was run-down, it was unpopulated - it would do just fine.
'Right,' said Vinnie. 'It's easy. You just aim and pull the trigger. See?' He fired and the one remaining wing mirror dropped off in a blaze of blue light.
'Um...' Kim raised the borrowed gun and fired - the shot glanced off the cabin roof. 'Oops.'
'Where were you aiming?' said Throttle.
'The headlight,' said Kim. There was an embarrassed silence.
'OK,' said Throttle. 'Try again. This time look where you're aiming.'
Kim tried again and this shot blasted a hole in the bonnet.
'Close, but no banana,' said Vinnie.
'The gun's in your hand, Kim, don't be scared of it,' said Charley.
'You ain't standing right,' said Modo. 'You ain't in no movie, ma'am. Here...' He placed a huge hand on her shoulder and steered her round so she was facing the target straight on. 'Stand steady, put your other hand here.' He took her free hand and placed it gently on the stock. 'It don't need it but it'll help to start with. Now sight along the barrel. Just lookin' at your target ain't enough, you gotta have the gun in your sights as well.' He raised her arm and pointed the gun for her. 'Ya see it?'
'Y-yes,' said Kim.
'Good, now shoot it.'
Kim fired and missed the truck completely.
'Nice lesson, big fella,' said Vinnie.
'No, no, I'll get it this time, I just... hiccupped, that's all,' said Kim, stepping away from Modo and taking a deep breath. 'You watching? I'll get this one.' She lined up the gun and fired. The headlight exploded in a shower of blue.
'Good shot,' said Throttle. 'Could you do it with something in your other hand?'
Kim aimed for the other headlight, sighted carefully and fired. She missed, but only just.
'Doing good,' said Charley. 'Now you just need practice.'
'Yeah, who knows,' said Vinnie. 'Maybe one day you'll be able to do it with distractions, too.'
'Distractions?' said Kim, narrowing her eyes.
'I didn't say nuthin'.'
'Good.' Kim held out the gun to him but he waved it away.
'No, no, you keep it. I got others.'
'Believe me, he has,' said Throttle. 'Besides, you might need it.'
There was a letter in Charley's mailbox when they got back that suggested that what Throttle said was true. It was in anonymous computer print and it said, 'To Kimberley Hartley - we know you have protection and it won't be enough. They can't follow you everwhere. You grassed on us and your luck's run out. It ran out for your old friends. If you're not careful it will run out for your new ones too.'
'Subtle,' said Vinnie when he saw it.
'Yeah,' said Modo. 'Obviously they don't know us too well.'
'Hm.' Charley read the letter through and then said thoughtfully, 'I'm gonna put an alarm on Kim's bike.'
'Great idea,' said Kim. 'Thanks, Charley. You think we should alarm the others, too?'
Throttle snorted. 'Someone thinks they can booby-trap my ride, they got another thing coming. She's a real lady, she won't let herself get violated.'
'Good call,' said Kim, as Charley left the room. 'I have to say, Throttle, I always thought your bike looked like a classy girl.'
'Yeah?' said Throttle. He looked interested and faintly amused. 'What about the others? I don't recall you seeing 'em in action much.'
'Yeah, but they do sort of show through,' said Kim. 'You can tell Vinnie's is fastest without even seeing her top speed. She's got... what's the word... zap? Go? Pizazz? Something like that. Anyway, she's obviously an adrenaline freak like Vinnie. I mean, c'mon, how could she not be? Modo's is toughest, strongest and most reliable - no, that's the wrong word. Loyal, that's what I mean.'
'How can ya tell?' said Modo.
'If she wasn't you wouldn't love her so much. And if you didn't love her so much you wouldn't spend so much time with her. Believe me, Modo, I would not go anywhere near any of your bikes without permission, but especially yours. She'd have my head off. And Throttle's got the classy lady, the aristocrat with all the style and a little bit of mystery.'
'Where'd you learn to read bikes so well?' said Throttle.
'At Steel Demons, there was this guy called Dave... well, actually, his name was Dave, we called him Confucius. Or The Con. 'Cause he'd do this stupid "Confucius, he say" routine all the time...' Kim trailed off. 'Anyway, he owned the garage and I never met anyone who loved bikes more. Not even Modo. I mean, Modo loves his bike most, the Con loved all bikes. Confucius, he say... said they were the first machine with a soul - I didn't buy that bit. Well, mostly I didn't, but to hear him talk...'
'He's dead, isn't he,' said Throttle.
'Yes, he's dead. Someone broke into the garage and shot him just before I left for here. I was in the office out back and managed to get out, but I went back later to see what I could do. You know, it's amazing how little blood there is when someone's been shot dead.'
'Yeah,' said Modo. 'We know.'
'He taught me pretty much everything I know about motorcycles.'
'There was a guy like that back on Mars,' said Throttle. 'Name of Stoker. Sounds like him and your friend Confucius woulda got on.'
'Is Stoker alive?' said Kim.
'Sure,' said Vinnie. 'Not as sharp as he was, but he's raisin' the next bunch o' biker mice to give the Plutarkians hell.'
Kim sniffed. 'You guys must think I'm such a sissy. I mean, you've had to watch your planet being destroyed and I can't even protect my garage without running to another continent. And Con died quickly. That's a good thing, he didn't suffer. Right?'
'Well, yeah, it's good that your friend didn't suffer, Miss Kim, but it ain't good that he died,' said Modo.
'It's not normal to lose your home like that,' said Throttle. 'We lost a planet, you lost a garage, we all lost a whole loada friends. You're allowed to show a little strain.'
'Yeah,' said Vinnie. 'I mean, just cause we're doin' perfectly alright don't mean we always did.'
'Did what?' said Charley as she came back in. 'I finished the alarm. What's going on? What's wrong with Kim?'
'Just a few blasts from the past, Charley-girl,' said Throttle.
Kim smiled weakly. 'Yeah. Comparing experiences. I'm fine.'
Over the next few days it bacame clear that Kim was not fine. She got paler and the shadows under her eyes got darker. Every passing moment she became more aware of her place in the world in relation to everyone else - except those who were out to get her. It only made her feel worse. This morning, for example, she knew that Throttle and Charley were in the garage talking about the bikes and Modo and Vinnie were here in the kitchen, watching her watch the coffee brew in the machine - watching her, that was terrible, but not so terrible as the fact that someone was nearby and after her but not anywhere she could pinpoint.
She poured the coffee and her hand shook, making the lip of the perculator clatter on the edge of the cup.
'You're drinkin' too much of that stuff,' observed Vinnie.
'I'm not. It's doing its job,' muttered Kim.
'An' Ah suppose the job is keepin' you awake,' said Modo. 'You gotta sleep sometime.'
'No. No, I haven't.'
'Hate to say it, sweetpea, but you need your beauty sleep,' said Vinnie.
'Oh, thanks.' Kim raised the cup to her lips. Her teeth chattered against the rim. 'And what did you dream last night? No, don't answer that.'
'Hey, you look like death warmed up, am I not supposed to be concerned?' Kim glowered malevolently at him. He threw up his hands in despair with a cry of 'Women!' and went into the garage.
'Tryin' not to sleep?' said Modo quietly. 'They're only dreams.'
Kim snorted. 'And I suppose what with you shouting about Blue and Throttle yelling orders that no-one obeys from the sound of it and Vinnie calling to someone called Harley, with me joining in this must be the noisiest night-time house in Chicago. I do talk in my sleep, don't I?'
'Yeah,' said Modo. 'Last night you were screamin' that you couldn't see all the guns.'
'Well, I can't.'
'But you gotta sleep. If you don't the dreams'll catch up when you're awake, Ah seen it happen.'
'Yeah. Buddy o' mine back on Mars called Cam tried it. Drove his ride straight off'f a cliff. Woulda hated to see what he thought was chasin' him.' Modo reached out and took the coffee cup from Kim's unsteady hand. 'You gonna try an' sleep tonight, Miss Kim?'
'I guess,' said Kim. 'I'll give it a shot.'
That night Kim tried to sleep, but only managed an uneasy doze. She was jerked out of it by the even more uneasy feeling that there was someone in her room with her. She lay in the dark, breathing quietly and trying to sound as if she was asleep, creeping her hand slowly up the bed for the gun under her pillow. Then a voice as hard and cold as a gunbarrel said, 'You want to look like you're asleep, maybe you should scream a bit more.' And then the intruder stuck a gun under her chin. 'Going to come quietly, Miss Hartley?' he said. 'Don't want to get more of your friends hurt, do we?'
'Drop that now or I blast your hand off your wrist,' said a cool, calm voice from behind him. 'Or Modo could just put a hole where your head was. You choose.'
The man looked up, and further up. Modo's eye gleamed red in the darkness and the cannon on his arm glowed faintly blue.
'You one of these guys who Miss Kim was runnin' from?' he said. 'It ain't nice to shoot at unarmed ladies.'
'Not wise, either,' said Throttle. The green glow from his knuck nukes showed in reflection in Kim's eyes. What with that and the metallic gleam from Vinnie's mask on the other side from Modo, the man was sure he was surrounded. What he wasn't sure was what he was surrounded by.
'Specially when the lady in question's got bodyguards like us,' said Vinnie. The intruder released Kim. She plucked the gun from his hands and he didn't resist.
'Can you remember something, slimeball?' said Throttle.
'S-sure,' said the man.
'Tell whoever sent you that Kim Hartley is our girl now.'
'Yeah,' said Vinnie. 'And we look after our own.'
'We'd better not see you here again,' said Throttle.
'You're letting me go?' the man sounded elated.
'Yeah 'cuz we're the good guys,' said Modo. 'Now hit the road before Ah change my mind.'
'Wow,' said Kim when he was gone and Throttle had turned on the light. 'That was...'
'Great?' said Vinnie. 'Amazing? Darkly sexy?'
'Scary. All those thing you said, but scary. Woo-hoo, majorly intimidating light show there. Bang-up job, guys, I think that might have nailed it.'
'We aim to please,' said Vinnie.
'I'm pleased, believe me.' She put her head on one side. 'One thing... "our girl"?'
'What about it? Charley's our girl, so are you,' said Throttle.
'Sorry, Kimmie-girl, you don't get a say about this,' said Vinnie cheerfully. 'Look on the bright side, you can say we're your guys if you like.That makes you and Charley the luckiest ladies on Earth.'
'What, is it consolation for putting up with your ego?' said Kim, secretly pleased.
She slept slightly easier for the rest of the night, in that there were no screams.
After a while nothing more was heard and Kim began to relax. Kind of. The dark circles vanished and she got a little colour in her cheeks, but something still made her tense and Charlie caught her in the kitchen, rubbing her temples and muttering.
'Something wrong?' asked Charlie.
'Didn't get much sleep last night,' said Kim.
'Something on your mind? I thought the guys had cleared that up.'
'They did. I'll be fine, I...' Kim paused and looked Charley in the eye. 'Actually, if there's anyone I can talk to about this, it's you. So yes, there is something kind of wrong.'
'Oho,' Charlie grinned. 'That kind of problem, hm?'
'Yes... no... well... Charley, he's a mouse.'
Charley put her head on one side and thought about it. 'No. No, he's not. Mice are small and fluffy and they go squeak. Modo's a Martian.'
Kim looked perplexed. 'I'm having mushy thoughts about a big mouse and that's supposed make it better?'
'Well, yeah. I mean, think about it. They're adapting pretty well to life on Earth. They look like men in a kind of Egyptian-god-man-in-a-mask kind of way. Except it's hard to imagine an Egyptian god telling you he's the last of the red-hot lovers.'
Kim laughed. 'And then being told by another Egyptian god that standards must've dropped way down in that case. Oh, christ, that was so funny - did you see Vinnie's face?'
'Oh, I was watching carefully. Not to put too fine a point on it, they're cute. All of them. So yeah, I see where you're coming from.'
'You've just got the hots for Vinnie. A weird thing about six-foot mice.'
'I haven't!' Charlie coloured. 'At least, I didn't. But a guy giving you that much attention and saving your bacon so many times - well, it kind of makes a strong case. And if I do have a thing for six-foot mice, you've got one too.'
'Nuh-uh. I've got a thing for seven foot mice.' Kim looked Charlie in the eye and they burst out laughing. Then Kim was serious again. 'Well, you at least have it easy. They like you. I'm just your cousin.'
'You think?' said Charlie. 'I think you're paranoid, then. You been to look at the Babe recently?' Kim looked suspiciously at her, but Charlie just pointed in the direction of the garage door.
When Kim had gone, Charlie looked round and caught sight of a familiar figure leaning on the kitchen door.
'"A thing for six-foot mice"?' said Vinnie. 'Sweetheart, if you tell me I finally lost you to Throttle I ain't gonna believe it.'
Charlie's mouth opened and closed a couple of times. Finally she said, 'How long have you been listening, you bastard?'
'Long enough to know I got a strong case. Is it strong enough?' Vinnie closed the door and crossed the room, stopping short of Charley's personal space but cutting off her escape.
Charley looked him in the eye. He was smiling, a slightly amused smile that she didn't believe in the least. She knew him well enough by now to tell that he was nervous.
'If I said it wasn't, you wouldn't believe me, would you?' she said at last.
Vinnie looked at the ceiling, considering. 'Nope. Don't think I would.'
'Well, then.' Charley sighed and sat down on the worktop beside him. 'I guess it's either give in or have you think I'm a liar. I guess I give in.' She smiled.
Vinnie turned and placed a hand either side of her on the worktop. 'An' it matters what I think of you?'
'Of course it does,' said Charley. 'Vinnie, do you have to just stand there like that?'
'Savouring the moment, sweetheart,' said Vinnie, and then he kissed her.
In the garage, Kim was examining her bike to find it had something new. Under each handlebar was a neat metal capsule with a gauge along one side, a black dot on the front and a swivel underneath. She examined them for a while, then stood up - and almost jumped out of her skin, suddenly aware of a presence behind her. She turned, and it was Modo, watching her carefully.
'Like 'em, Miss Kim?' he said.
'Er, I think so,' said Kim. 'What are they?'
'Standard civilian-class self-def lazers,' replied Modo. 'Your ride's a pretty boy but he can't keep you safe.'
'Wait, these are civilian class?'
'On Mars, yeah.' Modo grinned. 'Most Mars civilians'd think Earth soldiers're lil' cryin' babies.'
'Right.' Kim examined the lazers carefully. 'And did you do this?'
'Yeah. Figured you shouldn't have us protectin' you all the time. You'd owe us then an' that ain't right. Here...' He reached over her shoulder and pressed a button at one end of the gauge. It hissed gently and started lighting up red, but Kim was trying to clear Modo's smell of engines and sweat and metal from her synapses before it drove her to do something stupid. Something else lit up at the other end of the bike and she pounced on it as a distraction.
'Emergency power supply. Earth bikes run out of gas an' then yer stuck - this'll give you a lil' extra sting. There's one thing more.'
'Over here,' Modo took her arm - she resisted the temptation not to collapse against him - and led her to the other side of the garage. 'OK, now whistle.'
'Go on. All our rides do this cause they're bright, but now you got it with sound sensors an' stuff. Whistle.'
Kim obediently whistled, and the Babe revved itself, started up and drove across the garage to stop at her feet. She looked in amazement at Modo, who was grinning.
'Now,' he said, 'you got a really nice bike. Not a clever bike, but a nice bike.'
'Wow,' she said. 'Thanks. Thanks a lot. Wow.'
Modo looked pleased for a moment, stuck two fingers in his mouth and gave a piercing whistle. His own bike skidded to a halt beside Kim's.
'You wanna come for a ride?' he said.
Kim looked from the bikes to him and smiled. 'Yeah,' she said. 'That'd be nice.'
Babe ran a lot smoother now, much better than any bike Kim had ever ridden before. She could almost have thought it was a different bike. They rode for what seemed like forever, and stopped outside the city.
'Better now?' said Modo.
'Better than he's ever been,' said Kim. 'My god, what am I gonna do for mechanics now? I can't work to this level.'
Modo looked away, towards the skyline, and said something Kim didn't catch.
'Sorry?' she said.
'Ah said, Ah guess you gonna have to stay here, then,' said Modo.
'You guys don't want me around, though. Not really. Charley's your friend, she earned it. I'm just her cousin, taking up space.'
'Didn't you hear what Throttle an' Vinnie said? You're their other lil' girl now.'
'Oh.' There was silence for a moment. 'This doesn't make sense, if you don't like me, why'd you fix my bike? Did Charley put you up to it?'
'No,' said Modo, still not looking at her. 'An' Ah never said Ah didn't like you.' He straightened up. 'We gotta get back.'
'Right,' said Kim uncertainly, and they rode back in silence.
Kim went to bed early that night, almost as if she didn't have anything to say to anyone, and Modo caught Throttle and Vinnie before they could go anywhere. Vinnie grumbled about it a little, but didn't say anything to Modo's face.
'What's up, bro?' he said when the three of them were shut in Modo's room.
'Woman trouble,' said Throttle, without waiting for Modo to speak. 'Right?' Modo nodded. 'You did all that work on her ride and didn't say it in the end.'
'Ah tried,' said Modo. 'Couldn't stop thinking 'bout Blue.'
'It's been four years, bro,' said Vinnie quietly. 'You gonna save yourself for a dead woman forever?'
Modo looked up sharply, then sighed. 'Can't help it. Still get the dreams...'
'We all do,' said Throttle. 'This house is so full of bad memories it shoulda blown up long ago. Blue wouldn't want to see you like this.'
'Yeah, he's right there,' said Vinnie. 'She loved ya, right?'
'Yeah,' said Modo.
'Then she wouldn't want you hangin' on to her memory till there ain't nothin' left of you any girl'd want. An' the girl in there wants you, bro. Heard her say so.'
Modo paused and looked at the door. 'No. No way,' he said. 'Can't do it. Ain't gonna.'
'You know what? If Blue can see us, she's probably wanting you to get safe with a good woman so she don't have to worry about you no more. She gets the dreams too, bro,' said Throttle. 'You go help her with 'em, that'll be two less dreamers for this house.'
'Three less,' said Vinnie. 'Don't know 'bout you, but I'm gonna get Charley to help me with mine. See ya in the morning. Or maybe not...'
Modo stared at the door as it shut behind Vinnie. 'No way. He never...'
'He did,' said Throttle. 'And I'm gonna leave you to decide if you're gonna do the same.'
Finally alone, Modo waited and listened to the sounds of the night. Throttle wouldn't be asleep for a while yet, and by the sounds of it, Charley and Vinnie were keeping each other awake and enjoying themselves quite a lot. At the end of the corridor, though, were the gasps and mutterings of a young woman in the throes of nightmare.
Modo reached a decision. He had seen his wife die, but that had been a long time ago and the others were right; she wouldn't want him to wait for her. He silently apologised to Blue's memory and laid it to rest, then left the room.
Kim didn't wake when he opened the door. She was making small grunting noises and seemed to be trying to get out of bed. Her eyes were open but rolled back so that only the whites were visible. Modo crouched down beside her; the dream seemed to be increasing in intensity and she started muttering, 'Fill in the holes, too many holes...' so he reached out and patted her gently on the cheek. Her eyes snapped forward and she screamed, focused on Modo and the scream dissolved into little gasping sobs. There was nothing else to do but to gather her close and hold her till she stopped crying.
'They all had holes in their heads!' she gasped. 'I couldn't fill them all in, there were too many holes... so many bullets...'
''S OK,' said Modo. 'Just a dream. You're awake now.'
Gradually Kim stopped shaking and lifted her head.
'Modo? What are you doing in here?'
'Heard you cryin'. Or did you not want wakin'?'
'I did. Thankyou.' Kim sat up, and Modo smiled.
'You gonna be OK now?' he said.
'Yeah.' Kim changed the subject. 'Modo - I'm going to start looking for my own apartment tomorrow.'
His face fell. 'Why?'
'Cause I can't stay sleeping in Charley's office forever. Charley said she'd build an extension to this place for me, but I said I'd get an apartment, and then we had a bit of a talk and I said I'd ask you. The three of you, but since you're here, you first. I mean, I wouldn't want to get in your way or anything.'
Modo thought carefully about what he'd say next, and even then, it didn't come easy. 'You? Get in my way? No. Ah mean, sure, you could get your own place if you wanted, but you could...'
'What? You got any other ideas?'
'Sure. Come in with me.'
The silence was the loudest Modo had ever encountered. He couldn't meet Kim's amazed eyes.
'With you?' she said at last.
'Yeah. It ain't the Ritz but it's better'n a camp bed in Charley's office.' The silence continued. Modo couldn't stand it any longer and started to get up to leave. Kim caught his wrist.
'No... Modo, don't go. Please. I'll come. Thanks.'
'Thought you were mad at me,' said Modo.
'No, just surprised,' said Kim. She stood up. He towered above her. 'I thought you only liked me 'cause I'm good with bikes.'
Modo laughed, which surprised Kim even more. She'd never heard him laugh before, and he had a deep, booming laugh which cleared the air and was gone as suddenly as it came.
'No,' he said. 'More than just that. You comin', Darlin'? Or ain't Ah allowed to call you that?' He offered his arm and she took it.
'You can call me anything you damn well please,' she said.
Kim woke slowly the following day, draped over Modo's grey muscular chest and feeling wonderful. She buried her nose in his fur and breathed in the smell of sweat and metal and sex. After a while Modo opened his eye and focused on her face. He smiled, slowly.
'Mornin' Darlin',' he said. 'Some night.'
'Morning big guy,' replied Kim. 'Sleep well?'
'Yeah. For a while, yeah. You gonna be stayin', then?'
'Oh, I don't know,' said Kim. She ran a hand down Modo's thigh and felt the muscles tense under her fingers. 'I don't know that I can take this level of physical strain. I guess I'll just have to get stronger.'
Modo rolled her over onto her back, pinning her down between his massive forearms. 'Need some help with that?'
Kim sighed theatrically. 'Oh, I suppose so. If you must.'
'Yeah,' said Modo, kissing her gently just below her ear. 'Ah must.'
It was another two hours before they appeared in the kitchen, looking for something to eat. Three pairs of eyes turned to watch them as they walked in and Kim stopped. Modo just grinned and opened the fridge.
'What?' said Kim.
'Had a good night?' said Charley innocently. Kim looked at her. She was sitting on the sofa with Vinnie's arm around her waist and didn't look particularly innocent. Kim smirked.
'Yeah, actually. Did you?'
Charley grinned at Vinnie. 'As it happens I did. And you've got some plaster in your hair.'
Kim ran her fingers through her hair, and they came away dusty. 'Oh. Oh, yeah. That'll have been from-'
'We don't need to know,' said Throttle tersely. He was grinning in a not altogether pleasant way.
'We don't?' said Vinnie. 'Why not?'
Charley ignored him. 'So I guess you're staying and we don't need an extension, then?'
'If nobody minds,' replied Kim. But you probably need fresh plaster in Modo's room.'
'Feh, another repair to this place? Used to it,' said Charley.
'Hey, I don't mind,' said Throttle. 'Bro, when was the last time you saw Modo look this happy?'
'Been a while,' said Vinnie. 'You stayin's no skin off my nose, Kimmie-girl. An' if you leave now the big man might chase you.'
'Right,' said Modo, slipping an arm around her waist and almost lifting her off her feet. Charley waved a hand in his direction.
'See, what did I tell you? A big soppy, like I said. Sit down, guys, you'll fall over and spill Weetos all over the place.'
And that was that. Kim stayed and got a job as Charley's assistant; for Vinnie, Modo and Kim at least, the bad dreams went away and things settled into comparative normality. But only comparative - this was Chicago, after all...