Lydia March is a character I first used in my story, "Conversation Hearts," and then again in "Tastes Like Chicken." Both stories can be found on Audrey's site.


Only With the Heart


Jill Hargan


It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.
What is essential is invisible to the eye.

Antoine de St. Exupéry from "The Little Prince"

February 14th

Valentine's Day

"Did you see Johnny Gage?" Christy Lawson leaned over her salad at the round cafeteria table. Her voice was low, but her eyes were dancing.

The two women eating lunch at the table with her also leaned forward, eager to hear the latest exploits of the young, single paramedic who was as famous for his strikeouts with the nursing staff as he was his non-stop attempts to wrangle dates with them. All three friends were nurses, relatively new at Rampart. Christy and Jean Kent worked in Pediatrics, while Penny Chandler usually pulled her shifts in Orthopedics, but was still new enough to get loaned out to other units when the need arose.

"I must've missed him," Jean said, her voice broadcasting her disappointment clearly.

"I didn't think he was on today," Penny commented with a slight frown. "I saw the guys from "C" shift here earlier."

"He's not," Christy stated, dismissing that information as irrelevant. "You didn't see how dressed up he was and what he had in his hands?"

Both young nurses shook their heads. Christy's eyes gleamed at the prospect of being the first to fill her friends in.

"He didn't come through Emergency like he normally does," she began. "Which is really strange to begin with. He always comes in and talks with Dixie."

"Dixie's not on today either," Penny informed them reasonably, as if that cleared up the mystery, but Christy ignored that obvious logic.

"And he was wearing dress slacks and a coat and tie... I mean, you know how 'dressed up' for Johnny usually means throwing on a sport coat with his jeans."

"Maybe he was just visiting a sick friend," Penny suggested. Both her friends favored her with disgusted looks.

"Dressed like that?" Jean shook her head. "I actually went out with him once, remember? Believe me, John Gage doesn't go all out like that for just visiting a sick friend. Sure sounds like he was trying to impress somebody."

"And remember it's Valentine's Day," Christy reminded them with a knowing smile. "Plus, I haven't told you the best part. He had flowers." She leaned forward again and lowered her voice. "Not just any flowers... roses. A huge bouquet of red roses... you know, the kind with all the balloons attached. And he had a big box of candy too."

"That sure doesn't sound like Johnny," Jean agreed knowingly. "My friend Linda works at a florist's. She told me once how much roses cost... a bunch!" She rolled her eyes to emphasize just how much she meant. "Believe you me, John Gage is the biggest cheapskate to go on a date with. Did I ever tell you where he took me for dinner that time? The Santa Monica Pier... for hot dogs! He said he thought it was romantic to eat hot dogs at the pier. Can you believe that? Takes me all the way to Santa Monica and is too cheap to go to one of those nice seafood restaurants." She folded her arms and shook her head. "So, no way is he gonna shell out that much money for flowers unless..."

"Unless he was really serious about somebody," Christy finished emphatically. She leaned back and for the first time since they'd sat down took a bite of her salad. She chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "The question is who?" she concluded when her mouth was clear again. "Who's he been dating recently?"

There was a long moment of silence around the table as the women ate their lunch and tried to remember who on the staff had talked last about a date with John Gage.

"Suzanne up in CCU went out with him," Jean finally recalled brightly, then her face fell. "But that was before Christmas. I remember her joking about how he took her to Roy's daughter's school play." She snorted derisively. "What a great date, huh? Going to some kid's play?"

Christy rolled her eyes and laughed in agreement. "Good thing she didn't go out with him again. Wonder where their second date would've been... Santa's Village?"

Christy and Jean both laughed loudly, but Penny restrained herself to a slight smile to be polite. As she continued eating her lunch, her two friends kept up their game of trying to guess where a date with Johnny might end up. After a few minutes of it, they wound down with Christy making a firm declaration that as far as impressing women, John Gage just didn't "get it." A statement Jean agreed with whole heartedly.

Penny didn't contradict her friends, but she didn't quite agree with them either. She thought it was actually kind of sweet for Johnny to have taken a date to his partner's daughter's play. And hot dogs on the pier on a moonlit summer night really did sound rather romantic to her. But she didn't dare suggest that to Christy or Jean. They'd look down their noses at her, and then it would be all over Rampart that Penny Chandler had the "hots" for Johnny Gage. Penny was just young enough and new enough at her job not to want to be the center of gossip, especially when it concerned the handsome paramedic who provided a great deal of the grist for the nursing staff rumor mill.

As they finished eating and then took their trays to the window that opened into the dishwashing room, Penny's thoughts continued to focus on Johnny. She'd heard all the stories from the nurses he dated and the ones he chased but refused to go out with him. She'd learned a long time ago not to put a lot of stock in gossip, and that if you took most rumors and cut them down by half, you'd probably be a lot closer to the truth.

Yes, it was probably true that Johnny didn't spend a lot of money on his dates, but that didn't necessarily mean he was cheap. Penny knew a couple of things figured into that part of Johnny's reputation.

First, that a lot of the young nurses had built up big, romantic fantasies of finding some rich, charming doctor and being swept off their feet. But the truth was, most of the doctors Penny worked with at Rampart weren't that young or handsome, or they were already married, or they were too caught up in their work to pay much attention to the young women mooning after them. And because of that, some of these same women turned their attention to the paramedics who came through the hospital on a daily basis.

The majority of these firemen were young and handsome. They were friendly and much more approachable than the doctors. So it was easy to substitute the paramedics into the fantasy. They were in the medical profession, weren't they? They were nearly on the same pedestal as doctors. They should be just as good to dream about.

But Penny also knew the fallacy in that. Penny's brother Brian was a fireman, and he was in training right now to be a paramedic. From everything he'd told her, she knew all too well that one big difference between doctors and paramedics was the amount of money they made. It didn't make sense and it didn't seem fair that a man went through all that training and never made an extra dime for it. But that was the way of it at the moment. And if John Gage's salary was anywhere near what Brian's was, Penny didn't blame him a bit for not going overboard trying to impress every girl he took out. That didn't make him cheap. It made him practical.

Penny also knew that another reason some of the nurses were more than willing to spread stories about John Gage was pure jealousy. She knew, for instance, that as much as Christy talked down about the paramedic, she would jump at the chance to go on a date with him... if only he'd ever asked her out.

Penny smiled as they came to the elevator and she parted ways with her friends. They were still going on and on about who Johnny could possibly be dating and she knew they'd be talking about this off and on the rest of the day. She would be too busy herself to worry about more than work. She was filling in on the fourth floor this afternoon and word was they were filled to overflowing with patients today.

* * *

Six hours later, all thoughts of John Gage had left Penny's mind. The fourth floor had been crazy all afternoon, with hardly a moment to think of anything but the demands of her patients. By the time it started to slow down a bit, it was well past her dinner break, her feet were killing her, and her back was aching from helping the extremely obese Mrs. Lathom in 415 take a shower and get back to bed without losing her balance. The poor woman had suffered a slight stroke and was struggling with some of the simplest tasks. The doctors were optimistic that she would fully recover, but for now, the nurses caring for her were bearing the brunt of Mrs. Lathom's lifetime of excesses.

Penny stopped for a moment, one hand holding the tray of meds, her other pressed to her lower back, and stretched, feeling the pull that was inevitable no matter how properly you lifted when the person in question weighed nearly three hundred pounds. Then she gave a weary sigh and walked through the open door into 421.

She knew from the chart that this patient was an elderly woman, here with acute bronchitis, complicated by emphysema. Penny hadn't been in here yet today, but she knew from the other nurses on the floor that this woman was easy to deal with and wasn't a complainer. Penny was glad for that. Shift change was at 7:00, a little less than an hour away. The last thing she needed right now was somebody being difficult.

As she walked into the room, the first thing she noticed was the huge arrangement of bright red roses and colorful heart shaped balloons that sat on the rolling side table, practically dwarfing the small, gray headed woman in the bed. Penny couldn't help but smile. It was sweet that after so many years a husband could still be so thoughtful toward his wife.

"How are you feeling, Mrs. March?" she greeted the patient brightly.

"Not so bad," came the answer in a voice that was rough with the bronchitis, but steadier than Penny would have expected from someone in their seventies. The woman gestured to the nasal cannula and chuckled. "I'll feel better when I can get rid of this thing."

"It won't be too much longer," Penny assured her. "And it's a lot better than the mask, isn't it?"

The woman rolled her eyes and nodded. "Don't remind me of that thing." She coughed a little and Penny moved to help her get a sip of water. "Thanks, dear," she said, then lay back with a sigh. "I'll just be glad to get home."

"I can't blame you for that," Penny agreed as she set the paper cup with the meds down on the tray and rolled it closer to the bed. She noticed a big, heart shaped box of candy there, and she breathed in the fragrant aromas of roses. "Especially with a husband as thoughtful as yours waiting for you."

"My husband?" Mrs. March chuckled. "Oh my, dear, no. Those aren't from my Albert. I'm afraid I've been a widow for more years than I care to remember."

Penny felt her eyebrows lift in surprise. She didn't think of old women as having boyfriends. But then she figured, why not. Everybody was entitled to a little love and romance, no matter how old you were. She smiled again.

"Well, a very thoughtful boyfriend then."

The woman chuckled again. "Yes, thoughtful he is... but he's not my boyfriend. I'm afraid he's a little young for me."

Now Penny's interest was piqued. She took in the roses again, and let her eyes wander to the balloons. Be My Valentine was written across the largest.

"Well, you've certainly got a very special somebody in your life," she stated with a little laugh.

The woman's pale face lit up with a warm smile. "I sure do. And you're right, he's very special."

Penny helped Mrs. March take her medicine, then made sure she was comfortable; fluffing up her pillows and rearranging the blankets. As she stepped closer to the side to shift the call button closer to the well-worn hand, she had to move the table out of her way. As she did, she couldn't help but notice the card stuck onto a plastic prong and blending into the arrangement.

Curiosity got the better of her and her eyes lingered there long enough to read the words.

To My Best Girl,

You'll always be my Valentine.



Penny froze for a moment as it all clicked into place. The lunchtime talk all came back to her. She supposed there might be other Johnny's who brought Valentine gifts to patients today, but somehow she was sure that this was the woman John Gage had visited earlier. These were the flowers and candy Christy had seen him carrying.

"Is something wrong, dear?" The voice was raspy, but still held a note of concern.

Penny turned from the flowers, her cheeks red with embarrassment. "I'm sorry... I just... No, nothing's wrong... I just...." She felt stupid stammering like an idiot, and she decided to just go ahead and ask. There was nothing wrong with just asking.

"Are these from Johnny Gage?"

The woman's eyes crinkled with pleasure. "They sure are. Do you know my Johnny?"

"Yeah... well, not really... I mean, I know who he is... everybody knows who he is." Now Penny felt even more stupid. She could only imagine the impression she was giving this woman. "What I mean is, I don't really know Johnny personally. Just by his reputation."

"His reputation, eh?"

Penny cringed, wondering why she was saying the wrong thing at every turn. If this lady was a friend of John Gage's, she might take offense at a remark like that. But the look on Mrs. March's face didn't seem put off. In fact, she seemed amused.

"I... Uh, I didn't mean he had a..."

"Oh, don't worry, dear. I know exactly what you mean. And I'll have to tease Johnny about it later."

Penny felt bad now. She wasn't sure this woman completely understood what she'd meant by a reputation. Or what exactly the nurses at Rampart talked about when they discussed John Gage. She let her eyes rest on the flowers again and couldn't reconcile the over-eager, clutzy tightwad the nurses talked about with the man who brought flowers to a sick little old lady - a lady who called the paramedic her Johnny.

"How do you know Johnny?" she blurted out before she could stop herself.

"Oh, he and I have been friends for some time," the woman answered, her eyes getting a look that spoke of reminiscing. "In fact, today's something of an anniversary for us."

Penny's face must have shown her surprise, for the woman laughed an understanding laugh.

"I don't mean to confuse you, dear. It was a year ago today that Johnny saved my life. My apartment building was on fire and then there was an explosion. If it hadn't been for Johnny, I would have died."

Penny's mind was at last able to make sense of the situation. She and the other nurses really only saw the paramedics at the hospital, in their roles as medics. It was easy to forget they were still firemen. Even she didn't think about that part of their jobs much, and she should know better than any of the other women she worked with.

"That's really nice of him to remember you," she said after a moment.

"Oh, yes, he certainly did." That look of remembering filled the woman's face again and Penny suddenly realized there was much more to this than just a nice gesture on the part of a public servant.

"And you and he became friends..." she prompted gently, not wanting to appear nosy.

"That we did," the older woman answered softly. Her voice was starting to sound tired, mostly due to the meds.

Penny knew she should probably leave and let the woman rest, but it was suddenly very important to her to know more of this story. She wasn't sure why it mattered to her so much, she only knew that it did.

"Do you see him very often?"

"Oh, yes. Nearly every day. He found me an apartment in his building, so we're almost as close as neighbors. He checks on me... makes sure I'm all right." She laughed quietly. "He worries about me," the woman continued sleepily. "But he's a very sweet, dear man to look after an old lady like me." Her voice trailed off and her eyes closed lazily.

Penny stood quietly, her gaze moving between the flowers and the small, aged figure in the bed. It was sweet of the man. Sweet and thoughtful, and kind. And not what any of Penny's friends on staff ever mentioned when they talked about Johnny.

"You look puzzled, dear," came the soft voice from the bed. "Is something wrong?"

Penny had thought Mrs. March was asleep. But apparently her age hadn't dulled her perception any.

"Not wrong, really," she murmured, half to herself. "I was just thinking..."

"Thinking about what?" the older woman prompted after Penny didn't answer right away.

Penny smiled self-consciously. After all, she didn't even know this woman. But for some reason, she didn't feel awkward talking to her.

"Well..." Her eyes moved to the flowers and her hand reached out so she could touch one of the velvety petals. "I was just thinking that it's hard to judge a person just by what you see on the outside. But that doesn't always stop people from doing it."

"No, it doesn't. Most people don't understand that to see someone truly, you have to look with the heart."

Penny's smile grew thoughtful, and she wondered if any of the women who felt they'd been disappointed in their dates with Johnny really would ever know what it was they'd given up. It didn't seem like any of them were even interested in finding out.

She took a deep breath and pulled herself out of her musings. She still had a shift to finish.

"I need to get back to work," she said lightly. "Do you need anything else for the night?"

The woman shook her head. "No, dear. I'm fine... well, except maybe to know your name."

"Sorry," Penny chuckled. "It's Penny... Penny Chandler."

"I like that name. Is it short for Penelope?"

Penny made a face, then laughed. "Ugh! Yes. But I'll have to swear you to secrecy on that one."

The woman's shoulders shook slightly with what Penny knew was quiet laughter. "Believe me, Penny, I know what you mean. I always hated my name. That is until my Albert found me. Somehow when he said it, it didn't sound horrible anymore. That's makes all the difference, you know. Having someone you care about call you by name."

"I suppose," Penny hedged, not convinced that she would ever want anyone calling her Penelope.

"You'll see," the woman persisted with a wise smile. "Someday you'll see."

"I hope you're right, Mrs. March," Penny conceded. "But in the meantime, I'll stick with Penny."

"All right, Penny," the older woman nodded. "And you be sure and call me Lydia."

* * *

February 15th

"So... how did Joanne like her Valentine's present?"

Johnny sat down on the bench to tie his shoes. They still had about ten minutes before roll call, and he wanted to be sure and get the details on how things had gone yesterday. For as much as he had listened to Roy agonize over what to get his wife for Valentine's Day, the younger paramedic felt he deserved to at least hear about the results.

Roy's smile lit up his whole face as he paused in the middle of buttoning his blue uniform shirt. "She loved it. Absolutely loved it. I tell ya, Johnny... I don't know where you came up with the idea, but I don't know when I've seen Jo that worked up over something I gave her for Valentine's day."

Johnny's grin spread from ear to ear. "I knew it. Didn't I tell ya you were in a rut. I mean, flowers are great... and you'd certainly get an earful if you didn't send 'em... but chicks love to be surprised once in a while. It proves you're still thinking about them." He stood up and reached inside his locker to grab his blue jacket, but paused in mid-reach and gave his partner a questioning look. "You still sent the flowers, didn't you?"

Roy rolled his eyes in obvious disgust. "Of course I did. I'm not an idiot."

"Good," Johnny declared in obvious relief, then continued his previous discourse as if he hadn't interrupted himself. "And I know you're not an idiot. It's not your fault. I just think it's easy for a married guy to fall into a routine, ya know? And even though you and Joanne are married, ya have to remember, wives are still chicks at heart."

Roy paused in the middle of tucking his shirt into his pants. He wasn't sure what Joanne would think about being referred to as a chick. But perhaps, in spite of his terminology, Johnny's logic wasn't that far off. Jo had certainly been pleased when she'd opened the card and seen the gift certificate for a full day's worth of pampering at the newly opened body spa.

"Well, however you thought of it... thanks."

"Anytime, partner, anytime." Johnny slapped Roy on the shoulder then headed toward the door to the bay. "Coffee?"

Roy glanced at his watch. They had a couple more minutes. "Sure," he replied, thinking a nice cup of coffee would hit the spot. He'd only had time for a quick bowl of cereal this morning - an added bonus to Joanne's reaction to her present. His smile widened at the memory, then he followed Johnny across the bay.

They entered the day room, where a few stragglers from "C" shift and most of 51's newly arrived "A" shift were shooting the breeze, catching up on the news of the last shift. Johnny lifted his hand in greeting, but headed toward the coffee pot.

"So what did you end up doing?" Roy asked his partner, casting a critical eye on the silver pot, hoping it wasn't empty. By the looks of all the mugs on the table, it might be a futile wish.

Evidently Johnny had the same thought. He picked up the pot and swirled it around to judge its fullness. He smiled in satisfaction then reached for a couple of mugs.

"Not much," he said as he filled Roy's cup, then emptied the pot into his own. "I went and visited Lydia."

Roy had listened repeatedly to all Johnny's plans for a romantic Valentine's date with some new nurse named Cindy. "Not much" could only mean the girl had turned him down. But the fact that Johnny wasn't moaning about it also meant the younger man didn't want to talk about it - at least in front of everybody else. So Roy focused on the second half of his partner's answer.

"How's she's doing?" He knew Johnny's elderly friend and neighbor hadn't been feeling well the last few weeks and had ended up at Rampart a few days ago.

Johnny shrugged as he took a sip of hot liquid, then leaned against the kitchen counter. "Pretty good all things considered. Boy, she sure scared me the other night with how bad she was coughing and wheezing. But she's one stubborn lady. Took me nearly an hour to convince her to let me take her to Rampart."

"I guess the emphysema makes any respiratory infection a big problem."

Johnny nodded and took another sip of coffee. "Yeah, but Lydia's lungs weren't that bad yet. That's why her doctor wasn't concerned when she first got sick."

"Is this..." Roy paused, wondering how to phrase his question without sounding negative. "What I mean is, since the bronchitis got so bad, is she gonna be worse off?"

Johnny didn't answer for a moment. He stared into his mug and swirled the liquid around for a bit. Then he sighed.

"I talked quite a bit to her doctor. He says it can't have helped... that her lungs will probably be weaker after this." He heaved another sigh. "I tell ya, Roy... I worry about her. She doesn't have anybody..."

"She's got you," Roy reminded his partner with a smile, trying to lighten the mood. "I'd say she's pretty lucky."

Johnny actually flushed in embarrassment. "Aw... well, I don't do that much," he murmured.

Roy knew better. He knew just how much Johnny did for Lydia, though some of that knowledge he'd only found out recently, and quite accidentally. Roy knew Johnny had helped the old woman find an apartment in his building after her other one had burned in the fire where Johnny had met her. He also knew his partner kept an eye on his new friend and neighbor. What Roy hadn't known until recently was that Johnny was also paying part of Lydia's rent.

Roy had gone to Johnny's place one day a few weeks ago to return some tools he'd borrowed, and ended up waiting for his partner to come home from running errands. While he was sitting on the front steps, the apartment manager had come up with some papers he needed Johnny to sign. The man knew Roy - had seen him and the kids over here often enough. He must have assumed Roy knew all of Johnny's private business, for as he handed Roy the papers to give to Johnny, he proceeded to talk all about the situation with Lydia and her rent and Johnny's arrangement with the management company.

It had come as somewhat of a surprise. John Gage was never the first in line to pay for anything he didn't have to. Some of the guys razzed him about being a tightwad, but Roy had always chalked it up to the childhood his partner rarely talked about. Roy just figured growing up on a reservation, Johnny probably hadn't had a lot of money. It seemed reasonable that now, as an adult and still not making a great amount, Johnny felt better if he held onto as much of his money as he could. The amount he was helping with Lydia's rent wasn't huge, but it was enough to make Roy sit up and take notice.

And yet, as Roy thought about it, it shouldn't have been so surprising. In so many other ways, Johnny was the most generous of men. He gave freely of his time and energy to a lot of different efforts. From the smallest of station picnics to the big department events, from projects as small as helping out with Roy's household fix-it jobs to finishing roof repairs before it rained for Carlson when the "B" shift paramedic broke his leg.

But John Gage wasn't a self-promoter, at least not in personal matters. Sure, he talked a big story in front of the guys, acting like a goof half the time, letting people think he wasn't any deeper than the L.A. River in August. But Roy knew his partner would definitely not want this purely selfless act nosed about where other people would find out about it. So, discovering just how much his friend was doing to be sure a lonely little old lady, who found herself in unfortunate circumstances, had a roof over her head and a few small comforts in the last years of her life, wasn't that much of a stretch for anyone who really knew Johnny well. What the older paramedic had come to realize was that there weren't all that many people who could make that claim, and Roy felt himself fortunate to be one of those few.

"So, when's she coming home?" Roy asked, switching the subject away from matters Johnny would rather keep private.

"The doc said probably by Friday. And it's a good thing." Johnny shook his head and chuckled. "She's fighting him tooth and nail to get out of there. She can't stand hospitals."

"Sounds like somebody else I know," Roy mused with a laugh. "Are you sure you two aren't related?"

"Ha, ha, Roy, very funny." Johnny finished his coffee and turned to rinse out the cup.

"What's funny?" Chet Kelly asked as he brought his cup to the sink as well.

"Nothin', Chet," Johnny stated. "Roy just thought he'd try out a new joke, is all."

"Hey, tell it to me," Kelly asked eagerly. "I love jokes."

"You are a joke," Johnny informed the Irishman with a teasing grin.

"I'm a joke? You think I'm a joke? I'm not the one Roy was laughing at."

"Roy wasn't laughing at me," Johnny shot back, and the two friends walked away from the sink, carrying their ongoing battle out of the day room and into the bay, out of Roy's hearing range.

Roy merely shook his head, then swallowed down the last of his coffee. It looked like today was starting off the same as any other day. It was nice to have some things you could always count on.

* * *

February 19th

Lydia sat on the side of her hospital bed. She was fully dressed; her small overnight bag sitting by her feet. Shifting slightly, she glanced again at the clock on the wall. It was nearly noon. Her doctor had already been in and given her one last exam, then signed her release papers. That very nice nurse, Penny, had come in to say good bye, even though she wasn't even working this floor today. Even Johnny's friend, Dixie McCall, had come in on her morning break to chat for a few minutes before she had to get back downstairs. The only person left to show up was Johnny himself.

She knew he hadn't forgotten about her. He'd stopped by last night after bringing someone into the Emergency Room and assured her again that it was no trouble for him to stop by as soon as he got off shift to give her a ride home. No, Johnny wouldn't have forgotten. That wasn't like him.

The fact that he was several hours late could only mean he'd had to stay overtime, and Lydia had learned enough about firefighting this past year since she'd met Johnny and the men he worked with, to know that meant something big had happened either during the night or in the early morning hours - something big enough to keep their shift on the job.

Because of that, even though she was more than ready to leave the hospital and finally get back to her own home, Lydia's anxious clock watching wasn't due to any impatience on her part, but rather a growing concern for her friends.

She let her eyes wander to the phone and thought about calling Joanne, but wasn't sure if she was overreacting. No, she decided she'd wait a little longer before bothering Roy's wife with her silly fears. As if to reward her for her wise decision, the door to her room opened and a dark head poked itself part way in.

"Sorry to keep you waiting. Am I in the doghouse? Or can I come in?"

The sound of Johnny's voice brought a smile to Lydia's face, even as she expelled a long, relieved breath.

"Oh, you... you get yourself in here."

Johnny came all the way into the room, his grin a cross between sheepish apology and mischievous little boy. To Lydia's relief, he looked unscathed. He was clean, which meant he'd showered at the station, but when he came over and sat beside her on the bed, putting his arm around her to give her a welcoming hug, the woman could detect the faintest traces of smoke still lingering in his hair. And she could see the weariness in his eyes underneath the cheerful facade.


"Was it bad?"

He closed his eyes briefly, and for just an instant Lydia felt him lean against her, as if he needed to draw strength from her. But the moment was over quickly and Johnny withdrew his arm from around her and rubbed at his face. She heard him draw in a slow breath.

"Yeah," he finally said, his hand moving down his cheek and letting his chin rest in the palm. His other hand rested limply on his knee. "A house fire we couldn't get a handle on. Roy and I found three little boys hiding under their beds. One of them didn't make it."

It was silent for a time. Lydia knew no words she could offer would help ease the pain Johnny must feel at not being able to save that child. It was a side of him she'd only been witness to a few times. Normally, by the time he got home and she saw him, he'd been able to put the walls back in place that allowed him to do his job and still function as a paramedic. She settled for reaching over and placing her gnarled hand over his.

Johnny let it rest there for a time, then he took a deep breath and stood up, the moment pushed aside. Lydia knew him well enough to know he would deal with it later, when he was alone.

"Well, I've kept you waiting long enough. Unless you want to stay here another night."

Lydia smiled and shook her head emphatically. "Not on your life, young man."

Johnny laughed. "I can't even begin to tell you how much I can relate to that sentiment," he told her as he helped her to sit in the wheelchair that had been left for her use.

Once Lydia was settled, Johnny picked up her bag and set it on her lap.

"Got everything?"

Lydia started to nod, but stopped and gestured back to the bed. "Don't forget my flowers."

Johnny's smile turned a bit self-conscious as it always did when he was reminded of something nice he'd done for her. He picked up the vase and regarded the roses dubiously. They had bloomed fully and a few were starting to wilt around the edges. The balloons were long deflated.

"They're not gonna last a whole lot longer," he observed.

"They have a few more days left in them," Lydia insisted. "They're beautiful and I want to enjoy them as long as I can. Besides, I don't have that many Valentine's Days left in me to get pretty flowers from a handsome young man."

"Ah... Lydia... " Johnny began in embarrassment, but then he paused and frowned, as if he'd just registered the rest of what she'd said. "What are you talkin' about? You're gonna be around for a long, long time."

Lydia flashed him a smile, grateful that she'd met him and would have this wonderful young man in her life these last years. She knew the truth. She'd heard it in the doctor's tone and seen it in Johnny's eyes. She wasn't afraid, except perhaps of it dragging out too long in the end. It would be good to see her Albert again when all was said and done. But she also knew it wasn't going to happen tomorrow, or even probably this year. So it wasn't worth arguing with Johnny about it.

"I know, my boy, I know. I'm just trying to get you prepared for when you don't have me around anymore. You'll need someone else to look after you... someone else to chase the lonlies away... someone to be your Valentine."

Johnny settled the vase in the chair next to Lydia's leg, where she could steady it. Then he moved behind her and pushed her toward the door.

"I don't know about that," he told her, his voice light and teasing. "They all pale in comparison to you."

Lydia chuckled as they made their way out to the hallway. "I'm sure if you tried hard enough, you might find someone to measure up."

"Well, I'm doing my part," he replied, this time only half kidding.

Lydia reached up and patted his hand where it held onto the wheelchair. "I know, my boy, I know. But maybe you're letting the flash blind you to the substance."

They'd reached the elevator and Johnny stopped and pressed the down button. "I'm not sure I know what you're talkin' about," he laughed.

Lydia smiled. It was something she'd talked about with Joanne many times. Neither woman could understand why Johnny wasted so much time chasing the wrong women. But it was also something Johnny would have to figure out for himself.

"That's all right, my dear. Just keep yourself open to all possibilities."

"I always do," Johnny assured her. "But nothing ever seems to come my way."

The elevator dinged and the doors opened. After allowing the lone occupant out, Johnny pushed Lydia's chair into the car. He pressed the button for the lobby and in a moment the doors closed again and they were headed down.

"Things will change, Johnny, things will change. Just be sure you're ready for them when they do."

"Lydia, you're starting to scare me," Johnny said with a chuckle as they emerged into the lobby and headed toward the main hospital doors. "You're sounding like Chet's fortune teller girlfriend."

"Okay, okay, I'll give it a rest for now." Lydia smiled and remembered a conversation she'd had the other night - and the pretty young girl she'd had it with. Her smile grew bigger. "Just one more thing, and then I'll be quiet."

"What's that?"

"What do you think of the name Penelope?"

The End


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