Steve looks up at Danny, a bead of sweat cutting through the grime coating his furrowed brow. Danny's radiation suit is still belted at the waist, but the top half of the suit is trailing loose behind him, flopping against his backside like a bustle. He's wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and baseball cap, but the back of his neck is as red as his wind-burned cheeks.
"Two hours," Danny says again, holding up his hand before Steve can speak. "That's what you told me this morning. A routine pick-up. Two hours, tops, and we'd be back in Roswell and this guy would be in a holding cell getting strip-searched by the guys at NASA, and I'd be at my daughter's birthday party enjoying the most delicious cupcakes in this galaxy or any other, flown in from Grace's favorite bakery in New Jersey."
Steve licks his chapped lips. "And, by extension, your favorite bakery," he ventures.
"It is," Danny agrees. "It is my favorite bakery, Steven. In all of Roswell, New Mexico, there does not exist a dessert that even comes close to the perfection that is the red velvet cake from Calandria's."
"They don't need gimmicks, okay?" Danny says, and Steve can tell he's working himself into a rant and that he shouldn't interrupt. "They don't need little flying saucers made out of ganache, or aliens made out of coconut shreds. They just make a rich, moist red velvet cake with delicious cream cheese frosting, and that's it, that's all it needs."
Steve stops to get a better grip on the tarp they're dragging, and Danny nearly trips over a stick. They've been walking for nearly six hours and their cargo, such as it is, weighs more than both of them put together. They're both exhausted. "That does sound delicious," says Steve.
"I also had them deliver a dozen Pignoli cookies," says Danny. "Just for me and Grace. But of course I won't be able to eat them now because of Mister--" He swings his arm around to gesture at the back end of the tarp. "--Davy Jones back here."
Steve looks down at the tarp, which came untied at some point in the last six hours and now one of the suspect's tentacles is exposed and covered in sand. "Davy Jones was a pirate," Steve says, reaching down to tuck the tentacle back under the tarp so it doesn't get sunburned. "He wasn't an alien."
"In that movie he had stuff, like an octopus." Danny gestures to indicate his face. "He looked like an alien."
"That movie!" Danny exclaims. "With whatshisface, Edward Scissorhands."
Steve shrugs. Danny sighs and wipes his forehead with the back of his hand.
"What are Pignoli cookies?" Steve asks.
"They're amazing," says Danny. "It's dough made from almond paste, and then it's rolled in pine nuts. Sprinkle a little powdered sugar on top and..." A stick becomes tangled in the laces of one of Danny's boots, and he tries kicking it off but it's stuck. He drops the edge of the tarp, rips the stick away from his boots, and throws it as hard as he can. Then he kicks at another stick, causing dust to cloud the air around them.
Steve closes his eyes until the sand settles. "We don't have to talk about food anymore," he says.
"You know, Steve, it isn't the food," Danny says, and yep, here it comes. "It's about the fact that I'm missing my daughter's birthday party because we're stuck in the fucking desert, again, dragging around some alien who couldn't be bothered to check in at one of the landing stations like everyone else, because he's got a ship full of smuggled panethite and a problem with authority figures!"
Steve nods and wipes his forehead with the back of his hand.
"And why," says Danny, "do alien space ships always crash in the middle of the fucking desert?"
Steve pauses. "Well, the nearest landing station is in Roswell, so--"
"And of course we can't just take the chopper, because getting a helicopter near a space ship is like bringing a cell phone into the hospital, or something--"
"It's dangerous. Some ships have electromagnetic--"
"Two hours," Danny interrupts, holding up two fingers for emphasis. "Two hours."
Steve just looks at him. "So, what, it's my fault that the Jeep overheated?"
"No, but it is your fault that we're out here by ourselves," Danny snaps. "I told you we should have waited for Chin and Kono to get back so they could follow us, but no! Mr. G. I. Joe wants to handle it by himself!"
"That's not true," Steve says, hurt, and Danny just shakes his head and turns away. Steve stares at the back of Danny's neck and tries to think of something to say to make him feel better. Danny's been edgy for several weeks now, ever since he missed an entire weekend with Grace after a suitcase full of radioactive materials somehow made it past the scanners at the Roswell landing station. The team went three days with very little sleep before that mess was cleared up.
Before he can think of something to say, there's a deep moan from the tarp, which rustles gently. Danny turns back to look as one of the suspect's tentacles unfurls into the sand, groping for clues to his surroundings.
"Fuck," Danny says, walking over. "Where's the tranquilizer?"
Steve frowns. "You want me to drug him?"
"Actually, I've been experiencing some insomnia lately and I thought it would help. Yes, Steve, I want you to drug him!"
"Last week you read me the riot act when I tried to drug a suspect," Steve says.
Danny just looks at him. "Are you kidding me right now? Last week you made a suspect piss himself when you tried to give him a saline injection and told him it was rat poison!"
"Well, I don't have any sedatives."
"I guess they're with the extra batteries for the radio?" Danny asks, pulling his gun from its holster, and Steve purses his lips together in annoyance. "Hey, big guy, rise and shine."
The suspect blinks up at them, his pale blue eyes shrinking in the harsh sunlight. He has pale, rubbery skin, long legs with claw-like feet, and tentacles stretching out from every part of his body.
"Are you from Makemake?" Steve asks him, using the language most common to the area in question, and the suspect shifts but doesn't reply. "Haumea?"
The suspect eyes Steve warily. "Why do you want to know?" he says slowly.
"What was that?" says Danny. "What'd he say?"
"He's from Haumea," Steve says, wiping sweat from his nose. "I figured. The panethite in his ship looked like the same grade we've seen coming out of the Kuiper belt these last few months." The alien makes an unhappy click click with his jaw, and Steve narrows his eyes. "You speak English?" he asks in Haumean.
"Usless language," the alien replies smoothly.
"Yeah, unless it's not," Steve says impatiently. "This your first trip or have you done this before?" The alien shifts his jaw again. Click click.
"That is fucking creepy," says Danny, and the alien looks over at him, eyes narrowed.
Steve shakes his head. "You're under arrest and we're taking you into custody." He reads the suspect his rights while Danny looks on, hand on one hip. The suspect watches Danny the entire time, both of them looking severely unimpressed with one another.
"What is he lookin' at anyway?" Danny asks when Steve is done speaking. He waves his gun in the Haumean's direction. "Did we ruin your day, buddy? Put a little crimp in your clearly not-very-well thought out plans? A little tip, mano a mano: next time you want to bypass customs by landing in the desert, try not to run your little spaceship into the side of a mountain."
The alien glares at Danny for a long moment, clicks quietly, and averts his eyes.
"Asshole," Danny mutters, turning away. He unscrews the cap of his water bottle but it's almost empty and he only gets a few sips. Steve pulls another bottle of water from his bag and hands it to him.
"Thanks." He guzzles down about half of it in one go, water dripping down his chin, and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. His eyes are startlingly blue against his sunburned cheeks. Steve wants to get closer, rub Danny's shoulders until he calms down, but Danny doesn't look like he wants anyone to touch him right now.
Danny looks up to see Steve watching him. "What?" he snaps.
Steve scratches the back of his neck. "I'm sorry about Grace's birthday party," he says. "I know you haven't seen her much lately."
Danny seems to deflate a little at this, but he still looks pissed off. "Yeah, well, what else is new?"
"Maybe next week we could take her to see Max's new exhibit at the museum," Steve says. "Invite Chin and Kono. You know, to make up for missing her party."
Danny sighs and scrubs a hand over his face. "Yeah, I'm sure she'd like that."
Steve remembers how disappointed Grace had been when Danny had missed their last weekend together, and how frustrated Danny had been that he couldn't tell her the truth about why he couldn't see her. Danny's never said anything, but sometimes Steve wonders if Danny blames him for it, for recruiting him to be his partner. If Danny misses chasing down kidnappers and drug dealers, now that he spends six days a week tracking rogue aliens through the New Mexican desert.
"It's not your fault," Danny says, and Steve looks over at him, surprised. "About the Jeep. What? You look like you just got sent to time out. I'm just saying it's not your fault, okay? Grace probably wouldn't even notice I was there anyway. She'll be too busy playing laser tag with her friends."
It's a lie and they both know it but Steve doesn't correct him. He steps forward and places his hand on Danny's shoulder blade. "Sorry," he says when Danny flinches. He pulls his hand away from Danny's sunburned shoulder but doesn't move out of his personal space. "Laser tag?"
Danny rolls his eyes. "I knew I shouldn't have said anything. Maybe it's best we're not there. The idea of you playing laser tag with a group of 10-year-olds is actually kind of terrifying. I still have nightmares about that paintball game."
"Oh, come on, I wouldn't--" Steve is interrupted by a scuffling sound nearby. The alien is staring at the sand, making angry clicking sounds at an iguana. It reaches out with a tentacle, wraps it around the iguana's body, and tosses it out of sight.
Steve sighs. "Okay, come on," he says, walking over, "let's keep walking."
Danny reaches into Steve's bag and pulls out a set of cuffs designed for tentacles. When he steps forward to slap them on, the alien shrinks back rapidly, click click click click, and bares an impressive set of fangs in Danny's direction.
"Hey, whoa!" Steve steps between them. "We have to cuff you to take you in," he says in Haumean.
"Tell the tiny human not to touch me," the alien replies.
"What did he say?" Danny demands, looking at Steve.
"He's, uh..." Steve takes the cuffs from Danny. "Just let me do it."
"His stench will not wash clean," the alien says, staring at Danny as he lets Steve snap on the cuffs. "His odor will follow me back to Haumea."
"Okay, I don't have to be a rocket scientist to know he's talkin' smack right now," Danny says, and jabs a finger in the Haumean's direction. "Seriously, buddy, what the fuck is your problem?"
"Stay back!" the alien cries, and when Danny takes another step towards him the alien rears back and shoots a quarter-sized spitball at Danny's face.
Danny wipes his face with the corner of his shirt and looks up at the alien slowly. "You know what, pal? You picked the wrong human today."
"Filthy, disgusting creature," the alien says, this time in English. "Waste of precious oxygen--"
And that is how Chin and Kono find them twenty minutes later, Steve standing sentry over an unconscious Haumean while Danny kicks up dust storms several yards away.
"Bad day?" Kono asks as Steve watches Danny throw his bag into the back seat of Chin's Suburban.
"Uh, you could say that."