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Fic: Never Too Late to Mend (K+)

Fandom: Daredevil (TV)
Characters: Claire Temple, Karen Page, Matt Murdock
Pairings: Claire/Matt
Rating: K+
Genre(s): Drama, Friendship
Timeline: Takes place shortly after Season 2, episode 13. Spoilers primarily for season finale, but some reference to events taking place earlier.
Warnings: Medical trauma
Word Count: 5,596
Story Summary: Claire thought Matt was out of her life for good, until she got the frantic phone call.

Notes: Written for [personal profile] geckoholic for the http://marvelismarvel.dreamwidth.org/8434.html exchange.



Never Too Late to Mend




It was two weeks later, and it still hadn’t fully sunk in. It was a little after half-past five—the time Claire would normally have started getting ready to go to work for the night shift and, as she sat working on a Sudoku puzzle, she had to remind herself that she didn’t have to report to Metro General this evening—or any other evening. Never again. She’d made that abundantly clear when she’d stormed into the board meeting, blasted the hospital executives, and quit on the spot. It had been the right thing to do and she still had no regrets, but her white-hot rage had cooled to dull resentment.



The day after her resignation, a couple of her co-workers had called, but they’d been more interested in the juicy details (nowhere near as juicy as the scuttlebutt that had already been circulating; she hadn’t told Benson to go to hell or slapped a director across the face or—Heaven help her—mooned the meeting) than in how she was holding up. She hadn’t heard from Benson at all.



She’d received an envelope from Metro this morning, a terse letter on official stationary confirming that they “were in receipt of her resignation” and reminding her that it was Metro General’s policy not to issue letters of reference under any circumstances. After the way she’d stormed out, she hadn’t been planning on asking for a recommendation, but she still felt a sharp stab of annoyance. She knew that Shirley Benson would probably be willing to discuss her over the telephone with a prospective employer, but Claire wasn’t sure whether those last five minutes at Metro had as good as expunged five years of glowing quarterly evaluations.



Claire sighed and put the kettle on, resisting the urge to jog down to the corner store for something a bit stronger. Even when she was in college, she’d never been much of a drinker.



The phone rang as she was walking back to the Sudoku puzzle. Raising an eyebrow, she pulled it out of her pocket. “Hello?”



She didn’t recognize the tense voice on the other end. “Is this Claire?”



“Who is this?”



“Are you Claire?” the woman on the other end repeated with a note of hysteria.



“Yes. Who is this?”



The woman took a deep breath. “M-my name is Karen Page. Matt said I should call you. He… he’s hurt. It’s bad.”



Claire closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them, she realized that they were looking through her bedroom doorway, where she could see one corner of her emergency first aid kit on her night table, where she’d left it from the last time Matt had come to her apartment for help. “Is he conscious?”



“He was.”



“Is he breathing?”



“Yes.”



She took a deep breath. “Give me your address. I’m on my way. Fill me in while I’m in transit.”






By the time Claire made it down to the parking garage, she was shaking her head in disbelief. “And he made it back to your place before he passed out,” she repeated. “With those injuries…” She thought for a moment. “Okay. You’ve been applying pressure to try to stop the bleeding. That’s good. Now,” she kept her voice calm and professional, “you said he’s got a knife through his arm?”



Karen’s voice was steadier now. “Maybe it’s a dagger,” she said. “I don’t know.”



The last thing she needed was for the person on the other end of the line to get flustered over details that weren’t really that important. “It’s okay. You haven’t pulled it out yet, right?”



“No. I didn’t know if I should.”



Despite the seriousness of the situation, Claire smiled. “Smart. If the blade hit an artery, removing it without any kind of preparation could…” Her voice trailed off. It could kill him was what she’d been about to say, but she worried that stating it outright might shatter Karen’s hard-won calm. “…It could make things worse,” she said. She held the phone between shoulder and ear, as she got her car door open.



“I’m in the car now,” she said. “Give me a second to get you on hands-free. Okay. Is Matt lying down?”



“Yes.”



As expected. She gunned the motor. “He’s lying flat?”



“Yes.”



Claire put the car into drive. “Okay. Karen, I need you to do something, and I need you to be careful. Do you know what combat reflexes are?”



Karen hesitated. “I think so.”



“An experienced fighter,” Claire explained, just in case Karen was unclear, “can often lash out because their body subconsciously registers a move as an attack before their mind can catch up to analyze what’s really going on. In a fight, that’s handy. When they’re injured and someone takes hold of them—especially if they hurt them in the process—not so much. What you have to do now is probably going to cause Matt some extra pain in the short-term. It could trigger those reflexes,” she went on, giving her words a chance to sink in. “It might help if you keep talking to Matt to tell him what you’re about to do before you do it. Calmly, just like we’re talking now. He may not be conscious enough to understand you, but he might pick up on your tone.”



She heard Karen take a deep breath. Then, “What am I about to do?”



“You’re going to try—carefully—to sit him up. He won’t be able to stay that way on his own, so use pillows, sofa cushions, coats, towels, whatever you have. Don’t try to drag him against a wall or anything. Just sit him up and get that arm with the blade in it higher than his heart. If you have one of those folding trays, like for breakfast in bed that you can rest the arm on, that’ll be best.”



“Should I make a tourniquet?” Karen ventured. “I have a scarf I can use.”



Claire thought for a moment. “How bad is the bleeding?”



“Some of the cuts are still oozing,” Karen reported, “but it’s better than it was.”



“And the forearm?”



There was a pause. “There really isn’t that much blood,” Karen said, sounding surprised.



“No tourniquet, then,” Claire said. “It’ll probably do more harm than good right now.” She glanced at her dashboard. “GPS says I’m about twenty minutes from your place, but this is still rush hour. It might take me longer. You got him sitting, yet?”



“I’ll have to put the phone down for that,” Karen said.



In her car, Claire nodded. “Get that arm elevated. Once that’s done, boil some water. We’ll need it. And then,” she took a deep breath, “maybe you can tell me what was going on, leading up to the time you phoned me.” Because if she didn’t have something else to focus on besides Matt’s current state, Karen might not be the only one trying to keep herself together tonight.






Karen hadn’t spoken to Matt in days. Not since he’d asked her to meet him in the office that was now Nelson and Murdock in name only. Foggy was gone now, moved on to a corner office at Hogarth, Chao and Benowitz. She was settling in at the Bulletin and trying to put the past behind her. She was no stranger to moving on, but this time, even though she knew it was for the best, there was a part of her that wished that Matt would say or do something to change their minds and bring them back together again. There was a part of her that thought she should have made the first move, rather than waiting for someone else to make it. And then there was the part of her that remembered going to check on Matt at his apartment and finding a strange old man on his sofa and a half-dressed young woman in his bed—so soon after he’d professed to want to be with her—and she knew that if there was to be any chance at a reconciliation, it would be up to Matt—and she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to give him that chance.



The thought that there might be some sort of apology or explanation in the offing had been the only reason she’d gone back to the office when he’d called. She’d honestly gotten her hopes up for it and was mentally telling herself not to let past hurts ruin a present opportunity. Instead, he’d greeted her with a nervous intensity and a brown paper bag. Then he’d shown her what was inside.



“I…” Karen’s voice was a bit embarrassed, as she continued. “I didn’t handle it very well. I mean… He’d been shutting us out, closing himself off, for so long. I know that calling me in… letting me in... showing me that mask… He was trying to open up. But all I could think about was all the times he didn’t return my phone calls when I was worried sick. All the days he missed. He had Foggy lying for him, telling me Matt had a drinking problem—did you know that?” She was trying to sound flippant about it, but Claire could hear fury simmering just below the surface. Karen continued. “I think the only thing that saved me from blowing up was that I could see how nervous he was about telling me. I mean, if he weren’t, he might have led with something other than ‘I’m Daredevil,’ you know? It was like, if he tried to warm up to it gradually, he was worried that he’d chicken out or I’d leave or…” Karen sighed. “So, I told him I needed some time to process what he was telling me and I went home and took a few swigs of the Johnny Walker Red Label my boss gave me for Christmas. Or maybe it was more than a few swigs, because the next thing I knew, it was morning and I had one beauty of a hangover.”



“Mmm,” Claire mused aloud. “I think that’s pretty understandable.” She herself seldom had anything stronger than the occasional glass of red wine with dinner, but she wasn’t at all shocked to hear that Matt could drive someone to drink. “So…”



“So, I was coming home late from work tonight. Late for me, I mean. I’m writing for the Bulletin now—I think I mentioned that? Sorry. I’ve been up since about one this morning, following a story. I finally got everything I needed around two this afternoon, and then I had to type it up and…” she sighed. “You’re not interested. Sorry. Anyway, it must have been a little after five; it was past sunset, but it wasn’t totally dark yet. I was just getting in and I saw what I thought was a big…” Karen drew a shuddering breath, “…a big garbage bag. On my doorstep. And then I noticed that there were some… some dark streaks on the walk and steps. And then, I realized that what I’d thought was a bag was Matt. Daredevil. He was hurt. Bleeding badly. He’d made it as far as my front door before he passed out. I tried to call 911, but he—”



“Let me guess,” Claire sighed. “He was just conscious enough to stop you.” Without waiting for an answer, she barreled on. “Pulled that on me, when I first met him.”



“Yeah. He told me he had a phone in his pocket and to get it and call you.”



Claire took a deep breath. “How is he now?”



“He’s still breathing.”



“Does it sound normal to you? Fast? Ragged?”



Karen hesitated. “It’s… it was fast before. Maybe he was even hyperventilating a little, but it’s closer to normal now.”



Claire felt some of the tension leave her shoulders. “Okay. I’m only about five blocks away from you now, so wait until I get there. But while I’m looking him over—this is important—you’re going to have to clean those bloodstains outside your door before anyone sees them. Grab a pen and paper and I’ll tell you what you’ll need…”






She recognized the slender blonde who came to the door with disheveled hair and a worried look on her face. Apparently, Claire had made something of an impression on Karen, too, for the woman exclaimed, “I know you. You’re one of the nurses at Metro General!”



Claire sighed. “I was,” she said abruptly, not wanting to get into that right now. “How is he doing?” She fought the urge to push her way past and into the apartment.



Karen stood still for a moment, before flashing a quick self-conscious smile and moving aside. “About the same, I think,” she said.



“Has he regained consciousness at all?” Claire was already striding toward the still figure who lay propped up on the sofa. She noticed that a nearby armchair was missing its seat cushion—which was now lying on Matt’s lap. His arm was resting on it.



Karen thought for a moment. “When I was getting the pillows behind him, he groaned a bit,” she said slowly, “but I don’t think he woke up. And,” she added, “he didn’t try to attack me.”



Claire nodded. Then she took a look at Matt and felt a rush of anger tinged with dread. She’d seen him hurt worse than this once, but it hadn’t been by much. She turned to Karen. “How are you holding up?” she asked seriously. “I could use a hand, if you’re not too freaked out by all of this blood.”



Karen squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. “It’s not like this is the first time I’ve had a guy bleeding out in my living room,” she said in an undertone. “What do you need me to do?”



For answer, Claire opened her kit bag and pulled out two sealed packages, each containing a pair of sterile surgical gloves. She tossed one lightly to Karen. “Wash your hands well. You have hand sanitizer?” When Karen nodded, she continued, “Use some. And then, put these on.” She sighed. “I haven’t forgotten about cleaning up outside, but I think I need you more in here, as long as you’re not going to freeze up or get sick or something.”



Karen gripped the glove packet tightly with both hands. “If I were going to freak,” she said, “I’d have done it by now. Tell me what you need done.”



Claire smiled. “Put the gloves on first, while I examine him. And I hope you weren’t planning on an early night. This is going to take a while.” She tilted her head quizzically. “This isn’t the first guy you’ve had bleeding out in your living room?” she repeated.






By the time Karen was finished telling Claire about how Union Allied had tried to have her framed for murder and very nearly succeeded, Claire had almost finished stitching up the worst of the wounds. Matt hadn't regained consciousness, though every now and again, she'd heard him groan or seen him flinch away from the needle. She suspected that the only reason he wasn't struggling or fighting her more was, because on some level of awareness, he recognized her—and probably Karen, too. She sighed and prepared to dress another stab wound. Like most of the others, it was long, but shallow. Normally, it wouldn't be a cause for concern on its own. Unfortunately, he had a lot more like it. And she’d seen Matt in action and she knew how he usually moved. If he tried to parkour through the city for the next little while, he’d be lucky if all it did was cause him pain. If he ripped her stitches, Claire thought, then he wouldn’t have to worry about running afoul of those ninja bastards who’d invaded the hospital and murdered a good friend and colleague. If the injuries didn't finish him off, she’d probably kill him herself.



She bit back a profanity, as she saw a thin line of blood trickling down from a cut in Matt’s scalp. Scalp wounds bled a lot. She knew it. But she really thought that this one could have stopped by now. “Karen,” she snapped, pointing to the cut with her shoulder, both hands currently occupied with an angry red incision on Matt’s torso, “pressure!”



Karen hastened to comply, taking a fresh gauze pad and pressing it to the wound. “Sorry!” she gasped. “I should have noticed that.”



“Stop apologizing; you’re doing fine,” Claire said. “Seriously. It’s good to have an extra pair of hands.”



Karen gave her a quick smile. “So, how long have you known Matt?” she asked.



“How long ago was that Union Allied thing? Six months ago?”



Karen nodded. “Something like that.”



Claire reached for her scissors to cut the suture. “Well, a couple of weeks after UA shut down, my upstairs neighbor was taking out his trash and found a guy in a mask bleeding in the dumpster. He banged on my door—he knew I was a nurse—and we got him up to my place.”



“And he trusted you with who he… is?”



Claire shook her head. “Wouldn’t even give me a name. For weeks, I was calling him ‘Mike’. But I saw his face, and he knew I’d seen his face.” She sighed. “And that his eyes didn’t respond to light.”



“How come you didn’t turn him in?”



Claire peeled back a gauze bandage, clicked her tongue at the blood oozing from another wound, and prepared for more stitching. “I might ask the same thing of you.”



Karen looked up sharply. “No. Matt and I are friends. We have a history. He saved my life when Union Allied sent someone to my apartment to kill me. But you’d only just met him.”



Claire sighed. “Let’s just say I was a fan of what he was trying to do.”



“Was?”



“I guess I still am,” Claire admitted. “But I’m not a fan of what he’s doing to himself in the process.” She met Karen’s eyes squarely. “I’m glad he has you,” she said. “Anyone, really.”



Karen was shaking her head. “Some time back,” she said, “I told him that he wasn’t alone. Lately, he’s been… trying to be. Really, really trying,” she added with a pained smile.



“Oh, yeah,” Claire nodded. “If there’s one thing Matt Murdock is, it’s trying.” She took a deep breath. “So…”



Karen bristled. “Look, I might still be mad at him, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care! I just… don’t know where things stand right now. Or,” she added in an undertone, “where I want them to stand.”



Claire smiled. “Actually, I was about to say that I was ready to try getting that knife blade out of his arm and I need you standing by in case it gets messy.”



Karen closed her eyes as though doing so could somehow hide her dread that she’d just made a fool of herself. “Oh.”






Claire sighed. “I really wish we were in an emergency room right now,” she muttered. “I’d have something I could give him for the pain he’s going to feel in few seconds.” Then, more loudly, “Matt, brace yourself; this is going to hurt.”



She turned to Karen. “I’m not sure that cushion’s going to be enough. Have you got anything like a small table or a tray? Something so we can get his arm lying flat without having to move him to your kitchen table?”



Karen thought for a moment. “Um… yeah. Hang on.” She disappeared down the hallway and Claire heard a door open.



By the time Karen returned, carrying a bamboo fold-out tray, Claire was ready. “You were asking about a tourniquet before?” she smiled grimly. “Now’s the time.” So saying, she placed a length of tubing on the end-table next to the sofa. A needle and several lengths of fine thread followed. “You boiled water, right?”



Karen nodded. “It’s still simmering on the stove. I had to turn it down so it wouldn’t boil dry.”



“That’s fine,” Claire said. “Do me a favor and bring the pot here.” She looked at the end table. “If you’re worried about it ruining the finish or something, you can put a towel under it. I need to wash the wound.”



“Won’t it be too hot?” Karen exclaimed, even as she walked toward the kitchen.



Claire shook her head as she carefully lifted Matt’s arm and positioned the tray over the chair cushion. “Don’t fight me,” she muttered. “You’re still among friends.” She guided the arm down gently once more.



“If I were going to pour it directly on his arm,” she continued, not taking her eyes off of her patient, “then yes, absolutely,” she admitted. “But I’m dipping a cloth into it.” Here, she reached into the medical bag at her feet and held up a sealed paper packet with the word ‘sterile’ printed across it in bold, red, capital letters. “It’ll cool off quickly.” She frowned at Matt’s unmoving form on the sofa. “Even though I know he can handle a lot of pain without complaining, I don’t really enjoy testing it.” She caught Karen’s fleeting smile as the blonde woman returned, holding the handle of a metal saucepan in one hand, while supporting its bottom with a potholder with her other. She frowned. “How are you managing?” she asked, tearing open the packet.



Karen set the potholder down first and then placed the pot on it with a bit more force than necessary. “I came home from a hard day’s work to find someone I lo—care about!” she amended hastily, “…half-dead on my doorstep. I still haven’t had time to clean up the blood, and it’s taking everything I’ve got to not do something stupid like pull that blade out of his arm myself—and what I really want to do is go for a drive somewhere and come back to find out that this was all a dream…” She took a deep breath. When she spoke again, her voice was calmer. “But it isn’t and I can’t abandon him after everything he did for me,” she said and took another breath. “I’m sorry.”



Claire shook her head and dipped the cloth into the water. “Don’t be. You’re doing a lot better than some of the trainees I’ve worked with.”



“Seriously?”



“Yeah,” Claire said. “Seriously. The first time they get out of the classroom and set foot in the wards, especially if it’s the emergency ward? There are always a couple who expect… I don’t know. That they’re just going to be doing administrative stuff, or taking temperatures, maybe? Then they get a good look at injuries like this—and believe me, I’ve seen much worse, on a regular basis, only I’m typically not the sole staff member treating them—and start freaking out.” Matt was flinching as she washed his arm and she held it flat and urged him to hold still. A groan escaped his lips and he jerked upwards for a moment. Then he sighed and slumped back down.



“Like me,” Karen said.



Claire shook her head. “You’re not standing in the middle of the ward shaking with your eyes screwed shut. You’re not freezing or getting sick at the sight of blood. You did a damned good job of treating most of these wounds before I turned up. And you haven’t had any kind of medical training.” She hesitated. “Have you?”



Karen shook her head. “Just the basic CPR and first aid I learned in my junior lifeguard training,” she said with an embarrassed smile.



Claire nodded. “Junior lifeguard is… what? Fourteen?” She had the tubing in hand and was holding it to Matt’s arm, just above the elbow.



“Eleven to fourteen,” Karen said. “I was twelve.”



“So, the training you’ve had was over a decade ago and probably doesn’t overlap much with what you’ve been doing tonight,” Claire stated. “Forget ‘fine’. You’re doing great.” She tied the tourniquet. “Okay. I’m going to pull out the knife now. Matt… this is going to hurt. Karen…” she passed her another sterile packet, “thanks to the tourniquet, this isn’t going to bleed as much… but it is going to bleed. Wet this and get ready to wash the wound. I’ll sew it up when I can see what we’re working with.”



Karen pressed her lips together and gave her a resolute nod.



Matt sucked in his breath as Claire wrenched the knife free.



“Karen!”



Karen wrung the cloth hastily in her still-gloved hands and pressed it to the wound. The cloth quickly turned red. “It’s okay,” Claire said, trying to reassure both patient and assistant. “It’s okay. Move the cloth. Okay… Looks like it nicked the radial artery. That’s…” she smiled. “That’s actually kind of lucky for this kind of injury.”



“Lucky,” Karen repeated.



“Well, I can stitch an artery,” Claire said, already threading a sterile needle. “Nerve injuries take weeks to recover from and meanwhile, that arm would be out of commission.” She sighed and turned her attention to Matt. “You’re going to need that Catholic stoicism in a second,” she muttered. “Stand by.”






Stoicism was right. Matt sucked in his breath several times during the procedure and he flinched at least twice, but Claire had seen and heard other men scream over injuries that were a sight less painful.



“This isn’t the first time you’ve had to do stuff like this for him,” Karen said, returning from the kitchen with a cup of coffee. “How do you take it?”



Claire smiled. “If you’re talking about the coffee, black is fine. If you mean Matt,” she sighed and checked his pulse. Satisfied that he was sleeping now, she shook her head. “I can’t ride his crazy train for any length of time. His life right now? It’s complicated. I’m trying to simplify. That being said, I’m a nurse. If he needs medical attention, I’m there. In fact, at this point? Seeing as I’m currently between jobs, I should be looking at this as a chance to keep my skills current.” She examined the dressings on his wounds once more before she moved away from the sofa to sit at the table. After a moment, Karen joined her.



“If there’s anything I can do… I mean, do you need a reference…?”



Claire smiled. “Thanks. They usually want someone who’s known you for two years or longer, but I appreciate the thought. If you need me in the future, or if Matt does, call me. You’ve got my number.”



“Yeah. Thanks for coming over. I couldn’t have pulled Matt through on my own.”



Claire nodded. She checked the time. “We’ve got a couple of hours until dawn. Let me just finish this and we can clean up the blood outside before anyone notices. How did you take care of it that other time you told me about?”



“Foggy knew a guy. I don’t know if I can call him again. I mean, what’ll he think about being hired to do the same thing a second time in the same year?”



Claire smothered a yawn. “Well,” she sighed, “fortunately, between working in a hospital emergency room and patching up seriously injured vigilantes in my own living room, I’ve got a few tricks I can show you on that score.” She rubbed her eyes. “Maybe I could trouble you for another cup of coffee, though, before we get started?”



Karen grinned and reached for the empty mug.






One week later, Claire was on her way to the grocery store when she spied a familiar figure across the street, leaning against the wrought-iron fence of the building opposite hers. She wasn’t sure if he could detect her presence over the roar of morning rush hour traffic, but then he smiled, swung his white cane, and made his way toward the corner and the walk signal. After a moment, Claire did the same.



By the time she reached the corner, Matt was already halfway across the street. He looked good, she noted. The cut on his scalp was almost completely concealed by his reddish-brown hair. His sleeve rode up a bit when he flicked his cane from side to side and when it did, she could see the beginning of another slash wound she’d had to stitch up, just above his wrist. If she hadn’t known what to look for, though, she might have fallen for his façade. Just like before. She smiled. “Good to know you pulled through again,” she said, as his foot came down on the curb.



“Thanks to you.”



“And Karen.”



He shook his head, still smiling. “She didn’t have to come running from halfway across the Kitchen to patch me up.” He sighed. “And I wasn’t in any shape to go halfway across the Kitchen to find you.”



Claire took a deep breath. “Well, at least the blood loss didn’t make you delusional,” she allowed.



Matt laughed, but sobered quickly. “Seriously, Claire. Thank you.”



“Hey. I told you that when you needed me, I’d be there. I meant it.”



“I know.”



The silence lasted long enough to begin to feel awkward. Claire broke it. “Karen told me your practice broke up,” she said. “What have you been doing with yourself? Besides getting sliced to ribbons, I mean?”



Matt shrugged in a way that Claire was sure was meant to look casual. Then he winced.



“If you’re going to rip those stitches,” Claire said, “you’d better come inside where I can fix them.”



“I’m fine,” Matt replied. “To answer your question, I’ve still got the office and enough funds to cover rent and overhead for another month or so. After that, we’ll see. Lately, I’ve been taking stock, looking at options… something will come along, I’m sure.”



She could have smiled, nodded, and left it at that. Instead, she heard her own voice say, “So, that’s it. You’re just going to go it alone.”



He looked surprised and she couldn’t blame him. “Claire, I don’t have a choice,” he said gently. “I’m not about to give up what I do and this is the best way to keep everyone around me from getting hurt.”



The Claire who’d pushed him away before to protect herself understood his logic. The Claire who’d endured shifts from hell at Metro Grace as a ‘reward’ for deserting her post to save another man’s life and had wanted nothing more than to keep her head down, keep as far away from injured vigilantes as possible (once they were no longer in need of treatment, of course), and keep her performance reviews high had been doing much the same thing—even though she hadn’t realized it until this very moment. But the Claire who had gotten fed up with petty bureaucrats who put the bottom line above saving lives, the Claire who had watched a friend and colleague die at an assassin’s hand and seen the administration attempt to sweep the matter under the rug, the Claire who had realized that, in good conscience, she could no longer allow herself to remain in a place where such goings-on were permitted to happen… That Claire—the one who’d finally had all the crap she could put with and decided to take a stand against it—was, she realized, perhaps not a whole heck of a lot different in outlook from the man standing beside her.



She sighed. “You know, hurting the people you care about in order to keep them from getting hurt really… doesn’t work.” She rested a hand on his forearm, right where the knife had been and withdrew it instantly when she heard him suck in his breath. “I’m sorry. You’d… better let me take a look at that.”



“I don’t—”



“—have to shut me out,” Claire ad-libbed. “That’s right. You don’t. Because you can’t push me away to protect me if you’re still having your friends—and you do still have some, you know—call me when you’re in trouble. So, come on back to my apartment. I’ll check up on my work from last week. And then, maybe we can compare notes. I’m sort of between jobs myself, right now.”



Matt looked stricken. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t realized…”



“It’s fine. It had nothing to do with you,” Claire said firmly.



“You’re sure?”



Claire nodded. “I’m sure. I could have kept my head down, kissed a little bureaucratic ass, and weathered it, but… I’d just had about all I could take of smiling and keeping my mouth shut, you know?”



Matt placed his free hand on her elbow. “I do know,” he admitted. “How are you holding up?”



Claire took a deep breath. “I’m… good. Really. I mean…” Damn. She was starting to get choked up. What the hell was wrong with her? she thought furiously. She was not broken up over losing the job. She'd made the right choice. But there was suddenly a painful lump in her throat, all the same.



“Hey.” He squeezed her elbow. “Suppose we go back to my place instead? I’ll make us a couple of coffees, you can make sure I haven’t torn anything open that needs to stay closed, and then…” he gave her a half-hearted smile. “Well, I am a halfway-decent cook. And you sound like you could maybe use a halfway-decent meal that you didn’t have to fix for yourself. That’s…” he hesitated. “I mean, if you want to.”



Claire smiled. “You know, that actually sounds like a halfway-decent idea,” she said, covering Matt’s hand with her own.







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