It was an ordinary day, before.
Diego had a planned therapy session with his family, and afterward another of their semi-forced bonding sessions. Thanks to them allowing Klaus to pick, they had ended up at a bowling alley. Poor taste, but then again, it was Klaus.
It was hours before Diego had made it back home, and by then, he was smiling. Spending time with his family was still odd, and stilted, and at times uncomfortable, but it was getting better with every one of their stupid trips and dinners and ‘quality time.’
He hung his keys on the peg and dropped onto the sofa, deciding to watch a little television before Sterling’s shift got over. If he was right, his boyfriend would be home in four hours. Plenty of time to relax before then.
He clicked on the TV, a news channel popping up and making him roll his eyes. Sterling was vigilant about watching the news, while Diego laughed and called him a stodgy old man. He much preferred his police scanner and the app on his smart phone.
The picture on screen caught his attention, though, and he turned up the volume. “..we’re just getting word now that the fire has been blazing for almost two hours. Firefighters are on scene, attempting to put it out and get residents out of harm’s way, but the building is being deemed unstable. We aren’t currently sure if all residents are out, and- oh! One of the firefighters is going back inside!”
The video feed cut to a group of firemen, clearly arguing with one lone man, who was half way to the building. Their words and faces weren’t clear, but Diego got the gist- the man wanted to go back inside, and nothing was going to stop him. Diego watched with an ache in his chest as the lone firefighter turned on his heel and ran back into the building.
The reporter’s voice faded as Diego stared at the blazing building, waiting, waiting for the fireman to reappear.
The building collapsed, and the firefighter was nowhere to be seen.
Diego didn’t remember leaving the apartment, or the drive to the scene. What he did remember was the thirteen desperate calls he made to Sterling, each going unanswered.
“Hi, you’ve reached Sterling, I can’t come to the phone right now, but leave a message and I’ll get back to ya as soon as possible.”
Diego barely remembered how he got there, at the crime scene tape, arguing with one of the cops on scene. “You don’t fucking understand, let me through! I need to get through!” He didn’t know how to articulate exactly why he needed through, but his hands were itching to draw his knives to show this idiot uni just how serious he was.
The cop rolled his eyes. “Look, kid,” Diego saw red, and the cop sighed, “I can’t just be lettin’ anyone through. This is still an active fire, and we gotta let the professionals deal with it.”
“My boyfriend is one of the professionals!” Diego didn’t realize how loud he had become until the cop flinched at the sound of his desperate cry. “He’s not responding, he’s… I need… Please.”
The cop’s face softened, and he sighed heavily. “Hold on, kid,” he said quietly, and this time the infantilizing nickname didn’t bother Diego. His gaze stayed on the cop as he drew his walkie. “Charlie, send one of your guys to me. I’ve got a hysterical civilian, says he’s datin’ one of your guys and he’s unresponsive.”
Diego heard the affirmative, his breath coming a little easier now that he was about to get answers. Hell, he thought with forced humor, it might even be Sterling coming to reassure him. His boyfriend would give him that disbelieving look he so excelled at, call him an idiot in that cowboy accent, and Diego would feel better.
Except that the firefighter who was walking up to him most decidedly wasn’t Sterling. It was one of the rookies who looked up to his boyfriend like a god. Jamison. He looked like hell, and his face was tear-stricken. He took one look at Diego and broke into fresh sobs. “Let him through,” Jamison said, somehow still commanding even while crying.
The cop hesitated, but ultimately acquiesced.
Diego couldn’t move for a long moment. Because the look Jamison was giving him. It was the look of someone with bad news, with horrible news, and there was only one firefighter who had been in the building when it crumbled, and… and there had only been one firefighter in the building when it crumbled.
“No,” Diego choked out, stumbling forward. He shook his head violently, grabbing Jamison’s shoulder and shaking it. “ No.” Jamison nodded miserably, and Diego’s cry was piercing. “ NO!”
Diego thought he had known ultimate loss, when Eudora had died. That emptiness, the guilt, the bone-crushing sadness… But he and Eudora had been broken up for years when she died. The grief he had felt was losing his friend, his ex, someone he hadn’t been close to in so long and never would be again.
It was still one of the most painful experiences he had ever had, but it didn’t hold a candle to this. This gaping hole in his chest where his heart used to be. Every fiber of his being was revolting, and it was hard for Diego to draw breath, knowing that it had been Sterling, inside of that building.
Diego was only vaguely aware that he was being steered around, until he came face to face with his boyfriend’s squad. He didn’t know how long it had been since he had been blissfully ignorant, since his heart had been ripped out of his chest.
He didn’t know how long he stood there, against the firetruck, watching as Sterling’s coworkers, his friends, his brothers, put out the fire that had consumed him. He watched with morbid curiosity as the teams of firefighters and cops dug through the rubble to find Sterling’s body, because he was one of their own. He didn’t want to stick around to see the remains, he didn’t think he could handle it, but his body refused to cooperate. He was stuck in place, the hole in his chest aching fiercely.
The search seemed to last forever. No one suggested giving up, and Diego knew it was because Sterling was one of their own. If he had allowed himself to feel, the irony would have made him snort. Being one of their own didn’t stop them from allowing him to run into that building. They allowed him to die, but wouldn’t stop in searching for the husk of who Sterling used to be.
Diego was about to leave, to slip out of the whole mess and do.. something, when a shout pierced the air. A loud, triumphant shout.
“We’ve got him! He’s alive! Medic! We need a medic!”
Diego had never run faster. He had to make sure, to see for himself - it didn’t compute, there was no way Sterling could have survived, and yet… he had to have, because Diego was still breathing, and there was no living in a world without Sterling.
He found the group surrounding Sterling in time to see them lifting Sterling’s facedown body onto a stretcher. Beneath him… was a little girl, maybe five years old, crying and bruised but otherwise unhurt. Sterling’s body had protected her from the flames and the rubble.
He didn’t have the time to waste on this little girl who was alive and well, when the firefighters were picking up the stretcher carrying his unconscious boyfriend. He clenched his fists in an attempt to control the violent tremors wracking his body, and followed the stretcher all the way to the ambulance that was waiting on the street.
The paramedics took over, loading Sterling into the back, while one looked at the gathered crowd. “We’ve got room for one to ride with him, who’s it gonna be?”
Diego didn’t give anyone much of a choice, pushing his way forward with a force he hadn’t known he had possessed, and climbing inside the ambulance. Sterling looked horrible, and it physically hurt to look at him, but not as much as it did believing he was dead. He forced his discomfort to the side, taking each rise and fall of Sterling’s chest as a small victory.
The paramedics were saying something, but none of it registered to him. He measured his breaths by Sterling’s, petting his boyfriend’s hair once he was free from his mask. “It’s gonna be okay, baby,” he whispered, his traitorous voice cracking. “You’re gonna be fine.”
Before the last word had left Diego’s lips, Sterling flatlined. His heart stopped fucking beating, and Diego stopped breathing. The paramedics shifted into overdrive, pushing him out of the way, and he watched from over their shoulders. “You don’t get to leave me,” he cried, and Sterling’s limp body jumped as one of the paramedics shocked him with the paddles. “Not like this, not yet, you stubborn son of a bitch!” Diego’s voice was thick with emotion, and the paramedics shocked Sterling again. “Please… please. Don’t leave me.”
The monitor was silent for the longest moment of Diego’s life, before the steady beeps of Sterling’s heartbeat showed up again.
They made it to the hospital without anymore scares, and he was ushered out of the vehicle while Sterling was pushed into the trauma bay. Diego tried to follow, but a doctor caught him by the shoulders. “You can’t go where he’s going, son,” the kind, stern voice said, and Diego felt himself wilt.
He allowed himself to be directed into a chair in the waiting area by some faceless person - they were all faceless, because he couldn’t concentrate on what they look like, he couldn’t feel, couldn’t breathe.
He knew that he should be calling someone, Sterling’s family, even his own, but all he could do was stare at the patch of ugly carpet beneath his feet. He was vaguely aware of Sterling’s squad arriving and filling the mostly empty waiting room, but he couldn’t pay attention to them.
He kept his silent vigil, until a nurse stopped in front of him, hours ( days? months?) later.
“Sir?” She said softly, as though she was afraid Diego would break, and Diego was pretty sure that was a fair assumption. He couldn’t imagine what he looked like, and he didn’t have it in him to care. “Mr. Sterling is out of surgery. If you would like, you can see him.”
A small, miniscule weight lifted from Diego’s shoulders, and he wanted to sob, because Sterling was alive, he wasn’t dead, he had a chance - but he was too numb to do anything but nod, and follow silently behind the nurse as she lead him to Sterling’s room.
Diego thought he would feel better when he saw Sterling, had the proof in front of his eyes that Sterling was alive.
What he saw brought him no comfort.
Sterling had always been larger than life, tall and broad and taking up more room than he had any right to, but there, in that moment, he looked so small. Unconscious against the stark white sheets on the hospital bed, Sterling didn’t resemble the man Diego loved at all. He was hooked up to a multitude of tubes and wires, monitoring his every function, and casts encased his leg and arm. He was so pale, drained of the healthy glow Sterling possessed at all times, and it hit Diego then that Sterling might not wake up. That it was a question of if, not when.
The sobs came then, with the realization. He fell into the chair by Sterling’s bedside, clutching his boyfriend’s cool hand in his. He stroked the rough skin, clinging to it like he was drowning and Sterling was the only hope for him.
Which, he thought somewhat hysterically, isn’t far off from the truth. Before Sterling, he had been a complete mess. Not to say he still wasn’t, but Sterling steadied him. Made him better. Diego choked on a sob, wondering momentarily if he had ever been able to do the same for his boyfriend.
“You know,” Diego said, some time, hours, or days, after, when the sobs died away. He had been staring intently at Sterling’s face for at least an hour, watching for any sort of change.
There was none, but he kept watching anyway. “You know,” he repeated, swallowing the lump in his throat. It was never this quiet between them, and the absence of Sterling’s silly humming or needling at him to just get to the point, it hurt, more than Diego could have said. “This is usually your job.” He squeezed Sterling’s hand lightly, the pad of his thumb brushing over Sterling’s palm. “Comforting, I mean. You’re so good at it.” He hummed as he brought Sterling’s hand to his lips. His eyes welled up with fresh tears. “I hate that it took this for me to be on the other side. But I’m here for you, plateado, all you gotta do is just wake up.”