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Summary: "Because it shows you don't know jack about being loyal, Gage, that's why."
Thank you Donna and Peggy, for taking time away from your own writing to give this one a check up.
By Susan Proto
"That is so dumb, and you know it, Gage!"
"I don't know anything of the sort, Kelly, and stop telling me what I should and should not know!" retorted Gage.
The bickering had been going on all day long, from the moment the wake-up tones sounded off to the present. The morning spats began with John being ticked off with Chet for yet another one of his infamous practical jokes. Gage opened his locker, only to find that his shoes were filled with shaving cream. He was still squishing after having to wash the pair out with water.
Next it was the old 'pass the salt in lieu of sugar for the coffee' gag, which John attempted to perpetrate onto Chet but had failed miserably. In fact, Chet had turned the tables on his favorite pigeon, and Johnny had found himself stirring cornstarch into his own cup of hot coffee. By the time he'd finished stirring, the hot drink had become a thick, gooey paste, which Johnny hadn't noticed until after he'd brought it to his lips. That little incident was good for a twenty-minute rant from A-shift's youngest member.
And now, after several more small skirmishes that resulted in shiftmates praying for a call just to separate the two, the argument turned to something just as inane.
"You can't tell me that a true fan wouldn't stay loyal to a team through thick and thin, Gage."
"Why, for crying out loud?" countered John. "Look, if I'm gonna spend my hard earned money on tickets and ballpark food, and the occasional piece of memorabilia, then it's going to be for a team that's a winner. And if that means I have to change allegiance then I will."
"I don't believe you. Whatever happened to the idea of loyalty? What about maintaining tradition? Gage, Dodger blue should be running through your veins, man! How can you suddenly decide that they no longer deserve your support?"
"Because it's the California Angels that are gonna go all the way this year, Chester B. And mark my words, they're gonna sweep those Baltimore Orioles, you mark my words," John argued.
"But you've been a Dodger fan for as long as I can remember!"
"And now I'm rooting for the Angels. For crying out loud, what's your problem? Why does it suddenly make me a horrible person for changing the team I root for?"
"Because it shows you don't know jack about being loyal, Gage, that's why."
"What are you talking about?" Johnny blustered, "I'm the most loyal guy there is!"
"No, obviously you're not. Not if you can suddenly blow off the Dodgers and become an Angel's fan. Hell, they're not even in the same damn league!"
"So what?" shouted John in frustration, wondering why he even tried.
Both John and Chet quickly turned toward the source of the stern tone of voice. Their captain stood before them, and though Hank Stanley was normally as mild mannered as they came, he did have a boiling point. Apparently he'd just hit it.
Unfortunately neither man processed that fact as quickly as they should have. "But, Cap," they whined almost in unison. If Hank weren't so damned annoyed with their childish antics, he would have laughed. Their automatic response was so like both of them; react first, think later. Well, he was about to give them both something to think about.
"Gage, get your butt into the latrine and scour it from top to bottom," he ordered.
"But, Cap, Kelly cleaned it this morning."
"Clean it again," Cap demanded.
"Yeah, Gage, clean it again," Chet echoed without thinking. Foolish move, Chester B.
"And you, Fireman Kelly, can go into the kitchen and scrub every part of the floor, stove, and the inside of the oven that has been splattered with spaghetti sauce."
"But, Cap, we used that to make lasagna...and didn't it run over?"
"Good memory, Kelly. Go get 'em, pal." Hank couldn't help the small smirk that escaped his mouth; Chet's expression was priceless. In fact, both men's expressions were almost worth enduring all of the nonsense that they'd put them all through that day.
"Cap, this isn't fair," muttered Johnny. Chet seemed to mutter something in kind. Hank just looked at them incredulously.
"You've got to be kidding me," he began. "You two have been going at each other's throats all day, making this station house a most unpleasant place to be. I can't remember the last time I've actually wished for a call out and all because of you two. Now, for two people who are making all sorts of claims about being loyal, how about your loyalty to your shiftmates? Quite frankly, you've been making our day miserable with all of your sparring and complaining.
"Look," Hank continued, "I donít really care if you two decide that you don't like each other. But you will not bring your personal biases to this station house anymore, is that clear? You can't stand each other? Fine, then keep away from one another. But I've had enough of your incessant whining. Do I make myself clear, gentlemen?"
Chet and Johnny stared straight ahead at the stranger that stood before them. Neither man had ever heard their captain go off on anyone in the manner they'd just witnessed. The fact that they were the targets of the outburst made it all the more unsettling.
The two men walked dejectedly to their assigned places.
And it was quiet, for a while at any rate.
Johnny began ranting and raving to his mirror reflection over the injustice of it all. More specifically, how unfair it was for him to be forced to swab the latrine because of Chester B. Kelly. "Dumb jerk!" he complained aloud.
Meanwhile, a similar monologue was going on in the kitchen. Chet's blustering began as a low-keyed muttering, but as the minutes passed and the cleaning necessitated him to become ensconced in the scummy walls of the disgustingly filthy oven, the grumbling turned into a full-fledged diatribe against John Gage and all anarchists just like him.
Hank slammed his office door shut in disgust. The only thing that would save those two from being put on report was the sounding of the klaxons.
Moments later, the captain smiled to himself as he murmured aloud to no one in particular, "Saved by the bell." The klaxons sounded, just at the moment Hank Stanley was going to reprimand his two wayward underlings for every infraction in the book.
It was one of the older parts of town, with abandoned clapboard houses scattered throughout the neighborhood. During his campaign for reelection that year, the mayor had promised that he'd clean up the blighted area. It was a promise, however, that had to be put on the back burner. Apparently new office space had taken precedence over some boarded up firetraps.
And now the reneging of that promise would probably come back to bite the mayor in his proverbial ass. Not to mention come back to haunt some very dedicated firefighters.
The engine pulled up in back of the squad. Captain Stanley looked at the involvement of the building and made the decision to call in a second alarm. "Too many potential targets for secondary fires," he remarked to his engineer.
Mike quietly agreed, and began checking the gages and dials on the engine. He knew that he would have to keep the water pressure at a steady level if they were going to snuff this one out in a timely manner. His eye caught the movement of the two paramedics as they got their rescue gear on. "Someone's inside that?" Mike asked.
"Yeah," responded the captain. "We got word there was a family of squatters living on the third floor. Apparently the mother didn't get out."
"Damn, it's a hot one, Cap."
Stanley nodded in agreement, but of course he didn't have a choice. If there was a chance the woman had survived, they had to get in there and rescue her. "Kelly, Lopez! Get out the one and a half and back these guys up best you can until the second crew comes," ordered the captain.
Of course they did. The firefighters of A-Shift ran like a well-oiled machine. Each of them knew what their jobs and responsibilities were. They may have had their moments of disagreement; times when they squabbled and even blamed the woes of the world on one another. But when it came time to do the job there were no better than the men of 51. They were professionals who knew what they were doing, and each would risk their own life for the other.
But, first and foremost, their duty was to the victim. And that sometimes got in the way of their ability to cover their shiftmates' backs. And when it did, no one was quite sure who paid a higher price, the injured or the firefighter who blamed himself for the injury.
The rescue team made their way up to the third floor. The roof was now fully involved and the men depended upon their SCBA gear to maintain their alertness in the smoke-filled, fiery structure. It was hard to imagine how anyone had managed to live there given the conditions of the floor they were searching. All they could make out clearly was a table here, a mattress there, and a couple of chairs that were now scorched.
"Hello! Hello, anyone here?" called out Roy as he and John continued their search. The conditions were worsening each second they remained. Both men knew the 'evacuate site' call would come soon. John noticed a closed door when they'd arrived at the rear of the house. It seemed to have taken them forever to reach the back of the dwelling, but the door remained unscathed. John lifted his hand to the door to check for heat, and when he found it to be cool, he turned the doorknob.
"Hello? Hello, anyone here?" Gage entered the small room and nearly tripped over something that lay right by the door. He stooped down and saw it was their victim. She was out cold, but there was definitely a pulse. She was alive, and if they hurried, they would be able to keep her so.
"Roy! I got her," he called out excitedly. That was something about John that few, other than perhaps his partner, recognized in him. A good save had never turned into a routine matter to Johnny Gage. It was always something to be proud of, but something also to be grateful for.
Unfortunately, the ones that go sour made an indelible mark on the man as well.
Johnny hoisted the woman up into the classic fireman's carry and held onto her with his right hand. He followed Roy and Chet, who walked side by side, though Chet was directly in front of Gage with Roy walking more toward the right. Both Chet and Marco held onto the hose for dear life, with Marco walking in front to provide a safe water path for the others.
Johnny saw Roy hold the HT up to his ear and then speak into it. Roy turned slightly and told him the cap ordered them to evacuate immediately. "The roof is going," he explained as he pointed up. Johnny nodded his understanding and continued to follow the trio as he held onto the victim.
Moments passed and for some reason, one that Johnny didn't think he'd ever be able to explain, he looked up. It wasn't that he'd heard anything; the sounds of a fully involved structure fire are louder than any civilian could ever imagine and drowned out any single sound. Yet for some inexplicable reason, he looked up. When he did, he could see the bubbling of the roof and the cracking timber beams.
It was going to come down on all of them if they didn't move, and move fast. The ceiling was going to drop in front of them, and Johnny didn't think they'd all make it past the point of impact. He tried screaming a warning.
"Move! Move!" he cried out in an effort to urge them to move forward. But they couldn't hear the desperation in the words above all the noise, nor could they move any faster without possibly falling over all of the debris that had fallen to the floor.
Next, he tried reaching for the hose, but Chet blocked his path to it. Finally, when his worse fears became a reality Johnny moved purely on instinct.
He didn't know.
Johnny looked up again and saw the ceiling bubble to the point of impending explosion. He held on tightly to his victim with his right hand, and reached across his body to snag his partner to pull him back towards him, away from the threatening crash. It was with great relief that he saw his efforts had been successful.
Until the ceiling came crashing down on his shiftmates that had walked in front of him on the other side. One had been in easy reach, easier than Roy, but instead of pulling him to safety, Johnny watched the ceiling come crashing down on top of him.
"Chet! Chet!" he croaked out. Johnny was in agony, though not physically. He'd screwed up. He was sure he'd screwed up.
"Johnny, Roy! Are you guys okay?" Marco called out to them, through the debris that now towered in front of them, checking on them.
Roy managed to find his voice. "Yeah, yeah, we're okay. You okay, Marco?"
"I'm fine, but Chet - " His voice cut out, choking. "I'm near the exit; I'll go get help. I'll be back with help."
Johnny hadn't moved from the place he stood when the ceiling came crashing down. He remained standing, with the victim still firmly on his shoulder. All he could do was stare into the debris.
Roy looked over at him but had not yet realized what was going on in Johnny's mind. What he did observe was the patient was coming back to consciousness, so he told John to put the patient down.
He didn't move.
"Hey, Johnny? C'mon, put her down. She's waking up," urged Roy. He still didn't notice the blank expression on his partner's face, the slightly rapid breathing or any of the other possible indicators of traumatic shock.
Roy moved over to his partner and grasped the patient. When Johnny kept a vice-like grip on her, Roy finally became irritated. "C'mon, John, help me put her down." When there was still no reaction, he repeated with more annoyance in his tone, "She needs to be put down, now."
Finally, he blinked his eyes. He responded, though he wasn't sure to what. "Oh. She's waking up," he uttered. He felt her move in his arms, and he became aware of her increasing return to consciousness.
He lowered himself along with the victim to the ground. Both men worked to make her as comfortable as possible, but without equipment there was little they could do.
Roy got up and walked close to the mountain of debris. "Chet! Chet, answer me!"
There was no response; not that Johnny was expecting one. He looked down at the patient and took her respiration and pulse. He checked her pupils and looked for a reaction.
"How's she doing?" Roy had come back and knelt down by the patient.
"Holding her own. Pupils are equal and reactive. Vitals seem to be within normal limits." John then took off his mask and placed it over the victim's face.
"Johnny, put that back on." Roy pointed to the mask as he spoke.
"I will. Just want to give her a little breather."
"Johnny, c'mon, put it back on." Roy was adamant; he was also upset, though he wasn't sure why. There was something about Gage's expression that just wasn't sitting right with him. "Okay, yours goes back on; I'll share mine with her."
John nodded and watched as his partner masked the victim.
"Sounds like they're getting closer to us. Shouldn't be long now."
John nodded. He looked toward the debris tower and wondered how long it would be before they got to Chet. He hoped that they were out of there when that happened.
John got his wish. There were only a couple of heavy beams that blocked their way; the rest of the debris was relatively easy to move aside to make a path through the side of the wreckage. A stokes was brought in and the paramedic team placed the victim onto it.
The first victim.
Johnny avoided looking over to where the rescue team was working to extricate Chet. He couldn't look. He couldn't help thinking it was his fault that Chet was a victim at all.
Johnny rode in with the patient, Janet Smith. He was pretty sure it wasn't her real name, but that wasn't his concern. All he wanted to do was make sure he kept her alive till the medical team could take over at Rampart.
"How's the patient?" asked Roy.
"Fine." Monosyllabic answers didn't invite conversation, which was exactly what John had intended.
"Do we need to fill in any supplies before we log back in?"
"Okay," Roy began looking confused, until it dawned on him what the problem most likely was. "Hey, Chet's gonna be okay. You'll see."
John averted his eyes. He couldn't let Roy see the guilt that filled them. "Any word?"
"Yeah. They extricated him and he was on his way to Rampart. The crew from 16s is bringing him in."
"Good." He took a deep breath. He didn't want to be there when they brought him in. "We should get going."
"We should wait to see how Chet's doing, don't ya think?" asked Roy.
"No," John responded quickly. Too quickly. "Yes," he said a moment later, contradicting himself. "Yeah, we'll wait."
"Yeah, good idea. The rest of the guys will want a report from us." Roy looked at his partner quizzically. "Johnny? You okay?"
"Yes." A repertoire of monosyllabic responses came in handy.
"What's wrong with you?"
"Johnny - "
"I said there was nothing wrong, Roy. Now leave it be!" The younger member of the team began to pace. The nervous energy that he was famous for was being displayed full-tilt. He would have worn a hole in the floor if it hadn't been for the fact that the ER doors slammed open, with Brice running along the side of a gurney.
Johnny didn't want to look; he had to look. He saw his nemesis wheeled in, and all he could do was wonder if it was truly his fault. It was, of course. He knew it was. Johnny'd made a choice; a choice that could have very well killed the man.
"Brice, how's he doing?" Roy called out to the paramedic, who just walked out of the treatment room.
"He's bruised, got some lacerations, and a mild concussion. There's no reason why he shouldn't make a full recovery. He got away lucky, in my opinion."
"Yeah, so it would seem. Thanks for the report, Craig," responded Roy with a small smile. He couldn't help but be amused by Brice's professional demeanor; he took himself so damned seriously. But the fact of the matter was that Craig Brice was also a damned good paramedic, so he, like most of the department were willing to put up with his sometimes overbearing manner in return for good, solid care. Next to Johnny, there was no one Roy would have rather have work on him in the field than Brice.
Meanwhile, John hung back all during the exchange, and never once jumped into the conversation. That in and of itself was unusual, but the fact that the victim was one of their own made it even odder.
"Gage, how's your patient?" asked Brice having noticed the lack of communication on John's part.
"Good. It appears that rescue was a little more complicated than you'd initially intended."
Brice shrugged his shoulders. He turned to Roy and said he'd better get his partner and log them back in. "Good luck, gentlemen."
Both men nodded, and Brice was off to meet Bellingham in supplies.
The chief stood the station down for a short period of time while they waited for word on Chet's prognosis. Given Brice's earlier explanation, it appeared that Chet would be fine, but it would still be nice to hear it right from the doctor's mouth. So they all congregated in the waiting room for the doctors to complete their examination.
While Marco was getting checked out for some superficial abrasions, Mike and the captain spoke softly to one another. Roy sat nearby, but instead of including himself in that conversation, he chose to keep his eyes on Johnny. The younger man's expression showed anxiety and pain; Roy had no idea as to why his partner was beating himself up over this rescue.
"Johnny?" Roy couldn't wait any longer. For his partner's sake, he had to push him for an explanation. "What's going on?"
John didn't answer him. He did, however, start to pace some more.
"C'mon, junior, what the hell is going on in that head of yours?"
Captain Stanley and the rest of the guys looked over curiously and waited for a response. Gage stopped his movements long enough to see everyone's eyes were on him in anticipation of an explanation. He wasn't sure if he wanted to say it - saying it aloud would make it real.
"Listen, pal, if something went wrong in there, you need to let me know," the captain said. His expression was one of understanding and compassion, but the tone of his words meant business as well.
"I don't know if I can explain it."
Gage stood looking helpless. Finally, rather than attempt to explain it, he decided to try another way.
"Cap, guys? Stand up for a minute, okay?" he asked and then to Roy he said, "Stand over here, in back of me, okay?"
Roy first looked at his shiftmates, shrugged his shoulders, and then did as John requested. The expression that Roy wore was one that suggested it wouldn't hurt to humor the guy.
"Mike, you stand in front of Roy, to my left, and Cap, you stand ahead of Mike. Now, here's what I'm gonna do. At some point, I'm gonna shout something, and, well, Roy - just do what comes naturally, okay?"
"Johnny, what the hell is this all about?" asked Roy, his anxiety suddenly increasing a notch or two.
"Look, you want to know what's eating at me, right? Just do it. Oh, and Roy? Place your right hand on your shoulder, and keep there. You can't move it."
While Roy looked confused, Hank practically rolled his eyes; just another silly notion that his young paramedic had gotten into his head and wouldn't be talked out of.
"Sure, pal, we'll do it," indulged the captain. "Anytime you're ready."
The men faced forward, Johnny remained quietly in front of Roy and to his left. A few minutes went by, and the stress level became more palpable. Suddenly, "Ceiling collapse!" shouted John.
Roy reached out immediately and pulled back his colleague.
All of the men took a couple of moments to catch their breaths. Finally, Hank said, "Jeezes, Gage! What the hell was that supposed to prove?"
"It was either going to make me feel better, or confirm my worse fears," he responded softly.
"I really am a sonofabitch," he murmured just loud enough for all to hear. "I'm sorry, I gotta get some air." John walked out of the waiting area quickly.
"Okay, will someone please explain to me what the hell that was all about?" asked Hank, plainly confused.
The other two men remained quiet as they tried to sort out their thoughts on what had just happened. Finally, it was Mike who spoke up.
"Roy, what were your positions when you were leaving the building?"
"Well, Marco was in the lead, with Chet in back of him. I was to his right, and Johnny was behind us, carrying the victim...." Suddenly, the pieces were starting to fit together. "But I don't understand what's got John all upset," he said.
"Roy, don't you see? Think of where he was standing. Think of what he did."
"Wait a minute," interjected the captain. "Would one of you kindly fill me in on your sudden revelation? I don't have a clue."
"Oh, sorry, cap," answered Mike. "When the guys were coming out of the building, Marco was in the lead like you just took. Chet followed Marco on the line, much like I followed you. Roy had walked on Chet's right, as Johnny walked to mine. But when they were coming out of the building, Johnny was the one who'd taken the rear, carrying the victim in his right hand. That's why Roy had to keep his right hand up on his shoulder."
It didn't take long before Cap realized what had been going on in John Gage's mind. "I can't believe he's blaming himself for saving Roy instead of Chet."
"What?" Roy looked shocked.
"Roy, you don't see?" asked Mike. "Think about it. Given the positions you were in, Johnny figures it was only natural for you to reach over to have grabbed me instead of him. But during the real evacuation, when he had to make that decision, he apparently thinks he consciously reached for you instead of Chet. He thinks he put Chet's life in jeopardy because of his friendship with you."
"That's ridiculous." Roy shook his head. When no one responded, he asked, "Isn't it?"
"To be honest, I don't know if it is all that ridiculous. Think about it. The man had to reach across his body, while carrying a victim in his right hand, to pull you back." When he saw the shocked look on his paramedic's face, Hank quickly added, "Roy, just because John thinks he's done something wrong, doesn't mean I do, too."
"But you think he consciously chose to save me instead of Chet?"
Hank looked back at the worried expression facing him. He wanted to say what Roy wanted to hear, but he couldn't. Not outright. "I don't know. I just don't know."
Another half-hour passed, and the guys were given permission to visit with Chet for a few minutes. The injured firefighter smiled with relief when he saw Marco and Roy enter along with Mike and Hank.
"You guys okay?" he asked, his voice a bit raspy from smoke.
"Just a couple of cuts and bruises for me," answered Marco with a smile.
"Not so much as a scratch on me," Roy ventured.
"Good." Chet was genuinely pleased, until he looked around and counted heads. "Shit," he muttered, and then more clearly asked, "What about Gage?"
"Oh, he's fine, Kelly. He'd stepped outside for a bit of fresh air when the doc gave us the all clear to come in and see you."
Chet looked at the uncomfortable expressions his shiftmates suddenly wore. He looked from one man to the next, when finally he declared, "Oh, God, Gage is dead, isn't he?"
"No! Chet, Johnny's fine. Really. He wasn't hurt at all. Honest," placated Roy.
"Okay, so then where the hell is he?" he demanded.
"Well, it's like Cap said. He stepped out for some air, and - "
"Aw, c'omon guys, cut the bull. What's going on?"
Finally, Mike could take no more, and in the process he not only explained to Chet what the problem was, but to Marco who'd been totally confused by Gage's absence as well.
"You're kidding me, right?" asked Chet incredulously. "The jerk really feels guilty for only being able to save one of us and that it was Roy?"
Roy shook his head. "No, Chet, it's a little more convoluted than that. He feels guilty that he chose to save me over you."
"Chose?" Chet looked from man to man. "He thinks he had time to 'choose'?" The man shook his head in disbelief. "Like he really had time to make a choice?"
"He seems to think he did," confirmed the captain.
"But it all happened so fast," remarked Marco.
"Damn fast," muttered Chet in agreement, and then added wryly, "Reflexes as fast as lightening. Jeezes, someone's awfully full of himself, wouldn't you say, guys?"
Roy smiled. Chet was the first to dish it out, but the man could also be very good-natured about things; especially those things that had to do with his shift-mates. The little man never ceased to surprise Roy.
"Roy, go find your idiot partner, okay?"
Roy smiled. He would be happy to go search for his idiot partner.
The door opened slightly, and Chet sensed someone was taking a peek at him. "Gage, get in here." The door slowly opened, until it was wide enough for someone to step through. Unfortunately, no one entered the room. "Gage, get your ass in here. We have to talk."
Finally, John walked in hesitantly. He averted his eyes; he couldn't make eye contact.
"Was wondering when you were going to find the time to visit me," Chet baited intentionally. Gage, however, didn't bite. "You ever going to say anything, Gage?"
He continued to look away, but John did find his voice, albeit barely a whisper, but he spoke nonetheless. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Chet echoed. "You're sorry?"
Gage finally made eye contact with the small, normally vivacious man that now lay in the bed. What he saw didn't so much as shock him as disturb him. There was bruising around the side of face and a number of facial lacerations. He knew Chet had every right to be incredulous at the small words he'd just uttered. How could 'being merely sorry' alleviate the horrible feelings of guilt he was experiencing?
"Gage, stop being a jerk." Chet wanted to get his colleague's full attention.
John looked up, the startled expression clearly evident. Chet certainly succeeded in gaining the man's attention.
"Johnny, you don't have anything to feel sorry about."
John hung his head and shook it slightly. He was wrong. He had everything to feel sorry about.
"C'mon, John. What else could you have done?" asked Chet.
"What else?" The dark eyes gleaned with anger, though it was directed most certainly toward himself. "Chet, don't you get it? Don't you understand what I did?"
"No, John, why don't you explain it to me?" Chet replied.
"I was standing practically right behind you. I could have just - I should have - "
"What? Spit it out, Gage!" egged on Chet.
"You! I should have saved you, but I chose not to. I chose to give you up for someone else, and I can't help but wonder if it's because we were going at one another all shift. Not very professional of me. God, I can't believe I did that," John ranted briefly, until his shoulders slumped, and he sat down in defeat. "I'm sorry, Chet. I don't know what else to say."
"You think you decided to grab Roy because we were arguing earlier?" asked Chet incredulously.
"Gage, stop flattering yourself," he replied with a smirk.
John, on the other hand, didn't have a clue as to what Chet was thinking. "Chet, what the hell are you talking about?"
"You really think you had the time to think, 'Oh, I'm pissed off with Chet Kelly because he and I argued, so since this ceiling is about to fall on top of our heads and I can only save one person besides the victim that I'm carrying in my one arm I think I will *not* save Chet and save someone else who just happens to be my partner.' Give me a break, Gage."
John stood back up with his mouth slightly agape. He wanted to say something to rebut Chet's assessment, but he wasn't sure what that could be. He wasn't sure of anything at that point, except of what he'd actually done. That was proof enough to him.
"Don't you understand?" John began in way of explanation. "I had a victim in my right arm. I had you practically in front of me. Roy was way over to my right. When I saw that ceiling start to balloon, instead of reaching directly in front of me and grabbing you, I stretched across my body and reached over to grab Roy. It should have been you, Chet, but at that moment I chose Roy over you."
"Yeah, that sure makes you one hell of a bastard, John. Choosing the partner you've worked with for over six years; the man who's been the closest thing to family in your life since we've all known you; the man whom you know would give his life to save yours...yeah, you're a real sonofabitch, Gage."
John shook his head, looked downward, dejected. "You don't get it."
"No, Johnny, you don't get it." Once again, John's head shot back up again. Once again he succeeded in getting the lanky man's attention.
"Listen to me, and try to get this through your thick, stubborn head. You didn't make the decision to save Roy over me this morning in that damn building. You made that decision over six years ago when you became Roy's partner. I don't think it would have mattered who was standing in my place. You would have instinctively chosen to pull back Roy no matter what.
"Look, man, you couldn't save all of us, not while carrying the victim, and we all know you'd never choose to leave a civilian in order to save one of us. So, you had one choice. Johnny, you couldn't have made any other decision."
"But I should have."
"No. You shouldn't have. Ya see I was all wet earlier today." Upon seeing the puzzled expression on Johnny's face, Chet continued. "I was wrong when I razzed you about the Dodgers." Still noting the confused expression, Chet clarified, "I said you didn't know what it was to be loyal." He chuckled huskily, the remnants of the smoke still evident. "God, Johnny, if someone looked up the meaning of the word 'loyal' they'd probably find your picture as the definition."
"But Chet...." Johnny dropped down into the chair again. He was getting exhausted trying to explain his reasons for feeling guilty.
"No, John. You gotta understand. When you signed on as Roy's partner, something between you two clicked. We all saw it, felt it. You were going to always be there for Roy and he was going to be there for you and that's all there was to it. We all accepted it, and to be honest, it gave us all a sense of relief to know that you guys were covering each other's backs. Made our jobs a helluva lot less stressful, I'll tell ya that. But it's because of that sense of loyalty, that promise you made to yourself and to Roy all those years ago; that's why you pulled Roy back and not me. I wouldn't expect it to have been any other way, Johnny."
Johnny looked down and shook his head. It sure sounded reasonable, but those words were coming from Chet. How in heck could he believe Chet?
"You don't believe me, do you?"
Johnny looked up in shock; now the man was a mind reader.
"Fine. So how 'bout this? Johnny, I forgive you."
"You heard me. I forgive you for saving Roy when you possibly had a better chance to save me from injury. I forgive you," he repeated for emphasis.
When John's mouth remained opened, but no sound came forth, Chet said, "What, not only am I stuck in this hospital bed, but you're gonna add insult to injury by not accepting my forgiveness?"
"Umm, no! No, I - I accept." Chet had rendered Johnny speechless, which in and of itself was quite an achievement. Finally, Johnny managed to croak out, "This is really nice of you, Chet."
"Yeah. I know."
"No, really, this is very nice of you. I almost don't quite believe it."
"Yeah, well believe it, Gage, but don't let it go to your head, and whatever you do, don't let it get around, or you will find shaving cream in your boxer shorts, understand?"
The two men shared a smile, a handshake, and a new understanding about what choices are all about.
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