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Five Easy Steps to Falling in Love

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Step One: Hold Hands

John winds his way hurriedly through the tables, sees the kid look up and tap pointedly at his watch.

"I know, I know," he says before Matt can start bitching. He shrugs out of his winter coat, throws it over the back of the chair. "I'm late. Some of us got jobs, kid."

"Hey, I have a job," Matt protests. "The best job. I work in the comfort of my own home, set my own hours, take breaks whenever I want—"

"Got no pension, no 401K," John adds.

"No forms in triplicate. No management breathing down my neck," Matt counters.

John's got to admit, the kid's got a point with that last one. Running his own unit at the JTTF sure as hell doesn't free him up from all the corporate bullshit or all the goddamn paperwork. Sometimes he envies the kid. But he can't let Matt slide into a win without a fight. He snorts as he pulls out a chair. "You call that sty you live in a home?"

"Actually, no. And I take back that comfort thing, too." Matt leans forward as he takes his seat, reaches for the pitcher and fills both of their glasses. "But you know, I was thinking about that paperwork. I can't believe you guys are still filling out forms. With ink. On paper." He shudders elaborately. "It's the digital age, John! You know how easy it would be to implement a system—"

"Talk to Cohan," John says.

"You know how much deforestation is going on right now? Paper is not only obsolete, but it's continued use is wiping out entire swaths of woodlands. Trees that provide oxygen to the planet, John! I could work something up, simple system, couple of spreadsheets so easy even a troglodyte like you could figure them out—"

John opens his mouth to protest, closes it reluctantly. Since he can barely open his email without getting three error messages he's got no room to complain about any caveman-like tendencies. He waves a hand to shut Matt up instead. "Talk to Cohan," he repeats.

"I might."

"But I'll tell ya what he'll say, save you a trip downtown in this weather. No room in the budget." John takes a swallow of his beer, ice cold and exactly what he needs after listening to Cohan ream his ass six ways to Sunday about the cost of the extra team on Giancarlo. "You order yet?"

"Spaghetti for me, lasagna for you. Should be up in about five," Matt answers. "You know, we're getting predictable."

"Like—" John clamps his mouth shut, doesn't let himself finish even though like an old married couple is screaming through his brain. "Like Bernie gives a shit," he amends.

Matt eyes him, but thankfully the kid's five minute prediction for the arrival of their food is off by about four minutes and thirty seconds. He holds back the sigh of relief, sits back and lets Matt get distracted by his chat with Gina about the frigid weather, his food – just the thought of all that extra garlic makes John's heartburn lift an eager head and poke tentatively at his insides – and some problem with her computer than involves something called batch files and malware and that Matt's coaching from last week had apparently been unable to solve.

As he takes a bite of his piping hot lasagna, John muses that he might not understand half of the shit that comes out of the kid's mouth, but he sure likes listening to him talk. After they shut Gabriel down, after the hospital stay and the congressional medal, he figured that Matt would move on, start yapping to somebody else.

'Cause that's the way it always goes. The shit hits the fan, him and whoever else he can rope into it do whatever they gotta do to save whoever they gotta save, and then the Feds come in to clean up the mess. The adrenaline wears off. All the brotherhood stuff you both thought you felt in the heat of the moment fades away.

Sometimes they tried to keep it going, regardless. He and Al thought they could, but it was just the job and a whole lot of trust in each other keeping them together, when really they had nothing in common at all. Al liked going to musicals at the Pantages, and John knew by the way he was squirming in his seat halfway through the first act of Wicked that it was the first and last musical he'd ever see. John liked sitting halfway up the stands at the Lakers games, following the play with a beer in his hand and shouting at the fucking refs; Al spent his time trying to spot Nicholson courtside. In the end, they drifted apart long before he transferred back to New York.

Barnes just sent him a Christmas card, that year after Dulles.

And Zeus? After he disrupted the whole medal ceremony, John never saw him again.

So it's a surprise, this friendship between him and the kid. Possibly the biggest one to come out of the whole firesale bullshit, because he always knew Lucy would come around. It's even more surprising because on the surface they have less in common than he and Al did. But whereas Al couldn't even feign interest in basketball, Matt – who had never seen a basketball game in his life, and what kind of upbringing did the damn kid have, anyway? – not only sits and watches the games with him but also memorizes the player's names and stats. And it works the other way, too. After all, he could now tell you more about Batman and Robin – whether it be Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, or Tim Drake, and he knows enough not to even mention the chick – than he ever could have as a child.

There's just something about him and Matt that clicks. He's not sure he wants to examine it any more closely than that. But he looks forward to these Friday dinners more than he is willing to admit.

"John. JOHN."

John blinks, focuses on Matt across the table. Gina is long gone, and judging by the state of Matt's plate so is half of his heartburn-inducing spaghetti. Matt juts his chin at John's plate. "You gonna eat that?"

John glances down at his nearly full plate; then the forkful of lasagna, halfway up to his mouth. "Hot," he says by way of feeble explanation.

He shovels down the rest of his meal, listens to Matt bitch about the shitty heat in his building and the lack of organic produce at his local market, shares what little he can about the Giancarlo case. And tries not to think about the tiny smudge of tomato sauce at the corner of Matt's mouth, and how much he wants to lick it away.

* * *

John manages to hold his tongue on the sidewalk outside of Taravella's, all the way up the street, down the stairs, through the turnstile, onto the platform and into the subway car. But once they're ensconced in the dubious warmth of the car and the frigid February air is no longer stinging his face and stealing the air from his lungs, he just can't keep quiet any longer. He side-glances Matt, slumped against one of the poles with his hands still burrowed deep into the pockets of his hoodie. "Jesus, kid. Where's your damn coat?"

Matt arches one of those fuzzy brows, looks down at his jacket and gestures with his hands still in his pockets. "This is it."

John makes it a point not to lecture the kid – too much. But he can't keep his mouth shut. "You're gonna freeze your ass off."

Matt glances over his shoulder. "Nah, my ass is sufficiently covered. Anyway, it's kind of a tiny ass. Not much meat."

John wants to say that he has never really paid attention to Matt's ass, but he also tries not to lie to the damn kid. He snorts instead, shoves his gloves into his pockets and reaches out to grab onto one of the overhead straps as the train pulls out of the station. He keeps an eye on Matt, though, notices that the kid is shivering despite his claims. And it's a good thing he is keeping an eye on Matt, because that's how he's able to grab him and keep him from falling when the train abruptly lurches to a stop and Matt stumbles forward.

He hasn't been this close to the kid since those crazy days leading up to the fourth, when wrapping his arms around Matt to keep him safe was as natural as breathing. Matt's heart would beat rapidly against his, then; Matt's big brown eyes wild and shocked and constantly moving. Just like his mouth. Now he just looks up, blinks and shakes his long hair out of his eyes.

"Hey," Matt says.

"Hey."

"Train's stopped."

John looks around at the car – at people scowling, muttering and glancing at watches, one young guy picking himself up from the dirty floor and swiping at his trousers. "Yup."

"So you could probably, you know, let me go," Matt says.

If he's being completely honest with himself – and he's usually not – John would admit it's the last thing he wants to do. Holding Matt in his arms really IS as natural as breathing. But since he's gone to great pains to ensure that none of the weird romantic bullshit he sometimes feels is leaking into his friendship with the kid, he just shakes his head, clears his throat. "Right," he says.

When Matt steps back carefully and leans forward to check out the grimy window, John can't help but wonder if he's avoiding his eyes. "Looks like we're between stations," he says.

John shrugs. "They'll probably have it going in a minute or two."

When the lights flicker and go out about ten seconds later, he hears Matt chuckle beside him. "You were saying?"

He's not laughing fifteen minutes later when the conductor announces that they'll have to walk through the tunnels to the auxiliary stairs.

"This is totally uncool," Matt says five minutes later as they stumble along at the tail end of the line. The conductor is halfway up the tunnel, and John can just barely make out the beam from his single flashlight bouncing off the walls. "There are rats down here, okay? Have you ever seen a sewer rat, John? I have. They're massive. They're like cats! No, they're bigger than cats. They're like super-rats. Super-rats with giant yellow incisors that could rip you open like a razorblade!"

John could tell Matt about the time he had to crawl through the sewer pipe underneath Lardner to catch that punk with the home made pipe bomb, but something tells him that a big I done worse in my time story isn't the ticket here. "Ain't no different than crawling through that access duct on the fourth," he tries instead.

"Ohhhhh," Matt says, "this is… that wasn't… okay, it was dirty, fine, but we could at least see more than two inches in front of our noses. And I'm pretty sure the mutant super rats hadn't made it to the—" Matt stops, and John senses more than sees him spin toward their rear. "Did you hear that?"

"What?"

"Sounded like… sounded like claws scraping on the track."

John stifles a laugh. "Jesus, kid, it ain't claws—"

"ARE THOSE EYES?"

John reaches out to find Matt's shoulders, turns him slowly and carefully until he's facing forward again. "Just keep walking," he says. "I'll protect you from the big bad super rats."

"Sure, make fun," Matt mutters. "You won't be laughing when you're visiting me in the hospital and I'm covered in bites and scratches and suffering some kind of mutant… oh my god, John? Do you think there's some kind of mutant rabies?"

"Keep walking," John repeats.

They make it another fifty feet down the tunnel before he feels Matt's hand fumbling for his. He holds his breath, shuffles forward another five feet before the fingers grasp his and hold on. In another five, he's curled his own fingers protectively around Matt's hand.

And when they emerge blinking into the moonlight and Matt doesn't immediately let go, John gives in and lets himself hope.

 

Step Two: Surprise Him

Matt stares at the monitor, taps his finger lightly against his lips. It's a simple enough code, something he should be able to do with his eyes closed, yet the error continues to elude him. He thinks he has it, and then—

Then he remembers how warm John's hand was in his last night, and how he could breathe easier walking through that endless, rank tunnel as long as John was by his side. Or how he could feel every muscle in John's arm when John reached out and snagged him just before he did a header when the train stopped, the way being pressed against John's body with that strong arm around him made his head swim. Or sometimes he thinks about the way John looked at him, John's eyes soft and warm, and he wonders if maybe John ever thinks about him the way he thinks about John.

And then he realizes that he's been spacing out for twenty minutes like a goddamn fucking schoolgirl. Again.

Matt scowls at his reflected image in the monitor, smacks the heel of his hand against his forehead. He can practically hear the Warlock laughing at him. Of course, the bastard already had his big laugh when he confessed his feelings for McClane to Warlock during an ill-advised late-night drinking and gaming session a few weeks ago. Warlock had cackled, teased him for his crush. Matt had insisted that it wasn't a crush.

It's not a crush when a person is more than three-quarters in love with a guy.

Matt sighs, shakes his head and pushes away from the computer. Maybe he just needs some coffee to wake up a little more – and help him to warm up while he's at it. He shivers in his sweater and blows feebly on his frozen hands, is halfway to the crappy kitchenette when the knock sounds on the door.

He glances down at his pajama pants and the old faded T-shirt beneath the faded grandpa sweater, and briefly considers quickly changing into something that doesn't look quite so homeless chic. Then he decides that he's not expecting the Queen today, and anybody else who drops by without calling first can bite him if they don't like what he's wearing.

When his caller turns out to be John McClane, he amends that thought to include licking as well as biting.

"Hey," he says in greeting, leaning against the doorjamb. "So don't tell me. There's a problem with the infrastructure and you're looking for a Daisy Duke to help you kick some terrorist ass." He cocks his head, studies John under the dying hall light bulb. "Am I close?"

"How about just moving your butt so I can get inside, smartass?" John just says, bending down to pick something up from the floor. It's only when Matt steps aside to let him through – and is sparing a moment to regret that he didn't at least change out of the Cheetos-stained T-shirt – that he notices that John is lugging a scarred and chipped red tool chest. And that said lugging does really, truly quite fabulous things to his biceps.

When his dick stirs, Matt regrets not changing out of the pajama pants, too.

Matt surreptitiously slides his oversized sweater a little lower, tugs it tighter around his waist. "So… uh… to what do I really owe this--"

"Jesus Christ, it's freezing in here."

Matt shrugs. "Um, yeah? I only spent like fifteen minutes last night telling you that my heater is a piece of shit and my fucktastic landlord won't… ohhhh," Matt says, when John just ignores him, bends down to the chest and starts rummaging around inside. "Are you here to fix my heater?"

"Ain't here to look pretty, kid."

Matt would beg to differ – the odes he's come up with late at night just thinking about John's shiny dome alone could fill a notebook – but he also really likes his own face and doesn't want it rearranged or anything, and he's not too sure how John would take to hearing that, even if he couched it as a joke. So he clears his throat, shoves his hands under his armpits. "Okay, but you don't have to… I mean, it's your day off and—"

"See, the thing is, everybody down at the station knows we hang out, shoot the shit, grab dinner and a few beers together. So if you freeze to death in your crappy little apartment, a lot of flak is gonna come down on me. Why didn't you notice that the kid had no heat, John," John mocks, in what Matt has to admit is an eerily accurate impersonation of Kowalski. "Some detective you are, McClane," he continues, this time doing a dead-on Lambert. John shrugs. "Shit like that. I'm really just covering my own ass here, kid."

Matt once again doesn't take the opening – and wow, really, that is so not the way to think about that – and just nods instead. If there's one thing he learned on the fourth and ever since, it's that when John sets his mind on something, there's no point in arguing. Might as well argue with a freight train. No, with John you either stand out of the way or you jump on board.

And besides, with the way he wraps himself up and burrows into the covers at night, so cold that his teeth are chattering, he really is in danger of being found one morning like some frozen human burrito.

"Well, when you put it that way," he says. "I wouldn't want to be responsible for that kind of hit to your reputation. Or your record. Which I'm sure is completely spotless."

John eyes him as he shucks off his coat, tosses it onto the chair on top of last night's hoodie and scarf. "Unless you count a couple three minor indiscretions… yeah."

"Uh huh," Matt agrees. He applauds his own self-restraint in not mentioning the copious research – and it's not stalking, no matter what the Warlock says – that he's done on McClane's background. He's sure Officer Montrose deserved that punch in the nose anyway.

Instead he makes a vague gesture toward the kitchenette. "Beer?"

McClane rubs his hands together. "Now you're talking, kid."

* * *

John has to lie on the floor to get to the problem. Lie on his back, and stretch underneath the old radiator in the corner. The action only serves to emphasize his taut stomach muscles, the barrel chest that strains against the tight black T-shirt.

Matt shifts on the sofa, glad that he switched over to an old pair of jeans.

"Goddamn it!"

If Matt was taking a tally of McClane curses for the day – which he's totally not – the Goddamn It's would completely be in the lead, with the Motherfucker's in a close second place. He learned not to ask what was wrong or offer assistance in any way after the second Goddamn It. He started thinking about calling in a trained professional somewhere around the third Motherfucker, but he thinks that neither his chequing account nor McClane's pride could handle it.

By the fourth Goddamn It and the third beer, he just decided to settle back on the sofa and enjoy the view.

This time, though, the Goddamn It is followed by a muttered and slightly incoherent "That's right, motherfucker"… and then a hiss of steam. That burning dust smell. And – Matt sets his beer on the coffee table and holds out his hands, palms out. He can almost feel… yes! "Fuck. That's… that's actually HEAT."

John wiggles his way out from under the radiator, smirks at him. "Told you I'd fix it. I fixed it."

Matt scrambles frantically from the sofa to drop carefully to his knees next to John, turns his face to the burgeoning warmth. He closes his eyes when the blast hits his face. "Sweet jesus, I love you," he murmurs.

It's only when John stiffens beside him that he realizes what he's said, opens his eyes to see John pushing himself up off the floor and to his feet. "I mean," he starts, "in a totally… in a way that… you gave me HEAT, McClane."

He slides around on the hardwood to face John, except that puts his face level with John's crotch, and wow that is such a bad idea. Matt shifts his gaze, but John also has really epic thighs. He swallows nervously. "I mean—"

"Don't wrap yourself up, kid," John says. And when John steps aside and raises his bottle to drain the dregs from his beer, Matt starts to breathe naturally again.

"So hey," he says, when John's replacing tools in the battered red chest and Matt's sure he's not going to sound like a breathless teenager, "why don't you stay for dinner. You know, as a thank you? I could make you…" Matt hastily inventories his cupboard, changes tactics quickly. "We could order pizza from Gianetti's. My treat. Since you saved me from turning into a popsicle and dying and thus destroying your career and all."

But John's already standing, dragging his coat off the chair. Matt does his best to keep the look of disappointment from his face. "Yeah, thanks Matt. I can't stay. Meetin' Lucy for dinner tonight."

Lucy really hasn't talked to him since she called him up with a long, belaboured my-dad-drives-me-crazy story that ended with "So tell me, honestly. Was I a bitch?" and he took her at her word. But he's just spent the afternoon ignoring all the coding he has to do and staring instead at John McClane's chest, and he really doesn't want the day to end just yet. So he bites the bullet. "Yeah? Lucy? Well, invite her over. I'll spring for an extra large."

"Nah," John says. "I got a better idea."

Matt raises a brow. "Better than Gianetti's?"

"You got plans for tomorrow?"

Matt committed to a day of tabletop weeks ago. He's even supposed to provide the game. But the thought of spending some more time with John outside of their regular Friday night dinners and occasional sports nights is just too promising to pass up. "Nope," he says quickly. "Completely free."

"Great," John says as he shrugs into his coat. "You can swing by, help me clean out that spare room."

Matt grimaces, chases his hand across the back of his neck. "Yeah, have I mentioned that I have this dust allergy? It's really crazy, McClane, I start sneezing and my eyes narrow down to these teeny little slits—"

"Ten o'clock. Figure it'll take us all day."

"—and then my throat closes up and I start hacking like a cat with a hairball—"

"A mutant super cat?"

"Hah," Matt says. "But seriously, John, it's really gross, my nose gets all stuffed—"

"Wear old clothes," John says as he lets himself out. "We can hit Gianetti's tomorrow night. That is, if you're able to eat with the whole mutant hairball thing."

Matt opens his mouth to protest further, but the door's already closed in his face. He crosses the room to lay his forehead against the scarred wood, listens to John's footsteps retreat down the hall. He gave up a day of gaming to sort through old boxes and lug decrepit furniture to the trash.

But on the plus side, he'll be lugging old furniture with John McClane. Who, with any luck, will strip down to one of those flimsy, worn-out wife-beaters he seems to like so much.

Matt glances at the monitor, still humming along with its broken code. Then he strips off his sweater and goes to sit by the fully functioning, completely awesome radiator, and lets himself imagine John lifting boxes.

 

Step Three: Spend The Day Together

"This," Matt says incredulously, "is your spare room."

"Yeah."

"This," Matt says, "is the room you offered to let me stay in last summer."

John glances behind him to the little room off the back hall. "Yeah," he says again. "What, you got a problem? It's a little cluttered, that's why I asked you to swing—"

"A little cluttered? A little cluttered, the man says," Matt mutters.

John bristles. "So we shift a few boxes."

"A few… John, you're a cop! This is a fire hazard!"

John takes a couple of steps into the room. He tries to see it through Matt's eyes. And yeah, okay, maybe it is a little… overwhelming. The boxes start at his feet, extend out and up in all directions. He knows there's a bed in the room, but damned if he can see it. He can just make out the back tires from Jack's tricycle and the faded pink roof of a Barbie dream house amongst all the cardboard. And part of the cheap little dresser appears to have actually folded under the weight of the boxes piled on top.

"Well, I ain't a fireman, now am I?" he asks. "We work hard, we'll be through by dinner."

"How many years have you been storing shit in here?"

"A few." John shrugs. "Once I sold the place out in Queens—"

He watches Matt's eyes go wide. "Are you telling me this is twenty years worth of junk?"

"First of all, it's not junk," John snaps out. "Second, you stand there all day and keep yapping about this and we're never gonna get done."

He knows Matt likes to talk – it seemed to John that all the kid did was talk during that two weeks that they spent sharing a hospital room, flapping his gums about everything from the government's immigration policy to the dubious merits of the disgusting green jello that John kept sending back to the cafeteria – but he sees Matt square his shoulders, can almost see the little gears in the kid's head spinning and whirring as he sets about finding the best way to tackle the problem.

"Okay," Matt says finally, swiping a hand through his hair. He strides forward, grabs the first box in his path. "Let's start an assembly line. We pile these at the end of the hall, and when there's enough for the car one of us heads out to the dump while the other—"

"Whoa whoa whoa," John says, holding up an arm to block his way out the door. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

Matt shifts the box on his hip, making it rattle. "Assembly line?"

John shakes his head. "No, what the… fuck, no. We have to sort through them."

Matt blinks those expressive eyes. "No."

"Yes."

"John," Matt says. John recognizes that tone. It's the same one Matt uses when he tries to explain computer shit to him. It's the tone that says he's the biggest doofus in the world and that Matt thinks he deserves a medal for persevering in the face of his monumental stupidity.

"No."

"You've lived without this stuff for twenty years—"

"Put it down, kid."

"If you haven't needed whatever's in these boxes for that long, then—"

He's not too stubborn to realize that Matt has a point. But the boxes in this room represent a big fucking chunk of his life. There's no way he can let them go without making sure he's not throwing away something that he'll never have the opportunity to reclaim.

John strengthens his grip on the door jamb, watches Matt's eyes flick to his bicep. "We sort through them, Matthew," he repeats.

Maybe it's the use of his full name. Maybe it's that Matt realizes that there's no way he can strong arm past him. But after a moment Matt sags, lowers the box to the floor and sits cross-legged beside it. He picks at the packing tape with a ragged fingernail before looking up at John through his bangs. "Got an exacto knife?"

* * *

"So," Matt says.

John looks up, still holding a piece of Jack's old train set. The boy used to sit for hours, watching the train chug around the track. Could've sworn the kid was going to grow up to be an engineer.

"How did you figure that we were going to do this when we got out of the hospital? You know, considering I couldn't put any pressure on my leg and bending my knee made me weep like a girl, and you couldn't lift your arm more than three inches."

"Don't let Lucy hear that 'weep like a girl' shit," John warns. He sits back on his haunches, surveys the damage. They've managed to get through about a quarter of the room, and it still looks like they've barely made a dent. "Guess I didn't realize just how much junk was piled up in here."

"I thought it wasn't junk!"

"Oh, it's junk," John says wearily. Four hours of sorting through boxes filled with GI Joe's with missing heads, Holly's old cookbooks, and an entire multi-box collection of dusty unicorn-themed brick-a-brack has proven that. He doesn't even remember Holly liking unicorns. The 'toss' collection piled out in the driveway significantly towers over the 'donate' selection of boxes in the garage.

Matt looks up eagerly. "Does that mean we can just start lugging—"

"No," John says.

He watches Matt deflate exaggeratedly. "We would have taken one look at this last summer, and then I'd have been crashing on your sofa. And I've sat on that sofa. Lounged, even. That thing is like a medieval torture device, it's inhumane, seriously." He looks up to catch John's eye. "Hey, that can be your new project when we're done here. New sofa. It's only fair if you expect me to keep risking permanent back injury every time I come over here to watch Marbury fuck up the Knicks."

Jack scratches at his cheek. "Didn't you find your sofa in someone's trash?"

"We're not talking about me here, McClane," Matt grouses as he pulls another box forward and starts digging around inside.

John laughs, then bites back a groan as he lumbers laboriously to his feet. The box of mostly broken china rattles on his hip. "One more for the dumpster," he says. "You want another beer on the way back?"

"Whoa," Matt says.

"Is that a yes or a no?"

Matt doesn't answer, just bends his head lower and digs further into the box. He comes up with a handful of newspaper clippings.

John looks over his shoulder, sees his own face looking back at him in grainy black and white. He squints at the headline, something about a drug bust in the Bronx. He doesn't even remember it, just one in a long, long line of arrests over the years. Damn punk probably got off. "Toss 'em," he says.

"Hell no," Matt answers. "This is… this is archival history, McClane. Look at this one!" He waves another paper excitedly, and John catches a brief glimpse of himself in uniform, smiling for the camera. He doesn't remember ever being that bright and shiny. "And this! Holy fuck, this is your People magazine cover!"

"I see that," John says dryly. He can't help the sneer that crosses his face, is glad that Matt isn't looking up to see it. Everything about that experience still gnaws at his gut, even years later. That reporter sitting across from him and Holly, eyes shining eagerly as she asked for all the gruesome details about Karl's death, about Gruber's fall from the tower. The leering way she implied that Holly might have been more than terrorized by the asshole. None of it made it into the story, of course. John kept his answers simple, refused to talk about the grislier aspects. He came off sounding like a big dumb lug, but at least he could sleep better at night knowing he hadn't contributed to the glorification of violence for the mass titillation of America. "Toss 'em," he repeats.

"And once again, hell to the fucking no," Matt says. He clutches the slightly tattered magazine to his chest, as though John will somehow forcibly rip it from his arms. Looks up at John with those big brown eyes. "I'm keeping all of this shit. And if you try to stop me, you'll… win, because you're like way bigger than me and could probably kill me with one hand, not to mention that I wouldn't put it past you to know some kind of secret Vulcan death grip. But if you do try to take these from me, you should know that now that I know these exist, I have the ability to find the digital copies online and make sure they get into the right hands, which may result in some reporter showing up at your door to do a follow-up on, like, New York Finest's Deadliest Weapon or someth—"

"God forbid I make you go to all that work," John says. He lifts a shoulder. "You really wanna keep 'em? Knock yourself out."

He leaves Matt still huddled over the box of clippings, can hear him exclaiming over another 'exciting' find even as he shoulders the front door open. Part of him is still thinking about that damn reporter, with her short skirt and her loaded questions.

Mostly he's thinking about the smudge of newsprint on Matt's cheek, and being thankful that his arms were full so he couldn't embarrass the hell out of himself and Matt by wiping it away with his thumb.

* * *

The sun is setting and Matt hasn't made even the slightest move toward the pile of fairly new boxes in the corner – if by fairly new one means 'were put in the room sometime this decade'. John does his best to pitch his voice light and casual as he stands, points to the towering pile. "Hand me that box over there, would ya?"

Matt looks up from where he's glancing through an old photo album. From his perspective, John can just barely make out a shot of upside-down Lucy clambering over the monkey bars. Jesus, that park got torn down fifteen years ago. John usually doesn't feel his age, but today is not one of those days.

"You know, a lot of these are perfect blackmail material. I found one in here of Lucy in the bathtub. She's like, two. And she's got a bubble bath pompadour. I'm thinking of blowing it up and posting it in her student residence."

"The box, Matt."

Matt glances from John, standing on the other side of the room, to the half open box of old photo albums spilling around him where he sits cross-legged on the floor. "And your legs don't work now because…" he prompts.

John sighs, leans against the wall with his hands behind his back. "Just get me the goddamn box."

"Wow," Matt says as he gets lightly to his feet, "you know, I'm the one helping you out, a little respect might be…." John can't hear the rest of the muttered sentence, because Matt's head is buried behind the big box he asked him to shift. But when Matt emerges, it's with the box in hand… and the coat dangling from one hooked finger.

Yes.

"Thanks," he says when Matt hands the box over. He swallows, makes a vague gesture toward his shoulder. "Wound's kinda acting up. Too much lifting."

"Uh huh," Matt says warily.

John rips off the tape and eases open the flaps, gives the contents of the box only a cursory glance before he looks back at Matt. "Whatcha got there? Some kind of old coat?"

"Uh huh," Matt says again, and the suspicious tone hasn't left his voice.

John inwardly winces. He used to be a shit ton better at this sort of thing. He's a detective, for God's sake. He works terrorism cases. He's responsible for the safety of millions. He should be fucking great at subterfuge.

Matt turns the parka over in his hands, continues to eye him. "Looks brand new."

"Huh," John says, because once he's committed he's goddamn committed. He scrubs a hand over his chin, does his best I'm thinkin' here mime. "Oh yeah, bought that a couple three years ago. Too small."

Matt looks at him over the dark navy fabric. "Why didn't you return it?"

"Hell, I don't know. Probably couldn't find the bill." John ducks his head into the box again, hopes the muffling of his voice will help to mask his piss poor performance. "Hey, you should try it on, see if it fits."

By the time he thinks it's safe to raise his head, Matt has shrugged into the parka and is studying himself in the dusty floor length mirror they had previously unearthed from behind about seventeen boxes and Lucy's old weeble wobble playset. "It's a little big," he says.

John mentally curses the Macy's saleswoman. How hard is it to find the right fit for a 'skinny hacker punk with hippie hair', jeeeeeeeeesus. "Nah," he says, even though Matt's clearly going to have to hike up the sleeves. "Looks good. You should keep it. Better than that fucking kangaroo jacket, anyway."

"Uh huh," Matt says.

* * *

"My arms are killing me," Matt says.

John looks up from his slice. "I'm the one with the shoulder injury, kid."

"And the small of my back. I think I pulled something. I'm going to need physio after this," Matt says, ignoring him completely. "Or a massage. Not at one of those skeevy places, I mean like an actual… do we really have to come back and finish next weekend? Can't we leave it for another twenty years or so?"

"Up to you," John says around a mouthful of cheese and sausage.

Matt raises one caterpillar brow. "Really?"

"Sure," John says after he swallows. "If you wanna listen to me bitch about a half-finished job every Friday night at Taravella's."

"Pass," Matt says. He tosses his half eaten slice onto the paper plate, reaches for his beer. "You know, not that I don't appreciate not losing any digits to frostbite while sitting in my own apartment and all, but it seems to me that the payment is far outstripping the services rendered."

"What, you want me to throw in the cost of a massage now?"

"I was thinking more like free cab service," Matt says after a moment. "I need a ride out to Jersey on Wednesday."

"Like it ain't bad enough that he wants me to take half a day off to ferry him around," John says to the wall, "but he's gotta go to the armpit of America while he's at it."

"Hey, I'll have you know that lots of famous people came from New Jersey. There's…" Matt pauses to think. "Debbie Harry, for one. And… one of those action hero guys you like is from Jersey."

"Yeah, and you'll notice they all got out as soon as they fucking could," John counters. "What do you gotta do in Jersey?"

Matt sits back, crosses his arms. "I don't want to tell you."

John only wishes that petulant little look didn't make his insides turn to jelly. He snorts as cover, especially since his acting skills have apparently gone to shit today. "Just say it."

Matt sighs, picks up his slice and makes a face as he tosses an olive toward the open pizza box. "Okay, but first I have to say that it's not my fault, all right? I called the company and it's a huge hassle to get this done in New York, plus it would end up costing me more money! Which is ridiculous, right? You'd think that they'd want to make it easier for people to, you know, obey the fucking law. But no, they want to make it a big hassle so then people won't do it and then they end up getting ticketed which puts more money in the corporate coffers—"

"Just tell me, Matthew," John says.

Matt leans back on the sofa, stares despondently at his slice. "I have to go to the DMV," he says.

John closes his eyes. "Kill me now," he says.

Step Four: Cuddle

"This is not my fault," Matt says.

He wiggles against the pole experimentally, winces when the rope digs into his hip bone.

He drops his head back against the rough stucco, glances across at John. Thick rope tied around chest and hips, hands knotted securely in front of him. A mirror image, if Matt was a badass bald cop with a really impressive shoulder to waist ratio. A big burly cop who's straining futilely against the ropes, making the muscles in his arms and chest stand out in stark relief against his tight white T-shirt and wow, this is so not what he should be thinking about right now.

Matt shakes his head. As it is, he's just a skinny former hacker with a mild case of asthma. Who's probably going to die in the stuffy, most likely asbestos-filled basement of a crummy Camden DMV.

"Just wanted to save myself forty bucks," he mutters.

"Don't beat yourself up, kid," John says. "It's my fault."

"How do you figure?" Matt says. "I'm the one who wanted to come all the way out to Camden. You'd be sitting at your desk falling asleep over surveillance reports right now if it wasn't for me. Should've just paid the extra money and renewed my damn license in the City."

"Yeah, and then who would have got those people out before the shit hit the fan?" John asks. "That was you, kid."

"Only because you were too busy rearranging that guy's face," Matt says.

"Lot of good it did," John grunts out. "Anyway, it's my fault. All the guys in the unit, they fuck with me all the time. 'Oh, it's Christmas, keep McClane away from the office. Better watch it this Hallowe'en, don't let McClane out on the streets.' They do it for fuckin' Arbour Day. Turns out they were right. I leave the house on a holiday, I'm fuckin' cursed."

"But this isn't a…" Matt starts, before the date registers. "Oh."

"Yeah."

Matt sighs, studies his sneakers before looking up. "On the plus side, this time you don't have to kill a helicopter with a car. And we're not going to die. Or get shot, even. 'Cause seriously John, getting shot is really super low on my list of favourite things."

"Tell me about it, kid," John mutters.

"The local cops are going to get here soon, right?"

He watches John's gaze flick toward the ceiling, remembers the booby trap the thieves left just inside the door before they trundled them down to the basement, tied them up, and took off for parts unknown. Matt's sure as hell no expert, but John says it was C-4 and he's got no reason to disbelieve the guy. And, Matt suddenly realizes, the front door to the DMV is pretty much exactly right above their heads. Which means if the local PD doesn't notice the trap, or doesn't dismantle it quite properly…

Matt swallows. "Getting buried in rubble would suck ass, too."

"That's not gonna happen, kid," John says. "Because you're gonna get us out of here."

* * *

"Ow! Fuck!" Matt pauses, grimaces around the pain. "Add rope burns to the list of things that I never want to experience again in my life."

"At least not the way you're gettin' 'em," John says dryly.

Matt looks up quickly, eyes wide, but John is again glancing at the ceiling. No sound of footsteps from above, even though they heard the wail of the sirens at least ten minutes ago and shouted until they were hoarse. Which means that Matt's worst fear wasn't realized – and the NJPD didn't just rush in with their heads up their asses, trip the wires, and blow them both to kingdom come. Which doesn't negate the fact that some hothead cop who thinks he's got something to prove could still fly in like gangbusters and blow the whole thing. That kind of thing always happens in the movies.

And it doesn't help that now all he can think is did John just make some kind of vague reference to… and wonder does that mean he's into… and consider would he want to… and contemplate was he just flirting with…

"Keep going," John urges. "It's working."

Matt shakes his head, hopes his previous exertion explains the sudden flush in his cheeks. He sucks in his breath again, resumes his up-and-down motion even though he feels like the world's most awkward pole dancer. The flesh on his arms stings with every fresh movement, and he hasn't looked down at his right side since he saw the first fresh droplets of blood stain through the sleeve of his hoodie.

Then he feels it. The rope gives… just a little… on the left side. Right where John pointed out the slack where it had caught on a nail when the assholes tied them up and left them here to rot. He tries to hold in his elation, keeps his motion steady even when he feels the give increase. He can practically hear John holding his breath. And then…

"Yes!" Matt crows when the rope around his chest loosens enough for him to raise his arms and lift it the rest of the way off his head. "Score fucking ONE for every goddamn math genius picked last in gym class!"

"Good job, kid," John says. "No hurry the fuck up and get the rest."

Matt flashes John a smile, bends to quickly manipulate the ropes around his hips and gets free quicker than he thought possible. His legs feel weak, and he nearly trips and wipes out on the ropes pooled around his feet when he takes his first tentative step away from the pole. He stops to get his breath, to take quick stock of his body. His arms are throbbing, rubbed raw in half a dozen places. His wrists are still tied together in front of him so tightly that he can barely feel his fingers. But he can walk. He can get up those stairs and he can warn the cops and he can get someone down here to save John and—

"Where the fuck do you think you're going?" John shouts.

Matt turns back halfway to the stairs. "I'll send someone—"

"No!" John shouts. "Jesus, kid. Jesus. You don't know what other traps they've got set up there. Get your ass over here."

"But—"

"Now, Matthew!"

Matt glances back at the stairs, but he's like Pavlov's dog when it comes to John and barking orders, already trotting back almost as soon as the words are out of John's mouth. It seems that the correlation should bother him, but somehow he's kind of okay with it.

"Untie my hands," John says.

"What?" Matt looks down at his own tightly trussed hands. "Dude, my fingers are turning white with blood loss here! I've got no range of motion, I can't even swivel my wrists, there's no way I can—"

"Just calm down!" John says. "Just step in close and pick at the knots. You can do it."

Step in close. Yeah. Matt takes a breath, shakes his hair out of his eyes. Tries not to think about the cops milling about outside and the bomb that's set to detonate right above their heads. Tries not to think about how the NYPD bomb squad won't even release the stats on their success rates – or lack thereof – and how fucking worrying that is, or to wonder if the bomb squad in New Jersey is better or worse than NYC's finest. Mostly, he tries not to think about how getting close enough to John to loosen his bonds means pressing practically his whole body against the other man, getting up close and personal in a way that he hasn't since they were cowering together from gunfire back on the fourth.

He's doing okay, though, despite his numb fingers. Despite the fact that he is close enough to feel John's heart beat against his ribcage; close enough that every breath that John takes stirs his bangs and makes him shiver.

He bites his lip, tries not to think about John at all… even though the whole idea of not thinking about John is ridiculous, really, considering the man is such a big, looming presence in his life even when they're not touching chest to chest, hip to hip. Considering he thinks about John when he first wakes up – stupid shit like oh this is the day that John's doing that deposition or tonight I'm going to order something different at Taravella's or I wonder if John likes Wheaties – and again the last thing before he goes to sleep. Though those moments don't usually have words, just images in his head and the quick thrust of his dick in his hand.

Matt can feel the flush burning his cheeks, is thankful that his head bent in concentration means that all John can see is the crown of his head. He takes a breath, then another. Tries to flex his fingers to get the blood flowing, an almost impossible task. Does his best to find that mind space that he uses when he's working out the errors in his coding, the one that blocks out everything but the problem at hand… so to speak. Then he bends closer, focuses on working out one of the stubborn knots around John's wrists.

Which is when the knuckles of his right hand brush against the hardness in John's chinos.

Matt freezes. He feels John draw in breath against his chest, the utter stillness of the man as the breath is held. And held.

It's only when he feels John's breath stutter against his hair that Matt moves his hand slowly away, looks up quickly to meet John's eyes. "Friction," he says.

"Yeah," John agrees gruffly. But John doesn't look away, doesn't blink, and Matt's own breath comes in a shaking, quivering gasp. He feels his lips twitch nervously, bites down on them so that he won't start babbling like an idiot. But it takes almost a herculean effort to pull his own eyes away from John's steady, unwavering gaze. He winces once he knows John can't see him, tries to focus only on the feel of the rope around his hands digging white furrows into his skin and the knots tied so tightly around John's wrists. Tries not to let his eyes wander to the thick bulge pressing against John's zipper, or to think about the way his own cock is throbbing interestedly in his jeans.

"Friction," John says.

Matt starts at the voice so close to his ear, so low and rough. So… intimate. He darts a quick look at John's face, even as the first of the knots starts to give under his fingers. Tries to smile reassuringly – no judgment here, all is good, just that damn friction – even though his lips feel rubbery and the result is probably more a grimace than a grin.

His fingers shake when he returns his attention to the knots, then slip away altogether when John bends his head even closer to his ear and rasps out, "So what's your excuse?"

Matt is fairly certain he stops breathing, though he successfully resists the urge to cover his crotch with his hands. But when he hears John huff out an almost silent laugh, he straightens his shoulders, lifts his face to John's and arches a brow. "Guess hot bald cops ordering me around does it for me," he says. "Who knew?"

The look of surprise on John's face is enough to get him through untying the rest of the knots with the bare minimum of fumbling.

* * *

"No way," Matt says. He looks from the ancient coal shaft to John skeptically, swipes a hand through his hair. "Dude, we could just… the stairs are right there! We could go up with our hands up, stand just inside the doorway and the police—"

"—might come charging in and blow us both sky high."

"All that faith in your fellow boys in blue, McClane," Matt says, tapping his chest. "Hits me right here."

"This ain't NYPD, kid," John points out disdainfully. "This is Jersey."

Matt opens his mouth to defend his home state, closes it again abruptly. John does have a point. But still. He narrows his eyes at the rust and grime infested shaft. He can easily imagine how narrow and confining it will be inside, how stale the air will be and how his shoulders will brush against the walls as he tries to climb up. He can practically feel his asthma kicking in at the thought. And he doesn't even want to think about what kind of critters might be living in there, or how they're going to smash through the lid covering the exit point to the outside world.

"I really think—" he starts.

But John already has him by the collar, is dragging him the couple of yards toward the jagged opening. "C'mon, you're going first."

"Me?" Matt squeaks out.

He sees John flick his gaze again toward the ceiling before rounding on him. "You think these guys did all this to get records from the fuckin' DMV? This is a diversion, and the longer we're trapped down here the bigger a head-start they get on us! Now we're gonna crawl up this fucking shaft, and we're going to tell those goddamn Jersey cops to get their heads outta their asses, and then we're gonna go catch these motherfuckers. Are you with me or not?"

"Crawl up, catch the motherfuckers. Sounds like the typical McClane plan," Matt says. He realizes that he's smiling – that his day began with a long drive and The Spoonful almost physically making his eardrums bleed, was punctuated by mild bondage and mutual hard-ons, and is most likely going to end with blood and pain and probably the fiery destruction of at least one vehicle. And not only is he fine with that, he's actually acutely, ludicrously happy to be along for the ride.

"Well?" John asks impatiently.

"Ohhhh, I'm in," Matt says. He bends to duck his head into the disgustingly vile coal shaft, stops to look over his shoulder. "Oh, and John? Happy Valentine's Day."

 

Step Five: Kiss

John hopes to make it to his desk without anyone noticing him, but he's only halfway across the squad room before the first voice rings out.

"Holy shit, McClane," Joe says. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"It's Monday, ain't it?" John snaps back. He shrugs out of his jacket and curses – the two Demerol he took with his morning coffee already seem to be wearing off – then hides the wince when he plants his left palm on his desk to ease himself into his chair. He bites back the sigh of relief when he's finally off his feet, pastes on his most bland expression and pretends that his back isn't screaming at him. Because if he admits that his back still hurts like a son of a bitch, then he'll have to admit that he's getting too old to be running all over hell's half acre looking for bad guys, and that he's sure as shit too old to be jumping from the top of a crane to the back of a moving fire truck. And that'll just mean another long, boring talk with the suits in which he threatens to walk out – again – if they insist on sticking him behind a desk all fucking day.

So his back doesn't hurt. Not that much. End of story.

Now if everybody will just leave him the fuck alone, he can spend the morning writing up all the goddamn reports he needs to file for his little mid-week misadventure with Matt and the jewel thieves. Couple three hours in his leather chair – and a few more painkillers – and he'll be right as rain by mid-afternoon.

He manages a grand total of two minutes of alone time before Connie perches on the edge of his desk.

"Jesus, John," she says, "you look like shit."

John gives up on searching for a pen in his mess of a drawer. "Thanks, Connie. Always good to know that my morning regimen gives me that fresh and healthy glow."

"I ain't kidding, John," Connie says. She sets her coffee on the desk, leans in with a frown to study his head. He refuses to squirm under her scrutiny. Besides, the abrasions on his skull don't look that fucking bad. "I was gonna come see ya in the hospital today. Shouldn't you still be in the—"

"I don't need to be in the damn hospital," he says.

Connie leans back, gives him the look that he's seen make twenty-year mob boys quake in their boots and spill their damn guts all over the interrogation room. Luckily he's known Kowalski since she was a fresh-faced rookie who wore goddamn plastic barrettes in her hair, so the look only makes him mildly uncomfortable.

"Listen, John, I was there when they took you away in the ambulance, all right? You had a concussion, bruised ribs, some kind of disc thing in your back—"

John's back chooses just that moment to twinge painfully, and his hand flexes involuntarily on the desk – which only makes his bruised knuckles flare up in protest. "I'm fine," he grits out.

"Don't waste your breath, Connie," Joe calls over. "You know he's stubborn as a fuckin' mule. And twice as ugly."

"Gonna take that as the compliment I know you intended it to be, Lambert."

Joe snorts. "Take it however you want it, McClane," he says before swiveling in his chair to Connie. When John's back spasms again, he envies the ease of that swivel. "He's got no more sense than his damn junior detective sidekick."

John had been in the slow process of maneuvering himself into a more comfortable position in his chair, but his head snaps up at that. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asks loudly.

Joe raises an eyebrow. "Kid's been here since before I got in, and I got here at six to start working up that Giancarlo surveillance report. Spent an hour or two with Cohan, now he's down in the server room." Joe lifts a shoulder laconically. "Figured you knew. Kid said something about a spreadsheet to—"

"Eliminate writing out all our paperwork," John finishes. "Move everything to the computers."

"Save the damn rainforests or some shit," Joe agrees. He eyes him critically, but John's so busy being simultaneously relieved that Matt's okay and worried that he's at the precinct that he barely notices the scrutiny. Finally Joe sniffs and turns back to his report. "Kid don't look as bad as you, but it's a damn close race."

"You really oughta go home, John," Connie says. "Take a couple more days."

John shakes his head, shoos her off his desk with a wave of his hand. "I got work to do," he says. He grabs a file from the top of the pile, opens it and makes a point of looking through it studiously until she sighs heavily and wanders back to her own damn desk. He keeps scanning for another five minutes, long after he's remembered that he's supposed to be writing up a report, not reading one. But Kowalski and Lambert don't have to know that.

He squints, reads the first two paragraphs three times. But there's too many thoughts going through his brain, too much clutter up there for a single word of it to make any sense. Lambert and Kowalski don't have to know that, either.

Ten minutes later, he gives up and heads to the server room.

* * *

Matt's got his little foldaway keyboard out and a bunch of wires running from a tiny box to the big machines that make up the bulk of the server room. He's tapping away, his fingers flying across the keys and his head bent in concentration, but John can still make out the greenish-yellow bruise high on his cheekbone. When Matt shifts – like he's in pain – John can also see the garish set of thumbprint bruises on his neck where one of MacManus's goons tried to choke the life out of him, where he would have crushed Matt's windpipe while John watched, while John flung himself helplessly at the window of the locked door, while John beat his fists bloody against the glass. He's not sure if seeing those bruises is the worst – or if seeing Matt's old cane propped up against the wall wins that damn medal. He hasn't had to use that cane since just before Christmas.

The air goes out of John all at once, and when he shivers it's not because they've got the temperature in the server room set to sub-arctic.

The kid almost died because of him.

And he can pretend that all he feels for Matt is friendship, while in his heart he harbours a hundred secret fantasies about touching him, running fingers through his hair, pressing his lips to the back of his knee or the corner of his mouth or the curve of his hip. He can spend ten minutes watching Matt's lips move while they're at dinner or sitting in front of the tube, listening to his ridiculous theories, imagining shutting him up by closing the distance between them, slipping his tongue between those lips and kissing him silent, pliant. But in the end those thoughts are only fodder for late nights when he's got his dick in his hand and the silence of the old house is punctuated by his labored breathing and the slap of flesh in his palm.

Matt's a kid with his whole life ahead of him, and it doesn't fucking matter that he seems to be sending John the same damn signals that John's been trying hard to mask – at least right up until his fucking body betrayed him last Wednesday. It doesn't matter that Matt just might be equally interested.

The damn fact of the matter is that John is hazardous to be around. And somebody's gotta be the grown-up here.

He's half-turning to ease out of the room when he realizes that he can no longer hear the steady tapping of Matt's fingers on the keyboard over the clacking-hum from the servers. He doesn't know how long he'd been standing there, staring into space and ruminating on what might have been, but when he blinks and focuses again Matt is looking silently up at him, keyboard already folded in half and tucked into his bag.

"Hey," he says, when Matt has done nothing but stare and the cold emanating from the look is about to freeze his bones. He makes an aborted gesture toward the door behind him. "I was just—"

"Stopping by to apologize?" Matt finishes.

John almost reels back at the vitriol in the simple words. He reaches out for the doorjamb, curls his fingers around it to stop himself from crossing the room, taking Matt in his arms. Then he remembers watching Matt get pummeled, watching fingers squeezing around the kid's neck and being helpless to prevent it. He suddenly feels old and tired and chilled to the marrow. "Just wanted to make sure you're okay, kid."

"Right. Right," Matt says. "Now why couldn't you find that out at dinner on Friday? Oh right, because you didn't show up! Do you know how long I sat at Taravella's, looking like an idiot?" Matt laughs without a trace of his usual humour, shakes his head and studies the floor before turning back to him. John realizes that the angry twist of his lips is something he rarely sees from the kid.

"At first I was worried, you know? I thought maybe you didn't get discharged, maybe your back was hurt worse than we thought. So I called the hospital and they said you'd checked out that morning. That morning! Then I figured you were just running late, subway bullshit. By the time my spaghetti was a congealed mess and Gina brought me my third free beer I was just fucking pissed."

John flashes back to Friday evening, propped up on the sofa with the heating pad on his back, listlessly watching the Rangers fuck up and eating cold pasta from the tin. Working on his own six pack of Bud, and fuck what the doctor said about mixing alcohol and painkillers. Feeling his eyes drift closed and seeing Matt behind his lids every damn time, face pale in the hospital bed or worse, flailing and choking with some goon's hands around his throat. He'd turned the phone off and told himself that giving the kid a clean break was best. He'd drank more than he should have. Anything to dull the ache that he knew was from more than just mixing it up with a bunch of diamond thieves.

All the medals and citations and bullshit hero stories in the paper don't hide the truth. John knows what he really is.

He's a coward.

He releases the doorjamb, no longer afraid that he'll do something he'll regret. The anger emanating off the kid is enough to keep him away.

"I'm sorry," he says. And hopes Matt knows that the apology encompasses more than just missing dinner. Hopes eventually the kid will understand.

"Don't," Matt says. He shakes his hair back out of his eyes, and the anger is replaced by a weariness that John recognizes from his own mirror. "You made your call, McClane. You made it pretty clear. I thought things could be… No. It doesn't matter what I thought. But before you go home and congratulate yourself on saving me from your goddamn curse, take a moment to remember that it was me who disabled MacManus's device on Wednesday when you were busy jumping off buildings. Remember that I wanted to be there. I wanted to be with you last week and the week before and every fucking moment since you tried to leave me in the Warlock's shitty basement."

He packs up the rest of his stuff with movements that are crisp and precise, reaches for the cane before levering himself out of the old folding chair somebody'd dragged into the server room. He balances precariously while he shrugs into his parka. And though John winces internally with every shuffling step Matt takes across the room, he can't find a single word to say.

He doesn't know how long he stands in the doorway. Long enough that Matt's halting footsteps fade, and he can faintly hear the ancient pulleys on the elevator as it labours to a stop in the basement. Long enough that the ache in his back starts to match the one in his chest.

John still waits a few more minutes, wants to be sure that Matt has boarded the elevator before he makes for the stairs to the fifth floor. He thinks about heading to the bullpen, pulling out his forms-in-triplicate and reliving everything him and the kid went through last week. The thought makes bile rise sickeningly in his throat.

He detours to the break room instead, and starts a new pot of coffee. Stares aimlessly at the papers pinned to the bulletin board – an ad recruiting for the homicide department hockey team, an old Capone wanted poster covered with smartass remarks, the betting pool for the birthdate of Kramer's latest kid. John can't remember how big Alicia looked last time he saw her, so he picks a random date and jots down his name and bet. Then he doubles the bet, because it ain't like he's going to be spending the money at Taravella's anymore. Or on extra-large pizzas on game nights, sneaking in double olives on the order just because he enjoys watching the face Matt makes when he has to pick them off. Or on new fucking coats and instructional manuals on how to repair ancient radiators so the damn guy he might be in love with doesn't actually freeze to death before he even gets to kiss him.

John sighs, opens the little mini-fridge on the counter for lack of anything else to do. He stares inside for a good ten seconds before he registers what he's seeing, and then his grip tightens painfully on the handle.

The scrawling 'John' on the take-out container is clearly Matt's handwriting, and he doesn't have to look inside to know that he'll find his lasagna. His regular order. The one that Matt always knows to get him when he's running late.

He picks it up, feels the contents shift inside the aluminum tray. Imagines a lifetime of cold canned pasta, of the room so silent that he can hear the grandfather clock ticking in the corner, counting down all the minutes of his wasted life. Of never again having to calm Matt's worries about jet com-trails or the state of New York's tap water or the possibility of running into goddamn mutant sewer rats. Of never watching Matt's clever mouth move, his thoughts coming so fast and furious that he even speaks with his mouth full, and of never having to quell the urge to smooth his thumb over those frantic lips.

He imagines being able to give in to all those feelings.

Because despite everything, Matt actually wants to be with him. Wants to put up with the hazards of his fucking job and share dinner with him. Maybe share a life with him.

He takes the stairs down to the lobby two at a time, hurtles out the front door and skids breathlessly to a stop on the wide precinct steps. The area in front of the door is crowded with uniforms and civvies, and John curses as he's jostled back and forth trying to see through the moving bodies. He lurches to the right to avoid a determined looking woman bundled into an old bomber jacket, and just manages to catch sight of Matt's dark hair. He surges forward, tries to keep Matt in sight as the kid hobbles slowly and carefully down the steps, narrowly avoiding several collisions with hurrying people on their way up.

Another ten seconds and he would have missed him.

He reaches the top of the steps just as Matt steps cautiously onto the sidewalk, heading toward an idling taxi. Knows he'll never reach him before he gets inside and drives out of sight. So he throws any sense of decorum out the fucking window. It's not like he had much to begin with, after all.

"Matt!" he shouts. "Matthew!"

A dozen faces turn his way at the first shout, but it's the second that makes Matt stop. That makes Matt turns slowly toward the sound.

John smiles, takes a step forward.

Which is exactly when his heel catches on the top step, and he slide-falls down the remaining eight stairs.

"JESUS FUCKING CHRIST," Matt yells.

John lays blinking up into the sunlight, hears a clunk near his ear and is only aware that Matt has dropped his cane in order to fling himself down to his knees when the kid's face swims into his vision.

"Hey," John says.

"Ohmygodwhatthefuckareyouallright?"

"Yeah," John lies. His back is on fire and his physiotherapist is gonna be pissed, but hey, he caught up with Matt. Stopped him from leaving. Sometimes you gotta take the bad with the good. He grins up at the kid. "Gotta tell ya, this was a lot more romantic in my head."

"You're fucking… I can't believe… is that blood?" Matt practically screams.

John carefully lifts the hand that's not still clutched around the misshapen mess of the aluminum container, swipes a finger through the tomato paste liberally coating the front of his dress shirt. "Bernie's specialty," he says. He sucks the index finger into his mouth. "Good," he declares. "Cold."

"Holy fuck, somebody get—" Matt is still yelling, and it's really fucking loud. John opens his mouth to tell him to calm the fuck down, it's just a bump and a little tomato sauce, he'll be fine in a second. But then he's pretty sure he passes out instead, because the next thing he knows Matt is leaning down and pressing a gloved hand to his cheek, and his eyes are bright and shining, and beyond Matt's face he sees the paramedics pushing through the crowd to reach him.

Matt groans and tries to shuffle out of the way, but John's reflexes have always been good. He reaches out to snag at the sleeve of the kid's parka, holds on tight.

"Matt," he says, slowly and carefully, "I don't ever wanna eat alone."

"You're nuts, McClane," Matt half-laughs. And John would heartily agree, except that Matt is leaning down to press their lips together and he really doesn't want to interrupt such a long-awaited kiss.

 

Epilogue: Live Happily Ever After

"Lime is good for you," Matt insists. "It contains enzymes that help lower cholesterol, it reduces kidney stones—"

"Have you ever eaten a lime? This is not fucking lime," John says as he shoves the jello away. His tray rattles on the sliding table, and for a moment Matt thinks John's going to be wearing the rest of his meal in his lap. Fortunately, the tray skates to a stop millimeters from the edge of the table, and John avoids what would probably be a humiliating sponge bath from one of the amazon nurses.

"And I'll tell ya what it contains, Matthew," John continues. "Horse's hooves. That's what it contains."

Matt steeples his fingers together, takes a deep breath. They'd lucked out yesterday when pudding was on the menu, but today he's got a fight on his hands. "Okay. McClane. Gelatin is made from collagen, which yes, fine, does come from boiling down animal bones. But it's processed so much that it's not even—"

"Horse's hooves," John insists.

"There are no hooves in jello!" Matt exclaims. He flings himself back on the hospital bed, thankful that his knee being in traction doesn't affect his ability to flail his arms or roll his eyes. "That is a total fabrication."

John swivels his neck slowly, still managing to look impressively intimidating in a neck brace and a hospital gown. "You're really going to start lecturing me on what's real and what's fabricated, Mister The Cell Phone Signal is Sending Our Every Move To A Covert Government Agency?"

"You just wait," Matt says. "Give it a few years and you will be shocked, McClane, shocked at what the NSA is getting up to! One of these days somebody's gonna blow that whole thing sky high!"

"Long as that somebody ain't you, kid," John says.

Matt settles back on the hospital bed, averts his eyes. Okay, so maybe he's done a little unauthorized snooping into a few government files. That definitely doesn’t make him a black hat. At the very most his actions are in the shades of grey category – though he knows John wouldn't see it that way. And if he's going to be dating a cop, he's going to have to stay firmly and completely in white hat territory. So yeah. No more snooping for him. He's going cold turkey as of right now.

Because he's dating a cop. Or will be, as soon as they both get discharged from the damn hospital.

"What are you grinning about?"

"Your life is going one way, and you're perfectly happy with that, and then bam! Total change of direction. And you wonder how you ever thought that first way was any good at all, you know?" When John just looks at him quizzically, Matt shrugs. "Just never thought I'd be dating a cop," he says.

"Yeah, well," John says. "Never thought I'd be dating a punk hacker."

"Ex hacker," Matt points out. He'd take offense to the whole punk thing, but when the shoe fits. Besides, at least this time John didn't make fun of his hair.

"Could be ex cop, too," John says softly.

"Please," Matt snorts.

When John just shrugs awkwardly around the back brace, Matt wonders how long John has been thinking it. How long he hesitated before saying it out loud. He remembers John reaching out across the back of the ambulance to take his hand as he lay on the second gurney, remembers the look in John's eyes when he became aware through the painkillers that Matt had reinjured his leg when he dropped to the icy sidewalk after John fell.

Matt reaches across the expanse separating their hospital beds now, waits for John to notice and take his hand.

"You'll still be a cop when you're ninety," he says. "It's in your bones, John. Being a cop isn't what you are. It's who you are."

When John squeezes back, he knows the message has been heard and accepted. Matt lets go, relaxes back onto his pillow and pulls his dinner tray a little closer. He squints down at the meal, bites his lip to keep from complaining about the greyness of the pseudo-meat. Then he side-glances John, and can't help the smirk that comes to his lips. "So, you gonna eat that?" he asks, jutting his chin at John's tray. "Because I hate to eat dinner alone."

He hears John sigh.

But when he looks over a minute later, John is eating the green jello.