Paul Metcalfe was standing in the last place he would have imagined finding himself a month ago. A surreptitious glance around confirmed his instinctive feeling that he was alone. An instinct honed from years in the WAAF, and then, from a month learning to interpret his body's unique reaction to the Mysterons. Not that the emptiness of Skybase's corridors was a surprise this early in the morning, with only the skeleton night crew up and about. The knowledge that no one was observing him, however, did not by any means help settle his nerves.
Running one hand over his hair, slowly growing out from the short military cut he'd had on Mars he hesitantly raised his other hand to the door chime, and before he could convince himself that this was a terrible idea he tapped the touch pad and stepped back, heart racing, hands trembling. As the seconds ticked by he couldn't believe he had talked himself into this, doubts flourishing with every passing second to the extent that he decided to abandon the idea altogether.
Yet before he could turn tail and run, as every instinct now urged him to, the door slid soundlessly open and he found himself face to face with a half-asleep Spectrum officer, hair dishevelled and wearing distinctly non-regulation penguin pyjamas. Rubbing the tiredness out of her eyes, Skybase's resident psychologist fixed her sleepy gaze on her nocturnal visitor. Immediately Paul felt terrible for disrupting her sleep, he had, although aware that Skybase was technically on its graveyard shift in the middle of whatever counted as night, forgotten that this meant she too would be asleep. One of the downsides of retro-metabolism was its disturbance of his sleep cycle, his 'Mysteron side', as Doctor Gold liked to refer to it, ensuring that he needed only a few hours of rest a night.
"Scarlet?" her voice brought his thoughts sharply back to the present and he found himself subconsciously stepping back again.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you, it's not important. I'll just go…" pointing over his shoulder he attempted to make his escape but she was having none of that.
"Nonsense, I said my door was always open if anyone ever needed me," Doctor Teal reproached firmly, her glare impressive even in the penguin getup, "Even if it is three in the morning."
Paul paused, trapped, knowing that he couldn't leave now; he had sought her out in the first place after all. Sensing his awkwardness Teal backed away from the door, titling her head towards the inside of her quarters.
"Do you want to come in?" the question was soft and inviting, no hint of coercion, and the gentle English accent brought back something of his childhood, although he had long lost the accent himself, and Paul found that he was nodding and moving forwards.
"I didn't realise the time." although he had intended for the words to be apologetic they came out more like a statement, which Teal acknowledged with a nod as she put the kettle on. Paul did a double take just to check that yes, it was actually a real kettle she was using, not the convient tap of boiling water in her quarters which was desgined so that kettles wouldn't be needed.
"Would you like tea?" once again Teal's gentle voice brought him firmly back to the present. His startled silence earned him a small smile, "Or perhaps coffee, if spending so much time with all those Americans has corrupted you."
The teasing surprised him and he couldn't help but relax a little in her presence. An achievement in itself, but of course, she was, like them all, the best of the best.
"Tea would be great. Despite everything, I was born a Brit." a soft laugh escaped her as she rummaged around for a teabag in her decidedly non-regulation kitchen.
"You seem distant tonight Scarlet."
"Please Sophie, its Paul." a nod was followed by an exclamation of victory as her search proved fruitful.
Casting his mind back to the first days of Spectrum Scarlet remembered the training and tests they'd had to undergo, which included, much to the annoyance of a group of mainly military men and women, a psychological evaluation.
They had expected a gruff and to-the-point middle aged man with a clipboard and a patronising stare. What they got was a kind and polite young British woman who introduced herself as Sophie but referred to them by rank until they gave her permission to use their first names.
It was her unexpected show of respect that had made all of their lives easier, it was the first psychological evaluation Paul had done and felt like he was being treated as a person. This was followed by some unusual group-building exercises. First, the relative strangers, instead of being forced to do the usual fall and catch routine had been surprised when they had been sat in a circle and asked to explain why they had chosen their colour code and the exercises had only got more interesting. They had left the meeting knowing each other a lot better than they had expected, and more than that, they had actually enjoyed it.
Sophie Lawson was also admired for her blatant disrespect for Spectrum rules, standing up to Colonel White himself. Technically, she was a colour-coded officer, but she rarely wore her uniform. Such an ignorance of command structure should have frustrated them, but, as she had later explained to him, it had actually, in the eyes of her patients, separated her from having to report to the chain of command, making confiding in her less of a worry.
Without a doubt, Sophie was one of a kind.
"Skybase to Paul?" Sophie waited patiently for him to organise his thoughts before handing him a mug of tea. It was one of her joke mugs, scrawled beneath the standard Spectrum logo was the phrase 'Spectrum, supporting LGBT rights since 2064'.
A glance confirmed his suspicion that she was holding his personal favourite 'Skybase, the pot of leprechauns at the end of the rainbow'.
"Do you enjoy throwing his authority in the Colonel's face?" Paul asked, motioning to the mugs. Sophie smiled as she traced a finger over the lettering.
"The little digs are always a good laugh," but she had clearly recognised his attempt avoid the conservation they needed to have and her gaze abruptly turned serious as she faced him, "to be honest Paul, I've been expecting this visit for a while."
"You have?" Paul was surprised, was his state of mind so obvious?
"I'm trained to pick up on these things," Sophie stated reassuringly, somewhat sensing his worry, "Your performance has changed lately, not by much, but enough to ring some alarm bells in a psychologist's head."
"And by that you mean?"
"Some unusual hesitations, slip ups in reports, Paul," she hesitated, ruffling her hair, "I know you had a psych evaluation after Mars and I cleared you, but you've had time to think about what happened now and the cracks are starting to show."
The direct mention of the Mars mission threw him off balance. Paul noticed that his hands were trembling slightly and he set the mug down, clasping them together to mask the quivering fingers. It wasn't any use, Sophie had seen.
"What's the diagnosis Doctor?" might as well go for the jugular. Sophie held his gaze.
"Identity crisis, nightmares, flashbacks, paranoia, isolation from interaction which is likely self-imposed, bad enough for you to come to me," her statement was pitched at the same level of bluntness, it was exactly what he needed to hear, "have I missed anything?"
Paul glanced back down at his shaking fingers.
"I'm scared Sophie, I'm terrified and I don't even know what of," his words were a whisper, but they were out and it felt good to get it out in the open. Warm hands encased him own and he jumped in surprise, he'd forgotten how easily simple human touch was calming.
And there was the heart of the issue. Human.
"What's your recommendation?" his voice was shaky, the sudden conversational direction had wrong-footed him, exposed his vulnerability. He felt as though he were on the edge of a cliff and any moment he could fall. Now, he knew, Sophie would go for the kill.
"That you are mentally unfit for duty and should be removed from the roster until further notice."
The statement felt like and restraint and release all at once. His walls began to crumble.
"I think you already knew that didn't you Paul? You knew you weren't fit for duty. It's why you came to me tonight."
"Yes." It took him a moment to comprehend it, but on some level that he had known he couldn't carry on in the field for much longer without risking a serious error, without risking lives. The sob that followed the statement momentarily shocked him and before he could think about it Sophie had pulled him into an embrace.
The walls fell with no resistance. He let go.
When he had no tears left to cry, Sophie pulled back and there was no hint of judgement or pity in her eyes. Without a word she gently handed him a box of tissues and turned her back to give him time to rebuild himself to a semblance of respectability.
He watched as she headed towards the comm unit on the wall by the door and tapped.
"Doctor Teal to Colonel White," it took a moment for the Commander in Chief to respond, most likely he had probably just been rudely awoken by the shrill alarm of his own comm.
"I am removing Captain Scarlet from duty, effective immediately."
"Scarlet?" the Colonel's startled response came through, "if this is another of your pranks Doctor…"
"This is no joke Colonel," Teal interrupted in full psychologist mode, "I am declaring the Captain unfit for duty." Sensing the seriousness in her tone White took a moment to reply.
"Scarlet seemed fine to me yesterday, what on earth happened?" Teal mentally winced at the Colonel's choice of words. Earth and Mars, human and Mysteron.
"Doctor-patient confidentiality Colonel," Teal scolded him, "but know I do not do this lightly." There was a pause as the Colonel collected his thoughts.
"Very well. Consider him off duty for the foreseeable future. White out." Sophie cut off the communication and leaned against the wall for a moment.
"I'm sorry that you had to hear that. I'd forgotten that, good though he is at his job, the Colonel does lack tact sometimes."
Sometimes, Sophie still managed to amaze him.
"Hardly your fault." Doctor Teal turned to face him, taking his acknowledgement as permission to regard him anew. No physical trace of his breakdown remained. But anyone who knew him well would see from his posture and expression that Paul Metcalfe was far from ok. Sophie resumed her seat opposite the broken captain and looked him in the eye.
The shadow of Mars hung over him and of everything that had followed.
"I can't promise that you'll be the man you were before all of this Paul, but we're going to get you through this, however long it takes."
Paul glanced out of the window. On the horizon the sun was beginning to break through the clouds.
However long it takes.