That Was a Really Bad Day!

By Rona

It really hadn’t been his day, Johnny Gage reflected as he sat on the exam table in Rampart. It didn’t look like it was going to improve, either. He was pretty sure that in the end, they were going to make him stay. Wasn’t that always how it happened? He blinked and winced. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, he thought, given how this day had been going.

The door opened to admit Dr Joe Early and he looked concerned as he regarded the young paramedic. “What’s been happening to you?” he asked.

“Quite a lot,” Johnny admitted nasally. He glanced at Roy, wondering if his partner would tell the long, sad tale, as his throat hurt.

Luckily, Roy was adept at reading Johnny’s looks and body language and stepped in. He was the accompanying paramedic anyway. “This afternoon, we got called out to a chemical fire,” Roy explained. “We got it under control, but Johnny got sprayed with the chemical as he was closing an outlet valve. The valve sprang a leak and he was right there.”

“Did you get it washed off immediately?” Early asked, looking at Johnny again.

“Yeah,” Johnny mumbled.

Once again, Roy took up the tale. “He went right across to where Chet and Marco had the hose and they washed him off. It wouldn’t have taken him more than about 20 seconds to reach them.” He glanced at Johnny for confirmation.

“And you’re all right?” Early asked. “No burns, skin irritation, sore throat?” He looked at Johnny’s skin closely.

“Throat’s a bit sore,” Johnny allowed. He shivered slightly, for his clothes were still damp and the exam room was cool.

“Let me look.” Obligingly, Johnny opened his mouth and Dr Early peered down his throat. “It’s a little pink, Johnny, but doesn’t look too bad. Now, what about your nose?”

Sighing wasn’t an option with his nose so sore. Johnny looked at Roy again, and again the older man obliged. “We were at a traffic accident. The driver of the van had a bad head injury and he became combative before we had him extricated. He took umbrage about something and punched Johnny right on the nose.” Roy had to work a little to hide a smile. The driver’s aim had been sheer luck – bad on Johnny’s part.

“Well, it looks like you might get a couple of shiners there,” Early commented. “I don’t think it’s broken, though. Let me check.” He gently felt Johnny’s nose, but there was no sign of any breaks. However, the nose was swollen, bruising and clearly very sore, so he sent the miserable paramedic for an x-ray and while they were waiting for him to return, Early quizzed Roy about the chemical spillage and was satisfied that Johnny was in no danger from his exposure.

The x-rays confirmed Dr Early’s thoughts; Johnny’s nose was not broken, just sore. He was going to have a couple of black eyes, though. Early advised him to take over the counter medication, but if he had any more problems, he was to come back. “I’d take him home and make him get changed,” Early commented to Roy. “He’s going to catch his death of cold sitting around in damp clothes.”

“Tell me about it,” Johnny whined. Although Roy had kindly loaned Johnny his turnout coat and Johnny had gone to sit in the squad while the rest of the crew made sure the chemical fire was out, he had been soaked to the skin and they had been on back-to-back runs ever since. Changing had not been an option. They hadn't had much in the way of food, either.

With Johnny’s release, they hurried back to the squad and headed back to the barn. They were both starving and Johnny really wanted to change his clothes. Three hours in damp underwear was more time than he ever wanted to spend in damp underwear again. But the fates conspired against them. Less than half way back, the radio beeped and the tones went off. “Station 51, structure fire…”

With a sour look at his friend, Johnny lifted the mic and acknowledged the call. He quickly scribbled the address down on a bit of paper and stowed it behind the visor. Roy put on the lights and sirens and quickly donned his helmet. Johnny, with a grimace of distaste, donned his own helmet, which still smelt slightly of the chemical that had sprayed on it hours before. He knew it was safe to wear, but the smell irritated his nose and the last thing he wanted to do right now was sneeze. The Tylenol that Early had given him hadn’t started to make any difference to the pain he was feeling yet. His usual sneeze-stopping habits – rubbing his nose or wrinkling it hard – were complete non-starters at the moment. Even sighing in frustration was not a good idea, he discovered moments later.

While Roy had genuine sympathy for his partner – being punched by a patient was an occupational hazard that never got any easier to accept – he was also amused by Johnny’s half-begun movements and frustrated body language. Johnny could rarely sit still, but his squirming around was worse at the moment as he thought of things he wanted to do and couldn’t. “Hanging in there, Junior?” he asked.

“Just about,” Johnny replied. Another dismal thought had just occurred to him; he would have to put back on his turnout coat and it was probably still wet inside. He shuddered.

However, all these irritations suddenly vanished as they came within sight of the fire. The house was large and stood in its own grounds. Smoke was pouring out of it. The paramedics glanced at each other. They both instinctively knew this was going to be a bad one. They drove in through the gates and pulled the squad to one side. The engine wasn’t far behind them and they knew Cap would be calling for a second alarm as soon as he saw it. They jumped out of the squad and immediately started suiting up.

Someone had called about the fire, but there was no one outside. They knew they would be going in.

***********

The hallway of the house was relatively clear. Fleetingly, Johnny thought that the whole of his apartment would fit inside just the hall of this house, but he didn’t voice it aloud. Instead, he glanced at Roy. “Let’s split up to do down here,” he shouted.

Since the smoke was still thin down here and there was no sign of flames, it seemed safe enough. Roy nodded and headed off to the right side of the hall. Johnny obligingly took the left and cautiously felt the first door he came to. It was cool, but made of thick wood that Johnny thought might be mahogany, so he was careful about opening it. Many an unwary firefighter had been caught in an unexpected backdraft when opening a thick door.

The room was ornate and large. Johnny didn’t waste time admiring the furnishings or decoration. The smoke was still thin, but he took care to peer under tables and the desk to make sure nobody was hiding there. People frequently hid from fires instead of evacuating the building. It was something that Johnny had never understood; before he became a firefighter, he was absolutely certain that he would have left a burning building at a full-on run, not hidden in a cupboard, bathroom or under furniture.

Exiting that room, he continued musing as he headed into the next one. Of course, if you were already trapped by the fire, then finding somewhere to shelter was a good thing, but generally, people panicked when confronted with a fire in their home. He supposed it wasn’t surprising; you felt safe in your home and when it was threatened, it was difficult to think rationally. The book-lined room (he refused to think of it as a library) was also empty. He left the room and waved to Roy, indicating that he would go deeper into the back of the house. Roy waved acknowledgment.

The large kitchen at the back of the house was completely empty, too. Johnny swiftly left and met up with Roy in the hall. They exchanged a look, then began climbing the stairs. They could feel the air changing as they climbed, getting hotter and smokier and it tingled along their skin. The hair rose on the back of Johnny’s neck. “This place is gonna blow!” he shouted.

“Not yet,” Roy contradicted him. “We’ve got a couple of minutes.”

“I’ll go upstairs,” Johnny indicated, pointing to the next set of risers that led to the third floor.

“No! We stick together,” Roy insisted.

Acquiescing, Johnny followed Roy as he turned left at the top of the stairs. There were plenty of doors for them to look into, but again, all the rooms were empty. Johnny began to wonder if this was a house populated by ghosts. Perhaps the alarm had been called in by neighbors, but if so, why had the door been unlocked?

There was a sudden whoosh above them and they both ducked instinctively as the ceiling burst into flames. They had to hurry now. Johnny’s instinct about the fire was right. The whole place was going to blow and soon. Roy glanced at his partner and saw him struggling with a door. He hurried over and watched as Johnny took the forcible entry tool from the front of his jacket and pried apart the lock. The door swung open and revealed a small, cozy sitting room. It had four people in it and they looked at the firefighters with mild astonishment. With a sinking heart, Johnny realized that all four young people were stoned out of their skulls.

Pulling down his mask, Roy said, “There’s a fire and we’re here to get you out.”

“We’re fine,” slurred one young guy. “We’ll just sit here.” He waved a lazy hand in dismissal.

This was gonna be fun, Johnny thought. He was anxious about getting them out, for the air was becoming even more charged than before. Johnny didn’t know what was in the house that was so combustible, but he sensed that when it went, it was going to be pretty spectacular and he would far rather watch something like that from outside than experience it on the inside! He went over to pull one of the youngsters to his feet. “We’ve gotta go, man,” he urged.

The kid batted Johnny away. His movements were uncoordinated and didn’t cause the paramedic any problems, but clearly getting all four of them out was going to require more than just Johnny and Roy. Roy went for the HT as Johnny again tried to pull the kid to his feet.

“Cap, we need another couple of men in here,” Roy shouted into the radio.

“On their way,” Cap promised, but he didn’t have time to issue those orders before the world went mad.

With a loud crash, the ceiling crashed down into the room. With a deafening boom, the house exploded.

**********

Dimly, he could hear Cap’s voice calling his name, but it didn’t sound quite right. It was tinny and far away and it took him several minutes to realize that the voice was coming over the HT. It took him several minutes more to pry his eyelids open. They seemed to be held down by lead weights and when they did finally open, the only thing he could see was a big blur.

The sound of a groan drew Johnny’s attention and he blinked furiously in an attempt to clear his vision. He had no idea what was going on, but he realized that he was at work because he was still wearing his SCBA and even had his helmet on. However, in this case, his helmet hadn’t entirely saved him, because his head was aching furiously. He blinked again and his vision cleared up and he looked around.

There had clearly been a ceiling collapse, judging from the amount of plaster that lay around him. Now that he was more with it, Johnny could feel some on his back and legs. The groans were coming from both sides of him and he pushed himself up, wincing as his right arm buckled underneath him. Cap’s voice spoke again from the debris and this time, Johnny was able to hone in on the sound. Making it to his knees, he crawled across the floor and scrabbled beneath the debris.

He’d found Roy. The feel of the turnout was unmistakable. Johnny hurriedly moved the fallen plaster aside and Roy blinked at him blearily. Neither of them had escaped the ceiling collapse and with a jolt, Johnny remembered that they had been trying to rescue four kids. “Roy, are you all right?” he asked. The words seemed to come out in a comprehensible way, which was a relief, as Johnny’s brain still wasn’t working on full power.

“Uh, yeah,” Roy replied, uncertainly. Johnny didn’t believe him. Roy’s eyes were glazed and he obviously wasn’t processing any faster than Johnny himself.

One thing was clear; they needed help and they needed it fast. Johnny scrabbled through the debris until he found Roy’s pockets and produced the HT, somewhat dented, but clearly still working. He winced as he used his right hand to depress the button. “Cap, it’s Johnny,” he said, forgetting protocol. “There’s been a ceiling collapse. We need help. There are four young guys here, too.”

“John, are you hurt?” Cap demanded, relieved to hear the voice of one paramedic, even if he did sound rather spacey.

“Um, no, I’m fine,” lied Johnny. No point in worrying Cap, he reasoned. He could get checked out at Rampart if he needed to. “Roy’s a bit dazed and I haven’t found the others yet.”

“We’ll be right there,” Cap promised. Johnny’s words had set off alarm bells for Cap. He knew his man. “Marco, Chet, grab four other guys and get inside. There’s been a ceiling collapse. John and Roy are both down and they have four victims.” He quickly contacted Gage to find their location and sent the firefighters inside. He exchanged an anxious glance with Mike. The fire was now burning fiercely on the upper floors of the house and Cap just hoped that the men he had sent inside would be able to rescue the six trapped men without putting their own lives in danger.

**********

“You stay here,” Johnny instructed Roy. “I’ll find the others.”

“I’m fine,” Roy protested. He started to push himself up, but the world took a sideways swerve and he slumped back down. “I’m fine,” he repeated a moment later, when he could finally see Johnny’s face again.

“Sure,” Johnny agreed. “You stay here.” He turned away, staying on his hands and knees, for he was pretty sure that walking would still be beyond him. The headache wasn’t going away and his whole body was breaking out in aches and pains in sympathy with it.

The first youth he found was deeply unconscious with a bad head injury. With no equipment, there was nothing Johnny could do for him. He was breathing all right and his pulse, although fast, was quite strong. It appeared there might be some broken ribs, but he couldn’t find any other obvious fractures. Leaving that one, he went hunting for the next. He had just dug the boy out when the other firefighters appeared.

With the fire threatening them from above, there was no time for niceties. The youths were placed over shoulders as gently as possible and borne away, as Marco and Chet helped Roy and Johnny to their feet. “Let’s go,” Chet shouted. The air was becoming charged again and they knew that there could well be another explosion. The chances of escaping two explosions relatively unscathed were slim.

Stumbling over the debris, clutching on to Chet, Johnny thought his feet didn’t seem to belong to him. His headache was worse now that he was upright and he fervently hoped he wasn’t going to be sick. Throwing up generally meant a concussion. If he didn’t throw up, it was just a headache, right? He stumbled and almost went down, knocking Chet off balance, too. The stocky firefighter tightened his grip and dragged Johnny onwards.

The smoke was thick in the hall and flames licked at the ornate woodwork only a few feet away from the room where they had been trapped. Johnny was completely disoriented and had to rely on Chet to lead him in the direction of the stairs. He looked down as he reached them and wished that he hadn’t. They danced in front of his eyes and his physical coordination took another hit. He stumbled again and threw out his right hand to save himself, except it refused to accept his weight. A ragged cry broke from his lips, only partially muffled by his facemask. Again, Chet caught him.

There was no time or air to waste on verbal reassurances. Chet was deeply worried about Gage. They seemed to be taking an inordinately long time to get out of the house and it was because Johnny could barely put one foot in front of the other without tripping on it. To make matters worse, the alarm on Johnny’s tank went off. While they weren’t that far away from safety, it was more than far enough at the speed they were currently moving, yet Chet didn’t dare hurry Gage. If he did, he was sure the other man would fall headfirst down the stairs and Chet knew that he wouldn’t be able to stop it happening. If it did happen, Chet was pretty sure he would take a header downstairs right along with his friend. Grimly, he reasserted his grip and dragged Johnny on.

The heat was building. They were almost at the bottom of the stairs. The front door was only 10 feet away. Chet hurried his steps, aware that Gage was now leaning on him even more heavily than before. “Flashover,” Johnny panted, his alarm now shrieking as the last of the air ran out.

Trusting Johnny’s instincts implicitly, although he would never admit it, Chet hurried their steps even more. Johnny stumbled over his feet and went down on his knees, groaning and gasping for air. There wasn’t time to even sling him over his shoulder, Chet knew, and he simply hauled the taller man upright and ran on. He could now feel the air changing and Chet had never kidded himself that he was as sensitive as Johnny when it came to things like that.

They burst into the open air and cool water was spraying over them. It felt marvelous, but they couldn’t stop to enjoy it. Chet kept going, all but carrying Johnny. They had almost made it.

Behind them, there was an enormous explosion as a ruptured fuel line went up. The concussion of the blast knocked all the firefighters off their feet as the interior of the house collapsed in on itself.

**********

Wasn’t there something I should be doing? Johnny thought vaguely. If so, he had no idea what it was. He didn’t suppose it mattered then. He was too tired and his head was too sore and he was just going to lie here and sleep. Sleep cured all ills, didn’t it?

Abruptly, he went from lying down to sitting up and he didn’t like that. He didn’t like that at all and he liked it even less when his stomach rebelled violently and he was sick all over his own legs. He could feel the warmth seeping through his wet, clammy clothes and the thought of what had just happened made him let go again.

Voices murmured around about him, but he couldn’t catch any of the words. Hands gently helped him lie back and he was aware that someone was peeling his soiled clothing off. He was embarrassed, but couldn’t seem to do anything to prevent it. Dimly, he wondered about his reaction – it wasn’t like he’d never been puked on before – but his muddled brain couldn’t sort through it. He was quite resigned to letting the hands do whatever they wanted to. He was quickly covered by a blanket.

Something was strapped around his head and over his face and Johnny felt the rush of oxygen against his cheeks. It began to clear his brain and he found he was able to open his eyes. The fire burned brightly against the twilight purple of the sky and Johnny remembered part of what had happened. He still wasn’t sure what sequence of events had brought him to puke on himself though. “Roy?” he asked.

“He’s fine, Johnny,” replied a familiar voice. It took a couple of seconds to place, but Johnny realized it was Marco. He blinked at his friend, who appeared to be looking after him. “He’s right here beside you, amigo.”

Turning his head wasn’t a pleasant prospect, but Johnny wanted to see his partner. He assumed Roy was looking after a victim, one of the four stoned youths, but when he did get his head turned and his focus sorted out, he saw that Roy was sitting leaning against the side of the squad and also had on an oxygen mask. He looked as dazed as Johnny still felt. “Roy?”

How DeSoto ever heard the word was a miracle, given the noise of the fire and the throbbing in his head, but hear Roy did and he glanced at his partner, trying to essay a smile. It wasn’t a notable success and he didn’t try it again.

Looking unhappily at the two men who had been left in his care, Marco wished there were more paramedics available, but right at the moment the three squads who were attending the fire were all that were able to come and both members of one squad were down. While Johnny and Roy were obviously pretty banged up, the civilians had to come first and they were in a bad way. They hadn’t had helmets and turnout coats to help protect them. Marco hoped that none of them would die, but to his admittedly inexperienced eye, it seemed quite likely.

“Marco, how’s it going?” Cap asked, coming over for a moment. He was thankful that neither Chet nor Marco had been injured in that last explosion, merely winded. Chet was back on the hose and Cap had asked Marco to stay with the paramedics until another squad could be dispatched. However, it was an unusually busy night and there were no other squads to spare so far. Even ambulances were in short supply and there was going to be a 45 minute wait for another.

“Cap, we’re taking these guys in,” Michelson from 45s called. He saw the anxious look on Cap’s face and glanced at the paramedics. “Get some vitals and call it in to Rampart,” he advised. “I’ll let them know the score when I get there. Hopefully, we won’t be too long before we can get back.”

“Thanks, Michelson,” Cap replied. “Can you do that, Marco?” He looked back at the fire. The home was going to be a complete loss and Cap thought it quite likely the arson investigators would be called in. There was something very suspicious about this fire. He would have to get back to it.

“Yes, Cap, of course,” Marco assured him. After all, it wasn’t the first time he had assisted the paramedics by taking vitals – it just wasn’t usually on the paramedics themselves. The equipment had been brought over when they were dragged back to the safety of the squad after the explosion. He hunted out the BP cuff and wrapped it around Roy’s arm. The senior paramedic seemed to be a bit more with it than Johnny was.

It was at times like this that Marco knew he wasn’t cut out to be a paramedic. He could take the vitals, but the thought of doing any more scared him witless. And even taking vitals was a responsibility that Marco didn’t care for. He always did it twice, just to be on the safe side. “How’re you doing, Roy?” he asked once he’d noted the BP down.

“Been better,” Roy admitted. Marco had to lean in close to hear his voice, muffled as it was by the oxygen mask.

“What hurts?” Marco asked, knowing he should actually be asking what didn’t hurt.

“My head, my ribs, my back,” Roy answered dispiritedly. He saw the look of alarm that crossed Marco’s face at the word back. “Don’t worry,” he continued. “It’s just bruised.”

“Okay,” Marco agreed, although he was pretty sure Rampart would have a different take on the information and Roy could well find himself confined to a backboard for his journey to the hospital. Marco thought he would leave that bit to whichever paramedics turned up to take over from him.

“How’s Johnny?” Roy asked. His partner’s head was turned to one side and it looked like he was either asleep or unconscious. Either way, with a head injury, he needed to be kept awake. Blood was starting to stain the 4x4 on the back of Johnny’s head. “He’s still bleeding,” he added.

Quickly, Marco grabbed another pad and taped it into place on the back of Johnny’s head. The younger man roused as he did so, wincing loudly. “Easy, Johnny,” Marco soothed, hoping that the paramedics would get here soon.

“Did I … lose my helmet?” Johnny asked. He couldn’t remember.

“Not this time, amigo,” Marco smiled, trying to hide his fear. “But the ceiling still won anyway.”

“Oh,” was the disinterested reply. Johnny moved uncomfortably on the ground, silently indicating that he was uncomfortable. Marco pulled Johnny’s arm out from under the blanket that covered him to get his BP. The wrist was swollen.

“Should I splint that?” he wondered aloud. He couldn’t tell if it was broken or not.

“BP, then splint and sling,” Roy mumbled. He couldn’t have performed any of those things himself, but he knew the routine. Marco obediently did as he was told, noting that both paramedics’ BPs, pulse rates and respirations were up, a clear indicator of pain. Like he couldn’t see that just by looking, he thought.

He lifted the receiver of the biophone. “Rampart this is squad 51,” he said.

“Go ahead, 51,” replied Dr Brackett.

“Rampart, we have two Code Is. They were both caught in a ceiling collapse and were knocked out. Victim one is Roy DeSoto. His BP is 140/110, pulse 120 and respirations 20. He is complaining of pain in his head, ribs and back, but says it is only bruising. Victim two is John Gage. His BP is 145/115, pulse 120 and respirations 22. He has a head injury which is still seeping slightly, has vomited twice and is semi-conscious. He also has a swollen wrist which I have splinted.” Marco let out a sigh of relief when he finished. At least he sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

“51 start IVs on both of them, Ringer’s lactate and transport immediately.”

“Rampart, we don’t have a functioning paramedic on site,” Marco reported his heart sinking. “And there is a delay on the ambulance. It’ll be at least 30 minutes.”

At Rampart, Brackett let out a frustrated sigh. “All right, 51. Keep them comfortable and warm and take new vitals every five minutes and report them to me. Transport as soon as an ambulance gets there and ask the attending paramedics to contact me as soon as they get there.”

“10-4, Rampart,” Marco agreed. He scribbled down the orders and glanced at his watch. He hoped and prayed that other paramedics would get there soon, even if it was Craig Brice. He really wasn’t cut out for this game.

**********

Time ticked relentlessly past and still there were no paramedic units available. Cap made several requests, but civilian calls took priority and for some reason, the whole county was hopping. At last, about 40 minutes after Marco had spoken to Rampart for the first time, the ambulance arrived. The harassed-looking attendants jumped out and brought out two gurneys. Marco quickly updated Rampart and was told to bring them in at once.

“Careful!” Marco chided as the attendants slung Johnny onto the gurney, eliciting a long groan of discomfort. They weren’t too fussy that the blanket slid off, either. Marco hastily tucked it around Johnny and added the warmer one from the gurney.

“Marco, you go in with them,” Cap ordered. “We’ll swing by and collect you when we’re done.” The house fire was now under control and the arson investigator was already on scene. The station probably wouldn’t be out for more than another hour or so.

“Right, Cap.” Marco picked up the biophone and climbed into the back of the ambulance. The doors closed and he heard the customary two taps on the back. As it pulled away, Marco let out a sigh of relief. His charges would soon be handed over to someone else and he could relax.

**********

It would’ve been pretty cramped in the back of the ambulance if it hadn’t been one of the new box types. Marco had often wondered how Roy and Johnny had borne squeezing into the smaller, low-slung vehicles, especially when they both needed to go in, or when there was more than one patient. At least in these vehicles they weren’t stuffed in cheek by jowl. They hit a bump in the road and Johnny groaned. Marco looked back at once. Roy appeared to be dozing, but Johnny was awake and looking utterly miserable. Marco sincerely hoped that there was nothing seriously wrong with Johnny. The 40 minute wait for the ambulance was not a good thing. Marco knew all about the ‘golden hour’ and it was rapidly ticking away.

Quite what made him look up as they made the final turn that would lead them to the freeway, he never knew. The road was rural and there was almost no traffic, so they weren’t running with the sirens on. A car came racing around the curve behind them and blared its horn, dodging to the middle of the road to see if it could get past. Can that idiot not see the flashers are on? Marco wondered. He shook his head as the car dropped back for a moment.

It was only a momentary respite. The car made another attempt to overtake despite the lack of forward visibility and the narrowness of the road. The driver gunned the car forward, bullying the ambulance driver, trying to intimidate him into pulling over. The ambulance driver wasn’t having that. He determinedly held his line. Traffic was supposed to yield to emergency vehicles, not the other way around!

There was another blast on the horn as the car driver made another attempt to barrel past. This time, the ambulance driver glanced down at him and that instant of broken concentration cost him dear. The car driver deliberately served into the front of the ambulance, bouncing his big, heavy car off the front wing of the ambulance. With the driver already distracted, his grip on the wheel was not as secure as it needed to be to fend off the assault and the ambulance swerved.

Pleased that his tactic had worked, the car driver tried it again and this time, hit the wheel of the ambulance with his bumper. The wheel buckled instantly and Marco went from watching the car with puzzlement and growing alarm to crying out a useless warning as the ambulance slid off the side of the road and turned over and over and over as it plunged down into the bushes below.

**********

By the time the fire was out and the hot spots damped down, it was well into the evening and the sky was dark. Everyone was dirty and smelly and exhausted. The Battalion chief had arrived shortly after the arson investigator and they were staying to poke around in the ruins. As first engine on scene, Cap had been running the shout, but the chief released his team, knowing that 51 had had to deal with the chemical fire that afternoon. He also knew that Cap would be anxious to retrieve his lineman from Rampart and to check on his paramedics. Gratefully, Cap accepted and he, Mike and Chet climbed into the engine and headed for the hospital.

The majority of the 30 minute drive was made on the rural roads. Distance-wise, it wasn’t that far to the hospital, and in town would take no more than 15 minutes or so, but the narrow roads and tight corners made any kind of speed impossible. “Be careful, Michael,” he urged the engineer needlessly. These roads were not lit.

“I will be,” Mike replied. He had vague recollections of bushes and trees and a lot of nothing at the sides of this road. He had no desire to drive the engine over the side of the road. They heard about and attended enough crashes in this area without becoming part of the statistics. As they pulled on to the freeway, Cap let out a sigh of relief. He was anxious to get the reports on John and Roy. It didn’t seem that either of them was badly hurt, but Johnny had had the chemical exposure and the punch on the nose earlier in the day, plus he had been wet for hours. Then with the head injury – and trust Johnny to get hit on the head, even when he was wearing his helmet – and getting soaked all over again, the younger man was going to be feeling pretty miserable. While Cap knew that Johnny wouldn’t be getting home that night, he just wanted to make sure that he wasn’t too badly injured.

Roy, who had also been knocked about, had been doing better at the scene, although not well enough to take charge in his normal manner. Cap could only imagine how bad Roy must have felt about that. Roy’s injuries also didn’t seem serious, but who knew what might have presented itself on the way into the hospital or what they had found once he got there. No, Cap needed to know how his men were so he could sleep easily that night.

**********

The two men stood looking at each other. It would have been hard to decide which one looked more shocked. “What do you mean – not here?” Cap demanded. “How can they not be here? They left before we did.”

Brackett’s frustration showed clearly in his face. “I don’t know, Hank,” he replied. “All I can tell you is they haven’t arrived here and we can’t raise them on the biophone.”

“What about ambulance dispatch?” Cap asked.

“No luck with them, either,” the doctor admitted. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his lab coat. “Dixie has called Harbor General to alert them, and is now phoning St Francis and a couple of other hospitals, but why would they have gone there? I think our next step is to call the police.” After a pause, Brackett finally said what both men were thinking. “There must have been an accident.”

**********

It had been a completely hellish ride, of that Marco was sure. Luckily, he had not been awake for more than the first few moments of it, but now that he was awake again, he wished he was still unconscious. The ambulance lay on its side and quite how Marco hadn’t got squashed between the two stretchers was something he didn’t want to think about. One of the back doors had sprung open and quite a bit of the equipment was gone, including the biophone, as far as Marco could see. There was an emergency light inside the vehicle, but it was extremely dim.

Still, it was better than the pitch darkness outside. Marco forced himself to sit up, ignoring the pain in his body as best as he could. He didn’t really want to move, but he was worried about Johnny and Roy and the attendants up front. There was complete silence in the ambulance and Marco was afraid that he was the only one still alive. Every single part of his body hurt and he was sobbing with pain by the time he freed himself from the debris that had pinned him into place. He didn’t know how the paramedics did it. He had often seen Johnny or Roy ignore their own injuries to treat other people, but Marco really didn’t know how the pain could be ignored. He just wanted to slump back down and wait to be found.

That was one of the problems, Marco thought. How long would it be until they were found? It was totally dark outside and searching in the dark was very difficult, to use an understatement. Realistically, they would be there until it was daylight again. How long they would be there was another matter -- hours, probably 8 hours, at the very least. It was a daunting thought.

Trying to push his fears and worries to one side, Marco concentrated on freeing himself and after what felt like hours was finally able to push to his feet to stand, if rather unsteadily. Drawing in a deep breath, he took his first step, wincing at the pain in his leg. It wasn’t broken, but it was very sore. He was thankful he only had to take one more step before he was beside the first stretcher, which was tipped on its side.

It was Roy. Marco felt for a carotid pulse, sending up a prayer of thanks when it was there, steady and sure under his shaking fingers. “Roy?” Marco said. “Roy, can you hear me?” He gently patted his friend’s cheek. Roy stirred slightly, but didn’t wake.

Worried, Marco pondered his options. He could just leave Roy’s stretcher in the position it was in, but that clearly wasn’t going to be comfortable for the paramedic and could quite possibly make any injuries worse. Moving Roy on his own was doable, but was going to be hard work. Still, Marco was sure that moving him was probably the best option, even though he knew the rules about moving accident victims. Besides, Johnny was trapped underneath Roy and getting to him was going to be hard enough without leaving Roy where he was.

It was a struggle, and hurt him more than he was willing to admit, but Marco finally got the stretcher back on all four wheels. He slumped down beside it, breathing hard and willing himself not to be sick. The strain of being the only conscious person in the vehicle was taking its toll. Marco could do basic first aid under the supervision of the paramedics, but he wasn’t happy being in charge. He knew that he didn’t know enough. What if his decisions were wrong and he caused his friends even more hurt? How could he live with that?

“Marco?”

Hearing another voice was such a relief that Marco could have wept. “Roy! How are you doing?” he asked, standing up so the supine paramedic could see him more clearly.

“Guess I’ve been better,” Roy admitted. “What happened?”

“We had a crash,” Marco explained.

“Are you all right?” Roy asked. “Where’s Johnny?”

“I’m just going to help him,” Marco replied evasively, feeling suddenly guilty that he had needed to sit down for a minute.

“Get me off of here,” Roy ordered. “I’ll help you.”

“Roy, you’re in no fit state…”

“Don’t argue,” Roy hissed. He felt ghastly, but reasoned that two people halved the amount of work that needed done. He could feel every bruise on his body and knew he would have a whole lot more from the straps that had held him down as they tumbled. He had been knocked out, but he could remember the sickening sensation as the ambulance did its first somersault. “We need to work together.”

“All right.” Reluctantly, Marco unfastened the straps that held Roy captive on the backboard and watched worriedly as his friend slowly sat up. “Roy?”

“I’m okay,” Roy assured his friend. He wasn’t, but there didn’t appear to be anything life threatening in the injuries he had. “Help me get down from here, then let’s get Johnny.”

The lack of any sound from Johnny had Marco’s heart in his mouth. He didn’t mention his fears aloud, for voicing them could give them strength. However, one look at Roy’s face showed the Hispanic man that his friend was thinking along the same lines; was Johnny already dead?

***********

The probable route the ambulance had taken from the fire to Rampart was marked on the map. It was the same route that the engine had taken to reach the hospital and the thought that they had driven past the crashed vehicle made Cap feel sick. How could he not have known? Had they just been so tired that they hadn’t seen the signs of the crash? Or were there no visible signs at all? If that was the case, how on earth were they going to find the men and why were the police just standing around doing nothing at all? Didn’t they know that all the occupants of the ambulance could be dead or dying?

From the other side of the room, Kel Brackett eyed the captain worriedly. Hank Stanley looked like he was going to blow a gasket at any minute. Should he offer the man a sedative to take the edge off a bit? He glanced at Mike Stoker, who stood rigidly near where Cap was pacing up and down and then at Chet Kelly, who sat huddled on the couch, shivering like a whipped puppy. There was no doubt about it, all the firefighters could use something to calm them down, but there was no point in offering drugs, Kel guessed. The only thing that would allow them to calm down was finding the others and right now, that was still some time away. He rolled his shoulders, finally admitting to himself that he was just as tense and worried as the firefighters were.

“Okay, we’re ready to start the search,” the cop in charge announced. Cap thought he looked about 12 years old. How could he be old enough to be a cop? “We’re taking cars with mounted search lights along the route, but I have to warn you, we probably won’t find them till daylight. If the search lights don’t catch what we’re looking for, we’ll have to do a fingertip search once its light.”

Daylight? It was barely past midnight and dawn was still several hours away. Cap took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. “Can we help?” he asked. Anything rather than sitting here waiting.

For a long moment, he thought the cop was going to refuse. At that point, Cap was sure that he would explode, but the cop simply nodded. “Glad to have the help,” he smiled.

It still all seemed to take an inordinate length of time as each unit taking part in the search was given their area and strict instructions about the search pattern being used. Cap, used to being in charge, ached to take over and dispatch the men more quickly, but he bit his tongue and simply waited. This was not his show; he had to do as he was told, despite the overwhelming urge to simply run out there and start looking on his own.

It was almost 2am before the convoy of vehicles rolled out to start looking.

**********

When it came down to it, neither Roy nor Marco was in any fit state to lift a stretcher with a person strapped on to it, but they had no choice. It was lucky that the head of the stretcher had been raised slightly and that was enough to keep it from lying flat on the floor. Johnny was groaning steadily and Roy was pretty sure his partner was swearing when he had enough breath, but he was alive and that was all that mattered. Roy felt like swearing, too. The ambulance was wrecked, the attendants were both seriously injured and might not survive until help reached them and the radio was as dead as a doornail. It really wasn’t the most comforting situation to be in.

What was worse was that it was getting quite chilly. They had blankets, for which Roy was truly thankful, but it was still going to be an unpleasant night and they would all be at risk from exposure. He thought of all these things as he struggled to ignore the pain in his ribs and back as they struggled to get Johnny’s stretcher back on its wheels. They had jettisoned the other one to give themselves more room.

With one last heave, they got the stretcher to stand properly, and Roy slumped down to the floor, breathing heavily. His ribs were screaming in agony and he thought perhaps they might be broken after all, although he knew that bruised ribs hurt like hell, too.

“Roy?” Marco was looking at him with deep concern, although he was in little better state himself.

“I’m okay,” Roy assured him. “Just winded.” He struggled to his feet, accepting the hand his friend extended to him, and took the half-step that allowed him to look at Johnny.

The younger man still had his eyes closed, but Roy thought that was because of the amount of swelling that was suddenly accompanying the bruising from earlier. Roy was instantly alarmed; did that mean that Johnny had sustained a further head injury in the crash? Or was the injury he had sustained in the ceiling collapse worse than they had first feared?

“Johnny?” Roy bent over the stretcher, peering as closely as he could in the dim lighting. His hand reached automatically for his penlight, but it was gone. No surprise there. “Johnny, can you hear me?”

One eye cranked open and Roy saw the effort it needed for his partner to focus. “Yeah,” Johnny whispered, his voice gravelly.

With his usual efficiency, Roy set about discovering how his partner was doing, feeling down the long limbs for breaks and asking questions to test his mental acuity. It was impossible to be sure, between his own bouts of double vision and the dim lighting, but Roy couldn’t see any signs of cerebrospinal fluid. He got Marco to double check for him, but since none of them would claim to have perfect eyesight at the moment, Roy couldn’t take any real comfort from the fact Marco couldn’t see any either.

“Johnny what hurts?” Roy asked. Johnny had winced throughout his initial examination.

“Everything,” the other whispered. He moved uncomfortably on the stretcher, struggling against the confining straps. Roy was reluctant to remove them, fearing Johnny would want to move about. He put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and felt the bone move under his fingers. Johnny let out a whimper, even as Roy snatched his hand back.

“Your collarbone’s busted,” Roy told him, as though Johnny hadn’t worked that one out for himself.

“No shit,” Johnny ground out. It felt like he was talking through a throat full of glass. Everything hurt, but as his level of consciousness improved, it centered down to his broken wrist, collarbone, head and throat. He wanted to say something to Roy about it, but the thought of talking was horrific. Swallowing was more than he was really willing to do at the moment.

“Sorry,” Roy replied. He leaned against the side of the ambulance. “Guess I’m a bit concussed, too,” He glanced at Marco. The Hispanic man had a big bruise blooming on the side of his head. “Guess we all are.”

“Take … the … straps … off,” Johnny pleaded.

“I don’t want you moving around,” Roy replied. “You could have rib injuries and…” He stopped talking as Johnny fixed him with a dark glare, slowly moving his eyes from Roy’s face to his ribcage before quirking an eyebrow. The meaning was as clear as if he had spoken. And your ribs are all right, Pally?

A blush crept up Roy’s cheeks and he hoped that neither of the other two men would see it. Marco sniggered and Roy knew that he was busted. “All right, all right,” he capitulated. “My ribs are sore, too.” He released the straps. Johnny immediately curled his limbs into a more comfortable position.

“What do we do now?” Marco asked in a small voice.

“We wait,” Roy replied. “None of us are in any kind of condition to try and hike out of here. We have to wait to be rescued.” He made a face as he said it, for none of them were used to being the victim. “Marco, let me check you out.”

“I’m fine,” Marco denied. “Just bruised.”

“Sheesh,” Roy commented, looking at Johnny. “He’s been working with you for too long.”

That sally elicited a snort of painful laughter from them both. Marco submitted to Roy examining him and although Roy wasn’t sure about his ribs, nothing else seemed to be broken, just severely bruised. There was, however, the head injury to worry about, and not just for Marco; for them all. “Let’s see if we can find something to support Johnny’s collarbone,” Roy suggested. Of course, Johnny had broken the collarbone on the other side from the broken wrist. He was sitting with his legs drawn up and his arms resting across his midsection and trying to be as stoical as possible. He would have been pushed to say which arm hurt the worst.

After a bit of searching, they finally found some gauze that Roy fashioned into a makeshift sling. There were a couple of pressure dressings, but Johnny’s head injury was no longer bleeding, so it was left alone. Johnny gave Roy a once-over as best as he could, instructing Marco to feel for fractures, but apart from his ribs, Roy had no broken bones. Roy had another look at the attendants, but there was nothing he could do for them apart from place blankets over them. Then, they settled down to wait as patiently as they could.

And as the night wore on, it got colder.

**********

It was absolutely fruitless, searching in the dark. The spots mounted on the cars and the engine simply reflected the light back off the leaves on the trees and bushes. There didn’t appear to be any kind of skid marks on the road anywhere, but as the road was dirt, any passing traffic would have obscured any clues that had been originally left behind. Cap knew that most of the traffic that had passed over that road had been fire and rescue vehicles. He knew the fire was out and the last engine was gone, leaving only the fire investigator to poke about in the ruins. With a jolt, he realized that he had no idea if the four youths from the fire were alive or dead and he didn’t much care, either. Three of his men were missing, possibly dead, and every fiber of his being was focused on finding them.

To anyone not familiar with searching a grid pattern, it probably would have appeared that the vehicles were just randomly driving up and down the roads, but there was a method behind it. Unfortunately, they all knew that, come daylight, they would have to resume searching from the start of the pattern, because otherwise, they would miss finding the ambulance until it was too late.

It was a long night; one of the longest Cap and the remaining two members of the 51 crew could ever remember. Cap and Mike spelled each other at the wheel of the engine and Chet fretted anxiously in the back, driving Cap to the point where he almost clipped the little Irishman around the ear. However, recognizing Chet’s concern in his seemingly endless chatter, he managed to restrain himself, although it took a Herculean effort.

About 5am, they took a break for coffee, provided by a police catering unit. The sight of the caravan made Cap’s heart sink, as it was usually brought along to sites where it was expected that the police would be working for some time. It wasn’t reassuring, no matter how welcome the coffee and donuts were. They stood silently, while the cops around them huddled together in groups, talking in undertones and unwilling to do more than glance sympathetically in the direction of the firefighters. They all knew that they were probably going to find bodies, not living men.

Imperceptibly, moment by moment, the daylight grew stronger. The eastern sky was lit by an iridescent pink light and Cap gave a sudden, involuntary shiver. Somehow, it seemed colder to him now than it had all the rest of the long night which had just passed.

“Cap?” Stoker touched his elbow, drawing Cap from the reverie he had fallen into. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Cap replied reassuringly. He couldn’t afford to let his guard down like that. Mike and Chet were looking to him to keep up a strong, optimistic front. “Just tired, I guess.” He glanced down at the coffee he still held in his hand, but it looked unpalatable to him now and he tipped the remnants out onto the ground.

“We’re ready to resume the search, Captain,” called the officer in charge. Cap waved an acknowledgment and turned to climb into the engine again. He fully intended to take the wheel and give Mike a break, but he found the engineer was already sitting behind the wheel, looking at him calmly, but with a hint of steel in that mild gaze.

“I’ll drive,” Mike announced. He made no overt posturing and said nothing else, but Cap was left in no doubt that he was not getting behind the wheel at that moment. Later – maybe. Now? Not a chance. With a wry smile, Cap bowed to the inevitable and climbed into his usual seat.

“Let’s go,” he ordered and Big Red rumbled off down the dirt road to begin searching again.

**********

The words ‘cold’ and ‘California’ were not often thought of as synonymous with each other, but that night – to the trapped firefighters – they definitely ought to have been. The drop in temperature combined with their inability to move very much and they quickly found their body temperatures dropping. Johnny suffered particularly because he didn’t have on a pair of pants and the yellow blanket from the squad wasn’t really that warm, being only plastic. Roy insisted he retain the warmer blanket that had been laid over the yellow plastic and he and Marco would huddle together to try and keep warm under the one remaining blanket.

There was another blanket, but it was now being put to another use than keeping people warm. Roy tried not to think about that. He felt guilty enough that he had been unable to do anything for the two men riding in the front of the vehicle without thinking about them, too. Somehow, he managed to fall asleep, although he knew he shouldn’t, what with all of them having a head injury. But he was too tired to stay awake and he slipped into an uneasy slumber.

Pain woke him as he shivered violently. Blinking, Roy knew he should waken the other two and make sure they were all right. His own headache seemed set to stay forever and he felt mildly sick. The thought of moving was purgatory, for although he wasn’t warm, he knew it would be even colder out-with the blanket and away from Marco’s side. Still…

A groan caught his attention as he started to drift back to sleep and Roy was fully awake in an instant. He didn’t hesitate as he slid out from beneath the blanket, although his ribs and back protested the move, slowing him down. “Johnny?” he whispered, trying not to wake Marco. There was no point in all of them being awake.

“I’m awake,” Marco mumbled. He was also feeling the cold and Roy moving away had opened up a colder space at his side. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m not sure,” Roy replied. He leaned over Johnny. “Johnny? What’s wrong?” He put his hand beneath the blankets and felt the cool flesh there. Johnny was on the verge of being hypothermic. “Johnny?”

“Uh… sore,” Johnny mumbled, his words sluggish and drunken sounding. “Spirits… so sore. Make it…” His voice trailed off as he shivered once more and another moan escaped. “Roy.” His partner’s name was a desperate plea for help to stave off the dreadful pain that seemed to be consuming his icy cold body. Johnny had always thought that cold numbed the pain. Now he was discovering that while ice applied judiciously in the correct places could work wonders, being thoroughly chilled to the bone didn’t help at all; it just made everything worse.

For once, Roy was at a loss. What could he do to help Johnny? Placing him on the floor of the ambulance wasn’t an option; there was nothing to stop the cold seeping into his bare legs from the metal. The less cold lino on the floor was currently one of the side walls. There wasn’t room to turn the stretcher across the width of the vehicle and lean against the wall… Roy’s mind ran round and round the problem, like a hamster on a wheel. And like the hamster, he got nowhere. His headache increased.

“Roy.” Marco tugged his arm. “Why don’t we lift the mattress off the stretcher onto the floor?” he asked. “I can sit against the wall there and we can have him sort of… of…” Marco blushed – or at least Roy thought he did. In the dim lighting it was difficult to be sure. “…have him on our laps,” Marco whispered.

That was a good idea. Roy looked at his colleague admiringly. It wouldn’t be that easy to execute, but once they did, they could all huddle together and with the extra blankets and body heat, it could make all the difference in the world to succumbing to hypothermia.

They discussed several possible angles of attack, but in the end, they levered Johnny gently to his feet, and Roy held on to him while Marco yanked the mattress off the stretcher and laid it on the floor. Then they helped Johnny sit down, and Roy cradled him against his chest while Marco eased his friend’s legs over his lap. They spread the blankets out to try and cover them all and after a time, they were all a bit warmer.

But it was still a long time until dawn.

***********

There was no question that the search was more thorough this time. Anything that looked the least bit suspicious was examined in detail, with men getting out of the cars and slithering down bankings to follow up the smallest of leads. It was now almost 7am and Cap was getting really discouraged.

Abruptly, he sat up straighter. “Never mind the pattern we’re supposed to follow,” he said to Mike. “Let’s go back to the fire and retrace our steps from there.”

Equally as discouraged as Cap, both Mike and Chet thought it was a good idea. Mike turned the big rig around and they headed back to the scene of the fire. The ruins looked especially bleak against the sky this morning and the investigator was still there. He waved briefly when he saw them, but, like the rest of the department, he knew what they were doing and didn’t attempt to detain them in conversation.

Once again, Mike turned the rig. Cap pointed off to the left. “We were all parked over there,” he reminded the others, as though they had forgotten. “So they would have had to have taken the right hand road.” He winced, for the road was narrow and rutted. It must have been horrible for the men travelling in the back of the ambulance.

They set off, driving slowly. Mike reasoned that any accident must have happened beyond the first curve in the road, or otherwise someone at the fire scene would have noticed. That seemed logical, but they kept their eyes peeled nevertheless.

About three quarters of a mile up the road, there was a junction. Mike stopped and looked down. “Cap, a car came out of that road going pretty fast,” he reported, seeing skid marks.

“So it did,” Cap agreed and his pulse quickened. “Let’s go.” He gestured onwards.

They crawled, the engine grumbling as Mike kept in a low gear. Even so, if it hadn’t been for Chet’s different angle sitting in the back, they might have driven past the accident site again. “Cap! Stop!” Chet cried, seeing a faint flash of white through the leaves. He scrambled down from his seat before the engine had actually come to a standstill.

“What is it?” Cap asked, also climbing down. He followed Chet’s pointing finger down through the foliage and, by taking a tiny step sideways, also spotted the white. He reached back into the cab and grabbed an HT. “Come on!” he instructed and all three of them started to climb down.

**********

None of them had slept much. The cold was relentless and sleeping sitting up was never a pleasure anyway. Johnny, while warmer, was in a lot of pain. The makeshift sling, which was better than nothing at all, really didn’t give Johnny’s broken collarbone all that much support and every movement hurt. Johnny was also aware that Roy’s breathing was not as smooth as usual. He had never before realized how attuned to each other he and Roy were, but now, Johnny noticed the differences in his partner’s breathing pattern. Broken ribs, he diagnosed and felt guilty for the way Roy had him leaning against his chest. He must be hurting pretty bad, Johnny mused, trying to keep his mind off his own misery. He wasn’t entirely successful.

“How’re you doing?” Roy whispered, aware that Johnny was awake from his rapid breathing and hitched in-takes of breath when hit by a sudden stab of pain. He thought he had probably dozed now and then, but solid sleep had eluded him.

“I’m awake,” Marco mumbled. “You don’t need to whisper.” He shifted slightly under the weight of Johnny’s legs and looked around. It was daylight. They had survived the night. His spirits rose slightly.

Smiling slightly, Roy repeated his question. “How’re you doing?” He aimed it at both of his companions.

“Really hurts,” Johnny whispered, pain flaring in his raw throat. He was thirsty and sore and he needed to pee.

“I’m all right,” Marco lied, hearing the pain and hoarseness of Johnny’s voice. He didn’t feel he had any right to complain about his headache and bumps and bruises.

“He’s at it again, Junior,” Roy mentioned, smiling at Marco. He appreciated what Marco was trying to do, but preferred to hear the truth. Johnny made a sound that was somewhere between a snort and a grunt.

Sensing that Johnny really didn’t want to talk, Roy shifted his fingers to surreptitiously take Johnny’s pulse. Johnny hissed as Roy closed his fingers gently round his wrist. The least movement caused daggers of pain to shoot through his broken collarbone and his shoulder. “Sorry,” Roy apologized. Johnny’s pulse was fast, but Roy already knew he was in pain. He suspected that if he could take Johnny’s BP, it would be through the roof.

He was just about to suggest that he move from behind Johnny when the sound they had been waiting to hear cut through the air.

“Roy? John? Marco?”

“Here, Cap!” Marco cried. “Here! We’re here!”

***********

To say it was a relief to find his men alive was something of an understatement. They were all bashed up, but given the severity of the crash, it was a miracle they were still alive. While Mike and Chet started asking questions, Cap got straight onto the HT. “This is Engine 51,” he reported. “We’ve found them. Please dispatch two squads and ambulances to this location.” He gave the approximate location and heard the response. Then he could turn his attention to his men, knowing that the help they needed was on the way.

The story of the accident was told in a few words. By then, the police searchers had arrived and they quizzed the injured men for more details, but none of them could remember what make or color of car it had been that ran them off the road and Cap soon put an end to the questioning. Once his men had been checked out and the doctors said it was okay, then the police could ask their questions.

Blankets were brought from the police cars to reinforce the ones they already were using and a cop went back to his car to call for the coroner’s wagon. Cap crouched by Johnny in concern. The younger paramedic was very pale and lines of pain were etched into his skin. Both his eyes were blackened and swollen from the punch the previous afternoon and he sat huddled in on himself, still shivering despite the advent of more blankets. It was clear the toll the accident and cold night had taken on the young man’s resources.

At length, the paramedic units arrived and Cap and the others were forced to leave the overturned ambulance to allow the medics in to work. “We’ll meet you at the hospital,” Cap told them, as he turned to crawl out. “We’ve got the get the engine back.”

Although Roy smiled and made some vague acknowledgement, Cap could see that they were beyond exhausted and suspected that by the time they were through with x-rays and examinations, they would all sleep for the next 12 hours or so. Still, he felt the need to be there. They climbed into their accustomed places in the engine and Mike headed off back to the barn.

**********

For all his exhaustion, Roy was curiously reluctant to allow anyone else to take over his partner’s care. He wanted to keep clutching Johnny to his chest, where he could feel his partner’s breathing and knew that he was still alive. However, he said nothing when Johnny was carefully lifted and placed in a stokes for the journey to the road, but the ragged cry that broke from Johnny’s lips made his heart ache.

“Rampart, the first patient is extracted,” Jay Parker reported. “Victim one is John Gage. He has two black eyes, which I’m told he sustained yesterday afternoon, a probable broken wrist and collarbone, a bump and gash on the back of his head and is mildly hypothermic.” Jay quickly added on his vitals.

“Start an IV of normal saline, give 2mgs MS, place him on oxygen, 10 liters, splint the wrist and stabilize the collarbone,” Brackett ordered. “Transport as soon as possible.”

“10-4, Rampart. The other two victims are coming in the second ambulance. Stand by for vitals on them.” Jay started to pack up the equipment as Brackett acknowledged him. He glanced down at Johnny. “How’re you doing there, Gage?” he asked. His patient was as pale as could be and Jay was quite concerned by the condition of all three men. Last night had been one of the coldest on record in Southern California and down here amongst the trees and bushes it was even colder, as the sun had not penetrated the foliage. Exposure and hypothermia were funny things; they could creep up and bite you on the ass if you even blinked too often. The sooner they could get Johnny and the others into Rampart, the happier Jay would be.

In answer to the question, Johnny gave a vague grunt. The MS had taken the edge off the pain, but it was still pretty sharp. His throat felt less like it was lined with glass every time he swallowed, but he knew as the drugs wore off, he would be feeling completely wretched again. He let his eyes drift closed as the stokes was lifted and carried over to the slope that the ambulance had tumbled down. There, the firefighters hooked it up to ropes from above and with Jay guiding it from below, the stokes was hauled aloft. The lurching ride made Johnny feel dizzy and nauseous and when Jay reached the top only moments after Johnny, he saw that his patient was even paler. “You gonna barf?” he asked, motioning the other men to be prepared to turn him, but after a few moments, Johnny was able to get himself under control and gingerly shook his head.

They loaded him into the ambulance and it set off for Rampart, sirens wailing. Johnny kept his eyes closed, although he was aware of every dip and bump in the road. He felt the squeezing on his arm as Jay checked his blood pressure again and tried not to listen as Jay reported that it was falling. It had been high before, Johnny knew, so this was surely good news? He thought Jay didn’t sound too happy, but he was too tired to care and allowed himself to drift off.

**********

B shift were waiting for them back at the station. “How are they?” asked the captain as they slid tiredly out of the engine.

“Alive,” Cap replied succinctly. “Beyond that, I can’t really tell you. They all got a bit banged up, but what’s new and what were the injuries before the accident, I can’t tell you.” Cap rubbed a hand tiredly over his face. “We’re going down to the hospital now.”

“Let me know,” requested the other captain. “We’re all pulling for them.”

“Thanks, Bill,” Cap smiled. He dragged himself off to change and even threw himself under the shower in the hopes the hot water would loosen his tense muscles. He suspected that only a long sleep would help ease his aches and pains now, but that would have to wait a while longer. He rounded up Chet and Mike and they all drove in convoy to Rampart.

**********

The ambulance doors opened and Jay Parker popped out, holding Johnny’s IV bag aloft. “His blood pressure dropped quite a bit before starting to pick up again,” he reported without being asked. “It’s holding steady at 130/90 right now. His pulse is pretty good at 94 and his respirations are 25. He’s been drifting in and out but is oriented when conscious. He’s in a lot of pain, but there’s no sign of internal bleeding; his belly is soft.”

“Thanks, Jay,” Brackett replied. “Do you know exactly what happened?”

“Not really,” Jay apologized. “The ambulance had turned over a couple of times, I’d guess, and they’d all been knocked about. The attendants are dead,” he added in a low voice. “DeSoto and Lopez are coming in a few minutes.” He hung the IV bag on the stand. “Do you need me, doc?”

“No, thanks again,” Brackett dismissed him.

“See you, Johnny,” Jay said and left the room.

Leaning over the stokes, Brackett saw that Johnny was awake. “Hi there,” he smiled. “How are you doing?”

“Hurts,” Johnny mouthed.

A frown sped over Brackett’s brow, but he forced his face to a neutral expression. “Can you talk, Johnny?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Johnny croaked and grimaced as he swallowed.

“Is your throat sore?” Brackett had his penlight out. Johnny nodded mutely and as Brackett lifted the oxygen mask, he obligingly opened his mouth to allow the physician to peer down his throat. Brackett again made certain his face didn’t show anything as he looked at a throat covered in small ulcers. That must be hell on earth, never mind anything else, he thought. He found a smile, although he wasn’t sure how convincing it was, and popped a thermometer into Johnny’s mouth. In his initial report, Jay had said that Johnny was mildly hypothermic, but Brackett could feel that Johnny was now growing warm. He leaned over the stretcher again to peer into Johnny’s eyes.

The exam room door opened and Dixie came in. She went straight across and brushed the hair gently back from Johnny’s forehead, smiling at him. “Well, hello there,” she said, huskily, and hoped that Johnny would think she was just flirting with him – which she was, but she was also fighting back tears. It had been a long, worrying night for everyone involved with the missing firefighters. Joanne DeSoto was currently washing away all traces of the tears she had shed while waiting at the hospital all night.

From somewhere, Johnny found a half smile. It faltered as he found tears prickling in his eyes. He was so sore and tired and had been so afraid all night. Kindness now would be his undoing, he feared. With a ragged sigh, he closed his eyes and felt a tear squeeze out beneath his swollen eyelid. Dixie tenderly wiped it away.

“Dixie, could you hang an antibiotic?” Brackett asked. Johnny hadn’t realized he’d moved away from the exam table.

“Sure thing,” Dixie replied. She removed the thermometer and looked at it, handing it to Brackett. Johnny’s temp was definitely on the rise – it was up a whole degree from what had first been reported on the way into the hospital.

“Johnny, I’m going to give you a little bit more MS,” Brackett told him. He knew the small dose he had had before would have all but worn off by now. Johnny gave a sort of nod – the best he could manage – and felt the doctor’s hands at the IV port. He was starting to drift off again when there was a sudden bang and he flinched, caught in a flashback as the car’s bumper hit the ambulance’s wheel. He let out a startled cry, which hurt his raw throat.

“Easy, easy,” Dixie soothed, grabbing his hand carefully. “It’s just the x-ray machine. Malcolm obviously needs a refresher course in driving it.” She watched Johnny carefully as he slowly calmed down. Once his heart rate and breathing were back to normal, Dixie and Brackett left him to Malcolm’s tender mercies, with a hissed warning to the hapless x-ray tech about being more careful.

“What do you think, Kel?” Dixie asked. She leaned against the wall, looking up at the doctor.

“He’s pretty sick,” Brackett replied. “His throat is ulcerated. I don’t know if it was caused by the chemical exposure yesterday or something he’s picked up along the way. It must be hellishly painful. As for the rest – well, he’s concussed, clearly and he’s gonna have a bad time for the next few weeks while his fractures heal, because both arms are going to be pretty much out of commission. He’s been damned lucky, though. A crash like that should have killed all of them.”

“What about Roy and Marco?” Dix asked. She knew they would have arrived by now. “How were they?”

“Joe was handling that call, but from what I can gather, they aren’t hurt as badly as Johnny. They are almost certainly concussed as well and Roy may have broken ribs. Marco looks like he might be the same. We’ll see what the x-rays say.” He thrust his hands into the pockets of his lab coat and nibbled on his lower lip for a moment. “As soon as x-ray is done, I want to you to clean Johnny up and we’ll suture the gash on the back of his head. Anchor a Foley and I don’t care if he does complain. For the first 48 hours, Johnny is going to be on strict bed rest. He needs to let the antibiotics start working on that throat and if I have to sedate him to keep him down, then that’s what I’m going to do. He’s going to need to be watched closely, because without the use of his arms, he’s going to be pretty helpless.”

“Right.” Dixie glanced over Brackett’s shoulder at a movement that had drawn her attention and saw Cap, Mike and Chet come in. She straightened up and took a step towards them, but Cap saw her and headed over instantly.

“How are they?” he asked.

While Brackett told the firefighters what little they knew, Dixie studied the three men. They all looked beyond exhausted. She could only imagine how harrowing it must have been looking all night for their missing friends and then wondering, hoping, praying and dreading what they might find in that over-turned ambulance. At the moment, they didn’t know the names of the dead attendants and although she wasn’t as familiar with the attendants as she was with the paramedics, she would probably know them, but sight at least, and it was an uncomfortable feeling that she was rejoicing in some of her friends being alive while wondering which of her acquaintances had died. Life was ever thus, she pondered, but it didn’t make it any easier to bear.

She was drawn out of her reverie as Cap sighed in frustration. “So we just need to wait?” he concluded, the frustration in his voice as well.

“Why don’t you go and get something to eat?” Dixie suggested. “When did you last eat something?”

“Donuts about 4am,” Stanley admitted. His shoulders slumped. “All right, we’ll get something to eat and come back. But if something happens…” He couldn’t finish the thought.

“We’ll find you at once,” Dixie promised and urged him gently with her hand to start moving.

Wearily, the three firefighters headed off towards the cafeteria and food they weren’t sure they wanted.

**********

While they wait for the x-rays, Dixie helped Johnny into a gown and gave him a wash and then gently rolled him onto one side. Brackett numbed the gash on the back of his head before Dixie cleaned it out and then it was stitched. Dixie bandaged it for him and helped him roll back. She could tell his painkillers were wearing off again and indicated silently to Brackett while she set about taking another set of vitals. His temp had climbed another degree.

The x-rays showed a moderate to severe concussion, as well as a clean break to both bones in his forearm, just below his wrist. The collarbone had two breaks, but Brackett thought it wouldn’t need surgery. He called ortho down to confirm that. There were no other fractures, but bruises aplenty, especially where the straps had been holding him down. While painful, they were a reminder that the stretcher had probably saved his life.

It didn’t take ortho long to come down and they agreed that the collarbone didn’t need surgery. The ortho doctor helped Brackett get Johnny into a shoulder brace to stabilize the collarbone and applied the cast to his other wrist. Johnny was slumbering by this point, helped by a large dose of painkillers. He was then transferred up to a room before he woke up. Dixie supervised the move, then went to find the rest of the crew.

It was no surprise to find them in the break room, peering gloomily into cups of cold coffee. She had seen the routine before and knew, almost to the very seat, where she would find them. Cap and Mike would be either gazing out of the window or sitting at the table. Chet and Marco would be on the sofa, pretending to watch the TV, which would be on a game show or sports match. She smiled to herself; she got it just right.

As Dixie entered, they all looked at the door, their expressions a mixture of hope and resignation. They hoped it would be someone to talk to them, but were resigned that it was another nurse coming for a break. When they realized it was Dixie, they all got to their feet and looked at her.

“Relax,” she smiled. “They’re all going to be fine.” She sat down at the table with them and brought them up to date on Johnny’s condition first, then Roy and Marco. “Roy has three broken ribs as well as a concussion,” she reported. “Marco has a concussion and a huge number of bruises and lacerations. Amazingly, he didn’t break anything, but he’s going to be feeling the effects of the whiplash for a while.”

“Can we see them?” Cap asked.

“Sure, come with me,” Dixie invited. “We put Roy and Marco in the same room. Johnny is being watched a bit more closely, as he has that temperature and ulcerated throat. You’ll need to gown up to see him; you don’t want to catch anything, or give him anything else.”

“Is Joanne here?” Cap asked, for he hadn’t seen her at all.

“She’s with Roy,” Dixie confirmed. “Marco’s mother is here, too.”

“I don’t want to intrude,” Cap demurred.

“You won’t be,” Dix assured him. “They’ll be pleased to see you. Just don’t expect much conversation from them; they are all exhausted.”

True to her word, everyone was pleased to see the rest of the crew. It was clear that Roy and Marco were fighting off sleep, so they didn’t linger. They obediently put on gowns to go in and see Johnny, but the younger man was drugged to the gills and they didn’t try and waken him. After that, they finally headed off for home, almost 30 hours after starting their shift.

It had been a really bad day.

***********

Trying to tell their visitors that they needed to sleep in a nice way was hard, but both Roy and Marco managed it by simply falling asleep. Painkillers and warm food had made life bearable for them both and keeping their eyes open became harder and harder until Roy finally just drifted off. Mrs. Lopez, seeing what had happened to Roy, simply stopped talking and watched her son drift off. She exchanged a slightly watery smile with Joanne. The visits they had received in the late evening of the day before had scared the daylights out of both of them. Mrs. Lopez was just grateful that she hadn’t had to find a babysitter for her children, who were all grown and gone, unlike Joanne, who had had to roust her sister from her bed to come and look after her two young children. Having a firefighter in the family was not an easy thing to live with sometimes.

“I guess I’d better go home,” Joanne ventured at last. She could have sat there all day watching her husband sleep, but for the sake of their children, she knew she had to go home and soothe their fears. “You don’t mind if I bring the children in to see Roy later, do you?”

“Of course not,” Mrs. Lopez assured her. “Marco loves the kids, too.” She smiled at her sleeping son. “Roy will want to see the children as much as they want to see him.” She noticed Joanne was looking anxious. “Joanne, honey, I’m going to be here for a while. I can keep an eye on Roy for you, while you go home to the children.”

“Really? Oh, thank you!” Joanne beamed at the other woman. While she knew it was irrational that she didn’t want to leave Roy alone, it made her no less reluctant to leave. Knowing that there was going to be someone there, watching over him, made her feel more secure.

“Por nada,” Mrs. Lopez dismissed with a wave of her hand. Nevertheless, she was pleased that her offer had gone down so well.

Gathering her bag and jacket, Joanne rose and bent to give Roy a kiss. “I’ll look in on Johnny,” she promised her husband in a whisper. She knew Roy had been worried about him, despite the reports he had received from the doctor.

At the door, Joanne paused and looked back. She hated to leave, having come so close to becoming a widow. Roy face was turned towards her, clean and scrubbed looking. His color was good and he was peaceful. A sob rose in her throat and she had to hurry out of the door before it escaped her control. She only had a few hours to get herself together, to pretend once more to be serene and calm, for the sake of both her husband and children.

It was an effort she hoped Roy would never have to know about until he was safely retired.

**********

When he woke, it took Johnny some time to figure out how long he had been asleep. He was feeling no pain, which was a plus, but he still felt pretty lousy. He swallowed gingerly, but his throat seemed a bit better. Of course, he mused to himself that could be because of the heavy duty painkillers he appeared to be on.

Eventually, the slight sound of movement penetrated his foggy brain and he cracked his eyes open to peer and see who it was. “What’re you… doing here?” he demanded.

“Some welcome,” Chet retorted. “Here I am, giving up a day off to sit by your bedside so I can report back to the others and you don’t want me to be here. Sheesh!”

“Why aren’t the others here?” Johnny wanted to know. He also wanted a drink, but a single attempt to move either arm reminded him that he was helpless. Somehow, he had hoped it was all a dream. He was rather disappointed to realize it wasn’t. He swallowed dryly, which made his throat hurt more. “Water,” he croaked.

“Gage, you need to learn some new lines,” Chet chided him, while picking up the plastic glass on the bedside table that had a straw sticking out of it. “You sound like you’re from an old ‘B’ movie.” He held the glass out while Johnny sipped gratefully.

Indicating he’d had enough, Johnny rested back on the pillows. “All your lines come from a ‘B’ movie,” he shot back, but his heart wasn’t in it. He forced his eyes to stay open. “So where are the others?” His voice still sounded gravelly and it hurt to talk.

“Roy and Marco are a couple of floors down,” Chet replied. He caught Johnny’s alarmed look and put his hand up. “They’re gonna be okay,” he added. “Just a bit banged up and stuff.”

“Stuff?” Johnny whispered.

“Oh, you know, they’re being watched in case they develop a sniffle or something,” Chet replied with an airy wave of dismissal. “Did Doc Early say something about exposure?” He shrugged. “Something like that anyway.”

“You’re a lot of use,” Johnny muttered. Chet beamed at him.

“Thanks,” he replied. He waited for a beat, watching his friend and seeing that Johnny still felt really awful. He decided not to torture him by with-holding information after all, although it would have been fun, and just tell him the news. “Looks like you’re contagious or infectious or something, babe,” he reported.

“What?” While Johnny knew he felt utterly wretched, he honestly didn’t have any idea what Chet was talking about.

“You know how you’ve got a sore throat?” Chet prompted. Johnny nodded. Oh boy, did he! “Well, it seems like you’re spreading it to everyone.”

Frowning, Johnny pointed out, “You’re all right.”

“I have a superior immune system,” Chet boasted. “When we came in to see you earlier, the doc made us wear gowns and masks. But Cap and Mike have already come down with the same thing as you, so they think we’re already infected. I’m tellin’ you, Gage, you’d better not have given it to me.”

“You were my first target,” Johnny replied listlessly. “Oh man.” He swallowed painfully. “I’ve really given this to everyone? I thought it was from the chemical fire.”

Abruptly, Chet sobered. “Actually, it could be,” he admitted. “Seems that chemical plant wasn’t telling us the whole truth about what was burning. We should all have been masked up.”

“There were several engines there,” Johnny pointed out.

“And at least one person from all of them has been in here with the same sore throat as you. But you got sprayed with the stuff and the docs think that’s why you came down with it so much sooner.” He gave Johnny a sympathetic look. “Your exposure to it was worse, so you’re feeling worse.”

Sighing, Johnny wasn’t sure if it was better to have a nasty virus that gave him throat ulcers or chemical exposure that gave him throat ulcers. Neither was exactly appealing and he wouldn’t have wished it on his worst enemy.

“Brackett has admitted all of us for observation,” Chet went on. “Like I say Cap and Mike both have it, but not as bad as you. They’re watching Roy and Marco, too.” He saw the look on Johnny’s face. “Aw, come on, man this isn’t your fault.”

“Sure feels like it,” Johnny sighed. He squirmed slightly and gasped as a bolt of pain shot through his collarbone. He also became aware at that point that he had a Foley fitted. He also realized that he was nude beneath the blankets. Wonderful, he thought sarcastically.

“I’d better go before they send out a search party,” Chet said, seeing that Johnny was in some pain now. “I’ll send in a nurse, will I?” He sketched a quick goodbye and left.

Unsurprisingly, the nurse didn’t return alone. Brackett was with her. He gave Johnny a quick check over and then gave him something for the pain. “Talk to me, doc,” Johnny croaked. “Chet told me…”

“Chet shouldn’t have told you,” Brackett interrupted acerbically. “He was told quite specifically not to tell you anything.”

“He means well,” Johnny sighed.

“Meaning well or not, he shouldn’t have told you.” Brackett sat down. “Okay, the bottom line is this. When you responded to the chemical fire, you were told it was something that wasn’t dangerous. Well, it turns out that was wrong. You seem to have got the worst end of the deal because you got sprayed with it, but everyone who responded to that fire has some symptoms, even your friend who just left here, contrary to whatever he might have told you. Anyone who has symptoms has been admitted because we simply don’t know how this is going to work out. It was quite a mixture of chemicals that hit you. You’re going to be staying here until I am sure that you aren’t going to develop other symptoms. Unfortunately, some of the chemicals can induce symptoms even days after exposure.”

“Aw man,” Johnny moaned. He was starting to drift a bit from the painkillers, but the message was loud and clear – he wasn’t going home any time soon.

“Hopefully, this will be it for you, Johnny,” Brackett soothed. “But we need to keep you here in high dependency until we’re sure.” He patted the paramedic’s leg as he rose. “Meanwhile, you get some sleep.”

It occurred to Johnny that perhaps there was something more in the shot he had been given than just painkillers, but he was too groggy to make a verbal protest. Within moments, he was asleep again.

***********

When Johnny woke again later that day, his voice had gone completely. He felt like he had the worst cold of his whole life, for his nose felt blocked and his ears seemed to be stuffed with cotton wool and his head ached relentlessly. The worst part was that his whole body ached, particularly his joints. He was by turns hot and cold, shivering and sweating. He pressed the call button, deciding he had the flu.

Again, his nurse was accompanied by Dr Brackett. “It’s not the flu,” Brackett told him. “The symptoms are very similar, but we’ve checked your blood and you don’t have any strain of the flu virus in your bloodstream. I’m sorry, Johnny, but this is from the chemical exposure.”

Immensely frustrating as it was to be handicapped by the injuries to his arms, it was even more frustrating to not be able to talk, to ask questions, to tell them how he felt. Damn, he couldn’t even write something – his right arm was in a cast to virtually his fingertips. It was at that point that it occurred to him to wonder how Brackett had known that he thought he had the flu and he frowned.

A smile twitched across Brackett’s face. “I’m not a mind reader,” he joked, but seeing the expression on Johnny’s face, he made a moue. “Well, maybe I am. Either that, or Dixie is rubbing off on me. Anyway, I guessed how you are feeling because Captain Stanley told me he feels like he is coming down with a dose of the flu; aching joints, hot and cold, stuffy head?” At each symptom, Johnny nodded gingerly. His own head still ached in a way he would as soon forget. Moving it hurt not only his head but his broken collarbone, too.

“The next set of symptoms isn’t very nice either,” Brackett told him. “You’ll probably suffer from heart palpitations and possibly shortness of breath. Your blood pressure will probably go up, too. We’re going to set you up with a heart and BP monitor. We’ll put you back on oxygen, too.” Brackett could clearly read the apprehension – if not downright fear – in Johnny’s face. “It’s not life threatening,” he assured his worried patient, “but it is something we need to keep an eye on.” He kept his eyes on Johnny’s face while the younger man processed all the information. “We’ll treat the symptoms, which is all we can do and you’ll be fine.”

Again, Johnny nodded, but his heart was sinking. He’d suffered from all those things in the past and he had no desire to experience them again. Heart palpitations were scary and the thought of high blood pressure when his head was already aching was just a nightmare. And oxygen? Was he going to become short of breath? What about his friends? How ill were they really? He had no way of finding out, tethered to the bed as he was.

“Do you feel like eating something?” Brackett asked.

The answer was not really, but Johnny knew that if he ate something he would get rid of the IV currently embedded in his upper arm, so he nodded once more. His thoughts showed in his face, though, and Brackett sighed. “The IV has to stay,” he told the unhappy patient. “We need to keep a close check on your kidney function.”

Johnny’s eyes opened wide. Kidney function? What else was going to be wrong with him? He looked at Brackett, willing the doctor to read his mind this time and tell him everything.

“Calm down, Johnny,” Brackett ordered as he saw the panic mounting. “You’ve got a huge bruise on your back that has only come up in the last few hours and there has been a trace of blood in your urine. I’m sure it’s just a slight bruise on the kidney, but obviously we need to keep an eye on it.”

Calm down? Johnny wondered wildly how the doctor could think he could be calm after having all this bad news flung at him. He could feel himself panting as Brackett turned away and started issuing orders to the nurse. Were the others going through the same things as him? Were they, as Brackett had implied, not too badly off? Or was Brackett withholding information so that Johnny wouldn’t worry?

He startled as the blankets were pulled down and the nurse started to place the electrodes for the heart monitor on his chest. Her hands were cold and she worked without speaking or making eye contact. That suited Johnny just fine. He couldn’t speak anyway and right now he didn’t need any platitudes about calming down.

The monitor was switched on and immediately Johnny’s heart rate began to beep frantically to the world. Brackett turned the volume down on the machine and turned to his patient. “Johnny, calm down,” he soothed. “You’re going to be fine.”

His words had the opposite effect to what he had hoped. Instead of a slowing of the heart rate, the speed increased. Brackett cursed himself. He had clearly provided too much information too quickly and probably not told Johnny something he wanted to know. The problem was that Brackett really wasn’t a mind reader. He genuinely didn’t know what it was that had upset Johnny so much. He knew that the symptoms he had described to the injured paramedic were unpleasant, but he honestly hadn’t expected Johnny to react like this. The nurse wasn’t much use either, as she seemed to be suffering from a severe case of ‘Brackettitis’. Where was Dixie when he needed her? Oh yes, it was her day off.

However, a few moments later, after more useless entreaties and cajoling, the door opened to admit someone who might be able to resolve the situation; Joanne DeSoto. She took in the situation with a glance and hurried over. “What’s wrong, Johnny?” she asked, leaning over to kiss his cheek. “Are you not feeling well? Have the symptoms started already?” She glanced at Dr Brackett for a clue, but he just shrugged helplessly. “Johnny, if you don’t calm down, Roy’s going to have to come up here and he’s sleeping right now. It wouldn’t be fair to waken him, now would it?” She smiled down at her friend. He was looking at her, listening intently and she could see the question in his eyes. “He’s doing fine,” she assured Johnny. “He’ll be up to visit a bit later on. Marco is probably going home in the morning, if he doesn’t develop any other symptoms, but he’s bright eyed and bushy tailed right now, so I’m pretty sure he’ll be fine.”

As Joanne spoke, the beeping on the monitor began to slow. “Cap and Mike aren’t feeling too good right now,” she went on, “but I’m told their symptoms are mild. Sore throats, but not on the scale of yours; they can still talk.” She waited a beat then added, “As far as we know, that is. With Mike, you can never be sure.”

The ploy worked. Johnny looked at her with his mouth wide open for a minute, and then a broad grin spread across his face. His heart rate had dropped almost to normal. Brackett gave Joanne a look of undying gratitude, then gestured to the nurse to continue on with her work. Joanne was clearly there to visit for a while and Johnny would be in good hands. He made a discreet exit a few minutes later when Johnny was completely calmed down.

The visit from Joanne was exactly what Johnny had needed. She brought him up to date with everyone and didn’t embellish the stories the way Chet always did. She repeated her assurance that Roy would be up to see him later, once he had woken up. He had only been allowed out of bed that morning for the first time and was still slightly dizzy when upright. His ribs were very sore, too and the medication he was getting for them made him sleepy.

The nurse showed up with a tray for Johnny, and Joanne fed him in a very matter of fact manner, which left no room for embarrassment. He was hungrier than he had expected and the soup, soft roll and jello were tasty. Once he had finished, Joanne washed his face for him and settled him more comfortably into bed, turning the pillows so the cool side was against his hot skin and tucking the blankets in securely to protect his modesty. The food and her motherly fussing soothed him into sleep.

***********

He had been awake for a while when the door opened. Reluctantly, Johnny opened his eyes, expecting to see his nurse coming to take his blood pressure again. One of the disadvantages to being a firefighter was that you roused at every sound and Johnny’s sleep had been fragmented at best. He was unable to get his displeasure across and so had to endure her coming in every hour. He thought it was small wonder that his BP was rising. His short temper was probably as much to blame as the chemical exposure. However, his ill temper dissipated in seconds as he saw his partner being pushed into the room.

“Hi, Johnny,” Roy smiled. The orderly pushing him parked the wheelchair beside the bed and left. Roy studied his partner critically. “You don’t look as bad as I thought you might,” he commented. “You’ve got a bit of color in your cheeks, and I don’t just mean because of the fever. Overall, your color looks better. Do you feel any better?”

While it was a ‘yes or no’ question, Johnny didn’t have a yes or no answer. He wanted to say “It depends.” He felt less ill in some ways than he had, but put that down to the nausea from the concussion clearing up and being able to eat. He felt pretty miserable otherwise, what with the headache, palpitations and temperature. The problem was he couldn’t say that; he couldn’t even shrug. Instead, he made a face.

As ever, Roy understood. “Oh,” he muttered and sighed. “I hoped you were feeling much better.” He looked up at his friend with sympathy. Johnny raised a questioning eyebrow. Roy colored. “Yeah, the ribs are pretty sore,” he agreed. “But the doc is giving me good drugs to help.” They both smiled.

While it was more difficult for them to have a ‘conversation’ when Johnny couldn’t speak, it didn’t hamper them the way it would have done other people. They were accustomed to communicating silently in front of patients. A sick or injured person didn’t need to know if the situation they found themselves in was tricky for the rescuers, so they had developed, unconsciously, glances and raised eyebrows and other myriad little clues that allowed them to exchange information non-verbally. So it was that Roy was able to satisfy John’s worry about the other members of the crew.

By the time the orderly came back for Roy, both men were tired and sore, although neither of them would have admitted it. Johnny just wanted to sleep, for the heart palpitations were horrible to endure and fighting down panic, which made the palpitations worse, was hard work.

However, sleep was not to be just yet. The nurse came in and insisted on giving Johnny a bed bath and by the time she had finished and changed the sheets, he was more than tired; he was totally wrung out. He desperately wanted her to go away, but she was only out of the room for a few moments and returned with his dinner tray. It looked and smelt utterly unappetizing and he really didn’t want to eat it, whatever it was. His appetite was still nowhere near normal and the mess on the plate just soured it even further.

Unfortunately, there was no way to communicate he wasn’t hungry apart from to turn his face away and the nurse wasn’t having that. “You’ve got to eat, Mr. Gage,” she reminded him. “If you don’t eat this, I’ll get the on-call resident down and we’ll place an NG tube and force feed you.”

That was an unpleasant thought, and Johnny reluctantly opened his mouth to allow the nurse to put the first forkful in. He was in no position to resist should they decide to place the NG tube and Johnny couldn’t even call for help from anybody who might argue his case for him. It wasn’t long before he was feeling full, but there seemed to be endless amounts of the gravy-smothered… whatever. As he chewed another mouthful, Johnny suddenly realized he was going to be sick – and he couldn’t tell the nurse.

Frantically, he tried to tell her, but she was oblivious. Johnny couldn’t hold on any longer. As he vomited violently, he was vaguely aware of the door opening.

**********

“It could have been worse,” Brackett commented, looking down on his sleeping patient. Brackett had come into the room just as Johnny had vomited all over his nurse. He had called for more help and rushed over to do what he could, supporting Johnny as he vomited helplessly over and over until his stomach was empty and he was just enduring dry heaves.

It had taken several minutes for Johnny to get his gag reflex under control and by then, Brackett had had a nurse administer an anti-emetic to help settle his stomach. They quickly got him cleaned up and the sheets changed and then Brackett had given him a mild sedative. Combined with the lack of sleep and the anti-emetic, Johnny was asleep a short time later.

“It could?” Dixie asked. She had arrived just at the end of the crisis, in time to hold Johnny’s fingertips gingerly as he settled into sleep. “How?”

“He didn’t aspirate,” Brackett replied bluntly.

“I suppose,” Dixie allowed grudgingly. “But how come Johnny always seems to end up with the nasty nurses or the inexperienced nurses or the just plain stupid ones? Bad luck? Or should the administration look at the staff and start weeding out the duds?”

“I don’t know the answer to that one,” Brackett sighed. “I can’t possibly know all the nurses in the hospital. It’s a big place. Come on, Dix, even you don’t know them all.”

“True,” she admitted reluctantly. “But Johnny’s experiences make me wonder if we should do some kind of poll among the former patients to find out what their nurses were like.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Brackett agreed.

“Johnny can’t be the only patient to find themselves in the unenviable position of not being able to talk or communicate easily,” Dixie commented. “The nurses need to learn to pay more attention.” Dixie made a face. “However, you can’t leave Johnny here.”

“He needs to be in high dependency,” Brackett argued. “We can’t move him to another floor until he’s stable and off the monitors.” Johnny’s heart rate was currently good and his BP had dropped after the drugs he’d been given for that earlier in the day. “It could be another few days.”

“Then you’re going to have to move someone in to watch him,” Dixie informed her friend in a ‘no nonsense’ tone. “Next time, Johnny might not be so lucky. He could have died.”

“What do you have in mind?” Brackett asked, knowing that Dixie was not going to budge on this and that he would give in sooner or later. Sooner meant less work-out for his eardrums.

“I’m sure you can guess,” Dixie smiled. She waited while he thought for a moment, then nodded.

“Yes, Roy’s going to be here for another couple of days,” Brackett agreed. “I’ll get him moved up here.” He paused. “I’d better phone Joanne DeSoto and inform her of the changes, or else I’ll get an ear bashing from someone else.”

Dixie smiled fondly. “At least you’re a moderately fast learner.”

“Thanks… I think.”

**********

When Johnny’s eyes finally opened the next morning, he felt completely and utterly hung over and knew without doubt that he had been sedated – and more than once. It was daylight and the sun came into the room at a different angle in the morning than it did in the afternoon and Johnny looked with particular displeasure at the shaft of sunlight striking the opposite wall. He hated when he was drugged like that.

“Oh stop scowling, you’ll get over it,” a familiar voice chided him.

Stunned, Johnny turned his head and gazed open mouthed at his partner. His lips moved, but no sound came out. Roy, however, needed no interpretation. “Don’t panic,” he advised his friend. “I’m perfectly fine. You, on the other hand, don’t seem to be doing so well, considering what happened yesterday, so Dixie hatched a plan to move me in here with you until I get to go home. Marco goes home this morning, so I wouldn’t have had a roomie either, so it made sense to clear a room and move us in together. Joanne thinks it’s a good idea, too. She doesn’t have to keep going up and down stairs to visit.”

As there was literally nothing Johnny could say, there was no point in getting indignant. He did huff a bit; there was no point in showing he was actually pleased too soon. He had to put up a bit of a show. He glanced at Roy. His partner was smiling and Johnny knew that Roy wasn’t fooled at all. Johnny stuck his tongue out. When you couldn’t speak or shrug, that was a mature, adult response, he decided.

Their breakfast arrived a few minutes later. The nurse that Johnny had thrown up on so spectacularly yesterday gingerly placed the tray on Johnny’s table and forced herself to meet his eyes. “I am so sorry about yesterday,” she apologized. “I should have noticed you weren’t feeling too good. Are you feeling like eating this morning?”

Rather embarrassed by both the apology and the memory, Johnny simply nodded. He knew that anything he was offered to eat would be bland until they saw if he was keeping anything down. He was further mortified when the heart monitor betrayed his anxiety, but the nurse had learned from the previous day and Johnny managed to eat most of the oatmeal that had been brought.

After breakfast had been cleared, drugs administered, bed bath and shower taken and the men were relaxing again, Roy told Johnny that Cap, Mike, Marco and Chet would be coming to see them later in the morning. Chet had never developed any symptoms beyond a slight sniffle. Cap and Mike had had mild palpitations, but those had not lasted for more than a couple of hours. Marco had not had any symptoms at all and now that his concussion was resolving, he could go home and nurse his whiplash in comfort. Roy was still suffering a good deal of discomfort from his ribs and wouldn’t be going home until he was able to manage on milder painkillers, which was still a few days away. Johnny, who had had a couple of bouts of palpitations as the nurses freshened him up, would also still be there for some time. Going home was out of the question while he was still unable to use his hands.

When the others arrived at 11am, Johnny had managed to fit in a nap and was awake and eager to see his shift mates. He had been quite isolated before Roy’s arrival. While it was frustrating not to be able to communicate, he enjoyed the banter and it was reassuring to see that everyone was feeling all right again.

“When do you guys get out of here?” Cap asked, just as the others were preparing to leave.

“A few more days,” Roy replied. “It depends on how Johnny’s symptoms are, but the nurse said the palpitations are slowly starting to withdraw and his BP is normal without drugs now, so that’s a big step forward.” That was news to Johnny, so he surmised that conversation had taken place after he fell asleep. However, he knew he wouldn’t be going home then and his face fell and he looked away, suddenly feeling intensely lonely. Roy, however, kept right on talking, not noticing his partner’s reaction. Or maybe he had. “Johnny’s coming home with us,” he told the others. “He can’t manage alone, and I’m going to be off for a good while with these ribs, so I can keep an eye on him. With luck, we should be back about the same time.”

Startled by that announcement, Johnny turned his head and shot Roy a glare. Nobody had asked him about this. Roy met his gaze with a bland expression and everyone else looked between the two, just waiting for the reaction they knew was coming.

It took a beat longer than they expected, but there it was. A big grin spread over Johnny’s face and he mouthed the words ‘thank you’.

Yes, it was nice to see that some things could be relied upon in this world.

**********

Over the next few days, Johnny’s symptoms gradually died down and disappeared. The ulcers in his throat healed up and he was able to enjoy his food and set about regaining the weight he had lost with a vengeance. Joanne quickly learned not to visit unless she brought something for him to eat, whether it was a burger from a fast food joint or something she had made herself. It was still embarrassing and frustrating for Johnny to have to be fed, but he accepted it with as much grace as he could manage, which some days was not very much at all.

Roy went home two days before Johnny was released. He had been kept an extra day simply to keep Johnny company, although Johnny hadn’t been told that. He would have been horrified to think that Roy had to stay an extra day in hospital because of him, and that was the reason he wasn’t told.

By then, Johnny was up and about again, which made a big difference to his overall demeanor and he was figuring out ways to do things without having to rely on others all the time. Independence was Johnny’s middle name, Roy often joked, and having some independence, especially when it came to certain bodily functions, made a big difference.

He missed Roy for the two days he was alone, but they passed quickly enough with visits from various fire fighting friends. Roy arrived bright and early with some of Johnny’s clothes and set about dressing his friend in a matter of fact, casual manner that Johnny appreciated. Dixie came with the wheelchair for him to go downstairs and he was given some painkillers in case he needed them, but he was pretty much off the meds by then.

It felt great to be out in the fresh air after 10 days in hospital. Joanne was driving, as Roy still wasn’t supposed to, but it was Roy who helped Johnny out of the car and into the house at the other end. It was a pleasant day and before long, Johnny found himself settled into a chair on the deck with a drink and snack close at hand. He was now able to use the fingers of his right hand to hold things and since discarding the sling – although it still hung around his neck in case of spot checks – he could manage to do a lot more. Joanne wanted to disapprove, but she could see that this little bit of independence was important, so bit her tongue.

Being with the family was good for Johnny and he healed quickly. He stayed with them for five weeks, and by then his collarbone had healed and his wrist had only another week in the cast. He was glad to get back to his own apartment. However much he loved spending time with the DeSotos, he liked his own company too and sleeping in his own bed and wandering around only in boxers and sleeping nude if that was how he felt was very nice. He didn’t have to endure hours of children’s TV, or watch the soaps with Joanne or a football match where he had no interest in either team. He didn’t have to play Barbies with Jen or cars with Chris.

In short; it was home.

**********

It was another two weeks after he got his cast off before Johnny was back at work. He had spent the time hiking, pushing himself to build up his fitness again. As he parked his Rover in his usual space, he thought how good it was to be back so he could forget about the chemical fire that had caused all the anguish.

But it wasn’t going to be that easy to forget. The fire department had started legal proceedings against the chemical company, pointing out the danger the fire fighters had been put into and the chemical company was claiming that they hadn’t told the fire fighters that the chemical that was leaking was harmless. As several of Station 51’s men had heard the foreman say so, it seemed that the chemical company would be paying money out, but in the meantime, a court date had been set and all the crew were expected to attend in dress uniform in case they were called upon to testify in.

The police had also found the driver who had run the ambulance off the road. Several public appeals for information had been made in the weeks since the ambulance crash and they had finally received an anonymous tip-off and when they had called at the man’s home, his unsuspecting wife had confirmed her husband had gone into town about the time of the accident. The only route from their home to the freeway was via the road the ambulance had taken. A close examination of the family cars had found paint matching the ambulance on one of them and the husband had been arrested. He had been charged with vehicular manslaughter, grievous bodily harm and not giving way to an emergency vehicle. He was currently locked up and screaming his innocence and a court date had been set for that, too.

It wasn’t the return to work that Johnny had hoped for. He wanted to put all of it behind him and hope that the memories would fade into a colorless blur that he wouldn’t bother recalling. There was small hope of that with two court cases hanging over his head. Johnny wandered around all day as though he had a dark cloud hovering over his head. Roy and Marco felt down, too, but being of a less volatile nature than Johnny, they were slightly more resigned to the idea.

Working again was good, though, Johnny had to admit. He had been bored while he had been off and he loved his job. He tried to shove the court cases to the back of his mind and he succeeded on runs, although the thoughts crept back when they had down time and on their off days.

They were on their last shift before the chemical company case came to court. Johnny was really down. He would be questioned about the symptoms he had endured and the state of the valve that he had been closing when it had ruptured and sprayed him. He hated having to testify; it was bad enough when he was just there as an impartial witness. Being one of the victims was likely to make him even more tongue-tied than he usually was on the stand. He often felt like a complete clod when he gave evidence.

It was a quiet morning with no calls so far. Johnny had been assigned the dorm and he had heard the phone ringing as he started, but it had been quiet since then. He allowed his mind to wander as he stripped off the sheets and blankets and he was startled when Cap came in and said his name.

“Cap is something wrong?” he asked, seeing his superior’s serious face.

“No, but I thought I would talk to you first,” Cap replied. “That was headquarters on the phone. The chemical company has agreed to settle out of court, but the department needs your consent to do that.”

“Mine? Why?” Johnny was genuinely puzzled.

“Because you were injured the most seriously by that spillage. You have grounds to sue them and if the judge awarded enough money in damages, they could go out of business. They are agreeing to make an out of court settlement if you will agree not to go ahead with a private action against them.”

Dumbfounded, Johnny just looked at Cap for a minute. They couldn’t settle unless he agreed? Johnny could hardly believe it. He had simply thought he was a small cog in the court case, not the major player he now found himself to be. He had no desire to testify against the company. He hoped that they would tighten up their safety procedures, but he didn’t want to be dragged through the court system fighting them. “That’s fine by me, Cap,” he agreed. It was so fine by him that he felt his legs shaking with relief and knew he would have to sit down for a moment to savor the feeling of freedom that had just swept over him.

Cap eyed him knowingly. “Sit down, Gage, and I’ll get your partner to take a look at you. You’re awfully pale all of a sudden.” He pushed Johnny down onto the nearest bunk and left, pretty sure that Johnny hadn’t heard the last sentence at all.

***********

Johnny wasn’t the only one relieved; they all were. Life could go on again as normal, except that the date for the second court case was drawing closer and suddenly it was the following week and Johnny was once more dragging at his chores around the station and answering questions monosyllabically if at all.

“Gee, I think I preferred it when Gage had no voice,” Chet remarked to Marco after Johnny snapped at him for asking if he wanted milk with his meal. “He was nicer then.”

“Cut him some slack,” Marco advised. He was aware that Chet was being quite circumspect, as the Phantom had not made an appearance lately. Normally, Chet would be bombarding Johnny with pranks and that would have been a disaster in Marco’s mind. He didn’t know if someone had taken Chet aside and given him a strong hint, but whatever the reason, Marco was grateful for it. He was pretty nervous about the court case, too.

While Chet could take insensitivity to whole new levels never dreamed of by the lexicographers who compiled the definitions in a dictionary, he was sometimes aware of what was going on and this was one of those times. He remembered all too vividly what the crashed ambulance had looked like and the two dead men in the cab. He really thought his shift mates had died in that wreck and if it haunted him, he shuddered to think what it must have been like – and probably still was like – for the three men who had endured it. No, this was not a time for pranks. The tones went off.

Six hours later they returned to the barn, wet, dirty, smelling of smoke and very hungry and found a police detective waiting for them in the day room. Cap quickly dispatched Roy, Marco and Johnny to shower and change and he put on a pot of coffee to warm them through while they waited for their turn in the single shower (Cap always wondered which cretin had thought one shower and six dirty firemen made for a good mix) and made polite conversation with the detective as they waited.

Soon enough, the three men appeared back in the day room. Reluctantly, Cap ushered Chet and Mike out and yanked Chet away from listening at the door and literally stood over him while he showered and changed. They headed back out into the bay as they heard Roy bidding goodbye to the cop. Curiosity eating them alive, they crowded into the day room.

Marco was at the cooker, chopping red pepper into something that smelt delicious. The Hispanic man found cooking a real stress reliever and the station had often benefited from Marco trying to unwind. Roy slumped down in a chair at the table when he came back and Johnny had his head on the table, buried in his arms. Roy put a hand on his back, but the other man barely even twitched.

“What is it?” Cap asked. “Bad news?” He was highly concerned.

“No, I suppose you could say it's good news,” Roy replied after a moment’s thought. “Well, for us that is.”

“So what is it?” Chet piped up when Roy said no more.

“The guy has admitted to running the ambulance off the road,” replied the senior paramedic. “We don’t have to go to court.”

“That is good news – isn’t it?” Cap queried, perplexed.

“It seems that the guy has admitted it because his son came forward and confessed to being in the car with his father at the time. Seems the kid’s been having some real problems since then and finally went to the cops. He probably made the phone call that gave them the initial tip-off.” This was said by Johnny, who raised his head to speak before planting it once more within the security of his arms.

“We wanted the truth,” Marco added from the cooker. “But not like that. That poor kid; being a reluctant witness to something like that and then not knowing what was best to do. He told the truth, but it tore apart his family. Yet keeping quiet tore him apart.”

“Perhaps now that he’s done the right thing, he can find some peace,” Roy suggested. He didn’t sound convinced.

There wasn’t much to say after that. Marco carried on cooking; Johnny got up and went outside and they heard the basketball bouncing. Roy went into the dorm and called Joanne. Cap went into the office to push some paperwork around. Mike polished the engine and Chet sat at the table and filled in the crossword puzzle in the paper with random letters.

When they sat down to Marco’s meal, the tension that had filled the air had dissipated. Johnny looked a lot more relaxed, and everyone else seemed to take their cue from him. They talked quietly while they ate and the tones remained mercifully silent. After the meal, Mike and Chet headed to do the washing up, and Johnny went into the dorm, Roy following close behind.

After a minute, making sure that Marco was all right, Cap followed his paramedics. Johnny was sprawled in an untidy heap on his bunk and Roy was sitting near the foot. They weren’t speaking.

“You guys all right?” Cap asked.

“We’re getting there,” Roy agreed.

“Sure?” Cap wanted to be certain that they were both all right.

“I think it’s just the relief that it’s all finally over,” Johnny said, sitting up a bit. “I feel heart sorry for that kid, but I think it’s just that we can finally all move on and forget about it as best we can.” He looked up and met Cap’s eyes. “And then we can say ‘That was a Really Bad Day’.”

After a startled moment, Cap began to laugh. Roy and Johnny exchanged a glance and then joined in. Their hysteria was catching and it was only a few moments before the whole crew was sniggering about their ‘Really Bad Day’.

*****End*****

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