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Part 1: Neverland is Home to Lost Boys Like Me 

            Matt Murdock was 10 years old when he ran away from the orphanage.

He didn’t mean to run away; this was not a premeditated desertion. He woke up that morning and braced himself for the proverbial ‘one day more’ (if you know your Les Miserables, which at that time 10 year old Matt Murdock did not). He closed his useless eyes and clenched his little fists and tried, tried, tried to make the world make sense again through the endless screaming cacophony that seemed determined to batter him from all sides.

Heartbeats. He counted them. Seven other boys in the dormitory, all sluggish and steady in deep sleep. Two nuns in the hallway, their pulses the light pitter-patter of waking hours. More nuns elsewhere, one, two, three, four, five… ten total minus the ones in the hall. All awake, all working. All content. Nine heartbeats thrumming along in the girls’ dormitory across the yard. There used to be ten, but 3-year-old Gretchen got adopted last week. The nuns had given her a small going-away party; there was cake and Matt couldn’t eat more than a bite or two because he could taste the chemical wrongness of the frosting and the other boys made fun of him and Sister Constance called him wasteful when he scraped it off.

Breathing was much the same. The same body-count as before. Sister Mary Catherine’s asthma was acting up, Sister Claudia Sophia’s cold had gotten a bit better overnight, Sister Elizabeth was carrying something heavy, he could hear her huffing and puffing. Her steps were heavier too. She was too far away for him to be able to tell what she was holding. Maybe laundry. He could smell the soap in the air. A sister would come in soon and tell them to get up and strip the beds before breakfast; it was time to wash the sheets again.

Matt’s nose wrinkled involuntarily. He hated laundry day. The sheets would come back reeking of the abrasive detergent the nuns favored, the fabric harsh with unnecessary starch. A whole week devoted to making the bedding soft again, making it smell familiar and comfortable, only for another Friday to come around and the whole process repeated over again.

Matt rolled over and buried his face in the pillow, only to pull away gagging when the conflicting scents of harsh soap and old pillow and his own shampoo assaulted him.

A new nun out in the hall, her feet a brisk clip-clop on the floor. Sister Abigail. A sharp crack of sound as the door opened and a simple command to get up and make sure they strip the beds and carry the sheets to the washroom before washing up for breakfast and morning prayer.

Matt squirmed out of the cocoon of blankets he’d made to insulate himself against the world, already on his feet and moving as his bunkmates began to stir, their sleepy grumbles aggressively loud to Matt’s sensitive ears. He dressed with brisk efficiency and stripped his bed, trying to force his brain to only focus on the sheets, the feel of their edges, the snap they made when pulled off the bed in one smooth motion. The babble of the other boys was a rising tide behind him, like ocean waves trying to swamp a beach.

Sheets. Just focus on the sheets.

He’d gotten his bed stripped, the blankets in a neat pile at the foot, when the other boys’ usual morning chatter suddenly spiked. Voices raised, sharp and piercing, the sound of scuffling feet and the bang-bang-bang of adrenaline-fueled heartbeats rattled around and through Matt’s skull as he tried to orient himself relative to the fight. And fight it was. He could hear the familiar wet thump of flesh striking flesh. He could smell blood in the air and wondered if this was what sharks felt like.

The Murdock boys have got the Devil inside them.

Do they, Dad? Do they?

Matt could feel his fingers curl tighter and tighter around each other, a messy tangle of sweat-salt-skin.

No, keep the Devil locked up. Keep the Devil inside.

Matt forced his fingers to uncurl; forced himself to reach for his cane like this was any other day. He didn’t have a stake in this fight, it didn’t matter to him, it wasn’t important. He just wanted to hit someone, hit something. Make someone pay in blood for everything that was wrong with his tiny, dark, inferno of a world.

He could feel the cool material of his cane against his palms. It was grounding, a steady point of focus in a mad, mad world.

He should have heard it coming. If he wasn’t so preoccupied keeping the Devil inside, keeping his senses under control, keeping the nearly-ever-present headache at bay, he might have. As it was, when the knot of fighting boys slammed into him, he was surprised enough to let them take him down with them. They hit the floor. There were two boys, more focused on pummeling each other than him, both older and bigger than he was, and they were heavy and as soon as they hit the ground they were rolling, dragging him with them in their vicious tangle. Matt’s ears were ringing and his world was spinning and suddenly…

CRACK.

His cane, the one his dad had bought him the day he’d brought him home after the accident, snapped.

“Dad?”

“Hey, Matty, I’m here, I’m here.”

“I couldn’t hear you…I thought you were gone.”

“I was, kid, I was, I had to go out for a bit.”

“Why’d you go? I couldn’t hear you. Dad? Dad?”

“I’m here, Matty, I’m here. I brought you something. Had to go out and get it so I could bring it home.”

“What is it?”

“A cane, like you see on tv; it’s to help you get around now that …”

“Thanks Dad. Thank you.”

“Hey, I’m here now. I’m back. I’ll always come back.”

SNAP-CRACK.

Matt let the Devil out. With a cry half human, half animal, he lashed out at the struggling combatants on top of him. His world, always dark, a world on fire, seemed to sharpen, his senses expanding and contracting, the beat of his heart syncing up with the beat of his fists.

Hit-thump-hit-thump-hit

Matt smelled blood in the air and felt no pain. Just a yawning, screaming, emptiness. A half scabbed-over wound ripped open, the shredded remains of something that had been and now never would be.

He wasn’t sure how long he beat on the other two. They were whimpering; pathetic and sniveling in the face of Matt’s pure, hungry and heartbroken rage. They stopped trying to hit each other after the first 30 seconds. After the first minute they had nearly given up on hitting Matt. When they tried to retreat at the minute and thirty second mark; Matt might have chased after them; he wasn’t really sure what he could or would do now. The world was an open sore festering around him, assaulting him with its noise and smells and infection and this was him hitting back and making it feel his pain.

A strong hand snagging the back of his shirt and hauling him bodily backward was enough to give him pause, although he still thrashed for the first few seconds.

“What on earth are you boys doing?” Sister Agatha demanded. Matt could feel her words rumbling through her chest before they emerged.

A dozen aborted explanations hurled themselves through the air.

“Scott and Curtis were fighting – ”

“Murdock – ”

“And they were beating the snot outta each other but – ”

“Murdock, holy jesus, sorry Sister, the kid’s a beast – ”

“And they run into the blind kid and he just starts whalen’ on ‘em – ”

“ – didn’t know a blind kid could fight like that – ”

“Kid’s a literal beast, sister, honest to god – ”

“ – totally deserved what they got, running into a blind kid, breakin’ his cane, dick move, guys, sorry Sister – ”

The noise, the voices, the accusations were building, building, building, a roaring ocean in Matt’s mind and he was still shaking, still raw with the knowledge that he was alone, and he’d done that, and oh god, he was alone and he could smell the blood and the salt and he wasn’t sure if he was the one bleeding and crying, but knew if he was, then he wasn’t the only one and the thought made him sick and dizzy.

Something broke. Just snapped, like his cane under the weight of someone else’s fight. Before Matt could think, before he could speak in his own defense, he was tearing away, ripping his shirt out of Sister Agatha’s hold (a literal rip, he could hear the fabric tear and feel its ragged edges where it fell back against his feverish skin) and running. He ran down the hall, speeding past startled nuns, listening to their hearts skip and jump in surprise at the sight of him. His feet were hard, sharp snaps against the stone floors and there were so many doors in his way…

            Until suddenly there weren’t and he was plunging out into the New York daylight. He could feel the sunshine dappling his face, the hot rush of the outside hitting him in a cloud of humidity and city fumes. The sound of the city, no longer muffled by walls and filtered through the sieve of quasi-familiar voices and heartbeats, curled around him in a sinister embrace, crushing, pressing in on all sides, crunching him up like the trash compactor in Star Wars.

            He remembered being young, younger than now, back when he could see things like Star Wars, watching the trilogy with his dad on their ratty old couch in their little ratty apartment, warm and safe. He’d been young, so young. The trash compactor scene had scared him more than he would admit. He’d spent days eyeing the walls suspiciously, waiting for the moment they’d start to inch forward and smush him into a Matt-pancake.

            But Matt couldn’t think clearly enough to stop. He couldn’t manage the thoughts and he couldn’t manage the sounds and the yawning, open wound that was him wasn’t healing over. So he picked a direction he knew would keep him on the sidewalk and just kept running.

            A bright, sunny day? A kid running down the sidewalk wearing sunglasses? No big deal, this was New York.

            The remnants of a bloody nose on his face and the beginnings of a bruise on his cheekbone? No big deal, this was New York. Probably a perfectly good explanation, no need to bother with it.

            The average human being could be very petty when they wanted to. And willfully ignorant when they were able.

            So Matt ran and no one stopped him to ask why.

            Matt was getting tired. It was getting harder and harder to maintain the focus necessary to keep his senses in line and keep him from colliding with somebody or something. A blaring horn and a car alarm later and Matt was reeling, unsure of his footing and temporarily unable to hear anything over the ringing echoes in his ears. Dizzy and disoriented, he teetered, feet tangling up and pitching him forward until he crashed into something heavy and metal and reeking of dirt and grease and meat-that-was-not-quite-meat. His bruised cheekbone sang with pain as it bounced off of what must be a hotdog cart, his ribs creaking as they slammed into the edge of the metal contraption, his small body bouncing off of it and falling to the ground. A nasty sizzle told him he’d caught his hair on the grill and the ends were burning. Head spinning, he tried to pick out the sounds directly in front of him over the sounds all around him.

            A man was yelling in a thick accent, the cart was creaking and shifting, unsettled by its sudden introduction to Matt’s face, and people (most likely the ones waiting in line for hot dogs) were murmuring in muted distress.

            And then things just got worse.

            With a rattle and a groan, the cart (which was beginning to show its age, judging by the heavy scent of rust and muted decay Matt had picked up during his short stint as a hot dog cart hood-ornament) began to roll. Matt could hear the wheezy, croaking pop of the brakes giving way and the squeal of wheels on pavement as the cart made its sluggish, vaguely pathetic, escape.

            The hot dog vendor did not accept this turn of events gracefully.

            Matt, still struggling to clear his spinning head, heard the sullen squeak of the cart as its belligerent owner grabbed it and manhandled it back into place. He didn’t anticipate the meaty hand of the hot dog vender descending to grab him by the back of his shirt, just like Sister Agatha had (however long ago that was…minutes? Hours? It felt like days.) and haul him to his feet and drag him over. Matt winced away from the pungent battery of scents assaulting his poor nose, everything from the hot dogs themselves, to the cart, to the vendor’s pungent personal aroma. The odiferous vendor was still shouting. Shouting for the police actually.

            A hot spike of fear stabbed through Matt’s stomach and he started thrashing. But he was small and whoever had him was big and he didn’t do himself much good with his struggling.

            An officer (one of the people waiting in line, he was hungry; Matt could hear his stomach growling) strode over. “What exactly is the problem here?”

            “This – ” here the vendor launched into such a string of expletives that even Matt found himself oddly impressed. Nostalgia for the days spent in his dad’s gym, listening to the boxers cussing each other out good-naturedly, smiles bright and fierce, curled through Matt’s gut as he listened to the vendor enumerate all the ways in which Matt had failed as a human being.

            “Sir, there’s no need for that,” the officer cut in smoothly, “Please release the boy now.”  His heartbeat was a steady drum in his chest; a little fast, harsh and sharp with irritation that what was probably a fairly short lunch break was turning into a sideshow, “What exactly is the problem?”

            “Piece of shit tried to steal from me, damaged the cart too!” The vendor grouched, but something in the officer’s face or tone must have taught him better than disobeying the order to release Matt. Newly freed, Matt rubbed at his neck and mourned for the sad, ripped, stretched out shirt that had started the day in relatively good condition. The vender was still shouting. Matt had had enough of this.

            He didn’t roll his eyes; the effect tended to be lost behind his glasses, but instead stared harder. “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” he protested, “If I were a thief, I wouldn’t have run into your cart in the first place. Your cashbox is on the other side; I wouldn’t have been able to reach it from the angle I landed. If I were stealing food, I wouldn’t go after a hot dog vendor; I’d go to the grocery store like every other punk. Taking food off the shelves is a lot easier than snatching half-cooked meat off a hot grill. And if, for some reason, I wanted to cause damage to your hot dog cart or, I don’t know, any hot dog cart, I wouldn’t throw my body at it. It hurt me more than I hurt it. And why the hell would I want it to roll away? What does that get me? If I’m a thief then I’m letting my mark roll away. If I’m a vandal, I’m letting the thing I wanted to vandalize roll away. And if I were hoping it’d crash, I’d be way out of luck because that thing can’t go far enough fast enough to get away enough to crash. How stupid do you think I am?” He set his jaw and glared in the general direction of the man holding him hostage.

            The police officer, who seemed rather taken aback by his whole diatribe, sighed and said, “Kid, you have a point. Sir, what exactly are you accusing this boy of?”

            The vendor sputtered a bit more but nothing concrete or important enough to require objection or rebuttal from Matt.

            The officer sighed again. If Matt was younger and less completely consumed by fury and indignation, he would have felt sympathy for the poor bastard who just wanted a hotdog on his lunch break. “So no, you do not have a formal complaint to lodge against this young man?”

            Further sputtering, which the nice officer ignored.

            “What’s your name, kid? Where are your parents?”

            Matt clenched his jaw. He didn’t want to go back to the nuns, back to all the reminders. Reminders that he wasn’t home, he wasn’t waiting for his dad to come back from a match, back to all the reminders of how much less he was now.

            “Kid? Where are your parents? Are they here? Kid, you’ve got to answer me or I’m going to have to call Child Services.”

            Matt tightened his jaw. Child Services or the nuns? His dad had wanted him to stay with the nuns.

            But, a chilling thought; would the nuns still want him after this morning?

            So Matt said nothing and held his breath and waited for the officer to lose patience and offer to take him down to the police station. It was a good thing he’d managed to head-butt the stupid hotdog cart. At least that provided a handy explanation for the fresh bruises, and flaky dried blood on his face.

            “Oh god, there you are.   Young man, you had me very worried. I’m so sorry about my nephew, Officer. He has this horrible habit of wandering off. I hope we haven’t inconvenienced you any.” A woman. A woman with a dry, melodic voice, no perfume, and the kind of extremely neutral accent you see in well-trained actors and news anchors. A woman Matt was 100% certain he had never met in his life. Ergo, a woman who had just told a string of the most outrageous lies he’d ever heard.

            But her heartbeat stayed the same. Slightly heightened, faster than average, but relatively steady and controlled. Like a boxer going into a fight.

            “Ma’am, you are – ?”

            “Natalie Rushman. I’m watching my nephew for the day. My sister had to work, so I thought we’d go out for a few hours this afternoon. Turns out that was a bit of a bad idea.” Matt could hear the smile shaping the last few words out of the woman’s mouth into little curly-cues of sound. But it seemed somehow fake; too controlled. Or maybe that was because he knew she was lying.

            He also knew what she was doing. She was giving him an out, if he wanted. He could do one of two things now; he could claim not to know her, kick up a fuss and get dumped at Child Services or back with the nuns, or he could play along. She’d given him a name. It would be so easy to say…

            “Sorry, Aunt Nat,” he looked down, trying to remember what a contrite expression looked like and instead just letting his face do what it wanted and trusting the bad angle and his glasses to disguise the less-believable aspects of his expression, “You’re not going to tell Mom, are you?”

            “Damn right I am,” she muttered. How was she doing it? How did she sound so real and so fake at the same time? “Sorry for taking up your time, Officer. I’ll just take my nephew and go.”

            The officer still seemed suspicious and the vendor was still mutinous and Matt knew it was up to him to seal the deal.

            He huffed a sigh and tried to remember what his face needed to do to sell it, “Come on, Aunt Nat, you know how Mom gets. She starts using full names and it’s all over. There’s only so many ‘Jack Matthew Michaels’ I can take,” he hoped he had hit the right pitch with the whining. This was hard and his heart felt like it was trying to excavate its way out of his chest, “And then, when she’s done being mad she just starts crying!”

            The woman, thank god, played along. “If you don’t want your mother to cry, you shouldn’t get into so much trouble,” she replied tartly, “Now come on, Jack, it’s getting late.”

            The vendor made some displeased noises but the officer silenced him and nudged Matt forward, towards the woman with the steady heartbeat and soothing voice.

            Matt could hear the vendor shift, presumably leaning forward to glower at Matt and Matt’s rescuer.

            “You little piece of shit brat, I’m not finished with you,” the man snarled. The soft rustle of expensive cloth on expensive cloth told Matt the woman was holding out something to the belligerent vendor.

            “Take my card; If you discover any damages on your cart, feel free to call. I’m a lawyer. Oh, and speaking of the law, keep an eye on your mail. I may decided to file a suit against you for harassing my 10 year old blind nephew.” She let the vendor sputter and backpedal for a few pointed seconds before turning to the officer, “Thank you for your assistance, Officer. Have a lovely afternoon.” And with that, she took Matt’s shoulder and steered him in the direction he’d come.

            They passed a minute or so just walking, the woman’s hand tight on his shoulder as she steered the two of them through the crowd. Walking with her was like flying with a missile, high-velocity, goal-oriented, and absolutely terrifying.

            The disagreeable vendor and the overworked NYPD officer far behind them, Matt risked asking her a question. “Who are you really?”

            He couldn’t feel her tense, and if her heartbeat sped up, it was such an infinitesimal skip that it didn’t even register on his radar. Somehow he still got the feeling that she was surprised.

            “Who says my name’s not Natalie Rushman?” she said blandly.

            “Because I know you were lying about everything else. There was no difference between when you were lying and when you were introducing yourself. But you reacted to the name ‘Aunt Nat’ so I’m going to guess your real name has ‘Nat’ in it and you’re used to hearing it, that’s why it startled you. In the context of a lie, truth is surprising.”

            She didn’t stop, but she slowed down and her fingers on his shoulder tightened. “Difference in what?” her voice was like silk, smooth and deceptively strong.

            People liked to say Murdocks didn’t know when to shut up. That was a lie. Matt was learning, in the slow, painful way of children, that silence was a weapon. A well-maintained silence was as powerful as a hundred words.

            Her grip tightened. Matt tensed under her hand but didn’t answer. “Why did you help me?” he asked.

            “What difference?” she replied.

            A stalemate.

            A few wordless moments. Another person would have called them ‘silent’, but nowhere was silent for Matt anymore.

            Finally, when the empty air between them had stretched on long enough to make a point – (what point that was, Matt wasn’t sure, he just felt better having made it), he asked, “Where are we going?”

            The woman suddenly released him and stopped. Not expecting the change, Matt staggered forward a few steps, slightly disoriented, before righting himself and stopping. He turned in what he judged to be her general direction (her heartbeat was one of many and her breathing patterns were subtle, this was the city and they were in public, surrounded by people, ‘general direction’ was the best he could manage). A headache was beginning to drum against the inside of his temples and he curled and uncurled his hands, briefly making fists before releasing them slowly. The feeling of his nails scraping against his palms was soothing, a grounding, vaguely irritating gesture that kept him in his skin when it felt like his heartbeat was trying to escape his chest.

            He could feel the woman assessing him. He’d half expected her to leave, to just walk away and leave him here, but she hadn’t and he didn’t understand.

            Matt liked to understand things. Especially now, in this new world he’d found himself in the first day he woke up to realize that he was still blind and now his dad was gone and he had nothing left.

            “I don’t know,” she finally said. Matt felt like those words must have been difficult for her, hard to let past her lips. Her tone was still cool, assessing and calculating.

            “How did you know I was blind?” he asked. It seemed like a safer question somehow.

            “I’m very observant.” The words sounded different, almost like the edge of a smile might be curling around the syllables.

            “Most people aren’t.”

            “You are.”

            “Yeah.”

            No more words. Again.

            Then, “What difference were you talking about?” she asked.

            “I’m very observant,” he answered.

            A low chuckle, “You’re an unusual kid.”

            “Yeah, most of us kids aren’t blind,” Matt said because sometimes it was easier to be aggressive and flippant about his disability, to fling it in other people’s faces before they could make up their minds to tiptoe around it.

            “Or play human polygraph.” Her tone was wry and rich with hidden meanings.

            “What’s your real name?” he asked. He felt like a lawyer on a police procedural, like he was cross-examining an important witness and this one conversation would make or break his case.

            “What’s yours?” Something must have shown on his face, because he could hear her amused huff, “Two can play at the polygraph game.”

            “What’s a polygraph?” he asked. He sort of thought he might know; they’d mentioned it on the cop shows on TV, but they didn’t bother to stop and define everything as it came up. Crime dramas weren’t exactly focused on audience education.

            She wasn’t thrown by his rapid topic changes and Matt found himself a little disappointed. Normally that worked. Most adults found themselves flustered and scrambling in the wake of his swift conversation shifts. The only notable exceptions were the nuns (who mostly still got flustered but skipped the scrambling and just went back to bossing him around instead) and his dad (who would huff a laugh and ruffle his hair affectionately and say something like “you’re gettin’ to be smarter than me, Matty, you’re gonna be something someday”).  

            “A machine that tells whether or not a suspect is lying.”

            “Does it work all the time?”

            “Most of the time.”

            “I guess I’m that.” The roar of the city was growing louder and louder, or maybe Matt was just getting more sensitive after so much exposure, like a raw nerve.

            “Do you read heartbeats?”

            “Maybe.” No answer would be more of an answer than words.

            “Then you’re a human polygraph,” the slight smile was back in her voice. Matt liked it; it made all the words warmer without ruining the subtle nuance of the sound.

            “Why did you care?” he demanded.

            “About what?” she was playing dumb. She wasn’t very good at it. He could hear too much in her tone: amusement, curiosity, and a distant sort of warmth.

            “About any of this shit!” he threw out the curse word as a challenge, a bold statement, practically begging for a proper adult reaction. Her heartbeat didn’t so much as flutter in surprise.

            He wondered what he face looked like, what expression she was making. He missed being able to read people’s faces.

            “Why do you care about me?” he demanded, “Why do you care how I knew you were lying? Why did you help me?” His hands were fists again. He didn’t force them to relax.

            “I don’t know,” her heartbeat was steady, truth, but her tone was curious and introspective.

            “Theorize,” he bit out, too frustrated with this whole morning and the city that wouldn’t shut up, to be proud of the big word he’d pulled out of the conversational hat.

            “Hmm,” she hummed contemplatively, “You were fearless. You kept your head. You understood everything about your situation and you used it to your advantage.”

            “That’s not an answer.”

            “I liked you. I didn’t think you deserved to be shipped off to Child Services.”

            “What are you going to do with me now?”

            “Do you have anywhere to go?”

            Matt bit his lip. It felt fragile after this morning’s fisticuffs. He wondered how badly his face was bruising. The skin across his cheekbones and around his eyes felt tired.

            He could lie to this woman. It would be so easy. But there was something in him that didn’t want to. There was something in her that called to him, harmonized with him. He felt like he could understand her, given time. Really understand her, not just superficially know her like he did the nuns and the other children at the orphanage.

            “I think I accidentally ran away from the orphanage this morning. I got in a fight and ran away when the nuns broke it up,” he admitted.

            She made a small sound that might count as a laugh. “Do you want to go back there?”

            He didn’t say anything. This time the silence wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t to make a point; it was because he didn’t know how to answer her.

            “I don’t have anywhere else better,” he finally offered with a shrug.

            “Hmm” was all she had to say to that, then, “Let’s get food.” She started walking, her pace taking her past and ahead of him before she paused, and turned back, “You do want food?”

            He nodded. “No hotdogs, though.”

            “Duly noted.”

            They got sandwiches bursting with meat and cheese and pickles, matching bags of chips and sodas. They didn’t talk on the way to the deli, the woman steering him much the same way she had before, but this time her hand was more relaxed on his shoulder. They didn’t eat inside, instead taking their bounty outside and eating on a bench that reeked of chewed gum, spilled booze and unwashed human. But the sandwich’s food-smell smothered most of the stench and out here was better than in there, where dozens of human voices bounced off walls and plate-glass windows only to rattle around the room, clattering around the ears of every gathered customer, even if they didn’t’ realize it. Matt preferred outside, for the most part. It was nice having the open air for the sounds to dissipate into.

            “Thank you, Nat,” he offered, licking the last smudges of mustard off his fingers. The deli was a good one, the meat tasted fresh and the bread didn’t feel fake on his tongue.

            “Natasha.”

            “Thank you, Natasha.”

            “You’re welcome, Jack.”

            “Matt.”

            “Matt.”

            Natasha did end up taking him back to the orphanage. She didn’t walk in with him, instead leaving him just outside. When he asked her why she wouldn’t come in with him, she replied, “I’m a bit sacrilegious for holy ground.”

            “Are you a vampire?”

            She’d laughed, a raspy little chuckle. It pulled a smile across Matt’s face and for the first time in a while, it felt real.

            “Last I checked, no blood-drinking,” she replied dryly.

            “What about turning into a bat and flying off into the night?” he challenged, gratified when he could hear the upkick of a smile tinting her next words.

            “Not to my knowledge.”

            “Let me know if you do, that sounds cool.”

            “Sure, kid.”

            He could hear her turn away and suddenly his heartbeat was slamming in his ears like a war-drum and he couldn’t think past it until he was calling out to her, “Hey, you’ll visit me, right?”

            “Maybe if I’m in town.”

            “Yes or no. It’s an easy question.”

            “Yes.” Lie. Why was she lying? Matt decided to leave it for the moment.

            “Okay. See you soon.”

            A soft snort from her, “Why don’t you just stick to hearing, Polygraph? Leave the seeing to the professionals.”

            Matt laughed, sudden, bright and real. “You made a blind joke!”

            “You started it, kid.”

            “Thank you, Natasha. Hear you soon.”

            “Bye, Polygraph.”

            And then she was walking away and Matt was pushing open the orphanage’s gates and skulking inside. He listened to her footsteps as they grew farther and farther away, keeping up a steady count in his head, ticking off the seconds.

            When he was sure she’d gotten far enough away for this to work, Matt climbed the fence and followed her.

            Natasha caught him in under five minutes. He found himself right back where he started, listening to her walk away, taking a different, more convoluted route than last time. But that didn’t matter. Not when he could hear her no matter where she went.

            He followed again.           

            She caught on in less than three minutes.

            They played this game for a while: her leaving, him following.

            Finally, on round eight, when she dropped him off right back at the nun’s gates, she said, “You need to stop. What do you want?”

            “For you not to lie when you say you’re coming back.”

            “Fine. I’ll come back. Does that suit your nefarious purposes?”

            Truth.

            A pause. He needed to think. “Fine. Just don’t forget to come back.”

            “Deal.”

            Truth.

            The next few weeks were a mixed bag. Natasha came to visit him. They went out and walked the city on lazy summer afternoons, the concrete baking in the sun under their feet, thw world smelling of hot metal, rust and oil. They painted each other pictures with their words as Natasha told him what she could see and he told her some of what he could hear. Not any of the really extreme stuff. Just little things. Tricks, small things just at the edge of her perception, stuff that made the conversation more interesting. It was good to have a friend.

            On the downside, the noise was getting worse. Somedays he could barely convince himself to drag his body out of bed; it felt too much like someone was taking a jackhammer to his skull. Everywhere he went was a barrage of smell and sound and sensation. His skin felt rubbed raw, his mind like it was about to pull apart and float away like a paper towel in a puddle of water.

            On particularly bad days he couldn’t remember much other than the hot red haze all around him, too close, too close, smothering him in a wall of heat and noise and too many smells to count. His fevered brain skittered back to the past. He remembered being in school and reading the story of Athena; how she pried her way out of Zeus’s skull. It felt like that inside his head, like a person was trying to escape, only maybe it was the devil, it was the Murdock devil and instead of human fingers it was fiendish claws tearing up the inside of his cranium as the creature struggled to get out, get out, GET OUT. He didn’t really remember any of the crying or retching he must have done as his body rejected all the excess sensory input, but the sour scent of vomit burned the back of his throat, laying waste to his sinuses for minutes or hours, he couldn’t be sure. He rolled around on his bed, trying to muffle the cacophony of Outside with his own tiny rustles and writhing, but eventually ran out of energy and just lay, hands clamped over his ears, curled into a tiny ball.  

            Voices came and went. His bunkmates, alternating between mockery and fear, caustic sympathy and childish apathy.

            “Think he’s gonna die?”

            “What’d wrong with him?”

            “Poor bastard.”

            “Hey, weirdo, stop being a wimp, you’re not even sick.”

            “Totally gonna die.”

            “He keeps making these weird whimper-moans, it’s freaky.”

            “You okay, Murdock?”

            “Hey, do you think what he’s got is contagious?”

            The nuns would swirl through the fog in his brain, making concerned noises and always sounding very nervous. Maybe they knew about the devil inside. Maybe they were worried about it escaping too.

            “Poor little thing.”

            “Do you think we should call in a priest?”

            “We’ll say a prayer for his soul tonight.”

            “Has someone called a doctor?”

            “He’s just getting worse.”

            “Poor, poor thing.”

            Natasha visited on his last very bad day. He wasn’t really aware of her presence; her heartbeat just one in a river, an sea, and ocean of pulses, her breath all but gone in a whispering forest of exhalations, her nothing-smell (soap, unscented, shampoo, very neutral, he’d never been close enough to her to decode the scent) literally nothing in the face of all the other appalling odors pressing in all around him, making his eyes water and his nose burn.

            The nuns harried Natasha, like small yapping dogs, half the sounds from the sisters’ mouths not registering as words in the turmoil of Matt’s brain.

            “Ma’am, we cannot allow you to – ”

            “The child is ill – “

            “No one should disturb him, he needs his rest.”

            “Intrusion will just make it worse.”

            He could hear when Natasha stopped them with a look. “If he’s only getting worse under your care then I cannot possibly do any harm trying something new,” she said evenly, “Now. May I talk to Matt?”

            The nuns faded back into a whispering sea because Natasha was there, kneeling on the floor beside his bed.

            “Hi, Polygraph,” she said softly, “You’re not doing too well, are you?”

            He tried to say something. He may have whimpered instead.

            “Hey, Polygraph, you need to focus on my voice now. You know why? Because I have something important to tell you. Something that will help you. Are you listening?”

            He blinked at her and shuddered at the wet clicking noise his eyelids made on his eyes.

            “It’s all in your head.”

            He stared at her listlessly.

            “We make choices about what we let affect us. Everything’s a choice. We take what we have and we shape it because we are more than our bodies. What we do is our will, realized, made active. You have enhanced senses. Decide what you do with them. Decide what you want to hear, smell, taste, feel. Control it. Or let it control you. Your choice. Fight? Or submit?”

            Matt’s voice, when it escaped his lips, sounded less like a voice and more like the ghost of what one might be. “Fight. Murdocks always fight.”

            “Good choice. Now. Pick one thing and one thing only to listen to. I’ll help you.”

            Natasha may have thought she’d gotten him to finally fall asleep. And in some ways, she had. She’d helped him get to a point where he could fall asleep if he wanted to. But right now, he didn’t. Instead of listening to just his heartbeat, lulling himself to sleep like he’d planned and she’d suggested, he listened to just the conversation on the other side of the wall. Other sounds still filtered in. Loud ones, unexpected ones, a thousand distractions, all at a painful volume, still flitted through his headspace. A few hours work on focusing did not suddenly grant him mystical powers of control. But it was getting better. For the first time he felt like he could think, like he was alone in his own head.

            But the conversation on the other side of the wall – that was important.

            “He’s coming home with me.”

            “We don’t just hand off our orphans to the first person who waltzes in here, Ms. Romanov. We take the care of our children very seriously – ”

            “Do you? Because that child’s been suffering from chronic migraines for weeks, Sister.”

            A patient sigh, “We are trying our best with Matt. He’s not the easiest child, and his circumstances, not to mention his disability – ”

            “It’s not his disability that is hurting him. It’s his ability. And that won’t stop just because you will him to be just like the other children.”

            “You can’t just – ”

            “I can’t just what, exactly? What was your plan to help that boy? Call in an ‘expert’? Pay someone to take Matt away from here a few hours a day, train him, return him in pristine condition so you can feel proud of yourselves for doing such a very good job raising him? That’s ridiculous and you and I know it. I know him; I like him. He knows me; he likes me. I want to adopt him and teach him to use his gifts. You want to ‘fix’ him via third party.”

            “I will not be insulted this way.”

            “It’s not an insult, it’s a fact.”

            “Ms. Romanov.”

            “You may care very much for Matt. But so do I. And unlike you, I can help him.”

            Matt’s exhausted body gave up on him before he could hear the rest of the conversation, but the beginnings of hope, hot and fizzy like shaken soda, kept him warm as he drifted off.

            Matt woke up early, the day just starting to bloom around him, sleepy sounds unfurling through the city like the petals of a flower in the sun. Natasha’s hand was dry and cool on his. She squeezed his fingers lightly. He turned his hand to clumsily lace their fingers together, squashing hers in his, holding on tight.

            “Morning, Polygraph,” she said; her voice was like her hands, dry and cool.

            “Natasha, are you going to take me away?”

            “That depends.” She had callouses like Dad, a web of tough skin curling around her knuckles. ‘You come from a family of fighters, Matty’. Did he, Dad? Could she be part of it?

            “Depends on what?” He could hear his heartbeat, thunder in his ears, washing out and eliminating everything else.

            “What you want. It’s your choice. Do you want to go with me or do you want to stay here?”

            “Why?” He had to know; he had to ask these questions in the early-morning quiet, before the roar of daytime tore every thought from his head. “Why are you letting me choose?”

            “Because, making choices is what makes us human.”

            Matt’s young brain didn’t know what to do with that. He just blinked slowly at her. “If I go with you – ” he said slowly, groping for each word through the dark of his mind, “Can we stay in the city?”

            He thought she might be frowning at him. He remembered, not for the first time; that he didn’t know what her face looked like. He wondered what the crease between her eyebrows looked like now. “Why do you want to stay?”

            “Because this is my city.” He didn’t have any other way to explain it. The city was in his blood and bones. Everything that had happened to him thus far, everything that shaped and defined Matthew Michael Murdock, was in this city. He couldn’t leave it behind; not when it held his dad, his sight, his past and probably his future.

            He couldn’t lose any more.

            “The city is hurting you.” She didn’t sound like she was trying to change his mind, more like she was reminding him of things, testing his resolve.

            He grit his teeth and tightened his grip on her hand, “I’ll fight back.”

            “It won’t be easy.”

            “I’ll fight.”

            “Stubborn polygraph,” her voice was still dry and cool, collected as always, but there was something warm running under it all.

            “Yeah,” he said in lieu of another response.

            “If I swear we won’t leave the city if I take you with me, what will you say?”

            “Yes.”

            She blinked; he could hear the wet slide-click of her eyelids. “Are you sure?”

            “Get me out of here, please.”

            “Okay, Polygraph.”

            Natasha could help him quiet the world. She was strange and smart and different and his only friend and anything would be better than here with the horrible sheets and no one doing anything to help as every damn day the world exploded inside his brain.

            So Matt wasn’t really thinking about family when he agreed to Natasha’s adoption, he was thinking of friendship and shared jokes and safety and the kind of peace he so desperately needed but couldn’t manage to find.

            So really, he was thinking about family, he just didn’t have the right words yet.

Chapter Text

Part 2: Here’s My Hand if You’ll Take It 

            Matt loved Natasha’s apartment. It was high up, floors and floors of concrete and steel between him and the street. The floor was smooth laminate, cool and soothing on his feet, and for the first time in what felt like years, Matt liberated his feet from the itching, coarse prisons of his socks and slid his bare soles against the floor. The furniture was sparse in a way that spoke of intention rather than poverty or absent-mindedness. This wasn’t a furnished place with a tenant who couldn’t be bothered to add any personal touches; this was the residence of someone who didn’t believe in excess. Every piece of furniture must have a function and that function must be necessary or at the very least extremely useful, otherwise there was simply no point in having it.

            Matt explored it all, fingers itching to touch, to feel, to understand, as he listened to the echoes of his body moving through space, the soft susurrating whisper of his feet across the floor, the raggedy hems of his jeans (the pair was a hand-me-down, a donation to the church, and a little too big for him) dragging slightly with every step. He ran his palms over every surface, puzzling out ever piece of Natasha’s world.

            She left him to it, not interrupting as he investigated the apartment. She didn’t move either, simply stood in the entryway and watched. He could feel her eyes on him, but they weren’t heavy like the nuns’. She wasn’t judging him, examining him according to her internal rubric. She wasn’t waiting for him to do something wrong. He wondered if maybe she was puzzling him out like he was puzzling out the placement of living room furniture; couch here, chair here, table here, all clean, smooth lines. Simple.

            “What color is everything?” he asked after his third circuit of the place; kitchen bleeding into the living and dining area, two bedrooms, each claustrophobically small and absolutely perfect, a bathroom, all cool surfaces and whispering echoes, doors to a small balcony, one in the bigger bedroom, one in the living area.

            The bigger bedroom was Natasha’s; he could smell the faint non-scent of her in the curtains. The smaller one must be for him then. He had stood in it longest, quietly reveling in the emptiness, the simple, neutral smells of lint and fabric softener, the way the sounds of his every motion echoed invitingly against the walls.

            Natasha moved nearly silently, the only sound to give her away was the steady drumbeat of her heart. She was beside him in an instant, her hand a light touch on his shoulder. “The walls are not-quite white, like eggshells or swans. The couch is deep red, like dark wine.”

            “It’s soft.”

            “Velvet.”

            “What about the chair?”

            “A deep golden color, like honey when it’s still in the bottle.”

            “It’s soft, but feels different than the couch.”

            “Suede.”

            “You like rich colors.”

            “They feel warmer to me, comfortable.” She said it as casually as she said anything; as if it were simply another factual statement, but Matt felt like he’d been given a gift, granted access to a secret part of her mind few others had been allowed to see.

            “Thank you,” he said, apropos to nothing.

            “Would you like me to describe the rug in the middle of the floor?” she replied, but she squeezed his shoulder gently as she spoke and he knew they’d understood each other.

            Natasha danced. Matt learned this when he woke up the next morning to the faint sound of shifting furniture and the soft swish of a carpet being rolled up and put aside. At first he was confused, blinking into the waking hours, eavesdropping on the movement in the other room. It was early, very early. He couldn’t be sure what the time was exactly; he didn’t have a watch he could read. Before the orphanage, his dad would tell him what time it was, or the bell would ring at school and he’d know. Everything at the orphanage was so strictly scheduled that between the nuns and the church bells he didn’t need an internal clock, the Lord would provide (quite literally). So all he knew, lying in the stillness, was that it was early enough for the city to being making its’ first sluggish attempts at wakefulness. The oppressive noise of the day was only in its’ infancy in these still minutes.

           Matt thought about the day before, how it had felt to move through the space, focusing on only whatever new thing was under his hands, whatever color, shape, texture, design she was describing. It had been exhausting, blocking out the city long enough to get through all that, but he had done it. Matt felt a little burst of private pride in that fact.

            In the other room he could hear Natasha’ heartbeat, steady and sure, her breaths shifting and rolling, some short, some long, mostly measured and controlled. The floorboards creaked slightly and the building settled around them. Matt wondered what she was doing. He listened harder, pouring all that focus from yesterday into tracking the minute sounds, the slight shifts in the air as it flowed through the apartment.

            Natasha was moving. It was very controlled, but it was…more difficult? More difficult than everyday movement, he could hear it in her breathing. Slower too. Matt furrowed his brows and slid out of his bed (silk sheets, blessedly cool and soothing on his sensitive skin; when he asked Natasha about them she’d raised and eyebrow and said “it’s what I buy for myself; why should anyone in my house have anything different?” as if he were asking about what brand of cereal she stocked). He crept to his door and eased it open, sitting on the floor, leaning on the doorframe and facing the living area. He listened to Natasha move, closing his eyes and trying to feel for the slight shifts in the air currents he could sometimes track on his skin.

            He tried to picture what she was doing.

            Something slow, something controlled, something physically taxing.

            Dancing. Natasha was dancing. Real dance, like ballet. Probably exactly like ballet.

            Matt smiled to himself, keeping his eyes closed, and tried to form a picture in his mind of what Natasha-the-dancer was doing.

            “It’s easier to block out excess noise and sensation if you have something to focus on, something to occupy your mind so completely you naturally filter everything else.”

            Matt nodded, his hands pressed tight over his ears. It was much later, New York below them was in full swing, car horns blasting, sirens wailing, children shrieking, babies crying, tourists shouting. He wondered in the corner of his mind that wasn’t eaten up with distraction, if he’d dreamed Natasha dancing. He’d woken up in his bed again mid-morning and all the furniture, when he checked the living room, was back in place. Either he’d fallen asleep in the doorway and Natasha had found him and guided him back to bed, or, more likely, he’d dreamed the whole thing.

            Right, Natasha. Natasha was talking. Natasha was his friend; Natasha could help him keep out the world. He should really listen to her.

            “What is something you can do well but won’t take up too much of your brainpower?”

            Matt said the first thing that came to mind, “Schoolwork.”

            Natasha’s words took on the odd shape they did when she was smiling that small, wry, crooked smile of hers, “Other than schoolwork.”

            “Um,” Matt gnawed on his lip; an old, bad habit. The slight pain grounded him, gave him focus at a cost. “I can box, Dad taught me.”

            “We’ll try sparring later when I don’t think you’re in danger of getting dizzy and falling over if you stand up,” Natasha said bluntly and Matt couldn’t help the relieved smile the filtered across his face. She was going to let him keep boxing; she wasn’t going to treat him like a spun-sugar snowflake, about to shatter at any time.

            “I guess I can do origami? Only I don’t know if it’s origami or just folding paper into shapes. A kid at the hospital showed me one time when I was there. We folded the paper napkins that come with hospital dinners.” That wasn’t the first time Matt was in the hospital, it was one of the many dozens of follow-up visits that had come after the accident. He’d had to stay overnight for some reason, he couldn’t remember why. All he could really remember from those days was strangely detached from what was really important. Yes, his eyes burned and he was trapped in the dark in constant pain, but his blindness and whatever the doctors liked to mutter about with his dad just outside of his then-limited hearing seemed almost too big. Too much, too big for remembering fully. Instead what he was left with was snippets; little things like his dad reading The Outsiders to him when he couldn’t sleep on the itchy hospital sheets, like a nurse who always hummed and sang Beatles songs under her breath, no matter what she was doing, like the kid in the bed next to his explaining how to fold paper into elaborate shapes.

            “Try paper-folding.” Natasha’s voice cut through his memories, sharp and present. “Focus just on the shape under your fingers, on what you’re trying to make. Focus only on that.”

            Matt nodded; lips pressed together, resolute, and eased his hands away from his ears to take the smooth printer paper Natasha was offering.

            Natasha danced, he was sure of it. Another morning, another haze of half-sleep and another round of shifting furniture and smooth, controlled movement next door. He must have fallen asleep against the doorframe again because he woke up hours later in his bed, and trying to remember the images he’d managed to piece together from eavesdropping on her practice was like trying to grasp the tail ends of a dream.

            “What do you look like?” he’d asked one day, picking at the sandwich on his plate.

            He heard her pause across the table from him, her natural stillness somehow deepening, even as her heart sped up. What was she afraid of? He reached out to – he wasn’t sure. Perhaps pat her hand, perhaps comfort her; obviously something he’d said upset her.

            “You don’t have to answer,” the dead air between them itched at him, getting under his skin, making him nervous. He turned his face down, towards his sandwich. PBJ, with creamy peanut butter and homemade jelly they’d bought at a farmer’s market on one of his good days, when he could stand the noise long enough to leave the apartment for a few hours. He’d told Natasha about the chemical taste of store-bought food, the way he could feel the fakeness on his tongue. She’d given him one of her long, considering looks and finally nodded. “Alright,” she’d said, and it was alright. They’d started eating mostly fruits and vegetables and meat bought straight from the butcher’s counter, nothing that came wrapped in plastic. He’d woken up one morning, one of the few he hadn’t crept out of bed to listen to Natasha dance, to the whole apartment steeped in the rich smell of baking bread.

            “Natasha?”

            “Yes, Polygraph?”

            “Did you bake bread?”

            “I think you know the answer to that question.”

            “But…why?”

            “Because I can and you don’t like store-bought bread. We both win.”

            “…Thank you.”

            “I get the first piece, though. Chef’s privilege.”

            He’d laughed. He liked Natasha’s sly humor, her dry comments.

            Across the table Natasha shifted, the sort of small, uneasy movement most people did subconsciously, but she never had. Matt lifted his head, aiming his eyes towards her face.

            “People put a lot of stock in what we look like.” Her words were innocuous, seemingly empty of meaning. They didn’t feel empty.

            Matt shrugged, a little uncomfortable. “It never seemed all that important what people looked like until I couldn’t see them anymore,” he said lightly, voice hitching and catching the last words. He thought about his dad, tried to summon up an image of his face. It was harder than it used to be. Matt tried to crush the irrational fear brewing in his chest that someday he wouldn’t be able to remember at all.

            Natasha hummed softly, thinking.

            “Do people call you ugly?” Matt asked, suddenly filled with a new anger, incandescent and bright. “Because that’s a dick thing to do,” he said, hard and resolute as a little boy could be.

            Natasha laughed, sharply and suddenly, the sound raspy like it’d been punched out of her chest, “No, I have never been called ugly.”

            He cocked his head, still staring at her, trying to decipher her.

            She sighed, “I am a very beautiful woman, and the world is not always kind to beautiful women.”

            “Why not?” Matt demanded, the thought of anyone being cruel to Natasha sparking something hot and furious in his chest.

            “Because when people see something beautiful they want to own it, to make it theirs. And I refuse to be anyone’s possession. But people don’t like that. They don’t like being told ‘no’; that they can’t have the beautiful thing they want.” She sounded so sad and fierce; it called to something in Matt, something old and ferocious.

            “But you’re not a beautiful thing,” he protested.

            “Oh?” He could imagine her tipping her head to the side, unconsciously mimicking him. Or perhaps he’d started mimicking her.

            “You’re a beautiful person. There’s a difference.” And feeling spiteful and victorious, as if he’d won some sort of battle against the dark world Natasha seemed to face, he took a savage and decisive bite of his sandwich.

            Natasha made a sound halfway between a hum and a chuckle and sighed. “I have red hair,” she admitted.

            He grinned, peanut butter still stuck between his teeth, “That’s my favorite color.”

            The apartment was being overtaken by paper cranes. Tiny birds littered every surface, peeked out of every corner.

            Natasha came home from work (she’d leave for hours on end every few days, coming back at odd times, and when Matt asked she simply rested a gentle hand on his head and said “work”) one day and said, “Matt, this is ridiculous. We have a colony of cranes and nowhere else to put them.”

            Matt shrugged, “They’re all I know how to make. Cranes and bracelets.”

            Natasha sighed. “I’ll take care of it.”

            Matt wasn’t sure what she was referring to; his inability to make anything other than paper waterfowl or their crane-storage issue, so he just went back to patiently creasing yet another piece of paper into avian form.

            Natasha left for an hour and came back with a CD and fishing line. When Matt asked her what she was doing she simply hummed enigmatically in his general direction and carried on puttering around the apartment. He went back to blocking out the world and folding another crane.

            An hour later she touched his shoulder and said, “I want to show you something.”

            He looked up and nodded, confused, letting Natasha lead him away from the table and into the living room.

            “Can pick you up?” she asked unexpectedly.

            Matt tipped his head to the side, confused, “Aren’t I too heavy?”

            She laughed, her raspy little chuckle, “I’m stronger than I appear.”

            He shrugged, unconvinced, “Okay, you can try.”

            Her arms were strong lines of muscle and bone around him and suddenly he was off the ground, supported by the lean line of Natasha.

            “Reach up,” she said softly.

            He did, startling slightly when she took his hand in one of hers and guided him over to where one of his cranes hung, suspended by fish line, from the ceiling. She guided him, crane by crane, down the cascading mobile she’d made out of them.

            “Thank you,” he said softly when she set him back on the ground. Then, shuffling his feet and picking at the hem of his shirt, he looked back up at her, “Can I hug you?”

            “Yes,” her voice was neutral as ever but there was a hint of warmth staining the words.

            “Where did you put the rest of the cranes?” he asked, voice muffled against her side.

            “There’s more hanging in your room, and there’s some strung across the ceiling, they just aren’t as low as these.”

            He grinned and tried to imagine what that must look like; lines of paper cranes flying through an artificial sky.

            “What’s on the CD you brought home?” he asked later.

            “Instructions. How to make things other than cranes,” she said dryly and he’d laughed.

            One day he emerged from his room to a familiar set of sounds and smells. Sweat, canvas, shifting sand, a creak and sway that sent him back to his earliest memories in his dad’s gym.

            “Why is there a punching bag in the living room?”

            “Because sometimes I punch things,” Natasha said unhelpfully, “And you said you knew how to box. Show me.”

            Matt grinned.

            “What do you do?” Matt asked. They were sitting at the table. Matt was folding paper (not cranes, with his new CD he could now do all sorts of other things), and Natasha was carving something. He could hear the harsh rasp of her pocketknife on the small lump of wood, coaxing a shape out of the grain. She did this sometimes, when she said she needed to think, when she wanted to be active but still at the same time.

            “I do a lot of things, Polygraph,” she said serenely. ‘Polygraph’ was still her favorite pet name for him, although she’d begun to pepper their conversations with various Russian endearments too. He’d asked and she’d explained every one of them. Now, to her bemusement, Matt was pestering her to teach him Russian.

            “What do you do when you’re working?”

            He could hear her grip on her knife tightening even as she kept working. “Why do you want to know?”

            “You’re not a boxer, but you have callouses like my dad. You don’t work regular hours, you don’t wear the same kind of clothes every time you go out, but you never seem to run out of money. If you’re a criminal, that’s okay, I just want you to tell me.” And promise me you aren’t hurting good people; that you aren’t working for people like the guys that killed my dad.

            She set her project down and folded her hands. He could hear the slide of her hair against her neck as she bowed her head, the skin-on-skin rasp of her lips pressing together. She wasn’t wearing makeup; otherwise the sound would have been thicker, stickier.

            “We’re very honest, you and me,” she said, words stilted and staggering, like they weren’t quite sure where to go, “Or you are and I want to be.”

            Matt nodded, heart in his mouth, trying to encourage her to keep talking, explain, please, please explain.

            “I’m going to tell you my story, Matt. Or at the least the parts you need to hear. It’s not a pretty story, I’m sorry about that. But you’re part of it now and I think you need to understand.”

            Matt didn’t do anything, just sat very still as if he would scare the truth away if he grabbed for it.

            “I’m older than I look. I’m not sure how much older. I just know I was born in Russia sometime during World War II,” she laughed, sharp and harsh, “I look half my age.”

            Matt nodded. Her joints didn’t creak. Her heart was fast and strong and young.

            “There was a program, called the Red Room. They took us very, very young. They enhanced us, made us stronger, faster, supposedly better than human. They manipulated everything about us, our bodies, our minds, our actions. They trained us, made us warriors, the best assassins in the world. No, not assassins. Attack dogs. Beasts. They treated us like animals, neutered us like dogs, trained us to kill on command and beat us down when we were bad.”

            Matt had dropped his project, the paper falling from numb fingers. He reached out to Natasha, narrowing missing her half-finished carving and the knife beside it, and tangled his little fingers with hers. She stiffened, surprised, then squeezed back with terrible, lonely strength.

            “I was theirs for years. I don’t know how long. I did terrible, terrible things, Matt. I was less than human; they made me less than human. There’s red in my ledger. I want to wash it out.”

            “But you’re not theirs anymore?”

            “No.” Her fingers tightened on his and he imagined her grim smile, baring her teeth at the world that hurt her, “They thought they took away all my choices. That they’d won. But being human is making choices and I chose to get away. I burned them to the ground when I left. There was nothing left. I’ve lived off their blood money for the past five years. And I’m trying to clear the red from ledger.”

            “What do you mean?” Matt asked quietly, still not understanding, not completely.

            “I’m hunting down the last of them, the parts I missed when I left. Them, the people they worked with, the people they worked with. I’m cleaning up my mess.”

            Matt stared at her, and waited, but Natasha didn’t seem to have anything else to say. Finally, when the dead air between had hung for what felt like a short infinity, Matt spoke. “My grandmother always said the Murdock boys have got the devil in them. Sounds like you’re like me and my dad, you have the devil in you too.”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “Let me tell you about my dad,” Matt offered her a smile and Natasha squeezed his fingers, he hadn’t let her go and he wasn’t going to. Not yet.

            “You keep spying on my sessions,” Natasha said, one of those still, strange mornings where the world felt half-real and the assassin danced in the living room and the blind boy watched.

            Matt didn’t say anything, just sat, very still, unsure what to do now that Natasha had acknowledged these mornings, made them real.

            “Why?” she asked. She hadn’t stopped working. He could still hear her move, the creak of her joints, the stretch and give of her clothes, the thump-thump-thump of her heartbeat.

            “I like to try to figure out what you’re doing.” It had helped, in the very beginning, when Matt’s senses were out of control, skittering off in all directions, to have something to focus on, to puzzle out. Reconstructing Natasha’s graceful motions piece by piece had broadened his perspective, allowing him to visualize the world on a new level, finally taking away some of the mystery and confusion of blindness. It was wonderful.

            “Hmm,” Natasha hummed contemplatively and moved through another set of positions, control perfect as ever. Then, after Matt had all but given up on further response from her, she said, “Would you like to see what I’m doing?”

            Matt blinked, “I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen,” he told her flatly.

            He heard the slither-hiss of her hair brushing her shoulders as she shook her head. “I’ll show you what I’m doing. I can teach you, so you’ll be able to ‘see’ it. You’ll be doing it with me.”

            Matt hadn’t thought of that. He picked at the hem of his shirt. “Why do you dance?” he deflected.

            “Because it quiets the monsters in my head,” she said simply and plainly, not pausing in her warm-up.

            Pressing his lips together, Matt made a decision. “Show me,” he said.

            He could hear Natasha’s smile as she said, “Come over here, sit with me. You have to stretch first.”

            Matt wasn’t sure how she learned when his birthday was (that was a lie, he knew it was somewhere on his adoption paperwork, he just didn’t expect her to remember it). But that morning, he woke up thinking it must be bread day. Soft baking smells permeated the apartment, sneaking into everything in their gentle, pervasive way. When he walked out to the living room, scrubbing his hands over his eyes and beginning the daily ritual of cataloguing the rush of sounds from within and without and slowly filtering each out, he listened for Natasha and found her in the kitchen.

            “Natasha? Why didn’t you wake me up for dance this morning?” he mumbled into his hands.

            “Because it’s your birthday and homemade cakes take time,” she said bluntly.

            Matt froze, his heart trying to climb into his throat and stay there. “Why?” he choked out.

            “Because you deserve it,” Natasha said, still blunt, as if him deserving a birthday cake were an inalienable fact, like air containing oxygen.

            Matt was not going to cry. Eleven-year-olds did not cry. His dad didn’t cry, not even when he got the shit beat out of him in the ring. Natasha didn’t cry, even though her past sucked and she was all alone until she took him home (and he would never really understand that; how Natasha could just claim him as hers simply because she was his friend and he needed her help, it seemed too big, too much kindness for someone he would later learn had known very little of kindness.)

            Natasha was suddenly there, in front of him and he didn’t think, he just acted. Matt threw his arms around her and hung on tight. She went stiff at first, shocked a little, he could hear her heartbeat stutter, before slowly relaxing by degrees until her arms came up and draped themselves around his shoulders in a loose approximation of a hug. “Happy birthday,” she said softly.

            “It’s my first birthday without my dad,” he sniffed, “When he was…when we were living in our apartment, he always made this huge deal out of birthdays. We didn’t have much and we really only did one present each; one for me on my birthday and one for him on his, but he was always really hung up on the day being special, on it being important to celebrate being alive. And now he’s not and you remembered and the nuns mean well but they don’t always remember on the right day and whenever a kid had a birthday at the orphanage we’d wait until Saturday to eat ‘birthday’ cake, even if their birthday wasn’t on a Saturday, and it was dumb and there wasn’t any cake if the birthday was on Lent because I’m stupid and Catholic and I really, really didn’t want to have a birthday in the orphanage and I’m selfish and horrible and I’m sorry.”

            Natasha squeezed him tighter, “Wow, the nuns really did a number on you, kid,” she murmured.

            He shook his head violently, face still buried in Natasha’s side “No, they mean well. I’m just selfish and horrible,” his voice trailed off and got small at the end; he was too busy realizing all over again what a terrible person he was. He’d forgotten, he’d been so distracted with his senses and paper cranes and dancing and Natasha.

            “No, you’re not.” Blunt certainty. Her tone of inalienable truth.

            “I got my dad killed and I’m horrible,” the words were bitter on his tongue and felt so searingly true that he shuddered with the burning pain of them. He hadn’t thought about that in so long, he’d been so busy keeping his thoughts away, getting swept up in the agony of the world trying to claw its way into his skull.

            “Listen,” Natasha’s fingers were tense and strong on his shoulders; she hadn’t stopped hugging him. He wondered if this was what having a mom was like, strong hugs and fierce words and birthday cakes on your birthday. “The nuns told me what happened to your dad. None of that was your fault.”

            “But it was.” Matt was crying now, even thought eleven year olds don’t, “Some mobsters were going to pay him to throw a fight and I talked to him before the match and we talked about how Murdocks don’t give up, we always get back up and fight, and he took me seriously, he didn’t throw the fight, he kept fighting and he won and I killed him because I told him to win and they came after him for not doing what they told him to and I killed my dad.” His voice sputtered and died, dissolving into jagged sobs, his face buried in Natasha’s side.

            “How did your dad die?” Natasha asked, voice like cool water, soothing a fever of feeling.

            “H-he was shot.”

            “By you?”

            “N-no.”

            “By who?”

            “The mobsters. They said they’d make him pay if he didn’t throw the fight.”

            “So he knew what he was doing.” Natasha’s voice sounded so reasonable, so sure and still.

            “Y-yeah, but – ”

            “No. He knew what he was getting into. He made a choice. He chose to win that last fight, damn the consequences. We can’t make people’s choices for them. We do that and we’re monsters or gods. And I know you’re not a monster or god, Matt.

            “Your dad left you a lot of money, did you know that? No, you didn’t. Well, he did. You know where that money came from? He bet it all on that last fight. And he put the winnings into your bank account so you’d have something for yourself, so you could build your life, and have as many choices as possible. He knew what he was doing. You didn’t kill your dad, and don’t cheapen his decision by saying you did. He walked into that fight with his eyes open and his fists up. He made his death mean something by making sure you’d have that money. Make his sacrifices worth it.” She pulled back a bit, stretching her arms between them and shook his gently, “Understand? Making choices makes us human. Your dad made his choice.”

            Matt nodded, mute.

            Natasha gave him another short shake, then tugged him close and hugged him tight, before letting go and walking away. “Now, we aren’t having cake for breakfast. We aren’t savages. How do eggs and bacon sound?”

            Matt rubbed his eyes, “Sounds good,” he whispered.

            He could feel Natasha’ gentle half-smile from across the room. “Happy birthday, Matt.”

            “Thanks, Natasha.” He and gave her a wobbly smile back, the thank you encompassing more than the birthday greeting.

            He heard her hair whispering as she nodded. She understood.

            “Teach me how to do what you do,” he said one day, fingers pausing in the middle of the page of the textbook he was only kind-of-sort-of reading. Pre algebra could wait.

            “No,” Natasha said, flipping to a new page in her book for emphasis.

            “Why not?”

            “Why aren’t you doing your math homework?”

            “Because it’s dumb and I’m smart,” Matt answered cheekily, “Come on, I want to learn how to fight like you.”

            “No.”

            “Please?”

            “Not going to work.” Another emphatic page-flip.

            “Double please?”

            “This is not a playground and we are not school children,” she said dryly. Matt took that to mean she still meant ‘no’.

            “How would it be any different than the training I used to do with Dad? Than what we do now with the punching bag every afternoon?” They had fallen into something of a routine, now that Matt’s senses weren’t as completely out-of-control as they were before. Dance in the mornings, then breakfast, then schoolwork or origami for Matt and information-gathering or whittling for Natasha, after a few hours of that, lunch, then, if it was a good day, they’d walk around New York for a few hours, aimlessly exploring the city like they used to when Matt was still at the orphanage and Natasha was just a visitor, when they got home they’d get out the punching bag and Matt would smack it around while Natasha ran through martial arts forms, and if it was a bad day they’d stay in and just focus on beating up the punching bag together. Eventually they’d eat dinner then spend a few hours sprawled in their living room listening to taped BBC radio dramas on the battered tape deck Natasha had found at a thrift store until it was time for Matt to go to bed and Natasha to go to work.

            Matt drummed his fingers on the table, waiting for a response. He wasn’t even pretending to read his textbook. He was being homeschooled this year, to give him more time to work through the sensory onslaught that was the world without falling behind academically. Incidentally, math was still boring, even outside of a technical ‘classroom’. Matt preferred history or English; subjects with layers upon layers of complexity, nuances ready for dissection. Math was too concrete, too unyielding; and Matt had found that most of the concrete, unyielding things in his life, things like his father’s death, his mother’s desertion, his blindness; were universally unpleasant.

            Matt was also never a huge fan of rules. And math seemed to have far too many of them.

            Natasha set her book down. A small victory, then. Excellent.

            “Why do you want to learn?” she asked.

            “Because I want to be better than I am now.” He’d meant to say ‘stronger’, but ‘better’ came out and it had the harsh copper taste of blood and truth in his mouth.

            “Better? How would being anything like me make you ‘better’?” Natasha’s tone wasn’t cruel; it was cool and hard with a painful little twist at the end.

            “Because the way I am isn’t good enough,” Matt admitted.

            “Yes it is.” Natasha sounded so sure, so utterly, fiercely, ferociously sure that Matt almost believed her for a moment.

            “I’m a blind kid who can’t leave the house for more than a few hours!” Matt didn’t shout much; he didn’t like the way the noise echoed through his head, rattling his brain painfully in his skull, “I’m a cripple, I’m weak. I don’t want to be weak, Natasha. Every good person I’ve ever known was strong and I want to be strong too!”

            Natasha sighed, “And you think me teaching you what I know will make you stronger? Oh, Polygraph.” There was something bitter and hurt in her voice. He wondered what she looked like. He wondered that a lot. What she looked like now, what she looked like happy, what she looked like in the rare moments when she smiled, what she looked like when she danced.   He felt like Icarus reaching for the sun. He’d never know what anyone looked like ever again. And the thought burned him up.

            “Yes.” Matt was resolute, “I want to be able to protect myself and the people who matter.”

            “And you want to be strong. Like your dad.”

            “And you. I want to be strong like Dad and you. I don’t want to be weak anymore.”

            He heard Natasha sigh and shift in her seat. Standing up. She was standing up. “If any of my enemies come after you, you’ll need to be able to protect yourself.” She said abruptly, seeming to change the subject without changing anything at all. “We’ll start with what you already know and go from there.”

            Matt held very still, uncertain that she was doing and saying what he thought she was.

            “Well. Did you want to learn or not?”

            “Yes.”

            “Then follow me. We need to push the furniture out of the way.”

            Natasha wasn’t religious, but Matt missed the smell of the church, the sweet and spicy tang of incense, the rolling thunder of the priest’s voice droning on in Latin, the simplicity of confession. That’s why they were here, outside a church, when Natasha hadn’t set foot on holy ground in what might have been decades.

            “This was my Dad’s church. You don’t have to come in with me; I just want to listen to the service. I used to like the way the church felt. It’s restful.”

            Natasha squeezed his shoulder. “Okay, Polygraph, I’ll be across the street. Let me know when you want to go home.”

            Natasha was a live wire when she fought. Matt thought he knew the way she moved from dance, the smooth grace turning into sharp, striking, pointed beauty at all the least expected moments. But that was just the primer for a whole spectrum of what Natasha in motion could be.

            It was astonishing. Trying to track her movements was like trying to watch the sun back when he could see. Searing and painful and damn near impossible.

            But Matt was stubborn and he learned.

            Natasha didn’t hit him when they trained. He thought that maybe she was half-afraid what she would do to him if she touched him. But he could feel the breeze as her foot brushed past his face and she called out “Chin”, and the dead air between them never felt so heavy as when her jab stopped just short of the middle of his chest, “Sternum”, and he could feel the crackle of static as her socks nearly touched his ankles, “leg sweep”.

            “You can hit me. I get that it’s part of the training process. I used to watch my dad’s practice matches. We can wear padding, if you want,” Matt offered.

            “No.” Natasha didn’t elaborate.

            Mostly they worked through forms side-by-side, Natasha explaining the principals of each martial art they practiced. She had him training in the basics of three at once, making sure the styles blended with what he already knew, making him what she called ‘a versatile, adaptable fighter’.

            So Matt clenched his fists and grit his teeth and kept working.

            Matt liked Father Lantom. That didn’t mean he asked the Father to speak to Natasha one Sunday morning as parishioners began to trickle into the little stone church. But priests were unpredictable. All those layers of tradition and formality were just a clever ruse, Matt was sure of it.

            “Join us for the service, Ms. Romanov. You’re more than welcome,” Lantom said, voice warm and wry as ever.

“I think the church frowns on heathens trespassing on holy ground.” Natasha shrugged him off, her public persona fully in place. Matt could almost hear the creak of her fake smile as it contorted her face.  

“The church may, but God doesn’t and neither do I,” Lantom countered mildly. 

“The way I hear it, your God doesn’t much care for sinners.” Some of the real Natasha was beginning to show through, Matt could hear it in her voice, dry as a dessert.

“Lies, Ms. Romanov,” Lantom said lightly,  “God is love; and love is only true when it encompasses both the perfect and the imperfect.” 

“Love is for children, Father,” Natasha said tersely. Matt wondered about that, wondered what she would say if he told her he loved her; that she was his best friend and the only mother he’d ever known.

“What are we but God’s imperfect, troublesome children?” Lantom chuckled with a verbal shrug.

“You never do run out of pithy phrases, do you?” There was Natasha, dry as ever. 

“Oh, that’s the big secret,” Lantom said cheerily, “I, in fact, do.  Which is why I must cut this conversation short, otherwise I won’t have anything fresh for the congregation.” He bustled off, but not without taking a moment to pause and exchange pleasantries with Matt before returning to the church.

“He’s an odd one,” Natasha mused. Matt could hear the smile distorting her words.

“Come in with me?” Matt asked. His tone was playfully hopeful, while his mind twisted the feeling around and made it more earnest than teasing. He hoped the two didn’t mix on his face.

“I’ll leave if I get bored,” Natasha said gravely. Matt laughed.

“You know some people just sleep when they’re bored. I’ve heard it’s more efficient and draws less attention.”

Matt was improving; he could tell. When they sparred, Natasha didn’t call her hits anymore, instead giving him light taps in their place, making their presence known. Of course, Natasha’s ‘light taps’ were a bit firmer than average. But Matt didn’t complain, he learned.

“Don’t be predictable,” Natasha instructed, “Habits are how you die. Always keep your enemy guessing. And when that doesn’t work, just know more than them or be so batshit crazy they don’t know how to react.” Natasha cursed with the same cool efficiency she applied to everything. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but that wasn’t it.

Matt had laughed out loud at that, laughter pure and joyful and genuinely shocking in its suddenness.

Matt knew he wasn’t supposed to overhear this conversation, but his senses couldn’t be helped (or, more accurately, they could, now that he was so much better at reigning them in than he used to be, he just liked eavesdropping with impunity). It was winter, the air crisp and chill and tasting like snow as they stepped out from the warm, smoky sanctuary of the church. He could feel weak sunlight creeping through the trees and dappling his skin with white-gold drops of light. The wind teased its way through his hair, mussing it up and combing it into tangles with icy fingers.

Behind him, Father Lanthom and Natasha exited at a much more sedate pace. He could hear the soft crunch of ice giving way ever-so-slightly under their shoes. Father Lanthom was talking, filling the air with banal nothing-words about the weather, church goings-on that Natasha and Matt didn’t care about, and how peculiar he found secular Valentines’ Day celebrations to be. Natasha wasn’t really contributing to the conversation, just sort of humming in the gaps between thoughts. Lanthom didn’t seem bothered by it; Matt could hear the smile in his voice, and the 11-year-old could only conclude that Father Lanthom was doing this on purpose. What that purpose might be was a bit beyond 11-year-old understanding.

But Natasha seemed to appreciate it, this slice of normality. Boring life for boring people yet somehow, inexplicably beautiful in its strangeness.

The rest of the churchgoers departed, leaving only Father Lanthom, Natasha, and Matt in the churchyard. Matt couldn’t really be bothered with the adults’ conversation, he was too busy chasing the feeling of the sun on his skin, trying to guess the size and shape of each blot of pure light that escaped through the trees’ branches.

            A moment of – not silence, never silence, there was no such thing as silence, not really – more verbal stillness than anything else, and suddenly Father Lanthom seemed to change subject very quickly. “You once told me ‘love is for children’, Natasha,” he mused quietly.

            “I did,” Natasha acknowledged coolly. Matt was definitely listening now, still moving trough the churchyard, chasing the sun, but this time listening with all he had.

            “Did you mean only children should feel love, or only children deserve it?” the Father said quietly and Matt froze. He could sense Natasha freeze too, all their muscles tightening up for no concrete reason, just the sure knowledge that this was the kind of conversation sane people run away from.

            More verbal stillness. He could feel Natasha’s eyes on him, following him as he meandered through the churchyard, stopping to say hello to each of the graves (quiet and dignified, as one should be around the dead).

            “You know,” he could hear her enigmatic smile on her lips, “I don’t really know any more.”

            It was exactly a year since Natasha took Matt away from the orphanage and the nuns and the abominable noise.   Exactly a year since the day he began to feel less adrift and more secure, anchored down. (At home. The words he was looking for were ‘at home’, although he didn’t really fully realize it until many years later, when he was standing in a dingy little office with a man named Foggy and a woman named Karen and realized it was their dingy little office and that made all the difference).

            “Natasha, I made something for you.” He held something out to his friend (mother? whatever), cupped in his hands like a baby bird, or something he couldn’t quite bear to look at. Like a child presenting artwork to a disapproving parent.

            “Why?” she asked, pausing in her interminable page-turning and putting the book down. She had twisted herself into some sort of awful yoga-pretzel and was reading while holding the absurd position. Matt elected to just roll with it.

            Matt cleared his throat, unaccountably nervous. “Natasha, could you please stop yoga-ing when I’m trying to give you a cool gift?”

            She laughed and he could hear her unwinding herself from whatever contortion she twisted herself into this time, to sit cross-legged and attentive on her yoga mat.

            “So, what do you have for me?” she asked lightly but kindly.

            “A bracelet,” he mumbled, the lack of volume turning the word into audio mush, “I made it. It used to be the only other thing I knew, besides cranes. I don’t know what color it is, but I liked the paper; it felt nice, smooth like silk, and it’s strong too – ” his words, confused and disoriented, staggered to a halt and gave him their two week’s notice.

            And still Natasha didn’t say anything. She gently removed the bracelet from his palm and held it in her hands. He could hear her running her fingers over it, exploring it the way she investigated everything.

            “D-do you like it?” he asked uncertainly when this period of non-talking lasted longer than expected.

            “I – ” the words stumbled in her throat and then just decided to throw in the towel and not bother emerging. She cleared her throat and composed herself, “Thank you. It’s…it’s beautiful. And thank you.”

            Matt wasn’t sure who started the hug and he was fairly certain they’d both deny it if asked (a physically affectionate duo they were not), but there they were, hanging on for dear life.

            “You know I can’t wear it on missions, right, polygraph?”

            “Yeah, but it’s not really there for you to wear. Just to remember that I care about you and you’re important to someone.”

            Natasha squeezed him a little tighter before easing off, “Thank you,” she said simply, but the words seemed to somehow translate into something other than the sum of their phonetic parts.

Chapter Text

Part 3: There Are Two Roads to Walk Down and One Road to Choose 

            “Natasha,” Matt flung himself into the passenger seat of her car with the kind of boneless grace normal 12-year-olds, much less blind ones, were not supposed to have. The fact that he was still wearing his backpack and clutching his cane, combined with his abrupt transfer from pavement to vehicle saved the gesture from being too elegant, instead making the whole motion just short of completely ridiculous as Matt wiggled around, trying squish his gangly body and all it accouterments into what was not exactly a spacious area. “I never want to go back to school again,” he whined and officially gave up on getting comfortable and just flopped, like an exhausted kitten, on the car’s butter-smooth leather interior.

            “You said that last week,” Natasha said mildly from the open door behind him, “Now get out, take your backpack off and act like a human being and not a jellyfish.”

            “I can be a jellyfish if I want,” he grumbled into the seat leather, but wriggled out of the car anyway, shedding his backpack and handing his burdens over to Natasha.

            She took them briskly, stashing both book bag and cane in the back seat before taking his shoulder, swiveling him around to face the car and saying “Now you can get in.”

            He sighed melodramatically because that’s what you do when you’re twelve and are so done with normal-people school and simultaneously wish you could go back to the blissful isolation of homeschool and still punch out all the assholes that populate the average middle school.

            “Now,” Natasha, now in the driver’s seat, reached across his chest to close the passenger-side door, “Why don’t you want to go to school now?”

            Matt sighed again, blew his bangs out of his useless eyes and didn’t answer.

            “Matt.”

            “People are horrible. And gross. And that’s okay because most of the time it’s a secret but I know everything and it’s awful and they suck.”

            Natasha hummed, “Yes. So?”

            Matt kicked at the floorboards because clearly Natasha did not get it.

            “Polygraph,” now it was Natasha’s turn to sigh, “Contrary to your apparent current belief, you can’t actually punch the whole world in the face.”

            “I don’t want to punch the whole world in the face. Just the horrible people.”

            “The whole world’s a little bit horrible. We all think awful things and sometimes we say them and sometimes we do them and that is terrible. But that doesn’t mean that all of us are bad. It doesn’t even mean that most of us are bad. Understand?”

            Matt hummed in acknowledgement but didn’t say anything else. He’d picked the habit up from Natasha and it had stuck.

            A few more minutes of driving in what passed for New York silence and then, “I don’t like how the other boys’ heartbeats sound when they see you,” Matt muttered. He had crossed his arms over his chest and tucked his knees in close to the seat, trying to make himself smaller. Though he’d never admit it, least of all to himself, but it had been a long day and he was tired and it was making him as cranky as a toddler coming down from a sugar high.

            He could hear the slight shift as Natasha tipped her head to the side, probably with that little half smile he’d hear twisting her words as soon as she spoke. “And why is that, Polygraph?” Bingo, there it was, the little smile.

            Matt tightened his grip where his fingers were digging into his arms, then loosened them when they prodded at old bruises. “Because they get all fast and aggressive. It sounds dangerous.”

            Natasha didn’t make fun of him, but she didn’t really say anything, just humming in acknowledgement.

            Matt knew, he knew the other boys’ heartbeats sounded like that because they were attracted to Natasha, not because they were going to attack or hurt anyone. Thinking otherwise was ridiculous and not just ridiculous, but dumb. Just…Natasha was Natasha, his mother and his best friend and part of what was really a very small, dark world for Matthew Murdock. And when those boys looked at her and their heartbeats got like that, it was wrong and it was frightening, because it sounded so similar to how their heartbeats sounded when they were fighting each other, or harassing smaller, weaker students, or threatening to beat up Matt for being just this side of normal. Fast. Loud. Harsh and unpredictable and dangerous. And Matt didn’t like that kind of danger directed at the person who’d kept him safe when the world was threatening to crush him and leave nothing left.

            “I know they’re harmless, it’s just – ” he shrugged and trailed off.

            “Sounds like you need some practice,” Natasha said mildly, “learn to differentiate between different heartbeat rhythms.”

            “It’s all the same, it’s all so primal,” Matt sighed again because he was 12 years old and very smart and when you’re 12 and in a certain IQ range you find yourself frequently disgusted by the troglodytes you call ‘peers’.

            “It’s not the same and you know it,” Natasha said bluntly, “Study it; learn the difference. It could save your life someday.” She gave him a sly smirk, he could sense it, “Or maybe just save your future sex life.”

            Matt gave her his best disgusted face, “We have to cover that in health this year,” he said in a tone generally reserved for self-important martyrs or others who have known great suffering and wish for all to know about it and be suitably impressed, “It’s going to be horrible. Because I can’t see the illustrations, they’re either going to get extremely graphic with the audio descriptions or make me feel up plastic models.”

            Natasha snickered.

            Matt gave her a betrayed look.

            Natasha didn’t smother her snickers.

            “I don’t want to feel up plastic models, Natasha,” he said as pitifully as he could.

            Natasha chuckled the whole way home.

            “So what you’re saying,” she recapped as they cleared the living room of furniture and began to move through their stretches and warm-up tai chi, “is that you don’t like me picking you up because hormonal boys’ heartbeats are creepy, but you also hate the bus because it smells like a garbage dump. How exactly do you propose to get to school in the future, Mr. Murdock?”

            “Teleportation,” Matt said grimly, “it’s the only way. I’ll have to wait a few years for the technology to get there, but I can homeschool in the meantime.”

            He won another chuckle from Natasha and beamed, today was looking up. “Socialization, Polygraph. I can’t have you go off to college without any idea how to talk to other humans.”

            “Psychobabble,” he dismissed lightly, grinning at her, feeling lighter now that he was home and away from the negative vortex that was middle school.

            “Research-based conclusions. There have been studies.”

            “BS”

            “Language.”

            “Are we censoring letters now? Because if we are I vote for X, no one uses that one,” Matt quipped lightly.

            Natasha muttered at him darkly in Russian.

            Natasha left for a job with the strict instructions that Matt was to do his homework, brush his teeth before bed, and not let anyone in the apartment without a thorough background check.   Matt did all those things, even brushing his teeth because a.) Natasha would know if he didn’t through her possibly-mystical all-knowing powers and b.) with his heightened senses sometimes he could swear he could feel the plaque buildup on his teeth growing and that was an all-around unpleasant sensation.

            So, closing up his textbooks, he settled into the nightly routine: brush teeth, wash face, check the alarm system for intruders, the regular drill. No intruders according to the alarm system. He’ d named her Sally. He figured anything that talked to him as much as she did deserved a name and a little respect.

            And so Matt settled onto his bed, drawing his pajama-clad legs up to his chest and resting his cheek on the soft material stretched across his bony knees, and listened. He closed his useless eyes in the indeterminate darkness, focused on his breathing and stretched his senses, casually encompassing the building and most of the block.

            He’d discovered a little quirk of his abilities, or perhaps the way he processed the input from them, a year ago. Sensory overload was hell, but if he relaxed enough to just let it in? Without any thoughts or analysis, just letting the information to slide in one ear and out the other? Was soothing. Almost like going into a trance, just sitting on his bed and letting the city into his head for a few minutes a day? That was nice. Calming in its’ own chaotic way.

            And it had the side benefit of being able to pick up suspicious sounds before they became enough of a problem for Sally-the-alarm-system to catch.

            Like this one.

            Matt frowned. He really didn’t want to have to deal with this. But Natasha wasn’t here and while she said not to let anyone in without bare minimum a background check, she never explicitly said anything about Matt going out and handling threats before they got to the breaking and entering portion of the evening.

            So Matt pawed through his closet, found the specially marked hangers towards the back, nabbed the dark clothing he found there, threw it on and slipped out, tracking the restless twang of twitchy fingers playing with a taut bowstring and the rasp of a pair of lungs that didn’t belong here.

            “You shouldn’t be here,” he told the strange man who smelled of pizza, grease, oil, dirt, and a slight tang of antiseptic ointment. A practical set of smells, this one.

            The man jerked, pivoting and scanning his surroundings, bow up and ready; Matt could hear the fire escape whine in protest under the stranger’s boots. Matt stayed close to the building, a level above the bowman, not 100% certain he could trust the rickety fire escape.

            “You shouldn’t be here,” Matt repeated.

            “Yeah?” the archer said. He’d stopped moving and that could only mean one thing; that he had Matt in his sights. That was not a comforting thought. “And why’s that, kid?”

            “That building, the one across the street, it’s off limits.”

            “Really?” The man didn’t sound skeptical so much as tolerant and long-suffering. Like an adult putting up with a child’s foolishness. “Off limits to who? Because if you guys have banned Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy I’m gonna be really disappointed in your life choices.”

            “You were targeting an apartment. A very specific one. Why?” Matt demanded; not to be deterred by the man’s attempt at humor.

            “So that’s a maybe on the Santa Claus?” the stranger joked and Matt considered abandoning the high ground just so he could hit him, “Hey, I’m kidding, kid. I’m looking for the Black Widow. For SHIELD. Shit. I don’t think I’m supposed to tell you that. Shit. I don’t think I’m supposed to swear in front of a kid. Aw, great, I already did it twice. That’s it, you’re corrupted.”

            “You’re trying to kill Natasha?” Matt asked. He knew the answer, it was all over this situation; this neat little set up.

            “Trying to take her in. Bring her to justice.”

            “Justice.”

            “Yeah.”

            “Setting up a sniper’s nest outside someone’s window isn’t justice; it’s stalking and assassination.”

            “I’m not sniping anyone, kid – ”

            “Yet.”

            “Not sniping, you paranoid baby ninja. I’m doing recon.”

            “With a weapon.”

            “Always good to have a bow handy.” The stranger shrugged and Matt tensed, trying to track the man’s individual minute movements and gestures. It wasn’t as easy as it could have been.  

            Out of words to say, Matt just settled for glaring through his sunglasses in the offending party’s direction.

            “So, what? You’re the welcoming committee?” the guy said speculatively, “How the hell, shi- ah, darn, I keep swearing in front of a kid, how’d you get up here? What’re you doing?”

            “Telling you to leave,” Matt said, trying to sound intimidating. He didn’t think it was working.

            “Nice try, kid.”

            “Leave.”

            The guy must have made some sort of expression Matt couldn’t see. “Kid, it’s late, go home. Your parents must be worried about you.”

            Yeah, well, I have to make sure you aren’t here to kill my mom, Matt thought but didn’t say. He opted for continuing to glare in the stranger’s general direction.

            “Kid, go home.

            “No.”

            “Why are you so concerned about this?”

            Matt didn’t answer and after a few more attempts at conversation, the stranger muttered something under his breath (“Eh, leave him. He’ll get bored eventually. I hope. Or his parents will come looking for him. Which would suck. Eh, he’ll get bored. Maybe.” – it was a very cyclical sort of muttering) and let Matt be.

            Matt settled in for the long haul. He was going to monitor the shit out of this suspicious bastard. (And seriously, who did this guy think he was kidding? Matt had been hearing swear words since he was in diapers. The guys at his dad’s gym didn’t exactly specialize in clean language.)

            Matt stayed perched on the fire escape, waiting for the guy from SHIELD – whatever that was – to do something potentially lethal. Matt could feel the first rays of sunlight trickling through the skyscraper jungle that was NYC when the archer called up to him, “Sun’s coming up, kid. If you’re still up there, you’d better clear out.”

            Matt cleared out. Or, well, he staggered home and just barely managed to shuck his sneaking clothes, stash them in his closet, wriggle into pajamas, and slither into bed before Natasha got home. She woke him up for school maybe an hour later. He groggily blinked through breakfast and wondered how much trouble he’d be in if he slept through first period.

            And that was the end of day 1.

            Day 2 and the archer was back. In a different spot this time. After Natasha left for the night, Matt waited half and hour before the stranger appeared on his radar again. Now he was on the roof of one of the shorter neighboring buildings. Matt wasn’t a great climber, but he could easily get up there. Knowing the only way he could be 100% sure the archer guy wouldn’t hurt Natasha involved Matt being close enough to stop the archer if Natasha came home early and the guy’s friends from SHIELD (whatever that was) decided they were more interested in assassination than ‘justice’, Matt put on his sneaking clothes again and crept out.

            “Gah! Aw, kid, why’re you back?” the stranger complained.

            “Could ask you the same question,” Matt said mulishly.

            “It’s called my job, kiddo. And I’m doing it.”

            “She’s not home now. She wasn’t home when you were here last night. Why aren’t you tailing her or something?”

            “Secret spy reasons,” the guy muttered, “Obviously.”

            “Secret spy reasons?” Matt asked skeptically.

            “Yeah, super secret spy reasons. So stop asking questions unless you want you and your whole family relocated to Kansas while you listen to nothing but the band Kansas on repeat because those witness protection guys are a little too hung up on ‘Carry On My Wayward Son’. Got it?”

            “Not remotely.” Matt said flatly.

            “Eh, good. Here’s a life lesson, kid. If anyone ever tries to intimidate you with words, any words really, just remember to either throw out what sounds like a really convincing argument with lots of words that sound longer, prettier and more interesting than the asshole’s are, make a convincing case for your own insanity (crazy always sends people running), or actually know more fancy words than them and be crazy enough that they leave you alone.”

            Matt nodded, “Crazy or smart. Or better, crazy-but-smart.”

            “See, you’re catching on.”

            Day three of monitoring the interloper was boring. Matt yawned all the way through it.

            Day 4 dawned with Matt grumbling into his pillow, “Can’t school. Sick.”

            “Faker,” Natasha quipped back. “Your breakfast’s on the table, your lunch is made. Go, go.”

            “When are you even sleeping?” the archer asked later in day 4.

            “Maybe I don’t need sleep,” Matt muttered, irritable and restless-but-groggy in a way only profound sleep deprivation could provide.

            “Maybe you do and your parents are gonna skin me alive once they find out what you’re doing tailing me.” A pause, uncertain, Matt could hear the archer’s breaths, out of tempo with his staggering heartbeat, “You do have parents, don’t you, kid? You’re not dodging the foster system to hang out here trying to become the Robin to my Batman, are you? Which, if you are, no judgment, just I can’t legally let you do that. And while I’m not 100% certain everything I’ve done- do- done- whatever, do, is strictly above-board legal-wise, I can’t justify preserving my rep as a devil-may-care ne’er-do-well at the expense of a kid who needs a good-ish home.”

            Matt shook his head, “I have a home.”

            “Well, ah, good; that’s a start. And is it a, ah, good home? The people there, they care about you, yeah? There really is someone who’d be worried if they knew their ten-year-old was scaling buildings and stalking scary guys with medieval weaponry?”

            “Yeah. My mom works nights. She doesn’t know. And I’m twelve.” Matt tried to keep his sentences short, to the point, and strictly half-truths only. He may be the only person he’d ever met who could hear heartbeats, but he didn’t want to risk there being another person on the planet who could do it too.

            “Why’re you doing this, kid?” the archer asked for the millionth time.

            “Why’re you hunting Natasha?”

            “No fair, I answered that question on day 1.” Nice to know Matt wasn’t the only one counting the days since this surreal spy-skulking thing happened.

            “Not well.”

            “I wasn’t supposed to answer it at all. I think I get bonus points.”

           “Fine. I’m making sure you don’t hurt anybody.”

            “And you think you could take me down if that became an issue?” the archer sounded skeptical.

            Matt narrowed his eyes at him, even though the distance between them and the New-York-at-midnight semi-darkness all around them probably obscured the facial expression. “Yeah, I would,” he said, trying to put as much of Natasha and his dad’s steel into his voice.

            The archer chuckled. “Cool, a kid thinks he can kick my ass. Whew, new low achieved. I feel like I deserve a Girl Scout merit badge. And maybe one of their dumb sash-y things. Definitely some cookies, though.”

            Day 5 was a Saturday and Matt slept through most of it. He woke up briefly, groggy and disorientated, around noon to Natasha feeling his forehead and murmuring about a fever. He hoped he didn’t have a fever. Being real-sick would suck. Senses already a little fuzzy, world already permanently dark, Matt closed his eyes and let himself slip back into sleep.

            He woke up again around four to Natasha sitting on the edge of his bed, her heart a little faster, a little more anxious than normal. Matt didn’t like it.

            “Matt, you awake?” she asked, voice soft. It rang through Matt’s skull like a gunshot and he shivered. Dammit, he really did have a fever. Controlling his senses always got harder when he was sick and now that he was awake, the crushing weight of the air around him and the creeping clamor of the street outside closed in on him. He shivered again and nearly threw up as he felt every minute twitch of his pajama shirt shifting on his skin like a thousand million insect legs crawling across his body.

            He must have made some sort of pathetic whimpering sound because Natasha gently combed his (sweat-soaked, the smell was choking him) hair out of his eyes, and murmured comfortingly in Russian. “I’m not going out tonight, Matt,” she said softly, voice modulated to avoid aggravating his already-overwhelmed nervous system, “I’m going to stay home with you instead, understand?”

            “No,” Matt mumbled, the hideous noise of his own voice echoing through his skull. He tried to construct a sentence to explain to Natasha just why she had to leave, why he had to sneak out and monitor the archer guy, but the words wouldn’t come and he just settled for ‘no’.

            “Stubborn,” she chided.

            “Mrmpf.”

            “Go back to sleep, I’ll wake you up when it’s time for dinner.”

            Matt, already losing his train of thought about danger and archers, let sleep take him again.

            Day 6 was a slightly improved version of day 5, this time featuring Matt sitting on the living room couch, wrapped in a blanket, sweating out his fever and listening to BBC radio dramas on tape.

            The archer hadn’t done anything destructive last night, and Natasha seemed to be in one piece, so Matt didn’t worry about it too much. Which is to say he worried about it constantly, but realized there was nothing he could do about it, so instead he drank more tea and let the adventures of the Eighth Doctor wash over him.

            Day 7 and Matt was much improved, although school was mildly horrible and it was a bit harder to block out the noise of it and a bit easier to play the innocent blind kid routine when he really did spend most of the day in a state of mild disorientation and sensory overload.

            That night, after checking his temperature multiple times with the tight, controlled efficiency that said that this was Important to Natasha and not just something perfunctory she felt like she had to do, Natasha geared up to head out.

            “There’s soup in the fridge,” she told him, “Can you tell where it is?”

            “Yeah, I can smell it. I’m not that sick,” Matt made a face at her. He could feel her pin him with a cool, assessing look.

            “Rest. Stay put. Don’t strain yourself. Eat your soup.”

            “Yeah, I got it the first time, Nat.”

            “Good. Then follow orders.”

            He gave her a grin he assumed was cute, it wasn’t like he could check it in the mirror. “I thought you said choice made us human?”

            “You have a choice. Rest and eat your soup, or get sicker. I trust you’re smart enough to figure out what you should be doing.”

            Matt, unable to conjure up a clever retort, settled for the pre-teen standby response of sighing deeply and dramatically.

            Natasha snorted softly. “Someone’s feeling better.”

            “Just go,” Matt sighed at her in classic 12-year-old form.

            And go Natasha did. But not before she ran a surprisingly gentle hand through his hair, “You be good,” she said in soft Russian as she walked out the door.

            Yes, Mom, Matt mouthed in the direction of the closed door she had just exited. He was only being a little sarcastic.

            Of course, as soon as he was sure Natasha was gone and the archer was back in place, Matt threw on his sneaking clothes and prepared to head out. He paused at the fridge, remembering the soup. Natasha would know if he hadn’t eaten it. Making up his mind rapidly, Matt grabbed the Tupperware container and some eating utensils before exiting.

            The climb up to the stranger’s new perch was made more difficult with the addition of several pounds of soup, but Matt scrambled up to the archer’s nest without falling to his death, so he counted it as a win.

            “Kid? What the hell, kid, where have you been?” the stranger’s voice cracked through Matt’s brain.

            “Where you worried about me?”

            “Ah, yeah, kid. ‘Course I was worried when you didn’t show up. Figured you’d been grounded or something and I hear that being ground up into hamburger can be fatal.”

            “I’m pretty sure that’s not what grounding means,” Matt hazarded a guess, although he didn’t actually know. His dad hadn’t been much for grounding. Jack was more likely to sit him down and say “So what did you do?” and follow it up with “and why was that not a good idea?” and close it off with “and why are you never going to do that again?”. If that didn’t work there were always chores to be done for punishment. Natasha, oddly enough, favored a similar approach. Although she would sometimes leave him to stew for hours, forcing him to think about whatever it was he did before confronting him about it.

            So no, Matt Murdock had never been properly grounded in his life. He wondered if he would be if Natasha caught him up here.

            “I’m okay, just a little fever. My mom got worried.”

            “Your mom know you’re monkeying around up here?”

            “Nope. Soup?”

            “Soup?”

            “Yeah, my mom made it before she had to leave for work. It’s cold, but I brought two spoons and it’s a big Tupperware.”

            He could feel the archer starting at him, eyes boring through him, trying to reconstruct the situation into one that made sense to him. Finally he blinked. “Heck yes, I want homemade soup, get me my spoon, kid, and get the lid off that thing. I’m hungry.”

            Day 8 Matt learned the archer’s name.

            “Name’s Clint. You bring me any coffee?”

            “No. Hi Clint. No soup either.”

            “Man, you’re not fun.”

            “My name’s Matthew. I don’t think people named after saints are required to be fun.”

            “But apparently you’re required to be sassy.”

            “Well, as long as we don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, the seraphim seem kind of okay with it. The archangels are a little harder to impress, though.”

            Day 9 and this whole thing was both getting old and getting a lot easier. For the first time in a long time, Matt felt like he might have actually made a friend. Unfortunately, he still wasn’t sure that friend wasn’t stalking his mom with intent to kill.

            “So why are you here?” Matt tried to wheedle more information out of Clint, “You’re literally monitoring an empty apartment.”

            “Drew the short straw,” Clint muttered into the thermos of coffee Matt had supplied for bribery purposes.

            Matt took a gulp of his own coffee (no, Natasha did not know, and Matt would be careful to wash and put away the evidence before she got home). “Are you the new guy?”

            “Yeah,” Clint supplied monosyllabically.

            “That sucks.” It really did, it meant that there was a whole monitoring team tailing Natasha at all hours of the day. Hours Matt wouldn’t be around to track them and keep her safe. “Still. An empty apartment?”

            “Just in case,” Clint replied tersely. He was clearly less than enthused about this assignment.

            “Huh.”

            “You still haven’t told me why you care, kid.”

            “Yeah, I did. I don’t want you to hurt anyone.”

            “Uh-huh,” Clint managed to sound skeptical and relaxed at the same time. Matt wished he knew how to do that. “What I’m wondering is this: one, how did you even know I was up there that first night? Two, how do you keep finding me? I assure you I am a very stealthy super-secret spy, thank you. And three, this is really kind of excessive for a kid. Trust me. You’ve gotten your bonus karma points; you have ensured that my potential reign of terror on your neighborhood has been averted. Go home. Skulking around in the dark of the night is not an acceptable extracurricular for middle schoolers.”

            Matt figured if he didn’t respond, Clint might drop it.

            No such luck.

            “Hey, seriously, how are you doing this? What’s your game here, kid?”

            Matt didn’t say anything, just curled his knees against his chest and took another healthy swig of his coffee.

            Clint sighed, an exasperated huff of air. “Kid – ” he started but couldn’t quite finish the sentence, instead just letting out another tired sigh.

            Matt let the silence sit for a while longer. He didn’t really have anything to add to this conversation, such as it was.

            “Kid, I’m going to have to report you eventually. You and your abnormally-skilled skulking count as ‘suspicious activity’.”

            Matt tensed. He hadn’t thought of that. That might make things worse for Natasha. That wasn’t the point at all.

            Without taking the thermos back from Clint, Matt capped his own, shoved it into the backpack he’d grabbed specifically for coffee-transporting purposes, and swung down and away from Clint’s perch.

            He could monitor the archer from somewhere else. As long as he was a building or less away, he’d be able to get the drop on Clint if the agent tried anything nefarious.

            He didn’t need another friend. It was fine. He and Natasha were safer this way. He wasn’t going to lose Natasha the way he’d lost his dad.

            Ignoring Clint’s confused calls after him, Matt made his escape into the night.

            That morning, after Matt staggered home to get his three or so hours of sleep before school, he dreamed.

            Blind people who could once see dream in color. Or at least Matt did. His dreams tended to shift and swirl like paint melting off of a piece of art, restless and grotesquely abstract. Most of the time everything was different tones and shades of one dominant color, or everything was multicolored but somehow wrong, like even his subconscious mind couldn’t quite manage to remember that strawberries were red and grass was green.

            But it was hard to mind the trippy tie-dye world of his slumbering mind when there were the voices. When Matt was asleep he could hear his dad again, hear the other boxers at his gym, all the rough-and-ready voices that had filled in the corners of his childhood. They weren’t saying anything important; there was nothing earth-shattering about these conjured-up conversations. Just familiar voices saying tired old phrases in the same old familiar way they always had.

            That night found Matt dreaming all in red, fragments of his dad’s voice punctuating the sharp, grotesque shifts in the topography of Matt’s dreamscape.

            That morning he woke up, cheeks stiff and salty with the night’s silent tears.

            Day 10 and Matt was 91% sure he should tell Natasha about Clint. But he couldn’t quite string the words together in a coherent sentence that communicated everything about the past week but still maintained a heavy subtext of ‘don’t blame me, I was trying to help’. So in the end he kept his mouth shut for another day and promised himself he’d tell her tomorrow.

            Looking back, this was a particularly dumb decision.

            Well-aware of Clint’s threat to report him, Matt stayed out of the archer’s sight and just focused on ensuring no harm came to the neighborhood. Again. Really, he should get a bigger allowance for this. Or an allowance at all. Matt was pretty sure, no matter how it came about; he deserved to be paid for putting up with this crap.

            Of course the one night Matt wasn’t sitting right next to Clint, ready to diffuse the situation, was the one night when Natasha came home early and (pinpointing Clint’s new hideout exactly; Matt wasn’t convinced she didn’t have super-senses too) seeing Matt gone, went on the warpath.

            It all happened so fast. Matt had been so focused on the interloper (Clint. Was he really and interloper once her had a name?) that he hadn’t sensed Natasha’s return.

            Mistake number 1.

            By the time he clued in, Natasha was too close to the apartment for Matt to get across the street and slip into his bed in the nick of time. Then, of course, he had to listen to her heart try to beat itself out of her chest as she searched the apartment for her wayward charge. All he could do was listen in frozen horror as she crossed the street and scaled a building to drop down behind Clint and say, “Where’s my son?” Only ‘say’ was really a polite way to say ‘over-enunciated with a truly spectacular amount of menace’ here.

            Clint whipped around and sputtered his innocence just in time to catch a foot with his face. The two adults scuffled (oddly silently, it was eerie). Even if Matt could hear every tiny sound they made, the minimal noise and perfect control of the fight made listening in seem almost…rude.

            A (very quiet) thud-crash later and Natasha must have had Clint pinned because Matt could hear him wheeze and struggle under her weight. Not to mention she was back to snarling questions. “What did your goons do to my son?” she demanded, voice smooth and soft as silk but twice as deadly.

            “What the fuck- aw, no, not the Blac- Seriously? This is happening to me? Ugh, this sucks. Let’s go back to beating each other up.”

            “Where is my son?” And it shouldn’t fill Matt with all these warm fuzzy feelings to have Natasha refer to him as ‘her son’, but it did, it really did.

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about, crazy lady,” Clint stressed each and every syllable before throwing her off, and suddenly they were back to trying to beat the stuffing out of each other.

            Matt held very still and listened for all he was worth. He could just barely track where they were, sense what they were doing, smell the muggy scent of salty sweat. And then there was the crack of one skull hitting another and blood in the wind. The gravel-scrape of feet staggering on a rooftop and Natasha was choking, she was choking and Matt could hear the stutter-gasp of her shocked lungs straining for air and suddenly his feet were flying and he couldn’t so much hear his heartbeat as feel it vibrating through every cell, every organelle and protein of his body, giving him a steady drumbeat to move to as he flung himself at Clint, knocking him away from Natasha.

            “You’d better fucking leave my mom alone.”

            Confrontations like that shouldn’t logically end in ice cream and frozen peas, but somehow here they were, in the small hours of the morning of day 11, in Matt and Natasha’s apartment, eating ice cream and staring (figuratively, in Matt’s case) down an enemy agent. The frozen peas had originally been for twin black eyes Clint was now sporting, but somehow Matt had repossessed them and was now eating them out of the bag like candy at a movie theatre while Clint made do with ice in a dishtowel.

            Oh and ice cream. Clint had the shitty birthday cake batter flavor, though. No use wasting the good ice cream on the enemy.

            They were eating the ice cream directly out of the containers, like savages, because it had been a long night and they deserved the opportunity to dig oversized spoons into whole cartons of ice cream like college students or recently-dumped high schoolers. Natasha had taken a scoop of mint chocolate chip and dumped it into another carton, mixing it with what was left of the rocky road and eating the freakish ice cream soup that emerged. Matt ate the vanilla ice cream they’d made in gallon Ziploc bags last week. He could eat food with chemicals in it, but he just didn’t see the point in forcing himself to eat something when he could tell at first bite just how processed it was. So he and Natasha googled and cooked and made a lot of homemade foods.

            They sat in silence, digging their spoons into their respective ice cream choices, Matt periodically pausing to crunch on a few more frozen peas.

            “Wasting our frozen peas, Polygraph,” Natasha said coolly but not unkindly.

            Matt shrugged, “They taste better frozen.”

            Natasha didn’t chuckle; he got the feeling that maybe she didn’t laugh much around other people. But he could hear the slight, near-invisible smile twisting her voice as she said, “Icepacks are not for eating.”

            “You have a kid?” Clint interrupted. He seemed a little stuck on the subject, the past five minutes had passed with him periodically interjecting, no matter the conversation topic, to utter variations on the theme (“you’re her kid?” being another popular option).

            “I do now,” Natasha said concisely, licking her ice cream spoon. This motion was either extremely attractive or extremely terrifying, possibly a combination of both, because Matt could hear Clint’s heart try to beat its way out of the archer’s chest.

            “Now,” Natasha continued, “Why is SHIELD trying to monitor me?”

            “Ah – ” Clint stumbled, “Would you believe me if I told you that no one prepared me for this scenario and I have no freaking clue what to say?”

            Natasha hummed thoughtfully. “Yes. But that’s no excuse.”

            “Nah, of course not, why would the terrifying assassin-lady take a perfectly valid excuse for an answer,” Clint muttered.

            “Trying to monitor you?” Matt asked, turning in Natasha’s direction.

            “Trying, yes. Succeeding seems to be a bit beyond them at this time.”

            Clint muttered something that Matt shouldn’t have been able to hear that sounded remarkably like “Dammit, nobody tells me shit”.

            “Is that why you’ve been going out so much?” Matt asked. He’d just assumed she had another job, but if she had really been dodging her SHIELD tails… (whatever SHIELD was, Matt still wasn’t 100% sure on that front).

            “Yes. Fortunately we’ve captured this one,” she said dryly, “This should speed things up. Which is good. I was getting tired of having to lose tails every time I left to pick you up from school.”

            “Hey, I am in no way captured!” Clint protested, “I am completely and totally un-captured!”

            “You’re in enemy territory, eating enemy food,” Matt summed up, “You’re captured.”

            Clint sighed dramatically and took another bite of his horrible ice cream.

            “So what are we going to do now?” Matt asked Natasha as he dug around the bottom of his gallon Ziploc bag, searching for the last few mushy droplets of homemade ice cream.

            “I am going to negotiate a cessation of hostilities between myself and SHIELD, contingent upon the return of their asset. You are going to give me my frozen peas back and go to bed. You’re grounded.”

            Clint gave a low whistle of mock-sympathy and Matt’s spine stiffened in indignation. “Why? What did I do wrong?” the twelve-year-old demanded. “While you were gone I detected a potentially hostile party and set about monitoring with intent to neutralize should such action ever become necessary,” he paused and grinned, “See? I can do the espionage double-talk too.”

            “Oh great,” Clint sighed, “A baby lawyer-ninja. Yay.”

            “And you failed to report your activities to your superior officer. That’s a demerit, be glad I’m not court-martialing you.” Natasha sounded completely serious. Matt knew she was joking.

            Matt gave her a grin the little old lady a floor below them (she had bad knees, Matt could hear them click and pop in all the wrong ways, especially on rainy days, he always tried to be there to carry her groceries for her when she got a little too carried away on the canned goods aisle) assured him was ‘just adorable’.

            “No,” Natasha cut him off before he could ask, “Sleep. Now.”

            Matt sighed and gave her the patented Pre-Teen Dramatic Eyeroll “I’ll just hear everything you say anyway.”

            “Matt.” Natasha rarely used her Don’t-Push-Me-I-Know-How-to-Dismember-You-and-Successfully-Hide-the-Evidence voice on him, but when she did it was damn effective.

            Matt tossed the empty Ziploc bag, shoved the spoon in the dishwasher and booked it to his room.

            Of course, even wearing pajamas and snuggled into his silk sheets, Matt could still hear every word in the next room as clearly as he would if someone spoke each syllable directly into his ear.

            “So, are you gonna kill me?” Clint shouldn’t sound that casual, no one should sound that casual about their potential murder.

            Natasha made no verbal reply. Matt could pick up the small hum she made in the back of her throat. The one she made when she was being distant and enigmatic on purpose.

            “Because the name ‘Black Widow’ kind of speaks for itself,” Clint shrugged, “I get it if you didn’t want to do it in front of Matt. He seems like a good kid.”  

            “If I kill you I just end up with more unwanted SHIELD scrutiny,” Natasha said coolly. “But Matt’s put me in a rather difficult situation. You’ve met him. You know about him. Now you’re dangerous. In the old days I’d kill you without a thought. But now...” a pause, suggesting she shrugged, “It would just cause more complications I don’t want.”

            “And you don’t want that kid in there to be disappointed in you,” Clint pointed out, surprisingly astutely, “he doesn’t seem like the type to be cool with murder willy-nilly.”

            “It would appear using you for leverage within SHIELD is my best option,” Natasha said, tone dry and cool.

            “Or you could switch sides,” Clint offered, “Seriously, hang out with us, we have cookies.”

            Matt fell asleep after that, drifting off against his will into the fuzzy Technicolor realm of his dreams. He woke up what might have been a few minutes or possibly a few hours later to Natasha sitting on the edge of his bed.

            “Hi,” he mumbled as soon as he registered her presence, “Where’s Clint?”

            “Still in the living room, sleeping.”

            “Are you joining SHIELD?” Now that Matt was focusing he could pick up the slow, steady thrum of Clint’s heartbeat and the even, measured tides of his breath.

            Natasha hummed tunelessly. “Perhaps.”

            “We’ll see?” Matt offered wryly.

            Natasha snorted lightly, “You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are.”

            “Blind jokes are always funny,” Matt protested.

            Natasha made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sigh. “Why didn’t you tell me, Polygraph?”

            Matt chewed his lip uneasily, “I don’t know. I thought- I thought I was helping. That I was doing the right thing. As long as I was handling the problem, you wouldn’t have to worry about it. It was my job to take care of. I wanted to help.” His eyes were filling with tears against his will, so he buried his face in his pillow to smother them.

            Natasha sighed and reached out to comb her fingers through his hair soothingly, “You were very reckless and you made some very big mistakes. You could have gotten yourself killed. You made yourself sick shorting yourself on sleep over this; I’m not stupid, don’t think I didn’t notice that. I need you to think. It’s not enough to be strong and smart and brave. You have to be practical too. Wars aren’t won through bravery. Wars are won through thinking things through.”

            “And being too stubborn to lose.”

            “Yes, but that doesn’t support my argument, so I’m not going to bring it up until I need to use it in a different inspirational mentor-figure speech,” Natasha said dryly as Matt chuckled through the tears that still worked their silent way down his cheeks.

            Dragging in a wet gasp for air, Matt steeled himself, saying simple things should not require more bravery than stalking government assassins, and yet… “You’re a good mom, Natasha.”

            Natasha went very still and Matt was irrationally sure she could feel his heart trying to escape the cage of his chest.

            Her fingers tensed on his skull, not painfully, but strong, solid, “I would be honored to call you my son,” she said softly, voice curling shyly around the unfamiliar words.

            “Okay, Mom,” he said, losing the last syllable to a uncontrollable giggle, the choked and wet as it snagged on his tears. He cleared his throat and tried again, “Okay, Mom.”

            Natasha made a small sound and on any other person he might have thought it was a tiny sob. Her hand went back to combing through his sleep-rumpled hair, but her fingers trembled slightly.

            “I’ve never had a mom before,” Matt murmured, out of tears to shed.

            “Me neither,” Natasha confessed.

            “Making it up as we go along,” Matt mumbled, sleepy now that feelings had all been felt and the danger passed.

            “The best strategy is a flexible one,” Natasha said sagely, voice warm with humor.

            “’Night, Mom,” Matt was never, ever going to get tired of saying that. Ever. Because he’d never had a mom, and now he did and she was perfect and he was home and they were safe.

            “Goodnight, Polygraph,” she said softly.

            Matt fell asleep listening to Natasha singing Russian lullabies under her breath.

Chapter Text

Part 4: Jump Start My Kaleidoscope Heart 

            Apparently joining SHIELD meant a lifetime subscription to Clint Barton. Matt didn’t really mind, per se. The archer was fun, and kind of his only friend that wasn’t his mom or his priest, but he was also kind of still the enemy. Albeit, the enemy that had convinced the other enemies that Natasha was actually a potential ally… This was getting too complicated. Suffice to say Matt now had a mental flow-chart delineating who was loyal to who.

            But Clint was fun, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy spending time with Matt and Natasha (for what reason Matt couldn’t really fathom, he wasn’t particularly used to adults voluntarily opting into spending time with them. Father Lanthom was a strange outlier.).

            “So, kid, what can you do?”

            “Um. Algebra and some basic Spanish?” Matt offered, uncertain where this was going. A month into Natasha’s tenure at SHIELD and she was off on a mission and somehow Clint had become Matt’s designated driver to and from school. This mean that their trips back to the apartment from the middle school tended to devolve into a string of side trips to ice cream shops (Matt refused to eat anything that came from a cart, he could taste the rust and dirt), funky hole-in-the-wall antique stores full of lavender-scented old ladies and teenagers reeking of weed, and tourist traps full of the gaudiest, most ridiculous NYC crap ever to inhabit the planet. Clint had the impulse control of a 5 year old and a healthy desire for adventure in his own backyard. (“New York City is like an alien planet, kid. Layers upon layers of weird, and you’d never know it just walking down the street. Unless you’re in Times Square. Then they just sort of hit you in the face with the weird until you give up or pass out. Wow, this metaphor got away from me.”)

            Right now they were wandering around a flea market Clint found, eating the ice cream cones they picked up a block away. Periodically Clint would pick something up, hand it to Matt and say “Hey, what can you tell me about this thing?” and Matt would give him whatever bizarre trivia his senses could catch. Then it was Clint’s turn to describe what the thing looked like in vivid, hilarious detail. (“This here purse is a delightful shade of mauve, really brings out the puce undertones. But it’s the neon green accents that really tie the whole thing together, y’know? Sort of like barf. Like someone ate their weight in Fruit By The Foot then threw it all up an hour later. Gross. Ew. Please tell me it doesn’t actually smell as bad as it looks.”)

            Vendors did not tend to like them much.

            “Aw, boo. Boring. I don’t care what you can do in school, I’d dropped out and joined the circus by the time I was your age. I mean what can you do? Talents, skills, whatever.”

            Matt scrunched up his face, trying to puzzle out what Clint was asking. “You already know about my – ” he made a vague hand gesture encompassing his general face-area and the senses that came with it.

            “Yeah,” Matt could just make out the rasp of fabric on skin as Clint shrugged, “But that’s not what I mean, either.” He paused, seeming to consider, “Okay, how’s this. What’s something you can do that you’re really proud of? That you didn’t have to learn to do because it was necessary or required or due on Monday. Just something cool. Go.”

            Matt chewed his lip, thinking. Most of his ‘talents’ were coping mechanisms to deal with the onslaught of the world around him. Or, failing that, were school-related. “Um. I can mostly speak Russian?” he offered, a little unsure.

            He heard Clint nod, “Cool. I can mostly speak Russian too.”

            “Are you making fun of me?” Matt asked in Natasha’s mother tongue.

            Clint laughed. Clint laughed a lot, and when he did it was with his whole body, unrestrained and perfectly happy. It was a strange contrast to Natasha. It reminded Matt of his dad. “Only a little bit,” Clint offered in Russian.

            “Good,” Matt said, because he couldn’t think of anything else and the petulant middle-schooler within wouldn’t be satisfied without a comeback.

            Clint chuckled again, but it was gentler this time. “So. Anything else cool you can do?” He asked, switching back to English.

            “I can climb up the sides of buildings.”

            “That’s funny, so can I!” Clint said, voice rich with mock-surprise.

            “Yeah, but you do it because it’s necessary. I do it because it’s fun,” Matt shot back smugly.

            “Liar,” Clint said, just as smug, “I bet you had no idea you could do that before you started creeping on my lookout spot.”

            Matt bit the inside of his cheek, “I figured out the theory.”

            “Eh,” Clint made an annoying buzzer sound, “Argument not valid.”

            “Fine,” Matt huffed, “I can read Braille, and even though it’s a necessity, it’s pretty freaking cool.” He crossed his arms and did not sulk because he was way too old for that.

            “Hey,” Clint said affably, “I can read ASL, but people never seem nearly as impressed with that as they should be.”

            “Sign language?” Matt asked, curiosity drawing him out of his not-sulk, “Is that for your job?”

            “Nope. It’s for when I’m not wearing my hearing aids.”

            Matt was so surprised he stopped walking. Just froze in the middle of the sidewalk as his brain slowly rebooted. “Seriously?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Oh. Cool.”

            A few more undeniably strange moments until Matt blinked and just started walking again, Clint falling into step beside him.

            “I guess I didn’t see that coming,” Matt said, completely deadpan after a few moments of quiet walking.

            “I hear what you’re saying, but I just can’t agree with what you’re suggesting,” Clint said flatly right back.

            They both snickered in snyc.

            Recovered from his laughter, Matt shoved his non-cane-holding hand into his jeans pocket. “But we’re not boding over our disabilities or anything. Because that would be cliché and dumb.”

            “Nope,” Clint agreed easily and cheerfully, “We’re bonding over the utter terrible-ness of the technicolor barf-purse back there.”

            Matt laughed with his whole body. Like his dad. Happy.

            Matt met Agent Coulson under less-than-ideal circumstances. Namely, Matt was in an enormous amount of trouble, and Coulson’s office happened to be the one with an unlocked door and no windows.

            Matt hadn’t really expected the office to be occupied, honestly. He’d been too busy escaping the wrath of Nicholas Fury to put too much effort into listening for resident heartbeats before yanking the office door open and flinging himself inside. Nonetheless, he had been 80% sure the office was empty.

            So when the agent occupying the office, very reasonably, asked what exactly was a preteen kid doing cowering behind his door, Matt did the only reasonable thing he could think of. He flung the nearest small object at the sudden source of noise. The nearest object being his cane, this was perhaps not Matt’s best decision.

            The agent caught the cane, of course, because SHIELD seemed to be populated largely by people who tended to opt out of getting hit in the face by flying objects. “Now, I knew we were putting more effort into recruitment,” he said mildly, a clatter signaling to Matt that the cane had been safely placed on a desk or table off to the side, away from the door, “But I still think a legal drivers’ license is the bare minimum for age requirement.”

            “Do you not have a heartbeat?” Matt blurted out, because apparently while the agent was opting out of getting hit in the face, Matt was opting out of having any social graces.

            To his credit, the agent was unruffled by this statement, “I was meditating when you decided to make your grand entrance. Slows the heart rate. Makes it harder to detect.”

            “Is that a concern for you? People detecting your heartbeat?”

            “Not particularly, but you never know when you need to fudge some vital signs,” the man responded pleasantly.

            Matt narrowed his eyes at him, trying to track his movements around the room. “You’re not going to tase me for breaking into your office?”

            “It’s not breaking in if the door’s unlocked,” the agent offered generously. “Now, I am curious; why the questions about my heartbeat?”

            Well, shit. “If I said superpowers would you believe me and never ask me another question about it ever again?”

            The agent seemed to deliberate for a long moment. “Well, should the need arise, I’m sure I could find alternative sources of information on your alleged extra-human abilities. So, yes. I agree to your terms.”

            Oh, this guy was cool. And smart. Matt figured if he couldn’t grow up to be Natasha, he could probably shoot for growing up to be like this guy. “Awesome. I can smell the peppermints in your desk. Can I have one?”

            “No, they’re poisoned,” the agent said bluntly, “But I think I have some chocolates in my personal stash.”

            Ha, one mystery solved. “I thought the mints smelled off. I wasn’t sure if they’d gone bad or SHIELD had messed with them.” That was fine; Matt didn’t actually like peppermints much anyway. They tended to be a bit too overwhelming for his senses. A few seconds after putting one in his mouth he always had the peculiar feeling that his tongue was going numb and his sinuses had frozen over.

            “A bit of both,” the agent admitted, holding out a plastic bag and crinkling it a few times so Matt could track the sound of it, “Hersheys? They’re leftover from Halloween.”

            Matt grabbed a fun-sized candy at random, sniffed it, rejected it for its caramel filling (caramel stuck in his teeth and he always felt like it was still there just lurking days later), grabbed another, sniffed it, deemed the mini Crunch bar acceptable, and backed off. The agent withdrew the bag, chose a candy of his own (a Milky Way) and put away the bag.

            “My name is Agent Phil Coulson,” the agent offered.

            “Hi. I’m Student Matt Murdock.”

            “Student?”

            “Well, if we’re going to announce our job designations before our names I might as well say something. And ‘Human Matt Murdock’ just made it sound like I was about to executed by xenophobic alien invaders.”

            Coulson laughed. “You’re Agent Romanoff’s son, aren’t you?” It sounded like a question, but it wasn’t, not really.

            “Yep.”

            Of course Clint took this opportunity to drop out of a ceiling vent right into the middle of their conversation. “Matt, kid, you’re lucky Fury’s got mad respect for your mom, otherwise you’d be dead meat by now.” The archer paused, took stock of the situation and turned to Coulson, “Phil, I want chocolate too.”

            “I don’t reward bad behavior,” Coulson said blandly, casting a glance…somewhere. Matt would have put money on that ‘somewhere’ being Clint’s ever-so-convenient vent.

            “The kid started a fistfight on floor 7!”

            “Did you?” Coulson asked mildly.

            Matt stared very, very hard at the shoes he couldn’t see but knew were there.

            “Mr. Murdock.” Coulson sounded very serious.

            “I may have gotten two people mixed up because she smelled like her perfume and his aftershave and he smelled like his aftershave and her perfume and apparently they were having an affair and she’s married to someone who works on Floor 9, but that guy happened to just walk in when I said it and then there was a fight. And some property damage. Fury wasn’t happy.”

            Clint didn’t bother to respond with words, he was too busy laughing.

            “Fury isn’t going to hurt my mom because of this?” Matt, seized with a horrible realization, asked Coulson, eyes wide.

            “No,” Coulson sighed, “I’m sure the director is secretly very amused by all of this. Deep down. Deep, deep down.”

            Clint just kept laughing.

            Clint liked Natasha. Matt could tell. The archer’s heartbeat got all…funny when she was nearby. Flutter-y. Not like the boys at school; there was nothing fierce or particularly predatory about the way Clint responded to Natasha. Just a flutter to his pulse; like there were butterflies in his veins.

            “I helped a little old lady and she gave me the ugliest fish I have ever seem in my life as totally unnecessary repayment and now I need to eat it or I’ll feel guilty forever, but how the hell do you cook this thing and not lose a finger?” Clint blurted all that out without pausing for breath the minute Matt opened the apartment door to find a wayward SHIELD agent dripping rainwater on their hall carpet.

            Matt sensed Natasha’s approach behind him and eased out of her way so she could eyeball Clint’s culinary offerings. “Monkfish,” she identified immediately, “Their tails are considered a delicacy.”  

            “Natasha, I have eaten rats. Rats. This is officially less appealing than rats.”

            “Bring it in,” she said, already turning towards the kitchen, “Put it on the counter. You’re cooking monkfish.”

            “I’m cooking killer-death-face fish?”

            “Monkfish,” Matt offered helpfully, smothering a grin at Clint’s long sigh of exasperation.

            “Kid, I’m not letting you touch this thing because, well, it’s basically a giant mouth full of razor-sharp teeth with a tail. But rest assured, if monks looked this dangerous I would be less worried about all the church I don’t go to.”

            “You’re cooking monkfish, Clint. Come on.” Natasha interjected.

            “Again. I’m cooking death-face-fish?”

            “With my expert guidance, yes,” Natasha declared, “Take a knife, we have to remove the fish’s head.”

            “Can I help?” Matt asked.

            “Rice and vegetables, I think,” Natasha decided, “I am trusting you with a knife. Cut the vegetables. Not your fingers.”

            “That was the plan.”

            “Keep it that way.”

            The monkfish incident was just the beginning of a slow campaign on Clint’s part to slowly worm his way into their lives. Or maybe it wasn’t a campaign at all. Maybe Clint just didn’t have anywhere else to be so he just latched on like a limpet and refused to let go.

            “Clint’s at the door,” Matt, hearing familiar footsteps in the hall, informed Natasha before the archer knocked.

            “Duly noted,” Natasha said dryly, not pausing as she, with sure, gentle strokes, carved a small shape out of a lump of wood at the table.

            “I’m not getting the door,” Matt said recalcitrantly, “I have homework.”

            “Matt, that isn’t your biology lecture in your tape player, it’s the soundtrack to Phantom of the Opera. Take out your headphones and answer the door,” Natasha said evenly.

            Matt ducked his head, chagrined despite himself, took out his headphones and answered the door.

            Clint was at the doorstep, not dripping rainwater this time. “You and me, kid. We’re finding a Lego world record and we’re breaking it. Natasha, you can help too.”

            Not sure how to respond to that, Matt just let the crazy man into their apartment.

            Three weeks, multiple broken Lego records, and an epic Lego metropolis that encompassed nearly the whole of the living room (which Matt, Clint and Natasha later destroyed with varying levels of glee – Clint was almost sad to see their plastic empire go, Matt heard Natasha chuckling under her breath as she toppled buildings) – later, Clint showed up at their door with food again.

            “So apparently I am no longer allowed to grill on the roof of my building because I am a ‘walking fire hazard’ and I’m banned from the SHIELD kitchen because Fury’s not a fan of my clam chowder (one-eyed bastard says you make it with a tomato base, the heathen. Tomato base, my ass.). So, we’re having a roof-picnic here. Who’s in?”

            “Barton, it’s nine o’clock at night,” Natasha pointed out. Some might have described her tone as ‘sharp’ but Matt heard the slight smile twisting her words.

            “Getting kicked out of multiple grilling locations takes time.”

            “Do we have a grill on our roof?” Matt asked as innocently as he could.

            “You tell me, you’re the one who snuck out to scale the side of the building a week ago,” Natasha said in a voice that was as mild as it was deadly.

            “Seriously, kid?” Clint said.

            Matt scowled at him.

            “Hey, I’m just disappointed you let yourself get caught,” the archer protested.

            “I wanted to see if I could do it,” Matt muttered mutinously.

            “And shockingly, I can do it too, making it alarmingly easy to catch you,” Natasha said, voice edged with what Matt recognized as her truly vicious smile.

            “Sooo,” Clint interjected before things could get tense, “Burgers on the roof? Is that a yes?”

            Matt started speaking as soon as he opened the door, cutting off whatever explanation Clint might provide, “We don’t have room for a dog. I don’t need a guide dog. Natasha doesn’t need a furry sidekick. No puppies.”

            “But puppies.” Matt heard a creak as the cardboard box protested being squeezed against Clint’s chest. The puppies inside, Matt counted four, whined pitifully.

            “I’m allergic.”

            “Lies, I had Coulson check your medical records.”

            Matt sighed, “They’d better be gone by the time Mom gets home.”

            “She’ll never know,” Clint promised.

            Natasha knew. She spent an hour on the floor play-wrestling with the runt of the litter. She later denied all knowledge that such an event occurred but Matt knew better.

            “He’s like a cat,” Natasha mused as soon as Matt told her he could hear Clint approaching their building on the sidewalk below. Matt was getting better and better at picking out Clint’s heartbeat, breathing patterns and gait from farther and farther away.

            “Yes?”

            “Yes,” Natasha confirmed definitively, “Only instead of dead mice he brings us monkfish and Legos.” She sounded amused.

            “You like him,” Matt accused.

            “Love is for children.”

            “You like him.”

            “Hush, child.”

            All of Clint’s cardboard box puppies went to good homes after their night at Matt and Natasha’s. Coulson picked one, took obsessively good care of her, and would, if provoked, brag about her just as much as his prized Captain America trading cards or his precious car, Lola.

            Matt liked hanging out in Coulson’s office. It was quiet there in a way that no other place in any given SHIELD facility was. And, if he had time, Coulson would tell Matt about his adventures as a young field agent, always throwing an ironic spin on the story of the hour, focusing on the funny and ridiculous parts of being in the field, rather than the terrifying or horrible ones. If he didn’t have time, they’d both just enjoy that there was another person to share the quiet.

            Matt wondered if this was what having an uncle was like. An adult to hang out with, to listen to him when being around his mom was just too much or his mom had to work or he just wanted someone to talk to that wasn’t an inescapable part of daily life.

            That would make the barrage of young SHIELD agents barging into Coulson’s office with questions and minor crises the cousins.

            Matt smiled to himself at the idea. Stretching his senses out to the hall outside, he smirked and turned to Coulson, “Agent Smith is on his way to see you. He smells like smoke so I think there may have been some pyrotechnics.” Hanging out with Coulson had the added benefit of growing Matt’s vocabulary by leaps and bounds.

            He heard Coulson give a resigned sigh and lean back from his keyboard. “Thank you for the warning, Matt. Let’s see what young Agent Smith has to say for himself, yes?”

            Natasha liked Clint. Matt knew she did. Her heart didn’t flutter; there were no butterflies in her veins. But he could sense it in the way that she moved into Clint’s space, standing almost close enough to touch at the counter picking over a recipe, murmuring a debate over the virtues of the microwave. Matt could feel it in the way Natasha turned toward Clint when they were together, the way she watched the archer and the way she allowed herself to turn away and trust him not to make her regret her inattention.

            Natasha liked Clint, even without butterflies in her viens.

            Matt wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

            Natasha and Clint started taking missions together. Matt heard the phone conversations, the whispered words between his mom and SHIELD late at night, scheduling, plotting planning, everything on a burner phone, everything locked down, secret, secure.

            The first night Natasha and Clint were both gone SHIELD tried to send Matt to stay with another agent. Agent Samuels was pleasant enough; an older woman with grown kids; she’d aged out of fieldwork and had firmly settled into data analysis. But he home was…oppressive. Matt walked in the door, clutching his battered duffle bag (canvas and leather, stained, old but well-made, the same bag he’d packed all his worldly possessions into when he left the orphanage, the same bag his dad had carted to and from the gym every day) and nearly passed out from the rolling cloud of potpourri that assaulted his senses.

            Everything about Mrs. Samuels’ apartment was scented; potpourri on mantle, air fresheners in every room, even the tissues were the awful lotion-y variety that reeked of something fake and floral and felt slimy even without the inclusion of snot. Matt really hoped he wouldn’t pass out. That would be really embarrassing. Instead he focused on his breathing, his heartbeat, the things he could control.

            It probably wasn’t that bad for normal people, this place. Just. Matt.

            Dinner was awful. Some sort of casserole made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. Matt could taste every gram of sodium.

            And when it was time for him to unfold the rickety old sofa bed and close his eyes and finally escape the sensory overload…he just couldn’t do it. It was all the little things. This building creaked, but it wasn’t his building’s creaks. Traffic rolled along on the street below but it wasn’t his street’s traffic. Matt curled up into an even tighter ball under the scratchy sheets (god, like sandpaper, why didn’t he pack his stupid sheets? Stupid, Murdock, stupid.) and tried to block it all out. Focus on the breathing.

            His dad had always said breathing was the most important part of fighting. If you weren’t breathing, you’d lost the fight already. Always exhale with each punch. Don’t waste breath shouting; trying to be intimidating for it’s own sake was useless. Always keep breathing after you’ve been hit, keep your breathing steady even when you’ve hit the mat. That way you can get up again.

            Matt breathed.

            He got through the first night but by the second he threw on his sneaking clothes, packed his bag and climbed out the window. He managed to find his way home by listening in on some taxi drivers and their passengers. He jumped from roof to roof, letting the minute shifts in air pressure show him the shape of the world. He climbing into his apartment by four am and was awake by six to walk to school.

            Of course, Coulson showing up with what Matt had to assume was a very imposing SHIELD vehicle the minute school got out was not really in the original plan, per se.

            “Am I in trouble?” Matt asked, tone mild but entirely unrepentant.

            “Be glad it’s not Director Fury here to collect you,” was all Coulson would say on the subject.

            After Matt escaped SHIELD custody three more times, they simply gave up and let him stay home with Coulson sleeping on the couch and providing transportation to and from school just like Clint had before Hawkeye and Widow teamed up.

            “This was not what I planned to do with my Friday,” Coulson informed him blandly from where he sat on the couch, paging through a history of the Howling Commandos.

            “You can leave any time,” Matt offered generously, “I solemnly swear not to burn the place down in your absence.”

            “Considering the stunts you pulled, leaving you unsupervised would be a liability.”

            “Sorry.”

            “No you’re not.”

            “I am, a little. But you’re only a little irritated at being here, so we’re even.”

            “Fair.”

            Matt was starting to suspect Clint didn’t have his own home. The archer seemed to spend the vast majority of his time crashing on Natasha and Matt’s couch and the times he didn’t show up to cook dinner with Natasha and aid and abet Matt in some form of mischief, he was either on a mission or medical hadn’t released him yet. One memorable time he showed up on their doorstep in hospital scrubs, said “If they come looking for me, lie,” and flopped on the couch more aggressively than he probably should considering bones Matt could hear creaking inside him.

            Of course the SHIELD flunkies showed up fifteen minutes later. Natasha opened the door just enough to peer out, and cut them off before they could say anything, “So sorry, we already belong to a church, we’re not interested in hearing about yours at this time. But we’ll let you know the next time our immortal souls start feeling a bit tarnished.”

            Then she closed the door.

            Clint, meanwhile, had nearly choked on his coffee laughing. “I’ll let you tarnish my immortal soul anytime, Nat.”

            “Oh you’re plenty tarnished already,” she replied warmly.

            Their heartbeats fluttered together. Butterflies.

            Sometimes beginnings are messy and complicated and sometimes they’re really very simple.

“And I said ‘hey pretty lady won’t you give me a sign, I’d give anything to make you mine, oh, mine. I’d do your bidding and be at your beck and call’!” Clint had the radio on in the kitchen and was shuffling back and forth, half dancing, half cooking. Matt lay on the floor; nestled in the soft cradle of the heavenly carpet he and Natasha found the last time they went shopping. His fingers lazily toyed with the smooth square of paper in his hand, worrying at the edges, trying to figure out what shape it wanted to be.

            Natasha’s heartbeat filled the hall outside and her key rattled in the lock just in time for Clint to flourish…something and belt out, “And goin’ once, goin’ twice, SOLD to the lady in the second row, she’s an eight, she’s a nine, she’s a ten I know – ” and dart forward to grab Natasha’s hands and whirl her into whatever strange little dance he was making up as he went along.

            “She’s got ruby-red lips, red hair, green eyes, and I’m about to bid my heart goodbye!”

            “You don’t have to edit the song just for me,” Natasha remarked dryly, a smile tugging at the edges of her mouth.

            “But then you’d have to dye your hair to match the girl in the song and I don’t think you could manage that in the three minutes before the end.”

            “You underestimate my power.”

            “Star Wars, nice.”

            Natasha may have replied, Matt heard her draw breath, ready to formulate some sort of stunning response, when the chorus started up again.

            “And I said, ‘Hey pretty lady won’t you give me a sign?’” Clint belted out and swung Natasha into another round of dancing, not bother to skirt around Matt, instead just jumping over him and carrying on.

            Matt laughed, chest full of something hot and bright and wonderful, listening to the lovely rhythm of the adults’ hearts pounding a counter-melody to the wild tempo of the song.

            “Last chorus, Nat, let’s bring it home, gotta dance like you mean it!”

            “One of the virtues of being me, Clint, I never have to mean anything.”

            “Yeah, but the fun is in doing it anyway.”

            “I don’t think that makes much sense, Barton – ”

            “When I said, ‘Hey pretty lady, won't you give me a sign? I'd give anything to make you mine all mine. I'll do your biddin' and be at your beck and call.’ Yeah, I've never seen anyone lookin' so fine. Man I gotta have her, she's a one-of-a-kind. I'm goin' once, goin' twice. And I'm sold to the lady in the second row. She's an eight, she's a nine, she's a ten I know. She's got ruby red lips, red hair, green eyes. And I'm about to bid my heart goodbye!”

            And with that Clint, having danced his way back into the kitchen and gave Natasha one last spin before pulling her close, half-embracing, half-in whatever slapdash dance hand positions they’d fallen into. In the ensuing stillness the radio clicked over to a commercial break. Over an advertisement for car insurance, Matt heard Clint said, voice soft, heart a jackrabbit in his chest, “Your move, Romanoff.”

            And Natasha kissed him. Soft, sweet, innocent. All the things Natasha was not. She pulled away after a few seconds.

            “How’s that for meaning something?” she asked a bit nonsensically and Matt wondered if he should be in the room for this.

            “Eh,” Clint’s smile curled around the words, “I think a do-over might convince me better.”

            “Hmm. Not in front of my kid,” Natasha said, gently but firmly. Her voice was warm. “So, what’s for dinner?”

            “What am I, the maid?” Clint griped good-naturedly, “I’ll have you know I am a strong, independent man who don’t need no woman.”

            “You preheated the oven too much,” Matt offered helpfully, smelling the dry heat coming from the kitchen, “You’ll burn the pizza.”

            “Don’t need no smart-mouthed kid either!”

            “Good to know,” Matt said, smirking.

            “Shoulda just ordered takeout,” Clint grumbled as he fiddled with the oven settings, “Takeout doesn’t burn.”

            “Need a hand, sweetie?” Natasha asked in the flat, dry tone she reserved for when she was being Very Funny.

            “No thank you, honeybunches,” Clint shot back, starling a laugh out of Matt and a small chuckle out of Natasha.

            They kissed good night but Clint still slept on the couch.

            “Mom, I can climb up to the roof with my noise-cancelling headphones if you want to have sex.”

            Clint made some sort of choking noise in the background.

            “No, Polygraph, don’t worry about it. Clint and I will work something out. And stay off the roof.”

            “Okay, Mom. Just remember, I’ll hear it way before I see a sock on the door, so.”

            “HOW DOES HE KNOW ABOUT THE SOCK ON THE DOOR THING?” Clint, having recovered from his bout of choking, yelped in the background, “YOU DON’T WATCH TV, HOW DOES HE KNOW THIS STUFF?”

            “I’m cultured,” Matt shrugged, “And I go to middle school.” He paused to consider something, “If I leave you guys alone so you can have sex tomorrow, can one of you write me a permission slip to get out of health class?”

            Clint was back to choking and Natasha was back to being stern, “No. No to all of that.”

            “But Mom. I can’t see the pictures in the Health textbook and the teacher’s talking about bringing in plastic models for me to touch next week. Fondling plastic models. Gross. Really, really, really gross. I warned you this was going to happen.”

            “Your life is a series of trial and tribulations,” Natasha said flatly.

            “My only comfort is that everyone says celibacy sucks so you’ll be suffering too,” Matt said maliciously.

            “We’re not having this conversation,” Clint declared loudly.

            “Clint and I will work something out,” Natasha said, tone just suggestive enough that Matt cringed.

            “Ew, gah, I’m sorry I ever brought anything up.”

            “As you should be,” Natasha said primly.

            A year later and Clint and Matt were sitting on the roof, listening to the night when Clint abruptly asked, “Would you be cool with me being your step-dad?”

            “Aren’t you already?” Matt asked in his deceptively innocent, I’m-so-sure-this-thing-I’m-talking-about-is-factual-but-maybe-you’re-not-up-to-speed, voice.

            “Sure.” Clint agreed, “If that’s they way you see it.”

            “Well, let me know if you hear any different.”

            “Touché, kid.”

            Another year later and Clint Barton has a photo on his desk at SHIELD. Yes, he has a desk. He doesn’t sit at it much and when he’s absent he tucks the photo and its’ frame (smooth, perfect wood, more expensive than it should have been but worth it) into a drawer for safe-keeping. But the handful of times he’s there, it’s out.

            It’s not a great photo. It has the washed-out quality of a cellphone picture taken on the kind of sunny day that’s more glare than sunshine. But it’s the only photo Clint has on his desk and that makes it special. There’s two people in the frame, both wearing long dark coats. Wool with buttons, the type well-dressed people wear over their business suits in the winter. They’re on a sidewalk; both have paused, slightly turning to look back at the photographer. Plumes of smoky winter breath escape their lips and watered-down winter sunlight glares off of snow and buildings behind them. The one on the right is a young man, maybe thirteen or fourteen, not as tall as his companion, but gaining in that gangly, awkward way of teenagers. His dark hair is wind-ruffled and glints with sharps fragments of auburn light where the sun hits it. His unfocused eyes behind his dark glasses are warm. Beside him is a woman, the kind of beautiful that defies silly constructs like age. Her red mane glows like fire in the sun, her full lips curl at the corners like she’s laughing at some sort of private joke. A Mona Lisa smile. She’s slender and somehow graceful even held here, still and perfect in an artificial image.

            They look so happy.

            And when people invariably ask him, with varying degrees of politeness, why he has a photo of Romanoff and her kid on his desk, Clint grins his own hard grin and says “Fuck off, they’re my family. And I’m damn proud of them.”