November 16, 2018:

Set on Sept. 11, 2018. On the eve of their final confrontation with Fisk, Matt and Kinsey have one more talk about crime, punishment, and the past.

Casa Rand

The fanciest house in Manhattan.


NPCs: None.

Mentions: The Defenders, Wilson Fisk, Tony Stark

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

They got Matt back.

That's what Kinsey thought, when she reached out to take Foggy Nelson's hand in Danny Rand's finely furnished hallway, while Claire Temple and Emery Papsworth tended to her broken boyfriend.

And it's true, as far as it goes. Matt is improbably back, having somehow escaped the Kingpin's clutches, and is in more or less one (heavily scuffed and battered) piece.

But even three days into his return and convalescence, it's clear that the Matt who returned is in a different place than the one who was snatched off the streets of ruined Hell's Kitchen by Ikari and the Kingpin's thugs, beaten to extremis while Jessica Jones bled out on the floor beneath him.

He's spent most of his days in meditation, or else in the basement dojo to keep his body from atrophying as it heals. Or sleeping. Lots and lots of that.

And as openly grateful as he seemed at first to be back among Kinsey, Foggy, and their strange assortment of friends, he's been quiet and distant as he's settled into his return. Polite, and even affectionate when approached — but distant.

Perhaps it's just the hard work of convalescence, as he turns the single-minded intensity he brings to patrolling the streets and skylines of Hell's Kitchen turned towards an oddly //aggressive/ kind of rest. Or perhaps whatever happened to him in those three days while he was held by his worst enemy have made more of a mark than the bruises that purple his face and body.

Regardless, the late afternoon Matt finds himself in a white, v-neck undershirt and a pair of good new jeans, eyes closed as he lays with his back against the headboard of that great four-post bed in what has become Matt and Kinsey's room. He's sitting up, so he may be meditating — or he may actually be asleep. It could go either way. Beside him, on the side of the bed where Kinsey would normally be, is his laptop and braille display.

Not that there isn't enough room for all three on that plush monstrosity.

Kinsey was quietly solicitous in her efforts to be attentive to his needs, that first night and following day. Bringing him things, checking on him, but largely leaving him to rest — or resting alongside him. She takes as long as she's able, but it turns out she has sudden, other obligations to manage, too, for someone else in crisis: Tony Stark is also unconscious, victim of some other entirely unrelated machination, and in classic Tony Stark fashion decided that asking for forgiveness rather than permission made sense, in appointing Kinsey temporary head of SI's cybernetics division.

While it clearly bothers her not to be accessible to him if he needs her, the distraction it offers is probably not without its merits. For Kinsey, the most difficult part of having him back has been acknowledging that he's still sorting through what happened to him, in some way…and, pursuant to that, knowing that now is not the time to ask him questions. Ever-curious, that restraint is a challenge for her. More than that, perhaps understandably, she's become hypersensitive to, and very definitely wary of, sea changes in the moods of Matt Murdock. The uncertainty of it makes her uneasy.

Still: she manages not to ask. When she's present she's quiet, silently affectionate but usually focused on other things. She shares space with him while she works remotely, or reads a book, or trains in her own way — sometimes with the drones, sometimes in other opaque ways.

When she opens the door this afternoon, she's sighing before she's halfway through, setting down her messenger bag and slipping her heels off of stockinged feet. "God, I hope Emery has some food down there," she says.

Matt smiles faintly as soon as the door opens, though his eyes remain closed. Meditating, then. "There's some barm brack on the side table," he says with a nod over to the silver tea tray that sits next to the table by the window that looks out onto Grammercy Square Park.

"And Emery's cooking lamb stew for dinner," he adds with quiet and wry affection. "The man's on a tear."

Which is just as well, becaus this motley crew of houseguests seems perpetually hungry.

Finally the man's hazel eyes pop open. Not that they need to, but it's polite. For all his withdrawal, he at least seems glad she's there.

"How was work?" he says. He hasn't asked much about what happened with Stark, or her new if temporary position, but it seems like the thing to say.

Small talk. Polite. Safe.

Kinsey hums a little note of acknowledgement about the barmbrack, spending a moment untucking her blouse before she starts on the buttons. She tolerates dress attire for work well enough, but it never seems to last long once she's somewhere she can change: it'll be a tee and underwear within the next minute and a half. She pulls the pin out of her hair, too, and spends a moment standing in front of the sideboard with her eyes half-closed, raking her fingers through her hair and stirring up strange, uncomfortable tingles in her scalp.

"Oh, you know," she says, wry and dry and tired, "There's nothing quite as bracing as trying to learn the breadth of one of the world's foremost and largest cybernetics development departments while simultaneously overseeing its day-to-day operations." She tosses the blouse over the back of a chair, follows it with the hose and skirt, and spends the next thirty seconds or so cutting herself a piece of the loaf and standing there picking at it, one foot lightly resting atop the other. It seems like a lull brought on by weariness rather than thoughtfulness, and that's borne out as she shifts enough toward the bed to tilt backward onto it, stretched across the foot of it, out of the way of his things.

"I'm exhausted," she says, as though she needs to.

Matt listens to the whispers of silk and fabric as Kinsey dispenses with her workday clothes, the look on his face weary and worse-for-wear features rueful and fond. It's one of his favorite things, listening to this now-familiar little ritual, and not just for the obvious reasons.

"Yeah," Matt says with a twitch at the corners of his twice-busted and now slowly-healing lips when she says just how exhausted she is. "I bet. He has a lot of faith in you. Smart man, I guess." I guess. Even that faint praise is a massive improvement from Matt's prior estimations of the man.

He feels her weight on the foot of the bed, the fragrance drifting his way, the infitessimaly small uptick in temperature as she enters his space. It prompts him to sit up with only a faint wince and hitch of breath as his rib cries foul, but the discomfort doesn't stop him from sliding forward so that he can lay face down along the bed's length, propped up on his elbows, head above hers.

It's the most intimate of poses, them on that bed, her half-clad and him hovering over her. And yet, as it's always been with them since they unearthed each other's secrets, 'work' comes paired with it. "Carter got in touch with me," he says of his current SHIELD contact. "They're ready to move on — pretty much everything. Every business they can link to CGI, and more. And Owen's intel checks out about the subway."

A beat. "They're willing to let us take him in." There's no question about who that 'him' is. And what about 'us?' This strange and haphazard collection of — what? Heroes? Misfits? Not even Matt has figured it out. "I think half for P.R. value. They can't trust the cops, but they want New Yorkers to bring him into the light of day." He sounds ambivalent about it, conflicted, but the direction or source of that conflict isn't immediately clear.

The rocking of the bed as he shifts draws her eyes. She's been looking at the bit of bread she's holding up above herself with both hands, picking at it methodically, but she lowers her arms as he settles in more closely, wincing once as he does. Her, "Careful," is more a sympathetic murmur than an advisement.

The wince changes to allow for a faint smirk. "That's what people say," she says, of Stark, and smart. She lets it go after that. Tony's condition isn't something she's wanted to talk about, though whether that's out of irritation with him for sticking her in her present situation, or worry for him that she would find painful to admit to, isn't clear. Maybe both.

So work is a comfortable change of pace, even if she's only giving him half of her attention as he leads off with talk of America's sweetheart spy. The rest of her is taking in his face, cataloguing the differences from yesterday. His healing, his restedness. The changes in his demeanor. And just looking, too, for the sake of looking.

"Whose P.R. value?" Kinsey's brow arcs. "SHIELD's, or ours…?" The question is not rhetorical, by the sound of it.

She marks the changes in his face as carefully as the contours of his moods. Both are not as bad as one might expect. He is missing a tooth, a premolar, but it's hard to see and will eventually be replaced with some facimile. But the bruises are slowly healing. And there's something about the pensive detachment of the last few days markedly different from the depths of depression and rage he wallowed in months past.

If there's sorrow and guilt and anger here, it's at least clear-eyed.

"Theirs, mostly," Matt says, a corner of his mouth curling into a sardonic sort of smirk. "SHIELD and Archer's. The case they're building." The case they were handed. "Having us involed makes it seem less like an international org swooping in and upending the whole city. This is gonna be big, Kinze."

But she has a point there, about what it means for them, and his chin ducks as he visibly acknowledges it, wrestles with it. Finally he turns his hazel eyes back towards her, soulful and filled with — what? Regret?

"You were right, that morning after…" after we mended what I broke, "…about so many things. One of them is that we should try to live up to what people think they see in us. That we owe them that."

Something about that — about SHIELD using the Defenders as a buffer — inspires in her the same kind of uneasy look he was wearing a moment ago. It doesn't sit well, for plenty of reasons she fails to voice, though her eyes wander off of him and toward the ceiling for a moment, browsing the angles in tense resignation.

It's distracting enough that it takes her time to pull her focus back to him when he speaks again, and it necessitates her reviewing what she heard him say, and the way in which he said it. Mild surprise, subdued by their proximity, turns into slow uncertainty, brows knitting.

A lot of things occur to her to say in those moments. Most of them are not productive. And so, instead, she frames the question slowly. Quietly. "What brought on that change of heart?"

She asks her question, and he swallows his cheeks — little indents showing on the line where the borderline of his stubble smooths out. Her brow knits, and so does his. It's a moment before he responds. "Fisk was holding me on his yacht," he begins slowly.

It's hard to say, but he wants to say it to her — knew he would from the start. "I woke up bound to a chair," he continues. Something between a wry twitch of his lips and an outright flinch steals across his features as he adds: "My mask off. Him in the room with me."

He knows who I am. It goes unspoken, but the weight of it hangs in the air, and on features that register simmering anger — though the target of his ire is unclear. He literally shrugs it off after a moment. "We — we talked. Or he beat men, and tried to get me to talk. To tell him who knew about him and his operations, and how much. To tell him who you were. Told me he'd start bringing in people I knew and cared about, and start on them if I wouldn't break." The irony, that one of the people he inevitably would have brought in for such a display was in fact the woman behind Six's mask, isn't lost on him.

He draws in a sharp breath that flares his nostrils. "There came a certain point in that, ah… exchange," bitter rue creeps into his voice, for all the wry understatement. "Where I had a choice to make. I could provoke him to kill me. By that point I what buttons to press to make it happen. Or I could take my best shot."

Silence. Five heartbeats, maybe, though his are running fast. Finally, he murmurs: "So I did."

It's more the pace of his retelling than the tone of it that makes her quiet — more than silent, quiet, hushed in some way — as he relates what happened. Her eyes tighten at the corners over the picture he paints, cruelties visited on Matt, yes, but — smartly, as she's come to expect from Wilson Fisk — on other people, too, in the effort to get the vigilante to talk. Because he'd figured out, clearly, that hurting other people would be so much more effective.

Granted, it usually is, in a certain sort of human being. She knows that for reasons she tries not to think about; government work and difficult necessities…

But her knowing of that about Matthew Murdock is intimate in a way basic intelligence-gathering protocol isn't. Knowing the impact that would have had on him, the nightmare that it is for him, bothers her far more than hearing Fisk was asking about her. That, she's known for some time, after all.

Take my best shot.

She wants to say: self-defense isn't murder. Instead, she holds her tongue. The story isn't finished. Her only response is to lift her hand, arm hinged at the elbow, to rest her fingertips on his shoulder.

Matt's eyes close and his brow knits when he feels her fingertips on his shoulder, that simple gesture of affection and comfort shifting something held tight in his chest. He blows out a breath between his lips and shoulders forward.

"He'd thrown my chair across the room, and the whole thing had shaken loose my bonds enough for me to dig around in the lining of my gloves," Matt explains in his slow and careful rhythmn of speech. "That's where I'd hidden it. The coin the Maximoffs gave me to call on them if I — "he takes a hard swallow before adding an acrid, "…if I ever needed help."

Yes, he was desperate. Yes, it was self defense. Yes, it was actually, definitely, his most ingenious and impressive act to date. A Houdini-like escape from an impossible situation that has Matt for the first time truly living up to his name. And yet:

"Pietro came within seconds of me flipping the coin," he says, eyes shut, operating on the most vivid sort of sense memory now. "He made his entrance by running over the water and blowing a hole in the ship at some kind of fucking supersonic speed, then blowing another one on the aft side before circling back." There's incredulity in his voice. "Wanda came next. She just — appeared, the way she does. Fisk realized the game was up and he — he had a one time teleport. A kind of get out of consequences free card. He used it."

The chords of his neck tighten visibly. "The ship was sinking. I asked them to leave me on it, so I could try and get the men off and onto life boats." Fisk's men. The ones who captured him, and put a bullet in Jessica's neck. And yet his voice is still so filled with shame. "But Pietro grabbed me and took me to the closest shore — some beach off of Mystic seaport."

Another beat before his weary addendum: "They gave me that that," he gestures to where Wanda's shawl, the one he'd wrapped his head in when he'd stumbled through his window, "and then left me there."

It's safe to say that there's a lot there to unpack.

Kinsey's silence is not empty, but busy, though he hasn't the benefit of tracking the subtleties in her expression that might give him insight as to how it all bounces off of her insides. It's complicated even for Kinsey, for whom the whole effort to process what he's said is laid bare.

She didn't know about the coin, for one thing. She had objections to working with the Maximoffs based on prior history, but of all of the things he says, his decision to use the twins to escape Fisk's certain triumph over him — ironically, in light of their earlier argument — is the thing she has the least issue with. He had very few good choices. It was his life on the line. Can she really blame him for that…? Maybe she can blame him in the sense that those were his allies in escape, that some arrangement weren't made with someone else instead, like the raven-haired witch who put him back together, maybe, but can she fault him for using what he had when he needed it most? Not really.

But there are other things about what he says that gall her, causing a twist of frustration to corkscrew up through her. What did you expect? she wants to yell, and shake his shoulders. Did you think you could just appeal to the better nature of terrorists, and it would be that simple? But simultaneously to that, other, contradictory frustrations: who fucking cares about Fisk's men? Would you really have stayed there and been eaten by sharks and drowned because you had a broken rib, trying to save the people who almost killed you and may have killed Jess?

None of that is fair. Or maybe only some of it is fair, and only viewed in isolation from everything else — a situation so complex that it has tested, and tried, and sometimes defeated, even the best of them, of which she's sure he's one.

It's still enough tension to end in her bringing her hands up, pressing them over her face as she tries to quiet the pointless things in her, borne of emotion rather than logic. That human, still-angry piece of her that has yet to let go of all of its resentments over the stormy weather they've endured recently, one injury compounding the next needlessly.

Thirty seconds later, the breath she was holding expels, and with it goes most of that noise and needless anger.

"You did what you had to," she says, finding the one thing she can be sure is true, to offer him. "And whatever they did, that was their choice to make. They could have made another choice, and didn't. You weren't responsible for their choice."

Even if his powers actually gave him insight into her thoughts, and not just the impact of those thoughts on her body, there is nothing she could tell him that is not already part of the recursive inner dialogue that has consumed the waking hours following his exhausted collapse in Danny Rand's apartment.

Recrimination, justification, recrimination again in an endless cycle.

She lets it all go, at least for the moment, absolving him with clear logic fit for an ethics class. He can't; it's sure to inform the next weeks and months, not just hours or days. But he doesn't have to hash all it out with her here, now. Instead he takes her words for what they are, greets them with his trademark smile — tired, small, rueful — and says: "Thanks, Kinze. I wasn't — I wasn't just looking for absolution, though. It's more like — "

He winces. "It's all spinning out of control. Not just the situation, but all of us. I had to stop Bucky and Jane from killing some of Fisk's dirty cops the other week. Fucking Foggy was cutting deals and trading information with that Punisher guy who has been blowing up gangs all over Manhattan. And Luke —"

Matt swallows hard, his features looking briefly pained. "He wants to tear Fisk limb from limb. Understandably. I've talked him down for now, but…"

It's a few beats before he finds a way to tie these varying strands — what happened to him on that boat, what his friends are doing — into a coherent, cohesive argument. "I know I'm not responsible for what other people do. Not Fisk, not Ikari, not the Maximoffs, not even my real friends and partners. But I can set an example, and show some leadership. And I haven't. I just haven't. I let Fisk get inside my head, and drag me down into this race to the bottom, and that's been a disservice to — everyone. Everyone in my life, including you. But also everyone who looks at us and sees — I don't know." Another knowing smirk. "Something more than we are, maybe. But something worth — aspiring towards. You know?"

He never actually uses the 'H' word. He hates it, privately, as much as he's found himself in the mold of his own childhood heroes. But it's hard not to read the word into what he says at the end.

"It's not absolution," Kinsey says quietly, letting her hands slide away from her face, her eyes fixed beyond him on the high ceiling. The words are oddly weightless, lacking in the tornado twists of emotion spawned by each individual feeling about these newest revelations. They might contain a trace of something — apology, or maybe regret, but it's hard to tell which of the two it is, subtle even to his hearing. "It's not absolution at all, because nothing about this is straightforward enough that anyone can be completely absolved of anything. It's just down to degrees of complicity, greater or lesser, and I'm, honestly, not the judge or jury when it comes to figuring that out." Thank Christ for small favors.

She takes a breath and in the moment that follows her eyes refocus, shifting from far to near, ceiling to man. "People move with one another, like fish. It's part of the animal we are. You're not responsible, no. You can't change what they do by force. But you moved with Fisk, too." Pause. "People move with people." She studies his face, gaze hanging on that hook of a smirk. "The strange thing for me is that I would have thought you'd understand better than anyone what the choice here is. It's religious as much as it's anything. Self-preservation at the cost of compromising a code. I can't say I've ever been particularly religious, so on that spectrum I probably sit in the middle, but I know enough about what that is, where it goes, to be uncomfortable with it." Her hand hinges up again to touch his shoulder, words softened as though it might sap the hard sentiment in the words that follow. "It's great that you feel that way…but it's easier to feel that way now, when you're sitting in the aftermath and all of its consequences are fresh. It's going to be hard when you're furious again, and you get dragged into that…space. And I think it's great, too, that you want to do that for other people. But I'm not sure it's going to stick unless it's something you're doing for yourself, too, babe. What we think we need to do for other people changes in a real goddamn hurry when the stakes are this high. It's a whole lot harder to change who we are in a…a Moment."

She corrects him, saying she offers no absolution. It's not her place. She suggests to him that any realizations he's come to may be short-lived, may not survive the next high tide of his anger. None of those words are easy for him to listen to, much less to hear, but there's a brief parting and closing of his lips, an infinitely subtle gesture that signals agreement.

Or agreement to a point. "It wasn't self-preservation, I don't think," Matt murmurs, leaning back and setting his hands behind his head. His careworn brow knits, as if he's going back and parsing the thoughts in that slow-motion build towards a fateful coin flip. A rueful puff: "That's never been my strong suit, you know?"

So what was it about, then? His jaw works underneath skin and stubble, right to left, left to right. "I thought it was my last shot, my only shot, to end this. To make up for missing in the past, letting Fisk walk, and all those people in the bombings, the women he targeted, Jess —" Sightless hazel eyes slap shut and he lets out a breath. This is how the ugly inward gyre starts, he's come to recognize. The recounting of the lost. He cuts it short, at least for now, but it's no easy thing — and the struggle plays out on his expressive features.

"But yeah, it wasn't just some utilitarian calculus, or… atonement," he says, the listless whisper of his voice carrying finality and regret. And something else, too, some lingering embers of the sentiment he describes next: "It was vengeance too. Fury. Hearing his contempt for all his victims. His lack of remorse."

He brings one of his hands from behind his back to his face to scrub down its purple and yellow contours. "My dad's mom was the religious one in our family," says the boy who spent half his childhood in a Catholic orphanage. "'Careful with those Murdock boys,' she'd warn anyone who would listen. 'They've got the devil in them.'" His eyes close again.

That's never been my strong suit, you know?

It tugs the laugh out of her before she knows that it's coming, two notes short but bright, eyes narrowing with the sudden purity of it. Enough to tip her head back into the mattress, shake her once, and so too the bed, felt underneath his elbows. "Okay, that's fair," she murmurs, as that single moment of something shining in the shadows subsides again.

She quiets after that, fingertips trailing the sinew of his shoulder, listening to him work his way through it. To his gradual winding toward that thing, that dark thing. It's not a secret between them, or a secret from anyone else, really: retribution had been, has been, the molten core of everything for some time now. Since before that break, possibly. Certainly one of the incipient elements.

Not, fairly, unearned by its object.

"I get it," she says, tone one of reassurance. "I feel it, too. Want that. But I also — I don't. You know why. I've told you." The seduction of that for her is ever-present, the anger often well-concealed but never far from the surface, a thin shell of personal restraint and self-control all that keeps her from descending to depths she shies away from the contemplation of.

The last quirks her lips, rueful and amused. After a beat, on impulse, she tips her head up enough to find his mouth with hers, a soft kiss that lingers before falling away and returning to something bleakly wry. "I like the devil in you, which seems unhelpful. I'm a bad influence."

Speaking of seduction. The closeness of her, body heat and fragrance and the sound of her slight slide on silk sheets — not to mention the soft-lipped kiss on his own split-lipped mouth — threatens to derail their conversation entirely. He responds unthinkingly, kissing her back, his hands winding around so that his palms find a shoulder blade and the gentle rise of her hip. And really, it would be a sweet distraction from his morbid self-recriminations. Though it might also be a painful one, given his battered and still-tender state. But humor prevents it, shakes his chest in a laugh that never finds voice.

I'm a bad influence.

"You gave me fair warning you would be, in that garage," Matt quips quietly of their conversation in her garage after his rocket-booted flight, nearly two years and at least several lifetimes ago. Softly, and more seriously: "But — maybe you don't give yourself enough credit, either. As much as you might want to, you've never crossed that line either. And you've tried to warn me and the others off from crossing ones recently."

They're kind words, even tender ones. But they're followed by a deadpan: "Actually, Kinze? You're probably the most ethical criminal I know."

"I have to warn you off of it," Kinsey says into the slim margin of space between them, words quiet enough that they're intimate, almost, for all that they're still about the vagaries of doing what they do. "You, because I think what you are would be destroyed in some unrecoverable way if you went too far, and them because…" Pause. "Because I care about them, but that's not the only reason. It's not completely selfless. I need that. I need that around me. Because maybe I try, but I think about it all the time." He can't see the slight knit of her brows, the shadow printed between, or the troubled cast of her eyes — all things that testify as to what she feels is a frightening frequency of dark thoughts.

She lets it go. She lets it go because she has to, and because he gives her a way out, too, wry again, without the bleak. "Mmhm, that's me. A regular modern-day Robin Hood. If I felt at all the same way about systems as I do about people, I'd be a lost cause already."

Matt looks sad, almost pained, when she tells him that he'd be lost if he crossed his bright line and snatched a life away. Not because he thinks she's wrong. Quite the opposite. It's because he's been wrestling exactly that calculus all these long months.

Fisk has already proved he can manipulate the law and exploit the system. Killing him instead of bringing him in might be the smart play. Is preserving sense of self, or by the strictures of his faith, his very soul, worth forgoing it?

On that ship, amped up on anger at Fisk and grief over Jessica, he decided it wasn't. Even now, for all his talk about how their hodgepodge team should aspire to inspire, he still isn't completely sure his rectitude is worth letting Fisk live.

But when he hears her voice some of those same fears, circling back to coffee-shop conversations about all the ways she has lost her bearings since her strange accident, and could slip and fall down slippery ethical slopes at any moment, he regains some of that resolve. The hand at her shoulder blade slides around and up to cup one cheek, his thumb gently grazing a high cheekbone.

His soul might not be worth sparing Fisk, by his own skewed calculus. Hers? Absolutely. "I won't let you slip either," he promises her quietly. "Neither will the others. We'll do this one right."

There had been a time after their relationship began — those early days, before the trial, before Wakanda — when Kinsey had trusted Matt Murdock implicitly. It had been herself she hadn't trusted, for those reasons she expressed to him and so many more, not least that she wasn't entirely sure she was ready to rejoin any kind of social life at all, much less something more. She'd downplayed it as a pleasant distraction, nothing that would ever go anywhere, and been increasingly surprised to discover that it wasn't — that he stayed and she did, too.

The trial, she strove to understand. The reasons were good, nothing to do with him. The stakes had been high. Understanding that hadn't been able to prevent her from wondering or growing increasingly insecure, but she'd never doubted his commitment. Wakanda had rattled her, but he'd intentionally worked to make up the difference with a vacation that turned out to be considerably more exciting than anticipated. And then Ikari. Then the gym.

I'm broken. I'm not ready. I should have been able to do better. All those sentiments tearfully expressed to him in a park at night, teetering on the edge of goodbye forever.

It's hard for her to trust him, now. She's never trusted herself at all — not once, in all of that time — but the change to the tenor of her faith in him is a constant struggle, even now, in the pervasive relief she feels over his recovery. Recovery by every definition of that word.

It takes will to offer what she does, uncertain even as she says the words — slowly, feeling her way through them — that she means them wholly and without reservation. It's more like a choice than a feeling, but as with most ambitions suspected to be beyond the scope of the dreamer in question, sometimes the best course of action is to create the role one wants to have, and then grow into it, expanding.

And so, quietly said, as her lashes lower to the stroke of his thumb on her cheek: "I trust you."

Her words should be sweet, coming as they do after the roughest of patches. She expresses faith in him, not only in his moral compass, but his commitment to her. Even after months of giving her reasons to doubt.

It should be so sweet. Except, because he's him, he can hear the choice in her hushed words. If it's not quite a lie, it's not quite true either. And why should it be, really? You don't know a goddamn thing about me, and you never did, he'd told her in the gym. At the time he thought those words, and all the past uncertainties they exploited, would be the irrevocable killing blow to whatever it was Matt and Kinsey built between them.

It wasn't, but just because it didn't kill doesn't mean it didn't cripple. She'll always doubt me, he thinks. Not just because of all I've done or failed to do, but because I fucking told her to.

He makes a decision. In the face of doubt, a seemingly insurmountable chasm between them, he leaps. His eyes close tight. "Listen, Kinze. I, uh. I got my dad killed," he breathes, a wild nonsequitur if there ever was one. "About a year after my accident."

This admission, the bedrock foundation of all his mountains of guilt, has not been voiced for more than a decade. Only one other person in the world has heard it, and it isn't even Foggy Nelson or Elektra Natchios. Saying these words to her now sends his world-on-fire reeling. For once, she can probably hear his heart beat.

He draws in a long, shakey breath. "That's what — that's what Wanda's weird memory thing shook loose in me. How much that drove me, just day to day — this sense that I'm going to fuck up, and kill everything and everyone I love. That's why I went nuts when Fisk killed those women I saved."

A long beat, a jut of his jaw, a slight and silent sigh of resignation. "That's why I pushed you away, all those times. I was afraid I'd hurt you." Kill you. A long beat, and then a grim, wry: "So instead… I, uh, hurt you." Drove you off.

Whatever response she expected, the one she gets is certainly not it.

The confession sends both of her brows upward in stark surprise, only to slowly sink as he carries on, the eyes beneath liquid with worry. She's seen him shaken before. Those moments in the gym, he'd been a wasteland of a man in her eyes — his inner world seemingly leveled in the catastrophe, still wracked with cataclysmic storms that came and went, and caught her up in them, too.

This is a different kind of shaken entirely. It's one she hasn't seen before, and so she isn't quite sure what it means — what the quality of it is, the needs it creates in him or what sort of walls it might erect. She wants to ask: how? Because he was a child, then. How is that possible? But she's too wary to try, too afraid to reach into the trembling thing in him, changing even the way he pulls air into his lungs. A thing that might be too delicate for a hand that isn't even sure what the shape of that thing really is, too close to the core of him to risk breaking it. Breaking him.


Her first reaction is not to speak, but to touch. She can't bring herself to touch that thing, the damage, but she can touch him, and does. A careful twist onto her hip, a hand on his shoulder, sitting up just enough to try tilting him onto his back in a reversal of those positions, so that she can wrap an arm beneath his shoulders and touch her crown to his, her body a warm line — mostly beside him, because she isn't sure she can rest her weight on him yet, all of those injuries still extant. It's the closest to folding him into an embrace that she can get, particularly given their difference in size.

"If the worst ever happens to me, it won't be your fault," she says, finally, mostly breath. "I get to make that choice for myself, Matt." These are all echoes of the words they exchanged in the gym, but freighted very differently, now. "If it happened to you, and I was involved…I would torture myself, too. Anybody would. But all we can do is- is what we can do. No one is guaranteed anything in this life, and I'd rather live a short life, full of meaning, and impact, and love, than a long one up on a shelf, insulated from everything good. Everything worth doing involves risk. Let me take my chances. They're mine to take. It's my story to write, for better or worse."

She doesn't ask him for details about his shocking confession, and he's in no hurry to offer any. He sat on the quiet shame of his life for a year and a half of their relationship, and it may be a long time yet before he ever sheds further light on his eighteen-year-old trauma.

Instead, he wordlessly assents to her silent and gentle instruction. He rolls backwards despite the flashes and crackles of pain he feels along his side and his shoulder when he does. Her touch and quasi-embrace is soothing enough, mollifying both his physical aches and, at least to some extent, the emotional ones too. Though those are slower to relent. She can probably still feel his heart hammering against his ribcage.

Her words have their affect too. It's my story to write, she says, a softer echo of that time she told him she wouldn't be put up on a shelf. Even if it results in her death. And while he feels a sudden gut-level resistance to the words, they do their work, and play on thoughts that have been percolating in his mind for weeks already.

Because on some level he's coming to realize that it's not selfless, this martyr-like commitment to keeping her and others in his closest circle from harm. On the contrary, it's selfishness. It's fear.

"Yeah," he whispers to the woman pressed against him, wincing only a little as he slings an arm around her. "Yeah, I'm getting that. I'm just — slow on the uptake, sometimes. But in the end it's what I want too. For us to be partners. To help each other grow, not, you know, hold each other back."

He cracks a slight smile, quizzical, most of his jitters settled, at least for the moment. "I'm just not always sure about how to get there. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm really bad at this."

To help each other grow.

Kinsey lifts her head, tilts her lips up toward his brow, speaking the words directly to his skin. Her voice is soft, as gentle as she thinks it needs to be for the comfort required in the moment. "There are going to be times we get it wrong. That doesn't mean it isn't the right way forward…it just means that life is a steep climb, sometimes, and people lose their footing. We'll just try to keep it from turning into a tumble all the way down."

She's prepared to sink into silence after that, content just to hold him, stay close. It may be Matt most battered and wounded, but there are aches and pains in her that need soothing, too, and this warm, quiet arrangement, for the time being as safe as they're ever likely to get, gives her things that she needs, too.

Until that last.

She laughs again, another sudden brightness, preemptively wincing in case she's jostled his ribs with it. "Yeah you are," is her amused response — but it sounds like play, rather than a criticism dressed up as a joke. "So am I, though." A beat, and then she unthreads her arm from beneath his shoulders, plants her hand, and pushes herself partially upright to look down at him, taken over by an entirely different impulse — one foreshadowed by the walk of her fingertips down the center of his chest, over sternum and ribs, onto the plane of his abdomen. "There are things we're really good at, though," she informs him, words all velvet and shadows, and perfectly familiar. Surely not, in his maimed state…?

Only she's sliding away from him a moment later, following her trailblazing hand down the line of his body with a low laugh in her throat. When so many things about what they do and what they are, even to one another, are difficult…it's just nice to have one easy thing into which to retreat, as a kind of respite, however temporary it may be.

Plus, any excuse to use that shower, frankly.

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