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Back from the Wars

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Shaun's home earlier than Georgia expected. He's still been gone for long enough that soon the only sensible thing to do with the empty cans taking over her desk will be to start building a fort, but last she heard, he'd been planning to crash with his Irwin friends in Salinas, and wasn't supposed to be back at least until a couple hours after the sun rose. The distant sound of the garage security system, followed by Shaun's footsteps thumping up the stairs with absolutely no concern for who he might wake up, makes her jump and spin around in her chair just to check if she somehow lost several hours somewhere.

It's still three in the morning according to the alarm clock. There's no sunlight coming through the open door between their rooms. He really is home early, then — very early — for no reason she can think of.

She manages to get out of her chair and halfway to the door before Shaun comes barreling in from the hall, and throws his arms around her hard enough to squeeze the breath out of her. She wheezes softly, and then laughs — quietly, because she actually cares about not waking up their parents, albeit for the entirely selfish reason of not wanting to deal with them on this little sleep.

"Well, that was dramatic. What, you just couldn't bear to be away from me for a couple more hours?"

Georgia starts to twist away from him, buying herself just enough room that she can reach up to shove him off her. Her hands hit his shoulders, and she stops, because he's shaking. The muscles under her hands are knotted tight in a way that only comes from hours of fear and tension, he smells like bleach and sweat, and he's still clinging to her, hard.


He doesn't respond verbally, just shakes his head, tightens his grip a little, and presses his lips to the top of her head. She didn't actually need anything to drive home the feeling that something's deeply wrong, but that response scares her as much as the fact that Shaun's shaking. The day he doesn't have a cheerfully sarcastic response and a ready smile, no matter how fake...

Her own arms tighten around him, almost reflexively. He's okay. He made it home in one piece, and he's fine, he's fine, he's fine... so why is he still shaking? Some part of his fear is starting to rub off on her, despite herself, and it's all she can do not to bury her face in his chest and shudder with the rush of borrowed adrenaline. Instead, she looks up to meet his eyes without pulling away from him.

"What happened? Did someone get hurt?" She knows perfectly well that people don't just get hurt in the field, except in the rare stupid, random accident — and someone else's broken arm or nasty concussion wouldn't have shaken him like this. It just seems easier — kinder — than asking him who died.

Shaun starts to answer. The sound gets choked off in his throat, and he has to clear his throat, swallow hard, and try again. Even when he does manage to speak, it's so soft she has to listen hard even in the late night quiet. "No. Everyone's... It was just a close call. Everyone's okay."

That, of all things, is what makes all her vague fears coalesce into a hard, cold lump and sink like a stone to the pit of her stomach. Suddenly, any other question she might ask becomes irrelevant. He doesn't have to tell her whose close call, because she knows. He doesn't have to tell her how close, or exactly what happened, because a thousand different scenarios are suddenly playing out in the back of her head, and all of them end with her brother nearly dying a hundred miles away while she sat here sorting through email, writing a post, patrolling the forums... While she wasn't there.

Suddenly, she's shaking as hard as he is. Suddenly, she feels sick and a little dizzy, and has to remind herself to start breathing again. Shaun dying is probably the worst thing she'd ever had reason to imagine before. Now, Shaun dying alone is firmly fixed at the top of the list.

Georgia tugs him toward her bed without loosening her grip on him. Shaun follows without protest, and whether that lack of protest is just because he's dead on his feet or because he doesn't want to give up even an inch more space between the two of them is anyone's guess.

He sinks onto the bed, a heaviness to the movement that suggests exhaustion is a large part of it, finally hitting him now that the adrenaline rush is fading.

Footsteps move down the hall toward their rooms, light and quiet, but audible enough when the only other sounds are the faint shift and creak of bedsprings, the whir of the computers, and their breathing. Georgia manages to twist away from Shaun before he can pull her against him.

"Get your shoes," she whispers. He hadn't even bothered taking them off before running upstairs. He's clearly been decontaminated to within an inch of his life, clothes and all, and she can't see a reason to make him expend the energy to strip now. He can sleep in his clothes; she can wash the smell of bleach out of the sheets in the morning. "I'll talk to Mom."

She steps out into the hallway, and catches her mother just outside the door, conveniently blocking her from actually coming inside. It's strange, even for Georgia, to see her mom looking anything less than photoshoot-perfect. Not much less, just bleary eyes, hair rumpled a bit too much to be artistic... The obvious gun-shaped bulge in the pocket of her pajama pants, probably grabbed just as she rolled out of bed, is comforting — that, at least, is normal.

"I thought I heard Shaun come in."

One boot thumps to the floor behind her. Georgia manages not to sigh, and nods shortly. "You did. He headed home early."

Her mother glances past her, and frowns a little — Georgia doesn't risk a glance back, but she assumes it's in disapproval at the fact that he's still wearing shoes inside. Their mother's disapproval couldn't matter less to either of them, but it's not helpful when it comes to getting her to leave them alone and go back to bed, so Georgia looks up to meet her eyes, lowers her voice, and digs into what small reserve of tact she has.

"Mom. It was a close one. No one's hurt, it's just..." She shrugs. Her mother's an Irwin. She knows how bad 'a close one' can get, and neither of them really needs any more elaboration than that.

The frown of disapproval turns into one of concern. Georgia can't help but wonder why she bothers when there aren't any cameras, but it doesn't seem like the time to ask. "Shaun, honey, let me know if you need anything," she calls past Georgia.

Georgia hears the other boot fall to the floor, and this time she does glance over her shoulder just in time to see Shaun give a tired, mocking salute without even looking up.

"Get some sleep soon, okay?"

This time, Shaun doesn't even bother with a response, verbal or otherwise, but it doesn't matter much — their mother's already heading back down the hall to her own bedroom. Georgia steps back inside, closes and locks the door behind her, and ducks into Shaun's bedroom to do the same with his door. She closes the door between their connecting bedrooms as she comes back in, to keep the light out when the sun finally rises, and heads for the bed with only the comforting glow of her computer monitors to light the way. She doesn't bother switching them off — they'll go dark on their own once she's left them alone a little while.

Shaun reaches up to catch her wrist as soon as she's close enough, and this time she doesn't resist as he pulls her down onto his lap. Her head thumps against his shoulder. His hand comes up to rest at the back of her neck, half-buried in her hair.

Georgia feels like she should say something, but for once, she can't think of a goddamn thing. All the thoughts that matter keep getting stuck half-formed in her throat. If he didn't look so bone-deep exhausted, more tired than she's ever seen him as far as she can remember, she'd make him strip anyway, just so she can check every inch of skin and reassure herself he really is okay. She finally settles for punching him on the arm without lifting her head. "You're an idiot."

She doesn't have to look up to hear the weary smile in his answer, his reply soft as he presses his lips to her temple. "You love me anyway."