Understanding

Chapter 3

Johnny was understandably quiet on the ride back to the station. When the truck doors opened both men were completely wrapped in the smell of pork roast.

"Oh, man, I'm starving!" Roy said as he followed his nose. Johnny laughed.

"That's my line, pally!" he said as he limped in behind. The roasting pan was on the stove and four happy firemen were at table eating.

"Damn, Gage, you did good!" Chet said through a full mouth.

"Swallow!" both Marco and Cap chastised as the rest laughed. Roy began to dish out two plates.

"Sit, Junior," he directed, "I'll get it!" Mike pulled out a chair for his friend. Soon Roy joined them putting a full plate in front of his partner. Salad was passed and doled out.

"I hope there's enough for me!" a voice called from the door. Dwyer walked in with a large, hopeful grin.

"Yep, I put in a couple extra chops just in case," Johnny said after swallowing. The new shift mate happily claimed a portion from the pan. Chet snagged a place mat and flatware for him. Soon all seven men were enjoying a solid meal.

"Since you guys started that cook book dinner has gotten a lot better!" Dwyer exclaimed as he took a breather from eating.

"Yeah, and it keeps growing!" Marco said. "Momma is having a great time adapting her favorite recipes so I can cook 'em."

"Same with Joanne," Roy agreed. "She knows what I like. She adjusts the ingredients so it'll feed upwards of 8 people."

"I thought for sure we'd all gain weight," Chet said as he carefully pushed the last of his dressing onto his fork. "But I think we're actually eating healthier!"

A knock at the door jamb got their attention. Kel Brackett walked in. Although he did stop by from time to time, Cap figured he was checking up on his patient.

"Did I miss dinner?" he asked with a longing in his voice. The men chuckled.

"There's one chop left, Doc," Dwyer said. "Help yourself." Kel immediately found a plate and grabbed some dinner. Yet another place mat and flatware appeared and the remainder of the salad was pushed towards him.

"So what brings you here?" Cap asked.

"You mean besides dinner?" Kel smiled. It was an excellent pork chop and the dressing was moist. "Actually, I figured there'd be three paramedics here and I wanted to get some feed back regarding supplies. It just seems that certain items are always running short."

"Well, after dinner they're all yours," Hank said. "Unless there's a run.

"Hey, John, what's for dessert?" Chet asked the important question.

"Fresh berries, pound cake and whip cream," he replied. It was simple and tasted good. When he tried to stand up the mustached fireman shook his finger.

"Ah ah ah! You're off shift," he stood up and picked up the empty plates. "Me and Marco will dole out the dessert!"

"Wait a minute!" Mike complained, "I'll help. That way we'll all get a fair share!" Leaving Brackett to finish his dinner and Johnny to rest, the others cleaned up, made coffee and dished up eight desserts.

"Who made dinner?" Kel asked the paramedic.

"Me," he replied with a crooked grin.

"It's really good," Kel complimented him. "Can I have the recipe?"

"Why don't you get a copy of our cookbook?" Chet set the binder down on the table. "We've been working on it for a few weeks. We've been talkin' about printing it out for our families."

Kel flipped the binder open and grinned at the picture. The next page was a collection of all the men's signatures. Then a listing of recipes. He continued to go through page by page, noting the different features, including notes at the bottom of some that shared where the recipe came from or some anecdote regarding cooking. He could tell the men really had come together over the book.

His plate empty, it was whisked away and replaced with dessert and coffee. The berries were just the perfect ending to the heavier meal.

"You know, the hospital's auxiliary has published a couple of cookbooks over the years," he said. "They donate the profits to the hospital."

"That's an interesting idea," Cap said. "We're always having a fund raiser of some sort for the different Fire groups."

"Yeah, usually some baseball or football game," Marco supplied.

"Selling candy was the worst!" Roy said. "We ate all of the chocolate!" A round of chuckles circled the table.

"But if we printed the cookbook, where could we sell it?" Gage asked trying to be practical.

"I can talk to the auxiliary," Kel said. "I bet they'd put it in the gift shop for you."

"We could send out a flyer to all the other stations," Mike said. "I know we'd have some takers, there!"

"I can check with the county," Cap suggested. "They have plenty of outlets and if it's for a fire department charity they'd be happy to help."

"Don't forget we have to pay to have it printed," Chet pointed out. They discussed the possibilities of publishing the cookbook and finally decided to have Brackett contact the hospital's auxiliary to find out how they printed and sold their own cookbooks.

"Well, Doc, do you still want to pick the paramedics' brains?" Hank asked as the table was cleared off and the men were considering wandering off. Brackett agreed and soon the four men were out by the squad pulling out boxes. Chet appeared out of nowhere with a chair and made Gage sit down, propping his leg on the running board.

"You're off shift!" he declared as he handed him a mug of coffee adorned with a shot of whip cream. Johnny happily sipped the hot beverage.

They pulled out various drugs, discussing what they used the most. Many of the IVs ran out on back to back runs. Brackett felt they could increase the number by two or three with no problem. The controlled drugs were another matter, but these weren't used in the same quantity and all four decided the supply in the box was satisfactory.

As Kel was making notes the tones began calling the entire station out to a moving vehicle accident on the 405. The drug box was packed up and put away. The chair and Johnny were moved back into the kitchen with Kel as the two trucks headed out.

With a sigh Gage sank down on the couch and propped his leg up on a chair. "You don't have to hang around, Doc," he said as he squirmed trying to find a more comfortable position.

"I know, but I think I'll check out your wound," he said. "I have my bag in the car."

"That's a surprise," John smirked. Kel tried to quell the twitching smile from dominating his face and failed miserably. He went out to his car and soon returned. He snagged a blanket out of the linen cupboard and went back into the TV area.

"I'll take off my pants," the paramedic offered. "These are my favorite jeans!" Kel helped him and then wrapped the blanket around his patient. He busily unwrapped the gauze and checked the stitching. It was slightly red near the ankle end so he poured a little saline over it and then added some antibiotic cream before wrapping it back up.

"I want to check this again tomorrow," he said. "I don't want to start you on antibiotics unless you really need them."

"I can stop by Rampart tomorrow," Gage offered.

"Do you know where you're staying tonight?" Kel asked as he handed his patient his jeans.

"No, I don't know if Cap's arranged for that yet," Johnny said.

"Joe's coming over for coffee in the morning," Kel said. "And you've already been fed dinner. You're welcome to my guest room." He could see the hesitation on his friend's face.

"I, uh, didn't have a real good day, Doc," Johnny hedged. He had no idea how he'd react after seeing his uncle, but he was sure it wasn't going to be easy to sleep that night.

"Oh? Something worse than getting your leg stitched up?" Kel was very good at acting dumb when need be. He waited Johnny out, wanting the young man to confide in him. He didn't have to wait too long.

"Uhm, my uncle came to the station today," Gage blurted out.

"Here? At the station?" Kel asked quickly. Johnny had adopted a defensive posture wrapping arms around himself and not making eye contact.

"Yeah," he grunted. "He was here when Roy and I got back from a run."

"That must have been hard," Kel gently pressed.

"I haven't seen him in eight years," Johnny admitted. "Not since I was taken away by social services." There was a wealth of information Brackett wasn't privy to, but he accepted what he was given. He waited.

"I guess he told the guys all about what a screw-up I was," Johnny shrugged and seemed to shrink into himself. Kel Immediately moved from chair to couch and broke through Gage's personal space, an arm going over the paramedic's shoulders.

"I know a lot of things about you, John Gage," he said firmly, "and 'screw-up' doesn't fit in anywhere." They sat there, the younger stiff in shame for a long moment. Then he gave in and leaned against the doctor.

"You're a good man, Johnny," Kel said. "You put everyone ahead of you. Hell, I broke rule number 1 for you because you are a dedicated, kind person! I'm proud to call you my friend."

"Careful, doc, it's getting awful mushy," Johnny's voice wavered as he held himself stiffly, trying not to cry. This was the reaction Hank had been waiting for, not wanting to leave the younger man alone. Without another person with him Johnny would have self-destructed.

Kel waited, then put his other arm around the paramedic, pulling him tight against himself. Slowly the paramedic loosened up and molded himself to the doctor as he began to sob. He was glad Johnny trusted him. He was glad everyone else was out on a run. He held his friend close and allowed him time to grieve. Years of pain came out. Kel just hung on. After a long while he felt Johnny start to drift, the tears slowing down.

"So, do you want to come home with me?" Brackett asked once more. He received a soggy nod. They sat together for nearly 20 minutes more until Johnny had really pulled himself back and was ready for a little space.

"Should we wait for the guys?" Kel asked, "or leave a note?"

"It's late, a note should be ok," Johnny decided. He just wanted to curl up and try to sleep. He watched Brackett write out a note to his captain then return to the couch and helped Johnny up. Together they walked out to the car and soon were headed towards Kel's home.

It was nearly ten when they finally came into the house. A clean t-shirt and sweats were located for Gage who gratefully changed. He loved his jeans, but they rubbed against the gauze and wound beneath. Before he went into the guest room Kel had him come into the kitchen for some warm chamomile tea and some pain medication.

"This way your leg won't keep you awake," Brackett reasoned.

"I guess I should apologize now 'cause I'm sure to wake you later," Johnny said as he stared into the tea.

"Maybe not,"Kel decided to plant the seeds of sleep. "You did have a good emotional outburst earlier."

"You mean I sobbed like a little baby," the paramedic squirmed.

"You cried because you needed to let out all the pain and memories," Kel said firmly. "There is no shame in that!" Then he tried a slightly different tacked.

"You trust me to take care of you at Rampart, right?" Brackett asked.

"Yes," came the immediate answer with a nod.

"Then trust me to guard your sleep," he said. "If you have a bad dream I'll be there. You'll be just fine."

"Ok, doc," Gage said with a small smile.

"And you can make me and Joe a big pot of coffee in the morning!" This broadened Johnny's smile.

"I can do that!" he chuckled. Finishing his tea, he headed for bed.

Nearly eight hours later the first rays of sunlight crept through the curtains. Curled up on his side Johnny opened his eyes and let his mind surface. He was in Kel Brackett's guest room. That was easy. Now the why needed to surface. The slight throbbing in his calf reminded him of the stitches put there the previous day.

Which led him back to Rod.

He rolled over on his back and allowed all the memories to flood forward, from the pain and shock, to the calm support of his crew mates, to the torrential burst of tears, to coming home with Doc. The best part of waking to all of this was he was rested and could deal with the emotions.

He listened to the house. His apartment came with the sounds of his neighbors and the street below. Here it was quieter and the sounds of birds filtered in. He knew Kel would not be awake; the Doc was not a morning person! Stretching he took inventory of his body, noting the leg was not a happy camper. At least he knew where the aspirin was in this house.

He quietly rose and headed for the bathroom. His mind was already beginning to gallop ahead pondering the term 'freshen up'. Given the taste in his mouth he figured something had died in there overnight and freshening that part of his body would be good. Aspirin was located and swallowed with a handful of water.

Finishing up he next wandered out to the front room and opened the curtains letting in the morning light. It promised to be a beautiful, sunny day. He looked forward to spending time outside. Next stop was the kitchen and he opened the window to let the morning breeze in. He took a few deep breaths.

Thus fortified he began his inventory of cupboard and fridge. Coffee first. The aroma alone would probably wake his host up. He set up the drip and turned it on. Next he checked the bread. Hmmm, a little stale, but no mold. He set it aside.

The fridge yielded eggs and milk in date. Bingo! A pound of bacon! He grinned as he pulled these treasures out. Finally he checked out the cupboards. Kel was always good for canned fruit and he selected peaches and pears for a fruit salad. Ah, vanilla! A little sugar. Cinnamon. And a small bottle of maple syrup. He lined everything up and smiled happily.

His Aunty Rosy's french toast, bacon, fruit salad and coffee. Perfect! He loved breakfast. Well, he loved lunch and dinner, too. But this breakfast brought back good memories, something he really wanted about now.

First he spread some bacon on a rack on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven. Then he beat eggs, milk, vanilla and sugar together. He tucked in a couple pieces of bread to soak up the liquid. A teflon frying pan was heated and soon the bread was cooking in the pan.

Table set, fruit drained and placed in a bowl. A mug of coffee poured and walked down the hall to the sleeping doctor.

"Hey, Kel?" he called softly from the doorway.

"Mrphf," the inarticulate answer.

"Cof - fee - ee," Johnny softly sang.

"Mmhf. Coffee?" that gained a whole word. Gage entered the room and set the mug on the night stand. Then he opened the curtains to let in the light.

"Too bright!" came the immediate complaint. But the paramedic just grinned to himself and left the room to check on breakfast.

Nearly twenty minutes later Bracket dragged his robed body out in search of more coffee. He muttered incoherently as he sat down, plunking his empty mug on the table. Johnny poured out hot coffee and sat down to enjoy his breakfast. He knew Kel wouldn't be ready to eat until the second cup of coffee was gone.

A knock at the door announced Joe Early's arrival. He was pleasantly surprised to find decent coffee and breakfast ready for him. He came into the kitchen and glanced at the dark-haired doctor.

"Still on his second cup?" he asked with a smirk.

"Yep," Johnny confirmed. "He should just about be ready to have breakfast."

"I am sitting right here," Brackett grumbled. He really could do without mornings.

"Could have fooled me," Joe teased. "Thought it was some furry log."

"Ha, ha," he muttered. But he did look up in interest as a plate with

french toast and bacon was set in front of him. Followed by more coffee. Joe happily added milk to his own coffee then waited for the butter and syrup. Soon both doctors were happily eating.

"You know Johnny, we could make a fortune if we rented you out," Joe teased.

"No way," Kel said as he took another bite of warm, fragrant, french toast. Between here and the station he's booked." Gage just gave a forced smile. He'd had enough of being "rented out" by his uncle. Excusing himself, he headed for the bathroom.

And lost all his breakfast. Damn it all! Couldn't he be normal? Why did everything bring back bad memories? He rebrushed his teeth and went back into the guest room, pulled back the covers and then buried himself in a heap of misery. So much for a wonderful day.

Of course, there was no way Kel and Joe didn't hear him retching. He'd never been good at being quiet. He was wrapped up tight, not a piece of hair exposed to the world, when a large hand began rubbing his back. The bed dipped as the younger doctor sat down and began tugging experimentally at the covers.

"Johnny?" he tried. "You in there?"

"You need to at least leave a breathing hole," Early added. Gage tried to roll himself into as small a ball as possible. Which didn't work because Bracket just scooped him up and slid to the floor with the bundle in his lap. Joe sat down on the bed and began helping with the excavation.

"Hi," Kel said once he found a face with two red eyes. The older doctor brushed hair off of his face. And they waited. Slowly their patient relaxed slightly and turned more towards Brackett.

"I want to be normal," he muttered.

"What's normal?" Kel asked as he rubbed gentle circles on his back. He just shrugged. That was a good question. He didn't know what it was.

"Tell me what upset you, Johnny," Joe asked. "Then we can help you."

"I don't wanna be rented out," he clenched his eyes shut thinking that would stop the tears that were threatening. Brackett looked up at his friend and saw the sadness reflected.

"Ok," Joe said. "We were just teasing. You really are good at coffee and the french toast was excellent."

"I know you were teasing," he muttered. "I just can't stop the memories and then the feelings and then I..." he dropped off because he was losing the battle against tears. Brackett did the only thing he could, pulling him close and letting him hide. Joe motioned with his head and left the room for a long moment, returning with a syringe. Being a doctor had its advantages.

"Johnny, we're going to give you something to help calm you down and settle your stomach," Joe said. He poked around the covers and soon exposed an upper arm. A quick swabbing and then he injected the medicine into the shuddering body. Slowly the tremors stopped, and he started to unclench. The two men worked in tandem to get him extricated from the tightly wound blanket.

"Ok, let's go try some more breakfast, hmmm?" Brackett suggested as Johnny calmed down. Food would be good. Maybe some coffee. Joe pulled the paramedic to his feet and put an arm around him giving him a comforting hug. He could tell Johnny's grip on his 'normal' was tenuous at best.

Sitting down a fresh cup of coffee was poured out and the last piece of french toast was rescued from the oven. A little butter, some syrup, and then the doctors topped their cups and sat down with the paramedic.

"Sorry," Johnny managed. "It's been a rough couple of days."

"I'm sorry, too, John," Kel said quietly. There was little to say that wouldn't come across as a negative so he settled for sipping at his coffee. Joe simply rested his hand on the man's forearm in silent support.

"I'm seeing Kevin this morning," Gage found his voice once more. "He'll earn his co-pay."

"He gets a co-pay? We don't get a co-pay!" Kel pretended to complain.

"You got coffee," John retorted. "And french toast. In advance!"

"Much better than a co-pay," Joe agreed as he saluted with his coffee mug.

Slowly the conversation came back to even keel. Brackett whipped up an omelette for Johnny and listened to Early berating him for never doing the same for him.

"Normally I have to drink half a bottle of Knob Creek to get an omelette," Gage commented.

"It'd be a sacrifice I'd be willing to make!" Joe said, hand over his heart. They laughed. It had been a rocky morning but at least now life had gotten back to as normal as it was for the three men.

"Best go shower, John," Kel directed. Then I can check that cut and bandage it before Hank comes."

" 'K," he agreed. Before he started down the hall he stopped, "Thanks doc, for being there for me." Kel smiled warmly.

"Always, my friend," he said.