It's late when Matt's target finally leaves the office. That's good - it'll be easier to follow him unnoticed, Matt's black clothes fading into the surrounding night. Besides, tired men scare more easily - and scared men give up their secrets faster.
The target lives in the neighborhood, so it's a simple matter to follow him as he makes his way home on foot, exchanging a couple friendly hellos with acquaintances along the way. Matt keeps pace on the roofs until they're close enough to the target’s quiet residential street for him to hear that it's deserted. There'll be no one to see this.
He hurries ahead, makes his way down to the bottom level of a convenient fire escape, and waits. The target draws near, turns the corner…
...and Matt drops down in front of him. “Franklin Nelson.”
“Holy shit!” Nelson rears back, heart rate skyrocketing from a normal pace to rabbit terror in the time it takes him to say the words. “Holy shit!”
He's afraid. Good. Matt shoves him against the nearest building, forearm across his throat. Nelson hits the wall hard enough to knock the air out of him.
“You're gonna tell me what I want to know,” Matt growls.
“What? I don't...about what? I don't know anything!” Nelson protests.
That's unlikely. Franklin Nelson’s something of a wunderkind of an attorney, having made a name for himself in the three short years since he graduated from Columbia Law. He’s been working at the prestigious firm of Landman and Zack until recently - Landman and Zack, who’ve been on Matt’s radar for nearly a year. They represent numerous powerful clients connected in various shady ways to a man whose name is only whispered behind closed doors, if it's spoken at all: Wilson Fisk.
Three months ago, after winning a massive settlement for a company called Union Allied, Nelson left Landman and Zack to work on retainer for a private client. He was hired by a man named James Wesley.
James Wesley is the personal assistant to Wilson Fisk.
But Wesley is too well-protected for Matt to get near. Nelson is the first crack Matt's found in Fisk’s organization who ranks higher than the street-level drug dealers and gun runners whose heads he's been knocking together for months, the ones who legitimately don't know anything but how green the money is. Matt's not about to let him get away.
Nelson tries to scramble out of Matt’s grasp and Matt shoves him against the wall again. His head hits the bricks, hard enough to hurt but not to do any serious damage. “Ow! Shit!” Nelson hisses. “I told you I don’t know anything! I don’t even know what I’m supposed to know anything about!”
The spark of anger is a little surprising. In the month Matt’s been tailing Nelson in his free time, he’s put together a portrait of an easygoing, amiable, somewhat sedentary man. Oh, there are hidden depths - that same amiability hides the fierce ambition that took a working class boy to the top of his class at an Ivy League school - but Nelson seemed overall too soft to be anything but terrified by a shakedown. He’s definitely still scared - Matt can feel him trembling - but he’s angry, too.
“I want to know about your boss. Wilson Fisk.” Matt lets his teeth show, puts just enough pressure on Nelson’s windpipe to make him worry before easing off.
“Attorney-client privilege,” Nelson gasps. “I can’t tell you anything. And wouldn’t if I could.”
The backbone’s surprising too. And annoying. “Oh, you’ll talk,” Matt says. “Maybe not until I’ve broken a couple of your fingers, but you’ll talk.” He’s bluffing, mostly. Nelson hasn’t actually committed a crime that Matt knows of, and he’s not so far gone that he’ll break an innocent man’s fingers. Unless he has to.
“There’s nothing to talk about!” Nelson protests, even though the whiff of fear rising off him is sharper now, overwhelming his baseline scent of soap and coffee and vanilla. “I just started working for him, I’ve barely even gotten my name up on the door!”
And - there it is. The subtle hitch in Nelson’s heartbeat, only perceptible to Matt’s hyper-sensitive ears.
Matt gives him another little shove against the wall and leans the weight of his body into Nelson’s to keep him in place, forearm still pressed tight across his throat. His other hand slides down to Nelson’s to tangle with his fingers - and push back on his index finger. Just far enough that Nelson’s joint protests.
“Don’t,” Nelson pleads, and the begging is sweet. “Don’t, please, I swear I can’t tell you anything - !”
Matt freezes. There’s someone at the end of the block, voice and scent familiar. It takes a second for Matt to place him: Sergeant Brett Mahoney of the NYPD. He’s picked up some of the scum Matt’s left unconscious for the cops. From what Matt can tell, he’s always seemed honest enough.
“Brett!” Nelson cries, voice ringing with relief.
Nelson knows Mahoney? Shit. Time Matt wasn’t here.
“This isn’t over,” he growls close to Nelson’s ear, and feels him twitch.
Then he lets him go, using a running leap off the wall to reach the bottom rung of the fire escape and pull himself up. Mahoney breaks into a run but Matt’s out of sight over the edge of the roof before Mahoney reaches Nelson. He puts a few buildings between them - no point in being stupid, in case Mahoney’s in uniform and calling for backup - but stays in close enough range to listen.
“Are you okay?” Mahoney asks.
Nelson’s breathing is more ragged than usual. “Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”
“What’d you do to get on his radar?”
“What - you know that asshole?”
“He’s popped up here and there, knocked out a few low-level criminals. Drug dealers, mostly. Probably defending his turf from the competition,” Mahoney says. “You got a new job on the side I don’t know about?”
“That’s what he was asking about. My new job, I mean,” Nelson says.
“What, the fancy retainer shit? Why?”
“I have no idea,” Nelson says, and Matt’s too far away to hear his heartbeat and know if he’s lying.
Oh, well. He’ll try again in a few days.
“Malcolm. Malcolm. Malcolm.”
Matt rolls over and fumbles for the phone. “‘Lo?”
“Hey, Matt. Did I wake you?”
“Sorry. Can you come in for a demo at two this afternoon?”
“Great. Oh, and Trish says this one’s both loaded and naive, so, and I quote, ‘make sure he looks pretty and shaves off that face pelt of his.’”
Matt laughs into the pillow. “See you at two, Malcolm.”
When he hangs up and checks the time, it’s nearly noon already, so he drags himself out of bed to get ready. He showers, shaves as carefully as he can, does his best with his hair - Danny will fix it if it needs fixing - and heads outside to hail a cab.
The Defenders are located in an elegant old grand dame of a building in SoHo, their presence indicated only by a discreet nameplate and the polite nod of the doorman. They don’t advertise, and their web presence is minimal. Their clients come to them solely through referrals.
Matt folds up his cane as he enters. He doesn’t really need it, but it’s easier to use it on the street than have strangers solicitously trying to help the blind guy. “Hello, Melvin.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Murdock,” the doorman says. “Got a new client?”
“Well, one of us does,” Matt says with a smile, and steps into the elevator.
As the doors open on the top floor, he does a quick scan. No unfamiliar heartbeats, so the client hasn’t arrived early. Malcolm and his wheatgrass smoothie at the front desk; Trish’s absurdly expensive but thankfully subtle perfume in her office. From the agents’ lounge comes whiskey and iron and lemongrass: Jessica, Luke, and Danny. Everyone else must still be out on assignment.
“Well, Malcolm, do I pass muster?” he asks as he walks in.
“Fresh-faced as a newborn baby,” Malcolm says, and Matt laughs.
“Perfect. Just what everyone wants in a bodyguard.” He trusts Trish’s judgment, though. She’s got a knack for evaluating a client over the phone and knowing the kind of service that will appeal to them: sleek and professional, scruffy and disreputable, sweet and safe. Matt can play them all.
Danny is stretching in the lounge when Matt walks in, Luke is looking at something on his phone, and Jessica is flopped face first into one of the couches, to all appearances dead to the world, if it weren’t for her perfectly awake and alert heartbeat and breathing. “Morning,” Matt says, and pours himself a cup of Danny’s fancy tea, ignoring his “Hey!” of protest.
“It’s one forty-five, Murdock,” Luke says. “You working the night shift again?”
“Mmm, it’s possible,” Matt replies against the rim of his teacup. Everyone at Defenders knows about his nighttime activities, at least a little bit. He never intended to tell them, but Jessica used to be a private investigator, and her apathetic facade turned out to hide a knack for ferreting out reasons people she cared about were suddenly turning up exhausted and bruised.
Matt suspects she’s disappointed it wasn’t a weird sex thing. Well, mostly not a weird sex thing.
It’s good that she found out, really. Matt’s careful, but his vigilantism puts them all at risk and he knows it. If he’s ever caught - if one of the Defenders’ agents is arrested for vigilantism - there goes their reputation, and everything Trish worked so hard to build.
And it’s quite a reputation. The Defenders are the most exclusive, elite, expensive bodyguards in the world. Every agent is a guaranteed metahuman with rigorous combat training and extensive knowledge of security protocols. They are adaptable, able to intimidate or melt into the background on the client’s whims. Because their clientele tends to move in rarified circles, they’re also trained to polish up prettily and hold their own in elegant venues; Matt’s attended more than a few white tie events on his clients’ arms. Beautiful, accommodating, and effective: the Defenders’ holy trinity.
Of course, some of them are more accommodating than others. Trish gently steers clients who want eye candy away from Jessica, whose brash attitude and impatience with jackasses makes her most appealing to female clients trying to avoid stalkers and violent ex-husbands, especially since she can literally fly them out of danger in a hurry. Luke is most in demand with male clients who think the size of their bodyguard will imply that the size of certain other things is directly proportionate, or clients of any gender who are very afraid of whoever they think is after them. Danny is popular with rich businessmen who went on one trip to Japan and claim to have felt a real spiritual connection with the land.
Matt, however, is a chameleon. He can bring out the charm for skittish clients, or the ever-simmering rage for clients who think a blind man won’t be much protection. And he’s the best possible choice for anyone who fears poison.
It’s a demanding job, but it’s always interesting. And it pays very well.
Trish walks in with a swoosh of perfume and a long scarf. “Good, you’re all here,” she says. “Hey. Jess.”
“I’m asleep,” Jess says into the couch.
“Well, good thing nothing says ‘your life is safe in my hands’ like couch seam lines pressed into your face,” Trish says, but otherwise leaves Jessica where she is. “Okay, the client should be here in five. Male, twenty-eight, his company’s footing the bill. Lots of terrified babbling on the phone. My guess is he’s looking for someone fast-talking, dependable, and only scary to other people. Got it, Jess?”
Jessica turns onto her side but doesn’t bother to open her eyes. “Hey, he keeps his hands to himself and so do I.” Jessica’s the reason Defenders has to use the careful language of “never had a client injured by an external threat.” Matt suspects Trish doesn’t actually mind, considering how hard she laughs every time Jessica makes a gropey asshole cry.
“Whatever,” Trish says. “We’re fully in the black, so if none of you want him, let me know and I’ll make up some excuse.”
“Can we be busy with a secret mission for the Avengers this time?” Danny asks.
“Do you want to find a lawyer to handle our case when the Avengers find out we’re misrepresenting ourselves as members?” she replies.
“We?” he repeats.
“Please, I’d make a better Avenger than any of you,” Trish says tartly.
Matt snorts, then hears the hum of the elevator approaching. “Client’s here,” he says.
Trish claps her hands together. “Excellent. Be good! Or bad. Figure out what he wants and take it from there.” She heads out to greet the client.
Matt tilts his head, concentrating on the elevator doors as they open. There’s the steady glow of body heat, a fast heartbeat, fingers tapping an anxious rhythm on a thigh...and a scent. Soap, coffee, and vanilla.
Matt knows that scent. He’s been tracking it for weeks.
“You must be Mr. Nelson,” Trish says, and Matt hears the soft brush of skin against skin as they shake hands. “I’m Trish Walker.”
“Thank you so much for setting this up on such short notice.” That’s definitely Nelson - nervous, but nowhere near as scared as he was last night. “My employer said you were the best, but this is really above and beyond.”
“Nonsense,” Trish says. Her voice is smooth, cool, reassuring - her client voice. “Your safety is our primary concern.”
His safety? Who would be threatening Nelson’s safety? Has he gotten himself into something dangerous working for Fisk, or…
Then Matt puts two and two together, and feels tremendously stupid. Oh. He’s been threatening Nelson’s safety. He actually scared Nelson enough that he decided to hire a bodyguard, and now he’s placed himself directly in Matt’s hands.
“Oh my God,” Matt says out loud.
He can sense the others looking at him. “What? Is he weird?” Jessica asks.
Matt shakes his head, still half tuned in on Trish and Nelson’s conversation. “He’s mine,” he says, then blinks and turns back to the others. “I mean. You have to let me have this one. Seriously, he’s my client, I’m taking him.”
“Whoa, slow down,” Luke says. “Why? I mean, fine, I don’t care, my bills are paid this month, but why?”
“Iiiii know why,” Jessica sing-songs, and Matt glares at her.
“Get your mind out of the gutter, Jones. It’s…” He hesitates. They know he goes after street-level criminals, but he suspects they wouldn’t be so sanguine about him taking on someone as dangerous as Fisk. Still, he can’t think of any other explanation for being so set on getting Nelson as a client. “It’s related to my extracurricular activities.” Jessica explodes into laughter. “I said out of the gutter.”
“Hey, you’re the one who put it there,” she replies. “Fine. Whatever. He’s all yours. And no, I will not be in your wedding party.”
“I will!” Danny offers.
“I hate you all,” Matt mutters, and pours himself a fresh cup of tea, ignoring their laughter to focus on Nelson.
Demos are usually pretty straightforward. Trish explains the company policies to the client: hourly or live-in service, indefinitely or until a specific threat is neutralized; nonlethal deterrents only; client pays all expenses while the agent is on the clock, including medical bills for injuries sustained in the line of work, and so on.
Then the available agents are brought in, one by one or in pairs, to show off their abilities. Matt’s obviously never seen the content on it, but he knows that the clients are given a tablet to scroll through full of all their stats - power rankings, strength rankings, special skills - as well as the embarrassing glamour shots Trish paid that photographer at the Bugle to take. Matt doesn’t know why the clients can’t just imagine him in a tuxedo at whatever semi-dangerous formal outing they need to take him to, but Trish assures him that the pictures have been instrumental in closing many a deal, and Matt supposes he can’t provide a solid argument otherwise.
Luke’s first - he’s usually first, being very impressive - and Matt listens from the agents’ lounge as Trish introduces him to Nelson. Nelson greets him warmly, with no discernable increase in nerves - until Luke hands Malcolm a gun and stands there while Malcolm fires six bullets at Luke’s torso.
“Holy shit!” Nelson says, heart rate skyrocketing. “I mean. Excuse my language. But holy shit!”
Matt smiles as Trish picks up a bullet from the ground and hands it to Nelson so that he can see the flattened head. “Mr. Cage is impervious to bullets, blades, flames, acid, and explosions up to a fairly large scale.”
“That’s.” Nelson gulps faintly. “That’s handy, I guess.”
“It’s been useful in the past,” Luke says, and Matt glowers. He’s supposed to be charming Nelson, not Luke.
He listens as Luke lifts some heavy weights while Trish rattles off a few of his accomplishments. She calls Jessica in next, and Nelson lets out a squeak as Luke tosses the last weight to Jessica on his way out. Jessica catches it easily, of course, one-handed even - and, if Matt’s any judge of her character, while smirking.
“So what’s Matt’s sugar daddy like?” Danny asks as Luke returns to the lounge.
“Nothing special,” Luke says with a shrug. “Blond. Chubby. Goofy tie. Friendly enough, and he didn’t have that attitude, you know, the kind where it feels like they want to punch you in the stomach as hard as they can to feel better about themselves.”
“Aw, he’s a gentleman. Congrats, Matt.”
“Shut up,” Matt says, standing up. “We’re up next.”
He and Danny head for the demo studio, waiting outside until Jessica’s finished. “I was surly as hell, Murdock,” she mutters as she walks past. “You owe me a drink.”
Matt refrains from pointing out that she’s always surly as hell, and follows Danny into the studio.
“Daniel Rand and Matthew Murdock,” Trish says, and they shake hands with Nelson in turn. He doesn’t expect Nelson to recognize him - he was wearing a mask last night, after all, and it was dark - but he’s wary just the same. But Nelson’s heartbeat is steady, if fast, and there’s no hitch of recognition in his breath.
In fact...playing a hunch, Matt lets his hand linger in Nelson’s just a little too long, and gives him his most charming smile. Nelson grows just a tiny bit warmer, imperceptible to anyone but Matt.
“Mr. Rand is a master of most Eastern martial arts, with a specialty in kung fu,” Trish explains. “He is internationally ranked as one of the best fighters alive. He also possesses the metahuman ability to harness his chi into a powerful weapon. We call it the iron fist.” Danny goes very still, concentrating, and then Matt feels the bright point of heat coming off of him that means his fist is glowing, pulsating with power. “It’s a bit too destructive to unleash in a simple demonstration, but we do have video examples of the iron fist in use on the tablet. Mr. Rand also possesses healing abilities, although we do not expect you to be injured while under his protection.”
From the tablet’s tinny little speaker comes the sound of fighting, and then the explosive force of the fist. Matt’s only been around Danny when he’s had to use it twice. He doesn’t have any desire to be in that kind of situation ever again.
“Mr. Murdock is also trained in a wide range of martial arts, with an emphasis on boxing and stick-fighting as well as gymnastics,” Trish continues, crossing to the wall where they’ve mounted several weapons. “And yes, as you may have surmised from his glasses, he is blind. However, his other senses are enhanced to a degree that more than compensates. You can read through the stats on his precision and range on the tablet, but trust me: Mr. Murdock has a better sense of his surroundings and any potential threats than you or I do.”
She takes down two escrima sticks and tosses one at Matt’s head. He snags it easily and gives it a breezy twirl like a baton, smiling at the soft, impressed noise from Nelson. Trish sends the second escrima stick wide so that Matt has to move to catch it - back when she threw both at his face, clients tended to think there was some trick to it. He sets them both twirling and starts juggling them as Trish continues: “Aside from abetting his combat abilities, Mr. Murdock is an ideal choice if you have any concerns about surveillance.”
Matt smiles again, keeping the sticks moving. “Most recording devices tend to buzz.”
“God, now I have to worry people are spying on me and not just trying to beat me up in the street? That’s a fun new ulcer to add to the collection.” Nelson lets out a tired sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. “I guess it’s better to know than not know, right?”
“Of course,” Trish says soothingly. “And now...Mr. Rand, Mr. Murdock, if you don’t mind?”
“Our pleasure,” Matt says. He catches the sticks and hands them back to Trish - but he makes sure he’s facing Nelson as he strips off his shirt. Slowly.
Yep. That’s Nelson’s heartbeat ticking up even faster. This will be easy. Sure, Nelson responds to Danny shucking his shirt off too, but Matt’s been reliably informed that Danny has a hell of a tattoo.
“You’re shameless,” Danny murmurs as they bow to each other, so low only Matt can hear it. “I better be your fucking best man after this.”
Matt rolls his eyes, not that Danny can see it behind the glasses. He has no sexual interest in Nelson, of course. But Matt emerged from the other side of an awkward puberty with what are apparently the kind of looks that make most women and more than a few men all too willing to let their guard down around him. He’s not above using that professionally - or in the service of his freelance work.
And it’s not like Matt’s alone in this. There are glamour shots on the tablet Nelson’s holding for a reason, and they’ve all flirted with potential clients to secure a contract, or active clients to keep them manageable. The easiest way to keep a client happy and safe is to manipulate them without letting them know they’re being manipulated; every Defender is a master at that, and pretty smiles and flat bellies are just two tools in their arsenals.
So Danny really should know better than to tease. This is standard operating procedure. There’s nothing different about Nelson from the dozens of clients who’ve preceded him. But that’ll be clear enough once Nelson is rotting in jail beside his boss. Until then, Danny can think what he wants.
Matt and Danny straighten out of their bows, and they begin.
It’s just light sparring, really, and they’ve done it so many times Matt could probably walk through it in his sleep, but it’s been designed to look impressive, mostly by virtue of moving so fast. It’s also largely defensive, for obvious reasons: Danny attacks and Matt parries, then turns his block into a counterattack. It's a rapid flurry of blows and reversals and it never fails to wow a crowd.
But it could be more impressive. Danny’s got Matt in a staged hold when Matt murmurs “Be right back.”
Then he turns the hold into a throw, dropping Danny to the floor. Danny lets him have it - Matt’s good, but he knows perfectly well that Danny’s better - and Matt uses the momentum to ricochet off the wall and into a handspring off the arm of the couch and, twisting into an aerial over Nelson’s head. He gives him a cheery smile and wave as he flips past him, close enough to feel Nelson’s startled breath on his cheek.
By the time he hits the ground again, Danny's back on his feet and waiting, but the fight’s over and they both know it. Trish stands up. “Thank you, gentlemen,” she says, and they bow to each other, then to Nelson, before filing out.
“Showoff,” Danny mutters.
“Oh, like you don't ask me to take a fall whenever the client’s a pretty girl,” Matt points out.
“Yeah, and you never do.”
Matt shushes him, and Luke and Jessica too as he and Danny enter the lounge. “I'm listening.”
“...didn't have a weapon, so I don’t think...that is, it seems like Mr. Cage might be overkill? God, I hope this whole thing is overkill,” Nelson is saying. “Sorry, no offense.”
“None taken,” Trish says, still gently soothing. “We would prefer as few threats to your safety as possible. But it’s always better to be safe than sorry, of course.”
“Right.” It’s harder for Matt to pinpoint Nelson’s body language exactly at this distance, but he seems to be nodding. “And Ms. Jones seems like, uh, she, um, might not be happy with the assignment.”
“Mm.” Trish is always politic.
“I think, uh. I think Mr. Murdock? Might be the best choice? For me, I mean.”
Matt grins. Jessica snorts. “He picked you, didn’t he? Look at you. That face is gross. You’re gross.”
“Shhh,” Matt says, but it’s too late - he’s missed the details of the assignment. Oh well. He’ll get them all from Trish later. He tunes out her conversation with Nelson as they move on to paperwork and listens to Jessica and Danny doing their best to instigate Luke into either laughing or losing his temper or both.
Twenty minutes later, Trish is in the doorway again. “What the fuck was that, Murdock?”
“Our little Matthew has a crush,” Jessica says.
“I already told you, it has nothing to do with that…” Matt protests.
Trish holds up a hand. “Spare me. You’re on an indefinite contract, live-in status with Sundays off. I’ve recorded his full statement about the threat and Malcolm will have it for you on a zip drive, but basically he got jumped last night and thinks it’s some kind of weird corporate espionage thing. My guess is that someone just wanted his wallet, but you know. Stick around for a couple weeks, nothing’ll happen to him, we all get paid. Sound good?”
“Sure,” Matt says. Two weeks should be more than enough time to find out anything Nelson knows, especially if he’s living in Nelson’s apartment.
“Great. You’ve got two hours to get your things together. Luke, can you take Mr. Nelson home and secure his apartment?”
Luke gives an easy shrug. “Sure. You want me to give him the shovel talk, too?”
“Absolutely,” she says, and ruffles Matt’s hair despite his annoyed huff. “We can’t have our little Matthew’s heart getting broken, can we?”
“I promise you, my heart is not in danger.” Matt stands up and unfolds his cane with great dignity. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pack.”
He pretends not to hear his coworkers laughing as he leaves.