Part III: Kapow!
Eli did his absolute best to stay out of Matthew's way in the coming weeks. It was a good thing that Matthew didn't show up nearly as often as before. He supposed fighting crime on a regular basis cut into one's coffee shop time.
"Hey, Matthew's been looking pretty beat up lately," Michael commented one day. The very man in question had just left with what was his third coffee cup of the day.
"Has he? I hadn't noticed," Eli said, and he thought his lie sounded rather convincing. Michael certainly didn't question him.
"Yeah, he has. Not that he doesn't usually look like crap," Michael said with a thoughtful look on his face and a slight frown. "Wonder what he does," he muttered, as he moved out from behind the counter to wipe the tables.
Personally, Eli thought Michael was better off not knowing what Matthew did to look so utterly exhausted. After all, he knew and it got him nothing but trouble. Granted, he hadn't talked to Matthew since that night on the rooftop. He still wasn't sure whether he was glad for that or not.
If he were to be honest, he would admit that a part of himself found the man amusing. Even if he constantly irritated Eli close to the point of getting a fist to the face. Still, Matthew had helped him out of a few tight spots and Eli figured he owed the man at least a bit of gratitude.
He still felt that way as he walked into his apartment after another grueling day at school. Not so much after he walked into his bedroom to see Matthew walking out of his bathroom with a hand towel held up to his head. Eli wasn't all that aware of his schoolbag falling with a dull THUD, nor did he notice he was openly staring. At the moment, all he really knew was that there was a masked man bleeding in his apartment. Matthew gave him a sheepish grin.
"Oh, uh, hey there Eli," he greeted lamely with a weak wave of his hand. It took Eli a moment to say something, the words stuck in his throat.
"'Hey'? 'Hey'!? That's what you have to say? What the hell!?" Eli never had been known for his composure.
"Uh, how was school?" Matthew tried again. Eli just stared at him blankly for a moment before shaking his head.
"Nope, I can't do this," he said. "I can't have masked men bleeding all over my apartment, breaking in whenever they feel like it, and dragging me on drug busts."
"Oh that was hardly a real drug bust," Matthew said with a roll of his eyes.
Eli just looked at him like he was insane — which he probably was — before throwing his arms up into the air in frustration. "Nope, I'm done," Eli said, ignoring Matthew.
"Really? You're just going to leave me here. I need medical attention, you know," Matthew said, not sounding particularly pained.
"Then go get some!" Eli snapped. "I'm a college student not a doctor," he added when he saw the way Matthew was looking at him.
"Oh come on, it's not that bad. Just patch me up a bit and I'll be on my way," Matthew insisted.
Very reluctantly, Eli agreed to help Matthew, if only so he'd get out of his hair for a while. Of course, once he decided on that, he realized he had no medical supplies.
"Huh. Well that explains why I couldn't find them," Matthew said from his seat on the edge of the bathtub as he watched Eli walk into the bathroom. He'd had to run to the store around the corner to get what he needed.
"You know, I'd appreciate it if you didn't break in here to dig around in my bathroom cabinet," Eli said dully. "Actually, I'd appreciate it if you just didn't break in at all," he added after a moment. He was fairly certain that if he didn't he'd find Matthew in his apartment again.
"I didn't break in. By the way, you should really close your windows, even if you are on the second floor," he said, a reproachful tone in his voice.
"It's not my fault. The lock doesn't work on that window. Besides you're the only one that bothers using the window instead of the door like a normal person."
"I doubt it'd be a good idea to use the door when I look like this," Matthew pointed out.
"Yeah, I guess," Eli admitted as he cleaned up the wound on Matthew's head. It wasn't that bad, but it took a while to stop the bleeding and Eli didn't really know much about treating injuries. He ended up looking it up with his phone, something that made Matthew snort in amusement. "Shut up," Eli said, annoyed. "By the way, how did this happen?" he asked.
"I slipped up, it's not a big deal," Matthew answered simply. "Why, are you worried about me?" he asked, and Eli didn't have to look up to know he was grinning.
"Of course I am," he said, doing his best to sound sincerely worried. "After all, you give the best tips. It's hard to find customers that aren't cheap when you sell coffee to college students."
"Wow, you're mean," Matthew said, wincing as Eli slapped a bandage onto his head.
"That's right, I'm mean and you shouldn't annoy mean people," Eli said with a grin. "Done, now go away."
"Like I said before, you're mean," Matthew said, standing. "You're so much nicer at the coffee shop."
"I get paid to be nicer at the coffee shop," Eli pointed out. "Are you disappointed now that you know what I'm really like?" He couldn't help but grin at the thought. Matthew, however, just laughed.
"No, not really," he said, giving Eli an amused look. "I think it's nice to see this side of you. I feel kind of honored," he joked.
"Oh yeah, what an honor," Eli deadpanned. "Whatever, just go home." Eli sighed tiredly, running a hand through messy red curls. He seriously didn't have the energy to deal with that kind of thing.
"No way, it's too early," Matthew said. Eli didn't even bother to say anything about Matthew heading for the window instead of the door.
"You're going to be exhausted tomorrow, he pointed out before Matthew could leave. The other man paused, looking at Eli with a questioning look. "I don't get why you do this in the first place. It's not your job." Matthew just smiled at Eli.
"Maybe not, but I have my reasons," Matthew said. He reached over and ruffled Eli's hair. "Don't worry about it, I'll be fine."
Eli scowled and pushed Matthew's hand away from his already messy hair. His face felt hot and, if the look of amusement on Matthew's face was anything to go by, he was most likely blushing. "I'm not worried! Why would I worry about you?" he said, sounding flustered.
"Of course you aren't," Matthew said with a laugh. "I'll see you later."
He was gone just a moment later and Eli really couldn't be bothered with watching him leave. With a few muttered complaints about Matthew and his life in general, he closed his window and went off in search of something to eat before he settled down for a long round of studying.
Whenever he had the time, Eli would watch the news. It wasn't that he was worried about Matthew — he wasn't — it was just that he was curious. Not to mention, Michael would mention whatever it was that the masked man had done and Eli liked to know what his co-worker was talking about. It usually wasn't anything big, and Eli supposed it was okay if the man wanted to play 'superhero' for a bit if he didn't get into serious danger.
Then one day, there was a huge report on the arrests of some pretty dangerous men. Apparently they were a big part of the drug trade going on in the city and the police had been after them for a while. Not that it meant they were any closer to catching them — not until Vigilante jumped in to help. At least, that was what the news were saying.
"You think the guy really did it?" Michael asked as he leaned on the counter. They had both stopped for a moment to watch the news playing on the T.V. mounted on the wall. It was late in the day and Eli's shift would end soon. Still, Matthew hadn't shown up that day.
Eli didn't put much thought into it. After all, he was sure the man was busy. He hoped he was getting some rest. It certainly sounded like he would need it if he had indeed been responsible for all those arrests. Eli still expected to see him back at the shop in a few days.
When two weeks passed and Matthew was nowhere to be seen, Eli admitted to himself that he was mildly worried. After all, the man had helped him before and Eli supposed Matthew fit — very loosely — into his friend category. Granted, he was teetering right on the edge between 'friend' and 'weirdo who regularly bought coffee from Eli'. It was still close enough for Eli to wonder what had happened to the man.
The thing that really made Eli concerned was the fact that Matthew hadn't even shown up in the news — at least not for any heroics. Vigilante had been strangely quiet and the reporters took notice of this. Eli wondered if Matthew hadn't died in some ditch like he'd told Michael all those months ago. Not even the thought that back then, Eli had more or less hated the masked man made him feel less guilty.
Eli was on the verge of panicking — and felt very much like the worst person in the world — by the time Matthew finally showed up. The overwhelming relief helped dull the wave of irritation Eli felt at the man's long absence. Fortunately, Matthew didn't really mind, or maybe he was already all too used to Eli being upset with him. Whatever the case, he just smiled and greeted Michael and Eli when he walked into the shop.
It was late in the day, nearly the time Eli's shift ended — something he was very grateful for at the moment. A couple had just left the shop and there was a young man typing away on his computer as he sat in one corner of the place, looking like the definition of exhausted. Eli thought he was probably attempting to finish a school report, judging by the two empty cups of coffee on his table. He felt sorry for the guy, he'd been there before. He was just about to ask if he'd like a new cup of coffee when Matthew arrived.
"Long time no see," Michael said as he leaned on the counter and ordered his usual drink. Eli did his best not to scowl as he prepared Matthew's coffee, tuning out the conversation between the other men.
He was working in an almost mechanical way, his hands holding onto the memory of the often practiced movements needed to prepare a drink properly. It was good thing he wasn't thinking too much about what he was doing or he might have decided to mess up Matthew's coffee on purpose. As it was, he had the idea too late and lamented that fact as he walked up to Matthew and all but slammed the cup of coffee down onto the table the man had chosen.
"Here's your drink," Eli muttered, sending a glare Matthew's way. He thought the man's smile turned a bit more nervous, but there was a hint of amusement in his eyes. Of course, that just served to irritate Eli even more.
"Hey, Eli," Matthew greeted. "How've you been?"
The expression 'flip a table' had always seemed like an odd way to show annoyance, but at that moment, Eli understood exactly why it was used. It took quite a bit of willpower to not flip Matthew's table. Eli didn't think Michael would be happy with him if he did.
"Fine," he ground out. "Enjoy your drink." He walked off before Matthew could say anything else. Oh, and he knew Matthew wanted to say something else, he could see it in the way he watched him walk away, but Eli was tired of it all.
Eli very nearly let out a relieved sigh when he looked at his watch and saw that there were only a few minutes left until he could go home. Once again ignoring the conversation between Matthew and Michael, he busied himself with cleaning the table the couple who'd left had occupied.
"Hey, you can leave already if you want," Michael told him just moments later, as he joined him back behind the counter. It was with much pleasure that Eli hurried off to get ready to leave, gathering his coat and school bag — weighed down heavily with thick books and notebooks.
"See you tomorrow," he said to Michael as he walked past him and headed straight to the front door.
Only to see Matthew standing there, holding the door open for him. Eli wanted to slap his cup of coffee out of his hand. He didn't stop to think too much about how violent his thoughts tended to be around Matthew.
"Oh, are you leaving too?" he asked Eli, as if he didn't know.
"Yep," Eli said, not wanting to risk saying anything else. He didn't think his mouth could be restrained so easily. He hoped Matthew would pick up on the outright hostility being directed at him, but of course, that was asking too much. There was something to be said for the fact that Eli wasn't surprised when Matthew started walking at his side once they left the coffee shop.
"So, what has you in such a bad mood today?" Matthew asked after a while, apparently tired of walking in silence. Eli felt something in him snap — whether it was his patience or his last thread of sanity, he wasn't too sure. He stopped and turned to glare at the man standing next to him.
"What has me in a bad mood?" he asked, trying to keep his voice even. "You were gone for weeks! And then you suddenly show up and decide to go right back to stalking me!"
Matthew stared at him for a moment, brow raised and still looking irritatingly amused. "So, just to be clear, you're mad because I was gone and because now I'm back?" Eli genuinely wanted to shout in frustration. Only Matthew could make him sound completely unreasonable when he had a perfectly legitimate reason to be angry. Of course he did. "Oh! You missed me!" Matthew said in a teasing manner.
Eli told himself that it wasn't true even as he felt his face heat up. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice that sounded horribly like Michael was laughing at him.
"I did not miss you!" Eli said as Matthew seemed to be struggling to keep from laughing. When Matthew failed to hold back a snort of laughter — which he quickly tried to pass for a cough — Eli decided to just turn and walk away.
"Eli! Come on, I was just kidding," Matthew called out, hurrying to catch up with the infuriated redhead. "Sorry I was gone for so long, I really missed having you make coffee for me," he said with a grin that made Eli roll his eyes.
"Yeah, sure you did," he muttered, resigning himself to having to put up with Matthew. "You really need to stop following me though, seriously," he added, glancing at the other man.
"Hey, you might not have missed me, but I missed you," Matthew said with a shrug. "Besides, I really am headed this way."
"You're still a creepy stalker," Eli insisted, just because he couldn't stand to agree with Matthew about anything. It was then — after he'd calmed down enough and his face didn't burn anymore — that Eli noticed the way Matthew seemed to lean to his right a bit. His movements were odd and he seemed a bit uncomfortable. "What happened to you this time?" he couldn't help but ask.
Matthew looked at him with a small, knowing smile. "Just had a slip up," he said. "I bruised a few ribs, nothing too bad." No matter how unimportant Matthew made it sound, Eli still stopped and turned to look at him once again.
"How is that not bad?" he asked, looking at Matthew like he was crazy. "When did that even happen?"
"Just a couple of weeks ago," Matthew said, before starting to walk off, leaving Eli to hurry after him this time. It wasn't hard for Eli to figure out what had happened weeks ago that might have ended in Matthew being hurt.
"Was it when all those guys got arrested? It was all over the news," Eli said, recalling watching the reports on it — just before Matthew stopped showing up. "Wait, was that why you were gone?"
Matthew smiled sheepishly. "Yeah, I couldn't really do much so I had to stay home for a while. I should be fine in about a week," he said. Eli wasn't paying too much attention though. He was much too busy feeling like the absolute worst person in the world for being so mad at Matthew for not being around now that he knew why he'd been gone. The other man looked at him oddly, unsure about why the usually loud redhead was being so quiet. "Hey, are you alright?" he asked, a light note of concern on his voice. One that Eli wished weren't there because it just made him feel like absolute crap.
"Idiot," he muttered, "I'm the one who should be asking you that," he said with a frown. "You shouldn't even be out if you're hurt," Eli pointed out. Matthew was just looking at him with a wide smile on his face that didn't quite irritate Eli as much as it usually did. He chalked it up to pity for the wounded. "What? Why are you looking at me like that?" he said, weary.
"Are you worried about me?" Matthew asked, still looking much too happy for Eli's liking.
"No! Of course not! It's just, you're hurt and all," he rambled, not really sure about what he was saying. Matthew just laughed, and Eli should have just left because Matthew was laughing at him, but he stayed. He still didn't know why he stayed.
"I'll go home, I promise," Matthew said after a minute, a hand resting over his side. Or course, he didn't fail to notice Eli's eyes settling on that spot. "You know, if you're really worried you could always look after me. I bet you'd be a great nurse," he said brightly.
Eli scowled, all pity he'd felt for Matthew vanishing in an instant. He was ready to tell Matthew exactly where he thought he could shove that ridiculous idea when Matthew leaned forward to plant a quick kiss on Eli's lips. He drew back with a cheery grin.
"Looks like kisses really do help with injuries!" he said. That was the first time Eli lost control of his fist around Matthew — though he thought it probably wouldn't be the last time.
It took Matthew an additional week to heal from his injuries.