Role Reversals

April 25, 2018:

Daredevil, driven to the brink, has kidnapped the leaders of the Russian mob in a desperate hunt for Wilson Fisk. It's up to Bucky Barnes and Jane Foster to keep the vigilante from losing himself along the way.

The basement below Fogwell's Gym in Hell's Kitchen

Characters

NPCs: Vladimir Rashnakov, Anatoly Rashnakov

Mentions: Wilson Fisk

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It's a fair spring evening in New York City. After a brutally long winter, this is one of the first nights that truly smacks of the season. In most of Manhattan the streets are noisy, raucous, and teeming as the neighborhood residents take to the sidewalks and enjoy the warm air. In the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen, however, nights are inevitably more subdued. When the sun sets on those streets, most people with sense shutter their windows and hole up — no matter how tempting a sweet spring breeze can be.

Inside one of those shuttered storefronts is the famed Fogwell's Boxing Gym — currently under new and currently undisclosed management. Whoever the new owner is has undertaken expansive renovations, though seemingly with an eye towards restoration rather than re-invention. The boxing ring has been reupholstered, the smell of mildew and old blood has — for any nose but Matt Murdocks' — mostly been scrubbed clean. There are new benches with freshly lacquered wood. The walls have a new coat of paint, and stand ready to be lovingly re-adorned with pictures, newspaper clips, and trophies marking pugilistic triumphs of days past. It's a work in progress, but it's coming along exactly as it should.

At first glance there's nothing, really, to hint that anything is amiss or untoward regarding the vast and dimly lit space. At least until the sounds of a sudden, shrill, but masculine scream sounds from the basement below, accompanied by another voice shouting, cursing — in Russian.

Most people don't walk Hell's Kitchen at night. The former Winter Soldier is not most people.

It's been many long months since those early days when Jane Foster walked into Hell's Kitchen alone, and brought Daredevil and Winter Soldier to come to blows. Much has changed since then, most of it to do with the way Bucky and Jane return to Hell's Kitchen hand in hand to visit Matt, but the neighborhood itself hasn't changed much at all. Though Bucky's trained Jane a great deal since then, he still keeps her close as they head to Fogwell's. Force of habit.

"Remember the first time I found you wandering around here?" he asks, because he can't help but tease.

The familiar gym soon comes into view, though Bucky isn't given too much time to indulge in the nostalgia this time. He stops dead as that scream comes echoing up from the basement, pulling up so short he probably yanks Jane to a halt too.

He gestures immediately for silence, his entire aspect shifting back into the lupine quiet of the Winter Soldier. "Someone's not happy," he says, low, though Jane probably doesn't need the translation by now. "Cover me?" And with that, he circles around towards the way down to the basement, leveraging scouting instincts older than most living men, keeping quiet in the hopes of getting a preemptive look at what's going on.

"Remember the first time you found yourself sleeping on the couch?" Jane shoots back, the words ensconced with a dangerous slant of her brown eyes.

It lasts for a beat, then falls apart into the bluff that it is; she cannot help her own smile, spirits feeling their lightest in long weeks. There is no compartmentalizing the troubles that wait on the wings of their life — but, if just for a moment, Jane can feel the hope in a tepid spring evening. Tonight is the first time, after a too-long winter, she's felt warm.

She has never liked the cold.

"Besides," she continues, leaning her head briefly to Bucky's arm, "I wasn't wandering. There was a very deliberate —"

He hears something far before she can, but Jane knows how to heed the instant he signals. She goes still, adrenaline already folding into her blood. Sharp-eyed and alert.

Somewhat closer, and able to concentrate, she parses distant words. Learning Russian — among some other languages — has been part and parcel with having the ex-Winter Soldier in her life.

"Always," Jane answers Bucky, voice low. She steps light-footed, keeping pace even as she opens her phone and consults the still-handy STUFF app for her Kahr P380. The tiny derringer folds into her equally-tiny hand. Checking the weapon, she follows, her eyes on everywhere else but James Barnes — checking halls, corners, as she keeps sentry on his turned back.

Bucky Barnes tries to creep, to stalk, drawing on decades of stealth and subterfuge that were the Winter Soldier's second nature. He's a master of the art, but in this case he's plying his craft at someone who is, for his own strange reasons, utterly immune. Someone who, if he hadn't been quite so distracted by other business, would have heard them coming from a block away — much less from around the corner, after it was too late to silence his guests.

The voice that sounds up from the long and unlit stairwell that leads down to the basement beneath Fogwell's, that sounds over the continuing screams and shouts, is a loud and ragged bark — but it's unmistakably that of their friend, Matt Murdock. "GET OUT OF HERE," the voice rages upward at them from the dark below. "TURN AROUND AND WALK BACK OUT THOSE DOORS! BOTH OF YOU!"

The two Russians shouting and snarling in their own language momentarily exchange glances as Daredevil suddenly starts snarling at someone upstairs.

Perfectly innocent individuals might choose this moment to start shouting for help. Those who are not so innocent…and these two certainly apply…are a little more cautious about who they appeal to. There is bad, and there is worse, and they think they know what they're dealing with here. A known quantity who will dish out pain but whom they'll ultimately survive.

Unknowns? Not so easily quantified.

So they freeze, a pair of bound, lean, and hungry wolves, choosing to take this moment to catch their breath and, well, to try to work on getting loose while their angry devil-suited captor is otherwise distracted.

Remember that time you found yourself sleeping on the couch? That rejoinder wins every time. Bucky sighs, but takes the point.

Soon enough something distracts them both entirely from warm spring evenings and rare moments of downtime. It seems there's no rest for the wicked, and someone in the basement of Fogwell's is doing a whole lot of 'not resting.' As Bucky draws closer, his own sharp senses start to absorb enough data from what's going on to form a vague picture of the likely events.

The screaming's all in Russian. And it's not the yelling of anyone engaged in combat. These are the screams of men being hurt. In his time, the former Winter Soldier has run enough interrogations to know the sound.

But when Matt's familiar voice comes raging up the stairs, more pissed off than he's ever heard it — well, that gets James Barnes to actually startle in a way he hasn't in a long time. He cuts a sharp 'what the fuck?' glance at Jane, before he steps closer to the stairwell and starts a slow descent. No, this situation is entirely too strange for him to just turn and leave Matt, especially with the man's known martyr complex.

"I think it's too late for that," he says, unholstering his P220 as he descends. "«And what do my friends have to say for themselves?»" he continues in Russian.

The shout nearly jumps Jane Foster.

It is not so much the force of it, the suddenness of it, or even the raw, unbridled rage of it — but the familiarity of that voice vectored through all three. She has heard Matthew Murdock speak many times over this past year, soft-spoken, gentle, and wry with his friends, or clear, sharp, and demonstrative over the Court room —

But this? Jane flinches, her blood run cold, and her eyes meet Bucky's. His unspoken question in his meets startled horror in hers.

What the hell is going on?

For a moment, even she — woman of answers — hasn't the least idea what to do. Heeding, however, or leaving — Jane's not near close to doing that.

Thankfully, Bucky speaks up in answer, and it galvanizes her to follow, counting her steps down as her mind tries to prepare what the hell might be waiting down there. A man screaming in Russian. Matt pissed off in a way she didn't think possible.

"We're coming down," she calls, her own voice soft, surprisingly steady even to her own ears. As Bucky tends towards Russian, Jane's words are for Matt alone. "You know we can't leave. Are you OK?"

The sounds below remind the Winter Soldier of interrogations past, and darkened view that creeps into place as he and Jane make their way down the stairs confirms that first impression. The empty chamber of concrete looks like a bomb shelter. It's devoid of any identifying markings: just four spare walls and, for the most part, nothing but space between them.

But at the center of the space, illuminated by the dim, flickering fluorescence from a hanging lamp above, are three figures in a row.

On the far end is a man seated and bound to a chair. He's bleeding from his ear — a nasty cut beneath the lobe — his mouth, and his right pinky finger, which has been sawed to its bone and is pulsing blood. And, if the sodden look at the shoulder of his black shirt is any indication, he's bleeding from there, too. Ginger-haired, the spiky cut of it all disheveled, the bound man has a predatory, calculating look about him — even if he's currently subdued.

Standing before that man is Matt, or 'Daredevil', his back turned towards the approaching pair, shoulders slumped and heaving, his whole red-decked frame taut. There's a knife in his left hand that's dripping red onto the floor beneath.

Beyond him, closest to the pair, is another man, taller and thinner than his compatriot but similarly bound to a chair, with another discarded black mask beside him. In the space it's hard to see much about him, but there's blood seeping from his wrists, coating the wire where he's been struggling furiously against his bonds.

"You shouldn't have come down here," Matt says to Bucky and Jane, though he doesn't turn to face them. Much of the vehemence in his prior shout replaced with weariness and regret. There's a subtle grace-note of shame there, too.

Are you OK? Jane asks. "In the world of things that matter," Matt rasps to her, though pairs it with a sneer and a loom towards his victim, "that ranks about dead last right now. What does matter, are these men giving me what I fucking want."

The Winter Soldier asks what they have to say for themselves, and the predatory one has his first flicker of pause of the evening.

Vladimir Ranskahov had, indeed, screamed in pain for some of these cuts, involuntarily, but between them? He'd looked bored. It's Anatoly that is getting antsier, less and less full of resolve, swinging his gaze from his brother to his captor in worry.

But now the equation has changed. Just a little bit.

Anatoly, in Russian: «"Brother, I think that's…"»

«"Yes. I know. Shut up, Anatoly."»

«"But, Brother!"»

«"I said shut up.

Vladamir then fixes his gaze past Daredevil, to the Winter Soldier himself. Finally, he says, in the same language, "«"Our mutual friend here is having some trouble, it seems. He seems to have mistaken my hand for a good cut of filet mignon. I'll buy the drinks if you wish to take him out, calm him down."»

Hearing Matt Murdock shout is a little like hearing a cat suddenly let loose a lion's roar. While he doesn't think Murdock would ever bring either of them harm, the situation is still uncertain enough that Bucky stays decidedly in front of Jane as they descend the stairs.

She would notice, even from behind, a slight change enter his posture as he comes into eyeshot of the tableau that awaits below. Bucky Barnes sheds away, and steps back into the skin of the Winter Soldier. It's visible in the slight swagger that slips back into his walk, the arrogant and self-assured way he carries his head, the coldness of his blue eyes as he takes in each other the bound men. He bears himself like the Soviet horror story he once was — and still is.

Of course, to Daredevil's extraordinary senses, a slightly different picture is painted. The dichotomy of his friend is never more obvious than it is in this moment when both halves are being expressed… Bucky still clearly discernable beneath the cold callousness of the Winter Soldier. From James Barnes, there is no particular judgment or disgust to be sensed. Just a weariness and regret to match Matt's own. He detects the shame when Matt speaks, but Bucky's body language and tone of voice has nothing to say about that either.

A jolt of shock goes through him on seeing the knife, the blood, the condition of the bound man, but he betrays little of that — to ordinary senses, anyway. He only listens in silence as Daredevil speaks of what he wants.

"And what do you want?" James eventually asks Matt. He does not say it, not in front of the captives, but the implication is loud: what do you want badly enough to do this? "There are other ways to get it."

His attention turns as the man in the chair begins his appeal. "«Perhaps it is you who should listen to your brother»," the Soldier tells Vladimir blandly. The audible sound of the safety clicking off echoes in the basement, as the Winter Soldier steps forward in what is a rather transparent attempt to take over the interaction — to herd Matt Murdock away from becoming what James Barnes hoped he'd never have to become. Him.

You know who I am.»" It's not a question.

Consequence of her vantage point, but also of her unmistaken familiarity, Jane does not miss the way James Barnes changes.

The resurrected soldier climbs back into the frozen tomb of the Winter Soldier, and the transformation is so slight, so seamless, it could easily be missed. Her eyes weigh on the line of his back, and the way its steel-woven-musculature laces itself into different knot-work, and the weight casts off his shoulders into a predatory lightness. She meets the sea change without fear, revulsion, or askance.

A choice Jane made long ago. To love James Barnes properly, as she learned, is to accept both men. He was not a cold machine of the Soviets for all those decades, placid and vacant, but a person of memories, feelings, and rationalizations — rationalizations imprinted him to commit the acts he did. But he submitted to their control that long not because he thought himself a toy — but because he believed himself a man. The Winter Soldier is part of him, and she must too take that man into her arms, into her bed, into her heart. To reject any part of him would make all they have a lie.

Whether surprising or not, it was not difficult for her to love the Soldier as well. He has, too, been there for her so many times.

And Jane trusts Bucky's lead, following at his back as he clears them both a way in. Firearm still in hand, her aim falls, barrel pointed to the floor, as Jane's eyes quickly snap first to the bound, bloodied men, and then to the closer, turned shape of Daredevil.

Questions run her thoughts, but she doesn't give them the time. She has an idea what this is.

Her eyes crease against Matt's remark, but moreso the shame she can glean off him — she understands, she absolutely understands — but she holds her tongue as Bucky asks the question for both of them. And then follows it up with action —

Jane's mouth tightens. It's a solution, but not the one she wants just yet. "Wait —" she calls after Bucky. And just says simply, in a soft request: "Please."

'Matt,' she wants to say next, without thinking, and almost does. She made that mistake once. Easier not to repeat it, seeing their own friend again in his mask — the one she made him. "Everyone. Just wait. You need to tell us what the hell is going on. What happened?"

How's that for proof of character? After having lived through brain-washings and the stealing of his own soul, after having been forced to engage in any number of truly evil tasks, Bucky Barnes quietly offers to take on a few mortal sins more for a friend — to stop him from taking on the burdens he has. And were Matt not at the deep end of his own moral gyre, he'd appreciate that act of profound generosity more than he does. Which isn't to say he doesn't recognize the gesture at all; he sees it for what it is.

"There aren't," Matt says, quietly but forcefully, of there being other ways to get what he wants.

And then they're speaking the language he doesn't understand, again. At that exchange Daredevil grits his teeth, deliberates, and then darts suddenly forward, cat quick, and sends that knife slashing through the fabric and flesh guarding his victim's left pectoral. It rends a new line of red along Vladimir's chest. "New rule," he says through gritted teeth, voice sounding strange — thicker — in his own ears. "Everyone speaks English, otherwise he gets cut."

What happened? Jane asks, and at this, finally, Daredevil spins, newly bloodied knife in-hand. "Sorry. Did I forget to make introductions? These are the Ranskahov brothers." He gestures towards his freshly-cut victim with the knife. "Vladimir, here. Anatloy there. They run guns, heroin, and human-trafficking out of the Kitchen — all for a man named Wilson Fisk."

He lets the name hang in the air for a minute, lets it breathe, before he resumes. "And for about a year, now, I've been letting them do it. Not deliberately. But net result? I've moderately inconvenienced them. Teed up a few drug busts, freed some — " he stops himself, swallows hard enough that his adams apple makes a visible bob behind his suit. Whatever word he was going to finish with, he doesn't. "Even wrangling these two jokers into lock-up from time to time." His smile is quick, tight, and full of gallows humor as his head cocks to the right. "But they're always back on the street somehow. Enough."

He turns, rounding on Vladimir, though canting his head so Anatoly can see his profile while he snatches a fistful of the elder brother's hair and pulls his head back. "You tell me where to find Wilson Fisk, or your brother watches you bleed out."

These Russian gangsters think they know a lot.

For example, they know the Devil might mistake them for a side of beef. But they know he's never killed.

But the Nightmare?

Anatoly is opening his mouth like he's ready to crack now, while Vladimir shoots him looks which positively seethe. It is only Jane's soft voice that makes him hesitate. She says everyone, and some instinct makes him include himself in that.

And then Vladimir is snarling and swearing and crying out in pain again, and Daredevil is acting wholly unlike how he normally acts. And is threatening to kill. There is the Winter Soldier, who surely will. Guns are cocking, knives are out.

"Enough," Anatoly agrees, his voice strained. Vladimir is fine to let Anatoly watch him bleed out, but Anatoly is not so on board with this plan.

Agrees, in English, no less.

How much loyalty does Anatoly have? Less to Fisk than he has to his brother.

"He does not stay in same place for very long, Devil," he says. "But he makes many visits to the White Sands Art Gallery in the Upper East Side. And in three days, he was supposed to meet with us at one of our chop shops in Hell's Kitchen."

He offers up an address, and adds, "This is all we know of Fisk. He is a careful man. And now that we have told you…"

"Shut up, Anatoly!"

Anatoly ignores his raging brother. Raises his chin. "There is no need to kill us. We're as good as dead if we stay in New York, which means we're as good as dead to you. We can do nothing else here."

He looks to the Winter Soldier. "But you can hide us. You are a spectre when you wish to be, a ghost, and you can make of us revenants as well. Perhaps you can hide us even well enough that we might be able to testify, later, should you wish it. Unless you're just planning to murder him, in which case I suppose all I have to offer is an appeal to your mercy. We are criminals. But there is always crime. Killing us, it will not stop this."

James can feel Jane's eyes on his back. He can feel, also, her lack of revulsion, and for that he is grateful. Jane learned long ago that the Winter Soldier was not a mere mindless skin pulled over James Barnes' true self, but that — in the many decades the Soldier lived — he attained a certain life of his own. She realized and accepted that the man she has taken into her life is two personalities in one. Not just James Barnes, but Yakov Morozov as well.

She learned that 'Yasha' came to love her as well as James did, in his own separate ways. In fact, perhaps Yasha was the one to love her first. It was Yasha she first met.

Yasha has his ways of being there for his other friends, as well. Hands already drenched in blood do not mind a little more; a soul already forfeit to countless acts of evil does not blink at the accumulation of more, if it will spare a purer friend from becoming tainted. Matthew Murdock was there for James Barnes, defending what was left of a good man under all the evil he was forced to commit. Let James be there for Matt Murdock in the way he is best at being there; preserving the good man that Matt is, by taking the evil acts upon himself.

He can't stand for Daredevil having to compromise anything about what he is. Not when he's standing right here, already ruined, willing and able to play his part. It's for that reason that frustration grits his jaw and tenses his left arm as Daredevil cuts forward to lay that slice through flesh, taking a half-step forward at that demand English be spoken.

Yet Jane speaks up, briefly staying him with a sensible question: what's going on? The Winter Soldier pauses long enough to hear the responses. His eyes narrow at the name 'Fisk."

"What they do," he finally says, relenting back to English, "isn't because you let them. What they do is because they are filth. You've been what keeps them from doing worse."

The entire time, he has been watching Vladimir with his finger on the trigger — recognizing his brother's concern to be the weakest link here — but whatever additional weight his presence lends, it's Daredevil's threat which finally serves as the breaking point. James steps forward as if to stop Matt, but halts partway. The damage is done, and for him to physically interfere would make Daredevil seem weak in a way Matt would not thank him for.

Anatoly's appeal to him meets the stone of his expression. The Winter Soldier holds his silence, for a moment, though much of his attention remains fixed on Matt. If that knife moves, James is stopping it, Daredevil's reputation be damned. "Killing these two is a waste of your energy," James finally says to Matt. "They're no one. They can't operate here again. They won't."

There is a pause. The Soldier cocks an eye at Anatoly. "Yes?"

In a first show of armistice, or perhaps knowing she cannot back up any sort of mitigation with a gun in her hands, Jane checks the safety on her derringer and slips it into her coat pocket.

She holds her breath as James Barnes offers up his own soul to take as Matt Murdock's debt. And Matt refuses. Relief and frustration flicker through her, but Jane has little time to court either feeling for long — as Matt lashes forward with uncanny speed, and spills blood.

Her next breath holds, and her jaw tightens. Jane has seen so much this last year, so much, but it still affects her; the act of violence pinches pain into her face. She turns a faceless glance to Bucky.

But there is no time to dwell for long, and Jane's attention slides back, feeling herself — strangely so — taken aback by the particular, serrated drag of Matt's words. A strange thing to feel, a part of her thinks in detachment, when surrounded by bloodied men and about to watch an execution take place. But it hurts, because Matt's never spoken to her this way before — didn't think she's ever heard him speak, or sneer, like that at all. Is this new? Is this really him? Some part of him she's never met?

The introduction of the pair of men weighs over Jane's face. Her expression darkens, but not in judgment — more a forboding sense of deja vu. Taking someone from the world to protect it from further sins. She knows that choice. She made it once. Is this any different?

What is the right answer here? Stand back and watch Matt make the same choice? Stand back and watch James try to fall on this sword? The Russians themselves offer an option; Jane listens facelessly, then turns her attention away. She won't pay them heed.

"Daredevil," she calls, even though the name feels alien on her lips to say, the way she says it is unchanged. Matt, she would say, the exact same way. "Listen to James. Please." She steps forward, empty hands outstretched, forgetting in this moment he cannot see her gesture, its silent plea to please, please wait. "None of this is a surprise to you, right? You got into this knowing this is what you'd be dealing with. That you'd be dealing, every day, with these sorts of people. Was this your gameplan from the start? To kill them?"

Jane's voice is soft. "Because if it starts here, I promise you, it won't end here. What happened? Why now, why them?"

Bucky Barnes — no, the Winter Soldier — tells Daredevil that these two men are filth, not worth killing. It's his final gambit to convince the vigilante not to sully himself, not to plumb the depths he was forced to navigate by the Russians and Hydra. Meanwhile, Anatoly makes his own move, relinquishing exactly what Daredevil was asking for — leads on Wilson Fisk's whereabouts — and assuring him that the revelation makes them dead men should they remain in New York. Let them go, and they will vanish, never again to trouble Matt Murdock's precious city.

This gentle dissuasion, coupled with a minor victory, should be enough to make Matt relent. Shouldn't it? But for some reason the building pressure only meets with resistance, seen there in a tautening of Daredevil's frame, which in turn pulls his grip, and consequently Vladimir's head, backwards even further. The knife is just inches from the man's throat; it wavers in hands trembling from adrenaline and exhaustion.

And then Jane cuts to the heart of it. Why now? She's right. He knew what he was doing when he started this. Because of his unique gifts he's seen the full spectrum of the human condition. Especially in the last year and a half, he has seen human beings acting on their worst impulses and basest instincts. Why is he now cracking and skidding perilously close to the line that separates hero from murderous vigilante?

He struggles with the question. Not with how to answer it — but with the worry that if he gives the truth voice, he'll crack under its awful weight. Two beats, three, and then: "They're killing them," he whispers to the woman behind him through gritted teeth. "Everyone I — every woman I've saved since I started wearing the mask. They're sending someone dressed like I used to dress, before…" before she made him the red suit he wears now, "…and beating them to death." His jaw clenches and his frame briefly shakes, the knife straying closer to Vladimir's neck. "Ten that I know of. There may be more. All to — all for payback. And to make the police think I'm some…"

The word drifts unspoken in the dark, dank air of the unlit basement: Monster.

"Do it," he hisses at Daredevil. "Do it, bleeding heart bitch. Now you know, da? You know you don't do any good. You put on pyjamas like little boy and and play slap and tickle with your enemies. You think you frighten us and then swing off feeling good about yourself. A boy at play instead of a man at war. So do it! If you wanted to save these women, you'd have shed blood long before."

Now it's Anatoly's turn to snarl, "Vladimir! Shut up! Listen, he's crazy, he doesn't mean it—"

Vladimir starts laughing. "Do it! I once rip out a man's ribs to escape from prison, you think I am afraid of you and your little knife? You think I'm not good enough to kill? Huh? You think I'm afraid of you? Of the Ziminy Soldat?"

Head yanked back, knife to his throat, he spits, projecting it just a little bit.

Crazy, or unwilling to beg for mercy, or just believing he's going to die anyway and intent on dying in defiance, it is the very man who might be the first to sully Daredevil's hands who starts howling for his own execution. Perhaps he even understands the magnitude of what is going on here. It is no small thing for a demon, to be the one to take a soul.

It should be enough to make Daredevil relent. It doesn't, and Matt tells them why. The features of the Winter Soldier go as expressionless as a sheet of ice. They've beat to death all the women he's saved, and all to make the police think he's some monster…

"Don't make it true," James finally says to Matt.

The Winter Soldier, however. He has the freedom to act. He can be the monster.

Vladimir starts to rant, to taunt, to try to goad the Daredevil into soiling his hands with blood. He'll soon enough find himself interrupted by the muzzle of the Soldier's suppressed gun pointed between his eyes. It holds there, briefly. Then the gun's barrel abruptly drops — and fires dead into Vladimir's right knee.

"You should listen to your brother," the Soldier says, once the echo of the gunshot fades. "He's the smart one. He bought you a lighter punishment than you deserve — and may yet get."

His gaze turns towards Anatoly. "That was my mercy. I accept your offer to testify in exchange. You do this on Fisk's orders?"

The truth runs them both.

The Winter Soldier goes cold. Jane Foster, on the other hand, can barely conceal her fury. It flints fire to her dark eyes.

They rivet towards the two men tethered, bleeding, in their chairs. Men, on orders, who are responsible for the murders of women. They like to prey on the weak, do they?

If there was mercy in Jane's heart, it empties out — a decision of her own, long made, months ago. There are some monsters in this world who serve no purpose than to hurt others and bring suffering. They should not be allowed lives to make more victims.

She does not speak immediately, for what happens next, happens fast. The gunshot erases Vladimir's knee joint, and Jane neither flinches to the sound nor the gore of it. She knows the Winter Soldier well enough.

In the wake of it, there is movement near Matt's side. A moment later, a light, careful touch brushes his other arm. Jane, reaching out, not with any desire to restrain or impede, but to root him back from where the rage must have him. "No one can stop you from doing that — but there's no going back if you do. There doesn't have to be death here."

Her eyes turn. "If he doesn't answer well, James, the sciatic nerve innervates the knee. It's the largest one." The rest is left unsaid.

Vladimir does what he can to bait Daredevil, and send that knife sawing upward to pierce the soft flesh of his throat and send blood gushing out where the knife opens him up. Matt can almost taste the copper in the air as the Russian rants.

What he would have done had Bucky not intervened may be an open question — what happens next happens fast, it's true. But Daredevil can see it coming with that strange sensory awareness that borders on precognition — even with Vladimir's spit coating the lenses he's never really needed. He sees the hand with the gun veer towards a cursing, rage-filled Vladimir's head, then towards the knee. There's time to stop it; he's as fast or faster than Bucky. But he lets it happen, and in that milisecond of notice steadies himself for a blast so loud it should send him reeling.

It doesn't. Instead, it provides a jolt of clarity that's only bolstered by Jane's quiet voice: No one can stop you from doing that — but there's no going back if you do. It's his choice, his soul in the hazard, along with the lives of the people he wants to protect. He swallows as he considers the varying factors: vengeance, justice, short-term satisfaction versus the possibility of long-term benefits… and risks.

"They're Fisk's main muscle," Daredevil says of the brothers, letting that handful of hair go with a shove and standing back just a few feet from the newly kneeless man, chest heaving. "If they didn't wield the weapons themselves, they had a hand in setting it in motion. And they can help us stop it."

Anatoly goes white as the shot fires. Then he sags as he realizes it's only his fool brother's knee. Vladimir is screaming in pain, but he's laughing too.

Very. Crazy.

Anatoly takes a long, deep breath. And focuses on the Winter Soldier, the voice who is talking to him, who just spared his brother, and who seems saner, right now, than the Devil who might well be living up to his name in the eyes of these Russians for the first time.

"No. We didn't kill those women. Though some in our gang…"

He eyes Daredevil sidelong. "He put on cage fights to choose the right one. Some in our gang did compete, but none of them won. The one who did wasn't even from any of the gangs. A quarter of a million was the prize. It brought people from all over the world. Underground cage fighters. The one who won just calls himself Ikari. He came from overseas, a stranger. He earns a bounty for every head he takes. Our employer…"

He hesitates.

"Fisk…he is wanting all who oppose him to know it is not death they should fear from him, but misery. He says he wants to show his enemies he will take all, and leave them to live in the desolation he has created for them. To make examples, so all think twice before stepping into his business once more. And this all I know of this affair, I swear it. I will testify."

Jane speaks of the sciatic nerve. A faint hint of humor quirks in James' eyes. "Oh, I know," he says, through Vladimir's screams and laughter. "That nerve and I are old friends. But I don't think we'll have to meet again tonight."

He glances at Anatoly, pointedly.

But he seems to have achieved his goal, for now — break that tension and prevent Matt from doing something he'll only regret. Prevent him from starting on the path to becoming someone like him. The world already has too many Winter Soldiers, but it doesn't have enough Matthew Murdocks. Men who would stand up and defend the innocent, without sacrificing their own souls in the process. That Matt could have stopped him and chose not to is just even more of a relief.

Still, he keeps himself slightly between Matt and the two Russians, even as he puts up his weapon and lets Jane say aloud what he has just said in blood.

In expressionless silence, he listens as Matt speaks, and as Anatoly adds his piece. Disgust flickers in his eyes to hear the cage fights described. To hear Fisk's desires laid out.

Finally, he holsters his weapon. "I'll make you disappear," he says laconically, "in exchange for your testimony when the time comes. You and your fuckwit brother. That's more mercy than Fisk would have shown you, if I had cut you loose after you failed him. Maybe the people on his payroll oughta think about that before they sign up." His gaze tracks over to Daredevil. "They definitely oughta think about how I won't be nice enough to stop this guy, next time."

It's all talk, of course, but the show must be played out.

There are few worse sounds than sick, inhuman sounds coming from a man's mouth.

Vladimir laughs through his screams, and Jane's blood runs cold. A reminder, again, of what she already knows: that people must share a world with monsters.

Hearing James's voice, quirked with something wry even as blood pools at his back, is a strange salve. Jane forces herself to ignore the rest.

Her dark eyes are back up on Daredevil, strangely too-patient for all that is going on, watching him as she too listens to Anatoly wage his deal — a negotiation of mercy for information. "This Fisk," she tells him, "we'll help you nail him to the wall. You don't have to go at this alone, and now there's options. We can find the murderer and put a stop to it. Then go after him."

His mask hides so much facial nuance her eyes want to search; Jane's own design, foiling her. "Does this work for you?"

Anatoly continues on his sensible route, giving this strange and unpredictable trio all the information they ask for. He denies involvement in the murder of the ten women, but does outline Fisk's careful cultivation of the perfect assassin, and even provides a name for the masked martial artist Daredevil faced in Allie LeGrange's apartment: Ikari. Matt commits it to memory, even while he wonders whether the sense of barely-held restraint he is showing at this instant will hold when he does find him.

Meanwhile, Bucky negotiates — offers protection for the pair from Fisk in exchange for testimony. Daredevil does not have the wherewithal to explain that he has played this very game before, lining up the perfect witness to bring Fisks's world crashing down, only to see it go down the drain thanks to a nonprofit on the take and a well-exploited peanut allergy. The odds that Anatoly survives and sees a courtroom in the face of Fisks's resources and ruthlessness seems remote… but neither will killing him here and now bring Fisk any closer to justice.

But he would have killed them, if the world-famous assassin and the woman he's fairly sure has murdered a boatload of Hydra officers hadn't been here to talk him down. He would have gotten what he could from Anatoly, including Fisk's whereabouts, and then murdered them both before moving on to their master. After a year of struggling against Wilson Fisk's invisible empire with nothing to show for it but a list of dead girls, abandoning all those principles he'd clung to seemed like the only choice left. That it was worth losing his own soul in the process.

And even now, where Jane Foster tells him there are other pieces on the board — other avenues he can take — he's not sure he believes her.

Does this work for you? she asks him. He lets out a long and ragged breath before he sends the knife clattering to the concrete floor and says: "Yeah. For now."

As if sensing Jane's disquiet, James glances at her. He always forgets that for how tough she is, this is still much newer to her than it is to him. He holds her gaze a long moment, a bracing sort of look, before he glances away again. He doesn't touch her, doesn't take her hand, doesn't reassure her; this isn't the place.

Later. In private.

Jane promises their assistance to pin this Wilson Fisk down; after they get this murderer first, of course. This Ikari. James slants his gaze askance at Daredevil, watching for the reaction. He himself has more than an inkling of the futility of offering anyone protection from the hand of vengeance — he was the hand of vengeance, often enough, to know how little luck people generally have in escaping it — but some song-and-dances need to be played out despite their pointlessness.

That is the cost of retaining one's soul.

He senses, too, how utterly close Matt is to a critical breaking point. Even now, he doesn't try to call attention to it. He simply steps closer to Vladimir and reaches to apply pressure to the points in the neck that will induce swift, silent unconsciousness. He moves to repeat with Anatoly.

"They're not worth it," he finally says, once there are no ears to hear. "I can tell you from experience — it is not worth it."

Jane finds James's eyes.

He glances silently at her; she meets it in an equally faceless look. Her eyes need not search his long to find understanding. Her expression flickers between the seams, apprehension gentling down into safety.

Enough is communicated between their eyes in that moment; the rest for later, the Winter Soldier returns to the two men, and Jane lets her attention focus back on Matt. She lingers close by, though she holds a deliberate distance as not to crowd him — his fury is palpable, and sometimes such things need their space to ventilate. She knows hers do.

She is a knot of concern and barely-contained sympathy, layered with a colder sort of understanding. If Matt had taken a life tonight, Jane would be heartbroken for him, but not judgmental.

But he does not. The knife clatters free from his hand, and she lets go a breath she didn't realize she was holding. Abstaining from rubbing her hands over her face, Jane glances aside to watch the rote, familiar ways the Soldier blood chokes their Russian hostages to unconsciousness. The process takes seconds, and soon they are entombed in silence.

James's words bring a pinch to her eyes, fastened still on Matt. He consents to their proposal, but he doesn't sound convinced.

The details can wait.

Jane reaches to briefly, lightly, take the Devil's hand. "I'm so sorry, Matt," she says in a whisper.

They're not worth it, the Winter Soldier tells him, from experience.

What a strange turn of fate this is. When Matt Murdock first met Jane Foster and Bucky Barnes, she'd strayed — or by her own accounting, deliberately veered — out of her depth, and run up against the same Russian mob whose leadership they have seemingly decapitated tonight. Back then, on that wintry night in Hell's Kitchen, it had been Matt who had almost come to blows with the 'Winter Soldier,' a callous and shadowy assassin seemingly prepared to execute the gangsters without a second thought. But Matt held his ground, and Bucky — or 'Yasha' — relented.

Now, it's James and Jane holding him back, with patience and tenderness — even if it accompanied by the odd gunshot or choke-out. He'll see the irony in it when he's able to think clearly again. Eventually, he'll probably even come to appreciate the role they played in keeping him true to the path he'd set himself on a year and a half ago. But here, in the aftermath of that raging storm of emotion, he feels tired. Numb, too, except for the sorrow and guilt that grip him when he feels Jane's hand and she says what she has to say. She'll find the red glove slick and sticky with blood that's not his own.

"I'm not the one who needs sympathies," Matt murmurs, and there's the inevitable strain of self-loathing in his voice. He's always worn the misfortunes of others on his shoulders, even when they're less directly connected to him than these women, whose voices he's heard echoing in his head for days now. There's a puff of breath that's well-short of a laugh. "They don't even need it," the man in red adds with bitter rue. "What they need is — justice."

Even if he's never been less sure of his ability to provide it.

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