Martin appeared to have regained his composure by the time they'd met up with the rest of the troop, and between getting Frank settled back in and testing out the new capuchin power discs, whatever had happened on Donita's jet seemed to have been forgotten. But Chris, with the perception born of years of experience, thought he detected a lingering unease in his brother's manner, the barest hint that something was not quite right. Now, listening to him tossing and turning long after he ordinarily would have been asleep, he was sure of it.
Chris snapped on the light. "All right, bro. Out with it."
"Out with what?" Martin squinted in the sudden brightness, stifling a not-entirely-convincing yawn.
"You've been acting weird ever since we left Donita's. What's going on?" The younger brother stiffened as a sudden fear struck him. "You're not hurt, are you?"
Martin shook his head. "I told you, I'm fine."
"I know you did." Chris fixed his brother with a stern look. "And I'm not buying it."
"It's nothing," Martin insisted, an uncharacteristic note of impatience creeping into his voice. "Can we just drop it, please?"
Chris hesitated, torn between a reluctance to press his brother on a subject that he clearly didn't want to talk about, and a desire to find out what it was so that he could help. Given how worried he was starting to feel, though, it wasn't much of a contest.
"Bro," he began, in a gentler tone, "something obviously happened on that jet. Why won't you just tell me what it was?" Receiving no answer, he began casting about in his mind for more possibilities. "Did she…threaten you, or something?"
"No." Casting him a look of mingled irritation and resignation, Martin rolled over onto his stomach and mumbled something into his pillow.
Now Chris was completely baffled. "Sorry, didn't catch that?"
Martin sat up, huffing out an exasperated breath. "She kissed me, all right? She kissed me!"
"She what?" Chris was startled into a sudden bark of laughter. "Is that all? Man, you really had me scared there for a minute!"
Martin gave a halfhearted shrug, his gaze skating off in the general direction of the floor. "Told you it was nothing," he muttered.
"Yeah, it's really not that surprising, is it?" Chris teased him. "I mean, she's had a thing for you ever since that business with the draco lizards."
Martin groaned. "Please don't remind me."
But Chris was on a roll, his amusement fueled by relief, and perhaps the tiniest subconscious desire to punish his brother a little for worrying him like that. "Hey, remember the time she called you on your Creature Pod? When we were studying the seahorses?" Chris laughed even harder at the memory. "You're usually pretty good under pressure, but man, bro! Not that time. Heh, you were drowning even with the diving mask!"
He'd expected Martin to join in the merriment – after all, the two of them had shared a good laugh about the incident later, once they were sure the seahorses were safe – but though his brother gave his jokes a perfunctory smile, he was clearly still troubled about something, and, seeing this, Chris's own mirth faded.
He gave his brother a curious look. "This is really bothering you, isn't it? Why?"
Martin sighed. "I don't know. Being blindsided like that – it was... pretty unnerving." He forced a short laugh. "So much for being prepared for anything, right? I had no idea what I was doing. And– and she was so... and I was trying to... and she seemed to think..." Another sigh, a shake of the head. "It was so weird, Chris. Like being in some really crazy dream. I'm still not even sure how it happened. But I–" He stopped, running a hand over his face. "Okay, this is gonna sound really stupid, but I almost feel... guilty about the whole thing."
"You shouldn't," Chris pointed out reasonably. "It's not like you've been, y'know, encouraging her, or anything."
"I know." A grimace. "But still. And I..." He hesitated.
Chris raised an eyebrow. "And you...what?"
"I, uh..." Martin trailed off again, looking very much as though he wished he hadn't said anything more. "I think I hurt her feelings," he said finally.
"You think you hurt her feelings?" Chris repeated incredulously. "Martin, she's a villain! She doesn't care about anybody else's feelings; why should you care about hers?"
He hadn't really been expecting an answer, nor did he receive one; Martin merely shrugged and glanced away.
Chris shook his head, a slightly bemused but affectionate smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Despite the closeness between them, there were things about the way his brother's mind worked that he would probably never understand. Rather than waste time debating the point, he decided to try a different tack. "Don't worry about it, bro," he soothed. "She's probably just trying to mess with your head."
His words seemed to echo in the silence that followed, and all at once he realized how they must have sounded. "I– I'm sorry, Martin," he stammered. "I didn't mean..."
"I know what you meant." Another pause, and then Martin sighed. "And you're probably right." Stretching out on his bed again, he reached for the light switch and gave it a flick, plunging the room into darkness once more. "Let's just go to sleep and forget this whole thing ever happened."
If neither of the brothers quite managed to fully comply with Martin's request in the weeks that followed, they at least did a creditable job of pretending. The incident was never mentioned between them, and although they had a number of run-ins with both Zach and Gourmand, Donita seemed to be keeping a very low profile as far as creature-napping was concerned. Chris's covert internet searches revealed that she was spending most of her time in Paris and Milan, at the center of the glittering fashion scene, and that was just fine by him – in his opinion, the farther she stayed from both wild creatures and his brother, the better. If she had indeed been trying to get into his head, Chris thought privately, she'd done a pretty impressive job of it – he didn't know when he'd seen his brother so rattled. Martin had seemed like his usual self the next day, but Chris suspected that what had happened on the jet was still troubling him at some level, and he couldn't deny that he was troubled by it himself. He trusted his brother implicitly, of course, but Donita was another matter entirely – especially now that she appeared to have added a new type of weapon to her arsenal – and although Chris tried to maintain his usual calm, objective outlook, from time to time he still caught himself wondering uneasily what might happen the next time they met.
As for Martin himself, his naturally cheerful, easygoing disposition served him well as he tried to put the incident behind him, but memories of the encounter kept cropping up at odd moments, leaving him feeling just slightly off-balance.
He still didn't know what to make of it. On the whole – brushing off the implied slight to his personal charms – he was inclined to believe Chris's theory, and he was beginning to feel a little annoyed with himself for having taken it all so seriously. But then he'd remember the look on Donita's face as she'd turned away, and he couldn't help but wonder whether that portion of the conversation, at least, might not have been part of her plan.
And with that question came the realization that the encounter had altered something between them, subtly, but surely, perhaps irrevocably; and he found that he could no longer think of her as just another villain. It wasn't that he had any desire for a relationship with her – everything he'd said to her that day was still true. But whether inadvertently or by design, she'd let slip her usual self-assured demeanor, allowing him a glimpse of something softer, more vulnerable – and in that moment, it had not been a creature stylist and a creature adventurer standing there on that jet, but just a woman and a man, not so different from any others. No expert in the complexities of feminine emotions, he could only guess at what Donita's had been, but imagining the same expression in the eyes of either of his female crewmates stirred not only his sympathies but his protective instincts as well – a discovery that clouded his thinking even more.
Martin shook his head as he tried yet again to push such thoughts from his mind, almost grateful just now for the distractions provided by their other two adversaries. Each of them could be dangerous in his own way, of course, but at least those ways were relatively straightforward. But his job was straightforward as well, he reminded himself, no matter who he was up against. And whatever Donita's feelings were or might have been, he'd be a fool to believe that she would allow them to stand in the way of her objectives – and he certainly couldn't afford to let his do the same. Donita was both smart and ambitious; having discovered an opponent's weakness, she would not hesitate to use it to her advantage, and though Martin was all too aware that he had no real way to predict what her next move might be in this particular game, he was determined that at the very least he would not be caught off-guard again.