Ground Zero

They were back in the hotel room now. Jamie sat on the bed, gazing straight ahead, while Derian poured hot water fresh from the in-room coffeemaker into two cups, brewing tea for himself and his teammate.

While other Stars were out sightseeing or shopping or eating at the best New York City had to offer, these two were in no mood for recreation. They could not be, not after what they had just seen.

Smoke rising, even after all this time...the mangled beams, still reaching for the sky, two of them even forming a cross...the ever-toiling rescue workers, digging and digging, long after the death of hope to find anyone living...

And the smell...the metallic odor of seared metal remained, even more than one month later. Plus the underlying smell of material that had once been alive...that had once been human. It was a sickening odor. An odor that had made Jamie keel over and vomit a few steps away from Ground Zero.

Derian had been right behind him, gently patting the young man's back as he heaved. Christ, Jamie, why are you here?

This was the signature of evil. The scar that reached across the land. Derian felt it necessary to see it, but Jamie's presence piled distress upon distress.

He gave Jamie his cup of tea.

"Thanks, Der." Jamie carefully sipped the tea -- fortunately, a hotel-room coffeemaker, unlike coffeehouse chains, rarely overheated water.

Derian sat down next to him on the bed. He was normally a man of few words, but this time words started rushing from his mouth, a waterfall of self-expression.

"I'd hoped we'd cheer them up." The ability to cheer up those who were brought low was one of the nicer perks of being a hockey star. But the men Derian had met at Ground Zero were not hospitalized children who could float for days on just a signed stick. These were men whose job it was to pick up the pieces -- the pieces, not the bodies -- of people who had once been productive citizens. Of people who had been their colleagues, their friends. "But I don't think even Mickey Mouse would have done the trick."

"No one could, Der."

"When I think of all those people who didn't know what was coming...all the families who lost a piece of their makes me feel helpless. And I don't like feeling helpless."

Helpless to protect his country. Helpless to protect his Jamie...

"You didn't have to go, Jamie."

Jamie looked up at Derian.

"Yes, I did, Der. I had to see it...I had to know."

Derian's primal instinct was to protect Jamie, protect him from all that was evil and ugly in the world. He had believed that Jamie could not handle it, that this graveyard of thousands would scar his innocent mind forever. He wished he could wrap Jamie up in a blanket and fly him away with the power of Superman, far from the reach of terror.

If wishes were horses...

"It's something I don't ever want to forget. I don't want to lose sight of how fragile life is." His hand reached out to cover Derian's. "How necessary it is to cherish your loved ones in the here and now."

How necessary and how true. It was a lesson only tragedy could teach.

Now he understood: He could not keep Jamie wrapped in warm blankets all of the time. He needed to allow Jamie emotional and spiritual growth, even allow him to hurt, so he could become the best man he could be...a man of soul as well as heart.

It was a notion that Derian could get behind. Not that he had a choice.

The two of them sat silently, sipping their tea, looking at the changed New York skyline. Grieving for the lost, grateful for the living...

The soft, fluff-haired weight of Jamie's head warmed Derian's shoulder. Derian wrapped an arm around Jamie. Words could not have said more.