The House

By Rona

 

The house was a gem. Well, it would be a gem, once it was fixed up. At the moment, it was an unloved, tattered shell, but the rooms were generous and the roof was sound. It was wind and water tight and just needed some TLC.

 

Plus, it was a bargain.

 

That was a huge part of the attraction. John Gage stood at the side of the driveway and looked at the house he had just bought. It was ranch style, two floors and had a basement, too. There was a slightly dilapidated barn nearby with a lean-to carport. A small paddock lay behind it, just visible from the angle Johnny was standing. The whole thing ran to just under two acres. Never in a million years did Johnny ever think that he would be able to afford something like this, but here he was, the proud owner.

 

Getting back into the Rover, Johnny drove the last couple of hundred yards to park beside the house. He had neighbors fairly close, but he hadn’t met any of them yet. There would be time enough to introduce himself when he was moved in. He had already cancelled the lease on his apartment and he had to clean the house today so that it was fit for him to move into tomorrow. He would work on the renovations once he was in and settled. Cleanliness was the main thing just now.

 

The wood on the porch and windows needed to be stained. Likely the eaves needed doing too. Johnny unlocked the door and stepped into the small hallway where he would leave his jacket and shoes if it was wet. A door from the hall opened into the great room and Johnny stopped just inside.

 

It was a fairly large room with an open fire at one end. The stone fireplace reminded him vaguely of the one from the TV show ‘Bonanza’. The sweep had been out and swept the chimney yesterday. He would be safe to light a fire.

 

The great room led into a kitchen. It was fitted out with wooden cabinets. They weren’t perhaps the most modern of designs, but Johnny liked them. They provided a rustic feel and weren’t overtly feminine, unlike some kitchens he had seen on his house viewings. He was having a new stove and fridge-freezer delivered the next day. He had never owned those items before, having lived in apartments all his adult life. The previous owners had left the built in dishwasher. There was a door leading to the outside and back of the house, where there was another porch, overlooking the paddock.

 

There was a cloakroom on the ground floor, too, as well as a large storage cupboard. Johnny mounted the stairs and went up to look at the bedrooms. There were three, although the third was pretty small. Still, it would hold a single bed and that was what counted. The master looked out onto the side of the house, over the paddock and barn and also had windows to the front of the property. It boasted an en-suite shower room, which Johnny was very pleased with. The master bath was on that floor, as well. Above, there was a partially floored attic with lots of storage space. Johnny hoped to convert it into a bedroom suite someday.

 

It was a house designed for a family and Johnny hoped that one day, he could bring a bride here. He hadn’t met anyone special yet, but he never gave up hope.

 

Smiling, he returned downstairs and went out to get the bucket, mop and brush from his car. He swept the floor while the water was heating, setting the central heating system to heat the water every day. It had been checked out before he bought the house, as replacing the heating system would be beyond his slender budget.

 

He had just started washing the floor when he heard a car outside. Looking out, he saw it was Roy, who had promised to come over and help. It was Roy’s first visit, and Johnny felt a pang of anxiety. What if Roy didn’t like the house? Not that it would make any difference; Johnny had already bought it, but he wanted his friend to like it, to feel as at home there as Johnny did in Roy’s house. He opened the door.

 

“What a beautiful place,” Roy said. “Far enough away to have some land, but not so far that you’ll be commuting for more hours than you work.”

 

“I thought exaggeration was my department,” Johnny wise-cracked, relief flooding his body.

 

“I’m having a turn today,” jibed Roy, grinning. He willingly allowed Johnny to give him the 50 cent tour of the place, nodding as Johnny told him of the changes he wanted to make. It was a lovely house, and would be lovelier when Johnny had finished all the renovations.

 

Once the tour was over, they set to work companionably washing all the floors, cleaning the windows and scrubbing out the kitchen cabinets and toilets. “This is just like being at work,” Roy complained, as he poured bleach down the sink.

 

“Except I don’t have a hose tower out the back,” Johnny replied. “And Chet isn’t here to make snide comments.” Johnny thought it might be a while before he asked Chet to come over. He was feeling naturally protective of his new home and didn’t want the Irishman’s quirky sense of humor to tarnish his feelings of pride. He knew Chet didn’t mean any harm, but he sometimes didn’t know when to keep quiet.

 

“You do realize, don’t you,” Roy began, “that all the station barbeques are going to be held here from now on? You’ve got enough space that the kids can run riot without us listening to the screaming at close quarters.”

 

“Is that an official Station 51 directive?” Johnny asked, grinning broadly as he handed Roy a soda from the cooler. All the downstairs rooms had been cleaned now.

 

“I’m sure it will be the moment Cap sets eyes on the place,” Roy agreed. He opened the can and held it up. “Cheers and here’s to your new place.”

 

“Thanks,” Johnny blushed, clinking his can against Roy’s.

 

Finishing their drinks and replenishing the water, they moved upstairs. “Are you going to touch up the floorboards?” Roy asked. They weren’t particularly pretty, but replacing them would cost a fortune that Roy knew Johnny didn’t have. That he owned the house at all was solely down to the sudden death of his aunt. She had left everything to Johnny, including her life insurance and all the money he had sent to her since he started earning. All in all, it was a tidy sum and had been enough to pay a large chunk of this house. His savings had done the rest.

 

“Eventually, I’m going to carpet the place,” Johnny replied. “Floorboards are all well and good, but they don’t deaden the noise and the house is warmer with a carpet.” He knew that keeping the house warm wasn’t a huge consideration in LA, but having grown up in Montana in a house without carpets, he knew about noise and warmth. “I’ve got some big rugs out in the car to put down when we finish tonight. Then the furniture can just go right on top tomorrow.”

 

“Good idea,” Roy agreed. While he hated the shag carpeting that ran riot through his own home, replacing it was not on the agenda until both his kids had gone through college. But Johnny was right about it deadening the noise of children. He sincerely hoped that Johnny would one day have kids of his own to run through this house.

 

It didn’t take them long to finish up. Johnny got the rugs from the car. He had bought them in a market just a few days before and their colors were worn enough to be subtle, but still bright enough to inject warmth into the house. Johnny looked around with satisfaction before he locked up for the night.

 

The next day, he was moving in.

 

***********

 

He didn’t have all that much stuff to move in. The store delivered his new stove and fridge/freezer, doing the necessary connection work and checking that they both worked before getting Johnny to sign the delivery note and leaving. He had bought a new suite for the house, as his last couch had springs poking through the fabric and he had picked up a pine kitchen table and some chairs at a flea market. The seller was bringing them over later. He had dismantled his bed that morning in the apartment, and then loaded the bits into the back of the Rover. His old but lovingly restored coffee table had also made the trip from the apartment, wrapped in some bedding. Apart from that, most of what he had were bookcases, books, crockery, cutlery and pots and pans. Anything else he needed, he would pick up as and when he could afford it. Johnny knew he was lucky to be mortgage free, but the renovations would cost a fair bit and his salary was not growing very fast. He wasn’t going to get into debt.

 

With an hour or two to wait for the kitchen table to arrive, Johnny finished unloading the stuff in the Rover and returned to his apartment for the last few items. One of his neighbors saw him struggling with a bookcase and gave him a hand, wishing Johnny well in his new home. Johnny was more than grateful; he had felt a vague twinge in his shoulder as he struggled downstairs carrying the bookcase. Another couple of trips saw the apartment empty and Johnny stood looking at it for a moment or two. He had been happy there, but he knew he was going to be even happier in his new home.

 

Without a single regret, Johnny closed the door on his old life and headed out towards the new one.

 

***********

 

Deciding exactly where he was going to place everything was the best fun – this time. From past experience, Johnny knew that moving furniture was a real chore, but this time, it was a pleasure. He had never had so much space and his few possessions looked even fewer in the house, but he didn’t mind. He would fill the spaces gradually.

 

Once he had the suite exactly where he wanted it, he set up the TV and stereo and reflected that he could have his music pretty much as loud as he wanted now, without having someone banging on the wall to make him turn it down. He plugged in the phone and smiled. Now he was in contact with the outside world again and he just hoped that the first phone call he got in his new home was not one asking him to go in to work to cover for someone.

 

With the great room looking pretty much as he wanted, his next priority was the bedroom. He set to building up the bed, which was much easier to do with two people, but Johnny was pretty ingenious when he needed to be and before too long, the bed was built and he was making it up with fresh sheets. He hung the blackout blinds he had ordered for the windows, as he quite often slept during the day if he had been working all night, so they were a priority. Other curtains and blinds could wait.

 

With the bed made to his satisfaction, Johnny tackled the suitcases containing his clothes and had them unpacked and put away in no time. The towels went in the hall closet and he dumped the empty suitcases and boxes into the smallest bedroom for the time being. He would stow them in the loft at a later date when someone was here to help him.

 

The doorbell rang as he walked downstairs and he startled, for the last thing he expected was company. He glanced at his watch and saw that it was almost 5pm. He would have to hustle if he wanted to get to the grocery store before it closed. His supplies of food consisted of a can of beans and another of hot dogs. That wasn’t going to last for long.

 

He hurried down the last few stairs and opened the front door. It was hardly a surprise to see the DeSoto clan on the doorstep. Jenny was grinning at him fit to burst and Chris was in much the same state. “Surprise, Uncle Johnny!” they chorused and flung themselves on him.

 

“What are you doing here?” he asked, hugging the children back. “Come on in.”

 

Grinning almost as much as the children, Joanne stepped inside and hugged Johnny. “Oh it’s beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Johnny, you are so lucky!”

 

Roy followed, laden with a large box. Johnny cast him a quizzical look. “Are you moving in, Pally?” he teased.

 

“We all are,” Roy teased back. The kids let out a cheer, which Joanne shushed. “This is your house warming.”

 

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

 

“Yes we did, so shush,” Joanne scolded mildly. She linked her arm through his. “Look at your gifts, then you can show me around.” She pulled Johnny over to the suite, and the kids came and stood on either side of him, their excitement palpable.

 

“Me first!” Jenny begged and the others nodded. She reached carefully into the box and pulled out a wrapped parcel. Johnny could tell she had done it herself, as it was pretty messy, but Jenny was only just learning to wrap and Johnny was enchanted.

 

“Thank you,” he smiled and set it carefully on his knee to unwrap it. Inside, carefully protected by bubble wrap, was a statuette of a deer and fawn. It was beautifully done and couldn’t have been cheap. He looked up. “That is beautiful,” he declared. “I love it.” He leaned over to kiss Jenny’s cheek to hide the tears that welled in his eyes. Over the years, Johnny had learned to accept gifts gracefully, understanding that they were tokens of the love and affection others felt for him, but it still wasn’t easy to do. While he knew perfectly well that Roy and Joanne had paid for the majority of the ornament, he was certain that Jenny had saved up and contributed towards it and he was moved. He was pretty sure the little girl had chosen it herself, as she knew that Johnny loved deer and had often mentioned them and told her stories from his background that involved the graceful creatures.

 

“My turn,” Chris declared and everyone smiled.

 

Carefully setting down the ornament Jenny had given him, Johnny turned his attention to Chris. The boy picked up another package from the box and handed it to Johnny. It felt solid and when Johnny opened it, he found it was a piece of carved wood. Chris had started carving the previous year and had become very good at it. For someone of only 12 years old, he had a lot of skill. This piece had a tree blooming up one side and over the top, with some grass and hills carved, creating a tranquil scene. Lines etched over the hills suggested a sunrise or sunset.

 

“Chris, this is amazing, thank you.” Johnny could barely find the words. He pulled Chris into a hug, forgetting for a moment that the boy considered himself ‘too old’ for that ‘baby stuff’. It didn’t seem that Chris minded this time, for he hugged Johnny back. “Both of your gifts are so lovely. Thank you. I’ll always treasure them.” He set Chris’ gift beside Jenny’s, already considering where to place them.

 

“This is for you,” Roy said, handing Johnny an envelope.

 

Puzzled, Johnny took it. “I think the box was overkill,” he commented, waving the envelope.

 

“Open it, Uncle Johnny,” Jenny urged, looking excited.

 

Smiling, Johnny deliberately took his time to tease her, but also because he was unaccountably nervous about the contents of the envelope. He had the horrid sinking sensation that Roy and Joanne had spent money they didn’t have on this gift. The children had given him lovely gifts; he didn’t need more. In fact, he didn’t need any. The very fact they were there was gift enough for Johnny.

 

The envelope contained a very handsome gift certificate for Sears. Looking at the amount, Johnny’s mouth fell open. “I can’t accept this,” he protested. “It’s far too much!”

 

“No, it’s not anything like enough,” Joanne contradicted him. Roy nodded agreement. “Johnny, you come over all the time and help Roy out with things. You’ve looked after the kids for us every year so we can go out for our anniversary, and any other time we’ve been stuck. You’ve done so much for us, this is the least we can do for you.”

 

“But it’s too much,” Johnny said again. “I mean, you guys have helped me out lots when I’ve been ill and you took me in…”

 

Taking a step closer, Roy put his hand on Johnny’s. “Junior, stop protesting. That is for you, from us. If you want to blow it on just one big item, do that. If you want to spend it on decorating stuff, do that. Enjoy it, with our love and thanks. In what I owe you alone, this is barely a drop in the ocean. I know it doesn’t need to be repaid, but let us show you what you mean to us.” It was a big speech and Roy was beetroot red at the end, but it needed to be said.

 

Humbled, Johnny looked at the certificate again. He could do so much with it. “Thank you,” he choked out. “Thank you.”

 

All the adults blinked back tears. The kids grinned in triumph. Uncle Johnny had liked his gifts. After a few moments, Johnny decided to lighten the atmosphere. “That’s still a big box for what you brought,” he commented.

 

“Those are your groceries, to stock your cupboards,” Joanne chided. “Roy said you didn’t have much in the way of food.” She rose to her feet and headed determinedly into the kitchen and Roy, Johnny and the kids followed behind, Roy toting the box. With the casual familiarity of family, Joanne began opening cupboards and putting things away, commenting on how nice the units were, admiring the new appliances and generally having a good old look around. Johnny and Roy leaned against the kitchen counter with Chris, exchanging grins, while Jenny mimicked her mother.

 

It was the best feeling in the whole world, Johnny reflected.

 

***********

 

The glow was still there two days later when Johnny was next on shift. He and the DeSotos had tucked into pizza which Johnny had ordered and had a great evening together. The kids had decided that they would take turns using the bigger of the two bedrooms when they came to sleep over, absolutely sure and certain that Johnny would ask them and totally undeterred by the lack of furniture. He was flattered that they wanted to come. Roy and Joanne were suddenly counting on some nights alone in the house.

 

“You look like the cat that got the canary, Gage,” Chet commented.

 

“Do I?” Johnny replied blandly. He had learned over the years to mostly ignore Chet’s little digs, although the occasional one still slipped past his control. “Perhaps I am.”

 

“So you like the new house then,” Cap declared with satisfaction.

 

Grinning, Johnny replied, “It would be tough if I didn’t!”

 

“Well, that’s true,” Cap admitted. “How did the move go?” Normally, they all pitched in to help each other move, but this time, Johnny had so little stuff that he was taking with him that he hadn’t asked any of the guys to help. Consequently, the only crew member who had seen the new house was Roy.

 

“Just great, thanks,” Johnny gushed. “It couldn’t have gone better, really.” He thought with satisfaction of the house and the beautiful gifts he had received from the DeSotos. He had placed the gifts from the children on the mantelpiece in the great room. The previous day, he had gone to Sears and bought the supplies he needed to paint the great room and his bedroom. He would then decide if he was going to spend the remainder on more decorating materials or curtains.

 

“So when do we get an invitation?” Chet asked. It would be Chet.

 

“When I issue one,” Johnny shot back. “It isn’t quite ready for visitors yet. I’ve got some work to do.”

 

“You – work?” Chet scoffed. “I’m surprised we’re not being invited over tomorrow to help you do the work!”

 

“We’re talking about me here, Chet,” retorted the paramedic. “Not you.” Everyone laughed at that, for Chet did have a habit of getting the guys over when he wanted help with a project.

 

“Roll call,” Cap declared, ending the little war before it really got going.

 

Everyone shoved to their feet and the klaxons sounded. “Squad 51…

 

The first run of the day was on.

 

**********

 

That set the tone for the day. They seemed to be constantly on the run, grabbing food when the opportunity presented itself, which wasn’t very often. The engine was equally as busy and when they finally did meet up again at the station, it was well into the evening. Johnny slumped wearily into a chair at the table as Marco laid sandwich fixings on it and Chet stirred the soup. Their usual evening meal it was not, but at that point, just getting any kind of sustenance down them was a priority.

 

“I’m bushed,” Johnny whined. As he watched his shift mates roll their eyes and grin, he wondered how much work he would get done on his house the next day if the shift continued to be that busy. Of course, he would never say that aloud; it was guaranteed to jinx things and they would never get to bed.

 

“Oh shut up and eat,” Chet replied testily. He had been the one who had ended up doing Johnny’s chore of the dorm, as well as his own chore of hanging hose. “We’re all tired, too.”

 

“We’re not going to fight over it,” Cap ordered. “Let’s just eat.” He took a bowl of soup from Chet and sat down. Johnny reluctantly climbed to his feet to get his bowl. He genuinely felt completely drained and ever so slightly sick. He supposed it was probably from lack of food for the half burger he had managed to choke down was over 8 hours ago. He took a tentative sip of the soup. It was from a can, but you could never tell how Chet might muck up a meal, even if he was just stirring for Marco.

 

They all ate hungrily. Johnny wasn’t the only one who hadn’t eaten in longer than they cared to think. When everyone was finished, Johnny cleared the table and started washing the dishes. He felt a little better, but still slightly sick. He guessed it would wear off. He’d probably rushed his meal a bit.

 

The tones stayed mercifully quiet, but none of them was in the mood for television and they all sloped off to bed after a while. With a day of runs like that day, none of them was too sanguine about the chances of them getting a good night’s sleep. Johnny lay awake for a little while, wondering why he still felt a bit sick, but exhaustion soon won out and he slept like a log.

 

And there wasn’t a single run all night.

 

***********

 

Feeling much better next morning, Johnny bounced out of the station as soon as he could, heading for home and a full day painting the great room. Roy had offered to come over and help, since Johnny had more than once helped him with painting chores, but Johnny declined this time. Maybe later on in the renovations he would accept, but for now, he wanted to do it himself.

 

The color Johnny had chosen for the walls was a warm sandy color. He quickly draped his new furniture in dust cloths and began by painting the ceiling white. That immediately brightened the room, even without touching the walls. After a quick break for a drink and a snack, Johnny began to paint the walls.

 

He worked steadily for the rest of the day and by the time he put down the brush, the whole place had had two coats of paint and was looking fantastic. Johnny was pleased with how well it looked, but he was feeling less than stellar. The snack he’d eaten earlier hadn’t been sitting well and he’d skipped lunch. Now, he felt terribly sick.

 

“Paint fumes,” he told himself firmly, even though he had all the windows open to help dry the paint. “Some fresh air and a shower and I’ll be all right again.” He grimaced. He wasn’t even convincing himself, so it was a good thing there wasn’t someone else needing to be convinced.

 

He went out the back and breathed deeply of the clean fresh air. It did help – a little. He rolled his shoulders and walked over to the barn. One day, he hoped to have a horse in there. He went inside. It smelled slightly musty and there was moldy old hay scattered about the floor. It would need quite a lot of work to make it habitable for a horse, but Johnny had the time. He vowed to leave the doors open the next day to air the place out a bit.

 

Going back inside, he was disappointed that the air hadn’t cleared his head. He still felt sick. He headed for the shower and scrubbed the paint residue off. He never could figure out how he always got covered in paint when his work was generally so neat. He also found a large blister on his middle finger which burst as he was washing his hair. It was safe to say it hurt.

 

Once dressed, Johnny went down and looked inside his fridge, but nothing there tempted him to eat. He gently rubbed his abdomen, which was aching. Perhaps he should have accepted Roy’s help, since he appeared to have over done it today. Maybe he would watch some TV and then call it a day. Perhaps Roy could come over and help him with his bedroom tomorrow.

 

It sounded like a plan, but Johnny was unable to settle to watch TV and although he was tired, he found it hard to fall asleep, as his stomach hurt. He eventually did drop off, but woke about three hours later. The pain in his abdomen was excruciating and he knew he was going to be sick.

 

Stumbling out of bed, Johnny barely made it to the en suite before he vomited violently. It was pretty ghastly, as his stomach was essentially empty. Finally, the gagging subsided, and he slumped down beside the toilet, shivering. He felt dreadful, with sweat pouring down his face and back. The pain in his abdomen was sharp and unrelenting. Johnny put a hand to his hot forehead.

 

Think, he chided himself. Think! He knew what it was and it wasn’t the paint fumes or anything he had eaten. He had to get to a phone and call for help, but the phone was all the way downstairs and he wasn’t sure he would make it.

 

He had appendicitis.

 

***********

 

There was no time for recriminations, but as Johnny started the tortuous crawl towards the stairs, he wished he had got around to plugging in the phone for beside his bed. He barely made it a few feet before he had to stop and curl up. The pain was excruciating. After a few moments, he forced himself onto his hands and knees again. Even if the phone was beside his bed, he would still have had to get downstairs to unlock the front door, as he hadn’t yet looked for a hidey-hole for a spare key outside.

 

At the top of the stairs – finally – he paused for another rest. He was panting for breath, sweat was rolling off him and his hands and knees were covered in splinters from the floorboards. He still had to negotiate the stairs and he had no idea how he was going to do it.

 

Going down on his backside was doable, but given that he was butt naked, it wasn’t a pleasant thought. Sanding down the edges of the risers was on his to-do list, but hadn’t been done yet. This wasn’t a scenario he had ever conceived of and so it hadn’t been a priority. Going down on his hands and knees was likely asking for trouble, too. Going headfirst was simply not an option. Going backwards had its pluses, but he thought he would try walking down them, just as a change from crawling.

 

It was going to be quite an undertaking. Johnny pulled up onto his knees using the newel post to steady himself. It was agony; sheer, unadulterated agony. He didn’t attempt to straighten up, because he knew it was beyond his capabilities, and clung onto the banister like a little old man, bent over double. The stairs moved uncomfortably in the harsh light from the unshaded bulb. Perhaps he would have been better to try and traverse the stairs in the dark, but it was too late now. He wasn’t going to go back and put the light out.

 

Each step was torture. His legs shook beneath him and his hands, sweat slicked, slithered against the polished wood of the banister. His breath panted away from him as the pain radiated through his abdomen as sharp as steel. Johnny became aware about half way down the stairs that he was groaning steadily. He didn’t make an attempt to keep quiet. Who was there to hear him? Even if there was someone there, he would be delighted if they could hear him, for then they could run to the phone and he could just subside into a ball on the stairs and not move. That sounded like bliss.

 

Since it couldn’t happen, he kept on moving, one agonizing step at a time. Not far to the bottom now, he thought and that moment of distraction cost him. His feet slipped out from underneath him and he tumbled right to the bottom to lie in a crumpled heap.

 

***********

 

Afterwards, Johnny couldn’t guess how long he had lain there, shivering from fever, shock and pain. It could have been minutes; it could have been hours. He knew he had vomited and it hadn’t been nice. When eventually he was able to think coherently, he was relieved that he hadn’t hurt himself in the fall. A broken limb would have been a disaster. His appendix still seemed to be in one piece, too, which was a blessing in disguise, the disguise being the huge amount of pain he was still in. if it had ruptured, he wouldn’t be feeling the pain, which at that moment seemed like a good thing, but somewhere in the recesses of his brain, Johnny knew it actually would be a bad thing, for then the poison would be spreading throughout his abdomen and he would most likely end up with peritonitis or something equally unwelcome.

 

He finally was able to get back onto his hands and knees and crawled across the floor towards the phone. Sweat trickled into his eyes, making them sting and he blinked to try and clear his vision. His goal was getting nearer, but he had to stop again at a particularly sharp dagger of pain that shot from the right side of his abdomen across to the left. Would this ghastly journey never end?

 

Almost sobbing, Johnny finally reached the table where the phone sat. For a horrible moment, he thought it was dead, but it wasn’t long before he had dialed the number of the fire department and asked for help. The dispatcher on the other end was efficient and kind and knowing that help was on the way was a huge relief.

 

He still had to make it to the front door and unlock it, but eventually, he managed and crawled back into the great room, where he collapsed onto the rug and closed his eyes. All he had to do now was wait. Just wait.

 

It was the hardest thing of all.

 

***********

 

The paramedics who came found Johnny semi-conscious. They took vitals, shaken to find their colleague in such a bad way, and came to the same conclusion as Johnny had earlier when he had first wakened. They soon had an IV established and while they were waiting for the ambulance to arrive, one paramedic had a quick scout around to make sure that nobody else was in the house needing attention, and spotted the vomit at the foot of the stairs. He found some paper towels in the kitchen and quickly mopped up the mess. When the ambulance arrived, they loaded Johnny onto the stretcher and the remaining paramedic locked the house up behind him before jumping into the squad to follow them to Rampart.

 

The 25 minute ride to Rampart seemed to take hours. Johnny allowed himself to drift now that there was somebody there to look after him. He hated being helpless, but this time, it didn’t seem so bad to hand over responsibility. He was even allowed to curl into a ball on the stretcher, which eased the pain minutely. Even getting an IV was no big deal compared to the pain he was enduring.

 

His arrival at Rampart was a bit of a blur. Johnny wasn’t completely aware of which doctor met them, nor did he bother listening to his vitals, which he knew would be pretty bad. All he wanted was for them to knock him out and get his damned appendix out. He didn’t need to participate in this scene at all.

 

Dr Brackett, however, had a different scenario in mind. “Johnny? Can you hear me?”

 

It was an effort, but Johnny pried open his eyelids and hoped that he wouldn’t barf. “Yeah,” he croaked.

 

“When did this pain come on?” Brackett asked. He flashed his penlight into Johnny’s eyes and the paramedic winced.

 

“Dunno,” he admitted. “When I woke up.” He screwed his face into a frown as he forced his woozy brain to think harder. “Felt sick yesterday,” he added. “Then again today. My stomach was … achy, but I thought it was muscular.” He stopped and swallowed hard. “Went to bed, then woke up and puked. The pain was there then.”

 

“All right.” The nausea was a classic sign. Brackett was well aware that there were other conditions that mimicked appendicitis, but he was sure in his own mind that that was what Johnny had. “Do you know what time you woke up?”

 

“No.” Johnny had had enough chat; he wanted Brackett to do something and quickly. He swallowed hard again. Every time he opened his mouth, he thought he was going to puke. It wasn’t something he wanted to repeat.

 

One final test was all Brackett wanted to do. He managed to persuade Johnny to roll onto his back and pressed lightly on the paramedic’s stomach. It was rigid and when he took his fingers off, Johnny cried out sharply, rolled over and vomited onto the floor. That was all it took for Brackett to make his decision. “Is that OR on stand-by?” he asked the nurse. She nodded. “All right, alert them we’re on the way up. Go into Johnny’s records and phone Roy DeSoto, his next of kin.” He patted Johnny’s shoulder. “Won’t be long now, John.”

 

“Good,” Johnny replied, sounding dazed. He didn’t care what wouldn’t be long if the pain went away. He was vaguely aware of the gurney starting to move, but it was all too much effort to focus and he gently slid into semi-consciousness. A sudden chill brought him back to reality in time for a man wearing a surgical mask to assure him that he was going for a nice long sleep as something cold trickled into his vein. The man’s words blurred and disappeared as Johnny succumbed to the anesthetic.

 

**********

 

A ringing phone at 4.30 in the morning is never a good thing. Roy startled awake and made a grab for the receiver. “Hello?” He hoped that he hadn’t actually sounded as frightened to the person on the other end as he did to himself. Beside him, Joanne groaned.

 

“Mr. DeSoto, I have you listed as John Gage’s next of kin. Mr. Gage was brought into Rampart Emergency room a short time ago and is now in surgery. Could you come down? We really need you to sign the consent forms. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to wait for you.” The nurse’s voice was calm and devoid of any emotion.

 

“What’s wrong with him?” Roy asked. Surgery? Johnny had been perfectly fine when they had parted that morning.

 

“He appears to have appendicitis,” the nurse replied. “Dr Brackett took him straight to the OR. Can you come down?”

 

“I’ll be right there,” Roy promised and jumped out of bed, snapping on the bedside light to find some clothes.

 

“What is it?” Joanne asked, sounding frightened.

 

Quickly, Roy told her as he skimmed into jeans and a t-shirt. Joanne looked concerned. “I wish I could come with you,” she sighed, but with two kids in the house, that wasn’t an option. “Let me know and drive carefully, okay?”

 

“Will do,” Roy promised and gave her a kiss before grabbing a jacket and leaving the house.

 

***********

 

At that time of the – night? morning? – it didn’t take as long as usual to get to Rampart, for the streets were mostly empty of cars. Roy didn’t even have to break the speed limit. He didn’t have to work to find a parking space in the hospital lot, either. He hurried into the ER and looked around for someone familiar.

 

Of course, at that precise moment, there was no one at all in sight, so he had to cool his heels by the desk for a few minutes until the on duty nurse reappeared. “Can I help you?”

 

She was clearly several hours into her overnight shift, but Roy thought she could have sounded more interested. “I received a phone call about John Gage,” he informed her. “I’m his next-of-kin. I believe he’s in surgery?” He knew Johnny was in surgery and cursed the convention that made him sound as though he didn’t have any idea what he was actually talking about.

 

“Oh yes.” Slightly more interest in that cool voice. “I’ll tell someone you’re here if you have a seat.” She turned to the phone as Roy gritted his teeth. He could just go up to the surgical waiting area. He knew where it was, all too well. However, he just stood there as the nurse spoke in guarded tones to ‘someone’. She finally hung up and turned to smile at him. “Dr Brackett will be here in a few moments.”

 

“Thank you.” Roy hoped that he sounded at least a bit civil, but he was anxious and it was the middle of the night or some such damned time and his friend was in surgery.

 

In actuality, it wasn’t Dr Brackett who appeared, but Mike Morton. The intern was clearly pulling one of the horrendously long shifts expected of young doctors and looked exhausted. “Roy, come with me,” he suggested and trudged towards the elevators.

 

“How is he?” Roy asked, unable to wait for information.

 

“I believe the surgery went well,” Mike replied and yawned. “Sorry. He got out of surgery a few minutes ago. Dr Brackett is waiting for you in recovery.”

 

“It was his appendix?” Roy queried, just to be sure.

 

“Surely was,” Morton nodded. “Kel will tell you everything.”

 

Frustrated, Roy gritted his teeth. Morton had a lousy bedside manner, but nobody could beat him for stonewalling. What was Morton not telling him? Roy’s mind instantly began running through all the things that could have gone wrong during surgery. It was one of the downsides of having a medical background; you knew all the things that could go wrong.

 

Johnny was the only patient in recovery. That wasn’t exactly a surprise. Roy crossed straight over to the bed and looked down at his partner. Johnny was still out, his face pale and half obscured by an oxygen mask. An IV dripped into one arm and his hands were lightly wrapped in gauze. Gauze? What the hell?

 

“Hi, Roy,” Brackett sighed. He had pulled a double shift to cover someone’s absence and the last thing he had really wanted to do that night was an emergency appendectomy. Tired really didn’t cover how he felt.

 

“How is he?” Roy asked.

 

“All things considered, he’s doing well,” Brackett allowed. “The surgery was pretty straight forward.”

 

“Was his appendix intact?” Roy asked. With his partner’s propensity for complications, this was a rather vital question.

 

“No,” Brackett sighed. “It must have ruptured just as we went in. Obviously, we’ve done what we can and we’ve started antibiotics, so hopefully we can stop him getting peritonitis.”

 

Normally, Brackett was more forthcoming than this, but Roy could forgive him, seeing how tired the man was. Still, playing 20 questions at that hour of the morning was more than a little annoying. “What’s with the gauze?” he asked, gesturing towards Johnny’s hands.

 

“It’s not just there,” Brackett replied and twitched the blankets back. Johnny was clad in an unfastened hospital gown and Roy could see his knees were also wrapped in gauze. “We’re not sure exactly what happened, as Johnny really wasn’t coherent enough to answer questions, but the paramedics who found him think that he must have crawled to the phone and to unlock the door. His hands and knees were full of splinters.” Brackett frowned for a moment, then fished in the pocket of his lab coat, which he had apparently donned over his scrubs. “Here’s his house key.”

 

“Thanks,” Roy replied, feeling rather stunned. He thought of those bare floorboards and wondered how far his partner had had to crawl. The few rugs he had laid in his house had obviously not been in the right places to prevent this problem. He frowned as that thought caught up with him fully. “What was he wearing?”

 

A smile twitched the corner of Brackett’s mouth. “Nothing,” he replied. “He was buck-naked.” The smile had died before it was fully born. “He must have been in tremendous pain for that not to have mattered.” They both knew that although Johnny was not shy, he was not the kind to flaunt his body like that. While Roy knew – in that way men did without asking – that Johnny preferred sleeping in the nude, he would never just wander around like that where he might be seen. His partner was far too private for that. It was a sobering thought that the pain had been so overwhelming that Johnny didn’t care who saw him in his birthday suit.

 

Running a tired hand over his face, Brackett stifled a yawn. “Why don’t you sit with him? We’ll transfer him to a room in a while. Then you ought to go home and get some more sleep and come back later, when he’s with it.”

 

“Someone ought to be with him when he starts puking,” Roy observed neutrally.

 

“With the anti-emetic drugs I’ve given him, he’d better not start,” Brackett commented dryly. “I’ve given patients having chemo less drugs than he’s just had.”

 

“Still, I’ll wait to be sure,” Roy replied. He hoped Brackett was right, for Johnny would be really miserable throwing up after abdominal surgery. He pulled up a chair and sat down to wait for his partner to wake up.

 

***********

 

The day was pretty well advanced before Johnny really began to stir. By then, Roy had phoned everyone, Joanne, Cap, Mike, Chet and Marco and Cap had phoned HQ to let them know Gage was sick. Joanne had come past to sit with Johnny while Roy had something to eat and then had gone home again. Cap had popped in past for a visit and still Johnny slumbered on. Roy was concerned, but Dr Early, who was keeping an eye on Johnny while Dr Brackett slept, told him not to worry.

 

“It’s the best thing for him, actually,” Early assured the worried paramedic. “If he’s sleeping, he’s not puking or fretting. The longer he sleeps, the less likely he is to puke. From his charts, I’m not surprised he’s sleeping. Those drugs are enough to knock an elephant sideways. Don’t worry, Roy, he’ll be awake and talking the hind legs off that long-suffering donkey tomorrow.”

 

“Are you calling me a donkey?” Roy joked.

 

“Would I do that?” Early parried and made a swift exit.

 

Reassured, Roy settled down to wait again. Joanne had brought the book he was reading from home, and he settled in to read some more. The magazines that the nurses had found for him weren’t exactly to his masculine tastes, although boredom had forced him to flick through them. He had certainly learned a few things that he would rather not have known whilst doing so!

 

“Roy?” The voice was hazy with drugs, but unmistakably Johnny’s. Roy looked up from his book and smiled.

 

“Well, hello, Sleeping Beauty,” he teased.

 

“Huh?” Johnny grumbled, clearly confused. He blinked and looked around, obviously hunting for clues. Roy watched for a moment, waiting to see if his friend needed help putting everything together, but realization dawned and Johnny made an instinctual grab for his side. Roy easily prevented him.

 

“Ah-ah, don’t touch,” he scolded. “You’ve had surgery and you don’t want to blow the IV.”

 

“Was it … my appendix?” Johnny mumbled. He glanced around, clearly looking for something. His eyes lit up as they fastened onto the jug of water on the bedside table. Roy followed his gaze and obligingly poured some water, angling a straw towards Johnny’s mouth.

 

“It was your appendix,” Roy confirmed as Johnny sipped gratefully. “It had ruptured, but Brackett thinks it happened as they went in. He got you washed out and you’re on antibiotics, which is another reason why you don’t want to blow the IV.”

 

Relinquishing the straw, Johnny sighed. “I guess,” he mumbled and his eyes drooped closed again. He dozed for a few minutes before stirring once more. “What time is it?” he asked.

 

“About 3:30,” Roy replied. “You’ve been pretty out of it. Dr Early said to let you sleep.”

 

“3:30?” Johnny’s eyes opened wide for a moment. “Wasn’t it about then I came in here?”

 

A grin crossed Roy’s face. “3:30am?” he asked. “Could well be. I got a phone call about 4:30am telling me you were in surgery.”

 

“Oh, geez, I’m sorry,” Johnny apologized. “I didn’t ask them to.”

 

“I know that,” Roy agreed. “It was just that they didn’t get a signature for surgery for you, so I had to do it.”

 

“I don’t even remember them asking me for one,” Johnny replied after a moment’s thought.

 

“From what Dr Brackett told me, I don’t think they bothered,” his partner soothed. “You were in a pretty bad way when you came in.”

 

“I could believe it,” agreed the younger man. He could remember with vivid clarity his desperate crawl through the house to the phone. That thought prompted another one, and he lifted the blankets to peek underneath.

 

“You’ve got a Foley, obviously,” Roy reported dryly. “And they picked all the splinters out of your hands and knees. Cap is going to your place later to pick up some things for you.”

 

A blush crept slowly up Johnny’s cheeks. Roy patted his arm sympathetically. “Must have been pretty bad,” he commented, not elaborating, knowing that Johnny would know what he was talking about.

 

The blush grew, then gradually receded and Johnny nodded. “Clothes weren’t my first priority,” he agreed hoarsely. He hadn’t even thought about clothes at the time. But his were the changed priorities of the saved man. Dignity suddenly seemed more important now than it had then.

 

“Nobody has said a word,” Roy assured him. “And nobody will. That would be violating patient confidentiality.” Roy knew that none of the guys would humiliate any patient by talking about their state of undress or anything else that would embarrass the patient. It would mean dismissal. Besides, you never knew when it would be your turn to be the person in extremis.

 

The relief drained the tension from Johnny’s weary body. He could feel an ache in his abdomen, reaching deep inside, but compared to the pain he remembered from the last time he was awake, he would take this any day. His eyes drifted closed again and Roy thought he was asleep, but a small voice asked, “When ‘m I gettin’ outta here?”

 

All was right with the world. Roy grinned, but didn’t answer. There was no point; Johnny was already asleep.

 

**********

 

Over the next two days, Johnny made huge strides to recovery. The next morning, he was gingerly sitting up and eating, by that afternoon he was allowed out of bed to walk very slowly to the toilet. His IV was pulled and he was put onto oral antibiotics and his wound was healing cleanly, with no signs of an infection. The following day, he was pushing himself to walk a bit further, although the nurses scolded him every time they caught him, as they were afraid he was going too far, too fast.

 

For Johnny, the only goal was getting out of hospital. He wanted to go home to recuperate and he knew he would have to prove that he could cope with the stairs and with doing small chores for himself, like showering and cooking a meal. Luckily, he had the dishwasher, so he didn’t need to worry about the dishes piling up.

 

Taking a shower hadn’t been a problem, although he had been more worn out after it than he cared to admit. Brackett wasn’t taken in by his attempts to hide his tiredness, though and forbade the paramedic to do anything but lie down for a couple of hours after that. Much to Johnny’s disgust, he had fallen asleep, thereby proving the doctor correct.

 

Despite his determination, Johnny knew it was going to be much harder once he was home. He knew from past experience that you could feel perfectly fine in the hospital, simply because there really wasn’t all that much you could do. Once you were home, however, things were different. There were always things you wanted to do when you were home, even if it was just to go and get a cup of coffee or a cold drink. Chores peeked at you from all around when you were at home, especially if you had been away for a few days. In Johnny’s case, the whole house was a chore of sorts, as there was still so much he wanted to do to it. He would never admit it, but Brackett was probably right to keep him for another couple of days.

 

Even then, it was a struggle to get Brackett to agree to let him home. “You won’t rest for long enough,” Brackett argued, his arms crossed and his brows drawn down. “I know you, John Gage.”

 

“Trust me, doc, I will rest,” Johnny protested, his hand splayed across his chest. “I know not to push it too hard. Do you think I want to come back in here with a hernia?”

 

“Wanting to or not has never stopped you ending up back in here with something or other in the past,” Brackett countered. “This is you we’re talking about here.” Johnny cast him a reproachful look at that remark, but Brackett was immune to his patient’s charm. “After all, you did have a complication of splinters in your hands and knees when you arrived for your appendectomy and that isn’t exactly a normal occurrence, is it?”

 

“You play dirty,” Johnny muttered, scowling. “Doc, I promise. I won’t do anything.”

 

At that, Brackett raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Nothing? Not even cooking or going to the bathroom?”

 

“You’re splitting hairs now,” Johnny whined. “I’ve proved I can look after myself, Joanne has filled the freezer with things I just need to stick in the oven and it’s not like I have to wash dishes. Why can’t I go home?” Johnny was going into a full-scale sulk.

 

“I’d be happier if you didn’t live alone,” Brackett reminded him. “Roy has offered you a bed for a few more days. Why don’t you go there? You always have before.”

 

“I know,” admitted the recalcitrant patient. “But I never had a house of my own before, doc. Those apartments were just places to stay. This is the first home I’ve had since I left my aunt’s.” He blinked and looked away. His grief over his aunt’s unexpected death was still fresh. “I want to go home,” he finished quietly and Brackett was deeply moved by the longing in his voice.

 

While Brackett’s father was still alive, they weren’t particularly close, despite the rapprochement that they had had a few years ago when Brackett senior had required heart surgery. There were many times that Kel regretted that, but it didn’t seem to matter how hard he tried, he and his father were just not compatible. Kel just hoped that when the time came that his father died, they would have made some peace with each other and there would be no regrets and no burdens on his conscience. Kel was not alone in the world, but he understood how Johnny felt; he had felt the same way when he bought his first house.

 

“All right,” he capitulated. “But don’t do anything to make me regret this, do you hear?”

 

“I hear you,” Johnny promised.

 

***********

 

The trip home was smooth thanks to Roy and he showed Johnny the stocked freezer. Joanne had even taped instructions to each dish so that he knew how long and at what temperature to cook them. There was fresh milk and bread and Roy had plugged phones in all over the house, refusing Johnny’s offer to pay him for them.

 

“The guys and I all chipped in so that you never have to do anything like that again,” he refused. “Consider it a house warming present. Oh, and we’re all coming over on Saturday when we’re off for a barbeque. I told you Cap would want to hold them all here once he saw the place.”

 

“I’m not going to be fit to cook for everyone,” Johnny protested.

 

“Marco is going to cook and we’re all going to bring stuff,” Roy replied. “It’s all organized. All you have to do is be here.”

 

“Where else am I going to be?” Johnny asked. This was only Monday and Johnny knew himself well enough to know he would be climbing the walls with boredom by Saturday. This gave him something to look forward to.

 

“Seriously, you’re asking me that?” Roy scoffed. “Johnny, you could be out there doing cartwheels, or else painting in here or… The list is endless. You just behave yourself. Do what Brackett told you and just rest. Okay?” He fixed Johnny with a stern eye.

 

“Okay, dad, okay,” Johnny capitulated. “I get the message. Sheesh, you’d think I was a bad patient or something.”

 

“I don’t know where I get that impression,” Roy muttered and Johnny pretended not to hear. “I’ve got to get going, but if you need anything at all, you phone, do you hear?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Johnny wise-cracked. He didn’t bother saluting – it was too much hassle.

 

“I’ll just put your bag upstairs,” Roy added, spying the grip that Cap had packed for Johnny. “You aren’t meant to carry anything.”

 

Sighing, Johnny let his friend carry the bag upstairs. He had been going to do it himself; Roy had done more than enough for him. The bag was small; surely it couldn’t have been that heavy? However, he was glad to sit down on the couch, for his legs still had a disturbing tendency to shake underneath him when he had been on his feet too long. And ‘too long’ seemed to be only a few minutes these days.

 

When Roy left, Johnny switched the TV on and lost himself in some mindless film. It was enjoyable enough, but wasn’t something he would usually have watched. In fact, he would rarely watch TV during the day unless he was off sick and off his feet. In the past, he had become hooked on the soaps, but this time around, they didn’t have much appeal for him. He opened a can of soup for lunch and ate it quickly and returned to the couch. He put on the news and promptly fell asleep.

 

The nap was therapeutic and he decided to take a short walk outside, just for some fresh air. A little exercise wouldn’t hurt him, either, he decided. It would be slow and easy, for that was all he could manage and he was beginning to feel a bit antsy and cooped up – and this was just his first day home.

 

The fresh air did feel good, even if he was a lot weaker than he liked. He walked slowly from the front of the house towards the back. As he neared the back porch to go up to the back door, a small movement in the shadows caught his eye. While leaning over wasn’t an option, Johnny did look more closely. Lying under the deck was a kitten.

 

It was pretty young, probably too young to be away from its mother, and Johnny wondered how on earth it had come to be lying under his porch alone. Perhaps the mother cat was in the process of moving her family into his barn or something, but one thing was clear. This little baby was all alone and needed some help.

 

Without thinking, Johnny bent over and winced. Carefully, he straightened up again. Well, that wasn’t going to work. He would have to think of another solution. The kitten was looking at him warily, but hadn’t run away, which he thought could mean two things; either it was used to being handled, or it was too weak to flee. Perhaps it was both things. Either way, he had to rescue it, or it wouldn’t survive the night. Johnny had seen signs that coyotes and foxes frequented his property.

 

It took a little bit of doing, but Johnny managed to maneuver himself to the ground and slide over to be able to grasp the little furry bundle and pull it free. The kitten was tiny and made an almost inaudible mewing sound as it was pulled out. The little creature even made an attempt to arch its back and spit, which Johnny thought was a good sign. Plenty of life in that small body yet.

 

Somehow, he managed to get back onto his feet and into the house without dropping the kitten, which was cuddling against him, purring mightily. Johnny had to sit down when he went in. The kitten continued to purr. After a rest, Johnny found a cardboard box and lined it with paper and popped the kitten inside while he found it something to eat.

 

It wasn’t the first time Johnny had hand-fed a kitten and he knew what to do. Tomorrow he would get something suitable for its small tummy, but tonight he diluted cow’s milk with water and fed that to it, along with some ham he found in the fridge. The kitten ate it up cheerfully and Johnny made up a box for it to use in the meantime until he could get a proper litter tray organized.

 

The kitten clearly wasn’t as young as its small stature suggested, for it clearly knew what the litter tray was for when Johnny rubbed its paws in it. He had to smile as the small creature politely turned its back while it performed. It then joined Johnny on the couch, although he had to help it up. A little exploration showed that the kitten was a girl.

 

Always soft hearted, Johnny knew that the kitten was here to stay. It would be company for him when he was at home and he hoped that perhaps one of his neighbors, who he still hadn’t met, might come over and feed the kitten when he was working. Maybe they would have a son or daughter who might like to earn a few bucks doing it.

 

When he went to bed, the kitten came too, along with the litter box. It was very nice to have a small body curled against his knees as he slept.

 

***********

 

The kitten, unimaginatively named Lady, quickly became a fixture and Johnny could barely remember a time before she came. The day after rescuing her, Johnny had kept his promise and phoned Roy to get a supply of cat food, a litter tray and some cat litter. Intrigued by the phone call, Roy arrived in the morning and returned in the evening with the entire DeSoto clan. Lady was polite and sociable to them, but showed that she was a one-man cat by always returning to Johnny, even though Jenny was desperate to play with her.

 

Lady was heaven-sent. Johnny was content to stay inside and play with the small animal and enjoyed having her curl up on his lap to sleep. Cat toys had been produced when the children had come and although Lady enjoyed playing with them, her favorite toy was a piece of string that Johnny tugged across the floor. Lady was company for Johnny that first week at home when he was still too weak to do anything very much. It was almost certainly thanks to her that he obediently did as the doctor had ordered and didn’t do anything very much.

 

The barbeque was great fun, with the men and their wives/girlfriends turning up and taking over Johnny’s home. Lady wasn’t too sure she liked the invasion at first, but after a while, she crept out from her hiding place under the couch and joined in the fun with the kids. Everyone laughed and ate and played silly games and although Johnny was really tired when they left, he had really enjoyed the day.

 

With his strength returning by leaps and bounds, Johnny started doing more things. He avoided the vacuum, but Joanne had whisked it around the place before everyone arrived the day before, but Johnny found himself fixing small things that needed doing, like changing the covers of the light switches to something more modern and rearranging the kitchen cupboards so the cat food was more accessible.

 

That didn’t keep him occupied for long though. More and more, Johnny found himself outside, looking at the work that needed doing out there. He spent an afternoon sitting in the sun weeding the horribly over grown flower bed at the front of the house and another afternoon preparing the front porch for staining. Both days, he was exhausted afterwards, but he determinedly pushed on. The more he did, the more he would be able to do, he reasoned and he was being careful and taking note of what his body was telling him.

 

It did seem to pay off. Five weeks after his surgery, Johnny was allowed to go back to work.

 

***********

 

It was great to be back. Johnny’s energy was back in full force, as was his enthusiasm for the job. Things were going well at home, too. He had managed to paint his bedroom, without the kitten getting covered in paint, which he considered a minor miracle and he had found a carpet for his stairs that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. It was going to be laid in a few days’ time. Johnny had met his neighbors and they were more than willing to pop in and feed Lady when Johnny was working. All was right in his world and it showed in his demeanor.

 

Life quickly fell back into its accustomed routine. Johnny took on a couple of overtime shifts to help bridge the gap in his finances caused by his illness. It was on one of those shifts that his luck changed.

 

They were toned out to a warehouse fire. Kids had been spotted playing in there and from the speed the fire was spreading, the captain thought they must have had an accelerant of some kind. Four of the five kids had escaped and one of them had had the presence of mind to call for help. However, that left one kid unaccounted for in the burning warehouse and Johnny and his partner, a medic called David Duncan, suited up and went inside to search for him.

 

The first floor of the warehouse was one big wide open space. There was nothing in it and nowhere to hide. The paramedics still took a quick tour around and then headed for the stairs. They could feel the heat growing as they hurried up the metal stairs. The second floor was completely different; it was a maze of walls with rooms leading off rooms. Duncan lifted the HT. “Cap, we’re gonna need more manpower. This place is a maze.”

 

“10-4,” the captain responded.

 

“I’ll cover the left side,” Johnny suggested. Splitting up wasn’t standard operating procedure, but time was of the essence and there was back up on the way.

 

“Be careful,” Duncan advised him. “I don’t want DeSoto on my case.”

 

“I’m always careful,” Johnny responded. He turned and hurried off.

 

The first room he went into had two doors off it on opposite sides. Johnny hurried over to his left, reasoning that there could only be one further room on that side because of the outside wall. He was right, but when he gingerly cracked open the door, all he could see was flame. He hastily shut the door and ran across the room. They had even less time than he had originally thought.

 

It was difficult to judge how much time they had for searching, since they couldn’t see all of the floor. Johnny hurried as much as he could, pushing boxes and papers aside, peering under rickety desks. There was no sign of the missing boy. He went through the next door.

 

This room was smaller than the ones he had been in and had four doors in the walls. Johnny groaned. That meant another room at the back of the one he was in. Or perhaps it was just a large cupboard which he could search with a glance. He flinched as there was a loud roar and crash from somewhere just behind him and a piece of ceiling just missed him. As he ducked, Johnny slipped in a puddle that he hadn’t spotted and went down, his legs crashing out from underneath him. He landed face first, the breath driven from his body.

 

For several moments, he was unable to move, unable to breathe and he was on the point of panic when his breath came back with a jolt. His face mask was slightly askew and he pushed it back into place, noting the slightly acrid smell from the puddle he was lying in. Pushing himself onto his hands and knees, Johnny got his feet back underneath him. The exposed skin on his wrists began to sting and he knew, with a flash of blinding terror, that he had fallen into a puddle of kerosene. He was now liberally doused in a flammable liquid.

 

There was no choice, Johnny knew. He had to get out of there and fast. But when he stood up, he was disoriented for a minute, unable to remember which of the four doors would lead him into the main corridor. Think he chided himself. Think! Which door is it?

 

It was difficult to control panic, but Johnny had been trained for situations like this one. He was supposed to stay put and wait to be found, but that wasn’t an option this time. He had to get out of there. All firefighters feared being burned and Johnny was not going to wait there to go up like a Roman Candle at a firework display. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a second, visualizing the room as it had looked when he entered it a few moments ago.

 

It worked. He knew at once which door would lead him to the outside. Although his instinct was to rush over and throw the door open, he couldn’t do that. He stripped his sodden glove off and felt the door. It was still cool, so he cautiously opened and stepped into the corridor.

 

The only good thing about the warehouse was the fact the walls did not reach all the way to the roof. He pushed his helmet back and stripped off his air mask. “David!” he yelled. “David!”

 

At last, although it couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds later, Duncan’s head appeared from a doorway further down. He hurried down to Johnny. “What is it? Have you found him?”

 

“No,” Johnny replied. He knew he would have to put his mask back on in a moment. The fumes from the kerosene were stinging his throat now. But this was too important to risk Duncan not hearing properly because of the mask. “They’ve doused the place in kerosene. I just fell into it and I’m soaked.”

 

Duncan’s response was immediate. He raised the HT to his lips. “Cap, Gage is doused in kerosene. He’s coming out; have hoses standing by to wash him off.” He jerked his head towards the exit. “Go on, get out of here,” he urged.

 

Johnny hesitated. “I don’t want to leave you alone,” he replied.

 

“I won’t be – look.” Duncan pointed and Johnny looked round to see two more firefighters emerge from the smoke by the stairs. “Get your mask on and get going.”

 

“Right.” Johnny did as he was told, pulling his helmet back into place as he hurried past the new arrivals. He felt better about going now that Duncan wasn’t alone. He plunged into the smoke and headed for the stairs. He could hear the fire crackling behind the thin dividing walls and his skin tingled even more.

 

The kerosene coating the soles of his boots made them slippery and Johnny had to be careful. The metal stairs were treacherous under his feet and he crept down them, clinging to the railing like an old man. A mis-step now would be a disaster.

 

He had reached the bottom of the steps when there was a sudden clatter and all three firefighters came hurtling down from above, one of them clutching the missing kid. The man in the lead caught sight of Johnny and screamed, “FLASHOVER!”

 

There was no more time for care. They had to get out of there and they had to get out of there now. Johnny took to his heels, running for all he was worth, forgetting the large amount of air he was gulping in, forgetting the tightness in his throat from the fumes he had inhaled and forgetting about the kerosene coating his shoes. He was halfway to safety when he slipped and went down on one knee. A hand caught him under the arm and yanked him unceremoniously to his feet and dragged him along.

 

They almost made it.

 

Duncan, who was carrying the boy, got out of the door first. The unencumbered firefighter was next and Johnny and his helper brought up the rear. As they exited the door, the flash hit them. They were lofted into the air and blown several feet. As they crashed to the ground, Johnny had only one thought.

 

I’m on fire!

 

***********

 

Roy was mowing the yard when he heard the phone ringing in the house. Joanne was out shopping. Roy hated to hear a phone ring, so stopped what he was doing and ran into the house to answer it. He fully expected it to stop ringing the moment he put his hand on the receiver, but he was wrong. “Hello?” he panted.

 

“Roy, its Dixie,” said the familiar husky voice.

 

“What’s happened?” Roy asked, fear clutching at his gut. Joanne…

 

“Johnny’s on his way in,” she replied. “He was caught in an explosion and he’s burned. I don’t know how bad it is…”

 

“I’m on the way,” Roy interrupted. He grabbed his keys and headed for the door. It would be much later that he learned he had dashed out of the house and left the patio doors standing wide open. It was a good thing there were no thieves around.

 

It was what every firefighter dreaded to hear. Oh, God, Johnny, why is it always you? Roy thought despairingly. His knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel tighter as he wove his way through the traffic. His heart was beating uncomfortably fast as he finally spied Rampart in the distance. Please let him be all right, he prayed. Please.

 

Finding a parking space in the lot at that time of day was always an achievement, but Roy by-passed the main lot and headed for the employee one. It was seldom less crowded, but there was often an open slot and he was right; he popped his car into it and headed for the ER at a run.

 

It was pandemonium when he arrived, vaguely noticing the squad parked outside. Roy didn’t see the organized chaos; he was totally focused on finding Dixie and learning how his partner was. His mouth seemed horribly dry and he wasn’t aware that he was panting as though he had run a race. His grass-smeared jeans raised a few eyebrows from people sitting waiting, but Roy didn’t even notice.

 

“How is he?” he blurted, not even saying hello.

 

“Dr Brackett’s with him now,” Dixie replied. “We can see him in a few minutes.”

 

“How is he?” Roy repeated. Her answer had been no answer at all.

 

“Not as bad as we had first feared,” she replied carefully. She allowed her gaze to slide past him to the x-ray machine which was headed for a treatment room. “Kel will be out to speak to you in a moment.”

 

“What happened?” Roy asked, dazed. He wasn’t sure if Dixie had just given him good news or not. ‘Not as bad as we first feared’ covered a whole lot of ground. He wanted to take hope from her words, but just couldn’t. He had to know for sure.

 

“I’ll let Kel tell you,” Dixie hedged. “Here he is now.” She was relieved that someone else would have to tell Roy the whole horrible story.

 

“Roy,” Brackett acknowledged and his mouth twitched. Roy’s stomach dropped a whole other foot. “Come into my office so we can talk.” He put a hand on the stunned man’s shoulder and propelled him along to his office. This wasn’t the kind of news you imparted in a crowded ER.

 

“How is he?” Roy asked, for the third time, fully expecting to hear the worst news possible; that Johnny had died from his injuries.

 

“All in all, he’s been very lucky,” Brackett replied. “His turnout coat protected quite a bit of his body. However, he does have second degree burns on his feet, legs, neck and hands. He has first degree burns on his torso. As I said, without the turnout coat, he would have been much more badly burned. Over and above that, he has a probable broken arm and some irritation of his throat from the kerosene fumes. His skin is very irritated from the kerosene but we can give him creams and tablets to help that. He’s going to be here for a while, though. While the burns aren’t that serious in and of themselves, they do cover quite a large percentage of his body and will need to be watched.”

 

“Kerosene?” Roy echoed. “Doc, I don’t understand. What happened to him?”

 

“I’m sorry, Roy, I thought you knew. Johnny was doing search and rescue in a burning warehouse. Kerosene had been used as an accelerant and Johnny slipped and fell in some. As he was leaving the building, there was a flashover and that was when he got burned. If he hadn’t been right beside the trucks, and they hadn’t known about it, it would have been much worse.” Brackett eyed the too-pale paramedic sitting across from him. “Roy? Are you all right?”

 

“Never mind about me.” Roy brushed the question aside. “Is Johnny going to be all right?”

 

“I won’t kid you, Roy, it’s going to take some time for him to get over this, but yes, I expect him to make a full recovery.” He glanced at his watch. “X-ray should be finished. Do you want to come back with me now?” Personally, he thought Roy ought to lie down and take a tranquilizer, but he doubted if that would happen.

 

“Yeah.” Roy was on his feet before Brackett had finished speaking. He had to see Johnny for himself before his imagination ran away with him completely. Roy had seen enough burns in his career for his imagination to provide him with some very graphic pictures indeed.

 

The reality wasn’t as bad as Roy had feared. Johnny was lying with his eyes closed, but the tension in his body told Roy that he wasn’t sleeping. He was draped in wet sheets that did little to protect his dignity and his face was mostly obscured by an oxygen mask. Roy hurried across to his side. “Johnny?”

 

The dark eyes opened slowly. “Roy?” croaked the harsh voice and Roy remembered that his throat had been irritated by fumes.

 

“Don’t talk,” Roy soothed. “I’m here.” He wanted to touch Johnny, to hold his hand to reassure him, but there didn’t seem to be a single inch of skin that was safe to touch. Johnny’s right arm was in a splint and his hands were wrapped in damp gauze. His chest looked red and sunburned and tiny blisters were forming. Luckily, from the neck up, Johnny’s mask and helmet had protected his face and head and they were untouched, although the ends of his hair were singed. “You’re gonna be fine.”

 

***********

 

Johnny didn’t know how he would have got through the cleaning of the burns if Roy hadn’t been there. Oh sure, he’d been given morphine by the doctor, but given his troubled breathing, not as much as they might have given him. Not nearly enough. His attempts at being stoical failed after the first few moments as the pain seemed to ricochet round his body. His breath fogged the oxygen mask he wore as he gulped for air that didn’t seem to reach his lungs. And throughout the whole, hideous ordeal, Roy stood by him, stroking his hair gently, crooning soft words and generally making sure that Johnny knew he was not alone in this torment.

 

Roy stood with him while his broken arm was set and re-splinted. With the burns on the arm, he wouldn’t be wearing a cast. His whole arm was wrapped in gauze and as Johnny glanced down briefly at his body, he thought he looked not unlike a Mummy, for the bandages were everywhere.

 

Finally, finally, the treatment was concluded – for now. Johnny knew that he would be facing more treatment every day and his soul quailed from the thought. He didn’t know how to bear the pain. His whole body was one huge centre of pain and he was aware that his rigid muscles wouldn’t be helping that, but he couldn’t relax; it was far too painful. He put his gauze-swathed hand out to Roy, who gently took it in his own. “It’s almost over,” Roy promised. “We’ll get you settled into bed, then you can sleep.”

 

“Pain,” Johnny gasped. His voice was almost gone from the screams that had escaped his control. His throat felt like raw hamburger; he had never felt pain like it.

 

“You’ll get something for that in a minute,” soothed the calm voice that never seemed to fail him. “Try to slow your breathing down for me, Johnny.” Roy coached his partner while Brackett and the doctor from the burns unit discussed what painkiller and how much of it he should get. Roy wanted to scream at them to hurry up, but for Johnny’s sake couldn’t do it. For Johnny’s sake, he had to remain calm until his partner was no longer awake to freak when Roy fell apart. For he knew, without doubt, that he was going to fall apart.

 

Finally, at long last, an agreement was reached between the doctors and Johnny was given the much needed pain relief. It took perhaps a little longer than normal for it to work, but that was understandable. But at length, the injured man’s body relaxed and he slipped into sleep.

 

For several minutes after that, Roy simply watched him sleeping, noting the falling heart rate and slowing breathing until he was sure his partner would not wake again for several hours. Then, calmly, unhurriedly, Roy left the room, crossed to the men’s room and was violently sick.

 

***********

 

By the time he had recovered himself, Roy found that Johnny had been moved to a room in the burns unit. He knew it would be several minutes before he would be allowed in, so he got himself some juice from a vending machine and called Joanne.

 

“What’s happened?” she asked, the moment she heard his voice. Roy had clearly left in a hurry and there was no note and her imagination was presenting her with all sorts of horrible scenarios.

 

Speaking quickly, as though that would lessen the shock, Roy told her. “Johnny’s been injured. He’s been burned in an explosion.” He heard Joanne gasp and hurried through the rest of the explanation, concluding with, “But Brackett says he’s going to be all right.”

 

“Really?” Joanne stuttered. “How can he be, with all those injuries?”

 

“They aren’t as bad as they could be,” Roy reassured her once more. “There will be minimal scarring, if any. It’s pretty awful for him now, but they should heal well.” He didn’t tell her that he had thrown up, but he reasoned that it was shock and hearing Johnny screaming, not so much the sight of the burns themselves. “He will be all right, given time.”

 

“Time,” Joanne sighed. She wanted to get her hands on the kids who had spread kerosene around so carelessly. What had they been thinking? She fervently hoped they would be put into jail and the key thrown away, but somehow that never seemed to happen. They would probably get community service or something equally useless and go back to fire raising on the weekends as a hobby. “Do you want me to come down?”

 

“Not yet,” Roy replied. “He’s not getting visitors at the moment apart from me. It’ll be a few days before he’s allowed visitors, just in case of infection.”

 

“All right,” Joanne sighed. She wanted to see Johnny, but she had to admit that the thought of the burns made her feel sick. She wasn’t sure she could school her face into neutrality if they were very bad. “Give him my love and I’ll see you when you get home.” She blew a kiss down the phone and hung up. She shivered as she thought of the pain Johnny must be enduring. As a fire fighter’s wife, it was her worst nightmare almost come true.

 

Joanne never drank during the day. She seldom had a drink in the evening, but this was one time when she felt she really needed one. She poured a thimbleful of brandy into a glass and gulped it down. She could feel the burn all the way down and shuddered again. However, after a few minutes, she would have heartily endorsed her mother’s saying that brandy cured the green shakes and blue shivers, for she felt much better.

 

***********

 

Getting gowned up to go in to visit always made Roy think about when Johnny was ill with the Koki Fever Virus a few years back. He had thought then that he would never see Johnny looking worse, but he had been wrong. His partner looked a lot worse now. Then, Johnny had been sweat soaked and unresponsive, pale and still, but his body had been left with no permanent reminders of the illness. This time would be different. There might not be very visible scarring, but anyone touching his partner’s skin would know at once. It might only be a residual dryness, but there would be something.

 

“How are the others who were involved with the fire?” Roy asked Dr Brackett, who was also in the room.

 

“Some minor burns, especially to the kid who apparently set the fire, and some smoke inhalation, but apart from that, they are fine,” Brackett replied. “Luckily, Johnny’s partner had alerted the crews outside that he had fallen into the kerosene, so they were waiting and ready to wash him off. If that building had flashed any sooner…” It really didn’t bear thinking about. He glanced at Roy again to make sure the senior paramedic was still all right. It was difficult to judge when half his face was obscured by a surgical mask, but there didn’t seem to be any signs of imminent breakdown.

 

“I didn’t think to ask earlier,” Roy apologized, although nobody had criticized him. “Are the others still here?”

 

“They’ve all gone home,” replied the doctor. “I’m pretty sure they went home while we were still treating Johnny.” He hoped they had. The last thing any of them needed was to hear Johnny screaming as they cleaned the burns. It was amazing how empty the waiting room had become after that, too. Screamers cleared out the time-wasters every single time.

 

Nodding, Roy moved over to sit down by Johnny’s bed. His friend’s face was pale under the mask. A heart monitor beeped continuously and a bag of fluid dripped into the crook of his friend’s left elbow. Roy knew that fluid seeping from burns could leave the patient dangerously dehydrated. A bag partly full of urine hung from the side of the bed. As Roy settled himself, Brackett hung a bag of antibiotics and piggy-backed it into the IV port. Hopefully, they would prevent any infection from taking hold. Infection would guarantee scarring and nobody wanted that, not to mention the dangers from an infection ravaging the weakened body and perhaps leading to death.

 

Medical knowledge was a double-edged sword, Roy thought as he blinked back tears. You knew what was wrong, you knew what to do to treat it, but you also knew every complication there could be and at times like this, those thoughts would probably result in broken sleep and nightmares – and not just for Roy. Johnny also knew the same things. It would be so much worse for him.

 

He was actually living it.

 

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

 

It was about 9pm when Roy lifted the phone to ring Cap and tell him about the day’s happenings. He knew that Cap would already have been told about Johnny’s injuries by the captain of the station where Johnny had been doing overtime, but Roy knew that his boss would want to hear Roy’s thoughts about how Johnny was.

 

They talked for quite some time, as Cap expressed his concerns and asked practical questions about how long Johnny might be off work. Neither of them voiced the fear that he might not want to come back. Many a fire fighter’s career had ended after he had been burned. If that was Johnny’s decision, nobody would say a word to change his mind.

 

After that conversation was over, Roy phoned Johnny’s neighbors and told them what had happened. They immediately offered to keep an eye on the house and to continue feeding Lady, although they would take her into their own home in the meantime. “Tell Johnny not to worry,” Mrs. Baker assured Roy just before he hung up. “We’ll keep an eye on his house.”

 

The house. Roy really liked that house and he knew Johnny loved it. Yet since the young man had moved in, he seemed to have had quite a streak of bad luck. Although he professed not to be superstitious, Roy most definitely was and he caught himself wondering if the house was unlucky. He very definitely wanted to mention it to Joanne, so she could scoff loudly and tease him about being silly, but something prevented him. Maybe even saying it out loud would bring down further bad luck and Johnny certainly didn’t need any more right now.

 

He thought about it some more while Joanne watched him wrestle silently with whatever dilemma was currently occupying his thoughts. That it concerned Johnny was a given; but she couldn’t have dreamed the direction his thoughts had gone in. She knew that he would turn to her if he couldn’t come to a satisfactory conclusion alone. He was still thinking about it when they went to bed. By then, Roy had decided that the house was not bad luck. It had a nice atmosphere and Roy knew he was just letting his imagination run away with him. This wasn’t some crappy horror flick that Chet and Johnny were watching on the tube at the station. There was no such thing as an unlucky house.

 

As for his partner… Well, there was no doubt Johnny was unlucky in some respects, but he had good luck, too. He might well get injured, but he usually bounced back very quickly and it wasn’t carelessness that got him injured in the first place, it was just happenstance. Johnny cared more and tried harder. He had saved a lot of lives over the years through placing himself in a position where he might be injured, just so that he could save someone’s life. Roy had benefitted from that many times since they started working together.

 

As he drifted off to sleep, Roy concluded that he was wrong about the house. It was just a house.

 

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

 

The first few days in the burns unit were all a blur to Johnny. He had memories of screaming the place down as his burns were cleaned and dressed, but the rest of the time seemed to pass without his active participation. He was often aware of someone by his bedside and assumed that it was Roy, but he was on such strong doses of painkillers that actually doing something as coherent as looking was beyond him, never mind actually trying to have a conversation.

 

In those first few days, Roy was the only person allowed in to visit and his visits were kept fairly short, for his sake as much as for Johnny’s. The injured medic was often combative when his drugs were wearing off, fighting to get free of the restrictive bandages around his limbs. The cleaning of the burns was distressing for all involved, but it was paying off, for there was no sign of infection, despite the quite large areas involved.

 

There were always people in the burns unit waiting room. Even though Johnny’s many friends knew that they couldn’t get in to see him, they still congregated there to wait for news and to show their support for him and for Roy.

 

After the first few days, the wounds no longer needed to be debrided every day and the painkillers were reduced and Johnny began to be more wakeful. He still had quite a lot of narcotics swimming in his bloodstream, so he wasn’t fully with it until the day after that, when he woke up feeling sore, but hungry – a major step forward.

 

“You’re looking a lot better today,” Brackett commented when he stopped past to see his friend.

 

“I’m feeling a bit better,” Johnny replied, his voice still hoarse, but less muffled, as he was now wearing a nasal cannula for oxygen. “Still sore, though.”

 

“Don’t let the pain get ahead of you,” Brackett advised. “You’ll heal much more quickly if you keep on top of the pain.”

 

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny agreed. He didn’t want to admit that he was unable to do without the drugs yet, but it was the truth. He knew as soon as they started to wear off, when the ‘sore’ feeling became almost unbearable. He glanced down at his chest, which was resuming its normal bronze color. “Guess I won’t be getting out of here any time soon,” he commented quietly.

 

“No,” Brackett agreed. “Not until I can cast that arm and not until your feet are healed enough to walk on.”

 

At that point, Johnny hadn’t had the opportunity to examine his feet. Bending his legs enough to do that was beyond him at the moment. Most things were beyond him at the moment. The fingers of his left hand had been unwrapped that day to allow him to hold a fork or spoon, but that was it. His arms still looked like parts of a Mummy, and so did his legs. He was more than grateful that his turnout coat had protected his body, for he believed that even his butt had had first degree burns, which would have made sitting uncomfortable, if he had been with it. However, the burns had been no worse than a bad sunburn and were healed to the point where he could forget about them now.

 

“When do I get rid of all the attachments?” he asked, plucking carefully at the IV line and gesturing to the heart monitor, oxygen and Foley.

 

“In a day or two, when we see how you’re doing,” Brackett replied evasively. “Burns can be tricky things, Johnny and I don’t want to take any chances. Not when you inhaled kerosene and were soaked in it. Your voice is still hoarse and until that clears up, you keep the extras, okay?” Brackett thought that the hoarseness of Johnny’s voice had as much to do with all the screaming he had done as the fumes, but he kept that thought to himself.

 

The answer wasn’t a surprise, but Johnny couldn’t suppress an exasperated, disappointed sigh. He immediately started coughing, which happened whenever he took too deep a breath or sighed. Ordinary deep breathing was mostly okay, but sharp breathing still made him cough and justified Brackett’s argument. Johnny almost sighed again. He just wanted to go home, although he knew that unless he was able to look after himself, he wouldn’t be allowed to go to his own home. It was a depressing thought.

 

He was still down when Roy came in to visit. At least now, Roy didn’t have to gown up to come in and in another day or so, other visitors would be allowed, too. “I brought you a malt,” Roy announced, handing his friend the cup, not letting go until he was sure Johnny had a good grip on it. Whenever Johnny was ill, weight dropped off him at an incredible rate and he had none to spare at the best of times. Anything that would tempt his capricious appetite was welcomed by the hospital. The malt had the dual advantages of being calorific and tasty. “What’s up?”

 

“Thanks,” Johnny replied, taking a cautious sip. He had to put the cup down almost at once, as his grip was not as secure as he would like and he had already had an impromptu bath that morning. Fortunately, it hadn’t been the cup of coffee he’d been given. He didn’t plan on answering the question Roy had just asked.

 

However, that one wasn’t going to fly. Roy could be as stubborn as Johnny any day. “What’s up?” he asked again. “You look down.”

 

“Ah – you know,” Johnny replied evasively.

 

“I know in general,” Roy agreed, gesturing to Johnny and the hospital bed. “But what in particular?” He caught his friend’s gaze and held him with his eyes until an uncomfortable wriggle signaled to the older man that Johnny was ready to spill the beans.

 

“Well, you see, it’s kinda… um…”

 

“Spit it out, Junior,” Roy smiled. He was accustomed to Johnny being unable to string a whole sentence together until he had thought it through. When the words came, they would come in a rush and all in one breath.

 

“I’m stuck in here for who knows how long. What about Lady? I never gave her a single thought. The guys are coming to lay my stair carpet and I don’t even know if they are supposed to be here today or tomorrow or yesterday and…” He trailed uncertainly to a stop as Roy held his hand up to stop the gush of words.

 

“First off, your neighbor was taking Lady home until you’re better,” Roy explained. “Don’t worry, they don’t want to keep her; she’s still your kitten. I remembered yesterday about the carpet and phoned the company. They are going out to lay it today and Cap is going to be there to let them in and lock up when they’re gone.”

 

“Oh, gee, I never meant to put anyone to such a lot of bother,” Johnny sighed and coughed. He got his breathing back under control with the help of a sip of his malt. “Thank Cap for me, will you, Roy?”

 

“Of course I will,” Roy assured his friend. “But you can do it yourself tomorrow when he comes to visit.”

 

“I’ve lost track of the days completely,” Johnny complained. “When are you guys next on shift?”

 

“The day after tomorrow,” Roy told him. “We had an extra day off this week, remember?”

 

“Darn and I’ve missed it,” the patient complained, trying to keep a straight face. He failed and grinned. Roy grinned back, glad that Johnny was now feeling relaxed enough to joke. A few years ago, he would have been protesting more about his friends helping him out, but he had gradually learned that they did things for him because they wanted to, not because of some kind of obscure obligation.

 

“There’s bound to be another one in a year or so,” Roy dead-panned. It was good that Johnny was feeling up to a little verbal sparring.

 

For once, Johnny was content to listen while Roy told him what had been happening for the last few days, about the men waiting outside just to show support and about the world in general. Johnny sipped his malt quite happily, but as time wore on, he began to feel the discomfort grow and knew he needed his meds. There was a pretty fair chance they would send him to sleep. Just the thought was enough to trigger a yawn and Roy took that as his cue to leave.

 

“You don’t need to go,” Johnny protested. “I’m not tired.”

 

“Tell that to the Marines,” Roy retorted. “You need to rest and you’re probably due some medication about now. I’ll be back to see you tomorrow and you’ll be inundated with visitors, so you’d better make the most of the peace and quiet now, because there won’t be any more of it.”

 

“I’m fine!” Johnny insisted stubbornly.

 

“I’m not going to argue with you, John,” came the calm reply. “You need to rest and I’m going home. See you tomorrow.” Roy got up and left. Johnny blinked in astonishment. He couldn’t even have a decent argument. He waited and a few minutes later, the nurse appeared with his medication. Roy’s head popped back round the door as she left. “Bye,” Roy said, cheerfully and Johnny had to smile.

 

“Bye,” he replied.

 

He was still smiling when he fell asleep.

 

**********

 

Unfortunately, Johnny wasn’t feeling too well the next day. There was nothing that anyone could put their finger on, he just wasn’t feeling well. His temperature was completely normal, there was no sign of infection anywhere, his lungs were clear, his voice improving; he just felt like crap.

 

“Do you feel like you’re going to throw up?” Brackett asked, eyeing the empty breakfast tray on the over-bed table.

 

“No,” Johnny replied, sounding uncertain. He knew he didn’t feel like he was going to throw up at the moment, but he wasn’t willing to rule it out further down the line.

 

Pursing his lips for a moment, Brackett continued with his questioning. “Is anything sorer than normal?”

 

“I don’t think so.” Johnny frowned. He didn’t know what was wrong, but he just didn’t feel well. He’d been able to eat breakfast, despite not being sure that he wanted it, but he hadn’t really enjoyed it. “I don’t know what’s wrong,” he concluded petulantly. He’d had to go through these questions with the nurse, too.

 

Brackett eyed him. There was nothing concrete to find at the moment. That might change over the course of the day, but Brackett thought he might know what the problem was; Johnny was stuck in hospital, bed-bound for the foreseeable future, feeling slightly better than he had been, but not yet well enough to get up and walk about. He was beginning to feel a bit down about the length of his recovery and it all added up to a mild case of the blues, which Johnny, the eternal optimist, rationalized as feeling not well.

 

“Well, I don’t know what the problem is, but we’ll keep an eye on you and see how you go through the day,” Brackett proposed. “If you still feel lousy when visiting hours start, I’ll make sure you’re left in peace.”

 

“What?” Johnny looked totally started. “But, doc… Won’t my visitors take my mind off myself and make me feel better?”

 

“I don’t know,” Brackett replied, crossing his arms over his chest. “You tell me, Johnny.” He laughed at the perplexed look that crossed Johnny’s face.

 

“I don’t get it,” Johnny pouted.

 

“I think you’re just feeling a bit down,” Brackett told him. “If you feel any worse, let us know, but in the meantime, I think you’re right; visitors will take your mind off yourself.” He put up a hand to forestall any argument. “Johnny, I know what you’re like. You hate to be cooped up and here you are, five days down the line, and you’re barely a single step forward from when you were injured. Burns are tricky things and you’ll have to face the fact that you’re going to be here for a couple more weeks yet. It’s okay to feel a bit down because of that, but remember, you’ve got to try and stay positive and eat well and take your pain meds, even if you think you should be able to manage without them. If things get really bad and you’re feeling really depressed, we’ll get someone to talk to you about it. I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about not having any visitors, because the waiting room has been full every single day since you got here, even though nobody apart from Roy was allowed in. So lean on your friends, and I’m sure, in a day or two, you’ll be feeling a lot better.”

 

“Okay,” Johnny agreed meekly. “Thanks, doc.” He supposed that he might be feeling lousy because he was depressed by the notion that he would be confined to bed for a while longer and the hospital even longer than that. Perhaps that was what was wrong with him.

 

He hoped that was all it was.

 

**********

 

It wasn’t. As the day wore on, Johnny felt worse and worse and late in the afternoon, his temperature started to climb. His visitors were ushered out and Dr Brackett and the burns unit duty doctor slowly unwound all the bandages and checked his many wounds. Most of them were healing well. Some weren’t healing as quickly as others, but that was to be expected. Finally, they found the one that was causing the problems on Johnny’s left foot. The burn was pink and hot and inflamed. An infection had started.

 

It was fortunate that Johnny had not eaten anything since breakfast, despite the threats his nurses had made. He was immediately prepped for surgery and wheeled down to the OR within 30 minutes of them finding the infection. His foot would have to be surgically debrided. Brackett also decided to place a central line so that Johnny could get hyperalimentation, too, as his body clearly needed more nutrition than he was getting. Healing burns needed a lot of calories and Johnny simply wasn’t eating enough.

 

The whole procedure took less than an hour and Brackett supervised as Johnny was returned to his room from Recovery. Johnny had once again been loaded with anti-emetics and they had kept the vomiting to a minimum, but he was pretty groggy and Brackett wanted to keep an eye on his breathing for a while.

 

Roy was waiting in Johnny’s room. He rose from where he had been sitting to allow the orderlies to transfer Johnny to his bed, then stepped over to his partner’s side and looked down onto his face. Johnny was pale, his eyes heavily closed, and he wore an oxygen mask again. The offending foot was swathed in even more bandages than before and raised on a couple of pillows. The central line was inserted just below his right collarbone and a thick, milky fluid was transfusing into his veins through it.

 

He looked worse than he had for a couple of days.

 

“He should start feeling better tomorrow,” Brackett assured Roy, in an eerie case of mind reading. “I’ve taken a culture and we’ll start him on strain specific antibiotics as soon as we can. In the meantime, I’ve swapped to a different, more powerful, broad spectrum antibiotic in the hopes of getting a head start on the infection.”

 

“He was doing so well,” Roy lamented.

 

“Yes, he was,” agreed the doctor. “And perhaps we were lulled into a false sense of security; he hadn’t got an infection in the early stages, when they are commonplace, so we assumed he wouldn’t get one. Still, we acted as quickly as we could once the cause of his illness became apparent.”

 

“Is he still going to make a full recovery?” Roy asked, his voice low.

 

“I think so,” Brackett replied. “Obviously, it’s difficult to know right at this moment how things are going to go with regards to the foot, but I am hopeful. The burns weren’t full thickness, as you know, and although we did some work on it, the infection wasn’t deep seated. There will probably be a bit more scarring on the sole of his foot, but we will obviously do everything we can to minimize it.” He eyed Roy closely. “I know this isn’t what you want to hear, Roy, but I’m telling you the truth.”

 

“Yeah, thanks.” Roy found a smile from somewhere. It wasn’t Brackett’s fault that Johnny was lying injured in that bed, and he was doing everything he could to make it right; to put Johnny back where he had been. It wasn’t Brackett’s fault that Roy suddenly couldn’t stand the waiting and the wondering. It was the fault of those kids who had been playing with the kerosene and had dropped a match on it. It was the fault of the kid who had not managed to escape from the building. It was the fault of the parents who had never taught their child not to play with matches.

 

And it was hell on earth to bear that knowledge.

 

***********

 

The five youths who had set the fire had all been bailed into the custody of their parents. The one who had to be rescued had spent a couple of nights in Rampart with smoke inhalation, but was fine apart from that. They had been charged with malicious mischief and fire raising and there might yet be more charges to come. They had been strictly forbidden from seeing each other, but that didn’t stop them meeting up.

 

The boy who’d had to be rescued, Scott, was quite subdued, having had a huge fright as the flames and smoke grew around him. He said virtually nothing. The ring leader, Clint, was furious. He did almost all the talking, in stark contrast to Scott’s silence.

 

“Nobody would have said anything if it hadn’t been for that stupid fireman getting hurt,” Clint declared. “That warehouse was a ruin anyway. If I get my hands on that fireman, he’s toast.”

 

The other boys looked at each other uneasily. Clint had been the one who found the kerosene and suggested they set fire to the building. None of them were friends with him entirely though their own choice; Clint was a bully and they were too scared to say no to him. He was entirely capable, the others felt, of literally following through on his threat to the firefighter.

 

“There’s nothing we can do,” Scott’s brother, Andy, said. “He’s in the hospital and even if he wasn’t, we don’t know where he lives. Forget it, Clint.”

 

Flashing the younger boy a furious look, Clint felt a stab of pleasure as Andy flinched away from him. “I won’t forget about him,” Clint promised in a low voice. “I won’t forget at all.”

 

There was a silence. “We’ve got to get back before Mom finds we’re missing,” Hugh, one of the others ventured after a while. His brother, Alex, nodded. Their dad had been so furious that he had belted both of them and neither of them wanted a repeat performance.

 

“Run along then, little boys,” Clint taunted, but at the moment, their parents’ displeasure out-weighed their fear of Clint. They did, leaving silently. After a moment, Scott and Andy left, too.

 

Alone, Clint smiled. He didn’t need those losers! Let them do as mommy and daddy said; what did he care? His own father had run off years ago and his mother was as scared of Clint as his friends were. Clint got to do whatever he wanted, as long as he left his mother in peace.

 

Clint had a plan; he was going to visit the fireman in Rampart.

 

***********

 

For the first 24 hours after the debriding, Johnny did nothing but sleep. Brackett encouraged that by giving him substantial doses of painkillers. He didn’t need to worry about eating, since he was getting the hyperalimentation. All his body’s nutritional needs were being met. All Johnny had to do was rest and recover.

 

Of course, it meant that his friends were once more confined to the waiting room and even Roy didn’t linger for more than a few minutes. It was better for Johnny to sleep.

 

However, the day after that, Johnny was awake and feeling a whole lot better. The previous day, his antibiotics had been switched for a strain-specific type and they were already doing the job. The infection was clearing nicely, his temperature was down and he was eating again. It was all good news, apart from the fact he was depressed that he would be spending more days in bed before he was allowed to get up.

 

There were other pluses, too. The Foley was removed and physical therapy started to keep him mobile. Johnny was quite lucky that none of his joints was badly injured, because the scar tissue from burns on joints could limit their range of movement, causing contractions. That would have ended his career at once, but his knees and his elbows had been remarkably untouched. The first degree burns on his hands and arms had healed completely, apart from a slightly shiny look to the skin and the decision was made to cast Johnny’s broken arm. The splint and bandages had done a sterling job in protecting his broken arm, but a cast was always a better option. It cheered Johnny up a good bit, for it was another step on the road to recovery. He needed less in the way of painkillers generally, although he always got more before a physical therapy session.

 

***********

 

It was late afternoon. Johnny was kind of watching TV, since he had had no visitors that day. In reality, he was dozing more than actually watching. His physical therapy was being stepped up in preparation for him being able to get out of bed in a few more days and he was tired from that. He heard the door open and forced his heavy eyelids apart, wondering if it was Roy popping in between runs. He hadn’t seen his partner that day and assumed that either it was really quiet, or really busy.

 

A youth of about 14 or 15 came in. Johnny blinked the sleep from his eyes. He had never seen the kid before and expected that at any moment, he would realize he was in the wrong room, stammer an apology and leave. He was already forming a grin to assure the kid it was fine, no harm done, but the kid walked straight over to the bed.

 

“You’re John Gage,” he declared and there was nothing friendly or admiring about his tone. It was an accusation.

 

“Who are you?” Johnny countered, not confirming or denying what the youth had said.

 

“You’ve really messed up my life,” the boy said, ignoring the question. “Do you know how many things they’re charging me with? And it’s all your fault.”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, kid,” Johnny replied, “but I think you’d better leave now.”

 

“Oh, I’m not going anywhere,” Clint replied. “Not until I’ve taken it out of your hide. I could go to juvie and then on to prison because of you. And when I’m finished with you, I’m going to deal with Scott. He was stupid enough to get trapped in that warehouse and need to get rescued. You both need to pay.”

 

The words were chilling. Johnny now had a pretty good grasp of who this boy might be and there was something about him that scared Johnny. He reached for the bell to summon help.

 

“Don’t do that.” Clint’s voice was menacing and he was holding a knife in his hand – a Bowie knife. Johnny froze. Clint smiled, but it wasn’t a pleasant expression. With a single flick of his wrist, he severed the cord to the bell. Johnny was alone.

 

“What do you want?” Johnny asked, relieved to hear that his voice wasn’t shaking. It seemed to be the only part of him that wasn’t. He was only too aware of how vulnerable he was. One arm was in a cast, he was tethered to the bed by injury and the central line, the sides of the bed were up and he couldn’t summon help.

 

“I’m going to kill you,” Clint replied. He had thought it through. If he was going to be going to juvenile hall and prison because of what he had already done, he might as well earn a really hard reputation before he went and the best way to do that was to kill the fireman. And since fire was what had started this whole mess, fire was what he was going to use.

 

Fear lanced through Johnny’s belly. He was going to have to take his chances and get off that bed because he wasn’t going to just sit there and wait for this crazy kid to skewer him with his knife. He moved slightly, trying to gather his strength because he had been in bed now for more than a week and getting out of it was not going to be easy. “Listen, kid…”

 

“Shut up!” Clint didn’t want to waste any more time. “Put your hand on that rail.” He gestured with the knife.

 

For a long moment, Johnny hesitated. The knife slashed through the air, missing his skin by a fraction of an inch, but severing his hospital gown in two, right about the level of his heart. Damn, but the kid was quick. Johnny, with no other choice at the moment, grabbed the bedrail.

 

Clint had come prepared. He had on cargo pants with deep pockets. One pocket contained a box of matches as well as lighter fluid. The other contained sturdy plastic cable ties usually used to bind saplings to a sturdier post as they grew and duct tape. Clint had been given some by a workman one time and he knew they couldn’t be removed without a knife or scissors. He whipped one out and in seconds had Johnny’s arm immovably bound to the rail.

 

By now, Johnny’s heart was racing so quickly that he feared it would beat out of his chest. He couldn’t waste another second, he had to get help. He opened his mouth to start yelling. He barely got a single syllable out before Clint had his hand pressed over Johnny’s face.

 

“Shut up!” he hissed. “Just shut up!”

 

While Johnny continued to struggle, Clint moved his hand so that he could pinch Johnny’s nostrils closed. The paramedic froze, then began bucking his body even harder, but he hadn’t taken a deep breath and his struggles began to weaken at once. Clint held his hand there for another few seconds, until his victim began to sag slightly. He then removed his hand and Johnny began to draw in huge amounts of air. Clint calmly yanked off some of the duct tape and taped Johnny’s mouth shut. As the paramedic continued to struggle to get air, he used another cable tie to further immobilize Johnny’s right arm, the one in the cast, and used a third one to bind his feet together.

 

Finished with the paramedic now, Clint moved on to the next part of his plan. He crossed to the windows and yanked the curtains down, piling them in a heap. He doused them in lighter fluid and lit the first of several matches. It only took seconds for the curtains to burst into flames. Clint backed away, smiling broadly. Retribution was indeed sweet.

 

He looked once at the man on the bed, seeing with satisfaction that the paramedic’s eyes were wide with fear and that he was not going to be getting free, despite his struggles. With the smile firmly in place, Clint calmly walked out and closed the door behind him.

 

***********

 

Somewhere deep inside, the part of Johnny that was a trained professional told the other part that he was panicking and no wonder he wasn’t getting enough oxygen. However, that small voice couldn’t overcome the fear that Johnny felt as he pulled uselessly and painfully against the cable ties that kept him captive on the bed. He gulped in air through his nose, but it didn’t seem like enough and when the acrid smoke began to tickle the back of his throat and he started coughing against the tape covering his mouth, he really lost it. He pulled and yanked at the plastic binding his arm to the bed and didn’t even care when he felt his skin tear and blood trickle down his wrist. That didn’t matter; he had to get free, whatever the cost.

 

As the hospital smoke alarms began to sound, Roy bounded out of the elevator, almost bowling over a kid standing waiting to get on. “Use the stairs!” Roy shouted to him. “There might be a power cut.” He didn’t wait to see if the kid obeyed him or not. He ran over to the nurse’s desk. “Where did the alarm originate?” he asked.

 

He followed her shocked gaze to the panel on the wall and realized that not only was it on this floor, it was in Johnny’s room. For a second, he stood there, then he leapt into action, his training overtaking his shock. “Evacuate the rooms as quickly as you can. Firefighters will be here soon.” He grabbed up the nearest fire extinguisher, reflecting that it would probably be his own station that responded to the alarm, and ran into Johnny’s room.

 

There were already clouds of smoke in the room. Roy didn’t waste time checking on Johnny first; his priority was to extinguish the fire that threatened not only his partner, but potentially the whole hospital. He aimed the extinguisher at the flames and started it going.

 

It didn’t take long to put the fire out; a few minutes at most. By then, Roy was coughing. As soon as the flames were gone, he hurried to the bed, released the brakes and grabbed the IV stand. Johnny was lying limply on the bed, his face turned away from Roy. Roy left him alone. The priority now was to get Johnny out of the smoky room and let someone know that the fire was out.

 

The air in the corridor was much clearer. Roy took a deep breath and started to cough again. He knew he would have to have some oxygen before he was allowed to go back to work. He took a step around to Johnny’s side and froze in horrified disbelief. His friend was trussed up to the bed and gagged by a strip of duct tape.

 

“Johnny?!” Roy felt for a pulse, which was hammering away erratically. His partner seemed to be unconscious. Roy gently pulled the gummy tape from his partner’s lips and Johnny moaned. “Easy,” Roy soothed. “Just take it easy. You’re gonna be fine.”

 

“Roy?”

 

He glanced up at the sound of his name and saw his paramedic partner of the day, Josh Peters, standing there. Behind him were Dr Brackett and the head of security. It was Brackett who had spoken.

 

Roy addressed Peters first. “I put out the fire in Johnny’s room, but go and check there aren’t any hot spots. The extinguisher is in there.” Peters nodded and hurried into the room. Brackett was standing by Roy’s side, and Roy hadn’t even seen him move. “Doc, I just found Johnny like this…” He broke off to cough harshly again.

 

Brackett was stunned and horrified. He beckoned to the nearest nurse. “Give me your scissors,” he requested and immediately cut through the offending cable ties, gently lifting Johnny’s broken arm to make sure the cast hadn’t been damaged, then looking at his left wrist, where the newly-healed skin was cut and bleeding. “I need a pressure dressing,” he barked and the nurse scurried off, glancing anxiously at the room from which smoke was still drifting.

 

Moments later, Peters exited the room. He was a bit grubby, from the smoke Brackett surmised. “The fire is out and I opened the window in there to clear the room,” he reported. He looked uneasy. “I think…”

 

“It was arson,” Roy concluded. “Better contact HQ and have them send an investigator down.” He coughed again.

 

“We need to get you two to the ER,” Brackett said, taking the dressing the nurse handed to him. He ripped the plastic off and applied it to Johnny’s wrist. The paramedic moaned again. “Josh, can you help Roy?” The other man nodded. “Is it safe to use the elevator?”

 

“As long as nobody has switched off the power to them,” Peters replied. “The fire is out. The danger is over. I suppose the responding station will want to check it out and the investigator will want to look at the evidence before anything can be done to clean the room.”

 

“I alerted the hospital authorities that the fire is out, Dr Brackett,” the nurse who’d been helping them supplied. “The other members of staff from this floor are bringing the patients back who were evacuated. The elevators are working.”

 

“Did you see anyone?” Peters asked her. “Anyone you wouldn’t expect?”

 

“Um,” she replied, clearly thinking. “Not really. I did see a boy come out of Johnny’s room, but I assumed he had got the wrong room number.” She glanced at Roy. “That was when the smoke alarm sounded. You must have seen him, Mr. DeSoto. He was right at the elevator when you came out.”

 

“Yeah, I guess I did,” Roy agreed hoarsely. “But I didn’t really look at him, I don’t think.” He coughed again.

 

That was Brackett’s cue to get things moving along. “The police will want to talk to you, Elaine,” he told her. “Are you all right to wait here?”

 

“I’m fine, Doctor,” she replied. “I’ll wait for the police and the firefighters.” It had been her first real test in charge of the ward and she had come through with flying colors. Brackett was impressed.

 

“Excellent work,” he congratulated her and whisked his two patients off to the ER.

 

***********

 

A little oxygen and a couple of stitches later, Johnny was sitting up in bed and looking not too worse for the wear. He was, however, clearly very shaken by his close brush with death and Brackett had a sedative on stand-by should he require it after speaking to the police. Roy was in a treatment room close by, but a little oxygen had set him to rights too and he would be going back on duty. In the meantime, he was waiting to talk to the police, too.

 

As Roy had expected, it was Station 51 that had been called out, along with Station 36. 36 had been sent back as soon as they discovered that the fire was under control and apart from the fact they wanted to know how both Johnny and Roy were, the firefighters had to stick around to wait for the arson investigator.

 

While everyone had to wait for the arson investigator, the police took the opportunity to question both Johnny and Roy. Roy couldn’t really tell them anything much; he had arrived as the smoke alarms went off and although he had seen the boy, he couldn’t really describe him apart to give an approximate age and say that he had dark hair. The police nodded and exchanged knowing glances at this, but wouldn’t say if it meant anything or not. They thanked him and went to speak to Johnny.

 

There was far more for Johnny to tell. As clearly as he could, he told them of the events as they had unfolded. He spoke as unemotionally as possible, but his voice shook several times and each time, Brackett stepped forward, prepared to stop the questioning, but Johnny wanted to get this over with. He had no desire to repeat the story over and over again if he didn’t have to.

 

“Who was he?” Johnny asked, after his statement was concluded and the cops were rising to leave.

 

“Right now, I can’t tell you,” one of them replied.

 

“Can’t or won’t?” Johnny queried astutely.

 

“A bit of both,” the cop acknowledged. “But believe me, we will tell you when we can.” He smiled at Johnny. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Gage. I hope you feel better soon.”

 

“Thanks,” Johnny replied automatically. As they left the room, he put his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes.

 

“Are you all right?” Brackett asked. He reached out and took Johnny’s pulse, finding it quicker than normal. That was hardly surprising. “I can give you something to help you relax.”

 

“No, no drugs, doc,” Johnny replied, opening his eyes. “I need to come to terms with this. That kid wanted to kill me and I don’t know why.”

 

“No?” Brackett wondered when he had started playing psychiatrist. That kind of thing was more up Dixie’s street than his. Perhaps she was rubbing off on him after all these years?

 

“Well, it had something to do with the warehouse fire,” Johnny agreed. “And I pity this Scott character, whoever he is. But why did he want to kill me? And why would he think it would sort out his problems? The only thing it’s done, surely, is make them worse.” Johnny could feel his hands shaking and hastily sought to hide the left one under the blankets. “And why pick on me? I wasn’t the only firefighter at that fire.”

 

“No, but you are the only one who’s been getting publicity,” Brackett reminded him. “The other men injured all went home pretty soon afterwards, but you’re still here and whether you’re aware of it or not, there is still the odd mention of you on local news bulletins.”

 

That was a truth Johnny hadn’t wanted to acknowledge. The TV stations had latched on to him as a particular hero after the fire and Johnny just wanted them to forget he had ever existed. He suspected this latest attack would place him right back in the headline news. He closed his eyes again. After a moment he spoke, but his eyes were still closed. “I was gonna say that I don’t understand how anyone could try and kill someone else. That’s pretty stupid, huh? People kill others all the time and I know I’ll never understand it.” Johnny swallowed dryly and Brackett handed him a glass of water. Johnny sipped and handed it back. “But a kid? He couldn’t a been more than 14.”

 

“I don’t understand it either, Johnny,” Brackett agreed. In their line of work, they saw more of the dark underbelly of mankind than most people. It never became easier to understand, but this was a particularly perplexing case.

 

“I hope they find that Scott kid in time,” Johnny remarked after a period of silence. His eyes were still closed; somehow it all seemed easier to bear that way. A shudder crept through his frame.

 

“I think we ought to get you settled back into a room,” Brackett suggested.

 

“Whatever,” Johnny agreed indifferently. “Doc? Did I see Roy up there or was I just imagining it?”

 

“He should be outside if the cops are finished talking to him,” the doctor replied. “Why don’t I send him in while I find somewhere for you to go?”

 

“Thanks.” Johnny managed to pry his eyes open. The shaking was dying down a bit, although his stomach was still churning anxiously. He told himself firmly that was just because of the smoke he had inhaled. He didn’t believe it, though.

 

“Hey.” Roy was still smoke-smudged, but he looked all right. That was a weight off Johnny’s shoulders. He would have hated it if Roy had been hurt rescuing him. “How’re you doing?”

 

“Better,” Johnny admitted. “It’s taken a bit of time, but… Yeah, better.”

 

“I know what you mean,” Roy agreed and held out a hand that still had a tremor. “Brackett says you’re fine.” His eyes lingered on the bandage round Johnny’s wrist.

 

“It’s nothing,” Johnny denied. He glanced at it and away. “It probably won’t even leave a mark.” Another shudder ran through his body.

 

Looking round the exam room, Roy thought of a diversion. “Cap and the guys are outside. Do you want to see them?”

 

Part of him wanted to say no; he hated to be seen as vulnerable, but he was a good deal less vulnerable now than he had been a week ago when they started visiting, so he nodded. Other people were maybe exactly what he needed to take his mind off things.

 

Cap was the first in the door, as was his right as leader, but his face clearly showed his concern. “John, are you all right?” he asked.

 

“I’m fine, Cap,” Johnny replied. “A bit shaken, but I’ll be okay.” He found a small smile for his concerned boss. “What are you guys doing here?”

 

“We were responding to the alarm here,” Cap replied. “Now we’re waiting for the arson investigator to come down. I don’t suppose he’s spoken to you already?”

 

“He doesn’t think Gage did it, does he?” Chet piped up.

 

“Shut up, you twit,” Cap responded without even looking at his lineman. Marco nudged Chet in the ribs. Chet nudged him back in a rare display of maturity. Mike Stoker rolled his eyes.

 

In all the by-play Johnny almost forgot what he had been asked. “No, I don’t think I’ve seen him,” Johnny replied. He couldn’t swear the man hadn’t come in while he was still rather out of it. “Anyway, why did they send him? I know it was arson; I saw the boy do it.”

 

“Well, that’s going to save me a lot of time,” said a new voice from the door. A man stepped forward and nodded to the firefighters. “Jim McDonald, arson investigator,” he introduced himself. “And you must be Firefighter/Paramedic John Gage.” He quirked an eyebrow. “I won’t shake hands.” Johnny ruefully glanced down. “So, you saw the boy set fire to the curtains?”

 

“Yeah.” Johnny realized that he would have to talk about the whole thing again. “He pulled the curtains down and poured a can of lighter fluid over them. Then he lit a few matches. I’m not sure how many, I kinda lost track about then.” He didn’t say he had been fighting for his life against the bonds that had kept him captive in the bed.

 

“That certainly fits in with what I’ve just seen,” McDonald agreed. “Thanks, Mr. Gage. I hope you feel better soon.” He nodded to all the men there and left as quickly and quietly as he had come in.

 

The crew of 51s was caught rather flat-footed by his sudden appearance and disappearance. Cap cleared his throat uncomfortably. He knew, from Roy, the position Johnny had been in when Roy had pushed him from the room and he didn’t want to go into any unnecessary details in front of the others. “Well,” he said, lamely, “nice to see a man who knows how to do his job.”

 

The others all looked at him. Cap colored slightly and looked away. What was he supposed to say? He opened his mouth to try another comment, but was saved by the tones. His HT beeped. “Station 51…”

 

“See you later, John,” he offered and they all hurried out, sketching goodbyes as they headed towards their respective vehicles.

 

As the door closed behind them and he was left alone, Johnny suddenly felt achingly vulnerable.

 

***********

 

He wasn’t alone for long. Dixie came in and kept him company, chatting lightly about the goings-on in the ER that day and generally trying to keep his mind off what had happened. Johnny smiled and responded in the right places, but she suspected he only heard part of what she said.

 

At length, orderlies came to collect him and Dr Brackett stood in the doorway waiting to escort him upstairs. Johnny didn’t know where he was being taken and didn’t care, as long as it wasn’t the same room he had been in. It wasn’t, of course, since that room would need a deep clean and probably a coat of paint to eliminate all the signs of the smoke. He was taken to a room on the orthopedic floor and settled in quickly. Since he had been the subject of attempted murder, a cop was on duty outside his door.

 

“Your pulse is still way too fast,” Brackett told him once Johnny was settled. “You’re going to make yourself ill if you don’t calm down.”

 

“Easy for you to say, doc,” Johnny retorted. He knew he was as tense as a bowstring. “Some kid just tried to make me into toast; it ain’t so easy to calm down after that, you know.”

 

“I can only imagine,” Brackett agreed. “Still, you’ve got to calm down. Your body has been under enough stress without you adding more.” He produced a syringe from his pocket. “You can either take this willingly, or I’ll have the nurses strap you down and do it that way, but you are going to take this sedative. You need to rest.”

 

There was something about the glint in the good doctor’s eye that made Johnny realize that he wasn’t the only person to be stressed that day. Arguing with Brackett was often a fruitless exercise and even though Johnny was no less stubborn than the doctor, today he was simply too weary to put up a fight that he knew he would lose in the end. “All right,” he capitulated and Brackett leaned in close to shoot the drug into Johnny’s central line.

 

For just an instant, as he felt the world starting to swim around him, Johnny felt panicky. Then warm waves of sleep swept over him and he plunged headlong into the darkness.

 

***********

 

The call Station 51 had received was to a house fire. The family stood outside in shock as their home burned fiercely. Cap went straight to the family. “Is there anyone in there?”

 

“No,” the mother replied. She was white and shaken and looked like she was going to burst into tears at any moment. Cap didn’t blame her in the slightest. Fires were scary things and even more so when it was your home and belongings going up in smoke.

 

Setting the men to work, Cap called for a second alarm as at the rate the home was burning, it could well spread to other homes nearby. He then concentrated on directing his men to the places they were most needed. He heard sirens in the distance, drawing closer and wasn’t surprised to see the sheriff’s department pulling up. Vince Howard got out of the car and crossed to Hank.

 

“How does it look?”

 

“This is pretty bad,” Cap replied. “I think it’s going to be a complete loss.”

 

“Do you think it was started deliberately?” Vince asked.

 

Startled, Cap looked back at the blaze. “I don’t know for sure,” he replied, “but it is possible. Why do you think it’s deliberate?”

 

“Because that kid over there is the one John Gage and the others pulled out of that burning warehouse last week. It’s his friend that set fire to the curtains in Gage’s room earlier.” Vince sighed. “We’re looking for the kid right now and we’ve taken his mother into protective custody, because she is terrified of the boy.”

 

“Dear God,” Cap breathed. “And you think he might have set this fire? Why?”

 

“We got a phone call from the mother there about an hour ago, saying the other boy was hanging around and wouldn’t leave. The father had gone out to try to talk to him, but the kid ran off. I might be completely wrong, but before he left, the kid had shouted that he would make them toast, just like he had the fireman.” Vince exchanged a speaking glance with Cap. “Circumstantial, I guess, but good enough for me.”

 

“Yeah, me, too,” Cap agreed, looking back at the burning structure. “I’ll get the arson investigator out – again.” Cap sighed. “I just left him at Rampart before I came here.”

 

“How is Gage?” Vince asked. He worked quite a lot with Station 51’s crew.

 

“Recovering, slowly but surely. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt in this last attack – well a couple of stitches and some smoke inhalation, but nothing to set his recovery back, thankfully.” Cap sighed. “What did that kid think this – and attacking John – would accomplish? After all, he’s already been charged, hasn’t he?”

 

“Yes, he has,” Vince agreed. “And he’s got a record as long as your arm, too. Petty stuff mostly, but this takes him into a whole different league. He won’t be going to juvenile hall when he’s convicted; he’s going straight to prison. Unless the court psychiatric officer declares him unfit to stand trial, in which case he’ll go to a secure facility somewhere until he is fit to stand trial. Either way, he’s going away for a long time.”

 

“It’s unbelievable that a kid of that age is trying to kill people,” Cap commented, his eyes still on the scene before him. The engine from the second alarm pulled up behind engine 51.

 

“I know,” nodded Vince, before he stepped away to speak to the family whose home was burning. Cap went over to speak to the other captain and tell him where his men were needed. But part of his mind stayed on the disturbed youth who had caused such utter mayhem.

 

***********

 

It was the following morning before Johnny was awake again and he was ravenous. While he knew the stuff he was getting through the central line provided all the nutrients he needed, it did nothing for his hunger. He was quite gratified to see that he had a really good breakfast, with bacon and eggs and sausages. Eating would be messy, but he didn’t care; it was the best food he’d had since his arrival at Rampart. He plugged away at his meal one handed, picking things up and eating them with his fingers and thoroughly enjoying it. The nurse had to laugh when she collected his tray, for Johnny was filthy and his attempts to clean himself up with the miniscule napkin had failed dismally. Johnny just grinned along with her. His eyes followed her as she left the room and he spied the police guard sitting outside. In an instant, his good mood soured.

 

Memories of the previous day crowded in and he shuddered. After a while, Johnny realized that the fire alarm system in the hospital would have saved his life even if Roy hadn’t come in. Roy’s arrival was a fortunate happenstance for which he was very grateful, but he would have been all right even if Roy hadn’t come. He was safe now and the police would catch the boy before he was ready to go home.

 

The thought of his house was comforting and Johnny immersed himself in day dreams about all the things he planned to do to the house to make it the way he wanted it. He wondered how Lady was doing without him and hoped that the kitten didn’t get too attached to her temporary home. If she had, Johnny knew he would not have the heart to take her away from it, but he would miss the small animal. By now, the carpet would be laid on the stairs and he hoped it looked as good as he had imagined it would when he chose it.

 

He was in the middle of painting the second bedroom when Roy appeared – well, painting it in his mind, anyway. “Hey, Roy,” he smiled. “How was the rest of your shift?” Johnny didn’t know if Roy had come in to see him or not the day before, since he had been completely out of it.

 

“Not too bad,” Roy replied lightly, but there was something in his tone that told Johnny that everything was not as it seemed.

 

“What happened?” Johnny asked. “Did someone get hurt?”

 

There were times when Johnny had to be hit over the head before he noticed things and there were times, like now, when he was too perceptive by half. Roy cursed silently. He had hoped that Johnny would be having one of his ‘oblivious’ days. “No, nobody got hurt,” he reassured the injured man.

 

“But something happened, didn’t it?” Johnny persisted. His partner was silent, debating what to say. “Roy?”

 

“That fire we got toned out to when you were downstairs,” Roy began. “When we got there, we found the home fully involved. It was a complete loss, but nobody got hurt.”

 

“That’s not good,” his partner agreed cautiously. He could tell there was more to come.

 

Hesitating again, Roy wondered if he should go on, but he had started now and Johnny had a right to know. “It hasn’t been confirmed to us yet,” he ventured, “but the police think that fire was started by the boy who started the fire in your room yesterday.”

 

“What?” It didn’t make any sense to Johnny at all.

 

“The home that was burning was where the boy from the warehouse rescue lived. The boy who was here – his name is Clint – had been there threatening them just a short while before.” Roy wished he had never started this story. Johnny’s face was set and pale.

 

“How do they know Clint was the one who was here?” he asked remotely.

 

“He told his friends, the ones who had been involved with the warehouse fire said that he had told them you were ‘toast’ if he got his hands on you. And he said pretty much the same thing to the boy’s family just before the house went on fire.” He searched Johnny’s still face anxiously.

 

“Where is … Clint … now?” Johnny asked finally.

 

That was the clincher; the question Roy didn’t want Johnny to ask. The one that scared the wits out of Roy every time he thought of it. He swallowed dryly.

 

“We don’t know.”

 

***********

 

There wasn’t a lot more to say on the subject, Johnny thought, but he was apparently wrong there. “The police have left a car at your house 24/7,” Roy explained. “Clint’s mother is in protective custody, as are the families of the other boys involved in the warehouse fire. The police have issued APBs and are combing all his known haunts. Obviously, there is an officer on duty here all the time and Dr Brackett has posted a security guard at the elevators, too.”

 

“Why is he doing this?” Johnny asked. “Why is it my fault that he got caught breaking the law?”

 

“I don’t know,” Roy whispered. “I don’t know.” He sat silently for a few moments. “Clint has a history of disturbed behavior. It seems, from what we were told, that it often gets worse when adolescence hits.”

 

“Guess they’re right there,” Johnny mentioned, but his attempt at casualness didn’t come off. His tasty breakfast was now lying in the pit of his stomach like a lump of lead. “So what happens now?”

 

“The police look for him and keep an eye on everyone in the meantime.”

 

For the first time in a few minutes, Johnny met Roy’s eyes. “Wow, that really reassures me,” he retorted sarcastically. “He’s already managed to set two fires with the intentions of killing people. What’s to stop him moving on to something else? He was pretty handy with a knife.” Johnny glanced down involuntarily at the hospital gown he was still wearing, remembering the knife severing the gown he had been wearing the previous day.

 

There really wasn’t an answer to that. Roy sat down miserably in the chair next to the bed, only belatedly becoming aware that he had been standing since his arrival. Like everyone else at Station 51, he had found it difficult to sleep that night. Cops were on duty at the station, too. “I don’t know,” he admitted finally.

 

They sat in silence for several more minutes. “I’m sorry, Roy,” Johnny offered at last. “It’s not your fault and I shouldn’t be taking out on you.” His voice, to his intense annoyance, was shaking.

 

Shaking his head, Roy brushed the comment off. “It’s all right, I know that,” he responded. “They’ll find him, Johnny. I know they will.”

 

“Sure,” Johnny agreed, but neither of them was convinced by his answer.

 

***********

 

The days went by. There was no sign of Clint. Roy and the others were back on shift. Johnny’s physical therapist told him he would be getting up the following day and allowed him to sit on the edge of the bed in preparation, knowing that Johnny would need time to get used to sitting unsupported. Getting on his feet for the first time in two weeks would be quite a moment, too. Roy had offered to be there if Johnny wanted him to, but for the first time, knowing it would be difficult, Johnny elected to face it alone. Instead, Roy went out to Johnny’s house to collect his mail and check things over. He and the others had been going out regularly while Johnny was in the hospital.

 

It was a beautiful day and Roy enjoyed the drive from the station to Johnny’s place. They had not had any runs during the night and no calls had come in to give them hours of unwanted overtime, just as they should be going home. Roy planned to get anything that needed attention at Johnny’s and then go home for a while before going to visit his partner in hospital. He hoped that Johnny did all right getting back onto his feet. It was a momentous day.

 

It was the first time Roy had really relaxed in a few days. The idea that Clint was still on the loose somewhere was disturbing. The police had promised man-power for as long as it was needed to watch the station, Johnny and Johnny’s place, but Roy was not naďve enough to believe it would last forever. If they were very lucky, perhaps it would last another week, but after that, they would have to take their chances with the disturbed teen.

 

Clint’s face was everywhere, on every news bulletin and on posters in shops and malls and bus stops. Nobody had seen him and Roy knew that there was speculation that he had skipped town and gone somewhere else. The snag with that theory was the lack of proof. Until Roy knew for certain he had gone somewhere else, he would not relax; he didn’t dare.

 

The officers on duty in the patrol car parked on Johnny’s property waved to Roy as he arrived. He and the other members of 51s crew had their photographs handed out to the officers on duty so that they could go about their business without being stopped. Roy waved back to them.

 

He collected the mail from the mail box and sorted it out into junk, bills and personal. The junk got filed straight into the garbage and the others Roy put aside to take in with him. There wasn’t much. He took a quick tour of the inside of the house to water the few house plants that had survived his partner’s tender loving care and to make sure there were no other problems that needed seen to. Everything looked fine.

 

Back in the kitchen, Roy glanced out of the window and noticed that the barn door was standing slightly ajar. It hadn’t been like that the last time Roy had been out. He knew the latch on the door wasn’t that secure; it was one of the things Johnny had been planning to attend to but hadn’t yet had the chance. Sighing, Roy decided he’d better close it and make sure nothing was trying to make a home in there. Going out of the back door, he crossed to the barn, waving to the cops. One of them was out stretching his legs and waved back. Roy didn’t stop to talk. He wanted to get this over with and head on home.

 

The barn was dusty and quiet, the sunlight penetrating through the dirty window to show dust motes dancing in the light. There was the aroma of hay and, very faintly, horses. There were three stalls on the left, a door to the tack room straight ahead and on the right were metal feed bins and the ladder to the hay loft. Pegs were hammered into the wooden wall under the hay loft and Johnny had hung various implements and ropes on them – a pitchfork, broom and the like. There were bits and pieces of hay underfoot.

 

It took Roy a moment to realize that the pitchfork was gone from its peg. As he took a step forward to see if it had fallen to the ground, something crashed to the ground, right where he had been standing only moments before.

 

His heart pounding, Roy whirled around. He was standing beneath the hay loft now and he looked in horror at the pitchfork that quivered in the floor in the spot where he had been standing. It hadn’t fallen by chance, of that he was certain. Roy glanced up, looking through the slats of the platform above him and saw what he had feared; there was someone moving about up there.

 

Roy knew he had to get out of there. The quickest route between two places was a straight line. But the straight line would take him into the danger zone again and he knew that the person up there – and he had no doubt at all that it was Clint – would be able to bean him with another heavy object. His only chance was to sneak round the walls and then make a run for it. He took a step sideways.

 

Unfortunately for Roy, the gaps in the slats of the loft worked both ways. When he moved, the person above shadowed him. Roy took another step and so did the person above. He also moved closer to the edge. The loft was too high for Roy to jump up at, but not too high for someone to jump down from and be unhurt. Roy froze, uncertain what to do next.

 

The choice was made for him. He sensed rather than saw the person jumping from the loft and made a run for it. He wasn’t quick enough and Clint tackled Roy around the legs and brought the paramedic crashing to the ground. Roy twisted onto his back, kicking as best he could, lashing out with his fists, but he was slightly winded by the tackle and his blows went wide.

 

Clint didn’t appear to be in the least bothered by the fact he had just jumped down about 10 feet. He threw a punch at Roy that missed simply because the paramedic pulled his head back in the nick of time. Clint was undeterred. He grabbed his Bowie knife from his belt and raised it above his head. He let out a banshee yell as the knife started its downward trajectory.

 

Flinching back, Roy managed to knock the crazed youth away and the knife point slid over his thigh. Blood gushed from the wound, but it wasn’t serious. However, Clint was really annoyed now and launched himself at the paramedic, who was scrambling to get away.

 

Sensing the attack, Roy threw his arm up and the knife slashed him down the forearm. Roy let of a scream of pain, but continued to scrabble away. Clint followed relentlessly, slashing indiscriminately at the man on the ground. Blood splattered over them both. Clint, oblivious to everything but his goal, brushed Roy’s arm aside and stabbed down into his body. The knife entered his side.

 

“Yes!” Clint leaped to his feet, triumph in his voice. He froze in shock as a voice spoke.

 

“Hold it right there!”

 

Glancing up, Clint saw a cop and the cop had a gun trained on him. Behind him was another cop, also with a gun. Clint was confused. This wasn’t in his plan. What were the cops doing there? Clint had crept into the barn a few days before and hadn’t noticed the car parked further along the drive. He had seen the guys checking Johnny’s place and had guessed that if he opened the barn door, someone would check it out. It didn’t matter who; anyone would do. That would send a message to the cops that he was too clever for them.

 

But everything had changed now. The cops were there and they shouldn’t be. Clint had no idea what to do next, so he obeyed his instinct and rose to his feet to turn and run. The cop shouted another warning and when Clint ignored it, the cop fired, hitting the youth in the leg and bringing him down.

 

It didn’t stop Clint from trying to get up and run away. He didn’t manage even a single step as the injured leg collapsed underneath him. The cop who had shot him put away his gun, ran across the barn and handcuffed the injured youth. He glanced at Roy and didn’t like what he saw. “Call the fire department,” he ordered his partner. “Tell them we need a squad and an ambulance right now.”

 

***********

 

Walking again really hadn’t been that much fun, Johnny reflected as he lay curled up in his bed. His left foot was elevated on a couple of pillows and it throbbed with an unbecoming vigor. He had been disgusted at how weak his legs were and the few shaky steps he’d been able to take with the crutch angled under one arm had been discouraging. If his therapist hadn’t been supporting him from behind, he would probably have fallen on his ass. He didn’t care that he’d been off his feet for more than two weeks. How could two weeks make such drastic inroads into his strength? How long was it going to take him to get home? How long till he got back to work? Would he get back to work at all?

 

He had told the nurse he didn’t want any visitors – not for a while anyway. He wanted to sleep. That was partly true; he was tired and a nap wouldn’t go amiss, but he mostly wanted to brood. What would he do with himself if he couldn’t go back to work? Being a paramedic and a firefighter was as much as part of him as his too-long hair and crooked grin. Facing up to cold hard reality was painful and he didn’t want any of his friends coming in while he was feeling so low. So he lay there with his eyes closed, just in case anyone looked in, and thought bleak thoughts about his future without fire fighting.

 

He was drifting on the soft fringes of sleep when the door opened. Johnny was aware of it, but the painkillers he had been given for his foot were finally kicking in and he really did want to sleep. If he kept his eyes closed, then whoever it was would go away and leave him alone. That was what he wanted most; to be alone for a while.

 

Obviously, the person who had come in didn’t know that Johnny wanted to be alone, for they crossed the room with a determined stride. “Johnny.” It was Dixie’s voice and there was a strain in it he wasn’t accustomed to hearing. His eyes snapped open at once.

 

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

 

“It’s Roy,” she replied.

 

***********

 

Those two simple words got Johnny out of that bed faster than he thought he could manage. He reached for the robe that lay on the chair by the bed and draped it around his bad arm, cursing his fumbling fingers as it started to slither off. He barely caught it. “Tell me,” he ordered.

 

“He was at your house and he was stabbed,” Dixie replied. She reached for the robe, but Johnny avoided her, sensing that she wasn’t going to help him. “He should be here any minute.”

 

“How bad is he?” At last, Johnny got his good left arm through the sleeve and dragged the belt around his waist.

 

“Pretty bad,” Dixie replied honestly. “He’s bleeding into his belly.” She didn’t add that the doctors feared he might not still be alive when he arrived. “They’re taking him straight to an OR.”

 

“Does Joanne know?” Johnny asked. He was looking around for his crutch, which was propped against the wall, out of his reach. “Hand me my crutch,” he requested.

 

“You’re not going anywhere,” Dixie contradicted him, folding her arms and looking as forbidding as she knew how.

 

“Don’t help me, then,” Johnny snarled. “But I’m going to be there when Roy comes in, come hell or high water. I’ve got to be there for Joanne.”

 

“Johnny…”

 

“No, Dixie, I’ve got to be. Don’t you understand? Roy wouldn’t have been at my place today if he hadn’t been doing me a favor, just the way all the other guys have been doing me favors while I’ve been in here. It’s my fault and I need to be there to do what I can for Joanne. It isn’t enough, but it’s all I can offer.” He looked at her beseechingly.

 

“Oh, Johnny.” Dixie wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him in close to her. How could any woman alive resist those brown eyes when he looked at her like that? “It isn’t your fault,” she crooned. “You wait there and I’ll get a wheelchair for you.”

 

***********

 

They arrived in the ER just moments before Roy himself was brought in. The first stretcher in the door had a youth on it and as Johnny glanced at the boy, he stiffened. “That’s him!” he declared in a loud, shocked voice.

 

“Yes, we know,” replied a man and Johnny glanced at the policeman who had accompanied the boy. “Don’t worry, Mr. Gage. He isn’t going anywhere.”

 

Shaken, Johnny was still gazing after the gurney when Roy was brought in. His partner was unconscious, his face sheet-white. Two large bore IVs were running into each arm and he had on an oxygen mask. Blood stained bandages were wrapped around his midriff and a paramedic was riding the rails, keeping pressure on them.

 

“Straight into the elevator,” Brackett ordered. He touched Johnny’s shoulder briefly. “We’ll do our best, Johnny.”

 

“I know,” Johnny replied and his voice sounded hollow in his own ears. He could only sit there and watch as the gurney disappeared into the elevator and whisked Roy straight to the OR. It was hideous, being on this side of things. Johnny had to sit and wait and when Joanne came, do what he could to comfort her, if she would let him.

 

He shuddered as he realized that she might reject his comfort and send him away. Then, he might not know for a long time the outcome of the operation. His friendship with the DeSotos was probably over. He thought he might be sick.

 

A warm blanket dropped onto his legs and Johnny looked up in Dixie’s concerned face. “You were shivering,” she told him. “Are you all right? Do you want to go back to your room?”

 

“No; not yet. I need to see Joanne.”

 

Slowly, Dixie nodded her agreement. She thought the last thing Johnny needed to do right there and then was speak to Joanne, but there was something in Johnny’s expression that told her that isolating him was the wrong thing to do. She took him into the relatives’ room and waited there with him, instructing her nurses to send Joanne in there as soon as she arrived.

 

***********

 

It was over half an hour before Joanne arrived, pale and trembling but in control. She was ushered into the relatives’ room and saw Johnny sitting there and promptly dissolved into tears. Seeing him sitting there and knowing that he had only been allowed out of bed for the first time that day, she knew it had to be serious – really serious. “He’s not … dead, is he?” she blurted.

 

“No, Joanne, no!” Dixie cried and hurried over to guide the sobbing woman to a seat beside Johnny, who wrapped his arms around her and drew her head down onto his shoulder. He was glad he’d taken Dixie’s advice and transferred to the couch. Dixie had suggested it so he could stretch out and sleep if need be, but it allowed Joanne to sit right next to him to be comforted. While Johnny hugged his partner’s wife, Dixie told Joanne what little they knew. Joanne listened, growing calmer once the first onslaught of tears died down.

 

There was a silence after Dixie finished speaking and Johnny took a deep breath, summoning all his courage, for he was sure Joanne would turn on him for his part in this whole mess. “I’m sorry, Jo,” he began. “This is all my fault. Roy went to the house to pick up my mail and if he hadn’t done that, he would be fine. I’m so, so sorry.”

 

“What are you talking about, Johnny?” Joanne asked. “How can this be your fault? You’re in here because some kids couldn’t resist playing with kerosene and matches. One of those kids tried to kill you again last week and tried to kill his friend, too. How is that your fault? Now, it seems to me that this is that boy’s fault. Didn’t Dixie just say that he was brought in at the same time? I know we don’t know for sure, but I suspect that we’ll find he had something to do with this. So how is that your fault? Did you tell him to do these things? I don’t think so.”

 

“Joanne…”

 

“John Gage, listen to me and listen good!” Joanne snapped. “You’ve clearly spent far too much time with my husband, because you’re now taking on the guilt of the world, and none of it is yours to bear! None of this is your fault; none of it. And believe me; I’m going to keep telling you that until it finds a home in that thick head of yours. Understand?”

 

Blinking under the onslaught, Johnny nodded meekly. “All right,” he agreed, although he didn’t believe her.

 

Joanne knew him too well for that one to fly. “Johnny, it’s not your fault. You didn’t stab Roy. Roy wouldn’t have gone to your house if he hadn’t wanted to. Much as I love him, he’s not a saint. He wouldn’t drive that much out of his way unless he wanted to, so stop it right now.” She eyed him critically. “Should you be up?”

 

As Johnny started to laugh, a jagged sound that wasn’t entirely humorous, Dixie spoke up. “No, he shouldn’t, but he insisted on coming down.”

 

The laughter stilled. “I had to be here,” Johnny muttered. “I had to.”

 

***********

 

When the door opened to admit Brackett, Johnny was asleep on the couch. Joanne was flicking through a magazine, alternatively watching the clock, the door and Johnny. Dixie had had to go back to work. Johnny and Joanne had talked for a while, but she could see the paramedic was crashing and suggested he stretch out for a nap. Johnny had resisted for quite a while, but in the end, he agreed to lie down and it only took seconds before he was asleep. Joanne was glad for his sake, but she had to admit that the waiting was much harder alone.

 

As Brackett entered the room, Joanne’s heart leapt. His face was always difficult to read, but he wasn’t smiling and surely he would smile if everything was all right? “Joanne.” His rich voice was as warm as ever and gave nothing away. He walked over to the seat beside her and took her hand. Joanne dissolved into tears immediately. She knew that Roy was dead.

 

Disturbed by Brackett’s voice, Johnny woke and sat up, disoriented. He blinked at the scene before him and in that instant, knew that his worst fears had been realized. Brackett was holding Joanne’s hand and Joanne was weeping. Roy must be dead. He heart lay leaden in his chest. “Doc?” he croaked.

 

“Johnny.” Brackett took a deep breath. It was never easy to give bad news to relatives and he was closer to these two people than he was to most he had to speak to. “Roy…”

 

“He’s dead,” Joanne cried. “That’s what you’re trying to say!” She burst out in a fresh storm of tears.

 

“Joanne, no. No. Roy isn’t dead!” Brackett denied. “He’s very ill, but he isn’t dead.”

 

It took several minutes for the news to filter through. “How ill?” Johnny asked at last, recovering his composure. He ached to comfort Joanne, but she remained sitting across from him and he knew that there was no way he could get to his feet unaided. “Doc? How ill?”

 

“Critical,” Brackett replied, sure now that they were both listening and would remember. “He’s in Recovery at the moment, but he’ll be transferred to ICU shortly. We’ve got him on a vent to allow him to rest. The knife tore the stomach and liver. We’ve sutured them both, but the stomach contents did contaminate the abdominal cavity. He lost a great deal of blood; we’ve had to transfuse five units and he’ll probably get another two before we’re completely happy. He also had a cut on his thigh and forearm, but they weren’t serious. Still, it did add to the blood loss problem. We’re giving him drugs to help bring up his BP, as well as fluids and antibiotics. He’s going to be with us for a while, I’m afraid.”

 

“Is he going to be all right?” Joanne asked.

 

“Yes, I expect so,” Brackett replied. “It all depends on how he does in the next few hours. We’ll know more then, when he gets over the trauma.”

 

“So he could still die?” It was Johnny this time.

 

“He could,” Brackett admitted. “But I don’t expect him to. I expect that he’ll make a full recovery, but as I said, it’ll take a bit of time.” He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. He was tired, but there were still quite a few hours of his shift left. As ever, he was unable to leave one of his paramedics in another doctor’s hands, however capable they were. “I really don’t expect problems, but you never know. Some people develop problems when they seem to be past the problem stage.” He shot a glance at Johnny, who took a few seconds to grasp what had been said.

 

“Now hang on a minute!” Johnny spluttered, but Brackett had achieved his objective and lightened the atmosphere a bit.

 

Rising, Brackett smiled at Joanne. “Someone will come to take you to see Roy shortly. Johnny, someone will take you back to bed.”

 

“After I’ve seen Roy,” Johnny declared.

 

“You need to rest,” Brackett chided him gently.

 

“I’ll rest once I’ve seen Roy,” Johnny agreed and Brackett capitulated.

 

“All right. But straight back to bed once you’ve seen Roy.” He nodded to them both and left.

 

Joanne rose and walked the few steps to the couch. She sat down beside Johnny and put her head on his shoulder. Johnny hugged her. “He’ll be all right,” he promised. “He’ll be all right.”

 

***********

 

Roy looked pale under the oxygen mask, but somehow better than he had looked on the gurney when he had first been brought in. Joanne, who hadn’t seen him, thought he looked awful, but Johnny was able to reassure her. He wasn’t able to stay for long, because Brackett had decided to accompany them and was determined to send Johnny back to his room as soon as possible. In truth, Johnny didn’t altogether mind, because he was exhausted, his body aching. For his first time out of bed, even he had to admit he had overdone it.

 

He was barely back in bed before the door opened and the rest of the crew trooped in. They all wore a remarkably similar expression – fear. Johnny wanted nothing more than to sleep and let his pain meds take over, but he forced himself to stay awake and soothe their fears. They were all horrified. Cap had been notified by Brackett, who had phoned headquarters, too. Cap had then phoned the others.

 

“Roy’s going to be fine,” Johnny assured them. He briefly told them what had happened – as far as he knew – and Cap took himself off to see Joanne while the others kept Johnny company. He wasn’t much company, as it turned out, for he fell asleep within a few minutes, his trip out of bed having worn him out. When Johnny woke, several hours later, they were all gone. While he was disappointed, he wasn’t surprised. He was too tired to stay awake longer than was needed to eat.

 

***********

 

Next morning, Johnny was anxious for news about Roy, but it was a long time before his queries brought him any answers. He was even debating on the wisdom of getting out of bed and trudging up to the ICU to try and get some answers. It was quite a thought, as he was sore from his exertions of the previous day. In fact, he was so sore that his physical therapist announced that he wasn’t to get up that day and he was due to get some hot packs for his aching muscles. But regardless of what the therapist thought, Johnny would get up if he didn’t get some word about Roy – and soon!

 

He was planning his strategy – his crutch had been removed from the room – when the door finally opened to admit Brackett. “At last!” Johnny cried. “I thought you would never come. How’s Roy?”

 

“Well, good morning to you, too, Johnny,” Brackett retorted. “And how are you this fine day?”

 

Flushing, Johnny muttered, “Morning.” He watched, glowering, as Brackett perused his chart, frowning slightly at what Johnny guessed to be the slight rise in temperature he had had the previous evening. Caused by exertion, he knew, and settled now – he hoped. “Doc, I’m fine,” he declared in exasperation. “Never mind me; how’s Roy?”

 

Putting aside Johnny’s chart, having made his point, Brackett concentrated on putting the younger man out of his misery. “Roy’s doing very well,” he replied. “His BP has come up nicely and his blood work looks good. We’re going to wake him up in a bit and take him off the vent. If everything continues to go as well as this, he should be out of ICU tomorrow.”

 

“That’s great,” Johnny breathed, overwhelmingly relieved. “Doc, what about that boy? The one who did this?”

 

“He’s still here at the moment under guard, but he’ll be going to a detention centre later today,” Brackett replied. “From what the police tell me, he won’t be leaving there for a very long time, apart from to go to court. He will have to see a psychiatrist, but it seems that he does have some kind of mental problem. I wouldn’t care to speculate exactly what; it’s not my area of expertise. But you don’t need to worry, Johnny. He’s not going to be going anywhere.”

 

“Good,” Johnny declared. He was a very forgiving person, but that kid had tried to kill him and Roy and that was something he could never forgive.

 

Brackett ignored the comment. He felt the same way. “Now, let’s talk about you, shall we?”

 

“Oh, doc, I’m fine,” Johnny protested as Brackett produced a stethoscope.

 

“That’s not what your chart says,” Brackett commented and placed the bell onto Johnny’s chest. “Take a deep breath…”

 

**********

 

Taking Roy off the vent was a straightforward procedure, Johnny learned later that day. Cap had come in to see them both and had visited Roy first before coming down to give Johnny the latest news on his partner. Johnny had stayed in bed, not really wanting to admit how weary and sore he was from the previous day’s exertions, but unable to hide it from those who knew him well. Cap gave him a troubled look.

 

“You don’t look too good, pal,” he commented with concern. “What does the doc say?”

 

“He says I over did it yesterday, sitting with Joanne.” Johnny had learned the hard way over the years that lying to Cap was usually a waste of time. Cap, quite often, had heard the story from somewhere else and was trying to make Johnny admit that he was human and could hurt sometimes. “I’ll be fine, Cap. I’m just over-tired.”

 

“Is that what the doc says?” Cap queried.

 

“He hasn’t said much of anything,” Johnny responded truthfully. “He sounded my chest and took my temperature and scribbled on my chart and that was about it.” He sighed. “But they took away my crutch yesterday and I was really looking forward to a shower today.”

 

“Joanne tells me you’re feeling guilty about what happened to Roy,” Cap probed.

 

The animation drained from Johnny’s face and he looked away. “It was my fault,” he mumbled. “He was out there to do me a favor and look what happened. Why wouldn’t I feel guilty? Ever since I got that house, things have been happening…”

 

“I hate to break it to you, John,” Cap interrupted, his voice gentle and slightly amused, “but things happen to you all the time. This isn’t entirely unusual, is it? But what happened to Roy is in no way your fault. It’s the fault of that little hoick who never learned that playing with matches is wrong, and who doesn’t seem to have any sense of right and wrong. We’ve all been out at your place to do you a favor and believe me, John, it isn’t a big deal for any of us. You’d do it for us in a heartbeat and we know it. Roy was unlucky enough to meet up with a boy who is not only an arsonist but some kind of psycho, too. He won’t blame you any more than Joanne does.”

 

There was a short silence. Cap looked at Johnny’s down-turned face and wished with all his might and main that he could somehow get it through the younger man’s thick skull that his crew mates on the A shift were as fond of him as he was of them – maybe even fonder. Johnny’s tendency to think his life was worth a lot less than the others almost drove Cap up the wall. He knew Johnny had had a tough life and that his thinking was caused by that, but he wondered how many more times they had to tell him he was worth it before he started believing in it. A lot, it seemed, but Cap vowed to carry on showing Johnny how he felt about him, whether Johnny liked it or not. One day, it would get through his thick skull.

 

“I hope he doesn’t,” Johnny replied.

 

Sometimes, the urge to scream was almost overwhelming! “John!” Cap barked. “Roy doesn’t blame you, all right? Enough already.”

 

“Sorry, Cap,” Johnny mumbled.

 

“So you should be,” Cap chided him, but the humor was back in his voice now. “I’m your captain; I know everything.” He sniggered appreciatively at the eye roll Johnny couldn’t help but give. After a moment, Johnny joined in.

 

***********

 

The following day, Johnny felt much better and was cheered enormously when the therapist said he could get up again that day. To his disgust, they didn’t plan his ‘getting up’ to include an outing to visit his partner. Despite all his pleading, wheedling and a near tantrum, he still didn’t get his way and once again, his crutch was removed from the room when they were finished – and to add insult to injury, he still hadn’t been allowed to have a shower!

 

To say Johnny wasn’t happy was an understatement and he made sure that everyone who came in about knew it. There weren’t many people visiting that day. A shift was back at work and Johnny had no idea who the paramedics would be working his shift. They might be friends of his, they might not. There was no way to tell unless they decided to pop in for a visit. Of course, they could only do that if they were having a quiet day. Although he tried not to sulk, Johnny was feeling completely ignored and consequently rather sorry for himself. When the door opened, he barely even glanced up, sure it would just be a nurse.

 

“Goodness me, Johnny, what on earth are you scowling at?” Joanne asked.

 

“Joanne?” At once, Johnny’s face transformed, a crooked grin forming. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Duh – visiting you,” she replied, leaning over to kiss his cheek. “So what were you scowling about?”

 

“Oh, nothing much,” he evaded.

 

“Really?” Joanne arched an elegant eyebrow. “It looked to me a like you were indulging in a pity party for one.”

 

“Well,” Johnny could feel his cheeks coloring. “Maybe just a little one.”

 

“Wishing you could get up to ICU to see that husband of mine?” she asked, sitting down, her tone gentler.

 

“Yeah,” he admitted. Over the years, he had learned not to lie to Joanne.

 

“He’s just as anxious to see you as you are to see him,” she assured him. “He’s going to be fine, Johnny.”

 

“I know,” Johnny agreed, trying to sound upbeat for her. She didn’t need two men feeling sorry for themselves. “Why aren’t you with Roy?” he asked. “Not that I mind the company, I just thought you’d be with him.”

 

“They’re moving him out of ICU, so I was kicked out,” Joanne explained. “It gave me a grand opportunity to come and visit with you.”

 

“It’s not every day I get a pretty girl come to visit me,” Johnny said gallantly.

 

Smiling, for she knew Johnny meant the compliment, Joanne glanced significantly at the door. “Don’t the nurses count anymore?” she enquired cheekily.

 

“They don’t visit me by choice,” Johnny countered swiftly. The nurses had so far proved immune to his charms.

 

“Poor baby.” The door opened and Joanne glanced at it. “That’s my cue to leave. See you later.” She leaned over, kissed his cheek and left, just like that. Johnny was severely taken aback and glared at the person who had interrupted them – an orderly he had never seen before. Before he had time to take fright, the nurse appeared in the doorway and smiled brightly.

 

“You’re moving,” she announced and followed the orderly into the room.

 

“I am? Where am I going?” The nurse smiled enigmatically.

 

Johnny had almost no belongings at the hospital and it didn’t take the nurse long to pile them carefully on the bed. She grasped the IV pole and began pushing it as the bed began moving.

 

“Where am I going?” Johnny asked again.

 

The nurse clucked her tongue impatiently. “Another room,” she explained in a harried tone. “We need that one.”

 

“I’m not going back to the burns unit am I?” Johnny asked. His foot seemed to be healing very nicely thank you and he had no desire to return to the unit where they had tortured him with debridements.

 

“No, you’re not.” The nurse really wasn’t being very helpful Johnny thought indignantly. She seemed preoccupied with steering the IV stand, which had a mind of its own. The orderly ignored Johnny completely, so he resigned himself to waiting patiently to find out where he was going. Despite everything that had gone on, he didn’t believe a nurse and an orderly would kidnap him from the hospital.

 

The elevator ride was short, only going down one floor and Johnny saw they had come to the surgical/general unit. He supposed that was an improvement of sorts. Being away from both the burns unit and orthopedic units meant that his injuries were healing, even if they were taking far too long for him. The room he was going into appeared to have someone in it already, as the privacy curtain was drawn and he could hear the murmur of voices from behind it, although he couldn’t catch anything that was said. Johnny kind of had mixed feelings about having a roommate. It would give him someone to talk to, but it meant that he wouldn’t be allowed as many visitors at one time as was often the norm when his shift mates arrived. He sighed as his bed was backed into position and the brakes put on.

 

“Bye,” the nurse said brightly and disappeared.

 

“Bye,” Johnny replied to fresh air.

 

The curtain between beds was pulled back and Johnny glanced over. Might as well smile and be polite and get off on the right foot with whoever he was sharing with. That was the downside of semi-private rooms – being stuck with someone you didn’t like, or who snored loudly.

 

For a long, long moment, as he gazed at his roommate, Johnny couldn’t say a thing. His heart was pounding and he didn’t know if it was through fear or delight.

 

Calmly, his roommate smiled. “Hi, Junior,” Roy croaked.

 

***********

 

“Roy!” Johnny blurted, his smile bright enough to light up the whole room. Then, abruptly, it dimmed. “I’m sorry,” he declared and looked away.

 

“Don’t start,” Roy ordered. He wished his voice wasn’t still croaky, but the vent tube had left him with a sore throat. “What happened to me wasn’t your fault. Joanne told me you were feeling guilty. There’s no need.”

 

Peering at his friend closely, Johnny saw that he was being sincere. “Thanks,” he mumbled.

 

“Johnny!” Roy warned. “I mean it. Stop blaming yourself.” He chuckled. “I guess that’s a change from me blaming myself for everything.”

 

A smile quirked Johnny’s face again. “I guess it is,” he agreed. He shrugged off the awkwardness. “How’re doing, Pally?” he asked. “Really?”

 

“I’m doing fine,” Roy assured him. “Sore, but that’s it. I was lucky. Today I get to start eating again and tomorrow they might get me up. How are you doing? I hear you had a trip down to the ER to keep Joanne company. You didn’t have to do that.”

 

“I did,” Johnny declared and something in his tone told Roy not to argue with that pronouncement. “And now they keep taking my crutch away, even though I went in a wheelchair with Dixie.” He sounded slightly petulant, like a child whose toy was removed for a reason they didn’t understand. Roy hid a smile.

 

“I can’t imagine why,” he commented, and Johnny gave him a sharp look.

 

“Yeah, yeah, funny guy,” Johnny groused, but grin crept through all the same.

 

After that, there was a lot to talk about. Johnny did most of the talking, but that was all right with Roy; Johnny usually did most of the talking. They were able to say all the things they wanted to say about how they felt about each other in the roundabout way that men say these things – without ever coming out and actually saying it. Roy told Johnny about how his house had looked and eventually, they got around to talking about what had happened to Roy. Although Johnny had known the mechanics of the attack, he didn’t know the details and was horrified to learn that Clint had apparently been holed up in his barn, waiting for one of his friends.

 

“I don’t think he’d realized that the cops were there,” Roy concluded. “But lucky for me that they were.”

 

“Why were the cops at my house?” Johnny asked. It was the first he’d really heard of this; although he knew the cops were guarding him and the station, he hadn’t realized they were at his home, too. He hadn’t thought twice when the cops came in with Roy and Clint; they often worked in tandem with the cops, especially on calls where there was violence.

 

“With his history, the cops were worried he would try to burn down your house,” Roy explained. He made a face. “Clearly, they weren’t paying as much attention as they ought to have done, or they’d have noticed him in the barn.”

 

“Good thing he didn’t build a fire in there,” Johnny commented, still slightly dazed by the news. “He’d have burned the whole place down. The wood is old and tinder-dry. It needs refurbished in the worst possible way.” He sighed, but it wasn’t a sad sound, rather a happy one. “Plenty of work to keep me busy there when I’m finished with the house.” He glanced at Roy. “How does the carpet look now it’s down?” He was dying to see it.

 

“It looks good,” Roy told him. “You’ll love it.”

 

“I can’t wait to get home,” Johnny mentioned. He suddenly sounded sad and tired.

 

“It won’t be that much longer, surely,” Roy suggested. “You’ve made good progress.”

 

“I’m still attached to this IV pole and the central line,” Johnny whined. “And they won’t let me up as much as I’d like to be. I’m dying to have a shower. Bed baths are all very well, but I want to get back to normal.”

 

“Been sending in the ugly nurses?” Roy asked, grinning broadly.

 

“Worse,” Johnny replied disgustedly. “The male ones!”

 

**********

 

It was amazing the difference congenial company made to the recovery rate. Roy managed to eat something that day and Johnny was allowed out of bed for a slightly longer period and promised a shower the following day, all things being equal. The day after that, Brackett pulled the central line, declaring that Johnny was well on the road to recovery. He would take a few days more to regain some strength and would then be allowed home. And happily, it looked like Roy would get out the same day. There weren’t even any provisos that Johnny should go to stay with the DeSotos when he was released, which was a real boost for the junior paramedic. Much as he loved his partner’s family, he didn’t want to foist himself upon them when Roy was laid up, too. And he desperately wanted to go home.

 

Johnny hadn’t had a home of his own since he was a child. He had loved his aunt dearly, but her house had never felt entirely like home. Now, he was slowly recreating some of the feeling of his childhood home with a few touches of his own and he missed it more than he could possibly tell anyone. Years of apartment living had allowed him to move on without turning a hair or missing a beat, but this house was his own and he wanted to go back there. Somehow, Brackett had divined that and was allowing him to go back, alone, once he was ready. With that promise, even a few more days in the hospital didn’t seem so bad.

 

With both their paramedics on the road to recovery, the visits to the hospital were joyful ones for the rest of the crew of 51’s A shift. Chet and Johnny were soon sparring away, with the others alternatively egging them on or trying to shut them up. Joanne was allowed to bring the children in to see Roy, so Johnny was able to spend some time with them, too. He was working hard with the physical therapists to master stairs and learning to cook one-handed. It was impossible for him to rub cream on his back, but Brackett thought that by the time he got home, he wouldn’t need to do it anymore, apart from on the places where he had had second degree burns. Scarring was going to be minimal. Johnny had been incredibly lucky.

 

At the end of his third week in hospital, Johnny was cleared to go home. He was getting around without his crutch and could do most things one handed, although everything seemed to take so long. He dressed slowly and carefully under the watchful eye of his nurse and Cap arrived to take him home. Roy was being released later that day. Joanne had offered to take Johnny home, too, at the same time, but Johnny knew that a trip out to his place en route would be too much for Roy on his first day and had declined gracefully.

 

**********

 

Cap couldn’t help grinning to himself as he drove Johnny home. The younger man was practically pushing against the floorboards to make the car go faster. “Relax, John,” he chided gently. “We’ll get there soon enough.”

 

“I guess I’m just excited to be going home,” Johnny replied apologetically.

 

“I know,” Cap agreed. “I’m only teasing.” They smiled at each other.

 

The house looked even nicer than Johnny remembered. He climbed slowly out of the car, looking around and drawing in deep breaths of pure air. His lawn was neatly cut and the flowerbeds weeded. “Who did that?” he asked, sounding surprised.

 

“I think it was Mike,” Cap replied. He picked up Johnny’s bag and they walked towards the front door. As ever, something that seemed so easy in hospital was harder going outside, but Johnny didn’t complain. He climbed the steps onto the porch and noticed that it had been sanded and polished.

 

“Who did this?” Johnny looked at Cap in amazement.

 

“Marco and Chet,” Cap replied. “They did the back porch, too.”

 

“They didn’t have to do that,” Johnny protested.

 

“I know that and so do they,” Cap agreed. “They wanted to do it, Johnny. We didn’t touch inside the house, but we wanted to help you by cutting down some of the work you needed to do outside.”

 

“That’s really kind of them.” Johnny had to fight to get the words to come out normally, as he felt choked up all of a sudden.

 

“We all came and cleaned out the barn and fixed the latch on the door,” Cap went on as he ushered Johnny inside. “I have no idea what you want to do in there, but it’s clean and doesn’t smell musty anymore.” He didn’t add that their motive had been to rid the barn of all traces of Roy’s assault; the blood had seeped into the floor and it had taken some serious scrubbing to erase it.

 

“Cap, you didn’t have to do that,” Johnny protested. “I’d have got around to it.”

 

“Listen, you twit, there’s still more than enough work for you to do around here,” Cap replied in a brusque tone that did nothing to hide his affection for the younger man. “We just helped you out a bit. It made us feel good that we could do something for you.”

 

Unsure what to say, Johnny was distracted at that moment by a meow. He glanced around and saw Lady, bigger now, sitting in the middle of the floor looking at him expectantly. “Lady!” Johnny walked over to her and she met him half way. The small cat was clearly delighted to see him and Cap had to blink away a tear at the touching scene.

 

Johnny put some coffee on while Cap carried his small bag upstairs, then Johnny had a quick tour around his home, letting the peace soak into him. The carpet on the stairs looked great. Cap was right; there was still a lot of work to do in the house and he was really looking forward to doing it.

 

Sitting at the kitchen table, Johnny tried once again to thank Cap and was brushed aside. “I’ve got to do something for you,” he protested. “Look, once Roy’s better, how about you all come out here for a barbeque?”

 

“That sounds great,” Cap agreed. “Now I’m going to go home and leave you in peace. Your fridge and freezer are stuffed full of things, so you don’t need to worry about grocery shopping for a while and if you need milk and stuff, let one of us know, okay?” He cocked an eyebrow at Johnny’s meek nod that totally belied the look on his face. “That’s an order, pal,” he joked. “No driving until the doctor says so!”

 

“All right,” Johnny acquiesced. He walked to the door with his friend and waved Cap off, then turned around and looked at his house. Lady was waiting invitingly on the couch. Johnny wasted no time in joining her there.

 

It was good to be home.

 

**********

 

For the first couple of days, Johnny took it easy and just concentrated on getting his strength back. As Cap had said, he had no shortage of food, made for him by wives and girlfriends of his firefighter friends, all ready to just cook and the cooking instructions taped to each item. Johnny was incredibly grateful. It made his return home much easier and he did as Cap had said and phoned Chet when he needed fresh milk and bread.

 

After the first few days, Johnny grew restless and found small projects that he could do with his left hand, but they weren’t very satisfying, so he resigned himself to boredom. Lady provided him with company and his neighbors were kind enough to pop over to check on him every now and then and he was soon fast friends with them. They offered to come and check on Lady when he was back to work. He accepted.

 

Quite often, Joanne would come over and take Johnny home with her so he and Roy could spend time together, or bring Roy out to Johnny’s. Roy was getting over his ordeal quickly and it looked like they would be going back to work at about the same time, Roy just winning out by a couple of weeks. Johnny checked on when A shift was working and arranged a barbeque for a couple of days after he had the cast removed from his arm.

 

It was a typically glorious southern California day and Johnny had the grill set out and drinks cooling. Everyone was contributing food, so he didn’t have to worry about shopping. He was going to be allowed to drive again after a couple of rounds of therapy on his arm.

 

It was a great afternoon. The kids ran around endlessly and Roy was right; the shouts and screams didn’t seem nearly so piercing when there was more room for them to play. Joanne and Mrs. Stanley took charge in the kitchen, which suited Johnny down to the ground and Cap volunteered to do the actual grilling. Mike dished coleslaw and salads onto plates, Marco organized cutlery and Chet stood around flapping his jaw. The two convalescents were ensconced on chairs on the back porch and waited on hand and foot. There was talk and laughter and games and everyone went home replete, sunburned and exhausted.

 

“Next time you come, the house will be finished,” Johnny boasted.

 

“Yeah yeah, I’ve heard that one before,” Chet jibed.

 

“Just you wait and see,” Johnny retorted.

 

**********

 

“What exactly are you doing?” asked an unexpected voice and Johnny jumped his own height in the air.

 

“Dr Brackett! What are you doing here?” Johnny enquired, trying to slow his racing heart. He’d been so busy painting that he hadn’t heard the car approaching.

 

“I came to see your new house,” Brackett explained. “And you, of course. I haven’t seen you for ages. Are you trying to avoid me? If this is what you’re spending your off time doing, I’m not surprised.”

 

“This is the last of the painting,” Johnny excused himself. He didn’t tell the doctor that he had painted the two spare bedrooms, the bathroom, the upstairs hall, the stairs, the downstairs hall, cloakroom and the kitchen in the last two weeks. His arm ached all the time, but the muscles were building up really nicely. Okay, it probably wasn’t what his therapist would recommend and he had undoubtedly been over-doing it, but it had felt good to work with his hands. He was putting the last coat of paint on the front door, having painted the back door earlier that day. He wiped his hands on a cloth. “Come on in and have some coffee,” he offered and led the way. “Mind the wet paint.”

 

Inside, Brackett had a good look round. Johnny had worked hard on the house and it looked great. There was still quite a long way to go. As they drank their coffee and ate cake that someone, Johnny forgot just who, had sent round, he told the doctor his plans to carpet the whole place. He had spent the last of the gift certificate Roy and Joanne had given him on the paint and curtains for the whole place. It was gradually coming together.

 

“I brought you a house warming gift,” Brackett told him and went out to the car to retrieve it. It was a cactus in a pot. Brackett shrugged and looked embarrassed as he handed it over. “Dixie told me that plants are a traditional housewarming gift and I didn’t know what else to bring. Cacti don’t need much looking after…” He trailed off and shrugged again. “Anyway, here you are.”

 

“Thanks, doc.” Johnny placed the plant on the kitchen window. It looked good there and Johnny hoped that it would survive longer than most plants he had owned. He wasn’t renowned for keeping them alive.

 

They talked for a while longer, then Brackett took a look at Johnny’s arm. “It’s coming along really nicely,” he told his patient. “Aside from the fact that you’re clearly overdoing it, how does the arm feel?”

 

Ignoring the jibe, pretending that he hadn’t been overdoing things, Johnny answered, “Pretty good, pretty good. It feels all right.”

 

“Liar,” Brackett retorted fondly. “It’s obviously aching. I’ve seen you rubbing it a few times since I got here. Was that the last of the painting that needs done?”

 

“Yeah, honestly,” Johnny sighed, having been well and truly caught. “Want me to show you?”

 

“I’d love to see the rest of your house,” Brackett agreed. He listened with interest as Johnny told him of the improvements he intended to make as he could afford it and eyed the distance from the master bedroom to the front door in disbelief that Johnny had crawled all that way, on bare floorboards, in his birthday suit, with appendicitis. He doubted if he could have done it. “Okay, I’ll believe the painting is finished,” he agreed when they sat down to another cup of coffee. “So, in that case, don’t do anything else strenuous until your next appointment for physical therapy and I’ll let you go back to work.”

 

“You will?” Johnny looked thoroughly delighted. Brackett smiled. Johnny’s perpetual boyishness was a real joy at times like this. He jumped to his feet and brought his calendar over, where he had all his shifts for the next month penciled in. “So, I have therapy on Wednesday and we’re on shift on Thursday…”

 

“Too soon,” Brackett chided. He pointed to the next shift. “The Sunday should be fine though.”

 

It was a little over a week to wait. Johnny felt full of energy. Roy had returned to work on their last shift the previous day, having made a very quick recovery from his injuries. Johnny couldn’t wait to join him in the squad again. “Thanks, doc!”

 

Brackett smiled again. “Did you hear about Clint?” he asked, knowing that Johnny was bound to have.

 

The smiled dimmed. “Yeah, the cops came out here last week. He pleaded guilty to arson, attempted murder and actual bodily harm. There won’t be a trial. He’s been sent to a detention centre and when he turns 18 he’ll get sent to an adult prison. I hear he got 12 years.” It was such a waste of a young life and Johnny knew that by the time he got out, he would have learned a whole lot of new stuff from the inmates in both places. Perhaps the psychiatrist he was to see would help him.

 

“You can put all this behind you, Johnny,” Brackett reminded him. “It’s over and all you have to do is enjoy your home and maybe find somebody to share it with?”

 

“Have you got any suggestions?” Johnny asked interestedly.

 

“Well…”

 

**********

 

The streets were pretty quiet for Johnny’s first commute when he went back to work. He arrived in plenty of time and was greeted cheerfully by the members of C shift, who made ribald comments about his long absence. Johnny just grinned and went to get changed.

 

Cap had brought a cake made by his wife and they all had a piece along with coffee before roll call. He looked round in satisfaction. They were all together again and he knew he was lucky to have them. They all gelled especially well and were the envy of many a fire captain. Mike was probably the best engineer in the department; Marco and Chet were certainly amongst the best line men and nobody stood higher than Roy and Johnny in the paramedics. Cap cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention. If he was going to make a speech, it had better be now, before the tones went off.

 

In the end, there was only one thing to say. He raised his coffee mug.

 

“Welcome home, John.”

 

The others followed suit, toasting Johnny with their mugs.

 

“Welcome home.”

 

 

*****End*****

 

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