In Chapter 1, Roy told Mike that "Gage is pretty oblivious to about ninety percent of what goes on around him, fortunately for you just now." I don't think he really was, do you? Here's Johnny's POV. Thanks to Jelsemium for putting the idea in my head.


"Roy thinks Rule One is 'Don't get emotionally involved with the patient.' Hah. Shows what he knows. That's maybe Rule Three or Four. Rule One is actually 'Don't get involved with anyone who has fewer than three degrees of separation from the L.A. County Fire Department. Unless they're female.' That's Rule One. And unlike so many other rules in my world, this one ain't meant to be broken."


One of the tough things about working rehab at a brush fire is you know you're gonna get patients—you just don't know how bad they're gonna be. And you can be pretty sure that every single patient is gonna be a guy you know. Washing a guy's eyes out—you know you're gonna do that. You can also bet on having to treat some guys for heat exhaustion, too. Maybe a couple of IVs, with a free trip to Rampart—or wherever's closest—for really bad dehydration. But there's always that chance that something will really go sour, and in a wildland fire, "sour" could be anything from a simple trip and fall—and man, the guys hate it when something like that happens, let me tell you—to a glancing blow from a widow-maker, to the worst of the worst, which I'm not even gonna get into. Because I don't wanna think about it. And me? I'm really, really good at not thinking about what I don't wanna think about. It's a survival skill, right? And that's what I do: I survive.

So me and Roy, we just sat there waiting for our first patients to turn up. It didn't take long—two guys I'm sure I'd met before but couldn't recognize for the soot all over their faces came stumbling over to the canopy we'd set up so there could be some hint of shade in this misery of heat. Tears from their bloodshot eyes made clownish tracks through the soot on their faces. I could tell the one guy was workin' real hard not to claw his own eyes out—he's first, then.

"Eyes, huh?" I asked, as the second guy led the first guy to sit down on the running board of the squad.

"You better fuckin' believe it," said the first guy.

"I'm Gage—what's your name?" I knew I'd seen him before, but with the back of his coat against the squad I couldn't read the name.

"Bob Irvine, Station 36, fuck! Ow, fuckin' ow! I think I have a cinder in my left eye."

"All right—lemme just wash 'em both out, first, and then I'll take a look. C'mon—you know the drill—I know it sucks, but I gotta hold your eye open." I tipped back his head, and quickly rinsed the soot out of his right eye. His left eye remained clamped shut as I tried to pry it open, and he nearly knocked me down flailing his hands around. "Sorry, man—but sit on your hands, all right? It's just a reflex to try to grab at your eyes, but you can't do it, all right?"

He swore at me some more, but I didn't mind. I mean, I see people at their worst, right? Plus, everyone's got their things, and I'll bet one of his things is eyes. Me? Yeah, I've got my things. I can take a lotta stuff, but the things that get me every time are compound fractures and bad burns. Blood? Fine. Puke? Bring it on—I can take it. But my two things I can't deal with—Roy knows 'em, and he takes the lead on those when he can.

Roy's got his things, too. For him, it's impalement. Doesn't matter how big, how small, what, or where—that's what gets him. Anything that's not people parts, stickin' out of somethin' that is people parts—Roy can't take that. So for today, let's just hope that everyone keeps their bones inside of 'em, and their skin on 'em, and doesn't get anything stuck through 'em.

Irvine cussed a blue streak at me, and I had to get his partner to hold him still while I held his eye open. I could see the cinder—didn't look like it was embedded, so it'd probably wash out just fine. Didn't figure he'd want a running monologue, though, so I just did it. Took a couple tries, but the cinder washed right out.

"All right, Irvine—it's out. Hang on—don't rub your eyes—they're still pretty irritated."

"It isn't out! I can still feel it—it's still there!" He was sounding a little panicky—yep, definitely has a thing about eyes.

His partner helped out. "Bob, I could see it in there, and then the last time Gage here poured stuff in your eye, I saw it come out. So it's out, all right?"

"So how come I can still feel it?"

"There's a lotta nerves in the covering of your eyeball, okay? It feels like it's still there, because the lining of your eye is irritated. It's just like if you get a crumb down your windpipe, and you know you coughed it up, but you keep on hacking, right? Same thing," I reassured him.

The partner helped out again. "Why don't we gear down for a few minutes, Bob, and get some water—we were about due for a break anyhow. And if it's still buggin' you after that, we'll see, all right?"

"Yeah." Bob stood up and unbuckled his coat. "All right. Thanks, Gage," he said, turning to go.

"No problem." See? I can be patient when I have to. 'Cause everybody's got their things.

Roy and I didn't see Irvine again, so we figured he musta been okay. We watched the smoke—it seemed particularly nasty, for some reason—maybe somethin' about the plants in the area. Who knows. I'm not a fan of the desert, myself. Give me mountains, lakes, and trees—that's what I like.

So why am I in L.A.? Simple—when you're a kid, you go where your parents go, and my parents, for some reason, decided that L.A. was the place to be. And then I went to the fire academy here, and got a job here, and, well, I'm still here. Thought for a while about maybe moving up to the Bay Area, for a number of reasons, but it just never seemed like the right time. Besides—I like the crew on my shift. People mind their own business—they don't nag, or dig, or pry. As long as I keep feeding them bullshit about all my escapades with the girls from Rampart, they don't get on my case.

Don't get me wrong—I don't make stuff up. That wouldn't be fair to my dates. But I always conveniently leave out the parts about how I'll take a gal out a couple times, and then she's suddenly too busy, or politely uninterested, or whatever. I don't know what I do that's so off-putting, but it must be something, 'cause that's how it pretty much always ends up, unless it's just a girl who's looking for a good time with no strings, in which case I happily oblige and then we go our separate ways, no hard feelings. Either way, though, there was never much of a, I don't know, a connection, I guess. So the whole girl-chasing thing was starting to get kinda tiring, but I knew I had to keep doing it.

I leave out a lotta other stuff, too. Like the other half of my dating life. Which is a story for another time. And which I don't do in L.A. It's a big city, in a big county—but not big enough.

Another pair of guys came marching down the hill to get their eyes washed out. One of the guys didn't look so good, so I took his vitals, and his temperature, and sure enough, Rampart said to stand him down till he rehydrated and his temp was back to normal. We geared him down, and misted him with fog from a reel line, and sat him in the shade of an engine with a canteen. We figured he'd be fine in an hour.

Roy pointed over to a hill a couple hundred yards away. There were two guys coming towards us—the taller one of 'em kinda holding the other one up. The taller guy was limping, and the other guy—you could tell from how the first guy was kind of holding him up and dragging him along that something wasn't right.

"I see 'em," I said. And—oh shit—the taller guy had a skunk stripe on his helmet, and there's only one Captain around here who's that tall and lanky, so it meant we were getting Cap and Mike. I was pretty sure Roy couldn't see as far as me, so I filled him in.

"It's Cap and Stoker," I said. "Cap's limping, but I think it's Mike that's hurt worse. You wanna take Cap, and I'll deal with Mike?"

"Let's see what we've got, first," said Roy.

Cap and Mike stumbled closer. I could see there must be something wrong with Stoker's arms—both of 'em—because on ground like this, you don't walk with both your arms hangin' straight down—it's just not natural. You wave 'em around a bit to keep your balance.

As they got closer, I rushed to join them. "Mike? Cap? What happened?"

Cap was holding Stoker up by his lapels. With his free hand, he gestured a "thumbs down" to me behind Mike's back.

"I'm fine," Cap said, though I wasn't sure he was entirely believable. "But Mike here sounds like his left arm may be broken, and his right hand, well, you can see it there."

I could indeed—this was definitely a patient I would have to handle, because Mike's right hand was impaled, through and through, by a whole bunch of really long cactus spines. And his whole upper body was oddly positioned—it was gonna be tough to get that coat off, though, to see what was goin' on.

"Oh, man," I said, grimacing at the look of the spines. "Bad luck, Stoker. Horse crippler, huh? Roy, grab the biophone, will ya?"

"Sure thing, Junior." Yeah, Roy didn't mind not looking at that hand, that's for sure.

I frowned at Mike's coat, trying to think of how we could possibly get it off him without cutting it off. It just didn't look like the hand with all the spikes in it could possibly go through the sleeve, and we sure as heck weren't gonna deal with the cactus spines out here.

"I dunno, Mike, do you think you can get that right hand outta the sleeve, there, or should I just cut off that coat?"

For just a second, I could've sworn I saw a very un-Stoker-like grin on Mike's face. But that must've been my imagination. Because, really, what's amusing about whatever just happened to the poor guy? Anyhow, he must really have not wanted me to cut that coat off, because he said he'd try to just slide his hand through.

Really, there was no way that was gonna work—but I helped him with the buckles on the front of the turnout coat anyhow, and loosened the Velcro on the right cuff as far as it would go. He started to inch his right hand up the sleeve, but there was no way it was gonna work, and Mike realized that pretty quick. I mean, he's got big hands to begin with, and with the spines through and through, his right hand was like an oversized pincushion.

"Uh, snagged. Not working," he said.

No kidding.

I don't know what the deal with him and my shears was, but as soon as I started cutting on that coat, he just got all quiet. Quieter than usual, even. I made a mental note to see about some shears that would do a faster job on turnouts, because it took a good couple minutes to get that coat off him. And yeah, it musta really been hurtin' him, too, because he just sat there and looked anywhere but at what I was doing.

He's an interesting one, Mike Stoker is. Most guys, in this situation, would be cranking out the jokes to try to take the attention—theirs and everyone else's—away from their discomfort. Or else they'd be cussin' me out like Bob Irvine did a little while ago. Or they'd be puttin' on the whole tough-guy act. Anything but silence. But that's Mike's specialty. I know some guys get creeped out by silence—but not me. I'd see Mike and Chet together sometimes, doing chores or what have you. and Chet would go to great lengths to fill the silence. Not that it was hard for him—he always has somethin' to say.

I never mind the silence, though. In fact, sometimes when Chet and Marco get real crazy around the station—which usually happens if it's been a really boring shift—I'll go up the hose tower out back just to get a little peace. Sometimes Stoker would already be out there, at the picnic table we've got in the back lot. Then I'd skip the tower, and we'd just sit there and have a nice quiet cup of coffee or something while Chet and Marco burned off steam inside. The first time we just sat there quietly like that, I sorta thought maybe he was thinking I was trying to psych him out—to play "silence chicken" with him, see who would flinch first. But I wasn't. I just like peace and quiet sometimes, and he's peaceful and quiet.

But this silence, now, was getting a little unnerving. The only thing I could think was I must really be hurting him, so I tried to just get it done as fast as I could. So I chomped the shears up his right sleeve, all the way up to the neck, and then did the same on the left side—I mean, I could've slid it off that side, probably, but he looked like he was really hurtin', and I couldn't see what was going on over on that side yet, and the coat was a goner anyhow.

Once that coat was cut up enough, I pulled the front from the back and tossed the whole mess aside so I could get a BP on him real quick. I held up my BP cuff and looked at him.

"Sorry, man, it's gonna hurt no matter which side I pick, ain't it." Maybe he'd at least be able to tell me which arm to pick so I wouldn't hurt him as bad.

He obligingly held his right arm out. "This one hurts less, but looks pretty gross."

Usually if I'm getting a BP on a patient who's sitting up in front of me, I kind of grab their hand between my arm and my body, you know, to hold their arm up and kind of still while I'm getting the readings. But with all those spines in his hand, that wouldn't work, so I sat next to him instead, and held his forearm up across my lap so I wouldn't mess with those spines. It musta really hurt when I moved his arm, though, because as soon as I touched him he kind of jerked a little bit—like he wasn't expecting it or something. I looked up to try to get a read on how he was feeling, and there it was again—that funny smile. Just for a second, though.

"125 over 75, Roy," I said to Roy, who was relaying all our information to Rampart. I heard Dr. Early on the other end say to splint the left wrist and transport, so I went to it. I took a look at that left wrist—I couldn't feel a fracture, but that's where Cap had said the problem was, so that's where I started. But he still just wasn't moving that arm—something funny goin' on there.

I didn't want to move it for him—partly cause I didn't wanna hurt him any more, and partly cause I wanted to see what would happen when he tried to move it. You can sometimes get more information by watching than by asking.

"All right, Mike, you heard the man. Let's get that wrist splinted up and get you to Rampart. Can you move your arm at the elbow so it's level with the ground, like this?" I showed him how he should move his arm, as Roy passed me the splint box.

I watched Mike as he tried to move that arm. No quirky smile this time, nuh-uh. He was tryin' to move that arm, and nothing was happening, and I caught a glint of what looked like panic, if I was reading him right. Which I'm pretty sure I was. I don't know what that little smile was about, before, but now I was definitely seeing panic.

Even with the panic I saw in his eyes as he tried to move his arm and he couldn't, Mike's words came out completely calmly. "Uh, I think maybe something's wrong with my shoulder, too. Funny, it doesn't hurt much."

I leaned back a bit, and took a better look at his shoulders. Sure enough, the left one seemed to be riding a little low. Hard to tell with his uniform shirt still on, but it looked that way to me. But if it was dislocated, it'd be hurtin' real bad by now, and when I wasn't messing with him, he seemed okay.

Nothin' for it—I had to check that shoulder out, and if it was really dislocated, it'd hurt like hell.

I leaned back in again, and put one hand on either side, as gently as I could. My heart sank as I felt that the ball of the humerus was definitely popped out of its socket, and it sank even further as I heard him finally make some noise.

"Ooooo-kay," he said, somehow managing to turn a clenched groan into a word at the last minute. I was still holding onto him, and I could feel the tension escalate in his chest and back. "Now it hurts."

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, the voice in my head was saying. It's hard enough, you know, when you have a patient who's a total stranger and what you're doing is hurting them. And it's worse if it's a guy you know, even just a little bit, or even if they're a fireman you've just met, like Irvine. But when it's one of your buddies from your shift? Man, that's the worst. And I hurt Mike—I know I did. I knew he wouldn't blame me—I wasn't worried about that. But I had that sick feeling in my gut, 'cause I knew it was gonna get worse before it got better.

I tried to stay as neutral as possible when I told him what was going on. I don't think my voice was shaking too bad. "Mike, I think you dislocated your shoulder, too."

Man, I knew how bad that hurt. I've only done it once, when I was a teenager, but that was enough for me. Roy got on the biophone and reported back in to Rampart. They wanted me to check his collarbone, so I did. I kept one hand on his back, just to kinda hold him up a little, and ran my fingers as gently as I could along his clavicle. I didn't feel anything out of the ordinary—no sharpness or deformities, none of that crackly sponginess you sometimes get with clavicle fractures. And either I wasn't hurting him too much this time, or the pain he was finally feeling from his shoulder was covering anything I was doing. "That hurt at all, Mike?"

He shook his head, and I saw him go even greener than he was before. Shoot—I shoulda told him not to nod or shake his head, and just say "yes" or "no."

I listened with relief as Dr. Early gave orders for MS—and not a puny little take-the-edge-off dose either. Mike would get a man-sized 10 mg, which I was glad of, because he really looked like he needed it. He was sweaty, but cold, and I could feel him shaking a little from where I was holding on to him. Plus, the ride in would be a bitch, and the reduction—well, it would be unpleasant enough even when he was loaded with MS and muscle relaxants. After Dr. Early gave all his instructions, Mike spoke up again.

"Aaaw, crap."

"So I guess you got all that, huh?" I asked him. I could've been more specific, but I think he got it, and wasn't happy to hear he had to go in via ambulance and not just in the squad. Rules are rules, though.

I guess it was because I hadn't had to treat a buddy in a while—I guess that's why it was getting to me so bad this time. I practically grabbed the IV pack out of Roy's hands, so I could start it up and get some morphine into Mike.

"I'm gonna place the IV in your cactus arm, not your busted one, okay pal? And then when the pain medication comes on board, you'll feel a whole lot better, and we'll splint you up." I said it half for him, because I always like to tell my patients what's happening, and half for me—just to remind me that I was finally gonna get to do something for him that'd make him feel better, not worse.

I scooted back around to his right side, and started looking for a vein. Real nice tan he had, but no veins in sight. Great—I really didn't wanna play "Go Fish." I pumped the BP cuff up a bit, and traced up and down his forearm and inside his elbow with my fingers—nothin'. I could feel one, a little bit, right where it should be, but I couldn't really see it. I guess it was because I was nervous of hurting him again that I started with the chatter.

"I'll tell ya somethin', Mike; I don't think I've ever seen someone dislocate his shoulder and not know it right away." I pumped the BP cuff up a little more, and poked at the one smallish vein I felt before. "Geez, Stoker, where do you keep your veins? Inside your bones? Roy, take a look at this, will ya?" I complained to Roy, but didn't let go of Mike's arm.

"Here, Johnny—try this one." I could see Roy's eyes avoiding Mike's impaled hand as he kindly marked the vein for me. Duh. I coulda done that myself, I guess. Must not be thinking straight. Yeah—I really don't like hurting the guys.

"Oh yeah, I see it now. If you can see it, you can stick it, right, Roy?" I turned back to Mike to issue forth some more inane chatter, which I'm sure he hated. But you have to give credit where credit is due, so I said it anyhow, even though I was sure he must be gettin' sick of listening to my voice. "Dixie's Rule One for starting an IV on the first try."

I swabbed the spot with an alcohol prep pad, and, keeping my mental fingers crossed, went for that vein. And nailed it. Whew. 'Cause I really didn't wanna hafta go fishing. You work with a guy long enough, and you get to know him pretty well even if he doesn't talk a lot. And I'd noticed over the years that Stoker would do just about anything to avoid seeing blood—and sometimes when he did, he'd hit the bushes and puke. And the guys who do that? They're the same ones who puke or pass out when you fish around inside their veins.

"Hah, first try, even on ol' spaghetti veins here." Boy, I just couldn't stop with the chatter. I got rid of the needle, and taped the catheter and tubing down carefully. I went into the drug box and got a pre-measured dose of MS and sat back down on Mike's right, to finally do something to help him out a little.

"Okay, Mike, meet your new friend, morphine sulfate. Mike: MS. MS: Mike."

"Pleased to meet you," he managed, teeth clenched.

It was a little awkward, doing all this with him sitting on the running board of the squad. I had to squish right up next to him to get at the IV port to push the MS. But when I did, I was close enough that I could actually feel some of the tension and pain bleed out of him. I was still holding onto his right arm, so I could feel that go a little slack. And he quit shaking—it hadn't been extreme, but definitely noticeable to someone sitting jammed right up against the guy. And he slumped over towards me, just a bit—like it's a good thing I was there or maybe he'd've fallen over. And he definitely unclenched his teeth—not that I could feel that from where I was sitting—we weren't that close, ha ha—but I could hear that his next words were a lot, uh, looser than his previous ones.

"Ya know, I don't think I actually need to go in to Rampart. You can just tape this shoulder up, or something, right? Hey Gage, check this out – how 'bout if I just pull these spines out – I'll bet I can get 'em with my teeth—"

"Whoa, there, Mike." Holy smokes. If I hadn't grabbed his arm again, he'd've actually tried to remove the spines with his teeth—I really think he woulda. "There's a reason why they wanna take those out at Rampart – sterile conditions and all, ya know?"

"Okay, Johnny, whatever you say." And man, he was grinnin' like an idiot. Blue eyes all sparkly—okay, maybe glassy might be a better word—and so many white teeth against his tan. Okay, he was definitely ready for the splint job, which I sure as hell hadn't been gonna start until he had something on board for that pain. Which I don't think he was feeling any of at that point. I propped him up as best I could and got to work.

"Attaboy, Mike," I said, as I began prepping supplies to wrap his shoulder up good and tight. I could feel his eyes boring into me as I taped a blanket into a roll, to put between his forearm and his body before I immobilized his shoulder joint. And what was that about, anyhow—those blue-grey eyes checkin' me out? If it'd been a different place, a different situation, and a different guy—you know, maybe one who hasn't had the same girlfriend for five years—I might've had some clue. But now? Nada.

"Wow," he said, still watching me.

I met his eyes briefly, trying to glean some meaning to attach to that one word. Wasn't happenin', though. I took the safe route—don't wanna leap to conclusions, especially not the totally outlandish ones that I was startin' to imagine.

"Yeah, that stuff knocks ya for a loop, don't it," I said neutrally. He was still watching me as I bugged Roy to come help with the around-the-body wrapping that would be next. 'Cause this fellow was none too stable, sitting on the shallow running board and loaded up with morphine.

Mike started babbling something about how he hoped this wasn't going to hurt, or bleed, as if it could, and that kind of reminded me that he wasn't in his right mind, so I oughta just ignore those looks I was gettin'. Whatever they were.

Roy and I had splinted probably a hundred dislocated shoulders, so we had our routine down pat. He'd get the arm where it needed to be, and I'd wrap it up. So unfortunately for him, he was kinda the bad guy on this one—getting the arm where it needed to be could be painful for the patient. So I was selfishly glad that it was Roy instead of me, especially when Mike let loose with "OOOOOW! Quit it, DeSoto!" just as Roy started moving his forearm.

I could see what the problem was, just as Roy pointed it out. "Johnny, I think this shirt is gonna have to come off to do this right. Kinda tight on the shoulder here."

I nodded, and grabbed my blunt-tipped shears to make quick and painless work of the job, but man, Stoker stopped me in a big hurry.

"Waita second! C'mon, man, you already cut up my coat, do ya gotta cut up my shirt too? I mean, I've got a lot of these, and they're really boring shirts, but c'mon, can't you just undo the buttons? That's what they're for, man. Don't they teach you anything in—"

I had to laugh—I felt terrible, but it just popped right outta me. For a guy whose average sentence length tended to be around two words, and sometimes only said a few sentences over a 24-hour shift, unless someone asked him something directly, Stoker suddenly had an awful lot to say. I think he caught me laughing at him, too, so I suddenly felt guilty. It really wasn't a good idea, to get that shirt and the t-shirt underneath it off the normal way, but I succumbed to his wishes, because I felt bad about laughing at him.

"All right, all right! Settle down, Mike. Have it your way, chatterbox. It'll be a little tricky to get the IV bag through the sleeve, but we'll manage. Now hold still!" I hated to order him around, but he was starting to fall towards me again, and I didn't want him to hurt himself.

I made quick work of the buttons, trying not to think too hard about what I was doing—which was undressing a hot guy, who I was pretty sure was watching my every move. Whoa, okay, so much for not thinking about what I was doing. I stopped for a second—when was it, exactly, that I started to think about him that way? Not that it mattered. Ridiculous idea anyhow. Plus it breaks Rule One.

Roy thinks Rule One is 'Don't get emotionally involved with the patient.' Hah. Shows what he knows. That's maybe Rule Three or Four. Rule One is actually 'Don't get involved with anyone who has fewer than three degrees of separation from the L.A. County Fire Department. Unless they're female.' That's Rule One. And unlike so many other rules in my world, this one ain't meant to be broken.

Back to business, Gage. Back to business.

I did have to cut off the t-shirt, though, since there was no way that was coming off the usual way with a dislocated shoulder and a hand full of cactus spines. I had to pretty much hug him to do that, especially when he started kind of leaning towards me. And it was pretty hard not to read something into that, even though I was really trying not to. Right after I got that t-shirt off, though, I was holding him up, one hand on his chest, and I swear, even trying real hard not to read into the situation, I swear he was doin' it on purpose—leaning towards me, that is.

This was getting dangerous—for me, for him, and for Rule One. And let's face it—the guy was so high he really couldn't be held responsible for anything he said or did, and probably wouldn't remember half of it anyhow. So, using my very best grown-up judgment—the 'better judgment' that I always seem to be going against, but not this time—I rallied the troops.

"Ah, Roy, can you hold our friend up, there, so I can finish this without getting crushed?"

I couldn't help it—I watched Mike's face as Roy's hand took the place of mine on his chest. And honest to goodness, I really think what I saw was disappointment.

Roy was holding Mike up, but I was actually getting a lot closer doing my job, which was winding an elastic bandage around his upper arm and body, to immobilize his shoulder joint. I could feel his breath on my neck as I passed the bandage around his back, and across the front again.

And he did it again. I swear, it had to be on purpose. He leaned towards me again, and I was watching real close this time. I could see his nostrils flare, like he was, I don't know, breathing me in or something. Didn't stop me from doing what I needed to do, though, till he made this kind of whimpering sound.

So I carefully gave what would be the normal response, for the normal assumption that the splint job was really painful. "I know, buddy, it smarts, but I'm almost done."

Roy musta given Mike quite a look—which says interesting things about what Roy might've been noticing about this whole thing—cause Mike kind of talked back to him.

"Whaaaat, can't a guy just—"

But Roy interrupted, so I never got to hear the end of that sentence. "Hey Johnny, lemme finish up with Mike's wrist here; I think you oughta take a look at Cap. I think he did something to his leg, and isn't bothering to mention it."

"Huh? Oh, okay. You sure you got Mike, here?" I was surprised, to say the least, that he'd take on a patient with a little impalement problem when there was a nice, easy sprained ankle right there for the taking, but I figured he had his reasons.

"Yeah, I think I can get this situation under control," Roy said, utterly without expression.

And that's when I knew for sure I wasn't making it up. Whatever "it" was. If Roy noticed something odd about Mike's behavior, then there was something odd. 'Cause Roy doesn't make shit up out of his head like some of us do. So I toddled over to Cap, to check out his ankle.

"Okay, Cap; your turn. Let's get this boot off and have a look see." I worked his bunker boot off his foot, pretty sure I wouldn't see much other than maybe some swelling.

I was right—some puffiness and tenderness around the ATFL, right where ankle sprains always show themselves first. "Did you roll your foot under you, ya think?" I asked him.

"Yep—like this." He demonstrated, with a hand pretending to be a foot, the classic inversion that leads to a sprain of the outer ligaments of the ankle. I checked the head of his fibula for any obvious fractures, and found none.

"Probably just a sprain," I said, "and a minor one at that, but I'll wrap it up, and you need to get it x-rayed just to rule out a fracture, okay? You can ride in with me in the squad—keep me company."

Cap nodded. "Doesn't feel too bad. It's annoying, though, to think this probably wouldn't have happened if they'd just issue everyone a pair of nice, lace-up wildland boots for this kind of work."

"That's for sure, Cap. Seems like it's pretty expensive to have a bunch of guys off work for a couple weeks with sprained ankles that coulda been prevented with proper gear. Bunker boots are about the worst thing you could be wearing out here. No ankle support at all."

I wrapped his ankle with a nice, neat figure-eight pattern. And when I looked back to see how Roy was doing with Stoker, that's when I was sure I saw it.

I knew that look—though I was used to getting it from across the bar at one of those pick-up joints, maybe, or if I was about to get lucky, from the passenger seat in my car or the other guy's car. But I'd never seen it coming from one of my shift mates. Until just then.

And the name for that look, ladies and gentlemen? Is desire, need, want. Lust. Whatever you want to call it. Despite the hundred-degree-plus-blazing-fire heat, I got goosebumps when I saw it. Or thought I saw it. No, I definitely saw it.

I mentally shushed myself as I helped Cap hobble over to passenger's side of the squad without twisting his other ankle. Quit it, Gage—overactive imagination. Get your mind back on your work, because that is not the look you saw just now. No how, no way. Give the guy a break—he's got ten big ones of MS on board, so he's probably not even lookin' at you—more like through you, at this point. And even if it was what it looked like, what of it? 'Cause first of all, Rule One. And second of all, even if it weren't an impossible situation to start with, what kind of chance would a guy like me have with a guy like him? Because, well, he's not the kind of guy I get picked up by—or pick up. I mean, he's … the only word I can think of is 'refined.' And I'm kinda the opposite. And that's all there is to it.

I picked up Cap's boot, and tossed it into the squad. I checked in with incident command on the HT, to let them know we'd be out an hour for the trip back and forth to Rampart. And as the Mayfair guys were getting ready to load Mike up into their wagon, I could hear, but not totally understand, a steady stream of verbiage emerging from this most unlikely source. And once more—just before the guys in white lifted the gurney—I got one more piercing look from Mike, and I knew I had a problem.

'Cause that look, coming from him—I liked it.

A lot.

But like I said, I don't wanna think about that right now, so I won't. I'll just drive Cap in to Rampart, nice and smooth, and we'll chat about this and that, and then I'll pick up Roy and we'll come back here and wash out some more sooty eyes.

"So how long do you think Stoker will be out with that shoulder?" Cap asked, as soon as we were on smooth enough road that conversation was possible.

"Hard to say—kinda depends on a lot of things. Like whether anything's broken in there, or whether any of the ligaments tore right through. Sometimes, they'll pop a shoulder back in, and then it'll come right back out again if the ligaments that hold everything in place are all torn up."

Cap thought about that for a minute. "So, they just pop it back in, huh? That doesn't sound too bad."

Oh, I really didn't want to go down that road. "Sometimes they can 'just' pop it right back in. But that hurts like hell, if only for a few seconds."

"And other times?" Cap asked, sensing my hesitation.

I sighed. "Other times, it hurts like a motherfucker, forever, while they try and try and try to get the ball back into the socket.

We drove along silently for a couple of minutes. I was thinking about getting out of town for a couple days—going somewhere with water, and real trees, and fresh air. Get this fire and everything associated with it out of my head.

"It was my fault, John," Cap said suddenly and quietly, interrupting my vision of redwood trees.


"I guess I wasn't watching my footing carefully enough, and when I went down, I took Mike down with me."

"Cap, it was an accident. I'm sure he doesn't blame you."

"Yeah, but I'm the Captain—I'm supposed to keep my boys safe, not knock them down so hard they end up in the hospital."

Oh, boy. Did I have the mental energy for this role reversal? No, but once I'd recognized what it was I could work with that; make it easier on myself.

"Cap, think about what you would say to me in this situation—let's say I tripped and fell and took Roy down, and was feelin' rotten about it. What would you say to me right now?"

Cap sighed. "Nice trick, John. But I'd tell you exactly what you just told me."

"And would you expect me to believe it?"

"Probably, even though I know you'd still feel bad."

"So I guess you're gonna hafta try to believe your own advice, even though you still feel like crap," I concluded.

Cap laughed. "You have a way with words, John. Speaking of which—Stoker. Wow."

I was curious to see where he might be going with this, but cautious, too. "Yeah—wow is right."

Cap did exactly what I was hoping he'd do, and just kept right on going. "I don't think I've ever heard him run off at the mouth like that—have you?"

"Nope—he was pretty loopy."

"I mean, you've probably never heard him spout like that, even though I think you probably know him better than any of the guys on the shift."

I what?

"Uh, Cap, I don't actually know him all that well."

"Well, I guess probably none of us do—but you certainly spend more down-time with him on our shifts than the rest of us. I mean, especially when Roy's not around, Mike's the one you talk to."

"I guess," I replied, "but that doesn't mean he talks to me."

I drove silently for a bit, thinking about what Cap had said, and realized he was right. Truth be told, there wasn't a lot of down-time when all six of us were at the station—the squad got lots of rescue-only runs, and the engine got lots of junk runs, like fire alarm activations, dumpster fires, and that sort of thing. But yeah—I guess I did kinda gravitate towards quiet Mike, especially when the other guys were being annoying. And maybe, what little I knew about the guy was ten times more than what others knew about him.

Like, for instance, I knew his parents were a bit on the older side when he was born, and they were retired up in Palm Springs, and that his dad had been a lawyer, and they were none too thrilled with Mike going into the fire service—'too blue collar for their uppity tastes,' he'd said once. And that he hardly ever talked with his folks or with his brother, for some reason he didn't want to say, but that he had a much-older sister who he was on okay terms with. And once I thought about it a little, I realized I was probably the only one on the shift who knew even that much about the guy, and that made me a little sad, all of a sudden.

The rest of the way to Rampart, I thought about what Cap had said. He was right—I did spend more time with Mike than the other guys on the shift did, but I didn't even realize I did. I mean, we'd chat about technical stuff, and sometimes I'd complain to him about my life, but he hardly ever said anything about his own life, and always found a way to politely redirect the conversation if it got personal.

"I kind of worry about him, you know," Cap admitted. We'd both clearly been thinking about the same thing for the last couple of minutes. "He's great at his job, and never gives me any trouble, but between you and me, John? I think he's pretty unhappy."

"Well, between you and me, Cap, then why don't we try to keep an extra eye on him over the next few weeks—'cause lemme tell you, it's gonna be tough for him to be on medical leave."

"You're certainly the one who would know about that, aren't you?

"Yeah, I s'pose I'm the voice of experience on medical leaves. It's prob'ly not so bad for you family guys, but for us single guys?" I shook my head. "Sucks."

I backed the squad into one of the ER parking spots. The Mayfair that had been carrying Roy and Mike was already gone—they'd probably beaten us by ten minutes, was my guess. I helped Cap out of the squad. "Actually, Cap, they won't let you hop around like that inside, so why don't I just go get the wheelchair now and save us gettin' lectured about how we oughta know better by now."

Cap laughed, and balanced himself against the hood of the squad. "Sure thing—I'll wait right here."

I popped inside and grabbed a wheelchair and trotted it back outside, spun it around, and put the brakes on so Cap could do his best to fold himself into the thing. 'Cause they're not made for guys with a 38-inch inseam, that's for sure.

I wheeled Cap in—he looked a little ridiculous, with his knees coming up above the arm rests, but oh well. I handed him off to the nurse who'd been waiting for us, and went to look for Roy.

I didn't see him around in any of the usual places, so I stopped at the nurses' station.

"Hey, Dix."

"Well, hello, stranger! Bet you're looking for Roy—he's in the lounge—no," she amended, looking behind me, "here he is."

I turned to see him right behind me. "Hey, partner—how's Stoker doin'? We oughta go check up on him—I at least wanna say hi before we head back to the fire. They reduce that shoulder yet?"

He shook his head. "No, they shot him up with a muscle relaxant a couple minutes ago; gotta let that kick in before they try to reduce it."

"Oh, well let's go say hi while he's waiting. Dix, what room is he in?"

Roy shook his head before Dixie could answer. "Sorry, no can do—he said he didn't want anyone in there."


"What with the morphine and how he doesn't do so well with medical stuff, he's pretty queasy right now," Roy said, shifting back and forth on his feet. A sure sign he was nervous about something.

I squinted at him. "What's up with you?"

"Me?" More shifting. "Uh, nothing. I guess, well, you know—the whole impalement thing."

"Uh huh," I said, "so why'd you shoo me away, then, and ride in with him yourself, if it was grossing you out so bad?"

Roy's eyes shifted nervously.

"Well, I—"

Whatever Roy was gonna say was cut off by an anguished yell, rising sharply at the end, and followed by two short, sharp yells that kicked me right in the gut. I doubled over, and leaned on the counter.

"I guess that's the shoulder back in," said Roy. "Hey, Junior—you all right?"

I had to work hard to breathe normally for a couple breaths. "Yeah—I'm fine. I, uh, just know how much that musta hurt him, is all." I straightened up and tried to look normal. "But at least it's back in now, huh?"

"Yeah," said Roy. "C'mon—we'd better get back to the brush fire. See ya later, Dixie," he said, as he steered me down the hall.

We hopped in the squad, Roy driving, as usual. The whole way back to the fire, we didn't say a word—not one word. I don't know what Roy was thinkin' about. But there was a whole lot that I was working on not thinkin' about. And like I said, I'm real good at not thinking about stuff I don't wanna think about. Lucky me, huh?

~the end~

(Please PM me if you would like a link to the sequel, which is not on this site due to its rating.)