Breathing was impossible.
Spike couldn't expand his chest, couldn't free his lungs from the vise that crushed them.
His knees crashed hard against the pavement, but he had no memory of having fallen. He had no memory of anything. He couldn't pull his mind together that well.
He, too, was blown apart.
Frantically, desperately, his starved brain forced him to inhale, to refuel the scream that had long since lost its voice. His gasp felt visceral, sounded like an animal moan, and grew into a fresh wail that shocked him back into reality.
But this was a reality too horrible for his mind to encase in cohesive thought. Thought would have meant comprehension, and this...this he did not dare to comprehend.
Finally, one thought became knowable, but only because it offered comfort.
The boss is here.
Strong, gentle arms wrapped around him, tightening to hold him together. He curled into the embrace like a little child, clutching at the boss's sleeve, clinging to anything solid that could help his fractured soul collect itself.
Wailing, wracking sobs continued to pour out of him, completely outside of any thought of control, beyond whatever comfort that the sarge tried to give him. Each sob forced itself down to the depths of his chest until his lungs knotted and cramped, before releasing him to breathe again.
"Spikey, buddy, try to slow it down, okay? I know you're hurting something awful, but I really need you to slow down your breathing. Listen to my rhythm, buddy...in nice and slow…out nice and slow….
The cooler-headed cop part of Spike agreed. He's right. I'm in danger of hyperventilating. Spike focused on the Sarge's voice, taking comfort in thinking about something other than the horror behind him.
His breathing slowly calmed. He still cried, and cried hard, but not dangerously so.
The intense ringing in his ears seemed to lessen a bit, too.
Sarge stayed seated beside him and held him, quietly, gently.
A paramedic squatted beside them. "You okay, buddy? I was getting a little concerned there. Looks like you're breathing better, though."
Spike kept his eyes closed and ignored the paramedic, hoping to be left alone, but instead his lack of response earned him a quick check of his pulse. "Heart's racing a bit, not dangerously so, but I'm just gonna keep my eye on him for now, okay?"
Spike felt Sarge nod.
He opened his eyes again at the sound of people approaching. His teammates stood around him now, and every one of them looked as awful as he felt.
Ed squatted down to put a hand on Spike's shoulder, and his grief riveted Spike's attention. Ed's face was flushed, and his tear-filled eyes kept darting over Spike's shoulder to look at…..
Jules sat down beside him and put a hand on his outstretched leg. The other hand covered her eyes, and her shoulders shook.
Sam squatted down beside her and put his arm around her shoulders. She buried her face in his neck.
Spike's lungs started to catch dangerously again as his friends' pain resonated with his own and amplified it.
"Shhh, shhh, shhh," Sarge whispered in his ear. "Just focus on your breathing, okay buddy? Just focus on your breathing."
Spike nodded numbly. Denial felt like his best friend right now. He closed his eyes again.
After a few more minutes Sarge said quietly, "Let's get you to the truck, okay?"
The paramedic stepped in. "Let me check him real quick first. His breathing is still a concern." He eyed Spike closely and felt his pulse. "Yeah, go ahead, but if he starts to hyperventilate…."
"Thanks, we know what to do." Sarge patted Spike's shoulder.
Everybody reached to help Spike up, not because he needed that much help, but because they cared. This family loved each other.
Spike scanned their faces almost reflexively, looking for Lew's smile….
The realization hit him yet again, and he shuddered with fresh grief.
Sarge kept a firm hold on him, not just supporting him, but keeping him headed forward. His other friends positioned themselves behind him as a human shield, so that even though he craned his neck around, he couldn't see past them.
With each step, Spike's soul yearned more powerfully to turn around. Back there was now hallowed ground.
He started to resist, to pull away. "Guys, I need to go to him, I need to be with him. He shouldn't be alone back there!"
"No, Spikey, not this time. You need to go to the truck." Sarge's tone, though gentle, was unmistakably commanding. Normally, Spike obeyed that voice unhesitatingly.
But not now. Reality was beginning to hammer him more fiercely. "Boss, no!" He struggled harder, but his friends' compassionate hands were in no way weakened by their sympathy.
"Please let me go to him!" Spike was sobbing again now. "He's my friend, he's my friend, my best friend, please, Boss!"
"C'mon, buddy." The boss tightened his grip a little. "He's not alone. There are folks back there, helping us deal with all of this. But that...that's not how he would want you to remember him, amico mio."
"But I owe it to him! I owe it to him!" Spike's knees weakened, and he stumbled, though he was too well supported to fall. "I was gonna help him!"
He suddenly seemed to see his best friend's face, sweaty with fear, and he heard once more his haunting words. His very last words.
Spike...it's gonna be okay.
"Lew, I was gonna help you, you should have let me try, you should have let me try!" Fresh sobs escaped him.
He longed to hear Lew's reply, but it was Sarge who spoke. "I know, Buddy, I know. If anybody could have helped him, it would have been you. It wasn't your fault, Spikey." Everyone else murmured their agreement.
They escorted him past an SUV and into the command truck. Everybody piled in with him, and when the door closed, he realized why they'd chosen this vehicle.
No windows back here. They don't want me to see….
His knees went rubbery, and his teammates helped him go down gently. He drew his knees up to his chest and threw his arms over his head.
"I was gonna help him." Sobs overtook him again, but they felt different this time...not because the grief was in any way diminished, but because his initial shock and panic were coalescing into a horrific certainty.
He rocked himself like a distraught child.
Lew is dead. Lew is dead.
Next: Ch 2 - Too Many Pieces to Mend