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“Fresh meat,” called the Door Warden.

They came down the stairway as most did, with the tramping of guard boots and clinking of chains. Shuffling on bound feet and clustered together, they stumbled into the room and flinched like children at the sudden light. Their eyes were not adjusted to the fluorescents hanging bare from the ceiling - the vans were dark and the ride had been long. They blinked through pain and silent tears. A few were screaming, mouths still covered in tape.

In the back room, the dogs smelled intruders and began to howl.

The Bookkeeper, alone on the sagging bleachers that contoured the walls, watched the little group closely. With nine men and eight women, the cells would be overcrowded until the night started, if the previous week’s champion was still clinging to life. Then they would empty, with three, likely four bodies discarded with the waste by the time the sun rose. An easy thing, in this city.

Hell’s Kitchen was the prime place for their game. It was easy to find unwanted souls when the streets were dark and half the buildings sagged under rubble. The citizens of this city disappeared quietly, from the ill-lit alleyways and docks, the back seats of patrol cars and ambulances. If someone tried to cause a fuss, money could turn prying eyes away.

At the foot of the stairs, with the masked guards’ submachine guns at their backs, the night’s haul bundled into the room. A heavyset teenager with a leg cast and a clenched jaw. Two dark-haired men of average height, one with sunken cheeks, the other in shaded glasses. A pudgy blond, some kind of rodent passing for facial hair stuck to his chin. A woman in too much makeup, barefoot, platinum hair bedraggled. A grandfather, stalwart, clutching wizened fingers to the shoulder of a young girl. And a wide-eyed man in a dirty Oxford shirt, who tripped in the chains and climbed to his feet again, cringing, after a few sharp kicks.

The Bookkeeper waited patiently for his favorite moment of the night, bar one. He could see the very moment it happened - the meat shrinking together as their eyes adjusted, the smothered cries and fearful moans as they feasted their eyes on the room in which they stood. It made his skin tighten and his blood sing hot behind his mask.

The room’s centerpiece, a cage, rose magnificent from floor to low ceiling. Hanging at its center, spinning slowly from its red leather tethers, was the great bull skull, bones stained red. The bulbs threw harsh light on the rusting metal chainlink, leaving the benches in twilight and casting a net of shadows across the cement floor.

Most recoiled before they could stop themselves, eyes locked on the blood covering the twisted horns. A few stared uncomprehendingly. None hailed the vision before them with excitement, like a dancer should the world’s greatest stage. The Bookkeeper pushed down a swell of disappointment.

After enough years watching the game unfold, the Bookkeeper knew that they would only show their true colors inside the cage. Men with hardened muscle might perish sobbing, while the sickly might die screaming out their fury, blood under their fingernails and flesh threading their teeth. Their stock varied on the luck of the draw, but the Bookkeeper knew how to excite the appetites of their patrons and boost the high-stakes bets. Bruisers to challenge the House. Parents to claw apart their fellow tributes in name of protecting their children. Old or young, sick or healthy, they always fought in the end. True disappointments didn’t last long in the ring - disappointments were boring, and the Bookkeeper’s employer had made it clear they couldn't afford boring. There was a reason that they kept the dogs chained and hungry.

As the cargo shuffled toward the backroom and the baying dogs, the Bookkeeper quietly sent the night’s projected earnings to his employer. Then he slipped his phone back into his pocket and lifted his mask.

By sunrise the cage would be slick with blood.


Wake up.

Wake up.

There was a trick that Foggy had taught himself as a child. He had been small then, learning to sleep on his own and frightened of the monsters that lurked in his dreams. The trick was simple – he told himself to wake up and then did so. Forced his eyelids open. Cut the nightmares off mid-stride. Every time.

Not now.

It had happened so fucking fast that the pieces barely fit together. Their little group of five out to paint the town red, home after finals week and high on relief. They had stumbled out the back of a seedy bar into the dark, drunk and laughing, and then suddenly everything had gotten - confusing. Screeching tires. Matt shouting. Trying to run. Hauling ass straight into bright lights and masked men with tazers and machine guns.

Fucking machine guns.

Now Foggy felt something unidentified clawing at his gut. Panic, he thought, but he had left panic behind him on the sidewalk along with his last shred of dignity. It was terror, the kind that strangled you in fever dreams and woke you screaming.

This happened on television, to other people. In some sad fucking statistic or news report, not to his friends on a Tuesday night six blocks from home. Columbia law students missing. More at eleven.

They had been dragged into a dirty van at gunpoint, thrown against a huddle of unwashed bodies like trash. It had been rank, the chains on their hands and feet flaking old rust -

Foggy tried to wake up again, with much the same result as last time.

He barely remembered the ride. He’d heard Marci’s hard breathing and resented the duct tape on his mouth, as if without it he could ever have explained what the fuck was happening to Matt. Could have found the words to articulate how dead they all were.

They had driven in circles for hours, then been hauled from the darkness and bundled down a set of cellar stairs. The room below had been a sight worthy of pants-wetting terror – sagging benches surrounding a towering cage raised off the ground like a boxing ring, floor stained brown and black. And hanging inside, the skull of a dead thing spinning slowly on red string.

Then they were herded by stun batons through a ripped curtain to an unlit back room. In the dark the first thing Foggy had noticed was the dogs, mangy and drooling, chained by the neck to the far wall. The second thing had been the stacks of stinking metal cells, no bigger than packing crates, on the far wall. They were separated and shoved into the crates unceremoniously, falling on top of emaciated bodies and dirty hay, before the doors swung shut behind them.

The traffickers had left them in near total blackness, the only light filtering through the curtain from the main room beyond. He couldn’t see his friends, but through that door Foggy could see the cage, and they were going to – they had to –

Focus. Breathe.

The second was a bad idea. The cells were filthy and the smell overpowering, like layers of piss and blood that had never been cleaned. Like the men in the other room were just waiting for him to bleed out and become the next layer of waste in this godforsaken hellhole.

Focus.

Foggy clenched his hands, starting to chafe under the steel, and wincing peeled the tape off his mouth. His back ached where he was bent against the low ceiling.

His mom was going to be pissed at him for being dead. His whole eulogy would be about how this type of shit never happened to the suppliers of artisanal cheeses.

On his right, someone retched violently.

Matt was in that cell.

Foggy fumbled sightlessly, shuffling on his knees until he touched the bars of his cell where it met Matt’s. He reached for where he thought his friend was, right hand slipping through the slats of the crate.

“Buddy,” Foggy whispered, and somehow managed to sound like a real human being.

“I know, Foggy.” Matt sounded wrecked, like his throat was scraped raw, and Foggy realized he was the one who had nearly hurled up his dinner a moment before. Yet he sounded steadier than Foggy felt, so maybe there was comfort in not being able to see the horror that surrounded them. Still, the sight of their prison didn’t equal the smell of it. The most offensive of the myriad of stinks was coming from within Matt’s crate, a sickly sweetness that was hard to identify.

Foggy groped through the bars until his fingers brushed cloth. “That you?” He managed, though it didn’t feel like Matt’s shirt, it felt like –

“No.” Matt’s voice was rough.

Foggy’s fingers stilled. “Is,” he tried to say, “is –“ but he knew the answer before he got it.

“He’s dead,” Matt rasped anyway, breathing uneven. His tone was disconnected, like he was discussing a blue sky day. “Has been for a day.”

Foggy pulled his fingers back, shaking, and wiped them on his shirt like it could erase the fact that he had touched a dead body.

A cold hand wrapped around his left wrist and and he jumped, banging his head against the crate.

It was Marci. Her manicured nails dug into his skin, and as his eyes adjusted he could just see her in the dark. The shape of her hair caught the light filtering in from the room beyond. Huddled beside her was Vic, mouth a hard line, curls falling across her dusky skin. Walt must have gotten separated from them somehow, and who knew what he was stuck in a cell with.

But then again, Matt –

Hand still clutching Marci’s, Foggy turned to his right again. His friend was breathing shallowly, and through the slats his shadow shifted, as though he was resting his forehead against the grimy bars.

But then again, Matt – nerdy, sarcastic, genuinely nice Matt with his ironclad sense of justice - was stuck in a cage with a dead body.

Foggy tried to make a joke about having had worse roommates, and it got stuck in his throat.

They needed to get out of here.

“They took our cell phones,” Marci whispered, “they took mine.”

Foggy hadn’t realized he’d said it aloud, and if that wasn’t a sign he was cracking up, what was? But Marci was right. With no link to the outside world they had to hope for a rescue. How long before they were missed? With classes finished, no one would notice that Foggy was gone until he failed to show up for family dinner next weekend. Maybe sooner for his friends. Maybe never for Matt.

He strained his eyes and ears for any hints to where they were. He caught nothing but the growling of dogs, rustling of chains, and background noise of the men with automatic weapons in the next room.

They were laughing.


Matt listened as his best friend, pulse fast and terrified, explained where they were. The stairs to underground, the guns, the cage. Matt knew, of course. He had tasted it, the iron bars and slow decay of their basement prison.

The smells here were like nothing Matt had ever experienced before. Not from passing garbage trucks, public bathrooms, or overflowing landfills. This was years of bile, of decay, of grime and excrement. It settled over a landscape of rotting hay and rabid dog and enough metal to hurt his teeth.

And next to him, death.

Matt had dedicated his life to the study of law, and a profession that assured criminals got their due. How ironic that only hours before they had been celebrating their own brilliance, and toasting a meagre triumph of pen on paper. Sure in the knowledge that they were instrumental now in the culling of evil. That they would bring justice to the monsters that men could be.

These men, these monsters, deserved that justice. They deserved – condemnation as the worst of humanity, an eternity in fire –

Matt clenched down on the heat simmering beneath his skin, and burned it out of himself like he’d been taught. Listening became easier.

Foggy’s frightened heartbeat was easiest sound to identify. It was buffeted by the slight ringing of metal bars and the cracking straw under knee. Beyond that was the low rumble of dogs and the breathing of a dozen scared, sick people. In the room adjacent, he heard footsteps and the murmur of low conversation. The gun-toting masked men – mostly smokers, one a father, one a fucking pizza chef, one having masturbated within the last hour, Jesus Matt hated his nose sometimes – were discussing them. How much money they would get from bets on their new stock.

‘- with the dark glasses, think he’s…?‘- in the Cage together, might be funny….’ ‘- against the House, he won’t last half a match.’

Focus.

Reaching further, he could hear the sounds of the world above, muffled from underground. The shift of a guard at the door, the faint rumble of cars and pedestrians within a radius of two blocks. Even closer, the rush of water and sound of a Hudson dock. They were still in Hell’s Kitchen, still within help’s reach.

Take it apart in layers, said a voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Stick – and fuck if the old man wouldn’t laugh at him now. Figure out where you are. Why you’re there. What you need to do.

Matt peeled the overpowering smell of dog away from the rest, then pulled apart the rancid scents that blanketed the room. The scent of injury hung heavy, but beneath it were hints that some of these people came from hard lives and high-risk professions. Several had been here for weeks, and the room in use for years. They were fed rarely. They were given no chances to clean themselves, and no toilet beyond an empty slop bucket in the corner. If victorious in the ring they were hauled back, injuries untended, to fight another day.

Or to die. The corpse beside him, slowly rotting, had succumbed to infection following multiple blunt force wounds. And there, just under the decay, was the smell of disease.

Oh. Oh.

Matt turned his senses back on his fellow captives. Under the dirt and fear was the scent of illness, antiseptic, and pills. In the corner an elderly man with a heart murmur shifted restlessly, muttering to himself. A woman cradled the cast on her leg. A teenager wheezed through weak lungs.

The ‘stock’ trended disproportionately toward the very old and very sick.

Yet not all of them could have arrived ill. A mother and son sat in the crate below him, the child unhurt, the mother breathing painfully. With ribs cracked and blood under her fingernails, she was already a veteran of the ring. Her scent was free of disease, but her wrists – both hers and the boy’s were chafed and inflamed.

Handcuffs?

A patchwork pattern began forming in Matt’s mind, yet there were pieces missing. His friends were healthy and whole, thank God, and had had no brushes with the law, but the vans had still been waiting for them….

A memory niggled at him. No, not waiting for them, he realized. Waiting for him.

Their group of five had arrived at the dive bar together, but he’d spent his last hour trading friendly lies over whiskey with low-voiced Alisha, who worked as a dentist and lived alone with two pugs and liked peach body butter and possibly looted jewelry stores in her free time. Matt wasn’t sure about the last, so they had exchanged numbers and parted ways – she was uninvolved in the subsequent events, he was sure. But if someone had seen him in that time window, seen a blind man soon to be leaving drunk and alone....

Hospitals and handcuffs, he thought again. No one in scrubs had entered the bar, nor anyone with a gun and badge, but he wouldn’t know an off-duty officer from a civilian. Not if they’d showered, not with two glasses of scotch in him.

Whoever it had been, they wouldn’t have expected a group of able-bodied grad students to walk out with him.

The last puzzle pieces fell smoothly into place. Matt felt a familiar anger uncurl deep inside him, like breathing air onto the hot coals until the flames licked at his insides.

Equal combat was not, it seemed, on the menu for the night. The cage wasn’t a gladiatorial arena in which to match strength against strength. There was no glory to be won here, no champions to be declared victorious.

The cage was just a vaudeville of terrors for the weak and afraid. Their captors wanted men who had to be dragged cringing into the cage, and then swept up in base survival instinct would become animals. Who had beasts in their bellies clawing to be let out.

Matt could give them that.


They got no food. There was no piss bucket in the cell – none in the room, unless hidden somewhere Foggy couldn’t see. He briefly weighed the merits of asking for one, remembered the corpse next to Matt, and suppressed the urge.

In the corner, Vic shifted. “Hell of an end to term,” she said to no one in particular.

Hell of an end to their lives, Foggy thought.

They sat in silence, Vic’s arm around Marci as the two dozed fitfully. Foggy drifted, his hand threaded through the bars to brush Matt’s fingers. Matt didn’t seem to sleep, and Foggy wondered if he was praying. Wondered if religion helped at times like this.

The minutes crawled into hours.

Foggy was woken by raised voices and footsteps. He shifted, watching through the door as a crowd of men and women trickled then swelled down the basement steps. They didn’t look like monsters as they passed by the door - there was nothing marking them as come to watch death for sport. Yet here they came in twos and threes, handing massive wads of cash and their cell phones to the masked men who prowled the entrance, in exchange for seating in the dilapidated stands.

“I think the audience is here,” he managed to tell Matt, squeezing his hand in an attempt to comfort – one of them. Both of them.

He wondered how his friend felt, half-raised ringside and still quiet whenever someone tripped over oldschool boxing fights on ESPN. Matt visited that old gym sometimes, probably to let out stress when the tightly-wound boyscout thing wore too thin. Or maybe to commune with his dad, like praying at a grave but with more punching. Whatever it was he needed when he got low. He was fit for a dorky little guy, could likely throw a solid punch –

Foggy pushed the train of thought away. He didn’t want to think about Matt in a death match. Matt, who made snarky jokes and was picky about his health food. Whose father had wanted nothing more than – “All he wanted was for me to use my head, not my fists,” – shit, Jesus, fuck.

Who was blind for godsakes.

Still, he had better chances than Foggy. Better than any of them except Vic, who was going to Columbia on the military’s dime.

As if sensing his thoughts, she shifted her head on Marci’s shoulder. “Thought I was done killing people,” she said with a bleak smile.

He cast around for comforting words and came up dry.

“You play video games, kid?” The voice was thin and cracked, and came from the crate adjoining theirs at left. There was a faint rustling, and Foggy could just make out a woman his grandmother’s age leaning against the metal. Her gray hair was matted, hands wrinkled where they slipped through the bars.

“No,” said Vic, frowning over her shoulder into the near-blackness.

“Yeah,” Foggy managed, wondering if they were about to get the world’s most badly-timed lecture on the frivoloties of their generation.

The woman wove a finger through the air, as if miming an avatar traversing a maze. “Grandson plays ‘em all the time. You push all the little buttons then – bam – bam – the other players are dead in the cage. You win.”

Foggy’s mouth went dry. “I really don’t think I can do that.”

The woman’s fingers twitched, as if shrugging. “Don’t need to do anything but be good at dying. The survivors go sooner or later. The last one’s already gone.”

Oh, God. Matt’s cellmate.

“Who are the guys in masks?” Foggy asked.

“No men under those masks,” said the old woman. “No men in the cage. Just animals, pretending.”

Foggy felt a chill. He looked out the door again, absurdly expecting their captors to be peeling off thin human skin to reveal a horror show below.

“What if we refuse to be animals?” Vic asked quietly.

The woman’s blank face wavered for a moment, then seemed to fold in on itself, wrinkles upon wrinkles. “My grandson, they wanted him to… and he wouldn’t do it. Wouldn’t get off his knees, hands in the air. They didn’t like that.”

“Ma’am,” and Foggy’s voice was scraped thin but not knowing was worse, “where’s your grandson?”

She stared at him unblinkingly. “He used to like dogs,” she said.

Foggy closed his eyes, pressing his forehead hard against his knees. Matt’s fingers clenched around his. Vic and Marci whispered to each other, an argument he couldn’t hear.

The minutes crept on. The benches filled. The low murmurs of the crowd rose to shouts, hollers, whistles, stamps. They sounded impatient.

After it felt like hours, days, years had passed, the dogs woke growling from their slumber and clambered to their feet, eyes on the door. As they entered, Foggy recognized the men from the vans; armed to the teeth, their faces shrouded in cloth and unsettling in the half-dark.

The last to enter hid his face behind bronze rather than burlap – a lopsided, rough beaten snout buckled around his head. The blank eyes and twisted metal spiralling from the crown made it look oddly bovine. He surveyed the crates, one gloved hand jangling a ring of keys. His breathing echoed heavily. Someone across the room started crying.

“Open the door.”  

No.

Matt’s cell was wrenched open by a dozen hands, and after some scuffling the men had reached in to pull – the corpse from its depths. The body thumped as it hit the floor. One of the men nudged it with his gun. “Dead.”

The man in the golden mask circled it slowly, passing within a hair’s breadth of Foggy’s crate. “Put it with the trash.”

Barely audible, Foggy heard Matt let out a shaky, angry breath, then –

“Please let us go.” The tiny voice was barely recognizable as Marci. Amazon-tall, chews-razor-wire-for-breakfast Marci. She sounded like a frightened child as she reached through the bars, arms pale even in the dark. She wrapped desperate fingers around his belt, scrabbling at the buckle. “Let us go – I’ll do anything you want, I’ll –“

The man kicked out, shaking the crate, and she recoiled to scramble backward with hands tucked protectively under her stomach. Vic and Foggy held her, not sure what else to do when the world had so completely fallen apart.

“Everyone will die here,” the man said. “That is the only rule of the Bull Court.” He circled the room, rattling keys against metal bars like an orchestra of ugly chimes. The dogs howled, and a high voice across the room whimpered. The golden face stilled. “Don’t you like the doggies, little boy?”

“No,” said a child’s voice, and Foggy remembered him from that first panicked ride in the vans. He had already been sitting huddled with her grandfather in the darkness when Foggy and his friends were tossed in at gunpoint.

There was a breathless silence, then the man straightened and turned away, gesturing to the guards. “The boy is first blood tonight.”

The men stepped forward. Foggy heard the gasps, the protests and moans of despair from their fellow prisoners, his own pounding heartbeat. The child’s grandfather was shouting. And then –

“Put me in the ring instead.”

- if there was one thing Foggy would never fail to recognize, it was the voice of his fucking idiot best friend.

The man in the mask turned, bovine eyes blank.

“I want to fight,” Matt said. His glasses were reflecting the meager light, the left lense cracked like a spider’s web, expression unreadable behind them. His tongue darted out to moisten his bottom lip. “Put me in the ring.”

“No,” said someone, and Foggy realized it was himself. His voice was breaking like it hadn’t in years and Matt was snarling at him to shut up, but there was little left to lose now. He slammed his hands against the bars. “No, you pieces of shit, take me -“

The pain was sudden and blinding. Foggy blinked and he was on the floor, curled, throat aching. He realized distantly that he must have screamed. Breathing through the pain, Marci’s grip like an iron vice on his side, he saw one of the men lower a stun baton.

The beaten-bronze face was still facing Matt. “You against the child?”

“I don’t want to fight him,” Matt said. The faint light of the door cast stripes across him from overhead. In the shifting shadows his face looked tranquil and his hands steady. Only his lips were pressed thin, as if twitching to raise his hackles in disgust. “I want to fight you.”

“The House doesn’t profit from quick deaths,” said the man, and Foggy wanted to punch his face in.

“No,” said Matt, and that was his courtroom voice. The one he used during closing arguments when he pulled out Thurgood Marshall. When he wanted to win. “The House wants a dancer for its Asterion. Its bull. Its hybrid birth of monstrous shape.”

Oh,” Marci breathed into the silence, and if Foggy didn’t understand it he was glad that somebody fucking did.

“Take him,” said the masked man suddenly.

Foggy knew he must have shouted something because there was the tazer again, white-hot pain bursting behind his eyes. He knew that he was crying. Knew that his best friend – the one who wore a stupid sweater in the Nelson family Christmas photo, book in hand, smile flushing his whole face – was sacrificing himself in an attempt to save them all. Or maybe to save himself, too. One last misguided act to absolve his fucking Catholic soul.

Stupid, when they were all going to die anyway.

Wake up.

“Don’t worry, Foggy,” Matt said with a horrible smile. His fingers reached through the bars and squeezed Foggy’s once. “You’ll be fine.” Then, with urgency, “Marci, they’ve been doing this for years.”

Then he was gone, dragged through the door and in front of the crowd.


The din was overwhelming as they emerged into the Bull Court.

The audience swelled ringside over a hundred people strong, stinking of sweat and alcohol. They were mostly male and spoke in a mix of languages – English, with smatterings of Italian and Russian. Some thumbed the bets in their pockets, while others held food and drink as if come to watch the theater. At least a few were half-aroused in anticipation of the imminent violence. Any of them could have been cops or hospital staff.

A ring of masked men walked Matt toward the cage slowly, as if to forestall any last-minute escape attempts. He could make it if he tried – maybe. Thirteen paces to the stairs, then twenty-two steps up to the door. A comfortable head start - none of them would expect him to parkour neatly over their heads. But then what? Even if they didn’t gun him down on the stairwell –

Foggy. Marci. Vic, Walt, the little boy, the old woman, and all the dozen others waiting to die for a fetishized mythos. By the time Matt had found help any of them could be dead.

This was better. For all that they played at this farce, these men were as brutish as their environment. Bristling with firearms and combat knives, they carried themselves in the manner of men well versed in violence but untrained in its finer points. Some were heavy like bouncers, others thinly muscled but clumsy on their feet. They were neither professionals nor prepared to fight one. Cannon fodder, he could hear Stick say.

But then, Matt hadn’t fought a real person in years. These thugs dealt in death for pleasure.

It was the man in the metal mask that posed the greatest threat. He was muscled and shirtless, holding himself lightly in the way of a trained killer. Dangerous. Blooded. Bathing in the adulation of the crowd, which screamed its approval of the night’s entertainment.

The noise abated as their little procession drew to a halt in front of the cage. A stocky man with soft-soled shoes and an over-fondness for cologne raised a bullhorn to his mouth. When he spoke his voice was muffled by fabric.

The first to pay tribute in blood on this great night –“

It was sloppy disquisition and Matt tuned it out, honing in on the cage. Its walls were high and square, a latticework of chainlink. The floor was raised, covered in ripped padding and bloody canvas. The lights were hot where they hung bare form the ceiling. At the center, the bloody skull spun on a rope that smelled of cow hide and harsh dye.

Matt flexed his hands and breathed.

He was a Murdock, and Murdocks were made to take a beating in the ring. He could weather this. Like his father would have.

The noise of the Bull Court faded, mixing like a half-tuned radio with the tinny sounds of Murdock vs Creel! on Matt’s childhood television set. He had grown up on those matches, shaking with excitement, heart thumping as he waited for the ring of the bell. Learned anew how indestructible his father was. Wondered at the Devil he sometimes saw awaken in him.

Matt felt that Devil now. It was rising as if from a long slumber, urging him to pull open his chest and let loose whatever violence slept under his skin. Urging him to enjoy it.

Were these the thoughts that had filled Jack’s mind during his final ring walk? Or had he been occupied with the fight before him? The consequences to come? The son he was leaving behind?

Matt knew his father would have walked in straight-backed and steady, ‘Battlin’ Jack Murdock’ spelled out proudly across his back, silk robe falling across his shoulders. It had been red, to hide the blood.

Matt’s shirt was white today. The blood would be easy to see.

“- the sightless who dares to challenge the House of the Ax,” the ring announcer droned on.

It was funny, how God’s will had brought Matt here after a lifetime of schoolbooks and scholarly pursuits. A lifetime of Jack saying, “You’re a smart kid, and I know you don’t get that from me. Finish your homework – you’re not gonna end up like your old man.” Of tempering his anger with the memory of his father’s voice and a child’s shaking hands pushing needle through skin. Of burying himself in the practice of law and learning to use words as weapons, not fists.

Then to find himself here, drawn to violence like a bloodhound to a scent. How strange that he’d once thought his gifts a sign of higher purpose, when his path had always been going to lead back to this.

The ring announcer fell quiet.

Matt stepped forward, imagining the weight of a hand on his shoulder and a steady heartbeat in his ear. He imagined that he walked with the presence of his father at his back, and that he could hear a gruff voice saying, “Murdocks get hit a lot, but we get up. We always get up.”

He could weather this. He had to.

Because somewhere in the room behind him, Marci – brilliant, nimble-fingered Marci – was clutching the bull’s stolen cell phone.


The bars of Foggy’s cell refused to budge, the door rattling uselessly against its padlock as he slammed his hands into it over and over –

In the next room, bloodthirsty men were leading his best friend to a painful death. His best friend, who had been trying to say something as they pulled him away….

The crowd erupted into cheers.

Foggy couldn’t watch this. He didn’t look away.

Marci’s nails dug into his wrist. “Foggy. Fuck, Foggy Nelson, look at me.” Her eyes were wide in the gloom. She pressed something plastic into his hand and whispered, “I stole it off that masked fuck’s belt.”

He stared at her uncomprehendingly.

Foggy,” she hissed again.

The fear in her voice woke him, and he curled his fingers around the object she was trying to show him.

It was a cell phone.

His heart lurched and stuttered in his throat, hope so sudden and blinding that for a moment it hurt to breathe. Then he and Vic shifted as one to block Marci from prying eyes. She curled low, light of the phone covered with one hand, fingers of the other moving quickly over the keys.

There was something –

What had Matt been trying to say, just before they pulled him away? “Marci, they’ve been doing this for years.”

“It’s ringing,” Marci breathed, head ducked and phone pressed to her ear.

Good. That was good. Except - something wasn’t –

“Stop, stop,” Foggy hissed. Before he could second-guess himself his hand darted out and ended the call.

Marci stared at him as the phone went dark.

“Matt said they’ve been doing this for years.” Ideas spun half-formed in his head. He tried to put them into a semblance of order. “They’ve never been caught… think about it, that means….”

“They might have people on the police force,” Marci said softly.

Foggy floundered for a moment until the solution, glorious and beautiful, blossomed in his mind. Brett Mahoney. Friend since preschool, officer at the 15th precinct, and – Foggy knew in his gut – an honest man.

When looking back later he could never quite remember the next few minutes. The tension in his stomach and the terror of being discovered were his only memories.

He knew he must have whispered Brett’s number, knew the crowd would have been cheering outside as Marci tapped out the digits. He knew his eyes must have been fixed on the door, straining for any hint of the masked men returning. He knew Marci must have spoken into the phone quietly, hand cupped around her mouth, begging Brett to trace her call, praying he could hear her over the din of the crowd.

Marci whispered that she was done, and the world swam back into focus. If Brett could pull through before Matt got in the ring….

Foggy watched through the door while the guards undid Matt’s cuffs, then took his jacket, glasses, and tie. The last was argued over, then handed back. Matt wrapped the dark red fabric tight like a bandage across his right hand. He seemed to be ignoring the announcer with the bullhorn, who was shouting something about “the sacrifice and the bull.”

“They’re playing out some messed-up fantasy,” Marci said suddenly. Her eyes were on the door. “The sacrificial tributes and Euripi-whoever and the bull-leapers… it’s all Intro to Classic Mythology, freshman year bullshit.”

The story sounded familiar, but only passingly. Foggy looked at the bronze mask with its twisted horns, and the stained skull spinning on its red thread. Whatever game these sickos were playing, Matt must have figured it out. He must have bet on it distracting them enough to buy time and call for rescue.

Selfish asshole, Foggy thought as the announcer called for bets on how long Matt would last in the cage. The highest was twelve minutes. Could the police trace a cell phone and dispatch patrol cars in twelve minutes?

In the darkness, Vic’s hand knocked gently against his shoulder. “I bet Murdock’s tougher than he looks. Remember his dad?”

Everyone knew about Matt’s dad. Battlin’ Jack Murdock had been a local hero – sports fans knew him, Hell’s Kitchen natives knew him, and anyone who’d read about Matt’s childhood heroics knew him. There were clips of the man on Youtube and a fucking plaque at his old high school.

“He still visits that old gym,” Foggy found himself saying. It had been a secret, he was pretty sure, but it hardly mattered now. Not when Matt seemed so eager to join his father in the afterlife. “But his dad never wanted him to fight.”

“If he goes down,” said Vic, voice hard, “don’t look, Nelson. We’ll tell you when – we’ll tell you.”

It reminded Foggy of being eight years old in the movie theater, putting his hands over his ears and scrunching his eyes tight. His mom laying a cool hand on his forehead and saying, “I’ll tell you when it’s over, honey.”

No, Matt could get through this. He could -

“- take a punch,” Matt said, laughing.

It had been – how many months ago? – sitting crowded around his mom’s kitchen table. The food had been good, the room warm, and Matt had been giggling at one of his sister’s jokes. The conversation had drifted from politics to the burgeoning crime rate in Hell’s Kitchen to the assholes in Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

“You take care of him Franklin,” mom said, hand on his shoulder as Grandma shoveled an extra helping of beans onto a protesting Matt’s plate. “He’s a sweet boy, and if I hear that you’ve gotten him into trouble again….”

“That was one time,” Foggy said with feeling, “and Murdock the Righteous over here got me into trouble.”

“It’s true, Mrs. Nelson,” Matt said, feeling for his fork. “They were – it was – bad, some kind of hazing gone wrong and I ended up lecturing them –“

“It’s Martha, dear, not Mrs. Nelson. And the way I heard it, they were only making verbal threats until Frankie here started in on them.”

“They were saying they were going to kick the shit out of him, mom!” Foggy protested, waving his soup spoon in the air.

“All the more reason to walk away.” She paused to watch Matt poke at his food. “The salt and pepper are at twelve o’clock, dear. Do you need a top-up? No? Juice? Bernard, get the boy a juice.”

“I’m fine -” Matt said, laughing as Foggy’s father got up to root through the fridge.

“Juice on your ten,” said Bernard, ruffling both the boys’ hair as he went back to his seat.

“- and it was just one hit, I’m not delicate,” Matt finished, nose scrunched.

“We picked you two up for Easter and I still swear it was the biggest black eye I’ve ever seen.”

“Wasn’t the biggest I’ve ever seen,” said Matt.

“Booyah,” said Foggy, and Matt offered him a fist bump.

Foggy’s mom hummed, clearly unconvinced. “And they’ve stopped bothering you in class?”

“Sure.” Matt was fiddling with the hair behind his ear, which meant he was lying. Matt never really lost his cool over personal insults, he just set the curve with his oral advocacy grades and trampled the poor sad fucks into the dirt.

“They were saying hateful things Matthew,” Foggy’s uncle said doubtfully from somewhere beyond the platters of roast turkey. “Ignorance doesn’t dry up quick.”

“Right now they’re just angry Matt and I got interviews for Landman and Zack when they didn’t,” Foggy said. “One of them cried.”

Foggy ’s mom shook her head. “Still better pack your softball bat for next term, Frankie.”

“I can take a punch,” Matt said quietly around a forkful of mashed potato.

“Just bring the Slugger, honey.”

They had all laughed.

They’d been happy, safe, a little too full on dubious roast and mash. That was how Foggy wanted to remember Matt. Not dying before the police could arrive, alone in a room full of animals.

He still didn’t turn away.

Matt was at the cage door now, his face lit by the dirty bulbs above. He didn’t look afraid. Jaw clenched and mouth twisted like he tasted something foul, he looked angry.

The expression held shades of familiarity. Matt was an amiable guy until they stepped into class for mock trial or the courtroom for CJC, and something riled the Murdock Sense of Right and Wrong. Then his smile would turn quicksilver and he would tuck his good nature away in favor of dangerous calm and weaponized elocution.

But Foggy had never seen him like this. Every line of his body was tense with anger, and it suited him like a glove.

Then the door to the cage opened, and Matt was shoved through. The harsh lights cast a shadow across the floor, criss-crossing Matt’s shirt like lines of charcoal. Trainers sliding along the dirty mat, he walked slowly away from door. He trailed his fingers across the chainlink, like he did when entering their dorm room or feeling for his cane. Lightly first, then more firmly, as if testing for weight and give.

The man in the bronze mask – the bull, Foggy now knew – raised his arms to the audience. Sycophantic cheering poured down from the walls as he entered the cage. The door swung shut behind him.

Matt turned slowly toward his opponent, hands dropping to his sides.

The crowd had begun to chant in unison – some phrase Foggy couldn’t quite make out – and it sounded like the beating of a war drum. Foggy saw the moment it hit Matt deep in his bones. He shifted, back held straight, hands loose, breathing steady.

“Face to the foe.” Foggy started at the quiet voice, but it was just Vic at his shoulder. She was staring at the cage with eyes far away, and when she shook her head and spoke again, it was in quiet recital. “’They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted. They fell with their faces to the foe.’”

Foggy felt something in his chest steady itself at her words.

The Ringmaster raised the bullhorn –

The crowd roared.

“Begin.”


The crowd’s endless chants for blood were grating on Matt’s last nerve. He blocked them out and focused on the man across the ring. He was taller than Matt, heavier with muscle, and brimming with over-confidence. That was fine. Those were the disadvantages with which Matt had trained.

The problem wouldn’t be beating him. The problem would be drawing out the fight without revealing his full hand. If they grew suspicious of his skill before the police arrived – well. He suspected these men wouldn’t appreciate being played.

The air shifted and his enemy’s heart quickened with adrenaline. He was preparing to charge.

Matt waited, breathing even, hands loose.

Our mind controls the body.

He held himself lightly, broadcasting nothing, waiting until the masked man was within striking distance.

Our body controls the enemy.

Then he blocked the first strike with a swift forearm and spun neatly out of the way.

The enemy controls jack shit.

The man’s heart stuttered in surprise – he was only human, under the affectations – and the sounds of a shocked audience crept in around the edge of Matt’s senses. He’d been expected to go down in one hit. They weren’t sure yet if it had been a fluke.

The mask attacked again. Matt barely blocked a blow to his stomach – slow, sloppy, Stick would be disgusted – and countered on the follow-through, a lazy punch that tested the air. His opponent ducked away and Matt felt him swing off-balance, too sure of himself, tilting leftward.

Matt submitted to temptation and punched him hard in the stomach, pouring all his disgust and anger out though his fist. Feet planted, he hit once, twice, three times before the mask regained himself from the shock. The man’s pain tasted like sweet release.

They separated, Matt’s knuckles aching beautifully – a necktie was a shoddy hand wrap at best – and his heart thrumming fast. The fight had been going for fifty-two seconds. He knew he had to take this slower, but now that he had his hands on this man, something giddy was humming under his skin. Now that he had started, he wanted to keep hitting and never stop.

The crowd was silent for a split second before it erupted. Hands were pounding on the cage bars and breaking through Matt’s concentration. He almost missed the big man regain balance and swing at his head, faster now. Matt skipped back, ducking and circling away.

The mask was getting frustrated, and this time it was harder to hold him off without risking any advanced moves. They grappled, slamming into the cage – Matt felt the heat of the people pressed to the side, smelled their breath as they screamed – and separated more warily this time. Matt’s chin ached where it had been grazed by glancing knuckles.

The mask straightened slowly, one hand dropping to brush the hip he had fallen against. His right hip, and the pocket that had once held a cell phone.


It was a mark of how confusing the last few hours had been – guns, kidnapping, murder fight club – that it took Foggy significantly longer than optimal to realize what he was seeing. Compared to the rest, watching his blind nerdy best friend pummel someone like a pro boxer was –

Well, mundane in the grand scale of things.

That was probably a lie. Foggy was probably in shock.

Matt and the bronze-faced bull circled each other, just visible above the press of bodies on the chainlink. Matt was – still alive, obviously, his hands curled in front of him in a loose boxing stance. His steps looked quick and sure, like a trained fighter. Not like someone who needed to be lead down stairs by the arm and warned if chairs weren’t pushed in properly, what the fuck.

Foggy had no idea what was happening, but apparently that was the theme of the day.

Meanwhile, the wretched silence in the crates had broken. All around him was in uproar with whoops and cheers. The old woman was banging on the bars with both hands. The dogs were riled, howling at the noise.

“I’m going to ask the asshole question,” Marci said, eyes fixed on the fight. “I thought he had no light perception.”

“Yeah,” said Foggy, then automatically, “but blind people do, like, judo at the Paralympics. It’s not a thing they can’t do.” He was aware how ridiculous the words were. There were blind people who could do martial arts just fine, but no one had known Matt was one of them.

And Foggy lived with him, read his junk mail aloud and spotted him during stupid drinking games and told him when people were trying to shake his hand. What the fuck.

The two tussled and crashed into the cage – Matt ducked away from a glancing blow, the first to come in contact. Then the bull froze, great golden head tilted oddly. His hand drifted down to his pocket.

“Fuck,” Marci hissed, scrabbling for the phone.

“Throw it to the dogs,” said Foggy, adrenaline finally clearing his head. “Throw it now.”

Except she didn’t get a chance, because Matt exploded into motion.

The two crashed together against the cage wall. The masked man twisted away, swiping back with the heel of a boot, and Matt hit the ground. He kicked upward, foot connecting brutally with the man’s stomach.

Matt rocked to his feet as the bull bent double, and threw a series of jabs directly at the neck. The man fended them all off, a swift counter-attack catching Matt in the torso, but Matt skipped back and kicked him again, harder this time. Then the taller man was falling back under an onslaught as Matt drove downward. A kick hobbled his kneecap – he was down on one leg, the crowd was screaming – and Matt had him against the bars, slamming his head into the metal like pounding a punching bag.

The man was slipping, sliding down, leg twisted at an unusual angle, blood gushing from beneath the mask. Matt stood over his unconscious form, breathing hard, shirt collar splattered with red.

The crowd was howling.

“He’s trained in MMA,” Vic muttered, eyes on the cage like she was dissecting it.

“His dad must have taught him,” Foggy said, trying the rationale on for size.

In the semi-darkness, Vic looked grim. “That wasn’t fucking boxing, Nelson.”

There was no time to reply, because the cage door was being pulled open and the men with machine guns were piling in, weapons up, ringing around Matt. Foggy’s heart stuttered in his throat. Not like this, not now after everything –

But the guns stayed silent, trained on Matt in warning. One of the men, face hidden behind rough cloth, walked forward with a flashlight. He pulled Matt’s head back sharply by the hair, flicking the light on and off in each eye. Then he stepped back and nodded at the guards behind him.

Foggy couldn’t hear him, but he could see his lips move.

No dilation.”

The ring of guards backed down, filing out of the cage and dragging the unconscious bull-masked man with them. They dumped him without ceremony on the cement floor, leaving him to bleed unattended.

The mighty had fallen, Foggy realized, and been judged no longer worthy.

The crowd was still cheering, and the announcer was shouting inaudibly into the bullhorn. In the cage, Matt shifted, showing the first signs of unease as his hands clenched and loosened.

Then the cage door opened again and half the men in burlap were pouring in, guns left ringside. One – two – five men in the cage, advancing as Matt backed slowly away. They walked like tigers stalking prey, and in the heat of the room they were slicked with sweat. Under the bulbs that hung bare from the ceiling, Matt’s hair was lit red across his crown. The lights bathed him in scarlet and cast shadows over his bowed face.

Foggy felt sick. These men had seen what Matt could do and now their blood was up. This was going to be a slaughter – there was no way his friend could hold off five men until the cops arrived.

Fuck it.

“GIVE ‘EM HELL,” Foggy bellowed, uncaring that Matt couldn’t hear him over the din. “KNOCK ‘EM DEAD ON THEIR ASSES.”

One of the masked men shifted minutely ahead of the pack, and Matt moved.

Matt knocked the man’s hands aside and drove a foot into his stomach, then threw a wild punch to the jaw brought him down to the ground. But the other four were already swarming - Matt took a hit, swayed with the motion and plowed his upper body into the man, throwing him over his shoulder into the enemy behind.

The two crawled to standing again while a third came in from Matt’s left, and he took a knee to the side, blocked a punch, and kept hitting until the man fell with a nose gushing blood.

The previous two braced themselves against the wall, shocked and panting. Then along with the last to engage, they stood and charged. They were piling on Matt now, one of them hammering a fist into his kidneys. Foggy watched his friend bend double and disappear under a pile of bodies and flailing limbs, reappearing with his face bloody, arms wrenched up behind him. Someone aimed a vicious kick at his face –

Matt twisted and launched himself into the air, flipping forward and bring the man holding his arms crashing into the one in front. He staggered to his feet as they detangled themselves, turning to face the remaining opponent – but the one with the broken nose was rising to his feet again too –

A shape twisted through the air and the men went down, sprawled on the ground from a spinning hook kick to the face.

Holy shit, Foggy thought as he watched his roommate stagger slightly, one arm curved around his ribs. Two masked men rose around him again like cockroaches. Holy shit.

A wild punch caught Matt square in the ribs and he buckled, red staining his white shirt. The man had donned a set of bladed brass knuckles. Then they were at each other, like Matt hadn’t noticed his own lifeblood spilling down his side and soaking into his waistband. He blocked a hit and half-turned straight into a punch from behind. He went down.

The crowd howled. The dogs bayed at the smell of blood, throwing themselves against their chains.

Matt curled in on himself, rolling away from a rain of blows and coming to his feet again. There was blood running from his mouth and nose now, and his knuckles were dripping red when he raised them again.

He rammed the two remaining men into the chainlink. One fell back, stunned, and Matt set on the other, slamming the man’s head into an iron cross bar. He drove his hands down again and again – fists battered at his side, didn’t seem to notice – the man fell. With Matt’s foot on his neck, he wriggled and went limp.

One to go.

Matt’s chest was heaving. When he turned Foggy saw the violence in his form. There was blood on his bared teeth even as he rose, unsteady now, to face the final assailant. Something in the slide of his feet and the shift of his body raised the hair on the back of Foggy’s arms. He looked like a predator.

They were trading blows in close quarters now. Matt was hemmed into the corner, and as a punch connected to his jaw he coughed out blood. He hit the cage wall, and his pain was visible this time as he straightened. But his opponent was flagging now too, and Matt launched off the chainlink and threw him to the ground –

- the crowd roared as Matt’s boot stomped down on the man’s face three times before stumbling back.

Foggy became aware of his fingers clenched around the metal bars, striped white and turning numb. They were shaky from the aftermath of adrenaline. His throat was constricted, as if his cries of encouragement from the fight’s start had curled and died there.

In the center of the ring, the man wearing the face of Foggy’s best friend stood dripping with sweat and blood, his hair curling like a set of bloody horns atop his head.


Years of bruised bones and sprained limbs under Stick’s tutelage had taught Matt what to do with pain. He shoved it down as he always did, until the fire in his side and the ache in his knuckles dulled. He had at least two broken ribs and his side was bleeding freely, but at least the cuts were shallow. His hands were another matter – the bones were already bruised, he could feel them – and another hit to the face would break his nose.

Pathetic, he heard Stick spit.

There were no signs of the police yet, if they were even coming. The crowd’s excitement ebbed and flowed as the remaining masked men discussed how best for Matt to die. Far back in the stinking holding room, Foggy’s heartbeat was fast and his breathing shaky. He was confused and scared – of Matt, maybe, more than for him by now. Even if they got out of here alive, Matt knew what he had sacrificed. Foggy wasn’t the type of man to understand this kind of violence, and their friendship –

Maybe better that Matt should die here after all.

At least they’re all still alive, he thought as he stooped and ripped bandages from the hands of a felled opponent to wind around his aching fingers. Everything else is secondary.

There was a clang as the ring announcer took up the bullhorn again, this time to ask for challengers from the crowd.

Audience participation, Matt thought, fighting down a giggle, and wondered how much blood he had lost. He felt off-balance in a way that was impossible to pin down – he’d had no skull injuries, and would have smelled any poison on the bladed knuckles. Yet the earth seemed to hum beneath his feet.

No time now. Outside the cage the crowd was parting, flowing aside like water to let a new challenger pass through. Matt paused in tucking the ends of his wrist wraps away. The man walking into the ring was big. Taller than Matt by a head, he smelled of clove cigarettes and held himself like a professional killer. He was stronger than Matt was now, and surely fresher.

He was also hiding a knife in his boot, but Matt doubted he’d get much support if he cried foul play.

The giant entered the cage and walked toward him without ceremony. What followed was brutally and embarrassingly short – a flurry of disconnected blows and a hand caught at Matt’s arm, turned, wrenched, and sent him smacking into the bars. Nose bleeding again now, he was on the defence. He dove forward, ducking under a wild punch that would have broken his jaw, and found himself pinned to the floor. The man’s arms were like tree trunks, holding him to the ground like a rag doll.

Then the knife was in the man’s hand, slicing the air as Matt rolled away. He avoided the first strike but not the second, and the metal ripped through his shirt. Blood flowed across his clavicle and down his front.

The giant backed away as Matt dragged himself toward the back of the cage. He curled inward, his control of the pain unspooling. He grabbed for it again, tried to press it down, but it bubbled up through his hands.

His enemy started walking toward him again.

The world was a shifting mess of sounds, spinning through his head with no meaning. Screaming. Words he couldn’t make out. “Kill him, slice his guts out,” someone was roaring. Meanwhile, another –

“What’s his name?” He heard it faintly through the riotous crowd. It was the old woman by Foggy’s cell, voice quavering and heartbeat unsteady.

“Matt,” Foggy replied, and his voice sounded thick. That didn’t make sense, Matt thought. Why would Foggy be crying? “His name is – Matthew, and he’s – he’s my best friend –“

“Stand up, Matthew,” said the old woman he didn’t know, and her voice was suddenly joined by a dozen others, parched and thin from captivity. Young and old, sick and healthy, shouting his name. “Stand up now -”

“- Get up Matt,” Marci was screaming louder than anyone, and then –

“Get up,” Foggy shouted, palms slamming into the bars. “Get up, Matt, get up.

The world shook.

C’mon, Matty,” said his father, a hand on his shoulder. “Get to work.


Foggy screamed his throat raw until Matt moved, rolling away from a savage kick that surely would have crushed his head.

Matt swept a leg outward and the huge man fell to the floor beside him, Matt on top, spitting blood. His teeth were bared like a wolf over its quarry. He slammed the man’s head into the ground, fingers digging in hard as his fist cracked into the man’s nose. The giant scrambled, hands finding Matt’s face and thumbs searching for his eyes.

The world shook. The cheers shifted to shocked cries, and the crates seemed to sway with the walls around them. The crowd stumbled, unsteady on their feet.

“Earthquake,” Marci breathed.

The disbelief in her voice reflected Foggy’s own, but the rumblings had barely broken the rhythm in the ring. They tussled and rolled, a blow glanced off the side of Matt’s head as he crouched over his opponent, slamming his hands repeatedly into the big man’s face. Matt’s hands were dripping blood, split knuckles flaying themselves open on teeth.

Then Matt froze, head tilted toward the stairs.

His second of inattention was all it took – the giant hauled them both upward and struck Matt across the jaw. Matt bared his teeth, shook himself free and charged –

- and threw himself to the ground as the door burst open and a wave of black-clad police officers rushed down the steps, guns up and raised.

In the lead was Brett Mahoney, hands steady on his weapon, eyes grim, and the most angelic sight Foggy had ever seen.


Foggy caught up just as the paramedics were loading Matt into an ambulance.

Matt hurt in ways he hadn’t since sparring with Stick – and his old teacher would laugh to see him here, covered in bandages and IV tubes – but the stretcher was mostly for show. He wanted nothing less than to go to the hospital, stinking as it was of antiseptic and illness. He hated the incessant beeping, the steady murmur of doctors, the squelch of guts as a scalpel sliced through someone in surgery –

But escaping inquiry depended on him playing the hapless victim. If he had a prayer of maintaining his cover to the public at large, he had to start now.

So he let himself lie still under the hands of the EMTs until he heard Foggy’s footsteps, stumbling from hours cramped in the cage. His friend impatiently shrugged off a shock blanket as he drew near, hands hovering over Matt’s side as if unsure he was allowed to touch. As if Matt was a stranger.

“Wait,” Matt asked the paramedics. He could hear the desperation in his own voice. This was important.

Then his words died and their silence was filled by the ambient noises of police shouting, wounds being tended, and over a hundred criminals being loaded into police vans. It was taking an entire fleet to cart them all away.

There would be a court case soon, and he couldn’t wait to testify.

“I’m sorry,” Matt said at last, not knowing how else to start.

“For your secret kung fu skills?” Foggy asked, tone less joking than he’d probably intended. “I should tell them to stop the search. Looks like I found Captain America.”

Matt didn’t have an answer. Stick would tell him that this was the time to break it off. Push him out the door, kid. Better off that way.

Stick wasn’t here. Stick could go fuck himself.

“I know you have questions,” he said, and Foggy’s laugh suggested this was an understatement. “I’ll tell you everything, I promise.” If he was going to salvage this he had no choice, and the thought of Foggy leaving scared him like nothing in the Bull Court.

“You’ve got a lot of explaining to do, asshole,” Foggy said. His voice was thick. “I was so scared you were going to die – fuck.”

Matt could feel the night’s chill dissipating slowly, the first rays of early morning sun piercing the cold around them. It felt like waking up after a long and terrible nightmare.

“I’ll see you in the hospital,” Foggy said finally, and the hand that gripped Matt’s was warm and sure.

There was a conversation they’d need to have. Maybe a few, in the rocky times ahead. But Matt had fought for this in the ring, and he wasn’t willing to let it go now. They would weather this together, and if they couldn’t find a way back to where they’d been, then they would move forward.

Their fingers entwined briefly and then Foggy was gone, stepping back into the warmth of the rising sun.

They would be okay.