Hostages

By Rona

It was the middle of the night and the station was quiet. There was nothing unusual about that, but tonight, the quiet was not caused by the firefighters being asleep. The quiet was caused by the fact the firefighters were being held hostage by four masked gunmen on the run from the police.

Outside the station, they were surrounded by cop cars and SWAT vehicles. Floodlights illuminated the building and TV crews filmed from behind the barriers the cops had set up. It was a tense stand-off. The police were under no illusions that the masked men would not harm the firefighters; they had already killed that day. These men were pros, and would stop at nothing to escape justice.

Inside, the firefighters had been separated as much as possible. Captain Stanley was bound hand and foot to the chair in his office and the leader of the men was with him, sometimes answering the phone calls from the police and sometimes ignoring them. In the day room, Roy DeSoto, the senior paramedic, was bound to a kitchen chair. Across the table from him was the engineer, Mike Stoker, who was also bound to a chair. In the locker room, Chet Kelly was sitting on the cold concrete floor, bound back-to-back with Marco Lopez. There was a masked man watching over each pair.

The sixth member of the crew, paramedic John Gage, had had the misfortune of encountering the masked men as they entered the station several hours before, with the cops hot on their heels. Johnny was in the bay, his hands pulled out to the side and bound to the metal rail that ran along the top of the squad. The fourth masked man watched over him, a sawn-off shotgun pointing unwaveringly at the young man.

None of the men – criminals or firefighters – knew how this was going to end.

***********

It had been an ordinary day so far. The necessary chores were interspersed with the few runs they had been on. As was usually the case, the squad had been busier than the engine and they had been at Rampart a couple of times with their victims.

On their return this time, they had brought some food. Roy was doing the cooking and had decided to make a tuna pasta bake, which involved minimal cooking and preparation and hopefully would still be edible if they got toned out when it was ready, as was frequently the case. He bought some salad fixings, too, as it was hot. Sandwiches would be acceptable in this kind of weather later on.

Fortunately, it was even too hot for Johnny to sustain his ‘rant of the day’ about people in cars not wearing seatbelts. Roy had listened with half an ear. He hadn’t pointed out, although he’d been sorely tempted to, that they didn’t wear seatbelts in the squad. That would just have set Johnny off on another rant, which probably would have contradicted what he had said in the first place and it was really too hot to try and unravel his partner’s thought processes today.

It was an undeniable fact that Johnny had a point. Seatbelts saved lives, but a lot of cars didn’t have them fitted and legislation to make manufacturers fit every new vehicle with them and make people wear them, was some way off. The majority of people never thought about putting on a seatbelt, but the majority of them had never seen a car crash up close and personal, like the firefighters did.

The bay doors at both the front and back were open to catch any errant breezes that happened to pass by. Roy carefully backed the squad into place and the paramedics got out and headed into the kitchen to put away the groceries.

“It’s hot in here,” Johnny complained as they entered the day room.

“That’s because the air con has just gone down,” Cap reported, coming in after them. “We’re sitting in the shade out the back. It’s marginally cooler there.”

“What’s the estimate on the repair man?” Roy asked. “Six months?”

Rolling his eyes at both Roy’s wit and his perspicacity, Hank grimaced. “Almost,” he admitted. “Tomorrow at the earliest.”

“Oh great!” Johnny exclaimed in disgust. “What’re we supposed to do in the mean time?” He threw his hands into the air.

“Sit in the shade out the back!” Cap retorted. “Gage, we’re all in this together. At least we can get outside.”

“True,” Johnny agreed, looking slightly shame-faced. “Sorry, Cap.”

“No harm done,” Cap relented. “The heat is getting us all down.” He turned and led the way back outside.

**********

It wasn’t much fun going back into the airless station house to make lunch. Roy debated about just sandwiches for both meals, but he knew they really needed at least one decent meal. Sandwiches were all right as far as they went, but when the men were fighting fires, they needed something more substantial and long lasting in their stomachs. He resigned himself and set to chopping peppers and onions to go into the pasta bake. It was a mindless task and Roy let his mind drift while he worked.

He was just draining the first can of tuna when he heard a sound in the bay. It didn’t bother him; the other men were going around and it was entirely likely that Johnny was about to appear and ask if he wanted any help before he grabbed a snack to tide him over the 45 minutes or so till lunch was ready. Roy knew his partner’s habits almost as well as his own. He chuckled to himself. Johnny would genuinely be offering help, but the snack was the motivator behind the offer.

Moments later, he heard his partner’s voice, only it wasn’t in the day room behind him, it was still out in the bay and he sounded alarmed. “What are you doing?!” Johnny cried.

The answer was a sound that terrified Roy and pinned him to the spot – a gunshot!

**********

His immobility lasted only seconds, then Roy was dropping the can he held and hurrying out to the bay. He reached the door and all but fell through it and skidded to a halt.

His first emotion was one of relief. Johnny was standing beside the squad, his arm twisted up behind him and a gun pointing at his temple. However, he was alive and that was all that mattered to Roy at that moment. He was aware of the other men coming in from outside and gazing at the scene in stunned disbelief.

A hand grabbed his arm and he was roughly shoved against the wall, opposite Johnny. “Move over here,” ordered one of the masked men. They were all armed, and the crew of 51 now faced three hand guns and a sawn-off shotgun. None of them hesitated to do what they were told. Obedience was their only option.

They were now aware of sirens from outside – lots of sirens. “Close the door!” snapped the man who appeared to be the leader. The man with the shotgun ran to the front bay doors, paused for a moment before he saw the door release and headed towards it. A police cruiser swung into the drive way and the gun man opened fire without a moment’s hesitation. He banged the door release and the door began to close. The police car braked sharply to a halt, swerving to avoid crashing, the windshield in smithereens and one of the cops inside dead – the other seriously injured.

The firefighters gaped in undisguised horror. The leader gestured to the other man, who hurried over to close the back door. “Is there anyone else here?” the leader demanded.

Still too stunned to think, none of them answered immediately. At once, the leader swung around and punched Johnny heavily in the stomach. The young paramedic gasped and tried to double over, but a yank on his captive arm brought him upright with another gasp of pain.

“No!” Stanley cried. “There’s no one else. Leave him alone, please.”

Ignoring the plea, the leader gestured to the man who had shut the back door. “Take a look around and make sure he’s not lying. Look for other doors.” The man headed off at once. The leader glanced at the man with the shotgun. “Make sure those doors aren’t going to open again anytime soon,” he ordered.

With a gleeful grin that showed through the gaping mouth of his balaclava, the man went back to the front door and blew the locking mechanism to hell. Everyone’s ears rang with the sound of the shot in the enclosed space. They had to endure it all over again when he repeated the action on the back door.

Meanwhile, the other man had returned from his reconnaissance. “There’s the door there,” he reported, pointing to the small front door, “and one in the big room behind them. I’ve made sure they’re both locked.”

“They won’t hold for long,” the leader mused. “All right. Who’s in charge here?”

“I am,” Stanley replied warily.

“Good, you can answer the phone to begin with, tell the cops who you and these other guys are and then I’ll take over negotiations.” The man looked Stanley up and down. “We’ll keep you alive as long as you don’t try to see our faces and as long as you don’t try anything stupid. And to prove we mean what we say, let me show you.” He gestured and the man with the hand gun swung round and punched Johnny in the stomach, putting his weight behind the blow. Johnny doubled over and again, his captor pulled him upright by the arm he was holding.

Outraged but helpless, Stanley ground his teeth together. “We’ll do what we’re told,” he promised. “You don’t need to hit him.”

Ignoring that comment, the leader looked around. “You’ve got to have some rope around here,” he commented. “Where is it?”

“There’s some on both the squad and the engine,” Stanley replied. He didn’t like what the question implied and he liked it even less when the man brought over the rope and motioned to Cap to turn round. With a single look at Johnny’s face, where the pain from his arm was etched for all to see, Cap did as he was told and submitted to having his hands tied.

The others had no choice but to follow their captain’s example. Johnny was still helpless and hurting in the hands of the fourth man and they had no doubt that any intransigence on their parts would result in Johnny bearing the brunt of the punishment. Far too soon, they were bound and helpless.

“Right, Captain, I want you in your office,” the leader said. He prodded Hank with his gun, even though the lanky captain was already heading in that direction. The phone started ringing, but the leader ignored it. “Sit,” he ordered, pointing to the chair. Awkwardly, Stanley sat and his legs were swiftly bound together and pulled back to tie off to the ropes on his wrists by another gunman.

The leader went back out and gestured to Roy and Mike. “They can go in the big room,” he decided. “If the cops want to try and get in by that door, just blow them away,” he added and ushered the two men into the day room. Roy glanced back over his shoulder at Johnny and the two of them exchanged a long look. Roy and Mike were swiftly bound in the same manner as Cap.

That left only Marco and Chet and they were herded into the locker room and tied back-to-back. One gunman remained to watch over them, thwarting any attempts they might have made to get free.

Out in the bay, Johnny remained helpless in the gunman’s grip. The initial shot that had been fired at him had missed by bare inches – as it was intended to. That had been all that had been required to capture the stunned paramedic and use him as leverage. Johnny was trying to remain calm, but it wasn’t easy when he was a human punching bag to keep the others in line.

There was no other way to say it; he was terrified, not only for himself, but for his friends. At least when they were all together, he could see for himself that they were unhurt. But now ... Johnny’s thoughts shied away from what could happen. He had to believe that somewhere along the line, the gunmen would let them go, unharmed. His stomach throbbed where he had been punched and his arm was twisted so high behind him that it was starting to go numb. He wondered what delights they had in store for him now, for this guy clearly would not want to stand holding him forever.

He was almost relieved when the leader came back. His arm was dropped and Johnny gingerly brought the appendage around to where he could gently rub it and feel his shoulder for damage. It all seemed to be intact, although he had no doubt it would hurt for a while. “Get over against the truck,” the leader ordered and Johnny did as he was told, although he hadn’t needed the push that almost floored him. “Put your back against it and grab hold of that railing on the top,” he was told.

For a moment, Johnny just looked at the man, on the verge of refusing, for that position would be more than just uncomfortable – it would be agonizing after only a short time. But even as he opened his mouth, he saw the man’s knuckles whiten on the trigger and did as he was told, wincing audibly as he moved his sore arm to grab the railing.

Having something to hold on to helped slightly, especially as his feet were then bound together, making his balance more difficult. Johnny thought tying his feet was over-kill. How was he going to run away when his hands were tied at the full stretch of his body?

Apparently satisfied, the leader went into the office, leaving Johnny with the maniac with the shotgun. There was something about the grin that occasionally played over the man’s mouth that Johnny really didn’t like. The man oozed menace from every pore and Johnny knew that he was right to be terrified. This was a man who enjoyed killing and could hardly wait to kill again.

From inside the office, the phone began to ring again.

***********

“Just remember,” the leader warned softly. “Any stupid moves on your part and your man out there gets his head blown off.”

“I’ll remember,” Stanley vowed, glancing out of the open doorway at Johnny. The paramedic’s stringent position would soon take a toll on him and Cap desperately wanted to do whatever he could to resolve this situation so that they could all be untied and go on with their normal lives. He cleared his throat nervously as the gunman picked up the receiver and held it to Stanley’s ear. “Station 51, Captain Hank Stanley speaking,” he said.

“This is Detective Crockett,” said a familiar voice. “Are you and your men all right?”

“Yes, we are at the moment,” Stanley replied.

“Good. Hank, I need to know where your men are and where the gunmen are. Can you tell me?”

“I’m not sure,” Hank admitted. He eyed the leader cautiously. “We’ve been separated and are all over the station...” The phone was snatched away from his mouth.

“You’ve got what you wanted to know, cop,” the leader said calmly. “All the firemen are still alive and in one piece, but whether they remain that way is another matter. If you decide to try and come in any of the doors, you’ll find dead firemen all over the place. That had better be clear. You can phone back in an hour.” He quietly replaced the receiver. “All things considered, you did fairly well there. For a minute. But telling the cops where you all are? Do you think that was what I wanted?”

Alarmed, Stanley began to struggle against his bonds. “I didn’t tell him...” The leader made a gesture that cut Hank off. Out in the bay, the man with the shotgun stepped towards Johnny. “No!” Stanley cried.

A resounding smack echoed through the bay as the gunman back-handed Johnny with all his strength. The young man’s head rocked to the side, blood suddenly gushing from his nose and mouth. “No!” Stanley cried again, but there was nothing he could do to stop the second blow rocking Johnny’s head back the other way. The paramedic cried out in pain and sagged limply in his bonds. “No!”

“I told you he’d suffer if you said the wrong thing,” the leader told Hank. “He’s got off lightly this time.” He turned and walked calmly out of the office, leaving Hank sitting alone, completely helpless, looking out at Johnny still hanging limply against the side of the squad. Guilt rose up in his throat and he could have wept.

***********

The sounds from the bay were only too clear to Roy and Mike. Both men tensed up, struggling automatically against the ropes that held them so tightly. The gunman that was keeping watch over them and the back of the station smiled as he saw them react. “Cool it,” he ordered. “You probably don’t want your friend to get any more, am I right?”

They subsided without saying a word, for the man had them pegged. Neither of them would do anything that would rebound on Johnny. The gunman laughed. “You do-gooders! You’re so easy to control. Just push the right button and you’d do anything.” He gave a contemptuous snort.

“Wouldn’t you, if it was one of your friends?” Roy asked quietly.

“Hell no!” He shook his head and Roy could have sworn that he was genuinely amused. “Everyone is replaceable. Everyone.” He laughed at the look on Roy’s face. “You good guys live the most boring lives ever.”

The urge to say something, to reason with the man was almost overwhelming, but Roy bit down on his tongue to stop himself. Anything he said that touched a nerve would rebound on his partner and Roy could not risk that. He looked over at Mike and saw that the usually silent engineer was also struggling to keep quiet. Who knew what the wrong thing to say would be?

***********

The time ticked slowly by for the hostages. Johnny was once more supporting his own weight. His arms ached painfully and his hands were slowly going numb. His nose had bled for quite some time and his lips were split and swollen. He hadn’t been knocked out by the blows, but definitely stunned and his arms had not appreciated supporting his body weight. Johnny counted himself lucky that he hadn’t dislocated a shoulder.

Crouched against the wall was the gunman with the shotgun. He was now alternating his attention between Johnny and looking around the station with what appeared to be genuine interest. He had peered closely into the compartments of the squad and Johnny had heard him over by the engine. Mostly, he watched Johnny with an unnerving interest.

When Johnny looked away from the gunman, he was looking straight into the office at Captain Stanley. Even though Cap looked guilty every time he met Johnny’s gaze, the younger man still found it a comfort to be able to make eye contact with one of his crew mates. He was worried about the others and hoped that they weren’t in such dire straits as he and Cap were. He hoped that their circulation was not slowly being cut off the way his was.

The phone started ringing and the leader rose leisurely to his feet from where he had been sitting out of Johnny’s sight in a corner of Stanley’s small office. He looked at the instrument for a long moment, then picked it up. “Yes?” he said.

There was a long pause while the person on the other end spoke. “I’m quite well aware of the crimes I have committed today,” the leader replied, his voice still infuriatingly calm. “Since I’m the person who committed them, I am very intimately acquainted with them indeed; probably more so than you are. I’ve killed before and I’ll kill again if I need to. So you listen to me, cop; we want to get out of here. You don’t want the firemen dead. So you bring us a car in the morning and make sure that we have clear passage to the Mexican border. We’ll take one of the firemen with us and drop him off down there. We’ll leave the rest here and as long as you don’t try anything during the night, they’ll all be alive and unhurt. But you mess with me and I’ll kill them all, one by one, and you’ll be able to hear the screams, because their deaths won’t be quick. And the last man I kill, you get a front row seat. Is that clear?” He paused, listening. “If you don’t believe me, ask the captain what I’ve already done to one of his men.” He held the phone to Cap’s ear.

“Hank Stanley.” Cap’s mouth was dry. He had messed up last time and he was determined to do better this time.

“He says he’s hurt someone,” Crockett essayed. It wasn’t quite a question; yet not a statement either.

“Yes,” Cap agreed, afraid to say more.

“Bad?”

“Bad enough,” Cap sighed, looking at Johnny’s blood-stained face.

“Just say yes when I say the name of the person who’s hurt, okay?” Crockett suggested. “Mike Stoker? Roy? Chet Kelly? Marco Lopez? I might have guessed, its John Gage.”

“Yes,” Cap agreed. The phone was abruptly removed from his mouth.

“You can phone whenever you want to,” the leader told Crockett. “I might answer. I might not. But you try anything and I’ll kill a fireman. Got it?” He hung up and turned to Cap. “What did he ask?”

“He didn’t really ask anything,” Cap lied. “He just told me they were doing everything they could to get us out of here and then asked if I understood.” He held the gunman’s gaze. You can’t tell if I’m lying, he thought, fighting to keep his face as neutral and defeated as possible. I’m not going to give you an excuse to hurt John again.

Their gazes locked. “I don’t believe you,” the gunman commented and Stanley tensed.

“It’s true!” he insisted. “I’m not going to lie to you when I know what you’d do to John.” He could hear the desperation in his tone, but there was no way to disguise it.

“So you don’t want John hurt?” the leader mused. “Or any of the others, I suppose.”

“I don’t want any of them hurt,” Hank clarified.

“Let me tell you something,” the leader proposed. “I am perfectly sane. I seldom lose my temper. However, normal rules of society don’t apply to me. I don’t hold doors open for ladies, I don’t obey the law and there are very few people in this world that I respect. All you are to me is a means to an end. I got careless at that job and that’s how we ended up taking refuge in here. I don’t care about you or any of the others. If I have to kill you one by one, then I will.” His voice remained perfectly calm and Cap was chilled to the bone by his matter of fact tones. “I still think you’re lying to me, but that’s okay. Because, you see, I don’t need a reason to hurt your friend out there. I can do it for entertainment, or just to remind you that you are helpless or because I feel like it. You aren’t in charge anymore, Captain. I am in command now.” He gestured to the man outside the door and he swung the barrel of the shotgun into Johnny’s stomach. Johnny grunted in pain and surprise as the wind was driven forcibly from his lungs and his body tried desperately to double over.

While Stanley gazed in horror at his youngest crewman, the leader walked out of the office and went over to Johnny. Grabbing a handful of the dark hair, he yanked Johnny’s head back. Johnny was still gasping, his breath coming in painful grunts as his abused diaphragm struggled to work normally. “I bet your hands are going numb, aren’t they?” the leader asked Johnny. He didn’t wait for a reply. “That’s too bad, John. I bet a paramedic really needs his hands, too. But if the others are good, I might let you down for a while. Or there again, I might not.” He watched with interest as Johnny’s dark eyes narrowed with hatred. “Oh go on, say what you want to say,” the leader coaxed. “I won’t hurt you – much.”

The urge to spit in the man’s face was almost overwhelming. Johnny knew that he would pay dearly if he offered this man that insult, and probably so would his crewmates. He didn’t want any of them to endure what he was enduring, especially Roy. Roy had a young family who needed him. Johnny would take no risks with his friend’s life. The thought that he might lose the use of his hands was more than terrifying, yet if that was the price he had to pay to keep his friends safe, he would not grudge it.

Abruptly tiring of baiting Johnny, the leader let his head go. “Oh you’re all so noble,” he declared in a sarcastic tone. “Still, that’ll be useful later on.” He watched for a moment as Johnny gingerly straightened his body, once more taking as much weight as he could from his arms. He seemed to find it amusing. Then he went into the day room.

The gunman at the back door glanced over briefly. “They’re set up out here, too,” he commented, as though continuing a conversation.

“I don’t mind,” the leader replied. “We’ll leave in the morning.” He glanced at the food that was still lying there. The smell from the tuna was overpowering in the heat. “Who was cooking?”

“I was,” Roy replied.

“Good. You can get on with making that, but remember that your friend out there will pay the price if you try anything.” He looked at Roy and saw the other man nod.

“Can I check everyone out?” Roy asked. “We all need food and water and to go to the toilet.”

“You’re not checking anyone out,” the leader responded. “But if you behave, then you’ll get to pee –- we don’t want the place stinking, after all. We’ll give you water. Food –- we’ll see.”

“Thank you,” Roy breathed. He felt the ropes around his hands loosen and was soon rubbing his wrists. His fingers tingled, but his circulation had not been badly impeded. He got to his feet and went over to the discarded meal. It annoyed him that the gunmen would get the benefit and the crew would most likely go hungry, but there was nothing he could say about it.

The tantalizing smell of the tuna bake was soon wafting through the station. Roy’s hands were once more tied, but this time in front of him and he was careful to do nothing that would appear to be a threat. When it was ready, the gunmen ate in rotation and then Roy was allowed to go to the latrine.

He froze in the dayroom doorway as his gaze fell on his partner’s bruised and bloody face. Johnny’s hands were slightly blue and Roy could tell that he was in intense pain. He took half a step towards Johnny, but the man with the shotgun raised it threateningly, digging the barrel into Johnny’s stomach. The younger man winced and for an instant a look of agony crossed his features before he schooled them once more into neutrality. Roy reluctantly took the hint and went to the latrine.

It was a relief to see that the others were alive and for the most part unhurt. Chet and Marco looked as relieved to see Roy as Roy was to see them, but no words were exchanged between them. Roy would have liked to have asked if they were all right, but he had seen what the men had done to Johnny and did not want anything else to provoke them.

Mike and Cap got their turns, as did Chet and Marco. Just being able to move around a bit helped, but food and water would have helped a lot more. The heat in the station was building as the afternoon wore into evening. The crew was used to dealing with hot temperatures, but they were also aware of the dangers of dehydration in such heat.

At last, Johnny was freed and prodded towards the latrine. His arms were a mass of agony and the pins and needles caused by the blood returning to his hands was excruciating. Nevertheless, he welcomed the pain, for it meant that his hands were not permanently damaged. He rubbed them as best he could, wincing at the rope burns on his wrists, which were already darkening with bruises.

Stumbling through the locker room on the way to the latrine, the shotgun at his back, Johnny managed to find a smile for Chet and Marco. It really galled him that there was nothing he could do to ease their plight. Little did he know that things were slightly easier for them now. Although they were still bound to each other, their hands were now bound in front of them, easing the pressure on their shoulders. In the dayroom, Roy and Mike were also bound with their hands in front of them and rope around their chests and arms binding them to the chair. Cap still had his hands bound behind him. The leader was determined to make Cap pay for his earlier mistake and hitting Johnny was only part of the punishment.

The prospect of being bound once more was a daunting one and Johnny dawdled as much as he dared in the latrine. However, he knew he did not dare to linger for too long, or one of the others would pay for it. Still, he was able to wash some of the dried blood from his face, although that just showed the bruises more. With the ever-present shotgun at his back, he walked back to the equipment bay. The leader was waiting for him. “You can give every man a glass of water,” he was told. “But say one word and you’ll regret it.”

Nodding, for the man’s matter of fact tone was far more chilling than shouting would be, Johnny went into the kitchen. He ran the tap for a few moments before filling the first glass so that the water would be as cold as possible.

Color mounted in Mike’s face as Johnny held the glass to his lips. He drank slowly, knowing that if he gulped it down quickly, he would likely throw it back up and that was the last thing any of them wanted. It also meant that Johnny would have a few more minutes of respite from the leader’s vindictiveness.

The phone began ringing again. Johnny’s hands began to tremble, for the two prior phone calls had resulted in him being beaten. Mike caught the young paramedic’s eye and tried to show his support that way. Johnny gave him a semblance of a smile.

The phone rang and rang. The leader made no move to answer it. His eyes never left Johnny as he took a glass of water over to his partner. Like Mike, Roy drank slowly and steadily, keeping his eyes locked with Johnny’s. They didn’t need words to communicate. Roy assessed Johnny’s bruises and concluded his friend had been lucky; his nose wasn’t broken, and while the split lip would be very uncomfortable for a few days, it would heal without intervention. He did flick his eyes down to Johnny’s midriff, but the other man gave his head a slight shake. Roy took that to mean that Johnny didn’t think his ribs were broken, but knowing his partner as he did, that meant nothing.

The awkwardness continued as Johnny gave water to Chet and Marco and Cap and the leader followed him, watching, as did the maniac with the shotgun. He seemed rather disappointed that the firemen were being so submissive and seemed to get a real kick out of pointing the shotgun at them in turn. Johnny did his best to place his body between the gun and his friends, but it wasn’t always possible.

Finally, the only person who had not had water was Johnny. He went to refill the glass, and then paused as a hand touched his arm. “Did I say you could have some?” the leader asked.

“No,” Johnny replied, meekly. He was aware of Roy starting to protest in the background and quickly caught his friend’s eye. Roy subsided for the moment.

The leader took the glass of water into his own hand. “No, I didn’t say you could have any. Would you like some?”

Wary, sure there was some catch, but unable to see what it was, Johnny nodded. “Yes please,” he replied.

He had been sure he would regret it, one way or another, but Johnny was caught completely by surprise when the leader grabbed his hair, yanked his head back and as Johnny yelped in pain, poured the water into his open mouth. Johnny immediately began to choke, not able to swallow quickly enough and inevitably inhaling some as he gasped for air.

Laughing, the leader released Johnny and watched as he collapsed to his knees, coughing and retching painfully. Roy was fighting against his bonds, but there was no give in them at all. “Leave him alone!” he cried.

At once, all eyes but Johnny’s were on him, Mike’s wide with horror. The gunman watching the back door glanced at Roy and grinned. The leader turned round and fixed the older paramedic with a flat stare and the shotgun man laughed aloud. “I think you’ll find that was a mistake,” the leader commented and gestured to the shotgun man.

He reacted at once, placing the shotgun on the counter and yanking Johnny’s head back once more. Johnny’s hands rose to try and free himself, but the other man was ready and grabbed his wrist, twisting the arm up behind him again. Johnny was trapped on his knees, head back, throat exposed. He had rarely been so vulnerable.

Opening cupboards, the leader found what he was looking for – a large measuring jug. He filled it and stood over Johnny. He didn’t bother ordering the helpless man to open his mouth; he used the simple expedient of holding his nose and began to pour the water in, knowing the other man would be unable to swallow fast enough.

Neither Mike nor Roy could remain silent. They begged and pleaded uselessly until the leader had amused himself enough and put the jug down. Johnny was coughing and choking, his face, hair and shirt soaking, gasping for air. For a long minute, the shotgun man kept his hold on the dark hair, prolonging Johnny’s agony, then let him go, dropping him into the puddle of water that had formed on the floor. Johnny flopped down, his right arm still behind his back, and coughed as though trying to rid himself of his lungs.

“Please, let me help him,” Roy begged.

“No.” The leader turned away, but only after delivering a chilling threat. “One more word out of you and I’ll drown him for real. Got it?” He gestured to the shotgun man. “Tie him back on the truck again. I’m finished with him for now.”

Roy could only watch as Johnny was dragged from the room.

***********

It was the middle of the night and the station was quiet. Nobody slept. The spotlights that were trained on the station crept in between the blinds and provided enough illumination that interior lights were not required. The heat had abated some, but not that much. The level of tension had racked up considerably as negotiations stalled. The phone had been ringing for the last half hour nonstop, but the leader was no longer answering it. He wanted the cops to sweat, to worry about what they were going to do to the hostages.

The hostages themselves were exhausted, their nerves in tatters. Cramps wracked their bodies from being tied in the same positions for hours. Fear stalked their minds. The longer this situation went on, the less chance there was of it ending well.

It was hardest of all on the two men who were isolated. While none of them dared speak for fear of retribution falling on their youngest crew member, Roy and Mike could see each other and Chet and Marco were actually touching each other. They weren’t alone.

But Captain Stanley was isolated in his office, no longer even able to see Johnny since his chair had been moved back out of the way. He was no longer allowed to speak to the police when the leader chose to answer the phone. Johnny was tied to the squad, his reserves of strength long since gone.

At the moment, the leader was standing in the bay looking at Johnny. He glanced at the shotgun man. “Why don’t you go and get some sleep?” he suggested. “I need one of us to be awake enough to drive tomorrow.”

“You think they’re going to give us a car?” asked the other.

“Yes, I think so. If they don’t, I’ll shoot one of these guys and chuck him out of the front door. That’ll make them do what I want.”

“Don’t you want to get some sleep?” shotgun asked. “I’ll stay on watch here.”

“No, I’ll sleep in the car tomorrow.” The leader walked over to Johnny and lifted his head. Johnny was pale and looked exhausted, but his eyes burned with mute hatred. “We’ll take this one with us.”

“Can I be the one to kill him?” shotgun asked eagerly. “Can I kill them all before we go?”

“You might get to kill him, but we’ll leave the others. I wouldn’t want the police to think I don’t play fair, now would I?” He laughed. “You’ll get your fun with him, don’t worry.”

“Do what you like to me,” Johnny whispered, his throat still raw from all the coughing and retching he had done. “Just leave the others alone. Please.”

“Well well, what have we here? A martyr?” The leader laughed. “What would you be willing to let me do to you so I leave the others alone?”

“Anything,” Johnny whispered. “Anything.” He tried not to think of the horrific things they could inflict upon him, but his mind was already enumerating them, one by one. He wanted to save his friends’ lives, but he was terrified of what he might face. He wondered if religious martyrs had felt the way he did now.

“What a pity you’re not my type,” the leader leered. “There’s nothing I like better than a submissive.” He patted Johnny’s bruised cheek harder than was necessary. “I bet you’re not usually this submissive. Maybe you’ll have more fight when the others aren’t around.” He dropped Johnny’s head and walked away. “Go and get some sleep,” he added to shotgun. “He’s not going anywhere.”

“We’re going to have some fun before I kill you,” shotgun whispered into Johnny’s ear. He patted the paramedic’s cheek in a manner that was more like a caress than a threat. Nonetheless, Johnny was terrified by his intentions.

************

Dawn’s arrival was both too soon and not soon enough. The deadline for the police bringing a car was drawing nearer and the firefighters could not help but fear that moment. If things went wrong, they would die and they all feared that the gunmen would not honor the promise they had made to leave them alive. Why should they?

They were allowed another bathroom break about 7am. Roy thought he had braced himself for the sight of his partner, but he hadn’t really. Overnight, Johnny’s bruises had darkened and he hung limply from his bonds. Every now and then, he would cough harshly. It broke Roy’s heart to see him like that. Cap felt the same way, for he knew it was his fault that Johnny had been so badly treated.

The phone rang again. It had rung so often overnight that all the men hated the sound of it. This time, the leader answered. “You’d better have the car ready for me,” he declared, “or I’m going to shoot one of these guys and throw him out at you.”

“The car is out front,” Crockett replied.

“You must think I’m really dim,” the leader responded. “Out front? Where all the TV cameras are? Where your snipers can pick us off one by one? I don’t think so. Bring the car to the back and then get the hell away from it.”

“All right,” Crockett agreed, sounding reluctant, although this was exactly what he wanted. “What about the firemen?”

“What about them?” the leader parried. “We’re not exactly going to take them all with us. To make sure you don’t do anything stupid, we’re going to have them all with us while you bring the car round. We’ll be watching.”

“I won’t do anything stupid,” Crockett promised, giving the thumbs up to the SWAT guy. “I’m bringing the car now.” He hung up the phone and nodded. “He fell for it. He’s going to have all the firefighters together so he can watch me bring the car. They’ll have to be in the kitchen.”

“No problem,” the SWAT guy agreed. He tilted his radio to his mouth. “Ready to fire on my mark,” he stated. He received a chorus of acknowledgments. “Go,” he told the detective.

***********

Inside the station, Chet, Marco and Cap were brought into the kitchen. They were put into chairs and bound to them. Johnny was brought from the bay last, his hands now tied behind him. He was on his feet, but his friends knew it was sheer willpower that kept him there.

They heard the sound of a car. “Take a look,” the leader ordered and the man he had spoken to had barely taken a step when the window shattered loudly and several grey canisters hit the floor and exploded. “Tear gas!” the leader shouted and within seconds, they were all coughing and choking.

Furious, determined not to get caught, the leader dragged Johnny towards the door into the bay. Behind him, he could hear the door crashing open and the shouts as the police overpowered his men. Already, his eyes were burning and he knew it would not be long before he was unable to see anything more than a bright blur. Somehow, he had to get out of there, or hole up somewhere until his eyes recovered.

He might have made it if it hadn’t been for Johnny. Already at the end of his strength, Johnny had received a good lungful of the tear gas and his legs simply gave way and he tumbled to the floor, half-dragging the leader down with him.

Cursing loudly, the leader grabbed Johnny’s arm and tried to get him onto his feet again, but Johnny was unable to rise. He was gasping for breath, his eyes already tearing and burning and his body was starting to shut down to preserve itself. There was no way he could get up. He was physically incapable.

There was a huge crash as the door at the front of the station was broken down. More shouting filled the bay, echoing off the concrete walls. To Johnny, it was all one deafening cacophony without meaning. He allowed his burning eyes to close, although they hurt no less when closed. He simply couldn’t keep them open.

For the first time since this whole thing started, the leader was not in control. He knew he had to get Johnny onto his feet to use as an effective shield, yet the other man was a dead weight, and the leader couldn’t manage it with one hand and still wield his gun. For probably the first time in his adult life, the leader could feel the edges of panic and it wasn’t a feeling he liked.

“Put the gun down!” an authoritative voice ordered and the leader looked up to shoot at the speaker and discovered that he couldn’t see anything. Total panic overwhelmed him; he lifted the gun and fired randomly.

Although the armed police all ducked, they were in no danger. Big Red, the engine, got a ding in the paint work along her flank, but the gun hadn’t been aimed at them. Nevertheless, the man in charge was taking no chances. “Fire!” he ordered and one of his marksmen took down the leader with a single shot.

“Clear!” shouted the SWAT man.

“Clear!” echoed from the dayroom and they moved quickly to secure their prisoner, who had fallen across Johnny’s body.

A couple of the SWAT men hurried to open the back bay door manually to allow fresh air in to help disperse the tear gas. They beckoned to waiting paramedics who picked up their gear and followed them inside. The cops in the day room had secured the other gunmen and were leading the hostages to safety.

The leader was still alive. He lay where he had been pushed, on his back. His life was probably measured only in heartbeats, but one thought dominated his mind; he could not be taken alive! He groaned and rolled his head slightly. His discarded gun had been appropriated by the cops, but the paramedic who was kneeling beside him had a pocket knife in his equipment holster. He stretched out his hand to grab it and was horrified to see that his limb did not even twitch in response. In fact, his whole body was not responding to commands from his brain now. He tried to breathe and even that didn’t work and he realized he was dying as his brain closed down, his blurred sight darkening until there was nothing.

“No pulse!” cried the paramedic working on the leader. He grabbed the case with the defibrillator in it, but the SWAT team leader put his hand on it.

“Leave it,” he advised. “He’s not worth it, even if you could bring him back.”

For a long moment, the paramedic looked as though he would argue, but the SWAT leader simply stared him down. It was true that they were unlikely to be able to bring him back, but they were supposed to try if the person had a pulse when they started treatment. This was one time when the paramedic would not be attempting to resuscitate. Looking away from the large, heavily armored police officer, he turned his attention to helping Johnny.

Dimly, Johnny was aware of hands cutting his bonds free and gently drawing his arms forward. The movement hurt more than he could articulate and he cried out. He could feel hands on his arms, gently feeling them for breaks. Johnny knew that there were none, but he couldn’t manage to speak. He coughed fitfully. An oxygen mask was slipped over his face and he winced as it touched his sore nose. The hands very carefully tipped his head sideways and liquid ran over and into his irritated eyes. It did help slightly. A c-collar was placed around his neck and a needle punctured his arm. He was rolled onto a backboard. Words drifted through his consciousness. “Dehydrated... semi-conscious... bi-lateral rales.” Not good news, he thought groggily, but could be worse. He vaguely wondered how the others were, then his thoughts drifted away entirely.

***********

Rescuing the firefighters took very little time, but it seemed like an eternity to the hostages as they choked helplessly in the gas from the canisters. They were led blindly outside by people they could not even see through their tears and there they were treated gently and considerately by members of their brotherhood, placed on gurneys and whisked away in ambulances.

“Where’s... Johnny?” Roy gasped between bouts of coughing.

“Not in this vehicle,” Brice replied in his usual precise and literal manner.

“Is he... all right?” was the next question.

“I don’t know,” Brice replied. “I was not treating him, as you well know. I did not see him being loaded onto an ambulance, but then, I did not see others of your crew being loaded into ambulances either, but I assume they were.” He checked the IV, which was of course dripping at the correct rate. “I am sure Gage is fine.”

“There was... shooting,” Roy coughed.

“Yes,” Brice agreed absent-mindedly. “I believe there was a fatality.”

“What?” Roy hadn’t heard that and attempted to sit up, but was securely strapped onto the gurney.

“I am sure it was not Gage,” Brice soothed.

“You’ve got to... find out!” Roy insisted. He continued struggling futilely against the straps until his body ran out of air and he began to cough again.

“DeSoto, you must lie still,” Brice chided. “Getting upset will not do you any good.” He turned up the oxygen a bit, since Roy seemed to be having a problem with his breathing. His pulse had increased, too, Brice noted and when he checked his blood pressure, it had risen slightly as well. “DeSoto, you must calm down. Worrying doesn’t do any good.”

At the best of times, Roy found Brice hard to take. This was not the best of times. He struggled for a moment to hold back the words, but found it was impossible. “Shut up, Brice!” he screamed and subsided onto the gurney, coughing fit to burst.

Offended, Brice sat back and let his patient cough. Well, he thought, there was no need for that kind of outburst!

***********

“Cap? Stay awake for me, here.” The paramedic leaning over him was unfamiliar to Stanley and he wished the young man would go away and leave him alone. Like Roy, Cap had heard the gunshot in the bay and not knowing if John was alive or dead was torture for him. He had been poked and prodded and had a needle stuck in him and now this annoying man wouldn’t let him slide into a place where he didn’t have to remember.

“I’m awake,” he croaked and coughed. His head was pounding, his arms ached, his eyes were burning and streaming and he felt bloody awful. Why would he want to stay awake? Did this fool think he enjoyed feeling lousy? “How are the others?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” the man admitted.

Why don’t you know? Hank wanted to shout. Don’t you realize what we’ve just gone through? Why didn’t it occur to you to find out how the others were doing? Can’t you use your initiative? But he restrained himself. Shouting would only make his head and his cough worse and it wouldn’t bring the answers he needed. Nor would it ease his conscience. He was trained to respond rationally in situations that would send ordinary people screaming into the streets, so why had his training not kicked in to stop him putting his foot in his mouth?

He was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he hadn’t realized that they had arrived at Rampart until the ambulance doors opened. Opening his eyes was still not a pleasant prospect, so he had to listen to try and decide which doctor was going to be treating him. Mike Morton, he guessed and wondered how receptive he would be to pleas to find out about the others, especially John. “He’s pretty withdrawn,” he heard the paramedic say.

“I probably would be, too,” Morton retorted and for a brief moment, Hank felt a slight lightening of his spirits. A hand touched his shoulder. “Captain, I hope you don’t mind sharing a treatment room with your engineer. We’re a little backed up.”

“Is he all right?” Cap asked.

“As far as I can see, yes,” Morton replied. “We’re waiting for tests to come back and then we’ll be keeping you all for 24 hours for observation.” Morton was not known for his bedside manner, but like the others in the Rampart ER family, they had been following the siege and praying for their friends. The staff psychiatrists had warned them all that the freed firemen would need gentle handling.

“What about the others?” Cap enquired, feeling cheered by the news of Mike Stoker.

“As soon as I know, you’ll know,” Morton promised.

It wasn’t quite the answer Cap was looking for, but it was better than he had had before and he would settle for it just now.

***********

Being isolated from the others, waiting and wondering, unable to hear anything that might be going on, had been very tough on Chet and Marco. Like the others, they were dehydrated and hungry, their eyes irritated by the tear gas and with rope burns on their wrists. They had been whisked to safety by the cops, quickly supplied with IVs and oxygen and loaded into the waiting ambulances. And not knowing how everyone else was, especially Johnny, took its toll on them, too. The need to keep up a strong front was gone, leaving them feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. Marco found he couldn’t stop chattering inanely while trying to hide the shaking that ravaged his body, while Chet was unable to utter a single word. Like Cap and Mike, they shared an exam room.

Mike Stoker was also exhibiting symptoms of shock. He was lying on the exam table shivering so hard that his teeth were actually chattering. The nurse with him had given him a blanket from the warmer, but it wasn’t making nearly as much difference as he would have liked. He quashed an insane urge to laugh when the nurse gently helped him change into a hospital gown. He didn’t think anyone had helped him dress since he was a toddler and he was sure he must look utterly ridiculous trying to feel his way into the gown he couldn’t see.

Just for once, Mike Morton’s bedside manner was exemplary. Neither man was really hurt, although the rope burns on their wrists would bear watching. He cleaned them thoroughly and bandaged them and washed out their eyes again, putting in some soothing drops. “I’ll go and see what I can find out about the others before you’re moved to a room,” he told the men.

“Thanks,” Cap replied. His eyes were beginning to feel a bit better. He could make out some shapes in the blur now, which was an improvement. He turned his head to where the engineer lay close by. “Mike? Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Mike replied and then was anything but all right. The shaking began anew and he suddenly burst into tears, tears that scalded his face and made his already sore eyes even sorer. He didn’t think he had cried since he was a small child and he had no idea why he had suddenly started and yet couldn’t bring the sobbing under control.

Alarmed, Cap sat up and started to get up, but the nurse bade him stay where he was and shouted for help before rushing over to place a comforting hand on Mike’s arm. He continued to cry, no longer even caring that he was making a total exhibition of himself. And the nurse gave in to her instinct and gathered him into her embrace, rubbing his back soothingly, as though he was a child.

Dr Morton responded to her call and saw at once that the events of the day had caught up with Mike. He drew up a mild sedative and injected it into the IV port. Within a couple of minutes the sobbing slowed, then ceased entirely as Mike’s body relaxed. Though not asleep, Mike was definitely drowsy. Dimly, he thought he would be mortified when he was feeling better, but right now the thought didn’t cause him any distress.

Once satisfied that Stoker was stable, Morton looked at Stanley. The older man was clearly still feeling rather shocky himself, but wasn’t on the edge of an imminent breakdown. “Mike’s all right,” he soothed. “I’ve seen the others. Chet and Marco are already being moved to a room. They don’t have any serious injuries; just dehydration, rope burns and sore eyes. Like you, they’ll need supplemental oxygen for a while.”

“Roy?” Cap asked. “And John?”

“Roy’s fine,” Morton answered. He hesitated slightly.

“What’s wrong with John?” Cap cried. “He’s not... dead, is he?”

***********

Nothing had prepared Roy for being treated by Brice. He couldn’t fault the man’s efficiency, but he could certainly fault the bedside manner; Brice simply didn’t have one. With his nerves already strung out beyond bearing, Brice’s determined detachment made Roy want to throttle him. That, coupled with his anxiety over his crewmates, kept his breathing, heart rate and blood pressure higher than Brice and the hospital thought preferable, but he resisted fiercely any sedative. He needed to know how the others were.

The arrival at Rampart was a huge relief for both parties. Brice knew Roy as an excellent paramedic, if rather more emotionally involved than was good for him, and as someone who was rather cavalier with the department’s regulations. It was only sense to alphabetize the drug box; that made finding the drugs more efficient. And locking the compartment doors was mandatory, although very few paramedic units did so. Brice also found Roy rather intolerant of him personally – especially today.

As for Roy, he thought Brice was a monumental pain in the ass and if he never worked with him again, it would be far too soon. He dismissed the man from his thoughts the moment he was in the treatment room. Joe Early was the doctor treating him. “How’s Johnny?” he demanded. “How are the others?”

“I don’t know,” Early admitted. “They’ve only just got here themselves, Roy. How about I look at you and then see what I can find out?” It was a rhetorical question and Roy realized that and subsided. He would find out eventually.

Like the others, Roy was dehydrated, shocky, his lungs and eyes still irritated by the tear gas. Also like the others, he would be staying for observation for about 24 hours, to make sure nothing unexpected crept up on any of them. They would all get supplemental oxygen for a few more hours and a course of antibiotics to prevent infection from the rope burns. Most of all, they would get much needed rest and a good meal or two. But most of all, they all needed to know how Johnny was. Obligingly, Joe Early went off to find out.

In a treatment room across the hall, he found Dr Brackett and Dr Morton and Johnny Gage. The paramedic was conscious again, having come round in the ambulance as the fluids he was being given began to work. His arms had still been causing him intense pain, but he hadn’t been allowed anything for that because of a potential head injury given the bruising on his face.

As he had been wheeled into the treatment room, the paramedic with him had quickly updated Brackett on how Johnny had been when they found him and on the journey and it was all Johnny could do not to whimper in pain and beg for relief.

“Johnny?” A shadow leaned over him as he squinted against the bright lights and the blur that was his eyesight at the moment. If it hadn’t been for Brackett’s distinctive voice, Johnny wouldn’t have recognized him. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” Johnny croaked and began to cough. It hurt and being strapped to a backboard didn’t help either. He finally regained control of his breathing, although the struggle left him exhausted.

“Are you in pain?” Brackett asked. He increased the oxygen flow. Johnny simply nodded. “Where?”

“My arms,” Johnny whispered. “My ribs. My nose.”

“I want x-ray down here, stat,” Brackett ordered over his shoulder. “Get ortho here, too. Dix, draw blood for a full chem. panel. Johnny, I’m going to give you something to help with the pain. Once we’ve got the pictures, we’ll get you out of those bloody clothes and make you more comfortable.”

“Blood?” Johnny asked, confused, but Brackett didn’t hear him. Oh no! Johnny thought. Why is there blood on me? Am I hurt worse than I thought? “Blood?” he repeated, slightly more loudly and this time Dixie heard him.

“The blood isn’t yours,” she quickly reassured him.

“Who?” Johnny asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Don’t worry about it.” She patted his arm comfortingly. “You’re gonna be fine, Johnny; just fine.” She prepared to draw the blood. “A sharp scratch,” she warned and got the vein first go, which was pretty impressive, given that he was still very dehydrated. Johnny was glad, for it had taken the paramedic a couple of goes to get the stick at the station.

While they waited for x-ray, Dixie washed Johnny’s eyes out again. The irritation was beginning to die back a bit – or was that just the MS kicking in? X-ray came in. “I’ll be back in a minute, Johnny,” Dixie promised, “and then we’ll see about making you more comfortable.”

When she went outside, the three doctors were conferring. “I don’t think Johnny is too seriously injured,” Brackett was saying, “but I don’t want to say anything too much until we know why his arms are so sore. Are any of the others in any shape to tell us what happened? We know they were held hostage and tied up, but we need specifics.”

“I didn’t like to ask,” Early replied, “but Roy is worried about Johnny.”

“So are Captain Stanley and Mike Stoker,” Morton agreed. “I said I’d see what I could find out.”

“Who’s treating Chet Kelly and Marco Lopez?” Brackett asked.

“Dr Main,” Dixie replied. He was fairly new to the staff. “I’ll go and speak to him.” She hurried off, seeing her quarry at the desk for the moment. She returned a minute later with him in tow. “Doctor,” she prompted.

“The two firefighters are pretty shocked,” Main reported. “Lopez is talking endlessly and Kelly won’t say a word.”

Brackett sighed and his mouth twitched. “From what the shrinks said to us, I don’t think we should split these men up. I think they need to be together and if that’s awkward for us, then it’s just going to have to be awkward. Dixie, can you make sure they get into one of the wards? I don’t much care which floor, but probably not maternity or gyn.” He twinkled just a little at his last words, showing Dix that he was trying to lighten the atmosphere. It didn’t quite come off. “Tell the others that Johnny is awake and aware and let’s leave it at that for the mean time until we know something more. If any of them are willing or able to volunteer information, I want it as soon as you get it, but if not, we won’t push. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” the others chorused and headed back to speak to their patients.

***********

“Johnny’s not dead, Captain,” Morton soothed. “Dr Brackett is with him right now. I believe he was getting x-rays done.”

“What for?” Cap asked, guilt rising in his throat.

“I don’t know,” Morton admitted. “Dr Brackett didn’t say.”

Finally feeling warm and drowsy under several blankets, the medication keeping him calm, Mike Stoker said, “Probably his ribs, Cap.”

“Of course,” Stanley berated himself. “How could I forget?”

“Forget what?” Morton asked, pricking his ears up, keeping his tone casual.

Talking slowly, with many prompts and insertions from Mike, Stanley told Johnny’s story as best as he knew. It was horrible to relive it, yet in a way it was a relief to get everything out in the open; his mistakes and the ramifications of them that led to Johnny being brutalized and beaten. What made the whole thing easier was that he still could not discern expressions and so did not need to worry about seeing the disapproval on Dr Morton’s face. Disapproval that wasn’t there.

When Cap was done, Mike added the bits that Cap hadn’t seen like the attempted drowning. Morton listened in silence. As an ER doctor, he had seen plenty of evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. But this deliberate callous torture was new to him and he knew that his face reflected the horror he felt. And when both men were finished, he had no idea what to say.

Luckily, he was saved by the orderlies arriving to take the two men to the ward. Morton hastily scribbled orders for mild sedation for Stanley, so the man could get some sleep, hopefully without dreams, and saw them on their way. He then went to hunt out Brackett.

He found the senior doctor poring over x-rays in Johnny’s treatment room. As far as he could tell, Gage was asleep, with Dixie sitting by him holding his hand. But just in case the paramedic was awake, Morton beckoned Brackett out into the hall where they could talk more freely. The story poured out of him and Brackett’s face grew grimmer and grimmer. “Thanks, Mike,” he said, when the younger man finally concluded. “That gives us more of an idea what we’re potentially dealing with.” He patted the intern on the shoulder. “Go and get a cup of coffee and sit down for a while. You look like you need it.”

“I’m okay,” Morton protested automatically.

“You’re not,” Brackett contradicted him. “Neither am I, but I still have a patient to treat. You go and sit down. If news like this didn’t shock you, I’d probably have you committed.”

Since he had permission to admit to being shaken rigid, Morton found a smile from somewhere. “Thanks, Kel,” he replied and went off to find something warm to drink and somewhere quiet to sit.

Re-entering the treatment room, Brackett saw that nothing had changed since he left. Gage’s eyes were still closed and it looked like the number of tears was finally dying back. That was all for the good. He gave Dixie what he hoped passed as a smile and returned to looking at the x-rays.

There was no fracture of Johnny’s nose, or of the skull. There was a clean break through his two lower left ribs, but they appeared to be stable. There were no fractures in his arms or shoulders, so that meant the pain was coming from muscle strain and/or tendon injuries. Ortho would need to deal with that. He walked over to Johnny, schooling his face to neutrality. A quirked eyebrow asked Dixie if Johnny was awake and she nodded.

“Johnny?”The dark eyes opened at once and Brackett could see that although still red and inflamed, they were looking a lot better. “How do you fancy getting off this backboard?”

“Yeah,” the paramedic breathed. Just being able to curl into a ball would make him feel better, he knew.

It didn’t take long to get rid of the backboard and collar although it was quite painful for Johnny. Dixie helped him into a hospital gown and Brackett came over to examine him more thoroughly, wincing at the mass of dark bruising on his abdomen. “Sorry, Johnny,” he apologized as he pressed gently down on it. Although obviously extremely painful and tender, there was no rigidity indicating internal bleeding. He was just about to start examining Johnny’s shoulders when ortho came in and he gladly deferred to their expertise.

“The muscles and tendons have all been strained,” the ortho doctor told Johnny, who nodded as though this was news to him. He had figured that one out for himself. “We’ll keep an eye on it to make sure that you don’t develop bursitis and you’ll need regular heat treatment and physical therapy. You’ll need to wear a shoulder support and for a few days, I want you to wear slings as well. Hopefully, you’ll be able to avoid surgery.”

The news could have been worse, but it could also have been better. Johnny knew from the doctor’s words that he was looking at a stay of several days. He coughed miserably. Brackett was immediately by his side, listening intently to his chest. “There are quite a few rattles in there, my friend,” Brackett told him, trying to keep the grim tone from his voice.

“I aspirated some water,” Johnny ventured. He knew Brackett had to be told about it, but he hoped the doctor was not probe too deeply. Johnny didn’t know that Cap had told Morton, who had told Brackett.

“I see,” Brackett responded neutrally. “Well, we’re going to give you some antibiotics to sort things out. In the meantime, let me bandage those wrists and strap up your shoulders and get you settled into a room.” Brackett carefully picked up one of Johnny’s hands, pretending to be looking more closely at the rope burns on his wrists, but in actual fact checking out his hands for circulatory damage. Although they were slightly swollen, his color was good and he had seen Johnny clutching Dixie’s hand earlier. Still, he would keep an eye on them for a few days to make sure there were no problems.

Putting on the shoulder support was not easy and Brackett gave Johnny more painkillers and some Valium to relax him. An antibiotic was added to his IV and he was transferred to a gurney to go to his room. It was only then, his own worries abating, that he remembered. “Doc, what about the others?” he asked and coughed harshly.

He didn’t get the answer he expected. Instead of saying ‘fine’ or listing any injuries, Brackett grinned. Perplexed, Johnny stared at him, wondering what was so funny for a long moment before it occurred to him that he could see Brackett clearly, not through a blur. Still, that pleasing revelation only distracted him for a couple of seconds. “What?” he demanded, although his indignation was rather muffled by the oxygen mask. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” Brackett replied, which was utterly annoying at the best of times and Johnny’s nerves were shot. “You’re going to your room now.” He motioned to the orderlies, who rolled Johnny out of the door even as he began protesting again.

“Kel, that was cruel,” Dixie chided. “Especially after all they must have been through. Johnny will be worried to death.”

“But only for a few minutes,” Brackett argued. “He’ll forgive me. I bet he won’t even remember once he’s with the others.”

“I still don’t think it was nice,” Dixie stated. “I’m going to check he’s okay.”

“I’d rather you came with me first,” Brackett countered. “I want to speak to the relatives before they see the guys and you need to hear something else. I’m warning you, it isn’t pretty.”

“You know what happened?” Dixie asked, although clearly he did. “How...?”

“Captain Stanley and Mike Stoker told Mike Morton.” He glanced around the treatment room. “This isn’t the place for this. Let’s go to my office.”

It had been Brackett’s intention to tell Dixie before Joanne DeSoto, Mrs. Stanley and the other relatives learned some of the details. He wouldn’t tell them everything; how much they shared with their loved ones was up to each individual man. However, his plans were pre-empted when they went into the hall and saw them all gathered in the waiting area. He couldn’t prolong their agony for another minute. “Sorry, Dix, our talk will have to wait. We need to get everyone into the family room.”

“All right,” Dixie nodded. She could see there was no other choice. She followed Brackett as he greeted the families and ushered them into the family room.

It wasn’t long before they were all seated, their eyes fixed on Brackett, fearful, yet hopeful, too. He smiled. “I’m glad to be able to tell you that none of the crew has suffered life-threatening injuries. You’ll find them all dehydrated and getting oxygen right now because of the tear gas the police used to rescue them.” He paused to gather his thoughts. “I should warn you that they have been through quite an ordeal and are likely to be emotionally fragile. They will have to see a counselor or someone similar before they will be allowed to return to duty. What they chose to tell you of their ordeal is up to them. Don’t push for information; you won’t like what you hear.” He looked at the faces and saw anxiety and relief. He knew that the firefighters would not share every single detail of their work with their families and they would be used to that. “We have all the men in one big room at the moment. They’ll be released in about 24 hours, depending on how they do between now and then. Are there any questions?”

No one spoke. Brackett rose. “If you’d like to come with me.” He led the way to the elevator. Outside the ER, the number of camera crews was growing and both the police and hospital security were manning the doors and checking all the arrivals for cameras or recording equipment. None of the crew of 51 was listed on the visiting list and strict instructions had been given to phone operators and volunteers to keep quiet. It was daunting for the families to realize this.

Each one wondered what they were facing.

************

Relief had been the overwhelming emotion when Johnny had been brought into the ward. Although all the men were tired, they had been unable to settle, unwilling to give in to the drugs in their systems, until they could see the youngest member of their crew with their own, albeit somewhat bleary, eyes.

None of them were surprised that Johnny was injured – they knew that was a given with the treatment he had received. They were pleased that his injuries were not worse, but they were bad enough. Their voices crossed and interrupted and there was some laughter, although not too much, as laughing made everyone cough. But they gradually settled, relaxing as they finally were able to accept that they were free and all together and had come through the nightmare.

Several of them were on the soft fringes of sleep when the door opened to admit Dr Brackett and their relatives. There were glad cries of joy and arms were thrown around necks and tears were shed. Dixie and Brackett moved quietly among them and pulled the privacy curtains so the reunions could be as private as possible.

As she closed the last curtain, Dixie turned round and a pang shot through her heart. Looking as alone and lonely as she had ever seen, Johnny was the only person who did not have a visitor. His next of kin was lying in the bed next to him. At once, Dixie went over, sat down beside him, took his hand and smiled at him. “How’re you doing?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” Johnny replied, but his tone gave him away. His voice was thin and quiet and very un-Johnny like. Dixie could only imagine what this must feel like for him. As often as he had been a patient there, he had always had visitors – the other members of his crew. Now, they were all in the same room, but Johnny was alone, as he had no blood relatives. It was not something that was a problem usually, because the DeSotos had made Johnny a member of their family, but at a time like this, Joanne was naturally pre-occupied with her husband’s health and well-being. “I’m tired,” Johnny went on.

He was tired but right now, he was sad, too. He seldom felt the lack of a family now; birthdays, holidays and Christmas were spent with Roy’s family and Johnny had come to feel as though he belonged there. But right at that moment, he felt like an outsider. It wasn’t a feeling he cared for and he instinctively sought to avoid it in sleep.

“Do you want me to sit with you until you fall asleep?” Dixie asked.

“I’m a big boy,” Johnny replied, with a faint grin. “You don’t have to.”

“I know you’re a big boy,” Dixie responded with a wicked twinkle in her eye. She leered at him. “And I know I don’t have to.” He smiled and blushed.

Although he wanted nothing more than to fall asleep with Dixie holding his hand, Johnny didn’t know how to articulate that without sounding like a complete wimp. He was sore, beaten, exhausted and humiliated, but about the only thing he had left was a little bit of pride. He didn’t want that taken from him.

For her part, Dixie could understand his ambivalence. She sensed that he wanted her to stay. She had no time for machismo, but she sensed this was different. She still had no idea exactly what had happened to Johnny, but from the way Brackett was reacting, she could tell it was something she didn’t really want to hear. As she searched her mind for the best way to tell Johnny she was staying, the curtain between Johnny and the next bed opened and Joanne, her eyes red from crying, stepped from Roy’s bedside to Johnny’s. She threw her arms around his neck – carefully – and kissed his bruised cheek.

“Oh, Johnny!” she cried. “I’m so glad you’re safe!” She kissed his cheek again, then pulled back to look searchingly at his face.

Coloring under her scrutiny, Johnny didn’t notice Dixie unobtrusively step back. “What?” he asked defensively.

“You and Roy are going to have to stop doing things like this,” she chided in as light a tone as she could manage, given the circumstances. Dixie was impressed by it. “Do you know how much it costs to color your hair these days?” Her mock indignation was very good. However, she couldn’t keep it up and laughed before hugging Johnny once more. “Dixie? Could we move the beds closer together so I can speak to them both without dashing backwards and forwards?” she asked.

“I don’t see why not,” Dixie agreed and between them, the two women soon had the beds only a chair-and-a-bit distance apart. Joanne settled herself between her two men and held hands with them both.

It was a scene that gave Dixie a lot of comfort and she was able to leave without feeling she had abandoned Johnny. She headed back down to the ER and found Kel in his office. She closed the door and sat down. “I’m ready to hear it now,” she offered.

Taking a deep breath, Brackett began telling her the story. He knew she was not really ready to hear it – nobody would be – but she needed to know. Dixie’s face grew paler with every word and by the end, tears were pouring down her face. Brackett rounded the desk and put his arm around her shoulders and held her. There was no point offering platitudes. Dixie knew that Johnny would be all right physically and that they would do everything in their power to make sure that he was all right mentally, but that did not lessen the horror of what had been done to him.

Once she was calmer, he left her alone to gather herself together and get ready to carry on as though nothing had happened. It was going to be hell, carrying the knowledge and yet not being able to act on it. Dixie wiped her eyes and squared her shoulders. She knew she would be able to do it, but her heart was breaking for all Johnny had endured to keep his crew mates safe. Somehow, she would have to find a way to tell him just how special she felt he was.

At length, Dixie rose and headed to the locker room to check her appearance in the mirror before she went back to work.

***********

The morning sped past with the visitors there. Lunch was brought to them and despite being of uncertain origin, they all ate ravenously. Johnny was rather embarrassed at the amount of help he needed, but Joanne managed to aid him discreetly and none of the others would have said anything anyway. As far as they were concerned, Johnny was the hero of the moment.

Seeing that the men were fatigued, the visitors left, promising to return later, and bring something more palatable with them. One by one, they dropped off to sleep. It had been more than 24 hours since any of them had had any shut eye and they were exhausted.

Pain yanked at him. His sleep clouded mind had no idea where he was. For a long instant, he thought he was back at the station, hanging from the top of the squad, for the pain in his arms was horrific. But surely the men were in custody? He fought his way up and with a gasp that masqueraded as a scream, Roy opened his eyes and remembered where he was. He was in Rampart and the other men were sleeping.

Wiping a shaking hand across his face, Roy looked around. Everyone seemed to be sleeping peacefully, but Johnny was moaning quietly. Glancing at the clock and realizing that his eyes were finally back to normal, Roy thought Johnny must be overdue some pain relief. He took off the oxygen mask, for his chest felt fine, and pressed the call button.

The reality of the dream disturbed him. He wasn’t sure why he was dreaming that he had been tied to the squad and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He just didn’t want to dream it again. Roy was relieved when the nurse came in. “I think my partner needs more pain medication,” he told her. “He’s moaning.”

Nodding the nurse went over to Johnny, noting with disapproval that the bed had been moved and was far too close to the next bed. She would need to see about that! She lifted Johnny’s chart to check when he had last received medication and noted in large letters across the top ‘DO NOT MOVE BED FROM CURRENT POSITION UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE’. The illegible scribble that followed it belonged to Dr Brackett. The nurse knew better than to cross the head of the ER, but she couldn’t help but wonder why the bed had been moved in the first place.

John was overdue pain medication. She bent over the bed and gently shook him. “Mr. Gage? Mr. Gage?”

With a start, Johnny woke from a dream and for a horrible minute thought he was back at the station, tied to the squad with the shotgun maniac beating him about the arms. He gazed at the nurse blankly for a second before he came back to himself. “I just need to check your vitals, Mr. Gage, and then you’re due for some pain medication,” the nurse told him. She did so efficiently, keeping half an eye on Roy who shuffled across to the bathroom with his IV pole. Vitals noted, she gave Johnny’s his medication and departed.

Johnny watched Roy shuffle back. “Can you help me?” he asked, nodding to his IV pole.

“Sure,” Roy agreed and was soon shuffling back over the floor, trying to control both IV poles. It wasn’t altogether easy as neither Johnny nor Roy was entirely secure on their feet, they both felt an urge to grab the backs of the gowns they wore, and even between them, they didn’t have enough hands to do so. “Damn it,” Johnny cursed, as he felt the gown starting to slip off his shoulders.

They stopped, Roy adjusted both gowns, then they got going again and eventually, Roy was propped outside the bathroom, waiting for Johnny to come out. He glanced up and saw that all the rest of the crew was now awake, watching with great interest. “Don’t just sit there,” Roy chided. “You could at least come and help!”

“Help how?” Chet asked. “There isn’t enough room to do the Indy 500 IV pole race. Besides, Johnny’s cheating already.”

“We are helping,” Marco chimed in. “We’re staying out of your way.”

“And waiting impatiently for our turn,” Mike added. “I’m next!”

“Twits!” Cap chided. “And anyway, as your captain, I’m next in line.”

“I’m after Mike,” Marco called.

“That’s not fair!” Chet whined. “That means I’m last!”

“You were last to wake up,” Mike reminded him. “We’ve all been trying not to laugh while you snored merrily.”

“I wasn’t snoring,” Chet replied with dignity. “That was me trying not to laugh.”

“Sure,” Mike agreed sarcastically. “Then you must spend the nights at the station trying not to laugh all night long.” The others began to laugh as Chet started to splutter indignantly.

Johnny called to Roy and they began the journey back to bed. Cap got up to use the facilities and Mike perched himself on the side of the bed and they all started offering ‘helpful’ advice to Roy about driving the two poles. Roy helped Johnny get settled in bed, putting the back up for him and arranging the covers before climbing back into his own bed. By the time everyone else had made the trip, their evening meal was arriving. They were still hungry and ate the most of it, but all were looking forward to the promised delights their families were bringing in.

The snacks they did get were pooled and swiftly devoured. The men were in good form, cracking jokes, laughing about their expeditions to the bathroom and the intransigence of the IV poles. Arrangements were made for the men to be collected the following day, once Dr Brackett signed the release forms. Johnny was silent at that, knowing he would be in for a few more days.

The men were tired after the visitors left and Chet turned on the TV. It was news time, and Chet was having a vicarious love affair with the pretty but dim girl who read the weather report. It was difficult to get ‘sun, sun and more sun’ wrong, but she managed it most nights. Her assets made up for her shortcomings, as far as Chet was concerned.

But it wasn’t the weather girl that caught their eye.

“Good evening and making the news this evening; three masked gunmen who held six courageous firefighters hostage for over 12 hours are committed to face trial. The three men, part of a gang of four who had held up a bank earlier in the day, killing two clerks, had taken the firefighters of Los Angeles County Fire Department Station 51 hostage after shooting two policemen who were in pursuit. One of the policemen died at the scene, the other is in serious but stable condition in hospital.” Pictures of the crew – obviously supplied by the fire department – were put up on the screen. “The men were held for over 12 hours while police negotiated with the gunmen. Shortly after dawn today, the police acted and after using tear gas, there was a shoot out and the lead gunman was killed. The firefighters were taken to hospital and official statements say that they are expected to make a full recovery.” There were shots of the station and then the billowing clouds of tear gas and the ambulances arriving and leaving, followed by a picture of Rampart. “And in other news tonight...”

Numbly, Chet switched off the set. He glanced at the others, but they were all staring at the screen. “Dear God!” Cap whispered. “Were they outside filming it all the time?”

Being nearest to the window, Mike took it upon himself to have a cautious peek out. “From the looks of things, they still are,” he commented.

It wasn’t the first time the crew had abhorred the intrusiveness of the media. There had been a number of occasions when the media had interfered, or tried to interfere, with a rescue, putting more lives at risk. Their need to film the faces of the dead, newly bereaved or traumatized victims angered the firefighters. Now, it made them distinctly uncomfortable to realize that they were the focus of the cameras.

Another sickening thought had occurred to Roy. “I hope our families were told before any of them saw this on the news.” He reached immediately for the phone, but it was clear that Joanne had not yet arrived back. Cap took his turn and after a few words of conversation with his wife, was able to reassure the men that the families had all been told before the TV was able to break the news. He also learned that the TV cameras were parked outside their homes, hoping to interview the relatives, but that police were keeping them at bay.

Sobered, the men didn’t have anything much to say after that. Cap and Mike picked up books, Chet flicked through a magazine, Marco pretended to sleep and Johnny and Roy let their thoughts wander at will. Into this quiet scene came Detective Ron Crockett.

“It’s unlikely that any of you will be needed to testify,” Crockett assured them. “But I do need your statements. Dr Brackett has Okayed it.” He sat down by Johnny’s bed and produced a notebook.

The last thing Johnny wanted to do was go over the whole situation, but he knew there was no choice. He tried to keep his tone matter of fact, as though it had happened to someone else, but as the remembered terror crept back, his voice shook and he found himself shivering and sweating, his mouth desert-dry.

“Here.” Roy was at his side, offering some water and a brief, welcome respite from his narrative. Johnny sipped gratefully, taking the chance to try and still the shaking. He only partially succeeded. He tensed his muscles, but that just made his arms and shoulders start to ache. He continued to talk, but his face grew paler and his voice dropped until he was barely whispering, but he was able to complete his statement.

None of the crew wanted to relive the previous day, but after seeing Johnny’s courage and learning of the things they hadn’t witnessed that were done to him, nobody felt that he could decline until the following day when they were at home. It made them all the more determined that none of their family members would ever find out exactly what they had lived through.

“Are you all right?” Roy was sitting quietly by Johnny’s bed as the other men gave their statements. Roy had made sure he gave his statement immediately after Johnny so he was then able to keep a close eye on his friend.

“Yes... no... I don’t know,” Johnny admitted. He wanted to be up pacing the floor, working off his nervous energy, leaving this room so he couldn’t hear the others recalling the story. His arms and shoulders seemed to be aching more and he didn’t know if that was because he was due some pain meds, or because he had become so tense talking to Crockett or because he had been remembering or if it was all of the above. He met his friend’s eyes and he looked utterly miserable, beaten down and exhausted. Roy’s heart ached for him.

“I wish I could do something to help,” Roy sympathized, knowing that words were of very little comfort at the moment. “Johnny...”

“Please don’t say I’m heroic,” Johnny begged. “Don’t thank me. I can’t take it right now.” He closed his eyes to hide the fact he was close to tears. He swallowed down the lump in his throat, but it wouldn’t go away. He swallowed again and again, leaning his head back against the pillows.

“Do you need something for the pain?” Roy asked. He could see the struggle Johnny was having to keep his composure and knew that Brackett had authorized all of them for a sedative if the need arose. Johnny looked like he needed it now. Without opening his eyes, Johnny nodded. Roy rang for the nurse and stayed sitting beside Johnny, offering the only comfort he could – his presence.

The nurse was the picture of efficiency and discretion. She took Johnny’s vitals and then gave the painkillers and a sedative. Johnny was soon drifting away. He usually hated being drugged to sleep, but this time he didn’t mind; anything to escape from his own thoughts.

While she was taking Johnny’s vitals and noting them down, the nurse was also subtly assessing the others. Chet was gazing into the middle distance, clearly deep in thought, his forehead creased by frown lines. Marco was pleating a corner of his blanket, intent on his task. Mike was pretending to sleep, but his body was tense. Cap was just finishing his statement and looked gaunt. She guessed she would be bringing most of the men a sedative before the night was over. Her gaze fell on Roy. He was watching his partner with a worried expression. “Do you want a sedative, too?” she asked quietly.

Startled out of his thoughts, Roy shook his head. “Not right now, thanks,” he replied. “I might later, though, if I need to.”

“Don’t leave it too long,” she advised and left as discreetly as she had entered.

Crockett rose to his feet and put his notebook away. He felt physically sick at the things these men, his friends, had endured. “I want to thank you all very much for your statements,” he declared. “They will enable me to press more charges against the remaining gunmen and because I have so many corroborative statements from up-standing members of our community, they’ll be hard pressed to deny them. They are all trying to place the blame on the dead leader, saying they were too scared of him to object, but your testimonies prove that to be no more than a pack of lies. Either way, they are going to jail for a very long time.” Crockett’s gaze fell on the somnolent Johnny. “John is a very brave man indeed,” he said quietly. “And I mean to make sure that someone recognizes that fact.”

“Thanks,” Cap replied, for he had vowed the same thing. There was a clichéd old phrase about a man ‘deserving a medal’ that was applied to all sorts of ridiculous situations, but this most assuredly was not one of them. Cap didn’t know if there were civilian medals for conspicuous gallantry or for performing above and beyond the call of duty, but if there was, he would find it and make sure Johnny received it. He would badger the department until it gave him a commendation and if he could think of something else, he would get that for Johnny, too.

As Crockett left, the wakeful members of the crew gathered closer together. They had all heard each other’s statements. “I hadn’t realized how bad he had it,” Chet stated softly. “We got off lightly by comparison.” He stared at his bandaged wrists. The rope burns stung, but it suddenly seemed like nothing compared to what his friend had suffered.

“We ... have to... do ... something for him,” Marco ventured.

With sudden insight, Roy knew exactly what they should do. “We need to treat him exactly the same way we always have,” he said. “Chet, the Phantom needs to come visit, we rag him about always cooking hamburgers or hot dogs, we listen to his ranting for as long as we can and make a hasty exit whenever we get the chance. We just carry on as normal.”

“We can’t do that,” Chet objected.

“Roy’s right,” Mike countered. “If we all go around treating Johnny like he’s different, special, he’ll stop being Johnny.” He glanced around to see if they understood what he meant. Roy and Cap were nodding and Marco was clearly thinking about it, but Chet simply looked bewildered. “You know what he’s like when he does something out of the ordinary. Like when he gets injured – he’ll move heaven and earth to pretend he’s all right because he hates being the centre of attention. If we all treat him like he’s special, he’ll withdraw and we’ll be left with someone we don’t know and possibly don’t like.”

That seemed to make sense to Chet. “But what if Crockett does get him an award?” he asked. “He’ll be center of attention then.”

“And that’s exactly when the Phantom should make an appearance,” Roy replied. “The day after, or the day before, he gets water-bombed. Tell him it’s to take his swollen head back to size. He’ll accept public adulation because it will die down almost at once. But he won’t be able to take it from us. He doesn’t see himself as a hero; he doesn’t want thanks. He told me so himself a little while ago. By his lights, he was just doing what was necessary, the same as when he climbs into wrecked cars, or runs into a burning building. After all, do you consider yourself a hero, Chet?”

It was unusual for the men to talk so seriously for so long and Chet was tempted to answer lightly by saying ‘hell yes’ or something similar. And that was when the light bulb went on for him and he knew what Roy was talking about. It was the same instinct that made Johnny draw back and deny his bravery as ‘just doing his job’. All firefighters did it; none of them considered themselves heroes. They weren’t; they were just guys doing a job. Little did they realize that to most people, just doing their job made them heroes.

There was no need for Chet to answer.

************

In the end, over the course of the night, they all accepted the sedative on offer. Nightmares, while not particularly unusual, were unusually vivid. Cap simply could not get his brain to switch off. He went over and over in his mind all the things he had done and said and cursed himself as an idiot. Yet he wasn’t sure that he wouldn’t do the same thing again if such a situation arose. He had had to try and let the police know exactly what was going down inside the station because that seemed to be the only chance they had of survival.

It was difficult for him to admit how frightened he had been. On an almost daily basis, he dealt with life threatening situations, had been in the heart of them many times and although he had been nervous at first, it had been a long time since he had been frightened. He had often felt helpless while doing his job, but the feeling had never lasted for long, as there was always some action to be taken. But being made helpless at someone else’s hands was truly terrifying. Cap had always thought he could take care of himself, but when faced with guns, he was as helpless as the next man and to be tied up like that showed him that he was as vulnerable to the vagaries of fate as the next man. It was a very unsettling thought. About 3am, he gave in and rang for the nurse. His mind had been going round and round like a hamster on a wheel and he was physically and emotionally exhausted. He succumbed willingly to the sedative.

************

Dr Brackett came round first thing in the morning and examined them all. They had all recovered well from the dehydration and the tear gas had left no lasting problems. Even Johnny’s chest had cleared up under the care of the antibiotics. Brackett signed their release papers, but warned them that getting them out of the building unseen was requiring only slightly less planning than World War II had. That raised a chuckle.

“You each need to speak to someone before you can report back for duty,” Brackett told them, as he handed over the discharge papers. “I wouldn’t advise any of you to go back before the start of next week. By then, you’ll have finished the course of antibiotics and everything should have settled down. The fire department has their own psychologist, or I can give you a name if you prefer, but either way, until I get a clearance from someone, you won’t be going back on duty.”

Reluctantly, they nodded their heads. The last thing any of them wanted was to ‘talk’ to someone. They all would rather just bury the memories and deal with any fallout alone, but they were honest enough to admit that the previous occasions when they had had to do this had helped a lot.

“Johnny, we’re going to be moving you to another room later,” Brackett told him. He, alone, was not dressed to leave and he was uncharacteristically silent. “You’ll be starting your physical therapy for your shoulders today. How are they feeling?”

“A bit better,” Johnny admitted. The hot packs he had been getting at regular intervals had helped quite a bit. “How long before I can go home?” He really didn’t want to be left alone in the hospital.

“That depends on how the PT goes,” Brackett replied. “But I’d guess a few more days anyway.” He knew that news wouldn’t go down well, since Johnny was already asking when he could leave.

One by one, the others left, to be smuggled out via service exits, staff exits and fire doors at intervals so that the press didn’t catch on. Soon, the only person left in the room with Johnny was Cap. The older man sat down beside Johnny. For a few minutes neither of them spoke, Johnny because he was feeling a bit depressed at being left behind, and Cap because he wasn’t sure how to say what he wanted to say. Finally, he decided to just jump in with both feet. He winced mentally; that was what had caused the problem in the first place.

“John, I just wanted to apologize to you,” Cap stated. He held up his hand as Johnny started to speak. “No, hear me out. I know you don’t want to hear this any more than I want to say it, but it has to be heard and I’d like you to listen.

“I’m so sorry, John, that you were hurt because of my stupidity. I’m trained to deal with almost anything, but I let myself down when those men came in. I shouldn’t have tried to tell the police where everyone was. It just caused you a world of hurt and I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am. I quite understand if you feel you can’t work with me anymore.”

“Whoa, wait a minute.” Johnny was looking thoroughly confused. “Cap, what are you talking about? My getting hurt was not your fault.”

“Yes, it was,” Cap insisted. “When the cops rang, the leader told me not to tell them anything, yet I started to tell them we’d been split up and where we all were. Because of that, he had you beaten. John, I’m so sorry. If I had it to do over again, I would do it differently.”

“Cap, stop!” Johnny cried. “You did what any of us would have done in that situation. That lunatic didn’t need any excuse to beat up on any one of us. I just happened to be the klutz who walked right into them when they broke into the station, so they took it out on me. It could have been any one of us in that position, even you. And you didn’t exactly get off lightly either, did you?”

“They didn’t beat me,” Cap muttered. He didn’t want Johnny to talk him out of his guilt.

“You were isolated, alone. That’s tough,” Johnny reminded him. “Cap, you have nothing to apologize to me for. You did me no harm and did your best to protect me. You don’t need to apologize.”

“You’re very generous,” Cap mumbled. He wasn’t convinced.

“Gee, Cap, I’m not generous,” Johnny argued. “I didn’t want to be in that position, but I didn’t want any of you guys to be there instead. None of us had any choice. You did what you had to do. Do you really think the rest of us wouldn’t have tried to help the police? Because we would. If I could have shouted our positions from the rooftops, I would have done. You did everything right, Cap and nothing wrong.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said a deep voice from the doorway.

Surprised, both men looked over. A man in his early thirties, wearing dress slacks and an open necked shirt, stood there. “I’m Luke Smith, one of the psychologists on staff. Dr Brackett asked me to come down and have a chat with John here, as he thought you might be a bit down with your friends going home and you still being incarcerated,” he explained. “But to be honest, it seems like you have your head together and I was wondering if you’d like to set up in private practice with me? We could specialize in talking sense to fire captains.” His friendly grin told both men he was joking and they both smiled at him.

“I’m known for my paranoia,” Cap explained. “I’ve suffered from it ever since I burned the chief’s hat when he was my station captain.”

“Why did you burn it?” Smith asked, sitting down.

“That is a secret I will take to my grave,” Stanley vowed and although he sounded jokey, both Johnny and Luke knew he meant it.

“Well, from what I overheard, you aren’t that paranoid,” Luke confided. “Just a little bit. John, here, got it bang on. You were trying to find a way out of a situation that was totally out with your control and doing your best for your men at the same time.” He glanced at Johnny, who nodded vigorously. “You guys all have to realize that none of what happened was your fault. At no time were you in control of events.” He laughed as they both blinked in astonishment. “I know, I know, I’m meant to make you guys work it out for yourselves. But now I’ve told you the crux of the matter, it’s up to you to think it through. Come and see me again in a few days and we’ll talk, Captain.”

“All right, thank you,” Cap replied, although he was slightly surprised at himself for agreeing so readily. But there was just something about this guy that inspired trust.

The door opened again to admit Dr Brackett and Mrs. Stanley and the obligatory wheelchair. Mrs. Stanley was grinning. “We’re leaving in the laundry truck,” she giggled. “I’ve left the car about a mile from here. I came in with the men in the truck. They were very nice.”

“A laundry truck?” Cap echoed. “Well, I’ve never ridden in one of those.” He rose to his feet and patted Johnny carefully on the arm. “You be good, John, and I’ll be back to see you the minute they let me back in.” He reluctantly sat down in the wheelchair.

“And you be good and I’ll see you when Mrs. Stanley says you can come,” Johnny replied smartly.

“That’ll be latrine duty on your first shift back,” Cap threatened.

“Don’t listen to a word he says, Johnny,” Mrs. Stanley contradicted. She leaned over to hug him and gave him a kiss. “See you soon.”

Smiling genuinely, for it was impossible to dislike Mrs. Stanley, Johnny watched them leave. It was only after the door closed and his gaze fell on the empty beds that he slumped dejectedly.

“You’re loved,” Luke commented.

Startled, Johnny shot him a look, for he had never thought of the kindnesses that Mrs. Stanley showed him as love, but the comment made him see now that they were. Marco’s mother, given half a chance, would have mothered him to death – perhaps even smothered him. Joanne made sure that he was looked after when he was ill or injured and he wondered why he hadn’t realized that the older ladies loved him almost as much as Joanne did. “Yes, I am,” he agreed and sounded stunned.

“Why does that surprise you?” Luke asked.

“Um, well ... I just... I guess I don’t think I’m that loveable,” Johnny admitted. “Joanne really detested me at first. I’ve got awful table manners.”

“So do most men,” Luke agreed. “And half of them slump down in front of the TV with a beer in the evening and stick their hands down the front of their pants to make sure they still have a willy. Does that make them less loveable?”

“Err... um... I dunno,” Johnny admitted, floundering. He couldn’t imagine Roy doing that at home in front of Joanne and living to tell the tale afterwards.

“I dare say most of them burp and fart and pick their noses and scratch their butts. But I bet they still think they’re loveable.” Luke grinned. “You’ve gotta admit, Johnny, we males have a handle on disgusting habits.”

“I guess I’m not loveable because I drive people nuts with my ranting,” Johnny admitted slowly. He wasn’t sure how much he wanted to delve into his psyche, but something about Luke encouraged confidences. “And nobody wanted me after my parents died. A lot of people didn’t want me even when they were still alive.”

“Your aunt wanted you enough to track you down,” Luke pointed out.

“How do you know that?” Johnny asked.

“I have my sources,” Luke replied enigmatically. As Johnny began to look seriously annoyed, he put up a hand. “Relax, John, it’s in your medical notes.”

“Oh, yeah,” Johnny had forgotten he had told Brackett all about it one time he was injured. He blamed the drugs for the things he had talked about that night, for it was not in his nature to reveal so much personal stuff.

“Well, knowing that your aunt came looking for you and looked for a couple of years at that, and Joanne, Roy and the kids include you on all their important celebrations, Captain Stanley and his wife are clearly very fond of you and I’m told Marco’s mother makes the best fajitas in the county – how can you continue to say you aren’t loveable?”

It was a question Johnny didn’t have an answer to. He just always assumed that because nobody had come looking for him when his parents died that he wasn’t worth loving. He knew his parents had loved him deeply and had set his feet on the path that his aunt had later insisted he trod – the path that made him the honorable, decent, honest man that he was now.

Watching Johnny, Luke was satisfied that he had made a good beginning with Johnny. Maybe next time they could talk about what had happened while he was a hostage. Meantime, he had another thought to leave him with. “I’ll see you sometime tomorrow, Johnny,” Luke said casually, standing up. “Oh, and being solitary during childhood does not mean you’re unlovable. You think about that.” He sketched a goodbye and left quickly.

Outside in the hall, Dixie was waiting. She looked anxiously at Luke as he came out. “Well?”

“I think it went very well,” he replied. “You might want to give some thought about what you could do to prove to him that he is a loveable person.”

“You can count on me!” Dixie vowed as she squared her shoulders.

***********

After his move to a room, Johnny’s day was pretty quiet. None of the rest of the guys came back in to see him and he didn’t blame them. He also knew, from watching the news, that they were still being followed by the cameras, although something else was bound to break soon and take the spotlight away from them. It wouldn’t be a moment too soon for any of them.

His first session with the physical therapist went well, too and he could already feel the strength creeping back into the abused muscles. The heat packs helped a lot, as had the massage the therapist had given him once he had done his session. Almost purring, he had been asleep before the man had finished.

Although it was a double room, at the moment Johnny was alone in it. He didn’t know if that was because there was no demand, or to try and keep the media at bay. He didn’t mind, now that he was settled, for he had a lot to think about.

He had, through no fault of his own, been a solitary child. He had had a few close friends, but he had lost contact with them when his parents died and he was sent to the orphanage. There, children tended to come and go – mostly come – some for long term stays, like Johnny, others who were in while parents were ill or in jail. Johnny had had some casual friends, but nobody that he could share his inner most secrets with. At the orphanage, it paid to cultivate a tough exterior.

Once he went to live with his aunt, he had some casual friends in high school, like the people who worked the paper with him, or did training for track, but there had never been anyone special – until Roy. Roy was the first best friend Johnny had had. Oh he knew hundreds of people, had been very friendly with the guys at Station 10, hung out with them, laughed with them, but he hadn’t had that one special person who understood him like no other. Then providence, God or the Spirits sent him to ask about the paramedic program and Roy and Johnny clicked.

Looking back, Johnny could see that there had always been someone there for him when he needed them, someone who loved him. Times might have changed and they had moved on, and although he had been solitary, he had seldom been lonely and that was never truer than since he had come to work at Station 51. Every time he had been injured, his shift mates had been there, visiting, teasing, bringing food, magazines or simply keeping him company when he was too ill to talk.

He fell asleep while thinking and woke some time later, realizing he hadn’t had a bad dream. He opened his eyes and found Dixie sitting beside him, reading a book. An empty sandwich packet and a take-out coffee container rested on the bedside table. As he stirred, she looked up and seeing that he was awake, she marked her place and closed the book. She was casually dressed in jeans and a shirt and her hair was down.

“Hi there,” she beamed. “You’ve had a really good sleep.”

“Have you been there long?” Johnny asked, mortified that she had given up her time to visit and he had slept through it.

“Just long enough to get to the interesting part of the book,” she replied, smiling. She put the book aside and took his hand. “Where the sexy nurse gets to seduce the handsome, dark haired hero.” She winked lecherously. “What are my chances?” she teased huskily.

For a single second, Johnny was frozen in place. But just for a second. He laughed. “I’m flattered,” he replied. “But you’ll have to look somewhere else to find a hero.”

“Oh no, I think I’ve got my hero right here,” Dixie assured him. “Don’t you know you’ve always been a hero to me, Johnny?” She regarded him seriously. “From when I first met you, I thought you were a hero. Then you were a rescue man, so young and handsome and dedicated; that’s heroic to me. And then you saved my life. Johnny, I see you day after day, bringing in people you have rescued. Don’t you think they talk to me? I’m not the only person who sees you as a hero.”

“But I’m not.” Johnny felt uncomfortable with the praise.

“Oh, nobody’s ever a hero to themselves,” she agreed. “But to those of us who are a step removed from the action – trust me, Johnny, you are the perfect example of a hero. I really admire you and I am proud to be your friend.”

Touched, Johnny hardly knew what to say. “Dixie...” he began.

“I know I’ve embarrassed you,” she interrupted. “But it had to be said. John Gage, you are a very special man to a lot of people and I just wanted you to know. And now we have that bit of business out of the way, what do you say we blow this popsicle stand and I take you down to the cafeteria for a burger and fries? My treat.”

“That sounds great,” Johnny agreed. He gingerly sat up and Dixie helped him into his robe and slippers before he sat down in the wheelchair. “There won’t be any reporters there, will there?”

“Nope,” Dixie replied, pushing him out of the room. “It’s a reporter-free zone, guaranteed.”

***********

It was a huge shock to find the cafeteria filled with many of his firefighter friends. The rest of his own crew wasn’t there, but since they had only been released that morning, it wasn’t surprising. There were several doctors and nurses that he had worked with who had come in on their own time to visit with him.

Inevitably, the siege was mentioned, but universally in terms of ‘Glad you’re okay’ rather than ‘my hero’. Johnny was having a great time. He was delighted to see Drs Brackett, Early and Morton coming in. They appeared to be on duty, but came up to say a few words.

“Quite a party, hose-jockey,” Brackett teased.

“It’s nice to see everyone here,” Early agreed. “I even recognize some of the faces.”

“Pity there’s no piano, doc,” Johnny teased, although he was partly serious, too. Dr Early played a mean piano.

“Don’t encourage him,” Morton chided playfully. Johnny had never seen this side of the intern. Morton tended to be very serious – almost like the ER version of Brice. Perhaps he was maturing, finding his feet, Johnny mused, but he liked this new Morton.

“Well, some of us have to work,” Brackett commented regretfully as Joe Early tried hard to look offended and failed. “See you later, Johnny.”

“Yeah, see you, docs. Thanks for coming.”

Across the room, another familiar figure caught Johnny’s eye. He gazed at Luke, wondering if he had been the brains behind the idea. Luke smiled and came over, sitting down beside Johnny. “This is great!” he exclaimed with a child-like glee. “What a brilliant idea! Did Dixie organize it?”

“I don’t know,” Johnny admitted, “but I think so.” He glanced at the head nurse, who at that moment was laughing throatily at something one of the other firefighters had said. “She looks smug enough.”

“Sure does,” Luke agreed. He had to tip his hat to Dixie McCall. This was a great way to show Johnny how many people loved him. He glanced at the remnants of Johnny’s meal. “How was the burger?” he asked.

“Considering it’s the cafeteria, pretty good,” Johnny confided. “Especially after the ‘nutritional’ muck they feed you up upstairs.”

“It’s not that bad!” Luke laughed.

“Have you ever been a patient here?” Johnny enquired and Luke had to concede the point. He wandered off to speak to some other people as a firefighter came over and claimed Johnny’s attention. He gave Dixie a discreet thumbs up as he went past.

Because Johnny was still not back to full strength, Dixie had warned the people she had invited not to stay too long and after about an hour, they started to drift away. Johnny was feeling tired by then, but wouldn’t have said anything to anyone, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. He was glad enough to climb back into the wheelchair and return to his bed.

He ended up falling asleep and when he woke, his evening meal was being delivered. After the burger and fries he had devoured downstairs in the middle of the afternoon, Johnny wasn’t all that hungry, but he knew he would be starving by morning if he didn’t eat anything, so he choked down some of the dry-looking meal. He was barely finished the jello when Luke came in.

“How’re you feeling after your little surprise this afternoon?” Luke asked, sitting down.

“Pretty good, pretty good,” Johnny admitted. “It was nice to see everyone.”

“I hardly think you’re the unlovable, Johnny no-mates someone was trying to tell me he was this morning,” Luke commented, grinning.

“I thought Dixie arranged the party,” Johnny objected sharply. “Was it really you?”

“Oh no, it was all Dixie’s idea,” Luke protested. “I knew nothing about it until I was invited to pop down.” He spread his hands. “But it just goes to show how wrong our perceptions of ourselves can be, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, I suppose it does.” Johnny relaxed again.

“How are you feeling about things?” Luke asked.

“Less tense,” Johnny admitted. “I was frightened that people were going to want to talk about what happened.”

“And you’re not ready to talk?” Luke enquired.

Sighing, Johnny pursed his mouth while he thought about that one. “I don’t want to talk about it endlessly,” he concluded finally. “It’s over and in the past. We all walked away pretty much unscathed. What’s to talk about?”

“Well, I imagine that people are curious because they wonder how they would feel and cope in that kind of situation. I suspect a lot of men, for example, would swear uphill and down dale that they would never meekly give in to a threat, that they would give the bad guys what for, but the majority of people have never been in that kind of situation and never will be. And none of us can know in advance how we are going to react. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves.”

“I was terrified,” Johnny admitted softly. “When I walked back inside the bay – we were sitting outside because the air con had just broken down – and saw them there, I assumed they were looking for something to steal. I didn’t realize straight away that they had masks on because I had come in from the glare of the sun and everything was shadowy. By the time I did realize, I had already challenged them and found a shotgun in my face and my arm was being twisted up my back.”

“I’m not surprised you were terrified,” Luke commented.

“And it went from bad to worse. I thought – stupidly – that because they had me, they would leave the others alone, but they didn’t. They tied everyone up and split us up, too.” Color rose in Johnny’s face. “I even told them to do what they wanted to me if they would just let everyone else go.”

“That was incredibly brave of you.” Luke could not imagine the kind of resolve needed to make that kind of offer.

“No, it wasn’t!” Johnny objected. “Why can you people not understand that? I was terrified. I knew what they might do to me. I knew the creepy guy with the shotgun was eyeing me up and he wasn’t shy about putting his hands where he wanted to either! I was shitting myself, Luke! I knew they would cheerfully take me apart piece by tiny piece, ensuring I stayed alive right until the very last second so I would feel every single moment of agony. You think I wanted that? Because I can assure you that I can’t imagine anything I could want less!” Tears were standing in Johnny’s eyes, but he didn’t let them fall. He was shouting now and Luke sat still, his posture encouraging the younger man to confide in him. “But Cap and Roy have families. Mike is thinking about getting engaged. Chet’s mom has already lost a son in the fire service. Marco’s family is really close. Besides which, they’re my friends. How could I let anything happen to any one of them?” He glared at Luke, although the psychologist knew Johnny was not mad at him. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t.” He gave a bitter laugh. “And do you know? They wanted to thank me. Thank me! What for? What did I do? I did nothing.”

Luke handed Johnny a glass of water to give him time to recover from his outburst. “Do you know why they wanted to thank you?”

Having taken a couple of sips, Johnny was now wishing he had kept his mouth closed. “I don’t really know,” he admitted at length. “For being a patsy?”

“Come on, Johnny, you don’t really think that do you?” Luke shook his head.

“I don’t know,” Johnny sighed. “I really don’t know.”

“That’s not why they want to thank you,” Luke replied. “They want to thank you for saving their lives.”

“But I didn’t!” Johnny cried. “I didn’t do anything helpful! I just... just...” He ran out of words.

“In a way, you stood between them and the gunmen,” Luke explained. “They knew that anything they did wrong would rebound on you, not them. In a lot of ways, their lives were not at as much risk as yours was. That’s why they’re trying to thank you.”

“Luke, I don’t want to be rude here, but that’s total bullshit,” Johnny responded. He felt totally drained now.

“And I’m sure whatever therapist they speak to will tell them that – in the nicest possible way of course – but they’ll still think it. And if they believe it, there’s nothing wrong with that.” Luke rose to his feet. “Johnny, you may not think you were brave, but trust me on this; you were. I think you are possibly the most courageous man I’ve ever met. I think my work here is done, although I’d like to pop back and see you briefly every day before you go home. I would like to leave a thought with you.”

“Another one?” Johnny teased lightly.

“Another one,” Luke laughed. “The brave man feels fear, but does what is needed anyway.” He smiled. “You’re a brave man. Take any plaudits that come your way, for you do deserve them. It might not help you, but it may help the people who give them to you.”

“Thanks,” Johnny replied, slightly dazed, as Luke left the room. He lay back against the pillows and thought about the conversation he had just had.

Somewhat to his surprise, he felt an awful lot better.

***********

As was inevitable, the media circus moved on. Roy, Cap and the others were soon back visiting Johnny and although there were a couple of awkward moments initially, they fell back into their old routines, with Chet constantly trying to get one over on Johnny.

It didn’t come as a total surprise when Johnny learned that, to a man, his colleagues had all opted to talk to Luke. He enjoyed the psychologist’s visits and knew that if there was another occasion when he needed help, he would be willing to speak to Luke again. While he was dying to ask if Luke had used the word ‘bullshit’ when talking to the others, he would never dream of asking.

His physical therapy was coming along very well and after three more days, Brackett said he could go home. Roy came to collect him and warned him that Joanne had gone to his apartment earlier in the day to stock up on groceries and to do any chores that needed done. Johnny winced. He could imagine only too well what the inside of his fridge looked like! “She didn’t need to do that!” he objected.

“Listen, pal, I keep telling you; Joanne is a force of nature and nothing either of us can do will stop her when her mind is made up,” Roy joked. “Let her spoil you a bit. You deserve it.”

“Okay, okay.” Johnny remembered Luke’s words and gave in gracefully.

Once back at the apartment, he was greeted warmly by Joanne and the children and the place sparkled in a way that Johnny never managed to get it to do. They chatted for a short time before Joanne had to dash off with both kids to attend a birthday party. Roy opted to stay a bit longer.

“I ... I got a couple of things for you,” Roy stuttered after a moment of strained silence.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Johnny protested.

“No, I know. Luke said that I didn’t need to, but I still feel that I needed to so I have. You’ll probably laugh, but that’s okay.” He handed Johnny a small white paper bag. There was no logo printed on it and it was pretty small. The objects inside were slim and Johnny reached inside carefully, not sure if they were fragile.

They weren’t. The objects that Johnny brought out were fridge magnets, the new craze that seemed to be taking off across the world. Johnny knew that Joanne used them to hold up drawings the kids did, or important lists, but he had never had any need for them. These ones had a background picture and words printed over the top. The first one read ‘There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother’. Johnny recognized it as a verse from the Bible. He was incredibly touched. He glanced at Roy who was looking studiously out of the window.

The second magnet bore a different kind of verse, one that made Johnny smile but was no less important in its subtler meaning ‘You’ll always be my friend’ it read. ‘You know too much.’

“Roy...”

“They’re just rubbish – a gimmick,” Roy quickly denied before Johnny could say anything that would lead them into a mushy conversation. He had accepted what Luke had said to him – that Johnny didn’t need or want thanks, but he still felt he had to do something to show his friend how he felt. Taking Luke’s advice about just saying how he felt straight out sounded easy but was utterly impossible as far as Roy was concerned. He was pretty sure he wasn’t a ‘New Man’ whatever that might be!

“I like them,” Johnny declared and smiled. “Now I’ll have something to hold up all those drawings Jenny makes for me.” He rose, placed them on the fridge and immediately changed the subject. “Dr Brackett says I can probably go back to work in a couple of weeks.”

“That’s great!” Roy declared feeling relief at both the change of topic and the news. “I go back the day after tomorrow. We all go back then.” He accepted a beer and they sat and watched some football before Roy announced he had to collect the kids from the party and had better go.

“Thanks for the ride home,” Johnny said.

“You’re welcome.” Roy hesitated on the threshold, as if he was going to say something else, but in the end he sketched a wave and left without saying any more. Johnny understood perfectly.

***********

Chet was the next visitor. He came bearing a mostly-dead house plant of some undisclosed variety. He handed the poor wilted looking thing to Johnny. “My mother says it’s rude to visit without bringing something. She gave me this, so I thought you’d probably like it.”

Looking at the curled leaves and dry-looking stalk (if that was the word) Johnny wondered if it had been identifiable when Mrs. Kelly gave it to Chet, or if it had only been marginally more alive. “What do you expect me to do with it?” he asked. “Give it CPR?”

“You’re a paramedic,” Chet reasoned. “Can’t you give it some D5W?”

“Have you ever heard of watering plants?” Johnny asked. He was rather notorious for having a black thumb with houseplants, so he had no idea why Chet had given this one to him.

“See?” Chet’s face brightened at once. “I knew you’d know what to do for it.”

That kind of logic had no answer, so Johnny didn’t attempt to find one. He put the plant into the sink, put the plug in and ran some water in. Chet watched with interest. He knew even less about plants than Johnny did.

“Don’t expect instant action,” Johnny mentioned. “It might take a while – if it ever pulls through.”

“I have faith in you, Gage,” Chet assured him.

“That’s a first,” Johnny muttered. What on earth was on the troll’s mind this time? he wondered.

Content that he had said his thanks in a way that Johnny would not only understand but appreciate, Chet wandered over to the living area. “Joanne did a pretty good job of cleaning your place,” he commented. “It must have taken her weeks to get the windows cleaned.” All in all, he thought the visit was going quite well. Luke had been insistent that Johnny didn’t need gifts and that he didn’t want thanks and Chet didn’t owe Johnny an apology, not matter how he felt on the matter. Johnny just needed Chet to be Chet. Chet thought he had accomplished that pretty well, considering that he couldn’t access Johnny’s apartment to set up some water balloons, put dye in his shower head, fake doggy-do in his shoes... oh the list could go on and on. A dead plant – and it had taken a fair degree of killing, Chet had to admit – seemed the ultimate on-going jape.

It had been hard for Luke to believe Chet was actually the prankster that the others had painted him to be. The man who had come to talk to him was deadly serious and reticent to the point of almost being silent. Luke had worked hard to coax any confidences out of Chet, and in the end had discovered that the short fireman covered his admiration and mild envy of Johnny with a variety of smart remarks and practical jokes, but underneath, Chet really liked Johnny and could not express it in any other way. Luke helped him to see that this was all right – as long as it didn’t go too far. The plant seemed the perfect balance to Chet.

“You’d better look after that plant,” he reminded Johnny as he left a short time later. “My mother gave it to me and I had to think long and hard before I gave it to you. I expect updates every shift.”

“I’ll invite you to its funeral,” Johnny retorted dryly and shoved Chet gently out of the door.

***********

Unsurprisingly, Marco came bearing food. His mother had been cooking and sent Marco over with the spare mountains she had made specifically for the paramedic. Mrs. Lopez was a lovely lady and Johnny was very fond of her, but her desire to stuff him full of food at every opportunity challenged even his hollow leg. Looking at the numerous sealed boxes, Johnny thought he had probably better invite everyone over for a party, as his fridge and freezer had been filled to almost overflowing by Joanne.

“Mama thought you might not feel like cooking,” Marco explained, looking slightly sheepish. In fact, the food had been his idea and although his mother had taken very little coaxing to do the cooking, she had looked slightly stunned at the amount of food her son thought his friend could eat all by himself.

“Your mother knows me too well,” Johnny admitted, for he seldom felt like cooking and was incredibly grateful when Joanne sent him leftovers or invited him for a meal. Johnny wasn’t entirely sure what you did with some of the ingredients he had found in his store cupboard. He wasn’t sure what some of them were! “Thanks, Marco. Tell your mom thanks from me, too.”

“Por nada,” Marco demurred. “When do you get to come back to work?” he asked.

“In a couple of weeks,” Johnny replied. “Roy says you’re all going back next shift.”

“Yeah,” Marco agreed. He wondered how he would feel going into the station. Would he remember all the good times, the years he had spent working there? Or would he just remember the bad time, that one day when things went horribly wrong? Luke hadn’t known the answer, or if he had, he hadn’t shared it with Marco.

Somehow, Marco felt as though he and Chet should not have been included in the counseling sessions, as they had really not been involved much in the whole situation, as they had been so isolated. Nothing really traumatic had happened to them, and yet there were times when Marco felt decidedly shaky. He felt rather guilty that he hadn’t been more of a part of what had happened, yet conversely grateful that he had escaped. Luke had allowed him to see that his reactions were entirely normal and that he had had no control over the situation and when those feelings crept up on him, as they did now and then, Marco was now able to remind himself that nothing that had happened had been due to anything he did or did not do.

“I wish you were coming back then, too,” Marco added. He didn’t want to say something that might be misunderstood, but was momentarily at a loss. “We’re just hoping that Roy doesn’t get stuck with Brice.”

It was an inspired comment. Roy had regaled them all with the tale of the ambulance ride with Brice and although they had all laughed, Johnny had seen that Roy had been really upset by Brice’s attitude. Having to work with Brice on the first day back would be cruel and unusual punishment.

“I’m pretty sure Cap won’t let that happen,” Johnny laughed. “I bet he’s got Charlie all lined up already.”

“Could be,” Marco agreed. “Did you know that Mrs. Dwyer has badgered Charlie into buying a new swimming pool? He’ll be working overtime for the rest of his life!”

“What?” Johnny sat down for a good old gossip fest. There was always something happening to people they knew. “Isn’t she expecting another baby, too?”

“Well, I heard...”

***********

After his day full of visitors, Johnny slept like a log that night and was barely up and dressed when his first visitor arrived the next morning. Fortunately, Johnny had put on a pot of coffee, so there was fresh coffee for Mike when he came – with a gift.

While Johnny loved getting gifts as much – if not more – than the next person, this was beginning to be a bit ridiculous. Mike handed Johnny a book. “I meant to bring you this while you were still in hospital,” he explained in his quiet manner. “But I wasn’t quite finished it and then I forgot. Sorry. But I thought you’d like to read it now, while you have the time.”

“Thanks, Mike,” Johnny replied, for he had seen the book Mike was reading at the station and mentioned that he planned to read it at some point.

The engineer, while usually quite reticent, could be voluble when he chose and this was one of those occasions. He entertained Johnny with tales of his girlfriend’s parents and dropped even more hints that he was thinking seriously about proposing. Johnny was flattered that Mike would choose to share that information with him and wished his friend well. He didn’t know Mike as well as some of the other guys, mostly because he was so quiet, but there were depths to Mike that would be rewarding to plumb. Johnny had seen glimpses of them.

Naturally shy, Mike had had to force himself to speak to people, and it got easier as he got older. He was probably the happiest he had ever been in both his career and his personal life and he had taken this experience as a hint that he shouldn’t take life for granted. He was going to propose to his girlfriend at the weekend. Mike and Luke had hit it off very well and Luke was impressed by how together Mike was. The other man easily admitted that he had had his ‘shaken to the marrow’ moment in the ER just immediately after the incident and felt a lot better for it. His chat with Luke had clarified his thoughts about the incident and Mike felt ready to go back. He didn’t doubt that there would be a few nervy twinges when he first went in, but he was sure the atmosphere would be the same as ever and the good memories would far outweigh the bad.

When Mike felt the visit was over, he rose and headed for the door. “See you at work,” he offered laconically and bestowed on Johnny a dazzling smile.

That was a gift Johnny would always carry with him.

***********

There was only one more visitor to come. Johnny half-hoped that Cap would arrive at lunch time and help him demolish some of the food mountain that was clogging his refrigerator, but the older man did not oblige. Johnny was spoiled for choice and in the end over-ate, causing him to doze off on the couch afterwards.

He was roused by a knock on the door and smiled as he opened it to find Cap there. The older man’s hands were empty and Johnny felt a huge sense of relief. Finally! Someone had taken Luke’s advice! “Come in, Cap. Would you like a coffee or a beer?”

“Coffee would be fine,” Cap replied. He followed Johnny to the kitchen, watching as he put on a fresh pot of coffee. “How are the shoulders?” he asked.

“Much better,” Johnny replied. “I’ve been able to take off the shoulder supports and I’ve pretty much got my full range of motion back. I’ve got a few more sessions of PT to go, working on rebuilding the strength, but Dr Brackett thinks I should be back to work in a couple of weeks.”

“That’s great, John,” Cap responded, delighted with the news. “Do you need anything? Lifts to PT? Food shopping?”

“Cap, look at my fridge.” Johnny dramatically threw open the door and gestured inside. It was crammed.

“Hmm, yeah, you might have enough to last you another couple of days,” Cap dead-panned.

“And I’m allowed to drive again,” Johnny explained, closing the door on the groaning contents, “so I’m good. Thanks for the offer, though.”

The coffee was ready, so Johnny poured and even found a packet of biscuits in a cupboard. He recognized a brand that Joanne particularly liked. They adjourned to the living room. They made small talk to begin with, Cap telling Johnny about the ambitious plans his wife had for their garden, and his lack of enthusiasm for them, since it involved him doing all the work. Johnny could tell that Cap was working his way up to something, but he had no idea what.

It came as a complete surprise.

“John, I have recommended you for a commendation,” Cap stated abruptly. “The department agree. You have also been nominated for a bravery award by the county sheriff’s department and that automatically nominates you to stand for citizen of the year.”

“But, Cap...!” Johnny protested.

“You will receive your departmental commendation on your first shift back,” Cap went on, reciting the words as though he had memorized them. He had. He hid his shaking hands between his knees as he leaned forward to tell Johnny everything. “You will hear about the sheriff’s award in a couple of weeks and a few months after that you’ll find out if you’ve won citizen of the year.”

“But I don’t deserve any of that!” Johnny cried.

“Well, I know for a fact that you deserve your commendation from the department for bravery above and beyond the call of duty,” Cap informed him. His tone was no-nonsense, matter of fact, done-deal. However Johnny listened to that tone, he knew that nothing he could say would change Cap’s mind. “I had nothing to do with the other ones,” Cap went on. “The sheriff’s one must have come from the officers involved.” Cap spread his hands. “There you are, pal. It’s a fait accompli.”

Stunned, Johnny could not think what to say. He remembered Luke’s words about accepting any plaudits that came his way because he deserved them and he had taken the gifts he had been given in that spirit. But this was different. “But I can’t accept them,” he protested. “I didn’t do anything to earn them.”

“I beg to differ,” Cap objected. “I heard what you said to those men.”

“What did I say?” Johnny asked defensively.

“You told them they could do anything they wanted to you, provided they leave the rest of us alone.” Cap looked at Johnny. “If that wasn’t bravery, I don’t know what was. John, I am always proud of you. You are an outstanding paramedic and rescue man. You voluntarily put yourself into situations that I would hesitate to order anyone into and you do it habitually. You and Roy are legends in the department and not just because you were the first paramedics; because you are both the best, the very best. Please, let me do this to show the whole department, and anyone else in the world that might be remotely interested, that I am very, very proud of you. I haven’t told you often enough in the past and I probably won’t tell you often enough in the future, but it’s true.” Cap rose to his feet and held out his hand to Johnny. The dazed paramedic also got to his feet and put out his hand. Cap shook it firmly and then saluted. “It is an honor to serve with you.”

“Thank you,” Johnny breathed, barely able to speak. He deeply respected and liked Cap, thought of him as a friend as well as his boss, but this speech had moved him very much. It made it much easier to take Luke’s advice and accept the plaudits.

“Well.” Cap clapped his hands together. “I’d better be going. The garden won’t be transformed if I’m not there.” He nodded to Johnny. “Take care of yourself and come back soon.”

“Thank you, Cap, for everything,” Johnny replied.

***********

On the morning of his first shift back, Johnny was at the station early. He was naturally slightly apprehensive, but he was reassured by the fact that Roy and the others had been back at work for two weeks, and none of them had mentioned any problems. He had had a session with Luke the afternoon before, talking through his mixed feelings about the awards he was due to be accepting.

“I still feel a fraud,” he explained.

“To be honest, I imagine most people who collect these things feel the same way,” Luke replied. “We all have a public front of some sort and people assume that others must feel more heroic than they do because they look at a confident facade and assume that is exactly how the other person is feeling. But remember, not everyone is confident at everything they do. In this case, Captain Stanley wants to physically show you how he feels and to rebuff it constantly would be hurtful and unkind. Just accept the award – or awards – with as much dignity as you can and remember that it is a tangible reminder of someone’s respect for you. That should make it easier.”

“Thanks, it does,” Johnny replied.

He rose to leave after chatting for a while longer, then paused. “We’re having a get together at Roy’s house on Sunday,” he explained. “I’d really like it if you could come.”

Luke laughed. “Roy, Cap, Chet, Marco and Mike have all already invited me. So I’ll see you there.”

Warmed by that memory, Johnny opened the door and stepped into the kitchen. B shift was sitting around the table. “Well, look what the cat dragged in,” commented ‘Bill’ Williamson, B shift’s engineer.

“Nah, surely Henry dug it up from somewhere,” countered Jack Collins, one of the linemen.

“Oh har har,” Johnny responded, trying not to laugh. “Nice to see you guys, too.”

“Oh good, you’re here early,” Charlie Dwyer noted, coming into the dayroom from the bay. “That means I get to go home on time.”

“I thought you needed the overtime,” Johnny jibed. “New baby, new pool...”

“Ah shut up!” Dwyer retorted.

Johnny laughed as he went out into the bay. It was deserted apart from the squad and the engine. He paused and looked around, but there were no echoes. The space felt as friendly as it had always done and he tentatively reached out and touched the squad. It felt as solid and reassuring as ever. Johnny patted it gently and crossed the bay to enter the locker room.

“Roy, I’m telling you, Gage is bound to be late,” Chet was saying. “He’s had weeks to enjoy sleeping in. Oh, there you are.” Chet looked disappointed as he glanced at his watch.

“I think you owe me five bucks,” Roy sniggered. “Welcome back, Junior.”

“Thanks, Pally, it’s good to be back.” Johnny put his hand out to the locker door and hesitated. Taking a sideways step, he opened the door and sure enough, a deluge of water hit the floor with a loud splash. Johnny looked at it for a moment before looking at Chet. “Small wonder that plant was in such bad shape,” he commented. “What did you do? Give it a water balloon?”

“Oh shut up!” Chet grumbled, secretly elated at Johnny’s return. “I hope that plant’s still alive. My mother gave it to me.”

“Chet, I’m not sure it was alive when you gave it to me!” Johnny retorted. He wasn’t sure if it was alive now or not, because he hadn’t looked at it for days. He wasn’t even sure where he’d left it.

“You’d better not have killed it already!” Chet exclaimed and Roy and Marco exchanged grins behind their colleagues’ backs. It was music to their ears to have the pair of them bickering.

“Would you twits like to get ready for roll call?” Cap asked acidly from the doorway. “Five minutes, gentlemen.”

“Chet, you’d better not have made me late on my first day back,” Johnny chided as he hastily shucked off his clothes and grabbed a uniform.

“Don’t blame me!” Chet objected. “You’re old enough and ugly enough to look out for yourself.”

Grinning, Cap stood just outside the door. Mike joined him. “Just like old times, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Just like old times,” Cap agreed contentedly.

***********

Not only had Chief Houts turned up, but so had Chief McConnike. A couple of photographers from the department were with them to document the handing over of the award for conspicuous bravery. All of B shift hung around to see it, too and even Captain Hookraider gave Johnny a gruff ’well done’.

Fortunately for Johnny, neither chief said too much about the ordeal that led to him being so honored, just spoke in general terms about the great work the paramedics did and how proud they were of the whole department, but especially of the men of A shift in Station 51 and Johnny in particular. He then mentioned that Johnny would be receiving a bravery award from the sheriff’s department and would be standing as citizen of the year, too.

Everyone applauded. Johnny muttered something thanking everyone and admired the framed commendation, showing it to his friends. There was an awkward pause. For a horrible moment, everyone thought Hookraider was going to say something – he was notorious for killing off a good time and never knew when to stop talking, or even when to not start!

The klaxons went off. “Station 51, structure fire...”

*****End*****

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