Chapter 7: Growth Stage
Two weeks later
"Thank you very much, Mrs. Petty," McCoy said, pocketing the keys and shaking the hand of his new landlady. "I really appreciate your flexibility. It's been tough getting settled in around here, since everyone wants three months' rent up front, and since I couldn't provide landlord references."
"Oh, any friend of the Kirks' is a friend of mine," replied Mrs. Petty. "And having a real live paramedic living next door will be wonderful. Plus, the fact that you're willing and able to help out with fixing things around here is a huge plus. I'm not getting any younger. And you absolutely must let me take off from your rent when you work on this place or my place."
"All right," Leonard said. "I will. And I'll let you know as soon as I can whether I'm interested in buying the place."
"I certainly hope you'll want to, but I understand you're a bit at loose ends right now. So there's no hurry at all."
"Thanks for understanding."
"And do feel free to put any of the furniture you hate right into the basement."
"I'll do that. But to be honest, I've got nothing, and I'm not picky, so I think it'll all pretty much stay right where it is." Leonard checked his watch. "I'm sorry, but I really need to get going. My shift starts in half an hour."
"Well, do say hello to young Jim for me. I was so proud of him when he graduated from the fire academy. He had a rough start, from the first day of his life, but it looks like he's finally made good for himself."
"Yes, ma'am," Leonard agreed, not having the faintest idea what she was talking about.
"You do it?" Jim asked, the moment Leonard set foot in the station.
McCoy held up the key as he reached for a towel in his locker. Rain had begun to fall just as he drove from his new house to the station, and he got drenched between the parking lot and the door of the station. "Yup. Nice lady, perfectly fine place. Moving in tomorrow, right after our shift is over. Thanks a lot for the recommendation to Mrs. Petty."
"No problem, Bones."
"And thanks for putting me up the last couple weeks. I'll be out of your hair tomorrow afternoon." Leonard finished toweling off, and hung his towel in his locker.
"Yeah." Jim closed his locker door quietly. "I guess so."
Leonard pulled his wet shirt over his head, and turned to say something else to Jim, but he was gone. No matter; they could continue their conversation after the morning line-up.
Pike had nothing of interest to report during the start-of-shift lineup. Sulu and Scotty started a movie up on the DVD player, Pike and Spock retreated to the office to go over some things that Leonard had no clue about, Cupcake—Leonard mentally smacked himself for even thinking that nickname, but it just kept happening, so maybe he just wouldn't fight it anymore—coached Chekov in some weightlifting, and Christine and Gaila looked at some catalog together. Jim was—
Leonard frowned as he realized Jim was nowhere in sight. Leonard thought he must be in the corner of one of the couches, blocked from view by the high counter that was behind the sofa that formed the bottom of the U-shaped arrangement of furniture, but when he peered around the counter to look, only Scotty and Sulu were watching the movie.
"Huh," Leonard said to himself. Usually Jim seemed to be everywhere at once, almost taking up the whole room with his energy, but this evening he seemed to be … nowhere. He stopped at the table where Christine and Gaila were looking at their catalog.
"You ladies seen Jim around?"
Gaila rolled her eyes. "I guess you haven't been here for any of his weird days yet."
"Weird days?" Leonard asked.
"Yeah, there are days when he just … retreats, I guess. A couple times a year. It's kind of a relief, actually. Like a mini-vacation for the rest of us, even though we're still working."
"Come on, I just stayed at his house for two weeks. He's not that bad."
Christine shook her head. "I don't know how you could stand it, personally. That guy just never seems to be still—not for half a second—and you're just so … calm. And I don't know how anyone could put up with his … uh …"
McCoy stood there, hands on hips, waiting for Chapel to finish.
"His what, Chris?"
"Well, didn't he, like … bring people home all the time? I mean, that'd totally drive me up the wall. I had a housemate once who was a … prolific dater, and—"
"Never mind," Leonard interrupted, and stalked out of the room, scowling. It wasn't their business in the slightest, but Jim hadn't brought home a single date the entire time Leonard had been his guest. But it was clear from Christine's remarks that people at the station assumed, for whatever reason, that Jim was highly promiscuous. Sure, it had only been a couple weeks, and maybe Jim had been on his best behavior since he had a guest. But they'd been out a couple times, on days off or after a day shift, and Leonard had never felt in the slightest like he was a third wheel, or worse, a wingman.
The apparatus bay was quiet, which meant it was unlikely that Jim was there, so Leonard proceeded to the bunk room, where people could try to get some sleep if they wanted to during a night shift. Hardly anybody bothered, and Leonard had never seen Jim go near any of the beds.
He decided to just poke his head into the locker room, though it wasn't really proper to chase someone down in there.
He wouldn't be outside on a day like this—Leonard could see through the transparent portions of the bay's overhead doors that it was still pouring. So where the hell was the kid? It was like he was hiding, or something. Leonard peered cautiously into the cabs of the two huge tennis-ball-yellow fire trucks, but nobody was in there. He stuck his head back into the ready room, but still no Jim. Back to the apparatus bay, then.
"Jim?" Leonard inquired cautiously, not wanting to sound strange in the probably empty bay.
Leonard jumped, and cast his eyes around the bay again.
Leonard looked up, where he heard the voice coming from, and saw Jim sitting on the tip of the aerial ladder that was part of the ladder truck. He shuddered, even though in its resting position, the ladder was only about ten feet off the ground. Jim was sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest, hands around his lower legs, and making no move to come down.
McCoy could see Jim's blank expression. "I don't know," he said finally, in a voice that was as flat as the fields of corn that surrounded Leonard's new home in the Midwestern plains.
"All right. How do I get up there?"
"You don't want to come up here."
Spoken differently, Leonard realized, those same words could sound threatening. But in Jim's flat voice, they just sounded … dead.
Leonard walked around to the back of the truck, where he recalled seeing stairs. He climbed the stairs to the platform at the back end of the ladder, and unhesitatingly walked out onto the completely horizontal ladder. He held onto the sides, and looked at his feet the whole time—no problem, since all he saw underneath his feet was the top of the truck. No problem, at least, until he got to the part of the ladder that extended out in front of the cab, over a ten-foot drop. Leonard took a deep breath, stayed low, held on, and crossed the single yard between himself and Jim. He sat on a diamond-plated rectangle, still holding on tightly to the sides of the ladder.
"What's going on, Jim?" he asked softly.
"I didn't think you'd come up here," Jim replied, his voice still oddly expressionless.
"Well, what's a few feet of elevation between friends?"
Jim finally looked at Leonard. "We're friends. We really are, aren't we?"
McCoy nodded. "Yeah, Jim; we really are."
Jim looked away again.
"So I can tell you something—something that might kind of be weird—and it's okay?"
"You sure can."
Jim nodded, as if he'd made a decision. "All right. Tomorrow's my birthday."
Of all the things Jim could've said just then, that was not what Leonard had been expecting. He had his head on straight enough, though, that he realized that "Happy Birthday" was the wrong response. So he waited.
"And I really, really hate my birthday," Jim said. "Especially this one."
Leonard thought about what he really knew about Jim, which was precious little. It would be Jim's twenty-eighth birthday, so not one where he'd be likely to be feeling particularly ancient. So he risked a question.
Jim stared down to the floor of the apparatus bay as he answered. "My father died the day I was born. And this year, on my birthday, I've officially lived longer than he did."
Yep, Leonard thought, that'd do it all right.
Just as Leonard was about to open his mouth to continue, Jim spoke again.
"He was driving my mother to the hospital, because I was apparently going to be born any minute. A drunk driver plowed into the car. From what I hear, my dad was killed instantly. I guess, having seen what I've seen over the last few years, that's what I want to believe, too. My mom had some injuries, but the real problem was that she was pinned in the car. In such a way that … well, if I hadn't had such a big head, she and I would both be dead. But I guess my big head slowed things down enough that they got her out just in time for me to be born. On a backboard, by the side of the road. Next to the crumpled up car that contained what was left of my father. Who was twenty-seven."
Jesus. Well, that sure counts as a rough start. "I'm sorry, Jim."
"And here I am, older than he was when he died, and boy, have I ever not lived up to his memory. And nobody ever, ever lets me forget that, either."
Especially you, I bet, Leonard thought. But this was clearly not the time to try to talk Jim out of the idea that he was somehow a failure, despite—or perhaps because of—the 'Fragile! Handle With Care!' label visible smack dab in the middle of Jim's forehead.
"How can I help?" Leonard said instead.
Jim looked up again. "You know, nobody's ever asked me that. Everyone always just tries to make it not seem so bad. But it's my fucking life. Not theirs."
"So … how can you help? I don't know. Just … don't try to talk me out of my funk. Don't try to make me feel better, because I don't want to. Not right now. And don't bake me a fucking cake, or send me a card. And maybe …" Jim looked back down at the polished cement floor again.
"Maybe what, Jim?"
"Maybe, if you could wait one day—just one; I know you want your own place and everything—but if you could wait one more day before you take off …"
"Of course I can," Leonard said. "What's one more day between friends?"
Jim's sapphire eyes met Leonard's hazel ones. "More than you can imagine," Jim said.
"All right, then," Leonard said. "One more day, no fucking cake, no goddamned card, no freakin' party, and no—"
The station's tones sounded, and were followed by the much more mellifluous tones of the voice of Spock's wife, Nyota.
"Engine 1, Ladder 1, respond to 2274 East Hollow Road, for a car fire in a garage. 2-2-7-4 East Hollow Road, for a car fire in a garage. 1816."
"Figures," Leonard said.
McCoy hurried across the ladder as fast as he could, and Jim plodded patiently along behind him. Leonard nearly had a heart attack when the diesel engine of the ladder truck started up while they were just coming down the stairs from the operator's platform atop the rear of the truck. He moved to get away from the truck, but was stopped by a hand gripping his upper arm.
Jim didn't say anything—he would've had to shout over the engine noise—but he didn't need to. Leonard quickly clasped the wrist of the hand that was gripping his arm, and then they both let go. Jim silently stepped into his boots and bunker pants, grabbed his coat and helmet, and boarded the truck.
McCoy returned to the ready room, to find Chapel still sitting at the table.
"Um," she said. "Len?"
"Yeah?" Leonard said mildly.
"Uh, I wanted to apologize for maybe … badmouthing Kirk. I know you guys are friends. I just … don't get it. So I kind of forgot."
"I guess so," Leonard said. "But look: he's having a really bad day, for a really good reason. So, I don't know. It couldn't hurt to be nice to him, or if you wouldn't normally interact with him much, which I guess you wouldn't, actually, just …"
"I know. Don't be mean. I'll try. I guess I could be a little nicer to him in general."
"I didn't mean to imply that—"
"No, I know you didn't. I'm … I guess I've just been really hard to get along with since my fiancé got deployed."
Ah. The mystery of the engagement ring, Leonard thought.
"I didn't know about that," he said. "I noticed the ring, but … I didn't know the rest."
"That's because I didn't tell you," Christine said dryly. "Just like you didn't tell me you ran away from Georgia after a bad divorce or something."
Or something, Leonard agreed silently.
"But anyhow—yeah. Roger's a surgeon; he was in the National Guard, and guess what? One weekend a month and two weeks in the summer turned into deployment. He can email every so often, but we only get to talk like once every ten days. So that's why I'm such a bitch most of the time."
"To me, you just seem like you're stressed out sometimes." Or ninety percent of every single shift, is more like it. "Besides, I'm such a cranky old bastard it seems only fair."
"I think, actually," Christine said slowly, "that I really like working with you."
"We're a good team," Leonard said.
"The guy I worked with before you—Neil Selig—he, uh, wasn't so easy to get along with. I didn't really understand it. He never seemed to be in a bad mood, or grumpy—"
"Like yours truly," McCoy said.
"You said it, not me," Christine said. "But Selig was … I don't know. I sometimes got the feeling that he didn't really give a shit about most of his patients. Not in the normal way—but like he really couldn't have cared less if some of them lived or died. I mean, I never saw him … I don't know … do anything to people, or anything, but—I can't quite put my finger on it. He was just kind of … menacing. And we're supposed to be caring."
"We are," Leonard agreed. "I heard he's history anyhow, though, right? Jim told me his card got pulled."
"Yeah. But there's still a court case pending, so I'm not allowed to talk about it."
"I would imagine not," McCoy said.
The station's tones sounded again, and Spock's wife again announced a call.
"Ambulance 2, respond to 2157 180th Street for a 26-year-old male with an allergic reaction, epi-pen self administered but condition worsening, 2-Delta-1 response. That's 2157 180th Street, 26-year-old male with an allergic reaction, epi-pen self administered but condition worsening, 2-Delta-1. 1822."
Chris and Leonard took off for their destination, and arrived to find their patient seated inside the open front door, hands on knees and neck craned out in the classic position of respiratory distress. He was pale and sweaty, and his eyes were flashing back and forth in apparent agitation. His ankles were covered with angry welts, and the raised flush of hives was visible creeping through the v-neck of his t-shirt, up his neck.
Christine immediately set up the oxygen and placed a mask over the man's nose and mouth, and then helped the man to the stretcher, which was right in front of him. She began taking an initial set of vitals while Leonard got more details. Their patient had already written them a note, which Leonard read aloud.
"Several bee stings, both lower legs, at about 6:05 pm, immediate hives and airway swelling, one epi-pen administered shortly afterwards?"
The man nodded.
"Has this happened before?" Leonard already knew the answer, because (a), the man had an epi-pen, and had used it, and (b) he wrote down all the pertinent information before he started having worse difficulty breathing.
The man nodded again.
"Okay. I'm going to hit you with some more epinephrine and some benadryl, and we'll get you into the hospital pronto, all right?"
"Did you take any benadryl already?"
The man shook his head.
Why the hell not? Leonard wanted to shout at him. But he didn't.
Christine announced the vitals. "Pulse 136 and thready, respirations 28, with stridor and bilateral wheezes, BP 104/78."
Leonard would've liked to have heard a higher BP reading, given that the man had already had a dose of epinephrine. He quickly prepped the man's arm for an IV, and pushed epinephrine and then benadryl.
"Let's roll, Chris."
They pushed the gurney to the ambulance and loaded their patient up. Leonard reported in to medical control. The doctor on the other end of the radio gave advance approval for McCoy to sedate the patient and insert an endotracheal tube should his airway condition worsen. While he didn't worsen, which was a surprise to McCoy, because frankly he'd been expecting for this guy to crash, he didn't get any better, either. Luckily for their patient, the drive to the hospital, with lights and sirens, took only twelve minutes.
Leonard handed the patient off to the ER nurses, along with a copy of the cheat-sheet he used to record basic data before completing his real report later on the computer. Back at the station, he had just started his report on the bee-sting patient when they were summoned again, this time for a mental health transport.
"Oh, goody," Leonard said.
"At least it's a voluntary transport. And you be quiet—you get to sit up in the front and drive, while I'm in the back with a patient who could go postal on me any second."
The transport turned out to be routine—a fifty-year-old woman who was feeling suicidal. She denied feeling like she was going to harm anyone else, but still, it was never entirely comfortable transporting a patient who had declared themselves to be mentally unstable.
The pouring rain had stopped, and by the time they returned to the station just after nine, the evening was clear and cooler than it had been. Both fire apparatus were also parked in the bay. Leonard peered quickly up at the tip of the aerial ladder, but Jim hadn't perched himself there again. Leonard completed his paperwork on one computer, while Christine did hers on the other. Everyone else had gotten back to the activities they'd started earlier in the shift, with the exception of Spock and Pike, who were now engaged in a chess game at the large table.
Leonard closed down the electronic records system, and cast a glance around the room for Jim. He wasn't expecting to find him, and didn't get any surprises on that front. He decided he didn't really care whether or not Jim wanted to be found, and started looking. He looked everywhere he could think of in the apparatus bay, including scanning all of the metal beams that held up the high roof. He looked under the doors of all the stalls in the men's room. He decided he'd leave the ladies' room for last—no need to incur the wrath of Gaila or Christine if he got caught. Besides, hiding in the women's locker room would be something Jim might do if he was in a good mood, not a bad one.
McCoy stuck his head in the dorm room lined with single beds. It was completely dark, and it wasn't possible to see past the brick dividers that separated the sleeping areas into cubicles without walking down the aisle. Leonard took his pen light out of its pocket on his pants, and walked down the aisle of the room.
He heard the voice before he even got to the last cubicle.
"Go away, Bones."
Uh huh. Like that was gonna happen.
Leonard put his pen light away, and let his eyes adjust to the near total darkness for a moment. When he could see the brick cubicle dividers, he proceeded to the end of the row, and found a dark shape sitting on an unmade bed, leaning into the corner formed by the divider and the wall.
It was shocking to Leonard how the brilliant golden star he'd found himself somehow orbiting—or perhaps they were orbiting each other; he wasn't really sure—had burned up, burned down, burned out, turned itself into a brown dwarf. Or even a black hole—but McCoy would reserve judgment on that last until he saw if anything he did had an effect, or if everything just got sucked down, never to be heard from again.
He knew that by approaching, he risked being pulled in past the event horizon, if his star had indeed become a black hole, but he didn't give a shit. He sat down on the bed, next to Jim, and just … sat there. Close enough to feel the heat radiating off Jim's body, but far enough that they weren't actually touching. He didn't know what he was doing, and didn't have a plan. Minutes passed. And even though Leonard had never seen Jim be silent for such a long period of time, the silence didn't seem wrong on this occasion.
It didn't seem wrong when Jim broke the silence either.
"I don't know what to do, Bones. I just … I feel like I'm supposed to have some Big Plan, but I don't."
"Big Plans," Leonard said, capitalizing the words with his voice just as Jim had, "are overrated, in my opinion. They go wrong, and then you feel worse off than if you didn't have a plan to start with. And I'm not tryin' to make you feel better, 'cause I said I wouldn't. But that's my experience with plans."
"And I hate this day."
"It's a pretty hateable day."
Another few minutes of silence went by.
"I don't know what to do."
"How 'bout if we just sit here awhile, then. Till Spock's wife tells us what to do."
They sat there, silently, for fifteen more minutes.
And when Jim leaned his head down onto Leonard's shoulder, and Leonard slipped his arm behind Jim's neck and stroked his hair, slowly and gently, it wasn't weird at all.
Ten minutes after that, the engine and ladder were toned out to an alarm panel activation at a store.
Jim sat up slowly, and looked at Leonard in the darkness. Leonard found himself taking Jim's face between his palms, and looking at him carefully.
Jim took one of Leonard's hands, kissed the palm, and folded the hand closed. He disappeared silently from the dark room.
Leonard sat on the bed, cross legged, and thanked his lucky stars that at the moment, he was utterly without a Big Plan. Because whatever the hell had just happened couldn't possibly fit in.
A/N: In the growth phase of fire development, the radiation of heat causes other contents of the room start to ignite as well. Imagine that the flames from the burning wastebasket have spread to the nightstand next to it, and the curtains, and the bed. Or, the burning stove has ignited the cabinets above it. The fire is still confined to one room, but is getting larger quickly. If fuel, heat, and oxygen are present in adequate supply, the fire will continue to grow, unless there is an intervention to remove one of those elements, or to interrupt the chemical chain reaction.
A/N #2: Due to this site's vague and finicky rules about sexual content, and just having heard that this site may PURGE YOUR ENTIRE ACCOUNT WITHOUT WARNING if you violate their rules, I have decided to move the remaining 14 chapters to AO3, which allows all content, has an actual tagging system, and has a much better-developed commenting system. Same story name. My pen name there is kel_1970. The site is archiveofourown dot org. Sorry for the inconvenience.