To Virgil Tracy, silence meant possibility. It was his blank page, waiting to be filled with something beautiful.
Tonight, that something was a piano piece of his own composition. It had been a long day, packed with back-to-back rescues, one of which had come far too close to being a recovery instead. His brothers had all crashed the moment they’d completed their post-flight protocols, but Virgil had been too…full to sleep. Full of the thoughts and emotions that he was giving sound to now, his fingers sliding over the keys of his piano almost of their own accord.
It wasn’t that there had been anything unusual about the rescues. Sure, there had been some close calls, both for the rescuees and the rescuers. Scott had very nearly been electrocuted and Gordon had almost been crushed in three different falling rock incidents, and Virgil had been seconds away from being too slow to save a family trapped by a wildfire, but none of that was out of their norm.
That was the problem, sometimes. Virgil loved what International Rescue did, loved working with his brothers to save lives. But sometimes it got to him, the magnitude of what they were doing, the way heroism could turn to tragedy faster than he could act. Sometimes, like tonight, it left him tight and unsettled, primed to crack under the slightest added pressure. These were the nights when he sought solace in his music, when he released his inner turmoil into the canvas of silence.
He let the music flow from him, calming him the way nothing else quite could. He wasn’t playing anything in particular, just letting his fingers seek out the notes that seemed right, even if the result could occasionally be a bit of a discordant mess. So could he, after all.
Even once he’d settled, grounded himself and remembered what it was like to breathe easy, he kept playing. He timed the music to the distant crash of the waves on the beach, to the rustle of wind through the palm leaves, until it became something organic, a part of the island. And when he finally let the music draw to its natural close, he sat at the bench for another long moment, eyes closed, simply breathing in the calm of his home.
When he finally swung around on his bench to get up, he was startled to find that he wasn’t as alone as he’d thought.
“I charge admission, you know,” he told John with a small smile.
John said something in reply, but it came through the holoprojector speakers at such a low volume that all but the softest mumble was lost to the breeze. He frowned and adjusted something.
“I think I’m good for it,” he said wryly, his voice still pitched low but at least audible now. But his answering smile was weak, somehow, lacked some of its usual spark of fond exasperation.
“You all right?” Virgil asked him, standing and drawing closer to the projected hologram of his brother.
“Yeah, I’m good,” John promised. “Just…needed the company, tonight.”
Well, Virgil could certainly understand that. It was a constant source of wonder to him that John didn’t need company more often than he did. But the astronaut still didn’t seem quite himself. It was frustratingly hard to tell on a hologram, but he looked paler than usual, the hint of dark shadows under his eyes.
“Tough day,” Virgil remarked carefully, slipping his hands into his pockets.
“Yeah.” John’s voice was still quiet, but Virgil didn’t think that the hologram was the problem.
Silence fell between them. Virgil waited, knowing that John would fill it if he needed to.
“Are you all right?” John asked.
Virgil thought about it. They’d almost lost…but they hadn’t. Maybe they would the next day, but they hadn’t today. When it came down to it, that was what mattered.
“Yeah,” he said honestly. “I just needed to create a little of my own peace, you know?”
“Sorry to eavesdrop,” he said. “I was just calling to…well, I guess to find a little peace myself.”
“And did you?”
The smile that John gave him in return was genuine, but still small and worn. There was something weighing on him, and Virgil suspected he knew what it was. It was the same thing that weighed on all of them, but on John most of all.
“Stick around a while,” he invited, retreating to his piano again. “We’ll keep your tab open.”
He let his hands slide over the keys, not having to look to produce the notes he wanted. Instead, he watched his brother’s face as he drew the opening notes of the Star Trek theme song from the piano. The smile that bloomed on John’s lips brought him more peace than his solitude had.
Virgil started keeping a more careful eye on John in the weeks that followed. And the more he watched, the more he realized that the night at the piano hadn’t been an isolated incident.
It wasn’t obvious, nothing that he would’ve noticed if he hadn’t been looking for it. But it was there, in the subtle way John flinched when Alan or Gordon got too loud. It was there in the way his voice still went quiet sometimes, as if he was trying to avoid waking a light sleeper. It was there in the shadows that appeared around his eyes, faint enough to be mistaken for imperfections of the hologram. And it was there in the gradual but steady decrease in the number of calls John made to the island just to talk.
But whenever Virgil tried to talk to him about it, he was met with deflection. John had even pulled a Kayo a couple of times, shutting off the comm link and blaming it on a technical glitch. It was concerning, but John was an adult. Virgil couldn’t force what was bothering him out of him.
But he could wait, and try to be patient, and be ready for whenever John was finally ready to let him help.
Virgil had never been a particularly quick riser. It usually took until about halfway through his second cup of coffee before all his neurons were firing properly.
But his brother’s voice, so soft as to be barely above a whisper, had his eyes snapping open in an instant. He sat up at once, looking toward the hologram floating in the corner of his room.
“What’s wrong, John?” he asked, his voice still raspy from sleep but his heart rate jumping. He’d never seen that look on John’s face before, and it set off every instinct he had.
John took a deep breath, but Virgil could hear the shakiness of it.
“I can’t see, Virg.”
Virgil just stared for a moment, not quite processing. John’s eyes were wide, but there was something not quite right about them, something…blank. He was looking in Virgil’s general direction, but his aim was just the slightest bit off. Because he…couldn’t see.
Virgil shivered. John was holding it together, like he always did, but Virgil could sense his raw fear, and it sent fear of his own creeping through him.
He didn’t ask any questions.
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” he said.
John swallowed and nodded. Virgil scrambled out of bed, grabbing his wrist cuff from his bedside table. He transferred John’s call to it, not bothering to change out of his flannel pajama pants and Mythbusters t-shirt before jogging out of his room.
It had been a long time since he’d heard his brother’s voice sound that small.
“I’m still here, John,” he said. “I’m on my way.”
He picked up his pace, blowing past Alan’s door without stopping. Alan all but worshipped John, and he’d want to know that something was wrong with him, would insist on flying Virgil up to Thunderbird 5 himself. But John hadn’t called International Rescue, he’d called Virgil. Whatever was happening to him, he hadn’t wanted their other brothers to witness it. John had never had the kind of ego that proved to be a common Tracy flaw, but that didn’t mean he was without his own quiet pride.
So Virgil bypassed Scott’s door too, knowing that there would probably be hell to pay for it when he got back. Scott would deny it, but as the eldest, he’d been trying to fill their father’s daunting shoes these last few years, and he took the role seriously. It made him a great man, but it sometimes got in the way of him being a brother.
Virgil shot another glance at the image projecting from his wrist. John looked like he needed a brother.
He was sprinting by the time he got to the small medical center that he and Brains kept carefully stocked. He snagged his best emergency medical kit and took off running again, this time for the hangar.
“I’m on my way,” he repeated, sensing that John needed to hear the words again.
“Eos sent the space elevator down for you,” John said. “At least, I think she did. I can’t- I can’t see.”
John had never been one to spook easily, but the fear had crept back into his voice.
“I know,” Virgil said, aiming for a reassuring tone that didn’t match his current inner unrest. “We’ll figure it out. Hey, I’m on the elevator now. I’ll be there in two shakes.”
Eos didn’t bother waiting until he’d strapped himself in before she started to raise the elevator, but he could hardly fault her for that. In fact, he silently willed her to reel him up faster.
Virgil was normally as cool as John was under pressure, but it still felt like ants were crawling beneath his skin as the trip seemed to stretch on forever. His pulse was racing, and he knew it wasn’t just from his sprint. His thoughts were working just as fast as he’d been running.
He enjoyed the emergency medical aspect of rescue, although he always preferred when it wasn’t necessary. But he liked being the one holding people together, keeping them calm, keeping them safe. It made him feel needed, special, not just an interchangeable Thunderbird, but the only one who could help. Even something as simple as splinting a broken wrist or stopping someone’s bleeding made it worth the countless hours he’d spent watching instructional videos and practicing skills on his brothers.
But despite that feeling of purpose, of accomplishment, Virgil wasn’t so self-absorbed as to be unable to see his own limitations. He cared for the hurt, got them patched up and stabilized enough to make it to the nearest hospital. International Rescue wasn’t an EMS service, and Virgil’s experience ended with physical trauma.
But John hadn’t been hurt. There were no signs of the trauma that Virgil knew how to handle. Whatever had stolen John’s sight had done it by an attack from within, and Virgil just didn’t trust himself to be able to provide what his brother needed. It was a terrifying feeling.
He was quite literally shaken from his thoughts as the elevator reached Thunderbird 5 and docked with a reassuring thunk. Virgil took a breath, unbuckling himself from his safety restraints. He trusted himself to care, to do whatever he could. That was what John had called him for.
He grabbed his medical kit and pulled himself into the airlock. He was somewhat surprised to find gravity asserting itself, pulling him firmly to the floor. John loved zero-g, and he left the artificial gravity off whenever he could.
But tonight, John couldn’t see. Of course he wouldn’t want to give up one more way of orienting himself.
Virgil shuddered at the thought of being blind and weightless, floating without any kind of connection to his surroundings, without any way of knowing if he was tucked safely inside a space station or drifting through the infinite void.
“John?” he called out, a little too much urgency leaking into his tone.
“I’m in here.”
Virgil followed John’s voice to his small bedroom, tucked near the heart of the space station. John was sitting rigidly upright on the edge of his bed, his blank eyes staring straight ahead. His hands were fisted tightly in his sheets, but Virgil couldn’t help noticing the tiny waves rippling through the fabric, betraying the tremors in his hands.
“John?” he said softly, stepping carefully into the bedroom and crouching to examine his brother. “It’s me.”
That fact could not have been more obvious, but Virgil was a little out of his depth here, and John looked like he could use the reassurance of a friendly voice.
John turned his head, and a chill crawled through Virgil. The vacant effect he’d noticed in the hologram was all the more pronounced in person. John was looking at him, almost, but he wasn’t seeing. John couldn’t see.
“Talk to me, bro,” Virgil said, keeping his voice carefully calm.
“I can’t-” John closed his empty eyes and took a breath. “It happened so slowly I didn’t even notice it, at first. Like that old folk story, about the boiling frog. I just thought I was tired, or something, but then I came here to try to read, and I couldn’t. And then I blinked, and it was like I wasn’t opening my eyes again afterwards.”
He paused, his knuckles whitening. His eyes snapped open again and he sought his brother uselessly.
“Hey, hey, I’m here,” Virgil said at once, dropping his medical kit and crouching in front of John. He covered his brother’s cool hands with his own. “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere until we figure this out, okay?”
He touched his forehead to John’s, so that he’d know exactly where Virgil was, how close he was. He was rewarded by a drain of some of that painful tension, and John relaxed his death grip on the sheets.
“Okay,” he said, and his voice was steady again.
“Okay,” Virgil repeated. “I’ve gotta grab my stuff, so I’m gonna have to let go, but I’m never going to be more than two feet away, all right?”
“I’m being ridiculous,” John said, leaning back slightly. “You shouldn’t have to treat me like a child-”
“I’m not,” Virgil said at once as he grabbed his medical kit and opened it. “I’m treating you like a patient who has a perfectly good reason for not being at his best right now. Besides, it’s not like you haven’t coached us through worse.”
John sighed as he held out his arm for Virgil to strap a BP cuff to.
“Thanks,” he said softly.
“Hey,” Virgil replied with a grin that John would hear if not see. “What are big brothers for?”
John huffed out an annoyed breath, finally relaxing a little further.
“For the last time, being born twelve and a half minutes before me doesn’t make you my big brother,” he said. “It makes you impatient.”
“I think it makes me a go-getter, actually,” Virgil said, mostly just to keep the conversation going. “And technically, I was born a whole day before you.”
“Yeah, in exactly one time zone.”
“Which happened to be the time zone we were in.”
In truth, Virgil had always privately entertained the idea that John had simply been perfectly content to stay where he was, in the dark and quiet that was all he’d ever known. As if he’d known what was waiting for him out in the world, and hadn’t been impressed.
He’d told John about his theory once, when he’d been visiting him at Harvard. John had been showing him the observatory, the quiet place on the roof he’d found where he could hide himself away until it was just him and the stars and, on that night at least, Virgil. John had laughed, but then he’d grown quiet. The comfortable silence that settled between them had gone on so long that Virgil had thought that was the end of it.
Nah, John had said finally, his head tilted back to look at the heavens spread above them, but his arm brushing against Virgil’s. I would’ve missed you too much. Once you left, that was it. Ready or not.
That exchange had happened years ago, but Virgil still thought about it sometimes.
He let the banter die out between them as he began his assessment in earnest. He’d been most concerned about a stroke, but John wasn’t displaying any of the other telltale signs. His blood pressure and pulse were both a little higher than usual, but that could have been due to his emotional state rather than his medical one. But when Virgil carefully stuck two electrodes to John’s temples and checked his neural activity, he frowned.
“I think it’s time to tell me what’s been bothering you these last few months,” he said.
John sighed heavily. He groped at his head and peeled off the electrodes, cupping them in his hands.
“I’ve been getting migraines,” he admitted softly. “Some of them pretty bad.”
Virgil was silent for a moment. Then he sighed as well, and sat down on the bed beside John.
“How long and often?” he asked.
“Two or three times a week, for about…five months now, I guess. They started out as just headaches, but I’ve started getting nausea with them too, and…well, usually I can work through them. But I’ve never gone…gone blind like this before.”
Virgil couldn’t help staring at John, remembering all of the little red flags he’d been picking up on over the last few weeks. He had to work hard to fight down any questions that may have sounded like accusations.
“Well, the good news is that it means the blindness is temporary,” he said. “Migraines are sometimes preceded by auras, which can manifest as blindness. It’ll pass on its own. I’m gonna give you an injection that’ll hopefully stave off the actual migraine though, all right?”
John nodded, and Virgil grabbed the appropriate supplies from his bag. He helped John tug an arm free from his constricting spacesuit. He wiped carefully at his brother’s bicep with an alcohol swab before sliding the needle in as gently as possible. John still grimaced and gritted his teeth, but didn’t make a sound. Virgil slapped a band-aid over the injection site and slipped the used syringe into his portable sharps container.
“Do you want a lollipop and a sticker?” he couldn’t resist asking.
Virgil chuckled, but his levity didn’t last long. John apparently sensed this.
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” he said. “I knew the blindness was probably nothing, I just…” he shivered lightly, turning his head away. “I just couldn’t make myself believe that when everything was dark no matter what I did.”
Virgil shook his head. Even now, John was sorry for calling him, not for keeping his hurts to himself.
“John, why didn’t you say anything before,?” he asked. “This has been going on for months; we could’ve gotten you help sooner.”
“I didn’t…” John sighed. “I didn’t want to need help. I’m supposed to be the one who watches over the rest of you, keeps you safe. I didn’t want you guys thinking I couldn’t do my job.”
Virgil’s mouth dropped open.
“None of us would ever think that,” he said. “Never. But you’re still human. Did you think that if it was our chance to look out for you for a change, we’d all stop caring about you, or decide you weren’t…weren’t worth the effort?”
“Of course not, Virg. I was worried about you caring too much. You know how Scott gets, and you’re not much better sometimes. And ever since Dad, Gordon and Alan have been putting on a brave face, but everyone is more scared now, like they’ve realized how bad it can get. I didn’t want to worry you, not when I could handle it.”
Virgil looked at his twin for a long moment. Then he shook his head.
“And here I was thinking you were the sensible one, of all of us,” he said.
He pressed himself close to John’s side. His brother wasn’t a hugger by nature, but he still needed human touch every once in a while, needed to know that someone was there. John leaned into him, letting him hold him up.
“You’ve never been a burden, John, and you never will be. But you also can’t be responsible for all of us 24/7. God, no wonder you’re getting migraines. You’re probably working on a pretty impressive ulcer by this point too.”
“Nah, I think Scott’s got the market cornered on that one,” John said. “He’s gonna go grey first too.”
“You’re probably right,” Virgil laughed. But then he sighed again and rested a hand on John’s bony knee. “But the thing about family is that we look out for each other. It’s gotta be a two-way street, bro. And if I don’t think I can trust you to tell me when something’s wrong with you, I’m gonna be worrying about you constantly instead of just sometimes. Now, you do the math on that one, spaceman.”
“I’m sorry, Virgil,” John sighed. “It’s not that I didn’t trust you-”
“I know. Believe me, I know. Just promise me you’ll try a little harder at communicating what matters for you, not just for other people.”
“Good. Now once we’re done here, I’m gonna take the readings I collected to Dr. Haussmann, and you’re gonna call her when I get to her office, and we’re gonna figure out what’s going on in that scary brain of yours, all right?”
John raised his head from Virgil’s shoulder, apparently startled.
“You’re not gonna make me come back to Earth?” he asked.
“Do you want to?”
“No, but…I mean, you’d still let me…even with the migraines? People’s lives are in my hands up here. Your lives are in my hands.”
“And they belong there,” Virgil said firmly. “You’ve been working like this for months, and the only failed mission we had was because you were called too late, and we never had a chance. You can do this, and I know that trying to stop you would only make you feel worse. I know you, John. That’s what I’ve been trying to say.”
John was silent for a moment, and his voice was a little thick when he spoke again.
“Anytime,” he said, and he meant it. “Now, you said you were trying to read when all this happened. What book?”
“I was rereading A Hitchhiker’s Guide.”
Virgil smiled. Scott had given the book to John on his eighth birthday, and John had treasured it ever since. He probably had the whole thing memorized by now, but that never stopped him from revisiting the familiar pages.
Virgil looked around, and then leaned over to grab the book from John’s bedside table. He leaned back until he was settled more comfortably on the cot, and then flipped the book open to the first page. If John couldn’t read until his brain sorted itself out, then Virgil would be his eyes.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun…”
As he read, John settled in beside him and closed his sightless eyes, the last of his tension draining away. Virgil felt a quiet surge of warmth in his chest as he realized he had been enough this time. He’d been the best person to help his brother, despite both of their fears.
He lost track of how long they spent like that, nothing but his soft voice disrupting the peaceful quiet of the space station. Eventually though, he reached the end of a chapter and paused to rub his eyes. He was starting to remember that he’d been woken up in the middle of the night for this.
“Did you really have to give me a Star Wars band-aid?”
Virgil looked over to see John frowning down at his arm, the spot where Virgil had given him the shot. He was eyeing the fuzzy green face of Yoda, who was eyeing him right back. Virgil laughed, partly out of amusement, and partly out of relief.
“Just wanted a way of telling when you could see again,” he said cheerfully.
John scowled at him, but his expression quickly softened.
“Oh. Hi,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”
And it was good to be seen. It was good to look his brother in the eye and have someone looking back at him. But there was no need to say that.
“Well, I am devastatingly attractive,” he said. “It’s understandable to get a little overwhelmed.”
John shoved him off the bed.