“So, you know how I said you were crazy that time?”
John pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it for a second in the dark, then came back. He pinched the bridge of his nose before speaking, listening to the background noise and the barely-audible panting on the other end of the line. “That time, meaning the time we met because of explosions and general mayhem and then immediately teamed up to thwart a terrorist attack despite your extreme unsuitability for hand-to-hand combat? That time?” He was pretty sure it was Matt, anyway, although the number didn’t have a name attached and also he hadn’t spoken to the guy since a series of awkward-turned-heated post-terrorist meetups in the several weeks after the event in question. Which had been six years ago and also partially infused with narcotics, so maybe he was wrong.
“Yeah, that, and like, you kind of shot yourself to shoot the bad guy and I thought that was nuts, obviously, but also bad ass?” Yeah, that was why the narcotics. And yeah, it was Matt.
“Is there a reason for this unprompted trip down memory lane?” John squinted at the bedside clock, cursing his eyes for their past-middle-aged inability to come to focus any time soon, and sat up, tossing his legs over the side of the bed and letting his feet get used to the idea of gravity in case he had to get up for whatever the hell was going on. Farrell sounded weird. Weirder than usual, if the terrorist thing was usual. Whatever.
“Yeah, well I sort of did that, only it didn’t really work the same, also motherfucker bullet wounds suck, and I mean, I thought of you.”
“You shot yourself, and thought of me, so you figured calling to tell me at four in the morning was the best plan?”
“Wasn’t really a plan. Bad guys suck and don’t call ahead and also I don’t know where he went and I have no idea if I even hurt him probably not because I think the bullet is still in me, which, gross, but he went running out again, took the gun, I don’t know. I don’t know. Hey also, bullet wounds bleed a lot.”
“Sometimes, yeah.” John pressed his lips together for a second because regardless of what was going on, it wasn’t really his problem? Except fuck fuck fuck, it probably was. Somehow. Fine. “You did call the cops, right? If there was a bad guy?”
“Yeah, I’m calling you. You’re a cop.”
Shit. John glared at his feet for aching – fucking plantar fasciitis—and stood up anyway, tucking the phone between his ear and shoulder while he reached for his shirt and wishing like hell he hadn’t quit smoking. “Okay, kid, was a cop, aged out. So first you gotta call 911. Where are you?”
“Which is where? Work with me, here.”
“Patton, off of Cedar?”
“Still local? I thought…”
“Uh, yeah? I always lived here, dude. I mean, since the whole, you know. I figured you just didn’t wanna, well.”
“Oh, yeah, because you and me, that was definitely healthy and something to stick around for, sure, but this doesn’t seem like the time.”
“Not really, but no, I know. I said. Anyway, can you come?”
John sighed and reached harder for the shirt. “I’ll be there in a five minutes. Text the exact address.”
“You know how to text now?”
“Fuck you.” John ended the call and put on his pants. Because obviously retirement was a myth even if you transferred to a sleepier place to round out your last few years and counted on lightning not striking twice.
It took more like seven minutes, and when he got there John was glad to see a black-and-white and an EMT sitting with Matt (a little older, still wearing flannel and Converse with his hair well past his collar) on the stoop in the increasing pinkish-gray light. He pulled up at the curb, pinched the bridge of his nose again because seriously, five in the morning, and got out, closing the door with a thump and sticking his hands in the pockets of his jacket. “Kid, what are you even doing?” he asked as he approached.
Matt shrugged one shoulder, then winced as the EMT, a young guy with a shaved head and hipster glasses that John didn’t know, probed at the edge of a welling hole in the meat of his left shoulder. “Not letting me take him in, is what,” the EMT said. He shone a flashlight on the wound and daubed at the blood, then probed around in it with the tweezer things. Bleh. John averted his gaze.
Matt gave John a slightly-glassy look. “John, why did I think this was a good idea?”
“Fuck me if I know,” John said. “It was a shitty Idea when I did it, but I figured the price of not selling out the government to a madman and his entire fucking company of assholes was probably worth it.” He sat down on the other side of Matt, then sighed and shifted a little as Matt leaned into him.
“McClane, what the fuck are you doing here?” Jerry Harlow asked from just inside the front door. He had an evidence bag in one hand and a pair of tweezers in the other. He hadn’t liked John in their three years of overlap on the force, and it didn’t seem like that had changed.
“Jer-bear! Long time. Hey, I’m here because my friend called looking for backup. Looks like you guys beat me to the scene, though. Donut shops all closed up?” John tightened his fingers around his keys in his pockets in case an excuse to punch Harlow came up, to make up for the fact it wasn’t dawn yet and he was sitting outside Matt Farrell’s house which was apparently three miles from his apartment.
Harlow’s scowl deepened, but John turned his attention back to the situation beside him. “So, you had an intruder, you shot yourself in the bicep, maybe the delt too, which is going to make it really fuckin’ hard to type, by the way, when you can’t lift your arm, so I hope you have short-term disability or something—where’d you get the gun, anyway?”
“Didn’t. It was his.”
“You shot yourself with the intruder’s gun, he skipped with or without a significant injury, probably without because there’d be more blood, and then you called me because it was exactly the kind of stunt I’d have pulled.” John waited.
“Well, also because he was going to shoot my hands, the asshole, and because he asked about you, like if we were still in touch. So I guess he knew me? Or you. But then since I was thinking about you anyway, it seemed like… hm.”
John blinked as a surge of spidey-sensesque concern in his belly swirled. “Shit, okay, we’re going back in the house now.” He turned and dove for the door just in time for a slug to hit him glancingly in the back of the thigh where his face had just been (god damn it, rehab at his age was going to be for shit) and then rolled and dragged Matt in with him as Harlow got his thumb out of his ass and took his vested self to protect the EMT and look for a vantage point for the shooter. His partner (another youngster; John was getting old) came around the couch and followed, and John lay there on the floor with an armful of Matt, panting. “Well, fuck. I hate it when bad feelings are right.”
“No you don’t!” Matt tried to fall left, remembered why that was a bad idea, went right instead, and landed with a groan, head on John’s shoulder, injured arm draped across (and probably bleeding on) John’s chest. “It’s your jam.”
“Why do I keep having to end conversations with you with fuck you?”
“Precedent. But you know I’m right. You’re a big damn hero.”
“Yeah, regular leaf on the wind, except getting shot in the ass seems more comic relief than hero.” He felt Matt shift and struggle partially upright, looked to see he was raising his eyebrows. “What.”
“You watched Firefly. AND Serenity.”
“Luce made me.” It was a white lie. She’d watched with him. Whatever. John lay there another moment, then sighed. “I wasn’t kidding about getting shot in the ass, though. It’s not deep, but motherfuck did I ever not want another bullet wound at this point in my life. I have a nice cushy job as mall security, I only occasionally even have to sprain anything to scare little shits out of their shoplifting aspirations, but man, I like sitting down.”
“Sorry. Want me to take a look at it?”
“There’s an EMT. He’s right over…” John looked at the door, which he’d kicked closed on autopilot as they rolled, and which had stayed put. “Okay, shit, where is everyone?” He considered the options, then squirmed over to face Matt, placing them in a position that looked like a hug, only with bleeding. “Yeah, so I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in it and it’s not deep. Did our Mark-Greene-wannabe fish everything out of yours?”
“Who the hell is Mark Greene?”
John sighed. “See, I keep up with your references. Anyway, mine’s not that bad, yours is still bleeding, and I think we got some work to do, so, sorry, this is gonna suck.” He brought up one hand between them to hold Matt’s arm still, then prodded at the wound with his thumb. Matt panted, which John ignored because ugh, memory lane again, and bit his lip (Christ), but he didn’t feel anything he thought was likely to be a bullet fragment, for all he could tell from the outside, and that was going to have to do. Med support later. He sat up, trying to more or less support the arm to the floor, then looked around, found nothing useful, and unbuttoned his shirt to tear a strip off of. “My shirts never survive you,” he muttered darkly.
Matt shook his head. “No way, man. I’ve read about you. This is not on me. Stripping down while you fuck guys up is who you are.”
John wrapped the strip around Matt’s arm and pulled it tight. “Fuck you.”
“So, to review, he asked you about me, then you were a fucking idiot with your body and managed to get yourself actually shot before you called me, then he shot at me. So I’m going to say this was all about me. Why the fuck would he have gone to you about that?” John looked out between the slats at the far edge of the venetian blind and saw the bus was closed up; hopefully that meant Hipster Glasses had retreated into it. “Also, why would you call me if there’s a lunatic who wants me dead in your house?”
“Because naturally I was thinking… oh, you think he wanted me to call you. What the fuck, man, how is it that seven, not that I was counting, instances of great sex, okay, five great, one exhausted and dopey but still good, one kind of mediocre, what was I saying? How is it that this means we’re sitting here literally years later because of some asshole with a grudge and we’re bleeding all over each other again and like, what.”
“That wasn’t even a sentence. Jesus. Also, eight, if you count by orgasms. Ten for you because youth is your unfair and unsharing friend.”
“Hey, come on. I wasn’t a teenager or anything.” Matt scowled, looking, well, like a teenager, kinda.
John crossed his arms over his chest. “Close enough. My point is, your count is shit.”
“I was counting instances of, like, cuddling that included any amount of sex, not specific acts, and why they fuck are we arguing about this?”
“No idea.” John took a breath. “All right You think, knowing a little more now about the situation, that maybe you have any idea who this asshole might have been? Harlow and Uniform Number Two--”
“He said his name was Clark. I dunno if that’s like, Kent, or Arthur C.”
“Or Gable. Or Griswold.”
“You are such a secret dork. Anyway, Clark.”
“Fine. Harlow and Griswold are out there on the chase, and maybe Griswold is a superstar but Harlow ain’t, so I figured maybe we work the case a little from here.”
“Yeah, but based on what? Like, we were all over the news, so someone asking if we were in touch seemed like something someone could have known.”
“But how many people would think we might actually have some kind of relationship after the entire desecration of my shoulder and all.”
“I dunno, anyone who saw us together at the hospital? I think we killed everyone who was likely to hold a grudge right that minute, though.”
“Unless Gabriel had a brother, or a cousin, or maybe his girlfriend did. Or it’s literally just someone after me, for Nakatomi or the airport or fuck knows why else.”
“Why would they wait until now?”
“Recent release from prison?”
“Can you find out?”
John sighed and dug out his phone. “He’s gonna love this… hey Al. Yeah, it’s me. Roy. I know, long time, I never call I never write... ah, yeah. Say, can you do a little stroll though the databanks, see if you can see anyone with a recent change of address who might have an interest in killing me and bringing in Genius Bar for fun?”
“Genius Bar?” Matt said. “Come on. I don’t stoop to that shit, I do real code. God.”
John shushed him. “Yeah, I know, you’re a bigwig now, don’t wanna get busted back down to sergeant so if you can’t you can’t, but how often do I call you about a home invasion, successful causing of freakout, potshots from somewhere, bullet in my butt...”
“Hey. I didn’t freak out. I shot him through my body.” John held out the phone so Matt could hear Al’s belly laugh. Matt pressed his lips together. “Fine.” He went and peeked out the window while John finished offering details to Al.
“We should probably check with Warlock, too,” Matt said.
John had helped himself to the kitchen, made coffee (ish) in a fancy-ass machine that had more buttons than early spacecraft, and eventually gone out and knocked on the bus, brought Hipster Glasses (actual name: Zeke) in to stitch up Matt’s arm and apply antiseptic to his ass, and called up the local precinct to find out where the hell Harlow and Griswold had gone (paperwork hell, but they didn’t have anything they were prepared to release at this time. Just as well he’d started with Al). Right now, he was lying on the couch for physically-unnecessary but required by antiseptic policy ass-bandaging; Matt was pacing from the kitchen to the bathroom.
“Why, you think he’s in the clutches of a criminal syndicate or something?”
“No, but he’s been giving me shit about you for years. In forums, mostly, where other people might see, so like, he might have logs – he runs the forums mostly, so he’s got admin access and shit.”
John considered his excitement level regarding an encounter with Warlock. “He still live in his mom’s basement?”
“Yeah. Well, no, it’s his own basement now because his mom died a couple years after they moved to the new place. But I mean, in principle.”
“And you can’t just hack him?”
“He would steal my testicles and post them in the town square.”
“Pssh. He doesn’t have the balls.”
“Okay, if he neutered me, he would actually have extra balls, but like, seriously, he’s not usually violent but I don’t know if you noticed the very few times you met he’s kind of protective of his virtual, you know, everything.”
John had to agree on that. “Fine, you call him.” He glanced over his shoulder at Zeke. “You done yet?” Zeke pulled off one glove and then turned the other inside out around it with probably more snap than was professional, and nodded. “Great. Thanks. Now shoo.”
Zeke shooed, and John turned back to Matt. “Go on, call. I’m not calling him! He’d probably hack the Pentagon and phone in an airstrike on us or something.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t do phones. All texts and video shit. And my arm hurts like hell. Can you...” He passed across a tablet.
“Okay, great, screw airstrikes; hearing from me by text he’s gonna call the NSA and have us declared terrorists.”
“I talk, you type.”
“Great. We’re going to finish this conversation right around when I complete my first decade of social security. No, fine, okay, what am I typing?”
Matt poked at an icon and said a string of numbers, which John had to have him go back over twice, and then, to his dismay, a video popped up, a side view of Warlock working on something. He appeared to be shouting, but there was no sound, and then words started filling up a second window. John shook his head. Technology. But when he answered, Warlock turned his head and looked at the camera, then sighed, shouted fuck me (which John didn’t need the other window to explain) and closed the connection.
“I think he hung up on me.”
“Nah. Wait for it.”
Matt was right; a couple of minutes later there was a long chain of bizarre back and forths on some kind of message board, and then the video window reopened, with sound. “McClane. Why do you have Farrell’s toys?” Warlock was sitting at a table in an empty room, his hands folded between him and the camera, cap on backward, t-shirt plain black. Whatever, John already had a pretty good idea how to find him if he needed to. He shrugged and told him pretty much the same thing he’d told Al, only with more of a focus on the boards or whatever.
Warlock shook his head. “Amateurs. Matt?”
Matt leaned into the frame.
“You look like shit. He is so fucking bad for you, again, still, I am sure I expressed this truth to you before and I want you to keep in mind how often I give out free relationship advice which is never oh my god I don’t even know what your damage is, why would you start this on such a lightly-encrypted line, also, fuck. Fine, fuck me, I’ll get you a list, I don’t know why I like you, Not you, Fuzz, you I don’t like. Look in the Post if you don't hear back by tonight some time.” And then the window went out again.
John shook his head. “It would be so much easier if people still spoke in languages. You know, Italian. Russian. Babylonian.”
Matt snorted. “Yeah, but he’ll probably work it out faster than your guy.”
“My guy is the chief of the largest police force in California. He’s no slouch.”
“Yeah, no, I know, but still. This is Warlock. Weird-ass patterns and stupid-complicated problems, he’s who you gonna call way before the Ghostbusters. Anyway, I’m beat. You beat?”
“It’s nine in the morning.”
“Yeah, bedtime. You?” He started down the little hall to a bedroom, and John stared after him.
“Me what? Am I supposed to follow you in there?”
“What, no. I mean, I’m getting clean underwear. Then I’m going to a hotel. I don’t know about you, but some dude shooting my door is a great reason to get the frick out.”
“All the cool kids, McClane. Keep up. Anyway, any chance I can catch a ride with you? I probably shouldn’t drive with this shoulder what with how my whole left upper arm is made of fire and agony with a side of ineffective painkillers. And also I don’t have a car.”
Of course. “You know I’m probably not actually supposed to drive with my left ass all split open and oozing.”
“He only did a couple stitches,” Matt said. “Plus please, I know you. It’s a papercut.”
He had a point. And, well, he’d probably feel better seeing him somewhere safe, anyway.
“Farrell. Farrell. Matt. Matt Farrell. Matt.” John considered reaching over and poking Matt’s injured shoulder, but that would be a dick move.
Not like this was a consideration that had stopped him very many times in the last thirty or so years before.
Still, giving him a ride was one thing. Him falling asleep in John’s car was something else. Especially since it seemed like John might have to actually literally carry him across the threshold of his shiny new hotel room. Which the clerk clearly already thought was what they were doing anyway (shacking up, not newlywedding; she didn’t approve if her eyebrows were anything to go by. Especially given John’s bloody pants and buttcheek bandage). John was pretty sure he wasn’t carrying anyone anywhere; adrenaline was a fickle bitch and long gone at this point. Damn it. Although the eyebrows were pretty motivating, and he did like pissing off bigots, so.
Fine, he would take Matt’s bag, and his other bag, because obviously a couple nights in a local hotel meant more shit than he’d ever needed to deal with Gabriel although to be fair in that instance his apartment had pretty much exploded so his travel packing had probably been light involuntarily, and his box of whatever shit it was he needed to do his... things, and then come back and wake him up. Fine. He gathered everything up, locked the car, and took Matt’s shit to his room, then limped back down and unlocked the passenger door. “Come on, Sleeping Beauty.”
Matt blinked at him. “Did you just call me Sleeping Beauty? Like, the fairy tale?”
“Nope.” John made a gesture sweeping Matt out of the car. “Come on. Get out. We’re here.”
Matt turned, reached for the door to stand, winced, and groaned. John sighed and offered a hand up, then shook his head, locked the car door again, and walked with Matt to his room. There were blackout curtains, so catching a nap wouldn’t be that hard, and if Matt was woozy, well, not his fault but probably the responsible, adult thing (shut up, Holly, he told the giggle in his head, yeah yeah, I'm real cute when I'm responsible and sweet and shit) was to stay.
He waited while Matt pissed, helped him take off his socks, organized one of the like twelve pillows for his arm, and closed those blackout curtains, then let his sliced-and-bloodied jeans fall to the floor where he stood. Probably washing up would have been a great idea, but the idea of staying upright was on his shit list, as ideas went, and whatever, Matt was bloody and antisepticized, too. He pulled his t-shirt over his head and let it fall too, scratched his belly just above the waistband of his boxers, and crawled in behind him.
“John?” Matt said.
“Why’d you come?”
“Huh? You called me, man. Your invitation, all I did--”
“No, I know. I mean, I was kind of a shit to you.”
“Yeah, it’s your superpower.”
“Yeah, no, but I mean, I freaked out. Not today, that wasn’t freaking out, that was okay maybe a little bit but mostly I was trying to get out of the situation only I was way less good at it than you are. Were? Probably still are. But no, I was an ass, back then about ummmmeverything? So why’d you even pick up?”
“Uh, for one thing I deleted your number so I didn’t know it was you. For another, I couldn’t read the number anyway because my eyes weren’t awake. Also, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t your number.”
“Oh. Yeah, no, that's right, I changed it because of someone put me on, like, a voting phone list or something and like, I vote, if there's anything important which usually there probably is but i mean if I know about it, but calls six times a day, who needs that. So if you’d known it was me, I mean, you wouldn’t have?”
John thought about that. “Nah, I probably would. Why would you call me after all this time if it wasn’t earth-shattering. Or shoulder shattering.” He lay there staring at the ceiling in the dark. The curtains were pretty good. “So, why’d you call me. Really, I mean. Like, you could have called the cops, or Warlock, or one of your coworkers maybe...?”
“Okay, I cannot believe you suggested calling Fredrick Kaludis in any kind of gunfire crisis. And the cops, I mean, why would I not just call you?”
John shook his head. “I might have been still pissed?”
“Nah, you’re always pissed. Like the Hulk, you know?”
“Never turned green yet.”
“Give it time. There could still be a nuclear event or something. But no, I mean...” Matt went quiet for several seconds. “No, I mean, you’re always pissed, but you also always take care of shit, so.”
“Yeah, okay.” John didn’t really want to talk about anything any more. He just wanted to nap. While he could. With Matt.
Sure, why not. Call it unfinished business. He turned on his side and snuggled up, arm over Matt's hip. "Come'ere. Just, I don't know why. Take it for what it is. Also, I'm fuckin' beat, and I'm takin' a nap."
Matt leaned back and nodded. "Kay."
“John? John? Hey”.
John hadn’t wakened with an arm flung over anyone in a long time. “Hmmngh?” He cleared his throat. “Wha?”
“Your phone is blowing up.”
“Nah, ain't one of the explodey kinds.”
John could just about hear Matt rolling his eyes. “No, I mean--”
“I know what you mean. Hang on, I’m too old for getting shot in the ass.” John rolled away from the warmth of Matt’s back, slowly, and reached for the nightstand. Wait, no, phone was still in his pants. God damn it. He rolled a little more, put his feet on the floor, and groaned at the pain in his heels as he stood up. Finally, after a lot more rummaging than seemed reasonable, he found the phone. Nine missed calls, and it was ringing again. “Yeah?”
“McClane, how are you such a pain in the ass?”
“God-given talent, I guess. Whatcha got, Al?”
“You know a guy calls himself Warlock, right? Yeah, so he sent me this file and you’re in the middle of a goddamn conspiracy at the mall. And what I wanna know is, how, but first, since you are a goddamn civilian, I want you to let the local boys in blue handle every little piece of this thing.”
“Yeah, I’m great at that. If the boys in blue would handle--”
“No, do. you. not. even, as my little granddaughter says. You sit still and take your buttcheek injury to bed, you hear me? I will come shoot you myself, from way over here, if you stick your nose in. A mall conspiracy, Roy, in New Jersey.”
“I did go to bed. You woke my buttcheek injury up. How’s Matt involved?”
“Oh, good, stay there. And that’s the fun part. He’s just there to bring you, because apparently someone used some kind of hocus-pocus analysis on something on these message things and predicted he’d call and you’d come. Yeah, so buttcheek, bed, and if you’re not an idiot because please, even without the hocus-pocus I can tell you if you have any sense, your boy. Maybe get outta town, though, just for fun. If it helps, focus on the boy part and how you’re protecting him. That's your whole raisins of the etre or something, right, protecting the defenseless?”
John sighed and shook his head. "Yeah, okay. We'll hunker down and keep out of it. And Al, buddy, I don’t know how to--”
“All in a day’s work, man. I tried to get Warlock to accept a freelance contract, by the way. I think what he told me was to fuck myself, but I’m gonna have to send the text to the cyber unit to decode if I wanna be sure.”
“Oh, I’m sure. I’m real sure.”
Al laughed loud and cheerful, and hung up.
John stared at his phone for a minute and did the same.
“So, I guess we’re predictable,” John said, pulling up the covers over himself again and turning into the warmth of Matt’s back.
“Yeah? Al got something?”
“Warlock did. Al’s following up. We’re supposed to keep our heads down and stay in bed because the whole damn thing was a trap where they knew you’d call me and they knew I’d drop everything and come.”
Matt glanced over his shoulder, made a face, and turned forward again. “Ow.”
“Shoulder, or predictability?”
“...Both? God, how old am I? I’m, like, young! Rebellious! Like, what the shit, predictable. Also, the shoulder.”
John nodded and put his arm over Matt’s waist again, pulling up tight behind him. “Well, I guess we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth?”
“Stupidest saying ever, but yeah, I guess. Wait, no, do not explain the metaphor. I do not want to know. Also, he seriously told us to stay in bed? Don’t we have talking to do?”
“You really think either of us is up for anything else?”
“Good point. Fine. Sleeping and talking. Sex tomorrow.”
“Oh, you think I’m easy?”
Matt patted John’s hand with his uninjured one. “Predictable, man. And that part? I think I got a pretty good idea how to proceed.”
John flexed his fingers, skimming the ticklish skin over Matt's hipbone, and nuzzled at his shoulder. "Do you, now?"
Matt hooked his foot back around John's calf and chuckled. "Maybe we both do."