Author's note: This is it. The end... for now. Tying up some loose ends, leaving others for later. It's a long chapter, but then, it's been a long five-plus years! I want to thank all my readers and reviewers, especially those like Cathrl, Susanmartha, and Digi-girl who caught errors I made and brought them to my attention. I appreciate that beyond words. Many thanks to my betas, Lillehafrue, Susanmartha, and my late good friend, Hobbeth.
Disclaimer: I don't own the canon characters, I'm just writing about them. Please do not copy this story without my consent. If you add this to aC2 community, please drop me a line. I'd like to know. I may be reached at my email of record. Any and all original characters are mine and may not be used without my express written consent.
I hope you've enjoyed it. Happy New Year!
"Where have you been all this time?" Dom asked as Alan came back in. "You look like you're freezing!"
"Nah. I'm not too bad." Alan's face was red and moist; it was hard to tell if it was chapped and wet from the cold, snowy winds or something else. After Fermat and A.J. were found, Virgil looked at the vid and heat signatures from the site. Discovering that Alan was alone, he gave his brother the jubilant news.
"Alan! They're alive!"
That's when Alan finally broke down in tears, sobs born of relief and thankfulness.
Things moved quickly after that. The four victims were transported to Thunderbird Two, carried up two at a time as fast as the winch could safely move. Once they were aboard, the cargo carrier slipped away, gaining speed as it left the area. Jeff turned the piloting over to Gordon, with Scott as co-pilot, stretching his cramped hands. John stayed in the sickbay with one local EMT per victim. On seeing who was in there, Scott warned his brother to keep his helmet on.
With the departure of the Thunderbirds, the locals began breaking down their equipment and moving on to other locales. Mr. Magnuson finally drew Alan out of the firetruck's cab to escort him back to the dorm. Before they parted, Carl put his hands on Alan's shoulders.
"You're a hero in my book, Alan Tracy. You thought fast, worked hard, and helped save the lives of four people. I'm going to make sure the school administration knows what you did tonight."
Alan shrugged. "I did what I had to, Mr. Mags, like everyone else. I just had a little more at stake than they did." He looked down at his now snow-dusted jeans. "Can you keep me in the loop as far as Fermat and A.J. are concerned?"
"I will. I'm heading to the hospital now to give Ms. Bell some back up. I'll text or call later." He squeezed the boy's shoulders. "They'll survive this, Alan. Believe it."
Alan nodded and went inside. Now he was dry again, wearing sweats and t-shirt, lying on his bunk, sipping a soda and munching on pretzels. He'd missed dinner, which had been sandwiches transported to the dorms. Curfew wasn't too far off; he was amazed that it wasn't the middle of the night.
There was an urgent buzzing at the door; Dom opened it to a wide-eyed and exuberant Jason. "Pinky! Pinky! You are not gonna believe what I heard!" He waved his arms frenetically; his face was full of wonder and excitement. "The Thunderbirds! They were here! Right here! At Wharton!" He clapped his still-gloved hands together. "Isn't that so cool! Don't you wish you could have seen them! I sure do!"
Alan had rolled onto his side to watch Jason. He smiled, a slight, amused expression.
"Yeah, Jase, I wish I could have seen them."
"That's Mr. M-Magnuson." A weary Brains grimaced. "Now, I h-have to pretend I d-don't know what h-happened."
"Not necessarily, Brains," Onaha said kindly. "You did try to reach both Fermat's phone and Alan's. Didn't you even call the school at some point? Being a frantic parent who couldn't get in touch with your son..."
He nodded. "I c-can do that. Still p-pretending, though."
She patted him on the arm. "You'll do fine. I'll get you something light to eat. Then I'll let Mrs. Tracy know that Mr. Tracy and the boys are on their way back. I'm sure she'll want to prepare them a meal."
"Th-Thanks, Onaha. For e-everything."
She smiled at him as she left. He took a deep breath before opening his phone. "Y-Yes?"
"Professor Hackenbacker? This is Carl Magnuson from Wharton Academy."
"F-Finally! S-Someone who can tell me what's going on! I've been t-trying to reach my son f-for hours now! C-Can't reach his friend, Alan, either!" It wasn't much of a stretch for Brains to sound frantic.
"Calm down, Professor. Let me fill you in on what's been going on. Your son is in the hospital right now..."
"Uh, Dad?" Scott was dreading this conversation but thought it would be easier to bring the subject up in private. He stood in the door of Thunderbird Two's tiny galley.
Jeff looked up from where he was filling a travel mug with fresh coffee. "Yes, Scott?" He handed the mug to his son, before starting to fill another. "What's up?"
Scott looked pained. "Remember what you said about being careful because some folks know who we are at Wharton?"
His father stopped pouring the coffee, deliberately putting the pot back in its place. "Yes. I do. Very clearly. What about it?"
The oldest son gritted his teeth and drew in a breath. "Well, I was careful; I really was! But I met someone unexpected and... I think she recognized me, Dad."
Jeff sighed heavily. "Who is it, son?"
Swallowing, Scott replied, "The... um... lunch lady I dated that once."
"The Goth? What was her name? Satin or something?"
"Sable. Sable de la Croix." Scott took a sip of his coffee, and then frowned.
"That's Gordon's cup." Jeff took it from Scott's hand, placing it on the counter. "Where? What were the circumstances?"
"Uh, I accidentally dropped a laser cutter and she tossed it back up at me. I didn't recognize her at first; she was wearing an EMT uniform ... in fact, she was one of those on-board for the transport. But she sounded familiar and ... she called me 'flyboy'." He sighed. "She called me that on our date, too."
Jeff looked thoughtful. "She's an EMT?"
"Apparently," Scott said with a shrug. "Might explain why she ran out on our date."
"Hm." Jeff went back to pouring coffee. When he was done, he handed both cups to Scott. "Take these up to your brothers. If you're sure she made you..."
"I'm almost positive," Scott replied, an unhappy tone in his voice.
"Okay. I'll have someone look into her background, figure out how to approach her." When Scott hesitated, he said, "Go. We'll discuss this more later."
Scott went, leaving a bemused Jeff shaking his head as he refilled the pot for another brew. "A Goth lunch lady EMT. Only Scott."
Fermat thought he smelled vanilla. He didn't know why, only that he did. Someone was touching his head, brushing his hair away. There was a soft beeping in one ear, rhythmic and familiar; someone was trying to tell him something in the other, but he couldn't quite make out the voice. He opened his eyes a little, shutting them quickly again because of the light. There was the sudden realization that his mouth tasted nasty, like he had vomited. Something tickled at his nose and lay across his cheeks. But best of all, he realized he was warm. It felt so very, very good to be warm.
He opened his eyes again, letting them adjust. Everything was blurred, but this didn't bother him - he knew he didn't have his glasses on. Someone with a dark face was nearby. It was a familiar face, but it didn't register who it was at first. The connection came to him, so he rasped out, "Ms. Bell?"
"Hello, Fermat." The vanilla smell grew stronger. "How are you feeling?"
He raised a hand to rub his nose only to find it splinted. "Nose i-itches."
"You have an oxygen cannula in there, Fermat. Don't disturb it."
"Where am I? Where's my d-dad?" His lips felt cracked and stiff.
Marilee Bell pushed his hair away from his eyes again, smiling at him. "You're at the hospital in Pittsfield, and your dad is on his way. It'll take him a while to get here because of the blizzard. There are still airports shut down."
Something came to him then; the memory of a muffled shout that prompted him to ask, "A.J.?"
"In the bed beside yours, sleeping. He asked for you earlier." Ms. Bell's attention was diverted. "Ah, here comes someone who'll want to speak with you."
"Well, hello there, Fermat." The voice was hard to place at first, but soon registered as Mr. Trumbull's. "How are you feeling?"
Art chuckled. "Well, I'm glad to hear the first and I think we can do something about the second." Fermat could hear Ms. Bell pouring water into a cup, while someone, probably Mr. Trumbull, raised the head of the bed a bit. She put a straw to his mouth, encouraging him to drink slowly.
"Better?" she asked.
Fermat nodded, feeling sleepy. He yawned, and found his face hurt. "Ow."
"That's from the frostnip you have on your face," he was told. "It will hurt for a while. Dr. Swanson will be in later to talk to you about what happened, and what will happen in the next few days."
"Days?" He shook his head. "I have s-school."
"Don't worry about that now, Fermat." Mr. Trumbull's voice was getting softer, as Fermat's eyes drooped closed. "Just get better."
His last conscious thought before falling asleep was about his dad ... and his mother, who were coming to see him.
The student assembly had been convened for just after breakfast. Classes had been canceled for the fourth day running, as the blizzard had dumped well over a meter of snow on the region before moving toward Maine and Canada's maritime provinces – or so the meteorologists said. The reminders of Maplewood's destruction were fresh: piles of branches still lay on its steps and walkways, while the majority of the tree rested at the far side of the dorm, half-covered in snow. Holes in the roof and walls and windows were undisturbed. Deep tracks could be seen under the fresh powder where rescue trucks and personnel had been. Evidence of the Thunderbirds' visit still existed, too, though it took some study by the student experts to figure out just what those signs meant.
Alan kept to himself for a while, still staying in company with his friends, but not saying much. Both his father and Brains had told him what happened to Fermat and A.J. How both boys had suffered from severe hypothermia – so severe it had required a cavity lavage to bring their core temperatures up again. How they both were dealing with first and second degree frostbite and would for a while yet. He heard that Brains was coming to be with Fermat as soon as the state of emergency was lifted, but Scott was flying, not Jeff. It seemed that relations between the two fathers was strained due to Jeff's decision.
"I asked him what he would have done in that situation," Jeff told his youngest son. "He still insists that we could have gone straight to Wharton when we heard about the call, and then come back to pick up that appendicitis patient – who, by the way, will make a full recovery." He shook his head. "I don't know how to convince him otherwise."
"Maybe you shouldn't try," Alan said with a shrug. "Neither of you are gonna back down; you're both too pigheaded. So find a way around it instead. Make a plan if this kind of thing happens again."
"Did you just call me pigheaded?" Jeff asked, eyebrow rising.
Alan shrugged again. "Yeah. I guess so. It's true though. It's where I get my stubbornness ... and where Fermat gets his."
There was no mistaking the melancholy in Alan's tone. "Do you miss Fermat?" Jeff asked softly.
His son nodded. "Yeah. I miss him a lot. He probably missed me, too, when I was in New York. But ... I didn't nearly die. He did. I want to see him soon."
"I could ask Art Trumbull to pick you up. He was lucky to be conferring with Palmer Wolfe at the time and was nearby. If he can't, Brains and Scott will probably take you when they get there - that is, if the boys are still in the hospital." Jeff's tone was both certain and reassuring. "This 'state of emergency' ... I hear that it's lasted up to three weeks in years gone by." His voice turned wry as he added, "Scott has some other business to take care of when he gets there."
Now Wharton's auditorium was as filled as it was going to get. Alan slumped in his theater-chair, seated between Jason and Xavion, his arms folded across his chest. Ms. Belvedere took the stage, placing a single sheet of paper on the podium before her. She was dressed in sleek, warm trousers, a turtleneck sweater, and her Wharton blazer.
"Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you for being prompt. I will get right down to business." She looked over the assemblage to see that she had their attention. "All Maplewood residents from rooms unaffected by the incident will be able to remove their personal possessions today and tomorrow, under escort by members of our security and maintenance personnel. Boxes and bins will be provided, as will temporary storage facilities. Those whose rooms were affected by the incident will find your belongings – what we were able to salvage of them – in rooms 210 and 212 of the Student Union." She paused to cast an eye over the boys again, quelling the restless reaction to her words. When things were quiet again, she continued. "A number of permanent room reassignments will be announced and those students involved may move their belongings tomorrow, starting after the noon meal."
She touched her glasses to adjust them. "Because the statewide emergency precludes our teachers from traveling to the school, regular classes have been suspended for the time being." At this, one of the students rose to his feet and whooped, punching the air over his head. He quickly subsided when hauled back into his seat by his grinning friends. Ms. Belvedere did not look impressed. "Please control yourself, Mr. O'Connell." A wave of chuckles and light laughter swept the room, so she waited for it to die before clearing her throat and going on with her instructions. "However, before you become too giddy with free time, there are homework assignments that should be in your email boxes by the end of the school day. This will continue until the emergency is lifted, and your parents can arrive to retrieve you."
Taking off her glasses, she laid her hands along the edges of the wooden podium. "Wharton Academy has suffered some severe blows over these past months. Many students have been removed by their parents and I am sure others will be, too, after this last disaster. We need the opportunity to regroup and repair both our facilities and our image. So, as soon as the emergency is considered over, an extended period of off-campus learning will commence. You will be able to complete the semester's classes, along with taking mid-term examinations, from home, and we hope you will return after the New Year to start the spring semester. Please take this time to enrich your studies with reading, excursions, and other educational experiences."
She turned to Mr. Magnuson, who had stepped up to the stage. "Mr. Magnuson has a few words to say."
They exchanged places, Ms. Belvedere taking her piece of paper with her. The security chief had a data pad that he laid on the podium's surface.
"Good morning, men." He waited until the response died down before speaking again. "As you know, the disaster of two days ago resulted in injuries to several of our students. I'm pleased to announce that all of them are responding well to treatment, and should make full recoveries in time." He shifted his weight a little bit as he consulted his pad. "As Ms. Belvedere has told you, we'll be helping you clear your gear out of Maplewood this afternoon. Dress warmly; we have left the heat at a minimum so pipes don't freeze or burst." Lightly scratching his head behind an ear, he added ruefully, "That would be the last thing we need right now."
"Now, as to safety issues. Both the dormitory and the academic quadrangles are off limits. There are still branches falling from time to time and we do not want to risk more injury. The parking lots are also off-limits; there are some staff cars buried in there that we'll be digging out. If you want to play in the snow, the athletic fields have just as much as the rest of the school with no trees. We will post guidelines on keeping warm and recognizing the signs of both hypothermia and frostbite in yourself and your fellow students. These are no laughing matters, men, but serious threats. Anyone suspected of suffering from cold-related ailments needs to head to the infirmary. We expect you to take care of yourselves, and each other, while having fun. This means no shoving snow down anyone's pants!"
The boys either laughed or cried, "Awww!" at this announcement. Mr. Magnuson put his hand up for quiet. "Listen up. The storm has passed, but things are still dangerous. Remember that there's a layer of ice under all that snow, so stick to the cleared paths when going from building to building. Stay out of Maplewood. No one should have any business in there once we've cleared out everyone's belongings." He paused, shaking his head. "These are common sense things, men. I feel like I shouldn't have to say them, but it's good to have a reminder. If you have any questions, ask before doing something potentially stupid."
The auditorium was quiet. He cleared his throat. "One last thing. On the night of the incident, we had a lot of people here working to rescue those trapped in Maplewood. Firefighters, rescue units, EMTs, and even the Thunderbirds were here, doing their part. Some of you came out to gawk. Some came out and took pictures, providing our local news stations with dramatic footage. One young man came out to see what happened to his friends, and - in doing so - helped save four lives. Alan? Where are you?"
Alan slid down in his seat, hoping that he'd avoid detection. He'd never before wanted to be invisible. Being a Thunderbird meant being incognito. People would thank you, but you couldn't really acknowledge or boast about your accomplishments to the world at large. He used to hate it because he couldn't crow about his family's heroic deeds. Maybe being a Thunderbird himself had changed that in him. Now, knowing he was going to be recognized, he wanted to sink through the floor. What I did wasn't all that special.
Zave leaned over to him. "Man up, Pinky, and take the adulation you deserve."
"If you don't stand up," Jason hissed, "we'll haul you to your feet by your hair."
"I'm gonna have Sable think up something more embarrassing to ask you," Alan muttered as he rose slowly to his feet.
Mr. Magnuson beamed. "Alan Tracy, using a remarkable piece of his father's technology, kept his friends Fermat Hackenbacker and Andrew Trumbull awake while they waited for rescue. He also suggested that we call in the Thunderbirds, having heard earlier that they weren't too far from Wharton. Without his quiet, dedicated work, those last four boys might not have made it." He paused to give more weight to what he was about to say. "Sometimes, the biggest heroes are the ones who just never give up."
He began to clap. Ms. Belvedere began to clap. Slowly but surely, the applause swept across the audience. Whistles were added, and then cheering. Alan's face flamed red. Zave got up to smack Alan's back. Someone behind him gave him a friendly shake. Jason and Kay insisted on high fives. Finally, he sat down, rubbing his forehead as a subtle way of hiding his burning face.
When he glanced up again, Ms. Belvedere had taken the podium again. "I'm sure we'll here more about Mr. Tracy's doggedness in the future. For now, gentlemen, you are dismissed."
Alan sat still while his fellow students filed out. Zave and the others acted as a buffer of sorts, but there were still a lot of students who wanted to give him a high-five or touch fists together. There was an equal number who were content to call out, "Thanks!" or "You rock!" or even "F.A.B.!" in good-humored fun. A few rolled their eyes or just ignored the little knot of friends. One young man with nut-brown hair came deliberately down the row in front of them, stopping in front of Alan to hold out his hand.
"Hey, Alan. I don't think we know each other. I'm Adam Ames."
Alan took Adam's hand and shook it. "Nice to meet you."
"Same here." Adam smiled, his face reflecting both relief and nervousness. "I wanna thank you for what you did. My younger brother was in the room next to your friends'. He broke his arm trying to fend off branches." He shook himself. "He said he could hear you yelling through ... whatever it was you used to talk to Fermat. It kept him and Kiernan awake. I'll have to thank Fermat, too. At first, he was yelling at his roommate to put on dry clothes and stuff. It helped my bro remember some of his first aid courses." Sighing, he swallowed, his voice sounding quavery when he next spoke. "Kinda scary to think you might lose your brother because of some freak accident, know what I mean?"
Alan nodded. "Yeah. I do. Is your brother doing okay?"
"Seems to be, last I heard. He had to have surgery on his arm once they warmed him up."
"Whoa," Zave said. "Sounds serious."
"Where are your parents? Are they coming out to see him?" Jason asked.
"We live in the Finger Lakes area of New York; it's not too far, so hopefully they can get here within the next day or so. I heard that Seth can't be discharged without a parent or guardian on hand." Adam shrugged. "I guess we'll see how the doctors handle it." He shuffled from one foot to the other. "I just wanted to say thanks for what you did."
"You're welcome. Glad it was helpful."
Adam gave the little group a wave. "See you around." He eased himself out of the row and left.
The auditorium was all but empty now, so Alan could be forgiven if he jumped at the sound of Ms. Belvedere's voice.
He turned toward her. She was at the top of the section, three rows up from where he and his friends sat. She smiled at him, a surprisingly pleasant expression.
"I have been impressed with your growth over these past weeks and months and this last incident showed how far you have come from the boy who daydreamed of Thunderbirds in his classes last year. You have done very well, Alan. You have made Wharton proud. I may even say that you have made me proud. Please continue to do so." She nodded at them. "Good day, gentlemen."
Kay waited until she was out of earshot before letting go with a low whistle. "Whoa, Pinky. You managed to impress the dragon."
"I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad one," Alan said as the group moved out of their seats and into the aisle. "It's a lot to live up to and I think life as a paragon would be pretty boring."
"Then let's go do something fun!" Jason was grinning, looking for all the world like a prank-planning Gordon.
"What did you have in mind, Jase?" A wide smile spread over Qaeshon's face.
"How about zombie snowmen in front of the Administration Building? You know, with heads cut off and stuff? I saw some in this old comic strip book..."
It took another two days for the state of emergency to be lifted. Logan International was cleared before then, so Scott landed there instead of the more local Pittsfield airport. He brought along not only Brains, but Tin-Tin and Onaha as well. Onaha intended to shop for new clothes, both for herself and her daughter, and was eager to see her very first snow. They did some shopping in Boston, staying overnight at a hotel. The next day, Scott was informed that Pittsfield's runways were back in service, so they headed out to bring both Alan and Fermat home.
First matter of business, however, was to drop Brains off at the hospital, where Fermat was still undergoing treatment.
"D-Dad!" Fermat reached out splinted hands when he saw his father.
"F-Fermat!" The grin on Brains's thin face couldn't have been any wider. He embraced his son and held him tight; Fermat pressed his cheek to his father's chest so hard he picked up an impression from his father's shirt buttons.
They parted and Brains said, "Let me l-look at you."
Fermat was wearing his glasses and no longer had an oxygen cannula. Healing scratches marked Fermat's skin in spots while a butterfly bandage kept a deeper wound on his cheek closed. His splinted fingers, glistening with ointment, concerned Brains. Other than that, he looked well, if a little pale. When he noticed his father looking at his hands, he shrugged.
"They put aloe cream on. The splints are to keep the skin from b-blistering too much and the blisters that are there from r-rubbing. I'm to k-keep my hands and f-feet elevated."
"Ah, I s-s-s... understand." Brains glanced over at the other bed, where A.J. lay curled up and sleeping. "How is A-Andrew?"
"About the s-same as me."
They were silent for a moment, both with questions to ask, yet no comfortable way to broach the subjects. Finally, Brains rose. "Who is your d-doctor? I should g-go find him and ask when you c-can be discharged."
"'Her'. Dr. Swanson is a 'her'." Fermat sighed. "She reminds me a lot of Dr. H-Hatoshi. Only t-taller."
"That b-bad, huh?" Brains asked, his tone light and joking.
"Well, maybe not that bad." Fermat looked down at his hands for a moment, his thoughts a million miles away.
"Well I'd b-better go f-find her." Brains turned to leave but a soft question from his son stopped him in his tracks.
"D-Dad?" Fermat's tone was hesitant. "When is Mom coming?"
Onaha's eyes were wide as she saw the banks of snow piled up by the sides of the road. "Some of these are taller than I am!" she exclaimed in wonder.
Scott grinned. "Yeah. The plows tend to stack it up like that. But this was a pretty impressive snow for this area of the country. Now in the Rockies, the snow can get a lot deeper."
"Which causes avalanches, right?" Tin-Tin asked. She glanced at Scott, her eyes bright, and watched his smile fade. "Oh, Scott! I'm sorry! I didn't think..."
"It's okay, Tin-Tin. You'd think I'd be over it by now and not just because it's been so long." His tone sounded melancholy. "I've even rescued people from avalanches. It's just ... I don't like talking about them."
"We understand," Onaha said, putting a hand on his shoulder and squeezing it gently. "I just can't imagine that much snow in any one place."
They turned onto the campus, stopping first at the entry gate to let the security guard know of their arrival. They picked up visitor passes, driving slowly as Wharton's drives were still covered with well-packed snow. "What's that?" Tin-Tin asked as they passed the Administration Building.
Scott glanced over to see where she was pointing. "Those are ... snowmen. I think. Really weird snowmen."
"I'd say someone has a rather macabre sense of humor," Onaha added, her tone dry.
"I wonder why the administration hasn't taken them down yet. Oh da ... uh, sorry Onaha." Scott cut off his swearing as he saw the entry to the dorm quadrangle was closed. "This is not good. Now where do we go?"
There was a muted knocking on the driver's side window. As Scott rolled it down, a cold-reddened David Culp leaned in. "You can go around that way, Mr. Tracy. Park behind the dorms."
"Okay, thanks!" Mr. Culp withdrew; Scott closed the window and drove on.
"Oh my," breathed Onaha. The parking lot took them past the side of Maplewood where the tree – now in the process of final demolition by chainsaw – lay. Those in the car could catch a brief glint of the bright blue tarp covering portions of the dorm's roof and plywood-filled windows. Clearing of the road and walkways in front of the damaged building had already begun.
As they came around the corner that separated Maplewood and Oakwood, Tin-Tin let out an awed, "Ooh! Look!"
There, in the space between the buildings, was a massive snow sculpture of Thunderbird Two ... or what the boys thought Thunderbird Two looked like.
"Heh." Scott snorted a wry laugh. "We'll need to get a picture of that. Virgil will have a cow, though; they have the wings on wrong."
"They must not have asked Alan about it," Tin-Tin said, nodding.
"I'd bet they did ask him." Scott sounded amused. "And he deliberately mislead them."
"I just want to know what they dyed it with." Onaha shook her head. "It looks like food coloring to me ... lots of food coloring."
"Alan will know," Scott assured her.
But Alan wasn't in his room. "He's gone to help A.J.'s dad sort through the stuff salvaged from Fermat and A.J.'s room," Dom told them. He had an especially bright smile for Tin-Tin. "He showed me a picture of his family, once. You were in it. Have to say it didn't do you justice."
Tin-Tin blushed a little. "Thank you."
"Where can we find this place?" Onaha asked.
Dom told them. A few minutes later, they were at the Student Center, where they found Art Trumbull and Alan pawing through bags of soggy clothes.
"Hey, Scott! Hi, Onaha, Tin-Tin!" Despite the depressing aspect of the job, Alan was chipper. "We're almost done here." He turned to his co-worker. "Have you met Mr. Trumbull yet?"
Art introduced himself, pulling off a rubbery glove before shaking hands. "Nice to meet you, but sorry it took this..." He indicated the mess with a wave of his hand and said nothing more.
"Have you seen Fermat yet?" Alan asked, pulling out a uniform shirt and checking the size on it. "Whew! This stuff smells so musty!" He put the shirt in a laundry basket behind him. "Fermat will probably have to buy all new clothes after this."
"Nonsense." Onaha found a pair of gloves for herself and waded into the piles. "I know how to get musty smells out of clothes; I have to, seeing as we live in a climate where wet and sweaty is most of what I see. As long as there is no actual mold or mildew ... well, you'd be surprised what a little clear ammonia will do."
"We haven't seen Fermat yet, Al. We just dropped Brains off and then headed over, hoping to find you all packed up, ready to go." Scott folded his arms.
"Sorry about that, Scott." Alan didn't sound sorry at all. "I figured I'd make good use of my time off by getting Fermat all packed up. After all, he probably won't have time to do it himself."
"Is anyone hungry or thirsty?" Tin-Tin deftly diverted a possible disagreement between the brothers. "Maybe Scott and I could get something from the snack shop for everyone ... if it's open, that is."
"I have a better idea." Onaha was in full command now. "Scott, you find the nearest grocery store to buy some laundry detergent. I'll write down brand names for you. Then find a laundromat where we can get these clothes cleaned." She turned to Art. "I'd be happy to help you out in that respect, Mr. Trumbull."
Art shook his head. "Thank you very much, Onaha, but I'm just going to replace everything that is ruined. I'm mostly sorting things out to see what he'll need and salvage any books or computer hardware..." His voice dropped off as he picked up a picture frame. Holding it out to Alan, he asked, "Is this Fermat's?"
Alan took it, inspecting it carefully. "I don't remember seeing this." He turned it over, touched a switch, and then flipped it to the front again. The back-lighting wasn't very bright, but the first dim photo made Alan hand it back to Art. "It's A.J.'s."
"I see." Art smiled softly as he gazed at the picture. "I didn't know he had this. Wonder where he got these pictures of us."
Onaha asked, "May I?" Art handed it to her. "Oh, I can see how A.J. favors you. Is this your wife?" She held it out for Scott and Tin-Tin to see.
"My ex-wife, yes. Andrew's mother." He shook his head as Onaha gave it back. "Those were happier days."
There was an awkward silence before Onaha said, "All right. Back to work. Scott, off with you. Bring back something to drink. Tin-Tin, help Mr. Trumbull with his list making. Alan, you're with me." When Scott didn't move, she made shooing motions at him. "Off you go!"
"Yes'm," Scott said, giving her a salute before turning on his heel and all but marching from the room.
Onaha shook her head as he went. "I just hope he doesn't get lost." She turned to Alan. "Now, tell me about that Thunderbird snow sculpture. Just how much food coloring did the artists use?"
John settled back into his desk chair. It felt good to sit on something that was actually padded; the metal seats on Thunderbird Five were bare, though he had become used to sitting in them. He sighed with satisfaction as he read from the screen before him.
"Fram, a Norwegian schooner, was designed by Colin Archer to be used in conditions at found at the North Pole, where it could survive the pressure that freezing ice put on a ship's hull. It was later used by Roald Amundsen on his historic trek to the South Pole." He shook his head. "I guess Gordon figured it was an early ice breaker. A compliment, in its own slightly twisted way."
There was a knock at his door. It opened to reveal Gordon, wearing a short drysuit.
"Hey, John. Come surf with me?"
John smiled. "Yeah, I guess so. Get the dune buggy ready, and I'll meet you down beyond the pool."
"All right!" Gordon pumped his fist once and hurried off.
"Now," John said, turning back to his computer. "What obscure old surfer can I come up with?"
Brains pinched the bridge of his nose, pushing his glasses up as he did so. "I d-don't know, son. I have no idea wh-where she is."
"Then wh-why did you tell me she was c-coming?" Fermat sounded both hurt and betrayed.
"I... I thought it would be b-b-best in your c-condition at the time. I wanted to r-r-r... soothe you and k-keep you from panicking." With a sigh, he added, "I h-hoped you wouldn't remember."
"Well, I did r-remember."
There was a long silence. Brains looked at his hands, rubbing the back of one with the thumb of the other. Fermat wanted to do the same, but the splints made it difficult. Finally, he spoke. "Dad?"
"Is m-my mother dead?"
This startled Brains, but he shook his head vehemently. "No! Of c-c-c-c-course not!" His surprised exclamation quickly spiraled into ambiguity as he considered the thought. "At least, I d-don't think so. If she had d-d-d-d... expired, I'm s-sure someone would have t-t-told me."
"It's just that you n-never talk about her." Fermat snagged a tissue from the nearby bed table to wipe his nose. "Didn't you l-love each other?"
"W-We loved each other very much, son. It's j-just..."
Brains's next words were interrupted by a light knock on the door. A.J. stirred, blinking and sitting up, rubbing his eyes with the back of his wrist. Without waiting for a reply, an older woman walked in. She was of average height, with smooth silver hair and dark brown eyes. She wore the emerald green scrubs and white coat that marked the doctors at this hospital while the embroidered name on her coat proclaimed she was Dr. Lydia Swanson. A young man followed, dressed in sky blue scrubs, the color that the nurses wore.
"Good afternoon, boys," she said in a cheery voice. Seeing Brains, she came over to offer her hand. "I'm Dr. Swanson. You must be Mr. Hackenbacker."
"Y-Yes," Brains replied, shaking her hand. "It's nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too." Indicating the nurse, she said, "This is Patrick." As the two men shook hands, she pulled the curtain around them and consulted her notebook computer. "So, how are you feeling, Fermat? Any pain? Throbbing? Tingling?"
As the two went back and forth with questions and answers, Patrick made sure there was water and ice in a pitcher before pulling out supplies to reapply the cream. Dr. Swanson concluded her examination with removing the splints and looking at the space between Fermat's fingers. Brains could see the clear blisters that had formed all over his son's hands.
"Okay, Fermat. You let Patrick change the dressings and put on more cream while I talk with your father."
Fermat nodded. Patrick got to work as Dr. Swanson pulled Brains aside.
"Your son is very lucky, Mr. Hackenbacker. His core body temperature was very low, low enough that we had to use internal warming to bring it up to normal. Even now it's still a bit low, but well within a normal range. Of course, while we were warming him up, we couldn't treat the frostbite, so his feet, hands, and ears stayed cold longer than I would have liked." She consulted her chart. "The danger from hypothermia is well over, but the danger from frostbite continues. It takes time to determine the damage incurred by the kind of level two frostbite he suffered, weeks, sometimes even months, and I understand you live far enough away that bringing him to me for rechecks is impossible." Glancing up at him, she asked, "Do you have a family physician I can refer him to?"
Brains quickly nodded. "Y-Yes. Dr. Sumi Hatoshi." He pulled his phone from his pocket. "I h-have her contact info h-here."
"Good. I'll see to it she gets his records." Dr. Swanson fixed Brains with a steady gaze. "Frostbite is a serious condition, Mr. Hackenbacker. Some of the resulting symptoms, like pain in the extremities, sensitivity to heat or cold, and arthritis can last for years."
"I understand, D-Doctor."
"I hope so." She consulted the notebook again, entering Dr. Hatoshi's information as she spoke. "Now, I suspect you want to be home for Thanksgiving."
"It would be p-p-p... nice."
"If I released him tomorrow, would that do it?" Dr. Swanson shook her head. "I'm terrible with time zones."
"Um, a-a-a-actually, it would have to be t-today for us to g-get home in time." Brains put his phone back in his pocket. "We can f-fly through the night as we'll have th-three pilots, but we have to c-cross the International D-Date Line."
"Hm." It was obvious Dr. Swanson didn't like the suggestion. "I'll see what I can do."
Patrick came up to them, shucking his purple gloves. "I'm done with Fermat. Should I start on the next patient?" He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating A.J.
"Yes, Patrick. Go ahead."
"Will you be p-performing the same treatment?" Brains asked. "If so, could I w-watch? I would likely be d-doing w-wound care on my son."
Patrick glanced at Dr. Swanson, who nodded. Brains smiled and went to wash his hands thoroughly. It will give me time to think of what to say to my son – because I know the subject of his mother is going to come up again, and soon.
Onaha and Tin-Tin were at a laundromat, washing as many of Fermat's clothes as possible. Alan was back in his room, packing at last. And Scott? He had that unfinished business to take care of.
Classes had been cut short at Berkshire Community College because a few of the professors were still unable to make it out. Sable didn't mind; it meant more time to study her lines for the play she'd be participating in next month. It wasn't a huge role by any means, but she had some of the more intense lines and she wanted to be sure of her phrasing and timing. Besides, she'd been called in to work at Wharton, even though it was her day off. With classes off early, she'd have time for a good lunch and a nap, if she was lucky.
She was so absorbed in mentally reviewing her lines that she didn't notice the expensive SUV parked in front of her little pick-up. She did, however, notice the man who put his hand over hers as she reached for the door handle. Looking up, she cocked a wry eyebrow at Scott Tracy.
"Can we talk?" he asked, smiling.
"About what?" she replied, opening the door to sling her backpack and purse inside.
He moistened his lips a little, trying to hide his nervousness. Finally, he said, "About our unscheduled meeting during the blizzard."
Her breath caught in her throat. Damn! It was him. His face, his voice ... still, I only saw him once. I wasn't sure. If I'd been able to watch him walk, maybe then I'd have known. The other guy ... it was easy to see that wasn't him. His build, the way he moved ... nothing about him was the same. But what does he want? They're so secretive ... maybe this will be trouble. Better deny it.
Swallowing, she made herself relax before asking, her voice level, "What meeting?"
His eyes widened and his smile faded. Damn! I was sure she'd recognized me. Why the hell would she have called me "flyboy"? Unless, maybe that wasn't her ... no, it had to have been. I'm not mistaken. I know it was her! But what do I say? I can't really go into it further, not if she really didn't know it was me. Better just go.
He shook himself, regaining his smile. "You don't remember? Well, then, maybe it wasn't you I saw. I was certain it was, and that you recognized..." His words trailed off when he noticed a sticker on the back window of the truck's cab. "Hey, you're an EMT. I didn't know that."
Suddenly uncomfortable, she replied, "Uh, yeah. I am."
He was a little more sure of his footing now. "Is that the duty you referred to when you ran out on our date?"
His question relieved her worries. "Oh, yeah. I'm sorry about that. I owe you a dinner."
"And you have a rain check on the movie." I still need to bring this back around so I can know for sure if she recognized me. "Were you working at Wharton when that tree fell over?"
"Well, yeah, but I got called in before the dinner hour, so I worked with the ambulance instead of in the kitchen. In a situation like that, the EMT comes first." What is he getting at? I need to end this conversation; I'm freezing out here!
Let's try this. "So, what did you think of Thunderbird Two? I mean, it's pretty impressive, isn't it? Has a well-equipped sick bay, too, I'll bet."
She nodded. "Well, yeah, it is impressive. Really awesome. Great sickbay, too."
"So, you got to ride in it?"
What is he playing at? "Yeah, they needed people to ride with the kids to the hospital. I, uh, volunteered." She gave him a saucy smile. "I mean, who wouldn't, y'know?"
"Oh, I know. I hear it all the time from Alan." Scott rolled his eyes dramatically. "How much he'd love to work with the Thunderbirds. For the longest time, it was all we heard." He backed off a little bit. "Well, I've got to go. Gotta go see Fermat at the hospital. I hope he'll be able to come home soon."
"Yeah, that would be good. Wouldn't want to miss Thanksgiving with the family, right?" Whew! I thought he'd never stop!
He started walking to the driver's side of his rental car. Time to go out on a limb here. Just as she opened the door to her truck, he said, "I bet that Thunderbird guy was thankful you tossed his cutter back up to him. You'd think a flyboy like that wouldn't let a little bit of wind shake him."
"What?" What did he just say? "Wait!" He stopped just at the driver's side mirror. She scowled at him, "Where did you hear about that?"
"About what?" Now, will we get the truth?
Sable didn't answer. Her truck's door was half open; the icy breeze seemed to cut through her warm leggings. Maybe ... maybe I should just fess up here. I mean, yeah, he's arrogant, but I don't think he's mean. I doubt he's gonna do anything, except maybe swear me to secrecy or something. She sighed. "C'mere so we can talk in my truck, okay?"
"Okay. Sure." Scott came over to obligingly hold her truck door open for her, and then closed it behind her. She briefly entertained the notion of locking the doors and backing out, but he cut off that idea by moving so quickly he was in her truck before she could turn it on.
They sat looking at each other for a bit, when suddenly Sable vehemently folded her arms across her chest. "Okay! I'll admit it. I thought I recognized the guy that I tossed the laser to and I thought it was you. I wasn't going to say anything to anyone but you've been so damned persistent in dancing around the damn bush!" She glared at him. "Now tell me: was it you or not?"
Scott fidgeted a little in the passenger's seat, taking in a deep breath and letting it out forcefully before nodding and saying, "Yeah. It was." He tugged at a sleeve of his down jacket, a nervous gesture. "It took me a bit to recognize you and realize you'd made me. You look really different without all the make-up." He sighed. "Eventually, the penny dropped and I knew I was in trouble."
They were quiet for a moment, both trying to think of what to say next. Sable broke the silence. "So, you're a Thunderbird."
"What do you do, besides cut things up?"
He grimaced. "I really can't talk about it. Not unless..."
This piqued her interest. "Unless what?"
He paused, trying to think of how best to say what he was going to say. "Well, unless you take the position I'm about to offer you."
Sable's jaw dropped. It remained dropped for a full sixty seconds before she snapped it shut, blustering, "What? You ... you want me to be a Thunderbird? Oh God! This is so not cool! I mean, I'm only an EMT-Intermediate! I'm a student! I have plans! You want me to drop them and run off with you? No way! I ... mmph!"
Scott ended the kiss, leaving Sable blinking in shock. "Now, listen," he began. "First of all, we're not asking you to be a Thunderbird per se. We have a different job in mind for you. One that shouldn't interfere much with your life as you live it now, but would be a big help when we needed it." He eyed her warily. "Do you want to hear more?"
She nodded, so he continued. "Okay, we have a group of people - discreet, observant people - who keep their eyes and ears open and help us if we need them. We call them agents. Some of them have specific duties, like watching for laws that would hinder our work. Some help us out if we need translation in a foreign country, or liaison between us and local rescue services, or find us good places to land where our vehicles will be secure. Those kinds of things."
"Sounds interesting." Sable seemed to have recovered. She pulled lipstick out of her boxy black handbag, turning the rearview mirror in her direction to apply it. "Go on."
"Well, you'd continue your studies, your work, whatever. Just be on call when we needed you, ready to do whatever we asked."
"Would I have to relocate or anything? And what would happen when I graduate? I don't intend on staying here in the boonies, y'know." She put the lipstick away, puckering until the dark color had covered her lips easily. She glanced at Scott before digging into her purse for a tissue. "Better clean up."
He pulled the mirror toward himself to see what she meant. Rubbing at the makeup with the tissue, he kept talking. "You wouldn't have to relocate while you were in school, and we'd keep you on after you graduate, no matter where you went." He paused, deciding to dangle a bit of bait. "There's a stipend involved, too."
"Money?" Sable's interest had grown exponentially. "You mean I could quit that dead-end job at Wharton?"
"Well, maybe not." Scott knew he was stepping in deep, but she had to know some of the details. "There's someone – actually two someones – at Wharton that we'd like you to keep an eye on."
She thought for a moment before nodding. "I bet it's Blondie and Specs, right? I mean, those two must be so much trouble for you..." Something clicked and her eyes widened. "Waitaminnit. Blondie is your brother. You're a Thunderbird. Does this mean that ... that he's more than just a big fan? Or do you all you Thunderbird guys need protection for your families?"
"You ... are right. About the first thing. Alan and Fermat are both involved. They're in training to be Thunderbirds, but we think they need to be in school away for a variety of reasons."
"'We'? Who is this 'we'?" She had her arms folded again, giving him a thoughtful look.
Scott shook his head. "Nope. Not going any further until you give me an answer. I've said too much already."
She considered his words, raising an eyebrow to give him a speculative look. "Would I get to see you on a regular basis?"
He started, surprised by her question. "Maybe not regular, but ... we could work something out. I do want to visit my brother more often."
"Hm. Helping out the Thunderbirds, getting paid for it, continuing with my life as it is and as I've planned, seeing you more often ... The only drawback I see is the job at Wharton, but then again, I kinda like those kids." She looked thoughtful for another moment.
"You wouldn't be able to tell anyone. We'd swear you to secrecy."
She flapped her gloved hand. "Pfft! I knew that."
Scott held his breath; the last thing he wanted was for her to say "No" and go off to sell their secrets to Lisa Lowe. The background check was positive; she seems to be a good kid.
"I guess the answer would be ... yeah. I'd like to be an agent."
Scott let that bated breath out his nose, relaxing as he smiled. "Good." He held out his hand, intending to say a hearty, "Congratulations!" or something of that sort. Sable, however, had other ideas. She took his hand, used it first to pull him towards her to kiss him as thoroughly as he'd kissed her earlier. Pressing forward, she backed him up into a half-reclining position against the passenger side door, with her leaning over him. When they parted, she smiled, a sultry look, and all that Scott could do was breathe, "Welcome aboard."
Late afternoon found the rental car filled with Alan's packed clothes and books. Fermat's clean things and the other salvaged items had already been taken to the plane, stored in new suitcases or storage containers. They had a set of clean clothes sitting in the back for Fermat to change into; Dr. Swanson had authorized his release after watching how deftly Brains handled the next application of aloe to Fermat's hands and feet. While he was applying the cream, Brains said, "S-Son, I know you w-want to talk about your m-mother. I d-do, too, but I'd like to g-get home before we do. There are photo albums that we can l-look at together. I'm s-sorry for deceiving you about your mother c-coming. Please be p-patient with me; talking about your m-mother is kind of p-p-p-painful."
Fermat wasn't happy about his father's request but he did accept the apology. "At least I know she's not d-d-dead."
Brains remained silent after that remark. The idea that Fermat's mother was dead and no one had told him was playing on his imagination. I'd better talk to Jeff about this. As angry as I am at him, I need to find out where she is and he's the one who can help me.
"Ready, Alan?" Scott looked at his brother and Tin-Tin, who were sitting behind him and Onaha.
"Yeah, I'm ready. Let's go home."
As they pulled out and away from Wharton, Alan looked back at the entrance to the campus. "I'll be back," he whispered. "Just try and keep me away."
"Calling International Rescue. Calling International Rescue."
The light jazz cut out as the call came in. Virgil, who had started to put the station on automatic for the holiday, groaned. He left his bags by the airlock before returning to the console. It was the worst time for a rescue; not only because he didn't want to miss his grandmother's and Onaha's cooking, but also because Gordon and John were on their way up, and Scott was on his way back with Alan and the rest. There was no one at home but Jeff and Kyrano.
"International Rescue here. What is the nature of your emergency?"
There was some noise in the background, like someone arguing with the speaker. "Shut up, Benji, and let me talk to the man!" The voice came back to him, stronger than before. "Um, no emergency, really, International Rescue. I'm Sadie Sunday, head of custodial services at Memorial Hospital in North Conway, New Hampshire. We've been sitting on one of your floating stretchers and we're wondering when you're going to come and pick it up."
Virgil blinked. He was speechless for a moment. Sadie spoke again, "Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?"
"I'm here, Ms. Sunday. Just a little surprised, that's all."
"Well, please come get it soon. I have no idea what to do with it and it's cluttering up my storage area."
"We will, Ms. Sunday. We'll send out a representative very soon."
"Okay, young man. You just make sure that whoever you send asks for me and only me. I've had to keep it locked up so the interns don't take it out to try snowboarding with it."
Virgil cut the mike and began to chuckle, a chuckle that grew to a full-blown guffaw. He laughed for a good long time, until Sadie started clamoring for attention again.
"I apologize, Ms. Sunday. We appreciate you taking such good care of it. Someone will be in touch with you and only you, probably after Thanksgiving."
"Well that's good to know. I'll be waiting for them. You have a nice holiday, young man. Happy Thanksgiving!"
"You, too, Ms. Sunday. You, too."