Author Note 1 – This story was written earlier this year for the 2011 TIWF ficswap challenge. The task was to write a hurt/comfort story featuring the characters of Tin-Tin, Gordon and John. It didn't turn out to be quite the usual hurt/comfort piece but there was no doubt that writing it was a challenge. I hope you enjoy it

"Dear John"

"Part One"

written by "mcj"

MARYLAND (midnight)

Life was unpredictable, or so her father always said.

Here one second and gone the next.

Such is our journey in the world.

The secret to the journey is to accept from the beginning that there is only so much time we have been given.

Cherish every moment and make the moments good.

Live, because the only chance you have might not be there for you again, tomorrow.

It was her father's wisdom that fuelled her need to express how she felt in a letter. It was a letter unlike any she had written before. It told a story and it asked many questions. It helped her come to grips with the last twenty days and their struggle against life's unpredictability.

They'd been flung together...

…then torn apart…

"Dear John,"was how her letter began.

"I find it hard to believe that it's been almost three weeks since your father was forced into making that call. Nothing like this had ever happened to International Rescue before. It was even beyond the expertise of Brains."

USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) Fort Detrick, Maryland

Colonel James Bryson, M.D. rolled backwards and forwards in the chair behind his desk, wondering at what point their so-called "commander" would get the message that he wasn't impressed.

The newly appointed head of USAMRIID didn't take kindly to anyone, let alone some authoritative "ex military buddy of his predecessor," muscling in on specialized turf, telling him what to do, how it should be done and above all, when he should do it.

Biological containment fell well within his jurisdiction and no-one knew it better than Bryson. He only wished this guy would shut up long enough to listen to him, so he could make that point blatantly clear.

He also wasn't buying the punch line that International Rescue could be facing a race against time.

Okay, so they'd gotten themselves into trouble. It wasn't USAMRIID's problem that they'd taken it on themselves to ramp things up in some random little native village in Uganda. An incident during their response to a call for help didn't necessarily meet James Bryson's criteria for potential exposure to some sort of deadly virus. So far, all he'd managed to establish was that the use of his facility had been sanctioned by the president and that there were three members of International Rescue involved.

"So, tell me again why you think they've been exposed?" he interrupted, impatient to concentrate on the facts. Since taking up his appointment at USAMRIID two months earlier, Bryson had already earned himself a reputation for not only being rude, but blunt.

What he didn't bank on was the pause on the other end of the communication, and their commander lowering his voice at least an octave.

"Hell, Bryson. I don't have the time for this crap. I've got one of my aircraft and three of my people grounded in the middle of nowhere. They're covered in black, stinking blood. I'm not asking you for hospitality. I'm not expecting you to be nice. What I need and right now is your personal expertise and a clearance for the three of them from your containment facility."

He was a pushy bastard; there was no doubt in Bryson's mind about that. It was hard not to feel the stirrings of respect despite the burning urge to dislike him. Whoever he was, he had obviously been one of the big guys once; the type who still expected their orders to be obeyed. Bryson wasn't too sure if he wanted to get any further into the argument with the International Rescue commander, particularly if the president was already involved.

"All right," he conceded, forming a finger tent with his hands, "but I caution you right now that what you are expecting me to authorize here isn't half as straightforward as you make it sound."


That had obviously hit a raw nerve. Their commander wasn't nearly as aggressive with the next response he gave.

"I fully understand that USAMRIID has procedures, Colonel."

"Procedures that you will find are non-negotiable," Bryson stressed in return. He didn't give a damn how many lives they were supposed to have saved.

In the silence that followed, he made a quick mental note to make very sure that every procedure was followed to the letter. If International Rescue had been exposed, it was going to be one big deal, and he seriously doubted that any of them would be walking out of USAMRIID with a medical clearance any time soon. Some of the virus strains James Bryson had studied during his twenty five year medical career took weeks to incubate; others ravaged a body in less than three days. At USAMRIID, "identify and contain'" took on a whole new meaning and Bryson knew damn well if he wanted to keep his job, he would be responsible for doing exactly that.

"So, where to from here?"

Bryson shrugged. "I guess that it's your call, Commander."

The deep voice had no hesitation in assuming complete control.

"Thunderbird Two can be instructed to fly to Fort Detrick immediately," he confirmed. "I am aware that you have the necessary facilities to secure the craft and keep it under guard while it's there."

Bryson bristled at his confidence. So the commander of International Rescue thought he knew everything about USAMRIID, did he? How much he really knew would now be put to the test.

"We have one runway direct into the facility, yes," he acknowledged. "We can also place your aircraft under twenty four hour guard. However, be very aware, Commander, if that aircraft is found to be carrying infected personnel, I have it within my power to order that it be destroyed."

He sat back and collapsed the finger tent, waiting for the reaction to his statement. He knew that the International Rescue crafts were rumored to be worth millions. He also knew that Thunderbird Two was their carrier ship and absolutely vital to their operations. It would interesting to see what price their commander was prepared to pay for USAMRIID to carry out the necessary tests on his men.

"I assure you that I'm more than willing to take that risk, Bryson," was the answer.

"...because two of those on board are my sons."

"It must have been so difficult to make the decision to send us to USAMRIID. I could only imagine what was going through your father's head at the time. The situation was bad enough without being told what might happen to Thunderbird Two when we got there. How concerned must he have been for us all?"

Uganda, Africa

It was still outside John Tracy's comprehension why Virgil had turned all defensive and started arguing the point when Father had ordered him back to the base. Virgil had been scouring another area of the danger zone at the time. Why would Father want to take any further risks by allowing him to remain in a village suspected to be contaminated?

Virgil's one-eyed view, of course, was that Scott wasn't there and as the second eldest, he was responsible for what was going on. No-one could be more stubborn than Virgil when he'd made up his mind about something and it certainly hadn't been a pleasant exchange when Father had stood firm, and in no uncertain terms, demanded that he remove himself from the area.

John had seen some memorable blast-offs in his time but nothing quite like a fired up Virgil who had no desire to leave the scene or sit behind Thunderbird One's controls all the way back to Tracy Island. If the situation had been played out under different circumstances, he and Gordon would still be laughing at the spectacle. It was a rare occasion when Virgil lost it, and using Thunderbird One as an outlet for his expression definitely hadn't endeared him to their father.

But now, with the sound of Thunderbird One's engines fading rapidly into the distance, John Tracy was left staring at the controls of Thunderbird Two, contemplating a frightening reality.

He had been exposed to something deadly and he didn't know what it was.

Tin-Tin and Gordon had both been exposed to it, too.

They were stuck in Uganda awaiting "further instructions."

They didn't know when they would be allowed to go home.

Father had said, "Don't panic, son", "leave this to me," and that he was "taking things straight to the top." It was a matter of them sitting tight and being patient, John supposed. Father rarely needed to resort to outside help and he'd never invoked his political connections with the president.

The trouble with patience was that it gave John too much time to reflect on the things that had happened during the rescue and he didn't like what he was remembering at all…

It certainly hadn't started out as one of their more routine assignments. Not only had the emergency call come from an obscure location in the Ugandan jungle; Scott was on the mainland carrying out corporation business at the time, leaving John to take over the role of field commander.

Father didn't waste any time ordering the launch of Thunderbird One once Alan had provided him with the brief. Thunderbird Two had followed closely behind, after it was agreed that Tin-Tin should go along to supplement the depleted crew. With one man down and the report of a major landslide, Father knew that someone else would be needed to priorities any survivors. Tin-Tin had jumped at the chance to help set up a triage. The rescue looked like it was going to be tough.

When Thunderbird One arrived at the danger zone, an aerial sweep found the village in the path of the landslide almost obliterated by boulders and muddied debris. The debris looked to be almost eighty feet deep in places and John had expressed his concerns to Father that anyone buried underneath would still be alive.

There were a few primitive buildings on the perimeter of the area which gave him a little more reason to be hopeful. Alan was contacted and requested to use Thunderbird Five's powerful scanners in an attempt to try and locate any survivors.

"…as fast as you can," had been John's preoccupied command.

Thunderbird Two's arrival at the scene coincided with Alan confirming that there were no signs of life under the rubble. Virgil had refused to believe it at first; insisting that Five's scanners had been wrong before. He'd set off on his hover bike to scour the area, telling John they wouldn't be leaving the scene until he was sure.

Not long after, Alan detected what he thought might be a sketchy reading inside one of the huts. Gordon and Tin-Tin wasted no time grabbing the resuscitation equipment from the pod before the three of them headed off in the direction of the shabby makeshift building...

John Tracy sighed and tapped anxiously at the console. What was taking Father so long? It had been almost three hours since he'd reported the incident to the base. He was finding it hard to maintain control of the roller coasting emotions. Tin-Tin was becoming more distressed by the minute; Gordon kept asking him what the hell was going on; and he swore if Alan contacted him one more time demanding how something like this could have happened, he was going to say something he'd really regret.

It took another fifteen minutes before Thunderbird Two's communications finally came back to life and Father's worried voice rumbled through the cabin.

"John, you are to proceed to Maryland on the double," was the message. "You don't have a moment to lose."

"You were so quiet during the stressful flight to Fort Detrick. I knew you were apprehensive and Alan's outbursts hadn't helped. What had just happened to us had happened, and it was pointless apportioning blame. Blame is nothing but a useless burden. It feeds guilt and it changes absolutely nothing."

USAMRIID, Fort Detrick, Maryland

Gordon Tracy followed the woman in the green ventilation suit down the corridor, trying not to count the number of thick, steel doors that were closing behind him on the way to his "temporary accommodations."

He wondered if now was the appropriate time to flag that he was feeling a little claustrophobic.

He swallowed and balled up his fists, instead.

Gordon had already decided an hour ago that USAMRIID was no five star Hotel. Huge machines whirred along the long, winding corridors. Red and green lights reflected off the white, sterile concrete walls. There were people in lab coats monitoring screens without blinking.

He shuddered and tried not to think too hard about what the room service would be like.

They were expected to co-operate fully and be tested on the hour, Colonel Bryson had told them. Temperature…blood…throat cultures...urine. Nothing was left to chance at USAMRIID. They would also be required to commence a series of daily vaccinations for all known viruses still in existence on the African continent.

"These are Lassa Fever, Marburg and the three known strains of Ebola," Bryson had rattled off. "The first vaccination is to be administered immediately."

The vaccinations would be painful and taxing on the body and there was nothing whatsoever he could do about it. The only alternative was rest and that was their responsibility. Only time was going to shed light on what it was.

Gordon made the mistake of trying to lighten things up by asking Bryson if his idea of breaking good news got any better.

What he'd really wanted to say was that he hated vaccinations.

And Bryson didn't have any sense of humor.

Gordon was still beating himself up for failing to take the necessary precautions when faced with a rescue in a 'hot zone.' It wasn't as if International Rescue didn't have access to hazmat suits, or they hadn't been adequately trained. The stench that had assaulted their senses as they neared the old hut should have been the catalyst for them to stop and approach the situation with caution. Internal injuries and broken bones didn't give off that type of smell. He could almost hear Father's voice in the debriefing, already.

"And so can someone explain to me why all three of you choose to ignore it?"

To make matters worse, once they'd found the dying man, their only focus had been to try and stabilise him so that he could be evacuated for medical treatment. There had been no time for hazmat suits once the vomiting spasms got started. Gordon had never seen so much blood project out of one human body.

The woman in the ventilation suit had stopped outside a narrow door and was indicating that this was to be his room. It almost looked like an ordinary hotel room; that is, if a guy didn't mind the ceiling to floor glass or he didn't expect to have any privacy. Even the small bathroom only consisted of the necessary items disguised behind a series of strategic steel panels.

They sure weren't joking when they said USAMRIID monitored everything.

Tin-Tin was going to flip.

"Gee ma'am, I had no idea I was getting the penthouse," he offered nervously as the door hissed open and he was ushered inside. "If I'd have known you were going to treat me like some sort of celebrity, I'd have gone all out and packed my silk cravat."

Like Bryson, the "vent suit" with the name-tag Magetti, didn't see the funny side of life. She shrugged and pointed at the pile of backless hospital gowns on the chair beside the bed.

"YOU NEED TO SURRENDER YOUR CLOTHING," she yelled above the hiss and ebb of the ventilation suit. "AND I'M SURE YOU KNOW WHAT I NEED YOU TO DO WITH THIS."

An empty specimen cup joined the pile of gowns on the chair.

Gordon looked disdainfully at the space behind the scant steel panels and then at the screens across the hall where every move he made would be monitored.

This was definitely not any five star Hotel, all right.

He hoped he wasn't going to be here for too long.

I didn't understand why we needed to be separated. I saw the look on Gordon's face as he left. We were International Rescue when we arrived but one order from Colonel Bryson changed everything. Why was it that when things became a matter of life or death, they made us feel so terribly alone?

USAMRIID – East Wing

Tin-Tin Kyrano watched the needle sink deeper into her skin and tried to think of something positive in an attempt to control her breathing...a romantic chocolate…the luscious scents of Paris wafting aimlessly through the air.

The plastic tongue depressor and invasive throat swab soon removed thoughts of anything positive. Tin-Tin closed her eyes, gagged a little and resisted the urge to throw up.

This was the seventh set of tests she'd undergone today.

At least Magetti was quick, Tin-Tin supposed, trying to feel grateful. She was bagging up the swab for the lab already. She was the complete professional; focused, detached and in control, offering no information unless she was asked. For Tin-Tin it was almost like looking at a carbon copy of herself. It was the only form of comfort that she had.

"I'LL BE BACK IN AN HOUR," Magetti said, nodding and gathering up her equipment. Tin-Tin wished she could say that she was looking forward to her return.

It had been two days now and there was still no word. She just wanted this nightmare to be over.

She had to admit she didn't like Colonel Bryson. His first words to them had been, "Here at USAMRIID, we are obliged to identify and contain." That was only after he'd ordered them to remove their wrist communicators and undergo a mandatory decontamination shower.

The smell of the bleach still stuck to her hair and skin. Nothing could be further from a romantic night in Paris.

Colonel Bryson had asked her lots of questions as he administered the vaccines, urging her to think very carefully before she answered so that he could give consideration to "when she could be recommended for release."

His most recent interrogation had centered on whether she thought she had been directly exposed to the shower of red and black vomit. How close had she been to the deceased when the vomiting started? Was there any possibility it had come into contact with her eyes? Her hands? Ears? Nose? Mouth? Other less exposed areas of her anatomy?

After the stress of solitary confinement and never-ending medical tests, Tin-Tin had found it difficult to concentrate and provide him with the information. She remembered being behind John when they'd entered the hut and Gordon pushing past her as soon as he saw the old man, anxious to do something to help. She also remembered Gordon checking the man's body for injuries and John demanding she "get that resuscitation equipment over here right now."

But where she was standing when the vomiting started...

...Tin-Tin had to admit she honestly didn't know.

Tin-Tin knew that Colonel Bryson was waiting for one of them to exhibit some sign that they'd been exposed to either the Marburg or the Ebola virus. The only virus she knew anything about was Lassa fever and medical research had now progressed to the point where once the vaccine was administered, there was nothing for her to worry about.

Bryson hadn't hesitated to share his impressive survival statistics on Lassa. When she'd asked him about Marburg he'd become very guarded. He point blank refused to discuss Ebola. All he would say was that Ebola "took from three to twenty one days to incubate", "wasn't pretty," and that the survival rate "wasn't very good."

Tin-Tin sighed and pulled the hospital gown closer around her body before slipping in between the stiff, white regulation sheets. Captain Magetti had told her to try and get some rest between the tests. She did feel a little tired, she supposed.

Her thoughts drifted back to a romantic night in Paris... the dinner... the flowers...champagne...chocolate…

...the luscious scents wafting aimlessly through the air.

It was starting to feel like those whirlwind days together hadn't happened at all.

She wondered if she'd ever get the chance to be with Alan again.

"I didn't cope well in the glass walled cell. It began to play havoc with my mind. Colonel Bryson kept telling me that my life could depend on how much I could remember. This only confirmed my growing fear that you and Gordon could be in danger of losing your own."

USAMRIID – North Wing

So, International Rescue was Jeff Tracy's baby.

The billionaire, who had partly isolated himself three years ago, was the mastermind behind one of the most carefully guarded secrets in the world.

James Bryson looked at the young man with the blond hair and the ice blue eyes and told himself that he probably should have guessed. There appeared to be no end to the achievements of ex-astronaut Jefferson Tracy; the man with the steely nerve and fierce determination who headed the powerful Tracy Corporation. International Rescue was just another thing on the list.

His son certainly wasn't proving to be any different, if nerve and determination was anything to go by. Bryson had been on the back foot all morning trying to be diplomatic as he answered his questions. He'd never met a young man so direct and intense or so unwilling to believe anything he was being told.

He spoke to John Tracy from where he sat, legs crossed, on the other side of the glass. Communication via a hand-held intercom; the young field commander was trying to be polite about its necessity but Bryson could tell it was starting to get on his nerves.

After sixty hours of continuous testing, John was demanding to know exactly what he was supposed to have been exposed to. All Bryson was prepared to say was, "At the moment, your lab tests are still inconclusive."

"Yes sir, but we both know you're in a position to guess," he pushed.

Bryson agreed that it was certainly possible for him to speculate on what they might be dealing with, but a guess in this case was hardly appropriate, and it wasn't going to satisfy Jeff Tracy.

"Your father made it very clear to me that what he expected from USAMRIID was an accurate assessment," he responded. "I'll need at least another twenty four hours to be sure."

The blue eyes were calculating. John Tracy didn't believe him for a second. Something warned Bryson that it would be a mistake to underestimate the young man's intelligence no matter how vulnerable he looked behind the wall of enclosed glass.

But even if young man didn't believe him, Bryson was being honest in his response. Their lab tests were still inconclusive. No bricks of the suspected viruses were multiplying in their blood. There was no disputing that bricks had been detected in the latest set of blood samples, but it was yet to be established if they were antibodies from the vaccines or if the virus was present and the vaccines were stopping them from multiplying.

Bryson was still hopeful he was only observing antibodies but deep down his gut was already churning with dread. If what he was seeing under the microscope was what he thought it was, the survival statistics of the virus itself stopped short at less than a worrying fifty percent.

The interrogation continued, this time with more intensity.

"How is my brother feeling, Colonel Bryson?"

Bryson shifted his chair. At least there was a straight answer for that.

"Your brother is comfortable enough," he reported. "He's obliging and keeping my medical staff entertained."

He was pleased to see John Tracy's worried features relax for a few moments. He looked relieved to finally be told that his brother was doing okay. Bryson had already sensed the close bond between the two brothers and knew there was much, much more to International Rescue than just a well-drilled highly disciplined team. They genuinely cared about each other and that included the woman, Miss Kyrano.

How she was holding up was the next thing he was asked.

"She's rattled, but coping. I only wish she could remember a little more. I've put it all down to the strain of the situation but the lack of information isn't helping. Of course, if you can think of anything else you haven't thought to tell me, it just might help speed up her medical clearance."

All of a sudden the exhaustion on John Tracy's face became more evident. He sighed and began rubbing at his eyes. Hourly observations had indicated he'd slept very little since arriving at the facility. Bryson was still deciding whether it was part of his International Rescue conditioning or the stress of the solitary confinement was to blame.

"We've been over this several times now, sir." John's voice was almost mechanical. "I'm sure Tin-Tin was behind me the whole time she was in the hut. The only thing I can't confirm is where she was after she handed me the resuscitation equipment. I'm sorry but I was too pre-occupied. We only noticed the blood stains on her sleeve when we went back to the pod to report the situation to my father. Sir…" he sighed again, "…you have all the uniforms I triple bagged before we came here. Haven't they been able to tell you anything?"

Bryson did appreciate the last thing John Tracy wanted to do was keep resurrecting what had happened in Uganda, but he didn't have any other option but to keep asking him. They were sitting on a time-bomb and he needed more information. Without it, all the vaccine in the world wouldn't help.

All his brother kept saying was they'd never dealt with anything like it before...the unforgettable gurgling sound of a man drowning in his own body fluids...the convulsions...the groans...the never ending shower of black blood...

Bryson's medical experience in Africa, pre-USAMRIID was already telling him there was only one virus which produced those kinds of symptoms. It was something he'd seen once and he'd never wanted to see it again. No wonder his gut was churning at the thought.

He'd spent the last three days studying their blood in "Biosafety Level 4". He'd authorized the destruction of their uniforms after tests began to point to what he'd first suspected and didn't want to know.

All that was left now was to wait for the inevitable to make the final diagnosis.

"Your lab tests are still inconclusive," he repeated.

Then he ended the conversation before he was asked anything more.