Summary: Matt and Karen on a mini-break, in a hypothetical future in which she knows his secret, and they're dating.
Notes: I'm posting it one piece at a time on the fic sites, but you guys get it all at once. :) This is mostly a quiet character study; if you've read my meta posts on Daredevil, you'll notice I implemented a couple of theories from them.
Karen is here more because she makes the most sense in context, and because I love her, than for shipping reasons - but on the other hand, have you seen this image from S2 in my icon? Daredevil/Elektra is never going to get that level of cuteness no matter how smoking hot they are. The anticipation is killing me.
The poem below is just something that I felt described Matt really well and served as a good introduction to this fic. You can read the whole thing here.
He said: “No, walk in the town.”
I said: “There are no flowers there.”
He said: “No flowers, but a crown.”
I said: “But the skies are black;
There is nothing but noise and din.”
And He wept as He sent me back –
“There is more,” He said; “there is sin.”
“Obedience” by George MacDonald (1824-1905)
Taking Matt out of the city seems like it should be viewed as an act of mercy. If Karen misses fresh air and relative quiet, she reasons, how much worse must it be for him? She brought it up tentatively, knowing he was likely to object to a weekend of comfort and relaxation just on principle, but he must have sensed how much she wanted to go—who is she kidding, of course he sensed it—and now here he is sitting shotgun in a rental car, with her at the wheel and Hell’s Kitchen disappearing in the rearview mirror.
Karen gets chatty when she’s happy. The weather looks like it’s going to be perfect, cottonball clouds rolling jubilantly through the blue, and she wants him to experience it with her, to see through her eyes for once instead of through his ears and skin. She tries to find poetic words for the bright spring foliage lining the highway, so that he’ll know that there’s beauty here and beauty is good. When he asks about today’s sky, she immediately says, “Azure,” then laughs at herself because nobody needs to get that precious about a perfectly ordinary color, then stops laughing and repeats it because maybe looking at the sky shouldn’t be ordinary.
“Do you want to hike Mount Greylock tomorrow?” she asks when it appears on the horizon.
“Hike?” he echoes, as if he’s never heard the word before.
“What, you can walk up a vertical wall like it’s a staircase, but you’re afraid of a trail through the woods?”
He chuckles, but the uncertainty doesn’t leave his voice. “It’s just...if it’s open to the public, people are going to be asking if you’re out of your mind, bringing a blind guy along.”
She doesn’t try to dismiss his concerns. His secret identity is serious business, and he won’t allow it to be threatened. Still, she thinks there’s a way around this. “So don’t be blind. We won’t see anyone who would recognize you; just leave the cane in the car and avoid conversations about celebrity hairstyles.”
His eyebrows rise, and he shows her an incredibly cute smile. “That could work. I haven’t been on a hike since I was a kid.”
“It’s been a while for me too,” she says, then transitions right back into describing their surroundings. The road has narrowed into two lanes, and on the grass alongside there are stones from the earth stacked into uneven knee-high walls. They look precarious, but they’ve been there since this part of the country was settled, cobbled together by farmers trying to enclose their livestock. He lets her tell him about it, even sounding interested, until she sees a general store and interrupts herself: “Oh, we have to stop here.”
She parks the car, leads him inside, and swiftly locates a rack of sunglasses, none of them looking quite worth their five dollar price tag. “Those stoplights on your face are a dead giveaway. Gimme.” Taking his red-lensed glasses in one hand, she chooses a pair from the rack at random to replace them.
“How do I look?” He’s grinning, but before she can answer he holds up a finger and adds in a deadly serious tone, “Remember, if you lie, I will know.”
“In that case…” She’s already coming down with a case of the giggles. The sunglasses she’s just put onto him are a chunky wraparound throwback in blue and yellow. “You look ridiculous.”
The ones they settle on in the end aren’t exactly fashionable, but they’re typical enough to do the trick - black and oval, the kind everyone wore in the 90’s. She isn’t lying when she says he looks good, but she knows he knows she’s still smiling every time she looks at him, and she doesn’t really have an explanation for it.
Determined to keep their journey at a leisurely pace, Karen insists they complete a full exploration of the general store. It’s the traditional kind of shop that she loves, quaint and old, catering equally to tourists and locals. She coos over the handmade baskets for sale, reads the funniest of the bumper stickers to Matt, and exchanges pleasantries with an aged fisherman inspecting the tackle. Matt’s following with an expression of amused tolerance, but when she tells him about the postcards, he’s the one who says, “Oh, we should send one to Foggy.”
“We’ll be back by the time he gets it.”
His answer is a placid shrug, which somehow seems like he’s making a really good point, so she picks a card more or less at random and brings it to the basket table to fill it out. After a second of thought, she chooses a felt-tipped pen so that Matt won’t be able to touch the indentations, and designates half of the space on the postcard for each of them. When they’re finished, her half has a sketch of Matt in his new sunglasses, accompanied by a note, Doesn’t he look like Neo from The Matrix? Matt’s message below it, in surprisingly neat handwriting, reads only, WHAT DID KAREN WRITE?
In spite of the humor of it, she feels a slight tinge of regret. She’s secretly proud of her skill at drawing—she’s not Rembrandt or anything, but Foggy will definitely be impressed that she can render a tiny pen sketch of a face in a few minutes and still make it recognizable, and she wants that reaction from Matt too. He would take her word for it, but it’s not the same.
By the time they reach the checkout counter with the sunglasses and pen, they’ve accumulated an armload of other purchases: beer for tonight, ice cream bars for right now, a refrigerator magnet as a souvenir. A teenage girl with soulful eyes affixes a stamp to their postcard and asks Matt if he’s seen the waterfall pictured on it yet, then blushes when she looks up at him and gets tongue-tied trying to apologize.
“Not yet!” he says as if he hasn’t even noticed anything amiss. “But we’re going tomorrow, is it nice?”
The girl hesitates, then shares a tip about where to stand to feel the mist on your face. Matt listens raptly, and her embarrassment has dissipated by the time they thank her and leave the store. Karen wants to know how he always finds the right words to put people at ease, but the real question is how he still has enough compassion to bother trying after he’s been fielding this kind of thing every single day for the last couple decades, so she doesn’t ask. They’ve each got a face full of ice cream and it’s just not the time for loaded questions.
The sunset comes soon after, filtered through the trees on her side of the road. She sees a dozen different colors in it, and finds a word for each one.
She made sure to bring his favorite music, but he declines when she offers to put it on, saying he would prefer to keep listening to her voice. He must have used that on a hundred different girls before he first said it to her, she thinks, and wonders if it worked this well on them.
“What do you see?” he urges, pulling her out of her introspection.
“Um, okay. It’s getting darker. This street is mostly residential, but—oh, we’re coming up on a little stone church, it’s so pretty…”
He perks up, turning toward the window as if he sees it too. “Can we stop?”
She blinks. “Sure. You need an extra shot of religion?”
“The choir is rehearsing.”
So that’s how you locate a church when your eyes don’t work but your ears are doing overtime. Karen can’t hear any singing even after they’re out of the car, but she takes it on faith that he’s right. The gravel of the parking lot crumbles underfoot as he leads the way to the heavy wooden door and places his hand flat against it. “It’s bigger than it probably looks from outside. Aside from the nave it’s not that old, though. There must have been a few additions over the years since they first built it, maybe around two hundred years ago when the Episcopal Church had just separated from the Church of England. It’s open, do you want to go in?”
The sign on the wall welcomes them to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, established 1814. Karen doesn’t bother to read it out loud.
Inside she hears a hush before she hears the creak of the floor, but when they pause in the aisle she finally hears the choir as well. It’s ghostly at first, a wordless chant coming from somewhere beneath them, but then there’s a wry solitary voice followed by many joined in laughter. Matt chuckles along and politely attempts to relay the conductor’s joke until she excuses him, suggesting it might not be as funny in the retelling.
Moments like these make her feel like a stranger in a strange land, following a guide she should be leading. While Matt sits listening to the next haunting serenade from heaven below, she explores the church’s interior, and she knows he knows exactly where she’s standing, which way she’s headed, what she’s doing at all times. He won’t talk about it readily, but it needles him that he can’t help invading her privacy, and she resents that she can’t resent it.
Remembering that some areas of a church are traditionally off-limits to the laity, she passes by the altar and finds herself facing a display of several dozen votive candles, lit and unlit, with a plaque inviting passersby to dedicate one to the beloved dead. Unable to narrow it down, she uses the long matchstick to bring a hiss of flame first to one wick, then another and then another. Matt must know about this ritual; the rustle of her dollar bills going into the slot in the adjacent donation box won’t confuse him.
After following the stations of the cross in a full circuit around the nave, she slides into the pew that Matt has chosen. He holds out his hand, palm up, and she takes it in hers and wonders if she’s comforting him, or vice versa. Without her own footfall to drown it out, she can hear the choir again, and it’s hard to keep herself from straining to make out the lyrics instead of enjoying the melodious murmur for its own sake.
“You okay?” asks Matt, and his voice is soft but it still startles her.
“Fine,” she tells him, and then, hazarding a guess at why he asked, “Is my heartbeat doing something weird?”
“No. But you’re breathing slowly. Letting it go each time like a sigh.”
Experimentally she tries to resume the same rhythm she was keeping before he spoke. Not surprisingly, she can’t glean anything about her own mood by studying it. “I was just trying to be quiet,” she explains. “Didn’t want to interrupt you.”
He gives her hand a squeeze. “I wasn’t praying. Just listening.”
“To the choir?”
“The choir. You. The road. Some kind of wildlife in the trees out back.” He gestures with his free hand, indicating the entire expanse of the church’s interior. “This space. You were looking at it, and I was…”
“...Seeing it your own way,” she supplies.
He nods and looks in her direction, two things he can do to communicate with the sighted that they can’t do for him. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
For a moment she’s about to slip back into her running commentary on everything she sees, then she realizes it’s time to turn the tables. “How is it beautiful? Your way, I mean.”
He pauses, considering. “I like the vaulted ceilings. The air keeps spiralling around them, it’s like a dance. But down at our level it’s completely different; all solid marble and wooden pews, things that never move. And the organ...every pipe catches every vibration, every sound we make. Perpetual music.”
If it rains tonight, and the weekend weather report gives her hope that it will, she wants to stand outside with him so he can listen to each drop landing on her skin. She’ll have him tell her about the impression he gets of her outline, and she’ll close her eyes and imagine she can see him the same way. She wants to hear the rain from inside, too, pattering on the roof in the rock-a-bye rhythm she remembers from her childhood. She wants the song and the dance within silence that Matt finds everywhere.
Rain doesn’t sound the same from inside an apartment complex.
“Perpetual music must be nice,” she says, and she can’t help it if her voice is a little wistful.
“Sometimes,” he agrees. “Ready to go?”
The cabin they’re renting is set far off the road, nestled in a grove of fragrant pine trees. Karen shuts the car door behind her, tilts her head back and breathes in deep. This is what she wanted: stars and crickets and the absence of pollution. She can’t see it, but there’s a lake nearby, and in the morning she expects petrichor.
Matt keeps his fingertips on the hood of the car for a moment after getting out, like he does when he’s exiting into a parking lot. Here there are no moving vehicles to avoid, but he seems a little uncertain as she comes around to his side to guide him toward the cabin, which she doesn’t quite understand. Her own eyes are still adjusting to the darkness, but that’s when she would generally rely on him instead.
She imparts the visual information she finds important: that there’s a single step up to the porch, that the key is hanging from the knob just as the landlord said it would be, that the place is adorable. Once they’re inside, though, he takes over. “Wow, they really scrubbed it clean.”
It does seem immaculate, though cozy, and Karen supposes that’s worth a lot of appreciation from Matt’s perspective. She’s busy exploring now, though, and sharing her favorite discoveries. “I love the furniture, there’s so much natural wood. This looks like an original painting. I think it’s of this cabin, actually. Well, that’s a little redundant, but it’s a nice piece. Ooh, they left us some food in the cupboards…”
Matt’s still standing in the middle of the room. He grins as he cuts in: “Coffee, decaf coffee, black tea, chamomile, sugar, honey, granola with cranberries, oatmeal, pancake mix, cookies, popcorn, hard rolls, peanut butter. Chocolate mints on the pillows. Those apples in the basket on the table were just picked yesterday, from an orchard farther down this road. And check this out, real maple syrup.” He finally opens one of the cupboards and takes out a small jug, holding it up for her with that mischievous smirk still on his face. “Grade A.”
“Damn, now I’m hungry,” she laughs. She hardly ever gets to see him show off, even for something as small as this, and she wishes she knew how to goad him on.
“What time is our reservation?”
Karen shrugs. “We’re a little early if we leave now. Anyway, are we satisfied with our home for the next two days?”
“Completely.” He steps over to her, locks his hands behind her neck, puts his face close enough to make her worry about her breath, but doesn’t kiss her. “I’ll make breakfast tomorrow. There are a few things in the refrigerator too. Milk and eggs, some kind of homemade preserves. Orange juice.”
“No such luck.”
After unloading the car, they take their beer and sit on the porch until it’s time to head for the restaurant. Since Matt seems genuinely relaxed for once, Karen finally brings up one of those topics that’s always made her curious. “Isn’t this better? No sewers, no garbage, no exhaust pipes blowing fumes into your face? I mean, I’m just getting a lot more enjoyment out of breathing right now.”
He inhales deeply, but when he answers, “It’s good,” it sounds more like he’s admitting it than agreeing with her.
“But?” she probes.
“But intimidating. If...well, if I lost you out here, I could track you. But I can’t orient myself in unfamiliar surroundings with nothing to aim toward. Without you I’d never get back home.” He changes tone, dispelling the gravity of that scenario. “And you know I couldn’t hack it in the wilderness. I’d probably get eaten by a bear or something.”
So that explains his ambivalence when they were getting out of the car. She catches a whiff of hops from her open bottle, and takes a sip. “Are there bears here?”
“Uh...within, say, a one-mile radius? I’d say there’s almost definitely more bears than people. Assuming they smell the way I think they do. Haven’t had much experience in that area.”
Karen is surprised, but not concerned. She’s seen black bears in the wild. Matt might doubt his ability to take one on and win, but she doesn’t. “I should have guessed you’d get homesick as soon as your lungs stopped punishing you.”
“Come on, it’s not like that,” he laughs. “I’m loving the air here, Karen. Really. I’m already so glad we came.” He twirls his beer in his hands. “But the air in Hell’s Kitchen isn’t as noxious as you think.”
“You have to be joking.”
His directionless gaze lands somewhere near her face. “No. There’s pollution, yeah. Filth. I’m not in favor of that stuff. But all of it comes from the same source, and it’s the one thing this place doesn’t have.”
She recalls what he was just saying about the bears. “People?”
“People,” he confirms. “Lives being lived. Everyone walking around in a unique body with its own scent. Washing hair. Feeding babies. Putting flowers in vases. There’s more to us than the waste we create.”
It’s somehow comforting to find out that Matt isn’t being tortured by the stench of his hometown, and Karen likes the reason behind it, though she’s not sure if she could relate even if she had his olfactory superpower. Matt loves people, even when he doesn’t like them. He can’t withdraw from the joy and pain he senses in others, so he shares it with them instead. With no human life but hers in his reach, this place must feel desperately lonely to him.
Maybe he’s picked up telepathy too, for the next thing he says is, “But it’s nice to be alone together for once, isn’t it?”
Karen murmurs her agreement and reminds herself that this is a vacation, and she’s meant to enjoy it while it lasts and then return home. If there was a part of her hoping that the clean atmosphere would give Matt an epiphany that led to the goal of someday moving, she’s always known it was in vain anyway. He belongs in his city, with his people and his self-imposed duty, and he loves it, even if she didn’t understand why until now. Any future she has with Matt is a future in Hell’s Kitchen, and that’s the least of the complications of dating him.
She lays her head on his shoulder, and he puts an arm around her and says, “I like your perfume.”
She smiles into his shirt. “I like your cologne.”
The restaurant she’s found uses nothing but locally produced ingredients in every dish, and Matt’s excitement is evident. Karen didn’t know he was a foodie until she learned about his powers—at home he tolerates anything up to a reasonable standard, and even shows a charming sweet tooth at times. Sugar makes things taste good even if they’re bad for you, he claims, but the same doesn’t hold true for chemicals and preservatives.
But here he doesn’t have to choose between pleasure and nutrition. He listens carefully to today’s specials and orders saffron scallops; she goes straight for the steak, joking about how hungry it makes her to narrate everything for him all day. The waiter guarantees that they’ll love their entrees, their sides, their appetizer, then asks if they’d like to see the wine list. He checks himself immediately and asks instead, “Would you like me to tell you about today’s wine selection?”
Karen would gladly read through the entire list for Matt, but he has a quicker solution: “Could you just recommend a good mid-range red?”
The answer is immediate and full of more information than Karen can process, but Matt keeps up - or puts on a convincing front - and settles on a Cabernet Sauvignon. The waiter compliments him on his “discerning palate” before departing with their order.
She’s about to ask Matt where he learned that vocabulary when he mutters, “I hope this isn’t a ‘smell the cork’ place.”
Karen smothers a guffaw. “You mean your discerning palate isn’t into that?”
“It feels weird. Like we should be in formal wear.”
“Actually, I was just going to tell you, we’re the only ones here who aren’t.”
He smirks sweetly. “I told you I’d know it if you’re lying.”
The truth of course is that the restaurant is tastefully decorated, but comfortably casual, and she gives in and tells him a little about it before returning to the topic at hand. “Have you ever thought about taking up wine as a hobby, though? You could probably blow the critics out of the water.”
“Too expensive,” he replies. “Most of it is bull, anyway.”
“Shouldn’t you at least know better than to pair seafood with a red?”
“I wanted us to share a bottle. I can’t help it if you ordered red meat.”
Karen doesn’t know why it should come as a surprise to her that Matt was ordering based on what she would want, but she finds herself oddly touched. When the wine comes, he suffers through the cork-sniffing ritual with dignity, and raises his glass along with her to toast their first weekend trip together.
Curious about what flavors he can identify, she pesters him to tell her what he thinks of the cabernet. He gets as far as “Silky, voluptuous, notes of cedar,” before finishing, “I can’t stand the way I sound right now, save me.”
The cheeseboard saves him instead. It includes a nutty Bloomsday which Karen has never had before, and is served with a basket of artisanal bread, warm to the touch. Matt’s already over the moon about the food. The bread was kneaded by hand within these walls, using flour milled yesterday and fresh spring water. The cheese came from free-range cows, complacent residents of a farm they could probably walk to from here.
Karen likes learning the food’s history, but she can’t blame him when he slackens off, his mouth too occupied with his entree to accommodate words. A few minutes later he insists she try a scallop and some of his spinach and sweet corn risotto, and she counters by passing him her fork loaded with a bite of juicy sirloin. She suspects he likes his steak rarer than she does, but his review as he hands the utensil back is, “That’s intense.”
The scallop is soft and heavy on her tongue, tinged with an exotic spice that fills her with an inexplicable sense of longing. For the Mediterranean, for the ocean, or simply for food like this on a daily basis, she doesn’t know. Maybe it’s for the sensation of sharing with Matt, wondering if they’ll ever get beyond a pair of dinner plates.
She turns her attention to her own grilled asparagus and potatoes au gratin. Matt doesn’t look like he’s longing for anything but another sip of wine. He isn’t telepathic.
When the waiter asks them about dessert, something in the back of Karen’s mind thanks her for deciding beforehand that her calorie count is called off until further notice. Matt is already signing them up for strawberry mousse, even though he’s still probing his empty plate with his fork. He does that with most meals, but he seems a little more determined about it tonight.
“Matt,” says Karen, “I regret to inform you that your dinner is gone, and will not be coming back. Maybe you could allow our server to take our dishes now.”
He flushes, hands over the plate, and explains needlessly to the waiter, “I’m blind.”
Ten minutes later they both dig their spoons silently into blown glass cups. Karen asks what he can tell her about the strawberries, but he just smiles and says, “Sweet.”
They have time to kill after the meal, so that Karen can sober up before getting behind the wheel. She makes a restroom stop and meets him outside, less unbalanced by the alcohol than she is by anticipating what will happen when she joins him where he’s standing on the restaurant’s deck. It’s ridiculous, at her age, with her sexual history, with their relationship as established as it is, that the prospect of kissing him still makes her nervous. But this is Matt. The usual rules don’t apply.
He slides an arm around her, but the first thing he says is, “I have to ask. Why the breath mint fixation lately?”
Karen blinks. The Altoid has already dissolved, leaving a coating of aggressive freshness in her mouth’s interior. “What do you think?” she challenges him. The fixation is because she’s disturbed by imagining what he can taste on her, but maybe she’s been overthinking it.
“I think I respect breath mints, but my feelings for them are strictly platonic.”
When she goes in for the kiss, he proves his point by pushing beyond her lips and teasing her tongue with his until he’s surely gotten past the mint coating as well. She forgets to care about her own flavor and thinks about his instead. What can her senses tell her about him now? What does Matt Murdock taste like?
Her mind answers with unexpected insight: rain.
The night has grown colder while they were out, and Karen is glad to step back into the shelter of the cabin. She excuses herself to take a shower, in part because her titillation over the kiss has deepened into apprehension, and she needs a few minutes away from Matt’s omniscience. Once she’s under the water, tilting her face up into it and letting the warm rivulets soothe her, she realizes that she’s only made her body into a clearer shape for him. Showering while he’s one room over is like sending him a nude selfie. She wonders if he’s turned on right now, and how he feels about it if he is.
She comes out fully dressed. Matt has built a fire and retreated to the sofa to stare at it, elbows on his knees, fingers intertwining, glasses off. She can’t read his expression.
“Thanks,” she says, rubbing her towel into her hair a little more before leaving it on a chair. “I’m glad we have a fireplace here. Wood heat just feels better, doesn’t it?”
He makes a wordless sound of agreement, then looks in her approximate direction and smiles. “Good shower?”
“Sure. Did you enjoy the peep show?”
His momentary silence, despite the startled chuckle that preceded it, is telling. “You’re a very beautiful woman, Karen,” he says carefully. “I think I don’t say that enough.”
“You do,” she assures him.
“But something is bothering you.” He shifts in his seat, and she realizes that she’s just been standing there while he’s waiting for her to sit with him.
She settles on the couch, feet tucked up beside her. One hand falls into his lap and he catches it with both of his. “A few things,” she admits. “When was the last time you shared a bed with someone?”
He stiffens a little, and Karen feels like she’s already mishandling this. “I just wonder if you’re even going to be able to sleep,” she clarifies. “We’ve got the silk sheets in the trunk, but they won’t do much good if you feel like it’s an earthquake every time I roll over.”
“I could just sleep on the couch.”
“No. Karen. I don’t care. We came here to be together.”
She dips her head, letting her nearly-dry hair fall as if hiding her face has any meaning. “I know,” she whispers. “I’m just trying to figure out what that means.”
He answers by pulling her closer, letting his fingers flutter along her temple. Slowly, his sightless eyes closed, he guides their faces toward each other, cheek to cheek and then forehead to forehead. When his lips find hers, a shiver runs up her spine and her body tries to escape it by leaning into the kiss. Matt responds by matching her sudden urgency, pressing hard against her open mouth, then releases her abruptly and rains a trail of kisses down her neck. It doesn’t make sense that he should be so good at this, Karen thinks, but then she reconsiders. So far, this is nothing he hasn’t practiced.
In the silence that follows, she turns her face to the fire, wondering how much more heat she can absorb before she combusts. Matt speaks hesitantly. “I can’t read your mind, you know. It helps if you tell me how you feel sometimes.”
They’re still wrapped up together closely enough that she doesn’t need to verbalize instead of nodding. “How’s my heartbeat?” she asks, more out of curiosity than in answer to his request.
“A little speedy. How’s mine?”
Her ear is only in contact with his body up by his right shoulder. “And I would know that, how?”
Matt picks up her hand and moves it to his chest, and she willingly splays her fingers against his ribcage. After a moment of concentration, she slips under his shirt to reach the same spot, and winces when the first thing she notices is the lengthy path of an old scar. “It’s fast,” she answers. “I think. Is it?”
“So what’s that mean?”
He chuckles. “Do you really have to ask?”
Of course she does. He’s enigma from the surface all the way down. She tries to explain: “I always get worried that, you know, I’m pressuring you. Inadvertently.”
He hasn’t moved out from under her hand, so it rises along with his deep sigh. “Most of my relationships have ended here,” he says. “Right here. This conversation.”
That’s enough to make her hand withdraw. She knows he doesn’t mean any harm, and that his doubts, for the most part, are really rooted in his high regard for her, as hers are for him. But that’s just it. They can’t solve this by trying to do right by each other. When it comes to physicality Karen ought to be the one at the wheel, but Matt, his uncertainty notwithstanding, acts as if she’s the virgin and his role is to guard her honor. So does she, Karen realizes. She doesn’t even know how to respect his choices, and she doesn’t think he knows how to guide her through it.
“I didn’t mean that like a warning label.” His voice is apologetic. “It’s just, I would get to this point with girls and they would take it as an insult, or write me off as a fundamentalist. And take it as an insult.”
Karen has to turn that over in her head. She understands him better than those girls did, but this would still be easier if he really was as naive as the stereotype had it. “When someone offers you something that personal,” she says slowly, “it’s hard to tell them you don’t want it.”
“It’s harder if you do want it, but you have to turn it down anyway.” At her murmur of agreement some of the tension seems to leave his shoulders, but then he squares them and says, “I...do want you, Karen. Pretty badly.”
“Good to know I haven’t lost my touch.”
“I wish I could explain…”
She cuts in, knowing this will only end in self-pity if she lets it. “Try. Come on. Maybe I can’t relate, but I know your deep daring secret and I’m not insulted and I’m listening. That has to be worth something.” To drive the point home she swivels and drapes her legs across his lap, trapping him in his place.
“Okay,” he laughs. After a moment’s thought he asks her, “Have you ever, uh. Have you ever felt so good it’s almost unbearable?”
She furrows her brow. Is he asking her to describe sex? “You could say that, sure. Why?”
“Because I feel that way right now,” he tells her, “and I’m a little bit afraid of what happens when this gets turned up.”
“Now? Just sitting here?”
Instead of answering he lays both of his hands on her face, and she closes her eyes as his fingertips glide down from her hairline to her jawline. She remembers how shyly she used to ask him to do this when they first started dating, and how he caught on and turned it into a personal gesture of affection. “Your temperature’s going up,” he informs her. “But I’m just touching you.”
Her lips turn up in time for him to feel it as his fingers pass over them. “I take your point. So this is how your body makes up for all the extra pain when you’re getting beat up on, huh?”
“It has its rewards,” he agrees. “Can we kiss some more?”
When Karen falls asleep some hours later, it’s between the silk sheets, and Matt is the big spoon behind her. She tried to stay conscious until she could tell if he was comfortable like this, but his breath in her hair and his arm fastened over her chest have sent her spiralling down to beyond where the question could reach her.
They’re halfway up Mount Greylock, Matt in his new sunglasses and without a white cane, and to his vast though unspoken relief, it’s working. Hikers on their way down pass them with friendly greetings or remarks about the scenery, asking questions that begin with Did you see and end without hasty apologies.
And he’s enjoying it. Since Karen can’t narrate without giving him away, they go silently for long stretches, and he spreads out his attention to absorb what he can. One moment his face is dappled with sunlight shining through a filter of leaves, the next, it’s under the cool shade of a towering rock formation. He can smell the resin from at least a dozen different kinds of tree, though he doesn’t know the first thing about identifying them. Even the ground cover, like the earth beneath it, is especially pungent after last night’s rainfall. Some little creature is digging itself a new home a short distance from the path.
His sonar isn’t bouncing off of any walls. There are no walls. There are no walls.
He walks behind Karen when the trail is too narrow to walk abreast, knowing it’s unlikely she’ll slip but preferring a position where he can catch her nonetheless. Her vital signs are captivating: lungs expanding with the clean air, heart pumping, a sheen of sweat just beginning to color her scent. Whenever they come to a steep incline, she finds handholds on roots and rocks, unconcerned with the dirt that remains when she continues on walking upright.
There’s something about her in this environment that just makes sense, and although Matt wants to simply observe and enjoy it, he can’t hold back the thought that she belongs here. It never would have occurred to him in Hell’s Kitchen, since she’s so demonstrably skilled at city life, but nature suits her better. This morning she was positively humming as she put her hair into a ponytail and laced up her hiking boots, and Matt could only marvel that she owned a pair of hiking boots. When did she last have a chance to use those?
Matt himself is in the tactical boots that he used for his original vigilante costume. It’s just about the most indiscreet wardrobe choice he’s ever made; he can even still smell blood on them, though it’s not his own. He thought it was time for a leap of faith, though, and anyone up here who were to accuse him of being the Man in the Black Mask would probably not be looking at his feet anyway.
Karen has stopped to pet a dog, an off-leash tail-wagger of a breed that could have been a seeing eye dog if born into different circumstances. “I love chocolate labs,” she says to its owners, and Matt wonders if that was for his benefit. He crouches and extends a hand, trying to picture the animal that’s sniffing him, wondering if it knows that he’s the only human on this mountain who can smell and hear everything that it can.
“He was so cute,” says Karen as the labrador bounds away. Matt can’t tell if she’s stating an opinion, or giving him a piece of information he couldn’t get himself.
What he does know is that Karen would have a dog of her own if she lived out here. She would wear her hiking boots often, and stargaze, and spend entire days away from walls.
It was her own choice to move to the city, long before he’d met her, and his trademark guilt doesn’t quite extend to feeling responsible for every opportunity she’ll miss by living there. But thinking about her belonging here gives him a pang, because he doesn’t. He could be happy here, sure, moving into a little house with Karen, learning to recognize all of these trees. His ears would adjust to the sound of crickets instead of distant cries of pain. He would never even know about everyone who went on suffering and dying in his hometown.
Karen has been the first woman in his life so far who has understood that when he chooses to abstain from sex, he isn’t judging her for choosing differently. Maybe she’ll also be the first to understand that their mutual desire to live righteously can lead them in opposite directions, but he isn’t ready to broach the topic. Last night she made an offhand joke about wearing modest pajamas to protect his innocence, and his laugh came out with a hard edge that jarred them both. He sometimes thinks that his touch alone will corrupt her, and hopes it’s a hallucination.
“What are you thinking about?” she asks, pausing at her higher ground ahead of him. “You’re so quiet.”
He banishes the grimmer aspect of his thoughts. “Remember those stone walls we saw yesterday?”
She takes a second, probably analyzing the half-truth in his phrasing. “The ones the settlers built? We saw more of them today, at the foot.”
“Yeah. I liked that. Farmers hauling all these rocks out of the pasture and stacking them up at the edges instead of giving up on the land. You use what you’ve got, right?”
“Maybe,” grins Matt, “but hey, at least it comes with a free fence.”
Her back is to him again as she replies, hauling herself over another outcropping in the trail. “Persuasive. You’re in the right career.”
He knows he isn’t meant to take a double meaning from that, but accepting a little bit of random comfort, he reasons, isn’t being paranoid. “I am,” he agrees.
His words weren’t loud, but she hears and halts for a few steps so that he can catch up. “Wait, have we been talking in metaphors? Rewind. Last I remember, you said you were thinking about rocks.”
Nobody is near them on the trail. For the moment, it’s safe to talk openly. It may not last long, but Matt still hesitates. “There are all these milestones that couples are supposed to have. You know, like the sex talk and the ‘do you want kids’ talk. And it’s weird, we’ve had those and we’ve even had a few that most couples never have to have, but we still haven’t...I can’t believe I’m bringing this up right now.”
“Go on,” she urges him, and her heartbeat says he’s making her nervous, so he has to.
“The ‘I love you’ talk.”
Her breath catches, but her voice comes out steady. “You’re the one who has to say it first, Matt. You know that.”
Not only does he know that, but he knows why: her body has been saying it to him for months, and she can’t lie to him. It would be unfair, not to mention cruel, to make her put herself on the line before she had the assurance that he’s had from the start.
Someone’s coming down from the peak. He only has the time for a few spare words of contrition, left over from last night: “Sometimes I can’t let myself do the things I want to do.”
They start walking again before the three hikers reach them. “Wait until you see that view!” one of them says, and the others chime in with enthusiasm, which Matt and Karen pretend to share. From the moment they stepped onto the trail they’ve been hearing about nothing but the view, the view, the view from everyone who’s seen it. Matt has no doubt that it’s spectacular. Karen may not be aware that she’s flinching slightly each time it’s mentioned.
When they emerge from the trees onto the bare mountain top, though, she emits a tiny sound of awe. Counter to his expectations, Matt empathizes. He thought that this would affect him like being on the roof of a tall building, but rooftops have never given him this lightheaded feeling. The absence of walls strikes him all over again; it’s as if they’ve gone back to the dawn of humanity, before anyone knew how to construct a barrier. A bird larger than a crow flies over his head. The scents of minerals and vegetation and far-off settlements float in on swirling breezes, changing every second.
Karen takes it in for a long time, from the vantage point of a broad flat stone set apart from their fellow visitors, who picnic and cavort around the clearing. Matt stands behind her, hands locked with hers at her waist. When her heart has settled into a blissfully constant rhythm, he says, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she responds effortlessly. Then, with a note of gravity, “Will you just tell me one thing?”
“Why have you never asked what color my eyes are?”
Matt chuckles sadly. “What color are your eyes?”
“Answer my question and I’ll answer yours.”
He thinks about it, not because he’s trying to find sensitive words to explain, but because he isn’t sure himself. “If I got my sight back I would be able to recognize all the colors, put the right names to them,” he says finally. “But as it is, I can’t remember what they look like, except for red. If I know what color something should be, I can’t help trying to picture it, and I just...don’t want to be wrong.”
“Oh.” Karen is silent for a few more beats, then asks, “Should I not tell you?”
The answer gives Matt a contented glow: that’s what he would have guessed. “Azure like the sky?”
Karen laughs. “Sure. Just like the sky.”
He squeezes her and kisses her temple. “Good. Now tell me about this view.”