Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chapter 3

The Imperfection of Man

Upon arriving back at the station house, Edward knew instantly that his crew was still at the scene of the car fire. Both the pumper and the aerial were still missing from their bays as Alice had pulled into the parking lot and shut off the engine. The ride back had been awkward at best, neither really knowing what to say to one another, but Edward was hesitant to exit the car and leave the foreign tension unsettled between them. She'd been his friend and part of his family for far too long to allow a simple mistake to drive a wedge between them.

He rested back against the headrest and turned his head to see her looking down, inspecting her nails and pursing her lips to the side as she gnawed on the inside of her cheek.

"Hey," he whispered, shifting to bump her shoulder with his own, getting her to look over at him. He quirked a half smile and tapped his temple, "Temporary amnesia, remember?"

She laughed lightly, short bursts of nearly silent air through her nose as she nodded to him, "Thanks, Edward."

"It'll all be alright, Peanut. Trust me on this one, kay?"

He held his arms out for her as he awkwardly turned toward her in the confined area of the front seat of the car. He rubbed her back as her face pressed against his shoulder and offered her the only words of advice he could think of in the moment.

"Listen, move out if you need to. A little time apart from one another might be all you two need to figure things out. Just don't give up on him until you're absolutely certain you need to. I love my brother and I want him to be happy, but your happiness means just as much to me, so if he's incapable of being what you need, then I want you to find the person who is."

He worried for her. Things between her and his brother hadn't been ideal for close to two years now, so it wasn't really a surprise that she'd reached the point where she wanted out, but it was sad that it had come to that. His mother was going be heartbroken over the news for she loved Alice and Rosalie as though they were her own daughters—even though there was no love lost at all between his brothers' wives.

It was kind of ironic that Jasper and Emmett were more like best friends than brothers, and yet, they married two women that were practically mortal enemies of one another. It made for quite interesting holiday gatherings, as that was the only time you could force them to tolerate each other for any length of time. They'd been complete polar opposites of one another from the get go, but now they were even more so.

"You're still coming to the cookout next Saturday, right?" he asked, hoping she would be. She always made the random gatherings bearable, not to mention she played the part of deflector shield for him when it came to the women his mother invited because she "coincidentally" ran into their mothers at an ever changing array of locations. He wasn't dumb, he knew she was trying to set him up. He just wished she wouldn't because it was entirely too awkward for him since he'd known most of them from high school, and he had no more interest in them now than he had back then.

"And miss out on shooting Emmett in the ass with a paintball gun? Not in this lifetime," she chuckled as she quirked a brow at him.

"Alright," he grinned, holding his fist out toward her. He'd never been one for the whole "fist bump" gesture, but after the twenty minute rant Peanut had gone on once upon a time over how ridiculous it was, he'd used it routinely as his farewell to her. "I'll see ya Saturday if not before then."

She rolled her eyes at him, unable to keep her lips from turning up into a smile as she bumped his fist with her own; one up, one down, and one knuckles to knuckles, all the while thinking how junior high it was. He was the only one who'd ever be able to get her to do it, but she loved that it was something they shared only with each other and no one else.

Alice watched as he got out of her car and walked stiffly toward the side entrance to the firehouse. Once he had the door open, she started the car and returned his two fingered salute with a wave before pulling away, heading back to her and Jasper's apartment to finish packing. While she was saddened that she and Edward could never be more than just friends, she understood his reasons and was grateful for the relationship they shared. She'd rather have him as just a friend, a best friend even, than not having him in her life at all.

Still, she couldn't help but wish that she'd met him first. Maybe, just maybe, if they had, maybe they'd have both found happiness. At the end of the day, the only thing in her life she was certain of anymore, was that whoever managed to steal Edward's heart, would be one very lucky woman.

Back at the station house, Edward walked in just in time to hear station 10 clearing themselves from the scene to dispatch. Figuring there was no sense in driving back out there when his crew would be leaving the scene soon as well, he instead busied himself with tidying up the kitchen that the guys had destroyed earlier that morning. While doing the dishes, he had to chuckle at the sign Carlisle had stuck above the sink years ago that read, "Your wives/girlfriends/mothers don't work here. If you make a mess, clean it. Sincerely, The Nonexistent Maid."

With everything tidied up in the house, he threw a quick dinner together for the guys and tossed it in the oven before heading into the lounge to take a load off and ice down his knee. Throwing his foot up on the coffee table and tugging his pant leg up over his knee, he groaned as he saw that it had swollen up a bit more and grimaced as he dropped the bag of ice over it.

"Perfect," he grumbled to himself as his head fell back against the cushion of the couch. Hurting himself on the first leg of a forty-eight, possibly seventy-two, hour shift was not the way he'd foreseen this day going when he'd woken up. Not fifteen minutes later did he hear the bay doors opening and the trucks beginning to back into their slots. With any luck, they'd all be able to shovel down some grub before another call came in.

"Felix get your damn hands off me...Get over here you little fuckin' shit! I'm not done with you yet!"

"Alec back off..."

"Who the fuck do you think you are?" *thump* "Your goddamn brother puts his own life at risk to save your sorry ass and you can't even find it in you to give a shit if he's hurt?"

Edward was already up and off the couch by the time he'd heard Felix warning Alec to back off and was nearly sprinting toward the far end of the bay where the voices were coming from. It hurt like hell, sharp pains shooting through his knee and down his shin making him stagger and hop on his good leg to keep his pace up. He'd nearly made it to the back of the pumper when he heard the unmistakable sound of a fist connecting with a body amidst the shouting - the shouting that escalated right afterward along with the scuffling of at least two full-grown men going at it with everything they had in them.

"ENOUGH!" Edward hollered, rounding the back of the pumper truck and throwing the weight of his entire body in between his brother and best friend — which turned out to be the worst move he could have ever made when something connected with his already jacked up knee, hard. "Jesus Christ!"

His teeth gritted together as he slammed his forehead and fist into the side of the aerial, his eyes clenched against the pain and deep breaths hissing from his flared nostrils.

"Yeah...that's right jackass! Walk away again ya little shit!"

"Alec..." Edward panted, his eyes watering of their own volition from the searing pain in his knee. "I'm only gonna say this once. Touch him again and it'll be you and me tearing this place apart."

Alec fisted his hands in his hair, trying to rein in his boiling rage. As the red haze began to fade, he realized what he'd done and his body sagged with the weight of it as his arms fell to his sides.

" know I didn't mean to hit him. It's just...the way he treats you pisses me the fuck off."

"I know," Edward muttered, tapping his forehead against the side of the truck repetitively. The pain in his knee wasn't fading; it was getting worse. It was almost like someone had jammed a red hot iron poker right into the joint.

"Edward?" Jasper broached worriedly, realizing something was off with his brother. When he'd spoken to Alice on their way back to the station, she'd said he was fine, but he didn't look it. Not at all. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, go check on dinner in the oven."

Edward had tried to keep his voice steady, but his rapid shallow breaths had made it impossible and now Jasper definitely knew something was wrong.


"Go," Edward barked, cutting him off completely.

Jasper looked around at the few guys standing with them, wanting someone to give him an answer if they knew what was wrong. The problem was, no one did.

"Come on, Jas," Felix urged, giving him a slight shove toward the kitchen. "Let's go guys. Give him some breathing room."

Edward listened to their retreating steps and only when he knew they'd passed the back of the pumper did he turn and slide down to the floor, stretching his injured leg out in front of him as he took deep gasping breaths.

"You fucked your leg up bad, didn't you?" Alec sighed, crouching down to the ground beside him. Edward ran his hands over his face roughly to keep from lashing out. His patience and tolerance for stupidity had reached its limit for the day, and with one glacial glare from him, Alec knew it.

"It wasn't bad until one of you fuckers jacked it up even worse a minute ago."

"Dude, I'm sorry, but that bullshit back there at the scene crossed the line. We're all brothers in this house, blood or no blood. Everyone there knew you were hurt and he still turned his back on you. That shit's fucked up, man."

Edward released a heavy breath, shaking his head slightly as he looked up into the fluorescent lights hanging from the garage bay ceiling. He knew it was messed up, but he also knew his brother like the back of his hand; and how onlookers would interpret Emmett's actions, was a complete one-eighty of the real meaning of them.

For years, Emmett had been trying to live up to the skewed vision he held of his eldest brother. He idolized him, viewed him as some kind of hero when he was anything but. He was just an everyday average Joe Schmoe, but Emmett hadn't been able to see him that way since he was twelve years old.

Ten years ago, Emmett had run outside before school to grab the paper for their father and spotted Edward on the front page, drenched in sweat and covered in dirt and soot. In his arms, tucked safely and securely away in his turncoat, was Emmett's then best friend, Sean. Behind them stood the barely still standing house Sean had lived in, completely engulfed in flames.

At nineteen, a dry footed rookie with more courage than half the men in his squad, became his little brother's hero.

Edward wished Emmett could understand that what he'd done hadn't made him a hero, it just made him a firefighter. The only thing he'd done that night was his job, and with a stroke of luck and a guardian angel on his shoulder, he'd succeeded. He'd hoped that once Emmett joined him in the field he'd begin to understand, but thus far—hadn't.

"Just help me up, will ya?" Edward huffed, tired and just—well tired. Of everything.

Alec swung Edward's arm over his shoulder and helped pull him up off the ground, and with his instruction, helped him hobble his way up the stairs and into the sleeping quarters. The both froze momentarily upon seeing Emmett sprawled out across his bunk with his pillow over his head, but shook it off and continued forward toward Edward's customary one.

"I'll go grab ya a bag of ice," Alec nodded as Edward sank down onto the side of the mattress, looking between the brothers just once. He paused a few steps away from Emmett and warred with himself for a moment before clearing his throat as he rubbed his hand over his mouth, tugging at his bottom lip as his hand withdrew.

"Emmett, I'm sorry...I shouldn't have hit you like that."

The only acknowledgement he received was a two fingered salute, cast away from the pillow covering his face, but that was all that was needed. Had Emmett not been willing to let it go, it would have been a single fingered one of the middle variety.

The room remained silent after Alec's departure and Edward shifted on the bed, both to ease his discomfort as well as turn toward his brother.

"Em," he sighed, not really sure what to say to ease the tension between them. The damn tension that had been mounting steadily throughout the day.

"Don't...just fuckin'...don't," he snapped, jumping out of the bed and pacing rapid short lines across the flooring. A surge of rage ignited in Edward's blood the second he spotted the corner of Emmett's eye where Alec had clocked him and he seriously considered giving him a matching one when he returned with that bag of ice.

"I know what you're gonna say, so save it. 'What were you thinking, Em? You shouldn't have been standing there, Emmett. You know damn well that car could have exploded at any second.'..." he ranted as he burned a five foot trail in the cheap industrial carpet.


"And I do know better than that, but I really thought, with how torched the body was already, that it had already ignited..."


"And I was only back there to try to see if the stupid license plate hadn't been completely destroyed yet so the cops would have something to go by to track down the owners of the car, and yeah, it was fuckin' stupid and I should have waited, but I didn't, and once again I put myself in the wrong place at the wrong time and had to be saved by my fuckin' brother who's never made a mistake in his entire fucking life..."

"Emmett! Will you put a goddamn cork in it already?!" Edward hollered, not wanting to hear any more complete bullshit spew out of his mouth.

"Why? Did I leave something out?" he spat as he halted his steps. "Did I miss some fuck up of epic proportions that I made and you need to rip me a new asshole for?"

"Are you okay?"

"...What?" Emmett questioned, bewildered and looking around the room as though he'd missed something significant in the last five minutes.

"Are. You. Okay?" Edward repeated slowly, enunciating each word purposely.

"I'm fine...why?" he asked, still entirely lost and getting more so by the second.

"That's all I wanted to know."

And with that, Edward tossed his other leg up on the bed and flopped his torso down onto the mattress. A minute later Alec returned with the bag of ice and Edward had to mentally question whether or not he'd been standing outside the door, waiting for an audible sign that it was safe to enter — not that it mattered. Over the years Alec had borne witness to more sibling showdowns than the men in the room could collectively count.

"Damn, bro," Alec muttered, his step faltering at the sight of Emmett's eye. "I'm really..."

"It's fine," Emmett waived him off, not really giving a damn about it. As far as he was concerned, he'd more than earned it and had had no real intentions of blocking it when he saw it coming. There wouldn't have even been a brawl to speak of if he hadn't lost his cool when Alec pushed him afterward and implied that he wouldn't have given a shit if Edward had died while trying to get to him.

That implication had enraged him because he'd replayed the incident over and over again in slow motion in his head after storming away, and each time he was left with the same vision that had slammed into his brain when they'd collided with the ground. Alec's words had hit him straight in the gut with the force of a freight train because it had almost happened.

His brother had almost died while trying to save him.

He'd played the scene back in his mind so many times that he was able to count the seconds between the moment Edward tackled him and when the fuel tank exploded.

Three seconds.

Three seconds was how close his brother had come to sacrificing his life for his own. Just a difference of three stupid, miraculous seconds. Had he been running slower or not taken off when he had, he would have been right beside the fuel tank itself when it exploded, and the ball of flames would have swallowed his brother entirely.

It was that image that had been seared into his brain upon impact with the ground. It was the reason he'd stormed away; because looking at his brother, alive and in one piece standing in front of him, and knowing how close he'd come to having not been - it caused his stomach send a wave of bile straight up his throat. Once he'd passed the truck, he'd staggered into the trees and thrown up, nearly choking on his own vomit when violent sobs began tearing through his chest.

The throbbing at the corner of his eye was nothing compared to the anguish that image continued to cause him.

"Alec...out," Edward ordered, rolling on his side to snatch the bag of ice from his hand. He nodded once before heading out and shutting the door behind him, already knowing to tell the guys downstairs to steer clear of their bunks for a while after having heard the end tail of Emmett's rambling when he'd come back up the stairs.

Edward eyed his brother wearily for a minute before sighing and shaking his head. "'ve got to let go of this ridiculous belief that I'm infallible, that I never make mistakes...because I do. I've made wrong decisions before that have put me in the wrong places at the wrong times. I can't even begin to tell you how many times someone else has had to put themselves at risk to keep me from getting hurt."

Emmett just looked at him incredulously, pursing his lips as his left brow lifted subtly. Edward bit back a groan and sighed exasperatedly. "Sit down."

He waited for Emmett to take the few steps to the bed next to his and lower himself down on the edge of it before speaking, "Do you remember hearing about Fitz being pinned by a support beam that collapsed in a warehouse fire when you were still in the academy?"

"Yeah, I remember seeing the building and all the smoke from the top of the training tower while running drills," he answered, nodding just once.

"That should have been me pinned under it. We'd gone in after it looked like the fire had been put out to make sure there was nothing inside still smoldering and capable of igniting it again. I'd been exhausted and Dad had been riding my ass all night long to keep my head on straight. I was irritated and distracted by my desire to just get the hell out of there and get some sleep and I wasn't paying attention to a single thing around me. Not once did I ever bother to look above the spot I was standing in and by the time I heard the beam break free, I was screwed."

He paused, running his hand through his hair as he stared at the ceiling, remembering that day like it had just happened yesterday and not nearly four years ago. He could still see the metal beam cutting through the hazy smoke in the room and speeding toward him. His eyes closed for a moment before focusing on Emmett.

"If Fitz hadn't seen it coming, I would have been a goner because it would have landed right on my head instead of his leg when he sacked me," he confided, his eyes imploring Emmett to see that he's just as capable of making stupid mistakes as anyone else.

"I made a mistake that day that could have cost me my life, but because he did what any one of us would do for another, I'm still alive while he's walking around with a prosthetic leg," he said, feeling his throat begin to close up. "I made a completely avoidable mistake that altered a man's entire life in just the blink of an eye, and there's nothing I can do to change it. The only thing I can do is keep the knowledge of what my fuck up did to someone else in the forefront of my mind every time I step foot onto a scene so that I never repeat that same mistake again."

Emmett remembered hearing about the accident that took the veteran officer's leg and how it spurred their instructors into running training simulations on how to sweep buildings safely. They'd spent an entire day having it drilled into their heads to do continuous floor to ceiling sweeps as they moved through enclosed structures.

"You can't blame yourself for that, Edward," Emmett argued, shaking his head. "Shit like that can happen at any time and without warning."

"Yeah, it can...but if I would have looked up at any point that I'd been standing there like an idiot, I would have seen the beam dangling above me and barely hanging on the way Fitz had."

It hadn't been the only time Edward had ever made a mistake, but it had been the one with the most severe consequences and, subsequently, the one capable of proving to his brother that he was far from being the perfect hero he'd been falsely romanticizing him to be for half his life. Edward was human, he'd made mistakes in the past and undoubtedly would again in the future.

"Em, we come to work knowing that any call we head out on can be our last. It doesn't take a lapse in judgment to put us in danger, but it does take making stupid mistakes like I did back then and you did today to make us more vulnerable to the dangers that we willingly surround ourselves with," he stressed firmly.

"I get it, I get more standing within feet of a flaming shit box," Emmett nodded, the corner of his lips turning up in the trademark crooked Cullen grin as he avoided his brother's gaze.

An awkward tension settled between the men as neither knew what more to say in the moment. Emmett shifted on the bed in discomfort as Edward turned his head to stare at the grid ceiling's pocked panels. Minutes passed in silence between them but sounds from the lower level of the station house kept the quietness from creating that annoying faint ringing in their ears that can only be heard in completely empty air.

"So..." Em surrendered to his discomfort, pausing to clear his throat before asking the question he should have hours ago, "How's the knee?"

"Hurts like a son of a gun," Edward smirked and turned his mossy gaze toward him, "I think that ground may have been even harder than that concrete head of yours."

And with that teasing jab, they laughed and all the bullshit from the first half of their shift was swept under the rug.

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