Roy DeSoto deliberately focused on losing himself in the swish of his mop. He hadn't really originally wanted to tune out his partner's diatribe about better housing for low income families, but he agreed with his partner, had told him so, and didn't want to think about it anymore. So he tried, with a surprising amount of success, to think of nothing at all but the mop. His partner's voice receded to a haze in the background. He swung his body gently from side to side and watched the perfect watery figure eights appear on the floor, one overlapping the next, then the next…
He heard the jangle of the phone and hoped it would be for his partner. Stanley shouted for Johnny, and Roy smiled to himself. He stuck his mop back in the bucket and trailed after his partner, ready for a little break. He raised a questioning eyebrow at Captain Stanley. Stanley smiled and waggled his own eyebrows back at Roy. "A lady doctor," he said in a suggestive tone, "Dr. Ella Pierson."
The men turned as one to watch Johnny. He was hunched over the receiver, speaking quietly and rapidly. Then he slammed it back onto the cradle. He looked over his shoulder at Roy and Hank. "I don't ever," he said in a tone they'd never heard from him, "want to talk to her. If she calls again." He stalked out of the station.
Hank looked expectantly at Roy. Roy looked right back at him, fully prepared to beg. Hank shook his head. "Nope. He's your partner," and walked away.
DeSoto gave him some time, and then went looking for him. His first guess was on top of the hose rack. Of course he was there. Roy squinted upward for a moment, hands on hips, and suppressed a sigh. Why did John have to be a percher? He didn't react as Roy joined him, just continued staring off into the distance with an expression of anger and sorrow.
"I never thought I'd hear her name again," Gage finally began softly. "I thought she'd surely be dead and in hell a long time ago." His lip curled in a rueful smile. "Shows how effective my curses are, huh Roy?"
"Johnny," began Roy, but the tones rang out and they had no more time to speak of it.
It was a week later that she came in person to the station looking for John Gage. He wasn't there; the squad was out on a call. Hank Stanley was hesitant as to what to do with her and her companion, the one with a portable movie camera in his hands and a still camera slung over his shoulder. Gage had made it quite clear the day she'd called he wanted no contact with her; and her subsequent calls had indeed been refused, but this?
Stanley wasn't sure how to diplomatically tell them to get out of his station, particularly someone so nicely dressed and mannered, who smiled and shook hands all around and was as completely pleasant as she could possibly be. And the others took their lead from him, so when he hesitated, his men's own ingrained politeness took over and before he quite knew it, she was settled at the table, had introduced herself, given a brief explanation of her relationship to John, a much longer explanation of the study she'd been conducting for most of her professional life, to the fascination of the crew, and was even pulling files out of her bag and passing around some remarkable photographs.
The images of wrenching poverty, of world-weary eyes peering through uneven shaggy bangs, haunted the men. They were pretty sure they recognized one of the children in the photos, too. None of them were able to look at Johnny when he and Roy returned about twenty minutes later and took in the scene.
The camera followed as Dr. Pierson rose gracefully to her feet and extended a hand to John, which he ignored. He stepped closer to the table, saw the photographs and his eyes widened in shock, horror, and embarrassment before narrowing in absolute fury.
He stepped away and turned his back. Roy followed, put a hand on his shoulder. John shook it off as he spun around, finding his voice at last. "How dare you do this," hissed Gage. "You -" he turned away again, paced restlessly to the wall and back. Stepped closer to the table and pointed at the photos. "How dare you?" he repeated. "Where's my right to privacy?" He hesitated for a beat. "Oh. I forget. I don't have any rights. I'm a savage. A subject in a study."
"My team never treated your people with anything but respect -"
He laughed, a bitter, ugly sound with no humor. "I was watching a program on TV the other night. They said the same thing. Respect. Except they were studying gorillas. Drop dead, Doctor." He turned to the camera man. His fist clenched and he shivered, just once, but he remained where he was. "And turn off that damned camera."
The man hesitated, looking from Dr. Pierson to Johnny. Mike Stoker took a single step towards him. "My friend asked you to turn it off," were Mike's mild words, but after a glance at Stoker he took several steps back and flipped the switch.
"Why?" She asked quietly for all of them. "Why are you still so angry at me, after all these years?"
His jaw clenched, the muscles standing out in sharp relief. He stared hard at her and shook his head. "You really don't know, do you? Do you have any idea how insulting that is, just by itself?"
The others were mesmerized, unable to move, even though a tiny voice inside each of them told them they should be easing from the room, that this conversation was not for their ears.
"I think I do. But I don't understand why you blame me. It's not my fault, what happened."
Gage's tone sharpened, quickened. "How is it not your fault? Huh? Explain that to me?" He pointed a finger at her. "You persuaded my father to take my mother to the doctor in the city. She never came home. I never saw her again. Twenty one days after she left she was dead. I never had a chance to tell her goodbye."
"My friends call me Johnny, Dr. Pierson."
She swallowed, regrouped. "Mr. Gage, your mother was very ill. She would have died anyway. Surely you must know that."
He stiffened. "She would have been at home. I could have been with her. And I would have been. Every minute. Instead, for all I know, her spirit is still wandering around down here, trapped, needing that last moment with me as badly as I do. And three months after that my father was dead, too."
John's shift mates were absolutely stunned at what he was saying. None of them had any idea that his childhood had been so traumatic, that he carried such harsh memories.
Pierson went for the throat. "Your father should have known better than to drive drunk."
Gage paled visibly. Roy grabbed his arm as he swayed. After a moment, Johnny shook off the hand and started toward Pierson, breathing hard. Roy and Marco flanked him, angry themselves, but ready to step in if John started to lose control. "I'll grant you that, but my father never touched a drop of liquor in his life until the night of my mother's funeral. Around the rez folks said he got what he deserved for making a deal with the devil. Know who they were talking about, Doctor? Now I think you better get the hell out of here. Right now."
She started to say something, but Stanley took her arm. "Lady, you've been asked to leave. I think you'd better."
She shook her head. ""We still have a contract, Mr. Gage. Every five years you agreed to be interviewed. I couldn't find you last time, that is, you managed to avoid me. You can't do that again."
"I agreed? I don't think so. My father agreed to it because he was desperate and you were holding him hostage by promising to get help for my mother. I was a minor. I didn't agree to anything."
"Weren't you an adult according to the traditions of your people?"
His eyes flashed with fury. "You don't know anything about my people except for what you can use to manipulate. You try to hold me to that contract. I'd love to take this to a U.S. court of law. You think they'll uphold tribal law? Shall we find out?" She sputtered. He continued, "I already asked you to leave. If I ever see or hear from you again, I'll have my lawyer on your tail before you can spit."
"I'm sorry it's come to this. I only have your best interests in mind."
"Oh, give me a break! I wasn't supposed to survive! I wasn't supposed to make it - I was programmed for failure from the day you met me! I've screwed up every dire prediction you made about me. I was supposed to be another pitiful half breed drunk high school drop out with no job and six illegitimate children. You think I haven't read your work? I probably would have gotten you another million in research grants since you had documented it so beautifully."
"I disagree. You are an absolute triumph of the potential and resilience of the human spirit."
He laughed again, and this time it sounded more sincere, but his face was just as angry. "You can spare quoting me the script from your next grant narrative. It's nothing but a pile of b.s." He took several deep breaths. "Not that it's any of your business, but I survived because of luck, a relative who cared about me, and my friends, not because of any of your psycho-crap."
Roy made every effort he could think of to break through to John in the days that followed, to get him to open up and talk about what was obviously a tremendously painful chapter in his life, but his partner had shut himself up tighter than a clam and made it clear the subject was closed. The atmosphere at the station was practically crackling under the strain of trying to pretend things were normal, when they were anything but. It was a difficult time for all of them.
A month after her visit, Roy stopped whistling and started frowning as he drove into the parking lot to start his first shift after a long deserved and highly anticipated vacation. "Geez," he muttered sarcastically under his breath, "guess John really missed me!" They had an important tradition, after all; to meet at the station an hour early after a stretch like this to get caught up before they had to work. DeSoto had actually been running a few minutes late and felt guilty for it, until he'd seen his partner wasn't there either. He sighed and paused for a moment, thinking. He double-checked the clock on the dash, hesitated, then decided to go up the street and treat himself to breakfast just as he'd been planning to do with Johnny.
Johnny's vehicle still wasn't there when he returned about a half hour later. Roy shrugged to himself and went in to change. Chet and Mike were drinking coffee and talking quietly to several members of the shift coming off duty as he entered. "Hey, guys!" he called out, his good humor restored. "Man, that was a great break! You need to go to this place when you have some time. I should have some pictures by next week, maybe."
Mike smiled politely, and Chet just nodded. Both men seemed subdued. Roy's smile faded. "What?"
Mike excused himself and left. Bill Harris and BJ Sanderson left with him, leaving Roy alone with Chet. Roy stared after them. "What's with Mike?" Chet shrugged. "What's the matter with you?" Roy asked.
Chet stared at him with curiously for a moment, and then replied, "Nothing. Not a single thing, pal." But his tone was completely at odds with his words.
Roy threw up his hands. "Fine. Okay. At least maybe Johnny will feel like talking to me when he finally decides to show up."
Chet's face hardened. "Funny, Roy. Real funny." But as before, his face contained no trace of appreciation for Roy's supposed joke.
Roy stared blankly at him for a moment, then stepped up to Chet and grabbed him by an arm. "Chet, where the hell is Johnny? Why didn't somebody call me? How bad is he hurt?"
"What are you talking about, Roy? He's still on administrative leave. The hearing is today. This afternoon."
Roy blinked in disbelief and shook his head in complete confusion. "What hearing, Chet? What the hell are you talking about?"
Chet looked as confused as Roy. "Jesus, Roy, you haven't talked to him? Since you left?"
Captain Stanley stuck his head into the room. "Everything all right in here?"
Roy let go of Chet. "I dunno, Cap. I seem to be kind of uninformed about something."
"He doesn't know about Johnny, Cap."
Hank's eyebrows climbed upwards. "He didn't call you? Are you kidding me? Oh, hell, Roy, I'm sorry. I just assumed – " Hank sighed deeply, suddenly hating his job. "Step into my office. I'll fill you in."
Roy knocked on the door, knowing Johnny was there. He didn't know how, and didn't care. He just did. The polite knock was ignored as completely as the more assertive one which followed. With a quick glance around to make sure he wasn't attracting an audience, he leaned towards the door. "Open up, Johnny, or you better hope you're decent 'cause I'm coming in on five." When this warning was completely ignored, too, Roy pulled out his key and cautiously entered his friend's apartment.
He wrinkled his nose in distaste at the disarray. Several items of clothing were carelessly tossed on the backs of seats or the floor, a bag of chips was spilling its contents over the side of the coffee table, and there were several beer bottles scattered around. He heard a low chuckle come from the kitchen. He squinted in the dim light, and was dismayed to see his partner, whom he'd never seen take a drink of anything stronger than an occasional well-earned beer, take a long pull from a bottle of whiskey. His partner lowered the bottle and grinned crookedly at him. "Sorry, pally. Forgot to invite ya to the party."
Roy folded his arms and stared at his partner, sure his disapproval was palatable. He ignored the distractions and went straight to the heart of things. "Why didn't you call me, partner?" stressing the last word to emphasize his anger.
Johnny widened his eyes in mock alarm and clapped his hand over his mouth, swaying. "Oops! Did I forget to call you?" He pretended to hold a phone up to his ear. "Hey, Roy? Can you come on home early? Your substitute is dead and I need you to come so I can kill you, too." He looked down suddenly, but not before Roy saw the bottomless well of pain in his eyes. His anger evaporated instantly and he stepped closer to his partner, reaching out for the bottle. Johnny handed it over unhesitatingly. "Sorry - s'posed to share, right?"
"That's right," Roy replied, so quietly it was almost a whisper. "We're supposed to share."
Even now, John knew he wasn't talking about the booze. "This you don't want to, partner," as quietly as Roy.
"Sometimes we don't get to pick."
A look of shared pain, an old memory, passed briefly between them. John abruptly stood up, but had to grab onto the nearby countertop for support as he wobbled. He spoke to the wall, not Roy. "You didn't see Del. At the hospital. I've…I've never seen anyone that upset. He totally lost it. They had to sedate him."
"You know the inquiry completely cleared you." A shrug. "Another foot, they said, and you would have probably died, too."
"Or maybe I could've grabbed him, pulled him back," came the hoarse reply. Roy had no answer for that uncomfortable truth. The anger flared again instead. He stepped closer to his partner.
"You should have called me, damn it." And he should have. Roy didn't have to examine the evidence in front of him to know the hell his best friend had put himself through the past 10 days, the nightmares, the missed meals. But the drinking was new, frightening. This was what his friend turned to in the absence of his best friend?
John turned around again and grabbed Roy's forearms in exasperation. "You guys have been looking forward to this trip all year! What am I supposed to do? Have you come home and hold my hand and ruin everybody's vacation just 'cause I'm having a bad day?"
Roy shook off John's hands and began to pace around the small kitchen. John collapsed back onto the nearest chair and held his head. When Roy trusted himself to speak calmly, evenly, he said, "Joanne is the most independent, self-sufficient woman I've ever met. She not only would have completely understood, she would have supported me if I'd decided to come back early. And she and the kids would have rolled right along and had a great time."
There was a shimmer in John's eyes that wasn't there a moment before. "That's just it, isn't it? Sorry, Jo. Gotta go. John's in a friggin' mess again. I guess you wouldn't describe me as self sufficient, would you?" He laughed shakily and pointed at the bottle. "Look at me, the half-drunk half-breed. If only the anthropologists could see me now! This is just how I was supposed to turn out."
Roy's gut twisted painfully and tears stung his eyes. He pulled out a chair, sat down heavily. He knew if he said anything kind right now, he knew it would push his emotional partner right over the edge and he would probably be right there with him. So instead, he nonchalantly snagged the bottle from off the counter, took a swig, winced, and swallowed. "What's with this stuff, anyway? You don't drink."
Something dark moved across John's face. "I just…was curious. I wanted to see…to see what my father saw in this stuff. Ya know?"
Roy shook his head. He didn't know. John suddenly looked sick. He probably was. "My mother. Um. I never saw my father take a drink of anything, ever. Until the night of her funeral. Then it was like…I don't know. He couldn't get enough. I'd come in -" a shudder and long silence. "He'd be gulping it down. Just drinking and drinking like it was water…it was horrible. I never knew people did that before then. I think he completely forgot I even existed." A hard swallow. "Twelve years old and I was on my own. I didn't know how to cook or wash clothes or any of that. And I had to try to take care of him, too. Anyway, three months to the day of my Mom's death, he…he hit –" he sighed, "um, he hit a tree at about 100 miles per hour." The eyes closed. "The worst thing was a long time later when I figured out that it wasn't just an incredibly bad coincidence that it happened on that particular day. That it…" he shook his head, unable to continue. He suddenly bolted to his feet, headed for the bathroom.
Roy stared at the bottle, blinking hard to clear his eyes. He was horrified for his partner, as his friend, as a father, and as a son himself. He slowly brought himself back to the present, noticed he still held the bottle. The taste in his mouth suddenly sickened him. He carefully screwed the top back onto it and stuck the bottle in the cabinet, out of sight.
The return to consciousness was painful, slow, and reluctant. He thought if the whirling would stop for a moment, he could identify the rhythm of the drums beating in his head. He groaned, and then groaned again at the pain the too-loud noise had caused. Carefully, gingerly, he sat up. When he was sure he could, he stood and went to the bathroom. There was a note on the mirror. He held onto the sink to steady himself as he read it. Drink the water in the glass. Take the aspirin. Take a shower. Clean clothes on the chair in your bedroom. Coffee's ready. I'm at the store. PS - Don't look in the mirror. Trust me.
He started to think he might possibly survive after the second cup of coffee. Roy bustled around, stashing some stuff and setting some aside. Johnny watched him, determined to remain as still as possible.
"Roy…thanks. You didn't...hafta, you know, do all this."
DeSoto kept stirring the eggs. He glanced over, gauging Gage's mood. "Sure I did," he said easily. "No big deal."
"I can't remember what I said, um? What? Yesterday, I guess? Sorry if it was stupid."
"If you can't remember, why are you apologizing?"
Sometimes Roy was very exasperating. "I…dunno."
Roy glanced over again. "You mentioned what happened to your parents, though. I'm really sorry. I can't imagine how terrible that must have been."
Gage groaned. It was worse than he'd thought. His mouth had run off to the moon. Dish, spoon and all.
Roy set their plates and himself down, picked up his fork, pointed it at Johnny. "Eat. And don't beat yourself up. You should've told me years ago."
"No, I shouldn't."
"I see," replied Roy, calmly, and took a bite. "So I can spill my guts to you, dump on you, but you gotta keep all your shit to yourself?"
"Well, no, that's not what I - "
"That's our pattern though, isn't it?"
John wasn't anywhere near ready to have this conversation, not now, not ever. "I…dunno."
"Well I do. And I'm not going to accept it anymore and neither are you. You're one of the most important people in my life and I know practically nothing about you from before the day we met. And I let it slide. Whereas you know my elementary school mascot was the bears, that I dropped the ring when I proposed to Joanne, and that I'm not sure what I hate more, losing my hair or getting a pot belly."
"But I like hearing about those things, Roy. Don't you think if there was anything worth telling about my life I would?"
"Life isn't always about the good stuff, Johnny. And you've been there for me for that, too. Remember who bought Chris' school supplies last year?"
John froze in shock. Roy was way over the line now. Joanne's miscarriage and the subsequent wrecks she and Roy had been afterwards had been high on their tacit Very Bad Stuff Never to Talk About list. When it had happened, Johnny had been their rock. He'd known instinctively when to be there and when to disappear. And he had been the one to take Chris shopping and Jenny to lunch and Roy away from it all when his mother-in-law had sometimes made it worse.
"Are you going to eat those eggs before they get cold?"
Johnny stirred them listlessly with his fork. He placed a tiny morsel in his mouth. They didn't make him gag, so he swallowed them.
"So tell me what happened to you after your father killed himself."
The fork dropped onto the table with a clatter as Johnny gave up all pretense of an appetite. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph Christ, Roy, I don't want to do this now!"
"I know that. I know you don't want to do it ever. And don't be profane, you heathen."
"I'm not a heathen. I just don't believe in quite all that stuff. And neither do you, I could point out."
His friend got up, brought the coffeepot over to the table and refilled their cups. He sighed. "Look. I don't know how to do this stuff any better than you, but let's try, okay? I gotta get a handle on how I can leave town a few days and when your temporary partner dies in a tragic but unavoidable accident, you get confronted and accused and attacked by that man's partner, get put on administrative leave, have to go through a hearing without me, and go on what I hope was the first and last bender of your life."
"Del was right to force the inquiry. Paul was a good man."
"Yes he was a good man. So are you, Johnny. Del was out of line."
"You would have acted exactly the same way if it had happened to me and you know it. And so would I."
There was an unhappy silence from the other side of the table. "Me, maybe you have a point. Maybe. But you? No, you wouldn't. Del turned all his grief and anger outwards. Towards you. You in the same situation would have directed it all at yourself. Are you going to drive yourself into a tree if I die someday, John?"
Gage grimaced from the unexpected blow. What in the hell had gotten into Roy? "Of course not." The mutter did not convince either of them.
Roy leaned forward, grasped Johnny's arm firmly. His voice was low, intense. "You better not. Because I would be counting on you to make sure Joanne and the kids were okay."
Johnny bit the inside of his cheek and looked away. The grip tightened. "I want you to promise me." John turned his miserably uncertain eyes to meet steady, bright blues.
"I will if you promise me we won't make a habit of this kind of…of…thing."
"Sure. Heaven forbid we try to maintain a meaningful level of communication," he muttered.
"Huh?" John asked around a mouthful of eggs.
"Eat." Roy left him alone a good two minutes, and then prodded him again. "So what happened after your father died."
"You're not gonna drop this are you?"
"Nope. I got all day."
Gage was quiet for a moment, unhappy at opening doors in his mind long left closed. "Well. You can imagine the joy I was to be around." Roy's lips tightened in disapproval at how John could blithely seem to blame himself for his grief.
He finally continued, picking his words slowly, carefully, like he'd never said it even to himself, much less out loud. "No one was exactly eager to gather me to their back yard, much less their bosom. I was a basket case. That woman and her damned camera and fake compassion made it all even worse. People blamed my father for them being there, even though it wasn't his decision, of course. Then they transferred that blame to me, I guess.
"Everybody on both sides seemed to think it was okay to line up and let me have it, tell me what a huge mistake it was for my parents to get married…and a bigger one for them to have a child. And that then they had the nerve to die and leave them stuck…with me." He looked down, still terribly hurt by the memories. "It was a bad, bad time."
Roy watched patiently, his chest tight and hurting. He wished there was something he could say. He knew there wasn't. "A couple of months later, I was still taking turns sleeping a night or two on someone else's couch, and my aunt came to town. She's actually my great aunt, you know." Roy didn't know. "Anyway she called everybody together and really raised hell. Read 'em all the riot act. Then she took me home with her. Here. I was no happier to be with her than with anyone else, but she didn't care. She just…had a way of imposing her will on to me. Made sure I stayed in school. Pushed me to go out for track. Supported me when I wanted to work with the school paper. She probably saved my life. She's amazing."
And then, finally, they were talking, talking like they should have been doing all those years, past, present and future all circling and blending. They talked as they cleaned up the apartment. They talked as they went back to Roy's place and puttered around in the garage and the yard. It was everything Roy wanted, everything Johnny needed. They went through his whole life, everything Roy was curious about; his early childhood, how hard it was to endure the well-meaning condescension of people like Dr. Pierson, what his life in LA had been like once he'd moved there, how he'd decided to become a fireman, then, finally, the tragedy with Paul, the shock of seeing him fall through the floor that had collapsed so suddenly, how Johnny had nearly gone over himself trying to save him, even though he knew there wasn't the slightest hope, then dealing with everything that happened after that, and more.
They ended up talking the whole day, remarkably, and the strained lines on John's face began to ease. At last, Roy thought, this is what he's been wanting, needing, to say all these years when he's talked so much about so little. And he smiled to himself and he did not tune him out, not this time, not for a moment.