No Shortcuts Out of Hell

September 09, 2018:

As the Defenders prepare to take on Wilson Fisk, Matt Murdock and Luke Cage talk about crime, punishment, and what to do in the face of immeasurable loss.

//Danny Rand's apartment. //


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jessica Jones, Kinsey Sheridan, Danny Rand

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

It's been two days since Matt Murdock stumbled half-dead into Danny Rand's apartment, triggering all kinds of alarms and breaking one very good vase. Two days, and he still hasn't left. That owes itself less to his condition — he is relatively mobile — and more to the fact that this palatial compound has most of what he needs to recuperate. A more than comfortable bed, food and drink, even a private dojo so that he can work through stiff and aching muscles.

So he hasn't left. He's devoted himself with single-minded purpose to mending himself, and that means, as his sensei taught him, hours upon hours of meditation. This hour finds him on the rooftop in a plain white t-shirt and some well-worn jeans, seated on the deck in lotus position with his back straight and palms upturned and resting on his knees. His eyes — one swollen and one still in good shape — are closed. And for all the damage done to his body during his capture, the man has at least the veneer of equanimity.

There's a drizzle that's dampened his clothing and his moppy head of hair, but he hasn't bothered to move himself under the shading. Maybe he will in another half-hour.

Luke has steadily retained his vigil at Stark Tower's by Jess' bedside, though at other's insistences he's started taking a few more breaks here and there to ensure he doesn't lose the last grips of his sanity. That, and in so many words, he's been told he's being an ass. So.

He's decided to run an errand back to Rand's house under the guise of doing something for Jessica, namely picking up a few of her things to make her more comfortable and he finally grabs a proper shower and shave so he doesn't scare the living daylights out of her when she eventually wakes. His head is now properly bald again, and he's trimmed up his wild facial hair back into his managed goatee. Not smelling like death in a hospital setting is also a plus.

A bag packed and a pair of his thick work gloves found, he now seeks out Matt to check on him before he makes the eventual return to the Tower. After a preliminary search of the estate, he heads up to the rooftop patio to find the Devil there in his meditative state. As soon as the door quietly creaks open announcing someone's presence, the air practically permeates with the darkness that Luke carries with him. There is a low, steady thrum of his heart and an evenness to his breathing that makes him seem cold. Calculating. It's the murderous heat radiating off of him, like a ticking time bomb ready to go off. "How much longer do you think you're going to need?" The question is vague, it could be applied to any number of things from Matt's current chi-centering session to his recovery time. The way it's poised though, it seems to carry the unspoken postscript of 'before we hunt Fisk down'.

There's no startlement, the way you'd get if you woke someone from a nap. Matt is perfectly lucid and aware when he's like this. He probably heard Luke's singular heartbeat, his heavy footfalls, coming from two floors down.

The hours spent at this — clearing the mind, centering the self — help immeasurably with the guilt that wants to well up whenever he's reminded of the man. For all that Cage absolved him of getting captured and failing to protect Jessica, Matt can't let it go. There are a lot of things around that harrowing couple of days he can't let go.

His eyes open. And even if he doesn't need them to see, they're still useful signals of his mind and mood to others. Here they show weariness, concern, and a certain grim resolve. "I'm ready," says the man with a broken rib as he wipes the raindrops away from his face. Nothing to be done about the rib except rest, which he can't afford to do. "It's almost more about getting the rest of the pieces in motion." He pushes himself to a rise with only the briefest wince, standing barefoot on the rooftop. "SHIELD's got to seize the assets, the drug operation, make the right arrests of the cops and politicians all at once. That kind of dragnet takes a little time, but I think we're there. Maybe as early as tomorrow."

He cants his head. "How is she? Any news?" He expects not, or that's what Luke would have led with. But he had to ask.

There is grunt from Luke as Matt says he's ready, the big man not entirely convinced according to the sound but he'll take what he can get at this point. Even if it's wincing Devil who seems to favor the side with the broken rib. "I don't give a damn about the pieces anymore." The light good-hearted rumble of his voice is gone, frozen in the same limbo as his girl. If he's aware it makes him fall out of favor with his friends, he can't be arsed to care right now.

A shift in his weight is audible, but it's not the burden of the bag he carries but Matt's question that judders Cage's nerves and makes him restless. Like every fiber of his being needs be sprung into action before the coil winds too tight. "Nothing yet."

Recognition flickers in Matt's unguarded eyes when Luke offers that terse, 'I don't give a damn.' It's not just the words themselves, it's Luke's tone, or the absence of one. He's familiar enough with it; he heard it in his own voice often enough these past five months. And when every muscle in Luke's impossibly dense body registers tension on hearing Matt's second question, he doesn't even have to hear the answer to know it.

Nothing yet, Luke says. Six days, and no change in status. What does it mean? Matt's far from a doctor, and hasn't actually managed his way up to her bedside at Stark Tower yet. But even if he has no idea what Jessica's fate will be, he can imagine with precision what this ugly purgatory has meant for Luke Cage. He steps under cover, out of the mist, and folds his arms across his chest.

"I get that," he says quietly, after a moment. "I want this over too, Luke. It's time. But those pieces? They matter, whatever happens when we do go in. You heard Six back at the bar. It's not enough for Fisk to end up dead or in jail. We have to dismantle Fisk's empire, if we don't want someone else to just take it over and steer what he started. We're almost there. Getting it right is worth another day."

The bag is plopped at his feet, the sound of something fabric being tossed on top - his gloves. Matt can't see that Luke is threading his thick arms over his chest, but no doubt he can sense that coil being wound just a fraction tighter inside of Cage's chest. "You wanna know what's going to happen when we go in? I'm going to dismantle /him/." It's just stated as fact now. Where Luke was on the fence earlier about how he felt about taking Kingpin's life, it's clear he's not only pushed to the other side, but catapulted. "Bone by bone, piece by piece, until there's nothing left to bury but dust and sludge. You want me to wait one more day? Fine. But if it takes one more day to take down his empire, just think what he can do with those 24 hours we're leaving him to breathe."

As Luke lets out some of the rage coiled inside his chest, Matt stands with his arms folded and listens. His features have always been given to subtle nuances of expression; he'd be good at a poker table if he could actually see the cards. But his eyes say a great deal, always, in ways that are impossible for him to hide. That must be at least part of why he was always wearing those damn glasses that — like all the rest of his things — in Wilson Fisk's fire.

Here, they show understanding, commiseration — even concern. "Yeah, I know that's exactly what you want to do to Fisk when you get into a room with him," Matt says quietly after a beat of silence. "I couldn't stop you. No one on our team could. Probably not even Jess, if she were awake. You've always been the strongest of us, Cage."

He draws in a low breath, stiffens his spine. His jaw works from side to side as he wrestles with some complicated emotions, as well as which of them to express and how. "Luke, I — have an idea of what you're feeling right now. The anger and the sense of powerlessness. I even know what it's like to lose — or fear you've lost — the person you love most in the world to the evil acts of others. Hell, four months ago I was ready to paint the town red with Fisk's blood over women I didn't even know, much less love. I was running on fumes and rage, and then you and Jess stepped in. And look, I'm sure you don't want to hear any of this right now — but can you return the courtesy I gave you? Just hear me out."

Luke's head twists to the side, not wanting to hear any of it much less acknowledge it. He doesn't want to look at those eyes, those eyes of a friend only trying to pull him back from a precipice that he's wavering on the edge of. His toes are already over lip, all it would take is the slightest breeze to topple him over if not for the hands of his friends trying to reel him back. His voice is directed out across the rooftops, away from Matt, the strongest indication he's fighting that grip. "That's where you're wrong. I'm not strong, Matt. Not when it comes to Jess. From the first time I kissed her I knew for as thick as my skin is…" The words drift off before the sound of them cracks in his throat, choked by the squeeze of emotion he's channelling into hatred and violence.

Matt's lets out a ragged exhale when Luke speaks, struggles to keep his face from wrenching out of its composure. Not just because it's hard watching a good friend suffer and struggle, but also because: "Yeah, she has a way of getting past your walls, doesn't she?" he says ruefully, voice thick. "Luke, Jess is like a sister to me, the only thing like a sister I've ever had or will have. I hate Fisk for what he did, and I always will. I'm right there with you."

He swallows hard. "But she wouldn't want this. Not for you, not for us, not on her behalf. She wouldn't. Carl Lucas went to jail for a crime he didn't commit. She wouldn't want Luke Cage commiting one in her name. You know I'm right, Luke."

He spreads his hands. "It's also about more than just us, and how much we love her and hate the idea we could ever lose her. There are thousands of people out there in the city right now with their own Jessica Joneses. They deserve closure too, and they won't get it with us revenge-murdering some man in the shadows whose name they'll never even know. They deserve to see Wilson Fisk stand trial in federal court, be found guilty, and be sentenced — probably to death, given everything he's done. They deserve to see the system defend them, and avenge them, even if the system needs a little help."

"Don't." Luke snaps suddenly, the word coming out like a bark of bile and vitriol. "Don't tell me what Jess would or wouldn't want me to do. You know why? Because we can't ASK her. Because of HIM." He's suddenly close to Matt, moving quickly for a big man but all that extra power in his muscles means he can propel himself when he really wants to. He towers over Matt, his chin cranked downward so he can look into the other man's sightless gaze. Close enough now that Matt can feel the heat and anger roll of Luke like a physical fever. "You're going to bring the law into this? Put your faith in the criminal justice system? When you /know/ he has cops…judges…who knows who in his pocket? We're going to cut up his network into little pieces, but there is NO guarantee we can scrub it clean or that once he's in custody he can't find a way to manipulate a new network. So if you don't like it? Then stay home, and I'll cut the head off the dragon myself."

"I'm not putting my faith in anything but us," Matt says as he 'looks' up towards Cage, not ceding an inch of ground to a man who towers over him and could lay him low with a single punch, especially in his current state. Anger bares down at him, respect and understanding comes back up to meet it, and something more soulful, too. "Yeah, Fisk has cops on the take. Which is why we went to SHIELD, which is ready to fucking pounce. He has judges too, and district attorneys, which is why we're going federal with a U.S.A. I know is rock solid because I can tell when people are lying to me. And I'm sure Fisk has a very good lawyer, but Foggy and I are better."

Matt grits his teeth. "Listen to me, Luke," he says. "No one. No one wants to stop Wilson Fisk more than I do. He blew up my fucking world. He's got to be stopped — I'm with you. Let's take him in the right way. And if we do, I swear on the grave of my father that I will not let that man get off the hook. He will either die from the poison they send up his veins or rot in the Raft for the rest of his life. I can make sure that happens. Please, Luke. Just trust me."

"I can't." Luke howls from the depth of his gut, the vice grip of his hands going to Matt's shoulders in a clamp that might perhaps be painful if only because Cage isn't in control of anything right now, much less his emotions. He wants to shake the understanding into Murdock, giving him a rattle with trembling arms. "I can't trust anything. I can't… I can't even breathe without this pain in my chest threatening to crack my ribs and this scream in my brain that just wants out of my skull. And it's not going to stop. It's not going to go away until he is DEAD."

It finally cracks, that dam he's built up. Fracturing like a spider's web in a thousand tiny directions until one pebble breaks free. Then another and another, growing in size until the water senses the chance to break free and it all comes careening out. It's the last snatch of reality that stops him from taking it out on Matt, turning from the Devil to grab up a concrete planter and send it sailing across the patio, the urn cracking into the brick wall the rims the rooftop as the only barrier lest it end up on the street below.

In Luke Cage's hands any standard human, no matter how sturdily built, is basically a ragdoll anyway. Matt feels the pain, and feels the potential for far more than pain, but like any advocate — and at his heart, he's really just an extremely zealous advocate — his focus is on the person in front of him rather than himself. "I know it," a rattled but fervent Matt whispers as Luke lets loose, breath quick, nodding him on. Come on, let it out. "I know it, I know it."

And it's true. Matt does know that brand of volcanic rage, the kind that is bad enough in a guy who can hear and smell and taste really well, but is ten kinds of dangerous in a man with super-strength and unbreakable skin.

Which leaves him unsurprised when Luke does something wildly dangerous, picking up a planter and sending it across the patio with all his fierce strength. Fortunately, the unstoppable force meets an immovable object in the brick wall. "I know it," he murmurs some beats after, jaw tight, grief and empathy etched on his normally circumspect features. "And I meant what I said that — other night," he says, a reference to when Luke was carrying him with utter ease from the glass-strewn ground to one of Danny Rand's many beds. "I am so sorry. But killing him won't stop any of that. You'll flick your wrists, because that's all you'll need to do, but when you do, you won't see a single solitary second of the relief you saw coming. It's just a mirage. Believe me. This may be hell, and it sure feels like it, but there aren't any shortcuts out of it."

I know it. I know it. Matt’s phrase echoes in Luke’s mind long after he’s done repeating it. It echoes there even as Cage picks up a piece of lawn furniture and smashes it to toothpicks against one of the decorative trees. The mist that grows heavy does nothing to cool his temper, but the words ‘I know it’ start to make his limbs heavy. Not from exhaustion - the Man Mountain could go for hours busting up every object within reach - but from something far more powerful.


His shoulders start to sag, his breathing becoming ragged. “I couldn’t protect her, Matt. I’m fucking bullet proof, and I couldn’t protect her.” The words are said quietly, resigned. Defeated. He ends up looking down at his hands like they’ve betrayed him. “I’m not strong at all.”

Now Matt's face really wrench, because this is a sentiment he knows very, very well. I couldn't protect her. Matt swallows hard, lifts his brows up and quietly admits: "Yeah. I couldn't either." A beat before he's shaking his head, seeking to absolve himself only because that's the surest way to absolve the man in front of him. "You can't be everywhere at once. And I can't be bulletproof. Jessica lives a dangerous life by choice, to try and spare others the fucked up shit that happened to her, and because she's a decent person with abilities, who wants to use those abilities responsibly."

He puffs out a solitary, sardonic breath. "It's not your fault, Luke," he says with hard-won conviction, having spent the last half a year meditating on duty, failure, and guilt. "It's not even mine, and I was there. It's his. And we can make him pay. But not in a way that sullies — us." There's a hitch, where he handily substites some pronouns. He's feeling pretty well sullied these days already. "Or robs other people who've lost everything because of Fisk their right to see his comeuppance for themselves. I mean, you'd be fucking furious if someone denied it to you."

A sob is choked down in Luke’s throat, the man not going to give it the satisfaction of emerging. He’s not going to give Fisk the satisfaction of having it emerge. He bites it back with an audible grind of his teeth, like he’s powdering Kingpin’s bones between his jaws.

If he can just hold onto that anger for one more day…but then it may never leave him, and to look at Jessica with that fire in his eyes at what he’s done may be more insufferable than losing her to death. “There are no shortcuts out of Hell.” Cage finally parrots a version of Matt’s words back to him.

Luke takes a steadying breath, trying to get his lungs and heart and brain to stop racing. The red clouding his vision and the thundering in his ears is finally starting to fade. He aches from the tension he’s been carrying in his muscles and his exhaustion hits him with the full force of a freight train. He's spent. Physically and emotionally. “No promises, all right?” It’s the best concession Matt’s going to get on this subject right now, and his giant paw crests on the man’s shoulder again. At least this time the squeeze is more amicable and it seems to carry with it the tiniest bit of a silent thank you as well.

”Besides. The man can still stand trial in a wheelchair.”

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