It was the night before Christmas but it was the last thing he cared about right now. All he could see were their faces, their features contorted; terrified and defenceless at the moment of their death.
Faces which made a mockery of the season of peace and goodwill…
Faces that refused to grant him absolution even though he'd tried to do what Father had said.
"Take it easy son…you heard your brothers. Go and clean yourself up now and try to get some rest."
Yes, he'd heard his brothers. They'd all said the exact same thing. International Rescue had done everything possible to get those kids out. Scott had never been more emphatic and Virgil never so sure. No-one could have predicted the second rock-fall or the speed at which it had come. Wracked with exhaustion, still clad in uniforms torn and streaked with human blood, they'd all stood and endured the mandatory debriefing before hitting the showers because what had happened today might happen somewhere else in the world tomorrow. Disaster didn't differentiate between the days. It was important for them all to talk it over and get how they felt out of their systems. That's what Father had said, anyway.
For the record, he'd disagreed.
He knew he'd hurt her, too and she hadn't said a word. Any other time their love-making was his private oasis and how he made her feel was the centre of his world. An hour ago, he was ashamed to say that none of that had mattered to him, so desperate was his need to find any kind of emotional release. He'd wanted to block out the images of Red River and feel something … anything. She'd tried to comfort him him at a time when he was the most vulnerable. The whole thing had been nothing but a grief-fuelled frenzy which had ended with both of them exhausted and shedding hot, remorseful tears.
None of this shit made any sense to him, anymore.
Why the Red River orphanage?
Why the day before Christmas?
Why couldn't John's emergency call have directed them somewhere else in the world to allow him to keep his own childhood memories of Christmas intact? Warmth, laughter, anticipation… love; those were the things he'd experienced every Christmas. The warmth of an open fire in the house at night, laughter at Father's lame jokes; the anticipation of something special with his name on it being left underneath the Christmas tree…the unconditional love that came from being part of a close and loving family. Those kids at Red River had only ever known the basics and now some crazy "Act of God" had snatched away life, the only thing they had really possessed. The first avalanche had taken out the three main buildings; the second had finished off whatever hope there was left...
…so much for the magic of his memories.
Downstairs, in the lounge, he knew Father and Grandma were busy placing gifts for everyone underneath the Christmas tree. He wondered if any of those kids had believed in Santa Claus. Had they been feeling the same excitement he once did, moments before the nearby mountain came crashing down on them? He remembered, suddenly, how he'd felt when he'd overheard a conversation between Virgil and John when he was nine. Too much of life's magic turned out to be nothing but a myth, even though you still so desperately wanted to believe it.
Those kids who'd died at Red River today hadn't lived long enough to even find out that it was a myth.
She left the night light off and eased her way out of his bed. With only a sliver of moon in the sky tonight, visibility on this side of the villa was almost zero. She had no chance of finding her nightdress in amongst the tangled mess…
…or what was left of it.
She opted for a blanket and wrapped it around her body, instead.
Even though the door to his balcony was tightly closed, she thought she could hear the muffled sounds of a conversation between Alan's father and grandmother in the lounge directly below. No doubt it was part of their annual conspiracy to miraculously deliver the presents from "Santa Claus." Everyone on the island had been looking forward to Christmas.
And then there had been Red River.
She saw him sitting on the floor in the corner, hugging his knees to his chest, staring out of the window. He didn't move. He didn't speak. He seemed almost oblivious to everything, including her.
It would be so easy to pretend that she didn't know that he was there. She could slip out with the blanket around her and return to her own suite, leaving him to deal with how he felt about Red River, alone. Part of her wanted to do it but, looking at him, she knew she couldn't. The tragedy at Red River was a part of her now. What they'd shared had consumed both of them and the sheer brutality of it was something that both of them would always have to deal with.
She walked over to him and slowly, silently sat down beside him. Her eyes followed his stare out the window. Only a black sky and a few scattered stars filled the frame. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him savagely swipe at the tears that had escaped long enough to drizzle over his cheekbones. She saw the tightness in his jaw as he tried to regain control of himself. But he still didn't say anything to her. He didn't even acknowledge she was there.
"You know Alan, sometimes it's all right for you to let it out."
She didn't want it to sound like she was challenging his masculinity. She knew him well enough to know he took all his cues from his father and brothers and anything like this was usually dealt with in isolation, behind closed doors. But she'd recognised the numbness; the desolation that she knew could detach him from her if she didn't take the lead and challenge it. She'd recognised it because she'd been through the same thing in the days and weeks after the death of her mother. She had her father to thank for how he'd guided her out of it but she wasn't sure she was strong enough right now to do the same thing for Alan.
There was still no response, and the minutes passed. There was nothing much else she could do for him but find her clothes and leave. He wasn't in the head space to deal with this and his temperament had always been a huge liability.
But just as she started to get up, he said to her quietly.
She looked at him.
"For what?" she said just as quietly.
He didn't look at her.
"For that; what I did was inexcusable."
"I think how you were feeling affected both of us more than we first realised," she responded carefully.
She watched him flinch at her observation, swallow hard and close his eyes, disturbed. She had no idea what he was thinking. Maybe, the whole thing had been inexcusable, but at no time had she asked him to stop. Maybe, she'd needed it just as much as he had.
She waited. She didn't know what else to say.
"You know, Tin-Tin, when we came back from Red River tonight, the only thing I really cared about was what my father thought. If he thought I was incompetent. If I'd let the other guys down."
His eyes remained closed as he struggled to continue.
"And now I've realised that it doesn't matter what anyone thought. Those kids are dead and there's nothing I can do to change that." She heard his voice catch in the back of his throat. "The worst part is that I know it's partly my fault because in the panic of the second rock-fall I didn't know which ones I was expected to prioritise."
Her eyes had now adjusted to the dark well enough for her to study him. There was so much of his father in him, despite what he said: the strong wheat farmer's jaw, the sensuous lips, the high forehead and lightly tanned skin. His soft blondeness curled over perfectly sculpted ears, the ones his grandmother declared were a legacy from his mother. But his physical characteristics didn't matter to her right now. It was his eyes she needed to see. Their eye contact had always been the most intimate part of their relationship and he was refusing to give them to her. She could read him like a book and even though he struggled, she was starting to allow him to read her. Without them, she couldn't help him.
She waited, dreading that he might share more about the rescue at Red River with her and at the same time hoping that he would.
"I am incompetent. There, I've finally said it. I don't know the first thing about prioritising who lives and who dies. Maybe, if I'd admitted it to Scott when the second rock-fall took out the rest of orphanage, more of those kids would have made it out alive."
The admission surprised her. This wasn't the cocky Alan Tracy that drove his brothers crazy during the rescues. This Alan Tracy was facing his own anger and self-doubt…and something she'd never seen in him before; real insecurity.
"Your father said you did everything you could, Alan. Believe me, if Scott thought you could have done more or done things differently, he would have said so. In case you haven't noticed, he's very good at that."
For a moment it seemed like he was relaxing a little. She thought she even saw the hint of a weak smile. He leaned back against the wall, released his knees from his chest and stretched his legs out in front of him.
He still didn't offer her his eyes.
"I feel like…it seems like…" His voice wavered; he grappled with himself to get it out. "Sometimes I feel like my contribution to this is just all so fucking worthless. Why couldn't I have figured out which kids had less time and pushed myself to get them out of there faster? Tin-Tin…" he choked, "…it's fucking Christmas. Kids are supposed to be happy. They're not supposed to fucking die!"
His lip quivered. His knees came back to his chest again and he bowed his head. "It's wrong," he whispered. "It's just so fucking wrong."
Her hand moved slowly towards the nape of his neck. She wanted to comfort him by reminding him just how many children had been saved. The orphanage on the banks of the Red River had provided care for ninety-four children. All but twenty-seven had been rescued from under the tonnes of rock and thick mud. The men of International Rescue were being branded heroes. No-one had responded to the cry for help so willingly and so fast.
She told him so gently, and then fell silent to let him think about her words. She continued to caress his neck and he allowed her. The minutes continued to tick by.
"I didn't hesitate when Dad asked me to be a part of International Rescue." He spoke to himself as much to her. "He warned me it was a serious business and if I came on board I'd be expected to learn fast. I've worked my ass off to be considered half as capable as the rest of my brothers and you know what? Until today, I honestly believed that I was."
"I'm not capable, Tin-Tin!" She heard the tears in his voice, although he fought to disguise them with anger. "Scott held his shit together out there and Virgil and Gordon were able to do it too. But do you know what I did?"
Now she had his eyes and they were unashamedly brimming.
"I'll tell you Tin-Tin, because I know no-one else will. I pulled a baby out of there with my bare hands and she was still breathing. Two minutes later she died in my arms. I knew I had to forget about it and focus on saving somebody else but I didn't. I lost it. On the way home I told Scott I didn't think I could do this anymore. "
"But Alan, Scott never …"
"I know Scott didn't say anything. I just want you to know what really happened. And you don't have to worry. Scott's already talked me down off the ledge."
She stroked his shoulder blades and ran her hand back and forth across his back.
"Sometimes I think it would be easy to walk away from the life we lead, Alan," she finally said to him. "We see such sadness and witness so many terrible things in the world that it's hard not to ask ourselves why we still do it. But when I think about all the lives you and your brothers have saved since we first started, not doing it anymore doesn't seem to be an option. I know I would have been grateful if someone had tried to save my mother, and you've told me yourself how much you wished someone had been able to save yours. I suppose what we can't have ourselves we are able to give to so many others."
She paused. "That's a good thing, Alan."
"That's exactly what Scott said."
"There, I told you he was good."
"Trust me; it wasn't the only thing he said."
Another faint smile… with a bit of luck he might come out of it, she thought to herself. But then he caught at her wrist and whispered, "Tin-Tin," before pulling her body ever so gently to his own.
He sought out her lips – carefully, lovingly. He traced his fingers down her lips and he said the words,
"I love you."
She lost track of how long he held her or how many times he let down his guard and cried after that. The experience of Red River had bound them together as a couple forever...
…even though so many of the children had died.
He had almost forgotten just how beautiful a sunset could look. The waves lapped gently at his bare feet as he strolled the rocky shore with her, the warmth of her hand in his a comforting reminder that despite the tragedy at Red River that had marred their world, life in International Rescue was good and there was so much of it for him to look forward to.
Behind him, the laughter of his father and brothers echoed from inside the villa, a by-product of a little too much cognac before dinner and their jumbled attempts to sing old Christmas carols for Kyrano, Brains and his grandmother. Grandma had simply nodded when he'd asked if he could be excused from the fun this year. She understood why. Just like Tin-Tin did.
And after an hour talking it over with Father this morning, he knew why, too.
Alan breathed in the salty air, closed his eyes and momentarily held it. The breeze on his face felt wonderful. As he exhaled, he sensed she was looking up at him. He knew he didn't need to reciprocate. What counted to him was that she was there.
It would take him a little longer than the others, but he knew now that he'd recover from Red River. The next time the klaxon went off he'd be sprinting towards the lounge again, full of adrenalin, keen to play his part next to his brothers. He'd take the helm if Father asked him to. He'd be the swing in Thunderbird Two if that was the task. He'd focus on saving lives because life was all that really mattered.
He opened his eyes and smiled back at her.
Sometimes he still needed to be reminded of that.