Events here take place more or less simultaneously with the last quarter of Hammerhead. Still AU, but somewhat less so than the others. Many thanks to Tikatue for chapterizing it all for me. )
Cindy Taylor was in Tampa, Florida, covering a beauty pageant. A boring, belittling, rotten damn beauty pageant. Rosy-cheeked teen-aged girls, their waists about as big around as Cindy's wrist, cavorted in the tropical sun.
Bouncing beach balls, posing for photographers, and flaunting their taut, air-headed youth, each of them had some moist-eyed plan to save the (World, children, fur seals, whales, whatever! It was all so depressingly interchangeable!) through peace and love, or the power of song. Cindy was in hell.
Her interviews grew increasingly sarcastic, her questions more patronizing as the days went by, yet the vapid little kewpie dolls answered as earnestly as though it really mattered which flavor of ice cream cone they'd rather be (butter-brickle rum mustard, Cindy would have responded, had anyone cared to know).
It was on the third day of the pageant, during a swimsuit competition featuring animated Barbie dolls wearing little more than band-aids and dental floss, that Cindy saw him. The carefully plotted competition was taking place by the main pool of the luxuriously pink Don Cesare Hotel, with Cindy providing increasingly caustic narration.
It was August, the day was gaspingly hot, and she would far rather have been ducking bullets while running for the last plane out of some third world pest-hole, than enduring another red, white blue sequined thong. Scanning the crowd for something to do between contestants, Cindy spied the best-looking man in the world, leaning casually against a concrete pillar. He was wearing a crisp white shirt and Khaki trousers, mirrored aviator sunglasses, and a pair of Italian leather shoes that probably cost more than her entire outfit, camera and microphones included.
He had his hands in his pockets, and, charmingly enough, with all the half-clad beauties bouncing past him, he was looking only at her, smiling broadly. Suddenly self-conscious, Cindy smoothed her dark hair with one hand, then walked over, trying to be graceful in heels about half an inch too high for comfort.
"Hi, Scott," she greeted him, almost casually. "What're you doing here?"
He grinned, big and lazy as a sun-warmed cat.
"I was about to ask you the same thing. A beauty pageant?"
Cindy shrugged miserably, muttering, "Station manager didn't like my last report, I guess. Ah, who cares? ...He's a jerk, anyway. Want to go someplace?"
Taking off the sunglasses, Scott Tracy lifted an eyebrow; warmth, amusement and curiosity mingling in his violet-blue eyes.
"In the middle of your story? I don't want to get you in trouble, or anything. I can hang around while you wrap this up. I've got 36 hours."
He said this like he'd been granted a presidential pardon, or something, but all Cindy could see was an avalanche of sand roaring inexorably through a gianthour-glass. Not a moment to waste!
Removing her microphone chip, she shut it down and stuffed it back in her pocket, saying,
"Actually, you can consider this a rescue, Hollywood, because I'm going to lose my mind if I have to come up with another damn synonym for 'perky'!"
Scott laughed, then put a swift, strong arm around her shoulders and gave Cindy a roughly affectionate hug.
"War correspondents," he chuckled, "make lousy beauty queens."
"I'm not competing!" Cindy snapped, not really putting all that much effort into breaking free.
"You ought to be," he replied lightly, releasing her at last. "You've certainly got my vote."
Coloring to the roots of her hair, Cindy smiled up at him, every edge and prickle temporarily sanded smooth. This was the third time she'd spoken with him, not counting brief notes and phone messages, and he already felt closer, and more important, than any friend she'd ever had.
Not being the gooey sort, she responded to Scott's compliment by teasing him back.
"Aww..., I bet you say that to all the jaded, cynical reporters!"
"Just the pretty ones," he replied, standing there as hard-muscled and beautifully chiseled as a Greek god. "So..., where to? I've got a list of the local hot spots, if you haven't got a preference. My brother sent it along."
Scott offered her his arm and they started walking away from the pool, leaving a very startled group of would-be beauty queens milling about in spangled confusion.
"Virgil, or Alan?" She asked, pleased that she'd remembered his brothers' names.
"John," he corrected absently, glancing at his watch.
'Wow!' She thought, 'Big family!' Wealthy, too, if they could afford the taxes on four kids. They were halfway through the hotel's posh, Mediterranean-style grand hall, when Scott remembered something. Pausing a moment, he rummaged through his pockets until he found a small manilla envelope.
"Almost forgot," he said wryly. "Virgil's idea, really, and he'll kill me if I don't give it to you. He seems to think Thunderbird 1 isn't good enough. Here."
He opened the little envelope and tapped its contents onto the palm of her hand as the perfumed, tinkling bustle of the Don Cesare went on all around them. Cindy laughed at the tiny golden mock-up of Thunderbird 2 that tumbled forth. Another bracelet charm.
"And what does this one do?" She inquired with a smile.
"Miniature death-ray," he replied, straight-faced. Then, "Just kidding. Opens electronic locks, any and all of 'em. That way, you'll never have to worry about being locked out of your car, or anyone else's."
"Thanks, I... Oops! There's the pageant director! Run!"
They raced from the hotel lobby holding hands, reaching Scott's silver Porsche convertible out of breath and laughing. As Cindy plopped herself down onto glove-soft leather, Scott keyed up the top, darkened the windows, gunned the engine, and peeled out of the parking lot like a wanted felon.
"What do I owe you for the rescue?" She asked mischievously, as the Don Cesare shrank away behind them.
Cindy grinned. "You Thunderbird guys work cheap, don't you?"
Scott snorted. "You have no idea," he said. "Although Virgil keeps kidding around about organizing a union." After a bit of stop-and-go traffic, he turned onto the highway, saying, "So, what do you want to do? Get something to eat, see a movie, go to Busch Gardens? Your call."
Cindy considered. With only 36 hours together, she didn't want to waste time on a possibly boring movie, and she wasn't much hungry. The theme park sounded good, though. Lots of time to talk, wander around and enjoy each other's company.
"I'm up for Busch Gardens, if you are," she ventured, not wanting to seem too pushy.
"Right. Of course, there's always Disney World, if you're into parks, but that's over in Orlando, and I was just there a few weeks ago, with my brother. Not that, um..., I wouldn't be happy to go again..., if you wanted to, I mean."
Cindy smiled and shook her head. "Busch Gardens is fine." Then, "Which brother? John, Alan or Virgil?"
She turned to stare at him. "Another brother? How many do you have!"
"The list goes on and on," Scott sighed. "There's five of us, actually, plus Father. And Mom, too..., before."
Sensing that the topic hurt, Cindy changed the subject. "So... you've had enough of Disney World?"
Scott shrugged, made a turn signal, and swerved around a big, slow robot truck.
"It was okay, what I saw of it. See, the thing about Gordon is, he tends to do the first thing that pops into his head. We'd been there for an hour, maybe, when he decided it'd be loads of fun to do a head stand on the back of one of those big draft horses they pull their trolleys with. Mickey was not amused."
Cindy laughed again, enjoying the imagery. "I'm sorry," she said at last, earnestly attempting to sober up. "It's just that I can see you going nuts trying not to commit fratricide on 'holy ground'."
"Yeah," Scott replied sourly. "We got thrown out, which is probably what Gordon had in mind in the first place, come to think of it. He wanted to go to Universal, all along."
It gradually dawned on Cindy, as they drove to the park, that all of the other International Rescue pilots were Scott's brothers. Evidently, the organization was a lot smaller than she, and the rest of the world, had been led to believe. Her interest in Scott was personal (very), but her reporter's instincts were powerful, and she had to force herself not to probe further. After all, he was taking a giant risk letting her get this close, and she would rather have died than drive him off now. It was scary, how strongly she'd come to feel about him since Macedonia. Nothing else seemed to matter; not her job, her reputation, not even her friends or coworkers. Family...? Well, she hadn't any family left besides her father, slowly dissolving in the empty fog bank of Alzheimer's disease. Long lost in the shuffle of travel and notoriety, Cindy's heart was finally beginning to make itself felt. 'This is the one,' it told her. 'This is the man you're going to love for the rest of your life.'
Naturally, she squashed it, not wanting to jinx a good thing.
Busch Gardens turned out to be an excellent choice. The menagerie contained beasts from Africa, Asia and the wilder portions of America, plus several newly-created exotics revived from ancient DNA. The aurochs, cave bears and wooly mammoths were particularly breath-taking, Cindy thought, gazing in awe at the distant past brought to vibrant, bellowing life.
At the arcade shooting gallery, Scott won her a funny little stuffed ground sloth, and they spent the rest of the afternoon ambling hand-in-hand from one diversion to the next, eating synthetic ice cream, and foot-long hot dogs that almost tasted like real meat. (Anheuser-Busch worked wonders with spiced protein powder.) The only downside was Scott's tendency to tense up around the roller-coasters. All the screaming people, probably. Cindy pretended not to notice.
They stayed till the park closed, watching the fireworks show from a cramped perch on some concrete steps. She'd had to sit on Scott's lap to make room for an exhausted young couple with loud, sticky, three-year-old twins, God bless them.
She was snugged in sideways, leaning against his chest, only occasionally looking up at the fireworks... very warm, very content. His voice sounded different, filtered through his chest, Cindy noticed drowsily; deeper, and slightly muffled.
Later that evening, as he dropped her off at the lobby of her hotel (definitely not the Don Cesare- Jake wasn't made of money, blah, blah, blah...) Scott took both her hands. She could tell from his expression that he was back on shaky ground again, and nervous as a teen-aged farm boy.
"Thanks," she said, to cover his awkwardness. "I had fun, won a ground sloth, and got saved from a fate worse than death. What a guy."
It worked. He flashed that confident grin again, saying,
"Well, damsels in distress are a specialty of ours." Then, growing a bit more serious, "Listen, I was thinking..., my brother's swimming in a few events over in Portland...,"
"Dare I ask which one?" She halfway expected to hear yet another solid, white-bread American name. Stanley, Zeke, Peter..., he did seem to have rather an endless supply of brothers. But Scott shook his head.
"Gordon, again. He's competing in the Olympics this year, and I wanted to watch a few of the races. Want to come along? I could pick you up tomorrow morning and fly us out there."
Cindy's mind was made up before he stopped talking. Jake would almost certainly fire her, but...
"Sure. Sounds like fun. What time?"
"Say..., 0700. Here in the lobby."
"Deal. I'll be suited up, and ready for extraction, first thing in the morning."
Cindy joked now to cover up a sudden, overwhelming surge of emotion. She wanted... very much... to invite him up, but something told her that she hadn't yet gotten to that level in the complicated puzzle box that was Scott Tracy. So, it was a complete surprise to her when he leaned forward, pulled her in a bit, and kissed her.
It was warmth, high voltage and extreme tenderness at one and the same time. If he hadn't been holding her, Cindy would have fallen. A warm, tingling explosion started somewhere near the pit of her stomach and spread like fire throughout her suddenly weak and shaky form.
The kiss must have lasted a while, because people in the lobby began applauding, and someone shouted,
"Come up for air!"
They laughed a little, and separated; out of breath and glowing.
"S- seven o'clock," she said, when enough brain cells showed up for work.
"Yeah. In the lobby."
She nodded. "I'll be here."
"Okay." He mussed her dark hair affectionately, kissed her forehead, then started walking slowly backward, in the presumed direction of the lobby doors. Cindy stood rooted to the spot, watching till Scott was swallowed at last by the darkness of the tropical night.
"I love you," she whispered softly.