Visiting Hours

May 07, 2017:

The Daredevil follows up with one of the people he saved from Vistoya Trucking. The answers he gets stoke his growing rage both at IGH, and the enigmatic corporation that now owns the firm.

Metro General Hospital Pediatric Wing

Characters

NPCs: Hunter, a tenacious birdkid, emitted by Kingpin.

Mentions: Six

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

After a certain time of night certain areas of the hospital go quiet. The ER never does, but the kid calling himself Hunter (at least to his tiny fierce little friend who keeps sneaking in to see him), the kid with the wings, is not in one of them. He is in a pediatric wing, where a bemused series of the nurses who actually make decisions about discharge and what to do with strange meta minors with no name he trusts them with and no history they can find have tried to make him comfortable while deciding his fate. Bits of information gleaned here and there would show there is absolutely no missing persons report.

The pediatric wing is up on the third floor, accessible with a bit of work and resourcefulness. His window doesn't exactly open, something the kid has discovered to his chagrin, but someone with super senses can far more easily detect the patterns of when nurses, doctors, orderlies and security guards are actually a problem, and make decisions about how and when to dodge them, and can do so better than one kid who is already massively overwhelmed.

He's awake at this hour, as nocturnal as the owl he smells like, preferring mostly to sleep during the day. A function of his biorhythms or mostly a desire to avoid conversation with his caretakers? A little from column A. A little from column B. He channel surfs listlessly, his gusty sigh audible down the hall.

—-

The so-called Devil of Hell's Kitchen would make a damn good cat burglar, is the irony of it. His picture of the world isn't our tunnel-view but a panorama that transcends corners and hallways and traverses closed doors and paper-thin walls. It ferrets out where security cameras are and in what direction they're pointed, and keenly assesses how far away observant are, how quickly they're moving, and what their ultimate trajectory will be. He could make a killing stealing diamonds or rare art, and live a life of epicurean delight: relishing in the finer things in life and all the glorious sensations they bring.

That is, if he were nearly anyone but Matt Murdock.

As it is, he uses his powers to circumvent oblivious security guards and worried nurses as he slips into the pediatric ward and searches for the young man he rescued just under a week ago. It isn't the first time he's checked up on the kid; hours have been spent on the rooftop of Metro General listening to the child channel-surf or give deflecting answers to his nurses and other caretakers. But it is the first time he's hazarded initiating contact since he stole away from that abandoned freighter truck just as the police and ambulances arrived on the scene.

And so the door will open a sliver, light from the hallway cracking into the kid's room and countering the blue light emanating from that television set. And with that sliver? A long shadow, complete with two devil's horns.

—-
The kid's head whips around as the door opens. His heart rate spikes. It does every time a door opens. His little body tenses. He is little for his age, scrawny even.

But while many people might get more nervous to see that shape, he…does not. The dance of pheromones, neurochemicals, heartbeat, breath, and body temperature says that the predominant feelings, a mere 30 seconds later, are both recognition and relief.

He waves the Daredevil in, keeping his voice quiet, pitched low. "I saw you. On the news. You're the one that got me out." After all, even in the shadows the horns are distinctive.

A second later, though, wariness creeps through his tone again as another possibility occurs to him, one he doesn't like. "Unless you're just wearing the mantle."

Throughout Matt's hours of surveillance he would have found the vocabulary to be pretty consistent: well above a normal ten year old's; at one point he complained to his little friend Patty that they were "attempting to fatten me up with prodigious platters of powdered potatoes."

—-

The child's recognition and acceptance of him was no sure thing, and Matt's contingencies if he'd panicked and screamed were passable but left much to be desired. That he was willing to attempt this misguided break-in anyway is a testament to the concern and curiosity in the wake of his impromptu rescue. The kid — thank God — waves him in, and he'll need no follow up invitation. He slips in quietly and gently closes the door and turning down the blinds. His lips twitch at their corners when he hears that precocious skepticism. "What, you think you can just buy a knock off of this getup off the rack at a costume store?" Matt throws back as he turns to face the child at last. "I'm not exactly Spider-man, kid." Though a few more forays onto the front pages of the Daily Bugle, and who can say?

One step, two. He didn't need to face the child to bring his focus to bear on him, picking up all the little telltale signs of his condition — but he does so all the same, equal parts habit and courtesy. One step, another, brings him closer to the boy's bedside. "How are they treating you?"

—-

The child considers Matt's answer. It's a good one, and at last he relaxes completely. He doesn't freak out as Daredevil draws closer. The silhouette of his head cants a little bit; there's curiosity, a study of his gear in the light of the television, which he abruptly seems to remember, and mutes. He doesn't turn it off because he gets to see a little more of his visitor that way, without turning on the lights and perhaps alerting someone to the idea that something has changed in here.

He considers this answer. "Miss Temple's nice; I don't think she's one of them." he allows. Miss Temple was the nurse who was arguing far more strongly than any other nurse that this child cannot be treated like some random street kid and shunted into the system, that they had to find some better solution, and perhaps find out what was going on with him first. She is not getting much shrift; as an ER nurse she only saw him the first night, but keeps tabs herself.

The kid seems to come to some decision. He draws himself up, takes a deep, nervous breath, and says, with gravity that's more appropriate to someone twice his age, "I would very much appreciate it if you could liberate me, as well, from this institution at your earliest convenience."

—-

Matt manages not to laugh, not to smile, not to betray a hint of the amusement warming his chest at the earnest pronouncements of the diminutive ten-year-old. He likes the kid almost instantly, and how could he not? Sixteen years ago this was him: a boy in a hospital bed that everyone fussed over, a few side-eyed, but no one listened to. He takes in the recommendation of one Nurse Temple quietly, and at the entreaty to break him out of the /second/ institution he's found him in within the space of a week… defers. For now.

"We'll get you out of here soon," Matt assures the boy as he approaches his bedside, placing one hand on the railing by rote — that grounding touch is a habit of Matt Murdock's that Daredevil hasn't quite shed or shuffled off. His helmed-head cocks with open curiosity, "Where would you like to go, if you could? Where's home?"

—-

The child hesitates. Matt will get to see the silhouette of his hair raising like a bird's crest. After a moment he might realize it basically is feathers, soft and downy like the ones coming out of his back, an expression of real alarm now that matches everything else about him.

But he's running out of people he can trust, running out of people who can help him. The Daredevil might be his only shot.

Those crest feathers slowly lower, slowly flatten back to his head until it basically looks like any other kid's head. It probably might seem hairlike until he does something like that.

Haltingly, "I— we call it the Nest. It's this big pretentious clocktower on the side of Patty's building. Patty was the one who found me after I escaped the first time. It was kind of her spot, that's how we met. There's this passage from her parent's place to it that nobody knows about but her. She's kind of been supplying me with things. Food, clothes, blankets, books…"

And then, precocious or no, a plea that could come out of the mouth of any child. "Please don't tell on her. Even if I can't go back. She's my only friend and she'd be in a lot of trouble."

—-

Even if Matt felt anything like shock at the kid's literally ruffled feathers, it isn't a sentiment that stern mask conveys easily. It's safe to say that, between the wings and the child's peculiar scent, he was at least prepared a few surprises. He absorbs it with equanimity, and perhaps a little sympathy.

Patty is presumably the young girl he's heard during his haunts of Metro General's rooftops — the kid's fierce guardian. "I won't tell on her," Matt pledges with quiet solemnity, and it's stronger stuff than any oath he's ever taken.

Though, point of fact — most of the oath's he's taken, he's broken.

The boy's story is beginning to take some semblance of a shape, but nothing in it is reassuring. He draws in a quiet breath: "Where were you, before Patty found you?"

—-

The child shifts in the bed, mostly just fidgeting, or perhaps steeling himself to get into the rest of it. He doesn't answer right away, uncomfortable speaking about it, but his feathers stay right where they are. His responses just sort of close down for a moment; his heart continues to beat, but slowly, his breath continues to issue forth from his nose, but a bit haltingly, irregularly; his muscles tense, everything stills.

Then he sucks in a breath again and lets it out, then says, "The lab, Mister Daredevil. The one where they um. Made me. I escaped a year ago. But I just had to start risking extended night flights."

His voice thickens with scorn, aimed primarily at himself by the words that accompany the tone. "Feeling cooped up, when I forgot what a real cage looked like. Fourth flight out, bam, tranquilizer, right in the arm."

Self-directed as the scorn is, the hot rage that sends all of his feathers bristling has a clear enough target, the type of rage that only years of nightmare can bring on in any person of any age. He's fairly shaking with it, the silhouette of his fingers crooking like claws, though there is no indication of anything sharp or hardened there. They're just fingers, a child's little fingers.

—-

The lab where they made me, the boy says. Daredevil evinces little visible reaction, but internally he's rocked to his core. He suspected many things: a boy who developed some mutation — as many are wont to do — stolen from his home. A child experimented on and turned into something metahuman. The possibilities — all of them ghoulish — were endless. But a child created in a lab, simply for the purposes of experimentation? It stirs up a rage that's nearly as powerful as the anger that sends the kid quaking moments later.

He fights past it. There are no Russians or mad scientists or corporate overlords to punch. There's just a little boy that reminds him of another child in a hospital bed, trapped and confused and angry at the world all it had taken from him. The rage he feels is useless unless it can be channeled, converted to energy that drives him to get to the bottom of this madness.

To wit: "I'm sorry," Daredevil offers in a gravely hush as he lowers himself to a kneel by the boy's bedside. "That's a rough break. I'd — like to get you back to that tower. Or somewhere just as free." A beat. "But I'm curious. If that was home, why'd you keep flying back to the lab?"

—-

As Daredevil gently kneels down and speaks so kindly to Hunter his adrenaline slowly lowers once more; his heartrate slows, his breathing goes back to something like baseline. The question produces a flush of heat across his skin though. He exhales in embarrassment. "At first I didn't. I just wanted to fly. I was just flying around the city for as long as I could." He lifts a hand and drops it helplessly, as if he has no idea how to explain to the man before him just how important flying is to him.

He soon gives it up, and moves on. "But then one day I saw some guys grab this preacher guy. I recognized one of the security goons from the lab and…I don't know, I thought maybe I could figure out how to help the guy. That was dumb of me I guess but…I mean I know what they're like. They didn't take him to the same lab I'm from, though. They took him to a different one. But it was the same people."

He slumps his shoulders, sighing. "I guess someone spotted me and followed me back, cause they shot me down with that tranquilizer about a block away from the Nest."

—-

Daredevil is one of the last people in the world to whom Hunter would need to explain the the joys of — or the need to — fly. Those rooftop leaps scrambles, and lately swings, are some of the rare times when Matt Murdock feels well and truly free. The kid's sincerity even brings a smile to the man's face, utterly incongruous to the devil mask. But then he's going on, talking about how these assholes were grabbing others too, and the faint smile curdles.

"Different lab, same people," the masked man repeats with quiet incredulity. The scale of what he's slowly discovering is shocking. How many dozens, hundreds of people are involved in this scheme. Each may carry a part, and most probably don't know the grander scheme, but each of them is furthering it with acts performed out of ignorance, cruelty, or greed.

"I hate it when people get the drop on me," Daredevil confesses, trying to keep the tone quiet, light, reassuring. "But that's why we both need to be a little careful, this time."

A beat. "Has anyone else come to see you besides me? Not counting the doctors and nurses, that is."

—-

There's a start of surprise that briefly spikes up those head-feathers again as Daredevil confesses that people get the drop on him sometimes. His skin starts to cool as the embarrassment fades, and his heart beat steadies once more. It's all even accompanied by a slight increase in dopamine and serotonin. Daredevil's efforts to reassure the child are taking…and he may well be winning himself a tiny lifelong friend.

"A police officer named Detective Clemons did," he says. "But I didn't want to talk to him. He said I didn't have to if I didn't want to, and I didn't want to. He seemed nice but…"

But Daredevil only had trust to build on with this kid at all because Hunter had some objective proof, in the form of various news clips, that the man before him was on his side.

The child hesitates for a moment, then rattles off two addresses. The first is an address that was not in that stack of legal documents that Kinsey snatched. "That's the lab where they created me," he explains.

The second was, and it's one of the ones on one of New York's major trucking routes. "That's the one where they took the preacher guy."

—-

Created. It feels wrong to hear a child speak of himself in those terms, and wrenches at something in Daredevil's chest. I'm going to help this kid, Matt thinks. But even though his empathy may be in overdrive with this particular victim, for a multitude of reasons, he still has the presence of mind to register every detail. Nurse Temple. Detective Clemons. And, of course, the addresses.

"Thanks," the masked man says with quiet sincerity before letting out a puff of breath. "Hey, how many are there like you at your lab? Not the guards, or the other men. The ones who don't want to be there."

—-

The kid's body temperature drops as quickly as that happy bit of serotonin and dopamine
flow away from him. He stares down at his hands. The Daredevil might hear him swallow.

There's a sharp inhale, then a slow exhale.

"Most of us die," he says at last. "It's been a year, so I'm not sure who is alive now. There were three who were really sick. There's one who is— we didn't know if she was a vegetable or what. They kept her on life support. There are two more who progressed to 2nd level, which is where they start doing the physical testing and conditioning, and one more who progressed to level 3, like me, which is where you start going through the math, language, puzzle-solving, memory and intelligence batteries. There's a level 4 and a level 5, but I don't think anyone's ever gotten that far yet."

His shoulders slump as those sad little physiological reactions continue to thrum through him, a sense of guilt so strong it's almost like a palpable burden.

—-

Most of us die, the kid says, and behind his crimson mask Matt Murdock closes his eyes, feels his gauntleted knuckles tighten enough to whiten skin. He's been doing his best to modulate his emotions throughout their talk, but as each new horrifying revelation unfolds the pressure builds, and something has to give. He draws in a sharp breath, his exhale carries audible fury.

He swallows, and it's a few heartbeats before he can ask his follow-up. "Hey," Daredevil says when he hears that note of guilt, chin jutted upward. "You've done so good, kid. Staying alive like you have, for as long as you have. Even long enough to tell others who can do something about it. You're a goddamn superhero."

A beat. "How old are you?"

—-

There are a few suspicious sniffles from the kid, and the silhouette of his hand dashes against his face once or twice. The reassurance helps once again, reducing some of that heavy load, or at least…allowing the child to put it aside, for now. He at least seems capable of recognizing the anger of an ally, anger that's not aimed at him, for though Daredevil's sharp breath and exhale are heard, he doesn't flinch or shy from it. Patty, at least, gave him that much.

Daredevil says he's done good, and for a moment he hesitates. But as composed as he's been, for a child, he's still a child…one desperately starved for affection, and one desperately starved for positive adult interaction. He scoots closer, hunching up in the corner of the bed that puts him near his rescuer, like a baby chick seeking shelter. "Thanks," he whispers. He swallows, then says, "I'm not actually sure. We don't get calendars, and I only got to see a clock directly for the first time after level 3, though I understood the concept of time at level 2, when they began timing our flights. But…now I know about Christmas, so based on the number of times Dr. Evans came to work wearing the stupid Santa hat, and allowing for the loss of memories during formative years…I think I am no younger than 7 and no older than 11."

—-

No younger than 7 and no older than 11. A yawning four-year gap of uncertainty sits between those numbers, and if anything underscores just how much of the little boy's life has been taken from him, co-opted by people who care nothing for him at all.

"Got it. I've got just a few more questions," Daredevil murmurs, and for all that his tone is gentle, he makes no move to inch closer to the child who enters his orbit. His solidity will have to be comfort enough. "The first is —were all the others at your lab like you? Wings and flight? And the second — did any of the people running the place tell you anything about what it all was for? What happens after the stages you never got to."

—-

"Yeah, we're all bird kids," Hunter replies. He has run out of places to inch to, so he inches no more.

He shakes his head, though, at what it was all for. "Maybe? There was a lot of conflicting talk about it."

This time he's gathering his thoughts; he scratches absently at his head feathers and cocks his head to one side. His breathing and heart rate calm, his neurochemicals settle back to something more neutral. "I heard some chatter about military use, and thought it was loony. I mean just look at me." He's so unaware of the irony of that one. "I have hollow freaking bones. But…we would make pretty awesome snipers. We're all owl crosses. My night sight is off the charts and according to the tests my visual perception is four or five times that of a real person. Pretty good aerial snatch and grab. With the right body armor maybe we'd do okay. I think stage 5 was some sort of combat training. I have no idea about stage 4 though. Like I said, nobody ever made it to stage 4. I think I might have in another month or two, and I think #48— sorry, I didn't get a name till I got out, I was #72…Anyway I think 48 was a few days from stage 4 when I left."

He shrugs, then says, "But…there was also this camp that was gushing about how nobody will have to be born normal in the future, and how if they perfected projects like ours then parents could just…design their superkids or something, I don't know. They all seemed to think they'd make a lot of money on it, until they stopped thinking it. They were talking about Total Project Termination when I escaped. I had a feeling that meant Total Bird Kid Termination too, so I took my chance when I saw it."

—-

"Smart kid," Matt says on the matter of Total Project Termination, even as he does his best to disguise his revulsion at the rest. Number #72 — in a single lab — and almost all of them end up dying the death of test rats. He tips his head back and says a silent, wordless prayer, before pushing himself up to a slow rise and standing beside Hunter's bedside.

"And when they took you back?" he asks, and something in his tone suggests it's the last of this long list of questions. "What happened then? Still talking Project Termination?"

—-

"I didn't hear much before the tranquilizer set in, but I don't think so," Hunter replies slowly. He himself looks up, but this is someone trying to remember something.

"The security guy recognized me," he says slowly. "He said 'holy shit it's that one that got away from Avis. What the hell do we do with it?'"

A pause, slowly. "And then…well, I was really woozy, but something about sending me to something called the factory."

His crest feathers rise again, and his body temperature drops as he says, "I don't think it was the same place at all. I don't think they were going to do the same thing at all. That lady sure didn't fit them taking me back to Avis, the one that was also in the truck? I think maybe they did terminate. Everything. And…everyone."

—-

"I'm sorry," Daredevil says when the kid's done — says it again, that is. As if sorries did a damn thing against 7-11 years of abuse and dozens of homicides, be they willful murders or death by neglect and recklessness. But what else can one do? Well, if one is Matt Murdock, one can say this, and with dark conviction: "Listen. I'm going to keep you safe, and the people who did this to you, to the other people at Avis. They are going to pay for it. I promise."

He moves his hand from the railpost to take Hunter's hand. "I've got to go for a little while," he whispers. "But I'll still be watching over you, OK? Just hang tight a little longer."

—-

The kid holds on to his hand with a vise grip. His adrenaline spikes, his heart races, his breath picks up to a pant. There are some grown men who couldn't handle fear of this magnitude without sobbing.

But he doesn't. He doesn't even shed a single tear. He's deathly quiet. He just holds on, and holds on, and holds on

Until he finally pries his own fingers loose and gives a sharp nod. "I trust you," he says.

And then he sort of slumps back to the bed in sudden and complete exhaustion. There's nothing to do but wait, and if there's nothing to do but wait, the kid looks like he's very probably going to sleep.

—-

The kid clings for dear life onto Matt's hand, while his useless eyes tighten at their corners and prickle with even more useless saline. This kid has gotten to him, in a way that the rest of the people he has helped or saved never have. Half of that is Hunter's own character — suffused as it is with courage, tenacity, and intelligence; the other half is surely hearing the echo of the injured young boy Matt Murdock was in Hunter's voice.

Trust is a weight, and Matt wears the trust of others heavily. He accepts this child's on his shoulders without complaint, indeed, without little more than a dip of his horn-helmed head. "Goodnight, kid," he whispers, with as much tenderness as the Devil can. He cocks his head, to confirm that one nurse is taking a bedpan three rooms down while the next-nearest is around the corner three-quarters of a hallway down, and then he's slipping out the door, and back into the shadows.

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