Foggy stands in front of Matt’s apartment, trying not to panic just because he won’t answer his phone. Either of them. The main door to the building is locked – none of the numbers he’s buzzed have deigned to respond – and he can’t find his key. It’s late, and the city sits eerily quiet.
Matt was supposed to be here, expecting him. He knows it was planned that he was coming over.
There’s a shout, a siren, and Foggy turns up the collar of his coat. It’s colder here, in Matt’s neighborhood. He wonders if this is the point where he should call the police, an ambulance, a firetruck, somebody – preferably official, with tools and bigger muscles – to break down the door. It seems a bit of an over the top reaction, when it’s likely that Matt’s not even home.
He wants to be mad at being stood up, but it’s difficult when he knows that if Matt’s not here it probably means he’s off saving someone. Being a superhero. He’s still not really comfortable that his best friend does what he does – and the betrayal at being kept in the dark might be slightly harder to shake off than he pretends – but he can’t argue that it seems to help. Sometimes a lot more than what they can accomplish through the law.
He’s a little mad. They were going to order a pizza.
And why’s it have to be Matt, anyway? Superheroes lived in comic books. They weren’t real people you knew, people you’d lived with in a cramped dorm room. They weren’t flesh and bone, and they certainly weren’t your overly-studious blind best friend.
There’s a bite to the air, a darting nipping that feels alive and malicious. It’s creepy out here, with nobody else around. Foggy glances up and down the street, but there’s no one in sight. He blows on his hands – a futile attempt to warm some sensation back into his fingers – and pulls his phone out of his pocket to try Matt’s numbers one more time.
His thumb hovers over the listings for both cells, unable to decide between them. Foggy isn’t sure what he’s going to do next, if he can’t get ahold of him. He goes with Matt’s usual number first, hoping for the best. Maybe he’d been in the shower. Hadn’t heard the phone.
It rings six times before Matt’s recorded voice picks up, too practiced – and yet oddly stilted – for Foggy to mistake it for the real thing. He always forgets how goofy it sounds, like some ultra-serious kid play-acting at being an adult. Usually Matt answers before he gets this far, and the fact that he hasn’t – again – takes all of the entertainment out of it.
“Come on, Matt… Seriously, man – where are you?” Foggy doesn’t want to come across as anxious; he’s not the guy’s keeper. But he can tell that he’s not doing a very good job. He figures it’s a moot point anyway. Six messages between two phones in a half hour can’t really imply anything but. “I just… Just call me. As soon as you get this.”
He ends the call, spends another minute staring at the screen. He really doesn’t want to dial the other number. If it continues to go unanswered as well, he’s going to have to make a couple of decisions.
From a block or so away, a dog is howling. Dog? Foggy’s not really sure. It’s somewhere between a house pet and a person, a disturbing noise that he can’t truly identify as either. Isn’t sure that he wants to. The longer it goes on – and on, and on, and on, curling about the air of the neighborhood – the less certain he is. It’s a horrifically mournful sound, and he wishes it would stop. It’s only inching up the Creepy Factor on the night.
Foggy takes a deep breath, hits the button to call the Batphone. This one doesn’t have the voice mail set up, just the default computer instructions. He knows in his gut even before it quits ringing that he’s going to have to listen to them again.
“The user you have dialed…”
“Pick up. Pick up. Pick up.” It’s not much of a message, but by now it doesn’t seem to matter. “Pick up, Matt. Call me. Please.” A senseless pleading that he’s afraid his friend will never get the opportunity to hassle him about. Foggy’s really working not to panic now. Not to fully imagine all the possibilities that are scrolling unhelpfully through his head.
Matt doesn’t pick up. Doesn’t call him back, despite Foggy giving him a delusionally optimistic five minutes more. Maybe he stopped at Josie’s on the way home from work, met someone. Fell so head-over-heels that he’s completely forgotten everything else.
It doesn’t sound like Matt. Or Josie’s.
But he’s one hundred percent positive that Matt will be pissed – like, possibly, Refusing To Speak To Him For Months pissed – if Foggy calls in the cavalry and makes some kind of scene for no reason. Maybe even if there is a reason. He thinks Matt would get over it eventually, but until then working together wouldn’t be at all pleasant. So if he’s going to call somebody – and if he is, he should do it now, because time’s most likely of the essence – he needs to make certain that he’s actually got a good reason.
He’s not sure how he’s supposed to do that.
The howling fills the night, the only thing Foggy can hear. It winds around his head and through his hair, tickles goosebumps up his arms and down his neck. It sounds more like a person now, too heartbroken to be the voice of an animal. But still not entirely definable as human. He turns in the direction from which it seems to be echoing.
He can’t believe there’s no one out here to hear it. It’s a jarringly unfamiliar sound, one of those that jolts through your world and prompts you to share a look with a random passing stranger, just to be sure that it hadn’t arisen from some corner of your own imagination that should probably be walled off. Through the momentary connection the incongruity can be acknowledged, set aside. Alone out here like this, it colors the air like a nightmare.
He’s walking that way before he realizes his feet are moving, though he can’t understand this because it feels the last option he’d willingly choose. But it could be somebody in trouble, right? Somebody that needs help? The wailing howl drifts over him, around him, with a gauzy hopelessness. He’s the only one around. He has to go see how he can help.
He’d really, really rather not. But it’s what Matt would do.
It doesn’t occur to him to call for official rescue in this new situation, just as it doesn’t register that he’s getting further and further from Matt’s door. The sound leads him down the street, tugging at his arms, his legs. It gets worse with every step. Somehow both more and less recognizable, and the night has become wholly composed of it.
He turns down an alley, briefly more concerned with stepping over a pile of trash than looking around. Maybe stalling – he isn’t sure what he’s about to find. Isn’t sure what he expects. Foggy swallows, and makes himself look up.
He goes instantly deaf. The world is ringingly silent.
At first glance, the end of the alley is all fire. The flames flare, flicker down to narrow themselves into a ring of torches. An improvised circle, highlighting a message left to be found. A statement so bizarre that it freezes Foggy with icy shock. Holds him captive – dry-mouthed and ears ringing – for too long where he stands.
They surround a huge cross. Upon which hangs his best friend.
Matt moans, and it bounces off the alley walls. First he couldn’t move; now he can’t move fast enough. Foggy kicks a path through the torches to reach the foot of the iconic monstrosity. To Matt’s feet, pinned together at the ankles with what looks like – oh god – a railroad spike. Foggy fights to focus. Not to throw up.
The costume is in tatters, both the gloves and the mask ripped away. Blood everywhere, and he can’t tell where it’s all coming from. He’s trying not to look at those bare wrists, but he can’t help himself. His eyes jump that way despite all his warnings not to, and – as he’d already known – that’s definitely where a lot of the blood originates. Matching iron spikes, two bones on either side fighting to support the weight of Matt’s entire body. There’s so much dark red coating his arms that Foggy can hardly see any trace of the pale skin.
He gags, stumbles away. Almost sets his jacket on fire when he knocks over another torch. He realizes he’d been standing in a puddle, black and shiny in the firelight and most certainly made primarily of Matt’s dripping blood. Foggy throws up.
He wipes his mouth on his sleeve, turns back to his friend. He has to figure out a way to get him down. Like yesterday. The cross is at least seven feet tall, and he doesn’t see anything to stand on. “Hold on, buddy. I’m here.” His hands are shaking as he pulls out his phone.
Matt tries to say something, but it’s more gurgle than syllables. It hits Foggy’s heart hard, a solid impact that leaves him breathless. “Help’s coming, buddy. It’s gonna be okay.” He’s not even hearing the words, just moving his lips. He hits two eights on the keypad when his thumb twitches.
Delete. Delete. Nine. Two.
Christ, it’s only three numbers.
Matt cracks his eyes open, clearly with no idea where he is. They widen, roll wildly as he struggles to determine what’s going on. Disorientation and terror war visibly with consciousness. He looks utterly lost, and it crumbles Foggy’s heart completely.
“I’m here, Matt. It’s gonna be okay.”
Matt opens his mouth, still trying to speak. Clearly, he can barely breathe. Foggy can’t breathe either; all he can hear is that ringing. He moves back to the foot of the cross. Touches Matt’s leg with a trembling hand, so that at least he’ll know he’s here. With him.
Is his best friend about to tell him goodbye? Here, in this stupid alley? Hanging from a fucking cross? No way. Not happening. It’s like something out of a fucking comic book. This can’t be happening.
Foggy doesn’t want to hear it. Maybe, if he doesn’t let him say it, it won’t be true. “Don’t try to talk. I’m calling for help. Help’s coming.”
Two. Two. Dammit. Delete. Delete. Two. Two.
This isn’t happening.
Matt groans, mumbles something. Foggy tries to brace himself, knowing that if these really are the last words his hero is going to say, then he wants to remember them. “Matt?”
He coughs. Crimson bubbles up over his lips to stream down his chin.
Foggy wakes up.
A pounding on his front door. The sound stretches into his dreams, pulls him out. Matt blinks his eyes open, sits up and untangles himself from his sheets. Whatever’s going on, clearly someone has decided that it’s urgent.
He’s barely awake as he crosses the living room, the path one with which he’s well familiar. Has no clue what time it is, other than that he hasn’t yet heard his alarm. He feels like he just went to bed. It might be true. He knows he’d gotten in well after four.
Thud thud thud.
Something’s wrong. It grips him with a sudden certainty, having taken this long to penetrate the clouding tendrils of sleep. That incessant pounding. A few steps closer and he can tell that it’s Foggy on the other side. Frantic. Matt hurries to close the last of the distance.
He yanks open the door, and Foggy instantly swamps him in a hug that almost knocks him off his feet. Clumsy and smothering. Desperate.
“Foggy? What’s wrong? What happened?”
He’s definitely trembling, and maybe crying. Not making any sound, just a tiny hitching of his chest, his shoulders; it’s difficult to separate tears from sweat in all the salt Matt can taste in the air. Foggy’s clinging to him like he’s afraid Matt’s about to disappear. Nearly crushing him, and still not saying anything.
“Talk to me, Fog... what’s going on? Are you hurt? Karen?”
He’s never known Foggy to be so quiet; it’s freaking Matt out more than anything else. He can smell toothpaste – covering the hint of onions from his dinner, the beers he’d had with it that still coat his throat – but no blood. Foggy’s heart beats hard and fast against his chest.
“… saw you dead…”
A mumble, half buried in his shoulder, and Matt laughs at the absurdity of it. Immediately wishes he hadn’t. But he’s fine, obviously. And he doesn’t recall having been dead any time recently. “Not dead. Though I can’t really breathe.”
This is the wrong thing to say. Foggy’s hold spasms. Tightens. He sucks in a ragged swallow of air.
“Can we sit down maybe?” As an answer, the suffocating grip loosens again. Shifts. He doesn’t exactly support Foggy to the sofa, but they move together. Matt leaves him there, and goes into the kitchen to get a glass of water from the filtered tap.
He has a sip, walks back out and around the sofa to stretch out his arm so that Foggy can take it from him. He does, though Matt can feel how shaky he still is through the connection. He keeps ahold of it longer than he needs to, wanting to be certain that Foggy’s really got it. When the weight of the glass is lifted from his fingers – and doesn’t subsequently fall crashing to the floor – he runs the hand through his hair. Trying to wake up.
“What do you mean, you saw me dead?” It feels weird to say that sentence out loud. Foggy gives him nothing, but at least his heartrate’s beginning to slow a little. “What time is it, anyway?”
“Almost six.” It’s nearly inaudible, but it’s a response. He’s calming the longer he’s in the apartment, and Matt’s getting the sense that – whatever happened – it’s not quite as dire as it originally appeared. Serious, yes. Urgent? Not as much. He’s cold, and he leaves Foggy there for a moment to go back into his bedroom and put on a t-shirt.
When he returns to the living room, Foggy doesn’t seem to have moved at all. Matt sits beside him on the sofa, and the cushions squeak against each other. He can hear the tiny ripples of water in the glass Foggy’s holding. A sure sign he’s still trembling, even if Matt couldn’t already feel it through the furniture’s frame.
“What’s up?” he asks. It sounds too casual, like he’s just walked into the office on a Tuesday morning. But Matt can’t decide what tone he’s supposed to be reaching for here. Not when he has no idea what’s going on.
Foggy shakes his head, his hair whispering over the collar of his shirt. “Nothing. It’s stupid. Sorry to wake you up. I’ll go.”
He starts to get up; Matt stops him with a hand on his arm. “You’re here. Stay. Talk to me.”
Foggy remains seated, though he doesn’t relax. Corded muscles taut under Matt’s fingers; he gives the arm a squeeze that’s meant to be reassuring. His friend’s obviously working up to something. He tells himself to be patient, but all the uncertainty is making him tense too.
“There was just so much blood…” Foggy exhales. Matt almost doesn’t catch it.
“Fog… I’ve got no clue what you’re talking about.” It’s shaped as gently as he can sculpt it, but there’s a bit of exasperation in there as well. His brain feels like it’s barely functioning; he rubs at his burning eyes. “You’ve gotta fill in some blanks.”
“Nightmare. It’s stupid. I’m stupid.” He tries to stand again. Matt won’t let him, and there’s a splatter of water onto the wood floor as inertia and gravity wage a minor skirmish.
He’s all cotton softness, Matt realizes now. Sleepy warmth. It must have been a hell of a nightmare; he must have rushed over here. He wonders if Foggy’s wearing pajamas.
“You’re not stupid. Tell me.”
Another negative twitch of Foggy’s head. A couple of the water droplets have landed close to his bare feet; Matt pokes at one of the liquid bubbles with a toe. Patience.
“Whatever it was,” he tries, “it was just a dream. Look – I’m right here. I’m fine. Not bleeding, not dead.”
“You were hanging from a fucking cross,” Foggy snarls.
It’s vehement – rich with a palpable horror – and it shoves Matt back into the cushions. “I… What?”
“A cross. Somebody crucified you, man. I saw you die, on a fucking cross. Okay?”
It’s really not okay. A thousand Catholic school images battering at his brain all at once. “Wow. That’s… Jesus.”
He hadn’t intended for it to be funny, but Foggy chokes on a dark laugh. “No kidding.”
“I mean…” He can feel the points of the thick nails, itching his skin. Not through the hands, the feet, like in the pictures. The tiny bones in his hands would never hold up his weight. “That sucks.” It’s the best he can do. He’s lost to the visceral fantasy.
“Yeah.” Foggy settles a little more into the sofa, some of the spell dissipated now that the incantation has been described aloud. “Sorry. You don’t need to hear this.”
He doesn’t want to hear it. He’s afraid that the image will be following him into his own nightmares. “Just a dream,” Matt says. To both of them.
“Yeah,” Foggy says again. He doesn’t sound convinced.
There’s a stretchy silence, and Matt wishes he could see Foggy’s expression. But the cues he does have are positive ones. Even if it feels like he’s buying Foggy’s calm by absorbing all of his best friend’s stress.
It feels like he deserves it.
“Listen,” he says, when the silence starts to pile up around his ears and it seems as if he should say something, “I know you’re not crazy about the whole…” The sentence trails off, as if couching it in vague terms will somehow make the idea of a blind man fighting crime in a costume sound less absurd. Less dangerous. “But I’m okay. You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Sure. What could go wrong?” It’s flippant. Maybe a little bitter.
“I know what I’m doing, Fog.”
“Right. Because you read the secret manual on this superhero thing. The one they printed in Braille.”
Matt flinches; it feels a particularly low blow. Pointed. Not like Foggy. “Somebody has to do it.”
“Do they? Do they really? Say they do – why’s it have to be you, Matt?”
“Because I can. Because there’s nobody else.”
It’s the truth. He thinks Foggy knows it too, underneath all of the frightened anger. It may be the only reason this secret didn’t completely destroy their friendship when it was exposed. He feels Foggy shudder suddenly and violently beside him, brushed by the last lingering fingerprints of the dream.
“It’s okay,” Matt says. “I’m okay.”
The traffic’s beginning to pick up outside, a snail trail of commuters getting a start to their workday. Inside his apartment, the night still clings sticky to the air. “You want coffee?” he asks, after a handful of mute minutes tick by. “Breakfast?”
“I should go home,” Foggy says. “Shower. Change.” He doesn’t move.
“You could come in later,” Matt offers, wedging his pinkie into a small hole he’s just now found in the seam of his leather sofa. He feels another stitch pop. Forces himself to quit it. “I know the guys in charge. I’ll put in a word.”
“And what? Go back to sleep?” A shiver, less dramatic this time. “No thanks. I’ll take the coffee.”
“All right.” Matt pushes himself out of the cushions; the leather makes a muffled noise of protest. He returns to the kitchen, busies himself with grinding the beans. His wrists ache; they feel scored, punctured, weeping. He’s aware that this is profoundly ridiculous.
He can’t see the rising sun, but he loiters in the kitchen while the coffee brews to give it more of a chance to brighten things. By the time he gets back out to Foggy, steaming mugs in hand, the light that he knows must be here seems to have rousted most of the dream fragments from the room.
For his friend, at least. Matt sits next to Foggy, struggling not to fidget.
“You, uh, have dreams like that often?” It’s asked into his coffee. He doesn’t want to bring it up, with things finally settling. Doesn’t really want to hear the answer. But it’s not something he’s ever considered.
“Not before I knew my best friend likes to chase criminals over rooftops. These days? Yeah.” It’s a snapped out response. Honest. It turns Matt’s head uselessly in his direction; the surprise must read clearly on his face, because Foggy’s already trying to mitigate it. “I mean, no – not really. Not like that. Not that bad. I swear.”
“Sorry.” A murmur. All Matt can think of to say.
His alarm goes off, a melody drifting from his phone in the other room. A combination of notes that was chosen to sound more pleasant than any shrill generic beeping; after so long serving as a wake up call its melody can be associated with nothing other than annoying. Matt gets up, carrying his mug with him as he wanders in there to turn it off. Six-thirty then. It feels like today’s going to be exhausting.
“I should have just called,” Foggy says, when Matt rejoins him. “I just, you know…”
“It’s fine. I’m fine. And I’m not going anywhere.” He splashes through a shallow puddle in front of the sofa, redirects his steps toward a towel. “You need me,” he calls from the kitchen. The towel’s not where it belongs, and he has to search the counter with groping fingers to find it. “Can’t have a law firm without an and. Just sounds wrong.”
“True,” Foggy agrees. Matt brings the towel back with him, drops it on the floor where he thinks most of the water is pooled. Uses a foot to nudge the cotton around in that general direction. “’The Law Firm of Nelson’ doesn’t really have the same ring.”
“Exactly. Plus you’d have to change the sign.”
“And we definitely don’t have the money for that. So I guess it’s settled, then.” The joviality doesn’t feel entirely sincere, but the effort’s there. An improvement. Foggy tugs slightly at the edge of the towel, a tiny warning before he yanks it out from under Matt’s foot. “Move. I’ve got it.”
He surrenders his attempt at clean up, lowers himself back down onto the sofa and sips at his hot coffee. It gradually melts the morning chill from his hands. The absorbent fibers of the towel swish across the floorboards.
“This is a big part of why I didn’t tell you, you know.” It sounds remarkably like Matt’s voice, but he hadn’t intended to say it. The words sit there between them, heavy with their truth. “I don’t want you to have to worry. I never did.”
“I know. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, man.”
Matt lets the corner of his mouth quirk into a piece of a grin. “But I’m so good at guilt. The Catholicism.”
It has an opposite effect than the one he’s aiming for. Foggy swallows hard. “Do me a favor, and don’t mention your religion for a while okay?” There’s a quiver to it, and Matt curses himself for being an idiot.
“Sure. Yeah. Sorry.” He tries to imagine what it would feel like to have a nail driven through your skin. To hang there on torn muscles and bruised bones. He clears his throat. Drinks his coffee.
Foggy’s a statue holding a mug, and at least ten minutes pass through without him moving. Speaking. Matt’s cramming each of those minutes with tissue paper layers of compulsively invented detail, adding more and more realism to the shared nightmare in his head.
He can’t seem to stop.
It’s the only thing he can see; he’s been infected with it like a virus. “I’m going to shower,” he says, feeling unaccountably grimy. He’d collapsed into bed shortly after stumbling in his window, had barely bothered to get the costume off. The city’s smudged all over him. “Have as much of the coffee as you want.”
Running water and routine work together to wash away most of the dream, but it lurks at the back of his brain. Hisses through the steam that swirls around his head when he opens the bathroom door. He knows even before he calls Foggy’s name that the apartment is empty. The echo floats around the space with nowhere to land.
When he gets to the office an hour later, Foggy’s already there. Shampoo and aftershave and fresh manufactured fabrics. He’s in the middle of telling Karen a joke, every bit of him playing the clown. He manages to avoid being alone with Matt for the rest of the day.