Virgil was struggling to keep his eyes open as he began to descend in the enormous green craft. He stared straight ahead, training his gaze on the small dot on the horizon. It looked so insignificant from a distance, but to him it was the most welcoming sight in the world; they were nearly home. Removing one hand from the yoke, he tapped the communicator on the panel in front of him.
"This is Thunderbird Two to Base, approaching your airspace. Are the skies still clear?"
The radio was silent for a moment, before Alan's voice filtered into the cockpit.
"Affirmative, Thunderbird Two, there are no aircraft in the vicinity and you are go for approach."
Virgil nodded to himself and maintained his descent, releasing a soft sigh of weary relief; he hated when he was forced to change course in order to throw other aircraft off the scent. As the island drew steadily closer he rubbed the back of his neck wearily, trying to ease the nagging ache there.
"Gordon, are you awake back there?"
"Yeah," Gordon replied quietly from the passenger seat behind him. "Want me to co?"
Virgil shook his head. "No, most of the work is done, but do you mind keeping an eye on my approach?"
Gordon nodded and pulled up the necessary approach information on the panel beside him. The silence in the cockpit was a testament to how tired they both were: Gordon would normally have been making wise-cracks about his piloting ability right about now. Instead, he watched the approach numbly on the monitors as Virgil compensated for the wind speed and slowed down the great craft as much as he dared.
"Thunderbird Two to Base, requesting permission to land."
"Thunderbird Two, you are cleared to land. Proceed with caution though, you've got a one-three crosswind gusting to fifteen knots"
"F.A.B, Base," he replied numbly, tapping the figures into his console to prepare for landing. The past few days had just been one problem after another, and difficult landing conditions certainly fit into that pattern pretty well. Now it was official; things really couldn't have gone any worse.
"Undercart down, flaps down. Banking for final approach," he murmured, focussing on the task at hand. It was an approach he'd done hundreds of times before, but his sleep-deprived mind was finding it difficult to focus. It was comforting to know that his brother was keeping an eye on his actions, just in case.
"Slipping right," he confirmed, feeling the pronounced sway of the crosswinds as they slowed down. Focussing completely on the weight of the craft, he carefully dropped the upwind wing, turning them into the perfect position for descent.
Finally, there was a large jolt as the wheels hit the tarmac once, before bouncing and hitting again. Virgil cursed his tiredness; he'd normally be a lot gentler with his Bird, but right now all he wanted to do was get out of there and get some sleep.
"Nicely handled," Alan's voice rang out in the cockpit once again, his cheery tone seeming completely out of place to the energy-sapped brothers. "Welcome home, guys."
"Thanks, Alan," Virgil said, trying - unsuccessfully - to sound positive as he taxied slowly into the cavernous hangar. He heard Gordon unbuckle his harness and get to his feet behind him.
"I'll get the bags," he mumbled, before exiting the cockpit without another word.
Virgil manoeuvred the craft into its position within the hangar, and felt the light bump as the huge vehicle ground to a halt. He tapped the communicator again, noting for the first time that the button was completely encrusted with dried mud.
"Runway cleared. Thunderbird Two is go for reset."
"F.A.B, Base ATC now handing over to Five."
"This is Thunderbird Five," John's voice came through with a quiet professionalism that they had all grown used to. "Now assuming full control on all frequencies. Get some rest, boys."
"Thanks, John. See you for debrief."
"Sure thing, Virge."
The communicator became silent, and Virgil stared at it for a moment, before numbly realising the truth: it was over.
He released his tight grip on the yoke and slumped back in his seat, sighing wearily and closing his eyes. He breathed deeply, listening to the taps and whirrs of the machine around him as the metal began to cool and allowing his tired mind to relax for just a moment. He could hear Gordon's slow footsteps in the corridor, and the whir of the motor behind him as the cliff face façade lowered back into its position. It was incredibly tempting to just fall asleep right there in the cockpit, but he knew there was a lot more to do before the job was finished.
Opening his eyes reluctantly, he couldn't help but look down to his uniform. The blue was almost completely indistinguishable beneath the filth. Though now dry, the material was still stiff with mud, dirt and a dark substance that he knew was blood; he was a mess.
He couldn't allow himself to think about that: he was struggling to stay calm, and dwelling on his mistakes wouldn't help. He quickly sat up and began the post flight diagnostics sequence then hauled himself to his feet, wincing as his muscles protested the movement. He moved over to the exit lift just as Gordon entered the cockpit once again, carrying two holdalls with him. Gordon tried to smile as he stepped onto the elevator, though it came out as more of a grimace to Virgil's eyes.
"Checklists?" Virgil asked, his bloodshot eyes meeting Gordon's only briefly as slowly descended into the enormous hangar.
"Med bay, Pod and Vehicle checklists are all in there." Gordon replied, gesturing to Virgil's bag.
Virgil nodded and adjusted the bag on his shoulder uncomfortably. When the lift clicked into position, they stepped onto the stone floor and trudged towards the equipment stores, their steps echoing in the cavernous hangar.
"After debrief, I'll do the pod vehicle diagnostics and the walk-round. Can you take the equipment stores and med bay?"
As his younger brother nodded his agreement, they walked through to the second elevator that would lead them to the living quarters. The doors slid shut and they slowly began to ascend.
In the relative silence of the elevator, Virgil stared numbly at the metallic doors in front of him. He was too tired to think, and too tired to deal with the storm of emotions that lay just below the surface. He just needed to stay focussed, and concentrate on post-mission protocols. If he could focus on the job, then maybe he could forget the things he had seen; maybe he could forget the last three days ever happened.
"Virge?" Gordon asked quietly, his voice breaking Virgil from his thoughts.
"...We did everything we could, didn't we?"
Virgil looked quickly to his brother, shocked at the statement. Gordon looked so lost, desperately looking to his older brother for some kind of reassurance, and Virgil immediately felt emotion threaten to overwhelm him. Gordon had been so quiet on the way home...he should have known that he was struggling.
He hesitated, before nodding tightly in response and looking back to the elevator doors.
"Yeah. Yeah, we did."
He didn't trust himself to say more than that.
There was a loaded silence as Gordon considered his response. Virgil clenched his jaw, blinking away the blurring in his vision as he determinedly stared at the metal doors. When the doors finally slid open to reveal a glorious summer's day, he was relieved. Light streamed through the windows into the beautiful living area and Virgil hesitated for a moment as he watched Gordon walk through and head straight to the shower room. Nothing had changed since they had left for the rescue, but Virgil found himself looking around the room as though he were a stranger.
Scott sat silently on the sofa, seemingly oblivious to their arrival. He was still in his uniform, his beret in his hands as he toyed with the IR logo. He wasn't in nearly as bad a shape as Virgil and Gordon, but his face was still smeared with dirt, and he had that hollow expression he sometimes got when things got really bad.
Virgil tried to not think about that; he couldn't deal with Scott being broken too. He walked over to his father's desk, removing the checklists from his bag. The metal clipboards had not escaped the mud any more than Gordon or Virgil had and it was difficult to read them in places, but he was sure his father would understand. In his peripheral vision, he became aware that Scott was watching him closely. He didn't acknowledge him, not willing to look at his brother's face, lest he break the mask of professionalism he had been working so hard to maintain.
"Where's Dad?" he asked, still staring at the clipboard.
"Downloading Five's mission data with Brains," Scott explained quietly.
Virgil continued to stare at the med bay records, trying to ignore the dark fingerprints on the edges of the paper.
"I'm going to shower then reset Two," he interrupted. "Tell Dad we should be okay to debrief in an hour."
Scott hesitated, before nodding in understanding.
Virgil glanced up and held his brothers gaze for a moment, silently thanking him. Anyone else would have asked him if he was alright, would have made him discuss the horrors he had seen, but Scott knew him better than that. Scott gave a sad nod in acknowledgement, and looked back down to his hands, still covered in mud.
Leaving the checklists on the desk, Virgil walked past him and trudged to his room, immediately locking the door behind him. He paused, his hand still on the door handle, and leant his forehead against the closed door, taking a deep shuddering breath and shutting his eyes; trying to find the strength to remain calm and finish the job properly. This was what he did. His job was to deal with days like this.
He forced himself to keep his mind blank as he walked wearily to his en suite. Stepping out of his filthy jumpsuit, he turned on the shower and stepped in almost on auto-pilot. As the hot water ran over his skin, he placed a hand on the wall in front of him and let the water jets hit his aching neck. Water dripped from his hair and nose into the bath, and he saw numbly that the water ran dark brown, with traces of deep red. He didn't move for a long time, watching as the water slowly grew clearer.
He tried to remain numb, to not think about the last three days, but as the dirt and mud slowly washed away, he found himself doggedly attempting to block out the memories. It was always the same when a rescue went badly. He couldn't stop the flashes, those little images that stuck with him no matter what.
A hand reaching out to him, it's fingers grasping the air just inches from his own.
The look in Gordon's eyes as he walked past him with that little bundle in his arms.
That awful keening wail as the mother found her son.
He squeezed his eyes shut, lifting his head and letting the water jets hit his face. His chest felt tight. He felt he should cry. It seemed an appropriate release for all the anger and frustration of the last three days, but he was past tears now, there was no point.
Eventually, Virgil shut off the shower and wrapped a long towel around his waist, moving through to his room and retrieving his holdall from the side of the bed. There, he found a clean set of clothes neatly packed away where he had left them three days ago. He stared at the clean, uncreased material thoughtfully, barely aware of his own actions. All he could think of as he looked at those neatly folded clothes was the dirt that he could still feel clinging to him. At times like this he felt like he'd never be clean again.
He wanted to scream, to hit the wall, to cry out at the injustice of the world, but he found himself mute. It was unfair. The whole damn thing was so unfair. The logical part of him knew that there was nothing they could have done, but maybe if he had been a little faster, if he'd done a little more...maybe he could have saved one more.
Looking down to his arm, he noticed a series of five small bruises beginning to emerge. Without thinking he moved his hand over them, placing a finger gently on each. They were smaller than his fingers, but it was immediately clear what had caused them.
Memories came flooding back in an instant and Virgil shut his eyes, trying desperately to once again clear his mind of thought. He couldn't deal with things like this...
Three days seemed like a lifetime ago.
Scott had barely slept in days.
First because of the rescue, and then...well, then he wasn't really sure.
Yesterday's debrief was a standard procedure, with their father leading the discussion and he and his brothers all giving their accounts of the mission. It was a necessary evil, even though the last thing any of them had wanted to do was relive the whole thing.
No one was to blame, of course, they had all agreed that; but Scott still couldn't sleep last night. And now, it seemed that sleep was eluding him once again.
He had been lying in bed and staring at the ceiling for what felt like hours. The silence seemed oppressive as he tried in vain to drift into sleep, and he found himself analysing all the little decisions he had made over the last few days. Had one of them been the difference between life and death? He wished he could have saved just one more. Just one more might have eased the crushing guilt he felt whenever he thought back to that god-awful place.
Scott sighed and sat up, officially giving up his attempt at a normal night's sleep. He ran his fingers through his hair and looked around the room wearily, trying to find some way of distracting himself until morning. He thought about going to talk to one of his brothers, but a quick glance at his watch told him that none of them would appreciate being woken at 3am.
Pulling himself to his feet, he tried to remain as quiet as possible as he opened the door and moved out into the corridor. The house was completely silent as he carefully made his way through to the lounge. It was pitch black, but he knew his way well enough in the dark, walking around the sofa and through to the kitchen the same way he had done dozens of nights before.
He felt across the work surfaces until he reached the fridge, wincing as he pulled the door open and the light cast an eerie glow on the otherwise darkened room. He glanced for a moment at the open six-pack of beers sitting on the middle shelf. It was tempting, but he didn't like the idea of being under the influence should the alarm sound, so grudgingly opted for fruit juice, opening the lid and drinking directly from the carton. John would kill him if he found out about that annoying habit, he thought to himself with a smile; his brother had a real thing about germs.
He was about to go back to his room when he heard a faint shuffling noise coming from the balcony. He paused with a frown, shutting the fridge door and moving slowly through the lounge, noting that the patio door was slightly ajar. Who was awake at this time of night?
Peering through the large panelled glass, he was surprised to see Virgil sitting out there, his bare feet using one of the other chairs as a footrest. He was dressed only in joggers and his faded Denver Tech T-shirt. Virgil normally slept like a baby, no matter what was going on in the house. What was keeping him awake?
"Can't sleep?" Virgil asked quietly, not looking at his brother in the doorway.
Scott jumped at the sudden question, then smiled gently, giving up his attempt to remain out of sight. He shook his head, moving out into the cool night air and settling himself at the other side of the table.
"Me neither," Virgil murmured.
They sat like that for some time, silently looking at the tropical scene in front of them. In the dark the gentle sound of the waves on the beach were clearly audible, and the faint rustle of leaves in the light breeze and chirping of insects completed the tranquil setting.
Scott offered his brother the carton of fruit juice; Virgil glanced at it and chuckled, taking the offering,
"John would kill us if he saw this," he commented, unscrewing the cap slowly and drinking.
"I won't tell if you don't," Scott replied. Virgil smiled at him, but it didn't quite reach his eyes.
They lapsed into silence, and Scott tried to surreptitiously look at his younger brother. In the moonlight Virgil's expression was unreadable as he looked at the darkened ocean, tapping his fingers on the table beside him. Scott looked at the fingers, dancing back and forth silently over the wooden surface, playing a tune only Virgil could hear. He knew his brother didn't realise he was doing it – it was just a little habit he had developed over the years. Scott thought back to the debriefing yesterday. Virgil was professional throughout, relaying the grim facts to the minutest detail. To an outsider things would have seemed completely normal; but Scott just couldn't ignore those fingers tapping softly on the table.
"So, are you going to do the big brother thing now?" Virgil asked dully, still staring into the darkness. Scott looked back to his brother and shook his head slowly.
"And I won't be the caring voice of reason," Virgil said, his voice still devoid of emotion.
"We can just be Scott and Virge, for now," Scott replied, settling back in his chair.
There was a companionable silence again, and Scott began to relax for the first time all evening as he watched the darkened palm trees sway gently in the moonlight. Their home really was beautiful.
"Where do you think we'd be if we weren't in International Rescue?" Virgil asked suddenly, his voice still betraying no emotion that Scott could read. Scott broke his gaze away from the moonlit landscape in front of them and thought about the question for a moment.
"Well, Gordon would probably still be in WASP. Al would be racing. John would still be up there with NASA," he looked up to the starry sky above them, and thought about Virgil, turning to him pensively, "and you..."
"You'd probably have your own command by now."
Virgil nodded as he looked up thoughtfully to the stars.
"Would you ever quit?" he asked quietly.
Scott thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I don't think so…you?"
Virgil shook his head resignedly "Never."
The silence was filled with so many unspoken things, and Scott was glad he knew his brother so well. He knew exactly what Virgil wasn't saying. Even when it was difficult and painful, he knew they were doing something worthwhile. Nights like this were just something they had to deal with. Scott wondered whether he should speak, but in the end it was Virgil who first broke the silence.
"…I think I'd like to build things."
"Not paint?" Scott asked, shifting further down in his seat so he could join his brother in staring at the stars above them.
"Once I'd built the thing I could paint it," Virgil said wryly, a small smile crossing his features for the first time since leaving for that damned rescue.
"Well, you'd cover all the bases then," Scott remarked, watching as the tiny lights of a plane slowly crossed the sky above them. "I could hire you to paint my office when I'm promoted to General."
"It's a deal."
Scott smiled at the gentle banter, and as they stared out into the darkness the silence wasn't quite as oppressive.
"I don't want to talk about it," Virgil stated. Scott paused for a moment, then nodded,
"It's just -" he began, then hesitated, "when I sleep ..."
He trailed off uncomfortably, but Scott knew exactly what he meant. He had experienced the same thing. It wasn't the dreams that were the problem, it was that moment of lying in bed, waiting for sleep to take you, with just your thoughts for company. That was when the images became overwhelming. Even in the dark Scott could see that Virgil had dark marks under his eyes, made all the more visible in the pale moonlight. He hated seeing his brother like this.
"It wasn't your fault, you know," Scott said quietly.
Virgil was silent for a moment, and Scott thought he might have crossed a line, but eventually his brother gave a small nod, looking down at his hands.
"You did everything you could."
"…I know," he repeated gently.
"And, you know, if you ever do want to vent this stuff, I'll be here."
Virgil didn't respond at first, clearly lost in his thoughts, but eventually he looked over and gave a small smile. Scott was pretty sure Virgil would never take him up on that offer, but he clearly appreciated the sentiment, as he seemed to relax a little, staring up at the stars with a more familiar calm expression. Scott immediately felt a little better.
"So, what's keeping you awake?" Virgil asked, looked to him quizzically.
He shrugged, smiling. "My big-bro sense was tingling."
The corners of Virgil's mouth turned up slightly, and he took another swig from the juice carton.
"I thought that only worked when Gordon was about to pull a prank on you."
"My big brother super powers have many uses," Scott said, trying to sound all knowing and wise. He couldn't maintain the pretence for long though, and broke into a wide grin. Virgil gave that little sad smile again,
"Scott -" he began, placing the juice down on the table and staring at it for a moment, before facing him again. "It wasn't your fault either."
Scott went to argue that point, but then he stopped. He stared at those dark eyes and saw reflected in them all the pain and guilt he had been carrying with him for days. Emotion he had managed to suppress threatened to spill out and he quickly looked away, eyes full of tears. He tried to compose himself and speak, to tell him he knew he wasn't to blame, but he found himself mute. He looked back to Virgil and nodded tightly, his eyes still blurred with unshed tears.
Virgil nodded his understanding, ignoring his emotional response, and looked out over the darkened landscape once again.
"It'll be dawn soon," he said gently, "we should get some sleep."
"Yeah," Scott agreed, quickly wiping his eyes in the hope that Virgil wouldn't see.
"Do you want to go for a run tomorrow?" Virgil asked casually. "The winds have died down and you could do with the exercise."
Scott chuckled, ignoring the gentle insult. "If you like."
"We could do it after maintenance checks, when the others are in the gym."
That was exactly what Scott needed, he thought to himself; a way to physically beat out all his frustrations, and some time alone with his brother. He wondered if Virgil knew that he needed that, or if it was just coincidence.
Before he could consider it further, Virgil got to his feet, rubbing the back of his neck habitually and walking over to the door. He opened it as quietly as he could, aware of their sleeping family inside, and went to go in. Scott watched him as he hesitated in the doorway, looking back to him sadly.
"We can't win them all, Scott."
"I know," Scott agreed quietly, "I just wish - "
He didn't need to continue. He began to think about that little girl, her arms outstretched to him in desperation: she had blue eyes.