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398

"John?" He was called back to wakefulness by the sound of hammers in his head, and a persistent voice that only just managed to rise above them. He might have groaned, but his brain seemed to be in upside down, and he wasn't at all sure that it knew how to cope with the experience. Co-ordination was a million miles away.

"John?" The voice came again, louder this time, but still too obscured by the hammers to be anything more than a dull drone. Was it male or female? Odd that he couldn't tell; but then he didn't seem sure of a lot just now, including the reason for the hammers being inside his head. He was pretty certain that he hadn't put them there, but he wasn't entirely prepared to rule it out. He moved slightly, and with the movement came a little more consciousness, and a little less hammering. He almost smiled. That was good. Less hammers was definitely an improvement. Experimentally he moved again.

"John?" The voice was persistent, he had to give it that. It was female, too - he could tell that now. The thought worried him a little. Had Olivia followed him? He ought to reach for his gun, but for some reason he couldn't find it. Hands held him then, gentle and bracing, pulling him back from the last of the cobwebby confusions that had gripped him since the gunfight at that little house on the edge of town. Memory fumbled its way back to him, and he opened his eyes, blinking up at a warmly smiling Abe. John smiled back, if faintly distractedly. Of all the people that he had expected to see, Abe rated pretty low on the list - not least because the voice had been female. Hadn't it?

"Hey, partner." He sounded rough even to his own, still slightly hammer-filled ears, but he sat up anyway, ignoring the hands on his shoulders. They weren't Abe's hands, he realised. Abe's hands were resting on his own knees, and were facing in another direction - not to mention being a different colour to begin with. John managed a frown, before the female voice came again, this time resolving into a sound that he could recognise properly.

"Just stay still a moment. I don't know how badly you're hurt."

"I'm not hurt at all." As though a switch had been thrown, the hammers had gone. His head didn't hurt anymore either, although he was fairly sure that that was just an illusion. He turned slightly, looking around into the warm, hazel eyes of the one woman guaranteed to lose him any amount of headaches. "Hey." He couldn't resist a sudden, teasing smile. "What's up, Doc?"

"What's up...?!" For a moment she looked almost infuriated, then all at once she was hugging him so fiercely that she almost knocked him over, and he had to steady himself before he could hug her back. Once they had started it was hard to even think about letting go, but the realisation of exactly where he was, and exactly what had happened, made him groan, and she pulled back immediately.

"Are you all right?" Her expression was so worried that he could not help but frown. Only then did he see the blood that seemed to be liberally splashed around him. He put up one hand to his head, and winced. Whoever had hit him had apparently been quite energetic about it. It wasn't hard to flash Marlena a reassuring smile, however.

"I'm okay," he told her. "It's probably just superficial. Anyway, I think at least some of this blood comes from my leg, not my head."

"Your leg?" asked Abe. John glanced down at the offending limb. The blow that his attacker had given him there was sure to have restarted the bleeding, though the black denim was still giving away no secrets. He nodded.

"I got shot earlier." He knew immediately how Marlena would react, and hastened to give her more information. "It just grazed me. It's nothing."

"I'll be the judge of that," she told him immediately, in such a voice of authority that he could not help but grin.

"Well it's not that I don't appreciate the offer, Doc, but I don't really feel like undressing right here." He held out a hand to Abe, who automatically assisted him to his feet, even though Marlena objected. "It's okay," he assured her, although he realised even as he straightened up that it might have been a little soon. Nonetheless, there was too much to do for him to continue taking it easy. The museum still seemed quiet, but there were a number of faces pressed against the glass on several of the storeys. Somebody would be sure to have called the emergency services, even if Marlena and Abe hadn't. The thought made him feel like groaning all over again.

"The painting," he said, looking around on the ground for any sign of the steel briefcase. It was nowhere to be seen, which was really not that much of a surprise. Abe looked around as well, apparently guessing what he meant.

"You took it?" he asked. John nodded.

"Yeah. Sorry."

"In that case we ought to get you out of here right away, partner." Abe's willingness to help cover up a crime was quite endearing, and John smiled rather weakly.

"I'm not sure that's an option. Any number of people must have seen me walk out of the building with the thing. There's something else, also. The security guards. Somebody drugged the whole lot of them. It must have been whoever hit me and made off with the Renet. That's going to take some explaining as well."

"You think it was somebody working for that guy van Dahl?" asked Abe. John rubbed his head.

"Olivia," he said, the realisation coming to him in a blinding flash of certainty. "It must have been. Whoever it was knew about my leg, and she's the only one who did. It had to be her." He pulled away from Abe and Marlena, immediately heading back towards the street, only to be stopped almost instantaneously by the pair of them.

"You're not going after a thief in this state," Marlena told him. He let her lead him over to the steps by the side door of the museum, and they sat down there together. He smiled at her, reaching out to take her hand.

"I'm fine, Doc. Honestly. I've got my own special upgrades, remember? A knock on the head isn't going to keep me down."

"I'd rather not remember." She squeezed his hand slightly, and leant against him. "I know you're all right. You're breathing, and that's more all right than we can expect, a lot of the time. I just don't want you chasing after somebody when I've just got you back." She frowned, reaching out to touch his face, holding him there so that she could look properly into his eyes. "I do have you back. Don't I?"

"I'll always be yours, Doc." He frowned slightly, not understanding her question at first, until he remembered why he had stolen the painting in the first place. He had to think hard then, testing himself to see exactly where it was that his loyalties lay. Maybe the first clue was the fact that he had had to think. It wasn't long before he was smiling again, and leaning down to kiss her very gently. Whether it was the knock on the head that was responsible, or just seeing her, he didn't feel beholden to Stefano any longer. When he drew back, Marlena was smiling as well.

"That's all that I wanted to hear." She leaned towards him then, kissing him so hard, and for so long, that Abe cleared his throat rather loudly.

"Not that I want to break up this happy reunion," he said, "but this is just a little bit public. Also, I suspect the police are going to be here soon."

"Maybe nobody bothered calling them," mumbled John, not at all eager to end the kiss. "If you got here soon enough after I got hit."

"And if nobody's found the drugged security guards yet," added Marlena, who also didn't seem in any hurry to come up for air. The thought of them made her look up though, causing John to grumble in protest. She laughed, pushing him back gently and rising to her feet.

"Sorry, but I ought to check up on them. I'm a doctor, remember?"

"Yeah." He stood up as well. "One of these days I'm going to have to start insisting that I be your only patient."

"Patience," she told him, with a teasing smile, and he groaned. Abe laughed.

"Come on, partner. Let the lady get her work done. You and me have some clues to hunt out. Maybe we can get a lead on this Renet before anybody starts asking awkward questions."

"Don't overdo it," said Marlena, and John nodded, pointing her towards the security offices. When she had gone, however, his smile did not take long to fade.

"This has not been one of my better days, Abraham." He went back over to the path, quite certain, even before looking, that there would be no clues to find. Olivia had always seemed far too much of a professional to have made any slip ups now. "I nearly killed a guy earlier, I've stolen a painting in front of who knows how many witnesses, and I got mixed up in a gunfight. Hell, I practically caused it. What do you think Italian jails are like?"

"You don't have the painting," said Abe meaningfully, and John smiled without humour.

"I don't think that's going to cut any ice, do you? Just because I don't have it now doesn't make me innocent of the theft. It's been a long time since I was a cop, but I still know how these things work."

"We'll figure something out, John." Abe put a hand on his shoulder. "I can't see van Dahl being in any position to press charges, and I don't think there's going to be any doubt that his people were responsible for the shoot out. Why blame yourself?" He summoned a smile of his own. "Look, why don't you go find Marlena? I'll check out the museum, and see if there are any witnesses."

"I can point you at a whole roomful who saw me walk off with the painting," John told him. Abe's hand tightened its grip.

"We'll figure it out," he repeated, voice gruff with determination. "I am not letting you go down for this, John. Not when that twisted excuse of a father-in-law of mine is more responsible than you'll ever be. You got that?"

"Sure, Abe." John nodded his head, eyes fixed to the ground. Abe's hand fell away, and walking rather more slowly than usual, John went after Marlena. The guards were still asleep, and he found her crouched by one of them, checking his pulse.

"They okay?" he asked. She nodded.

"They seem to be. This one here is an ISA agent, by the way. He helped Abe and I stay a step ahead of that hired killer. He came over here a little while ago to keep an eye out for you."

"One of the good guys, huh." The man's face meant nothing to John, but it was committed to memory now. Anybody who helped Marlena was a friend. Marlena let go of the man's wrist and straightened up, going over to slide into John's welcoming arms.

"The assassin is dead," she told him, sounding a little subdued. "Lester over there killed him."

"I'll have to thank him for that." John smiled faintly, and kissed her on the forehead. "Sorry, Doc. I'm sure you probably feel bad about it, but right now I'm just glad you're okay."

"I know." She leant against him, too glad to be back with him again to want to think about anything else. "There's a lot that we have to catch up on, isn't there. What have you been doing all this time?"

"You mean aside from stealing priceless works of art and fighting with Roman?" His eyes widened slightly. "Roman! Hell, I was so out of it, I never gave him a thought when I left that house. He was there also, wasn't he?"

"Roman's fine. He got a bang on the head at some point, but he's raring to go and annoying the nurses." She looked up at her husband. "Just like you should be right now."

"I should be annoying nurses?"

"You should be in hospital." She tried to glare at him, but didn't quite manage it. "Where's Abe?"

"Looking for witnesses. I didn't have the heart to tell him that most of them probably don't speak English." She laughed in answer, and he moved back slightly, so that he could look at her properly. "Doc... you do know what they're going to say, don't you."

"We'll work it out, John." She reached up, touching his face gently. "If we wind up on the run for the rest of our lives--"

"That's not going to happen." He took her hand away from his cheek, and kissed it. "Now let's start thinking a little more practically. "What do you want to do about this lot?"

"They ought to be watched until they wake up. If it was a strong drug, there could be complications. I should call an ambulance, in case one hasn't been called yet."

"I'll do that. My Italian's better." He headed towards the nearest phone, feeling a pang of guilt when he saw the Renet's frame lying on the desk, filled with the bits and pieces that he had emptied out of the equally stolen briefcase. For a moment he considered hiding them all, or at the very least wiping them clean of fingerprints, but he swallowed the urge. There was little point in trying to hide. He was going to have to face all of this some time. Instead he dialled 118, and explained the situation as best he could. Let the authorities deal with it all. He had done more than enough.

"Hey." Abe's voice made him look up as he hung up the phone. Marlena looked up as well, having returned to check up on Lester. Their old friend was standing in the doorway, staring around at the unconscious guards with a rather alarmed expression. "Guess what? Turns out this is Italy."

"Slight problem with the interviews?" teased John. Abe grinned back at him.

"It was interesting at first, but it soon sorted itself out." He stepped to one side, and gestured to somebody just outside the door. It proved to be a woman, dressed in a bright orange t-shirt and equally garish sandals, accepted uniform of a million tourists worldwide. She smiled rather shyly, until she too saw the sprawled guards. After that her eyes widened, and she looked back at Abe in a panic.

"It's okay," he assured her. "They didn't do it."

"Well I know he didn't." She was looking at John now with something approaching awe, but there was suspicion in her eyes when she looked towards Marlena. For some reason it made John want to laugh. Abe had to suppress a smile as well.

"This is Judith Richardson," he announced, ushering her into one of the few unoccupied chairs. Its previous occupant was slumped on the carpet, and she eyed him uncertainly.

"Hello," she said, directing the greeting very obviously to John alone. He nodded politely.

"Mrs Richardson--" began Abe, only to be interrupted immediately.

"It's Miss," she corrected, still looking exclusively at John. Her voice carried a faint note of meaning, and Abe had to fight off another attack of mirth.

"Miss Richardson," he began again, "saw what went on. I thought you might like to hear it all from her."

"Please go ahead," said Marlena, straightening up from her place beside Lester, and going over to join her husband. Her hand curled around his, in a manner that was so obviously intended to set the record straight that John felt the urge to laugh all over again. He squeezed her hand instead, and pulled her a little closer.

"Yes, well." For a second the tourist paused, then continued in a rush, her eyes still fixed upon John. "I saw you, of course. When you told us all that a threat had been made against the painting, I mean. You took it away, and I saw you leaving the museum a little while later with a briefcase. Mr Carver here tells me that you were taking the Renet to the bank, for safekeeping in the vault."

"Er... yes," said John, shooting Abe a quick glare. Abe merely looked innocent. Judith Richardson carried on, oblivious to the truth of the situation.

"And then somebody came out of the bushes right behind you, and hit you twice." She sounded incensed, as though somehow personally affected by the assault. "I couldn't see their face, I'm afraid, but they were about your height, more or less. Big, bulky jacket. I think. Anyway, whoever it was must have been quite desperate. I was going to dial 999, but then of course I couldn't remember what 999 was in Italian. What the number here is, I mean. Anyway." She stopped, frowning slightly. "Then of course these people came along, and they seemed to know what they were doing, and I thought that the security people would probably deal with it all, except..." She trailed off, staring around at the guards, all still unmoving. "Are they... dead?"

"No," John told her, without elaborating much. She had the aura about her of a woman who was enjoying the experience just a little too much, and he had no desire to feed her thirst for gossip. "Thank you, Miss Richardson. Would you be prepared to tell all of this to the police when they arrive?"

"Of course." She looked delighted to have been asked. "There must be plenty of other people who saw it all as well. Certainly there were plenty of us who saw you rescuing the painting. You'll be quite a hero, I should think." Her chest puffed up a little, as though she was sharing in the glory by virtue of being so close to him. John wasn't quite sure how to respond, and was saved by Marlena, who took over the conversation neatly.

"We're very grateful," she said. "If you'll excuse us, though, we have to go and wait for the emergency services."

"Yes, I... all right." Apparently not quite sure how to react to that, the woman stayed where she was. Marlena all but dragged John to the door, and Abe followed them out. They had not gone far from the office before John turned to his friend, expression halfway between anger and gratitude.

"Taking it to the vault? What were you thinking about, Abraham?"

"Hey, I didn't need to say that much, partner. She'd already supplied all the details herself. You were seen taking the painting, and you told everybody that you were protecting it. They all believed that, and who was I to stand in their way? You getting mugged for it right outside only backed up the story."

"It's still lying," protested John. Marlena pulled him into a hug.

"And this is one occasion when I'm not going to argue with it in the slightest," she said firmly. "It's not even all that much of a lie. You were taking the painting for safekeeping. Sort of."

"Safekeeping in Stefano's vault," he interjected, but she looked quite unmoved.

"And there were threats made to its safety, and I'm quite sure that the security people here will agree that you're to be trusted."

"Yeah." He felt quite bad about that. Abe carried on, as shameless about the subversion of the truth as Marlena.

"And the fact that the guards have all been drugged only makes you look all the more blameless. Once you'd found out about that, you couldn't very well leave the painting up there where it was at risk, could you. If somebody tried to grab it in broad daylight, innocent people could have been hurt, also."

"I didn't find out about the guards until after I'd stolen it," John told him, but Abe merely shrugged.

"You're the only one who knows that. John, I know you want to tell the truth here. We're all people who prefer the truth; but this is different. This is about Stefano and his manipulations, and he's the only person who deserves to get the weight of the law thrown at him. You certainly don't."

"Well, Stefano and whoever stole the painting from John, anyway," said Marlena. She reached up to touch her husband's head, where the blood had turned into a sticky mess in his hair. "Still, the police can look for them. My concern right now is getting that head of yours looked at properly, and getting you somewhere alone."

"Yeah?" asked John immediately, one eyebrow leaping up. She shot him a fierce look, that wasn't nearly as fierce as she had intended.

"To rest," she told him. "In peace and quiet."

"I can think of better things--" he began, but the sound of sirens cut him off. He looked back to Abe then. It was decision time, and he knew it - time to decide once and for all whether he was going to follow the story that chance had laid down for him, or if he was going to tell the truth. Marlena's hand in his tightened, and he knew that she had guessed his thoughts. He knew also, in that moment, that there was only one decision that he could make. Wanting to take responsibility for his own actions was one thing, but leaving her to suffer for them - not to mention Brady and Belle - was too much to expect. He smiled down at her, and, as always, she smiled back.

"I guess we should go talk to them," he said. Her expression turned questioning, but he pulled her closer into a one-armed hug, nodding briefly to Abe. Abe got the message, and with a smile he went back towards the security office. Left alone, John leaned down to give his wife a kiss.

"It's good to be together again," he said quietly. Her expression warmed, and she settled herself against him, even as the police cars and an ambulance were drawing up in the street nearby.

"Does that mean what I think it means?" she asked. He nodded.

"Prison would get boring pretty soon anyway," he told her, and she smiled, stretching up to kiss him again.

"Definitely," she answered, and after that there was nothing left to say. When the police and the medics came running up the path a few moments later, on their way to the security building, they saw the couple kissing, but paid them no mind. Abe saw them as well, as he stood in the doorway ready to greet the new arrivals, but he also left them alone. John could always be interviewed later. For now it looked as though he would be busy for some time to come.