As always, Thunderbirds characters and plot elements don't belong to me.

This is based on canon as we see it in the TV show. If there's anything else out there about why Gordon didn't go to college when all his brothers did, and his schooldays in general, this is almost certainly AU with respect to it. I hope I haven't broken too much, though.

Many thanks to SamW for beta-reading this for me.

Reviews and comments of all kinds are always welcome.

Black Sheep

"...and then Melissa said..." Alan's voice trailed off as he belatedly realised just how one-sided the conversation had become. "Gordon? Hello? Still awake, there?"

His older brother started, turning back towards him and away from the view of endless cornfields passing the window of the school bus. "Yeah. Melissa. Go on."

The tone was artificially light and cheerful, though, and Alan frowned, Melissa's charms temporarily forgotten. "What's up?"

"Math test."

"When? I can help you work --"

"Spot test, today. Calculus."

"Oh, man. How'd it go?"

Gordon just looked at him, and Alan winced. Gordon and calculus - and last night he'd been at swimming practice, he hadn't so much as opened a textbook as far as Alan was aware. It couldn't have gone well.

"But you knew some of it, right? What we went over at the weekend?"

Gordon jerked abruptly to his feet, eyes locked on some point on the horizon. "You plan to ride the whole route, or shall we go home?"

Alan grabbed his schoolbag before Gordon stepped on it and headed for the front of the bus. Just for once, he didn't even hear the comments from the kids sat up front. Reading his brothers was something he'd always struggled with, an occupational hazard of being the youngest - but even he could tell how unhappy Gordon was.

Gordon didn't speak at all as the bus pulled to a halt. Didn't make his usual flying leap from the top step, just walked down and off the bus. Didn't wait for Alan to catch up, just set off up the dusty track towards the farmhouse, back rigid and shoulders tense. The gulf between twelve and fourteen had never seemed wider. Not to mention the gulf between a student who could do anything he put his mind to, and one who struggled the moment he was asked to do more than understand the basic principles. Alan trailed after his big brother, desperate to help and unable to do so. He wasn't remotely encouraged by the silhouetted figure on the porch. Dad waiting there could mean only that someone was in trouble.

Gordon was thinking exactly the same. 'I'll be speaking to your father,' Mr Evans had commented as Gordon handed in a test paper that was as good as blank. Arithmetic, he could do, after years of patient tuition from Scott. Virgil had taught him geometry. Algebra had been a harder struggle, but he'd worked on it just as he had to work on everything. He'd learnt the rules eventually, and John had patiently concocted lists of methods that he could use and ways for him to figure out what to try first. Calculus was new and different. None of his techniques worked. He'd followed Alan through his homework problems, hoping that repetition would be enough. It hadn't been. And Scott would be here Friday night, home on leave from the Air Force for a long weekend. Scott might not need school calculus any more, but Gordon was quite sure he could still explain it just fine. As could Virgil and John.

No, he was the only one for whom getting into the advanced courses had ever been a concern. Family talk, education-wise, was always about Harvard and Yale and Oxford. About coming top of the class, not somewhere in the middle. About how work and effort led to first class achievement, not to not failing. It had never happened for Gordon, but he'd kept hoping. Maybe he wasn't working quite hard enough, or in quite the right way? Surely it would all click sooner or later? He'd taken every scrap of help his older brothers could give him, worked far more than he'd ever admitted; and those, and his reputation as a prankster who surely didn't work, had been enough to give him report cards describing him as a bright student who could do better rather than an overachieving struggler. Barely.

But John was away at Harvard now. Alan wasn't up to tutoring on a topic he was learning from Gordon's textbook, and time had caught up with him. He was going to have to admit that he shouldn't be in this math class at all, and Father would be so disappointed in him. He had to fight to keep walking steadily instead of hanging his head in shame and embarrassment.

"Afternoon, boys," Jeff said as they climbed the weatherbeaten wooden steps to the porch. "Gordon, can I have a word? Get yourself a drink first - I'll be in my office."

Maybe it's nothing to do with the test. Maybe Coach Brown called him about extra training. Gordon couldn't make himself believe it. Ignoring Alan's worried eyes on his back, he forced himself to remain casual. A glass of Grandma's homemade lemonade from the kitchen was what he needed first. Then, he'd face his father.

When it came to it, he took his refilled glass in with him. He felt the need for something to hold.

"Sit down, Gordon," Jeff said, closing the folder in front of him deliberately. "I had a phonecall from Mr Evans this afternoon. I understand he's your new math teacher."

Gordon nodded, not trusting his voice.

"He's concerned about your progress this year. More than that, he's concerned about the relative quality of your homework and classwork. Son, have you been copying someone else's homework?"

Gordon swallowed desperately. How did you say that your little brother had given you a significant amount of help? "Not exactly."

"Not exactly? Either it's your own work or it isn't."

Gordon looked round the room, desperately seeking inspiration. Where on earth to start? My older brothers have been helping me since I started kindergarten and Alan's not as good at it? Hardly. His throat closed up, and he ended up staring silently at the glass on the desk in front of him, still half full. Pale yellow contents, the occasional bubble. Grandma made great lemonade.

"I see." Gordon looked up nervously to see Jeff steepling his fingers, looking over them with all the disappointment he'd dreaded. "Now, your teacher says that your work needs to improve considerably if you are to stay in that class at all. I've left you to mature in your own time, but clearly you need some help adjusting your schedule to the demands of the new school year. You need more time to study at home, less fooling about at the pool."

"But I --"

"Some of this swimming has got to go. You're fourteen now. School matters more as you get older."

"But I can't!" Manners forgotten, Gordon was on his feet. "I have to... the state finals... the club..."

"No." Jeff's voice was distant, clear, final. "The school swimming can stay - it's good exercise. Besides, last year you did perfectly well on the standard practices, without all these extra hours."

Last year nobody had mentioned regional finals, or the possibility of the nationals, to me. Gordon said nothing, his eyes once again on the lemonade. He knew full well that education came before sport. Always did, always had to. He even agreed. But he'd wanted both so badly! How could he go back to swimming a couple of hours a week and occasional school meets, compared with what he'd dared to dream about? He'd hoped to surprise his father; walk in and casually announce one day that he had a qualifying time for the national championships. Now that was gone, and all because he was too stupid to understand calculus.

"Gordon, I am sorry," his father said. "But you're in high school now, even if in a town this size all you did was move to a different class. In under three years you'll be applying to college. You're not a child any more. You need to start taking your education seriously. 'Could do better' has got to stop."

He managed to nod calmly. "I know, Dad. I'm sorry. I'll do better." And then he had to leave, before the hot stinging in his eyes betrayed him.

Left in his office, Jeff sighed and ran a hand through his rapidly silvering hair. Gordon cheating on his homework. He never would have believed it - and yet, since the beginning of the summer his fourth son had been swimming - or claiming to - just about every free hour he had. Gordon's latest craze. He'd always been a water baby, but keenness on an activity requiring practice which lasted more than a couple of months was something new for him. Karate, trumpet, French club, all abandoned within weeks. Even football, despite Virgil's support. Jeff had been wondering for a few weeks now if he'd found a girl and was using swimming as an excuse to go see her. It was as well that the teacher had called as soon as he had. Nip this in the bud, get Gordon back on the straight and narrow, and Jeff was sure things would go back to normal, with Gordon near the top of the class and his teachers only occasionally wishing out loud that he put more effort into his work and less into his practical jokes.

He badly needed them to. He'd made a huge effort to clear his calendar for the new school year, now that John was away at Harvard and only Gordon and Alan were left at home. Those two, he felt, needed an older male influence more than any of the others had. He'd been coasting on the extra work he'd put in over the summer, with John and Virgil home. But he couldn't continue to work at home most of the week forever.

Gordon did sit down with the intention of studying what had thrown him so badly on the test, but he couldn't concentrate. Everywhere he looked were reminders of what he'd rather be doing. Posters of his swimming heroes covered the walls of his room. Trophies balanced on the bookshelf, in front of rows of childhood paperbacks, mostly adventure stories. His much newer collection of biographies and sports training manuals were mostly larger format, and his medals were leant up against them, precarious in the inch or so of remaining shelfspace. Over the desk, a list of things he was supposed to be thinking about. Body tension, finger position. Making every stroke the same. He'd been making a point of looking up and reminding himself of them, every time he got to the end of a homework problem. That had to stop. He needed to give work his full attention, and it wasn't going happen with his room looking like this. Gordon put his math book down, fetched an empty box left over from college packing from John's room, and proceeded to remove temptation from his sight.

Half an hour later, just as he was removing the last poster from over his bed, there was a tap at his door. A worried little blond head peered in. "Gordon, are you okay? Was he mad?"

"He said I was spending too much time swimming. He's probably right. I need to study more."

"I can help --"

"No." That came out harsher than he'd intended, but he ploughed on. "Letting you do my work's what got me into this mess, Al. Please leave me alone."

Alan shrugged, his face falling. "Whatever. You know where I am."

Yeah, right next door, finishing your own work in ten seconds flat. Gordon bit back the sharp retort and sat down heavily at his desk as the door closed. He'd start again, right from the beginning. Only five weeks' work to cover. And, if he wasn't swimming, it wasn't like he had anything else to do.

He did break for dinner, forcing himself to join in with the friendly conversation round the long wooden table. Talk of Scott, coming home Friday night; his first trip back since joining the Air Force. Grandma, grumbling that her latest batch of jelly had failed to gel, and Alan assuring her that he'd eat it all even if nobody else would. He was aware that normally he'd have told everyone about that lunchtime's swim team practice. Now he didn't have the heart, and nobody asked.

It was Alan's turn to help clear away, so he didn't hang around. Straight back upstairs and back to the books. Maybe, just maybe, his problem was that he'd always had extra help. He knew he wasn't stupid, not like some people were. Enough effort and he should be able to manage this all by himself. And, if he could prove to his father than he could, then maybe he could have some of his swimming time back. A couple of hours a day, maybe twice that at weekends. Everything else could go; he didn't need any other leisure time. Just as in swimming, he set himself a goal and a reward, and went for it.

It didn't help. The wretched calculus wouldn't make sense. He could follow the examples - that had never been a problem. But the moment he tried to do it himself, he was lost. Ten o'clock came, and with it the sick realisation that he might as well have been at the pool. He was no closer to understanding it than he had been six hours earlier. Gordon crawled into bed, desperately missing the sensation of satisfied physical tiredness which he had grown used to, and lay there staring at the ceiling in the pitch dark. Floating equations danced round his head, shifting into ever-harder forms, never staying still for long enough for him to try to solve them. At some point he fell asleep.

"And where were you last night, Tracy?"

Gordon took a deep, steadying breath before turning. "Sorry, Coach. I had too much schoolwork."

"I hope you finished it all, then. I'll see you tonight." It was phrased as a statement, not a question, and Gordon's gut twisted as he forced his voice to stay level.

"I don't think I can make it tonight."

"Schoolwork?" And Gordon could see the hurt in the man's eyes. This was Coach Brown, the man who'd told Gordon he was the best prospect he'd ever coached. That all he needed to go all the way was dedication. And Gordon had grinned and nodded. Had dared to believe and to take up the challenge. It's the Olympics in three years, Brown had said. You could be there. And, for one long, idyllic summer, he'd spent every minute he had working towards it.

"I'm sorry, Coach. I need to look to the future. Right now I'm failing the advanced classes. I want to go to a good college. For academics, not sports. I'll just be doing the standard team practices from now on."

"Are you sure about this, Gordon? Is somebody pressuring you? I can talk --"

"No. It's my decision." He couldn't say more. Couldn't even look the man in the eye - and now he could see other people slowing down to listen, trying to figure out what was going down between the school's star swimmer and his coach.

Coach Brown shook his head and sighed. "I'm sorry too, Gordon. I'll see you Tuesday, then."

No swimming until Tuesday. And that hurt so much that he almost broke down there and then, wanting beyond all reason to tell Coach just what had gone wrong; why he couldn't carry on swimming. Wanting to pass the responsibility off to someone who could find him a solution.

Except that there wasn't a solution. A pipe dream wasn't a career plan. He had to face it. He was facing it. It would be a while until he could accept it, though.

Scott arrived home Friday evening to the exact situation he'd hoped for. As the cab dropped him off at the end of the track (he'd always imagined walking up to the house with the glow of fall sunset reflecting off the cornfields all around) he could see a small figure waiting on the porch. Alan, doubtless pretending he hadn't been waiting at all, trying to maintain the illusion - then giving up and hurtling down the track to meet his big brother. He tried to take the backpack - but Scott had some pride left, and handed him the carrier bag instead, containing nothing heavier than the book he'd only remembered after the backpack was full that he needed to put back in Virgil's room, and a bottle of water.

And, just as he'd imagined it, as they climbed the steps to the porch, Dad emerged from his office with a handshake and a pat on the back - and a promise of talk just as soon as Scott had wrapped himself round some of the chocolate cake which Grandma had made especially for him that afternoon.

He simply presumed Gordon was swimming, as he had been every afternoon of the summer vacation, according to Virgil. So it was rather a shock when Grandma's ringing of the dinner gong half an hour later brought Gordon down the stairs.

"Hi, Scott. How's the Air Force?"

"Great. How's ninth grade?"

"Fine." But the boy didn't meet his eyes, and Scott's old protective sense snapped into place. He'd only rarely been here for the past four years, and hardly at all this past summer, but even so, this was patently not normal for Gordon.

His confusion increased at the mealtime discussion. It wasn't like Alan was ever quiet, but today he seemed determined to be extra garrulous. Almost as if he was trying to make up for Gordon's silence. And the line of his father's shoulders spoke of something not quite right, too.

Could he be imagining it? Scott glanced round the kitchen. Little had changed: a new electric kettle, and fewer chairs squashed in around the long wooden table. Apart from that, Grandma's domain looked exactly as it always had. It could have been a set from a period drama, down to the copper-bottomed pans on the walls and the bunches of herbs hanging to dry over the stove. Grandma herself was crisp, snappy and welcoming all at once. Just as usual. There was no tension in the air, no sense of resentment or anger. And yet he was quite sure that something was wrong.

His suspicions were confirmed when Gordon bolted his food, refused seconds or dessert, and excused himself as soon as it was remotely polite to do so.

"Is he well?" he asked. "It's not like Gordon to turn down food."

"Not like any of you boys," Grandma commented, beginning to ladle out a vast helping of apple pie.

His father sighed. "I'm afraid that Gordon's discovered life in ninth grade involves more work than he's used to."

Scott reached out and took the bowl, adding a small lake of custard. "Thanks, Grandma. You have no idea how much I miss your cooking."

"Sure she does, Scott," Alan laughed. "You tell her every time you come home."

"And what's wrong with that?" her retorted. "Seriously, Father, should I talk to Gordon? He doesn't look happy."

Jeff sighed again. "Maybe you should. Maybe he just needs to talk about it to someone who's been there within the last decade. Maybe he's just being fourteen."

"He failed his math test," Alan added, and Jeff hushed him.

"Let Gordon do his own talking, son."

Alan shot him a pleading look, and Scott tried to look reassuring. Alan being concerned for someone else was a new experience for him. Heck, Alan interested in anything beyond model race cars was something he was still getting used to. His littlest brother had been eight when Scott went away to college. He'd never quite got used to Alan being more than chest height.

"Yes?" Gordon's tone was wary in response to his tap on the door, and Scott mentally settled himself.

"It's Scott. Can I come in?"

"Yeah, sure." No enthusiasm, though.

He pushed the door open - Gordon's door had always creaked loudly if anyone but him opened it - and stepped in, years of avoiding booby-traps prompting him to duck as he did so. Gordon was sitting at his desk, books open all around him, and the floor strewn with balled-up sheets of paper. He turned his head just far enough to make eye contact.

"Sorry, Scott. It's good to see you home. I've just got so much work to do."

"So I see." Scott strolled over to the desk, stepping round a small snowdrift of paper balls. "Math problems? Can I help?"

Gordon grimaced. "Help's what got me into this mess. I have to figure it out, Scott. Everyone else can! What's wrong with me?"

Scott considered the edge of near-panic in his little brother's voice, and caught the back of the chair, swinging Gordon round away from the desk to face him fully.

"Okay, Gordo. Nothing's wrong with you as far as I know. Except that it's a Friday evening and you're hitting the books instead of at the pool. What's gone down? Are you hurt? Kicked off the swim team? Alan said you had problems with a test."

Gordon opened his mouth to speak, and then simply buried his face in his hands. His shoulders shook, and amid the incoherent torrent of words Scott caught "calculus" and "failed" and "Alan" and "college".

"Okay, I didn't get any of that," he said more-or-less honestly when Gordon paused. "Except that something's horribly wrong. How about I sit down and you start at the beginning?"

Gordon nodded, and went and fetched a box of tissues while Scott straightened the duvet and sat down. He blew his nose before starting again.

"I can't handle the advanced classes. So I have to give up swimming."

"Father said that?" Scott considered his little - now, not so little - brother in disbelief.

"Not all of it, only the extra. School team, twice a week, that's okay."

"But Virgil said you were training every day over the summer." He considered Gordon's stiff posture. "Did you just stop all of a sudden? You'll be uncomfortable as hell if you did. Your body's used to the intensive training."

Gordon nodded wretchedly. "Mr Evans phoned Dad. Alan's been helping me with calculus, and, well, he's not as good a teacher as John is. I couldn't do it without him. And Dad pointed out to me I have three years until college. Three years! What was I supposed to do, tell him I only stayed anywhere near the top of the class all these years because everyone's tutored me? You, then Virgil, then John? And Alan tried to help me, Scott, it's not his fault he's only twelve. I looked up the grades I'd need to study marine biology anywhere decent. It's a joke right now. But I think I can maybe do it if I work all the time."

"Nobody can work all the time." Scott retrieved one of the paper balls from the floor and straightened it out. "And what you're doing here isn't helping you any. This is wrong from the start. Let me --"

"That's why I threw it away." Gordon's jaw was set.

"So where do you want to go to college?"

Gordon shrugged. "Somewhere that won't humiliate the family."

"Now that's just wrong." Scott tried to keep his voice low and calm, but inwardly he was seething. Where had this come from? "You have to go where you want to go, Gordon. Father would say that too. Look at Virgil --"

"But I don't want to go anywhere!" It came out almost as a shriek, and as if he'd shocked even himself, Gordon began methodically picking up the debris from the floor and dropping it into the cardboard box under his desk. He'd cleared a patch a couple of feet square before he said more calmly, "What I want is a pipe dream. If I don't give it up now, I'll have nothing. I'll be a failure at eighteen. The Tracy brother who couldn't get into college. The black sheep. I'll never be brilliant like you or Virgil or John, or like Alan's going to be, but I can't face being an embarrassment."

Scott sat and stared, fully aware that his astonishment was entirely wasted. Gordon wasn't even looking at him, back on his knees clearing up the floor. And he was rapidly becoming aware that he was completely out of his depth here.

"You need to speak to Father."

"No! Scott, I'm fine. I've accepted this."

"Well, you shouldn't have. Whatever Father said, you've interpreted it wrong. There's no way he'd force you to give up your dreams. Virgil --"

"Virgil was the best artist and musician in the school, and one hell of a footballer. And what's he doing now? Studying engineering at a school that doesn't even have a football program."

"Which was Virgil's choice, and Father never once tried to force him into it. And Virg would have told me if he had, Gordon, you know he would. Now, I'm going to fetch Father, and you're going to tell him exactly what this pipe dream of yours is. Because I'd lay money he doesn't even know it exists."

Gordon's shoulders twitched, though he said nothing, and Scott gave an inward sigh of relief as he headed for the door. Bullseye.

Jeff came up the stairs two at a time not five minutes later. Scott hadn't said much, but the little he had said suggested that Jeff had made a bad misjudgement, and that there was far more to Gordon's unhappiness than being expected to do his schoolwork.

The door stood open, and Gordon sat at his desk, the chair turned to face the doorway. He'd clearly been crying, but his eyes were dry now, his face a mask of rigid determination.

"Can I come in?"

"Yes." The voice was steady. "Father, I'd like for you to just sit and listen. When I'm done, I want you to tell me if it's a stupid waste of time or not." He glanced sideways, as if to gain support from the glossy brochure on his desk. "I trust you. Absolutely. If you tell me to forget it, I'll never mention it again."

And another of my sons is no longer a little boy. Jeff simply nodded, taking a seat on the bed as indicated, and waited.

Gordon cleared his throat nervously, made an obvious attempt to relax his hands on the arms of his swivel chair, and began.

"Coach talked to me before the summer vacation. He suggested that if I put the work in, that maybe I could go places with my swimming. And I thought yeah, state championships would be nice."

Gordon paused briefly, glancing around what Jeff only now realised was an unusually bare room. He didn't normally come in his sons' bedrooms - but surely Gordon had had something on the walls, the last time he'd glanced in?

"He didn't mean that. He meant nationals. Adult nationals. International trials. The Olympics are in three years' time. He thought I had a shot. And I knew what you'd say: great, but what then, swimming isn't a career even if I was that good. I started looking around, seriously. I'm never going to be brilliant academically. I always thought the Air Force, but...if it wasn't for you, and Scott, I'd not have considered it. It's not really me. And then I found out about WASP, and it's so right."

He handed Jeff the brochure from the desk, never meeting his eyes, and Jeff glanced at it in confusion. WASP meant nothing to him. The pictures, though, were water-based. Mostly underwater. He registered 'security patrol' in the title, and then Gordon was speaking again.

"They don't have the kudos the main services do - so they'll go unusual routes to attract applicants. They'll take people out of high school, and they're more interested in skills than grades. And I'm good at what they want. National level swimming would do it, and they have some great vocational training programs."

"I see," Jeff said carefully as Gordon came to a breathless halt. "So, what are you saying you want to do?"

"I want --" This time Gordon's voice cracked across two octaves, and he stopped with a nervous laugh. "I thought I was past that."

"Take your time, son." He'd thought Gordon was past it, too, his voice having finally settled a couple of months earlier. Scott was certainly right about him being upset.

"I want to drop the advanced classes. I'll need to spend four hours a day in the pool, plus a whole lot more on general conditioning - weights, stuff like that. I may need to skip some lessons so I can use the pool when it's empty." There was a single glance at Jeff before he fixed his eyes high on the wall again. "It would make more sense to homeschool - except that I need access to the school pool, it's the only full size one that's close enough, and Coach Brown is there and we work well together. So I have to stay in school. And I promise I won't fail the year. But I won't have anything like the class position I've had before. There aren't enough hours in the day."

He's serious. And he's done his homework. Jeff couldn't imagine any of his other sons calmly suggesting a full school day plus four or more hours of training every day of the week. They'd certainly all been fit and athletic, representing the school at a variety of sports. John had made it to the state track finals. Virgil had been probably a better football player than that. Nationals, though, had never entered the equation. Let alone Olympics.

He glanced again at the brochure. World Aquanaut Security Patrol. Now that he saw it spelt out, he did vaguely remember being aware of it. His companies, though, specialised in avionics rather than aquatics; he'd appointed one of his deputies to keep an eye open for any big contracts which might be relevant to Tracy Industries but without expecting that there would be. He knew very little about them - but they were certainly bona fide. Further investigation would be necessary if Gordon was serious about applying.

For now, though, Gordon was regarding him with a desperate pleading in his eyes that he'd not seen in a very long time. Not since Scott and Virgil had suggested not going to the sea one summer, but instead somewhere 'more interesting'. He'd found a compromise that year: a holiday at a beach resort within easy reach of an airfield which ran aerobatics courses for qualified pilots of all ages. What was right for the rest of his sons never had been right for Gordon. He knew that. And Gordon knew that he knew it. Didn't he?

"Just one question. Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"

Gordon's gaze dropped to the floor. "I thought if I had the national qualifying time it would show you I was serious. And that I was good. I know I don't have much of a record for sticking at things. I figured I needed to prove this time was different. And...I didn't realise the classes would be this hard. I thought I could handle it."

"I see." Jeff still wasn't sure whether this was a good thing. He knew only that in casually taking away Gordon's first love he had done him an appalling injustice. "When does swimming training start this evening?"

Gordon glanced at the clock, his face falling. "Half an hour ago."

"Get your kit and come with me."

Instinctive obedience brought Gordon to his feet, but no further. "Um...Dad, I'm not sure..."

"Burnt your boats, did you?" Jeff's gut twisted in sympathy. Yes, Gordon would have done just that. He wasn't the sort to play one adult off against another to buy himself time. "You let me worry about that."

Gordon didn't have to be asked twice, scooping a bag from the floor at the end of his bed and heading down the stairs three at a time. Just this one, Jeff ignored it.

Gordon maintained a nervous silence for the entire ten minute drive to the athletic centre shared by the town's schools, and Jeff didn't push, though there were many questions he dearly wanted to know the answer to. They could wait. The glimmer of optimism was back in Gordon's eyes for the first time since Jeff had laid down the law, and he wanted it to stay there if at all possible. From things he'd heard Gordon say, the swimming coach had always struck him as an eminently reasonable man. He only hoped he'd been right.

They pulled into a mostly empty car park, and it was immediately obvious which building he needed - all the cars were over in one corner, by a lit doorway. The facility was less than a decade old, and, though nobody knew it, a large proportion of the money needed to build and maintain it had come from him, in the form of various anonymous donations. He'd wanted his sons to have access to decent sporting facilities - but not for them to be the sons of the benefactor everyone was grovelling gratefully to. Jeff had privately made sure the school board had enough money not to have to compromise on their dreams of a top class facility, and shown no public interest in the project at all. He vaguely remembered having gone in that way to watch Scott play basketball at one point. He'd only ever seen Gordon swim outside, though. He supposed that wasn't so appropriate for a November night.

Despite the chill, Gordon prevaricated with a shoelace until Jeff was done locking the car and had headed for the door in such a way that he was obviously intending to go in first. 'Take responsibility for your own mistakes,' he'd always taught his sons. Well, this time the mistake had been his. It was his job to explain things to the coach - and hope the man was reasonable. He'd heard horror stories of kids kicked off sports teams for less.

Inside the first door, a corridor led left and right. Jeff's memory said he'd gone right, but through the glass inserts in the doors that way all was dark. To the left, though, a longer lit corridor led off and ten yards down it wide double doors on the right led into a brightly lit area. Jeff couldn't see the water, but it was unmistakeably the pool, from the scattering light patterns and the smell of chlorine. He headed in, and after a brief hesitation, he heard Gordon follow.

Jeff found himself, not poolside (probably just as well, he belatedly realised, since he was wearing outdoor shoes) but at the top of a small bank of spectator seating. Just five rows, running maybe half the length of the pool, alternating red and yellow plastic flip-up seats. Two rows down sat the man he'd come to see, dressed in tracksuit and trainers, a clipboard on the floor at his feet. He was watching a handful of swimmers plough up and down the pool.

He glanced round at the newcomers, and now spoke directly to Gordon. "Are you here to swim, son?"

Behind him, Gordon presumably nodded, because he added, "Go change, then. And don't skimp on your warmup! I don't want to see you in that water for at least ten minutes."

Gordon's, "Yes, Coach," contained another of those octave-spanning cracks as he bolted, and the man waited until he was completely gone before holding out his hand.

"I'm Bill Brown."

"Jeff Tracy, Gordon's father." He smiled ruefully. "I haven't quite made it to the bottom of this yet - but it seems Gordon's swimming is at a considerably higher level than I'd appreciated."

"He's good. But, to be blunt, if he doesn't want to do it, you're wasting your time bringing him back. Would you excuse me for five minutes? I need to set these guys off on their next exercise."

"Of course." Jeff sat down in an uncomfortable yellow plastic seat, and watched. Coach Brown was older than he'd expected - considerably older than himself. Still trim, though, light on his feet, and enthusiasm in his eyes. Jeff's instincts told him good things about this man.

He knew very little about swimming. He did know about management styles, and the sort of people who could inspire. Coach Brown didn't shout at his charges, or gesticulate wildly. A couple of minutes of quiet instruction, some queries answered in the same calm manner, and the three boys and two girls variously adjusted hats and goggles and slipped back into the water. Four of them then set off at a steady pace. The fifth remained holding onto the side, and Brown crouched down, obviously pitching his voice just for her. Eventually she nodded, and Brown patted her on the shoulder before she set off at a considerably slower pace than the others.

"Stamina training," he told Jeff as he returned, sitting down in the seat the other side of the aisle and keeping his eyes on the swimmers. "Now, Gordon's swimming. Does he want to carry on? Or have you persuaded him to give it another shot?"

"This is all my fault," Jeff told him honestly. "Gordon's had some academic issues. He managed to interpret 'education is important' as 'academic achievement is all that matters', and, like I said, I completely missed what level his swimming was at and how hard he's been working. I presumed all these hours were him mucking about at the pool with his friends. And, for some reason, Gordon felt unable to put me straight."

Brown grimaced. "I'm to blame here too. I should have called you. It's just that in my experience, if I tell the parents their kid's good, the kid gets pushed. Never seen one yet who didn't come to hate swimming within a few months. Gordon, though...his talent's special, and he's got dedication to match. I mean, he's not swum all week, and look at him!"

He waved an arm vaguely towards the pool, and Jeff realised that the five swimmers had become six. And that the sixth, in red hat and goggles, was moving faster than anyone else even though his stroke only appeared to be half their speed.

"The lad in the next lane to him, that's Ted Allen," Brown told him. "State finalist last year, two years older than Gordon. Ten seconds faster than him over two hundred freestyle last year. Now he'd not touch him. And Gordon's not even a freestyler."

"He's not?" Jeff did know enough about swimming to recognise freestyle when he saw it, and it was certainly what Gordon was doing now.

Brown shook his head. "No. They all want to be freestylers, of course. But Gordon's a fly natural." He abruptly turned. "Butterfly. Do you --"

Jeff smiled, having just about managed to decipher what the man meant before he explained it. "Yes. I've just not heard him mention it. Though he has been pretty vague about his swimming over the summer." And there was me thinking it had to do with a girl.

He's done a heck of a lot of work on his style. He'll shift strokes soon - are you staying to watch? Only half an hour of the session left."

"Yes." Jeff settled back, regretting the hard plastic seat and lack of coffee as he tried to get comfortable. It wasn't what he'd planned for Scott's first evening home. He knew that Scott would understand.

He hadn't done anything different for the next ten minutes, by which time Jeff had realised that what Gordon was doing simply wasn't the same as what the other swimmers were. Some were swimming slow lengths alternated with faster ones, stopping for a certain length of time every so often. One was towing a red plastic blob up and down the pool, which appeared to be particularly hard work. Jeff presumed that was the point. Gordon had, of course, missed a good hour of the session. This speed - far faster than anything Jeff himself had ever managed for ten minutes straight, even when he'd been young and swum regularly for fitness - was, he suspected, still warming up. Gordon didn't swim like a talented child any more. There was obvious power and technique there.

He was starting to wonder how much input the coach even had into these sessions when Coach Brown got up with a sigh (evidently Jeff wasn't the only one who found these seats uncomfortable) and headed down to the left-hand end of the pool again. Not a word, but all the swimmers stopped the next time they reached it. Another similar lecture-cum-discussion to the one he'd given before, and everyone except Gordon continued. Gordon stayed hanging off the side for a few seconds and then swung himself out of the water in one easy movement and stood up, water streaming down him.

Jeff barely recognised him. Gordon had always gone in for baggy tee-shirts, loose-fitting jeans, shapeless woolly sweaters knitted by his grandmother. Jeff had suspected it was to hide the fact that, alone of his sons, Gordon had tended towards the slightly chubby as a pre-teen. Not any more. The fourteen-year-old's physique was now nothing short of impressive; a swimmer's narrow hips topped with a set of chest and arm muscles to make even Virgil envious. Combined with the remnants of a summer tan, and Gordon's trademark crop of freckles, he was an eyecatching figure standing on the side of the pool.

There was various gesturing, angles of hands being demonstrated and copied. Too far away to hear the conversation, Jeff was nonetheless sure that Gordon was listening and concentrating and taking everything in. Not a hint of the joker; the casual jack-of-all-trades who never stuck with anything long enough to get good at it.

Coach Brown grinned and clapped him on the shoulder, and Gordon pulled his goggles up from around his neck, adjusting them as he stepped up onto the starting block. He crouched on the edge for a moment, setting himself, then hit the water in a perfect racing dive.

Jeff found himself on his feet in search of a better angle, the light reflecting off the water making it hard for him to see below the surface. What he could see, though, was again impressive. A natural, sinuous, undulating movement, travelling unfeasibly fast.

And then he broke the surface of the water some twenty yards down the pool, both arms came over, and Jeff knew exactly what Brown meant. He'd tried swimming butterfly himself a few times. He'd seen Scott try it. Abortive, flailing messes. Gordon made it look natural and effortless. He'd never seen anyone swim like this. Not in person. Only rarely even on the television.

"Good, isn't he?" said a voice at his elbow, and Jeff jumped a mile.

"Is he as impressive as he looks?" he managed to ask calmly, eyes still on Gordon as the young man executed a perfect tumble-turn at the far end of the pool.

Brown nodded. "When I said nationals and beyond, I meant it. If he works. And --" he raised his voice to a bellow clearly intended to be heard by the swimmer, "if he remembers the rules on how long he's allowed to stay underwater!"

Jeff frowned, as Brown turned back to him with a grin. "He's showing off for you, no question. But he still needs to practice it right. Fifteen metres underwater, max." He looked at his watch. "Session's more or less up for these guys. Gordon's finishing his two hundred and warming down - he'll be another ten minutes or so."

Two hundred. Four lengths of butterfly. At a sprint nobody else in the pool had matched freestyle. Even after four days sitting at his desk doing nothing physical. Gordon did it, speeded up to the end, even; and then hung from his folded arms on the end of the pool, chest heaving with the effort.

Brown's whistle split the air, making Jeff jump again, and then he called, "Time!" He took two steps down towards the pool, and then turned back to Jeff. "Mr Tracy, I'm very glad to have Gordon back swimming again. He's very talented. He needs your support. But he doesn't need to be pushed."

Before Jeff could respond he'd headed off hastily, head down. Jeff sighed mentally. Brown wasn't the first of his sons' teachers to be more than nervous about telling Jeff Tracy something he might not want to hear.

He wondered, as he watched Gordon slip back into the water and head up the pool on his back at what was probably a leisurely pace for him, what the man would have said if he'd known about the little pile of letters Virgil had brought him early on in his senior year. Before he'd even applied to colleges. Two in particular. Miami, and the Juilliard. The best football school in the country, and the best music school. Both as good as offering him a place should he choose to apply there.

"You don't know which to choose?" he'd asked, and Virgil had shaken his head.

"I don't want any of them - and there are more than just those two, Dad. But I don't want to study piano or play football. I want to go to Denver and study engineering."

And Jeff had pushed his paperwork deliberately to one side and smiled affectionately at his second son. "Denver, is it? I thought you'd say MIT. Come tell me about it. What's in Denver?"

Gordon was doing something very similar, Jeff considered as he watched his son swimming slower and slower, but in his case it made more sense even than Virgil's decision had. The only difference was in the way he himself felt about engineering as opposed to swimming. And Virgil had, after all, been good at what he was rejecting. If Jeff was honest with himself, he'd suspected for a long time that Gordon was far from Ivy League material. That wasn't a problem for him; never had been. Heck, he'd not been Ivy League material himself. He'd just been very determined to be more than a farmer, and it had taken him all the way to the moon. He saw no reason that same determination couldn't take Gordon to the Olympics. Talent wasn't the only thing that could be inherited.

Cheating, though; copying assignments - that still had to be dealt with.

He'd moved to wait at the outer door, in slight fear of being locked in, by the time Gordon emerged from the swing doors at the end of the passage. Back in shapeless sweater and baggy sweatpants, the physique was hidden, though the kitbag was swung over his shoulder with a casual ease. The copper in his hair was much less noticeable now that it was dark-wet and combed straight back. And there was a relaxed confidence back in his stride which faltered the moment he saw Jeff.

That wasn't what Jeff wanted at all.

"Come along, son. I won't bite. In fact, let me say now - I'm impressed. You've done some serious training while nobody was noticing."

Gordon's eyes filled with hope. "Then can I...?"

"You can. Now shall we go home?"

And Gordon whooped for joy.

He felt so very much better now. A ton weight had gone from his shoulders. No more advanced classes. He'd admitted to his father that he didn't have the smarts of his elder brothers, and the world hadn't ended. Even WASP rather than the Air Force as a possible future career hadn't horrified him. Just one thing remained. One secret which shouldn't be. And Alan was going to kill him. Hopefully, though, one day he'd understand. Gordon took a deep breath and turned deliberately to his father as the car pulled out of the school parking lot.

"Dad, there's something else I need to tell you."

Jeff nodded, keeping his eyes on the road. "You go right ahead. Whatever it is, it'll be better out in the open."

"It's about Alan."

This time he did get a glance. "Truth's one thing. Tale-telling..."

"Alan's the one who did my math for me."

"Alan's twelve, Gordon, he doesn't know the first thing about calculus."

"Well, he didn't." Gordon gulped, staring down the road ahead into blackness barely broken by the headlights. "But I was stuck. John was gone to Harvard - and Alan was bored with his own work. He had a look at my textbook to see what I was grumbling about, while I finished the rest of my homework. Fifteen minutes later he came back with the answers to my problem sheet."

"You should have known better than to take someone else's answers," Jeff responded, but Gordon had the distinct impression that his mind was elsewhere. On the idea that his twelve-year-old could teach himself calculus in minutes, for instance.

"I didn't. I got Alan to explain what he'd done to me. He's been helping me since September." Finally comfortable, he managed a rueful smile. "He understands it, Dad. He's not as good a teacher as John is, that's all."

"Alan can do calculus?" Jeff asked the question, but he didn't seem to expect an answer. Gordon gave him one anyway.

"Alan can do anything he puts his mind to. He should be two grades ahead of me, not two grades behind." There, it was said. He'd dropped Alan in it - but heck, his father needed to know that Alan wasn't just bright enough to be years ahead of his age, he was bright enough to hide it from everyone.

"Alan shouldn't be in seventh grade." Jeff was still, very obviously, thinking aloud. Gordon wanted to be sure that he understood the magnitude of what he was saying.

"Alan should probably be in college."

He got another glance for that. "And you shouldn't be in standard classes at all. I'll have to talk to your teachers about that and see how far they can reduce the workload. You're training for the Olympic team; they can cut you some slack with the literature essays. And you can ask me for help with the math, if you like. I was good at it once. About the one academic class I was good at." Jeff sighed, reached out, and clapped Gordon on the shoulder. "Thanks for being honest, son - and I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions."

Gordon smiled, and finally relaxed as the car turned into the track leading up to the farmhouse. Warmth, home and friendship were waiting for him there. His father knew everything. And all was well with the world.