Heroes



November, 1985



"Basketball game?" Peter curled his lip.

"First game of the season," Kelly told him. "We're playing Matson. It should be a good game."

"Kel, I don't want to go to a basketball game with a bunch of screaming high-schoolers."

"You never thought they were screaming high-schoolers last year," she taunted.

"That was different," he defended. That's because last year, Jeanine was a senior and on the cheerleading squad, and Peter had gone to every game, football or basketball, just to see her.

But Jeanine was off at college now. They could only see each other at breaks, or if Peter drove down to the University, something which hadn't happened since he started at the Police Academy.

No, basketball games no longer held the appeal they once did.

"Oh, come on, Peter," Kelly pleaded again, bouncing on his bed for emphasis. "It's the first game, and my first time on the squad. And Dad was gonna come, but he's got some meeting that night."

That was the real issue, of course. Kelly was making her pep squad debut and wanted someone from the family there to watch. Carolyn was away at college, sporting events were too crowded and noisy for Annie, and Paul was at a conference and wasn't expected home until very late Friday night.

So it fell to Peter.

"Come on, big brother," she begged, "Please....?"

She knew that worked with him every time--that wheedling, hopeful tone, combined with the big-eyed look. He was a sucker, and she knew it.

"Okay," he sighed, but did his best to sound put-upon, so she'd know the tremendous effort he was making. "What time's the game?"

Didn't work. Her grin was one of victory. "Thanks, Peter!"

Peter smiled in spite of himself. "Hey, if I could sit through Carolyn in all those plays, I can come watch you cheerleading."

"Yeah, but the difference is, I'll be good," Kelly said.

Peter laughed. "Me-ow! You're too young to be so catty."

"One of these days, Peter Caine, you'll figure out I'm not nine anymore," she said, her tone as mature as she could possibly make it, her look one of long-suffering.

Peter couldn't help chuckling. "Oh, like you're so old now. What are you, fourteen?" Then he realized something. "The same age I was when I came here." He shook his head. "Sometimes it feel like yesterday."

"To me it feels like you've always been here," she answered. "I can barely remember what it was like before you came." Then she giggled.

"What?"

"Remember that first night when Dad brought you home for dinner?"

"Oh, man," Peter remembered. "You and Carolyn started giggling and I almost died of embarrassment."

"Well, Carolyn thought you were cute. She kept hitting me, so I started laughing."

"And I wanted to sink through the floor." He paused, reflecting. "I still can't believe you wanted me in your family."

"It was Mom and Dad's idea, but we said yes right away."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why did you say yes?"

She shrugged. "We we liked you and thought it would be cool to have an older brother. I just remember thinking it would be neat. And of course Carolyn thought it would be great. But that's 'cause she had a crush on you."

"Oh, don't remind me," Peter shook his head, remembering the incident ruefully. He looked at Kelly again. "You really thought it would be fun?"

"Of course. Why wouldn't we?" she answered matter-of-factly.

"I don't know, I guess I never thought of it like that." Peter smiled. Not that it changed anything, but it was nice to know, years later, that they'd wanted him as much as he'd wanted them.

"So," he continued gently, "you still didn't tell me what time the game is."

"You really will come?" Kelly's eyes got big.

"Of course. Gotta support my little sister, don't I?"

"Thanks, Peter." She gave him a hug. "Tip-off's at 7:00, but we're doing some pre-game stuff, so be there by 6:30."

"Okay, I'll be there."



~~~~~



Peter barely made it home on Friday by 6:00, and all he wanted to do was strip down, throw himself into the shower, and stand there until everything stopped hurting. He didn't really want to go right back out again--especially not to a high-school basketball game. But he'd promised.

It had been a grueling day of training at the Academy. The morning began, as it always did, with calesthenics and a run. That was followed by a morning of classroom work, a session on the firing range, and an afternoon of drills. Today it had been an obstacle course, and Peter's hands were raw from the ropes, and his knees were bruised from banging into walls, floors, boxes.... His shoulders ached, his thighs ached, his back ached.... He'd always thought he was in pretty good shape physically, after all, he'd spent most of his life in training in one form or another. But he was quickly learning that the physical fitness required by baseball, or hockey, or even kung fu, was totally different from what the police academy had demanded.

Of course, he'd gotten lazy the last year or so, too. No organized sports like in high school, no training like when he was a kid. No incentive to work out on his own. It was more fun to hang out with his buddies after classes at the junior college than it was to go and work out. To say nothing about Jeanine's fantastic cooking, which she loved doing for him. And he couldn't very well turn her down, could he, not without hurting her feelings. So he'd put on almost ten pounds after high school.

All ten, and then some, had been stripped back off by a police academy which had a reputation for being one of the toughest in the country. Peter learned very fast that it had gained its reputation honestly. There was no chance for sloughing off, no opportunity for laziness, for a lazy cadet could well find himself kicked out of the program. One of the guys, who'd been in the army, complained that even boot camp hadn't been this tough. Except that you got to go home each night, since the Academy maintained no dorms.

But Peter didn't mind the hard work. Because each ache, each pain, each day of training brought him closer to his ultimate goal. Because if all went as planned, then in December he would graduate from the academy and become Officer Peter Caine--a cop.

Peter stripped off and stepped into the shower, but forced himself not to linger. He didn't think he could make Kelly's pre-game show, but he did want to at least get there for tip-off. So he took a thorough but brief shower, and quickly dressed again, toweling his hair dry.

He ran downstairs to grab a snack on the way out--something out of Annie's perennially full cookie jar. His mother was in the kitchen, fixing a chicken which could stay warm until Paul got home later that night.

"Okay, Mom, I'm going to the game. We'll be home later," he said.

"Will you bring Kelly home?"

"Depends on if she's got plans with her friends after the game."

"No, I want you to bring her home. If the two of you want to go out for a bite afterwards, that's fine, or go out with her friends. But I don't want her going by herself and having to find someone to bring her home."

"She's probably going to fight me on it," Peter insisted.

"Oh, I doubt that," Annie smiled. "Her big brother, who's going to be a cop--she's going to love showing you off." She reached a hand to him and he gave her a hug, kissing the top of her head.

"I don't think it'll be too late, I'm bushed. It better be a good game or I'm gonna fall asleep in the stands."

"With all that noise? On the other hand," she conceeded, "if anyone could manage it, it would be you."

He laughed, let her go, grabbed his cookie or three, and headed out the door, to his beloved Daytona sport, black with red detailing, bought for a song at a police auction. Paul had clued him onto that one. It was a great place to get really ace cars, and Peter suspected he'd never bother to get a new car, not as long as he could get such sweet deals at the police auction.



~~~~~



The parking lot was already full by the time he got to the high school, and Peter wound up parking halfway down the next block. By the time he paid his four bucks and made his way into the gym, they were already finishing up the National Anthem. The stands were crowded. The first game of the season tended to attract everybody: students, friends, moms and dads.

Peter scanned the stands, looking for any of his old buddies, but most of them had either gone off to college, moved away, or had interests which took them other places than their old high school gymnasium. He looked over to where the pep squad was gathered at the edge of the gym floor, and spotted Kelly, who waved to him. He waved back, then climbed up the bleachers and over bodies, making his way to an empty spot he saw about two-thirds of the way up.

Peter liked basketball. To be honest, Peter liked almost all sports. His two perennial favorites were baseball and hockey, but basketball was a close third. The problem, of course, was that the hockey and basketball seasons overlapped, and he liked more, and was better at, hockey than basketball. So hockey became his sport of choice for the winter, baseball for the summer.

But he enjoyed watching a good basketball game and the high school team, while certainly not NBA caliber, wasn't half bad. The game had a lot of action, some excellent plays, and between the game, the cheering of the pep squad, and the slightly flat revels of the swing band, Peter had no chance to be bored.

Half-time came and Peter stayed put long enough to watch Kelly's squad perform their special routine. He loved watching the cheerleaders; after all, the pretty-girl quotient was high, and seeing all those lovelies bouncing around was a treat for any red-blooded male. But then he noticed all the other guys in the stands, ogling the cheerleaders, too, and realized they were ogling his little sister. He found himself getting indignant. Someone wolf-whistled and he had to force himself not to go over there and punch the jerk. It was bad enough when everybody stared at Jeanine when she was a cheerleader. But Kelly...!

He tried not to think about that particular aspect of the show, and sat back to watch the rest of the routine. Part of him cringed at some of their moves. He considered himself limber, agile, athletic. But every time one of the girls would slide into the splits, he would find his legs unconsciously crossing in sympathetic pain. Peter had many athletic skills; doing the splits was not among them.

Following Kelly's team, the other team's girls took the court for their routine and Peter made his way out of the gym, going in search of a Coke and a hot dog. It had been a long time since lunch, and those three cookies hadn't been nearly enough to sustain him. The hot dog was cold and the soda was warm. Just the way food at sporting events is supposed to be, he grinned.

He made his way through the crush and went outside where the crowds and noise were less. Of course, the cigarette smoke was higher, as everybody who couldn't smoke in the building stepped outside the door. Peter hadn't had a cigarette since entering the Academy, and while the smell of the smoke awakened that craving in him, he'd sworn to leave them alone, deciding that high training and smoking were mutually incompatible.

He leaned against the brick wall, finishing his Coke and listening to snatches of conversation. Occasionally, he'd see someone he knew: a student, a former student, a teacher. He greeted them all, but didn't stop and chat with any of them. It felt good to just lean back and absorb.

Eventually, the crowd thinned as everyone went back inside to start the second half. Peter detoured past the men's room, grateful once again, after looking at the line for the ladies room, that men had an easier time of it. On the way back, he ran into an old teacher and had to stop and say hello. So by the time he got back to the gym, the tip-off was already past and the game was underway again. He stood by the doorway for a minute, trying to decide whether to fight his way through the crowd again for a seat, to watch from here, or to give up and go home. After all, Kelly had already performed, she couldn't complain if he left now, could he?

Yeah, she probably could. And she probably would. Besides, Mom had asked him to drive her home. And no matter how tired he might be, he knew better than to disobey his mother. It amazed him, sometimes, how one little blonde lady could have him so thoroughly wrapped around her finger. Except he only had to take a look at Paul to see she had him the exact same way. Must be a woman thing, the ability to do that to men....

Suddenly, he became aware of a shift in the noise from the crowd. The cheers and general chatter had become white-noise to him, but he noticed when the tone changed. At first, he thought something had happened on the court, that perhaps one of the players had gotten hurt. He strained to look, but couldn't see anything unusual.

Then he realized that the focus of the crowd wasn't down on the court, it was--up. He looked up and his heart gave a skip. Smoke was coming out of the ventilation grates hanging from the ceilings. Black, thick smoke.

Fire!

An image came unbidden: another time, another lifetime, another fire. Listening to Master Khan giving a demonstration of some technique he couldn't even remember anymore, and then chaos, devastation, the destruction of all he'd known. The heat, the the smoke, the smell--especially the smell. And the pain....

A girl screamed, bringing Peter back to the present. A voice came on the loudspeaker, urging calm and telling everyone to move toward the exits in an orderly fashion. But it was too late. The crowd stampeded toward the two sets of doors at the end of the gym.

As the crowd surged forward, Peter tried to push into the gym, only one thing on his mind: Kelly!

"Hey, buddy, you're going the wrong way!" someone said as he shouldered his way through.

"My sister's in there!" he shouted back and continued to push past.

He found Kelly near the second exit, with a group of her friends, wide-eyed and scared.

"Peter!" she cried, making her way through the crush to him.

He spared her a brief hug. "Kelly, get out of here. Get out of the building. Go across the street and wait for me. I'll find you." He propelled her toward the door.

"Where are you going?"

"Back," he answered. Back to right an old wrong. Back to do it right this time. Saving Willie at the orphanage had helped, but it wasn't enough. It would never be enough.

"Peter..." she cried.

"Go!" he shouted back. She stared at him for a moment, then turned and disappeared into the crush of people pushing toward the exit, and Peter made his way back into the gym.

The stands were still about half full, and the crowd around the doors was massive as everyone surged forward, trying to funnel through the small openings. By now, the fire alarm was blaring, and the noise was deafening, echoing throughout the cavernous room. The thick smoke had a sharp, acrid smell to it. And Peter remembered again....

It was the smell that was the worst. The explosions, and the noise, the sound of people crying, people shouting. The flames, lapping around the stones, engulfing the racks of candles, fueling the conflagration. But the smell... of thick, black smoke, melted candles, scorched stones, burning tapestries, burning flesh.... It was the smell of death.



People were screaming and crying. Peter battled through the crowd, like a salmon swimming upstream, pushing them toward the exits, pushing them out of his way. On the bleachers, people were struggling to get out. It was a good place to start.

One young girl had slipped and her leg had slid between the floorboard and the seat below, and in her panic, she couldn't get free. She sat there, screaming in terror as Peter bounded up the steps to her.

"It's okay," he soothed, reaching her. "We'll get you out."

"Help me!" she cried.

But Peter heard another's voice....



"Peter!" Philip cried. "Help me!"

Peter saw his friend, Philip, pinned under a rack of staffs and he ran to him.

"Hang on, I'll get you," he said, struggling to heave the heavy rack up and let Philip scramble to safety. The rack was heavier than he expected.

"Hurry!" Philip cried, his voice panicked.

"I am!" Peter answered, trying to move the heavy frame.

"Peter!" Philip suddenly screamed.

"What?"

He didn't see the balcony railing which plunged from above, knocking him to the ground....



Peter returned his focus to the present, to the terrified girl in front of him.

"Okay, just calm down" he said. "What's your name?"

"D-debbie."

"Hi, Debbie, I'm Peter," he smiled, and she sniffed, wiping her eyes.

"Oh, my God, we're all gonna die, aren't we?" she cried.

"Not if I can help it," he muttered. He sized up the situation. "Okay, Debbie, I'm gonna support you under the arms. When I say push, can you push yourself up with your other leg?"

"Yeah," she sniffed.

He smiled at her. Calm the victim down--he'd had that lesson just the other week. Weird to be getting to practice it so soon.

He got behind her to where he could get good leverage, and put his hands under her arms. "Okay, Debbie. Push on three. One, two, three--"

"Aaahh!" she cried, but as Peter pulled her up, the leg came unstuck and Debbie was released from the bleacher.

She turned and practically flung herself into his arms. "Thank you!" she cried.

"Let's get you out of here." He helped her down from the bleachers. She was limping pretty badly. "Go outside, call your folks," he directed. "If that leg still hurts tomorrow, tell your mom to call your doctor and get it checked out."

"I will," she sniffed. "Thanks."

He took her as far as the crowd pressed around the door. It was as far as they could go. And there were still others on the bleachers. "You'll be all right?"

"Yeah," she nodded and he squeezed her shoulder before leaving her. She'd be fine now. She'd be safe.

The sound of sirens heralded the arrival of the fire department.

About time, he thought, but realized it had only been a few minutes since the smoke had first been detected. But already his eyes stung, his throat stung, his nose stung, and he was starting to cough. He pulled the neck of his sweatshirt up over his nose and mouth, trying to block out that horrible smell. With eyes beginning to tear, headed up the stands again.

Near the top, where the smoke was heaviest, he saw a young mother with a baby and two small children. The children were terrified, and the frightened young mother couldn't get them all down by herself. "Come on," he called as he made it up the steps to her, "let's get you out of here." He let the mother take the baby, and picked up the middle child, who immediately buried her face against his shoulder. He showed the older boy how to cover his own nose and mouth, and taking the boy's hand, led the family to safety. This time, he battled through the crowd to bring them to where the air was clear.

He passed the firefighters just coming in.

"There are people still in the stands," he coughed.

The firefighter nodded. "We'll take care of it, sir. Just take your family outside."

"But...." Peter started to protest, but the man was gone, battling through the crowd to the smokey interior. He realized that it didn't matter whether the guy knew this wasn't his family or not. Like the firemen, Peter had a job to do: get these people to safety.

He led them through the crowd and outside the high school, where they took grateful gulps of fresh air. The children were all crying, and the mother's eyes were tearing as well, though from smoke or from fear, he didn't know. Not that it mattered.

His own stomach was churning from the burning smoke he'd inhaled, and he had to fight down the urge to be sick. Now was not the time.

"You gonna be okay?" he asked the mother instead.

She nodded. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," he said and put the little girl down. She immediately clung to his leg.

"I have to go, honey," he told her. "Your mommy will take care of you now." She nodded and let him pry her lose from his leg, transferring her death-grip to her mother.

"Where are you going?" the boy asked.

"There are people inside still," he answered, as if that explained everything. It did to him.

"Be careful," the mother said. "And thank you."

He nodded, ruffled the boy's hair, and pulled his shirt up over his face again. He waded back into the crowd, which was finally beginning to thin. But he knew that there were still people trapped inside, people who needed his help!

He was just past the entrance to the gym when suddenly, the lights went out. Several people screamed, and everybody froze in the dark....



It was dark all of a sudden. Then Peter realized that he was face-down on the hard stones. He'd been hit by something.

He sat up, wincing at the pain in his left leg, the one which had been hit by the... He looked around. By the railing? He looked up. The railing. The good news was that the railing had jarred the rack and broken some of the staffs. Philip would be able to get out now. The bad news was that the railing had hit Philip, too. He was unconscious.

Peter shook him, called his name, tried to revive him. But Philip remained stubbornly passed out.

Peter sighed and climbed to his feet, gasping as he tried to put weight on his injured leg. Nothing for it, he had to walk. He had to get out. And he had to get Philip out, too.

He pushed the last of the staffs out of the way and picked Philip up, putting him over one shoulder. A tentative step sent daggers of pain up his leg.

"Don't think about the pain," he murmured. "Embrace the pain, then let it go...."

But it was no use, two steps later, and the injured leg collapsed, sending both Philip and Peter to the stones again....



A voice came over a bullhorn, bringing Peter back to the present. He could just make out the garbled words: "Just keep moving toward the exits, folks. Stay calm and everyone will get out."

A moment later, the emergency lights kicked on, harsh, bright white flood spots which provided enough illumination to get out. And the crowd surged forward again as more people made their escape.

The glaring emergency lighting wasn't much help in the smokey gym. All it did was bounce off the almost impenetrable smoke, making visibility almost non-existent. Peter tried to tuck his face even farther down in his shirt, but it wasn't sufficient to block out the acrid fumes. He immediately started coughing, and his eyes burned. He stumbled forward, bumped into several people, and pushed them toward the exits. He struggled to see through the thick haze, and thought he could just about make out the shadowy forms of people. He started forward again, heading to where he knew the bleachers were, and those who needed him.

Another fit of coughing wracked him and his throat closed in defense. He put his hands over his mouth, hoping it would help, but every breath he tried to take grated in his lungs, every attempt to breathe brought on another fit of coughing.

It occured to him, vaguely, that maybe it was time to pull back, to let the guys with the equipment handle it. But then he remembered Debbie, and the mother and her children.

Then he remembered Philip. And his father. And he knew he had to go on.

He staggered forward again, trying to hold his breath. Unfortunately, his body had other ideas. Bodies, he discovered, liked to have air. When you didn't give them any, they did nasty things to you.

Peter didn't know how he ended up on the floor, doubled over in a paroxysm of coughing. It was slowly dawning on him that maybe he wasn't going to be able to help anyone else. Maybe he'd better concentrate on getting out instead....



When Peter woke up next, he was on the grass outside the temple. He didn't know how he'd gotten there. He had some vague recollections of trying to get to his feet again, trying to drag himself out. He thought he saw his father, thought he'd called to him. But he couldn't remember. And then everything went fuzzy in the smoke, and Peter remembered nothing more. He didn't know where his father was, didn't know where Philip was. He only knew that his chest hurt, his leg hurt, his...soul hurt.

He saw Ping Hai.

"Where's Philip?" he asked, his voice a croak.

The old man shook his head. "I am sorry, Peter. There was nothing we could do."

Peter's eyes filled with tears. He had failed. He had failed Philip.

"Where's my father?" he asked.

The old man didn't answer; his eyes said everything.

"No," he whispered. "No."

He sat on the grass, tears running down his face, and watched his life burn away in the night sky....



Another coughing fit brought Peter back to his current concerns. Concentrate, Peter, he said to himself. He struggled to his knees, but couldn't go any farther.

He vaguely remembered something about the floor being the best place to be during a fire. Maybe he could see down here to find the door. He wasn't even sure where the door was anymore. He tried to open his eyes, but the smokey sting made them snap shut again.

What would Mom do? How would she find her way?

She wouldn't be in this predicament, stupid, his brain supplied. If you let yourself get killed here, you know she'll never forgive you.

Shut up. Let me think. She'd do it by feel. By feeling her way. He fought against another coughing spasm and tried to inch his way forward. But every move brought on more coughing--choking, gagging coughs which paralyzed him and left him gasping for air that wasn't there. He slumped to the ground again, his strength wiped out by the smoke.

I'm sorry, Father, he thought as consciousness started to leave him. I couldn't save Philip. I couldn't save you....

Vaguely, he heard a buzzing, a sound he couldn't identify. He thought about concentrating on it, but didn't have the energy. He felt something on his face and reached up to brush it away, but his arm merely flailed without direction.

Then he felt himself being lifted, and the sound coalesced into a voice, saying, "...u out of here, sir, hang on. Can you walk?"

Peter tried to speak, but only coughed again and the voices turned back into buzzing.

He felt himself being half-carried, half-dragged and tried to get his feet under him. The feet had other ideas. Next thing he knew, he felt a blast of cold air and he took a grateful gulp of air.

And promptly doubled to his knees, coughing, and threw up on the spot.

"Take him to the paramedics," a voice said, and he felt a different set of arms on him, a different buzzing in his ears.

The choking, coughing and vomiting let up for the moment. He felt a blanket draped over his shoulders. And then another set of arms, more buzzing, and a mask placed over his mouth and nose, pure, fresh air battling the smoke to make it into his lungs.

He had to push the mask away twice to throw up some more, but finally, the urge to vomit left him, along with the last remnants of his strength. He leaned against the nearest vertical surface, only belatedly realizing it was a person, and simply let himself breathe.

He finally managed to crack his eyes open, but even the dimness of the street made them burn and they closed again.

Next thing he knew, there was a stretcher at his side, and they were trying to move him onto it. He pushed the mask away again.

"My--sister--" he croaked, which set off coughing again.

"Everyone's out of the building, sir," the paramedic told him. "Just take it easy."

"No," he coughed. "...waiting..." He attempted to take a deep breath. "...find--her...."

"Peter!"

He opened his eyes. Through the blur, he could just about make out the form of Kelly, rushing toward him.

"Kel..." he croaked.

"Oh, my God, Peter..."

"Are you his sister?" the paramedic asked.

She nodded. "What happened to him?"

"Took in a few lungsful of smoke," he answered. "We want to take him to the hospital, get him checked out."

"Can't..." Peter protested. "Have...take...you...."

"It's okay," she said, reaching for his hand. "I called Mom. Dad just got home and he's on his way."

"Your father's coming?" the medic repeated. "Good. Do you want to accompany your brother to the hospital?"

Kelly looked around uncertainly. "I should wait for my dad."

"All right. Tell him that we've gone to County General. He can join him there."

"Okay." She squeezed Peter's hand. "We'll come as soon as Dad gets here. Oh, Peter, why did you have to go back in?"

"...just did," he croaked, knowing it was too hard to explain, especially since he couldn't talk.

"You went back in?" The paramedic looked at Peter sharply. Peter simply shrugged; it took too much effort to talk. "Great," the paramedic muttered, "heroes. Wasting our time." He stood up. "Well, come on, hero. Let's get you seen to." And with that, he and his partner transferred Peter onto the waiting stretcher.

This time when Peter tried to move the mask, it was firmly pushed back into place.

"You have to wear the mask, sir. That is, if you want to keep breathing."

Peter gave up. It seemed like they were mad at him, but he couldn't figure out why. He'd only done what he had to do, only done what needed doing.

He closed his eyes again and let them load him into the ambulance. He didn't have the strength to fight anymore.



~~~~~



Paul Blaisdell used his cherry light and siren as he roared through the streets to the high school. A firefighter's worst nightmare--fire at a school. It was a father's worst nightmare, too, especially when one's children were there.

Kelly was fine, he knew that. She'd called the house only minutes after he'd gotten home. Tearful, shaky, she'd told them what had happened. She'd said that Peter had pushed her toward the door, then had gone back in to help others. She hadn't seen him since.

Typical boneheaded Peter Caine move, Paul thought as he dashed to the scene. Always having to be the hero. At this rate, the kid wouldn't live to see twenty-one.

Which didn't mean, of course, that Paul wasn't worried sick about his foster son, boneheaded or not.

The scene was a mass of people, fire apparatus, squad cars, press vehicles, and lights. Finding Kelly in this crowd would be damn near impossible. He left his car well away from the scene, and walked up to the command center, where Chief Dan Donovan was giving orders to his staff.

"What's the status, Dan?" he asked.

Donovan turned toward him. "Hey, Paul. We've just now found the fire, in the boiler room. Smoke went shooting straight through the ventilation shafts. It seems to be confined to the boiler room itself, but the smoke caused real havoc. We've had several folks taken to the hospital with smoke inhalation. What brings you out here? This isn't your beat."

"My kids are here. My daughter's a cheerleader, and my son was in the audience."

Donovan shook his head. "They're probably all right; everybody got out eventually. Except for one of the maintenance engineers. We can't find him." He waved his hand off to one side. "There's a group of cheerleaders over there someplace. Don't know what I can tell you about your son."

"That's all right. Maybe Kelly's seen him."

"Good luck."

"Thanks. Same to you." Paul patted the fire chief's arm, leaving him to his work.

He found Kelly standing on the next corner with a group of her friends, shivering in her little cheerleading outfit. She ran to him when she saw him.

"Daddy!" she cried, throwing herself into his arms. "They took Peter!"

"Who took Peter? Took him where?" Paul soothed, hugging his daughter close.

"To the hospital. He passed out from the smoke." She looked up at him with tearful eyes. "He went back in!"

"All right, all right, shhh..." he soothed. "Did they say which hospital?"

"County," she sniffed.

"All right. Let's go find him. Here," He stripped off his coat and put it around her shoulders. "Where's your coat?"

"We put our stuff in our lockers," she answered.

"Well, we'll worry about that later. Come on, babe." He led her back to the car.

"It was awful, Daddy," Kelly told him as they drove off. "Smoke was everywhere and people were screaming. People were getting trampled in the stands. I don't know if everybody got out or not."

"I talked to the fire chief before I found you," Paul assured her. "He says that everyone got out." He decided not to tell her about the missing maintenance man. She didn't need that worry.

"Will the whole school burn down?"

"I don't know," he answered truthfully. "Hopefully not. They're doing their best to save as much as they can. But it's most important that they saved lives."

"But Peter's hurt..." she cried.

"We don't know how badly. Just settle down until we find out."

But of course, Paul was as frightened as Kelly, afraid to find out the condition his son was in, afraid not to know. And poor Annie was probably wearing holes in the carpet with worry. As soon as he found out anything, he'd give her a call.

They parked in the visitor's lot of the emergency ward and went into the building.

"I'm Captain Paul Blaisdell," he said, showing his badge to the receptionist at the front desk. "My son was brought in from the fire at the high school."

"Yes, sir. Your son's name?"

"Caine. Peter Caine."

"Caine...." she mumbled as she thumbed through her sheets. "Ah, yes. Why don't you have a seat, sir, and I'll have someone come out shortly who can tell you the situation."

"How is he? Is he all right?"

"I can't answer that, sir. If you'll have a seat, someone will be with you shortly," she repeated.

He sighed. It was a very busy night in the E.R.; he got the feeling that waving his badge around would only aggravate the staff. It wasn't worth it. Peter was in the best possible hands. They just had to wait and see.

He turned to Kelly.

"How is he?" she asked.

"She can't tell me. Someone will be out in a minute to talk to us. We just have to sit tight." He cupped the side of her face and stroked a hand over her hair. "How are you, baby? Were you hurt?"

She shook her head, then her face crumpled.

"Just scared?" he asked.

She nodded and he pulled her into his arms as she dissolved into tears.

"Shhh, it'll be all right. Hush, baby, it'll be all right," he soothed as he led her to a seat in the waiting room. She struggled to regain her composure, but at fourteen, composure was hard-sought. Paul smiled and put his arms around her again, letting her curl against him, letting her be a little girl in his arms.

A few minutes later, a man in a white lab coat came into the waiting room. "Mr. Blaisdell?"

Paul moved Kelly aside and stood up. "I'm Paul Blaisdell. How's my son?"

"Why don't you come on back?" he smiled, gesturing to the examining room doors.

Paul glanced at Kelly, then back at the doctor. "Just tell me quickly, so Kelly can call my wife, who's going sick with worry. Is Peter going to be all right?"

The doctor smiled. "Yes, he'll be fine. He's going to be pretty uncomfortable for the next day or two, but he should make a full recovery."

Paul turned back to Kelly. "Call Mom. Tell her that Peter's going to be all right. Tell her I'll call her again when I know more."

Kelly nodded and Paul dug a handful of change out of his pocket. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

"Okay," she said, sniffing away the last of her tears. He smiled at her and stroked a hand down her cheek. Then he left her to make her phone call, and went with the doctor.

"Now that we're out of earshot of his little sister," Paul began as they headed into the emergency ward, "tell me how he really is."

The doctor laughed. "Got a lungful of smoke. He's coughing, vomiting. His throat hurts, his nose hurts, his eyes hurt, his stomach hurts. He's gonna feel pretty lousy for a couple of days, but he's a strong kid, I don't see any reason why he won't make a full recovery."

"Thank God," Paul murmured.

"I understand he's in the Police Academy?"

"That's right."

"Well, tell him that if he keeps pulling stunts like this, he'll never make it 'til graduation. He said he went back in to help get people out, and that's when he was overcome."

"Yeah, so I understand. I'm not pleased about it either, but I'm also not surprised."

The doctor just shook his head. "And he wants to become a cop?"

Paul chuckled. "Yeah, I know. But that stubbornness and that need to help, that's why I think he'll make a good one." If he makes it that far, he thought to himself, but kept that opinion private.

"Well, good luck," the doctor said. "He's behind that far curtain there. We'd like to keep him overnight for observation. If he knows you want him to stay, that will help."

"Is it necessary?" Paul frowned, his idea of Annie flying into "mothering" mode as soon as he walked in the door with Peter evaporating at the news.

"He's still coughing up gunk. It's mostly for observation, but if he suddenly has problems breathing during the night, we'd rather he was here, and I'm sure you'd rather it, too."

"I see. All right. I'll tell him he has to stay. He'll probably fight me on it, but I'll tell him it's not negotiable."

The doctor chuckled. "Don't stay for too long, and try not to make him talk too much. That makes him cough more."

"Can my daughter come back and see him?"

"We'll be moving him up to a regular room soon. If you want to wait around, we'll let you both go up once he's settled."

"Thank you," Paul shook the doctor's hand and went to the curtained cubicle where Peter was to be found.

His foster son was propped in the bed, an IV going into one arm, and an oxygen tube going into his nose. His face was streaked with soot, and his hair was grimy and plastered to his forehead. He looked absolutely pathetic, and Paul thought he'd never seen anything quite so welcoming in a very long time. His son. Alive, more or less whole. Made it through yet another crisis intact.

Peter turned his head and coughed, a thick, rasping sound which made Pauls' throat ache in sympathy.

Well, mostly intact.

The bloodshot, swollen eyes opened.

"Hey there, kid," Paul said gently.

Peter managed a smile and raised a hand to wave half-heartedly.

"I hope you don't feel as bad as you look," Paul said.

"Worse," Peter croaked.

Paul chuckled sympathetically. "They want to keep you overnight, for observation."

Peter nodded. "Thought they would."

An eyebrow raised. "No protest?"

Peter shook his head. "No energy."

Paul smiled fondly, but worriedly. For Peter to be this acquiescent, he must be feeling rough. The smile faded. "Kelly's worried sick about you."

"...she okay?" he asked.

"Yeah. Scared, but that's all. She's calling Annie, who's also worried to death. I'm gonna call her myself as soon as I go back out. Any message you want me to relay?"

Peter closed his eyes and sighed, which made him cough again. "...'m sorry...."

The kid sounded so pathetic, it was hard to be angry at him. Paul took his foster son's hand and squeezed it gently.

Peter opened his eyes again and gazed at him. "Dumb move, huh?" he whispered.

"Not one of your better ones, no," Paul replied.

"They needed my help."

"They needed someone's help, Peter. It didn't have to be you."

"...it did...."

"You went in ill-equipped, untrained. You're not a firefighter, hell, you're not even a cop yet. If you'd collapsed while helping someone, you wouldn't have just been endangering yourself, you'd have endangered them, too."

"I had to, Paul," Peter said, and his hoarse voice was desperate. "I just had to...."

"Shhh, all right." Paul reached up and stroked his foster son's cheek. "Settle down. It's all right. I'm not going to argue with you. I'm not even gonna yell at you. I just want you to think about something. If you were a cop, in a crisis situation, and someone else, someone who wasn't a cop, unarmed, untrained, came in and started doing your job, how would you feel? How would you act? No, don't answer." Paul put his hand up when Peter took a breath as if to speak. "Just think. And we'll talk about it some more when you're feeling better. For now, just take it easy. Concentrate on getting well."

Peter's red, swollen eyes were rimmed with tears, but Paul couldn't tell if they were an after-effect of the smoke, or from emotion.

"...'m sorry," Peter whispered.

"I know you are, kid. It's all right." He squeezed Peter's hand again. "I'm gonna go check on Kelly, then call your mother. She's probably having fits by now. They said they're getting ready to move you up to your room, so we'll see you up there, okay?"

Peter didn't answer, just closed his eyes, swallowed and nodded.

Paul leaned over and kissed his forehead. "I love you, son," he whispered. "And I'd never say it in front of the doctors or the medics, but I'm very proud of you. Proud that you want to help others. Proud of the person you are.

"But," he straightened, "if you ever do it again, you'll learn you're not too old for a good whalloping."

Peter smiled in spite of himself and raised a hand in a feeble salute.

"Yes, Captain," he whispered.

Paul smiled, winked at him, then let go.



~~~~~



It was almost noon the following day when Peter finally got home again. His eyes still stung and teared easily. His throat was still raw and deep breaths made him cough. There was a heaviness in his chest, a feeling like someone was sitting on him, and a weakness in his limbs. All he wanted to do was go upstairs, take a long shower to wash the last of the smoke grunge off him, crawl into bed and stay there for, oh, a month or so. He knew he was going to have to miss a couple of days of classes at the Academy, which upset him, but not as much as it should have. That was how he knew he really felt bad, that he didn't mind actually giving his body time to be sick and get better.

After his shower, he curled up in his bed and waited for the pressure in his chest to ease, waited to drift off to sleep.

There was a knock on his door.

"Peter?" Annie opened the door. "Do you want soup?"

He was about to say no when he looked at her. She'd brought it upstairs with her, difficult to do without spilling it. He couldn't very well turn it down. Besides, it might feel good on his raw throat.

"Yeah, thanks," he croaked.

"Floor clear?" she asked.

"Yeah," he answered, and sat up in bed. She crossed to him, and he took the tray from her, balancing it on his knees.

The soup, good old chicken noodle, was hot, and did feel good going down. Peter hadn't eaten much of his watery egg and soggy toast this morning at the hospital, and before that all he'd had was that hot dog at the game, and that hadn't stayed with him very long.... He realized he was actually hungry.

He started eating and Annie sat on the edge of the bed with him. She let him get through most of the soup before she cleared her throat, which usually meant she had something important to say. Well, why not, Paul had yelled at him last night, now it was her turn.

"You know, sweetie," she began, "you really gave us a good fright last night."

"I'm sorry," he whispered. It still felt better whispering than talking.

"I know you are," she patted his near leg. "And I know you feel pretty rotten now, so you're paying for your mistake." She tilted her head, looking at him in that way she had which made Peter believe that she could actually see him. "Paul said that when he asked you why you did it, you said you had to. Is that right?"

Peter frowned. Where was she going with this? "Yeah."

"Why did you feel you had to, Peter? What compelled you to put yourself in danger like that?"

He didn't think he could explain. "I just had to," he answered.

"Why?" She wasn't going to let it go.

"Because--" He took a deep breath and that started him coughing again. She rescued the tray from his lap before he upended it, and set it on the dresser.

The coughing subsided and he took a sip of water.

"Why did you have to, Peter?" she asked again, gently.

He didn't want to tell her. Didn't think she'd understand. But then again, she was Mom. She always understood more than he ever expected her to.

"Because I couldn't save Philip," he whispered.

She frowned. "Who was Philip?"

"My friend. At the temple. We were together when everything happened. We were both hit. I tried to get him out but... But I couldn't. I didn't have the strength."

He took another deep breath, fighting against the urge to cough again. The coughing won, and it shook him with its intensity. This time, she held him, rubbing his back until the spell eased, and then she stayed there, with her arms around him, protective and comforting.

"I vowed," he began again in a whisper, "I vowed that that would never happen again. That next time I'd be able to do it. No one would ever die again because I had failed to act."

He took another sip of water, leaning into his mother's arms. "I survived because somebody acted. Somebody got me out. My father...died... because somebody didn't." He sat up again and looked at her. "I know you don't understand. I don't expect you to. But you have to know that if ever the same situation happens again, I'll do the same thing. And the way my throat feels right now doesn't make any difference."

She reached up and stroked the side of his face tenderly. "And you'll keep on doing it until what? Until the fire finally does claim you? It won't bring Philip back, Peter. Or your father. And there are people here who love you, who care about what happens to you. Do you have any idea how frightened Kelly was last night? Not because of the fire, because of you. Because you went back in, tried to be the hero. I appreciate that you want to help people, honestly, I do. And I admire it. But not when it means putting your life in danger. Not when it means risking you."

"I'm gonna be a cop, Mom," he reminded her. "I'm gonna be putting myself in danger. That's part of the job. It's part of Paul's job. You've lived with that for years."

"You think I enjoy that part of it? The knowing that some day he may go to work and not come home again? I don't, not one bit. I don't like the idea with him, and I don't like the idea with you. But the difference is, that's what he does for a living. It's his job. Just as it will be your job. But this wasn't your job, Peter. This was an act of foolish, misguided bravado. They pay firemen to take those risks. They pay cops to take risks, too. But they weren't paying you last night. If you lose your life in the course of your duty as a police officer, that's one thing. But I can't stand the thought that you're doing it for fun!"

"It's not for fun, Mom," he insisted. "It's because I can."

"Because you can doesn't mean you have to, Peter. You didn't have to do that last night. You could have left it to the firefighters. And you should have."

Peter swallowed. He'd never willingly disobeyed her before. He'd always done what she'd asked, because pleasing her was one of the most important things in his life. She was Mom; she was sacred.

But this time, she didn't understand, could never understand. This time, it wouldn't matter that she was Mom. They could argue around this one until they were both blue in the face, and it would still come out the same.

She gave his cheek a caress, picked up the tray and walked out of the room.

He watched her go. Here they were, back at the beginning. "I did have to, Mom," he whispered. "I just did."



~~~~~



"Peter?" Kelly's voice was small. "Are you asleep?"

Not anymore, he felt like saying, but instead, croaked out, "Come in." They seemed determined not to let him sleep. He'd only settled down about fifteen minutes ago, after Annie left.

Kelly opened the door and just stood there for a moment, gazing at him. She looked scared, and he thought she'd been crying.

"What's up, chicky?" he whispered.

"I just got off the phone with Debbie," she said. "She told me that Mr. Panalos was killed last night in the fire."

Peter remembered Mr. Panalos; he was one of the janitors at the high school. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

She nodded and folded her arms across her body as if cold. "It's weird--thinking that someone I knew is dead now. That he died near where I was." She shuddered.

There wasn't anything he could say to that. And she didn't seem to expect an answer. She looked away frowning, her fingers nervously twirling in her hair. Then she looked back.

"She said that she fell trying to get out and that some nice guy helped her. That was you, wasn't it?"

He nodded. "I didn't know she was your friend."

She didn't say anything else, just kept staring at him, looking like she wanted to say something, but not sure how to say it.

"You're not gonna yell at me, too, are you? For being a 'hero'."

She shook her head. "I--I guess I'm glad you did it. Otherwise Debbie might be dead. Like Mr. Panalos."

"That's the thing Mom and Paul don't get," he said. "That I had to do what I did. People might have died if I didn't. More people. I couldn't let that happen."

She sniffed. "It's just-- I was so scared, Peter! I didn't know where you were, I didn't know what had happened...." Tears started trickling down her face. "I'm glad you saved Debbie. And the others. Just...be careful. I don't want anything bad to happen to you."

All the arguments from Paul and Mom, all the warnings and admonitions.... None of them went as far as Kelly's small plea.

"I will, chicky," he whispered. "I promise." He extended a hand to her.

She sniffed away her tears and went to him, hugging him tight.

It was one thing to expect the adults in his world to understand and accept the things he did, the person he was. But Kelly was just a kid. She shouldn't have to grow up early, like he did. If he could prevent that by his actions.... Well, maybe he needed to be a little more careful, that's all.

She let him go when he started coughing again, but still sat there as he settled back down again.

"Peter?" she asked, her voice still small, not unlike the little girl she'd been when he first met her.

"Yeah?"

"Can I...stay here with you for awhile?"

"I was gonna go back to sleep."

"I'll be quiet," she insisted. "It's just...." She shrugged, unable to find the words, and her fingers unconsciously twisted in her hair again.

He smiled gently. "Yeah. Long as you don't mind me snoring."

"You don't snore. Do you?"

"Dunno. Never been awake to find out."

She giggled, and it was good to see her pretty smile again. "Let me grab my history book, and I'll be back."

He nodded and she popped up off the bed, trotting out of the room.

He laughed to himself. All right then, he'd be Kelly's hero. But he'd try and be careful, too. It was the best he could do.

He rolled over and snuggled down in the covers, closing his eyes. There was still a weight in his chest. But it would go away. And at least the weight in his heart had lifted a little.

Kelly came back in and sat on the opposite side of the bed, curling up with her book.

Peter sighed and relaxed, easing toward sleep.



Chapter 19: Epiphany

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