Thanks ED, Tikatu, Sam and Cath!
Afterward: Two Men
First, he'd looked in on Royce, his best mate since the days of short pants and street footie. They'd grown up together, partly in Sheffield, but mostly in Olympic natatoriums and dorm rooms all over the world, having competed on the same swim team. But all that was ended now. Weak as the space flu had left them, it would be a stretch for either young man to complete 3 laps, much less swim as they'd done the month before.
Royce, as it happened, was letting his hair grow. No longer bald, he remained very tall, quite rangy, tattooed and good-natured as a fire brigade of holy saints. As they walked along a cobbled street in Madrid, on their way to the converted hostel where Anika was to be found, Gordon asked,
"It's back t' school f'r you, then?"
Royce squinted against the afternoon sunlight and shook his head. Both wore their dark blue team jackets, for the day was cold.
"No, mate. 'Tis well out of it, I am. Thought I'd join me dad on that polar rig ee's runnin'… the North Star. Give wildcattin' a go, as it were. You?"
Gordon looked up at his taller friend. He said,
"I'm joinin' WASP. After all, I did promise, and it's not as though…"
Well, it wasn't as if he had any future left in competitive swimming. TinTin could easily have outdistanced him, or wee Janeling, even. All he had left were a few friends, his family and his life. Without a team or a coach, why bother trying to regain his old form?
"Aye," Royce cut into his thoughts, placing a hand on Gordon's shoulder. "Say n' more, lad."
They'd spoken with Nathan, briefly. Thin and pale as he was, the newly-minted singer/actor would be reduced to playing drug addicts and street people, but at least he had something important to do.
Sunlight poured itself between buildings and along the slick cobbles, but didn't warm anything. On the bright side, there were a handful of folk moving about and some shops open, though not as many as Before. Both young men bought things they didn't need, sweets and the like, to help out a bit.
"Would it be terribly whingy of me t' say that I'll miss th' rotten old tyrant?" Gordon asked suddenly, turning away from a flower cart with his hands full.
Royce shook his head. Even smiled a little, sending a spear of sunlight flashing off his gold teeth.
"Not a bit of it, though ee'd doubtless name us a pair of malingerin' poofters f'r sittin' out practice, like this."
Kevin McMahon would be missed, though in life he'd not have believed it possible.
At the converted hostel, number 16 Via San Pedro, Royce paused.
"You go on, lad. Just 'ang about on th' stoop f'r a bit, I will. 'Ere."
He handed Gordon the sweets and magazines he'd purchased.
"…Find a lass what asn't any visitors an' give 'er some cheer."
He wanted to hug his friend, but Royce had leaned down to pet a small dog, and besides, one simply didn't go about embracing other men. It wasn't proper. So, he just accepted the gifts and smiled.
"Will do. Back in a bit."
Up the stone steps and inside, Gordon inquired of a harried-looking nurse and received a room number. In ruddy Spanish, of course, which took a bit of working out, but eventually he'd got the right room, then knocked and went in. She was there.
The lass attempted to leap from her seat by the bay window. Gordon Tracy had to drop everything he was carrying to lunge forward and catch her. Still strong enough for that, at least, thank God. And thank God, again, that she was safe and relatively well, with most of her own family off recovering in Catalonia.
He pressed Anika to him as tightly as such fragility could withstand, swinging slightly back and forth, as though holding a child. She felt tiny and slender-boned, like a baby bird one might cup in the hands while lifting it back to its nest. Alive, though; still breathing, moving and kissing him. Here, not gone and away.
"Gordon, I worry so terribly! You were not answering, and people said that the swimming team…"
The swim team what? Had practically bloody well started this nightmare? Were mostly all dead? Gordon carried her back to the chair and then knelt alongside, inanely offering the one thing he still held; a packet of sweets.
"I'm right as rain, luv. Just a bit weary, is all. My folk came f'r me before I quite realized what was happenin', and then I lost consciousness. But as soon as I got th' message, I forced m'self up and out of bed, determined t' find you. I was on m' way, but… Good job International Rescue got here first, eh?" For Scott's team had actually saved her.
Anika placed a hand on his face, hushing Gordon's explanation. Her tawny hair was pulled back and her big eyes clear as green water.
"Si. They were very helpful, and I thank them, but you are much more important. I knew that if you were alive you would fight anything to come here, as you did the fire. Only, I worried that…"
She couldn't finish the sentence, being a lass and only 17, at that. Instead, she embraced him.
Sometimes, you are gifted to know a precious thing; to have someone truly valuable and rejoice in the having. This, Gordon realized, was love.
"Listen…" he said, pulling free just a bit and opening the sweet packet for her (caramels, which he'd honestly no idea whether she even liked).
"…I've made up my mind t' join th' world submarine corps. It'll mean an enlistment away of four years, or so; more if I enter th' officer training course. But… um… you'd wait f'r me, would you?"
Judging by the kiss, yes. Very much and forever, she'd wait.
Virgil Tracy did finally make it to Mexico, where a very excited, very happy Teena Redfeather awaited him (or Zulayl Rojas, as she preferred to be known professionally). Central and South America had largely been spared the ravages of space flu, though not the worry. People were out and about the towns and cities doing normal business, but they did tend to jump and stare if you sneezed aloud.
The ride from airport to Aztec archaeological find was interesting, because Teena rarely looked where she was driving, and scorned any speed below fifty miles an hour. Virgil hadn't counted on quite so much boulder-strewn adventure, and he was deeply grateful when the old van clattered up to a circle of nylon tents. It coughed its rusty last and coasted to a halt, scattering a small herd of spotted goats in the process.
"Wow," was all he could say, his handsome face deathly pale.
Teena grinned at him. She wore a hand-beaded denim work shirt and khaki pants. Her black hair was in disarray, and road grime from the cranked-open windows smudged her face, but she was beautiful.
"C'mon, big guy!" she teased. "I know you've had wilder rides than that."
(Officially, no. Teena knew nothing about IR. Unofficially, how could she miss it?)
"Maybe…" he agreed doubtfully. "But never with a crazier driver. Or a prettier one."
Teena blushed, and he playfully mussed her long hair. Virgil hadn't packed much beyond the promised shovel, checkbook and beer, so he didn't have a great deal of luggage. Just as well, because the rattle-trap white van had used up its final reserves carrying two people and a rucksack. He didn't think it had one more trip left in its steaming engine, but you never knew. A little oil, some TLC…
Teena introduced him around, dragging Virgil up first to Professor Roth, who shook "Mr. Tracy's" hand dozens of times and thanked him in advance for the impressive donation. Virgil glanced over at Teena, who grimaced and shrugged. Evidently, promises had been made.
There were other people present. Community college students, mostly, though some were professional archaeologists. Virgil encountered many of them and even managed to place names with faces and personalities, like this:
Professor Roth: tan, dusty, blue-eyed and eager.
James Gibbs: blond and square-faced, very serious.
Shasta Carver: graying, thin, big-eyed and… well… odd.
Lawrence Enwright: dark-haired, short and talkative.
…And so on.
The site itself was little more than a deep hole; a sort of flooded cavern between two hills, surrounded by twisted cottonwoods and badly eroded stelae. Virgil was a certified diver (and giver of funds) so he was allowed to join the archaeological team at their work. They had to don full dive gear and be lowered by a Jeep-front winch to a wooden platform about sixty feet below the Earth's surface.
The temperature outside was scorching; the sun like a blistering curse. Here, rock walls and draping foliage robbed the light of its power to sear. At the platform, all they got were greenish-gold flickers and wavering light bands. Very pretty, in a remote, solemn kind of way.
From the wooden platform, you put on your mask and regulator, then stepped off into sixty-five degree water, acclimated, joined your buddy and dove on in. The sacrificial well was quite deep, its bottom covered with treasures dedicated to Tlaloc, god of rain and fertility. Slow, deliberate movements and the sweeping beams of their headlamps revealed stone weapons, shattered pottery, bits of worked jade and bones; lots of bones. Sadly, many of the drowned skeletons were pitifully small. Children, still wrapped in bits of tattered finery. Tlaloc was a ferociously hungry god.
Every item had to be photographed and catalogued, its position precisely recorded on the site grid. Hard, painstaking work, but very rewarding. By the end of his first dive, Virgil was exhausted… and nervous.
Nightfall was near, bringing the chance to be with Teena, if this was the time, and that's what both of them wanted. Big ifs, with no easy answer and plenty of consequences.