by dee_ayy

Gage turned the corner and saw the station ahead. Again, he felt oddly nervous about what he was about to do. But it was time to level with his friends, especially since it was such good news. That, and he hoped to get a chance to tell Roy, too. Whatever run he’d been on had not required a trip to Rampart, so Johnny hadn’t seen him yet. The door was up, and the squad was still out; but the engine was there.

He pulled his Rover up to the curb next to the station. He wanted to talk to Cap first, and was hoping the man would be in his office, working on the mountains of paperwork that he always complained about.

Johnny peeked into the apparatus bay, and was relieved to find it empty. He took a deep breath and walked in, and was glad to find his captain right where he thought he’d be.

He rapped lightly on the doorjamb to get the man’s attention. “Hey Cap, you got a minute?” he asked as soon as his superior looked up.

Hank was surprised to see him, Johnny could tell. But why wouldn’t he? As far as he knew, Johnny was home with a stomach virus.

“Sure pal, come on in. What brings you here? I thought you weren’t feeling well?”

Gage entered, and closed the door behind him. He saw the surprise at the move register on the captain’s face. He sat.

“I’m feeling fine, Cap. I . . . .” Why was it so hard to tell people? How should he do this, and where should he start? “I lied about the stomach thing” is what eventually came out of his mouth, and Johnny instantly knew that was not the approach he wanted.

Captain Stanley’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “Oh?” he asked. “Is that something you want to be telling me?”

The paramedic shook his head. “That’s not what I wanted to say,” he admitted. “It was true that I couldn’t work today for a medical reason, but it wasn’t the stomach bug.”

“So why don’t you tell me what it was?” Cap suggested.

“Yeah, okay. It’s just that I’m not really sure where to start.”

“Well, pal,” the captain intoned. “I’m a big fan of the beginning.”

Johnny grinned slightly, took a deep breath, and started. At the beginning.

+ + + + +

“And that takes you right up to about an hour ago,” Johnny finished. Cap had sat silently through most of story, only asking the occasional question, like when he connected the hoarse voice to the medical procedure John had undergone.

The paramedic waited for some sort or response from his boss, and was unnerved when none came immediately. Finally he had to ask. “So?”

Stanley leaned forward in his chair. “I think it’s my turn to not know where to start, John,” he admitted.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’m happy to hear that you’re okay. Or that you will be. Or whatever. That it’s not serious. Of course I’m happy for you. That’s great news.”

“Yeah,” Gage agreed.

“But at the same time I have to confess that I’m a little disturbed that you didn’t tell anyone--didn't tell me--about this right away.”

Johnny stiffened at the reprimand that he knew was about to come his way.

“Not only are there perfectly valid and important reasons for me, as your captain, to be aware of any medical conditions that might affect your performance on the job,”

“Dr. Brackett said I was fine to work, Cap. I never would,” He cut himself off when he saw Hank shaking his head.

“Physically, perhaps you were okay to work. But emotionally? How many times did I have to speak to you these last two weeks about your emotional and psychological state? How many times did you tell me you were okay? How many times did you lie to me?”

Gage swallowed hard. He didn’t know. And when Cap put it that way, it sounded just awful. He almost wished his captain would get angry and yell at him, like he’d done a week earlier. But this . . . this disappointment he was getting was almost unbearable. “I . . . I’m sorry, Cap,” he stammered.

“I’m sure you are.” Hank’s voice softened as he continued. “And yes, there were professional reasons why you should have told me immediately, John. But what troubles me most is that you felt you had to face this alone. I actually thought I was more than just your captain. I thought we were friends.”

“Oh, no, Cap!” Gage protested quickly. “I mean, we are. Friends I mean. It wasn’t that. I didn’t tell anyone. Not even Roy.”

“Why not?”

Johnny sighed in defeat. “Looking back, I don’t know. Seemed like a good idea at the time?” He shook his head. It all seemed like such a stupid move now. “And then the more time passed, it just got harder and harder, you know?”

Captain Stanley nodded, then smiled. “I think I can understand that. But you’re going to be completely honest and upfront from now on, correct?”

The paramedic grinned. “Yes, sir,” he promised.

“Good. So what are you going to do now?”

Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. I gotta decide.”

Cap reached forward and patted the paramedic on the arm. “Well just remember, John, whatever you do, if you need anything, just say the word.”

“I know. Thanks Cap.”

Hank stood. “I think you owe some people an explanation, don’t you?”

The rest of the engine crew. Of course he did. They’d borne more than the brunt of his worry. He stood up as Cap pulled his door open.

As the two men left the office, the squad backed into place in front of them. Johnny saw Roy’s alarmed face and turned to his captain. “Cap,” he asked, “can I talk to Roy first? He knows the bad news already, but not the good stuff.”

“Of course. Tell ya what,” Cap suggested, “I’ll go give the guys the basics while you talk to Roy, and then you can fill in any blanks I leave later. How’s that?”

John smiled gratefully. “That would be great, Cap. Thanks.”

+ + + + +

As Roy backed the squad into place, he tried desperately to read his partner’s expression--but it was oddly neutral. Was he just trying to be tough? Why would he be here at all, if not to give Cap some bad news, to ask for a medical leave or something? The questions were coming fast and furious, and he couldn’t get out of the cab quick enough.

“Johnny?” he asked, just as his partner was asking permission to use Cap’s office. Oh, God, the news was bad. It had to be. But whatever it was, there was something he needed to say first. All through the two runs they'd had since he'd left Johnny, all he could think of was how he'd behaved in the doctor's office. It was inexcusable.

As soon as he followed his partner into the office, he spoke. "Johnny, I'm sorry for the way I yelled back at the hospital. I was way out of line."

"I don't have cancer, Roy."

Gage said it so quietly, with only the tiniest hint of a smile, that at first Roy wasn't sure he'd heard right. "You . . . don't have cancer?" he repeated numbly. "You DON'T?"

"Nope!" With that John's face broke into a wide grin.

"You DON'T!" Roy repeated, letting the words sink in. He had an incredible urge to hug someone, but settled for a hearty thump on Johnny's back. "That's great! Just great!"

“I know,” Johnny agreed, slumping into Cap’s chair. “I’m tellin’ ya, Roy. When I thought I had. . . . I was really. . . .” He didn’t finish, leaving Roy to guess what Gage wanted to say. But he had a good idea. Question was, should he say it for both of them?

Why not, he quickly decided.

"Scared?" Roy ventured.

John jumped a bit in his seat, a fleeting look of panic crossing his face. "No, no, not really," he objected quickly. "I was. . . . I was worried, that's all." Roy could see his friend visibly relax at having come up with an alternative.

“Yeah,” the older paramedic answered, sitting down as well. “Me too. I think that’s why I yelled at you this morning. Because I was sca. . . ." He caught himself with a little inward smile. "Because I was worried, too."

Johnny just nodded. They didn’t have to say any more than that, and shared a moment of companionable silence. But Roy did have one more question that needed an answer.

“So, partner, are you going to tell me why you kept this to yourself?”

Gage shrugged sheepishly. “It all started the day we painted the sunroom,” he began, and proceeded to explain how something always seemed to come up with Roy’s family that kept Johnny from saying anything. “It just seemed like you had enough to worry about,” he finished.

Roy had been trying really hard to see John’s logic through this explanation, but he couldn’t. He’d known Johnny for a long time, but this was too much, even for him. “So,” he finally started, “you’re saying you didn’t tell me right away because my dishwasher was broken?”

Johnny shrugged again.

Roy couldn’t believe it. “You know how dumb that sounds, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I think I do,” John confessed. “But it made sense to me at the time. Plus I really didn’t think it would take two weeks to find out what was going on. I was gonna tell you as soon as I knew what I was up against, honest. But you beat me to it.”

“Thank Chet for that. He heard you on the phone in the dorm one afternoon making a doctor’s appointment. Then I started putting the other pieces together.”

“You mean Dixie really didn’t tell you?”

“Nah. Well, not really. I told her what I knew, and then she sorta helped me track you down at Rampart. That’s all.”

Roy watched his friend smile. “I was sure she told you. I was really mad at her at first.”

“Would you still be mad at her if she had?”

“Probably not,” Johnny admitted. “Not much, anyway.”

Roy smiled at that. His partner never could hold a grudge.

+ + + + + +

Johnny could hear the noisy chatter coming from the day room as he approached, and he knew they'd be talking about him. Those suspicions were confirmed when he walked through the door and the banter came to an immediate halt.

"Hi guys," he said somewhat warily.

They were all silent for about three seconds too long before Marco finally spoke. "Hey Johnny," he said, "how ya feeling?"

"Ohhh, fine. I'm feeling fine." His wariness was spreading into his voice, too. Dwyer shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and Johnny instantly felt sorry for the poor guy, who was stuck in the middle of something that really had nothing to do with him.

The awkward silence resumed, and Johnny waited for someone to say something.

Finally someone did. Chet.

"Geez, Gage, you could have told us!"

And that opened the floodgates, as John's friends started deluging him with questions.

"He stuck a needle right into your lung?" Chet asked at one point. He was never known for subtlety.

"Yup," the paramedic confirmed. "Right here," he added, pointing to the spot on the right side of his chest, which still sported a bandage over the biopsy site that still sported two stitches. Johnny felt it with his finger, and shook his head. It already seemed like that was two months ago, not two days.

"That had to hurt."

"Nah, not really. It was uncomfortable, that's all. The bronchoscopy, though, that was the worst."

"So what are you going to do now, Johnny?" Mike asked quietly. It was the first time he'd had anything to say, and Johnny had to sigh. He was tired of the question already, as valid as it was. But he couldn't blame Mike for that.

"Well," Johnny started emphatically. "Right now I'm gonna go home and not think about it any more for at least a day." He started to smile. "Then I think I'm gonna see if I can get myself a date for tomorrow night."

Mike was smiling. "That's not what I meant," he said.

"I know," the paramedic admitted, his grin widening as he stood. "You fellas don't work too hard, okay?"

As he was making his way toward the front of the building, Roy ran out after him.

"Hey Johnny, how about coming over for dinner Friday night? The kids have missed you."

John stopped and thought about it for just a second. He'd missed them, too. And Joanne. And just about everything else he'd pushed out of his life in the last couple of weeks. "Sounds good, Roy."

+ + + + +

“Well, your appetite’s fine,” Joanne said with a smile as she picked up the last of the dishes off the table.

“For your cooking? Always.”

The woman smiled and went into the kitchen, returning quickly. “Okay, kids, let’s go. Christopher, you have homework, and Jen, it’s time to get in the bath.”

“But mom,” the young boy wailed. “It’s Friday!”

“Do it now, and then it’s done,” the mother said simply. “Git.”

The kids reluctantly got up and said good night to Johnny before heading up the stairs. “I’ll come up to say good night before I go home,” John promised.

Finally alone, Roy studied his friend for a moment. “Did you get that date last night?” he asked.

Gage grinned widely. “Yeah. Remember that girl in the doctor’s office? Sandy?”

“You went out with her?

Johnny nodded “Uh huh. She’s incredible!”

“I’d have thought you wouldn’t want to go out with someone who . . . .” Roy had to stop, unsure if Johnny wanted to broach the subject. After what he’d been through, DeSoto wasn’t sure if his friend wanted to take a deserved break from all that. It hadn’t come up all evening.

“Who knows?” John finished for him.

“Well, yeah. I thought you didn’t want to talk about it for a while.”

John grinned slyly. “We didn’t talk about it. That’s what was so incredible. We didn’t do much talking at all--if you know what I mean.”

Roy knew, but that didn’t mean he wanted to hear about it. He did look at Johnny and let out a laugh, though.


“Nothing. It’s just nice to have you back, that’s all.”

John blushed slightly. “Yeah, well, I’m sorry about that. I shoulda told you sooner.”

Roy shrugged. “Water under the bridge, Johnny,” he said.

“What’s water under the bridge?” Joanne entered from the living room. “Jenny said she wants you to tuck her in, Johnny. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Nah, I don’t mind.”

“Give her ten minutes,” Jo instructed. She headed into the kitchen, but raised her voice to repeat “So what’s water under the bridge?”

“Nothing,” Roy deflected.

Joanne returned with the coffee pot and three mugs. “You haven’t let him off the hook already, have you?” she asked her husband. She poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Johnny with a disingenuous smile.

“Yup, he has,” John answered with a self-satisfied grin of his own.

By now the woman had placed coffee in front of her husband, and had poured her own cup and was sitting. “Well I don’t think I can let you off so easy, Johnny,” she chided.

“Joanne,” Roy urged quietly. He wasn’t sure this was wise.

“It’s okay, Roy, I can take it. I deserve it.”

“That’s right, young man, you do. What on earth were you thinking? Don’t you know that you can count on your friends whenever you need them, especially when something’s wrong?”

“I don’t know what I was thinking, and I do know that. Especially now. And I’ve already said I’m sorry.”

“Won’t happen again, will it?” she asked pointedly.

“No, ma’am!” John promised.

“Good,” Joanne said with a satisfied nod. “Now that we’ve settled that, have you thought about what you’re going to do?”

Johnny swirled the coffee in his cup for a bit, staring at it. “I’m not sure yet.” He looked up at his friends. “What do you guys think?”

“I don’t think we should try and influence you, Johnny,” Roy admonished. “I think you should decide for yourself.”

“Man, Roy, that’s what everyone’s saying. And it ain’t helping, I tell ya. I’ll still decide for myself. But you wanna help, so help. What would you do if it was you?”

Roy thought about it for a long moment. Finally he had to admit. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t.”

Gage chuckled mirthlessly. “Me neither. I’m gonna go say good night to Jen.” He abandoned his coffee and ran upstairs.

“It’s quite a decision,” Joanne said quietly as soon as John had left.

“Yeah. I don’t know what to tell him.” He shook his head. “It’s funny, we keep telling him he shoulda told us so we could help him, and now we know, and we can’t help him.”

“Sure we can,” Jo told him. “By supporting whatever he does decide.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“And maybe,” the woman continued, clearly forming an idea, “some other way.” She went into the kitchen and came back with a large pad of paper and a marker. She made two columns on the paper, labeling one “pros” and the other “cons.”

“He’s not gonna go for that, Joanne,” Roy reproached. “This isn’t like deciding whether or not to buy a new car!”

“How do you know? Maybe he just needs help organizing his thoughts.”

Roy shrugged, and they waited for Johnny to return.

“What’s that?” he asked as soon as he did.

“I thought maybe it would help you decide what’s the best thing to do. Sometimes it’s easier if you make a list.”

Johnny just looked at his partner’s wife, completely incredulous.

“Hey,” the feisty woman said. “You wanted help, this is help. We’ll start with the pros and cons of having the surgery.”

Gage shook his head with a laugh. “Okay, I’ll play along.”

+ + + + +

John looked at the two pieces of paper in his hand, his two pros-and-cons lists. It was nice to have it all spelled out for him, and Roy had even thought of a few things that he hadn’t. But there was still one problem.

“Sorry, Jo,” he said. “I still don’t know what to do.”

“Well you just keep those, Johnny,” the woman said. “Maybe they’ll help later.”

“Maybe.” Gage looked at his watch. “I’d better go. We have to work tomorrow.” He stood up and walked around the table to plant a kiss on Joanne’s cheek. “Thanks for dinner,” he said, “and for this,” he added, waving the papers slightly.

“My pleasure, Johnny. Don’t be a stranger, huh? And let me know if there’s anything else I can do.”

“I will.”

“I’ll walk you out,” Roy offered, and the two men went outside.

As he got to his car Johnny looked back at the DeSoto house. Chris’s light was still on, and the entire downstairs was warmly illuminated as well. He couldn’t help but smile wistfully.

“What?” Roy asked.

“Oh nuthin,” John tried to dismiss. But then he changed his mind. “I was just thinking that these last few weeks probably woulda been a lot easier if I’d told you right away.”

DeSoto let out a laugh and playfully jabbed his friend in the arm. “That’s what we’ve been telling you all night. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Johnny climbed in his car. “Yeah, Roy, see ya tomorrow.”

+ + + + +

“Where is everyone else?” Johnny asked his partner as he was changing his shirt.

“Dunno. Already dressed, I guess.” Roy looked at his watch. “We better move it. Roll call in a couple of minutes.”

The two men finished changing and made it into the apparatus bay just as Cap was calling them to line up.

Gage could feel his captain sizing him up as he took his place in line. “Welcome back, John. Feeling okay?”

Johnny cocked his head slightly in confusion. Hadn’t he told Cap last shift that he felt fine? “Yeah, Cap,” he replied. “100%.”

“Good, glad to hear it.” Cap proceeded to make his few department announcements, and dole out the chores. Everyone was given something, except Johnny.

“Cap?” the puzzled paramedic asked.

“Oh, I have something in mind for you, John, don’t worry. Why don’t you drop by my office after you and Roy have checked out the squad.”

“Yeah, okay.”

+ + + + +

“What do you think that was about?” Johnny asked as they sorted through the drug box. “It was my turn for latrine duty, you know.”

Roy looked up with an amused half-grin. “You want the latrines? I’m sure Marco will be happy to trade!”

“Well, no, that’s not it!” John protested. “It was just strange, that’s all.”

Roy returned his attention to counting bags of D5W. “Don’t worry about it,” he advised.

+ + + + +

The squad’s supplies in order, Johnny made his way to Cap’s office. “We’re all set,” he told his superior. “What is it you want me to do?”

Stanley banged his hand down on a huge pile of paperwork. “See this?” he said. “Incident reports. They all need to be put in chronological order.”

John’s mouth gaped open in surprise. “There have to be at least a year’s worth there, Cap!”

“Uh huh. Exactly one year, as a matter of fact. But you can take your time. There’s no hurry.”

“Ummm, Cap,” Johnny ventured, getting suspicious. “Can I ask how they got OUT of order?”

Hank shrugged. “You know how it is, John. Three men sharing an office, things get misplaced, piles get knocked over.”

“Uh huhhh. Sure thing, Cap.”

John took the pile of paper into the kitchen and dropped it unceremoniously on the table, then went in search of Roy. He found him changing beds in the dorm.

“Roy, Cap’s got me pushing paper!”

“So?” The elder paramedic didn’t even stop making the bed he was working on.

“Don’t you think that’s a little suspicious?”

DeSoto stopped what he was doing and stood up straight. “Why would I think that?”

“You know,” Gage said with an impatient wave of his hand, “all that stuff I told him last shift. With my . . .” He didn’t finish the sentence, but pointed to his chest instead.

Roy resumed his chore. “I think you’re being paranoid, Johnny. It was just your turn to get the paperwork, that’s all.”

John left, not buying it for a second.

+ + + + +

The morning was a slow one, affording John lots of time to sort paper. He was actually relieved when the tones went off for a jackknifed tanker truck and chemical spill.

Unsure at first of what had been in the tanker, Cap ordered everyone in SCBAs. There were no injuries, so John and Roy found themselves on a hose line, helping to wash down the chemical, which proved to be a horrid-smelling, but relatively harmless all-natural insecticide.

As they worked Johnny couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched, and closely. But every time he tried to catch one of them, they’d be looking somewhere else. Was Roy right? Was he being paranoid?

+ + + + +

“You guys need help?” Johnny asked Mike and Marco, who were pulling the used hose off the engine to hang out back. It hadn’t taken long to wash down the area and they’d quickly returned to the station.

“Nope, we’re fine Johnny,” Marco promised with smile.

“You sure?” No one ever refused help hanging hose.

“Uh huh. We got it,”

John shook his head and returned to the squad. He could replace the air tanks they’d used with fresh ones, anyway. No one would stop him from doing that. He disconnected the two used ones, and put them aside to be refilled later. Then he hopped in the back of the squad and disconnected two fresh tanks. He moved the first to the edge and hopped down to the ground. But before he could pick it up, Chet was by his side.

“I got it,” Chet said, practically pulling the tank out of John’s hand and lowering it to the ground.

“Chet,” Gage started to admonish, but Kelly had jumped onto the squad to get the second bottle. Johnny set to reconnecting the one tank he had until his friend got down with the second.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he finally asked once Chet had reached the floor and was connecting the second apparatus.

“What?” Chet asked, oozing innocence. “A guy can’t lend a hand?”

“YOU? No.” Johnny picked up his SCBA and returned it to its compartment. The fireman soon followed with the second, allowing Gage to continue. “I’m fine, Chet. Stop acting all . . . weird.”

“Johnny my friend, you’re losing it! I don’t know what you are talking about!” Though the teasing tone was in Chet’s voice, the mischievous look was missing from his face. He was lying.

But before John could take it any further, the klaxons went off.

“Station 51, Station 36. Structure Fire. 1429 18th St. 1-4-2-9 18th. Cross street Manor. Time out 11:27.”

The paramedic latched the compartment and jumped in the squad.

+ + + + +

It was getting smoky up on the 3rd floor, but wasn’t too hot yet. Nevertheless, the man in front of Johnny wouldn’t move. He wasn’t injured, wasn’t sick. He was just . . . paralyzed with fear.

“Look, buddy!” he screamed through his air mask. “We gotta get out of here!! Follow me and I’ll lead you out. Can you do that?”



Nothing. John shook him, pinched him, but stopped short of a hard slap on the face. And still nothing.

With a resigned sigh, the paramedic hoisted the man on his shoulders, and started carrying him to safety. How come the ones who froze were always over 300 pounds?

+ + + + +

Gage was relieved to see that Squad 36 was set up for injuries. He lugged his charge over there, and carefully put the man down. He was winded. Severely.

“Whatcha got?” one of the paramedics, John didn’t catch which one, asked.

“Ahhh, he’s okay. Hit him with ammonia, and he’ll be fine, I bet. Just scared.”

Gage trudged toward the squad, wearily pulling off his gear and trying to catch his own breath.

+ + + + + +

Roy was just leaving the building after sweeping the second floor when he was startled by an urgent tap on his shoulder. It was Chet.

“What?” he asked.

“You’d better come. It’s Johnny.”

He ran around the corner of the burning building, hot on Chet’s heels. He could see Cap and Marco standing by John, who was sitting on the bumper of the squad, bent over at the waist.

“Johnny? What’s the matter?” he asked as soon as he arrived.

John sat up. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

“I dunno, pal,” Cap chimed in. “Maybe a ride into Rampart wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

“He’s having trouble breathing,” Chet claimed.

“I am NOT!” Johnny stood up suddenly, startling all four men around him.

Roy didn’t know what was going on, or what to make of this. “What happened?” he asked.

“I’ll show you what happened,” Johnny said, making no effort to hide the aggravation in his voice. “See that guy over there with 36s?” He pointed toward their triage area.

Roy looked. “The big guy?”

“Yeah, the 350-pound big guy. You carry that down three flights of stairs without getting a little out of breath.” With that Johnny walked away, ostensibly to put his SCBA away.

“What do you think, Roy?” Captain Stanley asked quietly as soon as John was out of earshot.

Roy looked back at his captain. “Did he really carry that man down?”

Hank shrugged. “I guess so.”

DeSoto didn’t really know what to do. Johnny was winded, that much was obvious. But if he had carried that man out, then he had good reason to be, and that’s what he told his boss.

Cap shook his head pensively. “Things are under control here. Why don’t you pack up and run to Rampart for your supplies,” he suggested. But Roy clearly knew that wasn’t why he wanted the paramedics to go to the hospital.

“Yes sir,” he said, and Roy went to join his partner in packing up their tanks.

“I’m not being paranoid, Roy,” Johnny hissed. “They’re acting like I’m gonna break or something.” As he spoke Gage was twisting his torso and bending over toward his left side.

“You hurt yourself?” Roy asked simply, noting his partner’s movements.

“Stitch in my side,” Gage answered simply.

“Oh. Cap wants us to go pick up our supplies now.”

Johnny snorted with disgust. He knew what that meant, too. “I’m okay, Roy,” he promised as he climbed in the squad.

“Yeah, I know,” Roy sighed.

+ + + + +

Dixie looked up and saw two sweaty, sooty paramedics coming her way. “What are you boys doing here?” she asked. They almost never came in looking like this unless something was wrong. “Everyone okay?”

Johnny sort of chuckled. “Yeah, we’re fine. Supplies.” He handed her their list, and she turned around and started to fill the order.

“Is Doctor Brackett in today?” Roy asked.

Johnny immediately hissed “Royyyyyy!” And Dix knew that something was up. She turned.

“You know him. He’s here every day, almost. He’s in three. Why?”

“I thought we decided,” John started, but was stopped when Roy started to speak over him.

“I know we did. But I was thinking maybe we could talk to him, find out what you can tell the guys. You know.”

Gage sighed loudly and rolled his eyes, and Dix allowed her bemused grin to grow. Whatever it was, she didn’t want to miss it. “Come on,” she ordered, and led the two men to Dr. Brackett.

Kel’s reaction was much like Dix’s had been. He looked up and immediately asked, “Who’s hurt?”

“No one,” Roy offered. Then he looked at his partner. “Tell him,” he instructed.

Dixie looked at Johnny. His very posture oozed annoyance. “Tell him what?” he asked stubbornly.

Roy didn’t take it any further than that with his partner, and instead turned his attention back to the physician. “Johnny thinks that the guys at the station are . . . I don’t know how to put this. That they are babying him.”

“Not babying, Roy!” John interjected.

“Then what?”

Gage took it from there. “They keep watching me, like they think I’m gonna pass out any second. Chet wouldn’t let me lift air bottles off the squad. And then a little while ago, at this fire we were at . . . .” He stopped.

“What happened at the fire?” Brackett asked after a moment of awkward silence.

Johnny’s stance turned indignant. “I had to carry a 350-pound guy down three flights of stairs. When I got him out I was a little winded. Of course I was out of breath. But Chet saw me and he went nuts, and he told Cap, and Cap sent for Roy, and . . . .” Again he trailed off in frustration.

“And they all thought it had something to do with your lung.”

“Well yeah,” Johnny allowed. “All but Roy, here.”

“Did you think it had something to do with your lung?” the doctor asked his patient.

“I know it didn’t.”

“You should be flattered, Johnny,” Dixie told him. “They care about you, that’s all.”

“Right,” Johnny dismissed. “This is why I didn’t tell anyone,” he muttered derisively.

“I don’t know, Johnny,” Doctor Brackett said. “Maybe if you’d been upfront with the guys from the beginning, they wouldn’t be doubting your word now.”

Gage was thoroughly disgusted by now. “Do we have to go into that again?”

“No, I suppose not.”

Roy finally reentered the conversation. “Doc, there are no restrictions on what he can do, are there?”

Dix almost laughed at the outraged look Johnny shot at his partner, and at the innocent shrug Roy gave in reply.

“None, Roy. John’s lung capacity and pulmonary function tests are all excellent. He’s fine. In fact,” Kel turned his attention to John. “I’d be happy to call Captain Stanley and tell him exactly that if you think it will help.”

John had calmed slightly, and Dix marveled again at how mercurial this man’s emotions were. “Nah, Doc, not yet. Let me talk to him. If I need you to call him later, I’ll let ya know.”

“Okay, John. Just say the word.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Roy said as the two paramedics started to leave the room.

“Hey, Johnny,” Brackett called out before they left. “Have you reached a decision yet?”

John looked back. “Nope. But when I do, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Well I was taking to Dr. Miller, and he wants a follow up in a couple of weeks. That would be a month after we found the lesion.”

“So soon?”

“I’m sure he’s just being cautious; it won’t be every month, Johnny. If you decide not to have surgery, it’ll probably be every three after this one for a while, then every six. You get the idea.”

“Yeah, okay. I’ll make an appointment.”

+ + + + +

As the squad turned to back into the station Johnny was still unsure as to how to handle the problem with the rest of the crew. He was angry, annoyed, frustrated, all those things. But what Dix had said to him also had an impact. They’d probably talked about it, about him, before John had even arrived that morning, and had decided to go easy on him. They were just concerned for him.

Misplaced concern manifested in wild over-reactions, sure. But still, knowing that tempered the anger somewhat.

“I think I’m just gonna talk to Cap,” he decided aloud.

“Want me to come?” Roy offered.

“Nah.” John hopped out of the cab and headed toward the office. But it was empty. He went to check the day room, and found the entire crew, Roy included, in there.

“You okay, Johnny?” Marco asked.

Gage ignored the question. “Cap, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure, pal, what’s up?”


The captain got up, and the two men went into the office. John didn’t bother closing the door before he spoke. “Look, Cap, what happened at the scene back there. It can’t happen again.”

Cap cocked his head, raised an incredulous eyebrow, crossed his arms, and said absolutely nothing.

Suddenly scrambling, John continued. “I figure you guys think you are just looking out for me, and I appreciate it, I guess. But I can do my job, and I don’t want to be treated any different. I’m okay. I’m fine. Honest.”

Stanley uncrossed his arms and rubbed his jaw pensively. “You’ll forgive me for being a little doubtful of your word where this situation is concerned.”

Gage sighed with frustration. This again. “What do you want, a note from my doctor?”

Cap smiled slightly. “Wouldn’t hurt, pal,” he said. But his voice had a slight teasing tone, and Johnny relaxed slightly.

“Dr. Brackett offered to give you a call if I wanted him to. I told him I wanted to try and take care of it myself. But if you want to call him, go ahead. He’ll tell you. I’m 100%.”

“I might do that, I just might,” Stanley allowed. “And in the mean time you have my word, John. Business as usual from now on.”

Johnny felt the relief rush over him. “Thanks, Cap.”

“And you can start with helping Marco finish the latrine after lunch. It was supposed to be your turn, you know.”

John smiled. That actually sounded pretty good.

+ + + + +

“Hey, Sandy, it’s John Gage.” It was Monday morning, and Johnny had decided to make his follow up appointment with Miller right away. Once he had squared things with the guys during their Saturday shift things had settled back to normal for the most part--all except that Brackett’s mention of the need for a follow up had kept popping up in his head. And it had gotten worse on Sunday, so that by the end of the evening he was wishing for morning, when he could finally make the appointment and get it out of his mind again for two weeks.

“Hey, Johnny!” the girl answered brightly. “I had a great time last week,” she added somewhat seductively.

“Yeah, umm, me too.” John was too distracted to flirt.

“I was kinda hoping we could do it again some time,” Sandy said. “Soon,” she added.

“Yeah, sure. Look, Sandy, I’m calling to make an appointment with Dr. Miller.”

“Oh!” She was clearly surprised, and John finally realized that she’d thought he was calling for another date. “Anything the matter?” the receptionist asked.

“Nah. I guess I’m supposed to make an appointment for a follow up in about two weeks. Thought I’d just get it out of the way.”

“I see. Hang on a sec.” Johnny heard the unceremonious ‘thud’ as the phone was dropped on the desk. She hadn’t even put him on hold. But she was only gone for a couple of minutes.

“I just talked to the doctor, Johnny. What you really need is an appointment in radiology for more x-rays. I’ll make it for you. Then Dr. Miller will look at the pictures and give you a call with the results. That way you won’t have to schlep up here if there’s no need. Okay?”

“Yeah, sure. Whatever you say.”

“Ummmmm,” the young woman drew out as she clearly consulted a schedule or calendar. “How’s about two weeks from today at 9? Are you working that day?”

John counted his schedule forward. “Nope, I’ll have just gotten off. That’s perfect.”

“Great. I’ll put you in. Oh, hang on a sec.”

Johnny heard muffled voices, and then Dr. Miller himself was on the phone.

“Do I gather you’ve decided on the conservative approach, John?” he asked.

Johnny let out a breath. Truth was, he hadn’t really decided anything yet. “For now, I guess so. I haven’t decided, to be honest.”

“That’s fine, I was just curious. Again, if you have any questions or concerns, just give me a call.”

“I will, thanks.”

“Not a problem. I’ll give you back to Sandy now.”

The line was silent for a moment before the receptionist returned. “He’s gone, Johnny,” she told him. “So you wanna get together? Maybe tomorrow night?”

The paramedic smiled. “Yeah, sure, why not. How about a movie?”

+ + + + + +

The next ten days passed quickly and uneventfully. If the guys hadn’t actually forgotten about Johnny’s “problem,” they had done a good job of pretending that they had. Things at work had been totally normal. Even John himself had done a fairly decent job of putting it out of his own mind.

When he’d left the station on Friday morning, he’d bid his friends a good weekend, and had driven away whistling. He had another date with Sandy on Saturday night, and nothing to do until then but enjoy the beautiful weather. All in all, he'd been in a great mood.

It hadn’t lasted long.

He’d been in the kitchen, getting a glass of orange juice shortly after arriving home, and he happened to glance at the calendar. Monday was circled--in black, not in red, but circled all the same. “Ramp. Rad. 9am” he’d written in his chicken-scratch shorthand.

His follow up at the radiology department.

John hadn’t forgotten all about it, of course. Not totally. But he had managed to convince himself that it was still far off in the future. But there it was, in black ink. It wasn’t far off, not at all. It was on Monday.

And seeing that notice there had been like planting a seed in his brain, which spent the weekend germinating so it was in full bloom by the time he showed up for his next shift on Sunday morning.

+ + + + +

Roy noticed it right away. Johnny looked tired, distant, distracted--exactly like he had a month earlier. The older paramedic sighed, wondering what the problem was, and how hard he should push.

“What’s the matter, Johnny?” he asked, silently praying that his partner would level with him.

Gage smiled. “Nothing. It’s stupid.”

Stupid. Well, that was a relief. “Stupid” was usually a girl. “Didn’t you have a date with Sandy last night?” he ventured.

“Huh?” Johnny asked. “Uh yeah, I did. But I cancelled.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“Wasn’t in a date kinda mood, I guess.” Johnny definitely seemed down.

Roy’s anxiety was escalating. “Is something the matter?”

John looked around the locker room, and only sat when he was confident they were alone in the room. “I have my follow up tomorrow morning, that’s all.” Off Roy’s relieved expression, Gage added, “I told you it was stupid.”

“It’s not stupid, Johnny,” DeSoto told his friend. “I can see why you’d be nervous. But it’s gonna be fine.”

Johnny shrugged. “I know.”

Roy suddenly realized the date. “Do you still want to help me tune up the station wagon tomorrow afternoon? I can do it myself, or we can do it some other time.”

Gage considered it for a minute before answering. “You know what? No, I’ll still come over after the appointment. It’s just a couple of x-rays. I’ll give Dr. Miller your number and he can call me at your place to tell me everything’s okay.” John stood and finished tucking in his shirt. “Yeah,” he decided aloud, “that’s exactly what I’ll do. Thanks Roy!”

The younger paramedic left then, and left Roy wondering what exactly he’d done to improve his partner’s mood. It didn’t matter, he decided, as long as Johnny was feeling better.

+ + + + +

But John’s improved mood proved fleeting. Try as he might, he couldn’t shake the worry from his head. He’d tell himself he’d be fine. He knew everything would be fine. He was sure of it. He’d reason with himself, scold himself, give himself pep talks.

But none of it worked. As soon as he was done with his latest internal monologue, his thoughts would be replaced with a series of nagging “what ifs.”

What if it had gotten bigger?

What if it was changing, as he sat there, into cancer?

What if it hadn’t changed this time, but would before the next set of x-rays?

What if he breathed something in at a fire or something, and it made the thing go crazy and double in size in a week?

What if it started to affect his ability to breathe?

What if?

His concern didn't affect his performance on the job--he'd learned that lesson well a month ago, and made sure of it. But in all the down time that Sunday afternoon he steered clear of his shift mates, preferring solitude instead. And mercifully, they all seemed to sense his mood and gave him his space.

+ + + + +

Johnny was walking by Cap’s office when his boss called out to him. The paramedic backed up and peeked in. “Got a second?” Stanley asked

“Sure Cap,” Gage said, and he entered the small room. “What’s up?”

“That’s exactly what I was wondering. Are you okay? You seem a little down, kinda distracted, too. There isn’t another problem brewing, is there?”

Johnny shifted uncomfortably. His first instinct, of course, was to claim that he was fine. It was tempting because he knew he should be fine, and that getting worked up about a stupid follow up was a waste. But he also knew that he had no choice but to be completely straight with his captain from here on out. Cap deserved it.

“I have this follow up with the hospital about my lung tomorrow, and it’s on my mind. That’s all, Cap,” he let out in a rush.

“That’s all?” the captain asked incredulously. “That’s something. Should you be expecting a problem?”

“No, not at all. I’m sure it’ll be fine.” John shrugged again. “It’s just that it’s the first one.”

“I understand. Do you want to be relieved of duty? I can call in a replacement; it wouldn’t be a problem at all.”

“No, don’t do that!” Johnny said quickly. “I need to stay at work. I need to keep busy. Believe it or not, it keeps my mind off it.” Gage immediately realized the falsity of his words and grinned sheepishly. “Most of the time. When we get a call, anyway,” he added.

Stanley nodded. “Okay. I know you’ll keep your mind on the job. Have you decided for sure not to have the surgery?”

“I don’t know, Cap. I haven’t decided. Maybe after tomorrow I won’t have a choice any more.”

“That sounds rather defeatist, pal,” Cap said with a smile.

John sort of grinned at that. He was right.

+ + + + + +

Johnny was just starting to change into his civilian clothes. Rampart was only five minutes away, and his appointment wasn’t for almost an hour, so he was in no particular hurry. By the time he’d entered the locker room, most of his crewmates were almost ready to go.

He was sitting in front of his locker and concentrating on taking off his boots when he was startled by a pat on his back. Mike said “Good luck today, Johnny,” and by the time the paramedic looked up, the engineer was almost out the door.

“Uhhh, thanks,” he mumbled. How had he known?

Then it was Marco’s turn. “Yeah, Johnny, hope everything turns out all right,” he said as he was leaving.

Johnny shot a confused look at his partner, and Roy merely shrugged. But Gage knew his friend would never tell anyone without his permission. And neither would Cap. That left one person, who was standing at the sinks and seemed fascinated with his mustache.

“Chetttt?” John drew out, looking over at the fireman.

Kelly met his gaze through the reflection in the mirror. “Why do you always think it’s me?” he asked.

“Maybe because it always IS you?” Roy provided.

Chet turned. “I resent that,” he said with mock indignation.

“How’d you know?” Johnny asked.

“I heard you telling Cap yesterday. And the other guys, they were wondering what was bothering you, so I told ‘em.” Chet sounded defiant at first, but as he spoke that changed to apologetic. “Don’t be mad at them, they were just worried about you, that’s all.”

“I’m not mad at them,” Johnny said. “You, however. . . .” He didn’t finish.

“Hey, I was too!” Chet protested.

“Was what?” Roy asked. He seemed to be enjoying this. “Worried?”

“Well, concerned. I was concerned. You’re not fair game when you’re down in the dumps, you know.”

Johnny grinned. He wasn’t mad at Chet, actually. Not at all, and that sort of surprised him. He wasn’t upset that everyone knew, and apparently had for much of the shift. They hadn’t treated him differently, they’d respected his desire for space. And he had to admit that knowing they were thinking about him was a good feeling. He was actually glad they knew.

But still, this was Chet.

“You shoulda talked to me first,” he scolded, and he left it at that.

“Yeah, okay,” Kelly allowed, then adding, “And what Mike and Marco said? It goes for me too.”

Johnny just had to smile. When he left the station he was feeling a lot better about things, and he had to confess that having people in your corner did make things easier to take.

+ + + + +

The x-rays had been a breeze, of course, and John headed up to Dr. Miller’s office to give them Roy’s number so the doctor could reach him with the results. He opened the door and was slightly chagrined by the cold, polite smile the receptionist gave him. Sandy was mad, and Johnny had to admit she had good reason to be. He’d cancelled their date on a Saturday night with only an hour’s notice.

“Hey, Sandy,” he said tentatively.

“Johnny,” she responded curtly.

Business first. “I, uhhh, just had my x-rays taken, and I’m not gonna be home this afternoon, so I wanted to leave you the number where Dr. Miller can reach me.”

The girl didn’t even look up. She just picked up a pen and poised it over a pad of paper. “Shoot,” she directed.

The paramedic gave her Roy’s number, then stood there silently for a second. He looked around. There was one person sitting quietly in the corner, clearly paying no attention whatsoever to the little drama playing out at the reception desk.

“Look, Sandy,” he started hesitantly. The woman looked at him expectantly, her lips pursed into a thin straight line. “I’m sorry about Saturday.”

“You should be!” she said forcefully. “Look, I know we’ve only dated half a dozen times and stuff, but you don’t just call and cancel and not give a reason like that! It’s rude!”

She was absolutely right. It had been rude, and stupid, too. Sandy was a great girl, really pretty, fun to be with. Once upon a time he’d have said that nothing could possibly make him want to cancel a date with a girl like her. But he had let something make him want to, and something stupid at that. And then he’d made it worse by not leveling with her.

But he could rectify that last part right now. “You’re right, and I’m sorry. It’s just that,” Johnny paused, frustrated that yet again that he was having so much trouble being straight with people. “It’s just that I was thinking about this, the follow up, and I knew I just wouldn’t be very good company.”

Sandy’s terse expression melted away into a gorgeous smile. “Well why didn’t you just say so, silly! I would have understood that!” Then she winked. "And I bet I woulda kept your mind off of it," she added.

Gage returned her grin. “Yeah, I bet you would have.” He looked at his watch. He was gonna be late for Roy’s. “Look, I gotta go. You’ll make sure the doc gets that number?”

“I’ll make sure, Johnny.” She jotted some words on the note, pulled it off the pad, and placed it in the doctor’s “in” box.

“And I want a raincheck!” the girl said after him as Gage was leaving the office, but he barely noticed.

+ + + + +

"So I was driving over here thinking 'this is really dumb,' you know, Roy? Really really dumb. I mean, I'm gonna have to be having these follow ups all the time. I can't be letting them get me all worked up every time. I'll drive myself crazy!" Johnny was speaking from underneath the DeSoto station wagon, and Roy was listening from his place buried under the hood.

"All the time?" Roy asked. "Does that mean you're not gonna have the operation?" The older paramedic was glad Johnny had brought this up, giving Roy a chance to find out where his partner's head was.

John pushed himself out from under the car, and Roy stood to look down at him. "That's just it, Roy. I thought I had. I thought I had decided not to do it. I mean, who wants to have an operation if they don't absolutely have to? Why look for trouble like that, right?"

Roy nodded silently, sure Gage was nowhere near finished.

"But then this past weekend, man, I don't mind admitting I was a wreck, all over again! I canceled a date! What did I do that for?"

Roy shrugged. He knew it was best not to try and say anything until Johnny was done.

"So now I don't know again. I mean, I still don't want to have surgery. But can I stand not knowing, and always wondering, and it getting worse every time I have to go back in for an x-ray?"

"Don't you think you'd get used to that eventually, though, Johnny?"

Gage shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe. Probably. But what if I don't? And what if now I start thinking about how many days to go until it's time to start thinking about it again?"

DeSoto was totally confused. He had no idea what his partner had just said. Thankfully, Joanne opened the door to the garage.

"Johnny, telephone," she said simply.

Roy looked down at his partner. Johnny took a deep breath and hopped up from the creeper. "Be right back," he said. He grabbed a rag and left the garage, wiping grease off his hands as he went.

+ + + + +

Johnny saw the phone sitting on the kitchen counter and picked it up.

"This is John Gage," he said.

"Hi, Johnny, it's Sandy."

The paramedic was surprised. He was expecting the doctor. "Oh, hi."

"Hi," the girl repeated. "Um, Johnny, Dr. Miller wanted me to call and see if you could come in."

There was a stool sitting under the wall phone, and John felt a sudden need to use it. "Why?" he asked.

"I don't know," the receptionist told him.

"Come on, Sandy, you know everything. Is it bad news?" Johnny registered motion in his peripheral vision, but didn't actually notice Joanne walking past him and to the garage.

"I honestly don't know, Johnny. I was at lunch and when I came back there was a note on my chair from Dr. Miller, asking me to call you and see if you could come in at four."

+ + + + +

Roy was leaning casually against the family car, waiting for Johnny to return. He was mulling whether or not they should just quit with the car and relax for a bit when Joanne came back to the doorway. Her expression immediately caused him to stand up straight with alarm.

"You'd better come in," is all she said.

By the time he reached the kitchen Johnny was saying goodbye and hanging up the phone. He looked blankly at the couple for a moment, clearly stunned.

"I," he started. "I have to go in. At four."

Joanne reached out and touched Johnny's hand, which was resting on the counter.

Roy consulted his watch. It was only 1:45. "Did he say why?" he asked.

"It wasn't . . . it wasn't the doctor. It was Sandy. She didn't know why."

"Who's Sandy?" his wife asked, and Roy quieted her by simply saying "receptionist."

"I'm sure it's nothing, Johnny," DeSoto soothed. "He probably just wants to see if you've reached a decision about what to do long-term. Don't you think?"

Gage was shaking his head. "When I made the appointment Dr. Miller set it up this way specifically so I wouldn't have to go into the office. Not if everything was okay, that is."

Roy couldn't argue with that. "So what do you want to do?" he asked. "There's almost two hours before you have to go."

Johnny was studying his still-greasy fingernails. "Let's finish the car," he said quietly.

"Oh, Johnny, forget the car!" Joanne exclaimed.

But Roy understood. Keep busy, keep your hands busy, keep moving, keep your mind off it. "No, Jo, it's a good idea. You can't drive it like it is. We at least need to put it back together." He clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Let's go finish up."

As the two men made their way back to the garage, Roy spoke again. "I'm coming with you this time. No arguments."

Johnny just looked at him and nodded.

+ + + + +

"I'll drive," John heard his friend say, and he nodded mutely. They'd finished tuning up the car in silence, Gage because he couldn't stop running through the possibilities in his head, and Roy, Johnny was sure, because he didn't know what to say.

The two paramedics climbed into Roy's Porsche and made the short trip to Rampart. Silently.

Roy led Johnny toward the Emergency entrance, and John didn't even bother to stop him and say he'd rather go around front. It didn't matter, anyway. They walked down the corridor toward the elevator, and its doors opened as they approached, so they headed straight in. Johnny noticed the baffled and concerned look on Dixie's face as they passed, but neither of them stopped to explain. She'd find out soon enough, anyway.

When they entered the waiting area Johnny was immediately met with Sandy's sympathetic smile. She probably knew by now, and the look on her face told him all he needed to know. He didn't say anything to her, and wandered over to the corner and faced it, crossing his arms on his chest to keep his hands from shaking.

"John Gage is here," he heard Sandy say quietly into the phone. He could feel Roy's presence behind him, but not too close.

"You can go in, Johnny," the young receptionist told him, so he turned and faced the door.

"Johnny?" Roy asked quietly. "What do you want me to do?"

He looked at his friend, momentarily puzzled.

"Do you want me to wait here?" he elaborated. "Or come in with you?"

John was sure he couldn't deal with telling people all over again. "Come in," he tried to say confidently, only it came out as a whisper.

As soon as they entered the office and Johnny saw Kelly Brackett standing behind Miller's desk, leaning against the windowsill with his arms crossed, the paramedic's first instinct was to turn tail and run. This was actually proving to be worse than the first time. He didn't say anything, and took a seat before Miller could even offer one. Roy, for his part, remained standing by the door.

"I know you haven't come to a definite decision about whether or not to have surgery, but I was discussing your case with a colleague," the surgeon started without prelude. "And he agreed with me that you'd be a perfect candidate for a procedure that is far less invasive and has a much quicker recovery time. I thought I'd go over it with you, and see if this option is something that might interest you."

As the doctor spoke, Johnny's confusion only grew. What was he talking about? Options? He still had options? "Wait," he said suddenly, actually throwing his hand up lest the doctor try to continue. "Wait a minute. That's why you brought me in here? To tell me about another option?"

"Why, yes." It was the doctor's turn to be confused. Johnny could see it on his face.

"Not because the x-rays were bad, because something had changed, because I was worse?"

"Oh, no, not at all," the physician replied. "The x-rays were fine. There’s no change."

John's head was reeling. He felt sick and like the walls were closing in on him. He had to get out of there, and now, so he quickly stood up. "I'm sorry . . . I uhhhh, I have to step outside for a minute."

And with that he fled the room.

+ + + + +

Roy watched his friend run out, and was tempted to follow, but thought better of it. He knew why he’d left, and figured it was better to give John a chance to pull himself together.

"What was that?" Brackett asked.

DeSoto looked at the two doctors. "Johnny was sure you were calling him in here to tell him he was worse. We both were, actually."

"It was just a routine follow up, Roy," Kel said. "What would give him that idea?"

The paramedic set his now-angry gaze on Dr. Miller. "Maybe because the arrangement was that he wouldn't have to come in to the office at all, unless something had changed? And this guy didn’t tell anyone why he wanted to see Johnny."

Roy watched the surgeon get his back up. “I’m sorry,” he said rather haughtily. “I don’t even know who you are.”

"This is Roy DeSoto, John’s partner in the fire department. And the closest thing he has to family in Los Angeles,” Brackett supplied curtly. “Is what he says true, Carl?” he asked pointedly.

For his part the surgeon looked genuinely chagrined, but only for a moment. He quickly recovered. “That’s right. I did convey to him that the results would come by phone call,” he admitted. His voice, however, sounded like he’d merely forgotten to return a phone call rather than scared the life out of one of his patients, and it infuriated Roy so much he was speechless.

But Dr. Brackett wasn’t. “Carl, how could you be so thoughtless? Of course Johnny and Roy would think the worst, then! And then he walks in here and you don’t even talk about the results, and instead jump right into trying to talk him into a surgical procedure? What was he supposed to think? Have you no bedside manner at all?”

Roy almost choked when he heard that. Under any other circumstance he might have actually laughed, given that Brackett wasn’t exactly renowned for his bedside manner himself. But he was still too angry with the surgeon.

“Admittedly I could have handled this better,” Miller stated calmly. “And if you can find John, I’ll apologize.”

Kel was looking at Roy expectantly. “I think we should give him a minute,” the paramedic advised. “If I know Johnny, he’ll come back.”

+ + + + +

Gage was leaning heavily on the sink in the men’s room. He’d spent the first few minutes in the room pacing it furiously, practically raving, and not even caring if someone else came in. But luckily the room had remained empty.

He just needed time to calm down, to get his heart out of his throat, and to fight back the incredible urge to strangle Dr. Miller.

He had better be one damn good surgeon to make up for being such a first-class jerk.

As soon as that thought entered his mind, Johnny lifted his head and studied himself in the mirror. Just like that he was sure. Sure that he couldn’t possibly live one more month on this emotional roller coaster. Sure he couldn’t let this thing rule--and ruin--his life any more.

Sure he was going to find out what kind of surgeon Miller was.

He had to have it taken out, sooner rather than later. He couldn’t live like this any more. He just couldn’t.

He took a moment to splash some cold water on his face and then, filled with a new sense of resolve, Johnny headed back to the doctor’s office.

“I think you can go right in,” Sandy told him as soon as he opened the door. “No one’s left.”

He smiled sheepishly at her, and pulled the door to Miller’s office open.

Three heads looked up to meet his eyes, and Johnny walked in and sat down.

Dr. Miller was the first to speak. “I believe I owe you and apology, John,” he admitted.

“Forget that,” Gage said impatiently. It was suddenly urgent to get what he wanted to say out. “Look, I can’t stand this. I want you to take it out. As soon as possible. Get it out of me.”

Miller intertwined his fingers and leaned forward on his desk. “I’ll be glad to do whatever you want, John, but I don’t want you to make this decision impetuously, or as a result of something I did. Your condition is unchanged; you’re doing fine. There is no medical imperative for surgery at this time.”

“That’s not it; it’s not just you. It’s everything. Everyone who knows looks at me strange. My friends don’t know what to say to me, and I don’t know what to say to them, either. And I know I’m driving ‘em crazy.” John glanced apologetically at Roy as he said the last part, and almost smiled when he saw his partner disagree by shaking his head. He turned his attention back to Miller. “Every time I see you, too, I think about it--or Sandy out there.” He didn’t let on that he meant outside of the office. Then he looked at Dr. Brackett. “And you, too,” he said. “Every time I see you or you start to say something to me my first reaction is ‘What’s wrong now?’ And I see you all the time. That can’t keep happening.”

Johnny took a breath before continuing. “And it’s always there, in the back of my mind. I pretend it’s not, and sometimes I’ve even convinced myself that it’s not. But that’s a lie. It doesn’t take hardly anything to put it right back, the only thing on my mind. Every time I cough, every time I eat a little smoke at a fire, I wonder if it means something, or what it’s gonna do to this thing in my lung.” Johnny stopped for a second, shaking his head. “Look, I don’t want you to cut me open, I don’t want to think about how much work I’m gonna miss, or what will happen if something goes wrong. But even more, I don’t want to live like this any more. It’s making me nuts. This has been the worst month of my life. You gotta take it out.”

Dr. Miller smiled warmly. “Okay then. I’ve suspected all along that you’d ultimately decide to be proactive, which is why I discussed your case with my colleague in the first place. Let me tell you about the procedure I brought you in here to talk about. It might just be the answer you’re looking for.”

Johnny nodded, then caught Kelly Brackett’s glance. “Can I ask a question first?” he directed at the ER doctor.

“Sure,” Kel answered.

“How come you’re here? When I saw you in here, man, I thought it was really bad news!”

Brackett gave a half-smile. “Just bad--or good, depending on how you look at it--timing. Carl here called me to discuss this new option for you as well, and I came up to talk about it just a few minutes before you were set to arrive. So I waited for you.”


Dr. Miller shifted in his chair to draw attention to himself again. “Okay let’s get down to business,” he said matter-of-factly. “Why don’t you sit down, Mr. . . . DeSoto, was it?”

John nodded at his friend to indicate it was okay, and Roy sat.

“The plan here is to use a rigid bronchoscope as sort of a telescope into your chest cavity. Rather than do a thoracotomy, which would involve a large incision through the chest wall, and spreading the ribs apart and results in a very lengthy and painful recovery, we’d make two or three much smaller incisions, go between your ribs, and hopefully be able to remove the tumor through them. Since we know we’re not dealing with a malignancy, getting large and clear margins is less of a concern, so we feel this might be successful. Sound like something you might be interested in?”

“Definitely,” Johnny said. “Tell me more.”

+ + + + +

As the elevator descended back to the first floor, Kel Brackett looked across at Roy. Johnny was between them, but leaning against the back wall, and out of their line of sight. DeSoto glanced over, but the three men remained silent. It wasn’t until they had almost reached their destination that Gage stood up straight between them.

When the doors opened the young paramedic spoke. “Thanks for everything, Doc,” he said as he started to walk away. “I’ll be in touch about the details ‘n stuff.”

Roy just shrugged and followed his friend.

“What is going on, Kel?” Dixie asked as soon as he reached the base station.

Brackett was still watching the retreating men. “Johnny’s decided to have the surgery.”

“Well that doesn’t surprise me. But how come he looked so upset when he came in earlier?”

Brackett smiled slightly. “That’s a long story. But in the end it was what made our young friend finally make up his mind.”

+ + + + +

“So you’re absolutely sure about this?” Roy was driving them back to his house so Johnny could get his car. His partner hadn’t said two sentences since leaving the surgeon’s office, so Roy had his doubts.

John was nodding. “Yeah, I am. Not looking forward to it, but I’m sure.”

“Well, if they can do this other thing, that doesn’t sound so bad.”

Roy glanced over and his partner was grinning at him ruefully. “Easy for you to say,” he pointed out. “They’re not gonna do it to you.”

There was nothing DeSoto could say to rebut that. It was true.

“I just can’t stand the not knowing and stuff any more.”

“But Johnny,” Roy offered up, “if you’d just let people know how you’re feeling, and what’s going on, I don’t think it would be nearly as bad.”

“I know,” Gage admitted. “But that’s not fair to you guys. Dragging you down with me like that. Not when I can do something to avoid it.”

Roy sighed loudly. “I wish you’d stop worrying about your friends’ feelings, Johnny. Don’t worry about us. Worry about yourself.”

He was surprised when Johnny chuckled at that. “I am worrying about myself, Roy. All the time. Don’t want to keep doing that either.”

They were approaching a stop sign, and Roy took an extra moment there to look over at his friend. “Just so long as you’re sure, and you’re doing it because you want to. For yourself and no one else.”

Johnny met his gaze. “I am, Roy,” he said levelly. “I really am.”

DeSoto nodded and kept driving.

+ + + + +

Cap was just finishing roll call, and John found himself fidgeting. Before his superior released them, he spoke up.

"Uh, Cap? Can I say something?"

The captain cocked his head in surprise. "Sure, John," he answered.

Johnny took a deep breath and buried his hands in his pockets. He was nervous, and yet again he wasn't sure why.

"I, uhhh, just wanted to let you guys know that in two weeks I'm gonna have this thing taken out of my lung."

Immediately the men broke their straight line formation and gathered around him, peppering him with concerned questions. Gage glanced over at Roy, who remained by his side, and silent.

After a moment Stanley silenced his men simply by raising a hand. "Is this because of your appointment on Monday?" he asked the paramedic.

"Well, yes and no," Johnny answered, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "I don't have to have it done; nothing's changed there--physically, I mean." He could see the relief at that news on his friends' faces, and it made him smile slightly. "But I just don't like the not knowing. And I can't see as it's gonna get any better if I keep having to have these follow ups." Gage shook his head and sighed. "I mean, you guys saw it, saw how much I let it bug me."

"How long are you going to be out?" Mike asked.

John shrugged. "I don't know. A few weeks? A month maybe? Depends on how fast I heal, I guess."

“Well, we’ll sure miss you when you’re out,” Marco offered.

“Thanks, Marco,” the paramedic said with a grin. “But it’s not for another couple of weeks. That’s when it’s scheduled for, anyway.”

Cap clapped his hands together once to draw attention to himself. “Well, then, John, why don’t we go into my office and fill out your leave papers. Make sure everything’s in order and on time.”

“Yeah, sure, Cap,” and the men left.

Roy watched them go, anticipating what was to happen next. His friends didn’t disappoint.

“How come he decided to do it all of a sudden?” Chet asked.

“You heard him.”

“Well, yeah, but that sounded awfully lame. You sure he’s not worse or anything?” Try as he might, Kelly couldn’t hide the concern from his voice.

“Yeah, I’m sure, Chet,” DeSoto promised. “I went with him to his appointment on Monday. Heard it with my own ears.”

“Well that’s good to hear,” Mike offered. “Is there anything we can do for him, Roy?”

Roy shrugged helplessly. “I dunno. I figure the next couple of weeks aren’t gonna be any fun for him--or for the rest of us for that matter. Maybe just help him keep his mind off it for a while. Or give him some space if it seems like he’s in a bad mood.” The paramedic made a point of looking at Chet as he made the last point.

“That’s another thing,” Marco added. “If he decided to get it done, why wait two weeks?”

“It’s elective surgery, Marco. They have to schedule it. Two weeks was the first date that was available at Rampart when the doctor was also available. He’s lucky, though. It coulda been a longer wait.”

“It’s gonna be a long two weeks, I bet,” Chet muttered.

“Yeah, probably,” Roy agreed. “Most of all for Johnny.”

+ + + + +

“Have a seat,” Cap offered as soon as Johnny had followed him into the office. The paramedic complied, and Stanley sat opposite him, behind his desk.

“You’re sure about this?”

John nodded. “Yeah. Absolutely. It’s the right thing to do.” He paused for a minute and allowed himself to grin. “I think,” he added, looking down at his feet.

Cap leaned forward. “What did the doctors say?”

Gage shrugged slightly. “Same thing. It’s up to me. But the surgeon’s wanted me to do it all along. I know that.”

“And Doctor Brackett?”

“He wouldn’t say anything one way or the other. But I think he thinks I'm doing the right thing."

“Well, then, I guess it’s settled,” the captain said. “Now, for the paperwork.” He reached to his right, picked up a folder that was sitting on top of the desk, and opened it. “Now what’s the last shift you’ll be working?” he asked, pen in-hand and poised over the paper.

“Umm, on the 9th. It’s scheduled on the 12th.”

“Okay, good. Indefinite medical leave commencing on the 10th.” He jotted the date down and looked at John. “That ought to do it, then. Just needs your signature.”

With that Cap spun the folder around until the form was facing Johnny.  The young man looked at it, and saw that it had been completely filled out some time ago, with only the dates left blank.

“Cap,” he started, “how did you know?”

Stanley chuckled. “Anticipation is a huge part of my job, pal. Most of the time I think I know what you guys are gonna do before you do!”

“So you always thought? . . . You always knew I’d. . . ?” Gage was stunned.

“I had a good idea, sure. You’re not the passive type, John. If there’s action to be taken, I can always count on you to take it.”

Johnny ducked his head to hide the blush that threatened to come to his cheeks. That was high praise coming from his captain, and it was a nice thing to hear. “Thanks, Cap,” he said as he took the pen and signed the form.

+ + + + +

In the end, Roy was wrong. John's spirits remained high during the ensuing two weeks. If the guys realized that his constant requests for people to shoot hoops or play cards with were his attempts at distraction, they didn't say anything. But Johnny had no trouble rounding up participants, and for that he was grateful. He just kept busy, both on duty and off, where he found himself offering to help Roy around the DeSoto house.

“Geez Johnny, this operation is the best thing that ever happened for me!” Roy teased while the two men were on his roof replacing some shingles.

“Yeah, well, I don’t mind helping,” Johnny admitted. “Beats sitting around my apartment, anyway,” he added bashfully.

“What about Sandy? You still seeing her?”

“Nah, not really. It was just too awkward. Once I decided . . . I don’t know, it just felt weird, since she knows everything.”

Roy had nodded. “I kinda figured that would happen. She seemed nice, though, Johnny. Maybe you should call her again after it’s over and you’re feeling better.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“I’m still taking you to the hospital tomorrow, right?”

Johnny nodded. “If you don’t mind. I know you have that thing for Jen, so if you don’t have time I can ask Chet or Marco.”

“It’s no problem. I just won’t be able to stay, that’s all.”

“That’s okay,” Johnny said. “Thanks.”

+ + + + +

Johnny was sitting on his bed, bored out of his mind. Because his surgery was scheduled for first thing in the morning, he’d been admitted the evening before. He couldn’t help chuckling at the irony. Here he was, in a hospital bed, and he wasn’t sick or hurt. It was a new situation for him.

He had already inspected the offerings on all six TV channels and decided they were terrible, and had just started to wish he had some company to make the time pass quicker when the door burst open. In came Mike, Marco, and Chet, together.

“Hi, guys!” Gage welcomed enthusiastically. “What are you doing here?”

“Well we knew Roy had his daughter’s tap recital tonight, so we thought you might like some company,” Marco explained.

“That’s great! Just great!” The paramedic made no effort to hide how happy he was to see them.

“We figured we could,” Chet started, reaching into his pocket, “play a little cards!” he finished, brandishing a deck.

Johnny looked around his room. They were one short. “Someone go get another chair. Let’s play. Anyone bring the poker chips?”

“Nah,” Mike dismissed as Kelly left in search of more seating. “Just for fun this time. No money.”

“But what if I kick Chet’s butt? I’ll have nothing to show for it!”

“If that happens,” Lopez promised, “Mike and I will vouch for you. Promise.”

Chet returned with a chair, the men arranged themselves around the bed and Johnny, sitting cross-legged on top, dealt the cards. “Five card draw,” he instructed. “Deuces wild.”

+ + + + +

They were well into the game, and Johnny was winning more hands than anyone else, when the door opened and Dixie came in.

“Good lord, boys, visiting hours ended an hour ago! What are you doing here?”

“Playing cards?” Chet answered helpfully.

“I see that, but you’ve got to go now. Johnny has a busy day tomorrow. He needs his rest!”

“Do not, Dix. I’ll be asleep during the operation, remember? Let ‘em stay. I’m winning!”

The nurse simply cocked her head and crossed her arms. The firemen got the message, and quickly packed up the cards and pushed their chairs back to the corners of the room.

“We’re working tomorrow, Johnny,” Mike reminded him, “but Roy will keep us up to date on how you’re doing. Take it easy.” He held out his hand, and Johnny shook it.

“Thanks, Mike.”

“Yeah, Johnny,” Marco added. “I’ll come by to see ya after shift on Thursday, okay?” He patted the paramedic on the back.

“Yeah, that’ll be great, Marco.”

“I was letting you win, you know,” Chet said.

Johnny let out a laugh. “You wish. I’ll see ya later, Kelly.”

“Yeah, later, Gage.”

The men left, and Dixie watched the door click shut before turning toward the patient. “You’ve got some good friends there,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny admitted with a smile.

“But, I didn’t come in here to tell you that,” the nurse told her patient. “Here you go,” she said, handing him a small cup with a pill in it.

Johnny took the cup and peered inside. “What’s this?” he asked.

“Something to help you sleep,” Dix told him while pouring a cup of water from the pitcher on his bedside table.

“I don’t need anything to help me sleep!” Gage protested indignantly.

The woman just chuckled knowingly. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Johnny,” she chided. “You’re going to turn out this light and lay there and what are you going to think about? What’s the only thing that will be on your mind? You think that will let you sleep?”

“Look, Dix, I’ve known this day was coming for two weeks now and I haven’t had any trouble sleeping!”

“‘Two weeks from now’ or even ‘two days from now’ is totally different than ‘tomorrow morning’ and you know it, Johnny. Take the pill.”

The man stared at the small white tablet for a moment, then made his decision. “I’d rather not,” he declared, handing the cup back to his friend. “But thanks anyway.”

Dix took the pill with a resigned sigh. “When you can’t sleep in the middle of the night, just ring the call bell. You can still take it later. Have a good night’s sleep and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

+ + + + +

Johnny tossed and turned for the 400th time, and again cursed Dixie for being right, as usual. He turned on the light over his bed so he could see the clock. It was 1:14am. Only 26 minutes since the last time he’d checked. This wasn’t working.

He picked up the call button and pushed it with a resigned sigh.

After just a moment the door opened and a nurse walked in. She was carrying a small tray with a little cup sitting on it.

“Nurse McCall told us you’d ring,” she said with a kind smile.

+ + + + +

“No, not there,” John told the nurse impatiently. “There. That’s a better vein right there.”

“Telling our nurses what to do?” Kelly Brackett asked with a smile as he entered the room.

Gage shrugged, wincing as he felt the IV needle enter his arm.

“How are you this morning, Johnny? Ready to get this taken care of once and for all?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” His voice wavered ever-so-slightly, but John couldn’t stop it.


“Maybe a little. This is all kinda new.”

“I imagine it is. But Carl Miller is the best lung surgeon I know. I wouldn’t have referred you to him otherwise.”

“I know, Dr. Brackett, and I appreciate all your help. I really do.” All of a sudden a strange feeling washed over John. “Whoa,” he muttered, lifting his hand to his head.

“The sedative she just gave you is taking effect, Johnny. They’ll be in to take you up to surgery in just a few minutes.” The doctor rested his hand on his friend’s forearm and gave it a slight squeeze. “You just relax. In a few hours this will all be behind you.”

“Mmmm hmmmm,” was about all the paramedic could muster in response. He laid his head heavily on the pillow, and watched the doctor leave the room.

+ + + + +

Roy pushed the gurney impatiently through the ER doors. As it moved down the corridor the paramedic scanned the faces for two people in particular, but saw neither. He wheeled his patient into exam 2 and left him in Dr. Morton’s care as quickly as he could, then went straight to the base station. Dixie was on the phone.

“Perfect timing, Roy,” she said as soon as she hung up. “That was the OR. They just finished on Johnny and Dr. Miller is on his way down to talk to Kel.”

“Did they say how it went?”

“Said it went well, but didn’t give any specifics. Why don’t you wait for the doctor to come down. I’ll go find Kel.” DeSoto nodded as the nurse walked away.

After a few moments the elevator doors opened and Dr. Miller, still wearing his surgical scrubs and cap, stepped out. He didn’t see Roy, but did apparently see Dr. Brackett, and moved directly toward the ER head’s office.

It briefly occurred to Roy that he shouldn’t follow, or wouldn’t be allowed in even if he did. But he discarded the notion; he had to try.

And it was immediately apparent that he didn’t have to worry. Brackett held the door open until Roy reached him, and had also joined Miller and Dix in the office, before entering himself.

“How’d it go?” Kel asked with no greeting.

“Fairly well,” the surgeon responded. “Had a little trouble with bleeding, so I had to make one of the incisions larger than I wanted, and he’s got a chest tube in now, but we got the entire lesion.”

“How’d it look?”

“Looked okay to me, nothing immediately alarming about it. We sent it to pathology, of course. They should confirm that it was benign.”

“But you didn’t have to do a full-fledged thoracotomy?”

“No, not at all. It was more involved that we originally hoped, but nothing at all like it could have been.”

Roy was quietly watching the two doctors banter like it was a tennis match, his attention switching from on to another and back again. He was waiting for them to get around to the part he was interested in, but apparently Dix wasn’t willing to wait, and she spoke up.

“Am I the only one who’s wondering how Johnny’s doing?” she asked. Her tone was chiding, and she shot a little smug grin toward Roy after she’d spoken. Roy nodded back at her. No, she wasn’t the only one.

“He’s in recovery. Probably asleep. We’ve got him on some serious pain medication for the time being. But he did well in surgery.”

“How long do you anticipate he’ll need the chest tube?” Brackett asked, returning the conversation to medical specifics.

“Hard to say. We’ll monitor the output. He lost a fair amount of blood into the chest cavity. Not too much, but a fairly significant amount. A couple of days, I’d guess.”

“Where will you send him from recovery? ICU?”

“For a bit. I want his breathing monitored closely.”

Dixie had started moving, and it caught Roy’s attention. She cocked her head toward the door, indicating that they should slip out. DeSoto was torn. Part of him thought he should stay and watch the two surgeons discuss the specifics of John’s case, but at the same time he didn’t want to know all the little details. After a second of indecision, he followed the nurse.

It turned out to be a good decision when she spoke conspiratorially as soon as the door closed and they were safely in the hall. “Let’s go check on your partner,” she whispered.

+ + + + +

The first thing Roy noticed was Johnny’s breathing. Even though his partner was asleep, it was coming in short puffs under the full oxygen mask, almost like he was panting. He turned to ask Dixie if that was normal, and was surprised to find that she was no longer next to him. She was on the other side of the room, talking to a nurse.

Gage’s hands stirred and he moaned, and Roy approached the bedside. “Johnny?” he asked quietly, “you awake?” John moaned again, but the older paramedic had no way of knowing if it was a response, or a coincidence. His partner’s eyes remained closed.

“Nurse Davis said his breathing is nothing to be concerned about this early. Once the anesthesia has worn off, and he’s more awake, they’ll start pushing him to breathe more deeply,” Dixie offered as she returned to Roy’s side.

“Thanks, I was wondering.”

“He’s asleep?” the nurse asked.

“Yeah, I think so. He moaned a little, but I don’t think he’s awake.”

“Well, then,” Dixie counseled, “we should probably let him be.”

“Yeah,” Roy agreed, unable to take his eyes off his partner. “He looks terrible,” he blurted out after a second.

He felt Dixie’s warm hand on his arm. “Of course he does, Roy. He just had surgery. He’ll look better later today, I’d bet. And even better tomorrow. He’ll be fine.”

Roy actually shuddered, and felt a sudden, urgent need to leave the recovery room. “Yeah, I guess so,” he agreed quickly. “I’d better get back to work.”

He turned and started to leave, but then turned back. “You’ll call if anything changes?” he asked the nurse.

“Of course I will, Roy. You don’t have to ask that.”

+ + + + +

In the end, she didn’t have to call. Roy managed to visit John a couple more times as their shift wore on, and each time his partner was a little more aware, but he was either heavily medicated, or virtually incoherent because of the pain. Despite assurances that he was doing well, Roy hated seeing Johnny that way.

Their release from duty was imminent, and the B-shift paramedics were already in, so Roy was changing. He planned to go home for a bit and update Joanne on his partner’s condition, and head back to the hospital for a visit later in the day.

“You gonna head over to see Johnny now?” Chet asked him as he entered the locker room.

“Nah, I’m gonna head home for a bit first, and go over later on.”

“You think it would be okay if I went straight over?” the fireman asked a bit apprehensively.

Roy couldn’t help but smile. Despite his penchant for tormenting Johnny, Kelly was always ready to come through for him in a pinch.

“Visiting hours don’t start until nine, but I bet you could find someone to stretch the rules for you a bit,” DeSoto advised.

“Great. I’ll go on over, then.”

“Tell him I’ll be by later.”

+ + + + +

The pain was excruciating, unlike anything he’d ever experienced. Every breath, no matter how shallow, was torture. He couldn’t not breathe--as tempting as that was--so there was no respite, either. No way he could move to relieve an ache, no area he could avoid touching to avoid a pain. He was trapped, in agony, and without any options other than to gut it out.

He tried, truly he did. But it was so bad he was almost in tears, and was reaching for the call button when Chet entered his room. Johnny dropped the button and tried to smile. It was weak at best.

“Hey, Chet,” he managed to whisper.

“Hey, Johnny, how ya doing?”

John took a breath that was slightly too deep, and the pain was exquisite. He stopped in mid-inhale, grimaced, and slowly let the air back out into his oxygen mask. He took a couple of seconds to compose himself before answering, “I’m doing okay. Not too bad.”

Chet didn’t answer, and when Johnny looked at him, he had a puzzled look on his face. “Glad to hear it,” he said distractedly. “Bet it hurts, huh?” he asked.

“Just a little. It’s not too bad,” John lied. But he didn’t want Chet worrying about him. “Where’s Roy?” he asked, trying to change the subject.

“He went home for a bit to see Jo. Wanted me to tell you he’ll be by later. I think Mike and Marco are planning on coming in today, too. If they can.”

“That’s nice. It’ll be good to see them, and I really appreciate. . . .” John was forced to stop talking. He’d expended what air he had in his lungs, and needed to breathe in again, which was the really hard part. He settled for several shallow breaths rather than the deep one he craved.

He didn’t realize that he’d closed his eyes in order to concentrate on his breathing. When he opened them, Chet was staring down at him.

“You’re in a lot of pain, Johnny,” he stated simply.

“No,” John protested halfheartedly. “’m okay. Sit down.”

Chet’s expression turned stern and almost angry. “Geezus Gage, didn’t you learn anything in the last month? Why can’t you be straight with me? You think I’ve never seen you hurting before? I know what it looks like, you know. Don’t try to be tough here. You’re in agony, and you want something for the pain, and you’d rather I went away.” He was staring at Johnny, and when John didn’t immediately respond, he added “Right or wrong?”

“Right,” John agreed meekly. “Except the part about you leaving.”

Chet grinned victoriously. “I’ll be right back.” He left, and returned shortly with a nurse who was carrying a syringe full of relief. She injected it into his IV, and Johnny immediately relaxed, just knowing that in a few minutes he’d be feeling better.

“Really, Gage, what’s wrong with admitting you’re in pain?” Chet chided after the woman had left. “You had some guy poking around in your lung yesterday!”

“Sorry,” Johnny whispered. “I just don’t like,” he stopped and gasped when he took too deep a breath, but eventually finished. “I don’t like you guys seeing me like this.”

Kelly chuckled. “Like what? In a hospital bed? Forget it Johnny, we’ve seen it before. Plenty of times.” He pulled a chair over to John’s bedside and sat down. “So,” he started, “we had the most amazing trash fire yesterday. ”

Chet was still talking exuberantly when fatigue and the medicine got the best of Johnny, and he drifted off to sleep.

+ + + + +

Kelly Brackett rooted around in the storage space and pulled what he needed from within. He closed the drawer a little too forcefully, and then headed off to see his patient. It wasn't uncommon for people recovering from surgery to be uncooperative, but it was usually because they didn't know what was at stake. And once you explained it, everything was fine and they got to work.

But Johnny? He knew exactly what he needed to do. And yet according to the phone call Kel had just gotten from respiratory therapy, he wasn't doing it.

He rounded to corner that would take him to Gage's room, and almost ran full-tilt into Hank Stanley. But both men stopped in time to avoid a collision.

"Sorry," the doctor said. "I was on my way to see Johnny."

"Me too," Hank said. "You seem to be in a hurry. Something the matter with John?"

Brackett paused for a moment before answering, but then decided to just tell Hank. Maybe he could help. "Yes and no. He's recovering well from the surgery--so far, anyway. But it's time for him to start working those lungs of his, to get his strength and lung volume back, and I'm told he's not exactly being cooperative."

"Johnny?" the captain asked incredulously. "I find that hard to believe."

Kel nodded. "So do I. But he apparently got rather belligerent with the therapist who tried to work with him this morning. We gave him a bit of a break yesterday, seeing as it was the day after surgery, but no more."

"Can't give him another day, huh?" Hank asked.

"No, absolutely not. If he doesn't get to work he could get pneumonia, or he could form scar tissue in his lung that could permanently impair his breathing capacity."

Stanley scratched his head pensively. "Has anyone explained this to John?"

Brackett nodded. "The therapist did. Or at least she tried. I was on my way to see if maybe I'd have more success."

"Tell you what," Cap suggested. "Why don't you let me try. What is it he needs to do?"

Kel chuckled mirthlessly. "Basically just breathe in deeply. Deeply and often. This," he held up the plastic contraption in his hand," is called an incentive spirometer. It helps to gauge how he's doing, if his breaths are getting deeper. Apparently our young friend broke the one the therapist brought to him."

Hank shook his head. "That doesn't sound so difficult. I wonder what John's problem is."

"Oh that's easy, Hank," the doctor advised.


+ + + + +

John was sitting propped upright in bed, trying hard not to count the minutes until his next dose of pain medicine, when the door opened. Cap stuck his head in, and Johnny instinctually shifted, trying to sit up even straighter. The effort left him gasping and grimacing in pain, but he made no effort to hide it. He supported his right side with his left hand, squeezed his eyes shut tightly, and rode it out.

When he looked again, Hank was standing beside his bed. "How ya doing this morning, pal?" he asked.

"I'm okay, I'm doing all ri. . . ." Suddenly John stopped, remembering Chet's words from the day before. "Well, to be honest, Cap," he amended. "It hurts."

The captain smiled warmly. "So I hear," he said. "But you look better than you did yesterday." He looked down to the space beside the bed. "That thing is gone."

Johnny nodded. "Yeah, they took the chest tube out this morning. That's really good. And I just need this," he continued, fingering the nasal cannula which had replaced the full oxygen mask. "So I guess I'm making progress."

"Except," Hank said. John looked at him, puzzled. He didn't know what his boss was getting at, but then the man lifted his arm and silently placed a spirometer, still in its plastic packaging, on the bed table.

Gage rolled his eyes and let his head flop back on his pillows. "Oh, man!" he grumbled.

"What's the problem, John? You know how important using this thing is, don't you?"

"You don't understand, Cap," the paramedic protested plaintively.

"So why don't you explain it to me."

John looked down at his hands. For some reason he couldn't make eye contact with his friend. "It hurts," he finally said, though very quietly.

"So?" Hank asked. "You've been in pain before, pal. I've seen it. You've never let it stop you before."

"No," Gage protested. "I mean it really hurts. Other times I've been hurt I've been able to do something to keep the pain down. Don't move a certain way, whatever. But this?" He had to stop for a moment to regain his breath.

"I can't not breathe, Cap," he finally finished.

The captain actually chuckled at that. "No, you can't, thank God," he said.

"I mean," Johnny continued, undaunted. "Every breath, no matter how little or shallow, hurts like hell. But that thing," he pointed to the plastic contraption, "is just pure torture."

Stanley picked up the spirometer and started to open it. "I imagine it is, Johnny. I'm not gonna argue with you on that. But you know how important it is, don't you? Dr. Brackett says you could get pneumonia if you don't use it. Or worse, you could permanently damage your lung." By now he was lightly passing the simple plastic device from hand to hand. "You could lose your career over a little pain? I'd hate to see that happen."

John looked at his friend for a long moment. "It's not a little pain, Cap."

Hank actually smiled. "All right, over a lot of pain. I'd still hate to see that happen. We'd miss you, pal." He tossed the spirometer in the air and caught it. "What do you say. Give it a try. I bet it'll get a little easier every time. Isn't that the way these things work?"

Gage didn't smile, didn't say anything. But he took the thing from his captain's hand, and fitted the tube into his mouth. He closed his eyes, and inhaled as deeply as he could. He saw stars behind his eyelids as the pain immediately flared to an unbearable level. It felt like it lasted forever, but John knew it was less than a second before he had to let the air back out. He opened his eyes.

"Not bad, John. The ball went half way up on your first try. Now do it again."

Gage sighed, but he did it again. This time tears came to his eyes, it hurt so bad. But thankfully they didn't spill over.

"Good," Hank encouraged. "Three more times then you don't have to worry about it for another hour. That's what they told me, anyway. Five times an hour."

Johnny looked at Captain Stanley and tried to get angry at him, like he had at the therapist. He wanted to tell Cap to mind his own business, and leave him the hell alone. But he couldn't. This was his boss, and his friend, and he was doing this for John's own good; Johnny knew it was true. He knew Cap was right about everything, and he also knew Cap wouldn't think less of him for having had a moment of weakness.

He did it three more times.

+ + + + +

Johnny slowly did up the buttons on his shirt. He felt like he was about 75 years old, but he figured that was gonna get better soon. At least he could finally breathe normally without too much pain, though deep breaths still made him want to cry.

"Ready to go home?" Gage had been so engrossed in his thoughts that he hadn't heard Dr. Miller come in.

"Yeah, almost."

"Good. You're coming along nicely, John. But I want you to take it really easy at home. No lifting, no strenuous activity of any kind, and no high altitudes, either. Got it?"

Johnny nodded.

"And keep with the breathing exercises they gave you. That's the most important thing at this point. I'm giving you a prescription for some pain medication. Use it as you need it. If your exercises are too painful, take a pill first. And of course, if you have any questions or concerns, call me immediately."

"Okay, Doc, I will. Thanks."

"No thanks are necessary, I'm just doing my job here. I'm glad it worked out so well for you, though."

"Yeah, me too." John extended his hand, and the doctor shook it.

"Oh, and I almost forgot. The final pathology report came back this morning. It confirmed that the tumor was entirely benign, just as we suspected."

John sighed with relief. He'd known it was benign for a while now, but he hadn't realized until right this second how much he'd needed to hear it once and for all. "Phew," he let out with a grin.

"Exactly. On rare occasions these things can recur, so annual chest x-rays are going to be a part of your life from now on, but I cannot stress enough that I do not believe you have anything to worry about."

Johnny couldn’t help but grin. He knew exactly why his surgeon was being so emphatic about this, and he couldn’t blame the man. But those x-rays would be different. It was gone now. "It’s okay, Doc. I think I can deal with that."

"Good," the doctor said, allowing a rare smile. "Let me go and sign your final release papers, then. Normally I'd be able to tell you the date and time for your follow up with me, but Sandy asked me to tell you to call her and set it up, so I guess you should do that in the next day or two--I want to see you in a week. I'm not sure what's going on with her there."

Johnny smiled and tried not to blush. He knew exactly what was going on. "I'll call her," he promised. "Tell her I'll call her."

The doctor nodded. "Okay, then. Go home, and take it easy."

Miller opened the door just as Roy was about to enter. "Mr. DeSoto," he greeted curtly as he passed.

Roy entered, shaking his head. "Friendly guy," he dismissed.

"He's okay," John argued. "Good doctor, anyway."

Roy nodded. "You ready to go?"

"You bet. A week in here is a week too long."

"Hey, are you criticizing our hospital?" Dixie asked playfully as she, too, entered his room.

John's smile widened. "Only a little bit."

"Well I only have a second--I need to get back downstairs. I just wanted to pop in and say goodbye. You take care of yourself and give me a call if you need anything, okay?"

"Okay, Dix, I will."

The nurse was almost through the door when Johnny called her back.

"Hey Dix, thanks for everything you did the last couple of months," he managed to get out before suddenly getting embarrassed and ducking his head bashfully. Nevertheless, he continued. "I know I was a pain sometimes, but you stuck by me and I appreciate it."

The nurse smiled warmly, approached John, and planted a kiss on his cheek. "It was my pleasure, Johnny," she said. "That's what friends are for."

She started to leave again, but turned back at the door. "But you were a pain more than just 'sometimes!'" she teased, and left before anyone could respond.

Johnny started to laugh, then immediately stopped himself when the pain in his side flared. He reached over and clutched it with his left hand.

"Still hurts, huh?" Roy asked.

Johnny nodded, then smiled. "Only when I," he started.

"Laugh," Roy finished.


Gage turned serious. "What I said to Dix, it goes for you, too, you know. I couldn't have gotten through this without you. You and the rest of the guys."

Roy shook his head. "Sure you could have, Johnny," he disagreed. "You almost did. But the point is you didn't have to. You never have to. Remember that, okay?"

"I know, Roy, I know. And I won't forget again."


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