An old project the ridiculously talented spacespirit and I wrote together. Figured it's probably time it sees the light of day. All the credit goes to spacespirit for putting forth the huge effort of writing the first draft—this story would still be an outline were it not for her.
Today was the sort of day Virgil dreaded.
The classroom door loomed before him, and he took a second to regain his breath, to slow his racing heart, to brace himself for a sight he wasn't ready to see.
"Virgil, you have to keep moving," John ordered, his voice so sharp and clear that Virgil couldn't resist checking over his shoulder to ensure his older brother wasn't standing in the dark hallway yawning behind him. Implanted comm chips in each ear were more convenient than the external models, but they always left Virgil with the unsettling sensation that the speaker was inside his head. "Seismic activity's increasing again, you have less than five minutes before the next—"
"I know, John," he growled, but he didn't move. He needed this respite, just a few moments to himself, because this was really starting to get to him.
At least six heat signatures. That's what John said his scans indicated. Six children depending on him were behind this classroom door.
Six who were still alive, anyway.
Virgil bit back his anxiety, swallowed it down to a place he wouldn't unlock until he was home. There were lives at stake right now, and that was what he did: he saved lives.
When he managed to gather enough strength to push the door open, he stepped into unnatural silence: an eerie, undisturbed void that chilled him to the bone. The familiar tang of craft paint lingered in the air, a hint of comfort—and then the stench of melted plastic and a cloud of thick, foul dust hit the back of his throat. He swallowed hard, trying to repress his gag reflex.
With power to the entire campus severed, the only illumination came from a series of narrow windows along the top of the far wall. They were less than adequate in this situation, so Virgil powered up his searchlight.
Its dazzling beam reunited him with a chaos he'd seen too often today. Everything was on the ground: textbooks, splintered wood from shattered shelving, stationary, paintbrushes, torn canvases. Long fluorescent tubes had shaken loose of their fixtures, fissuring glass over every surface—concerning, but the true horror gaped above his head. Half of the roof had caved in, leaving only the skeletal remains of the ceiling. Beams angled, balancing precariously on one another like a game of pick-up sticks. Chunks of insulation hung from the infrastructure like shredded flesh, vicious pink against the torn innards of the classroom.
Virgil wasn't prone to nausea caused by circumstances either in the field or by off-duty pursuits, which was in part why he extended his medical training beyond their required courses, but today his stomach rolled.
He found himself staring at the motley collection of paintings on the walls. Uneven gaps stretched between them where most had fallen, shaken loose by violent tremors. Only a few pictures remained, hanging askew but clinging tenaciously: beacons of hope, filled with creativity and imagination and life. It was a display of vivacious expression that Virgil understood at his core. These kids painted their future—a future they might never see if he didn't move fast.
He hoped they were still alive.
"Less than four minutes," John's soft but urgent voice informed the gray matter between his ears.
Virgil shook himself free of morose thoughts and eased his way forward, circumventing the carnage with an ease afforded by too many hours spent navigating uncertain terrain. Even with the aid of his searchlight, he still couldn't see anyone, and he almost gave into the temptation of asking for an update. Only the echo of John's voice and the way it was brittle with stress that never made itself known until he was approaching the threshold of how much he could keep track of at once made Virgil hesitate.
His stomach knotted, hard. If they were trapped beneath the rubble, he might not be able to save them in time—but he had to try.
"I'm from International Rescue," he called in a low, practiced tone that came out calmer than he felt. "I know you're afraid, but I promise everything's going to be all right. I'm here to get you out."
The crunch of glass under his boots wasn't the response he wanted, and he battled against the firming certainty that his worries were going to be confirmed. What if—what if they couldn't answer? What if there was no one left to answer?
"Hello?" He coughed to clear the hoarse strain from his voice. "Is anyone here?"
One step forward at a time. He angled his searchlight back and forth, trying to convince himself he wasn't looking for bodies.
Something clattered to his right, and he swung around to find two children, trembling and chalky-skinned beneath a layer of drywall dust as they maneuvered themselves around a chunk of concrete bristling with rebar. They stared at him with eyes too wide and too glassy, but they were alive. Relief kicked Virgil hard in the chest, but the awareness that they were running out of time—"Three minutes, Virgil"—threatened to crush him, and he struggled to maintain a calm expression. If the kids thought there was the slightest chance they were going to die, they would panic.
They didn't have time for panic.
So he held out his hand and said, "Hey, it's going to be okay now."
The pair took a step forward, and their bravery set off a chain reaction as more children emerged from beneath desks and tables. They scrambled toward him, some sobbing, some stoic, but all painfully young. One boy was cradling his arm, and they all showed the early signs of sporadic bruising, but his well-trained eye informed him there were no drastic injuries to deal with.
He smiled and brushed his fingers over the tops of their heads as they clung to his suit. "Time to get out of here," he said, gently pushing them toward the door, trying not to rush them but hyper aware of the invisible but very real clock ticking away seconds they didn't have.
He twisted around to count three, four, five children—five children? John said there were six.
One second stretched into an eon as he stared headfirst into the hellish choice no rescue worker ever wanted to confront: save the majority and leave the one, or risk the majority to go after the one?
Today, Virgil had to make the choice that fueled his nightmares.
The whimper was so soft he thought he imagined it. He almost kept walking, almost ignored it. But he trusted his instincts, and his instincts led him toward a collapsed table. Beneath it knelt a girl with dusty black pigtails, clutching white fingers around the steel legs tented over her body—the only reason she wasn't crushed to death.
Virgil crouched and almost overbalanced as the weight of six children's lives slammed into his shoulders. They weren't going to make it. "Hi there. Ready to leave?"
Her lips parted like she was trying to form words but couldn't. Blood leaked from a scratch along her temple, dribbling down pale flesh. Red against white—the contrast was violent on one so young, and although Virgil had seen it before, it always made his heart lurch. Innocent victims of nature's overwhelming might.
"This is an art classroom, isn't it? You know, I'm an artist as well—been drawing since I was about your age and never gave it up." As he talked, he coaxed her fingers to give up their death grip on the metal and helped her upright. She toppled against him, and he hoisted her into his arms.
"John, I've got the kids," he said into the mike wired through his uniform's collar. "Commencing evacuation."
"Virgil, you need to move—it's going to hit in less than a minute."
The other children looked up at him with eyes beginning to shine with relief instead of terror. International Rescue is here. We're saved. How he wished he could share their confidence that he would be able to get them out alive, but John and his facts didn't lie. There wasn't enough time.
There was never enough time.
"Head for the door," he ordered, but none of them moved until he did. Urgency hastened his pace, and he pressed the girl's head into his shoulder as a low grumbling made the air tremble. The little band of survivors darted toward the doorway and the marginally safer hallway beyond.
Glinting color caught his eye, pleasant and sharply out of place as it bathed the wreckage in glowing scarlets and golds and royal blues. His steps faltered as his attention wavered, captured by a framed mosaic of stained glass mounted in the corner window—a work of simple beauty with origins in sand and ash.
Hope flickered inside him. Even in the darkest moments, there was always a ray of light. It was his job to act as a mirror to reflect that light.
The rumbling ceased, and the children let out a collective breath. "We're safe," one of the boys said, teeth white against his dirty skin as he smiled.
Virgil's skin prickled as senses honed by too many life-or-death situations came to full attention. "I don't think—"
"Get out, Virgil! It's localized directly beneath your posi—"
An almighty crack ripped the air apart. The children's screams, the way they threw themselves at him, the fact the ground was ripping itself apart not a dozen feet from where he stood ignited a gut-wrenching terror inside him. Control was something Virgil needed, something he'd maintained with an ease that surprised himself, but he had no control now. Not when there were children involved, and not when the ground beneath his feet bucked and heaved like a ravenous monster trying to devour them alive.
Virgil remembers the city of Kingston.
Last time he was here, the landscape was twisted, fractured. An earthquake opened up its skull and exposed bare bones, splinters of broken buildings stabbing upward from the horizon. It took time to fix, and signs of damage continue to linger, but they are getting there, people are moving on. He is moving on.
Now he's back—not by choice—and unwanted memories bubble to the surface as if it were only yesterday instead of a whole lifetime ago. A year might not be a lifetime, but it sure as hell feels like it. The city is no longer broken, but it is in danger, painted in violent reds and oranges.
Now Kingston is aflame.
"Gordon, move to the right—we need to stop the fire from getting anywhere near that wall." Virgil's voice is muffled by his helmet but even more muffled by the wall of smoke that's beginning to separate him from his brothers.
"Roger that." Gordon salutes him, somewhat mockingly, through the haze. The red Fire Tender in his hands leaps into action. Scott and John have the Firefly down below as they tackle the fire next door, which leaves the other three to fight this blaze by hand. A combination of hyper-compressed water and foam packed into each Fire Tender's lightweight frame does its job to keep the flames at bay.
For the moment, at least. This fire is fighting back, licking at the roof of the office building with a relentless ferocity. Behind the reflections flickering off Gordon's helmet, Virgil can see the slick of sweat on his brother's face, the way tight lines gouge around his eyes as the heat becomes a little too much. Gordon doesn't say anything, because he never complains on the job, but the lack of fluidity in his movements paints a picture of exhaustion, overexposure to extreme temperatures, and a frantic concern Virgil recognizes because it's the same frantic concern that's currently eating a hole through his heart.
Alan, sensitive kid that he is, notices and without a word slips to Gordon's side and follows his lead. Under their combined assault, the flames begin to recede. "You look like you're drying out a bit," Alan says, voice surprisingly light, if a little breathless.
"He's a fish out of water, Al, what did you expect?" Virgil asks, dousing the crescent receptionist's desk to discourage the flames licking at its polished sides.
Alan flashes him a grin, always pleased to have backup when teasing a brother.
"Thought I'd try something different," Gordon replies casually, but his grunts of effort are unmistakable.
The heat threatens to melt the smile off Virgil's face. Even his fire-resistant suit is straining to hold up against the conflagration; waves of heat pound against his body with physical force, an untamable beast fighting with all its strength to escape their control. He leaps forward to stop flames that are trying to circle back on his brothers, spraying foam as he goes. Control, they need to regain control. It always comes back to control.
Virgil can't shake the thought that if they lose control this time, history will repeat itself.
They already took care of evacuating the building; the police are handling evacuations of this entire city block. If it were just this building they were fighting for, Virgil wouldn't care so much—it's trying too hard to look professional, all panoramic windows, gray walls, barely tall enough to make it stick out from its neighbors. But that's not what's setting Virgil's teeth on edge. Here, the problem isn't the fire—it's the way the fire's spreading.
"Is it getting hot in here or is it just me?" Gordon jokes as he fights away flames that are attempting to catch onto the carpet.
"It certainly isn't you," Alan retorts.
For a heart-lurching moment, Virgil loses sight of them as smoke propelled by a new blaze billows over them. He bites out a curse and steps forward to battle this new threat. When he gets an opportunity to remove his attention from the fire, it's to find Gordon and Alan have reappeared, faces illuminated in an intense orange glow that reminds Virgil of fiery sunsets.
He exhales, looks down at his hands. Heavy gloves catch the flying ash, turning blue to black. Hands that were shaking a year ago are shaking now, because he can't escape the feeling that what happened a year ago will happen again.
No. He can't afford to think like that. It might be the same place, the same time, but today will not end the same way.
There's a crackle in his ear, louder than the hiss and pop of the fire, and he flinches. "Virgil Tracy." It's EOS. Her strange, childlike voice does nothing to mollify his apprehension; it's only a reminder of her youth. "Please be advised that the fire crew is attempting to get numbers to your location."
"That's what you said ten minutes ago, EOS!" he barks. Alan's head snaps toward him, brows drawing together at his tone. A small city like this doesn't have the resources or equipment to be spread so thin, not when evacuations are still taking place. But neither does International Rescue. Virgil's tuned instincts resonate with the certainty that they need more support on the inside.
EOS ignores him, in the way she so often does. "Backup is unavailable at this time. Please be advised that the—"
"All right, thanks." Virgil finds it hard to talk and focus on his job, and right now he needs to devote every bit of attention to stopping the spread of this fire.
"Hey, uh, Virgil?" Alan says. Virgil grunts and continues to spray flames. "Once we're home, I think my comm needs some adjustment. The volume level keeps fluctuating—"
"Not now, Al—"
A note, middle C, chimes in his ears—EOS's courtesy warning that she's patching Scott through. "Virg, John and I have wrapped up the fire in our sector of this building."
Virgil wants to be relieved, but the strained undercurrent in his eldest brother's voice is a clear indicator of how things are going.
"Unfortunately, it's sparked up on another level; whatever ignited this explosion must have been internal. We've got two firemen with us and that's all. I need some good news, so please tell me you've got your building under control."
"We're working on it," Virgil says, "but we have no crew up here, Scott, and this thing is relentless."
There's an odd crackle across the comm as Scott swears, and he falls silent when the muffled shouting in the background intensifies. "Okay," Scott says, a distracted edge to his voice that means his attention is split in too many directions, "well, just keep it away from that hospital, all right? We can't take any chanc—"
"FAB." Virgil flicks the comm off, frustrated despite himself. He of all people knows they can't take chances, because when he looks out the window of this replaceable office he sees something irreplaceable: a red cross and white walls that are far too close for his peace of mind. Round windows with butterfly stickers and giraffe hangings glare back at him. Fire spreads and fire catches—that's what's setting his nerves alight. A hospital in a fire's proximity is bad enough, but he's staring at a children's ward. If he doesn't contain this fire right here right now, this will be the same place, the same time, the same damn story.
There's a triumphant cry from Alan. Virgil turns back to watch his brother continue to shape the fire. Alan's unfettered optimism reminds Virgil how young his baby brother is. "I put the wires out, that's what's been sparking onto the ground. We can push it back now, I'm sure of it."
Gordon, with that invincible grin, gives Alan a slap on the shoulder and rocks back on his heels—a moment of respite he rarely allows himself in the danger zone.
An understanding that their job isn't finished continues to warble through Virgil's mind, but it's muffled by the fact he can see Alan is right. The burned and frazzled ends of wires poking from the wall have been extinguished. Virgil nods, muscling past the desire to double-check Alan did the job properly through sheer force of will. "Good job, Al—"
The floor rumbles and judders, tossing ash and soot in the air, and for a horrible moment, Virgil is back at that school, trapped between concrete walls with nowhere to go as the ground beneath his boots cracked like an eggshell. Children's screams reverberate through his skull, a score composed of pure terror he can't dislodge from its haunting loop.
Gordon's head snaps toward the bank of windows. "What the hell was that?"
"Was that here?" Alan's voice jumps an octave.
Virgil motions them back. "Focus on the fire," he orders, and takes it upon himself to approach the heat-warped glass. Beyond, another plume of smoke spirals into the air from what looks like the fourth floor of a building one street over.
Virgil's heart drops through the bottom of his stomach. How did this happen? The sight of flames crawling out of a broken window makes him want to throw up. It's hard to swallow the urge down and report that, "There's been a... another one across the street..." He rubs at the coiling tension in his neck and mutters, "Oh hell."
He doesn't want to turn and face his brothers. Partly because he'll have to see the expressions on their faces, but mainly he doesn't want them to see his.
"How?" Gordon voices what they're all thinking. "What is this?"
But Virgil doesn't care about the how at the moment; he wants to know what he should do. "EOS, please update me on the situation," he says, voice eerily calm to his own ears. "There's been a second explosion in a building about a block down from us, and I need..." Virgil tilts his head. All he hears is empty space. A crackle. A fizz. The dull roar of the fire in the background. "EOS? Do you read me? Come in, Thunderbird Five."
White noise hums back at him.
Virgil has to turn around now. Gordon's jaw is set tight, but he's not saying anything as he focuses on doing his job. Alan's biting his lip, eyes wide, Fire Tender clutched too tight against his body. Virgil tries a different tactic and switches channels. "Scott, do you read me?"
His chest tightens when his eldest brother doesn't answer. No, don't leave me alone now, not like this. But Virgil would know if something happened to Scott, he just would. "Scott, John, is anyone receiving me?" There's a flutter and a flicker, the sounds of indistinguishable voices trying to break through.
Then EOS's voice cuts through the noise. "I am unable to receive contact from the Fire Chief or Scott and John. I am reading their vitals and they are normal. Currently working to re-establish communication."
Virgil expels a breath and watches Alan's shoulders relax. "Was it the explosion?" the youngest asks. "Did it cause comms to fault?"
"Undetermined," comes the reply. If Virgil didn't know any better, he would say even she sounds a little worried. It's unheard of for EOS not to know information that comes in cold, hard facts.
"Well, what's going on over there?" Virgil's urgency wipes any trace of a smile from his brother's face. "Do they need help? That building was evacuated, right?"
"Undetermined. The building was scheduled for evacuation, but I cannot make contact with hhhtzz—" Then EOS is gone again, her voice twisted into nothing. Virgil swears and tries to get her back, but only a few shattered syllables make it through.
"The explosion must have disturbed comms," Alan repeats, because he's the sort of person that needs an explanation.
Gordon waves a hand. "Don't worry, she'll be back soon. Something's just blocking her."
But Virgil's heart is crammed into his throat. He's not used to leading and he's certainly not used to doing it alone. But there's no time to wait—he's learned the value of a second. Somebody has to make decisions, and fast. Right now, there's a fire in a building that might be evacuated—but maybe not. He's in a building with a fire that's probably under control—but perhaps not. His two older brothers could be dealing with the situation—but might not.
That's far too many variants for Virgil's liking. So he looks at the fire they're supposed to be containing, and he looks at the brothers he's supposed to be protecting. He can't abandon the fire, not when it's still threatening something so precious. Alan's not going anywhere by himself, not when comms are down. So it has to be Gordon. It's a decision made with the utmost rationality, but every instinct he possesses screams no. Virgil lies to himself that it's better this way.
"Gordon, I need you to go and rendezvous with the Fire Chief." His voice is controlled again. It has to be, because he can't control anything else. "If EOS can't get a hold of him, then we'll have to get to him personally. I think that building was evacuated, but we can't be sure. If it's not, they'll need all the help they can get."
Gordon's gaze bounces between the fire and Virgil, amber eyes glowing in the light of his enemy. "But you need me here—"
"It's fine, we have this." It's not fine and they certainly don't have this, but Gordon has to go. Two explosions in one day is not something to take lightly; they need information. "When you've reached him, call me. Hopefully comms will be up and running again by then."
Gordon's expression pinches, but he nods, nudging Alan affectionately in passing as he steps away. Virgil can tell he's relieved to escape the heat by the way he rolls his shoulders, but the glance he throws toward them proves he's less eager to leave his brothers behind. "All right, then, I'll be quick. If I see Scott and John on the way, I'll tell them what happened." He twitches a thumb at the fire. "You two have fun now—and no slacking off while I'm gone."
Alan snorts. "We'll try."
"Yeah, well." Gordon pauses and looks at Virgil. "Just keep those kids safe."
Then he's off.
Virgil's throat goes dry. Did he mean those kids across the road, lying injured, sick, or dying with the threat of fire looming ever closer? Or those kids? Those kids from a lifetime ago.
Something niggles at the back of Virgil's mind. He takes a step back, watching Gordon leave out of the corner of his eye. This isn't right; he's sending him away with only a "hopefully" as reassurance.
Would Scott have done the same thing? Gordon's words capture a new meaning. Keep those kids safe.
Whether it's the heat and smoke that makes him feel sick or the scorch of bile against the roof of his mouth, Virgil can't tell.
Alan's more than a little jealous as he watches Gordon vanish around the corner. Not only does his brother get to leave this exhausting heat, but Virgil trusts him enough to go on his own. Alan wants to protest, wants to complain, but he bites his tongue. Virgil's got enough on his mind—he doesn't need to know about Alan's hurt pride. Not yet. For now, Alan focuses his energy on the fire they are finally starting to master.
But even the savage flames are not enough of a distraction from the concern seeping into his chest cavity.
They had been called here to handle a fire that was the result of an explosion—a suspected gas leak, the authorities said, but EOS wasn't as sure. As they flew over this quadrant several hours ago, they watched the flames crawl up floors and reach for nearby buildings. Local fire crews were unable to halt its progress, and it swallowed several buildings before they arrived. This office building is the only defense between the original source of the fire and the hospital that's in the final stages of evacuation.
Now there's another explosion, another fire. Alan doesn't know what to think. Because yes, he believes in coincidences, but these two explosions weren't even close. "Virgil, you... do you think this is arson?"
Virgil's staring at the swirling flames with accusation darkening the gold flecks in his eyes into something terrible. He gives himself a visible shake and then circles the reception desk again to combat the fire on the other side. "I don't know what it is, Al. Maybe there are faulty gas mains across these buildings."
Alan swallows air tasting of dry ash and mimics his brother's movements. "You don't think... it could still be damage from that earthquake? Causing this?"
"I don't know!" Virgil's voice is too sharp in Alan's ear and makes him flinch, even though he understands why. "But it would really help if comms came back online."
Alan doesn't like this. He doesn't like that there have been two explosions and three fires in the space of three hours. He doesn't like that, somehow, these explosions have interfered with their comms. Mostly he doesn't like that they are here. Even though he never saw Kingston for himself, it still managed to haunt his dreams. Now he has seen it, but the image has changed, burned away by a fire that writhes out of all attempts to corral it.
He desperately wants to tell Virgil that something doesn't feel right, that perhaps they shouldn't have sent Gordon off alone. But he knows if it's painful to remember what happened, it's far harder for the rest of his brothers, for Virgil. So he doesn't bring it up, lets coincidences be coincidences.
The flames continue to die under the force of their assault and the heat becomes more bearable. The fire is still putting up a good fight, eating at the wall and reaching for the ceiling. But they have a better handle on it now.
Something small ruptures where the flames are most concentrated, discharging heat and light and sound like it's a mini supernova, and Alan twists away as reflexes take over. His movement is arrested by the sight of an approaching person, just a silhouette as he exits the stairwell.
A weight that's been dragging on Alan's heart lifts. Gordon must have sent somebody up to help them. "Hey, Virg—"
He stops, and the man stops too.
He isn't a fireman, nor is he wearing any sort of uniform. He looks like a civilian, clad in a dark top and jeans; a short, well-kept beard frames his otherwise-unremarkable face. Alan's certain he wouldn't have noticed his presence if it weren't for the way the man is staring at him, frozen to the spot, eyes wide, one hand rising to rub at his throat.
Alan can't help but stare back. How did he get in the building? What is he doing?
Before Alan has a chance to decide what to do, the man turns on his heel and leaves the way he came. Alan knows he should go back to the fire—the real issue here—but he's consumed by the expression in the man's eyes. Shock like that doesn't come out of nowhere.
A shake of his head and Alan returns to battling the fire's progress. "Ah... Virg? Did you see that man?"
"What man, Alan?" Virgil snaps, words clipped unnervingly short.
Alan cringes. Virgil's stressed—forehead glistening, brows drawn together, every movement jerky from strung-tight nerves. This is getting to him, and no wonder. So Alan tamps down his unease and refuses to heap another worry upon a worried brother's shoulders. Especially when it's nothing. "Never mind."
The stranger just looked like a dazed office worker. Or maybe he was in shock, maybe he ran away from the authorities. Maybe he should go after didn't seem scared of the fire, though, unless...
The fire. The fire. Of course it was the fire—any person in their right mind would be shocked at coming face-to-face with a fire this destructive. Of course.
Because for a moment, Alan thought the man was looking at him. It felt like he was looking at him. But he wasn't, it was the fire. They don't have the time or resources to split up again anyway, nor for Alan's attention to be elsewhere. Especially when it's nothing.
All thoughts of the man are pushed aside when a familiar voice chirps in Alan's ears. "Virgil and Alan Tracy, I have ma—ftzz..." EOS's voice crackles, and Alan's relief is put on hold. "...but still... to make contact with... authorities."
Virgil's first port of call is the same as Alan's. "That's all right, we're just glad to hear you. What about Gordon? Can you reach him?"
"Gordon Tracy is online, as are Scott Tracy and John."
Virgil appears to sag under the news that he's done something right, and his gusty exhale releases a tight knot in the center of Alan's chest. "Okay, good, then we have a direct link of communications. Patch me through to the others and fill us in on this newest explosion. We need to know everything."
Alan listens to the update and fights back flames alongside his re-energized brother. It isn't hard to force the memory of the man back into the shadows until it's like he never existed at all.
Sometimes Virgil's bones strain under the weight of the lives he might not save. They strained a year ago under a tension that proved unbearable. Now they are straining again, but the tension is slowly easing. It's the same place, but Virgil will not let that haunt him. Not this time.
The fire is dying. It will not get any closer to those children or that hospital—not if they maintain this pace. Virgil and Alan make a good team. They don't get to work together that often, but when they do, they are aware of one another's movements. It's fluid, efficient, and right now, he's more than grateful for the company.
With comms back up and running, a measure of control has been restored. Scott and John are fine, if not making as much progress on the original fire as they'd like. Gordon's fine too, although already he's being pulled in different directions.
The second explosion loiters at the back of his mind like a thundercloud. It took place in a building already evacuated—thank goodness—but five firemen are all that's left to deal with that blaze. Virgil originally planned to reconvene with his older brothers once this fire is out, but now he's not so sure.
A sigh thick with ash escapes his lips as he sprays an escaped spark. Everything is smoldering; gray smoke hangs heavy in the air, as still and thick as swamp fog. The wall of the office is blackened and contorted, and the nauseating stench of burned metal creeps past his helmet's filters. Parts of the windows have melted away. Virgil doesn't want to look out them, doesn't want to lay eyes on the city that's once again in the hands of disaster. In fact, he doesn't want to go anywhere near them, not with the glass as weak as it is. One wrong step and it won't be fire he has to worry about. So Virgil steps backward—just in case.
There's a sharp crack beneath his boot, and he lifts his foot to find a string of glass beads. Some are crushed now, the weight of his body smashing them to sandy grains. But the colors remain, swirls of emerald and azure and magenta and copper. Virgil wonders why they didn't melt. To survive the fire and then be crushed seems a poor fate.
It looks like a child's necklace.
Something electric jolts through Virgil and he is struck, staring at the remnants of what was once beautiful and probably loved. All the heat of the room is sucked away, replaced by a bone-numbing cold.
Will this never leave him? Is that why he's here, to be haunted by memories, by ghosts he's tried so hard to rid himself of? Physically, he's fighting fire, but in his soul, it's so much more than that. He's fighting the past. But this worry that history is repeating itself, it's not going away. The notion that past will become present pumps dread through him with every agonizing beat of his heart.
But he can't focus on that—not now. He has to push it back, has to stay centered in the present.
At Alan's small voice, he tears his gaze away from the beads and turns around. But Alan's not worried about him; he's pointing to a trail of fire that's starting up again, already preoccupied with rogue flames trying to escape via the roof.
Virgil growls and pounces. He knows the value of a second, and yet he continues to take them, wasting them on himself. "Shit, sorry, Al—"
Alan's smile says everything is chill. They've got this under control. A light fondness glimmers in those blue eyes, one that says you worry too much. Virgil nods his understanding. He does worry, but Alan can't comprehend the full extent of why. Not when he wasn't here last time.
A D minor chord chimes.
"Virgil." John's voice is like a cooling salve over his burned-away nerves. It feels right to have the calm, dulcet tones of their usual space monitor return to their rightful place in his ears. It does not feel right to have them coming from the ground. This was both the worst and the best time to give EOS a trial at managing communications by herself. It was certainly the worst time for John to take one of his mandatory breaks. "We've still got around thirty minutes on this one, it's really not getting any smaller. We could use your support if you're almost done."
Virgil glances at the blackened mess, the way spouts of flames dart up in an erratic non-pattern. Every time one leaps forward, Alan is quick to douse it. But Virgil won't risk leaving it, not yet, not when there's so much at stake. "Sorry, John, we're still wrapping this one up. We'll get there as... ah... soon as we can."
There's a pause on the other end. Virgil can hear Scott in the background, barking orders at some unsuspecting fireman. He almost smiles. Then John's back, concern etched in his tone. "Are you okay?"
Virgil's frown deepens. He's supposed to be the one that asks that, not the other way around. Alan hears the question but pretends not to be listening. Perhaps he's wanted to ask it all along. A simple no hangs on Virgil's tongue—no, he's not okay; no, he feels like he's living his worst nightmare; no, this is all too familiar.
But they have got a job to finish. "Of course. I'll call when we're heading down. Keep me updated."
John isn't convinced, he never is, but he doesn't push it. "Sure. Tell Alan that—"
His voice vanishes with a stomach-lurching dip that stops both Virgil and Alan in their tracks. Alan looks up, cheeks paling beneath his freckles. "Again? EOS, you there?" When there's no answer, he spins on his heel. "But, Virg, I thought it was the explosions that caused the interference—"
There's a distant boom. This time, the floor doesn't shake, but he can sense the vibrations in the air, the way they crawl inside his body and rattle the very core of him.
It's happened again.
The explosions are so reminiscent of the earthquake that he almost drops to his knees. They feel weak, exhausted. This can't be happening. Now the question isn't how or what to do, it's why? Why is this happening? To a city that's been through enough, to a people that have fought to rebuild.
To International Rescue, who buried everything they wanted to forget with the rubble.
Buried everything with the bodies.
Virgil closes his eyes and tries to calm his racing heart, to catch his breath, to regain control. A year ago, those children looked at him and saw their savior—now, Alan's looking at him and waiting for answers.
It's not Alan that snaps Virgil back to the present, it's EOS. Her voice is crackly and tight, as though it's physically hard for her to push through the block. "Virgil Tracy. An explosion has taken place outside the evacuation perimeter. I... all... serv... can't..." She dissolves into static, and then reappears. "The building has not been evacuated, and there are at least twenty-five people inside... Scott and John have..."
"Scott and John have what? Have what?" Virgil yells at nothing, because she's gone again, gone with this new explosion. Virgil needs Scott more than anyone right now, but all he has is Alan, staring at him with those too young eyes. "What the hell are we supposed to do? We can't leave this building—if we do, the fire'll start up again, I just know it."
"Yeah, it will—"
"John said he and Scott were still busy, so I doubt they can go over to it."
"We can't get in touch with Gordon or the fire crew." Virgil's mind trips over itself and he can't think.This rescue has been a mess from the start."But there are people in that building, Alan! People. I can't have a repeat of last year, I can't—"
"I know, Virg." Alan's by his side, one eye on him, one on the fire. He sticks his chin in the air, something he does when he wants to be scared but can't let himself. "I'll go."
As he examines his little brother, all soot-blackened uniform and shoulders squared by a fragile veneer of confidence, Virgil's jaw hardens. "No way, I'm not sending you there on your own—"
"What other choice do we have?" Alan's voice rises. "You take care of this fire, I'll see who I can find, and then we'll start evacuating."
"No. No way, that's not even an option here, Alan—"
"It's the only option." The way Alan's voice switches from pleading to commanding screams Scott. He's looking back at the fire, which is smoldering, regaining its strength as they talk circles around it. "We don't have time for this. Just let me go." Blue eyes hard, the youth Virgil saw before only displays itself in glimpses. "I can do this. Let me do it."
Virgil stares at his brother. All he wants is time to think this through, because he's a thinker, a thorough planner; he takes his time, just like his 'bird. But now he knows the value of a second. He knows the value of time and how to use it, and he knows he can't let his worry get in the way of saving lives. So as hard as this is, sending his baby brother into the unknown is something he has to do. "Fine, if you can get to Gordon and the Fire Chief. If comms come back on, talk to me immediately. Understand?"
Alan's shoulders drop a bit, but now he's confident for real. "Understood."
For the second time today, Virgil watches a brother walk out the door. Now he knows it's the worry that makes him sick, not the smoke or the heat. Or perhaps it's the memories of what they lost and how he's desperate not to lose it again.