This part was always the absolute worst.
Jeff felt the numbness of shock and tiredness and fear all wrapped tightly around him like a blanket, just as they had last time. The familiarity of it was almost comfortable.
Adrenaline kept him alert, kept his eyes sharply riveted to his son's prone body, but that heavy, dull exhaustion was permeating his being. He felt it, almost as though it physically hung on him. But still he stood, and stared. And reflected that this part was always the worst.
He remembered that he noticed more at times like this. It seemed wasteful; typical human nature to only see what was important when there was a good chance that it was too late. He saw how tanned his son's skin had become in the years that they'd lived here. Not that he could tell from his torso, it was already coming up black and blue... And he noticed pen marks over the back of his hand. Gordon was always making memos on his arm, out of habit. He'd done it since school, and Jeff saw it every day. But he hadn't seen it in a long time. Not really seen it.
People were talking in the corridor. One part of Jeff's brain was completely aware of it, realising that Tin-Tin was bringing Brains the MRI results, noting Brains' response that he would need some time to go over the information. From previous experience, 'some time' to Brains could range from three minutes to seventeen hours. In the corner of his mind he scribbled it all down, assessing the speed of their MRI machine, the amount of time Gordon had been unconscious, logging how long he would leave Brains alone before asking for answers.
But it was all happening automatically, somewhere at the back of his brain, where he apparently kept his autopilot. The rest of his being was completely saturated and absorbed in the immediacy of what it currently was to be Gordon. The slow, steady breaths, aided by the respirator. The hypnotic, unvarying beep from the heart monitor. He gave it all his focus and attention, out of respect, and out of hope that it would make a difference, would help the person fighting for life before him. Just as he had those times before. With Gordon... With...
Jeff's jaw tensed. The waiting was the absolute worst.
A hand landed softly on his shoulder, but Jeff's mind took a moment to surface, eyes barely wanting to blink, never mind leave Gordon alone. But after a second he turned his head. It was Virgil. His warm brown eyes were searching for his father's, wanting to check in with him – mostly to comfort, but with a shadow of wanting comfort too. Jeff felt a tremor, somewhere deep under the block of adrenaline-tension that had settled in his chest the second Gordon had been hit. He smiled tightly at his son, in acknowledgement of his attentiveness, but turned back quickly, in case the tremor caught and he crumbled. No time for that yet.
He felt Virgil squeeze his shoulder gently, understandingly – Virgil always seemed to understand – and the hand remained for a while: quiet and unwavering in its steady support. Jeff was grateful.
Virgil stared with his father for a while, silently joining the vigil, taking in every aspect of his immobile brother's beaten frame. He hated how much it felt like last time, although the damage was nowhere near as extensive as it had been then. The tension in the house was unbearable, but he had no way to release it for them. They just had to wait.
He glanced over at Scott who was standing beside the doorway, unconsciously mimicking his father's stoic stance, arms folded and legs seeming planted into the floor. He was still in uniform. He'd brought Gordon home in Thunderbird One, because it was the fastest way. With the description of the injuries they'd been able to report, Brains had been confident that it was something they could handle at Base. Which had to be a good sign, Virgil reasoned.
The injustice of it was so palpable he could almost taste it. The rescue was essentially over. They'd managed to save all the motorists who'd been trapped on the crumbling interstate bridge, and only those who had been caught in the initial seismic shock had been lost. For International Rescue and their assignment, it had been a success.
But that poor sonofabitch... Virgil couldn't hate him really, even though he'd been angry and shocked enough at the time to kill someone. Well, bad choice of words...
That poor guy. His wife had been among the handful lost in the hours before, and so their subsequent successes were empty to him. His car came screaming through the police cordons, smashing vehicles and equipment out of the way as he powered towards the bridge edge like a man demented.
It all happened so quickly. It was still playing on repeat in Virgil's mind, as he tried to make more sense of it, to see what happened without the numb shock blurring and blocking things out. He could see Scott and Gordon collecting equipment... He saw Gordon's body flying back like a rag-doll... And then the car went over the bridge edge, and the poor, grief-possessed man went to join his wife.
He knew the facts. Somewhere in a corner of his mind he remembered, although he couldn't see it. He knew that Gordon had shoved a cop out of the way of the oncoming car with a fraction of a second to spare, and had been hit himself. The driver hadn't slowed, intent and desperate, and Gordon was lucky to have landed heavily on the asphalt a short way from them, and not to have been dragged over the edge with the car.
It was so unfair. The assignment was finished. They'd survived the rescue, and the fact that more had been asked of them seemed stupid and cruel.
The tiredness was starting to seep into Virgil. They'd worked hard out at the danger zone today, and fear had kept their senses keen since the accident, but he knew he couldn't sustain it. None of them could. And Virgil knew from those previous, painful experiences that he couldn't tell his family when to give in to the tension any more than they could tell him. They all had to find their own time, their own release.
His time was coming. He could feel the rigidity of the adrenaline starting to push cracks through him, like waterlogged concrete. He couldn't stay any longer. He had to take some time, or he'd be useless if Gordon actually needed him. If any of them needed him.
Virgil squeezed his father's shoulder in farewell. Jeff nodded absently, but Virgil wasn't sure if he realised he'd done it. Moving towards the exit, he suggested to Scott that he should get changed, even though he knew it was a waste of breath. Sure enough, Scott nodded briefly, but otherwise completely ignored him.
Weary legs carried him forward without much conscious thought, and his mind was certainly as close to blank as exhaustion could make it. But somewhere deep in his soul he knew where he was going. And so he wasn't surprised at all when he found himself sitting at the piano; his sore leg muscles grateful for the break. He stretched them briefly, and couldn't hold in a fierce yawn as the fatigue was displaced. When his mind returned to himself, his hands were already on the keys, patiently waiting. Eyes fell closed... a heartfelt sigh escaped from so deep within him that it hurt... and soft, mournful music gave expression to his grief and fear for his brother.
It took a few minutes before the music was able to permeate the hard cocoon of misery that was currently enfolding Tin-Tin. Running tests with Brains had given her purpose before; given her a focus. But now Brains was thinking things over, doing what he did best, and he didn't need her help. So now she had nowhere to hide.
She didn't know what she hated more: the pointless pain and danger that her dear friend Gordon was currently suffering, or the stoic, silent rigidity that the rest of the Tracys had adopted. She knew it wasn't a rational thought; that they wouldn't achieve anything by breaking down. But the tension coursed throughout their home and was vibrating through her without respite. It was torture. She was so scared.
She was curled up on the couch, knees tucked up in front of her and arms squeezed around them. Her cheek rested on her knee, and her eyes were closed tight. Tin-Tin was not available for comment. She didn't have any more room in her, didn't want to hear any more brave, terse exchanges, all logic and science and heavy with the un-said. She wasn't sure how long she'd been there like that, but her arms were aching.
But slowly the music had eroded her defence. And though it was haunting – though it was fracturing what felt like her only protection from the environment around her – she couldn't help but welcome it. Thank goodness that somebody had found a way to articulate everything that they couldn't say.
She let it wash over her for minutes – hours, for all she knew – and couldn't help but think of Gordon's accident before International Rescue started. The big one. The one he'd been recovering from when she'd first met him. She and Gordon were close, and he was so giving of himself and his experiences that she felt like she'd been there with the rest of them when it happened. He'd described it all so artlessly and evocatively – the family's desperate attempts to stay strong, and calm and prepared; the difficulty they had releasing their fears and frustrations, even months later. And they'd clearly fallen into the same old habits this time around.
Tin-Tin's eyes drifted open as she listened, moved by Virgil's beautiful music, but resisting giving in to tears. Irritated though she was by the general show of unrelenting testosterone, she didn't want to appear over-emotional when they needed support.
But then she saw Alan. He must have been out on the balcony, been roused by the music as she was. His face was blank as he slowly came in from the cool evening air. But not blank in a hard way, like Scott's, nor blank in a brooding way, like Virgil's. Alan looked lost.
Tin-Tin's heart melted, and she got up and followed him as he left the room. He didn't turn as she slid his hand into his, but she felt him squeeze it slightly. They walked on in numb silence together, each lost in their own thoughts, able at least to draw a little comfort from the heat of the other's hand in theirs.
Before long they were at the door to Alan's suite. He paused and hugged her absently to him. It ached at her to see him still looking so alone, and she was reluctant to let go of his hand. Delaying having to leave him, she raised his fingers in her hand, trying to see them better. She took in the bruises on his knuckles from the hard work, soil and dust still ground into his palms. And his nails were bloody from being chewed.
At the sight, something finally broke in Tin-Tin; something that Virgil's music had set crumbling, and Alan's palpable misery had pulled and pulled at. The simple, poignant story of fear and love in those bloodied, abused hands was too human, too much, and suddenly the tears were flowing unstoppably.
Alan was there. Strong arms enveloped her immediately as she sobbed and sobbed. She tried to stop – she tried to explain that she'd come to help him, not the other way around – but gently he shushed her disjointed words, and his warm hands stroked her hair soothingly. She could feel him trembling around her as her release caused a tremor in him too, and she clung to him like a drowning woman. At least they were lost together.
His voice rumbled in his chest beneath her cheek. She heard him say something about hating to see her cry, and she felt him kiss her forehead, her temple, her ear, wherever he could reach. Oh Alan... Tin-Tin's breath gasped between sobs as he turned her face to find him. Without a conscious thought their lips met, each trying to comfort the other, trying to forget and to escape. Escape sounded good...
The kiss deepened, and the air pressure around them dropped, like a storm was coming. She trembled in his arms and pulled him closer, craving something she could feel deeper in him, borne of desperation for some peace. She knew it was there, because it perfectly mirrored what she felt in herself.
Alan did not disappoint. She sensed him turning gratefully from reality, welcoming that which was base and fierce instead of the relentless anguish that would dog them until Gordon's situation changed. He backed her up against the wall without hesitation, trembling hands searching, breath gasping with emotion. She whimpered, hands now buried in his hair, lips finding his neck... so soft and open and encouraging...
His hand hit the door release, and together they stumbled heavily back into the suite.
It was late now. Alan stared at the ceiling thoughtfully, hand moving absently through Tin-Tin's silky hair, smoothing it with a hypnotic steadiness that disjointedly reminded him of Gordon's heart monitor. Her sleeping form was curled up beside him, head on his chest. He could feel her gentle breath on his skin, and wished he could stay right there and feel it forever.
A calm had descended over him after their fevered search for release, and it was a calm he was very grateful for. Back when Gordon had had his W.A.S.P. accident, Alan had been barely out of his teenage years, and had well and truly felt it then. As far back as he could remember his family had been untouchable: strong in their togetherness. He'd never felt so vulnerable as the time Gordon lay in that damn hospital bed, hooked up to machines that simulated life in him.
And now that feeling was back. Despite everything they'd been through as a team, today they'd all been thrown back four years in a heartbeat. He wished he'd felt more in control from the start, but the echoes from last time were too strong, and he'd panicked. In hindsight, he was sure they all had, in their ways.
But now he had regained himself, thanks to Tin-Tin. He dipped his head to hers and kissed her crown reverently, before gently rolling her back onto the pillows.
The house was quiet, but still felt heavy with waiting. Virgil was asleep on the couch in the lounge, his guitar held awkwardly across him. Alan also discovered a sleeping Scott sitting on the floor outside the sick bay, still in uniform. Alan guessed he'd been sent to get some rest, but had been too stubborn to actually leave the vicinity of the corridor. The determined frown that permeated his brother's features even in unconsciousness was all the proof he needed.
Quietly he let himself into the sick bay. Gordon looked exactly the same, and the image made Alan's stomach clench some. He hadn't expected him to be up and dancing of course, but he'd sort-of hoped for... something.
At first he thought Jeff has also succumbed to sleep – he sat forward in his chair beside the bed, folded arms cushioning his body on the sheets and head near the pillow not far from Gordon. But Jeff was still clinging to consciousness. He was murmuring in Gordon's ear, talking to him about the rescue, about TV programmes that were coming up this week, about the décor in the sick bay and how he was thinking they might change it. Alan pulled up a chair on the other side of the bed and took his brother's hand, and listened to his father's soft monologue, ready to take over if that voice – that steady, rough voice that had guided them through every malady their whole lives – broke off and needed to rest.
Last time Alan was a kid, with no comprehension of how to handle the pressure of a brother near death. He hadn't realised it at the time, but none of his family had known how either; how to exorcise the stress. But this time he felt stronger. Prepared and able. He took a deep breath and stepped calmly into the waiting, ready to take it.
And thirty-four minutes later, when Gordon's fingers twitched around his, he only smiled. Jeff was up like a shot, and Brains appeared from nowhere to check the readings, but Alan just smiled the purest smile he'd ever felt in himself. Except maybe for one that he'd shared with Tin-Tin once.
And he leaned forwards to Gordon's ear and whispered,
"Welcome back, Gordo. You've gotta stop doing this to us."