The sun was beating down hard, warming the breeze that blew in from the ocean. It picked out the colours on Virgil's canvas as he painted the view from the poolside, out over the forest and down to the beach. From his vantage point on the balcony to his room, Scott could see the exquisite precision of Virgil's work. He nodded to himself, knowing that his father would view this latest creation with some relief. On the surface, Virgil had put the stresses of four weeks ago behind him, but his artistic brother's last two paintings had been frankly alarming masses of violent and abstract colour. Perhaps, finally, Virgil was feeling ready now to see the world for what it was.
John was buried in a book, lying almost flat on his sun-lounger with sunglasses to block out the worst of the glare. His pale skin showed the slight sheen of sun block and, even so, Scott made a mental note to raise an umbrella over his brother as soon as he went down there. John didn't get enough sunlight in a usual year to develop much of a tolerance for it. The last month had been punctuated by episodes in which John had looked more like a boiled lobster than his usual self. He was reading a new book, flicking through the pages at his usual voracious pace, and that was a good sign too. John might never have accepted the reality of loss in the same way Virgil and Scott himself had, but even so he'd spent more of the first few weeks peering over the top of his book to reassure himself that Gordon and Alan were still there than he had actually reading.
The two younger boys themselves were in the pool, Gordon teasing his little brother by diving underwater and tugging on his ankles. Alan sank momentarily, and rose spluttering before Scott's heart could do more than lurch in his chest. Gordon laughed aloud and swam away, forcing Alan to chase him around the small pool at something between a breaststroke and a doggy paddle. None of his recent lingering fatigue there, Scott decided clinically. No sign of the headaches that had plagued Alan for the dreadful first few days.
He hadn't left Alan's side until the medical staff had taken matters into their own hands and drugged his coffee. Even then, he knew, the others had been with Alan constantly until their youngest brother had felt well enough to point out that a little peace and quiet might actually do his poor head some good. It had felt like a miracle as Alan made the transition from whimpering sufferer to grumpy invalid and finally to discharged nuisance. It could have been so much worse. The doctors had told them that he'd had got through the worst of his concussion on the submarine without medical intervention. If the swelling in his brain hadn't subsided unaided, Alan would have died in Stingray, despite the best efforts of Gordon and the W.A.S.P. crew.
"It didn't happen," Scott told himself quietly. But it might have.
He closed his eyes for a moment, imprinting the image of his four brothers in his memory. He never wanted to forget the tableau of them together, safe and well.
Gordon looked up from the pool, grinning broadly and waving as he spotted Scott above. Scott felt a distant pang of guilt as he failed to answer with a smile of his own and his brother's face fell. He managed a vague wave, turning back from the balcony's edge and stepping back into the cool of his bedroom.
He inspected it with a military thoroughness, his old training coming to the fore. He'd left a hundred barracks rooms this clean, this neat. Those of his belongings not already tucked into the two old kit bags under his bed were boxed and sealed in one of his storage closets. The painting on the wall was a view of the Island that Virgil had painted him, one of the first pieces his brother had actually allowed to be placed on display. He felt a dull pang of regret as his gaze slid past it, but Virgil would understand and Scott would never forget the sight of his home. Much as he'd like to take it, it ought to stay. Beyond that, only a few ornaments and the occasional picture frame remained to distinguish this from a comfortable room in a middle of the range hotel. He'd leave them too. If his father ever needed the space for visitors, it was only right that they wouldn't face completely bare walls and shelves.
He slid the kit bags out from under the bed frame, watching his hands doing the work, not really registering the motion until after the task was completed. They sat forlornly in the middle of the empty room. Scott tried not to look at them, or think about what they meant. His legs went momentarily weak as he failed, and he resisted the urge to sit on the bed. He'd left it made up and with fresh sheets. It wouldn't do to crumple them. No, he steadied himself instead against his desk chair. This wasn't a time for weakness.
It was time for the conversation he'd been putting off for the last week.
"Scott?" The knock at the door registered a moment later than it should have done. He felt a curious detachment as he walked to the door, opening it no more than a fraction, and met TinTin's brown eyes with his own dark blue. "Your father would like to speak to you, Scott," she reported in a soft voice.
Perfect timing. He'd been tempted to leave without a word, but he owed his father more than just sneaking out like a thief in the night. Now he had no choice. "Thank you, TinTin."
Scott sighed as the girl hesitated, one hand lifting and then falling in an indecisive gesture. "Is there anything else?"
TinTin took a deep breath, her voice soft. "Scott, is there something wrong?" She shook her head, a helpless expression on her face. "Have I said or done something to upset you?"
Scott gave her a smile and knew it didn't reach his eyes. It was a while since he'd managed that particular expression without a conscious effort of will. Longer still since he'd felt the warmth that he knew was supposed to accompany it. "Don't worry, TinTin. Nothing you'd do would ever upset me. I'll be there to see Father in a minute."
He closed the door on her, delaying not so much because he had anything to do as because he couldn't face the walk through the house with her liquid eyes on his back. He counted to thirty slowly before moving, taking his time and forcing his breathing to slow to a steadier pattern.
Only then did he go to see his father.
Jeff Tracy was gazing out of his own window when Scott arrived at the office. It was an awkward angle from here to the pool, but his father had obviously long since mastered the art of watching his sons while remaining unseen. Scott didn't interrupt his contented contemplation, just waited in the doorway until his father turned of his own accord.
"Scott!" Jeff Tracy sounded startled as he caught sight of the younger man. He cleared his throat, awkwardly. "Come in, son."
"You asked to see me, Father?" Scott's voice was toneless, devoid of emotion. He vaguely regretted that, but since the cold emptiness had settled inside him, there seemed to be little he could do about it.
His father's hesitation was uncharacteristic and Scott sensed that he was searching for the right words. He sat down behind his desk, leaning forward with his palms flat on it. Scott ignored his father's gesture that he should sit too, and remained standing rigidly in front of the desk. Jeff gave him a hard look. "I wanted to talk to you about International Rescue."
Scott nodded once, the motion sharp and efficient. "Do you want me to resign formally, Father?" he asked matter-of-factly, "Or would it be better if I just left?"
His father was taken aback, he could see that; probably as the result of his direct approach. No doubt Jeff had planned to build up to this.
"TinTin told me this morning that you had packed your bags."
Now it was Scott's turn to be surprised, albeit registering the feeling on an intellectual rather than emotional level. He'd thought his preparations had been more discrete than that. His father saw his discomfort, and gave a quiet chuckle.
"If you don't want TinTin going into your room, you should try returning your coffee mugs to the kitchen once in a while. You know she has to go on the prowl every so often to find out whether they've migrated to the rooms or have hidden themselves away somewhere to breed."
Scott nodded. He looked down at his hands, chiding himself for his lack of foresight. TinTin had lived on the island very nearly as long as the rest of them had. He knew her habits. He should have anticipated this complication.
"Scott! For goodness sake, will you stop those wheels turning in your head and actually look at me!"
His father's outburst jerked his head up, and his eyes widened instinctively. The Tracy patriarch might be occasionally brusque or even angry, but he rarely sounded upset. "Father, I …"
"I want to know what in heaven's name makes you think you're leaving this island!"
Scott's chin set into a stubborn line. This was why he'd considered setting off unannounced. He didn't need to hear the arguments. International Rescue was better off without him, even if they didn't see that at first. They would realise it in time, he was sure, when they'd had time to absorb everything that had happened. He had no intention of waiting until his father asked him to leave.
"I don't want to argue with you, Dad."
"Then that's too bad, son, because you don't have much of a choice." Jeff scowled, clearly wondering how to get through to him. Scott spared him the effort.
"My decisions led directly to what happened to Gordon and Alan – and to everything you, Virgil and John went through. Even if they were prepared to listen to me again, I'm not going to risk my brothers by giving them orders."
Jeff sighed, shaking his head slowly. "I've read the reports from Thunderbird One and from the satellite feed to Thunderbird Five, Scott. I've even looked over the technical report from the refinery," he added, pressing a button behind his desk. A wall panel slid aside and the office shelves filled with Tracy Industries paperwork slid into view, Jeff stood and strode towards it, grasping one particular folder without having to look for it, and turning to the executive summary. "'The ignition of sector five, leading to the encirclement of the control building and high potential risk of mortality, occurred when fire travelled through the pipe-work in a manner not evident to visual inspection. While the potential for such catastrophic heat transmission was inherent in the refinery design, it was not appreciated or evaluated in developing the site safety plan.'" He paused, closing the folder. "Scott, if the men who designed the system didn't know that would happen, how did you expect to?"
Scott shook his head, willing his father to understand. He kept his eyes straight ahead rather than letting his father's concern connect with him. He couldn't afford to start caring about this, even if he felt able to. "There were high resolution infrared scanners on Thunderbird One, Father. I should have run a detailed thermal sweep of the site before I set down."
Jeff harrumphed, settling back down behind his desk. "Yes, Scott, in retrospect you probably should have. In that, and in that alone," he raised a hand to silence Scott's attempted protest, "you made a mistake."
"Mistakes cost lives, father. You've drummed that into us often enough."
"I have. I just wonder whether I've reminded you often enough that you're human, and human beings make them. Scott, your information when you set down was that there was a clear path and men on the ground in need of assistance. The call was yours to make, but you didn't make it in isolation, and you had no way of knowing at the time whether the delay would cause more harm than good." He stroked his chin, shaking his head. "If we're going to start second guessing ourselves, there's always a fault to be found. John's tearing himself up about not giving you enough information, or at least he was until I talked a little sense into him. For that matter Virgil's been wallowing in guilt for not catching up with Thunderbird One sooner, and for having the wrong equipment with him when he did."
Scott felt a pang of guilt deep inside him. "They couldn't have done anything about either of those things!"
His father's wry smile defied Scott's interpretation. "Guilt isn't a rational emotion, son." He paused looking at Scott, and then went on. "When the doctor had given Alan a clean bill of health yesterday, he came to me to apologise for crashing Thunderbird One before asking if I was going to assign him extra work when I put him back on duty."
"That's ridiculous!" Scott couldn't suppress his outburst. "The kind of g-forces he was pulling, it's astonishing he didn't black out sooner. That plan was suicidal from the outset! I should never have allowed it …"
"You didn't, Scott." His father's voice was suddenly sharp, the expression on his face unyielding. "You agreed to it under protest. Your brothers overrode you, and I'm the one who permitted the operation."
"If I hadn't been trapped …"
"Then the refinery workers still would have been encircled by fire, and ultimately I believe International Rescue would have reached the same conclusion. The only difference would have been that you were the one blacking out in Thunderbird One, not Alan, and Gordon wouldn't have been there to get you out."
"Dad – "
"No, son, you're going to listen to me if I have to shake you. Every risk International Rescue takes is a 'mistake' on some level. Every dangerous operation is a tragedy waiting to happen, but if we second-guess ourselves in hindsight, we're going to be crippled. What happened at the oil refinery was a freak accident. It was the one in a million chance that we've always prayed would never happen. And God help me for letting you think like this for so long, because, above all, Scott, it was not your fault."
Scott heard the words out in silence, trying to take them in, knowing intellectually that everything his father said was true, but unable to relate that knowledge to the frigid emptiness that was all he could feel. His father was watching his face keenly, willing him to understand. He hated to disappoint him. He hated the pain he was causing the man he looked up to more than any other.
"Father, you've already agreed that I was wrong to go in with mobile control, and I'd have launched Thunderbird Four over the crash site too if Virgil hadn't stopped me. I honestly don't see how you or the others could ever trust my judgement again."
His father's expression became tired and then, suddenly, decisive. His gaze dropped to his desk, and he bent over manipulating the buttons and dials there. The ashtray that he never used shifted and began to rise, revealing the speaker beneath. "Scott, I want you to listen to a conversation I had with one of your brothers earlier today."
His father didn't give him time to protest, or even to open his mouth. The speakers came to life with a quiet crackle of noise a split second before the first word.
Scott blinked, recognising the higher-pitched undertone in Gordon's voice that meant his brother had something on his mind. "Does Gordon know you recorded this?"
Jeff smiled at him. "All conversations in this room are recorded for security reasons, Scott. Your brothers know that as well as you do. Now listen."
"Dad, the fellas and I have been talking. We were wondering when we're going to get International Rescue going again. I mean, I know we won't have Thunderbird One for a while, but we're not exactly helpless without it."
Jeff's tone on the recording was considering. "Do you think you're ready to go back to it, Gordon?"
"Well, Virgil and John say they are, and Alan's practically champing at the bit."
Gordon hesitated for a long moment. "I wasn't sure at first I wanted it to go on," he said quietly.
Scott heard his own gasp a moment before he felt the emotion. Astonishment broke momentarily through the walls he'd built around that impossibly heavy emptiness. He'd thought Gordon least affected of all his brothers. It just showed how wrong he could be.
His father sounded just as surprised. "At first?" he asked eventually.
"I could see what it did to you all when you thought Alan and I were, well, dead. I…I wasn't sure I could stand the thought of you going through that again, and of me being the cause of it. I wasn't sure I could live with doing that to you if I died," Gordon broke off in momentary confusion, trying to follow his own logic through that sentence. "Well, you know what I mean. But, Dad, that's why we do this, isn't it? Because every time we're not there, a family somewhere has to go through what you all went through, only they don't get the happy ending. I knew that before, but I guess I've always focused on the people we're saving, not on the folks waiting for them back home. I always knew we were doing a good thing, Dad. I guess now I understand that a bit better."
Jeff was silent for a full ten seconds before he found his voice to reply. "Most people would think of their own lives, Gordon. It's a dangerous thing I ask you to do."
Gordon's grin was clearly audible. "You've never asked, Dad. You never had to. If saving all those people wasn't worth the risk, we'd never have signed up in the first place." He paused and the laughter faded from his voice. "None of us are going to back out now, Dad, not after so much. We made the decision for ourselves a long time ago, but I think we needed the reality check to appreciate its affect on each other."
"Indeed we did, son." Jeff's voice was proud, but tired. "As for missions, I'll think about it, I promise." There was a pause. "There's something else, isn't there, Gordon?"
Gordon's voice changed, becoming less certain. "Well, Dad, … it's Scott."
There was understanding in Jeff's tone at those few words. "We're all worried about him, Gordon."
"Dad, if International Rescue goes on, it's got to be because we think it's worth it – all of us. We all agree on that. And Scott's the only one we've not spoken to."
There was a pause.
"He's scaring us, Father. It feels … it feels as if he's giving up." Gordon's voice was rising, his tone obviously upset. "Scott never gives up, Dad! Never!" Gordon's voice became quieter as he reigned in his emotions. His father remained silent, clearly not sure what to say. "Dad, International Rescue won't function without him. Can you imagine Alan giving the orders in the field, or Virgil? Even Alan can see that would be a bad idea. John reckons that each time we went out without Scott we'd be less likely to succeed, and less likely to come back. We each have our strengths, sure, but it's Scott who ties them together. We need him."
"We've operated without Scott in the field before, Gordon."
"Yes, but we knew he was back here, listening in, or at least within a radio call." Gordon shrugged off the suggestion impatiently. "Scott's always been there, you see? I don't think any of us would feel safe without knowing he was. And I don't think we could get by as a team. We'd fly apart without him to bind us. It's not that we follow him blindly Father. We've had to change tactics mid-rescue dozens of time, and when he can, Scott lets us argue out the best approach. But when the chips are down, we'd walk on water or into the fire if he told us to, Dad, because there's no one whose judgement we trust more."
Scott felt the dampness on his face as his tears made long tracks down his cheeks. For the first time in weeks he felt the strain as a sharp pain in his chest rather than the dull ache he'd grown so accustomed to.
He'd told himself that his family would be better off without him, and he'd believed it to the cold depths of his soul. If his father had tried to tell him otherwise – when his father had tried – it had been easy to dismiss the arguments as insubstantial whimsy. The conviction in Gordon's voice told another story.
Gordon believed what he was saying.
His brothers needed him. And more, they wanted him.
He sank into a chair, his legs trembling as they failed to hold him. Suddenly the ice inside him had become a fire of roiling emotion, the heat of his affection for his brothers mingling with the utter terror he'd tried to forget and would always remember. He didn't see his father cross the room to hold him tight, stroking his hair as he cried.
The older man remained silent as Scott's tears became gentler weeping and then finally died away into a series of tired sobs. Scott opened his eyes to see his father pulling away, holding his shoulders and peering into his face as if afraid of what he'd see there. Scott blinked. The colours were brighter now, in a way he couldn't describe. And when he looked up, he wasn't seeing the abstract image of International Rescue's patriarch, he was feeling the warmth of his father's love and compassion.
Jeff Tracy gave a long, shuddering breath. "You're back," he said quietly. His knuckles rapped gently on the crown of Scott's head. "I thought I'd lost you, trapped somewhere up there."
The pain in his father's voice shocked Scott. He felt the impulse to retreat from it, to go to the quiet place where emotions happened to someone else, but he resisted. No matter how tempting, he could see that now for the trap it was. He tried to clear his throat, half-choking on a final sob.
"I … I can't keep them safe, Dad."
"No one can do that, son."
"I can't promise I'll always make the right decisions."
Now Jeff gave a rueful chuckle. "Anyone who did would be a liar. I know you'll try."
"Gordon really said all that?" He didn't doubt it had been Gordon's voice, but he needed the reassurance. This time Jeff smiled openly.
"One of his more eloquent days, I thought."
"It's worth it." Scott swallowed hard, dashing the last of his tears away with the back of one hand. He felt shaky. Doubts still darted through his head in a swarm, but Gordon's words had given him the strength to face them… for now, at least. "Saving people. Saving all their families too. If you're willing… if you'll have me … I'll do my best."
Jeff Tracy smiled. He stood, lending his red-eyed son a hand to pull him upright. As he spoke, he led the way out of his office and down through the house towards the pool. Scott hesitated, fighting the urge to cut and run, not sure he was ready for this, before he followed.
"We'll operate Mobile Control out of Thunderbird Two if there isn't anywhere safe on the ground. Virgil won't get you there as fast as you're used to, but Brains has been trialling an enhancement to Thunderbird Five's sensors. John or Alan should be able to give you a detailed scan of the danger zone almost as soon as you're airborne."
His brothers looked up as they came out onto the poolside, at first in confusion to see who their father was talking to, and then wide-eyed with expressions ranging from delight to deep relief.
Scott met their eyes in turn, trying to apologise for his remoteness and the anxiety he'd caused them with a look before returning his attention to his father. He cleared his throat. "How long until Thunderbird One is repaired?" he asked, and he felt as much as saw the sighs as they heard the real interest in his voice.
Gordon pulled himself out of the pool to sit on its edge, grabbing a towel to drape around his shoulders. He gave Scott a broad grin. "More like rebuilt. Brains is saying close on two months."
"It's going to be crowded up there on Thunderbird Two," Alan chipped in. "Not that I mind," he added hurriedly.
"Well, it's not going to be a problem for the first month at least," their father noted. "Alan, John, you're going to take the next month in the space station together."
"No arguments, Alan. The doctor may have cleared you as regards lying around on the Island, but rescues are another thing entirely. That was a nasty concussion and I'm not taking any chances."
John looked over the top of his book, his expression sanguine. "Hmm, it shouldn't be too bad. Maybe we'll get time for that discussion about leaving Thunderbird Five tidy that we never manage to have during handover, Alan."
Scott laughed aloud at the expression on his youngest brother's expression and the others joined in, even Alan when he realised he was being teased. His father winked at him before turning back to John.
"At least Alan lets me get a word in edgewise when he's on the space station," Jeff noted. Alan and Gordon exchanged looks, the delight on Alan's and the resignation on his brother's telling Scott which way the bet had gone. He struggled to keep a straight face as their father looked from one to the other in confusion before dismissing the issue. "Virgil, is Thunderbird Two checked and ready to go?"
"Alan, Thunderbird Three?"
"Yes, Dad," Alan admitted grudgingly. Jeff smiled.
"Thunderbird Four is F.A.B., Father."
Jeff Tracy nodded, glancing at his two blond sons. "Then, pack your bags, boys. You're heading for Thunderbird Five in the morning. International Rescue is open for business."
"F.A.B." The acknowledgement came in a chorus.
Scott closed his eyes, soaking in the warmth of the sun as his family scattered around him, John and Alan to their rooms, Virgil deep in conversation with their father about a rearrangement of vehicles between the pods. When he opened them, Gordon was giving him a considering look, Scott returned it with a smile.
"What for?" Gordon asked, confused.
"Ask me another time. I have some bags to go unpack."
Gordon started, his expression momentarily concerned, but then he just nodded briskly. "Want any help?"
Scott looked Gordon up and down as he stood on the edge of the pool, water still running off him despite a perfunctory swipe with his towel. "Are you going to drip on my carpet?"
Gordon grinned, standing and giving his hair a vigorous rub. "Give me a minute to dry off, and I'll be there."
Scott smiled a little shakily. He needed to do this, to put his attempt to divorce himself from his family behind him. But he didn't have to do it alone. "Thanks, Gordon."
Gordon answered with a laugh, tossing the wet towel at Scott, and smiling when his eldest brother dodged it with the ease of long practice. Gordon gave a mock bow as he headed to his room to change.
"What are brothers for?"