Painless

Dear Ma:

I know it's been a while since I wrote ya, but it's been a crazy couple'a months. I should start at th' beginnin', I guess. And th' beginnin' is kinda crazy. Really, this goes back a ways, Ma. You remember last year, near Christmas? When that gas explosion killed Jacko's wife and a whole floor of other people?

I know you remember 'cause you went to th' funeral. It was a big affair, too. Jacko was cryin' th' whole time and the Boss was just grim faced an' white knuckled like we was under attack, which was weird since it was just a gas explosion. They happen all th' time in those old buildings, y'know. It's why me an th' boys were tearin' 'em down and making new ones. Public service, y'know? And it ain't strictly illegal or anythin', we just didn't file all o' th' permits we was supposed to. Th' Boss was smoothin' everythin' over, so there was no point in hittin' us, so it couldn'ta been a hit, right?

Well, it turns out, it wasn'ta hit. But it wasn'ta accident either...

Jacko's wife got herself involved with th' feds. She'd turned on us and got herself on a witness protection thing. And that wasn't even the half of it! She had enough stuff on Jacko... on ALL of us, really, to bring th' whole family down, Ma! It was a disaster when Terrelli told us! Th' Boss went up in flames almost! He was spittin' fire left an' right, sent me and a whole lotta other guys to... take care of th' problem. And Ma, I gotta be honest, a lot o' these guys were scarier than me. Larry, Gerry, Hillside, all o' th' really big muscle went out on this one.

But... But th' guy I met on this job... I tell ya, Ma, I ain't ever seen anything like 'im. He changed my whole world. Turned it all upside down. It's was supposed ta be so simple, an' yet... This guy? Nate? He made it so much more complicated.

The waiting room of Dr. Alexander Tolliver contained very little. He was a specialist, and so his practice, such as it was, occupied two entire rooms of an already small wing of the General Hospital West. He didn't have a receptionist. He had four chairs packed into a room not much bigger than a broom closet. He had two magazines that were over three years old. He had six separate diplomas and certificates on the wall, if only because it was the only place he could show them off.

His waiting room also contained two people. This was one more than normal, for the time of day. One of them was bleeding. The other looked like she was about to be sick.

"Sorry about the smell," the bleeding man said.

"It's... okay," the woman said, trying hard not to gag after opening her mouth. "I don't mean to be rude," she managed to press on," but do you ever shower?"

The man looked at her, confused, and then brightened. "Oh! Oh, yeah, all the time! But... I kind of fell in a dumpster."

"Why?"

"It was softer than the sidewalk," the man smiled happily.

The woman rooted around in her purse and took out a bottle of body scent, which she sprayed on the man liberally. "Wow, now I smell like... is that lilac?" the man asked.

"Peach," the woman corrected him.

"Oh. Thanks," he said, his smile remaining. "So why are you here?"

"Pardon?" the woman asked, trying hard to breath the scent in deep.

"This is a doctor's office. Why are you here?" he repeated.

"Oh... I'm uh... here for a physical," she said uncertainly.

"Really?" the man asked. "I didn't think Dr. Tolliver had any patients."

"I have a lot of patience," the doctor's voice was heard through the wall. "I put up with you, don't I Nathan?"

"Nice pun, doc!" Nathan laughed.

The woman, now thoroughly uncomfortable, shifted in her chair. The door to Dr. Tolliver's office/exam room opened a crack. "Ms. Willis, I apologize for him," he sighed before looking over at Nathan. "What have you done to yourself this time?"

Nathan shrugged. "All I know is that I'm bleeding, and I can't tell from where. It's kind of why I have you, right Doc?"

Dr. Tolliver sighed. "Get in here, Mr. Fillmore." Nathan jumped up and walked inside, and then Dr. Tolliver turned to Ms. Willis. "You may as well come inside as well. This will take a little time and we can get some of your paperwork out of the way."

Dr. Tolliver's exam room was a little bigger than his waiting room. It had a patient table that Nathan hopped up on with all the energy of an eight-year-old, and a desk that the doctor shuffled around for a moment before producing a clipboard full of papers. "Please fill these out while I take care of Nathan here, Ms. Willis."

"You can call me Tabitha," the woman remarked, taking the clipboard.

"Very well then, Tabitha." Dr. Tolliver smiled the smile of polite tired people everywhere, and turned back to Nathan. "Okay, off with the shirt. I need to figure out where the bleeding is coming from."

"See, this is why I wear red shirts," Nathan said in a way that made Tabitha think he wasn't joking. He pulled off his T-shirt with some effort and it slapped wetly against the exam table.

It was only now that Tabitha Willis saw Nathan Fillmore, truly. He had a body that was eye catching in the way it was sculpted. Finely sculpted, but not to the point of overdone grotesqueness. He was a little short than her, she'd noticed, but he was broad and built like a linebacker. His hair was shaved down close to his head, but the hint of brown was still there to break up his tanned skin along with the kind of stubble someone can only get by never having really shaved in his entire life. Despite the blood on his hands and what was coming out a nasty-looking gash on his equally finely sculpted back, he was quite... what was the word for it? Oh yes. Yow.

Tabitha felt her temperature spike as the doctor went to work, poking the gash with a pair of tweezers and pulling shards of glass out of it. She wasn't unfamiliar with spontaneous physical attraction. It was just a new experience when they smelled like peaches.

"What did you do to yourself this time?" the doctor was saying.

"I didn't do anything to myself," Nathan said with genuine innocence. "I blame gravity."

"Fine," Dr. Tolliver sighed, "what did gravity do to you?"

"Made me fall in a dumpster."

"From how high?"

Nathan gave this some thought. Cute as he may be, he was not particularly firing on all cylinders, Tabitha decided. "Two, maybe three stories?" he finally said with some consideration.

Dr. Tolliver rolled his eyes. "Great. And now we have to go get X-Rays done to make sure you haven't got any broken ribs or internal bleeding."

"Aw, do we have to?"

"Yes," the doctor snapped. "You know the rules."

"Fine," Nathan pouted. Ms. Willis felt dangerously close to bursting into flame.

"Doesn't that hurt?" she asked, desperate to inject herself nonchalantly into the conversation.

Nathan looked at her blankly and blinked. "I don't understand the question."

"It most certainly hurts, Ms. Willis, but Nathan is a bit of a special case."

"Why?"

Dr. Alexander Tolliver pulled another shard of glass, with a little effort, out of Nathan's back and looked at her over a pair of jeweler's glasses he was using to assist in the task. "See those pamphlets on the desk?

She followed his gaze to one of the aforementioned pamphlets. On it, CIP stood on the top third in huge, block letters. She turned back to the doctor. "Um..."

"Congenital Insensitivity to Pain. Without anhidrosis, which is extremely rare. Almost my entire medical career is invested in this one case study, which has been at times both frustrating and very enlightening about not only the physical, bodily reactions to pain and harmful stimuli, but also the psychological implications of a life without the sensation of pain."

"He loves that speech," Nathan grinned.

"For example, without pain to teach you that you've been an idiot," Dr. Tolliver continued in his more caustic tone, "you tend to stay an idiot."

"Hey!"

"So you can't feel pain? Like, not at all?" Ms. Willis asked in disbelief.

"Or hot and cold," Nathan said almost proudly. "Well, really hot and really cold. I mean, I can tell the difference, but... not really."

"That's... that's very strange," Tabitha nodded. What else could she do?

"He sweats, though, and that's important," the doctor nodded.

"I'm sorry?"

"Oh, one of the possible effects of CIP is anhisdrosis, a condition where the body can't sweat."

"Sounds like it would save him money on deodorant."

"Ha! I said the same thing," Nathan grinned.

"Yes, but without the natural reaction to sweat, he probably would have died from fluid retention or heat exhaustion when he was a child. Nathan here has managed to live for 23 years, and does pretty well for himself, all things considered. He pops in twice a week to check in with me, more if he needs it, like now, and lives life like a normal person. Well, passably normal, at any rate."

"Seriously, Doc, are you gonna ask this girl out or what?"

"I beg your pardon?" Tabitha asked.

Nathan smiled to himself and shrugged. "Sorry. This is the hardest I've ever seen him work to impress a lady before."

"Shut up, Nathan," Alexander told him.

"And he always says that when I'm right," Nathan responded, winking at Ms. Willis.

Dr. Tolliver sighed. "Nathan, go see Derek and get your chest X-Rayed."

"Do I really have to?"

"Yes."

"Aw, but I wanted to see you flirt with the married lady!"

A sort of chill descended over the room.

"Married?" Dr. Tolliver and Tabitha said at the same time.

"She checked the married box on the form," Nathan said, pointing vaguely at the clipboard in her hand. "Didn't you see?" He then looked at Ms. Willis, confused. "Didn't you mean to check that box?"

She stared at him for a moment and then shook her head. "No, it's... it's just... well, I lost my husband recently. I guess old habits are just hard to break."

"Oh," Nathan said, embarrassed. "Sorry for your loss."

"Don't be," she said quickly. "Jack was a lot of things, but he wasn't a very nice person."

"Sorry for your marriage, then?" Nathan hazarded.

Tabitha Willis nodded, more to herself than to anyone else. The awkward silence was broken when Dr. Tolliver spoke. "Nathan. Derek. Go."

Nathan scooped up his shirt and carried it out of the room with him, answering a silent prayer from Tabitha when he didn't put it back on.

"Sorry about him," Dr. Tolliver sighed. "He gets... stupid around new people."

"It's okay," she assured him, "my life's been sort of upside down recently anyway, so what's one more weird thing, right?"

Alexander nodded as he set about sterilizing his exam table. "I meant to ask you about that. You were referred to me by Dr. Matham from Eastport?"

Tabitha's face screwed up in concentration for a moment, and her eyes darted to the left. "Yes."

Dr. Tolliver nodded. "Yeah, there were just some irregularities with the paperwork, that's all. I'll sort them out with her office later. I just don't usually do general physician work anymore. Nathan is kind of a handful."

"I can imagine," she said with a smirk.

The doctor smiled wearily at her. "Okay then let's get you up on the table then, I'm sure you have other things you need to do today."

In the meantime, Nathan was waiting for an elevator down to the X-Ray lab when a man came out of the stairwell, looked left and right, spotted him and walked over.

"Excuse me, man."

"Yeah? Are you lost?" Nathan asked.

"A little bit. I'm lookin' fer th' office of Dr. Alexander Tolliver?"

"Boy, he's gotten popular all of the sudden," Nathan said aloud, to the man's confusion. "He's with a patient right now, but his waiting room is just down the hall, take a left at the end, and then all the way down, and another left. You can miss it pretty easily though, if you don't know what to look for."

"Oh," the man said, still sort of confused. "Thanks, I think."

"I can walk you down there," Nathan said helpfully. "It wouldn't be any trouble."

"Nah, I can manage on my own," the man smiled, taking his hands out of his coat pockets and waving Nathan off as he walked past. There was a heavy sound and the elevator dinged. Nathan looked down.

"Um... hey, mister? You dropped your... gun."

The elevator doors opened, revealing it to be empty. The man turned around, his face a mask of forced calm. Nathan cocked an eyebrow. "Were you here to shoot the Doc, mister?"

The man looked at Nathan. "Um... no?"

The elevator doors began to close.

Both men moved at once, but Nathan was faster, using his foot to kick the gun into the closing elevator. The man dived too late, and the door closed before he got there. He growled in anger and stood up, rounding on Nathan.

This was his first mistake. Nathan's palm hit him in the forehead and slammed his head back into the door, and Nathan's grip tightened on the man's hair as he pulled him away from the elevator and threw him to the ground across the hall.

The man scrambled to his feet, his hand producing a knife from his coat. Nathan sighed as the man lunged, stepped to one side and grabbed the wrist of the hand with the knife. Nathan twisted, the man whimpered, and now the knife hit the floor. Nathan calmly put his other hand on the extended elbow of the arm currently at his mercy.

The man looked up into Nathan's eyes. "Please don't break my arm!"

Nathan looked down at him and shrugged. "Okay, fine." Instead he pulled the man up and pulled the arm back behind him, transforming it from a limb into a convenient carrying handle that agonized its owner.

"Now look here," Nathan said over the whimpering noises the man kept making, "I'm going to take you down to the security office, and you're going to tell the nice men with the badges why you were here, and then there's going to be a lot of police work and, I expect, an interview or two of little old me. Now, you can accept that these things will happen, and go along with it, and I can tell people you were quite vicious and cut my back with that knife of yours, which may look good for you, if you're the hired killer type I think you are."

"Or?" the man asked, giving voice to the implication in Nathan's tone.

"Or you can keep struggling, try something stupid, and I can break you into tiny little pieces."

It took some work, hitting the elevator button, getting on the elevator, and getting to the correct floor like that, Nathan sort of half dragging, half pushing the man around the hospital, but they arrived at the security desk about five minutes after a panicked housekeeper had dropped off the gun she'd found in the same elevator.

"This guy's crazy an' he's holdin' me hostage!" the man shouted as Nathan dragged him into the room. "Someone help me!" It was telling that this impassioned plea drew no response at all from the room, with the sole exception of a newspaper being lowered.

Nathan dragged him up to the desk, where a large man with a badge on his uniform sat, nonplussed by the sight in front of him. "Hi Bert."

"Nathan," the largest security guard the would-be assassin had ever seen returned with a smile. "What have you got for me today?"

"He had a gun and a knife."

"Yeah, I think we have the gun. The knife?"

"Aw... I think I left in on the 8th floor."

"Had your hands full?" Bert grinned.

"Well, sort of." He hoisted the man off his feet by his arm alone, drawn a strangled cry out of him. "Got a place to put this guy?"

"We can keep him cuffed in an office somewhere until the police arrive, I'm sure,"

"Thanks, Bert," Nathan smiled, handing the man off to two other security guards. The cuffs were applied and he was hauled away with little ceremony.

"Nate?"

"Yeah, Bert?"

"Why aren't you wearing a shirt?"

Nathan looked down at himself. "Um."

"And is all that blood yours?"

"Oh, yes."

"What, did he get you?"

"Oh, no, no, I fell in a dumpster."

Bert gave him a critical look. "Then why do you smell like peaches?"

"Some lady didn't like that I smelled like a dumpster."

The man-mountain security guard nodded. "Okay. You should stick around so the police can have a talk with you."

"I know."

"You want I should get a nurse to stitch up your back?"

"Oh, wow, is it that bad?"

"It looks a little bad."

"Okay, fine," Nathan sighed, and then remembered. "Actually, I need to go see Derek. The Doc thinks I might have cracked a rib or something when I fell. Can you send the nurse and the cops down there?"

"Sure."

"Okay," Nathan said happily. "Pleasure seeing you again, Bert."

Bert nodded, smiling. "You too Nate. Take care of yourself."

"Don't I always?" Nathan said over his shoulder as he left the office.

"No. Not in my experience," Bert said with a sigh as he returned to his newspaper.

It took a few hours for everything to resolve themselves. Nathan ended up giving a statement to the police and refusing to file charges against the man while, at the same time, wearing a lead apron and getting Derek to look at his ribs. A follow up interview with a more serious man in a nice suit took place while the nurse was stitching up Nathan's back. The sun was going down on a short day when Nathan finally left the hospital.

Nathan was still zipping up his coat to guard against the cold of the night and the snow in the air when a black car pulled up by the curb and a window rolled down. "Nathan Fillmore?" came a voice from inside.

"Um... yes?"

"Get in."

"I appreciate it," Nathan said, "but I live just a few blocks from here-"

"Not a request," the voice from inside the car told him.

Nathan stared at it for a bit. "This is a strange day," he finally said with a shrug and walked over. The door opened and closed, and Nathan sat in the back, looking over to the seat next to him. There was another man is a nice suit, this one a little younger looking than the serious one before. "Hi," Nathan smiled as the car began to move. Someone else was driving, and there was another person in the front passenger seat.

"Mr. Fillmore, do you know who I am?" the man in the suit asked.

"A very aggressive tailor?" Nathan replied, his smile unmoving.

"I'm with the government," the man replied, as if Nathan had said nothing. "My name is Volmer, and I'm an agent with the federal authorities. Do you understand what that means?"

"It seems pretty straightforward," Nathan said, and then leaned forward. "Um, I actually live in the other direction, so you might want to take 5th and turn around-"

"We're not giving you a ride home, Mr. Fillmore," Volmer snapped, "I am speaking to you as a courtesy."

"Well that's nice of you-"

"We need you to forget about today. About everything you saw today. Everything you heard. And everything you did."

"Why?"

"Because it will be better for everyone," Agent Volmer assured him.

"What about the guy who got arrested?"

Volmer blinked. This had a unique way of making a statement all of its own. "No, he's going to prison, probably."

"And if I lose a whole day, like, just forget about it, gone," Nathan continued, "wouldn't that... I don't know, freak me out a little bit? I mean, to forget a whole 24 hour period? Wouldn't that be weird for you?"

Volmer blinked again. "I... I don't..."

"Give it up Mike, he can do this all day," came a female voice from the front seat.

"Oh, hi Ms. Willis!"

"Hi Nathan."

"What's going on?"

"You might as well tell him, Mike. What harm could he do?"

Agent Volmer took a deep breath, "Ms. Willis, I advise against this for your protection."

"Yeah, you guys did that really well today, didn't you?"

"The assailant had two more checkpoints to get past, he was no danger."

"I'd like to buy a vowel!"

Tabitha and Volmer both looked at Nathan. She picked up on it first. "Mr. Fillmore, would you like to solve the puzzle?"

"Yes, Ms. Willis," he grinned. "What is Witness Protection?"

"Is this Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy?" the driver asked offhandedly.

"Stop it!" Agent Volmer snapped, cutting off three sets of chuckling. "This is serious!"

"Hence the tension cutting humor," Nathan replied. "Lighten up, Agent Volmer."

"No, I will not!" Volmer responded at volume that, within the confines of the car, was deafening. "If this operation is compromised, Ms. Willis is in grave danger and we must relocate her. AGAIN. Her testimony is too important to risk losing, or the chief is going to have all of our heads! And YOU, Mr. Fillmore," he added furiously, pointing directly into Nathan's face, "are interfering with a federal operation! I could have you arrested on suspicions of collaboration with the Mob and make your life a living hell, but I'm going against my better judgment and giving you the chance to walk away from this NOW. Do you understand me?"

Nathan stared back at Volmer, the two men locking eyes for a while. "Agent Volmer, I'm surprised that you think I would endanger the operation."

Volmer's reply was a flat "What."

"I had just introduced myself to Ms. Willis before I started my shift," Nathan shrugged. "Don't tell me about how important this operation is. I've BLED for this operation. What have you done but sit back and worry about your career?"

Agent Volmer looked genuinely surprised. The driver slammed on the brakes. Even Tabitha's jaw dropped a little.

"And I'll thank you for letting me do my job, Mike," Nathan said with a smile. "We should get the protectee home, don't you think?"

"Of... of course?"

"Good plan. Shall we?" Nathan asked the driver, who was still looking in the rear view mirror at the two men. He fumbled with the steering wheel and got the car back in motion.

"So you're an agent too? Why didn't I get informed about this?" Volmer demanded.

"Probably a paperwork thing," Nathan said with a shrug. "My branch has been pretty backed up. I only got the assignment a few hours ago, high priority."

"Sure, sure..."

"Take a left here," Nathan directed.

"You know where she lives?" the driver asked.

"Of course," Nathan replied. "It was part of the information packet I browsed on my way to the hospital. Didn't you guys get this stuff?"

"Not in one packet," the driver grumbled.

"So, Agent Fillmore?" Ms. Willis commented icily, "how long do you think you'll be on this detail?"

"Probably until your life is no longer in danger, ma'am."

"Oh goody," she sighed.

The car pulled up to the curb and stopped, and Tabitha stepped out. Nathan followed her and poked his head back into the car. "I'll make sure she gets safely home, guys. Get back to the office and track down our guy's connections, would you?"

Agent Volmer, still slightly stunned looking, just nodded. The car drove off shortly after, leaving Nathan and Tabitha on the sidewalk.

"That was fun," Nathan said, turning to her with a smile.

"How much of that was true?" Tabitha asked.

"Not a word," Nathan laughed. "Good, though, huh?"

"You're crazy," she told him tersely, walking away. After a moment, she stopped and turned. "And how did you know where I lived?"

Nathan grinned. "Paperwork" they said in unison.

"Great, fine!" she shouted, drawing a little more attention than she might have wanted. "So after a week and a half with a new identity, I'm going to have to change my name AGAIN to avoid some weirdo with a skin condition!"

"Hey!" Nathan returned, "it's not a skin condition. It's a congenital birth defect... Which does not sound better," he finished lamely.

"Whatever! Why are you even here anyway?"

"I live here too."

"What?"

"Small world, isn't it?" Nathan smiled. "Well, have a good night."

"What? Wait!"

He turned at the door to the building, holding it open for her. "Look, I noticed your apartment number before. I live right down the hall from you. If anything happens, I'll be within screaming distance, and trust me: There's no knife or gun or blunt object that can stop me. Just ask the Doc. You're protected, Ms. Willis. Trust me."

She stared at him for a while, not sure whether to be thankful or angry, and finally settled on something in between. "Fine," she said, storming past him, "but don't think this means I'm going to sleep with you or anything."

Nathan blinked a few times. "What the hell world did you live in, lady?" he asked, going in after her.

Back at the office, Agent Volmer sat down at his desk, sighed, and leaned back in his chair.

"Rough day?" his partner asked.

"Not really. Just strange. Met an Agent from another branch. Nathan Fillmore?"

"Never heard of him."

"Weird guy. Anyway..." Mike Volmer sighed, looking back at his pile of paperwork. "Have you found anything on the assailant yet, Terrelli?"

Agent Landon Terrelli shook his head. "No luck. There was an incident during the transfer from hospital security to the local law enforcement, and it sounds like the guy might have escaped."

"Wait, what?" Volmer demanded. "And you're just sitting here?"

"They're chasing him down, he can't have gone far," Terrelli said, waving a hand. "Don't worry., we'll get him."

"I hope so," Volmer said, "this operation is in enough danger as it is..."