“…John, honestly, the truth is just that he’s getting to be too much to handle down here. He made your grandmother cry last week and Scott hasn’t spoken to him since. Virgil and Alan are hitting their limits, and I’m doing my best, but–”
Jeff trails off and shakes his head. John winces at the stress in his father’s voice. He’s really not sure he’s up for this, but it’s the very least he can do. “Well, if you think it’ll help, I’m certainly willing to try. Have you asked Gordon?”
“Not yet.” His father hesitates and his eyes are distant, sad and his voice is soft when he continues, “It’s a lot to ask, John. If he can’t push past this, it feels like it’s going to break him.”
“I didn’t know it was that serious. He seemed fine the last time I was down. I guess…I guess it’s been a while.”
It’s been three months since John’s seen Gordon in person, and he didn’t know things were really this bad. It’s almost half a year since the actual crash. The day the whole family had clustered together in a private waiting room in one of the best hospitals in the world, sitting through that initial fifteen-hour surgery, the one ensuring that their mangled little brother would live. There’d been another dozen since then, half-cosmetic and half-reconstructive, to ensure that Gordon would walk again. This is still a work in progress, and it’s slow going. Gordon’s been a natural athlete his entire life, and having to relearn how to use his entire body is harder on him than anyone could have expected.
But the answer whenever John asked about how the second-youngest was doing had always been “Oh, fine” and he’d never asked for any more than that, even though it seemed too vague to really be an answer. He’s really not done his part, where Gordon’s concerned.
And there are reasons, but they feel like excuses. After the accident, after the initial shock of fear and preemptive grief that had taken them all off work, John had stepped into his father’s place as primary rather than secondary dispatch. Gordon, after all, needed their Dad more than the rest of the world did. The family’s first tragedy had been enough to teach them that life didn’t just stop and wait for those who’d been bereaved.
The first couple of weeks had been the most stressful of his entire life, but then something had clicked into place, and he’d gotten good at it. Thunderbird 5 could handle the volume of calls easily and instead of their father’s voice over the line, it had been John’s, relaying all the information that had usually come secondhand from their father. Even down two members and with an ecstatic Alan subbed in on Pod duty, International Rescue still ran like a well-oiled machine. The busyness that came with being a man down, that was an excuse.
But his dad wants his job back. And it’s about time John did more than the bare minimum, for Gordon.
“If he can’t handle the trip in ‘3, I’ll be geosynchronous again in two days to drop the elevator,” he says finally. “If you can talk him into it, he’s more than welcome.”
“Thank you, John. I hope the time away will do him good.”
I only hope I can help him.
Gordon’s nineteen to John’s twenty-five, and the gap’s never felt bigger than it does when the space elevator docks and the airlock opens and there’s his little brother, hanging in the absence of gravity, awkward in zero-G the way John is in deep water.
“Welcome aboard, Gordon.” John’s already off his guard at the sight of him, his first impression is that Gordon looks thin, unhealthily so, and arrestingly young. He’s not in uniform, and John’s glad, because even his civilian clothes hang off him. His face has gotten drawn, narrow, and there are circles beneath his eyes, highlighted by the protruding ridges of his cheekbones.
John’s never had his father’s knack for keeping his emotions from playing across his face, and Gordon’s eyes harden as they meet his brother’s stare. “What?” he starts, and though he’s got the same old joking grin and lightness to his tone, there are still those agate-hard eyes. “Looking for the wheelchair?”
The last time John had seen him had been for his nineteenth birthday, and Gordon had still been in the wheelchair, then. He’d been hopeful, then, ready to start getting better. Obviously the last three months have changed things. So Gordon’s been out of the wheelchair and on to crutches for months, but he hasn’t progressed any further than that. Part of what their father hoped was that a low-impact, low gravity environment might help he get some of his confidence back, warm him up to the idea of physical therapy.
“You shouldn’t need it up here,” John hazards, kicks off the wall to offer his brother some help up through the main passage and into the station proper. He’s dialed the gravity way down to be easier on his brother, hopefully more like swimming. He’s been led to understand that Gordon hasn’t been back in the pool since picking up an infection after his last surgery.
“Right. Yeah, well, that’ll be a bonus. You gonna give me the tour, John?”
John offers a slightly wry smile. “It’s a short tour, but sure. I’ll show you around. Did you want to–” he pauses, careful of his phrasing. The last thing in the world he wants to do is treat Gordon like he’s delicate, but at the same time, he just looks so tired– “–the ride up is a little rough, sometimes, did you want to take a break at all?”
Again with those stony brown eyes, throwing John off. “No,” he declines firmly and ignores the hand John’s held out, grabbing onto the upper lip of the airlock door and hauling himself through. “I want to get to work.”
John can’t remember the last time he’s been in his civvies aboard the station and he tugs awkwardly at the collar of his shirt, light blue, thermal, not quitewarm enough for TB5 compared to his pressure and temperature regulated uniform. Beyond that, it just feels unprofessional.
But then, technically he isn’t working. John’s ceded to the presence of company (and Jeff’s order) and taken TB5 mostly offline. He’s got basic comms and a line to the Island, but the global comm module is dark. He has a console running diagnostics and performing maintenance, rebooting systems and reformatting assorted drives, but otherwise, he’s taking the week off.
Jeff had warned him about the mood swings, about the depression and the temper and the fact that Gordon just isn’t really himself these days. None of this had happened so far. And what John hadn’t been warned of was the grim ferocity with which Gordon would throw himself into the routine suggested by his doctor. He’d submitted to a brief tour of the station, and allowed John to bully him into a light meal and a day to get acclimated to the environment. But then he’d fished a holographic tablet out of his bag, thrust it at John, and told him to dial up the gravity to half-Earth, and supervise.
Gordon’s only in a t-shirt and track pants, and he’s sweating visibly. He’s been at it for a few hours now, though it’s all been relatively low impact–stretches and minor weight training, whatever exercises his older brother calls out as part of the sequence.
John’s not really sure how he’s supposed to be helping, outside of moral support, and an occasional helping hand with resistance stretching. Otherwise he’s just drifting companionably nearby, while his little brother works himself into exhaustion. John stifles a shiver and his eyes flicker over the temperature readouts in the gravity ring. “You want it a bit warmer in here, Gord?” he asks.
“No. Rack the gravity up,” is the terse answer.
The gravity’s already higher than John would have preferred, for his brother’s sake. “Uh. You know, maybe it’s time for a break–” John starts, and then there’sthe flare of temper he’d been warned about.
“I’m not up here for a break, John.” Gordon sits up and he’s glaring, hard-eyed and furious and John’s not sure why. “You know why Dad sent me, and if I’m gonna be here, then I’m saying screw him. I don’t want your stupid job, and if I can’t walk by the time I’m back on the ground, then–”
John blinks and sets the tablet aside, interrupting. “My job? What about my job?”
“I don’t want your job,” Gordon snarls. “That’s why he sent me, isn’t it? Because if I’m not gonna be good for anything else, then he’s gonna stick me up here and make you train me for–for dispatch.“Gordon spits the word out like its filthy and his hands clench into fists at his sides.
This is news to John and he’s still on the back foot, uncertain. "I–Gordon, this is the first I’m hearing of anything like that. Dad said you needed a break, I thought–”
Gordon scoffs and pulls his knees up against his chest, hunching over. “Oh, right. I need the break; I can barely do anything, what do I need with a break? They wanted a break from me and all my stupid damage, so Dad shot me into orbit.”
Oh. “I don’t think that’s why–” John begins, gently, but there’s no easing Gordon off. He drifts to sit down on the floor, the curve of the earth distant and bright below them. It’s always made John feel better, just to sit and watch the world go by. He wonders idly if Gordon’s even paid it any attention.
“Don’t lie to me, Johnny. I’m crippled, but I’m not stupid.”
John winces at the anger, the self-directed hatred in his brother’s voice. “You’re not crippled, Gordon. Dad’s just–I mean, he just wants you to get some confidence back. I know the therapy thing is hard. It’s supposed to be easier on you up here.”
“None of this is easy!”
Oh gosh, here we go. John shifts to sit a little closer to Gordon, doesn’t quite look at him. This isn’t really his area. Virgil’s the one with the sensitive soul, Scott’s the one with the natural charisma. Alan’s the one who’ll always believe in his older brothers. John–well. John’s pretty good at listening. Sometimes that’s the trick. Just letting people talk.
Gordon’s not happy in silence and he’s not looking up either. He’s staring down at his hands, at his legs sprawled out, long and gangly, all the muscle melted off him. Gordon, who’d won an Olympic Gold medal only a year ago, dwindled down until he looks skinnier than Alan, three years his junior. He’s only nineteen. Only two years out of highschool, not even allowed to drink yet. Of course it isn’t easy.
“It’s not going to be good enough,” he mumbles finally, his hands clenching. “Everyone keeps telling me I’ll get back to normal, but I won’t. I won’t–I won’t ever get past some of it. There’s places that are going to hurt for the rest of my life, and it doesn’t matter how hard I try, I’m never gonna set another record, never gonna compete again. What’s the point? Why even bother?”
John pauses, just long enough for Gordon to decide he doesn’t want to hear anything his older brother might have to say anyway. “And I don’t want to…to stop piloting ‘4. I don’t want to be up here because I’m not strong enough for anywhere else. John, this is your life, not mine. I couldn’t stand it. I don’t know how you stand it, not being in the middle of the action, not making a realdifference. If I can’t help people, what good am I?”
Tentatively, John reaches over, rests a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I don’t think you’re done yet, Gordon,” he says quietly, rubbing lightly at the tension all across Gordon’s back. “If you only ever make it back to fifty-percent, it’s still a hell of a lot more than some people’s hundred.”
The way Gordon’s stiffened at his brother’s touch, the way he seems almost resistant, makes John realize that maybe nobody touches him like this anymore. Maybe everybody’s too worried about how broken he was, makes them remember all those months when he couldn’t be touched, all broken bones and bruises and the phantom pain of nerve damage. John hasn’t had the opportunity to learn not to touch Gordon. So he scoots closer and wraps his little brother up in a warm, gentle hug.
There’s a slow inhalation of breath from the blond, and he seems unsure what to do with his own arms, even as John cinches his grasp snug around Gordon’s waist, lifts a hand to clasp his shoulder. And then, finally, Gordon sags into the embrace and his voice cracks, even as John feels damp tears rolling over the back of his hand on Gordon’s shoulder. “Johnny, it was just supposed to get better by now. I can’t beat this, I don’t know how to beat it. I-I don’t w-want to let everyone down.”
“It’s hard and I’m scared.”
“I know, Gordon. I’m sorry. I know it’s hard.”
“I wish this never happened. I wish none of it had happened.”
John’s hug tightens and he nods into his little brother’s shoulder, verging on tears himself. “Me too, Gord. If it could’ve been me instead, I’d have taken it.” He swallows and says the thing he should have said a long time ago, “I’m sorry I haven’t done more. I knew you were hurting and I buried myself in work instead of helping you. If I can help, Gordon, if you just want to stay up here and talk or rest or anything–if you want to keep at this therapy stuff, if there’s anything I can do…just say so.”
Gordon doesn’t answer immediately, but after a few moments he lifts a hand and awkwardly pats John’s hair. He sniffles tiredly. “M'sorry I yelled. Thanks. Thank you, Johnny. It…I got a lot to get off my chest and it’s hard at home. With everybody always hanging around cheering me on–I don’t ever wanna fail them, but sometimes I have to give up a bit. It’s worse than when Mom died, even, sometimes. This is all so…it’s…it’s heavier than anything I’ve ever had to deal with.”
John manages to swallow back the threatening tears and nods, even as he loosens his hold on his brother. He offers a weak chuckle. “Heh. Well, that’s why the gravity’s turned down.”
“Oh my god, John, that was terrible even by your standards.”
John grins, even as the mood starts to lighten. “Yeah, well, if you wanna work up here, you can’t have a sense of humor. Rule one. Serious business only aboard Thunderbird 5.”
“Oh right, 'serious business’, uh huh,” This gets a derisive snort (disguising a sniffle) out of Gordon, even as he pulls away and leans back against the subtle curve of the ring below him. He shifts and nudges John’s knee with his foot, loops his hands behind his neck to do some sit-ups. “What do you even do up here all day?”
“Oh, well, I’m lousy at Tetris.”
“Well, then I guess you won’t be taking my job any time soon, because it’s like sixty-five percent Tetris.” John locks his hands around his brother’s ankles and starts to help him count off a few sets of sit-ups.
Gordon grunts, pulls himself through the first sit-up. They are easier in microgravity. It’s about time his life got a little easier, just a little. “What’s the other thirty-five percent?”
John smiles. “Listening.”