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The Dead It Carries

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She almost doesn’t get there in time.

It’s not an unfamiliar scene. Even the great immortal Iron Fist does get his ass handed to him once in a while and require some bailing out from his super-powered friends. Not that it happens often, but he’s young and learning, and he does make mistakes, as Luke likes to point out repeatedly, to Danny’s endless irritation and Jessica’s not-so-hidden amusement.

Still, it’s not, thankfully, every day that Jessica climbs onto a rooftop just as Iron Fist is about to be riddled with bullet holes.

Across from her, Danny, in his Daredevil get-up, is facing off a man, dark-clad in heavy armor and leveling a mean-looking rifle at Danny from a few feet away.

“Hey, asshole,” Jessica calls out as she hurls the closest heavy object at the man.

It should’ve had enough impact to send him flying. Instead, in a single fluid motion, the man sidesteps out of the way of the incoming cement block without even turning his head and pulls out a second gun from one of his many holsters at the same time; half a breath later a semi-automatic is also leveled at her direction, all the while the rifle is still trained squarely at Danny. Fantastic. This is why she fucking hates firefights.

The man doesn’t spare her a glance, as if he isn’t facing two people by himself. “I asked,” the man says, eyes hard and voice nothing more than a low growl, “who the fuck you are.”

Danny doesn’t answer, coiled tight for action. He’s calculating the distance between them, gathering his chi or whatever the hell he does, and wondering whether he could land a punch before the man pulls the trigger.

At this distance, Iron Fist or no, a bullet is still faster.

This is going to go sideways quickly. Fuck, this is so not how she’s planned her night. She already has a date with a bottle of vodka, with every intention of keeping it. “Who do you think this is, dickhead?” Jessica snaps. “What, this your first time meeting the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen face to face?”

The man still doesn’t look away from Danny—more to the point, Danny wearing Daredevil’s mask. “No,” the man grinds out. His grip on the rifle tightens, but it does not waver. “It’s not.”

That gives her a pause. The man has shown a practiced, ingrained, move, not expected from your run-of-the-mill thugs. He’s probably got on him enough firepower to level entire buildings. His face is mostly hidden in the shadow, but the angles of it seem familiar, somehow. And the armor—

Then it clicks.

“The Punisher,” she says, mostly to herself.

The way that the man pointedly does not react is telling, and Jessica thinks back to a file folder in her laptop, one that she’s been unable to bring herself to delete, even though the bare fact of its existence adds many empty bottles of vodka to her garbage can.

She’s used to investigating lives of people, dead or alive. They are almost always full of little and big tragedies, and in that sense the life and death of one Matthew Murdock isn’t all that different. A little boy saves a man’s life and gets blinded in the process. A father, a downtrodden boxer, is murdered in a back alley, and his kid spends most of his childhood in an orphanage. A kid thrives somehow, despite all obstacles, and becomes a successful, idealist lawyer, who wants nothing more than to save his city. It must not have gone that well, though, because that’s when Daredevil starts making appearances. And the rest is well-documented enough for her to piece together. Nelson and Murdock taking down Kingpin with Daredevil’s help made many headlines. Murdock defending and failing the Punisher is less so but still well known. So are Daredevil’s attempts to stop the Punisher.

It’s a long eulogy of facts to the man she’s barely known, but none of its tragedies comes close to undoing her as well as jagged pieces of her memories, of a grin that crinkles around the unseeing eyes, around the tattered edges of her grey scarf that she still wears even though the weather’s too warm for it, just as some stray thought – you could’ve been friends, or maybe you already were in the process of becoming just that, if only you’d dragged his ass to the elevator, if only you could’ve, if only – sometimes does in unguarded moments. Then she needs another drink to smolder the memories of his smile that always seemed fractured and wounded in small pieces, until the every jagged corner of them could be ground into smooth lines, no longer as raw and exposed.

But now she’s too awake, too sober, for this. The Punisher, who’s faced Daredevil before – who has known Matt Murdock before. Danny could fake Murdock’s ninja moves pretty damn well, but—

“He was a boxer,” Danny told her once, rueful. “And it showed. I can’t quite pull that off. And there was this something else. Even when he was using the moves I knew, there was this sense that you were dealing with this unmistakable, unmovable force. He knew where you were, where you were moving to, could see through your every move. Facing him directly,” Danny shook his head, “well, that’s the quickest way to find out where the devil reputation came from.”

Still, Danny does what he can, enough to fool most people into believing that Daredevil was alive, kicking criminal butts and taking names. Business as usual, nothing to see here.

But here is Frank Castle, the Punisher, and distinctly not the most people.

Suddenly, she figures she’s really not drunk enough for the conversation that’s about to ensue.

“The Punisher what now?” Danny, with his usual impeccable timing, asks her, with a puzzled frown in his voice.

He might as well have shouted out to the entire world that he’s not Daredevil. Castle hardens even more, if such a thing were even possible, and takes a threatening step toward Danny.

“Wait,” Jessica holds out a hand. “Just wait. You knew him, didn’t you?”

That stops Castle.

She can tell the exact moment what she’s saying, and her use of past tense, registers, because the air around the man stills, seemingly replaced by something colder than air, freezing him in place.

She doesn’t want to say it. She doesn’t. Goddamn you, Matt Murdock, she thinks. “So did we,” she tells him.

There’s finality to that statement, one that cinches, hard, somewhere in her chest.

For one long moment Castle is motionless in place; in next, he explodes into movement. “Where is he?” he demands.

He lunges at Danny, who easily twists away with a backflip. Danny, taking stock of the situation, puts his arms up and tries being conciliatory. “Hey, man, could you calm down? Like she said, we knew Daredevil, just like you.”

The barrel of the rifle is raised again at Danny, unerringly point blank, and the semi-automatic is directed at her again. The face behind them is seething and grim. “Where the fuck is he? I won’t ask again.”

“Where do you think he is?” Jessica yells, suddenly sick of it all and wanting to punch someone. Fucking Murdock, she thinks, yet again. “Six hundred feet under, that’s where. You need it spelled out? He’s dead, goddammit. The bastard went and died on us. Why do you think he isn’t here pulling this ridiculous shit, if he was still alive, huh?”

There’s nothing but a terrifying blankness in Castle’s face, and for one chilling second, she thinks he’s going to shoot them both. She grits her teeth. Point blank, there’s nothing much either of them could do to stop this man at the moment. They could use Luke right about now.

But the moment passes, and the Punisher lowers his guns, his hands falling to his sides, useless.

He turns away, unmoving and still.

Jessica once read the transcript of Murdock’s failed defense statement for Frank Castle. Murdock had already known Castle, then, had faced the Punisher more than once in a fight, before he stood at the stand and asked the court to understand how this man was the product of this city, the statement of its failure to protect its citizens.

And now, now this.

“Names,” Castle says, after a long moment. The word drags out, low and slow.

Jessica watches Castle’s fingers on his guns, alternatively twitching and stilling. “What?”

“Names. Start with the who. And then the how. Tell me.”

Danny looks at Jessica. She waves a hand at him. Fuck it, you tell it.

“Midland Circle,” Danny begins slowly, hesitantly. “We—all of us—were trying to stop this organization, the Hand, that wanted to bring down New York. We tried to, and he. Well, he was in the building when it went down.” Danny pauses again, but this time there’s no hesitance anywhere. “He saved the city. He did.”

“’Course he did,” Castle spits out. He whirls around and rounds in on Danny. “Take that off. You’re a piss-poor substitute.”

“I know.” Danny accepts it easily, but doesn’t take off his mask. “He asked me to, before he—before the end, to protect his city. And that’s what I am doing, that I will continue to be doing,” he declares to the Punisher, trademark Danny Rand, mulish and stubborn. “And whoever you are, whatever you are, you can’t stop me.”

For fuck’s sake, she thinks. “Look,” she interjects before bullets threaten to fly again, “there was a man behind this mask. A man with an actual name. He went missing at the same time as Daredevil, right at the epicenter of it all. People would put two and two together eventually, unless there’s Daredevil still running around Hell’s Kitchen doing his usual acrobat crap.”

“Matt Murdock,” Castle says, quiet.

So he knows. For all his talk of secrecy, Murdock let the Punisher of all people in on his identity. Figures. “Yes. You know he put away Wilson Fisk and put some other assholes in jail. If the word goes out he was a vigilante all along, all of that work goes to shit. And his friends – they will get in trouble. This,” she points at Danny, “is us trying to protect them, protect his legacy.”

That silences him. Something shifts in Castle, anger subsiding and something else she can’t read taking its place instead, something that seems equally damaging somehow.

Fuck. Jessica runs a hand down her face. “What’s it to you, anyway? Didn’t I hear you tried everything possible to shoot him full of bullets on more than one memorable occasion?”

“What the hell?” Danny snaps, turning to narrow his eyes at the Punisher, as if he’s ready to take him down just for that alone.

“Obviously he didn’t succeed,” points out Jessica.

“Sounds like it wasn’t from the lack of trying,” Danny retorts, gearing up to become angry.

Somehow, Danny raging on Murdock’s behalf for something that didn’t happen seems to loosen Castle a little, as if that proves they’ve been all Murdock’s side all along, because Castle shrugs, an almost imperceptible movement of his shoulders. “You think Red could’ve done anything in his life that would really deserve a bullet from my gun?”

The Punisher, she recalls, only wanted to kill murderers that deserved death. She can’t quite rightly object to that policy, not at this moment.

“Tell me more,” says Castle, quieter now, “about The Hand.”

“They’re gone,” answers Danny, trying to aim for certainty and failing. “Dismantled. All their heads have gone down with the rest of that building. We took care of it.”

“You sure about that?” Castle asks.

No, Jessica thinks, no they fucking aren’t. That’s the problem. The global criminal syndicate, even with its heads cut off, still has all the frames left of a syndicate. Danny tries, day and night, fighting the good fight, and Luke helps, and she does what she can, but there is no way to know for sure, no way to tell the nightmare of it all ended with Murdock’s death. There’s always more. And more.

The silence seems to be enough of an answer for Castle. Without a single word, he picks up his gears and turns away from them.

Jury, judge, executioner. That was the man’s shtick, wasn’t it? Goddammit. This H-business is progressively getting shittier, because now the Punisher’s planning a rampage to avenge Daredevil’s death.

Jessica follows after him to the edge of the roof. “Exactly what’re you gonna do? Hey, stop.”

“You can try,” he answers, terse and without looking, “but you can’t stop me.”

Danny approaches them, maybe to test that assertion, but she puts up a hand to stop him. She walks up to Castle’s side, pulls the semi-automatic from his grip and crumbles it in her hand.

Castle pauses in his steps and turns to her with a grimace. “The hell.”

“Maybe I can, maybe I can’t,” she says. “Unless you really want to put that to a test, let’s try again. What’s your plan?”

Castle doesn’t respond. Instead, he looks away, his eyes on the edges of the glimmering skylines. She, too, watches the city for a moment, still shrouded in the darkness.

She can almost see what he sees.

The lump of the metal that used to be his gun is heavy in her hand. “Whatever you do, it won’t bring him back,” she says, unsure who she’s saying it to.

Castle barks out laughter. It’s almost startling in its complete lack of mirth. “Never said it would.”

She’s already at the shallow end of her non-existing counseling skills. She digs in deep and tries one more time. “Look, you must’ve known what he was like. You think this’s what he would’ve wanted?”

“Never gave two shits what the Altar Boy wanted. No reason to start now that he’s—" he abruptly stops, trailing off.

Castle lowers his head. His hand, now empty of its gun, shakes, balling up into a fist. He slams it on the brick ledge. Once. Twice. And again.

“This city. This fucking city,” he says, and each word rings hollow. “It fucking takes. And takes. Until there's nothing good left.”

Castle watches his knuckles bleed. So does she.

“All of its dead. They were better than it ever deserved.”

She read about Castle’s wife, his kids. Yet another story of little and big tragedies in life. He avenged their deaths by leaving a trail of other deaths, killed all those responsible. No single exception.

She doesn’t think of Kilgrave and the trail of bodies he’s left.

That she’s left, at his wake.

“Did this help? Before?” she asks.

He doesn’t answer, not for a long moment. “Red told me once, that this won’t bring me peace.”

“Was he wrong?”

This, he doesn’t answer.

She doesn’t need his answer. She already has hers.

She grabs at her scarf around her neck. She shuts her eyes again when she’s reminded of Matt Murdock, in his last moment.

“Go on. I’ll be right behind you.”

You piece of shit, she thinks, eyes stinging. You knew you were never going to make it out of there, didn’t you? You fucking knew.

“I only knew him for a few days, really,” she says, swallowing thickly. “He was a terrific pain in the ass.”

Castle snorts a laugh. It makes him sound like a real person that he must’ve been once. “So you do know him.”

She almost smiles. It doesn’t quite come.

She tosses the ball of metal back to Castle and watches him catch it.

“Do what you have to do,” she tells him. “Avenge, punish, whatever it is that you do.”

“Jess,” Danny calls out behind her, sounding alarmed. The kid is definitely taking after Luke more and more, Jessica thinks, which is a good thing. Maybe there’s hope for the city after all.

But it's not here, not right now.

“We’ve got plenty to deal with already, don’t we?” she tells Danny, flippant, but something hard forms at her chest, just the same. “There's no one stopping you,” she tells Castle.

“No,” Castle says, after a pause. It’s close to inaudible. “Not anymore, is there.”

It's not a question that would come with the answer they want, no matter how hard they may have wished differently. So she doesn’t answer. She doesn’t imagine he expects her to.

Just before Castle steps down from the roof, she offers, “Jessica Jones.”

“Frank Castle,” he says, by a way of a reply, with a nod. “Next time.”

“I sure hope there isn’t one,” she tosses back, meaning it.

She thinks she hears him snort just as he turns away.

Once the sound of the Punisher’s steps begins to fade, Danny comes to her side. “Jess, was that really a good idea? He sounds like—"

“Just a moment, Danny,” she says, without turning around. “Just—give me a sec.”

Something in her voice stops him on his tracks. He puts a gentle hand on her shoulder, reassuring and warm, before stepping back.

She watches the skylines again, the city in its glory and splendor that always hides what’s inside. She shouldn’t be sober for this shit, because she’s just let loose the Punisher in the city.

Because the Hand, whoever the fuck that’s left and whoever that’s going to take over the vacuum it’s left behind, all deserves what’s coming.

Matt fucking Murdock, she thinks. You asshole. You see what you did?

See? See. Shit.

She can almost hear him laugh. It happens, he would say, grinning widely, his blind eyes somehow still seeing through her, glinting with amusement.

Her eyes burn. She reaches for the scarf and pulls it over her face, hiding her eyes from the view.

For one blissful moment, the sight of the city, and the dead it carries, fades away.