Princess Anderson stood in the outpatient waiting area of the hospital and stared out the bank of windows, a fist to her lips, trying to suppress tears. This wasn't supposed to happen! It was a routine operation!
The raven-haired woman pulled out her cell phone and dialed. A woman's tired voice answered and Princess replied, "Hey, Sue. It's me."
"Honey, you all right?" Tiny's wife was scarily perceptive at times.
Princess sniffed. "Um, how are the girls?" Her voice came out weak and watery.
"Everybody's fine. My boys are down for a nap. Emmy and I are playing Battleship and Jazzy is watching Elmo." Her voice took on a sharper edge. "Now, what's going on?"
“Uh," Princess stuttered, fighting for control. "I, um, it's not good, Sue. They just took him back for emergency surgery."
"But I don't ... this was just an outpatient procedure, right? To remove old shrapnel? What happened?" Sue sounded as puzzled as Princess felt, and the realization was oddly comforting.
"I don't know. They think one of the fragments shifted when they were trying to remove them, and somehow, an artery was severed." Princess swallowed, hard. "He bled so much and so fast he went into hypovolemic shock. They gave him a transfusion and got his heart rhythm back but they're still trying to get the bleeding under control. They've got it stopped for now but it's just temporary until they can find a surgeon." She sniffed.
“Oh, honey," Sue exclaimed. "I'm so sorry. Do you want me to come over?"
Princess visualized Sue leaving the house with twin baby carriers plus Emma and Jasmine. She couldn't see subjecting her sister-in-law to that unless it was an absolute emergency. Plus, Princess had no idea how to explain to her girls what was happening to their father when she didn't really understand it herself. At three, Jasmine wouldn't ask many questions, but five-year-old Emma would want to know exactly what went wrong and why. She would fold her arms, toss her curls, and stare with the same unnerving intensity as her father until she got an answer that satisfied her. And Princess simply didn't have one.
"No, that's okay, Sue." Princess tried to hold her voice steady. "I'll be fine."
"I wish the Chief and Keyop were back," Sue fretted. "You shouldn't be alone right now."
"That's all right," Princess lied, trying to hide the fact that she was wiping her eyes, even though Sue couldn't see her over the phone.
"Please call me when you know more. I'm heading your way as soon as Tiny gets back, hon. It won't be longer than an hour and a half. I'm gonna call him now."
“Sure thing." Sue paused, before adding, in a softer tone, "Love you."
“Love you, too," Princess whispered.
Princess stared at her phone. Speed dial one was out cold on a surgeon's table. Speed dial two and three were on a research vessel near Antarctica. Princess couldn't remember exactly what Keyop had hoped to find there, but she suspected that bonding with their elderly father figure might have had something to do with it. Purportedly, Chief Anderson was overseeing a study on the human body's response to cold stress but Princess knew he had finagled the trip solely to spend more time with his youngest son. Tiny was at the marina but she'd already talked to Sue and drew comfort from the fact that her foster brother's wife would be here soon.
But not soon enough. Princess bit her lip. If, God forbid, her husband bled out on that table, she didn't want to be alone. Maybe that made her weak, but at this moment, she didn't care. She dialed the one number she knew by heart that wasn't already programmed into her phone.
“Mark? It's Princess. Something's happened to Jason and I need you to come to the hospital right now!"
As Mark Anderson whizzed around the oceanside curves of the state highway, he fought to keep his metallic blue Mazda Miata on the road. Whether this was due to the fact that he'd just purchased the car, or whether it was an artifact of his ongoing readjustment to Earth's gravity, Mark didn't know. He'd only moved back from Riga three days ago.
What Mark did know was that Princess had sounded frantic, and his calm and collected former communications expert never sounded frazzled. Granted, it had been years since they were active duty G-Force, and her job at the lab didn't involve many emergencies, but still.
He floored the gas pedal as soon as the road straightened out. Navigating the narrow streets filled with lazy afternoon shoppers kept Mark from dwelling too much on the fact that Princess had called him at all.
It wasn't that he wasn't on good terms with Princess and Jason. Given that she'd chosen to marry his former gunner instead of him, Mark thought he'd handled the situation quite well. He'd supported their marriage and fulfilled his duties as best man. He'd flown back from Riga to attend his nieces' baptisms. He even came home a couple of times a year for holidays with the family.
But playing the role of the friendly traveling uncle wasn't the same as being here, in the thick of it, when a crisis struck. It had been a long time since Princess had come to Mark with a problem. As he parked his new car in the visitor parking lot and rushed into the hospital, Mark hoped he still knew how to be there for her.
Mark skidded to stop just inside the automatic doors of the hospital. Princess stood before a bank of windows, long black hair framing her face, tears rolling silently down her cheeks.
Mark studied her for a minute, her body suddenly overlain with a memory of when he and Jason were ten and an eight-year-old Princess came to live with them. She'd had no name to call her own, and no possessions apart from an even younger orphan named Keyop that she referred to as her brother. Her posture, Mark remembered, was the same: stiff-necked with a fist to her mouth to keep from crying. It hadn't worked then either. He approached her slowly, arms outstretched.
"Mark!" Princess rushed to him and he wrapped himself tightly around her. She clung there for a moment, sniffling and shuddering, before her posture stiffened and she pulled away.
“Thank you so much for coming," she babbled, wiping at her eyes.
Mark frowned down at her and gently lifted her chin. He shook his head. "You don't have to thank me, Princess." When her eyes dropped, he tilted his head so that his blue eyes caught her gaze. "We're family. Of course, I came." Mark drew her in again, and, this time, Princess relaxed in his arms. He listened to her breathing slow as her once jackrabbit pulse dropped to a nearly normal rate.
Once she had composed herself, Mark pushed her away gently. "Now, tell me what's going on."
Princess shook her head. "I don't know. It's been almost an hour and they haven't told me anything else."
Mark stared blankly at her. "Prin, I don't know why you're here. Is Jason sick?"
His former girlfriend blinked, and the startled look on her face might have been amusing under other circumstances. Now, it just made Mark's heart ache.
"No, he's not sick. It was a routine procedure. For him," she amended.
Princess wrapped one arm around her stomach as she chewed the fingernails of her other hand. It was an odd gesture from her, one Mark more readily would have associated with Jason, given the man's propensity to gnaw on everything. He gently steered her toward an empty chair and plonked down next to her, urging her to continue.
“Jason was supposed to have another extraction surgery today." At Mark's blank look, she elaborated. "His arm's been bothering him more lately. We thought it was from when he took Emma roller-skating and sprained his wrist, but the pain kept getting worse."
"So, the extraction ..." Mark faltered, feeling at a loss not only for words but for context.
"... is only done when one of the shrapnel fragments starts causing new problems."
Mark blinked at this comment and felt the blood draining away from his face. Princess gave him a curious look. "You knew about the shrapnel fragments, Mark. You were there."
Mark swallowed, hard. Yes, he'd known that his gunner had nearly died in their last offensive against Spectra. And he knew that the man didn't have full mobility of his right arm and shoulder as a result. But he'd never really dwelled on what that meant, day to day, for Jason, nor did he realize that his former teammate was still dealing with surgeries to cope with the aftermath.
Mark nodded, miserably, wrapping his own arms around his stomach. He tried to think about something other than what a lousy friend he'd been to his brother over the last ten years.
"So, routine procedure. What happened?"
Whatever composure Princess had mustered scattered at that question. "I don't know," she whispered. "One minute, he's fine and the next, a doctor pulls me in to tell me that he's got a severed artery in his neck and went into shock."
Mark covered Princess' shaking hands with one of his own. "And that was an hour ago?" His voice took on a harsher edge.
She nodded. "They got him stabilized but it was touch and go. They were waiting on a vascular surgeon. I don't know anything else."
”Wait here." Mark strode toward the reception desk, chest back, anger barely in check. No one treated his family this way. If Princess hadn't been in a mild state of shock herself, she'd have stood up for her husband. The fact that she hadn't been able to and these clowns had taken advantage of her made Mark even angrier. It had been years since he'd worn the uniform, but Mark could almost feel the white wings streaming majestically behind him.
”Excuse me?" he addressed a bored young woman, who was staring at a computer screen and chomping her gum. "Who's in charge here?"
The girl barely tipped a shoulder in the direction of the front doors. "He's not in yet." She never even looked up from her screen.
Mark waved his Galaxy Security ID badge in her face. It wasn't quite as impressive, now that he wasn't the Eagle, but the stripe denoting his security clearance would surely catch her eye. "Then I suggest you find someone else."
Blanching, the girl jumped up. She ran toward an older woman who was tending to some files and dragged her in Mark's direction.
”May I help you?" The woman peered over her reading glasses, files in hand, looking as if she'd rather be anywhere else.
"My brother came in here today for routine surgery and nearly died on the table. Name's Jason Anderson." His blue eyes pored into hers. "His wife and I need to know his complete status. Now. And I want a comprehensive report of exactly what went wrong here today."
He extracted a business card from his wallet and thrust it at her. "I trust that someone will have this information to me immediately."
Mark watched with satisfaction as her face shifted from annoyance to trepidation as she scanned the card.
"Yes, sir." She looked up, magnified eyes blinking behind her glasses. "I'll check on your brother now."
“Mr. Anderson. Mrs. Anderson." The doctor gave a formal nod to both Mark and Princess. "I came to give you an update."
Princess clutched Mark's arm. "How is he?"
"Given the severity of the injury to his carotid artery, he's doing quite well." The man smiled behind his mustache. "The surgery on his arterial tear was successful and he was just moved into recovery." The doctor waited for that news to sink in before he continued. "The location of the tear was technically unsuitable for primary or patch closure. The surgeon chose carotid replacement, and he's responding well to the treatment. The prosthetic interposition graft is a durable option for reconstruction."
”He lost part of an artery? His carotid artery?" Princess whispered. She blinked rapidly, apparently trying to process how close she had come - once again - to losing this man she loved. Mark, sensing her distress, squeezed her arm reassuringly.
”How did this happen?" Mark asked, throwing a bit of Eagle steel into his tone.
"We can't be sure. It's possible one of the pieces of shrapnel shifted during extraction." Mark narrowed his eyes and the doctor looked away.
"How many pieces were removed?" asked Princess.
"Two," the doctor replied, firmer in his answer this time. "One just above the arterial injury site and one right below." He cleared his throat. "Either of them could have caused the injury," he added, defensively.
"I want to see him." Princess tried to sound authoritative, but she merely sounded frightened.
"Of course." The man's gray mustache twitched. "Once he's out of recovery -"
"We need to see him now," Mark interjected, voice brooking no argument. He met the man's wary gaze with a firm one of his own.
"Of course," the man repeated. Mark watched his Adam's apple bob as he ducked his head. "Right this way."
The man spoke into a communicator as they walked, barking out hissed orders at whomever was on the other side. Mark couldn't quite make out what he was saying, and felt a familiar pang at the loss of his enhanced hearing.
Mark held Princess' hand as they followed the older man through a maze of twisty passages all alike. When they finally stopped at a closed door, he gave her hand a squeeze.
"Here we are," the doctor said, unnecessarily. "We just got him up to a private room," he added, before he promptly fled.
Mark tried to take in the scene before him with a critical, dispassionate eye, but it was hard. His brother was hooked up to an IV and several monitors, and a nurse was checking their output. It reminded Mark of the last time he'd visited Jason in the hospital - right after the end of the war with Spectra - back when his brother's dreams of continued military service and car racing had yet to be squashed.
Mark stood at the end of Jason's bed and studied the injured man. With Princess, he might be able to forget that ten years had passed since the end of the war, but he was spared no such realization as he gazed down at his brother. He felt a protective surge for his one-time second-in-command, a feeling he hadn't experienced in a long time.
Jason's skin was ashen, in stark contrast to the thick, white bandages covering half of his neck. Even with his steel grey eyes closed, Mark could see that the years had deepened the fine wrinkles around his brother's eyes. Jason's chestnut hair, while still long, was thinning at the temples and dusted with gray. Mark felt a lump in his throat. His former teammate looked every bit his age and then some.
As he studied his sibling's features, Jason's face twisted in a grimace. Mark frowned. It was clear that, even in sleep, his brother was in considerable pain. Mark was about to say something to the nurse when Princess sat down in the guest chair next to her husband and stroked his cheek.
"Hey, baby," she whispered. Mark tried to push away the awkwardness he felt at witnessing such a tender endearment. "You need to wake up now."
Addressing the nurse, she inquired, "Can you give him something more for the pain?"
The nurse clucked sympathetically. "Once he's awake, we can re-evaluate his pain regimen." She handed the call button to Princess. "He should be waking up any time now. Press this the minute he does and I'll page his doctor."
Once the nurse left the room, Princess spoke softly to Jason again and squeezed his hand. This time, she was rewarded with a fluttering of eyelashes as her husband struggled to wake. She pushed the call button at the first peep of his slate-colored irises.
Mark moved to the other side of the bed and studied the couple. Once Jason's eyes slid fully open, they locked on his wife. Her smile was immediate, and his, slightly delirious and innocent.
Mark's breath caught. Despite bearing witness to their relationship, it was rare that Mark saw the two of them at their most open. It made his heart ache for all he had lost - not only a future with Princess, but meaningful relationships with his entire family. Running away to Riga after their failed engagement had seemed like such a smart idea at the time. Mark had thrown himself fully into his job with the Red Rangers for the past decade, once again placing duty over family. Just like Cronus. Realizing this had been his motivation for moving back to Earth. But Mark realized now that physically relocating to Earth was actually the easy part, despite what his body might be telling him. It was long past time for him to come home emotionally. He sighed.
Jason's eyes fixed on him immediately. "Mark?" His brother struggled to sit, and Mark watched sadly as Jason struggled to mask his emotions behind a Condor persona that no longer fit.
"Hey," he said, reaching for his brother's hand. "Don't get up just yet, okay? You need to take it easy."
Jason glanced down at Mark's hand in his with a bewildered expression before his confused gaze moved on to his wife. Mark took a small measure of comfort that he didn't pull away.
“What happened?" Jason’s voice was raspy and he swallowed painfully.
Mark handed Princess a cup and she fed her husband an ice chip. He cleared his throat. "You had some complications." At his brother's raised eyebrows, Mark added, "I'm looking into it."
Before Princess or Mark could expand on that, Dr. Tan entered the room. "Good to meet you, Mr. Anderson. How are you feeling?" She moved around the room with a brusque efficiency, checking his monitors and marking his chart.
Princess and Mark both stepped aside to let the doctor complete her exam. She checked Jason's breathing, peered into his eyes, and asked him a few basic questions.
Appearing satisfied, she stood up. "Looks good. With a little luck, you'll be out of here in two days."
Jason blinked at her, still disoriented. "I don't understand. What happened? I was just in here to remove a shell fragment." He started to shake his head but stopped abruptly.
Princess had an emesis basin under his chin before he'd even asked. "He reacts badly to the anesthesia," she explained to the doctor as Jason threw up. "He's in a lot of pain, which is making it worse. Can you give him something stronger?"
The doctor nodded. "I'll add an anti-nausea drug as well. Is there one you've used in the past?"
There was a time when Mark had his teammates' medical histories memorized. As Princess rattled off an unfamiliar drug, he realized that was no longer the case.
"You had an arterial tear, Mr. Anderson. I'm not sure what caused it -”
"Medical malpractice," Mark mumbled and both Princess and the doctor turned to stare at him.
"- but I was called in to do the repair." The doctor waited for Jason to nod before continuing, speaking slowly and precisely to her patient. It was the kind of thing that would have driven his brother crazy if he was aware of it. But in Jason's nauseous, befuddled state, Mark was glad for the doctor's attentiveness. "A section of your carotid artery was replaced."
Jason blinked rapidly at Dr. Tan, as if trying and failing to comprehend the situation. "What?" he whispered hoarsely.
"Two shrapnel fragments were removed from your neck. Between that and the arterial repair, you're going to be sore for awhile. You'll be closely monitored here for a couple of days and then we'll let you go home if you promise to take it easy for a week or two." She smiled at him.
Mark could hear Jason's heart rate increasing on the monitor. "I can't -" he fumbled for a reply. "I can't take off work that long."
"We'll work it out," Princess soothed, moving back to Jason's bedside to rub his arm.
“I can help," Mark blurted out impulsively, realizing only after he said it that he actually meant what he was saying.
Jason snorted. "You don't know a carburetor from a serpentine belt."
Mark flushed and grinned back. "I could run the cash register?"
”I have better idea," Sue said, entering the room and giving Princess a hug. "How about Princess runs the auto body shop for a few days. She knows her way around an engine." She gave Mark a knowing look, and he realized that he still had a long way to go to win over Tiny's wife. "We can keep the girls."
Doctor Tan spoke to the room at large. "I'm not discharging my patient without adequate home care."
"I can do that," Mark piped up before anyone else could. "I don't start my new job for a few weeks anyway." As the Anderson women regarded him, the doctor smiled and excused herself, saying that she'd be back in a few hours to check on Jason.
Mark realized that his brother was studying him with a slight frown. "Princess, could I have a minute to talk to Jason alone?"
She smiled at him and squeezed his shoulder as she and Sue left the room. "Of course." To Jason, she said, "Sue and I are going to head to the cafeteria for a minute."
Mark handed her a ten. "Bring me a coffee?"
"Black, no cream, no sugar," Princess replied, and Mark wondered if she missed running the coffee shop she'd sold to Jill. He'd have to ask her sometime. Mark found himself smiling back at her. There was plenty of time for conversation now that he was back home.
Returning his attention to the injured man, Mark sat by Jason's bedside. Once the women were out of earshot, he opened his mouth to speak.
”Don't," the man in the bed growled, sounding so frighteningly like the Condor that Mark was momentarily startled.
"Don't tell me you're sorry. We've been over this. I don't want to hear it again." Jason tried to move the pillow and winced. Mark helped his brother into a more comfortable position.
"I haven't been a very good brother, Jason."
Jason rolled his eyes, then reached out to grab the bedrail. "Whoa," he mumbled.
"Look," Mark tried again. "It may be too little, too late, but I want to make it up to you."
"You're an idiot, you know that?" Jason said, and Mark knew, even without the drugs, that his brother would have said the same thing. Jason's eyes met his. "You're here now, right?" he asked critically.
Mark nodded. "Yeah, I am." He hazarded a hand toward Jason and the injured man tolerated a pat on his left shoulder.
"That's all that matters," Jason replied. His eyes slid closed and Mark was left watching over his brother, wondering if it really was just that simple.