Gloria settled back in her seat and watched the man sleeping in the hospital bed in front of her. She couldn't help but feel at least a tiny sliver of déjà-vu about the situation. This was hardly the first time he'd been in hospital; hardly the first time she'd had to watch and wait and hope that things would work out for the man she loved - but at the same time, this instance was different. This was purely precautionary - twelve hours of observation, just to make sure that he hadn't sustained any damage from his latest damn-fool escapade.
She smiled faintly. That had been her mother's term for it, on learning that Gloria's boyfriend (though really, was there a more ridiculous word for a man like Matt Trakker?) was yet again in hospital. It hadn't helped that Gloria had been forced to characterise the whole thing as a bad case of sunstroke.
Of course, anyone who knew Matt knew just how ridiculous that cover story was – Alex, Bruce and Hondo had all had a good chuckle over it and Buddy undoubtedly would too, just as soon as he was in a state fit to appreciate it. Her mother, however, knew only what she'd read in the supermarket tabloids and therefore bought it completely.
To her – and to a lot of the outside world – Matt Trakker was the western world's most eligible bachelor; a playboy philanthropist with money to burn and time to kill. It was an image that completely overlooked such minor details as the fact that Matt was actually a widower with a young son, but since when did tabloids let a few facts stand in the way of a good story? Matt was, to Gloria's way of thinking, remarkably blasé about it all – his frequent response to it all was, "It's good camouflage," and Gloria couldn't argue about that.
After all, who would imagine that a man so regularly characterised as one of the idle rich was actually the shrewd tactician and driving force behind the group tasked with handling the VENOM problem?
It still irked Gloria, though. It had always seemed so unfair, and that was before her first experience with the paparazzi – who, naturally, had been set on her tail the moment she'd first been seen on Matt's arm at one of his charity banquets. That particularly singular experience had been almost enough to make her reconsider their relationship. Almost. She knew it was hardly Matt's fault and he did manage to let it slip that she was a black belt and highly trained in self defence – statements that so heavily implied that the next photographer who leapt out of a bush at her was liable to end up back in said bush in an inverted condition, probably with their camera in bits, that the press-hounds had wisely eased back.
She did love him for that.
She loved him for a lot of other things, too. He was handsome; he was kind; he was charming to a fault. He could be funny and spontaneous. He was considerate and caring. He was a hopeless romantic. He was strong; he was brave; he was truly selfless. In fact, if someone had asked Gloria to define her perfect life-partner, she would probably have come up with someone who strongly resembled Matt Trakker.
And yet, at times like this, Gloria couldn't help but wish he were just a little less brave. A little less selfless. A little less willing to put himself in harm's way so that other people wouldn't have to suffer. Of course, if he were a little less of all those things, he wouldn't be Matt Trakker; he'd be just like all the other guys she'd dated. Nice, but not what she was looking for.
This particular incident had probably been the worst out of all the times he'd put himself at risk. Ironic – the one time when the stay in hospital was purely a precaution was the one time she'd really and truly feared losing him. It took a truly special kind of man to go chasing after a machine locked in a suicide cruise towards the centre of the earth. That he'd actually managed to stop said suicide cruise before it had achieved anything more catastrophic than a two-mile deep hole in the ground was nothing short of a miracle, but that deep, he'd been too far down to get himself back to the surface.
For a few, heart-stopping minutes, it had seemed like that would be it – no way for them to reach him because the tunnel was blocked by spoil and they didn't have the equipment to dig that much rock. Then Buddy had provided a solution that was, possibly, even riskier than Matt's stunt. Matt had objected; Alex and Bruce had held concerns; Hondo had just said, "Do it."
So they did.
The fifteen minutes the operation took were the longest of Gloria's life, but they'd had the right end result, and that was all that really mattered. Buddy would be fine in a day or two – the level of concentration Penetrator required for anything longer than a quick burst invariably left the mechanic flat out – and Matt was fine, if a little dehydrated. It was that last which had earned him the twelve hours of observation.
"You know, I'm not sure sleep-watching will ever catch on as a spectator sport."
Matt's voice was gravely from sleep, and his eyes were barely open, but it was easy for Gloria to detect all his usual personal warmth behind those words, and a little concern, too. She smiled at him. "As long as you keep waking up, hale and hearty, I'll keep pulling bedside duty."
"Hearty might take a little more work, but I think I can do the hale part." Matt's eyes opened a little wider as a little more of the sleep-fog left him. "How's Buddy doing?"
And that was Matt all over; concern for everyone else first and himself last. "He's still resting – Alex says another day and he'll be good to go."
"He shouldn't have done it."
"And you wouldn't have done the same thing for him, roles reversed?" Gloria shook her head, more amused than annoyed.
"Not really." Gloria took hold of the closest of Matt's hands and gave it a gentle squeeze. "You are just as important as any of the rest of us."
"It was a huge risk."
"And going after Magma Mole on your own wasn't?"
"And repelling Magma Mole on your own wasn't?" Matt retorted, though his faint smile suggested that he too was more amused by the conversation.
"My point exactly," said Gloria. "We all have to take risks some times. Buddy did what he had to do and, speaking for me, I'm glad he did."
Matt's expression turned sheepish. "Me too," he admitted. "I just wish—"
"What I wish," said Gloria cutting him off, "is that Miles Mayhem would grow a brainstem and quit. Since that isn't going to happen, we just have to keep doing what we do."
That earned her a smile from Matt. "You're right."
"I always am."