When Johnny Met Joanne

by Rona

It was rather like watching your husband take a step back into childhood, Joanne DeSoto mused. But it was a part of his childhood that Joanne had never seen and since she had known Roy since they were in 4th grade, she thought it was quite poignant. Roy finally had a ‘best friend’ and he was reveling in it.

In actual fact, he was in danger of becoming a bore on the subject of John Gage. Joanne had yet to meet John, but he seemed to frequent their dinner table an awful lot these days. Of course, with Roy repeating the paramedic course, he was home for dinner each day and that was something of a novelty in and of itself. She didn’t mind him talking about the course, although she could see no good reason for him to go through it a second time, as he had passed with flying colors the first time, but she was getting rather fed up with the stories of what John Gage had said or done each day. Still, she was sure there were times when she had something she really wanted to share and went on about it overly long and she was determined that she wouldn’t say something that would hurt Roy’s feelings.

There again, she might. “You want John Gage to be your paramedic partner?” Joanne echoed, disbelief coloring her voice. “Why?”

“He’s very good,” Roy replied, sounding defensive now. “He’s going to be the best and I want to work with the best. Besides, I like him and we work together well. I’d rather work with someone I like.”

“You always say you can work with anyone,” Joanne reminded him. She was proud of his patient, easy-going nature.

“Yes, I can,” Roy agreed, “but I want to work with someone I really like and I really like Johnny.”

“But he might not pass,” Joanne argued, hoping fervently that he wouldn’t. She didn’t think she could bear stories about him after every shift.

“Oh, he’ll pass,” Roy predicted confidently. “He’ll pass at the top of the class. There’s no question about that.”

“How can you be so sure?” she enquired curiously.

“We’ve been studying together,” Roy replied. “He learns really quickly and uses what he knows to put together the next part of the training. He’s a natural.”

“Well, if that’s what you want,” Joanne replied dubiously. “Will they let you choose?”

“After all the work I’ve put into this program? They’d better.” Roy took a sip of his coffee. He loved it when it was just them and the children were in bed. “I just wish they would hurry up and put the bill forward authorizing paramedics so it can be passed.”

“I hope so, too,” Joanne agreed, for this was another subject she had heard about endlessly and while she totally supported Roy, she was tired of hearing about the bill’s passage into law – or the lack of its passage. She decided that it was time for a change of subject before she bit her tongue in half keeping her opinions to herself. Joanne curled up beside Roy and reached up to kiss him.

That changed the subject nicely.

***********

It was billed as John Gage’s birthday party and indeed, it was Johnny’s birthday. However, it had come as something of a surprise to Johnny when Dixie suggested that she throw him a party. He hadn’t had a birthday party since he was a child and he was pretty sure that nobody would come. Besides, the party was really because the paramedic bill was going to open hearings and they knew it was only a matter of time before it was passed.

If they got the support they needed. And if they could persuade Dr Brackett to give them that support. Johnny was not sure Brackett would give them that support. He and Brackett had been clashing regularly since classes started and Johnny wasn’t sure that Brackett would turn up to the party given those circumstances. It wasn’t that he disliked Brackett; he didn’t. He could see that Brackett was a good doctor, but Brackett didn’t really want the paramedics. That made for a slightly sticky situation, as Johnny, now that he had signed up and done the training, was completely gung-ho for them. Using paramedics was going to transform emergency medicine. Johnny was a convert.

The party was a success, by and large. Johnny was surprised by the number of people who had turned up, Brackett included. There had been an unpleasant scene just after Brackett arrived and Johnny had to admit that he had been the cause of it, attacking Brackett and asking if he was disappointed in their success at getting the bill into open hearings. Although Johnny had a lot of support, he felt bad at creating a scene and worse when Brackett stormed out. Johnny had put as good a face on it as he could and had eventually enjoyed the end of the party.

There was one other thing that bothered Johnny when he thought about the party. And that was the look Joanne DeSoto had given him when he lit into Brackett.

It wasn’t as though Joanne had hesitated in giving Brackett her thoughts on the matter. She had undoubtedly been a bit nicer than Johnny had, and she was coming at it slightly removed from the situation, but there had been no need for her to shoot him that black look. Or the black looks he saw later in the evening when he was flirting with a couple of women, neither of whom were his date.

Usually, Johnny got on all right with women. More than all right with women. He genuinely liked them and they seemed to sense that and responded to it. He was young, good looking and fun to be with. He wasn’t looking to settle down yet, although he thought a couple of kids would be nice sometime in the future. He was respectful, didn’t swear in front of his dates and had every concern for their comfort and enjoyment. Why did he have the feeling Joanne DeSoto thought he was a sleaze-ball?

Sitting on the bench in front of his locker in Station 51, Johnny pondered his problem as he changed for roll call. He and Roy had hit it off from the first – well, once Johnny had got past his initial shyness, that is. He had been taken by the passion the other man had for the concepts of paramedics and was now just as passionate about it as Roy. Johnny had been flattered that Roy had requested him for a partner at the comparatively new Station 51 and their friendship had grown. The only fly in the ointment was Joanne, who had made it quite clear to Johnny that she didn’t like him.

They had met precisely twice. The first time had been at the party and Johnny was honest enough to know that he hadn’t shown himself in the best light. The second time, Joanne had come to collect Roy after a shift, bringing with her their two small children. The kids had a great time swarming all over the squad and engine and had really taken to Johnny in a big way.

Joanne had barely said hello.

Now, Johnny really liked his partner but there were occasions when Roy was not the most sensitive of men when it came to atmospheres. That was just one of those guy things and Johnny didn’t hold it against Roy. Johnny knew he was thin-skinned about things and could be over-sensitive, but he was sure he wasn’t imagining this snub. He glanced at Roy and saw that his partner looked utterly dismayed.

Completely non-plussed, Johnny disentangled himself from the children and managed to make a discreet exit, going into the locker room. He sat down in his locker and looked at his hands. He was shaking slightly. What had he done to offend Joanne DeSoto?

**********

“What was that about?” Roy asked after they arrived home.

“What?” Joanne asked, looking confused.

“At the station,” Roy elaborated, but Joanne still looked confused.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she replied as the kids swarmed out to play in the backyard. “I didn’t notice anything at the station.”

“I’m talking about Johnny.” Roy was starting to look irritated.

“What about Johnny?” Joanne answered wearily.

“You ignored him,” Roy declared.

“I did not!”

“Yes you did, Joanne. If you said hello to him, that’s all you said. He was hurt! I was embarrassed. Why don’t you like him?”

“I don’t know him!” Joanne shot back, interrupting. “How could I dislike him?”

“That’s what I was wondering,” Roy retorted. “You were nice to everyone else, yet you snubbed John, who is my partner. He’s the guy who’s minding my back. I thought you would want to get to know him, so that you know you can trust him.”

“He’s too young to be your partner,” Joanne declared bitterly. “He’s just a kid.”

“He’s older than he looks.” Roy didn’t want to fight with Joanne, but he was angry at the way she had ignored Johnny. “And that’s not the point. You don’t like him.”

“No, I don’t!” she agreed. “You speak about him all the time, Roy! Every time we sit down to eat, you come up with some new story about what Johnny did that shift and I’m bored of hearing about him. You’re acting like a kid who has a crush on their new best friend and I’m fed up of it! I don’t want to hear his name again!”

“Fine.” Roy’s face was utterly calm, but Joanne knew he was not only angry but hurt, too. “But know this, Joanne. Johnny is my partner and that is not going to change, regardless of how you feel. And the next time you meet him, you will be polite to him or I will know the reason why.” He turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.

Shaken, Joanne watched him go and cursed the fates that had thrown Johnny Gage into her husband’s life.

**********

It was a subdued John Gage who appeared for their next shift. Roy looked at the younger man as he came into the locker room and shot a small smile at Roy before ducking his head and starting to change. “Hey, Johnny,” Roy said. “You all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Johnny replied quietly.

“Johnny, I wanted to apologize for Joanne,” Roy started. He had been so embarrassed about Joanne’s behavior the other day and was angry with himself for not apologizing to Johnny there and then. “I don’t know what got into her the other morning, but I’m sorry she snubbed you.”

“It’s not your fault,” Johnny replied, his eyes still downcast.

“I should have said something the other day,” Roy persisted. “John, you’re my friend. I’m sorry my wife was rude. It won’t happen again.”

“Roy, don’t worry about it,” Johnny answered. He looked up and met Roy’s eyes. “I’m fine.”

Seeing the hurt that still lingered in Johnny’s brown eyes, Roy wasn’t so sure, but he was a man and talking about feelings was not easy for him and he nodded and let the subject drop. Although Johnny was a bit quiet for the rest of that day, he started to come around and talk a bit more.

The chief topic of conversation was the fact that they had to go on runs with nurses. To say it was frustrating was a sweeping understatement. Roy and Johnny had already had a close encounter with Brackett’s ire when Johnny flagrantly disobeyed his instructions to do nothing and had treated three injured people – one of whom was Dixie McCall. The paramedic bill was due to go before the state legislature and they had high hopes of it passing – assuming they could get someone to speak for it. The obvious choice was Brackett and he was the staunchest opponent of the bill.

Standing in the hospital, later that day, Johnny and Roy were talking to Dixie when they were toned out to a tunnel collapse. It was a long, cold, frustrating night, trying to help the workers who had been injured and not having a nurse with them, either.

The worst part was when they freed a worker trapped under a tunneling machine. As they and a couple of other firefighters battled to raise the huge teeth of the machine, the wall behind them gave way, showering the rescuers with rocks, dirt and water. Both Johnny and Roy were soaked to the skin as they hoisted the injured man to safety and realized that he was almost certainly going to die because they were not yet legally qualified.

“Roy, I was wrong before,” Johnny told his partner earnestly. “The last thing we want is for us to foul up and the bill fails to pass because we did wrong. Brackett covered for us last time, but he won’t do it again.”

Snatching up the biophone, Roy called in. “Rampart, this is squad 51.”

“Go ahead, 51,” came Dixie’s voice.

“We have a male, approximately 60 with known heart condition. He was trapped under the blades of a tunneling machine. We have extricated him. He is diaphoretic and his breathing is shallow.”

“51, do you have him patched in?” asked Brackett’s voice.

“That’s affirmative,” Roy nodded.

“Send a strip,” Brackett requested. He looked at it and knew they could save this man if they acted now. He made his decision. “Hit him!” he ordered.

“We’re not certified,” Roy objected.

“Yes you are,” Brackett told them, although he had not had official confirmation. Well, whatever happened, he would carry the can and if that meant never treating another patient, he would have to try and live with that decision. “Hit him!”

After another pause, Johnny took action and charged the defibrillator. He had to shock the patient twice before they got a conversion, but it was worth it. The man’s appearance improved immediately. Brackett issued more orders and they got to work setting up the IV and administering the drugs. It was a huge high.

By the time the whole scene was cleaned up, it was morning and both the paramedics were exhausted. Their brief meeting with Brackett was oddly stilted and Brackett seemed almost embarrassed that he had changed his mind and flown to Sacramento and spoken to the committee. Johnny couldn’t figure it out, but Roy didn’t even try.

He arrived home late that morning and as Joanne greeted him at the door, he grabbed her into his arms and swung her around in giddy circles. “Roy, stop!” she cried, laughing. “You’re filthy!” He still had large smudges of dirt on his face.

“Oh, Joanne, you’ll never guess,” he crowed. “We’re licensed! No more travelling with nurses, no more being supervised! The bill passed! It was signed into law late last night.”

“That’s wonderful!” Joanne cried and hugged Roy harder. He husband had been fighting for this moment for so long.

“We saved a man’s life,” Roy rattled on. “Johnny got to use the defibrillator. He was really cool about it.”

“Why did Johnny get to use it first?” Joanne demanded, jealous of Roy’s position as the first paramedic and annoyed at the mention of Johnny’s name.

“It’s not a competition between us,” Roy said, his elation starting to drain away. “Johnny was right beside the equipment and space was an issue.”

Seeing that she had put her foot in it again, Joanne hastily sought an excuse for her comment. “Aw, honey, I didn’t mean anything,” she wheedled. “I was just disappointed you didn’t get to do it first, that’s all.” She put her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.

Mollified, Roy laughed. “I love you,” he said. “I’ve gotta go shower.”

“Good idea,” Joanne laughed and waved him towards the bathroom. But the minute his back was turned, she lost the smile. She had wanted Roy to be the first paramedic to do the job legally and she resented Johnny Gage for usurping his place. Roy deserved the glory, not some kid who was still wet behind the ears.

***********

“Why don’t we have a barbeque to celebrate this weekend?” Roy suggested as they finished dinner. “We’re off over the weekend. We can invite the guys. It’ll be fun.”

“I guess,” Joanne agreed, with something less than enthusiasm. “But, Roy, the guys are mostly bachelors. Will they behave around the kids?”

“Honey, they’re firemen, not Neanderthals,” Roy laughed. “Of course they’ll behave. We’ll ask Dr Brackett, Dr Early and Dixie along, too. Cap will bring his wife. It’ll be great.”

“All right,” Joanne agreed, although she wondered how on earth she would manage to squeeze the cost of the extra food out of their already tight budget for that week.

“I’ll phone them now,” Roy decided and headed off before Joanne could try and change his mind.

While she listened to him calling his various shift mates, Joanne went to make out a list of things they would need. At the moment, 3 year old Jennifer and 5 year old Chris were at friends, so she had peace to think. Joanne loved her kids dearly and she had always wanted children, but they hadn’t intended on having them quite so early on in their marriage. However, Christopher had come along little more than 12 months after they tied the knot and Jenny was not that much further behind. It was rare that Joanne wondered if they hadn’t become parents too young, but this was one of those times. Most of the guys at 51 were about the same age as Roy and were single. The engineer, Mike Stoker, was a little older and Cap of course was a lot older. Still, would a bunch of men forget to watch their language around a couple of kids?

“That’s settled,” Roy declared, coming into the kitchen. “Cap is bringing burgers and rolls. Mike is bringing hot dogs. Marco is making salsa, Chet is doing soda and Johnny is bringing the salad.”

“They don’t need to do that,” Joanne protested. They might be poor, but she could still afford to feed their friends.

“I know, but Cap and the others offered,” Roy replied. “Relax, honey. It’s all settled.”

**********

She had thought an afternoon with Johnny there, diluted by the other men, would be easy to handle. Yet somehow, it wasn’t. John had been the first one to arrive, smiling shyly when she opened the door and offering her some flowers. Joanne had thanked him graciously, for it was a kind thought. How was he to know that Joanne detested lilies, that they gave her a dreadful headache? She said nothing and just popped them into the utility room for Roy to dispose of later.

It was a little awkward for the first few minutes with the guys, as none of them had visited the others’ homes before, but as Roy went out to start cooking, Johnny and the others followed and Joanne, Dixie and Mrs. Hammer, Cap’s wife, sorted out the cold food and put the buns on platters.

Shrieks from the children brought Joanne rushing to the window to see them rolling about on the grass with none other than John Gage. The children were filthy, which often seemed to Joanne to be their favored state, and the knee of Chris’s jeans were torn and grass stained. Joanne was furious. Those jeans were brand new! Now she would have to try and repair them, because they couldn’t afford to buy him more jeans for several months.

Biting her lip, Joanne turned away and hoped she could hide her anger from the other women. They had seen nothing amiss and the chatty atmosphere soon had Joanne relaxing again. It wasn’t often that she had a kitchen full of women to talk to.

Her state of relaxation only lasted until they started eating. Plates were piled high as the hungry men devoured the burgers and dogs, salads, coleslaw and salsa. And there it was, the thing Joanne had dreaded most. John Gage was talking with his mouth full.

Everyone spoke with their mouths full occasionally. But not as full as Johnny did. His mouth was stuffed to the limits and everyone got a look at the semi-masticated food inside as he laid off about something one of the others had said. It was all Joanne could do not to throw up on the spot. “Do you mind!” she snapped as the kids stared in fascination at Johnny.

Blinking, rather taken aback, because he wasn’t quite sure what he had done wrong, Johnny closed his mouth slowly. There was a stunned silence as everyone sought to look elsewhere and not catch anyone’s eye. Johnny was about to ask what was wrong when he caught Roy’s gesture and quickly swallowed. “Sorry,” he apologized meekly.

After a moment, Chet said something overly hearty and everyone laughed and conversation picked up again. Joanne gave Johnny one last glare and turned round to give Jenny some more salad. His appetite gone, Johnny put his plate down and after a few minutes, discreetly got to his feet and slipped into the house.

Mortally embarrassed and ashamed of himself, Johnny found his way to the bathroom and sat on the closed toilet seat. He knew better than to speak with his mouth full most of the time, but sometimes, he got excited and forgot. Where he grew up, manners didn’t count; getting food into your stomach was the most important thing. It was easy to forget your manners when you were eating picnic style. Johnny buried his face in his hands. He had hoped to impress Joanne today and had just done the complete opposite. He thought it was time he made a quick exit, without saying goodbye. Joanne already thought he was a manner-less oaf – he might as well seal her disapproval once and for all.

However, his plans were scuppered the moment he opened the bathroom door and saw Chris and Jennifer waiting for him. “C’mon, Uncle Johnny!” Chris cried, grabbing one of his hands. “Come and play with us.” Jenny grabbed his other hand.

Uncle Johnny? He couldn’t wait to see Joanne’s face when she heard her children calling him that! With a knot of apprehension in his stomach, he obediently followed the children outside.

The table that the food was on looked as though it had fed the five thousand, not just half a dozen firemen, three ladies, two doctors and two children. The men were now lounging on the steps of the decking and throwing out various suggestions for games. Johnny by-passed them, pulled by his two new friends and went back to playing with them on the grass.

It was only when Johnny was cajoled away from the children into a game of volleyball that his new appellation was revealed to the rest of the group. “Aw, Uncle Johnny!” Jenny pouted. “That’s not fair.”

Uncle Johnny?” Chet queried. “Roy, when did you adopt Gage?”

“You’d need to ask the kids,” Roy teased. “C’mon, Uncle Johnny, you’re on my team. Kids, Uncle Johnny is going to play with the adults for a while. You’ve had your turn.” He silenced the protests with a single ‘look’ and pulled Johnny over to join the make-shift game.

“I do think that’s sweet,” Mrs. Hammer remarked. “It must be so nice for you that your children really like your husband’s partner.”

“Johnny’s a good guy,” Dixie agreed. “Small wonder the kids love him. He’s really good with kids on rescues, too. It really helps.”

Rising to clear the table, Joanne made a sound that could pass for agreement. But she was seething. How dare he suggest the kids call him ‘uncle’!

***********

The children were in bed, exhausted, and the others had gone after helping with the tidying up. Johnny had been the first to leave, thanking Joanne politely for having him and hugging the children goodbye. He was relieved to be going and he hoped he had been able to keep it hidden from everyone else. Roy had such a nice home and family and Johnny had wanted to enjoy the atmosphere. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

Driving home, Johnny reflected on his life. Growing up on a reservation as a half-breed hadn’t been easy. It had become more difficult when his parents had died in a car accident when he was eight. There had been no immediate relatives who could be traced and Johnny had spent the next two years in an orphanage. He had quickly learned that if he didn’t eat as fast as he could, he wouldn’t eat at all. From there, he had moved on to a foster home, where the people had been kindly enough, but seldom bothered with him. While he was there, his aunt, who had been abroad when his parents had been killed, finally traced him and brought him to live with her in LA.

That had brought him much-needed stability and Johnny had knuckled down to his school work, running 440 in the track team and editing the school newspaper. He had decided not to go to college because his aunt couldn’t afford it and he wanted to start earning his own living so he didn’t have to keep taking her money. After watching firefighters at work at a crash site near his school, Johnny was suddenly consumed with the desire to become a firefighter. He took the test and qualified for the Academy.

It soon became apparent that John had made the right career choice. He went on to train as a rescue man and quickly earned himself a reputation as fearless. Then along had come the paramedics. Although initially skeptical, Johnny knew now that he had made the right decision.

But he was sometimes lonely. He had moved out of his aunt’s house after he got his first permanent posting and had a little money saved. His aunt had gone off abroad again and he had no other family. A gregarious man, John led a busy social life, dating and seeing friends, but he missed his aunt when he needed someone to talk to. His burgeoning friendship with Roy had seemed to offer him a chance at someone else that cared about him and he had hoped that Roy’s family would be accepting of him, too.

“Well, they aren’t,” he told himself aloud. “Get over it.”

He knew it wouldn’t be that easy.

**********

“When did you tell the kids to start calling him Uncle?” Joanne asked. They were nominally watching some TV show, but Joanne hadn’t been following the plot at all, her mind replaying the afternoon’s events.

“Hmm?” Roy dragged his attention from ‘the box’ and looked at Joanne for a moment before her question sank in. “Oh. I didn’t. They must have decided to do that themselves.”

“I doubt that,” Joanne replied. “John must have suggested they call him that. What a cheek!”

“Knowing Johnny, I’m certain he would have done no such thing,” Roy retorted. “And knowing the kids, it’s entirely possible that they decided to adopt him. Why not? He’s my partner and he’s a good guy.”

“His manners are dreadful. I could just see the kids were ready to copy him and talk with their mouths full. It’s disgusting! How can you put up with that?” She shuddered.

“There isn’t much call for table manners at a fire house,” Roy replied shortly. “You know how often I’ve come home and haven’t had all my meals the previous day. You eat as fast as you can and it does get to be a habit. I come home to you after each shift, but remember; Johnny is a bachelor and doesn’t have anyone to remind him that he can take his time to eat a meal.”

“I don’t see why the kids want to call him uncle,” Joanne went on. “It’s not as if they know him all that well.”

“After the way he played with them this afternoon, I don’t think you can say that,” Roy objected. “And I don’t mind. He’s going to be around a lot for years to come and I for one think it’s great the kids have claimed him as part of the family.”

Not wanting to start an argument, but not happy about the direction the conversation had taken, Joanne changed the subject slightly. “What did you do with those ghastly lilies?” she asked.

“I gave them to Mrs. Hammer,” Roy replied, his attention drifting back to the television. “It’s a shame you’re allergic to them, because it was a nice gesture from Johnny and they can’t have been cheap. I wonder if he could really afford to buy them.”

“You manage to keep a family on your salary,” Joanne reminded him. “Johnny’s single. He won’t have anything like the same expenses.”

“Still...” Roy mused. He had nothing to back up the feeling he had that Johnny was not well off, even given he was a single man, but the feeling refused to go away. John was a mystery man in many ways and Roy just hoped that as their friendship deepened, Johnny would open up and tell him something about his life.

**********

Roy was right. Johnny didn’t have much money to spare. He was saving hard to get himself out of the low-rent apartment complex that had been his base since he first left home. He also sent money to his aunt every month as a thank you for rescuing him from the foster system. He knew he didn’t have to, but he also knew his aunt didn’t have much money either and in his culture, you looked after your elders. He made sure to keep money aside for emergencies, having been caught out a few times when he first left home when unexpected bills – like car repairs – crept up on him. He hated the thought of being in debt and so was careful, if not downright mean, with his money. Having had nothing at all made him appreciate all that he had now.

The apartment building he lived in was not an attractive place, but he kept it clean and his neighbors were all nice people. The neighborhood around was not the best, but Johnny had not had any trouble. Still, he wanted to move on, find a nicer place and maybe buy somewhere of his own. It was this thought that kept him saving hard. His dream was to have a place with some land, so that he could have a horse of his own. He had had a pony as a child and had ridden as often as he could when he was growing up. Johnny was good with horses and an excellent rider. When he was a child, he had wanted to be a cowboy. The thought often made him smile.

One day, probably in the not too distant future, Johnny thought he would tell Roy about his life. He had been wary of sharing too much about it over the years as he had met with ignorance and prejudice on more than one occasion. Johnny felt that Roy was going to be a really special friend, someone over and above the normal cut of friendship.

With a sigh, Johnny realized that he was going to have to try even harder with his best friend’s wife.

**********

Two shifts later, Roy was injured.

They had been called out to an accident on a building site. It was in a poorer area and just looking at the site told the men that an accident had been waiting to happen. The scaffolding was not secured properly; it wasn’t cordoned off to keep the public out and half the workers didn’t have on protective gear.

Their victim was lying under a pile of bricks that had apparently been dropped from a pallet being moved by a crane. Captain Hammer tightened his lips, but didn’t ask how the bricks happened to not be secured properly. He just waved his own men into action, taking note of the fact that they were all wearing helmets, boots, gloves and turnout coats.

While Johnny and Roy knelt by the victim’s head and started their assessment, the others set to and began clearing the bricks that covered the man’s body. From the paramedics’ actions, it was clear that the man was not doing too well and as his body was uncovered, they could see the blood, although where it was coming from, none of them was too sure.

Right from the word go, it was going to be a major battle to get the builder into the ER still alive. Finally, he was stable enough to be transported. He was transferred onto a gurney and Johnny and Roy started to gather their equipment. Suddenly, there was a shout from above, where some men were laying boards on more scaffolding. One of the iron bars had come loose and was plummeting to the ground.

“Roy!” Johnny acted instinctively, and grabbed Roy’s sleeve, hauling the older man out of the way. They tumbled into the mud and bricks where their victim had been lying just a few short minutes before, Roy on top of Johnny. Roy was dazed, his turnout torn and his arm bleeding where the iron bar had struck him. His helmet had kept him from really serious injury, but it was bad enough.

It was clear that Roy would need to be seen at the hospital and probably kept if he had a concussion. They had no choice but to load Roy into the ambulance with the original victim and take them in together. Johnny would contact Rampart on the way and deal with Roy as he kept an eye on the other guy. Captain Hammer said he would send someone to collect Johnny, but since there were very few paramedics, the squad would most likely be stood down for the rest of the shift and Johnny could ride on the engine.

On the way in, the original victim took a down turn and Johnny was kept busy dealing with him and was unable to look after Roy as he would have liked. He was more than glad to arrive at Rampart and turn the barely alive construction worker over to Dr Brackett. It was only then that he could draw breath and find out what was happening with Roy.

He found his partner in treatment room three with Dr Early. Roy was looking rather more with it than he had been, which Johnny was very thankful for. However, the gash down his arm was going to require several stitches to close and it was clear that he was not going back on duty that shift. Dr Early had ruled out a concussion, but was going to keep Roy for several hours just to be certain.

Relieved, Johnny went back out into the hall and met Captain Hammer. He delivered the good news and Cap nodded. “I’ll phone Joanne from back at the station. You might as well come back now. The squad is outside. And, Gage, well done back there. Without your swift action, Roy would have been hurt far more seriously, or even killed.” He patted Gage on the shoulder and Johnny felt himself swell with pride. Cap was a man of few words and he dished out praise sparingly. You knew you had done well when Cap spoke like that.

“Thanks, Cap,” he replied and could feel color mounting in his face as Cap looked at him proudly for several moments longer before favoring him with a rare smile.

“I’m glad to have you on my team, Gage,” he said gruffly and turned and walked away.

Almost as dazed as Roy had been, and walking several feet off the ground, Johnny bid farewell to Roy before going out and climbing into the driving seat of the squad. He felt as high as a kite. Nothing could happen that day to burst his bubble.

Or so he thought.

**********

They had been back from a big fire in an apartment complex for about 20 minutes when Joanne stopped by on the way home with Roy to collect his civilian clothing. Stoker was in the shower at the time and Cap had been dressed for only a few minutes. The others were still sitting around in their smoky, dirty uniforms, no doubt smelling strongly of sweat and other unpleasant things, waiting for their turns in the shower. As the youngest man on the crew, Johnny knew he would be last in. The station had been stood down for an hour to allow them to clean up and grab a bite to eat.

Cap let Joanne in and sent Johnny to get Roy’s clothes. Since Roy was in the car, Joanne didn’t linger to chat, but just took the bag and left. Johnny stood looking at her retreating back, oblivious to the looks the other men were sending him and each other.

It had been a masterful demonstration of selective sight and hearing. Joanne had acknowledged everyone in the station except Johnny. She had not even thanked him for handing her Roy’s belongings. Johnny’s bubble had more than simply burst; it had exploded into a million pieces and the shards had buried themselves deep in his heart. He was beyond hurt.

Exhausted, Johnny took his turn in the shower and then went straight to his bunk. He carefully arranged his turnouts and boots and lay down, throwing his arm over his eyes, a hangover from the orphanage, where it was never completely dark, and pretended he was sleeping. He was aware of his shift mates coming in to look at him, but he lay still, forcing his breathing to be deep and even and making his body relaxed. He didn’t know if he fooled anyone, but eventually, he was left alone. Darkness fell and only then, curled up with his back to the door, Johnny allowed a few anguished tears to escape. Cap’s proud words to him earlier seemed as dry as dust now in the knowledge that Joanne blamed him for Roy’s injury.

**********

Morning came far too soon after a night of fragmented rest and splintered dreams. They had been toned out only once to a fire, but they had fought the beast for over two hours. They had spent another hour on clean up and then had all showered again when they got back to the station because they were so filthy.

Dragging himself out of his bunk when the wake-up tones went off, Johnny couldn’t remember the last time he had been so stiff and sore. He blamed it on the fact he hadn’t hauled hose for a while. He went into the break room and queued for his cup of coffee. Talk was minimal amongst the tired men and they were highly relieved when B shift arrived to take over without them being toned out again. As their replacements came in, they all headed off to change.

“What are you doing on your days off, Gage?” Chet asked.

“Sleeping,” Johnny replied. He could hardly wait to fall back into bed and go to sleep. He dragged his white t-shirt off over his head and crumpled it into a ball. He’d have to do laundry, too, he guessed, or risk running out of clean uniforms. “What about you?” He glanced over his shoulder at Chet, who was gazing at him open mouthed. “What?” he asked, feeling vaguely annoyed. Was Chet setting him up for another of his ‘jokes’?

“Geez, Gage, what did you do to your back?” Chet was on his feet now, and beckoned to Marco to come over.

“My back?” Johnny looked at Chet and tried, unsuccessfully, to look over his own shoulder down at his back. “This had better not be a joke, Chet,” he warned. By now Marco was peering at him, too and Johnny suspected that Chet had painted a huge target on his back while he was asleep. Quite how the other man would have managed it was anyone’s guess, but Johnny would put nothing past the Phantom. He crossed to the sinks and proceeded to twist himself around to look at his back in the mirror. He winced, as the movement hurt.

“I think Cap should see this,” Marco said and disappeared off to find Hammer, looking concerned.

Frozen in place, Johnny gazed at his reflection. Chet stood beside him, all traces of humor gone from his face. Johnny’s back was covered in deep blue and purple bruises. There were a couple of superficial scratches and grazes here and there, too.

“When did you do that?” Cap asked, coming into the room and seeing Johnny’s reflection.

“I’m ... I’m not sure,” Johnny admitted. “I knew I was stiff this morning, but I didn’t think anything of it. I ... I guess ... I guess it must have been when I pulled Roy away from that bar. We landed on those bricks.”

“And Roy landed on you,” Chet remembered. “You’re not exactly a feather mattress, Gage.”

“You need to get checked out,” Hammer decreed. “And in future, Gage, you tell me when you get hurt.” He fixed Johnny with a stern gaze.

“Cap, honestly, I didn’t know,” Johnny protested. “I didn’t feel it at all.” He had been so elated at the hospital that he probably wouldn’t have felt a broken leg and then he had been so upset after Joanne had called that he could feel nothing over the pain in his heart.

Nodding, Cap sighed. “Well, get yourself over to Rampart now and let me know what they say.”

“Yes, sir,” Johnny agreed. He could feel his back now he knew of the bruises. “I’m fine though.”

“Yeah, sure you are,” Chet scoffed. He watched his friend closely as Johnny slowly dressed then headed to the car park. “Are you all right to drive?” Chet asked.

“I’m fine, Chet,” Johnny replied and found a smile from somewhere. “See you next shift.” With a heavy heart, he drove the familiar route to Rampart.

**********

As Johnny had expected, his injuries were not serious and he was told to rest and not do anything too strenuous until his next shift, but that he was fit for duty. Johnny headed for home at last and fell into bed and was asleep in moments. It was late in the afternoon when he woke and he stood under a hot shower for ages before finally starting on his neglected chores.

Thankful that he hadn’t had a date that night, Johnny phoned Captain Hammer to let him know that he would be back next shift and then lifted the phone again to ring Roy. His heart was in his mouth as he did so, for he wasn’t sure how Joanne would react if she was the one who answered.

The line was busy. Disappointed and yet relieved, too, Johnny put the TV on and sat down. His phone rang. Hastily muting the sound, Johnny snatched up the receiver. “Hello?”

“Junior, when were you planning on telling me you got hurt too?” Roy asked.

“I didn’t know I had,” Johnny replied defensively. He wasn’t used to people fussing over him. It made him uneasy. “But I’m fine. I don’t have to miss a shift. But never mind me. How are you?”

“I’m doing fine,” Roy replied. “No concussion, although I do still have a bit of a headache. A few stitches in my arm, but I’ll be back next shift, too.”

“That’s really good, Roy,” Johnny replied, delighted his friend wasn’t hurt any worse. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get you right out of the way.”

“I’m just thankful you got me as far out of the way as you did,” Roy told him. “That bar could have killed me if it had hit me directly. I’m really glad I have you at my back, Johnny. Thanks.”

“That’s what partners are for,” Johnny replied lightly, but he was moved at Roy’s words. His heavy burden of grief was lifting slightly.

“See you at work,” Roy told him warmly, and they ended the call. Johnny felt a whole lot better.

**********

An uneasy conscience is not pleasant to live with. It not only made your thoughts uncomfortable, it could make you physically ill. As she busied herself around the house the day after Roy’s accident, Joanne felt not too bad as long as her mind was occupied, but when she had some moments of quiet, she felt like she could throw up.

At first, she thought it was the stress. Roy had been a firefighter for several years and she knew how dangerous the job could be. This was the first time he had been injured badly enough to be sent home and she assumed that that was what was bothering her.

But as she folded laundry to put away, Joanne was honest enough to admit that it wasn’t stress that was causing her discomfort. It was guilt.

Joanne was a nice woman and she had to admit – to herself at least – that she had been absolutely horrid to Johnny the day before at the station. There had really been no call for her to behave that way towards him. He had done nothing wrong. In fact, from what Captain Hammer had told her on the phone, and what Roy himself had told her later, if Johnny had not reacted so quickly, Roy would likely have died.

Her hands worked with no conscious direction from her mind as she reflected further. She knew exactly where she had learned the technique that she had used on Johnny the day before – from her mother. Joanne’s mother was an embittered woman who had been discontented all her life. There was no apparent reason for this. She was married, happily by all outward appearances, and had been for many years. She had two beautiful daughters and five grandchildren. Yet she picked fault constantly and looked down her nose at people she thought were not good enough. One of those people was Roy.

It was a sad fact that Joanne’s mother thought that Joanne had married beneath her and she made no bones about pointing that fact out again and again. She disapproved of Roy being a firefighter, as that was a blue-collar job and she wanted her daughters to move in more elite circles. Eileen, Joanne’s sister, had done just that, and was currently getting divorced from her surgeon husband. Eileen did not have Joanne’s strength of character and had married the man her mother deemed suitable. It had been a disaster from start to finish and their three children had been caught in the deadly fall-out.

Joanne had followed her heart and married her best friend. True, Roy didn’t make that much money and they had agreed that Joanne would stay at home with the children until they were both in school. It meant that money was tight, but they had a nice home and were happy with each other. Joanne had vowed to herself that she would not live life like her mother and would be grateful for what she did have and not hanker uselessly for things that she would never have.

A tear slipped from her eye as she finally admitted to herself that she had been behaving like her mother towards Johnny. She was jealous of his status as Roy’s new best friend and had looked down on him because he was young. She was jealous of the way he had made instant friends with her children. She didn’t like herself much right now, but she wasn’t entirely sure how to correct the situation.

But one thing was clear – she would have to make amends and soon. Humble pie was not her favorite food, but it looked like it was going to be on the menu in the very near future.

**********

There was no opportunity for Joanne to make amends for quite some time. Both the children came down with chickenpox, one after the other, Chris having brought it home from kindergarten, and she had her work cut out for her looking after them both. She wracked her brains trying to think of ways she could conjure a meeting with Johnny, but she wanted to be alone to make her apology. She didn’t know where he lived and to ask Roy would have sounded very strange. She wasn’t going to go to the station to talk to him as she didn’t want everyone else listening in or risk the tones going off halfway through what she was saying. So the time passed and Joanne was no nearer her apology than she had been when she first knew she had to make it.

In the meantime, Johnny had missed a couple of shifts with a sprained knee after he fell rappelling down a hillside to rescue a drunk driver. The drunk was uninjured, but Johnny had learned (Roy hoped) a salutary lesson about being careful.

As it happened that year, A shift had Independence Day off. Since he was moving on, Captain Hammer suggested that they had a get together to celebrate. Everyone agreed and it was suggested that they go to one of the local beauty spots up in the hills. From there, they would get a great view of the fireworks and would be able to have games for the kids.

The area that was finally chosen was a flat area with a drop-off on one side and a slope leading to a cliff on the other. It was a natural suntrap and because it was regularly used, the drop-off was fenced in. All in all, it was ideal.

On the morning of the 4th, Johnny was in two minds about going. He wanted to spend time with the others and it would be their last social occasion with Cap before he moved to a different station closer to home. Hammer was a difficult man to know, being basically shy, but Johnny respected him a lot.

On the other hand, he didn’t want to come face-to-face with Joanne any time soon. He had not seen her since the debacle at the station that day and he wasn’t sure he wanted to spend a whole afternoon in her vicinity, where he could do all sorts of things that she would disapprove of. The chances of making a mistake in front of her were myriad.

In the end, he made the decision to go. He didn’t want Roy to know how much he dreaded spending time with Joanne and he did want to see the kids again.

This time, the party was enhanced by Mike’s girlfriend and Cap’s teenage children. Picnic tables and chairs were set up and the grill was lit. Drinks in coolers were stashed in the shade and before too long, there were shrieks of laughter from the kids as they chased each other and played games and delicious smells came from the grill.

For a while, Johnny played with the kids, but he could feel his cheeks burn every time they called him ‘Uncle Johnny’. He had been slightly surprised when Joanne had been polite to him when she arrived, but all she had said was hello and she’d avoided him ever since.

The food was plentiful and Johnny made sure this time that he didn’t speak with his mouth full as he sat at the DeSotos’ table. He thought Joanne didn’t seem as cold towards him, but perhaps it was his imagination. The kids tended to dominate the conversation, so Johnny didn’t have to say all that much. It suited him fine.

After they had finished eating, there was a lull in the activities. Everyone was too full to run around, so they lounged in the shade, or wandered vaguely to look at the view or sat down for a nap.

As some of the heat finally began to wane and darkness was approaching, the party began to perk up again. The kids were soon involved in some complicated game of chase that often involved one of the adults for a few moments. While none of the adults understood the rules, they were quite willing to play along.

Chris was standing right beside the fence at the drop-off, grinning like a Cheshire cat. Joanne had been involved in the game a few moments before, and Johnny was standing on the other side of Chris a few feet away. Cap’s 12 year old son ran at Chris who dodged under his arm and made a sharp turn to evade his pursuer. He tripped and bounced into the fence, which gave immediately under his slight weight.

With a scream, Chris started to fall.

***********

There was no hesitation in anyone present. They all leapt forward. Johnny was closest and grasped Chris’s wrist just before the child fell. He swung Chris around, almost throwing him to the ground behind them, for he had seen what nobody else had. Joanne had also lunged to her son’s rescue, but she had tripped and was now going to fall over the edge. Johnny knew that he wouldn’t be able to stop her fall, so he did the only thing he could. He threw himself forwards, grabbing Joanne around the waist and wrapping himself around her body as they both fell over the edge.

**********

There were horrified exclamations and crying as Johnny and Joanne disappeared over the edge. Roy snatched up his son and Marco stopped Jenny from running over. Cap, as was his nature, took charge. “Mike, get into your truck. There’s a pay phone about half a mile down the road. Get help. Marco, there are a couple of ropes in the trunk of my car. Roy, is Chris hurt?”

The child was sobbing in his father’s arms and Jenny was now nestled against him, sobbing piteously, too. Roy looked shaken rigid, which Cap could fully understand. Mrs. Hammer came over and picked Jenny up, rubbing her hand up and down the little girl’s back. “Um, I think his wrist is broken,” Roy replied, trying to get his thoughts in order. He had almost just lost his son and his wife and best friend had vanished over the edge of a cliff. Snapping into paramedic mode was beyond him at that moment. He was having enough difficulty functioning as a father.

Marco came over with the ropes and he and Chet began to fashion makeshift harnesses out of them. They could see plainly over the edge where Johnny and Joanne had left a trail, but it vanished into some bushes further down and there was no sign of them.

Using the axle of Cap’s car to tie off to, Marco and Chet started slowly down the slope, finding it tinder dry and loose under their feet. They had to move carefully to avoid disturbing rocks that might hurtle down the slope and hurt their friends below. The bushes were prickly and both Chet and Marco were scratched by the time they negotiated them. And then the trail ended.

Johnny and Joanne had fallen into a deep hole in the cliff face.

***********

It had been quite a ride. Joanne had initially fought Johnny off, but after the first few seconds, she realized what he was doing and stopped struggling. Johnny had done his best to protect her as they slid and bounced down the slope, but he knew that at best, they would both be scratched and bloody when they came to a stop.

Suddenly, the ground beneath them disappeared and they fell down and down, twisting and turning in the air until they landed on hard ground with a force that knocked the breath from both their bodies. And then they knew no more.

**********

When Joanne opened her eyes, she couldn’t think where on earth she was. The light was poor, but enough to see that she was lying on a dirt floor in what seemed to be a cave. The light was coming in from high above her. It didn’t make any sense at all.

Something underneath her moved and Joanne screamed in fright and jumped away, groaning in pain as her abused body objected to the movement. She turned her head and realized that she was half lying on top of Johnny. He was still unconscious, but clearly coming round.

She could remember now. In her mind’s eye, she saw Chris starting to fall and Johnny’s amazing grab that probably saved her son’s life. Joanne could still feel the sickening horror as she lost her own balance and started to fall and the shock of the hands that suddenly were on her body.

“Oh God, Johnny are you all right?” she called, moving off him and wincing at the pain that seemed to come from all over her body. “Johnny?”

Slowly, his eyes opened and he looked at Joanne blankly for several moments. “Joanne?” he mouthed. He blinked and tried to sit up, abandoning the attempt after only a few moments as dizziness struck with a vengeance. He drew in a deep breath in a bid to hold off the nausea that threatened to overwhelm him and immediately discovered that he had hurt his ribs. There was no way to tell if they were bruised or broken, but either way, he knew he had to be careful. “Joanne? Are you all right?” he asked, finally conquering his need to vomit.

“I ... I don’t know,” she admitted.

On his second attempt, Johnny managed to sit up. His head spun wildly, but he persevered and it gradually settled down. However, his vision was a bit fuzzy and he diagnosed a concussion. “Tell me where it hurts.” Johnny’s own memory of the trip down the hillside was far too vivid for comfort.

“Everywhere,” Joanne cried and burst into tears.

It was an understandable reaction. Far too much had happened to her in too short a space of time. Like a lot of men, Johnny was never quite sure how to deal with female tears, but it only took a few moments before she was sobbing in his arms. Johnny found the whole thing rather surreal. This woman, who seemed to really hate him, was curled up beside him, crying on his shoulder. He couldn’t figure that one out at all and blamed it on shock and stress.

When at last the tears died down, Joanne was mortified. Bad enough that she had been so horrible to Johnny, but to cry all over him was really the last straw. She didn’t know where to look.

“Joanne, where are you hurt?” Johnny asked again.

Slightly calmer after the release of tears, Joanne thought about what he was saying. “My head hurts,” she admitted. “My hip and my ... my behind. My right ankle hurts like mad, too.”

“I’m just going to take a look at you,” Johnny explained. “Tell me if anything else is sore. I’m not trying to get fresh with you, here.”

“I would never have thought that of you,” she replied and felt hugely relieved that she had taken the first step on the road to apologizing to her husband’s partner.

Gently, Johnny felt around her head, finding a small lump on the back. Her ribs didn’t seem tender and her abdomen was reassuringly soft. Her hip and bottom were obviously tender, but there was no crepitus to be felt in the hip and that was good news. Her pelvis was stable, but her right ankle was broken and Johnny thought she might have a tib/fib fracture, too.

“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to take your shoe off,” Johnny told her. “Otherwise your foot will swell and you could end up losing it.” He took in a shallow breath. “It’s gonna hurt real bad and I’m sorry.”

It hurt horrifically already and Joanne couldn’t imagine how it could hurt any more. “Can’t it wait?” she asked timidly, terrified of the thought of more pain.

“I wish it could,” Johnny replied regretfully. “I wouldn’t hurt you for the world, Joanne, but the shoe has to come off before your foot has time to swell.”

“You’d better do it then,” Joanne said bravely, but there was a quiver in her voice.

“I think you should lie down,” Johnny told her. “Try and relax. I know it’ll be hard. I’ll be as gentle as I can.” He looked at the flat strappy sandals she was wearing and knew that there was no chance he could manipulate the tiny buckle. His eyes were not focusing that well. “I’m really sorry, but I’ll have to cut your sandal off.”

In the scheme of things, the loss of a sandal was nothing, but Joanne found tears trickling down her face again at those words. “It’s okay,” she sniffed. She lay down on the ground and shivered with apprehension.

For all the agony that followed, Johnny was as good as his word. His touch was feather-light and it wasn’t his fault that her ankle was ultra-sensitive to touch. She had bitten her lip almost through by the time he cut the last strap and eased the remnants of the sandal off her swollen foot. He apologized again, sounding utterly wretched, as he held her hand and muttered soothing words. Gradually, Joanne was able to get herself under control again.

“I’m sorry for being such a fool,” she sniffled as he helped her sit up again.

“You’ve been very brave,” Johnny argued. “That must have been dreadfully painful for you. I’m so sorry there was no other way.” He leaned her back against the wall of the hole they were in. Fortunately, the walls were dry, even if it was cold down there.

“Are you all right?” Joanne asked, once she was settled.

At those words, Johnny suddenly wasn’t all right at all. He had been keeping his own aches and pains at bay while tending to her, but having the tables turned caught him unawares and he was very definitely not all right. With a hand to his mouth, he turned away across their small space and vomited violently.

Leaning weakly on the wall once it was over, Johnny clutched his painful ribs with one hand and spat a couple of times to clear his mouth. He was breathless and sweating and for a few minutes, he was terrified that he had punctured a lung, but his breathing gradually calmed and that fear receded.

However, other fears took its place. Johnny became aware that he had done some serious damage to his knee and both his ankles were shooting pain up his legs. His left arm didn’t seem to be working all that well, either. Grimly, Johnny felt down both legs and realized that he was going to have to ask Joanne to remove his sneakers for him. What was worse, he was going to have to drag his broken ankles the few feet back across the ground to do so. It was a daunting thought.

Dimly, he became aware that Joanne was talking to him, her voice laced with fear and concern. He managed to bring his focus back to her. “Sorry,” he muttered and gestured weakly to the mess.

“Hey, I’ve got kids,” she reminded him. “I’ve seen worse than that.” They shared a small smile. “Johnny, I can see you’re hurting. What can I do to help?”

It took all his willpower to ask for help. Johnny habitually hid problems, but this was one time that he knew that hiding or denying his problem would make things very much worse for him in the long run and he could end up losing his career. He swallowed. “I need you to do for me what I just did for you – on both feet,” he replied, his voice still hoarse from the vomiting.

As his words sank in, Joanne’s eyes grew wide and he thought she lost color, but the light was so dim it was difficult to be sure. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“Don’t be,” she said. “It’s not your fault.” She couldn’t think of anything she wanted to do less than cut Johnny’s shoes off and hurt him while she did so. But he had to be in agony if her ankle was anything to go by and she couldn’t refuse to help.

The few feet across the cave could as well have been a few miles. Johnny gritted his teeth and tried not to make any sound, but moans and groans escaped regardless. He was exhausted and shaking, drenched in a cold sweat when he finally was in a position where Joanne could help him. He fumbled in his pocket for his knife and handed it to her.

“Mind your fingers on it,” he warned her. “It’s very sharp. I don’t want you cutting yourself.”

With shaking hands, Joanne took the knife

**********

They had shouted themselves hoarse and received no response. With there being nothing more they could do, Chet and Marco had reluctantly heeded Cap’s orders and climbed back up to the picnic area. They took off the rope harnesses and coiled the rope up neatly, more out of habit than thought. Distantly, there were the sounds of sirens coming in their direction and that was comforting.

Roy was gazing in disbelief at the place where he had last seen his wife. Chet and Marco’s explanations of why they had come back empty handed hadn’t really impinged on the nightmare he was currently living. He automatically soothed Chris and patted Jenny’s back, but was unaware of his own actions.

“We need to get Roy away from here,” Cap said to Mike in an undertone. The other man had made good time to the pay phone and back. “He’s in no state to stay here and someone needs to go into the hospital with the kids. If we have to sedate them all to do it, then that’s what I’ll recommend to the paramedics and the doctors.”

“What do you think their chances are?” Mike asked, in the same quiet tone, glancing at the drop-off.

“I don’t know,” Cap responded grimly. His tone ably implied that he thought both Joanne and Johnny were dead. Sighing heavily, Mike went over to direct the fire vehicles into the correct area. He was glad to have something to do, even if it wasn’t very much.

It didn’t take long for the captain in charge to grasp what was needed. The paramedics quickly put on life belts and began to make their way down the slope. The other firefighters loaded the stokes with their gear and prepared to lower it down.

Crossing over to Roy, Cap gently took his arm. “Come on, Roy, we need to get Chris seen to.”

Rising obediently, Roy followed Cap over to the ambulance that had just arrived, carrying Chris. Mrs. Hammer brought Jenny over and Cap ushered them all in. Roy only seemed to come back to life as the ambulance doors closed. “No!” he cried. “Wait!” But it was too late. The ambulance pulled away and there was nothing Roy could do about it.

**********

With a moan of pain, Johnny rolled over and threw up again. He felt cold hands on his head, supporting him and groaned again. Joanne would never want to see him again after this was all over. He had lost the battle with his stomach several times since she had cut his sneakers off. It had been agony and he had passed out. When he woke, the vomiting started. Johnny knew he would rapidly become dehydrated at this rate, but there was nothing he could do about it.

For now, the vomiting seemed to be over. He had thought so before, but there was nothing left to come up. Johnny dragged himself upright and blinked sweat out of his eyes. How he could be sweating when it was so cold in their cave he didn’t know. Or rather, he did know and didn’t want to acknowledge the thought.

He studied Joanne covertly through his lashes. She was looking at him anxiously. “Are you all right?” she asked at last.

“Not really,” Johnny responded. “Are you?”

“Not really,” she admitted. “Do you think Chris is all right?”

“I hope so,” sighed Johnny. “I’m sure he landed well away from the edge.” He closed his eyes for a moment and felt the warm lure of sleep.

“Johnny? Can I talk to you?”

Blinking, Johnny forced his eyes open, not liking the effort it took to do it. “Of course,” he replied dully, convinced she was going to tell him that she hated him, that she would persuade Roy to get a different partner... The list of things he thought she might say was endless and none of them were good.

“I ... I wanted to ... to apologize,” she stuttered.

“Apologize?” Johnny echoed, not sure he understood.

“Yes.” This was much harder than she had thought it was going to be, but Joanne wasn’t going to back down now. “I haven’t been at all nice to you, Johnny. I’m so sorry.”

“Joanne...”

“No, let me finish.” She gave a shaky laugh. “Or I won’t be able to. This is so difficult.” She drew in a deep breath and Johnny waited patiently. “Johnny, I was jealous of you,” she finally said in a rush. “I was jealous that Roy liked you so well; I was jealous that you got to do the first official procedure; I was jealous that the children seemed to like you so well and I was angry. I am so sorry for that. I told Roy that I didn’t trust you to watch his back because you’re just a kid, but do you know what?” She looked at him, tears in her eyes. “You’re not a kid. I can’t think of anyone I would trust more to have watching Roy’s back. I do trust you, Johnny. Please believe me.”

“Joanne...”

“Johnny, I’m sorry and I hope that one day you can forgive me for being so utterly rude to you at the station that day. There was no call for it, especially after you had saved Roy’s life and been hurt while doing it.”

“It was nothing,” Johnny mumbled.

“I was frightened that day, Johnny,” Joanne explained. “I took it out on you because you were convenient. I knew you wouldn’t say anything. I hate that I was so rude to you. Johnny, I hope one day we can be friends, but I will completely understand if you would rather not hear from me again.”

For several minutes, Johnny was silent, processing all that she had said through an ever-increasing headache. He knew he was concussed, but he was certain that she was asking forgiveness for being rude and wanting to be friends. Could his brain really have made up something like that? He blinked again. “Joanne, you want me to forgive you?”

His incredulous tone was misunderstood by his audience. Tears escaped her control and flooded down her face. “It’s all right,” she sobbed. “I quite understand that you hate me. I hate me too.”

“Joanne, I don’t hate you,” Johnny insisted. “I never have. I thought I’d done something really horrible to make you dislike me so much. And I’m sorry about talking with my mouth full. I won’t do it again.”

A watery laugh broke from Joanne. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” she joked. She grew serious again. “Do you think we could ever be friends?” She cursed herself the moment the words escaped her lips. She had promised herself she wouldn’t beg.

“I would like nothing more than to be friends with you, Joanne,” Johnny avowed and the sincerity of his tone was apparent. “Of course I forgive you.”

“Thank you,” Joanne whispered, overcome by more tears. She wondered that she had any left to shed. She leaned over to give him a gentle hug. He hugged her back. “You’re very generous.”

“Chet says I’m cheap,” Johnny mumbled in response to that. His headache was getting worse, even if his heart was incredibly light. “But I’m not really. Just don’t have much money.” He lifted his head and went on before Joanne could speak. “I’ll always look out for Roy, Joanne. You don’t need to worry.”

“I know that,” she responded and rested her head gently against the cave wall, her arm still around Johnny’s shoulders. “Just remember to look out for yourself sometimes, too.”

**********

By the time they reached the hospital, Roy had come out of his dazed state and was furious! How dare Cap send him into the hospital when both Joanne and Johnny were still missing? They could have waited for them to be brought safely to the picnic area, Roy was sure. Chris wasn’t in that much pain...

He stopped himself. His son was in that much pain. Chris was a small child and he had a broken wrist and had just seen his mother fall over a cliff. The children needed to be here and however much he didn’t like it, Roy had to be there with them. It wouldn’t have been fair to either child to leave them with someone they didn’t know all that well.

He carried Chris inside the hospital, noting how white his son’s face was. Jenny toddled along beside him. She looked exhausted and Roy was more than grateful when Dixie came over and spoke to the little girl and eventually dispatched her off to the canteen with a candy striper. With Jenny attended to, Dixie ushered Roy and Chris into a treatment room and a few minutes later, Dr Early came in. He was really good with kids and Roy relaxed slightly.

It didn’t take long for x-ray to confirm that Chris had a broken wrist. The little boy was fascinated with the x-ray machine and then with the process of setting his wrist. The drugs that Dr Early had given him for the pain had worked very well and by the time his wrist was cast, Chris was almost asleep. As there was no need to keep him overnight, Dixie suggested that Roy bed both children down in the doctors’ lounge and brought him a couple of blankets. It didn’t take long for them to fall asleep.

The waiting was driving Roy mad. When a nurse came in for a break, he asked her to keep an eye on the sleeping children and went to find out what was going on with his wife.

“Dixie? What’s the news?” He fully expected Dixie to tell him they were on the way in and would arrive any moment. After all, he had been there more than an hour.

“They’ve been located,” Dixie replied. “The paramedics are on the way down to assess them now.”

“What’s taken so long?” he cried, distressed by the news. “Chet and Marco found the hole before I left.” At least, he thought they had.

“They’d found a hole,” Dixie explained. “But it wasn’t the one that Joanne and Johnny had fallen into. We’re just waiting for them to call back and let us know what’s going on.”

“Do we know how they are?” Roy asked, knowing that if they did, Dix would have told him.

“Not yet.” Putting her hand on his arm, Dixie squeezed it comfortingly. “I’ll come and let you know as soon as we know anything.”

It was a kind way of telling him he should go back to the children. Roy smiled his thanks and returned to the lounge. The children were still sleeping soundly.

Roy envied them.

***********

It took the rescuers another two hours to reach them. The hole that Chet and Marco found was only the first of many and it wasn’t the one Joanne and Johnny had fallen into. They had, quite literally, bounced over it and fallen into another hole on a slightly different trajectory than they had been travelling on.

The first paramedic down into the hole was Derek Jamison, a man who had trained with Johnny in the second class. He dropped to the floor, and tugged sharply on the rope before unclipping it from his belt. “Well, hi there,” he said, smiling and walked across to them. “How’re you doing?”

Swallowing against the ever-present nausea, Johnny took the lead. “Joanne has a broken right ankle with a possible tib/fib fracture on the same leg,” he mumbled. “She has significant bruising to her hip and ... and behind. She has a small bump on the back of her head.”

“Way to go, Gage,” Jamison praised. “And what about you?”

“Um, probable concussion,” Johnny admitted. He blinked to help focus through the headache. “Both ankles broken, probable rib fractures, injury to left knee and my left arm isn’t working too well. I’ve had a couple of syncopal episodes and I’ve vomited a few times. I have the headache to end all headaches, my eyesight is blurry and I’m really nauseated.”

“All right. I’m just going to have another look here and take some vitals.” He took their vitals quickly and without comment, then contacted the men above. “We’re gonna need manpower down here to get them up. Send me three splints and a couple of c-collars.”

“No stokes?” Johnny asked. He wanted nothing more than to go to sleep, but Joanne knew enough to keep him awake and Johnny knew that Jamison wouldn’t let him sleep either. “And I don’t need a collar,” he added although he knew he was wasting his breath.

“If I had my way,” Jamison said, fixing Johnny with a stern glare, “you’d be on a backboard in the stokes, so don’t give me any grief here, pal!”

That peaked Johnny’s interest. “So why aren’t you having your way?” he asked.

Hiding a smile at the success of his stratagem to keep Johnny awake and talking, Jamison replied, “We can’t get the stokes down here. The hole has too many bends and is too narrow.” He looked more closely at a bad graze on Joanne’s elbow. “That’s probably part of why you are so banged up.”

A few moments later, Jamison’s partner, Dobson, came down, bearing the requested splints and collars and carrying extra rescue belts. The paramedics set to work and although they were as gentle as they could be, both Joanne and Johnny struggled to deal with the pain. Joanne clutched onto Johnny’s hand so tightly that her nails dug into the back of his hand. He didn’t even notice. The world went grey and although he didn’t go out, he came pretty close.

It was going to be a bitch of a job getting them out. Since Joanne was the most mobile of the two, Dobson would go first with her and then come back to help Jamison with Johnny. An ambulance was waiting for them and there were enough men to help with the stokes once they were out.

“I don’t want to go without you,” Joanne whispered to Johnny.

“Roy will be waiting for you,” Johnny smiled. “And we’re friends now, aren’t we?”

“Yes, of course,” Joanne replied. She kissed his cheek before allowing herself to be helped to her feet. The belt was buckled around her waist and snapped securely to Dobson’s belt. He gave the signal and they were pulled smoothly out of the hole.

“How’re you doin’, Johnny?” Jamison asked, kneeling down beside him.

“Not too good,” Johnny admitted. He forced his heavy eyelids open once more and looked at his friend. “This is gonna be a bitch getting me out of here, isn’t it?”

There was no point in lying. Johnny was a rescue man. He had a fair idea of how difficult it was going to be and he hadn’t seen the hole they had to traverse to get out.

“Yeah,” Dobson admitted. “It's gonna be a real bitch.”

***********

The waiting ambulance was warm after the cool of the hole. Joanne lay gratefully on the stretcher as another paramedic she didn’t know worked on her. She winced as the needle for the IV slid into her arm and sighed with relief as pain relief was finally given to her. She started to drift away on a cloud of morphine, but came back to reality as the ambulance doors closed and it started to move.

“Wait!” she protested. “Where’s Johnny?” She glanced round frantically. “You can’t go without Johnny.”

“It’s all right, Mrs. DeSoto,” the paramedic soothed. “There’s another ambulance waiting for him.”

“We could have waited,” Joanne objected, suddenly uneasy at this turn of events. “I’m not badly hurt.”

“I’m just doing what the doctors tell me,” the man replied. “Don’t worry; the others will be right behind us.” He smiled at her and Joanne subsided, but she still felt uneasy.

**********

It was every bit as difficult as Johnny had thought it would be. He was given a shot of Valium to help him relax, but still felt his heart rate climbing. Jamison fastened the belt around his waist and wished that Johnny was fatter. Dobson and another member of their crew that Johnny didn’t know lifted him carefully, doing their best not to jostle him, but he cried out nonetheless as pain shot through his injured body.

Because Johnny could not stand, Jamison had to be hoisted a couple of feet into the air and Johnny then attached to his belt. The change of position from flat to upright triggered a nasty bout of gagging and Johnny was panting and breathless at the end of it. The pain in his chest was constant and he knew he wasn’t getting in enough air.

“Ready?” Jamison asked, although Johnny had no choice. They had to get him out of that hole as soon as possible.

Somehow, Johnny nodded. As the rope started to pull them up, he closed his eyes and hoped he would pass out. The pain was horrific.

He didn’t get his wish.

***********

“You’re going to bring him in on a life-flight?” Roy repeated, stunned. “Is he that badly injured?”

“They’re extricating him now and Dobson has reported that he might have a pneumothorax.”

“Might? Doesn’t he know?” Roy demanded angrily.

“He didn’t when they found him, but right after they got him ready to go out, he was gagging a lot and was extremely breathless. It might be nothing,” Brackett reminded Roy. “But it might be something and I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Mutely, Roy gazed at him. This was supposed to have been a celebration day and it had all gone so badly wrong. His own family were safe and Roy was extremely grateful for that, although he was still waiting for Joanne to arrive by ambulance, but his partner, who was very dear to him in ways Roy couldn’t quite vocalize, was severely injured and in need of a life-flight. Roy didn’t know if his nerves could take any more that day. Brackett was wondering the same thing and resolved to keep a close eye on Roy and sedate him if need be.

A sudden commotion at the door alerted them to Joanne’s arrival. Roy hurried over to the stretcher, seeing the dirt and grazes and torn clothes. His eyes filled with tears as Joanne found a smile for him, although she was clearly drugged to the gills and feeling sleepy. “Hi, honey,” he said huskily. She mouthed something in return, but he didn’t understand what. It really didn’t matter; she was alive and safe and that was all that counted.

“Let me take a look at her, Roy,” Brackett said kindly. “Then I’ll come and get you and the kids and let you know what’s going on. Joanne will be staying overnight at least.”

“Thanks,” Roy mumbled and walked slowly back to his children where he muttered a quiet thanks to a benevolent God that he didn’t entirely believe in.

***********

The stokes was waiting for them at the top of the hole. Willing hands lifted Johnny and placed him gently on the backboard, strapping him down and then secured him in the wire basket. A quick shout and it was suddenly airborne and Johnny swallowed hard against the surge of nausea that threatened to overtake him. He hated to be helpless and struggled weakly against the confining straps, but his colleagues knew their jobs and there was no give.

The journey seemed endless to the injured man but took only minutes. Jamison was at his side only seconds after the basket was laid on the ground, and he quickly took a new set of vitals. He wrote them down without saying them aloud and gestured to his partner to move the biophone away. Johnny didn’t need to know how bad things actually were. He probably had a pretty good idea, but there was no point in confirming it.

“How’m I ... doin’?” Johnny asked. He was finding it increasingly difficult to catch his breath and his chest hurt.

“You’re hanging in there,” Jamison replied cheerfully. “I’m just gonna hook you up to the IV. We’ll put some oxygen on, too, then we’ll be on the way.” He uncovered part of Johnny’s arm and quickly had the IV established. Dobson had come back with the orders from Rampart and as expected, because of his head injury, Johnny was not to get any pain relief yet.

It was as the oxygen mask was being fitted on that Johnny heard the distinctive sound of a chopper approaching. It sounded as though it was very low. He quickly put two and two together. “Life-flight?” he asked, his voice muffled by the mask.

“Seems so, buddy,” Jamison replied. “Someone must like you.”

That confirmed it as far as Johnny was concerned. He had a pneumothorax and he was in a bad way. He felt rather shocky and the constant pain in his chest and legs almost eclipsed the pounding headache he had. His paramedic instincts told him that he might not survive the journey in an ambulance. The thought terrified him. He didn’t want to die.

“Roy!” he cried, instinctively seeking the only comfort he could rely upon.

“Roy’s waiting for you at Rampart,” Dobson said, leaning over the stokes briefly. “Let’s get this show on the road, Gage.”

Then he was moving, being run across the picnic ground towards the helicopter which had landed on the road. Johnny wasn’t sure, because his eyesight was still blurry, but he thought he saw Cap and Mike and Chet and Marco and wondered that they were still there. Why hadn’t they gone in with Roy? It didn’t occur to him that they had been waiting to make sure he was retrieved safely.

The helicopter took off and Johnny again swallowed against the surge of nausea. It was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe, even with the oxygen on. Johnny started to panic, struggling against the restraints that held him secure. “Easy, Johnny, easy,” Jamison soothed, but Johnny was beyond cajoling. The stresses of the day had finally become too much to bear and he was gasping for breath, feeling like he was smothering.

Cursing, Jamison did his best to calm Johnny, because he knew that with his breathing already depressed, Brackett would not authorize anything that could depress it even more. They had only a short time before they reached Rampart, but Jamison feared that Johnny might go into respiratory arrest. He was hugely relieved when the pilot announced they were coming in to land.

The helicopter had barely touched down before the door was opened and hands grabbed the stokes, transferring it to a gurney. Jamison scrambled out holding the IV bag and up dated Dr Early as they ran inside. “Breath sounds are diminished on the left,” he reported. “He has become increasingly agitated in the last few minutes. He has fractures to both ankles and a concussion. There is a large laceration above his left ear and a bump on the back of his head. He has rib fractures on both sides and reported that his left arm wasn’t working too well. He has vomited several times and complains of blurry eyesight.” As they entered the treatment room he added, “He didn’t want the collar or backboard.”

Smiling, Early dismissed the paramedic to get some much needed coffee and bent over the exam table. “Hey, Johnny,” he smiled. “How are you doing?”

“Smothering,” Johnny gasped. He was still struggling against the restraining straps of the backboard.

Patting Johnny’s shoulder, Early listened carefully to his chest. “Carol,” he told the nurse, “get x-ray down here stat. I want full skull, spine, chest, pelvis, left arm and both legs. Set up a chest tube tray and then draw blood for the usual tests. Anchor a Foley.” He leaned over Johnny again. “I’m going to do something to help you, John,” he assured the injured man. “Just hang on.”

Shivering, Johnny wanted to scream as local anesthetic was injected into his side. He could feel his clothes begin cut away and then there was intense pressure in his chest as Early sited a chest tube. He gasped and coughed but within moments, the pain had eased and he was getting more air in. A sharp sting in his wrist told him Carol was drawing blood and a few minutes after that, the Foley was situated.

Before long, the x-ray machine arrived and the various pictures were taken. After that, an awful lot of nothing seemed to happen. Johnny was alone, naked and strapped to the backboard, not even covered by a blanket. He started shivering intensely and cried out as pain snaked its way through his body. Why was no one helping him!?

“Easy, Johnny, easy,” soothed a familiar husky voice. A warm blanket was draped over his shivering form and tucked in and Johnny could have cried with relief. Dixie’s hand grasped his and he felt comforted out of all proportion.

Then Dr Early was back and something was shot into his IV. The world went all wobbly and Johnny spiraled down into waiting darkness.

***********

The nurse was gently washing Joanne’s face. Her broken ankle and leg were in a cast up to her knee. She had lots of little bandages covering the worst of her scrapes and a couple of stitches placed here and there. There were no more broken bones and no concussion, despite the bump on her head. She was semi-decently clad in a hospital gown and was waiting for her husband and children to arrive before she was transferred up to a room.

They wouldn’t tell her about Johnny. Joanne suspected that her nurse didn’t actually know anything, but she was frustrated that Dr Brackett had not said anything before he disappeared. She needed to know that Johnny was all right. The uneasy feeling was growing stronger with every minute. She knew how ghastly the trip up out of that hole had been for her and she was afraid for Johnny. She was glad she had made her peace with him, but feared that he would be snatched away before they were able to consolidate their friendship.

At last, the treatment room door opened and Roy came in. He was carrying Jenny, who looked like she had just woken from a nap and Chris walked by his side, proudly sporting a cast and sling on his broken wrist. The children had never looked more precious to her, especially Chris, who she had feared she was going to lose. She held her arms out and Chris ran to her, hugging her one-handedly. Jenny squirmed down from her father’s arms and landed beside Joanne.

“Oh, you’ve got a bigger cast than me,” Chris announced in disappointed tones. He struggled to swallow the tears that followed the disappointment.

“But nobody’s signed mine,” Joanne replied, not bothering to mention that her cast wasn’t quite dry and not ready for signing. “Lots of people have signed yours.” It was true. All the nurses and doctors had signed Chris’s cast.

“How’re you feeling?” Roy asked, leaning down to kiss her cheek.

“Not too bad,” she admitted. “They’re keeping the pain well controlled, but they say I have to stay in overnight.”

“That’s fairly standard,” Roy told her.

“So Dr Brackett said,” Joanne sighed. “Roy, how’s Johnny? Nobody will tell me anything.”

“They aren’t telling me, either,” Roy growled. He cast a look at the children, who were watching and listening intently. Joanne understood at once and they changed the subject. However, that didn’t stop her wondering why Roy wasn’t being told anything.

Joanne was just being moved to a room when Cap, Mike, Marco and Chet arrived. They asked after Joanne and Marco, Mike and Chet distracted the children by taking them to find pens so that they could sign Chris’s cast. Cap looked at Roy. “How’s John?”

“They won’t tell me because I’m not a relative,” Roy replied.

Frowning, Cap thought about Johnny’s personnel file. “His aunt is next of kin, but she’s out of the country,” he remembered. “That’s not good. What if he needed someone to sign for him? I’d better find Dr Brackett.”

Since Roy knew he wouldn’t be allowed to see Joanne until after she was settled into her room, he opted to go with Cap, leaving the kids with the others. He hoped that Chet would not say or do anything to upset the kids, or teach them something they didn’t need to know, but he trusted the other two to keep Chet under control. They approached Dixie’s desk together. “How’s John?” Cap asked.

“As well as can be expected,” Dixie replied.

“That doesn’t tell me anything,” Cap growled.

“I’m not allowed to say more,” she replied, apologizing with a smile.

“What if he needed surgery and wasn’t fit to sign the forms for himself?” Cap asked. “I know his aunt is abroad and while verbal consent may be all right, what if you have problems getting a hold of her?”

“Johnny would have to have someone sign a medical Power of Authority,” Dixie said. “Or he could change his next of kin. But only he can do those things and if an emergency did occur, we would operate without consent in a case like that.”

“When can we see him?” asked Cap, clearly frustrated.

“Not for some time, I’m afraid,” was the reply. “He’s going to a high dependency ward and only relatives are allowed.”

“Dixie, he has no one in this country!” Roy objected. “We can’t leave him alone! It wouldn’t be right.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Dixie agreed. She had been thinking the same thing herself and planned to talk to Dr Brackett about it as soon as she got the chance. However, he and Joe Early were both in with Johnny at the moment while orthopedics set his legs and looked at his separated shoulder. She was pretty sure that Johnny would still be out for the count under the influence of the narcotics floating in his blood stream. “Give me your numbers and I’ll phone you both,” she dropped her voice, “when I’ve done a little plotting and I didn’t say a thing – understand?”

“Thank you!” Roy said fervently. They scribbled down their numbers and Dixie pocketed them.

**********

The fracture in Johnny’s right ankle was nice and straightforward. The left ankle was complicated by the fracture to his left knee, but neither injury required surgery. At the moment, his legs were resting atop piles of pillows with ice packs resting on the injuries to reduce the swelling so that they could be casted. It had been decided that his separated shoulder would heal well enough with just rest and immobilization and Johnny’s left arm now snuggled in a sling against his chest. His broken ribs were stable and the doctors were slightly perplexed as to which one had nicked his lung, as none appeared to be out of alignment.

The gash beside his left ear had taken eight stitches and he had a moderate concussion. Like Joanne, his numerous scrapes and cuts and grazes had been cleaned and dressed where necessary. A repeat chest x-ray showed that the chest tube working. Johnny was going to be very uncomfortable for several days, which was one of the reasons he was moving to a high dependency ward. He would be given heavy doses of narcotics until the chest tube was removed and his legs placed in casts. He was going to be in hospital for some time to come, given his immobility and the fact he lived alone.

While he was drugged insensible, Johnny was transferred to his room. Dixie caught Brackett right outside it once Johnny was settled. “Kel, I need to talk to you about Johnny.”

“Oh?”

“Johnny’s only relative is his aunt who is abroad. We can’t get hold of her, although obviously we’ll keep trying. But it won’t be good for Johnny if the only people he sees are the nurses.” Dixie bit her lip.

“No, I can see that,” Brackett agreed. “What do you have in mind, then?” He thrust his hands into the pockets of his lab coat.

“Make an exception for Roy, so that Johnny isn’t alone. I know it’s against the rules and he’s going to be sleeping a lot, but you can’t leave him alone just now. Johnny isn’t the kind to do just as well alone as with visitors. He needs his friends.” Dixie wasn’t sure if she should say more or just leave her plea there.

“I think you’re right, Dix,” Brackett agreed, his mouth twitching. “He’s got a lot of injuries and being totally alone wouldn’t be good for him at all.” His mouth twitched. “All right, let Roy know he has visiting privileges and I’ll clear it with the nurses.” He took a few steps away, then stopped and turned around. “This wouldn’t be your subtle way of getting Johnny to make a change in his next of kin would it?”

“How could you think I’d be as devious as all that?” she answered, widening her eyes in a show of innocence.

“My apologies,” he smirked. “How could I think it? Oh,” he added, “don’t forget to suggest it to Johnny, too. He’s too stoned at the moment to think of it himself.”

“You can rely on me,” Dixie assured him and headed off to catch Roy before he took the children home.

***********

Since Joanne was doing so well, Roy elected to leave the kids with her for the few minutes he would need to pop down and see Johnny. He knew his partner was heavily medicated and unlikely to be awake, but he entered the room as quietly as he could.

Johnny was lying on his back, the head of the bed raised to aid his breathing. His left arm was immobilized across his chest and an ice pack rested on his injured shoulder. The chest tube snaked out from under his left arm. His legs were elevated on piles of pillows and Roy was glad that someone had had the foresight to tuck a blanket over his body to hide his modesty as he was not wearing a hospital gown. An ice pack rested on his knee and on both ankles. His ankles and the knee were all encased in soft splints to keep the bones aligned. His head was turned to the right, and Roy saw the stitches above his ear. He winced in sympathy. Johnny’s body was littered with bruises and scrapes.

Since Johnny was obviously out for the count, Roy grabbed up his chart and read the notations. Roy winced again as he noted each injury and sighed when he read the scrawl at the bottom – Johnny probably sustained the left side body injuries as he and Joanne fell through the hole. If not for his protective grip, Joanne would have been far more seriously injured.

Blinking back the moisture from his eyes, Roy walked over to the side of the bed and put a hand on Johnny’s lax hand. The pulse was strong and steady under Roy’s fingers. “I guess I owe you even more thanks than I first thought, Junior,” he whispered, huskily. “You saved Chris and then you saved Joanne, too. Somehow, thank you doesn’t seem like enough.” He squeezed the fingers and felt the faintest returns of pressure. It might have been coincidence, for Johnny didn’t move.

Or it might not.

***********

In the morning, it was deemed that the swelling had gone and Johnny’s legs were duly cast. His right leg bore a cast to the knee and the one on his left leg went to his hip. With that done, the level of the drugs was reduced and Johnny was allowed to waken.

By then it was afternoon and Johnny was ravenous. He hadn’t eaten since the picnic the previous day, before disaster struck. Unfortunately, because he had been so nauseated, he was restricted to a liquid diet to begin with until they saw how he did with it. As far as the disgruntled, starving Johnny was concerned, it didn’t count as food.

Finding a comfortable position was impossible. He could only use his right arm to try and move around, but unless he was ultra careful, moving hurt his ribs and tugged on the chest tube. His legs in their casts seemed to weigh ten tons each and he was feeling very sorry for himself indeed when the door to his room opened and Roy came in pushing Joanne in a wheelchair.

“Hey.” With a pleased smile, Johnny tried to push himself up a bit and failed, wincing at the pain. He was still on substantial doses of pain relief, but moving hurt. “How are you?” he asked Joanne, beaming at her. “You look pretty good.”

Blushing, for Joanne thought she looked pretty terrible, she smiled back. “I’m fine,” she responded. Roy parked her beside the bed and Joanne reached through the bars on the side to grasp onto Johnny’s hand. “And I’m told I have you to thank for that fact. So here I am, thanking you again.” She smiled at him through teary eyes.

“Who told you that?” Johnny asked. “And what were they talking about?” He wrapped his fingers around hers.

“There’s no point trying to deny your heroics,” Roy interjected. “It’s all down there, in Brackett’s inimitable scrawl. You wrapped yourself around Joanne as you fell and you took the brunt of the injuries. Better plead guilty now.”

Taken aback, for Johnny had had no idea Brackett had noted down what he had said, Johnny had no come back. He gazed at the DeSotos with an open mouth. “Um...” he finally managed and both Roy and Joanne laughed. “Um ... guilty then, I guess.”

They chatted for a while about other things, Johnny asking about Chris’s wrist and Roy was pleased to note the warm if still slightly tentative friendship between his wife and best friend. He hoped this meant that Joanne had finally seen Johnny for the great guy he was, behind the little quirks that made up part of his personality.

Finally, seeing that both Joanne and Johnny were tiring, Roy suggested it was time to take his wife home. “I’ll be back to see you later this evening, Johnny,” he informed his friend.

“You don’t have to do that,” Johnny protested, as Roy had known he would. The thought of Roy coming back to see him warmed the cockles of Johnny’s heart and made him feel guilty about stealing his partner away from his family. “Joanne will need you at home.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” Roy laughed. “The neighborhood ladies have me organized to within an inch of my life. Coming here will be a great escape from Joanne reciting the tale of the heroic fireman who saved her life.” He winked at Johnny, who was blushing. “Once you’re in a regular room and have got rid of that garden hose in your side, we’ll bring the kids in to see you.”

“Chris has saved a special space on his cast for Uncle Johnny to sign,” Joanne told him. She squeezed his hand in lieu of the kiss she couldn’t place on his cheek. “I’ll see you soon and listen to what a certain nurse has to say to you later,” she added cryptically.

Wondering what on earth Joanne meant by that comment, Johnny bid his friends a wistful farewell. He hated to be cooped up at the best of times, but being literally tethered to his bed was tough. He flipped through the TV channels, but apart from the news headlines, nothing took his fancy and he put the TV off again. The lure of sleep was sweeping over him when the door opened again and Dixie came in. Johnny perked up. “Hi, Dixie.”

“Hi, yourself,” Dixie smiled, crossing over and taking his hand in hers. Johnny could never remember having his hand held so often in his whole life as it had been in the past two days. He would have died rather than admit it, but he rather liked it. “How do you feel?”

“All right,” Johnny lied. He never really felt there was much point in enumerating all his woes because people were generally not actually interested in how you were.

“And now I’ll have the truth,” she retorted. “Don’t ever lie to me about how you feel, Johnny. You matter to me. I want to know.”

“I’m a bit sore and tired and I’m fed up being stuck in one position,” he admitted, finding it a relief to tell it as it was and very touched. “And I haven’t got anyone to talk to when I’m awake.”

“Well, you should get moved to a regular room in the morning,” Dixie replied. “There’s a pretty fair chance you’ll get a roommate then. But part of your problem about being lonely is your own fault.”

“Huh?” Johnny could make neither head nor tail of this. “What do you mean?”

“Well, if you had someone with a medical power of attorney, they could authorize people to visit you. Or if you had someone other than your aunt listed as your next of kin. Now, just listen,” she went on, holding up her hand to stem the flow of words. “I’m not saying you should remove her, but if someone like Roy or Captain Hammer had had your power of attorney, I wouldn’t have had to twist a certain ER doctor’s arm to allow a visit from your partner last night and bribe a nurse to leave your chart where he could see it so he would know exactly what was wrong with you.”

“But why didn’t you just tell him?” Johnny asked, the significance not having sunk in yet.

For an intelligent man, Johnny could be downright dumb! Dixie resisted the temptation to roll her eyes and reminded herself he had a concussion, was, in Brackett’s words ‘stoned’ and was bound to be filtering things more slowly. “Because they aren’t your relatives, Johnny and so we aren’t allowed to tell them anything because you haven’t left any instructions to say we can tell them. You were too out of it to tell us it was all right to tell Roy and the others. Maybe, if you want us to keep the rest of them up to speed, you should write something down to that effect. Do you want me to do it?”

“Oh, so you think I should make Roy my medical power of attorney?” Johnny asked. Dixie nodded. “Do you think he would?”

“I’m sure he would,” Dixie replied. “And I didn’t suggest it – you thought of it yourself.”

“I did?” Johnny blinked. “Oh, sure. I did.” He beamed at the nurse, who beamed right back at him. She produced the necessary sheet of paper from her uniform pocket and Johnny duly filled in the bits marked with a cross and made Roy DeSoto his medical power of attorney.

**********

As Dixie had promised, Johnny was moved to one of the other floors the following day. The moved tired him more than he would have admitted under torture and he was quite glad to slide off to sleep after the orderlies were gone. However, after an hour or so, he was awake and bored. He didn’t have a roommate and the TV still held no attraction. He was highly relieved when the door opened and in came Chet. For the first few minutes, the conversation was a bit stilted, but Chet soon got into his stride and Johnny had to finally ask his friend not to make him laugh as it hurt so much.

“So when do you get out of here?” Chet asked. He had brought Johnny a couple of magazines, which would help ease the boredom.

“I don’t know,” Johnny replied. “Not till I get rid of the chest tube anyway.” He frowned slightly as he realized that even when he had got rid the chest tube, he probably wouldn’t be allowed to go home alone, as he was unable to walk and could only use one hand. That hadn’t occurred to him before.

Sensing Johnny’s mood change, Chet quickly brought the visit to an end and left his friend to worry. Johnny barely noticed him go. He thought around and about his problem, trying to visualize ways in which he could persuade the doctors to let him go home, but each scenario he came up with was more improbable than the last. His apartment was on the second floor, which meant stairs as there was no elevator. While he could ‘bum’ up and down the stairs on his backside, it really wasn’t a practical solution. For a start, he wouldn’t be able to get his wheelchair up and down with him, nor would he be able to get groceries up, never mind how he would actually be able to do the shopping in the first place! And his pride would not allow him to ask his friends for help and he couldn’t summon his aunt home from abroad, because she was working and could not afford to give up her job for a time to look after him.

There was only one thing for it, Johnny realized. He would have to go into some sort of rehabilitation place where they would look after him and help with his physical therapy, too. The biggest snag for that idea was the cost. While the medical insurance the department provided was pretty generous, it wouldn’t cover all the costs of living in a place like that. And Johnny was not sure he would ever be able to pay off such a bill. Being on disability would mean less money coming in and he would still have to pay the rent on his apartment and it looked like he was going to be in debt for the rest of his life at this rate.

By the time his evening meal had come, Johnny was flat-out depressed. He barely choked down any of it. His nurses bought the explanation of just being tired and he lay with his eyes closed and willed himself to go to sleep. When the night nurse came in to check on him at midnight, he was still awake, his dry, grainy eyes staring at the ceiling as his mind went over and over his problem like a rat in a maze, constantly thinking and getting nowhere at all.

Taking advantage of a certain P.R.N. order, she gave Johnny a sedative and he was soon asleep. He needed his rest to aid the healing he had to do, but she made certain to note his wakefulness in his chart for the day staff to read.

**********

Sedatives always made Johnny feel slightly hung over, but he barely noticed that morning. He aimlessly stirred his oatmeal but none of it made it to his mouth. He absently drank down the juice and coffee that accompanied his breakfast. The nurse frowned at him as she collected the tray. “I know oatmeal isn’t all that interesting, Mr. Gage, but you need to eat,” she scolded him.

He spent the morning trying to work out in his head how far his savings would go towards his medical costs and how much more it would cost per month to pay it off and how many years that would take. It was all guess work, but he had had a friend who had been in a rehab centre the previous year and he knew roughly how much that had cost. By the time the nurse brought his lunch, Johnny had worked out that it would take him about 5 years to pay off his medical bills and the ‘extras’ in his life – like dating – would have to be by-passed completely. He would probably also have to give up his car, as any accidents would set him back hugely. He gazed bleakly at his lunch and although he ate some of it, most of it went untouched.

Within 10 minutes of the nurse removing his tray, Dr Brackett was in his room, regarding him worriedly. “Johnny, what’s wrong?” he asked.

“Wrong?” Johnny echoed. “Nothing. I don’t feel any worse.”

“You’re not eating,” Brackett informed him. “And you’re not drinking enough. You won’t heal if you don’t look after yourself.”

“I ... I just haven’t been hungry,” Johnny protested, which was true. “I suppose it’s because I can’t do anything.” That was a lie and Johnny couldn’t maintain eye contact.

“I can see you haven’t been hungry,” Brackett nodded. “And would you like to tell me the real reason now?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Johnny evaded.

With a sigh, Brackett turned on his heel and left. Johnny slumped back and felt like a complete heel for lying to the doctor. Why had he done that? Why hadn’t he just asked straight out when he was likely to get home and what the alternatives were if he couldn’t do that? Why had he let his pride get in the way again?

The door opened again and this time Brackett had brought the big guns – Roy and Dixie. He gulped. “I thought we agreed there’d be no more lying about how you felt?” Dixie started, sounding hurt. Meekly, Johnny nodded. “Then why are you lying now?” she demanded.

Abruptly, the stern mask dropped and Dixie stepped out of her nurse’s persona into the friend. “Johnny, you look ten times worse than you did yesterday, and believe me, that’s taken some doing. Please, tell us what’s wrong? You’ve got three very worried people here.” She indicated Roy and Brackett.

“I ... I didn’t mean to worry anyone,” Johnny stuttered. “It’s just a problem I’m trying to work out.”

“You know what they say,” Roy volunteered. “A problem shared is a problem halved.”

“Um... well...” Johnny began. He hadn’t a clue what to say.

“Johnny, whatever it is, it seems to be very serious. Maybe we can help; maybe we can’t, but we want to help. I understand it may be personal, but we won’t repeat anything outside this room,” Roy promised. “You know you can trust me,” he added, coming closer and looking Johnny right in the eye.

“It’s ... you see... I’m not going to get to go home like this, am I?” he blurted. “And I can’t ask my aunt to come back to look after me and I’m going to have to go rehab and my insurance won’t cover it and I’ll be in debt for years trying to pay it all off and I hate being in debt.” Shamefaced, he looked at them, unsure how they would react. The worst thing would be if they laughed. He didn’t think he could stand that.

“Well, no wonder you’re not eating,” Dixie declared. “I wouldn’t be either, if I had that kind of worry.”

“But you don’t need to worry about that,” Roy told him. “You won’t be going home straight away, but you won’t be going to rehab either.”

“You haven’t told my aunt!” Johnny cried. “Don’t tell me the Department phoned her and she’d coming home! Oh no!”

“Johnny, calm down!” Brackett ordered. “Listen to Roy for goodness sake.”

His words had no effect. They simply didn’t register on the distraught young man. Johnny simply gazed at them all in undisguised horror, gasping for breath and clutching at his chest. “Get oxygen on him,” Brackett ordered for he feared Johnny would hyperventilate himself. It did steady the paramedic’s breathing slightly, but not enough. Brackett hurried out of the room and returned a few moments later with a syringe. Roy was talking steadily to Johnny, which seemed to be having an effect, too, but again, not enough. Brackett shot a little of the sedating drug into Johnny’s IV port and stood back to watch.

Within a few moments, Johnny’s breathing had slowed and his body began to relax. He dropped his head back against the pillows and closed his eyes. After a few minutes, during which time Dixie took a fresh set of vitals, he opened his eyes again. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice muffled behind the mask.

Nodding to Dixie to take off the mask, Brackett smiled at Johnny. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry about,” he chided gently. “Johnny, you’ve been horribly badly injured, you’re immobile for all intents and purposes and right now, you’re feeling very vulnerable. Your reaction is quite normal.” He patted Johnny’s uninjured shoulder. “Now, are you ready to listen to Roy?”

Nodding, Johnny turned his gaze to his partner. “When you’re ready to leave here, you’re coming back to stay with us,” Roy told him.

“With you? And Joanne and the kids?” Johnny asked, dumfounded. “But I can’t do that!”

“Well, I don’t know why not,” Roy replied. “Anyway, it’s all arranged. Joanne says there is to be no argument about it. You’re coming to stay.”

“But Joanne’s on crutches,” Johnny objected. “And I couldn’t expect her to look after me. That wouldn’t be right.”

“You really are the most exasperating man I’ve ever met!” Dixie declared, wading into the fight. “Johnny, you’ve just been worrying yourself into an early grave over the amount of debt you could in up in and now you’re fighting tooth and nail not to accept the kind offer that has just been made to you.”

“But, Dix, it wouldn’t be right!” Johnny cried. “I couldn’t impose on Joanne and Roy like that when Joanne’s on crutches. Besides, Roy has to go to work and I’d be alone in the house with Joanne and I don’t want people to talk.”

Dixie opened her mouth to say something else but Roy beat her to it. He tapped Johnny’s leg to make the younger man look at him. “First and foremost, I couldn’t care less what anyone says,” he stated quietly. “I trust both you and Joanne. I know you would never hurt me like that. Small minded people are none of my concern. Yes, Joanne is on crutches and yes, I’m working, but you are still coming home with us. This is not open for negotiation at all. Joanne’s sister is going to come in on the days I am working to make sure there’s nothing the pair of you need. Joanne is already doing almost everything she usually does and nothing is so urgent it can’t wait for me to come home or Eileen to come in past. If there was something urgent, our neighbors are only a phone call away. Now swallow that silly pride and be ready to thank Joanne when I bring her in to see you this evening. You don’t want your new friend mad at you – trust me on this.” He smiled, but the sincerity of his words couldn’t be denied. “Johnny, thanks to you, my wife and my son are safe. If you can’t accept our offer out of friendship, accept that I have an obligation to repay.”

“Roy, you don’t have to repay me,” Johnny objected. He looked thoughtful.

“But you are my friend and now Joanne tells me that you are her friend, too. And we care for our friends and help them out when we can. We’ve got a spare bed in Chris’s room and we’re all on the flat. The discussion is over. You simply say yes and we can stop hounding you. And don’t forget, I’m your medical power of attorney, and I can decide where you can or can’t go.” Roy looked at him expectantly and was stunned to see tears in Johnny’s eyes. “Johnny? What is it?”

“You really mean it, don’t you?” Johnny asked simply. “You and Joanne both. She didn’t just say that she wanted to be friends, she really means it.” He swallowed hard and wiped his hand over his eyes. “I ... I’ve ... I’ve never... had ... had friends like that ... before,” he finally stuttered out.

“That’s settled then,” Brackett said with deep satisfaction.

“I think,” Dixie mused, “that you’ll find you’ve got more friends like Joanne and Roy than you ever realized, Johnny. You just need to let them in.”

**********

“Roy told me you thought I might just be paying lip service to being friends,” Joanne mentioned that evening. Roy had brought Johnny in a chocolate malt and the young man was slurping it with all the enthusiasm of a child. “Really, Johnny, how could you think that?” Her tone was joking and Johnny knew from the twinkle in her eye that she wasn’t annoyed with him.

“I have a concussion,” he answered solemnly. Joanne and Roy burst out laughing.

At that moment, the friendship moved onto another plane.

*****End*****

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