Last chapter, honest (and, sorry about the length)! The WIP thing has been quite interesting for me, and I very much appreciate the kind comments and suggestions of Tikatu, Opal Girl, Darkhelmet, Barb from Utah, I'mpekkable, and Emma.

13

Several days later, Scott had healed up enough to fly Cindy back to San Francisco, and Gordon was up and about, again. The World Navy had agreed to take on the grunt work of moving the now sealed and harmless shipwreck, and the British Royal Family posted an open letter of thanks to International Rescue, for saving London at grave risk to themselves.

TinTin thought long and hard about a great many things. Then, she went forth to seek Gordon, her loyal confidante and friend. She found him out by the lower pool, walking a cramp out of his knotted right calf. Let a few days go by without heavy exercise, and his muscles wanted to decamp on permanent holiday.

It was a beautiful afternoon; the pool deck, furniture and foliage still silvered with recently fallen rain, the gem-bright birds shaking off their feathers and opening their long throats. The air had that lovely, fresh-cleaned feel to it, and the sunlight poured down like a warm, golden liquid that seemed to flow clear through you, making it a glorious day to be young, and strong.

TinTin fell into step beside her friend, whose broad, freckled back and auburn hair dripped rain and pool water.

"Bon Jour, Gordon. Quoi de neuf?" And then, because she refused to give the Parisiennes the satisfaction of speaking their language, "What's new?"

"Damn leg cramp," he growled, pivoting at the end of the pool to stomp back again. "But that's not new... 's bloody eternal."

"Ah." She replied, rather distractedly. "But you will not mind company then, Mon Couer, or a question?"

"Fire away." The pain was easing, the muscle relaxing, finally.

She said,

"Do you think that I'm... demure? Respectful? Obedient?"

Gordon stopped walking to turn and stare at her.

"This is a trick question, is it?"

"Non!" She snapped, balling up her small fist to strike at him. "I am very serious! I want to learn if you find me demure! Stop laughing at me!"

"...'M not laughing!" He protested, raising a forearm to ward off a sudden flurry of punches. "You're a regular shrinkin' violet, Angel. I swear!"

She stomped a sandaled foot and glared, as Gordon cautiously lowered his arm.

"No. I'm not. I am over-loud, and play too much with boys." Or, so her father had told her. "Everyone laughs at me, even you."

Gordon shook his head, feeling suddenly protective.

"No, Angel, I wouldn' laugh. Not, y' know..., at you. How could I? I lo..."

He caught himself, at the very last instant, looked suddenly away. Not like she didn't know already, having spent so much time helping him retrieve and sort out what remained of his memories... But, saying it was another thing, entirely. Saying it, made it so; would force her to make a decision, one neither one of them was ready for.

"Um... listen, I've got t' go," he told her, looking off toward the house. "Still got that damn essay t' finish, for Scott. He'll add another hundred words f'r every day I'm late."

She'd clasped her hands behind her back, lowering her wide, dark eyes to the tiled pool deck. Being, ironically enough, very demure. Now she lifted her gaze again, saying,

"Would you like help? With... the paper?"

"You c'n write?" Gordon's voice had returned to normal, now that the awkward patch had been safely navigated.

"Better, Mon Pauvre, than you!"

Gordon looked offended. Shouldering his damp towel, he said,

"Th' paper I wrote for Alan got high marks!"

"That, my poor, ignorant friend, is because his instructors were so pitiably grateful to see punctuation, that they flung grammatical pride to the four winds. For the sake of the English language, let me help!"

Together, still arguing, they headed for the mansion.

In the house:

Scott, John and Virgil left the kitchen, enjoying cold beer and boastful conversation. Now that the rain had stopped, they thought it would be a fine thing to sit by the pool and talk.

John was on his third bottle, and had been entertaining his brothers with the 'Pig Latin' versions of various world languages. Pig Latin-Mandarin was particularly odd.

As they crossed the family room, the three young men noticed a wrapped package lying on one of their father's ornate, inlaid side tables. It was addressed to John. From Alan. There was a folded card, too.

The brothers looked at one another, then back at the package.

"If it was me," Virgil ventured cautiously, "I'd pick it up with the fire irons, and chuck it through a window."

"Don't do it, John," Added Scott, failing to locate seriousness beneath the pleasant buzz. "You've got too much to live for."

Their tall brother shrugged, and started forward; brave, stupid, drunk, or all three. Raising a hand, Virgil lowered his head and intoned,

"Bless you, my son."

"Go with God," Scott put in, sadly.

John picked up the card, a trifle gingerly, and read it aloud.

"Sorry for my bad manners the other day. Here's something to keep you busy on the space station." Setting the note back down (it didn't explode, or anything), John muttered, "This... does not bode well."

Nevertheless, he refused to back down. Picking up the package, John gave it a careful shake. Nothing rattled, growled, burst into flame, or dripped... So, with a fatalistic shrug, he opened it up and peered inside.

His expression didn't change, but his jaw muscles tautened as John lifted out an inflatable doll. Anatomically correct. Very.

And then, from behind the velvet drapes, came a sudden howl of laughter.

"Gotcha! Ha!" Alan leapt forth, pointing a finger at his brothers. Still laughing uproariously, he began backing toward the seemingly empty hall. "You should've seen your faces! Oh, man, I crack myself up!"

Alan was, in fact, far too busy congratulating himself to notice John's suddenly altered expression, or the speed with which he hid the offending doll behind his back. In mid-guffaw, a thin, sinewy-strong hand reached up from behind and seized the boy's left ear.

"Boy...!" Grandmother Tracy snapped furiously, "It's time to come to Jesus, 'cause I'm about to cut me a switch, and peel that hide offa you in goddam tatters!"

"Grandma...! Owwww...! I was only... OW! Stop, please! I was just kidding! MOM!"

As she hauled the boy off by the ear, still delivering wrathful cuffs and slaps, Scott cast his eyes heavenward, mouthing,

"Thank You!"

Virgil, wiping tears from his eyes, chuckled,

"It's the little things in life that make it all worth while."

John slung the deflated doll over his shoulder, clapped his brothers on the back, and led the way through the french doors to the pool.

Gordon and TinTin were just leaving the area, so the brothers had the place to themselves. Stretching out on rain-washed pool furniture, they fell to joking about what to do with the doll, christened "Betty". Many suggestions were offered, each one dumber than the last, finally culminating in,

"We could give her to dad..."

But nobody was quite that drunk, or suicidal. Then Scott flashed a sudden broad grin, saying,

"Well, Virge; for sure you're out of the question. You've got more than you can handle, already!"

Virgil scowled, mussing worriedly at his brown hair.

"Yeah. Very funny. Unless you've got serious advice to offer, shut up. What 'm I supposed to do with two females?"

Once again, the suggestions came thick and fast.

"You're sick men, both of you," Virgil informed them loftily, striving for dignity.

Then, Kyrano stepped from the house, and made his way over.

"Mr. Scott, Mr. John, Mr. Virgil," he greeted them, bowing gracefully.

"Afternoon, Kyrano!" Scott, ever the spokesman, responded expansively. "What's up?"

"A call, Sir, for Mr. John. From a Commander McCord."

John seemed to sober up on the instant. Setting his beer and doll down upon the wrought iron patio table, he got to his feet.

"Thank you, Kyrano. I'll take it in the den." And then, with a brief nod to his brothers, "Later."

A scant three minutes thereafter, John was seated alone in the mansion's cozy, book-lined den. Switching on the telecomm, he folded his arms across his slender chest, leaned back in his favorite leather chair, and said,

"Hello."

Pete McCord's image flashed up on the screen. He was a sandy red-head, with a gap-toothed, Alfred E. Neuman 'What, me worry?' grin. Though he scarcely looked the part, he was a US Navy Commander, and NASA astronaut.

"Tracy, you conflicted bastard! How ya doin?"

John smiled slightly. Pete was... Pete. It was impossible to be angry with such a cyclonically friendly force of nature.

"Same as ever, Pete. What's going on?"

"Not much, buddy... not much... Just looking through my little black book, here, trying to find an orbiter pilot for a little mission I'm heading up. What d'ya say?" He shifted the wad of gum in his mouth, grin widening mischievously, "...You up for a road trip?"

John shrugged, more interested than he cared to let on. He'd piloted several missions to the moon station, with McCord as mission commander. NASA, in this age of tight-fisted world governance and fiercely competing space agencies, was a leaner, scrappier organization than it had been in Jeff's day.

"Where to?" He inquired. After all, he'd quite a few months before the space station was ready. Pete's reply came as a total shock.

"Big Red. Mars, baby! Ares III, and this one ain't no crappy fly-by, cloud-seeding freight-haul! This one's gonna be a landing mission; goin' in and setting up for a future colony. So...? What d'ya say? You on board?"

John blinked. Finally said, outwardly level and cool,

"Sure. I'm in."

Pete laughed, and shook his red head.

"Geez, Tracy! Don't go all emotional on me, or nuthin'. I don't think I could stand to see you cry."

"I'll... try to contain myself."

Still grinning, Pete gave him a last, jaunty salute.

"Good to go, then. Pack your hankies, pardner. We'll see you at the Cape."

Mars...!