This is a crossover fic. Specifically, I've plucked a character from the Daredevil universe (Matt Murdock), the Stargate: SG-1 universe (Daniel Jackson), and the Law & Order: Criminal Intent universe (Bobby Goren) and set them down in a plausible setting. Plausible to me, at any rate. Bobby Goren might be a stretch for this story, but it's been strongly hinted in the series that his mother had mental problems. His father was never mentioned. Child Protective Services might well have taken him from his home and plunked him down in someplace like Saint Agatha's. So there.
Rating: PG-13 for language and disturbing imagery
Warnings: depictions of child abuse, but after the fact; language
Summary: Three friends meet, run, do battle, and learn their strengths in the middle of one of the coldest winters in New York's history.
Spoilers: none, apart from backstory.
"Frank, where's my library book?" Matt asked. The other children were already downstairs, standing in line before the school bus that would take them to the library. The book was due to go back today, and if he failed to return it his library privileges would be revoked. The New York Public Library system was very strict when it came to lending out their Braille books, especially to residents of Saint Agatha's Home.
His groping hands roved through his shelves, patting over his few belongings, but failed to find the book. It had been right here. He was very careful about that; had to be if he wanted to find things again. "Frank, come on. Where is it?"
"How the hell should I know, butthead?" His roommate lounged on his own bed, reading a magazine, Matt thought. His heart beat a bit faster in Matt's ears as he spoke, and he was laughing quietly. Matt's face burned in frustration. The boy was lying. He knew where the book was. Unfortunately, he was bigger and older, and had no fear of the nuns or of Matt. "Maybe you left it in the cafeteria."
The bus driver honked, and Matt clenched his fists in frustration. "Help me look. Please." He hated having to ask, but it was worth it. Reading was his only outlet, his escape.
Frank threw down his magazine and stood, looming over the younger boy. "Find it yourself." He shoved Matt suddenly, catching him unawares, and laughed when he fell. His cane went flying across the room, coming to rest against the wall, and something felt strange in his wrist. "Oops, sorry. Didn't see you there." Frank laughed again, and sauntered out of the room.
Frustration and anger clenched Matt's fist, and he pounded the floor. A moment later he regretted the action, as pain flared up in his wrist. He sat up and probed gently, but couldn't tell if it was broken or not. His fingers were stinging from the impact of breaking his fall, and his arms hurt all the way up to his shoulders.
Off to his left, something fluttered. The breeze from the open door stirred his hair as Matt picked his way over the floor, sweeping his hands before him and tapping every now and again to get a mental image of the room. The fluttering was muffled, enclosed somehow. Frank's bed. It was under the bed.
Matt lay on his stomach and reached. His fingers encountered dust, the glossy cover of what he was sure was a Playboy, cloth (dirty underwear by the smell), and, finally, the crisp and stiff pages of his missing book. "Yes!" He drew it out carefully and ran his hands over the cover, checking for damage. It seemed to be intact, if a bit dirty. The bus driver honked again, impatiently, and he scrabbled for his cane and coat, flying down the familiar stairs with sure feet.
In his haste, his attention wandered just a little. The radar sense that had replaced his sight after the accident was useful, but he was still learning how to filter through all the impressions it imposed on his mind. Smell, hearing, taste, touch were all enhanced, but it could be overwhelming and confusing if he wasn't concentrating. Now, in a hurry to catch the bus to the library, his hands still smarting from the fall, and his gut seething a bit from Frank's callous duplicity, his attention slipped.
The stair under his feet moved, rolling, and he fell with a surprised cry. Something rattled away to the bottom of the stairs, and he thought he heard laughter. His head hit something, and then everything went quiet.
He woke up to his familiar darkness, his head aching fiercely, and tried to figure out where he was. Soft mattress, scratchy linens, antiseptic smell, distant beeping and constant murmur of voices and movement. He had a moment of déjà vu, and wondered blearily if his father was going to be coming to get him soon. Matt had spent a lot of time in the hospital, after the accident that stole his sight, and recognized the sense memory. For a moment, he was back in the same room, his eyes burning, his senses waking up for the first time, and his father was still alive.
Then he remembered. Dad was dead, murdered by one of Fallon's enforcers, and Matt was a ward of the state. A wave of frustrated sadness washed over him and threatened to pull him under, but anger buoyed him up. His hands ached almost as fiercely as his head, and he realized his fists were clenched and trembling. Frank. It had to have been Frank.
The swish of fabric and the smell of frankincense heralded Sister Margaret before she pushed his door open. "It's Sister, Matt. How are you feeling?" She sat at his bedside and took his hand.
The fist relaxed in her warm, soft grip. Sister was okay, if a little naïve. Matt liked her. "I'm fine. My head hurts. Did my library book get returned?" His thoughts were still a little muddled. "I don't wanna lose my library card."
The nun stroked his hand reassuringly. "Don't worry, Matt. I'll explain it to the librarian. Can you tell me what happened?"
"I fell. I guess I was in a hurry and I tripped." If he ratted on Frank, the older boy would be certain to retaliate.
Silence from Sister. The soothing stroking went on, and Matt relaxed into the pillows. He was almost asleep when she spoke again. "Some of the boys heard Frank bragging. Do you remember anything?"
The stair moved under his foot. Clattering. Laughter and running feet. "Nothing, Sister," he lied. "I was in a hurry."
Her soft hands pulled away, and when she spoke, her voice was annoyed and angry. "I can't believe you think I'm that stupid, Matthew Murdock. I may be a nun, but I've been working with children for twenty years. I know when I'm being lied to. Now tell me what happened."
Matt flinched from her voice. He rubbed his aching head and closed his eyes. "I'm sorry, Sister. If I say anything, Frank will make my life hell. You can't protect me all the time. I have to live with the jerk."
"Humph. We'll see about that. Frank won't be living at Saint Agatha's any longer, if I have anything to say about it. The boy's a menace and a bully. Don't think I haven't noticed the bruises, and the way he teases you. Not just you. All the younger boys." Her voice softened and then she soothed the hair back from his brow. "Frank will be gone by the time you get back. Rest now."
The relief he felt at this news carried him into a dreamless sleep.
The hospital released him a few days later, and true to Sister's word, Frank was gone. Matt had the room to himself, though he knew it wouldn't last forever. There were two other beds, and he was sure they'd be filled soon enough. Hopefully, his new roommates would not be repeats of Frank.
Winter was coming on, the days growing colder and shorter. A steady rain was falling outside, and the sound of the thunder rolling across the city was giving Matt a headache. His radar was flaring, showing him a muddle of images in almost painful relief every time the booming cracks sounded, then rolled away. His ears were almost numb with noise, and he couldn't concentrate on the Braille under his fingertips. He kept losing his place and having to backtrack, until finally he gave up and pulled a pillow over his head, trying to block out the incessant noise.
He missed the knock on his door, and the little creak from the hinges as it opened. Sister's voice startled him. "Matt, you have a new room-mate. This is Daniel."
Matt sat up, apprehension making his heart pound. He was fearful of another Frank, or worse, but the boy said nothing as he crossed to his assigned bed and opened his suitcase. His footsteps were light, almost hesitant, and his heartbeat was going a mile a minute. Matt realized the boy was as afraid as he was.
"Well, aren't you going to say hello?" Matt didn't know who Sister was addressing, so he waved and murmured a greeting. Daniel didn't respond. "Well," said the nun, "I'll leave you boys to get acquainted. Daniel, supper will be ready in about an hour. Matt will show you the way." Still nothing from the new boy, and Sister left with a sigh, closing the door after her.
The room was quiet, except for the patter of rain overhead. Matt listened as the boy moved around, unpacking his few belongings. Each of the boys had a small chest of drawers, a nightstand with a lamp, and a desk. Matt listened with interest as Daniel pulled what sounded like books from his suitcase. "Do you like to read?" he asked.
No response from the boy, but Matt heard him flinch. There was a pause, and then he went back to arranging his things. He was moving slowly, and his breathing was a little hesitant. Every now and again, he'd gasp and go still for a moment or two, then start moving again. He was moving like he was in pain, but he made no sound apart from those quick breaths.
"Bad placement?" Matt asked softly. Most of the foster parents in the system were good people, but some weren't. Some were very bad. The boy didn't respond, but he went very still and very very quiet, his breaths coming in sips. "It's okay. You don't have to be afraid. This is a good place." Now that Frank was gone, anyway, he added mentally.
"What happened to your head?" Daniel asked softly, his voice a near whisper. It was a very young voice. The boy couldn't be older than ten, maybe eleven. Matt was thirteen.
He touched the bruise that still marred his temple and grimaced. "I fell down the stairs. The bus was about to leave for the library and I was in a hurry. What about you? How did you get hurt?" He kept his tone light, but the boy startled like a wild animal.
"How did you…." he broke off, and Matt sensed he was being scrutinized. "Sister Margaret told me you were blind." Now the tone was accusing. Matt grinned a little; the boy's spirit hadn't been crushed, only bruised.
"I am. I'm not deaf, though. I hear how you're moving, how you're breathing. Does Sister know?" He found his cane and slipped off the bed. Daniel froze and backed away a little. "Easy. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
"I'm fine. Leave me alone." The soft voice had some iron in it now, and Matt stopped half way across the room.
"Okay, whatever." The rain was slowing down, the thunder in the far distance. Appetizing smells were wafting up from the kitchen. Meatloaf and green beans for supper. Matt's stomach growled, startling a huff of laugher from Daniel. "'Scuse me. It's been a while since lunch. You hungry?"
A rustle of slightly too long hair against the boy's sweatshirt as he shook his head. "No. Not really."
Another waft of scent. "We're having chocolate walnut cookies for dessert. You sure you're not hungry?" The rich smell of the chocolate filled his head, drowning out any other smell. This time it was Daniel's stomach that growled.
"I guess, maybe a little," he admitted reluctantly. A rustle of fabric, and a wisp of echo formed the image of a slight boy, his arms crossed across his chest in a kind of self-hug. It was a gesture Matt was familiar with; children needed touch, needed comfort, and parentless children learned to fulfill that need for themselves.
"Come on, then. I'll show you the way." Matt didn't reach out to touch. That would be a mistake right now. Instead, he pulled on his shoes and tapped out with his cane, leading the way down to the cafeteria. Soft footsteps behind him told him Daniel was following.
The cafeteria was crowded and noisy, but Matt was used to it. He navigated through the line and collected his tray, then wove through the tables to an empty one and sat. Daniel followed, a silent shadow that flinched at the noise of the twenty or so boys who lived at the House, all talking at once.
Sister Marie rang her bell, and the noise stilled as she led them in the Our Father. Daniel mumbled, clearly unfamiliar with the words, and Matt wondered what the boy was doing at a Catholic orphanage, if he wasn't Catholic. "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day…." The prayer droned on to its conclusion, the rote muttering of the words turning it into a duty rather then an honest act of worship. There were a few boys who believed, but life had knocked the faith out of most of the residents of Saint Agatha's.
"…For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power and the Glory, for ever and ever. Amen." Noise crested again, and Matt winced as the dull roar of voices filled the room, combining with the clash and clatter of silverware and chipped china to make his head ache anew. The thunderstorm had been battering his ears most of the day, leaving them sensitive and sore, and his stomach abruptly tied itself in a knot. Even the promise of cookies wasn't very appetizing. Matt pushed his plate away and groped for his water glass. It wasn't there.
"Looking for something, Murdock?" Cold, wet plastic touched the back of his hand and was lifted away again before he could make a move for it. John Gaines, one of Frank's pack, had slid up beside him through the cacophony. Matt hadn't heard him, hadn't smelled him through the suddenly nauseating odor of food and boys and the faint whiff of mildew from the old building. "I know you went crying to Sister, little bug," the hateful voice hissed in his ear. "I know you got Frank thrown out. Stupid move, blind boy. You'll never know what hit you." The cup was set down gently, carefully, next to Matt's right hand.
Anger and fear seethed together like snakes in his gut. "I don't know what you're talking about, asshole. Back off." He pulled away from the older boy, picked up his glass and sniffed it. A sour smell met his nose, and the smell of meatloaf. He put the cup down again.
"Aren't you thirsty, bug?" John said.
"Go back to your table, Mr. Gaines," Sister called. The boy patted Matt on the shoulder, and moved away without another word.
From across the table, Daniel said softly, "He spat in your water."
"I know. Thanks." Matt felt eyes on him, and his skin was crawling. He was used to being watched; being blind meant people noticed you, and sometimes stared. It was a weird feeling, but one he'd learned to live with. Now, the stares were angry, hostile, and Matt felt very exposed. "I'm going back to the room. Do you remember the way?"
He heard Daniel nod, "Yeah." Picking up his cane, Matt made his way out of the room and up the stairs, feeling each step carefully for obstacles. There weren't any, this time, but he'd have to be careful from now on, and warn Daniel to be careful.
Sudden nausea sent him scrambling for the bathroom, where he threw up what little there was in his stomach. His head ached, and he wished he could see again, wished his father would come rescue him. Stupid to wish for miracles, stupid to even think about it, he chided himself. He took off his dark glasses and splashed cold water in his mouth, rinsing the sour taste of fear and bile down the drain.
On the rooftops of Hell's Kitchen, he'd been fearless. His senses sang with sound and smell, touch and that strange radar sense that painted everything in a bas-relief that pulsed with the echo of their shape. He'd been bold, strong, and unafraid of the heights, of anything. His father had made him promise, had promised him, never to be afraid of anything.
Then the world had fallen on Jack Murdock's head, killing him under the driving fists of a giant that smelled of roses and hate, and Jack Murdock's boy had learned to fear again. Everything was strange, frightening. He'd been made a ward of the state, and bounced from facility to facility until he'd washed up here at Saint Aggie's. It was doubtful he'd be adopted, and he'd known that before the nun's broke the news to him. He was twelve, almost thirteen, and handicapped. Older kids almost never got adopted; handicapped kids even more rarely. Saint Aggie's was going to be his home until he was turfed at eighteen, unless it closed down or he got fostered for some reason.
He hadn't lied to Daniel. It wasn't a bad place to be. Or it hadn't been, until Frank, and the stairs. Now, he had enemies, and he'd never see them coming.
The door opened, and Matt tensed. "It's just me," Daniel said. "You okay?" Matt relaxed and put his glasses back on, groping for his cane. It had fallen in his haste to get to the toilet, and now he wasn't sure where it was.
"I'm fine." He heard movement, echoing off of the tiles and the stalls of the communal bathroom, and tracked the younger boy's progress. "Do you see my cane anywhere?"
In answer, he heard a rattle of wood on tile and then soft footsteps. The cane was pressed into his hand, and he closed his fingers around it gratefully. "Thanks." Some of the shameful fear went away, and the nausea along with it. "You okay?"
He heard Daniel shrug, then gasp softly. Damn. The kid was still hurting, and Matt doubted he'd said anything to Sister about it. Thudding beats sped up for a moment, and then eased down again as the pain settled back down. "What did they hit you with?" Matt asked quietly.
No response for a long moment, then, softly, "belt. broom. whatever. i'm fine. it's over." A pause. An indrawn breath. "Don't tell Sister. She knows most of it already anyway."
"Okay." Matt reached out a hand and brushed over the boy's back, his touch feather light. He felt the wince, the heat of bruises old and new, and felt the boy pull away. "Sorry." Anger welled again, from an almost inexhaustible font, and Matt wanted to find the people who'd done this and smash them to bits. Wanted to make them feel every blow that Daniel had felt, the fear he'd felt, the powerlessness.
Some of his rage must have shown on his face, because Daniel was backing away again. His heart was thudding and his breath was short, fearful. "I'm not mad at you," Matt reassured him hastily. "I'm mad at the bastards that hurt you." He put out his hand, then pulled it back when the kid flinched again.
An idea occurred to Matt. "Uh, I'm a little turned around. Do you think you could guide me back to the room?" It was a harmless misdirection, and maybe it would help Daniel to help someone else. It also might cure the flinches.
After a long moment of indecisive silence, Daniel took Matt's hand and put it on his shoulder. They moved together back to the little room, Matt following a little behind the shorter boy. "Thanks, man. I guess I got rattled." His own nerves were calming as well. The anger, the fear, and the hate he felt for Daniel's foster parents were all quieting down. As they entered the room, Matt got a whiff of chocolate by his bed. He tapped across the room and put out a seeking hand, encountering two cooling chocolate walnut cookies and a beading glass of milk. "Daniel, did you put this here?" There was a rustle, but Matt couldn't tell if it was a headshake or a nod. "You're going to have to speak up, Danny. I didn't get that."
"No. And don't call me Danny." The voice was softer. Matt had a hard time hearing it, despite his enhanced senses. There was very little life in that voice, and Matt wondered what Daniel was thinking about. Probably the kid had a head full of bad memories, and Matt's questioning had brought them to the forefront of his mind.
Given the heat from the bruises Matt had felt, he'd probably come straight to the Home from his foster family. Add recent abuse, physical and emotional, and it was no wonder the kid was so withdrawn. "Sorry. Want one of my cookies?" He kept his voice low, and bit into one of the delicious treats. "Sister Marie does the baking. She does amazing things with chocolate chips." Picking up the plate, he set it at the foot of his bed, then backed away and started changing into his pj's.
Soft movements, followed by a little sigh of pleasure, was his reward. It was almost like taming a wild animal, he thought. Poor kid.
The days passed slowly into winter. Daniel spoke a little more, but remained withdrawn. John Gaines limited his retaliations to words and petty pranks that Matt was mostly able to avoid. And, one day in early January, the third bed was filled.
They had been to the library, a trip that both Matt and Daniel looked forward to with eager longing. Both boys were voracious readers, and always checked out the maximum books allowed every two weeks. Matt had read his way through every Braille book at the downtown branch and, with Sister's help, had arranged for interlibrary loans of titles from around the country. He was currently reading his way through the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and had brought back the first two parts of the third book, on loan from a library in Baltimore.
Daniel liked history books better, or books of folklore. He'd found one of his father's books this trip, and carried it up to the room with a quiet reverence. Matt was happy for his friend, but more than a little nervous about what nightmares the book would give birth. One night, a few weeks after Daniel's arrival at Sister Agatha's, Matt had been awakened by the sound of crying, and mumbled pleas. At first he'd thought the kid was having a nightmare about his foster parents, but when he shook Daniel awake, the younger boy denied having dreamed anything.
Much later, he told Matt how his parents had died, crushed under a falling cover stone as they set up a museum exhibit. Daniel had seen the whole thing happen. The story was told quietly, in monotone, and Daniel didn't cry. But he had nightmares. A lot of nightmares.
The sound of movement in their room was Matt's only warning before Daniel pushed open the door and came to a sudden stop. "What…who is it?" Matt said. He didn't recognize the person's smell, or his shape. He put his hand on Daniel's shoulder and moved into the room.
"Hi. I'm Bobby. Bobby Goren." The boy stood up, towering a little over both Matt and Daniel. He put out a hand in greeting, only to pull it back when neither of the smaller boys took it. "Sorry. Um…Sister told me your names. Matt and Daniel, right?"
Matt nodded. He had a clearer image of the boy now. He was huge, tall and broad shouldered. Older, too. Fourteen or fifteen, at a guess. His voice was deep, but not loud or unpleasant. He also tended to slouch. "I'm Matt. He's Daniel." Giving Daniel's shoulder a comforting squeeze, Matt moved to his bed and put his books away carefully.
"Oh, man, I missed a trip to the library?" Bobby sounded disappointed, and Matt was startled into a smile. With a dejected flop, the older boy sat on his bed and sighed. "How often do you get to go? Do I need to sign up or anything? What did you get? Man, I would kill for something to read! I had to leave all my books at…" he broke off. "Never mind." His animated movements stilled abruptly and he folded in on himself.
No one came to Saint Agatha's unmarked, Matt mused. He wondered what Bobby's story was. He didn't seem as damaged as Daniel had been, but that sudden quiet had a reason behind it. "You're welcome to borrow one of mine," he offered, tossing his copy of ‘The Hobbit' unerringly onto Bobby's bed.
The distraction worked. Pages rustled and then Bobby broke into a shocked laugh. "Cute. It's in Braille. What is it?" He tossed the book back. Matt caught it, his hands guided by the swish of displaced air and the trailing comet image of the book moving, black on black, across the room. "How'd he do that?" Bobby turned to Daniel, and must have collected a shrug. "How'd you do that?"
It didn't sound like the boy was a bad guy. He sounded interested, animated, and friendly. Still, you never knew. "I heard it. There's a few books in the library downstairs. Not much of a selection, but better than nothing."
There was a smile in Bobby's voice when he asked, "Are they in Braille, too?"
Daniel was startled into a laugh, and Matt smiled. "Nah. I wish. There's a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land, and I can't find that anywhere. I don't think its been translated yet. And the audio book is abridged. I hate abridged books."
"Huh. I haven't read that in ages." The older boy was gone the next minute, moving fast for such a big guy.
"He seems okay," Daniel said quietly. Matt nodded agreement.
Moments later, Bobby was back. "I found it." He jumped into his bed and leaned against the headboard. "Part One. His maculate origin. Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith. The first human expedition to Mars was selected on the theory that the greatest danger to man was man himself…." Bobby's low voice washed through the room, and filled it. Matt found himself relaxing for the first time in ages, and felt the decrease in tension from Daniel as well. They'd found an ally, and a new friend, for as long as the State of New York willed that they room together.
After Bobby moved in, the pranks from John Gaines dwindled to nothing. Bobby was a big kid, bigger than Frank had been, and had a kind of manic intensity that would have been frightening in someone less kind. Gaines had challenged him only once, and had backed down under what Daniel described later as a feral kind of grin. No blows were exchanged, only glares, and Gaines backed down first. After that, the three weren't bothered any more. Not for a while. Not until the blizzard.
"Daniel, Matt, it's snowing! Come on!" Bobby stuck his head in the door and called, excited. Daniel looked up from his book and glanced out the window. He saw nothing but white. Now that his attention was drawn, he heard the wind howling through the attic upstairs and noticed how cold the room had become. Unable to contain his exuberance, Bobby ran in, snatched up his coat and gloves, and ran out again.
Matt's fingers had paused, and he tilted his head to listen as the older boy ran down the hall. He followed the pattering footsteps down the stairs and out the door, noting the slight decrease in temperature and the smell of cold moisture in the air almost as an aside. "He really likes snow," the boy commented dryly. His roommate made no comment; Daniel rarely spoke, so it was no great surprise. "Wanna go out?"
"Me either. I hate snow." Snow muffled everything. It made it very hard to hear or sense the echoes that made his sonar work. Snow made him feel, well, blind. Besides, he hated the cold.
The choice was taken from them, as it turned out. Sister Helen tapped on the door and entered in a swish of skirts and the smell of chalk and prunes. "Put your coats on. The heat is out and we have to move you until it gets fixed." Matt listened, but couldn't hear the tick of the boiler in the basement. It was getting colder by the minute. "The power is out all along this block. Father Evans is taking all of you delinquents to the movies for the afternoon in hopes that the power will be back on before you return. Get a move on." She slammed the door; Matt winced.
"I hate it when she does that."
"Yeah. Me too." They bundled up hastily and joined the line of jostling, pushing boys lining the hallway. Matt kept a grip on Daniel's shoulder, letting the younger boy lead him though the confusion of sensory images down to the waiting buses. The cold air was a shock when they stepped into the storm. The thin shoulder under his hand began shaking almost immediately. Daniel hated the cold as much as Matt, if not more. He'd spent most of his childhood in Egypt, and was much more used to heat than the frigid New York winters.
The snow blunted Matt's senses. Nothing was identifiable. His nose was frozen, his ears assaulted by the wind and cold, and his sonar was useless. For the first time, he truly needed Daniel to be his eyes. The short trip to the bus took forever, and Matt was trembling almost as badly as Daniel by the time they climbed the steps into the frigid vehicle.
"Back here, guys," Bobby called. Daniel stepped forward, murmuring that Bobby had saved them a seat. "Some storm, huh?"
The wind was actually picking up as the rest of the boys filed in and took their seats. Matt's head was starting to ache with the constant noise, and from trying to ‘see' with his radar and failing. It was a little better out of the wind, but not by much. There was too much movement inside the bus, as boys shoved and shouted to each other finding seats. There was a tension in the air, fear and excitement, and spirits were high.
"Settle down, gentlemen," Father shouted to be heard. "Settle!" A piercing whistle echoed in the close quarters of the bus and cut into Matt's head like a knife. He gasped and clapped his hands over his ears, and wondered that he didn't feel blood trickling out. A large hand squeezed his shoulder and someone said something, but Matt couldn't hear. The whistle was still echoing in his head, and all he could hear was the wind and a muffled roar, like he was listening to something far away.
The hand squeezed, and he wrenched his shoulder away, almost falling to the floor. Abruptly, like someone had turned the volume from one to five, he could hear again. "…sy. It's me, Matt. Bobby. You okay?" The other boys were quiet now, and Matt felt their eyes on him, just like that day in the cafeteria. Nowhere to go now, though. He sat up and rubbed his head.
"I'm okay. Headache. Bad headache." Daniel patted his hand awkwardly, and the bus started rolling. "Did he say what movie we're going to see?"
"Movie's off," Bobby said. "The weather is too bad. They're taking us to the Y for now. Until the power's back on, anyway. Maybe they'll let us play some basketball. You ever play, Daniel?"
Matt felt the boy nod, and was a little surprised. He'd never known Daniel to play sports of any kind; he seemed to prefer to spend his time reading, or studying. "You any good, Daniel?" Matt asked.
"Yeah," was the surprising reply. "My dad taught me."
"I heard all about your Dad, Four-eyes," Gaines' voice came from right behind them. "Heard he got squished like a bug. Him and your Mom both. Heard they scrubbed the floor for days, trying to get out the bloodstains. Heard…."
Bobby's voice cut through the hateful words. "Enough. That's enough. Shut up. One more word and I'm tossing you off this bus." His tone was low, so Father couldn't hear, but the menace carried clearly. Gaines shut up.
The damage was done, though. Between Bobby and Matt, Daniel was shivering, and his breath was catching wetly in his throat. Matt smelled salt and fear and it was all he could do to stop himself from turning in his seat and belting Gaines in the face for making his friend cry. "Easy, Daniel," Bobby said, repeating the words he'd spoken to Matt. "We're here with you, man." Matt felt the boy nod, heard him sniff, and handed him a napkin he'd swiped from the table that morning. Daniel blew his nose with a quiet honk. "You got an elephant in there, kid?" Bobby said, a smile in his voice.
Matt was glad to hear a tiny laugh from his friend, and feel the decrease in tension in his skinny frame. "I think it was a duck. Sounded like a duck. You got a duck up your nose, Jackson?" Another tiny laugh, a headshake. "A goose?"
"Bobby's right. It's my pet elephant." Daniel blew his nose again, playing up the sound a little. "His name's Toomai."
"Toomai is the name of the kid, not the elephant," said Bobby. "You ought to name him Hathi." He'd been reading the Jungle Books to them in the evenings, having finished with Stranger in a Strange Land the week before. Daniel's request.
"Toomai," Daniel said firmly, blowing his nose again, even louder. Bobby laughed, and Matt felt a jostle that was probably the older kid ruffling Daniel's hair.
The bus wheezed to a stop. Matt tensed, preparing himself for the onslaught on his senses from the weather. The wind was picking up, and the whistle of it blowing through the cracks in the windows of the ancient school bus was making his aching head throb. He stood, letting Daniel slide out, and then found the younger boy's shoulder. Daniel was his guide. It was understood. Behind him, Bobby's solid bulk was a support and a comfort, but Daniel was his eyes.
Together, they moved through the wind and the cold into the warmth of the YMCA. It had been turned into a temporary shelter; power was out over many parts of the city due to the blizzard, and the building was crowded with people. Matt had the impression of people huddled under blankets, milling about, bored and scared at the same time. By the smell, not a few of New York's homeless population had also found their way here. There were cots everywhere, and someone was serving watered down vegetable soup and peanut butter sandwiches. A coffee pot had burned dry at some point, and the scorched smell made Matt sneeze.
Father herded them into the gym, assigning cots and making sure each boy had a blanket. "Looks like we're out of luck on the basketball, Daniel," Bobby said. "They've got the whole room covered with beds. Man, it's crowded. You doing okay, Matt?"
He nodded a reply. Now that they were out of the cold, and the blowing snow, he could focus his concentration and get a good mental image of the place. He tapped his cane on the polished floor of the gym and was rewarded by an image of cots in neat rows, and people in not so neat groups. Sound echoed in here, but not so badly that Matt couldn't sort one from the other. "I'll be glad to get home, though. I wonder if Father's got any aspirin."
"I'll find out. Be right back." Bobby trotted away, moving easily through the crowd. His sneakers squeaked a little, making him easy to track.
"Sure are a lot of people here," Daniel said. He sounded distracted. "Families, bums, little kids, men in business suits. There's a couple of policemen in the corner, talking. Lots of kids running around. I wonder if there's any more orphanages here, or if all these kids have parents." The younger boy fell silent. It was the most Matt had heard him say since they'd met. After a few minutes, Daniel said, "Here comes Bobby."
The aspirin helped some. The food helped more. When things quieted down for the evening, Matt felt almost human. Bobby had brought the copy of ‘The Jungle Book' he'd been reading from and picked up where he'd left off, in the middle of ‘The White Seal.' "Kotick swam back to Novastoshnah, leaving the gulls to scream. There he found that no one sympathized with him in his little attempt to discover a quiet place for the seals." His voice was soothing the last of Matt's headache away, and he closed his useless eyes and just listened.
Cautious footsteps brought him back to alertness. He listened, tapping the floor with his cane to get an image. Kids. It was kids. Lots of kids, of all ages. Soon, there was a regular little story time going. One little girl climbed adventurously into Matt's lap, sucking her thumb and curling into the bend of his arms. A boy of about two was sitting in Daniel's lap, his unruly hair brushing the quiet boy's chin. There were about fifteen or sixteen altogether, listening raptly as Bobby moved from ‘The White Seal' to ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,' then back to the beginning for ‘Mowgli's Brothers.' "It was seven o'clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day's rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips."
The parents were listening, too. Matt heard them walk up, felt them watching, but none made any move to reclaim their children. The little girl in his lap, Ellie, yawned sleepily, and he breathed in her clean smell. He could never hurt such innocence, and had never been able to understand those who could. Daniel's foster parents, Bobby's mother, hundreds of others in this city alone. He'd lain awake at night and heard the weeping from the boys at the Home. Had stretched out his hearing to the buildings around them and heard the blows, the yelling, the pleas for mercy. Someday, he'd do something about it. He'd made a promise, and he meant to keep it, somehow.
The story wound to a close, and the parents stepped forward to reclaim their children. "Time for bed, Ellie," he said softly. The little girl's mother was thanking Bobby for reading. The little girl stirred sleepily and hugged him.
"More story. More wolfie story," she said, yawning hugely. "'m not sleepy."
Matt smiled. "Yes you are." He stood, picking the child up in his arms, and walked over to Bobby. "Mrs. Newham?"
"Oh, yes? Thank you for watching Ellie. I was just telling your friend how much we appreciated his help tonight. Come on, sweetie," she plucked the sleepy child from Matt's arms. There was a pause, an indrawn breath, and she spoke again, "I was apprehensive at first, seeing some of the boys you came in with. You're from the Catholic Boys home, right? Saint Agatha's?"
"Yes, ma'am," Matt answered. "Our power went out."
"So Father Evans told me. I was a little worried when Ellie climbed into your lap, but you were a perfect gentleman. I was watching." Her words stumbled to a halt. "I'm sorry. Good night."
Matt heard her heels clicking away from him, and shook his head. It wasn't as though he was surprised at the woman's words. Most of the city seemed to think the boys of Saint Aggie's were one step down from punks. He'd heard the whispers at the library, and the louder voices as well, and ignored them. "Don't let it get to you," Bobby said. "You look mad."
"I think I am mad," Matt said. "What did she expect, that I'd molest her daughter or something? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." He rubbed the bridge of his nose and unfolded his cane. "I'm going to bed. Which way to our cots?" He'd lost track.
Daniel was at his elbow a moment later. "Two rows over, three up to your left. I'll take you."
"Thanks. Night, Bobby. Lead on, Mowgli."
"I thought that was your nose elephant."
Behind them, Bobby struggled not to laugh, then failed.
In his dreams he could fly. He looked down on the world as though the air were water and he was swimming through it, and he could see everything, just like before the accident. He looked down on the city, and it sparkled with lights and the moon was a silver dollar, shiny and new. Far, far below, his father was helping him with his homework, and it wasn't strange that he could be both up in the clouds, and down in the tenements where he'd grown up.
His father was sober, hadn't touched a drop in months. He was going over Matt's math homework, his grizzled head bent low over the figures as they worked the problems together. And Matt could see, could look up into his father's face and see the love there, and the love reflected back in his eyes, and everything was great. Perfect.
Matt in the clouds swooped over the snow-blanketed city, just like Superman but without the cape. He perched for a minute on the top of the Empire State Building, then leaped off into the air, stooping like a hawk on the buildings far below. No one saw him. A few cars plowed sluggishly through the drifts, a few people slipped along the icy sidewalks, but everyone was intent on getting home, out of the cold. Matt could empathize. He was getting cold himself. And his head was hurting again.
Someone was shaking him, calling his name, and he tumbled out of the clouds into darkness once more, opening his eyes. There was something lumpy under his head, and he was half off of the cot and on the hard floor. The strangely scratchy hard floor, which was moving. "Matt. Matt, wake up." Daniel's voice was a little panicky, a little strained.
"'m awake. Whassup," he sat up and regretted it, as the ache in his head threatened to split it open. They were moving, in a car. The lump under his head was the still form of Bobby. Gaines and two other boys were in the front seat, passing a bottle back and forth. The heat was on, but it wasn't doing much good. Daniel was shivering. None of them had their coats. Matt's hands felt like blocks of ice. He blew on them, listening for some sign of life from the older boy, and was relieved to hear a soft, constant beat. "He's alive, Daniel. What's going on?"
"Shaddup," Gaines said.
Matt had a vague memory of a scuffle, a sharp blow to his head, then nothing. "Where are you taking us?"
"Haven't decided yet. Now shut the fuck up. I'm sick and tired of your mouth, bug. You and the geek there messed up something good, so you're gonna get messed up. You and the geek and the gorilla." Gaines laughed sending wafts of breath scented with cheap beer through the car.
"Please," Daniel said, his voice very small and frightened. "Don't leave us in the snow. It's so cold, and Matt can't hear anything in the snow, he said so." There were tears in the boy's voice, but his heartbeat was very calm. "I hate the cold." He added with a sniff.
Beneath Matt's hip, Bobby stirred. He tried to sit up, but he couldn't use his hands; someone had tied them. Matt fumbled with the ropes for a second, but his hands were still too chilled to do much of anything. In the front seat, the three punks were laughing and teasing Daniel, who had started to cry even as his teeth clattered in the cold. "Poor little geek hates the cold. Poor little thing."
A familiar, dreaded voice said, "And stick-boy can't hear anything in the snow. Sounds like a plan to me." Frank. Matt grimaced. He should have recognized the smell; stale cigarettes and peppermints. "Take ‘em somewhere out of the way, and dump ‘em. What street we on?"
"Fifty first and Ten," Gaines said. "How about we dump ‘em in the Hudson?"
Bobby stopped breathing for a moment, then resumed when Frank said, "Nah. Got a better idea. Head for the ball field."
The area around Clinton Park was mostly deserted. The Park itself was mostly populated by winos and vags, and the buildings were falling apart around it. Too near the Hudson for tenements, and too far from anything else to make working there worthwhile, Clinton Park might as well have been miles from anywhere, for all the help they would find. "We'll freeze to death," Matt said, making his voice sound a little desperate. He thought he knew what Daniel's plan was, but he didn't much care for it. ‘Course, he cared less for being dumped in the river.
"Got it in one, smart guy," Frank said.
Between Matt and Daniel, they got Bobby into a sitting position, and the three huddled together for warmth as the car skidded on. Matt fumbled for a pulse in Bobby's neck and sighed with relief when he found one. "I can't believe you'd be willing to kill us, John. Turn around and take us back to the Y. Bobby needs a doctor."
The car skidded to a halt and Matt heard someone turn in the front seat. A moment later, a big hand was wrapped in his hair and Frank was screaming in his face. "You ratted on me, punk. Sister got me sent to juvie cause of you." Matt's gut knotted in fear. "You know what they do to new blood at juvie? I'm so willing to kill you right now, I can taste it." He shook Matt's head hard, and then tossed him back in the seat. "We dump you, knock over a few stores, and head out of town. City's shut down, so it'll be easy money." The car started again, crawling forward on the slippery streets.
A few blocks later, the car stopped again. "Get out," Frank said. Daniel hesitated, and earned a slap from one of the punks in the front seat. "Get out before I stick you, geek." The click of a switchblade sent Daniel scrambling. Matt followed after, helping Bobby as best he could. "Now, start walking."
They weren't going to be simply abandoned, apparently. A hard shove sent Matt stumbling forward, his senses muffled by the mounds of snow on every surface, and his balance thrown off by the cold. A small hand found his, and a bulking presence at his side helped ground him again. He swallowed cold spit and walked forward through the drifts.
"This way, right?" Bobby surged ahead, kicking the snow with a fraction of his usual energy, but effectively making a path for the other two. Maybe his head wasn't hurt as bad as Matt had feared, but he'd felt the lump, the dried blood, and knew his friend was probably concussed. He'd nursed his father through enough knockouts that he recognized the symptoms. "I've always wanted to come here, but my Mom wouldn't let me. Said it was too dangerous. Doesn't seem that dangerous to me." His voice sounded strong, but tired. "It used to be called the Children's Gardens. They commissioned it back in Nineteen hundred and…."
The blade clicked again and Bobby fell silent. Frank snarled, "Your Mom's a head case and so are you, ape. They put her away, and I bet there's a room waitin' for you too. Maybe it runs in the family, bein' fucked in the head. What do you think?"
Invited to speak, Bobby's reply was quiet, but calm. "You're actually right…Frank is it? Schizophrenia does have a genetic component. My Aunt Nadia, Mom's older sister, has it. It's recessive, though, and my Dad was the picture of mental health, as far as I know. So I'm probably safe. You, on the other hand, are a classic case of Anti-Social Personality Disorder."
They'd reached the ball fields. Matt could hear the chains rattling in the chill wind that was cutting through his shirtsleeves like they were gauze. His nose was numb, and he couldn't feel his hand in Daniel's. The smaller boy was probably in worse shape; his teeth were chattering so hard it was a wonder the enamel didn't break.
"Auntie…what?" Frank said. He sounded pissed and confused. Never a good combination.
Bobby continued, a little more cheerfully, warming to his subject. "Anti-Social Personality Disorder. Characterized by a history of illegal or socially disapproved activity, failure to show consistency and responsibility, irritability and aggressiveness, reckless and impulsive behavior, and a disregard for the truth. Sound like someone you know, Frank?" They'd stopped, and hard hands pulled Matt's arms back, binding them with a scratchy cord. He was pushed to the ground next to Daniel.
"Irritability and aggressiveness, huh?" There was a hard crack, and the sound of Bobby falling into a mound of snow. "Yeah. Sounds like me. Come on, guys." A series of muffled thuds, and stifled groans. Bastards were kicking him. Matt surged to his feet and looked hard with his radar sense, but everything was still muffled, whited out by the snow. Frank laughed and then Matt heard them crunch away through the icy drifts. The car started a few minutes later, and then everything was quiet.
"Good plan, Brer Daniel," Bobby said. His voice sounded clogged, slurred, and Matt smelled blood. "At least they didn't throw us into the briar patch."
"O-or the Hud-d-dson," Daniel said. "I've got-t-t a kn-nife in m-m-my pocket." He leaned in close to Matt. Forcing his frozen fingers to bend, he slipped his hand between the layers of denim and found a lump of cold plastic. Carefully drawing it out, he opened it and sawed through his ropes, then did the same for Daniel.
"I'll get B-b-b-obby," the younger boy said through chattering teeth. Matt nodded and tucked his fingers under his arms, stamping in place to warm up. They needed to find shelter. The power was out below Ninth Avenue, and that meant the phones were probably out too. None of them had coats, and Bobby was hurt. On the plus side, they had Daniel's pocketknife. Great.
"We need to go before they come back," Bobby said. He crunched over to Matt, a vague shape against the other vague shapes. "Do you know this area, Matt?"
"Yeah. I grew up around here. Our old apartment is three streets east, five down. I used to play baseball here." He wracked his brain, mapping the area from memory. "There's a subway station on Forty-Second and tenth. Eight blocks that way." He pointed south. "Don't know if the trains are running. The line might be shut down ‘cos of the snow." He stooped and felt the cold ground, trying to feel for the vibrations he sometimes felt under his feet when the trains passed below, but his hands were too cold. "Worth a shot, anyway. Or we could try for Port Authority."
"We need something closer," Bobby said. "Daniel is about five minutes away from freezing, and your lips are blue."
Matt nodded, "Okay, is it day or night?" Normally he could tell by the level of noise in the city, but there was nothing moving on the streets apart from the distant rattle of the junk-heap Frank had been driving.
"N-n-night." Daniel scooted closer to Bobby, who was looming over Matt. It was a little warmer inside the huddle, the mingling of their breaths warming Matt's face and making his ears tingle.
"Almost morning," Bobby added. "Are there any shelters near here?" He chafed Daniel's hands between his, trying to warm them up.
"None closer than the subway. And the Laundromat closed down last year. I guess we could break in somewhere, hole up until morning." Not the safest plan, but it would get them out of the wind.
"Right. Let's get moving before we turn into snowmen." Bobby led the way again, breaking a path with his long legs for Daniel and Matt to follow. They hurried on numbing feet, pushing through the wind that had become a physical barrier. The only sounds in the pervasive quiet were their breaths, their feet squeaking through the packed snow, and the rattle of Daniel's teeth. The younger boy's shoulder quaked with his shivering, under Matt's hand. They were slowly freezing to death.
A mass loomed up from the shifting, muffled images. A building, a door. There was a crack and a rattle as Bobby broke the lock with a well-placed kick, and they were inside, out of the wind but not out of danger. The building was colder than an icebox. Still better than outside.
Daniel stopped just inside the door. "What's wrong?" Matt asked.
"Dark. It's dark in here."
"The windows are boarded up," Bobby said. "There's some light from the moon, but it's pretty dark. When we move away from the door, it'll be pitch. Daniel, keep moving around. You need to keep warm. I'm gonna explore a little." He was limping, his feet dragging from exhaustion and pain. "Be right back."
The sound of his movements sent back images to Matt's radar sense. Out of the snow, things were sharper again, just as they had been at the Y. Matt got an impression of a long, trash filled hallway. Rats scuttled in the walls, and the reek of their droppings made his nose twitch. This was an abandoned tenement, or maybe a flophouse, he thought. Or maybe not so abandoned; there was movement a few floors up, footsteps, shuffling. More heartbeats than theirs, about six. Matt wanted to call out to Bobby, to warn him, but the older boy was already out of earshot.
"Stinks in here," Daniel said. He was looking warily around, and stamping his feet, blowing on his hands to warm them. "It smells like pee."
Before Matt could reply, limping footsteps heralded Bobby's return. "I found some blankets. Come on." He led them down the hall and around a corner, into a tiny, cold room. Daniel relaxed a little when the older boy came back, but he was still shaking from cold, and from fear by the way his heart was pounding. "I think this used to be a hotel, or something," Bobby said. "It looks like someone's been living here, squatting or something. There's all these blankets, and old boxes of trash and stuff."
He opened a door and ushered them in, closing it behind them. Matt found his way to the blankets and wrapped one around Daniel's shoulders. Of the three, he was the smallest and the coldest right now. "We should huddle up, get warm," Matt said. He sat down against the inside wall and beckoned to the other two.
In moments, they were piled together, cocooned in dirty wool that smelled of Everclear, Coors, and old piss. Matt wondered if the usual occupant of this nest was still alive, or if he'd frozen to death in the blizzard. Maybe he'd made it to the Y, or some other shelter. Whoever he was, Matt sent him a silent thank you for saving their butts.
Comparative warmth, lack of movement, and the ebbing tide of adrenaline all conspired together. To his left, Bobby's head was nodding. Matt wanted nothing better than to go to sleep, but he'd nursed his old man through too many concussions to think that was a good idea. "You gotta keep awake, Bobby. We're too cold, and you got knocked out. You can't go to sleep. You either, Danny. Remember that guy in Call of the Wild? You can't go to sleep when it's cold, or you won't wake up."
Outside, the wind was picking up again. Whispers of ice fell against the boarded up window, signaling a fresh fall of snow. Bobby greeted this news with a nod. "Good. It'll cover our tracks, maybe." He sat up a little straighter, and flinched.
"You don't think they'll be back," Daniel asked, his voice small and frightened. Kid had been through enough without this. Matt hugged skinny shoulders and tucked the blanket in more securely, hoping Bobby would lie.
He should have known better. "They have to come back. They can't take a chance we'll survive, after all this. Gaines won't want to, but Frank'll make him. Probably in a half-hour or so. Before dawn, anyway." He caught Matt's look then, and subsided. "Sorry. But I don't think he'll find us, and he won't look for long. He's too impulsive."
"Oh. Good." Daniel didn't sound convinced. "So, how should we stay awake? Can't we sleep at all? I'm tired."
"I'd read, but our friends didn't kidnap Mowgli with the rest of us," Bobby said. "I guess we could…I dunno…talk. Tell stories. What's your favorite book, Danny?"
There was a long hesitation, and then the younger boy said, "I guess…I don't know. I like a lot of books. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is great. The Little Prince." His voice grew a little more excited. "There was a great article in the journal of the anthropological society of Oxford on the way language shapes cultures in a microcosm. The librarian at the downtown branch helped me look it up. It had some interesting things to say about the pre-dynastic period of Lower Egypt and…" he broke off. "Never mind."
"It sounded kinda interesting, actually," said Matt. The animation in Daniel's voice had sounded even better. "You gonna be an archaeologist when you grow up?"
"Uh huh. Just like my mom and dad. Or a linguist," he temporized. "Languages are so interesting. My dad was teaching me to read cuneiform. Mom was working on hieroglyphics. You'd like those, Matt. You could read them just like Braille, once you learned what the symbols mean. It's really neat."
"Sounds cool. What about you, Bobby?" The older boy was getting too quiet. "Bobby? What are you going to do when you grow up?"
"Huh? Oh…I thought I'd join up in a couple years, pay for college with a GI Bill. Maybe get a scholarship and be a psychiatrist. Or a cop. Haven't decided yet." Matt listened hard, not liking the sound of Bobby's breathing. It sounded wet, and shallow, and his words were punctuated by harsh coughs that made him wince. Maybe broken ribs, along with the concussion, and something wrong with his breathing. Bobby sounded like old Mr. Hendricks from down the hall back home. The old man had died of emphysema last year. Thanks to his extraordinary hearing, Matt had heard the man's dying breath. Bobby only sounded a little better. They'd need to move soon. Get them to help, to a hospital.
He knew Hell's Kitchen, front to back. Saint Claire's on west 51st street was closest to them, but it was three or four blocks away. Saint Luke's was further, but closer to Saint Agatha's. Claire's was their best bet, he thought, but they'd have to move fast. The wind was blowing stronger now, whistling through the cracks around the window and pouring cold air into their haven. "We should get moving soon," he said. "Soon as we get warm, we need to go."
Daniel made a tiny sound of disappointment, but nodded his agreement. Bobby coughed, and said nothing.
Then Matt heard something that changed everything. In the distance, still five or six blocks away, Frank's car was coming back. "Guys, don't ask me how I know, but they're coming. We got a little time, but they'll be here soon." Frank was cussing at John, who wanted to get out of town. He couldn't hear the third boy. Maybe they dumped him somewhere.
"Crap. Are you sure?" Bobby asked. Matt nodded. "We go, then. You know which direction they're coming from?" Matt nodded again. "Ok, we go the opposite. If we stick around, our tracks will lead them straight here and we won't stand a chance."
Four blocks away, now. "I don't think we have time. They're moving pretty fast." Three blocks, skidding, Gaines was cursing and Frank was playing with his knife. Matt stood and helped Daniel up, snugging the blanket tight around the boy's shoulders. Without thinking, he tapped his foot on the floor and mentally mapped the room, then walked around the soggy bed that almost filled it to the window. Putting his ear to the crack, he could hear the approaching car more clearly. Two blocks away now. Frank was playing with his lighter.
"There's more," he said, turning back to his friends. "There's six other people in the building, upstairs. What do you guys think Frank will do if he can't find us?"
There was silence from the other two, and Matt felt the eyes on him. "You're not really blind," Daniel said finally. "You're pretending."
"No," Bobby said. "He's blind. You can't fake body language. You just hear really good, right?" The older boy stood up and cocked his head, listening for what Matt was hearing. "All I hear is the wind. You hear, what, movement? Footsteps?"
Matt shuffled his feet a little, then said, "Heartbeats. Two on the third floor, four on the fifth. One of them has a bad cough. And I think they're smoking dope." He listened for the car. It was circling the park, across the street. Frank was yelling at Gaines for letting them go. Gaines was afraid. His heart was pounding like a jackhammer. "They haven't found our trail, yet. Maybe they won't. It's snowing pretty hard again."
Shocked silence from Bobby. Daniel spoke up, his voice stubborn and offended, "No way you could hear all that. Heartbeats? And you just walked right around the bed, not even touching it. Does it have a heartbeat? You're a liar."
Matt's hands clenched into fists. "No. I'm not. I'll explain later, but now you gotta believe me. Frank and John are close, real close. If they think we came in here, everyone in this building is in danger. We're running out of time." The voices were closer. It sounded like they were excited, running through the snow like a couple of kids, but with mayhem in mind rather than a snowball fight. Dread and a kind of weird anticipation filled Matt's heart. He wondered if his Dad had felt this way before his fights. "I think they found us."
"Come out, come out wherever you are!"
"Knock it off, Frank. It's fucking cold. Let's get out of here."
"Shut up, Johnny. I want some of my own back. Besides, they can identify us."
"As what? A couple of icicles? Let's go, man. I'm freezing."
Matt listened, his head pressed against the door, as the two voices echoed down the hall outside. Keeping his voice low, he said, "Daniel, is it still dark?"
There was no answer for a moment, then a small, sullen voice said, "Yeah. Like you don't know."
"Not so dark in here," Bobby added. "There's no board over the window. But it's dark in the hallway. I can see little flickers of light under the door, like someone's using a match or something."
"Frank's Zippo. I can smell the lighter fluid. He always overfills it." Matt moved away from the door and huddled with his friends. They stood together, as they had done outside for warmth, in a circle, but the feeling was different now. Distrust was radiating from Daniel, and a wary apprehension from Bobby. Stifling a sigh, Matt said, "I'm still me, guys. What's wrong?"
"How'd you see the bed," Bobby asked, beating Daniel to the question. "How could you know there's people on the fifth floor? Come on, either you're lying, or you're, like, Superman or something."
Surprise sparked a grin on Daniel's face. "You read comic books, Bobby? I'm shocked."
Bobby snorted. "Yeah, well, I know where you hide your X-men collection, Danny-boy. Superman could kick Wolverine's butt, with some left over for the rest of those creampuffs. But we're getting a little off topic here."
A trickle of smoke wafted into the room, and Matt's mood went from apprehensive to urgent. "Yeah, and the stakes just went up. I think Frank set a fire. We need to get the guys upstairs out of here. I'll take care of Frank and Johnny." He tapped with his foot and got a clear image of the room, the door. "I promise, I'll explain everything later."
Stifled protests followed him out the door. Frank and John were on the second floor, now, and moving down the hallway. The fire was there, small for now, but this building might as well have been made of balsa wood. Moving quickly, Matt shut the light-lending door at the end of the hall and then ran up the stairs. "Hey, assholes, you lookin' for me?" he yelled. He had to get them away from the stairs.
Smoke made him cough; heat was coming from a room to his left, movement from the end of the hall. Moving quickly, he ducked into the room where the fire was burning. Heat from the floor, the initial blaze; heat from the wall, the ceiling. It was too late to try putting it out himself. Matt ran back out of the room, his lungs on fire, and closed the door behind him, hoping to contain the conflagration for a little while.
Frank and Johnny were waiting for him. A hard blow landed in Matt's stomach, doubling him over and driving all the air from his lungs. He managed to stay on his feet, but only barely. Johnny helped him by moving behind him and wrenching his arm up and back, forcing him to his toes as he gasped for breath.
Peppermints and cigarette-stained breath. Frank pushed his face into Matt's and said, very softly, "Hello, Matthew. So good to see you again. Did you miss me? I like the new roomie. The little one. He's a little skinny, but I bet he gives good head. Am I right? Or do you both take it from the gorilla?"
Matt sucked in air tainted with smoke and with Frank. "What are you talking about?" He was confused and angry, and a little afraid. He'd never heard Frank in this mood, and his shoulder was screaming at him from where Gaines was twisting it. Downstairs, Bobby and Daniel were coming out of the room, groping up the stairs, trying to be quiet.
"You know what I'm talkin' about, man," Frank said. "I learned all about it in juvie. You like learnin', right? I'm gonna teach you what I learned, and then I'm gonna teach little Danny."
Matt's stomach twisted with nausea at the boy's words. Bobby and Daniel were on the stairs. There was no time. They were too close. Frank and Gaines would be sure to see. Matt struggled to get his arm free, and spat curses, trying to distract them. "Let me go!" He kicked out, connecting solidly with Frank's nuts.
The boy doubled over, clutching himself and retching, even as two pairs of feet ran past on the stairwell. They were up, safe, and Matt tracked their progress with sharp ears.
Then there was no time for listening. "You son of a bitch," Gaines said, and twisted his hand until it felt like his shoulder was going to dislocate. "He's gonna kill you, now."
"We're all gonna die if we don't get out of here," Matt said through teeth clenched with pain. "The building's on fire, asshole." He stomped hard on Gaines' foot, and then threw his head back, connecting with the boy's nose with a solid crack. Gaines howled, and let him go to bring both hands to his shattered nose.
Matt cocked his head, rubbing his aching shoulder and listening intently as Daniel and Bobby convinced the squatters on the third floor that they had to get out now. The fire was spreading, and Matt hoped the fire department could get through the snow, or this whole neighborhood could go up.
"Motherfucker! Motherfucker! Gonna cut you, bug. Broke my fuckin' nose!" Gaines' voice was wet and muffled, but the click of his switchblade was crisp in the thick air. Matt took a step back, ahead of the arc of the blade that Gaines was swinging toward him, and felt a sharp pain in his ankle that sent him colliding with the wall. He ‘looked' with his inner sense and saw Frank climbing heavily to his feet.
Have to keep clear of the knife. Have to keep moving. Have to give Danny and Bobby time. Have to stay alive. Matt ducked a clumsy swing and felt the tip of the knife grab at his shirt, missing skin. He surged forward, leading with his head, and caught Gaines in the stomach. Carried forward by momentum and desperation, the knife went flying when they hit the opposite wall. Gaines brought up a knee, but Matt was already staggering backwards. This was no alley brawl, with taunting and shoving and doin' the dozens. This was a real fight, and Frank and John were out for his blood.
Matt brought up his fists, keeping his elbows in just like he'd always seen his father do. Keep moving. Keep track of Frank, circling behind him with a knife of his own. Keep track of Gaines, coming up now. Duck, punch, duck, dance, kick. Sharp pain as the knife connected, a sliding cold kiss along his upper arm. Not deep, but painful. Keep moving. Bobby and Daniel on the fifth floor, now, and the guys up there are giving them crap. They'll handle it. Keep stalling. Keep dancing.
Dark. It's dark downstairs, away from the fire. Sliding step toward the stair, blocked by Frank's bulk. Feint left, dodge right, and run, hand on the wall for guidance but the echo of his footfalls paints the picture, black on black, of the stairs, the walls, the narrow hallway. Frank and Johnny are right behind, shouting, cursing, and stumbling in the dark. Perfect.
His foot struck something, kicking it into a roll. Putting his hand down, Matt found a length of iron pipe, about two feet long, left over from some long ago plumbing job. It felt good in his hands, heavy and solid. He tapped the wall and smiled as the echoes rolled down them. He could see clearly. From the way Gaines was talking, the other two couldn't see shit.
Matt crouched down, still and quiet, and listened hard. The footsteps on the stairs slowed as Frank and John descended into the darkened hallway. There was a click, the smell of lighter fluid, and a flare of heat that made Matt smile. If it was dark enough they needed the Zippo, it was dark enough. He picked up a beer bottle and threw it hard and was rewarded by the clink of glass on metal and shouts as the lighter went flying. Frank clutched his hand in pain and peered into the darkness. "Where the fuck are you?" he shouted, and Matt laughed. He couldn't help it. The fear was gone again.
He tapped the wall with his club, and said, "I'm right here, Frank. What's wrong? Can't you see me?" He moved down the hall, closer to the boys at the base of the stairs, and watched as they looked around for the lighter, patting the floor in vain. "I thought you wanted to fight."
Frank stood up and glared toward his voice. "I'm gonna kill you."
"Gotta find me first," Matt replied, laughing. Have to get them away from the stairs. Bobby and Daniel are coming down, six heartbeats in tow. Sirens in the distance, but moving so slowly toward them. Smoke thick and harsh, and that's all he can smell. Heat from above. Have to hurry. Have to move. "Lighter's by your foot, asshole," he said, then turned and ran to the door and out into the muffling snow. Frank and Gaines were right behind him, drawn toward the light of the new day coming through the doorway. Light that Matt knew only as the faintest of warmth, quickly banished by a wall of cold.
Once outside, the edges of everything went into fuzzy oblivion, but it didn't matter now. Matt ran, kept running, through the snow, across the street, into the park. Pounding footsteps right behind him, gaining. He stumbled into a snow-blanketed bench, hitting hard across his legs and sending him into a rolling tumble.
Closer. He scrambled to his feet, kept running, and now he could smell peppermint through the pall of smoke and cold, could see the shadow image of Frank bearing down on him, knife in hand, close enough to grab. A hand on his sweatshirt, a clenched fist, and they were rolling together in the snow, scrabbling for a hold, kicking out, punching. Dull thuds peppered Matt's face, his stomach, and his fists ached from connecting with Franks' bulky frame.
Cold fire traced along his ribs. The knife. Matt gasped and curled around the pain, or would have but for Gaines grabbing him, hauling him up by his hair. Ringing in his ears, wailing, close, and the hands were gone. Matt fell to the cold ground, fighting for breath, and Daniel's voice was breathing in his ear, "Matt, are you okay? Matt?"
"Run away, Danny," Matt breathed, but he could barely hear his own voice. "Run. Frank…" A red tide welled up, drowning out all sound, and it was cold, cold, and dark.
Déjà vu. Electric beeping. Disinfectant. Starch and bleach and the murmur of too many voices. Soft warmth cradling him. Dull pain in his face, his ribs, his hands. The sharp ache of an IV in his hand.
A low voice was speaking, words rising and falling in a familiar cadence. "When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent. He remembered that smell: the fragrance of Ithilien. ‘Bless me!' he mused. ‘How long have I been asleep?' Hey!" the voice changed suddenly, and the forms by the window resolved themselves into the familiar shapes of Daniel and Bobby. "He's awake!"
Matt rubbed his face, wincing at the discomfort the movement stirred in his side. "Bless me," he croaked. "How long have I been asleep? And when did you start reading Tolkien? I thought you hated the Hobbit."
"I do. It's pap. But this new book is pretty good. Besides, Daniel insisted." Bobby and the younger boy came over to his bedside. "Sister let us stay. You've been out for a couple of days. You lost a lot of blood."
The cobwebs were clearing quickly, and Matt groped for the bed controls. Daniel pushed them under his hand, and he raised the head of the bed a little. "Tell me what happened. Did you get everyone out?"
Bobby nodded. "Yeah, thanks to Daniel. He is one stubborn little kid. Wouldn't stop talking until everyone agreed to get out of the building. ‘Course, once we hit the second floor, they were eager enough to go."
"Yeah, our Daniel is a talker," Matt said, gently teasing. "Never shuts up."
"Bite me," Daniel said, but Matt could feel the heat of his blush, and he grinned.
Bobby ruffled Daniel's hair, and collected a glare, then continued the story. "Anyway, we got outside, and you were…nowhere. We couldn't find you. Then I saw a drop of red, and footprints going back to the park, and I followed them. That's it."
It must have been Bobby who pulled Frank off of him, Matt thought. The firemen were too far away yet to have gotten to the fight in time to stop it. "What about Gaines and my former roomie?" he asked.
"In jail. Assault, attempted murder, arson, and possession of an illegal weapon," Bobby said. "The detective that took our statements said they might be tried as adults."
There was something in the older boy's voice that made Matt ask, "Why don't you sound happy about that? They tried to kill us."
"Yeah, but," he paused, running his big hands over his face as though he could draw the ideas out manually from his head. "It's not right. They, we, are still kids. Our minds are still forming. Frank and Johnny were taught to act the way they did by the traumas that shaped their earlier lives. If they go to Riker's, now, as children, there's no hope for them. They'll be molded by the experience into men who will have no chance at a normal life."
"Or they will learn from it and become better people," Daniel said. "We all had terrible things happen to us, and we're not setting fires or trying to kill people. You choose how you live, and the choices you make determine the person you are. Not the way the world treats you, but how you choose to respond to the way the world treats you." He took the book out of Bobby's unresisting hands and went back to the chair, retreating into quiet once again.
"Huh," Bobby said, thoughtfully.
"You can say that again," said Matt.
"You say your prayers with that mouth, Murdock?"
From the chair by the window, snickering.