It's the Great Pumpkin, John McClane

Chapter 3

The next time John commented on the nails, Matt officially branded it some kind of fetish.

They were climbing out of the shower, and Matt pulled the towel right over his head the way he always did, walking around dripping all over John’s floor, instead of drying the rest of himself off first. Kid had the worst locker-room etiquette ever.

He was rubbing vigorously at his hair, and the black on white made him look a little like a something out of 101 Dalmatians when he emerged from the cotton, dark hair forming peaks and horns in every direction, eyelashes clumped together around those big puppy-dog eyes. John told him as much, that’s all.

“Wow, if I had’ve known this turned your crank so hard, I would have done it way sooner. Almost makes me wish I kept the piercings.”

“Piercings?” John actually didn’t like the sound of that. Much. 

“Nothing exciting. Too much eyebrow going on for that particular little act of douchebaggery.” Matt waggled his bushy dark brows to demonstrate. “Same deal with the lip. So, I just did the nose.”

Matt wiped the steam off the mirror and leaned into his reflection, prodded at the side of his nose where the hole must have been once. He opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue before he started combing through the jungle growing on his scalp.

“Had to ditch the tongue stud. Too many dudes wanting to take it for a test drive. It works fine on girls too, but somehow, they’re never the ones to make filthy innuendo while you’re shaking their Sourpuss apple-tini.”

“How many ‘dudes’ we talking about, exactly?”

Matt paused with the comb hovering above his dripping ebony waves, met John’s eyes puckishly in the mirror.

“Come on, McClane, you think you were the first guy to give me the trick or treat line?”

“You told me you never…”

“I didn’t.” Matt made his eyes wide for emphasis. “I worked in a Goth bar. God, maybe a little public stand-up macking action but you don’t just go home with anybody. You know, it’s a good thing I’m here to guide you through this whole sexual awakening thing because, man, you would TOTALLY be the guy to find out the hard way that the chick with the razorblade jewellery doesn’t just wear it for show.”

“I’m just old, kid, not a moron. You punks are aware the cops know a razor is for coke, right?”

“Co…caine? People are still doing that stuff?” Matt winked into the mirror before turning around to face him. “That’s not all a razor is good for, Detective,” Matt said, as John reached past him for the shaving cream.

“Then again, I kind of wish I could see what would happen to the first skid who tried to go all Cullen-styles with you.”

John had no idea what that meant, and he wasn’t going to ask. He had a better question.

“Y’know, you never told me what makes you into a head case around your birthday.”

Matt finally wrapped the towel around his waist and regarded him thoughtfully for a moment before responding. If you could call “I thought we were done playing 20 questions” a response.

“Whatever kid, you’re a grown up – shaddup.” he said, before Matt could open his smart mouth and point out John had just called him ‘kid’ and ‘grown up’ in the same breath. “You don’t wanna talk, don’t talk. Never said I was gonna stop asking.”

John nudged him with an elbow and Matt moved away from the sink to let John at the mirror. He started to spread the shaving cream over his face. Under the nose first.

“No it’s…it’s fine, I just don’t get it. What is it that you want to know so bad?”

“You don’t get it? Then I’m doing a shitty job of a fuck load of things. I want to know you, so bad, kiddo. That’s all.”

“Okay. But last time you seemed…and right now you’re holding a sharp object.” Matt watched as John picked up his razor and set it to the spot where the line of his side-burns used to be. He would move on to the head next anyway, but it was an old habit. 

“Why, should I sit down? Is this story gonna be worse than the last?”

“My birthday? Same shit, different day. Just like now.” Matt looked down and started picking at his nail polish. He stopped when John shot him a look in the mirror. He sighed, but he kept talking.

“Birthday parties were a big deal in my parents’ circle. It was like some kind of obnoxious pissing contest to see who could throw their kid the biggest, most obscene display of conspicuous consumption. One year they had this whole circus theme for my party. Which was weird, come to think of it, because usually it was some kind of monster thing.” Matt shrugged, and John nodded. Right. Halloween. Had to get old for a little kid.

“There were clowns and this whole petting zoo…we can skip over the part where there were ducks in the pool. Which we tried to feed birthday cake to. Which of course clogged the filter and put Greg in a mood.”

“…It’s almost stupid,” Matt said, as John finished up with the razor. Under the nose last.

“There were these cages for the animals being stored in our garage. Well, guess where he put me this time. Here’s a hint, if you say Shetland pony enclosure you win the Kewpie doll!”

John looked over at Matt as he rinsed the razor and tapped it into the sink. He’d worry about his head later. Matt’s light, irreverent tone was a bad sign. This was no joke.

Matt rubbed his arms like he was starting to chill off. It probably hadn’t been the best time to ask. Talk about feeling naked.

“Come on,” John said, taking him by the shoulders and turning him toward the hall. “We’ll get dressed and you can tell me the rest.”

He directed Matt to the bedroom with a hand on the back of his neck. When they got there though, Matt just kind of stood around, so John went into his drawer and pulled him out a t-shirt and jeans. Pair of boxers and socks. It was pretty easy sharing your space with somebody whose entire wardrobe fit into a single dresser drawer. John would have to do something about that soon, too.

“Thanks,” Matt said, when John handed the clothes over. Good. Not completely catatonic then.

Matt was a little slow, maybe, getting dressed. But when he finished he sat on the edge of the bed next to John. He rubbed his hands over his thighs a couple of times.

“Ready for the thrilling conclusion?”

“Whenever you are,” John answered. He wasn’t so sure about this digging stuff any more. At first he’d thought it would help Matt to talk but now…John wanted to get to know him, that was true, but the last thing he wanted was to make things harder on Matt.

“Where was I? Oh right. I was in the pony paddock. Except. It was a cage, John. Like a real cage, with hay and a water bottle on the side and bars. And it wasn’t dark in there or anything, I don’t know why it was so much worse than the closet but I– he didn’t want anyone finding me so he made sure I wouldn’t yell or call for help. It’s so…it’s stupid.”

John reached out and took Matt’s hand, where it was busy picking destructively at the seam of his jeans. He didn’t say ‘tell me’. He waited for Matt to decide.

“He took my clothes,” Matt said.

John made sure not to crush Matt’s hand this time. He thought about how they had been standing around mostly nude in the bathroom not five minutes ago. Boy, he could really pick a moment. John rubbed his thumb over the back of his hand and Matt took a breath.

“Somebody did find me though. It was Warlock. Well, he wasn’t the Warlock back then, he was just Freddy. ‘Fat Freddy’. God, kids can be so mean. We weren’t exactly friends yet. He didn’t go to my school, we met at Space Camp and I guess that party couldn’t have been much fun for him if he was wandering around on his own. All those private school kids…he never had that many friends anyway. His dad was in the army, he moved around a lot.”

Army brat. John wasn’t sure that was entirely the reason Freddy didn’t have a lot of friends, but he kept that to himself.

“Anyway, he was the one to let me out. I don’t know what I said to him, I probably wasn’t that polite, told him to get lost or something. I didn’t want him looking at me or anything. Obviously. Pre-pubescent nudity aside, I was also officially too old and definitely too macho and tough to be caught crying.” Matt gave a wry twitch of his mouth that wasn’t quite a smirk.

“It’s the weirdest people that always surprise you though…” Matt stopped his story and looked at John meaningfully for a few seconds. John wasn’t sure if he was supposed to ask what Matt was getting at, but Matt continued with his story before he could get the words out, anyhow.

“He gave me – get this – literally the shirt off his back. Which was a big deal for him because he was shy. About his weight. It was like a dress on me, it was pretty hilarious, but it was enough. I was covered up enough to run around the back of the house and get some clothes. He waited for me in that garage, to come back with his shirt. I never thought about it ‘til later but he was almost in the same boat as I was. In that cage, I mean. He didn’t want to be seen without his shirt any more than I wanted to be caught in – no pun intended – my birthday suit. But he sat there and trusted me to come back and let him out. Neither of us really knew what it was like, having a real friend before. We never did go back to that birthday party. We took off to his house."

For the first time since they’d started all these stories, the memory made Matt smile.

“…He showed me his computer.”

Then Matt did something John didn’t expect. He threw his arms around John’s neck and hung on for a minute. It was awkward, sitting side by side on the bed like they were, but John ran his hands up Matt’s back and held on as best he could.

“Thank you,” Matt said. It was muffled against John’s shoulder but it was pretty easy to understand.

“Do you realize I’ve never told all this to anyone who wasn’t being paid for it before?” Matt said, when he leaned back again. “Nobody. Ever. So, thanks. For listening. No, thank you for asking.”

A quick peck on the lips and Matt was standing up in front of him.

“I’m gonna go get something to eat. You hungry?”

“Sure,” John answered, and got up to follow. But he stopped in the hallway and watched as Matt clattered insouciantly away down the stairs – safe and more or less whole. His limp was barely noticeable any more on a good day, although he would probably have that sort of shuffle for the rest of his life. It wasn’t like the kid’d had a pro ball career ahead of him, anyway.

Life had knocked Matt around nearly as much as it had John. Maybe more. He was bound to be a little worse for the wear; shaken up, even damaged maybe, but not broken. John took a moment to let the kid’s sheer endurance, that untiring resilience sink in. He was strong and beautiful and way smarter than was good for anyone. And he was here. With John.  

And he had thanked him. So all of this digging was maybe getting them somewhere.

John leaned a fist against the wall so he could prop his forehead on it, and just wished it didn’t take so damn much out of him.


John’s fingers felt stiff, and he fumbled with the rasp of the lighter twice before he got it lit. It was getting too cold out for this shit.

He pocketed the lighter and inhaled slowly, savouring. The first drag was always the best one. He’d bought the first pack toward the end of July, just wanting to take the edge off the aftershocks. But that was how it always started wasn’t it? And this was where it always landed him, lurking outside behind his own trash bins, hunched against the cold like a foraging rodent. All for a lousy smoke.

It wasn’t lost on him, completely. If there was one thing this week was actually making sense of, John could get that it wasn’t just the smoking. He remembered Matt’s casual assessment of the ‘sleep rescuing’, the broken glass. They both had their demons, and Matt lived with John’s too. Every day. Never really brought ‘em up though. Chalk up another karma point in the Farrell column.

Matt was so damn hyperactive half the time, John completely missed how unbelievably patient he could be. Matt knew John was smoking, “probably chain smoking” he’d said, at the hospital that day, even though John didn’t think that was exactly accurate. It couldn’t be clearer what he thought about it, but he never pushed the issue, really.

John was damn sure this was a bad time to try and quit again though. It was the not knowing what to do about all of this shit with Matt that made it the worst. John had a certifiable carousel of bullshit spinning, here.

There were moments when John didn’t think he’d ever been this angry. And with people he’d never even fuckin’ met. He never wanted so bad to track a jerkoff down and…what? Try and be the bigger sicko? Not happening. And just the thought of Elizabeth Carter, what it must have been like being married to the fucker. What could a woman’s life be like, what could she be so afraid of, to make her either hard or just plain numb enough to fucking give up like that. Not only on her own life, but her only child’s. Well, she’d paid for it. She’d lost him, to drink and fear and pride.

And John thought about drink and pride and how lucky he was with Lucy. And he tried not to think about Jack. How he could have ended up a lot more like Matt. How, for all John knew, he was. And then he felt sort of sick and disgusted with himself and thought about what Matt must think of him for it. And then he felt even sicker because how could Matt have time to think about that, not between the new traumas and his old ones. How truly, seriously fucked up that was. It wasn’t just confinement, not just punishment at all. It was psychological warfare; the humiliation, the isolation, the violence.  And then he just got right back to angry.

And around we go. It was fuckin’ exhausting.

Tired. Right. That too. John almost forgot that one. He dropped the butt in the driveway and crushed it out on the heel of his boot before making his way back inside. It really was getting too cold out for this shit.


John got the next story without having to dig.

 He clicked off the bedside lamp. His eyes had a dry burn of fatigue to them and hadn’t adjusted yet when Matt’s voice came from out of the darkness, next to him.

“You know, I don’t think I’ll go to Baltimore on Tuesday. Warlock should really see the city, don’t you think? Let him do the trip this year. He’s the one with a car. That was his dad’s car, that old one we took...”

John wasn’t going to point out it was a classic. He knew where that would get him.

John hadn’t been expecting to get the Warlock’s story as a special bonus offer, when he signed up for Matt’s, but it turned out Freddy’s home life in that Connecticut town was nothing like the one Matt had.

Matt’s parents were polite and smiled at everyone they met. But they were sick and cruel behind the curtain. Mrs Kaludis…well she was different, that’s for sure. Apparently, she was home with Freddy so rarely that Matt had never actually met her before, but he had seen her come to pick Freddy up from camp. Matt admitted she was strange and loud and tended to ‘creep people out’ a bit, but she never pretended to be anything she wasn’t. She wasn’t much of a housekeeper, or a cook either, but she didn’t really have time to be back then. She worked two jobs to give Freddy whatever he wanted.

“It was great. They had this crazy, messy, tiny house,” Matt said. “There was all kinds of food and toys – video games and Twinkies. Jos. Louis just everywhere. It’s probably how he got so fat and spoiled, come to think of it but…I don’t think it was always like that.”

Freddy’s father died before he and Matt met, but Freddy talked about him a lot. How he taught him to throw a spiral, took him fishing, all the stuff neither he nor Matt ever got to do, now. It had been a pretty big blow to Freddy’s mother when she got the news her husband had died in a downed helicopter transport over Grenada. The personal loss had only been the beginning. The investigation into the helicopter accident revealed a leak, that was eventually traced back to Kaludis himself. There was a court martial and Mrs Kaludis lost her husband’s pension, and Matt was sure, her pride.

Matt thought she had done a pretty good job with Freddy anyway, considering. They started to spend more and more time together, and Matt learned the things Freddy could do with a computer. Math was Matt’s favourite subject in school, and he was thrilled to discover that half of programming was all about numbers. He was good at it.

A little too good. Bingo.

“Warlock had always wanted to see his Dad’s files, get the stories about all the stuff he’d done before he died. So he could find out the good, and not just the bad.” John could see where this was going.

It was no mystery how Matt could have sympathy for a kid whose father had done something shitty, but was otherwise pretty much an unknown. A boy that age could get a lot of heroic ideas about his old man, especially one he’d never met.

“It was just kind of a pipe dream. We tried hacking into the USAF database all the time, just for kicks. We never thought we’d get in, in a million years. Security changed too frequently. About once every 72 hours from what we could tell. So then, I started taking calculus at school. I figured all we needed was to make it faster. I thought if I could put in a function instead of an integer into the tumbler Warlock had built…well needless to say, we tried it. And.”

Matt flipped his hands over, in a ‘there you have it’ gesture.

“At first we were scared shitless. We were so busy trying to accomplish it we forgot all about the file. But the cops didn’t come banging on the door, SWAT didn’t come busting through the windows. We started to feel pretty cocky about it.”

“That how you got caught?”

“No actually. The hack was perfect. It was my asthma that eventually got us busted. Or, my lack of B&E skills, really.”

Matt was still talking so John let that one go for the moment.

“Once we started looking around, we did find something. Ronnie Kaludis didn’t die in a transport accident at all. He’d been shot. In a freak friendly-fire incident during a training exercise. Warlock was kind of happy. You know, that his dad’s name was cleared. But...”

“You weren’t,” John said.

“Because it wasn’t! We couldn’t tell anyone. And that was just so… It’ wasn’t that he was a hero, exactly. It’s not like he died pulling babies from a fire or anything like that. But we found out other stuff too. There really had been a leak, and the brass needed a scapegoat. When the accident happened, a bullshit story like the one they gave the press was the perfect opportunity to cover their sloppy safety protocols at the same time.”

John was no babe in the woods, he was an NYPD cop. Corruption and cover-ups weren’t exactly news to him.

“Two fuckin’ birds,” he said, voice low in understanding, and Matt nodded.

“Nothing was going to get Mrs Kaludis her pension back or anything like that, but she deserved to know what we knew. She deserved…everyone to know, you know? That her husband wasn’t a traitor. The Base in the next town over where Freddy’s dad used to be stationed…everyone she knew, everyone who used to work with Ronnie worked there. I thought if we could just tell them.”

It wasn’t like he didn’t know where this was all headed. But for some reason, John was starting to feel nervous.

“We wrote a timed program that would pull up Ronnie’s file on every computer in the base’s network and lock out the user so they couldn’t help but see it. They wouldn’t be able to do anything else for three hours, not even a hard shutdown. That was all kind of a pipe dream too. The base was on a closed network, we couldn’t just crack it like the USAF database. You had to actually tap into the hardline and install it.”

“This where your B&E skills came into play?”

“Not exactly. It was a US Military base, man. There was no way we were getting in there!” Matt gave as short little huff that wasn’t exactly a laugh. “We shelved it. We didn’t touch the program for years, even though we always talked about it. We were teenagers now, and we weren’t exactly the chest-beating jock type, but still. We liked to talk a big game, sometimes. And that’s all it was. Warlock finished high school and his mom was ready to move again, now that she wouldn’t be uprooting him, so I didn’t see much of him any more. And then. That was it.”


“You’re getting good at this.”

They exchanged a dry half-smile.

“Until,” Matt continued, “they invited me right in. My school was doing a field trip. Some kind of Career Day thing. I don’t think any of my teachers believed I wanted to be a soldier, but I signed up for the Base tour anyway. They probably just thought I was in it for the free day of skipping out on class. They weren’t completely wrong.”

Matt smiled a little to himself, but he wasn’t meeting John’s gaze any more. It looked like John’s sudden nerves might be rubbing off.

“It had been years. I don’t know what made me bring the disc with me.”

For a moment, John thought that was going to be the end of this chapter. But after a few beats, Matt picked up the thread again.

“You said something to me, on the Fourth of July. About the Fire Sale. That it isn’t about a system. It’s about people. Alone and hiding in their houses. But…to me, the kind of people I knew weren’t the kind of people you help. They were the system. The people I knew weren’t like Warlock, they were more like those bigwigs who covered up his dad’s story. People like my parents.”

Matt broke off for a minute, like he couldn’t decide whether to say what was coming out next.

“I wanted them to feel scared and alone for once. Shake them up a little in that big frigid fortress of a house, maybe. People like that think they control the world. Everything. Reminding them how fragile that control is…how dependent they really are on a system that can fail…that could be used against them…what if the people they thought they could control got some of that power for themselves?”

This happened sometimes. John watched Matt stop the tangent and bring himself back from the radical fringe. He bit his lip and switched gears back to the task at hand.

“It wasn’t even real B&E. I snuck into an empty office and all it took was the two longest, most terrifiying minutes of my whole fucking life. Then? Done. I was a criminal. And not a very stealthy one either. I guess when I was digging in my bag to get the disc out, I dropped my inhaler. It’s a prescription, it had all my information on it; name, address. It was pretty clear exactly who hadn’t stuck to the approved tour.”

When Matt finally got his court date, that teacher of his, Vargas, was called as a character witness. He told them Matt was a good kid, bright and full of potential. But he also told the story of the day he’d come to class with that black eye.

“It was…the whole thing got turned into a giant mud-slinging Olympics,” was how Matt put it.

John watched the brittle tension in Matt’s shoulders, the careful control over his usually-open features as he explained his mother had ‘taken Greg’s side’ – testified that he’d never laid a hand on him. John couldn’t imagine.

Matt said maybe she was scared of him, or maybe she still had some sick compulsion to save face, but John suspected she’d been clinging to the barest hope that if she could convince them it was a safe home environment, they might let her keep her son. And then Matt said that during the proceedings, she showed up drunk to court. That John could imagine. He’d seen it enough.  

“It took weeks of court time, but in the end they were both declared unfit, I was officially labelled a delinquent and…”

Matt raised a shoulder.

“So, now you know. The big story. I got two years in juvie because I wasn’t enough of a criminal. Only knew how to cover my digital tracks. Warlock caught shit for it too. He got 500 hours of community service for his role with the key generator and he was pretty pissed about it. Refused to answer any of my letters when I was in. When I got out though, heh. He wasn’t even answering to ‘Freddy’ any more. Seemed like everybody online knew what had gone down, and he didn’t mind the underground street cred it earned him. I was back in his good books I guess. And suddenly people everywhere knew my name too. It...well there was an acclimatization factor, that’s for sure.”  

Matt looked away again.

“Look, I want you to know I get how that crazy anarchist shit I say just makes me sound like...fuck, like fucking Gabriel. God I don’t know. Maybe I was. But John, I just...”

John waited. Nothing came. It wasn’t possible. The kid had finally talked himself out. Didn’t looked like it agreed with him. Now that his mouth had stopped moving, Matt moved to stick the side of his thumbnail in it. John caught his hand before he could start tearing at it.

“The difference between you and Gabriel,” John said, slow, so Matt had time to turn his face back toward him. “Is you wanted to help somebody, Matt. He was out to hurt people.”

“No, yeah, I know. I mean I– I did mostly only think about who I was helping. But. It’s like I said, I was okay with hurting too. Some people.”

John thought about his smoke break earlier. Matt wasn’t the only one guilty of wanting to get back at those particular people.

“He also wanted to destroy the country and steal a bunch of shit that didn’t belong to him.” John pointed out. “‘Least you were ready to stop at whistle blowing.”

In a contained environment to boot.

“But you maybe could have picked a better method. I mean, I hear ya kid, I do. The system ain’t perfect. But if everybody decided to pick and choose which laws to follow...”

“I know! Believe me, I know. I mean if July wasn’t enough of a demonstration – NSA consultant now, remember?” Matt asked, pointing at his chest. “Tiger-teamer on a very short leash, apparently. Half my jobs consist of workin’ for the man now. I’m a successful product of the correctional system. Lesson officially learned. Twice.”

That meant Matt didn’t want to hear any more preaching from Johnny Law on the subject. John figured he could handle that, for now anyway. He sure didn’t plan on bringing this up very often.

John was feeling kind of talked out too. He reached out over Matt and pulled until he was a close, comfortable armful.

Matt was quiet for a minute before he said, “I should have made another one of those deals. Where the daring detective has to do whatever the recovered juvenile deviant wants. That was highly classified information. That should have been good for at least twice.”

John raised an eyebrow, even though Matt couldn’t see it, with his head where it was, tucked under John’s chin.

“Twice doing ...?”

“Tell you what,” Matt purred, sliding a hand over John’s hip and drawing himself even closer until his skin pressed warm up against John’s. “I’ll show you, the first time around. Then you can take the second inning.”


They were laying together, letting their breathing return to normal. John ran his thumb over a raised, round little scar, on Matt’s inner forearm.

Maybe he’d noticed it before but, much like the mark on Matt’s forehead, if he did he’d never given much thought to it – chicken pox or whatever, he supposed.

Matt was quiet, watching what John was doing. But when their eyes met, that guarded look John thought he’d seen the last of was back.

There was something Matt had said, that reminded John he’d seen marks like this on some of his arrests, when they were still new – angry, blistered and scabbed.

 “I thought he never put a cigarette out on you?”

“He didn’t.” Matt’s tone was clipped.

“Come on, kid, you gonna make me say it?”

“I’m not lying,” Matt’s voice was oddly expressionless. “That wasn’t him. That’s from juvie.”

Jesus, fuck. This getting to know Matt was supposed to bring them closer. All it seemed to be doing was pointing out how much further there was to go. John was really starting to worry that maybe Matt wasn’t the guy he thought he knew at all.

John let go of Matt’s arm, because suddenly, he wanted to snap things. Matt drew away immediately, like he’d been waiting to be free of him, and tucked his arm under the pillow.

When would he get used to this? It felt like the room was spinning. 

“Who did it to you?”

“Why, so you can look up their file and go track them down and return the favour? You don’t have the hair for the role, Conan.”

Matt was definitely not himself. The joke was old, and it was very certainly ill-timed. This was classic defensive Matt.

John put a hand over his eyes, and squeezed his temples. This whole thing was like a roller coaster. He couldn’t understand why Matt could describe some of the shit he’d seen with disturbingly perfect ease, and why others made him…like this.

“I’m just trying to find out what they did to you, in there. Minimum security is supposed to be...”

“Look, McClane.” There it was again. “Do we have to? With the twenty questions right now? I just. I’m not ready to talk about this one, okay?”

Matt rolled over, putting his back to him. And this time, John was the one to get out of bed.


The TV was on, but John wasn’t watching. It was just an excuse to sit down here and not sleep. The creak of the old wooden staircase told him he was about to have company.

“Couldn’t sleep?” Matt had pulled a hoodie on over his boxers, and had both hands jammed into the pocket, dragging the whole sweater down as far as it would go. It gaped at the neck, showing the fragile shape of his clavicle. 

You just told me somebody used you for an ashtray in juvie. Yeah, I’m the picture of relaxation. John said none of this out loud.

“Look, I’m sorry for that, upstairs. Shutting down on you. I keep forgetting that this isn’t just about me any more, ya know?”

Well what do you know, the kid really was a grown up.

“I’ll tell you about it. If you really want me to. But you can’ have to– I want you to tell me you won’t try and fix it when I do.”

John clicked the TV off. Matt came and sat on the couch so he was facing him.

“Are you sure you want to know this?”

“I told you I want to know all of it. All of you.”

Matt sighed like he didn’t like the sound of that.

“Okay. Remember that.” He pressed one hand to John’s cheek, briefly.

“They call it ‘cutting’,” Matt said. His eyes were trained on the floor, refusing to look John in the eye. “Even though some people actually scratch or bite, or use blunt objects, things. Like lighters. Or cigarettes.”

John felt sick again.

“You did it.”

Matt nodded. He still wouldn’t look at John.

“They say it happens to kids who go through emotional abuse. That it’s a way of shifting, focusing the mind on the body – physical pain instead of mental, or whatever. All I know is, it was a pretty effective distraction. Having a burn or a deep cut somewhere, that I could poke at instead of dwelling on – well, you know how it works. When you’re in pain it’s pretty hard to focus on anything else.”

It made sense. John wished to hell it didn’t, but it did. Shit, he almost thought he could take another bullet right now rather than think of Matt burning himself or deliberately keeping a deep cut open. And for no other reason than so he could prod at it, for a distraction from what was hurting him on the inside.

John looked down at his own hands but they were steady. Maybe he was getting better at this.

“In juvie...God. There’s just so much time,” Matt was saying. “Some of the guys went actually crazy from boredom. One of the younger kids pulled out all of his fingernails over the course of a month. It– you have a lot of time to think about the shit you did, you know, to hurt other people. The shit other people did to hurt you. It’s not– I’m not saying it’s a good idea. I’m definitely not saying it’s normal. I know it’s fucked. I’m just trying to...”

Matt gave up talking and pushed his hands into his hair, made little fists.

“You stopped though, right?” John asked. “This...cutting?”

Matt gave a mirthless laugh.

“Yeah. Yeah I– of course. In juvie there’s also a lot of time for therapy.”

Matt dropped his hands to his sides, and John reached out and took one.

“You wanted all of it.” Matt turned to look at him, finally. His eyes were shiny with what had to be suppressed tears.

“And now you think I’m crazy.” It came out mostly just a whisper.

“Yeah, maybe.” John said, and felt guilty for a second as Matt’s eyes threatened to spill over.

Obviously John’s conviction that there would be abso-fucking-lutely nothing wrong with that didn’t come through in his tone.

“But not for being screwed up by a fucking prison, and some wacko that put you through fucked-up isolation psych experiments. You’d be crazy if it didn’t mess you up.”

Matt’s expression eased, but only slightly.

“Just sayin’ maybe it’s a bit nuts to put up with an old shit like me, prying into all of this crap that’s maybe better left alone.”

Matt shrugged.

“I don’t know what’s better. But you have to put up with me, too. The weird night mares, the…nail polish.” He laughed a little, breathless with choking everything back like he was. “At least now, you know what you’re getting.”

They sat quietly looking down at the aforementioned nail polish for a few seconds. It seemed to be working. The little raw spots that had at first just been covered and sealed by the glossy black paint were showing through now but they were flat, instead of raised and swollen, and were starting to close and fade.

“So,” John said, finally. “Guess this means you used to smoke.”

“Well obviously I used to do a lot of things. I don’t– I just told you I’m a nut case, and you’re worried about a few cigarettes? Hope you keep the pot on speed dial, kettle-man.”

“No I mean, you used to smoke and now you don’t. You quit.”

“Yeah, I did. I quit.”

“Think you could help me do it?” John obviously had an ass-load more to learn about Matt. His story was worth sticking around for and John wanted to be around long enough to see how it turned out.

Matt looked at him, eyes big under his dishevelled bangs.

“Really? Seriously? You’re serious. Say it, say you’re serious.”

“I’m serious.”

“I love you!” Matt exclaimed. He put both hands up and cupped John’s face for a second. “Don’t move.”

“What pocket are your smokes in?” Matt called from the hallway, where John was sure he was digging through his jacket. John was too focused on the last thing Matt had said before leaving the room, to remember the answer. He shook his head, trying to get his focus back. He was being a fool. Taking the kid’s words out of context. Given the circumstances, he was pretty sure it didn’t count.

“Forget it, got ‘em!” John heard from the hall, followed by the sound of the kitchen trash can opening and closing with gusto.

Matt came back into the living room, and John didn’t think he’d actually seen anybody skip, in real life before. Matt plopped himself down on the couch and climbed into John’s lap.

“Congratulations, Detective McClane,” said Matt. “You’re a non-smoker.”

And he leaned forward and kissed John with an enthusiasm that could definitely be infectious.

“Not to break up the party,” John said, only a little unevenly, when they broke for air. “But don’t you think I’ve tried that before?”

“Uh uh.” Matt shook his head. “The key to quitting anything, is to replace it with another addiction.” Matt leaned in for a second, breath-stealing kiss. “I used caffeine. You,” Matt said, drawing John’s arms around his back, and winding his own around John’s neck. “Are going to use sex.”

It was a plan John could really get behind. Pun very much intended. He didn’t have time to share it though, because Matt had already quite effectively occupied his mouth. But after a second or two, he stopped what he was doing just as suddenly.

“Hey McClane.” Again with the last name. Matt must have something on his mind.

John waited; made little circles with his thumb, where his hand was resting on the lightly furred skin of Matt’s thigh.

“What I said before...when you said you wanted to quit. I...”

“I know, kid. Me too.”


“Really. Seriously, even.”

“Serious...oh, haha.”

“You don’t want to be serious with me?”

“No, no, I do. Want to be serious. I seriously want to be serious with you.”

“Good. Now are you seriously gonna help me with this addiction thing, or should I seriously go get my smokes out of the trash?”

Matt didn’t answer. He just pulled his hoodie over his head and dumped it on the floor with a flourish.

In the morning, John would call the doctor and make an appointment to talk about getting the patch, gum, whatever he could do to help make this quitting thing stick. But for now, he brushed his fingertips over Matt’s neck and collar bone, looking for the spot that always made him gasp and clutch at John urgently, so that he could lean down and apply his mouth to it.

The doctor might not think much of Matt’s strategy, but John was more than willing to give it a shot. Or two or three.

For a start.



Chapter 2 ~~~~~~~~ Back to Live Free or Die Hard ~~~~~~~~                



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