The television at fire station 42 blared gibberish while whoever had the remote surfed in search of something that wasn’t news or housewife drama. Gabe could hear it from the kitchen as he made his sandwich, and nothing annoyed him more than the jarring sound of indecision.
He grabbed his plate and brought it into the common room, hungry and bored. He wasn’t in the mood to see dozens of channels flicker by, but he knew the drill. He who held the remote kept the remote. But Gabe could at least make a suggestion.
“That new task force show just started,” he commented. “Probably haven’t missed much.”
Lee, the remote commander glanced over at Gabe. He was sprawled on the worn leather couch and barely even moved his dark eyes to register Gabe’s presence. Lee was quick in an emergency, but the rest of time made slugs appear like go-getters. “Task force? Like what? Drugs? Shoot-outs?”
The screen blinked over from an ambiguous commercial selling either dogs or allergy drugs to a group of four tense men in flak vests arguing. Success. Gabe eased onto the corner of the couch, smacking Lee to get his feet off the cushions. They were men, not animals.
Lee straightened and they watched the show in peace while Gabe enjoyed dry turkey on wheat, but only for a few minutes. Gabe looked back to raucous voices coming down the hall, and soon the show was drowned out by Mitchell—resident giant and obnoxious braggart—and the new guy. New guy, aka probie, aka Jason, tapped the back of the couch near Gabe’s head.
“Is it true? You and Troy tapped the same ass last night?”
Gabe rolled his eyes and tried to focus on the show. “What’s it matter to you?”
“He needs help with the ladies,” Mitchell said. “I already gave him my advice, but if he needs more, I said you and Troy are swimming in pussy.”
Getting laid wasn’t a challenging task, but Gabe wasn’t about to have this conversation. “You know my strategy. I don’t talk about it and I don’t talk about them.”
“So, it’s true?” Jason asked again, more insistently than seemed reasonable. His blue eyes darted man to man, but Gabe didn’t say a word.
“It’s true if you heard it,” Lee volunteered. “Magic. Voodoo or some shit. They always find the girls freaky enough to get the bro fist.”
“Bro fist?” Jason asked.
“Eiffel tower,” Mitchells said with a wide grin.
“I’m watching something,” Gabe groaned. It was his own fault that this conversation was floating around. He and Troy had stupidly been reminiscing about last night’s date while jogging to work this morning, and Mitchell had come across them. The bastard gleaned just enough information to pass it on, with embellishments, no doubt.
Yeah, he and Troy had a divine power to find adventurous women, but he tried to keep that talk away from work. The men at the firehouse tended to fixate way too much on talk that involved women.
Jason shook his head and sat on the plush, blue recliner opposite the couch.
“That’s Chief’s spot,” the rest of the men said automatically.
“Whatever,” probie replied. His focus was on Gabe like a laser. “You and Troy. Hitting up chicks. Swords crossing?”
“Dude,” Gabe said in a warning tone.
“Just asking,” Jason said. “Chill.”
“I’ll chill when you back out of my business. Seems like you’re fascinated.”
Lee chuckled. “Bet we just unearthed a fetish.”
“Nah. I have no interest in another guy’s junk,” Jason said with an annoyed look at Lee.
“Then shut up about it,” Gabe offered. He took a bite of his sandwich and tried to catch up with the plot of the show. He didn’t know who was who, but they were all in trouble with their boss for being reckless.
“Seems gay to me. Devil’s threesome on the regular?” Jason’s voice interrupted Gabe’s concentration once again.
Appetite gone, Gabe put down his plate and pushed it away from himself on the coffee table. He wiped his mouth. “Excuse me?”
“Someone’s trying his balls on,” Mitchell said with a laugh.
Jason leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees as he smirked at Gabe. “Sounds like you’re both fags using a pussy as cover.”
Lee whistled as Mitchell muttered, “Damn kid’s suicidal.”
Gabe ran a hand over his chin, trying to ignore the blood pulsing against his temples. Around the station, the guys talked shit like it was a job requirement, but this was a step too far for someone who’d barely earned his uniform.
“I’m going to suggest you shut the fuck up,” he said calmly. “You don’t know me well, but in case it wasn’t glaringly fucking obvious, I don’t care about your opinion about my life. And I’m not about to hear shit from some frat boy wannabe tough guy who still drops his gear on the regular.”
“So, I guess you’re the man in the relationship. Which makes Troy your bitch?”
“That’s enough,” Gabe said in a low growl.
“Shut up already, probie,” Lee said tossing the remote onto the coffee table, tv forgotten. “What’s your deal?”
Gabe’s hands gripped the cheap leather of the chair and he took a deep breath before standing. He didn’t want to get into an argument with the punk. “I don’t have time for children.”
“Sure, sure,” Jason mumbled.
Mitchell tapped Gabe’s arm. “Smokes?”
They turned to leave but were stopped by Jason calling out, “What’s tighter? Troy’s fag ass or that supposed pussy you get on the regular?”
Gabe didn’t feel his legs cross the room, but he felt his fist as it buried into Jason’s stomach, and he felt the thin t-shirt in the grasp of his other hand as it held Jason still to wind back for another blow, this time to his smirky blue-eyed face.
Mitchell and Lee were shouting, but it all blended until Mitchell roared, “G-man, back down.”
Nothing he said would make a difference. Gabe’s muscles were spring-loaded, and release was only happening in one direction. His knuckles grazed Jason’s jaw and they both tumbled over the recliner from the momentum of Gabe’s fury.
“What the fuck?” Troy called over the grunts and swears of the other men.
Bodies rustled. Hands pulled back on Gabe, restricting his arms and dragging him up to his feet. Mitchell tossed him onto the couch—probably the only one strong enough to haul all six-foot-two of bulky muscled Gabe around.
Troy repeated, “What. The. Fuck.”
“They needed to get it out,” Lee said, helping Jason up. “Probie’s testing his limits.”
Jason rubbed his jaw but didn’t say a word. His face was red and blotchy, and his shirt was torn.
“It’s not prison,” Mitchell barked at Jason. “You don’t pick a fight with the biggest guy and expect it to make your dick look bigger.”
“Fighting in the fucking break-room?” Troy asked.
“And you know better, so it better be out of your system. Walk it the fuck off,” Mitchell said to Gabe with continued fury, exhibiting a sense of seniority they tended to forget.
Gabe hopped off the couch and stepped around the two-hundred-pound wall that was Mitchell. He grabbed a cigarette and lighter from his pocket, and the small action made his hand tingle and throb. It had been a while since he’d tried to beat sense into somebody, and he’d probably sprained his wrist doing it today. Probie had a face like fucking cement.
Troy’s heavy steps followed him. “No one going to tell me why I walked into a brawl in the middle of the day?”
Gabe shook out his aching hand. “Just a disagreement.”
“Looked like more than that.”
“You know what Chief says. Testosterone build up.”
It’s not like that was the first punch to be thrown at 42. Probably a rule of nature that you get that many stubborn men—crazy fucking men willing to run into burning buildings, no less—and confine them together, shit’s bound to happen.
That’s all it was. It had happened before, and it would happen again.
Outside, Gabe lit his cigarette and leaned against the brick wall. “Lines get crossed, you punch it out, you move on.”
Lee had once shoved Gabe into a locker hard enough to give him a cut on the back of his head. Neither of them could remember what it was about. Point was, they moved on.
“Chief’s gonna see probie’s face,” Troy pointed out.
“Chief’s seen worse.” Gabe took a long drag, letting the nicotine sink in while he briefly considered the consequences of his actions. “He’ll curse me out and threaten to spank me, whatever.”
Troy exhaled, managing to sound judgmental with a simple breath. “There’s still six hours left on the clock. Think you can avoid killing the rookie for that long?”
The air vibrated with the ominous buzz of the station alarms. One hand on his pager, Gabe dropped the cigarette and stomped it before running after Troy back inside. The men stepped into their gear as Mitchell called out instructions.
“I’m here to save lives, not end them,” Gabe muttered to Troy.
* * *
The day passed with no further incident, but Gabe could feel Troy’s ocean blue eyes on him like a hawk. Or a helicopter mom. Even in the peace of their apartment, Gabe could feel the tension. There he was, trying to watch a movie and he could practically taste the inevitable nagging in the air.
“Do you mind?” He groaned after noticing Troy’s annoying stare for the fiftieth time. He smacked the mute button on the remote and looked over.
Troy took a swig of his beer and sat down at his computer desk. “Six years at 42 and you’ve never lost your temper enough to hit someone.”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
“Yeah but you hit the fucking probie. That’s like punching a newborn. A premie, at that. Feeding tube and all.”
“He pushed buttons,” Gabe said. He slumped on the couch and scrubbed a hand down his face. “We all get those days where we have no patience for shit.”
Troy nodded. “True. And since you won’t talk about it, Mitch says ‘the shit’ in question was a certain f-word.”
Gabe shrugged. “I don’t like bigotry.”
“At least twice a day the guys call each other fag and gay and pussy and bitch, the list goes on, and suddenly it’s worth fighting over?” Troy scoffed.
“It’s not like Lee calling me gay that time I ordered a mojito in the bar,” Gabe reasoned. “Probie needs to learn some respect. You don’t walk into a room obsessively concerned with where another guy’s dick’s been.”
“I know you aren’t gay.”
“That’s not the fucking point,” Gabe said raising his voice. “I just don’t like labels.”
Troy picked up his beer and plopped next to Gabe on the couch. “It’s a strange development is all I’m saying.”
“You can be bi, but I’m… the only label I need is firefighter. Gay, straight, bi, whatever the fuck. Be a banana if you want, but it’s no one else’s business. That’s it.”
Troy arched a brow. “It’s just a word. And funny that you can label me bi but insist you don’t like labels.”
“You’ve said it yourself before,” Gabe groaned. The conversation was getting away from him. Or maybe it had been a train wreck to start.
“Is jerking off another guy a straight thing now?” Troy asked with a laugh. “I’m wondering what’s going on in your head.”
Gabe pinched the bridge of his nose. “Whatever. All I’m saying is I don’t appreciate being called anything when there’s no reason for it. You’re the one making it about the gay nonsense.”
Troy watched Gabe for a minute then turned the volume back up on the television. The conversation was dropped, and hopefully over. Troy had gotten closer to the truth than Gabe wanted to admit. The issue was never Jason calling Gabe gay. That was easy to shrug off. Water off a duck’s back.
The accusation wasn’t inaccurate, except that, as he said, what he did with his dick was his business. He didn’t agree with the assumption that being gay or bi or whatever was somehow wrong. But his own interest in that region was limited to Troy, so again, he stayed away from labels.
The reason Jason ended up pummeled was actually quite simple. It was unsettling to hear anyone talk about Troy that way. As if there was a problem with him for being the way he was.
Gabe gleaned very little in the way of advice from his parents, growing up in the opposite of a nurturing environment, but he had learned one important thing. You fight for others, even if you’d take the blows for yourself.
Gabe stood and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m going out.”
“You know tomorrow’s an early one.”
“For you. My shift starts later, though I’ll go in early and face the music first thing. Catch more sleep in the bunk if I need to.” He grabbed his black, leather coat from the catch-all table near the door. “Later.”
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