Virgil Tracy is pitted against nature to survive the Island of Danger, yet what will be the real danger? The Hood, the elements, or Marie Ryker?

Chapter One: Flying Stand-by

Virgil Tracy considered himself a patient man. He was kind, considerate, patient, tolerant, even-tempered, patient - he gritted his teeth. Patient, he reminded himself for what felt like the fiftieth time.

He should have been well-rested after a week's vacation, except it was a vacation he didn't want. His father had literally thrown him off the island over a small injury. The fact that he had hid his cracked ribs hadn't sat well with Jeff Tracy. His brothers had used the opportunity to gang up on him, or so it seemed to him. Scott had just given him a withering look. Gordon took the opportunity to chide him about ‘taking care of himself, an almost word for word repetition of a lecture he'd given his younger brother last month.

The resort on Vancouver Island had been small, cozy, and incredibly boring.  It seemed he spent most of his time sleeping or taking solitary hikes into the wilderness. True to the weather of the Pacific Northwest it rained the whole week. He shifted a little gingerly in his seat. The ribs had mostly healed but he'd made the mistake of doing a little hang gliding yesterday. After six days of doing nothing more than enjoying nature, he'd decided to do some light exercise.  So, it wasn't so smart on nearly healed ribs, but it was better than watching octogenarians battling it out over cribbage or chess boards.

He was more than relieved when Penny gave him a call. It was worth enduring her light scolding, especially when she invited him to London.

"I don't know if it means anything, but my contacts have said that the Hood has been up to something. I would appreciate you looking over some of the material I've gathered..."

"I'll catch the next flight over..." Virgil said enthusiastically.

This was easier said than done. The Greater Cascade Airport had been socked in by typical peasoup fog for the last ten hours, backing up flights and making the airport a three ring circus.

Virgil's charm failed to even coax a seat from any of the airlines. After three frustrating hours of standing in lines he got a seat on an old 787 flying via Chicago, New York, Amsterdam and then to London - one of the old milk run flights. He was also in tourist class. Virgil was no snob, but he knew that he was in for a long flight in a chair designed for midgets. His own 6'2" frame would be a pretzel by the time he got to London.

The crowd waiting to board his flight looked like they would never be able to cram themselves into the plane. He winced as he noticed the young mother with the three over-active kids  who were trying to climb over furniture, fish cigarette butts out of the ashtrays and ruin anyone's patience by whining constantly. There were the travellers who apparently didn't trust that their luggage would arrive with them and were festooned with carry-ons, shopping bags and other paraphernalia draped around their bodies. A small minority of first class and business passengers tried to appear like they didn't belong to the crowd. Virgil wondered idly if that is how he usually looked. He felt something tug on his leg. There was one of the kids wiping some sticky substance on his pants leg.

"Harold, you miscreant." The young mother grabbed the youngster by the seat of his pants. "Sorry." She smiled at him. He frowned back. Her smile faded.

"You should control your children better." Virgil growled.

"Oh but..." She was interrupted by a shrill scream from the little girl who was tangling with her other brother. Tucking the sticky Harold under her arm, she headed determinedly towards the ever-increasing crescendo of sound. Virgil went to the rest rooms to remove the sticky remains of a chocolate bar that Harold had seen fit to share with him. He fumed. People should take exams and study on how to raise children before they go and have them, especially three of them. When he came out, he found out that the flight had been called and he was at the end of a long queue of anxious and restless people.

The stewardess looked like she had already endured an eight hour flight. Her smile was forced and didn't reach her eyes as she directed him to his seat, way in the back of the plane. He was happy to note that the children were closer to the front of the plane, but noticed that they had not calmed down much. He turned his gaze away from them in hopes that the kids wouldn't claim him as familiar territory. He heard the sound of a sharp slap and a whimper. He would have turned but was nudged forwards by a young man wielding his backpack like a bulldozer. Unfortunately shoving his sore ribs into the seat back.

Luckily he was in a row with only two seats. The window seat occupant had already settled in and luckily had only one carry on tucked neatly out of the way. He sat down with a grateful sigh. His knees were only a hair's breath away from the seat in front, but that was livable. His leg brushed against the other passenger's leg, but she didn't get the hint and move over a bit. Damn, she couldn't have been more than 5' 4" and there she was hogging all the space.  She was staring out into the gray mist. As if there was anything to see.

"Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for joining us on Flight 66 to London. We are currently 10th in line for departure. Please remain in your seats until we are airborne."

"Another wait..." She turned to look at him. It was the young mother...but the children were ten rows up whining and wailing. Short brown hair with a pert widow's peak framed a wide forehead and gray eyes with laugh lines at the corners. The nose was a bit too short and the chin too narrow. If one was to describe her it would be nondescript. Someone to forget as soon as you saw them.

"I wanna sit here." Harold was back and staring at Virgil with hostility.

"No room," Virgil said shortly. His foot brushed against the woman's foot, but it didn't budge.

"Haaarooold Westerlyyy come here right now." A shrill voice called the young man away to Virgil's relief.

They sat in the plane for a long tortured hour before taking off. Young Harold came back to bother them with regularity despite his mother's scolding.  The person sitting in front of Virgil had pushed his seat back as far as it could go removing the hairs breadth of room for Virgil's abused legs. He began to hate his seat mate. She even welcomed the advances of Harold talking to him and smiling. Food was late and like most airline food, inedible. With the advances made in science you'd think that airlines could come up with decent food. He'd get just as much taste and nourishment chewing on the napkin and the plastic fork and knife. Patience he reminded himself again as he resisted the urge to stuff Harold out the emergency exit and the all too calm lady next to him.

"I want you to go and sit in your seat now, Harold. It is time for a nap," She had finally said firmly to the young admirer. Virgil watched the boy return to his seat and not return. He glared at the young woman.

"Why didn't you do that earlier." Virgil growled at her.

"He is a child." She glared at him. "I assume you are an adult."

Damn, she sounded like his father. "I expect you to be an adult," Jeff Tracy had said frostily."Hiding injuries could put yourself and others in jeopardy."

They spent the whole 8 hours of the trip glaring at each other and not speaking unless necessary.  Turbulence over the Atlantic made it impossible to even get up and stretch his legs. If it was a faint consolation to Virgil the young woman began to look as ragged as he felt as they neared London.

Despite warnings not to get up while the plane was still taxiing Virgil was gratefully out of his seat and was one of the first off the plane. He didn't see Parker or Lady Penelope, but figured that he'd see them after picking up his luggage. He stretched carefully. He felt like a bent paperclip. He picked up his bag gingerly feeling the ribs protest.

He grimaced as he watched the mother, now burdened with quiet, half sleeping children. His bothersome seat mate was helping her. He was almost satisfied to see her limping. He felt a twinge of conscience seeing the two women struggling, but then a porter stepped in and helped them.  

His eyes brightened as he saw the unmistakable Lady Penelope cutting a swath through the crowd. Despite the fact it was 9 p.m., she looked fresh as a daisy, making Virgil feel even more scruffy. He wasn't surprised to see Parker trailing behind her.

To his amazement, Lady Penelope stopped short at his nemesis and with enthusiasm, hugged her. He walked closer.

"My dear Marie," Penelope said warmly. "You should have said you were coming."

"Now Lady Penelope..." She began but laughed warmly. "I hardly knew I was coming myself. You know my work."

"Do you have a place to stay? No never mind, you are coming to my place. No, no, I insist. You must be tired. Parker will take your bag." She linked her arm through that of the shorter woman. As if by an after thought she turned to Virgil. "Do come along Virgil. I'll introduce you in the car."

Their eyes met in mutual horror.

"Ah Penny..." "Lady Penny..."

Their voices came at the same time. Lady Penelope raised a fine eyebrow at the both of them. She wasn't used to people going against her wishes. "Oh do come along. You must be tired, both of you. I want my tea."

Parker grimaced as he could see the uneasiness between the two people. Virgil Tracy was one of the most unreadable of the Tracy brothers, which made him a formidable poker player, but this time his feelings were easy to read. He was angry.  Though he'd only met Miss Marie once before, his impression was that she had the patience of a saint, yet she was practically snarling at Virgil Tracy. "Oh Lord." He breathed. "This hain't going to be good."

Once they were settled into the spacious interior of FAB 1, Lady Penelope made her introductions.

"Marie Ryker, may I present Virgil Tracy." She beamed as they reluctantly shook hands. From the brief contact, Virgil felt only cold, shaking fingers. Good. She was scared of him. Yet, her steady gray-eyed gaze never wavered from his.

"How was your flight?" Penny asked innocently.

"Fine," Virgil said shortly.

"Actually, I found it quite tedious," Miss Ryker said smoothly. "Some poor mother had to cope with three children that their grandparents had seen fit to give gross amounts of sugar to before their departure. People always think they know better how to take care of children that aren't their responsibility."

"Poor little tykes," Parker said sympathetically from the front seat.

Virgil fumed silently. How dare she criticize him! What gave this snip of a woman the right?

"Are you still doing investigative work?" Penelope asked.

"No. Not for a year now." Was the quiet reply.

What was Lady Penny playing at? Surely she wasn't inviting some stranger to her house when they had to discuss International Rescue business. Father would expect him to do all he could to insure their confidentiality.

Chapter Two: Social Torture

Tea was a tortured meal. By now Lady Penelope had sensed that her two guests were not totally comfortable with each other. Partially blaming jet lag she released the two to their own rooms for an early night. Feeling more familiar with Virgil Tracy, from her long acquaintance with the family, Penelope took it upon herself to give a lecture.

"Really Virgil, must you be so hostile? You practically curdled the cream at the table."

Virgil had enough of lectures. "What about you? You know how tight security has to be for International Rescue, yet you invite a stranger here who is involved in some shady business."

Penelope drew herself up to her full height and gave a withering look that bespoke of hundreds of years of British aristocracy. "The day you can dictate to me my responsibilities and my choice of friends is long and far away. I will assume that this is a temporary lapse in behavior due to your injuries and fatigue and that you will be your normal gentlemanly self by morning. Good night." She left Virgil nursing a very bruised ego.

Her approach to Marie Ryker was just as direct.

"It has been over a year since we last met. You've changed," Lady Penelope said bluntly as she watched her friend unpack in the guest room.

"People do change," The short woman said tiredly. "A year can be an eternity."

"Was it?" Penelope asked worriedly. The young woman she had known had become older, more  bitter. "Was it an eternity?"

"Yes." Was the quiet answer.

The two women were silent for a moment.

"If I can help..." Penny offered.

"If you could, I would ask." Marie answered. "Being here is good, even if I do have to endure your grouchy friends." A shadow of a smile and her normal good humor shone through.

"He will not be grouchy tomorrow, I assure you." Penny smiled back.

"Then neither shall I." Marie promised.

"Good night then." Penelope left her friend, satisfied that tomorrow Virgil Tracy and Marie Ryker would not be at odds with one another. "I'm good, very very good." she murmured to herself. "I wonder...." Little plots and machinations began to stir in her brain.

"Parker dear," She said as she entered the library. "I think we are going to be very busy tomorrow."

"Yes m'lady." Parker nodded.

Virgil lay back with a sigh against the mound of down pillows that graced the comfortable bed.  His muscles were twitching with fatigue and he knew he wasn't at his best, physically and mentally. He wished...wasn't sure what he wished...but he was tired of being lectured and made to feel small, less than he was. Well, maybe he wasn't so polite to Miss Ryker, but she was so...annoying. With that thought in mind, he rolled over and fell asleep.

Marie lay back with a sigh against the mound of down pillows that graced the comfortable bed. Her muscles were twitching with fatigue and she didn't know which leg hurt more. She was certainly pushing her reserves to the edge. Meeting Lady Penny had been a godsend. A glass of water and the pain pill sat on the night table. The same as it had been for the last two months. In the morning, the pill would be returned to the bottle with a sigh of relief. But, she still needed it there.  She wished...she didn't know what she wished...but she was tired of being tired, of being made to feel small, less than she was. Well, maybe she hadn't been too polite to Mr.Tracy, but he was so... annoying. With that thought in mind, she rolled over and fell asleep.

Chapter Three: Taken for a Ride

Breakfast brought two rather subdued, if not rested people to the table.

"Coffee?" Lady Penelope asked brightly.

"Yes, please," was a chorus from both of the Americans.

"I suppose I shall never be able to teach you to appreciate tea..." Penny sighed dramatically as she took a sip from her bone china cup.

"I can appreciate tea." Marie began loading her plate with fried bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade.

"But coffee is necessary in the morning." Virgil continued shovelling fried tomatoes, sausages, eggs, toast and jam onto his plate.

Lady Penelope's eyes twinkled over the small piece of toast that she had chosen for her breakfast. "But you do like a good, English breakfast."

Virgil stopped with his fork halfway to his mouth. He glanced at his fellow traveller and her just as full plate. "Always good."

"Most important meal of the day," Miss Ryker said, attacking her bacon. She raised an eyebrow at Virgil in amusement and he found one of his own eyebrows lifting in reply.

They ate in companiable silence, only making requests for more toast or marmalade. After the third cup of coffee things started to look more relaxed.

"I thank you for an excellent breakfast." Marie began. "But I am here on assignment. I have to deliver some papers and messages to the big man at the London office."

"Oh, do say hello to Geoffrey from me," Penny said brightly as Parker came in.

"I'll tell His Grace. Now, if I can get a taxi." She smiled at Parker.

"A taxi?" Lady Penelope said in a mock horrified tone. "My dear, there is absolutely no need for a taxi."

"Well, I can't possibly borrow a car. You do drive on the wrong side of the road and I can't possibly adjust to that." Marie teased her hostess and Parker.

Virgil had to grin at Parker's mock horrified look.

"That hain't so Miss Ryker, you Yanks drive on the wrong side." This was apparently an old argument they'd had before. "I'll not be trusting hany of her Ladyship's cars to your ‘ands. You drive too fast. Kilometers ‘ere, not miles."

"Details, Parker, mere details." Marie's imitation of Lady Penelope coerced an inelegant snort out of Virgil. The one time Gordon had tried to imitate Lady Penelope had earned him a box on the ears and the threat of a mouth washing with a bar of soap by the not amused Lady.

"Well, then I must throw myself on your mercy dear Parker. I'll buy the first drink on the pub crawl afterwards,"Marie laughed. It was an honest laugh, not a social titter or smothered snicker.

"Sorry, Marie dear," Lady Penelope said, suddenly serious. Virgil shifted carefully, finally,they could get down to business. "Parker and I are quite busy this morning, but Virgil can drive you."

There was an empty silence for a moment. "You can take the Aston Martin," Penelope said over Parker's rather audible sigh. The Aston Martin was a prized possession and Virgil knew that permission to drive it was not given lightly. "You can pick up Brains at the airport at noon..."

"Oh?" Virgil's brow wrinkled slightly.

"We can't start work without him," Penelope said obliquely. "He has all the material."

Virgil relaxed marginally. He could be patient. He'd had a lot of practice lately.

Virgil tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. He was being patient. Miss Ryker had told him not to wait, that she could find her way back to Lady Penelope's, but Virgil was not prepared to incur the lady's wrath by having her guest dropped off by a cab, especially since he'd been given the Aston Martin as a bribe. He ran a finger lovingly on the burled walnut dashboard. This was such a beauty. He wondered idly where Lady Penelope had gotten the priceless antique. The initials JB were etched into the silver knob of the gear shift.

He had delivered Marie Ryker to a discrete Georgian style office building with only a brass plaque out front with the enigmatic acronym of ICPA etched in blunt capital letters. Since, the lady had the good sense not to pry about his work or reason for being in London, he didn't pry into hers.

"I don't know how long I'll be." She had looked at him questioningly.

"I'll be here until 11:00, then I have to go pick up a friend at the airport. But, we can come by afterwards, say about one?"

It was now about 10:30 and he felt more than ready to leave. He almost jumped when the passenger door opened and Marie Ryker practically fell into the low slung seat. She was fumbling with sunglasses and before she got them on he was sure he saw tears.

"Okay. Sorry I took so long." Her voice betrayed nothing, but her mouth was set in a firm white line, the same way she'd looked on the flight over.

"Bad news?" He ventured.

"You are here to drive me around, not indulge your curiosity. I am not a freak." She spat out.

So much for Miss Nice Person he thought.

"Yes m'lady." Virgil shot back sarcastically and downshifted the small sports car rather roughly and unnecessarily. The gears shrieked.

The drive to the airport was in silence, the kind of silence that sizzled and snapped with unburnt energy. "I'll wait here," Marie said brusquely when he parked the car.

"Fine," Virgil said shortly.

Brains looked well rested as he stepped off the trim subsonic plane that had delivered him to London.

"V-virgil!" He waved.

Virgil slapped his friend on the shoulder, it was good to see a friendly face. "Brains! Nice to see you! Now tell me what's up."

"D-didn't Lady P-penelope tell you?" The young scientist looked surprised.

"She had an unexpected guest. She's with me now, so we can't talk in the car."

"Y-you always w-were a fast w-worker," Brains said with a playful nudge in Virgil's ribs. He frowned when he saw the man wince. "Th-those sh-should be b-better by n-now." A small line of worry was between his eyes.

"Now, Doc..." Virgil steered them through the luggage racks retrieving Brains' distinctive silver alloy case. While primarily a mechanical engineer and inventor, Brains also had a medical degree, which made him invaluable in treating the injuries that had occurred amongst the members of International Rescue. "Anyway, she's not my type at all."

Brains absent mindedly waved away a porter who went to take his bag. The porter spoke briefly to his watch. "The package is on the way."

Virgil was relieved that after a brief introduction and a mild battle about who was going to sit in the cramped back seat, things seemed less tense with the enigmatic Miss Ryker.  She even touched his arm lightly and apologized briefly. "Sorry Mr.Tracy, I took my bad mood out on you."

"That's all right," Virgil said roughly. The trip to Lady Penelope's was speedy once they got out of the city traffic. They were on a less travelled stretch of highway where Virgil could let the little car show it's ‘legs', when he spotted something out of the ordinary.

"Looks like an accident." Virgil swung the sports car in a sharp arc to come to a halt behind the van that was precariously perched on the side of the road. A shapely female was laid out in the middle of the road. A man was hunched over the hood moaning and holding a bloody hand to his head.

"Brains, you take a look at the fellow. I'll take the lady."

"R-right Virgil."

"I got the emergency call and will handle traffic." Marie was right behind the two men. She already had her pocket phone to her ear. To her surprise, a hand wrenched the instrument out of her hand and tossed it away. "I think not lady." He pressed a hypo spray to her neck and she collapsed, unconscious.

The two victims came suddenly to life. Neither man had a moment to react, but were drugged just as quickly and efficiently. The three were stuffed into the back of the van like so much old baggage. One drove away in the Aston Martin.

"We have them." The lady spoke enigmatically into a radio.

"Good. You know what to do." Even over the radio the hollow evil voice caused the fake accident victim to shudder. She was glad she wasn't one of the hapless souls piled in the back of the van.

Chapter Four: Premonitions, Facts, and Theories

"M'Lady." Parker coughed apologetically.

"Yes Parker?" Penelope looked up from the magazine she was perusing.

"The Aston Martin ‘as not returned."

Penny raised an eyebrow. "Maybe Marie took Virgil on that pub crawl. Jealous Parker?"

"A pub visit while using the Aston Martin? I surely ‘ope not m'lady." Parker shuddered.

"Then again, I don't think Virgil and Brains want to be left out of our conference with Jeff at 2:00." She consulted the gold and diamond confection that was really a watch.

The thugs who had done the kidnapping were methodically stripping their victims of watches, keys, and any other possessions, except for the clothes they wore and their shoes.

The van pulled over briefly, the personal effects were placed in the Aston Martin, along with a small but deadly thermal bomb. Two minutes after the van left, Parker's beloved Aston Martin blew up and melted into sludge.

Two crates were subsequently loaded onto a scruffy looking cargo plane which winged its way off to a far off destination from London - somewhere no one would look for them.

"I'm sorry Jeff, I can't think what could have happened to them. Virgil and Brains are not answering and I cannot raise Miss Ryker either. "

"How well do you know this Miss Ryker?" Jeff Tracy hated to sound overly suspicious, but if Virgil was anything, it was punctual.

"I know her quite well, but I have to admit that I've not seen or heard from her in over a year." Penelope admitted reluctantly.

"Maybe it wasn't a coincidence that she and Virgil were on the same flight together."

"Maybe not. I'll look into it." Penelope promised. "I'm beginning to be worried."

"Me too." Jeff admitted, feeling more like a father than the head of International Rescue.

Waking up was not pleasant.  All thoughts of playing possum were wrenched from Virgil's mind as his head felt like a split open melon. He raised a shaky hand to his head expecting to find blood or his brains spilt.  He could hear moaning and groaning in stereo. His fighter pilot's reflexes cut in and he rolled to his knees. His eyes adjusted quickly to the gloom of the small room. Cold rock cut into his knees and abraded his palms. Brains was curled in a tight ball next to him breathing heavily and moaning.

"Brains." Virgil was surprised that the name came out of his mouth, his tongue felt like it was twice the size it used to be and as dry as the Sahara. He licked his lips. Darn, even that caused a stab of pain to his head.

Marie was lying on her stomach. He put a shaky hand on her back and was relieved to feel the slight rise and fall that showed the woman was alive and breathing. The muscles under his hand shuddered and a small keen of pain escaped her lips.  

"V-vir-gil." Brains managed to roll slightly. His eyes were unfocussed behind his thick glasses. The back under Virgil's hand shuddered and shook as Marie began to move more. "Nu…begrame…don't leave me…" She muttered.

"I'm here." Virgil patted her shoulder trying to comfort someone who probably felt as bad as himself if not worse.

Luckily within minutes most of the worst symptoms seemed to have abated leaving all three with pounding headaches.

Even though Virgil was the first to get to his feet, Marie seemed to recover first.

"We were d-drugged," Brains said with unaccustomed distaste in his tone. He tried to clean his glasses on his shirt. Marie took them gently in her hand and lifting up her blouse, polished them on what seemed in the gloom to be some sort of undershirt.

"Silk," She said. "Cleans glasses like a charm." To Virgil's continued surprise, he felt a pair of strong hands grip his neck and  begin to massage the last stiffness out.

The door which seemed to flush with the wall suddenly whooshed open with a pneumatic sigh.

"How pretty. I think I've done you a favor." A tall sinister character kept to the shadows, though his three armed to the teeth henchmen made their presence known.

"Come closer and I'll do you a favor." Virgil gritted out aggressively. He had taken to his feet immediately at the first hint of the strange sound.

"Don't be greedy Mr. Tracy. I'd like to pound him myself." Marie and Brains had moved to flank him. Both had the relaxed stance of confident and practised hand-to-hand combat experts.

"One each and one l-left over for the qu-quickest." Brains added.

The guards shuffled nervously. As if by a silent agreement the three took a step forwards.

"You can have your moment of bravado, but I shall laugh last." A hollow sinister laugh came from the shadowy man.

"How trite." "B-boring." "Overdone."

"All right. Just die then." The sinister voice was a trifle petulant.  "This whole mountain will blow up in 24 hours. You can amuse each other." At some silent signal the man and his 3 guards left them.

"I think we ruined his theatrics," Virgil said. The metal door slammed shut with finality and they heard the snick and clunk as the electronic bolts slid into place.

 "You guys sure have some interesting enemies," Marie said rubbing her aching head.

"Th-th-that was the Hood." Brains sounded astounded. "N-now w-we know wh-what he is up t-to."

Chapter Five: Inside and Outside

All three of them made the door as soon as they were no longer under the guns of The Hood and his nasty henchmen. The door was sunk almost seamlessly into the thick rock and steel walls of their future crypt.

"D-d-darn." Brains swore quietly. Virgil resisted the urge to pound his fist on the door, which would undoubtably break knuckles before any mark would be made on the smooth exterior.

"I wish I had my purse." Marie mourned.

"Make-up?" Virgil regretted the words immediately. "Sorry." He repeated the word. "Sorry you got dragged into this."

"Well here I am, no use crying over spilt milk. And in my purse I at least had a Swiss Army knife and a flashlight."

"I-I don't think we c-c-could dig ourselves out in t-time. Not with a p-pocket knife,"Brains said  with a small, apologetic smile. "I'm s-s-sorry t-t-too."

"They took anything that could be of use. Even took the keys out of my pocket." Virgil clenched his fists. This looked desperate. They had been drugged. Taken to some unknown place, locked in an impregnable room and given 24 hours to live before the mountain wasgoing to be blown up around them.

All of a sudden Miss Ryker began to laugh.

"This is no time to get hysterical." Virgil growled.

"No, not hysteria. Irony."

"I-irony?" Brains questioned.

"You know, leading the Christians through the catacombs only to come out in the arena in time for the lion act. Irony."

"You mean if you hadn't met us..." Virgil asked pacing their cage or soon to be tomb.

"No. That's timing. The irony is that I've been worrying for months about losing my job, my profession and now it really doesn't matter. I'm losing my life. And the company is all right. Last time..." Her face twisted into one of pain and then cleared.

"L-last time?" Brains asked.

"Ah, last time they left me to die alone. But, as you see I am still here. So, any ideas?"

"What sort of work do you do?" Virgil asked looking sharply at her.

"I am an investigator. What do you do?" The air fairly crackled between them.

"The d-door was electronic." Brains spoke up suddenly. "If I had m-my w-watch the s-signal could b-be m-modulated. B-but." His voice trailed off.

"Um..."Marie began hesitantly. "Could you do something with a bionic feedback circuit and some small hydraulics?"


"There's always something good that comes out of something bad." She muttered and to both men's astonishment she unzipped her trousers and pulled them down, kicking off her shoes as she did. Both men had the grace to blush as she stood in a pair of white lacy knickers and a now obvious prosthetic left leg. She leaned over and removing several straps handed the plastic and metal contraption towards Brains. "You use this thing to get us out." She teetered a little on her remaining leg, but grabbed support from the wall to rather ungracefully and hastily pull up her trousers. One shoe lay abandoned on the floor.

It was her turn to look embarrassed. "So, I have a wooden leg. It happens." Her chin rose dangerously. "There's a small tool on the side. I use it to adjust the connections."

"Y-yes. Th-this will g-give us a fighting ch-chance." Without anymore discussion he immediately sat down and began to take the artificial limb to pieces. "G-good thing th-this isn't a w-wooden l-leg." He grinned and bent his head over his work.

Virgil went to stand in front of her as she was still leaning against the wall. "You are constantly surprising me. I think I'm maybe the one without a leg to stand on here." He attempted humor.

"Don't push me Mr.Tracy," She said defensively, but a small smile crept in.

"I think you can call me Virgil, under the circumstances." He touched her arm lightly.  

"Oh I don't know. Imminent death isn't always an excuse for informality...but if you insist, Virgil." The small smile was more in her eyes.

He liked the way she said his name, it sounded soft and personal. He had a sudden irrational thought that he'd like to kiss her. Or maybe it was rational? He felt his body lean fractionally towards her...

"V-virgil? C-can you help?" Brains had his hands full of small parts already.  Virgil joined him and started sorting bits and pieces as Brains handed them to him."Hah! A b-battery." He muttered to himself.

"Durotonium. Guaranteed for six months running. I've only used it two." Marie volunteered, somewhat grateful to have both men's attention away from her.

Brains and Virgil both looked up from where they were crouched over the leg that was already beginning to look unlike a limb. She stood leaning against the steel wall like a butterfly pinned to a board. One trouser leg hung empty and limp. Her expression looked almost empty and limp.

"M-might as well s-s-sit," Brains said, not unkindly.

Time seemed to pass both slowly and swiftly. After a short time there was nothing more that Virgil could do to help Brains who was fidgeting with his pile of parts and batteries and wires. He almost envied Marie who had fallen into a fitful sleep.

Brains finally had a gadget that he hoped would spring the door. Two small wires were inserted painstakingly where they hoped the lock was and the device triggered. It took at least eleven tries before they hit the right spot. There was a click and the door sighed and opened one inch.

No one rejoiced overly, they still had to escape before the mountain blew up.

Brains and Virgil muscled open the door. It gave space reluctantly. Marie stood  next to them giving them verbal encouragement, as they had refused her physical aid.

"I d-don't think we h-have much t-time," Brains said as the door gave way enough for them to slip through. They found themselves in a long corridor which went up at the right and down to the left.

"Up or down?" Virgil asked.

"I-if he is pl-planning to bl-blow this up, then d-down, and we l-look for air sh-shafts."

Chapter Six: Up and Down

The police notified Lady Penelope of the remains of the Aston Martin. The pyrotechnic bomb had all but destroyed everything, but strangely enough the number plate of FAB-3 had been thrown clear of the explosion. It was Lady Penelope's unhappy job to tell Jeff Tracy.

"We can't be sure they were in the car until we get back the spectrographic analysis." Penelope tried to comfort the stricken man. She could see Scott, Gordon, and John standing behind their father giving their support. Alan was doing his rotation on Thunderbird 5.

"You think that the Hood leaked the information as a trap to catch…some of us?" Jeff asked trying to sound calm.

"It rather looks that way."

"What about this Marie Ryker?" Scott asked.

Penelope looked distressed. "I haven't been able to find out much. There seems to be some mystery behind her whereabouts for the past year. Her employers are being very tight mouthed. But, I hope to have more information within 24 hours."

"That means she could be an accomplice to the Hood." Scott's tone was accusatory.

"We don't know for sure," Penelope said in defense of her friend.

"Like we don't know if Virgil or Brains are alive!" Gordon burst out.

"Marie has worked since graduating from college as an investigator for the International Child Protection Agency. Her speciality has been looking into adoption agencies and orphanages. I don't see her moving from that to the pay of the Hood." Penelope shot back a trifle acidly.

Virgil turned his back to her. "Hop on."

"I-" She began, but realized the futility of protest and putting her hands on Virgil's broad shoulders, gave a hop on her good leg and ended up piggyback.

"You can hold me tighter." He threw back over his shoulder as he and Brains broke into a quick trot down the uneven corridor. Marie wound her leg and a half around his waist and her arms tight around his shoulders, their heads close together so that her lips were close to his ear. "I hate this." She muttered, more to herself.

Virgil's grip on her legs tightened fractionally. "I know," He said shortly, saving his breath for the half run.  Initially, the weight of carrying Marie wasn't too bad. But, soon sweat was pouring off him and he felt as if she was stuck onto him.

When Brains stopped abruptly, he almost plowed into him.

"H-here." The scientist pointed up. " An air v-vent." A  grill was set into the wall. One good wrench was all it took for Virgil to pry it out.

"Brains first, then Marie, I'll take up the rear." Whatever the other two thought about the order, they recognized Virgil as the leader and took his words as orders.

Luckily the vent was fairly good sized, though they had to crawl on their bellies. Only the ever freshening whiff of air let them know they were gradually escaping their underground prison. They passed several smaller side shafts before coming to a large, vertical opening. There was a tantalizing piece of blue sky far above them. And a lot of black pit below. Virgil measured himself on the opening. With a lot of stretching he could possibly climb it, but it was impossible for Marie and would be just as hard for the much shorter Brains. Any slip would be instantly fatal.

"You…could…leave…me,…" Marie said softly.


"Not hardly!"

The two men spoke at once.

"We c-can back up t-to a s-side sh-shaft," Brains said.

"We'll do that." Virgil now found himself in the lead with Brains bringing up the rear.

"I have some good news." Penny began right away. "There was no trace of human remains with the car. I suspect that they have been kidnapped and are still alive."

"I know. Alan got a message sent on our frequency. It is the Hood all right. But…" Jeff looked worse than grim. Penny was sure that he had not slept in the past few days. "He says that they will be dead in 24 hours. Buried under tons of rubble, and that there is no way we will find them by then."

"We'll find them Jeff. We must!" Penelope allowed some of her pain and frustration into her voice.

"Virgil and Brains can find some way to escape. They are resourceful." Jeff added trying to convince himself.

"Father?" A worried and rumpled Scott appeared on the vidscreen with his father. "You have to get some rest. Let us help."

"Just a few minutes.."Jeff muttered.

Scott faced Lady Penelope on the screen. "We have nothing to work with. Darn!" Scott and Virgil were probably the closest of the brothers. It had fallen to their shoulders the care of their little brothers years ago when their mother had died. When it came to problems or rescues they were there for each other. Now, Scott felt lost without his brother. "What about the Ryker woman? You said you'd have something for us."

"I have," Penny said just as sadly. "I'm afraid that Marie was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have found out that she spent most of the last year in the hospital. She was very ill and has had to go through extensive physical therapy. The poor girl lost her leg and uses a prosthetic limb."

Scott's face fell.

The shaft they were in began to slope steeply upwards. The three of them had to jam themselves  in and there was a lot of slipping and sliding and mild cursing.  As last man, Brains often found a foot in his face. Even Virgil found himself stretching not to land on everyone.    The shaft took a sudden 90 degree  turn. It was hard for Virgil as the bigger person to make the turn. At one point  Marie was pushing on his backside. "You can slap my face later." She grunted at him.  The smaller Marie and Brains found it easier, though they all left some skin and material on the walls. The three of them could now smell salt air. Then an ominous rumble below them caused them to pause for half a breath and then adrenalin reserves kicked in and all three were scrambling as if their lives depended on it - as they did.

Virgil came upon the opening to the outside just as fast as he barrelled through it, rolling down a sharp slope to land in a small stream of water. He looked up in time to have Marie come rolling head over heels towards him. He snagged her as the mountain belched, shivered and collapsed on itself throwing them back into the water. Brains was literally shot out of the ventilation shaft to land into thick bushes on the other side of the stream.  Virgil had Marie tucked firmly into his chest as the mountain rumbled a few times. They held onto each other, shaking with left over adrenalin and the near death moment. Virgil raised his head slowly and looked down at the woman in his arms. The kiss just seemed to happen, but then something seemed to change. It was Brains' groan of pain that brought the two back to their predicament.

Chapter Seven: Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire

The Hood's hollow laugh of triumph echoed in the room. It was Kyrano who noticed Jeff Tracy's suddenly white face and the hand clutched to his chest. The murder of his second oldest son and his all but adopted son had taken their toll on the older Tracy.

"Father!" John cried out sharply.

"No…"Scott felt as if his world was collapsing around him, but he was given no time. Once again the Tracy brothers turned to him.

"Kyrano and John - get Father into bed. I'll get in touch with Penny. No, better yet, Gordon go take Thunderbird One and get her and Parker. We are all safer together. Tin-tin, can you look after Father until we get the doctor here?"

The girl nodded as well as the others sped off to follow his orders. Scott was left alone in the room for a moment and he let his shoulders drop. "Oh God Virg, how can I do this without you?" he said in a broken voice.

"Don't tell me you can walk without me." Virgil snapped.

"You need to take care of Brains first. I'll follow you as well as I can."  Out of immediate danger, the friction between Virgil and Marie was slowly escalating. Brains with an apparent dislocated shoulder and other injuries was too out of  it to act as a buffer between the two.

"If there is one thing I've learned in my work, I don't leave anyone behind, ever." Virgil growled.

"People get left behind all the time. The ones who are weak, hurt, alone…we get…they get left behind and learn to live with it."

"Not with me they don't." Virgil pulled the girl to her foot and with little ceremony slung her over one shoulder. His other hand was around Brains' waist and he almost literally carried his two companions through the hot steamy tropical jungle they had found themselves in.

"You...you...Neanderthal..." Marie snarled.

"Oh be quiet." Virgil gave her a sharp slap on her backside. "You can slap my face later."

"It'll be a right cross to the kisser."

"Why? Didn't you like it?" Virgil noticed that the woman became silent with that retort.

She cowered in the back of her den like one of small prey that she normally hunted. Her kits mewled hungrily around her, but she hadn't been the queen of this island for all these years out of foolishness. She would wait. And then she would hunt. And she would kill.

The jungle ended suddenly and they found themselves on a beach that would have been the envy of any resort. The fresh water stream dumped itself into the pounding surf of an azure ocean. The soft sand was difficult to walk on and Virgil stumbled and fell with his burdens. Luckily, Brains landed on top of Virgil, cushioning his fall though he cried out in pain. Marie was unfortunately under both men.

"Are you all right?" Her muffled voice was worried. "Virgil? Brains?"

"Just a sec." Virgil eased himself carefully out from under Brains, supporting his half conscious friend. Marie got an elbow in her side and a little squished in the process, but never made a peep except for a woof of air when his shoulder hit her ribs.

The sun was beginning to set as Virgil and Marie bent worriedly over their injured friend.

"It s-s-seems t-to b-b-be dis-dislo-located." Brains' stutter was more pronounced as he bit out the words between his teeth. "You-you'll have to-to reduce it."

"Okay buddy, just hang in there." Virgil looked in askance at Marie who shook her head ruefully. He rolled his eyes in response.

"How do we do this Brains? Neither of us has done it before."

"Jus-just pull the ar-arm str-straight. It w-w-will p-p-pop." Sweat was running down the scientist's face and he was shivering in shock.

"All right." Virgil swallowed. "Marie, you hold his shoulders steady and pull them when I pull his arm."

The other two were sweating just as badly as Brains. After several painful and frustrating tries, the shoulder popped into place with a rather disturbing crunch. Brains' arm was then tied into a neat package and sling with his own shirt and Marie's blouse. She hadn't even blushed when the silk camisole was displayed. She calmly took Brains' glasses off and cleaned them.

"Th-thanks." He whispered.

"We need them to start a fire before the sun disappears." Virgil explained. He had gotten up and had come back with a pile of burnable vegetation. Brains' thick lenses were excellent for focussing the last rays of the sun and soon they had a small cheery fire on the beach.

"Darn. I forgot the marshmallows."Virgil joked as he scooped a hip hole and a mound of sand for Brains to lie down on.

"That's all right dear." Marie added just as straight faced. "I forgot the picnic lunch, not to speak of the bug spray." She swatted at a flying, buzzing thing.

Virgil grinned tiredly. It was funny, but he suddenly felt relaxed around the woman. When push came to shove, she came through. It was like they had been working together for years.

She reminded him a bit of Gordon. Gordon was such a tease and a pain in the neck at times. A typical little brother. As he watched her fuss a bit over Brains, his feelings were not at all fraternal. He admired the way the firelight shone off the pearly sheen of that wisp of silk that was now her shirt. Then again, not at all like Gordon.

The fire was more for mental comfort than physical, at least they were in tropical climes. Even though the temperature had dropped with nightfall, it wasn't totally uncomfortable. Despite the rigours and traumas of the last day, the three couldn't sleep. Brains shifted uncomfortably, the dislocation had been reduced, but the muscles were incredibly sore and he suspected a few back muscles had been torn as well as ribs bruised.

"Wanna pillow?" Marie asked softly offering her shoulder.

"Would p-prefer a b-b-bed." He replied. "N -no, thank you."

"I know, not fluffy enough." She sighed.

"I'll take you up on that offer," Virgil said quietly. "Just right," He said and settled his head on her shoulder. He could hear her heartbeat and felt her breath as it stirred his hair, a strange feeling of peace and calm settled over him and sleep wasn't so elusive.

Drat that Tracy, he was twice the size of Brains and three times heavier. Yet, the trust of his head on her shoulder was a comforting weight. His hair was incredibly soft and fine and tickled her nose slightly. It was easy to stroke it away from her face once and hard not to do it again.

Brains moaned slightly, half asleep, causing both Marie and Virgil to raise their heads slightly. When they heard a sigh and a half snore they returned their heads to the soft warm sand. Sleep overtook both as overtaxed bodies and minds gave up.

Chapter Eight: Fishing for...

"That was too close for comfort Jeff." Lady Penelope fussed around Jeff Tracy who was sitting on the sofa looking rather pale, but better.

"I was a fool. It was just the thing I had lectured Virgil about when I saw him last. Not enough sleep, not eating right, pushing myself too hard." Jeff Tracy looked down at his hands. "I hate to think that the last words to my son were angry."

"It is only because you care Mr. Tracy." Kyrano placed a tray of food before the saddened pair. "Mr.Virgil knows you love him."

Scott and John came into the room. Penelope noticed that they looked no better than their father. Scott sat down with an audible sigh, but reached automatically for one of the delicious looking sandwiches on the plate.

"You did well, both of you." Jeff looked with undisguised affection at his two sons.

"I just wish..." Scott shook his head. "Sorry Father."

Gordon came trailing in with a bunch of computer readouts. John looked up. "How many Gordon?"

"Ah, looks to be only four possibilities."

"What are you boys up to?" Penelope asked curiously.

"Well, the Hood mentioned that he'd buried....them...."John's voice broke and then he continued, "under tons of rubble. So, we started looking for seismic records of sufficient magnitude for an explosion of that kind."

"We want to know where..."Gordon explained.

"Where were these explosions?" Jeff's voice was calm and his demeanor settled his sons immediately.

"Well, one is in the middle of the Tasangoli Plains, just to the east of Mongolia. There are rumors that they are testing nuclear devices there, but you know that is hard to pinpoint. "Politics." Gordon shrugged. In International Rescue, politics was more a hindrance than a help. "One is in the middle of the Vuorinen Mountain Range in Canada. Another remote place. It could be an avalanche. The third is a suspected volcanic island near the coast of Mexico. The volcanologists are a bit surprised, so I added it to the short list. Then there was a big earthquake or explosion or something happened in Antarctica. Alan has tapped into as many satellite pictures as he could get of the regions, but they are all so remote."

"We want to go and take a look ourselves." Scott leaned forwards expectantly. "Alan can get in touch with us right away if we are needed. I know it is spreading ourselves thin."

"It is a risk." Jeff admitted, "But you have my go ahead."

"How are you going to work this?" Lady Penelope said thoughtfully. "If they are testing in the Tasangoli plains, you will be shot down and questioned later."

"I'm going to fly in the HH," John said firmly. The HH, or more unimaginatively named Hedge Hopper, was a little two seater supersonic jet that had hover capacities and a very clever radar trap that made it perfect for covert movements. The Tracy boys tended to use it more for fun and quick trips to the mainland than anything else.

"The Antarctic is the toughest spot. I'm going in Thunderbird Two." Scott's look dared his brothers to make something of it. "I'll drop Gordon and Thunderbird 4 off to look at the volcano on the way."

"Then I'll investigate the Canadian spot," Lady Penelope said firmly. "And Jeff will co-ordinate our efforts and..."

"Rest. Yes, I think this will be best. Get going boys." Jeff Tracy managed a small smile, the first in many days.

"And boys, be careful."

"Of course, Father." Was the assured chorus.

Chapter Nine: ...the Fishies

The sun was rising higher in the heavens as the welter of arms and legs finally untangled themselves into three rather scruffy people.

"Urgghh." "Bleeech." "Grrmm."

There was a silence as a few heads were scratched, intact limbs stretched.

"C-c-coffee." Brains moaned. "Not a morning person." Marie groaned. "Need to brush my teeth." Virgil intoned.

Their morning routine consisted of a trip to the nearby stream for ablutions and other business. The fire was coaxed back into life.

"Well, what have we got?" Virgil looked at his shabby companions. He figured that he looked just as bad, if not worse. His beard was already beginning to itch and he felt as if his hair was impacted to stand on end.

"Five arms and five legs," Marie said dryly and knotted the empty pant leg so it wouldn't drag on the ground.

"I h-have a few p-pieces left from M-m-marie's l-leg." Brains pulled out a foot long flat piece of steel. "W-we can try sh-sharpening it and m-make a knife."

"If you can find me some sort of crutch, I can be mobile."

"We have fresh water, but we will need food." Virgil rubbed the sand off his cheek that was stuck in already growing beard.

Despite the late start of the morning, they got a lot done before the sun began to set. Marie's demand for a crutch had been satisfied and she showed a remarkable agility for getting around with just a piece of wood for support. Marie and Virgil both had to bully Brains into taking it easy as his injuries, while not grave, were painful and had taken a toll on the young scientist. He catnapped on and off, rousing occasionally to give a considered opinion on how to build a shelter, or catch a fish with a shoestring, or whether or not to consider a signal fire. The three of them agreed that a signal fire might not be a good idea, in case the Hood came back to gloat.

Virgil managed to catch a few fish for their dinner. They were more bone than meat, but a welcome treat for the starving trio. Stomachs rumbled in unison as the fish sizzled gently on spits.

Marie sat by the fire and was sharpening the end of the crutch with their one and only quasi-knife.

"Wh-what's th-that for?" Brains asked curiously.

"Virgil, of course." She gave a wolfish grin. "He needs a poke with a sharp stick occasionally, just to keep his ego down."

"Thanks a lot, let's see you get dinner next time." Virgil growled good naturedly from tending the bits of fish grilling over the fire.

"Exactly - my - point." She reached out with the stick and speared one of the fish pieces and passed it deftly over to Brains. She arched an eyebrow at Virgil.

"Cl-clever." Brains laughed and licking his fingers liberated the cooked fish off the end of the handy stick of wood.

She set the stick in the fire for a moment and then scraped some more.

"Hardening it?" Virgil asked sitting back on his haunches to eat his piece of fish.

"Yeah, saw a couple of fellows in Senegal do it this way. The trick is not to really burn the wood, but just to cook it to the tough stage."

"What w-were you d-doing in S-senegal?" He enquired fishing a bit of bone out of his mouth.

"I was investigating a convent of nuns."

Both men looked at her questioningly which enabled her to grab a piece of fish for herself. They were silent for a moment watching her eat.

"Okay, I'll bite." Virgil sighed. "What were nuns doing that needed investigating?"

"Running an orphanage." Marie licked her fingers. "Good. Thank you, Virgil."

She was obviously going to make them dig for information.

"Wh-what k-kind of w-work do you d-do?" The scientist fixed her a stern stare from behind the thick lenses.

"I suppose I can trust you," Marie said after a rather long pause. "I mean I'm in between assignments. Or even in between jobs." The last sentence was more spoken to herself. "And Lady Penelope vouched for you."

"Would it make it easier if we trusted you?" Virgil found it suddenly important that she trusted him, as a person, not just because he knew Lady Penelope. She turned to look at him with a strange look of what seemed to be hope.

"V-virgil?" Brains tone was warning. "Are y-you sure?"

Virgil nodded. "Partly because it is why we are in the mess and mostly because I think we need to trust each other." A vision of his father's disapproving face flashed before him. "We belong to International Rescue."

"Oh. My. Well." A slow blush covered her cheeks that had nothing to do with the closeness of the fire. "I'm not at all in your league. I work for the ICPA, The International Child Protection Agency. I investigate adoption agencies and orphanages, make sure they are run legally and fairly." Marie declared modestly.

"Sounds interesting." Virgil poked the fire with a stick.

"Wh-what about the n-nuns?" Brains returned to the original subject. "I'd l-like to hear about th-that."

"Well, they were doing an excellent job, but there had been complaints lodged that Moslem children were being baptized and sent to only Christian homes. Their was a grain of truth to the reports, but I managed to soothe the local Moslems and get the nuns off the hook. They were kind of unhappy with me for a while. Let me tell you there is nothing more hostile than a nun who feels threatened. I spent some time living with the villagers because the nuns would stand under my window to pray for my soul every hour - loudly."

Virgil threw back his head and laughed. "Sounds like your job is just as perilous as mine."

"M-more so." Chortled Brains. "Y-you only have to f-fight the elements. Marie has to b-battle nuns."

Her green eyes glittered in the light of the setting sun. A soundless hiss passed over the sharp, sharp, white teeth. Maybe in the cover of darkness....soundlessly she slipped back into the cover of the jungle leaving only a few quivering leaves to mark her passage.

Chapter Ten: Terrors of the Night

The grains of sand shifted and flowed with a gritty whisper as the jungle cat crept cautiously towards the dying fire and the fresh prey that slept beside it.  Her ears twitched forwards as the rhythmic sound of breathing seemed to stop and then start again, from one of the sleeping beasts. It was not unlike her own purr that she used to soothe her cubs. Warily, she lifted each paw carefully to be placed noiselessly on the warm sand. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of burning wood, but the scent of meat was becoming stronger. The sudden movement of one the creatures accompanied by a low moan sent her fleeing swiftly back to the jungle to hunt for rodents.

The cold was no longer so bad, a slow warmth began to steal over her. It would be so easy, just let the snow fall over her like a soft blanket and give up. Only the anger, the hurt of betrayal, the sheer unrightness of it all made her crawl forward. The bright trail of blood melted the icy ground for moments before being buried by the newly falling snow. "Nu. Nu. Begrame. Jo savaren...please..."

"Please...don't leave me.. Begrame." The words were hardly above a whisper, barely heard above the continuous crash of the waves on the beach.

Brains shifted uneasily. Moving was still a delicate operation, but he sensed, more than heard, the anguish and tension in the woman lying between him and Virgil. A slight rustle of movement indicated that the other man had also wakened and had sat up.

"Nightmare." Virgil whispered, seeing Brains eyes were open.

"B-bad one." Brains whispered back. "Try to wake her carefully." He advised.

"Marie..." Virgil laid a hand on her shoulder. Despite the warmth of the tropical night, her skin was cold and clammy. "Marie, honey." He tried again, a little louder. His hand slid up to cup her cheek, which was slick with tears that fell unhindered from her closed eyes. Her hand reached up blindly to clutch at his.

"It hurts. It always hurts." She whimpered.

"W-we are here, w-with you." Brains laid his uninjured hand on the other hand and clasped it strongly.

"Go back to sleep. You aren't alone." Virgil soothed. The men's words seemed to work and with a broken sigh, Marie fell asleep, still clutching their hands.

"S-something really bad h-happened to her," Brains said softly. "N-not just losing th-that leg either."

"Sounds more like someone." Virgil replied, his thumb stroking the back of her hand. "We'd better have a talk in the morning."

"I d-don't th-think she'll like th-that." Brains warned.

"No. I suspect not, but talk we will." Virgil's voice was stern, but his gaze on the sleeping woman's face was soft and compassionate. He lay back down and soon heard the gentle buzz of Brains' snoring that indicated that the other man had fallen readily to sleep. Despite the rigors of the day and awakening caused by the nightmare, Virgil found it hard to capture sleep again. They had learned almost the hard way in the early days of International Rescue, the value of debriefing and then defusing after missions. It was amazing how just talking about what happened would ease their minds and make sleep something to look forward to, instead of dream fraught sessions of re-lived moments. Re-awakened traumas were bad things to deal with.  They all had them and had learned to deal with them, but never alone.

Virgil found peace and solace in music, somehow feeling as he played, the warm, close presence of his mother. Yet, it was his family that he turned to for care and understanding. He and Scott were especially close, having to care for their younger brothers when Mother had died. A hand on the shoulder, a raised eyebrow were enough between the two of them. The silent, stoic John was the hugger of the group. John's hugs were both giving and taking and often telling on the ribs but able to fill a heart with silent care and love. Gordon for all of his loudness and jokes and laughter found it hard to share his hurt. His near death accident in the powerboat had left its mark, but it was Gordon who would know what was hurting and when and specifically who. The recipient of his care was burdened with practical jokes and bad puns, but it worked. Alan gave them the precious gift of tears. Not all rescues were successful, not all were saved, innocents often perished and Alan would cry at the injustice, giving them the chance to grieve also. Father was there, a pillar of strength, of wisdom and not without a little humor and infinite patience to protect and raise his five rambunctious men. Granny cured everything with a plate of warm cookies and glass of milk. Granny treated them all like they were small boys coming in with skinned knees. One could never be too old for Granny's kiss and cuddle.

Virgil tightened his grip fractionally as the small hand twitched in his, holding onto him like a lifeline. Some rescues were not of the physical kind, he thought, and fell asleep.

Chapter Eleven: The Light of Day

Marie awoke with that horrible itchy feeling in her eyes of dried tears. She scrubbed her face with her hands as she sat up and surreptitiously eyed her two companions. Surely, if they were as tired as she was, they hadn't heard her crying in her sleep. Brains held out his glasses automatically to her to be cleaned on her silk camisole. His gaze could have been sympathetic, but she just put it down to myopia. Virgil looked angry or worried, but that seemed more normal for him than the fellow last night who was more amenable. Maybe daylight didn't suit him. She shrugged muscles that were sore and strained from using the wooden stick as a crutch. She didn't suppress the startled cry of pain when a strong pair of hands began kneading at the tautly knotted muscles.

"Jumpy, aren't we?" Virgil breathed into her ear as his thumbs found points of pain to rub into submission.

"You d-didn't sleep w-well." Brains laid his free hand on her knee, just above the amputation point.

"Matter of fact, you had a pretty bad nightmare." The insistent voice was as insistent as his hands setting her more firmly in place. They had her well and truly trapped between the two of them.

"I am s-surprised you didn't g-get th-therapy for th-this." Brains tapped the stump. "N-not m-much of a j-job th-that doesn't take c-care of its employees."

"Of course I got therapy. I'm quite all right with my loss of limb. I can still do my job." Marie congratulated herself on her unwavering voice. It would take a lot more than these two men to throw her off balance. She wiggled her shoulders under Virgil's hands to let him know she'd had enough.

"G-gurmukistan," Brains said, and she turned her head towards him with a sharp snap. "You w-were speaking G-gurmeese in your sleep." He explained further.

"That's a real rough place. They've been torn apart by civil war for the last four years."  Even though she had stopped struggling against him, Virgil let her go and turned so he could face her.

"War makes a lot of orphans," Marie said flatly. "I go where the job has to be done."

"B-but not alone." Brains said shrewdly.

"No. Not alone." Virgil answered for her. "You had a partner."

"Yes. I did." Her voice was low as she forced her head up to look Virgil in the eye.

"He l-left you b-behind." Brains made an educated guess.

"No. He didn't. I killed him."

"Hold it. I don't think you are the kind of person to do that. Start at the beginning and tell us what happened." Virgil insisted.

"Why? If my nightmares bother you then I'll just sleep elsewhere." Marie felt the beginnings of a terrible headache. Here she was stuck on a desert island without her pain pills and with two really pushy men.

"Because we care."

"And you n-need to t-talk."

"It was classified. I'm not supposed to." She muttered and dropped her gaze for the first time.

"Marie." Virgil tried to reach her with his voice. "Trust me." Their eyes met and something important passed between them and strengthened.

The two men waited patiently as she clearly struggled to come to some sort of decision. Virgil hadn't realized that he was holding his breath until she sighed and looked at them. She had decided to trust him, them, he added to himself.

"I - yes. It's not a pretty story and I was a fool. I paid for it too." She looked down at the remains of her leg and began...

Chapter Twelve: Living Nightmares

(Some events and descriptions may be disturbing, some may be true.)

Hordes of displaced people were clustered in the barely adequate shelters. Aid agencies seemed to be fighting an uphill battle. As soon as things seemed better, hostilities would break out again.  It was also in the middle of the bitterest winter in written history. Gurmukistan was a country with a long history of violent and bloody warfare. While modern peace treaties and sanctions made it almost impossible to have warfare between nations, Gurmukistan managed to be at war with itself for long years.

As usual with such conflicts, it was the innocent who suffered more. Women and children more than outnumbered the men. Marie had been there for two months already and was sick to the bone with the misery she had seen. She had been sent in to give a hand to Jason Petrovich who had seemed less than delighted at first to see her, but a warm friendship had grown between them. Jason had done wonders - placing children in foster homes and adopted around the world in fantastic numbers. Experience rang an alarm bell in her head, but Jason assured her that all was well.

What made her hide her talent for learning languages quickly she couldn't explain. Gurmeese was known as the Chinese of the mid-east as it was a convoluted language, plagued with diphthongs, triphthongs, double vowels and a vocabulary that included 20 different words for snow and over 40 for suffering.

Her initial niggling doubts slowly grew to the horrifying conclusion that Jason Petrovich was using his position to sell children. The cost of adoptions had been regulated for years due to international agreements and the ground breaking work done by her agency, the ICPA. But, there were always those willing to pay for a child when they had been deemed unsuitable as parents by the authorities.

Marie could feel a secret sympathy for the adults willing to go outside the law and pay fantastic sums for their own child, for that is what her adopted parents had done. They had been well over the minimum age for prospective parents and Mumsy had a history of psychotic episodes that had been barely controlled by medication. Popsy had tried his best to make up for the days when his wife couldn't cope with the lively little girl. The downside of illegal adoption was for her, at least, the fact that she had no idea of her past. No papers, no records were available to tell where a small two year old had been before she was adopted by the Rykers.

No matter where her heart or sympathies lay, how much she had come to like Jason Petrovich, her dedication to protecting the children came first. Hunches and overheard conversations weren't enough. She needed cold, hard information, proof. She was a canny investigator, but had not counted on Jason's partners. She had followed him into the mountains where he was meeting with some of his Gurmukaani contacts.

The mountain men were cautious in the extreme and she fell into the hands of perimeter guards, men who knew every rock and bush like the hairs on their beards.

"You little fool." Jason had spat out. "Why couldn't you leave things alone? You of all people should know I'm doing these children a service by finding them homes."

"How many are really going to families, Jason?" Marie hazarded a guess. Hundreds of children a month couldn't all be illegally adopted. It just wasn't possible, not even with the biggest and best organized agencies. She repeated the question in credible Gurmeese. The men moved restlessly.

"Shut up!" Jason hissed, his normally friendly open face was the mask of a stranger, a dangerous, evil stranger.

"How many are sold as slaves or to bordellos?" She began to translate the sentence into Gurmeese and to her shock, Jason shot her in the leg. She fell to the ground.

"SHUT UP!!" He screamed, his lips pulled back over his teeth like a wild animal brought to bay.

"And how many are sold as body parts to hospitals?" She still didn't feel the pain of the wound, though blood was oozing sluggishly through her fingers.

"Is this so?" One of the men said in credible English.

"Look at him." Marie felt a wave of dizziness pass over her.

Jason stood there with the gun in his hand, his face twisted in hate and the truth.

"Dog. You promised a good life for our children away from the horrors of poverty and war and you have sold them into slavery and worse." Before anyone could react, he shot the crooked agency worker between the eyes.

"You have done us a service, of a sort." The bearded man hefted his rifle towards Marie. "We are not a forgiving race. Leave and do not come back."

"Wait. Help me." But she found herself talking to thin air and the falling snow as the men melted into the countryside. She was left with the rapidly cooling body of a man she had once considered a friend. Someone she had killed as if by her own hand. "Nu. Nu. Begrame - No. No. In the name of mercy. Jo savaren- I beg of thee....please...Don't leave me behind!"

"I'm not too sure how I got back to the city. I hobbled, I crawled, I...don't know. The next thing I knew I was being airlifted to an International Peacekeeper Hospital. I had pneumonia, my leg was gangrenous. They tried to save it. Despite pain killers I suffered greatly for seven long weeks. It was almost a relief to have it amputated."

Marie paused for a breath and shuddered involuntarily. Warm arms were wrapped around her and she found her head resting on a broad shoulder. Her hand was being held tightly by Brains, his face soft with sympathy.

"They didn't quite believe me. Jason's body was never found. The proof I had gathered disappeared. In order to keep the integrity of the Agency I was given a gag order. I couldn't even discuss it with anyone. You are the only ones outside of my superiors who know. Now, they are threatening to take me out of field duty. Give me a desk. Or worse, fire me for messing up."

"N-nonsense." To her surprise Brains raised her hand to his lips in a salute. "Y-you w-were exceedingly br-brave. You st-still are."

"Brains is right. If anyone is to blame its that agency of yours for sending you out without proper backup and not taking care of you afterwards." Virgil's arms tightened around her tightly, making her feel protected, cared for. Maybe- even, just for this moment, loved.

Marie felt a wave of warmth sweep over her that she hadn't felt since Popsy had died when she was 16, leaving her to cope with a desolate Mumsy for six long months until she had followed her beloved husband. The tears that had been so long suppressed during the day and had found outlet only in nightmares welled in her eyes. She found herself weeping like a broken-hearted child on Virgil Tracy's shoulder. Brains was patting her on the back and both men were muttering words of comfort.

Chapter Thirteen: Searching

Scott maneuvered Thunderbird 2 over the choppy waves of the Pacific Ocean. The bulky, but extremely sensitive craft reacted easily to his light touch. No wonder Virgil loved flying this bird. It handled like a fighter plane, but had the power of giant transport.

"Looks a bit rough Gordon." Scott spoke into the mike to his brother who was in Thunderbird 4, nestled in Pod 4 of the ample cargo bay.

"We can take the ride." Gordon's voice sounded flat, for the life of him he couldn't come up with a joke or funny thing to say. Why should he? He stroked the familiar controls of the submersible. He never said anything to anyone, but the launch from Thunderbird 2 was always rough on his back. It never failed to bring a twinge of pain. His hand hovered over the expensive six speaker stereo system that had been cleverly installed in the small cabin. Gordon liked to think of himself as an old movie-vid hero dashing to the rescue with suitable background music welling up around him. He had a taste for the old classics that his brothers constantly teased him about. He deliberately chose the rather dark theme to "Blade Runner". The beat of the tympanis was in time with Scott's countdown.

"Five (boom boom boom) - four (boom boom)- three (boom boom)- two (boom boom boom)- one..." Thunderbird 4 slid down the ramp to plunge into the wild waters of the Pacific and slid swiftly through the waves like a speeding dolphin towards a small tropical island.

Penelope pushed back the hood of her white fur parka to gaze at the mountain peak that was shrouded in gray cloud. Roils of cloud seemed to gather itself and darken before their very eyes.

"Looks like a storm m'lady." Parker eyed the weather uneasily. He was basically a city dweller, the wild outdoors wasn't his forte, but where his lady went, he followed.

"Yes, I believe the elements are quite against us Parker. We should reach the ranger shelter in about an hour, but I'm afraid we must hurry." As if to punctuate her words the wind began to pick up and howl through the trees.

"Of course m'lady." He shouldered the heavy backpack and followed Lady Penelope up a path more suited to goats than denizens of West London.

John eased the little jet into the stratosphere dipping into the gray blue area where the atmosphere ended and space began. He felt more at ease in space than ever on earth The sheer infinity, the grandeur, always made him feel so small and yet so much a part of it all. Gordon had once called him star struck, not realizing how close he was to the truth. Sometimes when he slept on Thunderbird 5 he dreamt of the stars singing to him, telling him things that his mind could only wonder at and never understand.

Jeff Tracy lay in his bed with his arms folded under his head and stared at the ceiling. Tin Tin was handling the communications while he was resting, or supposedly resting. The boys and Lady Penelope would not reach their destinations for hours yet, maybe longer. He'd had a long talk with Alan on Thunderbird 5 just before he went for a rest. The picture had seemed funny at first with little bright dots of light drifting around his younger son's head. He had thought it interference until he realized that Alan was crying, the tears suspended around his head like small diamonds in the near weightless conditions of space. In between sniffs, the youngest Tracy had delivered clear and precise reports as to the positions of his three other brothers and Lady Penelope. He added weather reports and prognoses and with a breath of relief said that there were no emergencies that would pull International Rescue away from their own agenda.

Jeff let his own tears sting his eyes. Not yet would he allow himself to grieve. He had to be strong for everyone. One of the worst episodes of his life had been losing Lucille, and even worse than that, his complete breakdown of grief that left his boys to cope alone. Scott and Virgil had literally kept the younger boys together, sacrificing their own childhood to responsibility. Had he failed his sons again? He fell into an uneasy sleep.

Chapter Fourteen: Island Revenge

Marie woke up suddenly, feeling disoriented. The sun was filtering through the palm leaves of the shelter above her head. Her head ached and her eyes seemed crusted together.

"F-feeling b-better?" Not waiting for an answer, Brains proffered a half a coconut shell filled with milky liquid. "You slept w-well." He waited patiently as she sat herself up and sipped greedily at the sweet coconut milk.

"V-virgil found some coconut trees. H-he's out hunting now. S-said he found wild p-pig tracks."

"Oh." She brushed her straggly hair out her face. "I'm s -"

He interrupted her, holding his hand up. "D-don't you d-dare say you are s-sorry." He was almost angry, something rather surprising from this very mild mannered soul. "You r-reacted as anyone w-would. D-don't th-think of it as w-weakness for one m-moment! It took c-courage  to t-tell us and strength to c-cry."

"How do you get strength out of crying?" Marie felt out of balance, no longer sure of herself or what this man thought of her. Luckily Virgil wasn't there at the moment to witness her vulnerability or confusion.

"Scientific f-fact," He said smugly. "You d-do feel b-better, don't you?"

She thought about it for a moment. Here she was kidnaped, legless, trapped on a deserted island, hungry, dirty, and she hadn't felt this - well not happy, exactly - satisfied. Brains smiled at her shyly.

"Oh alright." She admitted and then, almost felt happy.

Marie looked around for her stick crutch, certain matters were inevitable."Where's my...?" She began.

"Oh V-virgil b-borrowed it for a p-pig st-sticker. C-can I g-ive you a h-hand to ah the water hole?"

"Why can't he find his own toys?" Marie grouched. "And what's he doing going off into the jungle by himself?"

"Exactly m-m-my words." Brains agreed and slipped his free arm around her waist, they started hobbling towards the stream. "B-but V-virgil c-can take c-care of himself."

Virgil eyed the furious porker warily. He wished he had a blaster rifle to vaporize the aggressive animal rather than just a sharpened stick. How could something the size of a small poodle be so darn aggressive - and so hard to kill? He didn't dare glance down at the gaping wound in his leg. He could feel the warm blood pooling into his sock. As the only able bodied member of the castaways, he felt it his duty to be the provider, but it wouldn't help if he became incapacitated also. He was about ready to let the pig have its freedom and provide his friends with coconuts for dinner, but the pig had other ideas. With a furious squeal, it charged Virgil. The pointed stick, which had previously imperviously bounced off the pig's tough hide, sank effortlessly into the charging body, the pig effectually suiciding itself for Virgil. He was then left with the incredibly messy job of butchering the animal with a dull knife. The sun was already westering by the time he made it back to the campsite.

"V-virgil! W-we were b-beginning to g-get worried." Brains took the package of meat from him that he had wrapped in palm leaves.

"I brought us pork chops." He grinned as Brains held up an unrecognizable cut of meat. "Of a sort."

Marie had relieved him of her crutch. "And how much of that blood on you is the pig's?" He looked down at himself. Dried blood and some not so dried was all over his shirt and trousers.

"Uh most of it," he said sheepishly. "You can start dinner and I'll go wash up."

"Huh. Men." Was her parting rejoinder to his back. "Since when do I do the cooking?"

"I caught the food..."Virgil tossed back. "You could come wash my back."

"In a pig's eye!" She shot back to his turned back.

"If I knew you wanted the eyes, I would have brought them back."

"You are disgusting Tracy," she called louder.

"Virgil...call me Virgil." His reply floated back to him.

"I'll call you something else," she muttered and sat down to help Brains put the meat on spits.

"G-go and see how b-badly he's hurt." Brains suggested after they had the meat strung out satisfactorily over the fire.

"He'll be all macho and hide it." Marie poked at the fire a little unnecessarily.

"No. He's learned his l-lesson not to hide p-pain." Unspoken was the reminder ‘As have you.'

Virgil was just drying himself off with his shirt when Marie approached the banks of the little river. She admired the view for a few minutes, enjoying the play of muscles of his broad chest and arms. She knew how that chest felt as she had wept copious tears on it earlier. Despite their banter of a few moments ago, she suddenly felt unnerved around the man. She raised her chin defiantly. Surely, after all of her experiences of life and all, facing one Virgil Tracy shouldn't be too hard. Raising her chin might have been a mistake.  The soft sand made walking with the crutch more difficult, but at least when one stumbled and fell it was onto soft sand, unfortunately, onto her face.

She was spitting out sand when Virgil hauled her to her feet. "I just seem to sweep you off your feet..." His face changed from a grin to something a little more serious as he felt the length of her body on his. "And you knock mine out just as fast." His lips approached hers.

It was a comfortable kiss, not sloppy or hesitant, not too passionate or too indecisive. It was like two close friends meeting again after a long time. They parted without words, for it didn't seem necessary.

The sun set quickly, as it does in the tropics, and Marie and Virgil walked arm in arm back to the welcoming glow of the fire and beckoning smell of cooking meat.

The feline sniffed delicately at the fresh kill and with the inborn senses of her species, curled her lips over the large canines. A few powerful scrapes from her claws covered the tainted meat with dirt and leaves.

The smell from the cooking meat was tantalizing and all three of them waited impatiently for it to be done.  Fat dripped and fell with sizzles into the fire, making the smell even more enticing.

All attempts at dainty eating were put aside as the stranded survivors ate their first good meal in days. The remainder of the meat, which was prudently set to smoke for breakfast, was eyed thoughtfully.

"I c-could eat m-more." Brains inelegantly licked his fingers.

"Me too." Marie admitted.

Virgil gave a stifled burp. He was a big man and definitely could have eaten more, but it was better to be fair and share evenly.

"You need more than the rest of us," Marie said, as if reading his thoughts. And not for the first time, Virgil realized.

"Ah, I'm okay. In the Air Force we had to eat field rations for two weeks and that was slim pickings."

"Not very tasty either, I suspect," Marie said.

"Somewhere between airline food and sawdust..."Virgil said poking at a piece of meat lodged between his teeth with his tongue.

"I th-think we'll sleep w-well t-tonight." Brains stretched cautiously.

He was wrong.

Virgil stirred uneasily as the full feeling in his stomach began to turn to something uncomfortable. He shifted, slightly aware that someone else was turning restlessly also. Brains was muttering what sounded like mathematical equations. The discomfort seemed to fade and he sighed, thinking it no more than a full stomach complaining after being empty for so long.

The next time he roused it was to pain. A pain that became even more demanding and acute when he realized that both Brains and Marie were being sick. His own stomach revolted and he found himself scrambling to leave the camp space towards the treeline where the other two were  throwing up.

Chapter Fifteen: Fire and Snow

"Now then Parker, this is almost cozy." Lady Penelope fed a small stick into the little fire that was the only light in the tiny hut. The wind howled around the small building making it shiver and shake. Fine particles of snow were floating around them as the storm pile drove the flakes through any tiny crack or hole in the cabin - and there seemed to be plenty of them.

Parker's response was just a shade slow in answering and accompanied by a faint sigh drowned out by the wind. "Yes m'lady. Cozy it is."

John ignored the thin bead of sweat that rolled down the side of his face. The little cockpit was beastly hot, a side affect of the complex stealth system. But, rather over warm than detected by enemy radar. As it was,  he was flying so low that his shadow seemed almost the same size as the small aircraft. This was almost like playing one of Alan's vid games that he left cluttering up Thunderbird 5. The jet dipped and bobbed over dry desert landscape, scaring sheep and startling lizards.

A blast of hot air from the oven caused Granny to blink rapidly as she pulled the crusty blueberry muffins out of the oven. Of course, it wasn't just the heat from the old-fashioned convection oven that Jeff had installed especially for her, it was the sorrow. Children shouldn't die before their parents, and especially before their grandparents. A pair of hands on her shoulders startled her as she put the hot muffin tin on the counter.

"Mother?" Jeff gave her a hug.

"Brains' favorite," she said softly.

"I know." Jeff Tracy said sadly. "I miss them both."

Gordon played the little camera drone around the crater of the so-called dormant volcano. There was quite a lot of dust in the air and the pictures at best were grainy and distorted. Something strange about the pictures niggled at his mind. He ignored the soft split of a cold drop of water that hit his arm. Subs leaked. It was a fact of life. Scared the heck out his brothers when they realized it. Virgil had actually... Gordon took in a sharp breath. He spotted the anomaly and reached for the radio.

Scott stripped off the ice rimmed mitten with his teeth, instantly numbing his lips and causing his teeth to ache. Thunderbird 2 was sitting on top of one the biggest icebergs he'd ever seen. Even the steps made to combat global warming in this century hadn't been enough to stop the gradual deterioration of the ice caps. Monsters like this one were becoming more frequent than scarce. Well, this would soon be someone else's headache and nightmare. He had put a small but efficient radar and warning beacon on the giant ice cube, necessitating a rather unpleasant and very, very cold trip outside into the biting Arctic cold. A small flashing light on the communications panel caught his eye. Maybe one of his brothers or Lady Penelope had better luck than he did...

Alan shoved the sleeve of the woolly sweater up automatically. The temperature of Thunderbird 5 was always at a constant 24 C, but he always felt a little chilled. It was also a good place to wear this particular sweater. Tin Tin had knit it for him two years ago. It was a labor of love in bright green with brown splotchy things that were supposed to be teddy bears. One sleeve was slightly too long and always was needing pushing up. He liked the sweater because Tin Tin knit it for him, but he didn't really want to wear it around his brothers. He got enough flack and teasing from them as it was.

He adjusted his headset and keyed in the blinking light from Thunderbird 4.

"Go ahead, Gordon."

"I found something strange here. The volcano seems to have imploded rather than exploded. I'm going to do a recce around the island and look for other evidence."

"FAB, Gordon. I'll let Father know."

"Roger that, Alan. Thunderbird 4 out."

Chapter Sixteen: Kitty Kitty Kitty

The three castaways crawled, staggered, and limped respectively back to their camp.

"I haven't felt this bad since eating reindeer eyeballs in Lapland." Marie moaned, cramped over her very tender mid-section.

"D-don't be s-so graphic." Brains groaned and tried to shift his sling to a more comfortable position.

"Thank heavens that's over..." Virgil began and was interrupted by an alarming gurgle and moan coming from his stomach.

"I'm afraid n-not." Brains' face was twisted with similar internal disorder. "I f-feel we are g-going to b-be..."

He wasn't able to finish the sentence when he began to retch helplessly. He was joined by the other two. Their miseries were punctuated by a shrill scream close by -too close by.

"Cat!!" Marie gasped.

"Big one." Virgil added and managed to throw a chunk of wood on the dying fire.

"D-dis ah darn." Brains muttered. "P-pulled out." Sweat sheened his face, visible even in the fitful firelight. He was clutching his injured arm to his chest.

"Let me see, dear." Marie swallowed back a nasty tasting mouthful of vomit.

Brains' scream of pain as she touched his arm was echoed by the cat close by - much too close by.

"Oh Virgil! What now?" Marie gave a shuddering sob.

"Build up the fire. I'll get some water." Getting to his feet while crouching over an abused stomach was none too easy. The leg which the pig had gored earlier was also throbbing and trembled alarmingly when he put weight on it. None of which bothered him as much as Marie's face of despair turned to him. And the fact that she had called Brains ‘'dear.'

"Be careful..," she called after him, "dearest" was lost in the night and coughing growl of the big cat.

Virgil moved as quickly as possible, the treacherous leg giving out several times, driving him to his knees, where once there, the urge to rid his body of toxins became vital.

He made it to the little stream and pulled the coconut shells he'd taken from their camp and filled them with water. For good measure, he took off his shirt and soaked it. He was kneeling by the edge of the stream, drinking from his cupped hand when behind him, he heard a low menacing growl. He turned slowly to see two phosphorescent green eyes staring at him a bare yard away.

The cat crouched for the kill. The only thing moving was the tip of the long tail, which twitched as the taut muscles bunched for the spring.

Chapter Seventeen: What Was Lost is Found

"Th-this isn't just f-food p-poisoning." Brains muttered, half to himself. His arm was throbbing, his head felt like it had detached itself from his neck and his gut roiled constantly.

Marie tossed more wood onto the fire and peered into the gloom of predawn. "That cat is gone...Oh lord! Virgil!" For a woman negotiating on soft sand with one real leg and a makeshift crutch, she found herself moving desperately fast over the ground to the stream.

Gordon was circling the island carefully, looking for signs of life or maybe even signs of death. He wasn't ready to believe that three bodies lay in the rubble of the volcanic cone. The waters were murky and disturbed, showing that the implosion had its affect on the ocean ecology. The little flying probe was running out of fuel. He would have to bring it in or lose it. Father would throw a fit over him losing important equipment. Then again, maybe not. Gordon sighed and wiped at a tear that dribbled down his face. This hurt, losing Virgil, his good friend Brains, and even the unknown Miss Ryker.

A small blip of heat appeared on the probe screen. With almost numb fingers Gordon manipulated the little probe around to pinpoint what seemed to be signs of life. Three, no, five heat spots. One was moving and the rest were still. He tried for another pass, but the little probe gave a gasp and flopped out of the sky. His mind analyzed the situation, someone alive. The one signal had been hot enough for a fire. His hands danced over the controls, coaxing speed out of the submarine. He almost instinctively steered through coral reefs to a beach, shimmering in the pre-dawn light. The sight of a fire and a primitive shelter on the beach made his heart pound and his mouth go dry. He decided to beach the craft. It wasn't standard ops, but this wasn't a standard operation, this was family!

Even though she was intent on her kill, natural caution had kept one ear cocked for other noises, so the hasty intrusion of Marie caused the cat to leap to one side rather than straight at Virgil. Marie's own momentum carried her headlong into the stream. Virgil had also leapt for the water and snagged her arm and pulled her into the middle of the stream. The cat screamed.

"Oh n-n-oo." Brains groaned as the shadowy figure approached. His mind spun helplessly. Did the cat get Virgil or Marie? Was it coming for him?

"Brains! You are alive - sort of." Gordon knelt over him, his hands running efficiently over his body, checking for injuries. He held him as spasms shook the scientist's body.

"Vir-Vir-virgil's..." Brain's eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out. Gordon laid him carefully on his side and swept his gaze around the area. Footprints and strange tracks, including that of a large cat were around the primitive site.

"C'mon, Virgil. You've gotta be here." Gordon felt his mouth dry and his heart beat beating in his ears. It was a miracle to find them and he would be finding them alive - he hoped. He fell back on the first rule of rescue, assess the situation. Brains seemed more ill than hurt. He had noticed the arm in a sling and the reaction to injured ribs. Leaving an unconscious victim was always risky, but finding Virgil and Marie Ryker before the predator did was also important.

As if answering his decision, he heard a scream from not too far away. It was horrible and shrill and sounded as if a woman had been torn limb from limb.

The cat screamed her defiance. These creatures had disturbed her world for too long. She hesitated at the edge of the swiftly running water - her natural reluctance to enter the wet stuff was being overridden by the need to attack.

Marie and Virgil hung on to each other in midstream, eyes nailed on the jungle cat pacing the bank of the river, growling and screaming. Their grips on each other tightened, despite shivering and stomachs rebelling violently.

"V-virgil." Marie's teeth were chattering and she swallowed convulsively. "I-I..." Whatever she was going to say was interrupted by a shout as a blue clad young man came running towards them.

"Hey!! Get out of there! Shoo!" He yelled and the cat screamed her defiance one last blood-curdling time and shot into the jungle with her ears back and fur standing on end.

Gordon plunged into the water and pulled both of them towards the bank.

"Gords?" Virgil grinned weakly. "Shoo?" He then doubled over with a groan into a grinding stomach cramp, the thin contents of his stomach drooling out of his mouth.

"We have food poisoning." Marie tried to explain. "Ate some wild pig. Brains is at our shelter. Oh, lord, here we go again." Just as Virgil was beginning to recover some, Marie began retching.

"Take Marie first." Virgil looked far too pale and shaky, but Gordon nodded and picked up the moaning young woman and carried her to the little camp. He spared a moment to check on Brains, who had his eyes open but was pretty much out of it. He then carried the young woman straight to Thunderbird 4 which was parked on the tideline. He then went back for his brother, who had managed to crawl or stumble part of the way to meet him. "Okay, big guy." Gordon hefted him into a fireman's carry, to be rewarded with Virgil vomiting down his back. "Virg!"

Virgil was then left at the campsite and Brains carried to the Thunderbird. There were only two small cots in the submersible. Gordon figured his brother wouldn't even notice that his place was on the deck.

By the time he got Virgil into the now cramped quarters of Thunderbird 4, his rescued passenger had been sick several more times. He keyed in the fresh air blowers and turned on his radio.

"Thunderbird 4 to base and all Thunderbirds! I found them! They are alive, but sick and injured!" Throwing away all radio protocol he laughed. "They are alive! Brains, Virgil, and Miss Ryker!"

"Gordon! Are you sure?" Scott's voice was the one he heard first. Then John's and Alan's overlapping them in bursts of questions and exclamations of surprise and emotion.

"Settle down, boys." Jeff Tracy couldn't keep the jubilation out of his voice, but his words restored order. "Now, Gordon tell me their condition."

"Alive!" Gordon couldn't help but blurt out again and then he coughed. "Brains seems to have an injured arm, maybe a dislocation. I didn't feel a break. Some ribs are busted too." He glanced at his passengers who were moaning quietly.

"Miss Ryker said they had food poisoning, some kind of pork. All three are throwing up and have severe cramps." Gordon broke off as Brains' body teetered on the edge of his bunk. He dashed over just in time to catch the man and a load of vomit on his front.

"Look, Gordon, you have to get as much fluid in them as possible if they are still conscious." Jeff ordered. "And get yourself to the nearest hospital. Alan?"

"Already on it, Father. The nearest hospital is in Sierra Norte, but I'm afraid it is only a small village hospital. They will need to be taken to San Diego for proper treatment. Gordon can be there in six hours if he pushes it."

"Brains has already passed out once on me and doesn't look so good, matter of fact none of them do." Gordon reported as he reversed the craft off the beach and instead of throttling up quickly as he usually did, he pulled gently into the waves.

"I could rendezvous with you in about three hours and then pick up Thunderbird 4, and we could be in San Diego within an hour." Scott offered. He had already turned Thunderbird 2 around and was pushing it up to full throttle. The large engines whined in protest, but Scott   continued the acceleration, his mouth set in determination.

Chapter Eighteen: Family

The sound of voices brought him awake. There had been moments, barely lucid, where he saw the faces of his brothers and of strangers. Mouths moved and sounds came forth, but none of them made sense.

"....interesting cases." The voice was rather annoyingly nasal and the tone was definitely in lecture mode.

"Surely, Sir, the food poisoning alone couldn't have caused such systemic breakdown?"

Virgil cracked open an eye to see that his bed was surrounded by people.

"Good question, Carruthers. Any theories?" Again the lecturer. Virgil was wondering if this was a very strange dream.

"Well, Sir." Virgil turned his head slightly to peer at a young man who reminded him of Alan, except Alan didn't wear glasses and wasn't pudgy and nervous. "Some other toxin might have been present."

"Be more specific, Carruthers. Doctors cannot quibble." The lecturer turned out to be the oldest one of the whole crowd by his crown of graying hair.

Carruthers was apparently cowed by the attention and looked at his feet.

"The water supply had to be under suspicion, Sir, plus any other infections from plant life or smaller organisms," a young Asian girl said assertively.

"Very good, O'Brian." Before Virgil knew what was going on, the blanket and sheet were twitched off of him, leaving him in the barely civil hospital gown. "Note if you will the red markings on the legs of Mr. Tracy." The doctor's eyes met Virgil's horrified ones for a second. Virgil swore that there was a fiendish twinkle in them.

"My blanket..." Virgil croaked.

"Sand fleas," the doctor stated, ignoring Virgil's attempts to wrest the covering back. "Combined with the food poisoning, the water contaminants and the parasites, a very nasty cocktail. Treatment?" He focussed on the very unIrish looking O'Brian.

"Uhm, push fluids, broad spectrum antibiotics, and rest."

"Very good." The doctor twitched the blanket back over Virgil, who clutched it protectively.

 "So, let us give Mr. Tracy some rest." The gaggle of students then disappeared out the door.

"V-very graphic." Virgil heard a chortle from the next bed. Brains was lying there looking rather pale, with his arm tightly bound in a sling.

"Why weren't they picking on you?" Virgil grouched and shifted cautiously in the bed. He felt pretty good, though his stomach muscles felt like he'd just done a hundred sit-ups and his leg throbbed at the movement. He stopped moving.

"Pr-professional c-courtesy."

Virgil snorted, but felt suddenly too tired to make a clever remark.

"M-med students are getting younger all the t-time." Brains remarked more to himself, as Virgil had already fallen asleep.

Jeff had the satisfaction of sitting for some time beside the sleeping Virgil. He carefully touched his son on the cheek and gave a little sigh of contentment to feel the warmth and his son's breath fanning across his hand.  He'd already had a few words with Brains, who seemed to be recovering a little quicker than his son. He'd been told the bare bones of the story.

"V-virgil was in the jungle the m-most." The young scientist looked almost ashamed. "I w-wasn't m-much h-help."

Jeff had surprised the young man by giving him a careful hug. "You got yourself and the others out of a real mess. I'm proud of you, son," he said gruffly. "All of you have your own unique talents. Don't be ashamed of them or jealous of the others, okay? End of lecture. You get some rest too." After all of his years with them, Brains still occasionally felt he couldn't live up to the Tracy's expectations, though they only wanted him to be himself.

Marie found herself almost enjoying the hospital stay. Well, as much as one could enjoy being deathly ill, having various tubes running in and out of embarrassing places, and dealing with the awful memories it all brought up. What was nice was the company. A rather brash young man called Gordon kept her company for the first night, holding her hand and telling her rather desperately that she'd be all right. He was spelled occasionally by a rather more serious version of Virgil, who she recognized as a Tracy. Scott wasn't as enthusiastic in his ministrations as Gordon, but just as kind. By the time she met John Tracy, she was wishing heartily that she had brothers growing up. Brothers just like them. Flowers and candy appeared daily  - the candy was consumed by the visitors, as she found the thought of eating chocolate just a little too unsettling for the woozy stomach. They joked with her, but kept her up to date with the goings on of her fellow victims. She found it not so strange to be visited by another Tracy, but his visit wasn't so congenial.

"Miss Ryker? I'm Jeff Tracy." The distinguished, gray-haired man was a little chilling.

"Another brother? How many does Virgil have?" she said half jokingly.

"I'm Virgil's father." The chill factor dropped a few more degrees. He didn't bother sitting down, but loomed rather dominantly over her.  "I want to thank you for your role in the saving of my son's and Brains' lives." The icy chill warmed for a moment then dropped to an all time low. "I believe that my son has put some trust in you, I hope not misplaced?" Jeff began cautiously.

"I understand." Marie met his gaze. "Completely."

"Not a word of your adventures can be leaked out, and it would be best if the whole thing is forgotten."

"I agree." Marie felt a little dip and rumble in her gut that had nothing to do with the miseries of the last few days.

"I doubt if we will run into each other again. You have your work and we have ours," Jeff said, half relieved. He wanted to believe that she would keep her promise, but then again, he hardly knew her. He only had Virgil's judgement to rely on and he wanted to trust his son. It was just Miss Ryker he was unsure of.

"Yes, Of course." Her voice was flat and tired. If that is how International Rescue wanted it, then that was how it would be, no matter what she felt. Better yet, best not to have any feelings at all.

Chapter Nineteen: Goodbye

All too soon, it seemed they were being released and Virgil had yet to have a chance to speak alone to Marie. Luckily, Scott, Gordon and his father had left to go back home, leaving John to escort them home.

The three had bounced back to good health rather quickly. If Virgil noted a little coolness coming from Marie, he equated it mostly with embarrassment over the fuss he and his brothers made over her. Brains gave her an animated rendition of Virgil's session with the med students, which brought an onslaught of giggles. She showed them her borrowed leg which she swore had the knobbiest knees outside of a camel's and why couldn't artificial limbs look nice? She and Brains fell into an animated discussion about technical specifications as opposed to aesthetics.  

Marie and Brains were continuing their discussion on artificial limbs. The scientist was writing notes on scraps of paper, some of which were their medical release papers. Virgil sat in a chair with his long legs stretched out comfortably. Without thinking, he leaned down to scratch his healing sand flea bites.

"I-if you scratch..." Brains said without looking up.

"...you'll make it worse!" Marie chimed in. She turned a warm smile on him that suddenly faded from her face. "I'm sure your brothers will remind you."

"No doubt," Virgil said sourly. His brothers had seen more of Marie than he had lately. That somehow didn't seem fair. Now, if he could just get her away from Brains for a few moments.

"We are leaving soon. Ah, Brains, could you see if John has arranged our transport?" Virgil tried raising an eyebrow as a signal, which the genius managed to look dense about.

"He has everything w-well in hand, as you know. But, I b-believe I would l-like to see the d-doctor about an anagelsic for your fl-fleas." As he left the room, Marie also got up to leave.

"I'll be going soon too." She turned to the door.

"Wait." Virgil bounced to his feet and intercepted her. "I haven't had the chance to say...to say well, thank you." He took a step closer and to his dismay, she took a step back.

"You're welcome, Virgil." He might of just thanked her for passing the butter for the lack of warmth to the response.

"Marie, some things happened..." He was a little confused.

"It was just happenstance, propinquity, serendipity if you wish." She shrugged. "You know how it works." She laughed lightly.

There was silence between them. Virgil took a breath. "Yeah, you're right, ships passing in the night." He couldn't look her in the eyes. If he did, he'd do something stupid. "Hey." He dared to pat her shoulder lightly. "Take care."

"Sure, you too."

Neither one looked back.

One week later...

Jeff Tracy had never seen Penelope so upset before. Of course, her upset was still very ladylike.

"I am absolutely furious, Jeff! I don't know who to be mad at more, Lord Geoffrey or Marie Ryker."

Jeff frowned slightly. He was hoping that that adventure was over. Brains had been working on a new prosthetic leg for the lady, he supposed they owed her that. Virgil hadn't said more than three words about their adventure. Jeff had supposed that he'd regretted telling the lady about International Rescue.

"What has happened? Did she say something about us?" Jeff growled.

"That's just it. Not one word. She refused to say anything about her absence. And I mean anything. Geoffrey blew his top and fired her, said he couldn't trust her."

"She could have said something..." Jeff ‘s brow furrowed. "...told some kind of story."

Penelope gave a refined snort. "I told her that. She just said that she wouldn't say a word and it was best if things were forgotten."

Jeff Tracy winced as his words came back to him. "She didn't have to risk her job. We could have rigged a cover story. I just thought she would handle it herself." Jeff paced to the window.

"Jeff?" Penny's voice sounded strained. "What did you tell her?"

"Not to say a word and to forget about what happened," he replied flatly and faced her.

"Really, Jeff, sometimes you go too far." The Lady was now icy furious. "Marie Ryker may not save thousands of lives a year like International Rescue, but I do know that there are hundreds of children whose lives are better and happier through her efforts."

"Can you-we fix this?" Jeff Tracy found it hard to admit to making any kind of mistake.

"Trust has been broken on both sides. I doubt if the Agency and Marie would feel comfortable working together. Jeff..?" Penny's voice softened.

"All right, I'll admit it. I messed up." He threw his hands up in the air.

"And you want me to fix it?"

"You'll do that for me, Penny?" Jeff took her hands in his. Such beautiful hands and so capable.

"Yes, Jeff. I'll do it for Marie too." For a moment she thought he would kiss her, but the moment passed.

"How about Virgil?" Lady Penny fussed a little with her hair.

"He's fine. He was a bit upset about some minor damage to Thunderbird 2, but he seems almost normal, been teasing his brothers." Jeff grinned. The noise level at home seemed to be rather high, but he figured that everyone was just happy to have Brains and Virgil home safe.

"Funny, I thought maybe Virgil and Marie..." Penny said, half to herself. "Well, I have some work to do, don't I?" She smiled brightly.

Chapter Twenty: Rhapsody in Blue

Jeff Tracy winced as his second oldest son persisted in playing, over and over again, the same five bars of music. The playing was interspersed with silence, which was even more annoying. Jeff was more than pleased to have his son back from the dead, but after a time, he realized that this was an edgy, changed Virgil that rode roughshod over the household. The others retreated strategically to do other things. Gordon was washing out Thunderbird 4 for the umpteenth time. He claimed that it still stank. Brains had been tinkering in his lab for the last week over a new prosthetic limb for Marie, and Scott was taking John up to Thunderbird 5 for his space rotation - both grateful for the pause from a grouchy brother.

"That poor boy." Granny came in with a tray of cookies and iced tea. She took feeding the Tracy men seriously. "He's just like you were, only I believe you spent your time trying to get Grandpa's old internal combustion BMW to run."

"What?" Jeff looked at her in amazement. "That was when I was just getting out of college."

"And you were just as stubborn and just as much in love as poor Virgil is. My heavens, it took you months just to ask Lucille out." The elderly lady gave an ungrannylike snort when she saw Jeff's mouth hanging open.

"Jeff Tracy! You can't keep those boys locked up on this island forever. They need to have companions, women that they can love and cherish, just as you did with Lucille." She shook a finger at her son. "Now, you go and tell that boy to bring that girl home. Probably needs a bit of feeding up too if she was with him on that island. Hmm, fried chicken, lots of mashed potatoes and gravy - chocolate cake - oh my, yes." She bustled off to the kitchen to make a dent in the pantry supplies.

Jeff went reluctantly into the music room where Virgil had his head under the piano lid.

"Son.." he began.

"I think this needs tuning." Virgil interrupted. "It doesn't sound right."

"The piano is fine, Virgil. You..." Jeff began again. He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts.

"No, it isn't. I can't be gone for more than a week and everything is ruined. It is bad enough that you let Scott wreck Thunderbird 2." He closed the lid to the white baby grand with a little more violence than necessary. The instrument jangled in dissonance.

"Scott over drove Thunderbird 2 getting the three of you to the hospital. Yes, we'll have to make repairs, but it was Scott's decision and I stand behind him on it."

Virgil opened his mouth in what his father could tell was another grumble or scathing remark. Jeff raised a finger to his son. "Sit," he barked.

"This is about Miss Ryker...Marie, isn't it?" Jeff felt a pang of guilt when he saw the crestfallen look which turned to a swift anger.

"What have I done?" Virgil said angrily as he sat at the piano. "You are angry that I told Mar - Miss Ryker,  about International Rescue. She won't tell anyone. The others have been on to you about that. If you don't trust my judgement anymore, than tell me." Virgil got to his feet and began pacing.

"Virgil Grissom Tracy, sit down," Jeff said, losing patience. He watched as his son sat down sullenly. "Just what is between you two?"

Virgil drooped visibly. His hands absent mindedly caressed the abused piano.

"It was just two people caught up in an emotional situation. She - we agreed that it was nothing more than that."

"Do you still feel that way?"

Virgil was silent for a long time. "No," he said quietly. "To be honest, I think from the first moment I met her..." His voice trailed off.

"It was like that with your mother." Jeff felt a pang of longing for his beloved Lucille and for the son that so resembled her in spirit.

"I mean, she isn't pretty, but she's beautiful, you know what I mean, Father?"

"Well, I..." Jeff began, but was cut off by his son jumping to his feet again.

"Annoying. Everything she said or did was a pain and then she'd turn around and say something so...so right. Not the sort I've dated before. Remember Janette, and Gloria?"

"The models? I believe..." Jeff began again.

"Gorgeous, witty, smart, but I wouldn't want to be on a desert island with them."

"I suppose..."

"You are right, Father. Women like that are one in a million. Was it like that with Mother?"

This time Jeff didn't even try to answer as he watched his son pace the floor and literally talk to himself.

"I'm such an idiot!" Jeff raised his eyebrows. Luckily none of Virgil's brothers were there. That would have been the cue for them to chorus.'Yes, you are!!' "I know she likes me. She does like me, doesn't she Father? She likes Brains too. And she and Gordon were laughing together, doesn't mean I'm special. But, then she kissed me. Well, I kissed her. Most women like the way I kiss.  Not that I go around kissing just anyone. But just liking me kissing her isn't enough. What if she doesn't like me enough?"

Jeff settled back and watched the show. It was interesting to see how Virgil thought. He was unusually closed mouthed and reclusive. He seemed to bubble over with energy and power. A feeling Jeff remembered, though it had been a long time ago. It was the heady feeling of being in love. Deeply, madly, and irrevocably in love.

"I'll have to go and see her, tell her how I feel," Virgil said decisively. He turned to Jeff. "Thank you, Father. I can always count on you to give me some good advice."

"Anytime, son." Jeff managed to keep a straight face.  He hoped that Marie Ryker felt the same as Virgil.

It was raining. Of course it was raining. This was the Greater Seattle area, it never stopped raining. Sunshine made people nervous here. Marie leaned her head against the cool pane of the window. Life was just as grey and dreary and damp as it was outside. Her boss had been less than pleasant about her lack of information about her whereabouts for the last two weeks. Her already precarious position in the agency toppled like a house of cards, and she found herself jobless. The thought of finding something new was daunting, especially as her final reference was none too flattering.

She hadn't been sleeping well lately. Old nightmares had come back and she often woke up covered in sweat and calling for Virgil. Well, she'd get over it, it would just take time, like 30 years or so. A deep sigh wrenched out of her. Happy endings were for fairy tales.

Chapter Twenty One: Bananas?

Deep in the bowels of Tracy Island, a plot was being hatched.

"C'mon, Scott. Virgil has been more than impossible lately." Gordon griped. He smelled strongly of pine disinfectant which had been his latest attempt to cleanse Thunderbird 4 of the smell of vomit. It was a tad bit better than the rose-scented bath soap he'd borrowed from Tin Tin, much to the lady's disapproval.

"He's just upset," Scott said lamely.

"Th-the real question is wh-what is he upset about?" Brains added.

"Everything!" Alan's eyes rolled. "He complains about everything. I don't dare say anything around him anymore."

"M-merely a s-symptom of a b-bigger complaint." Brains pointed out.

"Did you get him to talk?" Gordon looked at his older brother, who looked uncharacteristically upset.

"No. He got real quiet on me, and I mean real quiet. I haven't seen him so bad since..." He eyed his little brothers, who looked confused. "You guys probably don't remember, but when Mom died..." His face was bleak.

"I remember some things." Gordon whispered.

"Sometimes I wish..." Alan began, and had to endure a hug from his oldest brother. "Ah, Scott, cut it out. I'm not a baby anymore." He then had to endure an affectionate, but vigourous dutch rub on the head.

Scott brought the matter back into focus. "What really happened on that island?" He  asked Brains pointedly. The two men had been debriefed thoroughly, but something was not being said.

"I only h-have a th-theory," Brains said quietly. "B-but...." He paused and looked at his attentive audience.

"Well, for Pete's sake tell us!" Gordon prompted. "Before I do something drastic."

"Not that," Scott said hastily. Gordon's drastics were often disastrous.

"V-virgil is in l-love with M-Marie Ryker."

"Dang!" Alan said.

"Or at least I th-think so." Brains pushed his glasses up nervously. "I d-don't have much scientific experience in l-love."

"No one does," Scott said thoughtfully. "So, how does Miss Ryker feel about Virgil?"

"She likes him a lot," Gordon said firmly.

"Ah, the voice of the expert," Scott teased. Gordon changed girlfriends like people changed socks.

"So, how do we get them back together?" Alan asked.

"She's never met Alan..." Gordon said with a gleam in his eye.

Scott's brow furrowed. It was always dangerous to go along with Gordon and his schemes. But this was desperate times, calling for desperate measures. "What have you got in mind?"

"The Banana Boy scam," Gordon said triumphantly.

Scott groaned. "Not that."

"It worked before," Gordon said, rubbing his hands together in glee and inspecting his younger brother like a bowl of fruit.

"Yeah, but Annabelle what's-her-name had the intelligence of a squirrel."

"Wait, what does this involve?" Alan asked suspiciously.

"Everyone eats bananas, right?" Gordon began. "You dress up in the banana boy suit, tell Marie that she has been observed at her local store buying bananas and that she has won a vacation to a fancy hotel complete with meal and a hot date with Mr.Banana! You deliver Marie, Scott delivers Virgil and voila!"

"Banana Boy suit?" Alan began suspiciously.

"Just how am I to get Mister Sweetness and Light to a hotel?" Scott growled.

"C'mon, guys! This is for Virgil...and the rest of us," Gordon jumped in. The three brothers would have gone on for hours arguing the fact if Brains hadn't stepped in.

"T-terrible idea. I have a b-better one." "Thank God!" Scott and Alan chorused together.

Chapter Twenty Two: A Leg Up

She missed him. That annoying man, his eyebrow quirking, that slow smile that would melt steel. Even his frown and displeasure were endearing. How on earth was she going to keep going without him? Hang around disaster areas like some kind of crisis junkie or ambulance chaser? And for what? Just so she could see him? Wave to him? She would have paced, but the new artificial limb she had been given was more uncomfortable than the last one, and it squeaked when she walked.

The doorbell rang. She frowned, she wasn't expecting anyone. It didn't ring again, so she settled further into the couch to brood. After a minute, it rang again.

"Phooey," She muttered and wished for the umpteenth time that she wasn't so curious and could leave things unanswered. Her mouth opened in surprise when she opened the door.


"H-hello, M-Marie," he said cheerily. He hefted the classy, stainless steel case in his hand. "I brought you your new leg."

"I really didn't expect this," she said to his retreating back as he breezed into her little apartment.

"No b-bother. I really l-liked the challenge." He grinned at her and was rewarded by a weak smile. She looked tired, and to his eyes had lost weight.

"So, let's see whatcha got." He put the suitcase on the coffee table and snapped open the locks. Set in soft plush velvet, was a human leg.

"Holy cats! That looks real." She reached out a tentative hand to stroke the surface. "Feels real too."

"Syntheskin. It is used in b-burn transplants mostly. The frame is a special carbon alloy, light but d-durable."

She pulled her hand back as if burned. "This must have cost a fortune to make."

"About half a million Euros." He smiled at her shocked expression. "But I expect to to get m-most of it back in p-patent rights. You'll b-be my h-hamster."

"Guinea pig," Marie corrected and brushed her fingers on the leg again.

"We have a l-lot of tests and adjusting, so if you'll ah ch-change into ah sh-shorts?"

"Right." Marie noticed that the scientist's stutter was less when he was talking shop. But as soon as he got personal, it got worse. As soon as she went to the bedroom to change, Brains pressed the button on his watch.

"Everything is g-going to pl-plan. I'll c-call you later."

About five minutes later, Marie came out of the bedroom wearing a ragged pair of cut off jeans.  Brains winced at the rolling gait the plastic and metal monstrosity that was supposed to be a prosthetic limb caused. And the darn thing squeaked too.

"D-did you b-buy this from W-Woolworths?" He said scornfully and before she could protest, started opening the straps and catches.

"Army Surplus, I believe. They threw a can of sewing machine oil in the deal."

The new leg slid into place with the elastic syntheskin forming a tight, firm seal with her real leg. The knee was not knobby and the color of the skin and the shape almost matched her other real leg perfectly.

"Not a b-bad match, if I d-do say so," Brains said smugly.

"How did you get it to look so right?" Marie twisted the leg experimentally.

"I might be l-logical, b-but I'm not dead to f-female aesthetics. Virgil wasn't the only one looking and enjoying on that island," Brains said and then blushed furiously.

"You strong, silent types..." Marie found herself laughing and it felt good.

"Uh..l-let me j-just adjust..." Brains took out a small screwdriver and began to tinker around the ankle.

"I w-was w-wondering..." The scientist began as he worked his way up the shin towards the knee.

"Eeep. That tickles." Marie looked down at him.

"Hmm. Interesting reaction." Brains looked up at her. "I have a pr- proposition for you."

Marie looked down at the man who had one hand on her calf and the other on her bare thigh.

"Just what do you have in mind?" She queried.

Chapter Twenty Three: An Appeal and a Peel

"Well, it doesn't sound any worse than what Lady Penelope offered me." Marie was pacing carefully around the room with the new limb.

"Oh?" Brains frowned slightly.

"Some kid was being difficult, fighting with siblings, moody, angry, being impossible. His father wanted me to ‘'straighten' him out. I don't care how much money someone has, I don't mess with teen-age angst." She took an experimental deep knee bend and didn't see the flit of emotions cross the scientist's face. Ones of amazement, understanding, and then amusement. He let a snort escape him, but covered it up quickly with a cough. Seems he and the Tracy boys weren't the only ones concerned about Virgil.

"But I don't think being your research assistant is in my range of expertise either." She flopped herself down in the chair facing him. "I'll give you detailed reports on the leg, I would do that anyway. But I think I need to settle a few things with myself first."

"I understand. If there is anything I c-can do..." He smiled hopefully.

"This is fantastic." She thumped the leg enthusiastically. "I feel much better already."

"W-would you feel a little b-better if I told you that he m-misses you too?"

She looked up at him, the infectious grin fading from her face. "No, 'cause he isn't here, is he?"

"Wanna bet?" Brains pushed on his wrist communicator. "Now, V-virgil." He looked at the confused woman. "You'd better answer the d-door."

"But..." Her protests were interrupted by the chime of the doorbell.

"Brains could fail," Scott said seriously.

"Do you think we should go with the  original plan?" Gordon looked more gleeful than glum.

Alan, who had seen the costume which would make him look like a giant banana, snarled. "No!"

Scott shook his head sadly. "Remember all the times Virgil took care of you, changed your diapers, helped you with your homework, taught you how to drive? This is how you pay back brotherly love," he sighed dramatically. "Not to speak of what I've done for you."

"Oh, all right darn it, but no pictures," the youngest Tracy grumped.

"No-no-no-no-no," Gordon soothed. "No pictures."

Virgil checked his reflection in the shiny metal surface of the door. Did the tie look too formal? After all, they had been around each other dressed more casually. His reflection gave a distorted leer as he thought of her in that wispy piece of silk that clung so casually to...he dragged his thoughts from that direction. Would she be happy to see him? He smiled broadly at his reflection which smiled back goofily. He shifted the bunch of pink tea roses from one sweaty hand to another. Granny had been surprisingly calm about him ravaging her pet flowers. She had guarded the bushes agressively from all and any tropical pests and intruders, which included the Tracy boys. She had given him a kiss and a swat on the rear end. And...his hand stopped short of its goal.

"Now V-virgil," echoed from his wrist communicator.

He punched the doorbell decisively.

Chapter Twenty Four: Happy Ending

As a scientist, Brains was constantly fascinated by physical phenomena. The effects of gravitational pull, the constant tug of power as opposed to inertia, the attraction of two masses for one another. So it was with some detatched interest that he watched Virgil and Marie literally gravitate into one another's arms.

"You didn't call," Marie said sourly, but curled an arm around Virgil's waist.

"I thought you didn't want me to," Virgil shot back, tipping her chin up gently with one hand.

"I've missed you,"  she said softly. Her other hand reached up shyly to stroke his cheek.

"I've missed you too," Virgil said huskily.

Some overwhelming physical force seemed to take over and the two engaged in a sizzling kiss that even Brains found a little too personal to observe. He rescued the bouquet of roses that was threatening to be scattered on the floor.

"I'll p-put these in w-water," he muttered, taking them out of Virgil's hand, who acknowledged the gesture by using the free hand to pull Marie closer. An interesting phenomena the scientist was bemused to notice. He didn't think they could get any closer, but they did. He realized that he was gawking and scrammed to the kitchen with his ears burning.

Even though he thought he took his time putting the roses in water, they were still at it when he came into the living room. He sighed. He knew when his prescence was no longer needed.

"Y-you shouldn't b-be on that n-new leg too m-much," he said quietly, not expecting to be heard as he went to leave.

"I got it," Virgil said and picked Marie up in his arms.

"You won't drop me?" Marie asked, and the question seemed to be more important than just for that moment.

"Never," Virgil averred in a tone reminiscent of giving an oath.

Brains was glad to close the door of the apartment behind him. The hall seemed to be about 20 degrees cooler than the heat generated by the two lovers.

"How does a tropical island sound to you?" Virgil settled her onto his lap on the couch.

"Like I've done it before." Marie leaned happily on his shoulder.

"Nice tropical island, palm trees, big house, indoor bathrooms. No sand fleas."

"Sounds a little better." She traced the line of his jaw with her finger.

"Lots of nice people there. My father, my brothers, Brains, Kyrano, Tin Tin, Granny..."

"Hold up there! You have a grandmother?" Marie clutched the front of his shirt.

"Uh, yeah. A lot of people have them. Uh, didn't you?" Virgil looked remorseful.

"No. I've always wanted one." She paused. "I don't suppose she bakes cookies?"

"Yeah, but mostly cakes, chocolate cake." Virgil licked his lips and then thought of something better to do with them.

After a few minutes...

"So, tropical island, family, friends, genuine grandmother...what else can I offer you?"

Marie was very silent for a moment and quite still. She wondered if Virgil could hear her heart beating very loud and very fast. She loved him. He loved her. So, why hesitate?

"Virgil, I'm kind of a forever type person."

"Darn it, I knew I was forgetting something." Virgil shifted the girl off his lap and stood up, patting at his pockets. He pulled a small box out of his trousers.

 "Granny caught me pinching her roses and gave me this. She told me I would need it." He flicked it open with his thumb. Nestled in the creamy silk was a simple, squared cut emerald in an antique gold setting.

"I'm a forever kinda person too. And just so you get the point loud and clear..." Virgil got down on one bended knee and presented the ring for her finger. "Marie Ryker, will you marry me?"

"She said ‘'Yes' !" Gordon reported gleefully. "Brains just radioed in."

"Then I can get out of this dumb suit," Alan grouched.

"Oh c'mon, Alan. It's no worse than a space suit."

"Space suits have amenities, if you know what I mean." Alan twisted uncomfortably. "The zipper, guys?"

"Speaking of suits," Scott said, edging towards the door. "White or black tux?"

"Oh, I don't know. What about uniforms?" Gordon replied, moseying in the same direction.

"The ones with all the medals from Cracker Jack boxes?"

"It was only one," Gordon grinned.

"Yeah, at an admiral's inspection no less."

"Scott! Gordon! Will you undo the zipper?!"

"The zipper?" Scott said from the doorway. "It's been broken for a long time."

"You'd better talk to Granny. She'll cut you out of it." Alan's two older brothers dashed out of the room, barely concealing snickers of delight.

"But Granny and Tin Tin went shopping...YOU EVIL, DEVIL-SPAWNED BROTHERS!!"

"...so Scott is the serious one, I'm the handsome one, John is the quietest, Gordon the noisiest."

"And Alan?" Marie prompted. "What's Alan like?"

"Well, Alan will be the one in the banana suit."

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