AKA Cluster

July 05, 2017:

Jessica Jones continues to have an absolutely freaking fantastic night. Checking up on Sizani throws her into one of the Dora Milaje's own investigations. Jess finds herself tangling with a truly disturbing foe in her second lethal battle in as many hours.

New York City, New York

First at the Wakandan Embassy, then at a horrible hollowed out hotel turned upscale nightclub.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: T'Challa, Bucky Barnes, Matt Murdock, Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, Jane Foster, John Constantine, Zatanna Zatara, Trish Walker, Azalea Kingston, Peggy Carter, Silk, Red Robin

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It is only an hour between the cut of a blade and an unnatural restoration, one that is applied with what seems like ancient art. Jessica would have to lay face down for twenty minutes with something very much like clay laced across her cuts, and held in place with a gauze that looked hand woven. Beyond this, a touch of a wand to the back of her neck, and the slightest pressure, and she would know no pain. It is the touch of a civilization that no longer fears mundane injury. It is the touch of a civilization that is used to treating it's wounded warriors.

It is not long after that Jessica's request to know when Sizani is up and functional again is answered. She is where Jessica left her. Standing in what must seem like reverence before an empty throne, she looks little worse for wear. Whatever they did for Jessica, they were able to do for her. Dressed in black again, she is not wearing the garb of a combatant, but rather dressed for a night out. Perhaps The King has a function tonight, and the bloody business of trying Jessica's soul was as mundane as a function of state. The dress is dark and long, and shows her back to the world, held in place only by a single loop around the back of her neck. In her hands, she holds something familiar. Something that Jessica should know well.

Cold vibranium that has touched her spine finds the caress of old wool, easing blood from it with every slow pass. It might appear for all the world that her mind is so far away as not to notice Jessica, but their can be no mistake in the change in her posture when the other woman enters the room. The dagger falls away to cut a hard line against her dress, held out and down, as if she means to use it. A tilt of her head, inclined to listen, perhaps to wonder if Jessica holds her in ill will.

Perhaps, it is just a Wakandan greeting. Sanura has one for Jessica as well, the mechanical panther at her side in a soundless approach that simply comes out of nowhere. Perhaps the suit turned beast was cloaked, or perhaps she had been following Jessica on the way in. No matter, she makes her intentions clear enough, head-butting the side of Jessica's leg and following the greeting with a rub of it's body as it passes by Biological or mechanical, big or small, it seems all cats are alike.

Jessica Jones is charmed by the cat, and she gives Sanura a head rub just as if she were dealing with a real one. It's a bit of a balm to a soul that's feeling tight and sad, weighed down with the hard knot of self-loathing and self-doubt. If that knot is painful and spiky it is, nevertheless, a familiar knot, reforged in a tough conversation between she and the friend she wants so desperately to help.

Appropriately or inappropriately. She's ass deep in it now.

But not so heartless that she does not want to see for herself that the woman she harmed is okay today. Sizani cleans the knife of her own blood, and then positions it like a weapon once more. Jessica puts her hands up. "Whoa, I am so not here for round two," she says. "Promise."

She has changed her own clothing. Ratty jeans. A black Rolling Stones tank top. It's ratty. Very ratty. A pair of rarely-used slip-on sandals with memory-foam bottoms, not even in the mood to put boots on. It's a strange thing to wander around an Embassy in, but Jessica is out of fucks to give on this score. She'll dress how she fucking wants. What are they going to do? Threaten to fucking murder her if she doesn't dance to their own agenda? Threaten a few people she cares about? Yeah. Ship sailed.

"I just wanted to check on you." This is probably yet another stupid move in Jessica's arsenal of stupid moves for the day. For all she knows, she insulted the woman by failing to kill her or something. And then she'll open yet another fucking can of worms. But for all that Wakanda is a hard culture to grasp and understand, Wakanda is full of people just like America is, and Jess finds herself caught in the grip of her greatest weakness. Giving a damn. About people. Even people who pit themselves against her, sometimes, who in many ways stand between her and things that she desperately wants to see happen.

No. Jones. Your greatest weakness is pretty much that you're a fucking moron. Let's just tell it like it is.

"Probably should have brought some…get well cake or something, but you're already well, so…"

"I am not well."

It does not come with the cut of someone who is angry, or the bite her words carry when she speaks to an outsider. These are the words of one agent of her country to another. Jessica will never be Wakandan, but she has vowed to pursue her country's interests as if she were one of their own. She has bled for them. Sizani made sure of it. She nearly died for them. Sizani tried very hard to make certain of that too. The mechanical cat winds it's way towards her master, and when Sizani drops the knife, her faithful companion snatches them out of the air to hold on to.

It allows her to turn without threat, red bottomed heels clicking on the floor as she moves towards Jessica, who is her shattered mirror in both looks and demeanor. All the right pieces are there. Duty. Dedication. Honor. They just don't line up when they face one another, but it does not dissuade her in treating her as if they were sisters. There is not hesitation when she reaches for Jessica's hand, and curls a piece of leather threaded with a single panther fang into it.

"My country is at a crossroads like never before. We are not a people that looks outward or invites others to look in. But the world simply has to many eyes, Jessica Jones. Now is a time where we must find our place. My King has explained this to you, that no man's fate, not even one you hold in high regard, can interfere." Her hand remains curled around Jessica's, and the other slides down her arm to join it, her gaze never leaving the other woman's as her odd, green eyes bore into her very soul. "This trial was allowed only because my King understands that there must be trust with your world. I will speak more plainly about this than any from my country ever will. You are not just working to save your friend. You are now working as much as I am to save my country."

The attack on Wakanda by the Winter Soldier, is a blight that threatened to upend the vision of more than one King. And if not him, someone with more nefarious goals. To push her country into a corner. Her fingers will begin to slip away, but leave her gift. "I will not be well again until our path is set once more. I will not be well until the truth is before us, and justice is met. I do not doubt you, like so many would. I will be your partner in this quest for truth."

This kindness does not fail to touch the twisted heart of one Jessica Jones. She closes her hand gently around the panther fang, her face crumpling a moment. For all that she tries to present a stony front to the world, Jones wears her heart on her sleeve if one knows what to look for. She is touched in the extreme. She feels like a traitor to the man she walked in here to defend. And now, with this simple gesture, the weight of her promise does tug on her, reminding her that more than a man is also at stake. Reminding her of nations and children in the dark, of real people who are impacted.

What has she gotten herself into? What has she done, that failure might mean the death of any honorable choices no matter what she does? Here she is, conflicted and welcomed like a sister, even as she had, shattered mirror that she was, immediately and honorlessly tried to figure a way around the bargain that she'd made, deep in her own heart. Because she does not believe it. She can't conceive of a world in which James committed this act of evil. At a science conference, no less.

She focuses on Sizani's words. So mindful already of all the conflicts Jones must be feeling, empathetic and capable in a way Jess herself is not. To wit: the conversation she just finished, that she's played in her mind hundreds of times, searching for ways she could have handled it better and finding 105 of them in the time it took for her to find her shoes.

You really did become some sort of -that- when you hurt her, feeling you did what you had to do…and yet that is how you came to be seen as her sister, as well.

The world is awash in confusion, especially for a creature of middles, a creature who ultimately sees multiple sides to every issue. A woman of deep loyalty, when she chooses to give it, can be torn apart when those loyalties begin to crash and clash with one another. Which was happening even before she walked in here earlier, really, though she did not know it.

She has thought about running away a dozen times tonight, and not because she fears death. Death is almost an afterthought. Her affairs are in order. Everyone will be fine. Three months, and all normal again, perhaps even better off. It is the way all these loyalties rip and tear at her as if they were all made of tiny vibranium knives. But of course she cannot, and will not. The same loyalties that hurt her also bind her.

She had not intended to create another loyalty when she walked in here tonight, and she realizes that is what has been bothering her most of all. No woman should have conflicting loyalties. It is better, she thinks, to be a person for whom everything is painted in shades of black and white, stark and easy to understand. How can anyone be anything other than a mess of sorrow when the world is washed in unrelieved monotone gray? When her choices boil down not to choosing right or wrong, but the lightest shade of grey she can find? God, how she hates it.

But Sizani offers her partnership…and perhaps, even, a bridge.

Because she manages to align finding the truth that Jessica knows with the truth she must find out, and aligns both with the fate of the country, offering a way Jessica can serve both ends. She even suggests the shadow of a motive for people other than Barnes.

At last, she finds her voice. Is it so strange that the woman who can speak so coarsely can also find eloquence when she chooses to? It is, at the end of the day, another symptom of her nature as a Woman of the Middles. "Your honor puts the shreds of mine to shame, Sizani of the Kupaa," she says. "You have my gratitude. With your help, we cannot help but find the truth."

Of course, Sizani herself could be playing her. The cynical side of her nature says that it is a possibility. She could wish to derail Jessica's investigation before it even begins. But Jess Jones needs hope tonight, needs some slender thread that she can use to bind her hand to the cliff that she finds herself hanging over. Her friendship with James might have already tumbled over it if he finds he can’t stand to deal with her any longer, though she has already covered how she doesn’t need someone to reciprocate a friendship to conduct one. Her sense of safety and security, the knowledge that her nightmare was dead— gone. Her ability to hide the extent of her damage from the world? That will soon slide over as well. Matt provided one thread with his assurances on the matter of Kilgrave. And now this other, coming from the most unlikely of places.

—-

The hand of the Dora Milaje strikes out, fingers curling round Jessica's chin to lift it, to force her thoughts from the precipice she finds herself dangling from. There is a fire behind the greens that strike out at her, a resounding rallying cry that has the weight of her ancestors behind it. She will not accept anything but Jessica's full attention when she speaks next, seeking to tear her mind from her Path in the Middle, and instead place her firmly at on the only side that matters: The Truth.

"Honor is the knife's edge. It is not something to be torn to shreds. Do you seek power, for power's sake? Do you act for only yourself, with no thought to the world around you? Do you speak for others, when it is not your place? If you can say no to these things, then your honor is as anchored as your soul." Her hand falls away, and she looks as if she wishes to say so much more. So much more, that her sister once said to her, so long ago.

A sister she lost to Wakanda's enemies.

The emotion that wavers there threatens to spill over, to become something she should not say to this woman who has only faced one of many trials. She has a long way to go. Sizani has a long time to wait. "Carry yourself with the pride of your actions, driven by true intention, deterred by no one as we seek the truth. Cower that part of you that would rebel against the notion that you are pure of heart and spirit. Defeat it, as you defeated me."

At last, her gaze slips away, and she holds out her hand to Sanura, who returns her dagger. One hand crosses and she lifts her dress high to the hip, sliding it into a thigh sheath that was hidden away until now. That done, the dress falls into place, and she turns a scrutinizing gaze to her new partner in truth. "You will need to change. The place we will go tonight requires certain standards. We have an extensive collection here. I am certain we can find something in your size."

Wait, what? Right now?

Jessica Jones may have fallen from that cliff already. Right into the deep end of an investigation under way.

Does she speak for others when it is not her place? Wellllll…arguably. But she tries not to. Jessica is as hard on herself as ever, and she winces at that last one. She kind of did tonight, but then she took her punishment for that one. She lets her chin be lifted, finding something so very noble in this other woman. At least her honor is mostly anchored. She can at least say that she doesn’t give two craps about power and…well.

Even she won't go so far as to try to say she only acts for herself.

She at least tries not to as well, though certainly there are times she questions her motives. She at least wants to act for others, and on that, at least, thinks, however clumsily, she mostly does.

Sizani encourages her to feel pride, an emotion so foreign to this self-hating woman that she's not sure she ever has. But slowly she finds a few moments to draw on.

A life saved here. A plot stopped there. The most unlikely of events at a silly science fair. She can only name a few instances where she can say, clear cut and without complication or question, that she did something that mattered without breaking anything else. But some people never get any. Sizani sees true intention in her actions, and…that much is also true. She came here willing to risk her life for her friend…whether he is happy about it or not. She came here for the truth, whether anybody is happy about it or not. People died at that conference.

It's a case.

Like any other case.

It must be solved. Period.

Her brown eyes steady, her back straightens, some part of the weight lifts off of her soul. She will take her comfort where she can, her strength where she can. One place where she has always found it is in the eyes of others, when they have shared that vision with her. Sizani adds her name to the ranks of someone who has given her a different vision of herself.

But…go somewhere tonight? Falling off a cliff? No. No. That is FLYING. A place to start that gives her wings. "Do you have something here?" she asks, eager and resolute all at once. This is where Sizani's newfound sister knows her worth. This. Investigating a crime. Going places, doing what must be done. It is the only worth she knows for sure that she has…her ability to be a detective. The only thing she can ever say with unabashed and unflinching pride, that she can do. This. So gratitude swells, even as this rangy, battered she-wolf, adopted, it seems, by a panther, straightens her shoulders and gains the gleam of a huntress in her eye.

"This way."

Whatever Jessica chooses from the assortment of clothing that the Adored Ones have at their disposal, Sizani will certainly make certain that Jessica looks the part before they depart, including an insistence that she wear her new necklace. "If you twist the fang, we will come for you. No matter where you are. We do not leave our own to the vultures when they are in need." The explanation is simple enough, the purpose doubly so.

The car waiting outside is not so simple. It is of Wakandan make, entirely electric, and makes a McLaren look outdated. Midnight black and awaiting two agents of Wakanda, it will be their chariot to a place that is uncertain. But this too, Sizani elaborates on, once they are on the way. Nothing goes to waste in Wakanda. Time will not go to waste here.

"The agents of Hydra show their disarray, perhaps not on the field of battle, but in the way they operate as all organizations must to meet their goals; With profit. Enticing the powerful with secrets and greater promises of success is an old tactic. But it comes at a price. When pressure is applied, the soft will show their true nature first. And tonight, our target is soft. His name is Sergei Ivanov. His operation in this country is a minor one, and ignored by those guardians of law who value money over justice. We would not know about him, save for the desperation that has required Hydra to lean on this man and his enterprise as a pass through for money and information."

If Sizani has any respect for traffic laws, and if stop lights were ever planning to be red for her, neither is apparent as they drive. Green meets them as they dive into the middle of New York, cutting like tuned vibranium towards a club that caters to a crowd more likely to wield a trust fund than a weapon. It is lavish. Upscale. One might imagine accidentally running into Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne in such a place.

Wouldn't that be interesting.

In the end she chooses a dress that is very like Sizani's, though she finds one of a more modest cut. Jessica will never be entirely comfortable with showing too much flesh, though if she had to, right now, she'd wander around dressed like one of Victoria's Secret's sinful 'angels.' She swallows as she settles the necklace around her neck. If some of her friends saw that, they might surely think her a traitor in truth. Bucky might. Jane might. Would Matt? No, she decides, not Matt. Not John either, who knows about doing hard things, and not Zee, who doesn't judge. Never Trish. Would others?

Does it matter, if she has clarity of purpose? And if she has clarity of purpose, and Bucky is exonerated from this latest horror, would, then, the entire thing not be moot? There would be no conflict. She puts it out of her mind.

"Will I be able to come for you the same way?" is what she wants to know, because it only seems fair. Few of her panic buttons are reciprocal…it would be nice to know she can give back.

She thinks about the King's own necklace, wound around and around the neck of Azalea Kingston, still locked in her own prison.

The mention of Hydra startles Jessica; she'd given them no mention. With no chance, as of yet, to look through any of the files that she has asked for, the woman isn't sure what they've found, and she'd thought they'd ruled Hydra out entirely. But perhaps what they doubt is that Bucky himself is not Hydra. An interesting thought to pursue.

She eyes the stoplights. Sizani, she concludes, has some tech toy that's letting her do that. Which is nice. It gets them there faster. She makes no comment on it. She takes a deep breath as they approach the club, pulling makeup and a brush out of her STUFF app, not caring if the other woman sees the technomagic toy in action. She brushes her hair till it gleams. She touches up her makeup. She puts the phone back in a little interior pocket in the dress. She'd searched longer for a pocket than she had for, say, a modest cut, or a color that flattered her (she went for red, as it happens), but there it is.

If she runs into Tony tonight, well. There's another friend who wouldn't judge her. He'd probably find it funny. And tease her about her dress. The thought cheers her, a little. Tony is a person who can be counted on to take things in stride, and might well serve as another ally this night if he did happen to be there.

"Are we plucking him from this party for questioning, going through his stuff, just seeing what information he drops while in his cups…?" Hey, Sizani set them on this target. She won't spoil it by doing this her own way if the other woman has a strategy in mind.

"An interesting device." Her brows lift, and she stares at Jessica's little handy Bag of Holding In A Phone. "I had not realized Stark had any advanced technology." Tony isn't even around, and it's just instinct to put him to the flame. Ah well.

"We will see what he keeps in his domain, hidden from the eyes of others and tucked away in the dark corners that he thinks are safe. But none are safe from our eyes." Her smirk is as dangerous as that look she cuts in Jessica's direction, slowing the car and turning it down a street that's heavy with foot traffic. Of course, that does not fully explain the plan. Perhaps this is another test. Perhaps they will never end when faced with the gravity of Wakandan trust. The car comes to a stop in the circle that dominates this corner of the block, a valet area, but Sizani waves off the man who opens her door, indicating that she is just dropping off.

A beat passes, he walks away, and she gets out anyway, stealing a knowing look from Jessica before stepping around the car with a small handbag coiled in one hand. The investigator might understand the look she gives the building, once an old hotel converted to something on the cutting edge of modern. A thumb slips into her handbag, sliding over her Kimoyo Card. "Let us see what we can pry from a man who values money above all else."

With that she sets off towards the doorman, her handbag tapping at his PDA with the faintest of smiles and a shift in her accent. Very suddenly she is British, though who can tell if she expects Jessica to follow suit. "We are on the list to see Mister Ivanov."

Perhaps it is a test, which means…Jessica’s just going to go in there. And do what she does. Which is be a PI. And on the matter of Stark’s “primitive technology” she just keeps her trap shut. She’s sure the Wakandans would have been super impressed by her old Asus.

If that means getting elbow-deep in this guy’s garbage tonight in her fancy dress and everything, well, that’s how it goes sometimes.

If Jessica has decided to be British for this encounter she doesn’t demonstrate this fact right away. She stays quiet, simply smiling at the doorman in a way that indicates someone looking forward to an easy-going evening. She’s pretexting now, which means every last sign of anxiety and distress is now fully gone from her face. If she hasn’t gotten much farther in her cover identity of the evening than “high-class woman at party,” well, that’s as far as she needs to go right about now.

—-

The wonders of technology allow them entry after only mild scrutiny, though the man at the door does call it up on his earpiece. Now they are expected in many ways. Certainly, that warning from the doorman will raise a few eyebrows. Certainly, Sergei knew he'd have a meeting tonight, right? Calculating eyes scan the crowd of the expansive club, hollowed out from its former purpose to become a multi-floor cacophony of violent light and sound. Strobes lance through a hazy atmosphere in time to the beat, and Sizani finally settles on a far off, raised stage where tables are roped away. Another guard in their path, and a man surrounded by the trappings of power lays in wait. She leans in towards Jessica, mouth close to her ear as if to whisper, but she must speak loudly to be heard.

"I will cause a small distraction for our friend. There is a full kitchen at the back of this place. Under this place is where we will find what we need."

But what is that? She does not specify. Perhaps, like any investigator working a loose lead, she'll only know it when she sees it. It may be why she's brought Jessica, for while Sizani knows many things, and has been trained well, she does not know this city or it's texture. Finally she gives a meaningful glance to the way she intends Jessica to go, and then makes for the VIP area without further hesitation.

Kitchen, and then basement from kitchen. Right. “Got it,” she says…

In a crisp British accent. She chose to emulate the accent of one Peggy Carter for this, crisp, clean, proper, upper crust. Practicing accents is pretty helpful for pretexting. If only she could also make her voice male. Then she’d be set. Wait, she has little Jarvis. Something to think about later.
And yet, the rambling thought sparks an idea now.

In the meantime, Jessica splits off from Sizani, heading towards the restrooms. Those are going to be closer to the kitchen typically, and that means she’ll be better positioned to take advantage of the Wakandan’s distraction. It also lets her step inside briefly, where she speaks to her phone.

“Jarvis,” she murmurs. “Use your projectors to play blue light up and down the length of my dress, continuously.” The S-phone has got powerful holographic projectors, enough to give her computer screens, television screens, and more. Enough to turn a red dress purple. She pulls back her hair and twists it into a quick bun, then withdraws a pair of glasses from her STUFF app that don’t have any prescription on them. Just glass lenses.

In thirty seconds, Jessica Jones becomes a different woman than the one who walked in with Sizani. Sure, it wouldn’t fool anyone who knows Jessica Jones well. It wouldn’t fool facial recognition software. But it fools the unreliable memory of people, who probably latched on to details like “red dress, long dark hair, bare-faced.” Unreliable memory is the same reason why hoodies, sunglasses, baseball caps, clothing layers and reversible jackets are a PI’s best friend. Most people glance casually, note color, and move on.

And if a woman in a purple dress still isn’t someone who should be in the kitchen, well…Jess will cross that bridge when she comes to it, won’t she? She stows the phone and steps back out, waiting for her moment.

Six armed men. It's easy enough to count them as they move through the crowd, not with the jubilation of the vibrant nightlife around them, but with purpose. Locking on. Evaluating. They're good at their jobs, looking for those who stand out like a sore thumb. Sizani makes the VIP area. A brief conversation bares her entry, and like that, six become four. Two turn their attention to the guest, one touches his ear and dips his head to hear better. The man by the kitchen raises his wrist to say something and turns to duck inside.

At least he's no longer outside. Jarvis, will of course, comply soundlessly, casting her in purple. Maybe this is the moment, down three and attention diverted, but before Jessica can seize it, there's a voice at her side. He can't be more than twenty. Tall. Dark hair. A chiseled jaw and soft eyes that somehow still project through his own pair of glasses. His expression turns thoughtful, almost strained as he asks his question. "Excuse me… did you go to Gotham U by chance? I'm Ian, by the way."

There are all sorts of complications and pitfalls on the field of battle. For Jessica Jones, it is not a hail of bullets or the cut of a Wakandan knife this time, but the way she wears that dress and walked into a lions den of half drunk, lonely souls. At least this time is not as grabby as the last time she went club-diving for a case.

Jessica groans inwardly. Seriously? Why is he hitting on her? Can't the man see she's ten years his senior?

Part of her rails and kicks. There was a time this guy would have been fantastic to take home and provide with an education, once she got drunk enough to stomach the idea. Only now she doesn't do one night-stands, she’s 15 days from her damned 90-day token, and she's on the clock.

And she feels sorry for the kid, because really, he's trying. He's not sleazy, he's just trying a sort of getting-to-know you line. He didn't touch her without permission and he isn't being crude. Points for Ian. So she lies a little.

"I'm old enough to be your Mum, duckling," she murmurs, gently, still British, but calling on the same tones she's used to big-sister Az, Silk, and even Red Robin. "But that wasn't the worst approach I've ever heard, either. Keep at it. Little more confident without losing the gentleness, don't let it trend into asshole territory, and you'll find someone. Don't forget the closer— ask for the dance. Check her out, she looks lonely." She nods to a younger woman who does indeed look lonely. She eases out of his personal space, trying to lose herself in the crowd and get closer to the kitchen while she can.

OhGodOhGodOhGod plays across his face as Jessica cuts through him like a knife. His brows lift. His eyes go slightly wide. He can't bare himself to look at the lonely girl, dull-blinking away the turn of events as she begins to walk away from him. He looks down at his phone, pinched near his side with the line he'd repeated to himself before approaching her, and then he looks back up at her retreating form. "W..wait! You're supposed to tell me no, we didn't have class together. And then I'm supposed to say 'are you sure? I could have sworn we had chemistry together!' And then.. all that stuff you told me to say to that other girl, I'd say to you instead, and.. right.. why wouldn't you be heading for some bald dude standing outside a kitchen? Makes sense." A finger rises to press to the center of his glasses and push them up on his nose, and only when Jessica isn't looking his way will his gaze narrow on her in a way that contains all the confidence she spoke of before.

The tail end of his last sentence dies in the sound of the music and the crowd, but he's not wrong, the man who had ducked inside has already returned. Did she waste precious seconds with Ian's interference, or did he save her from the disaster of going through the door just as the guard was returning? He's not green, but he's a Hulk of a man, bald, pale, easily six foot five and wears his suit as if he might bust a seam at any moment. If Jessica aborts, he won't pay close attention to her. If she decides to approach, his gaze will snap to her with a sharp focus.

Meanwhile, Sizani is making pleasant conversation in only the way a Wakandan can, with unveiled insults stated as fact, and a saccharine smile.

He had a whole script written out for this? Nevermind. Ian loses points. Jessica's features arrange themselves into the 'what the fuck' look as only her features can, sour and irritated as he finishes it off, her own compassion rather evaporating as she sees the guard come back. He's not going to leave the kitchen door without good reason, either. Sizani said she'd provide a distraction, but…she might be providing all the distraction she can provide.

What would be good enough to get the guard off his designated post without sending the whole club into chaos?

She can't think of a damned thing. So she does what every other member of her generation does when she's at a club and she isn't into it, but is with someone who is. She leans against the wall, not really approaching the balding bodyguard, but definitely giving Ian and the bathrooms some space. She takes out her phone, trusting the thing to keep up with the illusion as requested, adjusting for her movements. And she starts dicking around on it, keeping it palmed in her hand so it's not easy to see what kind of phone it is. In thirty seconds, it could look for all the world like the only thing she cares about is scoring her next few moves on Words with Friends.

Patience is a virtue, and if it also causes Ian to stop asking himself why she headed for the guard, so much the better. It might give her a chance to observe a bit more of how things go here, about what caused him to go into the kitchen in the first place. It might give her another angle. She also thinks about kitchens, and hotels. It might be that she can get in from the other end.

So she doesn't play Words With Friends at all. She pulls up a Google Image Search of the hotel itself, trying to see if she can't find an alternative pathway that doesn't require her flipping Baldy the Hulk there over her head.

—-

Then it happens. Ian enters her frame of view, but he is not close by. Instead he moves by Mr. Bald Hulk, offers him a wave, which draws his attention to one hand, while his other splashes his drink into the man's face. The reaction is instantaneous, and the chase is on. Ian rushes through the crowd and the guards converge, leaving the kitchen unguarded again. The club is mostly as it was before, the altercation a small ripple in this big pond. Whatever it is Sizani is doing, she keeps the rest of the guards close to Sergei, and away from Jessica.

A waiter steps out of the kitchen, and beyond there seem to be no other guards, but Jess will have no way to be certain until she makes it back there. She has only seconds to make her decision - there is a back way, and JARVIS has a scan of the place that shows a small entrance used for loading and unloading, but who knows what Ian's interference will do to the guard rotation.

There's also the question of why Ian interfered. He's made her, she's sure of that, but is he friend, or foe?

But Jessica Jones won't look the gift horse in the mouth. She's aware this could have largely been a trap, or a signal, or another agent from another organization at play here…whatever. She needs into that kitchen. She slips past the waiter as quickly as she possibly can, and quickly tries to get out of sight while she tries to figure out where she might get downstairs. The faster the better.

Her heart is pounding while she does it, too. This is not how she likes to do business, slipping in wearing evening clothes while a zillion things go on, with a zillion unpredictable people around. She usually likes to break into places when there's nobody there. But this could be a facility that never sleeps, and if Sizani has identified this as the best time, perhaps it ultimately is.

Or, perhaps this is all some really elaborate spy scheme to just get her out of the way once and for all. Perhaps Sizani herself is Hydra, and Jessica is walking into a trap. Well…

She'll know soon. Nothing to do but bull forward…as usual.

The kitchen is busy and bustling, and nearly as loud as the club outside. Food heads up in service elevators to other floors, where balconies overlook the crush of people below. No one notices the woman in the purple dress, either because people who come and go here often dress up, or because they're simply too busy. At the back of the kitchen, beside one of the elevators, is a door with a keycard on it, almost certainly meaning that it's locked. If Jessica uses one of her 'tricks', she'll find it works well enough with minimal commotion, and she'll be greeted by a dark stairway that spirals downward. It's a night and day transition as the sound of the club fades and modern architecture gives way to old stone walls dating back to the 1900s or earlier. Finally, past a set of old double doors, the room opens up into what almost looks like a laboratory.

It's as if all the air has been sucked out of the room. This isn't some private office where money's being counted, or drugs are being packaged. On the left side of the room are cages, each one filled with a pathetic form hunched under a dirty blanket. Each one filled with human misery. Their is a bank of computers, and though they do not look top of the line, they do look as if they've been used. The center of the room is filled with strange lab equipment, and at the end of one table, the unmistakable outline of a meat grinder.

At the far end of the room, there's a door with a barred window, and from inside shadows move. From inside, a scream splits the air.


Her tricks ensure someone will suspect a break-in eventually, but it is what it is. Jessica removes her heels the moment she hits the stairs, pauses to yank boots out of her app, and creeps slowly down with a growing sense of foreboding.

Confronted with this incredible display of torture and depravity, Jessica feels a flash of rage so profound that she can't even see for a good ten seconds. She strides to that barred door.

It takes everything she has not to just rip it from its hinges. A dozen possibilities rocket through her brain. She is going to get these people out, and now, but she had best get the lay of the land first. They are in no shape to just run for their lives, and if this isn't handled carefully some of them could die, or be recaptured.

The realization makes her sick. She feels like a monster, exercising the caution that it takes to peer through the bars long enough to actually understand what horrors wait beyond, rather than to simply stop it as of yesterday. Her expressive face twists into a mask of guilt, fury, and contempt for the perpetrators. A few seconds to play this smart. Logical. Still feels like a few seconds too many.

It smells. Not just the people in the cages, who smell unwashed. It smells like death. Like rotting meat. And it smells from inside the door Jessica approaches. A call, a whisper from one of those prisons beckons to Jessica. "P..please. Please." It is a plea born of hopelessness, the sound of someone who does not expect a response. A dirty hand reaches past the cage, small and slender, the hand of a woman. Next to her, a man curls a hand around the bar of his cage, his grey beard pressing to it. "Is that someone new?"

Inside, is what almost looks like an apartment. A couch. A television. A table past that, all set for dinner. And the bloody smear where a man's head was smashed into the concrete wall and left to slide down it. A pool of blood seeps into the rug in the living area, and the unfortunate soul is ragdolled beside the table. At the table is a man dressed only in a pair of white shorts, covered in a fair amount of grime and dirt that seems to cling to his chest and legs and arms, tangled in his body hair and his scruffy, short beard. In front of him, on a plate, is the lower leg of the man he seems to have just killed. Thick, corded arms reach for it, and he pushes his cleaver aside, having no more use of it. He lifts it, clearly intent on taking a bite. At least until he feels eyes on him.

Slowly he looks up, a dead blue-eyed gaze cutting across the space to peer at Jessica Jones. He rises, the dirt and sweat and grime on his body doing little to hide the physique that seems almost impossible, hard lines cut into his body as if he were made of marble. It is the kind of physique Jessica might be used to seeing on certain heroes. The kind of physique that is just unnatural enough that only a few Soldiers in the world are blessed with it. There is a slow exhale. The light against his eyes seems to change. He utters one word.

"Dessert."

When Jessica Jones realizes what she’s looking at she claps her hand to her mouth to stop the flood of bile that threatens to spew out of her mouth. She hasn’t eaten in hours and hours, and now she’s more than happy that her last meal is way behind her. And this would be why the scary secret entrance was near the kitchen and oh god don’t tell me this guy’s leavings are going out there as leftovers.

She’s also real glad she didn’t just rip the door off the hinges. And that was why. The instinct that what she heard was maybe an enemy she didn’t just want raging around in here.

Then again, the enemy doesn’t seem too concerned with his captivity, now does he? Conscious of the panther tooth necklace at her throat, she considers. She could call Sizani down here, but that will surely alert the people upstairs. Then again, she might need her help. She decides to keep it as a back pocket option, but to try to handle this herself, first…Sizani is doing a lot by keeping everyone busy upstairs.

Hang on, she tells those people silently. I’m gonna get you out of here.

Decision made, she performs the action she’d aborted just long enough to look inside. She rips the barred door off its hinges with a grunt, and tries to use it as a battering ram, tries to catch the man right in the solar plexus and fling him into the wall.

When the door comes off the hinges, the man smiles behind his beard and begins to clap, an exaggerated thing that's more than intentional mockery. He's certainly surprised, but not in a way that relays the danger he's in. When it impacts him, she can hear him take it with a grunt, and feel too his hands snapping to the door to pinch it in his grip. A grip that bends the metal. Twists it. Finally, he stops short of the other wall, pivoting his hips to send the door and Jessica careening sidelong and across his living space. The rug will skid sidelong, as well as most of the furniture. There's another entrance there, a storm-door hidden beneath. Apparently, this man wasn't much of a prisoner at all.

If Jessica still holds onto the door, she'll be greeted by a shoulder-checking charge that will slam into it, intent on crushing her into whatever surface she's closest too, a pummeling fist rocketing in behind the initial impact with strength that must be very near her own. "Guess it means they're all dead, then, yeah? All my keepers. Like the 'Duggers. Like the men in coats before'em. Need the flesh. Gotta have it. NEED THE FLESH TO FEED THE SERPENT. SO MANY HEADS. SO MANY EYES."

It is clear he is no mere brawler, despite his current methods. He moves like a trained killer, like the killer that has been training Jessica of late. Perhaps not as refined. Perhaps not as focused. He has rage behind him, and madness in droves. This is the secret Sergei has been keeping. An asset, perhaps, or some new metahuman he hoped to sell to his cause? Sergei knows. Or maybe that computer system outside.

Oh.

Shit.

She hits the wall hard, one eye opening and one eye closing as she feels the metal-backed fist slam into her gut. It hurts like a motherfucker, steals her breath, makes her see a few spots before her eyes.

She finds herself in a fight for her life for the second time today, and this time with an opponent that she can’t just overwhelm with the fires of whatever IGH concoction permanently changed her genetics.

Once again she focuses on the reason why she’s fighting, but now it’s on those poor sad people in the cages. She thinks about Bucky, but only for a flash. It’s only a bit of gratitude that he started getting her in the mindset of what it would take to fight people who could not only match her strength, but exceed it. Gratitude, too, that he never spared her his strength. She knows what it means to be hit hard. Regret flashes across her consciousness, but she has no time for it. Regret that he probably regrets showing her any of it.

She fixes the flats of her hand hard against that door and shoves with all her might, saying nothing at all. She’s not much of a battle banterer.

She doesn’t need to shove him all the way off, doesn’t need him to hit the opposite wall. She just needs to be able to drop, which she does, rolling across the floor until she comes up with the cleaver in her right. Her left lifts to twist the panther tooth necklace, even as she gets her bearings, finds her stance.

Her mouth goes very dry, because she knows she might well have to kill this opponent to end it. Knows Sizani might not get down here in time to make a difference. Knows this is the opposite of carefully selecting her cases so she didn’t end up a vigilante scenario that might come up in trial.

Knows she couldn’t have called the police even if she’d been inclined to, because this guy would have torn them apart, and those deaths would be on her hands. Better this guy than a bunch of clueless cops…though admittedly, worrying about that right at this second meets the very definition of counting chickens before they hatch.

The stance she adopts is a defensive one that gives very little away other than her willingness to use the weapon she’s just claimed. She’s waiting for him to make the next move, waiting to counter it, aware that her normal, aggressive fighting style won’t do. Not here. When someone is weaker, aggression works pretty well. When someone is stronger, one has to remember that it could take you ten hits to do what he can do in one, and your focus has to be on avoiding his one hit so you can get your ten in. The meat cleaver isn’t enough of an equalizer to make her forget that basic fact.

She’s very conscious of the blood of the innocent that already oozes so sluggishly down the shining edge of the weapon, conscious of the fact that if she hadn’t hesitated, she might have saved that person.

Or you might have just gotten to watch the death blow, fucking FOCUS Jones, or going to come to a real bad fucking end!

The door crashes sidelong with Jessica's push, and a right hook is waiting for her - one that she ducks in the course of a roll that sends her past him to pick up HIS FAVORITE CLEAVER. There's a moment there where he looks stricken, reaching up and running his fingers through his hair to pull at it, and turning to walk away from her briefly, so briefly. But his back is exposed. She could throw that cleaver with all her might. She could utterly end him if she can only commit to the motion. If she does, she'll see him turning back around right as that window closes. See him charging forward with a screaming rage that echoes through the room and into the one outside, sending the captives in those cages into terrified fits.

He ducks hard and to the left, grabbing hold of the body on the floor and raking it through open air with a swing that sends all but one leg careening off towards one wall. Left with his impromptu club, he roars bloody murder and wades in with pummeling swings, intent on battering that blade away and tenderizing Jessica for the meal to come. Because he needs the meat, you see. To feed the many heads. To quiet the many voices who have told him, through injection after injection, where his loyalties lie.

Today they belong to no one but his hunger. Today they belong to no one but his rage.

She doesn’t throw it, just cause throwing away one’s only weapon is madness…though she does lunge for his back, meaning to slice him much as Sizani sliced her up earlier. This guy definitely falls into the monster category, though distantly she’s aware that he has probably been made this way, maybe even against his will.

But then he is literally trying to hit her with his evening dinner, and her eyes widen as she ducks and dodges. The word, “Seriously?” does slip past her ruby-red lips, even as she finds the stench of fresh flesh in her nostrils, simply because he comes so close. She’s not even prepared to dive in and do some sort of clever throw…

But she does remember that she, at least, fights three-dimensionally. She leaps, unarmed hand briefly outstretched to tag the ceiling, to help her redirect her force so she can land behind him. She pops down in a low crouch, lashes out with that cleaver, and tries to hamstring him.

It will be the first time she has ever picked up any bladed weapon and tried to use it in this fashion, momentous not because the act of cutting someone is particularly difficult in and of itself— sharp end goes into flesh and slice— but because it feels somehow different.

What difference does a weapon make, anyway? Her hand or a knife.

She follows up the attempted cut with a hard cut towards his groin, either to incapacitate him with the pain or with a cut to his femoral artery, it matters not.

She springs away after the second slash, taking a defensive stance again, moving too quickly to even stop, to even register whether or not she’s been successful before she’s ready for him to come after her again. There’s no counting the battle as done till it’s done.

There is nothing but determination and focus in her dark eyes.

Even as she hopes against hope she’s not making yet another terrible mistake.

The blade cuts deep, and it will feel like peeling away a layer of humanity Jessica may not have come so very close to yet. Blood showers his skin, trailing away as skin and muscle both taste the blade. Her maneuver lets her slice into the back of his leg, and the cleaving uppercut will dissect his six-pack as he steps back. All to leave him bloody, staggered, and suddenly in her face. She'll come up just in time to feel him take hold of her wrist, to feel his hand on her throat and the driving slam that takes them both through his TV and stand and into the wall, cratering it with brutal force. He does not care about her cutting strikes, no matter how deep. He is a lion who has been flayed, who could be dying for all he knows, but adrenaline keeps him going for the kill.

A sound splits the air, familiar to the ears of someone who has heard Captain America's shield seek it's justice across an open space. A familiar dagger finds his shoulder, and a familiar woman finds his side in a flying knee that turns into a hanging grapple, one hand anchored on that knife, one leg up and coiled around his neck to force him to deal with her awkward weight. Both hands transition to her dagger as he shrugs and shifts, trying to shake her like a lion might dislodge a hyena from it's neck. Sizani goes flying with the motion, but she leaves a gaping, showering wound in his shoulder and through his collarbone, forcing him to loosen his grip on Jessica's neck.

And just like that, he's gone in a blur. Moments after Sizani's intervention, Sanura arrives with her own. Black vibranium cuts through the air to tackle the man away, to send him careening into the side wall and then tumbling to the floor - right where that metal door is. It craters inward and falls through, leaving an echoing scream and a trail of blood into whatever abyss it leads. Somewhere not far away, Sizani struggles to her face, bleeding from her hairline, fingers still curled around her weapon.

"The mission."

This was not their mission. They had to improvise. But they must still complete it.

It splatters across her fake glasses, that blood, and part of her recoils. It's the same part that snarled 'Third option' at Holmes and tried desperately to save him.

Jessica hits the wall hard, feeling glass shard into her back through the too-thin evening dress. She lets out a cry as she feels his hand close around her throat. Around her wrist, forcing her to drop the weapon.

Suddenly there is no thought, no calculation about choices, about life and death and the fine line that those who would defend others must walk. There's only the blinding will to survive. She fights like an animal herself, trying to slam her fist into his face, struggling to get free, the sudden feeling of helplessness washing over her in a rush of real fear.

Then she can breathe again, and she takes a moment to just…enjoy that…while Sizani and Sanura send the man down into the abyss. Will he live? Will he die? Which is worse? She flings her fake glasses off, sending them down there with him, not wanting those on her face anymore.

"Right," says the thoroughly disheveled private detective. But there's one thing that takes even greater priority than getting the information, even though she certainly glances at the computer banks. She goes straight to the cages, ripping the doors off them. "Can you walk?" she asks the man and the woman. She's probably a terrifying sight, dressed in red and covered in a cannibal's blood, like some sort of dire Red Riding Hood out of a very disturbing version of the classic fairy tale.

—-

Sanura returns, and when she does, Sizani hikes her dress enough that the cat and assume the form of armor that wraps around her and gives her the strength to assist Jessica in pulling those cages open. The violet glow of the energy that powers the Midnight Angel armor casts the room in an eerie glow, and after reviewing the last few moments of what the metal cat turned armor had been doing in the space below this club, her digitized voice calls out to Jessica again.

"It appears as if he has escaped, though his wounds were grievous. He may yet perish in the filth he has retreated to. The gas I used to subdue Sergei and his men allowed me to clone his phone, but will not last much longer. I will confront them. Will you see these people to safety? There is a back door through the kitchen, that will lead to the street." This is not the mission. These people, but Sizani sees how important it is to Jessica, finally removing the last cage door. The homeless man within looks up. 'Iron Man?' he mouths. Sizani turns from him after a moment, as a commotion past the double doors signals that, as if by timer, the men she had knocked out and the ruckus she caused had finally led them to this place.

One hand extends towards the bank of computers, and they turn on, Sanura going to work as Sizani's gaze turns to the double doors and the men that must be heading this way.

The people are, indeed, ultimately what has to matter to Jessica Jones. The information is important. No doubt. Especially if it can lead down a trail which might help clear Bucky Barnes.

But even after this evening’s argument, she knows she and Bucky would be of one mind on this one. People first.

Furthermore, Sizani and Sanura, with their advanced-even-beyond-S-Phones technology, have a better shot at getting the information than Jessica does, faster. She slips her arms beneath each of the homeless people. “What a clusterfuck,” she mutters, even as she carefully brings them up the stairs. Careful, because she doesn’t want to break them.

“That look like a man to you?” is her dry answer for the speaker. “Come on.” She shoves cards into each of their pockets, because she’s not going to be able to abandon Sizani to see them all the way to a hospital. “Call me in one hour, go to a hospital. I’ll stay with you till you’re out of sight of this building.”

"I don't see to well. God blood in my eyes!" Comes the response to Jessica's query. Well, yeah. He ain't the only one.

The air in the room stiffens as Wakandan technology churns inside that suit, powering her forward into a punch that impacts those double doors as two men try to push through it, sending them, and the doors, sprawling. The two men behind them raise weapon, but Sizani does not hesitate to send a concussive blastwave at them that sends them tumbling backwards to crash against those stairs. Sergei stumbles to the a stop at the top of the stairs, then simply turns to run as Sizani nudges the downed men aside and makes a path for Jessica Jones and her wards. There are three total, but one can walk, and the other two make it easily enough with Jessica's immense strength. When they make it to the back door of the kitchen, they'll find the alley already has an SUV waiting.

Just before they make it past the threshold though, Jessica may notice someone staring at them through broken kitchen doors, from the now mostly empty club. A man in a suit, with glasses, soft eyes, and awful pick up lines. Maybe it's disbelief. Maybe it's something else, but he reaches up, removes the glasses, and cleans them on his jacket, before finally putting them back on to take in the full measure of Jessica Jones, battle maiden, and the aftermath of her personal war below the club.

Sizani appears ready to take to the sky, but not until Jessica and her new friends are on the road and clear of this mess.

The air lights up with fire and madness, and Jessica just tries to shelter three victims with her own body, turning aside and crowding the two she's holding in front of her even as she tries to push the third, walking one, behind her. It turns out not to be necessary, but she does it all the same. By the time she looks up again, there's a clear path.

She swallows, paler than even normal, and resumes her shepherding of the victims up the stairs. And then…there's an SUV. She blinks at it, and for the moment thinks it can't possibly be for them. She expects blood and death. What she gets is the pounding lyrics of Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck. Her face screws up in sudden confusion. Then the impatient Wakandan driver barks at her, and, in a moment that reminds her that her life is weird beyond weird, she ushers the men into the back of the car.

Then she sees the man staring at her.

"Told you I'm a bad date," she tells him, in her own accent. Then?

She hops into the SUV and slams the door behind her.

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