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BEHIND THE VEIL OF SHADOWS
by KAEERA
RATED FR
T

When a rescue turns into a nightmare, John finds himself venturing into the Twilight Zone.

 Thanks to Pen for her beta-reading skills. This story would have been a whole lot shorter (and worse) without Pen's faithful help. I ruthlessly bounced my ideas off her and she never complained, but bounced right back and gave me useful insights or kicked my muse into working. Thanks, Pen!



Chapter One: Quite detached from the outside world

John Tracy stared at the coffee cup in his hand and took a sip, grimacing as he realised that it had gone cold already. Well, that didn't really surprise him. It had been a miracle that any coffee had been left at all, not with the hundreds of people that bustled through the hospital, looking for relatives and making a general mess.

"Excuse me!" A nurse hurried past the blonde, pushing a long gurney with a child on it. A small girl, maybe six or seven years old, her face covered in blood. John swallowed hard. He never got used to the devastation; and children were always the worst.

The parents were nowhere in sight. Probably dead, as so many were. Modern technology might be advanced, but when nature decided to strike, humans were as helpless as newborns.

He took another sip of the cold liquid – caffeine was caffeine, after all – and threw the plastic cup into the next bin. It was already overflowing with waste. A sharp pang in his side reminded him why he was at the hospital and not out there rescuing people.

Gingerly, John rubbed his aching mid-section and grimaced at the pounding headache in his skull. He felt like he had been in a fight with a giant hippo – and lost. This was going to hurt for quite a while.

Damn afterquakes.

The air vibrated with sound; too many people and not enough space. It was a madhouse, the doctors running around, hundreds of injured to care for and not enough supplies.

John weaved through the crowd, evading flailing hands and busy nurses. He felt a bit lost; everything had been taken out of his hands. He knew what he was doing on a rescue scene – here, the doctors and the nurses were in charge.

Or maybe they were as lost as he felt. Not surprising, with the sheer amount of tragedy that filled the hospital.

People were lying in the corridors, skin torn, limbs broken, bleeding freely on the ground. They groaned and cried and screamed, but it simply disappeared in the overbearing background noise. John tried to ignore their begging – he wasn't a doctor, there was no way he could help them – but it tore at his heart. So much despair. So much pain. And he was right in the middle of it.

It was absolute chaos.

He barely managed to avoid a collision with a sobbing woman, ducked out of the way just in time and let her pass. She didn't even notice his presence, wrung her hands and screamed for her son. "David," her voice echoed brokenly through the hallway. "Please, where's my Davy, help me find my Davy..." She babbled on, bearing the frantic look of a woman on the edge of her sanity, until someone took her by the arm and led her away. John watched them numbly.

I have to get out of here, hammered through his head. The job's not finished yet. There are people who need my help.

John was annoyed he had been sent to hospital while the others were still working. Sure, he had been hurt, but he'd had worse. A couple of cracked ribs. A concussion. Severe exhaustion. He could live with that.

But dammit, there were still people out there, lying under tons of rubble! They needed him.

Obviously Scott doesn't share that opinion.

He snorted. Okay, so he had been right in the centre of the last afterquake...and maybe the room had collapsed on top of him, but dammit, he was fine, no need for all this fuss. And if things got a little blurry on the memory front, well, that was to be expected, wasn't it? He'd been knocked out for a couple of moments – blurriness was to be expected.

If he was honest, he could barely remember how he got here – it all was a mixture of colours and voices and pain – but he was standing and he was alright, so they could damn well have taken him back with them.

Fact was that there had been no reason to bring him to the hospital, of all places! They could have patched him up in the infirmary, and he would have been able to go back to work, instead of being lost inside the giant building.

Or maybe they could have just picked him up again, after he received his treatment. What was he supposed to do now? Stick around and read the newspaper? Help the nurses? He belonged to International Rescue, and that was where he should be right now.

Maybe Scott doesn't trust you to handle the rescue.

No. John shook his head against the whispering little voice. He was fine – well, not entirely. But well enough to do his job - even though he didn't get as much rescue experience as his brothers, he was still perfectly able. Scott could trust him as well as he could trust the others.

"Now you just wait, Scott," the blonde Tracy growled to himself. He'd enough of this place; he was going to go to the rescue scene, where his brothers would – no doubt! - still be working. With the firm intention to leave, he swung around, realising belatedly that he had been wandering aimlessly for the last couple of minutes.

Hm. Now that's odd.

The best way to get information was always the front desk, John reflected, and marched towards the loudest part of the building. People tended to cluster around those kind of places, especially in a panic situation. Today was no different.

The entrance hall was a flurry of activity. People bustled through the corridor, most of them wet, dirty, and bedraggled-looking. The doctors and nurses appeared stressed, trying to get some order in the chaos, to no avail. There were babies crying, people sobbing, and others screaming in pain while they waited to be treated.

"I hate hospitals," John murmured to nobody in particular and pushed through the crowd, careful to avoid the injured. He saw at once that there was no chance to speak to the nurse at the main desk – she was dealing with four people at once and looked as lost and exhausted as he felt.

"Does anyone here know what's going on out there? How's the rescue going?" he asked loudly, but received no reply. Figured. People never felt responsible if the question was too general. He needed to talk to someone directly.

"Excuse me," he turned to a small, young man standing close to him. "Do you know..."

The man mumbled something and then hurried past him, ignoring his plea. "Hey! I was talking to you," John called after him, his patience wearing thin. How rude! And he was in his IR outfit, too!

He tried to get the attention of an old woman, but she only clutched her handbag to herself and seemed to stare right through him. Totally bonkers, he thought to himself, a wave of pity flooding him. The old lady started humming a toneless tune, her eyes flickering wildly. John sighed in frustration and flashed her an encouraging grin (which came out more as a grimace, but the effort was there nonetheless).

John looked for someone else he could ask, but everybody was so caught in his own grief that he didn't want to interrupt. Sometimes it was really a pain to be the sensitive one.

He was on the verge of simply leaving the building and following his nose (after all, Thunderbird Two wasn't easy to overlook), when he saw a familiar face above the crowd.

"Scott?"

His brother, well on the other end of the hall, didn't hear him. Still in his uniform, he appeared tired and weary, lines of exhaustion etching deep into his face. He was talking to a doctor, and whatever it was they were conversing about, it had to be serious. Scott looked very grave, blue eyes dulled and pained, and didn't even notice the admiring stares he was receiving from the people around him.

Concern bubbled up in his stomach, and John started to slide through the crowd. A worried Scott meant trouble. Had something happened during the rescue? Was one of his brothers injured? And why was Scott still here and not out on the rescue scene, coordinating the clean-up and being his usual, in-control self?

Right now, Scott didn't look very much in control. On the contrary, he appeared lost and hung onto the words of the doctor like a man hanging on his lifeline. It was enough to make John suspicious.

Well, there was only one way to find out. He weaved through the crowd, for once glad that he wasn't as sturdy as Virgil – it made it much easier to slip past the people unnoticed. As he drew closer, he managed to hear snatches of their conversation.

"...not much we can do...hospital's full..."

"...I know...rescue...still a lot of people out there..."

"...your people..."

"Ouch!" John was nearly run over by a tall, muscular man. He barely managed to catch himself and glowered at the offender, who continued to push through the crowd, a panicked look on his face. "Help! Please! I need help!"

Only then did John realize that the man was carrying a limp body in his arms; a small woman, lifeless and soaked with blood and mud. His annoyance evaporated into nothingness. Were their positions reversed, John would have acted the same. There was simply no time for politeness when a loved one was dying.

But still, all those near collisions were getting annoying. It made him remember why he hated crowds. The peaceful solitude of Thunderbird Five was like a haven in his mind.

Well. Not gonna happen anytime soon.

John turned back towards his brother and the doctor, only to realise that they were moving down a corridor.

"Scott!" he called again, but the background noise must have been too high; Scott didn't turn.

"Great. Just great." John watched in dismay as the two disappeared around a corner. "Just ignore me. It's only me. Thank you."

He wasn't really angry – it wasn't Scott's fault that it was so loud – but he felt frustrated, and it was good to get rid of some tension. He'd never been a big people person, and all the activity around him was getting on his nerves.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the staff toilets. Nobody was bothering with them, and, feeling the need for some quiet time alone, he slunk away, careful not to run into anyone. That proved to be quite a challenge. Even though he was very keen on avoiding people, they didn't seem to share the opinion; on his short way to the door he had another three near-collisions.

Grumbling to himself about the rudeness of panicked people, he slid through the door and sighed in relief as the bathroom proved to be empty.

Well. Most of the staff didn't probably have the time to use the toilets right now. John felt a bit guilty, but not enough to leave the room. Just two minutes, to get his bearings, and then he would follow Scott. After all, it was like being thrown into cold water, being here – he'd spent the last month on Thunderbird Five, in total isolation, and now he was surrounded by hundreds of people.

"I hate hospitals," he repeated again and stepped towards the basin. "And I hate rescues that turn bad."

John splashed his face with cold water and then leant his head against the cool tiles. Ah, blissful relief. The pounding eased somewhat. For a moment, he wondered why he hadn't taken some pain medication.

Probably insisting that I don't need it.

Wasn't it always the same? It seemed to run in the family. Stubborn Tracys. Medications are for weaklings. Besides, John hated the loopy feeling he always got when he took prescribed drugs.

The pressure in his head seemed to increase steadily, making him irritated.

John opened his eyes and stared at the tiles. The hospital sounds were still audible, but softer, dulled by the walls. The blonde pulled a face. He didn't fancy going out there again, but his sense of duty told him otherwise. He couldn't very well hide in this bathroom forever.

What's wrong with you? You're behaving like a coward! It's just a hospital, for God's sake!

And so he steeled himself, masked his face as another wave of pain swept through him, and left the bathroom just as a weary looking doctor stepped in and steered towards the toilets. The strange feeling in his gut remained.

John sent the doc a sympathetic look – the man looked even worse than he felt – and then winced as the rush of noises pounded on him like a tidal wave. He stayed close to the walls, to keep out of the way of everybody. It was almost impossible. A group of children filled the corridor; probably a school class, hurt, dirty, and crying for their parents.

When they didn't notice his uniform, he knew that it had to be really bad; usually, children clustered around everybody who wore the IR logo. But they didn't even seem to notice him. Caught up in their own pain and grief.

Poor little things. Their parents are probably dead.

Too many people died today.

John shook his head, turned around the corner and stopped in his tracks. He had discovered Virgil.

Instead of piloting Thunderbird Two, or operating one of the rescue vehicles as he had expected him to do, his brother was sitting on a chair, head in his hands, the picture of utter devastation. The sight worried John; Virgil was not easily put down, and seeing him like that only could mean one thing: One of them was hurt.

It couldn't be Scott, John concluded; after all, he had seen him running around just minutes ago. And it couldn't be Virgil, as he was sitting here and probably wouldn't be worried about himself.

Alan was still on Thunderbird Five, unless he had been shot down, which John thought unlikely.

So that left Gordon and him. Well, John knew that he was fine – battered and bruised, maybe, but fine – so it could only be his copper-haired brother. Cold dread settled in his stomach. That explained why Virgil and Scott were here instead of out there; that explained why nobody had picked him up yet. Gordon must be injured – so bad that they had been afraid to leave.

Damn.

"Virgil?" He asked softly, as not to startle his brother. Virgil didn't react, probably hadn't even heard him. Even though they were away from the main tumult, the noises still carried heavily and made speaking softly almost impossible.

"What's wrong?" John asked a bit louder, walking closer to his brother.

Virgil sighed and pinched the bridge of his noise. He looked tired and exhausted, the result of hours of piloting and rescuing people.

How long had they been here? At least fifteen hours, from what John could remember. Enough to clear the worst areas. Now it was probably left in the hands of the locals. International Rescue was only human, after all; and with Virgil looking like he did, John could understand why Scott hadn't ordered them out again.

"This shouldn't have happened," Virgil mumbled, his eyes dull.

John laughed roughly. "It never should, and yet it always does."

His brother just shook his head and didn't reply. John's heart slipped even lower; it must be really serious. Had Gordon hurt his back again? Was the damage permanent? Or maybe...maybe he was...dead?

The thought carried such graveness that he sucked in a sharp breath. No. Absolutely not. Gordon couldn't be dead – he was...he was indestructible! The kid had survived a hydrofoil crash, goddammit! He always bounced back, like a cat with nine lives.

"Virgil. Please, I need to know what happened." John swallowed hard. "Is it Gordon? Is he injured? He's still alive, is he?"

Virgil took his time to answer, and John fought down the urge to shake him. No, he was supposed to be the sensible one. Shaking fell into Alan's department. Still, the insecurity was almost worse than the truth, however bad it might be. It was tearing at him and...

"Virg!" A voice startled them both and stopped Virgil from replying. Scott strode towards them, his face grim and stony. John knew that particular look - it was his 'nothing-is-under-control-but-I'm-not-gonna-show-it-expression'. It meant that he was on the verge of breaking.

That proves is. Things are worse than bad.

Virgil stood up – resembling more an old man than the young pilot he was – and turned frightened eyes towards his brother. "How is he?"

"Bad." Scott shook his head, his blue eyes clouded. "They...they say he's slipping."

Virgil paled even further and John couldn't help but gasp. "No! Not Gordon!"

But the pain in their faces told him enough, and the last, desperate hope that maybe they had been here because of someone who he didn't know, disappeared. The naked anguish could only mean one thing. Fear, honest fear to lose a brother.

Not Gordon. Not him. He makes us laugh. He keeps our spirits up. He's important. He's...my brother...

"Can...can we see him?" Virgil asked, hesitant.

"Only one at a time. And not before they're finished." Pain flashed over Scott's face. "They're operating him right now. One of his ribs...it pierced his lung. Pneumothorax. He stopped breathing and..." he took a deep breath, trying to find the best way to voice this, "...they had to resuscitate him."

"And of course, the hospital is stretched thinly as it is. They're making allowances, because we're International Rescue, but..."

John hated how desperate his brother sounded. "What are his chances of survival?" he asked, voice dry.

He received no reply, which was answer enough. John could almost feel how the blood drained from his face, making him feel hollow and empty. Slim to none. Dammit Gordon, why now?

"Let's go and see him." Virgil suggested.

Both Scott and John nodded, too stunned to say anything else. Scott kept rubbing his face, probably sporting a headache equal to John's, with the magnitude of slow moving icebergs. It hurt. And yet it didn't hurt as much as the idea of losing a brother.

Damn afterquakes.

Everything had been under control until those stupid afterquakes had hit.

It occurred to John that he didn't even know how it happened. But then again, it didn't really interest him. The how wasn't important; Gordon was. And his survival. They had nearly lost him once; losing him a second time was unacceptable.

The three brothers marched down the corridors and went to the surgical area. The hospital itself was very modern, something John was grateful for. It meant that his brother was receiving the best care available; well, as available as it could be in a city that had been devastated by an earthquake.

He winced as another wave of pain welled through his head. Pain medication sounded more appealing with each passing minute; he had the feeling that he would need to stay awake for quite a while.

"What about the rescue?" Virgil inquired softly.

Scott's face tightened. "We helped with the worst. They should be okay, at least for now. I don't want to..." His voice trailed off, but John knew anyway what he had intended to say. I don't want to leave while Gordon might be dying.

Scott's sense of duty was really clashing with his worry for his brother. John could see the internal agony he was going through; and he certainly didn't envy him for it. Duty before family? It usually was the case, but it seemed like one of those borderline decisions...they weren't desperately needed, but they could still help.

John bit on his lower lip. Now that he knew about Gordon, he wasn't entirely sure whether he'd be able to go back to the rescue or not. He'd go, if Scott ordered him to – professional detachment was the first thing he had learned in this job – but that didn't mean he had to like it.

At least it wasn't his decision to make. Once again John was glad that he wasn't the oldest. Being a middle brother was much easier; the youngest and oldest seemed to get the worst out of the deal.

"Does Dad know about this?" he wanted to know. "One of us should probably contact Alan..." It surprised him that they hadn't done so already. But then again, there had been a lot going on, and he hadn't been there.

Scott sighed and rubbed his face. He looked tired and grey, which made John feel guilty that he had burdened his elder brother with yet another foul duty. "I can do it, if you want," he hurried to say, already pressing the button of his wrist watch. His stomach churned as he thought about telling Alan the news – he was the closest to Gordon – but he knew that the youngest Tracy would be angry if he wasn't told immediately.

"John to Thunderbird Five, please respond, Alan."

To his annoyance, John only received static. Confused, he tapped the plastic. Nothing. Strange. He hadn't damaged it - the watch should be working perfectly. John frowned at the offending item and examined it closely. There was no fault, no broken parts; and no reason why it shouldn't be working. Was something blocking the communication? Naw, impossible. Even some of the phone lines were still working!

Giving up his attempts to repair the watch, John turned towards his brothers. "Guys, my watch isn't working! What about yours? I don't like the fact that we're cut off from..."

He stopped mid-sentence when he saw the doctor leaving the room. Wearing a bloodied surgeon's coat, she looked tired and worn. Scott straightened immediately and stepped towards her, Virgil following suit.

Well. I guess other things are more important.

Still, he was starting to feel a little bit left out. Couldn't they at least listen to him?

Shock. They're in shock, both of them. And you too. Don't be too harsh.

"How is he, doctor?" Scott asked, voice rough.

The woman chose her words carefully. "Well...he isn't dead yet."

Virgil's face fell. "But he's going to be alright?"

"We don't know for sure." A weary sigh. "To be quite honest, it looks bad. We lost him once, and he nearly didn't come back. It took him a long time to respond, so his brain was cut off from oxygen. It doesn't make things any easier. Right now, he's hanging on a thin thread. We're doing everything we can, but really," she lifted her hands in a helpless fashion, "It's up to him. He's healthy, so that counts in his favour, but..."

John closed his eyes, could almost sense the unspoken words. But don't have too much hope. You'll only be disappointed.

"Can we see him?" It was Virgil who asked, his voice strained.

The doctor – the name tag labelled her as Dr. Anita K. Fowler – frowned and watched them carefully. "Normally I'd have to decline," she began and then smiled wryly, "But this is not a normal day and you're not normal people. So yes, I will allow you to see him, but only for five minutes. After that, we'll have to move him out of the room and find some space for him. He's not stable enough for air transport yet."

"Thank you, Doctor." All tension seemed to leave Scott's body. "And...thanks for being honest."

"It's the least I can do."

"What about..." Scott had half turned around, but Virgil seemed to read his thoughts. "I'll call him." He tapped on his watch and stepped aside. John frowned at his back. So now he was going to call their father? Well, Virgil's watch seemed to be working at least.

John hesitated on the doorstep, glancing one last time at Virgil, and then followed Scott into the room.

From the angle where he was standing, he couldn't really see the figure on the bed, only Scott, standing close at the end and staring down as if he was seeing a ghost. John took in the many machines that were attached to the inert body and swallowed. It reminded him of times long gone, when Gordon had been in a bed similar to this one and the doctor had announced the terrifying news – 'it's very unlikely that he's going to walk again'. But Gordon had proven them all wrong, had managed to regain his life – only to find himself back in the same place today.

No. It won't happen. Gordon is a fighter. He will pull through this.

Doctor Fowler hovered in the doorway, stepping aside as Virgil entered the room. "He was already on his way," he almost whispered and walked past John without so much as a glance. "Should be here any minute."

John's head whipped up. What the hell was he talking about? There was no way their father could be here 'in a minute' – he was back on Tracy Island, and even with the fastest jet, it would take him hours to get here. The uneasy feeling returned, the nagging suspicion in the back of his mind that something was not right here.

"He looks so pale." Scott knelt down on the ground and took the limp hand.

Virgil joined him near the bed, and John realised with sudden intensity that he was stalling – for some odd reason, he didn't want to see Gordon all sick and bloodied, so he stayed behind...Coward! His mind reeled, he's your brother! And then the headache exploded behind his eyelids, pure agony, and he couldn't help the groan that escaped his lips.

Neither Scott nor Virgil reacted. Their gazes were focused on the figure in the bed.

John took a deep breath, waited for the pain to subside – which took quite some time – and then stepped forwards, with the firm intention to get rid of those cowardly tendencies he had shown all day.

Again, he didn't get far. The door was ripped wide open and someone else stormed in the room. "How is he?" an urgent voice whispered; a voice so familiar to John that his blood ran cold.

"Still alive." Virgil's toneless reply. He seemed unfazed by the intruder.

John turned around, not believing his ears. It couldn't be – maybe he was hallucinating – maybe it was a coincidence...but...

But there was Gordon Tracy, standing behind him, his copper hair matted with dirt and his eyes bloodshot, but looking very alive and not at all on the verge of death.

"No!" John exclaimed and then shrunk backwards, his gaze fixed on his brother. "Gordon! You...but...I thought you were injured...how?"

Gordon ignored his fragmented sentences; instead he strode past him around the heavy machinery that was obstructing the view and stepped as close to the bed as he could. John gaped after him, his mind a whirlwind of confusion, the headache making thinking almost impossible.

"Gordon...if you're alive...then who's the person on the bed?"

The nagging feeling intensified, urging him to step forward. He felt loose, detached, and very confused as he peered over his brother's shoulders to get a good look at the invalid.

John swallowed. And blinked. And then he looked again, because this couldn't be possible. The sight remained unchanged. And John thought it had to be a dream, because reality was never that twisted.

Dream. It has to be a dream.

More of a nightmare.

A very, very realistic dream, complete with dolby surround and 3D sense, but a dream nonetheless. This was...impossible.

John swayed on the spot, as the nauseous feeling threatened to overtake him. It wasn't the sheer amount of bruises and cuts that shocked him; nor was it the machines that were obviously working hard to keep the body alive, even though the mind might not be there. It wasn't how artificial everything looked; or how dead the body appeared, even though the chest was rising ever so slightly.

No.

It was the face. Almost unhurt except a large bruise on the forehead. A tube attached to his mouth, doing the breathing because the body was not able to. And no copper hair.

This wasn't Gordon – nor Alan, for that matter, even though he had thought so on the first glance. No, the face was frighteningly familiar, but in a weird way – like he wasn't used to look at it from this far away. Pale and sallow, with a mop of white blonde hair.

Not Alan.

But one of the Tracy brothers. And there was only one left who had the same hair colour.

"This can't be possible." John whispered and felt his knees go weak.

Because the face on the unconscious body was his own.

Chapter Two: The dream of a despondent mind

John staggered backwards, his mind reeling. His brothers continued their whispered conversation, but the words flew past him, didn't even enter his brain. Instead, his eyes were fixed on the pale face sunk deeply into the pillows.

It was his own face, no doubt, the very image he saw reflected in the mirror every morning when he went to the bathroom. Though a lot paler, with a breathing tube in his mouth and a sick, sallow complexion.

"This is a joke, right?" His voice came out in a ragged gasp, and he looked around wildly. "Gordon, please tell me that this is one of your stupid jokes!"

But Gordon didn't answer. The copper-haired Tracy had his arms crossed as he stared at the bed with an unreadable expression on his face.

"Gordon! Stop ignoring me!" John felt the familiar presence of panic in his mind. "GORDON!"

The last word was a shout, but still none of them reacted. It was as if he didn't even exist. And that, John realised with a sudden feeling of dread, was probably true. Because if the body on the bed was him...his mortal shell, or whatever people wanted to call it – then he was a mere shadow.

"You can't see me." He whirled around and jumped in front of Scott. "Scott, please tell me that you can see me! Do something! Tell me that this is all but a nightmare!"

Scott didn't even look at him. His eyes went right through, as if he was invisible.

"Damn." John swore, and then squeezed his eyes shut. Alright. He couldn't panic; that wouldn't help matters. He didn't know what had happened, but that could be changed. If he analysed the situation...yes, he was good at analysing. Thinking.

He took a step away from his brother and one towards the bed. "I'm not dead," he frowned. "But I'm not alive either...well, my body is, but me...I'm..." he trailed off. How the hell was he supposed to make sense of this when he didn't even know what he was?

It reminded him of one of those mystery/new age novels Alan read occasionally. Soul transfers, wandering ones, spirits, all things that were regular occurrences on those kinds of books. John used to laugh about those; after al, he lived in space half of the year and there was nothing spooky about that. He had always been a man of science; not a total disbeliever, but sceptical. John knew that there were still a lot of things in the human mind that couldn't be explained by modern medicine, but still...soul wandering? Out-of-body experiences? It sounded pretty far-fetched.

Now he wasn't so sure any more. Because right now, he seemed to be living through such an experience.

Or maybe I'm just having a bad dream. Damn, I really shouldn't be eating pizza that late...

"Not a dream," John whispered softly and stretched out his finger to touch himself. He almost expected his hand to glide through his own body – now that would have been creepy! - but to his surprise, he was able to feel the skin. It gave him a tingling feeling, like the one people get when their limbs fall asleep, and it was very strange, but it was there...

And what does that tell me now? That I'm a ghost with touch sensors?

He frowned and turned his attention back to his brothers. So it hadn't been Gordon they were worried about, but him. Well. Although John knew that his brothers worried about him when he was in danger, it was a bit disconcerting to see it written clearly in their faces. After all, he usually wasn't awake to see those pensive expressions. It touched and humbled him at the same time.

Scott looked dark, his face marred by a tight frown. His stance appeared rigid and in-control, but John knew better. The eldest Tracy was fighting an internal battle.

In contrast to him, Virgil's face was an open mask of worry – and was that a glint of fear in his eyes?

Gordon looked tired and solemn, something that was alarming in itself – things were pretty intense if the redhead didn't crack a joke.

"Guys?" John tried again, though he hadn't much hope that they would be able to hear him.

No reaction.

And then Gordon moved "He looks pretty bad." A whisper, barely audible over the constant noises of the machinery that kept his body going. John deflated, feeling very old and tired.

"He's going to be fine." Virgil insisted in a stubborn voice, even though the doubt was clearly visible in his eyes.

"If only we could take him to Thunderbird Two," Scott sounded as weary as John felt. "We could get him better treatment...they can't do much for him here...the hospital is crowded as it is..."

Gordon stepped closer to the bed and sat down on a chair, facing the still figure. "Can't do much about that." He took the limp hand and held it tightly. John watched and waited for a sensation, anything – shouldn't he feel it if someone touched his hand? - but nothing happened. He was like an outsider, observing a scene where he didn't belong.

"Why did you have to be in that house when the afterquake hit?" Gordon continued.

John snorted. "Believe me, I kind of regretted it the moment the ceiling fell on me!"

His joke fell flat. Not really a surprise there.

What's the use of being out of your body if nobody can hear you?

John rubbed his temples, as the headache spread. And why could he still feel pain for that matter? He felt a bit cheated; the least that could have happened was for the pain to remain in his body while his mind was elsewhere, doing mental flip-flops.

"So, what do I call myself now? Ghost? Spirit? Soul?" John quipped with himself. But the humour was lost again. He didn't really understand what was happening, and he didn't want to think of the possible implications.

Yeah, like what happens if you're dying and this is your chance to say good-bye?

No. Absolutely not. John refused to even consider that option. There had to be a way back – now he really wished that he read more of those novels. Hadn't there been a tether mentioned? Or a link? Something that connected him to the real world...

John looked around, but found no glowing bond that trailed from him to the still body on the bed. Damn. Well, nothing was ever easy.

The door opened with a soft click, and Doctor Fowler peeped in. "I'm sorry, but you have to leave now."

Scott nodded. "Alright. Thank you for your co-operation and...please tell us if something happens. One of us will stay in the hospital." Then he turned to the other two. "Come on. There are a lot of people who need our help. Gordon, you'll come with me, Virgil, you'll stay at the hospital and keep us updated."

"F.A.B."

John watched mutely as his brothers brushed past him, unaware of his presence. They looked years older, and the blonde, having been in their position more than once, could relate to their feelings. Sometimes he thought that it was easier for the one who was injured; while he had the pain and the suffering, he didn't have to go through the worry, the fear, the anxiety.

Scott was the last to leave the room. He glanced one last time over his shoulders, his eyes flashing with unspoken motion. "Don't give up, John," he whispered. "Hang in there."

John smiled grimly. "Not gonna happen, Scott. I've got the firm intention of staying on this planet a bit longer."

Then the door closed and he and the doctor were the only ones left. John watched in mute disinterest as she flashed a penlight into his unresponsive eyes and shook her head. Somehow, that wasn't very encouraging. He swallowed. Suddenly, he didn't want to be there any more, didn't want to be subjected to an examination of his own body.

So he slid outside and found out that he didn't even need to use the door – he could walk through walls.

"Now that's odd," he mused. "I can touch things, yet I can walk through walls? Doesn't make much sense to me."

But then again, not much did. But the final traces of doubt were wiped out when he stepped through a solid door; he was a spirit. His body was back there and John had no idea how to return to it.

"Think, John Tracy." he rubbed his chin and stared at the grey wall. "Let's see...I'm not dead. I don't want to die either. Nobody can hear or see me. I can...touch some things, and I can go through walls." he frowned. "Might need some kind of clarification on that one. What kind of things can I touch? Can I go through every wall? And how do I affect it?"

John stopped and groaned. "Hell, I sound as if I'm writing a paper about some topic for one of my classes – and I'm not even in college anymore!"

This was really ridiculous. Some part of him realized that all this speculation served only one purpose: to keep him from losing it. Hell, what was he supposed to do? There seemed to be nobody...

All of sudden he felt very lonely. John stood in the middle of a busy corridor, amidst dozens of people, and yet he had never felt so alone. There was a wall between him and the rest of the world; a wall he couldn't break down. He could watch and listen to them, but it didn't work the other way round. One-sided communication, something he had sometimes experienced during rescues – but back then, the equipment had been at fault and not himself.

"Maybe there's a wire missing in my brain," he reflected aloud. Urgh. It felt wrong thinking of himself as some damaged piece of equipment. Even though his body had looked quite battered.

A couple of nurses rushed past him, their overalls spotted with blood. This part of the hospital was a bit calmer, but there were still a lot of people, the rooms crowded. Apparently, he was the only one who had a single room to himself; everywhere else, they had put in several people. John suspected that every bed, every cot was occupied by an injured person. The faint sound of helicopters reached his ears, probably transporting the ones that needed immediate help.

What had the doc said? 'Not up for air transport'.

Damn. None of the simulations had ever told him how to deal with that kind of situation. He might keep it in the back of his head, as a suggestion to Brains the next time they programmed the simulators. They could title it 'Nearly-dying-and-getting-separated-from-your-body'.

John snorted. Well, but that didn't really help him now, did it? He had no idea how to deal with it...what was he supposed to do? Walk around? Watch the people? Why couldn't he just be unconscious like everybody else? Nooo, he had to have the worst part, as always...

Settling down for a long wait, he tried to get some order in his jumbled thoughts. Maybe everything would be clearer if his memory wouldn't be such a blur...

"How're you going, John?" the voice crackled through the dust-ridden air. John coughed and looked up from where he was standing.

"Fine, so far – haven't seen anyone yet, but I haven't been everywhere." He took the flashlight and shone it into some half-open room of the building that had formerly been a take-away restaurant.

"Is anybody there?" the blonde called, but received no reply. The thermal scanner came up empty, as well. Glancing one last time around, he nodded in satisfaction and turned back. He was just about to report in to Scott as the watch came to life again. "Move it, John!" Scott barked. "Afterquake!"

John didn't even think, just reacted. His training kicked in and he dove forward without the slightest hesitation. He made a good head start before the quake hit – first a low, rumbling sound and suddenly everything was shaking. John teetered on the rubble, but managed to regain his balance. He had thought he was clear of everything, but then he heard the groaning noise, looked up and saw...a ceiling.

Coming down on him.

"Shit!" The blonde managed to gasp. "Scott, I'm-"

That was as far as he came before stones rained down on him. One hit him on the shoulder, throwing him to the ground. The light was cut. For a moment, he heard his brother screaming at him – inquiring his whereabouts, his status – but he was too winded to reply and he wouldn't have been heard over the ruckus anyway.

"Ah!" The yell escaped his lips just as a big slab of concrete fell in his direction. His heartbeat drummed loudly in his ears – and then there was the pain, as something hit his side, and gravel started burying him alive. There was enough time to be scared out of his wits, and so it came as no surprise that he felt a tiny bit of relief when the pain became too much and he slipped into unconsciousness.

The next memory he had was of himself standing in the corridor and drinking coffee.

"Is it only me, or does that sound weird?" John mused, and then shook his head. "Look at that – I'm talking to myself already. But still, why the hell was I drinking coffee?"

Maybe it was his subconscious trying to be normal, he pondered, or maybe he had been trying to convince himself that nothing was amiss. Well, that had been working until he saw his own body. If he thought back now, he should have noticed the clues – the fact that everybody had overlooked him, the strange gut feeling, the headache, and his overall behaviour, which had been very atypical.

Shock. Even though I'm just a ghost, I went into shock. Amazing.

John hugged himself, as the loneliness crept back towards him. Anything was better than this reflecting; and so he strolled onwards, a shadow amidst the crowd, unseen and unheard.


There was really nothing to do, and so he followed his brothers, even though he felt a lot like an intruder. Eavesdropping on conversations that weren't meant for him.

But John, being human, couldn't help the tiniest spark of curiosity in his mind. And even though he knew what would have been proper – namely not listening – he only managed to restrain himself from it for maybe five minutes, then he went after his siblings.

Scott, Virgil, and Gordon stood in a semi-circle near the exit, talking softly. Their worried frowns spoke volumes. John edged closer – maybe he'd find out more about his condition? Or about what was happening in general...he'd be grateful for anything.

"Take care of him, Virgil," Scott said, just as John came close enough to understand them. "I have to go back to Mobile Control."

"I will," Virgil nodded, his face a firm mask.

Scott looked around, sighed, bid them a curt good-bye and left, his back rigid and tense.

John grimaced. "Thank you for caring, but that doesn't really help me, you know."

It was eerie, standing beside his two brothers without them noticing him. If he had been Gordon, he would have used this opportunity to play all sorts of pranks – but then again, John pondered, even Gordon would have had his problems in this situations – how was one supposed to do anything when you couldn't interact? Besides, they would never know who'd done it...boring.

Speaking of his copper-haired brother – Gordon was looking unnaturally solemn. John watched him with a worried frown; it was rare to see his brother down, and when he did, it always scared him.

"I hate hospitals," Gordon announced, probably more to himself that do Virgil. Nonetheless he received a reply – two, better said; a forceful nod by John, and a whispered answer by Virgil. "Me, too. They're creepy. But necessary."

Gordon furrowed his brow. "Yeah. And I hate the meaning behind them; because every time I'm in a hospital, someone's hurt."

The words 'usually me' hung unspoken in the air. Of the whole Tracy family, Gordon had had the worst share of injuries, the devastating hydrofoil accident leaving him nearly crippled. John remembered those painful times all too clearly – he had come to despise hospitals as well and could fully relate to Gordon's sentiment.

"I can't believe it's John." Virgil shook his head. "I mean, I'm somehow used to you getting injured – don't understand me wrong - and Alan...but John, he's..."

John felt a flicker of pain, and then anger. "What are you saying with that?" he began hotly. "Are you insinuating that I don't pull my share? Because if you are, Virgil Tracy, then God help me, I'll haunt you until...until..."

"I know what you mean," Gordon nodded, unaware of the invisible ranting by his side. "John's always so cautious."

Virgil smiled slightly. "You mean he isn't as impulsive as you and Alan."

Or not as brave, John thought sourly and crossed his arms. This had always been a sore point for him; while his brothers were known to rush into danger, he usually thought things through, which had saved their hides more than once. Still, he had the distinct impression it made him appear cowardly; and with Alan and Scott as brothers, who rushed into dangers as if it was their hobby, he had often felt that maybe it wasn't...enough.

"Yeah." Gordon sighed wistfully. "That's why I like going on rescues with him. I know that I can rely on him, trust him. He's always so calm, even in the direst situations – I wonder how he does it - I almost envy him for that."

Trust me, dear brother, I'm far from calm.

"And then he had to go ahead and let a house fall on top of him." The pain in Gordon's voice spoke volumes.

Well, I wasn't exactly planning on making it happen. I do value my own life, you know.

"I'm pretty sure that he didn't do it voluntarily," was Virgil's dry reply. John's lips quirked upwards at this. Thank you for that, Virg.

"Do you think he'll be okay?"

Silence. Virgil's eyes clouded over, the sadness overshadowing his usually so gentle features. "I...don't really know. The doctor...she was pretty vague, and his injuries are severe."

Gordon swallowed, his face pale. " God, Virgil...he can't die! When I pulled him out of the rubble, I thought he was dead! He looked so pale, and there was blood everywhere...and then I shook him and he started coughing, but he was coughing up blood and I knew I needed to get help really quick..."

I'm so sorry you had to see that...I would have...well...there's nothing I could have done, but I wish...I wish this hadn't happened...I hate seeing you in pain.

John ached to put a comforting hand on his brother's shoulders, moved almost out of instinct, but he was unable to touch. It left him feeling sad and alone. Even though John wasn't a tactile person, he came from a family where back slaps were the proper greeting, and being unable to perform this gesture made him realize his isolation even more.

"He's not going to die." Virgil shook his head, his expression firm. "John's tough; he's going to fight. He may not be as loud as the rest of us, but he's just a strong – maybe even stronger. He'll pull back, you'll see...he has to."

Aw, thank you, Virg.

But there had been a tiny bit of doubt in his brother's voice, and it made him feel uneasy. John wasn't ready to die – didn't want to die, and especially not while he was separated from his body, forced to watch his family suffering.

"He'd better," Gordon grumbled, running a nervous hand through his hair. "He just came back from his shift...promised me he'd go snorkelling with me...and I was looking forward to talking to him."

At that, John had to smile. The moment he had entered his home after his shift on Thunderbird Five, Gordon had jumped on him, eyes sparkling excited, and invited him on a snorkelling trip. Apparently there was something extraordinary to see, but John had taken one good look at his brother and had known that this wasn't the main reason. Gordon wanted to talk; and with the disaster the last month had been, it didn't really surprise the astronaut.

It was comforting to know that his brothers would turn to him when they had problems. Very often John had been woken up by a late-night call when one of his brothers wanted to have a chat...be it the aftermath of a strenuous rescue , a fight among siblings, or simply girl trouble – John was the person they turned to. It made him feel appreciated, needed – and he wouldn't want to miss it in the world.

Oh Gordon...I was looking forward to the snorkelling, too.

Seeing the crushed look in the eyes of his younger brother, John made a vow to himself. He would find a way back – would fight his way, if it was needed – no matter how bad the pain, because he couldn't stand seeing his brothers suffer. They needed him.

And he needed them.


Half an hour later, his determination had faded a bit and despair threatened to take its place. John had wandered through the hospital, had listened to doctors, patients and nurses, but none of them had said anything valuable. After Gordon had left, Virgil had situated himself in some far corner, humming an unidentifiable tune. John had stayed for a while, but since Virgil wasn't talking, he had seen no sense in it and left to investigate.

Without much success.

Though John had the distinct impression that he wasn't alone in his predicament. He didn't have any proof for this, just a gut feeling – but just as his brothers, John had come to rely on his gut feeling, because it told him things his mind couldn't.

Sometimes, he got glances of other people who looked as lost as him – wandering through the corridors, ignored by everyone else around them, most of them injured, frightened – alone. There had been a young woman - bearing an eerie resemblance to the limb body the huge man had been carrying in the lobby - a middle-aged man, and then a child, crying softly.

They had disappeared before John had had the chance to investigate further. But it left him with a tingling feeling in his stomach. Maybe he was in a kind of twilight zone – a place where people went to when they were unconscious – or dead. And maybe there were others just like him...trapped in some kind of limbo...

The earthquake had been huge. Many people had died. And who knew how many more were buried under some kind of rubble.

He watched the stream of people, deep in thought. Maybe he could find a way back if he found a way to talk to those people? If they just-

"Jesus Christ, not another one!" a voice snarled somewhere from below him. John was so surprised that he jumped, pushing himself away from the wall and whirling around to see who had been speaking. It was stupid, he knew; nobody could see him, for God's sake, but it was reflex.

Beside him stood small, old man, his hand on a wooden stick, the watery green eyes blinking at him. His hair was almost pure white, but the beard was grey, streaked with lines of silver. He wore an old looking cap and clothes that had been out of fashion dozens of years ago – and he was looking right at John.

"So tell me, what happened to you?" The oldtimer grumbled, emphasizing the 'you' in a strange fashion.

John's mouth fell open. He quickly scanned the area, but there was nobody in close proximity the old guy could be talking to.

"What? Have ya become deaf as well?" The old man hit the ground with his stick, the loud clacking sound racing through John's ears like a lightning bolt.

"You...can see me?" he whispered, unable to believe what was happening.

The guy snorted and raised his eyes heavenwards. "Of course I can see ya, kiddo! Do you think me stupid, what?"

"But I'm...I'm..." Now John was utterly confused. Had he somehow become visible again? Had everything changed without him noticing?

"You mean you're dead?"

That shook him out of his confusion. "I'm not dead!" The blonde protested immediately. "I'm just...disconnected." The explanation sounded lame, even to his own ears.

"Yes, we get a lot of those," the old man said as if he was conversing about the weather, folding his hands over his walking stick. "I figured you were one of them. You still have the colour, you know."

"Colour?" John felt as if he had been thrown into a very bad movie. So the only guy who could see him was a crazy madman? Thank you very much, that would help his current situation.

A sigh was his reply. "Why me? Alright, kiddo, I'll explain it, but I'll only tell it once, so you'd better listen, because there's going to be no repetition." A short pause, and then a wide-sweeping gesture of a hand, that nearly knocked into John. "Well...my name's Gustav Schnabelewopski , and if you laugh at this, you're one dead man."

John blinked and kept his mouth from twitching upward. It was a hard battle, but he won – having four brothers was good training. That earned him a nod of approval.

"I've been here for...oh, almost thirty years, I think." Schnabelewopski tipped his nose carefully. "Died in an accident – was a long time ago. Anyway, I didn't really want to leave, and so I stuck around-"

"Wait a moment – so you're dead?" John had a sinking feeling in his stomach. Talking with dead people couldn't be good. Actually, it put him more than likely in the 'dead' or 'near-dead' situation.

Schnabelewopski glared at him and gave him a whack with his walking stick. "Ain't'cha listening? Of course I'm dead. How else do you think I could see you? What do you think you are?"

"I'm not dead," John replied in indignation and rubbed the sore spot on his leg (why did it hurt? Was he even corporeal?). "My body's still alive..." He grimaced as he realized how awkward it was to say 'my body' and actually mean it.

"Same difference," Schnabelewopski waved it off. "Anyway...where was I...really, the young people of today, no manners at all...ah. So, I died in this accident, but I didn't want to leave and started hanging around. Anyway, I wasn't the only one. You see, when people die suddenly, their spirits can get confused. And so they hang around, until they realize what has happened...and then they disperse. Some of them become permanent spirits, like me." He cackled. "Not many do that, though."

Gee, I wonder why.

"Look, you can see one over there," the old guy pointed at a crowd of people not far away. "See the guy with the glasses and the funny-looking tie?"

John followed the direction and nodded. "Yes, I can see him."

"He's dead."

The blonde blanched. "How do you know that?"

"Easy. Can't you see how pale he's looking? All washed out. Like the colour has leaked from him. I reckon his body is hanging on a thin thread – not much longer and he'll die for real."

"So you mean...his body is still alive?"

Schnabelewopski nodded. "Barely. The moment the body dies, the spirits disappears – unless they're as stubborn as me and hang around." There was the evil cackle again. John inched away from the old guy, wondering whether ghosts could catch insanity or not. He didn't get very far. The walking stick hit him with more force than necessary. "Pay attention and look! It's happening!"

John's head snapped up. True enough, tie-guy had an almost startled, then relieved look on his face. For a second, his whole body seemed to flicker – and then he was gone, just like that.

"Holy Cow." The blonde gaped. "He's gone!"

"Told ya it was going to happen."

John gesticulated wildly. "I don't want to die like that! I want to go back to my body!"

"Yeah? Get in the queue. Absolutely crowded today." Schnabelewopski shook his had. "This earthquake really took a number on the people. Haven't seen so many since the big road accident."

The feeling that all this had to be some drug induced nightmare grew stronger and stronger. "And so what's your role in all this?"

A grim smile. "I help. I watch. I talk. But most of all, I'm around."

John rubbed his temples wearily, as the headache ebbed up again. He wasn't quite sure if this was a good sign or not – did the pain somehow link him to reality? Or was it a sign that he was deteriorating, losing the last little bit of connection he had? "And do you have any suggestion as to how I can return to my body, and my life?"

Schnabelewopski turned his intense gaze in him. "Do you want to?"

"Of course I want to! Why wouldn't I?"

A shrug was his reply. "You'd be surprised how many people chose not to return. After all, it's painful – you only get disconnected when things are really bad – which means that your body has suffered a lot of painful injuries - maybe broken bones, bruises, concussion, cuts, burns. You might even have damaged your brain, or your eyes, or your spine. Going back to your body means going through all that pain – accepting that you're going to spend the next months in some crappy hospital bed – realizing that your life might never be the same."

John clenched his hands into fists. He had never thought of it that way. Of course, he had seen his body – the injuries were severe, and painful. Nobody had talked about longer lasting effects yet, but that was because they were all busy worrying whether he'd survive. What if he had suffered from brain damage? What if he'd be unable to walk?

"It doesn't matter." As soon as he spoke the words, he knew they were true. "If there's even the slightest chance that I can go back to my life, I'm going to take it."

"Really?" Schnabelewopski raised an eyebrow. "Then you're braver than you look."

John shook his head. "No. I'm not brave. I just have a life to return to."

"You do, eh?" This time, he could have sworn to see sympathy in the old man's gaze. "Come with me for a bit, kiddo. I'll show you something."

He walked away, not even waiting for a reply. John frowned in confusion and then followed – there wasn't really anything else he could do, was there?

Besides, this old guy might just give him the help he needed.

Chapter Three: Of ghosts, spirits, and non-existent coffee cups

"Medicine! Ha!" Schnabelewopski continued his ramblings which had been going on for at least twenty minutes now. In those (painfully slow) minutes, he'd insulted the doctors ("don't know nothing about anything!"), John, the nurses ("what are women doing here, anyway"), the patients, the wall-colour, John, the world of today ("all rubbish, I tell you"), the ugly looking waste bins, John, International Rescue ("silliest name I ever heard") oh, and not to mention John.

The blonde knew it all by now – he was a weakling, a coward, and stupid because he wasn't able to read the old guy's thoughts. Oh, and don't forget annoying – because he kept asking questions – and a general pain in the ass.

At first, John had been offended; it wasn't particularly nice to be constantly insulted by the only person available to talk to. But then he'd realized that it wasn't to be taken seriously; Schnabelewopski was one of those old guys who weren't happy unless they had something to grumble about. After realizing that, it was actually quite funny to listen to him talk.

He hid another grin. "Medicine does help people, you know." John pointed out. "Without it, I'd already be dead."

"Ah! GnaGnaGna!" The old man waved him off, unaware of the amusement he was creating. John, who felt very much reminded of his brothers, contained his mirth and schooled his expression to one of careful indifference.

"Well, it's true. They're keeping my body alive, until I can find out how to return to it." He paused, thinking he'd try out his luck again. "Which, by the way, you could help me with. After all, you have been around for quite a while – I bet you meet a lot of people who are in the same situation. Can't you give me a couple of pointers? Or at least answer my questions?"

Schnabelewopksi snorted. "Answer your questions! You see, the young people of today, you don't want to do anything yourselves, that's the problem. Now, when I died, I had to find it out myself, and it was hard work – but you youngster you, you just expect me to tell you everything..."

John resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He'd had enough of the 'everything-was-better-when-I-was-young' speeches to last him a lifetime. "How can I still feel pain, even though I'm not in my body?" he asked, some part of his brain deciding that it was probably best just to ignore what the old-timer said.

"Hrmph." A sharp bang, as the walking-stick collided once again with the ground. "Gee, what do you think you are?"

John frowned. "A...ghost?"

Schnabelewopksi waggled his brows. "Oh, really? And what defines a ghost?"

"Uh..."

"You see, that's the problem. If you wanna understand what's going on with you, then you need to know what you are. And you're not a ghost – not yet. You're still alive. You're just not there."

John nodded slowly. This actually made sense. He wasn't a ghost yet, because ghosts were dead. He was more of a spirit, but even that didn't fit it correctly..."I'm still John," he began slowly. "But I'm not there. I've been...displaced."

"That's a suitable explanation, kiddo." Out of Schnabelewopksi's mouth, it sounded like the sweetest compliment on the planet. "You're an imprint – your mind – everything that makes you the person you are. All the things modern science can't explain, that's you, bundled up just like that. Now, why do you think can you feel pain?"

The blonde rubbed his chin, his mind trailing back to the various levels of feeling he had encountered. He had been able to touch his body, yet he could walk through walls. But he seemed to be able to control it – otherwise he would simply slide through the ground and keep falling until he had reached the centre of the planet.

"I feel pain...because I remember it?" John had to think of a familiar phenomenon – phantom pain. Maybe it was something like that. "Or maybe...maybe I feel pain because I imagine it? If I don't have a body, then...then something is keeping up my appearance. And that has to be myself, my subconscious! And of course my subconscious knows what pain feels like!"

Schnabelewopksi nodded grimly. "Took you a while to figure it out, eh?" Just out of pure spite, he hit John again with his stick. The blonde flinched and grimaced. Was there no way he could switch this pain thingie off?

"So that's why I had the coffee cup." The astronaut concluded, edging out of Schnabelewopski's reach.

"Exactly," was the gruff reply. "You can have anything that you can think of here. Just imagine it and it'll be there. Like a cigar, for example." The object appeared in his hand, already alight. Schnabelewokspi tossed it over his shoulder, where John noticed it vanished.

"Or a chocolate muffin." A delicious looking muffin popped in his hands, smelling alluringly. Schnabelewopksi took a bite, munched happily and then dropped it to the ground, where it scattered and then disappeared.

"Or a gorgeous redhead girl." Nothing happened. "Ah well," Schnabelewopksi said, disappointed "Nearly everything."

John bit back another grin. The guy was funny, he had to admit that much. "Well, why couldn't I have imagined a decent-tasting coffee, then?"

Schnabelewopksi sent him a scornful glance. "Because your imagination is crap? Or because you expect hospital coffee to be foul? Or have you ever had a good one?"

"Actually, no... and thank you for the compliment." John shook his head. "Okay, another question: if I'm just this...well, imprint, or spirit, or whatever you want to call it, how do I return to my body?"

"Don't know. I never tried."

The astronaut suppressed another sigh and growled. "Look. Can you see the chestnut-haired man over there? The one who's standing by himself, all slumped down?" He pointed at Virgil, who was indeed not far away from their current position, leaning against a wall as he waited for any news. "That's my brother." John explained. "One of four. They've been here and I saw them. At first I thought one of them was injured, but then I found out it was me. Now, can you see how depressed he looks?"

Schnabelewopski followed his direction and nodded, almost against his own will.

"Exactly." John's expression was firm. "They're going to be devastated if I die. I don't want to leave them like that. They need me – and I need them. I have a life. I love my life. I don't want my brothers to suffer any more than necessary because, hell, I know how hard it is to fear for someone's life! I've been there, and by God, I don't want to repeat it again. But they're going through that right now! Scott and Gordon are out there, saving lives while they're fearing for mine!"

His eyes flashed. John seldom got angry, and when he did, he looked positively dangerous. He didn't scream, didn't shout - he didn't need to. His voice carried a silent danger, a message that was not to be taken lightly.

"I want to return, Mr Schnabelewopksi," John said in a cold voice, "And you're not helping me. I don't mind feeling pain, I don't mind...whatever, I just want to go back."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

Schnabelewopksi seemed to ponder this. "Did you think about the consequences, boy? Have you listened to a word I said? Did you consider the pain, the possible handicaps, long-term injuries, mental losses? What help will you be to your brothers if you're a breathing vegetable? Do you think they won't suffer then?"

John swallowed, his throat dry. He had tried to not think of these possibilities, but now they flashed through his mind with burning brightness. Him, stuck in a wheel-chair, or – even worse – his intellect gone, so that he was forced to spend the rest of his life looking at the stars without ever knowing them.

Yes, he was quite sure that there were some things worse than death.

But...

"It's just a possibility." His gaze was firm; his eyes didn't betray the doubts he was feeling. "I can't base my life on 'ifs' – I'd never get anywhere. How can I give up before I even attempted the fight? That would be a cowardly way out. No. No, I want to go back, and I'll do whatever is necessary. Never mind the consequences."

Schnabelewopksi clutched his walking stick harder, the knuckles turning white – and then threw his head back laughing. "What a nice little speech, kiddo!" he guffawed. "When I first saw you, I thought you were some wet noodle, but you do seem to have some spunk in you! Very well. I will tell you what I know, but it is not much."

John bristled at the 'wet noodle' comment, but managed to keep his temper in check. After all, he had gotten what he wanted.

Schnabelewopksi hammered with the walking stick on the ground, startling the blonde. "Sooner or later, you're going to feel the pull, and that's when you decide-"

"The pull?"

"Yea, smarty, the pull. Like, when your body reaches the critical point? You'll get pulled back, and the bond either snaps or you return to your body."

John blinked. "So...I don't have to do anything? I just have to wait? That seems a bit...odd."

Schnabelewopksi shrugged. "I dunno what else you could do. Trying to dive into your body? Willing yourself there? Naw. Doesn't work. You've been sent away from your body by your subconscious – and your subconscious will decide when to pull you back, usually when you reach a critical point. Then it's up to you to make the right decision."

"Have you met many people who...were in the same situation?"

"Oh yes!" The old man cackled. "Heaps of them! The funny thing is that half of them don't even remember that they wandered from their body when they wake up. Only the young kids do – their minds seem to be more receptive to strange ideas. But then nobody believes them anyway."

Relief flooded John. "So a lot of them do return to their bodies."

"Not really." Schnabelewopksi grinned. "I'd say about one third actually manage it – the rest simply vanish, while the body dies. Some stay around for quite a while, keeping me company."

Oh yes, that was something to look forward to, John reflected wryly; having the company of a grumpy old man while fearing for your life. "So what's the longest somebody stayed?"

"Hrm. Good question." A moment of silence stretched between them, the hospital's busy noise doing nothing to fill it. "The ones who are in a coma are always the worst. I had this one girl – she was about eighteen, I think – she stayed around for almost two months."

"Two months!" John's eyes boggled. He didn't want to think what it would do to his family if he stayed out of action for two months! Not to mention how his muscles would weaken! "And...did she wake up?"

Schnabelewopksi sent him a piercing gaze. "Yes, in fact she did...but the accident permanently blinded her. She wasn't very happy about that."

John recognized the underlying warning. He simply shrugged, as if to say 'I don't care'. It wasn't entirely true – he did care, he just didn't want the old cot to know. Being blind meant never seeing his precious stars again; but still, it was always better than being dead. And he had seen no damage on his face...so his eyes were probably alright.

The blonde vowed to himself that he'd find out more about his injuries at the next opportunity. He hated not knowing.

But...two months! That was the hell of a time! What was he supposed to do if his subconscious decided to let him wait that long? Was there no way to speed up the process? Maybe this girl had become blind because she had been looking at Schnabelewopksi for two months...it would be enough to scar anyone.

"Two months." He rubbed his head, which hadn't stopped aching. Why couldn't he stop his imagination from hurting him?

"Two months." Schnabelewopksi confirmed. And then slid forward to peer into an examination room where an almost naked woman lay on the bed, being bandaged by stressed looking nurse. There was a look of glee on his face, which caused John to groan. Great. Of all people to be stuck with, it had to be a grumpy old pervert.

"Hey, take a look at that, kid!"

John let his head fall in his hands. What had he done to deserve this?


The sun had long slid down the horizon and the hospital was finally coming to a rest. With the roads cleared, most of the injured had been transported to other places, so that the hospital wasn't cramped any more, simply filled to its normal capacity.

John didn't know how many hours had passed – six? Eight? - but it had been quite a while, and without bodily needs like hunger, it was difficult to tell the time. Everything seemed to drag on slowly, and he had the slight suspicion that time didn't move in the same way for spirits as it did for the real world.

Several times, he had watched Virgil, until he couldn't bear it any longer. Somehow, sitting and looking at his brother while knowing that he couldn't hear him made it even worse.

And so he had wandered off, leaving Schnabelewopksi behind (the old guy was getting on his nerves with his ramblings), seeking solitude in some far-off corner of the hospital. And he watched.

It was amazing what you noticed when you were watching – really watching. So far, he had found about the relationship between a nurse and the janitor, the lack of toilet paper in the men's toilet, the stack of porn in the office of the head doctor, and the habit of several people to talk to themselves. The last one was actually quite funny; John knew (from experience) that people only talked to themselves when nobody was around. Without them knowing that he was listening, he got amazing tidbits of self-directed conversations...

It was enough to write a book about, John reflected. Maybe he'd do that once he was back – the time in the hospital was bound to be boring. But how could you write about something like that? Nobody would believe him, not even his family.

And he probably wouldn't even remember it. John's brow furrowed. It seemed to be a bit of a waste – why bother with this out-of-body crap when you couldn't even remember it afterwards?

The picture of his copper-haired brother flashed into his mind. Gordon had been in a coma for a long time, while the rest of the family had feared for his life. Now that John was in the same position, he couldn't help but wonder – had his younger brother gone through an experience similar to his? Had he left his body and wandered the hospital?

He'd never mentioned it, but then Gordon still found it difficult to discuss that episode in his life. After his long stay in the hospital and the slow process of recovering, Gordon had thrown himself back into life with full force, leaving all the bad things behind him. But the whole family knew that sometimes he had nightmares. Whenever Gordon was up early in the morning, nursing some coffee, it was a clear sign that his sleep had been troubled.

John tried to imagine his brother walking around the hospital, listening to their conversations and trying to find a way back to his body.

Maybe it was better that he didn't remember. John had certainly talked a lot of bullshit in the many hours of lonely vigil beside Gordon. He had rambled on about all sorts of things, spoken freely of his fears, and he knew that the rest of the family had done the same.

But how had it been for Gordon?

None of them had ever dared to ask. It was a taboo topic. The case was closed, the past stayed the past, and they were by nature a family that looked ahead instead of looking back.

Would he be the same?

John had to think of his own body. With a sudden jolt, he realised that he had explored every part of the hospital, but hadn't been back in his own room ever since the first time. Coward, he scolded himself, because the mere idea was creepy enough. It was his own body, dammit, and one wasn't supposed to look at it from far-away.

John set his jaw and turned hot on his heels. If Mr Schnabelewopksi had been right, then it could take ages for him to return. Maybe there was some way to speed up the process – or maybe he needed to make sure that he was still alive, not some ghost like the old guy.

How had it gotten that far? Yesterday he had been looking forward to his stay on the island, the relaxing days on the beach, familiar banter with his brothers. Now the only thing he was looking forward to was either death or a very prolonged hospital stay.

It wasn't fair.

But then again, life never was. It certainly hadn't been fair on Gordon when he'd had his accident. Or on the whole family, when Lucille Tracy had died.

"Complaining won't help you, John Tracy." he snorted and then winced. This talking-to-himself thing was getting routine – not good. Not at all.

His stride determined, the blonde made his way to his own room. He slid through the wall without any resistance and felt a cold shiver when he saw himself lying on the bed. Pale, unmoving, deadly white. The beeping of the machine clashed with the soft hissing sounds of the breathing apparatus. John despised the fact that he had to rely on a machine to keep him alive. Couldn't he breathe on his own?

Then his gaze wandered further and he discovered the second figure in the room. To his surprise, it wasn't Virgil, but Scott. When had he returned? And why hadn't he noticed him? Shouldn't he be aware of it when somebody was in the same room as him?

Slightly disconcerted, John stepped closer, aware of the closed-off look on Scott's face. It was dark outside, and only then the astronaut realized that a lot of time must have passed. The rescue was probably all wrapped up, the vehicles tucked safely away, and here stood Scott his silent vigil over his bedside.

"Hi Scott," John whispered. "I know you can't hear me, but thanks anyway. For keeping me company, I mean."

His brother was sitting on one of those hospital chairs – made out of plastic and designed to be uncomfortable – and staring at the silent body. John's gaze followed his.

I hope I normally don't look like that.

To say that he was pale would have been an understatement. The white gauze wrapped around his head barely differed from the pallor of his skin; only the dark blood stains stood out sharply. His jaw was slack, the tube firmly attached to it, keeping him breathing, keeping him alive. His chest was bandaged, as well as his hands - he dimly remembered digging, his nails breaking. The rest of his body was covered by a white sheet, but there was no doubt that the injuries were severe.

Swallowing hard, John stepped closer to have a look at the chart hanging beside his bed; the one where his injuries were described in detail. The list was far too long for his taste.

Broken ribs. Punctured lung. A developing infection that had to be fought using antibiotics. Plus the usual stuff. Abrasions. Surface wounds. Bruises. A sprained wrist. Hairline fracture in the fibula.

The words ‘craniocerebral injury’ stood written at the very top of the list, and under it, in a messy scrawl that was hard to identify - MRI Scan advised – regular checks needed’.

John suspected that with all the mess going on, they hadn’t been able to treat him as they would have liked. But he didn’t like it. It meant that something was going on with his brain, and since that was the part of his body he valued the most, he felt quite anxious.

Schnabelewopksi’s warnings flashed through his mind. John saw himself for a moment as a drooling imbecile, his wits and intelligence gone from his body, unable to even form a coherent sentence, while his brothers sent him pitiful looks.

He shuddered. Sometimes it was scary to have a vivid imagination.

Without his brains, he would be useless to his family. A burden. A Tracy who wasn’t strong - that was unheard of.

I’d rather be dead.

"I wonder what you’re thinking." The voice startled John, as he’d been on the verge of sinking onto a full-blown depression.

While he had been brooding, Scott had scoped up his hand and held it tightly between his roughened fingers. "Half the time I never know what goes through that blonde head of
yours."

John held his breath. It seemed like an awful private moment, and he contemplated leaving the room - he felt like an intruder. But in the end, curiosity won, and the need to be with someone he knew; and besides, Scott was talking to John. He just didn’t know that his brother could hear him.

Despite everything else, it was interesting to watch. Scott wasn’t the talkative type – every time a conversation steered in an emotional direction, he got nervous and uncomfortable. And so the tall man fidgeted on his chair, bit his lips and searched for the right words.

John would have laughed if the situation hadn’t been so damn sad.

"Are you dreaming?" Scott wondered aloud.

"I wish it was that easy," was John's reply.

"I wish you would wake up, John." The word's were barely audible. "You're starting to worry me. Yeah, yeah – I know. I always worry too much, you told me so yourself numerous times." Scott gave a dry laugh. "But I reckon my worry is justified. That building really did a number on you, John. When they told me that you had stopped breathing..."

His voice trailed off. "That was one of the worst moments in my life. I thought you had died, and I...I couldn't bear that."

"Oh Scott..." John's heart went out to the distressed man. He knew what it was like to worry – he did it all the time when he was on Thunderbird Five. It must be ten times worse for Scott – he always found a way to blame himself, and the inactivity of waiting drove him crazy.

"The doctors are worried about your brain," the dark-haired man continued. "You took a bad blow to your head. It scares me. You're one of the smartest people I know, Johnny - Brains included. Your brain always seems to be a step ahead the rest of us. I'm good when it comes to quick decisions, but you're the really smart one." A smile played around Scott's lips. "I remember when we were kids – you were always off reading a book, while we stormed the house and drove Grandma crazy. Dad joked once that you were the easiest kid – he just had to give you a couple of books and you were happy."

John grimaced. "Yeah, I know – good, ol' boring John." He had always been a bit of a loner, which was cause of many jokes from his more extrovert brothers.

"But then again, you only had to know the right tricks to calm everyone down," Scott's smile widened. "With Virgil, it was music – and you could happily throw Gordon in a pool and he would stay there for hours, never making a sound. Even Alan had his soft spot – race cars – I don't know what mine was, though. But yours were books."

The blonde had to grin as well when the familiar scenes flashed into his mind. Oh, I know your weakness, Scott. You did have one. But you never realized it.

"Look at me, I'm rambling." Scott pinched the bridge of his nose. "Talking to you as if you could hear me - listen to me the way you always do."

I am listening, Scott.

"You know, that's the great thing about you. You always listen. I don't know how you do it, but...I can always talk to you, and I know the others feel the same. You don't even say much, it's just how you listen...must be a gift." Scott fell silent, probably remembering the numerous times John had forced him to talk after a rescue. Or maybe forced was the wrong word – the blonde would just look at him and then Scott was spilling his guts.

Scott paused, his voice weary. "You know that you can always tell me anything? Yet I never know what goes through your head. You're an enigma. It's pretty easy to figure out Alan – a lot more tough when it comes to Gordon, but just because he's so sneaky – but you and Virgil, you can be difficult. There were times when I wondered...who listens to the listener?"

John tilted his head, surprised at the sudden insight coming from his usually so stoic brother. He never went to other people with his problems – must be habit, he guessed – but he didn't mind, because it was just his way of dealing with things.

"God, I really hope that the damage on your brain...that it isn't serious..." Scott changed the topic, apparently uncomfortable with the amount of feelings he had just put into his words. "I think that would be the worst for you, wouldn't it?"

Definitely. His brother sure knew him well.

"Why won't you wake up?" There was it again, the sentence he had asked so many times while Gordon had been unconscious. In the many nights he had spent there, he had always wondered – what was going through Gordon's mind? Why wasn't he returning? Had he found a better place, was he too tired, in too much pain? Or was he fighting, struggling, against the weakness of his own body? And now it was him whom this sentence was directed at; it was John who lay there pale and unresponsive, and even though he was the one, he still didn't fully understand as for why he wasn't waking up.

"Never give up, John, because there's always a chance. But if you give up, this chance will be lost. It's easy to give up – surviving is the hard part." Scott paused. "We need you to come back to us, Johnny.", he continued, voice thick. "Damn, I...I order you to come back! You are a valuable member of International Rescue, you can't just not come back! We need you! I need you!"

The last three words were barked in a gruff tone, but John still noticed the underlying affection and concern.

Oh Scott, I'm so sorry. His mind circled back to happier times, the ones they had remembered earlier.

John smiled. You do have a soft spot, Scott Tracy. Two of them, actually. The first is flying – and the second is us – your brothers.

Chapter Four: Furry friends and family

Whilst watching your brother from an invisible point of view had a sort of excitement of its own, the novelty soon wore off. Scott fell silent very quickly, just sitting by his brother's side, lost in his own thoughts. John knew the feeling very well; had been prone to it on more than one occasion. How many hours had he spent like that? His mind leaping in circles – one second worrying, the next remembering the most insignificant things about the injured person, character traits, habits, favourite food, anything...

The blonde had no doubt that Scott was going through the same ordeal. And, so John mused, he deserved to have some real privacy for it. He already felt bad for intruding, knew that Scott would be very embarrassed about his emotional outburst – but on the other hand, John was glad he had heard it. His oldest brother was a very private person, and he would never have said those things if he had imagined that his brother could hear him. John had been witness to something very precious; and he hoped this particular memory would stay in his mind no matter what.

Scott's privacy wouldn't last long, anyhow, knowing his family – soon they'd be crowding round John's bedside.

Let's just hope I manage to return before that.

Which was why he found himself wandering again. He was almost glad when he stumbled upon Schnabelewopski; it was a nice distraction from the depressing thoughts that kept going through his head.

"Oh, there you are," the old guy nodded as if greeting a passing acquaintance. "Well? More enlightenment for ya?"

"Very funny." John didn't grimace, but he came close. "I visited myself – well, my body, or whatever you might call it – and watched my brother."

Schnabelewopksi nodded wisely. "Ahh. Family. Yes. Very important. It's amazing what you can overhear when they don't know you're there. Did they gossip about you?"

"No!" The mere idea of his family gossiping like a bunch of old housewives was ridiculous.

"Bad luck. It's always nice to get some juicy titbits to blackmail them later."

The astronaut rolled his eyes. This was so typical – he was pretty sure that the guy had been a living plague when he was still alive. Schnabelewopski wasn't a bad man– just a very, very annoying one. There probably was a good heart somewhere under the gruff exterior, he guessed, but so far, he hadn't found it.

"It was a very sad and solemn visit, if you must know."

"I 'must' nothing, kiddo." Schnabelewopksi whacked him with the walking stick. "Be polite to your elders!"

"Ouch!" John rubbed his shin. He was pretty sure that there was already a bruise forming...well, there would have been, if this body had been real...but it hurt nonetheless. "Stop doing that!"

"Stop doing what?"

"Hitting me!"

Schnabelewopksi grinned. "Me? Hitting you? You must be mistaken. Did you forget that we are incorporeal? How could I hit you? You can't even feel pain!"

John threw his hands in the air and shook his head. That moment, Schnabelewopski reminded him very much of Gordon. The copper-haired Tracy had the same way of smirking when he knew that he was pulling one over you and you couldn't do anything against it. With the only exception that Schnabelewopski looked a whole lot meaner and uglier.

"Oh please," John said in a resigned tone. He had learned a long time ago that resistance was pointless. In fact, giving the impression that he didn't care at all was the best shield against such antics.

True enough, Schnabelewopski chuckled, but didn't hit him again, changing the topic instead. "We sure do have a lot of traffic today. Just met another one like you."

"You did? Another one who is out of his body?" John as curious. "Where is he? Can I see him?"

"Sure you can. Ya can do anything you want. But ye won't find it much help; just a little brat, that's all."

John's stomach sank. "A child?"

"Yep. Little girlie. Six years, tops."

The blonde's heart went out to the mention of the girl. It was bad enough being stuck here as an adult; how frightening must it be for a child? She wouldn't even understand what was happening – why she was unable to talk with her parents, why nobody noticed her...it would traumatize her!

The decision was quickly made. "Where is she?"

Schnabelewopski raised an eyebrow at him. "What, the brat? Last time I saw here, she was hiding under a table in the waiting room."

John resisted the urge to tell him off for his rudeness. "Will she be able to see and hear me?"

"She should be. It depends on her, really. Some people work themselves in a frenzy – don't see anything, until they fade. But those never last long. A couple of minutes, half an hour at the tops."

"Alright." John set his face and marched towards the waiting area, which was considerably less crowded now that the worst of the disaster was over. A loud clacking sound told him that Schnabelewopski was following him, but he didn't really care. There was a child that needed help; and for a moment, that shoved the hopelessness of his own situation out of the way.

He scanned the people in the waiting room, hesitating as he saw several children. They didn't react to him in any way, so he guessed that those were real ones – however macabre that sounded. But soon enough, he glimpsed a small, huddled form under one of the tables. A questioning look in Schnabelewopski's direction told him that this was indeed the aforementioned girl.

With careful steps, he walked over and lowered himself to the ground. The girl was a scrawny little thing; her navy blue shirt torn and covered in blood, her jeans ripped open and filthy. Her black hair hung limp across face, which was covered in scratches. She was clutching something against her chest, so tightly that it was impossible to make out what it was – and she looked awfully familiar.

"Hey." John said in a soft voice.

Green eyes snapped open and stared at him. The girl looked ready to bolt, and John couldn't blame her. He had probably looked the same a couple of hours ago. And then it hit him why she appeared familiar; it was the girl he had seen on the gurney, on his first venture through the hospital.

"I won't hurt you," he promised and inched a bit closer. "My name's John. What's yours?"

She eyed him warily, unable to believe that this stranger was really talking to her. Everybody else had been ignoring her so far.

John smiled, doing his best to look innocent and trusting. "I know you are pretty scared. Something weird happened to you and me, and now we are stuck. Nobody else can see you. But I can. And you can see me." He stretched out his arm and willed himself to be as solid as possible. His fingers touched her shoulder, causing her to flinch. "You see? I'm real."

The girl nodded and wetted her lips. "You...can see me?"

"Of course." His hand closed around her shoulder and gave a comforting squeeze. "Won't you tell me your name?"

"C-Cassie."

"That's a beautiful name." John slowly slid into a sitting position beside her. "So Cassie, can you tell me what happened to you?"

She clutched the thing even tighter – it was some sort of stuffed toy, John reckoned, and tried to make out a shape, but the light under the table wasn't very good.

"I was shopping with my Da." she announced in a trembling voice. "And then everything was loud and fell down and then I hurt!"

"Oookay." It was probably fruitless to question a six-year-old about something as complex as that. She probably didn't even understand the concept of death...

"So tell me, Cassie, have you by any chance seen your...er, a girl that looks very much like you? Lying in a hospital bed?"

John needed to make sure how badly she was hurt, and for that, he needed to see her body. Damn, that sounded...wrong.

Cassie looked at him. "It was like a dream. There were people in white coats." She paused to think. "You don't have a white coat."

"No." The blonde smiled. "I'm not a doctor. Just someone who's here to help."

"Fuchur helps me." There was the slightest spark in her eyes which encouraged him to prod further.

"And who is this Fuchur?"

"He's my lucky dragon!" was the proud reply and true enough, a small, stuffed dragon was pointed into his direction. The animal looked like it had suffered more than its owner. Ruddy and dirty, the toy looked like it had been used as a oil rag. Both wings were ripped off and there was a hole in his tail where the stuffing was coming out.

But John knew about the importance of toys (Alan had once gone ballistic when his stuffed pig had disappeared) and he didn't even crack a smile. "He sure looks like a fierce dragon to me."

"He does, doesn't he?" Pride shone in the pale little face. "And he's supposed to bring me luck."

Well, maybe Fuchur was taking a day off when this earthquake happened; I wouldn't exactly call this a result of luck.

Schooling his expression, he managed to look impressed. "I bet he does."

Cassie looked a bit more relaxed, so John took the chance to let his eyes run over her. She didn't seem in any pain, though her clothes were blood stained. Well, that was to be expected. After all, her body was elsewhere, so she shouldn't be in any discomfort.

Whoa, finally I found one advantage of being a spirit – you don't need to bother with your body. But then again, that means you miss the good stuff, as well...dammit.

Now that he thought about it, his headache had disappeared as well. It only came back when he really had to think about something – or maybe it was a sign? Maybe something was happening to his body whenever he had a headache?

This was certainly a train of thought worth pursuing, but right now, Cassie held more importance.

"So, did you and Fuchur meet anyone in this hospital?" John asked in a casual fashion.

"I saw my parents." A dark cloud passed over Cassie's face, and poor Fuchur was clutched tighter than ever. "But...but they ignored me! So I ran away...it was mean of them!"

John winced. The poor girl. "Your parents didn't want to be mean. They simply didn't see you."

"That's stupid! I'm here!"

"I am, too." John searched for the right words. How did you explain to someone that he was severed from his body? And to a small child, at that? "But you and me, we both had an accident. Something happened to us – we were hurt, badly – and now nobody can see and hear us."

"Oh." Cassie frowned. "Am I dead? Pete's cat died last month. We poked her, but she didn't move."

"No, you're not dead-"

Hell, this was difficult. For the first time in his life, John was at a loss of words. "But you need to find your way back to your b...life, and your parents. Where did you see them?"

"In one of those ugly rooms on the second floor. I walked down here all on my own." she added with a touch of pride.

"That's great." John turned over his shoulder to see Schnabelewopski ogling a petite nurse. That guy...a sigh escaped his lips.

"Would you come with me? I'd like to see your parents. Maybe we can find a way to get you back to them." He held out his hand. Cassie took it eagerly.

"They're not mad at me?"

John swallowed against the lump in his throat. "No...no, not at all. Believe me. They'll be very happy once you go back to them."

"Okay." Cassie agreed amiably and crawled out from under the table, careful not to let go of her stuffed dragon. Her hand disappeared in John's big one, but she didn't seem to mind.

Schnabelewopski had noticed their progression and, after one last glance in the direction of the nurse's décolleté, strolled over to them. "What'cha doing, kiddo?"

"Taking her up. I want to find out how bad it is."

"Gee. You can't do anything, anyway." The old guy shrugged. "It's all up to her. She has to fight her way back."

John felt a surge of cold anger. "She is just a kid!"

"So what? From my point of view, you are just a kid, as well. What do ya want to do, shove her in the right direction?"

The statement hit, more so because it was true. He didn't know what he could do; he just wanted to help her (because it was what he did!), and if it only meant comforting her in a way he could, then so be it.

With steel-blue eyes, John levelled his gaze at Schnabelewopski. "You know, I don't really care about your egoistical ramblings. My job is it to help and rescue people; and that's what I am going to do, no matter where or what I am."

He tugged Cassie forward, who had been following the exchange with wide eyes. "Come on, Cassie; we're going."

"Alright." She stayed close to him, a lost little girl, her only link to reality a small, battered toy dragon.


The sight of Cassie's body was almost worse than seeing his own. Maybe it was because she looked so small in the huge hospital bed. Maybe it was because her father was sitting in a wheelchair close to his daughter, cheeks glistening with tears. Maybe it was because Cassie stood just outside the room, where he had left her so that she wouldn't be traumatised.

Or maybe it was because she didn't belong here, should instead be outside playing, letting Fuchur fly through the air, running around and being alive.

Children didn't belong here.

The helplessness was the worst. What could he do? How could he bring her back, make sure that she'd survive?

He couldn't, and that thought nearly killed him.

Cassie wasn't attached to a respirator – that was a good sign, wasn't it? - but she was on oxygen and her face looked far too pale. There wasn't an inch of her skin that wasn't swathed in bandages. Even if she survived, this girl would have a helluva road to go.

Just like me.

He had studied her chart. Cassie had slipped into a coma as well, but hers hadn't been caused by a head injury. Instead, it was a combination of blood loss and lack of air. The information wasn't very detailed, but apparently Cassie had been buried and the air supply had run out, leaving her on the brink of death when they finally found her.

But...that was good, wasn't it? At least her brain was intact, which meant she wouldn't have to deal with any mental handicaps. Her body, though...well, John was no doctor, but the road to recovery would be long, though he really did believe that she would be fine.

Provided she managed to return to her body.

Sparing one last glance at the worried parents, he stepped out of the room again. Cassie had huddled down on the floor, her face buried in the dragon's chest.

"Hey." John tried his best to sound encouraging.

"I want to go home," came the wavery reply.

"I'm sure you do. I want to go home as well." The blonde didn't like how dejected Cassie looked. The situation was getting to her. Distraction was needed. John immediately slipped into his role as a comforter. "So, what's your home like? Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

Sniffle. "No."

"Really? That must be great. I have four brothers. That can be pretty rough."

Green eyes peered out from under the dragon's fuzzy frame. "Do they all have golden hair?"

"Oh no," John chuckled and placed himself on the ground, close to the girl. "Only one of them is blonde like me – Alan, the youngest. The others have different hair colours."

"Oh." Cassie contemplated this. "Are they nice?"

"Most of the time."

She held out her stuffed dragon. "Do they have a friend like Fuchur?"

John, caught off guard by the question, had to laugh. "No...no, I'm afraid none of us has a guardian as brave as Fuchur. Though we did have something like that when we were younger."

"Really?" sensing a story, Cassie inched closer.

The astronaut nodded, as he remembered the times when his brothers had been toddlers. "I had a bird; I reckon it was an owl, or an eagle. She was called 'Maia', after a star in the Pleiades – that's a constellation on the sky." A smile fluttered over his face as he thought of his beloved stars.

"As for the others, let me think...Alan – the youngest, you remember – he had this massive black pig which he would carry everywhere. I think it was called Mr Hanky, but don't ask me why. Virgil had a teddy bear; what was his name again? Ah yes, Doolittle, just like the character of the story. And Gordon...what did Gordon have?" He frowned, trying to remember. Gordon had always been independent; had there ever been a time when he had needed a comfort toy?

"But yes, of course! Gordon's furry friend was a blue dolphin – I should have known that immediately."

"What was his name?" Cassie listened in rapt fascination.

John searched through his memories. "Starfish, I believe. We tried to convince him that it wasn't a starfish, but he wouldn't listen. Always a bit of a pighead, that one. Said that when a dolphin jumps out of the water, it wants to reach the stars, so he's a starfish." He smiled. "I liked that explanation a lot."

He wondered where those stuffed animals had ended up. After growing up, the boys had discarded their toys, feeling too old to need them any longer, and they had probably been thrown away. Which was kind of sad, really.

"What about the last one?"

"Huh?" thrown out of his reminiscing, he didn't know at first what she was talking about.

"Your other brother."

"Oh – Scott?" John scratched his head. "You know, I have no idea. He's older than me, so he probably gave up his stuffed animal way before I can remember...but that's a good question. I've got to ask Dad about it once I get back."

Cassie giggled, pleased that she had helped in some fashion. John was relieved to see that the haunted look had left her eyes, at least for now. Sometimes he envied children for being able to forget so easily.

The black-haired girl leaned back, her hand stroking Fuchur absently. John could almost imagine seeing the wheels turning in her head and smiled involuntarily. This one was tough, that was for sure; and smart as well.

"Having fun?" a voice snarled behind him. Schnabelewopksi again. Damn him.

"Just being friendly." John looked up at the old man. "And you?"

"Doing what I always do. Say, shouldn't you be looking out for yourself instead of helping some kid? I thought you wanted to go back no matter what."

There was that rush of anger again. "The kid's name is Cassie, and right now, she needs my help." For him, that was explanation enough.

Schnabelewopski watched him with a gleam in his eyes. "I see. I reckon she's already being pulled – look at her colours."

"What?" John jerked his head around and true enough, it seemed as if the colour was leaking out of Cassie, making her pale and shadowy. Just as he had seen it before, shortly before...

"Cassie!" John exclaimed, the lump of ice in his stomach increasing. Panicked, he shook her by the shoulder. "What are you feeling?"

Unfocused green eyes stared at him. "It's like a dream..."

Remembering Schnabelewopksi's warning, John took her face in his hands and forced her to look at him. "Cassie, I know that this is hard on you, but please listen. You want to go back, don't you? You want to go back to your parents? You have to think about it with all your power – can you do that? Come on, think about your parents...and your home, your friends, your favourite food..."

She nodded, just as her whole frame seemed to flicker.

Seeing that she was trying, John nodded. "Tell me about them. Come on, Cass, tell me. What do you like doing the best?"

"I'm...learning to ride a bike."

"That's great! And you want to go back for that, don't you?"

"Y-Yes."

"Think about how much fun it is, Cassie. Think about how great it will be when you can ride your bike and you can go everywhere with your friends."

A weak smile fluttered over her face. "Down...to the sweet shop...whenever I want..."

And then, with a snap, it was over. The colour streamed back into Cassie's face and she was there again, whole and aware. Still in her spirit form, of course, but at least she hadn't vanished. A look of confusion crossed her face and, almost out of instinct, she snuggled up to John, seeking whatever comfort she could find.

Confused himself, the blonde threw a questioning glance at Mr Schnabelewopski. To his surprise, the old man was smiling. "Ye just won a major crisis there. Good job!"

Being complimented was such a far cry from the usual rough behaviour that John blinked in surprise. "But...she's still here."

"Yeah, but she didn't die, either. I reckon they had some sort of crisis with her body – heart failure, lack of oxygen, who knows – and she won, at least for now. You pulled her back."

"I didn't..." John felt very lost. Had he condemned Cassie to a livelong existence as a spirit?

Schnabelewopski seemed to read his thoughts. "Don't'cha worry. She'll be fine. She's going in the right direction. I'd worry more about yourself, if I were you."

John didn't reply. He worried about himself, too.


He and Cassie had been playing 'I spy' for hours, and yet neither of them showed any sign of tiredness. How long had they been awake? He didn't know. The night had long passed and they were nearing the early hours of morning. It was another one of those eerie signs that showed him how screwed up everything was. Unable to feel real pain, exhaustion. Unable to be.

At around two a.m., his father had arrived, clad in his IR uniform, followed closely by Grandma Tracy.

John had watched them for a while, Cassie in his trail (she had grown quite attached to him), but after a while, the air had gotten too heavy and he had left, unable to bear it any longer. Seeing his family in pain was much worse than sitting here and taking care of Cassie.

Much to his relief, the girl's body wasn't far away from his own. They were both in intensive care, their rooms only a couple of corridors away from each other. John had chosen a position in the middle; a corner with a couple of chairs in it, where they could sit without disturbing anyone. Or better, without someone walking through them, which had scared the living daylights out of Cassie the first time it happened.

"I'm bored." the girl stated, expressing what John felt. Spying on people lost its appeal after a couple of hours.

The blonde sighed in frustration. "Me, too."

"Where did the funny grandpa go?"

Assuming she meant Schnabelewopski, John shrugged. "He's been on and off ever since I've been here. Don't worry about him, he's just an old cot."

"You shouldn't say that," Cassie reprimanded. "Ma tells to always be polite to elder people."

"Believe me, he's the exception to the rule." John leaned his head against the wall. The tense feeling in his stomach had been growing stronger and stronger, and it had nothing to do with physical pain.

The more hours passed, the more anxious he got. What if the separation of his body was permanent? And how could he help Cassie? Her parents were desperate, and the girl herself didn't fare any better, judging from the tight grip she still maintained on her dragon.

Hopeless. The situation was hopeless. And worst of all, he couldn't even do something; instead, he was sitting around, counting the tiles on the floor and nearly crawling up the wall in frustration.

"John?"

"Yes?"

"Are you an angel?"

The question caught him totally off-guard and he blinked. "What?"

Cassie remained patient. "An angel. You are one, right?"

"What makes you think that?" Despite everything else, a smile lit his face. "No, I'm not an angel, just a person, like you."

"But you're helping me. And nobody can see you. Ma always says that angels help people. And you have golden hair."

The last argument didn't make any sense, but then again, few things did. "And you think angels have blonde hair?"

"Not blonde. Golden." Cassie seemed annoyed at this rather slow angel-adult. "You're going to bring me home, aren't you?"

The sheer faith in her voice made him feel uneasy. He couldn't exactly promise...and yet she looked at him with these trusting eyes. John was torn.

"Oh, okay, golden then," he gave in, his heart heavy. "But Cassie, I'm really not an angel. I'm just -"

They were interrupted by a shrill alarm coming from further down the corridor. Both their heads jerked up and they watched as a nurse hurried towards the sound, followed by a doctor. Suddenly, there was an awful lot of commotion, and John realized with a feeling of dread that it seemed to accumulate in front of his room.

Oh shit.

"Stay here," he told Cassie, trying to hide the rising panic, and got up to investigate.

A doctor was shouting orders, and then there were a lot of people, running, shouting, disturbing the (relative) peace of the hospital. John's heart pounded in his chest, and he felt the old headache ebb up again. Damn. Damn. This wasn't good.

"You've got a problem, boy." Schnabelewopski materialized beside him, giving John a start, his face grim.

John sent a glare in his direction, then decided it was better to ignore him. He closed his eyes, concentrated and stepped right through the wall. He didn't like doing this – it made him realize just how bad his situation was – but with the door already crowded, there was no other way. Stepping through a nurse or one of his brothers was unthinkable.

The inside of the room was dim, only his bed illuminated brightly. The doctor was examining him, checking his pupils, looking worried. Then she barked orders to the nurses, who promptly started wheeling the bed out of the room. John shivered as his own body moved past him, frozen in time, appearing just like a corpse. The urge to run away grew imminent, and yet he stayed, couldn't help but watch with morbid fascination.

Scott was there, inquiring what was happening, and then his father, an overwhelming presence and yet so helpless. John couldn't bear to see their anguish and so he almost ran after his bed, determined to find out what was happening.

"Angel John!" Cassie's voice stopped him in his tracks. She had followed him, Fuchur clutched to her chest. "Where are you going?"

"I'm not-" He shook his head. "I gotta go, Cassie, there's something happening and I need to be there..."

"Don't leave me!"

Her eyes, so frightened, brimming with tears. John only had to look at them for a second and relented. "Alright, you can come with me, but be quick!"

Cassie slid her small hand into his. Schnabelewopski – somehow managing to be just where the action was - snorted at them both. "If you keep that up, boy, you're going to be a goner sooner than you think."

"Shut up," John gritted out, nearing the end of his patience. He had lost sight of the doctor and wanted to find her again.

"Kiddo, you're reaching a breaking point. Focus on yourself."

Some part of his mind told John that maybe Schnabelewopski was only trying to help him. That he actually cared about his well-being, wanted to nudge him into the right direction. But the other, much more prominent part was frustrated, confused, and getting very, very angry. It was all too much; he had to care for Cassie (without even the slightest clue how); he was afraid of dying; and then the constant reminder of the pain he was involuntarily causing tore at his nerves.

"I'm focusing on whatever I like." John almost snapped. "And Cassie is the one who needs help! Like I said, it's my job to save people, and if I have to give up my life to do it, then dammit, I'm going to do it!"

Cassie was shocked. "Angel! Swearing is bad!"

The two men looked at the girl, who regarded them indignantly. Then John burst out laughing. "Oh Cassie, you're priceless!" He ruffled her hair, glad for the small lift of his spirits. "Thanks for reminding me. I shall try not to do it again!"

He turned to Schnabelewopski. "And you keep out of this." The astronaut warned, his finger raised. "You might feel all mighty and powerful, but frankly, I don't care. I don't belong to International Rescue for nothing. I've faced death more times than you, and I know how to deal with it. So stop nagging me; I need to find out what's happening to myself and Cassie."

Schnabelewopski opened his mouth like a fish, but no words came out. Instead, he huffed n indignation and slammed the walking stick on the ground. "Alright, kiddo. If that's the way you want to play it."

"It is." John grabbed Cassie's hand tighter.

In silence, the trio marched towards the area where the examination rooms where located – CAT, MRI scans, EKG, EEG, plus various other machines that weren't frequently used. They had missed seeing to which room John had been brought, so they had to check each of them.

When they finally found it, Jeff Tracy was already standing there, having a hushed conversation with the doctor. John inched closer, not liking the lines of worry in his father's face.

"...scanning him right now, but I fear we have to operate."

Operate? John paled. Had he taken a turn for the worse?

Jeff Tracy pinched the bridge of his nose. "But didn't you say that his breathing...?"

"I know. His breathing isn't as stable as we'd like, but if we don't do it now that won't matter anymore. I don't want to lie to you, sir, the young man is gravely injured. He is suffering from a brain haemorrhage, and the pressure is increasing. It might do significant damage to his motor functions – and maybe even inflict permanent mental damage - if we don't do something now."

"How good are the odds?"

Silence. The cold feeling in his stomach increased, and almost out of reflex, his fingers crushed around Cassie's, who winced in pain.

"Not good, I'm afraid. If his lungs weren't injured, I'd say they were okay, but with him already weakened and dependent on a respirator, there might be unforeseen complications. However, without the operation, he will almost certainly die, or be mentally disabled. So...as I understand you are in the position of next of kin for my patient, do I have your permission..."

His father sighed and nodded, eyes bright with worry. "Go ahead. Do everything to save him."

The slight tremor in his voice was all it took to shatter John's heart.

Chapter Five: Torn between two ways

From then on, it was all a blur of voices and confusion. John watched in tense silence, Cassie's hand clutched tightly in his, appalled by the state of his own body. He watched how they prepared him for surgery; watched as his father told the rest of his family the news; watched as the surgeon prepared himself; only to hurtle out of the room when they started operating.

One should never be forced to watch medical intrusions to your own body. John would have nightmares for the rest of his life. Which, judging from the current outlook of things, wouldn't be very long, anyway.

"Angel John?" Cassie sensed his turmoil and grew restless, too. "What’s happening?"

He almost laughed at that question. How was one supposed to explain the impossible, to a child, nonetheless? "It’s…" he began and shook his head. "They are having problems. With me. And…" No. He couldn’t explain to her about out-of-body-experiences – she’d only be scared. Instead, the blonde waved in the general direction of his family. "Those are my brothers, and my father. Something's going wrong and worries them, and well, seeing them in distress makes me sad as well."

Cassie nodded in understanding. "They look nice."

Nice? Well, one could describe them in that way. They were in general a good looking family, although John wouldn’t have used that description right now. Good-looking they might be, but the lines of worry wiped away the charm. Scott, Gordon and Virgil looked bone-tired, Grandma fretted, Jeff was weary, and Alan…well, he hadn’t seen a glimpse of Alan. He'd still be stuck in outer space.

A sharp pang drove through his heart. What if he died here and now? He could say good-bye to most of his family, but not to Alan, because he was on Thunderbird Five. He wouldn’t be able to say good-bye to the one brother who shared his love for outer space, who knew the incredible feeling of floating over the Earth by heart, who…

John closed his eyes. No. He refused to let his thoughts wander in that direction. He would fight, and return and live, so that he could talk with Alan about the stars and about life in general. He would wake up, just so he could ease Scott from his worries and be there for him, because it killed him to let his brothers down. He would go back. Somehow, he would find a way.

The door to the operating room closed with a sharp snap. They were doing things to his brain in there! It was enough to make John feel sick.

"I reckon your decision is drawing close, boy." Schnabelewopski snarled close to his ear. "Still having the same mind set?"

John clenched his jaw. "I will go back to my body. I will live."

"Well, at least you’re persistent." Was that a glimmer of admiration in the old guy’s eyes? John wasn’t sure. Maybe it had just been a reflection of the light.

"We need to help Cassie." The girl was humming softly to herself, the childish tune eerily misplaced among the hospital noises.

"Ah, it’s ‘we’ now?"

John glowered at him. "I don’t know what’s going to happen, but judging from your stories, there won’t be much I can do when the…pull finally happens. There’s the possibility that Cassie will stay behind. She’s just a child, Mr Schnabelewopski. Please, you have to help her. I’ll try my best, but if I fail…"

Cassie, upon hearing the conversation, slung a thin arm around his leg. "You’re not going to leave me, are you?"

John’s heart broke at the tears in her eyes. He felt…overwhelmed, achy, tired. There was no relief, no sleep in the shadow world, and he had seen so much sadness in the last hours, it was beginning to wear him out. "I don’t want to, Cassie." He rubbed his eyes. "But…but I might be pulled away, and then I won’t be here anymore. God, I hope it won’t happen, but I really can’t promise…"

The girl, so small and fragile, just looked at him, Fuchur close to her chest. John had the distinct impression that the toy was staring at him, accusing him for even thinking of leaving her behind. No, that was a foolish thought. Stuffed animals didn't have feelings.

But then again, he was a ghost standing in a hospital corridor where nobody could see or hear him; he was able to walk through walls – and hell, maybe toys were alive in this shadowy realm.

Or maybe he was slowly going mad.

"Are you on duty?" Cassie’s voice interrupted his mental ramblings.

"What?"

"My Dad’s on duty sometimes. He’s a policeman, and when he’s on duty, he gets called away, even when it’s a birthday or in the middle of a plate of cookies." She sounded as if it was the greatest offence in the world to leave a freshly baked batch of cookies behind. "But he says it’s very important, because he’s fighting the bad guys, like the heroes on TV, and he always makes it up to me afterwards. So are you on duty as well? On angel-duty?"

Angel-duty. I wonder where kids get their ideas...what comes next? A package of angel-donuts?

John smiled. "Yes, I reckon you could call it that." He had given up trying to convince her that he wasn’t an angel. If it comforted her, she was welcome to believe in him.

Then a least one of us has faith in me.

"Cute. Really cute." Schnabelewopski, whom John had totally forgotten, snorted.

The blonde turned pain-filled eyes on him. "Will you promise?"

"Promise what?"

"Promise to look out for her."

Schnabelewopksi leaned heavily on his walking stick. "I might."

"You might?" Hot anger flared up. John, tired, frustrated, and at the end of his rope, was ready to explode. "You MIGHT? Damn, do you even have a HEART? She’s a child, for heaven’s sake! She doesn’t deserve this! What’s with you? Just because you didn’t have the courage to return to your life, or take the final step, you feel that you have the right to criticize everybody else? You are SUCH a HYPOCRITE! I’m sick of your narcissist behaviour. I’m sick of- of- EVERYTHING!"

He threw his hands up in the air, breathing hard.

Schnabelewopski regarded him calmly. "Are you finished?"

"I’m a long way from finished!"

"Fine." Suddenly, fire flashed in the old man’s eyes. "Listen, kiddo, you don’t understand shit of what's going on. And if I were you, I wouldn’t talk about things I have no knowledge of. You are currently walking a thin line, and yet you use your energy to fight with me? Remember, it’s your life that's slipping out of the hands of those white-coated doctors, and you ain't doing nothing to improve it!"

As if to underline his statement, a nurse left the operating room and hurried down the corridor. He could hear agitated voices, and then pain exploded in his head.

John groaned and squeezed his eyes shut. Damn, it hurt, like his eyes were on fire, burning and throbbing and pulsing.

"Angel John!" came Cassie’s alarmed cries, and then Schnabelewopski’s satisfied snort. "You see?"

The pain lessened somewhat, leaving him exhausted and spent. The anger dissipated, John not really being a hot-headed person anyway. He balled his hand to a fist and concentrated. "Okay. I don’t want to fight. We’re obviously not going to agree. But…but please, I beg you, take care of Cassie!"

John despised begging, hated how vulnerable it left him. Still, feeling Cassie’s small hand on his thigh, he knew he would do anything to protect her.

There was another one of those unidentifiable gleams in Schnabelewopski’s eyes, and then, to John’s immense surprise and relief, he nodded. "Alright, lad. But now you’d better look out for yourself."

"Thank you." It came from the heart.


They had been operating for over an hour and things weren’t looking good. John was a nervous wreck by now, his hands trembling, and his mind in overdrive. Cassie, sensing his mood, remained silent, but snuggled up close to him. John didn’t know who was comforting whom; but he didn’t really care anymore.

For the umpteenth time, he had to fight down the wish to go in there and see for himself. His natural curiosity clashed with the fear of the unknown. And besides, he didn’t want to leave Cassie behind.

"Angel John?"

He was really growing tired of that title. It carried more responsibility than he could bear, but how could he disappoint the girl, who had so little left? "Yes?"

"I feel strange."

John’s head snapped around. Indeed, Cassie looked peculiar, washed out, pale, just as before, just as…damn.

"Oh no!" She was getting pulled again, he was sure. "Cassie, explain it to me, what are you feeling?"

The girl frowned. "Like…like I should be elsewhere."

Schnabelewopski laughed. "Seems I promised for nothing. The girl’s leaving before you."

"How do you know that this is for real?" John snapped back.

"Experience."

"…John?" Cassie’s eyes widened. "It hurts…"

John slung an arm around her. "It’s okay, Cassie, I’m here. Don’t be afraid. It’s just telling you that it’s time for you to go back."

The little girl doubled over, as a wave of pain rolled through her. A lonely tear trickled down her cheek and she whimpered. "But it hurts!"

"Oh Cassie…" Professional training kicked in, urging him to speak in the same reassuring voice he used to calm down panicked victims. "I know it hurts, but you have to endure it. You want to go back, don’t you? Go back and play with Fuchur in your own room? Wait for your Dad when he’s coming home from one of his rounds? Remember the bike?"

Cassie nodded through the tears.

"Good. Think of that. Concentrate. Can you tell me about it? Tell me about your bike?"

John cast a help-seeking glance at Schnabelewopski. 'What should I do?' he mouthed, while Cassie started a stammering tale about her last biking adventure.

Schnabelewopski frowned. "Get her back to her body. It might help… sometimes the-"

- pain, barrelling into him with sudden force, fire, agony, and the sudden need to be somewhere else –

John gasped. Schnabelewopski’s words were drowned out, morphed into a garbled symphony of sound, and the only thing that was keeping him grounded was his tight hold on Cassie. He suppressed a wince and tried to focus, his mind doing cart-wheels.

No. It can’t be happening. Not now. Cassie needs my help, I can’t leave her now, I have to send her back to her body, somehow…

He shoved the feeling back down, like he always did when his concentration was needed. It was a skill he had mastered to perfection – don’t give in to the worry, focus on your work, think of a solution, the others are relying on you, don’t let them see your fear – although it took him all his remaining willpower to do so.

He tilted his head, trying to get rid of the buzzing sound, and turned aching eyes on Schnabelewopski. "So…we have to…get her back to her body?"

The old man’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. "It might help."

"Okay." John stood up, only his stubbornness keeping him from keeling over, and gathered Cassie, who was sobbing heavily, in his arms. "Let’s go."

He marched ahead, not wanting to give Schnabelewopski the chance to notice what was going on. "Shhh," he whispered to the girl, as she clung to him with all her might. "It’s going to be alright. I’m taking you home, Cassie. Just think of going back. Think of how much you want to go. I always loved biking. When you have learned how to do it properly, you have to race down the hills – it’s the most fun you can have, almost like flying!"

John talked and talked, reminding her of her life, coaxing her to remember, to concentrate, to endure the pain, all while the world tilted sideways, merged from colours to grey and back to colours again.

- every breath like fire in his lungs, racing down his windpipe like magma, torturing him in his need for oxygen –

No! Concentrate, John Tracy!

His grip on Cassie tightened. "It’ll be okay, Cassie, you’ll see," John whispered, almost as much for his own comfort as for Cassie’s. "We’ll pull through this. And when we’re out of the hospital, I promise you, I’ll take you to the biggest amusement park ever, and we can spend hours in the toy section…"

"…park?" Her voice was thin, too frail, and yet there was a tremble of hope in it. John again marvelled at the strength of children.

"Yes, a huge park!" He tried to smile through the pain. The urge to be somewhere else grew more intense with each step he took away from his own body. "With slides and many rides and candy floss and…"

"Tigger?"

"Tigger?" John blinked, his mind blank until he came up with the familiar figure of his childhood. God, did they still read that?

"I’m sure there’s a Tigger, and maybe Pooh as well, or Piglet."

Cassie smiled shyly. "Cool."

The turned around a corner, and there they were, in front of Cassie’s room, where it was remarkably calm compared to John’s OR. The blonde took a deep breath and braced himself.

"You ready, Cass?"

The black-haired girl nodded, her eyes full of fear, but her face set in a mask of determination. A real little trooper, John reflected with no small amount of pride, she’d make good IR operative later on. If she survives this.

With bated breath, they stepped through the wall. It took all of John’s willpower not to give in to the pull he was experiencing; instead he focused on the bed, surrounded by blurry figures, focused on the pale body of a little girl.

"Concentrate, Cassie," he whispered to the trembling body in his hands. "Go back to your parents."

The world tilted, lost its colour for a moment, blended with something else – something sinister, darker – but John stubbornly refused to let go. Cassie was depending on him.

"You fool!" Schnabelewopski cursed somewhere behind him. "Stop trying to help her, you’re only making it worse for yourself-"

Voices, snatches of conversation, someone shouting, the beeping of a heart monitor – images overlapping, and amidst of all, Cassie, sobbing quietly through the pain.

"Go back." John whispered, a gentle hand caressing her hair. "Go back to your parents, to your life. Don’t be afraid. You’ll be okay. Just go. Don’t give up, Cassie. Never give up. Keep that in mind. You can do this. I know you can do this."

Her breathing became quicker, rasher, and then she flickered, lost her outlines, her colours, as if something was draining her. At the same time, the hammering pain in John’s head increased, screamed for attention. He swayed on the spot, blinking against the bright circles in his vision.

Cassie’s expression changed. First, she looked frightened, then surprised, and finally, elated, happy, peaceful. She looked at something John couldn’t see, her eyes bright. "Ma!" She exclaimed loudly. "MA!"

By now, she was nearly translucent and weightless in his arms. Fuchur fell to the ground, forgotten in all the confusion. Just before she disappeared completely, she turned around to John, smiled brightly and kissed him on the forehead. "Thank you, Angel John," she whispered.

Then she was gone. Only the tingling feeling of her kiss remained on his face.

John felt panic surge inside him. What had happened? Had she returned? Or had she died? His gaze flickered to the body on the bed, but she remained unmoving. Almost out of reflex, he bent to pick up Fuchur – just as another wave of pain hit him, this time so intense that he crumpled to the ground in a heap of boneless misery.

He groaned, an almost animalistic sound, and tried to curl up to escape the pain, but it was relentless.

- "Pressure is building! We have to drain-"

Suddenly Schnabelewopski was there, towering over him. "Serves you right, you foolish bastard! Won’t be my fault if you die here and now just because you had to help a little brat."

"Is…Cassie…alright?" John managed to ask through gritted teeth.

- "Get the breathing stabilized!"

"Don’t worry about her! You have to get back NOW! It’s almost too late as it is!"

"Back…where?" Too much pain, too many noises. What voices was he hearing? Why was everything blurred? John rolled around, tried to get up on his knees and nearly tumbled to the ground again.

"To your body, you idiot!"

The memory slithered back, made him realize that his life was dangling on a silver thread right now. "Body…" John crawled to the wall and managed to heave himself in an upright position. There was no way in hell he was going to die like this..

- "Pulse erratic, blood pressure dropping…"

"Let’s go." The pain was immense, but John was used to dealing with pain, and so he forced himself onwards. Schnabelewopski hovered – yes, hovered! He hadn’t thought that the old guy had it in him to care – by his side, coaxing him along the way.

The hospital corridor looked strange, almost otherworldly, a mix of swirls and colours and shapes, people moving past him like ghosts. No. He was the ghost. And soon he'd vanish like a puff of air...

John bit his lip. He wasn’t going to give up. No matter how bad the pain, he would go back to his own body, to his own life, to his family! He was a fighter, dammit, and somehow, he would fight his way back!

(Even when you are going to be paralysed?)

It didn’t matter. Gordon had been paralysed, and he had won in the end. John could do it as well, could beat the odds, if only given the chance. But giving up meant not even having the chance in the beginning. And besides, it wasn't even certain. It was merely a possibility.

(Even when your family might look down on you?)

They would never do that. Pity him, maybe, but they would try their best and hold together, just as they always did. They would support him, always. He trusted them. Loved them.

(Even when you might be a mental vegetable for the rest of your life? In a family of over-achievers, of heroes? Won’t you feel left out?)

That won’t happen.

(Are you sure about that?)

I’m not going to let it happen.

(You can’t change the course of nature.)

I can damn well try!

"Boy! Focus!" Schnabelewopski’s rough voice was a welcome distraction from the nagging stream of words in his head. "You’re slipping!"

"I know," John barked back, too tired to restrain his temper. "I’m trying, goddammit!"

"Trying is not good enough for ya!"

They were nearly there, just around the corner, and he could see the distant faces of his family, carved with worry and stress. I’m coming, his mind screamed while his body protested. He felt himself stumble, crashed through the ground and didn’t even feel it, because he was disconnected, because everything else was…blurry, not really there.

He heard Schnabelewopski cursing, but the words slipped his attention. Don’t. Give. Up. The sentence hammered in his mind in synch with the pain, urged him to crawl forward, every thought about dignity forgotten. It didn't matter.

Everything flickered, like a damaged light in the subway, like a slowly dying candle, and he teetered sideways, lost contact, lost control…

- "We’re losing him!"

John gasped as he tried to understand what was happening. He glanced at Schnabelewopski – was that worry in the old guy’s eyes? – tried to formulate a sentence, anything that reminded him of the fact that he was still there, that he still existed, even in some horrible, twisted way. But no sound came from his lips.

He crashed to the floor, connecting hard with the tiles, but felt no pain. Everything greyed out; John felt as if a deep void had opened up under him, sucking him inside. Voices were yelling, but he couldn't understand their words. The colours swirled, the lights flickered – no, he flickered! - and then everything dissolved, just like sugar in a glass of water, slowly disappearing, blending with the background...

- "He’s slipping!"

The voice echoed through his mind, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Something was wrong – John could almost sense the worry, the hurry, the frantic concentration.

The walls melted and the floor tilted upwards, buckling and waving like an untamed horse, throwing him off balance. Another flicker, and then the familiar hospital faded out, as the walls seemed to cave in, threatened to swallow him whole.

"What the..." John cursed, but his own voice sounded empty. It was difficult to see in the blurry shadows, almost as if he was surrounded by thin, wisp-like smog. He blinked to clear his vision and faced back up the slope. But despite his best efforts, he felt himself slowly sliding down, away from whatever was waiting for him up there. With the walls so close, it almost reminded him of a...

No. That was way to cheesy.

And yet he couldn't deny it. One part of him was still in the hospital corridor – the background noise like a very faint hum – and then there was this other part, standing in a much narrower corridor that resembled a tunnel.

A tunnel.

Unbelievable! John shook his head in astonishment. "I can't believe that this is actually happening..."

His voice echoed through the emptiness, breaking the heavy silence into tiny little pieces. "I mean, come on, a tunnel – nobody really believes that stuff like this really happens!" he was halfway annoyed with his subconscious; couldn't it have come up with something a bit more original?

He waited for some snide comment of Schnabelewopski, but none came forward. John turned around, only to see that the man was still there, but...faded out, greyer, blurry around the edges. His mouth was moving, but the blonde could hear no sound. Only if he concentrated very hard, he managed to make out weak mumblings; it was as if Schnabelewopski stood behind a thick wall and tried to communicate through it.

"Can you hear me?" John said very loud and clearly.

Schnabelewopski nodded and then frowned. His hand clutched tightly around his walking stick, but John had already gotten distracted by some movement in the swirling shadows. What was that?

"Now I think now I'm really going mad," he murmured under his breath, wincing at the nagging pain in his head. Damn, the only thing he wanted to do was to wake up – was that so difficult to achieve? He wanted to go back to his life and see whether Cassie was okay...he wanted...

The floor lurched and John was thrown backwards, stumbling down the steep slope. His arms windmilling wildly, he tried to catch his balance, but it proved to be difficult on the slippery floor. The blonde was on the verge of falling as suddenly a hand shot out of the swirling grey and clamped around his wrist.

"No, zat's not ze way you vant to go," a female voice said in a thick, heavy accent. John's head shot up and he gave a startled gasp as a figure started to emerge from the nothingness in front of him. The features came into focus and revealed an old lady, clad in a yellow blouse and a cotton skirt. She smiled at him, gently, with a tiny frown of disapproval on her face.

"What?" John looked at Schnabelewopski and then back. The old man seemed as clueless as him, gaping at the newcomer like some fish out of the water.

The woman laughed and pointed up the hallway – tunnel – slope – whatever. "Zere is your goal. Komm schon, you vant to see your family, nicht?"

Her accent – German, John dimly realized – and her looks were very familiar, but he couldn't quite place them. Frantically, he tried to make sense of what was happening. "Do I know you?"

"Oh, you do not remember? Meine Güte. I am Eva-Maria Stäubler." Behind her, the shadows flickered again.

John took an involuntary step backwards as he saw more figures emerge from the fog. This was getting downright scary, and he seriously contemplated running away. But the woman's grip prevented him from moving.

Another wave of pain passed through him and John clenched his teeth, suddenly oh so very tired.

The shadows emerged and became substantial, just like the old lady in the front.

A tall, grubby looking man in miner's clothes came to a stop right beside her, his overalls splattered with blood. Behind him stood a small Asian man wearing an apron, his eyes twinkling, and next to him, a middle-aged Mexican woman. There were more in the background – a business man, a basketball player, a teenage girl dressed in pink, a farmer with a straw hat.

Every one of the faces painfully familiar.

John's eyes widened in shock. No! It couldn't be! This was impossible, it was pure madness...and yet his eyes weren't lying to him. The faces were clearly outlined in the sharp, cold light of the corridor, couldn't be mistaken for anything but what they were.

Victims.

Dead victims.

"How..." John began, the desperate need to understand like a flame in his chest.

"It doesn't matter. Ve are here to help you." The answer was gentle, understanding.

"But you are..." He couldn't bring it over him to finish the sentence.

"Dead?" The Asian man spoke up. "Of course we are. But the fact is, you are not – not yet."

He looked into their faces – kind, filled with compassion – and swallowed. He had seen every one of the faces, and each time, it had taken a little out of his heart. Each time had brought a nightmare, questions of guilt flung at himself. Each time had been horrible.

They had died. And he had been there.

John swallowed, as the familiar memories washed over him.

The old lady had been involved in a terrible highway accident in Germany. He remembered how she had introduced herself to him, her face contorted in a grimace of pain. John had spent hours cutting her out of the car, only to find out after the rescue that she had died a day later in the hospital from her wounds.

The miner had been one of those involved into a mine collapse in Russia. John had spent several hours talking to him and his colleagues through a small opening until International Rescue finally found a way to get them out. The man had talked about his wife, his three children, and the scrappy family dog, while John had desperately tried to keep him alive. But his injuries had been too severe and the miner had died on the way to the hospital.

And there were more, many more – people from rescues, people whom John had tried to help, and whom he had failed, because they had died, because he had been too late, because their bodies had given up...

Behind him, Schnabelewopski gasped, his presence growing stronger as he stepped closer to John. He, too, must be realizing what was going on.

Faces from past. There was only one reason why...

"Are you here to punish me?" John asked, mouth dry.

"Punish you?" A voice from the far back spoke up. "Why should we want to do that?"

"Because I couldn't rescue you." Failed rescues always gnawed at his gut, and he could remember these very clearly – the sleepless nights, the constant 'what ifs'. It didn't matter how often Scott told him that it hadn't been his fault, John still felt guilty. Often he had wondered what those people would say if they could talk to him again; he had dreamed about them, accusing him, hating him, blaming him.

And now he was here, in this strange inbetween place, facing the figures that haunted him in his nightmares.

"You died." He whispered, a single tear trickling down his face. "I remember how I stayed with you...but in the end, it wasn't enough, and you...died..."

"Oh, du dummer Junge – silly, stupid." Maria tutted. "Ve are not here to punish you. Are ve?" The last bit was directed at the others. A chorus of 'Nos' followed and then a squeaky voice piped up. "We wanna help you, mister." The comment came from a strawberry-haired teenager, chewing bubble-gum and grinning wildly.

"This is outrageous." Schnabelewopski breathed beside him. "This has never happened before."

John stayed mute, too baffled to say or do anything. First he met the ghosts of his past, and then they wanted to help him?

Help him?

John held up his hands in a gesture of complete loss. "But why?"

"Well, when people help you, you want to help them back." The Asian man intoned softly.

John shook his head. "I didn't...couldn't help you. You died!"

Sympathy shone in Maria's eyes. "I might have died, but I remember very clearly zat you talked wiz me. When I was in ze car, I vas very afraid. My huzband was dead, and I vas alone. It vas horrible. But you came with those great machines and started vorking. And you talked. I remember zat I listened. It was beautiful. You made everyzing so much easier. I forgot my fear. I even forgot ze pain."

"She's right." The Asian man interjected. "You helped me keep my head when everything around me was in total chaos."

And then, as if a tidal wave had started, there was suddenly a flurry of voices. Everybody wanted to say his piece, so that John nearly staggered under the flood of well-meant comments.

"...every time I heard your voice on the radio, it calmed me down..."

"...Wegens u was ik niet alleen toen ik stierf..."

"...the way you talked with me about my flowers was so gentle and it distracted me from the pain. I wasn't afraid when I died, and that's all thanks to you..."

"...usted ahorró mi alma..."

„...doumo arigatou gozai-masu..."

„...une lumière dans l'obscurité..."

"...Sie haben alles in Ihrer Macht stehende getan. Und dank Ihnen war ich die letzten Stunden meines Lebens nicht alleine..."

"...you couldn't save me, but you saved my children. I'll be forever grateful for that..."

Words in all kinds of languages tumbled at him, but they all carried the same message: gratitude, acceptance, relief. None of them were hostile, or angry, or even bitter.

"I-I don't understand..." John stuttered, giving in to the gentle pull Maria was exercising on his wrist. He stumbled along as she goaded him up the slope.

"You don't need to," the old German smiled, "Let's just say zat it's now our turn to help you."

She tugged him along, and suddenly there was a comforting hand on his shoulder, and another one on his back, urging him along. He threw a desperate glance over his shoulder. Schnabelewopski stood there, looking at him with a half-smile on his lips.

"Well, I'll be damned," he coughed and the walking stick thudded once more on the ground, making John wince. "I reckon all your speeches had some merit after all."

"Mr S-" John began and then cringed as the pain hummed in his chest.

"Don't you worry about me." The old man barked, but there was an undertone of gruff affection in it. "Do as those people tell ya, and go back and help some other folks. You already did your rescue job out here."

"Come on, boy."

The voices encouraged him to go further, even though the ground became steeper and steeper. John gritted his teeth; he couldn't give up, not with all those people supporting him. Still, he waved at Schnabelewopski, who was being swallowed by the swirling fog. "Will we meet again?"

"I doubt it," came the distant reply.

"Well, then...thank you."

The laughter swapped back. "I didn't do anything, kiddo. It was all your work. But it's not over yet."

"You might vant to come wiz us as vell," Maria's gentle voice floated towards Schnabelewopski. "I zink you have been around long enough."

Schnabelewopski grinned lopsidedly. "Well, someone's gotta take care of the newcomers."

"And that someone has to be you?"

"Might as well."

John listened with half an-ear, astonished at the sudden insight. Somehow he'd always expected that the old guy was unable to pass on, due to some ties that kept him linked to the real world. But his answers hinted into a different direction – was he actually staying out of his own free will?

"Are you sure?" Another voice floated past him, full of compassion.

Schnabelewopski barked a laugh. "I once chose to stay behind. My work is not done yet. With this earthquake, there are a lot of spirits that need rescuing – and the young man over there showed me what it means to keep fighting."

Maria, her hand still firm on John's arm, smiled. "You are a good man, Gustav."

At the mention of his given name, the old guy became grumpy again. "Well, do what you have to do. There's a hospital waiting for me."

John stared in wonder, unable to believe what was happening. Schnabelewopski stepped back, into the churning fog, his outlines slowly blurring.

And then pain cut through him like a knife. He doubled over, panting through the fire in his lungs. It was nothing like the physical pain he knew; no, it ran deeper, seemed to cut right through his soul. Sympathetic voices murmured close to his hear, and above all, Schnabelewopski's last words floated through the red haze.

"Take care, John Tracy."

He blinked, but the fog engulfed the old man and then he was gone, just like that.

"What..." he stammered. "What is he?"

"Maybe ze little girl was right when she said zere was an angel here."

"An angel?" John echoed.

"A self-appointed one, anyway."

"Self-appointed..." John's mind had barely begun to grasp the meaning of the words, as the blinding headache hit again.

"Avancez." A male voice this time, sounding urgent. "Retournez."

"...go….back…" John stuttered between gasps. Yes, of course he wanted to go back, but he was so tired...maybe if he could rest for a second, just a little bit...the pain increased, like a hot iron in his lung.

"...b-back…" John tried to concentrate on his family, on everything that was important. Tried to ignore the nagging voice that painted his future in the darkest colours. Tried not to think of the fact that the doctors were doing things to his brain right now. That he might be disabled – handicapped – unstable – stupid.

"Du hast es gleich geschafft." The hand on his arm, tugging him forward, up the steep hill, towards the foggy end of the corridor. "Don't rest."

"go…back…to Dad…and Scott…and Virgil…" John swallowed the bile that threatened to rise in his throat. "…and Gordon…and Alan…and Grandma…"

So tired.

The names lost their meaning, as the faces of the persons belonging to them were washed away by another surge of pain and confusion.

His knees grew weaker and he started sliding downwards, his tumble to the floor only prevented by the many hands that were keeping him upright. "'M'tired..."

John stumbled into something solid and was dragged upwards again, half-carried by the Russian miner. "Thanks..." he murmured, but was too weak to make sense of the whispered Russian reply.

"Ve are close, so close. Don't now give up." A voice whispered into his ear. Maria.

Never give up.

John forced himself to keep his eyes open, even as the leaden tiredness threatened to drag his limbs to the ground. The voice of his eldest brother echoed through his head, Scott sounding serious and collected, the concern hardly evident in the clipped words.

Never give up, John, because there's always a chance. But if you give up, this chance will be lost. It's easy to give up – surviving is the hard part.

For a short second, he wondered when Scott had told him that sentiment, but then he remembered.

The mumbling of voices increased. John bit on his lip, searched for the last ounce of will-power in his body – the one that kept him going even under the most difficult odds, whatever his body told him – and balled his fist. Maybe he wasn’t as strong as Scott or as tough as Gordon; but damn, he was a Tracy as well, and even though his brothers considered him a scholar, he was a fighter just like them.

Something hot trickled down his cheek…tears? He recoiled in shame, but couldn’t stop them from falling. Damn, he didn’t want to die like this, it wasn’t fair…

He squared his shoulders through the agonizing pain. "Won't give up."

"Damn right you won't. Your family needs you. And we need International Rescue." Someone murmured in his ear, and then Maria was close to him. "Go on, son. Go back home."

They were right. How could he have forgotten? His family needed him. International Rescue needed him. Cassie needed him.

But most of all, he needed to be alive, to be with them, because he was too young to die, because there were so many things he hadn't achieved yet..

John dragged his feet along, half-carried by his gentle self-appointed helpers. How ironic, one small part of his brain mused – the rescuer was being rescued by the rescuees. But the other, bigger part gave in to the exhaustion and a mind-numbing tiredness. Slowly, he could feel every train of thought starting to close down, just like a computer shutting down open programs.

The blonde allowed himself a small smile at the mental comparison – seemed as if one part of his job even followed him into his dreams – and then he gave in to the gentle pull, his energy spent.

"Not yet," a voice whispered. "Take the last step."

Numerous hands shoved him forward, into the swirling abyss of colours and fog. John reacted automatically, his long legs bridging over the deep spasm that was suddenly under him. For an eternity, he seemed to be flying, hanging suspended in the air – just like being in outer space – and then his feet hit solid ground again, the impact jarring his bones.

John immediately fell to his knees, panting through the pain that distorted his vision. Leaden weights dragged down his arms, and then something weird happened. Instead of generally hurting, he could place where it hurt – his right arm, his stomach, his feet, his chest, but worst of all, his head.

He was pretty sure that there was a reason for that, but his brain had ceased working altogether. Then the chorus of voices started up again, this time far behind him. John glanced back through eyes that were already at half-mast and saw them waving at him.

"Well done!"

"Gut gemacht!"

"Goed-gedaan!"

"Au revoir!"

"Good luck!"

The voices laughed and congratulated him, and he gave a weak wave back, too exhausted to say anything. And then he finally gave in to the darkness and slipped away, just barely aware of where his body was falling to.

And in a small room on the same floor of the hospital, a little raven-haired girl opened her eyes.

Chapter Six: Follow the shadow, and you’ll find the light

There was a long period of darkness during which he seemed to float through the fascinating depths of space. John had no feeling of time, and it didn't really matter. He felt light and comfortable, totally at home in the depths. However, he sensed that quite a while had passed, and so he finally swam back to the surface, knowing that he couldn't stay much longer.

It was like a climb back towards consciousness, similar to waking up on a lazy Sunday morning. No sudden jolt, just the peaceful flow of time.

John noticed the little things first – that he was lying on his back, for example, on a bed of some sort; or that he could hear the faint hum of hospital machinery; and then the bone-deep exhaustion that made even the thought of moving too much of an effort.

Then the pain came, but not as sharp as he had imagined it. The edge had been taken off, the burn becoming a dull throbbing instead.

Drugs, John's mind dimly registered, and he understood why his thoughts were drifting so slowly instead of their usual lightning speed. Everything was sluggish and his body felt heavy, as if tons of water were pressing down on him.

The blonde hated drugs with a passion, simply because they made him feel like that – so slow and stupid. He recognized their importance, of course, but that didn't mean he had to like it.

But some part of his mind recalled excruciating pain, so bad that he had been unable to walk, that others had to help him stay upright; and suddenly, the presence of the drug wasn't that unwanted anymore.

John's head tingled with some hidden memory that seemed quite important, but he couldn't place his finger on it. It annoyed him to no end. But then again, with his body pumped full of drugs, it was a miracle that he was having coherent thoughts at all. Well, mostly coherent.

He tried to move his head and was annoyed as a wave of nausea swept over him. It cleared the fog in his head and with sudden clarity he realized that he was back in his body, with real limbs attached, the whole package complete with a headache, a dry mouth, and a lot of pain. It seemed important, somehow. He was back.

Back from where?

John tried to grasp the thought, but it slipped through his fingers before he could make sense of it. Only the feeling of relief, of achievement, stayed, puzzling him because he couldn't explain why it was there.

Annoyed at the emotional mess his mind was presenting him with, John cracked his eyes open. Maybe a quick check of his surroundings would make things a bit clearer.

He found himself gazing at a ceiling. Complete with a row of white lights.

Well. That certainly didn't help to clear things up, John reflected dryly. But it felt good to just lie there and look – even though his eyes were dry and full of grit.

After a while, they started watering because he was staring directly into the light.

In order to avoid the brightness, John tilted his head just a fraction and was surprised to see a person sitting beside his bed, intently studying some papers. He blinked, cursing under his breath as everything swam out of focus. It took a while until the outlines sharpened, but then he was able to make out a mop of dark hair. And a familiar face. Sitting beside his bed, looking worried and exhausted.

Scott, John realised, inwardly smiling at the warmth the name evoked in his stomach. Scott was here, with him, and everything would be okay now, wouldn't it?

It was just like-

The thought escaped him before he could snatch it, leaving him frustrated and slightly angry at himself. What was wrong with him, dammit?

Scott must have noticed his discomfort, because he glanced up – and froze in his tracks when his eyes met John's open ones. For a couple of seconds, the two brothers stared at each other, neither of them wanting to break the moment.

Then a slow smile slid across Scott's face – tentative, as if he was afraid that the situation might break into a million shattered pieces. He leant forward. "Hey there." His voice was soft, the gentle I'm-very-concerned-but-I'm-not-going-to-show-it-undertone evident. It was the special kind of voice Scott only used when one of his brothers was sick or injured; and no matter how bad the injury, it always brought a measure of comfort.

John felt tears collect at the corners of his eyes and blinked in shame. There was no reason to cry, and yet...he was just so damn happy!

Confused by his own feelings, he tried to say something, but his mouth wouldn't obey.

"Here." Scott leaned over, out of his sight, and came back with a cup in his hand. "You want some ice-chips?"

Ice-chips – a blessed present from heaven!

John nodded eagerly – well, as eagerly as he could while feeling weak as a kitten. His mouth felt as if it had been filled with cotton; and very foul tasting cotton at that.

Scott fed him the first ice-chip. "I called the nurse and the doctor; they're going to have a good look at you now that you're finally awake."

The ice was a blessed relief for his sore throat; but even as it melted and the water ran down his oesophagus, it hurt like hell. John suppressed a wince.

"Hurts, eh?" Scott said sympathetically. "It's from the respirator; they only removed it yesterday, when you started breathing on your own." He hesitated, his eyes darting to a point above John's head. "You gave us quit a scare."

That was the closest Scott would ever come to saying 'I was worried as hell'. John understood; he always had. His eldest brother never vocalized his feelings, but they all knew that under the tough exterior was a heart as soft as a marshmallow.

For a brief moment, he had the flash of seeing Scott sitting and...talking? Forlorn, alone, depressed, the words tumbling from his mouth at a quick rate.

The image disappeared as quickly as it had come, leaving John completely puzzled again.

Scott's eyes seemed darker than before, clouded over, and the blonde couldn't help but thinking that something had happened – something he needed to know about. Something bad. Maybe to him?

Why was it so hard to think?

And why did his head hurt so much?

His stomach grew cold and it was not because of the ice-chips. If only he could think...

"Wh..." he started to say, but the raspy sound that escaped his lips barely qualified as a word of the English language.

Scott opened his mouth to reply, just as the door flew open and a nurse hurried into the room, followed by a stern looking doctor. Before John knew what was happening, he was being prodded and examined thoroughly. Scott retreated, and from then on it was all light, movement, and a flurry of questions he could barely keep up with.

"Can you understand me?"

Nod.

"Do you know where you are?"

Hesitant nod. A hospital, that was sure, but what hospital exactly...

"Can you remember what happened?"

John blinked through eyes that were watering heavily. The light hurt, and the questions only increased his headache. What happened? Rescue, that was for sure...

He gave a faint nod. God, he was so tired...

Somewhere in the background, he could see various members of his family, clad in their uniforms. Odd looks of worry and relief coloured their faces. They shifted in and out of focus, as the drugs took hold of his system.

Someone was talking, but he couldn't make out the words, just the reassurance in the tone. John clung to it like a lifeline, his mind already succumbing to the familiar pull of darkness.


John floated to the surface only long enough to hear the voices talking beside him.

"I wish he would wake up."

"The doctor said it's okay for him to be sleeping – his body is exhausted and the operation was very draining."

"Still, I don't like seeing him so...pale."

"I know what you mean."

They whispered, and John wondered whom they were talking about. He wanted to wake up and ask, but got lost on the way and sank back into his dreams again.


He woke up, briefly, to see his father smiling at him. "Hallo, son" Jeff Tracy said in a gentle tone and caressed his son's forehead. "It's good to see you."

John tried to smile, but his muscles weren't cooperating properly and it came out as a grimace instead. His father, though, seemed to get the meaning, and the wrinkles around his eyes deepened.

"Don't worry. You're still pretty weak."

John's eyes followed his father's movements. His whole body felt sluggish and unresponsive, like it didn't really belong to him. There were so many things he wanted to say, but his tongue refused to budge. It scared him, a lot.

The fear must have been evident on his face, for his father leant forward and took his hand. "I know you're feeling pretty lousy at the moment, but that's because of the drugs. The operation was a difficult one and you need the rest. They will wear off. You'll be fine."

That explained why it was so difficult to stay awake. John refused to give in to the gentle pull; he had seen the worry in his father's eyes and there were so many things he wanted to say, to ask – his doubts, his fears, he needed to know...

But for once, mind couldn't win over matter, and the tired body insisted on much-needed rest. John's eyes slid closed almost on their own accord and he was lost again, barely heard the last whispered words of Jeff Tracy.

"I'm glad you're back, son."


"There. Easy now. Small sips."

The voice urged him to drink, coaxed cool liquid to his lips. John, confused and disorientated, tried to turn his head away, but the female voice seemed to have none of it. "No, no, I know it's painful, but you need to drink, the sooner, the better – you don't want to stay on the IV forever, do you?"

He didn't, and so he relented, even though it hurt like hell. He slipped away quickly again, realising with dismay that he hadn't even opened his eyes.


The next time he awoke, it was easier to think. With his thoughts no longer drifting like icebergs, John was able to assess the situation. Many of his memories didn't make much sense, though; blurry images of waking up, confused, disorientated, in pain, and the vague feeling that he had been suspended outside time.

His eyes flew open to reveal a darkened room. The lights were dimmed, much to his relief – though it was undoubtedly a hospital room. So he was still here. How much time had passed?

He tried to get some semblance of order in what had happened, but found out that he couldn't – everything was clear until the rescue, and then things became fuzzy and disconnected. Hell, he didn't even know what day it was!

John tried to turn his head and noticed that it was wrapped in thick gauze. He tried to glance at the rest of his body, but wasn't able to see much lying down. Instead, his eyes fell on the figure sitting beside his bed. A slow smile slid on his face as he took in the familiar face, the grey temples and the trim figure of his father.

"Hey." John whispered, pleased that he had finally regained control of his voice.

Jeff Tracy's head snapped up and he looked at his son. "Hey there." Relief shone in the eyes of the Tracy patriarch, as he inched closer to the bed. "How are you feeling?"

"Okay, I guess." John licked his lips. "Dad, what happened?"

"How much do you remember?"

Hadn't he been asked that before? But when? Annoyed with the way his usual so perfect mind was failing him, John closed his eyes for a second to think. "I remember the rescue...it was a bad one. I was in the house and then...everything crumbled..."

"That's right. The whole ceiling fell down and you were caught under it." Jeff placed a comforting hand on his son's arm. "It took a while for the others to dig you out."

"...How bad...?"

Jeff pinched the bridge of his nose, weariness evident in his face. "Bad," he whispered. "They almost lost you once."

"Oh."

It was strange being told that one had barely escaped death. Once again, John had the feeling that something was tugging at the edges of his mind – something closely connected to what Jeff had just told him. He frowned, but was unable to make sense of it.

"John?"

He blinked, realizing that he'd been spacing out. "Sorry." The blonde focused his gaze on Jeff again. "What about my...injuries?"

Another sigh, and his father rubbed his eyes. "Three broken ribs, two cracked ones; one punctured your lung, which is why you were on a respirator all the time. They took it out three days ago, when you finally started breathing on your own. You sprained your wrist and fractured your fibula. But the worst was the head wound. You were being treated for a lung infection when..." here Jeff's voice broke and he took a deep breath. "-when the alarm rang. A haemorrhage had started in your brain, and the pressure was increasing too quickly. They had to operate. It was a touch and go situation for a while."

They had operated his brain? The thought scared John more deeply than he liked to admit. Knowing how easy it was to injure the grey matter, he did a quick check of his body – moved his fingers, wriggled his toes. So far, everything seemed to be working.

"But I'll be okay?"

His father smiled. "Yes – now that you have woken up, you should be fine. It's going to take a while – your body is still weak – but you will recover."

"Completely?" John prodded, needing to know everything. There was a nasty little voice running in the back of his head, repeating sentences like 'you'll be handicapped' or 'you're going to be a pitiful vegetable for the rest of your life'. It surprised him, because he would never refer to himself as a vegetable. Yet he couldn't get it out of his mind.

"The doctors can't say for sure, but they're pretty optimistic. You woke up, you were more or less coherent, and your body works just fine." Judging from the look on his father's face, they shared the same sense of relief. Battered, bruised, hurting he might be, and in a lot of pain, but he would be okay.

A wave of satisfaction rolled over him, the urgent need to say 'I told you so' – but to whom?

It must be the drugs, John decided and shook his head. His imagination wasn't known to take such wild leaps.

Just then, the door swung open to reveal a tired looking Virgil. "Dad, I brought you some coffee..." he began, holding two steaming styrofoam cups. Then his eyes took in the scene and widened in surprise. "John!"

"Hi Virg." John greeted, grinning slightly. "Did ya forget to bring me a cup?"

"You're not allowed to drink coffee yet, you crazy caffeine-addict." Virgil's voice was lathered with affection. He placed the cups on the table and knelt down near the bed so that his face was level with John's. "It's good to see you awake."

"I don't mind." John replied serenely. "The coffee here's terrible anyway."

Virgil sent him an odd look. Though clean and shaven, he appeared as if he hadn't gotten a proper rest in days. The worry was clearly showing on his face. John felt bad, knowing that he had been the cause of it.

"What about the rescue?" he inquired.

"Wrapped it up days ago." Virgil's eyes twinkled in merriment. "You slept right through everything."

"I did?"

"You were unconscious the whole time you were on the respirator," Jeff interjected. "It was better that way – being awake would have been much too painful. Even now, you're on heavy painkillers."

"Well, that explains why I'm feeling so loopy." John thought back to the weird memory flashes he kept having. It must be the drugs.

"I always thought it was your charming personality shining through." Virgil grinned. "The others will be so happy to see you awake. It was pretty unfair; you woke up when Dad was sitting with you, and once with Scott, but Gordon, Alan, and I, we got the bad end of the stick. We just watched your sleeping face for hours."

"Sorry." John frowned. "Alan's here?"

"We put Thunderbird Five on automatic and picked him up." Jeff explained. "He insisted, wouldn't have it any other way; and I can't really blame him for it."

John understood only too well. Being isolated on TB5 when a family member was injured was hell. Though usually, he and Alan had to grit their teeth and go through it. The very fact that his father had relented spoke volumes, showed how serious it had been...

Virgil, sensing John's dark thoughts, patted his hand. "But everything's under control now and we're sending the squirt back once he's seen you and we've arranged your transport to the island."

"That's good." John said earnestly. He'd hate for International Rescue to fail to complete a rescue because of him.

"Speaking of that, your brothers should be here soon. They were escorting Grandma back to the hotel."

"Grandma's here?"

Virgil's grin widened. "John, you know her. She threatened us all with liver and brussels sprouts for the next three months if we hadn't allowed her to accompany us!"

Yes, that was his grandmother all right. John smiled. "I'll have you know that I happen to like liver."

"Yeah, and you're the only one on the whole planet. Probably comes from too much time in space – addles your brain, does weird things to your stomach..."

John was on the verge of replying with something nasty as the door opened again. Gordon stepped in, a wide grin on his lips. "I'm telling ya Alan, it's a gift."

"Gna, gna." Alan's voice floated through the open door. "The girl wasn't even thinking straight-"

"Boys." Jeff's deep rumble interrupted their friendly bickering. "Keep it down."

"It's nice to know that some things never change." John commented softly. Alan's and Gordon's heads whipped around in perfect synch.

"John!"

"Hey, you're awake!"

Bickering forgotten, they immediately rushed to the bed. A barrel of questions began.

"How do you feel?"

"Are you okay?"

"You hurting anywhere?"

"Boys!" Jeff raised his hand and stopped them. "Give your brother a chance!"

"Sorry." Alan looked to the ground.

John couldn't help but chuckle. "I'm okay, I guess. High on painkillers, but okay."

"That's great!" The grin threatened to split Gordon's face in half. "John, you won't believe what just happened to me. I've been called an angel!"

"You?" Virgil snorted. "That's stretching things a bit."

Gordon sent him a dirty look. "Well, you've just been overlooking my redeeming qualities."

"As if."

John was amused. "Who called you that, Gordon?"

"Oh, right." The grin was there again. "There was this little girl – a tiny thing, with long, black hair – and she was being wheeled to the scanner room. When she saw me, her eyes got round, and she started tugging at her mother's sleeve. She pointed to me and said 'Look, Ma, there's another angel! The angel I told you about wore a uniform just like that! Only he had golden hair instead.'" Gordon looked immensely pleased.

John blinked. This sounded...very familiar. But why?

Alan rolled his eyes. "And he's been insufferable ever since. The girl probably saw us on the rescue scene and you know how children are..."

"No, that's not true." Gordon shook his head. "I had a quick chat with the mother, and she said that the girl was unconscious for the whole time after the earthquake and the rescue. It wasn't even us who found her, but a local fireman. She woke up a couple of days ago, and has apparently been talking about this mysterious angel ever since."

A feeling of contentment and pride swept through John, and though he did not know where it came from, he bathed in its warmth. Alan and Gordon were still arguing, Virgil was throwing in his piece as well, while Jeff only sat there with a broad smile on his face.

John exchanged a knowing look with his father. It was nice to have a sense of normalcy again. Even though he knew that his recovery would be slow, it didn't really matter right now, because he knew he would recover, eventually, and that was all that counted. What was more important was that he was with his family and that they were there to support him, every little step on the way.

"Gordon, if you're an angel, then I shall voluntarily spend my afterlife in hell. Can you imagine him with wings? Nothing will stop him!"

John had to laugh outright. The idea of Gordon with wings was as ridiculous as the idea of himself being an angel. And yet...

John turned back to his brothers. "You know, Gordon, you got it all wrong. Didn't you hear what the little girl said? The angel had golden hair...so that kind of throws you out of the equation." They laughed, the pain and the concern momentarily forgotten.

'Good luck, John Tracy!' John turned his head, as a whispered voice floated past. It was probably just his imagination playing tricks on him, the drugs playing cartwheels with his mind. But for a moment, John could have sworn he had seen a shadow beside his bed.

Bewildered, he shook his head. Naw. Must have been the drugs.

Epilogue: Reminders of the past

Scott strolled into the lounge, whistling a merry little tune. He had just finished his morning run and the obligatory shower and was looking forward to what promised to be a good day. A lot of the last days had been good, mostly due to the fact that a certain blonde-haired Tracy was up and around. They had come dangerously close – too close in Scott's opinion – to losing him, and it had shaken everyone.

Thinking of his astronaut brother, Scott was surprised not to see him in the lounge, where he was usually sitting at this time, reading and relaxing. With his movements restricted and his body still healing, there was not much John could do.

Instead he saw Virgil sitting at the piano, running through some warm-up scales and then playing a gentle melody Scott didn't recognize. He sauntered closer.

"Morning Virg."

Virgil started slightly. "Oh, hi Scott. Didn't hear you there."

"You never do when you're practising." Scott peered over his brother's shoulders. "What are you playing?"

"Oh, just a couple of new songs I ordered."

"Sounds nice," Scott commented and looked at the title of the song. "'La Valse D'Amélie' by Yann Tiersen – is that French?"

Virgil nodded. "John told me how much he likes the music by this composer. I thought it might be a nice surprise if I played and taped some songs for him – that way he can listen to them when he's back on Thunderbird Five."

"Which won't be for a while yet," Scott grinned, "But I'm sure he's going to appreciate the gesture. That's a wonderful idea, Virg." He turned around. "Speaking of John, where is he? Normally he's up by now."

"I think he went down to the cellar."

Scott arched an eyebrow. "The cellar? He's supposed to be resting. What's he doing down there?"

"Beats me." Virgil stopped gazing at the sheet and gave his brother a disapproving look. "Stop the mother-hen routine, Scott, he's not going to run a marathon down there. He said he wanted to look for something; but John is sensible enough not to overexert himself. He knows his limits."

"Okay, okay." Scott sighed. "It's just difficult. I've been so worried, and he's still in so much pain, even though he tries to hide it..."

A sympathetic smile slid on Virgil's face. "I know, Scott. It's hard for all of us. When they came and told us that his heart had stopped during the operation...well, I thought my world would crash for sure. But he came back, somehow, beating all the odds. And now that he's finally at home and up and around, I have the feeling I can start to relax."

"Yeah. I know what you mean."

Virgil smiled again and then turned back to the piano, focusing on the song. Slowly, the soft notes started filling the air, a gentle, slightly melancholy melody that told of deep emotions.

Meanwhile, John had been rummaging around for the last hour, but so far had only found a lot of dust and a few aggrieved spiders. The cellar was huge and over the years, a lot of things had piled up. Old magazine collections, boxes full of abandoned books and toys, exercise books, school things, discarded furniture and a whole lot of odds and ends.

The blonde stopped for a pause, wincing at the pain that shot through his ribs. Even though he had been allowed up several days ago (after spending weeks confined to his bed), moving was still a challenge and hurt like hell. If he overdid it, the results were blinding headaches that couldn't be soothed by even the strongest of pills.

What surprised him, though, was how well he was resting at night. On previous occasions, after a rescue gone bad, his dreams had been plagued by nightmares, nameless victims screaming at him, blaming him because he hadn't been able to save them. That didn't seem to be happening this time.

Not that John wasn't dreaming – he was, just that they weren't making any sense. Last night he had dreamt that an angel, complete with halo and wings, was chasing him down a hospital corridor, trying to hit him with a walking stick.

The recollection made him smile as he rubbed his smarting shin.

Ever since he had woken up in the hospital, something else had been nibbling at his mind. John had been unable to stop thinking about his childhood toys. For some odd reason, they popped back into his head whenever he let his mind wander. Annoyed (and a bit curious), he had finally relented and gone down to the cellar.

John opened another box and brightened as he saw the fuzziness that greeted him. It was filled to the brim with various plush toys, and right on the top of it lay one he recognized all too well. The familiar owl seemed to blink at him, and he smiled. "Hello Maia."

More rummaging brought the toys of his brothers to light. There was Mr Hanky, Alan's black pig, and Starfish, Gordon's dolphin. Next came Doolittle, Virgil's teddy bear.

Each of the toys carried a lot of memories that made John smile. Pain forgotten, he thought back to the times when those toys had been more than merely plush; when they had provided comfort in the darkest of nights.

Alan had been unable to sleep without his pig and used to curl up around it. Gordon had insisted on taking his dolphin into the water with him, which was the reason why the toy looked so battered and washed out.

John himself had been very careful with his owl; but he remembered clearly that he used to place her on the windowsill so that she could watch the stars while he was asleep.

"That makes four of us," he mumbled to himself, "But where is Scott's?"

In fact, he didn't even remember what Scott's toy had been. With a frown on his face, he bent over the box and blinked through the dim light. There was another outline at the bottom. Wincing at the pain the movement caused his ribs, John bent over to pull it out.

And started laughing.

He couldn't help himself. In his hands, he was holding possibly the ugliest toy ever produced. Now he remembered. John had been little when Scott had decided that he didn't need his plush friend anymore, thus damning him to a life in the cupboard. But there had been a time when he and 'Snort' had been inseparable.

Snort. John did exactly that – snorted and turned the toy around. It didn't really surprise him that he held a dragon in his hands; he would have bet his life on the fact that Scott's toy had been either a lion, a dragon, or an eagle. But the colour combination...was hideous.

"Now I know why you always sucked at Art," John chuckled.

Purple and green. Two colours that didn't go well with each other. Plus the whole thing...sparkled. Despite being careworn – John dimly remembered Scott dragging the dragon by its tail through the whole house – the wings still glittered. Purple. With bright green dots.

A nasty grin spread over his face. His younger brothers had never seen this dragon. What would they say? John could already imagine the teasing that would start. The grin grew wider. With Scott being in full-fledged mother-hen mode, John was starting to feel a bit smothered. Hopefully the toy would earn him some much needed space.

"You're going to help me, aren't you?" He stared at the dragon. For an instant he had an image of another dragon, clutched by a small hand, but it was gone before he could grasp its meaning. The dragon he was holding seemed to be giving him a knowing look. John had the feeling that – despite being purple and ugly – 'Snort' knew something that he did not.

But then dragons were magical creatures.

 
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