Huge thank yous to everyone who has reviewed, particularly the guests I cannot reply directly to. Your comments have all been lovely, so thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and reactions. At least one bonus chapter will go up on my tumblr in the next day or two, also scribeofred, so pop over there if you're interested.
Enjoy the final chapter!
Smiling after what he just saw took courage. Most people would think it took someone strong and selfless, someone with a special kind of optimism to power through and keep on standing. But even John, who was the grandmaster of the objectivity game, fell silent as Gordon delivered the news.
"No... no survivors." Gordon's voice threatened to splinter apart. Perhaps it did, wavering in the air like a broken birdsong. "I saw the... saw them. It's confirmed."
A horrific quiet followed, during which Gordon had to remind himself what a smile was. He had to patch his back together with cheap glue and wonky cardboard, then layer a yellow filter over top that said I'm okay, why wouldn't I be?
He just saw six children with lifeless eyes and outstretched hands. Of course he's okay. Why wouldn't he be?
"FAB." John was either fooled by his homemade patch job or he just didn't care. The platinum veneer of apathy overlaying his words suggested the latter. "I'll inform Scott. You go help Virgil."
No, Gordon didn't think it was brave or gallant to smile in the face of death. He thought it was cowardice to hide behind something that didn't exist. But he continued to wear his stupid smile—so pulled at the stapled seams that it threatened to break at any seconds—because it was that or lose himself to darkness.
He had to get out of this gym—then everything would be all right.
But when he stepped forward, an ache that had been lurking in its temporary hiding spot for the last hour finally snapped its teeth at his lower back. He grunted and stumbled, landed hard on his knees. His back flared, but the pain was nothing. Gordon could handle pain like it was second nature. That wasn't the issue. It was the image of a girl—so small, motionless, unblinking—running through his mind that brought on the nausea.
On his hands and knees, he was even more aware of the world spinning on an axis of fate that wasn't fair and never would be. Suddenly he was dry retching through his smile, body heaving, throat on fire, gasping for air to purge the sight of dead children from his mind. He wanted a brother, or his father, to be there telling him it was all a mistake.
But he refused to contact them or call for help.
Just like he never told them his back started twinging after the first aftershock, or that he was terrified of what he'd find when searching for Virgil, or that he didn't want to be the one to come here and see these kids. But his brothers had seen plenty of horrors worse than he had. So he didn't complain and refused them the extra burden.
Pulling in raspy breaths, Gordon closed his eyes. A few precious seconds to remind him where he was, what he was doing. When the pain subsided and the nausea stopped its brutal swell, Gordon sat back on his heels. He wiped a sleeve across his mouth, shakily climbed to his feet, and began to walk.
Moving out of the gym and into the hall was the right step to get him back on track. He knew if he stopped then, he'd never get going again, so his only option was to push on. He had to help Virgil. Virgil, who had kids with him, kids that were alive. They still had a chance to swim in the ocean, to let galaxies glitter in their eyes, to kindle laughter and love and light in the palms of their hands.
Gordon put on the smile for them, because they would survive. Somehow, in the journey down the treacherous corridor, that smile became more genuine. He stoked his own light, searched for that purpose, that drive which let him do this job in the first place, and found it again when he saw them.
Six children, skin pale beneath layers of dust, eyes ringed and glassy, clutching to one another as though the ground would disappear if they let go. Virgil kept them close and his attention kept returning to them ever few moments to check if they were still there. They were, terrified but alive, so Gordon met them with a smile—one that inspired courage, even if the person wearing it felt he had none. He didn't let concern over why they hadn't moved further or why Virgil had to steady himself on the wall taint his only weapon.
"Hey there, guys," he murmured, moving up behind them while making sure his voice didn't add to any part of the terror. It seemed to work: when they turned to him, it was with relief rather than shock. One of the boys, blond hair turned grimy brown, whimpered and lurched toward him. The others clung tight to one another, except for a small girl with pigtails who was attached to Virgil's hand. Gordon grinned at her. "It's time to get you all out of here, don't you think?"
There were nods and a small smile from the boy heading toward him. They looked bruised and scratched, and one boy clutched his arm to his chest, but that seemed to be the extent of their injuries.
Out of them all, it was Virgil who looked most relieved. As Gordon moved closer, he understood why.
Apparently Gordon wasn't the only one not to call for help when it was needed. Virgil's face had dipped to a grave shade of white, drying blood turning brown above the corner of his eyebrow and down the side of his face. His shoulders sagged, and the relief glimmering in his eyes was too bright and too pleased for him to possibly know about what had just happened in the gym.
So Gordon kept that to himself too, forced himself to meet Virgil's gaze without blinking, without flinching. If he was worried, the kids would echo it, simple as that. Gordon squeezed the shoulders of the boy who was hovering in front of him, before pressingly lightly on his back to steer him into the group. "This will be easy. We've just got to be careful that we don't stand on anything unstable, but we also have to be quick, like spies. Can you guys do that for me?"
A couple of them looked at Virgil, who gave them a reassuring nod and then rubbed his forehead, before they replied with murmurs. The girl in Virgil's grasp gave a small squeak. Her face was as pale as his, and she was trembling against his side, but Gordon couldn't see any visible injuries. Probably shock. Virgil was better at triage than he was—he'd notice if something was wrong.
They just had to get out and then everything would be fine.
"All right, well, we'll go first." Gordon, as casually as he could, moved over to Virgil and looped his arm around his brother's waist. Virgil leaned on him instantly; it was extra weight of someone that had been through a lot, so Gordon took it gladly. Something clamped in his back with the added pressure, but he fought it with his smile. "You guys follow close behind." Seeing the disappointment of the blond boy, he quickly added, "Or close beside, that works too, and we'll be out of here in no time. All right? Let's go."
The little boy slipped beneath Gordon's other arm, nuzzling his nose into his side just like Alan used to, and the others hovered so close he could practically feel their breath on his body.
"You okay, big guy?" Gordon asked Virgil, injecting his tone with a teasing edge, as though the question was a mere throwaway and not one that clenched around his heart.
"Yeah... I..." Virgil pressed his fingers into the corner of his brow; his wince was unmistakable. "I'm fine. Is everyone... else all right?"
"Fine," Gordon replied, and it was the hardest lie he'd ever told. "You kids are all right too, aren't you?" he called, glancing over his shoulder to look at their determined faces, and pride surged that they were all so eager for life. "You're all champions by the look of it."
There was a small, unexpected giggle from his side, and Gordon grinned down at the boy. Winking only enlarged the watery but confident smile. Confident because he thought they would get out now that they were actually moving. Confident because, slowly, Gordon's sureness was blooming too and he could sense that. Confident because there had been so much tragedy today, why would there be more?
"What's your name, bud?"
"Oli," he whispered in a voice not dissimilar to how Alan once sounded.
"That's a cool name. Suits a spy, don't you think? I'm Gordon."
"That's... that's less like a spy," Oli replied, and with every joint step they took, his voice got a little stronger. Gordon felt warmth filter in where they had been none before. His smile shed its cardboard confines and broke into pure sunlight. Oli might not grow up to be a spy, but at least he had the chance to grow up.
Gordon squeezed him tighter. "But more like a rescuer name, am I right—"
A small cry tore all warmth away, echoing out to haunt the broken halls. It stopped sixteen feet in a timeless pause.
The girl holding Virgil's hand doubled forward, slipping to the ground with a rough gasp for air. Virgil's head turned sharply, and he stumbled as Gordon untangled himself from both his weights. Oli sniffed, but Gordon kept moving, ducking down next to the girl.
Sprawled on her side, she groaned, a grimace pinching her pretty face. Beads of sweat dribbled down her forehead, her breathing came in rapid, shallow gulps, and a bluish tint overtook her lips.
Gordon placed his hand on her forehead. "Hey, it's okay, everything's fine." Her skin was cold and clammy, instead of hot like he expected. "Virg, I... can't see what's wrong..."
Virgil appeared to blink himself out of a trance. Even then, his movements were slow as he got down on his knees, grimacing every time he shifted his head. He unhooked his medkit before placing it on the ground and spoke in a tone that could settle the wind if he tried. "Hey there, sweetheart, you'll be all right. I need you to tell me where it hurts—can you do that?"
Light purple veins streaked over her eyelids as they fluttered in shrunken eye sockets. Her body twitched as she coughed, and flecks of red appeared on her lower lip.
"Her pulse is weak and fast." Virgil's hand was clamped around her wrist. "That's indicative of internal bleeding—I think she's hypovolemic. Oh hell, h-how could I miss this? But she didn't—call it in, Gordon, we need urgent medical assistance, now! And give her some space, would you?"
"All right." Gordon climbed to his feet and backed away, hand rising to his comm. "John, do you read me? One of the kids needs urgent attention, can you inform the paramedics—"
He stopped, gaze riveted on Virgil as he sat back. As he settled her limp hand on the cracked linoleum. As he stared down at his hands as though they were what caused this earthquake in the first place.
And suddenly the world was spinning again, a globe on that unfair axis which would never stop moving. The pain in Gordon's back drew razor sharp teeth down his spine, and he had to hold back a howl, a scream, lest it echo into insensitive air and engrave itself upon halls of darkness.
He felt a nudge beneath his arm and looked down at Oli's face, at huge eyes and pale skin, at a child who longed for reassurance, courage.
Gordon found he had none to give, not even in the form of a smile.
Gordon can't trust mirrors. Never has and never will.
They only reflect what's on the outside. They reflect what people want to show others, what they carefully mold out of clay to fit with the world's expectations. Gordon knows best that how people look is not an accurate representation of how they feel.
Just like now.
When he was in the hospital after his crash, he spent a lot of time around mirrors. Perhaps that's when he learned to distrust them.
They'd place one in front of his hand or arm to create a reflected illusion. It was supposed to trick his brain into thinking movement had occurred without pain. But Gordon hated mirror therapy almost as much as he hated hospitals. They'd sit him there for hours on end trying to get it to work. He'd just get frustrated with himself, tired, sore, and eventually they'd take the mirror away. They never stopped to think that he just hated seeing his reflection, as brittle as it was, and how that caused more pain than the actual therapy.
Scott would yell at him for giving up or not trying hard enough, as though that would help. It was all very patronizing to have him put on his commander tone and urge him to do better, like he was some recruit that had no idea what he was doing, when in fact it was Scott who was scared to be so clueless. Some part of Gordon had always known his eldest brother was just trying to protect him, trying to help him recover, but it didn't stop the resentment from seeping in.
Gordon has since realized that Scott yells for three reasons: when he thinks he's right, when he's helpless, or when he's scared for a brother. Unfortunately, the only person yelling helps is Scott. It hadn't worked when he was recovering, same as the mirror therapy hadn't worked.
Today, yelling still doesn't work and neither does mirror therapy.
Except Gordon isn't trying to get a limb to work. Standing in a small bathroom with the door locked behind him, he's taking time to put himself back together. He's staring at his face, still streaked with flaky ash, attempting to trick his brain into thinking it doesn't hurt to wear his smile. But he can't. This city seeps the joy embedded in his core away and replaces it with an unrelenting sorrow, one that winds around his limbs like a weed to a plant, cinching tight to the point of suffocation.
Gordon braces himself on the wall-mounted sink and takes a deep, uneven breath.
The tap squeaks as he twists it. Cold water gushes out to swirl around stained porcelain, and he cups shaking hands beneath it, splashes his face in the hope it will wipe everything away. He sighs and squeezes his eyes shut, opens them to find his reflection is still there. Still staring with dull eyes.
Some part of him wants to stay here forever. He's not sure how long it's been, but in here he's locked away from the contained realm that is this city. In here he doesn't have to pretend or stay strong for his brothers—he can be as broken as he feels and no one will know the difference.
But there's nothing to do but think, and soon he finds himself studying the bathroom, taking in every spot of mold, every age-yellowed tile. Again and again he finds his attention drawn to the corner of the mirror, where a closer inspection reveals there's a jagged snowflake of cracks. He reaches out to run his fingers over the nucleus point of impact, skin prickling beneath a surface that aspires to be sharp. He wonders why it's there.
It looks like someone lashed out at it in a fit of rage, which would make sense in a place that encourages grief.
Gordon can't help but think of Scott.
The memory of glass smashing against the wall next to Virgil's head leaves a bitter aftertaste on the back of his throat. If it weren't for Virgil's rescue-honed reflexes, he might be blind right now.
Scott was that angry, and he didn't even lose a brother.
Gordon wonders if he climbed through the mirror to the other side, would he be in a world where Scott was the one to punch this mirror in a grief-fueled rage? A world where John wasn't breathing in the next room, his heart monitor beeping with a resounding reassurance of life?
Or perhaps it would be the crueler universe that allowed Orson to get to Alan after all. Or even himself, though that scenario doesn't scare him as much.
The thought flutters past his mind with the briefness of a moth but lands with intent to make him shiver.
One slip up, one change, and things might have been unspeakably different. It is the fragility of life—as delicate as glass, as this broken mirror, as Gordon's bones feel—that makes him bite his tongue to stop the building yell.
He takes a step back from the mirror, and his shirt and thick sweatshirt—well, Virgil's sweatshirt—bunch around his ears as he rolls his shoulders, trying to rid himself of that faint twinge hovering on the abyss of escape. The way the last explosion had thrown him to the ground hadn't done his back any favors, but after hearing John's screams—sounds of anguish that will haunt his dreams for nights to come—his pain seemed insignificant in comparison.
Gordon's heart spirals, moving in time with that damned axis of fate that, for some reason, decided John would survive. Decided they could be happy—even if none of them are.
But John is alive, breathing, okay.
Right, so he's not okay. He took a long time to patch back together, was in surgery for hours, and nurses were still bustling around him in his private room when Gordon escaped to the bathroom. His lung was nicked by the glass, nerves in his hand had been sliced, his shoulder had to be relocated, and his back is severely bruised. Usually Gordon would have made some joke about it being another day in the office, but any sense of humor withered away upon seeing his older brother lying as broken as he once had been.
For the first time, Gordon understands how his brothers felt, and it's the worst feeling in the world.
Now they're here again, like they never should have had to be. So he has to go out and be there for John and the rest of his brothers, even though part of him wants to stay here and stare at the mirror until everything stop hurting.
Even though part of him can't look at Scott without wanting to yell back.
Even though part of him wants to throw up when he hears that all-too-familiar beeping.
But he moves, because if he stays, he'll never go forward again. The door unlocks, and Gordon walks back into his brother's room like he didn't just spend the last half hour or whatever it's been staring at his unfamiliar face.
It's a nice room, all things considered. Not as large or elaborate as the luxury suite Gordon found himself trapped in during four months of hell, but it's not bad for a private executive ICU room. The walls are paneled with honey-brown wood, and there's enough seating for all of them to sit around the bed. A nurses station is located directly across the hall, and as per Scott's demands, two uniformed officers are standing guard, one outside the door, the other farther down the corridor.
Fifth floor or not, Scott's taking no chances. This, at least, Gordon can agree with.
John looks pale.
Well, he always looks pale, but this is the sort of pale that reminds Gordon of open-casket funerals. He lies there with tubes sticking out of his arms, blanket drawn up to the bottom of his ribcage. His chest is bare except for the gauzy white bandages hiding a hole straight past his heart and the bruising peeking out from the brace immobilizing his shoulder. Gordon knows, because he studied them, that there are gashes up his throat closed by surgical adhesive, but from the far side of the room he appears strangely peaceful.
Gordon doesn't want go any closer, he doesn't want to see the damage in all its gory detail, he doesn't want to break the illusion that John's just sleeping. Sadness rolls across the space between them like a splash of salt water, stinging at his eyes, and he has to look away.
The nurse said he would likely wake up within the hour, but Gordon's not sure he wants him to. When he wakes up, he's going to have to feel everything, and Gordon knows better than most how hard that is.
Scott and Virgil sit to the left of John's bed, taking up the entire loveseat tucked under the room's single, wide window—the one that Scott immediately drew the sheer curtains across. They don't block the sunlight entirely, but somehow the entire room seems dark around the edges, the shadows of unhappy memories clinging like cobwebs.
Gordon wishes, not for the first time, that the curtains could be drawn back, but he doesn't dare ask Scott. He's barely said a word since Orson's visit, and Virgil's been making sure not to leave his side. It hasn't escaped Gordon's notice that Virgil always has some part of him touching Scott, whether it's their knees, their shoulders, or even a hand on the arm. It appears to be his version of weighing Scott down, smothering out the flaring anger.
Gordon, for one, is glad Scott's calmed down.
He's not sure how much energy he has left to stand between two people who let their grief get the best of them. Because that's what he's had to do today. Orson and Scott are not dissimilar, even if they never see it. Gordon wants to tell him that, to throw it in Scott's face that he isn't always right. But that would undo all of Virgil's hard work, so Gordon stays quiet.
The sleeves of the sweatshirt he nabbed from Virgil's locker are too long, but he doesn't mind. He'll take any scrap of warmth right now, even though it's futile. Hospitals leave him cold somewhere no fabric can touch.
There's nothing left to do but sit, so he reclaims his spot in the plush chair next to Alan's, where they've been for the past who knows how long. Gordon's hand finds Alan's back, starts rubbing slow circles through the soft cotton of his t-shirt, even though the crying stopped a while ago. Alan didn't seem to notice he left either, but he shapes to Gordon's hand.
A gel icepack that Alan was using on his hand lies abandoned atop a bedside table made of the same golden-brown wood as the walls. Next to the growing puddle of melting condensation sits a pitcher of water and stack of cups—paper, not glass.
Yeah, uh, not thinking about that. Moving on.
"Hey, bud, how you holding up?" Gordon keeps his voice quiet simply because it feels wrong to crack the air open when everyone seems dead set on not talking.
Virgil's dark eyes flicker upward at the sound, looking across John's still body to gaze at them with too much intensity. The cuts from the glass Scott flung at him are sealed with surgical adhesive, applied by one of the nurses while they were taking turns giving their statements, but they still stand out angry and red.
Scott never looks away from John's face. Perhaps he feels guilty. A vicious part of Gordon hopes he does.
Alan's back shivers under Gordon's hand. "I'm fine."
Alan gestures at John with trembling fingers stained dark by bruises. He snatches his hand back to tuck it under his other arm, caging himself tighter. "Yes... well, no. How do you think?" he whispers.
Gordon looks at John and wonders when his chest shrank. He feels Alan's sadness, Alan's fear, because he's the type of person that will bend Alan's light back at him; who, even just for a moment, sees the world though his dried tears. "He's going to be all right—"
"I know, Gordon, that's not what I mean." Alan sounds a bit like Scott, and perhaps it's the slight rising of his voice that captures their eldest brother's attention. Alan shivers under Scott's gaze and ducks his head so their eyes don't have a chance to meet. "I just..." He sighs and bites his lip. "I just can't get my head around all this..."
"Yeah, well, neither can I." And it's the truth, because Gordon can't. His hand is still rubbing circles, and he's not sure which of them he's comforting any more. "Especially not what Orson said... about you. I mean, there's something really—"
"Do we have to talk about it?" Alan leans forward to detach himself from Gordon's hand. "I can't... I don't want to think about what... what might have happened." He glances at Gordon, and there's a brief flash of anger, but it's quickly smothered by shock.
Gordon wonders why. As far as he knows, the yellow filter is still perfectly intact. Perhaps it's slipped to a shade of pale blue, but the screen is still there. He can feel it pressing into his skin.
Alan's mouth curls down and he exhales. Dull blue eyes, normally so brilliant, flicker toward Scott but return to Gordon, and his voice lowers to a mumble that's barely audible. "Sorry, Gords, I'm confused is all... and tired. Really tired."
"It's okay," Gordon replies, bringing his arm back to flop over his lap. Alan doesn't let him escape, nudging his shoulder as a further way of apology.
Gordon's fingers slip under worn-soft cuffs to tangle in the leather bands wrapped around his wrists and switches topics, even though he's perceptive enough to know 'don't want to talk about it' means 'don't want to talk about anything.' But Gordon needs noise that isn't that damned heart monitor. "How's that hearing holding up?"
Alan stares at John as he massages around his bruised fingers. "It's nothing."
It certainly wasn't nothing when Gordon saw Alan in that office building, barely able to keep his balance, concentration squashed by interference. In the wake of worse injury, it appears all other pain takes a back seat. The notion annoys Gordon, even though it makes him a hypocrite.
"What hearing? Was there a problem?" It's Virgil who breaks the silence from the other side of the room. Gordon's weak exasperation shrivels into nothing.
"No problem." Alan's eyes are glued to John.
"Leave it, Virg." Exhaustion threads Scott's words, clearly a sharp needle into one who's not used to just leaving things from the way Virgil straightens.
"We've had enough problems for today," Alan mutters. It appears, for the first time, he and Scott are on the same page.
Gordon represses a scoff and meets Virgil's eyes over the shallow but steady rise and fall of John's bandaged chest. For a moment they are mirrored voices of the soul, both of them fighting brothers who need help but don't want it. Virgil gives a brief nod before turning back to Scott, soothing hand ever-present. Gordon bumps Alan's arm with his own and wonders how the hell it got like this.
The ensuing silence is filled with an endless beep. beep. beep. beep. beep. beep. It's a monotone soundtrack that's played in the background of most of Gordon's nightmares, and it takes considerable willpower to keep himself from hurling the machine through the wall and into the next room.
Alan, at least, doesn't seem bothered by it; he rests his head on Gordon's shoulder, and it takes less than a minute for his breathing to settle into a steady rhythm. Gordon closes his eyes too, even though he has no intention of sleeping. Not in a hospital, not even snuggled deep into a sweatshirt that smells entirely of Virgil and his calm, steady presence. No, he's waiting.
Sure enough, it doesn't take long for Scott and Virgil to begin whispering. They still tend to wait until little brothers are—apparently—out of the picture, which is a habit Gordon's beginning to suspect they'll never break. Clearly they don't realize their whispers carry without any problems.
"They should never have brought him here. What gave him the right to be treated for shock?" Scott asks. "They should have known better."
Gordon cracks one eye open. A lifetime's worth of experience ensures he'll learn more from his brothers' body language than their words.
Scott's fists are flexing on his knees, and Virgil's downcast expression bleeds a silent you should have known better. He doesn't say it, Gordon knows, only because of the intense loyalty between him and Scott. Virgil's forgiveness reaches unfathomable lengths, and sometimes Gordon wants to hate him for it.
But he can't—not when Virgil knows what to say when no one else does. "They were just doing their jobs, Scott, but I know. It did feel wrong."
Scott dips his head.
"You should never have talked to him, though." Virgil's fingers find their way to Scott's wrist, a way to tell him he's condemning but not mad. "What good came of that?"
Scott's shirt tightens around his shoulders. "I know, it was stupid, but I just... I don't know, I needed him to know what he did. If John hadn't... if he had..." He shakes his head, eyes squeezing shut.
Virgil's fingers tap the back of Scott's hand. "But he didn't—John's still with us. It was unfair of you to put Gordon in that situation."
"Perhaps you shouldn't have left."
"Oh, what, and leave Alan to cry his eyes out in the bathroom?"
Virgil draws his tone back, ever careful. 'I'm just saying, he looked scared."
Gordon has to suppress a growl. It's mostly because he's in the room and isn't being consulted on the matter—they're treating him like a child—but also because he wasn't scared of Scott.
Well, maybe a little, but he didn't look it. Did he? Perhaps there are more holes in his filter than he thought.
Scott's short laugh edges toward mocking. "He knew what he was doing—don't ask me why he did it, though."
"Maybe he'd seen enough pain," is Virgil's answer, but his eyes scan Gordon with the same confusion present in Scott's brow. Clearly he doesn't know why either.
Gordon thinks it's simple.
He did it for John.
He got between them because his brother asked him to, not because he felt sorry for Orson. The truth is he didn't—doesn't. He was ready to tear the knife down skin the way John's skin had been torn.
But then he stood in between. He stood where John wanted him to stand, and the picture had widened to something more complex. Orson's eyes had reminded him of the girl with the pigtails, the little boy with blond hair. They reminded him of what at the time felt like an endless mourning he had suffered through quietly.
Last year Virgil had worn his grief like a band around his wrist; it became the very silence that shrouded him. Gordon wore his through the little things. Through the questions he didn't ask, the rescues he didn't want to hear about, the nights he wasn't hungry, the days he didn't swim. They were all small, insignificant, and went by unnoticed. Perhaps that's why Virgil can't understand why he stood in the middle.
Scott glances at Alan. He hesitates over his next words, side-eying Virgil as though trying to gain a read on how he's feeling. Virgil lifts his chin a fraction and offers the tiniest of reassuring smiles.
Gordon wants to laugh. He's fine, Scott, why wouldn't he be?
"His son can't have looked... that much like him..." Scott whispers.
"I guess we'll never know." Virgil's dark reply is mellowed by a soft sigh.
"His name was Reed. You think a father wouldn't know what his own son looks like?" Gordon's eyes open fully and words burst from his mouth before he can stop them. It's not confrontational or angry—the question hovers in the air for the simple purpose of Gordon needing to say something about all this. "There must have been resemblance to cause such a reaction. He wouldn't have created a plan this elaborate in the first place if there wasn't."
Scott must read something else in his tone. "What are you saying?" he asks, leaning forward. Virgil's hand is back around his wrist in a heartbeat. "Why are you standing up for him?"
Gordon digs his thumb into his leather bands. He doesn't want to be angry, and he's not. But there's some buried resentment in him, not just toward Scott, but one that reaches out to them all.
Even John—for shutting him out with silence when he most needed to talk.
Scott avoided speaking about it, Virgil couldn't speak, and John only spoke about work. That's how it was for a whole month, and by then Gordon's feelings had been shoved somewhere he wasn't supposed to look.
But he's had enough. "I'm not standing up for him! Hell, Scott—do you think I'm that stupid? I'm just saying that he had a reason and you shouldn't try to... to reduce that to nothing."
Scott's eyebrows shoot up and he yanks out of Virgil's grasp. "Excuse me? He had reason to do what he did?"
"Not one that I defend!" Gordon's jolt of his shoulder makes Alan sit up, blinking heavily between brothers. "His motive was losing his son—he's not crazy, he's not a psychopath. He's just a guy that lost his kid. An everyday father—"
"He is crazy, Gordon," Scott snaps. "He set a city on fire just to get us here—that sounds pretty insane to me."
"Don't you see what you're doing?" Gordon makes himself ignore Virgil's stare that's pleading for him to stop. Once he starts moving forward, he can't halt—they should know that by now. "You're diminishing him as a human, with real human emotions—"
"A human that threw our brother through glass." Scott's hiss makes sharp nails claw up Gordon's spine. "Do you even think before you say these things? He lost a son, I get that, but it doesn't give him an excuse to tear other families apart too."
Gordon sits back and swallows through a sore throat. His chest hurts, a deep ache clogged around his heart. Alan must see something in his face, because his hand reaches out and squeezes his shoulder.
"Of course I think about these things—I've had plenty of time to th-think." Gordon can't help the way his voice breaks. Virgil looks away like he can't bear another person's sadness on top of his own. "I'm just saying that his grief from last year, something we all felt and something he repressed—it turned into this!"
"Yeah, it turned into something crazy. I don't even know why you're doing this, Gords, just drop it." Scott shakes his head and leans back into the sofa, holding his hand up as a barrier between them.
Gordon's never been good at respecting barriers.
"Just drop it?" he whispers. "Why? When are we going to talk about it? Tomorrow? Next week? Never? Just like last year?"
"Last year is gone, Gordon, it's over, we don't have to talk about it—"
"Did you ever think that maybe I wanted to?" Gordon's voice is a breaking wave of unexpected misery. It makes Alan snatch his hand back, Virgil flinch, Scott stare. "Do you think that maybe if we had, we all would've understood Orson a little better? We all could have avoided this situation altogether. That's what John was trying to do today—don't you see? He was trying to understand."
Scott's teeth snap shut behind open lips. If he's trying to bar angry words behind them, he fails. "Understand him? Why would we possibly want to do that?"
"Because... we..." Gordon can barely keep his own voice alive. It wants to curl up in his windpipe and never break from its confines, because for all his ability to talk, he can't find the words. It's times like this he longs for John's empathetic order, his blunt honest, his ability to analyze and categorize feelings into mental boxes.
But John is unconscious, pumped full of drugs designed to provide his body with a chance to heal. Gordon doesn't blame him for leaving him to flounder, even though he wants to.
It's Alan who fills that spot and says exactly what he feels. It's Alan, with his small but confident voice, who gets all the attention directed back at him. "I feel sorry for him."
It's Alan who puts into words what Gordon's been trying to say all along.
Virgil doesn't have time to register Alan's comment before Scott lurches to his feet. Instinct makes him tug at Scott's sleeve as he tries to prevent whatever smoldering embers are left over from the previous flare-up from igniting again.
Then Alan's words sink in, and Virgil drops his arm, tempted to leap up as well. Sorry for him?
Sorry for the man that made him step back into that school and walk down the hall where he lost a child due to his own negligence? Sorry for the man that allowed a fire to spread so close to a children's ward, sorry for the man that threatened them all and almost killed John? Virgil can't believe what he's hearing.
Apparently neither can Scott. "Alan—how... how can you say that?" Each word is a rumble in the hollow cavity of Virgil's chest. Alan's biting his lip but holding Scott's gaze with only a slight waver. "Feel sorry for Mills? He's a psychopath that threatened to kill you—he almost murdered John! He—"
"Do you think I don't know that?" Alan tries to snap, but it comes out frayed at the edges. "It's just sad, okay? Can we not just admit that all of this is... is sad for everyone?"
"You weren't even there, Alan!" Scott snarls. Virgil braces himself on the edge of the seat. "Both times you weren't there, so would you please just stay out of this?"
"Don't yell at him!" It's Gordon who gets to his feet, and it's Gordon who places himself in front of Alan like it's second nature. "Seriously, Scott, you really can't try to see things from other people's points of view, can you? Not even for a second!"
The tension coiled around Virgil's heart sprouts thorns that jab deep. It hurts to realize their own brothers do not know what he knows: that Scott sees other people's views too often, the way he doesn't leave enough time to be himself. Virgil knows what his younger brothers do not: that some days Scott has nothing left to give.
They've been here too many times today, only this time it's Scott that Gordon's protecting Alan from, not Orson.
Not that Alan needs protecting. He rises too and hovers behind Gordon, rubbing one of his arms just like Mom used to when he was fidgety and nervous as a toddler. "Scott, I'm not trying to... When he was yelling about his son, he looked at me and... I just feel bad that he lost his kid. I feel bad that he was driven to do this."
"Nothing drove Mills—he made the decision by himself. Sane people don't do things like that—"
"And there you go again, generalizing him, reducing him. His name is Orson, Scott." Gordon throws his arms out, as though trying to show them the real him, and lets out a laugh stripped of all color. Shards of ice perforate Virgil's stomach. "Does it make all this harder to bear if he's sane? If he's not just some whack job acting on impulse?"
Scott stiffens, head turning in Virgil's direction like he needs to know he's still here.
"Oh, of course it does, because if he is sane, then this is International Rescue's fault. We started this by what happened last year." Gordon shrugs, eyes gone flat and hard with a bitterness that has crawled from the depths of somewhere Virgil didn't know existed. "We caused this man's grief, we caused what happened today, what happened to John. But you can't take that, can you, Scott? So you just chalk it up to insanity and are done with it."
The insult is aimed at Scott, but barbs glance off to sink deep into Virgil's raw heart. "Gordon, lay off," he snaps, but it doesn't have the commanding quality he expects. No one seems to hear him anyway.
"Well, why can't we just be done with it?" Scott takes a step forward, and this is Virgil's cue to rise. He does but stands back, arms folded, wary of stepping forward and taking sides. "Why can't I just hate him for what he did? Oh wait, I forgot, this is you and you never leave things alone."
"That's not fair!" Alan says, loyal, as always, to Gordon.
The too-rigid angle of Scott's spine makes Virgil's bones ache. They're all exhausted, none more than Scott—the last thing he needs is to be fought against in a time when they need one another most.
Gordon plans his sweatshirt-wrapped fists on John's bed next to his leg and leans forward. "Yeah, well, maybe if we had talked all this through, you wouldn't have been angry at Orson in the first place." His eyes aren't leaving Scott's, a declaration of war. "Maybe you wouldn't have agitated him with every wrong thing you said—"
"Wrong? Wrong? I was trying to get Alan and John out of danger—"
"Well, good job with that, if I do say so myself."
"Shut up, Gordon, or I swear—"
"What? You'll smash a glass over my head?"
Torn flesh stings at the reminder, but Virgil shakes it and the memory off—it's already forgiven. He steps in front of Scott, angling toward him as he grabs his arm, more to deflect his attention and diffuse tension than to pledge any sort of allegiance. "Scott, hey, it's okay, it's all right." He turns to look over his shoulder. "Gordon, you need to stop. Alan, take a seat. It's been a rough day all around, we all need to—"
"Oh, come on, Virg." Gordon doesn't usually turn nasty when he's hurt or afraid, but right now he sounds nasty. Virgil counted on him being his ally, but apparently standing on Scott's side of the room makes him the enemy. "Surely you of all people understand what we're talking about."
Virgil freezes, words jamming in his throat, fingers tightening without his consent around Scott's arm. Scott's eyes seek his out, and Virgil finds himself helpless to stop what's coming.
Scott's protectiveness is not a good mix with anger. "Don't you dare bring him into this, Gordon. You need to take a damn walk before I force you out of this room—"
"Ah, yes, excellent, that will shut me up—"
"I don't understand what you mean." Virgil's voice releases in a gust of untimely winter that leaves a chill silence in its wake. He shakes off the frost creeping through his limbs and forces himself to meet first Gordon's stare and then Alan's, because no matter what Scott says, he should be involved. "Are you talking about that girl from last year?"
Scott's fingers are gentle as they brush his elbow. "You don't have to talk about it, Virg—"
Virgil holds up a hand and directs his words mainly to Alan. "No, it's okay. Listen, I was the one who sent you off today—alone. If Orson's plan went ahead, it would have been my fault he took you. So how on Earth am I meant to feel sorry for the man that threatened my little brother? I'm sorry, Al, but I can't understand. Not this time."
"He only did it because I look like his son," Alan says, like it's a legitimate explanation. His gaze shifts to study John's face, and he swallows; there's no nod, no sign of understanding. It's like invisible battle lines have been drawn, two on one side of John's unconscious form, two on the other, and no one wants to find ground to balance on.
"That's no excuse, Alan," Virgil says, trying to soften his voice so Alan won't feel admonished.
"Circumstances should never be used as an excuse for people's actions," Scott says. Virgil can sense they're on the same wavelength, mindsets bound by an ingrained protectiveness, but if Scott continues to use his words as backup, it will only widen the gulf between them and the youngest two. "See, Gordon, that's how you should feel—"
Gordon's still leaning on the bed, all forward-facing aggression, and his eyes, which have been lingering on Virgil, return to Scott as hardened ocher. "Don't tell me how I should feel—"
"Well, Virgil's right, isn't he? Would you be so empathetic if Alan was dead? I don't see how you can even comprehend sympathizing with him—"
"Because I saw them!" Gordon's words have reached the point where they are louder than Scott's, but it's not anger that's propelling them forward—it's a deep sorrow that strikes quivering blows upon Virgil's core. "I saw them, that's why I thought Virg would understand, but he doesn't. None of you do because I was the one that had to go—"
"What are you talking about?" Scott growls, making Virgil wince. Scott can't receive the undercurrent that Virgil's attuned to, the hidden cry for comfort. He can only hear the accusation. "What's this got to do with—"
"Everything!" Gordon's voice wavers into the air, leaving a tragic impression in its wake. "I saw seven dead children that day, seven! I've felt grief for every one of them, I've seen their faces when I sleep, and I've felt everyone move on around me, just like Orson did. I've been told to keep quiet and shoved in a corner, so, yeah, maybe it's bad that I understand him, maybe it makes me a bad person too, but I can't help what I feel." His head drops, bowed over John's feet. "I can't help that the memories are hard to fight."
It's the notes of despairing appeal, painfully reminiscent of last year, that slip a cold hand through Virgil's flesh to claw with icy nails at his heart. He feels like his chest is caving in, because yes, he remembers that little girl, he remembers the way she fell, the way he didn't even realize. But he never thought of Gordon, because it wasn't Gordon's fault. None of it was. The guilt was his alone to bear.
Except of course it wasn't. Gordon was right there. He watched her die too. Together, they're the two most capable of understanding what Orson did and why.
And yet Virgil can't bring himself to empathize, not this time. His natural state is to be empathetic, but he's not himself, not here. He's a reflection, something twisted and backward, trying so hard to resemble normality. "Gords..."
"It's just this damn place screwing with your mind." Scott shakes his fingers out of their clenched fists and exhales.
"Are you serious?" Gordon's head snaps up, expression caught between disbelief and pleading as he stares up at Virgil like Scott is his problem. "Do you not see what you're doing? You're reducing me now, you're reducing how I feel!"
"I'm not doing that! It's just crazy to say the things you're saying when John's lying right here—"
"There goes that word again, crazy."
Alan can't keep quiet for long. "Scott, we're not saying that you have to—"
"Stay out of this, Alan, you don't need to be involved!"
"I can have my own opinion!"
"Well, this time it's wrong."
Virgil hates himself for joining in, but he has to, he can't stand this. "Guys—Al, Gordon, stop teaming up on Scott, we're all in the same situation here—"
"Of course you'd take his side."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Even if you did understand, you'd still take his side—"
"That isn't true—"
"For heaven's... sake... you're all right." A voice, punctuated by breaths that drag through the air like nails against concrete, makes them all stop.
The silence that falls should make Virgil think of glass shattering beside his face, but it doesn't. This is a silence that reaches out to fill all the cracks in the room, a gentle spirit hovering over a ragged wound. It is this silence, brought on by one person alone, that attunes Virgil to the world around him once more.
Nobody dares break the silence—except the one person that can't help it. Gordon's whisper is a splinter in an already fragmented room. "John?"
John didn't visit Gordon a lot when he was in the hospital.
Gordon didn't think he minded at the time. John was studying, there were lots of brothers around, and he'd call now and again anyway, so it wasn't necessary for him to be there. John always was more of a distance person.
But Gordon remembers the day he did come to visit. He'd failed a tough session of mirror therapy, a tough day of being with Scott, a tough day of staring at his own unfamiliar reflection—and then John walked through the door. John, with his quick line of wit, his knowing half-smile, had waltzed into the room without so much as a blink at Gordon's appearance.
He spoke to him like he used to, treated him like he used to, and refused to wrap him up in soft cotton or push him too hard. John was just... there, his voice pulling Gordon from the downward spiral of his own mind, even if it was just for a moment.
John's voice can do that a lot during rescues, even just at home. But he uses it sparingly.
Now is as good a time as any to use it.
John's words are a clear path through the emotional bramble patch Gordon's ensnared himself in. His voice is as weak as wind sighing through grass, but it's there, tearing Gordon from his built-up cliff of resented sorrow. "John?"
"That's the one..." John's eyes are closed, his body so still that Gordon wonders if he's imagining things. He's tired enough he's approaching that stage. Then John's lips move ever so slightly and his brows nudge together, a lick of perspiration on his forehead from the effort.
His eyes open.
Everyone, as though ashamed to be caught fighting, relaxes their postures. Gordon lifts his weight off the bed and takes a step back, clears his throat, trying to get rid of the tremor sitting at the back of his tongue.
Alan emerges from behind Gordon's shadow. A hesitant smile that would never have been possible thirty seconds ago spreads across his face. "John!"
Virgil's movements are slow, like he's dragging heavy chains behind him, and he appears to fold in on himself. His shoulders and head lower—whether in relief or shame, Gordon can't tell.
"John, oh my—hey." Scott's hand plows through his hair. "You're... you're awake?" He phrases it like a question and rocks back on his heels, breaking from his tense stance to move closer to John's bed. His movements are agitated, reaching out to John before drawing back.
"Apparently." John's whispered reply elicits another moment of silence.
Gordon lets out a short laugh.
Heads turn in his direction as the brief burst transforms into what sounds more like a choked sob. Gordon looks at the dropped ceiling panels to avoid everyone's stares. Relief pushes heavy behind his eyes, clogging his throat with a tightness that barely allows him to breathe.
From over the sharp angle of his cheek, Gordon watches as Virgil's expression softens. He's sensible enough to ask the question that John will dislike but has to be asked regardless. Just another thing to add to the list of why Gordon hates hospitals. "How... how do you feel?" Virgil murmurs.
A crease forms on the bridge of John's nose. "Like... I've been dragged from the brink of death... just to listen to you lot... yelling."
Virgil's mouth opens and then closes. Gordon's lips twitch. There is no traditional reply to that sort of answer.
"Right..." Virgil says, "of course. Of course it's bad. Did you want me to call the nurse? I'll call her, just hold on—"
"No." The fingers of John's bandaged right hand flutter as though he's trying to lift them, but he hisses and they subside. "I don't... want them—"
"John, you need to—"
"Does it hurt?" Alan's rather childish query overrides Virgil's. He's staring at John with a sad curiosity that's tainted by a shadow of guilt—one Scott should take all the blame for, Gordon decides.
Ever so slowly, John shifts his head on the pillow. Where Scott and Virgil might have lied to spare him, Gordon and John know truth is more important to Alan than being pandered to. "Yes."
Alan nods, visibly unbothered by this answer, as he grabs an untouched cup of water off one of the side tables, plops a straw in it, and holds it out so John can drink. Gordon winces in sympathy as he watches the achingly slow rise and fall of John's Adam's apple as he swallows.
"Yeah, well, John, it was... it was really touch and go there for a while." Virgil shares a nervous glance with Scott, who in turn gives a sharp nod, as though granting permission for help to be called. "You're not just going to be okay—"
John tries to move, but between his sliced arm and injured shoulder, he has no leverage to push upward. "I'm not okay, Virg, and I'm not going to pretend to be," he says, voice rasping through teeth that give no sign of unclenching. "That's the problem here—none of us are."
There's another pause as Scott and Virgil study John with identical furrows between their brows that Gordon knows from experience means they aren't actually listening to what's being said.
John meets Gordon's eyes and flicks his own upward, the universal sign of frustration. Gordon's laugh really is a choked sob this time, and he has to bring a sleeve up to his mouth to stop any more emotion from cascading out.
"John, you've been through a lot," Scott says, on Virgil's side like always. "If we just get the nurse in here to explain what happened—"
"Just stop it." John glares at Scott. Gordon's never been so appreciative of his no-nonsense attitude. "Stop standing around like I'm dying—I'm not. Gordon's right, we need to talk, so let's talk."
"But, John, you've just—"
Gordon watches as John molds his voice to suit Virgil's mood, sandpapering the hard edge into something smooth and calm. For a fleeting second, Gordon wonders if his distrust of mirrors came from John. "Virg, soon, I swear—but right now I want all of you to sit. Okay? Will you do that for me?"
Alan lowers himself into his chair without hesitating, probably due to exhaustion as well as a desire for things to calm down. Gordon refuses to sit down until Scott does.
Yeah, right, like Scott's going to give in first. "No, we're not doing this here, not now." He crosses his arms over his chest. "Come on, John, you don't realize the seriousness of what happened—"
"Oh, I think I do." Any sign of smoothness in John's voice is reversed for Scott—it's all steel and stone with their eldest brother. "We've let this rot too long."
"It doesn't mean we have to—"
"I feel sorry for Orson too."
John loves silence; he's always made that clear. But Gordon doesn't think he quite understands how he controls it. Because six words is all it takes for a thick silence to descend upon them, leaving mouths wordless.
Virgil's legs appear to grow weak as he staggers backward, dropping into his seat like a felled tree. "How, John?" he whispers, and the small shake of his head, the way his shoulders tremor, is enough to pull Scott down to sit next to him.
Virgil's damaged question is steamrolled by Scott's. "After what he did to you? After what he did to all of us? I don't understand how all of you can possibly say that—"
"No." John shuts his eyes, teeth taking his lower lip hostage. The way his breath hitches and the tendons along the sides of his neck flex make Gordon's lower back throb in remembrance and sympathy. "No... no, Scott, you don't understand," he says when the spasm releases him. "And you don't have to. Just respect that it's not as simple as you make it out to be. He lost a child. I hope I never know what that's like, but I do know what it's like to be... accountable for that death."
"You're not accountable—"
"I am, Scott." John's words are strong, unwavering, and Gordon's left wondering how. He couldn't talk for two weeks after his accident. "Pretending I'm not at fault just makes it worse. Because the truth is, I should have answered that call sooner. I should have detected them in the first place. I shouldn't have been distracted. If any one of those things changed, those kids might be alive and today would never have happened."
"But..." Scott rubs his elbow. John is a logical person, and his logic is hard to fight—especially when he's lying in a hospital bed after being impaled less than nine hours ago and yet his thoughts are still clearer than the rest of theirs. "You were under pressure, stressed—"
"None of that is an excuse."
"He still tried to murder you," Scott says, eyes scouring the laminate floor like there's an explanation printed in the pattern.
"I don't forgive him for that," John whispers, the hardness rimming his eyes vanishing somewhere distant. "I just... I know how he feels. I understand how grief can mutate into... this." His lips tug in a straight line back toward his ears. "Especially if you don't talk about it."
"So it's not bad to feel sorry for him?" Alan shuffles forward in his chair so he can rest his hand on the edge of John's bed.
"Of course not." John's reply is soft and full of what Gordon knows Alan is searching for.
Gordon can't help but look at Scott and raise his eyebrows in silent victory. When the man who was impaled by glass can empathize with the person responsible, no one else has the right to be angry.
John, the perfect mediator, must notice because he adds without falter, "But I also understand how you feel, Scott, Virg, as older brothers."
The three of them share a glance that doesn't spread to include Gordon. His muscles coil, and a shock of what feels like barbed wire rakes down his back. "Hey, I'm an older brother too, and we don't need protecting or sheltering or whatever the hell it is you think you're doing. Caring about us doesn't give you an excuse to try and punch the guy's lights out. Or me, for that matter, because that goes completely against—"
John arches a brow in Scott's direction. Scott winces. "Gordon—"
"No, I've seen just as many horrors as the rest of you—so has Al, so you can just... just stop worrying about us... and... using us an excuse to fuel whatever vengeful plans you've got going on. It's a cycle. Don't you see it's all just a cycle?"
Too late, Gordon realizes he's the last one left standing, filter dissolved while everyone stares with their stupid expressions of sorrow or pity. He bites his lip and tries to restore his filter with a ghost of a smile, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "I know, I know, shut up, Gordon."
"No, you're right." Scott concedes to a reluctant nod. "Neither of you need protecting, we know that, but it doesn't stop us from trying. When someone threatens you, it just... it's unforgivable, okay? I could never empathize with a man that hurt any of you—"
"You don't have to," John says, but his flinty eyes are on Gordon, boring a hole through his chest. Gordon swallows and lowers himself into the chair next to Alan's. It isn't as soft as he remembers.
John controls the silence again, and within that they all become increasingly aware of someone who hasn't spoken.
Virgil's gaze is vacant, muted, and he's staring at John's bandaged chest like it's the only thing keeping him from disappearing entirely. Gordon's throat burns. He hates that they have to put Virgil through this again, hates that he's had to be strong, hates that he's forced Virgil to remember that girl as though she was mere ammunition in a pointless battle.
Hates that a moment ago he was angry at him for wearing his grief so blatantly when that's all Virgil knows how to do.
"Virg?" John's voice is uncharacteristically light.
"Oh... yeah... yeah, I'm fine."
Scott rests his hand on Virgil's knee and squeezes it gently. Virgil's fingers come down upon his wrist, and he sighs through a shudder. "I guess I'm just thinking about how... that girl, my girl. She just dropped, you know? I didn't have time... I didn't react. I did nothing, there was nothing I could do... like today, John, you just dropped."
The heart-wrenching quaver in Virgil's voice reverberates through the whole room. Chills crawl along the underside of Gordon's skin as he thinks about her, as he thinks about all of them.
"You reacted today," Scott murmurs. John dips his chin in a tiny nod, though Gordon suspects he doesn't remember.
"Yeah." Virgil's shoulders tremble under his hoodie. "But just... imagine how easily it could have been one of her parents doing this? Her parents would have felt the same way... h-hatred for International Rescue... for what I did. Imagine my negligence leading to this—"
"No," Scott is quick to interrupt, and the way concern washes out any trace of anger in his expression is close to miraculous. "You were hurt, she was bleeding internally, and it was practically undetectable. This wasn't your fault."
"If it wasn't my fault, then it wasn't John's either." Virgil's eyes never move from John's chest. "That's how it works here, Scott. John's right: it's worse pretending that it wasn't our fault, pretending that we tried our best. I should have noticed it, it's that simple—"
"Yeah, sure, and if it was your fault, then it was mine too." Gordon can't help the note of animosity that trickles into his tone. "Come on, guys, we were all at fault that day. Even Scott, because obviously Orson remembered you. Maybe it was what you said, maybe it was how you said it, maybe it was merely because you gave him the news, but we all contributed. This isn't just on one of us—it's on all of us. We've all known that this whole time, but we've never said a damn word about it."
"Not Alan." Virgil's words have cracks like the mirror in the bathroom. "He had nothing to do with it. Orson would've killed him for nothing."
"Don't say that." Scott's knuckles whiten around Virgil's knee.
"Well, it's true, isn't it?"
"Maybe I'm not responsible for last year, but I am partly for today, right?" Alan looks to Gordon like he's the only one who can answer the question. Or perhaps he's just too nervous to meet the others' stares. When Gordon says nothing, Alan glances back at John. "I'm so sorry, I'm sorry that I forced him to push you, that I ruined what you were trying to do. I'm sorry I didn't listen, I just wanted to help you—"
"Whoa, Al." John appears to be trapped under a mile of water as his head rotates slowly toward Alan. Gordon doesn't miss the way his brows lower and pinch in the middle. "What... are you talking about? None of this was your fault... how did you get that idea? So it was bad timing. He might have... done it anyway."
It's the might that gives John's game away, but thankfully Alan doesn't appear to notice. His eyes slide toward Scott, and Gordon, still harboring traces of resentment, mimics him, certain John will catch on. He does. "Scott?"
Scott pulls his hand from Virgil's knee and buries his forehead in his palm with a growl, but there's no sign of aggression in his features when he raises his head again. "I am so... Alan, I didn't mean any of that, you know I didn't."
"But you said—"
"Yeah, well, I was wrong and stupid—"
"And scared," Gordon adds, though according to Scott's glower it isn't necessary. "Well, hey." Gordon's chuckle, or what pretends to be a chuckle, is an attempt to push something back into place. "If we're all taking bits of blame, may as well throw some at Alan too, right, kid?"
Alan's smile is reluctant.
John's is not. "What was it you said before? Oh, that's right. Shut up, Gordon."
Gordon grins at his brother, his alive brother, and mimes zipping his lips. The weight of Virgil's concerned stare threatens to steal the smile away, but his attention is redirected elsewhere.
John hisses and throws his head deeper into the pillow, eyes squeezing shut. A small groan escapes from between lips pressed into a bloodless line as his bandaged hand tries to reach for his chest. His fingers shake. "Mmm... Virg..."
"Right, that's it." Virgil is instantly on his feet and pressing the button for the nurse, whipping up the air John managed to settle down. "Give him some space, yeah?"
Alan draws his knees up to his chest, like that will help, and watches as medical personnel bustle in.
Gordon's heart punches the back of his throat, forcing him to his feet and behind the ring of seating around the bed. The words are too familiar to what Virgil said last year when the girl collapsed. His stomach churns. The sight of pastel-clothed doctors and nurses bustling about, the wailing of machines in distress, the way the corners of his vision darken are unwelcome reminders of times past, of times to come, of the pain that's dotting itself up his spine. His fingers tangle in and yank his leather bands as he trots away, hoping he looks like he's off for an evening jog, but instead he returns to the small bathroom with every intention of throwing up.
It doesn't come, and he's left bracing himself on the sink once more, eyes darting up to those stupid cracks in his stupid reflection. The emotion associated with the worst memories of his life presses up behind his eyelids and threatens to escape.
The door pushes open.
Gordon straightens, wiping a hand over his eyes. "Ever heard of knocking?" he jokes, though, really, it's not a joke at all.
Scott measures him with a glance filled to the brim with sympathy Gordon just accused him of not having. "You all right?"
"Uh-huh. Well. John's okay—I think the morphine's just wearing off—"
Gordon grimaces. "Could do with some myself."
"What?" Scott takes a step forward, expression darkening. "What's wrong?"
"Oh no, nothing, I..." Gordon laughs, and it bounces around the tiled washroom like an empty shadow. "I just really hate hospitals."
Scott pauses before answering, but when he does, it's genuine all the way. "Yeah, well, the feeling's mutual."
They stare at one another, Scott with his arms crossed over his chest, Gordon with his hanging loose by his sides, holding each other's gazes like the world isn't falling apart around them.
But out of the corner of his eye, he sees that mirror, sees that there's no smile, and can't help the way his chin trembles. He breaks the stare first, brings up a hand to press the sleeve-covered heel of his palm into his eye, trying to hold back the heavy clouds that threaten to burst.
Scott's hand settles on his shoulder, grip gentler than he deserves after everything he said. "Gords—"
"No, Scott, don't, I'm fine—"
"You're not, Gordon, hell, I'm so sorry, bud—"
"Nope, no, you don't get to do this." Gordon tries to twist out from beneath Scott's hand, but there's no escaping, so he resorts to turning his head away. "Alan's the one you need to apologize to, not me. You... you should never have said all that to him, he was in a bad place."
"I know, and I will. But this isn't about him... hey... look at me, Gordon."
Yeah, no. If he does, there's no stopping the flood that's been building.
Scott sighs. "Listen, I'm sorry for today, more than you know, especially before with Mills... with Orson."
"Like I said, apologize to Al or Virg, not me."
"No, Gordon, this is about you—just this once you can't reflect this off onto anybody else. Because I forced you into a place you never should have been forced, and I'm sorry. I'm sorry for even coming close to hurting you, I just... couldn't understand why you would defend him. Maybe I understand a little better now, maybe I don't, but either way, I'm sorry—"
"Okay, stop, it's okay—"
"It's not okay." Scott's fingers curl beneath his chin and turn his head so Gordon has to look at him. His thumb traces his jaw in time with the thoughts swirling behind eyes of the sharpest blue. "The fact that I didn't... didn't even think of how you were feeling last year, that's not okay. Nothing about what I said was even remotely all right—"
"Yeah, and everything I said wasn't okay too, but we're brothers." Gordon shrugs and brushes Scott's hand off his face. "John's hurt. You were upset, so was I. You don't have to apologize, I get it, I forgive you—"
"Hey, no, it's not that easy. You say that now but do you think I believe you? After all this? Little do you realize, but I know you, Gordon Tracy. So you and me, we're going to sit down and talk about this when we get home, okay? Just like you want."
Gordon's sniff turns into a snort. "While sipping cocktails by the beach?"
Scott grunts. "Make it beers and you've got yourself a deal. After today, we'll need it."
"That's true." Gordon's nodding again and isn't ready for when Scott draws him in.
"Thanks for not letting me hurt him." Scott's hand finds the back of his head, and Gordon can't help but press his nose into his brother's shoulder, enveloped in a combination of Scott and Virgil's scents, even though the stench of smoke continues to cling.
Scott's shoulder shifts as he chuckles and pushes to hold him at arm's length. "Though you're a damned idiot for getting in the way."
Gordon's smile spreads. "Did you expect anything less?"
"I suppose not."
Gordon smacks his arm away. "All right, get off me. Will you go talk to Al now? He needs you more than I do."
"Yeah..." Scott takes a deep breath and stares at his own reflection in the mirror, studying it with eyes that are too vulnerable, too nervous to belong to Gordon's oldest brother. Then he looks away and all trace of weakness is gone. "We really will talk this time. I promise."
Gordon's surprised to find he believes him. "Sure. I'd like that."
Scott dips his head and exits the bathroom, opening the door up to the world of noise beyond before it shuts again. Quiet ensues. Gordon looks into the mirror and throws the smallest of smiles onto his lips.
It doesn't hurt this time.
He wonders if Scott understands how his soft words can be more powerful than his loud ones. Perhaps mirror therapy would have worked if no one shouted.
With the sliver of courage that goes into his smile, he tugs open the door between him and his personal hell. A nurse exits the room, leaving John lying with his eyes shut, his pursed lips and too sharp, too pale cheeks the only breaks in the mask he prefers to wear. Virgil's switched to what was originally Alan's seat and is tugging the chair closer to the head of John's bed while Scott gently steers Alan to a pair of chairs in the far corner of the room.
Gordon stands and watches them. Watches as Alan only needs a few words to make him lean into Scott, to restore trust once more with only a hand on his back. Not that it stops Scott from talking, from apologizing, from reassuring.
His fingers tingle when he realizes Scott needs words as much as he does. Then he wonders why he's surprised. If he can find common ground with Orson Mills of all people, surely there are more similarities between him and his brothers. Maybe they all have a bit of Orson in them, concealed deep, waiting to lash out once triggered by grief.
Gordon buries the thought.
He buries it because he doesn't want to think of what the trigger might be. He doesn't want to think of something that's going to extinguish his attempt at a smile.
So he pulls his own chair right up close to Virgil and flops down next to him. "You okay, big guy?"
Virgil shakes his head and is finally honest with himself. "No, not really. Not at all."
"Join the club."
"I can't help thinking of her parents. Maybe I should have reached out to them—should have explained."
Gordon hums. "You think that would've made anything better?"
"You should have reached out to me. We went through the same thing, you know."
Virgil rubs the base of his neck. "I know, but you also knew what happened, how I... didn't handle things. Maybe if you weren't there, then I could have pretended it didn't happen like that. It's just... I wish I could have explained to them that I was sorry about what happened."
"Virgil, there was nothing to explain." Gordon sighs and leans back, lifting his legs to rest his feet next to John's. "I mean, we're setting here saying we're all responsible, then I take another look and think, shit, hang on. You know what did this? Oh yeah, an earthquake. I don't know about you, but I don't remember causing that."
Virgil's eyes narrow to gold slits.
"We've taken on all this guilt, but imagine if we hadn't been there at all? The same thing would have happened but worse, probably."
"Are you trying to make me feel better?"
"Nah, just thinking out loud. I mean, if anything, Orson should have thrown mother nature through a balcony railing. Right?"
Virgil's jaw tightens. John goes to the effort of opening his eyes for the sake of glaring at him.
"Sorry." Gordon rolls his shoulders to disperse the flicker of absurd amusement rising in him. "At least you can tick free falling off your bucket list, John."
Virgil's open palm collides with the side of his head. "Gordon!"
The edge of John's mouth flickers upward and the corners of his eyes crinkle. "It's not as... fun... as I thought it'd be."
"We'll have to try again, then."
"Sign me up."
Virgil groans and places an elbow on his chair's armrest so he can drop his head into his hand. The movement draws John's attention to the sealed gashes around his eye, and he lifts a brow at Gordon.
He doesn't bother hold back a smirk. "Scott threw a glass at him."
"Gordon," Virgil tells his palm.
"And he yelled at Alan, and he tried to punch Orson, but I got in the way. See the chaos that happens when you're not around?" Gordon's tone is jovial, but John's smile fades as he stares at Scott with... not anger. Sadness. Probably making a mental note about sorting him out too.
Then he turns his eyes, glassy around the edges but still pin-sharp at the pupil, on Gordon. "You got in the way?"
"Too many times today," Virgil growls.
"He asked me to." Gordon gestures to John, because, really, it's his fault. Blame where blame is due and all that. "I just couldn't help but think that could have been your last request, you know? You were lying there, dying, and you asked me not to hurt him. I had to do it."
He expects them to laugh or smile alongside him like it's stupid. Because it is stupid, some notion of gallantry or loyalty that put him in danger. But there's no laughter. Virgil lifts his head to stare at him like he's seeing him for the first time.
John blinks. Then he tries to shift his hand, white bandages against white sheets. The movement proves too much, so he offers a half-smile instead. "I knew you'd do it."
Warmth rushes through Gordon, and for the first time in this city, he isn't haunted by the memory of former happiness—he feels the real thing instead. "Because I'm an idiot or because you trust me?"
"A sentimental idiot, apparently," Virgil mutters, but the impression of a smile is building itself back up.
Gordon laughs, and this time it's not empty or false or painful. "Says the sentimentalist. Hey, Virg, you're not going to stop talking this year, are you? Because I'm here... to talk about it... you know, if you want. You too, John, though I know how you don't shut up once you get started, so I might retract that offer."
Perhaps it's the casual way he says it that makes Virgil chuckle and John roll his eyes. Gordon's smile grows bolder. John closes his eyes, but there's a peacefulness about his expression that wasn't there before. Maybe it's the drugs, but Gordon likes to think it's because his heart is lighter.
A squeak of laughter from the other side of the room makes Gordon's head turn. Alan's grinning at something Scott's just told him, staring back at him with amusement dancing in his brilliant eyes. This time there's no invisible line between them, no sides, just a relief that's stitching them back together. With it comes a bout of courage that enables Gordon to wear a smile that does exist, that will exist again with the knowledge that they will be okay. That, somehow, normality will return, just like the day John walked into Gordon's hospital room and turned his recovery around.
He tugs off Virgil's sweatshirt, bundles it into a ball that he shoves under his head, and sighs as he leans back. Someone—Scott?—has pulled the curtains back, allowing the golden glow of sunset to stream through the window. Warm light spills across the whole room, fighting back against stubborn shadows. Light doesn't just shine through glass: it refracts into many hues, even in this room, in this city that's held so much darkness for Gordon and his family.
He's ready to watch as the light tries to reach each one of them. Today, he decides, the darkness will not win. Not as long as he can smile.