34 - Chris

He doesn't hate me. I have to keep reminding myself that over and over. Somehow, in this mass of a universe, through some scientific miracle, Matt doesn't hate me. Despite the fact that I didn't stop Mike from shooting Emily. Despite the fact that I had been testifying in the hopes that Mike would be released. Whatever that miracle is, it has saved my skin. Literally.

Though, how much I deserve that, I don't know.

"Remind me again why you're dragging me away?" Matt's chuckle sounds foreign to my ears. He seems deceivingly pleased to see us. Surprised, but pleased.

I can't get my head around that.

"Trust me," Ashley says under her breath. "You don't want to know."

It had been her who was the first to say anything after Matt and I had been staring at each other in shock. Me; shocked by the gruesome bruise on the side of his face, and terrified that he might give me one to match. Him; apparently pleasantly surprised.

It had only been Ashley's tugging on my arm and, her eyes bleeping with a hidden message, the words, "Let's go get some coffee" that either of us had been snapped out of it.

"So, how have you guys been doing?" Matt asks cheerfully as we guide him out of the hospital, as far away from Dr. Hill as possible. I wouldn't be surprised if Dr. Hill had constructed this for some elaborate plan. Now that we knew what this guy was capable of, I don't think there's anything I would accuse him of.

Matt eyes as playfully. "Are you guys..." He smirks knowingly. "When did you guys...?" And then his features fall and he's trapped in a trance. His forehead creases, like his thoughts are too heavy for his skin. He's struggling with something. Searching for something in his mind. "No," he says quietly, his breath low and heavy like he's found what he was looking for. And he isn't comfortable with it. "You already were..."

None of us say anything more as we scurry out of the hospital. Matt's enthusiasm is gone and he almost grows limp beside us. We almost have to physically drag him through the gleaming, windowed automatic doors. Ashley and I only pass meaningful glances between us. A conversation with our eyes.

Something's not right.

"Did you drink anything recently?" I ask strongly, my forearms pressed against the table, my eyes trained on Matt.

His eyebrows dip in confusion as he lifts his mug into the air. "Does coffee count?"

"No," I say, lowering my voice just a tad so that no one else in the cafe can hear us. The room is fairly quiet, with only a few couples and business meetings happening around. The lacy material of the tablecloth itches against my skin and I jerk my arms away so I don't have to touch it. It feels like rashes. "I mean alcohol or... drugs."

Matt's expression creases in amusement. "What? No," he scoffs, laughing at the ridiculous, evidently unexpected question. "The last time I drank was... No." He pauses again, realisation and mourning passing over his eyes. His face settles back to that hauntingly conflicted expression. "I drank... recently. I remember drinking. Picking up a bottle... But I don't know why." He lets out a frustrated groan and collapses his head in his hands.

I glance at Ashley who looks as pained as me. This is not the Matt that either of us are used to. Matt version 1 was destroyed after the night on the mountain. He came back as a completely new version, anger and frustration and grief all mangled in his wires. Now, for some reason, that version had gone. And the third version? Well, he felt like the first but with technical errors. Something in the wiring. The hard drive.

I nudge my head in Matt's direction, sending Ashley a silent message; Should I tell him?

She shakes her head violently.

I sigh reluctantly, passing her an apologetic look; I have to.

"Listen," I say, turning my attention back to Matt. He lifts his heavy head, looking at me under low, defeated lids. "Matt. There's been someone-"

Ashley jabs her elbow violently into my side and I yelp, shooting her a glare. Matt's eyes are passing between us like a tennis ball.

"There's been someone following us," I say painfully, my voice tight as I rub the spot where Ash hit me. "Taking photographs of all of us. Including you. We found out at the trial."

I recoil away from Ashley just in case she decides to hit me again. But she looks far too focused on Matt, her expression anxiously curious. I relax, though I'm not fully prepared to put my guard down. Sometimes, she can be relentless.

Matt is staring at me. Frozen, his expression churning into something like disorientation. He keeps staring. Five beats too long.

Then; "What trial?"

"What?" I blink at him, my jaw almost falling open. Ashley slaps me on the shoulder and I whimper, glancing sharply in her direction. See? her eyes say, like I told you so.

What? my eyes bulge back, confused.

Her eyes are set on mine for a moment and I can tell her mind is working overdrive. Then she turns back to Matt, smiles sweetly, saying, "We'll just be a moment." And then tugs me out of the booth, dragging me out of the main cafe and into the toilets.

"There's something up with him," Ashley says meaningfully, sharply, making her point as clearly as possible.

"Yeah," I drag out the word, glancing around nervously in case I get caught in the girl's bathroom and branded a pervert. "But what?"

"I don't know," Ashley sounds unsure. But she has confidence in her theory. I can tell. She never lets up when she's sure about something. "Maybe it's to do with the trial. Maybe he's under so much stress, his brain blanked out. I've heard of that happening to people."

"Ash, honestly," I begin regretfully. But the sound of the bathroom door creaks open before I can say anymore and Ashley grabs my wrist, yanking me with her into the nearest cubicle. She slams the door closed and clicks the lock just as footsteps find their way into the room.

It's right in this spot. Ashley is almost pressed against me as we lean against opposite walls. I catch her eye, wiggling my eyebrows as if to say Perfect opportunity and she glares playfully, hitting me silently on the shoulder. I clutch it with my hands, my forehead creasing in feigned agony as I pretend to suffer terribly from the wound. A giggle escapes her throat just before she snaps her hand over her mouth, her eyes filled with alarm and laughter. This moment feels like a breath of air amidst the suffocation. My eyes trail down her cheeks, catching the way her eyelashes fall against her skin as she blinks. I smile at her freckles peaking out from underneath her mouth-covering hands, finding myself creating a dot-to-dot pattern with them. She. Ashley. If it weren't for her, I'm sure I wouldn't be in the place that I am now. Mentally stable. Recovering. Alive.

For a moment, I let my expression relax into a natural one. And I'm reaching forward, peeling her hands away from her lips. My mind empties of everything. Everything but her. The teasing way her red hair brushes against her soft skin, her big, trusting eyes. The way they search mine. Communicate with mine, like we always do.

And, with an effortless breath, I'm closing the space between us-


My heart shoots out of my chest, my body slamming back against the wall in horror. Ashley's eyes are wide. Terrified.

"Ashley?" The male's voice speaks. It isn't Matt's. It's rougher. Casual. Experienced. "I know you're in here."

It's hard to breathe. My throat is choking, my chest thumping. I send Ashley a Should I? look.

She just looks back at me helplessly. She doesn't know.

So, with a breath to steal some confidence, I lift my hand up to the lock, click it and pull the door slowly open, preparing for whatever dread await us.

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