Matt remembers his father's hands.
Thick knuckles; strong fingers; a little scar, right on the ball of the left thumb. He cut it slicing up an orange for Matt, back when he'd been just a kid, too young to handle the kitchen knives on his own.
His father'd turned his face aside to say, "Aw, fuck," and then, in the same breath, "You didn't hear that, Matty, don't you use that word."
Matt remembers streaming red, and his father sucking at the cut instead of finding a band-aid. He remembers the taste of the orange, tart and sweet.
He can't see those battered fighter's hands now, the thick knuckles or the scar, but he can feel them – folds of flesh over bone, a little ridge of hardened tissue. He traces the familiar lines of them every time they cross the street.
"Take hold, Matty," his father tells him, and Matt can feel the tha-thump, tha-thump of his heartbeat, always so fast now when they're close to traffic.
As they step from the curb, his father's fingers close around his, large enough to enfold. The callouses are rough and dry; torn skin stretches across the knuckles from the fight two days ago.
They're good hands, Matt thinks. He wants his to be the same, when he's grown: sturdy and strong and gentle.
Sister Margaret has a metal ruler tucked into her sleeve. Matt knows because he hears it there; it makes a certain tug and pull, when the fabric of her habit shifts.
The other children at St. Agnes know it, too; he can tell because they shuffle their feet on the floor, nervous, and their breathing is faster than usual. It always is, when Sister Margaret lines them up in the hallway and launches an impromptu bedroom inspection.
"Unmade bed," she tsks, and Matt knows that she means his. He skips it, some mornings – the hard mornings – when the sound of his own palms over the stiff fabric of the comforter sets his teeth on edge. It's like the bristles of a scrub brush on cement; the noise gets in under his skin and burrows there, until he can hardly stand it.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," he says quietly. "I forgot this morning."
"What do we say about cleanliness, Matthew?" Sister Margaret asks him. He cannot see the disapproval in her face, but it's there in the tone: an arch shaping of the words, each syllable clear and crisp.
"That it's next to godliness," Matt answers, as he always does.
Sister Margaret takes him by the hand – narrow fingers, bony, cold. Out comes the ruler, and it cuts a rushing path through the air to land, stinging, on his knuckles. She whacks him five times, in rapid succession, and he snatches back his arm as soon as she lets it go.
"See that you remember."
Matt's on the floor again, face first. He's panting hard against the planks – nose buried in varnish and, somewhere deep down, the thick, living scent of wood.
"Christ, kid," says Stick, somewhere above him, voice a study in disdain. "You even trying?"
He is. He is trying.
His arms ache, and his back aches, and they've been doing this for three hours already. Sweat damps his hair and sticks his shirt to his back. His ankle throbs every time he gets back up again, and when he licks at his lip, he can feel the split there. The blood is coppery-bright in his mouth. It makes him want water, but Matt won't ask for it.
He knows how Stick will twist the request around – how the words will turn up at the ends, mocking, when he says, "Yeah, sure, take a break. I'll get out your blankie, and you can have a nap, too."
So Matt gathers up his knees under him, shaking. He's aware of every new bruise on his sides and legs and chest.
He's aware, too, of Stick's hand: long fingers, sharp knuckles, skin sagging with age. They hurt, those hands. They teach hard lessons, when Matt's slow to learn.
But right now, Stick's hand is palm up, fingers spread – a peace offering. A promise of assistance.
Matt ducks his head, feels the sweat slide down his temple. He gathers his arms beneath him and pushes up, to his knees. He staggers to his feet under his own power, and he lifts his chin, and he sets his jaw, as if to say: so? What's that for?
He hears Stick's rough scratch of laughter, throaty and deep. "Good kid," he says, and Matt feels a sudden swell of pride.
Not an offer at all – a test.
And this one, at least, he's passed.
Tap, tap, tap, goes Matt's cane on the sidewalk, and Foggy's footsteps make a counterpoint against it, heavier and slower. The soles aren't rubber; he's dressed up for this, for tonight, the wooden heels distinct against the concrete.
"Seriously," he's saying, voice light and conspiratory, "we're gonna starve for the rest of the month, but buddy – it'll be worth it."
Foggy's hair is slicked with water – a running tap in the bathroom, audible through a closed door, was the first sign – and now it drips periodically, unnoticed, into Foggy's collar. He's got on aftershave, too, a mellow spice that drifts along with them like quiet music in a spacious room.
"It's not too late to tone it down," Matt offers, pleasantly neutral. "Come the 31st, when all we've got is ramen packets, we might not hate ourselves so much."
Foggy gasps – mock surprise, or perhaps anger – but there's nothing in his heartbeat to indicate either. It's slow and steady, and his breathing is even, and when he speaks, there's a pleased sort of thrum beneath the words, warming them up. "You set the curve in three classes, you nerd. If there've ever been grades worth celebrating, it's these."
Matt turns his face away; it's instinctive. He can't quite keep his lips from creeping up at the corner, can't quite tamp down the little spark the recognition lights inside his chest.
"So we'll do drinks at Josie's," he posits mildly. "That won't break the bank."
He can hear Foggy take a breath in – let it out nice and steady, the way he does sometimes when he's exasperated.
"I'm giving you this look right now," Foggy tells him. "The most scandalized, be-still-my-heart betrayed look. Jesus, Murdock, I got dressed up. If we don't eat fancy steak tonight, I'll never forgive you."
Matt laughs softly, gives his head a small shake. "Have it your way," he says.
They walk on, together – pass a rushing bicyclist who needs to grease the chain. Matt can hear the minute squeal of metal against metal as he pumps the pedals. A small girl's braids are too tight, and she keeps reaching up to pull at them – the soft stretch of elastic and the sweep of hair against her back. Someone's dropped a beer bottle on the sidewalk, and the glass crunches beneath them, in time with their steps.
But more than all of those things, he's aware of Foggy – of the brisk, clean smell of discount shampoo and the swish, swish of fabric when he swings his arms. And when Foggy falters abruptly to a stop, he's aware of that, too.
"Heads up," Foggy says, "Curb. Do you want –?"
Foggy's hand is tentative; it's fleshy around the base of the thumb, and the fingers are soft, and he doesn't clamp down. He just finds Matt's arm and lingers there, warm through the shirt sleeve, a question unfinished.
Tell him, Matt thinks suddenly, with surprising vehemence. Tell him you're fine on your own. Another part of him, the part that still regrets a bracelet made from an ice cream wrapper, thinks: a test.
But the hand is still there – not an offer at all. It's already been given.
Tell him, Matt thinks again, almost desperately. His mouth works, as though he's trying to find the words, but he discovers that what he says instead is: "Thanks."
Matt follows the seam on Foggy's sleeve with his fingers, traces it up to the crook of an elbow. His hand closes there, wary, as though that slight pressure will break the world.
"No problem," Foggy replies.
Matt's waiting for the rest – a shift in tone, maybe. Words to follow up the first, caustic and pointed.
They never come.
Nelson and Murdock walk on across the street, and wonder of wonders – nothing changes at all.