The Humanity Factor

"Let someone love you just the way you are - as flawed as you might be, as unattractive as you sometimes feel, and as unaccomplished as you think you are. To believe that you must hide all the parts of you that are broken, out of fear that someone else is incapable of loving what is less than perfect, is to believe that sunlight is incapable of entering a broken window and illuminating a dark room." - Marc Hack

Chapter One

"Listen..."

Chet Kelly's ears perked up during dinner. "It's raining."

"So?" Marco Lopez shrugged.

"Maybe we won't get any brush fires tonight. It's really coming down," Chet responded hopefully. "We've had brush fires overnight all through the dry season. It's already November...about time we had some rain."

Johnny Gage snickered.

"Shut up, Gage," Chet snapped. "You haven't been out on one of those overnight calls all season. You don't know how exhausted - "

"Hey, we've gone out on PLENTY of overnight calls!" Johnny said, rising from his chair. "Just because you didn't choose to be a medic doesn't mean - "

"Guys, enough!" Cap intervened. "Can we just have dinner? Stop bickering."

Johnny and Chet quieted down. Mike Stoker placed a salad bowl on the table, followed by a giant bowl of spaghetti. Johnny and Chet grabbed for the bowl, but Roy snatched it and handed it to Cap. As he served himself, Cap eyed The crew.

"First rain of the season...slick roads..."

"Well, that's just great," Johnny growled. "We'll be up all night pulling civilians outta cars 'cause they wouldn't slow down when they - hey!" Roy grabbed the bowl of spaghetti and shoved it into Johnny's hands.

"Eat, Junior. Shaddup and eat."

Chapter Two

"Look, I usually don't tell you guys to hit the hay...but I think it's gonna be a long night..." Cap turned off the TV and folded his arms. The men groaned.

"Cap, we been waiting a long time to see this movie," Mike pointed out. "Come on."

"Okay, do what you want. But it's been a long day, and we're probably in for a long night. I'm going to sleep. I suggest you do the same."

And Cap headed for the dorm.

The men sat in silence for a few moments.

Marco stood and stretched. "I'm going to sleep, too. When Cap thinks we're in for a long night, he's usually right."

The men nodded their reluctant assent, and drifted toward the dorm.

All except Chet, who turned the TV back on, and Johnny, who watched him. Finally, Johnny sat down next to Chet and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Hey. Don't you feel it?"

Chet nodded. "Yep. And I'm trying to ignore it."

"Me, too. But the man had a point. We're already tired. what if - "

"Look Gage, don't jinx it by talking about it. You wanna sleep, sleep. I'm gonna watch the movie."

Johnny shrugged. "Okay. I'm gonna sleep. Enjoy the movie."

Chet waved Johnny off without speaking. Johnny rose, watching the movie and walking, until he ran into the wall next to the door. He muttered a low, "Damn it," and went to the dorm.

The men were already settled into bed, except for Roy, who came out of the head and padded, barefoot, to his bed. He sat down and regarded Johnny, who was rubbing his forehead.

"Hey. You okay?"

Johnny nodded. "Walked into the wall."

"let me see..." Roy tried to pull Johnny's hands down, but Johnny resisted.

"I'm fine. Save your paramedic act for victims, okay?" He pulled off his turnouts and settled into bed. Roy shook his head and laid down. He rolled on his side and looked at Johnny.

"You got a headache?"

"Nope, no blood in my ears, no dizziness, no double vision, pupils normal and reactive. Now shut up and let me sleep." He closed his eyes and threw his left arm over his forehead. His arm hit the bruised area and he yelped.

Roy snickered. "Goodnight, Junior."

There was a small silence, then Johnny rolled on his side and smiled at Roy.

"Night, Pally. Thanks for caring."

Roy rolled onto his back and smiled. "You're welcome. Just taking care of my partner."

Chapter Three

Chet crept into the dorm at 11:30, trying not to wake his crew mates. He dropped his suspenders and looked over at Johnny.

Fast asleep.

That meant everyone else was asleep as well.

Chet unbuttoned his turnout pants and let them drop over his boots. He sat on his bed, cringing as the bedsprings squeaked. He checked Johnny again.

Still sleeping.

He twisted to look at the clock above his bed.

11:35.

Chet sighed and climbed under the covers.

"Chet?" came a soft voice from across space between his bed and Johnny's.

"Yeah?"

"If something happens...let's watch each other's backs, okay?"

"Chet folded his hands under his head. "I always got your back, Gage. You know that."

"Yeah. And I got yours."

"Okay, okay. Go to sleep, would ya?"

Johnny smiled in the darkness.

"Okay."

Chapter Four

Cap woke with a start, drenched in cold sweat. He sat up and swung his legs over the bed, trying to shake off the nightmare.

"Man..."

He stood, stretched his cramped back, and checked the time on the clock by the table with the mic that connected 51 to Dispatch.

2:30am

He listened.

The rain had stopped.

He grimaced, then checked the men, something he did whenever he woke up in the night.

But especially this night.

He had a feeling...

Cap walked the length of the dorm.

DeSoto. He slept well, unless something personal was on his mind. Looked like it wasn't tonight.

Kelly. Snoring softly. He was a good sleeper too, unless it was something like...catching a mouse. Good old Kelly. Took a lot of ribbing, gave a lot of ribbing, but when it counted...he was there. Cap ought to tell him that more. Maybe it would cut down on the ribbing.

Gage. Slept like a log. Unless he didn't. Tonight, he was okay. Must have talked with DeSoto. DoSoto usually calmed Gage down. Eventually.

What a neurotic Gage was. Still, it never stopped him from giving his all. Or perhaps that's why he did. Hard to figure Gage out.

Stoker. The bedrock of the crew. Strong, quiet, never gave much away. Didn't have to. Mike was always where he needed to be, when he needed to be there. Just wished Mike would open up more.

And Lopez. Another pretty quiet one. Friend to all, master of himself. Did his job like a champ, supported the crew, kept his personal problems to himself.

Cap walked back the length of the dorm, thinking what a great team he had. Sure, they were all different, sure, they got on each other's nerves sometimes, but when things got rough...they were all there for each other.

Cap settled back in bed. He checked the time.

2:45am.

What was that nightmare? All he remembered was crying. Lots of crying...

"Cap? You okay?"

DeSoto's head popped up above the partition separating their beds.

"Yeah Roy, I'm okay. Thanks."

Roy smiled. "You been checking the crew again?"

"How'd you know?"

"Saw you pacing the dorm."

"Didn't mean to wake you."

"S'okay. Get some rest."

"You too."

And Roy's head went back down on his side of the partition. Cap heard him settle in bed.

"Roy?"

"Yeah, Junior?"

"Cap okay?"

"He's fine."

"Oh. Good. You okay?"

"Yes. Go to sleep."

"Hey, would ya both shut UP?" Chet's voice sounded from opposite Johnny and Roy. "Geez, how's a guy supposed to - "

"No one was talking to you, Kelly. Stick a sock in it - "

"Hey, what's all the talking for?" Lopez asked from down the dorm. "Cap said we're supposed to sleep."

"Look," came Johnny's argumentative whine. "Cap woke up, Roy checked him, I checked Roy and then Chet - "

"SHUT UP!" Stoker sat up in bed and glared at everyone. "Just be QUIET, would ya?"

Stoker's outburst stunned everyone into silence.

"Cap smiled to himself.

Yeah, he had the best crew in the Department.

Chapter Four

Over three hours later, just as the sky was growing lighter, the klaxons sounded.

Station 51, Station 8, Station 24, motor vehicle accident with injuries, southbound 101 on the Alameda overpass, time out, 6:12.

Cap grabbed the handset. "Station 51, 10-4, KMG 365." He dropped the handset and pulled on his gear. The men assembled in their places and they were off, the squad in front, sirens blaring, lights flashing in the darkness.

Johnny grabbed the handset. "LA, Squad Fifty-One. You have any details about the accident?"

"Negative, Fifty-One."

"Ten-Four." He hung up the handset and shrugged his shoulders. "No dice."

Roy smiled at him for a moment before his eyes returned to the road. "Thanks for trying."

The radio beeped.

"Stations 51, 8, 24, Highway Patrol advises accident involves a bus."

Johnny emitted a low whistle before scrunching down in the seat, folding his arms, and shaking his head. "A bus...gonna be bad..."

Roy reached over and patted him on the arm. "Won't know till we get there."

Johnny managed a weak smile. "Okay, Pally."

Back in big Red, Mike drove silently, his set lips the only clue to his stress. Cap gazed out the side window, his worried eyes a mirror to the images of past bus accidents spinning through his mind.

In back, Chet and Marco glanced at each other and nodded, their secret signal to stay calm and get the job done.

The squad, followed by the engine, roared down the 101, toward the Highway Patrol lights flashing in the distance.

Chapter Five

Station Fifty-One was the first rescue group on the scene.

A big rig had blown a tire, hurtled into a school bus, rolled the bus on its side, and pushed it against the guard rails on an overpass. The rig's engine was still running, it was still pushing the bus into the guard rails. Screams, children's screams, were coming from the bus.

As Cap, Mike, Marco, and Chet jumped from the engine, a lick of fire could be seen inching around the rig toward the bus.

"Marco, Chet, hose that down! Pull an inch and a half!"

Marco and Chet grabbed a hose, Mike attached it to the engine, and they blasted the flames.

"Gage, DeSoto, check the bus, I'll get the driver here!" Cap shouted, as he climbed onto the rig. Johnny and Roy were already scrambling up on the bus. It swayed against the guard rails. They slowed their climb.

Johnny reached the bus door first. He yanked. It was stuck. He peered through the window. He turned back to Roy.

"Get me a crow bar. Quick. There's a mess of kids in there."

As Roy carefully climbed down, Johnny called into the bus. "Don't move! The Fire Department is here. We're gonna get you out. Just hang on and don't move." He looked around for Roy. "Come on, come on..." He gave the door another yank, and it opened, shattering glass all around. The bus swayed, as its weight threatened to break the guard tails of the overpass. Johnny planted his feet more firmly on the side of the bus as he heard the children cry out in fear.

Meanwhile, Cap climbed into the rig and turned the engine off. He checked the carotid pulse of the driver, who was slumped against the wheel, his face toward Cap, his skin grey, his eyes open, seeing nothing, his foot jammed against the accelerator. He tried to shift the man, but he was jammed against the wheel. The entire dashboard had been shifted in the accident. He leaned out of the cab and called to his crew. "Guys! We gotta shift this dashboard forward."

"Coming, Cap." Chet rushed over with the jaws. He got a look at the rig's position. "Cap! If we jostle the truck, the bus might go through the guard rails! Gage isn't even going in there, he's just holdin' on!"

Cap pulled himself up and glanced at the bus, as Johnny slipped carefully inside. He muttered a quick "shit," then turned to Chet. "Get on the horn and tell Dispatch we need an Engine under the overpass, on Alameda."

Chet nodded and disappeared, just as Station 8 arrived. Cap called out to Station 8's Captain.

"Get that bus secured before it goes through the guard rails!"

Chapter Six

Johnny carefully eased his way into the bus, holding his breath as the bus swayed.

The driver was dead.

Johnny glanced through the shattered windshield. The multiple images showed him one thing: the guard rails were about to give way.

"Mister, we gonna die?" He looked down, startled. A little boy, about seven or eight years old, had grabbed his wrist.

"Die? No, of course not. That'd ruin the Fire Department's reputation." He paused to glance at the interior of the bus. Loaded with kids, some conscious, some not. He smiled at the boy. "My name's Johnny and I'm a paramedic. A firefighter. What's your name?"

"Richard."

"Okay, Richard, let me check you out..." Johnny gave Richard a cursory check. Fractured left wrist, nasty laceration on his forehead. "Damn..."

"That's a bad word."

"You're right, I'll have to work on that. Listen, don't move your wrist, okay? I'll be right back."

Johnny eased himself back up through the door, and came face to face with Roy, struggling to keep hold of the biophone, trauma box, O2, and drug box.

"Took long enough."

"Yeah. How bad is it?"

"Bad. We need more than three units." He pulled the trauma box into the bus and inched his way back down, pausing halfway, as the bus shuddered. He looked back up. "Roy, what's happening?"

Roy looked around, then at Johnny. "They secured the bus to Engine Eight."

"Okay."

Roy called out. "Cap! Marco! Chet! Mike!" To his relief, Mike appeared.

"Whadaya need?"

"More units. And all hands in here."

"No!" Johnny's voice called from inside the bus. "There's no room in here! Just one more guy. We need triage outside."

Roy climbed down into the bus. He looked back at the number of kids. "Oh, my God." There was no room for him to reach any victims without stepping on someone.

Johnny moved to the second child...a little girl who lay motionless, her body arched backwards over the side of a seat. He glanced at Roy, then back at the girl. "I need a backboard, hand me the BP cuff and stethoscope, I can't reach them. Can you get a splint on Richard's left wrist there and get him out through the front door? I need room to work."

Roy pulled out a splint and eased it onto Richard. Richard winced. Roy smiled at him. "My name's Roy. I'm Johnny's partner." He checked Richard's laceration, then opened the biophone.

"Rampart Base, this is Rescue 51, how do you read?"

"Read you loud and clear, 51, go ahead."

Rampart, we have a male, age - "

"Seven and a half," Richard said. Roy smiled and nodded.

"Seven and a half, the victim of a bus accident...one of many victims, Rampart. He has a fractured left wrist and a laceration on his forehead, hold for vitals." Roy leaned to Johnny. "Hand me the stethoscope and BP cuff."

"Can't." Johnny was taking the girl's vitals, brow furrowed in concentration.

"Rampart, unable to take vitals, please hold." He smiled at Richard. "Everything is gonna be okay." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Johnny pull an esophageal airway from the trauma box. Roy shifted, to block the view from Richard.

Richard looked at Roy, around him at Johnny, at the number of kids in the bus. "I dunno. There's two of you and a lot of kids..."

"Hey, Roy!"

Roy looked up. Dwyer was in the doorway, supplies in his hands. Roy gave a sigh of relief that Dwyer was working a shift at Eights. Dwyer was a great paramedic.

"Hey! Toss me your BP cuff and stethoscope!"

"Okay, heads up." He dropped them into Roy's hands. Roy completed taking vitals, got his instructions, and handed Richard to Dwyer. Dwyer lifted him out of the bus and disappeared. Roy inched his way past Johnny, to the next child, a girl with her head jammed against a window. He breathed "Oh, my God," and got to work.

Dwyer reappeared in the doorway. "Brice is setting up a treatment area. He called for more ambulances."

Great, Brice.

Without looking up, Johnny said, "I need a cervical collar and backboard. Now."

The supplies were handed to him.

"Dwyer looked around, then said, "This is crazy. I'm gonna pop the back door open and start working from that end. We'll meet in the middle." He disappeared.

Johnny grabbed the biophone. "Rampart Base, this is Rescue 51, we have a girl age six or seven. She was found unconscious. Respirations stopped during exam, airway reestablished. Possible broken cervical spine, lumbar spine..." He dropped the biophone. "Shit."

"Roy glanced over at Johnny, then back, as his own victim cried out. "It's okay, sweetie, I'm gonna take good care of you."

Johnny had started doing CPR for his victim. There was no defibrillator on the bus. Gently, Roy laid his patient flat, climbed over Johnny, and said, "I'll get the defibrillator." He started to climb out of the door when the bus shuddered again.

Roy looked out the open door. The big rig had been pulled away from the bus by Engine 24 and Engine 51. the bus, attached to Engine 8, swayed crazily. Roy heard the guard rails on the overhead give way.

"Johnny, hold on," Roy called, watching in horror as the bus edged past the overhead rails. Suddenly, the bus was yanked back from the edge, metal scraping on asphalt with an earth-shuddering sound, as Engine 51 and Engine 8 pulled it back. Roy almost fell.

Johnny toppled over, scrambled up, and shook his head. "God damn it!"

"Junior, We're safe. I'm gonna get the defibrillator and - "

"She's gone, Roy." Johnny removed the cervical collar and backboard, hugged the girl's body to himself, then lifted her to Roy. "Take her outta here. She's gone."

Chapter Seven

How about we open the roof? Then we can get access faster, get more paramedics in there..."

Cap was conferring with the Captains of Stations 8 and 24, as Dwyer and Brice got the back emergency exit door of the bus open, and Dwyer scrambled inside.

"You can't do that."

Brice had joined the conversation.

"The victims are all up against the roof. You can extract the driver...she's expired, and open, say, four feet of the roof, then guys can climb in. No more, not until they remove more victims."

"Okay," Cap conceded. "We'll have to check with the guys inside there, but that's a good idea - "

"And another thing." Brice stared owlishly at Cap.

Cap sighed, trying not to let Brice's attitude get to him. "What else?"

Brice nodded toward the bus. "You don't have the parents' permission to treat these kids."

"This is an emergency situation. The courts have ruled that we don't - "

"Yeah, I know. I just wouldn't wanna get sued by a bunch of parents, ya know?"

Cap sighed, went to the bus, and leaned into the door.

"Guys, we're gonna open the roof. From here to here."

No one responded.

"Guys?"

Johnny looked up briefly.

"Where the hell is Squad Twenty-Four?"

"Broadsided. Johnny..."

"And the others? We asked for backup. And we need more supplies. Where the hell is everyone?" Johnny asked, his voice rising.

"Okay, okay," Cap climbed down from the bus and motioned to Brice.

"You need to get to Rampart and fill up on supplies. As much as they'll let you have."

"Clear!" came Roy's shout from inside the bus.

"Dwyer, get over here, I need help." Johnny's voice.

"Clear!" Roy's voice rang out.

Brice nodded. He did a quick triage, and decided to wait until Roy and Johnny's victims were taken from the bus before leaving in an ambulance.

"Someone tell DeSoto, Gage, and Dwyer...I'll take the next two victims in an ambulance, and load up on supplies."

Cap climbed into the bus.

"Anything we can do?"

"Yeah, the first aid kits from the engines. Ambulances still coming?" Roy asked, as he struggled to start an IV.

"Yep. Could you use Chet and Marco?"

"Yes."

Marco climbed into the bus. "Oh, mi Dios," (Oh, my God), he muttered, as he inched his way past Johnny, past Roy, past Dwyer, to the next victim,a little girl, whose leg had pushed through a window, then back into the bus. She had multiple compound fractures, and was bleeding profusely. He smiled at her. Hi, sweetie. My name is Marco." She stared at him.

"Me voy a morir," (I am going to die), she said quietly.

"No, no, usted va a estar bien," (No, no, you are going to be fine), he smiled at her. "Soy un bombero." (I am a fireman.) He looked at the paramedics.

"I'm not sure what to do here."

Johnny looked around. "We need stokes."

"Johnny - "

"Hang on, Marco, I can only do one thing at a time!" Johnny exploded.

Marco looked back at the girl. She dissolved into tears. "Lo siento, Lo siento," (I'm sorry, I'm sorry), she sobbed. "Hice el bombero enojado." (I made the fireman angry.)

"Nah, el esta bien, solo un poco cansado," (Nah, he's fine, just a bit tired), Marco soothed her.

Dwyer moved over and smiled at the girl. "Let's see what we can for you here..." She heaved a sigh of relief that Dwyer was caring for her, as Johnny got his victim strapped into stokes, lifted out of the door of the bus, and climbed out after him. Roy followed soon after.

Roy, Johnny, and Brice stabilized the victims, and lifted them into the sole available ambulance.

"Gage! You go with the ambulance and load up on supplies," Cap ordered, noting the stress in Johnny, and needing to get him away from the scene for a while.

Johnny hesitated briefly, looking back at the bus, then disappeared into the ambulance. The doors were slammed and they were off.

Roy looked at Brice. "Listen, I'm gonna climb in the back, and you take Johnny's place up front, okay?"

"Sure, but let's get going already." Brice let himself into the bus, slithering through the driver's door. Roy sighed and followed.

Chapter Eight

Johnny returned in what seemed like no time, the ambulance loaded with supplies. He joined Roy in the back of the bus.

Roy was working on another head injury victim. He glanced at Johnny.

"Go okay?"

"I lost your victim."

Roy nodded, his eyes filling with tears. "He, uh...went to Jenny's school. Real nice parents. Good kid." He paused for a moment. "I shoulda gone with him." He felt a hand on his back.

"Wouldn't of made any difference, Pally." He glanced up to see Johnny attempting to smile at him. "Really, man." Roy gulped, nodded, and turned back to his victim, a girl jammed against the side of the bus, just under the window, her neck broken. But she was alive and talking. He meant to keep it that way. He looked toward the interior of the bus.

"Chet! Get me a cervical collar and a back board!"

Chapter Nine

The roof was opened up piece by piece, the din was deafening, the breeze cooling, as the men in the bus sweated. The crews from Stations 51, 8, and 24 joined the paramedics in the bus, as school district administrators, Departmental brass, the press, a rescue helicopter, the entire world, descended upon them. Parents arrived, were directed to Rampart or Saint Francis, some refusing to go, escorted away by the California Highway Patrol.

Finally, the last victim was removed, stabilized, and sent off in an ambulance. Brice and Dwyer left, one in the ambulance, one in their squad.

Johnny sat on his haunches at edge of the back door of the bus. He wiped the sweat off his face, wincing as the cuts on his palms stung. Roy walked over to the squad, leaned against it, and struggled to control the emotions that had been inside his chest all morning.

"Roy, you okay? No, never mind. Stupid question." Cap leaned against the squad and sighed. "You want the stats? There were 35 kids on the bus, you saved all but two - "

"Whatever." Roy interrupted him. "I wanna know...what was an LAUSD bus doing on the road at that hour?"

"Some sort of camp. Art camp, I think," Cap responded. "The District Sup said they were supposed to be on the road last night, but the rain delayed them."

"An art camp," Roy echoed dully. "All this for an extra-curricular..."

"Yeah." Cap looked around. "Where's John?"

Roy waved in the general direction of the bus. "Over there."

"You need anything?"

Roy smiled sadly. "I need to get home. I need to..." his voice broke. "I need to see my wife and kids."

Cap nodded, and went to the bus, in search of his other paramedic.

Johnny wasn't in the doorway of the bus. Cap glanced around and was about to leave, when he heard Johnny's voice. He was grunting as though he was trying to move something heavy.

"Johnny?"

He heard a soft whisper from the bus's interior.

"I gotcha, sweetie. Uncle Johnny's gotcha."

Chapter Ten

"Uncle Johnny? Where's Daddy?"

Johnny smiled down at eleven year old Jenny DeSoto, as his exhausted mind raced with questions. How could Jenny have been missed? Why hadn't anyone looked behind the case of art supplies that had fallen near the seats, in front of where she lay? Was anyone else missed?

Why hadn't Roy said anything?

Why Jenny, the girl he called "my special girl?"

"Daddy's on his way. Your head hurt?"

"Yeah, a little. My arm hurts, the one I paint with."

"Okay, let me check you out..." Johnny did a careful check. She had what appeared to be a minor concussion, and a fractured right ulna. She was also dehydrated.

"Here." Cap quietly placed the biophone and drug box next to Johnny. Need anything else?"

"An arm splint."

"Uncle Johnny...I want my daddy."

Cap smiled at her. "I'll get him, sweetheart." He looked at Johnny, who was fighting tears, even as he spoke soothingly to Jenny. "John, you okay?"

Johnny nodded, giving Jenny his brightest possible smile. "You bet. She's just fine. Go get her daddy."

Jenny laughed, then winced. "He's gonna be surprised to see me. I wasn't supposed to go, but my report card was really good..."

Johnny nodded, then glanced at Cap. "Go get him."

Chapter Eleven

Roy was sitting in the driver's seat of the squad, drumming his fingers on the wheel. He glared at Cap.

"Did you find John? I wanna get outta here. I gotta get home."

"Roy..." Cap hesitated. "John found another victim on the bus."

Roy's head dropped down. He took a deep, shuddering breath. "Can he handle it? I just don't have it in me to see another victim this shift." He started when he felt Cap's hand on his arm.

"Roy...Jenny...she's on the bus."

Roy jerked his arm away. "Not funny. Even Chet wouldn't joke like that."

"DeSoto...I'm not joking."

"But...she's home...she's not...I told Joanne no camps until her grades come up...she's not..." He felt the door open, felt Cap guide him out of the squad.

"She's asking for you. She's okay. She wants her daddy. Come on, DeSoto, pull yourself together."

Roy took a deep breath, gathered the broken pieces of himself together, and shook off Cap's arm.

"I'm fine, leggo."

"Okay." Cap watched Roy climb onto the bus. He called to his crew.

Stoker, Lopez, Kelly! Gage found another victim! Let's get back on that bus and search again! Chet, grab the trauma box, Gage has everything else. Move it!"

Chapter Twelve

"D5W, splint, cervical collar, backboard, ten-four, Rampart."

Johnny dropped the biophone receiver back in its holder. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve and smiled at Jenny.

"So, ya ever had an IV? I have. They're incredible," he encouraged, as he pulled the supplies from the drug box and nodded his thanks to Chet, who placed the trauma box within reach.

Jenny stared fearfully at the IV catheter.

"Nuh uh. Is that a needle? I uh, I don't think I want it."

"You need fluids, sweetie. This will get them into you. Just watch my eyes, and you'll hardly feel a thing." Johnny wiped down Jenny's arm and uncapped the catheter. "Say,did I ever tell you about the time - "

He jumped as Roy grabbed the catheter from his hand and shoved him aside. Jenny's face lit up.

"Daddy!"

"Hey, Pumpkin. Hang on on, one second..." Jenny yelped as Roy shakily inserted the catheter. He checked the IV flow and handed the bag to Johnny. "Hold this." He grabbed the cervical collar and splint from the trauma box, as his mind started spinning out of control, weaving tales and conversations, real and imagined, of how Jenny came to be on this bus. He and Joanne had DISCUSSED this, had AGREED her grades were too low, had CONCLUDED art camp was an extra, not a necessity, despite Jenny's obvious gifts in that area, they had talked, they had stood firm in the face of her pleading, her tears, her stormy displeasure. They had LONG AGO agreed to make parenting decisions TOGETHER, they KNEW not to cross each other's boundaries when Roy was working and unavailable, it was the ONLY way to keep their marriage strong, their relationship TRUSTWORTHY, and Joanne had shattered it all for what? A broken arm?

Johnny's soft voice intruded on Roy's thoughts. "Roy, I was thinkin'...it would probably be best if I did this, and you comforted Jenny."

Roy didn't answer.

"Roy? How about it, Buddy? Let me handle this for ya."

Roy took a deep breath and slowly turned to look at Johnny, inches from his face. Johnny smiled. Then Roy started yelling.

"John, shut up! What do you know about trust, about love, marriage, parenting? Nothing! You can't keep a girl longer than it takes you to find another bed to hop into, so why don't you mind your own damn business and get the hell outta my face!"

Roy turned back to a whimpering Jenny as his stunned crew mates silently continued their search of the bus. Johnny stared at Roy, then climbed off the bus, his knees buckling as he hit the asphalt. He regained his balance and stood, staring at the blood soaked pavement, silent testimony to the lives they had saved that shift.

"You okay?"

He looked up. Stoker was standing protectively over him.

"Huh?"

"Johnny? You okay?"

"Me? I'm fine. Someone oughtta hose that blood off the pavement, though." Johnny wandered away, behind Big Red, crouched down, and held his head in his hands.

Chapter Thirteen

Johnny drove the squad to Rampart, following the ambulance. There was no point trying to convince Roy otherwise, despite Departmental regulations not to treat family members.

Johnny tried to keep his mind clear, to keep Roy's verbal attack out of his head.

Because that wasn't Roy.

He was exhausted.

He was in shock.

He was angry at Joanne, not Johnny.

He was right.

What did Johnny know about parenting, how to make a relationship last, let alone marriage to the special kind of woman who could deal with a first responder's schedule, the fear, the uncertainty, and still raise happy, well-adjusted kids?

Nothing.

But still...

He did know how to make a friendship work.

And he was a good friend.

A damn good friend.

It was just exhaustion. Yeah. Perfectly understandable.

Johnny cried as he drove. For the victims, his special girl, his best friend, himself.

Chapter Fourteen

Jenny was rushed into Treatment Room Three, an hysterical Joanne and a tight-lipped Roy at her side. Johnny took a seat in the waiting area, next to Chris, Jenny's older brother. He smiled at Chris, who looked exhausted to the point of collapse.

"She's gonna be fine, Sprout. A bump on the head, and a broken arm. That's all." He put his arm around Chris and held him close. "Everything is fine."

"Uncle Johnny...we saw all those other kids come in all day...what took Jenny so long to get here?" Chris choked on his words as he leaned against Johnny's shoulder. Johnny rested his chin on the top of Chris's head for a moment, collecting his thoughts.

"Well, a box fell and hid her. She was the last victim found. But she's okay, believe me."

Chris sighed, raised his face, and looked pleadingly at Johnny. "Could I...could I come home with you? Just for tonight? I gotta get away, just for a night. My folks are gonna be mad, and I...I don't wanna be around it."

The sound of Chris's plea broke Johnny's heart. Any other time, he would have welcomed Chris into his home. But now...he didn't want to babysit.

He wanted to let loose with a girl and be up all night.

Or get blasted.

But not be in charge of anyone except himself.

"Chris...listen..."

"I won't be any trouble, really. Promise."

Which was true, and Johnny knew it.

What was the kid supposed to do? He was gonna be stuck in the middle of his parents' fight...unless he stayed with Johnny.

Sometimes it just sucked to be a kid.

Johnny smiled tiredly at Chris.

"Sure, Sprout. If you don't mind a tired, grumpy uncle, you can spend the night."

Chapter Fifteen

An hour and a half later, Roy strode out of the treatment room. Johnny and Chris jumped up. Without breaking stride, Roy's arm went around Chris's shoulders and he steered his son toward the exit.

"She's fine, son. Mom's staying tonight, they'll be home tomorrow. Let's go."

"Dad," Chris's voice raised insistently as he pulled away. "I wanna spend the night at Uncle Johnny's."

Roy halted, turned, peered at Chris, at Johnny, back at Chris. "Why?"

"I...um..." Chris looked at Johnny to fill in the words he couldn't say.

Johnny took a deep breath. "Roy, he uh...just wants to. You know how teens are. Chris is 13 now. I said he could. I'll bring him home first thing."

Roy scowled at Johnny, who blanched under Roy's angry stare. The sight of Johnny's face, confused, and almost frightened of his partner, shocked Roy for a moment. He sagged, dropped his head, and shook himself. Then he handed Joanne's car keys to Chris and spoke gently. "Not tonight, Chris. I need to be with you. Another time, for sure. Uncle Johnny is tired and uh..." His eyes twinkled, "needs to go right to sleep, I'm sure."

"Huh? Oh, right yeah, sleep. Man," Johnny stretched and feigned an exaggerated yawn. "That's exactly what I wanna do."

Chris looked at the two adults. "Okay, fine. Uncle Johnny is goin' to bed in the middle of the afternoon. Whatever." He headed toward the door.

"Chris, wait." Johnny ran after him.

Chris gave Johnny a hug and a smile. "It's okay. I'll come over in a few days, when Mom and Dad have their fight. You gonna go drink too much beer or something?"

Johnny gulped, startled that Chris was no longer the little boy he had always known. "Yeah. Or something." He hugged Chris. "You know too much, Sprout."

Chris grinned and pushed through the exit. Johnny turned to see Roy smiling apologetically at him.

"Listen, Junior - "

Johnny shuffled uncomfortably. "Yeah?"

"I apologize. For blowing up at you. Seeing Jenny shook me up, and...I'm sorry."

"Forget about it, Pally. I, uh...gotta go. I'll see ya next shift. Call me about Jenny, okay?"

"Yeah, sure. John...you sure you're okay? I said some really hurtful things to you. Cruel things. You can't just pretend I didn't say them. I was wrong. We need to talk about it."

"Yeah, okay, but I gotta go. I'm uh...kinda...overwhelmed and I don't wanna think right now...I'll see ya..."

And he was gone.

Roy stared after Johnny. This was not the reaction he'd expected. Not at all. Johnny, running away from a chance to say, "Told ya so?"

That wasn't him.

But today was no typical day.

The effects of today's shift were just beginning to cast their shadows on Roy, Johnny, and the rest of the guys from Shift A.

Chapter Sixteen

Johnny sagged on his sofa, drinking his first beer, trying to decide what, if anything to do.

Call a girl?

Stay home alone and go to sleep?

Drink a six pack?

Watch something mindless on TV?

"Wish I was married right now..."

His thoughts were cut short by the phone ringing. Funny, somehow he didn't expect anyone to call, he felt so alone. He reached over and grabbed the receiver.

"Station 51 - er, I mean, hello, yeah?"

"John, it's Cap."

Johnny put the beer down.

"Hey...everything okay?"

"Yeah. We're all meeting in Conference Room Three at Headquarters, in one hour.

"Uh, why?"

"A debriefing."

"Aw, Cap, I really don't wanna..."

"Now, Gage. You uh, need a ride?"

Johnny glanced at the beer, and grinned.

"Nah, only had a couple of gulps. How'd ya know?"

"I was doing the same thing, then realized we need to meet instead. It's an order, John. Not a suggestion."

Johnny leaned back on the couch and stared at the ceiling. There was a cobweb dangling right above him.

"Yuck - I mean, I'm on my way."

"Okay. See you soon."

The line went dead.

Johnny sighed, hauled himself to his feet, and donned a jacket. He looked at the cobweb. It swayed slowly, mocking him. He went into the kitchen, grabbed a broom, and swept the cobweb off the ceiling. He brushed it off into the sink and turned on the water, washing it down the drain. He leaned over the sink, staring at the water swirling around and around the drain.

"You mother-fucker..."

He dry heaved a few times, turned off the water, replaced the broom, zipped up his jacket, grabbed his keys, and left.

Chapter Seventeen

Chet heaved an exaggerated sigh as he took a seat next to Johnny in the conference room. Johnny threw him a sidelong glance before muttering, "Exactly."

Chet looked around the table at Mike and Marco. "Ya know, I really don't feel like being here."

Johnny shrugged. "Who does?"

"Not me," Mike joined in.

"Hey, let's just make the best of it, and then we can go," Marco admonished them.

Chet started to reply, then poked Johnny. "Oh, shit. look who's here."

Johnny looked up. One of the Departmental counselors, Blake Williams, had walked in with Cap.

Johnny slumped down in his seat. "No way."

Chet leaned on his hands. "This isn't a debriefing. It's is a damn therapy session."

"Afternoon, guys," Blake said with a smile, as he took a seat at the table. "Everyone here?"

"DeSoto is coming...has to find someone to watch his son," Cap replied.

"Okay, let's get started."

Chapter Eighteen

"look, I know you guys are exhausted. But we need to deal with your feelings now...about the run, any conflicts you had with others, any anxiety or anger you're feeling. The sooner its dealt with the better."

Blake looked around the table.

"Come on, fellas. You've all done this before. Who wants to start?"

Mike flicked his wrist, barely raising his hand.

"Yeah, Mike?"

"I, uh...have something to say."

They waited.

"I'm real proud of the work we did today. I hated every minute of it...but I'm proud of us. Especially Roy and John. I, uh...was remembering the days before paramedics, and I don't even wanna think about what would've happened..." His voice trailed off.

Blake nodded. "John? How do you feel about what Mike said?"

Johnny shrugged. "I dunno. We coulda done - "

The door swung open and Roy walked in.

"better..." Johnny stopped speaking and looked away.

"Sorry. Had to find someone to stay with my son." Roy took a seat at the table next to Chet and tried to catch Johnny's eye, but Johnny was looking elsewhere.

"John, you were saying?" Blake prompted Johnny.

"Uh, nothing. That was it."

"Okay," Blake said dubiously. "I think there's more. But no pressure."

Marco shook his head. "I gotta say, I agree with Mike. And it got me thinking...well, I been thinking about this a while, really. No one laugh okay?"

"No one's going to laugh, Marco," Blake encouraged him.

"I been watching you guys, Johnny and Roy. And I really admire what you do. A lot."

"Huh," Johnny said, under his breath.

"Marco, thanks. But we're a team, all of us." Roy interjected.

"Yeah, I know. But I been thinking...and today helped me decide." He took a deep breath. "I'm gonna apply to the paramedic program."

There was a short silence.

"Marco, that's great," Chet smiled. "You'll make a great paramedic. Me, I just wanna be a hose jockey."

Johnny wrinkled his forehead. "Don't do it," he said softly.

"John? What did you say?" Blake asked.

"Who, me? Nothing," Johnny insisted, as he slouched down in his chair.

"John...you can't do that. If you have something to say, say it loud enough for everyone to hear. Now come on. You know the rules here."

Johnny set his jaw and shook his head. Then he looked up at Marco. "Okay. You want my advice...don't become a paramedic."

"Marco stared at Johnny. "You saying I wouldn't make it? Hey, I'm just as smart - "

"I'm not sayin' that, damn it!" Johnny suddenly exploded. Then his tone softened. "I'm sayin'...ya gotta think about it. Saving people's lives is great, yeah..." His voice trembled. "But when ya lose someone, someone who shoulda lived, a kid...it stays with ya. Forever. You want that on your conscious?"

There was a stunned silence.

"Sounds as though you've been thinking about this a while, John," Blake observed quietly.

Johnny shrugged. "Yeah, I guess." He looked around the table. "Look, I'm sorry. It's just...we lost two victims today. On my watch."

Roy shook his head. "Johnny, that could have happened to anyone. Me, Brice, Dwyer. It was just a coincidence."

johnny turned and looked sadly at Roy. "But it didn't. It happened to me. And I gotta live with it."

"You remember what Brackett said? You can't let this stuff get to you, losing a victim. It'll kill you."

Johnny chuckled. "Exactly." He glanced at Blake. "Can I go? I can't, uh...talk about this anymore." His voice broke. "Not today. I, uh, gotta place to go."

"Sure, John," Blake answered. "But you're coming to see me tomorrow, understand?"

Johnny shrugged a shoulder. "Maybe." He stood.

"Not maybe, Johnny. That's an order," Cap said softly. "You're not going back on duty until Blake clears you, understand?"

But Johnny had left.

"Roy...go after him, let him know what Blake said," Cap told Roy.

Roy nodded silently and left the room.

"Well," Blake said, as he attempted to return to the debriefing, "Did any of you guys know Johnny felt this way?"

"I, uh, didn't know, but he sure blew up at me during the run," Marco said, as he looked down at his hands. "I just wanna know what to do when there's a serious injury...I dunno..."

"We only got two paramedic teams, Johnny asked for back-up, every other team was busy." Cap leaned back, ran his hands through his hair, and sighed. "It was an impossible situation."

"Yeah, and Roy really lit into Johnny, too," Chet mentioned, shaking his head. "I mean, he really bit his head off, we were all shocked. Johnny's his partner, his best friend. Maybe that's why Johnny is so upset."

"Really," Blake responded.

Just then, Roy returned. Blake looked at him.

"Roy, I want to see you tomorrow as well."

Chapter Nineteen

Roy inserted his key in the lock and walked into Johnny's apartment.

Chris's words sounded in his mind.

"Dad, you need to call first."

"Come on, he's a grown up."

"What if he just wants to be alone?"

"What if he gets mad?"

And Roy's repetitive answer.

"He's my best friend. I gotta make sure he's all right."

It was one am. The apartment was dark.

Roy tiptoed through the living room, until he cracked his leg on Johnny's coffee table.

"Ow, ow, oh, shit..."

One more step and he heard a crunch under his foot. He reached down and picked up a can. He sniffed it.

Beer. Two, three, four cans.

"Damn it, John, you shoulda called me..."

But why call the friend who'd said, "Get the hell outta my face!"

Roy switched on the light and quietly walked toward Johnny's bedroom. He paused at the threshold.

What if John had company?

Well. Roy would leave.

Fast.

And soundlessly.

"Come on, he's a grown up."

Yeah, well...

Roy opened the bedroom door.

It creaked. He grimaced.

Chapter Twenty

Johnny wasn't in bed.

The lamp was off, the bedclothes messed, but Johnny wasn't there.

Roy stepped into the room, and looked in the bathroom.

No one.

He headed around the bed to the lamp to turn it on.

Johnny was unconscious, curled into a ball, on the floor, next to the bed.

"Dad, you need to call first."

Roy's pulse began bounding. He knelt by the bed and checked Johnny's carotid. At his touch, Johnny rolled onto his back and opened his eyes. He stared up at Roy.

"Hey. Whadaya doin' here?"

Roy smiled. "Just checking on you, Junior. Looks like you needed it, too. Here, let's get you into bed."

Roy sat Johnny up, and started to help him stand. Johnny's eyes suddenly widened with panic.

"Bathroom. Now."

Chapter Twenty-One

An hour later, Johnny was still sitting on the floor of his bathroom, clutching the toilet.

"Oh, geez..."

Roy crouched down. "Still nauseous?"

Johnny looked at him, and smiled weakly. "No, but shit, my head is pounding."

"Are you done in here?"

"Yeah."

Roy helped Johnny to his feet and got him into bed. He went to the fridge, took out a Coke, poured it into a glass, and brought it to Johnny.

"Here. Sip this."

Johnny looked at the glass, gulped, and shook his head. "No way, man. I just emptied my stomach. I ain't puttin' anything else in it now."

Roy leaned down and glared at Johnny. "Sip this slowly or I'm taking you to Rampart. Your choice."

"Okay, okay, geez." Johnny took the glass and took a sip. "Man, I am NEVER doin' that again."

"Drink four beers?"

Johnny shook his head,then winced. "Nah. Drinkin' scotch."

Roy blinked. "Scotch? You went out and bought scotch?"

Johnny took another sip. "Nah. I went to a bar."

"A bar."

"Yeah. You know I go to bars once in a while."

"Didn't know you drank scotch." Roy drew a chair up to the bed. "John...how often do you get this drunk?"

"Just tonight. I was, uh, tryin' to pick up this chick. Real high class. Thought it would impress her if I was drinkin' high class booze." He laughed, then winced. "Didn't work. Took a cab home, downed beer, went to bed."

Roy bit his lip to keep from laughing, because it wasn't funny. Not at all. "Junior, are you telling me the truth? About the drinking?"

"Yeah. Geez, what kinda person ya think I am?" Johnny handed the glass to Roy and laid down. "I'm goin' to sleep. You go home."

"Okay." Roy stood, replaced the chair, and regarded Johnny worriedly. "John, Jen comes home tomorrow. Come over for dinner, okay?"

"Dinner? Food?" Johnny rolled over, turning his back to Roy. "If you split, I'll come. Maybe."

"Okay." Roy turned to go, then looked back at the bed. "Johnny, you telling the truth?"

"Yeah. Get lost," came Johnny's muffled voice.

Roy sighed, and left the bedroom. He placed the glass in the sink, tossed the beer cans, checked the apartment for alcohol, found none, shrugged, and left. As he climbed into his car, he glanced up at Johnny's apartment.

"Junior, I'm sorry. For not knowing how you feel, for yelling at you, I'm...sorry."

Chapter Twenty-Two

Cap woke up from his third nightmare that night.

"The kids..."

He got up, went to his kids' rooms, and checked on them. Fast asleep, like the other two times he'd checked.

He shuffled back to bed, sat down, and sighed.

"Honey, you okay?"

"Yeah," he replied. "Just a restless night. I'm gonna go get a snack."

He walked into the kitchen and rummaged around for something to eat. He realized his stomach hurt so bad he'd better snack on antacids instead.

He pulled the bottle of antacids, grabbed five, and chewed them slowly, while he thought about the nightmares. His kids, next to Jenny DeSoto on that bus.

It could happen to them. They rode buses, they went to art camp.

No one was immune.

Usually he was able to push those thoughts away, or bury them so deep they disappeared. But not this time. This time it hit too close to home.

Johnny, yeah. He was a hothead.

But Roy? Sure he got mad once in a while, but to rip into his partner like that?

Just remembering the look on his face, the tone of his voice, made Cap shudder.

"Honey?" Cap turned to see his wife standing in the doorway. "What's going on?"

"Nothing. Just a bad dream."

"That's three in one night. Please tell me what's happening."

Cap sighed, put his arm around her, and walked with her to the bedroom.

"You know that overtime yesterday?"

"Do I. It was all over the news."

"I can't...I can't get it out of my head."

She kissed him.

"Of course not. Give yourself a chance. Now try to sleep."

He laid down next to her and held her hand.

"I think it's gonna take more than time."

Chapter Twenty-Three

Marco sighed and turned on the light.

Four am.

He reached into his nightstand, and pulled out the literature he'd collected on the paramedic program. He reread it all, word for word. He replaced the literature, and turned off the light. He got under the covers and started thinking.

The victims Roy and Johnny saved. All those kids, alive because of skills Marco didn't possess, skills he wanted more and more.

Especially after that last shift.

What had he done? Okay, he'd put out a fire, prevented a bigger disaster. And he'd comforted a few victims, fetched supplies, done a lot of first aid.

Any of the guys could do that.

On the other hand...only the paramedics could save the kids.

Thirty-three out of thirty-five.

What a high. And all because of the paramedics.

Marco wanted to be part of that.

Except - Roy and Johnny had been his role models. He didn't want to BE them. He just wanted the skills they had learned. And he wanted them to guide him.

But not anymore. They weren't the role models he had imagined. Or maybe he was just romanticizing the idea of being a paramedic.

He should know better. He saw what they did. He knew it was terribly hard work, emotionally draining, he knew they lost lives, they had conflicts, they got down, depressed, angry.

Marco sighed. Tonight, at this moment, he just didn't know what he wanted.

And he couldn't think of anyone to talk with. His family, sure, but he needed someone in the thick of things.

Exhausted, Marco fell back to sleep.

Chapter Twenty-Four

"Thanks for meetin' me." Chet took a gulp of coffee as Mike sat down.

"Okay, what's this about? Another practical joke?"

"No man, chill," Chet responded. "Gimme a break."

Mike's eyebrows rose, then fell. "Okay, why'd you wanna meet me? And just me?"

"I wanna talk about what we can do to help the guys get through this," Chet responded. "You and me, we seem do have done okay. But everyone else..." He shook his head, and took another gulp of coffee. "What're we gonna do?"

Mike waved down a waitress and ordered coffee. He sat quietly after that, staring down.

Chet shifted impatiently in his chair. "Well?"

Mike nodded as his coffee was served. He took a sip and eyed Chet. "You want my opinion?"

"Yeah, man. That's why I called ya."

"Okay..." Mike took a sip of coffee, hesitated, then took a breath and looked at Chet. "The best thing that can happen is if you back off. Way off."

"Say, WHAT?"

"You heard me. You push too hard, especially Gage. Too many jokes, too many insults, too much of the time. You keep him off balance. He never knows when you're gonna strike. And I, for one, think it's gone on way too long. If I was Cap - "

"CAP?" Chet sputtered. "Now you think you're Cap?"

"look, you asked my opinion. Back off Gage. That's my opinion."

Chet, for once, was speechless. Coming from Gage, he would have had a come back, but Stoker, especially now..."

"Um...okay, I heard you."

They sat quietly for a moment. Then Mike looked up.

"Your turn."

Chet gazed out the window.

"I was gonna tell ya to speak yer mind more..."

Mike chuckled. "Yeah I was thinkin' that. I'm uh...pretty bad at it."

"Not so bad as you think." Chet nodded at the server as his coffee was refilled. He peered at Mike. "Don't ya think it's really Gage's job to tell me to back off?"

Mike shrugged. "John wouldn't. Too much pride."

"Maybe he doesn't want me to. It's only a game, ya know," Chet pointed out, trying one last time to salvage what was left of his own pride.

Mike stared at his coffee and spoke quietly. "All I'm sayin' is - a practical joke once in a while is okay, Chet. But when ya got a crew mate - a guy like Johnny - upset at you so often, the way you bug him and bug him - it hurts morale. That's all."

"Oh, now I'm hurtin' morale?"

"You asked me."

"Whadaya think yer doing right now? Helping morale?" Chet's voice rose as he poked Mike's chest.

"I'm trying! And quit poking me!" Mike shoved Chet's hand away.

"Oh, yeah? And who appointed YOU the Head Of Morale?" Chet rose from his seat, his face inches from Mike's.

Mike flushed. He stared at Chet for a moment, then abruptly stood up, and walked away. "Forget it, Chet. I'm outta here."

As the door closed behind him, Mike heard Chet's final words. "That's exactly what I'll do, Stoker! Forget it!"

Mike shook his head and headed to his car. As he drove away, he thought, "'Remain silent and be thought a fool. Speak up and remove all doubt.' Shoulda kept my big mouth shut."

Chet watched Mike drive away. He thought over all the times he'd teased, harassed, tricked John, his favorite pigeon. He blushed when he thought about the early days, when he'd harassed John about his ethnic background. Why had he done that? Why did he keep doing it?

Truth was, that's how Chet handled his own self-doubts, his fear that he wasn't good enough. How often did he come in last during skill tests? Pretty much all the time. When the entire crew set him up to think his eyesight was failing, that he could no longer be a firefighter, he WAS scared. Fire fighting was all he'd ever wanted to do, just like he'd told the crew. He handled that fear by needling and tricking people, especially John. It made Chet feel better about his own failings.

"Maybe I should talk to someone. I don't know if I can stop. Geez, Gage. Wish ya'd said something."

The waitress appeared.

"You want breakfast?"

"Uh, no. I've uh, lost my appetite."

Chapter Twenty-Five

Johnny's phone rang, jarring him out of a deep sleep.

He reached over to answer it, and his head felt like a knife was plunged between his eyes.

"Yeah, what?"

"John?"

"Yeah."

"It's Blake."

"Blake?"

"Williams. Blake Williams, the Departmental Counselor. We never firmed up our appointment for today. How's eleven am sound?"

"Eleven..." Johnny inched an eye open, winced at the light coming through the blinds, and snuck a look at his clock. It was 9:15, and he felt like...he wanted to sleep the rest of his life.

"John?"

"Eleven is fine."

"Good. See you then."

Blake hung up, the 'click' as the line went dead, sending another knife through Johnny's head. He dropped the phone on the floor.

"Oh, man."

He hauled himself up, staggered to the bathroom, heaved a few times, and took a shower. He climbed out of the shower, shivering in the cold, as he dried himself.

"Never doin' that again, not worth it...oh, my head..."

He got dressed, ran a comb through his hair, called a cab, nibbled some toast and took a few sips of Coke. The cab arrived, the driver pounding on his door.

"Okay, okay, geez..."

The driver took one look at him, nodded, and helped him down the stairs and into the cab. As they drove to the Departmental Headquarters, the driver eyed him.

"Flu or a hangover?"

"Huh?"

"You got the flu or you got a hangover?"

"Flu," he answered, not wanting a lecture.

Chapter Twenty-Six

When Johnny arrived at the waiting area, he was surprised and none-too-pleased to see Roy there.

"I thought I was meetin' with Blake privately."

Roy shrugged. "He musta changed his mind." Roy's worried eyes wandered over his partner's disheveled appearance. "Johnny, you uh, buttoned your shirt wrong."

Johnny glanced down. "Shit." He unbuttoned his shirt and again buttoned it incorrectly.

"Here, let me." Roy gently unbuttoned and re-buttoned Johnny's shirt.

"Thanks." Johnny sat back and rubbed his aching head. He glanced at Roy. "You were at my apartment last night."

"Yeah."

Johnny bit his lip, embarrassed at the thought of Roy seeing him so out of it. "I called you?"

Roy smiled sadly. "No. I just...had that feeling."

"That feeling?"

"Yeah, you know...that feeling you get when your partner's in trouble. You know."

Johnny nodded, each nod sending a shooting pain through his head. "Yeah, I know. Um, thanks."

Roy smiled with relief. "You're welcome, Junior."

Blake opened his door."Come on in, fellas."

Roy and Johnny eyed each other. Johnny grinned. Roy nodded. He looked up at Blake. "I uh, don't think we need to meet, Blake. I think we can fix the problem ourselves."

Blake smiled. "Great. Fix it in here."

Reluctantly, they entered the meeting room.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

"More complicated than you both thought, isn't it?

An hour later, Blake sat back and smiled at John and Roy.

"You've both got a lot of built up resentment. Roy, you need to let your feelings out more, especially when John oversteps his boundaries with your kids. He can't read your mind, you know. And he's not one of your kids, so stop treating him like one."

"But I don't...yeah I do." He laughed. "I trust him implicitly on the job, but between runs and after work...he's like one of my kids."

"Yeah. And I resent it." Johnny paused. "Usually. I dunno."

Roy hung his head and nodded. "I'm sorry, Junior. I just...got so used to thinking of you as my kid, ya know? But at the same time, I really am angry at you for not bein' more mature, for not - "

"I heard ya, I heard ya. Back off with the uncle thing, and grow up, okay."

Blake tapped Johnny's arm. "And you...stop assuming everything you do is going to be approved of or forgiven after the fact. Roy's your friend, he's not a saint."

"Okay, okay, geez."

"And another thing...how often you drink this much?"

Johnny's head snapped up, then he winced in pain. "I DON'T. Geez, isn't anyone gonna believe me?"

"I will, for now. But I'm informing your Captain. You show up at work hung over, or you drink to excess outside of work...your job'll be on the line. Got it?"

"Okay. Geez, one bender, just one bender..."

"One bender is all it takes to lose your reputation. And you've got a good one, John. Don't mess it up. You too, Roy. Okay, that's all. I'm recommending you, and the entire crew, for that matter, have three shifts off."

They stood, shook hands, and parted company.

Roy took Johnny's arm. "Let me drive you home."

Johnny shook him off. "I can get a cab."

"Johnny - "

Johnny smiled. "Gotta stop treatin' me like a kid, remember?"

"Oh, please. You're on my way." Roy walked Johnny to his car and opened the passenger door. Johnny settled himself into the passenger seat. Roy got into the driver's seat and paused, looking out the windshield.

"I don't...I don't know...where the line is."

"What line?" Johnny asked, as he shaded his eyes from the sun.

"The line between caring about you as my partner and caring about you as my kid. You were so young when we met I couldn't believe it. God, I remember when I first saw you, I thought, 'This boy isn't old enough to be a rescue man.'"

"Geez, thanks. I been doing this job for years and you still think I'm a boy? Kinda insulting, DAD."

Roy chuckled. "Sorry. Old guys get stuck in the past, you know."

Johnny opened the door and got out. Roy tried to catch his arm. "Johnny, wait, I didn't mean - "

Johnny vomited on the pavement, moaned, and got back in the car. "Take me home already."

Chapter Twenty-Eight

"Marco! Oh shit, Marco!"

Three hours later, Johnny awoke with a start. He reached over, pulled the phone receiver off the floor, hung it up, waited a moment, then listened for a dial tone. He dialed Marco's number.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Marco wandered around his apartment, occasionally reading the paramedic materials, occasionally trying to focus on something else.

"I should talk to Roy. But he's so mad, and his kid got hurt."

"Damn it, Johnny, why should I listen to you? What do you know?"

"I'm gonna do it, to hell with what anyone thinks."

"But I like bein' a firefighter, I know how to do the job, it pays more than paramedics make."

"What if I can't make it? What if I hate it?"

The phone rang.

"Hello, Marco here."

"Hey, Marco."

"Johnny?"

"Yeah. Got a minute?"

"Depends. You gonna try and talk me outta bein' a paramedic again? I already heard that speech."

"No, I uh, wanna apologize. Yesterday was a real bad day. I take back what I said. You wanna be a paramedic, go for it."

"Johnny, I been up all night, worrying. You really messed me up. I thought you'd support me, man. Now I'm second guessing myself."

"Geez, I'm sorry. It was just the run, ya know?"

"Oh, yeah? And how do ya think it was like for the rest of us? We could only do so much. That girl with the broken leg, I couldn't help her! I don't wanna be in that situation again!"

Silence.

"Hey, you hear what I said?"

"Yeah, the girl with the broken leg. Which girl?"

"The one you yelled at me about."

Silence.

"Great, you don't remember."

"I'm sorry. It's a blur, man. Look, how can I make it up to you?"

"I dunno."

"Can we talk more?"

"Yeah. Sure. Look, I'm sorry, too. You guys had a helluva day. That's one reason I'm reconsidering my decision. It's not just you. Johnny, I don't know if I - " His voice broke.

"Marco, let's get together tomorrow and talk. Okay?"

"Yeah, sure. See ya."

The line went dead.

Johnny sighed. "You blew it, Gage. You really blew it."

Chapter Twenty-Nine

"How you doing, Pumpkin?"

Roy smiled at Jenny after carrying her upstairs and settling her in bed.

"I'm okay, Daddy. My arm hurts a little. But I'm okay."

"Roy smiled. "Good. You just rest. I'll come back and check on you soon. Try to sleep, okay?"

"Yeah, okay." Jenny settled back, and smiled wearily. "I thought it would be fun to be in the hospital...all that attention, the nurses, having your food brought to you, gettin' to watch tv, no chores. But you were right. It's not fun. I'm glad I'm home."

Roy smoothed the hair off Jenny's forehead and kissed her cheek. "I'm glad you're home, too. Get some rest." He walked to the door and turned to look back.

Jenny hitched herself up on her elbows. "Daddy?"

"Yeah?"

"When is Uncle Johnny coming over?"

Roy shifted uncomfortably. "I dunno, hon. Why?"

"I wanna thank him. He saved me. He's my hero."

A piece of Roy, deep in his heart, shriveled up and died.

"Honey, Uncle Johnny just happened to be there. He just - "

"Yeah, but if he wasn't there, they mighta hauled the bus away and maybe scrunched it at the junk yard. With me in it. I had a nightmare about it. He saved me. I wanna thank him."

"Yeah okay, I'll let him know. But believe me, I might just as easily - "

"But you didn't. It was Uncle Johnny. I love you, Daddy. but I gotta thank Uncle Johnny. I gotta."

"Okay, okay. Go to sleep, now." Roy gathered the strength to smile at Jenny before he closed the door. He stood in the hall and mumbled, "Your hero got stinkin' drunk last night."

"So? The way you yelled at him...I don't blame him."

Roy looked up to see Joanne watching him. He scowled and stalked past her. "I told you that to get it off my chest. John and I made up. You gonna hold that over me forever?"

"Just until we settle something." Joanne followed Roy down the stairs. "We have to talk, Roy."

Roy tried to wave her off. "Yeah, we do. But not now."

"Yes, now. You've made time for everyone except me."

"Joanne, I'm tired. Later."

"No. Now."

Roy sighed angrily and followed Joanne into the kitchen. Chris was eating a snack. Roy glared at him. "Christopher, out!"

Chris rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay. You gonna have that fight now?"

Joanne shook her head. "No, we're going to discuss something."

"Yeah, right. Fight, discussion, whatever. I'll be in my room."

Chris left the kitchen. Joanne looked at Roy. "Sit down. Now."

Roy sat.

Chapter Thirty

Johnny studied himself in the mirror as he wrestled to make his hair presentable for a visit to the DeSotos. He finally sighed and gave up. He dragged into the bedroom, pulled out one of his three ties, the one without food stains, the one that clashed with his shirt, shrugged, and tied it. He glanced at himself in the mirror and chuckled.

"Shit, you look awful."

There was a knock at the door. Johnny decided to ignore it. The knocking changed into pounding.

"Gage! I know you're in there, man! Open up!"

Johnny looked toward the door. "Great. Chet. Just what I need." He raised his voice. "Chet, get outta here!"

"Gage...Johnny...come on! I need to talk to you!"

"All right, all right, geez, hang on, man." Reluctantly, Johnny cracked open the door. "Whadaya want?"

"Gage...Johnny...John...please...I need to ask you something."

"What?"

"Huh?"

"Whadaya need to ask?"

"No man, this is serious. Can I come in?"

Johnny paused, considering which would be worse, sending Chet away or letting him in. Finally, he slowly opened the door. Chet entered, nodded his thanks nervously, then stared at Johnny. "You got the flu?"

"No, I got blasted last night."

"Okay fine, don't tell me."

"Chet, whadaya want? I don't have time for this."

"Okay..." Chet cleared his throat.

Chapter Thirty-One

"Roy, I know you're tired. I know you're upset. I know that last shift was terrible." Joanne sat across from Roy and reached for his hand.

Reluctantly, Roy let her rest her hand on top of his. Usually, the gesture felt loving, comforting. Today, it was annoying, irritating.

Joanne continued.

"But you don't know what I've been through. And your lecture about my not living up to our parenting agreement just made things worse."

Roy tried to stare her down. "Joanne, would you just get to the point?"

Joanne's eyes flashed in anger. She withdrew her hand. Roy rubbed his.

"What I'm saying IS the point. I have several points.

"Look, you don't understand what I've - "

"Roy, can you just stop all that internal chatter and LISTEN?"

Roy slouched back in his chair. "Fine, talk."

"Roy. Honey..."

Roy scowled. He didn't want to be "Honey." he wanted to be strong, masterful. Just for the moment. And he didn't want an argument. He wanted an apology.

Unfortunately, he'd married a woman who spoke up for herself.

Joanne looked down at the table and continued.

"Yes, we made an agreement to make all parenting decisions together."

Roy opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind.

"The kids were what? Chris was two and Jenny was six weeks?"

"Yeah, so?"

Joanne laughed softly. "Well, life is more complicated now. Chris is thirteen. Jenny is eleven. They have activities, they have friends, decisions need to be made on the spot. I can't always wait until you're home." She paused.

"You coulda called me."

"I tried. Six times."

"Why didn't you talk to me about this months ago?"

"I forgot."

"You forgot."

Joanne looked up. "Yes. I forgot. Like you forgot to get groceries, you forgot to take your car to the mechanics, you forgot to talk to Chris about his attitude. We both forgot. Maybe we're getting old, I don't know."

"Joanne, this is different. We already told Jenny - "

Joanne stood up. "I can't take this. I've got the kids, by myself, 50-plus hours a week. Not counting all those extra shifts you work."

"Hey, I'm saving lives!"

"And I'm raising OUR kids! Pretty much alone. It's almost like being a single parent!"

Roy snorted. "Single parents have to work. You - "

"I AM working!"

There was a silence.

Finally, Joanne took a deep breath and gave up. "You're right. This is a bad time to talk."

"Well. At least you agree with me on something," Roy shot back.

Joanne regarded Roy sadly. "I love you. You know that, right?"

Roy pushed his chair back so hard it toppled over. He brushed past her and murmured, "Yeah, you love me, John loves me, everybody just..." He stopped at the door and held his arms out. Joanne smiled sadly and hugged him.

"You're a lovable guy, hon."

"Joanne..." He gasped, then the tears fell. "All those children...and my own daughter. You know how many times I musta passed her, and never found her? What kinda father am I?"

Joanne tightened her hold on him. "You're a wonderful father. And I let my daughter go on an outing that almost killed her. What kinda mother am I?"

Roy pulled back and smiled through his tears. "A great mother. It's not you. We coulda lost her."

"Roy...I'm so scared."

"Me too. What are we gonna do? Lock her in her room till she's thirty?"

Joanne laughed. "I thought of that."

Roy kissed her. "I'm sorry, babe."

"Me too. Let's go check the kids."

"Yeah." Arm in arm, they left the kitchen.

Chris was sitting at the bottom of the stairs. "You two done? You kissed and made up?"

Roy smiled at Joanne. "Yeah." Then he looked sternly at Chris. "Drop the attitude. Now."

Chapter Thirty-Two

"Gage...Johnny...John."

"Yeah those are my names. You just gonna keep repeating that?"

"No, I uh...look, this is hard for me. Gimme a break."

"Okay. Sit."

Chet sat on Johnny's sofa. Johnny took a seat on the coffee table, opposite Chet. He waited.

Chet cleared his throat.

Again.

"Look, here's the thing. It's about the practical jokes - "

"Oh, is that what they are?"

"John, shaddup, would ya? Just listen."

"Okay, okay. The practical jokes."

"And the teasing."

"And the teasing, yeah."

"I gotta ask ya...John...how much do they bother you?"

"Um...whadaya mean?"

"I mean...am I upsetting you?"

"What?"

"Upsetting you. Keeping you off balance, like emotionally...hurtin'...hurtin' morale."

"WHAT?"

"Oh, for God's sake. Do I have to spell it out?"

"Uh, no. It's just that...well, it's hard to explain..."

"Well, TRY."

"It's just..." Johnny ran his hands through his hair, looked down, then started laughing.

Hard.

Really hard.

So hard he shook the coffee table until one leg snapped off, sending him to the floor. He lay on the floor, laughing and wincing at the pain in his tailbone.

Chet frowned. This was not any one of the dozen reactions he was expecting.

"Okay, what's so funny? I came to find out if I been hurtin' ya, to make amends, and yer laughin'. What's so funny?"

Johnny reached a hand out. "Help me up."

Chet pulled Johnny up. He plunked himself down next to Chet. He put his arm around Chet and grinned.

"It's just, look, don't take this the wrong way, but uh, yer not that good. At practical jokes or insults."

"What? But I...you..."

Johnny squeezed Chet's shoulder. "You're an amateur, Chet. You don't bother me. What the hell gave you that cockeyed idea?"

"Well, Stoker."

"Stoker? What does he have to do with this?"

"He told me to back off, that I throw you off balance, I hurt morale. So I thought I'd check. Cause ya know...I don't wanna hurt you, Gage...Johnny...John..."

"Johnny stood, pulled Chet up, and smiled. "You're not. You're annoying. But hurting me? No."

"You'll tell me if I am?"

"You bet. But now ya gotta go."

"Okay."

Johnny opened the door for Chet. Chet paused in the doorway. "Gage...your tie...it clashes with your shirt."

"Oh, get outta here."

Johnny closed the door. He leaned against it and laughed.

"Amateur."

Chapter Thirty-Three

Cap paced the house, undecided what to do. He picked up the phone, changed his mind, hung it up. Finally, he dialed a number.

"Blake, it's Hank. Stanley."

"Hi, Hank. What can I do for you?"

"Blake, this is hard."

"Take your time."

"I've been avoiding my men since that debriefing. I wanna know how they're doing...but I don't, ya know? I wanna break."

"I understand. Listen, how about you come in right now, and we'll talk?"

"Now? About what?"

"About how you can all reconnect."

"Yeah, but..."

"Come on, Hank. You would wouldn't have called if you weren't worried about them."

"Blake, are we gonna get through this? As a team?"

"I think so. Will you come? Now?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'll come." Cap hung up the phone and leaned on it.

"Not a Captain. Not a leader. I gotta get through this."

Chapter Thirty-Four

Johnny rang the DeSoto's doorbell, hoping his visit, which he had never confirmed, would be acceptable. Finally, Chris opened the door.

"Uncle Johnny! I didn't know you were coming."

"Yeah, well...can I come in?"

"Yeah, sure." As Johnny entered the house, Chris leaned toward him conspiratorially. "Mom and Dad had a fight."

"Uh...maybe this isn't a good time, Sprout. Maybe I should leave."

"Leave? Johnny, you just got here!" Joanne came downstairs, a big smile on her face. "Dinner isn't special. Just roast chicken, peas, and baked potato."

Johnny's stomach lurched. "That's fine. I'm not real hungry."

Chris snickered.

"Christopher, your father said to drop the attitude and he meant it!"

"Okay," Chris responded, as he slunk away.

Johnny grinned. "Reminds me of myself at that age."

Joanne was about to reply when Jenny's voice came down the stairs.

"Uncle Johnny?"

Johnny hugged Joanne, who offered him a quick "Thank you, John," before sending him upstairs. When he reached Jenny's room, Roy was just leaving. He took Johnny's arm and pulled him aside.

"Jenny thinks...you're some kinda hero."

"Oh, yeah?" Johnny grinned and started for her room. Roy pulled him back.

"Listen, bring her back to reality, okay?"

"Huh?"

"You know, it was just coincidence you were there, we lose victims, you're not a hero, just a guy doin' his job...her daddy does the same job...you know."

Johnny noticed Roy's eyes were pleading with him, even as his mouth had a strange, twisted smile.

"Uh, sure, Pally. Whatever you say. She's your kid."

Chapter Thirty-Four

Jenny smiled as Johnny entered her room. She patted the side of her bed. He sat down gingerly, trying not to disturb her broken arm, resting on a pillow.

"So, my special girl, how ya - "

His words were cut off as Jenny threw her good arm around his neck and broke down in tears.

Outside her door, Roy was eavesdropping. He was shocked. Jenny hadn't cried since she was found. Now that John was there...

Why John? What was so great about him? He listened to the conversation coming from the room.

"Hey Jen, calm down. What's all this about?"

"Uncle Johnny," she gasped through her sobs. "You saved my life!"

"Well, uh, it was dumb luck that I was there. Your daddy, ya shoulda seen what HE done! Didn't lose a victim. Not one! But I lost - "

"No, you saved me! I owe you my life!"

"Honey, look at me." He tilted her head back. "Now, listen. The crew is a team. You know that Chet and Marco put out a fire? They saved everyone, just them. And Mike. He got the water goin' so Chet and Marco could do their jobs. Cap directed everyone, kept us safe. Your daddy...he did a better job than me. You owe your life to everyone, mot just me. Understand?"

Jenny stopped crying. She stared at him quizzically. "Yeah, I guess."

Johnny heaved a sigh of relief, and felt a twinge of resentment at Roy, for not letting him be Jenny's hero. He got it...but still...

"Good."

"I got somethin' for you."

"Jen, ya don't haveta give me anything."

Jenny pulled a stuffed bassett from under her covers. She handed it to Johnny.

"This is Fred. My daddy gave him to me when I was in the hospital. Said I could cuddle him. I want you to have him."

"But Daddy gave him to you. He's special."

"I know. But I gotta give ya something. Maybe next time ya wanna drink too much, you can hold him instead."

As Roy listened, another piece of his heart died.

"What? Drink too much? I don't - "

"Daddy said you 'got stinking drunk.'"

"Daddy told you that?"

"No, he was right outside my door."

"Oh. Yeah. Well, I - "

"Why'd ya do that?"

Johnny looked down at the stuffed dog in his hands. "I dunno. But with this guy to hold..." He smiled. "I won't need to do it again."

"Good." Jenny gave him a kiss on the cheek and laid down. "You're my favorite uncle."

"And you're my special girl." He returned the kiss. "Go to sleep."

"Uncle Johnny?" she murmured drowsily.

"Yeah?"

"What does 'stinkin' drunk' mean? You drank too much beer, and needed a shower? Cause Daddy sometimes has an extra beer after workin' in the yard. He stinks and gets giggly. Is that it?"

Roy clapped a hand over his mouth to muffle the guffaw.

"Yeah. That's exactly what it means. Go to sleep."

Johnny got up and tiptoed out of the room. Roy was waiting for him. They ran downstairs and outside, where they collapsed on the lawn, laughing. When the laughter ended, they sat up. Roy clapped Johnny on the shoulder.

"Junior...thanks for finding Jenny."

Johnny shrugged. "Just doin' my job." He paused. "It was a helluva day."

"Yeah, I hope - "

"Yeah. Me, too."

Chapter Thirty-Five

Johnny nibbled his dinner. Joanne eyed him.

"Sweetie, you'd rather have soup?"

He looked up guiltily. "Nah, I'm fine. Just gettin' used to eatin' again. This is fine."

Roy squeezed Joanne's hand. She smiled at the gesture. He intertwined their fingers, a sign that he wanted more later - when they were alone, in bed. She squeezed back, her way of saying yes.

The phone rang. Chris yelled, "I got it!" and ran from the dining room. Joanne sighed.

"So much for no phone calls during dinner."

Johnny grinned. "When I was a kid, we had the same rule. Man, I remember one time - "

Chris came back in the room. "Dad, it's Captain Stanley."

"Cap? Okay." Roy left the room.

Joanne turned to Johnny. "You were saying?"

"What? Oh! I was sayin'...one time, I got up to get the phone, and my dad whopped me on the back of my head." He grimaced. "It worked. No one answered the phone during dinner after that."

Chris's eyes grew big. "Your dad hit you?"

"Yeah. Not often. Just enough." Johnny grinned. "I survived. No big deal."

Roy returned to the dining room, looking confused. "Cap is uh, taking the crew to a beach house, for three days."

Johnny groaned. "All of us? Why?"

"To reestablish trust."

"Oh, great. Do we havta?"

Roy picked up his fork. "Yeah."

"Three days with Chet, great." Johnny threw down his fork. "I was thinkin' of campin', stuff like that.

Joanne laughed. "Sleep on the beach."

"Oh, yeah!" Johnny shoved a forkful of potato in his mouth, chewed, then shook his head. "Still not right though. I mean, making men leave their wives for a vacation."

"John, hon...doesn't sound like a vacation. Sounds like an encounter group." Joanne smiled at Roy. "We did one of those."

Roy sighed. "Yeah. Real touchy feely."

Johnny's eye's widened. "Touchy feely? With no chicks? Great."

"No, Johnny, it was good. It was...falling backwards, trusting the other person to catch you. It was good." Joanne sighed. "It'll help. I'll miss you, Roy. But I see his point."

But," Johnny sputtered, "I already fall backwards. Wanna see?"

"No!" Roy and Joanne chorused.

Chris snickered.

Johnny threw them all a resentful look. "I'm gonna go check Jenny." Abruptly, he got up, and stomped up the stairs.

Chris watched him go. "Geez, what a grouch."

Joanne leaned over to him. "Want a whap?"

"A whap?"

"Yeah, like being whopped, only harder."

"Uh, no. Sorry," Chris mumbled.

Chapter Thirty-Six

Marco climbed into Johnny's Rover. "Thanks for the ride. My car's in the shop." He nodded at Roy in the back seat.

"No problem, Buddy. Happy to do it."

The three men fell into a meditative silence as Johnny drove the Rover down the freeway and headed toward the beach. Finally, Marco sighed.

"John...Roy...I wanna ask you something."

"Sure," Roy leaned in from his perch in the back.

"Yeah, what is it?" Johnny asked warily. Suddenly, he remembered that he had promised to talk with Marco. And hadn't.

Shit, what else had he forgotten?

"I been thinking about going into paramedic training. But then John told me...well, he told me how it feels to lose a victim."

Johnny glanced out the side window as the glittering curve of the shoreline appeared. He had an urge to run for the water and swim away. He forced himself to look back at the road.

"Marco...I was real upset at the time...you can't take what I said seriously."

"Yeah, but it got me thinking...when we don't find a victim in a fire, or we find someone dead at the scene...it really affects me. Like you said, it stays with me. Not as bad as you described...but still."

"Yeah," Roy muttered from behind him. But you gotta learn to let that stuff go. Otherwise, like the docs say, it'll kill you."

Marco turned to look at Roy. "Can you do it?"

Roy smiled sadly. "Yeah, mostly. I gotta. I can't do my job if I carry every deceased victim with me."

"But how?" Marco persisted.

"Johnny turned and glanced at Roy. "Yeah, how?"

Roy shrugged. "Practice. And thinking that it's not my failure. It's our limitations, the timing of the call...or maybe it's just their time. I dunno."

Johnny laughed uncomfortably. "I'm still not good at it."

"No! Really?" Roy chided him, with a poke of his shoulder. "You, Mr. Neurotic? You can't let things go?"

Johnny laughed, his first hearty laugh since the accident. "Another thing to consider, Marco, is who your partner will be. Ya never know. Take me for instance. Look who I'm stuck with."

Marco settled back in his seat. "It's a lot to think about. And the pay. It sucks."

"Yeah," Johnny and Roy chorused.

"Think I'll...stay a hose jockey for now."

"And I'll stay stuck with Roy."

"Oh, Junior. I love you. Besides, no one else will take you."

"Okay, everybody shaddup," Johnny snapped, as he hunted for the beach house. "Lemme concentrate."

Chapter Thirty-Seven

"No way," the men from 51 said, almost simultaneously.

"Are you CRAZY, Blake? This is dangerous!" Cap protested vehemently.

"Yes it is," Blake replied, with a smile.

"Do we get safety harnesses?" Johnny asked.

"Nope," Blake answered.

"Blake, I'm uh, kinda scared of that, believe it or not," Chet said, as he started to shake.

Mike snorted derisively. "I thought this was a place to relax."

"Oh, you'll be relaxed when you're done," Blake smiled.

"Yeah, we'll be dead," Marco added.

The men stood, staring up at a wooden structure built into the ground. On top of four legs was a platform 10 feet in The air. A ladder was built into the side of the structure. Suddenly, their courage failed them.

Fall off that thing, backwards, and trust two of your crew mates to catch you? With no safety gear?

These guys, the guys in conflict?

"Maybe...if we could pick who catches us." Roy surmised.

"Yeah...Cap and Mike!" Johnny declared.

"Nope," Blake laughed. For you, John...Your choices are Chet, Roy, and Marco. Take your pick. You get two."

"Wait. Chet, Roy, Marco? But - "

"They're the three you think are angriest at you. Now you're going to learn you can trust them, even if they're angry," Blake responded.

"Well geez, if ya'd told me why I had to write that down...I thought we were gonna...talk, not...not...do this," Johnny stammered.

"And another thing," Marco cut Johnny off in mid stammer. "Who came up with this idea and why should we - "

"Yeah, we should vote on this!" Chet burst out. "Cause I can tell you, that I would - "

"No, that's my vote." Mike declared.

"Look, I've DONE this, and we only had to fall from the floor." Roy chimed in. Besides, I've seen challenge courses before, and the platform is only 4 feet off the ground. And eight people catch you. I think we should at least - "

"Go inside," Cap continued. "Look Blake, you didn't tell me we were gonna havta - "

"Okay!" Blake shouted, rubbing his hands together. "Let's get started." He eyed the group. "Who's going first?"

Silence. Sheepishly, Johnny raised his hand. "I'll go. I just wanna get it over with."

Chapter Thirty-Eight

"Oh, man."

Johnny looked down. Below him, Roy and Chet stood, grasping each others' wrists, waiting for him to fall.

Backwards.

It shouldn't be a big deal, firefighters fell all the time. But to do it deliberately? Yeah, he'd jumped from a multistory building, way higher than this, into a net. But he could see where he was going, and he didn't have a choice. A fire was lapping at him from behind. He was about to be engulfed.

Now he had a choice. That made all the difference. That, and going down blind.

This was crazy.

Oh, well.

He tiptoed to the edge of the platform. He crossed his arms over his chest, took a deep breath and...and...

Landed in the arms of Roy and Chet.

And Marco.

And Cap and Mike.

Blake was grinning ear-to-ear. "There you go, John. No one let you down. No one."

"But - "

"That was part of the exercise. Did you really think everyone else would stand there and let you take that risk alone?

John was placed on his feet.

"You mean you set me up?" He glared at Blake. "Man, of all the - "

"Nope. It's why we're doing this. I knew they would all catch you. It was you who needed to learn that."

"Well, I knew...I mean, I did, well, I wasn't sure, not after that last rescue..." Johnny mumbled. Then he whirled around. "Now, wait a doggone minute! Now EVERYONE is gonna get caught like that!"

Blake shrugged.

"But I...you...hey, not fair!" Johnny protested. Then he sighed and turned to the crew.

"Next!"

Chapter Thirty-Nine

One by one, the men climbed up to the platform, backed to the edge, and fell off. Their comrades started shouting encouragement.

"You can do it, man!"

"We gotcha. Trust us, we gotchta."

"Go on our count. One, two..."

Until the last man.

Chet.

He climbed, shaking, up to the platform. He couldn't control his shaking, his sweating palms, his thoughts.

"This is crazy. I'm a firefighter, I shouldn't be scared."

"Man, everyone can see me shaking. I'll never live this down."

"They're gonna drop me."

"I'm gonna die."

And the worst thought of all.

"If I don't do this, I'll lose the competition. Again. Chet the loser. I'll never live this down."

Chet froze. He couldn't move. He couldn't control his thoughts. He couldn't hear the encouragement from below.

He just knew he was going to die.

Or worse, be the laughing stock of the entire -

"Chet, it's okay. I gotcha, Buddy."

Chet jumped. He looked up. Johnny was there, smiling at him, an arm around him.

"Gage," he croaked. "it's so damn high."

"It's okay, I gotcha."

"If I had a safety harness, a victim to go after, but this...it's crazy."

Johnny nodded. Finally, Chet looked at him, and choked out two sentences.

"I can't move. Get me down."

"Sure, Pal. I"m gonna keep tight hold of ya here, and walk ya toward the ladder. I won't let ya fall."

Chet started moving. "Gage, I'm a failure."

"Nah, ya just decided not to do this. No big deal, Chet."

From below, Blake called to them. "What're you doing?"

"Johnny helped Chet onto the ladder. He glanced impatiently at Blake.

"What does it look like we're doin'? We're coming down!"

"John, you can't interfere. Chet would have - "

"Shut up, Blake! I know Chet! He's courageous, he trusts us. He doesn't need to prove it! Quit harassing him, he doesn't wanna - "

Chet paused. "Johnny..."

"Yeah?"

"Leggo."

"It's okay, I gotcha."

"No, leggo. I'm gonna do this."

Johnny tightened his hold on Chet.

"Kelly, ya don't have to. Ya don't have to prove anything."

"Yeah, I do. To me." He elbowed Johnny out of the way and scrambled up the ladder. Johnny climbed down and joined the crew, just in time to catch Chet, who fell off the platform, yelling "Geronimo!"

He was placed on his feet. He grinned at the crew. "I did it."

"You sure did, Chet."

"I knew ya could."

"Yeah, me, too!"

A couple of people ruffled his hair.

Mike leaned down and hoisted Chet onto his shoulders.

They walked back to the house, silently lost in their own thoughts, Chet occasionally ducking under branches in his way, a huge grin on his face.

Chapter Forty

"No, you don't get to room with whomever. This is to help you get reacquainted. So - "

"Stupid summer camp, that's what this is," Johnny mumbled to Roy. Roy laughed.

Blake looked up sharply. "John, you have a problem?"

"Who, me? Nah, I get along with everyone." Johnny turned to Roy. "I know I'm gonna get - "

"Chet and John."

Johnny grimaced, then smiled. "Incredible!" He turned again to Roy. "Just cause I help the guy out don't mean I wanna sleep in the same room - "

"John?" Blake was looking at him. "What's your objection?"

"Me? Well, um...Chet, kinda, snores." Blake stared almost evilly at him. "Course, I'm used to it, Chet's snoring."

Blake looked down at his clipboard. "Roy, you and Marco, Cap will room with Mike."

"Hey, what about you?"

"Me, why? You wanna room with me, John?"

"Uh...no..."

John picked up his backpack and clapped Chet on the shoulder. "Let's go check out our room, Buddy."

"Gage, don't get all...cozy on me, okay? I'm not DeSoto, I ain't gonna listen to ya obsess all night, got it?"

"I don't obsess."

"And I don't snore!"

Chapter Forty-One

"Breath...in and out...in and out...in and out..."

Blake perched on a chair, the men sprawled on the floor.

"You can recall this state of relaxation any time you need, just by breathing...in and out...in and out...in and out."

The peace in the room was palatable.

"When you're ready, open your eyes..."

One by one, the men opened their eyes, looked around, and sat up.

"Wow, just...wow."

"That was...amazing, Blake. What's it called again?"

"The relaxation response. I recorded it. You all get a copy."

The men sat quietly for a moment, until Marco smiled and pointed at Johnny.

He was fast asleep.

Marco reached over and nudged him. "Hey John, wake up." Johnny stirred, opened his eyes and looked around.

"Wha' happened?"

"You fell asleep, John no worries," Blake smiled.

"Oh, uh...sorry, didn't mean to," Johnny apologized, rubbing his eyes.

"And on that note, let's all turn in. We're going fishing tomorrow," Blake announced. "I brought tackle for everyone."

"Fishing! All right!"

"Incredible!"

"Now, that's MY kind of retreat."

"Talk about relaxing!"

The men drifted away to their rooms.

Chapter Forty-One

Johnny pulled off his clothes, yawned, stretched, and got into bed.

Partway.

Chet had short-sheeted it.

"Very funny, Chet. That's just the kind of lame brained, amateur kind of thing I was talkin' about, " Johnny mumbled, as he pulled the bedclothes off. "I mighta known you'd of - " He stopped in mid-sentence, staring in horror at the bed.

There was a rattler looking straight at him.

And making that noise rattlers make right before they strike.

Johnny glanced around for Chet. He was nowhere to be seen.

And Johnny couldn't move.

"Uh...uh...help...somebody," he squeaked softly.

No one heard him.

Johnny took a deep breath and yelled, "FIRE IN THE HOUSE!"

Roy was first in. He grabbed Johnny and backed him out of the room, slamming the door behind them.

Everyone else came running, saw the look of terror on Johnny's face, and looked to Roy for an explanation. Roy swallowed hard before saying, "There's a rattler in Johnny's bed, and it's -

A peal of laughter came from Johnny's room.

"Roy rolled his eyes. "It's Chet."

"Nuh uh," Johnny insisted, as he backed away from the door. I saw it, I heard it. It's a - "

The door swung open. Chet came out, holding a rubber snake and a cassette player.

"Amateur, huh?"

Johnny stared at Chet, the snake, the cassette player. "It's not..." He gulped. "Real?"

Marco grabbed the snake. "Chet, this is your dinner tomorrow. Rubber snake tamales. Of all the dirty, sneaky..." He walked away, shaking head.

Johnny continued to stare at Chet. "That was..." He started to laugh, shakily at first, then stronger, then a laugh that bounced off the walls and ended with the hiccups. "Pretty good."

"Just pretty good?"

"Okay, okay, real good. I'm gonna get ya for this Kelly, so help me, I will..."

"Like to see ya try, Gage." Chet smiled and stuck a hand out. Johnny shook it. They disappeared into their room, laughing.

The other men walked away.

Blake drew Cap aside. "Listen, Hank...are they always this way? This kind of thing can tear a crew apart."

Cap shook his head. "Nah. It's just the way they are." Then he smiled."Blake, I got the best crew in the Department."

THE END