Greetings, all!

It's been a while, I know. I've been enjoying my last long summer holiday and getting ready to start my university course (which will commence at the beginning of September) has taken up a lot of my time. I was touched by the number of PMs I received regarding my whereabouts, and I apologise to those who had hoped that the summer would bring with it a flood of new stories. I didn't neglect you on purpose, promise! :)

This story isn't my usual thing; I'm trying to step out of my comfort zone. And although it has no apparent connections to my previous stories, it is possible to see it as a chapter of the same universe if you squint very hard. I hope you enjoy!

Standard Disclaimer: I own nothing, nor (unfortunately) am I gaining profit from this work of fiction.


Sleep always proved to be frustratingly elusive when a mission hadn't been wholly successful. Needless to say, Scott Tracy had paced through many a restless night these past few years.

The grandfather clock in the dining room chimed softly, briefly drowning out the soft tread of his slipper-clad feet. Two long, lugubrious notes reverberated down the long corridor, striking with a solemnity that reflected Scott's current mood. The dark solitude of the east corridor felt oppressive, claustrophobic, and every step echoed in his ringing ears; slow and measured like the steady, solemn pace of a funeral march.

Today, he mused, life was dismal.

The sombre thought seemed to intensify the leaden weight of guilt that hung about him. He sighed, shrugging uneasily as though trying to shake off the burden. A part of him wished that the turmoil of emotions could indeed be brushed aside so effortlessly, with the ease of one discarding an unwanted mantle. And another part of him felt oddly glad for the intense feeling of remorse, as though by mourning the loss of life he was fulfilling his duty. A tribute to the fallen, perhaps.

The villa was utterly silent, eerily so, and the faint beams of moonlight that streamed in through the partially drawn balcony curtains at the far end of the corridor offered little by way of illumination. But the darkness was of no real consequence; he could navigate the corridors of his home with his eyes closed if he so wished, and that sense of strong familiarity brought him a certain level of comfort. He allowed the fingers of his left hand to glide lightly along the wall as he gradually made his way towards the staircase up ahead, the rough texture of the paint against his skin anchoring him to the present.

He lowered his arm a little when his fingers encountered the cooler surface of a large picture frame – a family portrait Virgil had sketched during his college years – and he automatically took an extra step to the right to avoid knocking his shin against the fire extinguisher he knew to be secured to the wall below.

The object had been a topic of discussion in the Tracy household for the entirety of its existence. And although his father still protested that its location was merely circumstantial, the fact remained that it was the only extinguisher in the complex to have been installed less than five feet away from a bedroom door. Brains' bedroom door, to be more precise.

Scott smiled softly. He was very fond of their resident genius, but Brains did have a knack for getting himself into trouble. And although the younger man usually took every precaution when it came to experimenting, he would occasionally allow his enthusiasm to outweigh his sense of self-preservation. The results had been...problematic. And after that first minor fire, Brains had sworn fervently that he would never experiment outside of his laboratory again.

Scott and Virgil, at their father's request, had installed the fire extinguisher the very next day.

There was no amber glow beneath the oak panel this evening; it seemed as though Brains, at least, would be getting a decent night's sleep. And his bedroom wasn't on fire, which was always a bonus.

Shaking his head, the slight smile still playing at his lips, Scott made his way downstairs, counting as he went so that he wouldn't stumble in the darkness. The main corridor was a degree lighter than the upper level, lit by a source hidden around the corner. Scott tilted his head to the side, quickening his pace as he made his way towards the illuminated area. Perhaps someone had left the light on in the living room.

However, as he rounded the corner, he found that the door to his immediate left was dark and he could see little beyond the threshold save the shadowy outline of the grand piano on its raised platform beside the bay windows. Instead, the faint yellow glow came from an open doorway further down the corridor.

The dining room? No, the light doesn't seem bright enough for that. The kitchen, then.

It came to him suddenly that he had been the last to turn in earlier that evening - unless someone had waited behind in a darkened room after he'd gone, but that seemed unlikely. He was almost certain that he'd switched off all the lights on his way up to bed. Perhaps, then, he wasn't the only one struggling to sleep tonight?

Well, it wouldn't be the first time. After a particularly difficult mission, he would sometimes bump into Virgil - or, when he was earth-side, John - part way through his midnight wanderings. They'd snack on whatever junk they could legitimately get away with eating without risking Grandma's wrath, sometimes sharing a drink or two and sitting together well into the early hours of the morning. Neither of them required counsel, nor did they usually wish to discuss what they both already knew the other was feeling; that mutual understanding would allow them to deliver comfort without the need for words.

And yet Virgil had looked so utterly exhausted when he'd stumbled off to bed after a late dinner. The younger pilot had surely dropped off the moment his head hit the pillow. So who, then, was Scott's fellow insomniac?

He moved through the vague twilight of the dining room silently, wincing as his gaze moved to the doorway; whoever it was in the kitchen, if indeed they were still there, had left the door at half-mast. Palming it slowly open, he winced and turned his head to the side at the dramatic change in light intensity. He blinked, banishing the flashing spots from his vision, and gently caught the door before it could collide with the metal handle of the garbage chute.

A lone figure sat at the rectangular work counter in the centre of the spacious room, his body slouched in a tall chair he'd obviously snagged from the breakfast bar. He had one elbow propped up against the smooth linoleum surface, the palm of his hand pressed to his forehead and his fingers entangled in his blond fringe. His other arm sat lifelessly across his lap and a (presumably empty) mug swung gently to and fro alongside his thigh, suspended precariously by a single finger.

Scott stood at the threshold for a long moment, surprised both by his brother's presence and the fact that the astronaut had yet to notice him. The younger Tracy never usually had a problem sleeping – his long stints up on Five had given him the almost enviable ability to doze off whenever he wanted to, regardless of the hour – and his sharp hearing meant that it had grown harder and harder to sneak up on him as the years had passed. Even Gordon struggled to take him by surprise.

He wondered for a moment if the young blond had fallen asleep. But no, he couldn't have – the mug still continued to swing. Although it seemed that his finger was the only part of him still active.

"Alan?"

In hindsight, perhaps he could have thought of a better way to alert Alan to his presence. Backing up further into the dining room and stomping up to the doorway would have given him fair warning. As it was, he'd succeeded in doing what most of the family thought to be impossible; he had startled his brother.

'Startled' was perhaps too small a word.

The younger man jumped so violently that the chair he was sitting on made an awful scraping sound against the marble-patterned ceramic tiles as it was jerked backwards across the floor. His head snapped around painfully fast, his face frozen in a classic deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression as he gaped, wide-eyed, at Scott's shadowed form. The mug, lacking the weight to counteract the momentum with which Alan's hand jerked, slipped from his finger and landed a few feet away, smashing into several large pieces that shot out across the pristine kitchen floor in all directions.

The stunned expression didn't lessen as his gaze darted between the broken crockery and Scott's surprised face. Then just as suddenly, his tensed posture sagged and he swore softly, pushing his chair away from the counter and making as though to get down.

"Hey, careful." Scott moved forward quickly, holding up a hand to still his brother's moments. He pointed at Alan's bare feet. "You aren't even wearing socks. Here, I'll do it."

Alan reclaimed his seat with a sigh, bouncing the heel of one foot lightly against the low metal bar that was stretched between the two front legs of the chair. He said nothing as Scott bent down to retrieve the broken pieces of bone china. The pilot froze as he turned over a larger shard and caught sight of the hand-painted floral pattern that curled gracefully across the glossy white surface.

"Holy-...Alan, please tell me this isn't-"

"Grandma's?" He could hear the unease in Alan's voice as the blond shifted in his seat. "Yeah."

It was Scott's turn to swear. Scooping up the remnants of the mug, he turned back to face his brother, unable to hide his grimace. Alan took one look at his expression and sighed again, this time in bitter resignation.

"Superglue isn't gonna save me this time, huh?"

Scott shook his head grimly.

"Dammit." The doomed brother fisted his hair in both hands briefly, blowing out a long breath. "She loved that thing." He shot a miserable look at the fragments Scott held in cupped hands. "Any point in keeping the pieces 'til tomorrow?"

"What, so she can tell you off for leaving dangerous objects lying around for some poor soul to cut their hand open on?" He shook his head. "Don't stoke the fire, kid, you're screwed enough as it is."

Alan frowned.

Not wishing to make the situation any worse than it already was, Scott quickly moved towards the disposal slot in the far wall and tossed the broken pieces in, wincing as they clattered loudly against the sides of the garbage chute on their way down to the incinerator.

"I didn't even realise I'd picked that one up," Alan murmured, and Scott turned to see him staring at the spot on the floor where the mug had landed. "I don't think I even intended to drink anything. I just sorta...I didn't..."

Scott lifted a chair from its spot beside the breakfast bar and carried it across the kitchen to the work table so that it wouldn't scrape along the floor. Sitting down across from Alan, he sent him a sympathetic half-smile.

"You were just operating on automatic pilot?"

The blond nodded, meeting his gaze, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards a little. "Something like that." He pushed himself into a more upright position and sighed again, glancing towards the kettle. "You want some coffee?"

Scott was tempted, but he also knew that he would be sentencing himself to a completely sleepless night if he gave in. It wasn't that he was particularly bothered about staying up – he'd pulled plenty of all-nighters during his post-grad at Oxford - but he knew that lack of sleep could potentially endanger innocent lives if a call came in the following morning. Even on nights when he felt the need to pace, he wouldn't risk shirking rest altogether. A few hours' sleep would be enough to keep him alert at the controls, and caffeine could do the rest if necessary.

"Scott?"

"No thanks." He rubbed at the rough stubble beginning to form on his chin. "You really shouldn't either, you know."

Alan smiled and hopped down from the chair, although his actions seemed to lack their usual energy. "Wasn't going to. Can I offer you something better?"

"Depends on what it is." Scott raised an eyebrow, following his brother's movements across the kitchen. "And if you say warm milk and cookies, I'm leaving."

Alan shot a wounded glance over his shoulder, reaching up to open the cupboard above his head – he was still favouring his left arm, Scott noted. "Do I look twelve? No, don't answer that." He moved a bag of dried raisons aside. "Besides, what's wrong with warm milk?"

Scott pulled a face. "It lost its appeal after a month of drinking the powdered stuff in Dhaka."

"Well," Alan reasoned mildly, "it's not like the Air Force expect you to enlist for the fine cuisine. Ah, there you are." The young astronaut pulled down a very familiar glass jar from the top shelf. He turned back towards Scott and held it aloft, waggling his eyebrows audaciously. "Hot chocolate and marshmallows take your fancy?"

Scott managed a full-on grin this time around. "Now you're talking."

o~O~o

Neither of them said much as they sat at the work counter, each cradling a warm mug between his hands, taking the occasional sip and wincing at the temperature of the scalding liquid. It was a silence that neither of them felt obliged to break, too content to spoil whatever it was that had settled between them.

Scott took the opportunity to study Alan over the rim of his mug, blowing gently at the steam that rose up, hot and moist, to curl about his face. His brother had an odd, faraway look in his eyes as he absently stroked his thumbs against the plain blue porcelain of his cup. It was an expression Scott found mildly disconcerting.

He wasn't egotistical enough to assume that Alan didn't feel the same way he did after losing someone on a rescue, but the simple truth of the matter was that his youngest brother didn't usually let it show. He wasn't the sit-and-mope type when it came to emotional turmoil on the field – which, he mused, was odd when one considered how frequently he used to storm off in a huff about comparatively trivial matters when he was younger. Only a few years ago, actually. Funny, how adulthood had altered him so greatly without really changing him at all. These days, Alan tended flush frustration and disappointment out of his system by working it off on the treadmill or the exercise bike down in the gym. He was a lot like Gordon in that respect. Not that Gordon was often frustrated about anything unless his pride was involved.

He wandered briefly why his brother had gone for his usual exercise-related solution. But now that he thought about it, Alan had probably been told to avoid the gym for a day or so in order to give his shoulder wound a chance to heal. What else was an active guy supposed to do on a sleepless night, besides sitting in the kitchen and eating marshmallows, when the gym was off-limits? Poor kid wasn't a pacer, apparently.

The pilot's gaze shifted to Alan's right bicep, lingering for a long moment on the white strip of rectangular gauze that peaked out from beneath the short sleeve of his t-shirt. The long gash hadn't been as serious as they'd feared; only half a dozen stitches and a liberal application of skin glue had been needed to set things in order. Still, with the extensive bruising to the underlying muscle tissue, it probably hurt like hell.

Setting down his beverage with a soft 'clunk' – he had wanted to break the heavy silence before he spoke so that he wouldn't have to pick up another broken mug – Scott waited until Alan's gaze snapped up to meet his own before he smiled and nodded vaguely in the direction of his brother's injury.

"How's the arm?"

Alan gave a one-shouldered shrug. "S'okay. I've had worse."

"You don't say." Scott's attempt at humour went unnoticed. He blew on his drink again, watching Alan's face closely and taking in the dark shadows beneath his eyes. "Is the pain keeping you up?"

A humourless snort. "If only." He shook his head then. "Sorry. No, it's not that. I...I just needed some time to think."

Scott almost winced at the despondent tone. Alan seemed to realise how it had sounded and flashed him a brief smile that didn't quite reach his sky-blue eyes.

"I'm fine, Scott, really." He overcompensated and took a too-large swig of his scalding beverage, barely hiding his wince as it obviously burned on the way down. He coughed softly, shooting a semi-amused frown in his older brother's direction when Scott failed to smother his chuckle. "Shut up."

The pilot held up his hands, eyes innocent and wide even though the smile hadn't completely vanished. "Didn't say a word."

"You were thinking it." Alan took a cocktail stick from the cylindrical container beside him and speared a large marshmallow from the plate in the centre of the table, submerging half of it in his hot chocolate. He didn't glance up from his task when he asked, "Met anyone else on your travels?"

Scott shook his head mutely, then paused when he realised that his brother couldn't see it. Sighing, he snagged his own cocktail stick and stabbed uselessly at the floating remnants of his first marshmallow, watching the congealed sugary pieces bob up and down under his ministrations.

"Nope, all seems quiet." Giving up on the cocktail stick, he took a tentative sip and tried to manoeuvre the marshmallow lumps closer to his mouth with his tongue. He stopped when he realised Alan was watching him, wearing a very familiar lopsided grin that wasn't entirely unwelcome. "What?"

Alan's facial expression didn't change. "You do realise that you go cross-eyed when you do that, right?"

He set his mug back down, swiping the back of his hand across his mouth to get rid of the chocolate moustache he could feel there. "Shut up."

Alan sniffed a grin and returned his attention to the half-submerged treat he was trying to soften. Another short silence fell between them, made all the more comfortable now that both brothers were in better spirits. Scott even found that his neck and shoulder muscles – which had felt tense right from the moment they'd lost that first rig worker and loosened since – had finally begun to relax.

"Nuts."

Alan had lifted the cocktail stick from the mug and was gazing at the point where the lower half of the pink lump had obviously broken off in his drink. He met Scott's gaze, his expression one of total disbelief as he murmured, "I lost my freakin' marshmallow."

It really wasn't all that funny. A stranger or a distant family friend may have cracked a smile or offered words of mock-sympathy, and the brief moment of humour would have passed by with little more than a chuckle or two.

But Scott wasn't a stranger.

Spitting his mouthful of hot chocolate back into his mug and slapping one hand against the counter, he roared with unrestrained laughter. Alan held his expression only a split second longer before joining in. Scott made several attempts to re-enact the moment amidst his hilarity, but never quite managed to finish the sentence before Alan's choked snorts set him off again, and before long the two had almost forgotten what they had been laughing about to begin with. It felt irrefutably good. And as Scott watched his brother swipe an arm across his eyes, red in the face, he felt a strong wave of renewed affection for the blond-haired Tracy. They really didn't spend enough time together.

It was almost second nature that Scott would pair off with Virgil and Gordon with Alan when the four of them were on the island together. It was how things had always been in their family; with John offering the balance of being able to fit in with both sets. It wasn't that Scott and Alan didn't interact – hell, they sat next to each other at the dining table three times a day – they simply never did anything together when it was just the two of them.

"Hey Al?"

"Mm?" The younger man didn't glance up from his hunched position over the mug, his attention focused on the retrieval of his lost marshmallow. "Stay...staaay...drat."

Scott grinned and took another sip of his beverage, finding the temperature much more to his liking and savouring the added flavour provided by the liberal splash of whiskey Alan had added to both their drinks. "It's been a while since my tennis arm got in some practice. We should have a rematch sometime. But," he added, nodding towards Alan's bicep, "not until after those stitches have come out."

Alan had somehow managed to lever the gooey lump from his drink using two cocktail sticks. He quickly slipped it into his mouth before it could fall onto the table.

"What, like doubles?" he asked thickly, reaching out to spear another marshmallow from the plate. "Gordon's still pretty sore about the last match; after Virgil...you know. Well, we both know he wasn't aiming down there, but Gords still won't let it rest. And Brains is a fair umpire, but he hasn't got the balls to give Gordon a good kick when he gets out of hand."

"I didn't mean doubles." Scott grinned at the memory as he took another sip. "I meant just you and me. Now that you're big enough not to throw a tantrum when I whoop your ass-"

"Hey!" Straightening up indignantly, Alan's hand jerked against the mug and his second marshmallow fell from the end of his cocktail stick and landed in the brown liquid below with a comically loud 'plop'. He glowered. "Aw, nuts."

Scott laughed softly at his brother's frown. "Or maybe not."

"What's the matter? Scared I'll tire you out?" Alan countered, although without any real heat, abandoning all pretence of a decent upbringing and thrusting his fingers into the chocolaty beverage to retrieve the lost treat. "Fine, you're on."

The older Tracy grimaced, shaking his head. "Alan, that's gross."

The astronaut popped the marshmallow and all three fingers into his mouth, before brushing the damp appendages off on his black khaki shorts, smiling innocently. "Mm-hmm."

"It's like watching Dex eating the garbage all over again."

Alan merely shrugged. "One, he was a dog. Two, he only did that once. And three, he was the equivalent of young adolescent, what did you really expect?"

Scott sniffed another grin. "Grandma didn't see it that way."

"That's only because he'd just eaten half of of Great-Uncle Martin's angina medication."

"Well, he shouldn't have pretended they were treats at breakfast," Scott reasoned. "At least Dex puked it all back up afterwards. It could've been a whole lot worse."

Alan raised an eyebrow. "Like the time he peed on Mr. Forrester's leg? Admittedly, the guy was a gardener, he kinda smelled like a tree. Hard distinction for a puppy to make."

Chuckling softly, Scott leaned back in his chair, tracing invisible patterns on the linoleum surface of the counter with his index finger. "One of a kind, that dog. He got wise in his old age, though; always seemed to have a sixth sense. He never did take to Karen, not even after she fed him half her cookie. Probably knew right from the start that she was cheating on me with Neil Tanner."

Alan had gone oddly still, his gaze fixated on the mug between his hands. Scott eyed him for a long moment, wondering which distant memory Alan was reliving. Despite the tragedy that had befallen their family so early on in life, they'd had a good childhood, full of laughter and not entirely devoid of the innocence their mother's death had threatened to steal from them. But all of that seemed like a lifetime ago now. Damn, he was getting old.

Alan really did look too serious for his liking.

"Hey, d'you remember that stupid red squeaker bone?" he asked, trying to lighten the mood as he squeezed a marshmallow between his fingers like an accordion. "The one Dex was forever leaving on Dad's pillow?"

The younger man looked up then, his smile back; his eyes, Scott noted, remained strangely blank. "Dad used to go mental."

"Not that our dear, steadfast father ever stayed angry at the dog for long," Scott said mildly. "Dex had him wrapped around his little finger."

"Oh, and you weren't?"

The pilot snorted. "Fair point."

They both fell silent again, Scott lost to the memories of a childhood long since passed. He smiled to himself as he swirled the hot chocolate around in his mug, watching the marshmallow pieces bob up and down as they spun slowly in the tiny whirlpool that had formed in the centre of the liquid. A heavy sigh had him glancing back up again. The distant look had returned to the younger man's eyes, but this time his expression looked positively miserable. It wasn't in Scott's nature to ignore Alan when his brother was truly upset about something. In many ways, he still saw Alan as a kid. In many ways, the astronaut always would be.

Setting the beverage down on the work counter, he pressed his elbows against the curved egde and interlocked his fingers to form a steeple over his mug, his full attention now focused on his younger brother.

"You wanna talk about it?"

Alan glanced up, the melancholy expression vanishing. "About what?"

"About whatever's bothering you." He held the shorter man's gaze unblinkingly. "Is it the rescue?"

Swallowing, Alan dipped his chin. "If I say 'no', will you think I'm being selfish?" He didn't look up so he failed to see Scott's look of surprise as he ploughed on. "Don't get me wrong, I was cut up about it for a while. I just...I had other things on my mind."

Scott wrapped his hands around his mug again, simply to give them something to do. "Like what?"

The blond shook his head slowly and remained silent. With a sigh, Scott settled back in his chair and looked down at his hands, watching as his index fingers tapped out a quiet rhythm against the warm mug. Pushing wasn't going to work, apparently. No matter; Alan would probably be over it by morning, or at least more willing to open up to him. And if not to him, then maybe John would have better luck. He was better at these things anyway.

"Scott, do you think Tin-Tin loves me?"

Startled out of his semi-lethargic stupor, Scott very nearly sent the mug (and its contents) toppling into his lap. He recovered quickly, quirking an eyebrow in his brother's direction. "Come again?"

All pretence of nonchalance had vanished; Alan was looking uncharacteristically nervous. He glanced up at Scott for a moment before returning his eyes to the mug between his hands.

"Tin-Tin. You know she likes me, right?"

This can't seriously be what he's worrying about?

"Alan, she's your girlfriend, you tell me." Scott took another sip of his drink, watching the range of emotions that passed quickly over his brother's face. "What's brought this on?"

A shrug. Alan's fingers twitched agitatedly.

"Are the two of you fighting?" If they are, it happened sometime this evening – the kiss she gave him when we made it home seemed genuine enough.

"No. No, we're not fighting." The younger brother stared unseeingly at his cooling beverage. "Something got me thinking about us, that's all."

Scott's eyes narrowed a little as he titled his head to one side, staring at Alan over the rim of his mug. "It must be pretty serious if it's keeping you awake."

Alan's gaze flickered up to him again before dropping back down just as abruptly. A barely perceptible nod was his only answer. Scott sighed and reached across to snag another marshmallow. Dealing with younger sibling angst had always required copious amounts of sugar, he recalled.

"The two of you can hardly go a day without snogging each other senseless, I think you've pretty much established that she loves you. What's all this really about?"

Don't interrogate him, stupid.

Not that the younger man seemed to care. Serious blue eyes rose up to meet his gaze as Alan swallowed once, his Adam's apple bobbing with the force of it. He sighed, rubbing absently at his face. "Scott, I have a feeling I'm about to do something really stupid."

A cold trickle of unease made its way into Scott's stomach. He set his mug down slowly. "Alan, what's going on?"

His brother hesitated for a split second before ducking his head as he slipped a hand from the counter and reached into the pocket of his shorts, keeping his fist closed around the object as he withdrew it. With one last glance at Scott's face, he slid it quickly across the short space between them and then snatched his arm back as if burned.

Scott stared at the tiny velvet-covered box in front of him, eyes widening as he felt his stomach drop. For a long moment he could say nothing and simply gaped stupidly at the object. When he finally found his voice, it had risen at least half an octave.

"Is that what I think it is?"

Alan nodded, chewing nervously on a thumbnail as he watched his brother carefully. Scott opened the box, studying the diamond ring inside. He eventually looked back towards his younger sibling, feeling his face brightening into a huge smile as warmth quickly engulfed his chest.

"Alan, this is great!" His grin faded a little as he took in Alan's distinct lack of enthusiasm. "Isn't it?"

The blond Tracy's troubled gaze met his own. "I thought so. The other day I was so certain. I even got Kyrano's blessing. I was gonna propose to her tomorrow; we'd planned this big, romantic picnic-breakfast gig near the waterfall to celebrate two years together. I had the speech prepared and everything, and I've proposed to my closet door more times than I can count this past week." He gave a humourless laugh and shook his head, suddenly looking very young. "But then today..."

He trailed off, dropping his gaze.

Scott leaned forward. "What?"

Alan shook his head again. "It's stupid. Such a small, stupid thing. But it changed everything, Scott. Everything. I didn't...I hadn't really thought..."

Scott waited patiently, closing the box with a soft 'snap' and watching as his brother grabbed fistfuls of his hair and tugged it in frustration. He tried not to wince at the sight.

"You know that last guy we pulled from the wreckage?" Alan finally asked, his gaze firmly fixed on his half-full mug. He didn't even wait to see Scott's nod. "He was still in shock when Virgil winched us up; he didn't so much as blink. Didn't say a word the whole flight, either. He just sat there and stared at the wall. Then just as we were reaching the hospital, he turns to me and looks me straight in the eye and says real softly - like he'd only meant to think it - "I'll have to tell his wife he's not coming home"."

Scott swallowed heavily. "The guy we lost."

Alan nodded even though it wasn't a question, drawing a hand slowly down his face. "And it just hit me then, you know? What I'd be pulling her into if I asked her to marry me."

For a fraction of a second, Scott really wished that John were here to have this conversation. The elder of the two blond Tracys had always been a superb diplomat and so darn sensible. What sort of advice could Scott offer? It had been over a year since he'd last dated a girl.

"She knows the risks, Al," the pilot reasoned, doing his best to swallow his self-doubt. "I thought you two talked about this when you first started dating?"

"It's not the same." Alan pressed the heels of his hands against his closed eyes, sighing heavily. "I can't explain it, Scott. It just all seems so big now, you know?" He glanced up blearily and, seeing Scott's bewildered expression, he sighed again and began tugging at his fringe. "It's like...losing a friend or a boyfriend is...it's different, somehow. Losing a husband is so much worse because marriage seems so final. I couldn't put her through that. We're constantly in danger - any one of us could be lost tomorrow, or the day after that and I...I just can't stand the thought of somebody needing to tell her that her husband won't be coming home."

Scott raised an eyebrow, although his expression was gentle. "Don't you think losing you now would be just as heartbreaking?"

Another one-shouldered shrug. "At least I wouldn't be making her a widow."

The older Tracy studied Alan for a long moment, his gaze solemn as he eyed the younger man's slumped form and downcast expression. Then he sighed and pushed the velvet box back towards his brother.

"Alan, you're only twenty-two. You're still young. You have the option to wait a few more years before you tie the knot if you feel that the two of you aren't ready for this. But truthfully," he leaned forward, his eyes locked with Alan's, "if it were up to me, I'd see the two of you married the day after tomorrow and I'd die a happier man because of it."

The astronaut blinked. "But-"

"Kid, you're old enough to know that marriage isn't just about wedding cake and a white dress and 'til death do us part'. Giving her this ring," Scott tapped the box significantly, "is a way of telling her that she's the most wonderful, beautiful girl in the whole wide world. It's promising her that you'll never look at another girl again and offering her everything you have to give. And by accepting it, she's given the opportunity to make that same promise to you. It's like...it's asking her to be with you for the rest of your life; two explore the furthest reaches of your relationship together."

Alan blushed and shut his mouth with an audible 'snap'. Scott rolled his eyes and waved a dismissive hand. "I didn't mean that, I already know the two of you have reached that point. Your sudden interest in the Mamba cave didn't go unnoticed, you know."

If possible, Alan went even redder.

"My point is," Scott continued, selecting another marshmallow and squeezing it experimentally, "it's all to do with trust and pledging yourselves to each other and...stuff." He winced. Smooth, Scott. You're definitely helping. Dammit, I knew should've called John. "Look, my point is that some couples can live together all their lives and never really belong to each other, and I think that maybe they lose out on something because of that. But it doesn't have to be that way with you and Tin-Tin."

He paused, picking up the box and holding it out to his brother. "So sure, you could die tomorrow in a landslide. On the other hand, you could live another fifty years or more and witness the dawning of a new century. The question is, do you want to die without having told her just how much she really means to you?"

The younger man swallowed thickly, his eyes oddly bright. "And if she doesn't feel the same way?"

"Al, c'mon." Scott smiled gently. "Someone only has to look at the two of you together to see that you're made for each other."

Tentatively, Alan reached out to take the box from Scott's upturned palm, holding it with the utmost care as though too much pressure would shatter it in an instant. He blinked several times and let out a slow breath.

"She could still say no."

"She won't."

Alan blinked again, staring at the box. "How can you be so sure?"

"Because she's as besotted with you as you are with her," Scott answered simply. "Also, I'm older and smarter and I say so."

Alan finally managed a faint smile. "You just had to throw that out there, didn't you?"

Scott chuckled and squeezed his brother's good shoulder briefly. "Think about it, okay? You could always wait a few more weeks; give yourself time to mull it over. Remember, nobody's forcing you into anything."

He stood then, mug in hand, and strode over to the sink. His drink was probably too cold to finish anyway. Tossing the rest of the brown, milky substance down the drain, he quickly washed up his cup and set it to dry on the draining board. He paused, leaning his hands against the cool metal surface of the sink, and allowed his mind to calm. He was mildly surprised to find that the burden of guilt and the sickly knot of remorse in his chest had all but vanished. In its stead he found a feeling of contentment. He basked in it for a long moment, the exhaustion finally beginning to set in. He hadn't even talked to Alan about his own situation, but his brother had somehow managed to fix things all the same.

Tin-Tin and Alan...it felt right. In a perfect world, this would work out. He just hoped Alan could see that, too.

"I think I'm gonna hit the hay," he said, stretching both arms above his head to loosen his joints. He glanced across at his brother, who still sat staring at the box between his fingers. "You should get some rest too, you know."

Alan nodded absently. With a fond smile, Scott made for the door.

"Hey, Scott?"

He paused, turning. "Mm?"

Alan locked eyes with him briefly, his eyes flickering with a series of emotions Scott knew neither of them needed to put into words.

"Thanks."

Scott nodded, reaching out to grab the handle so that he could pull the door closed behind him. "G'night, Alan."

o~O~o

Having underestimated just how tired he had been when he'd finally dragged himself to bed at quarter to three in the morning, Scott managed to sleep straight through breakfast. When he finally rolled over to peer at his digital clock, it was almost midday.

He showered and dressed, taking his time, wondering if Grandma would let him have a snack before lunch or if he'd have to sneak another candy bar from the supply in John's closet - the one he wasn't supposed to know about. John wouldn't miss one bar, right?

On his way to the kitchen, he shouted a vague greeting through the living room door. Gordon – whose head was buried in an oceanography magazine - uncrossed his feet from the coffee table and wiggled five toes in his direction. Virgil's own murmured greeting was smothered by the loud, lively jazz piece his dancing fingers were drawing from the grand piano. Scott smiled. An average morning, apparently.

Through the open bay doors, he could see his grandmother's sunhat peaking above the back of the deckchair on the balcony. Deciding that he needed a cup of coffee in order to greet the elderly woman properly, he continued on down the corridor.

The smell of soup wafted towards him as he stepped into the dining room and his stomach grumbled loudly, protesting its emptiness. A snack was definitely in order. And with Grandma outside, he might just get away with it. He hoped there were still some brownies left over from yesterday's batch.

It was just as he was helping himself to his third brownie that he heard a distant shriek. Securing the lid of the cake tin quickly, he set his coffee mug aside and jogged out the kitchen door, through the dining room and into the corridor. The shrieking continued, now interspersed with laughter. He slowed his pace, his rapid heartbeat beginning to calm.

Nothing too dreadful, then.

The sight that met his eyes when he reached the living room was interesting to say the least. Gordon, his shirt open and his hair still damp from a recent swim, had engulfed Tin-Tin in his arms and was spinning her about rapidly. The Malaysian girl clutched onto him for dear life, her eyes squeezed shut as she laughed her protests. Scott felt his face split into a grin as the reason for celebration dawned on him.

"Put her down, Gords," Virgil warned, laughing himself as he released Alan from a headlock. As the red-head reluctantly obeyed, the middle Tracy lifted Tin-Tin up in his own embrace. "My turn."

"Scott!"

Having just spotted his eldest sibling, Gordon came bounding over, his grin widening to manic proportions. He stood behind the pilot and grasped his shoulders firmly, turning him to face Alan and bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. "You'll never guess what our littlest brother has gone and done. Tell him, kiddo!"

Alan smiled bashfully, rubbing the back of his neck as he glanced away. "It's alright, he already knows."

Gordon froze, stunned. "He what? How?"

"Gordon, he's Scott. What doesn't he know?"

"Aw, dammit!" The aquanaut threw himself down onto the couch, crossing his arms over his chest with an overdramatic huff. "I wanted to see his face."

"It's not going anywhere." Scott pointed a finger towards his grinning visage and stepped further into the room. He winked at Alan as the blond was pulled into their father's firm embrace, then turned to Tin-Tin and opened his arms wide. "C'mere, gorgeous."

She patted her rumpled hair back into its loose bun, breathing heavily even as she blushed anew at the affectionate term. "Do you promise you won't try to pick me up?"

"Promise."

He squeezed her slight form to his chest briefly, as he'd done countless times before over the past few years, grinning as he always did at her short stature. The top of her head barely even reached his collar bone. Releasing her, he held her at arm's length and eyed her appraisingly.

"Well," he said at last, uncomfortably aware that everyone's eyes were on him, "you're not exactly what I pictured when I imagined a little sister, but I suppose you'll do."

She laughed, smoothing down her floral print dress. "I'm honoured."

"And whose idea was it to announce the engagement while I was out powdering my nose?" The occupants of the room all spun to face the slight figure standing in the doorway. The senior Tracy planted her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow. "Well?"

Tin-Tin moved forward, smiling shyly. "We had wanted to wait until everyone was present, Grandma, but Gordon spotted the ring the moment we reached the balcony. We're terribly sorry."

Grandma waved away the apology, smiling as she moved to embrace the younger woman. "Now you just hush, deary, you did nothing wrong. It's such wonderful news, both of you. Alan Tracy, what are you doing all the way over there? Come and hug your grandmother."

Alan grinned sheepishly and slowly made his way across the room towards her. As he passed within Scott's reach, the older brother grabbed him lightly by the wrist and tugged him into a one-armed hug, squeezing firmly and leaning down so that he could whisper in the younger man's ear.

"Now would be a good time to tell her about the mug, kiddo. Oh, and the two fudge brownies you pilfered for your romantic picnic."

Tilting his head up, Alan shook it in confusion. "I didn't pilfer any..." He caught sight of Scott's expression and his eyes widened in understanding. "Right. Gotcha. Those brownies."

"Atta boy."

He grinned, thumping the shorter Tracy fondly on the back and propelling him towards their grandmother, who squeezed his face between her hands and pressed a kiss to his forehead. Scott watched the exchange, grinning, feeling the elation bubbling up inside him, an unrestrained and interminable swelling of happiness.

Today, he mused, life was good.

- The End -


So, how was it?

I've been experimenting with new writing styles, trying to figure out which one suits me best. You may not have even noticed the difference. But if you liked/disliked something (no matter how small or obscure), I'd really appreciate the feedback! Especially if you disliked something. I find that these days that I'm more eager to receive criticism, it lets me know what does and doesn't work. My only real fears regarding this one-shot are that:

(a) I went a little OTT with the description to the extent that you got bored and skipped ahead.

(b) I focused too much on character portrayal and the plot suffered as a result

If you thought either of these applied to story, please tell me which specific parts and why. It's all for the sake of improving! And I really will be happy to receive negative comments, providing they ring true, so don't be afraid that I'll bite your head off. I'm really not a scary person. :)

Of course, I won't shun a comment that is devoid of criticism, either. *grins*

Hope to be back next week with another one-shot. Wee!Tracy, if the muse so dictates.

Take care, all!

xoxoxoxoxox