Indeed, it is I - the long lost Thunderbirds author who's left you high and dry, waiting without word for the final instalment of 'A Spot Of Bother', for almost three and a half months.
Yeah, my bad. Big, big apologies.
But I've really made college a priority since Christmas and, coupled with my laptop going caput and deleting a seven-thousand word dissertation two weeks before it was due in, the endless studying has made fanfiction a no-go area. I wouldn't allow myself the temptation, knowing I'd be sucked into reading and writing with the same enthusiasm I displayed last year - which, as most of you will know, does eat up a fair amount of your free time.
I hope this final chapter is everything you guys wanted it to be. Getting back into the mood of this story after such a long break was really, really tough (and I admit that without blushing because I think it's only natural), but I'll feel better once the 'complete' icon appears. It was time to finish it up.
For those who are still with me...read on!
A flock of birds took flight in panic as the shrill call of a school bell rang out across the snow-dusted grounds of Wharton Academy. Squinting against the sunlight, Alan watched the winged creatures grow smaller and smaller until they were little more than specks of dust on the bright horizon. Then he pulled himself from his reverie with a sudden shudder, the jerk of his hand leaving a long streak of graphite across the pristine page of his chemistry textbook. He winced, eyeing the damage for a moment before flipping his pencil upside-down and putting the eraser to good use.
"Not enough illustrations in there for your liking?"
Alan started with such a force that the paper beneath his eraser crinkled on the following stroke. He cast the middle aged professor who stood leaning over his desk a sheepishly apologetic smile and carefully closed the book.
The teacher flashed him an easy grin and waved away the apology, handing him a small sheet of notepaper.
"You need any help catching up, my classroom door's always open," he began softly, removing his glasses and slipping them into the top pocket of his shirt. "But I know you do sports, so I figured you'd probably be handling most of the work on your own. These," he tapped the paper meaningfully, "are a few useful study sites that'll explain the course in simple terms. If you're working late at night, they'll be as good a place as any to go looking for answers."
Folding the sheet carefully and slipping it onto the front page of the text book, Alan nodded gratefully. "Thanks, Mr. Daniels"
As the professor moved back towards his desk at the front of the classroom, Alan sagged in his chair, a slight smile tugging at his mouth as he played with the corner of the notepaper that poked out beneath the cover of his book. At least Mr. Daniels understood his predicament. He'd been so snowed under with work this past week, he'd barely slept a wink. It was nice to know that the scientist was on his side - which was more than could be said for his history teacher. Mr. Farley had refused to allow Alan any additional time in which to research his presentation topic. Needless to say, his score in that particular assignment had been very much below the average.
"Don't let it bother you, Al," Scott had soothed when Alan had ranted to his older brother later that same day. "He's always been a prickly old miser. He once gave this buddy o' mine an extra homework assignment for sneezing too loudly in class. Claimed he'd done it intentionally. We used to call him 'Mr. Snarley' when I was at school. Kinda low and pathetic, I know, but it felt good to get back at him somehow."
Alan smiled to himself at the memory. That little nugget of information had definitely helped to raise his spirits. That evening in the common room, he'd graciously shared the pet name with his classmates. Now it was only a matter of time before one of the more rebellious students said it to Farley's face. Alan was thoroughly looking forward to that moment.
Glancing up, Alan blinked, wondering just how long he'd been sitting there. The classroom was empty now, aside from himself and the three teenagers who stood waiting nearby, watching him expectantly. At the front of the room, Mr. Daniels had gone back to marking his papers; the enormous stack of sheets seemed to forever take up residence upon his desk.
Ben stepped forward, a worried frown beginning to grow along the deepening crease in his forehead as he studied Alan's face carefully. "You okay, man?"
Alan grinned, sliding the textbook into the rucksack at his feet. "Yeah, I'm fine. Why d'you ask?"
He shrugged. "No reason. You just seemed kinda...spaced out back there."
"Dude, relax. I'm fine," Alan repeated, slinging the strap over his shoulder and pushing his friend towards the door. "C'mon, let's eat. I'm starved."
He heard Mr. Daniels snort. "Like father, like son."
With lazy salute towards his smiling chemistry teacher, the youngest Tracy shoved the others out into the corridor, smirking as they shot frowns of feigned annoyance in his direction. Man, it was good to be back.
"If the wind blows, you're gonna freeze that way," Alan said brightly, parroting one of John's more favoured comebacks. "And you'll have a hard time scoring chicks with a face like a monkey's ass."
So perhaps it wasn't a word-for-word quotation, but it had the desired effect nonetheless. Trying to look offended but failing miserably, Fermat landed a swift punch to his upper arm, which Alan returned with equal enthusiasm. Ben and Jake glanced at each other momentarily, and then exchanged their own punches for good measure. Together, the four teenagers set off down the corridor, Alan and Fermat leading the way, the younger boy's recent growth spurt having finally provided him with the length of leg he required to keep up with the Tracy son's brisk pace.
Alan flashed a smile as one of the older students from the track team walked by. The other pupil returned gesture, clapping him on the shoulder as he brushed past, and Alan was content. Walking around the school definitely wasn't such a nightmare now that people had become accustomed to his physical appearance. His long-sleeved clothing managed to hide most of the pock marks, but there was nothing he could do about the spots on his face. On his first day back at Wharton's, he had been painfully aware of his altered appearance, self-conscious to the extreme, certain that every pupil's gaze was trained on him as he walked quickly from class to class, head bent low, eyes downcast. But that feeling had passed quickly. In fact, his classmates had been sympathetic more than anything. Then again, he'd only been back a week. Perhaps the less savoury characters in the school were simply too afraid of catching chickenpox to approach him.
Grinning, Alan shook his head, coming to a halt in front of his locker. Maybe being sick had its benefits after all.
"What is it?"
Three pairs of eyes studied the contents of the bowl intently, brows furrowed.
Fermat tilted his head to one side. "She did say it was v-vegetable soup, right?"
Jake snorted. "Soup? Dude, that stuff's not even close to being soup. And I don't know what that is," he picked up Ben's fork and poked at a floating lump of something soft and pale, "but it ain't any kinda vegetable I've ever seen."
Ben reclaimed his fork, frowning, only to begin poking at another lump of 'vegetable' that was floating lazily in the pool of watery...whatever it was. "Ya know," he remarked, withdrawing the pronged end and setting the object aside, "I'm not sure they were even supposed to serve this. It looks like something you'd find in a...in a blocked drain or something. It looks like...like-"
"Toxic waste?" Jake supplied helpfully.
"That's the stuff," the taller boy confirmed. He eyed the bowl with an air of mild suspicion. "Ya think they're tryin' to poison us?"
"P-probably," Fermat agreed, nodding slowly as he leaned back in his chair, as though he were trying to put as much distance as he could between himself and the substance in question.
Ben grinned. "I bet old Snarley's just dying to get rid of Alan. Maybe he bribed the kitchen staff." He eyed the 'soup' in a new light. "Must've taken some doing, making it look and smell as bad as that."
"Maybe the chef's dog barfed it up," Jake suggested lightly.
Alan landed a non-too-gentle kick to the other teenager's shin. "Guys, I'm trying to eat here."
Fermat's eyes widened. "You're gonna eat that stuff?"
"What, that?" Alan scoffed, looking up from his plate of fries to glance at the untouched bowl. "Not on your life. I took it out of curiosity more than anything. Sometimes it's not all that bad; other times, it's my history presentation in liquid form. Ya know, they actually made a half-decent attempt at minestrone on Monday."
Ben took a large bite out of his slice of pizza, chewing thoughtfully as he drew patterns on the shiny surface of the table with the grease on his fingertips. "Maybe," he mumbled, the words muffled by the food still in his mouth, "the only decent cook in the school has Fridays off."
Alan sniffed a grin. "I'll bear that in mind the next time I ask for soup."
They ate in companionable silence for a little while, Jake and Ben displaying their usual aptitude for ingesting large quantities of food in a relatively short period of time. Having grown up with brothers like Scott and Gordon, the sight was a familiar one, and Alan found it oddly comforting. Although he didn't care to admit it, he'd missed his family more than ever this past week. Perhaps it was simply because his workload had increased tenfold and the pressure to catch up was stressing him out; or maybe he'd just grown used to having his siblings around and everything about Wharton's screamed their absence. Either way, he'd found himself sneaking up to his dorm room to check his messages at every available opportunity, which wasn't something he'd card to make a habit of before now.
His brothers seemed eager enough to encourage his regular tele-calls. And with Gordon still up on Thunderbirds Five – poor John was temporarily 'grounded' back on base with a head cold - the second youngest Tracy had made it clear that he would be available for a chat anytime, any day. Indeed, it was apparent that he was desperate for some form of a distraction. There was only so much exercise he could do up there before the machines got wise and switched themselves off. And, unlike John, Gordon really wasn't the reading type.
Alan grinned. In a way, it was comforting to know that at least one of his siblings shared his current position; stuck miles and miles away from home, with no chance of returning for at least a month (unless, God forbid, disaster struck) and fully reliant upon technology to maintain communications with his family. Although, come to think of it, perhaps Gordon had drawn the short straw out of the two of them; Alan at least had several hundred high school students to keep him company. His brother only had the stars and a couple of goldfish. And Alan had to admit, the food at Wharton's was marginally better than the freeze-dried "heat 'n' eat" NASA ration packs the aquanaut was currently living off. Oh, Gordon wouldn't be happy about that. If there was one thing all Tracys had in common, it was their love for good food.
A tap on his shoulder drew him from his thoughts and he turned, hooking one arm over the back of his chair and peering up at the dark-haired senior student standing behind him. He smiled and raised a hand in greeting.
"Phil. Hey. "
The older boy returned the smile. "Hey." He glanced across the table towards Jake, nodding cheerfully, and then looked back down at Alan. "You feelin' up to running today, Tracy? Coach doesn't want to break you in too fast, but since the snow's all but melted now and conditions underfoot are as safe as they're gonna get in winter, he figured that today's as good a day as any to get stuck in with the programme again. So," he grinned hopefully, " you up for it?"
"Do you even have to ask?" Alan pinged a fry at Fermat when the boy opened his mouth to answer. "Rhetorical question, dude." He turned back towards the track captain. "I'll be there."
"Awesome." Phil clapped him on the shoulder and jerked his head in the direction of the entrance to the dining hall. "I'll go tell coach to expect a full house this afternoon. Oh, and Maleski?"
With his hands behind his head and his feet propped up on the table as he rocked back on his chair, Jake sent the older boy a glance of feigned disinterest. "Mm-hmm?"
"Make sure Tracy doesn't trip over his laces in class and fracture something important, okay? Coach'll have my head if anything else happens to him. I'll see you guys later. Hackenbacker," he nodded at Fermat, then at the tall teen sitting beside him, "Ben."
He clapped Alan on the shoulder again, pushed himself away from the table and jogged across the dining hall, his lean form disappearing into the throng of students bustling around near the door.
Jake watched him go in silence for a moment, before lowering hi s feet from the table. He sat up straight and slowly turned to face a frowning Ben. Smirking, he held out his hand and crooked a finger. "C'mon, pay up."
Ben dug into his jacket pocket, muttering something incomprehensible, and slapped a fistful of crinkled notes onto his friend's palm. Alan looked from one to the other, suspicion etched across his features.
"What's all this about?"
Jake grinned. "We have this ongoing bet," he replied, leaning back in his chair again and stuffing the notes into his pocket, "that Phil's never gonna be able to remember Ben's last name. We've been at it for months now."
"I swear the guy secretly knows about it," Ben grumbled, but the mirth in his eyes belied his sullen tone. "Just you wait, Gonzales. One of these days, Phil's gonna slip. Then I'll be the one raking in the money."
"That's the spirit." Jake slapped him on the back. "Optimism's the best course of action. And you never know, one day it might even happen! But until then-"
"Don't," Ben warned
"-you're just gonna have to put up with being a loser."
Alan wisely pushed his chair back from the table as Ben growled and made a grab for the cold 'soup'. Pulling Fermat up and out of his seat, he pushed him towards the door.
"I don't think we wanna be here when a teacher intervenes," he murmured. Fermat nodded, quickening his pace to a jog as the sound of disgruntled and soup-splattered students rose up behind them.
The winter chill wasn't all that bad. In a way it was quite refreshing, especially after being cooped up inside for so long. Coach Stevens hadn't allowed him to train with the track team for the past four days, arguing that he needed to slowly ease himself back into the exercise regime after such a long period of absence, and that training in near-blizzard conditions wasn't the right way to go about it. Alan hadn't put up much of a fight. He'd never been overly fond of snow.
But it felt good to be outdoors again; to feel the bitterly cold wind against his skin, the breeze making the loose material of his track pants flap noisily about his lower legs; to shift restlessly from foot to foot in an attempt to regain the feeling in his toes as he waited for Coach to send them out onto the track. With these familiar sensations came a calming sense of normality - something that had been absent ever since he left Wharton's with John three weeks ago. It felt good to have his world finally righting itself again.
"I've missed seeing that ugly mug of yours, ya know," Jake remarked casually as they trudged towards the orange tarmac of the running track, kicking at the sporadic patches of frozen snow that clung resolutely to the frosty grass. "Craig's been pacing me these past few weeks, but it hasn't been the same. He's not as annoying as you, for starters."
Alan reached the track first and began to stretch, bringing one knee up to his chest, then the other. "I'm touched. Really."
Grinning, Jake hopped from foot to foot for a moment, watching as the other teenager bent down to tap the toes of his running shoes. He tilted his head to one side. "You not warmed up enough yet?"
The blond straightened, shrugging, then began rolling his shoulders. "I haven't exercised in weeks, Jake. And I'm not gonna spend the weekend nursing a strained muscle."
"We'll take it slow," Jake promised, with only faint note of impatience.
Alan sighed, hopping from foot to foot a few times to loosen his tensed hamstrings, and turned to face the faster runner.
"Fine," he conceded.
Jake was as good as his word, keeping their pace slow and steady - almost painfully so - for the first few minutes. After a short while had passed, Alan's muscles began to remember their previous strength and sought a more familiar rhythm. The youngest Tracy quickened their light jog to a brisker tempo and surged forwards, matching his friend's grin as Jake caught up with him.
The track soon became a world of its own, and all memory of his past troubles fled until the only thing that existed aside from his own body was the orange tarmac beneath his feet and the cool, early Spring breeze sweetly kissing his flushed cheeks. It was as though his feet carried him away from the overshadowing concerns of school life; from the piles of prep work that sat waiting for him on his desk in the dorm room, growing taller and taller by the day; from the less charitable teachers who seemed more than usually determined to add to it at every opportunity. His imagination soared and his mind blocked out all external sounds save the steady beat of his own two feet, so that the rapid, echoing drum within his chest serenaded his journey across the unknown without interruption.
Time was always of little consequence once his mind had drifted and his body had taken flight like this. He could have been running for five minutes, maybe ten - or perhaps several hours. Who could tell? The remaining spark of common sense buried somewhere beneath the shrouds of euphoria told him that a brief glance at his watch would settle the matter, but in doing so this exhilarating state of detachment would be shattered. And he wasn't ready to come back down to earth, not just yet.
Earth, it seemed, had other ideas.
There was a sudden and unexpected vibration, a sharp buzz in his wrist which seemed to shake his very bones. He faltered, stumbling to a halt, his legs turning jelly-like as his blood continued to pulse rapidly through his limbs. He bent double, turning his back on the playing field in the centre of the track so that the other runners on the opposite side of the training grounds could not see what he was doing. Raising his arm so that the buzzing watch was facing him, he glanced briefly at the flashing lights, and something cold and unpleasant slid down his chest and settled itself at the pit of his stomach. Breathing heavily, and not just from the exercise, he quickly pressed his thumb and forefinger against the buttons above and beneath the watch face, holding them down for a few seconds before releasing. The watch ceased to vibrate immediately and the flashing lights grew dark, but the cold, liquid feeling in Alan's stomach remained.
This particular alert could mean only one thing: that the Thunderbirds had been launched on another rescue mission.
A hand on his shoulder made him jump and he straightened quickly, whirling towards the broad figure who stood alongside him.
"Coach," he panted, and for one horrible moment Alan feared that the Olympic gold medallist had seen everything – not that he'd know what the signal meant even if he had caught a glimpse of the watch, but Alan was still reeling from the suddenness of it all and hadn't yet come to realise this.
Coach Stevens eyed him critically. "What happened, kid?"
"Nothing, Coach, I'm sorry...I-" he broke off, breathless and at a loss for words. He decided to keep it simple. "I just lost my focus for second, that's all. I'm fine now."
The man's brow crinkled into its usual frown and his grip on Alan's shoulder tightened. "I don't like the look of you, son. No offense intended, of course," he added, a wry smile quirking at the corner of his mouth. Then he sobered again began guiding the teenager towards the side of the track. "Let's sit you down a minute."
Alan consented to being gently eased to the ground beside the edge the grassy playing field, biting back the protest that sprung readily to his lips and endeavouring to look as tired as he felt. Perhaps he could use Coach Stevens' concern to his advantage. He really wasn't in the mood for running anymore, and he desperately wanted to find out what sort of rescue operation had been launched.
Alan braced his feet against the tarmac and brought his knees up, still breathing heavily, and felt a large, strong hand slowly forced his head between them.
"Breathe, kid. Deep breaths. I'm not gonna have you fainting on me."
Alan shook his head. "I'm not gonna-"
"Zip it," Stevens ordered gruffly, but his voice was low and Alan knew from experience that the stern tone was only a facade. The guy was as soft as cream cheese beneath the surface, he just kept it hidden.Very hidden. Actually, Alan would never have been able to picture Stevens as a softy if it hadn't been for the surprise visit his wife and four-year-old son had made during one of the training sessions. He and his teammates had seen the real Coach Stevens that day. It was hard to fear him after that, and Coach hadn't really put his heart into keeping up the pretence. It made lying to him like this a little less nerve-wracking.
It wasn't long before Jake came sprinting around the corner of the track, legs pumping furiously as he sped towards them. "Alan! Man, are you okay?" He skidded to a halt beside them. "What happened?"
"I just got dizzy all of a sudden," Alan lied, rubbing a hand down his face. "I'll be okay, just gimme a minute."
Coach Stevens came to squat down in front of him, tilting his head to the side as he studied Alan for a long moment. The teenager dropped his gaze.
"Coach, really, I'll be okay."
"I know," Stevens agreed, standing to his feet again with a slow nod. "But you're done here for today, understand? I won't have you sick again so soon after recovering. Maleski?"
Jake glanced up from where he knelt beside his teammate. "Yeah, Coach?"
"Escort Alan back to his room, make sure he doesn't keel over along the way," the Olympic runner instructed, reaching down and gently grasping Alan's arms, pulling the teenager upright. "If he has another dizzy spell, take him to the medical wing. If you can't find somebody to keep an eye on him, don't bother coming back."
Jake nodded, taking hold of Alan's elbow. "Got it, Coach." He turned towards the grand Wharton's school building in the distance and tugged on his friend's arm. "C'mon, Al."
Alan maintained the expression of weary dazedness for several minutes as they walked away from the track. Only when he was positive that Coach Stevens was no longer able to see his face did he allow his features to relax into a slow, cunning smile, his head turned away from the teenager who walked alongside him so that Jake wouldn't see through the act.
Man, he was good.
"You sure you're gonna be okay?" Jake repeated, glancing back at him from the doorway. He ran a hand through his short, dark locks and scuffed the floorboards with the toe of his sneaker. "Maybe I should stay until Fermat gets here."
Alan shook his head, wincing convincingly, and curled an arm over his eyes. "S'okay," he murmured. "I'm just gonna sleep for a little bit."
Jake sighed, nodding. "Alright. I'll come back and check on you later, after practice. Just take it easy, okay?"
Alan rolled onto his side so that he faced the door and offered his friend a suitably weary smile, touched by the teenager's concern. "I will. Now go on, get outta here, Coach'll be getting worried." He raised a hand and made half-hearted shooing motions. "Break a leg, Gonzales."
Jake laughed. "Thanks, but I think I'll pass on that one." Then, with his usual boisterous grin firmly back in place, he gave a parting wave and jogged off down the corridor and out of sight. The motion-sensitive door slowly slid closed, locking into place with a soft hiss.
Alan immediately threw back the covers and darted towards his desk, snagging his discarded shirt from the nearby dresser and donning it quickly. He grabbed the TV remote and pointed it at the wall-mounted plasma screen, flicking through the news channels as he switched on his laptop with his free hand.
"C'mon," he murmured, increasingly more frustrated as channel after channel refused to cough up the story he was looking for. "This is more important than GM crops, guys. You're getting sloppy."
The cheerful chime of the message alert on his cell phone provided a momentary distraction. Dropping the remote onto the table, he typed his password into the laptop as he dug around on his desk for the phone. Locating it beneath a discarded packet of potato chips, he flipped it open, eyes widening as the sender's name popped up.
He opened the message and scanned it quickly, feeling his fluttering stomach begin to settle as he read and then re-read the text.
Hey. Dad went with Virgil. Just a simple paint job. Chillax. I'm in my room, vid me when you can. John x
Hooking his foot around the desk chair, he pulled it closer and sat down, snapping the cell phone shut. He shook his head slowly and, with a wry grin, tossed the device back onto the desk. Switching off the television, he turned up the volume on his laptop and sent a call directly to the telecom station in John's bedroom. A few moments later, a familiar head and torso appeared on the screen.
John offered him a welcoming grin, although it lacked his usual enthusiasm, and croaked out a painfully rough, "Hey, kiddo."
Alan frowned, studying the older blond critically. "Hey. You feeling worse today?"
His brother waved away the suggestion. "Nah, I sound worse than I feel. And the guys woke me up when they launched the 'birds. Haven't been sleeping much recently."
The blond hair, usually so perfectly coifed, looked decidedly unkempt, and Alan could see the tell-tale lines of sleep that creased the skin around John's eyes. Reassured that there was nothing to be overly concerned about, he allowed himself to relax, leaning back in his desk chair and crossing his arms over his chest, the thin set of his mouth relaxing into another wry grin.
"By 'a simple paint job', I'm guessing it's nothing particularly catastrophic?"
He nodded. "Far as I can tell. A plane carrying a team of environmental biologists went down about an hour ago in a secluded area of the Sahel. Search and rescue will take too long to reach them; night's already fallen and it's too remote an area. We, however, can get there in a quarter of the time. 'Two can trace the signal right back to the source and use it as a guide, so we offered to help."
Alan chewed his lip thoughtfully for a moment, trying to place the name, then shook his head and sent his older brother a sheepish look. "I suck at geography. The Sahel would be in...?"
A real grin lit up John's face and he regarded his younger brother in fond amusement. "Africa, Sprout. The Sahel sits right below the Sahara desert. The whole place is practically a desert itself, that's why it's so sparsely populated."
"The Sahel," Alan repeated softly. "It's a safe area, right?"
"Well..." John twisted his own desk chair from side to side lazily, smiling, "the guys'll be safe from flash floods, at least. It's the height of the dry season, no rain for months. They'll be fine"
"They'll be fine, kiddo," the astronomer reiterated, his tone gentle and reassuring beneath the gravelly croak. "Gordon spoke to the pilot; they had engine trouble and were forced to make a hasty landing, touched down on a rocky patch and got a little roughed up in the process. Cuts and bruises mostly, although one guy has a broken collar bone. Nothing Virge can't handle."
"Well, that's a relief," Alan sighed. Embarrassed, he rubbed the back of his neck, a bad habit he'd picked up from more than one of his older siblings. "I hated not knowing. Nearly decked it on the track when my watch went off."
John - who had been taking a long, slow drink from a mug of something hot, judging by the steam - eyed Alan silently for a moment, one brow drifting gradually upwards. He set the mug aside.
Suddenly, his face brightened. "Hey, I got some news for you."
"Oh?" Alan perked up, interested. "What?"
His brother smirked. "Guess."
"Clue's in the opening line, kiddo," John stated cheerfully. He cleared his throat and repeated, "Hey, I got some news for you."
Lost, Alan shook his head. "Nope. No idea."
John sighed, caught between exasperation and fond amusement. "ATM news? Martha Stuarts? C'mon, Al. That ring any fire bells?"
"The online article," Alan blurted, recalling suddenly the legal action his father had taken against the staged fire alarm that had resulted in unwanted media attention. "What about it? Did our lawyers win the case? Did they manage to withdraw the photograph?"
"Oh, they did more than that." John's eyes flashed and he cocked an evil little smile reserved only for moments of pleasing retribution. "Not only has ATM deleted the article, but poor little Martha Stuarts has been given the pink slip."
Alan's eyes widened. "They fired her? They actually fired her?"
"Yup. Seems ATM's star reporter wasn't as popular as she thought she was. They didn't even try to defend her case, they just let her take the rap and submitted a formal apology to you and the family on her behalf. I think it's safe to say that we won't be seeing her surgically sculpted features for a long while."
Alan nodded, relief surging through him at the knowledge that everything was finally over. "Good. That's...that's good."
John tilted his head to one side, eyes narrowing at the weary tone. "Hey. You okay?"
"Hmm? Oh, yeah, I'm fine." He scrubbed a hand down his face and sighed heavily. "Just a little tired."
"As I recall," the older Tracy began, then coughed wetly to clear his throat before continuing, "the last time you were 'just a little tired', you woke up covered from head to toe in spots and spent the next two weeks in bed."
Unable to think of a suitable comeback – a position his brothers had often shared with him when it came to talking with John – Alan settled for poking out his tongue. Pathetic, yes, but it made him feel better.
John laughed softly, the action bringing forth a short, wheezy coughing fit. "Mature, Al," he managed, his cheeks flushed but his grin just as sincere as before. "Glad to know the whole education thing is paying off."
"Aw, shut up," Alan groused, picking up the packet of potato chips that sat next to his laptop and throwing it at the screen. When his brother's laughter once again dissolved into chesty coughs, he grew more serious. "And get some water or something before you bring up a lung. A capful of cough syrup wouldn't go amiss, either."
The other blond drew an arm across his watering eyes and nodded, a little more red in the face. "Yeah, you're probably right. You gonna be okay now?"
"Actually," Alan said lightly, "I think I'm gonna go sit in the bathroom and cry."
John grinned. "Well, you have fun with that. I'm gonna grab some meds and check on Brains, but I'll be back here in an hour or so if you need to chat. Dad'll call you when they get back, provided it's not past your bedtime."
Alan snorted. "I don't do bedtimes, John."
"Can I pass on that little nugget of information to Dad? Or Scott?"
John levelled him with a hard stare. "I wasn't joking, you know."
"Hey, when Spring Break rolls around, I'll bring you back a box of Hershey Kisses," Alan promised, smiling hopefully. "You are, after all, my favourite brother."
The astronomer winked. "Atta boy. Take care of yourself, okay?"
Alan nodded, raising one hand to his temple in a half-hearted salute and offering a lopsided smile. "Yes, Dad." He leaned forwards, reaching for the keyboard. "Feel better soon."
"Thanks, buddy. Take care."
The call ended with a sharp electronic 'beep' and Alan sank back in the desk chair, smiling to himself, feeling better than he had done all week. He stretched an arm out in front of him lazily, eyeing the fading pock marks as he tapped his foot lightly against the metal leg of the desk. It really was over. Somehow, the news of Martha's job termination and the withdrawal of that dreadful photograph had provided a sense of closure that had previously been lacking. It had been the missing piece of the puzzle, the one thing that had been bugging him unawares at the back of his mind. How could he have forgotten about it? Well...getting chickenpox had certainly served as a plausible distraction. Besides, it didn't matter anymore. It was over. The spots were healing. And – poor John aside – his family was just fine. Things couldn't be better.
The electronic lock on the door clicked, startling Alan from his own thoughts, a split second before Fermat darted into the room. He was breathing heavily, glasses askew and hair rumpled, but had the good sense to lock the door behind him before addressing Alan.
"I tried to g-get here sooner," he panted, pushing his thick-rimmed glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose, "but things d-didn't exactly go according to plan. I faked an asthma attack to get out of computing, but Mr. Byrnes got so worried that he had S-Stevie Geldon escort me to the med-wing. It took me ages to persuade them that I was f-f-, that I was okay." He heaved a deep, noisy breath and then released it again, visibly sagging. "So," he said, a little more in control of himself, "what did I miss?"
Grinning, Alan leaned back in his chair. "Ah, nothing much," he said lightly, putting his hands behind his head. "Just the usual."
"S-so we're good?"
"Yeah, Fermat. We're good."
- THE END -
A very BIG thank you to all those who emailed me so frequently over the past few months. Your support and comfort has been a real blessing. My apologies for not reading new fics/keeping up with current ones, I've barely even allowed myself online time to use my email because the internet was too much of a distraction. Yeah, I'm that determined. My parents are despairing.
To my three lovely ladies, and you know who you are, who I have been out of contact with for at least a month (ouch, sorry) - I will be messaging you soon! It is currently the Easter holidays over here in Britain, so free time is a touch more plentiful than it was before. I'll give you an update on what's been happening with my life as soon as I can. And I'll read your stories, too, and do some much-needed catching up.
*hugs* I love you all.
Review? Maybe? Just a few little ones? I know I don't deserve it but...please? One last time, with feeling?
Little Miss Bump xoxox