The One You Least Expect

 By Rona

The locker room door burst open and Paramedic John Gage rushed inside like he was propelled by a hurricane. “Morning!” he cried enthusiastically and yanked open his locker. Luckily for him, there wasn’t a water bomb inside. “How was your weekend, Roy?” he asked his partner, who was sitting on the bench pulling on his shoes.

“Oh, you know,” Roy replied. “The usual kids’ stuff -- ballet lessons, Little League.” He shrugged. “It was nice, I guess.” He glanced up at his partner. “How was your weekend?”

“Pretty good, pretty good,” Johnny answered. He sounded smug, so Roy took another look at him. Sure enough, there was a smirk on his face as he pulled his shirt off.

“Whoa!” Roy exclaimed, standing up. “Where did you get that?” He pointed to a large bruise on Johnny’s chest which swallowed his left nipple. Leaning closer, he saw teeth marks. “Johnny, that looks bad.”

Peering down at his chest, Johnny shrugged. “It was an accident,” he started, then blushed furiously and started to put on his white t-shirt. “You know...” He didn’t go any further and judging by his flaming face and uneasy manner, Roy certainly could guess what kind of ‘accident’ it was. “Its fine, Roy,” Johnny went on, tugging the fabric down over his head.

“Did you see a doctor?” Roy asked, admitting defeat and sitting back down.

“It’s just a bruise, Roy,” Johnny protested. “Of course I didn’t see a doctor! I’m fine! It doesn’t even hurt!” He turned his back as he buttoned his uniform shirt and skimmed off his jeans. “I am a paramedic, you know,” he went on, slipping into his uniform slacks. “I know how to treat a bruise.”

“All right,” Roy replied. “I was just checking.” He knew how thin-skinned Johnny could be and he imagined the embarrassment that such an injury would cause his rather private partner. He rose. “See you at roll call.”

As Roy exited the room, Johnny sat down, his exuberance gone as though it had never been. He put his hand gently to the bruise on his chest and touched it, wincing. He had lied; it hurt dreadfully, as did the bite mark on the inside of his thigh, but he wasn’t going to admit that to Roy. After all, Roy had been with Joanne forever and wouldn’t understand that a girl could get carried away in the throes of passion. And anyway, he had taken care of it himself and he was fine. They were just a couple of bruises. Nothing to worry about.

It didn’t occur to John to wonder why he was justifying his actions to himself.

**********

The shift turned out to be steady rather than busy, although that was more than busy enough. The station was toned out to a structure fire about noon and as it was a semi-demolished warehouse, they knew there was no one inside. One of the demolition crew had accidently started the fire. The paramedics weren’t needed for search and rescue, so they joined Marco and Chet on hose.

As Johnny changed places with Roy, taking the nozzle of the hose to allow the other man a breather, Roy noticed that Johnny winced visibly as the hose settled against his chest. He made a mental note to check the other man out later, but after they had knocked the fire down, done the clean up and got back to the barn, he had forgotten. He and Johnny barely made it through a shower and sandwich before they were toned out again.

It was only as they were preparing to go to bed that Roy remembered. “How’s that bruise?” he asked, as his partner carefully arranged his bunker pants and boots.

“What bruise?” Johnny asked, frowning at Roy.

“You know what bruise,” Roy replied, knowing his friend too well for that one to pass by. “I saw you wincing at that fire earlier.”

“Its fine,” Johnny replied. “I don’t remember that. I must have bumped it or caught the skin or something.” He shrugged. “I don’t remember.” He turned back to his bunkers, although Roy thought they looked ready.

“Okay, but if it’s still bothering you, then go see Dr Brackett.” He tweaked his own turnout gear one last time before swinging his legs into bed.

“I’m tellin’ you, Roy, its fine!” Johnny protested and Roy knew he was lying. What he couldn’t figure out was why he was lying. Johnny dragged the blankets up to his shoulders, although the room was warm. “I’m fine.”

Silence fell as the tired men dropped off to sleep. Roy lay on his back, wondering what had happened that John didn’t want to talk about and worrying about it, but he was tired and soon dropped off. Johnny lay awake for longest, for his chest really did hurt and the aspirin he had surreptitiously downed after supper wasn’t helping any. He couldn’t help but remember the moment his girlfriend bit him so hard. It had happened not once, but twice in a short time. Annabel had apologized, explaining she had got carried away, but somehow, Johnny felt uneasy. He put it down to tiredness and made himself relax. Before long, he, too, was asleep.

***********

When Johnny arrived next shift, he forced himself to smile and put on a show of enthusiasm, but none of his friends was fooled. Mike and Marco politely pretended to believe all was well and minded their own business at the coffee pot. Chet, who had a twinkle in his eye, would have stayed and pestered his pigeon, but Roy also had a ‘look’ in his eye and Chet wisely decided to save his ribbing until later. He sidled out of the locker room, leaving the paramedics alone.

“You okay?” Roy asked. He watched Johnny slump down on the bench in front of the lockers are though all his bones had disappeared.

“Yeah... no... kinda... I dunno,” Johnny finally admitted. He sighed and started to unbutton his shirt. “Annabel and I had a fight.”

“Oh,” Roy replied, immediately understanding. “So it’s over?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Johnny protested. “At least... I’m not sure.” He sighed and dragged a hand through his shaggy hair. He absently rubbed the fading bruise on his chest. “Andy from 110s rang me yesterday to check that I’m still okay to do that shift swap with him next week.”

“Uh huh,” Roy ventured.

“We chatted for a minute, you know what it’s like,” Johnny went on. “Annabel was outside by the pool, and when I turned round, there she was, right in my face. Boy, she was furious.” Johnny sounded rather bemused. “Honest, Roy, I was only on the phone for a minute, but she ripped a piece off me.” He continued to change his clothes automatically. “Said I was ignoring her to talk to my buddies and when was I going to tell her about the change of shift. She might have made plans for us for that day and on and on and on.” Johnny sighed as he started to tie his boot laces. “I tried explaining, and the next thing I know, we’re shouting at each other and then...” He stopped abruptly and stood up. “It’s time for roll call.”

“...’and then’... what?” Roy asked, not willing to be diverted from the end of the story. He never failed to be astonished at the predicaments Johnny found himself in with girlfriends and the inventive ways they broke up with him.

Throwing Roy a look that told the senior partner that Johnny wasn’t willing to divulge everything that had happened, Johnny mumbled, “Uh, she left.”

“Okay,” Roy agreed, cautiously. “And you haven’t spoken to her since?”

“No,” Johnny replied shortly. “And don’t say a word of this to Chet.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, partner,” Roy said sourly, getting to his feet as well.

“I’m sorry, Roy,” Johnny replied contritely. “It’s just... well, I don’t want Chet to know.”

“Well, he won’t hear it from me,” Roy assured him. “Let’s get to roll call.”

As the day went on, Johnny remained quiet. He assured Cap and Dixie and Brackett that he was fine and Roy backed him up, but he knew there was something on the younger man’s mind. Something that happened before Annabel left Johnny’s apartment. Roy had no idea what it could be and he didn’t want to pry if his partner didn’t want to share.

He couldn’t help feeling a little worried though.

************

Driving home next day, Johnny was still subdued. He had turned down an invitation to breakfast at Roy’s, knowing that he wasn’t in the right mood. His fight with Annabel had been nasty. She had said things to him that shocked Johnny to his core, but the thing he had been unable to say to Roy was that she had hit him.

Parking his Rover, Johnny walked slowly towards his apartment, the beauty of the day completely bypassing him. As he neared his apartment, he realized that there was someone sitting outside his door. He realized it was Annabel as he drew closer and she lifted her head from her knees.

“What are you doing here?” Johnny asked.

“Oh, Johnny!” Annabel launched herself to her feet and threw her arms around his waist, sobbing piteously. Her head barely reached the middle of his chest. Annabel was all of 5ft 1 and weighted 110lbs sopping wet. She had pale blonde hair and exquisite features and had all the grace of the ballet dancer that she was. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what got into me. I was jealous that you were speaking to your friend and I just snapped. It’ll never happen again. Please forgive me.”

Taken aback, Johnny automatically closed his arms around her sobbing form, and before he quite knew where he was, he was assuring her that it was fine, all forgiven and he knew she hadn’t meant it. He opened the apartment door and they went inside, Annabel still clinging to him and hiccupping softly as she got herself back under control.

Over coffee, Annabel apologized once more. Johnny explained that he was doing a shift to allow his friend to go to a family wedding and Andy would cover a shift for Johnny when he wanted a day off. It was pretty normal practice for the fire department. Johnny explained that part of his job was providing cover for paramedics who were sick or injured, although he didn’t do as much overtime as he could, knowing that would exhaust him for his normal shifts. Annabel insisted she understood, apologized once more and they made up in their favorite way – in bed.

***********

“So?” Roy asked, at the start of the next shift.

“So – what?” Johnny replied, looking bewildered. He continued automatically doing up his uniform buttons and Roy debated mentioning that they were wrong. He decided against it.

“So, what happened with Annabel?” he enquired, watching with interest as Johnny tried in vain to fit a button into a non-existent buttonhole.

“Oh,” Johnny replied and glanced down. He cursed when he realized that he had to re-button his shirt. He began to open the buttons again and shot Roy a glance when his partner sniggered. “She was waiting for me when I got home and everything is all right.” He took more care with his buttons this time around.

“I see,” Roy replied. “Well, I guess that’s good.”

“Sure, it’s good,” Johnny agreed. “You’ll like Annabel when you meet her.”

“I’m sure I will,” Roy agreed.

***********

Life went on as normal. Johnny came in the day after his extra shift for Andy and he was limping. “What have you done?” Roy demanded.

“Yeah, Gage, what did you trip over this time?” Chet jibed and beat a hasty retreat as Johnny glared at him.

“I didn’t do anything,” Johnny muttered defensively. “It was an accident.”

“I’m sure it was,” Roy soothed. It looked like it was going to be a long shift and Johnny was irritated before they even got to roll call. “That was just my inept way of expressing concern over the fact that you’re limping.”

Sitting down heavily, Johnny sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “I took Annabel out last night, and when we were dancing, she somehow managed to stand on my foot.”

“I thought you said she was small,” Roy wondered aloud. “How did she hurt your foot then?”

“She was wearing heels,” Johnny replied. “She is small.”

“Let me see your foot,” Roy said.

“It’s just a bruise,” Johnny shot back.

“I’m sure it is, but let me see it,” Roy returned. “You can’t work with a sore foot.”

“It’s not that sore,” Johnny denied. “Roy, I know a bruise when I see one.” He had a sudden sense of déjà vu as the words came out. I’m turning into a liar, he thought despairingly.

“Let him see it, Gage,” ordered Cap’s voice from the locker room door.

“But, Cap...” Johnny began, but saw ‘the look’ in Cap’s eyes and wisely subsided. He reluctantly removed his boot and sock and extended his foot for Roy to see. Cap leaned closer, too.

“Ouch!” Stanley declared. John’s foot was black and blue and slightly swollen. The indent from the stiletto heel could clearly be seen.

“Not that sore?” Roy chided him, making eye contact. “Johnny, your foot could be broken.”

“It’s not broken!” Johnny protested, but Cap spoke over the top of him.

“Roy, take him to Rampart and get it checked out,” Cap ordered. “If Dr Brackett okays it, he can come back to work, but only if he gets cleared.”

“Right,” Roy nodded. He closed his locker door. “I’d leave the boot off, Junior,” he advised, helping Johnny to his feet. “You don’t want your foot to swell so much that it has to be cut off, do you?”

Gritting his teeth, Johnny limped across the cold floor to the squad. He wasn’t going to admit the struggle he had had to get the boot on that morning. He didn’t want to go to Rampart. If he didn’t go, he could go on convincing himself that his foot was just bruised and it had been an accident. He didn’t want to consider the alternative.

***********

On their arrival at Rampart, Roy refused to allow Johnny to walk, insisting he use a wheelchair. Johnny’s mood soured even further and when, after x-rays, Dr Brackett announced that there were no broken bones, but he was on no account to go back to work that day, he was seriously pouting. “But my foot’s not broken!” he objected. “You said so yourself.”

“Just because it isn’t broken doesn’t mean that you can work with your foot in that state,” Brackett told him quietly. “It is clearly incredibly tender and it has swollen quite a bit since you came in here. I want you to go home, elevate it and put ice on it. I want to see you again before your next shift to see how it’s doing and I’ll decide then if you can go back to work.”

“It’s just bruised,” Johnny protested again, but he got nowhere. He was sent home with crutches and told to rest. Roy took him home, as driving was also out and Roy had to wait for a replacement to come in. Roy saw his partner settled in front of the TV with the remote control to hand, an icepack for his foot and the phone within reach.

Johnny was still there a couple of hours later when the phone rang. “Hello,” he said.

“Why didn’t you phone me to say you had been sent home?” demanded an irate female voice. Johnny cringed. Annabel.

“I thought you were at work,” he replied weakly.

“Did you even phone to find out?” she inquired. “No, you didn’t. I’ll be right over.”She banged down the phone before he could respond.

For a few craven seconds, Johnny wondered if he ought to leave the apartment to avoid her, but realistically, he couldn’t. He found walking a trial, even with the crutches and his Rover was still at the station until the next day, when Roy and Chet would bring it over in tandem. He waited for his fate.

Arriving laden with groceries, Annabel immediately started making a fuss of him and before long had something cooking on the stove and had put away her overnight bag. All afternoon and evening, she looked after Johnny, changing his icepack regularly, making sure he took the medication Brackett had advised and generally just being the most wonderful nurse Johnny could imagine. In bed that night, she was gentler than was her wont.

Next morning, they weren’t long up when Roy and Chet arrived with Johnny’s car. Chet made himself at home as usual, helping himself to some coffee before slumping down on the couch and regaling Johnny with tales of the shift he had missed. Roy also grabbed some coffee and the three of them shot the breeze and Annabel stood in the background, listening, laughing at the right moments and getting thoroughly angry.

After a while, both Roy and Chet began to yawn and slump and decided to go home for some sleep. Annabel saw them out with a smile, assured them they were welcome at any time and closed the door quietly behind them. She slipped the lock on and took a deep breath. “That doesn’t happen again,” she stated.

“What?” Johnny had no idea what she was talking about. “What doesn’t happen again?”

“Your so-called friends don’t ever come here when I am here, is that clear?” she clarified. “When I am here, you see only me.”

“Hey, they were bringing my car back,” Johnny objected. “Sweetheart, they were doing me a favor and they weren’t to know that you were here. Besides, they are my friends and they can come over any time.”

The slap on his cheek caught him by surprise. “I said, your so-called friends don’t come here when I am here. I don’t want to argue about it.”

“Annabel...” Johnny began. The slap hadn’t really hurt him, but he was stunned by her behavior.

“You do as I say, Johnny,” she shouted. “Those people don’t come near you when I am here. You are mine. Do you understand?” She swung at him again.

“Wait a minute!” Johnny grabbed her wrist and rose to his feet. “Annabel, I don’t belong to you. We’re going out, we’re friends, but I am not your property, any more than you are mine. Don’t hit me again.”

“Don’t tell me what to do!” Annabel stamped down, quite deliberately, on his sore foot. She was wearing a pair of wooden soled clogs. She ground her foot down, stamping again and again. Johnny let go of her wrist and tried to push her away. She resisted him, placed her entire weight on his injured foot and kneed him sharply in the groin. Johnny doubled over in pain and she punched him in the face.

It was difficult to think past the pain radiating from his groin and his foot. Johnny lay on the floor and groaned aloud. He still couldn’t quite comprehend what had happened. One moment they were talking and the next... He was so caught up in his thoughts that the kick that caught his injured groin was totally unexpected. The world dimmed down to a tiny pinpoint.

When he had gathered his wits, Johnny wished that he had stayed dazed. Annabel – all 5ft 1 of her – had somehow managed to drag him through to his bedroom. He lay curled on the floor and blinked. He knew from experience that the dull ache in his groin would eventually go away after a few days, but walking would be at best painful and at worst impossible. His foot was agonizing. He glanced down at it and saw that it was even more swollen and the skin had broken and was bleeding sluggishly.

Trying to rally his wits, Johnny dragged himself upright, breathing in short pants through his teeth as his nether regions protested. He leaned against the bed and wondered what the hell was going on and how was he going to get out of this situation.

“Oh good, you’re paying attention again.” Annabel’s voice made him look up and he wished he hadn’t. His beautiful little ballet dancer was wielding a baseball bat and wore an expression of such anger that he barely recognized her. “Strip.”

“What?” Johnny began to wonder if this was some ghastly nightmare that he couldn’t awaken from. “Annabel...”

“Shut up!” The baseball bat barely missed his good foot. “That was a warning. Now do as you are told and strip.”

In no position to object, Johnny did as he was told, keeping a close eye on her. He didn’t like the way her eyes ran over his torso, or the wicked grin that twisted her lips as she beheld the damage she had done to his genitals. She tapped the bat on her hand. “Good. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now, get on the bed and lie down on your back.”

“This has gone far enough!” Johnny snarled, suddenly as angry as he was afraid. “This isn’t a joke, Annabel.”

“No, it isn’t a joke,” Annabel snapped. “I’m in charge here and you seem to have forgotten that.” She swung the bat and it crashed down on Johnny’s good foot. He felt the bones splinter and a scream tore from his lips. The bat swung again and only because Johnny saw it from the corner of his eye did he avoid it hitting his head directly. As it was, the bat grazed along his cheek. As she lifted it for a third time, Johnny hoisted himself onto the bed and lay down.

It was all too obvious that Annabel had prepared for this scenario. She leaped on top of him and within moments had him secured to the bed by rope. She knelt on his chest, breathing heavily. “You have to learn,” she hissed. “You’re mine and you do what I tell you.” She shifted position and leaned in for a kiss. Johnny turned his head away. She grabbed his face, forcing him to look at her, but despite everything she could do, he resisted her attempts to insinuate her tongue into his mouth. “You’ll pay for that,” she screamed and cuffed him heavily across the face.

Sliding to the floor, she looked at him lying there, spread eagled, and smiled. Leaning over, she bit him on the chest, right over his nipple, digging her teeth in and delighting in the taste of the blood in her mouth. His blood. She straightened and spat the blood into his body. He writhed frantically in his bonds and blood ran down his side and stained the blankets on the bed. It was very satisfying.

“I’ll be back in a day or two,” she told him. “When you’ve learned your lesson.”

**********

One of the advantages to this apartment had been that his bedroom was isolated from the other homes in the block. Johnny didn’t think it was an advantage now. He fought the ropes with everything that he had and all he succeeded in doing was tearing the skin on his wrists and ankles. He tried calling for help, but all that happened was that he grew hoarse. By craning his neck, Johnny could see his feet and his right foot was now twice the size of his left one, which was also pretty swollen from the original assaults. They both throbbed painfully, keeping company with his chest and groin.

At some point in the afternoon, Annabel returned. Johnny watched as she walked across the room. She was smiling sweetly and leaned over to kiss his bruised cheek. “You’ve been struggling, darling,” she observed. “That’s not good. You have to learn to do what you are told and then I won’t have to punish you.”

“Untie me,” Johnny demanded. “Then get the hell out of my life.”

“Ah-ah,” she chided, her blue eyes flashing with anger. “That’s no way to speak to me. It seems you haven’t learned anything at all.”

“I’ve learned I don’t want to be near you!” Johnny retorted. “What you’re doing to me is wrong! I’ve done nothing and even if I had, this is not the way to solve our problems.”

“Don’t speak to me like that!” she shouted. “You don’t ever speak to me like that!” With shocking deliberation, she reached down and viciously twisted the nipple she had bitten so severely a few hours earlier. Johnny couldn’t hold back a cry of pain. “You will learn,” she hissed. “I was going to be nice to you if you had learned your lesson, but now I won’t be. Not that you satisfied me anyway. You aren’t much good in bed.” She took his bruised and swollen testicles in her hands and twisted. The pain was overwhelming and Johnny fell into a pit of darkness.

***********

When he opened his eyes, he was alone. The pain lancing through his body was almost more than he could bear. He craned his neck to look for more damage, but aside from ever darkening bruises, there was nothing new. The ‘old’ stuff was more than enough to deal with.

His bonds seemed to be tighter, but nonetheless, Johnny started fighting them again, determined to get free and escape from Annabel. He had no more success this time around than he had had the first time. Exhausted, he slumped back.

Lying there, Johnny remembered what he had learned about domestic abuse, and with a bit of perspective, he realized that Annabel fitted what he had learned. It still seemed incredible to him that a man, who was bigger and stronger, could be the victim. He had just discovered how it could happen. Annabel’s fury was terrifying and he could not have hit her back in those moments before she started abusing him more seriously. He had no idea how he was going to get out of this situation, but he was determined that he would get out of it. He would have to return to work at some point, although... He glanced down at his foot. If he didn’t receive treatment for it pretty soon, there was a fair chance the bones would set oddly and he wouldn’t be able to get back to work. Would Annabel take him to the ER? He somehow had his doubts.

Time dragged by. The phone rang a few times and Johnny gazed at it impotently, only a few feet from where he was trapped. He had another try at freeing himself, but there was no let up in the ropes. His shoulders ached and his injuries kept reminding him of their presence every time he moved the minute amount that he could.

The sound of the key in the lock jerked Johnny out of a kind of reverie. His heart rate suddenly tripled and his dry mouth was like a desert. He jerked frantically against the ropes, terrified to face Annabel again while so helpless. He had needed to urinate for some time now and his bladder almost gave at this new development.

“Johnny?”

It was the most welcome voice in the world at that moment. “Roy!” he called. “In the bedroom, hurry!”

“Are you all right?” Roy asked, as he hurried towards the back of the apartment. “I’ve tried calling...” His voice trailed off as he beheld his partner’s predicament.

Blood stained Johnny’s chest and Roy, automatically assessing his condition, noted the bruised genitals and the horrific condition of his feet. Another bruise ran down Johnny’s cheek and his wrists and ankles were raw from the rope that secured him at full stretch to the bed frame. “My God! Who did this to you?” Roy rushed forward and tried to untie the ropes. The knots, tightened by Johnny’s struggles, defied his fingers.

“It was Annabel,” Johnny confessed.

“Annabel?” Roy felt in his pocket for his knife and carefully sawed through the ropes. With a groan of mingled relief and pain, Johnny moved his aching limbs, curling into a protective ball. His battered feet woke with renewed throbbing, but Johnny knew that he would be receiving help within a short time.

As Roy helped him to sit up, Johnny quietly and haltingly told his story. Roy listened in horror. He had only met Annabel that morning and the thought of her managing to drag Johnny from the living room to the bedroom seemed incredible, but he knew his partner wouldn’t lie. He had had the same lectures about domestic abuse.

“We’ll call the police from the hospital,” Roy announced. “I’ll phone Rampart from here and take you in.”

“Do we have to involve the police?” Johnny asked and knew as soon as the words had left his mouth that it was a text book response from a victim. “Scratch that; I know the answer.”

“How long would she have left you there if I hadn’t come?” Roy asked, gently. “How long have you been there already?”

“Too long,” Johnny replied. “From not long after you left.” He was shivering now, as reaction set in. He listened as Roy phoned for a squad and an ambulance and gratefully accepted help in dealing with his distended bladder, wincing in pain as he relieved himself. He lay wrapped in a blanket as Roy packed a bag for him and he didn’t even mind as the paramedics responding gave him an IV. He was safe – for the moment.

***********

The journey to Rampart was a bit of a blur for Johnny, thanks to the MS he had been given. His feet were splinted, an ice pack rested on his groin and a dressing hid the worst of the damage to his nipple. He groaned as he was moved onto the exam table and opened his eyes to the concerned face of Kelly Brackett. “How’re you doing there, Johnny?” he asked.

“Better than I was,” Johnny admitted. He was drowsy from the painkillers. “I think my foot’s definitely broken this time,” he went on.

“We’ll get you taken care of,” Brackett assured him. “Do you need anything else for pain?”

“Not right now,” Johnny replied. He could still feel the pain, but it was muted now.

“X-ray is going to take a few pictures, then I’ll be right back to look at you, okay?” Kel smiled.

“Okay,” Johnny agreed. “Where’s Roy?”

“He’s outside. I’ll bring him back with me when you’ve had those pictures.” Kel smiled again and left Johnny to the technician.

He found Roy standing at the desk, looking furious. “The police will be here pretty soon and will want to talk to Johnny,” he told Brackett.

“All right,” Brackett nodded. “Roy, who did this to him?”

With anger clipping his voice, Roy told Brackett the story Johnny had told him earlier. The doctor looked grim. He had dealt with victims of domestic violence before and he knew how difficult it was to prove that the woman was the aggressor. Johnny would be in for a hard time all round. His injuries, while not life threatening, were serious, and his self-esteem would have received a battering, too. “Do you want to come back in with me?” he asked and Roy nodded.

In a few minutes, they were both in the exam room. Johnny was half asleep and he roused reluctantly. Brackett did a more thorough examination, apologizing for hurting him as he palpated the various injured parts. Johnny held onto Roy’s hand throughout, biting his lip to keep from crying out. He didn’t succeed.

By then, the films had arrived and Brackett studied them closely. There were broken bones in both feet, but they fortunately weren’t displaced, apart from one in Johnny’s left foot, the original one injured. With luck, depending on what ortho said, they might be able to manipulate the bones into place under sedation and save Johnny an anesthetic.

While they waited for ortho to come, Johnny’s feet were elevated to help reduce the swelling. They certainly couldn’t be casted until the swelling was gone. Ice packs rested gently on top and another one was nestled discreetly in his groin. The nipple area would have to be thoroughly cleaned and stitched; human mouths were notoriously dirty, but Brackett decided to wait to see what ortho wanted to do before he tackled it.

The police arrived while ortho were studying the x-rays and Brackett gave them permission to talk to John. The sordid little tale didn’t take long to tell and Johnny added the details about the earlier bites and bruises that he had suffered at her hands.

When he was finished, the detective in charge shook his hand. “Thanks, Mr. Gage. We’ll get right on to it. Lieutenant Crockett is going to be working this with us. I have to warn you that it will be really difficult to make these charges stick, especially in light of what you’ve told us about Ms Atherton’s stature. But we’ll see what we can do. The first thing will be to serve her with an injunction so that she can’t come near you. After that, we’ll see how it proceeds.”

“Thanks,” Johnny replied. He was emotionally and physically exhausted by now and the MS seemed to be wearing off. Brackett indicated to the nurse to change his IV to a fresh one and ran a bolus through to try and put a little color back into his patient’s cheeks.

When the police had left, the ortho doctor came over. “Mr. Gage, I’m going to manipulate your foot under sedation. It’s better for you and the bones are not that far out of alignment. I would rather do it here, right now, and then afterwards we’ll move you up to the ward and keep an eye on the swelling until we are able to cast both feet. How does that sound?”

“Like a long hospital stay,” Johnny responded. “But better than the alternative.” The doctor laughed.

“Okay, let’s get this show on the road!” he declared and a few moments later, a sedating drug was shot into the IV and Johnny felt himself drifting away. Twice, he let out a cry as some pain reached him through the twilight haze he inhabited, but then he drifted off to sleep and felt no more.

***********

It had been horrible for Roy to watch the manipulation, but he hadn’t wanted to leave Johnny alone. His friend had cried out once and then again later as Brackett carefully stitched the torn nipple. Satisfied, he supervised as Johnny was moved to a gurney and then Roy went with him up to the orthopedic floor.

Once Johnny was settled in bed, another shot of painkiller keeping him asleep, Roy phoned Cap and Joanne to update them on what had happened and then took himself off for a cup of coffee and something to eat. He would stay at the hospital until Johnny wakened and he could see for himself his partner’s state of mind.

***********

A couple of days passed before the casts were applied to Johnny’s feet. His other injuries were slowly healing, but he would clearly need help for some time to come. When he was released, he would be going to the DeSotos’.

On the day he got out of hospital, Crockett came to see him. “John,” he said, cordially, as he shook the other man’s hand. “Glad to see you’re looking better.”

“Feeling a lot better too,” Johnny replied. He looked at Crockett closely. “But I’m not going to like what you’ve come to tell me, am I?”

“Probably not,” Crockett sighed, seating himself. “We served an injunction against Ms Atherton. That will hold for a while. However...” Crockett paused and drew a deep breath. “She is claiming that she only acted in self defense and is going to charge you with sexual assault if you don’t drop the charges you filed against her.”

“What?” Johnny sank back in his seat. He knew it would be difficult to prove the abuse, but he hadn’t expected this. “That’s not fair!”

“It’s not,” Crockett agreed. “But given the way things are perceived and given her small stature, a jury is far more likely to believe her story of events. She even claims that you allowed her to tie you up as part of a sexual game.” Crockett looked disgusted.

“She was beating me to a pulp with my own baseball bat,” Johnny growled. “I didn’t exactly agree to anything. Perhaps I should have fought her harder.” He hung his head, fighting his emotions.

“We can still get her on assault,” Crockett assured him. “Your injuries alone attest to that.”

“But if she charges me, I’ll probably lose,” Johnny sighed, looking defeated. “I could lose my job, even if I’m not found guilty.”

“Maybe not,” Crockett replied mysteriously.

“What do you mean?” Johnny asked. “You just said I’m unlikely to win.”

“But we might manage to set a trap for her – if you are willing.” Crockett eyed Johnny as the other man took in the idea.

“What do you have in mind?” Johnny asked finally. Crockett smiled and told him.

***********

When Roy arrived to collect Johnny, he found his partner sitting thoughtfully in a wheelchair, gazing out of the window. “Are you all right?” Roy asked.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah,” Johnny replied. “I’m fine.”

Unconvinced, Roy frowned. “You seem a bit distracted.”

“Crockett came to see me.” Johnny quickly related their conversation and by the end, Roy was frowning even harder.

“I don’t like it,” he objected. “It’s dangerous. All sorts of things could go wrong.” He gestured to Johnny’s feet. “You can’t even get away from her under your own power right now.”

“It’s not going to be right now,” Johnny reminded his worried friend. “Crockett says they’ll set it up for when I’m better.”

“I hate to depress you, but that’s going to be at least 6 weeks,” Roy responded. “What happens in the interim?”

“According to Crockett, they can stall things, talk to her lawyers, offer to change the charges if she pleads guilty to assault – stuff like that.” Johnny wasn’t too happy about that. He hated the idea that he could be charged for something that he didn’t do. He could lose his job.

“I don’t like it,” Roy repeated.

“I’m not mad keen myself,” Johnny agreed. “But if it gets her off my back and out of my life for good, I’m willing to try, Roy.”

“I see your point,” Roy nodded, but he sounded no happier about the prospect than his partner felt.

***********

The one thing Johnny hadn’t bargained for was how this whole insidious to-ing-and-fro-ing was going to feel as he recuperated. While the DA’s office tried to make deals with Annabel’s lawyer, Johnny was subjected to large quantities of hate mail. Word had got out about the charges and Annabel’s ballet company friends and some of her fans had found out his address and were sending mail constantly. Crockett had detailed someone to go through Johnny’s mail before it got to him, but he knew about it. He was actively looking into finding another apartment before he had to return home. Roy and Joanne helped him out there and Roy had already got the guys from 51s to help him pack up Johnny’s apartment, ready for the move when it happened.

By the time Johnny was able to go around by himself, he had lost weight that he couldn’t afford to lose and dark circles seemed to have taken up permanent residence under his eyes. He was dreading the ordeal to come and wanted it over with. He had found a new apartment and his friends were going to help him move in a couple of days.

But before that, this very day, he was implementing Crockett’s plan and he was terrified.

***********

Standing alone in the apartment, Johnny looked around. With his stuff packed into boxes that were stacked all over the place, it looked unloved. Johnny was glad he didn’t have to spend another night there for the whole place gave him the creeps.

The knock on the door caught him by surprise, even though he had been expecting it. He had just hoped that it wouldn’t happen. His heart rate picked up and he walked slowly over to open the door. “Annabel. Come in.”

Her grace and beauty were undiminished, but she made his skin crawl. The feline smile she wore terrified him. She looked at the boxes and the smirk grew. “Are you moving, darling?” she asked.

“Yes,” Johnny replied. He offered no explanation, but then, she knew why he was moving.

Taking a step closer, Annabel reached out to touch him and Johnny recoiled. “Why did you want to see me?” she purred, still smiling.

“We need to settle this,” Johnny responded. “If you agree to leave me alone, drop the charges and never come near me again, I’ll drop the charges against you, too.”

She laughed. “Are you going to lose your job?” She circled around him. “Is that what’s behind this? Have your Department told you that you’re out?” She ran a hand down his arm. “Poor Johnny.”

“I want this over with,” Johnny replied honestly. “I don’t want to have to go to court.” It was all true; he didn’t. “I want you out of my life, Annabel. I’m not your victim anymore.”

“You don’t get rid of me that easily, darling,” she hissed, the smile gone now. “I couldn’t get near you when you were at Roy’s, but I’m here now, at your invitation. That was a mistake, Johnny.”

“I want you gone,” Johnny repeated. His muscles were so tense he thought he might shatter and the urge to vomit was almost overwhelming. “Annabel, it’s over. You don’t tell me what to do anymore.”

“No?” she scoffed and the next moment, something sprayed into Johnny’s eyes, instantly blinding him and making his eyes burn and water uncontrollably. Mace!

Staggering backwards, Johnny collided with his sofa and almost overbalanced. He blindly grabbed onto it, for it gave him a reference point. His eyes were screwed shut, tears pouring from beneath the closed lids, as the irritant worked on the delicate surfaces beneath his lids. It was agonizingly painful. He was also gasping for breath as his throat became irritated by the amount he had inhaled.

Designed to incapacitate an assailant, Johnny could have testified to its effectiveness. He couldn’t think about anything except the pain he was in. That gave Annabel the chance to do her worst. She snatched handcuffs from her purse and clicked one round Johnny’s wrist. He tried to drag it away, but it was easy for her to yank his arm back down and in a moment, he was secured. She grinned triumphantly. This time, she would really teach him a lesson.

As an up and coming ballerina, Annabel Atherton had led a privileged life at various prestigious dance schools. Her small, lithe body made her much in demand from male dancers eager to partner her on stage. She had had affairs with many of them, but they had all seemed rather tame to her. Then one day, she had lost her temper with her dance partner and had punched him. It had given her a huge thrill. Thereafter, she had always hit her boyfriends. None of them realized the strength required in ballet training and were shocked that this tiny dancer left them bruised and bleeding. Too ashamed to admit to what had been happening to them, her boyfriends had said nothing and heaved sighs of relief when she tired of their subservience and had moved on. She didn’t want the broken men – she just wanted to break them. Johnny had defied her for too long and today she was going to break him once and for all.

Tripping her hapless prisoner, she pushed Johnny to the ground and swiftly bound his feet together. Sitting back, she surveyed her captive with a good deal of satisfaction. His eyes had swollen enormously and tears still seeped down his cheeks and she could hear him gasping. Part one of her plan was complete. Part two was about to get under way.

***********

After her time as Johnny’s girlfriend, Annabel knew that the bedroom was isolated from the rest of the complex. She assumed that as Johnny had packed his stuff he had given in his notice. Nobody would come looking for him here – or not until it was too late. To all intents and purposes, he would disappear. She could have some fun before she abandoned him to his unpleasant fate.

From her purse, Annabel took a roll of duct tape, heavy duty scissors and a long strap. She took the tape and scissors to the bedroom and was pleased to see that Johnny hadn’t yet dismantled his bed frame. She laid the items on the bed, shut the blinds and went back through.

“Mace is good stuff, isn’t it?” she said conversationally, but got no intelligible response. Undeterred, she carried on chatting while she slid the strap over Johnny’s chest and under his arms. “This is extra strength stuff. Good, huh?” She straightened up and used the strap to pull Johnny through to the bedroom. It was something that Johnny had told her firemen often did if they had someone particularly heavy to try and lift. She had employed the method before, the last time she had had Johnny in her powers.

Winded, for dragging someone so much bigger than her was not easy, Annabel sat down for a short rest to catch her breath when she got to the bedroom. As Johnny often wanted to sleep during the day, the blinds were very effective and the room was quite dark. It was perfect. She cut two pieces of duct tape and stuck them over Johnny’s mouth in a large x shape.

Trapped in his hell, his eyes too swollen to open and his breathing labored, Johnny wondered how much he could endure. While the tape over his mouth didn’t obstruct his breathing any further at the moment, he feared what else might happen.

Annabel yanked him upright, forcing his back against the leg of his bed. The tape was wound around his forehead and the bed frame, and then round his throat, too. He wasn’t going to be getting himself free at any point. He kicked his legs, hoping against hope he would catch her.

“Ah-ah,” chided that familiar silky voice. “If I was you, I’d hold still. I’m sure you don’t want me accidentally cutting you, do you?” She slid the cold metal blades down his cheek. Confused by what he felt, but recognizing a threat, Johnny froze. Moments later, he felt his t-shirt being cut off. It was closely followed by his pants and boxers and he was left sitting naked in the shreds of his clothing. Annabel began winding duct tape around his body, binding him to the bed leg.

“They did a good repair job here,” she commented, licking his chest. He shrank from her as much as he could, grunting from behind the gag. He feared the results of another bite in such a tender area.

Sensing his fear, she laughed and nipped lightly. He winced, for the whole area was still healing and she laughed again. “This is where you’re going to end your miserable existence,” she told Johnny, her hand roving down between his legs. “It won’t happen at once; I’m going to have fun with you first and by the end, you’ll know how to behave for me.” Her hand was growing bolder and Johnny could feel his body reacting, despite the ongoing discomfort in his eyes. “Hmm, seems you do like it rough,” she purred and Johnny let out a garbled cry and tried to throw his body away from her.

He got nowhere, but Annabel was annoyed. Johnny was still defying her! She stood abruptly and kicked his hip and backhanded him across the face. She gazed down at him, her fury mounting as he panted frantically. In a swift movement, she ripped some tape and pressed it over his red, weeping, swollen eyes. He let out a sound that pleased her. She kicked him again and again and again.

Completely helpless, Johnny could do nothing but endure, trying to gasp in enough air to sustain his life. As her foot battered his hip over and over, he wondered vaguely where on earth his help was. This wasn’t supposed to be happening, he wasn’t supposed to be hurt.

There was a shout and the kicking abruptly stopped. Drawing in as deep a breath as he could, Johnny was totally unprepared for a sharp pain digging into his already sore hip. He grunted as someone stepped on him and he was buffeted several times before suddenly being abandoned, the agonizing sharp pain still in his hip.

There were voices from all around, but nobody seemed to be speaking to him. He was still trapped, bound against the frame of his bed, unable to move, barely able to breath and in considerable pain. He tried to struggle, but the pain from his hip stopped him.

And then, suddenly, salvation was there. “Easy now, hold still and we’ll get you loose,” soothed Roy’s familiar voice. “We’ll be as gentle as we can.”

Gentle or not, it wasn’t pleasant getting the duct tape removed. Roy was considerate and cut as much as he could, but even so, the sticky stuff clung to his skin stubbornly and in the end had to be pulled, rather than eased away. The only exception was Johnny’s eyes where Roy moved cautious fraction of an inch by fraction of an inch. Johnny still lost eyelashes.

It was disconcerting not knowing who was helping him. He knew Roy was there because of his voice, but there were other hands on his body, doing as Roy directed and he could sense a lot of other people in the room and the thought that all those people had seen him naked and tied up was humiliating. He was almost glad he couldn’t open his eyes.

“Johnny, listen to me.” He suddenly tuned in, realizing that he had missed something that Roy had said; something that sounded like it might be important. “Are you listening?” Johnny nodded. “Johnny, you’ve been stabbed by a pair of scissors. They are still in your leg and I’m going to secure them and then roll you onto a backboard for transport. Brackett has ordered an IV and I’m going to flush your eyes with saline. All right?”

“O-okay,” Johnny faltered. “Roy?”

“Yeah?” Roy’s voice was still very gentle, but Johnny could hear an undercurrent of anger there. “You mad at me?” he asked, fearfully.

“No!” Roy denied. “I only get mad at you when you ask stupid questions. Of course I’m not mad at you.” There was enough emphasis on the last word to let Johnny know that Roy was angry with someone and Johnny was glad it wasn’t him. An angry Roy DeSoto was a force to be reckoned with.

Rolling Johnny onto the backboard and flushing his eyes was not as easy as Roy had made it sound. Moving, despite the care Roy had taken to stabilize the scissors, was agony. The saline solution had soothed his eyes a very little, but having the lids peeled apart had been uncomfortable in the extreme and had started his eyes watering profusely again. Being strapped to the backboard was distressingly like being trussed up by Annabel and Johnny could feel his heart rate rising. He gasped for breath.

“Easy, easy,” Roy soothed. “What is it?”

“I’m tied down,” Johnny gasped, feeling like he might pass out. Within moments, Roy was on the biophone, explaining the situation to Dr Brackett who ordered oxygen and a dose of Valium to calm his patient. Roy waited until they took effect and then signaled to the ambulance attendants.

“You can find us at the hospital,” Roy informed Lt Crockett coldly. “I hope you think it was worth it.”

“I’m sorry John got injured,” Crockett replied.”I wish he hadn’t; after all, he was doing us a huge favor. But with the footage we’ve got, Ms Atherton won’t be seeing the light of day for quite some time.” He patted Roy’s arm. “I am sorry, believe me. If we could have gotten in a minute sooner...”

As reluctant as he was to forgive the police, Roy was a fair man and knew that they had started to move the moment they had seen Annabel starting to hit and kick Johnny. He glanced at the man who was dismantling the hidden camera – one of three – that had recorded everything that had been said and done. It showed Johnny’s humiliation and abuse for all the world to see, but it would end here and now, thanks to Johnny’s courage. “Yeah, I know,” he muttered and followed the stretcher to the ambulance.

***********

It was a couple of hours later before Johnny was settled into a room. He was drowsy from the pain medication and the mild sedative that Brackett had administered. He had been in the early stages of shock when he arrived in the ER and being forced to stay on the backboard until the scissors could be removed had taxed his strength and courage to their limits.

The scissors had not done a great deal of damage. The stab wound had been Annabel’s last attempt to cow Johnny, even as she was being subdued. Tackled to the floor by a policeman, she had grabbed up the scissors and plunged them into Johnny’s hip. They were heavy duty shears and luckily had not penetrated too far. Brackett had carefully removed them and stitched up the small gash. The whole area was swollen and starting to bruise from the kicking Johnny had taken. Johnny was already stiff and sore and he knew that it would be worse the next day.

Despite being washed out multiple times with saline, Johnny’s eyes were still red and puffy. The skin on his face was red and irritated and he sported a nasal cannula for oxygen, given that he had inhaled some of the Mace. Time was the only cure for his eyes and he could feel the improvement – or was that just because of the painkillers?

His skin was still sticky in places, despite the wash that Dixie had given him down in the ER. He knew that a long hot bath or shower would sort it out for him, but it was unpleasant in the meantime and yet another reminder of his ordeal. He drew in a sharp breath.

“You’re okay,” Roy soothed, putting his hand flat over the top of Johnny’s hand. “You’re safe. Keep breathing.” He kept coaching until Johnny’s breathing was once more under control. He smiled his thanks, too drowsy to speak and drifted off into sleep.

Leaning back in the hideously uncomfortable chair, Roy sighed. It had been torture for him, waiting to see what Annabel would do, hoping against hope that Johnny would come out unscathed, but fearing and expecting the worst. Running into the apartment behind the police, he had been horrified to see Johnny so helpless.

Domestic abuse was something Roy had never quite understood. He knew he wasn’t alone in that. Brackett had said that he didn’t understand either what made a loving man or woman take out their aggression on their loved ones. That Johnny had had to suffer this appalled Roy. He had seen Johnny dealing with this first time around and it hadn’t been easy. He dreaded how it might be this time. While Johnny had said very little and never complained (a worrying symptom in and of itself), Roy had heard his nightmares and could see the toll that it had taken on his friend’s spirit. This time, he was determined they would both see a counselor.

He must have dozed off, for a hand touching his shoulder startled him awake. “Roy, go home,” Dixie urged.

“I don’t want him to be alone,” Roy mumbled, also keeping his voice low in deference to the sleeper.

“By the time he wakes up, you’ll be back, trust me,” Dix assured him. “Kel has left instructions for him to be sedated into late morning, so he can get some proper rest before he has to face the police.” Brackett had won Roy’s undying gratitude in not allowing the police access to Johnny that evening. “Come on now, it’s time to go home.”

“My back thanks you,” Roy joked as he got to his feet. On second thoughts, maybe it wasn’t such a joke. His back was stiff. “I dare say Joanne will thank you, too.”

Laughing, Dix swatted him gently. “Get out of here” she scolded.

**********

The return of awareness was slow. Somewhere, Johnny could feel some discomfort – not pain as such, but something that didn’t feel right. He swallowed and turned over, feeling a deep twinge in his hip. He winced and tried to open his eyes, but they felt glued shut. He lifted a hand to wipe them, but someone caught his hand and after a second’s panic, he realized that there was an IV in that arm. “Hold on,” said Dixie’s warm, familiar voice and then something cool wiped gently over his eyes and he was able to open them.

The room was quite full, Johnny noticed. Roy was sitting by the bed, Dix was standing beside him and Dr Brackett was standing at the bottom of the bed. Beyond him was... Lt Crockett. Johnny’s heart rate increased.

“How do you feel, Johnny?” Dr Brackett asked, stepping closer. Dixie, with a warm smile, moved aside for him.

“Um... A bit sore,” Johnny mumbled.

“I’m not surprised,” Brackett commented. “I’m just going to check you over, Johnny and then I’m going to give you something else for pain.” He peered into Johnny’s eyes, listened to his chest and pulled back the hospital gown to look at his hip. Peering awkwardly, Johnny saw it was black and blue. Small wonder it hurt! “Your eyes are a lot better,” Brackett told him. “I expect by tomorrow you won’t know you’d been Maced. Your hip is severely bruised and I’m going to keep you in another night. You can go home tomorrow.”

“I’m moving house tomorrow,” Johnny told him.

“You may be having your stuff moved,” Brackett retorted, “but you’ll simply be supervising!” He smiled. “Lt Crockett is here to see you,” he added unnecessarily.

“I’ll talk to him,” Johnny sighed. He eased himself into a sitting position with help from both Brackett and Dixie and Roy handed him a glass of water. Brackett shot some painkiller into his IV port and assured Johnny that once he started eating, it would be pulled. A tray would be brought to him shortly.

Already weary beyond measure, Johnny hitched slightly onto his right hip to relieve the pressure on his left one. It wasn’t frantically comfortable, but would have to suffice. He regarded the black man with resignation. “Lieutenant,” he nodded.

“Gage,” Crockett nodded back. He adjusted his glasses. “As a result of yesterday’s operation, Ms Annabel Atherton was apprehended and taken into custody. She was arraigned this morning and remanded in custody. She will not face trial as we have video and audio evidence of her crime. She will be sentenced after the court receives psychiatric reports into her mental state.” He relaxed, the official bit of the visit over with. “I came to thank you personally, John and to apologize to you for letting you get hurt.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Johnny waved the apology away. “I knew you were coming.”

“You’re very generous,” Crockett replied, shook Johnny’s hand and left.

“Is that really how you feel?” Roy asked.

“It wasn’t Crockett’s fault,” Johnny told him. His eyes flitted away to look at something in the far distance that Roy couldn’t see. “I did know they were coming.” But he couldn’t repress the shudder that ran down his back. He would never forget those moments as long as he lived.

***********

The food that was brought wasn’t too exciting, but Johnny ate it ravenously nonetheless. He dozed again after lunch, then the nurse helped him to have a shower. He felt much better once he had washed off the last of the stickiness and the sheets on the bed were clean and cool. Johnny lay back down gratefully, for his hip was aching relentlessly after standing for even that short time. He was just about to start looking through the TV channels when his room door opened and youngish man dressed in casual clothes came in.

“John Gage?” he enquired. At the other’s nod he went on, “I’m Duncan Fraser. I’m a shrink.”

Somewhat taken aback, Johnny blinked.

“Sorry to be so blunt, but I always find its better to be upfront about these things,” Fraser went on. He sat down. “Dr Brackett suggested I come and chat to you and I spoke to Roy DeSoto a couple of hours ago, too. He’s a nice guy.”

“The best,” Johnny agreed.

“Dr Brackett told me you two are like Fred and Ginger, or Laurel and Hardy. Quite a compliment coming from Kel, I’d say.” He grinned. “However, I’m led to believe that you don’t dance and sometimes the jokes aren’t too funny, but...” He let his voice trail off and gazed at Johnny’s stunned face. “Oh dear, I’m talking too much, aren’t I?” he lamented. “Sorry about that, it’s a bad habit I’ve picked up from somewhere.” He looked remorseful. “Damn it, there I go again!”

“No, that’s fine, feel free,” Johnny offered generously. “After all, if you talk I don’t have to.”

“Ah, yes, that’s true, but since I came here to see if you did want to talk, it kind of negates the purpose of my visit, doesn’t it? Not that you don’t seem a really nice guy and all that...” He stopped talking again, because Johnny was laughing now. “Hey, you’ve got to be kind to me,” Fraser chided.

Smiling, Johnny looked at him for a long moment. His smile slowly faded, but he didn’t look downcast. “Yes, I think I’d like to talk to you...”

***********

The physical part of moving Johnny from one apartment to another was completed before Johnny was released from hospital. Roy took him to his new place and he found his Rover had a nice parking place under a convenient tree. On a hot day, that designated parking spot would be really handy.

Inside, it was total chaos. There were boxes piled haphazardly everywhere and Cap and Mike Stoker were wrestling his sofa into place. “I don’t want it there!” Johnny objected. “I won’t be able to get into the kitchen.”

Feeling more than a little harassed, Cap fixed him with an evil look. “It’s not going there, you twit,” he scolded fondly, glad to see Johnny ‘up and about’, even if he was in a wheelchair for the moment. “We just need to move other stuff first.”

“Oh. Sorry, Cap.” Johnny looked crestfallen.

It took a few hours to sort everything out. Johnny issued instructions about where various things should be placed. Some items were obvious – the towels went in the closet in the hall beside the bathroom, crockery, pots, pans and cutlery went in the kitchen and bedding and clothes went into the bedroom. The sitting room was soon laid out to Johnny’s liking and Mike carefully hung a couple of pictures for him. The TV was tuned in and the stereo set in order. By the time the pizzas that Johnny had ordered arrived, the bulk of the work had been done, and the men sat about eating pizza and drinking soda. Joanne had thoughtfully stocked Johnny’s fridge with some necessaries for the day. He was going to be spending a couple more days at the DeSotos’.

As Roy saw the last of their shift-mates out, Johnny hobbled down the hall of his new apartment. This one was laid out differently than his last one had been but that was all right. He stopped and looked into the bathroom, which had both a tub and a separate shower stall. There were two bedrooms and his bed was standing made up and ready for him. With the windows on different walls, Johnny felt no frisson of distaste or fear. A slight breeze came in the open window and something moving caught Johnny’s eye. He stepped closer and saw that it was a dream catcher, delicately made and very pretty.

“I thought it might help, when you come home,” Roy said softly, from the door.

Deeply moved, Johnny turned. “Thank you,” he replied, wishing that his words were not so inadequate. “It’s wonderful.”

“How are you feeling?” Roy asked after a few minutes.

“A bit tired,” Johnny admitted. He accepted help to hobble back to the wheelchair in the living room. He sat down with relief. “Roy, I’d like to talk to you before we go back to yours,” he ventured.

“All right,” Roy agreed and sat down near him on the couch.

For a moment Johnny paused, gathering his thoughts. “I’ve spoken to Dr Fraser,” he started. “It was ... easier ... than I expected it to be. But I – I ... wanted to ... to speak to you, too, Roy ... if ... if... that’s ... all right?”

“Of course it’s all right,” Roy replied.

“When ... when Annabel first... hurt me,” Johnny began, “I – I really thought it was an accident. That ... that bruise, on my chest,” he unconsciously touched the area, “really did hurt, you know. And she bit me in another place, too.” He touched his thigh. “I genuinely thought she had got carried away... you know.”

“I know,” Roy replied calmly, but his flaming face gave him away.

“I won’t go on if you don’t want me to,” Johnny backtracked.

“Keep going,” Roy told him resolutely. “Those days are not all behind me you know.”

“Roy!” Johnny exclaimed, shocked. “I don’t want to know these things!”

“Oh shut up and keep talking,” Roy urged him rather confusingly. For a moment, Johnny looked puzzled, then continued on with his story.

“That day when Andy phoned and she got so pissed at me, our argument ended when she ... she punched me in the stomach. She did it twice. I was on ... on my knees when she stalked out. I was quite glad she was gone, to be honest.” Having finally hit his stride with the telling, the words continued to pour out. “Then, when I came back from the shift, she was waiting for me outside the apartment, crying fit to burst. She apologized and told me she’d got carried away and the next thing I knew, I had forgiven her and we were in bed. I thought I had misunderstood, or that it was a one off occurrence, you know what I mean?” He barely waited for Roy’s nod. “And then she stood on my foot when we were dancing.”

“It could have been an accident,” Roy said, gently, although giving Annabel the benefit of any doubt was hard work. He didn’t believe it had been an accident.

“I told myself that too,” Johnny agreed. “And you. But I was lying to myself. I knew she had done it deliberately, but I just couldn’t believe it. I mean – why?”

“I don’t know why,” Roy replied.

“Oh I do,” Johnny declared bitterly. “It was because I had done that shift for Andy after all she had said. I thought she understood what being with a fire-fighter was all about, but she just wanted her own way. I suppose I should have somehow read her mind about not wanting me to do the shift, but I’m not a mind reader! And even if I had known, how could I have backed out on Andy? It had been arranged for weeks. I couldn’t have done that!”

“Of course you couldn’t,” Roy soothed. He checked in his pocket surreptitiously for the sedative that Brackett had given him ‘just in case’ Johnny should need it. It was there.

“And then, she came over after I got back from the hospital. I don’t know how she knew I was home...”

“She rang the station and Chet told her,” Roy explained. “Don’t blame him; he didn’t know what was going on.”

“It’s not his fault,” Johnny agreed. “But she came over and she cooked and looked after me and it was... wonderful.” There was a wistful tone in Johnny’s voice. “And then the next day, after you and Chet had gone home, she attacked me.”

There was silence for a few minutes as they both absorbed what Johnny had said.

“I don’t understand her at all,” Johnny concluded. “Dr Fraser says that ordinary people like us never will. He says it's often the one you least expect who is an abuser. He also said I’m lucky that I was able to get out when I did. Some ... some people are killed.”

Somberly, Roy looked at Johnny. “You were lucky, Johnny,” he agreed. “You’re not going to get over this just like that,” he snapped his fingers, “but you will leave it behind you. We both knew that it was difficult for people to leave abusers and I think you might have just given me an inkling as to why they don’t: sometimes, it is wonderful and the abuser seems like the person they fell in love with and they think if they can just do everything right, the abuser will stay that lovely person. Annabel was an extreme example, thankfully. If you hadn’t been able to stand up to her, you might have spiraled down and down until who knows what might have happened?”

They were silent again for a time. The sunlight moved along the wall of the apartment without either of them noticing. At length, Johnny yawned and shivered. “Dr Fraser said I’d probably have nightmares.”

“If you want, I can guarantee you a dream-free night tonight,” Roy offered.

There was another pause. “It’s not a cop out,” Roy added. “Everyone needs a little help sometimes. There’s no shame in it. I’ve had some help lately, too.” He glanced at Johnny.

“Thanks ... thanks, Roy.” Johnny nodded. “I might take you up on that offer.”

“Let’s go home,” Roy said after another few minutes. “Joanne will be wondering where we are and you need to rest.” He rose and grasped the handles of the wheelchair, pausing only long enough for Johnny to lock the door to his new home behind him.

***********

It was difficult to forget. Impossible, in fact. The papers were full of the news that Annabel Atherton, the darling of the celebrity circuit and a budding prima ballerina, had been committed to a mental institution for long-term care after an attempted murder charge. She would never be released. Several years into her incarceration, she was involved in an altercation with another inmate and was stabbed to death.

For quite some time, Johnny had regular weekly meetings with Dr Fraser, as did Roy and eventually all of their 51s crew mates. It had disturbed them all deeply and, as Roy had said to Johnny, there was no shame in it. Everyone needed some help sometimes.

Moving into his new apartment and spending the first night there alone was a big step for Johnny in his recovery. He had to admit to feelings of nerves as he settled down for his first night. Just before he switched off the light, something caught his eye. The dream catcher. He knew now he would be all right, for Roy was there watching over him in spirit.

He slept dreamlessly that night.

*****End*****

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