Author's Note: This story started from a dare/challenge to whimsically pair two characters, but turned into an exploration of what it would be like to be a member of an invisible—and highly discriminated against—minority, in a highly conservative workplace. It's a direct sequel to "Stoker Speaks Out," which you will need to have read first for this story to make sense. It's a little bit of a love story, but also a very serious treatment of serious topics—discrimination and hate crimes. There's no sex in the story (though it's certainly implied), but there is love between people of the same sex. If that's not something you want to read, stop here.
Still reading? Great! Other things of note: there's some violence, which I will warn about at the top of that chapter. The ending is not outlandishly, unrealistically happy, but nor is it tragic. The story originally appeared on another site, in a different form, but I've altered it (and thus its rating) substantially to make it appropriate for this site's rating scheme. So if you read Kelmin elsewhere, this story will be familiar to you. As always, I love to hear what readers think.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended. When real people, agencies, or places appear in the story, they are used fictionally. When actors and characters share a name, all references in the story are to the fictional character, not the actor.
Chapter 1: Cookouts and Campfires
Roy was at the grill, flipping some burgers, when he heard another vehicle pull up in the gravel drive. He recognized the VW Rabbit that belonged to Mike Stoker's girlfriend, Serena.
"Hey, guys! Mike and Serena are here!" he called to the rest of the gang. Everyone from A-shift was there – Cap and Mrs. Stanley, Marco and his girlfriend Lila, and Chet and Johnny, the two steadfast singles of the group. They hadn't been sure whether Mike was going to make it to the cookout or not, since he and Serena had been going to a play that her kindergarten class was putting on earlier that afternoon.
"Hey, Mike!" called Roy. "Come on back! Hi, Serena, glad you guys could make it."
Serena opened the gate for Mike. His left arm was still in a sling to protect the shoulder he'd dislocated a few weeks before, falling down a hill during a brush fire. Serena headed immediately for the group of women, grabbing a beer from the cooler on her way.
"How are the shoulder and the hand coming along?" Roy asked Stoker.
"Not too bad – shoulder's still plenty sore, but I'm getting some range of motion back. The hand isn't too bad unless it gets cold. Then it feels like those cactus spines are still in there."
Roy winced in sympathy. "The good news about it being fall is that the brush fire season is tapering off, but the bad news for you is that there'll actually be some cool nights now."
Mike gave a careful one-shouldered shrug. "I can deal. Never been a fan of the heat anyhow."
Mike and Roy were both wondering whether to bring up their last in-depth discussion, which had taken place in the back of an ambulance on the way to Rampart. To Roy's surprise, the usually-laconic Mike spoke up. Sort of.
"Um, thanks for your understanding, about, you know."
Roy smiled back. "No problem."
Mike added, cautiously looking around to make sure he wasn't overheard, "Serena and I cover for each other. I go to school things with her, and she comes to fire station stuff with me. Makes things easier. We're pals."
Roy was relieved to hear Mike's explanation. He had been wondering whether the situation was as Mike had just described, or whether the "relationship" was a one-way cover. He didn't think Mike was the kind of guy who'd use someone like that, though.
"Good. Thanks for telling me."
The four other guys wandered over to the grill.
"Hey, Stoker! How's it goin'?" asked Chet, who already had a couple of beers in him. "Giving Roy a hand here at the grill?"
"Ha, ha," replied Mike.
"Seriously, though, us guys were just talkin' about maybe camping out for a coupla days next time we have a four day break. That's comin' up soon, right, Cap?"
"Yep – Tuesday through Friday, starting in just over two weeks," said Captain Stanley. "And not a second too soon."
"Well, I'm game," said Johnny, "as long as we can go somewhere where there's actually fish to catch. You up for it, Mike?"
Truth be told, Mike was going out of his mind with boredom. His medical leave was supposed to be at least six weeks, and he was only halfway done and wanted to drown himself. But camping, with a recently dislocated shoulder? "Well, I dunno if I can sleep on the ground with this shoulder, guys," he said dejectedly.
Chet saved the day. "No problemo, man; I'll bring my van, and you can have the bunk. And some other sorry fool who can take your snoring can have the other one."
Mike considered this arrangement. "All right. Been really bored. Sounds good. Thanks, guys."
The ladies—Mrs. Cap, Joanne, Lila, and Serena—were chatting on the other side of the yard. They looked over at the men briefly, and then all laughed at the same time, making the men wonder what had just been discussed.
"But here's the deal," continued Chet. "No girls. No wives, either. Just us guys. I mean, it'd be fair if we all had someone to bring, but poor Gage doesn't have a chance—" Johnny promptly made a childish face at Chet— "so the kindest thing is for it just to be us A-shift guys and that's it.
"And on that topic," Chet continued, "Stoker, when're ya gonna make an honest woman out of poor Serena? I mean, you guys've been together the whole time we've all worked at 51s. Aren't there any sounds of wedding bells in the future there?"
"Ah, mind your business, Chet," Johnny defended Mike, who was blushing a deep shade of pink. "Least he's gettin' some, unlike certain people I could mention. Besides, lotsa people don't get married these days."
Roy studiously flipped some burgers and rolled some dogs on the grill.
"Yeah, kids these days," muttered Cap. "Okay, you imbeciles, I'll go along—but only if Roy goes too. Darned if I'm gonna be the only old married guy out there with all you hooligans. Roy?"
"Sure. I'll get Joanne to invite her mother down for the week," agreed Roy.
"I'm in too—Lila's at work during the week anyhow," said Marco.
"Far out!" said Johnny. "Brush fire season'll be over, so we could even have a campfire."
By early afternoon on a bright Tuesday in early October, they were finally on the road. Chet and Marco rode in Chet's VW pop-up camping van, along with all the gear and supplies. The other four loaded into Cap's new Oldsmobile Delta 88, the most reliable of the other vehicles the group had amongst them. Johnny called shotgun, and the other guys let him take that seat, since they knew he was prone to motion sickness.
The two vehicles arrived at the group's campsite, and the occupants got out and stretched their legs.
"Hey, Gage, ya make it all the way without having to puke this time?" Chet jibed.
"Yeah, I was savin' it up just for you, Kelly," Johnny shot back. "I'm sure you'll come up with somethin' today that will make me hurl."
"All right, children," said Roy, "we better get the tents pitched before it starts getting dark."
"Okay, Dad," said Marco. "But who's gonna bunk with the lumberjack, here?"
"Not me," said Cap. "I'm too old to be up all night anymore. Plus, I've got a good three inches of height on any of you munchkins. My feet would dangle for sure."
"Well, I vote for Gage to take the damage," said Chet. "He's so fidgety that nobody will get any sleep with him in a tent anyhow."
"I second that," said Cap. "Gage, you're like an electric egg beater without an off switch."
Roy caught a look on Mike's face that worried him. "C'mon, guys; how is it fair to decide by jury? We oughta draw straws or something, right, Johnny?"
Johnny shrugged. "I don't care; I always sleep with earplugs when I'm camping anyhow. See?" He reached into his duffel bag, and held up a cylinder of six foam earplugs – four purple and two orange.
"Nah," said Roy, "we still oughta draw lots. Here, Johnny, dump `em out – four purples and an orange." He held a mug out to Johnny, who unwrapped the package and dumped the earplugs into the mug. "Orange bunks with Stoker." He held the mug out towards Hank. "Rank has its privileges: you first, Cap."
Surprisingly, Cap agreed to participate. He closed his eyes and grabbed. "Whew, purple. You next, Phantom."
Chet closed his eyes and reached into the mug. "Hah! Purple! All right, Gage, do your worst."
Johnny dipped into the mug, and promptly pulled out the orange earplug. Everyone jeered at him. "Like I said, I don't really care—unless I don't get those earplugs back. Now gimme," he demanded, and placed the earplugs back in their tube.
Roy looked apologetically at Stoker, shrugging his shoulders as if to say "Sorry, pal, I tried."
Stoker disappeared to the van to see what supplies he could carry to the site one-handed. Roy followed him, leaving the rest of the guys by the fire pit.
"Hey, Mike, you all right with this?"
Mike sighed. "Well, I'll manage. Don't see how I can get out of it." He half dreaded, half looked forward to sharing quarters with the object of a good number of his desires. "Thanks for trying to rescue me, though—again."
After a delicious Lopez-special dinner of chicken cooked over the wood fire, along with corn roasted in the coals right in its husks, everyone was ready to sack out. Chet and Marco headed for their tent, and Cap and Roy for theirs. Johnny had been assigned to put out the fire and make sure everything tempting was out of reach of the bears for the night. Mike did his best to help out, but was annoyed by his weak shoulder and his clumsy, not-quite-healed punctured hand.
"Can't wait to go fishing tomorrow," Johnny said as he stirred another can of water into the still-smoldering embers of the fire. "I bet we find a good place somewhere along this stream."
"Probably," Mike said. "Though I doubt I'm gonna be much good at it this time around. One handed and all."
"Gettin' pretty frustrating, ain't it," Johnny commented.
"You bet. My house is a mess, my yard is a disaster, and I'm sick of sandwiches and cereal, which is about all I can manage. I'm starting to think I'll never get back to work, either."
"Yeah," Johnny said. "I hear ya. B'lieve me, I get it."
Mike instantly felt chagrined. His shoulder and hand injuries were nothing compared to some of the poundings Johnny had taken over the six years they'd known each other.
"Sorry," Mike said.
Johnny looked up. "What for?"
"Being such a whiner. It shouldn't be such a big deal."
"It is, though." Johnny put down the stick he'd been using to stir the embers, and held his hand over the fire pit to feel for heat. He sat back on his heels and looked up at Mike. "I get it. You feel like you're never gonna get better, never gonna get fit again. You sit at home thinkin' about nothin' but how long it's gonna take. You wonder whether you're really gonna be able to do it—really be able to get back to work. And meanwhile, everyone you know is just doin' what they always do, and don't have any more time for you than they ever did, because they're still busy with work." He shook his head. "Man, guys who've never got knocked down before—they think this whole medical leave thing is like a big vacation. But it ain't. It's boring, scary, and rotten. But most of all, it's lonely. So believe me—I understand."
"Yeah," Mike said quietly. "Yeah, you do. You really do. Thanks."
Johnny stood up and brushed his hands off. "Any time. C'mon—let's turn in. We've got luxury bunks waitin' for us in Chet's van."
With much rustling and fumbling, they found their respective bunks, and bedded down for the night. After the flashlights had been turned off, Mike closed his eyes, hoping against hope that he'd fall asleep easily.
"Hey, Mike?" Johnny said.
"You ever think about, you know, what if …" Johnny paused.
Mike gave him a few seconds—it wasn't like Johnny to be at a loss for words, and he was curious to see where this was going. "What if what?" he prompted, after a few more seconds of silence.
"Nah, never mind. Forget it."
"No, what?" Mike asked, propping himself up on an elbow. "Seriously."
Johnny hesitated, knowing that personal questions often resulted in a total shutdown from Mike. But he decided to give it a try anyhow, considering their conversation while putting out the fire had been slightly personal. "You ever think about what you would do, if you couldn't do the job any more?"
Mike nodded. "Yeah. Did a lotta thinking, these last few weeks."
"What'd you come up with, if you don't mind my asking?"
Surprisingly, Mike found that he didn't mind. "I took a couple arson investigation courses at the academy a couple years back. When I turned thirty, I guess I started thinking about gettin' old, and what that means in this career. So I might apply to the Arson Unit," he said, "if I ever couldn't do what I really like."
"Huh," said Johnny. "Yeah, I c'n see that. You'd be good at it—you've got that eye for detail, and you're real organized. Not just like, you know, neat and tidy and stuff, but also organized in how you think."
"Thanks," Mike said. He did have those qualities, but didn't think anyone paid enough attention to notice that, so he was intrigued that Johnny had not only noticed that but was willing to say so. And Mike didn't want to pry, but Johnny had started this conversation. "How 'bout you?"
Johnny hesitated. "It's pretty crazy," he said.
"I doubt it. But if it's too personal, then, well, never mind." Mike had figured out long ago that, much like he himself did, Johnny got uncomfortable talking about personal topics.
"Well, I guess I never told anyone this before—not even Roy. For some reason, he and I never really talk about the 'what-ifs,' ya know? But what I'd probably do, is I'd be a nurse. I mean, unless I was too busted up for that, too. It's weird for a guy—I know. But it's probably what I'd do."
"I don't think it's weird."
"Ya don't? Seriously?"
"No. It's kind of, I dunno, one step away from being a paramedic, right? The patients aren't quite as, uh, fresh, when the nurses get 'em, but it's the same kind of thing—taking care of people when they're at their worst. And you're really good at that," Mike said. "And there's no reason why men shouldn't do that job," he continued, understanding why Johnny thought the idea was weird. "None at all. In fact, the one night I spent at Rampart for this stupid shoulder, I was pretty damned glad not to have some woman helping me with, um, stuff."
Johnny laughed. "Yeah, tell me about it."
"WILL YOU TWO SHUT THE HELL UP? SOME OF US ARE TRYING TO SLEEP!" Chet bellowed from his tent.
"Sorry!" Mike shouted back. "Anyhow," he whispered, "it's not weird."
"Thanks," Johnny whispered. "Well, g'night."
"Good night. Throw something at me if I'm snoring."
"Earplugs, remember? Sleep well."
Mike Stoker did not sleep well. In fact, he didn't sleep at all. At first, he didn't mind—it was nice watching Johnny sleep, seeing his face with no expression at all, listening to his breathing, and trying to decipher the little mumblings he produced in his sleep. But, every time Mike was about to drift off to sleep, he was reminded of the fact that he was not alone, and who he was with, and was wide awake again.
By the time the sun started to rise, Mike had had enough. He grabbed his sling, put it on, slid some sweatpants over his boxers, and put his jacket over his shoulders. He quietly left the van, leaving the door slightly ajar so as not to wake Johnny with the slamming sound the door made when it closed completely.
In the morning chill, Stoker started slowly gathering tinder, placing it in the firepit, and making a cone of kindling over the tinder. One-handed, he stacked a couple pieces of firewood within reach for when the tinder caught. He knelt by the firepit, and, holding the matchbox in his knees, struck a match, and held it to the tinder.
The tinder caught immediately. Even though fire season was technically over, all the tinder he'd collected was dry and ready to burn. The kindling caught, and after it was blazing, Mike added the logs he had ready.
"Not bad for a guy with one arm," a voice behind him said.
Mike practically jumped out of his skin—he hadn't realized anyone else was up. "Oh, hey, Johnny. Thought you were still out cold."
"Nah, one whiff of smoke and I'm up for good. Bet the others won't be far behind," Johnny predicted. He headed to a rope that was cleated around a stub of a branch about six feet off the ground, and began unwinding it. He lowered the bag of food that they'd hoisted out of the reach of any bears in the area, rummaged through the bag, and got out a can of coffee.
"Here, gimme, I'll make it," said Stoker. "Least that's something I can manage around here."
"Okay, I'll start some eggs." Johnny brought over water for the powdered eggs and the coffee, and he and Stoker started a campfire breakfast.
The two men heard the sound of a tent zipper opening. Cap and Roy emerged from the tent they shared, followed shortly by Marco and Chet, from the next tent.
The men all exchanged bleary-eyed "g'mornin's."
Chet started right in with the remarks. "So, once you two shut the hell up, it was awful quiet around here all night—I didn't hear a single chainsaw. What was your magical secret for not snoring last night, Stoker?"
"Not sleeping," Mike replied, jabbing the fire with a stick.
"Then what were ya doin', huh Stoker?" poked Chet.
"Just … not sleeping. Don't you ever have insomnia?" He stomped off into the woods, who knew where.
"Hey, where ya goin'?" shouted Chet. "I'm just teasin', you know."
"Takin' a leak, moron."
"All right—let us know if you need a hand," Chet joked. The others just shook their heads at him.
"Man, Chet—kick him when he's down, why dontcha?" said Marco. "And by the way, Gage, what'd you do to keep him up all night? I didn't hear a thing—well, after you guys finally quit with the chit-chat." Everyone knew that Marco had the keenest ears of any of them, and was woken by any sound.
Gage looked—and felt—baffled. "Nothin'! Man, you guys always think the worst of me. I was just sleepin'! In fact, I slept like a log. Can't remember the last time I slept so good. Guess Mikey's my good luck charm."
Roy choked on his coffee and coughed heavily.
"You all right, there, pal?" asked Cap, pounding his back.
"Yeah," said Roy hoarsely, "just got some coffee down the wrong tube."
"Aren't you fancy paramedics s'posta know the difference?" asked Chet.
"Somebody, please, poison him now and put him out of our misery!" said Marco. "And, speaking of poisoning, we better get to fishing if we're gonna have any dinner tonight!"
Cap groaned. "Aw, c'mon, guys; you know I can't eat fish anymore since that grateful couple— what were their names? —who tortured us with their Trout a la Soot and Salmon Surprise! I don't care what you catch—I'm opening a can of chili."
"Oh, yeah, the Merkles! Now that was a disaster. Wonder what station they're attached to now?" said Marco.
The guys finished their eggs, washed the dishes, and set out in different directions for their day's plans. Johnny, Roy, and Chet set out fishing. Marco and Cap wanted to see if they could make a lean-to out of branches they found. Mike wasn't sure what he was going to do for the rest of the day, but headed to the van to grab a nap.
By early afternoon, Mike felt reasonably well rested. He emerged from the van to find nobody else present. By the fire-pit, there was a note for him:
Dear Sleeping Beauty: We didn't want to wake you, but we're all at a swimming hole about half a mile down the Deep Woods Trail. If you manage to wake up, come for a swim! —The Guys
Swimming sounded good. He put his swim trunks on, and followed the sign to the trail to join the rest of the gang. At the end of the trail, as promised, was a swimming hole that was so perfect it almost didn't look real. A pebbled shore surrounded the clear, clean water. There were a few rushes growing on one side of the pond-like area, but other than that, you could see clear to the bottom in the rest of the pool. There was a trickle of a waterfall coming from a cliff about twenty feet up one side of the natural pool.
"Hey, man, come on in! The water's great!" hollered Chet.
Johnny and Marco were giving everyone heart attacks with their cliff-jumping contest, and Chet, Roy, and Cap were just enjoying the water. Mike thought that a dip in the water, without the sling, might be just the thing to loosen up his shoulder.
They all spent the rest of the afternoon at the swimming hole. Finally, they grabbed their string of fish from a deep, cold pool, and headed back to camp.
By the time they'd cleaned, cooked, and eaten the fish—minus Captain Stanley, who made good on his promise not to touch the stuff—it was getting dark and cool.
"I'll bet it rains tonight," said Johnny.
"What, are you kidding? The sky is clear! Look at the stars, man," said Chet.
"Nope, definitely gonna rain," Johnny insisted.
"I dunno, John; Chet's right—it's awfully clear and calm right now. Why do you think it's gonna rain?" Cap asked.
"Well, on account of I've broken this leg—" he gestured to his right leg— "twice, and it tells me it's gonna rain! C'mon, don't tell me none of the rest of you have a weather-wise bone or two. We've all got beat up some, haven't we?" he pressed.
"Sure, Gage, but not like you," said Chet. "I mean, you're a walking accident machine. Though I have to say, Stoker's show last month was pretty good. What about it, Mike? That cactus hand have anything to say about a storm?"
Mike looked noncommittal. "I dunno—shoulder's kinda achy, but I probably overdid it with the swimming."
Marco yawned loudly. "I don't know about you guys," he said, "but I'm gonna finish this beer and then turn in."
"Yeah, me too. Anyone wanna trade spots tonight?" asked Roy, not so sure he wanted to spend a night in a tent with someone who'd had beer and chili for dinner. Nobody bit. "Johnny, you okay with the snoring?" he continued, figuring he should at least try to rescue Stoker from another night of no sleep.
"Like I said, man, earplugs. Plus, Mike and I will be all warm and dry when it starts pouring later," said Johnny. "You'll see."
The guys picked up their beer cans, hoisted the empties up in the tree along with the food, and watered and stirred the embers of the fire. They headed to their respective bunks and tents.
Inside the van, Johnny and Mike straightened out their bunks, and made piles here and there of supplies.
"Man, I'm totally beat," said Johnny. "Nothin' like cliff-diving and a whole afternoon in a swimming hole to wear a guy out. You think you'll be able to sleep tonight, Mike?"
"Dunno," was Mike's terse reply. Probably not, with your royal sexiness tossing around all night again.
"What kept ya up all night, anyhow? Was I thrashing around? Roy complains about that at the station sometimes. Once I even fell out of my bunk, right on my boots!"
"You mumble in your sleep, too. Pretty funny," smiled Stoker.
"What'd I say? Nothing incriminating, I hope." Johnny waggled his eyebrows, and Mike just about had to run outside. "I mean, I wouldn't want half the nursing staff of Rampart to come after me with pitchforks and torches."
"Nah. I couldn't really tell what you were saying. It was just—" cute? Hot?— "funny."
Mike rummaged in his duffel bag, and grabbed a bottle of aspirin. He fumbled with the child-proof cap, and finally handed it to Johnny in frustration. "Can you open this? Stupid childproof caps—more like injured-person proof."
Johnny pushed down and turned, and popped a couple tablets out for Mike. "Here ya go. I'll tell ya, though; aspirin is deadly poison if you take too much. I'll bet these new caps save a lotta kids."
Well, at least I know what I can use to kill myself if I find myself watching him all night again. "Yeah, I guess. Anyhow, thanks." He dry-swallowed the pills, and tried to work the soreness out of his shoulder.
"Hey, when do ya go back for a checkup? They gonna turn you loose for PT soon?"
"Um, Monday," replied Stoker. "S'posta start PT next week."
"Great! You didn't tear any ligaments clean through or break your collarbone, so you'll be back to the action in no time. Even if it feels like forever." Johnny stripped down to his boxers and climbed into his bunk. "Well, nighty night. Just whack me if I'm keepin' you up, 'kay? I won't even remember."
"Okay. G'night." MIke tried desperately not to think of what he really wanted to do if Gage was keeping him awake. He flipped the van's dome light off, undressed down to his t-shirt and boxers, and did his best to get comfortable on the foam mattress of his bunk.
The starlight was bright enough that Mike could see Johnny's chest rise and fall, rise and fall. He had his arm over his forehead and eyes, just like he had the previous night as he fell asleep.
After a few minutes, Mike was sure Johnny was asleep. He could tell, because instead of lying still, Johnny kicked off his blanket, rolled over onto his stomach, and mumbled something incoherent into his pillow. His right arm dangled off the bunk.
Mike tried to think about sleeping at the station—after all, he never had trouble falling asleep when all five guys were there. But it was just different enough, having Gage all to himself like this, that once again, sleep was elusive.
After an hour or so, he'd had enough. Not believing Johnny's weather prediction in the slightest, Mike rolled up his sleeping bag, quietly opened the door of the van, and slipped out into the clear night. He laid his sleeping bag out on a reasonably flat bed of pine needles, and, mercifully, fell asleep nearly instantly.
Mike was sleeping so heavily when the rain started falling that he did not wake at first. But eventually, large droplets from the branches of the pine tree that partially protected him fell onto his face, demanding his attention.
"What the fuck?" By the time Stoker sat up, the rain was pounding down like cold bullets. He climbed out of his sleeping bag, which by that point was a sodden mess, and made for the van door.
Although the van was only five yards away, Stoker was a soaking, dripping mess by the time he reached the door. He forgot to be careful and quiet opening the van door, and threw himself into the van, slamming the door shut. "Fuck!" He threw his dripping sleeping bag over the console between the two front seats, and flipped on the dome light.
"Wha … huh?" said Johnny, as he sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Shit, Stoker—or should I say 'Soaker!' What the hell were you doing sleepin' outside? It's not like I snore, and plus, you've got the cushiest bunk of anyone, thanks to that sling there." He looked at Mike. "Damn, but you're a mess." Water sheeted down Mike's legs, washing a few of the many pine needles stuck there onto the floor of the van.
Stoker just stood there dripping and shivering. He started to try to strip down to get dry, but with only one hand, and one that was only partially working at that, getting those clingy wet clothes off was not in the cards. He angrily kicked the door of the van, and stood there just dripping some more.
"Man, you're drippin' all over the place." Johnny stared at his friend, a dripping wet mess, tangled up in his half-removed t-shirt. "All right, all right, lemme help; just hold still." He stood up and reached towards Mike, to try to help him, but took a fast step back when Mike shrank back towards the sliding door of the van.
The rain was really cold, and Mike was chilled to the bone. But still, he didn't think he could tolerate having Johnny stripping his clothes off, even in a purely clinical way—which was not the way he wanted something like that to happen. Not that it would ever happen any other way. But he was freezing, and shaking uncontrollably, and he knew perfectly well that he wasn't going to be able to get the sopping wet clothes off without help. He was so chilled that his punctured right hand, the only one he could use at all, was stiff and unwieldy. Anyhow, having just essentially had a cold shower, he figured like it was unlikely that he'd embarrass himself with a visible reaction of any kind.
"Okay," he said softly. "Lemme get a dry shirt and shorts." Mike climbed back into the sleeping area of the van and rummaged, one-handed, through his duffel bag until he found what he was looking for. He set the dry clothes on his bunk, and turned to see Johnny standing in front of him, in the dim light. With the van's top popped up, it was just possible for Mike to stand upright in the center of the sleeping area, but Johnny's hair brushed the ceiling.
Johnny gently removed the sling from Mike's left arm, took Mike's right hand, and helped him get it through the sleeve of the clinging t-shirt. He then peeled the soaking garment over Mike's head, and carefully worked it off the left arm. He toweled Mike's upper body off lightly, being extra careful to support his left arm, and got the new shirt on him. He held up the dripping sling, and asked, looking Mike in the eye for the first time, "Whaddaya think? Do you sleep without it anyhow?"
"Yeah—let's just hang it over the seat to dry." Mike rubbed his left shoulder to try to ease the ache the chill had left. He tried desperately to ignore the fact that his freezing, sodden boxers were being peeled off of him, and replaced with new, dry, mercifully warm ones.
"Thanks," he said, through chattering teeth. He'd survived. He was drier, but he couldn't truthfully say he was warmer. And having Johnny's hands all over him, after nearly two nights of trying to get past his surely inappropriate feelings, had set him on edge.
"You're welcome," Johnny said. He flipped the dome light on, and frowned. He grabbed a blanket from his bedroll, and moved towards Mike with it. "Your lips are blue. Lemme get you wrapped up, and—"
But Mike knew he had to keep Johnny's hands off him, or there'd be trouble.
"Johnny, stop. Just … don't." Mike snatched the slightly damp towel off of his duffel bag and crawled into the passenger's seat of the van.
"C'mon, man, you're gonna catch your death! Now lemme help," Johnny insisted quietly, squeezing into the driver's seat.
To Johnny's dismay, Mike sat in the passenger's seat with his buried his head in his hands.
"Mike, man, I'm sorry. Whatever I did or said, I'm sorry. Talk to me, will ya, please?" Johnny asked quietly.
"All right. I'll wait. Despite what everyone thinks, I can be really, really patient when I want to."
Johnny sat quietly, wondering what was going on in Mike's head. Wondering if maybe it was what he thought it might be. Hoped it might be. He looked at Mike, saw him shivering, saw steam coming off his body in the cold of the van. He just couldn't stand to see him like that, and, despite what he'd just said about patience, he reached towards Mike with the blanket again. Mike's eyes flashed, with a feeling Johnny couldn't identify, and he leaned away from Johnny.
"Don't!" was Mike's agonized cry. "Please, just … don't touch me!" He was breathing hard, hunching forward as if to protect his midsection. "Not unless you mean it."
Johnny suddenly found that he could hardly breathe. His mind flashed back to the day of the brush fire, when he'd been splinting up Mike's dislocated shoulder to get him ready to go to Rampart. He'd found himself on the receiving end of some looks from Mike that left him flustered and confused. And a teensy bit hopeful. He'd quickly convinced himself, though, that those scorching glances were a byproduct—along with the uncharacteristic motormouthing—of ten milligrams of morphine, and weren't anything real. So Johnny put the whole incident out of his mind, along with any hope of … well, anything. Because the "anything" he'd thought of, that day, violated pretty much every rule he'd ever made for himself about getting involved with people who didn't happen to be women.
But now, he was right back where he started. Flustered and confused, all over again, but also pretty sure he was on the right track.
Johnny held the blanket out at arm's length, and Mike finally took it and draped it over himself.
"Okay, Mike. It's okay. I think I see what you mean. And I'll wait till you want to talk. Like I said, I'm pretty patient."
Mike looked up. "Patient? Patient? You don't get it—this has nothing to do with patience. And I don't think you see what I mean. It's—I … I'm not who you think I am, all right? You're not like me." He looked away, ashamed of his outburst, and not sure whether Johnny had really understood him.
Johnny was silent for a moment. He flashed back to the brush fire again, and closed his eyes to recapture the look he'd seen then. He found that image, and rolled it over and over in his head. He knew he was walking on dangerous ground, at the edge of a precipice. He couldn't resist getting closer to that edge, but he fumbled his words badly along his way.
"You … you're … you like, uh …" Johnny's heart pounded in his chest, as he heard all the wrong words pouring out of his mouth. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Way to go, Gage.
"See?" Mike said. "You can't even say it. Hell, I can't even say it—not to one of the people I've had to hide it from for so long. But it's like I said: you're not like me. Now you know." He turned towards the window, to try to look away, but it had turned into a mirror. All he could see was his own reflection, and Johnny's reflection behind his.
Johnny's eyes locked with Mike's in the mirror of the window. He composed himself, and his words, before he spoke again. He couldn't let himself get this wrong. Couldn't blow his chance. If there even was one.
"Mike, you're right—I'm not like you. I'm not like anyone. I'm not anything. I don't belong anywhere, not completely. Any fence between two worlds? I'm sittin' right on it. I'm half everything, and all nothing. Half Indian, half white. Half fireman, half medic. Half super rescue hero, half incredible klutz. Oh yeah, and last but not least, half straight, half gay." Johnny sat back and waited, oh, so patiently, for Mike's reaction to that last pair of contrasts.
Mike froze. For several seconds, he wondered if he'd heard right. Finally he turned around, meeting Johnny's eyes for real for the first time since he came back inside the van.
"I never … I have rules for myself. At work. I never let myself think … you know. But then there was the shoulder, and the morphine, and … and I was looking at you, just like I don't let myself, and Roy noticed, and …" Mike couldn't finish. He reached up and turned the dome light off again, so there were no more mirrors, no more reflections.
"I noticed, too," Johnny said softly. "I saw how you were lookin' at me. And I liked it. A lot. But I have the same rules, right? So I made myself decide it was the drugs."
Mike looked back up in the near darkness. "You liked it?"
"A lot," Johnny repeated. He reached across from the driver's seat to tuck the blanket around Mike's shoulders, and this time Mike didn't pull away. "I didn't let myself hang onto the idea though. 'Cause … I had no idea if what I thought I was seein' meant anything or not. And, Serena …" Johnny left off there, feeling himself getting too close to the cliff again. He didn't really know what was at the bottom of the cliff, either. Serena had been a fixture in Mike's life for nearly the entire time Johnny had known him, and that was a piece of the puzzle that he wasn't understanding.
"Serena's my cover," Mike said softly, "and I'm hers. It's apparently just as unacceptable to be a lesbian kindergarten teacher as a gay fireman. Although if someone outed her, she'd just get fired, not lynched. So Serena and me … we're not for real. We're just old friends, who help each other out."
Johnny let out a breath he didn't even realize he'd been holding. "I, uh … I'm glad to hear that. And lemme tell ya, you're both real good actors, 'cause you had me fooled. And I even have two different sets of eyes to look with, if you know what I mean. I really doubt anyone else on our shift would figure anything out, anyhow."
Stoker had to laugh at that. "Roy did."
Johnny's eyes bugged out. "Roy did? Are you kidding me? Mister Traditional himself?"
"Yep. I said he noticed, when I was looking at you. Roy's got gaydar, but not bi-dar, apparently, 'cause he warned me off you big time." Stoker found himself smiling at the memory of that moment—exceedingly uncomfortable at the time, and not just because of the dislocated shoulder and cactus-spine impaled hand.
"All right, okay, you gotta let me in on this. You actually talked to Roy? About that? I mean, me? I mean, this? I mean, aw hell, I don't know what I mean." Johnny shook his head, partly in disbelief, partly in confusion. Can't make up my mind about anything, can I?
"Less like talking to; more like blabbing at," said Mike, who was feeling less shy by the moment.
"I give up! I give up!" Johnny held both hands up in mock surrender. "When? How? Why? I mean, 'blabbing' is not something anyone associates with the mysterious Michael Stoker."
"My friend MS, again. Let's just say my, uh, verbal inhibitions got loosened up a bit. I spilled my guts to him in the ambulance on the way to Rampart. Then I tossed my cookies. Fun day, all in all."
Mike seemed to be letting his guard down, so Johnny took another step forward. Let's take a chance, here.
"Was it real?" Johnny asked. "That look I was liking so much?"
Mike didn't reply for a moment. "Yeah. Yeah, it was real. You had it right."
"Good," Johnny said simply. And then, just as he'd hoped he would, he found himself right at the other end of that look, once again.
He took another leap. "Ya know what? You're still blue, and you're still shivering. I can provide you with some excess body heat, if you're so inclined. I've got plenty. And, well, I'm kinda thinkin' it would be nice to share it."
Mike's eyes flashed, and the look changed to something different. "I don't need your pity."
"That's not what I'm offering," Johnny said softly. "What I said was, it would be nice to share some body heat. With you. And see what happens. And it ain't Paramedic Gage who's saying that, to take care of a victim. It's me, sayin' it to you. Me, the guy who liked how you were lookin' at him that day."
The look changed again, back to where it had been. Blue eyes locked with brown, for what seemed like hours, until Mike broke the silence. "Let's not burn out Kelly's battery while we share that heat of yours." He reached up to turn the dome light off again.
"Wait." Johnny took his hand, blocking him from turning off the light switch.
Mike didn't say anything. He just let Johnny hold onto his ice-cold hand, and waited for him to continue.
"I know we gotta turn the light off. For a couple reasons. But I just wanted to see that look for a little longer."
Johnny let Mike's hand go, and then reached over to flip the dome light off himself. They didn't move, for a long moment, neither of them quite sure how to finally close the gap between them.
But Johnny broke the ice. He crawled out from the driver's seat, and extended a hand to help Mike out from the passenger's seat. They stood in the center of the van, between the bunks, and Johnny slowly, gently drew Mike towards him, wrapping them both in the blanket that he had placed around Mike's shoulders. Shivering became trembling, and cold became heat, as the space between them disappeared.