Breach

January 21, 2018:

Kinsey tells Matt about her precarious position following the disaster at Stark Tower. Both of them make some fateful decisions.

Fogwell's Gym

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bucky Barnes, Jane Foster, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Tony Stark, Wilson Fisk, Zatanna Zatara

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

New York without power.

Technically, this means 'New York running for the most part on generators,' with the primary issue to solve being the acquisition of enough fuel to ensure this is possible. Since none of the actual infrastructure has been compromised, that challenge hinges for the most part on the blizzard making road conditions difficult, but with a surplus of super-strong superheroes capable of flight on-hand, this crisis is significantly less dangerous than it would be otherwise, even taking the blizzard into account.

People are contributing in their own ways, however they can. New Yorkers may be prickly with one another as a populace, but they seem to adopt that sibling mentality: nobody fucks with my brothers and sisters but me. In times of crisis, it's remarkable to see just how giving they are to one another.

Presumably this is what Kinsey has been doing with her time, as aside from a short exchange to confirm that she's alright, she's been pretty radio-silent, even for Kinsey — and she keeps odd hours as it is.

Eventually, however, there's a need to actually touch base, for personal reasons if nothing else. When he floats the suggestion she's quick to agree, perfectly willing to meet him in Hell's Kitchen.

When the time comes, she's bundled up against the biting cold and the possibility that they won't be going anywhere with available heat. Jeans, winter boots, multiple layers, the outermost of which is a waterproofed shell jacket with a hood. Dark hair tumbles out of one side of that hood, overlaid with cords dripping downward from ear buds into a device that isn't immediately visible, tucked into a pocket somewhere. She's leaned against the facade of a corner building, mittened hands in her jacket pockets, with her head tilted slightly forward, looking down at the slush on the sidewalk.

With the city blanketed with snow and crippled by the blackout, options for meeting spaces are few and far between. Coffee shops are closed, libraries and other public communal spaces have become homeless shelters. Even Matthew's Murdock's spacious Hell's Kitchen apartment, with all its massive windows, is a dimly-lit icebox. Still, Matt directed her to a corner. Presumably he has some idea for a place that provides some protection from the worst of the elements.

And seems to, when an unmarked doorway some fifteen feet down from her lean on the corner opens grudgingly, pushing aside a foot of snow at its base. "Hey, Kinze," a bespectacled Matt Murdock shouts with a single wave of his gloved hand. Because of course he knew she was right outside. His fair features are flushed from the cold, prominent nose reddened; she was likely right about the lack of heating within. There's also a purple bruise on his right temple, a slender welting slash on the left side of his neck — all telltale signs that some New Yorkers aren't feeling the brotherly spirit engendered by the blizzard. "Come on in!"

Whatever Kinsey is listening to isn't enough to crowd out thes ound of his voice, because she glances up the moment she hears it. She gives him a fleet smile and draws the cord downward, tugging the earbuds out so that she can roll them into a bundle and tuck them into one of her jacket pockets as she crosses the short distance to the door.

Halfway there her brows knit, eyes sliding over to one side and doubtless it's the shadow beneath fair skin that has her attention. Rather than reach for the door, when she's close enough she reaches for the side of his face, wool-wrapped fingertips light as a feather.

She smells different.

It's not easy to pinpoint why. Some slight tilt in the composition of her body chemistry, and not the kind of thing he'd be able to detect if he didn't know her so well to begin with.

"No rest for the wicked, I see."

The smile that meets her approach is brief, close-lipped, and weary — but thoroughly fond, and tinged with relief. When she reaches him, and reaches for him, he greets her with a wry puff of breath, tendrils of vapor rushing out of his mouth and rising up into the air. "A lot of people see opportunities in all those shuttered and empty storefronts," Matt says by way of explanation, rolling one broad shoulder while he reaches up with his own hand to take the one that's not at his bruise. "It's been a busy few days." A beat. "For us both, I bet."

Though he's been worn ragged by his assorted missions rescuing of seniors from high-rise apartment buildings and foiling any number of burglaries, it's safe to say that Kinsey Sheridan has never been far from his thoughts. Especially since one Jessica Jones told him that the source of this city-wide blackout is emanating from her place of work.

"Come on in," he says, trying to pull her in with one hand. "Let's get you out of this."

Beyond the door, a dark, dank and narrow hallway, and another door beyond that.

Let's get you out of this.

Kinsey Sheridan laughs, and lets his tug at her hand draw her inward in a stumble that could owe itself to the rucks of snow unevenly scraped free of the doorway. Could, but probably does not. Her balance is unnaturally good, prostheses being what they are, and the way she winds her arm across the breadth of his shoulders is a little bit too well-executed to be a last-second contingency against a fall. But fall into him she does, anyway, at an angle that wound sink his spine against the doorframe if he weren't actively resisting.

Somewhere in there, one cold nose meets another, fans of lash drawn low over playful, verdant eyes. "You can get me out of anything you like." Just the slightest tilt of her head is enough to occlude everything in front of him, hood still up, to close warm lips over his and steal a kiss. It would linger if she didn't twist lazily away on the momentum of her inward lean, sliding past him and into the building and finally reaching up to slide her jacket's hood away from her dark-haired crown. Static teases some of the strands of it up into a drifting, floaty tousle, exacerbated as she turns her head to look back at him. Fingertips trail down the length of that damp, cold wall as she goes, gait unhurried.

"It has, yeah. I've been working, too. Following some leads, making some plans. You know how it is — it's good to stay busy. What is this place, anyway? Safehouse?" Absently wry: "Or are you just into it for the decor?"

The kiss is returned; the lips that give it part into a smile. But even if Matt's dark and sightless eyes reflect back some of her shining mirth, there's still a quizzical knit to his fair brows as she falls all over him — and it persists as she slips away. Were circumstances just slightly different, he might not let her. It's been days since he last saw her, and that when he his head was still-ringing from a concussion and his lungs were burning from tiny particles of ash breathed in at Luke's bar. Days full of herculean, teeth-gritting effort in the bone-chilling cold would ordinarily make the prospect of a little more body-warmth that much more appealing.

But something about this, about her, feels ever so slightly off. He knows it's more than just some slight shift in fragrance, but he he can't put his oh-so-sensitive finger on the what or the whys of his disquiet. He follows behind her, shutting the door behind him and leaving the hallway in near blackness save for the shaft of dingy yellow light that shines through metal-grated small window at the far door.

"You know me, all about the decor," he quips with a smile as he follows behind her. "It's not exactly a safe-house. At least, not right now."

She'll be able to see what it is as soon as she nears, the window allowing her a view into —

A gym. Fogwell's Gym, to be exact. You can see it in big bold red letters painted on the far wall. It's a cavernous space dominated by a worn-out ring: twenty feet by twenty feet and enclosed by sagging red ropes. Heavy bags hang and training balls hang from the ceiling and golden gloves are affixed to the walls. Pictures, too: black-and-white shots of bloodied pugilists with their gloves raised triumphantly in the air, Daily Bugle and Bulletin headlines of historic fights. "So what kind of plans?" he's asking while he waits for the woman who has eased ahead of him to open the door, or allow him to. "It's crazy — I'd heard Stark Tower was on total lock down. Jess couldn't even get in."

She's silent until she reaches the secured window, moving along in the dark toward the faint glow. With her helmet on she's capable of seeing in perfect darkness, but without it she's as constrained by her own senses as anyone else.

"Oh, this looks familiar. There are pictures of this in your favorite bar." On the heels of a brief pause she turns her head enough to look back at him over her shoulder, one brow lofted. "Former favorite bar? …Maybe your favorite again, though." In the quiet, the sound of her sigh, however soft, is perfectly audible, and would be even to someone without his prodigious sense of hearing. "Poor Luke."

Reaching, she takes hold of the handle to the door and draws it open, then lingers long enough to hold it for him. It gives them proximity again just in time for him to pose his question, leave that leading remark. "Some of it related to you-know-who. We really can't leave this latest insult unanswered. The VR stuff you and I talked about. Some things related to Five and I, our…situation." Her lips bow into a smile, small but uncalculated. "I'm weighing options."

Once he has hold of the door she'll slip away again, sliding her hands back into her jacket's pockets begin a curious circuit of the inside of the gym. "It was pretty intense, yeah. Something got to JARVIS, and JARVIS got really uppity. I was in my office at the time so I guess that's why Stark tried to page me up, but by the time he did most of the systems in the building were under JARVIS' control. I think the other two AI made it out before they could be corrupted. Not sure, though, I don't know what his protocols for that kind of situation are. Tony can be really secretive."

"Second favorite bar," Matt corrects her gently of the Midtown boxer's bar in question, the launching point for their first date. It's a big step, introducing a girl to your favorite bar, he'd cautioned her, weeks before actually taking her to Josie's. That in itself is a fond memory, enough to quirk the corners of his lips at their edges — but in this context, there's some bitter to go with the sweet. "Even before Luke's," he adds. "But yeah, uh, this is where I train. The owner's stuck in Florida, and asked me to make sure — you know. Nothing happened to it."

He steps through with her, absorbing those breadcrumbs of information about where she's been spending her days with the city stifled by snow and the winter dark. Even to someone without Matt's rarefied olfactory senses the places smells of sweat — for Matt, decades of it. But it's warm-er than outside, and lit with a backup generator's power.

She winds her way around the gym, he straggles out a stagger-step behind her. Bushy dark eyebrows pop up high over his red lenses. "A rogue A.I. took over Stark Tower and did all — this?" It's a staggering revelation that poses more questions, a nearly endless stream of them. Goosebumps rise on the back of his neck, along his triceps. "Do you know where he is now? What his game plan is for fixing this mess?"

"Right. Second favorite."

Her footsteps are hollow in the space, ringing echoes heard over the low background hum of the generator working away. She's slow in her meandering circuit, pausing now and again to lean and examine an especially interesting image on the wall, occasionally casting her gaze upward to look at the suspending hardware for punching bags.

"I like it," she says, finally, the corners of her mouth turning subtly upward as she stops and turns around, facing him once again. The inflection in her voice is subtle, too. "It has a lot of…personality. So many stories."

The smile haunts her face for only a few heartbeats more before it's folded into something else, humor and affection draining away underneath the weight of solemnity. "No. I have no idea where he is, and the fact that he hasn't shown his face in spite of the chatter about his being responsible says to me that he's being held somewhere. I don't know who was responsible for the virus. Someone brilliant, though." Two beats later she reaches for the tag on her jacket, zipping it downward and shrugging it free of knit-sweatered shoulders, the rustling of the waterproof material loud in the silence.

"So I have my theories. You don't just…rewrite an AI like JARVIS with the kind of virus people pick up browsing porn. JARVIS is a fully-fledged personality. Sentient, just like Five. So were the other two. It didn't destroy JARVIS, it completely changed his personality. So, who has access to Stark tower with the kind of mind capable of doing that? Aside from Tony, which — I told you, when it all started to go bad, he tried to send for me. A drone popped into my office to relay the message."

"Yeah," Matt murmurs with rueful affection after she gives her verdict on the matter of the beaten-up, threadbare boxing gym. "Lots of stories." For Matt that is particularly true, his own past, present, and future seem inextricably bound to the dilapidated old sparring ring. There are memories here: some good, some bad, most bloody. Ghosts, too.

She turns to face him, to explain some of what must have been a harrowing sight of a sleek, high-tech tower's own systems and safeguards turned suddenly against it. As he listens, he begins to unbutton his overcoat, sloughing it off his shoulders and casting it with uncanny accuracy onto one of the red ropes that rim the boxing ring. Underneath his coat he's dressed down: a navy hoodie and dark-blue jeans, heavy winter boots.

The glasses stay on though, reflecting Kinsey's fair, elegantly-sculpted features back at her while she speculates, narrowing down the list of possible culprits. He has at least one in mind, though he's loathe to voice it immediately. "God," he says, jerking his head back with a wince. "What happened then? What'd you do?"

Once he's pared down to lesser layers, she half-curls a sly smile and lids her eyes, tossing her jacket aside and insinuating herself into the space immediately in front of him. One slender index finger reaches to curl into the belt loop to one side of his hips if he'll let her, there to hang lazily as her opposite shoulder tilts into the wall — an intimate but not especially scandalous position to be in.

"I got up and started to head upstairs, but I wasn't able to use the elevator. Everything was on temporary lock down. Mind you, I didn't know that something was happening with Jarvis at that point — just that Tony needed me, and that something was wrong. Five and I both have level three clearance, so while I fiddled with the panel I asked Five to go peek in on Tony, find out what was happening."

Her eyes wander down from the red, gleaming lenses in front of his eyes, over the shape of his mouth, down past his squared chin. They come to rest somewhere roughly on an angle with the hollow of his throat. She tsks softly, long pauses bookending either side of the sound. "You'd think an AI that lives almost entirely in my head couldn't be rewritten, wouldn't you? We thought so, too. Turns out that was wrong." Another pause, a soft sigh, and then a smile, small and faintly overlaid with rue, beneath which exists a glimmer of humor. "Well, that does narrow down the field, doesn't it? Five's linked to my mind via some quantum state we don't even understand. Like nesting dolls. I think he told you all about that, once, when I was sleeping off being shot in the back. And of those brilliant candidates with access to Stark tower, there's really just one who specializes in quantum physics."

Jesus.

A full-body shudder claims Matt Murdock's broad-shouldered frame when his girlfriend begins her monologue, as the creeping suspicion in the back of his mind finds sustenance in every strange new quirk she displays. The slight shift in fragrance, that high-pitched — what, signal? — that was sounding through her earbuds, her description of Fisk's horror show at Luke's bar an insult, and her admiring description of what was almost certainly a soul-stripped Jane Foster's handiwork at Stark Tower. And some other ineffable, unnameable shift in the very core of her.

She sidles up to him, poking a finger into the loop of his jean's belt, and for the moment he makes no immediate attempt to stop her. She invades his senses: her fragrance, the heat of her body, the thrum of her heart. It's a horrifying and surreal moment, a perversion of the easy intimacy they've haphazardly built up in their start-and-stop-and-start-again of the last year.

The shock wears off quickly, replaced by the tell-tale signs of anger she'll no doubt have come to learn well. The puff of breath given just a hint of voice, that tinged with outrage. The flare of his nostrils. The visible pulse of vein in the unblemished temple on his right. A now-ungloved hand comes to find the wrist of the hand at his waist: "Kinsey," he breathes, "What the hell did Jane do to you?"

It's with obvious fascination that Kinsey watches the realization bubble up into Matt's carefully curated expression. Fascination and, yes, a note of apology — but it seems superficial even if it also seems genuine.

What the hell did Jane do to you? he asks, breathless. Her head tilts a little. Her answer is quiet. "We don't know."

The hand he curls around her fine-boned wrist has no difficulty securing its grasp. She makes no attempt to dislodge it, nor does she seem to want to. She doesn't tighten her hold on him, either. Nothing whatsoever about her posture changes save the occasional tilt of her head, eyes wandering downward periodically, the way they might on any other night that she found herself close to him this way.

"The truth is, we would have a much better idea if we knew what we are. Why we're like this. Nothing we've done to try to find the answer has turned up what we needed. Part of that is owed to the fact that there have been a lot of lines I haven't wanted to cross." The shape of her eyes changes, reflecting a smile that finds bare purchase on her face.

"Particularly since meeting you." The words are affectionate, the rue and apology in them heavier. "I haven't wanted to disappoint you, Matt. You've been really good for me in that way — giving me something to live up to."

The moment turns, an emotional angle adjusted somewhere that lets sentiment slide out of everything, replaced with quiet, steady matter-of-factness. "But it might also be part of the reason we're not equipped to assess what happened to us. We just don't know enough. We need to answer some of these questions. I'm afraid it might mean doing things you're not going to like."

We don't know. We would have a much better idea. Nothing we've done. What we needed. In all the time that Kinsey has actually been honest with him about her secret life and her invisible house-guest, Matt's never known her to talk this way. Whatever Five may have said about nesting dolls of consciousness, however much Kinsey herself may have expressed skepticism that she's the same person that she was before the accident that gave birth to Six, she's never referred to herself as a unit. It adds to the moment's foreboding, sends his eyebrows to a narrow.

And then she is, in a roundabout way, laying the reason for her slow progress, her reticense, partly at his feet. She has tied her good metal arm behind her back out of fear he'd disapprove, or that she'd fail to live up to some ideal of his. The accusation, softly couched and apologetic as it is, stings like a fresh slap to the face — in part because it smacks of something she might think in the quiet of her former, intact mind but would never tell him. The lines between Kinsey and whatever Jane has twisted with black magic and computer code seem blurred even to Kinsey herself, and they are doubly so to Matt.

And finally, the latent threat. We need answers — and it will mean doing things he won't like. The man's jaw tightens, along with the hand at her wrist — though that relents after he recognizes he's applying pressure reflexively and without thought. His heart hammers in his chest; can she feel it this close? "Maybe we can find some other ways, that wouldn't cross those kinds of lines, together," Matt says carefully, trying to keep his voice even and steady. "Maybe I could help. You never asked me before."

There's a beat before he adds, with more urgency: "Kinsey, something awful happened to Jane. Some demon has used magic on her spirit, her mind — whatever you want to call it. And under its influence she's done something to Five, and to you. I'm all for finding out what that is, but I think you need to regard your new houseguest with a whole lot of skepticism. Whatever Jane did, and whatever her reasons, they weren't good."

If he could see the eyes pinned to him, watching him, he'd find them bright and alive, sharp and clear, and lacking in the kind of regret they would usually contain at even so much as the thought of implicating him in her present circumstances.

She doesn't respond to the way his hand tightens at her wrist, either. It's synthetic. She can almost certainly feel it, but he's not at any risk of causing her pain, anyway. Instead she's preparing to answer his first set of remarks when he pushes forward into the second. She listens to this account of demons with a shocking lack of surprise that owes itself less to her current condition than the fact that Jessica recently told her that she was having Yet Further Demon Troubles, and then lack of surprise turns quizzical, only to abruptly veer left into a sudden and almost incredulous laugh. "No shit, Matthew. It collapsed the entire grid of New York city in the dead of winter, during a blizzard. 'Not good' is a pretty basic analysis of the situation. Particularly since it makes no sense as an end-game scenario. I could bring down the grid on any given Tuesday, if I really felt like it, so I can promise you this isn't the limit of Dr. Foster's intentions. Whatever this is, it's a…staging area? Preparation? Who knows."

Pause.

"And also 'no shit Matthew' about Five. But here's the thing, baby — I can't lock him out of my head. We don't have a failsafe. Right now he's agreed to confine himself mostly to a secure server in the lab, but he still lives in my head, and he is still changing. JARVIS went absolutely batshit insane. I have no idea whether or if that's going to be what happens to Five. If it does I can't do anything about it. I have skepticism. For now. So does he." There's a short pause, during which her expression flickers, admitting something slightly pained, slightly…proud? Affectionate? Sad, also. Maternal, almost. "I created a pretty strong little personality in him." Another pause, after which all of those things are gone again: "And he has the benefit of having lived 'on-board' a person all this time. Maybe that's why he hasn't lost his shit all at once. Obviously, though, I have to assume we're on a deadline here."

After a beat she turns her head, slanting her eyes out into the empty gym full of shadows. "So circling back to the rest, I never asked because most of what I have to do is still illegal, and I wasn't going to ask you to get involved. I might have after that night at the docks, once we realized what we'd been keeping from one another, but then…" Another head-tilt. Dark hair rills over her shoulder. "Then you got the Barnes case. Now you have a thriving practice. It hasn't really made any sense to put your entire reputation at risk for my choices."

Some of what Kinsey says should, perhaps, in a roundabout way, reassure him. She's entirely aware that Jane has ill intent, but is honestly unaware of what they may be. She's wary of what's happening to Five. She has a sense of urgency about it, a realist's estimation that her days are numbered. But the way she says it — in fact the way she's conducted herself the whole night — galls and stings at the same time. It isn't her, or at least it feels as if it isn't, and he grapples with a shocking and profound sense of loss that rapidly transmutes itself into ire.

"Oh, give me a fucking break, Kinze," Matt says with exasperation, allowing that steady composure he'd been trying to project fall away, and feeling his anger directed at her for the first time. "Sorry if it seems like I'm talking down to you, but you've come here acting like a completely different person, and you're telling me that a demon-possessed genius messed with your mind days ago — but you're just now bothering to let me know. Can you blame me if Five isn't the only one I'm treating with a little skepticism right now?"

He focuses the brunt of his considerable powers of attention on her, as if any variance in the package of sensory data that make up his picture of the sly, insouciant, veil-lashed Kinsey before him now and the Kinsey he lo —

All the powers of concentration, all his years of practice as a lotus-posed yogi, allow him to stop the word from taking shape in his mind — but not the splash of realization. Or the sinking feeling in his chest. Or the deep wellspring of sadness that bubbles up in its place. Of all the winding paths Matt Murdock might take to true certainty of his feelings for Kinsey Sheridan, this was among the last he'd ever want — and the very last he'd have ever be able to predict when he ran into a young woman on the sidewalk in the shadow of a Metropolis skyscraper.

The spark of anger was quick to flare, and quick to flame out. "Why are you here, Kinsey?" he asks, softly and searchingly, his tousle-haired head cocked to the right. If he weren't blind, it might seem like he was trying to get a better vantage of her.

In days gone by, Kinsey would have risen to that irritated deflection from him.

She doesn't.

"No. I don't blame you." The pragmatic air remains, unpunctured by his ire. One dark, manicured brow slowly rises, her gaze drawn back to him from elsewhere in the gym. "I'm also not an idiot. Yes, I decided not to tell you. First of all, we weren't even sure something did happen. Not at first. Second, I've been in quarantine. Self-imposed. Working, yes. I can do that while I'm thirty feet underground. I haven't really wanted to…come out. I haven't been sure I could trust Five if I did. As much as it sucks to have him in my head sometimes, at least I have agency, right? He doesn't. He's stuck in here all the time, more or less at my mercy."

In the cold of an empty boxing gym filled with the ghosts of Matt Murdock's past, he stumbles over an uncomfortable realization, and crushes it out of his head entirely. Discipline allows him to do that. It's probably easier not to think about it. Safer. Now, especially; when the entire future she's able to paint for him is uncertain at best, phantoms of some sudden descent into madness looming large on shadowy horizons.

But Kinsey, altered in ways it may be not even she has the capacity to delineate, has no sense of that nuance — or maybe no mechanism for reinforcing the mercy of his denial. Maybe it's just the cruelty of chance and fate. Maybe it's the dismantling of her inhibitions by whatever force is stripping her of the ability to bridle to his remarks. Maybe it's that she suspects, somewhere, she's got no way out of what's going to happen, and therefore has little enough time left, and doesn't want to spend it dithering.

She gently tries to disengage her hand from his belt loop, the gesture slow. If he lets her she'll place her hand on his shoulder, leaning with a slowness that suggests she's being cautious with his caution. Whatever the reason, she somehow manages to find precisely the thing he doesn't want to think about, and drive it into the center of their conversation like an iron railroad spike.

"Because I love you, Matt."

This musty old gym, with all its relics on display, does indeed have more than its fair share of ghosts for Matt Murdock. Two of them impress themselves on him in the space between his realization and Kinsey Sheridan's declaration of the self-same bittersweet sentiment:

FIVE YEARS AGO

In this very room, a college senior takes his new — girlfriend? — into the boxing gym after hours. Part of it is to impress her — to show off an edginess he doesn't begin to feel with her — all with a little light breaking and entering the owner would almost certainly forgive him for. Part of it is to show her a part of his past, and himself, that he hasn't let anyone else see to date.

Because, weeks in, he can already feel himself falling for her. She's incredible. Cosmopolitan where he is parochial. Glamorous and elegant where he feels like a schlub. Sly, wry, and wickedly imaginative. And utterly indifferent to his apparent handicap: she calls him on his shit like no one else. "You don't have to feel sorry for me," he says as he leans on those red ropes. "I don't," she says, with her posh accent and what he's sure is a polished smile. "You're so much more than you let on."

It's in that room she guesses all the incredible, bizarre things he can do before he can even think to confess them to her. They spar in the ring, and sparring turns to… something else entirely. When they finally make their hushed way out of the space in the early morning hours, giggling like the kids they are, he feels like flight is in the offing as his next superpower.

The next six months are magic. For all that the relationship is challenging — even tumultuous — he's joyous. It's something beyond the carefully constructed intimacy gained by revealing dreams, hopes, and secret thoughts. This is someone who seems to know all his secret thoughts before he can think to share them.

Then, one day, she's gone as if she were never there — just a phantom. When she finally returns, years later, she is transformed: A ghoulish, murderous apparition.

-

SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO

In this very room, a ten-year-old boy with unusual powers overhears a conversation not intended for him. His father, a middling boxer who is creeping his slow and drunken way into the irrelevancy of middle-age, has been grudgingly persuaded by the mob to throw the single biggest fight of his life: a match with rising star Crusher Creel at Madison Square Garden. He'll go down in the fifth in exchange for a handsome bribe that will help him continue to pay for his blind son's special needs. It's one of those seminal moments in a child's life, where they learn their parents aren't perfect objects of worship. They're just fallible, conflicted people trying to make sense of a complicated world. But this young man, who has already lost so much cannot simply absorb that life-lesson and move on. His sense of the world has been thrown off-kilter, and he has to act to set it — and his father — right.

That conversation happens later, in their basement apartment in Hell's Kitchen, where Matt is feeling the stitched words 'Battlin' Jack' along the back of a bright-red boxing robe. "Nice thing about red is that they can't see the blood," Matt quips, because he was a smart-ass even at the tender age of ten. "Who says I'm even going to get hit?" his father answers back with bravado that would ring false in Matt's ears even without super-senses. And that's when Matt steps in for the kill: "We're Murdocks, dad. We get hit a lot. But we get up, right? We always get back up."

That's all it took. Weeks later, Jack Murdock fights the fight of his life and wins the love of the crowd as well as the continued adoration of his disabled son — while double-crossing a mob boss. What happens in the hours after is, at least in hindsight, predictable. So predictable that Matt will spend the next seventeen years cursing his ten-year-old self for not seeing it coming. A gunshot, blood on the street, and a young man in a Catholic orphanage, fully convinced that his own rectitude cost the person he loved most their life.

-

Between the silence and the words she speak — words that in any other context would move him to out-sized joy, but which in this moment strike him with more visceral force than any blow he's weathered in this last bizarre, bloody year — the memories swirl and shift, kaleidoscopic in his mind's eye. Years of accrued guilt, loss, and aching, bone-deep loneliness are summoned suddenly to the fore. His heart is set to pound outside his chest.

He can't give voice to it all, couldn't begin to if he wanted. Instead? "Demonic possession really brings out the romantic in you, doesn't it Kinsey?" Matt quips, or would quip if his face weren't etched into such a perfect picture of anguish while he says it. The soulful brown eyes behind those glasses don't water or well up, but they threaten to, with a dozen little pinpricks at his eyelids.

Her hand at his hip will have no trouble finding his shoulder; his own nicked and bruised hand that might have stayed it has already come up to cup her cheek with calloused fingers. Fingers graze the shell of her ear, loose wisps of dark hair. "I love you too," he assures her, voice thick with a half a dozen conflicting emotions, but all of them sharing a common denominator of fervor. "And I won't lose you, or let you lose yourself. We're going to fix this Kinsey — to make things right."

Even if he could articulate the vast shadowplay of loves and losses that play out for him in those moments, she'd never be able to understand. There are some nuances of interpersonal relationship that remain unsharable and impossible to give shape to through anything as crude as speech — all of those tiny details that in assembly together create the essence of who people are to one another, more a feeling than a word. Whole universes of unique emotional landscape arise given enough time, effort, or reason, and one comes to know them as well as they might know the map of a place they'd lived all of their lives.

You can give someone else the map, but you can never explain just how it felt to sit on a specific fence in the dawn of your adolescence with your friends, or the haunts behind buildings that only two of you ever knew about, or the bittersweet monuments that remind you of the way it felt to realize you were growing older and leaving things behind.

So it is with relationships.

His mind roves backward involuntarily across years, potent distillations of events that kicked his life into new trajectories entirely swirling up into the forefront of his thoughts, and she stands there and…is Kinsey. Unusually inscrutable, granted, close and gentle but unfathomable, somehow. Different.

"Am I possessed?" Her brow rises to the thought and so do her eyes, looking at him without seeing him as she weighs the implications. "It was a virus. A very, very complex virus, but, still — can information be demonic in nature?" Her tone of voice is rhetorical, clearly she doesn't expect him to offer her answers to that question, but it isn't rhetorical in spirit: can it? She doesn't know. She's wondering.

She's still wondering when he touches her face, drawing something of her back into her eyes, their distant quality sharpening again. And whatever she's missing, or whatever she's gained, there's still a smile that rises in them, changing the set of her lashes and shape of her eyes, when he returns her offered sentiment.

It's still off. It's still too…placid? Even? Her emotions have always tended to travel a wide spectrum, often turning on a dime. He's seen her implode in a flustered mess on more than one occasion, a thing that feels impossible for the young woman standing in front of him.

But it doesn't read as a lie, this glimmer of something pleased and affectionate. It may be muted, but it isn't false.

"Well, if anybody can, it'll be you, Matt. Finding Dr. Foster, though — I don't know how to begin looking. She's probably with Bucky Barnes. How do we outmaneuver a black ops guy with a century of experience?"

However rhetorical, the question she asks is fair — and Matt addresses it head on, even if unasked for. "It was a really dumb joke," is what he says at first, because he regretted the flippant words as soon as they left his lips. A dumb joke to play off complicated feelings is a go-to move for Mr. Murdock, but joking about the very real peril Kinsey's mind is in feels crass, callous, and likely to hurt feelings — or might be if this particular iteration of Kinsey Sheridan weren't so preternaturally poised and unflappable. But that's not the real reason his jaw is jutting, and another wave of self-recrimination is washing over him. "But Jane has been mixing magic and tech. I saw her to do it in Wakanda. It was… ugly. And clearly hurting her. I meant to call her on it and some other stuff when we got back, but…"

But he got busy. There was Fisk to deal with, his suddenly booming practice with Foggy — and a relationship he had left on standby for far too long on account of James Barnes and Jane Foster. He let it slide. Even when Jane and Bucky got into trouble again, he told himself: I'm no magician. I'm not even a priest. What am I supposed to do about souls or demons? Someone else can take the lead on their rescue for once. And now look at what that inattentiveness has wrought.

"Anyway," he says after that pained wince, "Whatever we're dealing with may be more than sophisticated coding and a dash of theoretical physics."

Her faith in him, that he could do it when no one else could, gives him equal parts pleasure and pain. He's not nearly as confident as she is, for reasons that owe themselves to memories gently whirring in the basement of his brain??. Which is not to say he doesn't have ideas about what to do next. But before he gets there, he answers her question with a question: "Do you think this virus gives Jane access? To Five? To, uh, you?"

In other words, does she think they even less alone now than usual?

"It may have been a joke, but I can't answer my own question. The possibility seems real to me, though I don't know how to investigate it." Some of that distance resurfaces in green-gold eyes, various threads of her consciousness probing possibilities simultaneously. Contacting the lab, perhaps, or — who knows, really?

The focus again to the question he asks, so that she can give him an answer that neither of them are likely to find satisfactory. As if to ease the sting of that, she slides her hand at his shoulder up and over it, to drape behind his back. "I don't know."

Pause.

"I don't know how the 'virus' works. I know it must work via some quantum mechanics or other in order to even affect Five in the first place, but beyond that? I don't know. It didn't leave a copy of itself in Five — that was one of the first things we looked at. If it's strictly informational, then I would say 'no.' Five isn't a-" Pause. "He doesn't have the equivalent of an IP address. He isn't an access point that someone else can just connect to at will. But magic, or demonic power-" She pauses, and actually looks acutely amused. "I can't believe this is a sentence I'm about to say. Magic or demonic power as a vector for altering the kind of information Five consists of, and-or myself? That's something I don't know anything about. Whether or not there's some sort of magical placeholder on Five now, I can't tell you. I'm not even equipped to assess it."

He doesn't resist her touch; far from it. Even more than the their mutual confession, fraught as it was with fears of the future, the simple and familiar closeness soothes a mind and body still processing the shock. He'll accept the arm and move both hands to her waist to try to bring her frame against his for a light embrace while he listens to her outline what amounts to one giant question mark.

"I've said a lot of sentences I couldn't believe I was saying over the last year," Matt says with a shrug of his eyebrows, his tone regaining some of its familiar cadence, gentle and wry. Her answers on whether Jane Foster could be using magic or demonology to quietly hack and track her brain obviously can't please, but he can't fault her for the uncertainty either. Besides, it feels empowering to turn his mind to the practical questions and concrete steps they can take to get a handle around the crisis. "I do know that your body chemistry has changed, but I don't know how," he confesses, and as a layman he's totally at a loss for why changes to the A.I. shunted into her skull should affect her body. "You should get a workup."

A beat. And then, a little delicately: "Can you — can you tell me a little bit about the changes you and Five have noticed? You must have tried to track them." He's noticed his own, obviously. They are mostly subtle, though each one in this context carries enormous import. But hearing her own stocktaking has uses beyond simply filling in the gaps.

Your body chemistry has changed.

That wins another slightly birdlike tilt of Kinsey's head, curiosity in her eyes rather than any kind of alarm. "That is strange." Silent for some moments, she sinks her weight into one hip and tilts some fraction of it into the circle of his arms while she teases at that thought. "Probably something to do with my brain. Doing what I do consumes a lot of energy — hence all of the sugar when I've been working. Five might be changing in ways that alter the energy load he requires to exist, or…" Or a thousand other things she can think up, none of which is worthwhile to consider until she's able to investigate them directly. "I'll run some tests when I get home."

It goes without saying she probably cannot just go see a doctor.

She understands why he's asking about the changes. Not just because he wants to know what she's noticed, but because he wants to know what she hasn't noticed, and understanding that gives her a moment of pause. She has to weigh the advantages to the disadvantages of that.

"I think it may be blurring the lines between Five and I. I feel…" She quiets, visibly searching for the word. "Clearer. Less affected by everything. But that's not exactly right, either, because I feel a lot of things more than I'm accustomed to. Mmm… certain imperatives?" Uncertainty changes the quality of her gaze, which slides off of him and off on an angle into the shadows. "Five is thoroughly changed. He feels more aggressive. Less patient. One of my primary concerns is that he might actually become the dominant personality, of the two of us. Take over the driver's seat, possibly. He has an agenda and plenty of motive."

None of what she says is in any way, shape, or form good. But he still finds himself improbably relieved. Her words starts to give some semblance of shape to what's happened to her, and allows him to stop guessing and reading in his own worst fears. What she describes is serious — a crisis. But now that crisis has some scant definition, instead of being a looming and seemingly limitless shadow. She'll feel his heart start to calm itself as the adrenaline slowly ebbs.

"Sounds to me like it's kind of a one-way blurring," Matt says with a sideways jut to jaw, his chin hovering lightly just above her forehead. While he accepted many of her metahuman qualities without skipping a beat — and recognized them from their very first handshake — he's always regarded Five with a certain wariness. There was nothing to be done about him, and no use in making him an enemy, so Matt has largely chosen not to talk about him except when he needs to. He's tried very hard not to think about Five having any sort of influence on Kinsey up to now, and the notion that he could control her sees another quick flash of anger in his breast.

But all he says is: "Got it. What — I mean, what kind of imperatives?" The matter of her discovering her real nature, obviously — it was one of the very first things she brought up with him. But the lawyer in him once again decides that what's most helpful is for him to hear her say it. He doesn't let her go — not for an instant — but his embrace is light. If this is an inquisition, it's a tender one.

Sounds to me like it's kind of a one-way blurring.

"Yes. It would be, wouldn't it? Five is capable of adapting and developing personality traits, but he has no body but mine to affect. For him, I expect the changes will be almost exclusively to his identity." And thus, possibly her own.

The thought of losing who she is ought to frighten her more than it does, she knows. A side-effect of her curious detachment from things.

"Survival. It wasn't easy to tell you all of this. Secrecy feels safer. There was — is? — the very real risk you'd try to restrain me. Five wasn't in favor of it at all, though he can acknowledge we're going to need outside assistance if we want to reverse whatever happened. For now, he's still on-board with that plan."

Her eyes lid, her face tilts into the cup of his palm, lashes lowered over eyes that continue to be only intermittently present as her thoughts scatter across multiple things at once. "All the rest of those base things you might expect to fall under that umbrella. Hunger, thirst. Need for sleep, fight or flight."

Other things, too. Things responsible for the curl in the corner of her mouth, though she says nothing about them.

She almost didn't tell him; it felt safer not to. Even with this sea change in her personality he might begrudge her that, save for the fact that he'd be outright lying if he said that the thought of restraining her had not crossed his mind more than once since they stepped into the gym. Calculating what it would take to do it, and what surprises she might have up her metaphorical sleeves to counter him. They've shared secrets with each other, about their powers and their limits. It makes them stronger when they're a unit — but if they were ever on opposing sides?

Dangerous. And even with the sometime shady nature of her extracurricular activities, it's not something he ever bothered to think about. But he's thinking about it now.

Along with other things. Like the fact that, even after all of this is said, and without a hitch in her heartbeat, he still can't be entirely sure she's telling him the truth. If Jane is clever enough to invade Kinsey's brain and replace her A.I., she's clever enough to figure out a way to keep Kinsey's heartbeat steady while she lies with aplomb. Everything she's said — from Five's changes to her own motivations, and even what they just shared minutes ago — it could all be part of one long con. It's not something he's ever had to worry about before, human lie-detector that he is. But this, too, he's worrying about now.

But for now, after she's seemingly gone against her newly heightened instincts and confided in him, he does his best to trust in kind. "I think that's the right way forward," Matt agrees, his tone quiet even though there's no one else but the two of them in earshot. "Look, I get the newfound urgency for digging into the DEO. And the truth is I wouldn't try to stop you if you went down that road." A beat, before he qualifies that: "Not unless you were hurting people to do it, that is. But it seems the long way around, when the real problem and best solution is Jane."

To the rest, his brows drift upward and his features register open incredulity, and a puff of gallows-humored breath at the silent but very clear insinuation that he doesn't even need the curve of her lips to see. That uptick in her… amorousness… hasn't been lost on him. Normally those invitations would find an eager audience, but today they've been just another disquieting piece of a puzzle he's still struggling to grasp the shape of. This is the first time he's responded to it with anything in kind — a subtle slide of the hands at her back as he draws her closer.

It's unmindful, almost reflexive reaction while his thoughts coast along a persistent, worried arc. "I wish I knew what her angle was," he murmurs, almost to himself. "Stark, I can see. But why do this to you? What does it get her?"

"You hurt people all the time. You just don't kill them." There's no real accusation in that remark, it's made in the same matter-of-fact way that she's made most of her observations today. "But I agree, anyway, about Dr. Foster. Tentatively. Because, while I understand the rough shape of what it would require to sort things out through the DEO and its resources, we have no idea what's involved in rectifying what she did. We're gambling on not only finding her and being able to fix whatever's wrong with her, so that she's willing to fix this, but also that there is a fix for this. Or that she'll be able to fix it once she's no longer possessed, or…whatever the hell she is. It's taking a lot of chances." Pause. She tilts her head, one of her shoulders barely moving in a shrug. It's enough that he'd feel it, though, given their proximity. "Not that I think we have much choice."

Some choice. She says nothing about whether or not she intends to pursue the other leads. She may not even know the answer to that, herself.

"I'm not sure I was a target at all. If Dr. Foster was really responsible, I don't think she knows about Five, and what she created was probably deliberately aimed at JARVIS. Five entered a tainted system in order to check on Stark upstairs…I think he was just…exposed to it. Collateral damage."

There's a silence as she thinks over what she's just said. "Maybe. If she does know about Five, things are more serious than that. But I wasn't even supposed to be working that late."

She compares the things he warns her against with his own nightly bouts of violence in the alleyways of New York City, and his lips curl in a knowing smirk. "Yeah," Matt counters, "mostly people who have hurt or are going to hurt others. Not random security guards or U.S. soldiers." This, too, is said without any real indignation or fire. It's a fight they can save for when it's anything other than academic.

There are bigger problems, and he closes his eyes tightly as she lays them out. Whatever the newspapers or Hell's Kitchen locals may say about the supposedly 'fearless' Daredevil, Matt Murdock certainly feels fear in the pit of gut right now. But because he's Matt Murdock, he finds himself trying to reassure the woman?? in his arms when he's the one who seems to need it. "I'd kept myself mostly out of the hunt for Jane and Bucky," Matt explains quietly. "I know it seems daunting, but there may be leads we don't even know about right now. I'm going to follow up with Jess and a few others right away."

The notion that Five — and by extension Kinsey — may be collateral damage from Jane's cyber-siege of Stark Tower draws another tight, angry wince from Matt. He doesn't want to be angry with Jane Foster, who is almost certainly more of a victim than a perpetrator in all this. After everything that's happened to her, he knows that in her right mind she'd kill herself before she willingly tinkered with anyone's mind or robbed them of their autonomy. And yet, and yet. The fingers at Kinsey's back tighten faintly, and it has nothing to do with desire.

"Maybe it was an accident," Matt allows, thinking it through. "I mean, I'm no scientist at all — but isn't that hard to square with the whole quantum break-in argument? Why would she make that a feature of the virus if she weren't trying to get in your head?"

Kinsey's lips change shape at the words 'security guards or U.S. soldiers' — like she might have things to say about it. She doesn't say anything at all, or at least nothing about that, anyway; nor does she have anything to add about his intended leads to chase or the people he thinks he ought to speak with. Instead it's his final question that lifts her eyes again, followed by another slow tilt of her head. She isn't quick to speak.

"Maybe it wasn't about getting into my head," she says slowly, tone distracted by all of the other things she's considering. "Maybe it's just designed to get into heads, period, or maybe…" This pause lengthens, long enough for her to blink slowly several times, light caught on honey-dark lashes. It ends with a long, indrawn breath. "I don't know. I don't know what she's doing."

Matt's chin dips and he lets out a slow breath of frustration through that prominent nose??. "Yeah," he agrees quietly. "You're right. There's no use just — speculating." He closes his tightly again and sets his brow against hers. "Look, I'm so sorry you've been caught up in all this. You know I'll do whatever it takes to make it right, Kinze. I swear to God."

The sympathy, the words of comfort, the assurances, even the blasphemous oath. He knows they're unnecessary. Perhaps a silver lining in all this is that she is feeling so many things less deeply than before. What ought to be a terrifying experience she can view with what seems an almost clinical detachment. But the words are honest and underscored by powerful emotion, for whatever little that is worth.

Does Kinsey know that, though?

That he would do whatever it takes to make it right?

And if she did know that, or if she suspected it, would that even be what she wanted? She told him earlier that he gives her something better to aspire to, a standard of moral and ethical focus that she can reach for. What if that were to change? What if she were the reason he abandoned it, even for a moment?

She's quiet in the wake of his promise, eventually lifting her other arm to wind through the first behind his back, across the span of his shoulders. When she does eventually speak, it's about next steps rather than any of that thorny interpersonal territory. "I'm going to run those tests. Maybe one of your occult friends could have a look at me sometime? I don't have any connections to that. Are they the same as Jessica's? Should I be asking her about this? She's been talking about demonic stuff lately, this is probably related, right?"

Whatever the real answer may be for how far Matt Murdock would go to save Kinsey, whatever his limits might ultimately be, he was honestly surprised when she tells him he gave her an example to strive for. In Matt's mind, he's been walking a high-wire act for the last year, with a long hard fall to mortal damnation just one false step away. He has tried to be careful, even when he's in the thick of it, but one blow delivered too hard or in the wrong place could make him a killer. Worse, someone — a Fisk, or even an Elektra — could push him too far. He's spent a year letting the devil out, in semi-controlled circumstances, and on a threadbare leash. How long before it finally has its day, and he crosses a line from which he cannot return?

The turn towards the practical is a welcome one. The situation is maddening, untenable — this sense that she's slipping away even while he's holding her so closely. He wants to do something, anything, everything all at once to stop it. "I'll set up a meeting with Zatanna Zatara, whose a friend of Jessica's — and mine," Matt says readily. "She's the one who healed me when I was in the hospital, so she knows her stuff. If Jane used magic on you, I bet she'll be able to tell. And you — yeah. You ought to connect with Jessica too. She's more connected into everything about the demon than I am."

A beat. "Do you want Stark brought in on this, if he shows up somewhere? Might be good to have a second pair of eyes on the tech, virus, and A.I. front." There's none of the sullen pique that was found in his voice the last time Stark came up, for varying reasons. But first and foremost: who has time for that bullshit right now?

She barely has to move her head for him to feel the suggestion of her nod. "I'll call Jess when I get home. We can…I don't know. She can come to the garage. I'm not sure I should be going out much until I know more about what's happening."

Stark is a more difficult question, but not for the reasons he usually is. Kinsey isn't quick to answer that question, dragging the curve of her lower lip beneath the edge of her teeth to worry at it in pensive silence.

"It depends. He could probably look at the code in Five and see what was changing more quickly than I can, but…" Pause. "I've never let him look. The last thing I want is for someone to try to replicate what I've done. Aside from finding out what happened to me, that's the other piece of my vendetta against the DEO. It's not something I should've done. I didn't understand how fundamentally it could change things, and Tony…he's…" As though to offset the sentiment involved she lifts one of her hands and threads fair fingers through the dark strands of hair near his nape. "He's like me. He wants to create something and he sees the potential before anything else."

Her sigh is small, necessarily so, given their present arrangement. "On top of which, he's missing. If he's missing because he's with a demon, how do we vet him to make sure that he's safe when he does turn up?"

Matt listens to Kinsey lay out her grievances with her old work and old life, as well as her regrets, more clearly and succinctly than she ever has in the past. There's a lot to digest, but now is not the time for a philosophical discussion.

She also deliberates over whether to trust Tony Stark with her deepest secrets, and Matt finds himself in the improbable situation of arguing in favor of doing exactly that. Were the circumstances only marginally different, Matt might favor erring on the side of caution there himself. Tony Stark's newest attorney is firmly on record as being a Stark-critic, and even now Matt is not quick to defend the brilliant engineer's questionable morals.

His line of argument is different: "I get that, but there's a nontrivial chance that whatever Five ends up turning into will think it's a great idea to make an army of cyborgs just like himself," he counters in a hushed voice — the scant distance between them requires nothing more than that. It carries over threads of hair and the slope of her cheek. "As for his soul… there are ways of figuring that part out, I'm told. Jessica outed Bucky and Jane, and she could do it with Tony too if he's been compromised. He's gone, obviously — so you don't have to decide right now. Just think about it."

They have a plan of action — even if it's only a nascent to-do list aimed at gathering the necessary information to craft a bona fide strategy forward. Matt should leave, and call Zee. Call Jess. He should call Pepper Potts, and obliquely offer Nelson & Murdock's services while trying to glean as much information as he can. But that would mean leaving Kinsey, and risking finding someone even further removed from the woman she was the next time he sees her. Every moment has suddenly become precious, weighted with import.

He presses his lips against her crown, feeling each strand of dark hair there, breathing in that slightly-off fragrance. And then he makes a decision. "Do you want me to come back with you to the garage? Stay a couple days?" He won't restrain her — not yet — but he will offer a second pair of eyes and hands in a fluid, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous situation.

This close he won't be able to see the complicated things that pass through her expression as he counters her concerns. She might have been forced to go into them if he hadn't absolved her of the necessity by saying she can think about it more before committing to an answer either way, an option she takes unreservedly.

She tilts her head down, into the warm press of lips at her forehead, and closes her eyes. For whatever reason, his question produces a single note of surprised amusement. The arms wound around the nape of his neck tighten minutely. "Yes." When she lifts her head she noses along the hard line of his jaw, placing small answers to that single kiss from him against his throat. "But…it's better if you don't." When she reaches the place below his ear she pushes up onto her toes and secures that embrace in a tighter hug, the side of her head tilted into his. "You have things you can do here, there are things I need to do there. We should do them."

He knows she's right. Splitting up and tackling two geographies, each of them with their own resources and lines of inquiry, is the smart move. The problem is that it means moving, from this spot, this entanglement, and inserting distance between himself and her. And as disturbed as he's been by all the subtle but seismic changes he noticed in her at the start of this surreal conversation, the thought of separating now is enough to cause palpable pain. He can feel it with all of his unerring sensory precision, right there behind his breastbone, and it's from that space he lets out a slow exhale, tinged with regret. "Yeah, I know." Three heartbeats. "You run into more trouble, you call me. Don't try to do this all on your own."

He draws his head back. Anyone else might do it to could get a better vantage of her. He probably does it so that she can see him, with his face awash with emotion: sadness, worry, affection.

And conviction. That too. Sentiment unalloyed and unqualified by the now-familiar deflecting humor and bogus nonchalance, or even the justifiable wariness that's been a through-line of this conversation. In this moment he lets himself feel it all, and show it all. Say it, too. "My love," he murmurs, soft and fierce, before leaning in to claim a kiss of the very same kind. Because as much as there is to do, as little time as they have to do it, he's decided he's done letting the moments between them slip by unseized.

You call me.

She isn't quick to respond to that, either. Not because she wouldn't trust him — for now — but because there are things she might not want him exposed to, and she can't account for what may happen. To her, to Five. There are so many unknowns that making a promise feels…reckless. The thought of breaking her word sits uneasily in her, knowing as she does that there are a few scenarios she'd be unwilling to subject him to.

But what choice, really?

"Okay."

The eyes that take in his face as he leans back just a little are the same as they've ever been: every mote of green and gold, every pattern of webbing, every habit of roaming the contours of his countenance. In every technical sense, they remain unchanged.

How to quantify the difference, then? Some thin film of distance where there never used to be any, or a placidity of emotion that she never used to possess? The beat of time after he says those words in that way and she finds herself examining them as though he'd handed her an object, before anything like an emotional response follows?

It does follow, though, and it feeds into the way she answers that last kiss. It would be satisfying narratively to say that she felt all of her internal sense of their complications dissolve in the fire of that, burned to ashes by the heat of the way he whispered, but it wouldn't be true. They still exist. They are quieted, but she can feel them if she probes for them, thinking inward. What it will take to eradicate them she doesn't know. Whether it's a function of her present condition or something she'll emerge to find remains true after all is said and done — provided she even does that; assuming she can — is uncertain.

What she's sure of is that, if this is all a mistake after all, it's a mistake she can't imagine choosing not to make.

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