"Get that leg of yours seen to," she responded, eliciting a brief laugh.
"Anybody ever tell you that you've got a one track mind, Doc?"
"Well we certainly know that you do." She sat up, giving him a stern glare that deteriorated almost immediately into a giggle. "Come on. We're going to be in trouble with the cleaning staff as it is. You've got blood all over the bed."
"I'm a wounded man, Doc." He somehow contrived to look the part, even though she had just had ample demonstration of exactly how injured he wasn't. "I'm allowed to get blood all over the bed."
"It wouldn't have happened if we hadn't been... misbehaving," she told him, and he smirked.
"Will the cleaning staff know that?"
"I certainly hope not." She fixed her clothing, wishing for a mirror so she could be sure that her recent activity wasn't too obvious to the world. The best that she was able to come up with was the glass front of a medicine cabinet, which was hardly ideal. John sat up slowly, watching her with an amused expression.
"My leg's fine," he assured her, "if you want to get back to the others."
"I certainly don't want to be too long." She went back over to him, motioning for him to turn around. "But if we go back there now with all that blood on your head still, people might just wonder what we've been doing all this time."
"Doc..." He took her hand, kissing it gently. "With the best will in the world, do you really think they're not going to guess? Kim and Shane aren't exactly monks, you know, and--"
"John, honey." She pressed her fingertips against his lips. "Just let me delude myself for a little longer, okay? In the meantime, I have to figure out exactly what I'm going to do with you."
"Would you like me to give you a few ideas?"
"Not until we're out of the hospital." She frowned at the back of his head. "I think you were right, though. You're not hurt too badly. Goodness knows we'd have noticed by now if you were." She fetched a basin from a shelf on one wall, and filled it with warm water from the sink. "This is probably going to sting."
"Tell me about it." His expression was not at all unlike that of a sulky little boy, and she could not help but smile. "Getting fixed up always seems to hurt worse than getting hurt in the first place did."
"I think hearing you mangle English grammar probably hurts rather more." She began to wash the blood from his hair as carefully as she could, finally finishing when she was satisfied by what she saw beneath. "You're not going to need any stitches, anyway. For goodness sakes, take it easy for the next day or two, though. Let the police or the ISA worry about chasing that woman."
"Glad to." He frowned, and she frowned back.
"And what does that mean?"
"Oh, nothing really. I just wonder what she's planning on doing with the painting. The guy she works for, van Dahl, was going to give it to Victor, and I don't like to think what sort of trouble that would cause with Stefano. Maybe she'll have the sense to hold on to it, and see if she can get a better offer from Stefano himself."
"You want him to get the painting?"
"Rather him than Victor. At least I know that Stefano just wants to look at the damn thing. He doesn't want it for some weird kind of leverage, or to start some infernal range war." With a sigh, John watched Marlena empty away the bloodied water, then rinse the basin out and refill it. "How do we get mixed up in these things, Doc?"
"For some reason, everybody seems to want us mixed up in them." She came back, beginning to clean up his leg this time. "I suppose we should feel honoured."
"I think I'd rather be unpopular." He winced. "You know, that actually kind of hurts."
"I did warn you."
"I thought the warning was for my head?"
"Got it in one." She laughed quietly, finishing off her clean-up operations, before fastening a bandage around the leg. "How does that feel?"
"It's fine." He pulled on his jeans, then threw his arms around her. "However can I thank you, Doctor Evans?"
"Don't tempt me." She put her hands on his chest to push him away. "Now finish getting dressed, before Shane has the ISA register us as missing persons."
"I suppose we have been a while." He retrieved his shirt from beside the bed, shrugging it back on. Marlena made a token stab at tidying them both up, but there was no hiding the crumpled look of his shirt. As happy as she could be with their appearance, she unlocked the door, and they headed back along the corridor. They had not gone far before Marlena spotted a familiar face coming the other way, and she brightened, waving the new arrival over to join them.
"Mr Lester! It's so good to see you again. You've been released already?"
"Not exactly." He returned her smile, shaking her proffered hand. "I felt like I've been doing enough lying around, though."
"I can sympathise." She looked up at her husband, eyes warm. "John, this is Sam Lester. He's the ISA agent that I told you about. Mr Lester, this is John."
"Hi." John reached over to shake the other man's hand. "Last time I saw you, you were passed out over at the museum. You feeling a little better?"
"Better is kind of a relative concept." The agent looked decidedly sheepish. "It's going to take some explaining to head office, that's for sure. Getting drugged like that... all of us getting drugged like that... it's not my finest hour, put it that way." He smiled. "Still, it's good to finally meet you. It's good to see that you're well too, Mrs Black."
"Marlena." She was in high spirits, and was in no hurry to disguise the fact. "Are you looking for the others?"
"I was told downstairs that I'd probably find you all up here, yes. In Roman Brady's room?"
"Just this way." She gestured ahead and he followed, John bringing up the rear. Lester was soon trailing back, however, glancing towards John as they walked. John smiled faintly.
"It's okay," he said quietly, not intending for Marlena to hear. "I'm not working for Stefano anymore. I'm not going to suddenly do something dangerous."
"Was I being a little obvious?"
"A little." John didn't blame him, and could hardly object to the scrutiny. "Listen, before we go join the others... I owe you my thanks. You kept Marlena safe, and that means a lot to me."
"I'm sure it does." Lester shrugged. "Think of it as being all in the line of duty. My employer wouldn't like it if anything happened to your wife."
"I never thought of the ISA as being the caring type."
"Yes, well." Lester looked a little amused. "You might be surprised. Anyway, it was a pleasure. She's not always the easiest person to look after, but she's certainly good company. Mr Carver too."
"Yeah, they are." John could not keep the note of fondness from his voice. "Anyway, thank you. If there's ever anything I can do for you, let me know."
"I appreciate that, Mr Black. Like I said, though, it really was all in the line of duty."
"It's John, and nonetheless. I have contacts, and if I can ever use them to help in an investigation, give me a call."
"I'll remember that." Lester nodded. "Thank you. Still, it'll be back to London for me, I imagine. There's no telling where that painting has gone. It has gone, hasn't it?"
"Yeah, it's gone. I just wish I knew where." At the thought, John's head seemed to throb faintly, the memory of the blow that had knocked him out still lingering. Lester frowned.
"You mean... you didn't take it?"
"Oh, I took it. I'd rather not think about that, but I took it. Somebody else took it from me, though. I still haven't figured out whether that was a blessing or a curse. Probably a little of both." He shrugged, not really knowing how to elaborate to a complete stranger. "I imagine Stefano will be plotting revenge as soon as he hears. Still, he's something I know I can handle."
"That complicates matters." Lester hesitated as they approached the door to Roman's room. Marlena was waiting there for them, and she held out her hand to John, who went immediately to take it. Lester still seemed inclined to hover in the corridor.
"Problems?" John asked him. Lester looked rather uncertain.
"I don't know. When I woke up and realised what had happened, I rather assumed that the painting would be on its way to some hideout of Stefano's by now. This rather changes things."
"I don't see how. Either way, it's still stolen."
"True. All the same, I should probably call in, and see what I'm supposed to do next."
"Shane will have dealt with all of that. Come on in and say hello." Marlena held out her other hand towards him, but he smiled and shook his head.
"Thanks, but no. I really ought to call in. See how the land lies." His smile broadened, and he nodded his head at them both. "I'll see you around. Both of you."
"Count on it," John told him, and with a brief wave, Lester turned and left. Marlena leant against John's side.
"That's a shame. I was hoping we could all have a proper get-together, now that this is all over."
"If there's one thing this isn't, Doc, it's over." John pulled her into a hug, and steered her in through the door of Roman's room. "You don't think Stefano's going to give up on that painting, do you?"
"If he wants it," announced Shane, coming over to clap John on the back in welcome, "then he's going to have to fight the ISA and about a hundred independent investigators for it. That lady friend of yours will have to lie low. Rest assured, she's certainly not going to find it easy to get the wretched thing to Victor Kiriakis." Shane reached over to give Marlena a brief hug. "Hi. You're looking well."
"I feel much better." She turned her smile towards the rest of the room. "I just saw Lester outside. He's gone off to talk to his superiors, but he certainly looks as though there were no ill effects."
"Good." Abe was clearly pleased by the news. "Just as long as it doesn't look bad on his record. Whatever drug was used, it must have been a pretty sneaky one to have got them all like that."
"Some kind of delayed acting one," mused Shane. "Otherwise they'd have realised what was happening, and stopped drinking. Don't worry about Lester. Things like that happen to all of us sooner or later. If the ISA gave black marks to everybody who gets in a bit of bother, we'd all be out of work by now."
"Several times over," agreed Kim. She smiled over at John. "Head okay?"
"It's feeling a lot better. It's had some expert medical attention." John could see the amused glint in his sister's eyes, and made no attempt to hide the similar glint in his own. The fact that Marlena had coloured faintly only made him smile all the more. Abe rescued her, offering them both a large pizza box, and some coffee.
"So what happens now?" he asked, sitting back down on his chair. John sat down on the arm, one hand still tangled with Marlena's.
"Now?" he echoed. Abe nodded.
"We can't sit around here at the hospital forever, even if it is strangely comfortable. Do we try to find that painting, or track down the woman who stole it? Or do we head back to Salem?"
"Shane and I are having the kids flown out, and we're going to have a holiday." Kim spoke in the tone of voice of one who did not intend to be argued with. "Shane's job was only to protect the Renet at the exhibition. "Looking after it now can be somebody else's problem."
"Oddly enough, I agree entirely. I'm quite happy if I never see it again." Shane sat down on the end of Roman's bed, pulling Kim down to sit beside him. "How about you, Roman?"
"Might be nice to take a few days to visit Rachel, once I'm allowed out of this place." Roman glanced over at Abe. "I suppose you'll want to get home?"
"Nice as it is over here, I doubt Theo would settle. Holidays away from home aren't really his thing." Abe smiled. "It's funny. You'd think that would be frustrating, but it's not. I'm really looking forward to getting back to him." He directed his smile at John. "Not that it's not fun chasing you all over the globe, partner, but he's a lot less trouble. Cuter, also."
"I'll get you on the earliest flight you want," John promised him, then glanced up at Marlena. "How about you, Doc? You want to stay here for a while?"
"I'm certainly in no hurry to go bumping into Stefano on the streets of Salem. I don't want to stay away for too long, though." She smiled teasingly at him. "You know, if we leave quickly, I might make the end of my conference."
"Conferences." He rolled his eyes. "I told you I shouldn't have to go to that blasted thing. If I hadn't been all set to attend mine, Stefano would have found it a whole lot harder to get at me."
"I think you just set the whole thing up so you wouldn't have to deliver that speech," teased Abe. John grinned.
"Am I that transparent?"
"Be that as it may..." Kim threw an empty coffee cup at him with a mock glare. "We'd certainly like it if you stayed on here. The kids would love to see you again."
"Good idea," added Shane. "Then you can baby sit."
"Oh behave." His wife swatted at him playfully, causing Roman to throw one of his pillows at them both.
"Hey," he told them. "Go fight on somebody else's bed. I'm supposed to be sick, remember."
"If we carry on making this much noise in here, you're likely to get thrown out, sick or not," said Abe. Kim looked a little contrite, although not a great deal.
"We could check you out," she offered Roman. "It's not as though you won't be well looked after, with Marlena and I around. Then we could reconvene at the hotel, and not have to worry so much."
"Sounds like a plan," said John. Marlena nodded.
"I'll speak to a doctor," she promised. "Although only if you agree to behave yourself, Roman. No alcohol, and don't go drinking too much coffee. You're not to leave to visit Rachel for at least forty-eight hours."
"It's a deal," he assured her. John stood up.
"Then we'll go find a doctor, and rustle up a couple of cabs," he announced. "Nobody get mixed up in another adventure while we're gone."
"That goes double for you," Shane told him. John smiled.
"Back before you know it," he said, then guided Marlena out of the door. They walked along in silence for a little way, just enjoying the simple togetherness, before John frowned.
"Where are we most likely to find a doctor?" he asked. Marlena rested her head against his shoulder.
"The canteen is usually a good start," she said. He paused, looking around for a sign on the wall.
"I wonder where that is. We should probably find somebody and ask."
"I thought we might take the scenic route." She felt warm and comfortable beside him, and he could not help pulling her just that little bit closer; just that little bit tighter against him. He smiled.
"That could take some time."
"Are you in any particular hurry?"
"No." They were lost in a hospital in Rome, and there was probably already a vengeful Stefano plotting against them. The Renet was sure to resurface again sooner rather than later, bringing any number of problems with it; and there was still Victor's part in it all to worry about - not to mention the possible issue of Alex North. They should be in a hurry, certainly. There were probably all manner of things to do. All the same, John couldn't help but smile. He was back with Marlena. Let the world throw whatever obstacles it wanted in his path. Right now, he was in no hurry at all.
Life was good. Lethal, unpredicable, and very rarely sane, but good. Living in Salem, what more could a man ask for than that?
Thousands of miles away, in his all-purpose front room, Stefano stood alone, staring into a glass of whisky. Rolf's familiar footfall registered in his consciousness, but he didn't turn. He stayed where he was, lost in contemplation.
"Stefano?" asked Rolf after a moment. Stefano glanced his way then, though only briefly. "Eliana told me about the telephone call. My apologies about the Renet. I will see what I can do about--"
"It is a painting, Rolf. I have many paintings." Stefano set down the whisky, and turned his head to stare out of the French windows. Afternoon was wearing on. It would be evening soon. Hard to believe that the day had seemed to start out so well, and yet now...
"You are not angry about the Renet?" asked Rolf. Stefano smiled faintly, the expression rather bitter.
"I will get the Renet, Rolf. One way or another, I will get it. It was something else that I was thinking about. I feel a certain... morbidity. It is a momentary thing, no doubt. Even I have my occasional weaknesses, my friend."
"I did warn you that your control over John would only be temporary." Rolf spoke quietly, hesitantly, half expecting an outburst. There was none. Instead Stefano nodded slowly, then turned around to face his old confederate.
"Yes. You did. I allowed myself to get caught up in it all, Rolf. I enjoyed having him back with me. It was good to have him back. I allowed myself to forget that it was only for a little while." He sighed. "A very little while."
"Do I take it that I am to step up my experiments?" It was a tentative question. Rolf was never sure quite how Stefano's moods would go on any particular day. This time, however, he was rewarded with a smile.
"I had him, Rolf. I had him, and it felt good. Next time... next time I will keep him. And next time that Marlena goes running to the rescue, perhaps I will keep her as well. Yes, perhaps." He nodded. "Yes, Rolf. Step up your experiments. We will let them have their moment now. Their little feeling of victory and security. And then..." The smile grew bigger, bright and twisted, just like the glow in the dark, dark eyes. "And then, Rolf, I will have them. I will have them both."
"This is not a defeat, then," said Rolf. It was not a question. It was more an acknowledgement of what he knew to be the truth. Stefano's expression turned sinister, humour and determination battling for supremacy in his smile.
"No, Rolf," he said, his eyes gleaming more brightly than ever. "This game is only just beginning."