Franklin Nelson is nine years old and has a face made for smiling. He likes to tease his sisters, and hums nursery rhymes and wordless tunes as he carefully plaits their hair. He is not the fastest, nor the bravest, but he always joins in with the other kids from his apartment when they play because he makes them grin with his jokes. He might not be the best player but he never fights dirty. His nan tells him he has a too-big heart, that he needs to be careful otherwise he’ll have nothing left for himself. Foggy doesn’t understand what she means by that, not then.
It starts like this; he is nine years old, and he had already learned to love without half-measures. He is young enough to rush into things without thinking. This is something he will not grow out of.
When his parents ask him after he’s woken up, his mother red-eyed, his father washed out pale but both of them relieved, Foggy will tell them he doesn’t remember much about the accident. This is not a lie: he remembers that someone kicked the ball wide, and that his younger sister ran eagerly to get it, but not how he was already running to the road, screaming for her to hear him. He remembers bundling the weight of his sister in his arms, arms enfolding ribs, but he doesn’t remember the car, or slamming into the tarmac, or the sound of screaming, getting louder.
What he does remember however, is the light.
May I ask a favour, young-one? the light asks him.
“SURE” Foggy thinks loudly, thinking he’s got the hang of this speaking without speaking malarkey. The light had said that Foggy was asleep, but that he’ll wake up when his body’s ready, that it’s just the two of them here in this nothing-space of Foggy’s head, and Foggy believes it with the simple faith found only in children and holy men. He doesn’t understand, but he’s coming to accept that there’s a lot of things he doesn’t yet.
The light trembles. Bobs and weaves, leaving an afterimage like looking too closely at the sun. It shrinks back cautiously.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Foggy had apologised, dropping his not-speaking voice to a whisper. “I didn’t mean to shout. What is it I can help you with?”
The light quivers, shifts like ridges of water on low tide.
I should have asked, before. It is not our way to intrude without permission. But I fell so far, and your soul was so very bright, and I was so very tired. May I rest here? Just for a little while?
“Why not?” Foggy says. Trying to convey a gesture with only his voice. “There’s enough room in here for the both of us. Course you can stay.” He mentally frowns, not quite sure how that works either. “You sound wiped, can I get you anything?”
He’s not sure what he’d get for a disembodied light, but his mother taught him manners and using them makes him feel a bit more grown-up.
The light is guttering like a low-down candle. When it speaks, it sounds like the wind through the cracks of his ceiling.
My kind are not yours, young-one. I need shelter, rest, until my brethren come. They will help me home.
“You can stay here then, until your friends get here,” Foggy says, and the light flickers, makes a noise like fingers brushed through wind chimes. “I won’t tell anyone.”
I am grateful, Franklin Nelson. I shall not forget this.
When Foggy wakes up, the light has gone.
He keeps his secret nonetheless.
“Devil, my shapely Irish ass,” Foggy says as he looks over Karen’s paper. Tosses it back to her. “What sort of a name is that?”
Foggy’s gotten good at secrets. He has always strived to be honest, but that does not necessarily mean truthful. His heart doesn’t even skip a beat when Karen opens to page seven and there’s a blurry picture of another vigilante, suspected to be in cahoots with the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Mask covering the top half of his face, a carefully considered outfit of a stardust grey made black by shadows. It is the wings that stick out, dark grey, barred and flecked with white and silver.
“Well it’s better than Archangel,” Karen says, gesturing to the poor resolution photo.
“Least it’s not the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen. Or Hell’s Angel,” Foggy says idly, before he describes to Matt: “There’s apparently another nutter throwing themselves off roof-tops in their pyjamas. Must be a trend. Least they’ve got some big don’t-mess-with-me wings on their back. That Devil doesn’t even have itty-bitty horns to deserve his name.”
“The guy’s got wings?” Matt asks, sounding surprised. He’s stopped running his fingers over whatever file he’s reading. “They part of the costume or something?”
“Maybe they’re part of the image,” Karen smiles and makes a face. “Archangel. Yeesh. Talk about scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
Foggy likes the name. Names are important. They have a power of their own, they mean something. He had googled it when he had first seen the article. Archangel. It means celestial being. Defender of the faith. A holy warrior with a righteous cause.
Foggy rubs the slick silver skin shaped almost like a handprint over his heart, and thinks it suits him.
He has been out of hospital for a week, stuck grumpy and sad and not able to play with the cast on his leg, when the light comes back.
It stands in his window at the witching hour, its body forming a golem of moonlight, and it burns too brightly for Foggy to look at without it hurting his eyes.
I am sorry, the light whispers, eiderdown soft. Dims enough for Foggy to peek back out through his fingers. I forgot that we are not like you.
“Why didn’t you look like this before?” Foggy asks. He gestures at the shape of a not-quite man which has milky-white eyes but no mouth.
I can create myself on this plane for short spans. But it is… tiring. Unyielding. I did not have the energy before.
“Did you get home safe?”
My friends found me, thanks to you.
“What are you?” Foggy asks curiously. He’s been wondering about it since the hospital.
I am apart. My kind endure. We are not like you, nor from this place. We are old and we last, but we do not forget our friends. You are blessed of us now, young-one, and I shall not forget the debt I owe.
“You don’t owe me any debt,” Foggy says uncomfortably. He doesn’t like the idea of someone feeling they need to give him something. “I just did what anyone would have done.”
The light-shape cocks its head. Like it’s amused.
Not a debt then, it says. A favour.
What have you done? Someone is crying at him from a far-away place. A land of mist and fog, darkening at the edges. Oh God, Foggy, what have you done?
I have helped, Foggy thinks. Something ebbs low in his chest, spluttering out. Everything hurts, and it’s hard to breathe. That is all I have ever wanted.
I’m sorry Matt, he thinks as he slips out of consciousness, weak as candlelight.
What do you want, Franklin Nelson? , the light asks him once, when they stray in the nebulous shifting land between dreams and wakefulness. The light visits sometimes. It says it’s easier in this place. The boundaries between them are not so far.
Foggy huffs. “Not to be a butcher, that’s for sure.”
He’s thirteen, and realising he wants more from his life than a little shop and a reliable future mapped out for him. He feels selfish wanting this, because he’s never felt ashamed of his family, hand-me-down clothes that fit too big and a tiny college fund that doesn’t grow, but he knows he wants something different than what they want for him. He wants… He’s not sure what he wants.
“Is this like a three wishes sort of thing?”
The light hums. If you like. I am curious.
Foggy thinks for a while. The air curls lazily around his ankles, gun-metal grey and soft as feathers.
“I would like Mom and Dad not to have to work so hard,” he says finally. “I want Esther to be able to get a scholarship and go to a good school and be the first Nelson to get through college.”
Why would she be the first?
“It’s not going to be me, is it?” Foggy says. He’s accepted the whole thing by now. “Can’t afford college, no chance in Hell I’m getting a scholarship. I’m smart, but not the smartest.”
You’re smart enough, the light says. Foggy indicates he’s heard without words.
The light loops lazily, trailing dust behind it.
Is that all you would wish for?
The nothingness around him thickens. The floor beneath his bare feet glints like the reflection of stars in glass.
“I want to be a good person,” Foggy says finally. “To help people.”
That does not surprise me, the light tells him as Foggy wakes up.
“Those girls got home safe,” Foggy says to the man in the mask, perched on top of one of the containers by the dock-lands. “Thought you’d want to know.”
The man in the mask whirls around. His fists are clenched, and he’s still got the devil in him, standing over the unconscious bodies. He looks like he’s ready to carry on fighting.
Foggy hopes not. Fighting doesn’t come naturally to him. He puts on a mask for his own reasons, but he hits as much as he has to, and he never kills.
This man does not fight like him. Foggy had watched after he’d taken down his own collection of men with guns, what he knows now was back-up for the main event. The devil spins and dances, a reckless brutal firebrand. Foggy is slower, but steadier. His is the kind of strength that wears down, not tears apart. The cold snap of winter rather than a roaring blaze.
“What are you doing here?” the man snarls at Foggy.
“Thought you might need some help. Looks like you don’t.”
“No,” the man in the mask bites out. “I don’t.”
Foggy’s first resounding thought as he watches the man in the mask leave is God, what an asshole.
The light saves Foggy’s life when he is nineteen and still rushes into things without thinking.
“Hey, leave them alone!” he shouts. There is a body on the ground, moaning, and three surrounding it. One rifling through a coat that is not their own. Another kicks the body again and they moan, and someone chuckles, and Foggy hadn’t really thought then, not really.
At his shout, they leave the man on the ground alone, and go for him instead. It not quite the collision with a car bonnet, but he’s about as effective with his fists. He’s not made for fighting, is Foggy.
They punch him breathless, and one of them shoves him hard up against the wall. The brickwork digging into his back, grinding against his shoulder blades. His hands scrabble uselessly at the grip around his throat. His vision is whiting around the edges, kicking out weakly, and he breathes like he’s trying to hold himself in, and wonders if they’ll kill the man lying on the ground after they’ve finished with him. There is the impression of stars refracted across the rain-slick pavement.
There is a sudden whoosh, like a flame exposed to too much oxygen. He breathes in something that is not air, and something slams into him like a strong wind, and he screams. From pain, from shock, and the euphoria of something singing like wind chimes in his blood, as his body stretches like it’s been cramped up too long, becomes something new and not-him.
His heartbeat slows. Something billows out behind him, a counterweight soft against his back. It’s too much, and it’s overwhelming, and he feels so far from himself, like he’s going to skitter off, the sparks from a forge-made blade bouncing onto the ground and scattering…
He wills himself to stand his ground as the world shifts from under him. Grits his teeth and forces himself to think.
His body moves for him. Graceful. Like gliding through water. His punches are well-placed, fast without being gratuitous. He dodges, slippery as smoke, and he grabs one of his attackers around the wrist. Holds on long enough and thinks sleep with a will not his own.
The attacker does.
Neat trick, his dazed mind thinks.
When all three have fallen, the light within him fades. Something shrinks back under his skin. He is left with shaky legs, fragile and feeling all too human, but he helps the man on the ground to a taxi so they can both go to the hospital.
He gets back to his dorm room around four, not a bruise on his body, and the light is waiting for him fretfully, barely visible in the rising dawn.
“What was that?” Foggy asks.
The light moves agitated. Its gestures strangely human.
I am sorry. I should not have taken control like that. It was wrong of me. It is not our way, to intervene… to take what has not been offered.
“You saved that guy’s life,” Foggy says. He is tired and grateful, and these are the things he can process currently. “You saved mine. It was… it was something bigger than me, but you did what was necessary. You took nothing I would not have offered if you hadn’t asked.”
I should not have done that, the light says again. Its movements aren’t as frantic, more hesitant.
“I’m not mad,” Foggy says honestly. I was scared and I was going to die, and I couldn’t help that man on my own. “I’m alive because of whatever your lightshow was. Guess you finally repaid that favour, huh?” He breathes out a half-laugh. “What did you even do?”
I… borrowed your body, having none of my own by which to intervene. I did not think it would work. You are blessed of us, and it was not your time.
“The – the wings…” Foggy says tentatively. Putting a name to the pull on his shoulder blades, the cool air shifting the placement of feathers. “Are they yours? Is that what you really look like?”
The light huffs. You have not listened, young-one. I have no body in the way you understand it. I manifest as I choose to be seen, and how others choose to see me. My light met yours, and it followed your will. I could give you strength and skill, but you endured and used it. Wings are good for shelter, speed. They make you look bigger than you are, look braver than you feel.
You want to touch the stars, Franklin, so you thought of wings.
Foggy is crouching in an oil-slick puddle with a woman crying in his arms. His costume is sticky with sweat on his skin, his face hot under the mask. The fight took longer than he had expected.
The woman will have bruises like the imprints of pebbles around her wrists tomorrow, but she is alive. Foggy juts out a wing to cover her from the spitting rain, and rocks her gently. Humming an old song, like a nursery rhyme or wordless tune. The city is suffocating tonight. The smoke from the bombs still dying down. The memory of Karen with mace on her key-chain, and the weight of secrets on her tongue. A pin-board with the king of diamonds at the top. His costume a suit and a softball bat and the sense of nearly being too late.
He hears the tentative footsteps behind him, but carries on. His voice softening, lullaby-gentle. The woman’s cries are quieting in his arms, his feathers brushing against the nape of her neck. The police should arrive soon.
“You blow up those buildings?” he asks without preamble. “Shoot those cops?”
“No,” the man in black replies. Foggy believes him. He’s not sure why.
He’s been hearing too many truths tonight. The wound in his side still aches, slow to heal.
“I thought… you might need a hand.” The man in black surveys the two fallen men. “Seems I was mistaken.” Another pause. “I’d like to apologise. For the last time we met.”
“For being a dick?”
“I thought…” The man in black clears his throat, shifting uncomfortably. “This city – it means a lot to me. It’s not safe and it’s getting worse. I didn’t like the idea that someone was just strapping some wings to their back and playing at being a hero. Not when there’s so much at stake these days.”
“Well, now you know,” Foggy says, not unkindly. He straightens up, helping the woman stand on unsteady legs, balancing his weight when she holds too tightly onto the fabric of his shirt. “You best get outta here before the cops show. I don’t think you planted those bombs, but no-one else does.”
“They won’t catch me,” the Devil says, but readies to move anyway. “But thank you for the warning.”
“Don’t mention it,” Foggy says, as the Devil takes a running jump and scales the fire escape.
“Show off,” he mutters, and he swears he hears the man in black chuckle.
Elena Cardenas dies, and Foggy grieves. Feels too much, his body too small to fit all of it in without overflow. A too-big heart, his nan had always said. You’ll give it all away, Frankie, and then you’ll have nothing left for yourself.
Foggy’s love has always felt limitless, his capacity to feel without boundaries.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.
He gets drunk that night, and sad, and doesn’t put on the mask, and he slams his fists against the cheap wood of Matt’s door at an obscene hour. Tired and mourning-numb and wishing this was all easier.
There is a loud thump and Foggy immediately adds frightened to that list.
“Matt?” he says as he peels the bloody, river-soaked mask off his friend’s face. “Oh, Matt, you idiot.”
Matt is the Devil. Matt has always been the Devil.
“F’ggy?” Matt asks, and the words come out of his throat wrong. “D-Don’t call the hospital. Please. Claire. Get Claire.”
Foggy would do anything for Matt, but no hospital going to help him now, and by the time he calls Claire, it will be too late.
There’s so much blood. It’s like someone’s tried to tear Matt apart.
The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen is Foggy’s best friend and he’s dying.
“Close your eyes, Matty,” Foggy murmurs. Splaying his fingers out, placing his palm on Matt’s chest. Feeling his breathing, laboured, wheezing, shocked. His rabbit-heartbeat losing time. “This will be a bit bright.”
He knows what he has to do.
“This is going to hurt,” he says. “Forgive me Matt, I’m so so sorry for this.”
There is a light flooding out from Foggy, and it surrounds them, and everything, everything is –
Matt screams as his flesh starts to knit back together, arching his back, writhing as Foggy sobs his apologies over and over again, trying to hold him down as Matt bucks and claws at the hand pressing him down. Delirious, he tries to hit Foggy as the light surges into his chest, and then he does manage, a hard glancing glow, but Foggy takes it, Foggy endures.
He feels as old as the stars. Keeper and watcher, scattered like constellations ever-shifting. Moonstruck and burning himself cold from the inside.
You’ll give it all away, Frankie, and you’ll have nothing left for yourself.
Foggy would give everything for Matt.
So he does.
The light visits on a long winter’s night when Foggy is home from college. He is twenty, and he keeps having to brush his hair out of his eyes as he scans a page of text he’s read at least twice already.
It arrives as a spectre, only half-formed and flickering.
Franklin, it says. Blessed of elders, sapling-young and steady as earth. I have a gift for you, if you will have it. It is the only one I can offer.
“Are you alright?” Foggy scrambles to his feet. The light is too pale, barely stable and shivering. He thinks if he waved a hand near it, it would dissipate like smoke.
I will not be returning, the light replies. I have seen this, and know I must leave. It holds out a long-fingered hand, violinist-slender and the colour of glass. Gesturing as though to cup Foggy’s cheek.
Do not cry, the light says softly, and Foggy doesn’t realise that his cheeks are wet until he says it. This was meant to come and pass. I go and I am content to do so. I came to say goodbye, and to offer you the only thing I have, for you to make your own.
The light leans in. Places a hand over his heart.
Is it still your wish to be a good man? it asks. Do you still want to help people?
“Yes,” Foggy whispers.
Do you want to fly, Franklin?
“Yes,” he says.
Protect. Defend, he thinks.
The light curls lazily. Happily.
That does not surprise me, it says, as a hand settles over his heart.
Foggy cries out without sound as the light overwhelms him. Sinking deep down into his bones, like he’s standing in direct sunlight and has never seen the sky before. He burns and it’s more than he can bear, but he feels himself become something new, something that will make a difference. Something that will be able to help.
When he opens his eyes, he’s dropped to his knees, and the light has faded away into nothing.
Later, he stands in front of the mirror. Looking at his body, the round corners, the soft edges. A faint silvery mark over his heart the colour of starlight. He focuses, and swallows down the sensation of euphoria as his body shifts, his skin stretches.
There is a flutter of feathers, a strong wing-beat.
Something quite new but still Foggy stands there in his place.
“I wish I could talk to my best friend about this,” says the man they call the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. They’ve both been patrolling tonight. The city is restless. It knows the name Wilson Fisk now, and no-one is quite sure which way the tide is going to turn. “I’ve always wanted to. I’ve never liked lying to him, about my… my senses. About the mask. He deserves better. I’m scared I’ll lose him. Or, maybe worse, that he’ll stay.”
“How is that worse?” Foggy asks. He doesn’t know why the Devil is telling him this. From the look on the Devil’s face, it looks like he’s not quite sure either.
“Because he’ll get hurt in the end,” this strange nocturnal man that Foggy cautiously considers friend whispers. “The world is not a kind one, and it will destroy him one day. Fisk is out there, and I’m not sure I can protect him anymore.”
“My friend is everything to me,” Foggy says after a while. Trying to formulate how he feels in his head. His feather-tips drag low on the rooftop they’ve settled on. “We’ve been through everything together, you know? But I never told him about me. About any of this.”
“Why?” the man in black asks. It’s a good question.
“It’s like you said,” Foggy sighs. “I chose this… this path. To put on the mask, to protect this city. I don’t want him to be involved in something he can’t have a say in. It wouldn’t be right, and it wouldn’t be fair. I…” he wets his lips, faltering in his words. “…I don’t want him to be disappointed in me. He’s got.. .such strong ideas about the law, and how it should be used, but it’s not enough sometimes. Sometimes you need to work at it another way.”
The Devil nods.
“They’ll find out one day, you know,” he says. His voice subdued. Unhappy.
“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,” Foggy replies, hoping it won’t happen for a long time yet.
Matt looks like a battered ghost when Foggy wakes up. Slumped in the chair across from the sofa. His hair haywire from the amount of times he’s ran his hands through it.
“What the hell do you think you were playing at?” he seethes as soon as Foggy makes some sort of pained gesture towards movement. “You could have died.”
“Pot. Kettle. Black,” Foggy gasps out. He sits up, and phantom agonies thrum white-hot across his nerves. Cuts and bruises that are not his own. Aches that don’t grace him with so much as a mark. He won’t be doing that again in a hurry.
“I didn’t ask for you to save me, I never asked for that,” Matt says fiercely. “I called Claire when I came to, and she couldn’t explain what was wrong with you, why you were so weak, why your heart sounds like you were going to…”
His jaw snaps shut. He’s up from the chair, looming over Foggy, a vengeful demon, with nasty-looking stitched-up cuts ripping across his bare torso. He looks like he’s barely standing as it is.
(As least he’s still breathing.)
“I needed my friend,” Foggy says, barely louder than a whisper. “You were dying and I wanted you to live. Was that so wrong of me?”
Matt is quiet for too long. He sits down again, and puts his head in his hands, and swears under his breath.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks.
“You know why,” Foggy replies. They’d talked about this. Wearing different names, with different voices. “The same reason you never told me about your senses, or the mask. Which I am a bit pissed off at actually.”
“You lied to me,” Matt accuses. “Since I’ve know you, you’ve lied to me.”
Foggy clenches his eyes shut. Feeling tears collect there. He is drained and tired and there is the taste of ash in his mouth.
“I could say the same.” There’s a dull feeling at the bottom of him, leaden. Hollow. “Guess you didn’t know, huh? Thought you would have, with your super-hearing or whatever.”
“It’s – Your heartbeat. It sounds nothing like his. I don’t sense him like I do you. He’s beacon-bright, almost hard to look at. And his heartbeat, it’s calmer.” Matt looks at him, wanting to understand, needing to. “How can you be the same, Foggy?”
“It’s like your hearing,” Foggy tries to explain, picking up the words of the failed recitals he’s practised in his head so many times. “You need to focus, to concentrate, letting it in bit by bit so it doesn’t overwhelm you. I need that. I’m still the same person but I… my body changes. I can do things I can’t just as plain old Foggy Nelson.”
“I didn’t want you to be involved in this,” Matt says, his expression unreadable. “You’re my best friend, and I didn’t want you to get hurt.”
“I made my own choices long before we ever met, Matt,” Foggy replies without heat. “I’ll get hurt whatever happens. But we get back up, don’t we? People like us, we endure.” He pauses. “We’re lawyers. We’re supposed to be helping people, and this – this is how we do it when the law does not go far enough.”
Matt nods, and he looks as exhausted and broken as Foggy feels.
“Who did this to you, Matt?” Foggy says quietly. “Who hurt you?”
“Fisk,” Matt says after a pause “It was – it was Fisk.”
Something itches under Foggy’s skin.
“Then we’ll have to take him down together then, won’t we?” he says instead.
I know things that are, the light tells him once, when Foggy asks him about the future. Things that may be and will be. I am from a place far greater than this. Our lives are not linear as yours are.
“Would you tell me the future, if I asked?” Foggy had said.
Would you want to know?
Foggy had stayed silent. Biting his lip.
I can see your thread, Franklin, the light murmurs after a moment. Shining pale and steady as moonshine, before it tangles up with the Devil’s blood-red. A city will be yours to guard, and so will a man. Both will be your charge. This is what I see.
Foggy thinks of this, as he stretches out his wings. A mask the colour of stardust. A Devil hunched by his side.
“The new mask still looks dorky,” he says to the Devil. His friend.
There is a scoffing noise.
“Says the man with wings,” Matt replies, and then cocks his head. Listening to the city below. Catching a sound on the wind.
The Devil rushes in, and an angel follows, steady as snowfall.