COLE FISTED his hands in Finn’s blue paramedic uniform and hauled him to his feet, ignoring the joyous cries of the onlookers, the tear-filled thank-yous from one of the families, and the good jobs from the swarm of firemen and paramedics around them. Instead, Cole focused solely on the weight of Finn’s body, his hands roving over Finn’s shoulders, reassuring himself that his best friend had really emerged from the burning building whole and unhurt. Finn stumbled once upright. Ash and soot stained his pale cheeks, and the fabric of his uniform burned hot under Cole’s palms.
“What the fuck, Finn?” Cole yelled over the wail of sirens and the roar of the hoses trained on the building. Thick smoke billowed around them while what was once an apartment building turned into an inferno threatening collapse. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
Finn looked dazed, his brown eyes wide and red rimmed, reflecting the violent orange flames behind them. Sweat slicked his brown hair down on his forehead, dripped off the end of his nose, and streaked through the grime caked on his skin. He grabbed Cole’s shoulders, fingers clutching the tough fabric of the flame-retardant jacket, and held on. He planted his forehead on Cole’s chest and took huge gulping breaths. Finn coughed, lungs seizing, trying his damndest to drag in air, back arching, shuddering in Cole’s grip.
“Can’t fucking breathe,” he finally managed. “Yell at me later.”
Cole’s adrenaline-fueled fury dimmed, softening into worry and something akin to fondness, despite his friend’s irresponsible and frankly stupid actions. He supported Finn to his own damn ambulance and shoved him into the back next to a gurney. Finn’s partner, Jack, handed him an oxygen mask, which Finn placed over his face with shaking hands, eyes fluttering shut as he breathed in deep.
Seeing Finn sitting there on the floor of the ambulance, slumped over, his uniform singed, sucking in air like it was a precious and fragile thing had Cole weak-kneed. His own fire-response gear felt stifling, the thick jacket pulled at his shoulders, the boots felt like weights on his feet. They were a reminder of the recklessness of Finn’s actions, how he had run into that building without equipment, without training, without any regard for his own life. Cole hadn’t been there to see it, to stop him, since Finn and Jack’s ambulance had beaten the fire trucks by a good few minutes. He had only witnessed the aftermath—the agonizing moments until Finn ran out of the apartment complex, kid clutched to his chest, and then the final groan of the building as it caved in, reduced to concrete rubble and embers. Cole watched, heart in his throat, when Finn fell to his knees as soon as he was clear of the front steps.
Finn was safe now, tucked into the back of the ambulance, Jack looking him over and bandaging a burn on Finn’s arm, and Cole should have walked away. His team was busy, fighting a fire that continued to burn behind him, emitting a solid wall of heat. But he couldn’t go, couldn’t get his feet to move. He stood there, torn between wanting to pummel Finn and wanting to kiss him until the heavy pulse of fear in his veins finally evened out.
Finn noticed and quirked an eyebrow at Cole, still loitering near the back of the truck. He pulled the oxygen mask aside.
“Don’t you have a fire to fight?” he rasped.
“No, I have a best friend to ream out as soon as he can stand,” Cole shot back.
Finn’s expression darkened, and his lips twisted in annoyance. Despite Jack’s efforts to keep him sitting, Finn batted his hands away and obstinately pulled himself to shaky feet. He leaned against the side of the ambulance, exhausted and resigned. If anything, Finn was a stubborn fucker.
“Go on, then. I’m standing.” Finn’s voice sounded shredded, and Cole thought about turning away, but he didn’t. He couldn’t.
He clenched his fists instead and squared his shoulders. “You are a paramedic, not a firefighter.”
“I’m very aware of that fact.”
“You had no right to run into that building.”
Finn crossed his arms over his chest. The bandage on his forearm stood out stark white in the twilight. “You would have done the same.”
“Yeah, but I have the training. I have the equipment. I wouldn’t have stumbled out with my lungs full of smoke.”
“I did what I had to, and I’d do it again, especially to see that little boy with his family. Tonight, you guys were too slow. Don’t be pissed because we got here first.”
Cole’s pulse pounded; he could feel the throb of it in his temple. Anger welled bright and hot like the fire behind him.
“Don’t ever do it again.”
“What? Like you can stop me? You’re not my boss, Cole.”
“No, but I’m your friend. And I swear to God, Finn, if you ever do something like this again, I’ll make it my life to get you kicked out of the department.”
Finn’s mouth fell open in surprise, and a small cough escaped from his parted lips. “Fuck you, Cole. Fuck you and….” He suddenly bent over, arms dropping to wrap around his stomach. He coughed hard, then puked on the sidewalk. Before Cole could step forward to offer comfort, Jack appeared and shouldered between them, hands on Cole’s chest.
“You need to go, Cole,” Jack said, voice low. “I’ll take care of him, but you should go and calm down.”
Cole peered over Jack’s shoulder, and something painful and sharp thudded in his middle at seeing Finn pale and sick, his bloodless lips pressed together, eyes closed as he shakily wiped his mouth with his sleeve. The difference between this and Finn’s usual brash and sarcastic demeanor made Cole step back and take a long deep breath.
“Fine,” Cole said. “Make sure he goes to the hospital and gets checked out.”
“I will. Don’t worry.”
Cole gave Jack a sharp nod, then turned on his heel and walked away.