A Father’s Nightmare

 

By Jane

 

The klaxons sounded as Johnny reached for a bowl of Marco’s chili.

 

“No! Not again.” Johnny whined.

 

“Come on, Junior. It’s gonna be one of those days.”
 

The paramedics pushed away from the table, and hurried towards the squad, followed closely by Chet, Mike and Marco. Captain Stanley wrote down the address of the latest call, and handed it to Roy as he ran towards the engine. Passing the slip of paper to his partner, Roy started the squad and pulled out of the station. Johnny glanced in the rearview mirror in time to see the engine move out behind them, then turned his attention back to study the address.

 

“Hey, Roy, looks like there’s been an accident in the parking lot at the mall. Hope there’s no kids involved. Wasn’t there some kind of kids’ fair going on there today?”

 

“Yeah, the community college is putting on an arts and crafts fair. They got different stores to sponsor booths, and the kids sign up for different classes. Joanne is going to take the kids over sometime today. ”

 

Minutes later, they arrived at the busy mall. Roy drove the squad carefully between rows of parked cars as they searched for the accident site, the engine following closely.

 

“There it is.”

 

Glancing to his left in the direction Johnny was pointing, Roy noticed a small crowd, signifying some type of disturbance.

 

“Yeah, looks like that’s the place.”

 

Mike pulled the engine to a halt as Roy parked the squad a short distance from the group of people. Johnny jumped out of the squad, and grabbed the drug box.

 

“I’ll head on over, Roy. Grab the bio-phone, will ya?”

 

“Yep, got it.”

 

Johnny sprinted the remaining few yards to the accident site, and pushed through the crowd. He came to an abrupt standstill, shocked at the sight before him. His mind went blank as he choked out his friend’s name.

 

“Roy . . .”

 

************************

 

Choking back the overwhelming fear and anguish he felt, Johnny dropped to his knees beside the first victim. Laying his hand gently on the boy’s chest, the young paramedic was relieved to feel a steady heartbeat. Moaning softly, the boy opened his eyes for only a moment, then shut them tightly.

 

“Uncle Johnny? What happened . . .”

 

“It’s ok, Chris. You’re gonna be ok. Just lie still, and I’ll be right back.”

 

“Dad? Where’s Dad?”

 

“He’ll be here in just a minute. Take it easy, Sport. Everything’s going to be ok.”

 

Jumping up, Johnny motioned to Chet. As the stocky Irishman drew closer, he was surprised at the quick staccato voice Gage was using to list his instructions. A quick retort died on his lips as Chet’s gaze rested on the injured boy.

 

“Chris? Is that Chris DeSoto?”

 

“Yeah, Chet, it’s Chris. And I think Joanne and Jennifer are hurt too. See if you can get Cap to tell Roy. And then have him call in another squad. I’m gonna need some help here.”

 

Chet nodded as he sprinted back towards the engine. Passing Marco and Mike, he relayed the information.

 

“Hurry, guys. Johnny needs your help. It’s Roy’s kids . . .”

 

*************************

 

“Mister, there’s people trapped under this pickup. You gotta help them!”

 

Johnny hurried past the anxious witnesses to the back of an old pickup, and crouching down, looked underneath the frame. His heart dropped at the sight before him. Wedged between the pickup frame and the axle, was Roy’s wife.

 

“Joanne. Joanne! Can you hear me?”

 

Knowing there was no time to spare, Johnny flattened himself to the ground, and began to inch towards the woman. Reaching her side, he lifted her wrist and was once again relieved to feel a faint, but steady pulse. While checking Joanne’s injuries, Johnny continued to glance about.

 

“Joanne, can you hear me? Was Jennifer with you? Joanne, where’s Jen?”

 

A soft groan was his only answer. Looking around, Johnny realized there were faces peering towards him from the side of the truck. Johnny called out to the closest one.

 

“Hey, you! Where’s the other victim?”

 

At first there was no answer to Johnny’s plea, but the young man finally responded hesitantly.

 

“Don’t know. I saw it happen, and the lady had two kids with her, a boy and a girl. I’m sure the girl went underneath the truck. . .”

 

Johnny looked around, but there was little space to move in. He was lucky that his thin frame had allowed him the access he had. Sliding carefully backwards, Johnny started the slow journey to the back of the truck.”

 

“Hey, mister! Fireman! I think I see her.”

 

“Where? Where’s she at?”

 

“Underneath the woman. I think I see the little girl’s arm!”

 

Skimming back towards his friend, Johnny reached a cautious hand over Joanne and felt along her side. Within moments, he found what he was looking for. His heart constricted in fear as he realized just where his little princess was located. She’d not only been run over by the pickup, she was now trapped underneath her mother.


Oh, God, Roy. What are we going to do?

 

******************************

 

Captain Stanley hurried past the squad, surprised to see his senior paramedic still standing there. Suddenly aware of the problem, Hank stopped to lend his assistance, but was interrupted by a shout from Chet.

 

“Cap! We need your help over here.”

 

Hank turned towards the accident, and quickened his pace.

 

“What have we got, Chet?”

 

The question died on his lips as he surveyed the scene before him, and only a low entreaty issued forth from the man.

 

“My God . . .”

 

“Cap, Johnny’s under the truck checking on the victims. Chris was conscious for a few minutes, but he’s out again. Johnny asked for help . . .”

 

Chet suddenly realized that he was talking to himself. Captain Stanley had already stepped away and was thumbing his radio.

 

“LA, this is Engine 51. Dispatch another Squad to our location along with an additional ambulance.”

 

“10-4, 51.”

 

Hank took another look around, then turned on his heels and rushed back to the squad. As he approached, the altercation between his senior paramedic and his patient, took on new meaning.

 

“How ya doing here, Roy? Need any help?”

 

“Well, Cap, maybe a little. This young man is extremely upset, but he doesn’t seem to have any injuries except this bloody nose. He says he hit it on the side window when he was trying to get out of the vehicle. What’s Johnny got? Anything serious?”

 

Once again, the young man who now sat on the squad’s bumper became extremely agitated. Roy stopped the victim who was trying valiantly to stand up.

 

“I didn’t see them! I would’ve stopped if I’d have seen them . . . are they okay? They’ve just gotta be okay.”

 

The captain shook his head as he struggled for the words he needed.

 

“We don’t know yet, son. You just sit here for a few minutes, and someone will be back over to help you. Roy, I need to talk to you. Let’s get the rest of your gear.”

 

Roy followed his captain to the side of the squad where he was startled to see the man standing quietly with his hand unmoving on the door handle. The crew had always been impressed with the calm and easy manner their captain handled his job. Even in the most trying of situations, Hank Stanley was the model captain. But here he was, in the middle of a call, standing silently, waiting. Something wasn’t right, and Roy felt a sudden prick of fear deep inside.

 

“Cap? What’s wrong? Is Johnny ok? Tell him I’ll be right over. . .”

 

Hank hadn’t moved, except to turn his head as he watched Roy gather his equipment.

 

“Roy, I need to talk to you for a minute.”

 

“Cap? I need to get over there and give Johnny a hand. Can’t this wait til later?”

 

“No, Roy, this can’t wait. The accident . . . well, you see. . .

 

Hank stumbled and stuttered in his effort to tell Roy the news. It was hard enough to deal with victims and their families, but when those families were your own. . .

 

“Roy, well. . . there’s no easy way to say this. It’s Joanne and the kids. They’re the ones hurt in this accident. Roy. Roy!”

 

Stanley raced towards the site behind the panicked man.

 

**************************

 

Joanne blinked her eyes several times in an effort to see around her. Nothing looked familiar, and even as she struggled to concentrate, she was unable to successfully gather her thoughts. Strange sounds and smells greeted her as consciousness returned, but she couldn’t quite understand what those sounds and smells were, or where they might be coming from.

 

Where am I? Why does everything look so strange here? Hmmm, did I wreck the car?

 

A feeling of panic overwhelmed her as Joanne struggled to understand what was happening. Moving slightly, sharp fingers of pain burned in her side and the dull throbbing in her head exploded with blinding intensity. Her faint moan erupted into a cry of pure fear.

 

“Chris! Jennifer!”

 

“Joanne? Joanne, it’s Johnny. I’m right here and Roy’s out by the squad. You’re gonna be ok, but you’ve gotta calm down for me.”

 

When she found her voice again, Joanne was almost whispering.

 

“Johnny? Where are the kids? Are they alright? What happened?”

 

“Chris is right behind the truck, and yes, I think he’s gonna be fine. He’s banged up, but he was talking a few minutes ago.”

 

Johnny halted for a moment, not sure how to tell Joanne the next piece of news. But before he had the chance, Joanne was squirming around again.

 

“Joanne, you need to hold still. We can’t get you out yet, but we’re working on it.”

 

The urgency in her voice could not be ignored. Her plea bordered on the edge of panic and Johnny grabbed Joanne’s hand in an effort to comfort her.

 

“Johnny! She’s here! Jennifer’s here, underneath me! Help her, Johnny. Get her out of here . . .”

 

“Calm down, now. Calm down. I’ve been checking her pulse and breathing, and she’s doing okay. I can’t get her out until we get you moved. Mike’s went for the jaws and he’ll be back any minute now. But, you’ve gotta stay calm. I need you to hold still for me. Okay?”

 

Joanne settled quickly, the soft warmth beneath her, quiet and unmoving. Tears formed, then spilled silently from her vacant blue eyes.

 

How can this be? I’m laying on top of my daughter. . . my baby!

 

A broken sob escaped her lips.

 

“Help her, please help her.”

 

Johnny squeezed her hand tightly as tears welled in his own dark eyes. But Joanne’s only thoughts now were for her husband and their children.

 

Roy, please forgive me. I’m so sorry . . .

 

Once more the light seemed to be fading as the familiar darkness threatened to overtake her, and Joanne welcomed its presence. The darkness promised peace and respite from the terror she found herself a part of. From far away, a familiar voice was calling her name, but this time she didn’t even try to answer. The black void enveloped her, even as Johnny’s cries grew louder beside her.

 

“Joanne. Joanne! Stay with me, now. Joanne!”

 

***************************

 

Roy reached the pickup minutes later. As he knelt down to view the situation, he caught sight of his son.

 

“Chris?”

 

Pushing himself up, Roy stumbled the few feet to his son’s side. Squatting down beside him, Roy gently raised the boy’s wrist, and took his pulse.

 

“Chris? Can you hear me, son?”

 

A low moan was his answer, but seconds later, the boy’s eyes opened slightly. Seeing his father there beside him was too much, and eleven-year-old Christopher DeSoto burst into tears.

 

“Dad. Is Mom okay? And Jen? I tried to warn them, but it all happened so fast.”

 

The boy struggled to sit up, but Roy’s firm hands held him down.

 

“Stay still, Chris. Johnny’s with your mom and sister, and the guys are working to get them out. We have to be patient, and let them do their job. Let’s take care of you, first, okay?”

 

Roy wished he felt as confident as he was trying to sound. With every fiber of his being, he wanted to vault from this spot, and rescue his wife and daughter from their ordeal. But his training and experience told him to stay where he was, and treat his son quickly and efficiently.

 

That’s how Brice and Bellingham found him, when they drove up a few minutes later. Greeted first by Captain Stanley, the two paramedics made their way to Roy’s side.

Not realizing, at first, who the victim was, Bellingham blurted out the usual question.

 

“What’ve we got, Roy?”

 

Brice was shocked to see the look in Roy’s eyes as he answered.

 

“We’ve got my son here; he’s been hit by a car. I’ve checked him over and it looks like he may have a broken collarbone. I’m also concerned about a possible concussion. He’s lost consciousness several times.”

 

“Okay, Roy, thanks. We’ll take it from here.”

 

Bellingham nodded at Roy, sympathy and understanding evident in his eyes, as Brice picked up the bio-phone and made the initial transmission to Rampart. Seeing that his son was well taken care of, Roy moved closer to the pickup, and peered underneath. Quietly, so as not to upset anyone inside, the senior paramedic called out to his partner.

 

“Johnny. How are they?”

 

Looking up to meet the worried blue eyes of his best friend, Johnny took a deep breath before calling out his reply.

 

“They’re hanging in there.”

 

***********************

 

Roy waited next to his son, anxious for the ambulance to arrive. Brice and Bellingham had started the appropriate IV’s, and placed a C-collar around the boy’s neck. Brackett seemed concerned about the possible head injury, and Roy knew Kelly Brackett was not one to over-react. Therefore, he heaved a huge sigh of relief when the sirens heralded the approaching ambulance. Roy helped load Chris onto the waiting gurney, then stopped the attendants as he grasped his son’s hand.

 

“I’ve gotta stay here, Chris. I have to make sure your mom and sister are alright. These men will take good care of you, and I’ll be at the hospital soon. Dixie will meet you there. You know her, and if you need anything, you talk to her, okay?”

 

Chris nodded weakly at his father as Roy stepped back, and out of the way. The paramedic knew his son was in good hands, yet he agonized over his decision to stay at the scene. Chris was young, and going to the hospital in an ambulance, all alone, could be a frightening experience. But Roy knew, instinctively, that he would be needed here.

 

**********************

 

Once more, Johnny slithered under the vehicle, this time from the opposite direction. As he reached the trapped DeSotos, he realized that Jennifer’s face was visible. He did his best to check her vital signs, but the findings only served to increase his fear over the length of time the girl had been trapped, and he was quickly becoming frustrated at the delays in getting the pair free from the wreck.

 

“Brice! She’s having trouble breathing. I can’t tell what other injuries she has, but her color doesn’t look good, and her pulse is weak and thready. I can’t get in position to take a BP reading, so be ready to do that as soon as we send her out.”

 

“What about the mother?”

 

“Joanne’s still unconscious. She’s got quite a bump on her head, as well as a deep laceration. I can’t tell what else might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure she’s got some chest injuries. We need to get them out of here, now!”

 

Brice rose from his kneeling position to find Roy standing silently behind him. Recognizing the look of fear in the older man’s eyes, Brice thought quickly of something to keep Roy busy, and out of their way.

 

“DeSoto, would you bring the bio-phone over here? I want to relay the vitals while they’re being extricated.”

 

*********************

 

The crew of Station 51 worked quickly and efficiently together. Chet and Marco gathered the equipment necessary for the rescue while Mike joined Johnny underneath the pickup. Although the space was confining, he was able to crawl under the side, which put him in a position to get close to Jennifer, while Johnny returned to his earlier position behind Joanne.

 

Even with the hydraulic jacks in place, it took some maneuvering, but eventually Johnny was able to move Joanne towards him just enough to allow Mike the room he needed. As the worried paramedic held Joanne in place, Mike carefully moved Jennifer onto the backboard and then slid her gently away from her mother. Inch by inch, the wooden slab grated over the pavement, but not even a whimper emanated from the young girl.

 

It was only a matter of seconds until waiting hands reached under the truck to grab the backboard and move their young charge to the waiting paramedics. Johnny breathed a sigh of relief as he thought of Brice and Bellingham being there to treat Roy’s daughter. This was no time for a parent to be responsible for their child’s care.

 

As soon as Jennifer was clear of the wreck, Brice immediately placed a BP cuff on her arm as Bellingham placed a C-collar around the young girl’s neck. Hank Stanley had remained next to his senior paramedic, lending his silent support. Roy had yet to speak, but his anxious eyes spoke volumes. Now that his daughter was getting the care she needed, Roy turned to his captain.

 

“What about Jo? Is she still. . . alive?”

 

Hank grabbed Roy’s shoulder and squeezed it tightly, as if to transfer some of his strength to the worried man.

 

“Yes, she’s still alive, Roy! Johnny’s with her, and you know he’s one of the best. He’ll take care of her; do whatever’s needed. You’ve gotta have faith. . .”

 

Roy nodded weakly. He didn’t seem to have the energy to even question his superior. Besides, he knew that what his captain was telling him was true. Johnny was his partner and he trusted the young man with his life, and right now, his life was Joanne and the kids.

 

**************************

 

“Hank, what’ve you got here?”

 

Captain Stanley looked up as the officer approached the group.

 

“Well, Vince, I don’t have the full story, but I can tell you that Roy DeSoto’s wife and children are the victims of the accident. From what I’ve been able to piece together, they were walking into the mall when the young man in this pickup backed over them. One of the witnesses thought the driver may have had the radio turned up. That’s about all I know, for sure.”

 

“Okay, I’ll follow up. Is everyone going to be alright?”

 

“We don’t know yet. They’ve already taken Chris in to Rampart, and they’re getting Jennifer ready to transport now.

 

Vince nodded silently as he surveyed the crowd, and then glanced back at the young girl being placed on a stretcher.

 

“Where is Joanne?”

 

He followed Hank’s lead as the captain turned his head and nodded toward the pickup.

 

************************

 

Mike slid back under the pickup, a second backboard being drug unceremoniously behind. Johnny was waiting impatiently, his best friend’s wife unconscious in his arms.

 

“Okay, let’s get her out of here. Her pulse is weak and I’m anxious to get a BP reading.”

 

“Right. Let me get the backboard situated here. .” Mike’s reply was cut short by the unexpected movement between them.

 

Struggling to escape the darkness around her, Joanne attempted to reach the familiar voice, once more. She couldn’t quite place it, yet she felt it was someone who cared about her.

 

Who it that? I should know that voice. What is he saying, anyway? Is he talking to me?

 

As she slowly opened her eyes, Joanne was immediately distressed to see the bottom of a pickup truck above her. She couldn’t make sense of the situation, and had no memory of what might have happened. Instead, her mind screamed out instinctively to the man she trusted most in this world.

 

“Roy? Roy!”

 

“Joanne, calm down. Everything’s alright. You’ll be able to see Roy in just a minute, but first we need your help. You have to hold still so we can get you out of here. Just let Mike and I do the work.”

 

Even though the paramedic was speaking in a soothing tone, it was as if his words didn’t quite reach her. Joanne suddenly began to thrash about and Johnny was becoming distraught as her condition worsened. Sometimes head injuries could cause this type of reaction in a victim, but this time it struck a chord of fear within the paramedic. This wasn’t just another patient; this was Roy’s wife.

 

Johnny still held her in the same position, but it was taking all his strength to keep that hold. He tried unsuccessfully to ease her to the ground, when suddenly Joanne struck out as she screamed in terror. With no room to move in, Johnny seemed to see as well as feel the sharp flash of pain as his head, then shoulder, as both connected with the undercarriage of the pickup. A streak of pinkish-red color clouded his vision and he blinked sharply in an effort to see clearly.

 

“Joanne, calm down. Everything’s alright, you have to calm down.”

 

It was almost as if she couldn’t hear him, and Mike reached out to hold her flailing limbs as Johnny continued his attempts to quiet her. Luckily her reaction was short lived, and in only minutes, Joanne was unconscious again. The two men stared at each other briefly, the shock apparent in their eyes. Not only was Mike worried about Roy’s wife; he was startled to see the gash over Johnny’s right eye. The blood was streaming down the paramedic’s face, but he didn’t even seem to notice.

 

“Johnny! You okay?”

 

“I’m fine. Let’s get her out of here, now!”

 

Mike nodded in reply as they worked quietly together.

 

“On the count of three . .”

 

They lifted Joanne and in one smooth movement, had her positioned on the backboard and moving towards the help she needed. The men did their best to make her ride an easy one, but unlike her daughter, Joanne’s moans were intensified with every bump and scrape along the way. By the time they reached the edge of the truck, she was beginning to wake up again, and Johnny hurried to crawl out behind her. He didn’t want to have to restrain his best friend’s wife, but he knew how dangerous it would be for her if she lost control again. He didn’t want to risk having her injure herself further.

 

Hank Stanley and Marco Lopez were waiting anxiously at the edge of the pickup. They quickly bent down to grasp the backboard, and waited for a moment as Mike and Johnny scrambled out to help them. Then the four men moved swiftly and smoothly as they carried their unconscious friend towards the waiting ambulance. Laying the backboard on top of the gurney, the men stepped back as Johnny grabbed the tie straps and fastened them around Joanne. Glancing at Cap, he motioned towards the ambulance. Speaking softly, he informed his captain of his intentions.

 

“I want to get her inside before I check her vitals, Cap. She was pretty combative the last time she came to, and I don’t want her out here in case it happens again.”

 

For the first time, Captain Stanley realized that his youngest paramedic had been injured during the rescue. The man’s face was pale and although the blood flow had lessened, Hank could tell that John had suffered a pretty nasty gash.

 

“Are you sure you’re alright, John?”

 

“Yeah, Cap, I’m fine. Just bumped my head.”

 

Seeing that the attendants had the gurney in position, Johnny climbed into the ambulance, and began his assessment.

 

“Mike, why don’t you stay here and help Johnny. I’m going to check on the others. Let me know if Gage needs any help, okay?”

 

“Sure, Cap.”

 

As he made his way around the vehicles, Captain Stanley noticed a crowd of onlookers who had gathered to watch. Parents and children, who’d come for a day of fun, were now a group of spectators to a gruesome accident. Alongside them were a number of reporters and even a TV news cameraman. Cap wondered if Johnny had caught sight of this mob.


Was that why he wanted Joanne inside the ambulance, away from these prying eyes, or was it for
Roy’s sake?

 

Moving to stand beside his senior paramedic, Hank draped an arm around his friend.


”How’s she doing, Roy?”

 

Without turning, barely even moving his head in response, Roy answered in a voice almost devoid of any emotion. His simple “I don’t know,” warned Cap that the man might, himself, be going into shock. If Roy had been busy helping, performing his duties, it might have been better for him. But standing here, simply a bystander to the drama before him, must have been the hardest part of all. Pulling the man towards the squad, Captain Stanley spoke quietly.

 

“Let’s get you to the hospital, Roy. They’re just about ready to load her up, and Johnny’s got Joanne already in the ambulance. I’ll have Chet drive you over. Okay, Pal?”

 

Roy turned slowly to follow his captain’s instructions, but within minutes, the scene changed completely. Camera bulbs suddenly popped in his face, and a reporter’s microphone was pushed in front of him. From the corner of his eye, Roy could see another camera aimed towards his unconscious daughter. Someone had figured out that this family was his own, and the media was suddenly having a field day.

 

The father’s only thought was to protect his own, and within seconds, the man was in action. Running towards the cameraman, Roy shouted the only thought that consumed him.

 

“Leave my family alone!”

 

*************************

 

Hank looked over at his senior paramedic and friend. Roy sat slumped in the passenger seat of the squad as the captain followed the ambulances to Rampart. Striving to find the right words to offer as comfort to this man, Cap knew that nothing he could say would be the least bit helpful. They had just endured a horrible situation; one that no father should ever have to experience.

 

Thinking back over the past ten minutes, Hank marveled at the quick response of his crew. The moment Roy had moved towards the media, Brice and Bellingham had agreed to wrap and run. Seconds later, Jennifer was being positioned in the second ambulance, the doors quickly but firmly shut behind her. With a glance from their captain, Marco and Chet each grasped one of Roy’s arms and deftly turned him towards the squad. After settling him inside, they positioned themselves next to the doors, thereby denying anyone access to the distraught father.

 

Meanwhile, Hank and Mike had successfully gathered the paramedic’s equipment and stowed each item in its appropriate compartment. Vince quickly agreed that the best thing would be, to remove the firemen from the scene. The police department would be working with an accident team to discover what had actually happened in the parking lot that day, so there was no need for the firemen to remain at the site.

 

Grateful for the opportunity to leave, Hank moved towards the squad to give his instructions. But one glance through the window made him aware of the seriousness of the situation. Grabbing his HT, Captain Stanley radioed back to his engineer.

 

“Mike, I’m going to drive the squad over to the hospital. The rest of you can head back to the station, and I’ll join you there shortly. I’ll call dispatch and request the station temporarily stood down.”

 

“10-4, Cap.”

 

Chet and Marco had overhead Cap’s instructions, and were somewhat surprised at his intentions. But they were also well aware of how their captain watched over them, and quickly realized the man wanted to be there for Roy. As their superior stepped up to the driver’s door, they moved back towards the engine. Hank watched his men move away, and could tell from the looks on their faces, how devastated they were. The men were like family, and that included their wives and children. The captain knew that the phones would soon be busy at the station. Each man would surely call wives, mothers or girlfriends, and soon the hospital would be filled with supportive friends and relatives.

 

Glancing over at his passenger, Hank knew that in his current state, Roy probably wouldn’t even notice.

 

**************************

 

Riding in the ambulance with Joanne, Johnny silently wished she would wake up again. Even if it was to thrash about, he felt that would be better than the deathly stillness she now exhibited. He wasn’t fully aware of what had happened back at the scene, but he had overhead the ambulance attendants enough to know that the media had been involved, and Roy had lost control. Checking Joanne’s vital signs once more, Johnny worried for both his friends. Pounding his leg in frustration, the paramedic fumed at the whole situation. It was with great relief that he finally spotted the towering form of Rampart General.

 

Hank Stanley pulled the squad to a stop next to the ambulances. He could see that Jennifer was being whisked through the emergency entrance, while the attendants were opening the ambulance doors to reach Joanne. Roy had already opened his door and was hurrying over to help, and Hank quickly moved to follow him. He was dismayed to see how pale the woman was, and the way that Dr. Early urged them inside confirmed his fear that Joanne was in serious condition.

 

As the men followed the two stretchers down the hallway, they caught sight of Dixie McCall as she pointed out which rooms the victims should be taken to. The nurse immediately stepped over and stopped Roy with a gentle but firm hand on his chest.

 

“Roy, why don’t you go wait in the doctor’s lounge? One of us will come back in a few minutes and let you know how they’re doing, okay?”

 

A barely discernible nod was her only answer, but the nurse understood. She patted his chest softly, then turned and hurried toward the treatment rooms. Hank gently grasped Roy’s shoulder and propelled the worried father toward the designated area. He silently prayed not only for Joanne and the kids, but for Roy as well. The man would need all the strength he could muster, and Hank suddenly found himself looking around for Johnny.

 

He needs to be with Roy, too. Maybe that will help.

 

*************************

 

Treatment Room One was a flurry of activity as Johnny and the nurses assisted Dr. Early with Joanne. It had already been a busy day in Emergency and adding the three Desotos’ was taxing the already harried crew. The paramedic found himself taking BP readings, starting an IV and even helping to move the x-ray machine into position. It wasn’t until the pictures were being taken, that he was able to leave the room to search for his partner. By that time, his head was pounding furiously, and the shoulder that had only ached earlier, now screamed with pain.

 

Walking slowly toward the nurses’ station, Johnny rubbed his forehead absently; almost amazed when he felt the gauze bandage someone had taped over his wound. He was also surprised to see Dixie at her desk, until he realized she was on the phone to the OR. Briefly wondering who would be going into surgery, Johnny waited impatiently as Dixie finished her conversation, and was thankful when she hung up the phone a moment later.

 

“Hi, Dix. Do you know where Roy is?”

 

“Yeah, Johnny, he’s in the doctor’s lounge with Captain Stanley.”

 

“Okay, thanks.”

 

Johnny started to walk towards the lounge, then stopped and turned to face her once more. His voice sounded tired, and Dixie was surprised to see how bad he looked.

 

“How are Chris and Jen doing?”

 

“Chris is going to be fine. He has a broken collarbone and a mild concussion, but Dr. Morton said he’s doing well. They’ve moved him into a room upstairs.”

 

“And Jennifer?”

 

“She came to a little while ago, but she’s in a lot of pain. Kel’s waiting for the x-ray’s now.”

 

Nodding his thanks, the paramedic started to leave, but was stopped again, this time by Dixie’s insistent voice.

 

“Johnny, you look awful. Have you been checked out yet?”

 

“Well, sort of. Dr. Morton took a look at me when he came in to help Dr. Early, but they’re pretty busy right now. Besides, I’m fine.”

 

“No, you don’t. You aren’t going to get out of it that easy. I’m going to find a room for you right now, and you’re going to have that hard head of yours examined.”

 

There was a hint of a smile on Dixie’s face, but Johnny knew she was concerned for him. Unfortunately, the arrival of Squad 14 with two patients interrupted their conversation, and Dixie’s plan for Johnny. He watched her issue orders sending the paramedics and their patients into Treatment Room Three. As the group disappeared into the room, Johnny headed off to find his partner. He knew where he was needed, and not even the pounding headache, which had taken up permanent residence in his skull, would stop the man from helping his friend.

 

*********************

 

When Roy had first arrived at the hospital, he’d been a bundle of nervous energy, the adrenalin rushing through his veins. He’d paced back and forth across the room, each step causing his captain to become increasingly worried for his man.

 

Now, Roy sat unmoving on the couch, only an occasional doctor or nurse interrupting the silence of the room. With a worried frown, Hank continued to watch over his friend. Every attempt at conversation had been rebuked, leaving the man struggling for a way to help. He wasn’t aware that Roy was simply grateful for the man’s presence.

 

Mike, Chet and Marco had just joined them when a light tapping on the door caught the captain’s attention and he stepped outside to find Chief McConnikee waiting for him. The quiet conversation carried into the lounge and within minutes the rest of the crew knew they’d been replaced for the rest of the shift.

 

The chief was also very clear about his feelings regarding the media circus, which was developing outside the hospital. For some reason, the reporters were following this story closely. Maybe because it was a fireman’s family, maybe just for the sensationalism factor of an accident that was practically televised as it happened. Either way, the chief was obviously not happy about the situation, and he warned Hank not to give the media any information. McConnikee stated firmly that any kind of press release would be issued directly from the fire department or the hospital administration, and Captain Stanley was happy to agree. He didn’t want any of the reporters bothering his crew, especially Roy.

 

Johnny had stepped up behind the chief as he finished his instructions. Turning to see the tired paramedic, Chief McConnikee was surprised to note that the man had a bandage above one eye and his shirt was covered in blood. Laying a hand on the younger man’s shoulder, he studied the paramedic carefully.

 

“Gage. Are you alright?”

 

“Sure, Chief, I’m fine. Just anxious to check on Roy.”

 

“Alright then, I won’t keep you. If there’s anything you men need, be sure and call me. I’m going back to headquarters now, but I’ll stop by later this afternoon.”

 

“Thanks, Chief.”

 

Hank stepped up beside Johnny as McConnikee walked away.

 

“John, are you sure you’re alright?”

 

“Yeah, Cap, just bumped my head. How’s Roy doin’?”

 

“Not good, John, not good. He’s just sitting on the couch, staring across the room; won’t say a thing. I’m getting worried about him.”

 

“Sounds like he’s going into shock.”

 

Concern written plainly on their faces, the two men walked into the lounge together.

Johnny was careful to move slowly as he didn’t want anyone to suspect how bad he was really beginning to feel. Roy was the important one, right now, and his best friend had no intentions of being anywhere but right beside him.

 

Stepping over to the couch, Johnny immediately squatted down in front of his partner and looked up into Roy’s face. The young paramedic suddenly found himself struggling to maintain control over his own emotions. The lost look in his friend’s eyes was startling. Confusion and fear were evident there and Johnny unexpectedly felt as if someone had stabbed him in the heart. Quickly masking his surprise, the paramedic in him took over.

 

“How ya doin’, Roy?”

 

There was no answer as the blue eyes continued to stare unseeingly at Johnny. Grasping Roy’s wrist in his hand, Johnny took the man’s pulse. Noting the color and temperature of his partner’s skin, the junior paramedic seemed slightly worried.

 

“Cap, let’s lay him down on the couch. Marco, could you get a blanket from one of the nurses? Chet, let’s get his feet up. Mike, would you bring that chair over here for me?”

 

The men of A Shift worked quickly to follow the paramedic’s instructions. Each knew the dangers of someone going into shock. Several minutes later, Roy was reclining on the couch with Johnny perched on a chair next to him.

 

The men continued their vigil, but were relieved to see that Roy seemed a little better under Johnny’s care. The worried father had even responded to several questions. But other than those few words, Roy remained motionless on the couch, and that in itself worried the other men. DeSoto had always been a take-charge kind of guy. Even in the worst situations, Roy was always on top of things, watching over Johnny or whomever else he was working with at the time. But this time, the situation was too close. It wasn’t some poor victim they’d never met before. This was Joanne, and Chris . . and Jennifer.

 

Johnny sat in the hard vinyl chair as the minutes ticked by, trying in vain to find a comfortable position. If the other men recognized his distress, they weren’t mentioning it. But Johnny was actually relieved that they weren’t noticing. Like him, the other men were consumed with worry for Roy and his family. Several of their wives had stopped in briefly. Mike’s wife, Patty, had children to take care of, so with promises to check in often, she’d driven home. Kate Stanley had offered to go upstairs and sit with Chris, and after several minutes of silence, Roy had been the one to answer her. His voice was thin, but the grateful tone was obvious.

 

“Thanks, Kate. I know Joanne would like that.”

 

Tears pooling in her eyes, Kate had bent over and kissed Roy on the cheek before hurrying out of the room. Almost an hour had passed since then, and still there was no news from the doctors.

 

Johnny’s strength had long since been exhausted. Though he was totally unaware of the looks exchanged between Hank and Mike, the two men were watching him carefully. The young man was slumped in his chair now, his head cradled in his hands, elbows balanced on top of his thighs. It could’ve been a position brought on by the weariness of waiting, but the worried men knew otherwise. Captain Stanley had started to call for a nurse several times, but having seen the bandage John was sporting over his eye, the captain assumed his man had already been checked over. He watched, now, as Johnny drew himself slowly from the chair and walked cautiously over to the coffee pot.

 

“John, you want me to pour a cup for you?”

 

There was no answer, and Hank glanced over at Mike. The engineer had also been watching the paramedic, and seeing how unsteady the young man was, figured he should move a little closer in case he was needed. Moving casually across the room, he stationed himself a few feet away from Gage.

 

The pain came in waves now, and Johnny was too tired to fight it off any longer. There was some part of his brain that knew he should stay awake, knew there was something important that he needed to do. But the pounding in his head, coupled with the pain in his shoulder soon blocked out that message. Standing in front of the coffee pot, the dark haired man stared at the empty cup before him. It seemed to waver, as if it had the power to move on its own. Suddenly, the cup was no longer visible as a roaring wave of darkness moved over him.

 

Mike saw Johnny sway, and seconds later had grasped the young man in his arms as Johnny crumpled to the floor. Mike’s voice joined in the noise of the moment, as the men worked quickly to get Johnny the help he needed. Two orderlies followed Chet back into the lounge, and the men bent together to lift and carry their friend to a waiting stretcher. Dixie stood in the doorway, her presence a calming assurance to the men that she’d watch out for Johnny. All this time, Roy had stared unblinking at his partner.

 

When Johnny first fell, Roy sat up but did not move from the couch. He remained seated, arms held tightly against his chest. His desire to rush over and help his friend had been overwhelmed by a stronger need to remain where he was. From deep inside the safe cocoon Roy had wrapped himself in, there was a little voice that called out to him. It seemed to be saying that he needed to be strong. When Johnny collapsed on the floor before him, that little voice had screamed at him to help his friend.

 

Still, Roy could not make his body respond, and he wondered if he’d ever be able to move again. Every time he started to think about what needed to be done, a vividly clear picture of his wife and daughter appeared. Their forms were still; blood red splotches adorned their clothes. Their once expressive eyes were closed in silent slumber, and Roy couldn’t grasp whether this picture was something he’d actually seen, or something he was afraid he’d be forced to see. Although something within him was trying to return, the fear kept him frozen in place, assuring him that as long as he stayed quiet, that question wouldn’t have to be answered.

 

***************************

 

Mike walked quickly beside the gurney as it was wheeled down the hallway and into Treatment Room Two. Never once taking his eyes from John’s face, he was riddled with guilt over having let the man’s condition deteriorate without stepping in. When Dixie arrived, she’d confirmed his latest suspicion, that Johnny had never really been checked over properly. Therefore, no one knew for sure how badly he was injured.

 

With Hank remaining in the lounge to watch over Roy, Mike stepped in as second in command, and became Johnny’s guardian. During the entire examination, the engineer remained on hand, answering questions, assisting where he could. Only when the portable x-ray machine was moved in did he leave for a few minutes. Shortly after he returned, Johnny began to come around. The first sign was a slow turning of the man’s dark head, as he seemed to search silently for someone. Mike had a hunch the paramedic was unconsciously looking for his partner, and quickly stepped over to John’s side.

 

“John, can you hear me? You’re going to be alright, but they want you to wake up now. Can you open your eyes?”

 

Slowly, his eyelids fluttered several times, then finally opened to reveal dark brown eyes. Turning to face the familiar voice, Johnny was almost disappointed at first. Where was Roy? Why wasn’t his partner here instead of Mike? But suddenly the memory of their last call came flooding back, and Johnny moaned softly. Looking up, he realized Dixie was watching him.


”Welcome back, handsome.”

 

The nurse’s gently teasing tone brought the desired affect. Johnny grinned tiredly, and his friends sighed in relief.

 

“Help me up.”

 

“What? Where do you think you’re going?”

 

“Where do you think? I’m going back to sit with Roy.”

 

“No you’re not. Dr. Morton will be back in a few minutes to read your x-ray and until then, mister, you’re my patient. And I’m telling you to stay where you are.”

 

Recognizing Dixie’s no nonsense tone of voice did nothing to dissuade Johnny. He struggled once more to raise himself off the examination table, but this time he was met with a more formidable foe. Mike was now directly beside the patient, one hand resting quietly on Johnny’s arm. Just by looking at the man’s face, Gage knew he had no choice, and for a brief instant, he was reminded of Captain Stanley’s kind but firm commands. Fatigue obvious in his voice, John gave in reluctantly.

 

“Alright. I’ll wait for Morton. But then I’m going back to the lounge.”

 

It was only a matter of minutes before the doctor in question returned. Flipping the x-rays behind the metal clips, Mike Morton clicked on the light and leaned over as he studied the pictures. Several uh-huhs later, he turned to the waiting group.

 

“Well, John, you have a concussion; and not just a mild one either. You took quite a blow, not only to your forehead, but also to the back of your head. I don’t know if you noticed, but you have quite a bump back there. On top of that, there’s a nasty bruise on your shoulder, and I suspect you’ll be experiencing a lot of discomfort for the next few days. Actually, I’m rather surprised you held it together this long, but we’ll get you settled in a room where you can relax and get some rest. You should be feeling better tomorrow.”

 

“What? You’re kidding, right? I’m not going anywhere but back in that lounge with Roy. I told him I would be there for him, and you aren’t going to stop me.” Johnny’s tone changed quickly from one of defiance and anger to one of cajoling. “Please, doc, you gotta let me stay with him. I’ll be careful, and I’ll take it easy. Besides, Stoker here, will keep a close eye on me, won’t ya, Mike?”

 

The quiet engineer looked from doctor to patient, and even chanced a look at the head nurse. In his current position, he knew the most sensible course would be to have Johnny admitted so that he could be monitored for any changes in his condition. But as a co-worker and friend, he knew that the best place for Johnny would be with the rest of the crew, waiting with Roy. Put the man in a room by himself, and Mike knew it wouldn’t be long before the paramedic had himself worked up, and that wouldn’t do anybody any good. But how could he make the doctor understand. Without answering his question, Mike patted Johnny’s arm absently, then looked up at the doctor.

 

“What do you think, Dr. Morton? Would you trust him in my care as long as we’re waiting with Roy? We’ll be right here in the hospital; he’ll be close if you want to check up on him, and I’ll make sure he stays quiet.”

 

Why can’t things ever be easy with Gage? Morton frowned in annoyance. He knew the man was worried about his partner, and he knew how upset the whole crew was about the accident. But the doctor also knew that too much stress or tension could be a bad combination with a head injury. Even though there was no fracture, a concussion could be very serious and even carry the risk of complications. His gut instinct was to keep the man in bed, mildly sedated if need be. Just as he was about to convey the news to the firemen, Dixie caught his arm.

 

“Dr. Morton, could I speak with you a moment?”

 

“Yes, of course, Dixie.”

 

Stepping outside the room, the two faced each other near the doorway. Mike Morton knew that Dixie had special feelings for this particular paramedic team. Who didn’t know? It was obvious to most of the hospital staff, but no one seemed to mind. Dixie was fair with everyone she dealt with; she just seemed to carry a special place in her heart for these two.

 

Now, as she faced the young doctor, Dixie’s feelings for the good of the two were overriding her concern for Johnny’s condition. Maybe it was the sincere look that Mike Stoker had sent her as he pleaded his case with Morton. Maybe it was just simply that she knew how much Roy needed Johnny right now. For whatever reason, Dixie spoke convincingly to Dr. Morton, and within minutes, he’d caved in to her pressure. Not without stipulations, of course, but she readily agreed. His demands were nothing more than good common sense, and she would see to the periodic checks personally. Moving back into the examination room, Morton stopped next to the table and looked sternly at his patient.

 

“Okay, John, we’ll give this a try. But understand this, I’m only giving in because you have two staunch supporters here. This is against my better judgment. You have a head injury and a severely bruised shoulder, which means the best place for you is in bed. But if you’ll follow orders, and remain quiet, I’ll agree to let you stay on this floor with Roy. However, at any sign that you’re not cooperating or if one of your neuro checks shows a change of any kind, you’ll be sent immediately upstairs. Agreed?”

 

The man lying quietly on the table, started to nod his head, then changed his mind. His thin voice answered instead.

 

“Agreed.”

 

After Dr. Morton had left the room, Johnny looked over at Dixie and Mike Stoker.

 

“Thanks, guys. I really appreciate this.”

 

“Well, you’d better. And you’d better be good too, cause I’ll be watching you.”

 

The grin on her face showed Johnny that his favorite nurse was merely teasing him, yet he also knew that she could be tough when needed. A look at Mike’s face, though, convinced him that he’d follow directions. His friends were going out of their way to help him, and he didn’t want to risk losing the chance he had been given. What they didn’t know was that although he’d sounded tough at first, in truth, Johnny didn’t know if he really had the energy to follow through with his threat to go to Roy against their wishes.

 

Mike helped Johnny sit up on the table, the young man dangling his legs over the side as he slowly got his bearings. The engineer would never tell Johnny, but he knew that the paramedic had been running a bluff. You can’t work with someone day after day and not recognize what’s right in front of you. Mike could see how exhausted Johnny was, and he could also tell the man was hurting.

 

After her mini-lecture, Dixie had left in search of a wheel chair. When she returned, Johnny began to scoff at the idea that he needed the contraption, but within seconds he’d changed his tune. His two guardians were staring at him like hawks; besides, the tired man wasn’t sure he had enough strength left to even walk across the hallway.

 

Grasping Johnny’s arm, Mike helped him slide off the table and into the wheelchair. Unlocking the wheels, he deftly turned the seat around and headed for the door, but Dixie stopped them just short of the entrance.

 

“Alright, boys, here’s the rules. Into the lounge and there you stay. If you need anything, I’m just a short distance down the hall. Here’s an icepack for that hard head of yours, Johnny. Use it. I’ll send Carol down with some aspirin for your headache. And one more thing, Dr. Morton wanted you to use this.”

 

Holding up her hand, Dixie displayed the white sling she’d brought along. Tuning out Johnny’s initial arguments, she positioned the cloth around his arm and fastened it behind the man’s neck.

 

“There, that’ll help a little. The doctor wants you to keep that arm still. Besides being badly bruised, he thinks you may have pulled a tendon, and keeping your arm immobile for a few days will help it heal faster.”

 

Once again, Johnny instinctively knew it would be best not to argue. He figured he was still coming out ahead, as long as they weren’t sticking him in a hospital bed somewhere. So, with a nod of assent to Dixie, the two men moved once more toward the doorway, and this time Johnny sighed when they actually made it out of the opening and Mike turned the chair towards the doctor’s lounge. But as they reached the next door, Johnny raised his hand and Stoker pulled the wheelchair to a stop.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Uh, let’s leave the chair out here, okay?”

 

“John, you remember what Dr. Morton and Dixie said, don’t you?”

 

“Yeah, but they didn’t say anything specific about using a wheelchair.”

 

“You’re getting a little technical, now, aren’t you?”

 

“Look, Mike, I’m not trying to be difficult, here. I just don’t want to go in there looking like I’m in bad shape. Roy doesn’t need anything else to worry about, and you know how he is. If he figures I got hurt helping Jo and the kids, he’ll get caught up in the guilt thing and I don’t want that to happen.”

 

Mike grasped Johnny’s good shoulder as he bent down to stare at him in frustration.

 

“But, John, you don’t think he’s gonna know you’re hurt? He saw you pass out right in front of him!”

 

Johnny grinned reluctantly.

 

“I know, but at least if I walk in, he won’t think it’s worse than it is. Please, Mike, I’ll go straight to the couch and stay there, I promise.”

 

Once again, the engineer made his decision not by the book, but based on his sense of what was best for the men involved. The pleading look in Johnny’s eyes was also a contributing factor. For a fleeting moment, he entertained thoughts about his qualifications for command. At least about what kind of captain he’d make if he could be swayed this easily by one of his men. Then again, these men were special. Heck, they were family. Realizing Gage was staring at him expectantly, Mike finally nodded his head in agreement.

 

“Alright, John, you walk in. But I’m holding you to that promise.”

 

Parking the chair next to the wall, Mike glanced around, not wishing for Dixie to witness his transgression. Locking the wheels, he reached down, offering John his arm. The paramedic pushed himself up from his seat. Swaying slightly, he waited a moment for his vision to clear, then pushed the proffered arm away gently.

 

“I can make it.”

 

However, after only several steps, he stopped and turned to the man hovering at his side.

 

“Thanks, Mike.”

 

Realizing the dark-haired paramedic was saying a lot with these simple words, Stoker simply pushed the door open. He knew Johnny was thanking him not only for vouching for him with Dr. Morton, but also for offering his assistance as he walked into the room. There would be time enough later for thanks, but right now he wanted to get his charge off his feet.

 

As the two men made their way across the crowded room, Mike made sure he stayed by Johnny’s elbow until he was safely seated on the couch next to Roy. Only then, did he step away to talk with Captain Stanley. No one in the room needed to hear the conversation to know what was being said. It was obvious that Mike was repeating Morton’s instructions as Hank stood quietly listening, all the while staring at Johnny and nodding his head in understanding.

 

At the couch, there were several minutes of quiet before Roy broke the silence. In a tight voice, almost devoid of emotion, he questioned his partner.

 

“Are you alright?”

 

The relief Johnny felt at the sound of Roy’s voice, was overwhelming and he felt his heart beat faster at the knowledge that his friend was doing better. Although Roy had spoken earlier, it had only been to reply to other people’s questions or directions. Now, he’d pulled himself together enough to ask about his friend.

 

“I’m fine, Roy. Just fine.”

 

Grasping his friend’s arm, Johnny squeezed it reassuringly.

 

Some of the mists seemed to be clearing from his mind, and Roy looked about the room, grateful for the close-knit group who were gathered here with him. Glancing out the window, he was almost surprised to see the sun still shining, people going about their daily routine as if nothing out of the ordinary was taking place. How could that be?

 

To Roy, it seemed as if everything had stopped. There was nothing but waiting, and that in itself was unbearable. His wife, his children were injured, maybe dy . . . No, he couldn’t say the word. They’d be okay; they had to be okay. But as his mind became more focused, he realized he couldn’t keep hiding. That wasn’t like him, and he knew it wasn’t the way Joanne would want him to deal with this. He should be doing something. Helping in some way. Maybe he should be the one sitting with Chris instead of Kate. But yet he knew that he didn’t want Chris to see him this way.

 

I’ve got to get it together, first. I have to know about Joanne and Jennifer before I try to face him.

 

Turning back to his partner, Roy looked at him sharply. This time, there was a familiar hint of amusement in his eyes, and Johnny almost smiled at the sight.

 

“Junior, you look like hell.”

 

*************************

 

Time moved slowly for the men waiting in the lounge. Now that Roy was doing better, they were a little more relaxed, though Hank continued to keep a watchful eye on his senior paramedic. Mike, on the other hand, focused on Johnny. Though the young man had kept his promise, quietly ensconced on the couch, he looked uncomfortable and several times the engineer thought the man looked like he might pass out again. Although Roy contributed a little to the conversation, he was still very quiet and Mike knew that he was unaware of Johnny’s discomfort.

 

Occasionally, a doctor or nurse entered the room, but no one stayed. Dixie made several appearances, mainly to check on the two paramedics, but there was still no word from the operating rooms where Joanne and Jennifer had both been taken.

 

There was, however, quite a bit of disruption outside the hospital. On her last visit, Dixie had taken Captain Stanley aside and warned him of the reporters who were, even now, camped outside the Emergency entrance. The security guards were working frantically to keep them from becoming a nuisance inside the hospital, but it was obvious they were intent on finding the firemen. She didn’t realize how quickly that would actually happen.

 

The first time they made an appearance, Chet was perched in a chair near the doorway. He noticed the door being opened slightly, but assumed that a doctor or nurse had started to enter then changed their mind. Seconds later, the door was again opened several inches, and Chet found himself staring into the lens of a camera. He knew that he was not the intended victim as he watched the offending article move slightly, as if in search of someone in particular.

 

Bolting from his seat, Chet flung open the door to reveal a photographer standing in the entrance. His fists filled with the gentleman’s shirt, the angry fireman instantly pushed the intruder across the hallway and pinned him to the opposite wall. Marco was right behind him, but not for the reason Chet was hoping for. His friend grasped his heaving shoulders and pulled him away from the frightened man, just as two security guards arrived. The photographer began to shout disruptively, claiming that he was being denied his freedom and the guards soon realized they had their hands full with not only the photographer, but with several reporters who quickly joined him.

 

Looking back toward the doctor’s lounge, Marco could see Hank and Mike watching intently from the doorway. A nod from the captain confirmed his plan, and Marco turned to propel Chet away from the melee and into the men’s restroom. The irate Irishman paced the washroom floor as he slipped into full rant, and Marco almost smiled as he recognized the similarity to another co-worker. If he didn’t know better, he would’ve thought Johnny was the one he was dealing with. But Marco knew how to handle his short-tempered friend, a fact he knew Captain Stanley found to be very comforting.

 

Fifteen minutes had passed before Chet was calm enough to return to the lounge. A feeble grin was all he could muster as the man collapsed into his chair. Not only was he spent from the worry over his friends, but also from the energy expended through his angry outburst. The man couldn’t understand how anyone could be so uncaring.

 

After all the firemen did to help others, putting their lives on the line every day to save someone’s life or belongings, then to have their privacy invaded in this manner. It was just too hard to believe. He knew that they were just trying to do their job, but didn’t these reporters understand they were dealing with other human beings? He wondered, briefly, how one of them would feel if they should receive the same treatment. Chet almost grinned when he thought: They’d probably run screaming to the courts, crying: “invasion of privacy.”

 

Minutes later, he was privy to another example of a reporter’s persistence. Marco was the first to realize that the group was being watched. As he looked up from the table, he could see a figure at the window. Shading his eyes, the individual was peering intently through the glass, trying to make out who was seated inside. Chet caught sight of the man an instant later and with a cry of rage, bounded from his chair once more. This time, though, Hank caught his arm and firmly returned the angry man to his seat. Mike had already raced past them into the hallway, and within seconds a group of security guards were pulling the reporter from the window.

 

All this time, Roy was hunched down on the couch, face hidden in his hands. It wasn’t that he was afraid someone would see him, but more that he was distressed by their desire to see him in his grief. Johnny draped his good arm around Roy’s shoulders as he mumbled words of encouragement. The two men remained quietly seated, waiting for this nightmare to be over.

 

Dixie realized that a decision had to be made. Although she would have preferred to talk it over with Kel or Joe first, both were still in surgery, and could be for some time. As head nurse, it was within her power to make the decision and after the last incident; she knew it was time to give her idea a try. Besides, Johnny wasn’t looking very good, and she would feel better if the man was settled in a hospital bed.

 

It didn’t take long to set the wheels in motion. Captain Stanley was in complete agreement and took it upon himself to convince Roy, and especially Johnny that this was the best course of action. Moving the group upstairs and into a regular room would take care of several problems. Not only would Johnny be able to relax, something the young man was not willing to admit he needed, but it would also allow Roy a place to stretch out if he wanted. As for the media, it would be harder for them to intrude if they had to make it past a security guard stationed at the door, and they wouldn’t be able to peek in a window on the 4th floor.

 

Dixie was quick to assure Roy that she would send the doctors up immediately after they returned from surgery. She knew how anxious he was to receive word of his wife’s and daughter’s conditions. But she was also happy the man agreed to the plan. It would be much easier for everyone involved if the sought after group weren’t settled right in the middle of Emergency.

 

***************************

 

Dixie looked up as Kel Brackett walked slowly towards the nurse’s station. She searched his face but found no clue as to his mood, and her heart skipped a beat as she realized he might be bringing bad news regarding Jennifer DeSoto. Mentally berating herself for the negative thought, Dixie cleared her throat as she struggled to find her voice.

 

“Kel?”

 

“Hi, Dix.”


His tired voice reminded the nurse of the busy shift they’d all experienced, and now the added burden of caring for a friend’s family was weighing heavily on them. Without asking the question uppermost in her mind, Dixie hurried over to the coffee pot and poured a cup of the steaming liquid. Handing it to Kel, she acknowledged his grateful nod. Then, after giving him time for several sips, she found she couldn’t wait any longer.

 

“Kel, is she?”

 

“She’s doing fine, Dixie. Jennifer is going to be okay.”

 

Dixie’s sigh of relief was audible, and a faint smile twitched at the corner of the doctor’s mouth. He loved the way Dixie cared about other people.

 

“Well, Dr. Brackett, I know of a certain fireman who will be very happy to hear the news.”

 

“Yes, of course. Where is Roy?”

 

“He’s upstairs in room 408.”

 

“What is he doing . .”

 

“Let me explain, Kel.”

 

****************************

 

Striding down the hallway of the fourth floor, a smile flickering once more across Brackett’s face, he found himself thinking of how proud he was of Dixie. She had handled an unfortunate situation with ease. In fact, she’d made the same decision he would’ve made himself. It was reassuring to know that his staff could handle things so well in his absence. As he reached the designated room, Kel gently pushed the door open slightly and peered inside.

 

The room was full of afternoon shadows, the fading sunlight from the window the only illumination. Both beds were occupied, but only one man slept. The blond haired man lay staring at the ceiling, his eyes fixed on a point as if willing it to give him an answer to his silent pleas. The dark haired man was also still, but even from his position at the door, Kel could see that he was in a deep sleep. Beside each bed there was a man, uncomfortably positioned on a chair obviously not designed for long-term usage. Kel entertained a fleeting comparison of these two men to a pair of watchdogs.

 

At the window stood a stocky fireman and it was apparent that the weary man had been there for some time. He seemed to be watching something below, obviously bothered by whatever proceedings he was witnessing. Turning slightly, Brackett caught sight of the last man. He, too, was sitting in a chair. A battered magazine was held in one hand, while the other hand absently stroked his dark mustache.

 

After watching for only a moment, Kel opened the door the rest of the way and stepped inside. Instantly, the atmosphere in the room changed. Five sets of eyes were trained on the doctor, the expectation obvious in their stares. Roy was now sitting on the bed, his hands gripping the blanket beside him anxiously. Hank stood next to him, one hand rested reassuringly on the paramedic’s shoulder. In the corner, Marco was standing next to his chair, the magazine crumpled on the floor. And at the window, Chet had turned from his watch over the lingering reporters, and was now waiting impatiently for the doctor’s report. But the scene, which garnered Kel’s attention, was taking place at the second bed.

 

Mike was bent over, his hand gently clasped on Johnny’s uninjured shoulder. The engineer was speaking quietly yet firmly in an effort to wake the young man up. But his attempts seemed to be in vain. There was no response from the sleeping paramedic, not even a shifting of position. After several minutes, Mike looked up to find his captain standing next to him, watching Johnny closely.

 

“Why don’t we just let him sleep a while longer. It sure looks like he could use it.”

 

“But, Cap, I promised him I’d wake him up when the doctor came in.”

 

Roy had been anxiously watching the situation, and though his heart was yearning for news of his daughter, he also felt a responsibility for his partner.

 

“Mike’s right. You know the only reason Johnny even agreed to lay down was the promise that we’d call him when there was news.”

 

Turning back to Johnny, Mike continued his efforts to wake the paramedic, but there was no response from the young man, not even a fluttering of eyelids or slightest sound uttered from the still lips. With each passing minute, a sense of panic rose within the engineer, and he chastised himself mentally for not realizing the state his friend was in.

 

Dr. Brackett had continued to watch the sleeping man, concern mounting. Dixie had filled him in on the earlier events, so he was aware of Johnny’s concussion, but this lack of response had him worried. As he stepped up to the bedside, Kel reached down and grasped Johnny’s wrist in his hand. The pulse he felt there was steady and strong. He continued a quick exam, even going as far as checking the paramedic’s blood pressure, but everything appeared to be normal.

 

From the bed behind him, a wavering voice asked the question everyone else in the room was afraid to utter.

 

“Is he okay?”

 

“I think so, Roy. His pupils are a little slow to respond, but everything else checks out fine.”

 

The doctor leaned over his patient and spoke firmly to him as he firmly rubbed the man’s chest.

 

“Johnny. It’s time to wake up now!”

 

Eyelids fluttered briefly but remained closed. However, the young man twisted his head back and forth several times as if to escape the demanding voice.

 

“Come on, Johnny. We’re all waiting on you.”

 

Once again the eyelids moved but this time they opened enough to reveal dark brown eyes straining to see who was calling him.

 

“Dr. Brackett?”

 

“Yes, Johnny. How’re you feeling?”

 

“Fine.”

 

There was a collective sigh followed by exchanged grins as the firemen heard the thin voice respond. Johnny moved carefully as he struggled to pull himself into a sitting position. Mike gave his arm in support as Johnny settled back against the pillows. Roy continued to watch but when he realized Johnny was definitely back with them and aware of the situation, he turned to Brackett.

 

“Doc?”

 

“Yes, Roy. I’m sorry. Jennifer’s going to be okay.”

 

“Yes!”

 

“Alright.”

 

“Gracias.”

 

“Thank God.”

 

The exclamations and backslapping took a few minutes to subside, but when the room had quieted, Dr. Brackett was not surprised to see the girl’s father overcome with emotion. Mike didn’t even realize Johnny was moving until the paramedic was already off the bed and across the room, but no one tried to stop him.

 

Johnny had been the first to see Roy’s head drop into his hands. Not even Hank, who’d been watching over the man all day, had been aware of the change. But the two paramedics were more than just partners, they were best friends, and Johnny was keenly aware of his friend’s response. Now, as he sat next to Roy on the narrow hospital bed, Johnny draped an arm around the shaking shoulders of his partner and held him firmly. No one else heard his whispered comments except Roy, but the quiet “it’s okay” were just what Roy needed. Of course he trusted the words of Dr. Brackett, but hearing his friend’s words was the final confirmation that his daughter was truly alright.

 

Pulling a chair around to face Roy, Kel sat down.

 

“Roy. I’m sorry it took so long for me to get up here. She’s been out of surgery for a while now, but I wanted to stay with her while she was in Recovery. Everything’s fine, though she did have a rough time of it. One of her ribs punctured a lung and there was some minor bleeding, but we’ve got her patched up and her vitals look good. We’ll keep her mildly sedated for awhile because of the chest tube, but that girl of yours is strong, and she’s going to make a full recovery.”

 

“Thanks, Doc.”

 

Silence filled the room for a moment before Roy spoke again.

 

“Joanne?”

 

*********************************

 

Opening his eyes, Johnny looked about the room, somewhat surprised to see that the previously crowded space was now glaringly empty. Moving his head carefully so as not to awaken the dreaded headache, the dark haired man searched for his partner in the next bed. But that space, too, was conspicuously absent of an occupant. In fact, the only other person in the room was Mike Stoker. The engineer was still seated next to the bed; head drooping on his chest, feet propped up on the edge of the mattress. Smiling to himself at the unusual picture next to him, Johnny’s grin quickly faded as he thought of his missing partner.

 

Moving quietly, the young man pulled himself to a sitting position, stopping for a moment to cradle his aching head. The headache he had strove to escape had hit full force, but his focus remained on getting to his friend. Glancing down, Johnny was surprised to see he was still clothed in the hospital scrubs one of the nurses had handed him the previous afternoon. But then it all came back, the arguments from his co-workers and how he finally relented, at least partially. He did agree to lie down on the bed for awhile, but he didn’t agree to don the hospital gown a nurse had brought for him. Now, as he swung his feet off the edge of the bed and stood up, he was thankful for his persistence. The last thing he wanted to do was parade around Rampart General without any pants on.

 

As he reached the doorway, Johnny took one last look at Mike who was still sleeping soundly in the hard vinyl chair. The paramedic almost felt guilty, as if he were running out on a friend. But then his desire to find Roy won out, and he pulled the door open and stepped into the hallway.

 

At this time of night, there was little activity on the fourth floor. Most patients were still sleeping, and only one nurse staffed the nurse’s station at the end of the hall. With a sense of frustration, Johnny looked back and forth as he struggled to come up with a plan. He had no idea which room Jennifer was in, but he was sure that’s where he’d find Roy. But how could he find out where they’d taken the girl? If he woke Mike up to ask him, the man would probably pull rank and order him back to bed. Inquiring at the nurse’s station would probably garner the same results.

 

Finally, Johnny decided to make his way to a different floor, locate a phone and call the main desk. At least there, he’d be able to get some information anonymously. Happy with his hastily sketched plan, Johnny pushed himself away from the wall where he’d been leaning and headed for the nearest elevator. However, a hand suddenly grasped his shoulder, and the young man stopped abruptly.

 

“Where do you think you’re going?”

 

“Come on, Mike, you know I’ve gotta find Roy.”

 

“And just how do you intend on doing that?”

 

“Well . . I . .”

 

Johnny never finished his sentence. Somewhere in his devious mind, the man quickly decided he should keep his plan a secret, just in case he would need to implement it later. But a thinly veiled smile on Mike’s face startled Johnny and he suddenly realized his friend was there to help him.

 

“Come on, Johnny, let’s use this.”

 

Glancing down, Johnny was surprised to find a wheelchair parked next to the door, as if waiting there specifically for him. Not taking time to argue, Johnny lowered himself into the padded seat and lifted his feet into place. There was no way he’d admit it to Mike, but he was actually relieved that he wouldn’t have to walk the long hallways. The headache, which was an inconvenience earlier, was rapidly becoming a problem he didn’t want to deal with.

 

“Okay, James, let’s go.”

 

With a snort of amusement, Mike pushed his charge down the hall and into a waiting elevator. Deftly pushing number six on the pad, the two men waited in silence as the tiny room moved upwards. Not until they’d maneuvered through several hallways and stopped in front of a closed door, did Johnny speak.

 

“Mike, how’s she doing?”

 

“About the same. Last time I checked in, she hadn’t come around yet, but the doctor said that was to be expected. They doped her up pretty good after she came out of recovery.”

 

A brief silence settled between them, neither one wanting to open the door, but once more Johnny broke the stillness.

 

“What about Joanne? Any word since Dr. Early came down?”

 

“No, there’s no change.”

 

With that, Johnny grabbed hold of the chair and pushed himself to his feet. Watching him carefully, Mike stepped forward and propped the door open as the young man made his way into the girl’s room. Letting the door drift shut, Mike turned back to the wheelchair and slipped into the seat. Then, leaning his head back to rest against the wall, Mike settled in for a long wait.

 

**************************

 

Roy didn’t look up as the door opened and then closed again. He was used to the various nurses and an occasional doctor checking on his daughter. But no one bothered him as long as he sat quietly next to the girl’s bed, so he continued the lonely vigil, his large hand covering his baby’s small delicate one. An occasional tear tracked down his cheek, but there was no one there to notice, or chastise the worried father.

 

Of course, it wasn’t because his friends hadn’t offered. Hank Stanley had practically insisted on staying, but Roy knew the men were exhausted and felt they needed some time with their families. Besides, he’d need his friend’s help in the days to come, and there was nothing anyone could do right now but wait. Sitting at Jennifer’s bedside was something that should be done by her parents, and since he was the only parent available, the job fell to him alone. What he didn’t know was that none of his friends had left the hospital. Even now, Hank and his wife were sitting with Christopher while Marco and Chet were driving to both Roy and Johnny’s houses for changes of clothes for each of them.

 

Johnny watched as Roy gently stroked his daughter’s forearm. The young man’s heart constricted with pain at the scene and his desire to help the little girl was so strong, he felt like screaming. Walking quietly across the room, he stood behind Roy then gently clasped the man’s shoulder. A sharp intake of air was the father’s only response, and the room was quiet once more. Johnny could feel the trembling beneath his fingers, and he knew he’d made the right decision. Roy needed someone to be with him, even if the man didn’t realize it himself.

 

Roy had little family in the area, except his mother, and she was off visiting relatives back east. Joanne’s mother lived in San Diego, and although she’d been contacted after the accident, she’d informed her son-in-law that she wouldn’t be coming up until the following day when a friend could drive her. Actually, Roy had seemed relieved at the news, a fact that didn’t surprise Johnny. Joanne’s sister promised to be at the hospital as soon as she could find a babysitter for her kids, but for now, the father sat alone with no family or friends at his side, and his partner silently vowed that Roy wouldn’t be alone again. Johnny would be there for him, just like Roy had been at his side ever since they’d become friends.

 

“How is she?”

 

“She hasn’t been awake yet, but Dr. Brackett was just in and said her vital signs are good. He said she’ll be coming around later this morning.”

 

Johnny looked down at the child and a helpless feeling overcame him. As he stared at Jennifer, he was suddenly aware of how pale her skin seemed compared to the stark white of the bandages. Her long golden hair was tucked behind her shoulder, the tresses damp from the warmth of her skin. Across her brow, a light sheen was visible, and Johnny almost reached up to feel her forehead but thought better of it. Roy said the doctor had just checked on her, and Johnny noticed the antibiotic being administered through the girl’s IV’s. Besides, his own body was quickly giving way to the exhaustion which plagued him since the night before.

 

Glancing around the room, the young man quickly located a chair and dragged it over to his friend’s side. Lowering himself to its hard plastic surface, Johnny took a moment to collect himself before speaking again.

 

“Have you seen Joanne yet?”

 

“No.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Dr. Brackett came by right after you fell asleep and told me they’d be keeping her in Recovery a little longer. Seems she wasn’t coming out of the anesthesia as quickly as they’d hoped. He promised he’d let me know when she’s settled in ICU.”

 

Johnny nodded, but no words escaped his lips. Instead, his mind wandered back to the scene several hours before when Dr. Early brought the news. It was shortly after they’d talked with Dr. Brackett about Jennifer’s surgery. The men had continued to wait in the hospital room, each lost in their own thoughts and worries. The only interruption had been a brief phone call from Hank’s wife, but that had been cut short upon the arrival of the gray-haired doctor.

 

Dr. Early had come right to the point, informing Roy of the difficult surgery and the bleeding that they had encountered. Joanne’s condition was listed as critical, but the doctor assured them that everything looked positive for a full recovery.

 

Now as the two men sat at Jennifer’s bedside, they both wondered at the delay. Was there more to the situation? Had Joanne taken a turn for the worse? Were the doctors holding something back?

 

Roy had just decided that he would take matters into his own hands and go find the doctor when the door to Jennifer’s room swung open. Roy and Johnny stared in disbelief, not as a result of the man’s presence, but from the look on Dr. Brackett’s face. His mouth twitched slightly as Kel shoved his hands in the pockets of his white coat, and he watched as the two men shot from their seats. Brackett knew there was no use holding back.

 

“Roy. Joe asked me to come up and . .”

 

“It’s Joanne, isn’t it? Is she. . .”

 

“No, Roy. But she’s not doing as well as we’d hoped. Joe is monitoring her vital signs, but he’s concerned about the possibility of additional bleeding. If that’s the case, he may be forced to take her back into surgery again.”

 

The look on Roy’s face resembled that of a deer caught in the headlights. With a guttural sound so pitiful it made Johnny wince, the distraught father shoved his way past his friends and out the door, leaving two very startled men in his wake. It was only seconds before they followed him into the hall, but Roy was nowhere in sight.

 

****************************

 

Johnny hurried down the hallway, looking in every direction for his missing partner. Realizing that Roy couldn’t have gotten away that quickly, the dark haired man stopped for a moment to consider where his friend might’ve gone. Only when he glanced up and saw the door marked ‘Men’s Room’ did the answer come to him. As he slowly opened the door, his shoulders sagged at the sight before him.

 

Roy was leaning over the sink, face buried in his hands. The man’s sobbing was heartbreaking and Johnny faltered for a moment not knowing exactly how to proceed. Recovering quickly, he turned and locked the bathroom door, thinking to allow his friend a little privacy, and then moved to stand next to his friend. Turning to face his friend, Roy could make out Johnny’s worried gaze through his own tear filled eyes. Another sob choked his voice and his words came out as a stuttered string.

 

“W hat . . am . . I goi n g. . .to do?

 

As his own eyes began to fill in sympathy for his friend’s struggle, Johnny did the only thing he could. Slipping his injured arm out of the sling, John Gage reached out with both arms and wrapped them around his partner. The two men stood there for several minutes, the exhausted father taking comfort in his friend’s support. Neither man spoke, there were no words to fix the problem.

 

When Roy was finally able to gather himself again, he turned to the sink and splashed several handfuls of cold water on his face. As Johnny watched him, he could see how fatigued his partner was.

 

“What am I going to do?”

 

Johnny studied his friend carefully as the man turned to face him again, and he quickly noted that Roy’s voice was still unsteady.

 

“I’ve gotta be with Joanne. I need to be there with her when she wakes up. And if she doesn’t . . .”

 

Roy’s voice trailed off and Johnny grasped his shoulder firmly.

 

“You can’t think like that! Joanne’s going to be alright. These things just take time.”

 

Almost as if his friend’s comments didn’t register, Roy continued.

 

“And what about Jennifer? She’s so little. Lying there in that room all alone. What if she wakes up and I’m not there? I need to be with her too. And I haven’t even been up to check on Chris yet. What am I going to do? How can I be with all of them at once?”

 

Johnny felt his heart clench as he witnessed the pain his partner was enduring. Roy was in no shape to deal with this alone, and Johnny knew he had to help.

 

“Roy.”

 

Waiting patiently until Roy raised his head, Johnny continued gently.

 

“It’s going to be alright, Pally. We’re all here to help you. Let’s go upstairs for a few minutes so you can see Chris, then you’re going to go back and sit with Joanne for as long as they’ll let you. Mike and I will take turns staying with Jennifer, and when she wakes up, I’ll come get you. Okay?”

 

Dropping his head once more, Roy merely nodded in agreement. His relief was immense and he was grateful for his friend’s support.

 

“Thanks, partner.”

 

********************

 

The hours that followed were a blur for Roy DeSoto. He knew his friends were there with him, Johnny especially, seemed to be steadfastly at his side.

 

Joanne’s vitals had begun to improve, but there had been no sign that she was waking up. Dr. Early had tried to encourage Roy by telling him that this sometimes happened with severe injuries, but his words seemed to fall on deaf ears. Roy’s fear had overtaken him, and the doctor suspected that the only thing that would bring him out of it would be his wife’s recovery.

 

Joanne’s mother had arrived mid-morning, and immediately proceeded to cause problems. She insisted that she be allowed to sit with Joanne constantly, but the small area in ICU allowed only a few visitors at a time, and the doctors and nurses encouraged the family to keep their voices calm and reassuring so that the patient would not become agitated. Their hope was that Joanne would be able to hear her loved ones talking to her. Unfortunately, every time Roy’s mother-in-law settled down next to her daughter, her chatter was negative and insulting.

 

Everything and everyone was to blame for the predicament her daughter was in. The doctors hadn’t done their job; the nurses were rude and insolent. Of course the driver of the vehicle topped every conversation, and Roy, as usual, was made to carry at least part of the blame. Johnny silently wondered how she could even imagine any part of this tragedy could be his partner’s fault. But nothing anyone said daunted the woman. She was a terrified mother and her reaction was to lash out, in this case, at anyone within range of her voice. The dilemma was, how to let this lady spend time at her child’s side without jeopardizing Joanne’s progress and/or drive Roy over the edge.

 

Johnny was the one who finally hit on a solution. Jennifer and Chris were both awake and in need of constant encouragement. With a little help from Dixie, Johnny devised a plan to convince Joanne’s mother that her grandchildren sorely needed her. The ploy worked beautifully. Dividing her time between both rooms gave the woman little time to spend in ICU. Now when she came into the tiny cubicle, her short visit was spent conveying information about the children’s progress and how important it was that she get back to them quickly. The woman was fully convinced that they were dependant on her presence and would be waiting anxiously for her return.

 

Everyone was grateful for Johnny’s inspiration, even Joanne’s sister, but especially Roy.

 

As the day wore on, he found his strength tested in many ways. After one of his mother-in-law’s many visits, he reached for Joanne’s hand, which still lay limply by her side. Gently tracing a pattern on her skin, he fought back tears as he murmured his love to her. Begging his wife to return to him, the exhausted man laid his forehead against her arm and closed his eyes.

 

“Please, Joanne, don’t leave me. I need you. The kids need you. We have so many things left to do together. You’ve gotta fight this . . .”

 

A soft voice broke in and brought Roy’s pleading to a halt. He sat up quickly, his hand swiping at his eyes in a futile attempt to hide his tears. Joanne’s sister stood uncertainly at the end of the bed, her hands clenched together as she watched Roy struggle for composure.

 

“Roy, you have to get some rest. You need to take care of yourself so you can take care of your family.”

 

Eileen’s words seemed to fall on deaf ears, as Roy continued to stare at his wife.

 

“Roy.”

 

Looking up, he realized Johnny was standing next to Eileen. His partner’s face was filled with concern and barely concealed frustration. As he sat staring at them, Dr. Brackett joined the group and it was then that Roy realized they were ganging up on him. Back stiff with opposition, he deftly turned away and reached again for his wife’s hand. But Johnny wouldn’t let it go. Stepping swiftly to his friend’s side, John firmly grasped Roy’s shoulder.

 

“Come on, Pally, let’s take a little walk.”

 

As much as Roy resented the intrusion, he knew that the ICU ward was no place to hold an argument. Slowly drawing himself from the chair, the worried husband gazed down once more at his wife’s slack features. Then, turning toward the hallway, he deftly stepped away from the group. However, John had no intentions of letting his friend go. Keeping pace with his partner, the two men reached the hall in seconds were Roy immediately turned on Johnny, his face a study in anger and frustration.

 

“How dare you? Who do you think you are, taking me away from Joanne when she needs me? I told you before that I’m going to stay with my wife, and not you or anybody else is going to stop me.”

 

The sandy haired man was in full rant now, a reaction normally left to the junior partner. But now that he had started, Roy didn’t seem to be able to stop. But his friends were ready for him. As Dr. Brackett joined the two men, he successfully guided Roy down the hall and into a private lounge. Still caught up in his chastisement of Johnny, Roy didn’t notice at first that the room was not vacant. In fact, it was quite full. The other four members of ‘A’ shift were waiting and moments later; Joanne’s sister joined them.

 

Falling silent, Roy gazed about the room, taking in each concerned face. Johnny still stood by his side, an arm now draped across his partner’s shoulders. As Roy completed his visual tour of the lounge, his silent stare finally rested on his partner.

 

Johnny’s face was gaunt and dark circles framed eyes wide with lack of sleep. The stark white bandage still adorned his forehead where a bluish purple bruise was now visible. He seemed to see for the first time that Gage held his arm tucked into his side, almost as if protecting it. Wondering briefly what happened, he realized that he couldn’t remember all of the recent events. The tiredness that threatened to overwhelm him, now attacked with full force, and he wondered for an instant if he looked as bad as his partner.

 

Being faced by his friends, though not a word had been spoken since he entered the room, Roy knew what they wanted of him, but felt he couldn’t give in. It was in that small window of uncertainty that Dr. Brackett played his ace.

 

“Roy, you have to get some rest. Your kids are asking for you, and Joanne’s going to need you when she wakes up. It hasn’t even been 48 hours yet, and it could be awhile longer before she comes to. If you keep going this way, you’ll collapse, and then what good will you be for her?”

 

Hank Stanley stepped forward, his hand clasping Roy’s forearm. The worried expression on his face seemed to transfer through his touch, and Roy dropped his head.

 

“Let’s go, Pal. I promise that someone will be with her all the time, and we’ll come and get you the minute you’re needed.”

 

Roy’s nod was almost imperceptible, but his sister-in-law had been waiting. Now she took the initiative and brushed past the others. Reaching up, she placed her hands on each side of Roy’s haggard face. Pulling his head down to hers, she lightly kissed him and then reciprocated when he reached out to hug her tightly. The glistening tears on his cheeks were silent symbols of his internal pain.

 

Watching with baited breath, Dr. Brackett quietly fingered the syringe held inside his coat pocket. The group had previously agreed that if extreme measures were required, they’d be ready. But it was obvious now that the sedative would not be necessary, and Kel was grateful that they didn’t have to use the chicanery they’d planned as a last resort. Roy was in dire need of rest, his strength played out. The emotional roller coaster ride he’d been on was not yet over, and he’d need to be ready for the possible difficulties to come.

 

Releasing Roy from her embrace, Eileen stepped back and let the men take over. Hank and Johnny stepped over to walk next to Roy, while Mike moved ahead to open the door. Carefully guiding the now acquiescent man out of the lounge and toward the elevator, Johnny glanced over his shoulder and nodded his thanks to Roy’s friends.

 

As the lounge door drifted closed, there was a collective sigh within the room, and the occupants moved to do their best in helping out where ever they could. Eileen quickly returned to sit with Joanne, while Marco and Chet headed upstairs to visit Christopher. Mrs. Stanley hurried off to sit with Joanne’s mother in Jennifer’s room, and Beth Stoker went in search of a pay phone to make several phone calls for the group. Kel Brackett shook his head slightly as the corner of his mouth twitched. The room was now empty except for his presence, and while exiting the darkened lounge, he marveled at the close-knit family of firefighters.

 

****************************

 

With a scant three hours of sleep behind him, Roy DeSoto wound his way through the corridors of Rampart. Hoping against hope that neither Johnny nor Hank would wake up right away and follow him, he continued his journey until he reached the door of his son’s hospital room. Stepping quietly into its shadowy depths, Roy found Christopher curled up in bed, fast asleep.

 

Slipping into paramedic mode, the worried father didn’t even think to chastise himself as he quietly counted respirations and checked the boy’s color. Reaching up to place his hand on his son’s brow, Roy was almost startled to see the blue eyes open and immediately flash with recognition.

 

With a cry of delight, Chris flung himself into his father’s arms and the two stayed in that position for some time. Even though he wanted to race back to his wife’s side, Roy knew he needed to spend some time with his children, and he breathed a silent prayer that no bothersome nurses would pick this particular time to check on their charges. Settling on the bed next to his son, Roy spent almost an hour answering questions and uttering reassurances.

 

Roy was greatly relieved to see that Chris was already on the road to recovery, and he almost held his breath as he moved down the hall to Jennifer’s room. Would his youngest be that fortunate?

 

As he moved quietly into his daughter’s room, Roy suddenly expelled the breath he’d been holding, and only then did he realize that another possibility had been causing him distress. What if Joanne’s mother had been sitting with Jen? But the room was conspicuously absent of her presence. Thank God! Once again, the paramedic father fell into routine, checking Jennifer’s breathing and color visually, then stepping close to feel her forehead. Gently swiping damp hair away from her face, Roy was concerned at the warmth he felt there.

 

“She’s okay. Kel’s aware of her temp and he just changed the antibiotic several hours ago.”

 

Roy whirled about as Dixie stepped to his side. He’d been so engrossed in watching his daughter, he hadn’t heard the door open.

 

“Dix.”

 

“Roy. I thought you were supposed to be getting some rest.”

 

“I thought you were supposed to go home after your shift ended.”

 

The two friends shared a brief smile before turning back to the child before them.

 

“She’s really doing okay, then?”

 

“Yes, she’s already starting to respond to the new drug. Her temp’s come down a whole degree and I expect she’ll be cool by morning.”

 

Dropping into a chair placed next to the bed, Roy scrubbed his hand over his face. Then, reaching out, he carefully picked up his daughter’s hand and held it gently. Dixie found herself praying silently for the little girl to wake up, if only for a few minutes. It was obvious her father could use a little good news, and a smile from his daughter would surely help his lagging spirits. Almost immediately, the nurse received her reward, as Jen’s eyelids fluttered then opened.

 

“Daddy?”

 

The thin voice instantly caught his attention, and Roy felt as if his heart had moved up into his throat. Fighting back the sudden elation, he kept his voice calm as he answered.

 

“Yes, Princess, it’s Daddy. How are you feeling?”

 

“Tired.”

 

“That’s okay, honey, you can rest all you want to and the nurses will be right here to get you anything you want.”

 

“But I want to see Mommy.”

 

“I know, Jen, but Mommy’s still pretty sick. But I can take a message to her if you like.”

 

The child’s voice was already fading as her eyes fell shut once more. With what seemed to be an extreme effort, she pried them open long enough for one last question.

 

“Will you tell her I love her?”

 

“Of course I will. And she loves you too. But you’d better get some sleep now so you’ll be feeling better when Mommy’s ready for company, okay?”

 

“Okay. .”

 

The thin answer drifted away as Jen fell back to sleep. Roy continued to stroke her forehead, totally oblivious to the fact that Dix had left the room long ago.

 

**********************

 

Johnny sat stiffly in yet another hard vinyl chair. He wondered for a moment, why the hospital didn’t spend a little more money on their waiting room furniture, it was an obvious need in his opinion. After spending almost 72 hours there, he felt he was the perfect judge on what was comfortable and not comfortable. Shifting slightly, he narrowed his eyes as he saw Roy walk out of ICU.

 

Hmmm, Joanne’s mom must be in there.

 

Moving slowly, his gait almost a shuffle, Roy headed across the room and finally settled in a chair next to Gage. Neither one spoke, there wasn’t much to say. Time seemed to stretch ahead of them as an unending path, the end not yet visible; the outcome uncertain. Joanne had yet to show any signs of waking, and with each passing hour, Roy was growing more despondent. The fear that she would never wake up was overwhelming, and in his exhausted state, he had no strength to deal with the panic that wrought.

 

Johnny, too, was fraught with anxiety. There was nothing he could say or do that would bring comfort to his friend. The chilling reality was that Roy’s wife might die, and that knowledge was devastating. The two men continued to sit together, their shoulders slumped, their faces unreadable. Hank and Mike joined them several minutes later.

 

Hank watched the two tired paramedics, and wondered silently how much longer they’d be able to keep going. Roy looked worse than ever, and although Johnny had been forced to rest due to his concussion, the man’s appearance was far from normal. The captain was at least thankful that the media frenzy had died down. Dr. Brackett and Chief McConnikee had arranged a press conference the day before, and that along with another newsworthy event had caused the reporters to move on. Hank knew he wasn’t the only one who wasn’t sorry to see them go.

 

Suddenly, the door was flung open and Joanne’s mother stormed out of ICU. The woman almost stomped in her righteous indignation. In an instant Roy was at her side, demanding to know what had happened. She turned to him, her face almost red in its fury.

 

“I don’t know. Those nurses! Hmmph! So rude, asking me to leave when I’m sitting with my daughter. How dare they.”

 

“Why did they want you to leave? What happened? Is Joanne worse?”

 

Roy stood before his mother-in-law, his hands firmly clasped on her arms. He felt that if the woman didn’t give him some answers soon, he’d shake her until she did. That was when he noticed Kel Brackett hurrying down the hall, and without a glance at any of them, entered ICU.

 

Johnny grabbed for Roy as the man slipped past him and followed Brackett. If Joanne was gone, he didn’t want his friend to find out this way. But when he reached Roy’s side, he realized the machines were still issuing their annoying beeps. Looking around, he was finally aware of the happy faces worn by Brackett and the nurses. Roy, however, seemed frozen in place, not fully realizing what was happening. Brackett laid a hand on Roy’s shoulder as his own mouth twitched up into a relieved grin.

 

“It’s okay, Roy, she’s starting to wake up. The nurses just needed to check her over, and they paged me immediately, but I think your mother-in-law became upset. We’re sorry about that, but we’ve tried to make everyone aware of the strict rules here in ICU.”

 

Roy’s nod was his only answer as he continued to stare at his wife. Nothing seemed to have changed, except maybe the expression on her face. He found it hard to describe, even to himself, but she looked less. . . grim? A chair was quickly pushed up behind him and Roy gratefully dropped into its welcome embrace. Reaching for Joanne’s hand, he didn’t even realize the doctor and all but one nurse had left. But he was aware that his friend was still there, could feel his presence, a constant throughout this nightmare. With a sigh, he focused on his wife’s face, watching closely for any sign of change.

 

The wait was short as minutes later Joanne’s eyes fluttered open. Only part way open, but open. She seemed to stare up into space, as if unaware of time or place, and Roy’s heart dropped as he wondered if she’d be as he knew her. Mentally shaking himself, Roy tried to concentrate on all the positive signs. Pushing himself up, he leaned over her gently and brushed her cheek with a soft kiss.

 

“Sh a . .”

 

“What? Honey, what did you say?”

 

Eyes blinking open a little farther, a thin smile graced Joanne’s face.

 

“N e ed a sha. .ve, Roy.”

 

The tears flowed freely from his eyes, as Roy’s head dropped to his wife’s shoulder. Joanne’s smile grew as her hand weakly rose to rest on her husband’s sandy hair. At the end of the bed, Johnny swiped a hand across his own eyes as he turned to slip from the room.

 

*******************

 

Roy looked over the deck railing and watched Chris and Jennifer playing in the back yard. Leaning back in the chaise lounge, he closed his eyes and enjoyed the feeling of the warm sun on his face. In the background, he could hear the soft chatter of Joanne and Eileen as they worked in the kitchen. It wouldn’t be long before everyone arrived, and Roy was relieved that his part of the work was finished. He was looking forward to the barbeque, but was sometimes astonished at how much work a little get-together could generate. Now he reveled in the chance to sit back and relax, listening to his family and their happy sounds.

 

It had been almost two months since the accident. For the first couple of weeks, Joanne’s mother had stayed with the family, and though her presence had been stressful at times, Roy was grateful for the help she’d provided. After she’d returned to San Diego, Eileen had been there to help Joanne when Roy couldn’t be. Although he’d managed to take his vacation and sick leave, and even took a short leave of absence, eventually he’d been forced to return to work. He was, after all, their only source of income.

 

Then there was Johnny. What would they have done without him? All the members of ‘A’ shift for that matter. The men and their families had been an unceasing source of strength to Roy and his family. Now that Joanne was better, life was slowly returning to normal. Although she still suffered from severe headaches, they were gradually becoming less frequent.

 

So lost in thought was he, that Roy didn’t hear the screen door open behind him, and he jumped in startled surprise as the ice-cold bottle touched his neck. Not even bothering to look behind him, Roy simply raised his hand, grateful for the beer, which his friend deposited there.

 

“Thanks, Junior.”

 

Johnny stood behind the lounge chair for a moment; then briefly rested his hand on Roy’s shoulder before moving over to the other chair. Stretching his lanky legs out before him, the young man settled back and took a long drink. Casting a glance at his quiet partner, he wondered at the man’s silence.

 

“You okay?”

 

“Yeah, just thinking.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Waiting patiently, Johnny spent the next few minutes watching the DeSoto children as they played together. Both children were now the picture of health and he breathed a silent thank you for that blessing.

 

”Johnny, I just want to say thank you.”

 

The quiet statement caught Gage by surprise and he turned quickly to stare at his partner.

 

“What d’ya mean?”

 

“You know . . just . . thank you, for everything.” Roy nodded out towards his children as he spoke.

 

Grinning slightly, Johnny leaned back in his chair.

 

“You’ve already thanked me, Roy. About a dozen times, in fact.”

 

“Yeah, but, well . . I was just sitting here thinking about the last couple months and how much you’ve helped my family.”

 

“Ahhh, Roy, I didn’t . .”

 

“Yes, you did, Junior. You’ve used most of your vacation to help take care of the kids while Joanne was in the hospital, all the time you’ve spent over here during this nightmare. . . It’s just . . I don’t know how to say . .”

 

“You don’t have to say anything, Roy. You, Joanne and the kids . . you’re my family. I’m just glad I could be here to help you when you needed me.”

 

Once more Roy missed the sound of the screen door as Joanne joined them on the deck. Slipping down to sit next to her husband for a moment, she looked back and forth between the two men as they silently watched her. Frowning slightly as she wondered what was going on, there was a hint of exasperation in her voice when she spoke.

 

“What?”

 

The two men broke into laughter and she swatted at each of them playfully.

 

“Come on, you two, there’s company coming and it’s time to light the grill.”

 

Roy pulled himself reluctantly from his chair and watched as Johnny followed Joanne back inside to help. Minutes later, voices filled the house as their guests arrived.

 

“A” Shift and their families were there, along with Joe Early, Kel Brackett and Dixie McCall. Several of the nurses had been invited along with a number of other firemen who had been supportive during the DeSotos’ ordeal.

 

Shaking his head in wonder, Roy moved towards the house to join his friends, thankful that the nightmare was finally over.

 

 

*****End*****

 

A Huge thank-you to Kenda for beta reading this one, Becca for the medical info., and Audrey for the encouragement to get it done!

 

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