It’s almost midnight by the time he nods to the bartender and drops a well-worn fifty onto the damp runner next to his glass. He’s got no idea where the time has disappeared to, just knows the ensuing silence has been loaded and uncomfortable, words he won’t let himself say tripping over and under themselves on the tip of his tongue.
He can’t even bring himself to mutter good night as he heads towards the door, steps out into the cold evening air. Just offers up a shrug and a half smirk and turns and walks away.
Waits for the sound of Kelly calling him back and isn’t surprised when it doesn’t come.
He spends most of the next few hours pacing the sparse interior of his apartment. The television flickers in the low light, the sound muted as basketball reruns fade into hockey flashbacks that fail completely to capture his attention.
The silence is filled instead by a constant stream of thoughts that are getting louder and all the more difficult to ignore as the sun begins its slow ascent into morning.
He shouldn’t be surprised, he thinks, that this is how Kelly has chosen to deal with his injury. Duck and run.
Escape and evade.
Deny, deny, deny.
There’s more to it than Matt knows he could ever hope to understand, and the frustration, the anger, has his fingers curled perpetually into fists he only just manages not to punch through the plasterboard.
His truck is covered in a thin layer of frost when he finally allows himself to give in to the intense need to fix this. He lets the heaters do their job for three impatient minutes, before slamming the vehicle into gear and rounding the familiar route to an apartment across town that he hasn’t visited in more months than he can bring himself to admit to.
Shay answers his agitated knock with raised eyebrows and not nearly enough clothing on.
“Is he here?”
She steps back with her hands raised, eyes wide.
“He’s sleeping. He’s-”
He pushes his way into the room, bounces up the spiral staircase two at a time and doesn’t bother to wait for an invitation to enter as his eyes take a second or several to adjust to darkness again.
There’s movement beneath the covers then, fast and shocked, and Matt thinks, for a beat, that he should probably feel bad about that.
“What the fuck, man?”
Kelly’s voice, thick with sleep, still manages to sound more pissed off than anything else. It’s a register he is all too familiar with.
“I said, get up.”
Counting rhythmically inside his own head, using the arousal management techniques they were taught at the academy, he allows himself a sideways glance at Kelly every twenty beats. The radio in his truck is at a volume too loud to accommodate conversation, and despite all the things he has to say, he can’t help but be grateful for the momentary reprieve.
They’re mere houses away from his intended destination when Kelly finally speaks.
“Where are we going?”
There’s a river of something Matt can’t quite put his finger on running through his words. Fear or apprehension.
Something more than that maybe.
He turns his head with his eyebrows raised, a silent answer along the lines of isn’t it obvious? because, well, it should be by now.
But Kelly’s not looking back at him to receive the message. Instead, his eyes are closed, both hands wrapped tightly around the seatbelt that crosses his chest, knuckles, bloodless.
And Matt decides his answer is redundant by now anyway.
It’s just after seven thirty when he stabs his finger against the door-bell. And he figures he’s already barged into one apartment uninvited this morning.
What’s one more?
Heather opens the door with the security chain still in place. Peers out through the crack with a confused frown that quickly morphs into panic and has her slamming the door shut again in order to open it fully.
“It’s okay,” he says, tries for reassuring, “I’m sorry for freaking you out. Everything’s okay, I promise.”
Even though it’s not.
Not even close.
She’s still in her pyjamas, is self-consciously smoothing them down as she finally opens the door.
“Matt, what’s going on?”
“Where are the kids?” Matt asks, because, shit, he’d forgotten about the kids.
“They’re at my parents’; they’re there for the weekend. Matt, what the hell?”
He can hear shuffling on the path behind him, and Heather’s line of sight keeps shifting to somewhere over his left shoulder. He hadn’t been convinced Kelly would follow him beyond the point on the sidewalk he’d managed to coax him to, but Heather’s disjointed confusion indicates some sort of progress has been made.
“Can we come in? Please?”
“Tell me what’s going on.”
“Heather, please. I’ll explain everything inside, I promise…”
They follow Heather towards the back of the house, through the living room, and out into the kitchen where she sets the coffee maker into motion.
Matt slides onto a stool at the breakfast bar and risks a glance in Kelly’s direction. He’s leaned up against the door-frame, head tilted back against the painted wood, his left hand tucked in behind him, holding on for dear life.
Like maybe the solid structure of Andy’s house is the only thing keeping him upright.
Matt doesn’t dwell too long on the symbolism inherent in that notion.
Turns back to Heather then, says, “Kelly’s moving to Spain.”
Her eyebrows betray her initial response, twin arcs of genuine surprise before, “Okay.” Clipped, like maybe he’s just told her the price of gas is expected to increase.
“No,” he says, shakes his head emphatically, “Not okay, not even close to okay. The actual opposite of okay, in fact.”
The tension in the room is palpable. And Matt wonders if he’s walked into the middle of something he doesn’t quite have all the background information for.
Some of the pieces from this picture seem missing, or out of focus. He’s scrambling to gather them all together into something that makes sense.
“Matt, I have no idea what you want me-”
“Tell him he’s being an idiot!” And isn’t it obvious? Isn’t it all blindingly obvious?
“Kelly’s always done exactly what he wants, Matt.” She spits the words out as though Kelly isn’t standing right there in the room with them.
Matt blinks, shocked.
“So, he’s moving to Spain. I’m still not sure what that has to do with me.” She shrugs and turns her back on them both, moves towards the cupboard and pulls a single mug from the middle shelf. “Or you, for that matter…”
“But Andy wouldn’t-”
Kelly makes a noise then, a barely vocalised moan that almost splits Matt in two.
Heather spins back towards them.
“Andy wouldn’t what, Matt?”
“He wouldn’t want…” He trails off, can’t help but feel like he’s stumbled into a trap he had no idea was being set.
“Andy wouldn’t want to be dead? How about we start with that?”
Kelly sounds like he’s being strangled. Choking. Matt can’t bring himself to look around.
This is not at all going according to his well thought out plan.
“Look,” Heather says, the word wrapped around a resigned sigh. “I’ve told Kelly he’s not welcome here, I don’t want to have to-”
“Why would you say that?”
He’s struggling to keep up with the conversation, despite the fact that it’s only he and Heather speaking. The situation has spiralled into something he’d never in a million years seen coming.
He turns suddenly, risks a glance in Kelly’s direction only to discover that he’s no longer standing behind him, being held up by the plasterboard they’d both helped Andy paint.
He pushes off the stool he’d been sitting on, barely registers as the metal feet catch in the rug and tip it backwards, send it crashing to the kitchen floor.
He catches up with Kelly back at the front door. He’s somewhat surprised that he’s not through it and out onto the sidewalk by now, and Matt can’t say he’d blame him if he was, but he’s leaned up against the door instead. His forehead pressed to the glass and his fingertips bent desperately over the ledge.
Matt can hear him breathing from yards away.
“Hey, are you okay?”
The answer, no, is more than obvious. He doesn’t need a verbal response to figure that much out.
“Hey…” He walks up slowly behind Kelly, ghosts his hands over his back but can’t quite bring himself to make contact. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t…” He trails off.
And it’s little more than recycling the same excuse he’s been hiding behind for weeks now.
He scrubs his hands across his face viciously, furious with himself, before dropping them both around Kelly’s waist in a gesture intended to indicate his support; physical and otherwise. But he’s barely touching Kelly before he finds he’s suddenly taking his whole weight in his arms, his own startled fuck swallowed up by a barely stifled scream.
He’s on his knees on the floor, his left hand capped over the top of Kelly’s as he kneads desperately at his neck, the other against the side of Kelly’s face in an attempt to get him to open his eyes and breathe.
“Hey, look at me. Talk to me, Severide, what’s going on?”
There’s a trembling beneath his fingertips that is all levels of disconcerting.
“Matt?” Heather’s voice tumbles down the hallway towards them. “What’s going on?”
“Do you have any painkillers in the house? Strong ones?” He keeps his eyes on Kelly, still completely at sea with how the last five minutes have unfolded.
He turns then, irrationally frustrated with her, “Painkillers, strong ones, do you have any?”
She opens her mouth, as though she wants to question him some more, before dropping it closed again and walking out.
“Hey.” Matt taps his fingers against Kelly’s cheek. “Severide, open your eyes or I’m calling Dawson and Shay.”
He’s not expecting it when Kelly complies, but manages to quell his panic for long enough to take some semblance of control.
Or, so he hopes.
“Okay, good, you with me?”
Kelly blinks and Matt takes it as a yes for no real reason beyond his own rising desperation.
“Is it always this bad?”
Kelly drags a stuttered chest-full of air in before he attempts to speak, and the sound of it screeching past his teeth rattles against Matt’s frayed nerves.
“No. Yes.” He blinks, takes another breath. “Sometimes.”
“Jesus, Kelly, why didn’t you say anything?”
And isn’t that just the sixty four thousand dollar question?
“Can you stand up?”
Kelly’s eyes slide closed, his face screwed up against the constant pain. Matt’s pretending he can’t see the way his fingers keep clenching awkwardly despite the fact they’re curled uselessly in his lap.
“Just, gimme a minute.”
“Okay, yeah.” He nods, agrees, allows himself the space of a breath or two to re-analyse the situation as it currently stands. Gets part way through a deconstruction of Heather’s reaction to Kelly before he’s interrupted by movement, unsteady.
He gives Kelly room to get himself to his feet. Can’t help but wince at the way he alternates between using his left hand, first to hold himself steady against the wall, then, panicked, to cradle his right arm against his chest.
“Hey,” Matt says, sliding into place behind him and wrapping his own arm around Kelly’s chest, taking up the slack and effectively immobilising his shoulder in the process. “I got you.”
They’ve made their way to the living room and he’s propping Kelly’s arm up with a couch cushion when Heather returns, dressed in a sweater and jeans now, a fist-full of blister packs and bottles, a glass of water in her other hand.
“I’ve got some Tylenol threes, some Advil, and a couple of diazepam that are probably out of date to be honest.”
Matt watches as Kelly’s features tighten an inch or several and he clamps down on his own sudden need to question everything. How much of this story, of all of it, has he really missed?
“Hey, Severide,” he says, still watching closely. “What do you need?”
“Yes, of course honestly.”
“None of that’s gonna touch it.”
In the end Kelly convinces them, pleading, to give him a couple of everything. Matt refuses on the two diazepam, but concedes defeat to a point and bounces a single pill out of the bottle. Flinches as Kelly dry-swallows the lot with barely a grimace.
“You should eat something with the Advil,” Heather says, and Matt can’t help but think that’s the least of their worries right now. She makes no move towards the kitchen, and he figures she’s reached the same point of horror now that he has.
“One of you two needs to tell me what the hell is really going on here…”
And Matt knows it probably falls to him, only, suddenly, he’s all too aware that he’s missing significant chunks of the story. He starts, instead, with what he does know.
“His neck is broken.”
Matt sympathises with her shocked reaction one hundred per cent.
“Yeah,” he nods, risks lifting his gaze to meet hers. “His neck is broken. Has been broken for months now… He didn’t think this was information anyone else needed to know.” And the bitterness has returned, foul tasting at the back of his throat.
“Casey.” Kelly, with an attempted warning that is all too easy to ignore.
Matt raises a hand, effectively cutting him off.
“And now he needs surgery. Serious spinal surgery. And then he’s moving to Spain because his new girlfriend, whom I’ve never even met by the way, thinks now is a great time to up and shift half-way across the globe.”
Matt thinks, maybe, he should have led with this to start with.
“Casey, please, don’t…”
And there’s something about the desperate way Kelly begs him to stop that has Matt’s fury sky-rocketing.
“Stop?” he shouts, launching to his feet and taking several steps back. “What, like you did? Like you stopped to think about all the people whose lives you put in danger, like,” and Matt thinks this might be the real crux of his anger, “Like you stopped to think about the fact you were putting your own life in danger?”
He deflates then, leans back against the wall opposite to where Kelly’s sitting and refuses to look at him.
“When did this happen?”
Heather’s voice is quiet against the sound of his own breath in his ears. He looks across at her, disconcertingly startled to find she’s actually addressing Kelly.
“Kelly, when did this happen?” she repeats, insistent, like maybe she already know the answer, even though she can’t possibly.
Matt doesn’t even know the answer to that-
And suddenly, yes, yes he does.
Matt bounces his gaze between the two of them, tennis-like.
“Kelly, say it.”
“I can’t. Please don’t-”
“Say it.” She blinks and Matt watches the tears start to fall. Finds they likely match his own. This is new territory right here. Fragile common ground that was always too fresh, and too painful, and too everything else to be brought up for discussion.
“I can’t. I can’t say it. Don’t make me say it…”
Kelly’s pleading now, shifting on the couch and screwing his face up and desperately trying to get to his feet. Matt makes a move to stop him, only to have his motion cut off by Heather who beats him to it.
“Kelly, stop,” she says with some degree of authority, and Matt watches, fascinated, as he does just that.
“It’s okay, shh,” she says, enveloping Kelly’s face in her hands and tilting her forehead forward until it’s resting against his. “You don’t have to say it.”
Matt’s not sure what’s going on now, what he’s missed, what else he’s missed, over the intervening weeks and months. Heather’s still mumbling things to Kelly that he can’t quite make out, she’s on her knees, pressed between his legs, their foreheads still touching in a way that only serves to underline the existence of a history between them that Matt was never part of.
Watching them together, he feels like an intruder. It’s uncomfortable, and he backs out of the room then, makes his way into the kitchen and rights the stool he’d knocked over earlier. Slides his weight onto it and lowers his head to his crossed arms.
Thinks, shit, and fuck, and what the hell just happened here?
There’s movement behind him, and a hand runs the width of his shoulders as Heather walks past and rounds the counter-top.
“He’s not going to Spain,” she says, she sounds as exhausted as he feels.
“What? He’s not?” Matt looks up, shocked, tries to fathom exactly what’s just happened. “Did he say something?”
Heather shakes her head, smiles at him slowly in a way that only looks sad, “He didn’t have to.”
She drags what looks like a heat pack from a drawer, slides it into the microwave and sets the timer to two minutes. The insistent hum that descends provides the perfect cover.
“I’m so sorry-” he starts, falls silent again when Heather raises a hand.
“Stop,” she says. “There’ve been too many apologies and too much blame laid, from all of us, and none of it even makes sense anymore. He could have killed himself, Matt,” and Matt swallows thickly because, he knows this. “When you came here today, you started to say something about Andy not wanting Kelly to move to Spain. Well, you’re probably right but, I also know for a fact he wouldn’t have wanted this.”
She doesn’t expand on what she says. He doesn’t need her to.
The microwave announces the end of the two minutes, and Heather wraps the heat pack in a small towel before heading back to the living room. Matt pushes up from the stool and follows reluctantly in her footsteps.
“So,” Heather says, still tucking the heat pack into place against Kelly’s neck as Matt sinks down onto the couch beside him. “What happens now?”
“Surgery.” Kelly provides the hesitant answer, and Matt’s grateful because he hadn’t yet caught up enough to understand the intent behind the initial question.
“Tomorrow, mid-morning apparently.”
Which is also news to Matt. Shit. He leans forward, elbows on his knees, and only just manages to clamp down on the rapidly piling up miscalculations he’s made.
Heather’s moved into ‘mom’ mode. Is asking questions like she’s preparing to scrape together a game plan of sorts.
“And then, nothing.” The resignation in Kelly’s voice is almost tangible.
“No, not nothing. And then rehab.” Heather’s certainty is a welcome relief. “Here in Chicago.” Pointed, and Matt notes that there’s no protest when she says it. “And then, back to work, yes?”
Matt holds his breath and dares a sideways glance at Kelly because…
“Okay, so, not like before, but back to something.”
“There is no something. There’s only squad, I can’t do-”
“Bullshit.” Matt this time, interjecting, because, well, bullshit.
“No,” Kelly counters, shaking his head awkwardly, but with conviction.
Heather brings her eyes up to meet Matt’s briefly, a silent warning he can’t help but think, and he drops back into silence under the weight of her gaze.
“Not bullshit,” Kelly continues, “You don’t get it, no-one gets it. There is nothing else for me. I don’t even know who I am without squad. I’m nothing… I’m no-one.”
“Hey,” Heather says, one hand splayed against Kelly’s chest, the other tangling through the short curls at the nape of his neck, and Matt can’t help but marvel at how comfortable she looks like that, using physical contact to say what her words can’t quite convey. “You’re still you,” she says, “You’re still Kelly. And even if you don’t recognise yourself without squad, we know who you are, you’re still Kelly to us.”
“You’ll always be stubborn, stupid, brave, strong, idiotic Kelly Severide to the two of us, squad or no squad.”
Heather continues to make plans, gets out a notepad and jots a hasty to-do list that includes things like ‘buy hospital appropriate pjs’, which has them both raising their eyebrows in her direction.
“What?” she says, feigning disbelief. “You think I don’t know exactly how naked you boys are in bed? I was married to one of you for a very long time!”
Matt notes she adds things to the list that she doesn’t bother to mention out loud. Things like, ‘get contact details for his father’, and ‘make appointment with the Chief’, both of which Matt agrees are necessary steps they’ll need to take in the coming days.
Kelly’s eyelids start to flutter, more closed now than open, and Matt guesses he’s finally succumbing to the effects of the medication and the residual exhaustion left over from his fight to keep everything secret for so long.
He pushes back to his feet, spins a cushion around so it’s pressed against the arm of the couch and indicates for Kelly to lie down.
“Get some sleep,” he says, forces levity and some degree of cover should Kelly want it, need it. “I heard some dumbass barged into your room this morning and dragged you outta bed at stupid o’clock.”
That his words receive no protest is telling in itself.
“I’ll make some coffee,” he says to Heather, indicates he’ll give them a second to settle anything still left unsaid.
He’s adding milk to two mugs when Heather joins him, she slides onto the stool Matt had used earlier and drops her chin to her hands. Inhales deeply, before exhaling, slow and deliberate.
“Not exactly the way I expected my morning off to go,” she says, eyebrows raised, lips smirked.
Matt has the decency to look sheepish, “Sorry about that.”
“Jesus, Matt. How the hell did it come to this? He’s half a loud bang away from complete self-destruction.”
And she never has been one to pull her punches.
“I don’t know,” he starts, reconsiders, “Well, I do, I guess. He blamed himself for what happened, right from the very start. He pretended that he was fine, I mean, he barely spoke to me, but what he did say was obviously meant to hide the fact that he was falling apart, literally and metaphorically.”
“He’s different to you,” Heather says, “Different to Andy, too. There’s always been something, I don’t know, something desperate about him. Something lost, I guess. He used fire-fighting to develop some kind of identity, and now that’s being taken away…”
Matt nods absently, agreeing with her at the same time he lets her words sink in. They make complete sense, he thinks, painful as it may be to admit it.
“I knew,” he concedes, “I knew that there was something wrong with him. Hell, the whole station knew by the end, but I guess I figured it out a while ago now. There was so much else going on though, and it was easier to think that if he was still turning up to work, and still being a prick most of the time, then everything would be fine in the end… only, that’s not how it turned out.”
Heather turns her mug around and around and around, sloshing some over the side and onto her fingers. She licks the coffee off, appears to be considering what she wants to say next.
“I blamed him, too” she says finally. “You said he blamed himself for what happened to Andy, well, I blamed him, too. To his face. And I told him to stay away and that he couldn’t see the kids and-”
“Hey, you were upset, everyone was-”
“No,” she says, sharp as she lifts her eyes to lock them on his. “No excuses. I was awful to him, Matt. And yes, I was upset, and yes, I’d just lost my husband, the father of my children, but Andy was his best friend. Had been his best friend since they were seven years old. And I completely disrespected that.”
The reluctant silence that had settled between them is split by the shrill ring of Matt’s cell phone. He slides his finger across the screen to answer it, Shay pulling some kind of crazy Shay-face displayed by way of the caller ID.
“Hey,” he says, “Sorry about-”
She cuts him off abruptly, wants to know where Kelly is and what the hell is going on. Matt explains as succinctly as he can. He knows they’re close, Severide and Shay, a package deal pretty much these days, but he gives her the short version of events in a bid to preserve some degree of their privacy. Figures Kelly can fill her in on the rest later if he chooses to.
Shay waits until he’s finished before she gets to why she’s calling. Apparently Kelly left his own cell phone behind and it’s been ringing off the hook all morning.
“Vargas,” Shay says, “The Chief, his girlfriend a couple of times, but that’s not why I’m calling.”
“Okay,” Matt says, raises his eyebrows in Heather’s direction.
“The hospital called. Apparently they’ve had a neurosurgeon take a look at his scans and they’re saying he needs to come in today.”
“Now, actually,” Shay admits. “Shit, Matt, he’s not ready yet, he’s going to lose it.”
“Hey,” he says, raising his hand automatically and despite the fact Shay can’t see him. “It’s okay. Heather and I will talk to him.” He nods in Heather’s direction and she nods back, even though she’s only getting one side of the conversation.
“Okay,” Shay says, and Matt can hear her drag in a deep breath.
“Hey, Shay, you okay?”
She sighs again, tells him that she’s fine, scared, worried, nervous, some weird hybrid of all of the above.
“Welcome to the club,” he says, “At least you’re not alone in there.”
They make plans to meet at the hospital. Shay saying she’ll bring some of his things with her, Heather snatching the phone off him momentarily to insist that Shay rifle through his drawers for pyjamas that are ‘suitable to be seen in public’.
There’s laughing then, and comments that Matt can’t quite follow. He rolls his eyes and leaves the girls to it, walks back to the living room before he can talk himself out of what must happen next.
“Hey, Severide,” he says, settles onto the arm of the couch and wraps his fingers around an ankle, gives it a light shake, once, twice, and waits for Kelly to blink his eyes back open.
“Time s’it?” he says, shifting a little against the cushion but not making any move to sit up.
“A little after nine thirty,” Matt tells him. “You haven’t been asleep for long.”
Matt tilts his head back in the direction of the kitchen, “Talking to Shay.”
“Shay? What? Shay’s here?” Kelly pushes up at that, his right arm curled across his chest as he uses his left to lever himself to seated.
“On the phone,” Matt hastens to add, “She rang while you were sleeping.”
“Oh, okay.” He relaxes somewhat back into the cushions. “She’s freaking out, isn’t she?”
“Well, that’s partly my fault,” Matt admits. “I’m pretty sure she thought I was kidnapping you against your will this morning.” He swallows awkwardly once the words are out, drops his gaze to his hands, “Which, ah, I guess isn’t far from the truth.”
The silence then is loaded, lasts for a beat too long to be anywhere near comfortable. Matt solidifies himself with a deep breath before:
“Hey, Kelly, I need to tell you something…”