A/N: Sorry that the chapter took so long, but, well, sometimes life just gets in the way. And the chapter has somehow developed a life of its own...
– The woman behind the words –
It had been a good night. After the successfully ended chase at the beginning of his shift, he had broken up two fights in which the opponents had already faced each other at gunpoint. But otherwise it had been quiet. Surprisingly quiet for a Friday night. But something seemed to be in the air. Matt couldn't put his finger on it, yet, but he had noticed for a few nights that there were fewer petty criminals around. The mood was generally heated, though, and gang members now immediately pulled out the firearms at the slightest noise, like they were scared of their own shadows.
For this reason he was once again relieved that Melvin had made him such a reinforced suit that was so much better than his old one. Not that he had tested it out yet to see if the suit could deflect bullets. Matt still avoided getting shot whenever possible, but that was simply because he didn't have time to stop and think about whether that would be a good moment to test if his suit was bulletproof when he was fighting. After all, he wanted to disarm the gangsters as quickly as possible so they wouldn't shoot each other or worse, unsuspecting innocents down with ricochets.
So, with a good and well rested feeling, Matt started the day quietly, having even managed to sleep in for once. While he poured himself a glass of water he wondered if his body subconsciously knew he would need as much energy as possible in the near future and therefore demanded sleep? Subconscious... An abrupt pinch in his chest made him stop in mid-motion. Lost in thought, he rubbed his right hand over the spot. He knew what it was – it was the very spot that always announced itself with a dull ache when he had to think about him. The spot that had hurt since the moment so long ago when Stick had declared his training over and left him standing alone in that basement. Their last encounter had now again been months ago. And yet it still hurt as if it had been only yesterday! Because this time Stick hadn't only hurt Matt, he had killed a boy! But it was useless to keep thinking about it. Matt had told him to leave his town, and Stick had done so, hopefully never coming back.
The fact that Stick had taught him that the subconsciousness is a powerful ally of a warrior didn't matter now. If there was indeed something in the air, he would inevitably hear about it sooner or later. And when the time came, he would fight it like every other crime. Overall, his city hadn't been this safe at night in a long time. Even the cops who had driven by the building he was standing guard on the other night had had time to tell pointless jokes to pass the moments until closing time...
So, there was no reason to think about it now. But then why didn't his thoughts want to stop wandering? Why were his senses as if on full blast? Approaching his couch, Matt noticed his fingers tapping against his leg in a rapid rhythm. With a frown, he took a sip of water and then ran his fingers over his watch. It was just after one o'clock. So he still had enough time to calm down his nerves – and his subconsciousness... With a quiet sigh, he placed the glass on his living room table. But even after he became aware of it, his fingers still couldn't keep still, as if his muscles were yearning for a fight. But that evening he would be in civilian clothes for the time being! Therefore, with a forced calmness, he formed fists with both hands and consciously tensed his muscles to deliberately force his fingers to still. He then sat down in front of the table in a cross-legged position and, after a few more minutes after feeling reassured that his muscles would behave now, placed the backs of his hands on his knees in an intentionally slow movement and opening his palms. After he had already focused completely on himself for a few minutes, it was no longer difficult for him to breathe consciously and deeply in a controlled manner and within a few moments to drift off into a peaceful meditation.
When he left his inner place of peace and felt the hard wooden beams of the floor under the carpet again, his body and thoughts were calm. A small smile stole onto his lips, and with a sweeping movement, Matt rose and automatically began to walk a few laps around his apartment to relax and flex his legs from sitting for so long. As he did so, he let his fingers slide over his watch again and realized that he had been meditating for an astonishingly long time. Nevertheless, it was still quite early and if he would already go to the dinner date now, he would be there much too early. But would that be bad? Foggy had already sent him the address in the middle of the night and he knew where it was. Would it hurt if he listened in on Johanna Lorenz for a bit and found out if her motives were really friendly? After all, Foggy, while having a pugnacious and unwavering lawyer's nature for their clients, was a mild and sensitive soul when it came to his friends. He certainly wanted to spare him the pain of discovering that Johanna might just be here to exploit him. Wasn't it his duty as best friend to clarify whether this Johanna had any bad intensions?
But... where did this need to check her out come from? He had never had that with Foggy's other friends. But he knew all of them at least by sight. Johanna, however, had a close relationship with his best friend and Matt knew nothing about her. What if Foggy, after meeting her in person in a few hours, intensified their relationship and no longer had time for Matt? After all, he himself didn't invest that much time in their friendship because of his all-night job, and that made it hard to spend time together that had nothing to do with their partnership law firm work. That had diminished even more since Foggy and Marci had moved in together and the two were in a committed relationship.
Exhaling audibly, he made the decision to just go. He would take his time and maybe it wouldn't be so long before Karen and Foggy would show up, too.
All in all it was a pleasant walk. The air temperature was surprisingly pleasant for the time of year and the balmy wind didn't bring too much urban stench to his nose. He was almost at his destination when he slowed down; apart from the countless voices and conversations of the people around him, enveloping him in a constant up-and-down soundscape, nervousness started to settle in his stomach and for the life of him he didn't know why! Briefly, it occurred to him to stop at his church and ask Father Lantom for advice. But then he would be too late because it would certainly not remain only with this one advice; Matt had simply not let himself be seen for far too long. Sensing that nervousness was being joined by guilt over his long abstinence, he walked on with slow steps. There was nothing he could do about this guilt now in a hurry, or he definitely would be late. For Father Lantom deserved more than ten minutes of his time. The good thing was that he wouldn't have to live with this negative gnawing feeling for long. Because tomorrow was Sunday...
His thoughts had started to move again, and even though he knew that he was once more too much in his own head and should rather pay attention to his surroundings, he couldn't stop it in time. Normally, the other pedestrians paid attention to him; the red signal color on his cane was hard to miss, Foggy had once assured him. But on this day it was probably meant to be that he met another daydreamer... The only warning he had to step aside was the soft hum of a mechanical-sounding woman's voice that was just announcing directions and which was already much too close to him and was heading towards him without slowing down! Only unfortunately, the person holding the obvious cell phone was looking at said device and was also not paying attention to the surroundings. When his right shoulder hit something soft and at the same time edgy – a bag? For sure, because it was surrounded by a whole cascade of aromatic smells from eatable and non-eatable things... – he quickly turned to the right, so that the person didn't fully stumble against him but instead could pass by. Well, what he hadn't thought of was his cane! When he registered the sweet scent of lilies and his eyes reflexively widened behind his glasses at the realization of who he nearly had just collided with, he already heard a soft gasp when her shins collided with his cane. She stumbled to the side, but when Matt realized a second later that her balance was too messed up and she was going to fall down with the bag – wait; her contour was too massive, and within half a second, his senses provided him with a more accurate picture. She was carrying five bags? – he quickly grabbed her arms. At the same time, he took a step in the wrong direction, hoping that this clumsy action would look like that of an actual blind man and that he would just happen to grab her arms by chance.
"I'm sorry," he said quickly when he was sure that she wouldn't fall. "Are you all right?"
"Aller guten Dinge sind drei…" he heard her murmur and recognized it as German words, even if he didn't understand the meaning behind them.
Still, he held her arms tightly and her adrenaline flooded heartbeat seemed to act on him like a magnetic light. Each beat seemed to reverberate through his skin into his body, it seemed so loud to him. With effort, he focused his attention on the rest of her body and noticed her body temperature rising slightly. Her head was obviously swiveling back and forth between his cane and his face, and she was obviously uncomfortable with having collided with a blind man. Then she exhaled quietly but audibly to him and in turn placed her left hand hesitantly on his arm.
"That was 'third time's the charm.' I think that's what it's called, yeah."
Matt felt the barely perceptible stirring of air as a smile played around the corners of her mouth, and she made a motion as if to re-shoulder her bags which had half-slid down her arms. "Um, thank you, for holding me. And I'm so sorry, Mr. Murdock, there were hardly any pedestrians here on this sidewalk, so I got distracted and didn't pay attention."
Having obviously regained her balance, Matt quickly took a small step back and her hand slid down from his coat too and the rapid ba-dump of her heart no longer vibrated within him. Oddly enough, it had been a pleasant feeling. But then he realized what she had just said!
"I'm sorry, have we met?"
"Not yet," she said quickly, then bit her lower lip for just a moment. Expectantly, Matt waited for her to hold out her hand to him like everyone else. But surprisingly she did nothing of the sort. "I'm Johanna. Johanna Lorenz, Foggy's pen friend..."
"Ah," Matt mumbled, trying to say anything at all. The fact that she didn't react like all the other people who met him for the first time kind of threw him off. Furthermore, there were so many scents surrounding her thanks to the many things she had purchased. Starting in his nose they had obviously reached his brain and were currently clouding his ability to think. There was no other way he could describe why he just stood there for endless seconds. He felt like an idiot and frowned in confusion.
"Yeah, um, this is earlier than I thought, but, it's nice to meet you. But... Sorry, I don't mean to assume or be rude or… or offend you. But are the smells from my shopping bags too intense for you?"
"You know, I met a boy in an internship once whose sense of smell and hearing was heightened because of his blindness. It was always very uncomfortable for him when we went shopping with the kids, so I had stayed outside with him while the educators were in the mall with the group. So I thought maybe it was uncomfortable for you as well. I mean, I literally ran into you and just now you must be standing in a cloud of various smells..." She laughed nervously while smiling and took a step away from him.
Whether it was a conscious or unconscious move, Matt couldn't tell. But her explanation touched something inside him and he felt his lips forming a small smile as well.
"Yes, the... oranges smell very intense," he confirmed her guess. Why he didn't tell her that her lily scent was the most intense thing about her, he didn't know. Perhaps it was because he hadn't yet decided if he really found it unpleasant? What he did find strange, however, was a very slight salty note on the skin of her neck, as if she had been crying not so long ago and hadn't wiped away the traces of tears there like she had from her face. In any case, he didn't have time at that moment to think all this through for himself, because he felt her setting down her bags on the sidewalk with determined movements and repacking the oranges from the bag that had brushed against him into another, which she then loaded onto her right shoulder. But before she could shoulder the other bag again, she stopped in mid-motion and looked in his direction.
"Um, I don't even know... Do you have anywhere else to be before dinner, or were you already on your way to my apartment, Mr. Murdock?"
"Matt," he replied automatically and when her nervous smile turned into a broad, genuine one and her heartbeat increased even more, he allowed himself to relish the good feeling of speaking with her. So far, she made a nice, easygoing and interested impression on him, and if she wrote letters the way she spoke, Matt could understand why Foggy had maintained a pen-pal relationship with her for so long. Her voice was a shade lighter than Karen's, and even though she was nervous, she spoke her thoughts honestly. He hadn't been able to hear any falseness from her words. Matt felt himself slowly warming up to her. And so he decided to go on with his plan, but this time with the intention of just getting to know her further, as if she were a stranger. Well, technically she still was one…
"I was actually already on my way. It's been a while since I've been in the street where your apartment is."
That the rooftop of that house was an often used jumping-off point for him she didn't have to know.
"So I didn't know how long it would take me to find the right entrance or when Foggy and Karen would be there. But I understand if I'm way too early-"
"No, not at all!" she interrupted him with a shake of her head that sent her high-tied braid flying around her head. In the next second, she apparently remembered that he couldn't see her gesture and abruptly stopped while still looking slightly past him. Her body temperature rose slightly and Matt had to try to stifle a smile at that. So she wasn't immune to such gestures after all. Sweet.
"I mean," she continued after clearing her throat quietly, "if you don't mind listening to me while preparing the dinner? It's actually quite convenient; I just remembered earlier that I didn't ask Foggy if you or Ms. Page had food intolerances I should know about."
With a small gesture of his hand, Matt gestured for her to go ahead and two of her heartbeats later started moving himself.
"Food intolerances. I've honestly never been asked that before."
"Well, I don't know how it is on this side of the Atlantic, but in Germany it seems to have developed very much for the worse in recent years. Once we had just a few minutes to call an ambulance for a boy who reacted very strongly and violently to a nut allergy that no one had known about until then. So, yeah, that's where I get a little anxious when I'm cooking for people for the first time."
"Given that description, I think it's an appropriate question. But I can reassure you, Karen and I don't have any intolerances. Karen doesn't like lychees though."
"And you? There are no lychees in what I'm going to put in front of you tonight. But-"
Turn left in ten yards.
The electronic announcement of her cell phone sounded a tiny bit muffled from her coat pocket, and that brought him back to the original thing he'd wanted to ask her.
"There's really nothing I don't eat, though I wouldn't favor overly spicy food. Would you mind answering a personal question for me now?"
"Not at all, shoot," she replied while continuing to stroll down the sidewalk beside him normally.
"As I understand it, this is your first time in New York? In Hell's Kitchen?"
"First time in the U.S., yes."
"Okay, then how did you recognize me as Matt Murdock? Foggy told me you two didn't exchange any photos. Then how did you know who I was, Johanna?"
They had just arrived at the next street when the scent wafted toward him from the pizzeria that she had also mentioned in her second riddle. Automatically he stopped when he heard a car approaching quickly. She also stopped and turned to him, but remained silent. With her right hand, she reached into her coat pocket for her cell phone and turned it off. More seconds passed, as she probably thought of an answer. But her pulse remained suspiciously calm.
"Is the question uncomfortable for you?"
"No. I'm just thinking about whether I should tell you already. I was going to tell Foggy first, but, I mean, the heck with it. We're all adults and I don't think he'll hold it against me. But come on, there's no car coming right now, let's go over the street first."
When they started moving again, Matt noticed that she watched him for short periods of time every other moment. He had felt her glances again and again before, but now he was consciously aware of it. That he was frowning because of it seemed to catch her eye as well, because she immediately spoke with him about it.
"Three more steps, then comes the curb. It's a little higher here than on the other side of the street."
Interesting. Thanks to the blind boy she had mentioned, she seemed to have really gained experience in giving clues to the blind.
"Thank you," he returned with a smile, mentally making the very important note to himself not to act conspicuous while being around her.
"So, here we are," she announced after a few more steps, drawing her shoulder blades together as she searched for something in an inside pocket of her coat with her right hand and which immediately clinked metallically. While she unlocked the front door, she lifted her left shoulder a bit and Matt realized that he could have asked her long ago if he could help her carry her bags.
He took a step forward as she pushed the door open and touched her on the arm. Honestly, it was only a gentle touch, just a fleeting contact, dampened by the fabric of her coat, but she immediately looked in his direction and he suddenly found himself in close proximity to her face. He heard her eyelashes touch the skin under her eyes while she blinked and felt her breath as small swirls on his neck. Her heartbeat increased imperceptibly and for a second she pinched her lips together before relaxing them again and letting out a sigh inaudible to normal ears. Without a comment she stepped back into the hallway, and while Matt was still pondering what this behavior meant, she spoke in a voice that sounded a shade cooler than before.
"There's an elevator, but if it's okay, I'd like to use the stairs. I'm slightly claustrophobic in such confined spaces when there are other people in there with me."
Her pulse jumped for a moment, but he realized that didn't necessarily mean it was a lie. It could also be due to the possibility that he would want to use the elevator anyway. But he wouldn't do that to her. Claustrophobia had never been a problem for him. Instead, he remembered with all his senses how it had been back then, when literally the whole world had been too wide, too far for him with its too loud screaming before Stick had shown up and taken care of him. The drum-like footsteps of all the kids of the orphanage running around on the different floors, the screeching of the cars outside the building, the thousand voices of the people on the sidewalks and the neighboring houses that flowed into each other and made no sense – yes, he knew how terrifying such an unpleasant feeling could become.
"But of course you can drive up to the third floor by yourself, Matt. That wouldn't be a problem either."
Or... could it be that she would find it uncomfortable to be in the elevator with him? Perhaps her gesture, helpful to any blind person, had simply been an expression of the fact that she was basically a kind and caring person? That didn't have to mean that she liked him. After all, she didn't know him at all.
Matt swallowed the beginning lump in his throat and, before the pause could turn into a trench of silence, he indicated a nod.
"I understand. Of course we can take the stairs. And no, I'm happy to take them, too. So, don't worry about that. Where exactly...?"
"Thank you," she replied to him softly, and her voice had once again taken on the warm tone with which she had introduced herself to him. That would mean that it was just the claustrophobia, right?
"Only a few steps further is the staircase. The banister is, um..." Again, her hair flew around her head and the light breeze brought another wave of her sweet lily scent near his nose as she probably assessed the height with a quick glance. "It's waist high, for you. But it gets up quite winding. May I offer you my arm to hold on to?"
Again, her pulse did a little jump, so Matt couldn't help but inquire accordingly, "Have you ever led anyone before?"
"Well, I'm familiar with the theory. Practically, I don't have any experience yet, but I can assure you, I'm a fast learner. And-" After a tiny moment of hesitation, Matt heard her skin ripple, as if she were frowning. "And that just sounded like a failed job interview. Sorry."
A grin spread across Matt's face. "You don't need to apologize for that. That was cute. And I'll gladly accept your help getting up those winding stairs. But only if I can help you carry the groceries. How many bags are you carrying?"
"Is that a question or a statement, Ms. Lorenz?"
"Um, would it reflect poorly on my shopping habits if I confirmed it as a statement, Counselor?"
Before he could stop it, an amused snort escaped Matt. But that seemed to create a smile on her face as well. "Well, considering that there are probably ingredients in it for the dinner for us, I'm not going to make a complaint regarding your habits."
"How noble..." She laughed quietly as Matt folded up his cane, tucked it into the inside pocket of his coat, and then held out his right hand to her.
"Come, give me three of them. I don't want to patronize you, but since this will be your first time leading a poor blind person, you'll certainly have to concentrate. You know," he paused and grimaced in mock agony, "just maybe not the one with the oranges."
"Okay, fair trade, I'd say," she giggled.
Still analyzing her previously unusual behavior in the back of his mind, he paid close attention to her reactions as their hands inevitably touched when she handed over the bags. But neither could he detect any hesitation, nor any telltale response from her body. Whatever it had been she had now overcome. Or perhaps she had simply been startled by their sudden closeness?
After shouldering two bags on the left and the third on the right, he unfolded his cane again and, holding it with his left, held out his right hand to her, wrapping it around the crook of her arm as she responded to him accordingly. She radiated pleasant warmth, and together with her floral scent, Matt had the feeling of walking through a flower meadow whose beautiful colors were unfortunately limited only to the reds of the fiery perception of his world. A quiet feeling of regret spread through him as he remembered that as a child he had taken the sight of flowering meadows in the parks for granted instead of appreciating them. If he had paid more attention to it, he might have had a picture of it in his mind now.
As they arrived on the second floor landing, Matt noticed that she had been silent until then. Had she been watching him move again? But no, her gaze was straight ahead and her body was a little tense. But her heartbeat was in a key that made him wonder what condition she was in. Not that he would find the three bags heavy, but she had carried five of them for God knows how long through the city and now took the stairs with an ease as if she were walking slowly in the park instead of leading a blind man up a – really absurdly winding – staircase. Up to the last flight of stairs he paid close attention to her, noting that while she was leading him almost as well as Foggy, she seemed to be sinking more and more into her own thoughts. When she finally stopped with him in front of a door, still lost in herself, he became nervous.
"Is everything all right, Johanna? You're so quiet right now."
For a few seconds she chewed on her lower lip. But when she turned to face him and let out a small sigh, he knew she was going to tell him, whatever it was. When she put her right hand on his, still holding her arm, he noticed that it was shaking so slightly that she probably didn't even notice it herself.
"Um, before we enter my apartment, I need to tell you that I can defend myself."
"What?" Of all the things she could have said, he hadn't expected that.
"Shhh, please don't interrupt me, okay? There's a mess in my head today that you can't help. But I still have to try to talk it out, Matt. The problem right now is that you're already here. Well, actually, it's not a problem, or I would have said it earlier when we met. But in a way, it is. I don't know what Foggy told you about me, but I have a not so nice past that catches up with me every now and then and makes me wary of others. Well, men. You know, in theory I know you're Foggy's best friend and you've been nothing but nice to me for the last scant half hour. But my instincts tell me you're still a man. And to resolve this discrepancy in me letting you into my apartment as a stranger so completely ahead of time, even though Foggy isn't here yet whom I fully trust, I have to tell you that I can defend myself and that you please don't do any... um... ill-advised advances or anything."
For a solid ten seconds, neither of them spoke a word. When Matt opened his mouth to reply to her – well, what, actually? – she beat him to it.
"And I know this must sound totally creepy and confusing to you right now. But I hope you're not put off now or anything and don't feel like having dinner anymore..."
Okay. Now nervousness had her in its grip – her heart was literally racing and the hand that was still on his was a little sweaty. He would have liked to put his left one on hers to signal that everything was okay. But the explanation of her thoughts made him pause. Had she been attacked once or had she been burgled? But whatever had happened wasn't the best subject of conversation for a hallway. And so he nodded instead. But now at least he knew what had triggered her previous behavior.
"I see. And of course I respect your wishes and will not wander around your apartment unasked or sneak up on you."
He wouldn't have done that anyway, but he felt she needed to hear it at that moment.
"Thank you... Matthew."
Matthew... To him, it sounded like her soft voice was caressing his name, while at the same time expressing the utter seriousness of the situation in just that one word. And so at the last second his attempt died on his tongue, when he already wanted to remind her that she could call him Matt.
Instead, he gave her a smile and nodded in understanding.
"Well..." With a slow movement she released her right hand from his and put it into her inside coat pocket, from which it jingled metallically a moment later again. "Here we are."
He sensed her movement a second before she moved and, as it were, set off with her the remaining three steps toward the door. Without haste, she unlocked it, and Matt was startled to discover that there was only one lock on the door.
"Please, come in, there's no threshold."
He literally heard the smile inside her voice when she took another three steps and he followed her into her apartment.