Collateral Damage

January 23, 2017:

Matthew Murdock's connection to Jessica Jones comes back to haunt him as he is snared and interrogated by a member of the Cult of the Cold Flame.

Hell's Kitchen - Midtown - New York City

This is Hell's Kitchen, aka the ten blocks that Daredevil micromanages in New York City.

Characters

NPCs: Cult of the Cold Flame members (NPC'd by Zatanna Zatara)

Mentions: Zatanna Zatara

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Hell's Kitchen, mid-evening, where an unseasonably mild winter has turned what would otherwise be perfect conditions for snow into a damp, misty mess of a Sunday night. It sees one Matt Murdock, rain coat pulled tight around him, walking stick in the other, making his way down a side-street off of 10th Ave. on his way back home from an impromptu, after-hours visit to — well, to church. Matt's faith is a powerful but intensely private part of his life, far more likely to carry him to the confessional booth at odd hours instead of the well-attended Sunday services. The visits are growing more frequent as the reasons for them begin to pile.

Tick tack, tick tack goes the walking stick as it taps its way down a side street off of 11th Ave. The road he walks beside is comparatively quiet, but just beyond it is the messy revelry of the city at night, which teems at all hours any day of the week right up until last call at 4 a.m. Matt himself is ruminative, stone-faced, distantly aware of the cacophony of sound around and available to him but, for the moment, absorbed in interior monologues of recrimination and doubt that have come and gone in waves over the last few impossibly strange months.

—-

There are three of them.

A man in a dark suit, sitting on a bench and seemingly waiting for the next bus to come, reading the Daily Bugle and tapping his dress shoes on the cement. One several feet behind him, taking care to put just enough bodies between them, to keep this from looking like anything other than the consequences of New York City foot traffic, and one that is congested at almost all hours of the day. And another, perched on a roof as Matthew walks past, as if on a smoke break, the waft of cigarette smoke escaping his lips.

Nobody would pay them any mind, there is nothing about tonight that would clue in any civilian that this is just an average evening in the usual crush of this sprawling, active metropolis. But Matthew Murdock would know better, wouldn't he? He is blind, these men have taken into account his handicap which may explain why their usual levels of caution are less than what they should. But the lawyer would know, because he can smell it.

He can feel it.

Scent is the most effective sense in triggering memories, and as he passes this bench, he would reminded of the incident at Salvatore's Deli, and the strange happenings that drove him into the acquaintanceship of one Jessica Jones. It is faint, but there, something not quite electric, not quite ozone, the hint of buzzing in the air, the strange tingle it leaves at the back of his neck, like static. Magic, Jessica told him. But there is no such thing as magic.

Or is there?

New York is the city in which a wormhole had opened up, the site of the beginnings of a war with beings that live in different stars. Costumes, masks, capes, the strange and the weird…the city has been inundated by them ever since the world nearly ended. Would that really be so far-fetched now, in an age of miracles?

The shoes follow. The smell follows.

—-

Magic, Jessica Jones had said, and with a heartbeat that betrayed no fib. And although there's still a chance that it might be a delusional fantasy, Matt has watched one of these self-same men apparently stalking him disappear, fought aliens, beaten one cyborg to a draw in a fight and asked another out to dinner in the space of six weeks. Whatever the weirdness along the Tri-City area, Matt is growing /personally/ inured to the Weird.

He's known, ever since that fight at the deli and his conversation with Jessica after, that he could have a target on his back for -whoever- these cultists might be. And so, while the conditions are not ideal, he is also not entirely unprepared. The whiff of ozone sets off a cascade of thoughts that find no outward expression beyond a flaring of the man's nostrils — he doesn't miss a step as he click-clack, click-clacks his way along the sidewalk. Were any of them like /him/, they'd be able to hear the lurch in his heartbeat; but if any of them are like him, he's in more trouble than he thinks.

He's reaching out with every sense he has then, absorbing whatever tell-tale signs he can glean from his three trailers. But to outward appearance, little changes at first; he walks, and walks, and walks, making his way towards the busy avenue… right until he's gone, turning into a shadowed alleyway between two looming apartment buildings, and out of the immediate line of sight of the man on the rooftop.

—-

"He disappeared."

The statement bursts in a crackle of static, from the network shared by the trio in dark suits.

"Not for long. We know his name. And names mean everything."

"The Cold Flame burns."

"The Cold Flame burns."

The man on the rooftop turns, flicking the rest of his spent cigarette across the way, uncaring of where it lands. Notes of tobacco - a fine blend, expensive - clings to his suit before wind twists and he vanishes. Somewhere below, Matthew manages to lose the one following him through traffic on foot, and the man on the bench rises, tucks his newspaper under his arm and crosses the street.

As the lawyer ducks in the darkened alley, it is quiet save for the rush of nearby cars, and the faint, surrounding din - of conversations so numerous that the finer details of them are lost unless one is equipped the way he is. A lighthearted chat in a nearby newstand, the rattle of a cart, someone hawking bacon-wrapped hotdogs outside of a pulsing nightclub, guaranteed to make enough money for the next week given voracious appetites that alcohol consumption tends to give the young and restless. But for a while, he will feel some semblance of respite.

For a moment, the scent of magic, of its strange not-quite-lightning, not-quite-ozone strains, leaves him entirely.

He will manage to be able to take a breath until it emerges once more from the air around him, thicker, more potent, more real. Steps echo from the far end of the alley, turning to face him and in the blink of an eye, /something/ is coming for him.

The shadows are alive and they eat at his feet. Like hunting dogs, they snap for his ankles, attempt to twist into his limbs. They move unnaturally fast, because this is /not/ natural in the very least, as will bends the small space around him into what is…

…a trap.

—-

Under normal circumstances, Matt might be fleet enough to duck the guy behind him, hide in the shadows, and scale a fire-escape that would carry him to parallel rooftops and momentary safety, all virtually undetected. This is what he does; and it's not an unreasonable plan. The wiser move, of course, would have been to make for the avenue and hail a quick cab, but he's grown increasingly confident in his abilities. That confidence is misplaced. These circumstances are anything but normal, and the opponents he face have abilities different than, and arguably surpassing, his own.

And so now he's trapped in a narrow sliver of space as the world itself seems to fold and close in around him. The snapping shadows he can run from; there's little else to do at this point, even if his footsteps carry him towards the looming figure waiting for him. A man he can deal with. Shadows…?

—-

The shadows carry him up against the wall, slamming him into it hard enough to cause cracks to appear on concrete, chips falling spent and forgotten on the ground. The eldritch tendrils wind into his ankles, securing them tight; one black line tugs one wrist to the near breaking point on one side, mirroring the way it happens to the other. Whatever he is dealing with now appears to be intent to crucify him in the darkness, away from the prying eyes of the rest of his beloved neighborhood. But there are no nails yet - no crown of thorns, nothing to pierce his side and let blood and water well down from his ribs.

There are none of these things…yet.

Yet.

Shoes make quick work of the hard urban distance between them and Matt Murdock and when he finally stops, he can feel the man's breath. The smell of magic is overwhelming, like cologne saturated on skin too eager to make an impression.

The words are low when they finally leave his pursuer's lips, faintly accented, the mountains of northern Europe clustered in his speech. "Jessica Jones," he begins. "Has a client. A young woman, eighteen or nineteen years of age. What has she told you about her?"

Darkness tightens on his wrists. They cut off his circulation. His fingers are growing numb.

"It brings me no joy to deliver pain but I will do it to loosen your tongue, Mr. Murdock."

—-

Matt Murdock knows how to get out of most holds; how to contort his body and use momentum, angles and unexpected force to free himself from bodily captivity. But this is something else entirely. How do you wrestle with palpable, utterly unmetaphorical darkness? He can't, and can only give a ragged cry as he's smacked against the wall: skull ringing, the backs of his ribs bruising with the sudden full-body impact. Time has slowed; he's dazed in those first few moments of shock, though it's only a moment before new focal points of pain are drawing him out of it. "Aaah!" he rages eloquently as wrists are pulled left and right-ward, struggling to catch his breath.

And then he's being approached by the architect of this unholy enterprise. Questions are being asked of him, and to those questions he can only summon a breath and… smile, filled with gallows humor and a trace of trickling blood. This is how it ends? So pointless: all that training, all that anticipation, and for what? A few lives saved — that's more than most. But there could have been so many more. Profound disappointment trumps (real, visceral) fear, especially because he can say the next part honestly: "Look, the only client I know of Jessica Jones is a fifty-something balding guy who loves cold cuts and 60's rock," Matt says with a shake of his head. "So if you're the devil… you've got my sympathy. Because I don't have what you're looking for." Another breath spells agony as his rib cage expands, and then he's puffing it out in release, ready. His glasses have fallen to the ground, feet beneath him, and his brown eyes shine with misaimed but sharply-honed contempt. "Do what you're going to do."

—-

Dark eyes narrow faintly as the lawyer returns his mercy - what little of it there is - with defiance. But for a moment, the man says nothing. Instead, the red-haired man would hear the shift, weight displacing from one foot to another, the sense of someone lowering down to one knee and plucking his signature, red lenses off the ground. And in a gesture that is almost surprisingly gentle, and surreally, bafflingly considerate, the weight of those cold rims returns on the bridge of his nose.

And that's when he would feel the pain.

It is slow. Excruciating, the tip of a shadow tendril honed into a puncturing implement, not so thin as to not be felt, not like a needle, but of a thickness one would associate with an icepick, or a screwdriver. It corkscrews into his skin, through his clothes, his suit, drilling in painful increments into his liver, through the protective layers of skin, muscle and bones there are. Blood spools from the entry wound, running foul and black. Under the light of the full moon above their heads, it looks downright abyssal. Inhuman.

Pale, bony fingers tilt, index finger curled lightly by the second knuckle, thumb curling over its base. A quiet arcane word, not too foreign for Matt's hearing, but simply too old and foreign to be understood, whispers past Winter-burned lips. The prong inside him /splits/ - not just one or two, but three, four. They seem endless, worming their way slowly, excruciatingly, through that vital organ…to reach for /others/ surrounding it. Reaching for his gallbladder, his pancreas…the outer linings of his stomach.

The sorceror takes his time, does his work with the quiet calm and detachment of one who has done this many, many times. He speaks again as he painstakingly, almost lovingly puts holes within holes in the man's other organs. And as blood leaves them in distressing pockets, to flood the spaces inside him, he speaks again.

"Would your associate, Mr. Franklin Nelson, know?"

His tone is insultingly casual, as if unaware as to what it would do with the man he has in his snare.

—-

As with most gifts, sensitivity has its advantages and disadvantages. It allows Matt to experience the world in a way fundamentally alike the rest of (non-meta) humanity, and to pick up on nuances and details most would miss. Sometimes those nuances are valuable; even beautiful. But learning to mitigate that sensitivity, to control, restrain, and where necessary suppress it — was critical to Matt becoming a functioning human being after his accident. For weeks, ten-year-old Matt thrashed in bed in what seemed an unending series of seizures, observed by mystified doctors wondering what could possibly be wrong with him. Possessed, more than one nun at the orphanage whispered.

No, not possessed, just overwhelmed. Matt Murdock, for better or worse, feels things /deeply/.

Tonight, that is certainly for the worst.

He screams; how could he not? All that bravado can't sustain itself under the internal onslaught that wracks him and sends him back decades to the little boy in the medical cot. His toes are curling, his fingers raking and wrists straining against his bonds. He summons enough wit and breath to say, with equal measures desperation and rage: "Foggy knows less than I do… which is fucking /NOTHING/…"

—-

She'd been down the street, collecting a nice check to try to rebuild her life from Azalea Kingston's parents. They had to pay, even though all they got for their efforts was a selfie of Jessica in which Az gave them the finger. The bank where she went to put in a night deposit?

Serendipitously across the street from the alley where the Cold Flame seeks to put one Matthew Murdock to the question, though she never reaches the deposit box. Not that Jessica manipulates such things, but perhaps being drawn into the arc of people who /do/ use such things as their playthings has had it's impact.

Or perhaps Someone Up There is watching out for one of His own good sons tonight by sending a little assistance.

She hasn't Matt's super senses, but the scream of pain, the sound of something very wrong drifts through the air nevertheless, half obscured by the rush of cars. Her hackles tingle. Together, these things are enough to send her to the other side of the street with her dark eyes slowly narrowing, her stride picking up speed as the sense of urgency grows.

And then she is able to see it; a Cold Flame Prick torturing Matthew Murdock with those /god damnned shadows/, and Matt's own steadfast bravery in resisting.

The only rule she's learned of dealing with mages is to move /fast/. A wind rises up in Hell's Kitchen, carrying her scent to Matt's nostrils: vanilla soap and leather, only the leather tainted with the scent of hard whiskey tonight but still present, palpable, clinging, a ghost of something she hasn't defeated yet. Her heart thunders; adrenaline, rage, the fear someone feels when they're afraid /for/ someone, not /of/ someone, two fears with wholly different flavors.

In three of those furious heartbeats she has the cultist's wrist. Bones crunch beneath her grip as she squeezes. Then she yanks him back, the better to carry the back of his elbow into the palm of her open hand, snapping his arm like a twig. She's still squeezing his wrist when she uses it to yank him again, this time into the trajectory of a neat elbow strike to the temple. Only the thud of impact this time, her strike 'pulled' because if she didn't, that Cultist would be very dead. As it is, the bones she's broken might never heal correctly.

Then, she opens her hand, letting him fall.

—-

At the swift and brutal neutralization of Matt Murdock's attacker comes the equally quick and savage way the shadows around him rip asunder, the spell broken at Jessica Jones' timely interference. Black tendrils fall in ephemeral tatters, his heavier body along with them, and while he only has one wound to speak of, the damage is done - it isn't just his liver that is stabbed through, that is perforated, and the shock of several vital organs damaged will probably sink in sooner rather than later in the cold, dreadful New York winter. As the nest lets go of the lawyer, and vanishes into the aether, /other/ things are happening; the unhappy consequence of people changed by circumstance.

The sorceror falls from Jessica's grip, but he is /not/ alone. Wind and will twist behind the private investigator as she's suddenly /thrown/ off her feet, sent on a violent trajectory towards the wall just above the fallen lawyer. Super strength and metahuman durability are what they are, however - surely, she will survive it, but the point appears to be to prevent her from doing more damage to Matt's interrogator than anything else.

There is another suit, reaching out to grab ahold of the fallen one, while another stands on the adjacent rooftop, fingertips aglow with yet another spell. He turns his attention towards the blind lawyer again - he has fallen, surely there's no need to consider him as a threat - but Jessica Jones /is/, fueled by rage and panic that she is, and since she is so determined to save this man…

Heat builds up in his fingertips, fire frothing from between practiced digits. He sends the very dangerous projectile towards Matt Murdock.

He does not wait to see if it impacts. Either way, he already knows that Jessica will abandon her attack in order to save this man's life. No matter how damaged, how broken, heroes are always the same.

He is already fading from view, and so are his other comrades, leaving not a trace of them but a whisper.

—-

In the moment the pain is overwhelming, blinding, maddening — and so he's only dimly aware of Jessica's sudden and unmistakable arrival on the scene. He doesn't have time to summon anything like relief; just a brief note of surprise as the the tide turns and his interrogator is unconscious. He barely has a second to process the turn of events before the constraints that held him against the brick wall slough off and send him crashing hard: face, chest, stomach, knees all hitting the ground seemingly at once. "Ohhhhhhh…" he says as pain lances through his entire body, finding its focal point on the interior, where his midsection already pools with blood and other vital liquids set free from their organs.

It would be easy, now, to give himself up to unconsciousness. His blood loss, even if it can't be measured or appreciated to the outside eye, is significant. He's being tortured from within, even with the magician's work done. But while Matt's fortitude is not superhuman, as his senses are, it is beyond the ordinary. Inherited Murdock mulishness keeps him awake, keeps him struggling to regain his bearings, assessing the scene and…

…noticing the magical projectile heading right for his head. There are seconds to act, and all of his hard-won agility and strength seem to have abandoned him. There's nothing elegant, nothing balletic about the roll he attempts to get out of its way, accompanied as it is by another scream of pain as his body signals its resistance loudly in a million pinpricks of pain that send his red-tinged view a sheet-lightning white.

—-

She grunts when she hits the wall. It's a solid impact, beneath her skin her bones rattle but do not snap. The faint smell of fresh blood marks where the impact breaks a wound open on her face; smelling faintly of GSR residue; a bullet had grazed her. She twists her body, lands, only to see fire flashing towards the fallen Matthew.

Jessica reacts exactly as predicted, flinging her body between him and that single strike of elemental magic, curling over him protectively with a sharp intake of breath, her hair brushing his face as she does, knowing he's too injured to get away. At any other time, she might have wondered at the way he seemed to know that was coming; this time it doesn't register at all. The smell of hot leather and blistered skin as it hits her back; flames flickering and dying out with nothing truly flammable to attach to. It surely hurts; she shrugs it off. One ain't gonna cut it, but they already know that about her.

She looks up, eyes scanning for signs of another impending attack.

When none comes, she rips off her jacket off and tucks it tightly around his body, uncaring of the way the winter cold immediately attacks her through the fabric of her sweater. After a moment's thought she strips that off too, leaving only the tank top beneath."It's me, Jessica. Don't move," she says, gentle yet firm. "He fucked you up right good, Matt. But you're going to be okay. You're going to be okay."

He's not the only one she's trying to convince. Her emotions have coalesced into a single fear-for heartbeat, even as she reaches back into the pocket of that jacket to retrieve her cell phone, careful not to jostle him even a little bit.

—-

She gives him cover, protects him, and he can smell what it costs her in the stench of burning flesh and leather that overwhelms the vanilla and soap and days-old waft of hard liquor. Later, if he survives, he will feel gratitude — but in the moment he's shaking his head in denial, as if willing what just happened away. It represents an inversion, even perversion of the proper order of things; it's /his/ body that's supposed to be the vessel of sacrifice for others. That's what he built it for.

Such (silent) protestations can't last long. The realization that he's alive, for now, and that the immediate attack has passed, comes with an ebbing of adrenaline that allows him to feel the significance of his manifold wounds that much more readily. "Jesus…" he mutters, either in curse or petition or both, before rolling his eyes upward and clawing at the reddening mid-section of his trench coat. "He got inside of me somehow… drilling…"

—-

Her fingers dial three keys, and their jangling song cuts through the alley in rather noisesome fashion.

"9-1-1, what is your emergency?"

"I just found my friend in an alley, 11th and Amsterdam, right across the street from the Citibank. There's blood everywhere, please /hurry/," for god damn once, but saying that won't make them hurry.

It's there in her voice anyway.

She sees him clawing and puts her hand over his, not gripping or grasping, but just touching, much as she'd placed his stick a few nights before. She reaches down to stroke back his hair with trembling fingers, trying to calm him. "Shh. Don't mess with it," she murmurs. "Okay? Don't mess with it. The ambulance is on the way."

Maybe later he'll remember how he rescued her less than a month ago…those Saskarians wouldn't have been any gentler than the mages. Not that she knows, but he does. "I know it hurts, I know it hurts like Hell, but you have to stay still."

—-

Were he the Man in Black who had helped her that night in Gotham, he might protest her sensible call for help. But there are no masks to protect, no identities to hide here. He's just a lawyer who, whatever powers he may be hiding with such care, still got jumped and assaulted and beaten. There's nothing to protect, and so any protest dies unspoken on shivering lips.

He wills his grasping fingers into a tight, outward flex at her instruction. It's an effort that cuts across every instinct to examine and prod at this strangest of injuries. Her hands, delicate to carry the force he knows they're capable of, go some measure towards soothing him. "Yeah, OK," he murmurs by way of quiet assent to her willing him to be still. Sightless eyes are aimed upward towards her, each iris a dark pool of pain, frustration, and yes, some fear too. Then, a sudden flicker of mirth that tempers — but by no means displaces — the former sentiments. "What a bunch of assholes, huh?"

He blinks once, twice, realization hitting him like a punch in his broken gut. "The guy mentioned Foggy… god damn it, I've got to call him, warn him…" the hand underneath hers sharply withdraws, darting for his jacket pocket.

—-

"Anybody ever tell you that you've got pretty eyes?" Jessica asks, as she reaches out to adjust his glasses for him, putting them to rights. She'd rather see any other expression in them, of course. This time when someone adjusts his glasses it's a genuine expression of real concern.

And when he makes his joke, she chuffs a laugh of admiration.

"You're a bonafide bad-ass, Matt." She means it; and she doesn't even know the half.

When he goes for his phone she doesn't stop him, saying, "I'll look in on him when you're settled, make sure he's safe, too." Then she shuts up so he can dial. Eyes scanning the alley, this time for his stick. She spots it but doesn't leave his side to get it, not just yet. He'll want it though, and she'll want to give it to him.

She doesn't stop stroking his hair though.

—-

She compliments him, and Matt laughs quietly — right before he winces. "Oh, yeah?" he asks when both humor and attendant pass, a note of wry surprise his voice. His smile is tired and pained but showing white with growing flecks of red. "Thanks," he says as he fumbles in his pocket for his phone and pulls it out. "They might as well be good for something, right? As for being a badass — I dunno. I kind of feel like you're catching me on an off night." Yet another thing that is likely more true than she knows.

And then he's saying, "Call Foggy," and then it is, ringing and ringing and — voicemail.

A grimace, a return of the kind of other-focused fear she displayed while she hurtled for Matt just minutes ago. "Hey, Fog, listen… I got roped into a case that looks a little dicey. Some guys just jumped me, and I'm — I'm fine. But you should… just… watch your back, OK? Maybe find another place to sleep tonight. Look, call me when you can and I'll explain more. Thanks."

He brings the phone back up to his chest, there to rest, and lets out a long sigh. "I… uh… think I'm going to pass out pretty soon," he ventures softly, speculatively, almost idly.

—-

His wit produces another soft, tense chuff, if no words; her heartbeat skipping for just a second. She listens to the call but doesn't interrupt, approving of his story. She glances down to memorize the number. Poor Foggy probably ain't ready. But 'somewhere' doesn't tell her where to look in on him. Still, if he takes it seriously and leaves, the Cold Flame won't know where to go either. And with the number, she can call him and ask if he's okay on Matt's behalf.

"Perfectly reasonable response," Jess says. He's stopped fretting, so she moves at last, going after his stick. She slides it beneath his fingers carefully; she imagines in his shoes she would want to know where that lifeline was whether she planned on using it or not. "But I think you're not supposed to do that until the EMTs get here. Or is that snowstorms?" She's now babbling, trying to keep him awake, just in case it's not snowstorms.

Her voice turns dark. The elephant in the alley is that this wouldn't have happened if he hadn't crossed paths with /her/."They won't touch you again." It's not precisely something she can back up, and she's not sure how precisely she could make it happen but she still means it.

Even if she has to somehow hunt down every last one of them and take them down for good.

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