Ready... Aim... FIRE!!!

A Chip N' Dale's Rescue Rangers story by Morgan Kohl

Morgans Ranger code: RRC++R?P++TH(A++;I;Dr+;Hu++;In;My++;R++;P+;Su+)ME+>++Ix

"I have onlay one-ah burnin' dee-zy-yer...
Let me stand nex' to your fiyuhhhh."
- Jimi Hendrix


(Continuity Note: This story comes after "Little Fangs" and "Double Criss-Crossed", my previous RR stories. It is helpful also to have read "Under The Bridge", "Icarus", and the Sovereign series by John Nowak before reading this. You don't have to, but they're all really good stories, so you might wanna.)

Chapter one: Coffee Break Out

Bernie Withers sat, still as a rock, in his tiny room. He had done nothing but sit motionless for almost three years now. He didn't talk to anyone, ever. He hardly ate. He slept in the same position as he sat; on the edge of the bed, paws clasped together, his long squirrel's tail fanned out behind him, staring at the wall. Since his one true love was taken from him, he didn't see much reason to do anything at all anymore.

Bernie had been in Cleckley Hill Asylum for three years and two months now. He was actually more than a little lucky. Cleckly Hill was one of only eight mental hospitals in existence in the world of the animals. Had they not taken him in, he would have been doomed to wander the streets, and probably would have killed himself sooner or later.

Bernie was not suicidal. He was, however, a pyromaniac. His was one of the most intense cases ever recorded in the animal kingdom. Ever since he was a boy, his only fascination had been fire. He distanced himself from his parents, preferring to spend almost all of his time in his room, coming out occasionally to steal a book of matches from the human drug store his family lived behind. He was in school a year and a half before being permanently expelled. Throughout his entire time there, he never did a single assignment. He was called to the principal's office countless times.

Bernie hadn't seen fire for three years, three months, eight days, nine minutes and forty two seconds. He was shattered inside. Fire was the only one who understood him. He longed for her touch. He had purposely burnt himself so many times, his fur had been turned permanently white. After all this time, a little of his natural color was starting to come back. He glanced down at a tiny patch of grey fur on his left paw. He started to cry.

"Bernie? Are you there? Ah've got a surprise for you!"

Bernie glanced up at the little rectangular window in his cell. He didn't recognize the strong, harsh voice with the New Orleans accent. He did recognize the sound of someone flicking a lighter. Once, twice. A brown furred hand held up a gold cigarette lighter with his lover dancing on it's tip.

Bernie's heart soared. Tears of joy streaming from his cheeks, he leapt up from his bunk to the window. As quick as it appeared, it was gone. He heard the voice again. "Ah'd advise y'all to step back a bit. It wouldn't hurt to brace yerself either."

Bernie's voice cracked as he spoke for the first time in longer than he could remember. "Will... will you show... fire again?"

"Bernie, Ah'll show you as much fire as you want. Now get back."

Bernie obediently scampered to the other end of the room, his long, uncut toenails clicking on the tile floor. He pressed himself up against the door. The words repeated themselves over and over in his mind like tiny race cars: 'as much fire as you want...' He didn't know who the voice belonged to, but they were his new best friend, if what they'd said was true. He heard the voice and a few others muttering outside.

Bernie didn't think he'd be able to contain his joy as the wall suddenly exploded, shaking the entire wing. The warmth embraced him. Plumes of flame licked at his face. Fire raced over his clothes. He closed his eyes and gasped in pure happiness. "Missed you so... so much." The charge was specially designed to be just big enough to destroy the wall and just small enough to avoid killing the cell's occupant, not as amazing a feat as one would expect if they knew who had designed it.

"Bernie? You okay in there, son?" The designer of the bomb couldn't see through the smoke. He hoped he hadn't accidentally blown him up. Then again, it wouldn't matter too much really. There were plenty of wackos in the world, but it would be hard to find another that fit his plans as perfectly as Bernie.

Bernie lifted himself up from the floor. He coughed twice. He grinned to see that his fur was covered in black soot and his clothes were little more than smoldering rags. Just like old times again. He stumbled through the smoking wreckage and came face to face with his liberator. He was a chipmunk; middle-aged, rail-thin, wearing a dashing cobalt blue striped suit with a matching wide-brimmed hat and a metallic-violet vest. "Y-You set... set me free?" Bernie asked. The chipmunk nodded.

"Bernie, you're as free as a bird." He extended his hand. Bernie tentatively shook it. "Allow me tah intra'duce mahself, mah name is Devereaux Delacroix, and Ah have a business propazishee-own for you." He cast a nervous glance to his left. Alarms were sounding. Guards and doctors would be coming soon.

Bernie looked at him with more than a little skepticism. The doctors and psychiatrists were always asking him stuff and trying to get him to tell them things he didn't want to say. He'd gotten very good at not doing anything they wanted him to, despite more temptations and punishments than he could count. But this man had brought his fire back, so there was already some trust forming. "It involve fire?" he asked, trying to restrain his expectation.

Devereaux Delacroix just grinned.

* * *

Normally, Onan Rayleon wouldn't have devoted more than three or four brain cells to doing his job. However, his brain happened to be in a lull between hot rod fantasies and grunge music lyrics when he looked up to see the four animals coming in through the door. It was the group of neighborhood vigilantes that had come in almost every day since the coffeeshop opened. They were the shop's best customers. And SHE was with them.

"Hey Onan," Chip said to the scrawny, long-haired mouse behind the counter. He, Monterey, Dale and Foxglove were out for their morning coffee. Chip had almost started believing that humans were the only species on the planet capable of making a decent cup of java. That is, until he'd found this place about a month ago. They brewed a darn good cup, always knew exactly how much cream to add and had a nice selection of pastries, soups and sandwiches as well. It was a good place to start the day.

"Dudes, watcha have?" Onan asked, gazing blissfully into those amazing green eyes of hers.

Their orders were almost always the same, so Dale ordered for all of them. "Medium coffee, cream, no sugar with a plain donut..." That was Chip's. "Extra large coffee, black, and two toasted sesame and cheddar bagels with cream cheese..." That was Monty's. "Foxy'll have..."

Onan cut him off. He leaned over the counter and grinned dazedly at the winged vision of loveliness before him. "Lemme guess; small french vanilla cappacino and a strawberry-filled donut. Am I right?"

Foxglove blinked in surprise, despite the fact that she'd been ordering that almost every morning for a month now. "Wow! That's right!"

Onan thought for sure his heart had melted and was dribbling down his shirt. That was actually the cup of coffee he'd been holding before they'd come in, but he didn't notice. Mickey Mouse and Aldrin Klordane probably could have driven a pink sherman tank through the front wall at that point and he wouldn't have noticed.

Dale glanced over the menu. He was a spur-of-the-moment kinda guy and was tired of the same old thing he always had. "Hmm, think I might try an espresso today. Haven't had one of those in a while."

Chip immediately bonked him on the head. "Dale! Are you cuh-razy? Do you want to kill us all?"

Bewildered and a little afraid, Dale gave his friend a puzzled look as he rubbed his aching head. "Whydja hit me, Chip? I only said I might get an espresso."

Monty's expression held as much fear as Chip's did anger. "Dale, pally, don't you remember what happened the last time you had one 'a those?!?"

Dale was still confused, then suddenly snapped into full-blown remembrance. He shuddered in absolute horror. He was never able to recall anything of the actual incident, but what the other Rangers had told him afterwards had been enough to curl his fur. He gave himself a few more bonks, just to make sure those words would never pass from his lips again. "No espresso!" He nearly shouted at Onan. "Just the usual!"

This meant a large grape coo-coo cola and two sprinkled donuts, Onan remembered.

Foxglove couldn't help overhearing the conversation (being a bat, she couldn't help overhearing every conversation in the entire coffeeshop, actually). She regarded the boys quizzically. "Cutie, what are they talking about?"

Dale held her shoulders and looked deep into her eyes. "Foxy, there's a side of me you don't want to know about. My dark half, my evil side. A horrific, blood-crazed psycho lurking just below my otherwise cute and cuddly surface!"

Foxglove recognized the lines from the movie they'd watched two nights ago: 'Attack of the Killer Bunny Rabbits'. But what could be that awful about her sweet little goofball? 'Then again,' she thought to herself, 'he probably thought the same thing before I told him I was a vampire...' She still hadn't told the other Rangers, but not because she was afraid of what would happen; Dale had helped her get over that. There just never seemed to be a time when they were all together and not busy with something else.

Monterey Jack stepped in to explain it to her. "A few years back, before we met you, we were in Morocco on a case involving a pair of chameleon cat burglars. After we caught 'em, we all went out to this little coffeeshop Geegaw 'n me used to frequent. Dale here was real thirsty and ordered a double espresso, not knowin' they come in these little tiny cups 'cause the stuff's so potent. Doesn't compare to the stuff they have over in Turkey, though. One cuppa that'll make you feel like you've got an earthquake in yer intestines. Why, the last time I had some was back in..."

Noticing Monty slipping into 'reminisce mode', Chip filled in the rest. "Dale drank five and it was too much for him to handle. He went berserk and tore up the whole restaurant."

"Sent six people to the hospital, he did. Not meanin' to of course," Monterey added. "That stuff did a heckuva number on his noggin. His pupils were the size of canteloupes!"

"Needless to say, we haven't been back to Morocco since," Dale said shamefully. He knew it was mostly an accident, but it was still one of the top ten things in his past he wished had never happened.

"Gosh, just like the Incredible Hulk," Foxglove remarked. Dale had been versing her in comic book lore.

"Kinda, except the Hulk never swung from a chandelier and threw bread rolls at people while shouting that he was a B-12 bomber and making engine noises through his nose," said Chip.

"Did I really do that, Chip?"


"Wow. I wish somebody'd got that on tape. We could've sent it to America's Funniest Home Videos and made a million bucks!"

Chip bonked Dale repeatedly.

Onan handed Monterey their order, nearly dropping it when Foxglove yawned, spreading her wings and showing off her goddess-like figure. Monty took the tray and sat down in their usual booth. Chip slid in next to him. Foxy helped Dale into the seat next to her. Dale's vision was still swirling.

Chip sipped his coffee, perfect as usual, and glanced over at the booth next to them. Behind Dale's head he could see the tips of two white ears and what appeared to be a scuba mask. He was sure they held some sort of signifigance, but at the moment it wasn't coming to him. It was understandable though, as his detective skills didn't seem to function at all until his morning coffee was pumping through his veins.

Dale heard the sound of a baby cooing in the booth behind him. He knew that sound, somehow. He thought about where he'd heard it before and it suddenly clicked. "Gimcrack?"

A female voice, not unlike Gadget's, replied "Dale?"

The mouse stood up and stepped over to their booth. She was dressed completely in black; wetsuit, cape and diving mask. Her fur was pure white and her hair was a shimmering silver hue. She would have looked monochromatic except for her piercing pink eyes. In the crook of her left arm, which was metallic and glinted in the coffeeshop's fluorescent lighting, she held a small, placid-looking brown-furred baby mouse who was busy gnawing away at a zwieback cookie. Her right paw held a cup half filled with black coffee. Her presence radiated doom towards all who would dare cross her path. She was a living avatar of destruction and pure evil.

"Widget!" Chip exclaimed. "It's great to see you again!"

"Well look who's here, everyone's favorite almost-villain!" Monty joked.

"Hi Widget!" Foxy said brightly.

"Hi Foxglove. Hi guys," Widget replied. Foxy and Dale scooted closer (not minding this a bit) to let Gadget's byronic twin sit down.

"Didn't expect to see you here," Dale said. "What brings you to our neck of the woods?"

"A submarine," she replied.

Dale groaned. He was usually on the delivery end of corny old jokes like that. Widget grinned. Gimcrack just rolled his eyes.

Widget took a sip of coffee. "Actually, the Albacore is due for a tune-up. She's been making some funny noises lately and it's a lot better to be safe than sorry when you're six hundred feet underwater. Järgen's down at the docks now. I was going to come over for a visit in a little while." She took a long slurp from her mug. "I was hoping to get Gadget's input on a few technical things as well." Widget looked around. "Say, where is she anyway?"

Chip swallowed a bite of donut. "She's back at HQ with Zipper and Chris. Oh, did you know the tree blew down in a thunderstorm a few weeks ago?"

Widget's eyebrows went up. "Really? Jeepers, that must have sucked." (Widget did not notice the mention of Crisscross, so she did not ask who he was.)

"Well, not too much," Dale told her. "We were all okay and so was a lot of our stuff. We got lucky. All we had to do was move a few blocks to our new base of operations at the junkyard. There's all sortsa cool stuff lyin' around there. I found a weed wacker yesterday." Dale chuckled. "Weed wacker. *chortle*"

Widget made a note to root around this junkyard later. To Widget, like Gadget, an unexplored parts heap was like Christmas morning.

Gimcrack tossed a cookie across the room. It landed in an elderly gentlemouse's soup.

"How's the little nipper doin'?" Monterey asked, reaching over to tickle the infant's chin.

"Watch out, Monty. He's..."

*CRUNCH* "Yeeeeeeeeeoooooooowch!!!!"


Monterey cradled his mangled finger. "He's definitly a little 'nipper' allright. You sure he ain't half croc or somethin'?" Gimcrack grinned. Widget just rolled her eyes.

* * *

A few moments previous and a block or so away, Stalker T. Olafson; freelance journalist, illegal substance connoisseur and member of the Polar Mouse Club, was making his way down the street. His tail twitched wildly and his bloodshot eyes swirled behind his wide sunglasses. Due to a rather large amount of something called 'ice-nine' in his system, he was currently hallucinating that tiny, carnivorous H. R. Puffinstuffs were trying to eat him. He beat at them wildly as they nipped at his shins. "Get _back_ you little pirhannas!"

Stalker lost his balance and tumbled backwards into an empty Doritos bag. He thrashed about inside for a while, convinced he'd been swallowed alive by a giant baked potato. He finally managed to crawl out. Standing shakily up, he brushed himself off and scanned the area for any more dangerous figments. "The jungles are alive this morning!" he shouted to himself.

He continued on for a few feet when his foot came down on something squishy. Stalker winced and picked up his foot. A glob of something grey-green and malodorous met his annoyed gaze. His eyebrow arched. "Hmmm , maybe I nabbed one of those little yellow devils after all..." Wobbling a bit, he brought his foot closer and gave the blob a sniff.

A second later, the building in front of him exploded. Flames poured from the shattered windows and the noise was louder than thunder. The sun seemed to have fallen to earth. The force of the blast was enough to knock Stalker completely across the street. Luck was with him, as he landed without injury on top of a garbage bag.

Stalker shook his head, trying to get rid of the ringing in his ears. He looked up to see the blazing building in front of him. He stared a long time, his eyes growing steadily wider, the flames reflected in his glassy stare.

Slowly, he looked down at the gunk on his foot.

Then he looked back at the blaze.

Then back at the gunk.

"I do not know what this stuff is," he said to himself, "but if it's this potent, I must find *more*!"

* * *

The small talk progressed nicely for quite a while as the rangers and Widget nibbled and sipped at their respective orders. The rangers talked about some of their recent cases and Widget told them of the Albacore's adventures in the north atlantic.

The morning was going so well that when the building across the street exploded suddenly in a huge fiery ball of flame, none of them was able to completely believe it at first. The five animals stared openmouthed out the coffeeshop's window as arcs of flame shot towards the sky and building debris pelted the morning traffic. Hundreds of flaming wood and plaster shards rained down on the street below like an earthbound meteor shower. A blackened steel beam reared up out of the pyre and toppled headlong through the roof of a parked Volkswagon Minibus.

Dale's donut slipped out of his hand with a muffled splat.

Widget was the first to break the silence. "...Golly," she said simply.

Gimcrack gaped in wonder at the awesome sight before him. "Boom!" he said happily.

Chapter Two: Firestarter

Chip shook himself out of shock and vaulted out of the booth. "Come on, guys! If this isn't a job for the rescue rangers, I don't know what is!" The others quickly followed him. Dale hesitated a bit to grab his donut and Monterey's untouched bagel. The four rangers, with Widget following and Gimcrack gawking around at everything, rushed across the street. They had to make sure no one had been hurt in the blast.

The leader of the rescue rangers frowned angrily as he surveyed the damage and chaos. Chip hoped this was just a simple accident. His instincts, however, could feel that it wasn't. He ran through a mental list of humans and animals that were capable of doing something like this. Nimnul was still safely tucked away behind rubber walls. Winifred was also under lock and key. Rat Capone was a possibility. Fat Cat too, although Chip doubted he could have gotten his life back together enough to try pulling off a caper after what had happened during their last meeting. Thinking of Fat Cat made something else click in Chip's mind. The building had once been one of the cat's warehouses. He didn't use it much, but it was something to look into later.

Another thought struck Chip. He turned to face Widget.

Before he could say anything, she cut in. "I know you're thinking it, but don't say a word! I had nothing to do with this! I only *act* evil now, remember?"

"I know, Widget," Chip reassured her. "I was just going to suggest you take Gimcrack back to the coffeeshop. This is no place for him."

Widget smiled and waved his concerns away. "Nonsense! It's high time he started learning how to handle himself in dangerous situations like this." She pointed aggressively at Chip. "I'm not one of those paranoid, spineless soccer moms who shelters their children from every possible bump and bruise! Gimmy's not going to grow up thinking the world's always a safe and happy place. He's getting a realistic childhood!" She reached over to lovingly tickle the little mouse's tummy. "Aren't you, sweetie?"

Gimcrack squirmed and laughed "Bla bloo ooby dooby!" he said. Widget lifted him up and gently tucked him into a specially-tailored pouch on the front of her wetsuit.

"But Widget luv," Monterey protested, "He's only two years old!"

Widget fixed a cold gaze on him. "I was younger than that when I had to find out what the world was really like," she said harshly.

Monty backed down. "Sorry, luv. I didn't mean to..."

The grey mouse put up her hand to silence him. "Never mind, Monterey. It's not your fault." She lowered her head and inhaled deeply. These little reminders of her past always seemed to stab at her when she least expected them to. Like her own personal swarm of gnats that only bit when she wasn't looking.

Giving his fedora a rakish tilt, Chip took hold of the situation again. "Come on you guys! This isn't the time to stand around talking! There might be someone trapped inside that building!"

"Chip's right," Dale agreed. "Let's make like rescue rangers and rescue!" And with that the sextet hurried towards the flaming building.

Chip shouted out orders. "Dale, Foxglove, head up to the roof and work your way down. Monty, go around to the other side. Widget, you come with me. Everyone be careful!" Monty tossed off a quick salute and took off while Foxglove grabbed Dale's shoulders and began flapping up to the top of the building.

Chip scurried quickly up a convenient pile of discarded boxes to reach the first floor windows. As bad luck would have it, he'd chosen probably the only window in the building that hadn't been shattered by the explosion. Wrapping his jacket around his elbow, he bashed a hole in the glass. He winced a little at the pain that always came from doing that. A few more slams made a hole large enough to fit through. "Hurry up, Widget, if you're coming!" he called to her.

"Why didn't you let me do that?" Widget asked, puzzled.

Chip looked back through the hole and replied, grinning "Sorry. You get dibs on the next property damage. Now c'mon, shake a leg."

Widget held Gimcrack close as she rushed to catch up to Chip's side. "You know, I'm not very accustomed to taking orders," Widget said, slightly annoyed by Chip's casually commanding tone with her.

"Hey," Chip replied, turning sharply to face her, "when you're in your sub, I won't tell you what to do. But we're in my Albacore now. Got me?" He stated it as a fact, rather than saying it beratingly.

Widget bit her lip and nodded. As much as she enjoyed being in control of the things around her, she knew Chip was the better man for this job. Right now saving lives came before saving pride. "Understood." She leaped through the broken window and landed gracefully on her feet.

Gimcrack squirmed around in his pouch to look at the pretty fire. He found it quite fascinating. "Oooooo!" Widget skritched lovingly behind his ears. He cooed appreciatively.

Chip landed next to her, not quite as gracefully. He quickly scanned their surroundings. They were in a small office. What sparse furniture was left in the room was charred and splintered. Large, smoldering holes in the walls and ceilings let them see all the way up to the sky. Sprinkled fires danced around them everywhere. Chip knew a little bit about explosives. He was fairly sure the destruction had been caused by some kind of bomb, and that it had gone off somewhere in the middle of the second floor.

"Widget, let's head out into the hall. I'll check out the offices on the right, you take the left. Holler if you find anyone or any clues as to what caused this."

"Aye aye, Captain," Widget told him with a grin.

Chip grinned back and headed out the doorway. Half of his mind was on getting through the red-hot flaming wood all around him and half was on that grin Widget had flashed him. When they'd first met, every smile she'd shown had dripped with malice. There was no joy or laughter in any of them. There was even that one smile of hers that made even him feel like running away screaming.

Yet the longer Widget had been away from her plans of vengeance against Gadget, the more happiness had seemed to creep into her. As complex a mouse as she was, it was nearly impossible to tell for certain what she was feeling at any given time or whether she was actually covering up a deeper emotion. However, Chip was more perceptive than most and could see that Widget was getting progressively less dark over time. There was even a playful side to her now, which he thought Gimcrack was probably responsible for. Chip was glad to see the change in her. Not only because Widget had become a close friend, but she also didn't scare the bejeezis out of him anymore.

The flickering flames bit at Chip's fur. The determined 'munk tried his best to do as thorough a search of each office as possible in the shortest amount of time. He didn't want to end up like one of the casualties he was looking for. He hoped, of course, that there wouldn't be any casualties, but Chip made sure that if anyone was there, they'd be found. He wrenched open cabinets, hunted through desks, tunneled under debris and peeked into the tiniest cracks. He breathed a sigh of relief after he'd canvassed his entire section of hallway without finding anyone who'd been hurt. He hadn't found any clues either, but he could always come back later for those. Widget joined him a few moments later. "Find anyone?" he asked.

"Negative," Widget replied. A flake of soot landed on Gimcrack's nose, causing him to sneeze. Both Chip and Widget 'gesundheit'ed him.

Widget reached into her pocket and pulled out a scrap of metal. "I did find this, though. If I know my high explosives, and of course I do, I'd say this is a piece of the bomb itself."

She handed it to Chip and he gave it a quick examination. "This could be an important clue. It looks like there's some sort of writing on the side."

Widget looked over his shoulder. Gimcrack did too. "You're right! I can't quite make it out, but if I had enough time to properly study it, I could tell you exactly what kind of bomb it was and who made it."


Widget smiled a little out of pride. "You have your areas of expertise, I have mine."

Chip pocketed the fragment and they continued the search down the next hallway. Widget did as extensive a search of each room as Chip.  Living on a submarine, she was no stranger to thorough and efficient work. She also kept an eye out for any more bomb fragments.

To tell the truth, she'd exaggerated many of the stories she'd told at the coffeeshop. Things had been fairly dull on the Albacore for longer than she preferred. She was enjoying this little bit of adventure. And Gimcrack seemed to be too. The young mouse's eyes were wide as he took in all the strange and interesting things around him.

Five minutes and several minor paw burns later, Widget and Chip met up again. And again, they hadn't found anyone else in the building. They headed up to the second floor to look around there. Soon, they'd come across the other two search parties. Chip was relieved that all were able to report finding no one hurt. However, Chip noticed a twinkle in both Dale and Foxy's eyes that suggested that they might have devoted a little time during their search for cuddling. He couldn't help chuckling just a little. It was funny to see how much the couple had changed. At first Dale was so bashful that he'd done everything he could to avoid Foxglove's advances. And yet now the two were inseparable. 'Then again,' Chip reminded himself, 'that's nothing compared to me and Tammy's relationship!' He briefly wondered what she was doing at the moment.

Chip's romantic musings were brought to an abrupt halt when a ball of fire suddenly burst behind them. They all jumped back as the flames barreled at them. They vanished just as quickly, leaving a thick cloud of acrid smoke.

"Don't be scared, rescue rangers. That was just a harmless little stage flare." a jaunty voice called out to them from somewhere inside the black cloud. Slowly, a figure began to take shape as it walked towards them. Whoever it was looked a bit taller than the rangers and was carrying some kind of thin pole. The figure thrust it out and spun it quickly around, making the smoke clear away. "I, on the other hand, you can be scared of." Standing before them was a white-furred squirrel dressed in a bright red, yellow and orange leotard. He was also wearing a silver belt and thick black gloves and boots. His right hand was behind his back. His left hand clutched a long silver staff which he gave another twirl and then leaned casually on. His bright pink eyes and his toothy grin radiated malicious mischief.

"Who are you?" Chip demanded.

"Pyro's the name, arson's my game, bub." He released his staff briefly to gesture at the charred mess around him before swiftly catching it just as it started to fall. The move was rapid and graceful. "Like my handiwork?"

Widget felt red hot rage boil within her. She tossed her cape dramatically behind her and pointed like a stabbing dagger with her robotic hand at the squirrel. "So you were the one who interrupted my morning coffee! I demand your instant death for such an offense! Your worthless life is mine for the crushing! And as surely as you stand there, your lifeblood shall paint these walls and your skull will shatter in my hands!"

"Dang, she's good at that villainous ranting stuff," Dale remarked to Foxglove.

With an unearthly bellow of pure screeching anger, Widget leaped at Pyro. He regarded her with an amused smile and calmly pointed the end of his staff towards her. Without warning, a fireball erupted from the end of it, smacking Widget with white-hot heat. She reflexively dropped to the floor and wrapped herself around Gimcrack to protect him.

Pyro turned the flame away from her and gave her a reproachful look. "Temper temper now," he said in an overly mocking tone. "Wouldn't want to see the tyke get french fried, do we? Then he'd be a tater tot! Hah!" The villain laughed, an annoying, birdlike screech.

Widget glared up at him from her crouched position with all the fury of hell in her gaze. "Your tone will change when I've bound you to a stone wall with red-hot chains and am tearing your intestines from your body with my bare hands, laughing all the time, and you are begging me to kill you to end the soul-wrenching pain."

Pyro rolled his eyes. "Blah, blah, blah. You are really melodramatic, you know that?" He thrust the flaming staff at her again to drive her back. "Now shut up. I have a little message for you to deliver."

"We don't do candy grams, mate," Monty snarled.

"Oh, this won't be hard. You just find Fat Cat, The Siamese twins, Rat Capone and every other crime boss in this city and tell 'em there's a new bad guy in town. Tell 'em that I'll torch each and every one of their hideouts and HQs, one by one, until they all scram. I own this city from now on. Consider this building a warning. I made sure there wasn't anyone inside when I barbecued it. Next time, I'm not going to be so careful." The menace in his eyes burned as hot as the fires around him.

"Oh yeah?" Chip challenged, stepping defiantly forward. "And what if we decide to pummel you into next week instead?"

The white squirrel grinned. "Oh, I think you're going to be too busy running for your lives to do any pummeling, shorty."

"Running from what?" Foxglove asked, trying to sound tough too.

Pyro took his paw from behind his back, revealing a small, rodent-sized remote control with a single large, yellow button on it. "From bomb number two. Bye now!" With a loud beep, Pyro pushed the button and at the same time burst a smoke bomb around him. As it cleared, they saw he had dissapeared. And then they saw the big red LED display on the gigantic bomb that had been tucked behind him in the shadows.

'00:00:19' it read.

"Yikes!" screamed Dale.

"Rescue rangers retreat!" Chip shouted. Widget and the rangers immediatly turned and fled as fast as they could from the bomb. Adrenaline thundered through their veins. Their heartbeats pounded. They were heedless of the still-burning flames around them as they sped away from the deadly device. Not looking where he was going, Chip suddenly tripped and slammed into the wooden floor. "Oof!"

"Chiiiip!" Dale shouted. He screeched to a halt and turned around to help his best friend up.

"Dale, hurry!" Foxglove cried out.

Chip got back to his feet and tossed Dale a grateful smile. Both chipmunks dropped to all fours and scampered on.

Monterey looked back to see there were only seven seconds left on the timer and they hadn't even gotten off the second floor yet. "We're not gonna make it, lads!"

"Hit the deck!" Widget hollered. She and the others ducked behind an overturned file cabinet and huddled together. Widget clutched Gimcrack tight. He was crying from all the confusion.

Dale and Foxy hugged each other close as well. "Foxy," Dale said, "If we don't make it, I want you to know that I love you with all my heart!"

The frightened bat squeezed him passionately. "Oh, I love you too, Dale!" Foxglove couldn't imagine a more romantic way to die than in the arms of the chipmunk she adored.

'Geegaw pally, looks like we might be meetin' back up quicker than I'd figgered!' Monterey Jack thought to the heavens.

Chip pictured Tammy and Gadget in his mind, hoping desperately that he'd have the chance to see them both again.

The rangers braced themselves, hoped for the best, and waited for the blast.

And waited.

And Waited.

Monty cautiously opened his eyes. "It shoulda gone off by now, shouldn've it?" He got up and peered over the top of the file cabinet.

Dale looked up too. "Yeah, where's the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!" He glanced down and realized that he and Foxglove were in quite a compromising position. They both blushed and disentangled themselves.

Chip and Widget stood up as well. The grey mouse murmured soothingly to Gimcrack and tenderly stroked his fur. He looked up to her and said with his eyes 'what the heck happened, momma?'

Chip slowly made his way around the overturned cabinet. He could see the unexploded bomb sitting there like a cobra waiting to strike. "The timer's stopped," he told the others. "It says something that I can't make out. I'm going to get a little closer."

"Careful there, Chippah," Monterey cautioned.

Chip felt himself shake as he took feather-light steps toward the bomb. The air seemed heavy. The room was silent. He squinted at the red display. He could almost read it...

And suddenly it was clear to him.


Chip's teeth ground. He growled low in his throat. A closer look at the bomb even revealed it was quite obviously made of cardboard and masking tape. He'd been had. He'd been completely, totally, utterly had. He whipped off his hat and threw it to the ground in frustration. "I'll kill that squirrel!!!"

Chapter Three: Cyborg Meets Android

Crisscross could have spent hours just watching Gadget Hackwrench as she went about her day. In fact, that's what he was doing at the moment. As she went about making the final adjustments to him, he left his optical sensors linger on the object of his affection. Her smile; her lovely voice; those beautiful bright eyes; her cute little bioelectrical rhythms; her dainty paws; that white heart-shaped place on her head when he looked at her through heat vision... Gadget was, in Chris' eyes, indisputably the most perfect specimen of Mus Musculus to ever grace planet earth.

'So why can't I do a simple thing like tell her I love her?' he asked himself for possibly the millionth time since they'd first met eight days ago. The mechanical fox had been trying through all that time to find a way to express his love for Gadget. His failure was due in part to his lack of courage and in part to the fact that he couldn't think up a way to tell her how he felt that adequately showed the depths of his love. It had to be unique, passionate, heartfelt, and above all, it had to somehow crack that brick wall of naivete surrounding her. All of his previous attempts had bounced ineffectually off it. It was uncanny how oblivious Gadget was towards matters of the heart. Had his sensors not shown otherwise, he would have been sure that she was an AI like him.

At that moment, Gadget popped out of the fox's eye socket and hopped down to the ground with an armful of odd looking mechanical doohickeys. She tossed them down and brushed herself off. "There! That's the last of it." She turned to Chris and ruffled the fur of his muzzle. "I just finished tweaking your frammistats, recharghing your plotecher converters, rotating your vornoff compressor, recalibrating your primary audio sensor cluster and replacing all your MRPI boosters with brand new ones! Chris, I pronounce you good as new and even better than that!"

The fox's tail started wagging, even though he hadn't understood half of what she'd just said. "You mean I'm finally repaired? You're all done?" Crisscross was overjoyed. Gadget had been working on him during most of her free time since he'd been sliced in half by a chainsaw a little under a week ago. At first, he'd enjoyed it immensely. Feeling her tinkering with his systems inside him was a very pleasant sensation. But on the down side, she'd insisted he stay put until she had finished. The energetic fox hated this. He'd become one of the rangers a short while ago and he'd already missed out on a week of cool adventures with them. "Can I get up and move around now?"

"Of course! Give all your systems a thorough check."

Chris was on his paws in an instant. He popped his eye back into place. Then he leaped over her, spun around, walked around on his back paws a bit and did a few somersaults, laughing joyfully the whole time. Gadget smiled proudly at seeing how happy he was and how well he was functioning. It had taxed all her mechanical knowledge to fit his two halves back together again. He was the most complicated piece of machinery she'd ever come across. And yet, she found it impossible to think of him that way. His personality was so vibrant and his heart so big, she couldn't help seeing him as being as alive as she.

Chris did a full diagnostic of all his systems and subsystems. Everything was in perfect order. He bounded over to Gadget and gave her a big playful lick. "Thanks for curing me, Dr. Hackwrench!"

Gadget gave his snout a hug. "You're welcome, Chris. You were a great patient." They both enjoyed a chuckle, but for Chris there was a tiny sigh at the end. The moment should have been romantic, but he sensed noting but friendliness from her. Darn.

When Gadget went back into headquarters to wash up, Chris noticed Zipper lounging in a matchbook lawn chair a few feet away, catching some sun. He called the fly over. Zipper laid down the latest issue of 'The Garbage Gourmet' (he was in the middle of a fascinating article debating the merits of plastic vs. galvanized trash cans) and buzzed over to him. "What is it, Crisscross?"

"Um, I don't know if you can help me with this or not, but... I was wondering if maybe you could give me any tips on how to get Gadget to like me."

Zipper was a little puzzled by this. "She seems to like you a lot now. Why do you need my help?"

"No, no. I mean in a romantic way. I've tried everything I can think of so far but, hey, I'm a robot and I've never been in love before. I haven't got a clue!"

Zipper smiled knowingly. "Oh, so you like her *that* way, huh?" He was almost tempted to add 'Who doesn't?', but thought that would be a little cruel.

Crisscross nodded. "She's just amazing. I feel things around her that I've never felt before about anyone or anything. I want her to know that, but she just doesn't seem to be getting my hints. Am I doing something wrong?"

"Chris, don't worry. She's like that about everything. Chip and Dale have fought over her ever since the first day they met. I'm not sure if she even knows now how crazy they used to be about her." He tried to phrase her almost maddening obliviousness in the nicest way possible. "She... She just has her mind on other things a lot. A whole lot. So she's not very good with subtle things. You're going to have to do something she can't ignore."

"Well, like what?"

"I'm probably not the one to ask. I mean, my idea of a romantic evening is taking a girl out for roadkill and a movie."

Crisscross winced. "The movie part maybe, the other thing, I _don't_ think so."

Zipper shrugged in an 'I-told-you-so' way. However, he did give the matter at hand some thought. "Maybe you should just compliment her on how she looks. It's simple, direct and effective."

The cybernetic canine's ears perked up and his tail wagged. "That is a *great* idea, Zipper!Thanks a lot, little buddy!!" Chris gave Zipper an enthusiastic nuzzle.

"You're welcome, big buddy. And good luck!" Zipper then zipped back over to his chair and picked up his magazine. He pretended to read while keeping an eye on his fox friend, waiting for Gadget to reappear.

She soon did. Gadget emerged from HQ, wiping some excess water on her paws onto her coveralls. She hopped gracefully down to the ground and walked over to Chris. The fox readied himself. "Um, Gadget, I kinda wanted to tell you something."

"What, Chris?"

He steadied himself. He knew he was good with words when he wrote in his journals, so he just had to apply that here and now. Hit hit upon a poetic thought and ran with it. "Gadget, when I look at you, I see a rainbow of beautiful color. Your eyes are like tiny blue oceans. Your nose is like a perfect pink strawberry. Your tail is like a feather wafting in the wind. Your fur is like the finest white chocolate. Your hair is like a golden sunset. And your smile is like nothing I've ever seen before." Crisscross was pleased. He'd given it his best shot, and thought he'd done a pretty good job.

But when he saw Gadget's confused and slightly alarmed expression, he didn't know what to think. She stared at him oddly for a few seconds before saying "Golly Chris, if you were an organic being, I'd say you were experiencing hallucinations! There must be something wrong with your optical sensors' visual recognition programs! This is serious!" She ran to get her toolbox. "You said my nose looks like a strawberry and my hair looks like a sunset? Maybe your image cross-referencing algorithm has gone haywire!"

Had Chris had a heart, it would have shattered into a million pieces at that point. He couldn't believe it. He'd poured all his soul into the words he'd hoped would show her how beautiful she was to him, and she thought he was malfunctioning! He cast a painfully heartbroken look over at Zipper.

Zipper could only respond with a shrug that perfectly said 'you're fighting an almost impossible battle, buddy, but at least you tried'.

Luckily for Chris, he was spared any further humiliation because at that moment the rangermobile screeched into the junkyard before them and something about the way it entered fairly screamed that something urgent was up. The other rangers ran towards them, along with a strange-looking mouse that Crisscross had never seen. The fox also noted that Dale appeared to be carrying a baby in his arms.

Gadget glanced over her shoulder and her eyes widened. "Widget!" She dropped her toolbox, almost hitting her own foot, and rushed towards her sister.

Widget opened her arms and recieved a happy hug from Gadget. "Hi, Sis," the grey mouse said with a small fond smile.

"I'm so glad to see you! It's been a while since you last visited. What brings you here?" Gadget asked, releasing her sister from the embrace.

She was tempted to say 'a submarine' again, but knowing there was an arsonist on the loose, she wanted to make the reunion as quick as possible. "The Albacore's in town for repairs."

"Need any help? I'd love to work on it again."

"Sure, Gadget, but there's something more impo-"

"Hey! Nice arm!" Crisscross suddenly called out.

The words stuck in the air like hanged prisoners. The rangers all turned to stare at him. To make fun of Widget's self-designed prosthesis was to sign one's own death certificate.

Every muscle in Widget's body turned to stone. Her gaze hardened to unimaginable fury. Slowly she turned around, millimeter by millimeter. "What... Did... You... Say?" she ground out rather than said.

Chris was completely oblivious to Widget's ire, having never heard of her before, much less about her titanic temper. He was just happy to discover that Gadget had a sister, and he was genuinely impressed with the intricate workings of her tiny bionic arm which he could see through magnified x-rays. "Didja make it yourself?" he asked blithely.

Flames seemed to erupt from Widget's eyes. Before any of the rangers could stop her, a demonic roar of rage erupted from her throat and she charged at Crisscross, swung back, and drove her robotic fist into the fox's jaw with all the force she could will into it.

"Ouch!" said Chris as the punch bounced off him like a paper ball.

Having no idea that Chris' metal skeleton was even stronger than her metal arm, Widget's whole left side now ached from the impact. She massaged her shoulder and growled out something that reinforced the old stereotype about sailors and their choice of vocabulary. The rangers all winced.

Widget looked up at Chris incredulously, and more than a little angry. "What the heck is that jaw made of anyway? Titanium?!?"

"Why, yes," Chris replied truthfully.

"It must be," she said.

"No, really. I'll show you." Chris disengaged the clamps that held on the latex-polymer 'skin' around his face and used his front paws to delicately peel it back, revealing his cybernetic skull underneath. "Neat, huh?"

Even though she knew he was a robot, Foxglove had never seen him do this before. "YAAAAAAHHH!!!" She promptly fainted from shock.

"Foxy!" cried Dale. He handed Gimcrack to Chip and rushed to resuscitate his lover.

The baby mouse drooled on Chip's jacket.

Widget's anger melted into awe. "You... You're..." For probably the very first time in her life, she had absolutely no idea what to say or do next. "You're metal... Like me..." she muttered.

"Well, no. Not like you, really. My scans show your left arm is the only part of you that's mechanical, whereas I'm a robot from the point of my ears to the tip of my tail."

The grey mouse took in every astounding inch of Chris' cranium. Never before had she seen such amazing mechanics. She noticed the electronic receptors covering the inside of the fox's skin to deliver electric signals directly from surface to surface, the tiny motors that turned his eyes in perfect mimicry of a live fox's, the heat and motion sensors embedded in his cheeks and snout, the perfectly alligned animatronics that moved his mouth in time to his words. If she hadn't already given her heart to her beloved Jurgen, she'd have thought she was in love. Widget swiveled around to Gadget. "Did you build this thing, sis? It's incredible!"

Crisscross looked hurt. Being referred to as an 'it' always got to him.

Gadget gave her sister a disapproving look. "No, I didn't build _him_. Crisscross is my friend, not just a machine. I think you hurt his feelings."

Widget was a little puzzled by the idea that she'd insulted a robot, but when she turned back around, just as Crisscross was slipping his face back on, she saw the life there. She saw the emotion in his big, amber eyes. She had unintentionally insulted him. Just as he'd probably said what he had about her arm without knowing how sensitive she was about it.

She looked back to her sister. That stern look was still there, prodding her to tell Chris she was sorry. Widget wasn't used to making apologies, but with all the rangers staring at her, she couldn't not say anything. She turned back to the large robot fox. "Um... I guess I didn't know you were, uh, sentient when I said that," she mumbled in a low voice, avoiding eye contact. "I didn't mean to insult you." She willed herself to say those words she hated so much. "I'm sorry," she muttered in a voice so low that only Chris and Foxglove heard her.

Crisscross hunched down to look in her eyes. He gave her a bright smile. "Aw, that's okay. I know you didn't mean it. I get that a lot. And from the way you punched me, I guess I said something wrong about your arm."

"Oops! Sorry about that, too." Widget blushed a little.

"I don't mind. I hardly felt it."

Widget arched an eyebrow. "Really? Hmmm. Maybe I should spiff up the torque then..."

Chris gave her arm a careful scan with all his sensors. "Y'know, I think you could increase your power output by thirty six point three percent if you tightened that screw on the left side of your elbow and replaced the third elastic band from the inside in your lower arm."

The grey mouse checked, and finding that Chris was completely right, started making the neccisary adjustments. In a few moments, they were chatting happily about mechanics, their fued forgotten.

Chip couldn't wait any longer. It was nice that Widget had made a new friend, but there was a pyromaniac on the loose and they were the Rescue Rangers after all. He stepped into the mouse and fox's conversation and called the others over. He handed Gimcrack to Foxy, (they both immediately brightened) and began relating the events of the bombed building and their mysterious new foe to Gadget, Chris and Zipper. Dale was especially helpful in graphically describing all the stuff that blew up and making appropriate sound effects.

"As you can see, we don't have a moment to lose!" Chip stated while gesturing dramatically. "We've got to nab this nut before he turns the rest of the city into a charcoal briquette!"

"Righto, Chippah!" Monterey enthusiastically agreed. "Besides, no bloke interrupts my morning coffee without gettin' a few bones broken!" He grinned and gave his knuckles a good crack.

"I'm coming too!" Widget interjected. "My wide knowledge of explosive and incindiary devices might help the investigation. Plus, this guy ruined my morning too. And for that, he must suffer. I shall wrap my fingers oh so slowly around his tender throat..."

"Widget," said Chip.

"...and *squeeze*, slowly leeching the very life energy from his writhing body..."


"...and as his consciousness fades deliciously away, I'll laugh! And laugh! And laugh! And-"

"WIDGET!!!" bellowed Chip.


* * *

Meanwhile, across town in a shady, dim office, Pyro stood before a seated figure, who was methodically shelling sunflower seeds and popping them in his mouth. "Back so soon, mah mischevious min-yown?" the figure asked.

"Yep. Everything went off *perfectly*!" the thin squirrel said with obvious delight.

"Building blow up allright?"

"It done blowed up _real_ good, boss!"

"The rangers know all 'bout it?"

"I'd say my introduction left a lasting impression."

"And you know what their next move will be?"

"Not yet, but I can follow them and find out."

Beneath his tilted hat, Deveraux Delacroix grinned. He popped another seed in his mouth and gnashed it to bits. "Goin' like clockwork..."

Chapter Four: Investigations Into Arson and Love

Fifteen minutes later, Chip was staring at a rodent-sized computer screen, watching intently as windows and sites flew by. The screen was attached to a truly monstrous mountain of circuit boards, blinking LEDs, connecters, adapters and serpentine wires. Controlling this titanic technological tower was a small, furry, seated figure whose fingers danced across its keyboard with the grace and speed of a pianist playing the Minute Waltz.

Chip had made the decision to split the rangers up into two groups. He, Monterey Jack and Zipper took the rangermobile and went off to do some research on a lead he was fairly sure he had. Dale, Foxglove, Gadget, Widget and Chris were back at the bomb site, looking for more clues. Chip had also paid a visit to Tammy, who'd enthusiastically joined his team and was snuggled in next to him at the moment, watching the computer screen as well and occasionally rubbing their fur together. She was distracting, but he didn't mind.

The small light-furred mouse at the keyboard entered in a few dozen more keystrokes and reached her goal. She turned around in her wheelchair. "Here we are, Chip; Cleckley Hill's private computer system."

Zipper butted in before Chip could speak. "Um, Trackball, by 'private system' do you mean you hacked in there illegally?"

Trackball shrugged a little. "Kinda. But we're here for a good reason, so I'm sure they wouldn't mind." She looked back to Chip. "Now, what did you want to find in here?"

"The name and personal file on the patient that escaped a few weeks ago. I need to know as much about him as possible. I think he might be the same squirrel we encountered today."

Trackball nodded and began typing away with lightning speed.

"But couldn't you just have asked Doctor Speck to tell you about this guy," Tammy asked, "y'know, instead of breaking in?"

"Patient records are confidential, Tammy," He explained to her. "The doctors couldn't have told me if they wanted to. It's like that to protect the patients' privacy. But in this case, protecting the city from becoming a toasted cheese sandwich is a bit more important."

"Somebody mention cheese?" Monterey asked.

"Bullseye, guys!" Trackball said triumphantly. The screen before her displayed two photos of Bernie Withers and his psychiatric records.

"That's the blighter, allright!" said Monty.

Chip rubbed his chin and squinted. "I'm not so sure. The guy we met seemed a bit peppier. This fellow looks like a depressed cotton swab."

Trackball scrolled down the screen, reading the report at an amazing speed. "Well Chip, it says here that Mr. Withers has been in an almost catatonic state for over three years. In all that time, he's only shown any emotion when he's gotten near fire. This guy's a pyro's pyro. A real nut."

"He's probably gotten energized from lighting fires since he got out," Zipper said. "And besides, how many albino pyromaniac squirrels do you know of?"

"My uncle was like that for a few weeks after his little accident," Tammy stated, "but we got him fixed up again allright."

The others cast mildly disturbed glances at her.

Tammy snickered. "I'm kidding!"

Chip rolled his eyes. He thought over what Trackball had said. "Hmm, we might have a big advantage over this Withers guy. If he's this addicted to fire, we can use it against him. All we have to do is find a way to take it away from him."

"We could give 'im a good solid whack on the noggin with a chunk 'o asbestos!" Monty joked. "Actually, wouldn't a fire extinguisher work?"

"Probably not, Monterey," said Chip. "They're just for stopping fires, not preventing them."

Tammy perked up with inspiration. "Hey! What about some kind of flame-retardant chemical? We could squirt him with that!"

Chip patted her on the back. "Good thinking, Tammy! That'd douse his flames long enough for us to nab him!" He gave the blushing squirlette a peck on the cheek, making her giggle blissfully.

"Thanks, Chipper!" She swept him up in a hug as crushing as a vise.

Trackball had already located a website that listed several kinds of fire-fighting chemicals. She carefully scanned the screen. "It looks like this chemical here..." she pointed to the sceen, "...dionoxyzys, would be your best bet. It's used to make fireproof fabrics and it's so strong that even the fumes can keep fires from starting. If you splashed your arsonist's fur with this, he wouldn't be able to light so much as a birthday candle for a week!"

"I wonder if the hardware store around the corner has any?" Monty pondered out loud.

With a few keystrokes and mouse clicks, Trackball brought up the inventory list of the Ferreri Hardware Emporium. Scrolling down, she found what they were looking for. "Here we go, a dionoxyzys-based wood treater."

"And I know they sell squirt guns too. That'd give him a good soaking!" said Zipper.

Chip straightened up, cocked his hat rakishly, and assumed a commanding pose. "Right then! Let's get over there and stock up. After that, we'll check the hangouts of each and every gangster, crook and lowlife in the city. Remember what Pyro said about targeting them." He turned to Trackball and gave her paw a firm shake. "Thanks so much for all your help."

"You're welcome Chip," she said. "I love being able to help you guys out. I wish I could come with you but, you know." She gestured to her wheelchair and shrugged.

"Don't worry, your information has already given our investigation a big boost and saved us a lot of time. One more thing, could you give me a printout of Bernie Wither's files for reference?"

"No problem!" And a few seconds later, they were in Chip's hands.

"Okay gang," Chip called out, "today the Rescue Rangers are firefighters! Let's go kick some albino squirrel butt!"

Tammy nearly swooned as Chip led the Rangers forward. "Oh Chip! I love it when you get all gung ho!"

Monty nudged Zipper. "Is it just me, or do you suddenly feel like slidin' down a pole and grabbing a hose?"

The rangers said their goodbyes to Trackball and headed for the rangermobile to begin their pursuit of Pyro.

"Bye, guys!" Trackball called out to them. "Remember, you can click on me anytime!"

* * *

Meanwhile, the other half of the rangers stared up through the blackened remains of the previously exploded office building. By now, the firemen and crime scene investigators had come and gone. However, there were still plenty of clues left that were too small for human eyes. With Widget leading the search, Gadget, Dale, Foxglove and Crisscross combed the area in search of bomb fragments, pawprints and anything else that might lead to the capture of their newest enemy.

They'd already uncovered several small pieces from the bomb, some of them with the same tiny writing that Widget had seen before on the other fragment. Like an archaeologist studying dinosaur bones, Widget was beginning to construct a mental picture of the bomb. Already she knew that it was specially designed just for this building. It had been made with the precision of a Swiss watch to disintegrate the interior, but leave the structure intact, essentially hollowing it out. She didn't know of many bombmakers who could work with such accuracy. Even stranger was that she was growing more and more sure that the bomb was not made by humans. That should have narrowed the search list substantially, and yet she was drawing a blank. It seemed like there was something she wanted to remember, but couldn't no matter how hard she tried. It was like a song stuck in your head with a name you couldn't think of. It would only come to you if you stopped thinking about it completely. It was a paradox she didn't have time for. Widget stroked her chin in thought and stared up at the ceiling, trying to let her thoughts wander in the right direction.

Elsewhere, Crisscross couldn't stop taking time from his detective work to sneak peeks at Gadget on the other side of the room. Every now and then she'd bend over to examine some rubble and the sight of her cute little bottom was enough to make Chris faint. Foxglove was searching for bomb pieces next to him. He gave the little bat a tap on the wing. "Say, Foxglove..."

"Yes, Chris?"

"You're a girl, right?"

Foxy chuckled. "I hope so, or Dale's in for a surprise!"

Chris chuckled as well. "Um, I was wondering, what do you think is the best way to let a girl know you love her?"

Foxglove arched an eyebrow. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, ever since I met Gadget, I've wanted to tell her how much I adore her. Everything about her makes me smile. I'd do anything to be with her!"

"So why don't you just walk up and tell her that?"

Had the robot canine been able to blush, he certainly would have at the very notion of Foxglove's suggestion. "I couldn't! I mean, I'm just too scared to come right out and tell her. I don't know anything at all about love! And I already struck out once today. I don't want to screw it up again."

The poor fox was so obviously miserable, Foxglove couldn't help putting a comforting wing over his shoulder. "It's okay, Crisscross. You're just shy. Dale and I both were when we first fell in love, so I understand. But you're a really nice fox! I'm sure Gadget will like you as much as you like her."

Foxglove's sunny optimism did wonders for Chris. "You really think so?" When she nodded yes, Chris' tail couldn't help wagging. "Okay then, how should I make the first move?"

Foxglove thought back to when Dale had first started courting her. She remembered teaching him how to hang glide, and all the times he'd crashed on purpose to make her laugh. She smiled at the thought. "You could show her that you're interested in the same things that she is."

"I do already," Chris told her. "But she doesn't see it as anything more than being friendly."

Foxglove thought harder. Maybe something simpler would do the trick; something less vague and more romantically symbolic. Her eyes lit up as she hit upon a great idea. "Flowers! Everyone likes getting flowers. You should give some to Gadget."

"Perfect!" Chris shouted. He gave Foxglove an enthusiastic slurp. "Thank you so much! What a great idea! Wow! Why didn't I think of it before!"

Foxglove giggled at the feel of his rubbery canine tongue. She noticed something through a blackened doorway across the room. "Look, Chris! Isn't that a tiger lily growing over there? You could give it to Gadget right now!"

Crisscross looked and indeed it was. He walked out the door to see it up close. It was a magnificent specimen. A small miracle of nature in the middle of the city. Growing proudly through a hole in the pavement of the dirty alley, it stood tall and beautiful, bursting with an orange brighter than his fur. It was almost a shame to pick it. But the fate of his love for Gadget hung in the balance. Chris carefully sliced the stem in two and took the lily in his mouth. He couldn't fail this time. He hummed happily to himself as he trotted back inside the burnt building to give his offering to the most beautiful mouse in the world.

Meanwhile, Widget's gazing had turned up something. "Gadget, come over here!" she called out. Gadget and Dale both heard the shout and came running.

"Didja find any good clues?" Dale asked eagerly.

"Perhaps. Look up there. All the way up on that beam sticking out of the second floor ceiling."

Gadget squinted. She could make out something with wires hanging there. "What is that?"

"Part of the bomb's timer, I'm sure of it," Widget replied. "We have to get it down so I can analyze it."

"You got some sharp eyes there, Widget!" Dale told her.

Widget let slip a little proud smile. "Thanks."

Gadget looked around for something she could use to retrieve the timer part. She went over her options, muttering to herself as she did so. "Let's see, if I could find a way of stacking these girder pieces on top of one another, I could make a ladder. Or I could assemble a helicopter from those office supplies I saw earlier. Or maybe a cannon to shoot Dale up there made out of..."

Fortunately for Dale, Crisscross appeared then with his flower and put an end to Gadget's train of thought. Gadget brightened as soon as she saw it. "Oh Crisscross! Is that for me?"

Chris laid it down at her feet and looked deep into her gorgeous eyes, flashing his best bashful-schoolboy-puppy-love grin. "Yes, Gadget, this flower is for you." He felt an electric surge run through him at the joyful expression on her face. She loved it, he knew it.

"How thoughtful of you!" Gadget said. She took the tiger lily in her arms and looked it over. "It's just what I need!"

Then, to Crisscross' utter horror, Gadget began to calmly rip the petals off the lily. Chris was so shocked, he nearly went off-line. He watched her grab each petal, shred it off with cold precision and toss it aside. As each one hit the ground, it felt like a bullet through his heart. As a finishing touch, Gadget took the flower's head and twisted it off in her arms leaving a barren stem.

Chris nearly died from heartbreak on the spot. Why?!? Why would she destroy his heartfelt gift to her?!? The sheer incomprehensibility of it was what hurt the most. He would have preferred an icepick through his chest to this callous rejection of his love offering.

Gadget looked around and found a small, slightly round chunk of concrete. She bent the stem into a loop and fitted the chunk into the end of it. Looking up at the beam where the timer part rested, she did a few mental calculations. Then she took a strong hold on both ends of the stem and spun as fast as she could in a circle. Faster and faster she twirled until when she was certain she had just enough momentum, she let go at the of the stem at the exact second neccisary to send the chunk of concrete rocketing up to the second story ceiling beam, hitting the base of it with enough force to send a jarring vibration along its length that grew as it reached the end and shook the piece of the bomb's timer off, sending it falling two stories down right into Gadget's waiting arms.

She handed it to Widget with a triumphant smile. "Here ya go!"

Dale and Widget were both rather impressed. "Wowie Zowie Deluxe!" Dale exclaimed. "That was cool, Gadget!"

"Thanks, Dale! And thank you too, Chris. That flower stem was the perfect length and elasticity for that!"

"You're welcome." Chris managed to mumble. He laid down and sighed deeply. 'Well, at least she doesn't hate me' he told himself. 'But she had no idea why I really gave it to her either. Strike two.'

Foxglove fluttered over to him. "I saw what happened. I'm sorry, Chris."

He managed a smile. "That's okay. It was a good idea, just not the right one for Gadget." He watched Gadget and Widget discussing their newest clue as Dale peeked over their shoulders. Gadget wasn't interested in anything but her work. "I'll find that right way someday," Chris vowed "I just wish it'd come sooner."

Chapter Five: Blow'd Up

The rangermobile was fully stocked with a can of Parkes & Kerr Wood Treatment Solution and two small water guns shaped like rainbow trout. However, Chip's half of the rangers hadn't yet had a chance to use them. They'd been on Pyro's trail for over an hour now, paying visits to various criminals' known hideouts, with nothing but bad luck so far. Chip's eyes were fixed on the road in an angry stare. Tammy sat next to him, nearly in his lap. She rubbed Chip's shoulders slowly, trying to help him relax. Monty and Zipper sat in the back seat. Together they held the ziploc bag containing what little evidence they'd been able to collect so far.

"Where we going now, Chippah?" Monterey asked.

"Rat Capone's downtown hideout," Chip replied gruffly.

Tammy took the opportunity to show Chip that she'd been reading up on the Ranger's past case logs. "That's the old station wagon in the Washington street parking lot, right? The one that's been there for years and he turned the trunk into a safehouse?"

Chip allowed a smile to slip out of his snarly demeanor. "You've been doing your homework, haven't you, Tammy?"

Tammy smiled proudly. "Sure have, Chipper!" She put her finger to her lips in thought. "But I was wondering, if you know that's where he hangs out, why haven't you just had the car towed or something? I'm sure you could find a way to do that."

Chip corrected her with a knowing tone. "Ah, but the reason isn't that I can't, it's that I don't want to. I'm sure Dale and I could slip into police headquarters some night and fiddle with the paperwork so the car would get impounded. But then Capone would just find another meeting place for him and his cronies. We got lucky when we found this one. We might not have that luck again. Also, this way, Capone doesn't know that we know. He'll keep using this place, and if we ever need to find him, we'll know to check here along with his place in the sewer."

"You're so smart!" Tammy hugged Chip, making the rangermobile swerve into traffic for a few frightening moments. Chip began to wonder if he'd survive Tammy being his girlfriend much longer.

"I'm not sure why we're botherin' checking this place out though," Monterey said sourly. "Betcha double or nothing it's been barbecued like the others."

Chip almost felt the same way himself. Monty was right, after all. They'd been to four known criminal hangouts over the last hour and all of them had been burned to cinders. The list included the now-abandoned laundromat in Chinatown that the Siamese Twins used whenever they were in town. It had been a landmark of the Ranger's very first case. Chip had found his treasured fedora there. Lots of memories were associated with the place. Chip felt a lot of jumbled emotions at seeing it destroyed.

None of the hideouts had been burnt with anything so fancy as the bomb that had totaled the office building earlier. From what Chip could tell, these other four had been done with some kind of juiced-up Molotov cocktails. There was nothing left of most of them. And what had happened to them was recent, too. The embers were still hot at each scene when they'd arrived. Chip had done an unusually brief sweep of each and his evidence collection was mostly for routine. He didn't expect to find out anything from any of it. This guy was too good for that. He was an expert at what he did. Chip half expected to find Sewer Al's subway car in the same condition as the rest when they checked it out later.

Chip had begun to see that everything to this point had been very carefully planned. He and the other rangers were being used. He'd thought initially that it was just a little too coincidental that the office building that had blown up had just happened to be directly in front of where they drank their morning coffee every day. He now realized that it had been simply a ploy to distract them while the other hideouts were being torched. Pyro had fooled them with a lot more than just a fake bomb. Chip was not about to let him get away with it.

* * *

"I think we've found everything we're going to find here," Widget said as she strapped Gimcrack back into the harness on her chest.

"What do you think we should we do now, sis?" Gadget asked, acknowledging that Widget had become the unofficial leader of their half of the investigation.

"I'm up for a few more donuts," Dale ventured.

Widget was about to give him a blood-curdling 'look', but then thought a bit. "Actually, that's not all that bad an idea, Dale. Someone else at the coffeeshop and places around it might have seen something that we didn't. Couldn't hurt to look into it."

"Cool! We're gonna interrogate witnesses!" Dale put on a detective's scowl and turned to point accusingly at Foxglove. "Where were you on the night of April the eleventh?!?" he growled playfully.

Foxy chuckled. "I was probably cuddling with you, cutie."

Dale grinned. "Oh yeah! Now I remember!" The two came together in their fourth hug of the day, giggling between their kisses.

Widget rolled her eyes at the chipmunk and the bat. She turned to Gadget. "How do you get any detective work done at all when they're like this?"

"You should see Tammy and Chip together," Gadget replied.

Eventually, Widget was able to herd the rangers out of the burned building and into the coffeeshop across the street. No luck. Nobody there had seen any more than the rangers had. Most were so surprised by the blast that they weren't able to remember any coherent details at all. (Onan hadn't even seen the blast; his limited attention had been focused solely on Foxglove the entire time.)

Next, the rangers went out into the street to see if anyone passing by had seen anything. Widget assigned a quarter of the street to each ranger, and had Dale and Foxglove cover the same area, since she could tell from the looks they were giving one another that it would be impossible to keep them separated anyway. The rangers split up, agreeing to meet back in front of the coffeeshop in a half hour.

When the others had left, Crisscross ran back over to Widget. She heard his pounding footfalls and turned to face him. "I thought I told you to ask around on the other side of the street," she said in a rather annoyed tone.

Chris gulped at hearing her harsh voice. "Um, well, I wanted to ask you something."

"It had better be about the case." she replied; her voice like iron.

Chris whimpered like a hurt puppy. He knew he was a cybernetic fox and Widget was a mouse an eighth his size, but he still couldn't help being afraid of her. Widget had honed her intimidation skills like a samurai's blade over many years. She was probably the only mouse in the world that scared her predators more than they scared her. "Actually, it's about Gadget," he said with a trembling jaw.

Widget arched an eyebrow. "What about her?"

Chris steeled his courage, not knowing what to expect from Widget. "I'm in love with her."

The grey mouse's face remained blank. "...And?"

"And the problem is, she doesn't know it. I was wondering, since you're her sister, maybe you could give me some hints on how I could tell her how I feel."

Gimcrack made a spit bubble.

A tiny ironic smile slowly spread across Widget's face. She found herself unable to resist a chuckle at the fox's ignorance. "You're asking _me_ ...about how to romance Gadget?"

Crisscross nodded.

Widget gave him a 'you poor fool' pat on his snout. "Chris, I am *not* the person to ask. I tried to kill her at least three times."

The fox almost laughed, then his eyes widened in horror as he realized she wasn't kidding. "You..."

She nodded.

"Okie dokie then," he said dazedly. Feeling like he'd just been hit in the face with a skillet, Chris wondered whether he should ask Gadget about this later, or erase the whole conversation from his memory banks. Still, Gidget was her sister, and she should be able to shed SOME information on his plight, right?

Chris decided to try another topic. "Um, okay, well, You're married, right?"

Widget and Gimcrack glanced at one another. "Yes," she said, finally.

"Well, how did your husband tell you he loved you for the first time?" Chris sat down expectantly.

"We sort of drifted into it," Widget reminisced. "We started working together, and then we found we were having lunch with one another, talking things over even when it didn't have to be done. I don't think that I realized what was happening until after he found out what my name was."

Chris' ear twitched. "Uhm," he said.

"Then one day he said that he knew that I was shattered cripple from the battlefield of affection, that he understood why I had abandoned love in a search for power and revenge, and that he'd like to prove me wrong." Her voice shook a little, and she smiled softly.

"I don't think that would be appropriate for Gadget," Chris said flatly.

"No," Widget agreed. "Well, let me try to remember something from one of my premarital affairs." She frowned in concentration.

"Your ... what?" Chris asked, wincing.

"Now in most of them, I was the first to express interest," Widget said blithely. "But Stripes captured my attention."

"What did he do?"

"He said I was beautiful and he'd like to share a blanket. He was romantic that way."

Chris paused. "Thanks, Widget," he said, blinking in hazy confusion.

"Don't mention it."

"I won't," he immediately assured her, and trotted off.

Meanwhile, Dale and Foxy were well into their investigation. They were making good progress, having talked to several passing animals already, and having scared away most of them. Many animals have an unfounded fear of bats anyway, and Dale acting like Joe Friday didn't help matters any.

The two rangers made their way down the street to a rival rodent coffeeshop. The "Den of Beans" was a coffee_house_ in the most traditional sense of the word. The interior was nearly pitch black, lit only by candles on the tables. The air was rich with the scent of roughly ground coffee. Beatniks, bohemians and crazies were spread across the tables. A wispy, goateed mouse in a burgundy sweater, sunglasses, and a beret was on stage, rambling incoherently in a wheezy squeak.

"We're not in Kansas anymore, Foxy," Dale whispered.

The mouse left the stage as if he was walking to his death. The crowd applauded with finger snapping and various cries of "Dig it!", "Crazy!" and "What?" A rather scruffy-looking marten with bangs down to his nose took the stage next and spent a few minutes adjusting the mike. "That was the soul-searching words of world-renowned poet Ennui Weltshmerz. Wasn't he great folks?" Dale and Foxy noticed that the marten didn't inflect his voice above monotone the entire time he spoke.

"And now the Den of Beans is totally psyched to bring you a newcomer who's become immensely popular with audiences all over. Cats and kitties, please welcome: Mepps."

Foxglove and Dale looked at each other in surprise. "Mepps?!?"

As if to answer their question, their old nemesis then strode onto the stage. The still-ragged cat was dresed in a sharp black vest and dark violet Lennon-style sunglasses. His hair was parted oddly and he had a tiny fake beard glued to his chin. He was incredibly different from the last time he and the rangers had met a week ago in the case that had introduced the rangers to Chrisscross. The rangers and Chris had managed to convince Mepps and the other goons to mutiny against Fat Cat's cruel treatment of them. Dale and Foxglove had both wondered what had become of him since then, but neither of them ever expected this.

Mepps adjusted the mike and cleared his throat. It sounded like a tin can full of wood screws. "Hi. How's everyone doin' today?" he asked in his usual raspy voice.

"Terrible!" someone wailed.

Mepps continued. "Um, I haven't been writing poetry very long, but people seem to like what I've already done and I think I like it too. This is the first poem I wrote. It's called 'The Man Made Me Stupid'." There were hushed whispers in the audience from those that had heard the poem before and were eagerly awaiting hearing it again. Mepps cleared his voice a few more times.

Then, to Dale and Foxglove's utter surprise, Mepps' poem came bellowing out. The cat's voice was suddenly full and commanding, loud and strong. His words were blunt, heartfelt and powerful.

"Big Fat Dude in a Suit!!!
"SCREAMIN' at me! HOWLIN' at me! Whoopin' my behind!!
"Do this, Mepps! Do that Mepps!
"Gold! Jewels! Cash! Theft! AAAAAARRRGGH!!!
"My Brain turned to...
"Then one day the little furry dudes came!
"Made me see the LIGHT!
"SLAPPED the Man's fat face!!
"Knocked him on his FAT BEHIND!!!
"SLAP the Man's fat face!!
"Take back them Brains he Stole from you!
"Take BACK them brains!!!"

Then the room was silent. Mepps shuffled his feet a little, held up the mike again and said simply "Thank you."

The audience erupted. They jumped out of their chairs clapping, shouting and hooting. Foxglove and Dale were applauding too. They ran up to Mepps to congratulate him. He was equally happy to see them again and bought them both hot mugs of rich, steamy coffee. The three of them had a nice reunion and talked about what had happened to them since their last meeting until Widget barged in and yelled at the two rangers for goofing off and forgetting to meet them at the other coffeeshop after the half hour was up.

* * *

Chip screeched the rangermobile to a halt in the Washington street parking lot and looked with surprise on the gigantic grey station wagon in front of them. It looked like a battleship from his angle. Its entire length was covered in rust and age. But its most amazing feature was that it was intact. The rangers had actually gotten to one before Pyro had! Chip turned to Monterey with a grin. "Aren't you glad you didn't put any money on that bet?"

Monty chuckled. "Too right. We'd better give this tank a look before it goes up in flames too."

"I'll look for a way in," Zipper said. He buzzed around the car several times, first checking to see if anyone was inside, then trying to spot an entrance. Luckily, the front passenger door window was open wide enough for a few small mammals and a fly to fit through. Zipper reported to the others. The rangers then climbed up the tires to reach the hood and then the window.

Chip was the first inside. He gestured for the others to stay put for he moment while he checked around. The brave chipmunk stayed low as he made his way across the dashboard. His eyes were alert to any movement and any sound. When he was certain that he was the only living thing inside the station wagon, and that there were no booby traps anywhere, he waved the other rangers in. Monty got stuck in the window for a bit.

The rangers crept inside and looked all around. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for an interior of a very unused station wagon. The four teammates jumped down to the front seat. They headed for the back of the car. Dust and grime surrounded them on all sides. Cobwebs littered the dark space under the seats. Hazy sunlight filtered in through the unwashed, cracked windows. Zipper wondered to himself how Rat Capone could stand living here for even a few minutes.

Monterey hefted himself up onto the back seat and pulled Chip and Tammy up with him. Someone had spilled something sticky on the seat a long time ago that smelled of rancid artificial orange. Tammy made her disgust clearly known with a loud "Eeeew!" Zipper felt lucky that he didn't have to walk everywhere.

The ugly pattern on the backseat was in a repulsive color scheme, but it was made of a loose fabric that was easy for rodents to climb. Chip peeked over the backseat, still on the alert for anything that might spring up suddenly and do unpleasant things to them. The coast was clear however, and the rangers proceeded into Rat Capone's sanctuary.

"Pyro hasn't been here yet, and I have a feeling he might not come at all," Chip said to the others. "If we're lucky, he won't know about this place and we won't have to worry about yet another arson today."

"Capone does keep this one pretty secret," Zipper noted. "It was pure luck that we found out about it at all."

"True," Chip replied, "But Fat Cat's warehouse was kept even further in the shadows, and as far as we know, he got to that one first. He may have done that on purpose to show us that he knows a lot more about underground hideouts than we wish he did." Chip hated it, but he was growing to respect this Pyro guy with each passing minute. "So it would be wise to keep an eye open for anything out of the ordinary, just in case. And we might find something on Capone while we're here anyway, so we may as well snoop around a bit."

The rangers lifted up the vinyl floor covering, revealing a hidden room containing a few chairs, a table, some obviously fake jewelry and a lot of papers strewn about. Careful not to disturb anything, Chip and the others poked around for anything they could use against their most repugnant foe.

Monterey Jack picked up a scribble-covered paper and skimmed it. A grin formed on his face when he realized what it was. "Well shave me bald and call me human! Lookit what I found, mates!"

Chip took the paper from Monty and smiled too when he read it. Tammy peeped over his shoulder. "Watcha got there?"

"These are plans for the Hamrick Diamond heist!" Chip exclaimed. The case had been all over the news about a month ago. "And here we thought a human thief was the culprit! Gotta give the rat credit for this. He pulled it off smooth as silk."

"He just forgot an important rule of crime; don't leave plans laying around where rescue rangers can find them!" said Zipper with a laugh.

Chip cracked his knuckles, something he did on occasion when he hit a break in a case. Tammy gritted her teeth; it was probably the only thing she didn't like about him. "And after we finish this case," Chip said, "we'll pay Capone's other hideout a little visit and make sure that diamond gets back to the museum where it belongs!"

The rangers put Rat Capone's 'hidden' room back the way they found it and started the unpleasant journey back to the front of the station wagon. Chip walked with a spring in his step. Finally this case had brought him *something*, even if it was unrelated.

When they reached the front seat, Zipper noticed something stuck to the steering wheel. He flew up to grab it, then handed it to Chip. "Looks like a note."

Puzzled, Chip unfolded it. While the other rangers gathered around to see, he read it aloud:

Dearest Rescue Rangers;

Did you know that some cars have windows and door locks that
you can operate with a remote control? I'll bet that someone
who knew about electronics could make that work on an older
car if they wanted.


Chip looked up, a horrified expression in his eyes. To his left, the window slid closed. All four doors locked with a loud click. He thought he smelled gunpowder.

"Uh oh," said Tammy.

A second later, the car erupted in a giant ball of flame.

* * *

"I was just driving past and then the whole thing went BOOM! and I'm like, 'Whoa! That's really cool!' and the whole building was, like, on fire and stuff and things were flying out and the flames were all orange and it was really, really cool" The speaker was Ralph S. Mouse, a rather animated, and rather dim, rodent that Widget's team had questioned as they walked back to ranger headquarters.

"Did you see anyone enter or leave the building before it exploded?" Gadget asked him.

"No, man. I mean, the only reason I was looking at it in the first place was 'cuz it got blow'd up. I didn't see nuthin'."

"Well, thanks for your help anyway," Widget said in a tone of voice that implied she wouldn't mind tearing his head off.

"Cool! See ya later then." The brown-furred mouse hopped on his shiny red motorcycle and adjusted his helmet; half a ping pong ball. "Peace, y'all!" he cried as he sped away, making 'brrm brrm' noises with his mouth the whole time.

Gimcrack made motorcycle noises too.

"Well he was weird," Dale noted.

Crisscross smirked. "This is coming from a chipmunk who spends his free time figuring out mathematically how much combined screentime the Lone Gunmen have on the X Files," he said teasingly.

"Hey!" Dale exclaimed, annoyed. "I was curious! Is that so wrong?" Foxglove hid a chuckle behind her wings. "It's eight hours and seventeen minutes exactly, by the way. So there!" Dale stuck out his tongue at Chris for emphasis.

Widget whirled around suddenly and grabbed Dale by his shirt collar. "I hate to cut this fascinating discussion short, but don't we kinda know that guy over there?!?!!" she shouted in his face.

Dale, shaken to the bone, managed to look in the direction she was pointing. He yelped in surprise. "Holy Bridgeford Charcoal, Batman! It's Pyro!!"

Standing on the streetcorner opposite them, the orange-clad arsonist leaned jauntily against a lamp post and gave them a friendly wave and an evil grin.

"Let's get him, guys!" Chris shouted. Quick as a wink he grabbed Dale, Gadget and Widget in his mouth and tossed them onto his back, careful not to jostle Gimcrack too much. Foxglove was already airborne and after the villain.

Gadget turned to Widget. "Have you ever traveled by fox before?"


"There's only one rule; HOLD ON!" Gadget, Dale and Widget dug in as Crisscross dashed off like a shot from a gun. Widget held on to Chris' fur as tight as her bionic arm could. She cradled Gimcrack with the other and blew lighlty in his ear, something she found always helped to soothe him.

Gimcrack didn't really need much soothing. He watched in amazement as the world flew by past him. "Go fast!" he cried happily.

Crisscross let loose several loud, predatory "Arf!"s, sounding as fierce as a fox could be. He swerved right and left across the busy street, dodging cars as expertly as Gadget did when she drove the rangermobile. Pyro was in the fox's sights and staying well ahead of him. 'Man, that squirrel can run!' Chris thought. He leaped over the curb and landed on the safety of the sidewalk. Snarling, he kept up the pursuit. Pedestrians shrieked and jumped out of his way. Chris kept his eyes on the albino and his tactile sensors on the rangers, making sure his friends were in no danger of slipping off his fur.

The pyromaniac squirrel turned a sudden corner and ducked into a small open vent in the side of a building. Foxy dived down and swooped in after him, Crisscross right behind her. The air shaft was dark as a coal mine and the aluminum boomed like thunder with every step Chris took. He switched to infrared night vision, the metal tunnel suddenly turning bright green. Pyro was plainly visible. The gap between them was closing quickly. Another few seconds and the rangers would be on him.

The squirrel put on a sudden burst of speed and leapt for a lever set into the vent's wall. As soon as he did, the world seemed to drop out from beneath Crisscross' paws. The rangers all screamed as the shaft suddenly broke away from the ceiling, pitching forward to send them shooting towards a hard cement floor! The falling vent collided with Foxglove's head, knocking the pink bat unconscious. Her wings failed and she fell to the floor with the others. The vent smashed into the ground with a deafening, resonating clang.

Chris took the impact with his feet, letting his spring-loaded shocks absorb the jarring punch. Catching the motion of Foxglove's body falling, he made a split-second leap up and caught her as gently as he could in his mouth.

All the ranger's hair was standing straight on end. Their teeth were clenched in terror. Chris sat down and let Widget, Gadget and Dale slide off his back. The three of them stumbled and fell to the floor, trying desperately to make their hearts stop thundering.

Gimcrack laughed happily. "Fun!" shouted The Mouse Who Knew No Fear.

The room was enormous; a giant empty basement warehouse with red brick walls and iron pipes crawling across them. Sunlight streamed in from several rectangular windows near the ceiling. A few sagging cardboard boxes huddled in the corners. Crisscross let Foxglove slide out of his mouth onto the cool, grey concrete floor. She wasn't moving. He gave her a little nudge with his nose to wake her, but nothing happened.

Holding his head to keep it from spinning, Dale looked up to see his lover's prone form. Like lightning he was at her side. "Foxy! Oh Foxy, Foxy, my sweet Foxy... Please be okay, my darling sweetiecakes." He held her wing in one paw and her head in the other. He kissed her forehead softly and a tear fell on her fur. Nothing could hurt Dale more than seeing the love of his life like this. The other rangers gathered around and hoped she would be allright.

The pretty bat stirred, then opened her soft yellow eyes. "...Dale?"

"Foxycakes! Are you hurt bad?! Oh please tell me no!"

Foxglove managed to sit up. She rubbed the top of her head. "I'm fine, Cutie. But my head really hurts. I think I'm gonna have a bump there."

Dale hugged her with all his love. "Well don't you worry. Doctor Dale's gonna do everything in the world to make that nasty bump go right away." He kissed her and she kissed him.

From above, a snide, sarcastic voice broke their romantic moment. "Aw, isn't that just so sweet you could puke?" High above, Pyro hung from the ceiling on an electrical cord, swinging back and forth merrily. "Glad she's awake. I'd hate for her to miss out on all the fun!"

"YOU! You contemptible, cowardly maggot!!!" Widget screeched at him, the fury of the gods in her voice. "I'll tear your heart from your chest as you watch! Mark my words!"

"You again?" Pyro sneered, unimpressed. "You know, you're never going to make any friends, what with threatening to pull their guts out all the time. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?"

Widget's eyes narrowed to slits, her pink eyes seeming to glow with malice underneath. "My mother's dead," she hissed.

Pyro wasn't fazed in the least. "Sorry, my bad!" There wasn't a trace of sincerity in his words. He flipped himself upside down to hang from his knees. "Well, if it's any consolation, you'll be seeing her again _real_ soon!"

"What do you mean?" Crisscross growled.

The squirrel's face took on a nasty grin. "Take a deep breath, rangers."

Once noticed, the heady smell in the air was unmistakable. "Gasoline!" Gadget shouted.

"Keerect!" shouted Pyro. "Twelve gallons of it to be precise. All of it liberally applied to the very floor you're standing on! I'd love to stay and watch you burn, but I've got people to see and places to fry! Ta!" With that, the squirrel shinnied up the cord to a hole in the ceiling. He pulled a human-sized match from behind his back and a flame sprung from his fingertips to light it. He gave the rangers a wave and let the match go.

It took eons for it to fall. The rangers' breaths caught in their throats. They turned to statues. Spinning end over end, the flaming wooden stick made it's way to the gas-soaked ground, taking all the time it wanted.

And when it did hit, the floor instantly came alive with heat and red and death.

Foxglove screamed and held Dale as tight to her as she could. The rangers sprinted for the far end of the warehouse, the fire hot on their heels. The heat was unbearable. It was like being trapped inside an oven. The air turned bright orange all around. The fire grew bigger every second. A cluster of boxes exploded into sparks and char.

They reached the wall. There was nowhere else to go. They were trapped.

"We're all gonna die!!!" Dale howled.

"I've got an idea!" Crisscross shouted. "Everybody get inside me!" He squatted down and held his mouth open. Gadget was the first down his throat. Foxglove grabbed Dale in her wings and nearly lifted him off the ground pulling him with her into Chris.

"There is no way I'm letting a fox swallow me!" Widget yelled.

Chris didn't have time to argue with her. The flames were getting closer by the second. Gimcrack was mesmerized by the colors. "Look, it's either this or dying. Easy choice. And I'm a robot, remember? There's no danger of getting digested, I promise! Just trust me. And HURRY!"

Widget looked deep into the pink cavernous throat before her and then the raging inferno behind her. Her mind raced. Then, going against every maternal and survival instinct a mouse has ever had, she ran forward into Crisscross' mouth. He quickly gulped her down.

Chris prepared himself. He stared into the heart of the fire, trying to will himself to believe that he really could survive this. The sounds of the pyre bellowed in his ears. He had to do this. He had to save his friends.

The fire fell upon him and he thrust himself into it.

* * *

Far above, Bernie Withers watched the fire dancing. Dancing just for him.


Part two

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