Andrew paused on his way across the parking lot, takeout bag swinging from his hand. He knew that sound. Fuck, he knew that sound.
It had been a long time since he’d heard the thud of fist against flesh, the air whooshing out of a body, but it wasn’t the type of sound you forgot. Even if Andrew had been the forgetting kind.
His car beckoned; all he wanted to do was go home, eat his pad thai, shower off whatever grossness he had ended up with on him today, and fall into bed. But his feet carried him away from that haven and towards the shadows, towards the admittedly creative cursing that was sharply cut off, towards the groan that followed.
Two figures were hidden in the darkness; one slumped back against the wall, the other hunched over, still groaning. He straightened, arm going back, only to freeze when Andrew’s shoe caught a pebble. Andrew wished for the weight of a knife in his hand; hell, a scalpel would do, he thought wryly, as the man spun to face him. But he didn’t even need to use his fists in the end; the man turned tail and bolted for the street at the far end of the alley in an awkward, limping run.
The remaining person slid slowly down into a sitting position with a stifled grunt of pain. Something glinted in the dim residue of light that bled into the alley from the parking lot, something that didn’t belong against the dark fabric of the person’s pants; the man reached for it just as Andrew realized what it was.
“Don’t touch it.”
The man made a pathetic attempt at a laugh. “You want me to just sit here with a knife in my leg?”
“No, I want you to go have it removed in an emergency room. Like a sane person.”
“No insurance.” A shaking hand reached for the switchblade handle and Andrew smacked it away. The man glared up at him; even in the poor light there was something in his eyes—
“You’re not pulling that fucking thing out while you’re leaning against a dumpster, you dumbass. Ever heard of a little thing called infection?”
“What the fuck do you care, asshole? You did your good samaritan thing, the bastard’s gone, you can sleep well tonight knowing you did your good deed for the day or whatever.”
“While you bleed to death quietly behind my favorite take-out place. Sure.” Andrew held out a hand; the guy just stared at it. “Come on.”
“Hmm, another time maybe. The whole you-lying-here-in-a-pool-of-blood thing isn’t really doing it for me.” Andrew pulled out his phone and hit send on the first number in his call history, his eyes trained on the pale face staring up at him. “Dan still there?” he asked when the receptionist picked up.
“Oh, yeah, Dr. Minyard,” Marissa said. “She’s dealing with a bloat.”
“Tell her I’m coming back. Ran into a bit of a situation.” He ended the call in the middle of whatever she was babbling in response.
“What are you, a cop?”
Andrew shook his head and held his hand out again. “I can get that taken care of. Properly. No insurance necessary.”
“I’m not going with you, are you fucking kidding me?”
“Okay, that’s fine. I’m just gonna call the police here and tell them I witnessed a stabbing.”
The man started cursing, but it wasn’t like he was going far with a switchblade buried in his quadriceps. Andrew took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, eyeing the distance to his car. Probably a bit too far for this guy to walk. “Or you can come with me and let me look at that, in a clean facility. Your choice.”
Before he could respond, Andrew spun on his heel and made for his car. Dumping his takeout in the back seat next to his portable ultrasound, he drove up as close as he could get to the alley, then hopped out just in time to catch the stubborn fool yanking the blade out. “Oh for fuck’s sake.”
There was almost certainly some vetrap in his car; Andrew rummaged around for a second before he found it, then returned, holding it out. The guy blinked at him, then shook his head with what could pass for a laugh. “You don’t give up, do you? Why do you even give a shit?”
“You’re a terrible liar.”
“Wrap this around it, put some pressure on it. Think you can manage that? Or are you too stupid to listen to common sense?”
The man rubbed his face with his bloody fingers. “Seriously, why the fuck are you trying to help me?” He should’ve sounded pissed, but he mostly sounded lost.
Something twisted, deep in Andrew’s chest. He glanced at the knife where it lay on the asphalt, dark with blood, remembering too well the feel of one in his fingers. There was no way to explain it, not really: how close he had been to bleeding out in an alley himself; how strange and random life was, that he had ended up where he was right now instead. “I wouldn’t leave a dog in your condition.”
The man studied his face for a long moment before reaching up to grasp the vetrap Andrew still held outstretched. His hands trembled as he opened the plastic, and Andrew itched to help him as he fumbled to wrap the stretchy material around his thigh.
“Now get up, you’re coming with me.”
““Do I want to know where we’re going?”
He let the man drag himself to his feet, steadying him when he swayed. They only had a dozen feet to go to get to Andrew’s car, but it seemed to take an eternity. By the time Andrew had helped him into the passenger seat, the man was pale and shaking, a sheen of sweat on his face. “You seriously thought you’d just pull the knife out and meander on home?”
“Shut up, stab wounds hurt.”
“No shit.” The interior lights let Andrew get a better look. The man’s jeans were soaked with blood, and more was oozing through the vetrap with the movement, but it wasn’t a dangerous amount. His clothes were worn, plain, but clean save for the blood. He looked like he was making a valiant attempt at ordinary, but a glance up at his face, at his ice-blue eyes and features that belonged on film, proved it was a losing effort. Andrew shook himself and got behind the wheel. This was not the point.
“So since you’ve kidnapped me—”
“That is not what happened.”
“It’s more or less what happened. Anyway, since you kidnapped me, can I at least have your name?”
“Andrew,” he answered, with a sideways glance.
“Neil,” the man said after a pause. Andrew wondered if the name was fake, but whatever, he could work with it.
Silence reigned for the rest of the drive; Andrew half expected Neil to be passed out when he looked over at him at a red light, but his eyes were alert, wary, as they scanned their surroundings. “Is this what you do in your spare time?” the guy finally asked. “Run around saving broke stabbing victims?”
“Hardly. Don’t really have much spare time, anyway.”
He pulled into the clinic parking lot, and the man barked a laugh as he saw the sign for Palmetto Veterinary Specialists. “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.” He shot a look at Andrew. “Wouldn’t leave a dog, huh?”
Andrew didn’t dignify that with an answer. His favorite spot near the staff entrance was still open, by some miracle. Getting Neil into the building without being spotted by clients would be another. At least he was small, barely taller than Andrew and of a much slighter build. Andrew let himself serve as a crutch and they managed to make it through the gate in the most ungainly version of a three-legged race in the history of the world.
“Uh, Dr. Minyard?” Andrew glared over his shoulder at the source of the voice: one of the kennel attendants, gaping at the pair of them, the dog at the end of the lead sniffing around, forgotten. “Do you need help?”
Neil stiffened up against him, then let out a low hiss through his teeth as the wound must have protested. “No,” Andrew said, shoving his foundling towards the door. “I’m set.”
“Okay,” she said, after a nervous pause. “If you’re sure.”
“Doctor Minyard, huh?”
“Why do you sound surprised?” Andrew grunted as the pair of them negotiated the door.
“Just sounds so official for a short bossy asshole.”
The treatment room was sheer chaos, as it often was. Andrew bypassed it and half-dragged the human stray down towards the least-used procedure room at the far end. By the time they got there, the wound had opened up more, and Neil barely made it to the lift table before collapsing onto it. “You seriously couldn’t just let me deal with this on my own.”
“You’ll thank me when you don’t die of flesh eating bacteria. Not that the world would miss you.”
“Your bedside manner is amazing. I’m betting you’re the most popular vet in the clinic.”
Andrew huffed out a laugh as he pulled on some gloves. Grabbing a pair of bandage scissors, he cut through the vetrap, then tented up the fabric of the pants enough to start cutting. Neil made a small noise in protest, and Andrew stepped back. “You want to take those off over that wound?”
Neil’s mouth set in a firm line, but he made a gesture of acquiescence. Andrew took the scissors to denim stiff with drying blood, soaking it with disinfectant before carefully peeling it away. The tug on bruising skin earned him a short hitch of breath from Neil, but otherwise he watched impassively while Andrew exposed the wound. It was only about an inch long, but there was no way of telling how deep it went until they explored it.
“This isn’t going to be pleasant.” But Neil didn’t flinch as Andrew began the slow process of cleaning the blood off the skin. More took its place, a slow steady ooze from torn muscle rather than the gush from a severed blood vessel. When the worst of it was gone, he pressed a pad of gauze against it. “Hold this.”
Neil complied, and Andrew leaned against the cabinets. “You have a choice,” he finally said.
“Oh, now I have a choice?”
“You had a choice before, too,” Andrew reminded him. “I haven’t sutured anything in about three years. I can flush this out and close it up, or I can see if Dan or one of the other emergency docs is free to do it.”
Neil snorted, but that ready wariness was back in his eyes. “You’re the one who dragged me here, you might as well suffer with me.”
Fair enough. “I’ll be right back.”
His intention to slip unseen into surgery to snag a minipack and gloves proved to be a fantasy. The main table was occupied by a large draped form, the business end of a German shepherd poking out of the blue material while a technician monitored it. Dan glanced up, elbow deep in the dog’s abdomen, to arch an eyebrow at him. “Marissa said you were stopping in. Hit by car?”
Andrew grunted, internally cursing himself for his stupidity at bringing Neil here. “Stabbing.”
“What kind of psychopath stabs a dog?”
Andrew opted to let that one go while he grabbed what he needed. Unfortunately, Dan was not an idiot. “Andrew.” He paused at the door, wishing he could just walk out on her but knowing he’d hear about it from Abby and Wymack later. “It’s not a dog, is it.”
He could see a decade of Wymack’s influence in the depths of her eyes. “No insurance. Dumbass was just going to hobble on home and hope for the best.”
She stared at him for a long, silent moment, then returned her attention to her patient. “Make sure he gets some antibiotics. If he’s not allergic, there’s plenty of Cephalexin in the pharmacy.”
He wasn’t surprised when the clinic cat followed him back into the exam room. The cat was a nuisance; he wasn’t supposed to roam past the offices, but he routinely made a break for it and would wander into exam rooms or reception any chance he got.
“I see you ended up getting an assistant anyway,” Neil said, reaching out a finger for the cat to sniff. “What’s his name?”
“Pirate,” Andrew answered as he dropped a surgical pack on the counter, followed by sterile gloves and a mask.
Andrew glanced up to see the purring pest rubbing against Neil’s arm.
“Technically, it’s Dread Pirate Jim Meowrison the Third.”
Neil’s mouth twitched up in an unpracticed smile. “What happened to Dread Pirate Jim Meowrison the Second?”
Andrew scooped the cat up before he could contaminate everything and deposited him outside the exam room. “Retired. Living like a king in Patagonia.” He snorted at Neil’s blank look. “Adopted out. As was The First.”
It took Andrew a few minutes to get everything ready. “I’m going to inject some local anesthetic. It might sting a bit at first.”
There was genuine humor on Neil’s face. “Think it’ll be worse than this?” he asked, lifting up the gauze.
Andrew ignored him as he felt gently around the wound. Evidently it did burn some as he injected the lidocaine, judging by the involuntary twitch of Neil’s foot and the, “Fuck,” he breathed out, but after the first injection he didn’t react.
Once everything was numbed, Andrew put on magnifying loupes and began exploring the wound. He used sterile forceps to pluck out some denim fibers embedded deep in the muscle. Neil never moved, never complained, but Andrew could feel eyes trained on his face the whole time.
The path of the wound was odd, not straight down but tunneling up towards the hip. “This wasn’t an overhand strike.”
“Nah, he was trying to get me in the stomach, but when I kneed him in the balls it changed his trajectory a bit.”
Andrew processed that while he flushed with some sterile saline and plucked out a few more fibers. “What made him decide to stab you in the first place?”
“He lost to me at poker.”
Andrew glanced up; there was cool amusement in those ridiculous blue eyes as they looked back at him. “And that’s it?” Andrew asked skeptically, pouring more sterile saline into the wound. “Seems like a bit of an overreaction.”
“He thought I was cheating.”
A laugh burst out of Andrew, sending the saline spraying on the intact leg of Neil’s jeans. “How much did you take him for?”
“Couple hundred.” Neil shrugged. “Not real high-stakes kind of stuff.”
“And he was willing to risk going to jail for that?” Andrew peered through the magnifiers; the wound finally looked clean, but he poked around a bit more.
“Eh, I might’ve said a couple things, I don’t really remember.”
“Mm-hmm,” Andrew said, picking at something that might’ve been a thread, might’ve been a piece of fascia. It came free, so he added it to the growing collection on his drape. “If you did say something, hypothetically, what would it have been?”
“Hypothetically? Hypothetically I might have implied the only thing smaller than his brain was his dick. It’s possible I also told him that I’d feel sorry for his partner but that it’s hard to have sympathy for a blow-up doll. You know, the usual.”
Andrew found himself wanting to laugh again as he finished cleaning the depths of the wound. This man was a hazard; unfortunately, he was exactly Andrew’s type of hazard. He chewed on the inside of his cheek while he snagged his needle drivers and suture packet.
“You ever consider keeping your mouth shut?” he asked as he studied the wound. The knife’s path had been fortuitous, mostly splitting the muscle fibers apart instead of severing them.
Neil shrugged. “Boring.”
But there was something else in his face when Andrew looked up at him, something hard-won and fierce, and Andrew couldn’t help but wonder how dark his true story would be. He cleared his throat and set to work.
It might’ve been a while since he’d done this, but muscle memory was what it was. Neil watched with interest as he threw a few absorbable sutures into the muscle sheath, then started on the skin. “Really been three years since you did this?” Neil asked, looking at the neat little line of knots. Andrew hummed, debating whether to leave the bottom open to drain or put one more in there. “I thought all vets did surgery. Like, neutering and stuff.”
“I’m a radiologist. Haven’t done surgery since my residency.”
“Ah. So you don’t have to deal with actual humans, then.” There was something teasing in his tone, and Andrew pointed his needle drivers at him.
Neil’s laugh was sharp and clear, understanding, and Andrew had to look away. He busied himself cleaning off the skin surrounding the wound one more time, then wrapped the pack up to be sterilized. “You allergic to any antibiotics?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, that’s encouraging.” Neil laughed again, and Andrew called up the prescription template on the computer. “Shit.”
“I don’t know the people dose of Cephalexin.”
Neil hummed, more humor playing across his face. “Last time I took it, it was one of those big green capsules four times a day.”
“Huh.” Andrew tapped it into the computer, and heard the label print in the hallway. It only took him a minute to count it and put the label on under the confused gaze of several of the assistants. He didn’t really want to consider how many people would know he was breaking the law by the end of the evening.
“Come on. I’ll drive you home.”
“I can call an Uber.”
Neil slid off the table, landing on his good leg. It seemed to suddenly occur to him that he was wearing sixty percent of a pair of pants; he looked down at his bare leg in consternation. The deceased leg of the jeans was crumpled in a heap under the table. Neil made as if he was going to bend down to get it but Andrew, not being held together by fresh sutures, beat him to it. He almost laughed at Neil’s mournful expression when the clump of bloodstained fabric was shoved through the trash hole. “It’s dead. No amount of CPR is going to save it.”
“I can’t go walking around like this.”
“Is that your only pair of pants?” It seemed a reasonable question to Andrew, but the look Neil shot him was scathing.
“No, but if I go home like this my roommate will never let me hear the end of it.”
“Frankly I’m surprised your roommate lets you out at all dressed like that. Come on.”
Neil insisted on walking under his own power, even though about ten steps in he clearly had regrets. Andrew stopped when they reached the staff bathroom and pointed. “Scrubs. Should be a pair that fits.”
“I can’t just...take somebody’s pants, Andrew.”
“They’re mostly donated by pharmaceutical companies, and nobody wears them, they’re just here in case someone gets, you know, blood on their pants.”
“Just change your damn pants. Let me know if you need help.”
Dan appeared while Andrew was still hovering outside the bathroom and wondering how long it took someone to change into some scrubs. She gave him a quizzical look that he answered with a flat one of his own. Sighing, she almost walked past him before something made her stop. “Wymack will be proud of you. Even with the whole, risking-your-license thing,” she said, turning towards her office before Andrew could respond.
The click of the bathroom door had him turning faster than it probably should have. Neil had washed the blood off his face and hands, and he looked much better in scrubs Andrew had donated upon his return to the clinic after his residency. It was more of a challenge than it should have been to force himself not to think about the fact that Neil was wearing his clothes. He raised an eyebrow. “Ready?”
“I thought I was getting an Uber?”
“Pay twenty bucks to get home or get a free lift, up to you.”
With an amiable shrug, Neil began shuffling towards the exit. They passed the kennel nurse walking yet another patient, and then they were through the gate and getting into Andrew’s car. “I’ve gotta say,” Neil said, buckling his seatbelt, “this is by far the best kidnapping I’ve ever had. Seven out of ten, would recommend.”
“Only a seven?”
“Eh, no food, and I didn’t get to play with the cat.”
Andrew huffed, biting back his smile as he put the car into reverse. Neil directed him to turn right out of the clinic, and Andrew could feel eyes on him as he followed the route Neil dictated.
“Why did you do this?” Neil asked, so quietly it was barely audible over the hum of the engine.
And suddenly Andrew was sixteen years old, glaring up at Wymack staring patiently back at him. “Why are you doing this?” he had asked. No; not asked; snarled. “I don’t need your pity.”
Wymack hadn’t blinked. “It’s not pity, you dumbass. I need someone to give me a hand, clean kennels and walk dogs. You need a hand finding something to do other than set fire to shit and get arrested. Consider it a business transaction.”
It was laughable to Andrew now, the whole idea of a business transaction, even though he had bought it at the time. He understood now why Bee had introduced him to Wymack so soon after starting to foster him; he understood now what he hadn’t been able to see then. That he wasn’t ruined, just a little damaged; that everyone deserved another chance to heal.
But Neil was waiting for an answer, patient and silent in the passenger seat. “Dr. Wymack owns the practice. He has a habit of taking in strays, helping them whether they want it or not. Rubbed off after a while.”
Neil hummed. “Let me guess: you were one of those strays.”
“Like recognizes like, I guess.”
He turned into the parking lot of an apartment complex. It was well-lit, clean; nicer than he expected, somehow. Neil directed him to the proper entrance, but when Andrew parked in front of it he paused with his hand on the door handle.
“Thanks, I guess. You know, for kidnapping me. And making sure I don’t die of flesh eating bacteria.”
Andrew gave a short nod. “Stop pissing off assholes with knives. I won’t help you again.”
“You say that, but just know that I don’t believe you.”
With that, Neil was gone, hobbling into the building without looking back.
“Andrew? Can you come talk to me for a second before you get started?”
He sighed as he dropped his bag in his office. The entire day was packed, but evidently Abby was going to start him off with a bang. Or a lecture. Nobody had said a damn word to him about the Neil incident the previous week, though he knew the story had spread throughout the clinic by osmosis, as such stories always did.
“What do you want?”
Abby tried to look stern at his tone, but it wasn’t her strong point; her mouth always gave her away, too used to kindness to ever be harsh. “I received an application for the part-time kennel nurse position.” Andrew blinked; not the opening he was expecting. “The applicant names you as a reference.”
She handed him the sheet of paper. Neil A. Josten. Somehow it fit. Occupation: Student, Applied Mathematics. Animal experience: none. References: one of his professors, a previous employer at a sporting goods store, and Andrew.
Under Andrew’s name, he had written: I want to help the other strays.