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Soot-stained sunrise

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Sometimes the chaos of a fire seems to freeze, seems to stop and stretch out in front of the crew in an infinite moment, in a 17th century oil painting, in burnt oranges and smoky charcoals and twisted expressions that left you wondering just whose hell it was – the civilians' or the firefighters.’

It’s a three-alarm assignment just two breaths away from midnight. The fire is fierce, in that it is angry and that it howls and that it does its best to choke the air and the souls foolish enough to challenge it. 

The paramedics were split up, fractured to support the various engine crews as reprieve on the lines; there wasn’t supposed to be a victim inside the building that was fervently bowing to the flames. 

But like all fires, this monster was not one to listen to what it should and should not be.

Johnny’s the closest paramedic, the closest blue helmet number and he let the linesman from 116 take over the hose from where they were tackling stray flames from the outside.

Someone had set up a yellow blanket and the equipment from one of the squads, where the victim is waiting for him. 

The woman is a heap of dirt and bones and red material. She’s old, old enough to know not to be in there, old enough to be left alone in the dark but she’s also too young for the lines in her face to be that deep and Johnny knows, he knows it wasn’t a choice for her. Knows it in a way that throws the waft of dusty back roads and drought-laced days through his mind, knows in a way that makes him suddenly, automatically, painfully aware of how empty his stomach is, and it unearths a pang of dread before he remembers, no, there’s food waiting for him back at the station if he doesn’t mind testing Stoker’s imaginative casserole.

It’s only been seconds but it was seconds too long before Johnny realizes the woman’s rags are not red, they’re blue, and “Where did all this blood come from?” He looks around, shocked she was moved like this and in the chaos that was an out-of-control fire, no one responds.

Johnny searches quickly for the source, shouting at unfamiliar, smudged faces for another paramedic but no other is around, they’re all inside trying to drown the beast that’s choking the sky.

There’d been an impalement, a big one, one that left behind a gaping wound and immediately saturates the dressings Johnny presses against it. He asks a firefighter from 86’s – Frank, Fred, Felipe? – to continue compression while he hurriedly takes vitals and calls it in, red fingerprints marking the biophone, making it sticky.  

Pressure too low. Too much blood loss. Lactated ringers, two of them, wide open, and – 

She stops breathing. Mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions and a dark red puddle consuming the yellow blanket and Johnny’s turnout and uniform, devouring like it’s the one that’s hungry, like it’s the one hiding from the cold. 

 


 

Inside, the smoke is blacker than it ought to be, the kind of black that is all the colours, the kind of black that sucks away the beams of flashlights where the group of firefighters is seeking out the blaze.

Roy is on the fourth floor of the warehouse. It’s an ancient structure that is built from wood and filled with something nefarious enough to cause the flames to punch through to the night sky in record time. Five stories, four with fire already. 

The HT guides him and his partner on the line – Mark Saranana, from 210 – through a maze of offices. Not that they need the help – the billowing smoke taunts them, rolls at them through doors and across open spaces, beckoning them forth.

They push into a hallway, dragging the heavy hose like an animal on a leash that doesn’t want to move forward. Roy can see orange glow dancing up the wall through the next door, and his adrenaline surges, licking up his chest and buzzing into his head, but before they can move forward he notices a giant gap where the floor has fallen through.

The hole is dark with smoke and dark with space and they can’t see how far down it goes.

Roy edges closer to see if there is a way across the void when his boot catches on the raised edge of a floorboard he doesn't see. He stumbles forward and suddenly black fills his vision, the dark nothingness of space between him and the ground, one or two or more floors below, it’s all he sees – nothing and everything all at once. A sudden vertigo overwhelms him and the feeling of weightless freefalling suspends him in time, amping through his body with helplessness, with terror and–

He’s yanked backward with a jarring suddenness that steals his breath. He lands on his back, a heap of turnout and shivers and thoughts shot so far past his body that collecting them seems impossible.

“Roy!” 

A face bobs into his view, a familiar face with comically owlish eyes and a mustache, he knows his name, he thinks, he knows where he is, maybe, he knows he’s fallen through miles of empty.

“Roy, are you alright?”

Finally. His thoughts. Chet. He’s on his back, and Chet is staring at him, Chet was on the second hose behind him with Marco and Roy remembers that he fell backward and not forward and he nods, sitting up. “I’m fine.”

 


 

It feels like days before Roy is reprieved from the fire, a fire now contained in a cage of water but still rebelling, still fighting for its life. He tries his best not to stumble out of the warehouse because his mind isn’t on his feet, he’s searching the oil-painted canvas that is the chaos in the dark.

He sees Johnny’s hair before he sees the rest of him. Johnny’s manning an oxygen station near the squad where too many firefighters need to visit. Roy watches his partner amicably chat up a stranger in an oxygen mask with words he can’t hear from this distance, but he knows Johnny is trying to lighten the dark, trying to help the night slide by like slick, with crooked grins and calm reassurances and familial pats.

And then Roy sees Johnny’s uniform isn’t blue, it’s red and he forgets his feet once more.

They catch each others’ eyes and gravity pulls them hard and fast. And he doesn’t hear Johnny at first, he doesn’t hear it’s not mine, it’s not mine all he hears is his pulse in his own ears, the sound of his blood still safely in his body, and he goes to grab Johnny but Johnny grabs him first, they’re standing there, hands on each other’s arms and they don’t say a word, not a word that anyone hears but they say everything all at once.

 


 

It’s too far into the night and too close to the morning when Station 51 returns home. 

Everyone is quiet, and it creates a dull roar in the ears after everything being so loud. They drag themselves from red vehicles and make their way to clean up and find sleep like walking against a river, slow and clumsily and gracefully all at once.

Johnny and Roy avoid each other, slipping by like oil, painfully and reluctantly and brushing up and leaving so much want, so much need but they don’t stop, they don’t look, because if they’re near each other they’ll get too near. They’re barely holding on and Johnny knows that if Roy asks him if he’s okay he won’t be; they’re barely holding on and Roy knows that if he looks into the safety of Johnny’s eyes he’ll remember that he almost wasn’t safe, that he almost fell into the dark.

They’re careful these days, too careful, careful to the point that the guys think they’re fighting half the time because they’re Johnny-and-Roy and it’s unsettling to see them less than whole. But the guys don’t realize that they’re more Johnny-and-Roy than they’ve ever been, that they’ve been fused together, a product of inferno, melted and moulded like the molten-red iron railing of the staircase in the three-alarm fire they almost fell into and never climbed back out of.

The crew silently let Johnny have the first shower, but Johnny also takes the last. Chet is waiting for him as he climbs out of his second purge, his second attempt to drown red with water, to replace perforation with his body that’s whole. 

“What is wrong with you guys?” Chet’s voice is softer than usual, his jab not a jab at all, but an offering, an imploring.

“Leave me alone Chet,” Johnny sighs wearily, not even registering the what or the why that is Chester B in the locker room at who-the-fuck-knows in the morning.

“Do you know he almost died?”

Johnny freezes.

He didn’t. He didn’t know that.

By the time Johnny settles into bed he hopes Roy is asleep, is ignorant of the night they wore down and the edge they felt sharp and the scent of smoke that still pasted their skin despite all efforts to the contrary. But of course he isn’t. Not without Johnny. Not tonight.

They finally look at each other, in the streetlight-painted dark, a few feet and several miles away from each other and Roy’s eyes are glistening and black and Johnny’s eyes are wide and solemn and Johnny can’t help it, he reaches out, stretching and Roy takes his hand but it’s only for a second, just a couple of fingers interlaced and it’s warm and it’s solid and it’s theirs.

Sleep doesn’t come and when the soot-stained sunrise finally hits, Roy doesn’t even ask Johnny, he doesn’t need to, he just picks up the phone and makes the call.

“We had a really tough night. I’m going to spend the day with Johnny.”

He doesn’t ask, he tells, and it’s not a lie, he never lies. But he knows she thinks he's lying, sometimes, and he knows she thinks he’s cheating, and he is but it’s not what she thinks, he just found the other half of his soul ten years too late and twenty years too early.

They take separate vehicles, pretend to say goodbye. The visitor parking at Johnny’s apartment seems to be visited more often as of late.

They seep inside, they’re the smoke now, quiet and lingering and only part of a whole.

Johnny closes his apartment door behind him and they don’t say anything, they just regard each other for a moment, taking in the sleepless smudges and taking in the night-lived pallor and taking in what’s theirs, what’s there, what still is when it felt like it almost wasn’t just a few hours before. 

Johnny’s three steps away from Roy and then he’s none, and Johnny’s lips are pressed against Roy’s and Roy’s body is pressed against Johnny’s and Johnny lives for the wall at his back and Roy at his–

Roy. Johnny lives for Roy.

And this, this is what it all comes down to. This, without words. This, the whitewash over the painting gone dark. This, if you play your cards right and he needs me and–

Roy does need Johnny.

Neither of them intended to fuck, really, they meant to just be, to moor each other and pull each other away from the fire that’s still charring and below the smoke that’s still swirling and out of the blood that’s still red right before their eyes, but this morning Carson was black with soot and Johnny’s bedroom is the brightest place in both of their lives.

And neither intended to fuck but when you take away the station and the city and all the lives depending on them, waiting for them to catch and mend and trip and fall, all that’s left is the both of them, all that’s left is getting lost together, all that’s left is the sum of three alarms and two paramedics and one bed.

And Roy loses himself in Johnny and Johnny buries himself beneath Roy and it’s hard and desperate and when it’s over, when they’re finished they’re grasping and they’re gasping and it’s not just from exertion and exhaustion it’s because they were stretched a little too far apart, it’s because Roy was almost swallowed whole and Johnny wore crimson and the grating clock gears taunted them long and hard until they could find their way back to each other.

The sun is up and the fire is gone but they stay in bed, entwined, in thought. Roy still sees the blood on Johnny and refuses to loosen his arms from around him. Johnny hears Chet’s words in his brain and his imagination paints landscapes of lifeless blue eyes and freckles against pale, purple skin.

Their pulses beat hard against each other, they can feel it, and it’s familiar, and it’s calming, and it leads them separately to the one thing that holds them together – that they might be the one thing to always return them from the flames.

They know they can’t keep going this way, in the shadows, they’re building up and up and the levee is going to break and the longer it takes the more Roy realizes he’s going to be picking up pieces of his family, and the longer it takes the more Johnny is certain that he’s going to be picking up pieces of himself. They’re both afraid to talk about it, because they don’t know what the other will say, and if they don’t talk about it they can save each other just one more night, just one more day.

It’s sometime later and Roy is idly playing with Johnny’s hand, splaying Johnny’s delicate fingers with his own larger ones, musing as always about how they can be of the same but be so different, when they see it at the same time, the hints of red underneath Johnny’s nails. 

Johnny doesn’t say anything, just pulls himself away from Roy and leaves the room, and Roy can hear the shower start up in the bathroom next door. Johnny’s gone for a long time, so long that there’s no hot water left, Roy knows how much hot water there should be, he’s been there often enough but before he can consider going after him, Johnny returns.

Johnny still doesn’t say anything, he just climbs back in and buries his face in Roy’s neck, and his body is chilled and wet and Roy pretends not to notice how red Johnny’s fingers are, how maybe there’s still blood but it’s not from the fire, it’s not from before.

It’s sometime after that, maybe mid-afternoon when Roy stretches and groans and says, “We should probably eat something.”

“Mnot hungry,” is Johnny’s response. 

“You’re always hungry,” Roy says, gently, jokingly, hiding his worry.

Johnny glares and Roy knows not to push, he’s not ready for that, so Roy just shrugs. “Well I’m hungry. I’m going to order some Chinese or something.”

Johnny reluctantly rolls off of him and Roy maneuvers himself over his partner and off the bed. He’s halfway toward the door when he gets caught up in Johnny’s jeans, still strewn haphazardly from their earlier haste. He trips, almost falls and catches himself on the wall.

It takes Johnny a few seconds to realize that Roy is still there, braced against the wall, hunched over and staring down at the floor.

“Roy?” 

There’s no response, and Roy always responds, so Johnny rushes to his feet and is at his side immediately. Roy’s eyes are wide and unseeing, and something in Johnny’s chest jumps, he’s never seen him like this. 

“Hey,” He finally says, gently, setting a hand carefully down on Roy’s shoulder.

Roy startles, looks up at him, blinking.

“You okay?”

Roy slowly straightens up, looks around, somewhat confused. “Yeah.”

Johnny takes his elbow. “Come lay back down for a bit?”

“No, I’m okay. I…”

“Come on,” Johnny insists.

Roy follows Johnny’s gentle tug back to the bed, accepting the warmth of Johnny’s navy blue bedspread, accepting Johnny’s arms around him. 

They’re quiet for a bit, and Johnny can feel the tension radiating off of Roy, can feel his normally languid partner stiff under his skin. 

“Chet said you almost died,” Johnny says finally.

Roy sighs and shifts. “Chet’s dramatic.”

They both know it’s usually true, and they both know Roy’s deflecting. Hiding.

“Tell me what happened,” Johnny says. Even though he’s afraid it’ll be worse than the blood. Even though he doesn’t really want to know.

And Roy doesn’t want to tell him, he knows he’ll only worry, but Johnny’s starting to fidget and this is the most Johnny’s said at once all day, and both things are good signs so who is he to turn him down?

He’s as honest as he can be but he’s still sorting it all out, still wondering at how close he came, still wondering if he would have died, still wishing Johnny’d been there even though that would probably have made everything worse.

“Sorry I wasn’t there to catch ya.”

But he is, catching Roy. Over and over. 

Roy just shakes his head at the sentiment, both Johnny’s and his own, he’s still terrible at voicing anything worth anything even after all this time, and he’s lucky that Johnny doesn’t care, Johnny’s happy as all hell with whatever Roy can give him, a few days a month and a shit-load of stolen glances and the one thing Roy does say, because it’s easy, how can it not be with Johnny, love you .

“I’ll go order you some dinner,” Johnny says softly, and goes to maneuver out from under Roy but Roy holds him there.

“Nah. Not hungry anymore.”

Johnny gives a quiet, mirthless chuckle. “We’re quite the pair.”

Roy smiles, and looks at Johnny. “Yeah. Yeah we are.” 

They fuck again but this time it’s slow and they’re seeing each other instead of just feeling each other and Roy mutters promises that Johnny doesn’t think he’ll keep, oh god he hopes he does but he doesn’t think so.

Eventually, there’s food and eventually, Johnny forms words, Johnny talks about the inconsequential and the inane and the amusing, and the sound of his voice boards over the hole in the floor, the one with no bottom, the one that was black.

The daylight hemorrhages into night, and Johnny says softly, “I don’t want you to go.” He’s never said it before, he always thinks it but he doesn’t ever want to make it harder on Roy. But today feels different, today feels like he’s just not prepared for Roy to leave and he’s not prepared for the empty bed and the hollow, gaping apartment and he’s definitely not prepared for when Roy says,

“Okay.”

Because Roy doesn’t have it in him to go either, he knows he should but what he thinks he knows has been shifting, has been slanting toward Johnny and the day’s been stained and the night is cold, and, “Okay.”

Johnny looks at him, suddenly, stunned, and the sunset outside burns the clouds like work, like want, and Johnny’s face is the colours, is all that joy and trepidation and…

Hope.

“Okay,” Johnny says, shakily.

Okay.