A Long Walk to Birnan Zana

August 28, 2017:

After Elektra's attack, Daredevil and Jane Foster chart their course forward in more ways than one.

South of Birnin Zana, Wakanda


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jessica Jones, James Barnes, Kinsey Sheridan

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

Some span of minutes after their three-way phone conversation with Jessica Jones comes to an end, the shadowy silhouette of Daredevil and slighter frame of Jane Foster finally emerge from the dark thicket of brush and into the dim moonlight. Dusk has long since given way, the sun has long since set, and the jungle behind them has become an unnavigable labyrinth of knots and ropes and catches for the unwary wanderer. In the end it's only Matt's preternatural senses ferreting out the scent of gasoline and rubber that led them through the tangle of jungle and into the unfettered air.

He releases her arm as soon as they're clear of the black, claustrophobic tangle, and takes in a long, silent, and grateful stretch of breath unclogged by alien pollens and particles he's never once encountered in the urban environs of Hell's Kitchen. He had to get out of there — had to get away from where they just were — and now that he is, relief floods him. "Is there anything in the car you need to grab?" he says with a gesture of a gauntleted hand towards the stalled, shot-up car that greets them at the side of the unlit roadway. "Anything that we need to carry with us?"

In their stubbornness, and their consideration, they've foregone rescue and decided to strike out on their own, north, towards Birin Zana. They'd better take everything they need.

The telephoned interplay between a Jessica Jones who very much wants to assist and a Matt Murdock who very much wants to remain under the radar —

— leaves Jane silent, her attention briefly elsewhere as the latter convinces the former not to come. The scientist's focus averts here and there, a sensitized, raw-nerve way she reacts to a darkened, surrounding jungle of too much stimuli, all with the slavish itch of magic yet to leave her blood.

Fortunately, she catches the tail end of it, and construes enough to realize Jessica is fretting. Why /for/? Jane just manipulated spacetime. Everything else, save for the missing James Barnes from her life, seems so elementary. To die in such an ordinary way, of exposure, to the elements — inconceivable. "I worked alone in the desert for years," she eventually cuts in, voice soft. "I miss this heat. And my nanotube aggregate cloth cools and breathes. It's fine. We'll be back soon; not a lot of time left to waste."

It feels so incongruous, Jessica to be worrying about her death, when in moments like these all Jane Foster feels is fiercely and electrically /alive/.

The call ends, and choosing the long road out, she shares a cursory silence as the two pick their way out of the jungle. Jane needs the time to sort through the magic still moving behind her eyes.

Far more composed, and at least regained her balance back by the time he lets go of her arm, she casts eye back on the smoking husk of her car. A breath escapes her noisily in remembered aggravation.

"Naa. I travel light. Plus it's all on my phone." She pauses. "It's a magic app — supersymmetry, really. Jessica probably acquainted you to it already."

She pauses again, considering the Devil of Hell's Kitchen with her dark eyes. "I get the secrecy. I can keep secrets too. But we're gonna talk about what just happened, right?"

Jane shrugs off the heat, even says she missed it from her long whiles spent in the North American deserts. And while Matt is stoic, he can't quite bring himself to do the same. Sensitivity cuts both ways, and the humidity of the jungle, paired with his body armor on this walk will at least prod the limits of his endurance. Still, he won't begin to complain. He's Catholic, after all.

She's saying all she needs is her phone, and he cracks a half grin. "Superapp," Matt says, and even if his rolling eyes are obscured behind the red-tinted glass of his helm, you can hear it in his voice. "Yeah, I'm familiar with it. Smells God-awful." The way all magic does to him.

He keeps walking a half-dozen footsteps after the pause, after she open calls out the strangeness she just witnessed, and just heard him obscure on the phone call with Jessica Jones. His footfalls halt, his horned-head dips, and he lets out a long, cleansing exhale. "I'm careful about what I say on the phones out here," the man says by way of (initial) explanation, with a slight angle of his masked profile back to her. "Super-apps or not, magic or not, Wakanda is a sophisticated security state. Their surveillance probably puts the NSA and the DEO to shame." A beat. "Which, by the way, please try not to use my name here while you're on the phone. Or at all. It's a pretty common one, yeah, but with me here, in my mask, after James?" Armored shoulders inch upward, and then a dry: "Wouldn't take an astrophysicist to figure it out."

All of that is soundly argued, and honest, and prudent. It's also bullshit deflection, and he knows it even as he's saying it. Which is why he nods her forward as he resumes his march up the road. "But yeah," he goes on, and even as his voice drops a notch, it still contains within it small worlds of wonderment and regret. "Yeah, sure, we can talk about it. I knew her, obviously. We were — close."

"Magic has a smell?" Jane asks in true non-sequiter fashion, unable to let a precious factoid such as /that/ escape her notice. Her brows knit. "Seriously?"

She proclaims that one point to her 'magic is matter and energy' side of the debate with John Constantine.

With one more appraising look back on the car, giving the interior a once-over to make sure she's not left cursory evidence — and her recent memory is infallible, she hasn't — Jane looks back on Matt's last caution. Her eyes twitch back-and-forth more than they should, her pupils dilated. Grabbing words here and there. She thinks she gets the gist. "It's not exceptionally hard to manipulate the cellular band with a homemade whitening sequence," she says, a little too quickly. Not quite manic, but she's hanging with one of its cousins. "Did it for James. Wasn't hard. Could do it for you. Won't erase the outgoing words we say, scrambler doesn't work that way — but exchanges them out, at least from my phone. Borrowed half an algorithm from Cleverbot. Third parties get sassed a bit."

Still, it doesn't address the name —

Jane goes still, trying to recall the past fifteen minutes. Her memory holds true, and she sinces, one hand up to cover her face. "Oh, Jesus. Yeah. No, no, that is a monumental — I'm sorry. I'm better than — my head is. Never again. I promise."

Probably byproduct of living with Bucky Barnes too long, Jane is all pale-faced, repetant guilt as they start the long trek down the road, frowning against her own misstep. Safer conversation, or at least a distraction, is Matt's acknowledgment to talk about Her. The wman who just happened upon them both, and nearly took Jane's life with her. She thinks of that gunshot, that eery singing, and slants him a look. "Define close."

"Yeah, it smells like chlorine," Matt elaborates, though not any further than that. There may be a day for him to walk Jane through the myriad details he picks up that could shed light on science's understanding of the physical world, but today is not fucking it. He listens to her digression on white noise for cell phones — useful! — but puts up the back of his hand to stay her apology, on account that after a brief surge of frustration during that call, she'd already been forgiven. "It's okay, I get it," he assures her as he continues walking along the side of the dusty road. "To say you're under stress right now is kind of an understatement."

Of course, that makes two of them. Even penitent, still slants a look at him, prodding him for more information. He lets out an an exhale that even ordinarily-gifted ears could hear. "Close!" he answers, briefly exasperated. "We were —"

He cuts himself off, in part because he realizes how ridiculous it will sound, and in part because openly acknowledging this surreal situation will make it something more than the fever dream it's seemed like up to now. "We were together in college," he says, finally, voice as tight as his jawline. "But she wasn't like — what we saw back there. She could fight, yeah, defend herself like nobody's business. But she was a goddamn heiress. An ambassador's daughter! Not some —" his breath hitches.
Where I've been?! she'd asked him, incredulous. You should — you should know that, Matthew. Because you know me.

"—not some killer."

Forgiveness bisects her fluster in half.

He declares it fine, and Jane duly goes quiet, all her sputtered apologies rendered useless. Not a person who easily accepts her own mistakes — they're not supposed to happen, not to her — she stews a few moments longer in aggrieved guilt. Over nearly a year, she's no longer the open book she used to be, and her life has realigned itself into a series of layers, some of them she hopes never to hit public record. She courts secrets. She can't be cavalier abut them.

In the end, it sobers her slightly out of that bright-eyed, feverish mania, taking extra pains to have more sensory awareness of the world around her, as she rubs aimlessly at some imaginary itch on her left wrist.

Which bears them to the next topic—

His voice raises, and Jane turns a sharp, kinetic look over on Matt, surprised by — by this. All she knows him is mysterious and composed — mysterious as the Devil and composed as Matt Murdock, gentle at many times but strong during them all. Has this been the first time she's ever seen him off-balance?

Her forward walk hitches, stopped briefly under the emotion in his words, as she tries to unsort them for herself. He defines close. And it's really, really close. Close enough that sympathy folds her heart over, all recent attempts on her life muted.

When Jane speaks again, her voice is closer, as is the rest of her, hovering closer to Matt's side as they walk. He's really, really not OK. "I'm sorry." The words sound as pithy to her, spoken aloud, but she means them. Her eyes drop. "If what she was doing — it means HYDRA is involved."

She leaves the rest of that implication unspoken.

She hovers nearer, saying she's sorry. And however not OK Matt Murdock may be, his gut instinct on hearing those words of sympathy is to deny, to keep walking, first ducking and shaking his head as he does. He's received so much goddamn sympathy in his life, so much of it entirely well-meaning but still misguided and misplaced, that he wants to retch —

And then: It means Hydra was involved.

"Yeah," he breathes, his voice soft but thick. "That's —- what I though too." Or hoped, at least. That she might share kinship with Bucky Barnes, who was at the very least forced into what he became and, having been forced, could be found again. Redeemed and made, if not exactly whole, at least in control of himself. That seems vastly preferable to the idea that she somehow chose this literal cloak-and-dagger life. At the same time, a voice sounds in the basement of his brain: How fucked up do you have to be to -hope- that your girlfriend was tortured into becoming murderbot?

"I can't say for sure," he's going on, grappling for some of that lawyer's reasoning and detachment. A touch of professional distance that helps him keep the cool composure Jane regards him for. "She — some bad stuff happened at home, and then she was just… gone one day. Off the map, social media profiles dumped."

Triggering, as it happens, all of the abandonment issues a blind orphan came by so honestly. He remembers that shroud of black that lasted a full two months after. It felt like grief at the time, and self-indulgence after, and now feels like grief again. He would vastly prefer to take all of it — all of this tightly-coiled depth of feeling — right to the early grave he's surely bound for, but it's all practically a pre-requisite to explain:

"That's why I couldn't let you kill her," he murmurs. "I need to know whether it's her or them. If it's her… I'll —"

a beat "— handle it. If it's not… I'll handle that too. One way or another."

It may well be sympathy he doesn't want —

— but Jane has a deep well of it. In general. In specific to this situation — very specific to this situation. James Barnes and how she has spent her life fighting in some way or capacity for him from the first day she met him.

Her dark eyes turn away, scanning the shadowy treeline that moats either side of the road. It's not a searching gesture — her senses are nothing to his — but rather something absorbing that draws a constellation out of all her scattered, pinpoint thoughts. She listens as Matt speaks.

"Listen," she decides to offer. "I get some things just being yours to handle. I get not crowdsourcing everything. I get that more than most people."

Does she ever. Jane looks everywhere but down at her own hands. She astrolabes away from some thoughts and focuses on others. "But if you need help handling it, I can look into it from my end. I'm learning how they work. After this is done, I might be able to get a trace on her, and you can figure out where to go from there. Free will is an afterthought with them."

She slips a glance over and up on Matt, the few lines of him not shrouded under the mask she made. Her eyes are bright, searching, hard. "I'm not a stranger to what you're feeling. So I need to know if you can handle this. I won't compromise James. Are you going to be OK?"

It's the latest jarring answer for Matthew Murdock in an evening full of them, as Jane Foster offers him not just sympathy but aid should he wish to pursue answers to the question of what turned the sophisticated, sharp-witted heiress he'd taken up with in college into the murderous assassin who'd just tried to kill them both. Even he's entirely aware that they seem to share a great deal visa vi former or current lovers who have murdered whole fuckloads of people, it's an act of generosity that he's unprepared for. Which means it's a handful of heartbeats before he answers. "That — means a lot," he says as he struggles both to regain a modicum of his characteristic composure and grapple with contradictory impulses yanking his mind in every direction. It seems as if he might say more, but doesn't. That could be because he's still unsure of whether he needs to take the project on alone, or whether he's unsure of whether he should take it on at all. Likely it's some combination of the two. Regardless, he lets the words hang in the air, deeply appreciative but noncommittal.

At least until she's following up on that gesture of kindness with a frank follow-up, asking whether he's up to the task of freeing Bucky. Point of fact, it's the first time the two of them have talked since the aftermath of the trial, where all of three of them were exhausted and shell-shocked in their relief. There may have been promises to get together soon for something more celebratory: drinks, donuts, whatever. Mostly Matt wanted to give them peace, and space to find their footing in lives that — whatever the trial's outcomes, had irrevocably changed.

And then, days later, a few frantic texts back and forth were all they'd shared after T'Challa abducted Bucky from the streets of Brooklyn under cover of night.

And in this moment — the first moment they've talked abotu James since Matt helped free him — he's grateful for the mask she made, complete with crimson-paned windows that obscure the wounded look she could otherwise surely see in his eyes. There's still a hard swallow, a jut of his jaw, and when he speaks, his voice is thick with emotion: "Jane, look, I didn't come this far to get anything less than James Barnes home and free, no matter what or who is in the way." There's a beat, and then an addendum: "And look, while I'd prefer the chance to find the truth out about someone I used to care for — I'm not naïve about this. I realize she's all of our problems right now, and not just mine. And you — you made the right call back there, even if I stopped you. It was self defense, or really, defense of me. if it comes down to it, and she's putting our lives in danger, and I'm not there to stop her —"

Even now the sense memories insinuate themselves. He hears the sound of Elektra's breathing, steady in sleep. Hears the propulsive thrum of her heartbeat on a joyride in a fancy car. Smells the light perfume that clung to her, and everything beneath it.

"— you do what you have to do," he finishes, quiet and resolute.

That means a lot.

Few words from Matt Murdock, what little of him shows from behind that mask — but from what Jane realizes the longer she knows him: he's like James. He doesn't need to employ a lot of words to impart a whole lot more meaning.

He can hear her turn a look his way, with those quiet, perpetual sounds of shifting skeletal bones and pulling muscle. The soundless-to-all but him drawing tight of her eyebrows, eyes nipped briefly at the corners. But the woman says little more, the offer there.

Many reasons are for it: he just did the impossible for James Barnes, and if they can wrest him back from the panther's jaws, it's the lawyer's work that ensures he has a country to return to. Jane feels like she'll always owe Matt for that, no matter how vast an armory she makes for him, or how devoted she becomes his quartermaster. If it were her in Matt's place again, with James back in that killer's persona, she'd be refusing to do much but find him again. Refusing to let anyone hurt him, no matter his sins. And, most of all, he is their friend.

But all comes with a warning — a warning of a sort — that girds the tiny Jane for a heartbeat. Her voice comes low, thin, and steel-strong.

"I know I do. James isn't going to die. And he also isn't going to survive only to find out I died here. For him. I won't do that to him," she vows quietly.

Jane bites down briefly, pensively on her bottom lip, worrying the flesh until it stings. Then she lets it go with a deep breath out. "Just — I need you for this, OK? You're one of the few people who can keep it together — and I need you to stay that way. So be careful. And… secrets is one thing. Loose ends is another. I can keep a secret so long as it's not dangerous for anyone. If she really is of HYDRA, then — well. People need to know about her."

She glances up at the stars. The endless field of them stretching across the Wakandan sky. The dust off the milky way, and the heat of the air — takes Jane momentarily back. Momentarily.

"Anyway. Thanks for the save. And thanks for being here for James, while I'm at it. Once we get back, I need to get back on the road. I have to get south. But if there's anything you need me to look at before I go, I'm all yours."

Just — I need you for this, OK? she tells him, almost-instantly awakening him from the swirling ruminations that have carried his mind along for the last hour. He lets out an exhale into humid air that releases the anger, the bewilderment, the worry and the guilt that have consumed him . All of these are renewable resources — they'll be back. But for the moment, he centers himself. Breath's a powerful thing; his master taught him that.

"You've got me for it," Matt murmurs in reply, his voice forced into the quiet and steady composure he's built a reputation for in both of his lives. Being strong for others despite adversity and calamity cut to the core of who Matt Murdock is — or at least who he strives to be. "And yeah, I hear you. Elektra is my responsibility, but I get that she's everybody's problem." The assassin did, after all, consider Matt's sudden arrival an unexpected benefit — a two for one. Which means the whole Team Bucky contingent is in trouble.

A thought strikes him that forces a sudden chuckle out of his chest. "You know what the funny thing is?" he says, teeth flashing quicksilver in the unclouded moonlight. "You'd really like my actual girlfriend. She's a genius scientist like you — engineer, physicist. In fact, I think she's one of the handful of people for whom the 'Einstein-Rosen Jane Foster' was more famous than Bucky during that trial."

"Anyway," he adds with a roll of one armored shoulder to her thanks. "no thanks necessary. I had to see this thing through to the end, you know?" Matt can't actually glance at her sidelong, but she'll still feel the weight of his attention center on her. "Speaking of which — are you sure you want to head south alone? Especially if HYDRA is sending out assassins. They already got the drop on you once. Jessica has a new bulletproof bodyguard — you sure you want to keep traveling without backup?"

That quiet plea strikes like a knife through all that doubt — and strikes true to the heart.

And Matt Murdock answers in a quiet, purposeful vow, one that Jane acknowledges with a quiet, thankful smile.

A smile, and a mental thought of thank God, glad that angle worked as well as it did. Next step would have been putting on the waterworks to try to ensure something gets done for James. She just needs to see him alive, alive and out of this god damned country, and then she can let her poor friends deal with all the other explosions in her lives. Jane would almost feel cruel if not for the obvious life right now on the line.

But with mention of that woman past them, filed away until, Jane assumes, the point until they can no longer afford to ignore her —

— Matt comments on another lady in his life. "You have a girlfriend?" Jane asks, the unspoken question tied to like cans to the bumper of those words, wanting to ask: and does she know?

But talk at who his girlfriend is and what she actually /does/ attracts her to listen. Even despite all that's happening, she allows herself a moment of undisguised surprise that, somewhere out in the world, she has a — fangirl? Serious?

"I like her already," Jane answers quietly, more softness in her voice now than in days. She walks along, glancing down at her feet, considering the Devil of Hell Kitchen's mighty proposal. "If someone like Jessica has a bodyguard now," she answers, with some askance — bulletproof people, for real? — "I'd sound like an idiot to turn you down. I don't think I'd turn you down, so long as you're not needed elsewhere. I don't think I'll be seeing any more action, at least not yet — it'll be a boring, mystical egg hunt, really."

"Uh, yeah," Matt answers to that rhetorical question of whether he really had a girlfriend, a trace of defensiveness in his voice. Even without computer savvy, he's aware that during the media frenzy of the Winter Soldier trial google search prompts for him showed a descending list of:

'Matt Murdock'
'Matt Murdock Winter Soldier'
'Matt Murdock girlfriend'
'Matt Murdock wife'
'Matt Murdock gay'
'Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson gay'

But he catches the undercurrent of her question too, shrugging as he walks. "It's — about as complicated as you might expect," he says dryly. "You'll both have to meet her sometime." And that vague but forward-looking statement — itself an affirmation of confidence in their mission — is all he'll offer on the matter of Kinsey Sheridan. Especially as the conversation segues into his proposal. "I don't know how much use I am with mysticism, aside from being able to sense magic," the masked-man says of where Matt will best be needed. "But I can keep you safe while you're egg hunting. Let's check in with the others when we get to the city and then decide."

He's being pulled in a hundred different directions even now — feeling a deep and visceral need to be each and everywhere Elektra could strike next. But Jane Foster has some advantages on that count, not just because she was nearly gutted tonight, but because he recalls in vivid detail pledging to James Barnes on the back steps of the Cadman Plaza courthouse that he'd have her back if things had gone south in the trial. And while the trial went well — things have officially gone south.

That memory — a good one from a bad time — is punctured by one more recent. "Run into much action aside from tonight?" he asks obliquely.

Defensiveness isn't missed. Even despite everything weighing on her in this moment, Jane gives her eyes a roll. Men.

"I wasn't hypothesizing /whether/ you could have a girlfriend," she drawls back, "you're hot and you're pretty broody, so you're set. You just never mentioned her. Given, not a lot of opportunity to." Matt's insinuation that both Jane Foster and James Barnes will, with this horror at their backs, have opportunity to meet his girlfriend —

She does not reach out and touch people often, or much at all, these days — something keeps her at far more a remove than usual — but Jane hesitantly reaches out a hand and briefly, lightly, touches Matt's arm. Deal.

"Who knows," she answers to his sensory abilities, unable to resist his hope from encouraging hers. "If you can MacGruff magic, or whatever or wherever it leads — I'd be stupid to refuse your help. It's a plan."

Jane glances back up at the overhead stars, her tightening eyes mapping its every constellation — every one of them she can name in her head. Run into much action? asks Matt at her side.

She goes quiet. Her blood pressure knots up, and the smell off her sweetens with cortisol against whatever she might be thinking, might be remembering. The fingers of her right hand curl slightly.

"Yeah, I guess," Jane admits sheepishly, affecting weak humour. "I mean — you remember how we met, right?"

"Compulsively secretive too," Matt ruefully tacks on to the descriptors Jane lays on him, and providing a supplementary answer for why Kinsey has never come up before. After all, it was only on the very eve of the verdict that Matt outed himself to her — and that came just a few days after he came clean with his client about this double-life. At least he's self-aware.

Then she touches the scales of his arm, and he feels something a deeper and more lasting than the dumb, reflexive surge of endorphins he's likely to get from nearly any girl calling him hot (men indeed). He'd intended that subtle, sidelong suggestion of what's surely in the running for the world's weirdest double date as a vote of confidence and a recommitment to finding James and bringing him home; that it was taken as such and gave her comfort is a minor blessing in a strange country where blessings have been hard to come by.

Between the harrowing confrontation with Elektra and this sweet bit of bonding, and the fact that Matt has been off his game almost the entire evening, one might conclude that the whiff of stress in the air or the uptick in Jane's heartbeat that come after Matt asks whether she's seen any action would escape him entirely. That he might accept her lame rejoinder, a side-step if a lawyer ever heard one, on its face.

One would be wrong. He sees it, notes it, and weighs commenting on it — picking a fight he's been meaning to have for months. But tonight's been god-awful enough without digging into whatever Jane Foster has faced — and done — since James' abduction. Assuming the two of them strike out to sniff magic in the Wakandan countryside, it's bound to come up sooner rather than later. It can wait a little longer.

"What, you mean the last time I saved your ass?" he says of the furious battle with Russian mobsters in a Hell's Kitchen alley months ago and a world away, and says it the quiet, companionable tone he'll use the length of their walk down the star-lit highway that leads to Birnan Zana.

"Yeah, Jane, I remember."

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