"So?" Frank said, drumming his heels against the side of the desk. He was wearing pink scrubs and black crocs covered with tiny skull and crossbones charms and sitting on a pile of requisition forms. "Did you tell him yet?"
Ray huffed and rolled his eyes. "I don't even know why I told you."
"Because you were plastered!" Frank said, gleefully. "And because you need my help."
"I don't need your help," Ray said, dropping into a chair across from Frank. "If I tell him–" Frank tried to cut him off but Ray silenced him with a glare. "If I tell him it will be because I'm ready to, not because you're a pushy little asshole."
"A pushy little asshole who wants you to be happy," Gerard said from the doorway.
"Jesus!" Ray started and nearly fell out his chair. "Do they teach you guys that at nursing school?
"Empathy?" Gerard tilted his head to one side and wrinkled up his nose thoughtfully. "I don't really think that can be taught."
"No, I meant fucking stealth." Ray pressed one hand to his racing heart. "You scared the shit out of me, Gee."
Gerard looked stricken. "I'm sorry, Ray."
Frank gave him a sympathetic look. "You'll feel much better once everything's out in the open," he told Ray, and jumped off the desk.
"Frank's right," Gerard said, squeezing Ray's shoulder before grabbing Frank by the arms and pulling him into a clingy hug. "You should really tell him."
"Tell who what?" Bob said.
Ray's heart flipped up and punched at the base of his throat. "My landlord," he blurted out. "I think I've got ... mice."
Bob shuddered and screwed up his face. "Gross."
"Yeah," Ray agreed. Oh God, he was the worst liar in the world. What did he think? That he'd seduce Bob by talking about his imaginary vermin infestation?
Bob gestured over his shoulder with a thumb. "We should head out."
"Right." Ray hoisted himself to his feet and grabbed his jacket.
He let Frank pretend to strangle him for a few seconds and then followed Bob out the door.
Ray rubbed his hands together while he waited for the truck to heat up. "I've got a real bad feeling about today," he said, peering through the windshield at the snow blowing in swirls across the parking lot.
"That's what I love about you." Bob angled the vent so a stream of lukewarm air fluttered against Ray's face.
"What?" Ray said, after a too-long pause that he hoped Bob hadn't noticed. His voice was even higher than usual and too loud. He fiddled with the radio and indulged in a brief interlude of silent self-loathing.
"Your optimism. You're a ray of sunshine. Get it?" Bob said, reaching over and tugging at the string on Ray's hoodie. "Ray?"
Ray groaned and shook his head. "That's pathetic."
Bob just laughed and revved the engine.
"Where the fuck is Brendon?" Ray said, when the silence started to get to him.
"He said he was grabbing breakfast," Bob said, crossing first one arm and then the other across his chest and stretching out his shoulders. "But you know how he is. He's probably gossiping with the nurses."
Ray sincerely hoped not.
When Brendon finally showed up, Ray opened the passenger door and said, "Here, let me take it."
Brendon handed him the tray of coffees and a bag of pastries and wedged himself behind Ray's seat and into the patient compartment of the ambulance.
"Fucking took you long enough, EMT-B," Bob said, grabbing the bag out of Ray's hand and, after some deliberation, picking out a jelly donut.
"EMT-B? " Brendon said, snatching the bag back and taking a croissant. "How long have you been working on that one?"
Bob smiled around a mouthful of donut."It just came to me."
"You are so lame," Brendon said, and took his life in his hands by ruffling Bob's hair.
"I will end you," Bob said, and aimed an elbow at Brendon's face between the seats.
Brendon ducked. "Too slow!" he crowed.
"If you kids don't cut it out, I am going to turn this ambulance around right now," Ray said, handing Bob his beanie and grabbing the pastries from Brendon. "Did you get me a raspberry danish?"
Brendon rolled his eyes. "Don't I always?"
The radio crackled and Dispatch boomed into the truck. "Ambulance 202, Ambulance 202, how do you copy?"
"10-2. Go ahead, Dispatch," Bob said.
"We've got a 10-45 on Route 280, exit 15B."
"At McCarter?" Bob asked.
"That's right. A jackknifed tractor-trailer and possible multi-car pileup. Watch out for black ice."
"10-4 that, Dispatch. We are en route." Bob flipped on the lights and the siren. "Strap yourselves in, gentlemen," he said, dropping the remains of his donut into the bag when Ray held it out. "This ride could get a little woolly."
"Go slow," Ray said, buckling his seatbelt. "We won't be able to help anyone if we end up in the ditch."
"Don't worry, baby," Bob said, winking at Ray before he peeled out of the parking bay. "I always drive careful when I've got precious cargo."
They were first at the scene. It looked as though the truck had slid off the pavement and flipped onto its side when it tried to make the exit. An SUV had spun out trying to avoid it and four cars were piled up behind it.
"Oh, shit," Bob pulled onto the shoulder and switched off the engine. "I'll check out the truck."
"I'll take the SUV." Ray grabbed his trauma kit. "Brendon, call Dispatch and tell them we've got a 10-24 then come find me."
Brendon nodded jerkily. "I'm on it." He squeezed into the cab of the ambulance so he could use the radio.
Ray caught hold of Bob's arm. "Be careful, okay? That truck's carrying flammable liquids."
Bob looked offended. "I'm always careful," he said, shaking Ray off and jumping out of the truck.
The two little girls clinging to each other in the back of the SUV were okay, just shaken, but the driver was in pretty bad shape. "Is this your Mom?" he asked them.
"Yes," the littlest one said. She started to cry, teeth chattering violently between sobs.
"It's okay, sweetheart." Ray covered them with a shock blanket. "Just hang in there for a minute. We're going to take care of your Mommy."
He and Brendon worked together until she was stable and then loaded her and the girls into the back of another waiting ambulance.
"Where's Bob?" Brendon said, looking around.
Ray looked around, but he couldn't see him. A shiver of foreboding ran up his spine.
"Oh my God, the truck!" Brendon said, just as Ray caught sight of the flames.
He started to run.
Ray slammed through the swinging door into the ambulance bay and then felt guilty and went back and pushed it open for Bob, who was following him to the parking lot at a much more sedate pace.
"I don't know why you're mad," he said, mildly.
Ray looked at him with disbelief. "You were on fire."
Bob rolled his eyes. "Just for a second."
Ray balled his hands into fists and jammed them into his pockets. He started walking, faster this time. "You were on fire, Bob!"
"I heard you." Bob took his keys out of his pocket and used the remote to unlock the car.
"You heard me," Ray said, turning and glaring at Bob, "but you obviously weren't listening. I told you to be careful!"
Bob opened his mouth and then closed it again like he didn't quite know what to say. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Gimme a break, Ray. I was just trying to do my job."
Ray leaned one hip against the passenger door of the car and scrubbed his hands over his face. "Jesus, Bob. I don't know if I can take much more of this."
Bob froze with a cigarette halfway to his mouth. "What the fuck's that supposed to mean?"
Ray took a deep breath. If ever there was a time, this was it. "I mean," he paused to clear his throat and in that split second totally lost his nerve. So instead of I love you, he said, "You're not invincible. It's just ... it kills me to watch you put yourself in danger all the time." He closed his eyes so he didn't have to see the look on Bob's face.
Bob laughed, but it had a hard edge. "That is such bullshit, Ray." He sounded genuinely pissed.
Ray's eyes flew open. "What?"
"People get hurt, Ray." Bob pointed at him with the fingers holding the unlit cigarette. "That's why we have a fucking job. And I'm just trying to do that job the best I can–"
"I know–" Ray tried to interrupt, but Bob just kept talking.
"–and the only way I can do that is if you're with me. Because I know you're out there working just as hard as I am, and that you'll always have my back."
Ray stared at him in stunned silence. "That's the longest speech I've ever heard you make."
"Yeah, well. I guess I feel passionately about it or whatever." Bob shrugged and then dug around in his pocket until he found a lighter and lit up. He pointed at Ray with his cigarette again. "I need to know if you're going to pussy out on me."
"What? No!" Ray couldn't really pinpoint when exactly the conversation had gone off the rails, but at some point it really, really had. He didn't even know what they were talking about anymore. "I just worry, you know?"
Bob exhaled a narrow stream of smoke, flicked the rest of the cigarette away and turned to face Ray. "Me too," he said.
The way Bob was looking at him, level and steady, his eyes weirdly, intensely blue in the lamp light, made the blood bang in his face. In that moment, Ray wanted to reach out and touch him so badly it almost doubled him over. "Well," he said, uncertainly, "okay then."
"Okay," Bob agreed, and leaned in, close enough to bump shoulders, a lopsided smile tucked in the corner of his mouth.
Ray stared down at the snow whorling around his ankles and let his mouth curl up into a smile. He was concentrating so hard on willing himself to just fucking say it, for the love of God, that he jumped when Bob shifted even closer, impossibly close, and wrapped chilly fingers around Ray's wrist. He drew him in and pressed a rough kiss to Ray's lips, then pulled back and cleared his throat.
Ray stared at him. "Holy shit," he finally said.
Doubt flickered through Bob's eyes, so Ray grabbed the front of his jacket, pulled him forward and kissed him properly, the way he'd been wanting to for he didn't even know how long any more.
"I've been wanting to do that," Bob said. His voice was softer now, a little husky, and Ray almost couldn't hear it over the roaring of his skin.
"Me too," Ray said. Snowflakes were melting on his eyelashes, between the collar of his jacket and the nape of his neck, but he couldn't move his hands from where they had come to rest on Bob's hips.
"Yeah?" Bob said. He smiled cautiously and rubbed his thumb against the sensitive skin on the inside of Ray's wrist.
His heart bumped unsteadily in his chest, but Ray smiled back and nodded, let out a deep, shuddering breath. "Yeah."