It wasn’t until after Matt moved into his room, that John found out about the night terrors.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, really. Not given everything they’d been through, and it was the kid’s first ride on the terrorism tilt-a-whirl after all. John remembered the years after the Nakatomi fiasco. It wasn’t pretty; the nightmares, the chain smoking. A couple more drinks after knocking off work than might have been strictly prudent.
Hadn’t helped grease the wheels on giving things the first of several ‘second tries’ with Holly, either. Hell, she’d been there too, had her own shit to deal with. Two kids who couldn’t understand why Mommy looked like she had been crying sometimes when she picked them up from school after work. Not to mention the nutty survivor’s guilt, and John’s inability to comprehend it – not for that jackhole Ellis.
John had seen guys flame out and leave the force over less than what Matt had had to deal with. Nobody forgets the first time they have to pull their weapon, and being a civilian wouldn’t change a damn thing. If anything it had to be worse.
When Matt had woken up that morning in July – actually to stick to facts, he’d probably been awake all night – he’d been expecting to make a pile of cash on a big consulting job he’d spent months on. Not to end up running for his life with some cop who would’ve just as soon slapped him in cuffs if he had’ve had another 30 lbs on him – or even looked like he could handle himself in any effective sort of way.
John looked over at Matt next to him. He was asleep again now, one arm thrown over his eyes and the other tossed carelessly across John’s chest, fingers twitching slightly like he was tapping keys in his sleep.
Nope, Matt didn’t look dangerous in the least. John knew better now, though.
It could have been worse. Way worse.
It was bad enough as it was.
The first time it happened, John woke up before Matt did. It was the kid’s thrashing that did it. John waited a few seconds for him to wake up before he got sick of getting kicked and reached over to shake him before the kid’s feet could score an impact in a spot more personal than his shins.
Looking back, it should have been a dead giveaway how coolly Matt handled it.
"Shit. Sorry. Sorry, did I have a night mare?
"Yeah. That happen a lot?"
"It happens enough," Matt said into his hands, as he rubbed them over his face. "It’s cool you’re here though, because this way I can just go back to sleep. Usually I have to lie awake and listen to you sawing logs like a pulp and paper mill for an hour or so."
"You sayin’ my snoring keeps you awake an entire storey down?"
"Nope. Best lullaby ever. Go to sleep and I’ll show you."
They didn’t go back to sleep though. Not with the way he caught Matt looking at him every time John opened his eyes. That whip-smart gaze not sleep-lidded, but open and intent; blackened with pupils stretching to make out the details of John’s features in the dark of the bedroom. The side of Matt’s mouth that wasn’t pressed into the pillow would curve in a silent smile every time John cracked an eye to look, like he knew a secret. Like he was waiting for something, for John to catch on. And – 2 am or no – John wasn’t one to keep that mouth waiting for long.
The second time it happened, Matt was awake and staring blearily up at him, with those agile fingers wrapped tightly enough around John’s wrist to dig in and bite a little.
"What the hell?"
"You rolled on top of me," Matt explained, flatly. "I...was dreaming. I must have grabbed onto you or something, because you just rolled over and covered my head like we were taking fire."
He let go of John’s wrist, and let his hand fall back on the sheets.
"Fuck, John, warn a guy huh? Sleep walking is one thing but sleep rescuing...if you have a tendency to smother your dates in your sleep, no offense but I’m gonna go back to sleeping in the den."
Matt smiled up at him, taking the edge off the quip, but in this position John could feel him trembling.
That time they did go back to sleep. But not before John rolled them both over so that he was holding Matt tight against his chest – where he could be sure not to crush him while they slept, but mostly so he could run his hands over Matthew’s back and shoulders and arms until the last traces of tremor ebbed away.
Matt kept up an increasingly sleepy refrain of "’m fine", but John didn’t stop rubbing his back, and Matt didn’t pull away, either.
Later, John would think that Matt probably hadn’t grabbed him that night. It was more likely he’d been calling John’s name. For a while there, it was happening more and more often.
It got to be a regular thing. Matt would wake up already talking; calling John’s name and shouting unconscious curses that stuttered and turned into wakeful apologies.
And John learned after once or twice of this to stop telling him "shhh" and "you’re alright". He fuckin’ well wasn’t alright, there was no reason in hell Matt should be alright, and it turned out saying "tell me’" just plain worked better.
It got them both back to sleep faster, and that was something anyway. It was like the nightmare tumbled out through his mouth and flowed away somewhere, like a rush of spring meltwater over a dam.
It was just as chilling too, some of the time, but John wasn’t about to let on. He didn’t want to stem the flow of Matt’s outpourings. John was no shrink and he couldn’t be sure, but it felt like Matt was getting better.
The first time John asked him to explain the dream, Matt had been reluctant. All John got out of him was:
"It was the elevator shaft again. Sometimes, it’s me and Lucy. With Gabriel. And that guy with the beard that– but usually it’s you. And that stupid fucking elevator shaft."
Then Matt had curled himself into a ball, with his face buried in John’s chest, and John didn’t believe to this day he’d fallen back asleep, but he’d refused to say another word.
They both got better with practice though. John learned a couple of tricks. First, he had to ask right away, the second Matt’s eyes flew open, before the alertness of panic could give way to the lingering cloud of sleep. He’d give Matt’s shoulders a little shake if he had to. Press him into the mattress maybe, just a hand on his chest so Matt couldn’t roll over and ignore him – or slide closer and start sabotaging John’s resolve with determined burrowing and nuzzling.
It was this sort of strike-while-the-iron-is-hot approach that let John slowly get the whole picture.
"I ki – that guy, the elevator…you were in trouble, John. He was trying to – he…I should have stopped him. I sh – I killed him. Didn’t hesitate."
So it wasn’t fear. It was guilt.
"And that’s…that’s not even – McClane?"
Matt actually waited for John to prompt him with another ‘tell me’ before he gave his last, toneless confession.
"I was glad he was dead."
"No you weren’t," John tried for reassuring, but it might have come out argumentative.
"No, I was. I really was." Matt twisted his wrists forcefully out of John’s grasp where he’d been holding onto him, to stop him throwing unwitting punches as he woke. "He was there, and he was trying to kill you, trying to…take you away from me. I got there first. And I hit – I hit him and he died. And I was happy about it."
With his hands now free, Matt brought both of them miserably up to cover his eyes.
"You weren’t glad he was dead," John repeated, and it came out a little softer this time. "You weren’t happy you killed a man, Matt. You were just glad he was done trying to kill me."
This one, John knew for a fact. Knew it a little too well; the relief, the rush – no matter how sick or ashamed it makes you feel later. The reality of that moment when you win against an enemy who is trying to hurt somebody you would gladly die to save – an enemy who isn’t pulling any punches, who will give it their damnedest to end your life in the process – the bleak, undeniable reality of that moment is triumph.
There’s nothing quite like it, and that’s a good thing. It’s not a place John wants to go again. No matter how many times he’s seen it.
Matt didn’t say anything at first. He just brought his hands down, let John look into his midnight-wide eyes, search them for …John wasn’t sure what. Panic, fear, anger. Truth.
Matt nodded a little, coming back to himself. He looked down at his hands.
"You know how I said your way-loud snoring puts me to sleep?"
Matt’s hair was a series of vicious-looking tangles against the pillow. John smiled a little and started smoothing one with his thumb. "Uh huh."
"That’s why. It’s because– I know what I said, but I don’t actually lie there and listen. I’m up already, so. Sometimes I just…go out in the hallway so I can hear better, hear you breathing and grunting and stuff. So then I know where you are," Matt said, simply. "And nobody shot you like in my dreams, and you didn’t– you’re not having a heart attack or getting blown up by anything."
Maybe some of it was fear after all.
"I’m not going anywhere."
"Yeah. That’s what you say, but then you don’t take good..." Matt huffed a little, impatient. Resentful of the time it always seemed to take him to wrest control of his brain-to-mouth connection back from the night mare. "Let’s face it John, you’re not what most people would call careful with your own wellbeing."
"Hey," John said, giving up on sorting out Matt’s hair and running his thumb lightly over his generous bottom lip, instead. "I’ll be alright. I got the world’s best partner watching my back."
"Mmm. Noticed that did ya?" Matt answered, shifting a little under the blankets so he could run his hands up and over John’s skin, waking each nerve ending in the path of those clever fingers out of late-night lifelessness. "What can I say, it is a nice back. Got any other parts that need attention?"
After that, things really did seem to get better. Matt would wake up and John would ask for the instant replay, but the urgency, some of the panic, seemed to be gone. Matt would re-tell the horror story playing out on the big screen behind his eyes, until his tone evened out. Their low murmurs and quiet reassurances became comforting kisses, and the slow, soothing stroking of skin would inevitably turn to a firmer, more ardent touch.
Soon, Matt was going more and more nights in a row without waking up. It had been nearly a full week before it happened again. But when it did happen, this time Matt didn’t call out, or kick. In fact, John wasn’t even sure what woke him because when he opened his eyes he was alone.
When John found him, staring intently at his computer monitor like it held the answer to life, the universe and everything (it was a lie incidentally, there was absolutely nothing special about 42), Matt insisted this was normal for him. That this whole crazy thing he’d been doing called sleep, was only due to the codeine, and before he’d hooked up with John and gone out to get shot at, he used to be up pretty much the entire night. Pretty much every night.
What with the evidence of caffeine addiction John had witnessed in the time Matt had been with him, he wasn’t inclined to dismiss this explanation altogether. But he could be patient when it counted, and the kid’s alibi didn’t stand up over time. The very next night, Matt had another nightmare. The signs were different, but John was sure of it.
John awoke to muttering and snuffling that at first didn’t sound so bad, until he heard the distinct and gut-clenching sound of grinding teeth. When he rolled over, Matt was curled in on himself, fingers balled into tight fists, and his jaw working so intensely John could hear it click.
That was new. And it was enough already. John was putting a stop to this before Matt chipped a god damn tooth.
John woke him up and was prepared to go through their whole routine, when he ran into a wall.
"I don’t remember," Matt said, sitting up and pulling a hand trough his hair – which, for once, was fine.
That was new too. And John couldn’t be sure, but it didn’t seem like progress.
"I’m gonna get up and…go work for a while, okay McClane?"
Get up? "McClane"? Defnitely not progress.
It happened again. And again after that. And it didn’t stop there, either. Weird shit John was sure the kid hadn’t been doing before was starting to happen in the daytime too, all over the house.
For starters, Matt was keeping stashes of candy everywhere. There was a packet of Twizzlers in the kitchen, and a gargantuan bag of those little chalky-looking things in rolls kids used to call Rockets in the old den where Matt used to keep most of his computer gear. Some of it was still there. He hadn’t so much moved it upstairs as spread it around the house.
John actually didn’t mind as much as he should. It wasn’t so bad, having Matt venture out of his room(s) a little more often. And if it meant there was a laptop taking up permanent residence on John’s coffee table, or video games that for some reason required a fake plastic guitar hooked up indefinitely to his TV, well, John figured Matt making himself comfortable was a pretty good indication that he planned to stay a while.
And if that was going to be the case, John figured it was only fair.
The box of Tootsie pops in the goddamn bathroom was pushing it. And if John found one more half-empty can of Red Bull with a wad of chewing gum the size of a small country stuck to the rim, he swore he was going to lose it.
Mainlining sugar wasn’t the only new development, either. There were other odd habits John was starting to notice, too. As they sat on the couch channel surfing after dinner one night, Matt was indulging in one of his new favourites. John looked over at the compulsive sound of Matt cracking his knuckles one by one. He’d give the kid this, he was thorough with his obsessions.
Matt would do all the fingers of his left hand, before he moved on to the right. Next, he’d make a fist with one hand and squeeze with the other, cracking the second, smaller joint of each digit. Finally, he finished with the thumbs. And that’s when John noticed the most disconcerting sign yet. Matt’s fingernails. They had always been brutally short, but now, they were bitten down past the quick and had clearly been bleeding.
"Hey," John interrupted him, mid-crack. Matt had only gotten as far as the middle finger of his right hand. "What happened to your hands?"
"Huh?" Matthew stopped giving himself premature arthritis long enough to spread his fingers and flip his hands in the air, examining the backs followed by the palms.
"Your fingernails. What’s going on there?"
"Oh. Well, I had this hangnail and then I – colder weather, dry skin I guess. Happens sometimes, you know how it is. Sorry, looks gross, I know." Matt put a hand down on John’s knee before he hauled himself off the couch. "I’m gonna get a drink, you want anything?"
He was already halfway to the kitchen before John could say ‘no thanks’.
"But if you’re gonna have a Red Bull, spit that damn gum out first!"
The next day was when Matt’s behaviour reached a culmination point.
John was re-stocking the fridge for the weekend when one of the beer bottles toppled off of the shelf, performed a perfect double pike with a twist, and smashed on the floor in an artful sea of foam complete with tiny glass icebergs. The judges give it a 5.8, John thought.
"Matt? Could ya grab me that dishtowel?" John asked, after he finished cursing.
"What? What’s wrong with you, why not?" John closed the fridge, and stepped away from the spreading pool of yellow and white.
"Um. Bet you never thought I’d say this, but, my nails are wet." Matt sheepishly held up his hands, but they looked the same.
John stretched over the spill to pull the towel off of the hook and threw it into the beer puddle. It wasn’t enough. He went to the drawer and pulled out a couple more before he threw them down too. He looked back at Matt, waiting for an explanation.
"I’ve been trying to stop biting them!" he said, looking stricken. His neck was flushed at the sides where those adolescent blushes of his always started. "So I bought this ‘no-bite’ stuff you have to paint on. First I tried chewing gum and just keeping my mouth busy but I just don’t – sorry. Hopefully this works, and…what?"
John was trying not to smirk. It wasn’t appropriate. There was a mess on the floor, and Matt was being serious. But he was acknowledging the crazy nervous candy hoarding and the uncontrollable finger-gnawing and, truth was, John was frankly a little giddy from relief.
"If all you needed was something to keep your mouth busy..."
It took a second.
"I don’t know wh – wait. No. I think. Yeah, I think you might be onto something there."
Matt’s smile had some serious wattage to it, and it must have blinded John for a minute because Matt was already moving toward him before he realized it was a bad idea.
"Hold it! Don’t move. There’s glass on the floor."
Matt’s smile faltered a little, but his approach didn’t.
"One little smashed bottle, are you kidding me? This is nothing. I used to tend bar, man. You’d be surprised how well a guy can learn to navigate a workspace littered in shattered glass."
"Overprotective jackass?" John asked soberly, once Matt was standing in front of him. Lucy couldn’t stand it. Hadn’t ever really sat that well with Holly, either.
"It’s okay," Matt reassured him, twining his arms around John’s neck. "Broken glass, right? I know why you always wear shoes. Even inside."
"You been researching me on the internet?"
"Didn’t have to," Matt pressed his forehead to John’s, and shut his eyes. "You were the topic of every popup and stupid celebrity gossip push page in existence for the entire summer." Matt opened his eyes and grinned again. "But to answer the question: yes."
"So you know everything there is to know about me then? Nothing left I can show ya?"
"Ohhhh. N- no." John worked his hands up and under the back of Matt’s shirt. He couldn’t help smiling at the way the kid’s words tripped over each other in response. "I’m a McClane enthusiast, I’m sure there’s much, much more I – heh, mmm – much more I’d be willing to – mgh – learn."
John was still getting used to this. Being allowed to touch, to taste. He wondered if he would ever get over it – the smooth heat of Matt’s skin, the narrow columns of lean muscle on either side of the slightly prominent spine. The taut, sensitive flesh of his belly, that made him take sharp little breaths when John stroked it lightly.
Matt made an unhappy moaning noise that made John pause in his work and pull back to look him in the eye.
"I can’t touch you," he groaned. "I’ll get this stupid chemical crap on my fingers everywhere."
"Can’t touch, huh? Now that could be fun," John replied, spreading his palm flat and pushing it higher up under the thin layer of cotton he was already starting to resent for interfering with his access to that rapidly warming skin. He dipped his head and ran slightly-parted lips over the long tendon in Matt’s neck, for good measure.
Matt growled a little in frustration.
"You are both cruel and unusual, sir."
"Does that mean I should stop?"
John thought he made it pretty clear the question was rhetorical, by shifting his grip to the backs of Matt’s thighs and hoisting his ass up and back so he was sitting on the counter.
"Don’t you dare," Matt said anyway. "Oh! But just make sure you don’t get my fingers anywhere near your mouth. They taste like ass. Well actually not like ass at all. Worse than ass. Turns out ass doesn’t actually..."
John might have been interested in hearing the rest of that sentence but at the moment he was more interested in getting his hands deep into the satin strands of Matt’s hair, and his tongue even deeper into the welcoming candy-sweet of his mouth.
They could worry about broken bottles later. John had his boots on of course, and he didn’t intend to let Matt’s feet hit the floor for a good while long after the ten minutes or so it would take his nails to dry.
That abominable no-bite shit did eventually make its way into John’s mouth though.
Matt was right, it didn’t taste like ass at all. It tasted downright toxic. John spit out the tainted mouthful of his lunch the minute the acrid, bitter burn of it hit his tongue.
Matt looked up at him over the edge of his own sandwich, startled.
"Put that down," John said, picking up both of their plates.
"Because it’s poison. You can’t tell that’s not what grilled cheese is supposed to taste like? You shouldn’t be cooking with that repellent shit all over your hands." John wasn’t sure he wanted Matthew painting it directly onto his open cuts, either.
Matt dropped his sandwich onto the plate John was holding dejectedly.
"I think I’ve developed an immunity to it," he complained, propping his elbows on the table and sinking his head into his hands so his hair jutted out between his fingers everywhere like some kind of spastic tarantula. "I just sort of, power my way through the initial nastiness now, until I can’t taste it any more. Then I just keep on chewing."
That settled it.
"Go wash it off. Or do whatever you do to get rid of it. It’s not doing you any more good. Go on, I’ll fix you a fresh sandwich."
John remembered what Holly used to do with Lucy when she’d gotten old enough to want to grow her nails but couldn’t stop biting them as soon as they got past a certain length.
John didn’t expect Matt to be overjoyed with his solution, but he didn’t exactly expect the reaction he did get.
"I was really hoping to avoid that this year," Matt sighed, when John showed him the little bottle he’d picked up on his way home. "You know they make this stuff in slightly less flamboyant colours, right? Like clear?"
But he shook the bottle vigorously as he led the way into the bathroom, and he twisted off the cap with the miniature paintbrush in it and started to apply the nail polish to his pinky, anyway.
"Guess I’m just lucky they don’t make it in rainbow."
"You said black was your colour," John reminded him, hovering outside the bathroom door. "You said it’s not gay. That chicks love it."
"You know, when you said you’d keep that in mind, I thought it was playful banter," Matt shot back. He kept his eyes down over what he was doing, so John couldn’t quite tell how deep the sarcasm went. "What are you, starting a dossier on me?"
"Cop," John said, like it answered the question. He didn’t point out that there was almost as much bullshit about Matt all over the internet now if John cared to go Google-hunting or whatever the term was. "Hey listen, I’m just tryna help."
"You wanna help?" Matt sighed, "I’m a righty. You do my right hand."
"Sure, I’m not so bad at detail work. It’s just like touch-up paint. I used to do Holly’s toes for her – couldn’t reach ‘em when she was pregnant."
Matt smiled a little but finished up what he was doing instead of looking up.
"Alright then. You’re up, beauty-school dropout." Matt still sounded a little incredulous but he stuck the little brush back in the bottle for John to deal with and held out his hand.
He wasn’t as fast at this as Matt was. They were quiet for a few moments, while Matt watched John’s work, slightly hawkishly.
Now was as good a time as any, John supposed. He inspected his work on Matt’s index finger before he asked.
"You wanna tell me why your birthday freaks you out, kid?"
Matt didn’t flinch exactly, but his fingers went a little rigid under the brush.
"How do you know my real – how do you know when my birthday is?"
"Toldja," John reminded him. "I saw your DOB at the hospital. October 31st? You don’t forget a date like that."
"Fine. Well. What makes you think it freaks me out? As you so tactfully pointed out when you thought I was trying to get into your daughter's pants – I'm already past my best before date, right? 'No guy over thirty's gonna touch her’? Why would this one be a big deal?"
"Maybe it's not," John said. He could be patient, stick to a line of questioning. He knew what the kid was about, trying to throw him off the scent with that crack about Lucy. Matt seemed to be in a mood, and John wasn’t going to get riled up and join him. "Maybe it’s always like this. Maybe it’s like you just said about hoping to avoid it this year."
"Cop," Matt agreed, rolling his eyes just a little, but being careful not to move his hand as John finished the last touches to his thumb. "Always like what?"
"Look, I may not be a supergenius like you, but it wouldn't even take a detective to figure this out. The nail biting, the insomnia..."
"John, really, the insomnia thing isn’t a big deal, I’m totally used to it, I just take advantage of the extra time to work. And I told you, I bite my nails all the time, but my skin gets dry around this time of year, as soon as these pre-hisoric forced-air furnaces come on it’s like a veritable desert in every..."
Matt stopped talking as John reached across him to open the medicine cabinet and extract a new bottle of prescription pills that had appeared in the past week.
"Got an explanation for the migraines too?" Imitrex. Turned out that Google-hunting business was good for something.
Matt looked at John, and for a second John thought he was going to snap and give him hell. Kid was dogged though.
Matt pushed his head against the doorframe and rocked it a little in frustration, his hair crumpled and bunched up against the wall in that way that always made John want to smooth and fix it. There were times he swore everything about Matt was engineered to trigger this response in him. A deep and almost instinctive desire to provide and to protect. The softness of that hair, those big puppy-eyes, the angular, nearly fine, lines of his neck, jutting shoulders, and long-fingered hands. All of it conspired against him, made shit like this whole sideways conversation feel as painful and crap-filled for John as it looked like it was for Matt.
John hated having to pry where he wasn’t wanted, but this is what it had come down to. And he could deal with this, it happened all the time. Daily. Every move Matthew made; every Christmas-morning grin, the frantic hand gestures when he talked, the way he made that little whimper-sound in any time of consternation, every hunch of shoulders and pout and wrinkling of his nose. Matt was so open, so obvious about everything he felt, and that made him vulnerable. John both loved and despised it about him, because he didn’t want anybody else taking advantage. And that tended to fire up that over-protection issue of John’s.
But being way too expressive for his own good also made the kid a shitty liar, even though he tried it often enough. And he was trying it now.
"In the fall," Matt said after a deep breath, "the barometric pressure..."
Matt might be stubborn, but he knew when he was busted, too. He dropped the excuse and pivoted so he was facing John, with his head still tipped against the doorframe. John gave in to temptation and brushed his hair back where it was falling into his eyes. Matt couldn’t do it with his nail polish still wet, after all.
"Like I said, I’m just tryin’ to help, here. I know it’s gotta be tough around the holidays, what with being an orphan."
"Orphan?" Matt straightened up and looked John in the eye. "What? I’m not an orphan, McClane." John registered the used of the last name, as Matt took a step backward into the bathroom, putting some space between them.
John wasn’t sure when the flip had occurred. There were still times a ‘John’ from Matt’s lips shot a thrill through him, but at some point they’d reached the stage where – if it wasn’t paired with a spritely sparkle of eyes and pang of sarcasm – hearing Matt call him ‘McClane’ sent him an odd chill.
"C’mon, kid. The nurse at the hospital told me you were a ward of the state."
"Yeah, I was. Ward. Ward, not orphan. Not like, please-sir-can-I-have-some-more, orphan."
John was missing something. Was ‘orphan’ a dirty word in hacker-speak or something?
"Relax, it’s not like I’m sayin’ you’re some kind of panhandlin’ squeegee kid."
"No," Matt said, with an air of forced patience. "But you said orphan. That means...it’s not...orphans don’t have parents. Or, okay, they have dead parents. My parents aren’t dead. They’re just assholes."
John wasn’t prepared for that. He should have had a better response than the one that fell out of his mouth before he could shut it.
"...You have parents that aren’t dead."
"Well maybe they are by now. I wouldn’t actually know."
Matt shouldered his way past John and out of the bathroom, and all but flounced off down the hall, shaking his hands either to dry them or to work out some of his obvious ire.
And John wasn’t gonna lie, he was floored. He had no fuckin’ idea what to do with his new information.
John spent the next hour or so consumed with Matt’s admission, his strange behaviour, and his general all-round moodiness.
Matt seemed fine at dinner though, blathering on about pearls and camels and penguins, and something computer-y John tuned out, having to do with a bazaar in a cathedral. That is, he seemed fine until John tried to bring up the subject of his birthday again.
"So about this day you got coming up on Wednesday, what do we do? Do you throw a great big nerd she-bang with a lot of people hepped up on Red Bull, playing with dolls?"
"It’s not a big deal," Matt shrugged as he said this, as if that made it true. "Halloween kind of trumps birthday with us anyway. Warlock likes to take advantage of any and every opportunity to drag out his Qui-Gon costume." Matt pushed his chicken around on his plate.
"Maybe I’ll make the trip out to Baltimore on Tuesday. We usually just get a few people together and set up a quick LAN party, or I could take my old Magic decks and if there’s even numbers we can get a power cube going."
"Alright," John answered. "But you know you’re welcome to have it here, doncha, your land party? Or whatever that cube thing is. And it doesn’t just have to be Freddy. You must have somebody you want to invite, foster parents or..."
"Foster– ? Yeah, no."
"No?" That couldn’t be right. Kid had to grow up living somewhere.
"Hi, oh, it’s nice to meet you, I’m Matt Farrell." Matt stuck his smart-ass hand out over the table, like he expected John to actually shake. "Ex-black hat hacker? Former threat to National Security? They didn’t send me to foster care, McClane, I went to juvie. Okay?"
Matt pushed his chair back from the table and started clearing up.
"Do not pass Go, do not collect ...sketchy fake family. Which, thank God for that really. One less set of freaks for the side show that is my life."
John had never heard Matt talk like this. And he’d seen Matt freaked out and panicked and threatened and kidnapped and roughed up and shot. Never once had he been so...negative?
John got up and followed Matt into the kitchen to help with the cleanup.
Bitter might be the word he was looking for. Because, yeah, Matt complained a lot, but it was just sort of a general whiny pay-attention-to-me-I’m-matt-and-I’m-cute sort of grumbling. This was different. It had venom behind it. It was anger.
"How long?" John asked, quietly.
Matt didn’t pretend to need clarification this time, he just answered the question.
His tone was bland. John pushed it.
"And when you came out? ...Got out?"
Matt wasn’t so far gone that he couldn’t manage a smart-alecky smirk at that. He took John’s plate and scraped it over the trash.
"When I got out, I was five months from my birthday and it takes way longer than that to clear child services anyway. I went to this group home that was...God, it was worse than detention, I swear. And then it was, you know, I was fine. I worked for a couple years, different jobs. And when I had the cash together I went back to school. I got my certification, and they let me within fifty feet of a computer again. I went white-hat, found my own place and, you know, whatever people do right?"
John didn’t know. He obviously didn’t know anything. This kid, who was his life now, his everything – John’s mornings and his midnights, and the space in between was just killing time until he could get Matt in his arms again – this was his Matt, and he didn’t know who he was holding at all. He’d never taken the time to find out. That was changing. Now.
It didn’t occur to him until much later that he might not like what he found out.
"There’s nothing I can tell you about me that you probably don’t already know from my record," Matt said, when John pointed out later that night that he usually made it a habit to get to know the people he shared a bed with.
"Your record? Gimme a break kid, I haven’t read your file."
"You never once got curious? All those hours avoiding me last month, hanging around the precinct at night with nothing to do?"
"You read it. You did." Matt reached out over the covers and pinched John on the nipple.
"No I didn’t," John chuckled. "I couldn’t. ...You’re classified. Highly classified. What the hell did you do, kid?"
"I – really? Classified?" Matt looked up at the ceiling, clearly considering something. "Figures."
"I’ll make you a deal," John pressed. "You tell me everything about Matthew Farrell. And then I’ll do anything Matthew Farrell wants."
Matt snapped his gaze back to John, licked his lips. "Anything?"
"As long as you don’t have a ball gag stashed away somewhere, or nothin’."
"Hmmm. Fresh outta ball-gags, can’t help you there. And my massive collection of nipple clamps and bull whips got blown up in Camden. Oh, hey, there’s hand-cuffs in a drawer down stairs."
"Careful kid, those are in there ‘cause I lost the key. Now are you gonna take the deal and spill it or do I have to start interrogation tactics?"
It hadn’t taken John long to discover Matt was ticklish under his arms and on the bottoms of his feet, just like an actual kid. He wouldn’t giggle and thrash uncontrollably the way a kid did though, but he would grin and get twitchy; try to fight John off with impish pinching and sometimes even biting. John probably shouldn’t do it so much, or it would lose its power of persuasion, but he had to admit he did find the way Matt squirmed and gyrated to get away from his attacking fingers sorta adorable.
What John did now though was nothing more than a threat – ran his hand up Matt’s side and dragged his fingernails over the little rise where the meat of his lat muscle ran up into his armpit. Worked though.
"Fine fine! You really are cruel and definitely unusual, you know that?" Matt grinned, and then sighed. "Where do I start?"
"Start at the start."
"Of what, my whole life?"
"Could it hurt?"
Matt widened his eyes like maybe it could, but for once he didn’t have a smart answer.
"Alright. Since you already know when I was born, I can tell you who. Up ‘til almost exactly one decade ago, I was Daniel Matthew Jacob Carter." Matt delivered this mouthful with a see-sawing of his head and an ironic sing-song tone. He cast John a warning look which plainly said that if he ever wanted to get laid again he would never, ever repeat it.
So Matt wasn’t even ‘Matt’. Quite the start. Maybe this could hurt after all, but John wasn’t about to interrupt, now that he’d finally gotten Matt talking. Not that the kid ever stopped talking. This was important though, this was good, and John nodded encouragingly.
"My biological father’s name is Daniel Kennedy. And that’s all my mother really ever said about him. That, and the fact he ran off back to Boston the minute he heard she was pregnant. I never met him."
"Kennedy from Boston, huh?" John shouldn’t have said that. Not out loud. Matt rolled his eyes.
"No relation. Okay, a small, really really distant relation. Don’t go getting any ideas or looking anybody up, okay Columbo? Or else I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. Maybe I should stop. It’s classified, remember? Strictly need-to-know. Do you need to know?"
It didn’t escape John’s notice that Matt said the name was all his mother had told him, not that it was all he knew. If this dead-beat had ever touched a computer in his life, chances were Matt knew damn near every last thing there was to know about one Daniel Kennedy. John wasn’t making any promises himself. He bit the inside of his lip to keep from saying so, and just raised an eyebrow instead.
"My mother married a guy named Gregory Carter when she was still pregnant with me," Matt continued, after making a sceptical little moue.
Matt was convinced his mother and step-father had never loved each other. His mother, Elizabeth Farrell, had been in a desperate spot being young and pregnant, and the only daughter of a powerful and locally revered Judge named Jacob Farrell. Although nobody had ever said such a thing, Matt was sure his mother had married the first man that would have her, just to avoid her pregnancy out of wedlock being a blot on the Farrell name, and that Greg Carter had simply been in it for the money. Which, it turned out, Matt’s family had more than enough of.
Matt was from Connecticut originally, which John already knew, but he was pretty sure it was sarcasm when he said his home town was "Stepford". His grandmother had sadly passed away due to cancer long before he was born, but he had loved his grandfather and spent most of his early childhood staying with him. But old Jake Farrell died when Matt was seven, and it sounded like that was when his home life took something of a turn for the worse.
"My mother didn’t deal with it well," Matt said. "Or maybe my father got worse when my grandpa died because he knew the old man couldn’t do anything about him now, you know? Well anyway, she drank. I didn’t really get it at the time but you know how hindsight works…pretty classic pattern. My father – or stepfather I guess? – had kind of a funny idea of discipline. Don’t think – I mean he didn't, like, stub cigarettes out on me or anything but he liked confinement."
John’s blood ran cold.
"Yeah. You know, if I did something that pissed him off, he'd like, lock me in my room or in the closet for punishment."
"What? Matthew, that isn’t discipline. That is – "
"I know what it is," Matt cut him off sharply. "You can relax, it’s over. It’s not like I’m going to have a six-pack of kids and pass on the cycle of abuse." John wondered what was showing on his face because Matt stopped and his voice dropped a notch "…John. I can stop any time. Do you want me to quit telling you this shit?"
Absolutely. Not on your life. Damn good question. John didn’t want to hear it. But that didn’t mean he wanted Matt to stop telling. He had been ready for Matt’s past to surprise him, to shake him up and confuse him even, but not to make him angry.
"No," John said firmly, and made a mental vow not to interrupt again. "I want to get to know you. This is you." Apparently.
"It’s not me," Matt said, searching for John’s hand under the sheets and grabbing ahold. "This is me."
He drew John’s hand forward and pressed it flat against his chest, covered it with both of his own.
"You do know me. Better than literally anyone. What I am, what I do every day. What I was…" Matt shrugged awkwardly against the mattress and John could feel the shift of his sinewy muscles over bone, Matt’s heart beating, whole and steady, under his ribs. "That’s done. Now it’s just a story."
John couldn’t argue with that, he supposed. He twisted his hand palm up, so he could interlace their fingers, and leaned in to press his mouth over Matt’s. He kept it chaste and short. John didn’t want to get off the subject. Well maybe he did but…
"Tell me," he said. And hoped this story wasn’t going to end up sounding just like another night mare.
"So… you don’t need specifics but there were a couple of times I ended up shut in my closet. And then one time he, I don’t know, forgot or went out or something, and I ended up left in there for about four hours. I couldn't get to the bathroom and....well I'm not going to get into details, but when he let me out he was literally pissed." Matt was looking down at their clasped hands now, avoiding John’s eyes.
"He tried to…" Matt made a shoving motion with the hand that wasn’t wrapped around John’s palm. "You know, like you do with a dog."
"To what, rub your nose in it?" John could hear the disgust and outrage in his own voice.
"Ouch," Matt said. John had tried to make a fist. He loosened his hold on Matt’s hand.
"He tried," Matt said. "But I was starting to get bigger and get a bit of an attitude too, I guess." That, John could imagine. "I fought back."
John squeezed Matthew’s hand again. Gently this time, in approval.
"Yeah, well. It didn’t work. He made me clean it up and he gave me a black eye into the deal. He used to wear these…big gaudy rings – it’s how I got this." Matt used his free hand to point out a little scar between his eyebrows.
John had noticed it before but he’d always just assumed some little childhood bump, running with scissors, that sort of shit. Jack had one just like it from rolling around in the grass with a stick held up to his eye like a shotgun. John had nearly knocked his teeth out on the edge of a little red wagon headed downhill at a pretty good clip, just around the same age. Never in a million years could John have guessed. He felt tired.
"Where was your mother while all this shit was going on?"
"Right there. She knew, she saw everything."
"She didn’t do anything to stop this?"
"Nothing she had to put her drink down to do," Matt said bitterly, before he went on in a more even tone. "It didn’t last long enough anyway. She said ‘Greg, stop’ when he tried to push my head down, but after that it was really just a couple useless swings from me. And then that one big, backhand."
John let go of Matt’s hand and rubbed at his forehead. He was getting a headache, now.
"It was the first time he hit me, and it got turned into a really big deal when I went back to school with my face all messed up. I told everyone this story, about how I got jumped by bullies on my way home, but I don’t know whether anyone bought it or not. It was a private school and people just didn’t like to…who knows what kind of rumours went around under the white-collar radar. I had this one really good teacher though, Mr Vargas, the one who signed me up for Space Camp. He had seen stuff like that before probably. He wanted to report it, but I begged him not to. I was 11 and the whole story just totally embarrassed me. He probably figured anything that could come of it would just be worse for me anyway. And that was it, really."
In the end, it was exactly like a nightmare. Except this time Matt wasn’t the one with the shakes.
"Hey," Matt said, scooting closer and stretching his arm across John’s body to give a short squeeze. "It was years ago. Ancient history."
John turned his nose into Matt’s hair. He inhaled deep and slow. When he could trust his hand to be steady, he reached for Matt’s own and pulled it up for inspection.
"I hurtcha? When I squashed your fingers there?"
"Nah. Just being a drama queen. It burns calories. True story, look it up."
Matt really did seem to be okay. John could feel the corner of his mouth tugging upward a little.
"You know what?" John studied Matt’s fingers for a moment longer. "The black might be an improvement, can’t see any blood anymore."
"Like it?" Matt laughed. "Trick or treat."
"C’mere, I’ll show you a trick."
Matt hissed air through his teeth as John pushed one of those glossy-nailed fingers into his mouth. The taste was definitely an improvement, too.
"I think I know this trick," Matt babbled, as John swirled his tongue, getting that finger good and slick. "In fact. I love this trick. Do it right and you’ll definitely get a treat out of it."
"I did promise to do anything Matthew Farrell wants," John said, releasing his morsel with a pop, and moving on to digit number two.
"About time. I’ve been Matthew Farrell for ten years this Wednesday."
John paused in guiding Matt’s wet fingers down below the sheets.
"What were you before? Not D-"
"No." Matt had that warning smirk in place again. "Just Matt. Matt Carter." He frowned a little, but brightened as John resumed showing him where his hand really ought to be.
"I like Matt Farrell much better."
"That works out, because he likes you. Especially when you…yeah. That. He reeeeally likes that."
That made two of them.
The next time John commented on the nails, Matt officially branded it some kind of fetish.
They were climbing out of the shower, and Matt pulled the towel right over his head the way he always did, walking around dripping all over John’s floor, instead of drying the rest of himself off first. Kid had the worst locker-room etiquette ever.
He was rubbing vigorously at his hair, and the black on white made him look a little like a something out of 101 Dalmatians when he emerged from the cotton, dark hair forming peaks and horns in every direction, eyelashes clumped together around those big puppy-dog eyes. John told him as much, that’s all.
“Wow, if I had’ve known this turned your crank so hard, I would have done it way sooner. Almost makes me wish I kept the piercings.”
“Piercings?” John actually didn’t like the sound of that. Much.
“Nothing exciting. Too much eyebrow going on for that particular little act of douchebaggery.” Matt waggled his bushy dark brows to demonstrate. “Same deal with the lip. So, I just did the nose.”
Matt wiped the steam off the mirror and leaned into his reflection, prodded at the side of his nose where the hole must have been once. He opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue before he started combing through the jungle growing on his scalp.
“Had to ditch the tongue stud. Too many dudes wanting to take it for a test drive. It works fine on girls too, but somehow, they’re never the ones to make filthy innuendo while you’re shaking their Sourpuss apple-tini.”
“How many ‘dudes’ we talking about, exactly?”
Matt paused with the comb hovering above his dripping ebony waves, met John’s eyes puckishly in the mirror.
“Come on, McClane, you think you were the first guy to give me the trick or treat line?”
“You told me you never…”
“I didn’t.” Matt made his eyes wide for emphasis. “I worked in a Goth bar. God, maybe a little public stand-up macking action but you don’t just go home with anybody. You know, it’s a good thing I’m here to guide you through this whole sexual awakening thing because, man, you would TOTALLY be the guy to find out the hard way that the chick with the razorblade jewellery doesn’t just wear it for show.”
“I’m just old, kid, not a moron. You punks are aware the cops know a razor is for coke, right?”
“Co…caine? People are still doing that stuff?” Matt winked into the mirror before turning around to face him. “That’s not all a razor is good for, Detective,” Matt said, as John reached past him for the shaving cream.
“Then again, I kind of wish I could see what would happen to the first skid who tried to go all Cullen-styles with you.”
John had no idea what that meant, and he wasn’t going to ask. He had a better question.
“Y’know, you never told me what makes you into a head case around your birthday.”
Matt finally wrapped the towel around his waist and regarded him thoughtfully for a moment before responding. If you could call “I thought we were done playing 20 questions” a response.
“Whatever kid, you’re a grown up – shaddup.” he said, before Matt could open his smart mouth and point out John had just called him ‘kid’ and ‘grown up’ in the same breath. “You don’t wanna talk, don’t talk. Never said I was gonna stop asking.”
John nudged him with an elbow and Matt moved away from the sink to let John at the mirror. He started to spread the shaving cream over his face. Under the nose first.
“No it’s…it’s fine, I just don’t get it. What is it that you want to know so bad?”
“You don’t get it? Then I’m doing a shitty job of a fuck load of things. I want to know you, so bad, kiddo. That’s all.”
“Okay. But last time you seemed…and right now you’re holding a sharp object.” Matt watched as John picked up his razor and set it to the spot where the line of his side-burns used to be. He would move on to the head next anyway, but it was an old habit.
“Why, should I sit down? Is this story gonna be worse than the last?”
“My birthday? Same shit, different day. Just like now.” Matt looked down and started picking at his nail polish. He stopped when John shot him a look in the mirror. He sighed, but he kept talking.
“Birthday parties were a big deal in my parents’ circle. It was like some kind of obnoxious pissing contest to see who could throw their kid the biggest, most obscene display of conspicuous consumption. One year they had this whole circus theme for my party. Which was weird, come to think of it, because usually it was some kind of monster thing.” Matt shrugged, and John nodded. Right. Halloween. Had to get old for a little kid.
“There were clowns and this whole petting zoo…we can skip over the part where there were ducks in the pool. Which we tried to feed birthday cake to. Which of course clogged the filter and put Greg in a mood.”
“…It’s almost stupid,” Matt said, as John finished up with the razor. Under the nose last.
“There were these cages for the animals being stored in our garage. Well, guess where he put me this time. Here’s a hint, if you say Shetland pony enclosure you win the Kewpie doll!”
John looked over at Matt as he rinsed the razor and tapped it into the sink. He’d worry about his head later. Matt’s light, irreverent tone was a bad sign. This was no joke.
Matt rubbed his arms like he was starting to chill off. It probably hadn’t been the best time to ask. Talk about feeling naked.
“Come on,” John said, taking him by the shoulders and turning him toward the hall. “We’ll get dressed and you can tell me the rest.”
He directed Matt to the bedroom with a hand on the back of his neck. When they got there though, Matt just kind of stood around, so John went into his drawer and pulled him out a t-shirt and jeans. Pair of boxers and socks. It was pretty easy sharing your space with somebody whose entire wardrobe fit into a single dresser drawer. John would have to do something about that soon, too.
“Thanks,” Matt said, when John handed the clothes over. Good. Not completely catatonic then.
Matt was a little slow, maybe, getting dressed. But when he finished he sat on the edge of the bed next to John. He rubbed his hands over his thighs a couple of times.
“Ready for the thrilling conclusion?”
“Whenever you are,” John answered. He wasn’t so sure about this digging stuff any more. At first he’d thought it would help Matt to talk but now…John wanted to get to know him, that was true, but the last thing he wanted was to make things harder on Matt.
“Where was I? Oh right. I was in the pony paddock. Except. It was a cage, John. Like a real cage, with hay and a water bottle on the side and bars. And it wasn’t dark in there or anything, I don’t know why it was so much worse than the closet but I– he didn’t want anyone finding me so he made sure I wouldn’t yell or call for help. It’s so…it’s stupid.”
John reached out and took Matt’s hand, where it was busy picking destructively at the seam of his jeans. He didn’t say ‘tell me’. He waited for Matt to decide.
“He took my clothes,” Matt said.
John made sure not to crush Matt’s hand this time. He thought about how they had been standing around mostly nude in the bathroom not five minutes ago. Boy, he could really pick a moment. John rubbed his thumb over the back of his hand and Matt took a breath.
“Somebody did find me though. It was Warlock. Well, he wasn’t the Warlock back then, he was just Freddy. ‘Fat Freddy’. God, kids can be so mean. We weren’t exactly friends yet. He didn’t go to my school, we met at Space Camp and I guess that party couldn’t have been much fun for him if he was wandering around on his own. All those private school kids…he never had that many friends anyway. His dad was in the army, he moved around a lot.”
Army brat. John wasn’t sure that was entirely the reason Freddy didn’t have a lot of friends, but he kept that to himself.
“Anyway, he was the one to let me out. I don’t know what I said to him, I probably wasn’t that polite, told him to get lost or something. I didn’t want him looking at me or anything. Obviously. Pre-pubescent nudity aside, I was also officially too old and definitely too macho and tough to be caught crying.” Matt gave a wry twitch of his mouth that wasn’t quite a smirk.
“It’s the weirdest people that always surprise you though…” Matt stopped his story and looked at John meaningfully for a few seconds. John wasn’t sure if he was supposed to ask what Matt was getting at, but Matt continued with his story before he could get the words out, anyhow.
“He gave me – get this – literally the shirt off his back. Which was a big deal for him because he was shy. About his weight. It was like a dress on me, it was pretty hilarious, but it was enough. I was covered up enough to run around the back of the house and get some clothes. He waited for me in that garage, to come back with his shirt. I never thought about it ‘til later but he was almost in the same boat as I was. In that cage, I mean. He didn’t want to be seen without his shirt any more than I wanted to be caught in – no pun intended – my birthday suit. But he sat there and trusted me to come back and let him out. Neither of us really knew what it was like, having a real friend before. We never did go back to that birthday party. We took off to his house."
For the first time since they’d started all these stories, the memory made Matt smile.
“…He showed me his computer.”
Then Matt did something John didn’t expect. He threw his arms around John’s neck and hung on for a minute. It was awkward, sitting side by side on the bed like they were, but John ran his hands up Matt’s back and held on as best he could.
“Thank you,” Matt said. It was muffled against John’s shoulder but it was pretty easy to understand.
“Do you realize I’ve never told all this to anyone who wasn’t being paid for it before?” Matt said, when he leaned back again. “Nobody. Ever. So, thanks. For listening. No, thank you for asking.”
A quick peck on the lips and Matt was standing up in front of him.
“I’m gonna go get something to eat. You hungry?”
“Sure,” John answered, and got up to follow. But he stopped in the hallway and watched as Matt clattered insouciantly away down the stairs – safe and more or less whole. His limp was barely noticeable any more on a good day, although he would probably have that sort of shuffle for the rest of his life. It wasn’t like the kid’d had a pro ball career ahead of him, anyway.
Life had knocked Matt around nearly as much as it had John. Maybe more. He was bound to be a little worse for the wear; shaken up, even damaged maybe, but not broken. John took a moment to let the kid’s sheer endurance, that untiring resilience sink in. He was strong and beautiful and way smarter than was good for anyone. And he was here. With John.
And he had thanked him. So all of this digging was maybe getting them somewhere.
John leaned a fist against the wall so he could prop his forehead on it, and just wished it didn’t take so damn much out of him.
John’s fingers felt stiff, and he fumbled with the rasp of the lighter twice before he got it lit. It was getting too cold out for this shit.
He pocketed the lighter and inhaled slowly, savouring. The first drag was always the best one. He’d bought the first pack toward the end of July, just wanting to take the edge off the aftershocks. But that was how it always started wasn’t it? And this was where it always landed him, lurking outside behind his own trash bins, hunched against the cold like a foraging rodent. All for a lousy smoke.
It wasn’t lost on him, completely. If there was one thing this week was actually making sense of, John could get that it wasn’t just the smoking. He remembered Matt’s casual assessment of the ‘sleep rescuing’, the broken glass. They both had their demons, and Matt lived with John’s too. Every day. Never really brought ‘em up though. Chalk up another karma point in the Farrell column.
Matt was so damn hyperactive half the time, John completely missed how unbelievably patient he could be. Matt knew John was smoking, “probably chain smoking” he’d said, at the hospital that day, even though John didn’t think that was exactly accurate. It couldn’t be clearer what he thought about it, but he never pushed the issue, really.
John was damn sure this was a bad time to try and quit again though. It was the not knowing what to do about all of this shit with Matt that made it the worst. John had a certifiable carousel of bullshit spinning, here.
There were moments when John didn’t think he’d ever been this angry. And with people he’d never even fuckin’ met. He never wanted so bad to track a jerkoff down and…what? Try and be the bigger sicko? Not happening. And just the thought of Elizabeth Carter, what it must have been like being married to the fucker. What could a woman’s life be like, what could she be so afraid of, to make her either hard or just plain numb enough to fucking give up like that. Not only on her own life, but her only child’s. Well, she’d paid for it. She’d lost him, to drink and fear and pride.
And John thought about drink and pride and how lucky he was with Lucy. And he tried not to think about Jack. How he could have ended up a lot more like Matt. How, for all John knew, he was. And then he felt sort of sick and disgusted with himself and thought about what Matt must think of him for it. And then he felt even sicker because how could Matt have time to think about that, not between the new traumas and his old ones. How truly, seriously fucked up that was. It wasn’t just confinement, not just punishment at all. It was psychological warfare; the humiliation, the isolation, the violence. And then he just got right back to angry.
And around we go. It was fuckin’ exhausting.
Tired. Right. That too. John almost forgot that one. He dropped the butt in the driveway and crushed it out on the heel of his boot before making his way back inside. It really was getting too cold out for this shit.
John got the next story without having to dig.
He clicked off the bedside lamp. His eyes had a dry burn of fatigue to them and hadn’t adjusted yet when Matt’s voice came from out of the darkness, next to him.
“You know, I don’t think I’ll go to Baltimore on Tuesday. Warlock should really see the city, don’t you think? Let him do the trip this year. He’s the one with a car. That was his dad’s car, that old one we took...”
John wasn’t going to point out it was a classic. He knew where that would get him.
John hadn’t been expecting to get the Warlock’s story as a special bonus offer, when he signed up for Matt’s, but it turned out Freddy’s home life in that Connecticut town was nothing like the one Matt had.
Matt’s parents were polite and smiled at everyone they met. But they were sick and cruel behind the curtain. Mrs Kaludis…well she was different, that’s for sure. Apparently, she was home with Freddy so rarely that Matt had never actually met her before, but he had seen her come to pick Freddy up from camp. Matt admitted she was strange and loud and tended to ‘creep people out’ a bit, but she never pretended to be anything she wasn’t. She wasn’t much of a housekeeper, or a cook either, but she didn’t really have time to be back then. She worked two jobs to give Freddy whatever he wanted.
“It was great. They had this crazy, messy, tiny house,” Matt said. “There was all kinds of food and toys – video games and Twinkies. Jos. Louis just everywhere. It’s probably how he got so fat and spoiled, come to think of it but…I don’t think it was always like that.”
Freddy’s father died before he and Matt met, but Freddy talked about him a lot. How he taught him to throw a spiral, took him fishing, all the stuff neither he nor Matt ever got to do, now. It had been a pretty big blow to Freddy’s mother when she got the news her husband had died in a downed helicopter transport over Grenada. The personal loss had only been the beginning. The investigation into the helicopter accident revealed a leak, that was eventually traced back to Kaludis himself. There was a court martial and Mrs Kaludis lost her husband’s pension, and Matt was sure, her pride.
Matt thought she had done a pretty good job with Freddy anyway, considering. They started to spend more and more time together, and Matt learned the things Freddy could do with a computer. Math was Matt’s favourite subject in school, and he was thrilled to discover that half of programming was all about numbers. He was good at it.
A little too good. Bingo.
“Warlock had always wanted to see his Dad’s files, get the stories about all the stuff he’d done before he died. So he could find out the good, and not just the bad.” John could see where this was going.
It was no mystery how Matt could have sympathy for a kid whose father had done something shitty, but was otherwise pretty much an unknown. A boy that age could get a lot of heroic ideas about his old man, especially one he’d never met.
“It was just kind of a pipe dream. We tried hacking into the USAF database all the time, just for kicks. We never thought we’d get in, in a million years. Security changed too frequently. About once every 72 hours from what we could tell. So then, I started taking calculus at school. I figured all we needed was to make it faster. I thought if I could put in a function instead of an integer into the tumbler Warlock had built…well needless to say, we tried it. And.”
Matt flipped his hands over, in a ‘there you have it’ gesture.
“At first we were scared shitless. We were so busy trying to accomplish it we forgot all about the file. But the cops didn’t come banging on the door, SWAT didn’t come busting through the windows. We started to feel pretty cocky about it.”
“That how you got caught?”
“No actually. The hack was perfect. It was my asthma that eventually got us busted. Or, my lack of B&E skills, really.”
Matt was still talking so John let that one go for the moment.
“Once we started looking around, we did find something. Ronnie Kaludis didn’t die in a transport accident at all. He’d been shot. In a freak friendly-fire incident during a training exercise. Warlock was kind of happy. You know, that his dad’s name was cleared. But...”
“You weren’t,” John said.
“Because it wasn’t! We couldn’t tell anyone. And that was just so… It wasn’t that he was a hero, exactly. It’s not like he died pulling babies from a fire or anything like that. But we found out other stuff too. There really had been a leak, and the brass needed a scapegoat. When the accident happened, a bullshit story like the one they gave the press was the perfect opportunity to cover their sloppy safety protocols at the same time.”
John was no babe in the woods, he was an NYPD cop. Corruption and cover-ups weren’t exactly news to him.
“Two fuckin’ birds,” he said, voice low in understanding, and Matt nodded.
“Nothing was going to get Mrs Kaludis her pension back or anything like that, but she deserved to know what we knew. She deserved…everyone to know, you know? That her husband wasn’t a traitor. The Base in the next town over where Freddy’s dad used to be stationed…everyone she knew, everyone who used to work with Ronnie worked there. I thought if we could just tell them.”
It wasn’t like he didn’t know where this was all headed. But for some reason, John was starting to feel nervous.
“We wrote a timed program that would pull up Ronnie’s file on every computer in the base’s network and lock out the user so they couldn’t help but see it. They wouldn’t be able to do anything else for three hours, not even a hard shutdown. That was all kind of a pipe dream too. The base was on a closed network, we couldn’t just crack it like the USAF database. You had to actually tap into the hardline and install it.”
“This where your B&E skills came into play?”
“Not exactly. It was a US Military base, man. There was no way we were getting in there!” Matt gave as short little huff that wasn’t exactly a laugh. “We shelved it. We didn’t touch the program for years, even though we always talked about it. We were teenagers now, and we weren’t exactly the chest-beating jock type, but still. We liked to talk a big game, sometimes. And that’s all it was. Warlock finished high school and his mom was ready to move again, now that she wouldn’t be uprooting him, so I didn’t see much of him any more. And then. That was it.”
“You’re getting good at this.”
They exchanged a dry half-smile.
“Until,” Matt continued, “they invited me right in. My school was doing a field trip. Some kind of Career Day thing. I don’t think any of my teachers believed I wanted to be a soldier, but I signed up for the Base tour anyway. They probably just thought I was in it for the free day of skipping out on class. They weren’t completely wrong.”
Matt smiled a little to himself, but he wasn’t meeting John’s gaze any more. It looked like John’s sudden nerves might be rubbing off.
“It had been years. I don’t know what made me bring the disc with me.”
For a moment, John thought that was going to be the end of this chapter. But after a few beats, Matt picked up the thread again.
“You said something to me, on the Fourth of July. About the Fire Sale. That it isn’t about a system. It’s about people. Alone and hiding in their houses. But…to me, the kind of people I knew weren’t the kind of people you help. They were the system. The people I knew weren’t like Warlock, they were more like those bigwigs who covered up his dad’s story. People like my parents.”
Matt broke off for a minute, like he couldn’t decide whether to say what was coming out next.
“I wanted them to feel scared and alone for once. Shake them up a little in that big frigid fortress of a house, maybe. People like that think they control the world. Everything. Reminding them how fragile that control is…how dependent they really are on a system that can fail…that could be used against them…what if the people they thought they could control got some of that power for themselves?”
This happened sometimes. John watched Matt stop the tangent and bring himself back from the radical fringe. He bit his lip and switched gears back to the task at hand.
“It wasn’t even real B&E. I snuck into an empty office and all it took was the two longest, most terrifiying minutes of my whole fucking life. Then? Done. I was a criminal. And not a very stealthy one either. I guess when I was digging in my bag to get the disc out, I dropped my inhaler. It’s a prescription, it had all my information on it; name, address. It was pretty clear exactly who hadn’t stuck to the approved tour.”
When Matt finally got his court date, that teacher of his, Vargas, was called as a character witness. He told them Matt was a good kid, bright and full of potential. But he also told the story of the day he’d come to class with that black eye.
“It was…the whole thing got turned into a giant mud-slinging Olympics,” was how Matt put it.
John watched the brittle tension in Matt’s shoulders, the careful control over his usually-open features as he explained his mother had ‘taken Greg’s side’ – testified that he’d never laid a hand on him. John couldn’t imagine.
Matt said maybe she was scared of him, or maybe she still had some sick compulsion to save face, but John suspected she’d been clinging to the barest hope that if she could convince them it was a safe home environment, they might let her keep her son. And then Matt said that during the proceedings, she showed up drunk to court. That John could imagine. He’d seen it enough.
“It took weeks of court time, but in the end they were both declared unfit, I was officially labelled a delinquent and…”
Matt raised a shoulder.
“So, now you know. The big story. I got two years in juvie because I wasn’t enough of a criminal. Only knew how to cover my digital tracks. Warlock caught shit for it too. He got 500 hours of community service for his role with the key generator and he was pretty pissed about it. Refused to answer any of my letters when I was in. When I got out though, heh. He wasn’t even answering to ‘Freddy’ any more. Seemed like everybody online knew what had gone down, and he didn’t mind the underground street cred it earned him. I was back in his good books I guess. And suddenly people everywhere knew my name too. It...well there was an acclimatization factor, that’s for sure.”
Matt looked away again.
“Look, I want you to know I get how that crazy anarchist shit I say just makes me sound like...fuck, like fucking Gabriel. God I don’t know. Maybe I was. But John, I just...”
John waited. Nothing came. It wasn’t possible. The kid had finally talked himself out. Didn’t looked like it agreed with him. Now that his mouth had stopped moving, Matt moved to stick the side of his thumbnail in it. John caught his hand before he could start tearing at it.
“The difference between you and Gabriel,” John said, slow, so Matt had time to turn his face back toward him. “Is you wanted to help somebody, Matt. He was out to hurt people.”
“No, yeah, I know. I mean I– I did mostly only think about who I was helping. But. It’s like I said, I was okay with hurting too. Some people.”
John thought about his smoke break earlier. Matt wasn’t the only one guilty of wanting to get back at those particular people.
“He also wanted to destroy the country and steal a bunch of shit that didn’t belong to him,” John pointed out. “‘Least you were ready to stop at whistle blowing.”
In a contained environment to boot.
“But you maybe could have picked a better method. I mean, I hear ya kid, I do. The system ain’t perfect. But if everybody decided to pick and choose which laws to follow...”
“I know! Believe me, I know. I mean if July wasn’t enough of a demonstration – NSA consultant now, remember?” Matt asked, pointing at his chest. “Tiger-teamer on a very short leash, apparently. Half my jobs consist of workin’ for the man now. I’m a successful product of the correctional system. Lesson officially learned. Twice.”
That meant Matt didn’t want to hear any more preaching from Johnny Law on the subject. John figured he could handle that, for now anyway. He sure didn’t plan on bringing this up very often.
John was feeling kind of talked out too. He reached out over Matt and pulled until he was a close, comfortable armful.
Matt was quiet for a minute before he said, “I should have made another one of those deals. Where the daring detective has to do whatever the recovered juvenile deviant wants. That was highly classified information. That should have been good for at least twice.”
John raised an eyebrow, even though Matt couldn’t see it, with his head where it was, tucked under John’s chin.
“Twice doing ...?”
“Tell you what,” Matt purred, sliding a hand over John’s hip and drawing himself even closer until his skin pressed warm up against John’s. “I’ll show you, the first time around. Then you can take the second inning.”
They were laying together, letting their breathing return to normal. John ran his thumb over a raised, round little scar, on Matt’s inner forearm.
Maybe he’d noticed it before but, much like the mark on Matt’s forehead, if he did he’d never given much thought to it – chicken pox or whatever, he supposed.
Matt was quiet, watching what John was doing. But when their eyes met, that guarded look John thought he’d seen the last of was back.
There was something Matt had said, that reminded John he’d seen marks like this on some of his arrests, when they were still new – angry, blistered and scabbed.
“I thought he never put a cigarette out on you?”
“He didn’t.” Matt’s tone was clipped.
“Come on, kid, you gonna make me say it?”
“I’m not lying,” Matt’s voice was oddly expressionless. “That wasn’t him. That’s from juvie.”
Jesus, fuck. This getting to know Matt was supposed to bring them closer. All it seemed to be doing was pointing out how much further there was to go. John was really starting to worry that maybe Matt wasn’t the guy he thought he knew at all.
John let go of Matt’s arm, because suddenly, he wanted to snap things. Matt drew away immediately, like he’d been waiting to be free of him, and tucked his arm under the pillow.
When would he get used to this? It felt like the room was spinning.
“Who did it to you?”
“Why, so you can look up their file and go track them down and return the favour? You don’t have the hair for the role, Conan.”
Matt was definitely not himself. The joke was old, and it was very certainly ill-timed. This was classic defensive Matt.
John put a hand over his eyes, and squeezed his temples. This whole thing was like a roller coaster. He couldn’t understand why Matt could describe some of the shit he’d seen with disturbingly perfect ease, and why others made him…like this.
“I’m just trying to find out what they did to you, in there. Minimum security is supposed to be...”
“Look, McClane.” There it was again. “Do we have to? With the twenty questions right now? I just. I’m not ready to talk about this one, okay?”
Matt rolled over, putting his back to him. And this time, John was the one to get out of bed.
The TV was on, but John wasn’t watching. It was just an excuse to sit down here and not sleep. The creak of the old wooden staircase told him he was about to have company.
“Couldn’t sleep?” Matt had pulled a hoodie on over his boxers, and had both hands jammed into the pocket, dragging the whole sweater down as far as it would go. It gaped at the neck, showing the fragile shape of his clavicle.
You just told me somebody used you for an ashtray in juvie. Yeah, I’m the picture of relaxation. John said none of this out loud.
“Look, I’m sorry for that, upstairs. Shutting down on you. I keep forgetting that this isn’t just about me any more, ya know?”
Well what do you know, the kid really was a grown up.
“I’ll tell you about it. If you really want me to. But you can’t...you have to– I want you to tell me you won’t try and fix it when I do.”
John clicked the TV off. Matt came and sat on the couch so he was facing him.
“Are you sure you want to know this?”
“I told you I want to know all of it. All of you.”
Matt sighed like he didn’t like the sound of that.
“Okay. Remember that.” He pressed one hand to John’s cheek, briefly.
“They call it ‘cutting’,” Matt said. His eyes were trained on the floor, refusing to look John in the eye. “Even though some people actually scratch or bite, or use blunt objects, or...hot things. Like lighters. Or cigarettes.”
John felt sick again.
“You did it.”
Matt nodded. He still wouldn’t look at John.
“They say it happens to kids who go through emotional abuse. That it’s a way of shifting, focusing the mind on the body – physical pain instead of mental, or whatever. All I know is, it was a pretty effective distraction. Having a burn or a deep cut somewhere, that I could poke at instead of dwelling on – well, you know how it works. When you’re in pain it’s pretty hard to focus on anything else.”
It made sense. John wished to hell it didn’t, but it did. Shit, he almost thought he could take another bullet right now rather than think of Matt burning himself or deliberately keeping a deep cut open. And for no other reason than so he could prod at it, for a distraction from what was hurting him on the inside.
John looked down at his own hands but they were steady. Maybe he was getting better at this.
“In juvie...God. There’s just so much time,” Matt was saying. “Some of the guys went actually crazy from boredom. One of the younger kids pulled out all of his fingernails over the course of a month. It– you have a lot of time to think about the shit you did, you know, to hurt other people. The shit other people did to hurt you. It’s not– I’m not saying it’s a good idea. I’m definitely not saying it’s normal. I know it’s fucked. I’m just trying to...”
Matt gave up talking and pushed his hands into his hair, made little fists.
“You stopped though, right?” John asked. “This...cutting?”
Matt gave a mirthless laugh.
“Yeah. Yeah I– of course. In juvie there’s also a lot of time for therapy.”
Matt dropped his hands to his sides, and John reached out and took one.
“You wanted all of it.” Matt turned to look at him, finally. His eyes were shiny with what had to be suppressed tears.
“And now you think I’m crazy.” It came out mostly just a whisper.
“Yeah, maybe.” John said, and felt guilty for a second as Matt’s eyes threatened to spill over.
Obviously John’s conviction that there would be abso-fucking-lutely nothing wrong with that didn’t come through in his tone.
“But not for being screwed up by a fucking prison, and some wacko that put you through fucked-up isolation psych experiments. You’d be crazy if it didn’t mess you up.”
Matt’s expression eased, but only slightly.
“Just sayin’ maybe it’s a bit nuts to put up with an old shit like me, prying into all of this crap that’s maybe better left alone.”
“I don’t know what’s better. But you have to put up with me, too. The weird night mares, the…nail polish.” He laughed a little, breathless with choking everything back like he was. “At least now, you know what you’re getting.”
They sat quietly looking down at the aforementioned nail polish for a few seconds. It seemed to be working. The little raw spots that had at first just been covered and sealed by the glossy black paint were showing through now but they were flat, instead of raised and swollen, and were starting to close and fade.
“So,” John said, finally. “Guess this means you used to smoke.”
“Well obviously I used to do a lot of things. I don’t– I just told you I’m a nut case, and you’re worried about a few cigarettes? Hope you keep the pot on speed dial, kettle-man.”
“No I mean, you used to smoke and now you don’t. You quit.”
“Yeah, I did. I quit.”
“Think you could help me do it?” John obviously had an ass-load more to learn about Matt. His story was worth sticking around for and John wanted to be around long enough to see how it turned out.
Matt looked at him, eyes big under his dishevelled bangs.
“Really? Seriously? You’re serious. Say it, say you’re serious.”
“I love you!” Matt exclaimed. He put both hands up and cupped John’s face for a second. “Don’t move.”
“What pocket are your smokes in?” Matt called from the hallway, where John was sure he was digging through his jacket. John was too focused on the last thing Matt had said before leaving the room, to remember the answer. He shook his head, trying to get his focus back. He was being a fool. Taking the kid’s words out of context. Given the circumstances, he was pretty sure it didn’t count.
“Forget it, got ‘em!” John heard from the hall, followed by the sound of the kitchen trash can opening and closing with gusto.
Matt came back into the living room, and John didn’t think he’d actually seen anybody skip, in real life before. Matt plopped himself down on the couch and climbed into John’s lap.
“Congratulations, Detective McClane,” said Matt. “You’re a non-smoker.”
And he leaned forward and kissed John with an enthusiasm that could definitely be infectious.
“Not to break up the party,” John said, only a little unevenly, when they broke for air. “But don’t you think I’ve tried that before?”
“Uh uh.” Matt shook his head. “The key to quitting anything, is to replace it with another addiction.” Matt leaned in for a second, breath-stealing kiss. “I used caffeine. You,” Matt said, drawing John’s arms around his back, and winding his own around John’s neck. “Are going to use sex.”
It was a plan John could really get behind. Pun very much intended. He didn’t have time to share it though, because Matt had already quite effectively occupied his mouth. But after a second or two, he stopped what he was doing just as suddenly.
“Hey McClane.” Again with the last name. Matt must have something on his mind.
John waited; made little circles with his thumb, where his hand was resting on the lightly furred skin of Matt’s thigh.
“What I said before...when you said you wanted to quit. I...”
“I know, kid. Me too.”
“Really. Seriously, even.”
“You don’t want to be serious with me?”
“No, no, I do. Want to be serious. I seriously want to be serious with you.”
“Good. Now are you seriously gonna help me with this addiction thing, or should I seriously go get my smokes out of the trash?”
Matt didn’t answer. He just pulled his hoodie over his head and dumped it on the floor with a flourish.
In the morning, John would call the doctor and make an appointment to talk about getting the patch, gum, whatever he could do to help make this quitting thing stick. But for now, he brushed his fingertips over Matt’s neck and collar bone, looking for the spot that always made him gasp and clutch at John urgently, so that he could lean down and apply his mouth to it.
The doctor might not think much of Matt’s strategy, but John was more than willing to give it a shot. Or two or three.
For a start.
'Snick, October 2010