The accident unfolds in slow-motion, and Dani Clayton—nose pressed to her second-story apartment window—has time to think, She’ll be hit a scant moment before it does. It’s a flash-bang thought, one with no force behind it; it simply appears, like thinking, Oh, it’s raining just as the sky opens over a favorite paperback.
The car leaps the curb. The woman leaps backward.
Not quickly enough.
Dani’s flying down the stairs before she can think better of it, her head a thunder of dormant medical knowledge. She nearly biffs it on the final step, nearly eats gravel the second she exits the building, skids across a sheet of black ice half a foot from the street. Slow , she tells herself firmly, as if talking to one of her kids, down . You can’t help her if you get yourself hit, too .
Easy to think. Easy to say . Like there isn’t a memory pounding away at the inside of her skull, craving blood. Like there isn’t another set of headlights, another wet night, another chilly moment of recognition as tires peel away and a body lays motionless on the—
“Hey.” She’s crouching over the woman, hands brushing the air above her shoulders. “Hey, are you—”
Dead , she doesn’t say; Mom always said not to tempt fate with stupid questions. Okay , she doesn’t say; nothing would be stupider than that . She gropes for an end to the sentence that would help, and is grateful when the woman relieves her of the burden by letting out a long groan.
“Fuck,” she adds succinctly, reaching for her head. “Wha’ happened?”
She’s blinking up at Dani, this dark-haired woman in an unzipped leather jacket. Blinking up at her with glazed eyes, one hand fumbling for Dani’s arm. Dani opts for the short version.
“Car. Hit you.”
“Felt that,” the woman says sourly. “Bloody goddamned Americans with their bloody wrong side of the bloody fuckin’ road —”
“Wasn’t really the road’s fault,” Dani says before she can stop herself. The woman blinks again, closes her eyes, lets out a long breath.
“Fuck,” she repeats, just as Dani’s beginning to worry she’s slipping into a coma. “Didn’t stick around?”
“No.” Dani glances up, checking the street. Empty, save for a bike messenger and a handful of people walking with shoulders hunched against the February night. “Do you want me to call an ambulance—”
“An American ambulance? In America? With what insurance?” Well, she’s forming full sentences; must be a good sign, Dani reasons, especially when the woman’s hand slides to her shoulder and grips tight. “Just—just help me up.”
“I don’t know if you should be moving around—annnnd you’re standing.” Dani releases a breath, visible in the frosty air. “All right, hang on, at least go slow .”
She manages to coax the woman into draping an arm over her shoulders, leaning into her—though she suspects this is only because her first step nearly pitches the stranger back into the street. Together, scuffing along the icy pavement, they manage to reach her doorstep.
“Okay,” the woman says, trying to wriggle clear of the arm Dani has wrapped around her waist, “you can go now, sorry to have bothered you—”
“Bother?” Dani repeats. “You were hit by a car .”
“Yeah,” the woman agrees, her voice blurring a bit around the edges. “And now I’m up. Out of the street ‘n everythin’. I’m grand.”
This much, she punctuates with a sideways sprawl that nearly lands her in the apartment’s bushes. Dani catches her by the jacket, reels her close again, drags her arm back over her own shoulders.
“You’re not letting me call the EMTs or the police—”
“I am not,” the woman confirms muzzily. Dani squares her jaw, fighting to draw the keys from her pocket and hold a slumping body upright at the same time.
“Then at the very least let me take a look at you.”
The woman grumbles something that might be can’t bloody stop you , which Dani ignores. Out of the cold, she tells herself, and into the comfort of her own apartment. She’ll be able to think straight with this woman posted up on her couch instead of slung against her side with over-familiar intimacy.
And the woman probably won’t die, with Dani giving her a once-over. Everybody wins.
Getting her through the front door isn’t so hard; she’s small-boned, and even if she can’t walk a straight line, she’s at least trying to pull her own weight. The stairs are trickier; Dani winds up half-jamming the woman between herself and the wall, taking each step with enormous care. By the time they reach her door, the woman sags against it, panting, and Dani feels as though she’s just climbed a mountain.
“Still with me?”
The woman groans. “Head—still on?”
“As far as I can tell.”
“Brilliant. No complaints, then.” She’s leaning her cheek against the doorframe as Dani wrestles the lock open, breathing as though trying to ward off the urge to vomit. Beneath the abrasive hall lights, Dani can see one knee of her jeans has blown out, blue denim warped black with fresh blood. She’s holding her left arm to her chest, and the side of her neck is scraped raw. Alive is terrific, but it won’t mean much if an infection sets in.
She’s grateful when the woman stumbles through the door without coaxing, leaning heavily on the back of a chair. All the argument seems to have bled from her with the cold, leaving a wounded pile of leather and too-frail bones behind. Her hair’s matted, sticky with gray slush and dark blood, and when Dani gestures to the couch, she tumbles onto it wordlessly.
Dani watches her a moment, assuring herself the woman will not actually die in her living room if she steps away. The bathroom is stocked with the supplies to handle a normal accident—tripping on the stairs, nicking her hand in the kitchen—and though she doesn’t have the means (or the stomach) to apply stitches, she figures these will do. Has to. The woman’s weary and woozy, but incredibly committed to refusing a hospital.
Can’t afford it , Dani thinks, unable to argue the point. Half the country can’t.
She drops the bandages and alcohol in a heap across the coffee table, settling beside the woman. Her hand hovers over the less-obviously-damaged of her knees, never quite making contact.
“Can I look?”
She expects a sharp retort, or for the woman to yank away. Instead, she turns slowly in, staring at Dani with blank shock.
“Don’t know me.”
“I don’t,” Dani agrees. “But I’d still like to help. Unless you just want to…”
She leans back, gesturing to the disorganized mess of medical supplies. The woman closes her eyes.
“Go on, then.”
Dani hesitates. “I—I’m going to need to see…”
She trails off. She’s never asked a woman to take her clothes off before, and certainly not one who has recently been introduced to the fender of a Chevy in motion. The woman’s brow creases, one side of her mouth rising in a tiny smile.
“Blimey. Rushed right to it.”
“You’re bleeding ,” Dani begins vehemently, but the woman is already shaking her head.
“Just takin’ the piss, ease up. Here, might need some help—” She’s wincing, trying to wriggle out of her right sleeve without using her left hand. Dani sighs.
“Just…try to stay still.”
She’s impressed at how little the woman cringes away, even when Dani jostles her bad arm. The jacket, she finds, has taken much of the impact, but not nearly all. An enormous road rash works up one slim forearm, gleaming raw in the lamplight, and the left wrist is almost certainly sprained. Her t-shirt boasts rolled sleeves and a cropped hem, and the fact that the woman’s abs haven’t been completely shredded by concrete speak to—from Dani’s point of view—sheer dumb luck. Her jeans are entirely ruined; when Dani pauses awkwardly again, she only makes an irritated sound and attempts to tackle the belt one-handed.
“Okay,” Dani says after three seconds of listening to the woman grind her teeth, “move over, we’re…going to get familiar.”
Her first time undressing a woman, she thinks helplessly, and it’s a woman both unfairly beautiful and actively bleeding on Dani’s throw pillow. What are the odds?
What are the odds of another car , she can’t help thinking. What are the odds of another car, another collision, another bloody hand reaching for —
“Hey.” The woman is peering at her, looking more stable than Dani feels despite being in her underwear and almost certainly concussed. “You all right?”
“Bad memories,” Dani mutters. She holds up the jeans, frowning. “Do you want me to…?”
“You could probably get them dry-cleaned, or…” The woman slides her a disgruntled look, and Dani sighs. “Never mind.”
She has a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt this woman can borrow—or have ; she’s not likely to come back to the scene of her near-death, is she?—once she’s cleaned up. Speaking of…
“Probably should stop stalling,” she adds. The woman raises an eyebrow.
“Talkin’ to me or yourself?”
Both. “Just saying. This isn’t going to be fun.”
“Not sure my night can actually get worse,” the woman drawls. Dani, despite herself, laughs.
She works as carefully as possible, a flurry of rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs applied to every scrape she can find. There is no shortage, and she expects the woman—Jamie, she says, when Dani offers her own name—to shove her away each time she locates a new wound. Jamie never does. Maybe it’s the dizziness, or maybe she’s just stitched together with something stronger than Dani can see in the gray pallor of her face or the slim angles of her frame. Whatever it is, though she occasionally hisses or swears, she allows Dani to gently manhandle her without protest.
“You’re doing very well,” Dani says, turning the woman’s wrist to better clean the road-torn expanse of her forearm. Jamie makes a low sound behind her teeth. “Sorry, did that—”
“All hurts,” Jamie says, as though straining toward calm. “Keep goin’. Will hurt worse if I get whatsit.”
“Sepsis?” Dani frowns, brushing gingerly around the inflamed skin. Jamie exhales as the cotton swabs across the deepest section of damage.
“Yeah. That. Fuck, gettin’ run over’s unpleasant.”
“Could have been worse.”
Dani honestly doesn’t even realize she’s mumbled it until she looks up to find gray eyes watching her uncertainly. Her hands still, her breath catching.
“Long story,” she adds when Jamie shows no sign of hurrying her along.
“Somethin’ to do with those bad memories?”
She shrugs, sliding from the couch to inspect the wreckage of Jamie’s knees. The right looks considerably worse, caked in an impressive smear of blood that seems to replenish faster than Dani can clear it away. She reaches for a fresh supply of cotton.
“Do you…” Jamie clears her throat, a mask for the noise she makes when the swab meets a stubborn bit of gravel. “Wanna talk about it?”
“Do I,” Dani says with forced calm, “the person who is currently patching up you , the person who was just struck by a moving vehicle, want to talk about my mental health?”
Jamie shrugs wordlessly. Dani shakes her head.
“You ought to be the one talking.”
“About what?” Jamie is watching her with a fevered expression, as though the only thing tethering her to consciousness is her focus on Dani’s hands. The very idea pricks heat down Dani’s neck; she pushes it away.
“Oh, I don’t know. About whether you want to press charges?”
“How?” She sounds almost amused. “Fucker’s long gone, isn’t he?”
Dani, satisfied that the knee in question is as clean as it’s going to get, begins tearing off strips of tape. “Or about how you feel?”
“Like I got hit by a car,” Jamie says comfortably. Dani squints up at her.
“Or where you’re staying after this?”
Jamie doesn’t seem to have a glib response to that one. She rubs the back of her neck uneasily.
“I, ah. Home, I guess.”
“Which is where?” The knee having been satisfactorily bandaged, Dani moves back to the couch. “Here, turn.”
Jamie complies without argument, allowing Dani access to the back of her head. Her hair, still half-tied back, is a tangle; Dani sifts carefully through the curls, letting her fingers brush the edge of the small-but-mighty cut responsible for much of the mess.
“Got a little place,” Jamie says. Her shoulders are iron, her whole body held taut. “Few blocks over.”
“And there’s someone there?” This wound, too, is not nearly as bad as it had looked from the outset. God, this woman got lucky tonight. “Someone to keep an eye on you?”
Jamie fidgets, her good hand picking idly at the tufts along one of Dani’s pillows. “Just me.”
Dani pauses to peer around her shoulder. Jamie doesn’t look up.
“You’re not actually suggesting I not only don’t take you to a hospital, but that I let you go home to spend the night alone?”
No answer. For the first time, Jamie seems almost embarrassed, though Dani can’t for her life figure out what about getting hit by a car—or living alone, for that matter—would be embarrassing.
“Well,” she says when Jamie, apart from uttering a very small pained sound at the scald of alcohol applied to her head wound, shows no sign of further speech. “I’m not doing that.”
Jamie looks sharply around at her, and Dani finds herself entirely too aware of her own hand braced at the back of Jamie’s head, of Jamie’s eyes much too close to her own. For a moment, the world is dashed in shades of surreal : this woman wallpapered with gauze bandages, sitting in her underwear and a cropped t-shirt on Dani’s couch, looking at her with abject dubiousness, fits . She fits as neatly as if Dani had brought her home from dinner and a movie, instead of the slushy February street.
“What d’you mean you’re not—”
“I’m not letting you go home to an empty apartment with a fresh head wound,” Dani says firmly. “I’m just not. The insurance thing, I get, but you could fall on the way home, or you could pass out and not wake back up again, or—”
“So what do you…” Jamie sways slightly, pressing harder into Dani’s hand. Her eyes flicker once, her teeth clenching. “What do you propose?”
Dani tips her head toward the hall, the bedroom nestled at the end of it visible from the couch. Jamie’s eyes widen.
“No need for that, I’m—”
“Fine,” Dani fills in before she can reach the word. “I know. But just in case you’re not, I really don’t feel good about leaving you alone. Humor me?”
Jamie shifts around until her shoulders are pressed once more to the couch back. “One night. In the mornin’, if I’m not dead…”
“If you’re not dead, you’re free to go.” Dani brushes her fingers along the raw scrape bracketing one side of Jamie’s neck. “You want a bandage for this one? It’s not bleeding.”
“Leave it, then.” Long fingers move up, dreamlike, to wrap around Dani’s wrist. There’s an expression she can’t read on Jamie’s face—an amalgamation of pain and exhaustion and something a little like awe. “Why’re you helping me? Really. The real reason.”
Because no one helped him. Because I can’t live in a world where no one helps. “Lost someone,” Dani says before she can stop herself. “A few years ago. I, uh. Couldn’t watch something like that happen to…”
Jamie’s brow is furrowed. Under her fingertips, Dani’s skin seems to burn.
“It was right,” is all she can think to say. Easier than explaining how it had felt, screaming for someone, anyone, to bring her best friend back. Easier than explaining how it still feels in her dreams, watching with numb hands. “You needed…someone.”
She glances away, to the pile of supplies strewn across the table. Anywhere to keep from looking into Jamie’s shockingly-clear eyes.
Her attention snaps back, catching on Jamie’s smile. It’s faint, but there’s an authenticity to it that seems to settle in her chest.
It seems too small a thing, those words, but Jamie nods and lets go—and the moment dissolves without fanfare. Dani retrieves a clean set of clothes, shows Jamie to the bathroom, clears up the debris of her workspace. Jamie reappears several minutes later looking dazed, but less wrecked. It is almost normal, Dani thinks, the way they revolve around one another. Almost as though this night was not the result of a flash-bang, a shutterstop moment in time.
Right , she thinks again, unable to explain it. Fits.
Jamie doesn’t want the bed, she says, but she’s swaying as she protests. Her hand braces against the wall, and Dani slides beneath her arm, walking with her down the hall in measured strides.
“One night,” she says. “I can manage the couch.”
Jamie makes a gruff noise, settling in amidst Dani’s neat bedspread and many pillows. “Big bed.”
Dani, hovering in the doorway, smiles. “I splurged.”
“And you’re gonna…check in?” Jamie looks small, suddenly. “Make sure I don’t slip off?”
It’s the first real fear she’s shown all night. Dani’s throat sticks.
“I will. Every hour, if you want. Promise.”
“Don’t wanna ruin your night.” But the relief flooding her face is unmistakable, and Dani thinks she’d sleep right here, in the chair by the dresser, if it meant making this woman feel safe.
A flash-bang. That’s all it takes, sometimes. One flash-bang moment: a body in the street, a woman dozing fitfully in a strange bed. Not something you can plan for.
And yet, Dani can’t shake it: this was, somehow, the right thing tonight. There was simply no other way for it to go.
“Thank you,” Jamie repeats in that tiny, formless voice. “Really.”
“Anytime,” Dani tells her, meaning it from a place utterly unexplored.