Because firefighters' lives were frequently at the mercy of flames and countless other disasters, downtime at a station had a solid foundation built on routine. Roll call, duty assignments, meal preparation, those little things – they were all as important as drills and keeping up with the latest procedures. No one knew that better than Hank Stanley, but knowing that didn't mean he had to enjoy the paperwork which came along with being a captain. Some days, if he were going to be honest, it was one routine task he wished he could accomplish by opening a drawer, sweeping every paper on his desk into it and then locking it and accidentally losing the key.
Today qualified as one of those days.
The first shift with all five of his men whole and well was and had been great, but it was the second shift that always solidified it for him. Made it real. As silly and sentimental as it made him, Hank only ever relaxed mid-way through the second shift together after one of his men (or he) had been out with an injury. And right now, he'd rather be out in the stationhouse doing nothing with them than stuck in the office doing requisition forms. He'd love to be listening to those twits banter back and forth about nonsense.
It had been three and a half months since their routine station lives had actually been routine, with Roy out for two weeks and John for a whole lot more than that, since that awful night which had very nearly cost John Gage his life. If Hank closed his eyes even now, he could see it like he was stepping into that chaos and carnage all over again.
"Wonder what's got Roy spooked?" Chet Kelly said, shouting his question over the siren.
Hank wasn't sure who he was asking, or what answer any of them could give. They'd all heard the call for back up, and while Roy had sounded urgent, Hank didn't know if he'd go so far as to say spooked. Roy DeSoto didn't get spooked; it wasn't in his nature. The only times the paramedic ever let anything show, in front of Hank anyway, it was under extreme circumstances, usually involving his partner. And even in those extreme circumstances, the only time Hank had ever witnessed anything close to flustered was Roy faltering in administering CPR on an already-dead guy when one very ill John Gage moaned and slipped into unconsciousness so fast they all thought he'd bought it right there in front of them.
Roy hadn't sounded like he was upset in that way to Hank's ears, but it was true that there was enough distance between a captain and his men that he might not pick up on nuances. Kelly might be right. Hank hoped not. The very thought was unsettling.
"Well, we're about to find out," Hank said, too softly for Chet to hear. He saw Mike Stoker nod slightly. "It's probably nothing."
Hank heard Marco Lopez's muffled voice, but couldn't make out the words. No doubt, Marco was telling Chet the same thing as he himself had just uttered. He'd be lying if he wasn't a little nervous about what kind of back up Roy and John needed. Part of that could be sloughed off as being keyed up from the house fire they'd just finished; it felt strange to work with another rescue team, even though every squad in LA County was handled by capable men. And part of it was plain old captain's worry. He didn't like when resources were too strapped for his men to be accompanied on unknown rescues. Better to have all of them there, in case, and if it turned out to be some fool caught up in his own Halloween decorations, then it was no harm, no foul. He pointed Mike to the right, putting a hand on the door to hold on as the engine turned smoothly onto Palm Court. There was no fire, no crowd gathered, only the squad parked in front of 1733, a single story house with its door wide open.
There was also the police vehicle pulling up only moments after the engine did. That ratcheted up Hank's concern and blood pressure ever so slightly. It was standard operating procedure, but Hank had a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. With a glance up at the nearly full moon, he followed the officers up the sidewalk. Their steps quickened when they heard a loud wail emanating from the house. He stayed back from the entryway, waving his crew off until the officers cleared the door. One of them shouted for a hand, and he went. They all did. The first and only thing he saw was Roy DeSoto, sprawled on the floor, his legs crossing perpendicular over another pair, a woman's. There was blood and bruises and one of the officers wrestled with someone whose screams threatened to deafen Hank.
Instinctively, Hank ran to his paramedic, crouched and did a visual check. Roy was moving, sluggish, trying to get up. Hank grasped him by the shoulders.
"Holy hell, what happened here? Roy?"
Then the officer finally overpowered the person he was struggling with, moving both of them toward the door. When Hank saw what they'd been blocking, he nearly lost the composure required of a man in his position. He wanted to cave in, just this once, and not be the captain. He blinked, hoping that it was a figment of his imagination, but that hope was dashed when he opened them again and saw John Gage lying there, face bloodless, with a … chair leg staked into his chest.
"Oh jeez," Hank said, incapable of articulating what was really rolling through him. All he knew, all he could think was John is dead, John is dead, "John."
Hank pinched the bridge of his nose, pulled himself back to the here and now. He didn't know why he had to go and relive that now. John hadn't died and wasn't going to if Hank had anything to say about it. It felt like a jinx, as if merely thinking about bad times would make good times go rancid. Any reasonable person knew life didn't work that way, yet he vowed to not think about it anymore. Better to think of John as he was now again, healthy, with his arms flailing in excitement or mouth running a mile a minute on his latest scheme. There was always a scheme, and there was always something to be excited about; it was what made John such a unique and often aggravating guy.
Hank tossed the pen down, stood and stretched. His back popped, a reminder of both his age and of how long he'd sat there doing the blasted paperwork. He decided it was time to do a walk through, to make sure everyone was doing all right, maybe get a cup of coffee while he was at it. Pouring a fresh cup of brew was almost a guarantee either the engine or the squad or both would be called out. Right now, a milk run would be preferential to paperwork. He'd never actively wish for a bad scene, of course. His job was, for all intents and purposes, going the best when he had nothing to do.
The bay was empty, the engine out on the driveway. Hank could see the floor was still wet from Mike swabbing it down while the squad was out on a call. The concrete would never sparkle, but somehow Mike always seemed to get it cleaner than the rest of the guys. It was like everything Mike did and why he was so important, that kind of quiet excellence he possessed that most people never noticed. The rest of his crew did great jobs, too, of course. Well, except Gage, when it came to duty assignments anyway. John was particularly terrible at mopping. Hank smiled. He heard soft voices coming from the kitchen. He wandered that way. It was where the coffee was, after all.
"I just think it's too soon," Marco's voice floated from the room. "You really ought to reconsider this, Chet."
"You worry too much, pal," Chet said. "You'll see. This is just what the place needs. We need to get back to normal around here."
Normal, Hank thought, was completely relative. To be honest, the Chet Kelly variation of normal scared him a little bit. Sanity or not aside, he had a decent idea what was going on before he rounded the corner and saw for himself as Chet shut a cupboard door and backed away with his hands up. Usually, the phantom did his work when no one above his pay grade was looking. The guy was actually ingenious with the implementation of his simple pranks and had impeccable timing. He'd never utter those words aloud, or suffer from Kelly's instantly swelled ego. No one noticed his appearance at the door.
"Marco's right, Kelly," Mike Stoker said. "Remember what happened last time you pranked too soon."
"Yeah, Johnny just about took your head off."
"I'll admit that wasn't the best timing." Chet shrugged, then looked smug. "But Gage couldn't take me if I had one hand tied behind my back."
Two snorts sounded simultaneously.
"Hey!" Chet said, sounding insulted.
Truthfully, Hank wasn't sure if it was too soon for the pranks to start up or not. There hadn't been enough real time during the first shift to gauge how Gage and DeSoto or any of them were adjusting to things being normal again. He eyed Mike on the sofa, newspaper crumpled on his lap, frowning slightly at the back of Chet's head. Two against. He shoved his own uncertainty aside and went with his men.
"You're getting sloppy, Kelly," Hank said, pleased when both Kelly and Lopez lurched at the sound of his voice. "I've told you before I don't ever want to see what you're doing, before it's done."
"Aw, Cap," Chet said, unwittingly managing a spot-on impression of Gage. "Don'tcha think it'd lift the mood around here?"
"Sure. But I also think Marco's got the right idea."
"I don't know how these people keep putting their hands down drains. You'd think common sense would kick in," John said, obviously talking to Roy. He whizzed right past Hank. "'Scuse me. Marco's got the right idea about what, Cap?"
Damn, how had he missed the squad pulling in? Roy was only steps behind his partner and both of them made a line for the coffeepot. Hank watched helplessly as Roy snatched the lone mug tipped upside down in the dish drainer with a quick smile at John's scowl.
"Well, at least make sure you save me some, Roy."
"Johnny," Mike said, warning in his voice. "Don…"
And to Chet's credit, Hank did see him move to prevent John from opening that cupboard door. It would have taken super speed to stop it from happening, though, and with a boing and a metallic scrape, the coffee can on a catapult launched and doused John but good. He startled, a bit more than usual, probably because he was out of practice. He emitted a surprised yelp and his elbows flew out, nearly clipping Roy on the chin. All of those reactions, Hank expected. But what had him perturbed was DeSoto, who lost every scrap of color in his face, winced and looked about ready to bolt, pass out or … something else Hank wasn't comfortable naming. A fraction of a second and a blink later, Roy was back to normal and glaring at Chet. Hank wondered if his eyes had played a trick on him. No one else seemed to have noticed.
"Gah, Kelly," John said without an ounce of true malice. He sounded, in fact, like he was trying not to smile. He shook his head, sprinkling water on Roy and Chet while he was at it. "When are you going to outgrow this stuff?"
"When you stop falling for it, Johnny-baby," Chet said with a sly grin.
"The only way I can do that is if I stop opening doors of any kind. That's just not practical for basic daily life."
"Oh." Chet strutted out of the kitchen like a peacock, calling back, "I know."
"He's got you there, Johnny," Roy said.
Roy sounded almost like himself, and almost like someone rattled to his very core. Hank narrowed his eyes and stared at his senior paramedic, conducting a mute visual assessment. Roy looked almost enough like himself to pass muster. Hank thought he must be simply too hypersensitive from earlier, mentally replaying that terrible night. He had to lay off it before he drove himself nuts. He knew he had a tendency toward paranoia. The last thing his crew needed was for him to go on a neurotic jag, not right now.
"Yeah, I know," John said.
With a doleful expression, John brushed a clump of wet, rapidly-approaching-non-regulation-length hair out of his eyes and reached for a cup, pausing briefly when Roy handed him his full cup and took the empty. He bobbed his head in appreciation, took a sip and grinned at Mike, who smiled back. Mike made the best coffee and he knew it.
"I just don't know how it's always me that's opening the doors. Kelly's some kind of … of … evil mastermind." John gulped and looked at the rest of the guys. "But I don't want any of you to ever tell him I said that, the mastermind bit. You hear me?"
"Is that an order, Gage?" Hank asked, casual-like. He smiled at how close John had come to mirroring his own thoughts on Chet's skillful Phantom pranks.
"Uh, no, no, Cap. I'd sure appreciate it, though," John said, and had the decency to look embarrassed. "You know how Chet gets."
"That I do, pal."
Hank clapped John on the shoulder and winked. He relaxed into the normalcy of the whole situation, glad that what could have been a disaster on Chet's part turned out okay. Still, he had been serious about not wanting to ever see a prank being set up. Personally, he wanted plausible deniability. Professionally, he was supposed to be a role model. A captain needed to know all but not see all when it came to that kind of thing. He studied Roy and John for a moment, happy to see them carrying on as usual, then went in search of Chet for a small chat. He'd wait for Mike to make a fresh pot of coffee and come back for that. He didn't make it two steps out of the kitchen when the klaxons went off, summoning engine and squad both. Well, he'd wanted routine.