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Previously posted on Guide Posts; retrieved from archived cyberspace via the Way Back Machine. Posted here without author's permission (which means it could disappear if Chaz writes and asks me to remove it).


Disclaimer: Characters belong to their respective creators.


Before
by Chaz

I should be dead. I should be dead. It's just not fair for me to still be breathing when so many others aren't. I don't exactly have many reasons to want to live at the moment.

Wife gone.

Friends gone.

Job gone.

Self-respect gone.

No, I don't have a whole lot to live for right now. So why was I the one standing on just the right spot on the sidewalk to survive the explosion?

I've been thinking about that question as I wait to be dug out of this hole. Thinking about the whys and wherefores of my life keeps me from thinking about my current surroundings. It's dark here. And wet. And there's dead bodies everywhere.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not normally squeamish about corpses. Not at all. But there's a big difference between knowing they're there and knowing they're there but not knowing where "there" is. If I did, then I would know how to avoid them and maybe I could find my own way out of this hole instead of sitting down here and wondering how long it's going to take the rescue crews to come and get me.

I never was a very patient person.

I eventually move on from self-pity to more professional-like curiosity. What had caused the explosion in the first place? Gas leak, maybe? I can smell something funny in the dank air. Guess that's what's taking the S&R people so long. They gotta be careful not to cause another boom. But, God, I wish they'd hurry.

Then I hear it. I freeze and listen hard in the darkness. There it is again. A low moan of pain somewhere off to my right. Someone else is still alive down here. My first impulse is to go find this person, but then I hesitate. I really don't want to go crawling around in all the rubble and dead people. Might upset some balance and bring the whole place down on our heads. But my fellow survivor groans again, and I know I have to move. It's what I was trained for, even if it's not what I'm currently employed for, and responding to people in need is almost like instinct anymore.

I pick my way carefully towards the sounds of pain. They're almost continuous now, and the words are almost coherent. God, I hope I can help when I get over there. I really don't need this person dying on me on top of everything else that's going on in my life right now.

Oops, almost tripped over the poor guy. I kneel down carefully beside where I think his head is and reach out hesitantly. "Hey, you want to wake up all the way for me there?"

"Jim?"

The word comes out low and clear and plaintive through all the obvious agony in the voice. I rest one hand gently on my patient's forehead and grope around for his hand with the other. Curling my fingers around his wrist, I instinctively find his pulse. It's way too fast, and his skin is clammy against the palm on his forehead. Hell. He's in shock. I feel my way down the leg closest to me and fumble his feet onto a piece of broken concrete. It's all I can do. I don't have a coat or sweater to keep him warm with.

"Jim? 'hat happen'd?" the voice asks the phantom Jim. It's kinda fascinating how the name comes through perfectly clear and all the rest of the words are slurred. As I check for other obvious wounds -- I've already found a nasty gash below his knee and some of his ribs are definitely broken-- I begin to wonder who this Jim guy is.

When I don't answer the mumbled question immediately, the man -- kid, maybe, his voice sounds young -- struggles to move. That stops my daydreaming. "Whoa, hold on, there, Junior," I caution as I take up my original position at his side with one hand on his forehead and the other wrapped around his wrist. "You're in no shape to be going anywhere. I'll tell you what happened as soon as I finish checking you out, okay?"

The moving under my hands stops instantly. "'kay, Jim," comes the weak, trusting reply.

Hmm, he thinks I'm this Jim person. Well, Jim must be someone he's used to obeying, which is good for me, but doesn't say much for the man's current mental state. Concussion, maybe? "Tell me your name."

"You know that, Jim."

I sigh in exasperation. "Yeah, well, humor me, will you? I think you have a concussion."

"Oh. My head does hurt . . ." the voice trails off as the pain seems to spike for a moment.

I find myself making quiet, soothing sounds and gently smoothing the sudden wrinkles on his forhead. God, where did that come from? I've never been much of a Florence Nightengale. I always let others deal with the sick and the hurt, yet this kid brings out some sort of paternal need to make the pain go away. Must be all the fumes in the air. Or maybe I got knocked on the head, too . . .

But my touch seems to help, so I keep it up until he speaks again. "Chief."

I blink into the darkness. "What?"

"Name's Blair, b'you call me Chief."

Jim calls you Chief, kid, but if that's what it takes to keep you calm enough 'til the medics arrive, I'm not going to tell you otherwise. "That's right, Chief. Can you tell me if you're hurt anywhere else besides your head?"

"Cold, Jim. Hate cold."

Shit shit shit. Definitely in shock. Only one thing left to do about that, but I was hoping I wouldn't have to move him in the condition he's in. Shit.

"Yeah, I know, Chief." I murmur quietly as I shift position for the move. His hand tightens on mine as if he's afraid I'm going to leave. He must not be too bad off, he's got one hell of a grip. I pat his forehead gently in reassurance. "I'm not going anywhere, kid, just shifting around a little. Here we go."

As smoothly as I can, I slide down onto the rocky ground beside Blair and pull him carefully into my arms. His breath catches in a little gasp, but other than that, he makes no sound of protest. The opposite, really. Once I have him settled with his head tucked against my chest, he sighs contentedly and squeezes the hand he still hasn't let go of.

"'hanks, Jim. Better now." He tugs until our joined hands are resting above his heart.

"You're welcome, Chief."

It feels weird to be holding another man in my arms. Unnatural for him to be so content lying in my arms. Again I begin to wonder who this Jim is, then I begin to wonder if I really want to know. Only one way to find out. "Chief?"

"Uhhn . . . sleepy!" he mutters, petuantly batting at me with the hand not latched onto mine.

The drowsiness of his reply abruptly reminds me of basic first aid training. Never let a concussed person sleep. Raising up on one elbow, I give him a little shake. "No sleeping! You've got a concussion, Chief, you have to stay awake, you understand?!"

"But, Jim . . ."

"No buts! You will stay awake on your own, or I'll do it for you," I threaten.

The reply takes a little too long. "'lright, try."

No way is that good enough. He'll fall asleep or into unconsciousness in a heartbeat if I let him. "Talk to me, Chief. Tell me a story or something."

He makes a small sound that I only barely recognize as laughter. Laughing? What was so funny?!

"Tell you story? Asked f'r it . . ."

I start to appreciate the humor as he launches into some strange story about some tribe in New Zealand that makes absolutely no sense, but at least he's talking. Poor Jim , if this is what he has to put up with. I drop back down beside him and try to tune out the words. But not the voice. Even weakened as it is, he's got a pleasant speaking voice. Hell, if I'm not careful, I'll be the one falling asleep.

Story hour goes on for a long time. He ends the New Zealand story and starts in about one unpronounceable tribe in some unpronounceable country after another. I unsuccessfully stifle a yawn, and he chuckles a little before going on with his story. I try to figure out what the kid does for a living to keep myself conscious, but it doesn't work too well. Just when I'm in real danger of spacing out on him, the tone of his voice changes. It snaps me back to reality with all instincts on full alert.

That's not all that's changed in my new friend. He's gone tense, absolutely rigid, and his heart under my hand is pounding out of control. He's pressing up against me desperately now, and he sounds absolutely terrified.

"Please, Jim, don' let him hurt me," he's begging me. "Keep him away! KEEP HIM AWAY!"

"I won't let him hurt you, Chief," I promise instantly, automatically stretching my senses outward for any sign of danger while protectively cradling the smaller man closer. There's no one but us down here -- alive anyway -- but even so, I don't let him go as he continues to plead with Jim to make "him" go away. He's frantic with the need for Jim to do this.

I'm starting to panic myself. I'm no shrink! What am I supposed to do? I've dealt with hysterical people before, but this is totally different. This time I can't hand him off to someone more qualified or more sympathetic than myself. More information, I tell myself desperately. Get more information. "Who is it, Chief? Who's hurting you?"

"Lash!" he wails. "He's mad 'cuz you killed him! Wants to finish what he started. Don't let him!"

What the hell?! Killed him? Finish what he started? What the hell is going on here?! I take a deep breath, then another. Okay, deal with that later. Deal with the kid now.

"I won't, Blair," I say in the tone of a vow. "I'll kill him again if I have to. I've got you now, there's no way he's going to get you again."

I repeat the words over and over again until finally enough filter through the kid's fear to his brain. Slowly, ever so slowly, he lets himself hear the words and, after another lifetime, lets himself believe them. The body in my arms responds instantly to that belief. His body slumps bonelessly against my chest. The hoarse pleas wind down to soft wimpers. The trickle of terrified tears slowly leaking down my neck from where his face is pressed hard against my throat gradually stops. The heartbeat evens out to its pre-stress tempo. Thank god.

"Better now, Chief?" I ask gently. The head under my chin nods slightly.

"Don' wanna talk more, though. Don' wanna remember," he whispers fearfully. Then, in a more imploring tone, " Jim, what's wrong wit' me?"

The reassurance is getting easier and easier to provide with as much practice as I've been getting. "Nothing's wrong with you, Chief," I reply with a gentle squeeze of my arms. "Just got banged on the head and jarred loose some bad memories, that's all. You're safe now. No one's going to hurt you while I'm around."

Funny thing is, I mean those words. Mean them in a way I haven't meant anything in a long time. They're not just some empty attempt to calm the kid down. They're a promise I intend to keep.

What is wrong with me? Where did all this caring come from? What is it about this kid that makes me so protective? Is this how Jim feels?

"Jim, you with me, man? Not zoning?" Again, Blair's voice pulls me from my thoughts. Focus, dammit! Questions can wait. Especially those kinds. The kid needs you alert. Do something right for once instead of screwing around.

"I'm right here, Chief. Right here."

"Good," he says, relief evident in his tone. He feebly pats my arm. "Don't want to lose you."

Concern for me? He's hurt, he's just had one helluva flashback, and he's worried about me? What did he think happened?

Oh, to hell with it. I'll probably never find out the answers anyway, so why ask the questions? Just drive myself crazy. Besides, there are more important things to worry about. Like the way his breathing is cominng in short, harsh pants. Or the way his heartbeat has sped up again. Or the way his skin is now burning with fever.

Where is that rescue team?! If they don't hurry . . . I don't want to think about what will happen if they don't get here soon. Blair can't die. He just can't. I won't let him.

As if in answer to my thoughts, a sudden, blinding shaft of light pierces the gloom of our corner of the world, and a hoarse shout shatters the silence, "Blair! Where are you?!"

Neither Blair or I get the chance to answer before a dark shape descends on us. I'm not exactly shoved aside, but I am removed as economically as possible and set aside. Blair cries out, as startled as I am by the sudden separation. The intruder instantly reponds to Blair's distress with a few quiet words and a gentle brushing of his fingers against the injured man's cheek. After a moment's hesitation, Blair tilts his face into the caress and says a few words of his own.

This is no ordinary rescue worker, I realize as I watch the two of them in the skittering glare of a half dozen mag lights. This has to be Jim. For Blair, that obviously means everything is going to be alright. For me . . . I feel familiar surge of loneliness. What would it be like to have someone to trust that much, to care that much? I somehow doubt that I will ever know.

Epilogue:

That was the last I saw of Blair and Jim. The entire cavern-like room filled up with as many S&R people as anyone could want moments after Jim burst through the hole they'd made. In no time at all, I was swarmed by medics asking me stupid questions. My view of the other two men was blocked by uniforms and bright lights, then I was carted off for further examination topside without even a chance to say good-bye. I kept trying to tell the idiots that I was fine, but no one listened to me. Story of my life. I tried to find out what happened to Blair and Jim later, but with all the craziness that was going on after the explosion, no one could give me the answers I wanted. I guess I'm destined not to know. But it was nice to feel that needed for a little while, even if I was nothing more than a stand-in for the real thing. Incredibly nice. I hope it happens again sometime soon.

~The End~


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