31: A Quiet Day

Virgil Tracy stood in the middle of his apartment and kicked at the floor in frustration. It was Friday; the day that was supposed to have been his last at Aeronautical Component Engineering. Instead he'd spent the past week in hospital, only being released into Hamish and Edna Mickelson's care last night, and he was definitely in no condition to return to work today.

He looked at his hands. They were encased in bulbous, clear, synthetic gloves that were one of the latest marvels of modern medical technology. Beneath these gloves, surrounded by a regenerative gel, were his burnt and scarred hands. This gel was supposed to help the body reconstruct damaged nerves, repair injured muscles, and replace displaced skin. He supposed that he should be grateful that he had access to this treatment, but he couldn't help feeling hard done by.

It left his hands practically useless.

Not only that, but the gel was a bright, lurid green. The kind of colour he would have dismissed from his artist's palette.

He had been assured that it was necessary to use the strongest gel to repair the damage that he'd inflicted on himself. The medical staff had also told him that as his hands healed, a process that would take at least six weeks, then the strength of the gel could be reduced; with an associated change of colour. They'd said that it was advisable for him to use his hands as much as possible in the interim to circulate the gel through the gloves and to stop his muscles and bones from seizing up through lack of use. Easier said than done when it was impossible to bend his fingers more than a few millimetres.

The gel had to be replenished daily, via an injection through the gloves, to replace that which had been absorbed into his tissues. It was only because Virgil had promised to return for one more treatment before leaving the States, and was going to have access to a qualified medical practitioner who could continue the treatment (Brains), that his doctor had been prepared to release him.

He'd left the hospital late yesterday afternoon after his last session, and had gone home with the Mickelsons. There he'd had to put up with Aunt Edna fussing around him, cutting up his food, and generally treating him like a child. That was until Uncle Hamish had reminded her that she was dealing with an adult man, not a little boy. After that she'd apologised and retreated into her shell; almost afraid to move, let alone speak.

The effect on a much loved friend had only served to increase Virgil's sense of frustration.

He'd declined the offer to stay the night and had asked to be taken home. It was to be his last night in his own place, and he intended to make the most of it. The wisdom of such a decision was called into question almost as soon as he'd stepped through the door. He'd thanked Uncle Hamish, said he'd be okay from here and that he'd see him tomorrow, and had dismissed the older man. Then, because there wasn't a lot else that he could do, he'd decided to turn in for the night. That was when he struck the first of many hurdles. He couldn't hold his toothbrush. He managed to wedge it between two sausage-shaped fingers, but the action of brushing kept on pushing the brush out of his mouth. In the end he gave up (theorising that one night with dirty teeth wouldn't result in them all falling out), pulled off his clothes, and fell into bed.

At least he'd managed to get a good night's sleep. Not that that had improved his mood the following day when he'd decided that breakfast would be too difficult to contemplate and instead tried to get dressed. With a bit of a struggle and some ingenuity, he'd got his pants on and done up. Socks had been more of a challenge, but he'd eventually succeeded. He decided to leave his shoes until later.

It was his shirt, or more correctly his shirt's buttons, which had caused him the most difficulties, and were the reason why he was standing in the middle of the floor feeling alone, annoyed, hungry and very, very frustrated.

He couldn't even take out his frustrations in the usual ways. He'd packed his stereo away last week, so couldn't listen to soothing music. He no longer had the manual dexterity to hold a paint brush.

And as for playing the piano…

When he'd awoken from the anaesthetic, he'd found his hospital bed surrounded by a worried family. They'd all listened closely when the surgeon had explained what the surgery had entailed and the ongoing treatment.

Typically it had been Gordon who'd provided a moment of levity during this serious discussion; even if this time it was unintentional. He'd asked the question that Virgil had been desperate to know, but too scared to ask. "Will he be able to play the piano when his hands are better?"

The surgeon had looked at Gordon as if the joker's reputation had preceded him.

Virgil looked at his hands. He would get better, he told himself. He would play the piano again…

His doorbell rang and, using his elbow to activate the opening mechanism, he slid it back.

Alan sauntered into the room. "Oh, look. It's Shrek."

His youngest brother's comment did nothing to alleviate Virgil's mood. "Shut up."

"I thought it was the Incredible Hulk." Gordon tugged at Virgil's unbuttoned front. "Careful, Alan, you've already made him mad. He's split his shirt open."

"I can't help it if these things don't work properly," Virgil snapped, holding up his green, gloved hands. His frustration quotient went up another notch when Scott, without asking permission, started doing the buttons up for him.

"Why don't you wear something that doesn't need fastening?" John asked.

"Because this is what I'd always planned to wear when I flew out! I've packed everything else except for my work gear and I can't wear that today!"

"Yep. Gotta look your best for when the boss tells you what a great guy you are," Alan smirked.

"Why don't we forget that nonsense; you guys help me finishing packing my gear away; and then we'll take off straight for the island?" Virgil suggested.

"You know we can't do that," Scott reminded him. "There are a lot of people wanting the opportunity to thank you for all the lives you've saved."

"Hero number one," John teased. "You do realise that he's knocked you back into second place, Alan? He's saved more lives than you."

"At least I've saved lives," Alan rejoined. "Unlike some I could mention."

"True," John gave a dramatic sigh. "Do you realise, Gordon; that you and I are the only ones of our brethren not to belong to that esteemed club?"

"You did a pretty good job of keeping mine intact." Then Gordon grinned. "Doesn't matter. Once International Rescue's underway, I'm going to leave you guys in my dust."

The reminder that he was going to be paraded around in front of his friends and workmates with what appeared to be bunches of un-ripened bananas hanging off the ends of his arms had done nothing to improve Virgil's temper. "I wasn't aware it was a competition!"

"Virgil's right," Scott agreed. "We should be entering into this venture for the right reasons; because we can help people. Not to see who can put the most notches in his belt." He looked at his disgruntled brother. "Have you had anything to eat?"

Virgil hesitated. "No."

"No wonder you're in a bad mood." Scott, happy in his role as mother hen, went into Virgil's kitchenette. He opened the fridge and removed a container, which he sniffed. "Your milk's off."

"What do you expect? I've haven't been home for a week."

Scott pointed at his three other brothers. "Why don't you guys make yourselves useful and start packing things away while I make him breakfast?" He rummaged through the cutlery drawer.

"I've got a better idea," John walked into the kitchenette and pulled the spatula out of Scott's hand. "You help with the packing and I'll do the cooking."

Scott attempted to reclaim the spatula. "No way!"

John held the implement out of reach. "I'm a better cook than you!"

"No, you're not!"

"Yes, he is," Alan stated as Gordon nodded his agreement. "He's used to cooking for himself. If we let you do it, Virgil'll end up with Air Force rations. High in nutrition, but with no flavour. You're supposed to tempt invalid's appetites, not repulse them."

"I'm not an invalid!"

Momentarily down-heartened by his brothers' slurs on his culinary expertise and trying to hide it, Scott strode over to Virgil's keyboard. "Do you trust me to pack this?"

Glad that his brother had the sensitivity to realise that he wouldn't accept just anyone laying hands on his precious keyboard, Virgil agreed. "Let me help you."

"Oh, no you don't! You can sit on that stool and eat. We'll take care of the awkward stuff."

Virgil hesitated, reluctant to accept that there wasn't much he could do anyway. "It goes in the box on the top shelf."

"Here," John placed a mug on the counter. "Drink this coffee while you keep an eye on them to make sure they don't break anything."

Virgil stared at the mug with its wisps of steam rising from the freshly boiled liquid. "Ah… Sorry, but I'd rather have something cold. I've got to use both hands to support the cup when I drink, and the conducted heat hurts…" He saw concerned looks pass between his brothers. "But it's the only time my hands hurt," he added. "Honest!"

"Whatever the customer wants, the customer gets," John said easily as he took the coffee for himself and looked back in the fridge. "Uh… So long as the customer is prepared to wait. Alan, do you want to run down to the store and get some juice?"

"No, don't bother," Virgil sighed. "Just give me water, John."

"Coming right up." With a flourish John filled the glass from the tap and placed it on the counter.

Gordon was emptying out the few items left in Virgil's drawers. "On the way here we were working out who's related to whom. As far as ACE's concerned, Scott and I are your brothers and Alan's Jeff Tracy's son, but we don't know which family John belongs to."

"So I'm free to decide what's more important; fraternal or paternal loyalty," John said, finding some edible cereal and tipping it into a bowl. "Do you want fruit with this?" he asked, looking through the cupboards. "Do you have fruit?"

"I was planning on refreshing the larder Monday evening." Virgil 'pointed'. "Try in there."

"So which is it, John?" Gordon's eyes were twinkling. "Are you going to be a Tancy boy?"

John pretended to consider the decision. "Let's see… Do I want to be your brother...? Or Jeff Tracy's eldest son...?"

Alan laughed. "The one who crashed an Air Force jet."

"I didn't crash it," Scott protested. Worried, Virgil glanced at his eldest brother, but Scott appeared happy to banter about the subject with his brothers. "I was shot down! And that was only because the guy got lucky!"

"Hmmn… Let's see…" John was pretending to think. "Father or brother…? Fraternal or financial…?" He leant over the counter and gave Virgil a condescending pat on the shoulder. "Sorry, Virg, but I can't let Alan inherit the entire estate, can I? He'd blow it all in two minutes flat."

"Would not." Alan was taking apart the gym equipment. "Why didn't you do your packing last weekend?"

"I was planning on doing it in stages throughout the week, not spending time in hospital," Virgil reminded him as he tried to make his hands do something useful. "There was no point in packing something away if I was going to use it later. Everything I thought I wouldn't need is in those boxes." He nodded at the cartons stacked against the wall and then resumed his attempt to slide the glass off the counter and onto his left palm. He was just congratulating himself on succeeding when his tumbler slipped off, fell onto the floor and smashed, sending glass and water everywhere. "What's the use of being ambidextrous if you can't use either hand!?!"

"Don't worry about it," John soothed. "I'll clean it up." He was picking up the largest pieces of glass when an idea came to him. "Have you got any plastic mugs?"

This was the final straw. "Don't patronise me, John!" Virgil snapped.

"I wasn't…"

But the fuse had finally been lit, and Virgil was in full dynamite mode as he gave vent to his frustrations. "I hate this!"

"I…" John began, but was cut off.

"I can't brush my teeth…!"

"You…"

"…or feed myself!"

"I…"

"Or paint!"

"Virg…"

"Or play the piano!"

"You…"

"Do you know how frustrating this is!?"

"I know…"

"You don't know! You can't even begin to imagine! How can you!? You can still use both your hands!"

John found the dustpan and brush and said nothing more as he bent down to start gathering up the glass shards.

"Virg…" Scott said quietly, resting a hand on Virgil's shoulder. "Calm down…"

But even he was unable to douse the flame. "Leave me alone…!" Virgil shook Scott's hand free. "Why don't you ALL just leave me alone? All I want to do is have a quiet day to pack up and get out of here. But instead of letting me do that, you're forcing me to go to this stupid presentation! Do you think I want to stand up in front of everyone with these green blobs?" He waved his hands in the air. "Do you think I enjoy being helpless? Do you think I like having to rely on others to cut my food for me and feed me? Or having you dress me like I was five-years-old again?! Do you, Scott?!?

"No…"

"Than why doesn't someone just put me out of my misery and be done with it?!"

"Gee, Virgil," Gordon deadpanned. "I can't begin to imagine what it's like for you."

Virgil glared at him. "Don't you start!"

"Imagine not being able to use your hands for what…? Six weeks?"

"Shut up, Gordon."

"Imagine having six weeks of being able to walk and talk. Imagine being able to go wherever you want to go. Imagine being able to hold intelligent conversations… Imagine having friends who actually want to see you…"

Virgil stared at his brother.

"Imagine being injured saving a life and not as a result of a stupid mishap."

Virgil sagged as the fire was finally extinguished. "Point taken… This is only temporary, right?"

"Right," Gordon agreed.

"And I'm lucky it's not permanent."

"Right," Gordon agreed again as, barely relying on his cane for support, he walked over to his brother's side and placed his arm about Virgil's shoulders. "Remember that just because you have to ask for help doesn't make you useless. It's nothing to be ashamed of." He looked Virgil in the eye. "I owe you big time. You never gave up on me and I'm not going to give up on you. None of us would. Remember that."

"Yeah, Virg," Alan agreed. "If you need a hand, no patronising pun intended, you've got four of us willing to help. More than four when we get to the island. Just ask!"

John nodded. "Even if it's only as a sounding board for when you get really frustrated."

Ashamed at the way he'd behaved, Virgil looked down at what could be seen of his hands. "Sorry, John," he mumbled.

"Don't worry about it. That was nothing compared to what I've been known to dish out." John balanced the pan and brush on top of the rubbish bin. "I'm sure I'd be just as frustrated if I were in your shoes."

"When have you ever 'dished out'?" Alan enquired as he got a newspaper and started to wrap the broken glass in it.

"None of your business." John took another glass out of the cupboard and filled it with water. "Now, at the risk of sounding patronising, hold out your left hand." Virgil did so, palm up, and John placed the glass on it. "Have you got it?" he asked when Virgil did his best to wrap his right fingers around the tumbler.

"I think so." John carefully withdrew his hand, allowing Virgil to hold the glass and take his first drink of the day. "Thanks. I needed that."

John tried rummaging through the cupboards again. "I can't find any fruit. Your milk's off. And the bread would probably heal your hands faster than that green slime… We could have let Scott make you breakfast." He glared at the dry cereal morosely. "This probably tastes like Air Force rations."

"Forget that," Scott suggested. "Let's go out for breakfast."

"Uh, uh. No way," Virgil refused. "I'm not going out in public with these." He indicated his hands and water slopped out of the glass and into his lap. He groaned.

"Especially not now." Grinning, Alan handed him a towel from the laundry hamper. "People will think we haven't got you housetrained." He snapped his fingers. "I've got it! Back in a moment." He ran out the door.

"What's he got?" Gordon asked.

"A short life span," John growled, "if he's not planning on helping us pack up here."

Scott was undeterred by Virgil's reluctance to head outside. "How about a drive-thru? Then you can eat in the car. And after the festivities we can come back here and finish packing. What do you say, Virg?"

It sounded like the best suggestion that anyone had had all morning and Virgil nodded. "Okay."

"Just so long as it's nothing deep fried, huh?" Gordon teased.

Virgil held the glass out so that John was able to take it from him, and slid off the stool. His sock-clad feet came into contact with the wet floor and he groaned again. "This is not my day." He dropped the towel onto the floor and trod on it to try to absorb some of the moisture.

"Here're some clean socks," Gordon held up a pair. "You might want to change before we head out."

Virgil, on the verge of losing his temper again, only just managed to refrain from snapping at his brother. "It took me half an hour to put this pair on."

"Give them here." Scott took the clean pair and Virgil, still only just managing to keep his cool, sat on the edge of his bed and submitted to having his big brother help him put on his socks and shoes. "How's that feel?"

"Better," Virgil admitted. He pulled at his collar. "Is it me or it hot in here?"

"The temperature hasn't changed." Scott was looking concerned. "Are you all right? You've gone red."

"I'm okay." Virgil wiped his brow and then tried to fan himself with his bulbous hands. "The doctors said it'll take a while for my internal thermostat to settle down. Until it does I'll get these temperature fluctuations."

"You mean hot flashes," Gordon grinned. He pretended to doff a cap and then picked up a newspaper. "Permit me to fan you, my Lady…" He saw a dangerous light in Virgil's eyes. "Master! I meant master!" he amended quickly, and started fanning his brother.

"If that didn't feel so good you'd be dead," Virgil growled.

"Well don't get too used to it. This is tiring."

"Thanks." Virgil accepted a damp towel from John and used it to mop his face, then, holding the cooling cloth against the back of his neck, he looked about his apartment. "There's still a lot to do. Why don't we order in and then we can carry on packing?"

Scott got off his knees and dusted his trousers down. "Don't you want to say goodbye to your friends?"

"They all visited me in hospital. I can give them a call later."

"What about everyone else? You do realise that this is the last opportunity that any of us are going to be able to accept any recognition in person for saving a life. Once International Rescue's operational we won't be hanging around long enough for thank yous, let alone awards. You want to make the most of it while you can."

"Yes," John agreed. "And don't you think that Mr Watts would like to thank you in person?"

"I doubt he'll be there." Feeling cooler, Virgil threw the towel in the direction of the laundry basket. "He's still in the hospital. Besides, I called in to see him when I was discharged." He snorted. "His primary concern seemed to be whether or not I'd ever be able to play the piano again. He didn't even say thank you for saving his life. He's just happy knowing that I'll be won't be at ACE when he's well enough to go back to work. You know he hates me."

"I'm sure hate's too strong a word," Scott soothed.

"Sorry, Scott, but you don't know the guy. I would have been gone from ACE a long time before now if he had found a legitimate reason for firing me."

"And if he'd done that, he'd be dead now," Gordon stated. "Well, if you're not going, I am. I'm not going to miss out on the opportunity to talk to Lisa face-to-face instead of by text. And I need one of these guys to drive me there… Who's going to volunteer?"

"I'd just like to see if Lisa's as beautiful in the flesh as she is on the video screen," John said. "I'll drive you, Gordon."

"Thanks."

Alan dashed back into the apartment. "Got them!" He put a shrink-wrapped packet on the counter and started ripping open the plastic.

"Got what?" Scott asked.

"Meal in a shake," Alan explained as he pulled the straw off one of the cartons and poked it in through the seal on the top. "There y'are, Virg. You should be able to hold and drink that without too many dramas." He tapped the rest of the cartons. "There's enough there to keep you going until we get you to the island and can work out a better solution."

Grateful for his kid brother's unexpected thoughtfulness, Virgil accepted the drink and the nourishment that it offered.

"Let's start thinking about how we can give you more dexterity," Scott suggested. "You might have to use your feet more to do things."

"Like eat?" Virgil asked. "I'm not that flexible."

"Tin-Tin could show you yoga," Alan suggested. "She's started taking lessons and she says it makes you more flexible."

This comment drew his brothers' attention away from Virgil. "How'd you know that?" John asked.

Alan gave a casual shrug. "We've been emailing each other."

"Now that you know what a goddess she is," Gordon smirked.

"That's all well and good," Scott rejoined. "But she's in Europe and Virgil's going to be on the island, so I don't think she'll be much help." He turned back to Virgil who was sucking up the last of the drink. "Have you got any ideas?" He took the empty container and put it on a box.

"Well…" Virgil frowned in thought. "Really, it's only my fingers that don't work. I've still got a full range of movements in my arms. My main problem is that I can't hold anything securely… I can hold small things between my fingers, but these gloves don't have a lot of grip. I can hold things between my hands like an apple or a sandwich, but for anything hot or messy…" He thought some more. "If I had something that could grasp a knife and fork then I could use my arms to manipulate movements about the x, y and z axes … But applying pressure might be a slight problem."

"What? For stabbing your food?" Alan asked.

"I can always push bite sized chunks onto a fork," Virgil continued, "or scoop with a spoon. It's getting it to an edible size that causes problems," he added, remembering last night and Aunt Edna. "I don't want to have to rely on everyone else to cut my food up before I can eat it."

"Low energy laser?" John suggested. "Something powerful enough to slice through a bit of steak without charring it?"

"Remembering that, if Scott's cooked the steak, charring it might improve the flavour," Gordon snickered. "Or you might need a stronger laser to puree it."

He received a baleful glare from his big brother, but apart from that Scott refused to dignify the comment with a response. Instead he turned back to Virgil. "Now you're talking. You obviously needed to feed your brain to kick-start it into action. From here on it'll be easy. You come up with the plans and between the four of us we should to be able to convert them into something useable."

Alan nodded. "Especially if Brains helps."

"Now that you know you're not going to faint in hunger," John looked at his watch, "don't you think it's time we headed off to ACE?"

Virgil decided that it would be better to face this particular challenge head on. "May as well. Alan, get those keys off the hook," he instructed.

"Which? These ones?"

"That's them. You can drive the Red-Arrow. Only pretend it's yours while we're at ACE, would you? No one there knows that I own it or that it was Butch's."

"The Red-Arrow!" Alan's face shone. "Do you mean it?"

"I think a world champion should be able to handle her…" Virgil grinned at their big brother, "so long as you ride shotgun and keep an eye on him."

Scott gave him a grin in return. "Deal."

---I-R---

---F-A-B---

Virgil's group, with John driving and Gordon annoying him by pretending to change gears with his walking stick, was the first to arrive.

"I think you've lost your car, Virg," John commented as he opened Virgil's door. "The kid's hijacked it along with Scott."

Virgil, trying to undo his seat belt, remembered his younger brother's excitement. "They've probably taken the long route so he can see how she performs."

John reached in and pushed the button that released the belt. "How does she perform?"

"Like a dream."

"Really? Do you think I could have a go later?" For all his protestations about his similarities with his blonde sibling, there was a similar gleam in John's eye at the thought of driving the classic car.

"You may as well," Virgil replied. "I'm not going to get the chance before I sell it back to the Crumps."

"Before you what!?"

Gordon spied his father, who was enjoying the winter sun in the carpark as he talked with a few of ACE's employees, some of whom were looking overawed at being engaged in conversation with their famous, wealthy boss. "Hi, Uncle Jeff!" he yelled.

Jeff looked around. "Hello, Gordon."

"We would have been here sooner." Gordon explained at the top of his voice, "but we had to dress Virgil first!"

Virgil felt his cheeks grow as hot as the crucible furnace. "Couldn't you have left him on the island?" he asked John.

"We did consider it, but decided that it wouldn't be fair on Kyrano and Brains."

"Great. You think more of them than you do of your own flesh and blood."

"Gordon." Jeff excused himself from the group and greeted his mischievous son with an angelic smile that nearly hid the twinkle in his eye. "And how is my honorary nephew? Still giving your family grief?"

"Well, you know how it is," Gordon grinned. "I can't let them forget how lovable I am."

"I'm so glad that you're Virgil's brother and not my son." Jeff said, continuing the charade. "I pity your poor father and brothers sometimes… That was quite a scare you gave them. I don't know how many grey hairs you gave your father, and as for what your brothers went through…" He gave a sombre shake of his head and then turned to another 'honorary nephew'. "How are your hands, Virgil?"

"Frustrating, but otherwise fine."

Jeff smiled. "Good. Where is, ah…" he hesitated as he tried to remember the family relationships, "my son and your brother?"

John was grinning as he watched the wheels turn in his father's brain. "Taken the scenic route… Dad."

Jeff chuckled. "So Alan's not an only child."

"Nope."

His father's comments had been enough to subdue Gordon into quiet introspection… For all of two minutes. "Here come the stragglers…" he yelled at the Red-Arrow as it pulled into a parking space. "Did you get lost?"

"Oh, wow, Virgil!" Alan enthused as he locked the Red-Arrow's doors. "This car's primo. Have you driven her, Dad?"

Virgil smiled at his brother's enthusiasm. "You've only been driving Butch's car for five minutes and you're already talking like him."

"I have driven her, Alan," Jeff admitted. "And you're right. She is 'primo'… Now, if you'll all excuse me, I have some things that I have to sort out with Hamish. I'll see you all inside. Your grandmother's already in there with Edna." He wandered off, joining another knot of Virgil's workmates and engaging them in further conversation.

"If it's not a stupid question," John began. "What took you guys so long? You left before us."

"In a squeal of tyres and with a hearty hi ho, Red-Arrow," Gordon quipped.

"It is a stupid question," Scott responded. "He insisted on taking the long route. Now he's talking about hiring the local track and putting it through its paces."

"She's a performance vehicle so you've should give her a bit of a workout once in a while," Alan responded, trying to appear casual even though he kept on stroking the Red-Arrow's bonnet. "Virgil's not going to be able to drive for the next few weeks, so I thought I'd do what I could to help out."

"Gee, thanks, Alan," Virgil deadpanned. "I appreciate you considering me like that… Hi, Bruce."

"Hi, Guys," Bruce Sanders greeted the Tracys. He looked at Virgil's green hands. "You realise that Lou'll take one look at them and start calling you Veggie again?"

Gordon snuffled a laugh. "Veggie?"

"After your grandma's secret drink." Bruce patted his friend on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Virgil, if he does call you that there are plenty of people in there who'll put him right."

The Tracys and Bruce slipped, almost unnoticed, into ACE's social club room, which was buzzing with Virgil's workmates and their families.

Scott looked around. "Ah! Food!" he exclaimed. "Be right back."

"He's got a radar that's linked directly to his stomach," Alan stated. "What do you suppose they've got to eat?"

"Why don't you go and have a look?" Virgil suggested. "Don't worry about me; I'm not going to be able to eat with any dignity anyway. I'll grab one of your drinks later."

"Don't give up yet," John said. "We'll work something out." He, Bruce, and his brothers wandered over to the table laden with finger foods and other snacks.

Scott came back, his hands full. "Hands out, Virg," he commanded, and helped his brother hold onto a plastic glass of orange juice. "Open wide." He popped a small savoury into Virgil's mouth. "How's that?"

Virgil chewed appreciatively. "Delicious." He glanced about to check that no one could overhear their conversation. "What we were talking about at my place... Are you okay with that crack Alan made about you crashing the plane?"

Scott grinned. "I was going to mention that when we were alone. I had a phone call from Brian Daniels the other day. He apologised for everything he said."

"Apologised?" Virgil had to admit to being surprised by the revelation. "Now?! But it's been nearly a year since you left the Air Force. What did you say?"

"That I appreciated the apology. After all, it's better late than never. We're going to… I'll tell you about it later…"

They'd been interrupted by the return of their brothers; Gordon in the lead. "Is Lisa here?" he asked.

Virgil craned his neck over the crowd. "Yes, there she is, over there." He pointed with his two green hands and orange drink.

"Great. I owe her an apology. I'm not planning on playing for sympathy so hold this will ya?" Gordon hung his walking stick off Virgil's right arm and walked away.

"Hey!"

Scott grinned at Virgil's indignation and unhooked the cane. "It must be a week for making amends. Come on; let's see what he's got to say for himself."

As they followed Gordon, Virgil was greeted by all his friends and colleagues. John, however, was more interested in the former WASP who, with a slightly rolling gait, was pushing through the crowd. "He walks just like a sailor..." His eyes narrowed, "I've had my suspicions that the only reason why he still uses a cane is so he's got something on hand he can use to trip us up. I think he's just proven my theory."

Gordon had reached Lisa who, talking with the wife of one of her co-workers, hadn't noticed him come up behind her. He waited until there was a lull in her conversation and then tapped her on the shoulder. "Ah... Lisa..."

Lisa turned. There was the briefest frown of confusion on her face before, with a joyful cry of "Gordon!" she threw her arms about his neck. Then, suddenly embarrassed by her over-familiarity she took a step back. "Sorry," she blushed.

"I'm the one who is supposed to be saying that," he protested. "I'd get onto my knees to beg your forgiveness, but I doubt I'd be able to get up again."

"Don't be silly," she told him. "You apologised months ago. I'd forgotten all about it... You look great. Where's..." She spied Virgil. "You made it!" she squealed, and Scott only just managed to rescue the orange drink before Virgil was tackled.

"I hope Butch didn't see that," Virgil laughed as he was released from the hug. "He might get the wrong idea about us..."

"We've already got the wrong idea," Alan teased.

Lisa giggled. "How are you, Alan?"

"Fine, thanks. Where is Butch anyway?"

"The last time I saw him, he was over there," she pointed, before rolling her eyes. "He'll be so excited that Alan Tracy asked after him." She grinned at Virgil. "I told you, you wouldn't be able stay away."

Virgil made a face. "These guys dragged me here against my will... I don't think you've met John..."

John treated her to a winning smile. "Hello, Lisa."

"Hello, John."

Virgil continued the introductions. "And you probably only saw Scott from across the room."

"And Butch made sure that I saw more of him than of you," Scott recollected. "Nice to finally redress that, Lisa. Virgil's told us lots about you."

She winked at Virgil. "I'm sure it's not all good."

"A lot of it has been..." Scott sought the right word, "intriguing. Virg has been feeding out enough to keep us curious"

"I'll bet." Lisa giggled again.

Gordon grinned. "But you'll give us all the gossip, won't you?" He shifted his weight from one leg to the other.

"Here," Scott held out the walking stick to its owner, "you'd better take this before you fall over."

"Thanks." Gordon accepted the cane and leant on it for support.

Butch came ambling over. "Here's my pal!" He gave Virgil what was, for him, a gentle punch on the shoulder.

Well practised in bracing himself against Butch's overly-affectionate greetings, Virgil managed to avoid staggering backwards. "How are you, Butch?"

"Fine. Been helpin' Mrs T."

"She'll appreciate that. Where is she?"

"In th' ki'chen with Mrs M." Butch guffawed. "They're tellin' th' caterers what t' do."

Virgil chuckled. "I can imagine."

"Hiya, Butch." Alan looked around to check no one was close enough to overhear. "I drove the Red-Arrow here."

Upon hearing that his hero had driven what had once been his pride and joy, Butch looked like a child who'd been visited by Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and both sets of doting grandparents in the same morning. "You drove th' Red-Arrow! Whatcha think?"

"She's primo," Alan enthused.

"I'n't she just," Butch said happily. "An' she's got even betta since m' pal here bought 'er."

"Unfortunately I've had to neglect her this past week," Virgil reminded them. "Butch... These three reprobates are my brothers Gordon, John and Scott. Although as far as ACE is concerned, John's Alan's brother and not mine."

"Hiya." Butch shook hands with the three Tracys.

"Geez, Butch. That's some grip you've got." Gordon massaged his hand. "Lend us some of your green goop, Virgil. I think he's squashed all the blood out of my fingers."

But Butch wasn't listening. He and Scott were locked in a minor wrestling match as they shook hands and stared each other down, neither willing to be the first to let go.

It was Bruce's reappearance that broke the stalemate. "I wonder when they're going to get the show on the road."

Virgil looked at him. "What show? What have they got planned?"

"I don't know. Mr Mickelson and Mr Tracy haven't told us minions anything."

"We could always do a bit of snooping," Gordon suggested. "Dad'll probably tell us."

"He probably won't," Scott rejoined, trying surreptitiously to massage the life back into his fingers.

"C'mon, fellas," Gordon spun about on his cane. "I need to stretch my legs anyway."

"I'd better keep an eye on them," Scott sighed. "Do you want your drink back, Virg?"

"Thanks." Virgil watched his brothers leave. "They won't find out anything. Not from Father or Uncle Hamish."

"Actually, Virgil," Bruce sounded uncomfortable, "we're glad they've gone. We wanted a word with you in private."

Virgil raised an eyebrow. "Oh, yes?"

"Yes," Lisa nodded. "We have to something to say to you, but not in front of your family."

"Why don' we shift?" Butch suggested. "Too many people 'ere."

Virgil felt his other eyebrow rise up. "You guys are being very mysterious." He followed them through a door and into the dead, empty factory.

Bruce looked at his friends and they indicated that he should be the one to take the floor. "Don't take this the wrong way, but we've been discussing you."

Virgil, not so much surprised by the revelation, but by the mysterious way that it was being revealed, looked between his friends. "Is that why it's not only my hands that have been burning?"

"We know that you've been looking forward to being part of this project of your father's all year," Bruce explained, "and that he's expecting you to be part of it, but we can't help thinking that you're making a mistake."

Butch nodded his agreement. "Big mistake."

"A mistake?" Virgil echoed. "What do you mean? Do you think I should stay at ACE? Look, I do enjoy working here, especially with you guys, but..."

"No..." Bruce held up his hand. "We've enjoyed working with you too..."

"We're going to miss you," Lisa interrupted.

"But we don't think you should work here either," Bruce continued. "Do you remember that I once joked that you must count saving lives as one of your hobbies? Well, and I'm not joking now, we think you should consider it as a profession. Become a fire-fighter, or paramedic, or something like that. Something hands on where you can make a difference to someone's life. You're in your element when you're helping people."

Virgil wasn't quite sure what he was hearing. "You mean a rescuer of some type?"

"Yes," Lisa nodded. "Look at all the people you helped this one year. There was me, and then everyone on that flight, and then the way you stepped in to stop the Skulz..."

"An' th' way y' risked y' neck t' save Mr W," Butch agreed.

"You and Bruce helped too," Virgil reminded him. "And Greg and Uncle Hamish."

"Yeah... But y' were the one 'oo went down the rope. Y' shouldn' be stuck ina factry or behind a desk. Y' need t' be out helpin' people!"

Trying to conceal his smile, Virgil finished his orange juice. "Well, thanks for the advice and, if things don't work out, maybe I'll take it. I'll definitely give it serious consideration while I can't do anything else."

The door to the factory opened. "Is this where you're all hiding?" Scott asked.

John gave a low whistle as he looked around. "I haven't been here in years. Is it me or has this place grown?"

"I told you this was one of the biggest plants of its type in the country," Virgil reminded him. "They rebuilt the entire factory eight years ago."

Alan tugged on Virgil's sleeve. "Where is it?"

"Where's what?"

"The furnace."

"Oh, that." Virgil attempted to point. "Over there behind that barrier."

"Can we see it?"

"There's nothing to see," Bruce told the youngest Tracy. "It's been turned off since Monday. The authorities won't let ACE start it up again until more safety measures have been put into place."

"Come on, Bruce. Show us," Alan pleaded. "You can tell us just how close Virgil was to the crucible. He can't remember."

"I'm not sure I want to," Virgil rejoined.

"No," Scott empathised. "Me neither."

"You want to see, don't you, Gordon?" Alan asked.

"Uh-huh. How about you, John?"

"Yep. Lead on, Bruce."

Bruce sighed. "Okay. But keep between the yellow lines. Everything might be turned off, but this can still be a dangerous place." He led four of the Tracy brothers away.

Virgil was going to follow, but he was held back by Lisa. "Can you wait a moment?" she whispered, looking furtive.

"Liesl..." Butch warned. "Y'll only embarrass him."

"No," she replied. "I need to apologise."

"Apologise?" Virgil's eyebrows were getting a workout this morning. "Apologise for what?"

"The other day... Monday... After you'd rescued Mr Watts, and Greg and Bruce had brought you back down to the floor again... And you were… ah… in the tub being cooled down... When they, er, they removed your PPE..."

"Yes..."

"Well... ah... I was holding Butch..." She put her arm about her husband and pulled him close. "I'd been so scared that he was going to be killed and I couldn't quite believe that he was standing next to me."

"Yes," Virgil repeated. "I think I remember seeing that."

"Well, I, ah, was also worried about you too... You looked so sick when they brought you down on the stretcher. I didn't even know if you were still alive... And your hands! They were such a mess...!" She glanced down at Virgil's green extremities. "I was scared that you wouldn't live. So I wanted to see if you were still alive. I had to know... So I watched the paramedics work on you. I... ah..." She turned pink. "I saw more than I should."

"Lisa, 'n me, 'n a whole lot of other people," Butch added.

Virgil felt himself grow hot and wondered if it was embarrassment or if his thermostat had gone haywire again. "You saw..."

"They had to remove your clothes to cool you down... And they removed... all your clothes."

"Oh." Virgil wasn't sure what else he should say.

"Before they covered you with the sheet and started dampening you down."

"Oh," Virgil repeated.

"I'm sorry," Lisa said.

Virgil rubbed his sleeve over his overheated forehead.

"See," Butch accused. "Y've embarrassed 'im, Liesl. Y' shouldn' 'ave said anythin'."

"Well... ah, Lisa..." Virgil cleared his throat. "Considering that I can claim to have actually undressed you, in a manner of speaking, and seen you topless, then I guess we're even."

"I'm sorry, Virgil"

"Don't be." Virgil shook his head. "We know it was perfectly innocent. Like the time that you were running semi-naked around my apartment."

Lisa gave a slightly nervous giggle. "And slept in your bed."

"And Grandma and I've got a lot of mileage teasing my brothers over that. We've kept them guessing all year. So we won't worry about Monday, okay?"

Lisa gave a relieved smile. "Thank you." The three of them started wandering over to where Bruce was showing the rest of the Tracys some of the highlights of the factory.

"Changing the subject completely," Virgil began, "I've been thinking about the Red-Arrow. I can't take it to the island with me; the sea air won't do it any good and there's nowhere to run it…"

"So ya still gonna work for ya father?" Butch interrupted.

"For the moment, yes," Virgil replied, slightly surprised that Butch was more concerned about his future than the car. "So what I was thinking was… what would you say to the three of us having joint ownership? I'll pay the insurance and legal stuff and use it whenever I'm in town, and the pair of you can take care of the day-to-day running costs and use it whenever you want. What do you think?"

The Crumps had stopped and were staring at him. "Ya lettin' us use ya car?" Butch asked.

"No, you're going to be using your car," Virgil corrected. "It won't do her any good keeping her locked up in a garage somewhere, so you'll be spending money on her to keep her running. I'd expect that my family would be able to use it as well as me, but that won't be very often. We'll make it all legal and if you'll feel better you can pay me a nominal amount, but it's not like I want or need the money. I just want to make sure that the Red-Arrow's looked after. And I know no one will look after it better than you two… Is it a deal?"

Butch was looking dazed. Lisa however got over her shock. She threw her arms around Virgil. "Oh, thank you!" He received a kiss that didn't go unnoticed by his brothers.

"Oh, yes," Alan snickered with a suggestive grin. "And what have you three been up to?"

Virgil had often wished that he was as good at coming up with quick-fire retorts as he was coming up with engineering solutions; especially when it came to teasing his brothers. Lisa however proved that she was a match for the Tracys. "I've just been telling Virgil how hot he is when he's naked." She smirked.

Virgil, immensely satisfied with the stupefied looks he was receiving from his brothers, gave a 'what else would you expect?' shrug.

"Virgil?" Scott queried.

Virgil ignored him and turned to Bruce. "Haven't you shown them the furnace yet?"

Bruce, who'd initially been as dumbfounded as the Tracys, had put two and two together and was now wearing a smirk of his own. "No. I was showing them the welder that nearly killed Lisa. This is the scene of your first triumph."

"Our first triumph," Virgil corrected. "You were the first aider. I was only helping."

"I don't care who did it," Lisa said. "I'm just glad someone did something."

"Yeah," Butch agreed. "An' me. It's thanks t' y' two that I've still got m' girl." He squeezed his wife.

The eight of them continued on through the factory, stopping only when they reached the barrier that prevented anyone from getting too close to the crucible furnace.

Alan looked at the innocuous metal ball. "It doesn't look too dangerous."

"It's not when it's cold," Virgil told him. "They've moved it from where it was the other day. The crucible was right underneath us at the time." He pointed above their heads to a walkway over to the right. "That's the gantry Mr Watts was hanging from. I didn't have far to rappel."

"Till y' rope slipped," Butch recollected.

"How far did you fall?" John asked.

"I don't know," Virgil admitted. "From where I was it seemed as though I was caught only just above the molten metal." He gazed up at the furnace; his face creased in a thoughtful frown.

"From where I was standing down here, I'd say he was about three to four metres above the mouth," Lisa said. "What do you guys think?"

"I couldn't really tell from where we were," Bruce remembered.

"Nah," Butch agreed. "Seemed mighty close fr'm where I was. It was hot!"

Bruce nodded. "I'll say. Even up on the gantry, where in theory we were far enough away from the heat that our thermal suits should have protected us, I was in a sweat. Of course, that was probably nerves."

"I know I was scared stiff," Lisa added. "When Virgil stopped answering me I thought he'd died. You've no idea how relieved I was when Mr Mickelson said that he was still conscious."

"Mr M did all right for 'n old guy," Butch said.

Gordon chuckled. "Don't let Uncle Hamish hear you say that."

Butch looked embarrassed at his gaffe. "'E got down right next t' Virgil and helped 'im, 'nd th' heat 'ad knocked 'im out fast."

"True," Bruce agreed, "but Virgil had been hanging over the crucible for longer."

"Much longer," Lisa confirmed.

"I honestly thought you were going to be leaving ACE in a coffin, Virgil…" Bruce realised that his friend appeared to be miles away. "Virgil?"

Scott nudged his brother. "Are you okay?"

Virgil gave himself a mental shake. "Yes… I just remembered something."

"What?"

"That I'd better write Tuffas a letter of thanks for making such good PPE." Virgil looked at his hands ruefully. "So long as you remember to wear it."

"I wondered where you all were," a deep voice said, and they turned to see Jeff Tracy striding towards them. "The hospital just called. Max Watts is on his way here."

Virgil stared at his father. "He's coming? When I saw him yesterday he didn't look well enough to get out of bed."

"He was determined to attend," Jeff told him. "Even if it was going to mean discharging himself early. I told him that under no circumstances was he to do that and I've managed to arrange for an ambulance to bring him here. But I don't want him out of the hospital any longer than necessary, so we're going to start proceedings as soon as he gets here."

"Proceedings?" Virgil asked. "What proceedings?"

Jeff grinned, winked, and said nothing.

Scott turned his back on the cold, grey ball that had nearly been his brother's final resting place. "I'm sick of looking at that thing."

"I've never liked it," Virgil admitted. "Now I know why."

"I'm going to go and get something else to eat before 'proceedings' start," Bruce stated. "Anyone else coming?" He and the Crumps wandered away.

Jeff remained behind, looking up to where the drama had taken place less than a week ago. "The thought that I, even indirectly, might have been responsible for deaths, especially that of one of my own sons…" He gave a visible shiver. "It gives me the chills."

"It's done the opposite for Virgil," Gordon teased. "He gets hot flashes."

"Gordon…!" Virgil growled.

Jeff looked at him in concern. "Are you sure you're all right? You are a little red."

"I'm fine."

"Virg... You weren't thinking about Tuffas then, were you?" Scott accused. "You were thinking about something else. What was it?"

"Well… No, I wasn't..." Virgil hesitated. "I was thinking that I owed you a thank you."

"Me?" Scott looked surprised. "What for?"

"Catching me."

"Catching you?" Scott frowned. "When."

"When I was falling into the furnace."

Scott looked startled.

"You did catch me… Didn't you?"

"Yeah…" Scott uncomfortable at the admission, examined the skin that was peeling off his palms. "Well, I tried."

"Thanks."

"You're welcome."

The two brothers shared a look of warm understanding.

"You guys are seriously creepy," Gordon stated. "Do you know that?"

"If you think it's creepy, Gordon," Scott faced his brother, "you want to try it from where we're standing."

Virgil could only agree with him.

"Well, while we're dealing with the supernatural," John said and received twin dirty-looks, "who was the woman?"

"Yes!" Alan exclaimed. "Who is she? Spill the beans, Virgil."

John rounded on him. "Does this mean you believe now, Alan?"

"Until I can find a logical explanation, what choice do I have?"

"A woman?" Confused, Virgil looked between his brothers. "What woman?"

Gordon, his weight on his cane, leant closer. "The bad woman."

"Bad woman?"

Alan nodded vigorously. "Was it Lisa?"

"Lisa? She's got a wicked sense of humour sometimes, but she's not bad..." Virgil looked to his father for clarification. "What are they talking about?"

"Scott said a woman was burning you."

"A woman was burning me?!" Virgil fixed his attention on his eldest brother.

"Don't look at me like that," Scott complained. "That's what you were telling me."

"I wasn't telling you anything like it. All the women were well out of the way on the factory floor. Lisa was talking to me over the radio headset, but she was helping me keep focused, not burning me. That was the heat from the molten metal."

"Okay, then," Gordon decided to change tack. "What about the snakes?"

Virgil looked at him as if he were mad. "Snakes?!"

"Yeah. Scott said that you were being attacked by snakes."

"I didn't say that. I said that the snakes were a kind of metaphor."

"Metaphor?" Virgil shook his head as if he had concerns about his brothers' sanity. "Snakes? What kind of drinks are they serving here?! You've all lost your mi..." A smile crept onto his face as a memory surfaced. "Ah… I think I understand…"

"So, you do know what he was talking about?" John asked. "Who was this bad woman?"

"Medusa."

Everyone looked at him as if they had a suspicion that the heat had fried his brains. "Medusa?"

"Yes. I told you that I've never liked that crucible furnace. Call it my artist's imagination if you like, but it always reminded me of Medusa when I saw the heat currents writhing above it... Here, I'll show you." He led them over to a tattered picture on the wall. "I drew this to kill time when Lisa was modelling for the Tuffas catalogue."

Scott stared at the drawing. Then he chuckled. "Medusa, with her head of snakes. That makes sense."

Virgil nodded. "She's a bad woman who turned men to stone. I was hoping she wasn't going to do that to me."

"Well, now that we've got that cleared up," Jeff rubbed his hands together. "I think we'd better rejoin the party."

Virgil sighed. "Let's get the circus over and done with." He, accompanied by his father, trailed behind his brothers. "I hope you're not going to be making too much fuss."

"Virgil…" Jeff held the door open for him. "You deserve some recognition and I'd be frowned on by my employees if I didn't do something to acknowledge your efforts. After all, you saved Max Watts' life!"

"And then I had to be rescued by Uncle Hamish. That's not exactly an illustrious start to my career."

"You risked your life to save someone else's. Why don't you want ACE to show their appreciation?"

Virgil held up his green hands. "Would you want to be paraded in front of the people you work with looking like this?"

Whatever Jeff's answer was going to be, he was interrupted when a young man rushed towards them. "Virgil...! Virgil! I…" George Watts pulled up short when he realised who Virgil was talking to. "Oh! Sorry, Mr Tracy. I… um… I can come back later…"

"No, it's all right, George. I'll leave you two to talk…"

"Please, don't go on my account, I've got to get back to Dad in a minute anyway."

"Your father's here?" Jeff looked towards the door. "I should go and greet him."

"Don't do that," George begged. "He'd be too embarrassed for you to see him being carried out of the ambulance. He'd be much happier meeting you in here."

Jeff nodded. "How is he? I'm not sure that I've done the right thing arranging for him to leave the hospital."

"He's not the best," George admitted. "But nothing was going to stop him coming. I'd better get back out there and keep an eye on him, but before I do…" He turned to Virgil. "I just had to tell you. I've got a job playing the guitar!"

Virgil smiled at the other man's obvious pleasure. "You have? That's great! Where?"

"It's only as a session player at one of the local recording studios, so it's nothing glamorous, but at least it means I'm in the industry and I'm getting a regular income. I can use it as a stepping stone to something better."

"Yes, you can," Virgil agreed. "That's really great, George. What does your father say?"

"He hasn't said much, but I think he's pleased. You know what fathers are like. Don't like to be proved wrong."

Virgil glanced at his own father and only just managed to avoid laughing out loud as he agreed. "Oh, yes; I know exactly what fathers are like."

"Always needing to look out for their offspring's best interests," Jeff growled.

"I know Dad can be a stubborn old so-n-so sometimes," George admitted. "But I would have hated to lose him. I said it before, Virgil, and I'll say it again. Thank you for saving his life."

"I won't say 'any time', but I'm glad I was able to help." Virgil watched as George Watts hurried back towards the door. He turned to his father, realising that his co-workers were giving him and 'the boss' plenty of space to talk. "What would you have done if I'd chosen music as a career?"

"I would have told you that if that's what you wanted then I would have supported you all the way. And I would have done," Jeff admitted. "Before retreating into my room and cursing the day that I agreed to letting you have music lessons."

Virgil grinned. "I thought I saw panic in your eyes when Mr Tancy suggested that I attend music school."

"That was nothing compared to the terror I felt when you said you'd consider it."

"Terror?"

Jeff chuckled. "Followed by profound relief when you told me you were intending to go to Denver. It's like I told George: a parent's need to have what's best for their child, even if it's not what their child wants, is a pretty powerful emotion. If music was something I'm comfortable with, then I might have felt differently. But, as a career choice, it's a completely alien subject to me. I know engineering and that's why I was so relieved when you decided to choose that as a career."

"In that case you must have had a fit when Gordon announced he was going to join WASP."

"No, not really…" Jeff said slowly. "I understand the discipline that goes into an organisation like that, even if I don't feel comfortable with the environment they work in. Besides, I needed an aquanaut."

"And a field engineer." Virgil laughed. "I was talking to Bruce, Butch and Lisa a few minutes ago. They told me that I should stop considering saving lives as a hobby and make it my vocation."

"Maybe they have a point," Jeff chuckled. He glanced towards the door, but the Watts had yet to make their entrance. "I wish Max would get himself a hobby. If he had interests outside of ACE then he might not have come to work on Monday when he was sick, and he wouldn't have ended up in hospital. When I visited him I took him an autographed model of the first shuttle I went into space in and told him that I expected to see it completed sometime. With any luck he'll enjoy assembling it so much that he'll want to make more." He shook his head. "It's pitiful really. All I've done is go to the moon and start up this business, but in his eyes I'm some kind of god..." Jeff straightened. "Look, there he is. We'd better go and say hello…"

Not relishing the idea of meeting his nemesis, Virgil hung back. "You go on. I'll see you later."

Jeff gave him a strange look. "One day you're going to have to tell me just what went on between you two."

"No, I won't."

"Come on, Virgil..." Virgil let out a sound of protest when his father took him by the arm and guided him forward.

Jeff Tracy smiled at the man in the wheelchair, attended by a nurse and surrounded by various pieces of medical equipment. "Good to see you, Max... Mrs Watts."

Max Watts bypassed Virgil as he looked up at his idol. "Hello, Mr Tracy. I haven't started the model yet. Today's the first day after the accident that I've had any energy." Virgil doubted that; Max Watts looked exhausted and he'd only made the trip from the hospital.

"That's fine," Jeff replied. "There's no hurry. It'll give you something to do while you're recuperating. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll tell Hamish that we're going to start..."

"Wait! Please..." Watts looked up at Jeff with pleading eyes. "I have something I need to tell you."

"What's that, Max?"

"I think you're making a big mistake."

Virgil looked at his father's face. To say that Jeff Tracy was stunned was an understatement. All the time that Max Watts had worked for ACE he'd been a loyal, if somewhat obsequious, employee. And here he was telling his hero that he was wrong?!

"Max!" his wife scolded. "I'm sorry, Mr Tracy. You know he hasn't been well. First the 'flu and then..."

"Hush, Darling. I know what I'm saying." Her husband stood firm. "A foolish mistake," he elucidated. "And I don't regret telling you that, Mr Tracy."

Jeff found his voice. ""What do you mean? How am I making a mistake?"

"You can't let this young man leave us," Watts finally glanced at Virgil, who felt his jaw drop. "I have been watching him this past year and he is a good engineer with the capacity of becoming a great one. ACE employs the best and that is a policy we should keep at all costs if the company is to remain strong."

Jeff glanced at his son and resisted the impulse to shut Virgil's mouth for him. "Well, there is some merit in what you say, Max. But I know that Virgil has been looking forward to joining his family's business for a long time. It is ultimately his decision, but his father would be disappointed to lose his services."

Virgil managed to shut his mouth, but couldn't seem to get his brain into gear to make a comment.

Max Watts finally fixed his eyes on him. "I have treated Virgil shamefully over this past year, Mr Tracy... I could see in him all the things that I wanted to see in my own son, but I knew, deep down, that I never would… That is my fault, George, not yours..." he patted his son's hand.

George Watts was looking as if he was in a third grade movie and wondering what alien presently inhabited his father's body.

"It's not Virgil's fault either," Mr Watts continued. "I was frustrated because I wanted George to take what I saw to be the safe and sure path; working for a good, solid, innovative company; and I saw Virgil as an obstacle to that... But I was only thinking of myself. I was being selfish."

"Now, Max," Jeff soothed. "I haven't been given the full story of what has gone on between you and Virgil," he glanced at his son; a gesture that Virgil took to mean that his father was expecting to hear the full facts later. "But I'm sure that whatever you did, you did with the best intentions. You know that I've got sons of my own and I'd move mountains if I thought that it would give them a happy and fulfilling life."

"But you've given your sons freedom, Mr Tracy. I was stifling my boy, I can see that now. He's been happier these last few months when he's been committed to his music, than he ever was at Tampar Engineering College or at ACE." Max pointed a finger at Virgil. "Don't you let your father stifle you, son. You do what's best for you; whatever will make you happy."

"Uh, yes, Sir... ah..." Virgil shocked by the complete about-face of his supervisor, realised his mistake. "Sorry... Yes, Mr Watts."

The Production Manager ignored the slip of the tongue. "Whether it's engineering or playing the piano professionally, you do it because you want to... " Max fixed the green, gloved hands with a pained expression. "Ah… You will be able to play the piano again, won't you?"

Virgil finally got his brain back into gear. "The doctors say I'll get full use of my hands again."

"Good… I... I'm sorry that you were injured saving me… And I wouldn't have blamed you if you'd left me to fall. I didn't deserve your help." Max Watts looked Virgil in the eye. "Thank you."

"Uh... I... I'm glad I was able to help," Virgil stammered.

Max smiled. "I hope that perhaps, someday soon, when you are better, maybe I'll hear you and George have a, er... What do you call it? Jam session together?"

Virgil smiled at George who seemed to have regained some of his grasp of reality and was nodding. "That would be great."

"Good…" Max Watts started wheezing.

Jeff crouched down by the side of the wheelchair as the nurse placed a mask over the invalid's face and switched on the oxygen. "Do you want to go back to the hospital, Max?"

Max Watts shook his head and pushed the nurse's hand and the mask away. "No... Mr... Tracy... I want... to thank... everyone who helped save... me."

Jeff glanced up at the nurse and then stood. "Come on then. Let's get you to your seat and get this show on the road. We don't want to keep you out of hospital for any longer than necessary."

Virgil watched as his father, Max Watts, George, Mrs Watts and the nurse made their way to the front of several rows of chairs, facing a low platform.

"So you are here," an elderly voice said and Virgil turned to face his grandmother and Edna Mickelson. "How are the hands, Honey?"

"Okay," Virgil said. "Now remind me. Are you my grandmother or Jeff Tracy's mother?"

Grandma chuckled. "So far I'm just an old biddy who turned up to annoy the caterers. Do you want me to be your grandma?"

Virgil smiled. "I can't imagine you being anyone else."

"Good," she responded. "Then you can introduce me to everyone as Mrs T."

"Right," Virgil agreed. "Hi, Aunty Edna... Ah, sorry about last night. I'm afraid I wasn't very good company."

"And I wasn't a very good host," Edna Mickelson replied. "Because of that I thought you might not be going to come here today. So I rang you up." With an expression that was almost a smirk, she pushed a button and held out her cell phone. "You might like to listen to your voicemail message."

"Huh?" Virgil listened as the phone was held to his ear.

"Schizophrenia's running rife,

Virgil can't remember who he is to save his life,

But since he managed to save another,

Leave your message with his brother."

"Gordon..." Virgil groaned. "I'll kill him."

Grandma tapped him on the arm. "You'll do no such thing. Just be grateful that he's well enough to annoy you."

"Well enough!" Virgil exclaimed. "I'm more disabled than he is at the moment!"

"I know, and that's why I've put aside some of your favourite snacks. You can eat them later when there's no one else about."

"Grandma, you're an angel..."

"Ladies and Gentlemen..." It was Jeff Tracy's voice, amplified by a microphone. "If you would all take your seats...? Thank you."

"Come on, Virg..." Scott appeared from the direction of the food table. "You've got a front row seat."

"Can't I hide near the back?"

"No. They're all labelled." Scott took Virgil firmly by the arm and steered him down to the front of the room before pushing him into his allocated seat.

Virgil was relieved to see that, to his left, Bruce and Greg had the seats closest to the aisle and that to his right sat the Crumps. In the row behind him sat the Tracys. The Watts family and Max's nurse sat in the front on the other side of the aisle.

Jeff was still on the stage. "Is everyone seated...? Good. Thank you. Welcome, everyone, to what is intended to be a celebration..." He paused. "But first I would like to offer up a personal apology. Three months ago I berated four members of my team in a very public way, so it is only right that I should apologise equally publicly. Hamish Mickelson... Max Watts... Greg Harrison..." Jeff looked each man in the eye as he said their names, "and Virgil..." he hesitated as if unsure which surname to use and then carried on, "I would like to apologise for my behaviour. I will not offer any excuses, because what I did was inexcusable. I am truly sorry."

Hamish Mickelson stepped up and took his friend's hand. "I know I speak for all of us when I say that you don't have to apologise, Jeff," he said as they shook. "The four of us know better than most that you and your family were going through a tough time."

Jeff glanced over to where Gordon was sitting behind Virgil. "That's no excuse," he growled.

"Shall I take over?" Hamish asked.

Jeff brightened. "Please."

"It would be my pleasure," Hamish stepped up to the microphone. "Now, before we get to the main reason why we're here today, I would like us all to remember that most of us are lucky to be here at all after the events of the 20th of October. We at ACE have already thanked one of our saviours, but we'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the other... And congratulate him on winning the world championship. Alan Tracy, would you care to step forward?"

Alan, not sure if he was hearing correctly continued to sit numb in his seat until John pushed him out. Flushing pink with embarrassment, he stumbled up to the stage. Virgil, happy to see his brother recognised, started applauding as hard as everyone else, until the sensation of gel squishing around his hands made him think that that might not be such a good idea.

"Thank you, Uncle Hamish." Alan accepted his award. Then he turned to the audience. "And thank you, ACE. Not only for this," he indicated his gift, "but also for building a plane strong enough to survive our crash landing. Next time I buy a plane..."

"Number three," Scott muttered.

"...I'm going to personally check each component to make sure it's got the ACE stamp of quality!" Alan reclaimed his seat to laughter and pats on the back from those about him. He leant forward. "Did you know?" he asked Virgil.

"No. Do you think I would have made such a fuss about coming here if I had?"

Jeff reclaimed the microphone. "And now to what you all came here for... Apart from the excellent food. Thank you to the caterers." Behind him Virgil heard his grandmother give a snort of disgust, followed by snuffled laughter from Gordon.

Greg and then Butch were the first two to receive official thanks from the owner of Aeronautical Component Engineering. They received their awards humbly; Butch proudly showing his to Lisa as soon as he reclaimed his seat. Bruce was next and received an extra mention for his role in saving Lisa Crump's life. Hamish Mickelson received his award and joked about how it had given him a taste for abseiling again and suggested that he and Jeff dig out their old climbing gear. He received a scowl from Edna that told him that this was one idea that was going to be short-lived.

"Finally," Jeff Tracy announced, "I would like to pay tribute to a young man whom I've known for many years, and who is leaving Aeronautical Component Engineering today. There are those who feel that he has become an invaluable member of our company and would like him to stay, but I know that he is moving on to an organisation who will value and appreciate his skills as much, if not more so, than ACE... We have already acknowledged the lives he saved this past year and now it is my great pleasure to recognise his actions of last Monday. He risked his own life to save a respected member of the ACE team, and while he didn't emerge unscathed, I know that we are all glad to hear that his injuries are only temporary. Virgil, would you step up here?"

Virgil did so at some speed when Butch's slap on the back propelled him towards the stage. He stood there, trying to work out where to place his green hands, and feeling uncomfortable under the gaze of all the eyes that stared at him as Jeff said a few more words of praise. His award was placed on to a table for him to remove later...

Jeff smiled. "It's customary at this junction to offer a handshake," he said. "But under the circumstances," he indicated the protected hands, "maybe we'd better forgo that particular tradition."

"That's okay," Virgil replied. "I'll make do with a paternal hug..." he held his arms open, "...Father."

Jeff's face lit up at the admission. "I'd be glad to... Son."

The effect on Virgil's co-workers was immediate and mixed. Some sat stunned. Some uttered exclamations of surprise. Others crowed that it was what they'd suspected and in some cases money changed hands. There were a few mutterings of anger. Winston looked at Rex and mimed chalking one up to them. Louis told anyone who'd listen that he'd always known. So did Butch, adding: "But I didn't tell no one!"

The Tracy brothers were on their feet, laughing and applauding.

"Aw, gee," John moaned. "I guess that means you and I are going to have to share the estate, Alan."

Bruce nudged Greg. "Look at Mr Watts' face."

Max Watts was a picture. His eyes were wide as they stared up onto the stage where father and son embraced. Like Virgil earlier, his jaw had dropped open. His already sunken cheeks had turned a paler shade of grey. His nurse, concerned by his reaction, attempted to take his pulse and her patient, wrapped up in his stupor, let her.

Jeff clapped Virgil on the shoulder. "I think you'd better say a few words."

"I think you're right." Virgil stepped up to the microphone and the room stilled. "Firstly I'd like to offer an apology to those of you who didn't know of my relationship to Jeff Tracy. My name is Virgil Tracy and I am proud to be his son. I'm not sorry about that, but I am sorry that I deceived most of you. I only did it because I didn't want to receive special treatment because of who my father was..." He screwed his face up in a wry grin. "And when I first started here you all ensured that I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams!" There was a somewhat embarrassed chuckle from the audience.

Virgil looked directly at Max Watts. "I want to assure you that anything that a first year employee wouldn't say to the owner of the business won't be said by me to Jeff Tracy." He glanced at his father. "And quite a few things that a son might say to his father won't be said either. I didn't join ACE to cause trouble. I joined because I wanted to get the experience of working for one of the top engineering workshops in the country. Some of those experiences were a bit different from what I'd originally envisaged, but I've enjoyed working with you all, and I've enjoyed working for ACE. Well... except for maybe one or two things." He held up his hands and his audience laughed. "I can't say that working here was ever boring."

"Except when on the linisher," Bruce whispered.

"Tonight a few people have suggested that I should re-evaluate my future," Virgil admitted. "Someone said that I should stay working at ACE. Someone else said that I should become a fire fighter or paramedic. Well..." Virgil paused for dramatic effect. "I'm here to tell you all that I've made up my mind what I'm going to do with my life. As soon as I've got full use of my hands back I'm going to drop out of society, join a commune, grow my hair long, and become a full time artist..." Poker faced he looked down to where his family was gaping back at him in dumbstruck horror. Gordon's expression of utter dismay was particularly gratifying.

The sight of mortified Tracys was too much and Virgil couldn't help but laugh. "And my brothers say I didn't know how to tell a joke...! Nope. My original plans still stand. And I hope that, compared to this one, next year turns out to be a quiet year!"

The end!

Or is it?


Thank you to everyone who took the time to submit reviews for A Quiet Year. I appreciated each and every one of them. And thank you to everyone who took the time (a looong time) to read what Quiller dubbed my Magnum Pur-opus.

Now I'm off to have A Quiet Day.

F-A-B

:-) Purupuss