Joy doesn’t show up for work on Monday. Ward finds out after his first meeting, when Megan buzzes his office to ask if something has come up, if she should reschedule Joy’s appointments for the day.
Ward goes to her townhouse. It’s not like her to be absent, even after the last week, and all of the terrible secrets revealed. He lets himself in with the key he’s always had to anyplace she lived. As he wanders through the rooms, calling her name, he notices that the furnishings are different from what he remembers. Work has gotten busy, lately- work, and Harold’s extra assignments- and he and Joy haven’t spent much quality time together. But surely it hadn’t been that long since he’s been to his sister’s house, right?
When he reaches her bedroom, he stops in the doorway, heart sinking down to his gut. Photographs, trinkets, accessories, are all gone. He throws open the closet doors with trembling hands and finds them empty.
Light-headed, he sits down on her bed. Something crinkles and he frantically digs under blankets and sheets until he retrieves the letter she left for him.
I’m taking a leave of absence to get my head on straight. I’m sorry for leaving you alone. I know you’ll take care of our company. I’m asking you to please take care of yourself as well.
There’s a mess of letters at the bottom of the handwritten note. It’s a code, a simple, easily broken one, and if somebody else translated it they would find a word with some vague relevance to their lives, but what it really means is-
Ward turns the paper over and picks out the nearly invisible scratches at specific points on the back of the page. He holds the paper up to the window’s light and reads through it. The letters behind the scratches say ‘vent’.
In the third air vent Ward unscrews, the one in the master suite’s bathroom, he finds the real letter. Joy had abandoned her measured script and scribbled with all the slanted intensity he remembers from childhood arguments, when they weren’t allowed to yell in the house and instead screamed at each other in print.
I don’t know what you’ve been hiding from me, but I intend to find out. You say you want to protect me, but you kept me in the dark. Not just about Dad, but whatever he was mixed up in. You lied to me about Danny and about that man who kidnapped us. The man who shot me! I do not forgive you.
We are a team, Ward. We always have been. If we’re going to be a team again, I need answers, and right now, I can’t trust you to give them to me. I’m going to get to the bottom of this, and when I get back, we’re going to have a long overdue talk.
Get some therapy. Get off the drugs. Don’t let Danny ruin the company you and I and Dad have built up. I love you. Don’t fuck up again.
Ward stares at the letter until Megan calls to see if she should reschedule Joy’s meetings after all. Then he stands up, straightens his tie, puts his game face on, and goes back to work.
~ ~ ~
With Joy gone, most of her work falls onto Ward’s plate. With Danny vanished as well- he sent Ward a badly-spelled email rambling about the Hand, which is actually more notice than Ward would have expected from him- it’s just too much. He feels like his skeleton is constantly shaking inside his body, paranoid of every sudden sound and every suspicious look the other board members give him as he tries to explain away the events of- that night.
Joy is taking a leave of absence, he tells them. She was overworked. The accident that ruined the executive floor ,including her office, was a good opportunity for her to take some time. Danny is going away to rethink the direction he wants Rand to go in. Ward implies that he had a hand in that decision, that when Danny comes back- if Danny comes back- it will be with a better understanding of how the company works. One can only hope.
In the meantime, he restructures the corporate level, brings up a few people they’ve been grooming for more important duties, delegates, reassigns some projects. It takes a few weeks, and some big bonuses, but by the end of it Ward finds himself going home at six every night instead of falling asleep in his office.
It makes everything worse.
He has nightmares of his father cutting his heart out and eating it, croning all the while about how proud he is of Ward for holding still and letting him, no matter that Ward is strapped to the bed. He feels constant terror of the Hand coming for revenge, or the police coming to arrest him for murder, or his father walking through the door, alive again and grinning. He shakes, as he takes the minimum medication necessary to make it through the day and he gasps for air as soon as he gets home. He stares at his bedroom ceiling all night.
Without work to take up all his time, without his father’s latest demands to occupy his thoughts, everything else that’s wrong with his life rushes in to fill the space. Joy’s absence hurts more than anything else, a constant ache that he never once forgets.
~ ~ ~
He tries to escape his own body. Squash does nothing, but then he’s always hated it. Running helps, a little, but he feels eyes on him when he runs on the streets, and running inside makes him feel claustrophobic. Free weights tire him out, but within a week he feels a sharp lance of pain in his lower back, where Harold socked him in the kidney.
He makes an appointment to re-up his pain meds. The doctor sends him to a psychiatrist, who puts him on anxiety meds, which helps.
Life still sucks, though. Joy is still gone.
~ ~ ~
Megan comes into Ward’s office around one on a Thursday, about two months since Joy left. “Mr. Meachum? Mr. Rand is on line one for you. It sounds…” She hesitates, looking frazzled, which is unusual. Ward hired her because she was unflappable.
“Thanks. Tell Paul I might be late?”
Megan nods and leaves the office quickly. Ward takes a long breath before picking up his desk phone and accepting the call.
“-don’t know, I got his secretary. Keep pressure on it!”
There are multiple gunshots in the background. Ward drags a hand over his face, already exhausted even as his heart starts pounding.
“Ward! Can you come pick us up?”
“...Are you kidding me?”
More gunfire, something shattering.
“Ward, we need help! It’s the Hand!”
Ward rolls his eyes as hard as he physically can. “I’m not going to drive into a gunfight because you-”
“Can’t hear you, meet us at-
“Madison and Jackson!” a woman says in the background.
“Madison and Jackson. Fast!”
The call cuts out.
Swearing viciously under his breath, Ward wrestles with not going for a minute. He really, really doesn’t want to go. His life is finally free of all this paranormal bullshit.
But if it weren’t for Danny, his father would still be alive. He owes him.
Ward hits traffic on the FDR and makes it to Madison and Jackson, some tiny streets in a rough neighborhood on the Lower East Side, in about a half hour. Some bitter part of him on the way wonders if maybe he’ll be too late, and Danny will be out of the picture by the time he gets there.
But when he turns down Madison, he can hear the gunfire still going. There’s no pedestrian traffic whatsoever, and also no police presence- bad signs. That means whatever’s going on is common enough that the locals know to avoid it and the police can’t be bothered to show up, or they’ve been convinced not to.
He pulls to a stop at the intersection, feeling exposed and out of place. The company car is a Bentley, and normally he’d be concerned about getting held up for it. Right now he’s worried about getting shot in it.
A door opens on one of the high rise project houses and Danny and his girlfriend come running out toward the car. Colleen Wing is holding a sword. Behind them, a stream of people emerge, sprinting after them… Okay they’re ninjas, and most of them are holding swords as well, but several are firing at Danny and Colleen’s backs.
Ward gulps and revs the gas.
Danny is waving at Ward as he runs, waving him out of the car? “Let me drive!” he shouts. From behind him, a spray of bullets takes out the driver’s window.
Ward dives across the center console into the passenger seat.
Doors open, windows shatter, the car jerks wildly. Ward manages to sit partially up as they spin all the way around, no doubt leaving skid marks on the streets. He flinches as a gun appears two inches from his face. “Cover fire!” Danny screams at him. Outside the car the ninjas are shouting threats.
Ward takes the gun, and for a second while he holds it awkwardly in his hands, he thinks, ‘I don’t even play video games.’
The car lurches and a spray of bullets goes where his head was a second ago. Ward leans out the window and summons memories of action movies to shoot behind them. He doesn’t see any of his shots land, but the cars drop back a few feet, and it’s enough to let them get away.
They tear up Grand Street, pursued by two cars. Ward smashes what feels like every part of his body against the window frame as Danny swerves wildly to avoid traffic and pedestrians. One of the ninja’s cars isn’t so lucky, catching the corner of a heavy garbage truck and spinning to a stop in the middle of an intersection. Horns immediately start blaring from all angles. Ward laughs hysterically.
The second car’s driver is more nimble and manages to follow them up the Bowery to East Houston. Danny is laying on the horn and enough people get out of the way that they haven’t come in range of the machine gun-looking thing Ward can see in the ninja’s car, but Houston is a gridlock and they’re about to smash into it. Danny has to slow down, looking around for a side street, and the Hand’s car bounces off a Prius as it bears down on them.
Time slows down for a minute. Ward can see the face of the Hand ninja hanging out the backseat of the approaching car. He’s screaming like some melodramatic extra in a shitty movie as he opens fire. The bullets hit the car behind them before they reach Ward’s car. He can hear two people screaming from the other car- a woman and a kid, it sounds like.
Ward raises the handgun Danny forced on him and lets off one shot. The ninja jerks, then slumps into his own backseat, falling out of sight.
Danny wrenches the car sideways, shooting down a side street. The Hand car gets trapped behind a close-packed lane and is out of sight in seconds.
Ward slumps into the passenger seat and doesn’t remember anything else until they pull to a stop in a quiet neighborhood lined with trees.
“Help me get her out,” Danny says urgently. Ward gets out of the car, feeling like he’s moving against water. Danny is under one of Colleen’s arms, trying to lift her up; she looks barely conscious. Ward takes her other side and they head up to a brownstones where a Latina-looking woman is holding the door for them, watching the street nervously.
Inside her apartment, the woman puts on rubber gloves and starts working on a bleeding wound in Colleen’s side. Danny hovers and Ward slumps on a couch, staring off into space.
Some time later, Danny shakes him back. “Take this,” he says, holding Ward’s hand open and dropping a pill into it.
“What?” Ward asks stupidly.
“Claire said you need it. I’m gonna go drop off the car somewhere. She said you should call and report it stolen.”
“Okay,” Ward says. He blinks and Danny is gone.
He blinks again and the doctor woman is sitting next to him on the couch. She has two fingers on his neck and is staring into his eyes. “You’re in shock,” she says gently. “Take the pill. It’s a mild tranquilizer. I got you some water.”
She’s holding out a glass. Ward sips some of it. “I’m on anxiety meds,” he tells her.
“This won’t interfere,” she says firmly.
Ward takes it. A few minutes later, the world has settled back into place. It’s a little hazy, and he can feel the artificial calm, but he manages to call the car service and report that the company car was stolen while he was at lunch in Midtown. Then he calls Megan and gives her the same story, then tells her to clear the rest of his day- he has a migraine. She sounds slightly skeptical, but doesn’t say anything about it, because she’s a goddamned professional.
Ward lays down and takes a nap on the doctor’s couch.
It’s dark out when people moving around the room wake him up. There’s a pizza box on the coffee table in front of his face, and Ward is shoving delicious grease down his throat before his eyes are fully open. Danny and the woman who treated Colleen are sitting nearby, and Colleen is carefully propped up on another couch. They’re talking about the Hand. The doctor- Claire, he figures out- is pissed at Danny and Colleen because they were supposed to tell her when they were back in the city, and also not get shot again.
Ward is pissed too, but mostly he’s extremely hungry. He’s on his third slice before the others even turn to look at him.
“Thanks for coming to get us, Ward. You’re a good friend,” Danny says.
Ward’s mouth is full, so he glares and grumbles something incomprehensible before taking another bite.
Danny looks confused. Colleen waves him off.
“I’m sorry we dragged you back into this. It’s not your fight. But we are grateful. You probably saved my life.”
Ward doesn’t glare at her. He makes himself swallow all the pizza and thinks for a moment before he says, “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
Then he grabs another slice of pizza.
“Are you alright?” Danny asks, giving Ward a strange look.
“Adrenaline can make you hungry,” Colleen answers.
“We were fighting for like an hour,” Danny says skeptically. “All he did was drive.”
“Most people don’t see as much violence as you two,” Claire points out. She lays a disapproving look on Danny that cows the younger man. “For the rest of us, what happened today would be terrifying.”
“Ward fought the Hand with us before!” Danny argues. “He’s not scared!”
Danny looks at Ward as if he expects him to take a side like a child. He swallows his pizza, intending to shout at Danny for getting him shot at, probably, but instead he says, “I’ve never killed anyone before.”
Colleen and Claire look sympathetic, but Danny points at him. “You killed your father,” he retorts, like he’s winning an argument.
“That was different.” Ward stares at the pizza in his hand. It suddenly looks extremely unappetizing. His stomach churns. “I don’t like shooting people,” he says quietly.
Claire shrugs. “It’s better than getting shot. You were defending yourself,” she says firmly. “It’s not like you murdered someone, which, for the record, the Hand would do to you in a heartbeat.”
“I know,” Ward mutters darkly.
Colleen takes pity on him and changes the subject. She brings up the next lead on the trail of whatever she and Danny are searching for, and Danny hops onto the tangent. Apparently they’re leaving the country again. Claire scowls, but Ward can only feel relief.
Later on, when Ward is feeling up to taking a taxi to his apartment, she beckons him over to the couch where she’s been situated.
“Hey. I just wanted to say I get what you were saying earlier. Danny grew up with all this ancient battle stuff, but I was always taught that killing an opponent was the least honorable thing a warrior can do.”
Ward shuffles his feet. It’s probably not the best moment to say that he’s only freaking out because he’s not used to killing people personally; he and Harold had sent other people to take care of a number of business conflicts over the years.
“Danny said you live in Yorkville. I know a guy who has a studio a few minutes downtown from there.” She hands him a post-it with a name and address on it. “I think he could be what you need.”
Ward takes the note, but shakes his head. “What I need is some normalcy, not more of this samarai and magic crap.”
Colleen laughs, holding her side carefully. “Don’t mention any of this to Kenji, he swore out of it years ago. Just say I sent you for some intro stuff. He’s a good guy. Believe me.”
“Thanks.” Ward tucks the note away and shakes Colleen’s hand before heading out.
She’s alright, but he hopes he never sees her again.
~ ~ ~
Ward has no intention of even looking up the address Colleen gave him, but when he nearly punches an old woman who touched his elbow to ask for some change on the corner, he feels like he’s run out of options. His therapist is talking about voluntarily checking himself in to some sort of relaxation facility, which is out of the question. The anxiety meds aren’t helping as much as they did before, and his doctor won’t increase his dose.
Colleen’s guy runs a place called Sage Studio on the third floor of a decent building. It looks like a mixed martial arts and lifestyle kind of place, offering classes ranging from meditation to advanced katana. The website says it was founded by a Master Kenji Ozawa nearly thirty years ago. More importantly, it doesn’t have a single one-star Yelp review.
Ward steps into the lobby at 8:45 on a Friday night, towards the end of a Jiu Jitsu seminar. It’s a small class, only seven students, and Ward recognizes Kenji Ozawa leading it from his picture on the website. The students are split into pairs practicing holds and takedowns. The studio is clean, well-lit, and tastefully decorated, nothing like Colleen’s cramped, dark dojo under the Manhattan Bridge. Ward takes a deep breath and catches a faint scent of sandalwood. He can feel himself relaxing already.
When the class wraps up, the students head for the locker rooms, chatting amiably. The instructor comes to meet Ward.
Kenji Ozawa looks exactly like Ward would expect a martial arts master to look. He’s Japanese and old-looking enough that he could be anywhere from sixty-five to a hundred, wrinkled and short and still as spry as his students. He takes Ward’s hand firmly when he reaches him.
“Welcome to Sage. I’m Kenji Ozawa, the owner. Please call me Kenji.”
“What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking around for some hand-to-hand classes, and your studio came recommended. Colleen Wing said I should come meet you.”
“I see,” Kenji says intensely, suddenly with a twinkle in his eye like he’s in on a joke. “And how is Ms. Wing doing lately?”
“She’s… busy,” Ward says diplomatically.
“Still cavorting around with that K’un-Lun boy?” Kenji shakes his head, mouth twisting. “Ah well. I guess that means I can finally start winning exhibitions again. You know, I helped her set up her dojo and still she delights in taking me down in front of all of our colleagues.”
“You… know about Danny?” Ward asks. He’s somewhat thrown off-balance. He’s gotten used to treating Danny’s history like some dirty secret, something dangerous and shameful; not something to be discussed in the open as Kenji’s students trickle by them out the door.
“The Iron Fist, come to New York? Of course I hear about him. All of us did, after the rat’s nest they upset. But come, let’s sit down in my office. If Ms. Wing sent you to me, I’m sure it was for a reason.” He gestures for Ward to walk with him to his office, a small room off the dojo with a glass window viewing the whole floor.
“I don’t think there’s much to discuss, actually,” Ward tells Kenji, taking off his spring jacket. “My schedule is rather busy, so I’d only be able to attend your Jiu Jitsu class or the karate on Wednesday evenings-”
Kenji waves his hand at Ward to stop talking. “No, no. Colleen sent you to me. There are dozens of our colleagues who could teach you karate or Jiu Jitsu. She knows I have my methods.”
Ward smiles tightly. “I didn’t realize this was a matchmaking service.”
Kenji chuckles. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself, and why you’re here.”
Ward shifts in the chair, folding his hands together. “I work for Rand Corporation. I’m Chief Counselor, currently interim CEO.”
“That’s a lot of pressure,” Kenji comments.
Ward shakes his head. “Pressure, I’m used to.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I-” Ward struggles to phrase it in a way that won’t make him sound crazy. “Recently… my father was… I had some bad memories brought up.”
Kenji slowly raises a sardonic eyebrow and Ward remembers who he’s talking to.
“Wait, you know about… the Hand, and all of that… magic stuff?” He laughs at his own words. He’s had months to process it and he can barely believe it himself.
Kenji doesn’t laugh. “I do. I don’t know the whole story of Colleen and the Rand boy’s adventures, but I know of the Hand’s existence, and the sort of trouble they like to cause.”
Ward sighs and smiles, relieved. “Okay, yeah. The Hand made my father nearly immortal in order to blackmail him to smuggle drugs for them. It made him go crazy and Danny and I had to kill him. And, there were a bunch of ninjas, and my company was infested with the Hand and half of my senior staff were in on it, one of the board of directors was murdered, my sister disappeared, Danny fucked the company over, and now I’m supposed to right the boat while defending him to the board, by myself, while constantly looking over my shoulder in case the Hand decides my father wasn’t enough! And I killed someone last week.”
He takes in a deep breath, surprised to find that his hands are shaking. “I haven’t killed someone since the first time I killed my father. The first time! God, no wonder my therapist wants to lock me away. Not that he knows about any of this!” Ward laughs, loud in the quiet office. “I can’t tell him about any of this shit, because- because. Magic isn’t supposed to be real!”
Ward realizes that he’s gasping and clammy, shouting at this guy he just met. Instead of kicking him out or looking at him like he’s crazy, Kenji opens a mini fridge next to his desk and hands Ward a Capri Sun in one of the silver squeeze-packs.
Ward has been on a diet for years. He hasn’t even seen a Capri Sun since his childhood. He laughs, sniffing back tears, and he focuses on trying to fit the goddamned tiny straw into the hole that just doesn’t want to pop open.
“I’m sorry,” he manages after he’s drained half the pouch. “That was incredibly inappropriate.”
“I think I know why Ms. Wing sent you to me,” Kenji says. He’s nonchalant, sipping on his own Capri Sun, a sight that makes Ward want to launch into hysterical laughter again.
“Because if I tell you I want to be able to defend myself from ninjas, you won’t think I should be locked up?”
“Because you need self-defence classes, but more importantly, you need something to help you feel in control again,” Kenji answers. “I understand you used to be CEO? You’re the type of man who’s used to having his world be neat, organized, and if it isn’t, it’s usually in your power to make it so.”
“Yes,” Ward says gratefully. “And then Danny came, and…” He shakes his head, then blinks. “Wait, I didn’t tell you I used to be CEO.”
Kenji smirks. “You think I don’t read the newspaper, Mr. Meachum?”
Ward feels a sweat break out in a matter of seconds. “None of this can get back to Rand Corp, or out to the media-”
“Relax,” Kenji tells him. “I’ve got my own past, you know. I don’t need my picture in the papers any more than you do.”
Ward nods, worries not entirely assuaged.
“What kinds of workout have you done in the past?” Kenji asks.
“In high school I did lacrosse. More recently, squash and your basic gym fitness routines. And, I’ve done some boxing.”
“Boxing, interesting. I like going up against practitioners with different styles.” Kenji stands up and steps out into the studio. “Well, let’s see it.”
“Uh- now?” Ward stands awkwardly. “You want to-”
“If I’m going to teach you anything, I have to know where you’re at, don’t I?”
Ward steps out into the studio, following Kenji ot the center of the room. “I… guess.”
“So… attack me.” Kenji waves Ward forward.
Ward is still wearing the suit he left work in, but Kenji doesn’t seem like he’s expecting Ward to take the time to disrobe. He’s bouncing a little, like he’s trying to imitate an old-timey boxing stance, and it lightens the mood a little. Ward puts his hands up and shakes his head to loosen it.
He dances forward, testing Kenji’s defence, and Kenji doesn’t give much ground. Ward tries a few jabs and Kenji leans to dodge, rather than slapping them away or moving his feet much. He’s shorter than Ward, so Ward decides to take advantage of it, moving forward and trying a few heavier punches. He trusts the martial arts master, as a more experienced fighter, to be able to block him if he comes too close to connecting seriously.
And the trust was not misplaced. With a lightning-fast movement, Kenji ducks Ward’s swing and lands a jab and an uppercut to his midsection, neatly swiping aside Ward’s blocking arm before twisting around to his side, out of immediate striking distance.
Ward keeps his guard up while struggling to take in a breath. He’s had a lot of practice at that. Knocking the wind out of him and then taunting him while he tried to blink the lights out of his eyes was one of Harold’s favorite moves. It’s so ingrained in Ward that he doesn’t even hesitate before moving in again, taking advantage of his reach and his superior leverage to land hits that Kenji can’t dodge.
Before he knows what’s happening, Kenji is backing up rapidly, hands up in a stop position, calling the match. Ward’s chest is heaving and his hands hurt from how tight he’s clenched them- far tighter than they should be. It isn’t until he loosens them that he notices the other parts of his body that hurt: his gut, his shoulder where he leaned into a strike for an advantage, and his lip, which is bleeding.
Kenji has the beginnings of a black eye, and he’s looking at Ward like he’s dissecting him. “You’ve got a good swing. Where did you say you learned to box?”
“I didn’t,” Ward snipes. He’s not going to get caught in that one again. “My father taught me.”
Kenji nods slowly. “He liked to box?”
“He loved it. Or maybe he just loved hitting someone.”
Ward turns away from Kenji and wipes at his cut lip. His hand is shaking. Ward feels like his hands are always shaking nowadays, even though he’s long past the DTs.
He hears the mini fridge open in the office again, and Kenji comes over to offer him a water bottle. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
They drink in silence, and when Ward finishes the bottle, Kenji takes it. Ward is about to say thanks, but maybe he should try golf, so he doesn’t ramble about his life problems to an innocent bystander, when Kenji says abruptly, “Come to Jiu Jitsu.”
Ward peers at him. “You think so?”
“I think you’ll find it more satisfying. But also, you should come for private lessons on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“We’ll do Tai Chi. It’s a form of combat meditation. It’ll do you good.”
“No, I can’t justify coming here four nights a week for meditation, I can barely get off two nights.”
Kenji levels him with his gaze. “This isn’t a question of what you can manage. It’s what you need. If you fought with any of my students the way you did tonight, I would have stopped the fight. You were wild and hit much harder than necessary for a practice bout.”
Ward’s jaw clenches tighter with each scolding, but he knows Kenji is right. He already knew he was barely fit for work in an office setting; hearing that he’s wound up too tight to fight without hurting someone doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It’s just another failure heaped upon the rest of his life.
“You think… Tai Chi,” the edges of his mouth curl even at the words, as New-Age hippie as they sound, “will help me?”
Kenji reaches up to put a hand on his shoulder, firm but not tight, and Ward feels comforted despite himself. “I do.”
Ward nods to himself. “Okay. Do you have a private lessons fee? You take AmEx?”
Kenji throws back his head and laughs.
~ ~ ~
The first night, they sit in Kenji’s office and he talks to Ward about Tai Chi. It’s after a long day at work, and Ward is tense, twitchy. Some of what Kenji is saying is common sense, and some of it doesn’t seem important. Fairy tales about snakes and birds aren’t going to help him to sleep without seeing his father’s face.
Ward draws on long experience sitting through dull meetings to appear interested. He’s pretty sure Kenji picks up on it; the master’s lips are twitching when he finally brings Ward out to the studio and runs him through some stretches on the hardwood floor.
When they finally begin, Kenji has him stand for a long time, trying to clear his mind of intrusive thoughts and concentrate on his body. Ward stares at himself in the mirrored wall of the dojo. His hands are by his sides and he wears non-constrictive workout clothes as Kenji instructed. He’s thinner than he used to be. Once, Ward had muscles. He used to work out. Now all of his suits are tailored in the chic urban style, where svelte is superior. He imagines that his body has changed to fit into those clothes the way his personality changed to fit the responsibilities and demands placed on him by his job, his father.
He tries not to look at himself in the mirror.
“This is the first move,” Kenji tells him. “ Clear your mind. Breathe slowly. Your knees should be straight, but not locked, feet shoulder width apart.” Ward adjusts his stance.
“The second move is ‘Begin Tai Chi.’” Kenji raises his arms, palms facing each other, arms straight, until his hands are about level with his shoulders. Ward follows along.
Kenji turns his hands until they face the mirrors. His elbows bend, bringing his hands closer to his chest, and then they slide down until they reach his hips, where he makes a motion like he’s telling someone to calm down, bending his knees at the same time.
It’s a lot all at once, and Ward copies the movements uncertainly, looking at Kenji to advise him on his success or failure. Kenji nods. “Almost. Again, and don’t hold your hands so stiff.”
They practice the second move a half dozen times until Kenji is satisfied. “The third move is called Part the horse’s mane.”
He slowly turns from his bent-knee position on one heel, one forearm moving up and around into what Ward identifies as a block, or maybe a strike of some sort. His pulse jumps from its previous resting state as he remembers that the Tai Chi is meant to help him fight, not just relax.
He tries the movement for himself and Kenji has him repeat it until he’s satisfied. Then they run through them from the beginning, several times. Just when Ward thinks he’s got all three movements together and he’s ready for the next one, Kenji returns to the starting stance as says, “Now we’ll bow out to finish the class.”
“But we’ve only been here for-” Ward flicks out his arm to check his watch, but he took it off in the locker room. His phone is in there, too. He looks around the studio for a clock, but there’s nothing in view. He’s not surprised to find Kenji smirking at him when he looks at the older man.
“It’s been 45 minutes,” Kenji informs him. “And you’re not going to learn any more tonight.”
Impatience rises like a fiery wave inside of him, the way it has for the last few months. He wants to argue- specifically, he wants to say something sharp, something smart that proves he’s right, that Kenji shouldn’t doubt him, shouldn’t think he knows what Ward needs better than Ward knows himself.
He shoves it down, the way he does when he can feel the carefully tailored tightness of his suit jacket around his shoulders, reminding him to stay neat and crisp and controlled. Kenji watches, and Ward should feel vulnerable, hyper-aware of all the emotions he’s giving away. But Kenji already forgave him for the violent attack last week. He already knows about the storm raging inside Ward that he keeps hidden away where no one can see.
“Do I get homework?” he says, managing a strained smile to prove he’s still holding on.
“Three times when you wake up. Three times before you go to sleep. Three times somewhere in the day,” Kenji instructs. “That is, if a busy CEO can find the time.”
It’s just mocking enough that Ward’s back straightens instinctively. “I’ll write it into my schedule,” he says dryly.
Kenji laughs at him.
After the first night, Ward goes home and turns over in his bed until two in the morning. He feels better for having time to breath, but in his gut, in his head, everything’s still roiling around. He doesn’t feel better for the Tai Chi, or for going to Kenji’s studio on Colleen’s advice. In his silent apartment, hundreds of feet above the city, he doesn’t feel like anything is going to make him feel better. But he has nothing else to try.
To his surprise, it does work, eventually. Slowly, he starts to feel- not better, but that he can handle it all. All the seismic shifts in his world, and the way it feels like pieces of him inside have been crushed and cut of as he tries to reshape himself to fit. It’s not going away. But he starts to feel like it’s not going to drown him. Like he will make it to shore, eventually.
Part of it is just being in the studio, alone with Kenji with the lights dimmed, slowly breathing in the calm scents that change every week, from sandalwood to frankincense to eucalyptus. Ward starts to perk up on Tuesdays and Thursdays in advance of his sessions.
But the Tai Chi itself does him good, too. Practising the same motions as slowly as possible is a soothing departure from his usual life, where he has to carefully balance a dozen different balls in the air at any given time, while making it look effortless.
Ward practices three times a day, three run-throughs each time. As Kenji teaches him more of the form, it takes longer to practice every week. Within a month, he’s closing himself in his office for fifteen minutes in the middle of the day. He has to extend his lunch breaks to an hour in order to get in his practice and eat as well.
When Kenji lets him start Jiu Jitsu, Ward is still kept off to the side with an assistant instructor, learning the different stances and holds and practicing them at half-speed. It’s a few weeks before Ward gets approval to practice with the other students. By that time, he knows their names and why some of them are taking the class. He never has another incident like the first fight with Kenji, where some part of him expects to be fighting his father.
Once he’s engaging in the class all the time, it’s enough of a workout that food starts tasting good again, and he’s able to fall asleep at night as soon as he goes to bed. A few colleagues remark on how healthy he looks, and Ward can give them a real smile and talk up Kenji’s studio. He even notices a few appreciative glances from some of the women he encounters during the day, and he wonders when he stopped paying attention to them.
His therapist approves of the changes, especially since Ward’s stopped talking about needing his meds upped again. Ward still talks about Joy, but the nightmares of his father start coming less and less often.
He goes out for dinner with the Jiu Jitsu class and remembers how great it is to have friends outside of work. The storm cloud that’s been hanging over his head ever since Danny showed up in New York, and for God knows how long before that, feels like it’s starting to blow away.
~ ~ ~
It’s July when Ward takes a meeting with the head of a small shipping company who has a good contract proposal and finds himself face to face with Bakuto.
It takes him a half-second to recognize the man, a half-second where adrenaline races through his body and he doesn’t know why. Then he’s stumbling backwards a step, only to freeze when Bakuto smiles and holds up his hand chivalrously.
“There’s no need to be afraid, Mr. Meachum. I’m here on business, after all.”
Ward tries to sound firm, but his voice comes out choked up and defensive. “I don’t have any business with the Hand.”
“We both know that’s not entirely true.” Bakuto smirks. “Come read my proposal, Mr. Meachum. I think you’ll find that it’s nothing out of the ordinary.”
Twitching with adrenaline, Ward walks around the table, keeping it between himself and Bakuto, and picks up the folder that’s been laid out ready for him. He skims the documents with the speed and ease of long practice, reading between the legalese as easily as he reads English.
“This is the deal you had with my father,” he says. His voice is raspy, and he gulps.
“Your father and my organization had a gentleman’s agreement. Since you are the official authority for Rand, not a shadow ruler tucked away in the attic, we can bring things into the light, as it were. Everything above board and legal.”
Bakuto produces a pen from his jacket. It’s a dark, dark black- not a single curve glints in the sunlight, and there’s a red sheen to it like it has mist inside.
Ward feels like he’d rather cut off his hand than touch it.
“I- I can’t just sign something like this. This was supposed to be a preliminary meeting. It would never get past the board.”
“By all means, call one of your attorneys. I know Rand keeps them on retainer, to clean up all your messes.” He smiles, showing off all his teeth.
Ward walks over to the window, angling himself so he can see Bakuto without facing him. He pulls out his cell phone and tries to take the deep, centering breaths he’s learned for moments like these, slowly scrolling through his contacts until he reaches the number of Jeri Hogarth, one of the few attorneys he trusts with the company’s more… gray-area transactions.
“Jeri! Are you free right now?”
“I could be. What do you need?”
“I need someone to look over a contract. I’m on the 50th floor, room 23.”
“You’re lucky I’m getting lunch. I’ll be up in ten minutes.”
Bakuto isn’t where he left him. Ward’s pulse thumps in his chest as he spins, only to find Bakuto standing in the opposite corner, pouring himself a glass of water at the small standing bar. He’s watching Ward with a dangerous smile.
“It’ll be a few minutes,” Ward says weakly. When Bakuto just nods, he takes the opportunity to leave the room at a carefully measured pace.
Megan gives him a concerned look when he speed-walks past her to his office, but doesn’t say anything as he closes the door behind him. He leans back against it, closing his eyes.
He gives himself a minute or two to be terrified, and then stands up and takes off his jacket. He goes to the middle of the floor and starts his Tai Chi form. When he’s not paying attention to his speed, it takes him four minutes to finish it. He runs through it twice before exiting his office and going to wait for Jeri by the elevator. He can’t help but feel a foreboding that he didn’t practice the auspicious three times.
When Jeri steps out of the elevator, he takes her elbow before she can even greet him. Ward keeps his expression genial, but from the way she zeroes in on him she knows something’s up.
“I have a few doubts about this contract, but I know you have work of your own to do. Would you like to have dinner tonight to go over some of my thoughts?”
“Sounds good,” she says casually. “As soon as I read it I’ll start putting things together for you. Do I get to meet the other party’s lawyers?”
“He doesn’t have any,” Ward says quietly. “I’m not in any rush.” Stall.
Jeri smiles at him professionally as the reach the door to room 23. “Sounds manageable.”
Bakuto is sitting at the table opposite where Ward left the files. Jeri introduces herself and shakes Bakuto’s hand, while Ward drops into a seat like a chunk of lead falling through water. He feels heavy and unwieldy and terribly aware that he’s just brought another innocent person into his father’s mess.
Jeri reads over the document much more slowly than Ward did. She underlines things, asks Bakuto to clarify points, and makes notes on the side. She pulls color-coded tabs out of her briefcase, labels them, makes a note to herself in her planner to look up some relevant case law.
Bakuto starts to look disgruntled. “This all seems a little excessive for a simple shipping contract,” he comments.
Jeri gives him her best passive smile. “I can see where you get that impression, but it’s our new policy. By the orders of our new management, Rand Corp is required to thoroughly vet any new contracting companies and do a complete work-up on any contracts that haven’t been produced by our own legal departments. I’m sure you’ve heard about Danny Rand?”
Bakuto nods sharply, frowning.
“Well then, you understand why we’re being cautious. Mr. Rand wants to make some big changes. He considers transparency of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, since we don’t have any previous contracts with your company, we have to start at the very beginning! For example, could you define for me what is meant here by ‘self-licensed facilities’?”
Jeri nitpicks more over the simple contract than Ward has ever seen a lawyer work on anything aside from divorce proceedings. He thanks God that she got his message and took it as far as she could.
By the time she finishes reading through the contract, it looks like Ward’s business school textbooks, it has so many tabs sticking out of the side. Jeri gives Bakuto a plastic smile and thanks him- genuinely, as far as Ward could tell- for bringing the contract to Rand Corp. “I’ll have the secretary send you a photocopy of my notes, and my office will send over my first round of edits within three business days.”
She stands, offering her hand to Bakuto, and both men stand with her. Bakuto offers to show himself out, polite even though he looks like he’s eaten something sour. His gaze pierces Ward as he leaves.
“Well Mr. Meachum, it looks like I’ve got a busy afternoon ahead of me,” Jeri says, packing away her papers. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
Ward glances at the corners of the room and she slowly tucks her her bangs behind her ear, inclining her head.
“Actually, it would be really helpful to me if you could get a message to your old buddy from your intern days,” Ward tells her. “The one you mentioned a few months ago? And get his colleague who specializes in these contracts to contact me.”
Jeri nods slowly, looking like she didn’t entirely get the message. “Of course. Will that be all?”
“That’s everything. Thanks again for getting here on short notice.”
“I’ll expect you to pay for dinner,” she says with a smirk.
Ward goes back to his office and spends the next several hours pulling up every last bit of paper trail he ever had on the Hand and their machinations with Rand. He identifies several areas where a strict adherence to various laws and regulations could delays the implementation of Bakuto’s contract, and prints the information out for Jeri. He also gets a better sense for the ways the Hand liked to use Rand Corp, so that he can put policies in place to slow down any attacks from other angles.
It’s fully dark out when he looks up, meaning it’s past seven, and the last time he ate was at eleven. He orders a huge spread from an Italian place he knows Jeri likes and calls her on his way to pick it up from Hell’s Kitchen.
“You know, when you said dinner, I was expecting that we’d be going out,” she says, sounding irritate and hungry over the phone line.
“I know. I just thought it’d be better to go over the contract in private. I’m getting IL Punto to make it up to you.”
“Fine. Am I visiting your apartment?”
“I thought I could come over to your place.”
Jeri pauses. “I’m all the way up on East 95th.”
“That’s fine. You’re doing me a favor, I don’t want you to have to get a cab all the way down here.”
“Mr. Meachum,” she says mockingly. “I have a company car.”
“Be that as it may,” he says absently, navigating around a blockage of taxicabs. “I’ll be there in forty-five minutes.”
“...Alright. I’ll text you the address and let the doorman know to let you up.”
When Jeri opens her door for him, it’s with crossed arms and a distinctly unimpressed look. “Care to explain what this is all about? I’m not inclined to have clients in my home, Mr. Meachum.”
“And I understand that,” Ward says. He starts unpacking the carry-out boxes at Jeri’s kitchen table. “The situation is extremely sensitive. You’re the only one I could trust.”
Jeri sits down and accepts her salad and fettuccine. “I’m surprised you think so highly of me,” she says, raising an eyebrow at Ward. “You tend to work with Ms. Gal more closely. In fact, you and I had barely met before a few months ago.”
“You’ve been on Rand’s attache for years,” Ward deflects, starting to slice into a salmon filet.
“And, Danny likes you,” Ward admits.
“You trust his judgement?” Jeri says neutrally.
“Absolutely not.” Ward catches Jeri hiding a smile. “Normally. But when it comes to the Hand… I don’t have much of a choice. He’s my only chance to get them out of Rand.”
“The Hand…” Jeri frowns. “The group that had to do with your father being alive all these years?”
Ward nods, staring at his dinner plate. The salmon tastes good, but he can’t even imagine eating the broccoli rabe right now. Even the thought of the cannoli still in the carry-out bag makes his stomach clench.
Jeri inhales before speaking and it breaks Ward out of his contemplation. Jeri has certainly noticed, but all she does is give him a once-over. “I called the numbers Danny and his associate left. I presume Ms. Wing was the ‘colleague’ you were referring to?”
“Well I left your message, but neither of them answered. Was there anything else I was supposed to do? If there was more to that awkward code you were using, I didn’t understand it.”
“No, that was all I meant,” Ward assures her. She looks unhappy with him again, and he needs her on his side. “That you very much for being so thorough this afternoon. I really can’t have that contract going through.”
“I don’t understand why we didn’t have this meeting immediately, in your offices, where no one could ask any questions,” Jeri say, putting down her fork emphatically. “I’ve given you rope, Mr. Meachum, but if I’m going to help you sabotage contracts, I want to know why you’re not just rejecting them yourself. And why all this cloak and dagger is necessary.”
Ward nods, thinking fast. Even the most relevant parts of the last few months since Danny’s return would sound insane to any outsider. But keeping that information from Jeri would only put her in danger any time she had to deal with Bakuto. And she was, like everyone from Hogarth, Chao and Benowitz, excellent at keeping secrets.
“You know…” He sighs, laughs at himself. “This is hard to explain.”
Jeri purses her lips.
“You heard about, Daredevil, I’m sure. And… other instances of… unusual activity in the city.”
“I’m familiar, yes.”
“Well the Hand is… these people are… like that.”
Ward shivers, remembering the feats of strength his father could manage toward the end. “Some of them. But they use all sorts of… magic, technology, I don’t know. They’re not just another mob to handle with care, is what I’m trying to say. And they used my father, in the past, they made Rand their…” He looks up into Jeri’s discerning eyes and remembers to mind his tongue. “They’ve had, say, informal contracts with Rand in the past. The kind of things I, and I am positive Danny as well, want nowhere near our company again.”
“I see,” Jeri says slowly.
“They had surveillance on my father. I know he looked for bugs, but he could never hide anything from them. I’m sure they’re watching me as well. That’s why I had to come here.”
“Do you really think they could get someone placed within listening distance at a restaurant with no notice?” Jeri probes.
“I didn’t even bring my phone up here with me.”
Jeri sits back in her seat, her expression carefully neutral. “You are serious.”
“I need to contact Danny and Colleen. They helped take down this group before. And that means we need to stall this contract for as long as possible.”
“Then we should get started.”
~ ~ ~
They work on it. Jeri stretches every exchange she can. Ward throws up what roadblocks he can in the way of the contract. And sweats.
None of the investigators he hired have been able to find hide nor hair of Danny. Claire says the pair intentionally didn’t leave her any contact information, for her own safety. Ward sees Bakuto about once a week, dressed in sheep’s robes with a wolf’s stalking patience. He starts to feel like the walls are closing in on him again, like the people he works with are just dolls, and the only people who are real are the invisible eyes he knows are watching him. The Hand, the only people who know the truth of the world, the way nightmares can come back to life.
Kenji notices something is wrong, but Ward won’t talk about it. That’s a lesson he learned from dealing with his father’s breath on the back of his neck: who will believe you? And even if someone does believe you, what can they do about it? Better to just keep the peace, act like everything’s normal. That way, people will still respect you; that way, the monster has no reason to be angry.
The master sees right through him, but allows him to keep his secret. He gives Ward lectures, though, about how Tai Chi is meant to maneuver an enemy, to use their own strength against them. He explains every step of the short form they’ve been working on in the context of a fight. He gives them names, explains how they got the names. And after Tai Chi, they begin to spend time meditating, sitting on the studio’s floor and breathing, quiet and serene.
It helps. Tuesday and Thursday nights are about the only time Ward feels truly at peace, and even that only lasts until he gets home and sees the kitchen island spread over with contract amendments, the dining room table with reports from PIs about Danny.
The burner laptop he bought to go on the darkweb and figure out how to hire mercenaries brave and stupid enough to take on magic ninjas.
He isn’t sleeping, again. Instead, he’s doing research into the small hours of the morning, then practicing his Tai Chi in he dead of night, again and again. He whispers to himself, the only sound to be heard. “White crane spreads its wings… Grasping the bird’s tail… Single whip… Serpent in the grass…”
Eventually, his legs shake with the effort of staying in the deep stance. His eyes cross. And after that, he can sleep. And when he wakes up, he goes into work and pretends everything is fine.
He’s got a lot of practice at that, at least.
~ ~ ~
Ward lives in the twilight zone of false smiles and secret terror for a month and a half. And then something gives, in the form of a shadow waiting in his apartment.
Ward’s building has a doorman, and security, and he never bothered keeping a weapon in his apartment because, fatalistically, he always thought that if something managed to get past security- better that he not make it messy.
He regrets that, now.
A cold sweat breaks out on his skin as Bakuto crosses his living room on silent feet. He stops in front of Ward’s small wet bar, fiddling with a little flash of cognac. “I know what you’re up to,” he says, looking up at Ward with a little smile. “You’re stalling.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Ward tells him. His voice is shaking. He takes a deep breath and stands tall. “You need to leave.”
Bakuto takes a sudden step toward him and Ward barely holds his ground.
“You need to cooperate,” Bakuto says, just above a whisper, inches away from Ward’s face. “Or you’re going to learn the lesson your father learned. About what the Hand is capable of.” He gave another one of those gentle genial smiles that fool so many. “You don’t want that.”
He steps around Ward, who is frozen in place. “I’ll expect that contract by the end of the week. Or I’ll have to pay your lawyer- Jeri, you call her?- a visit. To find out what’s taking so long .”
Ward flinches back from the harsh voice in his ear. He remembers, vividly, the way Bakuto snapped that night in his father’s apartment, how he seemed perfectly friendly right up until he shot Joy, until he pulled his sword. And he remembers how his father was the same, a perfect mask on his face even as he tore into you.
But his father could be reasoned with, to an extent. Occasionally, he showed emotion, care. Ward waited for those moments- sometimes he thought he lived for them, as much as he tried to tell himself he didn’t.
Bakuto has no reason to care. He’s ruthless, and he’s willing to hurt anyone in the way of getting what he wants- including Ward, Jeri, and anyone at Rand.
And Ward has no way to fight back.
He stands still as Bakuto walks behind him, down the hall, opens the apartment door. “Six days, Meachum.”
The door closes. Footsteps down the hall. The elevator’s muffled ding.
Ward stands in the dark in his empty apartment for a long time.
~ ~ ~
When he shows up at the studio for Tai Chi, Kenji takes one look at him from across the dojo and strides toward him. “What’s wrong?” He takes Ward by the upper arms and guides him to a seat.
Ward has no idea what he looks like, but if it’s half as bad as he feels, Kenji’s reaction is understandable. “It’s the Hand,” he says, with the weight of all the past year’s horrors in his words.
Kenji sighs deeply. “I’m sorry. I wish there was something I could do. I swore years ago not to involve myself with these things, but- if there was some way I could help-”
“No.” Ward shakes his head. “I got myself into this. I’ll… I’ll deal with the consequences.”
Kenji raises an eyebrow. “From what you told me, I’d say you didn’t get yourself into this at all. But I believe that you’ll find a way through. You’re resourceful, Ward. And strong. Stronger than you believe.”
Kenji squeezes Ward’s shoulder until he meets the master’s eyes. “Thanks,” he mumbles.
“Okay, get up. I have something to show you.”
Ward follows him to the center of the studio and falls into the ready for Tai Chi stance, with his feet shoulder width apart. Kenji stands facing him in the same pose.
“What I’m about to show you isn’t a standard Tai Chi form. It’s called Taiji, a form of Tai Chi that many Buddhists prefer for meditation. Tai Chi is about balance, but Buddhism is about separating oneself from the world, finding the perfect emptiness and stillness. While we practice this form, I want you to concentrate on pushing out all the darkness inside you- fear, anger, jealousy. The Tai Chi practitioner is as water, flowing around every obstacle, succeeding through giving way. Now, you must be the raging river. You will force aside the evils that stand in your way, leaving only clean, clear waters in your wake.”
Ward breathes slowly as Kenji speaks, and when his master moves, he copies the form. This one is shorter than what he learned before, and Kenji shows him the whole thing at once. Unlike his first Tai Chi form, when Ward practiced every new move several times before it sank into his memory, this new form comes easily. When they run through it again, Ward barely has to watch Kenji.
When he finishes the form for a third time, he opens his eyes to find Kenji watching him with a smirk. “I’m sorry!” Ward says, shocked at his rudeness. “I don’t know what happened.”
Kenji laughs. “Don’t be sorry, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to do! Do you know how long it takes most of my students to narrow their focus entirely to their own bodies? Not to get distracted every time a car honks down the street? Not to mention- to learn simply from watching the master is the oldest form of Tai Chi. When the masters first opened their schools, all teaching was by exhibition. Only those who paid attention and learned the form through observation were allowed to enroll as students.”
Ward imagines his professors from business school failing students who couldn’t learn purely from lecture and laughs.
“Did it help?” Kenji asks.
Ward nods thoughtfully. “I like it. Can we run through it again?”
“Of course.” Kenji stands beside him and they keep going.
Ward skips Jiu Jitsu on Wednesday, devoting the time to practicing his new form again and again. He feels like the walls are closing in on him, the way they did when his father came back to life. Jeri has no more advice for him, Claire hasn’t heard from Danny, none of the PIs have any new leads. Whenever he types the word ‘Hand’ into the Darknet people scatter. The new form lets him push away the misery and dread until his breathing steadies and he can start looking for the next scrap of hope.
Bakuto has scheduled a meeting at Ward’s office for Friday, midmorning.
Joy returns on Thursday night.
She’s there when he gets back from the dojo, sitting on one of his sofas. She’s wearing one of her business suits, her make-up and hair done normally. She smiles and stands when he comes in, like she never left.
“Hi Ward,” she says. “You look… good.”
Ward steps back from her arms, raised to embrace him. She looks good too, she looks- perfect.
“What’s wrong with you?” he breathes.
Joy laughs. “Nothing’s wrong. Is this how you welcome me back to New York?”
It’s faint. It looks like it’s coming from inside her skin. She looks healthy, young, not tired and drawn like she was the last time they spoke.
Her eyes gleam more than the lamplight should let them.
“What did you do?”
Her smile fades. She raises her chin. “I did what I had to do. I know you’ve been looking for Danny, Ward.”
Joy shakes her head and Ward’s heart thumps in his chest.
“I know you think he’s our friend. But he’s not the kid we remember. What happened to him while he was gone… changed him. He’s not Danny Rand anymore. He’s just the Iron Fist.”
“He told me about that,” Ward says through numb lips. “He exists to defeat the Hand- the people who cursed Dad.”
“The people who gave Dad back to us!” Joy corrects him. “The Iron Fist is the enemy of life itself! The organization that made him- they shot down Wendell and Heather’s plane and kidnapped Danny and forced him to accept the Iron First. They’re ancient, and they want to hoard power away from the rest of the world. They know so many secrets- things that could save lives- but they want it all for themselves.”
The warm yellow glow gets stronger as she speaks. She looks so beautiful, like when she’s tearing down an opposing negotiating team or an aggressive reporter. Angry but controlled, vicious and perfect. If it weren’t for a persistent feeling of wrongness, Ward would just give up arguing with her- Joy is unstoppable when she gets like this- but… there’s something he needs to remember...
“Where have you been?” he asks. His voice trails off halfway through the question- it’s hard to keep a hold of his train of thought.
She’s glowing so brightly now.
“The Hand gave me a gift, like they gave Dad,” Joy tells him. “It’s called the Sun’s Knell.”
It doesn’t sound right, but Ward barely manages to shake his head. The room is very bright now- like daylight.
“I’ll be able to defeat the Iron Fist when he returns to New York.” Joy grins, taking his hand- when did she get so close?- and squeezing it. “With the Hand’s help, we can get rid of Danny at last. We can take Rand into the future. Will you help me?”
She looks so excited, so happy. He wants her to be happy. He nods, the question already forgotten, and she hugs him. She’s very warm, too warm even, but she’s his sister and she’s been gone for so long…
On the other side of the room, Bakuto smiles triumphantly.
Icy cold shoots through Ward’s veins, distracting him from the scalding heat emanating from Joy’s body. He pushes her behind him.
“Ward, calm down,” Joy says firmly. “He’s on our side.”
“He’s with the Hand, Joy! He- he shot you!” Ward squeezes her arm too tight in terror, but she peels his fingers away effortlessly.
Ward stares at her, stunned, but she just smiles at Bakuto as he approaches.
“There is no need to panic, Mr. Meachum,” Bakuto announces with a smug grin. “Your sister and I have finalized the contract with Rand. Together, we will cement my organization’s control over New York, destroy the Iron Fist and those who support him, and bring about a new era of peace.”
Ward shakes his head in horror. Joy is still smiling, still glowing, gazing at Bakuto with eyes gone bright with madness. “Joy, please. This is the guy who blackmailed Dad, kept him locked up in the penthouse. He was going to chop Dad’s head off!”
“We have a contract, Ward,” says Joy simply, waving away his protests. “Sometimes you have to make nice with people you’d rather not work with. I thought you’d understand that,” she chastises him.
“This is crazy!” he shouts. “You’re crazy!”
She turns to him supernaturally fast- glaring so hard her eyes are like lasers, glowing as they are. “I’m crazy?” she spits. “I have been trying to save your ass for the last year! You got in way over your head and I had to go and get superpowers to protect you! You let Danny into Rand, you helped Dad hide away, and now you won’t help me pull us out of the red?! You’re a traitor!”
She slashes her hand through the air and something hits him. Ward is flung across the room, crashing into the wall just a few feet away from a floor-to-ceiling window. He gets back to his feet just in time for Joy- moving faster than she should be able- to pick him up by his shirt and slam him back into the wall.
“You never were strong enough, Ward,” she hisses in his face. “I carried us all the way to the top. And he still trusted you over me!”
She throws him to the side, but he manages to get a leg under him so his tumble to the ground is somewhat controlled. Ward stumbles to the other side of the room, putting furniture in between him and Joy and Bakuto.
The Hand leader is watching them with a lazy smirk, leaning again Ward’s dining table like it’s all just dinner theater to him. He’s the picture of calm and control, while Joy…
Joy is shaking. The yellow light- the Sun’s Knell- emanates from her, flaring at her fingertips like it’s spilling out at the seams. But her eyes glow more and more intensely until the light from them is a sickly green, like the warning of a storm over the sea.
She doesn’t even look like his sister anymore. And in that moment, the last confusion in Ward’s mind, the last vestiges of fog over his sight, vanishes, and he recognizes the power surrounding Joy. It’s something like the contained light of Danny’s Iron Fist, but it’s not under Joy’s control. Instead, it eats at her.
Ward has been fighting his way out of this nightmare for months. He won’t let it take her, too.
“Get out of her,” he whispers, shaking with rage and fear, and instinctively he sinks into a Tai Chi stance. His arms fall into the form he’s been living and breathing these last few weeks, pushing away from him in a cleansing motion.
Joy stumbles. Bakuto frowns.
Ward felt the malicious energy move with his push. He does it again, not shifting an inch from his balanced stance, and the Sun’s Knell flinches.
Months of practice make the steps simple as thought. Something greater than instinct guides Ward as he flows out of the pattern of his practiced form, creating something new. He plays the lute, grasps the bird’s tail. Rolling back consolidates his energy, and he pushes out with it in a wave.
The Sun’s Knell fights him. It lashes out, tendrils that he forces away with sweeps of his arms. Bakuto has unsheathed his sword, but he is forced to step back by flying gold light and waves of invisible energy, like gusts careening off a hurricane. Framed prints are torn from Ward’s walls. Heavy oak furniture is swept across the room.
Ward remains in his deep stance, batting away attacks and mounting his own. He pushes and pulls with the power of the tides at the horrible light. Joy sways, eyes empty. It’s clear that the force inside her has taken over, and Ward’s sister no longer has any control over it.
Ward performs a disarming diversion, then a quick strike. Joy stumbles, so he diverts again, concentrating all his energy the way he’s been taught. Instead of striking at the Sun’s Knell, this time, he pulls on their shared bond, the deep connection that was formed by working together and loving each other every day for their whole lives.
Ward has a stronger grasp on his sister than some mystical force ever could. He pushes with one hand, tugs with the other, and the glow fades from her skin as the Sun’s Knell is forced out. It hovers in the air, a shape he can’t see with his eyes. It throbs in his awareness, malicious and despairing.
The power swirling through the room died down as soon as it exited her body, and Bakuto takes advantage. In a split second, his sword is at Joy’s throat.
“Pledge loyalty to the Hand, now,” he hisses at Ward. “Or I’ll kill both of you.”
‘I’d rather we die,’ Ward thinks. He imagines for one horrifying moment a world where he and Joy existed under the thumb of the Hand, enslaved the way Harold was. ‘I’d rather die,’ he thinks, and turns to the hovering Sun’s Knell, and pulls .
The world is tinted yellow and vibrating with strange echoes. Shapes don’t feel as solid. Ward isn’t sure why.
Bakuto’s eyes are round like gold dollars, but he takes a step back, dragging a dazed Joy along with him.
Ward and the Sun’s Knell are enraged together. Power sears through every inch of Ward’s body like concentrated fire. When he speaks, his voice is layered the same way Joy’s was.
“If you leave now,” they tell Bakuto, “I will let you live.”
“The Sun’s Knell cannot kill me,” Bakuto says, but there’s a waver in his voice. Ward wouldn’t have noticed without the Sun’s Knell perfectly balancing his every sense, but right now it’s crystal clear.
“Are you sure about that?”
Bakuto hesitates, then releases Joy and backs away. Ward and the Sun’s Knell watch until he is gone from the apartment.
Joy slides to the floor and curls in on herself, shaking. Ward watches her, feeling little but the fire in his chest, until it slowly fades to embers.
~ ~ ~
Ward goes to Sage Studio on a morning he knows Kenji will be there, practicing by himself. He’s started to realize that he knows his master’s schedule as well as he knows his own. It makes him feel warm inside in a way that the presence of a temperamental mystical force can’t explain.
The Sun’s Knell is heavy in his gut, the way it has been since he took it inside him. It makes him feel heavy himself, like each of his footsteps has more weight to it, like he’s made of something denser than he should be. Like he can’t be moved. The benefit is that he feels less of the constant anxiety, uncertainty, that he’s felt chronically for years. The downside is… everything else.
When Ward tells him what happened- when Ward shows him what happened- Kenji makes a face at Ward for so long that it nearly does end up stuck that way. But Ward can’t laugh, not when he’s called up the Sun’s Knell to warm under his skin and shine through his eyes.
When he does this, he can feel it humming through his veins, prickling through his body. It looks out through his eyes like a lazy tiger, weighing its options between eating and turning over. Since they faced down Bakuto, nothing has made it want to fight, but the coiled power remains, weighing down Ward’s conscience.
It hasn’t moved for itself, but its presence has lent weight to Ward’s own anger. The first time someone at Rand contradicted him, he stood up straight, looming over them, and told them off far too harshly. At any small slight, like when someone cuts him off in the street, the usual flicker of annoyance rises into a full glower, dark thoughts overtaking everything.
He’s had to stop practicing Tai Chi after a simple push cracked his dining room table in half.
“Do you know anything about it?” Ward asks nervously. “The Hand called it the Sun’s Knell.”
Kenji turns away, pacing the length of the studio before turning back. He looks unsettled.
Ward swallows. He knows Kenji has made significant effort to stay away from the Hand and everything like them. But he doesn’t know anyone else to ask.
Eventually, Kenji comes to a stop, nodding to himself. He brings Ward into his office in silence. He makes them both strong coffee and sighs deeply when he sits down.
“The Sun’s Knell is one of many forces from beyond this dimension that have been tamed for certain purposes. The Iron Fist is another. The Iron Fist was summoned, shaped into something for protection. The Sun’s Knell was crafted for destruction. Its whole name is the Death Knell of the Sun. It’s supposed to bring about the death of the final hope.”
Kenji’s eyes are sympathetic as Ward shivers. Inside him, the Sun’s Knell shifts like it’s listening.
Ward takes a deep, calming breath. “When it was in Joy, it made her want to hurt me. We’ve never hurt each other. We’ve always protected each other. Is this thing going to turn me into a monster?”
“I don’t know,” Kenji tells him solemnly. “All of these great forces have a spirit unto themselves, with their own ways. But your sister called it to herself with the intent to destroy. You took it inside you with the intention of protecting someone you love. I think that will make a difference.”
Ward nods. His skin itches.
“Still, it is a powerful force, one you must learn to control, or else it will come to control you.”
“Okay,” Ward resolves. “Where do we start?”
“I am not qualified to train you in this manner.” Sitting back in his chair, Kenji chews on his lip, deep in thought. “But I know someone else who can.”
~ ~ ~
Joy is waiting when Ward comes out of his office, carrying his last box of personal items. She looks back to her normal self. No otherworldly light shines from her skin, and her eyes are deep with the shadows of humanity again.
They’ve had their talk. Ward told her everything about Harold, from start- age seven- to end- toppling off the roof of their building. Joy told him everything she discovered traveling with one of the leaders of the Hand and one of Danny’s old friends. The conversation unsettled the both of them more than it healed. In the two weeks since, they’ve tried to spend time together the way they used to, but too much has changed, between them and in their own lives.
Ward doesn’t know how long he’ll have to stay with Kenji’s contact in Tibet. He knows he needs the time away, both to learn to control the Sun’s Knell, and to get some distance from the memories of his father. But he hopes the time apart will, eventually, help him and Joy come back together.
Joy waits until he stops beside her, then glances meaningfully at the wall beside the elevator, where the pictures of he and Danny are hung. She slowly raises an eyebrow at him.
“That was all Danny,” Ward defends. “I didn’t even know he was planning it!”
“I’m getting my own,” she says dryly.
“As you should,” he agrees, and means it. Rand wouldn’t have survived Harold’s death without the both of them. “Are you all good, here?”
The executive floor has been repaired, and Joy’s office restored. She’s taken control with the Board again, as comfortable there as ever. Watching her competence there makes Ward feel proud that he ever managed without her. He’s introduced her properly to Jeri and made sure she’s aware of the various lines of attack he and Jeri prepared for if the Hand comes calling again. Still, he can’t help but worry.
Joy rolls her eyes at him the way she always does when he gets overprotective. She shrugs the topic away and gives him a long hug. They stand in silence for a while before she pulls back.
“You know I’m sorry, right?”
Ward nods. “I am, too.”
When he gets into the taxi that will take him to the airport, he feels hopeful, for the first time in a while. In his chest, the Sun’s Knell purrs in agreement.