The first thing Matt heard was the motorbike. He registered its finely tuned roar in the back of his mind, paying attention only when it stopped right in front of the Nelson and Murdock offices. The man got off the bike – stumbled off, really – and marched up the steps and into the reception area of the office. He smelt terrible; days-old sweat exuding from his unwashed clothes, hints of dried blood, breathing out the sharp, hungry scent of ketosis, his body living off its muscle reserves. Despite his wretched state, the man was alert to his surroundings, his heartbeat strong and level, his body still fit and obedient. This was a recent change in him, then, a catastrophe in a stable life rather than a man beaten down over the years.
"Can I help you?" Karen's voice was unusually sharp, but Matt didn't pick up any aggression from their visitor – and, more importantly, the man's walk was not distorted by the weight of a weapon.
"Matt Murdock. I need to see him." There was something familiar in his voice, something that reminded Matt of the smell of the pavements in Hell's Kitchen, shimmering with heat, but that was as far as his memory led him.
Karen's long acrylic nails tapped on her keyboard. "Do you have an appointment, Mr…?"
"Summers. And no, I don't. I'm a friend."
Foggy lifted his head from the teetering stack of papers on his desk. "She okay out there, Matt?"
"Yeah, I think I know the guy." Matt sighed and heaved himself out of his slightly wobbly chair to go and save the visitor before he pissed off Karen – though perhaps it was more to save himself and Foggy from a pissed-off Karen. He frowned as he squeezed past Foggy and headed for reception: he didn't know what name he had expected the man to say, but "Summers" wasn't it.
Karen looked up from her computer as Matt walked in, and made a little huffing sound somewhere between annoyance and relief. "Mr Summers, this is Mr Murdock."
Summers turned to Matt, and Matt frowned. He had honestly expected to recognize the man – a familiar voice plus familiar body language should have presented no challenge at all, even with the man's regular scent so distorted, but Matt could find no connection at all. He held out his hand.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr Summers." Summers took his hand and shook it firmly, and Matt realised that the faint smell of blood about him was from his torn and bleeding fingertips. Thecuticles were gnawed skinless from when he'd done biting the fingernails. Still clutching Matt's hand, Summers stepped forward, right into Matt's personal space. Matt automatically flexed his triceps to hold the man to his current distance, but Summers effortlessly twisted Matt's wrist to the side and breathed his sharp breath into Matt's face.
"You used to know me. I was Scott Alexander, then. Things got better – so much better – but it's all gone, now. And I need your help again." His voice was stale and grating, as if he had been silent for a long time, and his face was covered with the dried tears and snot he hadn't bothered to wipe away.
The new kid in the braille library was impeccably neat, his hair gelled into a side-part and his shirt and pants ironed, and he sat precisely upright in his chair. There was something distorted about his face, which Matt quickly ascertained to be thick gauze pads taped over both eyes. Recently blind then, still recovering from whatever they'd done to try to save his sight. He seemed young, and very thin, but the raw smell of the shaved skin along his jaw indicated that he was older than he seemed, perhaps sixteen or seventeen.
Matt sat down next to him. "Hi, I'm Matt. I used to go to school here."
"I'm Scott. Are you a teacher now?"
"No, I started college this year, but I come back and help out sometimes. They're pretty good here, but there's not really enough staff, considering the disabilities some of the kids have."
"Yeah, I thought I had it bad enough going blind. But I can walk, I can speak – I don't have to have someone wipe my butt. I can look after myself." Scott's voice was fierce, and Matt smiled. He found it much easier to talk to the determined, aggressive kids than those who had been coached into becoming passive invalids.
"Good. So, how much braille do you know?"
"I've memorised all the letters, but it's so damn slow. I have to think out each letter as I read it. Then I get to the end of the sentence and it's something like 'See Jane run,' and –"
"You wonder why you bothered?"
"It gets faster – I can read a chapter of a textbook twice as quickly as my roommate, and he's a smart guy. I used to say the same thing to my dad, though – I didn't care what the hell Jane was doing."
Scott's entire body had tensed at the mention of Matt's dad, his posture even more rigid than before, and the energy had drained from his voice when he spoke again. "So what do I do?"
Matt leaned back in his chair and ran his fingertips along the nearest shelf, grabbing the first book that was in the simpler Grade 1 braille. "Here. Stop worrying about what Jane might be up to and just read out the letters, as fast as you can. Be the radio operator, not the captain – get the message down and worry about its contents later."
The determination leapt back into Scott's voice. "I can do that!"
Matt walked Scott into the tiny meeting room – which Foggy liked to call the Interrogation Chamber due to its lack of windows and its one bright desk lamp – and sat him down before he fell down. Scott was a lot heavier than he had been a decade ago, his bony frame now hidden under muscle, but even as Matt lugged him over to the chair, he noticed that Scott didn't feel for the shape of the chair with his hand.
"You're not blind."
Scott slumped forward, resting his head in his hands. "I was. It wasn't a lie."
Matt sat down across from him, though the narrow table meant their knees bumped uncomfortably close beneath it. "I never thought you were lying. For one thing, your eyes were taped shut."
Scott laughed, his voice harsh. "Turns out I'm a mutant. I had my eyes taped shut because every time I opened them, I'd knock down buildings, or kill people. All I could see was the things I was destroying, so I decided to be blind instead."
"You said that things got better."
"They did. Some … experts in mutation found me and looked after me. Me and others. They designed my glasses – touch them. "
Matt reached out a hand and touched the frames, which he had assumed were similar to his own. In fact, the frames were rigid and the lenses remarkably heavy. "They're not glass, or plastic."
"No, they're a kind of crystal. They're pretty dark, and my peripheral vision is shot, but at least I can see without hurting anyone." His voice cracked, and he swallowed, though his mouth was dry.
"Who did get hurt?" Matt could not work out why on earth Scott had come to him, of all people, when he was in such obvious pain. They'd hardly parted on good terms, and it had been so long ago.
"Jean. Jean, my fiancée. She gave her life to save us. She's dead."
Matt opened his mouth, then closed it. It was so much to process – a blind, isolated teenager now a sighted, mutant man who had lost his fiancée – and he could see that platitudes and kind words had come and gone without making a dent in Scott's tremendous grief. "You saw what happened?"
Scott leaned forward, his heavy glasses shifting slightly with the movement, and spat, "Yes. And she didn't bother to save herself. Everyone – everyone else says that she must have known what she was doing, that she wouldn't have died if there was another way."
"You don't agree?" Matt could hear Scott's words through the rapid patter of his increasing heart rate, and the salty smell of fresh sweat. Scott wasn't just angry – he was afraid.
"They all say the same thing, like they've finished with her." He grabbed Matt's forearm. "It's like she's told them not to pay attention. I'm the only one that can hear her."
"You said she was dead!" Almost unconsciously, Matt's hand went to the necklace he wore under his shirt, pushing the braille dots firmly against his skin to spell out "ELEKTRA" against his chest.
"But I can hear her calling my name. It's her voice, on and on, for hours at a time. I can't sleep, no-one believes me, I – you're the only one I know who's never met Jean. She can't have influenced you."
Scott's hand moved up from Matt's forearm to his bicep, hauling him closer, their faces almost touching. "Can you hear her?"
Scott's progress with braille had been fast, but that was nothing compared to the speed at which he'd learned to get around in the crowded city streets. He swung and tapped his white cane with tremendous confidence, pausing only at street corners. Matt was astounded to learn that Scott travelled by himself from his foster home – though it was only two stops away on the 2 line, there was a three block walk to the school – but then, he had same determination with everything. His ability to get up and try again after every fall or frustration had led Matt to put in more time than he'd planned at his old school, helping Scott with the everyday things where an hour of one-on-one tutoring was more useful than a week of distracted classroom teaching, particularly the computers.
The tutoring visits had become a regular Saturday event, and even more frequent now that summer was here, and both were officially on vacation. With the Columbia dorms closed to students, Matt was living in the tiny apartment above the Schnapp Diner, where he had worked Sundays and holidays since he was sixteen. As the diner was in Hell's Kitchen, the trip up to see Scott was considerably longer than it had been from college, and Scott had quite happily taken on the challenge of coming all the way downtown to see Matt instead.
Bertha Schnapp replied by clapping Scott firmly on the shoulder and nudging his steps in the direction of counter, so Scott could chat to Matt as the last of the lunches fried on the huge grill. Scott's cheerful voice was out of place in the diner, where most of the customers were older, working men, but none of them seemed to mind another blind kid around the place or take much of an interest in him. Matt considered this a good thing indeed, considering the speed at which Scott negotiated the cluttered diner – one blind kid who moved better than he should didn't arouse suspicion, but two might, and Matt was beginning to wonder exactly how Scott managed to move nearly as well as Matt did, without the benefit of a radar sense.
"Hey, Matt," Scott called out, setting down at the counter. "Business good?"
"I think you can tell by the symphonic sound of chewing in here." Matt flipped a burger onto the bun he had ready, topping it with a perfectly runny egg and a precise pile of onions, just crispy enough to make the edges black and oil-soaked. Two squirts of mustard, one of ketchup, just as Mr O'Sullivan liked it, a slug of salty fries on the side, and the plate went over the counter to Bertha, who took it over to the last waiting table. "I'll be off in about fifteen, I think, when Otto comes down. You had lunch?"
Scott wouldn't answer that question – just like he never answered questions about the occasional bruises on his neck and mouth, or the faint smell of blood he sometime wore – but his stomach gurgled anyway. Matt slapped another burger on the grill for him, preparing the bun with more lettuce and tomato than Mr O'Sullivan would ever have accepted. He'd offered to take Scott's occasional burger out of his wages, but Bertha and her husband had refused, and Scott's skinny frame – thinner than even Matt had been when he had started working here, an orphaned teenager trying to save for college – told Matt why.
With Scott happily inhaling his burger, Matt cleaned up the cook area, wiping everything down by touch and smell, the radiant heat warning him well before his hands got too close to the grill, the knives all properly organised on their magnetic strip on the wall. The grill itself wouldn't get a full clean until Otto closed up at the end of the day, but Matt gave it a quick scrape nonetheless, and finished just in time to hand his big wraparound apron to Otto as he came downstairs from his midday nap.
"All done, Matty?" Otto's voice was raspy but warm, and his burn-scarred cook's hands were gentle as he took the apron and tied it around his own waist. "Get the fan from our apartment if you're staying in, it's 95 in the shade today."
"I thought we might go see a movie, for the air conditioning."
"Ah, good plan. Don't buy their soda, boys, it's mostly water."
"Yes, sir," Matt and Scott replied politely, failing to mention that they didn't intend to pay for tickets in the first place, and hurried out the door, white canes mapping the way.
Matt ambled along beside Scott in the general direction of the movie theatre, the heat pressing on them from all directions, casually alert to the chatter, footsteps, blasting air conditioners, traffic rumble and distant sirens that entwined with the heat to make every step seem like swimming. People often strayed into the arc of the cane, resulting in either profound apologies or a spray of curses, but when the two of them walked together, their greater reach and matched steps gave Matt a feeling of invincibility.
"You're going pretty fast, considering you've never been this way before."
Scott shrugged. "Good teacher?"
"Seriously good. No, I mean, you seem to have a good idea where things are in relation to you. Better than most people do, especially if you haven't been blind for long."
"It doesn't matter. It's just a talent, I guess. I used to be able to play pool. And video games, pretty well, actually. Did you ever play? Before, I mean?"
Matt talked over Scott's sudden attempt at distraction, though he lowered his voice. "You know I don't mean that. I mean, can you do things that people shouldn't be able to do?"
Scott froze so completely that it threw Matt off balance, and he took another two steps before realizing that Scott really wasn't moving. Turning back, he could hear Scott's molars grinding together and there an acrid smell infiltrated what had been clean summer perspiration.
"Don't – did you – ?"
"Are you okay?" Matt edged closer to Scott, but in that moment Scott turned and ran, his cane skating wildly in front of him as he fled. Matt stood stock still, his hand still outstretched, then cut left down a side street, over a fence and along the tiny garbage-strewn yard behind Josie's Bar. Scott hadn't travelled from the diner to the cinema before, so the fastest way for him to get back to the subway and home would be to reorient himself back at the diner, or at least at the Tenth Avenue corner that it stood near. Matt had lived in this neighbourhood all his life, and there was no way Scott was going to outrun him, no matter how good he was at video games.
Scott was crying, and that disturbed Matt much more than Scott's dishevelled state, or all the history that had been spilled out on the narrow laminate table. The tension still in Scott's body – these tears were not a release – made Matt hesitant to reach out, especially as Scott's fingers were still digging into his arm with the strength of desperation.
"Scott. You said you can hear her?"
"She calls me. It's getting louder."
"So do you think the voice is just in your head, or that the voice is real and she's influencing other people not to hear it?"
Scott swallowed a sob and absent-mindedly released Matt's arm. He pressed his face into his sleeve for a moment, then squared his shoulders. "Okay. You believe me?"
"You've got a history of hiding the truth, not of lying. I'm not deceiving myself into thinking I have all the facts, but yes, I believe you."
"Jean was a telekinetic – she could move things with her mind – and her telepathy was developing, too. I know another telepath, much stronger than Jean, and he humoured me for a while, when this was still new, and checked for her influence. He couldn't see anything."
"But he knew Jean?"
"He was her teacher."
"So your expert could have been influenced by her, and his evidence is useless."
"Are you putting me on trial?"
Matt grinned. "No, I'm a defense attorney. I'm just making sure all the facts agree."
"I don't know any telepaths who didn't know Jean, so I can't confirm this, but I don't think it's telepathic."
"Why not? Remembering your opinion could also be tainted, of course."
"Of course." Scott's voice hadn't lost its ragged edge, but there was a thoughtful tone to his voice, as if this kind of evidence gathering wasn't completely foreign to him. "Telepathy doesn't work everywhere – there are certain ways to shield against it. Even when I did that – there's a helmet that was made by someone I know, and believe me, it took a long time for me to try it on – I could still hear her."
"So the alternatives – either it's not telepathic communication, or it's coming from inside your shields."
"I'm not doing this myself!" Scott was on his feet, his chair slamming against the wall and the table rocking forward on its spindly legs.
"I didn't say you were! If you think Jean could influence other people's behaviour, there's no reason to think she couldn't influence yours." Matt put years of calm experience into his words, and Scott snorted.
"Okay, I get it. So, what's the next step? If Prof– Jean's teacher is a compromised source, so are all the other experts on mutant powers. She worked in that area, and it's not a big field. I came to you because you didn't know her."
"You could go to any bum in the street and he wouldn't know her. You didn't come here because of that. You came here because I'm the only person who will put you before my own grief about Jean."
Scott made a strange sound, almost a cough.
Matt put his hand on Scott's forearm. "Everyone must have loved her very much."
"You have no idea. She was –"
"I can tell. And I may not have seen you in ten years, but when I knew you, you were always focused on what needed to be done right now to get you further along your path. You don't want to keep hearing her?"
"If it's really her? I want to hear it. If it's just my mind destroying itself, I need to know that, too. I just can't – I'm paralysed."
Matt stood up, not breaking the contact with Scott.
Matt easily beat Scott back to the Schnapp Diner, and from there it was no great challenge to hear him coming, tapping his cane and gasping as he half-ran, half-walked back to his last independent reference point. When Scott came around the corner, Matt grabbed him by the arm and hauled him into the alcove by the side door, near the reeking garbage cans.
"Let go!" Scott's thin arm twisted in Matt's grasp, but Matt didn't release him.
"Why are you running off?"
"Just let me go! I don't have to tell you anything!"
"I'm not trying to hurt you! What the hell's wrong with you? I thought we were friends!"
Scott relaxed so suddenly that Matt almost lost his grip on Scott's bicep.
"Okay." Scott's heartbeat was still fast and nervous, but he was no longer tensed to flee. "Okay, but I don't want to talk about it out here. Let's go up to your room."
Matt fumbled his key out of his pocket of his jeans and opened the door, pushing Scott in ahead of him, then, after a moment, releasing Scott entirely. Scott didn't run, but walked obediently through the ad hoc storage area and then up the narrow stairs.
"It's just us, Mr Schnapp!" Matt called, and Otto shouted back a greeting, almost lost in a loud sizzle of grease. Matt followed Scott upstairs and then edged sideways down the hall to Matt's tiny room. Matt never understood how either Schnapp squeezed through the hall to their apartment, but nonetheless they managed it several times a day.
Scott slumped down on the single bed that almost filled the room, as there was nowhere else to sit. Matt kicked the door shut, making one of the stacks of books by the window creak precariously, and sat down next to him. The room was dripping with humidity, despite the propped open window, and Matt wished that he'd gone and gotten Otto's fan. Then again, Scott might not have stayed long enough for him to get back.
Matt put a hand out, finding Scott's arm again. "So, what can't you tell me in public?"
Scott's heart was beating just as fast as it had been when he was running, and his sweat still had that stink of fear, which left Matt all the more surprised when Scott leaned up and kissed him on the mouth. He tasted a little like ketchup, but underneath that, his lips were a vivid intensification of the scents that Matt associated with Scott, like picking out a single clear voice from the hubbub of a crowd. Scott put one hand flat on Matt's sweaty chest, almost as if he was making contact and pushing him away at the same time, and twisted his body so that they were facing each other, lying across the narrow bed, their legs off the side. Matt's dark glasses slipped off his face and onto the bed, disregarded.
Matt's head was swimming, but Scott seemed to be a lot more confident, leaning over Matt to keep kissing on and around his mouth, dazing Matt with sensation – dry skin, tiny prickles of stubble, a ridge of scar tissue inside Scott's lip. When Matt reached up to put his hand at the base of Scott's skull, he could feel the prominent bones of Scott's spine, hard bumps in his smooth skin as Scott bent his head forward. Matt's thumb sat on the thick tendon that ran out to Scott's bony shoulder, and Scott felt even hotter than the still air of the tiny room, his flesh almost burning. As their sweat and scents ran together, Matt felt suddenly cold.
"Scott, you don't –" Matt opening his mouth was a cue for Scott to silence him, tasting the inside of Matt's mouth aggressively, the gauze pad over his eyes scraping against Matt's uncovered face with a faint, insistent rasp. Matt could feel a strange, faint hum somewhere in Scott's skull, almost too soft to pinpoint, but as Scott's skinny leg pressed hard against Matt's thigh, Matt completely forgot about it. He groaned into Scott's mouth as his arousal grew and pulled Scott close. It wasn't until Scott's hand slid under the waistband of Matt's jeans that Matt paused again, one hand in Scott's hair and the other under his t-shirt, on his spine.
Scott turned his body slightly, the layer of sweat on their skin making a dull ripping noise, and spoke directly into Matt's ear. "Don't keep stopping." His hard breath so close to Matt's ear brought their breathing into time, and only then did Matt realise why hesitation was keeping him in a confused state of inertia, instead of kissing back with all the desire in his body. Scott's heartbeat had not increased with arousal, as Matt's had – it had slowed a little with relief when they had stopped talking. Matt sat up, abruptly, tipping Scott to the side, and pushing him away.
"What's so bad that you would, would seduce me rather than tell me? I only wanted to know if you could do anything special, and I only asked that because –"
"Shut up! I don't have to talk to you!" Scott's fingers curled around Matt's waistband, making a fist. "I like you, you know. It didn't have to be just –"
"I didn't want this, I didn't ask you for it. You're my friend! I just want the truth."
"Fuck you! I don't owe you anything! Whatever you've taught me, I could have figured out myself. You can't buy me!" With that, Scott yanked hard at Matt's pants, dragging them down so they tangled around his thighs, scrambled over Matt and hurtled out the door, pausing only to grab his cane from the floor. By the time Matt had got his legs untangled and brain on track, Scott was long gone. Matt found it hard to catch his breath, as if he had been swimming in clear water and had been unexpectedly dragged down to the depths, and when he tried to call Scott's foster home, some hours later, Scott's foster parents told him that Scott was out with a friend, and not to worry.
Two days later, when Matt finally screwed up the courage to go up to the Bronx and see Scott, he was already gone, sent away somewhere upstate.
"Special education," Scott's foster mother said, but all Matt heard was that hard, desperate breathing in his ear.
Matt took Scott out of the office, his hand still on Scott's arm, waved off Foggy's plaintive cry of "Court in three hours!" and proceeded down Tenth Avenue at a brisk pace.
"Where are we going? I can hear Jean wherever I am."
"Yes, but I can't. You've probably forgotten all about living blind by now –"
"I can still read braille!"
Matt grinned and patted Scott's arm. "Of course you can. My hearing is a lot better tuned than yours, or anyone else you know, so if Jean is affecting you in any physical way, I should be able to pick up on it."
"Actually, I do know a guy with mutant super-hearing. He's not really the helping kind, though. Had too much trouble being a mutant, over the years." Scott's voice darkened.
"You don't need to apologise – it was a long time ago, and I wouldn't have known what a mutant was."
"None of us did, then. We hardly know anything now."
"We're here." Matt stopped them in front of a nondescript warehouse, which was obviously partway through a lengthy and haphazard redevelopment. Taking Scott around to a side door, Matt put his foot firmly in the bottom corner and jiggled the handle carefully until the door popped open.
"Great security," Scott commented.
"It's good enough to stop anyone else. The place is rented – or owned, I'm not really sure – by a guy I know, Rick Jones, and he's certainly not going to be using it during the day."
They walked down a short corridor, past sheets of damp plywood leaning against the walls, through a door heavy enough that Matt had to lean into it to get it open, and into a tiny, perfectly silent recording studio. There was very little equipment, but electrical wires ran everywhere, and a mike stand stood lonely in the centre of the room.
"This is where I go when I need to listen, rather than shut everything out."
"What are you going to listen to?"
"You." Matt closed the thick door behind them. "Sit down and stay as still as you can. Breathe evenly."
Scott knelt down, then sat cross-legged, his back perfectly straight. Matt pocketed his dark glasses then knelt behind Scott and rested his forehead against the back of Scott's skull. Scott flinched slightly, but took a deep breath and steadied himself. It was strange and weirdly comfortable for Matt, to be holding Scott so closely again, searching for answers, and he wondered if Scott's flinch meant that he was thinking the same thought.
Matt breathed slowly, in time with Scott, and accustomed himself to the regular sounds of a human body – digestion, heartbeat, tiny movements, blinking, respiration – and a sound that seemed to be particular to Scott, though it had been much quieter when Scott had his eyes taped shut, and Matt hadn't really paid any attention back then. It was a grating, rushing noise, almost imperceptible, with no bodily movement to explain it. Matt breathed deeper, and focused on it, at the front of Scott's skull, in his eyes and in the space before them. There was absolutely no change in the noise: it was as regular as a machine. This must be his mutant power, then, no longer hidden by his eyelids, and nothing to inspire Scott's ongoing fear and pain. With a sigh, Matt let that sound slip into the category of bodily noise, and listened harder.
Matt's fingers, sitting in the fragile join behind Scott's jaw, picked it up before his ears did. There was a tiny vibration, something in Scott's very body, that was responding to a stimulus, like a single shivering flame almost invisible in the roar of a bonfire. Matt relaxed his body as much as he possibly could, letting the pads of his fingers barely graze the soft skin behind Scott's ear, until he could refine what he felt and heard. A hiss, a moan, a cut-off spit – Matt ran the sounds together.
"You hear something?"
"Yes! It's your name, drawn out, said very slowly. It's really there – right in your bones."
Scott slumped back against Matt's chest, all the dreadful tension in his body suddenly unwound in a long, sobbing breath.
"Thank god. It was like being blind again, not knowing what I could trust, having to relearn my own thoughts…"
"You trust yourself now?"
"Yeah. I can go on, now, go and find her, or whatever she wants me to find. Thank you for showing me the way forward. Again."
Scott rolled up to his feet, and pulled Matt up with him. He stretched out one hand and placed it on Matt's chest, right above the braille pendant he wore beneath his shirt.
"Matt? I hope I find whoever you're looking for, too."
"You know I will. I know all the best shortcuts."