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Being Alive

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The music was loud, some archaic rock shit, and painful to Matt's ears as he walked into the bar. It was full of stunningly gorgeous people, because they were all surrogates, avatars controlled by humans who were safe and secure at home, experiencing the sensation of partying by remote control.

Matt slipped around the crowd of gyrating bodies, overtly conscious of his human frailty next to their mechanical strength. A few heads turned to look at him, probably surprised to see a human face among them. He found the bar in the back, wishing that he could have found somewhere else to have a drink, but options were limited at this time of night, and he'd gone out without his jacket. Two layers of shirts and his jeans were not enough clothing to be traipsing around endlessly, trying to find a place that catered to people.

"How can I help you, dude?" the bartender surrogate asked.

The bartender's face made Matt blink, because hadn't he seen this guy before? In an old-time movie about bartenders? "Don't I know you?"

The bartender flashed his pearly whites. "I'm sure I'd remember you if I'd met you. We don't see a lot of non-surrogates in here."

Christ, it was probably some middle-aged shlub who had his avatar designed after an actor, Matt realized. And when had people become 'non-surrogates'? "Just a beer. Draft. Whatever's darkest."

"One Beautiful Avatar coming up," the bartender said.

Matt took a moment to process that the bartender was saying the name of the beer, and not making a comment on someone approaching him from behind. He almost asked for a different brand, but the bartender was already holding a glass under the spout, watching the dark liquid pour, and at least he wasn't letting it foam up, so Matt stayed silent. He'd been coding all day and half the night, and was simply too tired to fight against the world's insane love for hiding behind artificial duplicates.

"One of those for me too," someone said next to him, and Matt looked at the guy. No, not a guy, a surrogate, a tall one with dark hair, a long face and a high forehead, and lips that seemed perpetually smirking. He wasn't as outrageously dressed as most of the people in the bar, wearing a black leather jacket, with a plain white sweater and black slacks, looking casual but business-like. "You're an unusual one for this bar."

"Believe me, if there were any others open, I wouldn't be here." At least the acoustics were decent, the speakers angled so the hideous music wasn't too loud at the bar, making conversation possible without yelling.

"I'm surprised you're not on the rez."

Matt snorted. "Just because I like being human doesn't mean I'm an idiot."

The surrogate gave him a considering look, like he found Matt intriguing. "You think the humans on the rez are idiots?"

"To live in squalor and without technology? Of course, they're idiots. They gave up. They surrendered. And to who?" Matt waved a hand at the guy and the bartender, as he placed the beer in front of Matt. "To people who don't really exist."

"I exist."

Matt poked his chest. "You're a machine. The real you is sitting in a house somewhere. Probably in Hoboken." He took a long drink of his beer, and despite the stupid name, it was excellent, strong but not too hoppy, and a little on the sweet side.

"Brooklyn, actually. And aren't humans machines too?"

"Machines with thoughts and personalities and emotions. Surrogates are only blank shells."

The surrogate took his beer and drank. "You sound like someone who should have been around twenty years ago."

"I was. I was a kid. I wish I'd been an old man before all this surrogacy obsession started." Matt drank again, and maybe he should eat something, because the beer felt like it was hitting his empty stomach, slamming straight into his blood and up to his head. "Though maybe not, because I would have had to listen to more trash music like this."

"This is way older than twenty years and what's wrong with Creedence?"


"Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was one of the great classic music bands. My grandfather saw them play in concert."

"Classic? You mean old-time." Matt poked the guy's chest again. "And that's what I don't get about the surrogates. Your grandfather was at some atrocious concert decades ago, and you're still talking about it. Because he was there, feeling it, experiencing it, having his eardrums ripped to pieces and getting stoned out of his mind with a bunch of other screaming fans. He was there."

"Yeah, and there was an accident on the freeway back. He got stuck for four hours and three people died. That doesn't happen anymore."

"It still happens. It just doesn't matter because no one cares if a surrogate gets smashed. You can always buy a new one."

"Exactly. People are safe."

"But they're not alive."

"I feel alive. I hear this music. I taste this beer."

"You do?" Matt stared at the beer, realizing that somehow he'd managed to drain most of his, drinking in between talking. No wonder he was feeling lightheaded.

"Of course I do. Haven't you explored surrogacy at all?"

"I don't want one. Why would I waste my time?"

"To make an informed decision?" the guy asked, his lips twisting into a decided smirk.

Matt flushed a bit, because okay, maybe he had been condemnatory without all the facts, which was abnormal for him. He'd just got so tired of having the need for a surrogate crammed down his throat by his parents during his college years, that he'd become a bit resistant to even listening, much less doing his own research on the issue. "So you taste the beer?"

"Yeah, I taste it. My tongue has sensor buds for taste that send information back to my brain. I experience everything my surrogate experiences, except that there's an automatic protection against intense pain."

"So a surrogate wouldn't be useful for a masochist."

The surrogate laughed. "No, I guess not. Is that why you don't want to have a surrogate?"

The implication made Matt's flush deepen. "What? No, I like sex. Just… normal sex."

"Hey, bartender. My friend needs another. I'm John, by the way," he said, taking out his wallet, slipping a credit card on the counter. "And can we have some munchies? Peanuts or something. So what's normal sex?" he asked Matt.

"I can buy my own beer," Matt said, reaching for the wallet in his back pocket, but John waved him off.

"Next round. Normal sex?" he prompted.

Discussing sex with a total stranger was weird, but Matt had been the one to bring it up, and he'd never been one to shirk from tackling a subject, no matter how indelicate or controversial. "Blow jobs, hand jobs, frottage, and anal sex," he specified, waiting to see how the guy would react. "Normal stuff."

"So no vaginal sex?"

"I'm gay."

John brushed his fingers over Matt's cheek, this thumb caressing Matt's lower lip. "How about sex with a surrogate?"

The touch was different than Matt had expected, because it felt like real skin, and not some sort of plastic, and the amount of pressure was perfect, tantalizing. "Not so far," he admitted slowly.

"Would it fit your definition of normal?"

Matt couldn't help his eyes reflexively dropping to the surrogate's crotch, where black fabric hugged the artificial groin. Artificial, Matt reminded, looking away hastily, toward the extensive collection of alcohol in front of the mirrored wall. John – the surrogate – really was good-looking. Not pretty boy handsome like the bartender, but attractive in his uniqueness. And unlike most of the surrogates in the bar, he looked older than his early 20s. Maybe his early 30s.

John leaned closer, his black leather jacket brushing against Matt's checkered overshirt. "You do realize every single surrogate is hung?"

"Jesus," Matt swore, taking some of the mixed nuts the bartender slid down in front of them, chewing frantically. He'd never considered himself a size queen, but the appeal of a big dick and someone who seemed experienced enough to know what to do with it was undeniable. He'd been working hard; he was entitled to some relief.

"So tell me, sex with a massive dildo. Is that normal?"

"Fuck yes. Dildos are hot."

John leaned down, and his breath felt so real, warm and moist on Matt's throat, even though Matt knew it was probably only a byproduct of the mechanisms that kept the body functioning. His dick only cared what his body felt, not what his mind knew. "So sex with a surrogate is just like sex with a dildo. And a dildo never tires."

Why had Matt never thought about this aspect of surrogates? Never even considered it? "How massive?" he blurted out, as John ran his hand down Matt's back.

"Nine inches," he said, curving his palm over one of Matt's ass cheeks, cupping his face with the other, turning it toward him, kissing him with a no-holds-barred aggressiveness. This was a man who knew what he wanted and took it, and Matt loved the feeling of surrendering to that power. "I really want to suck your dick," John whispered in his ear, "and then fuck your pretty ass."

"My place is down the street."

"Bartender, our tab."

Matt watched in a haze as John signed the credit slip and took his hand, leading him out of the bar. He stumbled a bit as the cold night air hit him, shivering in his inadequate double layer of shirts.

"Here," John said, taking off his leather jacket and dropping it over his shoulders. "I don't feel the cold."

"Then why do you wear it?"

Matt walked toward his place, hugging the jacket's warmth to him, liking the way John kept one hand on the small of his back.

"Used to a certain style, I guess."

"I don't even know what you look like," Matt complained, debating the wisdom of taking this guy to his apartment, even as his feet kept moving forward.

"Nine inches and always hard when I want it to be. Remember that."

Matt erased the last concern from his brain as he crossed out of the night air and into the relative warmth of his apartment building. He hadn't had sex for too damn long, tending to be a solitary creature, and finding hooking up difficult. Humans on the rez sneered at him for mingling with the surrogates, and the humans who lived mainly as surrogates had never seemed attracted to non-surrogates.

Population predictors fretted that the human race would die out, too many people experiencing love and sex through their surrogates and not having families and children, but at the moment, Matt could give a flying fuck about long-term statistical analyses. Considering Earth's scarce resources, the human population needed to decrease by a few billion anyway.

John started stripping him as soon as he unlocked his door, pulling his jacket off, followed by Matt's shirts, dropping them on the living room floor, going to his knees as he started on Matt's jeans.

"I don't have to be naked for a blow job."

"Yeah, but you do for what happens next." John untied Matt's sneakers, making him stand on one foot and then the other, stripping the rest of his clothes. Being completely naked in front of a clothed stranger made Matt feel aroused but vulnerable, and he resisted covering his dick, which was a lot closer to seven inches than nine. "You are so hot."

"I'm too short," Matt answered, because he'd always been self-conscious about his lack of height, even though his friends in high school had consoled him that he could get a tall surrogate when the time came. Plastic being better than his own genetics had always struck him as unsatisfactory.

"You're perfect," John said, taking Matt's dick in his hand, giving in a long stroke, his thumb caressing under the flared head.

Matt whimpered, getting hard so fast it almost hurt, and burying his hands in John's hair, which felt natural. Whoever designed the surrogates did an exceptional job at selecting materials.

John swallowed Matt's dick whole, his nose pressed against Matt's skin, Matt's balls touching John's chin.

"Jesus, you have no gag reflex."

Moaning in agreement, John bobbed his head slowly back and forth, giving Matt the best blowjob he'd ever received. Like his breath, his mouth was warm and moist, and felt wonderful surrounding Matt's dick. Abstinence helped make the sensations more acute, but John's mouth would be amazing under any circumstances.

John squeezed Matt's thighs, just a little too tightly, with that hint of artificial superpower, even as his teeth grazed Matt's dick.

"Fuck, fuck," Matt yelled, coming instantly, way too fast, because he'd wanted to enjoy that longer. His knees buckled with the force of his orgasm, starting to sink as he was still shooting down John's throat. John held him up, releasing his dick and standing, the last spurt smearing on his chin before he swung Matt into his arms.

The sudden transition made Matt throw his arms around John's neck and hold on, though he didn't worry about being dropped. John held him securely as he carried him into the bedroom, lowering him slowly to the bed.

"You look good, relaxed," John said, efficiently stripping, revealing his perfect form, with its sculpted abs, perfectly appealing amount of body hair, and the promised nine inch dick.

"So do you."

"I want to see what you look like when you're fucked out."

"Yeah," Matt agreed, staring at John's monster dick, half-hesitant, half-excited. "I don't know that'll fit. Not all of it."

"I'll make it fit, don't worry." John opened the nightstand, smiling to see Matt's lube. "Trust me." His dick lifted from its flaccid position, sticking straight out.

Matt spread his thighs. "I may be crazy, but I do."

Despite the speed with which John had sucked him, he slowed down, way down, almost to a crawl, kissing Matt leisurely as he stretched him with his fingers, the classic one, two, and then three, all the while kissing Matt, on his lips and chest, occasionally licking his nipples.

Matt hadn't honestly expected to get hard again, and he'd been okay with getting his pleasure first, then letting John enjoy him. But the fingers in Matt's ass wouldn't be denied, playing with his prostate until his skin was slick with sweat, his body twisting on John's fingers, begging words spilling from his lips. "Jesus, John, fuck me, fuck me."

"All nine inches?" John said with a smirk that would have been irritating if not so justified. "All of my monster cock?"

"Fuck, please, all of it. I need you. Need you bad. Fuck me."

"Since you ask so nicely," John said, and he was an asshole who deserved to be smacked, but he was removing his fingers and inserting his dick, every single inch as he promised. Matt wrapped his legs around John's waist, gasping because it hurt a little bit, the stretch and burn, but it was a good hurt, that feeling of being taken to his limits and beyond.

Winding his arms around John's back, Matt kissed him passionately, holding on as he was fucked and fucked and fucked, because John never tired and his erection didn't flag, taking him relentlessly like the machine he was, his eyes alight with very human pleasure.

Matt came first, almost screaming as his balls emptied, shooting all over his own stomach.

John let himself go, shuddering in Matt's arms. "Fuck, that was good." He moved off Matt, lying by him as Matt's legs dropped to the bed.

The effects of two orgasms and two beers made Matt sleepy, but he tried to keep his eyes open. "You can do that again as soon as you want, can't you?"

John grinned, rolling to rest on his side, his head on one hand. "I've got a human body too. And it's ready to sleep."

"Yeah, me too." Yawning, Matt's eyes fluttered shut. "But you could, right?"

"Yeah, if you didn't want to sit down for a week."

"Jesus," Matt swore, surrendering to the demand for sleep. "Maybe we could try that tomorrow," he murmured.


Matt's music was playing too loud for him to notice that the world had died, not with a whimper or a bang, but the slumping of artificial bodies on the sidewalk and the loud screeching and smashing of multiple car crashes. Five minutes later, the banging of a fist on his apartment door and Trey's hysterical, "Matt! Matt! Something happened to my surrogate! Matt, help me, man, help me!" managed to impinge over Grunge Monster's most famous hit, Love My Surrogate, You Bitch.

"Yeah, okay, okay!" Matt yelled, standing and stretching, his back stiff from hours in his computer chair, and dreading hearing about Trey's latest problem. And hell, what did Trey think he knew about surrogacy programming, when he didn't even have one himself? He'd had one amazing night of passion with a surrogate, waking up to find John had snuck out. He figured that was the human part of John being an asshole, so he'd tried hooking up with a surrogate a few more times. Regrettably, it had always felt like having sex with a big plastic doll. Either booze and exhaustion or John's brain had made that night memorable, and once Matt accepted that fact, he'd lost interest in surrogates again.

His glance strayed to the window as he dropped his arms, and holy shit, were there bodies on the sidewalk? He walked over, watching as his view expanded, seeing bodies slumped on the far sidewalk, then the multiple car crashes in the street, and finally the fallen bodies on the closest sidewalk. "Holy fuck." The surrogates had died. All of them.

"Matt! Matt! I need help!"

"Yeah, yeah!" he yelled, walking to the door and opening it. Trey's eyes looked scared behind his glasses. "It's not just yours," he said, reaching to grab Trey's t-shirt and dragging him over to the window. "It's the whole system. It's everyone."

"Jesus," Trey moaned. "The whole system."

They stood and stared for a bit, Matt contemplating what could have caused such a disaster. A software malfunction? Or an attack? A virus? But if it was deliberate, who could have done it? The humans on the reservations, the ones who completely scorned the use of surrogates, didn't have the technical skill. The people with the ability to manage destruction on this level were all part of the system.

The phone rang, and Tom and Brandon from across the hall wandered in, both with shell-shocked expressions on their faces. Matt shut off the music and slipped his phone on his ear, answering it as the others joined Trey at the window. He was glad he'd never been tempted to own a surrogate. At least he wasn't going to be a basket case. "Matt?"

"Yeah, Mom. What's up?"

"Matt, something's happened to our surrogates. Both of them collapsed. You have to come home. You need to go buy us new ones."

"Mom, it's not just your surrogates. It's all of them. They collapsed here in New Jersey too."

"You have to come home. Your father and I can't go out shopping. We can't leave the house. You have to buy us new ones. I told him to buy top-of-the-line models, but did he listen to me?"

"Mom, no one can go shopping if there's nothing to buy. It's the whole system." He sat down as they talked, starting to search for news online. Tom turned on the television, but the channel was all static. Matt's mom ordered him home again, and he argued back patiently, his attention divided between his computer and the television, as Tom flipped channels. Some of the stations were airing movies or longer programs, where a single file would be rolling, but any that might have been airing commercials were going to static as none of the surrogates were functioning to make the necessary switch from ad to program. One by one, all but the movie channels went to static.

"There's no one at the stations," Tom said, sitting down slowly, still switching channels. "The surrogates collapsed in California too."

That day never felt like the end of the world to Matt, though it surely was the end of the world as they knew it. And I felt fine, Matt often thought in retrospective, mostly annoyed that some crappy old-time song was stuck in his brain and he couldn't dislodge his visitors, so he could get back to work. The guys hung around for hours, staring out the window, flipping channels, discussing what they were going to do, and rummaging through his refrigerator for snacks. One by one, they went to their apartments and collected their laptops, so they were all online, picking up chat rooms, finally accepting that the surrogate crash was global. Every single country that relied on the surrogacy system were all experiencing the crisis, and wasn't that an ironic way to create global togetherness, taking away everyone's crutch?

Matt had work to do, coding to finish, but he couldn't focus with the guys invading his space. Still, his employer was probably suffering in a similar state, so wouldn't mind his work a day late.

Feeling a bit tired of the "oh my god what will we do" whine, Matt finally went down to the street, and wandered around the useless bodies and crashed cars. Clean-up was going to be horrendous, especially since it would have to be done by all those people who were afraid to leave their houses.

He'd never have sex with a surrogate again, but none had ever satisfied him like John anyway, so that was no loss.

Matt glanced up at his window, seeing the guys watching him. He waved once, but they didn't wave back.


There wasn't a lot of sound as John walked up the stairs in the apartment building where the suspect was last known to have lived. Someone on the first floor was playing the television way too loud, and a person on the third floor needed a new vacuum cleaner, one that didn't sound like a buzz saw. John was breathing deeply, staving off panting by the time he reached the fourth floor, glad that he'd always kept himself in reasonable shape. Paranoia was a good thing. Even though he'd lived through his surrogate for decades, he'd always been conscious of dangers like fire, and the need to keep his physical body functioning tolerably well. His transition to being an active member of the force had been difficult, but easier than for the guys who'd sat in their control chairs virtually 24/7 and turned into blobs.

John walked down the hallway, checking the numbers, reaching the apartment closest to the street, hearing the noise of today's music pounding faintly through the door. The person he needed to see had no taste and soon he'd have no eardrums. He took a moment to restore his breath, and then knocked loudly.

The music stopped and seconds later, the door jerked open the length of the safety chain, a face appearing in the gap. A face that John knew, and fuck, he had remembered the apartment building correctly, and it was him, the kid that he'd had sex with, celebrating the finality of his divorce from Holly. Angry and frustrated, he'd gone into a bar, determined to nail someone, anyone, and succeeded, feeling miserable and guilty afterwards. Someone so trusting and responsive didn't deserve to be used. Matt's expression was totally blank, no sign of recognition, because why would there be? John resemblance to his much younger surrogate was superficial.

Resisting the impulse to run his hand over his bald head, John asked, "Matthew Farrell?"

"Matthew Farrell? No, no, I don't think there's a Matthew Farrell here. Who's looking for him?"

"John McClane, NYPD." He held out his badge. Even with the decrease of crime during the surrogate years, people still recognized a badge, though John wondered if that was because crime shows had stayed popular. "I need to talk to Matthew Farrell."

The door on the other side of the hallway opened, and a kid poked his head out, yelling some garbage about a game or something, and calling the kid "Matt," which made Matt wince, but relieved John. He hadn't wanted to say that he knew Matt's name, didn't want to make any mention of their prior meeting. Hopefully the kid would never realize this grizzled old man had been that handsome young surrogate.

Matt sighed, shutting the door enough that he could take the chain off, and let John in. John had that moment of nervousness that he couldn't quite eliminate, aware that he was walking into a potentially hostile territory. He'd never minded as a surrogate. The witness being interviewed could have an AK-47 and John wouldn't give a shit. If his surrogate was hurt, it could be repaired. Or getting massively damaged was even better, as the department would issue him another surrogate, a newer one with the latest, most advanced features.

But even if someone like Matt, someone short, slim, not much of a threat, picked up a weapon, a chair, slammed it into John… he could be hurt. Killed even.

"Hey, you okay? You look a little pale."

"I'm fine," John said brusquely, trying to pull himself together. This fear had to be defeated. He'd never had these moments when he'd been a rookie cop, working in some of the worst boroughs of New York City. His attitude then was cocky and confident; sure that he could handle any threat.

"You want an energy drink or something? Water?"

John sat on Matt's couch, dropping his tablet next to him, and deliberately placed one arm along the top, stretching his legs out a bit, trying to look like he was making himself at home without a care in the world. "Water would be good." Matt went to the kitchen, and John took advantage of the time to look around his apartment. He hadn't paid much attention before, more interested in Matt's naked body than his possessions. The living room was dominated by a desk with computer equipment in one corner. The furniture didn't match and was well-used, but everything was reasonably clean. Knickknacks that looked like G.I. Joes in fanciful, often day-glo outfits, were scattered around. It was a standard post-college geek apartment, really, not very different from his son Jack's.

Matt placed a glass of water on the coffee table in front of him, and sat down on the armchair next to the couch. "So what's up?"

"Why'd you try to lie to me about who you are?"

"Some total stranger shows up at my door, I don't have to tell him who I am. You could be a criminal," Matt said defensively, rubbing his palms on his jeans.

"It's not a safe world, is it?"

"No, it's not."

"I'm not a criminal though. I'm a cop." John touched the tablet, bringing up a picture, relieved that it came up on first try. Too often he wished that the times were still like when his grandfather was a cop, and he'd carried pictures of perps or victims to show people. Technology was supposed to be so user-friendly, easy to touch buttons, but somehow John never picked the right ones. It had been easier for his surrogate, like technology using technology simply worked better. "You know this guy." John liked to make leading statements. It disconcerted people more than questions with yes or no as possible answers.

Matt glanced at the tablet. "It's Trey. Trey Sadowski."

"He's a friend of yours."

"Not really. He lived at the other end of the hall. He did computer programming too, so we talked occasionally. I helped him with a few algorithms."

"Do you know where he is now?"

"No, I don't. He moved out a little bit after the surrogates crashed."

'The surrogates crashed,' John noted. Most people still called it 'the end of the world,' though that usage was beginning to slip as people adjusted to the new world. Still, it wouldn't have been the end of the world for a kid who had never used a surrogate. "Do you have an address for him?"

"No. I never asked for one and he didn't offer it. He had some job offer that he was stoked about. He was a little squirrely though, like he was afraid I'd try to compete for it."

"But you wouldn't have?"

"I like free-lancing. Besides, I do security work, so it's usually not full-time after the program's been set-up."

John touched the tablet, bringing up the next picture. "How about this guy? Do you know him? Have you ever seen him with Trey?"

Matt gave the picture a good, long look before shaking his head no. He didn't recognize the second or third either, but the fourth had him reaching out to take the tablet from John. "He looks sorta familiar, but I don't quite place him. Something about the lips. But I don't think I saw him with Trey. Trey was mostly a loner."

The lips look familiar because they're the main feature that Jack inherited from me, John thought, taking the tablet back. They look like my surrogate's lips, the ones that covered your own, that tasted you and fed the information to me, the actions of and tastebuds on an artificial tongue responding to the control of a human mind. God, your lips were soft and tasted like beer, with a little layer of salt from the peanuts.

Not that the taste of Matt's lips mattered, because that had been one crazy night, never to be repeated, and never to be discussed with Matt. John refocused on the picture of Jack, who resembled the pictures of Holly's dad as a young man, a little Gennaro clone with one McClane imprint.

"Did Trey have any other friends that you know of?"

"He talked to Tom and Brandon too, but I don't think they were particularly good friends."

"Tom and Brandon?"

"The guys across the hall."

John rubbed his hands over his bald head. His scalp still felt weird without the electrodes attached to his head. He tried to think of something else to ask, because this was turning out to be a dead end. "So you don't know anything else about Trey or where to find him?" And even though it had been his surrogate's eyes watching for most of his career as a police officer, it had been his mind interpreting the information, and he caught the hesitant flicker in Matt's eyes. "You do know something. This is an official police investigation. These kids are missing, possibly in trouble. If you're hiding information – "

"I'm not hiding information," Matt blurted out. "I don't know anything about where he is. But if he's been online, I should be able to locate him."


"We used to chat regularly. Or email."

"When he was down the hall?" John asked incredulously.

"Yeah, like you didn't send your surrogate into the living room to talk to your wife or kids," Matt muttered rebelliously. "Yeah, we talked in chat. I know the words and phrases he tends to use. I can set up a program to hunt for them."

"What, like hackers scan emails for Social Security numbers?" Financial crimes had remained a consistent problem, as people strove to afford the newest surrogate models.

"Pretty much. It would have more variables because it's more complicated than just looking for a string of nine numbers, and a lot of geeks use the same kind of terminology, but I think I can find him. That's assuming he's still active in chat rooms or emailing."

"He's a geek, is there any chance he isn't?"

Matt shrugged his shoulders. "No, probably not."

"You've done this kind of thing before? Searched for people online?"

"Sure, a couple of times, usually for employers who wanted their employees' chats scoured for possible corporate espionage or other illegal activity."

"What do you need and how long will it take and can you do it for this kid too?" John tapped the tablet, bringing up Jack's picture.

"It'll take hours to set it up, and at least a couple of days to run. I can narrow it down by focusing on chats that I know would interest Trey. And I couldn't do a program for that kid without knowing what to look for."

If John was interpreting the evidence correctly, Trey was the only one of the kids who would be online. But still… "What if I gave you access to his emails for the last couple of years?"

"All of his emails?"

"Just the ones to me. I'm his father."

Matt bit his lip, clearly considering. "Trey would be a better bet, but I could set up a program for him after I start that one running."

"Great, get whatever you need and let's go."

"Wait, what?"

"If you find anything, I want you at the station so we're in place to request a warrant and move. I don't want to drive back from New Jersey."

"I can send you the results. There's a thing called email."

"Jack's emails to me are on my computer at the station. If you're going to read them, you need to be in New York." John spied a computer bag draped over a chair and stood up, grabbing it. "Is this what you use? And this computer, right?" he asked, heading for Matt's desk.

"Wait, okay, wait." Matt reached the desk first, blocking his way, holding his hands up in front of him. "Let me shut down and I'll pack my stuff up."

"Okay." John handed him the bag and backed up a few steps, suddenly overwhelmed by Matt's nearness. He'd smelled like beer and peanuts in the bar, but now his aftershave was still fresh, and slightly spicy, mixed with the coffee he must have been drinking. Jesus, John hoped he never connected him with his surrogate. He didn't want to hear what Matt thought about having had sex with an old man. Thankfully John was a common name.


The Captain wasn't happy, and when the Captain wasn't happy, the Captain shouted, loud enough that everyone in the precinct was aware of his unhappiness. John assumed that the Captain viewed this as a privilege of his position, since being a Captain meant heartaches and troubles far greater than the skimpy pay raise it entailed. "Jesus fucking Christ McClane, are you out of your fucking mind? We don't even know that there is a crime here! You don't have a case to investigate! You have a couple of missing kids! And even if there was a case, you know what any defense attorney would do with the fact that the investigating officer was the father of a potential victim? Are you trying to sabotage the investigation which doesn't even exist?"

"The kid thinks he can find Trey. We need to find him to find these kids, Captain. I know he's the link," McClane said stubbornly. "He's the only one who packed up before disappearing." The Captain had banned John from working on the case as soon as Jack was identified as a potentially involved missing person, which had been predictable but stupid of him. He should have known John wouldn't obey that order. And four missing kids, all young, white men, from the same college, with the same general physical description, none of whom had close family ties, was definitely a case of foul play and not a coincidence. John's gut was positive.

Besides, Jack would never run away from his problems. He might be more of a dreamer than the other McClanes, and less inclined to go toe-to-toe with John than Holly or Lucy, but he didn't fold under pressure.

"Thinks, McClane, thinks. Thinks is not a guarantee. Thinks is not worth letting the bad guys walk." The Captain hit the palm of his hand against his head. "And Christ, now you've got me talking like there's an investigation."

"I can't fucking sit at my desk and go out of my mind, wondering where the hell Jack is and what may be happening to him. There is a case here and even if my involvement sabotages the prosecution, I don't fucking care. Not if I get Jack back."

They were both yelling, the Captain behind his desk, John in front of it. Matt had taken one of the guest chairs, his laptop bag on his knees, looking nervous. "I can go home if you don't want me to do this," Matt offered.

"No, Christ, you're here. You might as well do what you came for. Jesus, even if you help to persuade McClane there's no case. And you," the Captain said, pointing at John, "you do not take off if he finds some bullshit nonsense you think is evidence. You come back to me and we get a warrant and you stay here."

"Just let him see what he can find," John said, not agreeing, because there was no fucking way he was going to twiddle his thumbs at the station, letting someone who wouldn't protect Jack like he would take over. "Come on." He clasped Matt's upper arm, encouraging him to stand. He took the lead, striding out of the Captain's office and toward his desk in the detective's room, realizing as he got closer - fuck, the picture of his surrogate with the Captain and the Mayor at the last awards banquet before the world ended was sitting right next to his monitor. He stopped and turned, blocking Matt's view of his desk. "Would it be better to work in the computer room? The surrogate system is fried but it's still tied into all the cameras in the city."

Matt's gaze wandered around the room, making John wonder what he thought about the bunch of middle-aged, overweight guys who were his fellow officers, most of them talking on the phone or to witnesses, creating a constant stream of sound. "Yeah, anywhere's fine, as long as I can connect to the net."

"Yeah, should be. There's a guy working on it, stripping out the surrogate components. Let's see what shape it's in." John led the way out of the detectives' room and to the computer room.

"What are the surrogate components?"

"The system that allowed us to stop any surrogate committing a crime. It's a local adjunct to the feds' system."

"I never realized that could be done."

"It wasn't used very often. It didn't need to be." Not that crime had ever been completely eliminated. There always would be people who were maladjusted, as the department's shrink liked to say, or scumbag assholes, as John preferred to call them. He waved his internal security card over the touchplate by the computer room door, letting Matt in first and following him in.

Half of a male form was visible, lying on the floor, the upper body buried under the desk, inside the system's components. "I said, I need quiet! Get out!" emerged from the man's throat.

"Hey, ass - " John started.

"Do I recognize the voice of a young Han Solo?" Matt asked, squatting by the body. "You're leaving yourself vulnerable to attack."


The body wiggled out, revealing a heavy-set bearded man with dark hair. "Matt? What are you doing here?"

"What am I doing here? The more relevant question is what are you doing here? I didn't think I'd ever see you in a police station, much less working for the fuzz."

Matt seemed genuinely happy for the first time since John had knocked on his apartment door. He was smiling like he had after they'd had sex, though with a more lighthearted than sexually satiated look. And why shouldn't he, bantering with a friend rather than talking to an old grump.

"Are you kidding? I'm - " The stranger stopped, looking suspiciously at John. "You a cop?"

"Can he work here? He needs an Internet connection," John asked, ignoring the stupid question because people who weren't cops didn't have access to this room.

"You don't know if this room has an Internet connection? You are a cop, right?" the guy asked suspiciously.

"Look, dick – "

"Hey, you remember Trey?" Matt said, standing up, and getting out his laptop, the activity diffusing the tension. "He's gone missing. I'm working on a search program to find him."

"That douchebag? You'd be better off leaving him missing."

"And others," John said. "Kids who aren't douchebags." Then he gave Matt a hard look. "You didn't say he was a douchebag."

Matt shrugged, already beginning to type at his laptop. "He and Freddie don't like each other. I don't have a problem with him. Hey, could I have something to eat? I'm a little hypoglycemic. I get faint if I don't eat."

"Who's Freddie?"

"I’m Freddie," the bearded guy said. "The guy who thinks Trey is a douchebag."


"Hey, food first? Before Freddie starts ranting, because I'd like to eat sometime within the next century." Matt threw a half-smile at Freddie, to indicate he was teasing, or at least partially teasing, John wasn't sure, and Freddie gave him a good-natured eye roll back. The interplay made John feel a twinge of jealousy. Yeah, he'd had Matt for one night, but Matt only saw him as some asshole cop, while Freddie was a good friend. They even joked about old-time movies together, even if Matt disdained old-time music.

"Hey, I could eat too," Freddie said. "A burger would be great. Lots of mayo, hold the mustard, fries, lots of ketchup and a coke."

"Anything's good with me," Matt offered. "I just need food."

"I'll get the specials of the day." John gave Freddie a glowering look, daring him to complain, and stalked out. He went first to his desk, putting the framed picture in a drawer. Time to take it home and bring in something else, he supposed. He should have one of Lucy and Jack together.

Then he headed down to the cafeteria, which was run by an old blind Russian guy. The special of the day was always the best item on the menu, so he grabbed three servings of pierogis. He added a coffee for himself, a coke for Freddie, and contemplated what Matt might drink, before remembering his offer of an energy drink, so he grabbed a Black Cougar.

Matt had said the program would take hours to code, and possibly days to run, but John couldn't help but hope that he'd have a breakthrough already. He wanted to find Trey and the other kids, most especially Jack, and he wanted Matt gone. Having the kid around brought up too many memories for John, too many flashes of what he'd looked like, begging to be fucked, or sleeping peacefully in John's arms.


John hadn't realized that geeks were never silent. Freddie was particularly talkative, waving his pierogi as he ranted about Trey, and how he'd stolen coding and clients, but in sneaky, back-handed ways that John assumed made for dubious, but not necessarily illegal business practices. Freddie often fell into tech-speak, so John had a bit of trouble following his bitching. Matt made a half-hearted attempt to defend Trey, but John could tell it was more in the interest of reasonable doubt, and not out of any sincere conviction that Trey wasn't a douchebag.

With the food devoured and the gripes about Trey expressed, the noise lapsed, but never completely died. Matt was at his keyboard, the soft clicking of the keys almost continuous, while Freddie struggled in and out of the hardware, disconnecting and reconnecting cords and circuit boards, and occasionally chucking items across the room into a growing pile of discards.

"Should you be tossing things like that?" John asked as Freddie was particularly careless about one of his throws.

"You guys are paying me to get rid of this stuff. It's useless junk now."

"So what is the rest of the stuff for?" Matt asked, his attention focused on his computer screen..

"The connections to traffic cameras, cameras at state buildings, bank cameras, every visual monitoring device in this entire city."

"And you're going to know where they all are," Matt said absentmindedly. "No wonder you're working for the cops."

John gave Freddie a hard stare. "You planning on committing a crime? You working for us so you know how not to get filmed?"

"Me? Are you kidding? Do you think I'm stupid enough to risk jail? Call it defense of my freedom and liberty. I like to be well-informed."

"Besides, if he was going to commit a crime, he'd do it electronically," Matt added. "And I think I've got something."

"Already?" John leaned over Matt's shoulder, peering at his computer screen. The information didn't make much sense to him, but Matt was still clicking away.

"Yeah, I've found his current email address and traced it back to his ISP. It doesn't seem like he's trying too hard to hide. He's still using Trey to the Third for his email signature."

"That dude was always a moron."

"Trey to the Third? What does that mean?"

Freddie snorted. "Who knows? He thought it was clever."

"So you've got his email address, what does that give you?"

"It gives me his IP address, and running it through my cross-referencing program, it gives me the physical location of his computer. And there you go," Matt said triumphantly, focused on the screen as a map unfurled with a star in the middle. "I've narrowed it down to the apartment building, but I can't identify which apartment. You guys can cross-reference against utility bills or something, can't you?"

"No," John answered. "We only have access to government records. Birth, death, voter registrations, tax withholding. We need a search warrant for utility bills." Screw all those restrictive consumer protection acts that had been passed when the crime rate plunged, and everyone thought civil rights were more important than police effectiveness in catching white collar criminals. Not that John wasn't a fan of civil rights, but the tedium and delays caused by so much paperwork and justification drove him crazy.

"Oh, right." Matt looked helplessly at the screen. "You already tried to find him."

So either Trey was subletting, he'd moved in recently, or he was using a fake name. Any of those options was possible. The Captain already didn't believe there was much of a case, but that if there was, John shouldn't be investigating it. Not that John minded arguing with the Captain, but he did lose every once in a while, and more time would be wasted. "Come on, let's go."

"Go?" Matt asked blankly.

"Go check it out."

"I thought you were supposed to go back to your Captain with any information I found."

"You don't even have a solid address for him. We should go knock on doors and ask neighbors if they recognize him." John picked up Matt's bag and grabbed at his laptop. "The Captain only likes complete information." That was a total lie, but maybe Matt wouldn't realize it.

Matt batted his hands away and took over. "Why am I going? I can't narrow it down more than I have."

"Because you knew him. You might have a feel for where he'd live." Mostly John wanted Matt with him because he gave John contradictory impulses, both to get the hell away from him, and to hold him close, maybe push him against a wall and see what his lips felt like without the six foot hunk of plastic between them.

"Freddie knew him too."

"Hey, do not drag me into this chase. I've got a job and it does not involve trailing after some yahoo with a badge."

"Come on." John ignored the reference to Freddie, grabbing the now filled case from Matt, slipping it over his shoulder, and plucking at Matt's shirt.

"Okay, okay," Matt grumbled, but he followed.


New York was never peaceful, even in the late evening. The traffic noise less than during the day, but plenty of cars were still on the road, people going out to dinner or entertainment or second jobs or a multitude of other activities. John drove slowly past the townhouse Matt had identified, looking for a parking space. "That building's probably split into an apartment on each floor."

"Yeah, probably."

"We'll just have to knock on doors." At least it was only four floors, so it should be pretty easy to find Trey. Maybe he'd leave Matt outside as he worked his way up, to make sure that Trey didn't run.

"Hey, there's a convenience store on the corner. Can you drop me off? I need to get a Black Cougar."

John glanced over at the store, and fuck, there was Trey, walking out of it, a bag cradled under one arm. He appeared to be talking to himself, though presumably to the phone in the ear. "Jesus, there he is." Matt had led him straight to Trey. He stopped the car in the middle of the street. "Find some place to park." He slid out of the car, leaving it running, walking around the front of it. The cars were parked so close together that he had to step on a bumper of one and then the hood of another to reach the sidewalk. The hood thunked as he stepped on it, and Trey glanced in his direction, his expression changing from mild curiosity to alarm as he realized John was heading straight at him.

Raising his badge, John yelled, "NYPD, stay where you are!"

Trey dropped his bag, bottles shattering, black liquid spewing out, and took off running. It sounded like he was yelling, but John couldn't understand the words. Swearing under his breath, John ran after him. He wasn't used to chasing suspects and the limited running he'd done during the surrogacy years had been on a clean, well-maintained treadmill. Cracks in the sidewalk, people to dodge around, and very rapidly, the burn in his calf muscles, the pounding in his heart, and the gasping for breath – it would have been stressful and embarrassing if it wasn't so important to catch him. John pushed past the pain and kept running.

Fortunately, Trey seemed to be in even worse shape than John. Each time he glanced behind him, his face reflected panic, aware that John was gaining ground on him. Trey made the mistake of looking at John, not the traffic, as he ran into the street at the crosswalk. John yelled, "No!" but it was too late, as a car slammed into Trey. The thud of the vehicle hitting his body, of bones snapping, was loud and shocking. The impact flung Trey into the intersection, where he landed in a sprawl of limbs.

John ran up to Trey, kneeling next to him. He was gasping in pain, a smear of blood on his lips, one lens of his glasses shattered. "Tell me what happened to my son. What happened to Jack McClane? Where is he? Where are the other kids?"

"Gabriel," Trey whispered, more blood bubbling from between his lips, signaling internal injuries.

"Gabriel? What's Gabriel? Who's Gabriel?"

Trey's lips moved again, perhaps repeating "Gabriel," as the light faded from his eyes. "No!" John yelled again, futilely, grabbing Trey's shoulders, intending to shake him, because he could not be dead, he could not, but he stopped himself. Trey was very definitely dead, his muscles going slack, and mauling a dead man was likely to be frowned upon by the police's public affairs officer. "Fuck."

"He just ran in front of me! It wasn't my fault. I stopped as soon as I could. He ran in front of me."

John snarled at the guy, "Shut up. Go get your registration and insurance papers." He pulled out his cell, punching the button for police dispatch, reporting the accident, requesting a uniformed officer to help with the traffic that was cautiously driving around Trey's body, and an ambulance to transport the body to the morgue. As he spoke, John glared at the drivers going by, encouraging them to stop rubbernecking.

Matt came running up, breathing lightly, staring in shock at Trey as he stopped by John. "Jesus, he's dead."

Of course Matt wouldn't be struggling to get his breath under control. Matt hadn't sat in a specially patented surrogacy chair for years. "As a doorknob."

The driver approached John, holding out his paperwork. With a dismissive glance, John told him, "A uniform will be here soon. He'll take your report."

"It wasn't my fault!" the driver repeated.

Being reassuring was the last thing on John's mind, but he gave a nod, reminding himself that inadvertently killing someone was traumatizing. "No, it wasn't," he said flatly, finally looking at the guy, a tall, lean, white guy, probably some regular Joe who worked hard and paid his taxes, and had killed John's lead to his son. Sympathy was beyond him, so the guy would have to settle for practicality. "But a vehicle accident with a fatality has to be reported. The officer will take your statement and then you can go. You should report it to your insurance company. They'll get a copy of my report, which will say that a person fleeing from a police officer ran in front of you."

The driver relaxed, shooting a hesitant look at Trey's body. "Was he a criminal or something?"

"That's confidential police business."

"Oh, right. Can I wait in my car?"

"Yeah. Try to park it if you can." Bending down, John patted Trey's body, finding his wallet, cell phone, and keys.

"I've never seen someone who just died before," Matt said. "I've only seen bodies at funerals."

Driver's license, credit card, bank card, student ID card, a couple of membership cards, nothing exciting. John tapped on the cell phone, but it come up password-protected. "Can you hack this thing?"

"Yeah, but it'll take time."

"Does Gabriel mean anything to you? What did it mean to Trey?"

"Gabriel? Like the archangel? No, it doesn't mean anything to me. I don't know what it would have meant to Trey. He never mentioned religion."

John sighed in exasperation, running his hand over his bald head. "Okay. I have to wait until the uniform arrives, and then we'll check Trey's apartment."

Jerking his finger in the direction they came, Matt said, "I need something to drink. I'm going to go to the convenience store."

"Yeah, okay."

John looked around, checking to see where the driver had managed to park. As long as he had to wait, he could start on the paperwork, save the uniform a little time. Only the car was gone, the driver apparently scampered to avoid being questioned. John cursed himself. He shouldn't have been so distracted; he should have taken the papers that the guy offered. Well, the car had a distinct bump where Trey's body had impacted, and the traffic cameras should give a view of his license plate. Someone would track him down.


Trey had left some hideous crap playing in his apartment, like he didn't care about his electricity bill or the world's resources. He and Matt apparently shared musical tastes. John found the computer speakers and twisted the sound down. The music was still playing, but at least he couldn't hear it. "Can you go through his computer, see if you can find anything?"

"Yeah, okay."

Matt sat down at the computer, and John searched through the apartment quickly. The rooms were bigger than John would have expected, and his furnishings all brand-new. Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of personal stuff, like he'd junked all his things before going on a shopping spree. "He must be doing well for himself."

"A lot better than when I knew him. He's upgraded all his computer equipment."

"Trey does free-lance like you, right? Do you make this much?"

"I get paid well for most of my jobs, but I don't get very many of them. I don't get paid enough to buy this much new stuff all at the same time. Or to live in this area. New Jersey is definitely cheaper."

Belatedly, John realized that he was asking a lot of Matt. "I can probably get the department to pay you. A consulting fee or something for finding Trey and hacking his phone." Or he'd pay Matt, since the Captain could get persnickety about paying for services he hadn't authorized.

"Yeah, that would be good." Matt waved to the computer. "And for hacking his computer. He's got it password-protected like the phone."

Of course he did. Nothing could be easy. The news made John feel weary, and he checked his watch, realizing it was late and he was hungry. "Can you bring it with you?"

"Yeah, sure. Are we going somewhere else?" Matt sounded as tired as John felt.

"It's too late to run you home. We'll go to my place in Brooklyn." The suggestion made Matt look uncomfortable, so John added, "I've got a guest bedroom you can use."

"I don't have any clean clothes."

"I can throw your clothes in the laundry overnight. There should be something of Jack's that you can sleep in."

"I can get the subway – "

"What, the subway to the train to New Jersey to the local bus? It'll be morning before you get home." Looking around, he spied a computer case, and handed it to Matt. "Pack it up. Let's go."

"Does anyone ever tell you that you're pushy?" Matt grumbled, but he began disconnecting wires.

"My ex-wife, all the time."

"You're divorced?"

"Yeah, last fall." Then I ended up in a bar in New Jersey to celebrate, intending to get drunk, but spent all night having sex with you instead. And if I weren't so exhausted, I'd never dare to take you home, because it's going to be very fucking hard to sleep with you in the next bedroom. Fuck. He needed to find Jack so he would stop needing Matt's help.

The night was cold, and Matt shivered as they stepped outside. Taking off his leather jacket, John dropped it over his shoulders. "Here."

Even as he hugged it close, Matt asked, "Don't you need it?"

"I always run a little hot."


The house was silent when John and Matt entered. It was always quiet these days, like a tomb, no Holly or Lucy or Jack around, only whatever noise John made reminding himself that he existed. Matt thumped his laptop case on a chair in the living room, glancing around. John doubted Matt was impressed. No technology, no day-glo action figures, just sturdy, plain furniture, a television, some pictures of family.

"Hey, you read," Matt said.

"I read? Of course I read."

"Yeah, but books." Matt ran one finger over the spines of book on one shelf of the bookcase. "Most people don't read books these days. And wow, macho action writers, why am I not surprised?"

"I like books. Most of those I inherited from my dad."

Matt gave him a considering look. "But you've read them."

"Yeah, of course." John didn't understand the relevance of the question, or why Matt did indeed look impressed. "You want some dinner? I was just going to make burgers and fries. Maybe a salad."

"I'm famished. I have – "

"Hypoglycemia, I know."

"So why did you ask whether I read?" John asked Matt, as he dug through the refrigerator, getting out food.

"Most people don't seem to be able to read a book these days. It's all short stories and blogs. It's like we're no longer capable as a species of sustaining our attention or imagination for more than twenty minutes at a time."

"I love to read. It gets me out of my head." Holly had been surprised that John liked to read, seeming to think that because he did a lot of running around on his job, he was incapable of focused concentration. She'd appreciated that he'd read to the kids every night though, until they were too old to listen to daddy. "My son wants to be a writer."

Matt was opening cabinets, finding plates and silverware, setting the table. Either he was a good guest or he was hungry and wanted to encourage dinner to be ready. "Has he written anything yet?"

"A couple of short stories. He's won a couple of writing competitions, just local things. He's been working on a book in his spare time."

"What's it about?"

"I don't know. He didn't want to talk about it." The fries were heating, the burgers were cooking, and John wanted to assume Jack's not talking about his book was a typical author thing, and not a reflection of his inability to share with his father.

"So when did he disappear? And why were you looking for Trey?"

"As best as I can tell, Jack only disappeared two days ago. He was last seen in his classes on Wednesday but then it was like he just walked out on his life. He didn't take anything but his wallet and his coat. His computer's hard drive was completely wiped, but I found Trey's name written on the top of his scratch pad."

"Paper? Who uses paper?" Matt smiled quizzically, and John found it funny, that John was the old-fashioned one, but Matt was the one who had never owned a surrogate.

"I do. Jack did." Even though they'd often clashed, Jack also had taken after John in some ways, including an attachment for the past. They both liked classic rock, flat picture television, none of that distracting 3-D nonsense, and writing by hand. John did it because his dad had, but Jack had thought a pen made his words flow better. He'd always kept a couple of pads of paper scattered around, to scribble notes, and for first drafts of his stories.

"But your son could have written Trey's name any time? I mean, that doesn't sound like there's any reason to assume Trey is connected to his disappearance." Matt pulled beers out of the refrigerator, offering one to John, who took it. He liked the way Matt was making himself at home.

"That was what the Captain said." But it had to mean something, because it was the only possible clue to four young men who weren't close to their families, but who still shouldn't have simply walked out on their lives. Everything in Jack's apartment was what John expected to find, except that one name. And Trey had run. Yeah, sometimes innocent men freaked out and fled, but usually not so desperately that they ran straight into traffic. And the driver had run too. Huh. John hadn't really thought of them together. "I need to remember to get the footage pulled from the traffic cameras, so we can ID the guy who killed him."

"You think that's relevant?"

"No, it shouldn't be." The oddity nagged at John. Not that people didn't flee from the scene of an accident, but the driver had so clearly not been at fault. Trey had run out into traffic. Why take the risk of being considered a hit and run driver? "But I want to check it anyway," he said, flipping the burgers.


Sudden pain woke John, and he let out a whimper, curling up in bed, clutching his calf. Damn charley horse. He heard a soft tapping on the door. "John?"


"Are you okay?" Matt's head poked in. "I thought I heard a cry."

"No, just – " John tried to straighten his body and failed. "Charley horse," he said, giving a pained gasp.

To his shock, Matt came into the room. He was wearing an old pair of Jack's sweats, which were bunched around his ankles since they were too long for him, and a plain, white t-shirt. He sat on the edge of the bed. "Here, give me your leg," he said, tugging at John's leg.

With reluctance, John surrendered his leg, clutching the blankets around him to conceal as much of his body as he could. He didn't want Matt to see that a significant amount of his chest hair was gray. Matt put his leg on his lap, and began to massage his calf. His touch was sure and strong, but not too rough, easing the pain slowly. "It was the running you did."

"You got a doctorate in sports medicine?"

"No, but I played baseball through college. I've had a lot of charley horses."

"Yeah? I didn't take you for an athlete." There was still so much he didn't know about Matt. They'd got into a long talk at dinner, about books and movies and other forms of entertainment, then onto politics and the state of the world. They'd disagreed more than they'd agreed, but it had been an enjoyable conversation anyway. Matt was thoughtful, intelligent, and reasonably well-informed, if a bit young and overly passionate.

"It's a stereotype that people who are computer geniuses aren't athletic. I haven't sat in front of the computer my entire life."

John was acutely conscious of Matt's nearness, of the strength of his grip. He'd known Matt's touch before, but only through sensors. Matt had caressed perfectly toned plastic muscles, not aged skin and weakened muscles. Thankfully, he didn't seem repulsed by reality.

"You could have been sitting in a surrogacy chair instead of a computer chair. Most people did."

"I never had a surrogate." Matt shrugged, but kept massaging, the actions of his shoulders and hands independent of each other. "I never understood that whole thing, not wanting to be yourself."

"I would have caught Trey if I'd still had my surrogate. I was faster."

"Trey's surrogate would have been faster too."

"Yeah, but only his surrogate would have been destroyed. He'd still be alive to be found."

"How is that feeling?"

John stretched out his leg. The cramp was easing. "It feels good. You've got good hands."

"You can add a charge for massage to my contract fee."

Yeah, of course Matt would have his own motivations for helping John. It wasn't like he recognized John and wanted to help his lover. "Right. I'll talk to the Captain about getting pay for you."


As much as John appreciated Matt's help, he wasn't going to hang around and watch him work on Trey's laptop and cell. Not after the early morning massage session, and then the way Matt had put on John's leather jacket this morning, like it was his right to wear John's clothes. John's desire for Matt was a painful ache that he was determined to deny, and Matt's intense expression when concentrating on hacking was too compelling. It made John want to do filthy things to him, to see him lose his focus, his eyes glazing over. "I'm going to work on some stuff at my desk," he said, as Matt settled down in the computer room.

"Yeah, okay. I'll let you know if I find anything."

He figured he'd go through the reports on the other missing kids again, see if there was any connection he'd missed, between the four of them, or any of the other three and Trey.

"Hey, you want to get us some coffee?" Freddie asked, already working on the surrogacy system. "Something that tastes better than the swill the rest of you guys drink."

"I'm not your waiter," John growled. The pleading look in Matt's eyes made him sigh. "There's a place down the street. Hey, find me the traffic footage for yesterday, okay? There's an accident I want to see. Matt can give you the intersection."

He took off, not believing that he was being an errand boy, and not letting them give him instructions for some sort of half-caf soy nonsense. If they wanted coffee, they'd get coffee. Black.

Walking back in, with three coffees and extra packets of sugar and creamer tucked in his pocket, John was presented with a picture of the guy from yesterday's accident on the computer monitors, and Freddie wildly yelling, "I cannot believe you didn't recognize Thomas Gabriel!" at Matt.

"Hey!" John set the coffee down. "Who's Thomas Gabriel? And why should Matt know him?"

"Thomas Gabriel worked for Canter Industries. Next to Lionel Canter, he was the man for improvements on surrogates. The Man. The ability for surrogates to get electronically high – that was his."

"Wow," John deadpanned. "A real hero."

"He tried to take control of the surrogacy system at a board meeting one time. He didn't think Canter was aggressive enough developing the surrogates' capabilities. It was a battle of the laptops between him and Canter. They say Canter only won because he had the Security surrogates pick him and hold him away from his laptop until Canter locked him out and fired his ass. A lot of people thought he'd caused the crash of the surrogacy system to get revenge on Canter until that cop dude revealed it was Canter himself."

"So what's he been doing since he was kicked out of Canter Industries?"

"No one knows. He disappeared, deep underground."

"So Trey recognized the guy who killed him. Would he have recognized Gabriel just as he hit him or did he know him before?" He glanced at Freddie and Matt, seeking an answer.

"It could have been either. But let me guess," Matt said wryly. "Now you want me to find out everything about Gabriel."

"I can start running him through the police databases," John offered, conscious that he'd been asking a lot of Matt. And it would give him something to do. Waiting for other people to produce results wasn't easy.

Putting his hands together palm to palm, Matt gave a mock bow. The sleeves on John's jacket were too long for him, the black leather almost covering his hands. "I live to serve, Master." Straightening he added, "And you were going to talk to your Captain about a contract fee for me, remember?"

John shifted his stance, unhappily conscious that the image of Matt as a serving boy was a little too appealing. Why was he even still wearing the damn thing? Also that the Captain wasn't going to be happy when John's report on witnessing a fatality yesterday caught up to him. The Captain was going to freak when he found out John had chased a lead after being explicitly told not to. "Yeah, I'll do that." If necessary, he'd pay Matt's fee himself. Cops didn't make a lot of money, but he'd managed to sock a little away once his child support had ended, and it would be worth every dime to find Jack.


John searched first through all the government databases that the police could access, not surprised when he came up blank on Gabriel's current information. He found his birth, school, and the employment records filed by Canter Industries and a few other companies, but nothing to indicate where he lived and worked now. Thomas and Trey both seemed to have gone underground. Hoping Matt was having more success, he went through the missing cases reports, keeping a small part of his attention focused on his Captain's door, listening for him to yell, "McClane!" Mid-morning arrived and still the Captain didn't seem to have reached his inbox with its copies of reports filed by his detectives, so John strolled to the coffee place down the street, picking up fresh coffee and pastries for Matt and Freddie.

They were talking and listening to streaming music, more of that techno-crap, when he entered the computer room, but both of them instantly broke from their work to pounce on his tray. Matt had been sitting at the operator's desk, his and Trey's laptops spread out in front of him.

"Any update?"

"I was just going to come see you," Matt said, starting the computers shutting down before dumping too much sugar and cream into his coffee. "I've got Gabriel's background. School, work history, but no current information."

"Yeah, I came up with the same."

"But I did find what appears to be his girlfriend and her address in Long Island."

"Appears to be his girlfriend?"

"If Freddie's right," Matt said, waving toward the other geek.

"Believe me, I would never forget that face. Or body." He gave a long whistle.

"She's a medical doctor who used to work for Canter Industries, so she was pretty easy to find. There's nothing to indicate if she and Gabriel are still dating, but she's got a house in Long Island."

"She had to stay registered with the IMA to work in this country, so she was the only one who couldn't disappear," John guessed.

"Precisely," Matt said with a proud bob of his head toward John. "And from there I found her address. You want to go running off and check her out, don't you?" Matt looked expectant, like of course he knew John well enough to guess that he'd want to investigate immediately and in person.

"Hell, yes."

"Have fun," Freddie mumbled, taking a bite of a Danish. "Thanks," he added, waving the coffee cup at John.

"You want to take both computers?" John asked.

"Yeah. I've broken into Trey's, but I haven't had time to sift through all his information. I can work on that in the car."

"Okay." John let Matt load a laptop bag on each of his shoulders, and with coffee and pastries in their hands, they headed out. As anticipated, the Captain's "McClane!" bellowed into the corridor, so John nudged Matt the other way down the hallway.

He was too close to finding his son to be stopped now.


The drive to Long Island was slow-going, too many people still rattled by the dangers of being in their cars themselves, instead of having the comforting distance of a surrogate at the wheel. Traffic within the city was never too bad, as those people tended to drive a lot and had adjusted. But out on the expressway, people drove too cautiously, and reacted too wildly. John snapped on the radio to distract himself, relaxing at the familiar sound of Creedence singing about Lodi.

"I don't know for certain that Gabriel is still with this woman," Matt cautioned.

"How long ago did Freddie say they were together?"

"He met them at a surrogacy convention about two years ago. Canter Industries was a major sponsor."

"And they were there in person?"

"They were there with their surrogates, Freddie said. They used their surrogates to give demonstrations of the newest features."

"Was Freddie there? Or his surrogate?"

"I don't know, but probably his surrogate." Matt had a laptop on his lap, typing away, while talking, and looked over at John, biting his bottom lip. "John – "


"Why didn't you tell me who you were?"

"What do you mean, who I was? I'm Detective John McClane, NYPD. I told you that."

"Yeah, Detective John McClane of the NYPD, who just happens to be John the surrogate with a nine-inch push button dick. Why didn't you tell me I had sex with you?"

John's gut clenched. He'd hoped Matt would never realize. "How did you know that was my surrogate?"

"Your voice. The way you talk and walk. This jacket."

"When did you know?"

"It took a while. I thought I was imagining it at first, but when you put this jacket on me – "

Glancing sideways at Matt, John struggled to figure out his anger level, but he couldn't tell. Holly had always gotten sharper, her voice more clipped, but Matt only looked mostly confused. "I'm not that guy."

"That guy? What guy? The surrogate? He was a plastic device to insulate people from reality."

"Yeah, that guy. The with the push-button nine inch dick. That wasn't me."

"So what are you saying? That you weren't there? Does that work in criminal investigations too?" Matt's voice went falsetto, fake. "Oh, I'm sorry, officer, that wasn't me controlling my surrogate when he robbed the jewelry store. Take it away to prison; I'll buy a new one."

"You know it doesn't work like that." John swerved, swearing at another driver, before he could glance over at Matt, who was now very definitely mad, face set in anger.

"So that was you."

"Yeah, that was me, controlling the surrogate, is that what you want to hear? My mind controlled the plastic toy that fucked you, is that what you want confirmed?"


That was all Matt said, and he kept looking straight ahead, leaving John with no clue how to react. "That's all? Yes, that surrogate was mine? That's all you wanted to know?"

"No." Matt looked at him, the hurt in his eyes palpable. "I want to know why you did it. I want to know why you had sex with me and left the next day."

"Christ. Is that so hard to figure out? I'd gotten divorced that day. I was in fucking New Jersey because that's where I got divorced. Sex seemed like a good idea." At least, that was how it had started. Matt didn't need to know how much more it had become. When John woke that morning, after sleeping in his surrogate chair, opening his and his surrogate's eyes, seeing Matt sprawled in bed next to him, so vulnerable… he'd wanted so desperately to stay, to wake Matt up with kisses or a blow job, to fuck him again, maybe go out for brunch together. Maybe spend all day, having sex, even let Matt fuck his surrogate, if he'd wanted. Instead, he'd gathered his clothes and left. Matt had seemed so young in his sleep, and John had felt like such a dirty old man. "Leaving seemed liked a better one."

Now Matt was staring stonily out the window. John could see a sliver of his reflection in the glass, vague and distorted. "Fine. I just wanted to know."

"Let's just focus on the case, okay?"



Long Island had never looked so beautiful to John. He was ready to talk to this Mai woman, hopefully find some new clues to Thomas or Trey, or even better, find a link to Jack, so he could escape from being around Matt. He turned off the radio, following instead Matt's directions to an older neighborhood, with large houses.

They didn't precisely converse for the rest of the drive, but Matt had kept working on Trey's laptop, researching on the net, giving John information about Doctor Mai Linh and Thomas Gabriel. Both had worked for Canter Industries, improving the mind-body link between operator and surrogate, the Doctor on the medical side, Gabriel doing the programming.

The laptop itself was a dead end, though Matt made some snarky comments about Trey's programming, more techno-babble that John didn't understand.

The woman who opened the door was indeed beautiful, and John could see why Freddie remembered her so vividly. With her almost Madonna-like face and tall, slim figure, she could be a fashion model. "Doctor Mai Linh?"


"My name is Detective John McClane, NYPD." He flashed his badge. "This is a police consultant, Matthew Farrell. Can we come in and talk to you?"

"May I ask what it is about?"

"It's complicated. Can we come in?"

She hesitated, then with a slight nod, acquiesced, leading them through the entryway and into a living room, taking a seat, and gesturing them to sit. Mai sat across from them, crossing her legs, looking serene and classy. "How can I help you, officer?"

The furnishings were both elegant and comfortable, mostly antiques, the fabrics on the couch and chairs all carefully coordinated with the rugs and wall color. Whoever lived here had a flair for decorating that rivaled Holly's.

John ignored that she should have said detective. He only made the correction when he wanted to establish his dominance, and he didn't have a reason yet to get tough with her. "We're looking for information on two men, Thomas Gabriel and Trey Sadowski."

They went through the song and dance, yes, she knew Gabriel from Canter Industries but hadn't seen him for a while, no, she didn't know Trey, all the while John was trying to decide if she was lying. He could usually tell, but she was very cool and calm, the right amount of trying-to-be-helpful. Too cool? Like maybe she was used to lying? John asked her again about Gabriel, because sometimes people slipped when made to repeat their lies. But she was still elegant and apparently ignorant.

"Really?" Matt asked, studying his phone. He'd been fiddling with it constantly during the interview, getting on John's nerves. "Because his car is in your garage."

"His car is in her garage?"

"Yeah, I used his license plate to get the VIN number and then accessed the company's website for the car's GPS location. Which is thataway about one room over." Matt pointed to the left.

For one second, John wondered if he should caution Matt against admitting to hacking both DMV and a private company's website, except that in the next second, he'd realized that Matt had confirmed Mai was a liar. In the third second, he registered that Mai was holding a gun on both of them. A small gun, perhaps hidden somewhere on her person, but still a gun, and large enough to do some serious damage at close range.

"You're very clever."

"Oh." Matt was startled by the result of his information. "Um."

"I suggest you hand me that weapon and tell me what you know about Thomas Gabriel, Trey Sadowski, and the location of Jack McClane and the three other college kids that went missing before him."

Mai smiled at him curiously, like he was kinda cute in his stupidity. "And I suggest you put your hands on top of your heads and walk." She used the gun to gesture toward the other door.

John considered the situation for a moment. She looked in shape, but he figured he could take her. He had greater muscle strength and body mass, and even if he hadn't fought much lately, he knew the motions because his surrogate had always been required to pass the police physical fitness test. But there was a good chance she'd shoot him if he tried to rush her. They were close enough that she was likely to hit him right in the chest. Slowly, he put his hands on top of his head. He'd wait for a good moment. One would come.

"John?" Matt asked, seeking direction.

Trying to sound comforting, John answered, "Yeah, go on, kid. Drop your gear and put your hands on your head."

They walked slowly out of the room, following Mai's gestures toward a staircase and starting down it.

"Thomas! We have company. Be ready."

Gabriel stepped into view at the bottom of the staircase, holding a gun. "I see the cop and his little buddy have decided to visit."

"Hey, jackass. You're in police records now as a hit and run driver. We pulled a nice picture of you off the traffic cams."

That taunt didn't please Gabriel, but also didn't seem to faze him. "I'll have to hack into police records and delete all that information now, won't I?" With his gun, he waved them toward a room, which must be the entire basement. It was a completely finished room, and in contrast to upstairs, starkly white, with medical equipment and a surrogacy chair along one wall. And at the farthest end, three young men were chained to cots.

"Dad!" Jack yanked at his chain, almost lunging toward them. "I knew you'd come."

Thankfully he appeared to be fine, dressed in gray sweats, with no apparent physical damage. "It's okay, kid. I'm going to get you out of here."

"Such an optimist. That's good. Strength of will should keep you strong, help you last a long time for our experiments," Thomas noted. "The weak are used up too quickly."

"He's older than we've been using," Mai said. "Though this other one is the right age."

"So what are you bozos doing?" John gave him a cocky smile, like he wasn't at all disturbed at being at the wrong end of a gun, the kind of smile that Holly used to find infuriating. "Getting a little Mengele here, are you?"

"We're continuing the surrogacy experiments, the kind of experiments that we would have been doing if Canter hadn't been such a fool."

"Canter regretted ever inventing the surrogates. He tried to shut them all down and kill everyone attached to them." John tried to look like his attention was fully focused on Thomas and Mai, while also studying the surroundings out of the corners of his eyes, seeking possible weapons or distractions.

"Yes, Canter was an idiot and a coward. We're taking the ultimate steps, surrogacy control over another human being. Can you imagine the power of being inside of someone's mind?"

The man was clearly loony, his eyes lit with fanatical fire. John risked a glance at the other kids, wondering if they were capable of helping. Their heads were shaved, with what looked like surrogacy electrodes partially inserted into their skulls. One still seemed okay, though listless, and the other was definitely out of it, curled up on the cot and whimpering. "What did you do with the other kid who disappeared?"

"He performed his service to medical science, and was discharged, shall we say. Permanently."

Gabriel didn't seem repentant, and John found his fists clenching in instinctive reaction. "You asshole."

The insult only earned him a laugh. "I'll be sure to repeat those words when I control your mind. It'll be interesting to hear if you sound different when I'm making you talk."

"Oh my God, I don't want to die." Matt started almost howling, loud and frantic jibberish, begging and pleading, and bless him, whether he was genuinely hysterical or doing it intentionally, because it proved the distraction John needed.

Gabriel snapped at Mai to shut him up, his attention diverted from John, who took his chance, lunging toward him. They grappled for the gun, John keeping all of his focus on Gabriel. He couldn't afford to check what Mai was doing to Matt, whose vocal hysterics fell silent, substituted for pained gasps. Unfortunately, Gabriel wasn't a computer geek who sat around on his ass all day, but a guy who not only kept himself fit but had clearly practiced hand to hand. John didn't manage to get his gun, but did send it flying. Gabriel hit him in the face, and John slugged him back, then tried to grab his own gun out of his shoulder holster. But Gabriel was already attacking back, even as Mai yelled, "I'll kill him!"

Pausing, John glanced to see Matt on his knees. Mai had twisted his arm behind his back, and was holding her gun to his head. And fuck, he could not let her shoot Matt, but if he surrendered, all of them would end up dead. Only she'd miscalculated in her scuffle with Matt, because they were closer to the three bound prisoners now, and Jack lunged far enough to reach for her arm, pulling the gun away from Matt.

As Matt, Mai and Jack went toppling together, John and Gabriel resumed fighting, only now John had lost his concentration, as both his son and his lover, the kid who'd been his lover for one night when he wished it could be forever, were fighting with the witch from hell over her gun, even as he struggled with Gabriel.

"Stop and I'll kill him!" was Gabriel's cry, even as John cursed that the other man had gained the upper hand, Gabriel holding him pinned, both of them holding his own gun, which was pointed at his chest. Mai, Matt and Jack paused, Mai dancing away from the others, in possession of her gun. "Can you keep hold of it this time?" he snarled at her. She looked angry at his tone, but obediently covered Matt and Jack. "I can tell you're going to be troublesome to keep as a subject. You're too old anyway."

"You're going to keep Matt and Jack, aren't you?" The thought of them being toys in Gabriel's monstrous experiments was intolerable. No matter what the consequences to himself, John wasn't going to let that happen.

"Yes, I'll keep them, and alive as long as they last. Hopefully for a very long time. I'm going to have such fun playing with them," Gabriel purred in John's ears. "They'll be alive but I'll be in their minds."

John looked down at his gun, at where Gabriel was holding it to his body, and wiggled just once, to be sure where Gabriel's chest was in relation to where the gun was aimed. Then he tightened his hand and fired. The bullet felt like a son of a bitch, slamming through his shoulder, and then into Gabriel's body, hopefully straight into his heart. The asshole's hand went lax, as the force of the bullet sent his body flying backwards. John swung the gun around and shot Mai straight through the eyes.

Then he sorta collapsed for a bit, because the floor seemed like a very nice place to bleed on. He registered Matt patting on him, finding his phone and calling emergency, his tone stressed but mostly calm, giving the address, with several repeats of "Officer down, officer down." And then Matt pressing something cloth – oh, his shirt – in a folded bundle on top of John's wound.

"Matt," he said, reaching up to brush his fingers over Matt's bare chest, his very nice chest, with a sparse amount of hair and two brown nipples that responded well to being licked and nibbled.

"Can you hold that?" Matt placed one of John's hands on his wound. "Hold tight. I'm going to release Jack and the others."

"You're leaving?"

"I'll be right back."

And he was, and with Jack, who took over pressing on the cloth and seemed to be crying. "Jesus, Dad. You shot yourself."

"Hey, it's okay. You're okay. That's what counts."

"Just hold on, Dad. Help is on its way."

Matt was on the other side, down on his knees by John, one hand resting on John's shoulder, like he needed to be in touch. And maybe John would be okay, but maybe he wouldn't, because he could feel he was losing a lot of blood, and he needed to say – "I wanted to stay. With you." He patted Matt's chest, and Matt clasped his hand between both of his. "You're so young. I shouldn't have - "

His confession only elicited bewilderment from Matt. "Is that why you left? You think I'm too young?"

"Dad?" Jack asked, but John ignored him.

"I did. I shouldn't – " and then John passed out.


He woke again, to the sounds of sirens, realizing that he wasn't dead yet, and Jack was still leaning over him, holding his hand. "Jack?"

"We're on the way to the hospital, Dad. Just hold on and they'll sew you up."


"He stayed at the house. He's helping the police clean up."

"I didn't get him paid yet." That seemed important, though everything was distorted, fuzzy. John wasn't sure if that was the blood loss or if the EMTs had slipped him some happy juice. Either way, he had to make sure Matt got paid. He owed him for helping to save Jack's life.


Getting shot by psycho scientists had a few excellent benefits. Jack hung around the hospital a lot, and they had some good chats, the kind of long talks that they hadn't enjoyed since Jack was in his early teens. They started with the story of how Trey had lured him somewhere that he could be kidnapped easily, but then drifted everywhere, reminiscing about the past, discussing Jack's goals, even his book, the plot of which he was radically reconsidering after time spent as a prisoner. John had never been at odds with Jack as much as with Lucy, but it was still good to have some bonding time.

Holly and Lucy both came to visit, though neither stayed long. They seemed impressed that he'd shot himself to save Jack, even if Holly had shook her head in equal parts of despair and wonder. Lucy had always been a tough girl, but she cried a bit, just a very tiny bit for her old father, and hugged him fiercely.

The Captain and most of the guys from his precinct visited, either bringing him big, stuffed animals and balloons as jokes, or a nice bottle of booze to encourage his eventual departure and ability to drink again.

He got a chance to ask the Captain about Matt, which almost earned him a slap. "Jesus, McClane, I cannot believe you dragged a kid along on an investigation, a kid who had not signed a waiver. Fucking hell, twice! Can you imagine how much his parents would have sued for if you'd gotten him killed?" But the Captain had paid Matt and gotten the precious waiver signed, so at least Matt was covered.

The other two kids had been reunited with their families and were in recovery, though John didn't ask for more details.

He was released on a Wednesday, and by Friday, was tired of resting in his own home, putting on his old coat to walk to the pub down the street. He wondered if his leather jacket had ended up in an evidence locker somewhere, or if Matt still had it.

Roy greeted him with a smile, immediately grabbing a glass and pouring him a beer. "I hear you got in some trouble."

"All exaggerated," John said.

With a smile and a shake of his head, Roy placed the beer in front of him. "That's not what I hear, man. Word is that you're insane."

His rep among his fellow officers had rocketed upwards dramatically. In a world where many people still had trouble being outside, few cops were crazy enough to shoot themselves to take down a bad guy. "Someone's got to be." John sipped his beer, relaxing, eating peanuts. It felt good to be here, in his favorite local, but also lonely. No matter how much he'd impressed the other detectives, at the end of the day, this was the sum total of his life, work and being one of a bunch of locals who liked the same bar.

Then someone slid into the seat next to him, and Matt asked Roy, "You got any Beautiful Avatar?"

"One Beautiful Avatar coming up," Roy answered, as Matt ate some peanuts from the bowl in front of John.

"What are you doing here?" Here, when Matt hadn't visited him in the hospital, when he'd convinced himself that he'd never see him again?

"I still have your jacket," Matt said, a fact that John had already noted. He liked how the younger man looked in black leather. Matt appeared to be the same as always, his dark hair a little long, chin slightly stubbly, a tiny soul patch under his bottom lip.

"You could have sent it to me."

Matt smiled, thanked Roy for the beer, and took a drink before answering. "Do you remember when we first met? And we talked about surrogates and feeling alive?"

He wasn't likely to ever forget, but John just shrugged and said, "Yeah. Sure."

"I've never felt more alive than when I've been around you."

"That's a basic side effect of almost being killed. It happens to everyone."

"I didn't mean then. Well, partially then," Matt corrected himself, "because I was scared out of my mind when Gabriel and Mai were holding guns on us. But I knew if I could distract them, that you'd get us out of there." He twisted sideways on his stool, leaning closely toward John. "Mostly I meant when you fucked my brains out."

"Jesus," John swore, because the impact of Matt's words and breath went straight to his dick. "I told you, I'm not that guy."

"I know you're not the guy with the push-button nine-inch dick," and now Matt sounded angry. "You're the real guy, the one who knew how to touch me and drive me out of my mind. That wasn't a plastic toy controlling itself. Controlling me."

"I'm not that guy!"

"Then prove it," Matt taunted, and John had to, had to grab him by the back of his skull, holding his head perfectly in position, had to cover Matt's mouth with his own, and kiss him with the need that had been building for months, the craving to have Matt in his life forever and forever, the yearning that he knew was hopeless.

Matt was panting, his eyes a little shell-shocked when John released him.

"Jesus," was all John could think to say, because kissing Matt was like playing with fire, and both of them were ready to spontaneously combust. He couldn't deny the truth that he and Matt were both turned on.

"John," Matt said, with need in his voice, his arms sliding around John's waist as he kissed John, his tongue trying to make itself at home in John's mouth.

This time when the kiss ended, Roy was in front of them, hands on the bar. "You two need to get a booth or better yet, go home. No humping allowed in my bar."

John started to fumble for his wallet, but Roy waved him away. "Go, go, get out of here. I know who you are. I'll put it on your tab." They stumbled out of the bar, holding hands like they were kids, but the chilly night air was like a slap in John's face, and he turned to face Matt.

"Are you sure? Really sure you want to be with me? I'm old enough to be your father. Jack's almost your age."

"Who cares? Jack's not the one who does anything he needs to do to protect his family. You're that guy. You're the one who won't let go and won't stop and who will go to any lengths, up to and including almost killing himself. You have - " Matt's arms flailed in the air, "more passion and determination than anyone I've ever met in my life."

It was oddly humbling that Matt would have such a powerful opinion of him, but John shook his head. "I was that guy because Jack was in danger. But I'm…just a guy, most days. I do my job, I watch football, I take my garbage out every Tuesday."

Matt shook his head, looking like he wanted to shake John. "I know that, John. But when the firewall's crashing, you do what counts."

Maybe it was a good sign that Matt was angry with John. Holly had taken a long time to reach that stage, not understanding John at first, and then not wanting to accept him. "If we start this, I don't know if I can let you go."

Matt tugged at his hand, starting them walking down the street toward John's house. "Yes, I'm sure. I don't want you to let me go. I want to have sex with you. I want you to fuck me like I know you can." His cheeks were flushed, from embarrassment and cold. "I want to be with you. I want to sleep in and have breakfast with you and watch a game and make some nachos. I make great nachos."

"Chili's my specialty." John dug out his key, opened up the front door, and they fell in, kissing again, until he had Matt in his arms, Matt's legs around his waist. They were both hard, the feel of Matt's erection poking into him already driving him crazy.

"We can order pizza and we've got the basic food groups covered."

John hesitated at the bottom of the stairs. "I'm not supposed to be carrying anything heavy yet," he admitted, and Matt instantly dropped his legs, twisting out of his grip.

"Can you catch me?" he asked, with a grin, backing up the stairs, shedding John's jacket as he did, flinging it at him. Instinctively, John held up an arm, batted at the jacket, but Matt was already undoing his shirt buttons, still walking up backwards. John started to run up the stairs, and Matt laughed as he turned to face front, going fast enough that he stayed ahead of John until he reached the landing, hesitating before darting through the opened door and into John's bedroom.

He was working on his shoes when John entered the bedroom, and John copied his example, both of them in a race to undress. The speed and Matt's smile made it easier for John to strip, to show his body to this kid who was barely older than Jack. Matt didn't recoil at the gray hairs mixed with the black on John's chest, only bounced onto his bed and opened his nightstand. "I brought lube if you – oh good," he said, finding John's lube, tossing it at him as he made himself comfortable on John's bed, legs spread. "I forget to get mine out of your jacket," he admitted.

"You really want to do this," John said, even as he settled on his knees between Matt's legs, stroking his inner thighs. He hadn't taken enough time enjoying Matt's body before, too intent on proving how fast he could make Matt come, but now he promised himself hours of exploration. He'd enjoy pacing himself, keeping Matt on the edge of coming. Age and experience would compensate for the lack of a push-button dick.

A full-body shiver was his answer, and Matt's foot rested on his shoulder, close to the healing bullet wound. "You are that guy, John. The strongest man I know." He gave a considering look at John's dick, which was only a little longer than Matt's own. "I bet you can make me come harder than I did last time."

"Yeah," John said, and set out to prove it.

~ the end ~