I apologize to my readers for taking so long, but one never knows when writer's block is going to hit and when real life events take control.

As always, comments and feedback are welcome to be sent to playmaster0023@hotmail.com.

On with the story...

Chapter 9

Shortly after five a very upset Aaron arrived home. "Baby, what's wrong?" Clark asked as he pulled Aaron into his arms.

"We had a crash on the runway. Actually, from what we were told, the plane never made it off the ground. As soon as the pilot lit the afterburners, one engine exploded, sending the plane into a spin which caused the nose wheel to collapse and one of the outboard fuel tanks to rupture. The one afterburner that did light ignited the fuel on the runway."

"Did the crew get out okay?"

"The pilot did, but the backseater didn't. They ejected, but for some reason the rocket motor on the rear seat didn't fire, so it didn't reach the minimum altitude for the chute to open and for the harness to release. It only went up about two-hundred feet. The weight of the seat pulled the guy back down into the fire. We...we...we couldn't get to him in time." He collapsed in a flood of tears.

Clark rocked him gently. "Shhh, baby. I know you and I know the rest of the guys. There's no doubt in my mind that you all did everything humanly possible to rescue him, but sometimes you just can't, no matter how hard you try. Did it happen at the near or far end of the runway, or in the middle?"

"It happened a couple hundred feet from the far end of the runway."

"And how long did it take you to respond?"

"We rolled in less than two minutes. If we had responded faster, or if we could have gotten to the fire faster, if there wasn't so much junk on the tarmac around the station..."

Clark cut him off. "Baby, you rolled in less than two minutes. The standard roll out time requirement is five minutes. You all must have been right by the trucks when the alarm came through."

"Yeah, we were polishing them for the air show this weekend."

"You responded well under the time requirement, which is very much commendable." Clark's voice then turned bitter. "We've complained and complained to the brass that using our section of the tarmac as a parking lot for the ground equipment was hampering our response time and that there really needed to be another station at the other end of the runway. Now because you guys couldn't get there in time, someone has died..." He caught the look on Aaron's face. "It wasn't your fault. You guys did everything in your power to get to him. Now that one of their precious officers has died, maybe the fucking brass will listen for once!"

Aaron shuddered at the anger in his voice, broke away and went over to the window and just stared out. "I failed. I failed completely. My father was right." He whispered in a voice so low Clark barely heard him.

Clark slowly approached Aaron and placed his hand gently on his shoulder. "Aaron, what does your father have to do with all of this?" he asked carefully. Other than giving a deep sigh, Aaron didn't respond at all to Clark's touch, giving him cause for concern as he had never not responded to his touch. "Baby?"

Aaron turned and gave him a small, empty smile. "I told you about how I always wanted to be a firefighter, right?" Clark nodded. "What I never told you was why." He allowed himself to be led over to the couch and he sat, but didn't snuggle with Clark like he normally would have. "I became a firefighter because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to save lives. I had that chance today and I failed miserably. I failed, Clark. I failed, and because I did a man died. What kind of firefighter does that make me, other than an incompetent and inept one?" He buried his face in his hands and sobbed.

I think I need to talk with the chief about this. He's lost confidence in himself and we need to get it back quickly. He wrapped his arms around Aaron and held him tightly. "Baby, there's nothing you could have done. From what you told me, it was over before you even got there."

He broke free and ran out the door. Clark followed quickly, trying to stop him from doing something foolish, like getting behind the wheel. He stood in the entrance to the building as he watched Aaron run off, down the block. For whatever reason, he had changed at the firehouse into a pair of running shorts, tank top and running shoes. He debated about going after him but decided against it. Whenever Aaron was really upset, or had something serious on his mind he needed to think through, he always went on a run. Running helped clear his mind. He trusted Aaron and he knew that Aaron knew he'd be there waiting for him when he was ready to talk it all out. He got out his cell phone and dialed the firehouse. "Hey, this is Bronson. Is the Chief around? Thanks."

"Bronson. What can I do for you?"

"Hey Chief. I need to talk with you about what happened today. Is there any possible way that the backseater's life could have been saved?"

"No. We saw him come down into the fire before we were even half-way there. Why do you ask?"

"It's Aaron. Something's up with him. He's really upset about it and blaming himself for the death of the backseater."

"Suarez? Why? He was the first one on the truck and according to the timer they rolled one minute and twenty-four seconds after the crash alarm sounded from the tower. It was the fastest response time on record and I'm putting a letter of commendation for everyone into the commander for his signature then it will be entered into their service record. Suarez has no reason to blame himself for anything. He did everything right and by the book. The only way we might have been able to save the pilot was if we had a firehouse or at least some equipment stationed at the other end of the runway and there's no guarantee that even then we could have saved him. It all boils down to the fact that there was no way anyone could have gotten there on time. It was a tragic accident. What's he saying about it?"

"He basically said the same thing you just told me then said something about his father being right then started blaming himself for the pilot's death. I asked him what his father had to do with it, but he didn't answer. Instead he hit the door and went for a run. I'm going to call his fiancÚ and see if she can shed some light on it. I do know one thing. He's lost his edge and his confidence and if he doesn't get it back soon, his career as a firefighter will be over."

"I don't have the duty roster in front of me at the moment. Do you know if he has duty tomorrow?"

"I believe so."

"Find out for me when he returns, and if he doesn't, tell him I need to see him tomorrow morning. Let me know what his fiancÚ has to say."

"Will do. Thanks, Chief."

"Keep an eye on him, Clark. He's too good a firefighter to lose. Talk to you later."

"Bye Chief." He waited about twenty minutes then called the chief back. "I just got off the phone with Aaron's fiancÚ and she doesn't have a clue about his father. They're supposed to go see a movie tomorrow night so she's going to ask him about it unless he tells me first, which is probably unlikely. Either way, I'll let you know."

"Thanks, Bronson. Keep me posted."

"Will do Chief. Bye." After hanging up he called Michele and let her in on everything just in case she got a call from the Chief, even though it was highly unlikely.

"So what can we do to help him?" She asked.

"I wish I knew. Whatever it is, it's somehow connected with his father, but he refuses to talk about him. Has he said anything to you about him, anything at all?"

"No, nothing. All I know is that he's some hotshot state senator and has a major bug up his ass about firefighters."

Clark snapped his fingers. "That's right. I forgot all about that. That has to be it. I'm going to see if I can find out anything online. There has to be something on the Arizona state website about the various senators. Doesn't each state senator have their own web page?"

"I know the federal government ones do, but I don't know about the state government ones. It's worth looking into though. Why don't we both see what we can find out and compare notes later. If what you say is true about his confidence level and shit, we can't afford to waste any time, especially with that stubborn streak of his when it comes to talking about his family."

"I see you've run into the immovable object too."

"Head first and suffered a severe concussion afterward." She said, laughing.

"Me too. I couldn't see straight for several days." He replied, also laughing.

"I hate to break it to you, dear, but you're gay..."

"Since when is that any shocking revelation?" he interrupted.

"As I was saying, you're gay and you don't do anything straight."

"Bitch!" He heard footsteps outside the door and the door open. "Aaron's back. I'll talk to you later. Let me know what you find out." He hung up and met him in the hallway. "Baby, are you okay?"

"No, but I will be after I talk to the Chief tomorrow." He responded, sounding very subdued. Clark's heart broke as he looked at Aaron, head down and shoulders slumped. Clark swore he could smell beer on his breath.

"Why are you talking to the Chief tomorrow?"

"I'm going to ask him to pull me off the line and give me a desk job for the rest of my time in service. I was going to re-up and ask for Ramstein, but now there's no point. Not with this on my record."

"Not with what on your record?"

"This incident." He responding, almost falling over when he bent down to untie his shoe laces. Clark caught him and held him fast. Yep, there was definitely the smell of alcohol on his breath.

"Oh, baby. What's happened to you?"

"I fucked up and got a man killed. The Chief is going to fry my ass. I'll be lucky if I don't get court martialed and end up in Leavenworth."

"I've already talked with the Chief."

Aaron whirled on him, angrily, his eyes flashing. "WHY THE FUCK DID YOU CALL THE CHIEF? THAT'S JUST GOING TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE! THANKS, ASSHOLE!" he yelled at Clark.

"I CALLED THE CHIEF TO FIND OUT EXACTLY WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED SINCE YOU WOULDN'T TALK TO ME." Clark yelled back. "So again, I ask you, what happened to you? You're not the same Aaron that went to work this morning. What happened to make you change so? Don't tell me it was because of what happened today because that's bullshit."

"YOU CALL A MAN DYING IN A FIRE BULLSHIT?"

"No. I call a man dying in a fire today a tragic accident and, according to the Chief, that's exactly what it was. A tragic accident. One you could not have prevented no matter how hard you tried."

The anger drained from Aaron's face. "What?"

"Sit down and I'll tell you exactly what the Chief told me." Aaron sank into the nearest chair. "He told me that you were the first one on the truck and, according to the timer, you guys rolled in a minute-twenty-four, which is a new response time record. He's putting everyone on shift in for a letter of commendation. Even if you guys were stationed at the far end of the runway, there still wasn't enough time for you to get to the fire in time to rescue the backseater. He also said that there was no way anyone could have gotten there in time to save him. I'm willing to bet that they're pouring over the aircraft maintenance records to see who the last person to inspect and sign off on the ejection seats and the engines was. That's the person who's in a world of shit, not you." He held out his phone to Aaron. "If you don't believe me, call the Chief right now. He's number three on the speed dial." He made no move to take the phone from him. "I'm going to ask you again, and please do me the courtesy of answering me. What happened to you today, and what does your father have to do with it?"

"My father?"

"Yes. Before you ran out you said that your father was right. What was he right about, Aaron?" Silence. "Aaron?"

In a barely audible whisper, Aaron began, speaking very slowly, obviously very distraught. "You know I have a twin brother, right?" Clark nodded. "My father also had a twin brother."

"Had?" Clark asked quietly then kicked himself in the ass mentally for interrupting what was obviously something very painful for Aaron to talk about.

"Yes. He and his wife were killed in a fire. The closest fire station was already dispatched to a huge structure fire, so they had to call in another fire department. They didn't get there in time to save my aunt and uncle. My father blamed the fire department for their deaths and went on a rampage. The fire dispatcher screwed up when he dispatched the fire station to the structure fire. He was supposed to relocate another station to the first station to cover their area while they were out of service and didn't. My father had him brought up on charges of criminal negligent homicide. Now according to him all firefighters are incompetent and inept. He actually introduced a bill in the state legislature to pull all state and federal funding from the fire departments across the state and make those he couldn't get shut down all volunteer. His exact words were `why should the tax payers pay for such incompetence and ineptitude'. Guess I kinda proved him right today."

Okay, we need to get him help and get him help fast! "No, baby, you didn't prove him right. How many crash fires have you responded to?"

"Too many. F-4's are flying deathtraps."

"How many? I want a number. An honest number."

"I don't know, maybe a couple dozen."

"And how many fatalities were there from those crash fires?"

"None."

"What does that tell you?"

"It tells me that they were lucky."

"That's partially true. It should also tell you that what happened today was a freak accident, one you could not have prevented." Clark's phone rang. "Hello? Yes Chief? Yes, he's right here. What? Okay." He pressed a button then set the phone down. "Okay, Chief, you're on speakerphone."

"Suarez, Bronson, I wanted to bring you both up to speed on the findings of the preliminary investigation. The cause of the engine explosion is still under investigation, but they found a wrench jammed into the ejection seat preventing the firing pin on the rocket motor from being pulled once the seat was clear of the cockpit. That's why the rocket motor failed to fire and the seat to achieve the minimum altitude for the parachute to deploy and the safety harness to be released. That is what killed the backseater, not our response time or our actions. The commander is writing a letter of commendation for everyone who responded. Everyone, and I mean everyone, Suarez, did exactly what they were trained to do better than they were expected to do it. I hear you're having a difficult time with this, Aaron..." Aaron shot Clark an angry, accusing glare. "This is your first fire-related fatality. It's something we all go through at one point in time or another. "I'm sure you've been through it, Clark."

"Four times, Chief, and I blamed myself every time until a therapist made me see that in each case, there was nothing I could have done to prevent the victims' deaths."

"I suspect, Aaron, that you are either experiencing survivor's guilt or post-traumatic stress disorder, or both. I need you to get your head back together. You're a damned good firefighter. One of my best and I'll be damned if I'm going to lose you. I'm placing you on administrative leave effective immediately for the rest of the week and I've made an appointment for you to go talk to a therapist over at the base hospital tomorrow afternoon at fourteen-hundred hours. I can't and won't order you to go, but I can urge you to. There's no shame in needing someone to talk to and it won't affect your career. Please, son, go talk to her. Believe it or not, I've had to seek out counseling on more than one occasion over the past nineteen years and I can tell you from experience that it does help. Look at it this way. What do you have to lose? Everything that is said between you and her is completely confidential. Not even the President of the United States can look at your file. The only person besides yourself and the therapist who will know what was said between the two of you will be whoever you choose to tell. She is legally, ethically and morally bound to keep her mouth shut about what the two of you talk about. Losing that officer today was a tragedy, but you know what would be a worse tragedy? Losing you. You have a great career ahead of you. Don't let this one tragedy stop you."

"Okay, Chief. I'll go talk to her tomorrow."

"Good. I'll let you guys get back to doing whatever it was you were doing."

"Thanks Chief."

"Thanks for calling, Chief. I'll see you tomorrow afternoon." Clark hung up. "Baby, I know you're angry with me but please, hear me out. I've never seen you so distraught in my life and it scared me. You completely changed from the way you were this morning. You wouldn't talk to me." He help up his hand to forestall the argument he knew was coming. "Yes, you gave me the Reader's Digest condensed version of what happened, but I needed the whole story. I want to help you through this, but I can't if I don't know the full story. That's why I called the Chief. Not to rat you out like your thinking I did, but to get all the details and fill in the blanks. It was only after he demanded to know why I needed the information that I told him that it was bothering you. Please understand, baby, I want to help, but you've shut me out."

"I'm sorry, Clark. I didn't mean to shut you out. All I could hear was my father's voice talking about how incompetent and inept the fire department back home was and it felt like he was talking directly to me and about me."

"He wasn't baby. You are neither inept nor incompetent. Do you honestly think that the Chief would have let you go this long if you were?"

"I guess not."

"You damned right. Now, what do you say we order some Chinese, watch a movie and go to bed?"

Aaron threw himself on Clark. "I'm so sorry baby. We have so little time left before you ship out you don't need me to be like this. I promise I'll go talk to the therapist tomorrow."

Clark tilted his head down and kissed Aaron on top of his head. "Apology neither desired nor required." He quoted Wesley Snipes from `To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything. Julie Newmar'. "Go get cleaned up and I'll order dinner. Your usual?"

"Sure." He responded as he headed for the shower, peeling his clothes off as he went. They spent the rest of the evening cuddling on the couch, eating dinner and watching TV. For the first time in a long time they went to sleep without making love first.