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Lay a Ghost

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The hotel’s heavy wooden doors are held open by a doorman in a starch-laden wool uniform with shoes that reek of polish. When Matt passes through, it's like walking into a cocoon: all sound from the outside world is dampened, and the everyday hum of the building itself fades out to the very edge of his perception. The buzz of electricity passing through wires, the gurgling of water in pipes, the rush of air through heating ducts, the clanking of steel as elevators rise and fall - it's like it all has been wrapped in cotton wool.

Matt shakes his head slightly, swallowing down a spurt of panic. It's irrational. There's nothing wrong with him. He can hear the desk clerk's heart thump soundly in her chest; he can hear her breath in her lungs. She doesn't know it yet, but mucus is building. Tomorrow morning she's going to wake up with a cold.

"Hi," he says, shooting her a smile. "I went out, and I - well, I seem to have forgotten my room number. Does it say it on the card here?" He fumbles the keycard as he holds it out, and she hastily reaches out to catch it before it drops.

"Oh, no, the cards don't - I mean, let me scan it for you, sir, I'll have that number for you in just one moment." There's a beep. It's strangely muted, too, and Matt doesn't like it at all. Oh, he's no stranger to the idea that money can warp reality however it chooses, and obscene amounts have doubtlessly been pumped into every aspect of this hotel, but with computers and their kin so aggressively present in the twenty-first century, it's like hearing life itself being suffocated.

By the time the elevator whispers its arrival, his skin is crawling. He taps the corners of the doors with his cane before passing through.

Early that morning - well, before ten - Matt had been heading out to interview a potential client when he'd found the card lying on the floor just inside his apartment door. A smooth, slim plastic rectangle, the size and shape of a credit card but without any raised numbers; he'd been fairly certain it was a keycard of some type, and a quick stop at Jessica Jones' office had confirmed it.

“Hotel Victoria," she'd said. "You know the one. Fifth Avenue. Swank as shit."

He did know. It was that kind of place. He thanked her for her help and stood, controlling a wince as he turned towards the door. Skyscrapers were hell on the back.

"Murdock." An odd tone in her voice froze him in place. "Why'd you bring this to me? Why not Nelson? Or Claire, or Luke?” When he doesn’t answer right away, she presses, “What, did you rank us all in your head, and decide I was the one least likely to give a shit about whatever it is you're planning to do to yourself?"

Hurt. The tone was hurt. "It's just a hotel key," Matt said.

"Right, yeah. So you won't mind if I just drop it in an envelope for you and send it back there? Save you a stamp? Yeah, that's what I thought," she added, because instinct had him snatching it out of her hand before she'd even finished speaking.

He worked his jaw, picking and choosing his words. "Jessica... I could've shown it to anyone. My next door neighbor, or that guy on the corner who always tries to sell me newspapers I can't read. Maybe - maybe if one person was going to know where I'd gone, I wanted it to be you."

"Yeah. Well. You smooth-talk for a living, but whatever." She walked him to the door, her boots grounded and solid on her bare wooden floor. "Don't make me come rescue your ass, because I can guarantee those snots up there won't like it one bit."

She hadn't asked for status updates, but Matt sends her one by voice text from the elevator anyway. "Penthouse suite. Don't rescue me yet."

::

The elevator doors open onto a small, square room. Hardwood floors so strongly polished that he can taste the lemon wax on his tongue, a plush rug, and an accent table holding a bouquet of fresh flowers: a foyer. Matt crosses it, finds the magnetic lock with his fingers, and slides the card home to the tune of a barely-perceptible beep.

The door closes behind him, solid and thick. It’s like walking into a tomb.

Almost.

Across the room, the soft in-out of her breath is as uniquely hers as her heartbeat ever was, and the melody rings in his ears, familiar, beloved. He says, "Hello, Elektra."

"Matthew." She fills the world - every silent space in this strange building, and every cold space in his heart. "What do you know about ghosts?"

Matt shrugs, nonplussed. “I know how people react when they think you are one.”

Foggy, God, Foggy. He hadn’t actually believed that Matt was a ghost, but he hadn’t believed his eyes, either. He’d been convinced he was having some kind of mental breakdown, ranted about overwork and overstress (Dead best friend stress on top of first year with a new firm stress! Tell me that’s fair, Matt! Tell me!), and nothing Matt could say would calm him down. It took a tight, tight hug, and grabbing Foggy’s wrist and pressing the flat of his palm to Matt’s chest. It took them both crying.

Elektra hums lightly. “Insight,” she says. “Just what we need.” She’s sitting on a small sofa in front of a window, and she crosses one leg over the other. “You never thought I was a ghost.”

“Yeah, you know. You hit hard enough to put me through a window. Kinda gave yourself away.”

“Ah, but you always give as good as you get.” There's a chain around her neck, hanging low between her breasts. It's certainly not a crucifix like the one beneath his shirt, but he can't imagine what it actually is. Only that it must not be beautiful, if it's not for the world's eyes.

It’s probably laughably obvious just how closely he's sensing her. She knows all his tells. Elektra says, “Come sit with me, Matthew. You’re looking well. Three weeks out of bed, is that right? Are you feeling well?”

“If you wanted to know if the doctors had cleared me for sex, you could've just called,” Matt says drily. He feels like a heat-seeking missile, though, crossing the room in a flash, her warmth his guide. He’s barely mapped the room yet - slack of him - but to be fair, it’s the first time he’s been in her presence in a long, long while without being at least half-sedated.

And he’s not even sure how easy this room would be to map. Outside the window, a passing siren sounds as if it’s a mile away; Matt has his doubts that’s the case, but he buries them in Elektra's lips, bending to kiss her before sliding onto the sofa at her side, then kissing her again. Softly, because he remembers litanies of soft kisses, stolen in the dead of night while his body was bound in bandages and the convent was dead asleep. Thoroughly, because thorough is how a welcome should be.

He strokes her hair as he draws back, curving his palm to her skull. She taps a fingertip against his chest. “What else do you know about ghosts?”

It's clear she's completely serious. Matt matches her. “I know I believe in the existence of a soul that's separate from the body. I know - I know your body was dead, and they brought it back. But they couldn't bury your soul. They tried to, but they couldn't.”

“Oh, Matthew.” Elektra kisses his forehead gently. “This isn't about me,” she says, and Matt lifts his eyebrows. “This is about someone being nasty to innocent people. And you don't care for that sort of thing, do you?”

::

Elektra had been in need of a new place to lay her head in New York, and for the past several weeks, the Victoria has been treating her well in many ways. The restaurant has only two Michelin stars (Matt silences a snort), but the food is fresh and creative; her suite is just four rooms, but they’re well-appointed, and the chambermaid service is quick and discreet.

And, it seems, the walls are crawling with ghosts.

“They cry,” Elektra says. “Not the ghosts; the people. They moan and plead and beg. They're very noisy.” Matt hears an echo of Stick in the disdain in her voice; hears it even more clearly when she adds, “It must have worked for them when they were children.”

“You can hear all this from your suite?”

How, when Matt’s struggling to count the birds on the roof?

But then, Matt’s distracted. He dares anyone to blame him. He can’t stop touching Elektra - simply cannot lift his hand - and his focus is drawn again and again to each point of contact between his skin and hers. He’s whole, and she’s whole, and she’s here.

His hand is curled around the nape of her neck, and when she shakes her head, hair streams over his fingers. “I hear it from the corridors. At night.”

The thought of Elektra silently walking darkened hallways, listening for trouble, makes his throat go tight.

“You’re saying these people think they're talking to ghosts?”

“They certainly seem to be under that impression.”

Quietly, he asks, “And what do you think?”

(The walls, she said the walls. These strange, silent walls - )

“I think frightened people run. They leave in a hurry, in the middle of the night, and they don’t always remember to take their valuables with them.”

“So, you’re suggesting some kind of - Halloween robbery scam? That sounds…” Ridiculous. Dramatic. Like an episode of Scooby Doo. “...Needlessly complicated.”

She shrugs a shoulder. “Last night, a man on the fourteenth floor cinched a plastic bag over his head because of something his mother said to him. He’s alive because I tore it off his face.”

Matt sighs. “And if I were to ask when his mother died...?”

“1998.”

What comes out next is a response built purely on reflex. “My Heart Will Go On,” he says.

What?

She’s laughing at him; Matt loves it, can't remember the last time he heard it. Elektra's laughing at him, and she saved a man, and Stick was wrong, he was wrong, he was wrong. “It’s - blame Foggy, if anybody names a year he comes out with a song. For him 1998 was all about Titanic.”

“Of course it was.” Elektra rubs his cheek with her thumb. The callous just beneath the joint feels new and old at the same time. “What do you say, Matthew? Shall we catch a ghost?”

::

It comes as no surprise that Elektra has a plan; Matt would have expected nothing less. The details do surprise him a little, though. Ghost hunting begins with room service: a delicious, intimate dinner for two shared in Elektra's suite.

“I didn't know ghosts could be lured with fish,” Matt says, between bites of Arctic char. With this fish, though, he can almost believe it. Moist, flaky, shockingly fresh, and seasoned by someone who understands the value of restraint, it’s ruining him for all other seafood, forkful by forkful. It's so good that he's not sure he cares.

“Well, we need to keep your strength up, don’t we?” Elektra says. For a moment, Matt’s transported straight back in time, to a marathon sex weekend in college: Her patting him on the cheek and placing orders for Thai food at 4am. Him getting hopelessly tangled in her jeans instead of his own when it came time to answer the door.

He smiles, and slides his leg next to hers under the table. She’s wonderfully warm.

She’s warm later on, too, when dinner’s over and they’ve moved to the chaise lounge in front of the gas fireplace. Did he notice the fireplace earlier, before she switched it on? Matt certainly should have - the sharpness of propane is a beacon to his senses, and not something any amount of clever hotel design or construction could hide from him entirely.

Jazz plays softly from surround sound speakers, and Elektra nestles her head on his chest, ear to his heart. Matt lets his fingers glide through the fall of her hair, over and over, careful not to break a single delicate strand. “So we’re waiting,” he says finally, quietly, a whisper meant only for her.

“You sound surprised.”

He laughs. “Your plans usually involve a little more… action. Violence. Mayhem. That sort of thing. That’s all.”

“Mm.” She breathes in his arms, and for a moment Matt forgets to care about the abnormality of the world around him. She breathes, and after so many months without that sound, the world is perfect.

Elektra nestles a little closer, and Matt presses his nose to the crown of her head, drinking her in. “Have you ever wanted,” she says slowly, “to simply relive a dream?”

Every day. All the time. Matt shifts, touching his lips to her hair, and knows she’ll understand.

And for a while, it feels as if they are. As if Matt is in that dream with Elektra, and it's a good one, where they have all the time in the world, and all the cares of another, easier time. Matt doesn't fall asleep, but he feels heavy, anchored; Elektra dozes for a time, her breath going soft and feather-light.

A ticking clock breaks the spell. It's up on the mantelpiece, an old-fashioned one with a pendulum that swings side to side. The tick-tock is a minor detail, a small thing, one tiny element in the tapestry surrounding him. Matt notices it for the first time during a slight lull in the music, and clenches his jaw, annoyed it stayed hidden from him so long.

“Elektra,” he says. “Elektra.” He touches his thumb to her chin, and waits until he feels her respond, her head lifting in acknowledgement. “If we're going out looking for assholes later, you should know, I don’t have my suit. Don't have one at all, I mean. I… haven't done anything about a new one, and my old one, it. It didn’t exactly make it.”

The song reaches a bridge. As the lead sax drops out, a cello picks up the tune, taking it low. Matt feels its weight, note by note; feels an echo of it in the heat of Elektra's forefinger, sketching a circle high on his chest. “Yes,” she says. “I know.”

The clock ticks. If it's not dark outside already, it will be soon. Elektra rises up on one elbow - watching Matt's face? Or watching the room? “I don't think we need to leave,” she says. “I think we're precisely where we need to be.”

“You think they’ll come to us.” Matt frowns. “You haven't seen or heard anything in this room before, have you? But you think tonight will be different?”

“I do.” Elektra’s finger taps once, twice, three times. “Tonight I have something to lose.”

::

“Well, isn’t this just cozy as shit.”

The voice is exactly the same. And the shape of him, too - wiry and gnarled, like a graveyard tree bent low over a row of stones. His smell is the one that burned itself into Matt’s memory in the moment Elektra stabbed him: he reeks of iron, of fresh-flowing blood.

But there are certainly differences.

No heartbeat.

No breath.

Matt and Elektra are already on their feet. She's holding a sai in either hand, snatched up from beneath the lounge. Matt's hands are in fists, but still lowered at his sides. For now.

“What are you?” Elektra says, low and dangerously intent.

A laugh rings out. It sounds like Stick’s in every way, a particular blend of age, assholishness, and arrogance that Matt never thought he would hear again. “Elektra. Charming as always. Forgotten my face already? What about the hole you put in me?” He - whatever he is - presses his hand to the wound. The scent of iron intensifies, and when he lifts his hand, Matt can hear liquid crawling down his palm. “Have to say, I've had a hard time forgetting that.”

But how, how can the voice sound so exactly like Stick’s without being powered by his lungs? Without air passing through his vocal folds, setting to vibrate at his precise pitch? Matt's listening so intently that he's holding his own breath. But there's nothing to hear: no air going in. No air going out.

He wonders how the figure before them looks to Elektra’s eyes. Is it as fleshed-out and solid as the flow of air in the room suggests? Or are they facing something from a ghost story, hazy, pale, and indistinct?

“What are you,” Elektra repeats, louder this time, and takes a step forward, close enough to put their visitor in reach of her blades.

“Matty here will tell you not to believe a word I say. Seems like I could just save him the trouble, keep my mouth shut. That work for you, Matty?”

“Answer her question,” Matt snaps. For a moment, his flare of anger makes it hard to even doubt that they’re talking to Stick; it’s so old and so familiar, it’s a passport to another time.

Three months ago. A year ago. Two decades ago. It all burned like this.

Stick - no, don’t think of it as Stick - gestures toward Elektra with the stump of his hand. “One thing’s for sure, I’m sure as shit not alive. So you can lower those weapons of yours, Ellie. Unless you think you can kill me twice.”

“You’re dead, and you’re slipping,” Matt says softly. “Telling us to drop our defenses. Doesn’t sound like the guy I know.”

Knew. The guy he knew.

“I’m dead because you let her kill me. She’s a walking nightmare because you made a bad play, jumped into something you shouldn’t have, and let Nobu kill her. Not doing so hot at keeping people alive, are you, Matty? I’m not surprised. And you know what? Neither is she.”

“Soft as those sheets I lie on,” Matt says. “Yeah. I know.”

This thing - it talks people into running, and it talks them into harming themselves. Conversation is its weapon; it wants to talk, and it wants its words to hurt. Something else it has in common with Matt’s memories of Stick.

Maybe that’s why it’s working.

“Stick should’ve died happy. He got what he wanted.” Elektra pushes in closer, an aggressive move, but also a protective one, Matt thinks, designed to keep him squarely behind her.

A chill creeps through Matt's veins. She's so certain, too certain, that the thing has come for Matt, and it has nothing to do with how strong or how weak she considers either of them to be.

She thinks she isn't human enough to be its prey.

Elektra's wrong. Without question, without doubt, Matt knows it down in his soul. But the thing has nurtured that belief in Elektra, night after night after night; fed and tended it, every time it attacked someone else, and left her standing alone.

“What I wanted? A sword through the gut?” The thing’s laugh is ugly, and wholly Stick’s. “Overrated. You should know that.”

“No. A fighter who wouldn't flinch.” In an instant, Elektra pins it against her body, its back to her chest, her sai crossed at its throat. “One final opportunity to answer. You're not Stick. What are you?”

“Why are you so sure?” A snort. “Because I never touched your substance? There's more to heaven and earth than what the Hand knows, girl. Matty will tell you the same.”

Matt smiles with his teeth. “See, now, the real Stick learned that trying to use us against each other never, ever turns out the way you’d hope.”

“All that time I spent on the other side, in the cold, in the dark, in the -” a fine shudder ripples through Elektra’s body. She didn't hear Matt. She's somewhere else right now, somewhere Matt's never been. “All that time, and you want me to believe there was some way out I couldn’t find? You -”

It's the heart of the matter, for Elektra. It's the bleeding wound. And just like Stick, this thing will never give her an answer. Not when it can make her feel small and ignorant and powerless instead.

Elektra's fingers tighten, her muscles tense, and when Stick’s voice says, “Truth hurts, sweetheart,” Matt leaps into action before she can, driving his fist into the solid curve of Stick’s skull.

That should probably give Matt pause - just how solid it is - but it doesn't. He hits Stick’s body again and again, and it’s like a dream; Matt hits, and Stick is silent. Matt hits, and Stick falls, and he stays down.

::

When they step out onto the roof, it’s a shock to the senses, albeit a welcome one. The city hits Matt with a wall of sound, and for a very brief instant he’s a confused, overwhelmed child all over again. The one that Stick, for all his faults, had managed to save.

There's a terrace on the rooftop for hotel guests, littered - artistically, Matt's sure - with sofas, low stools, and long, plush benches. They choose a sofa, and settle down together side by side; Elektra makes a disgusted noise when it turns out to be damp. “We should've brought a cushion from the room.”

“It would've been ruined,” Matt points out.

“So?”

Laughing, Matt pulls her into his lap, ignoring the twinge his back gives in protest. The smell of wet asphalt is heavy in the air; within the walls of the penthouse, Matt had missed every tell-tale sign of the night’s rainfall entirely. He buries his nose in Elektra’s hair, reveling in the way her scent mingles with that of the city. The hotel was a mausoleum. They’ve re-joined the world of the living.

“Dawn’s coming,” Elektra says.

Disgust still shades her voice, so Matt says, “What, is it not pretty enough for you?”

“Oh, no, it's rather nice. There’s a bright streak of orange across the sky. It'll be a sunny day.” Elektra pauses, and her breath sings to Matt in the space between her words; he’ll never be able to get enough of that tune. It’s backed now by the light chatter of birds, the dark rumble of garbage trucks, and all the rest of the early-morning symphony of the city. “We solved nothing,” she says. “The body may be gone, but it’ll be back tomorrow night. In one form or another.”

She’s right, of course. What does it take to craft a ghost? To generate an illusion so close to truth? The thing pretending to be Stick had faded from Matt’s awareness after it hit the ground, as if its life were slowly leaking away. Matt’s thoughts keep circling back to some of the things he read in Jessica Jones’ file. To people with power over the minds of others.

Seems like that would do the trick.

He says, “We survived tonight. And that… Elektra, if you'd tried to slice that thing’s head off, you’d’ve lost your own. Literally.”

“You're certain of that?”

“Yes.” He is. Matt doesn’t have to fully understand what the thing is to know what it does: convince people to kill themselves, in perfectly tailored, individualized ways.

“Mm.” She doesn’t sound quite so convinced. “All right, but tell the truth, darling. You were happy to jump in. You enjoyed every single blow.”

There’s no denying that, and with Elektra, there’s also no need to bother trying. The loss of Stick gnaws at Matt. His absence is - not for the first time - something raw and ugly and complicated, and his death is another failure to add to an ever-growing list: Could Matt not have broken through to Elektra sooner? Saved her - saved Stick - saved them all from this?

It hurts when he thinks of Stick. But feeling Stick succumb to his fists hadn't hurt at all.

“It had its moments,” Matt says. Elektra laughs, the sound reverberating in his chest. She's warm in his lap, and he wraps his arms around her waist, holding her tighter to feel her all the better. “I have to tell you -” He clears his throat. “If you had died in front of me again - that would've been it, Elektra. It would have been over for me.”

It hadn’t happened, but he can taste it in his throat all the same. The bitterness of ash.

She shakes her heard. “That’s not true. You may believe it, but I don't. You're too strong.” Elektra shifts in his arms, turning to face him, and touches his cheek. “But if I had watched you die tonight -” Her voice is steel. “Your God would’ve had his hands full.”

Matt doesn’t want to think about what she means, about the blood that would have run in the streets. Nor does he want to truly consider what he himself had meant; if it were all simply different words for the same thing.

He wants to kiss Elektra. And so he does, letting a tide of love, understanding, and fathoms-deep gratefulness pour from his soul. It didn’t happen. His hands frame her throat; his lungs welcome her breath. A bad night is behind them. A new day is in their hands.

When they eventually part for air, Elektra drops her forehead to his, and Matt slides his fingers down the column of her neck, thumb hooking on the chain around her neck. The pad of his thumb rolls over the links. They aren’t as delicate as he might expect from a piece of her jewelry, and when he lifts testingly with his finger, it's clear that whatever hangs on the end of the chain isn't particularly delicate, either.

“You don’t need to ask,” Elektra says softly. “Check for yourself.”

Gently, Matt reaches beneath her sweater, fingertips skimming over her soft skin before lifting the chain. The pendant at the end is cool and weighty, latched with a small clasp. There are no engravings. It’s a plain locket, but a custom made one: the receptacle is unusually deep, with a high beveled edge.

With fingers that are suddenly unsteady, Matt fumbles open the clasp. He knows what's inside before he touches it: the smell is both familiar and lost, something of a ghost itself. His throat tightens viciously. Elektra chooses to wear his suit around her neck, embodied in a single scrap of battered leather. Like a talisman, like a touchstone, like something she never wants to forget.

Matt can't speak. He presses his face into the curve of her neck, sheltered by the curtain of her hair, and - so many months after she died in his arms - breathes in a miracle he’d never dared dream of.

::

Sometime later, when the sun has risen enough to warm Matt’s face, and the first signs of the morning rush can be heard on the streets below, Elektra says, “Darling, I’m curious as to what you think we should do about our little problem downstairs. I assume you’ve lost your taste for explosives?”

Matt snorts. “That’s definitely one way of putting it.”

“Good,” she says crisply. “I much prefer you in one piece.”

“Seems like overkill, anyway.” Idly, Matt clasps Elektra's hand, rubbing his thumb over her knuckles. “I don’t think our problem is the building, just someone in it. A long-term resident, most likely…. Their room will be one of the quiet ones. Where you’ve never heard any trouble.”

“Now do go on,” Elektra says, poking lightly at his chest. “Don't be shy. Tell me the part you think will sound stupid if you say it out loud.”

Slowly, Matt says, “All right. What if someone had the ability to get inside our minds? And the Stick we saw was some - some kind of illusion created from what they found in there?”

Elektra's fingers clench in his. “Oh, then someone would have to be very, very stupid indeed,” she says softly. “To look inside our heads and think that it was a good idea to play around with us. Or perhaps -” She laughs. “Perhaps they're simply dying to find out how badly I can make them hurt.”

He and Elektra had certainly been toyed with. Matt can’t stop thinking about the way his senses had been suffocated. How could simply walking into a building have an effect like that? But if someone who had never experienced Matt's world had been inside his head, trying to force him to live their reality -

Some things, thank God, had gone unscathed. Matt's awareness of other people was perhaps too honed, or too fundamental, to truly be stifled. Particularly certain people: Matt brings Elektra's hand up to his lips and kisses it, smiling against her knuckles as her fingers finally begin to relax.

“What do you say, Matthew? Time to begin knocking on some doors?”

An involuntary chill crawls down his spine at the very thought of going back inside those walls. Maybe they’ve been out of mental range, up here on the roof - maybe the architecture of the building itself does play some role in amplifying their antagonist’s powers - maybe he and Elektra are on the wrong track entirely. To his gut, it doesn’t matter. The thought of stepping back into that deadened world is a nightmare.

So get up and do it.

Matt takes a breath.

Wait, he tells himself.

Think.

“We’re so… connected,” he says to Elektra. “All our history, it’s just, it’s just fodder for someone like that.” Easy pickings, he doesn’t say. That’s what the two of them are. “A person like that, assuming they really do exist - they need so much coming at them that they can't focus. It's got to be coming from every direction. They've gotta be completely overstimulated.”

Like when Matt hears too much, smells too much, tastes too much, feels too much. Exactly like that.

“What exactly are you suggesting?”

He takes a deep breath. “Maybe we don’t do this alone. Maybe we bring in some friends.”

He’s not expecting Elektra to love the notion, but there’s real delight in her voice when she exclaims, “What a fabulous idea! I assume you mean those charming people I met a few months ago?”

Matt laughs. “You just want to see the looks on their faces when they realize I want them to work with you.”

“Darling.” Elektra kisses his cheek. “You know me so well.”

::

Goddamnit,” Jessica Jones says, wrenching open her apartment door. “Murdock, I’m not even going to ask you what you’re thinking, because I know that’s something you actively choose not to do. You survived your little penthouse rendezvous, I take it?”

“Hello, Jessica,” Matt says. For all her prickliness, he can tell she’s glad to see him alive and in one piece. He’s just as glad to hear her voice. “We did, but there are still some… unresolved issues. Can we come in? Talk to you about it?”

“No.”

Matt smiles. “Five minutes?”

No, Murdock.”

Turning towards Elektra, Matt says, sotto voce, “You know, we went about this all wrong. We should’ve gone to Danny first, and let him come to tell Jessica all about it. He would’ve loved it.”

“We still can.” She places her hand on his arm. “Shall I call for a car?”

“Listen, lovebirds,” Jessica says. “Cut the cute little game. I’m gonna let you in, but only because you,” she points at Matt, and he wonders, fleetingly, if she remembers he can sense the gesture, or if she’s merely forgotten he can’t see it, “have the self-preservation skills of a moth around her.” Her finger tracks over to Elektra. “Turns out I like you better alive, God help me.”

Elektra inhales softly. Matt thinks it's a sign of approval.

“Now you -” Jessica sighs heavily, still pointing at Elektra. “No murdering anyone in my apartment today, you got that?”

“Your request is noted,” Elektra says. Matt can hear a smile gilding the edge of her voice. It must be visible to some degree on her lips, because when Jessica sighs again, it’s different, gustier, and he’s reasonably sure she’s rolling her eyes.

“No murdering,” Matt promises. “No grievous bodily harm, even.”

“Yeah, we’ll see about that,” Jessica says, before finally letting them in.

The door to Alias Investigations slams behind them, glass rattling in the frame. Matt smiles. It feels like he’s taking the next step in a journey he’s meant to be on, one that began the day he tailed Jessica Jones, and she turned the tables and tailed him right back. When Jessica says, “You can sit or whatever, I guess,” Matt can’t help smiling a little harder.

He shifts a stack of newspapers out of the most stable of Jessica’s rickety chairs and offers it to Elektra, then takes up a position behind her, making the most of it by brushing his fingers against her neck as he grips the back of her chair. Imagining what Jessica will say to all of this, what Luke will say when he hears, and what Danny Rand will try to do is like taking a small, private trip into the future; Matt lingers for a moment, enjoying it, and enjoying the sweet, anchored simplicity of his connection with Elektra.

Now there's a journey he never wants to come to an end.

“Jessica,” he says, and waits while she mutters, Jesus, finally. “What do you know about ghosts?”

::

Chapter Text

Two days later, Matt's phone goes off while he and Elektra are out having a late breakfast. They're at a place with a down-home name and a sterile, industrial vibe, where ductwork hangs exposed in a cavernous ceiling and the tables and chairs are all made of steel. Voices echo off every surface, making the room unpleasantly loud, and Matt has nothing good to say about the chairs - they're cold on the ass, hard on the back, and the sound of them scraping against the concrete floor sets his teeth on edge. But he has to admit the food is worth it: the pineapple on his plate is tongue-tinglingly fresh, and the scratch biscuits with house-made strawberry jam are, just as Elektra had promised, divine.

“I did some research,” Jessica says when Matt answers. “Shit, yeah, okay. We need to meet.”

Anticipation sizzles up Matt’s spine. He and Elektra had spent the past two nights at his place, wanting to maintain the image that they’d been run scared out of the Victoria. The days together have been, as Elektra had said, like reliving a dream, but one flying on the wings of a nightmare; there’s no forgetting what they experienced, ignoring what may be to come, or peace in waiting while others may be suffering. “We’re having breakfast,” Matt tells Jessica, “if you want to join us? On 11th Avenue. The Blue Plate.”

“Hell no. The only way I'm talking about this is with a whiskey in my hand.”

::

There are different kinds of ghosts. The bar Jessica chooses feels familiar enough that something heavy tries to lodge itself in Matt’s throat when he walks through the door. He's never been here before, but he knows it all the same: the sour tang of spilled beer, the ground-in dirt on every surface, the smell of mold creeping through the drywall. Oh, he still meets Foggy at Josie's sometimes, and they both still enjoy it, but the people they once were and the lives they once lived are, like so many things, gone for good.

Those ghosts haunt him gently, in moments like this. And Matt is never quite sure whether he wants to banish them and live in the present, or stay with them in the past for awhile.

He doesn’t have a choice tonight. Jessica, Luke, and Danny are already here and have commandeered a corner table. They’ve all got drinks in hand, so Matt takes a minute to swing by and grab a bottle of beer from the bar before heading over to pull up chairs for himself and Elektra.

An abrupt silence greets them at the table. Fair enough. Elektra settles serenely into her chair, says, “Would you pour me a drink, Matthew?” and radiates a contented air while Matt reaches into his coat pocket, pulls out her silver flask, and pours two fingers of Mezcal into the cup that serves as its lid.

“I told you,” Jessica says. Matt assumes Luke and Danny exchanged some sort of look. He knew that Jessica had briefed them about Elektra - it was obvious from the relative steadiness of their heart rates as he and Elektra walked in the door - but he can only imagine what kind of editorializing she'd done in the process.

“You did,” Luke says. He takes a long pull on his beer.

“Matt,” Danny says in greeting. His voice is warm, but an uptick in his pulse is noticeable now that Elektra's sitting directly across from him. Giving her a stiff nod, he adds frostily, “And you. You know, if we're going to work together, an apology wouldn't be a bad way to kick things off.”

Jessica snorts into her whiskey. “Hold your breath,” she says. “Do it. Do it for me. Do it.”

The fact that any of this is happening is a kind of apology on Elektra’s part. Doesn’t everyone know actions speak louder than words? But Matt doesn’t say it; instead, he tips his beer towards the group and says, “Thanks for coming, guys. We appreciate it.”

“Our pleasure,” Luke says drily.

“Yeah. We're thrilled,” Jessica says. “So - I looked into that story of yours. The number of 911 calls placed from that building shot up about a year ago. The number of reported deaths did too. Never any proof of foul play.” There’s a growing edge to Jessica's voice that Matt recognizes as barely-controlled fury. “Some were put down to natural causes. Sixteen are on the books as suicides.”

Danny says, “Some of those others might be suicides too.”

“No shit.” Jessica blows out a breath. “I started looking into long-term residents. Narrowed it down to people who moved in right around the time that death rate jumped up -”

“You got a name,” Matt says. He knows she did. Her heartbeat says certainty and determination. It says Let’s break this asshole.

“Thanks for the assist, Murdock. Yeah, I did. Joe Ayers.” There’s the sound of paper slapping against the table; a photo, he assumes. “Mid-thirties. Lives alone. No known acquaintances. No significant other.”

“You get a room number?” Luke asks.

“A floor below hers.” Jessica jerks her head towards Elektra. “Room 1817.”

Matt turns questioningly towards Elektra, and the others reluctantly do the same. “It fits,” she says. “That room was always quiet.”

There's a pause. Then, Luke says, “You know, when you talk it's harder for me to forget that I don't trust you.”

Elektra shrugs, shoulders rising and falling gracefully. “Matthew will be there.”

“Maybe you remember recent history differently than I do, but your boy being there doesn't exactly help.”

Danny nods vigorously, full of agreement. Jessica is slouched in her chair, but she’s watchful nonetheless; tension lies coiled in every line of her body. This moment was inevitable, Matt realizes, but he hates it all the same. Together, Luke, Danny, and Jessica are reaffirming all the ugly voices Elektra’s heard in her life telling her she’s unworthy of trust, including the one he knows still wells up deep inside.

“Matthew will be there,” Elektra says evenly, “and I will bring the city to its knees before I allow anything to happen to him.”

“Hey, you know what? I don't doubt you on that.” Jessica knocks back her drink, then adds, “And all the other crap you've said checks out, so let's stop doing this,” she gestures around the table at them with her glass, “and start figuring out how we’re gonna nail this piece of shit.”

::

They make their move a night later. Danny and Colleen assume the roles of sitting ducks, checking in to a large suite on the 17th floor. The room is expensive as hell - not that it matters to Danny - but it's a thousand times cheaper than Danny's original idea; back at the bar, he’d suggested having his company acquisition the Victoria.

“Jesus, Rand,” Jessica had said, “keep it in your pants.”

Matt had felt inclined to agree, but sensing a rebuttal brewing on Danny’s side of the table, he cut in before Danny could speak. “We need to get Ayers up onto the roof,” he said. “That’s the priority here.”

“Why?” Luke asked. “You gonna throw him off?”

“We get him onto the roof,” Elektra interjected smoothly, “because that building is his fortress, and it's high time he came out of it.”

“Oh, sure. That’s a basis for a plan,” Jessica said.

Matt sipped at his beer, choosing his words. “Look,” he said finally. “I have reason to think that whatever this guy’s abilities actually are, they don’t extend as far as the roof.”

“Reason to think?” Luke said.

“Your powers,” Danny said.

Yes, but not in the way Danny thought. Matt shrugged. “I mean, yeah, you know there are things my senses pick up on that other people’s don’t.” It was so damn tempting just to leave things there. To let that be explanation enough. But trust was a two-way street, and Jessica, Danny, and Luke deserved better. Taking a deep breath, he went on, “In there, things were… different. I was - blocked, somehow. But when Elektra and I made it to the roof, everything went back to normal.”

Jessica didn’t turn her head. She didn’t say a word. But her sudden attention was a sharp, tangible thing, piercing him through.

“Wait, if Matt won’t be able to keep tabs on us, Colleen and I will need to wear wires. I’ll have something overnighted -” Danny sounded more excited than concerned by this wrinkle in the plan, and within seconds was tapping away eagerly at his phone.

Now, a day later, Danny’s love affair with his tiny, ultra-sleek mic is in full swing. After he and Colleen check in to their suite, he spends the first few minutes walking around, whispering about everything in sight - There's a sofa near the window, oh, there’s a bird out on the ledge. It’s brown. I think it’s a sparrow - until Jessica finally snaps.

“Colleen, shut him up. I don't care how, put a pillow over his head, whatever it takes,” Jessica says, while Matt and Luke laugh. Jessica and Luke have receivers hooked to their ears, and from his position between them on the roof, Matt can hear Danny’s tinny, excited voice coming through in stereo.

All of this teamwork had been Matt’s idea, but it still feels strange nonetheless. Something nasty twists in his gut, whispering that he’d brought these people here as canon fodder, and that in the end, he would survive losing any one of them far better than losing Elektra again.

Sure, you’ll live with the guilt every day of your life. But you’ll live with it, won’t you, boy.

Turning on his heel, Matt strikes out across the roof. There’s no walking away from that voice, but for the moment, putting a little space between himself and the other two feels like the next best option. Elektra had chosen a vantage point at the roof’s edge offering a view of Danny and Colleen’s windows as well as those of room 1817, and Matt’s feet make their way towards her, as they so often do.

The voice chuckles, ugly and knowing.

It can kiss its own ass.

Elektra's hair dances on the currents of air rising between the buildings. It tickles Matt's cheek as he draws near. She turns toward him, resting her hand on his hip, and graces that same cheek with a kiss before dropping another onto his lips.

He smiles into the kiss, lips curving up reflexively. So many of his favorite people have been like this, in their own unique ways - Elektra, Foggy, his father - all easy with physical affection, contagiously so, capable of drawing warmth from Matt just as easily in return.

“What do you think of all this?” he asks softly, fingers stroking her side.

“I think.... it’s not a terrible plan.” Matt laughs. “I think you were right. With these people, we stand a much better chance of putting an end to this than you and I did alone.”

The knot in Matt's stomach untwists slightly. “And,” Elektra adds, “I think your friend Jessica is extremely angry, and likely to prove quite violent. I like her.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

The night wears on. Jessica paces around the rooftop veranda. Occasionally, Luke does too. Elektra keeps up her post, and Matt settles cross-legged on the ground at her feet. With her rock-steady at his side, it's easy to meditate to a place where time expands and contracts and eventually means nothing at all.

A foot nudges his leg. It's not gentle. “Word in your ear, guru?”

Releasing one last deep breath, Matt says, “Sure.” Getting up from the ground doesn’t happen quite as fluidly as it once did - collapsing high-rises will do that to a body - but Matt makes it to his feet easily enough, and follows Jessica to a spot further along the edge of the roof.

“So.” She cocks her head. “No super-hearing inside the hotel, huh. Super-smelling? Super-tasting?”

“No.”

“Uh-huh. Thought as much.”

“I can still hone in on people,” Matt says quietly. “Don't worry. I can still fight.”

“Great. That's great. But if, you know, you can't, Luke and Rand and Colleen and I are good at hitting people, so that’s fine too. I just need to hear you're going to be able to get around okay in there. For my sake. Because I don't know what that Elvira of yours will do if you stub a toe or something.”

Matt smiles. It feels strained. Probably looks strained, too. “I'll be fine.”

“...Yeah. Got it. Good talk, Murdock.”

“Wait,” Matt says, stopping Jessica before she walks away. “What about you? Are you okay with me bringing you into all this?”

“Working with you and your undead girlfriend? Sure. No problem.”

“Yeah? You sure about that?”

“You held a funeral for her. You paid for a gravestone. There was a coroner’s report. Your girl was definitely dead. And now she's not.” Jessica pauses. “Kinda not. I can believe that being brought back from the dead by a bunch of evil s.o.b.’s could fuck somebody's brain up. Maybe I can even believe there's a way back from it.” She shrugs. “We’re all making our way back from some shit.”

It’s like taking a shot of pure hope straight from the bottle. Hearing someone else say it, hearing someone else mean it…. Matt didn’t even realize how desperate he was for that kind of affirmation until it came, unsolicited and unexpected. A way back. That’s the path Elektra’s on.

He knows it is.

“Now, if what you really meant was, ‘Are you going to be okay dealing with another asshole who plays mind games?’ You were smart not to say it.”

“I’m smart enough to know who to come to for help,” he says, and Jessica laughs out loud.

“There he is! The smooth-talker. God, I love lawyers.”

::

It begins with Danny.

Through Jessica and Luke’s earpieces, Matt picks up a soft, gasping cry. It's the sort of thing he hears night after night, all over the city, when the people of New York wake from nightmares, but this is different. Danny is waking into one.

“Game time,” Luke says, and they hit the stairs.

Even though Matt knows exactly what's coming, the sudden, brutal silence that slams into him as he crosses the threshold knocks him off-balance. But Elektra’s at his side, hand steady beneath his elbow, and by falling in sync with her graceful tread, he has no trouble taking the stairs two at a time like everyone else.

“How's Danny?” Matt asks. Jessica's right behind him, Luke's right in front of him, but no matter how he strains, he can't pick up anything from their earpieces inside this godforsaken building. It's equal parts unsettling and frustrating as hell.

“Not good,” Jessica says.

“Who does he think he's talking to?”

“His mother,” Luke says. “Colleen’s trying to talk him down.”

Colleen’s trauma wears a different face from Danny's. That will help. It's not until they exit the utility staircase and reach the hallway outside Danny's suite that Matt can finally hear for himself what's going on: Danny is pleading, sobbing, telling his mother over and over that he’s sorry for letting her die; Colleen is holding her ground, reminding him just as repeatedly that nothing he’s experiencing is real.

Danny doesn’t seem to hear her. Matt doubts he can hear much of anything. He's too busy feeling.

The door to the suite is unlocked. Luke enters first, and they follow at his heels. This close, Matt can hear Danny's frantic breathing and pounding heart. He can smell his sweat.

“Listen to me,” Luke says. “You’re looking at your mom, right? Put your hands on her shoulders. Yeah, yeah, like that. Feels weird, doesn't it? It's because you're reaching down. You're taller than her, and you were never taller than her. It's not real, man.”

Maybe it's working. Maybe it isn't. As Danny’s breathing grows wilder, Luke pushes in closer, until Danny's hands brush against the fabric of Luke's hoodie. Until he must be standing directly in the ghost’s footprint.

“We have our distraction, Matthew,” Elektra says, urgent. “Let's go.”

She’s right. Waiting around for Danny to snap out of it isn’t part of the plan. Luke’s handling this, and handling it well. As Matt turns to follow Elektra out, Luke continues: “You don't like what I'm saying, so what are you gonna do about it? Huh? You're gonna have to shut me up. Go on -

A wounded noise tears from Danny's throat, halting Matt in his tracks. What exactly is Danny hearing - or seeing? Is it still his mother? Is it Luke? Some flickering, staticky amalgamation of the two? Suddenly, Danny drags in a shuddering breath, like that of a drowning man miraculously washed ashore. He flings his arms around Colleen, and Matt knows the ghosts are done with him.

The whole room holds its breath.

Softly, brokenly, Luke says, “Reva?”

Shit. That's his dead wife,” Jessica says. “Goddamnit. This isn't going to be pretty.” Her pulse, already elevated throughout Danny's encounter, is skyrocketing, and Matt wonders if it's only out of concern for Luke. He knows they have history, but he's never given any thought to just how deep or messy it might be.

Tonight, messy equals dangerous.

Matt says, “Colleen. Danny. You got this?”

“Got it,” Colleen says.

“Room 1817, Jones,” Matt says, as Elektra grabs his hand and heads for the door. “Come on. You're with us.”

::

The door to Ayers’ suite is locked, but that’s no problem: Jessica leaves it swinging on its hinges.

Silence slams into Matt like a tidal wave, weighing him down, pressing into every pore of his skin, filling his throat and lungs. It’s the aftermath of Frank Castle’s bullet all over again, and even though reason tries to tell him the situations are completely different, and that this, without doubt, will pass, panic still rises.

He can feel the floor beneath his feet. So he's still standing; that's good. He's not adrift, not completely. Right foot, left foot, he still has two anchors to the world.

Is his heart still beating?

Of course it is. Of course it is. But Matt fumbles for his pulse all the same, his fingers stupidly desperate as they dig into his wrist. He lied to Jessica. He told her he could fight, but here is is, barely breathing.

Is Jessica even still here? Is Elektra?

Is he alone?

Of course he isn’t. They're with him in this, just as they’d all been there for Danny. Jessica’s probably yelling at him right now - Stop being a dumbass, Murdock, snap out of it! - and if Matt tries hard enough, he can feel the ghost pressure of Elektra's hand on his arm, grip burning his skin -

If he tries hard enough. If he lets his brain believe what it wants to believe, if he listens to what it whispers and takes it as truth -

But should he? Can he honestly say his mind is always trustworthy?

Frustration erupts as a growl from Matt's throat, one he can’t hear, but feels - thinks he feels - rippling violently through his vocal cords. It only ends when he tastes drops of very real blood.

Matt swallows, the tang of copper coating his tongue. Swaying on his feet, chest heaving, he pulls air into his burning lungs. Is that it? Is that Ayers’ move? Has he decided no one else can possibly haunt Matt as well as he can haunt himself?

You know what you have to do, Matthew. Prove him wrong.

Matt’s ears are still dead to him. He’s buried in silence, trapped inside the tomb. But he doesn’t need them to hear Elektra; she lives inside of him, and always will. And there’s no doubt she’s right about this.

Breathe. Pull air in, push it out. Trust that Elektra and Jessica are taking care of the rest. So what if Ayers is inside your head, listening to your every thought? Just keep -

“Matthew, my son. How are you? Is the rehabilitation still going well?”

It’s Father Lantom’s voice. And it isn't a lifeline. It's a lure. It's a trap. Still, part of Matt seizes upon it, clutching furiously at a connection to the world beyond the echo chamber of his own mind. It's not something he can trust, but at least it's something he can fight.

“Oh, yeah, sure. It’s going great. I’d ask how you are, but you aren't here. You’re in your rectory, ten blocks away.”

“I admire your certainty,” not-Father Lantom says, and Matt snorts. “Truthfully, I do. When’s the last time you and I spoke? Are you sure nothing’s happened to me since then? So many things can, in this city.”

“Yeah. I’m sure.”

But it feels real. The voice has the rasp of Father Lantom’s, the spirit, the spark, the weight. It’s coming from a body - seems to be coming from a body - of his precise size and shape, sitting directly in front of Matt. As for scent, it’s layered and rich and exactly as Matt remembers it: linen and starch, incense and coffee, sweat and Old Spice.

As Matt remembers it is the key. That appears to be all Ayers can do - build illusions from Matt’s memories. Is that why he hasn’t chosen Jack Murdock for his sick game? Because, when it comes down to it, Matt doesn’t truly remember his own father well enough?

Matt’s lungs are burning again, and he can’t make them stop.

“You hear what’s going on in this city,” Father Lantom’s voice goes on, “but so do I. People come to the church and sit in the confessional, and tell me all the terrible things they’ve done. Or the things that have been done to them.” He shifts, leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I’ve been a priest for a long, long time, Matthew - may I share something I’ve learned? All that changes are the names. The faces. But the anger, the violence, the hate? Those never change.”

Matt laughs harshly. “You're doing a really shitty job of this, Ayers. You don’t sound like him at all.”

God. Matt can hear himself again, and it's addictive. His voice from his lips, his breath in his lungs, his heartbeat in his chest - all present and accounted for, just as long as he keeps talking to Ayers.

He should be strong enough to stop.

“I’m a man of God, Matthew, but I’m still a man.” The words are those of an imposter, but Father Lantom's voice says them with such weariness that they drop like lead weights on Matt's heart all the same. How many heavy burdens has he placed on the priest’s shoulders over the years? How many more will he ask him to carry?

The voice goes on. “For all your abilities, you’re no more than a man yourself. Have you thought about how alike we are? Two men whom God has given no choice but to listen…. The more we listen, the more we hear the truth.”

“No.” Matt shakes his head. “No, Ayers, you've still got it wrong. I hear people and I try to help them. Father Lantom - he does too. And yeah, maybe sometimes it seems like things don't get any better, but we keep trying. See - we believe in the fight. We believe people are worth it. But you -”

Anger drums in Matt's veins. Skin tightens over his knuckles as his hands curl into fists. Ayers doesn't just hear suffering and ignore it, as bad as that would be. He does something far more despicable.

“You hear people suffering,” he says, with a deliberate, measured slowness, the calm before a storm, “and you could help them, but you don't. Nah. Not you. Instead, you decide to just - try and get rid of them. Right? Because if they kill themselves, you won't have to hear them anymore?”

“You said it yourself, Matthew,” Father Lantom's voice says calmly. “They're suffering.”

“Driving them to suicide isn't the answer.”

“I merely show them the contents of their own minds. What follows is in their hands.”

“No. Their deaths are on yours.”

“Ah, there's that certainty again.” The voice turns confiding, matter-of-fact, unshockable - the tone of the confessional. “Matthew, you speak like a man with no death on his own hands. I have to ask - how are you so sure of that?”

“I'm asking the questions, Ayers,” Matt snaps.

Not-Father Lantom’s laugh is chilling. “I think God is the one who does that.”

Matt doesn’t think. He stalks forward, even though orienting himself in the hotel room is impossible - is he near a window? The bed? Is he inches away from running into a wall? The only bit of shape to his world is the thing that isn't Father Lantom. It sits close enough to touch.

If Matt let the devil out now, would anything bleed?

“We don't have to talk about you, Matthew. We can talk about the deaths on your lover’s hands, if you'd prefer. Where would you like to begin?”

“She’s not relevant to this.”

“Ah, but she certainly is to me…. I'm sorry, you probably haven't noticed. You see, she's currently holding some sort of dagger to my throat.”

A war breaks out in Matt's chest, chaotic and bloody. Don't do it, Elektra, is swiftly challenged by Please, please, don't do it in front of me, as if the survival of his faith in her is more important to him than Ayers’ actual life. God help him, down in the ugliest, most primal part of his heart, it probably is.

No. It gets even uglier than that. Just don't do it in front of Jessica or the others, an insidious, selfish voice pleads. Let it be our secret.

“I see you didn't know. Don't let it worry you too much, Matthew. What else could possibly be done with me? I'd be one of your worst failures in court yet - not that any judge would ever even hear my case. Besides, as I suspect you've already guessed... I'm tired, Matthew. All those miserable people, day after day after day… I imagine you're tired, too. Perhaps it's time for a rest.”

The lead weights are back. Every word is crushingly heavy, and it isn’t hard to believe that Ayers might actually mean them. He might want it all to end; he might want Elektra to do it for him. Being tired, letting go, leaving one’s fate in Elektra's hands - no, none of that's hard for Matt to imagine at all.

“What’s supposed to happen now, Ayers?” Matt asks. “Am I supposed to cry about how tired I am, then do myself in?”

No response. The moment stretches longer and longer until it’s clear Matt’s been left alone in that brutal silence once again. Why isn't Ayers talking? If it's because Elektra has done the deed - because she's killed him - why hasn't the spell been broken? Surely Ayers’ death would send Matt's senses rushing back.

Wouldn't it?

All Matt can hear now is his own heart; it's out of control, slamming into his ribs. Trust Elektra. Trust Jessica. Trust God. Trust -

“You have free will, Matthew,” Father Lantom’s voice says, and Matt's breath escapes him in a rush. He shouldn’t be this damn grateful to realize he was just being toyed with - but he is nonetheless. “Save me if you like, or let your lover do what she does best. Either way - here I am.”

Sounds like a challenge. Feels like a trap. Think, Matt. He can't assume that the illusion bearing Father Lantom’s voice is occupying the same physical space as Ayers himself - after all, Ayers carried out all his other illusions from a distance. If Ayers is right where he claims to be, then it’s probably all part of the game; if Matt rushes forward, what are the chances that he'll end up on the wrong end of Elektra's blade by mistake?

But this kind of hesitation isn't Elektra. If she were going to kill Ayers, she would have done it by now. If she's still threatening him, it's for theatrical effect - and that's assuming Ayers is even telling the truth, and she's threatening him with her sai at all.

“Cat got your tongue, Matthew? Or are you waiting for someone else to save the day?” Ayers laughs an eerie laugh that could never, ever truly belong to Father Lantom. “Sorry, but your friend Miss Jones has her hands full at the moment. Were you aware that she killed Cage’s wife? They're out in the hallway right now. Discussing matters, so to speak.”

Shit. Matt had known things were messy between Luke and Jessica, but never dreamed they were that messy…. Elektra’s surely hesitant to leave Matt alone with Ayers, but nonetheless he hopes - no, believes - that if Jessica needs her, Elektra’s out in that hallway right now, joining with Danny and Colleen to keep her safe.

“Oh dear, Matthew, can you no longer hear me?” Ayers clicks his fingers. “I know you've been having some difficulty, but I thought that you and I, at least, were able to communicate with each other.”

Oh, is Matt’s prolonged silence unsettling Ayers? Good. That means there's only one thing to do - make certain not to break it. Matt shifts his weight, lightening his stance, readying himself for anything. The more frustrated Ayers is, the more unpredictably he's likely to lash out -

It’s no good.

There's no preparing Matt's body or mind for what happens next.

Sound returns. It comes as a deluge, battering Matt on all sides. He falls to his knees, hands flat on the floor in front of him, head hanging between his shoulders. Everything is loud, everything hurts, he’s not sure he can survive it…. He wants to scream, he is screaming, he has to stop -

Focus focus focus. Heartbeats pound wildly out of sync. Everywhere, they’re everywhere. Got to count them, got to identify them - Matt grits his teeth, but he can’t do it, he can’t, they’re just waves of noise assaulting his brain. Even worse is the high, piercing whistle of air rushing through a shattered window; Matt had missed the initial crash, it must have happened while he was still locked in Ayers’ manufactured silence, but the resulting echo and the high-pitched reverberations still emanating from every sliver of glass threaten to split his head in two.

And the voices. They’re everywhere. Jesus, can't somebody make them stop -

“You three go downstairs,” Elektra says, low but firm. Her hands are circling his wrists. Her voice is a balm on a wound. “Help Jones with him. I've got Matthew.”

It's easier to keep his head above water with Elektra there holding him up. When Matt no longer feels like the sound of his own voice might kill him, he asks, “What happened?”

“Your friend Jessica took him out through the window.” He’s sure Elektra's whispering, but to Matt’s throbbing head it feels more like shouting. Elektra continues, “Can she fly?”

“I don't know. Maybe. Might explain some things.” He draws a breath. “What are they going to do with him?”

If Matt could just pull himself together, he’d know. On the sidewalk far below, things are happening; he can hear the quick rise of Danny’s voice, and Luke’s lower rumble, but their words are like knives, too painful to grasp no matter how hard he tries. Not that he’s in any position to do anything anyway. Not like this. He still hasn’t even managed to sit up.

“They're good people,” Elektra says. It doesn't quite sound like a compliment. “It will be better than what he deserves.”

Gently, with her arm circling his back, she draws Matt up from his hands and knees, steadying him through the vertigo that follows until he's finally slumped upright, head resting against her shoulder. It breaks him of trying to catch knives in his bare hands; shaking against Elektra, he lets himself ride the tide of her breath instead.

She's right - they're good people. And Ayers almost certainly will get better than he deserves. But wasn’t that the beauty in redemption, the glory in grace? It didn’t matter whether you’d earned it or not. It only mattered what you did with your shot.

All around them, the hotel buzzes with life. It’s late, late into the night, but along with catching the rhythms of peaceful slumber Matt can hear people watching old movies, sharing bottles of wine, confessing their love, having sex…. All blissfully unaware of the danger they’d been in. All blessedly safe, thanks to Elektra choosing to take action and right an ugly wrong.

Every sound is still painful, a dagger piercing his brain, but Matt listens joyfully all the same.

::

“Packed him off to a cabin upstate,” Jessica says, sitting cross-legged on her desk. "Miles away from any other humans. Since we stir up all his murder feelings.” She pauses. “Shit. Maybe I should get Rand to set me up with a place in the sticks, too.”

“You'd hate it,” Matt says confidently.

She grunts. “Maybe. Rand's arranged round-the-clock remote surveillance, scheduled drones to make food drops. He’s so excited. A kid with his very own homicidal pet turtle.”

It wasn't a perfect solution, but they’d all agreed on it as a place to start. The theory that Hotel Victoria itself played a role in amplifying Ayers’ abilities appeared to hold water: “He still tried to screw with our heads down on the sidewalk, after our little trip through the window,” Jessica had recounted to Matt, “but it was like having a mosquito in your ear. Just a tiny, annoying whine. And then -” her voice rang with fierce glee - “Luke swatted him.”

Who knew exactly what lay inside the hotel's walls? The place had been built during the Art Deco days, and undergone numerous renovations over the years. In most older buildings, whether they'd gone through asbestos removal or not, traces of it still lingered as a tell-tale scratchiness in Matt's throat. Not so in the Victoria. Matt's senses had been too stifled for that. So what else might he have missed?

Earlier, when he’d mused on the question aloud, Jessica had said, “Something even shittier that the shitty big companies managed to keep a secret from people like us. That's what."

It was an answer that raised more questions than it resolved. Spoken to Karen Page, a statement like that would be a red flag in front of a bull; Matt was powerfully reminded that he still had fences left to mend.

“Speaking of homicidal,” Jessica says now, breaking into his thoughts, “where’s Little Miss Assassin?”

Matt can't help but smile. “Elektra's on her way.” He loves the way the words feel in his mouth, dripping with sweet certainty. They have plans; she’s on her way; they’ll be together soon. “Should be here any minute. We've got dinner reservations. Then we're going for a long walk in a really bad neighborhood.”

The restaurant was Elektra’s pick, someplace so trendy it couldn’t be bothered to have an actual name, published phone number, or menu. The neighborhood was Matt’s.

“Sounds fun,” Jessica says dryly. “Don’t call me when you get in trouble.”

“Can’t make any promises,” Matt says, before taking a leaf from Jessica’s book and exiting via the window.

::

Elektra’s driving tonight. Her choice of wheels is a low-slung sports car with seats crafted from some of the most supple leather Matt's ever felt; he wonders if Elektra would get a couch like it, if he asked nicely. The engine rumbles, a beast ready to roar, and every time Elektra shifts gears, her hand brushes Matt's thigh.

It's going to be that kind of night.

Matt can hear Jessica grumbling to Malcolm about him as the car leaves her block. She might not like it, but he'd only been telling the truth: he couldn’t promise. Life didn’t let you do that. It just gave you chances to try.

"What’s that smile for? Is it for me?" Elektra asks.

"What smile? Is there a smile? I'm no expert," Matt says, feeling the smile in question grow wider, "but I thought driving involved looking at the road."

Elektra shakes her head, hair blowing in the breeze from the rolled-down windows. "Driving involves looking at whatever I want to look at, darling. Are you dodging the question?"

Not even for a second. Matt wants her to hear it; he wants to say it, to feel the words roll off his tongue. "This alleged smile,” he begins, just to hear her huff softly, “is for my life and everything good in it. So yes. It’s for you.”

Elektra hits the brakes. The results are predictable: drivers swerve narrowly around them, cursing violently and laying on their horns, while Elektra shows no signs of giving a shit. With the car stopped right in the middle of 8th Avenue, she reaches for Matt, tracing his still-upturned lips from corner to corner in a gesture at once possessive and wondering. “I could get used to this,” she says softly.

One day bleeding into the next, and the next, and the next, the city’s vibrant, angry, loving song in his ears, Elektra’s in his heart…. Matt slides his hands into Elektra’s hair and kisses her, as a claim, as a prayer, as a statement of intent.

Life gave you chances to try. He'll fight like hell to keep this one from going to waste.