Eventually, the pain ebbed. It didn't end, or even taper off significantly, it just…receded enough that something else could exist in Matt's universe. Consciousness flooded in to fill the empty space, and found that it wasn't alone. Something was drifting alongside him, a familiar voice. Well no, not a voice exactly. It was something inside his head. But it was still separate from him, and speaking words he'd never expected he'd be relieved to hear.
Parkman, you idiot.
He should have been offended. Maybe in some part of his mind that was still focused on hurting like Hell, he was. But at the same time, mostly he just wanted to smile. And judging by the next response, he had.
"Seriously? You're unresponsive for four days and that's what finally gets through to you?" The same voice, but outside his head this time. He didn't respond any further – wasn't entirely sure he could – and a long moment later it spoke again, this time with a note of concern. "Oh, come on, you just got back. Stay with me, Parkman."
Putting forth more effort than such a simple task should ever require, Matt forced his eyes open. Not too far, as the light was almost unbearable, but enough that his visitor could see the movement. There was a puff of breath, the relieved exhale of someone who's not going to admit she has any reason to be relieved because she wasn't worried in the first place. The dark patch that was all Matt could see in the brightness shifted, and as his eyes adjusted it coalesced into a human shape. He could feel himself smiling again as he spoke, voice harsh and painful from disuse. "Hi, Audrey."
She'd been standing at a tense angle, looking ready to attack, but at the sound of his voice she stopped by the head of the bed – yes, he realized, he was in a bed – and leaned against the railing. "Hi." There was an odd sort of amusement in her voice, a tone that suggested she was mocking his greeting rather than offering her own. "Don't know what I was expecting, but that was kind of anticlimactic."
It was clear that "in a bed" was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to things that were gradually coming to Matt's attention. "In a great deal of pain" was still there, vying for his complete focus, but he told himself that he wasn't allowed to focus on that until it settled down enough for him to figure out exactly where it was coming from. "In a hospital" was the logical conclusion from those first two realizations, and the thought that he had no idea why he might be there suddenly ratcheted him up from "disoriented" to "very, very worried." His brain threw up a flag of reference, something Audrey had said a moment ago. "Four days?"
She nodded. "Four days since you got shot, or whatever the Hell that was. You've been just this side of comatose ever since and the doctors have been going back and forth on whether or not they actually expected you to wake up. Not that they'd ever say that out loud, of course. Wouldn't want to worry us unnecessarily." A dry look. "And you're gonna pull it out of my head anyway, so I'll give you this one for free: Yes, I was worried about you. Stop smiling."
It was surprisingly easy to do. Audrey had triggered just enough of a memory to snap the last few conscious days – and the pain – into focus. Ted. Bennet. Molly. Sylar. The name alone sent fresh ripples of agony through the wounds in Matt's midsection, tensing his muscles and breaking him out in a sweat.
A cool hand pressed against his forehead. "Breathe, Parkman. You're gonna pop a stitch. You can die on your own time, not while I need you."
The spasm passed, leaving the slow, smooth current of pain that Matt could tell was going to be his constant companion for a long time. "Not planning on dying," he grunted. Speaking hurt a little less now, although it was still something he'd prefer not to do for a while. He thought about asking for water, but doubted he'd be able to keep it down.
"Damn straight you're not," Audrey muttered. "I'm not explaining that to your wife."
Another jolt ran through him, this time a mix of worry and love and need. "You talked to Janice?"
"Daily." Audrey's tone said that this had not been the most pleasant experience of her life. "You, for the record are in a Hell of a lot of trouble. My God, Parkman! Disappearing for two weeks? What is going on with you?"
'My wife is going to kill me' suddenly sounded like the most beautiful sentence in the English language. Any verbal explosion, no matter how severe, would still involve hearing her voice again. "She's okay?"
"She's worried out of her mind, but other than that she seems fine. She says she'll get out here as soon as she can, but it could be weeks before they lift the air travel restrictions over the city." His exhale of relief must have been louder than he intended; there was a pause as she studied him. "Is this regular 'she's my wife and she's pregnant' kind of worried, or do you have some reason to think she's in danger?"
Matt hesitated. His first instinct was to respond with an emphatic 'yes' and request some kind of 24-hour guard for Janice, but Audrey thought he was nuts enough already. On one hand, it made sense for The Company to send someone after Janice – or, more specifically, after the baby. On the other hand, though, wouldn't they have done it already if they were going to? "I don't know," he said finally.
Audrey nodded. "I'll make sure she keeps checking in, at least."
"Thank you." It seemed like a weak thing to say, all things considered, but it was the best he could muster.
The half-smile suggested that she knew what he meant anyway. "Don't worry about it." She settled into a chair near the bed with unexpected familiarity; she'd clearly spent plenty of time sitting there. "Congratulations, by the way. On the baby. Your wife mentioned it." And you didn't.
It was a vehement footnote, and Matt had a feeling he'd have been able to pick up on it even if he wasn't a mind reader. It was a small and petty thing to be annoyed about, that he might have omitted that crucial detail when he took her into his confidence regarding his marriage, and she knew it was a small and petty thing, but he had to admit he sympathized with her. "I only found out right before I left."
"And I'm sure this had nothing to do with your decision to disappear for two weeks."
"I didn't plan on disappearing at all!" He would have thrown his hands up were it not for the mess of tubing running from one of them. "I barely know where I've been half the time. I don't even know how you found me!"
"I have you microchipped."
It took Matt a very long and frantic moment to realize she was being sarcastic. "For future reference, do not joke about that."
Audrey raised an eyebrow, but made no comment. "How do you think I found you? You were there when the sky lit up, and you had ID on you. You're a witness to what everyone suspects was probably a Sylar-related event. It was my job to find you."
"And here I was hoping it was just because you missed me."
She rolled her eyes. "Just because I happened to know you prior to this avenue of investigation opening up doesn't mean that I sought you out for anything other than professional reasons, and possibly the fact that the idea of waking up in a hospital bed a continent away from home sounded bad enough without being alone, too."
"I owe you one."
"Damn straight you do. You owe me a full and detailed explanation of just what the Hell happened out there. I'm stuck in the city, I've got no leads, and nobody will give me a straight answer on anything. I'm not leaving you alone until you tell me something off the record that I can use to get something coherent on the record."
"Then you're in for a long wait." Matt sighed. "Look, I wanna know what happened out there as much as you do. I went after Sylar, followed him to the plaza, and opened fire. Suddenly I'm in blinding pain, and the next thing I know, I'm here."
She either desperately wanted to believe him or desperately wanted not to. "Right. And you just happened to be in New York on what? Spontaneous vacation? Mission from God?"
"Unrelated business," Matt said, probably too quickly. It was only half a lie; he had assumed it was unrelated at the time. He'd continued to suspect mere coincidence even after their quest led them to Molly Walker, someone else who had been lying in a hospital bed a continent away from home. But Molly and Sylar, all on the same day…well, he was being completely sincere when he told Audrey he wanted to know what was going on at least as badly as she did.
"'Unrelated business,'" she repeated, as if he'd confirmed her worst suspicions. "That's what your friend said, too."
That took him by surprise. "What friend?"
"The guy from the paper company. Mr. Bennet. He's been keeping tabs on you ever since they brought you in." She gave Matt a sideways look. "You know, I'm starting to suspect he might not actually be a paper salesman."
Matt didn't know which to be surprised about first: that Audrey was obliquely admitting that he might have been right, or that Bennet had apparently been looking in on him. "You have no idea."
"You might be surprised." She raised a hand in warning. "First, you realize that I am utterly screwed if anyone finds out I told you this?" He nodded, and she leaned in closer, voice dropping. "There was an error processing my paperwork, and the order to stop all investigation on Primatech didn't make it all the way down to Records. Turns out you're not the first person to have a hunch about them. Seven separate investigations in the last 20 years: kidnapping, conspiracy, organized crime connections, and God only knows what else. Not a single conviction, ever, but not for lack of trying. And if half of what I think Bennet isn't telling me is true, we've barely scratched the surface."
Matt couldn't help raising an eyebrow at that. "Hell, if half of what he has told me is true then you're just scratching the surface. I don't think even he knows how deep this all goes."
Audrey studied his expression. "You realize that I still don't actually believe everything you've told me about him, and I won't until I get some actual, honest-to-God proof. But I've seen enough to suspect that at least some of it's true."
He gave her a grin. "Which means that when I told you there was something going on at Primatech…"
She rolled her eyes. "Fine. You were right. Is that what you wanted to hear?"
"More than you could possibly know."
Even half-dead you're impossible to deal with. She eyed the clock on the wall with a sigh. "Look, there's only so long I can just sit here and talk to you before I really have to at least let the hospital staff know you're conscious, and I have to report in to my boss anyway. Which does not let you off the hook as far as giving me some answers is concerned." She fixed him with a severe look. "I'll be back, hopefully not when they've got you doped to the gills. Not that anything you'd hallucinate is likely to be weirder than the stories I'm already getting from some of the other eyewitnesses," she added after a contemplative pause.
As she stood, she touched his hand briefly. "First phone call I make once I'm out that door is to your wife, I promise." Matt started to protest, but she cut him off. "And no, I am not calling her now so you can talk to her. First of all, you sound terrible. I can't even guarantee she'd be able to hear you. And second of all, unless you have a coherent explanation for why you disappeared for two weeks, only to reappear on the other side of the country with a known fugitive, some kind of man in black, and half a dozen bullet wounds in your chest, I'm doing you a favor in giving you time to get your story straight."
His answering laugh quickly turned into a coughing fit, which in turn became another white flash of pain. "Told you that you sounded terrible," Audrey said, not without sympathy. Another quick squeeze of his hand. "I know you're gonna get sick of hearing this over the next few weeks, but you need to try and get some rest."
He was already sick of hearing it. He wanted to keep her here for hours, providing him with a familiar presence in an alien world and answering his questions. Was Molly okay? What had happened to Sylar? Just what exactly had Janice said about him? Just what exactly had Bennet said about him, for that matter? What did she mean by 'when the sky lit up'? Even as he started to form an objection, though, he could feel himself starting to drift back towards that dark sea. He could fight it later. For now, he could only accept her exit with an air of casual unconcern. "So you're coming back, right?"
Oh, God. If the words alone didn't make that one of the most desperate and pathetic things he'd ever said, the crack in his voice from that last coughing spell certainly did. Audrey regarded him with a mix of sympathy and humor. "When I can. I already told you, I'm not giving up until I get an honest-to-God statement out of you."
"You give all your witnesses this kind of personal attention?"
"Only the ones I think have something really interesting to tell me."
He couldn't resist. "It's 'cause you still think I'm kinda cute, isn't it."
The look she gave him could have burned through steel. Or at least, it's clear that was what she was going for. The twist to her lip that said she was trying to keep from laughing damaged the effect somewhat. "Don't push your luck, Parkman."