Stoic Stoker

Johnny came down the hall and into the kitchen. Aubrey was sitting at the table with her feet resting up on another chair. She had a bowl of cereal propped on her big belly and was eating contentedly.

"Mornin' beautiful," Johnny said kissing the top of her head.

"Good morning," Aubrey replied between crunches.

Johnny poured himself a cup of coffee and then turned to pull the orange juice out of the fridge. He took a bottle of vitamins down from above the sink and tapped one into his hand. He then turned back to Aubrey, handed her a glass of OJ and held out the vitamin. Aubrey finished swallowing a bite of cereal and opened her mouth. Johnny popped the vitamin onto her tongue and watched her wash it down with the juice.

"Thank you, G-Man."

"You're welcome, momma." Glancing at his watch, Johnny quickly took a swig of his coffee and headed to finish dressing. As he turned into the hall he heard Aubrey burp – well, belch would be a better description and he stumbled slightly in surprise. He decided to keep walking without making a comment as he was sure she would be embarrassed at the slip up. As he got to the bathroom door he could swear he heard his wife giggling merrily. Johnny turned and looked back down the hall, scratched his head and then shrugged.

~ E ~

Later that morning the A-Shift crew was changing into their uniforms. Johnny headed toward the kitchen when he saw Captain Stanley outside his office. "Mornin', Cap," he said continuing on his mission to get hot coffee.

"Johnny!" Hank exclaimed causing Johnny to whirl back around, his wavy hair swirling around his head.

"Yeah, Cap?"

"How's Aubrey doing?"

Johnny grinned at the mention of his wife. "Just fine, thanks for asking."

"Man, I still can't believe both you and Roy are having kids at practically the same time."

Johnny leaned against the door frame and folded his arms, "It is wild, isn't it? Joanne and Aubrey are thrilled. I'm happy it worked out this way."

"I bet. That is exciting," Hank said as he spotted Roy coming into the bay as well. "And here comes the other proud papa. How is your lovely lady?"

"She's wonderful, thank you, Cap. She's really starting to show so she and Aubrey are going maternity clothes shopping today."

Hank slapped both paramedics on the shoulders, "That's great." He turned back toward his office. "Roll call in five minutes."

Roy looked over at Johnny who just shrugged, "He's awfully happy."

"I think he really loves babies," Roy said, continuing into the kitchen. "His girls are older; maybe he is happy to see some more little ones in the 'family.'"

"Yeah I guess," Johnny said taking two mugs from the cabinet but not before peeking in to make sure the Phantom had not set one of his usual traps. The tones sounded as Roy started to pour coffee into a mug.

"Station 51, Engine 10, structure fire. 525 Lamont Way. Five two five Lamont Way. Cross street Howard. Time out 0755."

Mike threw on his turnout coat and climbed into the engine with Marco and Kelly right behind him.

"KMG 365," Hank replied into the mic. He handed Roy the address slip and headed toward the engine. Less than a minute later, both vehicles were on their way.

"Oh man, Roy, we didn't even get to check the supplies," Johnny said worriedly.

"I spoke to the C shift guys and they said they had restocked after their last run so we should be okay for now."

"Oh good," Johnny said as they came into view of the two-story home. Flames could be seen licking out the front windows. He and Roy stopped at the hydrant, pulled hoses and hooked them up. Mike pulled the engine ahead dropping the lines as he went.

Marco and Chet each took a line and headed in the front door. Johnny and Roy went to speak to the family huddled on the sidewalk to be sure there was no one injured or anyone left inside. Mike manned his console, adjusting the flow to the two hoses in use. As he worked, he heard a low growl to his right. He glanced over to see a very large dog baring his teeth at him. He turned back to his console and ignored the mutt as he saw a change in the readings. Obviously Chet and Marco had put down one line and had decided to work one hose together. He couldn't see them inside the smoky structure but he could see the changes in the gauges.

Suddenly the dog, obviously not liking the fact that he was being ignored, lunged at Mike's calf and bit down. Mike flinched but continued to work the console. He dialed down the pressure on the dropped line and then dialed up the shared line. He had to grab onto the railing of the engine to keep his balance as the dog tugged and pulled at his right leg. Hank came back around the engine and stopped short as he took in the scene. He took a step toward Mike and the angry dog but thought better of it. He jogged to the door of the house, picked up the dropped line and turned it on the mutt. After the dog released his grip on Mike's leg and ran off, Hank headed over to his engineer.

"You okay there, Mikey?"

"Fine Cap." Mike said in his characteristic man-of-few-words fashion.

"Did he break the skin?"

"I don't think so."

"Well have Roy or Johnny takes a look at it as soon as you can."

"Sure Cap."

~ E ~

A few hours later the fire was out and the clean up was complete. Hank spotted Roy heading for the squad and called him over. "Roy, did Mike ask you or Johnny to take a look at his leg yet?"

"His leg?"

With a sigh, Hank continued, "Well apparently not. He had a run in with a dog earlier. Damndest thing, he never even stopped working." Hank removed his helmet and ran a hand through his hair.

"I'll take a look," Roy replied.

Roy stepped over to Mike as he was about to climb up into the cab. "Hang on there, Mike. Let's see your leg."

Mike stopped and paused briefly before turning toward the senior paramedic. Anyone that didn't know him well would not have noticed it but to this crew it was the equivalent of an eye roll and a heavy sigh from anyone else. "I'm fine, Roy."

"No, Cap said you got bit by a dog. Sit down here." By now the whole crew was gathered.

"Can we do this back at the station?"

"No we cannot," Hank said firmly.

"Johnny, wanna get the trauma box for me?" Roy said trying to hide the smile as he watched Mike squirm quietly.

Johnny's mouth tipped up on one side a bit as he replied, "Sure thing, Roy."

Mike sat down and pulled up his right pant leg. Blood was oozing down his calf and the top of his sock was damp with it.

"Stoker, I thought you said he didn't break the skin," Hank said more worried than angry at this point.

"Was it a stray, Mike?" Roy asked as he began to clean the wound.

"He had tags. I saw him head back that way," Hank answered, pointing to a house across the street.

Roy looked up at his captain, "Can you see if Vince is still here, we need to find that dog and make sure it has had its rabies vaccine."

"I'll take care of it, Cap," Chet said. A few minutes later he returned with an elderly man.

"Cap, this is Mr. Scotton. It was his dog that bit Mike. I checked - it is up to date on all vaccines."

Hank let out a relieved breath and nodded at the man who was apologizing profusely. "Sir, you need to keep that dog tied up."

"I try but he keeps breaking loose. The sirens had him so worked up; he broke right off the run."

"Well then, you should kennel him."

"Oh yes, you're right. Is your man okay?"

"Looks superficial but my paramedics are taking him in to be checked at the hospital."

After following up with Vince, Hank climbed up to drive the engine back to the station. Although he enjoyed driving the big rig, he did not like the circumstances.

~ E ~

Marco was just heading into the kitchen to start lunch when the squad backed into the bay. "Cap, they're back!"

Everyone gathered around the passenger side door as Johnny climbed out followed by Mike.

"Well, how is he?" Hank asked.

"I am fine," Mike said, miffed that he was not addressed directly. "It was just a flesh wound."

Hank looked at Roy as he came from the driver's side of the squad, "He's right. But Dr. Morton wants him back after the shift to change the dressing."

"Aw, you got Morton?" Chet whined in sympathy for his friend.

"He's not so bad," Mike said simply as he headed for the dorm to finish his assigned duties.

"Mike, never mind that. We took care of your chores. Go have some coffee and relax until lunch." Hank went into his office and shut the door. Mike continued into the dorm.

"Just need to change."

"That was nice of you guys," Roy said as he followed Chet and Marco into the kitchen.

Chet turned around, his shoulders hunched and his finger to his lips. "It wasn't us." He motioned back at the office door with his thumb.

"Cap cleaned the dorm?" Johnny asked incredulously. Chet shushed him and nodded. "Well, I'll be."

~ E ~

The crew enjoyed a relatively quiet lunch. Quiet except for Chet poking fun at Mike's earlier mishap. "You mean the dog was just yanking at his leg and he kept working the panel?" he said, chuckling and wiping a tear from his eye.

"Well it wasn't quite like that," Hank countered. He looked over at Mike who was looking down at the table with a smirk on his face. Hank started to laugh along with Chet at that point which just fueled Chet's glee.

Chet jumped up and stood in front of the refrigerator as if it was the control panel of the engine. An imaginary dog was pulling at his leg and he 'worked' the gauges of the 'panel.' Soon everyone was laughing including Mike.

"Oh and…" Hank doubled over trying to speak. "You need to hang on with one hand to keep from being…from being…dragged away." He slapped the table and erupted into guffaws.

"Like this?" Chet grabbed onto the fridge handle with one hand while he continued his leg spasms. Soon he could no longer remain standing and slid down the door of the fridge onto the floor. "Ow, my ribs hurt from laughing," he cried out which made everyone cackle even louder.

After things settled down, Johnny took his guitar from the Rover and sat down strumming quietly for a few minutes. He played Glen Campbell's "Galveston," as he watched Chet heading for the payphone in the corner. With a crooked grin, he began to sing.

He is a lineman for the county.
And he drives us all insane
Searchin' in the rooms for another phantom's trick

Everyone snickered as Chet screwed up his face, "Funny, Gage. Now do you mind, I need to make a call."

Johnny looked over at the rest of the crew and his eyebrows bounced. He held up his hand and following his silent 'one, two, three' everyone sang loudly in unison. And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line!

"Are you done now, are you?" Chet said, annoyed. The men laughed. Johnny leaned his guitar next to the couch and made a face at Chet who promptly stuck out his tongue.

~ E ~

The rest of the day consisted of a few runs for the squad and a dumpster fire for the engine. It was after lights out when Roy and Johnny returned from rescuing an elderly woman who had fallen in her home.

"I can't believe she laid there for two whole days," Johnny said sadly as he poured himself a glass of milk.

"Brackett said she should be okay, though. I hope I'm never so alone that no one notices," Roy replied.

Johnny made a whooshing sound and nodded his head. "I hear ya."

"Well, I'm going to bed. You coming?"

"I'll be right there, just want to finish this," Johnny said holding up his half empty milk glass.

~ E ~

The tones sounded in the middle of the night with a two alarm structure fire. Within minutes the crew was in their turnout pants and boots and headed to their respective trucks.

Hank headed for the call station. "Station 51, KMG 365." He handed the address slip to Roy who transferred it to Johnny.

In the squad, Johnny studied the address. "This is in that old office complex, what's the name?"

"Began with a J," Roy replied. I know where it is. It has been empty for a while, I think."

Engine 10 was already at the scene so Hank deferred command to Captain Stone. The building was an abandoned veterinarian office and lab. After confirming there were no victims, Roy and Johnny joined the rest of the crew and fought the fire. The sun's rays could just be seen on the horizon when Hank joined Mike at the engine.

"You can shut her down, Mike. We'll just need to do some clean up. Why don't you grab a Halligan and help Johnny and Roy, last door on the right."

"Sure, Cap," Mike replied and headed into the building.

Roy was pulling some file cabinets away from a wall. He spotted Mike and called him over. The two men were knocking over each cabinet and checking the walls behind them. At one point Mike lost his footing and fell back onto a free standing lab bench in the center of the room. Glass vials fell over and liquid from one ran across the tilted bench top and pooled around Mike's gloved hand when he reached back to steady himself.

"Mike, look out!" Johnny exclaimed as he saw what happened. Mike pulled his hand away quickly. Roy grabbed a rag and yanked the wet glove off of the engineer's hand.

"Are you okay, does it burn or tingle?"

"No, it's fine," Mike said turning his hand over and studying it. "I don't feel anything."

"Well whatever that is, it sure stinks," Johnny said as Roy tossed the offending glove into the debris pile. "Come on, let's get you rinsed off. I think we are done here, don't you Roy?"

Roy nodded and led the way out of the building. After rinsing Mike's hand down, the rest of Station 51 was released to return to quarters.

~ E ~

"Welcome home, fellas," the B shift crew called out as they headed from the lockers and into the kitchen.

"You didn't scratch my wagon, did you Stoker?" Pete Jannitto called after Mike who walked slowly toward the locker room mumbling something unintelligible. "Rough night?" Pete asked Roy as he passed.

"Not especially," Roy replied. Stepping into the dorms, he saw the shower stall was unoccupied. "Mike are you showering?" Mike continued to pull off his t-shirt and opened his locker. "Mike?"

After a few seconds, Mike turned and squinted over at Roy, "Huh?"

"I asked if you were taking a shower."

After a few more seconds, Mike answered. "No, go ahead. I'm all set."

"You okay, Mike?" Johnny asked as his sat down on a bench and pulled off his boots.

"Mm hm," was the only response.

Roy and Johnny exchanged a glance. "Don't forget to stop and get your dressings changed before you head home."

Mike again squinted up at Roy and simply nodded. He turned back to his locker and continued to change into his civvies. Roy shrugged at Johnny and headed to the shower. This, after all, was a normal conversation for Stoic Stoker.

The B-shift crew got called out to a run a few minutes later and Johnny headed into the kitchen to mooch a cup of coffee. Roy came in, freshly showered and did the same. A few minutes later Chet and Marco passed through on their way out to the parking lot.

"Mike left already?" Hank asked as he came in to say goodbye to his crew.

"He must have Cap," Chet answered but then saw the confusion on Johnny's face.

"I've been in here since I left him in the locker room. I didn't see him leave."

"His truck is still in its spot," Roy said, glancing out the door.

Hank spun on his heel and headed back into across the bay. Knowing their captain had a sense for when things weren't right, everyone followed him.

Looking around the locker room and not seeing Mike, Hank stepped into the dorm. Mike was sitting on his bunk staring at the air in front of him.

"Mike?" Hank asked, slowly approaching him. "Everything okay?" When he didn't get any response, Hank glanced back at Johnny and Roy who then moved in.

Roy snapped his fingers in front of Mike's glazed eyes. There was barely a blink. He then put his hand to Mike's forehead as Johnny reached for a pulse. Roy rolled up Mike's pant leg and pulled back the bandage on the bite wound.

"Roy, his pulse is rising and his breathing is rapid and shallow."

"Well, he's not feverish and this wound looks fine," Roy added. "Mike, what's wrong? Can you tell me how you feel?"

Mike seemed to come out of his daze somewhat and rubbed his lips with the back of his hand. He looked up at Roy and Johnny with a bewildered expression.

"You okay, Pal?" Hank asked. Slowly Mike looked up at his superior.

"Uh huh, mm fine."

"You are not fine. Roy, do you think I should call in a still alarm?" Hank asked, his concern rising.

"No," Mike said and stood up quickly. He waivered slightly but pushed between Marco and Chet and started to head out of the room. "Going home. She you nech shiff. She you…see you."

"That's it, I'm calling this in," Hank said sternly and moved past Mike towards the call station.

"No!" Mike cried out and pushed awkwardly at Hank, catching him off guard. Hank's foot caught on his own bunk and he fell back, landing on the mattress. Mike stumbled back from the force of the encounter then righted himself and headed out of the room, through the locker room and into the apparatus bay. He stopped suddenly when he saw the engine and squad weren't there. He swung around as Marco and Chet came up behind him. "Where's Big Red?"

Chet slowed his pace and eased toward the engineer. "They got called out after we got back. Don't you remember, Mikey?" Chet kept his voice calm as he continued to move toward the confused man. Marco matched his steps to Chet's. Mike glanced from one mustached man to the other and began to back away.

Seeing that Mike was getting anxious, Roy spoke softly. "Come back in and sit down, Mike. I want to take a look at you." He saw Hank heading toward the call station and continued to speak to Mike to keep his attention. "Would you rather go sit in the kitchen? We can go sit in the kitchen."

Not answering, Mike headed to the door leading to the back lot.

"Hang on there, buddy. You can't drive like this," Johnny said, trying to keep his tone light. "Jannitto made some great coffee. Come on it and have some. You'll feel better and then we can all head home."

Mike squinted at Johnny. Roy quietly moved between Mike and the door. As Johnny continued to try to convince Mike to join him in the kitchen, Hank came back from the call station. "There are no squads available on this side of town. All we can get is an ambulance. They'll be here in five minutes."

"That'll have to do, we just need to keep him calm until then," Johnny replied.

Mike turned toward Roy who had leaned on the door and crossed his arms casually.

"Scuse me." Mike said trying to reach the door knob.

"Where you going so fast, Mikey?" Chet said.

Mike turned back toward Chet but simply squinted again. He then looked at each of his crewmates' faces. He balled up his fists and began to breathe heavily.

"Mike," Johnny said, recognizing the telltale signs of someone who was about to go 'ballistic.' "Calm down now, Mike."

"Wanna go home!" Mike said as he lunged toward Roy who barely had time to uncross his arms and grab onto Mike's wrists. Marco and Chet each grabbed one of Mike's shoulders and pulled him away from Roy.

"Get him on the ground!" Johnny instructed. He moved up behind Mike to be sure he didn't strike his head on the cement as they wrestled him to the floor. "Take it easy. Mike, I need you to calm down."

Hearing the ambulance approaching, Hank headed out onto the apron to guide the vehicle in. The attendants surveyed the scene and exchanged a confused look. They pulled the gurney out and rolled it over to the struggling firemen.

"We don't have any supplies here. All we can do is get him strapped down and keep him from hurting himself," Johnny explained to the men.

"Or the rest of us," Chet said through clenched teeth.

"Mike, we are going to put you on the stretcher. Just relax. Let's go see Morton. Remember, he needs to check out your leg." Mike stopped struggling a bit. Roy grabbed his legs as Chet and Marco lifted his upper body. They managed to get him settled on the stretcher and the attendants quickly strapped his legs down and then pulled the upper strap tight across his chest.

"Mike, look at me," Hank said firmly. His heart was racing as he watched his friend strain against the belts. Mike's struggles eased as looked up at his captain. "You just relax, Mike. That's an order."

Mike paused and then nodded laying his head back against the pillow.

Johnny let out a breath. "Thanks, Cap. We should have tried that sooner. Roy, let's both go in with him. Cap, can you call Rampart and tell them what's happened?"

"I'll do that right now and then meet you there."

"We are heading there too," Marco said and Chet nodded in agreement.

~ E ~

Johnny jumped out of the ambulance first and took hold of the end of the gurney. Brackett, Dixie and Early were waiting outside the emergency room entrance.

"He's diaphoretic, flushed and his breathing is shallow and rapid" Johnny said as they wheeled Mike through the double doors and took a right.

"Treatment room 2," Brackett directed. Mike was starting to struggle more as he watched everyone buzz around him.

"Get up," Mike demanded.

"Not yet," Johnny soothed. "Let them see how you are doing."

"BP is 155/90, Doc," Roy said.

"Dix, get his temperature. Carol, get him into a gown. Does anyone know how this started?"

Roy stepped forward, "He was fine on the last run but not long after we got back to the station he started acting…weird."

"Weird how?" Brackett demanded.

"Well, distant at first. A bit dazed."

Johnny nodded. "He got combative too; we had to wrestle him to the floor. His speech has been slurring."

"Temperature is 100.5, Kel," Dixie said as she placed the thermometer on the tray and headed for the wall phone.

As Carol pulled Mike's pants away, Brackett removed the dressing on the dog bite. Early continued to assess Mike's pupillary reaction and his cognitive impairment.

Dixie held the door open for the portable x-ray. "Roy, Johnny, Captain Stanley and the guys are outside."

Johnny and Roy both looked back at their friend. Mike's frightened eyes darted about the room and he seemed to be unaware of where he was. Johnny took a step forward but then stopped, turned and left the room. Roy joined him the hall. Johnny paced the floor, his hand raking through his hair.

"I wanted to comfort him, to tell him we wouldn't be far away."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. But I don't think it would have meant anything to him."

"What's up with Mike? Do they know anything yet?" Hank asked, the strain of worry evident on his face.

Roy shook his head sullenly as Johnny continued to pace. "Come on, Johnny. Let's go sit in the waiting room. We are in the way here."

Johnny allowed himself to be led down the hall to the waiting room but once there he continued to pace.

Dr. Early joined them ten minutes later. Hank stood up as he approached. "Any news, Doc?"

"Well, we are still running tests but I'm afraid I have some awkward questions for you."

"If it will help Mike, I'll answer them," Hank said looking at his crew who all nodded their agreement.

"Well, I'm still waiting for the blood tests but I believe Mike is under the influence of a drug of some sort."

Johnny stepped forward suddenly but Roy put a hand on his partner's chest to slow him down.

"Doc, this is Mike Stoker we are talking about," Roy said coolly, hoping his tone would calm Johnny before he said something they all would regret.

Early continued, "Look, I know this sounds unlikely. I do. Is there anything you can think of that he may have come in contact with? Was he working without a mask?"

Hank let out a breath as he racked his brain.

Johnny began pacing again and Roy was sure he would be bald by the end of the day the way he was running his hands through that hair. Johnny stopped suddenly, opened his mouth, shut it and then exclaimed, "The lab!"

Everyone turned their attention to him. "What?" Hank asked but Roy's expression showed he understood.

"We were in that lab earlier today and Mike came in to help us break it down," Roy began and Johnny nodded. He poked two fingers into Roy's chest as he recalled that morning.

"Yeah, yeah. He fell back and there were some old vials and test tubes on the table."

"Did it spill on him, Johnny?" Dr. Early asked excitedly.

"He got it on his glove but we pulled it off quickly. We rinsed his hand to be sure but…maybe."

"Doc, that place has been abandoned for years. I'm not sure we could find out what was in there," Hank said anxiously.

"That's okay, I think I have an idea what those test results will show," Early replied and hurried back to Mike's side.

The group of men slumped down into the chairs. All except for Johnny. Roy looked up at him. "Johnny, why don't you go call Aubrey and let her know you will be late. I'll call Joanne when you are done."

Johnny nodded vaguely and headed toward the payphone on the wall. He fished in his pockets for a minute until Roy came over and handed him a dime.

"Thanks," he mumbled. A few minutes later he returned. "Joanne and the kids are at my house so you don't need to call."

"What are they doing there?" Roy asked.

"She said something about wallpaper books and the nursery," Johnny smiled but it didn't reach his eyes.

Roy put his hand on Johnny's shoulder and gave it a shake. "He'll be okay, don't worry."

Johnny let his head drop and stared at the floor. He lifted it and looked at Roy out of the side of his eyes. "We don't know that."

Roy could only nod but then spotted Early headed their way. Again everyone rose to meet the doctor, eager for some good news.

"We got the results of the blood tests. I was right," Early said. "He tested positive for PCP."

Hank looked at his men and then back at the Early. "PCP? Isn't that…"

"Angel Dust, yes," Early said in a matter of fact tone. "I think you will find that the lab where Mike was working this morning was an animal testing lab or a vet. PCP has been used as an animal tranquilizer." He paused to let his words sink in.

"Will he be okay, Doc?" Johnny asked. "Will there be any long-term problems?"

"No, we just need to wait until it gets out of his system. He should be fine. Lucky for all of us, Mike is a pretty docile guy. I know you've seen what PCP can do," he said turning to Johnny and Roy. "He also didn't absorb much so he is very lucky.

"Poor guy." Hank said and sat back down.

"Yes, the drug can cause auditory and visual disturbances, loss of memory as well as some psychological issues. I'm admitting him, of course. I'll have a nurse with him at all times and he'll remain restrained until we are sure it is out of his system."

Hank stepped forward, "Can I see him?"

"Sure, go ahead. It will be a while until he's brought up to his room. But just you right now. I don't want to overstimulate him."

"Thanks Doc," Hank said as he turned back to the rest of the crew. "You all go home. I'll stay with him for a while and call you all later, okay?"

For a moment, no one moved. Dr. Early spoke up, "He's going to be okay. Don't worry." He smiled warmly.

Roy reached out and shook Early's hand. "Thanks for everything." He turned toward Marco and Chet. "Can one of you give us a ride back to our cars?"

"Sure, Roy. Marco and I came together and I have to drop him off too. Cap came in on his own."

The group of brothers headed toward the exit as Joe Early watched. Kelly Brackett joined him. "So you actually got them to leave?"

"It took some doing and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw all four of those faces back here at some point today." Grinning, the two medical men headed back down the hall.

~ E ~

The next morning, Johnny and Aubrey came into the hospital. Aubrey had a big bouquet of flowers in her hand. Before heading to the elevators, they took a right to stop at the base station and say hello to Dixie.

"Why hello there, you two," Dixie said grinning widely. "Aubrey, don't you just look beautiful."

"Thank you, Dixie. I feel like a beached whale, though. My feet barely fit in my shoes. Pretty soon I'll need to borrow Johnny's boots."

Dixie's brow furrowed, "They are swelling?"

"Yes, but don't worry. Dr. Jurczak is monitoring me carefully. It isn't that bad. I just prop them up and it goes away."

"Dr. Jurczak is one of our finest OBs here," Dixie said, relaxing. "So I assume you are here to see Mr. Stoker?" Dixie gestured at the flowers and both Johnny and Aubrey nodded.

"Room 205," Dixie replied pointing a pencil tip toward the elevator.

"Thanks, Dix," Johnny said, taking Aubrey's hand and leading her down the hall.

A moment later, Dr. Brackett approached the desk and saw the remnants of Dixie's smile.

"What's got you so happy?" He asked, chuckling.

"That." Dixie said as she looked past him to the couple waiting at the elevator.

"Oh, the Gages are visiting Mike?"

"They are just so darn cute, aren't they?"

Brackett glanced back as Johnny and Aubrey boarded the elevator and waved at him. He waved back. "Cute I wouldn't know about but they sure are a nice couple."

~ E ~

Johnny approached room 205 and softly knocked. He heard a mumbled 'come in' and pushed open the door. Mike sat in one of the room's two beds.

"Hiya, Mike. How ya feeling, buddy?"

"Hello, Mike. I brought you some flowers," Aubrey said brightly and picked up an extra water pitcher to place them in.

Mike looked sullenly at the bouquet. "Thanks Aubrey. I'm doing okay now, thanks," he said looking back up at Johnny.

"Hey, Roy wanted me to tell you that he'll be in later. He and the family went to church this mornin."

Mike looked back down at his lap. "You don't have to visit."

"Whatya mean we don't have to visit? How many times have you been in to visit me…on second thought don't answer that." Johnny grinned goofily but his smile soon faded as the attempt at humor didn't seem to help. He cleared his throat awkwardly and looked over at Aubrey who just shrugged. She stepped closer to the bed and rested her hand on Mike's arm but withdrew it when he flinched.

"How long will you be in here, Mike?" She continued as she received only a shrug in response. "I know they mean well here but I couldn't wait to get released. You can go stir crazy." Mike simply nodded in agreement. "Will you both excuse me for a minute? You understand how it is," she pointed at her baby belly. As Johnny held the door for her she winked at him and glanced back at Mike behind her.

Johnny went back to Mike's side.

"Hey, Mike. What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"You're not upset or embarrassed…heck, you couldn't help what you did."

"No, it's not that. Well, yeah, sort of. I'm sorry I acted that way. But you are right; I wasn't responsible for my actions."

"Then what's wrong? Is Bree right, you just don't want to be here?"

Mike sighed. "Yeah, that's it."

Johnny leaned on the empty bed not sure of what to say next. "What can I get you? Do you want a magazine or a book? We can go pick up something."

"No, I'm all set," Mike said pointing at the stack of reading material on his bedside table.

"Oh, okay. Hey, I know the food here is pretty lousy. I'll have Roy bring some of Joanne's wonderful cooking in for you."

Mike looked up as Johnny spoke. "No, please don't." Johnny saw the sadness in his friend's blue eyes but was at a loss as to what was causing it.

The door opened and Aubrey returned flanked by Marco and Chet. "Look who I found," Aubrey said but noticed the tension in her husband's face.

Johnny stepped out of the way as Marco and Chet moved in to greet their comrade. He put his arm around Aubrey and turned his head away from Mike as he whispered, "I don't know what's wrong." Aubrey rubbed Johnny's back and felt the tense muscles through his shirt.

"Mike, next Sunday you are invited to dinner at our house. Everyone is invited, okay?" Chet and Marco happily accepted while Mike merely nodded. "Okay then, we are going now. Take care."

"Thank you for the flowers, Aubrey." Mike said, forcing a smile.

Johnny reached over and gave Mike's leg a squeeze. "I'll see you tomorrow, pal."

As they reached the hall and the door closed behind them Aubrey faced Johnny. "He seems so down, Johnny."

"I know but I just can't figure out what's wrong. I thought he might have been embarrassed by what happened but I don't think that's it – or that's not all of it." He sighed heavily. "Maybe the drug isn't completely out of his system."

"That could be," Aubrey said, her mood lifting. She smiled up at her worried husband. "Well maybe the boys will get it out of him or at least cheer him up."

"I hope so," Johnny said as he followed her to the elevator.

"Let's go, the DeSoto clan will be descending on our place in just a couple of hours so I need to get home."

"So when did we decide to have the guys over for dinner Sunday?"

"Just came to me," Aubrey smirked as she punched the elevator button. Johnny opened his mouth to protest but she stopped him with a kiss. "Hush, I have a plan," she said rubbing her hands together and snickering.

As they stepped into the elevator and the doors began to close, Johnny studied her closely. "Why am I suddenly nervous?"

~ E ~

Johnny and Roy stepped out of the treatment room and crossed the hallway to restock supplies. Dixie was working on a chart.

"I thought I wouldn't see you today, Dix. Don't you ever get a day off?" Johnny said smiling.

"Not lately, my nurses have been passing around a stomach virus so I have been working extra to cover."

Johnny grimaced. "Oo, I had that bug. Nasty." Dixie opened her mouth to speak but Johnny cut her off. "Hey, you can't blame me anymore. I didn't touch any of them," he chuckled and Dixie laughed.

"Why don't you get the supplies, Johnny. I want to go up and say hi to Mike." Johnny nodded but Dixie interrupted.

"He went home last night."

Roy looked at Johnny, bewildered. "Hi did? He didn't even mention that when we came to see him yesterday afternoon. Who drove him home?"

"Actually, I had left here by then but I assumed it was one of your crew. No?"

Johnny shook his head. "No, we would have known if he had Cap or one of the guys bring him home."

"I suppose he could have called a cab."

"Oh man, why would he do that? Do you know if he was released back to work?" Johnny asked.

"As far as I know, yes."

"Come on, Roy. Let's get back to the station."

~ E ~

"He did what?" Hank's voice bellowed from his office and Roy winced. Marco and Chet came from the day room and joined Roy outside the captain's door.

"Gage in trouble again?" Chet deadpanned.

"Mike was released from the hospital last night and didn't call one of us for a ride." Roy watched Chet become speechless along with Marco. "Yeah, that was pretty much our reaction."

Pete Jannitto, who had been filling in for Mike this shift, leaned against the kitchen doorway with a baffled look on his face. "What's the frigging big deal?" Johnny came out of Hank's office in time to hear the remark and stormed over to the man. Roy reached out to grab Johnny's arm as he passed but wasn't quick enough.

Johnny got within inches of the blond man's face. "It is a big deal – to us." Pete scoffed but took a step back. "Oh, is that funny, huh?" Roy hooked his hand on Johnny's elbow and tried to pull him back but Johnny yanked his arm free. "Well, the A-Shift cares about one another." Johnny stood for a few seconds glaring at Pete then turned to face Roy. He looked at the rest of his friends and then at Hank. Roy let out his breath as he saw Johnny shake off the anger. "Cap, request permission to take the squad and check on Mike. We will stay available from there."

Before Hank could reply, the squad got called out on a run. As Hank handed the address slip to Roy he said, "If you have time after this, go ahead and stop by to see him."

"Thanks, Cap," Roy answered before pulling out onto the street.

~ E ~

Roy rang the bell at Mike's house. It was a small but well kept one-story ranch. The front porch had an old rocker and a few flowering hanging plants. Both Roy and Johnny had only been to visit once or twice as they usually gathered at Roy's or Cap's place.

The door opened slowly. "What are you doing here?" Mike asked, surprised to see anyone since they were on shift.

"Mike," Roy began, "we heard you were released last night. Can we come in for a minute?" Roy held up the handy talkie. "We can't stay long."

With that Mike pushed the door fully opened and stepped back to allow Johnny and Roy in. He was dressed in a t-shirt and running pants. Behind him the television was on.

"Whatcha watching? Soaps?" Johnny chortled.

"No," Mike answered. "Why would I watch that?" Johnny's grin slipped from his face and Roy now had one.

"Mike, why didn't you ask one of us for a ride home?"

Mike looked down at his feet and put his hands in his pockets. "All the guys had already left when they told me I could go so I just called a cab."

Roy reached out and put his hand on Mike's shoulder. "Don't ever feel like you are inconveniencing us. We are here for you. We are here for each other, right Johnny?"

"You bet. Are you feeling a'ight, Mike?"

"I'm fine. I'll be back the next shift."

"And not a minute too soon," Johnny huffed, thinking about Jannitto.

"We aren't used to having anyone but you at the engine, you know?" Roy quickly added.

Mike smiled and this time it reached his eyes. Roy and Johnny relaxed a bit.

"Well, we better get back. You call if you need anything, got it?"

"Got it, thanks Roy. Thanks Johnny."

~ E ~

Johnny pulled into the parking lot behind the station and saw not only Captain Stanley's car but Mike's as well. He grinned, glad to have the engineer back on duty. Ordinarily he would have yelled out a welcome to a crew member returning from a sickness or injury but Johnny approached the locker room quietly. Mike was sitting on the bench tying his shoe. "Welcome back, Mike."

Mike smiled up at him. "Thanks, it's good to be back."

Roy joined them and also quietly welcomed Mike back.

"You know how I said I hated to leave Aubrey to come to work, Roy?"

"Yeah."

"Well, I kind of was happy to leave this morning."

"Why, Johnny?"

"She has taken up the habit of singing as she gets ready for work."

"So?"

"She's awful, Roy. Just awful. It hurts my ears."

"Aw, Johnny, that's not very nice. She is happy and just expressing herself."

"Well I'd rather have fingernails on a chalkboard than that," Johnny chuckled and looked over at Mike who was still sitting on the bench. His eyes were lowered as he quietly buttoned his uniform shirt. After a moment he left the room and headed for the kitchen.

Johnny looked after him. "Something is bugging Mike."

"I agree, when I saw him on Sunday he just seemed so down."

"He's not used to being laid up so maybe that was it." Johnny's statement was more of a question, however.

"Don't know. Joanne said you and Aubrey are inviting all of us over Sunday? Maybe we can cheer him up. Or maybe he'll just snap out of this by then."

"I hope so. I sure hope so."

Soon the station was humming and back to normal as Hank doled out assignments for the day.

Roy and Johnny were called out on a possibly heart attack before they could finish their chores.

As Roy restocked the supplies he turned to see Johnny come from the treatment room at Rampart. He could tell by his partner's stance that the man had not survived and he leaned against the countertop looking over at Dixie. She patted his hand in quiet support.

"Ready Roy?" Johnny said from behind him.

Roy straightened up, steeled himself and turned to follow Johnny.

As they climbed wearily into the squad they heard Hank's voice on the radio. "LA, HT 51, we have two Code I's at our location, request a squad and an ambulance."

"What the…?" Johnny gasped.

The HT sounded. Squad 51, what is your status?

Johnny quickly replied, "Squad 51 available."

Squad 51, join Engine 51 at their location. Commerce Office Park, 3123 West Olympic Boulevard. Three One Two Three West Olympic. Cross street South Harvard. Time out 1105.

"Squad 51."

"What was the run they were on, do you remember?" Roy asked.

"I didn't really hear it since I was in with the heart attack victim at the time."

The paramedics made the rest of the trip in silence. Worry hung on their hearts wondering who was hurt and what had happened.

As Roy pulled up to the scene, he spotted the captain from 85s directing them to the left.

"There they are!" Johnny exclaimed and was out of the squad before Roy came to a full stop. He could see Mike lying on the ground with an oxygen mask on his face. Hank was with him. Not far off, Marco stood next to Chet who was sitting on the curb holding his head in his hands.

As they pulled their equipment, Johnny stated, "I'll take Mike, you check on Chet."

As Johnny approached Mike, he saw that he was conscious but in obvious pain. "What happened, Cap?"

That new wye must have been faulty and split in half. One piece hit Mike in the side, the other winged Chet in the head – but he was wearing his helmet, thank God.

"Help me get his coat off," Johnny said as he carefully slipped Mike's arm out of his sleeve. "Mike, can you hear me?" Mike grunted and nodded his head. "Are you having trouble breathing?" Another nod. "Okay, just relax. I'm going to get your BP." Johnny turned to ask Hank to get Rampart on the biophone but saw that he already was attaching the antennae and putting through the call.

Over on the curb, Roy crouched down in front of Chet. "How you doing?"

"I'm okay, Roy. Really. It just clipped me." He picked up his helmet and showed Roy the deep gouge. "This could have been my skull."

"Well let me examine you," Roy said as he checked Chet's pupils.

"Mike needs you more than I do," Chet sputtered.

"Johnny is taking care of Mike." Chet let out an exasperated sigh but allowed Roy to examine him.

"Marco, can you go see what is going on?" Chet asked and Marco nodded.

"And give these vitals to Johnny to call into Rampart."

Johnny completed the IV ordered by Rampart as Hank kept an eye on the oxygen he was administering to Mike.

"Chet is asking how he is," Marco said quietly to Johnny as he handed him the slip of paper.

"Possible pneumothorax but I don't think it's too bad," Johnny answered and Marco nodded dismally before returning to Chet.

~ E ~

Chet had protested being sent to Rampart but was glad to be in the ambulance with his crewmate. Dr. Early met Chet's gurney and instructed the attendants on which treatment room to bring him into. Dr. Brackett escorted Mike's gurney into the surgical treatment room. Johnny handed a vial of Mike's blood to Dixie as he brought him in.

"I want x-rays of the chest and tell the lab I want a report on that blood, stat," Brackett ordered. He leaned over his patient. "Mike, I'm pretty sure we are going to need to put in a chest tube and re-inflate your lung. You will feel much better after that."

Mike looked over at Johnny who attempted a smile for the hurting man. "Don't worry, Mike. I'll stay right here with you."

Mike closed his eyes and turned his head away from Johnny. Roy saw the pain in his partner's eyes but stepped out of the room to allow the staff to work.

Thirty minutes later, Johnny came out of Mike's room. He saw Roy speaking to Chet down the hall and joined them.

"How is he?" Chet asked.

"Breathing easier now. How are you?"

"Fine. No sign of a concussion but I get the rest of the shift off," Chet said quickly, wanting more information on Mike. "So, he'll be okay?"

"Yeah, he'll be out for a few shifts but he should be just fine." Despite the good news, Roy could see Johnny was still worried about Mike.

"We'll give you a ride home, Chet. You can pick up your car tomorrow," Roy said turning to leave.

"No, that's okay, Roy." Chet looked back at the treatment room that Johnny had just left. "I'm going to stay with him for a while. I'll have Carla pick me up later."

Johnny grinned. "Carla huh? Things are getting pretty serious with you two."

"That's the longest you've ever dated anyone, Chet," Roy added.

Chet blushed a bit. "Yeah, she's pretty special. I'll see you later. I'll call the station and let you know what room he ends up in." Chet didn't wait for a reply and slipped into Mike's room.

Back in the squad Roy listened to Johnny humming a tune and then begin singing.

You are my special angel

Sent from up above

The Lord smiled down on me

And sent an angel to love

"I'm flattered."

"Huh?" Johnny asked when the statement finally registered in his brain.

"Nothing. You were just singing, that's all."

"Oh sorry."

"No need to be sorry. Thinking about Aubrey?"

"No." Roy's eyebrows raised and Johnny continued. "Well, yeah…sort of." Johnny saw Roy's confusion. "It's an old Bobby Helms song."

"Yeah, I know the song."

"Well, Bree has been singing that song a lot the past few days. Kind of stuck in my head."

"So she is still singing, huh?" Johnny winced in reply and Roy laughed. Sobering, he asked, "How was Mike doing – I mean beyond the physical problems?"

Johnny sighed and shook his head. "He was completely shut down when I tried to talk to him. Roy, I think this happening so soon after his last hospitalization…" he trailed off.

"Yeah, I'm worried about him too."

"Oh man, I need to let Aubrey know. We'll have to postpone having everyone over for dinner."

Roy backed the squad into the bay and both men climbed out of the cab. Johnny hurried toward the day room to call Aubrey and bumped into Pete. Johnny's jaw tightened and he put his hands on his hips, looking down at the floor.

"Hey Johnny, Roy," Pete said quietly. He took a step back into the kitchen to let Johnny pass. Roy followed. Marco and Hank were sitting at the kitchen table along with Deke who had come in as Chet's replacement. After Johnny and Roy said hello to Deke and filled everyone in on Mike and Chet, Johnny moved to the payphone.

"Hang on Johnny," Pete said. Johnny turned back and looked the man in the eye but Pete hung his head. "I just wanted to say sorry…to all of you…for mouthing off the other day." He looked over at Deke. "Truth is, the rest of us are aware of how close you all are on A-Shift. Don't get me wrong, our guys have each other's back. It's just that…well, sorry. It was out of line."

Johnny slowly smiled as he stepped toward the engineer. He put out his hand and Pete shook it.

~ E ~

Two days later the Gages and the DeSotos were relaxing on Roy's patio. Johnny opened a beer and raised it. "Here's to Stoic Stoker." Roy smiled sadly and clinked his beer bottle against Johnny's.

"Is he still not opening up?" Joanne asked.

Roy shook his head as he swallowed a sip of beer. "No. He's getting good at covering it up now, right Johnny?"

"Yeah, he's a tough nut to crack. It's gotten so I don't want to go in that room. I don't know what to say anymore." Johnny took Aubrey's hand as she reached for his.

"But we aren't going to abandon him," Aubrey stated emphatically.

"Never," Roy and Johnny said simultaneously.

"When do you think he'll be released?" Joanne asked. "He knows to call one of you this time, right?"

"Oh, he knows and we even had it added to his chart that he is not allowed to call a cab. He has to have one of us or his parents pick him up." Johnny took another swig of beer and rested his head back. "I think he should be getting out in a day or two."

"Then we'll have everyone over next Saturday. He should be up for that by then," Aubrey asserted.

"Oh sure," Johnny answered. "He should even be back to work by then."

"Let's hope he stays healthy after this. I've never seen him in the hospital since I've known him and now he's in there twice in one week," Roy said.

Johnny glanced over at Roy and smirked. "Don't make any cracks about him taking after me. I've heard it from everyone else at the station." Aubrey began to hum 'My Special Angel' and Roy had to smile as he watched Johnny look over at her with concern. Johnny caught Roy watching him and held in a laugh.

Chris came out of the house. "Dad, Dixie is on the phone."

Roy thanked his son and headed inside to take the call. A few minutes later he came back out and sat down. "Mike is being released in the morning. I'm going to pick him up and bring him here." Joanne smiled and rubbed her husband's arm.

"He agreed to that?" Johnny asked skeptically.

"He agreed to me picking him up but he doesn't know he's coming here." Roy held up his beer again and he and Johnny made a silent toast.

~ E ~

"No."

"Come on, Mike. It's for one night. I can drop you off at your place on my way into the station tomorrow."

"No."

"Well, we are already here so come in."

Silence. Roy heaved a sigh and got out of the car. He pulled Mike's duffle bag from the back seat and headed toward the house. The front door opened and Joanne came out smiling but the smile turned to a frown as she saw Roy standing on the front stoop alone. Roy motioned back over his shoulder at the sulking man in the car.

Joanne glanced around him and scowled. "Go on in. I made coffee," she said as she headed toward Mike.

"Good luck," Roy said uncertainly.

Inside, Roy put Mike's bag into the spare room and headed into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. When he returned he was surprised to see Mike sitting on the couch accepting a pillow and blanket from Joanne. Joanne grinned triumphantly as she breezed past Roy into the kitchen. A few minutes later she returned with a cup of coffee and homemade blueberry muffin.

Roy sat down in his recliner across from Mike. The two men sat in silence and sipped their coffee. Chris and Jenny came down stairs and came over to say hello to Mike. Chris headed out to the backyard but Jenny stood and studied Mike. Roy could see it was making him uncomfortable and opened his mouth to say something when Jenny suddenly sat down on the couch close to Mike who glanced nervously at Roy.

"You got hurt?" Jenny asked softly.

"Yes."

"You are going to stay in Uncle Johnny's room," she stated.

"Uh…" Mike began. His eyes flickered over to Roy who nodded with a smile. "Yeah, I'll be staying in Uncle Johnny's room."

Jenny took Mike's hand and held it in her two. After a moment she let go and declared, "You'll be okay, Mr. Mike." She headed out the back slider. Mike kept his eyes down but Roy could see a slight smile. Joanne came back into the living room and sat down. She looked between Mike and Roy and then looked questioningly at her husband.

"Nurse Jenny just told Mike he's going to be just fine."

"Ah, I see." Joanne laughed lightly and leaned back with a sigh.

"You okay, Joanne? Do you need me to do anything?" Roy asked and Mike raised his head.

"Do you mind finishing up the dishes, honey? I'd have Jenny do it but she makes more of a mess than the dishes themselves."

"Sure. Mike, I'll be back in a few minutes."

Joanne got up from her seat. "Can I do anything to help?" Mike asked and Joanne laughed.

"Don't be silly. You are here to rest and get well," Joanne replied as she moved over to Roy's recliner and sat down. She pulled the lever and raised her legs. "Ah, that's better." Mike grinned slightly. "We need to get at least one more of these. When Aubrey is here, we fight over it." Mike's grin widened but his eyes remained sad. "It's nice to see you smile, Mike."

"Thanks. And thank you for taking me in." Mike said, shifting uncomfortably.

Joanne got up and moved toward Mike who leaned back as she approached. "No, don't lean back too much, honey." She took the pillow she had given him, pulled him forward and slipped it behind him. Mike leaned against the pillow and his eyes widened. "That's much better."

Joanne sat back down. "I thought that would help."

"Maybe both you and Jenny should become nurses."

With a laugh Joanne replied, "After taking care of Johnny for so long, I feel like I already graduated with a nursing degree."

A few hours later, Joanne had given Mike his medication and tucked him into bed. As she shut the door and came back into the living room, Roy wrapped his arms around her. "You are amazing. Do you know that?"

"Thank you, you are pretty wonderful yourself."

"No, I mean it. Although he still seems like something is bothering him, you managed to make him feel at home. I really appreciate that."

~ E ~

Mike returned to work a few days before Johnny and Aubrey's party. Again, everyone remained low key but still made sure that Mike knew how much he was appreciated and missed. While relaxing in the kitchen, Chet asked Johnny about the party on Saturday.

"What can we bring, Gage?"

"It is just going to be a backyard barbecue and pool party, Chet, but Aubrey said that anyone could bring anything and it would be appreciated. We'll have plenty of hamburgers and hot dogs – shut it, Chet – and also some chicken legs if you would rather that. Nobody bring potato salad, though. Aubrey makes the best."

"Well, Carla and I will bring some pop and some chips, how's that?"

"I asked my mom to make some totopo," Marco piped up.

"Oh and some of her killer salsa?" Johnny asked, his mouth watering. Marco nodded.

"Well, I'll call Emily and ask what we can bring."

"No worries, Cap. You don't have to bring anything but just show up. You too, Mikey." Johnny grinned at the engineer who simply nodded and kept his eyes lowered.

"Is this too much for Aubrey, John? We can always move the festivities to my place," Hank offered.

"No, don't worry about it, Cap. Aubrey is insisting on this and I'll be helping her out, don't worry. She also has a friend from work who offered to stay and clean up after."

~ E ~

On Saturday, Johnny rolled over and saw that Aubrey was already out of bed. Glancing at the bedside clock he was shocked to see it was after 10 A.M. He felt bad that he wasn't already up helping her prepare for the pool party. He opened the bedroom door. Hearing Aubrey's voice, he poked his head out and listened to see if she was on the phone but another woman's voice answered and he quickly shut the door again. Looking down at himself, he blushed as he was only wearing boxers. He pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and padded down the hall.

"Good morning, sleepyhead." Aubrey said pouring a cup of coffee for Johnny. "This is Tessa Romano. Tessa, this is my husband, Johnny."

Johnny shook the woman's hand. "Tessa, that's a pretty name."

"Thank you. It means countess in Italian and was my grandmother's name."

"Thank you so much for coming over early – I didn't realize you would be here." Johnny gestured at himself. "I'm going to run and take a shower and then I am at your beck and call."

Twenty minutes later Johnny came back into the kitchen and Aubrey gave him a list of things to take care of. From the back deck he could hear the women whispering conspiratorially and wondered what was up his wife's sleeve.

Roy and his family were the first to arrive later that day. Captain Stanley, arrived with his wife and teenage daughters followed by Marco. Johnny introduced everyone to Tessa but when Marco approached the young woman, Aubrey called to her that she needed help in the kitchen.

"I'll help you, Bree."

"No no, Johnny," Aubrey said quickly. "Tessa can help."

"I'll talk to you later," Marco said as Tessa excused herself.

Aubrey opened the door for Mike. "Hi, Mike. Come in. Oh my, thank you," Aubrey exclaimed as she took the large bowl of fruit salad from him. Everyone else is here. Go out on the deck, I'll be out in a minute. As Mike stepped out onto the back deck, everyone gave a sigh of relief to see the final A-shift crew member.

Emily Stanley fussed over Mike and ran to get him a soda as Hank tried to give up his lounge chair to him. "No, Cap. I'm fine here," Mike said as he sat down at the picnic table. Roy could see his friend was uncomfortable with all the fuss so he distracted everyone by telling the kids it was time to set up the Slip 'n Slide.

"Oh boy, you brought the Slip 'n Slide, Roy?" Johnny said, heading to pull his hose from the shed. Marco perked up as Aubrey and Tessa came from the house but his hopes were dashed as the two women approach Mike.

"Mike, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine. This is Tessa Romano."

Mike stood up and took the beautiful woman's hand. "Nice to meet you, Tessa."

"It's so nice to meet you too, Mike."

After Johnny took a turn on the Slip 'n Slide, he pulled his t-shirt back on and headed to start the grill. He smiled seeing Aubrey relaxing on the deck chatting with Chet's girl, Carla. Marco and Chet were in the pool sitting on the steps and drinking beers. Hank and Emily were on the far side of the pool laughing at their daughters who were swimming in the deep end. He glanced at the picnic table and noticed Mike was no longer sitting there. Looking around, he spotted the man. He was at the far end of the yard leaning on the back fence talking to Tessa. Johnny watched Mike as he chatted easily with the woman and occasionally laughed with her. He looked away as to not make the couple uncomfortable and sidled up next to Aubrey.

"Well, well, would you look at that," Johnny said as he squatted down next to her chair.

Aubrey beamed. "They seem to be hitting it off just like I thought they would."

Johnny sat down on the deck and stretched his long legs out in front of him. He hung his head down and chuckled. "I knew you were up to something. This whole this was planned just for you to get them together, wasn't it?"

Aubrey looked over at Joanne and then back to her husband, "Yup." She took a long drink of her lemonade and burped. Johnny's head popped up and he looked at her stunned.

"Excuse me," Aubrey said and giggled happily. Johnny shook his head at her. "What? You try putting anything into a stomach that is being pushed and kicked by a creature vying for space."

"Uh huh," Joanne replied and gave a little burp in solidarity. Both women erupted into laughter. Soon Johnny joined in and laid back onto the deck laughing heartily.

Everyone ate and drank and laughed through the day. The sun was beginning to set. Johnny had played a few songs with his guitar and was joined by Elizabeth Stanley singing. Later he put the stereo on and lit the tiki torches set up beyond the pool.

Neil Diamond's 'And The Grass Won't Pay No Mind' was playing. Mike and Tessa stood up and moved to the far side of the pool. They began to dance slowly. Johnny came back and sat down with Aubrey. Her eyes sparkled in the light of the torches as she gazed the two people lost in the music. She saw Johnny watching her and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and blushed. Johnny took her hand and leaned in to kiss her lips softly. Roy and Joanne and Chet and Carla soon joined Mike and Tessa along with Hank and his wife. When 'Old Fashioned Love Song' started Johnny stood up and took Aubrey's hand. She kicked off her sandals and they joined the other couples on the grass. Elizabeth and Emma laughed as all the couples danced joyfully to one song after another. Seeing Marco left sitting alone, they jumped up and each grabbed a hand. Marco grinned and followed them to the grass. Jenny wrapped a towel around her as she climbed out of the water and danced between her parents. Chris shook his head and smiled as he floated in the pool.

Later that night Johnny extinguished the last of the torches, put the cover on the trash bucket and shut the outside lights off as he entered the house and closed the door. Everyone was already gone except for Mike, Tessa and Marco. Aubrey and Marco were chatting quietly in the kitchen and Johnny only heard the tail end of the conversation.

"Okay, I'll let you know. Goodnight Marco," she said as he headed for the door.

Johnny said goodbye and then looked over at Aubrey. "Are you planning on playing matchmaker again?"

"And why not? It certainly worked this time," Aubrey whispered watching Mike help Tessa into her sweater.

"Thanks for such a great day, you guys." Mike said, his eyes bright.

"Are you sure you don't want me to stay and help clean up, Aubrey?" Tessa asked. Johnny hardly knew the woman but could see she was relieved by Aubrey's reply.

"No, you two go and have a good time. Johnny and I can handle it." The couple said goodbye and Johnny closed the door. He looked forlornly into the messy kitchen.

Aubrey started singing and he grinned as she croaked out the lyrics:

Open up the window

Let some air into this room

I think I'm almost chokin'

From the smell of stale perfume

He picked up the trash from the corner and started tossing things in as he sang:

And that cigarette you're smoking

'Bout scared me half to death

Open up the window, sucker

Let me catch my breath*

They worked together singing at the top of their lungs until the kitchen was clean.

The End.

* 'Mama Told Me' by Three Dog Night