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by Damon Suede
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Where there's smoke, there's fire... Since 9/11, Brooklyn firefighter Griff Muir has wrestled with impossible feelings for his best friend and partner at Ladder 181, Dante Anastagio. Unfortunately, Dante is strictly a ladies' man, and the FDNY isn't exactly gay-friendly. For ten years, Griff has hidden his heart in a half-life of public heroics and private anguish. Griff's caution and Dante's cockiness make them an unbeatable team. To protect his buddy, there's nothing Griff wouldn't do? until a nearly bankrupt Dante proposes the worst possible solution: HotHead.com, a gay porn website where uniformed hunks get down and dirty. And Dante wants them to appear there--together. Griff may have to guard his heart and live out his darkest fantasies on camera. Can he rescue the man he loves without wrecking their careers, their families, or their friendship?
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: July 2011
66 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [477 KB]
Reading time: 303-424 min.
Griff saw the whole fight before the first punch landed.
"Faggot!" A shout from across the party.
He hated that fucking word.
In here? Not likely.
Griff reached for his Guinness and stepped closer to his crew. He was standing in the Stone Bone wearing his kilt because Dante and the other guys from the firehouse had dragged him along. He hadn't wanted to come out.
Normally he bounced the Bone's front door on Sundays, but tonight was September 11th, so he wasn't working. Big night for a lot of bars in Brooklyn. Every year since the Twin Towers fell, neighborhood places let firefighters drink free on this night. So the whole gang had come from Engine 333/Ladder 181 to check out the female talent.
Griff's best friend was sitting on the bar singing along with the jukebox, using his pint as a microphone; his crooked smile gleamed white in the neon from the liquor shelves. Dante had the kind of chiseled jaw and smooth baritone that ladies loved. At the moment, he was crooning a duet with Dean Martin:
"'The world... still is the same... you'll never change it...'"
This was Dante's way of making sure none of his friends got lonely tonight--playing the dreamboat Italian card like it was Ladies' Night. It kinda was.
"'As sure... as the stars... shine abooove;'"
Raised on the Rat Pack by his pop, Dante was dragging a hook and lure through the party's water for his pals--the ultimate chick-bait wingman.
"'You're no-body till some-body looooves...'"
Griff snuck a glance, and sure enough, a clump of frisky bedbunnies was drifting toward his best friend--hippety-hoppity, pussy on its way.
"'You're nooo-body till some-body cares....'"
A scuffle and another angry shout from the back near the bathrooms. "Fucking faggot!"
Not a joke. This time Griff turned to look over the heads.
A couple other guys from the firehouse were singing along with Dante. They hadn't heard the trouble brewing, but if things got fugly, the bar would lose money. Griff didn't want trouble. He only bounced on the side when he was off duty, for cash, but the Bone was a great little dive--old-school Brooklyn in a neighborhood that was getting Starbucked to hell.
At six foot five, Griff had a head and a half on, well, pretty much everybody. Big as he was, he had been wary his whole life: cat on a rope. It was a handy knack for a fireman saving lives and a bouncer saving his boss a fortune in repairs and fines.
He lowered his beer. Those shouted "faggots" had come from back near the pinball machines, and it took Griff all of ten seconds scanning the sweaty, yammering mob to spot the source.
A ripped Puerto Rican with a faux-hawk had yanked his girl behind him and was glaring at an older dude with a shaved head. Griff squinted, trying to read the scene over the Sunday night crowd. The girl was beautiful and biracial and looked proud of her angry date.
C'mon, dipstick. Not tonight.
Griff put his pint on the bar and snuck a glance at the door. The security up front was stuck carding drunk teenagers. No way could they make it all the way back to throw a blanket over anything that broke out. The bartender was pulling beers on the wrong end of the counter, and the boozy crowd around the conflict had other fish to finger on September 11th.
The Stone Bone was packed with city workers celebrating: EMTs and cops and firemen. The anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks always brought the FDNY and their fans out in mobs, for better or worse. But tonight was ten years since the Towers had fallen--people weren't as somber as they had been when the wounds were fresh.
Griff watched the two mismatched men more closely. Drug dealer? Loan shark? The bald guy wore a suit, not cheap, and he felt like Manhattan--older, taller, but outclassed in any fight that the little hombre was bringing. Shit.
Baldy was smiling while he talked calmly to the younger guy. The Latino gripped his beer too tight, ready to butt heads, eyes threatening anyone nearby. He wanted to go to jail for a drunk and disorderly.
Griff pushed away from the bar, squaring his brawny shoulders so he could plow through the crowd. A frizzy blonde hmmphed at him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dante's dark head turning as he broke off singing with the others.
"Hey, G! Where's the fire?" Dante laughed.
But Griff shook his head. He only had a couple seconds to cross the room. A couple folks said his name or thumped his cannonball shoulders as he passed, and he nodded hello without taking his eyes off the brawl about to erupt. He could hear them now, the bald guy's smooth accent as he tried to pacify the kid.... Polish? No, Russian.
Maybe Mr. Clean was the lady's ex or something? A player trying to make her? A pimp? But why call him a "faggot" anyways? Maybe he'd groped the boyfriend accidentally-on-purpose? The body language wasn't right, but you never knew with Russians.
Finally the little Puerto Rican snapped. Shaved-Headovitch realized what was coming but had no exit available; they were crowded on all sides. Griff moved faster, pushing patrons out of his way. The Latino raised the bottle in his hand, and Griff could see his whole night off turning to shit in two seconds, September 11th spent talking to cops until three in the morning.
But before that bottle even started to swing, Griff had the kid's wrist in one beefy paw, twisting him to his knees on the concrete floor. His girl's eyes were panicked under heavy makeup. The crowd around them pulled back, rubbernecking.
"Maricon!" His thin, tan arm twisted in Griff's hard grip like a snake.
Griff squeezed hard. "Drop it."
"It is fine. I am sorry." The Russian shook his shaved head trying to let the guy off the hook, being polite. What had he done to this asshole?
"I said drop the bottle."
Clink. Griff felt the suds spray on his ankle and twisted the little Rican's arm up between his shoulderblades, forcing him to the concrete. "Enough."
The wiry bastard squirmed on the floor under Griff's kilted knee and grumbled something nasty in Spanish.
"Yeah, fuck you too." Griff tried to signal the guys on the door or the bartender, but the crowd was too dense. Fall weekends were the worst with these drunks. And this night was insane.
The dark kid vibrated with rage beneath him. "You're wearing a fucking skirt! Another faggot coming to his rescue." He struggled, powerless on the floor and shamed in front of his lady. Love was the worst.
"It's a kilt, dumbass." Griff sighed and looked down at the pleats over his meaty thighs. He'd been ready to just break it up and leave these bozos alone. "It's only a skirt if I wear underwear."
"He meant nothing by it." The older man tipped his shaved head to Griff and smiled his thanks, like Mr. Clean goes to Moscow. "A misunderstanding."
"None of that shit. Not tonight. Yeah?" Griff pointed at the floor and at the embarrassed girlfriend. "Both of you can get right the hell outta this bar."
Suddenly, the Latino exploded to his feet and shoved his girl toward the exit. She stumbled but was too mortified to stop. As her boyfriend stepped past them, he clipped the Russian's shoulder hard, hooked his ankle, and slammed his suit'n'tie ass on the floor. Barely pausing, the kid plowed through the crowd after his girlfriend, jostling people and spilling drinks, leaving a wake of curses and scowls behind him.
Griff didn't even bother following. He hauled the bald dude to his feet and held onto the hand, shaking it. "Griffin Muir."
"Alek. She did not know me. It was not entirely his fault." He looked almost apologetic, his blue eyes wide and watery.
"Never is. Ten years ago, I used to fight in bars."
"Thank you, then. Yes? He did some work for me and tried to hide it from her. She--"
"Wanted to watch a fight. Yeah. I used to be married to a girl like that. He's got lousy taste in women. Eventually you lose the taste."
* * * *
Dean Martin was done and the firefighter chorus had netted a boatload of groupies.
By the time Griff made it back to his drink, Dante had swiped it, greeting him with fake applause. Black hair, black eyes, pirate smile.
"My fuckin' hero." Dante grinned at him, draining the glass.
"My fuckin' backwash. Taste good?" Griff smacked his head affectionately and claimed a stool.
"Tastes like steak." Dante licked his lips. Licked them again. Belched like an eight-year-old.
"Gross! Eww." Apparently the knot of hotties nearby had set their sights on Dante's tight buns and wavy black mane. What was new? This batch was a little dressier than the locals. Like college girls slumming. Manhattan maybe.
For some reason, Dante was ignoring his admirers. He pushed the glossy tangle out of his face. "I'm hungry, G. You wanna get a slice? I need to talk to you about something."
"Yeah. No. Not a big deal. I kinda need to ask you something."
"Sure. I've had about all the fun I can...." Griff looked for the rest of the crew to say goodbye. He hadn't wanted to come out tonight in the first place. Dinner with Dante sounded way better.
His best friend blinked and stopped talking as a slender hand came from behind and carded into Griff's bright copper bedhead.
"Your hair that red all over?" A curvy Indian chick had slid over from Dante's fan club to press against Griff's hip and look at his legs. "Nice tartan."
Wearing a kilt in Cobble Hill was always asking for it. Sometimes the "it" in question was a brawl and sometimes a blowjob. With other Scots, it guaranteed a couple rounds on somebody else who might be feeling patriotic. With Italians it meant someone was always accusing you of scoping their girl. Kids giggled and old ladies were always trying to sneak a peek under.
Dante's mouth got tight as he waited for Griff to beg off.
What does he need to talk about?
For once, Griff wished he'd thrown on jeans instead. He tried to catch Dante's eye and shake his head.
"That's some junk in your trunk." The Indian girl leaned in to squeeze his haunch. She filled every inch of her little dress. "So damn huge, huh? You full Scot?"
Griff blushed, feeling the pink heat wash over his cheeks and neck.
Her hand was still there. "Redheads have the roundest butts."
Dante winked. "Can't drive a spike with a tack hammer. Griff's like 245 pounds, solid muscle."
Griff's dick shifted under the pleated wool while Dante discussed him like a prize bull. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was the Dust Bowl.
Griff was terrible at this part and not interested. He was tired and still keyed up from the almost-fight. For no good reason, he wanted to grab his buddy and ditch the crowd, but he knew that wasn't friendly. He was supposed to want to stay. He was supposed to get trashed and bag some babe. Women were on the town looking for FDNY tonight. Ugh. September 11th was the worst.
Pick a fireman, any fireman.
Griff smiled apologetically. "Sorry. We were just heading out for pizza."
"Nah. Forget it, G." Dante looked guarded; he shook his head and his life-of-every-party grin appeared a little too fast to be real. "Nah--nah. Let's stay. We'll stay. I'm good."
"C'mon man. I'm wiped." Griff looked at his best friend, who just shook his head, insisting. For a crazy second he wanted to smile thanks-no-thanks at his curvy admirer and just hook an arm around Dante's neck so they could go get a slice. But by now, her friends had crowded around Dante, jostling each other.
Ten seconds more and we could've split.
The Indian girl looked between them, still patting Griff's round butt. Pat pat. Like he was a Saint Bernard on two legs.
"Your ass is so... mmngh-manly!" She grabbed a handful of Griff's haunch through the kilt, pushing the pleats into his sweaty crack. She licked her lower lip. Her eyebrows rose. "Ohmygod, you're totally commando under there!"
A few yards away, Dante snorted beer out of his nose. The other girls yelped and groaned and wiped themselves with napkins.
Griff scowled into Dante's handsome face. He tipped his head again toward the door, making a silent suggestion: Let's go.
In the middle of the girls, Dante's smiling eyes were dark-dark-dark as he shook his head and winked. "Nah. I'm good." He turned to whisper something to a slender brunette that made her laugh and blush.
Griff turned back and tried to hear what the Indian chick was saying. Something about a concert they'd seen at BAM. He nodded like he was listening. Over her shoulder he watched Dante spread his arms on the bar behind two of her uptown friends, being charming. His left hand had a bad cut across all four knuckles.
That needs a bandage.
Griff got plenty, even though he wasn't usually looking. He'd always been broad across the shoulders and chest. Massive arms, legs like trees. His wide, broken nose had been a blessing on his baby face. And for all Dante's ribbing, Griff's pale skin and cinnamon hair stood out in bars where most of the crowd was Italian and Latino. When your whole neighborhood had a year-round tan, peaches'n'cream was exotic. Ladies loved marking his fair skin, and his fat, rosy meat didn't hurt his chances any. Moby Dick-tater, Dante called it.
This Indian chick was determined and pretty gorgeous, if only he'd been into the idea. "You wanna...?"
No, I don't. But I should.
But Griff smiled mechanically at his curvy admirer. She smiled back. Her lips were stained a ripe brick red that should have seemed sexy. Her thick hair was almost the same glossy midnight as his best friend's.
Dante was watching them again, biting his lip and nodding encouragement, eyes glittering black.
Griff's cock gave a jerk, and he had to hold it against his thigh as she pulled him back to the bathrooms.
Remember: this is what you want.
If you were FDNY, September 11th was only good for a meaningless poke and a free pitcher. Rocks off. Friendly bar sex. Griff Muir didn't have the heart to fight back.
* * * *
The employee bathroom was open and Griff had his key, but when the two of them had shut the door, the whole bar-sex plan went to hell.
She was climbing him like a jungle gym and her mouth felt nice on him, but his heart wasn't in it. Her long hair was silky, but it felt fake on his skin. He was braced against the sink and kept thinking about Dante's unreadable eyes.
What is he worried about?
Maybe if he could get this over in a couple minutes, they could still split and grab a slice. Griff put his face under the raven curtain of her hair and sucked on her smooth brown throat while she fumbled under his kilt for his package. Eventually he fell still.
She clocked his reluctance and stopped trying, kissed his neck with a mouth that smelled like menthols. Her enormous, exotic eyes lifted a question to his.
He grimaced and shook his head once. "Sorry. This is a hard day for me. You're beautiful and all, but--"
"You're FDNY." A sweet smile on her brown face, she nodded in sympathy.
Griff nodded, feeling like a jerk.
"You were there when the Towers...."
He swallowed, looking at the floor.
"I get it. I got a soft spot for firemen. Like a kink." She climbed off his lap.
"Sorry... I like your soft spot fine." He wanted to be nice to her, but he also wanted to be gone. His voice echoed off the grubby tile and mildewed ceiling.
She squeezed him through the kilt. "You're so hard. Are you sure you don't want to try?"
Griff sat on the lid of the toilet, knotting his thick fingers together. "No. I should go home."
"Maybe another night. You're just so damn cute. That hair like hot coals." She stroked the side of his head and frowned lightly. "I need to find my girlfriends."
"Well... my friend might've hooked up with 'em. You need a ride?"
"Nah. I live in the Heights. I'm married." She flipped open a compact and checked her face.
Griff was starting to miss the point of marriage. It made women into sacks and men into bullies. His mom's passing had wrecked his dad. And Lord knew Griff had screwed up his own marriage.
He looked up at her in the dim bathroom. "How did you know I was a firefighter?"
She giggled. "I can spot you boys at fifty paces. With or without rubber pants. I won't... say anything." About dropping the ball, she meant. "Hell, I may lie to my friends and say we did it twice."
"How was I?" He laughed and blushed till his ears were warm.
She licked her upper lip and flashed those big eyes. "Amazing!"
"Thanks." Griff realized he'd become a story she'd tell: the ginger giant in a kilt from the 9/11 party. Fair enough--a naughty anecdote seemed like a fine thing to be.
Well, that was mostly true. He could almost picture her telling the story to her girlfriends over coffee and salads, bragging and exaggerating it a bit more each time till he was seven feet tall and sending her love letters. He wished he could actually be the stud she was going to build him into later, to make her bathroom no-starter seem sexier, cooler, riskier.
She smoothed lipstick on and ran a hand through her glossy hair. "Just doing my civic duty." With a wink and a wiggle to get her skirt straight, she slipped out the door.
Griff stood and turned on the tap. He splashed his face and stared into his bleary gray eyes in the mirror.
Loser. Idiot. Creep.
The guys would be horrified if they'd watched him turn down such hot tail. They'd be even more horrified if they knew why. Under the kilt, he still had a thick erection pushing at the pleats, but it wasn't for her. Big problem. If he went out there like this, everyone would see. He squeezed his bloated shaft through the wool and gasped.
He locked the door and dug under the pleats. He fumbled to get hold of his straining cannon, then wrapped a hand around himself.
Two minutes, tops.
Griff sat back down and closed his eyes and stopped fighting his real fantasy.
* * * *
A few minutes later and Griff felt like he'd had breakfast and a shower. Well... maybe an Egg McMuffin and a squeeze of Purell. Axe waxed, nothing complicated.
By the time he emerged from the toilet, his balls had finally stopped hugging his groin and shifted downward. He'd wiped up with a paper towel, but he could feel a swipe of semen drying on his inner thighs.
The Stone Bone had filled up even more. Other firefighters had come in wearing firehouse T-shirts as chick bait, wives far, far away. As one, everyone at the bar raised their elbows and glasses as the little Cuban barback swiped a grayish towel over the pitted, carved surface: bigcock and Shasta loves Ronnie and a game of tic-tac-toe.
"343! 343!" At the back of the bar, a group of firemen from Brooklyn Ladders and Engines bellowed a toast, beers high. The civilians clapped and raised glasses around them. Back in 2001, 343 members of the FDNY had given their lives at Ground Zero, and New York was still grateful. That was good. That felt right, the city remembering ten years later, even after the Pit had been paved over and the Twin Towers were just another tacky statue for the tourists to take home to Pennsyltucky.
Griff maneuvered his massive frame to the bar. Head and shoulders above the crowd, he jerked his head at the busty bartender, shouting over The Doors. "You seen Anastagio?"
The bartender shrugged and bugged her eyes at the packed room. Griff chuckled and smiled his thanks. Where had Dante gone? Griff sighed, suddenly hungry for real. Dante's pizza idea sounded even better now. His stomach growled in agreement.
Then as if the thought had summoned him, his best friend appeared--black hair sweaty and tangled against his neck, rough hand on Griff's shoulder.
"There's my man! Big G!" Dante stood crushed against the bar, popping gum with that pirate smile still smeared across his face.
"Hey, midget." Griff wedged closer to him and breathed the sharp tang of Dante's particular smell: sweet and leathery and musty like a clean locker room. Griff smiled; he'd know that scent anywhere.
"Hey! Five feet eleven is normal. You're a mutant." Dante was peeling the label off his fourth beer, the other three curled in front of him on the bar. He hadn't shaved in a couple days, and the blue stubble on his chiseled Roman profile made him look like a thug in a cartoon. He took another deep swallow from the bottle, the muscles of his long throat working.
"Let's get outta here, huh?" Griff jerked his head toward the door.
Dante sounded a little drunk. "You're having a good time. And we all found company, looks like." He scanned the party, where the rest of the guys were splashing in puddles of female fans.
"So let's roll. I'm starving. And you wanted to talk...." Griff searched Dante's eyes, trying to read the concern flickering there. He rarely asked anyone for anything.
Dante snapped his fingers as if he hadn't been planning to ask already. "Pizza to go. Why don't we go back to my house and you can crash?" He always invited and Griff always said no.
Griff shook his head in apology. "I gotta be up early. I should get home."
"And my clocks don't keep time?" Dante made his village idiot face, crossing his eyes and sticking his tongue out sideways.
"I don't fit in any of your beds. But pizza, yeah. We can talk on the way, if you're ready...." Griff stood close to him like a bum huddling at a trashcan fire and tried to catch his charcoal eyes.
Dante glanced at him for a second, then searched the floor, down where Griff's huge calves bunched above his socks and boots.
Griff flexed them involuntarily.
"Y'sure?" Dante rocked on his feet and squinted sideways at him.
"Yeah, D." He was already turning toward the front. "What the hell do you need to talk about?"
"Okay. Okay." Griff laughed. "I could really go for Lucali's. If you don't mind the line."
"Uhh. I got zero cash." Something dark moved in Dante's eyes.
Griff didn't hesitate to offer. "I'll buy us a whole pie. C'mon."
Is it money that's got him so worried?
Dante shook his head and jerked it toward the door. He was practically vibrating. "Here's the thing...."
Griff stepped back and poked him. "Anastagio, I can spot you. You need a loan till payday? I can cover whatever."
He could swing it. Aside from bouncing in this dump, Griff also did framing for a local contractor who was always looking for capable hands. All the guys did work on the side. The FDNY was famous for paying shit wages to the loony bastards who ran into burning buildings while everyone else was running out.
Dante bumped shoulders and nudged Griff to the exit. The Stone Bone was so packed now that moving meant sliding past everyone's bodies in full contact. Dante was practically pressed against his back, abs against Griff's butt. Thank God he was a couple inches shorter so nothing, uh, lined up.
Someone touched his shoulder, and Griff turned.
"Mr. Muir." Alek lifted his glass goodbye. Apparently, the slick Russian had made his way back to the mob of firefighters too, looking a little out of place in his suit, gesturing like a car salesman while he chatted with a couple of EMS workers from Queens.
Griff nodded but didn't stop moving toward the front. He just wanted to get out of this crowd and the noise and find out what was wrong. Coming here tonight was a terrible idea. Hadn't 343 firemen died? Why did people want to celebrate a tragedy?
They were almost at the door when Griff felt Dante stop moving behind him.
"Shit," Dante muttered. Griff turned to look over the forest of chattering heads.
"Anastagio! Are you trying to run off?" A sassy brunette standing at the bar poked Dante in the chest, tonight's Plan B probably: tight skirt, tits soft under her dress, big caboose, her mouth loose from kissing somebody--probably him.
Dante gave a short laugh and squeezed his eyes shut, like he was trying to remember her name. "Uh, no... this is my buddy, Griff."
She didn't even look over. "Dante, I been trying to get with you for like two years, and we were getting somewhere and now you're gonna ditch?"
"No, baby." Dante spoke softly and leaned forward.
Suddenly Griff didn't feel so hot.
Dante stepped to the corner of the bar next to her, one hand up on the scarred wood. The murmured excuse poured out of him. "We gotta get up in the morning. And Griff hasn't eaten today. I gotta feed him."
Even in a crowded Brooklyn bar, you could see her Delilah eyes sliding between them, annoyed at the cockblock. She made a face. "You guys live together?"
"No." Griff stepped closer to the bar himself, just to get out of the crush of people.
"Well, practically. He's like my brother." Dante pushed hair off his face. "And he's gotta be up in a couple hours." Dante stroked her leg just below her skirt. "We can pick this up later. C'mon. I need to take care of him."
"What about me?" She knew this song and dance.
Griff noticed Alek's shaved head cocked nearby, eavesdropping on Dante's bullshit with a crooked smile. On the juke, The Rolling Stones were wailing about beasts and burdens while the crowd yowled along out of tune and 343 ghosts watched.
The girl squawked. From the look on her face and Dante's position, Griff was pretty sure he had a couple fingers inside her right there.
Jesus. Dante was always talking chicks into doing crazy, semi-legal shit with him, preferably in public, preferably in front of Griff for the full blush-a-palooza. Griff would sweat and stammer and stare at the floor, and Dante would always take it one step too far. And the weird thing was, the women usually thanked Dante afterwards, stalked him and texted him for months.
Griff snorted and gave his best friend a look. Dante loved to embarrass him, lived to see him blush. Hell, Griffin could feel the blush spread over every square inch of his body under his friend's cocky stare. His legs were probably blushing below the kilt. He almost glanced down to check but managed to keep his gaze on the cluttered bar.
Against its wet wood, that cut across Dante's knuckles looked stretched and raw. It probably needed stitches, not tape.
"What'd you do to your hand, D?"
"That is none of your business." Dante's smile got wider, but his eyes seemed hollow, staring at Griff like he wanted to be anywhere else. The muscles in his brown forearm flexed under Griff's eyes. The girl groaned at something Dante's hidden hand was doing.
"No, I meant the.... Never mind."
Griff rubbed his stubble, wishing the two of them were somewhere else, wanting a hot pepperoni slice, wanting anything but a crowded bar in Brooklyn ten years later. Suddenly, being a made-up X-rated anecdote for a married woman seemed more real than he felt. Like he was the 344th ghost. Something in his broad chest expanded, leaving him no room to breathe, crushing him from inside.
"Griffin?" Dante asked softly, as he stopped and stepped away from the brunette. His calloused hand on Griff's beefy forearm snapped him back into the room.
Griff flinched and raised his gray gaze the entire one hundred miles it took for it to reach Dante's, barely holding it together. "I gotta go."
"We gotta go," Dante spoke to the girl, cutting off her protest with a short kiss square on her mouth. "Unless you want to come with us, babe? Together, I mean. Griff's a firefighter too...."
Music pounding and people jammed together and Griffin was standing there alone in a suffocating bubble of white noise, looking at the air, counting to zero. Why did he get like this? He grunted and looked everywhere but at his best friend's handsome, worried face.
She looked at both men--the muscle, their mass--and did the math: a bed-full of two firefighters on September 11th.
Griff could see the gears turning as she bit her lip, squinting at the geometric possibilities.
She loved the idea.
He did not. "I don't think so, Dante. I need to eat and get to bed."
"That's what I'm talking about, G. You and me ain't partied together in a long time."
Griff knew exactly what his best friend was suggesting; he just didn't trust himself enough to say yes. He knew Dante wanted to help but shook his head. No.
Dante pulled Griff down, his lips almost brushing Griff's ear, and whispered, "Gimme...."
Griff shivered and nodded yes even before his best friend spoke. He was sweating, and the spunk on his inner thigh was sticky again.
"Can you gimme a sec? I'll meet you out front." Apology thickened Dante's words.
Griff kept nodding and picked his way to the door, sliding through the rowdy crowd.
When he got there, he opened it but didn't step out into the cool air, stopping instead right on the threshold of where he didn't want to be, the party boiling around him.
He did not watch Dante's smooth olive-skinned hand brushing off tonight's piece of ass so they could escape. He did not watch Dante's strong back and legs cutting through the crowd toward him like a dark knife. He did not watch the way Dante's square jaw and seal-black hair caught the light when he reached the entrance to smile in relief and wink.
Mostly he did not.
* * * *
They'd been friends forever.
Nah, that was a fucking lie.
Griff had known who Dante was since junior high. But it was 'cause of Paulie they became buddies. Paulie was Dante's older brother, and like Griff, Paulie was a varsity lineman on the local football team. In fact, Paulie and Griff had played together all junior year and a month into senior before Dante was more than his friend's jerky kid brother, which seemed crazy now.
What didn't seem crazy now?
Paulie Anastagio was one of six kids from a nutty Italian family who lived in a rambly Cobble Hill brownstone purchased before the Depression by Mrs. Anastagio's grandfather. The house sat on the seam between shithole Brooklyn and Brooklyn-getting-its-shit-together. Griff lived with his dad two blocks over in the shitty zip code.
Griff and Paulie had met at baseball camp, late summer, and hung out through junior year because of football. Nothing heavy: some double dating, some shared joints, some trashed road trips to Jersey in some girlfriend's car.
Griff's father thought football was a waste and school nothing but an opportunity to jerk off on the city's dime. What was the point of school when you knew you were gonna wind up a cop or a fireman? Until he'd met Paulie, Griff sort of agreed. In high school, he'd whacked it plenty in the back of class.
Paulie was one of those guys who was exactly what he seemed to be all the time: honest and simple and blunt as a pumpkin. He came by it naturally. At five foot nine inches, 220 pounds, Paulie was a freight train on and off the field.
First football game, Griff had heard the whole Anastagio clan yelling for his friend. Go Skyhawks! This large, swarthy famiglia shouting and clapping in the stands--black eyes and black humor. The Anastagio siblings jabbing and joking at each other till Mrs. Anastagio smacked someone's head.
When the Skyhawks won, while the team was pounding on each other's pads and the crowd hollered, Griff felt so jealous of his friend and that family he could barely look Paulie in the eye.
It didn't matter. After they'd shucked down and showered, Paulie grabbed him by the neck and Griff wound up wedged in the back of a Lincoln with Loretta Anastagio over his legs, laughing all the way to pizza and Coke. By the time the night was over, the whole family had sort of digested him, like a noisy, happy amoeba... and that was that.
Pretty soon, Griff was always eating at the Anastagios', helping Mr. A. with the gutters, carpooling with the brothers to parties or the beach, and eating out of that crazy overstuffed refrigerator. Finally, he wasn't wishing for the imaginary family he'd always wanted--it had kidnapped him.
Griff's dad didn't seem to care one way or the other. As a fire marshal, he was out on investigations at all hours and pretty much left Griff to raise himself on bologna sandwiches and Kool-Aid. Griff's mom had died when he was nine, so the Muir men had to make do.
The Anastagios threw birthday parties for him. The summer before senior year, they took him up to Lake George for a week for what they called the Annual Un-fishing Trip. And when Griff broke his arm playing basketball one night, it was Mrs. Anastagio who brought him to the hospital. He and Paulie took care of the younger ones and put up with their lip. Griff learned to be a man from Mr. A., not his own dad.
Every picture from his senior year showed Griff smiling--a thick thatch of fiery hair, shoulders like a refrigerator, standing huge and pale and shy surrounded by semi-adopted Sicilian siblings: their dark features and hard laughter.... Every photo was like the Sesame Street song: one of these things is not like the other.
Right before graduation, Paulie had gotten Veronica Nunez pregnant. The happy couple (plus little stowaway) married in June and moved to Staten Island by August. Instead of taking the fireman's exam like he'd planned, Paulie'd started working as a contractor.
As if by mutual agreement, the next brother in line stepped up to be the big brother with Griff: that was Dante, the ass-craziest Anastagio and proud of it. Trouble with extra rubble, he was. Taller and leaner and cockier than Paulie.
Griff hated him at first. Not hate-hate. But he did pop Dante in the jaw one night when he got mouthy at a strip club they'd hit with a couple of other trainees. Dante kept hassling one of the dancers, a girl they'd known in school, and wouldn't let up on her. Griff swung, Dante went down, and when he staggered to his feet with that pirate smile, blood on his lip... he just planted a big wet Italian kiss on Griff's cheek. "All right, man. All right."
Click. They were best friends. Like turning on a lamp.
They found out that they both planned to take the fireman's exam, almost a foregone conclusion. They worked out together, partied together, picked up girls together, puked together.... Brothers.
They passed the exam, Griff the first time and Dante the third. They went through probie school at Randall Island side by side. Afterward, Dante moved out to Queens, assigned to a crummy station that was always on the verge of being shuttered by budget cuts. Griff lucked out, probably because of his dad, landing a rack right there at Engine 333/Ladder 181 in Red Hook. The "Hot Hookers" was what the guys called themselves, and damn, were they and did they.
Until Griff got married, he and Dante still hung out weekends--drank, tanked, even shared a couple girls. Dante was always juggling three or four or more women.
A lot of the guys in the station did. Everyone knew young firefighters couldn't keep it in their pants. Nature of the job: twenty-four-hour shifts, constant exercise, testosterone, waiting around the station cooking and pulling pud and washing the truck. Chicks noticed and were always wanting to show their gratitude. And the schedule made quick excuses easy. Sorry babe, I had to work a double. Yeah, sure: double Ds with a buddy on a round waterbed at a sex hotel in Jersey. Home on Tuesday, hon.
All firefighters played around, but Dante's appetite was legendary--food, fucking, fun... any order, any combo. Two years into the job and Dante had a fiancee named Shelly, a girlfriend called Maxine, and a couple friends with benefits on the side in case of erectile emergency. And somehow he juggled all of them pretty smoothly, replacing them as they got boring. Sometimes it almost seemed like the chicks didn't mind sharing him so long as he pretended they were the one and only while they were fucking. Whatever it was Dante did to these girls, they couldn't get enough.
Griff was always supposed to be his best man, but Dante's love life never paused long enough to actually put a ring on anyone's hand. Shelly turned into Lauren... then Bethany... then Krysta. Fiancees out the wazoo, but never a wedding.
Even though the bride hated his "arrogant ass," Dante was best man at Griff's wedding to Leslie Kiernan, which did happen. Then the best man spent the reception going down on the maid of honor in the parking lot in her boyfriend's jeep. Boys will be toys.
Dante got away with everything. And somehow everyone loved him for it even after they'd split. In a way, he acted out fantasies for all his buddies. Fires and females put out like clockwork for Dante. Just the way he was built.
And then 9/11 came and the Towers fell.
* * * *
"10-60 has been transmitted for the World Trade Center, 10-60 for the World Trade Center."
Soon as the planes hit, every FDNY house had sprinted for the Twin Towers. Trucks poured into lower Manhattan, threading through the insanity in the streets. Smoke everywhere. Ash falling. Jumpers. Carnage. Streets muffled under shredded paper, shin-deep. People wandering dazed, covered in grit, stumbling in a thick gray blizzard. Shuffling armies of wage slaves trying to get home, to get to a phone, to get off the fucking island before it sank.
To pull the eight engines and five trucks required for a major emergency, dispatch had pulled units from Brooklyn and Queens. Griff's engine had been one of the first on the scene 'cause they were just over the river. Even after the second plane hit, the crews were hauling ass to get people out safely, to contain the situation. Twenty-five engines, sixteen trucks, probably six battalions. No one expected the Towers to actually come down; a lot of guys had rushed inside trying to get civilians out.
Then--motherfuck--World Trade 2 did exactly that, and then it was worse than anything any of them had ever seen.
Griff had been street level, humping hose into 90 Church Street, when he heard a boom and a strange roar, and then this black cloud slammed through the streets, chasing them. Rubble and paper churning around him, he tried to outrun the pitch dark, but it caught him and threw him through a plateglass window, so he had to crawl blind through the smoldering fog to the rig. Zero visibility on a sunny morning.
The Big Apple lost its mind.
Command was wiped out. Hundreds of men missing. Griff was helping do search and recover with his crew in the subway at Cortlandt Street when he heard Dante's name on the radio, some emergency call from the site of the north tower before it went too.
Without thinking, Griff called the Anastagios, or tried to--two hours after the crash there was still no cell service, and phone lines were crippled with people wanting answers and people calling their families to say goodbye from inside the wreckage. Still no count of the victims and wounded and what was the point, really? He tried to call his wife, same deal. They were in a bubble down here.
Dante could have been anywhere. Apparently, closer in you could still hear victims trapped beneath the rubble, begging for help. The news stations figured it was World War Three. Nobody knew anything yet. The body count might be as high as 20,000; the whole city scrabbled to get a straight answer.
Griff just put one foot in front of the other and tried to save a few folks, letting the eyewash stations clean his soot-caked eyes over and over so he could keep searching. He heard other planes had gone down, in Washington, but it was hard to tell and facts were thin on the ground. Some monster had punched a hole in New York, and hope was draining out of it into the river. Here he was, trying to find one person in the thick of it, feeling as blind and dumb and useless as anyone. Some fucking hero.
Griff picked his way in as close as he could to the Pit to keep an eye out. World Trade Center 7 collapsed in the early evening. Praying he'd hear Dante's name again from someone down here, he worked with the crews that whole night like a zombie, his face gray under the ash. Everyone choking on the smell of acetylene torches and worse. Looking for his best friend and helping a few lost souls along the way. Thousands of people searching for family and coworkers who'd literally disappeared into thin air.
Griff cut people out of cars and carried people to the ambulances. He rescued a starved Labrador with a broken leg, trapped in a deli licking milk off the linoleum. He found a pregnant paralegal shuffling barefoot in the powdered concrete, her shoes lost, her eyes lost, and pointed her toward the Bridge so she could walk home to her kids.
No one had seen Dante since that call from the second tower, but Griff kept asking and looking and listening for that one name, day and night and day. Thirty-seven straight hours with no sleep, and then Griff tore his hand open trying to lift a mailbox off a corpse in a $1,600 suit. He didn't even notice he was bleeding till one of the paramedics was in his face shouting at him.
Shock. He was in shock.
They put him in an ambulance and herded him to one of the emergency tents that had bloomed like miracles around Ground Zero. People groaning and whimpering and choking on the dust. He couldn't feel anything. Some wetneck resident in scrubs sewed his hand together and told him to go home; instead, he went looking through Hell for Dante.
* * * *
It took five hours and most of his sanity.
"Are you family?" The Army Reserve nurse eyed his pasty skin and bright hair. Her eyes scanned a clipboard quickly. She flipped a page of scrawled notes.
They were walking through the wide, echoing hallways at Bellevue where there seemed to be acres of grimy patients on gurneys squirming slowly like someone had lifted a rock and shone a painful light on grubs. Clusters of weeping, frantic families who thought the world might end at any minute, desperate just to say goodbye and love.
"Brother." Griff knew he looked insane. His mauled hand itched.
She tapped her notes. "He was pinned in a stairwell, but he dragged himself and his partner out a vent in time. Crazy mofo, sounds like."
"You have no idea."
They turned a corner and everything was suddenly okay.
Dante lay curled on his side, his black hair dusty and the top half of his face livid with bruises and small cuts. The paramedics had cut him out of his clothes, and the gown was bunched over his sooty hip. Dante's eyes and hands twitched, dreaming. His curved lips seemed too red and too dark, like a tattoo of a mouth. He coughed in his sleep, and somehow it was Dante's voice coughing, even from across the room.
Griff would've known it anywhere, and he almost pissed his pants he was so relieved, choking on lungfuls of air as he went to his best friend.
Dit-dit-dit. The nurse's pager went off, and she headed back into the groaning sea of gurneys in the vast hallway; she didn't even look at Griff, and he wouldn't have noticed if she had. Griff's strong legs suddenly gave out, and he went down on a knee by the thin cot.
Thank you, God. Thank you, God.
He wished Dante would make another sound, any sound. He leaned over that tired face just to hear him breathing, the exact music of Dante's breath. Kneeling so close, he wanted to put his dusty ear to his friend's chest to hear the miraculous lub-dub of Dante still living.
You asshole. Had to be a fuckin' hero--
Griff's blunt fingers fumbled over Dante's wrist and took his rough hand. Suddenly he knew New York was gonna be okay. They were all going to survive.
Dante shifted a little, just barely squeezed back, and made one of those comfortable grunts in the back of his throat. Like someone had made a joke in his dream and he was gonna start laughing.
Griff's deep red hair stood on end and his heart was suddenly too huge and too hot for his ribs, beating against its cage.
- Plip -
Something wet fell on their linked knuckles making the ash and grit run and Griff realized that he was crying-crying-crying and he didn't know how to stop it felt so good to let the tears slide free and clean... the acid draining out of his head so it could stop burning. His mouth open and weeping 'cause a hole had been punched in him. Big gulps of disinfected air and his thick right knee bouncing with the last of his nerves. He couldn't make himself stand up.
He raised his other hand to smooth Dante's ragged, matted hair so he could see and then froze, because who knew what kind of injuries there might be. He couldn't move, his stitched, pale hand hovering over Dante's olive forehead, over the eyelashes inky soft against his cheek.
Griff watched his torn hand pull back slowly, like it belonged to a stranger. Would they let him stay? He was in shock, right? He had a right to be in the hospital. If the doctors wanted to move him, they could fuck off. He stiffened like a feral dog guarding pups.
Dante squeezed his fingers again, just barely, like a dream.
The relief was so sharp it made him gasp.
Nose running, Griff used his free hand to fish out his cell and dial the Anastagios so they could cry and shout and pass the phone around in relief; then he remembered that there was no signal, that it was just them there then, alone together, that he couldn't reach anyone anywhere--so he told God instead.
* * * *
The nightmares started a week later.
Griff wasn't alone by a long shot. It happened to a lot of them after the World Trade. Guys who'd escaped. Men who'd watched their friends, their family, burned and mangled next to them at Ground Zero. The FDNY remains proudly hereditary, so brothers had died together, fathers with sons-in-law, uncles, and cousins.
The Pit had bitten off chunks of people. Whole stations were incapacitated, hearts broken on every block. Half the trucks went on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds. There were 343 instant vacancies and more retiring daily. They'd all looked into the abyss and it kept right on looking back, window-shopping for damnation, it seemed.
The reality was killing the FDNY survivors on the ground, but the fireman fantasy had taken hold of the whole country. They were the shining heroes of the moment. Movie stars and rappers wore firefighter merchandise. Firemen's wives split and who cared, 'cause suddenly every woman in the Tri-state area wanted to slob their knobs by way of thanks. These charming lunatics had walked through hell in a gasoline overcoat.
Dante recovered quickly, no scars and few solid memories of that week, let alone that day. But something small had changed in him. He was still a loose cannon, but he stayed away from crowds more and stuck close to his friends and family; within the year he put in for a transfer to Griff's truck in Red Hook, closer to home, he said. He scraped together a down payment on a falling-down brownstone a half-mile from his folks.
Griff's wife Leslie snapped after seven months, and who could blame her? She'd never understood his love of the job. Now, Griff couldn't stay still for more than ten minutes; they hadn't slept together since the attacks. Wedding Night of the Living Dead. He agreed to a no-contest divorce and she moved back in with her parents in Yonkers.
Griff couldn't feel anything, let alone sad. He tried to miss her, but he was proud of her for saving her own life. Divorce happened to so many of the guys it was practically expected. He even told himself it was no big deal. He was a bachelor again. Yeah. Knowing it was a mistake, he moved back into his lonely basement bedroom at his dad's and started bouncing at the Stone Bone so he could pay rent.
Like Dante, Griff was different too, although he couldn't have said how. He barely slept, even with pills and bourbon. And he started panicking about the Anastagios' safety, especially Dante's. Drive-bys at three in the morning became a regular thing, just to check, sometimes sleeping in his car out front and leaving when the sun came up, checking and rechecking to make sure they hadn't disappeared. That they didn't plan to. That everyone was still here.
When he visited any of the Anastagios, he'd excuse himself to the bathroom and test windows and locks, fuses and fire alarms. It was like sand in his sheets, the nagging fear that he'd overlook a detail and his adopted family would die, leaving him trapped in the basement of his father's empty house.
Griff knew he was losing his shit, but he couldn't seem to make himself think that keeping his shit together was worth the trouble.
Hotheaded, crazy-ass, short-fuse, seat-of-his-pants Dante Anastagio became the rock that every Brooklyn firehouse leaned on. Maybe it was years of living like a one-man circus, but nothing fazed Dante: puke, tears, hallucinations... nothing. He started fixing up that enormous, crappy townhouse in Cobble Hill near his folks and, typical Dante, just decided to open the doors to the walking wounded. He loaned money he didn't have. He gave barbecues and hookers and tires to everyone he knew and a lot of guys he didn't, but no one was as grateful as Griff.
Dante saved him.
"Hey, Goliath! What are you moping over?" Dante's face would jam into his in some Staten Island cop bar. Griff would shake his head and shake it off, remembering that Dante was right here breathing whiskey on him and that he didn't have anyone to grieve over. Yet.
"Fucking eat something, ya mook." Dante making fifteen pounds of chicken parm for the station, slapping a full plate in front of Griff and not budging till he shoveled a saucy forkful into his mouth. Dante telling jokes and patting his back in circles while he made himself chew like a robot.
"That's all you, man. She wants a slice of Vanilla Gorilla." Dante getting him laid by a chubby stewardess at Paulie's wedding anniversary when all Griff felt like doing was going to funerals and memorials and midnight Mass so he could cry in public and not feel like a fucking coward. Dante would show up in church wearing a suit with no underwear, nudging Griff in the ribs and pointing to the little sprouts poking through the ashes of his shitty life.
He got better. Dante kept forcing him to face normal life until it was normal again, and he was grateful to the point of obsession.
It had snuck up on Griff. He still couldn't say exactly when it had happened, only when he'd realized. Dante was the best friend he'd ever had in his life. They'd grown up together, yeah. And they were family, sure. But Dante had become his axis, a vital organ necessary for his survival. Whole days would go by with nothing but those occasional two hours of Dante to make him feel like a human being. The world was this barren, radioactive junkyard he had to survive between Dante taking off and Dante coming back again. Even though they were two guys, the thought of losing him felt like amputation using a fork with no anesthesia.
Griff had panic attacks. He imagined muggings and wrecks and illnesses that might visit Dante, even though they didn't. He dreamed up revenges and rescues and cures that never took place. He knew it was weird. And somehow, Dante sensed his panic and never said anything. He just fucking knew and stood beside him and Griff was grateful, grateful like a kid pulled out of a burning school.
The smoke and the smell cleared, and the Big Apple climbed back up onto its branch. As a big fucking thank you, the dirtbag mayor decided to close down a bunch of firehouses and retire old-timers to balance his shitty budget. But little by little, the men of the FDNY put Humpty-Dumpty together again.
Even Griff. Even though he knew that Dante had done most of it for him while he was a zombie. Even if he had all these awful feelings for his friend, for a man, that he couldn't control. In their world, two guys together was impossible.
Two guys? Bad idea.
"Too bad we ain't queer, you and me," Dante said one night at the Stone Bone and planted a firm kiss on Griff's ginger-stubbled cheek and tipped their foreheads together. Griff almost choked on his Guinness Extra Cold. "Think of all the money we'd save on booze and roses."
Then Dante left with a pair of sisters who kept him tied up most of that weekend. Literally... French bowlines with their stockings. He didn't know that he'd left Griff in knots of his own, worrying how easy it would be to fuck up the friendship that was holding him together, to lose the one person beside him. Two towers, alone together.