Chapter 46: Party
"The thing about these 365-day-a-year jobs," Johnny complained, fishing a t-shirt from the laundry basket, "is that you can never get everyone together at the same time. A third of us will always be on the job at any given time."
"That's pretty much a given," said Mike, as he rolled another pair of socks together and frowned at them. "Are these yours or mine?"
"Does it matter?"
"I guess not, if we can't tell."
Johnny folded another t-shirt and put it on Mike's pile. "I feel bad that Roy's taking time off to come to our thing tonight. But I guess it made sense to schedule it during B-shift, since everyone else we know is on A or C."
"Look. Roy understands. It's not like we asked him to take time off to help us paint, or do lawn work, or something like that, right? And he'll have a fun time at a party with his family and friends."
Johnny snorted lightly. "Listen to us. You're tryin' to get me to not worry about something."
Mike smiled. "Just think—not even three years ago, you'd never been here, to this house. I was a chronic worrier, and solidly locked up in my closet, and you were a chronic … hmm, what?"
"I was chronically lonely, babe, is what. But not anymore."
"No," Mike said. He rolled one last pair of socks together and added them to the pile. He came up behind Johnny, and rested his chin on Johnny's shoulder, wrapping his arms around his midsection.
"And then Cap took one bad step at a brush fire," Johnny said, leaning back in to Mike, "and you popped your shoulder out, and I got you high on morphine, and you looked at me that way I love, Mikey, and good ol' Roy tried to keep us apart."
"Didn't work for too long, though. Fortunately."
"Nope. Once I saw that look, I was hooked."
"It's funny," Mike said, "to think about how if one little thing had been different, any step of the way, we might not be …"
Johnny turned in Mike's arms. "Now, I don't believe that for a second." He pecked a quick kiss onto Mike's lips, shoved a pile of laundry out of the way, and sat on the bed, patting the spot next to him.
Mike sat down. "Why not?"
"Well, first of all, let me just say I don't believe in 'destiny,' or anything like that."
"I know that—none of that … what do you call it?"
"Right. But go on," Mike said. "I'm curious, now."
"The way I figure it, you and I always liked each other, always saw eye-to-eye on things, even though we weren't great buddies like me and Roy, or Marco and Chet. But there was this one thing, this one secret, that we both had, that neither one of us knew about. There are a hundred—no, a thousand—ways that the secret coulda been spilled. And once we knew that about each other, we both woulda been too curious and too interested to just let it go."
Mike digested what Johnny said. "So if Cap hadn't taken me down with his famous tumble, and I hadn't been off my rocker and giving you The Look, and I hadn't been sleeping outside in a rainstorm you predicted, you think something else would've happened that might've gotten the wheels turning?"
"Yep. No point in trying to figure out what it mighta been, or when, but yeah. I think something else woulda happened eventually. Not because of anything mystical; just because it seems likely. And because we had such similar secrets, we each mighta noticed something the other guys never woulda."
"Okay, Gage. I'll buy that."
"That's good, because I've got plenty of other things to sell you, if you're in the mood."
Mike smiled back at Johnny. "You know we have a lot to get done before our shindig tonight."
"Yeah, and I also know you're always in the mood, too."
"Johnny, weren't you just saying not all that long ago that maybe you've finally grown up?"
"Nah, I won't ever completely grow up. I will move the folded laundry off the bed before I jump ya, though."
Mike rolled his eyes and stood up, clutching a pile of folded t-shirts. "It's gonna have to keep, babe. Seriously—it's four o'clock, and people are coming at six, and we still have a lot to get done. Which doesn't include each other."
"I know, I know—I'm just teasin'. Sort of."
"I'll tell you what. I'll see you here, in this room, the very second the last guest is out the door. Or passed out on the couch, or in the guest room. Deal?"
"Deal. Seal it with a kiss, Stoker?"
Mike smiled as he put the t-shirts in a drawer. "You bet."
They sealed their bargain, long enough that each one knew the other meant it, but short enough that it didn't threaten to turn into something else.
"There. Now I'll be an adult again. Who's gonna pick up the food, and who's gonna get stuff ready around here?" Johnny said, as he picked up a pile of socks and dumped them in a drawer.
"Either way." Mike was curious to see whether Johnny would try to get out of going to the store he'd been headed to when William Staib and James Torrelli assaulted him. Curious, in the way one is when the plumbing snake emerges from a clogged drain, wanting to know but also not wanting to know what might be about to appear. He looked at Johnny, waiting for him to make the choice, but also not wanting to assume that Johnny did actually have any baggage.
Johnny crossed his arms and squinted at Mike. "You know what I think I'll do? I think I'll go pick up those sandwich trays from our favorite corner store. And I'll walk through the alley to do it, too."
Mike took a step backwards. Had Johnny somehow read his mind? "I, uh …"
"No, I know you're not assuming anything. But maybe I am. So that's what I'll do. Yep, walk through that alley and pick up our deli trays, and walk right back through again. No problem."
"Okay. If that's what you want to do."
"It'll be fine. I'll be fine."
"I know it will. Hey." Mike pulled Johnny to him, and kissed him again, with a different flavor this time. "I know you are."
Johnny parked the Rover in the parking lot of the pizza place he and Mike used to go to. He took the same spot as he had that day, right in front of the pizzeria. He got out of the vehicle, and slammed the door shut. He stopped short at the sidewalk under the awning—there was a sign in the window.
"CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS. WILL REOPEN SOON UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT. NEW! FREE DELIVERY!"
Johnny rubbed his hands together in glee. "Excellent! Goodbye, pizzaphobia! Hello, black olives and mushrooms with double onions."
He looked at the alley, and shrugged. "Here goes, Gage," he said, under his breath.
He walked into the alley, and looked at the brick wall that his assailants had shoved him against. He stepped closer to the wall, and felt the contours of the bricks, remembering how their corners had felt against his face. He looked at the spot where he'd laid helpless and breathless, and remembered what the black sneaker had looked like as it accelerated towards his brow. He took a deep breath, and looked at the spot where he'd then puked his guts out, and endured the secondary humiliation of being scraped off the pavement by Marco's cousin and two young paramedics from 47s. He stared at the literal scene of the crime for a long minute, and then walked away from it, through the alley, and into the deli on the other side.
The sleighbells on the door jangled as he walked in.
"Hey, Johnny! How are you?"
"Robert! I'm great. I'm glad you're working tonight."
"Yeah? Why's that? I mean, other than that you know I'd do a better job on your deli trays than the other guys that work for me?"
"Well, that, and, I wanted to tell you what we're having this party for." After he quickly wrote out his check, Johnny told the story of the sentencing hearing, the sea of blue, and the way the two convicts looked as they were led away.
Robert grinned widely. "Now that's just desserts."
"Speaking of desserts," Johnny said, pointing to the third tray, which looked like cookies and brownies, stacked on top of the two platters of sandwiches and fixings. "That must be someone else's."
"Nope. Truth be told, I heard about the sentencing already. So when Mike called to place the order for the sandwiches, I had a pretty good idea what this party was gonna be all about. So I decided to have a little fun, and throw this in, on the house. Look." Robert popped the top off the tray so Johnny could see better. The dozen cookies on the top edge of the tray had one letter each painted on them with frosting:
Johnny laughed. "That's terrific! Thanks, man. For everything."
"Hey, I owed you one," Robert said, grinning even more widely than before.
Johnny's eyebrows climbed. "Huh? What for?"
"Well, lemme tell you the story of how I already knew about the sentencing. You see, shortly after the thing in the alley, a deputy came by to get a statement from me. Not that I had much to say, you know, but they gotta cover all their bases. Not the young kid who was there first, but a different guy. Real different."
"Oh," Johnny said. "So he kept you informed?"
"Well, I wasn't quite done with my story. The next day, he came back, in his civvies. Which he looked even better in than his uniform. And we did that dance you do, you know, when you think you're on the right track, but you're not totally sure?"
"Uh huh," Johnny said, grinning as he saw where Robert's story was going. "And?"
"And," Robert said, "let's just say we've kept in touch."
"That's good, man. That's great."
Robert was positively beaming. "It sure is."
"Hey," Johnny said. "What time do you close up tonight?"
"Ten, or thereabouts. We tend to slow down once the bars and clubs get hopping."
"Well come by, after, if you want. And bring your deputy. Here," Johnny said, scrawling their address on the back of the receipt and pushing it across the counter to Robert.
"Well, he's working tonight, and probably wouldn't come anyhow, being a mite touchy about being out and about, so to speak. But I'll come by, for sure. Thanks for the invite."
"And thanks for the cookies. See ya later, huh?"
Johnny walked out, and whistled his way down the alley, carrying the three trays. He didn't think at all about what he'd thought about on the way in.
Mike started preparing the house for the deluge of guests. He snorted at his mental word choice: a deluge gun would never be used on a structure that was believed to still have living occupants, and not often on one you were trying to salvage intact. Onslaught? No, that was too violent. Arrival. There. Nice and neutral.
He pushed all the living room furniture against the walls. He moved the dining room table to the corner of the eating area, where it would hold food, and put all the chairs around the edges of the room. He pulled four folding chairs out of the closet, and then four more out of the garage, and set them up all over the house. The guest-room bed was already made up, but he took a spare pillow, pillowcase, set of sheets, and blanket from the closet in the spare room and put them in his and Johnny's bedroom, so they'd be ready in case someone needed to sleep on the couch. Which seemed likely.
The first time he and Johnny threw an evening party together, Mike immediately understood why all the get-togethers at the DeSotos' and the Stanleys' homes were afternoon barbecues. Chet had ended up in the guest room, and Dwyer from C-shift had ended up on the couch. Or, more accurately, had started out on the couch, and ended up on the floor of the bathroom, and then been replaced on the couch.
Mike was never much of a drinker—he chalked that up to having that one big secret that simply couldn't be let out. And once he didn't have to worry about that any more, he found the idea of getting totally plastered just didn't appeal all that much. He did enjoy seeing Johnny get goofy, though. Alcohol hit him hard and fast, but he seemed to metabolize it quickly, so he could be a fun drunk at nine and perfectly sober by eleven if he was so inclined. Mike smirked as he thought about Johnny's tendency to get a bit hands-on with him when intoxicated, but in the company they'd be keeping tonight that wouldn't kill them.
Mike ran the vacuum over the entire house, wondering slightly why he was bothering to do so before the party. But it was what he did, so he did it. He dragged the two coolers out of the garage, and set them on the deck. The ice and the sodas were in the garage fridge, which they only turned on when they were having an event like this.
The doorbell rang. Mike saw the delivery truck in the front, so he swung the door open.
"Howdy. Stoker residence?"
"Got your keg," the man said, unnecessarily, as he was holding a dolly with a keg sitting on it. "Sign here, please."
Mike signed on the clipboard.
"Where do you want it?"
"Uh, on the deck would be good. Come on through the house—there's only these two steps that way."
The man wheeled the keg through the house, and set it gently on the deck, next to the clean garbage can they had for just that purpose.
"You want me to help you set it in there?"
"Great, thanks—let me just dump some ice in there first."
Mike trotted out to the garage, and pulled two bags of ice out of the freezer. He tore them open and dumped the ice into the bottom of the can.
"Okay, lift on three," the man said. "One, two, three!"
And in the keg went, onto the layer of ice.
"Thanks," Mike said.
"No problem. Now remember, you gotta return it empty, so if there's—"
Mike laughed. "We're having a couple dozen firemen over tonight, so I don't think that'll be an issue."
"Right," the man said, grinning back. "Have a good one." He set the bag containing the tapping equipment down next to the keg, along with Mike's copy of the receipt.
"I don't think there's any doubt of that."
Mike looked at his pre-party checklist, the one that Johnny had laughed at but then checked several times himself. He got a can of frozen orange juice concentrate out to thaw, and checked the last item off the list.
With perfect timing, Johnny's Rover pulled into the driveway. Mike saw that Johnny was loaded down with trays, so he opened the side door so he could bring them straight into the kitchen.
"You're welcome. Three trays?"
"Check it out."
Johnny showed Mike the cookie tray, and told Robert's story, which they both had a good chuckle over.
"Say, I noticed a couple deputies I didn't know at the sentencing hearing. Do you suppose …"
"I do suppose," Johnny said, "that one of those guys is Robert's new boyfriend."
"Good." Mike glanced at the clock on the stove. "Half an hour."
"Let's chill, you and me, on the deck, till some of our idiots start to get here."
At six sharp, the first car pulled up. Hank and Jane Stanley and their two daughters got out of the Delta 88.
"Cap and family! C'mon in!" Johnny said.
"You're really going to have to stop calling me that, John," Hank said.
"Aw, but I can't. You know. Seven years!" Johnny said. "Right, Mikey?"
"I'm with Johnny, there, Cap. You know, at that warehouse fire, even though you're not even sideways of being my boss anymore, I wasn't going to go against anything you said. Habit."
"Well," Hank said, smiling, "we'll talk about this later. But for now—Mike, John, I don't think there's a good word for what I want to say to you two. 'Congratulations' isn't quite right, but neither is anything else. So I'll just say that we're all mighty glad that in the end, things worked out the way they did. Those two jerks deserved longer than they got, but at least they're put away."
"Thanks," Mike said.
"Yeah, thanks. And without a trial, too," Johnny said. "That's the best part, in my book."
Hank nodded, as did Jane.
"I can see how that would've been quite difficult," Jane said.
"You're not kidding," Johnny said.
"Amy and I are glad, too." Tricia, Cap's older daughter, spoke up. "Mom and Dad wouldn't tell us what was going on, for the longest time, and we were soooooo mad when we finally found out what was going on."
"And how'd you find out?" Mike asked. "My recollection is that if your father doesn't want to tell people something, they just plain don't find out."
Amy, the 14-year-old, blushed.
"Well?" Tricia said. "It's your story, Amy. You tell them."
"Let's go get a drink, dear," Jane said, pulling Hank away from Mike and Johnny and the girls.
Mike's eyes followed the elder Stanleys, wondering what was going on, but thinking he was about to hear something interesting. "You don't have to say anything if you don't want to," he said, knowing the feeling that Amy looked like she was having.
"But I will if you don't," Tricia threatened.
Johnny just watched in amusement.
"Chris told me," Amy said, in a tiny voice.
"Chris? As in, DeSoto?" Johnny said. "Now, you don't even go to the same school, so how did you—"
Amy sighed. "All right, all right!" Her voice sounded more like her own. "We were at a football game. Our schools' teams were playing against each other. We sat together. He said something about how awful it all was, what was happening to you guys, and …"
"And the rest is history!" Tricia said. "He's her boyfriend now."
"Well? It's true, isn't it?"
"Oh, boy," Johnny said. "I am so glad I'm not your dad or Chris's dad right now."
"Or you or Chris," Mike added. "In fact, I'm glad I'm not a teenager, period."
"Or the parent of a teenager," Johnny said.
"Please, Uncle Mike, Uncle Johnny—don't be mad at Chris. It didn't even occur to him that other kids' parents wouldn't tell them about stuff like that. But Dad is weird—he doesn't like to tell us stuff that might upset us. Never mind that it's plenty upsetting to be treated like infants. But please don't be mad at Chris. Honest—we were just talking about how awful it all was."
"We won't be mad at Chris," Johnny said. "And as for your dad—well, I bet part of it is that he knows we like our privacy, and he was just trying to help us keep it. Cap knows us, that way."
Tricia grinned. "You really are gonna hafta stop calling him that."
"You see, it's like this," Johnny explained. "You wouldn't want to call him 'Hank,' right? Cause he's your dad. To us, he'll always be our captain. So we call him Cap, because nothing else seems right."
"No, really," Amy said. "She's right. You have to stop calling him that."
The girls looked at each other.
"Whaddaya think, Aims," Tricia said. "Suitable revenge for Dad not telling us something important?"
"Yep. Here goes: Dad got promoted."
"What?" Mike said, at the same time as Johnny.
"Well all right!" Johnny said. "What battalion, do you know?"
"Yours," Tricia stated. "On your shift. Dad's your new boss."
"Starting Wednesday," Amy said. "Monday's his last shift at 51s."
"Holy …" Johnny's eyes went wide. "Mike—they really did it! They got rid of Livingston! Girls, you just made my day."
"Glad to help," Tricia said. "Oh look, Aims—here comes your boyfriend!"
Tricia snickered while Amy tried to look casual as the DeSotos arrived. All four of the children—if they could still be called that—took off for the yard, as the parents convened in the living room.
"Well, Cap, it sounds like you and Roy have a little situation on your hands, huh?" Johnny jibed.
Roy rolled his eyes. "Don't get me started."
"Or me," Hank said darkly.
The adults stood there, awkwardness intruding for the first time in as long as they'd all known each other.
"Hank, why don't you tell them your news?" Jane suggested, loosening one taut string but tightening another. The room thrummed with different varieties of tension.
"Yeah, Cap, tell us your news," Johnny said, grinning.
Hank squinted at Johnny, and crossed his arms. "Someone told you already," he said.
"Told you what?" Roy said.
"Uh huh—the girls, just now," Mike said.
"Now that's just dandy," Hank grumped. "Why would they go and do that?"
"Do what?" Roy said. Joanne patted him on the arm.
"Revenge, they said, for not telling them something important." Johnny's eyes gleamed as his crooked grin showed he wasn't mad.
"But I wanted to tell you," Hank said petulantly.
"You could tell me," Roy said, his voice tinged with desperation.
"Tell us all," Mike said. "We'd all like to hear it from you. Even if we've heard it from the girls already."
"All right, then," Hank said. "I got promoted. Monday's my last shift at good old Station 51. Thursday, I start as Battalion Chief. My assignment's a little farther north than I was hoping for, but I'm not complaining."
"Me neither," said Johnny. "Believe me, I am not complaining. Chief, you can be my boss any time."
"You're gonna be Johnny's battalion chief?" Roy said. "What were the chances of that?"
Johnny and Mike shot each other a glance. They wondered whether Hank was being put in his new assignment for a particular reason.
"Well, let's just say, there's a situation up in that battalion that needs a different eye, and they thought I might have the right point of view. I've been on the list for a while, now, and I don't think it's a coincidence that this position became available when I reached the top of the list," Hank said.
"Let's hear it for the brass," Johnny said. "Uh, I mean—you know what I mean. Congrats, and boy, am I glad you're taking over from Livingston."
"I'll take it," Hank said, laughing.
"Me too," Mike said. "The phrase 'mixed messages' might be a little mild for what Johnny and I got from the upper echelons recently, but this … is a vote of confidence."
Roy didn't totally understand what was going on, but he was sure he'd have it explained to him in due course. "Well, whatever their reasons for where they assigned you, it's high time your promotion came through. Congratulations, Chief."
"I'll second that," Mike said. "Uh—does Marco know yet?"
"He knows I'm being promoted and reassigned, but when I told my crew, I didn't know where I was going yet. And Marco asked if he could tell Chet, so I'm sure Kelly knows by now."
"Speak of the devil," Mike said, pointing out the window.
Marco's car had arrived, and was disgorging its passengers. Mike went to open the door for the entourage.
"Hey, you all! Come on in." He held the door as Marco, his fiancée Lila, his cousin Deputy Ben Houlihan, Chet, and Chet's girlfriend Lisa filed in. "How'd you all fit in that little car? It's like one of those acts with the clowns."
"Well, some of us are pretty friendly with each other," Chet said, his arm around Lisa.
"Why Chet, I didn't know you cared," Ben said, putting his arm around Chet from the other side. His belt was weighed down by a large radio. Chet punched him in the shoulder.
"What's with the equipment?" Mike asked.
"Oh—sorry about this. I'm on standby tonight," Houlihan said. "I'll keep it turned way down."
"No problem," Mike said. "Come on in. Food's in the dining room. Keg's on the deck."
The new group poured into the dining room.
"Hey, look! We're all here!" Marco said. "Our whole crew, from back in the day."
Hank nodded appreciatively. "So we are."
"And this time," Johnny said, "no shiners. So we definitely oughta get a group photo."
"At some point," Mike said. "But for now, everyone should—" Mike interrupted himself, and squinted at Chet. Kelly was standing there with a gigantic grin separating his mustache from the lower part of his face.
"Spill it, Kelly," Johnny said. "And I bet I know what it is."
"Yep," Lisa said. She put her left hand out for inspection. Lisa's ring finger sported a traditional gold band with a single diamond.
"Right on, guys!" Johnny said. "Congratulations, Chet! And Lisa: well, I can hardly congratulate you—ow! But I can at least say good luck." He ducked a second blow from Chet, instead pulling him into a bear hug.
Congratulations were echoed all around.
"This calls for a major toast. Or two major toasts—unless anyone else has some good news they haven't mentioned yet?" Mike asked.
There were no takers, so everyone trooped out to the deck, and toasts were delivered.
Soon enough, people started pouring into the house and yard. Men formerly from station 51, but who had moved on, appeared. Everyone else from the current A- and C- shifts at station 93 appeared, except Len, who'd told Johnny and Mike he would be late. A few people Mike was friendly with at HQ trickled in, along with various people that Johnny or Mike or both were friends with from other venues.
Just after seven, the bell rang, and Mike went to open the door.
"Uh, hi." Wes Harris stood there, by himself.
"Hi, Wes," Mike said. "Come on in."
"I, uh, wasn't sure if you really meant I should come."
"Of course I did," Mike said. "I did mean it."
"And, uh, you're sure it's okay with Johnny?"
"Yeah, Wes. It's really okay. I'm glad you came. Come in," he repeated, "and let me introduce you around." Mike peered behind Wes. "Was your wife not able to make it?"
"No, uh … no. She's … she couldn't come."
Wes was starting to look even more nervous, so Mike dropped that line of inquiry. "That's too bad," he said. "Now seriously, come in, and you better get some food before it all disappears."
Wes finally stepped inside, just as Johnny came to the door to greet the new arrival.
"Johnny, you remember Wes Harris, who I work with, right?"
Johnny nodded. He was glad when Mike said he wanted to invite Wes, because they seemed to have worked things out, but surprised the guy came.
"Harris," Johnny said, shaking Wes's hand. "Glad you could make it. Better grab some chow before it's too late. I'll get you a beer. Be right back."
Mike steered Wes towards the old A-shift group.
"Hey, Cap, uh, I mean Chief, or … whatever, and Marco—you remember Wes Harris, right, from that warehouse fire?"
"Of course," Marco said. "I'll tell you, I was impressed that anyone who wasn't used to being a fireman would go anywhere near that place."
"Well, I don't, usually, but it worked out okay, thanks to the people there who knew what they were doing." Wes took the beer Johnny handed him. "Thanks. Cheers."
"Mike's article in the NFPA journal was pretty great, huh?" Hank said.
Mike slipped away, sure that his somewhat fragile colleague was in good hands. He mentally smacked himself for thinking of Wes as fragile, but then reconsidered. In an environment where he wasn't sure he was welcome, when he'd made mistakes—bad mistakes—that he didn't know how many people knew about, Wes was fragile. Anyone would be.
Mike set his nearly empty cup down on the counter, and puttered around the kitchen, washing a few glasses, putting things away. When he was at the sink, hands suddenly appeared in the back pockets of his jeans. He smiled, realizing his prediction of Johnny's behavior after a few drinks had come true.
"We can clean up later, Mikey. Come on."
"Okay, just let me—"
The hands in his pockets moved elsewhere, as Johnny wrapped his arms around Mike from behind.
Yup, hands-on, in front of everyone.
"Nope," Johnny said, right into Mike's ear. "Time to play with our friends."
"All right. But geez, babe; hands."
"Oh. Right. Sorry." Johnny let go, but leaned in again. "Later," he whispered.
"Of course, later, you drunken idiot," Mike said fondly.
The bell rang again.
"Now that can only be one person," Mike said.
"I'm kinda hopin' it'll be two people," Johnny said. "Let's go see." He lurched as he turned to go to the door. "Whoa." Johnny giggled.
Mike grabbed Johnny to help keep him upright. "Steady there, Captain Gage. You gonna make it to the door?"
"Prob'ly." Johnny made it to the door. "See?"
"Uh, open it, why don'tcha?"
Johnny obediently opened the door, and beamed as he saw who was standing on the doorstep.
"Hi, Len! Hi, Dix! I was hoping it'd be both of you, together, at the same time. C'mon in!" He staggered slightly as he stepped backwards.
"A couple of sheets to the wind, are we, John?" Len said.
"Hits him hard, but wears off fast," Mike said. "Don't worry, I'm keeping my eye on him."
"Yeah, that's for sure," Johnny said. "He won't let me get away with nothin'. Just like you, Dix. I mean, not like you're not letting me get away with a little groping the in kitchen—aw geez, that's not what I mean. Forget I said that. I mean, when I used to show up at Rampart, with just a little bump or bruise or somethin', you'd be all—"
"That's because," Dixie said patiently, "with you, a 'little bump' was probably a concussion, 'a bruise or something' could easily be a sprain or a fracture, 'a bit of a tickle' was likely to be pneumonia—shall I go on?"
Johnny scowled. "I just don't think it's fair I can't grope my own boyfriend in our own kitchen, is all."
Len burst out laughing. "Don't let us get in your way," he said. "Come, my fair lady, and let me get you some of that poison they're calling beer."
"Go eat some cookies," Mike suggested to Johnny. "Keep your blood sugar up."
"Oh. Okay." Johnny proceeded to the food table, where Roy and his daughter were inspecting the dessert tray. The frosted cookies were still there.
"Hey, Uncle Johnny," Jenny said.
"Mike says I need to eat some cookies."
Jenny looked over the tray, and found the largest of all the brownies. "Here. This is the biggest one. If Uncle Mike says you need to eat something, you better do what he says."
"Uh, Junior, why don't you sit down?" Roy suggested.
Mike came over carrying his beer, as well as a plastic cup filled with milk. "A little protein won't hurt, either." He handed the milk to Johnny, and took a swig of his beer.
Mike looked at the J-U-S-T D-E-S-S-E-R-T-S display, and laughed. He started moving the cookies around.
"What's so funny?" Roy asked.
"Sorry, I just looked at those letters and saw something else. Hang on." He moved the letters around some more, and handed Roy an 'S.' "Here, that's extra. Eat it."
Johnny looked at the tray and laughed.
"'Jester studs?'" Jenny said. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means," Johnny said, "that I oughta keep an eye on him, just like he's keepin' an eye on me."
"Oh," Jenny said dubiously. "Can I have another brownie, Dad?"
"Why don't you split it with your mom," Roy suggested.
"Okay." Jenny found the next largest brownie, and took it with her outside.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Roy asked, after Jenny had left.
"Nothing, I don't think," Mike said.
"Oh," Johnny said, frowning. "I thought it was supposed to mean that you and me are funny, but also studly. Which we are."
"O-kay," Roy said, "I think I'll go outside too."
Johnny looked at Mike. "Did we just scare Roy off?"
"Okay. I'm officially cut off, as of now."
"Yes; yes you are."
Johnny looked at his watch. "Wow, and it's only nine."
"And you're on milk and cookies for the rest of the night, babe."
"And I'll be on orange juice and potato chips."
"That's fair," Johnny said.
Over an hour later, the hosts had sobered up considerably, and many of their guests had gotten quite tipsy. Mike, Johnny, Chet, Marco and Ben Houlihan were sitting in the living room, along with the Yangs, whose baby April was sound asleep, despite the racket.
"Hey," Chet said, "you know, we oughta get our group picture done before we get too far gone to have it be any good."
Mike nodded. "That's a good point. Johnny, you had your camera all ready to go, right? You could put it on a timer, and—"
A loud, almost metallic thumping sound startled them all. Everyone automatically looked towards the window, which was vibrating slightly.
"Stay put," Ben said, as he flew out the door, yanking his radio off his belt at the same time.
The rest of the A-shift men in the room looked at each other.
"He may be a cop," Marco said, "but he's my baby cousin. C'mon!"
They charged outside. Mike, still not much good at running or chasing, looked at the window from the front lawn. There was a ding in the metal frame of the large pane. His eyes traveled downwards, and he found an object in the flower bed. It was about the size of a brick, but was completely covered in paper. The paper read, on all sides, "FAG LOVERS GO HOME."
"Fuck!" Mike swore. He knew better than to touch the brick, or the paper, but he had to do something. So he kicked the front of the house. "Shit!"
Mike heard shouting from down the street. He unlocked the door of his truck, and pulled his Mag-light from the pocket of the door, and trotted down the street as fast as he could.
"Kling, I got him!" he heard someone shout.
"Copy. I'm a block away." The unfamiliar voice Mike heard was punctuated by a burst of static.
Chet and Johnny, who had initially gone the opposite direction down the block, ran up behind Mike. The three of them stopped short at the sight in front of them.
"What the …" Johnny said.
Ben and Marco had someone pinned to the ground, face down.
"Do you need a hand?" Chet said, breathing hard.
"Johnny, Mike, you guys need to stay back," Ben said. "Chet, you could hold his legs down, just below the knees."
"My pleasure," Chet replied.
A black-and-white sedan, side floodlights glaring, screeched to a halt in front of the scene, before anyone could even ask any questions. A gigantic man stepped out of the driver's side, flashlight in hand. He shined it down on the scene in front of him, his eyes and the light competing for which could produce the harshest glare.
"What've you got, Houlihan?"
"Well," Ben said, not yet looking up, "something hit the front window of the house, and then this punk was running down the street. Call me hasty, but considering the circumstances, and oh yeah, him still running when I shouted 'stop, police,' I took him down."
"There's a paper-covered brick in the flower bed. It says 'fag lovers go home.'" Mike said with a calmness that he was sure did not really belong to him.
Len and Hank came running down the street.
"What the hell is going on?" Len said.
"Len, Cap—I think it's under control," Johnny said. "See if you can get people to stay in the house."
"Got it," Hank said. He and Len returned to the house.
Kling and Houlihan cuffed the pinned man and hauled him to his feet.
"Whoever's got that light, shine it on him," the deputy said. He looked and sounded royally pissed off, which didn't put anyone at ease.
Mike complied, shining the light on the man's face.
"Anyone recognize him?" Kling asked, as Houlihan mirandized their suspect.
Johnny sighed. "Yeah. I do. I don't remember his name, but he works out of Station 47. Uh, L.A. County Fire Department Station 47. About a mile from here. I subbed there a couple times as a medic, a few months ago. I'm a fireman, too, just like him. I'm—"
"I know who you are," the deputy said.
Johnny took a step back, away from the deputy, and towards Mike.
Mike turned the light off. Deputy Kling was silent for a few seconds. He looked ominous, as he was backlit by the floodlight on his car, and his face was in shadows.
"Haven't your kind figured out yet that these guys have more friends than you do?" the deputy said into the darkness.
"Yeah," the suspect jeered, speaking for the first time. "I recommend you figure that out, fags."
The silence was positively deafening.
"I meant you," Deputy Kling said, spinning the suspect towards the car as he opened the back door. "Get in the car."
The suspect was silent again as he climbed in the back seat of the car. Kling slammed the door shut. Nobody dared move as he popped the trunk, got out a plastic bag, marched up to the front of the house, collected his evidence, and put the sealed bag back in the trunk.
"Ben, you get statements. I'll see you at the station," Kling said. He turned to face the rest of the group, and once he stepped out of the glare of the floodlights, Johnny and Mike could see he was looking right at them.
"I didn't think eighteen months was enough," Kling said softly, in an entirely different voice from the one he'd used so far. He turned quickly, without looking at anyone, and drove off, leaving five men standing there silently.
"Ben, what the hell was that?" Marco said finally.
Ben sighed. "We got a tip, all right?"
"A tip?" Chet said.
"A tip, that maybe something like this was going to happen tonight. I can't and won't say where the tip came from, but we had it, and I was going to be here anyhow, so …" Ben threw his hands in the air. "Sorry."
"What do you mean, 'sorry?'" Johnny said. "We're damned glad you were here, Ben, so don't be sorry."
"Sorry I couldn't tell you, is what I meant," Ben said.
"Well, we wouldn't have wanted to know, anyhow," Mike said.
"There goes the rest of the party," Johnny said sourly.
"Not necessarily," Ben said. "Not unless you want people to go. Our information was pretty clear that it was just a one-man-band with a half-baked plan. Which is about what we saw just now."
"Plus, if you send everyone home, he wins," Marco said. "And he can't win."
"I hope the kids weren't scared," Ben said.
Everyone else laughed.
"Have you actually met these kids?" Chet said. "They're all teenagers, or almost, and they're all firemen's kids. I guarantee you, they're not scared."
"All right, all right!" Ben said. "But I do have to get statements. Just from the four of you, unless anyone else inside saw anything."
Johnny shook his head. "We didn't even see anything. I heard the thunk, but that was it."
Everyone else murmured in agreement.
"Yeah, but everyone standing here heard what the guy said, and saw that there was no police brutality. And Mike, you were the first to see the evidence. So I do need statements, but they'll be fast. I promise," Houlihan said.
"All right. Let's go back in, and we'll do our statements with you one by one, maybe in the guest room?" Mike suggested.
"That's fine. And please don't talk to each other or anyone else about this until you've made your statement."
Everyone filed back into the house. They were greeted by the expected expressions of concern, and questions about what happened.
"Everything's under control," Mike said. "Just a little incident out on the street. The cops took the guy away. We'll be with you in a minute; we just have to talk to Deputy Houlihan here, first."
Houlihan pulled a notebook out of his back pocket. "Why don't you go first, Mike?"
One by one, the men gave their brief statements to Houlihan. Nobody took more than three minutes, and soon they were all back at the party. Johnny, the last to give his statement, saw Mike with his head together with Hank and Len, explaining what had happened. Most of the other people present at the party seemed to have assumed, reasonably, that the event had nothing to do with the party, and carried on with their eating, drinking, and merriment.
Johnny saw Marco talking to Ben, and handing him the car keys. Johnny caught Ben at the door.
"Thanks again, man. This could've turned into another big deal."
"But it didn't. It won't," Ben said. "I've gotta go meet up with Kling, but I'll be back in an hour or so."
"All right. And can I assume that when you get back, you won't be on 'stand-by' anymore?"
Ben grinned. "That's a fair assumption."
"We'll make sure to save you a beer or three."
Johnny closed the door, and turned to find Mike standing near the foyer.
"Let's chat for a minute," Mike said.
They ducked into their bedroom, and closed the door.
Johnny immediately leaned back against the wall, and closed his eyes, sighing heavily.
"Shit, Mikey. I just don't think I could take this again."
Mike closed the distance between them, and pulled Johnny off the wall, and towards him, folding him in his arms. "We won't have to, okay? Ben told me they were nearly sure it was just this one guy, and—"
"Fuck the one guy! There's always gonna be one more guy, Mikey! And one more after that!" Johnny shouted.
Mike took a step backwards.
"Sorry," Johnny said, rubbing his head. "Sorry. I yelled right in your face."
"You kind of did," Mike said.
"I know you didn't mean it."
"I sure as hell didn't mean to take it out on you," Johnny said. "But it's true. There's always gonna be someone who doesn't like us."
Mike sat on the edge of the bed, arms folded. "I think," Mike said, "that if this guy gets booked, and convicted even of a misdemeanor, that there aren't gonna be any more county firemen who take exception to us the way he did."
"IF the brass does like they said, and actually fires anyone who does this shit off duty."
"You don't think you can take them at their word?" Mike said.
Johnny sighed, for what felt like the hundredth time that evening, and sat down next to Mike. "Yeah. I guess I do think we can."
"So do I," Mike said. "And personally, I think Deputy Kling said what he said about having more friends, the way he said it, exactly to make that asshole say something stupid, just like he did. I think he knew exactly what he was doing, with his ambiguous remark."
Johnny digested that statement. "I guess you're probably right."
"And you're right, too—there's always gonna be someone who doesn't like us. But if we live our lives worrying about that, well, then …"
"Yeah. Then they win. I get it," Johnny said. "Okay. I get it." He rubbed his forehead again.
Mike took Johnny's face between his palms, and kissed him. "And I've got you, and you've got me, and even though I'm pretty sure I'm ninety percent sober, I'm getting real sappy right now."
Johnny covered one of Mike's hands with his own, and kissed him right back.
"Remember, we've got a date later," he said.
Mike gave Johnny one more kiss, and then they let each other go. "Yeah. Let's go back to our party."
An hour later, after Ben returned, sans radio, and was immediately handed a beer, most people had forgotten that there had been any commotion. Roy and Joanne came up to Johnny, who was busy admiring the latest arrangement of lettered cookies.
"Hey, Johnny, we're thinking we'd better go soon. The kids are starting to get cranky," Roy said.
Joanne laughed. "You're too kind, Roy, but it's me, and you know it. I'm starting to fade—the kids are going strong. But you guys still need to take your group picture, right?"
Johnny snapped his fingers. "That's right! I've got the camera all set up, on a tripod and everything, so all we need to do is get everyone together, and get Chet and Marco to hold still long enough for someone to push the shutter button a few times. I'll be right back. Roy, can you get all the guys together?"
"Yeah, if they're sober enough to stand up, that is. Chet wasn't looking so hot."
Roy managed to herd the rest of the crew together, and various women who came with the men in the group arranged hair, straightened shirts, and made sure nobody wandered off. Len Sterling volunteered to work the camera.
"Say cheese!" he made the mistake of saying, for the first shot.
"Now all right, you baboons, just hold still and don't say anything," he said. He was sure, as soon as he pushed the shutter button, the second shot would be a disaster as well.
"Okay, fellas, now there are only a few shots left on this roll." Len tried clicking the button when nobody was expecting it, but he wasn't sure how well that worked either.
"All right, twits!" Hank said, from the back of the group. "Let's make this happen. Act like adults, just for a minute, so we can get one good shot."
The group settled down, and Len triggered the shutter release while he could. He took two more shots in quick succession, and then gave up. "I think that's the end of the roll," he said.
"Well, maybe one of them will turn out," Johnny said. "Thanks." He set the camera and tripod in a corner of the dining room, where it wouldn't get knocked over.
Two hours later, the party had wound down. Emerson, the youngest man on Johnny's crew, had been put in the guest room at some point, with a bucket on the floor, and a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin on the table next to the bed. He'd wake up mortified, but safe and sound. Somehow, nobody had ended up on the couch. Johnny and Mike were picking up a few things before turning in.
"Well, well; look what's being served," Mike said.
Johnny peered over Mike's shoulder at the plate he was holding.
"Who did that one?" Johnny asked.
"I don't know," Mike said. "But I do know that it's waaaaaay past our bedtime."
"Okay. You get a head start—I'm just gonna put the camera away, and then I'll join you."
"Good. Because I think it's the 'later' we've been talking about."
"It sure is."
At the end of the next week, Mike arrived home to find Johnny waiting for him with an envelope.
"Pictures came back," Johnny said. "I didn't look yet. I was waiting for you."
"Well," Mike said, leaving his shoes in the foyer. "Let's take a look."
Johnny got out the pictures, which were arranged in chronological order, starting with a bunch of shots he'd taken around Station 93. He peeled those off the stack and set them aside for later. The various takes of the group shot came last. He laid them out on the coffee table. In the first, Chet's eyes were looking way off to the side, and Marco's hand was in front of Cap's face. In the second, someone was holding two fingers up behind Roy's head. The third was similarly awful. The fourth, though, was perfect.
"That's the one," Mike said.
"Yeah. That's our gang." Johnny said.
Chet, Marco, and Roy were in the front row, and everyone looked happy, and, both falsely and miraculously, sober. In the back row, Hank Stanley ducked down slightly, as was his habit in photos. Mike was in the middle, and Johnny's arm was around him, his hand resting on Mike's left shoulder. The gold band Mike had put on his finger, almost a year and half before, was clearly visible.
They skipped over the last two group photos, which were equally as dismal as the first ones.
But there was one more picture at the bottom of the pile. It was two cookies on a plate.
A/N: If you're still here, 270,000 words later, thanks for sticking with this saga! Even more thanks to those who left me comments. If you've been following the story, and haven't left me a comment, please do! You can always PM me if you prefer not to leave a public review.
I give a huge thanks to readers who weren't so sure about this story's topic, but read it anyhow.
Special thanks to Nantucketbreezes and Ariane Rivendell for support and reality checks, Bamboozlepig for the same plus help with police and legal stuff, Enfleurage for the world's best reviews, and Robertwnielsen for nearly always being first.
Most of this story appeared first in a different form at the Wonderful World of Make-Believe site (google WWOMB and you'll get there). It's another excellent fanfic archive, well worth checking out. I use the same pen name over there. There are many stories by many authors over there, in all sorts of fandoms. Be warned they do accept adult content at that site, so heed the ratings system.
Keep reading, and keep writing!