believe it or not, this was inspired while i was channel surfing before heading off to cram for a huge biology final (which i SO aced, you guys!). and i caught the tail end of some country music video, where there was a crying lady and then a happy crying lady when she hugged her fireman husband/lover guy. and i thought, "hey, that sorta has potential, ya know?" so here ya go, i sat down and wrote it after having it niggle at the back of my mind all day.

so yeah, this is about firemen. i got some stuff from various sources, but yeah, i know next to nothing about how that shit works. so...don't cuss me out or anything. i actually thought of going to visit the local firehouse close to my house (five minutes away) but i'm actually booked up until two weeks, and no way could i wait that long! by then, the stink of inspiration would have faded from this, and it'd become dead. like so many others of my works..... oh well.

anyways. not too many warnings on this, really. some minor language, and i sorta wanted to cry as i wrote this, so i guess if you have a weak tear constitution, then maybe you need to read something else? something a bit less dramatically emotionally sappy? or whatever....

happy belated b-day shann. and happy pre-b-day to me! (by about a week and a few days)

Thursday, 27 July, 2006.

"Damn it Tols, yer cookin' is pretty shitty."

"Then put it back, Nicholls."

"Aw, you wouldn't starve a kid like me, now would ya?"

"Didn't ya know? Rookies hafta eat from the trashcan for their first month or so. Firehouse regulations."

Laughter crowded the small eating area housing about nine or ten guys in various stages of dress; Tols was already halfway through his plate of hard scrambled eggs and over-crunchy bacon, wearing the standard pants and shirt of an on-duty fireman. His shift was nearly over, having spent three days on ten-hour shifts; it was almost time for him to go home. And he was looking forward to it, to relax and maybe spend a day in bed…if not sleeping, then doing other things just as wonderful to think of. Although, a real bed with real coffee and a real meal…it all made it worthwhile, knowing that it was there to go home to.

Dick was the Fire Lieutenant for their crew, and one of Tols' oldest friends and work partners, having been at the station for about six years to Tols' seven, one of the older men still working.

He was thirty-two and looked to be anywhere from mid to late twenties, except for the crinkles already beginning to form at the corners of his eyes; laugh lines, they call them. And he was a quiet man, but his eyes never failed to crinkle when he was amused, usually whenever anyone fell for one of his infamous pranks. They all joked with each other, like a family, more so than the ones that most of them had grown up in during childhood. There had to be something to pass the time between actual fieldwork and day-to-day routines and duties.

He never talked much about his life outside of work, even though he got together with Dick quite often for a few beers on their days off, talking of sports and things, but Tols was never one to delve into his personal life. That didn't mean that he was a stranger to other's, quite the opposite; Dick's three kid's adored Tols like an uncle, and he'd made appearances at more than one of his fellow crew's barbeques and get-togethers, but he always came alone. Everyone knew that he wasn't married and not looking for it, but there were times when he would decline their offers, saying that he'd made other plans.

Like for his birthday. And every February 11, he took a personal day, for reasons no one was ever too sure about.

It was peculiar, sure, but he was a good guy and a stout guy to have watching your back when your life was on the line. So the guy liked to keep things to himself; the others could understand that, hell, they respected that. Tols was just a guy you couldn't hate, no matter what. And he didn't even have to do anything other than just be there, like he always was.

He'd always be there.

--- --- ---

Worrying is constant. An edge forever undulled through reading and weeding the neat flower beds on the outside of the little redbrick home, with the oak in the front yard and three cottonwoods in the back. There's also a little toad pond out there that they dug themselves, as well as several bench swings strategically placed for optimum shade options during the hot summer days and sunsets. A private oasis to themselves, where they could sit and watch the stars if they wanted, not having to be forced to see how barren the family kept their backyard just next door, keeping their private life from prying eyes.

Tols was always like that; he'd always been so reserved that way. Tols was special.

By the third day of an active shift, the worrying was at its peak, a sharp curve to the remaining time, spent with a cell phone always charged and on. It went everywhere: to the market, the bedroom, the comfortable woodshop out in the garage, where shapeless wood became rustically functional pieces that sold for decent enough price. The phone was there, always.

Just in case.

Because He never watched the news anymore…it was too much to bear. So He stayed busy and always worried.

--- --- ---

Usually, bars on household windows are meant to keep the bad guys out and the good guys inside safe. But in the case of a fire, the bars keep the good guys inside with the raging demon, rendering the most well prepared family helpless. And it made a firefighter's job that much harder, having to cut through the windows when normally a good smash would be good enough to get inside. The doors were ill placed to enter, the fire raging hot and already engulfing the ceiling by the time they arrived.

A family of five, the three kids under the age of eleven. There was rumor that the oldest son had a friend spending the night as well. That put the risk up to six casualties if they didn't do something, and do it quick. But that was what they were good at, at getting in and getting it done. Risks are taken for the greater good, and they all knew that.

Thus, they went inside, fully prepared for the worst.

Tols was third man behind as they made as thorough a sweep as they could, avoiding major danger zones as they attempted to head back towards the bedrooms; it was three-twenty-six am. Four more hours of his shift, but that wasn't what was on his mind right then. The adrenalin pumped through his veins with a heady and conversely mind-calming clarity, keeping him on edge and alert for all dangers as he sought to save lives.

This rush was what had always drawn him to the occupation, besides the fact that his father had retired as a firefighter only five years before the fatal car accident, taking the lives of both of his parents in one slick-road instant. That had been ten years ago, when he'd just been starting out his training at the age of twenty-two; if anything, his parent's death had driven him even more to become his dream, to give honor to his father by following in his footsteps.

Again, none of that was going through his mind. No, the last thing that he thought was a mental curse at seeing how much worse the flames were in the direction of the bedrooms; there was no way anyone could survive the smoke generated alone…but there was still the slimmest chance, and that was what he was in it for.

He never felt when the wall collapsed over on top of him, never heard the blaring of Nicholls voice through the system in his ear, calling out, "Man down, we've got a man down! Shit, Tols…!"

--- --- ---

Time is against you when it's ticking down on someone's life, slowing down when all you want is for it to hurry because someone's dying, or could be dead, and Dick had never known time to slow down quite as much as it did when they pulled the charred bit of his friend from the house, noises muffled as he watched Tols' helmet get pulled off by paramedics, time slowing down even more as he saw them frantically try to resuscitate the man without much obvious success…but time sped up again when they were strapping him to the gurney, working like mad to get the injured man inside the ambulance for transport to the hospital just twenty minutes away.

It seemed as if he blinked from the time Tols' face appeared to him just once, rolling even as his head was strapped down and turned from view again…but the face had been flawless, not burnt like the rest of him was.

Dick had time to blink once more, and there was someone in his face, telling him that he should go on ahead with the wounded man, that things were being taken care of by another lieutenant; everyone knew that a man down was the worst thing to happen to a crew.

It was his duty to go with the man, for there to be someone there…just in case.

Even as he was hopping in the back of the ambulance, Dick was yelling at his second in command to get the contact card for Tols' family, that he had a sister out in Calvary, some three hours away.

And if memory served him right, there was someone else on that card, someone Tols had once mentioned in passing. There wasn't time to remember the name, wasn't time to remember how that guy had been related; if he was on the card, then that's the person they were to call.

Someone had to be notified. Just in case.

--- --- ---

Dick was already into a tasteless cup of coffee from a machine near the emergency waiting room when a man walked through the double automatic sliding doors, cutting eyes around the room and stopping dead for a moment as if in recognition of the man sitting by himself and drinking from a small Styrofoam cup. Just a pause in step before coming over with obvious determination, face wan and drawn from receiving the call at three-forty-eight am.

The kind of call that never meant well, the one He'd dreaded from the very beginning.

"Richard Jennings?"

Dick had the presence of mind to notice that the guy spoke with a calm belied by the worry etched around his eyes…something about those eyes reminded him of his wife's whenever he had to pull an extra shift, or had to leave suddenly when a big enough fire called for all firemen to become active.

"Dick, call me Dick. And you are…I'm sorry, if Tols ever mentioned you, it was long enough ago that I don't remember your name."

He was unapologetic at the weary tone of indifference; too tired to put up much interest when he could still see the way his friend had looked. He wasn't once to mince the truth, to lie to himself…there wasn't much chance for Tols, and he knew it.

"Leland Owens. Lee."

Dick shook his head absently, noticing that the guy looked rumpled, as if either shook from sleep or had never gone to sleep at all. Tracey had often looked like that when he pulled a particularly long stretch at nights, waiting up for when he'd come home; he'd hold her as she cried silent tears of relief that he was still safe, still alive.

He wasn't stupid, not so tired that two and two didn't add up in his mind about what this Lee had meant to his friend, what they had had with each other. He was too tired, however, to care or be surprised; that was for later, when all this was over.

The not knowing, that's the hardest part. All they could do was wait.

In the meantime, Lee took care of some of the forms needed to be filled out, his hand sure and steady even though his color was so pale and he seemed almost like a ghost of himself, sitting there in the quiet emergency waiting room and waiting for news.

Any kind of news.

Dick had plenty of time to study the guy, who either didn't notice or didn't care. Close-cut hair and a faded t-shirt, jeans loose and stained with dirt, one of the knees ripped out through use, and off-white canvas shoes with untied laces. One single band of simple silver on his right middle finger, and maybe it had a match to it when Tols wasn't at work, who knows? He looked young enough though, maybe just twenty-seven or eight by his calculation, and Dick thought he was normally pretty good at gauging a man's age. And he carried himself well, his worry present only around the eyes; damn, if there were ever someone like Tols, then this guy was it.

He seemed decent enough, and what more can one ask for, right? Right.

--- --- ---

They were still waiting by the time Tols' sister arrived, singling Lee out of the tiny group of grim men waiting for news of their comrade, their friend. They all looked up when the pleasant-looking woman flew at them from the double automatic doors, but she only had eyes for Leland, who stood and accepted her embrace, allowing himself the tiniest bit of need as he curved strong arms around her frame and drew her close, his face pressed against the hollow between her neck and shoulder as a tiny quiver ran through him.

It was seven-seventeen am.

--- --- ---

Eight-thirty-one am.

Everyone came to attention when a familiar doctor came towards them; the last time, he'd reported that there was no news other than that surgeons were working to keep the man's heart beating, fighting the extreme shock done by the fire and the damage done to his body by the wall falling on top of him.

This time there was a grimmer set to his mouth, and again, time seemed to slow down just the slightest bit; Dick thought he saw indifferent pity in the doc's eyes. He knew, just like that. It was all over.

"Mrs. Tols…."

"No, I'm his sister, Hannah Morgendorf…."

"Please, just tell me if he's…."

Leland seemed to already know though, and the sister was quickly catching on, her hands flying like startled birds up to her mouth even as the doctor told them that He was gone, that he was Dead.

Knowing it and hearing it were two different things, as evidenced by the hypothetical punch struck to Dick's gut, knowing that his crewman, his work partner, his friend was dead.

Even still, his eyes had the time to catch the look of raw pain on Lee's face just before the guy's legs were buckling out from beneath him; only Dick's training allowed him to launch out of his own seat to slow the fall, unthinking as he cradled the man who had already begun to shake with silently wretched sobs.

And although he'd always liked to think that he wasn't prejudiced, there was no denying the fact that the thought of homosexuals had always managed to 'squick' him…but pain like this, pain this deep and raw…no matter who you are, who you love…it hurts.

Tols had been a good man, the best kind of man to have around. Everyone felt the loss.

--- --- ---

It was a closed-casket. All the firemen from their precinct showed, as well as most from the neighboring counties…from all over the state. A somber affair. A plaque presented that would be mounted on the wall in thier firehouse, the one for fallen comrades. Fallen friends. Hannah was there with her husband and two kids, eyes wet; she had to be led out at some point, her tears proving too much. Dick saw that there was no one for Leland, his back rigid in his black suit, face wooden and eyes dry. Stoic in his pain.

At some point, Dick found himself going over and sitting next to the man, not even having to think about it before reaching out and taking the man's hand, showing support and silent comfort.

"I always knew this day would come. I knew it from the minute I realized I was in love with a fireman." Voice soft and unwavering, eyes boring into nothing up at the front, with the casket draped with floral arrangements.

"How long ago was that?" Why he was curious was beyond him, but he didn't really care.

"Eight years."

So long. And he'd never known, Tols had never said one word about it, about this Lee. About this man who Dick couldn't help but to respect, to admire. Heaven only knows being a fireman is hard, but being in love with one is even harder. He's seen what can happen when the bond between two people isn't strong enough, how their love isn't enough to keep it together. Eight years is a long time.

"Graham was never one to talk about work when he was home; such a private person, really. It was all separate. But even still…he talked of you, thought highly of you. He would have followed you through hell."

A genuine smile, "Sometimes, he did."

A quiet laugh, a brief flashing of teeth, and Dick knew. He knew what Tols had seen, what he'd loved.

And he knew the answer, but he asked it anyway, "Was loving a fireman worth it?"

A thoughtful pause, one where a relaxed smile spread over the grieving man's face, showing a strange sort of inner peace as he replied, "It always was. Graham was who he was, and I'll always love him for it."


And there was a service, with a quiet wake afterwards. Throughout it all, Lee kept up his quiet self-composure, accepting condolences with grace, accepting dishes of casseroles and other such common well wishes for a grieving family. Dick and his wife were one of the last ones to leave; Tracey was with the sister in the kitchen. Dick found Leland out back, staring out at the fading light with his hands shoved into his black suit pants; he'd ditched the black jacket some hours before, and had the white sleeves of his shirt rolled up to his elbows and undone at the neck, rumpled and as worn as the owner.

He went out and stood next to the man for a long moment, until he finally voiced, "Sometimes the guys and I…we get together sometimes, on our days off. If you ever want to join in…we'd all welcome you. Once a veteran, always a veteran."

A gentle breeze came by, and Lee turned his face towards him, smiling through his tears.

"I think that I might like that, someday."

Giving a nod, Dick briefly touched the guy's shoulder before turning and going back inside. And there was a long moment of silence, Lee grinning against the rapidly fading daylight, darkness finally masking his neglected tears, his grin one of mixed pain and amusement.

"You bastard, you always keep me waiting. …Keep a spot open for me though, wherever you are…. Just in case."

Another long moment, and after a strangely serene laugh, he finally went back inside.

A/N: for some reason, Lee strikes me as being a bit too young. i wonder why. hm. anywho, i'm still feeling a melencholy from reading this, and i wrote it. ho hum. i rather liked playing with emotion-provoking images. let me know how i did on that, all right?

thanks for reading.