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~*~ September 13, 2001 ~*~

Fred rubbed his eyes and sighed. Lowering his hands, he stared into the surrounding expanse, at the forever marred skyline and the dust hovering around it. The sun slipped away, into the night, hiding its eyes from the bruises whose purples deepened. Whose pain deepened. Fred lowered his head, the sweat dripping off his brow and trickling into his eyes, stinging them. Hissing, he dragged a forearm across his eyes. Then removed his trademark red cap. Dirt clung to the crimson fabric, and he scowled at it. He wiped it across his face just the same.

Pulling his hat back onto his head, he watched as three figures approached. They were clad in firefighters suits, the yellow filthy and dull, and unwilling to shine. Come to think of it, NOTHING was willing to shine. Everything within sight was gray. Each kept his head to the ground, but one looked up as they drew closer to Fred. A woman, probably in her late twenties, maybe early thirties. Grayed hair pulled back in a severe ponytail, strands of which dripped out from beneath her helmet. She furrowed her eyebrows and drew in a breath.

Fred handed her a cup of water. Grimacing, he opened his mouth. But closed it again, realising he had no idea what he could say. He passes two more cups to her companions.

"Thanks," a male voice mumbled from beneath a helmet. The individual drew the cup to his face.

"Yes," the woman said as she lowered her cup. She closed her eyes. "I'm sorry, thanks!"

"Hey, I understand," Fred replied, taking in a deep breath. "You've all had it tough..."

"We've ALL had it rough, boy." She scratched her chin, and gazed behind her. Chunks of concrete, jagged metal, charred papers, and scrambling people, all behind her in hues of gray. She turned back to Fred. "You know how we appreciate your coming out here to help."

Fred's eyes widened. "Hey, it's the very least that I could do. And I know it's not much..."

"But it means a lot to us," she responded. She nodded her head toward him, her gray eyes peering into his. "Means a lot to everybody. Thanks."

The firefighters shuffled away, retreating toward the rubble and disappearing in the dust.

A hand patted down on Fred's shoulder, and he jumped. He glanced behind him. He released a breath he didn't know he was holding when his eyes fell into a dark, familiar pair.

"Hey, man," Wes said. He pursed his lips. "Think it's time you took a break."

Fred waved a hand at his friend and bandmate. "No, man, I'm fine."

"Sh**, you've been here all day! I'm serious, man! Take a break! At least get something to eat!"

Fred's stomach growled.

"See?" A corner of Wes' lips turned upward. "Your gut's agreeing with me."

Drawing a hand to his stomach, Fred shrugged. "I guess I could go for something."

Wes nodded. He pointed down the street, in the opposite direction of the destruction. It also lay under a cloud of dust. "I know you can't see it, but just keep walking down this street. There's a restaurant open down that way. The owner's giving out free dinners to everybody working over here. Grab something to eat there, okay buddy?"

"All right, man!" Fred clasped a hand on Wes' shoulder, then wandered away. With each step, details slipped away from the surrounding landscape, huddled just beneath the gloom and the gray and the dust. Fred's heart thumped and rattled within his chest, his brows furrowed, eyes wide and vigilant. He gulped. And continued pacing forward.

Off to his left, a light in the distance illuminated a patch of gray, brightening the area. Fred squinted. As he approached, a door came into view, and through its dreary window, he could see movement from within. He reached out and grabbed the doorknob, and stepped inside.

Tables surrounded him, people leaning over every one. Every seat was taken. Some individuals leaned against walls, clutching plates. Some shoveled foods into their faces at record speeds. Others stared into their meals and twirled forks through them. A faint mumbling hung in the room, though Fred didn't see anybody talking. A bar spanned the right side of the restaurant, and off to one end stood a line of people. At the front of the line, a heavy set and weary gentleman doled out ladles full of macaroni and cheese. Fred sauntered to the back of the line.

Rubbing his nose with the palm of his hand in deep, even circles, Fred yawned. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. The people in front of him took several paces forward. In turn, Fred took a few steps. The mumbling took form into words. The voice was so familiar. Glancing up, Fred spotted a television set, glowing over the bar. A medium shot of a weary, teary eyed man in his fifties filled the screen. Fred strained to hear what he was saying.

"...who want peace and security in the world and we stand together to win the war against terrorism," the man spoke. Over his head in white script was the word "LIVE". Beneath him, the words "CNN" and "President Bush Addresses The Nation". The president drew in a deep breath. Fred's eyes scanned his face, observing the creases across his forehead, the lines at the corners of his lips… the overall grief in his face. Fred's mouth dropped open.

President Bush took in a deep breath and continued. "Tonight I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me."…"

Fred's eyes watered. Images of individuals flashed through his mind. All day, he had seen people wandering aimlessly the streets of Lower Manhattan. These weren't ecstatic faces like he was used to, instead frantic, wide-eyed. In terror. They'd hold up papers to him. Again, not CD booklets and pin-ups but pictures with nameless faces. No pen handed to him. All they asked of him was if he had seen this person. Or that person. All these people… all these people. Fred squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. All he could do for these people was admit that he didn't know, was as helpless as they were. And offer them a cup of water. He swallowed hard.

"This is a day," the president continued, and Fred looked up, "when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time…"

The line moved again, and Fred paced forward. His eyes did not leave the president's face.

"None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world. Thank you. Good night and God bless America."

Bush's face vanished, and a tired newscaster's appeared in its stead. Fred turned away, and glanced at the individual standing in front of him. Dark brown hair flowed to the broad shoulders of the man's once white tank top. The sweat ridden shirt clung to his sculpted frame, and his muscular arms swung at his sides as he stepped closer to the bar. The man raised his head to the man with the vat of macaroni.

"You need any help back there?" a deep, melodic voice questioned the man. Fred raised his head and his eyebrows, his jaw slack. Couldn't be…

"Nah, we're fine, kid," the man behind the bar replied. He scooped a heaping portion of macaroni and cheese onto a white paper plate and handed it to the individual standing before him. He nodded toward the kid. "Enjoy your dinner. God bless America!"

"Thanks!" The guy in front of Fred raised a chiseled arm and accepted the plate. As the kid wandered away, Fred caught sight of the side of his face.

Before he could form a thought, he called out, "Hey Scott!"

The kid turned around. Deep, dark eyes met with Fred's, ones just beneath raised, thick brows. Scott's full lower lip drooped and quivered. "Um…" he finally uttered. "Hi, Fred."

"Hold on a second, will ya?" Fred held up a finger, (not THE finger), to Scott Stapp as he turned to the man behind the bar. The man was already holding out a plate. "Thanks, man! God Bless America!"

"Amen!" The man replied, giving Fred a small smile and a nod. Fred accepted the plate and sauntered to the gaping lead singer of Creed. Glancing at Scott, he could see the confusion swirling in the other's stare. He turned away. Butting his head toward a corner of the restaurant, he asked, "Wanna go eat over there, man?"

"Ah, sure!" Scott tentatively raised and lowered his head, and followed the other across the restaurant. They each took up an area of wall space and leaned against it. Each turned to his food and began picking at it. Fred took advantage of his being considerably shorter than Scott, and hid beneath the brim of his hat. The television's buzzing was the thing either man could hear for several minutes.

Fred devoured several forkfuls of macaroni. Through one bite, he said, "Dish ish good."

"Yeah, it is," Scott replied, and drew a heaping fork to his mouth.

Swallowing, Fred closed his eyes and sighed. He turned his hat around and looked up to Scott. He gulped. "Hey, uh, listen, Scott. I'm sorry for being such an a**hole to you in the past…"

"Hey, man," Scott shook his head. "Don't mention it."

Fred lowered his plate. "I'm serious, man! I mean, all I did was tear you down! I've torn a LOT of people down, and that's just f***ed up! There's no reason for it."

Scott rubbed the side of his nose. Slowly he nodded. "Look, I know that I'm not the most lovable guy. I mean, I know I come off as pretty damned arrogant at times…"

"You know, f*** that!" Fred stabbed the air with his index finger. "That doesn't matter! I've BEEN pretty damned arrogant! But that's gonna change." He lowered his head. Then his light blue eyes met with Scott's. "I'm gonna change. 'Cause there's no reason for fighting."

Scott's eyes widened. They shifted to the right, then returned to Fred's glossy gaze.

"You know what?" Fred lowered his plate, his eyes steady on Scott's. He pursed his lips. "I love you, man!" Stepping forward, he flung his free hand around the other. Their plates knocked into each other. Macaroni sloshed off the plates, splattering on their shirts before slapping to the floor.

"Aw, f***, man, I'm sorry!" Fred bent over and scooped the macaroni onto his plate. As he straightened, he found people staring at him. He took Scott's empty plate and threw it away with his own. Then wandered back over with a fistful of napkins. Handing some to Scott, he grimaced. "I got it all over your shirt."

Scott waved a hand. "It's okay, man." He accepted the napkins for the Limp Bizkit frontman. Wiping bright yellow cheese from the bottom of his tank top, he looked to Fred. "It's ALL okay, Fred."

As he scraped cheese off his black sweatshirt, Fred smiled.

"The goal is to be unified
Take my hand be my brother"
- Creed, "One"

THE END