Ghosts of Christmas Past
Roleplaying Log: Ghosts of Christmas Past
Participants
IC Details
Synopsis:

Matt is walking Kinsey back to Stark Tower from a lunch date when one of her old colleagues from the DEO drops in and drops bombs.

Other Characters Referenced: Wilson Fisk, Tony Stark, Danny Rand, Jessica Jones, Foggy Nelson
IC Date: December 22, 2018
IC Location: Midtown Manhattan
OOC Notes & Details
Posted On: 18 Mar 2019 03:18
Rating & Warnings: R (Language)
NPC & GM Credits:
Associated Plots

It's a bright, cloudless, and crisp winter's day in New York. It's been months since the legion of demons which briefly occupied this metropolis vanished, every bit as quickly as it had first descended. The city has been through literal hell, just three years after swarms of bonafide aliens tried to level Manhattan, and just months after a mob boss with big dreams tried to detonate his way to a better tomorrow. You'd think it would all be enough to make the city's residents give up on the whole idea.

But New Yorkers are a stubborn lot, as Kinsey Sheridan has come to know well. Many of the refugees who flooded Westchester and Jersey City during the city's latest travail have returned to their homes, and businesses have begun to pick up the pieces and unshutter their storefronts.

In fact, as if in defiance of all these calamities, Midtown is aggressively Christmasing. Jaunty seasonal tunes blare out the doors out from small businesses, there are displays with snowmen and reindeer every other window, and long strings of multi-hued lights line nearly every awning.

Merry Fucking Christmas, it all says.

Matt Murdock and Kinsey Sheridan are making their way down a lunch-hour-packed 42nd street, arm-in-arm. Matt is wearing… well. Almost exactly what he was wearing when he ran into Kinsey nearly two years ago on a different city's streets — a dark wool topcoat, and beneath it a charcoal grey suit and a burgundy tie. The arm that doesn't encircle his companions' wields a red-tipped walking cane that tap, tap, taps in smooth and even increments before them. It prompts most people on the sidewalk to give the pair a reasonable berth.

"We never did this enough," Matt is saying as they walk their way back from some trendy new ramen place towards Stark Tower, bellies full of noodles and soothing warm broth. "Grabbing lunch, I mean. Even though we worked just a few blocks apart from each other for so long." It's a mild complaint, and the companionable good humor in his tone more than surpasses any notes of true regret.

Like his city, Matt Murdock has been through a hellish year. And also like his city, Matt Murdock is aggressively pursuing normalcy in its aftermath. Or as normal as one can be when one's still alternating between sleeping in a boxing gym and Danny Rand's Gramercy Park mansion.

"We're, uh, going to have to figure it out, if Tony goes south," he ventures, a bit more gingerly. A beat, a dry: "And I mean literally south."

—-

Kinsey's always preferred cold weather — even before she had her accident, when her altered metabolism and lack of surface area with which to disperse body heat ensured she'd run slightly above temp for the rest of her life. She prefers hot beverages on a cold day. She prefers layered clothing. She prefers the simple joy of coming indoors after being out in the frozen white, the tactile transition between contrasting states.

It's a nice consolation prize for a season full of unpleasantness for people of their ilk.

We never did this enough gets a ticked sidelong glance and a flatly neutral look that are both lost on him. Really? it says.

"That may have had something to do with your sporadic availability." She sounds amused and exasperated rather than peeved. Time amends these things, even if it can't erase them.

She unthreads her arm from his and reaches to drape it over his shoulders instead, leaning in and pressing her lips to the hinge of his jaw with an enthusiasm that probably looks, from the outside, a little bit dangerous to assail a blind man with in a New York winter. "So what are you hoping Santa brings you, Mr. Murdock?"

—-

Sporadic availability.

Matt's eyebrows lift, his head cants to one side, all in a mugging expression that says nothing so much as: What are ya gonna do?

Well, apologize, for one. Which he has, many times and in many ways. Try to be more conscientious and attentive to the two people closest to him, for another. Which he also has, at least in the scant span of weeks since he stopped living semi-feral in his skin-tight devil suit and battling the throngs of lookalikes that had overrun his city. There have been more calls, more texts, more drop-ins and scheduled get-togethers. He's making an effort.

Finally? He can take some good-natured ribbing about his lapses with grace and humor. Check there too. "Touche," he says, slipping the hand that had her arm around her slender waist. His center of gravity doesn't begin to budge when she gives him that enthusiastic kiss, but his smile widens at its corners.

To her question, he quips back a rueful: "Why, peace on Earth, and goodwill towards men, Ms. Sheriden, of course." Perhaps recognizing that this holiday season the prospect has never been more remote, he adds: "I'll settle for a little private peace, for a while. A — breather?"

He squeezes her closer to him, and slants her a sidelong 'glance.' "What about you, Kinze?" A beat, and then a sly: "I mean, assuming we set aside the whole naughty or nice question."

—-

Kinsey snaps her fingers, softly tchs. Her expression tilts over into glum, subdued regret. "You know, that was my thought, as well? I popped into Nordstrom's the other day and they're fresh out. Peace on Earth has been discontinued indefinitely, and good will towards men is on backorder. They couldn't even give me an estimate as to when they'd have it back in stock."

The benefit of heeled boots — which she prefers throughout the winter, in spite of the risk to life and, well, a limb, anyway — is that she's of a height with him, which makes it comfortable enough to leave her arm draped where it is, leaning into that gentle pull so that as much of her side is in contact with his as possible, matching his stride with her own. "I can't buy you a breather, either. That's out of my price range. Tony might be able to, but he doesn't seem able to buy himself one, so…" She heard him, about Tony, clearly. Maybe she just wants to digest her food before they strategize about Stark.

She angles her eyes down and slightly ahead of them, unfocused. "Just a few good memories? A couple of days knowing that the people I care about are safe…? It's a lot to ask, I know." The pensive silence that follows breaks as she tilts her head his way and murmurs, "Commercialized holidays sort of lose their appeal when you're a world-class thief, you know?"

—-

The lawyer draws in a long breath filled with all the scents of the city, and the woman beside him too — her perfume and shampoo and soap and skin. "I bet we can make the memories part happen, at least," he says in his rueful, quiet way. He could use a few himself. "I'd say we ought to catch a flight to some island and get out of the cold for a bit, but let's save a repeat of Cabo for down the line. Monster-fights are fifth anniversary materials for sure."

…when you're a world class thief.

Matt is ninety-five percent sure that last part's a joke, but his head still jerks back a little in his own blind man's version of a double-take. "You don't — I mean, you don't actually take stuff like that, right?" he asks skeptically. He'd long since convinced himself that Kinsey stole only out of necessity, where it furthered her erstwhile mission to pry open the secrets of her current state. She wasn't like that cat-burglar down in Gotham.

He adds a quick: "I mean, you'd hardly need to with the fancypants job these days."

Their unhurried steps carry them down the sidewalk, past coffee shops and condos, office buildings and art galleries. Stark Tower's in sight, just on the other side of Broadway.

—-

He'll be able to feel the shift in her body as she turns her head to look at him, prompted by that gesture of dubious surprise. Hear the way her laugh, mostly breath and wreathed in white mist, is aimed more directly his way. "Just because I don't doesn't mean I couldn't," she points out, one brow scrawled into a high arch, humor silver-plating her voice. "Which means I'm competitive. A violinist is still a virtuoso even when they're not playing the violin." The degree to which she sounds playfully, knowingly smug somewhat offsets what would otherwise be an unusually arrogant statement from the technician.

All of it is wry. What follows chases after a slow exhale, and isn't. "But, no. I don't. Things for my lab, mostly. The more misbehaving I do, the more likely it is somebody notices, and that's explicitly what I'd like to avoid. I haven't even had to do much of that since starting at the tower."

Which, paired with the looming presence of that very edifice, finally coaxes a sigh out of her. She angles her eyes that way, trained less on the tower than on the things it represents, itself a symbol, a placeholder. Shorthand for multiple of her life's complexities.

Matt's relief is subtle but deeply felt. He's been able to rationalize away most of Kinsey's bad behavior, even as the circles they've traveled in have grown rarefied enough that the need for that behavior is mostly gone.

The truth is they've come a long way in two years. Is there anything Kinsey needs for her work that Tony Stark or Danny Rand couldn't provide? Is there any reason for her to steal?

He shoves the thought aside, keeps it light as they cross Broadway's expanse and begin making their way up the steps to the outdoor plaza in front of the tower. "Just don't get too wrapped up in all that competition," he says dryly as they approach the glass doors, and his own imminent exit for a subway station to the downtown courthouse. "I'd really hate to have to bring you in because —"

And then a familiar voice sounds from an open door and a lifetime ago.

"Kinsey Sheridan? Is that you?"

A turn of her head towards the sparkling glass of the front entrance and she'll see him: Jamie Sullivan. CIA SAD turned Knightswatch, a fellow Bostonian and self-described 'Masshole.' He'd been one of the guinea pigs for some of her early smart weapons and armor. A friendly presence — if a jostling one, with a competitive streak equal to Kinsey's or anyone else's. He'd sent a text to her when she was in the hospital following her accident, but she hadn't heard from him since.

Until now. Here he is, all 6'1" of him, a wide but incredulous smile on his long-boned, clean-shaven face. He's dressed like a field agent: military-style blacks abandoned in favor of a dark suit, dark tie, and crisp white shirt.

And he's walking towards her. "How are you? You look great," he says warmly, bright-blue eyes slimming with the unspoken observation: Especially since there's a lot more of you still attached than was on record.

—-

Kinsey slows as they approach the doors, less out of any reluctance to go inside — though, things being what they are, her concern about her place there is well-justified — than out of a desire to delay the moment they part ways.

His humorous warning gets a flash of a wry look from her, putting on an air of contrition she in no way actually feels, and it might have earned another quip if not for-

Her head turns, hazel eyes snapping over her shoulder onto a familiar face from another life.

The vertigo is intense, a single heartbeat of time that telescopes her backward, down through the largely insulated last few years of her life and into the charred debris of her memory of the accident, where the person she used to be is buried. That jumbled, tattered, singed place in her head where she keeps the last few scraps of awareness from the moments just before everything changed for her, likely forever. The last time she saw him, she was-

whole

It's a thought that slinks in through the gap created by her surprise, and she can feel the effect that it has on Five — a malcontent stirring in the back of her skull.

The small changes in his expression would be whispers for someone else. For Kinsey they shriek, a deafening roar. Multithreaded consciousness diverges in an instant, weighing responses.

Outside of her skull and in the moment, where time flows normally, surprise gives way to a slow, small smile and an equally small tilt of the head, her eyes ticked over the approaching agent in one of those 'I haven't seen you in so long' studies that she doesn't actually need to perform at all. "Sully."

She sounds pleased, if perhaps taken aback, to listen to her tone of voice. For Matt, though, that's a cordial tone betrayed by the sudden racing of her heart. She tacks on a warm little laugh, mostly held in her throat. "Thanks. You, too. Ah." She winds her arm through Matt's again. "Matt, this is Agent Sullivan. We used to work together. Sullivan, this is-" Has she ever actually introduced him to anyone this way? In spite of the crushing urgency of the moment, she can't help the little twist of something warm in herself — or the slightly girlish half-smile — that comes along with saying the words: "-my boyfriend, Matt." She leaves off the Murdock — though it's pretty unlikely that a former spook won't know who he is, anyway.

—-

We used to work together, Kinsey says, and suddenly Matt is entirely aware of why her heart lurched into a gallop at the sight of this guy.

Jesus, he thinks to himself, suddenly worried out of all proportion for the woman next to him. But for that spike of concern, Matt is an adept and well-practiced liar. He's been putting a false face on for the whole world since he was nine years old, and the one he arranges now is warm and welcoming.

"Wow, hey, small world," Matt says with a flash of that boyish grin in the general direction of Sullivan's voice. He deftly releases his grip on her waist and brings that hand up to offer a handshake. "Good to meet you, Agent Sullivan. I'm Matt M—"

"Oh, I know all about you, Mr. Murdock," Jamie interrupts with a quick, sharp smile to match. He takes Matt's offered hand and gives it a solid shake with his own — it's sporting a new wedding band. "I mean, I've seen you on TV." Defending a metahuman assassin. Speaking out for metahuman rights, and against New York's new metahuman registration law. And generally being a pain in the ass of the security state to which agents like Jamie Sullivan have devoted their careers. All that is left unspoken, but there's no way it couldn't subtly suffuse the wry, "Honor and a pleasure," that follows. He sideyes Kinsey: "Careful with this one," he confides in Matt. "She's way too smart for anyone's good. And she knows it."

He turns his attention back to Kinsey, then. "Anyway, I was just here on some business, and saw the employee roster, and I couldn't believe it," he's telling her, all easy smiles. "They told me you were out at lunch, so I thought I'd wait and see for myself. Kinsey Sheridan, in the flesh!" He spreads one big, open hand. "Hey, I know you were just out, but we should catch up! Got time for a coffee today?"

—-

Small world.

Matt means it one way, and Kinsey hears it wholly another: for her, it's as though the whole world has compressed itself down to this small patch of concrete, these three individual souls. All else is illusory. Set dressing. Meaningless.

It all comes flooding back in while she watches the two men in closest her follow up on her introduction. The way it felt to be in those halls, surrounded by those people — people like Jamie Sullivan. The way that no interaction was ever simple or straightforward, every exchange a maneuver, like playing an especially sharp game of chess with people who'd all earned a place at that table, every last one dangerous in their own right. Holiday parties like swimming with sharks. Staff meetings like old-world gatherings at some sort of incredibly passive-aggressive court.

That he is, she's very sure, cataloguing everything in the moment in the same way she is. Choice of words. Tone of voice. Gestures and attire, posture and pupils and heart rate, the differences and similarities, the-

She perks a brow. "You were at the tower on business? Meeting with Tony?" She pushes a wry glitter into her eyes. "I'm surprised you're settling for coffee. I think the bar up the street does a brisk business in consoling people fresh out of meetings with Tony Stark." As she says so, she slides her phone from her pocket and checks the time, biting the inside of her cheek. "You know, he probably won't even notice if I'm out of the office a little bit longer than usual? I don't see why not. Why don't we go now, before I get caught up in work again?"

Her glance at Matt is warm, the squeeze of her hand on his arm reassuring, or at least that's what she hopes. "Alright, babe? I'll call you later?"

—-

Meeting with Tony? she asks him. Jamie's eyes glitter, his brow furrows in equal parts amusement and bemusement. "Yeah, your boss is making some pretty big moves these days," he says with wry understatement. Becoming the first superhero to register under the New York Law, abandoning the company he'd inherited and taken to new heights. Even by Tony Stark's standards, it has been a month of seismic happenings. "Higher ups figured it was time for a good old check-in."

The default for Jamie through this whole encounter has been a smile. Sometimes it flashes into something warm and welcoming, but the baseline is small and satisfied. It's the sort he'd regularly bring to a poker table. It widens again when she says she's game. "Hey, I'll take a real drink as long as you're buying, Sheriden," he says with a little upnod her way. "You're the one with that private sector paycheck, now, right?"

Sullivan looks back to Matt. "Hey, take it easy, Murdock."

Matt has his game face on too, and she can no doubt see it. But two years in with him, she'll notice all his tells: the way his jaw is set slightly off angle, the way the corners of his eyes — visible behind the glasses only because she's beside him — are a little too tight. He doesn't like any of this. But still, he finds himself bringing his free hand up to briefly touch the hand that squeezes his arm, his own attempt at reassuring her. "Sure, of course, you all should catch up, and I should get to court," he says with a curl at the corners of his lips.

He looks to Sullivan. "Good to meet you, Agent. You two have fun." And then he's stepping backward, pivoting on his heels, and putting his cane out to feel his way down the plaza steps.

Sullivan looks to Sheridan with a little arch of his brow as Matt leaves, as if to say, Really? But what he actually says is: "Alright, Sheridan. I'm in your hands. Let's go."

—-

Kinsey answers that playful early banter with a small, self-aware smile — private sector is true, and also absolutely a loaded thing — and says nothing until after Matt's excused himself, watching him as he melts back into the flow of winter foot traffic, one dark wool coat amongst countless others.

Her glance back up at the former SOG soldier lands just in time to catch that look — that Really? look. The response she wants to give him is nothing like the one he actually gets, which consists only of a slight, inscrutable smile, just before she turns in the opposite direction and begins to walk. For the most part she keeps her eyes on the block ahead of them, but now and they they slide sidelong, full of polite curiosity. Her pace toes the line between the habitual, swift efficiency of a chronic urbanite and a more moderate, unhurried pace — not quite slow enough to ruin anyone's commute, but flirting with that.

"Speaking of hands, it seems congratulations are in order? Do I know the lucky lady?" A beat, a tilt of the head, scouring her memory for the relevant information and coming up dry. "Or lucky gentleman?"

—-

Jamie mirrors her pace precisely, his stride a carefully calibrated middle ground between stride and stroll, hands stuck in the pockets of his suit and plumes of white mist passing between his lips with each and every outward breath.

Or lucky gentleman? gets a sidelong look through half-lidded eyes. It's playful and glinting as any he's ever given to any woman on base, seemingly unruffled. But then, he wouldn't have given it at all if the lack-of-assumption hadn't dinged his Bostonian machismo at least a little.

"Ashley," he says, with a smile, teeth-bared. "Nah, you don't know her. I never brought her around. It's easier to keep it all — separate, you know? They can't know ninety percent of what we do anyway, so what's the point in rubbing their faces in it, am I right?" He shrugs his square shoulders just an inch, just a second. "But thanks. Things are good."

He gives her another look, this one more assessing. "And you. You seem to be doing great. A killer job, famous boyfriend…"

Working arms and legs.

—-

The glance cut her way gets a sudden flash of a smile from Kinsey, unfeigned and easy. She lifts both of her hands, splayed and palm outward, in a kind of conciliatory, mea culpa way. "Hey — I didn't spend my time with the DEO nosing around in people's private lives, Sullivan. I wouldn't have known one way or another." Her hands go back into the pockets of her own jacket — a fitted thing, with a hood, a bit less uptown than the peacoats they seem to be perpetually passing. "Ninety percent sounds like a generous estimate. It's amazing to me that anyone in the department ever winds up in outside relationships at all. I never managed it." This is, and is not, entirely true. Kinsey dated — where 'dated' for the most part looked like swiping right, and any new faces to swing through her life failed to be a fixture for more than a month or two at a time. The alternative had been dating colleagues, and that, at least, is a thing she never did. "It's nice to hear about somebody finding a way to make that work."

Her eyes are a difficult read as they lift his way, following on his renewed observations — not for any effort to conceal what's there, so much as the wealth of complicated things in them, making it hard to tease out one sentiment over another. She clearly hears the unspoken thing, and looks at him for several strides before turning her attention back to the front with a long exhale, leaving her in a cloud of white. "Mm. He wasn't famous when we started dating," she says, wry, to get the less thorny piece out of the way, set aside. "As for Stark…" Her expression turns quietly contemplative, gaze trailing the cracked pavements underfoot. "You know, I always swore I wouldn't work for that guy? It's hard to say no to the paycheck, though. And there are…" She presses her lips into a thinner line, slanting a look his way that angles toward a tight half-smile. "Definitely perks, to working for one of the foremost innovators in engineering on Earth."

—-

Sullivan puts up a hand to say, Hey, no offense.

It's nice to hear about somebody finding a way to make that work.

"Yeah… it works alright," Sullivan says with another shrug of his shoulders, the understatement doing nothing at all to disguise that he seems genuinely contented as he says it. Whatever he says about demarcating lines between work and the rest of his life, a little bit of that private happiness steals through in the moment.

That understatement and circumspection, of course, allows him to listen to her hint at the contours and shapes of her relationships with Matt Murdock and Tony Stark. "That must have made for some kind of dinner conversation," he says of Matt's rising star, rising as it did through the controversial Winter Soldier Trial.

On the matter of Stark, Sullivan smiles again, wolfish. "I bet," he says of the perks of working for a genius engineer. "I know his name is mud around the office, ever since he changed things up at S.I. I mean, you know how many contracts the guy had with DEO before he went all cape on us."

Cape. It was a ubiquitous phrase around the base, an odd overlap between the criminal underworld and law enforcement. Though maybe not so odd. Arguably Gotham gangs and Sullivan's agency might be said to share roughly the same target.

Sullivan clears his throat as they make their way down the busy sidewalk towards whatever bar Kinsey has chosen for them. "Anyway, if the guy gave you a second chance at — things " walking, driving, a life of the more-or-less-abled " then that wins him some serious points with me." A beat, and a quieter: "All of us were real sorry about what happened, Sheridan. We were rooting for you."

—-

The man beside her is a threat.

He knows that, although he may not be thinking that in terms of this meeting, this woman — but he is what he was groomed to be, which is dangerous. Dangerous in so many ways.

But Kinsey is what she is, differently and to no less a degree, and in spite of the fact that this old face out of her dead past could potentially rip the stitches out of her new life and thus her entire existence, she can't help the warm look or the smile in her eyes as she takes in that brief glimpse of something in him — that split second of something more than the Agent. A little hint of the man. Man as Husband. The world is so full of hard things, more now than seemingly ever before, and small things like that give her hope, make her take heart.

Which is the only reason she gives him anything at all about Matt Murdock, a subject that would otherwise be off-limits: "It probably did." Implied: if so, none of those dinners were with me. The words come framed in a sigh, affectionate but exasperated: the sound of someone who has accepted the difficult things about their relationship, limits and boundaries and all. It's a tone of voice that gets used in the intelligence community a lot.

The bar she's leading them toward is nice in the way one expects a bar two blocks from Stark Industries to be nice: sleekly modern, trendy, but with an authenticity of design that rates it upward. They're getting close when she utters a single note of unvarnished humor: "That's Tony for you. He's not happy if he's not…trampling all over somebody's expectations of him, or deciding to do something outrageous completely out of left field, and announcing it at a gigantic presser before he's mentioned it to anybody else."

She reaches for the door, only to have her momentum arrested when he adds that last. For just a moment, the eyes that lift to rest on him are naked of the polite good humor. Surprised, first, and then something less easy to identify — something softer, in spite of an obvious, pensive unease. She swallows, lets her brows knit very slightly, and summons up a smile that straddles melancholy and gratitude. All of it is absolutely genuine. "Thanks. I was sorry, too." The softness of the smile wanes, gains something iron as that rue returns twofold; in spite of social convention, the need to move, the restlessness the subject creates in her, has her reaching for the door handle again to pull it open, leading the way inside. "I miss it, sometimes."

—-

It's indisputably true that Jamie Sullivan is a danger to her, whether he knows it or not, however innocuous his intentions may or may not be. She could even parse and obsess over any number of things he's said over this past half-hour of their re-acquaintance and find all the ominous portents she could ask for.

But in this moment, with the doorway to a sleek and swanky bar held open between them, his square-jawed face registers a moment of sincere appreciation, empathy, even respect. "Yeah," he says as he catches the door and lets her pass through it so he can follow her inside. "It's weird as hell," he says of the life she misses, "But that's kind of the thrill, right?"

Then the hostess approaches them, menus in hand, and Sullivan steps forward, buttoning his suit jacket. "Hi," he says with a smile as sharp as Tony Stark's suits. "Just drinks for us. But we'll take that booth over there."

The one in the corner, at a remove from the bar itself. The smiles backs. "Right this way," she says, and makes to lead them on. He turns back towards Kinsey, even as his footsteps begin to trail her. "Think you'd ever consider coming back?" he asks with an arch of a brow. "They'd kill me if I had a chance to ask and didn't."

—-

"That's definitely part of the thrill."

Defrosting just inside, Kinsey dips her hand into her purse…only to have him ask for a table, stalling and then setting aside whatever it is she'd been doing.

She's not an unfamiliar face here, though she's rarely swinging by for drinks, given how poorly alcohol plays with her condition. Always business. Always for, or with, Tony Stark. She has a polite little smile for the hostess, and unfastens her jacket as they go — she has on a cashmere sweater beneath, an indulgence paid for by that private sector paycheck.

Sullivan gets a glance over her shoulder at his question, one of her brows arched, and then another rueful twist at the corner of her mouth. "I wouldn't last a month." The confession is freighted with feelings, most of them muted by time and acceptance, a kind of resignation sheened over the rest. "I loved it. I did. I used to thrive on it. The pressure, the problems with no solutions…but, I'm-" As they draw up to the booth she sets her purse down on one of the bench seats and shrugs her jacket off, hanging it up on one of the hooks mounted to the divider. She lets the pause hang until she slips into her side of the booth, too, and can aim that complex, troubled smile at him directly. "Civilian life's made me soft, I'm afraid. Designing for commercial purposes is wholly different, and I've gotten used to having this thing called a life on the side, which…" That complicated look uncomplicates, very briefly, ousted by a flash of a smile, wry and self-deprecatory. "I never used to manage having both at once. Besides which, I wouldn't be happy anywhere but out in front, and as things are, that's…" She glances up at the hostess briefly, but the words that follow are still for the man she's here with: "That's not where I would be. Struggling to keep up, maybe. My pride couldn't take it."

Sullivan settles back into his corner of the booth, ice-blue eyes trained on Kinsey as she ticks off the reasons she'd never cut it at DEO these days. Too soft. Too comfortable. Too proud to be come short of anything other than best of the best.

It's the last one that turns what had been up to now simmering good humor into a brief, brilliant flare. "Yeah, I remember you giving your share of heartburn to brass," he says with good humor. "A few of your peers too."

A beat. That cut of a smile dulls, and for a moment he actually looks awkward — it's a new look. "I don't know if anyone told you," he says, "but Adam died this spring. Heart attack."

That would be Adam Wolmer, deputy chief of research at the DEO headquarters in Arkandale, Virginia. Kinsey's senior peer, 'soft supervisor' — a hard-nosed C.O.S. Presley called the real shots — and sometimes mentor. A brilliant oddball, an unrepentant techno-futurist in a conservative instutition, and the least military military scientist you could imagine. A nerd's nerd. A paunchy bachelor in his fifties with bushy eyebrows, a receding line of crinkly hair, and boyish, cherubic cheeks.

"Sure, you could go to Stark or Luthor or Trask or anywhere you want to make big bucks," Wolmer told her once, mock-conspiratorially, "but this is where you get to play with all the really good stuff."

He'd encouraged her work, been a sounding board, and insulated her where he could — in his own awkward and sometimes socially hapless way — from sometimes cut-throat office politics.

—-

Kinsey had been on the verge of saying something morosely amused about the tables having been turned, about Stark and the way he causes his employees headaches, and not the other way around, but something in Sullivan's face gives her pause.

What he says causes her the first real pang of regret she's felt over leaving the DEO in a very, very long time. She didn't keep in touch with former colleagues. She didn't trust herself to. If she'd chosen to, he'd have easily made the short list of souls she wanted to keep in her life — his disposition and interests, his similarities to the Kinsey-she-was, would have been enough all on their own — but as it was she hadn't even wanted to risk sending cards over the holidays.

Too late, now.

It's all there in her face: the surprise and sudden hurt of it, the note of personal regret and acknowledgement of opportunities lost, and then the disbelief and grim acceptance. She finds herself with a knot in her throat that surprises her — it's not as though she's spent her time since the accident thinking about him. Him, or anyone else.

Still, though.

"No," she says, finally. "No, I didn't…" Know never follows. She shifts her eyes toward the door for the moments it takes her to reel these various things back in, pulling in a deep breath with them. "God. He was really young." Hazel eyes tick down to the tabletop, then up to Jamie, finally. "You know. As we measure things these days. I'm…" Sorry? Her open mouth closes again. "He was…" But she can't quite finish that sentence, either.

—-

God. He was really young. "Yes he was," Sullivan repeats, face taking a turn for the uncharacteristically solemn. "And I figured you hadn't. Word doesn't really get around in this line of work." There are, after all, no Facebook posts, no listservs, nor text chains in the DEO.

The waitress swings by, asking for their drink orders. "Guinness, thanks," he says simply, only the briefest of looks and scantest of appreciative smiles paid her way.

"Anyway," he says with a roll of his shoulders. "Sorry to be the — you know — bearer of bad news. I know you two were tight." For a given order of tight, at least.

"It's been a bad year for the agency, honest to God," Sullivan adds, brow lifting, glancing over his shoulder at their sleek, sparsely populated surroundings. "I mean, even aside from the fucking demonic invasions and what not."

—-

"No, it does not." Kinsey's thin, rueful smile is a nod to all of those unspoken difficulties in keeping abreast of things in a field where everything and everyone is strictly Need To Know status. It changes as her relationship with Wolmer receives that very-Jaime-Sullivan label of 'tight' — something fond, maybe, and a little sad — and then seamlessly into other weary, grim things.

"The high cost of working where things are weird," she murmurs, and it sounds like an agreement. Her attention shifts up to the waitress, and after a beat of weighing she offers a slightly less funereal smile: "Same. Thanks."

Once the waitress has disappeared again, she perks a brow at her tablemate, tilts her head. The words come slow, careful: "Things have definitely seemed to be…active." The pause that follows ends with a resigned half-smile. "You know I'd love to ask, offer the figurative ear and-or shoulder, but…" She lifts her hands, spreads them. "I don't have clearance for that kind of conversation anymore, obviously.." Gallows wry, "I do read the news, though, and given the scale of recent events has gotten to 'full-blown demonic invasion,' it seems like the metademographics have pretty much given up on subtlety as an MO."

—-

"Yeah, they're on the fucking nose alright," Sullivan says of 'metademographics' with a crooked half-smile. "But it's just getting them smacked. You'd have told me we'd see a bonafide reg law in bluer-than-blue, ACLU-loving New York three years ago, I'd have called you a dirty liar. It's on them, really." Of course, Sullivan himself seems pretty sanguine about the development.

With low traffic, the drinks come quick. "Thanks," he says to the waitress, and lifts the glass of foamy dark beer in Kinsey's direction. "Hey, cheers."

A long sip, and then: "Anyways, you've got clearance enough for another couple years at least. For this." His brow crinkles, his eyes take on a speculative glint. "You sure you don't want to hear my sob story, Sheridan? Your name — your work — pops up in it."

—-

Kinsey — and her parents — had been something of an oddity: a military family that leans progressive. Her father might reasonably be considered a moderate, whatever the hell that means, but her mother was a well-to-do Connecticut debutante of sorts, and- well. At any rate, Kinsey's position on the political spectrum rarely aligned with any of her peers or colleagues at Picatinny, in particular. Techint had been a more thoroughly mixed bag, but either way: she has a bland smile for Jaime's response, and it's well-practiced. It's the kind of inoffensive, neutral reaction she had for most people in the workplace on hot-button subjects that she wasn't directly in a position to influence.

Sometimes even then.

It freezes in place over what he says after that, though.

Hazel eyes regard him for a long, still moment, then slide sidelong toward the rest of the venue. "You know it's not my work anymore," she murmurs. "I signed over the rights to everything when I left."

But. She doesn't have to say the word: it's in every line of her face and body as she leans into the table, reaching for her glass with one hand and bracing the other forearm on the table's edge. "And of course I want to know. But…you know." You could get into trouble seems to be the gist of her explanation. Or maybe it's, I could get into trouble.

Either way, she's watching him with the kind of attention that says he's got a captive audience.

—-

She says it's not her work anymore, and the agent flickers an inscrutable little smile. "Just because you gave your baby up for adoption doesn't mean you don't still love it," he says with a nonchalant shrug. He takes another sip of his Guiness before adding: "I know what it's like to hand a case off."

Kinsey trails off, pointing to any number of troubles down the road, for both of them, should he share. For whatever reason, he seems largely unconcerned. Largely. See how he takes out his thin, sleek, unbranded smartphone and holds it to his face to unlock it. See how he makes a few swipes and a blue light flickers from the camera light.

This, at least, should be familiar to her. An app on DEO standard-issue wear that emits a hyper-advanced, state of the art noise, canceling field within a designated radius. It allows for reasonably private conversations in public places — absent a wire or some other countervailing technology. Wolmer developed it. He called it the "Cone of Silence" — yes, after the thing in GET SMART.

"So, you know this fat asshole who blew up half of Manhattan?" Sullivan says, leaning slightly forward in his booth and lowering his voice despite the being invisibly ensconced by DEO tech. "The one they have locked up in the Raft? It was a SHIELD case, on account of this meta-drug the guy was pushing. So after the capes bring him in for the cameras, SHIELD is going through everything this guy has that they can get their grubby little mitts on. But it's all encrypted — top of the line stuff. For a meathead mob boss, this guy had some crazy talent on his payroll."

Another sip of Guiness; he closes his eyes to savor it. It may be the first time they've left her since they got to their seat. The moment is short, and they're back on her like headlights — sparkling, alert, somehow both watchful and seemingly at ease. "It take sthe months to crack this thing. And do you know that they find?" Disgust creeps into his voice. "Our work. Reams of top secret DEO research and tech. Including yours."

He lets out a breath. "You wouldn't believe the smug in that SHIELD agent's voice when I got the call. Pricks."

—-

This is a mistake.

She knows that. In the moment, she knows it's a mistake to get close to this organization in this way, and even so, she can't help herself. Denying the skip of her heartbeat when the phone comes out and the field goes up would be like denying something about herself on the genetic level — feasible, in this day and age of wonders and horrors, but extremely difficult, and not without possible unforeseen side-effects. Unsated curiosity in Kinsey is potentially every bit as dangerous a thing.

She's retained enough of those old habits not to look at the phone as he fiddles with it; her eyes stay on him, her glass lifted to hover in front of her mouth, there for her to take several sips from — and because it works to erase just one of several possible pieces of her face likely to betray her when he leads off with Fisk.

A small nod is enough to answer that first rhetorical remark. The rest?

She sets her glass down with deliberate care, fingertips pressing into the curvature of the glass until they pale. Her silence is lengthy, and brittle.

"So he has people in the Department? Are they-?" And, after a pause, "Did SHIELD say anything else? Did they know why? What he was looking for? Was there any evidence that he-" Pause. Her lips thin. There are endless questions to ask, most of them bottlenecked. She tilts her head and leans forward a little. "You got the call?"

—-

It's her weakness, and to all appearances Jamie Sullivan seems perfectly willing to indulge her in it, confiding in her exactly as if she were the former co-worker she is rather than whatever it is she has since become. You got the call?

Sullivan's brows drop and narrow. "Of course I did — " he breaks into a smile that borders on smug, despite the seriousness of the subject matter. "Oh, what, did I not mention it? How surprisingly humble of me. You're looking at the new Special-Agent-in-Charge for our New York City office, Sheridan." And then a sardonic: "Translates to 'In-Charge' of all headaches."

The good humor at his good fortune can't hold in the face of it all, though. So he has people inside the Department. It's every agent's nightmare — a mole. Sullivan's eyes tick briefly over Kinsey's shoulder, to her left, to her right. "The stuff Fisk got was moved to the black site in New Hampshire sometime last year," he tells her. "We think that's where he got it."

He takes another long sip of his beer. It's half gone. "You know a Vernon LeGrasse? He was an agent who worked up there. Forties. Seemed like a decent guy, though he, ah, —" the man shrugs. "He couldn't make the whole personal life thing work for himself either. Three exes, lots of alimony. Should've raised a lot of red flags, but he'd been with the company for a long time."

The man's square jaw tightens. "Got his throat slit last winter. They had a team of agents out of DC working it, but couldn't find a trace of evidence or motive. So that's one option."

—-

"You neglected to mention," Kinsey says, through a flash of a smile she doesn't feel at all. "Waiting for the right moment, I expect. I'd congratulate you, but…" Her gesture sums up the whole of their conversation, the state of New York, generally speaking — everything that goes into his sardonic addendum.

She shakes her head no concerning Vernon LeGrasse: not someone she ever had any overlap with in her day-to-day existence with the DEO. Someone on the outside of the inside, where Kinsey lived.

Inside enough, though.

"Alimony sounds like plenty of motive. You think Fisk was trying to dip into DEO resources to prop up his meta-drug?" Pause. "Are they pulling you in on this officially? SHIELD? Are you- whose ball is this?" Her Guinness, by contrast, seems to be completely forgotten, neglected as the whole of her focus tightens laser-narrow on the subject of the conversation. "Finding out why he even had the information, whether or not he was doing anything with it…?"

—-

Sullivan's flashes another smile when she suggests he was just waiting for the right moment for maximum impact. But the rest of what she says…

"It's a New York case, and I'm SAC," Sullivan says, pointing a finger in the air — not at her, but presumably in the figurative face of whatever pencil-pushers will stand in his way. "Plus it was our god damn research, and our agent — crooked or not. Bottom line: I'm making it my business, and SHIELD can kiss my royal Irish ass if they don't like it."

The agent lets out a weary exhale. "Anyway, I don't know what Fisk wanted with those files. It's a lot of projects, with a lot of applicabilities. Scary fucking applicabilities. It could have been for the drugs. He could have been a middle-man, selling them to the highest bidder, whether it's HYDRA or the GRU. We don't know yet, and we need to."

He draws in a breath, lets it out, and trains briefly ceiling-cast eyes back on Kinsey. "Trouble is, the LeGrasse thing isn't a slam dunk. There's other possibilities too."

—-

If the subject were less serious — even setting aside that it's personal, and so much more serious than the surface suggests — she might look wry about his take-charge belligerence. As it is, she just nods a single time in mute understanding, and finally lifts her glass to her lips: she would make it her business, in his shoes.

She has made it her business. Often wearing no shoes at all.

"He needed a lot of capital to do what he did in Hell's Kitchen," she says, closing her eyes and lifting a hand to pinch lightly at the bridge of her nose. The thought of all of that information in the marketplace — any marketplace — is the stuff of nightmares. She's had a year to resign herself to the fact that that ship has long since sailed, but thinking about it in any direct way still feels a great deal like standing on the lip of a deep chasm: everything clenches.

The exhale that bleeds out of her is weighed down by all of it, the look she gives him as her eyes open solemn, overcast by a knit of brows so slight it hardly exists. "More is better than none. What possibilities are these?"

—-

Sullivan puffs out a laugh when he says two is better than none, reaching over to take another swallow of his warm beer. "Two of 'em right now," he says, landing the beer back on its coaster.

"The first is that the files were taken in-transit from Arkandale to New Hampshire," Sullivan says. "There was a — an attempted heist on the train. Pretty sophisticated, probably a meta. Might have included fucking Spider-Man." That part is said with utter derision; Sullivan is apparently a disciple of the J. Jonah Jameson school of thought on the webbed menace. "We thought it failed, but maybe it didn't. Or maybe it did, and it was Fisk's first attempt."

If there's any small part of Jamie Sullivan that suspects the young woman sitting across from him could be the same sleek cyborg who ran circles around ten trained Knightswatch officers, he gives no sign of it.

What he does show, however, is some reservation before offering this next part. "The final possibility — " his lips open, close. He doesn't want to say what comes next. "After we learned Fisk had the files, we went checked every place he could have gotten them. In New Hampshire, the servers were just gone. Straight-up lifted. Never seen anything like it. No footage of anyone taking anything. But — we couldn't just stop there. We looked at the bunker in DC too. Did a full data analysis of the files — who accessed what when. There was another unauthorized access of the archive.

A beat, a grimace. "Spring of this year. Sheridan, it was Wolmer. Allan accessed the black-boxed files using Arkandale codes — Presley's clearance codes."

He lets that news settle a moment, and then drops one more bomb into the silence: "Three days before his heart attack."

—-

Kinsey's skeptical expression says all that needs saying about her perspective, where Spider-Man and heists are concerned: highly unlikely. It's not something she tacks a statement to, but it probably doesn't need to be.

Which is just as well. Hesitation in Sullivan is interesting. Maybe he means it to be read that way — maybe he doesn't. It's effective, though, and he does not disappoint: what follows sends her brows leaping upward and her posture into a backward lean against the wall of the booth behind her, staring at the man across from her and turning that thought over in her head. She's looking at him, and also not. Looking inward. That faint, barely-there furrow of her brows deepens gradually, until her eyes sharpen into the moment, present again with him. "Which files? Surely not all of them?"

—-

Sullivan's eyes stay fixed on Kinsey, and for all his earlier hesitation, they take in her reaction to the words he finally coughs up — surprise, introspection, outward engagement — without apology or remorse. "Not all of them," he confirms. "As best our forensics folks can tell, he copied twenty projects, all containing data from the servers taken in New Hampshire. Including yours." Again.

The agent spreads his hands. "So, he wasn't Fisk's original source — Fisk had the whole shebang and not just a selection. But." But. "He stole some of the same material, and like LeGrasse, he died not long after."

It's getting harder as the conversation continues for Kinsey to keep pretending that this is all just a happenstance conversation. She does, because the alternative isn't any better, but at this point preserving the polite fiction feels a bit like trying to protect tissue paper in the rain.

Her reaction to what he says is genuine: a tight, subtle grimace. The long pull she takes from her glass, and the weary look, are also both unfeigned impulses, as is the breath she takes as she sets the glass down and leans forward again, eyes walking over Jaime's face. "So, you know what I'm going to ask you next, obviously. What did the twenty projects tell you about what it was Wolmer was after? And why now?"

—-

For the second time in half an hour, Jamie Sullivan regards Kinsey with something like sympathy. But it's of a different quality: this isn't the sympathy for a colleague who suffered some misfortune in the past, tempered by some combination of emotional reticense and respect for her pride.

No, this is sympathy for a person whose predicament is all too current. Call it a cousin of concern. The moment is fleeting, but it's there, either because it's real or because he wants it to be there — or both.

"They told me he wanted to start his own goddamn Stark Trek series," he says of the technologies stolen by her former associate, his expression once again casual. "Radiation innoculators, zero-G pills. Some mental health stuff too — fast-acting mood inhibitors. Pocket emps. A.I. tech and some cybernetic stuff."

A beat, a slide back into his leather cushion, a long sip of his Guiness. "No weapons. No direct countermeasures."

Then he tips the glass towards her. "And remember, why now is the wrong question. It's why six months ago. We only stumbled onto this clusterfuck because of the Fisk files."

He tips his chin back to regard her through slim, ice-rimed eyes. "I'm a cocky sonofabitch, but I won't pretend to have the answers here. I didn't know Wolmer, and I don't know the tech."

Another beat, his lips bend ever-so-slightly downward. "Maybe I could even use some help."

—-

"Zero-G-" The fragment of a sentence never completes. Kinsey's brows notch together, then clear. He was going into space?

And now he's dead.

Kinsey lifts her long-neglected glass of stout, eyes unfocused. "What were you doing, Adam?" She says the words under her breath, and they decorate the side of her glass with mist in the moment before she takes a sip, and then a much longer, much deeper second. Listening, still, as Jaime finds his way toward the thing it was all leading to, all along.

She doesn't immediately respond. Her eyes stay unfocused, fixed on some middle distance and whatever lack of clarity it has to offer. One more long pull from her glass later, she sets it down and refocuses, though her eyes train on the slow, velvety run of thick foam down the inside of her glass.

"Of course I'll help you," she says, and a beat later flicks her eyes up to meet his paler set. There's something sharp in them. Sharp, and flat. "But if I do, we're not going to do it like this, Jaime. You understand?"

She doesn't explain. The expectant look on her face says that she's not anticipating that she'll need to, but she's waiting to see, one way or the other.

—-

What were you doing, Adam?

The question is both rhetorical and searching, and in response to it Sullivan presses his lips together in a classic expression of, fuck if I know. Though for all the bravado, Agent Sullivan was always known for keeping his cards close to his chest, and having an extra up his sleeve just in case.

Which may be why those lips twitch when she calls him out on his little ambush. "Yeah, sorry," he says through that flicker of a smile, the rote of regret. "You know what the poet-lady said. Truth's gotta dazzle gradually, or everyone gets their fucking eyes burnt out."

I had to see you for myself, billionaire boss and blind, bleeding-heart boyfriend and all. You might not have seen me if I asked, out of the business and happier for it. Or maybe you'd have lawyered up, or just flat-out ran.

"It'll be different," is what Sullivan actually says, folding his hands together on the table next to that noise-dampening cell phone of his. "You'd come on as a DEO consultant, paid but part-time and managed off the books. You get access to the files Adam swiped, and the overall case file. It'd involve some travel, maybe to New Hampshire, probably to DC —"

His tongue clicks against the roof of his mouth. "But I hear you and Tony may be flying south to Delaware for the winter anyway, so how bad could that be?"

—-

"I don't need sorry. I need to not be treated like a rookie or a life-long civilian. I need an absence of bullshit. I don't have time for this kind of thing, and I'm all out of patience for it. Something about seeing your life flash before your eyes after getting most of your limbs vaporized really changes your priorities. The song and dance doesn't do it for me anymore."

Kinsey sits back, loosely stacking her hands in her lap, her regard of him pointed, but not lacking in understanding. "Anyway, you may find this shocking, but Tony and I don't have a lot of meetings where he talks to me about his plans. I tend to get blindsided by them like everyone else. I could probably get a lot more work done right now if I set up something to answer the department phone with 'I'm not at liberty to discuss that right now.'" Her lips thin, then relax. "It doesn't really matter where I end up. Everywhere in the country is a day's flight away. Less, if the DEO is feeling spendy and wants to get me someplace in a hurry. I'm not worried about travel."

She ticks her gaze briefly downward, then lifts it again. "When do I get the information?"

When do we start?

—-

She says she doesn't need his contrition, so he doesn't show it. At one point in the course of her riot-act-reading Jamie Sullivan's eyes tighten at their corner. Irritation? Skepticism? Perhaps even lingering sympathy for her vaporized limbs. Impossible to say. But it's brief, and otherwise his strong-boned face is the placid picture of assurance and equanimity.

"You got it, Doctor Sheridan," Sullivan says after swallowing a smile, along with another swig of his beer. He sets the half-finished glass firmly on the coaster. "I mean, within reason. This shit's always some kind of dance. But I'll try to keep the steps brisk."

She asks when they can get to it. "One of my boys will bring it by first thing tomorrow morning," the agent says with a shrug of seeming nonchalance. "Could be close to the office or — wherever makes sense, really."

—-

The microchange in his expression can't possibly go unnoticed by someone for whom that kind of tell is writ large, so many things perceived at any given moment, lacking all filter. It could mean a lot of things, most of them not especially advantageous for her position, but she finds that she's incapable of feeling sorry, anyway. Whatever falsehoods may be in play, whatever truths remain outside of the perimeter of mutually known things between them, and whatever her reasons might be for disliking that kind of maneuvering (and they are legion)…

She meant every last word.

"An honest effort is all I can ask," she says, agreeably enough, hands spread in a gesture that isn't quite mollifying. Accepting, perhaps.

"I can meet them. Have them call my office. The tower is…safe…" Kinsey pauses, hazel eyes difficult to read in the brief silence. "…but information security is more difficult to consider 'absolute' there than in most other places in New York. Not that I think Tony would snoop-" She knows he absolutely would, actually, "-but, better safe than sorry."

—-

"Yeah, well, why do you think I said close to the tower?" Sullivan asks with a half-grin, the explicitly tense exchange seemingly put behind him. "Tony's a smart guy, but he's got a permanent spot on our frenemies."

There's more he could say on that point — take care around Tony, watch what you say around the lawyer, trust no one. But he doesn't. She's been asked to be treated like a pro, and he seems inclined to pay her that respect, for now.

"You take a day to look at the files and then we'll debrief, talk about follow-up." Three heartbeats, and then a smile. "And I'll grab the check. Call it a signing bonus."

—-

I'll grab the check is her signal to reach for her purse. She does it immediately, no intention of drawing the ostensible reunion out any longer than they already have. If he hadn't used it as a springboard to what he really wanted, maybe —

But he did. Someone else might be able to roll it back, convert it again into something friendly. Someone more political than Kinsey would probably try, at least. Whatever she might think about the song and dance, there are reasons it exists.

But Kinsey is Kinsey. She's drawing lines in the sand, establishing rules and boundaries and — if she's being completely honest with herself — what she really wants to do is go to Matt's place, take her heels off, and drink herself into oblivion.

"Alright. If I see anything that looks urgent I'll let you know, otherwise…we'll schedule."

She slides lightly from the booth, and in the moment she hesitates there beside it the smile she's wearing — the kind of brisk, light smile of someone about to say their polite goodbyes — slips, wanes so slowly that she's probably unaware that it's happening. Her eyes gain solemnity in equal measure. "I don't want my work out there," she says, finally. The words are troubled in a way that extends well beyond the professional. They are utterly personal. "It's too dangerous. I don't know what the DEO's plans for it are, or were, but when you make your reports and recommendations…I hope by the time we sew this up, you'll understand enough about it to agree with me. I wanted to be the last person it ever damaged. It's too late for that now, but…" Her fingers, curled around the strap of her purse at her shoulder, tighten. "No more tragedies. Not if we can help it."

—-

She makes to go, selecting a smile that is perfectly appropriate for a cordial, professional exit. And Sullivan seems ready to accept exactly that, however short she makes to cut this social call, whatever his reasons for couching his ask of her within it.

He leans back into his corner of the booth and seems willing to accept her goodbyes while he waits for the waitress and the check. But then she makes her final point on the dangerousness of the work, and how it's already cost her, and others.

The seemingly perpetual glint in his eye fades. His look won't match her solemnity, but it is at least sober and respectful. "The files'll speak to at least some of that," he says, reaching for his special issue smartphone. "Decisions about research are out of my paygrade — but we'll get this stuff away from the badguys. That much I can promise you."

He doesn't rise, but he will extend a hand — even if only to see how her new one feels. "Talk soon, Sheriden."

—-

It feels like a hand.

She doesn't hesitate to shake his with it, though. "It's a start." Not enough. Not enough by half. But this is a monster she birthed into the world: she could probably never be satisfied by half-measures.

Her smile has a tightness conferred upon it by the subject matter, though it's not insincere. Sharp eyes flit across his face. "Take care, Special-Agent-In-Charge Sullivan." The retrieves her hand, and turns to go. "Be careful, please."

He knows, of course. Better than she does, without a doubt. It's his case, and there's a great deal of sudden death happening.

Still, though.

She waits until she's in the tower, in her office, and has done a cursory scan of the interior for any devices in it that she didn't put there herself before even thinking about reaching for her phone — and Matt's number.

—-

Matt doesn't pick up at first. When he calls her back five minutes later, the sounds of the city come through on background, along with a little static from the winter wind. He's no spy, but to his credit, he plays it cool for anyone who may be listening in. Call it the benefits of a lifetime of mendacity. How was your drink? Good catching up?

He suggests she swing by Danny's after work. He'll be waiting there, in their ridiculously opulent suite, tie loosened and a glass of whiskey from their largely untapped private bar in hand while thousands of thoughts speed through his mind faster than he can leap his way across a Manhattan skyline. They are all dark, and impossible to quiet with meditation. He's been slouching in one of the chairs, sitting with those thoughts, but once he hears her approach from a block away he's on his feet, setting that sweating glass absently on an ornate coaster. He runs a hand through his tousled mop, he paces slowly even as his heart beats fast.

—-

Kinsey is a long time getting there, by the standards of that usual commute. She warns him: it might be a bit, I've got an errand to run first.

The 'errand' is a convoluted, winding route that dips through the subway system multiple times during the crush of post-work foot traffic. It may avail her nothing, but old habits die hard.

She ought to be tired when she finally turns up. She probably will be, later. In the moment adrenaline keeps her edges sharp, though, and the door, when it opens, admits not just Kinsey but all of the restless energy that haunted the second half of her working day and chased her along that circuitous approach to Danny's townhouse — a place that-

"I don't know if I'm going to be able to come here anymore."

This is her 'hello.'

She closes the door and sinks back against it with an exhale, fingers threaded into what was until moments ago a neat updo.

—-

No one has ever been accused Matt Murdock of being the most patient person in the world. He isn't someone who can just accept circumstances as they are, to sit equaminously with dissatisfaction.

Which is to say that all that time she takes, however usefully spent, does little for his own mood or nerves.

Some of that energy bleeds off when he senses her approach, hears the front door of Danny's place open and then the sound of her artificially elegant gait carrying her to the door of their suite. He's standing there a few feet away when the door opens, head bowed and one fist at his mouth.

She says what she says and at any other moment it would wound. This palace is ridiculous, ill-suited to either of them, but it's been a point of solace during some hard times. Losing it becomes a metaphor for the insecurity of other things, a delicate balance suddenly upturned.

But in the moment he's steady, or appears so, as he walks over to where she leans against the door. His hands find her hips, his lips seek out the pale expanse of brow. "We'll work it out," he assures her quietly. A beat. "You want a drink? I've already started."

—-

Stress and strain are not strangers to this relationship, nor to either of the people in it individually, and yet: it's not often that Kinsey feels this way when he touches her — like a taut, over-tuned harp string. It helps that he comes to her, and she finds herself between the solid warmth of his body and the solidity of the door. She lets her eyes close, tilts her head into that light kiss at her crown, and then — with a long breath in and another exhale still not quite up to the task of bleeding all of that accumulated tension out of her — leans forward, draping her arms over his shoulders and tucking her face down into the well between his head and shoulder.

"I'd better not," she murmurs, finally, after long, silent moments of stillness. She lifts her eyes and slips an arm back from over his shoulders, fingertips traced over the line of one brow, eyes angled down into the space between them. "I had that Guinness already. …God, Matt. This is such a mess."

—-

Matt accepts as much of her weight as she is willing to give him. He welcomes it, even, both because he feels a powerful drive to take on the weight of others generally and because the nearness is something he needs too. His jaw is at her crown, he draws in the scent of her hair.

He flickers a smile when she declines the drink. It's smart, to keep a clear head, especially when her own head is more delicate than most. But when she calls the it such a mess he winces, even as his arms slide along her sides to soothe.

"Can you tell me about it?" he asks.

—-

That is in essence why she's here, her own need for comfort aside, and yet the prospect of laying it all out exhausts her so thoroughly as a thought that it's still moments more before she collects herself enough to respond, a soft hum of confirmation she keeps in her throat, mouth closed.

She stirs reluctantly, imparting a squeeze to the tops of his shoulders as she collects herself and straightens. "I'll tell you what I can." Quiet agreement, a little bit grim. "Let me wash up and change, first. I'm going to spend the rest of tonight in bed." She shouldn't sound grim about a night in bed, and does. Odds are good she'd rather be doing anything else at all — but Gotham is a long trip, the working week isn't even close to finished, and there's a kind of uncomfortable, hive-inducing wisdom in waiting for things to evolve on their own.

She doesn't have to like it, though.

—-

He's not patient usually, but he's patient here, while she collects and sorts through layers of thought and emotion. That may be because he's in no hurry to re-situate himself either.

But she does stir, and she does impose distance, and he accepts it — stepping back. I'll tell you what I can, is a cagey response if there ever was one, but he accepts it. That's a hill to fight on another day. "Yeah, of course," he says of her need to wash up and change. He brings a hand at her side up to her cheek — gives that prominent cheekbone just one tender graze of his thumb — and steps back.

He walks backward to claim his whiskey. While she's cleaning up, he'll go through their usual rituals. Pull off his tie, unbutton and throw off his button down shirt, so that it's just his navy suit slacks and a white crew-neck T. When she's done he's seated on the edge of the bed, whiskey cradled in both hands between his knees.

Patient still.

—-

In the bathroom the sink runs long enough to heat up, and longer still — long enough that the mirror at the backsplash is fogging in a rising funnel by the time Kinsey finishes going through the motions, her thoughts everywhere but on the work of her hands. She wrings the wash cloth out and hangs it up, unpins her hair and shakes it out with splayed fingers at her scalp, and meets her own eyes in the mirror for a long moment before collecting her shed clothes and carrying them to the hamper to dump them in.

When she pads barefoot back into the room, she draws the covers on the bed down on one side and slides beneath them, hauling them up beneath her chin, closing her eyes, and indulging herself in the fantasy of something even remotely like rest.

It can't last.

The covers puddle in her lap as she sits up again, pushing the profusion of pillows on the bed into a cushion behind her against which to lean. It takes her a moment to decide where to begin. "Jaime's the new SAIC for the New York office." She makes a subtle, sour face. "Success seems to have given him an appreciation for theater. Sometimes I start feeling like I miss that. Turns out I don't miss it at all."

—-

It's a big bed. Big enough for her to claim as much of the mattress and covers as she could possibly want while only slightly impinging on his comfort. If he didn't have his refined senses, he might barely notice her land and curl.

But he does have them, and he does notice her going fairly well fetal. He downs his whiskey, sets it on the nightstand, and swings his legs over the side of the bed so that he can roll onto his side and face her. He props an elbow on the mattress and watches her wrestle with the possibility of rest, coming up short. He smiles a little, knowing the feeling.

"You get a lot of costumes," Matt offers when she says she misses theater. He can't see the sour face, but he can tell a lot from what she says and how she says it. "So it was an ambush. What did he want with you?"

—-

You get a lot of costumes makes the corner of her mouth quirk up, but the angle walks the line between bleak humor and melancholy. "I have one more of those than I ever wanted outside of a holiday." Her tone manages to avoid the pitfall of anything bitter, but it would be difficult not to detect the strain in it, even for someone without his prodigiously sensitive perceptions. Turning her head, she takes in his shift of position and shifts again, herself — mostly to tilt onto her side to face him, allowing herself a slightly deeper recline in that overabundant pile of pillows. She hauls the covers up beneath her arm and pins them there, hazel eyes tracing over his face as though they could pry minute evidence of his mood from the configuration of those lines and angles.

"Somebody I used to work with — somebody higher up the food chain than I was — died right after pulling my work files from on-site DEO databases. Not just my work, at least, but still, Matt." Her eyes unfocus, thoughts turned inward, back along the byways of memory — little moments involving Wolmer. The breath she takes is meant to be deeper, less tight, but it leaves her almost sharply, unsteady. "Heart attack, Sullivan said. A very coincidental heart attack, three days after pulling a lot of project information using COS Presley's clearance codes." She resists the urge to rub her face again — barely. The restlessness in her probably has a chemical smell, even unindulged. "Sullivan's on it because he was the one who got the call from SHIELD when they were processing everything of Fisk's, and discovered DEO information there. It doesn't surprise me that he'd be looking at me, considering. What surprises me is that he wants me to consult on it. He's not lacking for in-house brainpower, and all I can think is that he believes they've got an in-house problem. He doesn't need to bring me in like this just to keep an eye on me."

—-

She looks for clues to his mood in those deep lines on his careworn features, but every signal of she gives of being a string pulled to its tightest limit makes her work that much harder. He is in protective mode, and getting anything out of him beyond that steadiness will be — for the moment — tough.

But she'll still find an attentive and sympathetic ear. There's a tightening of his jaw when she mentions Fisk, but that's hardly unusual. It is the sorest of spots.

To the rest, he is… thoughtful. "He went to you because he thinks he has a mole, and trusts you more than he trusts people in his own house," Matt echoes, following along the lane of her thoughts.

There's a jut to his jaw. "But he still wants to keep an eye on you," the lawyer suggests. "If you're clean, he gets some help finding the culprit. If… not, he thinks you're close enough to catch."

She is clean, at least of the murder. But complicit in so many other things. And because of that, 'consulting' puts her at profound risk. Those big, puppydog hazel eyes close, and he reaches a hand across the expanse of mattress to rest on her shoulder.

"You said yes." It's not a question.

—-

"Maybe," Kinsey says, of moles. The slow, careful way in which she says the word doesn't doubt that it's possible so much as it sounds reluctant to put all of her assumptions in that basket. "Maybe. The Vernon LeGrasse thing would be enough on its own, but then Adam…" Her eyes close, squeezed shut as she tries to cut through the noise in her own head. "I asked him what he thought the files that Wolmer took said about what he was after, and I honestly don't know what to make of the little he did share. Things for use in low gravity and high-radiation environments, like space…cybernetics things, AI-oriented things, mood inhibitors. I don't know, it could be…anything. Some of his guys are going to bring me a copy of everything."

Which is, in its way, an answer to his final statement-not-a-question — if perhaps an answer that remains as unsettled as the questions, many and vexing, that required it.

"Yeah. I don't — I don't have a choice. I could say 'no,' but he could make things difficult for me if he wanted to. He could make things difficult for Tony. I just — I want to show willing. And it's not just that, either. I have a — a responsibility to this information, to the…the consequences of it."

Sheets rustle on skin as she lifts her hand, placing it lightly over the one he has on her shoulder. Her eyes open, a little. Enough to look at him. "Matt, I…" Green-gold eyes walk his face, searching for — what? Kinsey may not even be sure, herself. "He may already know. About me. Six…doesn't obfuscate her artificial limbs. And I — I've been coming and going from this address for months, now. So have the rest of you. There are metas who aren't secret metas here. Metas who just happen to spend a lot of time in a group of masked vigilantes called the Defenders, made up of, coincidentally, a body count very similar to the body count of other people spending time here. It's — I'm…" Worried, she doesn't say. It seems supremely unnecessary.

—-

She runs through a litany of sci-fi film pitches as she describes what Wolmer lifted from the DEO. Any of them should be enough for her to head for the hills, but… she has a responsibility to what she created. Frustration and pride bloom in equal measure in his breast, and on his expressive features.

Pride because he remembers again how rigorously ethical she is, how committed to atonement. Frustration because — he can't extricate her from it. Not easily. His lover is in an impossible situation. The kind of moment that call for superheros. But what can he do.

He feels her artificial hand lay gently atop the hand he has on her shoulder, and his eyes pop open. Six doesn't obfuscate her artificial limbs, she said. "And he already has, what, photos, video of Six trying to steal and then replace the servers Fisk eventually stole, right?" He breathes out a rush of hot, caustic air, pure frustration.

"Changing things up right after you were being confronted seems suspicious," Matt suggests quietly. "If you're going to stop coming here, you need a pretext. Maybe I just —"

His lips twitch. "Need to get a place?" The humor is fleeting, confronted as it is by her worry. He scoots closer across the expanse of cushion between them, seeks to draw her closer with him, even if they're separated by a comforter.

"Either way," he whispers, "I've got your back."

—-

It's too late to fix this.

The sentiment beneath the words she's willing to say. The feeling that she's been fighting with since before the meeting had even ended.

Before that, if she's honest with herself. Since things to do with her identity began to unravel, because — whatever she might say about having worked for an intelligence agency — Kinsey was always in technology, not field ops. Her life has been lived amidst classified pursuits and subjects, but her inclination is not and never has been to dissemble.

Until she no longer had any choice.

She shrugs at his speculation about the video, the photos. He may not be able to see it, but it's audible — and predictable. Probably, it says, more concisely even than that. "If Tony goes through with these moves he's making, I've got reason not to be in this area as often anymore." But that blessing is mixed at best, and worthy of the troubled tone of voice she uses. A good reason to stop coming to Danny's, sure. Another hurdle to clear, in spending time with Matt, though. And whatever her needs, in taking a step back and away from the Defenders, it's not some thing she wants to do. Giving up the connections she's finally managed to form, even if she can tell herself it's only temporary, and safest for everyone involved…

He pulls her out of her thoughts with that shift, and the softly breathed assurance to follow. Her eyes lift, soften. She moves in turn, snaking one arm around beneath him, as tangled up with his limbs as it's possible to be given the intervening layer of sheets and blankets. Stilling once settled, she plays solemn eyes over his face, trouble and a smile there in equal, equally subdued measures. "I know you do." There's no doubt in her voice at all — but it's a wholehearted belief made complex by reservations. "I don't want it to have to come to that, though. I don't want collateral damage. I'm not telling you to stay out of it, just…you know. You know what I mean. If we can avoid anyone else being caught up in it…"

—-

She doesn't have to express the fact that it's all too late, and that she may be caught up in her own improvised web. He knows. She'll even find sympathy in Matt's sightless eyes, among other things. After all, who is better acquainted with what it's like to build your life out of a house of cards, for lack of anything sturdier? His whole life is a game of winging it until it catches up to him.

The way it has, perhaps, caught up to her.

But it's not unalloyed sympathy. It's complicated and diluted by other sentiments. She suggests that she'll have to go away, at least a while, and it's impossible to hide the regret at the possibility she may have to cut herself off from this strange, makeshift family which has become such a surprising comfort to him. That she will be distancing herself from him, and the city he loves. He isn't caught off guard by the idea; ever since the registration act gained steam he'd considered the possibility that New York might not be the place for her right now, even if it's the only possible place for him.

She winds herself closer, tangles with him even as they contemplate separation. He wrestles with something internally, and the struggle is briefly visible on his features, if not the content. After he's drawn her even closer, close as can be given that he's on top of the comforter and she's underneath it, he says:

"I did buy a house," he admits to the bridge of her nose, the hushed words an apparent non-sequitur at first. "Or Danny did, and I'm slowly paying him back interest free. Wealthy families left the neighborhood after the bombings too, and I guess Fisk isn't the only one who knows how to scoop up real estate."

And he is. Wealthy. Or wealthy enough. You can't work for Stark Industries and Danny Rand and not end up that way, whatever your best efforts. Matt may be homeless, but he's sitting on the small but significant pile of money he's yet to give away to his beloved neighborhood.

"It needs a lot of work," he goes on in that quiet cadence of his. "I've been mostly just tinkering at the edges. Soundproofing. Layout. A killer basement." Lips quirk at their corners, mischief mixed with rue creeps into his eyes. "Danny's even promised to hook me up with his plumber for the showers."

And there it is, in that dumb and muted little joke about her love affair with Danny Rand's shower-heads. As close to an admission as he could make of what he meant to do with that house. Who he intended it for.

He lets out a little breath. "It's a good house. It'll keep."

—-

It ought to feel safe.

Here, in this place defended by a forbidding air of wealth, occupied by people capable of things most mundane humans can only dream of, in a single room amongst many other similar rooms, wound within the intimate embrace of someone she knows would put his life on the line to keep her safe — because he does no less for anyone else, friend or stranger alike. In the quiet of the evening after a day of working — once under pretense, but more and more as a matter of routine — for one of the most successful, intelligent, important innovators in technology in the modern world, who has for better or worse taken her under his infamous wing. All of these things matter. All of them ought to be an assurance that she's as safe as it's possible for a person to be.

None of it manages to sap the feeling of impending doom from the moment — that nauseating sensation of inertia, of momentum toward some ultimate and final end, like the freefall to follow being hurled from the top of a cliff. Hurtling, without brakes or stopgaps or recourse, toward a fate that may only in the most roundabout way be of her choosing — a delayed set of consequences for choices made in willful ignorance or naive optimism years ago.

And so: instead of feeling as though they're protection against the inevitable, every one of those things that might otherwise stand between Kinsey and her personal doom feels instead like a fragile, unwitting victim waiting to be caught up in the grinding crush of whatever that doom will be. The things that ought to bring comfort are reduced instead to generating a low-level anxiety in her, a pressing awareness that they need to be protected, from her.

Because they're precious. Not just to her, but certainly also to her. Because they make up the best of her present and, as Matt quietly demonstrates, leading off into talk of a home she did not know he had bought, they make up the best of a desired future, too.

It's no surprise that he bought a house. He needs somewhere to live. It's a surprise that he didn't tell her about it.

And then he kind-of-sort-of gets around to touching on that thing, that future-thing, and it's not a surprise anymore. Or it's a different sort of surprise, maybe, followed by the surprise of her eyes and nose pricking with hard tingles that blur her vision, and drive her to press her face into his shoulder — a little fissure tapped lightly into the shell of numb she's been leaning into since seeing Sullivan on that sidewalk.

Because it's not fair.

It should be something to celebrate. A champagne bottle opened and half-spilled, finished on the roof looking out over a wounded but soldiering-on city, maybe. A few humid hours tangled in sheets followed by a lot of laughing about interior design choices (built-in eyehooks in the floor for a jetboot harness?) or -

Instead, it feels like something she may never get to have. Like being shown something wonderful, a little bit too late. A nonsensical feeling — she knows that.

Still, though.

She makes a quiet sound that seems like it wants to turn into speech, but it never quite gets there.

—-

He told her now for several reasons. One, because he will someday soon actually have to move out from under Danny's gilded roof, and she will see it and learn of it for herself then. Matt's pride would never allow him to be a permanent charity case, especially not when his bank account is flush. But more importantly, it was an expression of confidence that they may yet still attain the future her ugly past currently threatens.

The sudden taste of salt in the air tells him she can't begin to accept that kind of optimism right now, and probably says it more eloquently than whatever words died in her slender throat could have managed to do. Her face burrows into his shoulder; he accepts her and enfolds her, his brow knit and his eyes briefly closed. He's made it his mission in life to alleviate and prevent suffering, born of the simple fact that he's more attuned to and aware of suffering because of his strange gifts. That he nothing he can say or do can allay it here, with the person he values most, cuts deep.

"We're gonna get through this, Kinze," he promises her in a low murmur to the crown of her head. He's no stranger to fatalism; the past year has been proof enough of that. But he's also no stranger to faith, and in this moment he chooses the latter, perhaps to make up for her current deficit in conviction. One of them needs it.

—-

It takes time for her to harden herself against that tidal rush of feeling, a wobble in her self-control. Her silence is less an obstinate refusal to accept or believe what he says than it is an inability to trust her own voice or put her hands on the words that need saying at all.

He, more than anyone else, has a window onto that silent struggle, aware as he is of things that no one else could ever sense. The gradual easing of a subtle tension in her, as her fight to keep from capsizing is slowly but surely won. She tilts her head just enough to press her eye to his shirt, transferring the damp of one mostly-unshed tear to the fabric, and then finally finds her tongue. "It doesn't make sense for me to make plans, yet. I need that information from Sullivan's people. If we're lucky, the project information that Wolmer was after will mean something to me when I look at it, and I'll be able to get a better sense of what kind of threats are in play, here." As quietly as those words are said, as rational as they are, there's a raw, naked hope in them, too — an audible tethering of her sanity and patience and self-control to the need to sit with this situation and do nothing, when her instinct is to run, run, run. "After that display today, for all I know, this could be another of Sullivan's feints." Another charge of restlessness passes through her, contained, but felt — an external reflection of a dizzying whirl of thoughts, suspicions, and second-guesses, chasing themselves around and around the inside of her head.

She processes that a moment late, and tightens her fingers against him, brows knitting in sudden, shame-faced apology. "If there's any way forward for us, we'll find it, Matt. I'm…sorry. My head's a really noisy place to be, right now."

You know — as opposed to most of the time, when there's already another sentient occupant there.

—-

"Shhh," he whispers when she apologizes, tightening the band of his arms around her. "Don't even think about it."

He listens. Not just to words but to the cadence of her breath and the thrum of of her, and how tension inevitably gives way to self-control. He's always admired it about her, that composure and analytical bent of mind that lasts right up until it doesn't.

"If anyone can see a pattern in what he sends over, it's you," Matt tells her, voice still quiet. His brows lift and drop as a sudden thought strikes him. "I know this is dangerous, Kinsey, but it could open doors too. Give you a chance to find the information you were looking for about your condition without — you know."

Stealing it out of train cars.

—-

"Yeah." Immediate agreement — but it doesn't sound optimistic, as it was no doubt intended to be. "The DEO has always been my best option for finding out the truth. They have the information, the resources, the history…" Eyes slivered open, they train on a nothingness space between the two of them, unfocused and heavily shaded by honey-dark lashes. "But the possible trade-off has always been…everything else." Autonomy. Agency. Her choices in the face of whatever she finds: to go on living this way, or modify her situation, or reject it altogether. Five's choices, too, weighted equally, if perhaps differently, constrained by the nature of his existence.

There's quiet long enough that it may seem she's subsiding into whatever comforts this arrangement of bodies and understandings might offer, and then: "He's newly married. Jaime."

She doesn't follow that statement up with anything, which makes it something of a non-sequitur. It doesn't sound, though, like she intends it to be one. There's a thoughtfulness in that, subtle but present, that makes it part of her endlessly looping thoughts, feeling her way through the shape of this problem.

—-

She does not take his silver lining as anything of the kind, and Matt catches on to her reasons quickly enough. Any good Catholic knows there's always a price for biting that apple.

Unless.

"Maybe it doesn't have to be that trade-off now, though," Matt suggests, shrugging the shoulder not currently dug into the mattress. "You help them with this, do them a favor. If they don't know about you, and don't learn about you, you get the information and but can still get out from under."

Not that it solves everything. The knowledge forces those choices she's thinking about: what to do with what she is, if there is in fact anything to do. But then, she'd made the choice to pursue that knowledge as soon as she donned the helmet and sped off in her VTOL.

He's newly married. Jamie.

"He just got a promotion, so I guess it makes sense," Matt allows thoughtfully, sightless eyes slimming. A beat. "You — wanna double date, or something?"

—-

Kinsey meets that suggestion with a nod or two, small, but certainly more than sufficient to translate in the dearth of space between them. It's a lot of if. A big if. But he knows that as well as she does and, in any event, there's no use in drawing out and dwelling on the many perils involved. She's in it, now. Freefall.

The low, dry sound in her chest and throat has bleak overtones. "No. He wouldn't allow it. No one with any sense, in his position, would."

Silence, again. It spools out, and Kinsey lets it. All of these silences feel busy. It's not the stillness and quiet of things held in abeyance, but the motionless silence of someone assailed on every invisible front.

Eventually:

"If this were any other situation where one of us were in danger, the first thing I would do is learn everything I could about the people involved. A new marriage is something I'd consider a promising source of leverage. But most of the time, when I'm doing this — doing that — the people we're talking about are strangers. Most of them aren't good people. The few people who might arguably be considered good people are usually good people making bad choices — like Vernon LeGrasse. I don't hesitate, in those cases. I learn as much as I can because knowledge really is power. It opens doors, it shows me possibilities, allows for recourse. But this? Now?" Her brows slide together slowly, eyes closing against the nothing they were looking at.

"He's not a stranger, he's a former colleague. He's not a bad man…just a man whose opinions don't look much like mine. But he is a threat, and I really am in danger."

—-

She elaborates on why she brought up Jamie Sullivan's wife, which is all his understated joke about double-dating the couple was intended to provoke anyway. There's a subtle shift in his features, thoughtful and a little melancholy, when she outlines what she would do, in other circumstances.

"They've really got your back against a wall," he says with something like understanding. "Even if Sullivan doesn't know that you're Six, you're one of the creators of those stolen projects. You should be a suspect, and you both know it, and he's either investigating you in the weirdest way possible, or using the leverage that comes from that to try to get you to help him, or both."

That makes Jamie Sullivan an asshole. But does it also make his family fair game? On that count, Matt's unsure, and that conflict is reflected in the stubbled features that hover just above her. "Digging isn't using," he says, finally, with quiet resignation.

And here he thought they were done with shades of complicity.

—-

"Or both," Kinsey murmurs, parroting his words. Clearly, that's where she thinks the safe money is.

Where he eventually lands on the unspoken question in all of these considerations is in resigned comprehension, fully aware of the oh-so-thin line of ethics and morality, of personal responsibility, the justified self-defense and so forth — and of course it does. Those have been the questions they've juggled for months. Years, possibly, separately and together. He understands, but his understanding carries as much regret for her as reassurance. All of those arguments about lines in the sand and where they ought to be drawn, all of those debates.

She'd acknowledged that he couldn't be faulted for attempting to save himself from Fisk by using the favor he'd been given by the Maximoffs, and if there were atrocities committed — she was by no means sure of that, given the boat that sank was crewed by people cognizant of what they were doing — then those had to rest on the shoulders of the twins themselves. But there are no twins in this scenario: just Kinsey, and Kinsey's choices. If it's self-defense, then only Kinsey will be accountable to whatever she does with the information she obtains.

She'd said to him that committing to heroic mores was an easy thing to do, with the worst of Fisk's threat against them over and done with. That it would be tested, well and truly, when things got difficult again, and he — or they — got desperate.

Digging isn't using it. But digging acknowledges that whatever she digs up might one day need to be used, when things get desperate.

Eyes still closed, she wades through all of those memories, the different pressures they exert on the now, and after a moment asks, quietly, "Would you just go peacefully, if it came down to it? Knowing it wasn't your fault, but not really his, either?"

—-

Matt would beg to differ with her in her interpretation of what happened on that boat, and on a number of levels. He did not call the Maximoffs to save himself. He called them because it was his final opportunity to end Wilson Fisk. They weren't his life raft — when has he ever had a use for those? — they were his instrument of attempted murder.

Which, in his mind, makes any incidental deaths by their use his own.

She asks him what he'd do, if he were caught. He swallows some of his cheek, tightening the skin on his jawline. "I've obviously thought about it some," he answers. "If I get knocked out in an alley, and some cop takes off my mask."

It's impossible to answer, not because he has one, but because she's asking to inform her own decision. They're both harder on themselves than on each other; that's been a through-line of their time together. The things he would demand and expect of himself he would never in a milion years ask of her.

And so he doesn't answer her at all, except to say: "You should keep your options open. Look for leverage, make a plan to, ah, to run." Murky pondwater eyes close briefly. "I'd find you. If you were in North Dakota, or Wakanda, or hitched a ride on that space racoon's ship to fucking Alpha Centauri." He brings a hand to her shoulder, the delicate arch that leads to her neck. "I'd still find you."

—-

Sometimes, not answering is as much an answer as any answer could be. More, even.

Kinsey absorbs that quietly, twisting her fingertips in the fabric of his shirt in silence, eyes still closed. It cannot give her senses delicate on the order of the man beside her, but it heightens things nevertheless, peeling back one layer of perceptions to expose another variety underneath. Listening to the quality of his voice, the nuances in the texture and tone of it.

Listening to her own responses, too, to the things he says.

The full curve of her mouth presses itself into a thinner line. I'd find you, he says.

Now it's her turn not to answer, save in the tightening of her arms around him, searching for some degree of further closeness that does not physically exist to be gained in the effort. The words she exhales against his mouth as she tilts her head are meant to be a bridge to that impossible need for closer — rote, perhaps, as human expressions go, and freighted between the two of them with a complicated history, but never less than wholly meant. "I love you, Matt."

—-

The first time she said those words to him was just about a year ago, in the first of many fateful conversations in Fogwell's Gym. She'd used the sentiment as a sort of lifeline or bridge to her own rapidly disintegrating sense of self. The more things change.

But he's at least better prepared to receive the words this time; he greets them with a half-smile and warm, sightless eyes. When she seeks even closeness, he brings the band of his arms around her again. It'll won't fix the problem of the blanket between them, but there's comfort to be found for both of them within the circle he creates. "I love you too, babe," he murmurs to wisps of dark, glossy hair. "We're gonna get through this."

An eyebrow inches up. "And… thanks. For not trying to box me out of it." It's an impulse both of them share, that tendency to ice each other out of problems rather than to lean on their partner. It's born out of a sense of responsibility and an impulse to protect, but it's tried patience on both ends at different points and at different ways.

"I'm gonna have to figure out how I can get around that noise-canceling thing," he says, almost off-hand.

—-

Speaking of tried patience:

The sleek figure under the covers stiffens in the wake of those offhand words. Kinsey's lips part. Her brows dagger downward slowly, an expression that would portend trouble, if there were anyone to see it.

"Matthew," she says. The extra syllable somehow carries all of the disapproval that she manages to load his name with. It's a troubled chastisement, not quickly followed by additional words.

She can't fault him for what he's implying. He is what he was made to be, changed in ways that run so much more deeply than merely having the option of perceiving things off-limits to most people sheerly through lack of capability. It becomes, she's very certain — knows from experience — part of one's suite of instincts, and he's lived with his abilities far longer than she has her own. She still manages to feel blinded, deafened, made lesser, when she takes that helmet off.

The DEO has been the boogeyman of her existence for years. The end-game threat, the most dangerous thing. Would she shadow him, if one of Kingpin's emissaries turned up to speak with Matt…?

Maybe.

The conflict of these mixed feelings writes itself in her expression through a twist of her lips, brows stitched together, a glint of something sharp in her eyes. "First of all, you can't, or we wouldn't use them in the first place, that's the whole point, and second…" She pulls a breath, pushes it steadily out, slow but not sighing-slow. "I can't blame you, I guess? But that makes me…sort of uncomfortable," says the cyborg whose life as a vigilante consists largely of accessing information she's not supposed to have.

—-

Those two spoken syllables of his name are loaded with enough disapproval that Matt is expecting more than the more measured reply she ultimately gives him. And probably less than he was expecting when he intentionally hinted at where his footsteps had really carried him after he'd said his goodbyes to her and Sullivan at Stark Tower.

He feels some small surge of relief, but that discomfort she displays and gives voice to still needs to be addressed. "I get it," he tells her quietly, still holding her close despite the tightening of her frame. "Trust, privacy, independence. I get it. I'm the most private person you know. There just —"

He sighs, rolls his eyes upward. "Neither of us knew what we were dealing with, or had time to game out a strategy. And I know if you'd really felt you needed me you could have had Five call my cell or something, but…"

Matt brings his calloused hand back around to cup her cheek. "I was just — worried, you know? This was always kind of the Def Con 1 scenario. I won't make a habit out of it. And I thought it was better to tell you about it than do what I normally do, which is just… hide how much I know. I don't want to do that with us."

He leaves off the unspoken anymore.

—-

"I…know." Grudging understanding, of his expression of concern for her. "I get it, too. I do. And I'm — I appreciate that you were ready to be a safety net for me. It was unexpected and suspicious. I just…" Something uneasy twists in her. "That's an easy well to poison, and not easy to walk back from." They're vague words, said slowly enough to imply specific scenarios unfolding in her mind that she, very deliberately, chooses not to share. The wariness of her delicate delivery is unvarnished. "We've been through a lot to get to where we are. The trust we have."

The next thoughts must be connected, but her tone of voice makes them distinct, next steps rather than elaborations. "I've got Five who can send messages the second anything goes wrong for me, and I've got the panic button Stark set up for me, too. I'm just about as safe as it's possible to be, barring getting a magician involved." The hand that isn't wound around behind him lifts, covering his at her cheek, capping its warmth as her eyes lid and she tilts her head into it. The shape of her mouth prints the words she says next against his palm in breath and movement. "We can't set rules about things that arrive as a surprise. We have to trust our instincts, and you did. It's all I can ask. I just don't want to constantly wonder if I'm being watched or listened to. I already feel like that as it is."

She already technically is, she does not say — the kind of remark, true and fair but somewhat tactless, that would set off another feud with Five.

—-

"I know," Matt repeats in a hush, and he does.

Since age nine he has been a walking, talking violation of other people's privacy and trust. He can have more insight into the private life of the person down the street than that person's own significant other or parent. And for years, those closest to the blind lawyer offered up more than they'd ever begun to suspect, and he left them none the wiser.

Given all that, tuning certain things out became not just a matter of survival — his mind has adapted, but it lacks Kinsey's ability to channel an ocean's worth of sensory data in a second — but also a matter of respect.

All of those calculations are, in turn, weighed against his ever-present need to protect, to save, to act. It makes for a complex and perhaps out-of-balance equation, if the rueful contrition on his features is any sign.

"And you won't have to wonder," Matt assures her. The hazel eyes he aims in her rough direction are soulful, intent. "I didn't tell you so you'd be looking over your shoulder. I told you to be transparent with you about what I do with respect to you, and what I know, and how."

He thinks through the significant safeguards she lists: Tony's panic button, the omni-present Five. His brow narrows as a sudden thought strikes him. "Even if he knows you're Six, with the prosthetics and all — do you think they'd have any idea what you can actually… do?"

—-

The fingertips on the back of his hand twitch inward, a butterfly kiss of pressure, silent reassurance. "I know. You didn't have to mention it at all. I'm glad you did." These careful steps, this cautious dance. Saying the things that need to be said, drawing the lines that need to be drawn, putting to words the understandings that are known, or ought to be known, but must be articulated, codified, formalized. The fragility of things can be felt in that process alone. Gestures that acknowledge — that respect — the snarls of reef on which they might be torn apart, and sink.

His question meets with silence for some heartbeats, the hand behind him wandering the trench of his spine absently as she weighs it. "They would develop a profile of possibilities based on the scope of the project, but they'd have no way to be sure. They have access to readings from the moment of the accident that may tell them nothing, but could give them insights I can't predict. I was never able to look at those. I might get my first look at them whenever Sullivan sends that project data…but…" She presses her lips together. "If there's any information in the project files that I haven't seen that would tip me off as to what they might suspect about me, I wouldn't be surprised if they withheld that, either. It may depend on how badly he needs my unhindered analysis of what Wolmer was doing."

Her eyes close. "The DEO — the Knightwatch, in particular — would take the approach of being ready for anything. They wouldn't take any chances. That's just how they operate. It would be an 'overwhelming force' situation."

—-

It would be an 'overwhelming force' situation.

Matt grimaces. "That means I may not have been the only one watching you and Agent Sullivan," he says slowly.

God, what an utter mess. Even if they don't know anything about Kinsey, how long will that stay true when she's working with the agency, all under the watchful eye of its agents? And if they do know… how safe can she be, even with her panic button and cybernetic guardian angel or even — and this part stings — her superhero boyfriend?

The thought is a cold splash of water on his face, communicated in a brief press of the lips and an absent graze of her temple with the calloused fingertips that span her strong-boned profile. "So next steps are you take a look at this data — for your purposes as much as theirs — and then try to find your data and whoever killed your colleague."

And then hope against hope that's enough to get the DEO out of her life.

—-

His slow remark is her everyday reality, and it has been for years. Less the actual, in-person, aggressive development of a face-to-face meeting with an agent, but the paranoid suspicion of being monitored at all times. It gets a shrug from her that isn't blithe so much as it is accustomed to the thought, however much she may revile it. "He's probably been watching me — having me watched — for a while prior to any in-person meeting. It's what I would do. Probably from the moment this fell into his lap. They wouldn't even have to do it in person. I try to keep an eye on satellite traffic, but there are thousands of man-made satellites orbiting the Earth. I've gotten pretty good with multitasking but I have limits, and the algorithms at the lab aren't foolproof." Pause. "Now that he's tapped me for consulting, he'll definitely be watching. Fortunately, he'll also definitely be expecting me to know that he is, and definitely be expecting me to object."

Air bleeds wearily out of her. "Look at the data…figure out what Wolmer was doing and whether or not it's a problem for me. If it's not a problem for me… figure out who it was a problem for, I suppose. That may be the person who killed him. It may not. I don't know. I'm going to try not to theorize much."

Her voice shrinks. "God, Adam. What were you thinking?"

—-

She walks Matt through what she knows Sullivan knows, and what he knows she knows he knows. Matt may have founded much of his life on varying forms of subterfuge and deception, even before he adopted an outright double life, but this cat-and-mouse mind game still sounds exhausting.

At the end of it all, though, is a quiet plea to a dead man who will never be able to answer her. Matt presses his crown against hers. "You'll figure out what he was doing," he says, with ironclad conviction in his voice. He'd said once that she was smarter than him, in some half-joke to Danny Rand's butler. But he also meant it. Even if she didn't have an artificial intelligence looped directly into her brain, he has vast faith in her rigor, perceptiveness, and even her judgement. Certainly he has more faith in the last than she has.

"And then we'll figure out what to do about it," he adds in a voice quiet as breath. He's not willing to cut himself out of this equation, not when the stakes are as high as her ending up some kind of lab rat for government scientists.

—-

"That," Kinsey says quietly, after a moment of silence, "Is the step I'm worried about."

But that, like the question of what Dr. Adam Wolmer was doing, is a thing that exists beyond the horizon of her present knowledge, a thing she can't speculate on in any productive way. It's difficult for most people to corral their thoughts when they're placed under strain, returning again and again to worry at the same things with the endless helplessness of a tongue probing a sore tooth. For Kinsey, locking that tendency down is akin to trying to ward off an entire flock of birds: whole shoals of thoughts acting independently, fractured and pinwheeling around the object of her unease. A cloud of mosquitoes — something irritating and relentless enough that it inflicts a kind of fatigue.

"Maybe I'll take you up on that drink after all," she murmurs, at the end of a silence busy with fighting the tide of her own thoughts.

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