The fire warning bell mounted high on the station wall rang. One, two, three, four, five, six times it rang. There was a pause. It rang again, six times. In every station throughout the city, firefighters stiffened and fell silent. The bell rang six times for the third time. Prayers went skyward, but the bell rang a final six times.
The loudspeaker came on. "The department regrets to announce..."
A firefighter had died.
Tim Bernard gasped for breath. He strove to keep his legs churning, his eyes fixed on the staircase in front of him. His partner ran beside him, panting with exertion. Laden as both were with full equipment, the six stories of the practice tower seemed to stretch straight up for at least for a mile.
If neither could spare breath for encouragement, other members of Rescue Squad 32 were vocal in their support. Cheers and demands and loud yells rang through the tower. Over all was the voice of the Battalion Chief, counting the seconds.
"One minute, fifty, fifty-one, fifty two..."
They had to break two minutes and fifteen seconds to win, to become the number one Rescue team in the entire district. They represented their Squad, their station, their Battalion. Tim hooked one hand on the banister, swinging himself around to the final flight of stair. His partner's hand grabbed his harness, using his momentum to catapult up several steps ahead. He shifted his gear and two free hands gripped and pulled each other along.
"Nine, ten, eleven...
With one last lunge they dove through the doorway to the top. The voice cut off with a loud yell of "Two minutes, thirteen!" and the waiting firefighters mobbed them.
As hands pounded him on the back and relieved him of his gear he felt a hand grasp his ear. The fingers pulled him around. He turned and a pair of lips met his, giving him one full blown kiss and then several others on his cheeks.
"Woooohoooooo!" screamed his partner, Firefighter First Class Carrie Southward. She flung her arms around him and bounced up and down. "we did it, we did it, we did it! We're Number One!"
Tim hugged Carrie back, dancing up and down with her. Reluctantly he broke the embrace as Chief Taylor stepped up to them, his face beaming.
"Good job you two!" He surveyed the pair with pride. "Now all you have to do is get ready for the city wide competition. Cut another seven seconds off that time and you'll stand a chance of winning. Judging by all the yelling you're doing there Carrie, you have plenty of spare breath to drag Tim up those stairs a bit faster." He started away and then turned back, a twinkle in his eyes.
"By the way, Tim, you've got lipstick all over your face."
The assembled firefighters laughed. Carrie winked at Tim and surveyed the crowd. "Just marking my partner," she mock growled. "Any one seeing that shade of lipstick had better back off."
The whoops, whistles and yells redoubled. Carrie's best friend Traci Bell's voice rang through the clamor. "Is that a threat or a promise, Carrie?"
"Maybe both," Carrie responded as she and Tim gathered their equipment. She groaned as she surveyed the stairs. "I guess I can't get any brave, sweet firefighter to carry this down for me?" She batted her eyes at the assembled crowd.
Three of the guys offered, two rather eagerly. Tim couldn't blame them. Carrie was attractive, even in the shapeless uniform. She wasn't classically beautiful, but her snub nose and the riot of short, red curls peeking from the brim of her helmet matched her full lips and the impish grin that always seemed to be present. Tim knew well from seeing her around the station that her body was shapely, the muscles that the job demanded making her somehow even more feminine rather than less so.
"Okay you all," Tim pretended to grumble. "To paraphrase someone who was just speaking, 'That's MY partner'. All you starry-eyed guys back off. Besides, Carrie," his eyes twinkled, "How about you show some of that liberated self-sufficient woman you are supposed to be and carry your own gear?"
"Why, Timothy," Carrie batted her eyelashes at her partner as she hoisted her load to her shoulder. "Are you jealous?"
Tim opened his mouth for an indignant denial. Then he grinned sheepishly. "Maybe I am," he admitted.
"Well," she suddenly surprised him as her expression grew serious. "Maybe it's about darn time you are."
Tim was rocked. He wondered if Carrie had guessed the feelings that had been growing inside him for the past few months. They had been partners for almost a year now. He had been a bit surprised to get a female partner, but knew that she had to meet the same physical, mental and emotional standards as any male firefighter in order to be assigned to a Rescue Squad
For her part, Carrie had also felt the attraction between them. That attraction seemed to be building every day that they worked together, every hour that they spent in station and every minute they spent in their truck. As she suspected Tim had, Carrie had fought it at first, reminding herself that partners should never get involved, be it romantically or even simply physically.
Fighting it hadn't helped. It was too darn easy to be attracted to Tim. He was tall, well, taller than her anyway. He had an easy grin and great, friendly nature to go along with his good looks. He had that "Jimmy Stewart awww shucks" attitude that made him friends everywhere, including quite a few members of the opposite sex, most of whom she firmly believed were much better looking than she. She figured one advantage she had was that Tim's attitude was no put-on; he really was as modest and unassuming as he appeared and didn't realize how those other females hung on him.
Carrie blushed to herself about one other thing. One day she had darted into the guys' sleeping area to get a book that one of the other firefighters had borrowed and had forgotten to return. As she scampered out she had heard the door to the men's shower close. Unable to resist she had looked back to see Tim crossing the room to his bunk, clad only in a towel. She had drunk in his lean, muscular build. Then the towel had gapped at his leg and she had seen his cock. While she was hardly a virgin, nor someone who was impressed by size alone, she had decided he was very nicely equipped there.
She would have been relieved, as well as probably quite amused, had she known that Tim was in a similar quandary. He had been drawn to Carrie first as a partner, someone he had found he could trust and depend on in any situation. He enjoyed her continual sense of humor, her ability to relax those around her in the tightest situation with a wisecrack. She also had tremendous compassion and the willingness to use it regardless of the situation.
Tim had really begun to appreciate that side of Carrie the day that he and another team struggled to extract two children from the back seat of an overturned car lying in a ditch. While the three men fought with the jaws of life, Carrie had managed to wiggle through a small gap in the shattered back window. For what seemed like hours she had hung upside down, holding the children's hands, talking and singing to them, and keeping their minds occupied until Tim and the others had freed them. Then she rode in the ambulance with them to the hospital and stayed with them while they were treated. and then waited with them until their father arrived and their mother was out of surgery.
Tim, to his regret, had never seen Carrie in a towel. However, during a Fire/Police Department competition for charity he had the opportunity to watch Carrie participate in a couple of races. Since it was a very warm summer afternoon, she had been wearing only running shoes, a loose tank top and VERY short nylon shorts. In fact, Tim's only problem had been his desire to watch Carrie's supple, strong legs and at the same time keep his eyes on her top, where her nipples were quite apparent through the sweat soaked material.
Tim couldn't understand why Carrie seemed to feel that she was a "Plain-Jane". Often when they went out for a beer or to eat after their shift, guys would hit on her. Good-looking guys, much more so than Tim considered himself to be. She always seemed to brush them off. It drove him crazy that she couldn't seem to see just how lovely she really was.
Finally the day came that their hidden feelings would bubble to the surface. It occurred when returning from a false alarm one day. Automatically monitoring the radio traffic while chatting, both of them recognized the address for a fire call involving trapped civilians.
"That call is practically right around the corner," exclaimed Tim. "Report us in on it."
Carrie nodded and grabbed the mike as Tim flipped the red lights and siren on. "Dispatch, this is Rescue 15. We're two minutes out." Tim stomped on the gas and Carrie corrected, "Make that one minute, Dispatch."
The truck squealed around a corner. The column of smoke was obvious from blocks away. They roared up to the wooden two story house, already furiously on fire. As they jumped out a woman ran up to them screaming.
"My children! My children! Oh God, please!"
As Tim grabbed the breathing gear from the side locker, Carrie swiftly gathered the information on the two children, more from a neighbor than the understandably hysterical woman. The pair of firefighters ran towards the house as Carrie filled Tim on the situation.
"Two girls. Their bedroom is at the top of the stairs on the left. They were taking a nap."
Tim nodded as they rushed through the front door, already smoldering. They both took the situation in with one quick glance. The lower floor was almost fully engulfed and the stairs felt shaky as they mounted them.
"No time to wait for a ladder truck," Tim yelled.
The house lurched. Both firefighters ignored the warning sign. Carrie placed the flat of her hand against the panels of the first closed door they came to at the top of the stairs. Finding it cool she flung it open.
Tim had snapped the end of the line to the banister. Crouching right behind Carrie, he followed her into the room.
"Counter-clockwise sweep," he told her, as he let the line out from the reel attached to his belt. Carrie nodded and the search began. She opened a closet door and checked it as Tim's hand touched the edge of a bed through the smoke.
"No one," she reported as she continued along the wall.
Tim didn't find anyone on the bed or under that side of it. Continuing their sweep, Tim ran his hand under the bed as they crawled rapidly along the quivering floor.
"I found another door, probably a bathroom" Carrie's voice came through the thick smoke. Just as Tim made to follow the barely visible luminous strip on the back of her helmet, his hand bumped into something.
"Wait a sec, I've got something." Burrowing under the bed he felt a limp hand. Grasping it he gave a heave a small form slid from the bed and into his arms.
Clutching the little girl, Tim remained right behind Carrie as they neared the bathroom. Carrie's ears picked up a cough. She grabbed the handle she found.
"Locked. Shit." She rattled the door furiously. They galvanized as the coughing stopped. Carrie rose from her crouch and slammed her body shoulder first into the door. She bounced back, the door quivering but remaining closed. She drove against it again, feeling the lock beginning to give way.
"Carrie!" Tim's shout brought her head around as the doorway they had entered burst into flames. Tim felt the reel slacken and realized the safety line had been burned through.
"I hope that bathroom's got a window!" She yelled as she threw herself one more time against the door.
There was a crash and the door lock burst. The two firefighters stumbled into the tiled floor room. Carrie scooped up the second little girl as Tim kicked the door closed behind them.
"THERE." Tim snatched a short handled tool from his belt. Swinging it like a hammer he smashed the window while shielding the child in his arms as best as he could. He cleared the frame of glass and then knocked the frame itself out while Carrie reached back to touch the doorknob behind them.
"Shit," she mumbled. The building shook and the two fought to regain their balance as the floor beneath them began to tilt. "Holy shit. It's going."
There was a slamming noise as the tip of a ladder hit the broken window sill. A pair of arms reached out. Carrie passed her burden to the firefighter on the ladder, who squirmed back out of sight. She swung out of the window and turned to take the child from Tim's arms.
Carrie screamed as the floor started to collapse under Tim's feet. He staggered and threw the child to Carrie. As the tiles fell away from his feet he leaped and caught the last rung of the ladder with one hand. He clung there as the motor on the truck below engaged and began to swing them to safety.
Carrie locked one arm around her precious cargo, pinning the little girl against the ladder with her own body. She made a frantic grab with the other hand as Tim was lifted out of the window, still clinging with just one hand. The other arm hung limply from the blow of a falling beam.
Stretching as far as she dared, Carrie caught the collar of Tim's coat. She clung to him, yelling at him. "Don't you let go, damn you. Hold on." Tim seemed dazed and she could see marks on his helmet indicating he had been struck by falling debris there as well as on the arm. She shouted louder, forgetting the radio was on and transmitting all her words. "Tim, TIM, hold on. Don't let go, please, don't. Hold on darling. Don't fall, damn it. Tim! I love you, please God, make him hold on." She herself refused to let go of his coat. Even when the ladder had swung around and lowered she continued to grasp Tim.
"Carrie, Carrie, I'm okay." Tim's voice finally penetrated. Her fingers uncurled and she blinked. As though it weighed a ton, she managed to doff her helmet and breathing gear. "I just took a rap or two, kinda stunned me."
A rush of bodies surrounded them. The first little girl had already been carried to a waiting ambulance where she was sitting up, breathing through an oxygen mask. As the firefighters watched, the second child was brought to her sister's side and both were nearly smothered by the happily weeping mother.
The EMT who had hustled over to them pulled off Tim's gear and quickly but carefully examined him. "No broken bones, ' she said briskly, although you're going to be sore for a few days." She checked his pupils with her light. "No signs of a concussion."
"My head's too hard." Tim grinned.
Carrie snorted, "More like there's nothing in there to be damaged."
"Well, you're going to be fine." He nodded towards the ambulance, where another EMT smiled and flipped them a "thumbs up". "And it looks like both girls will be fine."
"Thank God," smiled Tim.
"Thank God indeed," Carrie responded. Only Tim realized that her eyes were not on the ambulance, but on him.
By the time they had returned to the station and cleaned and stored their equipment and cleaned themselves up also, their shift was long over.
"DO you want to go for a beer?" Tim asked his partner.
Carrie smiled tiredly. "I think I'm just going to go home and stretch out in a hot tub for about twelve hours."
Tim started his car and looked over at Carrie. She was sitting in her truck behind the steering wheel but had not started the engine. Concern flared as she just continued to sit there. Finally he turned his car off and got out. He walked quickly to her.
Carrie was staring out of the windshield, her eyes not focused on anything. She was shaking.
"Carrie," he said quietly. She looked at him. He opened the door. "Slide over." When she did he climbed in behind the wheel. "Fasten your seatbelt." As she complied mechanically, he started the truck and drove to her apartment. Once there he waited patiently as she unlocked the door and followed her inside.
"Maybe we better have that beer after all," she managed to smile jerkily over her shoulder at him.
"I think that would be a good idea."
Tim had been in Carrie's apartment quite often over the last year. Sometimes they had hosted other firefighters, their wives, husbands and dates at parties. Sometimes they used Tim's house, sometimes this apartment. Since the apartment was closer to the station, Tim had often picked Carrie up on the way. He had even spent the night more than once, sleeping on the couch.
This time was different though. There was a tension between them that had never been present before, even when they were first partnered. The apartment was silent as they sat on the couch and sipped on the beer that Carrie had brought.
Carrie's mind was a whirl. Thoughts of Tim barely holding on to the ladder mixed with imaginary scenes of him falling into the collapsing house. She shivered.
"What's wrong, Carrie?" Tim asked. Seeing she was shaking he scooped up a knitted afghan from the back of the couch and draped it over her shoulders. She shook her head. The touch of his hand on hers made her look up and into his dark brown eyes.
"Carrie." She was surprised at the quiet passion in his voice, and how that passion was reflected in his eyes. "Carrie, I heard what you said on the ladder."
"Oh God," her hand flew to her mouth and she turned as red as her flaming hair. The afghan fell from her shoulders to the floor as she suddenly stood, preparing to bolt.
As fast as she was, Tim was on his feet just as fast. He grasped Carrie's hand, stopping her. She stood still. She was shaking again, but this time from a different cause. Slowly, she turned and looked at him.
"I thought I was going to lose you." She whispered. She drew closer to him, placing her hands on his chest and looking up at him. "I can't accept the idea of you leaving me alone."