One Unforgiving Late February Morning

Squealing brakes.

The unmistakable sound of steel on steel on glass on pavement.

That was the thing about McGough — you didn’t really need an alarm clock.

She rolled over in bed to find his side empty again, and got up, eyes wide, heart in her throat, all sudden and clutching. Dragging on a semblance of clothes, she ran out, banging her toe on the corner of the bed and her elbow on the door, swearing and slamming things behind her as she called for him.

First she did it quietly, then she was shouting his name as she saw the open front door (goddamnit the fucking cat’ll be in the street again, shit) and her legs were new-fawn wobbly as she thundered out into the hallway and down the stairwell at a breakneck pace, bare feet slapping the frigid, gritty stairs, and then she burst out onto the street level, eyes wide, hyperfocused. Her breath could be seen, silverpluming in the unforgiving late February morning, where there were already stopped cars and people in the street.

They were looking at whatever had caused the accident but before she could run, her throat readying a keen that had been building faster and higher and louder for the last few years, there were arms around her, tight arms, strong arms, his arms, hauling her back from going down those icy stairs. His voice was a whisky burn against her temple, low and rough. “Don’t look.”

She let loose the wail as he folded her against his chest, ducking her head down, turning her face to press to his chest. She breathed him in, all cigarettes and coffee, toothpaste and blood and whisky, and the sob was as much guilt as it was relief as it was fury as it was hope as he worked his fingertips through the tangle of her hair. He moved to pull her back toward the door.

“Don’t leave her–” she blurted, moving to tear away, and he was an immovable object to her unstoppable force — they held one another on the stoop, until the low rasp of his promise was in her ear —

“I won’t.”

— and she let him go as she fled back to the place that was supposed to be safe, but could never be home, the place that was supposed to be home, but could never be safe.

She made it one flight up before she looked out the stairwell window, saw him walk through the cluster, parting the sea of people with his presence.

He knelt on the macadam and pulled off his suit jacket (how long had she been asleep that he’d dressed himself without her knowing?) draping it over the thing on the ground. He cradled it up into his arms and walked away from the street, back onto the curb, to the stoop. As he reached it, he paused, looking around for one moment, then back down at the thing in his arms, his expression wavering.

Tears in her eyes, she banged on the window, and he looked up (Oh thank God for small favors) and saw her in the window, hands in fingerless gloves pressed to the cold glass, her — a riot of color behind the semi-frosted panes — there, waiting. Remember. Remember.

Remember.

He gave the faintest of nods, and then he was coming up the stairs.

She heard the front door, and and she moved to let him get into the apartment first; she ushered him in, and pulled the door shut behind them both. She was afraid to look in his arms, but then he was turning to hand her the bundle, the familiar tide of unreasonable fury washing over him, pushing her away.

She took it with wide eyes, stumbling back. She stared at him and clutched it against her chest, squeezing her eyes shut.

He stumbled into the bathroom, his jaw clenched, his teeth bared. He’d asked her to leave, ordered her to leave, demanded she leave, and more than once, tried to leave, himself, but the refusal she’d held to was stronger than him, now.

She went to set the coat down on the rug next to the door, for lack of a better place to do it, when it mewed.

She gave enough of a startled cry that he was in the bathroom doorway, tie undone, collar loosened, his eyes burning, fierce. “She–” she began, looking at him, plaintive, bewildered.

His voice was dry, almost a little irritable that he had to explain it. “She ducked ’em, n’they swerved, jumped the kerb, hit the paperbox, n’the other cars did the whole braked’n’rearend shit. She’s like you. Faster’n’stronger than she looks.”

She stared down at the filthy, rumpled thing in her arms, all mottled fur and green eyes. She looked back up at him, rumpled, all day-old stubble and too-blue eyes.

He glared, and her heart broke and healed a million times over to see the barest curve of a smile at his lips, the ghost of a man remembered. “N’she pissed in my fucking jacket.”

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