He carries the boy out of the building with a reserve of strength that he didn't think that he had. There are bodies strewn everywhere, lumpy obstacles with odd angles that his clumsy feet don't want to navigate; none of them moving yet, but they don't have much time. It's difficult to hear anything over the thudding of his own heart, the sucking drag of each breath. The kid sobbing directly into his ear. He misjudges, his heel coming down awkwardly on muscle, bone. The boy moans, and his grip tightens around Matt's neck when they waver.
His attempt at reassurance sounds more of an incoherent rumble in the back of his throat, but the found strength is a rapidly evaporating shallow pool and he can't spare any of it to try again. A right at the end of the corridor. A left after that. Fifty more feet to the door leading outside. The walls shiver and melt into the impossibly thick air; he keeps moving forward only because there is no other choice.
There's little sensation remaining in his arms, numb fingers locked together to keep his hold on the boy who grows heavier with each stumbled step; the world is narrowed to pain and blood, salty slippery sweat. He's almost done. They're nearly free. But he's so broken in so many places, and that last corner stretches ever further away. He finally finds it with his shoulder, his instability sending them into a teetering spin. The kid wails, a sharp stab to Matt’s eardrum that blanks out all else.
He's forced to stop, reorient. A mistake recognized instantly when he sways, and his new vector is based far more on instinct than any calculated selection. “S'okay,” he slurs through a raspy exhale. “Gonna be okay.” Forty feet. He can barely hear anything out of his right ear, but that's their exit up ahead; he hadn't bothered to shut the door behind him when he came in, and the relatively still air shimmers faintly in that direction.
Unless he's imagining it. Thirty feet. Almost there.
There's a stirring from somewhere in the mass behind them; vague and not quite conscious, but close. No way he can possibly move any faster, not with this weight and this pain and this clinging exhaustion. He tries. Makes it to the door. It's ajar, as he'd remembered, and he uses an elbow swing it open for their escape. He squeezes through the gap the second it seems wide enough, twisting to prevent the boy from bouncing off of the frame. The walls fall away, and the universe expands outward with dizzying speed.
The night air tingles pinprick points across his exposed skin, but there's no time to savor its coolness and he can't manage a deep breath anyway. It takes longer than it should to figure out their path, several streets to the police station through a mostly empty neighborhood. A string of alleys – the rooftops might be a safer bet, but he's not sure he wants to haul the kid up there in this state – that should provide them cover to get where they're going unnoticed. If he can take advantage of this meager head start. Matt makes a futile attempt to unhook the tiny arms wound about his neck; having the boy walk won't slow their already sluggish pace, can only help with his ability to breathe. Instead the thin legs cinch around broken ribs. They're surprisingly muscular, and Matt can't entirely swallow his groan.
The boy whimpers, squirms. Matt tries to get a better grip on him, a reflexive tightening of his hold meant only to stop the jostling; too roughly, and the kid squeaks. Freezes. Matt can't tell if it's a noise born of injury or fear, but he immediately loosens his arms. Dredges up his voice. “Okay,” he repeats uselessly. “S'okay. This… s'good too.”
They need to get moving.
The alley he wants is half a block to their left, heading their general direction and populated only by a few rats. But in the short time he's been stationary, his feet have forgotten what little they still knew. It's hard to get going. A small bird lands on a power wire above his head, distracting him into a search for its name; he hasn't come up with it when the boy shifts again, a brutally physical tug on his attention. Cracked bones sing their protests. The kid buries his face in Matt's neck, his breath hot and tickling against the bare skin.
It whispers around the inside of his head before localizing somewhere nearer to the other side of the street; Matt has no idea why the kid would be calling him this, finds an extra second to wonder if it's the way he's throwing his voice that makes it sound so strangely high. Feminine. Familiar, though he's yet to hear the boy speak any actual words.
“Mike!” Hissed. Urgent. Quickly moving this way.
His tongue bypasses his brain to provide an identification. “Claire.” It tastes right, but his thoughts are still struggling to catch up. He'd left her – hadn't he, to save the boy? – to save the boy. This uneven weight hanging across his torso. Left her, told her to find safety. He'd interfered enough in her life tonight – tonight? – hadn't really intended to see her again. Despite what he'd said. What was it he’d said?
She can't be here, now. The memories are smeared, but he's fairly certain that that’s what they are. Memories. Claire’s from before. Not now. A hallucination, then; softer maybe than Stick but still a reminder that their position is precarious, that he's in bad shape.
Matt staggers in the opposite direction, trying to plot an alternate route. The boy presses frantically closer. Imaginary footsteps shadow his, overlap. The hallucination curls a hand around his bicep.
“Claire?” As substantial as anything else – which doesn’t mean a whole lot – but still it's a battle to understand her presence. How she'd found him. Why her heartbeat is doing that weird fading in and out. “What...” Past and present sloshing together, colliding behind his clenched teeth. “What’re you doing here?” It's a growl.
Her hand spasms on his arm. Maybe. If she's even really here. “I thought... You found him.”
“You shouldn't have come.” They've been here way too long, the only thing he remains completely sure of in this situation. Matt listens for motion inside the building, on the street; he's still partially deaf in one ear thanks to the kid, and the mask seems to have somehow thickened on the other side. His head feels inexplicably swaddled, disturbingly muffled. “We have to go.”
“I have a car. Around the corner.”
No time to fully debate the wisdom of following what might be a figment of his imagination; his legs are dangerously shaky, and none of his other senses are filling the holes in his awareness. He gives a nod that may or may not travel the length of his neck. Loses track of her for a moment when she walks a few steps away.
The world warbles, returns only in layers of static. The trek to the car is probably less of a stretch than it feels, but it conspires with his abused body to sap the last of his strength. Pavement swaps placement with sky; Matt trips over nothing. Recognizes that he's going down the instant before it happens.
“Mmph...” It was supposed to be a warning of sorts. A desperate attempt perhaps to have Claire take the boy. Wildly unsuccessful, but he does manage to wrench around so that it's his back rather than the child's that smacks into the parked car. He slides down the side of it, concentrating on nothing but staying conscious long enough to keep from dropping the kid. Upright, at least until after he hits the ground.
He finds the curb with his tailbone, but it's just another addition to a list that's drifting away from him with everything else. Too much trouble to pluck individual details from the soup, and now he's beginning to wonder why he's trying. Sleep seems a much better option. He feels himself slipping sideways, toward the beckoning of a tantalizingly flat plane. He doesn't attempt to stop it.
It's incredibly confusing when the movement stops itself.
The night returns to Matt with seeping slowness, and everything is flavored with Claire. She swarms in the space in front of him, filling the air; the only bit of her that's solid is the hand pressing against his chest. Keeping him up, pinning his bruised back to a wall. A metal wall. A car.
“So, you found the car...” she starts. Calm, but even like this he can hear the effort.
“Take the boy.” A plausible solution, one he hadn't considered. More help that Matt wishes he didn't need. He realizes how closely the kid huddles into his other side. Wonders momentarily how they ended up on the sidewalk. “Get him to... to the police.”
“And you'll do what? Sit here until someone comes to finish you off?”
He's not drawing in enough oxygen. Can't be, not with this buzzing underscore to everything. “Give them a false trail.” Just as soon as he thinks he can get up.
“Or we could just get in the car and drive away.”
He doesn't have the breath to explain it all out, but he knows he has to give her something. He's already sensed that this is a woman who wants the information to make her own decisions. “They'll be out for blood,” Matt exhales, the words pushed from his throat. “If they're after me, they won't...” He lets the sentence tumble away, trusting that she can pick up the part left unspoken.
“Except you can't even stand.” Claire sighs, an exasperated sound. “Is it just me, or does it seem like we keep having conversations that are remarkably similar?”
A smile pulls at his lips, ridiculous and out of sync. “Might count as the same one.” Matt nudges the kid, trying to hold on to the hint of a grin. It's already crumbling, and probably fooling nobody. “What d'you think?” he asks the boy, who's barely uncurled far enough to lift his head. “We... d'we want a ride?”
No answer. The buzzing swells, retreats; Matt fights to focus beyond it – past the sporadic bursts of anxiety still shouting unsafe – for any signs of immediate danger. Claire inches toward the trembling child. “I'm Claire,” she says. Her voice closes Matt's eyes behind the mask with a blurry recollection of gentle hands on his skin. “I'm a friend. What's your name?”
In response the boy burrows deeper into Matt's ribs, igniting his side in a rush of fire. It snaps open his eyes, and a moan bubbles up before he can smother it. But he can use the adrenaline that surges behind the pain. “We want a ride,” he grinds out, twisting to try and get onto his knees. He’s relying too heavily on the support of the car and hampered by the kid clinging to him, but eventually he does it; he forces himself the rest of the way to his feet before he has a chance to think about how much it's going to hurt. Claire hovers, nowhere she can really fit in.
There's a jangle of keys, a pop of the lock springing inside of the door Matt's slumped against. It strikes him as unreasonably funny. “You locked it?”
“Some of us are new to this.” Claire pulls open the front passenger door.
The scents that waft by him offer a possible explanation for her caution. Cat dander, tobacco. A perfume he can't identify. “Not your car.”
“My coworker's. She left the keys in case I needed to borrow it, but I doubt this is what she had in mind. Speaking of which, do we really have the time to be standing around here?”
“No.” He shifts toward the rear of the car, off of the other door. Trying to keep both his tension and his unbalanced weight out of the arm draped over the boy's shoulders. “The back,” Matt grunts. “Out of sight.”
The back door swings open; he's bracing himself on the roof and working to figure out the easiest way to maneuver in when he remembers what a mess he must be. He's torn a couple of Claire's stitches for sure, to say nothing of any new damage. “Wait... m'bleeding.”
“I can see that,” Claire says. “I put a bunch of towels down. Just in case.”
Matt can't believe how fortunate he'd been to be found by this woman; it's not the first time tonight that he's had the thought. It might be the luckiest thing that's ever happened to him, other than getting Foggy as a roommate in law school. The towels are soft and frayed, old and worn from overwashing, and as he climbs in on top of them he wonders what time it is. What Foggy's doing. It feels like it has to be nearly morning, but when he looks for clues there's only terrycloth.
He's stretched out face down along the length of the back, hasn't gotten any farther than that. The boy scrambles in to wedge himself into the space behind the driver's seat; on the floor by his head, and Matt can feel the kid's breath fluttering over the stubble on his jaw. “Looks like you've got another fan,” Claire observes from outside.
Matt's not sure what he's supposed to say to this. His body begs him not to move but he makes himself roll onto his less battered side, pulls in his aching legs so that Claire can finally shut the door. The one up front slams as well, and for a few moments it's just him and the kid loudly gulping at the same air. “Hey,” Matt croaks, trying to slow his own breathing. It wants to match the boy's cycle, keeps speeding up, and in another second they're both going to be hyperventilating. “Hey. S'okay. You're safe.” He reaches out with the arm not clamped around his ribcage, and small fingers instantly latch onto his hand.
They both flinch when Claire opens the driver's side; she gets in, starts the car. “Where am I going?”
He gives her directions, and gravity presses him hard into the seat as she pulls away from the curb. The world tilts and slides inside his skull; he swallows a wave of prickly nausea. At least they're moving. Away from the danger. He's almost done.
“What happened back there?” Claire asks from the front.
The boy's fingers twitch around his. “Later.” One of the rear wheels catches the edge of a pothole, and Matt's teeth crash together over a groan. “Park the... park down the street,” he grits out. “End of the block.”
He can't hold onto the path of their turns, the flow of time in which it takes to get where they're going. Seeks instead some kind of stability inside of it all. But his focus is fractured, drifting, and he can't find anything but pain.
Just a little longer.
The car stops with a jolt; Matt drags himself back with the understanding that Claire's scared too, the reminder that she's so far away from her normal life. She's been asked to accept a lot tonight. He can't leave her alone to finish it. He wiggles enough to prop himself up on an elbow without letting go of the boy's hand, pretending that it's only the need for a low profile that prevents him from sitting up completely. The kid's breath fans his face – slightly sour and yet childishly sweet – and he fights to shape his grimace into more of a grin.
They're both so scared. And it’s his fault they’re involved.
“Take him.” Another tiny hand joins the first, squeezing hard. “Go,” Matt says to him. “They'll get you to your dad.”
“And what do I tell them?” Claire asks. Her voice bounces off the curve of the windshield; she's looking out into the street. Matt listens for signs of life on the block around them. He doesn’t find any – not directly outside, at least, no one heading their way – but he wishes this assurance rang more reliable.
It feels like they're waiting for him to do something. But he's distracted by the way the frame of the car has morphed into a watery shell, fluid and shimmery and fragile. “Concerned citizen,” he forces his tongue to say. “Driving by. Saw him on... street.”
“Simple as that?”
If the boy will release his grip on Matt's fingers. “Simple,” he echoes in a hoarse exhale. Turning the kid over was supposed to be the easy part; he hadn't really even planned things out this far. Certainly he'd never anticipated this level of attachment, and there's a distant knowledge that he has absolutely no idea what to do with it. “I can't come with you,” he tries to explain, as the car drips liquid metal around them. “Go with Claire.”
Nothing. Matt digs for some kind of wisdom – for words he would have found comfort in as a lost and frightened kid – but the memory of fear is real and too powerful and it stampedes over intellect to briefly blot out everything else. “You're safe,” he tells himself. Tells the boy.
A molten waterfall explodes above his head where the back door used to be; Matt blinks surprised behind his mask. He hadn't heard Claire get out of the car.
They may be nearer to safety here, but eventually their loitering is going to attract suspicion. And he's racing another clock, the one tracking the limits of his endurance. He's been ignoring its ticking for hours now. “Been really brave,” someone murmurs to the newly orphaned blind boy. “Little more...”
“Come on, sweetheart,” a woman says by his ear. “We'll find your dad.”
His dad's gone. Dead. Matt tries to tell her this, but it's a sentiment too big for his mouth. A weight disappears from his hand, forgotten until it's removed. Motion. The boy getting out of the car.
“Will you still be here when I come back?” Claire asks. Rubber soles scuff on the pavement beside her, yanking his focus from a strange angle to momentarily flip the universe upside down.
Matt struggles to keep his attention where it belongs. It might be an actual question if he thought there was any chance of him being able to stand. “Yeah. Go.” His outstretched arm dangles in empty space; the car fades and sharpens around him. When she closes the door, he realizes that he should have said goodbye.
But everything feels too late, and he can only hope that he's accomplished all of the things that he'd meant to. Things... important things. Things he's having trouble remembering. Lingering anxiety scrabbles around in his head, looking for something to fixate on; still it can't stop the exhaustion from scattering his thoughts. The darkness from inching in. A last hiss of self-preservation has him suddenly moving – fumbling for the door lock above him and almost chipping a tooth in his awkward lunge for the one up front – but it fizzles quickly and he collapses into the pile of towels before he can secure the other side.
Better than nothing. A voice whispers surrender.
“Mike… Mike.” Two fingers jabbed into his carotid artery; Matt tries to get a hand up to brush the annoyance away, but his limbs feel absurdly heavy and his arm won't respond. “If you can hear me, you've got ten seconds to prove it before I'm driving to the hospital.”
The woman sounds serious. Mike had better... Wait – he's supposed to be Mike. Mike and Claire. He wonders how his real name would sound in her mouth. What it would taste like when she said it. This thought registers a beat later with a flush of embarrassment, as if crowded so close she might be able to read his mind.
He forces his eyes open, even if she can't see them under the mask. “I'm... yeah.” Ineloquent, but apparently sufficient proof; her pulse slows, settles. Matt coughs, wincing as it flares through his ribs. “Where...?”
He’s lying on his back, somewhere enclosed. Soft but solid. Blankets? Towels. Cat. The car. “Near the apartment where I'm house-sitting,” Claire says. She seems to be a part of the front seats, her torso somehow squished between them. “I thought about taking you straight to the ER, but something tells me you've still got plenty of arguments against that. For the record, bringing you here instead doesn't mean that I actually agree with any of them.”
“Understood.” Stiffened muscles complain as he moves; Matt works to figure out which ones are cooperating well enough to get him sitting up. In the end, it's the door that seems to contribute the most productively. “The boy?” he pants, disappointed to find that his breathing's no less difficult now that he's upright.
Claire sounds unhappy as well. Though he reflects that he still doesn't really know her, despite the night that they've shared. “Hopefully home by now. That was over an hour ago.” She extricates herself from between the seats; there's a metallic scrape that he identifies as the key sliding out of the ignition. “You were out,” she laughs, and Matt doesn't think he's imagining how strained it feels. “I was starting to think you might be dead.”
“Really?” Intentionally light and in kind, if through his teeth. “I admit, I... had a... a higher estimation of your medical skills.” He tries to get one of his arms behind his back, looking for the door handle.
“Well, I'm tired. And this was supposed to be my night off. I parked as close as I could – are you ready to try this?”
Matt nods without being sure of the answer, and the world rocks around him while he remains slumped in one place. It's a truly sickening sensation; he clears his throat, searching for something to concentrate on other than the desire to throw up. “How far?” That strangled voice doesn't even sound like his.
“Block and a half.” He almost nods again, stops himself. Pulls the black fabric away from his face. The blood might get noticed, but the featureless mask definitely would. “Look...” Claire continues, “we just met and all, so I don't really want to be the one to question this whole unhealthy delusion of invincibility thing that you've clearly got going on. But can you even walk? Honestly.”
The mask is crumpled in a cramping fist, but he manages to pick up some of the levity again as the nausea abates to a background threat. A quirk of his lips that nearly feels natural. “You're doubting me now? After... after everything we've been through?”
“Because of it. I mean, I'm still having a little trouble believing you're even conscious. It's like you're not human.”
Matt shifts his weight off of the door so that he can open it without immediately tumbling out. “Told you: Catholicism. A round for... nurture over nature.” He gropes for the plastic lever, finds it. “Don't worry 'bout me. S'go.” He’ll make certain that she gets in safely. Maybe stay long enough to let her repair the ripped stitches.
With this plan to lead him, he drags himself out of the car. Everything is slick, oily and lingering, and he’s relying way too much on the stability of the door to get up; he realizes this as his gloved fingers slip, as his knees hit the street. The impact jars through him. Knocks his breath away.
It's a terrifying reenactment of a memory viscerally fresh, and Matt struggles with panic in a battle for air.
But this doesn't feel exactly like earlier, when she'd put a hole through his chest – though it’s an unnecessarily close approximation, especially twice in the same day – and Matt wants to believe that if he can calm down he can get a handle on it. As if that's all there is to it. His chest burns; he's not entirely sure which way is up. The night wraps him in a vacuum. He's drowning in the middle of the street.
Something pressing against his chest – vanilla, coconut – someone grabs his arm. The buzzing's returned – fingers, toes, face tingling – but he thinks there's a noise beneath it. A voice, a repeated syllable. A name, maybe. Not his; doesn't matter. He can't breathe. More blurred sounds that want to shape into words, if the buzzing would only give room in his brain. … clear... breathe... He doesn't have the air to argue.
Claire's in front of him. On the ground? This is the first thing he really understands as the subconscious efforts at translation trick his body into gradually relaxing. The second being that he can't remember ever feeling so completely miserable. The truth, but it echoes back drenched in self-pity; Matt makes himself raise his bowed head.
“... can walk, huh?” The sentence fades in from far away, even though his other senses insist that she's close. He pulls in a few more shaky breaths, as deeply as he's able.
“Might need a hand.” He tries to pitch it nonchalantly, but it's a painfully honest admission. “Long day,” he forces out, in an attempt to cover the groan as she helps him to his feet.
She's strong, muscles built up under the weight of who knows how many patients. Stronger than Matt feels right now. A couple of blocks away a siren howls; when Claire slams the car doors the sound reverberates up and down the street. As they walk together, her arm hooked through his like they’re simply out for a stroll, he concentrates on not leaning on her too heavily. Splits his focus between this and trying to listen to anything other than the racket coming from inside his own body. Cicadas, something scurrying around the wheels of a dumpster – wheezing, pulsing – a woman in a second floor apartment either beginning or ending her day. Jasmine – blood, sweat, dirt... rust? – coffee. Vanilla. Throbbing, tearing, melting. Cold. Urine and gasoline, a honking car. He's so cold.
Shivering, his teeth actually clattering together. A brief glimpse of Claire reveals only tension, and why does she seem so distant, when he knows she's right here? Matt clamps his jaw closed, breathing in short bursts through his nose.
“Okay?” Claire murmurs from beside him, from twenty feet away. “Because I'd appreciate a bit of warning if you're going to pass out.”
He wishes this was less of a possibility. “Do my best,” he grunts, without loosening his jaw. The air teases at his damp hair, dropping his temperature further. The mask remains a wad of cloth in one stone fist; his other hand flexes numb fingers around empty air.
The scavenging rodent – rat? rat. – from the dumpster takes off down the gutter across the street, and Matt tracks the streak of its trail. But there's something else, something he'd missed. He searches again for the signs of it, trying to figure out what's triggering these nagging alarms.
When he finds it, he stumbles on the inexcusable oversight. “A group of men,” he tells Claire. “Up... up ahead.”
Nearer maybe to kids than men by some standards, but definitely loitering in the direction they're going. Even without knowing what time it is, Matt's sure that the hour is one that can only make this gathering suspicious. Ominous. And it's been that kind of a night.
“In front of the liquor store. They're always out there. Probably dealing.” She sounds tired, resigned. “It's why I didn't drop you off. Thought you could wait until another night to make more new friends.”
“No, I'll –“ The usual flood of options is merely a trickle. The store's on a corner; he can circle around and approach from the other side. Maybe something involving the awning over their heads. It's all too sluggishly vague, and he's having trouble just putting one foot in front of the other. “I'll take care of it.”
“Trust me, they're not going anywhere. I, on the other hand, have to get ready for work in a few hours. So if you want to take advantage of any more of this free health care, now's your chance.”
An effort at readiness stiffens his spine; frustration keeps it rigid as they near the group. “The door's straight ahead,” Claire says. He looks for it, thinks he finds its fiery outline set into the wall. Hard to tell with the way everything's wavering.
The men wait just beyond, and the muscles in Matt's jaw jump at the string of salacious suggestions they begin flinging at Claire in Spanish. He sucks in a breath that scorches through his chest – he has to say something at least, can't just listen silently to this – but Claire's arm tightens in a way that even his muddled brain can interpret as a clear signal to stay quiet. It's difficult. He doesn't want to. But, when he reaches past the anger chewing at his frayed nerve endings, he concedes that maybe a battle for her honor isn't the best use of his dwindling resources.
His hand twitches in its fist. He's definitely coming back for these guys.
As it turns out, Claire doesn't need him; Matt can't see her nonverbal response, but whatever it is instantly shifts the obscenities into an appreciative whooping. Laughter. A temporary reprieve of respect, and their passage granted without further hassle. He thinks. They seem to be settling, anyway; distressingly, that's the most he can make out. He's unusually cut off.
He keeps his chin up and locks his knees, trying to gather the equilibrium not to sway noticeably while he waits for her to open the outer door. He can't tell if he manages it, but his new friends don't have any more comments as he and Claire slip inside. The glass door closes, the noise forming a small anteroom around him. A narrow hallway. A set of stairs covered in thin, probably poorly-maintained carpeting.
“The elevator's broken.” Her tone offers apology.
“Of course it is,” Matt sighs. He hadn't meant to say it aloud, hates how defeated it sounds. He clears his throat as if this will erase it. Compensates with an overly-showy gesture toward the stairs that makes his ribs shriek.
It must flash across his face before he can smooth it out. “Put your arm over my shoulders,” Claire instructs, moving back to his side. A hand on his bicep, a testing gentle tug.
Matt resists. If he falls, he'll take her down with him; it doesn't feel worth the risk. He'll figure out how to make it up unsupported. “Too narrow,” he says, like he's the one who needs to describe it to her. “M'right behind you.”
He hopes the pause signifies that she's considering this, rather than that he's faded out again. He blinks in her direction, trying to look more alert than he is. “Whatever,” she finally says. “I want at least one hour of sleep tonight. And I’m not going to get it if we stand here and argue.”
She starts up the staircase; Matt follows with one hand on the railing and one on the wall. With a little luck not leaving any blood on either. His boots work out the spacing of the steps – surprisingly short, shallow; fortunately he doesn't have to lift his feet very high – and he was right about them being narrow. Also about the state of them, something he discovers about halfway up when he trips on a tear in the worn carpet and pitches into the wall. The collision rattles agony through every bit of him, and it's sheer chance that topples him forward instead of back.
He thinks he's on his knees, but everything's moving and he isn't entirely sure. The stairs are steep, and he doesn't have to slump very far before his forehead finds a nubby step. For a moment he's outside, submerged in a myriad of scents carried in by countless shoes. A lot of them distinctly unpleasant. Claire touches his shoulder, and the murky fear that he's putting them both in danger raises his head. They're too exposed here; clumsily he shoves himself up.
“Maybe you should give yourself a minute. Or we should revisit the subject of the hospital.”
The longer he lingers, the greater the possibility that they'll track him here. To her. “S'go.” His hand slides over the wall, unable to find any kind of a hold in all the rocking. She grabs his other arm; he doesn’t pull away. “Can't be... be here long.”
“Can't?” They stagger up another couple of steps. Claire’s doing the directing – Matt's barely helping, having a problem just getting his feet to clear the stairs – and every inadvertent bounce off of the wall wrings a pained gasp that escapes each time before he can suppress it. “Please don't tell me you have another kidnapping to foil tonight.” Her voice darts up the staircase ahead of them, far more nimble than their progress.
“No, just the one.” There's a ringing growing steadily in his right ear, and he's quickly realizing that he doesn't have enough air to both climb and talk. He tries to determine how many floors this building has.
The answer is three, though Matt misses most of steps that comprise them. A languid blink, and he finds himself stumbling over flat ground. They pass a door that sounds as if it leads to outside – to the roof; he'll leave that way – walk down a corridor stretching for miles. The acrid scent of the cat litter hits him well before they get to the apartment. He feels Claire flinch when there's a crash from inside one of the other rooms along the hallway.
She unlocks the door, and he holds up an arm to stop her. Compelled to enter first, even if he has to peel his grip off the doorframe to do it. He suspects that right now she'd be able to easily push by him if she wanted. That it's a testament to how frightening the night has been that she allows him to proceed. The knob turns under his gloved hand, and the door swings open.
Matt leads the way, nearly going head-first over the arm of the sofa when his knee smacks into the low table at its end. Claire might reach out for him, but it's difficult to be sure under the new assault of sensations. Cinnamon and banana, the sharp ammonia of the cat urine. A clock ticking high on the far wall. The humming of the refrigerator purring under a fluid bubbling sound that's emanating from either a fountain or his lungs. The traffic picking up outside; shampoo, hairspray. An air freshener that he's certain must have a flowery, tropical sort of name.
And movement. In the other room. The first thing he should have noticed, and now it's coming this way. Fast, oddly close to the ground; the few instincts still sparking through the haze have him turning too quickly in that direction. The pain in his side goes electric.
It seems to take a long time to climb back from this; the next thing he's really aware of is that Claire's supporting most of his weight. Matt's not sure when that happened. Is more than a little surprised not to be on the floor. The cat – because it was just that stupid cat, of course it was – winds itself around his ankles, and his headache ratchets upward when he can't help but roll his eyes.
“Bathroom,” Claire states definitively. “Before you bleed all over everything.”
Except he can't find his balance, can't separate himself from her. Has to wait for her to get them pointed in the right direction. “Go away crumbles,” she says. They're all words that he knows, but his brain refuses to make sense of them in this order; he has a vague memory of her saying something about a concussion. The cat slinks away. He wonders if maybe she’d been talking to the animal.
He doesn’t ask. Doesn’t have the breath or the interest. He only needs to rest for a few minutes and he’ll go; he’ll head back over to where they were holding the kid, find out how the situation has changed. Then home. Just a little more, and he’s done. He can do this.
His body disagrees vehemently with this timetable, and it loudly shares the opinion with each labored step. He really shouldn’t have come back here with her at all; he doesn’t have the energy to waste on this detour, and she’ll only be safe if there’s a distance between them. Matt flogs himself with these thoughts as they cross the endless room, distraction from one pain with another, but their path seems decided by momentum and he feels powerless to alter it. They pass a partially closed door – laundry detergent, fabric softener, and definitely the home of the litter box – he gags, keeps moving. The apartment flickers. An open door looms suddenly in front of him.
He clips the frame with his elbow, a bright zing that radiates down to his fingertips. The bathroom’s small, smaller still when Claire comes in behind him. A low rectangle on the far wall that must be a tub, a toilet by the door. The sink, solid and free-standing; he gathers this when his right knee buckles unexpectedly and he catches himself on its curved porcelain edge. His panting flutters against the shower curtain, reflects back woven in plastic.
One arm braced on the sink and the other an inadequate support for his ribs; both are shaking. Claire says something, but it sounds like one or both of them are underwater. It’s probably him. Matt’s fingers – at least one of them newly broken, he discovers – tighten around the porcelain, a spot of stability as the walls balloon and contract. His entire body flinches when her hand lands lightly on his shoulder.
The hand disappears, but the audio returns. “… down, please? I’m getting tired of picking you up off the floor. You’re heavier than you look.”
She tells him that the toilet is only about a foot and a half to his left – apparently wary of further unplanned physical contact – but it’s not information he needs. Even with the lid lowered he can smell bleach, various residues; like the litter box, it doesn’t really matter how recently or well it may have been cleaned. With the fire dimming and ambiguous like this, merely a dull glow against the darkness, he has to use touch to fully map out his objective. Because he’s not ready to relinquish his grip on the sink, he’s forced to uncurl the arm around his torso to do it.
The toilet is near enough that he doesn’t have to let go of the sink, can use the its solidity to mitigate his lack of balance as he sits. This doesn’t help much. The angle of his arm shifts damaged skin and bone, but still he holds on; the leather of his gloves sticks to the porcelain. The whole room is trembling. Freezing.
“Thank you.” Her voice trails out the door; Matt hangs his head and tries to follow her footsteps. They’re muffled by the carpet – a nonissue on any other day – and a vicious twinge through his skull drags his attention away. When he looks for Claire again he can’t find her.
A ripple of intention runs through muscles of his arm, but he hasn’t managed to pull himself up before she abruptly returns. She slips back into the bathroom; there’s a creaking sound, rattling. The medicine cabinet, he realizes. Pills. Another rickety creak, and the flimsy cabinet door closes with a weak slam. Claire’s annoyed. He hardly knows anything about her, but can hear it in the pattern of her breathing.
He can’t do any more than blink dumbly in her general direction. “I have to go out to the car,” she says. “I’ll be right back.”
His free hand flies out to stop her; misses, only brushes the cuff of her sleeve. “No…” Matt fights to articulate this rush of something that feels too much like fear. “Don’t –”
Her voice stamps its foot in frustration. “Unless you want me to stitch you up with a slightly bent sewing needle, I have to go get my bag.”
“It’s fine. I… I need to go.” Again he attempts to stand, his fingers clenching around the edge of the sink. The third and fourth are definitely broken. Maybe his pinkie. It’s going to be a difficult injury to hide.
Her hand is back on his shoulder; his body concedes to the barely-there weight. He hadn’t gotten very far anyway. “Look,” Claire says, “I’m tired and I’m way beyond scared, and I’m definitely not your mother.” She blows out a short huff of air. “Do what you want. But I have to go anyway, to get my clothes, so you might as well wait here. Five minutes. You look like you could use them.”
The cat appears, investigating the human activity. It rubs the length of its body against the doorframe, the sound of the repetitive movement diverting Matt’s focus. A flexing of his fingers is an easy source of adrenaline; a bolt straight through his brain temporarily clears his head. “You shouldn’t go alone,” he grinds between his teeth. They still want to chatter together.
“Five minutes if I go alone. At your speed, it’ll be more like an hour.”
She’s not necessarily wrong, but Matt bristles. He swipes at the cat hair that’s drifted over to cling to his cheekbone, paying for the swift motion with tiny agonies popping in countless places. “Dangerous.” The word’s pushed out by a full-body shudder. He’s so cold.
“If you’re talking about those guys downstairs, don’t worry about it. I’ve heard worse.”
He’s already forgotten about them. He feels useless. Stupid.
“What?” she prompts, when he’s got nothing to offer. “More bad cologne? Because you’re starting to look really shocky, and the sooner I try to fix that the sooner I can change out of these clothes. This is second shirt I’ve had to write off tonight, by the way.”
Guilt, hot and familiar; for a brief moment he’s wonderfully warm. “Sorry.”
“Make it up to me by staying here. So? Any actual concrete bad guys out there roaming the halls? Because otherwise I’m going.”
Matt searches for hints of life around them; there are a few, but by the time they squeeze through the cracks in his personal cacophony they’re mostly just ragged pieces. Frying bacon, the bar of soap in the shower. A conversation that turns out to be a TV. An itch crinkles his nose. “I don’t –“ The itch becomes a tickle.
There’s enough time to recognize what’s about to happen, that there’s nothing he can do to stop it. How much it’s going to hurt. The sneeze ricochets through him, obliterating the world entirely for a second, two. Perception roars back on a tide of breathtaking pain. “God…” he chokes out in a moan.
Claire wavers, moves toward the doorway. “Just… try not to die, okay? Or pass out; you’ll probably crack your head open. Again. Jesus. I must be crazy…” The jingle of keys, and he loses her.
His forehead finds his outstretched arm; shifting bones in his fingers send a flare up through his wrist. He should go, solve her problem by being gone when she gets back. She’s done more for him tonight than he would’ve ever expected from a stranger. He should repay her by letting her get back to her life.
In another minute, he’s going. Definitely.
The cat pads over, butting its head against the side of his leg. Matt growls low in the back of his throat, unwilling to actually kick at it. The animal ignores him, happily stirring more dander and fur into the air as it rubs itself on his pants. He hisses at it instead; this has no effect either. He’s out of ideas, can’t lift his head. He scowls against his sleeve.
Time wanders and skips. The walls drip blood; a boy sobs. His dad’s skin is slick and still under his fingers. A flicker of something that might be a breath, a pulse, but they’re hauling him away – kicking, clawing, screaming – big hands on his arms that he can’t hope to resist. He pleads but no one listens; the smell of blood follows, inescapable. It’ll dog him until they finally take his jeans, his shoes. Scrub his skin raw. He’s covered in it.
He can hear people talking but can’t make out the words; it hurts to reach for them. But it’s important, important because… The boy. The Russians. Claire. He has no idea how long she’s been gone. She could be in trouble.
Could be flows into absolutely in the space of a heartbeat, and the sudden certainty propels him to his feet. What’s left of the walls, the ceiling, dissolves to rain down on him. A jagged tearing through his side, burning cold. Icy water dousing him from his head to his toes.
Don’t pass out, a woman tells him. Don’t pass out, don’t die.
Matt’s not sure exactly how he’s supposed to do this. He tries.
Now new words swimming in to join the others. Still in that same female voice. Listen. Calm. Breathe. Words he knows. A voice he knows. “… can’t do anything if you won’t let me near it,” she says. “Mike? You with me at all?”
Somehow he’s sitting; hunched forward over the two arms clutched desperately around his middle, he’s sucking in thick gulps of air. One of her hands on his shoulder, preventing him from toppling over. The other trying to unwrap his arms from his torso. Fumbling and awkward, and Matt bites off a groan when she brushes against his broken fingers. It sinks in slowly that she wants something. What it is that she’s trying to do.
“Claire,” his lips mumble.
“That’s me,” she replies dryly. “You’ve got to move your arms. I need to stop the bleeding.”
“Claire,” he repeats. They’re in her apartment. They’re not. Where –?
Plastic. Latex. Cat. The broad strokes of the night begin to color themselves in. Matt allows her to shift his arms, works to sit up despite his body’s inclination to fold in on itself. But he can’t seem to do anything about the shivering.
“Still me.” Her voice floats upward; she’s crouching – sitting, kneeling – on the floor. He gasps when she palpates the area around the stab wound in his side. “Well. This definitely looks worse…”
The shirt’s glued to him – impossible to tell how much is blood and how much is sweat, though the best bet is probably on the first – and feels like it’s in shreds. The cloth peels away from his skin in fragments, and with a disgustingly wet sound. More prodding. Matt cringes, swallows.
Claire sighs, an exhausted noise. Defeated? He can’t say, doesn’t really know her. “I can put in a few more stitches, but you really need to be in a hospital. Like I said, I’ve got no clue how much damage there might be without running scans. And you could definitely use a transfusion –“
“Stitches,” he grunts, through a fresh surge of pain; apparently he’d cracked another rib somewhere during the rescue, lost in the rest until her fingers found it. Fantastic. “Just do what you can.”
“This isn’t something that’ll go away if you slap a band-aid on it.” Her words are too loud for the cramped bathroom. “If you’re bleeding internally, we need to know.”
“There’s no ‘we.’” Terse, but his vocal cords are as tense as the rest of him. And it’s important that he makes this clear. “The sooner… sooner you forget about me, the better.”
It’s not the response she wants. “Really. Maybe I should’ve started before you bled all over my stuff.”
“I appreciate what you’ve done.” His own voice grates across his eardrums. There’s a tearing of paper, alcohol. Even with this warning, he flinches dramatically when she swabs at his skin. He grinds his teeth together and fights to hold still. “But it’s not –“ A shout from down the hall grabs his attention, but it’s chased only by laughter, people talking. It takes too long to narrow down where it’s coming from. “You’re safer without any connection between us.”
“And if someone’s already made a ‘connection?’ It’s not like I can just change my Facebook status.”
He thinks about the Russian, the phone call. “Stay here for a few days.” Perhaps not the most helpful suggestion, but he needs time to come up with a solution more permanent. Needs sleep.
“Then what? How long am I supposed to be looking over my shoulder?”
A fair question. Matt gropes again for the sink, finds it first with his broken middle finger. “You’re right,” he exhales, preparing to haul his dragging body back to its feet. “I have to go. I’ll deal wi—“
With it. The words vanish into the vertigo when he pulls himself up, but they bounce around in his head. Deal with it. I’ll deal with it. He clings to the sink, reminds himself to keep breathing.
Or maybe that’s Claire. Somebody says it. He’s doing what he can, but it hurts; every respiration sears through his abused lung, through the unnatural gaps in his bones. A new liquid trickling spills its way down his side to soak into his waistband. Something’s pressed against it. Held there.
“M’sorry,” he rasps between breaths. “Know you didn’t… ask for this.”
There’s a lengthy silence from Claire, all the more weighted because of her unusual proximity; in order to keep the towel – towel? cloth, certainly – in place, she’s incredibly close. Matt tries to find something that might be called equilibrium, wishes that he could see her expression. He has no idea what she’s thinking. From beyond the door comes an odd crunching sound, like somebody eating with their mouth open. Is there someone here? All the other noises he hears are from the next apartment, farther out.
He’s only just understanding that it must be the cat when Claire finally speaks. “Yeah, well… I could’ve left you in the dumpster,” she says. He’s wondering if she’s wishing she had. Probably. “You’re already here. At least let me deal with this so you’re not leaving a trail of blood for the bad guys to follow.”
It sounds reasonable. And he really wants to sit down. Better to wait until he’s sure he can make it home than end up in another dumpster; no chance he’ll be so lucky a second time. Just another minute. Ten. Then he’s going. He pretends this is the reason – not the damning weakness in his legs – why he allows her to guide him back down.
Her elbow bumps his ribs in the process. “… time is it?” Matt chokes, around the horrible noise that tries to claw up his throat.
“Why?” She lifts the wad of cloth, replaces it. “You have some kind of a day job you have to get to?”
The thought of going in to the office, of the performance that’s going to entail, swamps over him. “This doesn’t exactly pay the bills.” He’s surprised when he manages most of the imaginary levity he aims for. Especially with his teeth still clicking together.
“Hold this,” Claire says. A tiny unconscious press of her hand accompanies the instruction, telling Matt what she refers to without him having to ask. His clumsy arm shifts obediently into position; freed, she moves a short distance away. There’s the sound of a search in a confined space, the shuffling of paper and plastic. “I thought people who did the whole vigilante thing were always orphans with trust funds.”
He winces. Hopes she’s not looking. “No, no trust fund.” This time he can’t seem to inject the lightheartedness he attempts. The words lie there flat between them.
“Long time ago,” he murmurs automatically. Another lifetime. Yesterday. “You ready?”
“I was about to ask you that.” The towel is removed from under his hand; wherever it lands, it doesn’t make a noise that he notices. More tearing, more cleaning swipes at his skin. “I don’t have anything to use for a local,” she warns.
He tries to draw a few levelling breaths, but they’re ragged and uneven. “S’fine. Do it.”
She lays a hand against his bare skin, a bit of warmth even through the latex gloves. “Okay, the good news is you only pulled out about half of the stitches.”
It’s hard to focus on anything other than that heat. He can feel the blood pushing a heartbeat through her fingers. “The bad news?”
“With the way you’re shaking, this next set isn’t going to be nearly as pretty.”
Matt laughs. It’s hardly a wheeze, but it’s genuine amusement. “Just another scar. Don’t worry about it.” He only knows about the ones he can feel, can’t guess at how many more might be discolorations without substance. It occurs to him she may not have seen most of the marks that already mar his body; every time he’s regained consciousness tonight he’s been fully dressed. Surely, if she’d undressed and then redressed him, he’d be able somehow to tell.
Or not. He can’t even tell where the cat’s gone. The uncertainty leaves him feeling exposed.
He squirms under her hand, forces himself to stop. Maybe she’ll ascribe it to the trembling that he clearly can’t control. It’s difficult to sit up this straight – would be anyway, the shape he’s in, but even more so while anticipating this pain he can’t see coming – and he doesn’t understand what’s taking her so long.
“Here we go,” Claire says. “I’ll be as fast as I can.”
Matt takes a deliberate breath – in, out – and gives her a sharp nod. He’s gripping the edge of the sink again. Her exhale flits over his side as she leans closer; the whole area tingles. She smells like blood. The needle punctures his skin.
It shouldn’t hurt this much – he recites this over and over, hoping that maybe at some point it’ll become truth – such a minor thing in the scope of the night. But it’s so new and now, so agonizingly slow and he can’t seem to distance himself from it. Claire breathes on his skin as she tugs it back together. It’s a struggle to sit still.
“Yep, this was definitely easier when you where unconscious,” she says.
“No argument here,” Matt pushes through his teeth.
“So I won’t even bother to ask about this mysterious other job,” she starts as she works; he counts the throb of her pulse. The actual number doesn’t register, but doing it serves as a minor distraction. “But do I at least get to know what happened tonight? The rescue?”
He barely remembers. The fight’s a blur. “They didn’t want me to take him. I convinced them.” The needle pierces his skin’s feeble resistance another time, drags nauseatingly through. At least it’s waking him up a little. ”Why’d you… d’you follow me?”
“I didn’t have to follow you. I was there for your interrogation, remember?”
He recalls her bravery, her fear. There’s a fire sizzling through the nerves in his side, expanding outward across his chest and back; he’s sweating. But somehow the rest of him is still freezing.
“I showed up,” she continues. A wayward twinge shoots up his torso to his armpit, echoes in his head. “You looked like you might need the help.”
“Help,” Matt repeats dumbly. He doesn’t understand this woman. “Who are you?”
A last jerk on the thread, the crisp metallic snip of scissor blades. “Like I said, I’m the lucky girl who pulled you out of the garbage. Seemed a shame not to see the night through.”
“What I do isn’t a game, Claire.”
“Do I seem like I’m having fun?” she snaps back.
He feels instantly chastised. Can only blame his fatigue, his pain, for his tone. “No, I… m’sorry.”
A soft square covers the new stitches. The gauze is taped on. “It was either sit around here waiting for you to show up who knows when, or offer the help I figured you could use. You’re right, it was probably a stupid thing to do. But apparently tonight’s the night for that.”
She pokes at some wound on his neck – his shoulder, his scalp, a spot on his cheekbone – before eventually straightening; Matt yanks the remains of his tattered shirt down over the bandage. He knows he should leave, but he finds himself ridiculously reluctant to stand. Considering the startling lack of success he’s had the last few times that he’s tried it.
“I’m leaving in a couple of hours,” she says, reading his thoughts. “Rest until then, and I’ll drop you somewhere on the way. I’ll cover the couch with som—”
“Is it still dark?” he cuts her off. He should’ve asked sooner.
Decision made. “I have to go.” But he’s not wearing his mask. He’d been holding it, can’t remember setting it down. Despite already being sure that he doesn’t have it, his fingers feel through his hair. Rub themselves together like he might be mistaken. Like he might still be holding it, like it might reappear. “Where’s my…?” He really doesn’t want to have to bend to fumble around on the floor.
There’s a flash of Foggy – his smell, his laugh, the sound of his voice – emphasizing the hole created by his absence. Foggy would’ve understood without Matt having to spell it out. Though it’s hardly her fault; she’s only just met him, and he’s been unconscious for the majority of their short relationship.
“Mask,” he makes himself explain. The cat claws at something in the other room, a rhythmic snagging noise.
“In the sink. You dropped it in the living room.” The latex stretches and snaps as she pulls off her gloves; they land quietly in the trash can, a faint rustling. “Thank god the carpet’s white. Hopefully I can bleach out the stain.”
It’s said absently, a verbalized thought, but still it feels like another rebuke. He needs to get away from this woman. Out of her life.
Matt drags himself slowly to his feet; he’s still incredibly dizzy, but this time at least he’d been expecting it. The hand not glued to the edge of the sink gropes around in the basin for his mask. When he finds it, there’s a lag before he can lift his arm to put it on. He’s wearing a body fifty years too old, drenched in a deepening lethargy. The mask sits damply on his hair, not yet covering his face.
“Let me change, and I’ll drive you,” Claire says, when he lingers too long. “You don’t look like you’re going to make it to the front door.”
“No.” Though he’s forced to admit that he probably doesn’t have the energy to take a side trip to check on the Russians tonight. That the only way he’s going to reach his apartment is to travel straight there. “Thank you, Claire. For everything.” He knows he can’t say it enough.
From next door comes a rush of water that sounds like a shower, and Matt tells himself again that he needs to leave. His feet refuse to move; his hands still clutch the sink. “You’re just going to walk down the street looking like that?” she asks. Cranky. Skeptical.
“Roof.” He makes his fingers unclench. His hands flatten against the porcelain and he pushes off. “Thank you,” he repeats. “And m’sorry. For…”
“Yeah,” she acknowledges, when his words fade in a raspy breath. He wonders if she knows what he’s apologizing for; he’s not entirely certain himself. All of it. “Look… I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…”
Matt waits, his arm returning to brace his ribs as he tries to establish his bearings. He turns to her, mapping out the shape of the door beyond. Fighting to keep his breathing even. To appear more capable than he feels.
“… if you need me, you know where to find me. Assuming I don’t have to move, that is.”
“You won’t have to move,” he reiterates, though he’s not positive that this is true. “I’ll take care of it.” This second statement is definitely true. Because he can’t allow himself to believe otherwise.
But it won’t be tonight. He has to make it home before the sun rises, prepare himself to face Foggy and Karen. He wishes he knew just how bad the visible parts of him look. He doesn’t ask.
He walks past her, stumbled steps through the door. Crosses the living room, being sure this time to avoid the sofa and its collection of end tables. He senses that both Claire and the cat are trailing him, but fortunately neither attempt to block his path. He doubts he’d be able to maneuver around them.
Claire does move ahead to open the front door; he wants more than anything to lean against the frame. Just for a second, to regroup. But he doesn’t think he can get started again if he allows this indulgence. Matt searches for something else to say, something other than another weak expression of gratitude, another apology. Another hollow reassurance. His mouth and mind are disturbingly empty.
“Take care of yourself,” she says. He can’t decipher her sigh.
He bites off an irrational laugh. Wishes he was already home. The door doesn’t close immediately as he sets off down the interminable hallway; he knows she must be watching him still, tries to keep from staggering too obviously. There’s only so much he can do. Willpower can offer little more than a jerky gait, but at least she can’t see the ugly grimace he feels tugging at his face. He needs to get out of here before he runs into any of the neighbors.
His fingers find the fire door; as he pushes it open, he hears Claire finally go back inside. A new wave of exhaustion sweeps through him, slumping his shoulders. It’s a couple of minutes before he can actually force himself to climb the stairs.
The night air’s a cold slap, briefly refreshing. Matt loiters on her roof for as long as he thinks he can spare. He catalogues what he can of the surrounding area, looking for any hints of danger. But it seems quiet out here, the neighborhood waiting for the sun’s signal before fully beginning the process of waking up. He doesn’t feel comfortable leaving her, but there’s really no other choice. Not if he wants to get home.
Knowing this, he switches his focus toward plotting a route back to his apartment. The building directly next door abuts this one, its rooftop only a drop of an estimated few feet. It’s a beginning. Matt takes a shaky breath.