Martin had been drifting closer to consciousness, dimly aware now of the sound of voices nearby, but the cold of sharpened steel against his throat jolted him fully awake in an instant. He froze, eyes still closed, expecting the blade to slice into his skin at any moment.
Instead, he heard his brother's voice, laced with panic. "No! Don't, please!" Chris drew in a ragged breath, a note of surrender creeping into his tone. "I… I'll do whatever you want."
The pause that followed seemed interminable. Finally, the knife was withdrawn, and Martin could sense Gourmand straightening up beside him, turning back toward his brother.
"That's better." There was a clatter as the chef placed the knife back on the counter. "Now, why don't you come on over here, and we'll have a nice little chat. See if we can't come to some kind of…arrangement."
"Chris, no!" Martin wanted to shout, but something held him back. He was fairly certain that his brother was walking into a trap, but what it was, he didn't know, and he was afraid that a simple warning might not be enough. If he called out to Chris now, Gourmand might scrap his plan altogether and just attack the younger Kratt outright. And there would be nothing Martin could do to protect him. Chris was quick and agile, and fairly strong for his size, but Gourmand was probably close to double his body weight, and opossum powers were not suited to any kind of combat. In fact - the thought made his heart skip a beat - there was a good chance that an assault from Gourmand would send Chris into the same kind of coma that had gotten Martin here in the first place. And if that happened…
Martin ground his teeth in frustration, trying desperately to think of some way to help his brother, some advantage he could give him. But what could he possibly do like this? He could feel the ropes, tighter this time, cutting into his wrists and ankles, and he knew that Gourmand wouldn't let his guard down again.
Not unless he believed Martin to still be unconscious.
Martin ventured a cautious peek from beneath barely opened eyelids. Chris was moving guardedly in Gourmand's direction, just fast enough to keep the chef satisfied while maintaining the greatest possible distance between them, buying himself some time to think. Martin could hear him attempting to reason with Gourmand, and the chef's impatient replies. Good, good. Keep him talking.
Satisfied that neither of the others was looking at him, Martin opened his eyes a little wider, the better to get a feel for the situation. But a quick survey of the scene yielded nothing of note, nothing that seemed likely to help him. The kitchen looked just as it had before, the surrounding swampland constant in its strange beauty. The only difference was the two men glaring at each other across an ever-narrowing expanse of ground.
Wait a minute.
Martin's eyes darted back to the area between Gourmand and his brother, his mind racing even as he tried to keep his face impassive. He'd had a pretty good view of that spot earlier, while waiting for Gourmand to return with Jillybean and the mushrooms, and he didn't remember seeing the layer of leaves that now covered the damp soil.
He stared intently at the mat of foliage, searching for some sign of what might be concealed underneath. Then he saw it: a thin cord trailing away from the leaves and leading up into a nearby tree. It was a snare. A few more steps, and Gourmand would have Chris exactly where he wanted him.
He had to do something. Now.
Tucking his head and arms in close to his chest, he pushed off hard from the ground and launched himself toward Gourmand. Once he was airborne, he coiled his legs inward as well, concentrating all of his force and momentum into one compact, desperate, two-hundred-pound missile.
"Stay back!" he shouted to his startled brother. "It's a trap!"
Gourmand toppled over as Martin plowed into his legs, falling heavily to the ground and rolling a short distance. He recovered quickly, however, and before Martin could react, the chef was on top of him, grabbing for his neck with both hands.
"Why, you little -" Gourmand tightened his grip, his face contorted with fury. Struggling with all his might, Martin managed to get his feet up far enough to give the chef a hard push, but he might as well have been trying to move a brick wall. The edges of his vision began to darken and blur, and he knew that he was fighting a losing battle.
"Get away from him."
Chris's voice cut through the haze, low and threatening, with a note of intensity that Martin had never heard before. Gasping for breath as Gourmand finally released him, Martin looked up to see his brother standing over them with the knife clenched in his fist, the tip of the blade digging just slightly into the chef's broad back.
Gourmand's normally ruddy face turned pale. "N-now look, Green Grape," he stammered. "I never meant -"
"Save it." Chris cut him off unceremoniously, leaning past him to get a better look at his brother. "Martin, are you all right?"
Martin nodded, too focused on getting air back into his lungs to make any more of a reply. Chris studied him for a moment, his brown eyes still filled with concern, but then gave an answering nod, apparently satisfied, and addressed Gourmand again.
"You were right, Gourmand. This is the last time we'll be stopping you from cooking a wild animal, because you won't be free to try it again for a long, long time." Chris took a deep breath. "Now, I want you to stand up, very slowly, and we're going to walk over to…" He glanced around, his lips twisting in a grim little smile as he caught sight of the tripwire. "…to this little surprise that you had set up for me. Then we'll figure out what to do with you."
Gourmand complied, slowly beginning to straighten up, but once he was close to upright, he made a sudden lurch toward the counter. Rearing up to his full height, he whirled around and flung a handful of pepper directly into Chris's face.
The younger Kratt stumbled back, coughing and choking, as the chef made a dash for his jeep. A press of a button, and the entire kitchen began to fold in on itself, retracting into a compartment at the rear of the vehicle. Slamming the lid, Gourmand jumped into the driver's seat and was gone in a cloud of exhaust.
Chris stared after him through streaming eyes, his knuckles whitening around the knife still clutched in his fist, his muscles tensed as though about to give chase. After a long moment, he sighed, letting his hand fall to his side, then turned on his heel and hurried back to his brother. Martin had managed to get himself more or less upright by this time, and he now gratefully extended his hands so that Chris could cut the ropes.
Kneeling beside him, the younger Kratt stiffened at the sight of the dried blood on his wrists, his jaw tightening once again. "Did he -"
"No, no," Martin assured him quickly. "That was me." He gave a sheepish laugh. "Still working on the old eye-tail coordination."
Chris relaxed a bit, beginning to saw through the cords, but he seemed distracted, and when the ropes finally fell away, he kept his gaze lowered, fiddling with the handle of the knife. "Martin," he began, then hesitated. "I… I'm sorry."
Martin blinked, not quite sure he'd heard him correctly. "Sorry?"
Chris nodded, his eyes flicking in the direction Gourmand had gone. "I let him get away. After he - after he tried to -" He broke off, shuddering.
Withholding a shiver of his own, Martin put a hand on his brother's shoulder, giving it a gentle shake. "Chris, you saved my life twice. I'd call that a pretty good night's work."
He neither expected nor received an immediate reply. Instead, he simply waited, keeping his hand where it was for the moment, and when Chris finally looked up, he gave him a warm, heartfelt smile. "Thanks for having my back."
Chris managed a small smile in return, reaching up to briefly clasp his brother's forearm. "Thanks for having mine." He paused, then raised an eyebrow, his brown eyes suddenly alight with curiosity. "How did you do that, anyway? You went from out cold to human cannonball in about half a second! I've never seen anything like it!"
"I'd actually been awake for a while," Martin admitted. "Ever since -" He couldn't quite bring himself to say the next words, his mind recoiling from the memory of just what had brought him around. "Uh… for a while," he repeated. "I was just trying to come up with some kind of plan, and I figured I'd have more options if Gourmand thought I was still out."
A slow smile spread across Chris's face. "So you were playing possum."
Martin began to laugh. "Yeah, I guess I was."
He gasped suddenly as a second realization hit him. "Oh, no! Jillybean!" He scrambled to his feet, forgetful of everything else for the moment. "C'mon! We've gotta - whoa…" His voice trailed off as the swamp began to spin, the ground tilting sharply beneath him.
"Martin, wait!" Chris had jumped up when his brother did, and he threw out an arm to steady him as his knees began to buckle. "Easy there, bro," he cautioned. "It's all right. We found her." He gave a short, affectionate laugh, pulling his sibling gently by the arm. "Here. You sit tight, and I'll call the crew and have them come and get us." Another chuckle, this one sounding just the tiniest bit forced. "You've had… kind of a long night."
"You found her?" Martin echoed, feeling a little foolish - but no less relieved - as he allowed Chris to tug him back down to the ground.
"Safe and sound," Chris confirmed. "Nice hiding spot, by the way! Aviva took her to find her mom, so by now she should be back where she belongs: living free -"
"And in the pouch!" Martin finished. He gave Chris an impish smile, some of his characteristic energy beginning to return. "And we found your backpack, so now there's just one more thing that we've gotta do."
Chris shot him a puzzled look over the screen of his Creature Pod. "What's that?"
The smile broadened into a grin. "Well… we never did go on that ice cream run."