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Holding On (Until You Can't Anymore)

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Paul had seen his fair share of industrial fires in Chicago. He had been to more equipment (or stupidity) related fire scenes than he cared to recall. This one managed to put them all to shame. They still weren’t sure exactly what had caused the fire, but the destruction it had left was enormous. There was debris everywhere. The scene was all sharp edges and smoldering ruins. To top it all off, the night shift had just started and the explosion had happened with so little warning very few people had managed to make it clear. 


The only upside was that the epicenter hadn’t been located on the factory floor where the majority of the employees had been. Most of the injuries were only mild to moderate, not nearly as severe as they could have been. Their main concern and priority was rescuing the people trapped in the rubble, and there were a lot of them. 


Thus they had separated into teams along with other AFD stations. While some worked the fire, others worked rescue and recovery, transferring the victims from the debris to the triage station as needed. Paul and TK had been assigned recovery while the rest of the 126 was working on the fire. All things considered, things were going pretty well. Recovery was going smoothly and the fire was well confined. Both he had TK had been steadily clearing their assigned sectors and transferring the victims to triage. He glanced over towards triage long enough to see TK patting a patient on the shoulder before replacing his helmet and jogging back over to the recovery zone. Paul nodded at him as he jogged by and TK threw him a grin before heading to the next sector that needed to be checked. 


Paul shifted his focus back to the task at hand and committed 100% of his focus on the wreckage below him. He needed to shift it so they could be sure that no one was trapped - at least on the top layer. They would be bringing in the dogs soon but for now, manual search and rescue was their best bet. They couldn’t afford to have anything but absolute concentration on the task at hand. 


It was a while later that Paul was pulled from the task at hand by the noise. Yells pulled Paul from his work suddenly. He quickly looked up, glancing around for the source of the commotion. 


“Sir, I need you to relax!”


That was TK’s voice. Paul kept looking until he finally located his teammate doing his best to calm a man who was half caught in the rubble. From the little Paul could see of the scene he was pretty sure there was blood covering one side of the man’s head. He internally winced. Headwounds were never fun to deal with, especially in a traumatic situation. The confusion that so often followed such an injury only served to exacerbate the situation, which was absolutely what was happening now. 


“Sir!” he heard TK say again, much more firmly now. “You need to remain calm and let me do my job. I will get you out of here, I promise, but I am going to need your help to do it. Do you understand me?”


The man gave a feeble nod and TK stepped closer again, readjusting his grip on the beam lying across him. As he pulled upwards on it, the man panicked again and began to flail, upsetting the rubble they were in and causing TK to pitch forward. Paul got up from where he had been working, ready to race across to help his teammate, but he relaxed when TK popped back up, looking annoyed but no other worse for wear.  


“What did we just say about not panicking,” he asked the man again who at least had the presence of mind to look sheepish. “Can I continue now?” he asked, eyebrows raised and the man nodded sedately. Paul chuckled and moved back to his work. People never failed to be people, no matter the situation. 


TK eventually did free the jumpy man and after transferring him to triage continued on in clearing the rubble with Paul and the others, sector by sector. They continued to work diligently and separately, not speaking and focusing on the task at hand. That was the thing about working in a situation like this, the sheer level of destruction alone tend to render you speechless. It put an end to their usual banter and had a tendency to lead to introspection. In this particular situation, all Paul could manage to do was marvel at the sheer fortune that this had not been as much of a tragedy as it could have been. But when a volunteer tapped him on the shoulder to hand him a water bottle, he grabbed a second one to bring over to TK. 


They were still a team after all and needed to look after each other, no matter the scale of destruction that surrounded them. 


As he neared the younger firefighter, he called his name but received no response. Frowning, he closed the distance between them and placed a hand on TK’s shoulder. He knew that the other firefighter hadn’t been paying attention, but he was still surprised when he jumped. “Hey man, it’s just me. I brought you some water, why don’t you stop and take a breather for a second?”


TK sighed and smiled at him, “Thanks dude, sorry about that, I must have kind of zoned there for a minute.”


Paul gave a shrug, “no big, I get it.” 


The two stood together in companionable silence, drinking their water and surveying the work that still lay before them. As TK turned to look towards the triage center Paul noticed a strange discoloration on his turnout coat. He leaned forward to get a closer look and felt his breath catch in his throat. 


“Woah man, you’re bleeding!” Paul exclaimed, his hand jutting out to grab TK’s shoulder, turning him so he could see the growing dark stain better. TK pulled away from him, avoiding his eyes, “don’t worry about it, it’s nothing.”


Paul raised a skeptical eyebrow, “It doesn’t look like nothing.”


“Yeah well, there are too many people hurt worse who need our help. I’ll be fine until they’re taken care of.” And then he was gone, hurrying across the wreckage towards triage before Paul could even respond. 


Paul’s gaze followed him, debating what he should do. The man was clearly injured, that certainly hadn’t been a ketchup stain. On the other hand, TK was a very capable firefighter and a highly certified field medic. If he was hurt, he would probably know better than Paul how serious it was or wasn’t. And, for all his bravado, Paul knew that he would never intentionally do anything that would put anyone at risk - least of all anyone they were supposed to be rescuing. He cared too much for that. If he said he was fine, he was fine and Paul should trust him. 


He resolved to keep an eye on the other man regardless - he was his teammate after all. 


He does just that, always being sure to keep one eye on the other man as they continue to work separately on the recovery process. As far as Paul can tell TK is right, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with him. He is working with just as much skill and efficiency as he would be under any other circumstances. Whatever had lead to that bloodstain on his jacket didn’t seem to be slowing him down at all. 


But Paul just couldn’t shake this feeling that something was wrong - so he kept a watchful eye. 


The search and rescue dogs had arrived and all other personnel had been pulled from the scene to allow them full access to find victims. It was just a matter of sitting around and waiting for a dog to point them in the right direction and being ready to dig when and where they were told now, so everyone was talking a breather and Paul finds himself seeking out TK in the crowd. A part of him is starting to feel like an anxious nursemaid, but he can’t manage to shake that feeling - and Paul learned a long time ago not to ignore his instincts.  


He finally spots him near the edge of the crowd, furthest away from the scene. Paul is about to breathe a sigh of relief when he notices that TK is stumbling as he walks. Just like that, the fear from earlier is back with a vengeance and Paul is fighting his way through the crowd towards his teammate. When he finally gets to TK’s side they have wandered clear to the other side of triage. Paul is about to shout the other man’s name when he is forced to watch in horror as he begins to slump over.  He closes the remaining distance between them in record time and is at TK’s side within moments. 


“TK, what’s wrong?” he asks desperately. 


“I don’t know,” TK says, his voice far too weak for Paul’s comfort, “I was fine and then…”


“And then you weren’t,” Paul finished grimly, already moving to pull off his stained turnout coat. After a few moments of struggling he is able to get it off and get a better look at the situation. 


Turns out, the situation is not good. 


The whole of TK’s right side is covered in blood. Paul swears loudly and tries to examine the area more closely, looking for the source. 


“How did this happen man?” he asks TK somewhat desperately. “Why didn’t you say anything?” 


TK was staring down at his side as well, with a look of vague surprise on his face. “I didn’t know,” he said softly. 


Paul wanted desperately to call him out for lying, but one look told him that his teammate genuinely did not know that he had been injured. Chalk one up for adrenaline, he thought wryly. 


“Try to think,” he said instead, “when do you think this may have happened?” 


TK did look thoughtful, even as Paul poked around his injured side. “Maybe when I tripped when trying to help that squirrely guy,” he said after a bit, “I fell and I think I may have hit something, but it happened so fast and I was so focused on getting him out, I guess I didn’t even think about it.” 


Paul knew exactly what moment he was talking about. He had noticed it himself what felt like a day ago. He wanted to curse at the idiot for injuring his friend but he knew that wasn’t fair (also he had long ago been transferred out of triage so it technically it wasn’t possible either, sadly). 


“Well, I think you definitely hit something man, and we need to get an expert in here to look at it because I can’t tell here your shirt ends and the blood begins here.” TK made a move like he was going to start arguing but Paul cut him off with a look. TK sighed in resignation and Paul turned back towards the triage station. He desperately did not want to have to leave TK alone (or have to move him before they had a sounder medical opinion), so he was nearly overcome with relief when he spotted someone he knew. 


“Rosewater,” he called, “we need some help over here!”


Tim looked up from the supplies he had been organizing and grabbed them all before running over to them. He kneeled down on TK’s other side and began to examine the wound. “What happened,” he asked as he pulled out his light to look at the wound more closely. 


Paul shrugged, “we’re not exactly sure. I thought I saw some blood earlier but he was moving fine so I didn’t think it was bad and then he just collapsed here.” 


Tim nodded, “that’ll be the blood loss. Judging by the state of his shirt I’d say he lost far more than the recommended amount.”


Paul raised a single eyebrow in the paramedic’s direction, “the recommended amount? What kind of vampire shit is that man? 


“You know what I mean.”


“No, I don’t think that I do.” 


“Hey guys,” TK broke in, “hate to interrupt this little chat, but do you have any idea what I’m dealing with here Tim?”


After a few more moments and some poking that pulled a pained gasp out of TK, Tim sat back on his heels grimly. 


“Looks like you were impaled by something. As far as I can tell it didn’t hit anything major but it’s fairly deep and you’ve already lost too much blood so you’re definitely going to need to head to the hospital. Thankfully you’ve missed rush hour, so we should be able to get you there shortly. Hang tight while I go track down an ambulance with an open seat for you.” With that Tim was gone, headed towards the scattered ambulances at the edge of the scene, leaving Paul and TK alone. 


“I’m sorry about this,” TK said softly the moment they were alone again. 


Paul gave him a bewildered look, “What are you sorry for? This isn’t your fault, it was an accident.” 


“No, I mean, I should have listened to you earlier. I need you to know that I really didn’t feel it, I really wasn’t ignoring it. I wouldn’t do that. I could have put you and the rest of the team at risk by being stubborn and I need you to know I wouldn’t do that. I know how I must come off sometimes, but I wouldn’t put anyone else in danger by being such an idiot. Well, not on purpose at least,” he finished sheepishly. 


Paul could feel his heart aching for his friend. While he may seem to be a cocky golden boy, the more Paul had gotten to know him over the past few months the more he had come to realize that it was all an armor and that the real TK was in front of him, beating himself for putting others at risk over something he had no control over. “Hey man,” he said bracingly, “I get it. You got caught up in the rush of the scene. Your focus was with the victims and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s kind of our job.” 


He was pleased when his words pulled a small laugh out of TK, even if it was followed by a wince of pain. 


“Still,” TK started, “you tried to tell me that something was wrong, and if nothing else I should have listened to you. I should know by now to not ignore a Strickland Vibe - patent pending of course.” 


Paul glared at him, “Don’t make me regret saving your ass dude. If I didn’t think this was the blood loss talking we’d be having words about stupid names right now.”


TK was saved the trouble of responding by the arrival of Tim and a paramedic friend who said that she could take TK in her ambulance as long as he was up to sitting on the bench. TK readily agreed and Paul helped him off the ground and towards the indicated ambulance. 


As the walked TK spoke again, “Any chance you could not mention this whole thing to my dad?” 


Paul snorted, “Yeah, absolutely not. I like you man, but not enough to invoke the wrath of worried dad Owen Strand. I like my job, thanks.” 


They arrived at the waiting ambulance and Paul helped TK into the back. He was about to walk away to have a conversation he really didn’t want to have with his captain when TK called his name again. He turned to see him giving a soft smile, “Thanks again Paul, I really mean it.” 


Paul returned the smile, “Anything for family, right?”


TK grinned - a genuine, warm TK grin, “Always.” 


As the doors shut on his friend and the ambulance pulled away, Paul headed back to the rest of the team. He knew he was in for a lot explaining and of calming some very nervous firefighters, followed by a late-night trip to the hospital when they all wrapped up here to argue with visiting hours, again. 


Texas was weird and this team was a lot to take sometimes, but in the end, it was worth it. This family they had built was special and Paul wouldn’t trade it for anything.