Many folks wrote to provide feedback on the last chapter, and on 'Party Girl', which I deeply appreciate. Tikatu, Darkhelmet, Barb, and some (impatient) Elven Royalty. This is another one of those 'just because' stories, meant to fill in a few details. I will get back to the space ship, soon.

Misunderstanding

Jeff Tracy knew, of course, about his youngest son's diamond earring. Alan was wise enough to remove the thing in his presence (to Jeff, it screamed 'gay' and 'gang-banger' in alternating falsetto and machine-gun burst howls), but he couldn't hide the hole, or the tattoo. He and Gordon, for some inexplicable reason, had gone out and gotten themselves inked up like thugs, with some sort of Japanese writing; Alan on the right shoulder, Gordon on the left.

Jeff didn't like it. Coming of a stern, middle-American upbringing, he tended to be a strict disciplinarian... when he had the time. Truthfully, he was away from home a great deal on business. The day-to-day running of Tracy Aerospace, and the myriad silent operations that kept International Rescue free of government interference, were extremely taxing. He was nearly always busy; traveling, teleconferencing, or muttering instructions into his private phone net. Legislation had to be swayed and candidates financed, all of which took effort, ambition and money... and eroded away at relationships.

After the accident, his parents had pretty much raised the boys. The older three, at least. Alan had been left in the care of Gennine, his w... former wife. Gordon, too, had been 'farmed out', that situation complicated immensely by the fact that women in general seemed incapable of behaving logically, or following the simplest of instructions. He had enemies, Jeff did, and some of them had come terrifyingly close to the boy on several occasions, because Kathleen had been determined to go it alone, right to the very end.

Well... she was gone now, and his fourth son a polite stranger, deeply infected with Kathy's stubborn, gallant willfulness. Ever busy, Jeff relied on the others to curb his behavior.

Scott, the mediator and war hero, followed orders to the letter, trying simultaneously to defend his younger brothers, and keep them in line. No easy task (the phrase 'herding cats' sprang to mind). Nor was this the only situation Scott handled for him. Lately, Jeff tended to leave much of the actual mission planning and field command to his serious, responsible oldest son. If nothing else, Scott was dependable and level-headed; a quick thinker who nevertheless hadn't enough ice in his soul to make a truly effective corporate leader.

Just then, for instance, Jeff was secretly backing a rebellion against the rotten-corrupt government of Mauritania. Money and arms were being poured into the hands of the rebels, who'd been promised industry, funding and political advice in return for the creation of a stable democracy. There was a lot of flat, dry land out there... and plenty of smart, eager workers who'd be more than glad to build engines for Tracy Aerospace.

Scott wouldn't have thought that way. His response to a popular, doomed rebellion would have been to arm himself, and join the fight; never mind the potential win-win scenarios.

Virgil would have flown in with hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid, food and medicine destined to be stolen and sold on the black market. Like his grandfather, Virgil was a damn fine rancher with a genuine 'feel' for the land. He was good and warm and strong; the sort of person who'd place himself between certain death and helpless civilians because it was the right thing to do. Frankly, Virgil worried Jeff nearly as much as Gordon did. Less prone to thoughtless, spur of the moment action, though. Gordon could be sentimental about the strangest things. Who'd have expected him to risk his life for a corpse, for instance? ... Or a dog?

And Alan... Alan was a wild-child, product of LA surf-culture and an overly permissive mother. His fault a little, too, Jeff had to admit. After all, there 'd been nothing new about Alan.

Where Scott's first word, first wobbling steps had been vitally absorbing to him, Alan was doing things that he'd already seen three times before (four, actually, if you counted the very few pictures and reports he'd gotten from Europe). Jeff wasn't even certain what Alan's first word had been. 'No', probably.

At any rate, the boy was a hyperactive and rebellious underachiever, though Jenny claimed that all he wanted was attention. Maybe so. If he hadn't been so busy, so un-enthused at the prospect of raising a fifth son, Jeff might have stepped in. But... he wasn't much good with kids. Never had been. Didn't exactly come with detailed instructions, did they?

Thus, the earring and tattoos were mostly overlooked. He didn't want to make another mistake... didn't want another disastrous misunderstanding on his conscience, which was heavy enough already.

He had a problem, one that he wasn't certain how to handle, and it went very far back. To the funeral, at least, or before that, even... to the avalanche, and the boy's hostile, sullen withdrawal.

After all this time, Jeff still blamed himself for Lucy's death. He'd have given his life to save hers, though pride, the need to remain in control, wouldn't allow him to share this feeling with his sons. The matter was simply never broached; not on the anniversary of her birthday, nor the date on which she'd died. Not even when he'd first brought Lady Penelope to the Island; though, Lord knows, that didn't seem to be going anywhere.

Communication. That was the issue. All of the others he'd learned to talk to, at least a little. With Scott, there was flying, and military service. With Gordon, sport in general, expectations, mediocre grades...

Alan could be arrived at by mentioning cars, or skateboarding, or the prospects for this generations' up-and-coming young high school drop-outs.

As Pete McCord had once told him, partly in jest, 'Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to conceive.' He'd done a lot of practicing.

Virgil wasn't much of a talker, but if you had the time (there was a joke in there, somewhere, and not a very funny one), you could share in his various quiet activities. You could watch him paint a landscape, or listen as he coaxed sorrow, joy, laughter and prayer out of an aging piano. With Virgil, you could go fishing, or riding (and he meant to, one of these days, he really did), letting your surroundings... the swift flow of the river, the rolling motion of the horses... do all the talking.

So much for the easy ones.

After the last Olympics, before all hell had broken loose, someone began buying up stock in Tracy Aerospace. With subterfuge... dummy corporations, insider trading and the like... the company had very nearly been bought out from under him.

On a hunch, Jeff had confronted his other son, John. Although the boy had never quite admitted being behind the takeover attempt, he'd afterward sold enough shares to let his father regain a controlling interest. ...But, there was a very large block of stock still 'missing'.

It was the closest Jeff Tracy had come to losing everything since the avalanche, and it had scared the hell out of him. Though, funnily enough, it was the very fact that the blade had come close enough to sting his outstretched neck, then stopped just short, that worried him most. The sword-wielder hadn't been blocked, he'd changed his mind, leaving him free to swing again.

Earrings, tattoos, even minor rebellion on a mission... things like these Jeff could handle. He'd long ago gained a sense of perspective. The hard way.

Wyoming, nine years earlier-

With a bit of calendar space cleared, and the best of intentions, Jeff had flown out to visit his parents, and the three boys. He'd arrived at Jackson Hole airport by 10:00 AM of a brisk spring day, was picked up by Grant Tracy, in his battered green truck.

The ride out to the ranch had been long, and rather quiet. Jeff was a little ashamed of the shabby figure his father cut in faded work clothes and dented vehicle, especially when he'd so many times offered to buy better ones. His parents were stubborn, though; clinging to scrub land and outdated lifestyles as though it really mattered who raised America's few remaining steaks.

As the landscape ( mountainous and grim, with here and there snow still mounded in the shadows) slipped past, and his father drove on, smoking one Marlboro after another, Jeff tried a few questions.

"So, how's mother?" He asked the big, silver-haired rancher.

"Good. Got her a new stove. Claims she liked the other 'n better."

That seemed to exhaust Victoria Tracy as a topic of conversation, so Jeff cast his line in another direction.

"The boys?"

Grant pondered a bit, before answering. He was driving with one hand on the wheel, the other arm out the window, cigarette hand resting lightly on the roof of the cab. Moving it back and forth from mouth to window gave him time to think.

"Not bad," he decided at last. "Scott's been voted class president, and Virgil made the junior varsity football team. He's playing third-string running back."

After that, there was silence; stretched brittle and thin as a frozen clothesline. Jeff wanted to ask, but the stern set of his father's jaw, the slight narrowing of those bright blue eyes, disallowed it.

...Which probably meant that John was doing about as well as ever. Retained again, no doubt. And there the problem sat, heavy and sour in his stomach as airport food. Worse yet, they wouldn't let him do anything about it.

Jeff gave a caustic little snort and returned his gaze to the barely thawed landscape. Without conversation, the journey seemed to take forever. The green truck bumped and rattled over a hundred miles of unpaved access road, passing herds of bland, incurious cattle on the way. They had more than enough time to eat the pork sandwiches and apples his mother had packed, before coming at last to the Tracy spread.

As usual, Jeff regarded the place with mixed emotions. The ranch house was a sturdy old building of stone and lodge pole pine, hunkered down against weather so fierce, it broke hearts. An artesian well lay off to one side, surrounded by a stand of budding cottonwood trees.

Out back, several miles behind the smokehouse, shed and stables, lay the 'dump', where the family hauled out and burned the household trash. Off in the middle distance, their grey flanks streaked and spotted with glittering white, the Grand Tetons clawed at a crystal blue sky. Beautiful, in its way, and harsh.

Mother had her potted plants out to take a little sun, and the nectar in her bird feeders had flocks of tiny, jeweled humming birds swarming and darting like bees. Jeff had grown up in Kansas, though, on the old farm. The ranch in Wyoming, like the two in Colorado, held no real memories for him; only revenue. What it did hold was family, not all of whom he knew how to handle.

They parked around back, crunching up a long, graveled walk to reach the deeply shaded porch. His mother met them at the door, wiping her hands on a striped dish towel, and peering intently over the tops of her spectacles. She wore several long skirts, layered Indian-fashion, a big denim work shirt, and stout boots. Her plaited hair had gone greyer, Jeff noticed, and her face was more lined, but she seemed to him as erect and peppery as ever.

"Mother," he said quietly, bending down to kiss her plump cheek, "It's good to see you. How have you been?"

"Busy!" She snapped. "It's like a damn barn around here, with people coming and going, lettin' the flies in, and tracking up my floor! How's a body supposed to keep anything clean? Boys, dogs, hired men, those crazy girls... and now you. I might as well set up in the north pasture, for all the damn sanitation I..."

Grant cast his eyes heavenward, but pulled her to him, and kissed her forehead, anyway.

"We'll live, Vic. And it'll taste fine, whatever it is."

Victoria Tracy pursed her lips and shook her head, but there was a softer light in her warm brown eyes, and she didn't exactly hasten to shake free of Grant's embrace. Watching them together, Jeff felt suddenly hollow. Why hadn't things worked out like that for him? Why had he lost two marriages, one to accident, the other to bitter divorce?

His mother allowed her fierce spirit to be soothed, let temper and cussedness be drawn out by the calm rock that was her husband. They repaired to the spotless kitchen, Victoria taking her husband's battered suede jacket, and Jeff's cashmere-blend sports coat. The men sat down at the table (Grant had made it by hand, back in Spirit, Kansas), while Victoria bustled back and forth with hot coffee and fresh pecan pie. Afterward, Grant accepted a fine Cuban cigar ($150 apiece), and they smoked for awhile in silence.

Jeff looked idly around the kitchen, taking in the cheap linoleum counter tops, chipped enamel sinks, wooden floor and cabinets, and tacky 'Kitchen Prayer' plaque. There was also a crazy window, made all of sawed-off bottle ends in mismatched colors, leaded together like stained glass.

Jeff shook his head. How many times had he offered to buy them a modern house? Something they could be proud of? He might have brought the matter up again, but the screen door creaked and banged suddenly, admitting three of his sons: Scott, Virgil, and John. They clattered in shedding cold air and pale sunlight.

Scott, he was proud to note, was nearly a man, sixteen years old and getting tall, with muscles sculpted by all those junior ROTC pushups.

Virgil was all loose-limbed, adolescent gangliness. At twelve years old, his arms and legs didn't seem to be hearing the same control signals, though he, too, was shooting up. Judging from the size of those feet, he was going to be a big, big man.

John, as always, seemed out of place, and sullen. Unlike that of the other two, his hair wasn't neatly trimmed, but fell forward over his face like a white-blonde curtain. Dressed in his older brother's cast-offs, he looked like a damn drug addict.

Scott came forward, first greeting Grant Tracy with a respectful nod, and kissed Victoria's cheek.

"We got the trash burned, Grandad," he said, darting uncertain looks at Jeff. "...And we made sure it was out, before we left. Virge thinks he saw some bear tracks, too."

"Wouldn't be surprised," Grant rumbled. "This time of year, they're out, n' hungry."

Scott had continued moving, walking diagonally toward Jeff while still keeping his grandfather in sight. Jeff extended a hand, and they shook.

"Scott, you're looking well," the boys' father remarked. "I hear that you've been elected class president. Congratulations."

The dark-haired oldest boy shifted his stance a bit, clearly embarrassed. Three more plates appeared at the table, laden (except for John's) with pecan pie and vanilla ice cream. John's plate, the last grandma carried in, held a slice of unfrosted yellow cake.

('Always coddling that boy, when what he really needs is a good, swift...')

But, Scott was speaking, his voice rather shy.

"Thank you, Sir. It, um... wasn't that big a deal. I sort of... didn't have an opponent."

"They knew better, huh?" Jeff smiled. Someday, he thought with pleasure, that boy was going to make a hell of an officer.

Scott actually blushed, saying earnestly,

"No, Sir. Just... I guess they thought I'd be good at it. I'm gonna do my best to get the vending machine repaired."

A matter of great importance, apparently.

"I'll have five new ones shipped out, tomorrow," Jeff promised easily, his eyes moving to Virgil.

"And how's the football player?"

The brown-haired boy dropped his gaze to the wooden floor for an instant, then looked up again.

"Toting water, and sitting on the bench, Sir," he replied. "Not strong enough to be much more than a tackling dummy, yet."

Jeff shook his head.

"And with an attitude like that," he reprimanded the boy, "that's all you ever will be. You've got to have some ambition, Son. If you're weak, if you hesitate, you'll get your tail stomped, every time. Get out there, and make it happen."

Confused, young Virgil muttered agreement, then sat down and addressed himself to the pie. And that left...

"Jeffery," Grandma Tracy called out, suddenly, "the knife drawer's stuck, again! Come see if you can't give the damn thing a good whack for me, and get it open."

"Yes, Mother."

Obediently, Jeff ground out his soggy cigar butt, and rose to see what could be done with the kitchen drawer. Behind him, the little group at the table seemed to relax.

Grant downed the last of his coffee, leaned closer to John, and muttered,

"You finish that cake, Boy, and git. Posy ain't been ridden in awhile, and she's getting restless. Saddle up, and give 'er a good run. I'll make your excuses."

"Yes, Sir." The answering whisper was flat and toneless, but a brief flash of genuine gratitude filled the boy's blue-violet eyes. "Thank you."

Had Jeff been content to let matters rest, the visit might, just possibly, have been a success. If he'd understood his sons better, if he'd ever just listened... But people move according to their nature, and for better or worse, Jeff's nature was one of power and control.

Later, wandering the grounds while his mother cooked an immense supper, Scott studied, and Grant rode out with Virgil to check on the calving, Jeff encountered his 'other' son; the disappointment.

John had an armload of creaking tack, and was headed for the shed, meaning to put away saddle, bridle and pad. Judging from the amount of strawberry-roan hair flecking his tee shirt and jeans, he'd already rubbed down the horse. Jeff bit back the urge to say,

'So, how's third grade this year?'

Instead, he limited himself to a sharp command.

"That mop comes off tonight, after supper. I'll get a set of clippers, and tie you down if I have to, but that 'f-you', pansy hair is gone, Mister."

No reply. All his son did was clutch the horse furniture a little tighter, as though for comfort.

"Look at me, when I'm talking to you! Why have you got to be such a damn weakling?"

John's head went down, which only served to infuriate his powerful father. From the summit of wealth and success, the boy's withdrawal seemed like abject, shivering cowardice.

Everything about John set his father off. The silence, the long hair and skinniness, the baggy tee layered over a long-sleeved undershirt (to hide the needle tracks, no doubt), and... maybe worst of all... the knife-thrust way he looked so much like Lucy.

Jeff got it into his head, all at once, that his son was abusing drugs, and probably had a stash hidden in his room, somewhere. He pointed at the house.

"Upstairs. Let's go."

The riding tack was abandoned in the yard. The two of them went inside, John walking slightly ahead. The boy looked toward the kitchen once, as they passed by, but Victoria was poking at something in her new oven, and didn't see.

It irritated Jeff to realize that he didn't know where in this rattle trap old house the boy's room even was. It made him feel like just the sort of unfit, out-of-touch parent who'd have a wasteoid for a son.

John's room, when they got there, was neat, orderly and austere. The single bed was made up with military precision, linens exactly aligned. Atop the wooden bureau sat a small color TV, and a carefully squared stack of books. By the closet was a desk, with a ladder-back chair, computer and lamp. Before the window stood a large, white telescope on a tripod, while the cream-colored walls held a number of tacked up star charts. There was a 10-gallon aquarium on a wrought iron stand, and a single, bright rag rug on the floor, by the bed.

Jeff rounded on his son.

"Where is it?" He demanded, absolutely dead certain that John had drugs hidden away.

A shrug was the only response, so he started looking, beginning with the bureau. Drawers were jerked out and rifled through, clothing scattered everywhere, until Jeff found the first zip-lock bag. Inside was a carefully rubber-banded roll of bills. Twenties. He held it up.

"Where'd you get this?"

At last, he got a reply. A little defiantly (for the money was far more important to the boy than Jeff realized) John said,

"I worked for it."

"Sure, you did."

At the time, Jeff didn't believe him. He tossed the roll of bills aside, and went on searching, hunting through and under bed, desk and footlocker, and pulling everything out of the closet. Even the aquarium gravel was raked through, sending its sole occupant (a neon tetra) careening into the glass walls.

Jeff found no drugs, but money hidden all over the place. Each roll contained only one denomination, color-coded by rubber band, and held in tightly sealed plastic bags. Altogether, several thousand dollars.

Stalking across the room to try shaking open a few books, he stepped hard on the rug. Something creaked. A loose floorboard. With a triumphant gleam in his brown eyes, Jeff yanked up the rug and cast it aside, revealing a board that had been carefully sawed through. A hiding place.

He jerked it out. There was a cavity beneath, lined in what appeared to be flattened, soldered together cans (Seemed like the boy had paid attention in metal shop, anyway).

Reaching within, Jeff pulled out a number of items, none of them what he'd expected to find. At the top was a picture. Jeff had taken it himself, back in Kansas; the four boys, with Lucy, before the accident. There were foreign coins, mission patches, and below that... a NASA souvenir tour book, yellowed with age. Gone suddenly cold and hollow, Jeff flipped through the book, and recalled when he'd seen it last.

A morning, almost 11 years before, at McConnell AFB, Kansas.

Jeff was home on leave, and up early. He rose from the bed, giving his warm, sleeping, tangle-haired wife a soft kiss. She was cocooned in white sheets, tired out from the night before, and he didn't want to wake her. So, throwing a robe on over his boxers, Jeff padded off down the hall to the kitchen, in search of coffee.

Three-year-old John was already up. He'd gotten himself breakfast (a bowl of dry Froot Loops; even then, he took no milk in his cereal, always eating the pieces of one color before starting on the next). Dressed in pajamas, he was lying on his stomach before the muted television, looking through a glossy book. There were highlighters beside him on the family room floor, arranged by color. 'Weird kid', Jeff joked to himself, as he often did, 'Wonder who's the father?'

He poured himself a cup of black coffee, heated it in the microwave, then came out, mug in hand, to observe his young son's doings. By flickering, pastel cartoon-light, the boy seemed to be going through a NASA souvenir book, highlighting his father's name and mission numbers.

"What're you up to, there, Tiger?" Jeff enquired, amused.

John looked up at him, and smiled.

"I'm cross referencing, Daddy."

Jeff nodded, sipped at the burning-hot coffee (which she'd flavored with that hazelnut crap, again), and said,

"You know, marking it up like that, You're killing your future sales price. Be worth a lot more on Ebay in twenty years, if it's still in pristine condition."

John set the blue marker down in its place between the green and purple ones, and ate another yellow Froot Loop. Before selecting the next marker, the three-year-old shot his father a slightly pitying look.

"Daddy," he explained, in the same halting, childish voice normal preschoolers used to describe their imaginary friends, "This isn't a matter of monetary value... It has personal meaning. Someday, when I'm old like you, and going blind and senile, I'll want to remember things about you and mommy. Highlighting the important parts will help me find them again. You see?"

Right. Jeff didn't know whether to laugh, of take a belt to the disrespectful little monster, so he just gulped at the coffee, and scalded his tongue. John climbed on the counters to get him an ice cube from the freezer. Later, Jeff fetched the newspaper and they worked the cross-word puzzle together until the sun rose, and the rest of the family came to slow, yawning life.

11 years later-

Very carefully, Jeff shut the old souvenir book, and set it down. Looking around at John's room, he suddenly realized what a goddam mess he'd created. Clothing, papers, books, money; the place looked like thieves had torn it apart looking for valuables. Little bits of life and purpose were scattered everywhere.

Genuinely sorry, Jeff gazed over at his son, who stood forlorn and silent in the midst of chaos, staring at the littered floor. Jeff felt about two inches tall. There was no way to alter the past (he'd already tried that), but, surely...

"Looks like I was wrong, Son. I'm... sorry. Really. But, that's why they put erasers on pencils, isn't it? Come on, I'll, um... I'll help you straighten up."

John lifted his head, shook the fair hair out of his face for a moment, and said, very calmly,

"I hate you."

Not a threat, no visible anger. Just a statement of fact. Then Victoria hurried in, led by a worried Scott. A few seconds later, she'd ejected him from the bedroom. It was a very short visit.

... No, earrings and tattoos didn't define the man, anymore than baggy clothes or long hair had. They only served to disguise him.