Matt Murdock was going to be Stick’s death one day. Stick knew it, the Chaste knew it, only Matt himself hadn’t cottoned on yet, because he was an idiot.
It had been a match made in hell from the start; who the fuck had thought it was a good idea to send Stick of all people to mentor an orphaned ten-year-old? Oh, there’s a kid got chemicals in his eyes, shows fighting promise, who should make contact? Stick! Stick’s blind, the kid’s blind, it’s perfect! All blind people automatically get along! Problem solved!
By then, it should’ve been common knowledge that Stick and children didn’t mix. It wasn’t even that he hated them on principle—mostly, he disliked them intensely on an individual level. Children didn’t come with volume control. They moved erratically. They asked stupid questions all the fucking time. They ruined shit with their grubby little paws. They were needy as hell and they smelled funny.
To say that Stick had been less than delighted to be handed that particular mission was an understatement. There’d been words. Loud words. Pretty damn obscene words, too. Alas, Old Woman War had an even fouler mouth than Stick and had basically kicked him out the door with a few metaphorical bite marks on his ass and a grudging concession to at least put little Matty Murdock through a few tests.
“We need warriors. You need a lesson in humility. Train the little shit and try not to kill this one, will you?”
“I’ll fucking kill him if I want to,” Stick had grumbled back, from a safe distance.
“Stop pussying around and get your ass to that orphanage,” Old Woman War had shot back, unimpressed.
Stick had gotten his ass to that orphanage, but because he’d wanted to and not because he was kind of a tiny bit afraid of Old Woman War.
All right, Stick had thought. Maybe give it a week or two. What’s the worst that can happen?
The thing nobody would’ve—could’ve—anticipated was that Matt grew on Stick. Like a scab, or something. It didn’t come as a surprise that the kid was clingy (only a complete sociopath wouldn’t have been, at that age, under those circumstances, and frankly they’d all banked on it), but it should have annoyed Stick a lot more than it actually did. Matt was a quiet, self-contained kid by nature and smart as a whip. Life was never boring when he was around. He wasn’t shy, either. Had quite a mouth on him, in fact, and could be downright bitchy in a way Stick found unexpectedly hilarious, not that he let Matt know that.
For a good little Catholic, Matt also harbored an impressive level of aggression, something that pleased Stick to no end. He had potential, lots of it. A sheer unending willingness to learn and the ability to absorb and adapt quickly and flawlessly. Nice balance between obedience and backtalk, a jealousy inducing set of highly developed senses that were honestly impressive and fun to fine-tune, and enough grit to power through a broad base of techniques designed for much older students.
In fact, Stick occasionally forgot Matt was only ten, because he learned so quickly and complained so little. That almost ended badly a few times, but Matt was tougher than he appeared and Stick’s reflexes were impeccable. No permanent harm, no foul.
“What did I say about not killing the kid?” Old Woman War said over the phone.
Stick grinned. “What? He’s still alive.”
“The sisters are getting uneasy about the bruises.”
The sisters could kiss Stick’s ass. The only thing they were teaching the boy was to kneel and feel guilty for the entire fucking world. “You want me to train him or coddle him?”
“How good is he?” Good enough to take in and risk drawing attention?
And for the first time in decades, Stick hesitated. It wasn’t that Matt wasn’t good enough to whisk away to a Chaste facility and train properly. Physically, he was above and beyond everything Stick had expected. Amazing hearing, fantastic scent/taste, phenomenal sense of touch, and Stick was reasonably sure the kid’s eyes were trying to do some weird infrared or thermal imaging thing, only the damage to the lenses was too extensive to go full throttle. He was developing into a creative if ridiculously showy fighter. He was—
Matty was eager to please.
Starved for affection.
Gentle, in a way Stick wasn’t sure could be untaught. Wasn’t sure should be untaught, and that was the most disconcerting thing about it.
“I’ll let you know,” he said eventually, sourly. “Once I’ve figured it out.”
“Try not to hit him in the face until then,” came the sage advice. Seriously. This from a woman who’d personally castrated two of her more challenging students, because, quote, “I don’t need balls to fight; they don’t need balls to fight”.
“I’ll hit him wherever the fuck I want,” Stick grumbled, mostly on principle. His student. His call, damn it. He was teaching the boy to fight, not to dance.
Contrary to what Old Woman War seemed to think, Stick didn’t take pleasure in marking up a kid. He’d trained quite a few soldiers in his time—though admittedly short-term and none of them quite this young—and he hadn’t enjoyed bruising them either. Well, except for Wu, maybe. Wu had been an uppity shit. Talented, but too cocky, too ambitious. Dead, now, and Stick hadn’t wasted enough emotion on him to feel any regret.
If Stick knew anything, he knew that people died all the time. Good people, bad people; didn’t matter in the end. Get attached and their death wounded you, too. Stick had enough scars as it was, thank you, he’d learned his lesson. Death had been part of his world for longer than he remembered. Killing was what he did best. He took a certain pride in his skill, but the killing itself he did dispassionately for the most part. Taking lives was a necessity in his line of work. He didn’t enjoy it, the same way he didn’t enjoy hurting a recently blinded and orphaned child. It had to be done, so Stick did it. It was as simple as that.
“Do you think my dad would be proud of me?” Matt asked, after a long day of learning how to twirl in the right direction at least if he insisted on jumping around like a mongoose on speed all the time.
He tended to be a tiny ball of guilt-ridden rage spin-kicking around his exasperated teacher with more enthusiasm than precise aim. Stick strongly suspected that Jack Murdock hadn’t realized capoeira was a martial art when he’d given his son permission to start training at the age of six. Matt, knowing his dad’s opinion about him fighting, certainly hadn’t told him, but he must’ve taken to it like a duck to water. There was no undoing these basics, they’d become ingrained in the boy’s muscle memory. Stick had to work with them, adapt them, fuse them with a few other styles that went well with this highly acrobatic approach to the offense.
“Why wouldn’t he be?” Stick asked, distracted by Matt’s audible sniffs. “For fuck’s sake, I told you to identify the contents of the box, not inhale the whole damn thing.”
“New socks,” Matt said promptly. “Price tag still attached. Salt in a cardboard container. A dried avocado core? Loose tea leaves—Ceylon black tea—and weed. Paper.”
He was getting good at this. “Don’t guess. Is it an avocado core or not?”
This time, Matt’s sniff was a lot more discreet. “It’s an avocado core.”
“Printed paper or blank?”
“You sure about that?”
Matt hid his control sniff in a fidgety shuffle. Nice. “Yes.”
“Good job,” Stick said approvingly.
He wasn’t proud of the kid. Not even a little bit.
The Chaste didn’t go easy on its soldiers. Only about a third of the ‘special’ children they found and trained made it through the selection process alive. Some didn’t survive the brutal training. Some couldn’t cope with the strict mental and emotional discipline, and were removed from the program. Killed, if they knew too much, had progressed too far in their training for plausible deniability. Usually, their mentors took care of them. It was a two-for-one kind of deal: eliminate a possible threat and test the trainer’s loyalty at the same time. Efficient.
Stick had never had a problem killing inept students. Then again, he’d never trained anyone from start to finish, because he didn’t have the patience for it and was too valuable as an active asset to bog down with extensive teaching schedules. He did brief intro evaluations or pitched in when the original trainer either had been compromised or hit a snag. For the most part, he kicked the newbies into shape then handed them over to their old or new mentor. Sometimes, when they weren’t salvageable, he killed them. That’s how it had to be. The Chaste was fighting a war. No room for mistakes.
He didn’t like the thought of killing Matty.
It didn’t sit right with him. Stick wanted to know what it’d be like when the pup grew into his moves, what his punches were going to sound like when he had some real power behind them, if the baby sass was ever going to gain that cutting edge. It drove him nuts, the dichotomy between Matt’s warrior heart and the persistent empathy that hobbled his development. So Stick pushed harder, stole the boy away more often, and taught him the tools he’d need to survive in a world that would go after him with teeth and claws all too soon. He tried to find a way to balance Matt, because the softness refused to go away even as the kid’s senses and natural athleticism forged him into a beautiful weapon.
So much potential; it took Stick’s breath away at times. How could he snuff that out?
“I don’t give a shit. Do it anyway.”
Shivering and with tears leaking from his eyes, Matt levered himself up again. His breath whistled, almost panicked, but he did it, and it made Stick smile slowly, genuinely. To the limit and beyond. Not everybody had it in them, but this blind shrimp of a kid kept surprising him.
“Well done,” he said, as kindly as he ever got. “One more time.”
No argument this time. Matt whined briefly, then forced his exhausted body up once more and held position shakily.
“All right,” Stick rumbled, pleased. “Five minutes break.”
Matt thumped back to the floor with a relieved sob. “Why are you making me do this?”
Stick raised an eyebrow. “You said you wanted to learn. You decide to pussy out already?”
“No,” Matt gasped, quickly. “No. I just thought… never mind.”
Stick sighed and reminded himself he was dealing with a child. A smart, remarkably mature child, but still a child. “Why do you think I told you to push up again?”
Kudos to Matt; the kid actually thought about it before he answered. “To build up my core strength?”
Not bad. Not correct, but not a bad try. “Yes, Matty, because two more pull ups will absolutely do the trick there.” He clicked his tongue reproachfully. “Think.”
This time, the pause felt less resentful. “To… make me…”
“I didn’t make you do shit, Matty.” Stick twirled his cane in his palm, feeling the familiar texture. “You did that all by yourself.” He could tell the boy was kind of grasping the point, but didn’t know how to frame it in familiar terms. This called for a blunt instrument. “What’s that shit your daddy used to say, when he hit the mat again?”
Ah. ‘Ding’ went the lightbulb. “Murdocks always get back up,” Matt said, quietly, understanding dawning. “No matter what. We always— I always get back up.”
Stick nodded, satisfied. “When you can’t go on anymore, what do you do?”
Deep breath, peaceful. “I keep going.”
“You keep going.”
“How good is he?” Old Woman War asked. It was a routine checkup. She sounded distracted.
“Physically? Awesome.” Just enough sarcasm there to make it a questionable statement, because Stick was feeling contrary. If there had been anything new to report, he’d… all right, usually, he’d have called it in. He still might. He was loyal. Had to be loyal, or his whole life would be a lie.
Deep sigh. “Does he have what it takes?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“The Bookkeeper hates you. He wants a yes or a no.”
“Does he want to trade jobs?” Stick asked mildly, because sometimes it was more fun being an asshole when sounding particularly patient.
“Nobody wants that,” Old Woman War declared, very firmly. He heard her shudder, the quick swish of fabric over skin. Her reaction made him smirk meanly. Yeah. Complaining was fun until someone told you to get in there and do a better job.
“Then I suggest we each do what we’re good at and shut up about it.”
Somewhere in the distance, church bells rung, a cacophony of Catholic pride. Matty would be on his knees again, asking to be forgiven, indoctrinated into the rituals of a church every bit as unforgiving as the Chaste. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it made Stick’s jaws clench anyway. He’d been angry a lot, lately. No reason. Just angry.
Old Woman War huffed out a quiet breath. “You’re testy today.”
“I’m surrounded by children and nuns. What the fuck do you expect?”
She laughed at him, big surprise. She was kind of an asshole, too. That’s why they got along so well.
“Did you really work with special needs children before me?”
Blind since birth, yet rolling his eyes still came naturally to Stick all the same. “I never said special needs, Matty. Just plain special.”
Oh, and damn, of course the kid would take that as a compliment.
“Stop preening, you little shit.”
“And wipe that smirk off your face.”
Matt didn’t, but for once Stick didn’t call him on it. Fuck it. At least he’d derailed the original question.
He took Matt out into the city regularly. Training wasn’t only leaning how to fight, it was also learning how to navigate a world that wasn’t going to go easy on a person just because they were blind. It was slow going at first, because Matt got overwhelmed by the city madness quickly even on good days, but Stick was nothing if not persistent.
“Stop whining. You don’t like that sound, fucking tune it out.”
“Says my ears!” Matt yelled, but it was more furious now than pained. “I can’t just turn it off and on!”
“That’s because you’re too busy whining to try.”
“I’m not—” Matt paused. “Huh.”
“You were saying?”
It was fun. Shouldn’t have been, because it was actually serious training, but Matt’s reactions to things were usually entertaining and often unexpected. He still enjoyed hot dogs, for example. Why was a mystery. The cart water alone was enough to make Stick want to drown the vendor. Must’ve been the New Yorker in Matt, because there was no way anyone with such a strong sense of taste should’ve been able to choke down that crap. Then again, maybe the kid was just weird. He did, after all, voluntarily eat raisins. And asparagus. There clearly was something wrong with his palate.
“You eat raw fish,” Matt shot back when Stick—never one to withhold his opinion—told him exactly that.
“There was an old pickle in the water and a bunch of dead flies, and that’s just what I got from smelling it.”
“Zing and protein,” Matt declared without hesitation. His breath smelled of processed meat paste, stale bread, and pickled cabbage.
Stick blinked. “Zing?”
“Splash of sour. Tasty.” Matt took another bite of hot dog. The coleslaw was about to turn. The little lunatic gulped it down anyway.
“You’ll get the runs and I’ll laugh.”
“Mhmmm,” Matt hummed peacefully around his mouthful of garbage.
He did not get the runs.
There was no justice in the world.
Once they were past the basics, though, that was when Matt truly started to shine. Fear of heights? Nonexistent. Spatial awareness? Near perfect. By the end of summer, Stick could toss the kid off a roof and he’d parkour his way over the next three buildings to find whatever Stick had hidden there for him. Stick liked to mix it up. He made Matt ferret out everything from ticking watches to bars of soap. He also learned to give the boy clear instructions about what to search, because otherwise, Matt tended to bring back the strangest things. It was unbelievable, the shit New Yorkers hoarded on and around their homes.
“What the hell, Matty?”
“What?” Matt held up his find again, though he was starting to sound a little defensive. “You said follow your nose.”
Stick stuck a finger through the bars of the small metal container and poked the thing. The thing poked back with a small, leathery paw. Long nails. Trying to grip. Definitely not a cat. What the fuck? “Where’d you find this?”
“Behind the broken satellite dish. I could smell you there. What is it? A rat?”
Not a rat. Something bigger. Stick sniffed carefully. Seriously. What the fucking hell? He’d laid a false trail to the satellite dish and left a three-day-old raisin cookie next to a skylight two buildings south. Though, point to Matt, the cookie smell kind of paled next to the animal stink surrounding the cage. Was that a possum?
“Can I keep it?” Matt asked, hopeful in the way of all prepubescent kids wanting something extremely unsuitable for a pet, knowing the answer was most definitely going to be a resounding “No”. He sounded like Stick had, long ago, when the critter in question had been a four-and-a-half-legged cockroach named Skittles. RIP Skittles. That one hadn’t ended well either.
The animal chittered at them and turned around in its cage, butt brushing against Stick’s hand. Big butt. Distinctive chatter.
“By all means,” Stick said dryly, and handed over the cage. “It’s all yours.”
He had to hand it to Matt; the kid managed to keep Rico the Raccoon hidden in the orphanage for two whole weeks before the furry fucker got into the pantry and blew its cover. The shrill shrieks of the Reverend Mother became Stick’s new happy place. He hadn’t known a human being could reach that pitch when no bodily harm was involved.
He was still grinning when he and Matt released the chattering menace into the relative wilds of Central Park.
“You need to make a decision.” Old Woman War wasn’t distracted this time. Her voice held a fine edge to it; a razorblade still sheathed, but there. “It’s been a year. You’ll be moving on to edged weapons soon. Once you got him started, Shu-Yen can take over; free you up some. We need you in the field and the boy should be moved to a training facility anyway.”
Stick sniffed derisively. “Training facilities are for pussies who can’t hack it in the real world. I don’t need no fancy equipment to forge a weapon.”
“Well, you aren’t going to keep forging it much longer either way,” Old Woman War said dryly. “The natives are getting restless.”
Fucking nuns. Nosy old biddies, the lot of them. No clue about anything, but always convinced they knew better. Matty didn’t need coddling. He couldn’t afford to become some soft, pampered little twerp dependent on the goodwill of other people. This world, Stick’s world, was going to chew his too-gentle heart up and spit it out if he didn’t learn to protect himself both physically and emotionally. It would break him, kill him, if he didn’t start to hit first and hit hard. The kid was too fragile by far for Stick’s peace of mind.
“I’ll figure something out.”
“Figure it out within the week,” Old Woman War ordered. “There’s a situation in Shanghai that requires your attention.”
“I said I’ll figure something out,” he snapped, hackles up.
Old Woman War was silent for a long, very uncomfortable minute. Stick could almost hear her think. It was a terrifying almost-sound. “You’ve grown attached,” she observed, finally. Her tone remained neutral, but there was a hint of surprise there.
Busted. Stick’s mouth twisted in disgust. He’d been sloppy. This one was on him. “He’s a pain in the ass.”
“You like him.” This time, the surprise was clearer. He must’ve seriously shocked her.
“He’s a mouthy little son of a bitch.” Stick cracked his neck, annoyed. This was where his loyalties lay. He shouldn’t have to remind himself of that. “He has potential,” he added, reluctantly. “More than anyone I’ve ever met.”
“So what is the problem?”
“Not sure he can handle it,” Stick admitted. “He’s a bit of a crybaby.”
“We can break him of that.”
And that, right there, was the problem. “Thing is, you break too much, there goes the whole package.” Stick’s fingers tightened around the grip of his cane. He tapped it against the floor once, twice. Made his decision between one tap and the next. “Might be best to cut him loose. See how he develops on his own. He’s got a solid basis now. Make sure he meets the right people at the right time, he’ll expand on that all on his own. He’s an overachiever, that one. Might even turn out better than keeping him cooped up and hidden away.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
Stick snorted rudely. “Then I’ve wasted a year of my life. So fucking what. We’re playing the long game. Won’t be the first dead end.”
Silence at the other end of the line again, this time only for a moment. “I’ll leave the decision to you,” Old Woman War said. “By the end of the week, you either bring him in, or you don’t. Either way, you’ll resume your primary duties.”
“And we keep tabs on him either way.”
Aw, damn it. “Sure, why not.”
“You are being awfully agreeable.”
Stick huffed in irritation. “What the fuck do you want me to say? I happen to agree. It’s not that much of a novelty.”
“We could arrange a primary trainer position for you. You’d coordinate with his other teachers, but remain his main caretaker. It wouldn’t be hard to do, given his circumstances.”
It was a genuine offer—no pity, because Old Woman War didn’t do pity the way Stick didn’t do regrets—and for a moment, Stick was tempted. So much potential. The way that kid could move. Those senses. Such a risk to let Matt grow up wild, without someone there to make sure he made it to adulthood in one piece. Then again, the boy’s wings might turn out that much stronger for lack of a leash, and that indomitable spirit wouldn’t be deliberately broken. Matty on his own might fail, but he’d have a chance to remain the person Stick had come to… appreciate. Inexplicably awful taste and all.
“Nah,” Stick said with a philosophical shrug. “I’m not a fucking nanny. Tell me more about the Shanghai situation.”
Matt, true to form, made leaving both easy and one of the hardest things Stick had ever done.
The fucking kid had made a bracelet out of the fucking ice cream wrapper from their first fucking meeting, the fucking little fucker. It must’ve taken him ages, considering his general lack of patience with arts and crafts. Worst of all, he wasn’t trying to be emotionally manipulative; the little shit didn’t even realize he was effectively nominating Stick Daddy 2.0. The Chaste would tear him to shreds. It was actually kind of terrifying how clearly Stick could imagine that when Matt put his heartfelt, handmade, delicate gift in Stick’s battle-scarred hand.
Even if he hadn’t already made his decision, there was nothing Stick could’ve done in that situation but crush the boy’s heart and his gift and walk away.
Stick wasn’t big on regrets. He’d chosen his own fate. He’d decided never to be a victim and had become a soldier instead, a specialist fighting in a war most people didn’t know was being waged. He had blood on his hands and dirt from five continents on his feet and a heart made of stone. Well. Mostly.
Not hard enough to drag this particular kid into all of that. Stick might be a bastard, but he wasn’t a monster.
The fucking bracelet was tougher than it seemed. It was crumpled, but it hadn’t torn in Stick’s crushing grip and the knot held.
It traveled with Stick to Shanghai.
And then to Warsaw.
In Rameswaram, India, Stick found himself outnumbered and had to make a rather undignified retreat into the sea, where he was promptly accosted by a shark. They parted ways hastily, Stick missing a chunk of skin and the shark an eye.
Stick dried himself out, picked up the track of the package he was supposed to intercept, and finished his mission in an exceptionally bad temper.
Then he wasted an afternoon retracing his steps until he located the somewhat battered bracelet in the alley where he’d been ambushed. It was a little dirty, but intact. Stick grunted appreciatively and tucked it back into his pocket.
“How’s the little shit doing?”
Old Woman War sighed deeply. The sound carried a hint of a whistle from deep down in her chest. It wouldn’t be noticeable for most people, but then Stick was definitely not most people. He didn’t say anything about it, because he wasn’t as stupid as most people either.
“His grades are back up. Looks like he’s recovering nicely.”
“About damn time.” Stick leaned back against the worn leather of his seat, breathing in the scent of wood and dead animal skin permeating the cabin. “He training again?”
“Back to beating up bullies at least.” Old Woman War shifted in her own chair, silk against wood, thousands of miles away. “I’ll send in Gabriela to offer capoeira lessons at the orphanage.”
“You want him to get back on the horse; we need to go back to pre-you settings. You broke his bitty heart, remember?”
Yes, but… capoeira? Really?
“He’s gonna end up a fucking ballerina.”
“I wish,” Old Woman War said, wistfully. “They had insane success with that approach at the Red Room.” She cleared her throat. “Not that I condone the ideology, of course.”
Outside, the wooden step leading up to the front door creaked. Time to tango. “Talk to you later,” Stick said, and got up to go kill a man.
Alicante was a bitch of a city. Too hot. Too dry. Too Spanish. Stick’s Spanish, while functional, was admittedly more suited to a South American setting. His contact was snooty about it, which didn’t endear him to Stick.
He mapped out the block where the meet was supposed to go down, his cane tap-tap-tapping against the sidewalk as he got a sense of the area. The streets were almost completely empty at two in the afternoon, everybody driven inside by the relentless sun. The heat had seeped into the concrete and was coming at Stick from all directions.
He wondered how Matt would’ve ‘seen’ the place; would the heat have messed with his perception? Would he have been able to tell how many people were truly asleep in the surrounding buildings and how many were spying from behind curtains, looking for the Chaste representative, only seeing a blind old man?
The ice cream wrapper bracelet in his pocket crinkled a little, caught in the material of Stick’s cargo pants.
Matt would’ve bitched about the heat and undoubtedly would’ve wrangled an ice cream out of Stick, which he would’ve eaten with the most obnoxious lip-smacking noises possible while ferreting out every single player in a two mile radius. Stick resolutely did not miss him.
“So, Kiddo has taken up boxing,” Old Woman War reported with something suspiciously like glee coloring the tone of her voice even through the crappy phone connection. After she had agreed to keep an eye on him for Stick, it hadn’t been long before she’d taken a shine to Matty. Stick assumed she considered him a hobby, by this point. Her personal soap opera with the extra entertainment option of harassing Stick about it. “We didn’t even have to get involved; he did that all by himself.”
“Whoop de doo,” Stick deadpanned. Following in daddy’s footsteps, was he? How quaint. “Please tell me he’s better at it than his old man.”
“Hard to tell,” Old Woman War said. “Mostly, he seems to be working through his anger issues.”
Well, he sure had enough of those. “How’s that working out for him?”
“I think he’s scaring the rest of the civvies.” Old Woman War chuckled. The laughter was riding on a low, sore rasp, as it had the last time they’d spoken, a few months before. Not just a lingering cold, then. Something more serious. “He keeps kicking his sparring partners in the face.”
Stick tutted disapprovingly. “No discipline.”
“Ah, he’ll level out. You were right about the potential. He’s got grit, your boy.”
“Not my boy,” Stick reminded her testily.
Vienna in the fall was beautiful, or so people said. It was certainly nicer than most other cities Stick had visited. The air was crisp and clear, the trams amazingly clean, and even a blind assassin could be tempted by roasted chestnuts. He didn’t even wonder if Matty would’ve liked them, because he wasn’t thinking about that failed experiment anymore, right? Right.
Also on the plus side: since Matty wasn’t there, nobody was trying to kill the little shit at midnight in an empty subway station. They were trying their level best to put Stick six feet under, but Matty was safe and sound in Hell’s Kitchen, acing another school year instead of basically acting out a scene from a bad action movie. Aw, that kid. He was growing up so fast. It was almost enough to make Stick feel sentimental.
Thank God that didn’t tend to last.
He took a step back to avoid a brass-knuckled punch, mouth twisting in derision. Sloppy technique. Bozo was telegraphing his moves like a two-bit street hustler out for someone’s wallet. Who had dared send something like that after one of the Chaste’s best? Stick was going to find out and pay them a visit. Teach them a lesson. Was it still a lesson if they were too dead to use what they’d learned? Eh. Principle of the thing.
He felt a subway train coming closer with every step he took. The air was pressing against him, the noise building. It was sort of distracting. Time to finish this, so Stick stuck out a leg to trip Garlic Breath and helped him go down faster with the heel of his palm. Garlic Breath hit the platform face-first and stayed down, bleeding heavily.
Brass Knuckles wasn’t quite so lucky. He caught a fistful of Stick’s threadbare army jacket and—with a triumphant “Ha!”—used it to pull Stick in to slam those stupid brass knuckles against his throat. At least, Stick assumed that had been the plan, before Stick used the hold on his jacket to spin the idiot around and dump him on the rails, about five seconds before the train powered into the station. Needless to say, Brass Knuckles didn’t get back up either.
No matter. Stick had gotten all he needed from the two losers. He had the scent now, he’d find what he’d come to destroy. He was going to keep the world balanced for a bit longer, make sure Matty could grow up in relative safety, and he was gonna do it by kicking ass and taking names. There were worse ways to live.
“You owe Red a favor.”
Stick tilted his head, unimpressed. “I do?”
“It was time to expand Kiddo’s skill sets. Red agreed to go in as his new teacher. It’s your project, so you’re paying. Ergo favor.”
Stick groaned. “This is gonna be Budapest all over again.”
“Probably,” Old Woman War agreed, unsympathetic. “But it’ll be worth it.”
“That kid better end up Batman-level brilliant,” Stick muttered grouchily.
“Let’s hope he won’t end up Batman-level neurotic.”
Stick was good at ambushing people. Part of it was his age, but, frankly, most of it was the deeply ingrained preconceptions even trained operatives couldn’t quite shake. Nobody ever suspected the blind guy. On a good day, Stick was able to walk right up to his target and was halfway done taking them down before they switched into fight mode.
This had been a very good day so far.
He ducked under a wild swing, brought his cane down on the wrist attached to the hand holding the knife (dull blade, bad form… but then again, Stick had already hit this one several times, so the lack of grace might’ve been due to broken bones), and followed through with an elbow to the throat. Down he went, down he stayed. Good thug.
Two more remained standing. They were hired muscle, street fighters, not properly trained, but that only made them less predictable. They were talking at Stick, but Stick didn’t speak Serbian, so he didn’t pay attention to their words. Shuffle to the left, whisper of cloth to the right. Stick danced through it, smooth and ruthless, let one run into the other’s blade and broke a knee in passing.
That was when the little girl he’d been sent to collect pulled out a gun and shot him in the back.
“That was stupid.”
Stick blinked into his eternal blackness, disoriented. He was floating on a shitload of the good drugs, propped up on his side in a medical ward somewhere rural. “Fuck,” he said, or thought he did. His throat was sore.
Fabric rustled close by as Old Woman War settled in a chair next to his bed. “You missed Kiddo’s graduation.”
Stick blinked again, trying to dislodge the sleep from his eyes. “Fuck.”
“It was very moving. He did make valedictorian, no surprise there. The speech was inspired. I almost cried.”
This merited an upgrade to, “Fuck you.”
Old Woman War snickered, which turned into a hacking cough. “You’re just jealous,” she noted, when she was able to talk again. “Old fool.”
Stick almost asked. About his boy. About the cough. He wasn’t feeling quite like himself. The world was fading in and out. He knew that his clothes were gone and with them, his bracelet, but he couldn’t ask about that, either. No regrets. No regrets.
“You’re the fool who went to his graduation,” he murmured instead. They’d stuck an IV port in the back of his hand. It didn’t hurt, but it felt humongous. Like a zucchini jammed into his vein. Fucking doctors and their fucking hard-on for needles.
“Someone had to,” Old Woman War said, from far away. “Kiddo still has no friends.” She said something else, but he was fading again. He thought he heard her say, “Don’t die on him, shithead,” but that might’ve been his imagination. He was very high.
The last thing he thought before unconsciousness pulled him under again was that if he did die, Matty wouldn’t know… and even if he found out somehow, he wouldn’t care. He tried to convince himself that was a good thing.
Stick didn’t die.
A week after he left the hospital, he received a package with a new jacket, a brand new cane, braille instructions for his next mission, and a small envelope that contained a familiar ice cream wrapper bracelet, stiff with dried blood, and a thumb drive.
Turned out, Matty’s speech really hadn’t been half bad. And if Stick listened to it more than once… that wasn’t pride, that was simply to memorize the kid’s adult voice. Just in case. You never knew. Matt Murdock was still a potential asset, after all.
The less said about Baghdad, the better.
“Kiddo’s decided to become a lawyer,” Old Woman War told him over the phone, “so I hired Spencer to keep his ass in shape while he’s in college.” She sounded like she was in a good mood. She also sounded closer to death. The wheeze was getting worse.
“That should go over well,” Stick said mildly. After all those years, pretending he didn’t give a shit was mostly a formality. Everybody in the Chaste with half a brain knew about Stick’s weak spot. He’d already had to kill four people who’d tried to exploit it. Consequently, Matty was mostly considered a hypothetical weak spot.
“Better than expected, actually.” She didn’t attempt to hide her cough. Something wet came up with it, and Stick was reasonably certain it wasn’t phlegm. On some level, he was glad he couldn’t be sure. He’d known Old Woman War for a long time. “I didn’t expect Spencer’s approach to be a cooking course, but they hit it off beautifully. Makes for a nice two-for-one kind of deal. Whatever else happens, at least our boy won’t have to survive on takeout for the rest of his life.”
She had a point there. Even without the cooking, Spencer was a good choice. The man was an all-rounder; a freelance hitter-slash-retrieval specialist with a background in mixed martial arts and a propensity for close contact engagements. Word was he didn’t like to use firearms, which was right up Matt’s alley. Very good at his job, with the patience required to make an effective teacher, and, most importantly, the capacity for kindness he’d need to get close enough to Matty to teach him in the first place.
He was also too expensive to justify his employment with upkeep for a latent asset.
“Who’s paying for this?” Stick asked, because if someone gifted him a horse, the first thing he did was look in its damn mouth to check for booby traps.
“I am,” said Old Woman War, firmly. “Consider it a thank you for your friendship.”
Stick closed his eyes, defeated. “You are dying.”
“Almost there,” Old Woman War agreed, serenely. “Enough time left to make some arrangements. Not enough to see you again, probably. I am sorry for that.”
“May the road rise with you,” Stick said quietly, half-forgotten words he’d last heard a lifetime ago. “May you walk tall.”
Old Woman War chuckled. “Always did.”
That made Stick smile helplessly, because it was so true. “No regrets.”
He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Thank you,” he said. “For Matt.”
“Thank you,” she said. “For sharing.”
He was issued a new handler three days later.
A deeply entrenched HYDRA base situated in Old Woman War’s favorite city went up in a fireball the next morning. The place had bugged her for a while, but the Chaste currently was focused on different threats and she hadn’t found an opportunity to have it destroyed.
The bang woke the entire town. Flames licked up the blackened hole in the ground, a greedy dragon devouring several decades worth of intelligence and data backup as well as a few of HYDRA’s top scientists.
As funeral pyres went, it was all right.
Stick happened to be in New York for non-Matt-related reasons when the aliens attacked. Okay, mostly non-Matt-related reasons. He’d been in New Jersey to threat-assess a rogue scientist who turned out to be not-so-rogue and more of an alcoholic in the final stages of self-destruction. Stick left him sitting in his garbage-pile of an apartment and went to get some air. He figured he might as well take a deep breath over in Hell’s Kitchen, since he was practically in the neighborhood. They had some seriously good Italian restaurants there, the whole place virtually breathed herbs and garlic. Best way to exorcise an unwashed drunkard with a flatulence problem. See? Perfectly legitimate reason to absolutely not check in on Matty, who was currently selling his soul interning at some shark-infested law firm.
So Stick was innocently tapping his way down 39th Street, mostly following his nose toward Angelo’s, and then… whammo.
Biting ozone, crackling static high up above Stark Tower, an unholy ruckus in the sky, and suddenly fucking aliens were jet-skiing through the air like gnats on steroids.
Not only were there aliens, the fucking aliens were fighting a bunch of specials, according to the fractured news updates Stick gleaned from the few text messages his new handler got through before communications broke down completely.
Stick wasn’t stupid enough to get mixed up with that kind of shit. He found himself a nice, semi-safe niche somewhere and settled down to wait it out. If he happened to be in position to smack a few of the invaders passing his spot with his cane, that was a lucky coincidence. If his version of a “smack” translated to “shove the sharpened tip of his cane into an unprotected eye socket or two”, well, if they didn’t want their brains stabbed, they shouldn’t have attacked a planet inhabited by a few billion assholes.
Welcome to Earth, motherfuckers.
Things changed, after the aliens.
Things had started to change before that, truth be told, maybe even before Old Woman War’s death, but the process sped up after what became known as the Battle of New York. One of the most notable catalysts was the news that Captain America was back, though SHIELD whisked him away promptly for exclusive use. This caused quite a buzz in the circles where the Chaste operated—HYDRA was in a tizzy, though they pretended not to be, AIM started to churn out one nasty gadget after the other, and humanoid bioweapons became the next big thing.
For a while, it was all hands on deck and hold the status quo together by its fraying seams. Stick fought ninjas in Athens, tangled with HYDRA in Beirut, and nearly got pancaked by the Hulk in Bangkok. Captain America almost brained him with his shield when they crossed paths in Miami, but thankfully was too busy apologizing to wonder what an old, blind man had been doing just outside an AIM facility. Stick tried to look extra frail and harmless. The hardest part was censoring his language and booking it discreetly before the Captain and his strike team stumbled over all the dead bodies inside.
In the end, it was a stealth bioweapon that brought him back to New York. He read through the updated information on the flight from Japan, lips thinning in disgust. Fucking awesome. No way was he getting close to that thing. He’d have to take it out from a distance. It wasn’t his preferred method of killing, but Stick was nothing if not adaptable. He’d manage. That wasn’t the part that made his skin prickle with something akin to nerves.
“Not sure this is such a good idea,” he noted, tapping a finger on his knee. “We didn’t exactly part on good terms.”
“You kept tabs on him ever since,” his handler said. “You know him best. We need a personal evaluation.”
Stick tilted his head, curious. “Why now?”
His handler made a weird little sound somewhere between a hiccup and a chortle. “Because he’s gone active.”
“What the fuck?”
“Yeah, remember all the jokes we made about the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen and his fighting technique…?”
“Turns out it’s a capoeira-heavy MMA mashup, pretty distinctive. Also, the mask has no eye holes. Subtle, he’s not. Interest has gone up, we need more information on him, but we can’t get close enough. Congratulations. You’re it.”
Stick sighed. “Start talking.”
Personal evaluations were always painful for everybody involved. Matty’s was no different. Stick came out of that experience with a broken nose and a cracked vertebra in his lower back, which told him that a) okay, yes, he was getting old and b) Matty had developed beautifully. He was quick on his feet, intuitive, strong, enduring. Still a pain in the ass, with that persistent softness in him, that gentle heart that was going to get him in so much trouble, but Stick left the kid’s apartment with a smile on his face anyway.
Matt’s punches sounded like battering rams. His sass had real bite now. He had become a true warrior, though an unconventional one. He’d kicked Stick’s ass, and not because Stick had gone easy on him. Hadn’t backed down once. Hadn’t shown fear or hesitation under pressure. In short, Matty might be a bit of a pussycat, but he was a badass pussycat. Stick could live with that.
He didn’t go back for the bracelet. The damn thing had been a gift all those years back. It could damn well serve as a promise now.
Matt Murdock was going to be Stick’s death one day.
No better way to go.