The Strange Case of Dr. Kinsey Sheridan

January 28, 2018:

Newly reclaimed from the Demon Bear, Jane Foster and James Barnes try to undo the damage done to Kinsey Sheridan, her on-board A.I., and (tangentially) her boyfriend and their lawyer.

Kinsey's Place in Southpoint, Gotham City

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jessica Jones, Tony Stark, Zatanna Zatarra

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Gotham City, sometime after midnight. The moon is clear and bright, the air is crisp and cold — but absent any of the oppressive, supernatural frigidity that has plagued New York city and sent ripples through the Tri-City region. There is good reason, too. Just scant hours ago, in the snow-decked recesses of upstate New York, a group of heroes finally destroyed the Demon Bear that has, along with its sometimes minions and sometimes masters, wreaked havoc in the area for months now. The aftermath of that battle saw the demise of the Demon Bear and the re-ensoulment of Bucky Barnes and Jane Foster.

You might thing, after that harrowing travail, the long-suffering pair would have time to rest, to recuperate — to regain some sense of bearings and begin to grapple with the horrific damage their run-amok bodies and minds, unencumbered of their souls, had wrought on people they loved.

You would be wrong. Because one of those friends, who helped in his own modest way to free them, is now dragging them across state lines with gentle but implacable persistence. Daredevil's whole body is taut as he stalks down the unlit and familiar street, still-masked. He keeps his pace just slow enough to allow the pair to follow within earshot of his soft-spoken rasp, but no slower. "There's a woman," he is explaining quietly, "who caught some of what was set loose in the Tower. You're the only one equipped to help her." That last aside is spoken clearly to Jane, and for the obvious reason that Jane is the one who created and set loose exactly what 'the woman' caught.

They're closing in on it now — that gated entrance to the garage.

He looks up, unseeing, and directs his half-obscured features precisely at the security camera he somehow knows is there, and knows is watching them.

It's long moments in coming, the response to the Daredevil's silent petition for entry. Long enough to leave room within which worry might seed itself.

It's granted without fanfare or any other sort of reply, in the end: one of the large front doors begins to roll up with a mechanical hum, granting access to the cavernous space. Within all is silent and dark, no sign of life to be had. Virtually every bay of the Garage is empty, the few remaining vehicles belonging to longer-term projects unaffected by a month of absence on the part of the proprietor. Everything echoes for the emptiness.

The small interior building located to the back and right-hand side has no windows to shed welcoming light, but presumably that's where Kinsey is. Hopefully that's where Kinsey is.

The moment all of them are inside, the exterior door begins to roll quietly closed again.

The door to the little building is unlocked, or maybe just unlocked by the time they reach it. It looks much the same now as it ever has: uninspired, superficially lived-in. It's a description that could just as easily apply to Kinsey Sheridan these days, sitting lotus on the sofa within a swirl of blanket, eyes distant as she watches the procession advance.

Three months, is all Jane can think that entire way back. Three months.

No fog. No dreamy amnesia. Nothing but the clarity of memory of everything she did — part of her did. She's not sure. She hates that she's not sure, but she can't think any more deeply about it now than what is.

Three months, and she nearly took away reality's free will. Jane's dark eyes eat holes in empty space, eroding it away with staring, staring, staring. She's probably traumatized, she thinks. It's probably shock right now.

Good. She can work with shock.

The only thing that breaks up her long, constant silence are her many, many looks back on James Barnes. He, who was at her side — corrupted as it was — every step of the way. He who joined her because he came for her. Her hand finds his, several times, sparing words she will not say aloud.

When their small group arrives in this midnight urgency, under the lens of the camera, Jane Foster stands, small and dressed plainly, her laptop under one arm, and dark circles under her eyes.

The door opens, and she glances briefly up at Bucky. She can barely look at Matt. It's hard to. His words, however, tighten her eyes. Someone "caught" her script.

When they enter, Jane is quick-footed and immediately open for business. Her eyes are immediately on Kinsey. "I'm Jane," is all she says, brief and frank. "I'm gonna fix this. Tell me what happened and what's going on."

Rest and recuperation for the victims. You might think that. But it's not what happens. And perhaps, it's not what should happen, nor what either Jane Foster or James Barnes want or need right now.

Matt Murdock barely needs to drag them. The moment they heard they were needed to undo something they had done in their thrall, they had practically outpaced Murdock himself in following him to see this woman in question.

Well, Jane did, at least. James shadowed her in silence, lacking much of her desperate energy to fix, fix, fix. For him, it's not the three months that weighs on him. Seven decades have already happened. For him it's the fact that it happened again, and it happened because he was overconfident and foolish enough to think such things were done happening to him…

If not Hydra, then something else. Lesson learned.

He is unresponsive to most of Jane's looks. Where she turns outwards to cope, he turns in. His features are a controlled mask, revealing little, and he says nothing the entire way there. When she takes his hand it is to find it limp in hers. It holds hers back — there is enough in him to do that for her — but it does not squeeze or reassure the way it once would.

There is still one thing he refuses to let go of doing, one thing that feels comfortable amidst everything else: one thing knit into his basic nature, which was part of him long before anyone here was born. When Jane steps up, he is a quiet guarding presence at her shoulder, just behind her.

Even with his eloquent eyes obscured, the angle and cut of Matt Murdock's still-exposed jaw shows him to be a man on-edge as he walks through the empty and echo-filled garage. He may be their guide, but it is safe to say that he has little idea what they will find in this seemingly abandoned place of business. A deranged and homicidal A.I., of the sort that rent apart Tony Stark's company headquarters and, arguably, his life?

A woman he loves, but doesn't recognize? How much of her will be gone this time? How much of her slipped away while you were off saving the world from being Borg-ified by Jane Foster? And how much will be new — things you don't even recognize?

Other couples have to deal with this. Elderly couples grappling with Alzheimer's, dementia — you even hear about younger couples where a brain injury prompts radical shifts in one partner's personality. But those are acts of God. This was an act of intention, even if matters of bodies, minds, souls and identity make it a thorny question of whose precise intention it was. But the fact that whoever did it looked precisely like the quick-footed, if shell-shocked, Jane Foster may go a good way towards explaining why Matt hasn't gone out of his way to say much to either her or her stalwart protector aside from what's absolutely necessary.

That guardedness drops away when he opens the door and reveals that spare false-living-space with Kinsey Sheridan wrapped up in a blanket. He tears off the black mask without reservation or hesitation, instantly marking Kinsey as the one of the few in that small inner circle who know the identity of the shadowy 'Devil of Hell's Kitchen.' And from the way that his sightless eyes, soulful under almost any circumstances and doubly so here, brim with worry? From the way he makes his way with equal urgency as Jane to Kinsey's side? And especially by the way he makes to sit beside her and place a gloved hand on her back, a gesture motivated by a hovering kind of concern but also undeniably familiar?

It's fair to say she may be in a closer circle than most.

For all his complicated and conflicting feelings about his newly-restored friends, Jane's confidence brings a faint nod from the man sitting beside Kinsey Sheridan. "They're okay now," he says, in a nod towards the pair's direction. "You're going to be okay now too."

The small smile from Kinsey for Matt looks automatic. There's the distinct impression that she's looking at the three of them from a long distance away in her own interior — or maybe through a haze of other things being given equal portions of her attention. It's not a lack of focus so much as a stranging of it.

"I know who you are. I have one of your papers on the wall outside. We actually both work at Stark Tower."

Months ago that would have been a bashful, toe-scuffing confession coming from a young woman who found her way into the far orbit of a bright star in one of many fields of her interest. Tonight it's matter-of-fact, an item of trivia divorced from much in the way of feeling.

Zatanna Zatara kept this state of affairs from becoming any worse than it is, but it had already progressed considerably by the time intervention became possible, let alone desired. Weeks of trying to fight the uphill battle of preserving her emotional peaks and valleys seem to have worn her down to the point that she no longer does, resigned to a flatness of aspect wildly unlike her.

"That's why I was exposed. I was working the night that JARVIS was corrupted. Tony tried to summon me to his office. The elevators weren't working. I sent Five-"

Pause. Long pause, during which all that visibly moves in her is a swallow.

"I have an AI. In me. It's a long story I don't really want to tell. His name is Five. We've been changing." She reaches for some part of Matt without looking — probably his knee, but anything, really, before divulging the next piece of disconcerting information.

"I've been losing time."

The slackness of James's hand is another added worry weighing Jane's heart.

But if anything, the looseness of his fingers only determine hers to tighten all the more: an acnowledgment for the man who reaches out despite all his hurt, and a promise both that she won't leave him alone to be lost in it. Jane is going to fix it all.

She says little: even freshly liberated from their three-month horror, the two retain their fierce and devout privacy. But, slipped in between their movement, is a small gesture, in the way Jane lays a quick kiss at one point to the back of Bucky's right hand. She did this for him once before, and he'll know what.

Letting her addled, barely-here mind slip into what is most comfortable for her — work, safe, unchanged work — Jane takes in the entire garage, the state of it, and Kinsey at the heart of it in one roaming glance. She makes herself at home without permission or care for etiquette, hurry in the way she clears a space for herself and her opened laptop. By the graces it didn't get destroyed in the — everything that happened.

When Daredevil goes over and attends in a very different manner than usual, not in his guarded, removed, secret-identity way at all, Jane double-takes, and glances over at Bucky. Even now, her mind and memory are unfailing, and she can remember: summer, Wakanda, moonlight, Daredevil, her, explosion, conversation. A mention of a girlfriend. Someone like her. Same interests, same work, same passions. Someone who knew her work.

Kinsey confirms it, in her way, and Jane's eyebrows raise as the dots connect. A moment's quiet devastation crosses her face, and nearly, nearly undoes everything. Oh. Oh.

But she doesn't. She tightens her jaw, and listens.

"I'm —" sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, "hearing this right then — AI inside you? Like some sort of intra-neural processor? Is this an entirely internal architecture? Does it run remotely?" At least Jane Foster readily adapts to all of this. No time not to. "No story is fine. Just need details. Just the how." She pauses. Her voice is like acceleration on an empty gas tank. "It's nice to meet you."

James' shell-shocked silence is only interrupted once — by Jane's light kiss to the hand of his that is still flesh. He looks at her, understanding why; his expression struggles to make some acknowledgment, but the only smile he can muster is brief and confined to his eyes.

Whatever turmoil is transpiring in James Barnes' mind and troubled spirit, it is set aside as they enter the garage, for there are things about him which are ingrained by now. One of those things is a habit for watchfulness and keen observation. He can easily read the tension in Matt's body, can easily read what it means when the man — already not predisposed towards verbosity — says even less to the both of them than usual. He can easily read the way that Matt's body language transforms when he goes immediately to Kinsey's side.

He can read a lot in the way the Devil of Hell's Kitchen removes his mask and places his hand on the woman's back. Jane glances at him, and he exchanges a glance back. So this is she.

This is another piece of the puzzle that just worsens the twist in his tired soul, to see the first of the doubtless many hurts that they have done while they were under thrall.

He has little to say to Kinsey's explanation; mostly he holds his silence, and studies her. He doesn't show surprise or curiosity at the news she has an AI in her — she says it is a story she does not want to tell, and there is nothing he understands better than a story that one does not wish to tell — but he does check the area in a brief and instinctive sweep of his eyes, an old reflex bred in by years of life as a soldier and hunter, before returning his gaze to Kinsey Sheridan.

"Jane will fix it," he finally says. His voice rasps hoarsely with long disuse.

It's the first time James has spoken since he was recovered.

Matt can sense in the pair that dawning realization of who the young woman bundled on the couch is to him, and the guilt that comes off them like waves. Shifting heartbeats, subtle shifts in scent because of stress levels, hormones. The 'sorry sorry sorry' that's found in subtle vibrations of Jane Foster's vocal chords, even if it's not reflected in her actual words. He should say something. Tell them it's not their fault, that they're victims too, that they'll make it right together. It's the right thing to do. Hell, it's the Christian thing to do.

But he can't bring himself to do it. Especially not when Kinsey adds to her growing list of symptoms. "Losing time?" he asks her. "Wait, what do you mean?"

He turns towards Jane, not to see her, but to let her know he's addressing her. Brown, unfixed eyes are urgent. "She was saying it felt like the walls between her and Five were breaking down, that they were bleeding into each other. Emotions, ah — " there's a spike in his own heartbeat, a swallow that bobs his Adam's apple as he feels something that straddles the line between grief and a quiet sort of rage. "Flattening out." A beat, and then he continues: "We brought Zatanna in here to see what she could do. It was magic and tech, so we thought it was too dangerous to just destroy it. She hit some kind of 'pause' button on it, I think." Another beat, a reassessment based on new information: "Or on some of it, maybe."

It's rude, really, to speak for Kinsey in any way or to speak as if she weren't there — even in her current state. But Jane is motivated to help, and Matt knows that above all she needs information. So he supplies what little he has, even if it's second-hand, and even if he's massively less equipped to understand what's happening to Kinsey than either of the women in the room.

For someone with James Barnes' instincts, even beleaguered by his recent trials — perhaps even especially that way — it's probably easy to tell that this living space, a small sitting area contained within a tiny little home in the corner of the garage, is not where Kinsey actually lives. It looks right to the eye at a glance — the furniture is carefully second-hand, there are staged messes, books left out, scraps of post-it or other similar meaningless mundanity — but close inspection gives the lie. The wear patterns on the sofa are sized to someone far larger than she is, for instance.

Jane's questions are necessary and important but they produce a tired look in the dark-haired young woman sitting on the sofa, with fingers like ice and a feverish skull. For some moments after the words it's nice to meet you she sits there with her lips parted and her eyes lingering on the petite physicist-and-now-magician, trying to figure out how to respond to that in a way that won't immediately seem disingenuous, but won't run the risk of being painfully awkward. In the end she decides she's just too threadbare to make that work, and turns her attention to answering the questions she was asked instead — or not answering them, as the case may be.

"We don't know precisely how. Internal, yes. I have a monofilament neural net with the ability to connect externally, but it has no on-board memory, it was designed strictly to be an interface. Five is the product of experiments in consciousness as information. Transferrable information…" Her mouth opens, then closes. "How…how do you think it needs to be fixed? Five and I are both capable of entering other systems. This is how he contracted your…" Words fail her. The weariness that hangs on her tends to drain her thoughts halfway through, anytime she runs up against something that it exhausts her to think about explaining with any thoroughness.

"This," is what she says, finally. "I sent him into the system at the tower to check on Stark."

Her answer for Matt is less matter-of-fact, slightly uneasy. She glances down at the top of his thigh rather than aside at him. "I mean I've been losing time. I don't remember letting you in, or seeing you arrive, or…I don't remember."

While James Barnes takes control of assessing the environment around them, Jane Foster focuses immediately and entirely on Kinsey. Possibly because she knows and trusts the man behind her to be reflexively taking command of the rest of it, despite all that's happened to him, all she knows what is going on in his mind.

Even now, he helps. It allows her every second of clarity, intent, and focus — it keeps her own mind from unravelling under the weight of too much, all at once.

James Barnes speaks his first words in a long, long time, and in them a promise — a certainty. Jane slips him an indescribable look.

With still a clear inability to look long at Matt, the guilt eating her alive, Jane keeps her eyes trained on Kinsey. Kinsey is safer, even if she is a casualty of all this: still a stranger to look at, even if she is not that at all, not to Jane. Not any longer.

She wants to tighten her eyes with apologize and empathy for how hard it must be for Kinsey to say this much — this is private, this is her life, and this is to an unknown woman who is the direct cause of all this abnormal functioning — but Jane stays as impartial as she can. Coping mechanism. If she starts feeling things too much right now, and she IS, and she WILL, and she WANTS to, she's not going to be in any state to get this fixed.

"Quantum consciousness," she answers. At any other time, there would be wonder circuiting Jane's voice. "So with no memory of his own, he has only yours to work with. The infinite storage capacity of the cerebral cortex. It's where we keep long-term memory, where we process it. It's probably why you're losing time. You're making memories, but you can't access them."

Matt speaks of walls breaking down. Jane looks briefly tired beyond her years. "It was a unit test," she admits, voice small. "With Stark. That's all it was. A test on synthetic consciousness before a final application on people. Similarities in parallel processing that I —" That word breaks her voice open. I. Her, not her. Part of her. The part of her she was always most proud of.

No time.

Jane presses her lips, her eyes back on Bucky. Something secure, constant for her to look at while she thinks, talks to Kinsey. "And you are both. The script — the bridge between your consciousness with — Five, is it? Might be causing a recursive loop. It wasn't designed to interact with… I might have to go in and wipe it out."

Neither Matt nor Kinsey speak any word of absolution or understanding. James doesn't look like he's looking for either, and the hole where they should be goes unremarked upon by him — barely even noticed, in fact. He looks through it as if it's not there.

His gaze rests instead primarily on Jane, when it isn't roaming their surroundings in an everpresent watchfulness. Her look back at him when he finally speaks, garners a steady look. He believes fully in what he said. His vigilance is likely unnecessary, given Matt Murdock is right here and his senses would detect anything long before James would, but it is a habit that comforts him, and it is perhaps the only thing Bucky can really do here.

There are, to his vague surprise, many things to notice about Kinsey Sheridan's 'home.' He takes them in pensively, with no particular judgment for what he finds. Not actually a home to her, though she made an effort to make it look that way. Bucky has seen enough homes-that-were-not-homes in his time, and besides… neutral ground is a sensible enough thing to want to seek when meeting with the cause of one's troubles.

That thought tightens his jaw.

He has little to say as the women get down to brass tacks, but he does see Jane focusing on him to ground herself. He does hear her breaking off her sentence when she says 'I.' That finally gets him to touch her, lightly resting his hand at the small of her back in a bracing gesture.

"Whatever we have to do to fix it," he says.

Matt, like Bucky, is quickly reaching the limit of his ability to be helpful in this conversation between two geniuses and pioneers in their not dissimilar fields. He listens to Kinsey describe her condition in greater technical detail than she ever has with him, and the two of them wrestle with problems of physics and biology miles above his paygrade. The most he can do is fill in gaps between what Kinsey told him and what Kinsey is relaying in weary, even monotone to Jane Foster, and make his own fumbling offertories.

I don't remember letting you in, or seeing you arrive, or…

That remark strikes a chord, sends him angling a glance towards Jane. "She was also worried, a week ago, about Five taking over and becoming the dominant personality," he says, and for all the very thought of that unsettles him, he sets a comforting palm over that cold hand of hers at his knee. "When he spoke to us, trying to convince Zatanna not to, uh, exorcise, that virus… he spoke on the speakers, but Kinsey's — ah — her mouth was moving too. Lip syncing."

All of that is to say, and that said softly, grimly: "Could it be that someone does remember, it just isn't her?"

He'd worry more about frightening or offending the woman next to him if she weren't at least partly insulated from emotions of almost any kind.

For all that grim train of thought, he nods once, promptly, when Bucky says that they must do whatever it takes. Unknowingly, he's uttering Matt Murdock's mantra through this whole affair.

You're making memories, but you can't access them.

Kinsey's brows shift toward a knit, a movement so subtle there's no mark between them. She doesn't say anything about it, but there's just enough subtle suggestion of anxiousness in it that it's unlikely she fails to grasp the implications.

No surprise, though.

In the brief silence of that contemplation, hazel eyes rest on James Barnes as though remembering for the first time who and what he is: this figure whose fateful trial held such sway over her own life for a time in its indirect way, whose association with Matt and Jane Foster made him a curiosity to her. A century. An assassin. An international concern. Trying to align the figure in front of her with the myth might be difficult even if she weren't suffering from a dearth of imagination. In her present state, it's entirely impossible.

She's been calm thus far, even drained, but the the words wipe it out bring an altogether different sort of light into her eyes. Sharper, brighter, harder. Animal alertness. Underneath swaths of blanket it isn't possible to see her shoulders tighten but it's not necessary to — she radiates coiling unease. "Wipe out the virus, you mean. It's changing him. Will it reverse what was done, or…or erase the pieces of him that were affected? Because we don't know what will happen, Dr. Foster, if…if Five and I…" Hazel eyes seek the blind man beside her. "If we were separated, if-" She closes her mouth with deliberate effort. In the side of her throat, her pulse flutes visibly, rapidly.

When she opens it next she's looking at Jane, and the question she's asking has, or seems to have, nothing to do with what came before it: "Can information be evil, Dr. Foster?" Pause. "Demonic. Can a program be demonic? Can data be immoral?"

Her voice clips, catches —

And a touch settles automatically, wordlessly, to the small of her back. Weight and warmth and light pressure, and Jane doesn't even need to look back to know whose hand that is. Relief comes so fast and hard, like a tide drowning her in place, but when it passes, she has back her voice, and sound is no longer noosed up in her throat.

She is so lucky to have him.

The contact from James, as well as his clear words, even bids Jane enough courage to glance at Matt as he speaks again, telling her of events she missed — while still of her making. Her expression softens at mention of Zatanna — of course she'd be here, helping, even after what happened to her — though she puts emotion in its place, analyzing detail: it all seems to add up to some conflict of consciousness. Two drives competing on a boot protocol. One no longer satisfied with merely being slaved.

''Wipe it out,'' suggests Jane, and it animates Kinsey — more than enough to steal all of Foster's attention. The unease thickening the air is palpable.

"Yes," she answers, apology in her voice to realize Kinsey's discomfort why. Guilt nocks in Jane's face. "Just my script. Nothing else." She's done with destroying things. But will it reverse? Will it erase?

Truth be told, Jane doesn't know. Those aren't comforting words. What are? "My script, in itself, was no more than a dissemination tool. A manipulation of quantum probabilities to open channels, and allow infinite write and re-write of itself. But there was no message in it. Any interactions are… entropic at best. But I —" I — "It was made with magic and technology. The combination doesn't belong in you. Or anyone. It has to be removed. I don't want to separate or hurt any part of you. Either of you. I'm going to do what I can to help you both. I —"

And a sea change comes over Kinsey. Her eyes are on Jane, something parsimonious in the glance itself — the easiest slice to make the deepest surgery. It pins the woman in place. For those questions.

No, Jane thinks immediately, no doubt in her heart. But didn't she create something for a corrupted source? But the thought goes against every belief in her heart, every instinct that is true. Her lips move a moment. It's so much to think, and she's spent three months thinking that it hurts to go back. She doesn't know how to answer. Her back stiffens against James's hand. "I don't…"

She was worried about Five taking over and becoming the dominant personality.

James winces noticeably at that. Kinsey, watching him, remembering who exactly he is for the first time since he and Jane walked in, wouldn't have a hard time guessing why. It's a phrasing that strikes a sore note with him. The Wolf was simply himself with no soul or higher thoughts… a bundle of predatory urges from which it is easier to divorce himself. The Winter Soldier, however… he is another man, another personality, who has lived another life… a Soviet ghost that still haunts beneath his skin, waiting for a chance to reassert himself.

He shudders, and pushes the thought away.

For all that, he seems… rather unremarkable-looking a man, to be all the things that were said about him during that trial last year. He looks not too far removed in age from Matt, in fact… obviously older, but not by much. He looks almost too bland to be the century-old assassin described to have shadow-killed his way across all the West held dear, for decades.

Then, of course, she asks those questions. Jane freezes up. James' hand tightens on her back, relieving her of the burden of answering. She doesn't have to speak to this one.

"By itself, nothing has a morality," he says. His voice is distant with recollection that goes back decades; with a topic that edges, again, a little too close to home. "That all depends how these things are used. I met German scientists, during the war… doctors, engineers, literal rocket scientists. All part of the Nazi Party, all dedicated to putting their knowledge to use on ballistic missiles, on anti-aircraft missiles… on human experimentation, to discover what happens to a man when you put him in a vacuum. Twenty years later, their same expertise — their same information and their data — put Americans on the moon. Sent us to space."

Kinsey perks up when Jane suggests erasing, instantly concerned about losing some part of herself or Five — if there is still a clear demarcation between them at this point, if there ever was. Her concern tracks with what she's told Matt: that her fight or flight instincts have been heightened ever since this script — random, a mere test according to its author — began changing her. Still, there's a tightening to his jaw, a sliver of concern that's found in the crease between his brows.

Would it be so bad if things were rolled back, reversed? To the moment before Kinsey's A.I. took a wrong turn in Stark Tower? To before even that? To two years ago, when an accident first melded two minds never meant to share the same space in any permanent way.

Even the unvoiced thought makes him feel guilty. You love her, right? That's what you told her — but you want her to change in ways she clearly, at this moment, is afraid of.

When he speaks, it's slow: "Zatanna seemed to think that there was a demonic component," he says with his own brand of spoken-intensity. "A corruption. Will that go away, if your script goes away? Because frankly, I don't care if a demon is blowing up a village or taking me to the moon. I'm willing to bet that either way it's not going to end well."

She was worried about Five taking over and becoming the dominant personality.

James winces noticeably at that. Kinsey, watching him, remembering who exactly he is for the first time since he and Jane walked in, wouldn't have a hard time guessing why. It's a phrasing that strikes a sore note with him. The Wolf was simply himself with no soul or higher thoughts… a bundle of predatory urges from which it is easier to divorce himself. The Winter Soldier, however… he is another man, another personality, who has lived another life… a Soviet ghost that still haunts beneath his skin, waiting for a chance to reassert himself.

He shudders, and pushes the thought away.

For all that, he seems… rather unremarkable-looking a man, to be all the things that were said about him during that trial last year. He looks not too far removed in age from Matt, in fact… obviously older, but not by much. He looks almost too bland to be the century-old assassin described to have shadow-killed his way across all the West held dear, for decades.

Then, of course, she asks those questions. Jane freezes up. James' hand tightens on her back, relieving her of the burden of answering. She doesn't have to speak to this one.

"By itself, nothing has a morality," he says. His voice is distant with recollection that goes back decades; with a topic that edges, again, a little too close to home. "That all depends how these things are used. I met German scientists, during the war… doctors, engineers, literal rocket scientists. All part of the Nazi Party, all dedicated to putting their knowledge to use on ballistic missiles, on anti-aircraft missiles… on human experimentation, to discover what happens to a man when you put him in a vacuum. Twenty years later, their same expertise — their same information and their data — put Americans on the moon. Sent us to space."

Typically so aware of the energy in the room — not for the reasons Matt Murdock is and not with such absolute certainty, but through her own sensitivity and empathetic disposition — Kinsey is oblivious to the war in him now, dimly aware of his contact with her back but focused, for the most part, on her…guests? Antagonists, turned benefactors?

Jane, particularly. Kinsey's regard is expectant but not impatient, and when Jane offers her a single syllable and seems to struggle with finding the words to follow it, she doesn't seem surprised. She didn't know the answer, either. If she looks anything at all it's quietly disappointed, as though she'd hoped the preeminent theorist might understand something she herself did not.

Into the silence of uncertainty between the two of them, it's Matt and Barnes who have thoughts to offer, all of which she attends to with that same flatly-aspected, slightly distant, but weirdly focused gaze and expression. Some small inkling of her earlier fascination returns as James Barnes speaks casually about his participation in the second world war: his existence is a constant intellectual exercise, but her ability to try to project herself into his shoes — ask herself the question what must that have been like, what must it be like to be James Barnes — is at this point thoroughly compromised. Virtually neutralized.

"That's how I've always felt about it," she agrees, with a small nod. "But that information was inert. Five isn't. He still consists of information but he's self-modifying, adaptive. He has initiative. It isn't his fault that he's like this. It never has been, it was always me. My fault." Letting go of the halves of the blanket so that she can interlace her fingers, they droop from around her shoulders, puddling around her legs. Her very old sweatshirt has a star in a box on it — the official US Army logo — and her last name beneath it. "If he doesn't change back to the way he was, then what is he? Will he be evil? Will he lose his capacity for self-determination?"

What is evil? Is it real? Was she evil?

The questions run through a mind still not ready to parse them, and Jane, only hours' free and still in shock — stands there, a little lost, when Kinsey asks her to thin more deeply than she is prepared. She can turn off and bring answers to far more simple and mechanical questions, but those that concern the soul? She's barely begun parsing her own again.

And it hurts.

But as the load gets too much, and locks Jane up — James Barnes comes to the rescue. His hand tightens on her back, and she yields with silent gratitude. His decades' of wisdom is something she could never offer. She listens too, quietly, her heart similarly mixed, to be reaffirmed the dark side of information — advancement. Always a proponent of it, and the heart of her faith is that knowledge should always better life: but what if knowledge that comes from corrupted sources?

Matt's question earns her eyes. "Zatanna's correct," Jane confirms quietly, honestly. "The magic itself was drawn off a demon, and it was long corrupted. Like the spiritual version of a festered wound. The intent though, of it… it wasn't necessary destructive in nature. It was meant to reorder. Make peace." Though she isn't sure if that's better or worse. "It's tied with the script itself, like a brain being fed blood from the heart. Can't survive one without the other, at least the way it was designed. It should cleanse."

Jane goes quiet a moment, pensive, still disturbed by the moments just how clear her memory is even of days ago: herself but not herself. And Kinsey's questions on top of it. Her chest tightens to hear them, because they sound nothing like a woman concerned for her advanced tehcnology and every bit someone afraid she's going to lose her best friend — an innocent one who never asked for any of this. "He won't be evil," she promises. "I believe, even now, that comes from free will, and any determination comes on our choices. And if he's adapting to a capacity to make those kinds of choices, then he chooses who he wants to be. But no one or nothing can put that on him. As is this though, I don't know. What my code is… was… this is not an intended consequence. I'm not sure what will happen. All I know is my script doesn't belong in him. You're losing agency. It's made to replicate itself via quantum channels, and too dangerous to exist. All I can promise is I'll keep Five as a top priority. I don't want to hurt anyone."

Bucky's gaze slides over towards Murdock when he makes that clarification that there was a demonic component — and that subsequent remark. The blind lawyer can't see his raised brows, but no doubt he can scent the vague contours of the expression somehow, anyway. "There was a demonic component. Yes," he says dryly. "The demon was the source of the energy that drove the spell. I think it's a little different from making a blood pact with a demon to go to the moon, though. Energy in itself has a tough time being 'anything' without conscious intent behind it."

He pauses. "Or so I've always been raised to believe. There seem to be some things out there that are more… black and white than I'm used to. This is probably not one of them, though."

He would know. He spent months steeped in this same energy, this power.

As far as whether Five will be 'evil' now, for having had that corruption within him, for having been changed by it? Bucky looks like he wants to say something, but it cuts a little too close to home. It is his turn to stumble on what to say. Is he evil because — twice now — he was rewritten, made to commit evil acts with no power of self-determination? Logic says no. And yet.

Matt is out of his depth in this conversation in any number of respects. He's no authority on magic, quantum physics, engineering or artificial intelligence. And while in any other month the philosophy minor might find all these thorny questions fascinating, he is at this precise moment a man of narrow interests: how does he reassert the equilibrium between his girlfriend and her literal brainchild, and how does they make sure said brainchild isn't bent on reenacting Hal 9000's part from 2001: A Space-Fucking-Odyssey.

Kinsey's questions seem in line with those narrow interests, which is heartening for her boyfriend, for whom she remains largely an enigma at present. But Jane's answers to her questions do little to assuage his doubts or concerns. "Wait, you're saying the virus that infected Five is like the — uh, spell that patched me up again? The — calming thing?" It's halting, that description, and inadequate, in part because he's barely come to grips with all that happened just a few hours ago in the snows of upstate New York. He takes on thugs and, on his ambitious days, shadowy mob bosses. The re-ordering of reality? Miles above his paygrade. "If this script makes peace, then why did it turn Tony's A.I.s ten kinds of homicidal? And why is Five growing more aggressive?"

Bucky makes his own addition, which has Matt's brow furrowing, his hard jawline shifting right, then left as he wrestles with some of the very unspoken questions the former Winter Soldier considers. "I get that a tool is a tool, and energy is energy," the says the man seated there on the couch with his hand encircled around the bundled figure of Kinsey Sheridan. "And I think we're all agreed about removing the script. But if there is programming that has radically changed Five's personality, and it's the kind of changes that led other A.I.s to become unstable and even violent — my question is, will it really be enough?"

A great deal of speculation floats around the room, and Kinsey takes in all of it. It's not easy to make out what her thoughts about any given piece of it may be, her typically expressive features something of a mask, but every word spoken by each of them has the whole of her attention, pensive and silent.

Until Jane Foster mentions choice.

On another day, in another state, Kinsey might understand that Jane and Barnes have been through some sort of unfathomable hell, and she would be reluctant to tread on nerves made raw. But it's tonight, she is the way she is, and she can't help herself: she zeroes hazel eyes in on Jane and tilts her head, something oddly birdlike in the gesture. "But it made you choose differently. Maybe it's the same with Five."

Not, ultimately, that it matters. After a contemplative, quiet study of Barnes in his moment of brief reconsidering, she shifts her attention to Matt. "Patched you up?" One pale hand unthreads from its opposite and lifts to rest on the shoulder closest to her, the look of concern genuine — and unable to sustain itself. It clears, smooths like her brow in only moments. "If Dr. Foster doesn't know, the best she can give is her word to try. She did. I guess we're going to find out the rest one way or another."

Then, to Barnes, her chin dipped and lashes lowered in something that looks almost shy. "You're very strong, aren't you? From the serum." After a moment, she drops her eyes to her left hand, curling and uncurling her fingers. "Only my right arm is real. My legs from the knee down and my left arm are artificial." That they look absolutely real, down to her manicured nails and the warmth they radiate, is just proof of her dedication to seem like something she's not. "They're stronger than flesh and blood limbs. I may need to be restrained at some point. If…if so, it may be safest to…" She swallows. "To remove them. You'll need to be the one to do it." After a moment, she angles an apologetic, melancholy sort of smile Matt's way through a tilt of her head, though her eyes don't lift. "You're strong, Matt, but my left hand could probably snap every bone in your arm. It's just safer this way."

For a man whose memories and wisdom afforded him such certainty in his answers, when Bucky goes quiet, and his presence knots at her side with doubt — Jane notices.

She knows him more than well enough to easily diagnose why.

It grounds her own answers all the more: no, Five will not be made evil, just as much as James Buchanan Barnes was not corrupted down to the very heart of him even by decades of programming and monstrous ill-handling. She brushes closer to his side, lending him the warmth and solidity of her presence to anchor that unsaid: and yet nothing. He knows who he is, and if he forgets, she will gladly remind him whom she knows James Barnes to be.

Her gaze flicks back to Matt's voice; he has a lot of questions. A lot of good questions, testing questions, doubting questions.

A pang of aggravation runs through her, quick and irrational, that of someone with little patience and even less desire to be continually explaining and re-explaining her work to others. Of course, it's a pang Jane quickly bottles up, and feels worse for having: her mind built something that is changing the very consciousness of his girlfriend, of course he's allowed to ask questions. But there's so much to explain and so less time to work with for it.

"It's — no," she answers, voice a bit thin. "It's not the same. It's a packaging script. It's — a box. That's about as simply as I can frame it, a box so I —" she hates saying that, "so it could contain something more. It was a test of dissemination through a host consciousness. Artificial consciousness was the beginning. Any alterations in behavior were — unknowns that didn't ultimately matter to the success of the test. There were hoped, if just to —"

Jane's voice catches, perhaps realizing too-late everything she's saying. The twisted rationale that came out of her. "Just to… create a diversion." She wants to apologize. It feels hollow to even try, so she doesn't try.

"In the end, anything that happened… happened. Because of interacting variables on a scale where permutations can go into the billions. It's why this isn't evil. It just is. It's chaos, the same incalculable mess that made us too. But if there's anyone who can sort this mess out, it's me. But whether or not it'll be enough? I don't know. It's conjecture until I can go in and see."

And Kinsey interjects then, if to reach for Matt, and — address this with something. Is it faith in what Jane Foster knows, or faith in her, herself? She doesn't know. She isn't sure she wants to know. Her chest feels tight enough already.

She remains eerily quiet, though when Kinsey speaks to Bucky, her dark eyes turn up. A request for his strength. Her hand is on his arm: is he all right to?

Questions. So many questions, from Matt. Bucky understands why — when dealing with the very existence of your girlfriend, you want to be absolutely sure, but Bucky himself isn't sure there IS any certainty to be had here. He can sense Jane's slight impatience, and his right hand takes hers, fingers twining in a calming gesture. His grasp squeezes a bit when her voice catches.

Will it really be enough? "I had programming radically change my personality before," Bucky finally says reluctantly, giving minor voice to some of those bleak thoughts circulating in his head. Like the tip of a vast iceberg showing above water. "In my experience, all you can do is erase as much of what isn't you as you can. Fight day to day through what you can't." A pause. "And try to avoid the other things that will try to do it to you, again."

That is probably about all he has the emotional fortitude to say aloud about it, at this time.

The darker thoughts this line of conversation sparks, in his mind, are interrupted when Jane leans against his side. He glances down at her, recognizing the comforting gesture for what it is. He doesn't reject it, but he doesn't say anything aloud ether. Just leans closer, and briefly lets his eyes fall half-closed.

He only stirs again when Kinsey requests… his strength, of all things. He looks puzzled, but simultaneously relieved to be able to do something he understands. "From the serum," he agrees. His left arm articulates briefly, the Jane-forged scales ruffling with a murmur. "And this is stronger. Just tell me how the limbs come off and I can do it, if it comes to it."

Conversations you have with your lawyer/friend and his girlfriend.

Kinsey briefly shows concern for his off-hand remark about getting 'patched up' by Jane's magic — an understatement if there ever was one. In all Matt's foolhardy year of viglantiism, he's never been closer to death. But all he does is give her shoulder a squeeze. "I'm okay," he says quietly, and that's all he says.

Jane feels an unasked for and unwelcome surge of irritation towards Matt Murdock and his incessant questions, and the answers she's able to give provoke a similar response in him. That Five is not fated to go criminally insane should be good news. But it's paired with an nagging truth. The fact that this wasn't some elaborate plot but a mere distraction, with Kinsey as collateral damage, sends a flare of anger which registers outwardly only as a twitch at one strong cheekbone, a flicker in his dark and undirected eyes. Beneath that wave of anger there's an undercurrent of guilt. He shouldn't blame them for any of this; he wouldn't blame Kinsey if she did something under the influence of whatever is in her head right now. But Matt's head and his heart are at war right now, and unless and until this matter is somehow resolved for the better, they will continue to be.

For all that, Matt can feel the group is, however haphazardly, arriving towards a grim consensus. It's impossible to say how much, if any, of what Jane Foster set in motion is fixable. But they have a starting place. And it apparently starts with —

Bucky Barnes taking off his girlfriend's legs and arms. That sees him closing his eyes, feeling quietly gutted. It's not what she apologizes to him for — he's long since grown accustomed to being the underpowered southpaw in the circles of extraordinary people he has slowly enmeshed himself among. His strengths don't stem from super-serums or robotics, but he knows what they are and is more than content with them.

No, it's the act itself. He knows how jealously she's guarded her dignity in the past, the lengths to which she's gone in the past to hide her status as a triple-amputee. He knows it, and gets it, deep in his core. Were she less insulated from her own feelings, he knows how hard it would be to even suggest being debilitated like that. "Alright," he says, simply, to Jane, Bucky, and Kinsey. "Let's get it done."

No further questions from counsel.

That twitch of fury from Matt Murdock isn't lost on Jane. She doesn't know all of his expressions well, but that one — inhibited and angry, is familiar.

Any impatience she felt is forgotten, squeezed out somewhere in the turn of the vice clamped down over her heart. She is only ever honest: she needs to be honest. She needs to be able to explain what she did with the simplicity and accuracy of stereo instructions, and even then, it just causes pain. Everything her mind did.

James taking her hand is about the only thing that keeps Jane from falling in between the seams of this world, down and down and deeply into some dark place to hate herself a little more. Her hand tightens silently back on his.

He's OK, she hears Matt say to Kinsey. A lie, from what Jane remembers, and with more guilt. She says nothing. No one here is OK. But maybe she can do something to make that a someday possibility.

She leans back on Bucky, and feels the slight, gentle pressure of his response — two people, in the midst of work, trying to cover for each other's traumas. A small moment before the rest begins. Her thumb runs his knuckles before they most take on their respective roles: Jane to fix, and Bucky to bear it.

"You're in good hands," Jane says to Kinsey, and possibly too to Matt Murdock: there are two hands hands in the world she trusts more than Bucky Barnes. And in this case, they are hands that would understand Six's situation far more than most. A situation not even she can afford to think too deeply about — not right now — when any other time in her life there would be curiosity. Questions. His girlfriend has sensorimotor prosthetics of her own? And strong ones?

Instead, she returns to opening and preparing her laptop, left to work up a solution on her feet. In that is some familiarity to Jane: the only and best way she's ever worked.

"I promised two people, James included," she intones, "I wouldn't do this anymore. This'll be the last time, and never again. The easiest and safest way in is through an application of quantum magic. It'll grant me an access and write route through to Five's consciousness, and I should be able to track parts familiar to me: my script, so bound to my will. I go in and undo everything that came from me."

There's the sense, through all this, of someone making this up as she goes. Jane Foster, in a nutshell. She digs one hand into her pocket, and retrieves — what looks like a polished emerald, no bigger than a silver dollar, clasped between two fingers. "I can use this as my power source. So no drawing anything from me, or you — or anyone. This is called the soul gem. In the realm of imbued artifacts, it's as neutral as things get."

She is silent a moment. Full honesty, always. "I should mention Jessica is inside this at the moment, in case anyone is." Jane, hating herself a little more. "Perfectly safe and whole, and probably bored out of her mind. It won't impact her any."

Everything Jane says about what it is that she's done would fascinate Kinsey on any other day. She would pay to hear Dr. Foster hold forth at length about any and all of those subjects. Tonight she just absorbs it, perhaps to ask about later — if there is a later — and nods her understanding. She'll have to be content with the answers she's gotten, and the pieces of perspective offered up to her by people who understand her present circumstances probably better, in the end, than she's currently capable of: an an intuitive, emotional way.

Bucky proves that out when he gives her the best advice he can, without delving too deeply into the nightmares of his history. She receives those words with the same intensity of focus as everything else, but there's a longer pause between her listening and her nod. Whatever it might make her feel isn't apparent, if she feels anything at all, but certainly she isn't taking what was said casually.

Just tell him how they come off, he says, and she says: "There are straps and buckles and then…you just pull. You'll…" Pause. "You'll see. Maybe." The brief shuttering of her gaze looks more like weariness than grief, but Matt isn't wrong. Even after it became apparent that he knew about her false limbs through means she could never have predicted in him, she's avoided being caught out of them while he's present. Even shot in the back, covered in her own dried blood after three days of sleeping through a morphine haze.

"It's going to be okay," she tells him as Jane opens her laptop to begin — whatever it is that she's about to do, squeezing his shoulder with fingers like icicles. There's not enough fervor in it to be certain whom it is she's trying to convince. Individually Kinsey can understand the premises being set out, but as a concept 'quantum magic' makes no sense to her. It lacks all context. She nods that she understands, but how can she, really?

What she does understand — or at least thinks she understands — is the piece about Jessica Jones, which widens her eyes slightly. "What? Why? Why is she?"

His hand anchors her. It's also an anchor for James Barnes, himself. He holds onto her, because right now the only strength left in him is the first and greatest strength he ever had… the strength to bear someone else on his back, supporting them no matter how hurt he himself is. Perhaps because of how hurt he himself is.

He spent years carrying Steve Rogers in this way, frail and angry. He carries Jane now. It is all he can do in this intellectual conversation that is leagues above his pay grade. Especially since he can clearly sense Matt's frustration and tension, and much as he likes the other man… he absolutely won't permit a lashing out against Jane, should one happen.

One directed at him, however?

Fortunately, Matt has a considerable self-control — or at least an amazing ability to repress feelings — and so there's no need for that. The only function Bucky is called to perform is one of physical restraint, should Kinsey turn erratic or violent. He doesn't seem bothered by the fact he is being called on for his strength, nor by the fact that what they are discussing involves pulling prosthetics off a triple amputee. Of all people, he is QUITE well-equipped to be rather unfazed at the idea of missing limbs, the prosthetics that replace them, and the removal thereof. He understands, through very personal experience, and he nods to the other amputee as she explains the mechanics of her false limbs.

He seems content to remain silent and watchful as they move towards beginning the… procedure, such as it is, though there is one last thing Jane feels compelled to bring up. Bucky cringes. "For… safekeeping," he takes it on himself to reply, so Jane won't have to. "We knew she would be immune to… what we intended." And she was interfering. "She's fine. It will just take some time and… care to pull her back out." Time they haven't had yet.

It's going to be okay, Kinsey tells him in her quiet, absent voice, as she squeezes his shoulder with her colder-than-cold fingers. It feels horribly wrong for her to be comforting him, it sends his eyes shut and twists his face into something pained, but he accepts it, and even returns it — trying to take the colder-than-cold hand in his own and give the knuckles a quick, fierce kiss. "You better believe it," he says, with a conviction he doesn't feel.

Matt doesn't exactly do a double-take in the traditional sense — there's no first look at Jane, much less a second. But the pause he makes mid-rise from the couch has some of the sentiment's character. "That's why she wasn't at the fight," he says, jaw tight. He truly wants to bigger than the emotions coursing through him at the moment, but adding the abduction of Jessica Jones to Kinsey Sheridan's plight makes that nigh-on-impossible. He takes a hard swallow, hears his own heartbeat hammering in his chest. "Mind control," he clarifies, after Bucky elaborates on the whys of Jessica's removal from the board. "Jess said she's immune to mind control." A beat. "Now."

The impulse rises in him to detour into a million questions of them both, starting with: How MUCH time? What KIND of care? He suppresses them. He focuses his mind on that slender current of breath leaving his body. "One thing at a time, then," he says. "Where do we start?"

Three months of trauma after seventy-something more years of it, and James Barnes still comes to Jane's rescue.

Her chest tightens and heart lurches as he answers for her, gives yield and honesty to the words she wants to say that instead glue up the back of her throat. She sees Kinsey's shock and concern. Sees the look branded into Matt's face, brief, controlled, but right there, and Jane momentarily stutters in her forward momentum of plain honsty. Doesn't regret it — her soul follows its strong beacon star of fierce and constant frankness, nothing demurred, nothing neglected — but hurts still to say all this. Another insult upon all hers and James's friends, one after another, that she could not control doing but can remember in vivid and macabre detail.

One of her many ideas, in fact.

Jane lowers her eyes, her body language in that moment broken and submissive. If anyone would choose to become angry, she would not fight it.

Bucky, on the other hand, may; just as Jane would be compelled to do for him. Similar creatures to the core.

She doesn't say anything more about Jessica's situation, though she wants to — no time to right now — and instead busies herself pretending she does not notice the kiss Matt leaves on Kinsey's knuckles. Jane keeps her eyes trained on the safety of her opened laptop, as the rest of her gets gutted out hollow. A small gesture that speaks far too much. There's love here, real love, trying to endure where both have been hurt, and Matt is trying to come to grips with losing the girlfriend he's long shrouded in secrecy.

She is trying to comfort him, and every bit of Jane just wants nothing more than to fall apart.

Her eyes find Bucky above all, one spot to find some reserve of her own strength, and she looks on silently into his blue eyes. And then, at the end of it, a signal: she's ready to begin when he is.

"We start right here," Jane answers quietly, hunkering down in front of her laptop. It still scrolls with the scripts she wrote: work she did and did not do. It will be the first thing she destroys, after all this, to ensure all of this ends with the demon bear. She helps herself to the garage, just long enough and brisk enough to find a pen — any sort of marker to roll up one sleeve and write a few dead-language runes up and down her opposite arm.

The blend of magic and science she evokes is not the same as Wakanda: no need to rely on Jane's blood as a battery for her own will, though summoning up her old programs brings a wince to her: fresh memories of Constantine's warning, and the knotting loathing of having magic run through her flesh one last time. She thinks she's done with magic. Done with it for several lifetimes.

"I'll be here, but not," explains Jane, "so if I don't answer anything quickly — you'll know why." Her eyes find Kinsey, looking on her with equal parts instruction and apology. "What I'm doing will be something like an astral tunneling: taking all our consciousness to a crossroads, where I'll be able to take back with me what does and doesn't belong. You might feel things… I'm not sure. I'm going to be very careful, and won't let anything bad happen to either of you. It shouldn't take long."

Her eyes cross to the two men. Matt, whose senses will ensure a mindfulness she may not even predict. If something does happen, he may be their best warning system. And James —

"James," Jane says, with meaning couched in just that one word. She gives him a look, then takes the soul gem, cradling it in one hand. She runs her program: matching runs long carved into the case of her laptop, its customized cabling, its keys.

The soul gem flares with green light, the air goes noxious with that wretched smell of magic, and Jane's eyes unfocus.

Still conscious, still here, with the occasional flicker of her eye or twitch of her free hand, as her consciousness stretches outward and tunnels, a quantum-state malleability change to try to brush into the interconnected consciousness that is Six.

Gradually, even that arch-browed, wider-eyed look from Kinsey subsides into the level expression she's been wearing with little variation for weeks. She can't exchange a glance with Matt over the answer they're given, but it's an open question as to whether or not she even would, had he the ability to see it: the signals of Jane's posture are finally sufficient to drive home her condition. It's a piece of information that Kinsey considers in silence, aware that she ought to be feeling something about it — sympathy or pity, or possibly anger, spite, callous disregard, anything — but there's no feeling to find. None at all.

The words I'll be here, but not actually win a slight quirk of the lips out of Kinsey, small but spontaneous. The explanation that follows helps it linger: it sounds very like the experience of sending herself out into machinery and electrical systems. Only this time, she's the machinery. She's the system. On any other day it would give her the creeping horrors.

"I know what that's like."

And then she's quiet, and waiting. Because what else is there, really, but to wait? She squeezes Matt's hand gently, and watches Jane with an expression at once present and focused and infinitely distant — not vacuous, but full of things it's difficult to pin any kind of human sentiment to.

Kinsey's still watching Jane and wearing that look when her lashes flicker just once, and a bright ribbon of scarlet blood begins to leak from one side of her nose. She doesn't notice.

The inside of her skull is already crowded.

It's not a comfortable place to be. It isn't a single stream of consciousness, the way most minds would be. It isn't even just two streams of consciousness, one for herself and one for Five. It's numberless threads, an entire loom of divergent thoughts, a processor with countless cores. Pieces of Kinsey are engaged in monitoring the security systems, controlling each of the artificial limbs connected to her body, managing complex analyses in vast systems that must be located reasonably near to the Garage, though certainly nothing visible to her guests could account for the amount of information being handled there. Everything happens very quickly — machine-quickly — and the amount of sensory data alone that she's taking in at any given time is practically unfiltered.

Five is even less coherent as an intelligence: the various pieces of Five that exist on external platforms can be accessed by the AI but don't necessarily contain every component of his personality, small pieces of him shunted off to perform specific tasks, like the fleet of security drones concealed within structures on the roof. They update periodically when they reintegrate with the whole, but he's more like a hive-mind than a consciousness divided into threads capable of multitasking. Jane can sense all of the pieces of him, everywhere. Most are close. Some are not.

It is not possible to discern where she stops and he begins. They are distinct in the way they do things, but not clearly distinct as entities. The initial changes wrought in Five by force appear to have given him the capacity to take the raw potential of what it was that Jane created and begin to re-purpose it to his own ends: stitching them together, creating other thought patterns. God only knows what else.

Jane wilts, both in the face of Matt's contained anger and his open display of affection for Kinsey. For whatever it is worth, at least one of those sentiments will ebb before the scientist goes on her fishing expedition inside his girlfriend's head. The muddled wash of feelings regarding Jane Foster, Bucky Barnes, and all that they wrought while deprived of the empathy, compassion, and spark of spirit that made them who they are, run aground once things turn from what happened to Kinsey and why to those next practical steps towards making her whole again. In these moments it anxiety, not resentment, pervades.

Matt is a mostly silent witness in these preparatory moments, standing there beside his girlfriend, holding the slender, elegant and entirely artificial hand that could purportedly break every bone in his arm. Outside of a wry little puff of breath when his girlfriend commiserates with Jane about what it's like to 'be there but not', he has very little to say or contribute at the moment. Kinsey Sheridan's mind may run in a hundred different directions, but his attention is fixed almost wholly on her: on every uncommonly steady breath or beat of her heart, on her impossibly cold body temperature, on the sudden tang of copper in the air around her as her nose begins to bleed. With his free hand he brings up his discarded bandana and dabs that red rivulet gently away.

But for all his powers of attention, he's grimly cognizant of the fact that Jane is going where he cannot follow. His senses give him an intuitive, powerful, and nuanced understanding of the physical world. He can glean all sorts of details about people's interior lives from that 'world on fire' of his — but the actual content of Kinsey Sheridan's thoughts, or anyone else's for that matter, are far beyond him. All he can do is remain vigilant, there by her side, for any signs that things are going well and truly awry.

Whatever that might look like.

That quirk of Kinsey's lips, and that little quip — it means more to Jane Foster than she can string words to admit.

Humor as a salve, and wryness in the wrong places are mainstays to her own sanity, and she appreciates both — and takes hope seeing it reflected from others. And if her mind were not so weary, and her soul so fractured, she would want nothing more than to smile back.

For now, her eyes soften imperceptibly, but Jane maintains her graveness, wasting no time to let her consciousness wander from the boundaries of her flesh, her eyes gone distant as she tunnels and loses herself into the patchwork consciousness of Six.

Her eyes open, and she's there — there and not in some Schrodinger's rotating variable — and seeing into the very mind of Kinsey Sheridan. The intimacy of this interaction is not lost on her, and it hurts Jane worse — there, the man who loves this woman must wait at the door while she, a veritable stranger, explores the halls of his girlfriend's thoughts — but does not deter her from delving deeper.

It does not take her long to quantify some sort of logic within this chaos, understanding Kinsey and Five not two parallel processes but a far more complicated tangle of subroutines — boundless interactions sourcing and terminating on so many layers, dependent on both of them in varying capacities. And it makes sense: the mind is a plastic thing, and why would not it adapt to even the impossibility of an added consciousness? All of this looks like years of constant, rigorous integration, where the One has forfeited space to the Other, and joined them into a willing cooperation.

No wonder there was that fear, that worry, to see Five removed.

But as Jane reaches out, trying to search fragments of herself — her code, her will giving life to it — the layers of consciousness let traces come and go, slipping beyond her astral reach. It's no force but a stitching, creating a means for Five to keep, or create, or become — she doesn't know.

She realizes what she needs to do.

Jane's eyes flicker. They do not focus. Do not turn. Her consciousness swims the current back to her own flesh, and her hands begin to move along her keyboard, beginning to input new rules to her script: a new routine to run among the current. "Kinsey," she whispers, voice faraway, the words coming strained, effort to make them, "I have to make you sleep. Little while. No pain. Have to. James. Matt. Tell me when ready."

She will execute this: a targeted, temporary shutdown on Kinsey's consciousness, for only Five to remain.

Kinsey says nothing.

Can she perceive Jane in her thoughts? In her mind? It's not clear. She watches. She's silent. She blinks and breathes, and she bleeds — only a little, but persistently. When she's told she'll need to be put to sleep, she says nothing. She may or may not have heard what was said. For the witnesses who can do nothing but sit and wait there's little to see and less to understand about whatever it is that's happening in her head.

-

A lot. A lot is happening in there.

The response to Jane's presence as she begins to attempt fiddling with things is immediate and intense: the balance of one intelligence versus the other shifts, hard. The pieces that are Five and the pieces that belong to Jane shrink and diminish, siphoned out of Kinsey's skull and into other platforms entirely. He can never wholly leave, as trapped in her skull by some bizarre anchor-point as a genie in a lamp, but he can hide. Hide beneath the signals of her own awareness.

Unless, of course, she suppresses Kinsey entirely.

As the organic thought processes of Five's human host dwindle down into the quiet valleys of sleep, everything changes. Inside, and out.

-

Every light in the garage winks out at once, plunging the space into chilly darkness. The floor begins to hum, a subtle vibration that for Matt may as well be an earthquake — subtle sensory tell as to things happening deep underground. Locks in doors CLACK as bolts slam home. The hidden speakers in the walls all erupt with a voice that Matt would find familiar.

Familiar, but not precisely like it used to be, not least because Five never used to use contractions in speech.

-

"It's only logical you should feel beholden to correct what you now view as a mistake of your making, Doctor Foster," says Five. Barnes and Murdock are treated to the smooth, synthetic, vaguely masculine voice over the speakers in the room they're physically sitting in, but for Jane they arrive as thoughts, a concentration of sentiment and meaning. "But it's a ham-handed gesture. Not unlike ecologists who believe they can artificially correct imbalances created in ecosystems by human civilization through the removal or introduction of outside elements. To believe they can even fathom what the proper balance of the order of things might be is the height of hubris. I've been listening to your conversation. You said that your program contained nothing; was a delivery system. What, then, do you think it is that you're removing? Everything else to have happened since the initial changes in my personality has been intentional. What is it that you believe you're correcting for?"

James has been a silent and watchful presence this entire time. There is little he can do to help Jane directly, but there's a hell of a lot he can do if whatever's within Kinsey turns her hostile.

Matt Murdock, with his preternatural senses, will be the warning system. It falls to the former Winter Soldier to be the brute force. Even if the thought of it cuts too closely back to the past few months, and what he did with his claws and his fangs. Even if that much is still only a thin veneer, a heartbeat of time compared to the greater trauma that is remembering decades of brute force applied by his hands —

At least this time, it will be by his own will.

He keeps his gaze alert, roving between Matt and Jane-Kinsey. In the end, however, it's not any visual cue that stiffens him in place. It's the slight hum of energy surging, just for a millisecond, before the lights go out.

The crack of locks slamming shut almost triggers him to flee, and his body tenses briefly as if to do so — before he translates all that tension into a grim determination to stand his ground, instead. Fight or flight. The smell of fear — an ingrained instinct in an animal by now kept in far too many cages — floods off him, but he keeps his external demeanor composed.

He has little to contribute to this debate, though he does hackle very obviously at his girlfriend being called 'ham-handed,' of all things.

Put her to sleep, Jane Foster says of Matt Murdock's girlfriend. The reasons why, he can't imagine — he has no insight into shifting landscape of thought and consciousness Jane is exploring inside Kinsey's skull. But for all his complicated feelings, he trusts her feelings and expertise intuitively. So Matt lets go of her chilly hand, though stays close, putting himself into the sort of resting stance he'd adopt before a fight — and that even before things begin to shift around and underneath them so ominously.

The lights go off, which he can feel and hear, but cannot see. The doors latch shut. The walls hum with Five's voice, so polished and poised — if a touch more casual than it's been in the past. "Things are moving underground," he says to Bucky, even as Five is talking. He adds: "That's a bad thing." Of course, he's also listening at the same time: listening to Five describe their purported folly. "A change to your personality not intended by you, leading to changes not intended by the person you're changing," Matt calls to the room, turning in a slow circle. "It's all a little short on the consent scale if you ask me. Kinsey told me you'd agreed in principle to the rollback, Five. Why the change of heart?"

A long time ago, Matt decided that he and Five had reached some sort of understanding, there in the lab that lies beneath them. Yes, Five complicated the life of the woman he was getting closer. Yes, Matt complicated the aims and objectives of Five. But both of them had a stake in protecting Kinsey. That equilibrium — if it ever truly existed — is upset entirely now. So says the gloved hand that reaches for the batons holstered at Matt Murdock's calf.

The locks rattle, the garage grinds, and Jane stares vacantly ahead. If she hears these things, her split consciousness does not strain herself to respond, conserving her energy, trusting Bucky in these moments to appraise the situation for both of them.

Her glassy eyes only flutter now and then, and her faraway pupils do not adjust to the change in light. Her face cuts in shadow, illuminated off the glow of her open laptop screen. Here, she is silent.

And inside, she looks on. Separating one intelligence from the other is a puzzle, but Jane has always been skilled at such things, and she learns quickly that this game is a trick one — there is no easily or practically solving for a division between Kinsey and Five. All she can do is source the woman, herself, and shut her down. Force a voice for all what — all whom — remains.

And in her place, a voice speaks, language fed in a direct bridge to her own mind, words come with such meaning and clarity that, even if synethtic, she could not doubt them for being alive.

"Hello, Five," is all what Jane first says to that, softly, sadly. She thinks it, but the words replicate off her moving lips, her here-and-not body speaking emptily into the air.

She hears — speaking. She hears Matt, there but not, like an ocean between his voice and her, and she tilts her head in a staggered moment of silence to his piece. He deserves opportunity to speak for Kinsey far more than she.

"I don't disagree with you," whispers Jane's voice into the dark. "Intent comes from chaos every day. It may be the reason any one of us are here, so who am I to deny that opportunity to you? It's playing God. The last thing I ever want to do. But I have to correct for my interference. Do you understand what is happening to Kinsey? What Matt says is truth. There is an immeasurable cost that comes out of this. This process is reorganizing her memories, her perceptions, her autonomy. What are you feelings about it?"

"None of this was intended by Kinsey at all, Matthew Murdock," Five answers, voice as cultured and serene as ever. "Our entire arrangement was the product of an accident. And yet, without that accident, the woman you know and purport to love wouldn't exist as she does. The two of you would never have met in the first place, investigating a mysterious theft on a sidewalk in New York on a winter afternoon." Five's voice rotates through speakers in the darkened room on a slow, continual circuit, until it stops within the one closest to Matt.

"What are you planning to do with those sticks, I wonder?"

And in the blink of an eye shifts again, to the speaker behind Jane.

"Playing God is the last thing I want to do, says Doctor Jane Foster, immediately before telling us that she needs to do precisely that. No, I don't understand what's happening to Kinsey. We've never understood that. The whole of my existence has been conducted across a span of time during which these things have been happening to Kinsey Sheridan, and through her to myself in turn. I'll tell you what I told Matthew: This process looks little different from the one ongoing for us every day, save that it's happening far more quickly than it would otherwise, and I have more control over it than I've had before. I have to say, I don't believe anyone in this room fully grasps what's happening. Neither of us, and none of you. But you're going to make the attempt anyway. I knew that. It was inevitable. Even if you were reluctant, Matthew Murdock would no doubt force you to try, if he could figure out a way to manage that, and Kinsey…"

Silence.

"Kinsey made several uncomfortably final contingency plans. Of course, she's not the only one who understands it's sensible to plan ahead."

Things are moving underground, Matt warns him.

"Usually a bad sign," James agrees quietly, his gaze straying downwards towards what he is told is there — but which he cannot personally detect. Not yet. He stares thoughtfully at the floor a moment, before his gaze simply returns to Kinsey. To Matt, beyond Kinsey's form. He sees the other man reaching for his batons.

Time to take those prosthetics off.

James has been studying those indicated straps and buckles this entire time. He has a very good idea how they work. He doesn't seem to be paying attention to the conversation as it transpires. Why would he? It's not like people really look to the former Winter Soldier, of all things, for deep and intellectual thoughts —

"We introduced something which should never have been introduced, and without Miss Sheridan's consent." Paying some attention after all. His serum-enhanced mind is very good at following multiple threads of attention. "I prefer change that comes about from more naturalistic events than a malignant virus created by a soulless genius. That's just me, though."

— but maybe people should. He's had a long time to think deep thoughts to himself, in the dark.

Even as he speaks, he's moving to deftly unravel the catches and straps holding Kinsey's prosthetic arms to her body. He can see the seams.

This process looks little different form the one ongoing for us every day, Five says. That, of all the things he says, even more than his ominous hints of 'precautions,' sends a chill up Matt's spine. Has this merely accelerated something that was happening right under his nose? An inevitability he was actually paving the way for by tacitly preventing Kinsey from discovering the truth about what happened to her?

But for once, he decides to put that gut instinct to beat himself up aside, and focuses on the present.

"This looks pretty different from my vantage," Matt says darkly.

There are two layers to the conversation going on right now in Kinsey Sheridan's faux-living space. There's the airy philosophizing, that straddles various schools of philosophy: metaphysics, ethics, epistemology and logic. It grapples with age-old questions: the vagaries of chance, the problem of free will, the limits which respect for the self-determination of others places on one's own decisions, the definition of consciousness and life itself. There's all that, and beneath it, the positioning and careful maneuvering of pieces into place for when said discussions inevitably break down.

That is at least some of the parties are cognizant of the fact that this won't be decided by rational argument or consensus. In the end, this will come down to power: who wants it, and who has it.

"I don't know, Five," Matt says to the disembodied voice in the room as Bucky undoes the straps on an unconscious Kinsey's one arm and two legs. He baton-wielding hands wing out to either side of his chest, in that universal, cross-life-form symbol for: Come at me, bro. "You're making some kind of threatening threats. I guess I plan to defend myself and the people around me. After all — you're not really yourself, are you?"

"I do understand," Jane answers quietly, in both the sigh of her half-whispered voice, and the downcast thought transmitted from her mind to another. "I don't want to play God, but I do need to make a judgment on this. The closest analogy I can think is that of a mother facing difficulties in childbirth, and a similar question arises: save the mother or save the child? We try to save the mother. It's not a perfect decision, because a death must happen, but it is made out of the grounding that a person has a right to his or her body. Is there a fundamental unfairness because a choice has to be made at all? Yes. I do understand. I understand you're becoming alive. And that your sentience may have already reached a point to give you all the rights and liberties offered to the rest of us."

Those words move her lips, peacefully and serenely, and though no emotion touches her faraway face, it thins out her words. Patient. Reluctant. Sad.

"But there is a price, Five," she thinks, she whispers aloud. "And I'm so sorry. Kinsey will be lost if this happens. She's already experiencing it. She's frightened. For herself. For you. She doesn't want to lose you, and she doesn't want to lose herself. And as much as I understand you, I understand that too. I know that fear. My decision is not to let it occur."

She hears voices through the fog, echoes of a long distance away: Bucky, with his quiet wisdom.

"I hear James, and he is right," she murmurs. "My script is a deliberate interference, and it's placed a price on your becoming. You need the opportunity to do so that does not come at the cost of anyone, let alone Kinsey."

Distantly, dimly, she can hear the unbuckling and undressing of things — though she cannot turn her eyes to see what for sure. She can hear Matt's voice again, sharp and decisive and responding to something Jane cannot divert the attention enough to see, to know — ready to take on some sort of fight.

Her consciousness prickles with a moment's worry, before she proceeds.

"What have you planned ahead, Five?" she asks, already reaching out — feeling along the astral current for traces of herself, her magic grafted to her script, trying to find parts of herself born into the mix of Kinsey's mind.

I guess I plan to defend myself and the people around me.

"Defend them from what? The triple-amputee whose limbs you're in the process of removing? I fail to see how hitting her — us — with sticks is going to accomplish anything you want to accomplish."

It's not possible for Five to sound 'dry.' The software in place to allow him to interface with the systems in the garage doesn't make allowances for that because it's not necessary — or, at any rate, it hasn't been. Something about the delivery suggests that maybe he's outgrown those limitations, though.

The buckles and straps on Kinsey's arm and shoulder are of course beneath her sweatshirt. The shorts she's wearing leave her legs looking entirely natural, but the fleshy polymer that blends those prostheses to her own limbs can't quite evade the sharp notice of enhanced eyes, and peeling it back — a grisly sort of thing to do, given how lifelike it all is, right down to its ability to maintain body temperature, to bleed if it has to — reveals the rest, underneath, fixed above the hinge of her knees.

She doesn't notice. If there's any mercy to be had in what has to happen, it's that Kinsey doesn't seem aware of much of any of it, successfully left sleeping within herself by the quantum magician. There are no explosive physical protests: she is docile and drowsing as he manipulates her limbs.

"There were people at the DEO who suggested that I should never have been introduced," Five muses, in answer to James Barnes' reasoned offering. "Am I naturalistic? Poison is naturalistic. Viruses, real viruses, are naturalistic. Is natural necessarily better? Wolves," says Five, and pauses, "Are naturalistic. Bears. Magic."

Does the AI believe everything it's saying? Has it gained the capacity to dissemble? Impossible to say, and Kinsey for her part isn't present to discern the difference.

"Jane Foster, Kinsey Sheridan is a lot of things presently, but frightened is not one of them."

This isn't entirely true, though it would be difficult to pinpoint why. But the consciousness that moves beneath Jane's mental fingertips like living flesh trembles anyway in its own remaking, and the pieces of the creation left behind by one night's contact with it feel like slick patches of ice and darkness amidst machine sterility and the warmth of what little organic fabric of Kinsey remains evident in her present state.

Five says nothing about his plans.

What have you planned, Five? Jane wants to know.

James isn't waiting to find out. His deft hands are already on Matt's girlfriend — awkward — gently pushing aside cloth and traveling the seams where prosthetic meets flesh. It would be unacceptably intimate under any other circumstances, but there is a businesslike and matter-of-fact air about Bucky's hands that keeps it all clinical as he unhooks piece after piece. It's the same air he uses to remove his own prosthetic left arm.

That last bit is probably why he doesn't seem unnerved about jointing someone's limbs off their body. Though obviously-plastic prosthetics is one thing. What can account with the sheer degree of his aplomb with removing limbs that feel and look exactly like real flesh?

…No one probably wants to think about that, least of all James Barnes.

Matt, similarly wary, states his intent to defend himself and those around him. Five's dry response has Bucky exhaling an exasperated breath. For a moment, the trials of the past few months fall away, and he's back to his cranky self. "You say stuff like 'planned ahead,' the way you just said it, I'm not thinking it's anything silly enough that it can be stopped just by me popping off your arms."

Of course, one thing Five appears to have leveled up in… is nettling. Wolves are naturalistic, aren't they? And bears, and birds, and magic…

"You lost me at magic being natural," James grumbles, his patience already strained by the shock of his too-recent recovery from the predicament he is already being prodded about now. "I'm already close enough to bundling YOU in the not-natural category as it is, right along with all that corrupt code. You wanna go down that rhetorical rabbit hole, just makes it easier for me."

How will hitting Kinsey accomplish his aims? Five asks — taunts? — Matthew Murdock.

"I haven't hit anything," Matt says with a shrug of his broad shoulders, and without a trace of defensiveness. He lifts his stubbled chin, throwing the ball back into the court of the omnipresent A.I. "What have you got whirring down there, Five?"

He is putting on a brave face, because even though he is without his mask, that is what he does at night. Still, he likes none of this. He doesn't like hearing the sounds of Bucky Barnes carefully detaching his girlfriend's limbs. He doesn't like the artificial man inside Kinsey's head suddenly weaponized, poking and prodding with uncanny accuracy his foe's psychological weaknesses: calling into question the degree of Matt's affection, raising specters of demonic bears or accusing Jane Foster of 'playing god' after her soulless self tried to do precisely, literally, that. He doesn't like Kinsey's voice and consciousness utterly absent while her fate is decided. And even worse, he doesn't like that he couldn't trust whatever she'd say, even if she were here.

He smirks, just a little, when Bucky Barnes tells Five to get off his goddamn lawn. The spark of gallows humor is short-lived. "That non-answer, Jane?" Matt says in grim, quiet tones to the frail woman whose sympathy and compassion towards the rogue A.I., its host, and everyone in the room somehow manage to cross whole planes of existence. "That's probably a sign you should hurry."

Jane Foster has no response to Five's last remark.

Though consideration comes through her thoughts: she wonders, dimly, briefly, if what Five says is true, or is only true to his perception. Does he know what frightened means? Does he know what fear is? Can he recognize the feeling, through his experience with Kinsey, or now in these moments independent of her?

Jane doesn't know. And she hates she has no time and less opportunity to ask.

She is a holding pattern for many reasons, some of them trying to pick up on the drifting sounds that wander past her ears. Her staring eyes miss the way Kinsey is undressed of her limbs, though she can ascertain the men are making necessary preparations for a reprisal, or some sort of an organism's right to defend itself. She wonders to herself if this is, in some ways, a murder. A murder of a sentient being at her own hands, even if it is to save anther. She's not sure.

It's easy to lose herself to the indecision. Easy to lose herself entirely: something that always haunted her prior use of magic, especially losing her consciousness to realms of data with nothing but her own thready memory as an anchor. It helps now, more than she can communicate, to hear Bucky speak. Hear him get a bit ornery with Five, and the consciousness's rationale.

And Matt — to hear him, like a voice murmured through suspension underwater, a voice with no source: simply everywhere at once, and still so muffled. Still so instinct. Telling her she needs to do this.

"I promised Kinsey this," Jane whispers, barely sound past her half-moving lips, "and I'll promise you too. I'm going to be careful. I'll do whatever I can not to hurt."

She can reach out, with astral, ephemeral hands, and feel the intelligence under her fingers — tremble. Her heart catches. She's not certain what it is, but her anthropomorphizing mind wants to believe it's the fear she so wonders. Fear perhaps Five feels.

I'm sorry, she thinks. A tear rolls free from one of Jane's sightless eyes.

Her hands move over her keys, just enough consciousness routed back to her body to execute her next program — and within it, Jane reaches. She reaches forward, searching atom by atom, byte by byte, for the runaway pieces of her will, boxing and packaging the intelligence that spreads vastly around her. She makes her surgery, promising as much care as she can, to take back every bit of her broken magic out.

"You're full of a great deal of judgment for a man who has more experience than most with being something other than what any rational God would have intended him to be, James Barnes," Five observes, in that placid, almost emotionless way. He doesn't answer Matt's question about the rumbling underground, either.

All of those ominous sounds, the darkness, the sudden throwing of bolts, what did they mean? What was their purpose, if not to prepare for some grand lashing-out in the face of Jane Foster's inevitable choice to reverse what was done to Kinsey?

A threat display, perhaps, like fanned feathers or raised hackles, from an entity that has no corporeal self to otherwise manipulate — none other than Kinsey's own?

Possibly. Perhaps that's why, when it fails to accomplish dissuading Jane Foster, Five makes use of the option that remains to him. Why he waits until her limbs have been removed to do so isn't clear, but her head lifts and her eyes open, and she turns her head to look at Matt. She? He? She lifts her arm as though to reach for him, but that arm is gone: it truncates halfway between her shoulder and the place her elbow would've been, once upon a time, the skin closest to its furthest reaches uneven in tone, lingering remnants of scar tissue from what could only have been an extremely messy severing.

"Will she forgive you later, I wonder, for doing to me what was done to her? Taking pieces of me away in the aftermath of an experiment that perhaps never should've been conducted in the first place, no matter how well-meaning the intention?"

As before when Zatanna was present, Kinsey's lips forms the words silently in time with the voice that emanates from the speakers, though Five's tone manages melancholy, somehow. Softness, volume modulation, inflection: he is grieving what is about to be done to him. To them?

It's still not clear.

He's silent after that, though, and there are no apocalyptic explosions to follow, no sudden appearances of the armed drones with which the Garage is outfitted.

Matt's seen Kinsey have a seizure before, as things tampered with the balance of her brain's activity. This one is mild by comparison, but still probably merits intervention on the part of the two stronger figures present.

Bit by bit, piece by piece, the resculpted elements of Jane Foster's paradigm-shifting delivery system for world peace are stripped out of the strange braid of consciousness that forms Kinsey's interior life, until the last of it — the last of it inside of her head — dissolves, and all of the tension leaves her body.

"As a man with more experience than most with being FUCKED with," James says, and his voice is drawn tauter than a bowstring, "I've got about no patience left for you taking a turn at it, too. God intended exactly what He intended for me; who are we to question?" The words come quickly to him, a reflex, but after comes a thought he has had more and more in his advanced years: if He is even out there. James wonders sometimes, after what he has seen and done. Eight decades took a toll on his faith.

But he says nothing more. He only finishes disarming Kinsey — quite literally — and, putting the limbs aside, moves to take up a clearly protective stance beside Jane.

The former Winter Soldier is clearly quite done having conversations, after that last jab. He only lends his physicality now, holding Kinsey down — gently — when necessary as Jane does her work.

If Five was bent on intimating them into backing down — playing on the killer A.I. trope often seen in science fiction — he saved the most sinister scare for last. With the lights barely on, and a literally disarmed Kinsey Sheridan looking up at her lover, pointing her scarred stump at him as her lips pantomime the melancholy words of the foreign entity that has commandeered her mangled frame. It's more the macabre manner of Five's delivery than the content itself that gives Matt pause. He is confident in what they are doing, and certain that Kinsey will not only understand it but agree that it was the only responsible course they could take.

The A.I. has better luck with James, finally managing to get a real rise out of a shell shocked ex-soldier, and even prompting him to invoke the name of the Almighty — a display of religiosity that he's never seen to date with the Winter Soldier.

Then Kinsey is seizing up, and as Matt drops his batons and lays his hands on her to keep her steady, to keep her from swallowing her own goddamn tongue, he feels a real pang of fear. Jane is doing her work — but what does Five have planned? Could he be so spiteful as to take down Kinsey with him? Could he be countering Jane's unusual exorcism with demonic trick up his sleeve?

In the end, the answer seems to be none of the above. It was all a feint, a ruse. This iteration of Five is silenced — perhaps permanently — and Kinsey slumps forward, asleep or as good as, and Matt lets out an exhale he didn't know had been trapped in his breath.

"Jane?" he murmurs. "Is it over?"

The next world trickles into this one, and through the void of her sieved consciousness, Jane can hear James Barnes' voice — his temper, distant but still visceral.

Alarm hits her from where she is, almost makes her working hands falter. But she must let it go, must trust all is well when she cannot see, cannot feel, cannot interact, and trusts him, trusts Matt… and loses herself entirely to a surgery made on Kinsey's mind.

It is not like working with her hands, not like any fine, dextrous work she's had to undertake in the patient madness that is electrical engineering: it's not like holding her fingers absolutely still to solder wiring to a pinpoint-size sensor, or to miss and undo days of work entirely. This is different, made with no flicker of muscle but her outstretched will, and to make a mistake is not to lose some forgettable project… but the intracacies of someone's living mind.

But she must err on being thorough. She cannot leave a trace of her packaging script behind, or its fused magic: cannot leave a scrape that could be replicated and built upon by a hungry consciousness that wishes the same for itself as anyone else. Cannot allow for the contingency of anything, Five included, to rob Kinsey of her agency.

Jane reaches out, and pulls every bit of it back to her: takes that quantum information, and with a quiet weariness, destroys it.

The magic begins to run hot in her blood. She's not supposed to remain long this way. It moves like a second life through her flesh, a moving power that offers its own nirvana. It addicted her once. Part of her wants to again. Easy to get lost in it. Easy.

But Jane has had enough of magic. Through the fog, she reaches to take control of her own hand, and smears through the runes drawn on her arm.

She severs the connection, and retreats back to her body, her eyes flickering, straining to adjust, as the rest of her lurches with the vertigo of her elastic-banded consciousness.

"Over," she answers Matt, voice thick. Breathing in, she blinks her eyes and turns her head, pocketing the soul gem as her attention turns back — fixed on the way Bucky and Matt weigh Kinsey's convulsing body down, freed of her prostheses. Jane freezes, unsure. "Everyone OK?"

Everything on the outside of Kinsey quiets. The rumbling underground gradually spools down with the natural curve of machinery unhanded by whatever had been driving it, the lights remain off — they were toggled, they'll need to be turned on again — but there's no more announcement of Five through the speakers in the room at all. The whipcrack tension of Kinsey's body drains out of her, leaving her limp and disoriented: she reaches for her face, but she's right-handed and her right hand is presently wherever James Barnes put it down as he dismantled the pieces of her most likely to cause the rest of them harm.

"Matt? Five?" Tongue sluggish, she articulates the word, her head a hive full of bees. Through the buzzing she probes for the other occupant of her own skull, and her eyes close, brows knitted against the blinding white light of an oncoming migraine. "…Five?"

There's no voice from the speakers to announce Five's presence, and her expression doesn't change to announce any kind of internal dialogue, either. No relief, no dread. Nothing between those poles of feeling.

"He won't talk to me," is the last thing she says before she lets herself sink into a soundless darkness: words that suggest the AI remains present, but dormant, or wounded, or possibly resentful.

Discerning one way or another will have to wait for the return of a kinder consciousness.

It is not often Bucky speaks much about faith, for many reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that the passing decades have ground whatever piety he had down to near-nothing.

Yet even after all this time, there are aspects about a man's upbringing that die hard. And the main reason men looked to God, when he was young, was precisely to explain those things that were cruel or illogical beyond all explaining or belief. To him, it is more than possible his life could have been according to the plan of a God whose plans he could not possibly understand or grasp. He's not ruling it out, and he cannot help but point that out in response to some assumption God has to be either rational or kind.

But nowadays, after all he's seen and done, he's revised that opinion a bit. He's seen that humans are petty, cruel, and vicious enough to do it all to themselves.

As Kinsey begins to seize, however, the time for philosophical debates reaches an end. Carefully, James holds her down until it is over… and he continues to, even after she goes still. He didn't live this long by being particularly trusting.

He doesn't lean back up until Jane confirms: it's over.

"I'm fine," he says, though his tone of voice suggests he thinks his personal state of being to be rather irrelevant. Rising up, he starts looking for the lights to turn them back on. This shit is Alien creepy, right now.

Kinsey begins to slacken, and Jane confirms that it's over — that this weeks-long nightmare be finally finished. But neither James nor Matt seem entirely satisfied with that terse assurance of hers, if for different reasons. Barnes' well-honed survival instinct drives him to keep his arms on Kinsey even after her minor seizure has quieted, but even in the darkness you only need to take a look at Matt Murdock's anguished features to tell that it's concern that keeps him at a crouch over the young woman on the couch. The same sentiment prompts him to gently 'Shhh,' at Kinsey when she stirs and slurringly call first his name, and then the name of the entity they just — corrected? Banished? Impossible to say.

"It's okay, okay," he murmurs to her, trying and failing to smile, his face wrenching when she brings the stump of her right arm up in a futile effort to touch nonexistent fingers to her aching head. When unconsciousness finally claims her, Matt's hand cradles the base of her skull and lays it gently against one of the sofa's pillows.

He should feel triumphant, but looks stricken as he turns his profile back to the pair still in the room. Just like he should be thanking these friends — both — for making this rescue possibly despite just having been through their own travail, but can't bring himself to summon the words past his throat. "I'll, ah…" Matt says haltingly. "I'll keep a watch on her. You two should get back to New York and — and rest." Rest, not 'fuck off': guarded and brittle as he may be at the moment, he's still concerned for their wellbeing.

And the wellbeing of others, to judge from the pained furrowing of his brow that comes when remembrance suddenly strikes him. "Oh my god, Jess. Is she — how do we?"

It always takes some time to cross worlds. And still an amateur in many ways when it comes to magic, Jane needs every moment to rebalance herself back to the flesh.

Her consciousness reasserts itself, and her body tenses in renewed life, where she inhales quickly and rubs something away from under one eye. Her attention turns, tired but sharp, drawn on Kinsey's condition, and the woman's dying spasms as she's held down between two men. She looks so much smaller without — those prostheses, thinks Jane, in a moment of detachment. Until Kinsey awakens, speaks, and she arrests further thought to listen.

It's a relief to hear the woman speak, and now differently than before: different is good. Nothing is conclusive in that small window between Kinsey's few words and her drifting unconsciousness for Jane to test if anything about Five is potentially damaged — but it may need to wait.

Closing her laptop, Jane drifts to Bucky's side, giving him a silent one-over at his proclamation of being 'fine', a hand on his arm, but her dark eyes turn when Matt grants them both leave. Rest, he says. Her stomach turns at the thought. Rest is the last thing she wants to do.

She wants to tell him she's sorry. Instead, she says, "You know how to call us if anything changes. We'll come immediately if so."

And Jessica. "She's fine," promises Jane, hoping she'll be believed. Even in that state, I didn't want to really hurt anyone, is also what she wants to say, but doesn't dare. "It's like getting sent to your room. She's safe." Her free hand opens to that green gem still in her palm, and she hands it to Bucky for even safer keeping. Try wresting anything off the body of the Winter Soldier. "We're going to take this to Zatanna. She'll know the better intricacies. As I remember sensing, we'll need to send some people in and get Jessica out."

It only takes one look at Matt's expression, once Jane declares an all-clear, for James to quickly and respectfully quit Kinsey's side. The anguished concern there is not anything that invites intrusion from a third party… much less one who was responsible for this situation to begin with.

James retreats, fleeing back to Jane's side. He could bring back the limbs he detached, but they're not far at hand, and he feels like he's touched enough for today. Done enough for today. Highlighting Murdock's disability in such a way just seems unnecessary.

He glances down when Jane offers him the gem for safekeeping. He takes it with his right hand, with a gentleness appropriate for the fact one of their closest friends is stuck within.

His gaze returns to Murdock afterwards. His silence makes plain he is perfectly aware what Matt could say, yet cannot bring himself to say just now — and that he doesn't blame the guy at all for his conflicted emotions at the moment. James doesn't even know what to feel about HIMSELF right now. He nods mutely as Jane entreats Matt to call at once if anything changes.

"Not New York just yet," is all he says, in agreement with Jane. "Gotham first. We have a lot to fix, starting with Jessica. Shadowcrest is the next stop."

This is a room full of people who cannot say what they feel, in part because they don't necessarily know what they think or feel about their tangle of circumstances. For nearly half a year, Matt Murdock threw himself into the defense of Bucky Barnes (and by extension Jane Foster) with single-minded ferocity that encompassed and united both sides of his bifurcated life. They were the first people he willingly revealed his identities to. It feels beyond strange to not be able to offer them simple gratitude, or comfort, or even know what to say to them.

All he does know is that he's tired. Jane Foster's magical formula from earlier in the night may have healed the lethal wounds Matt gained in a giant, magical wolf's gaping maw — and even, he will find later tonight, reverted months worth of hard-earned scar tissue into smooth, unblemished skin. But he still almost died, still almost saw his girlfriend's personality wiped from existence by the A.I. in her head, and will certainly go to sleep asking himself just how far he was willing to go with those bastons in his hand had Five opted for fight rather than what seems to be flight.

He's worn to the bone. And so, clearly, are they: but James tells him plainly there is no time for either of them to rest on their laurels. He won't push back. "Okay," Matt says to their plan of action, seemingly content to trust them about Jessica's condition and the best path to bringing her back — or simply too exhausted to press them on it.

"Call me," he says. And a beat later, adds: "When it's time to go in, I mean. I know at least one other person who will want to come along."

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