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Damned If You Don't

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In the first flush of love, it’s impossible to imagine that you might ever look at that entirely beloved figure and wish him dead in a Hell’s Kitchen alley. At least, that had been Claire’s experience: three months of gag-inducing bliss, and now here she stood wanting nothing more than to dig her fingers into Matt’s lacerated skin and tear.

Or weep. Weeping was another solid option.

Of course she did neither. She pulled out her first aid kit and went to work, as if it were any night, as if he were any patient, as if her heart were not beating itself out of her chest in pain and fear and rage.

 

The week had begun well.

Matt took her out to dinner Sunday night because she had made a joke about how they never left her apartment and he had taken it too seriously, tried too hard to make it up to her by inviting her out every night. She had protested but not too hard because he was so cute when he was guilty. She liked too how Matt-in-public was almost a different person, a more cautious Matt Murdock who waited for her to take his arm before he began walking, and asked her to read the specials board to him, and made jokes about how he was likely to spill food all over himself, though of course he never actually did, and yet still had a certain undeniable confidence despite the physical hesitations, a Matt Murdock who was greeted by name by the owner of the restaurant and brought a bottle of wine in thanks for some legal work he’d done, a Matt Murdock who had found his place in a community.

On Monday they had drinks with Foggy and Karen, whom Claire had never met before. She was not terribly surprised to sense a current of hostility from Karen, though she was shocked that Matt seemed utterly oblivious to it. “Are you just so used to women being attracted to you that you don’t even notice?” she asked as they walked back to her place.

“I noticed that you were attracted to me,” he returned with his best approximation of a leer, which was adorably un-degenerate, even to someone who knew what he was like in bed.

“Or maybe you just noticed that you were attracted to me and you think those things are the same?” Claire teased back.

He laughed and then before she could blink she was pressed up against the wall being kissed, ferociously kissed, by a man who was supposed to not know where the walls were, exactly. When he released her she let out a little huff of air and said, “You’re really bad at this pretending to be normal thing.”

“No one saw,” he responded and looking around Claire could see that indeed, he had somehow found a perfectly empty stretch of New York sidewalk upon which to manhandle her.

“Want to press your luck?” she asked, twisting her arms around his neck and pulling him back. But alas: there was a crash somewhere, and his head was already turning away. She made him promise to make it up to her later and let him go be a superhero. She didn’t even worry that much, though she slept better after he climbed into her bed several hours later.

Tuesday and Wednesday she worked night shifts and did not see him, though he told her to call on her break and she did, feeling silly because she’d always mocked women who could not go twenty-four hours without talking to their boyfriends, and because the other nurses could see it on her face when she came back in and teased her mercilessly about her glow.

The problems began Thursday morning, when she came home to find her cousin Hector sitting on her stoop. Last she’d heard, Hector was upstate, serving a three-year term for selling drugs. As horrible as it had been to see him there — she’d visited once with her mother, teased him sadly about how similar their outfits were now — part of her had been glad, because in some ways he’d been safe. When he was sixteen he’d been shot in the neighborhood by a stray bullet, and Claire could still remember the terror of it pressing on her chest. It was one of the reasons she’d become a nurse, one of the reasons she knew what Matt did was important. Hector was twenty-three now, bulked up, with new tattoos on his arms that would make her aunt cry.

He grinned and bounced to his feet when he saw her, and she had to smile back, though she was exhausted from her shift and wondering what he was really doing there. “I’m baaaack!” he announced and she laughed and hugged him, wondering where the little boy she used to babysit had gone and who this strange grown-up man with his eyes could be.

She was not terribly surprised when this greeting was followed up by a request to crash with her, just for a night or maybe two. She wanted to ask why he hadn’t gone to her aunt and uncle’s house, and whether he had been sitting on her stoop all night, and all kinds of other questions, but mostly she wanted to sleep, so she said sure, and not to eat everything in her fridge, please, and to keep it down for a little while because she was going to bed.

She woke up in the dark to a crash and a shout and realized she had probably made a mistake not telling Matt about this development.

Sure enough, by the time she made it to the living room her boyfriend had her cousin pinned to the floor and was demanding who he was and what he had done with Claire. There followed an extremely awkward interval in which Claire had to explain to Matt her felon cousin’s presence (and existence, as he had never come up in conversation), and to Hector how and why her blind boyfriend had moved with such lethal swiftness in response to a stranger in her apartment. A détente was eventually reached, but mostly so both men could retreat to their corners to lick their wounds and glare. Hector went back to watching TV and Claire took Matt into her bedroom where he told her he wanted her to come back to his place because Hector might be trouble, and she laughed in his face. “You just don’t want him to hear us having sex,” she said.

“Do you?” he countered, arching a judgmental eyebrow.

“Well we could probably go for one night without,” she pointed out, at which he looked aghast, so she amended it to, “Or we could be quiet.” She kissed him and said, “Can you hold that thought for ten minutes? I have to call my mom.”

In the end she did go to Matt’s, because it seemed nice to let Hector have a real bed after he’d slept in a prison cot for so long. Plus she didn’t really want to be quiet, even if it could be hot to know you had to be because there was some possibility you might get caught. But when she thought about her baby cousin catching them, that was not hot, so — Matt’s apartment it was.

He was strangely silent in the cab to his place and Claire felt constrained by his silence in a way she never had before. Miley Cyrus was on the radio, incongruously filling the space left by his face turned away. I came in like a wrecking ball. “You tired?” he asked as they pulled up to his apartment building.

“Not really; I slept all day,” she reminded him.

He paid the cab and hesitated on the sidewalk. “You want to go out for a drink?”

“No.” She took his hand and slid it from her clavicle down between her breasts. His breath caught and his hand clenched in her shirt. He pulled her up the stairs by her hem.

Inside his apartment he pressed her up against the door, hands on her bare stomach, tongue tracing her lower lip. She darted hers out to meet him, tilted her hips toward him. One of his hands slid out from beneath her shirt to catch her jaw, pushing it up so sharply her head thudded against the door. He licked her cheek, above his fingers, and into her mouth again, using his teeth. She was instantly wet, panting for it. He unbuckled her jeans, twisted her around so her face pressed into the cool wood of the door. She closed her eyes and imagined how this must feel to him, his body surrounding hers, the sound of other people’s heartbeats and sneezes and whimpers just on the other side of the wall. He bit her neck and then licked the pain away.

“Please,” she said, and then he had pulled her jeans down until they trapped her legs and his too and he was hard and hot against her ass, his forehead in the hollow of her neck, his hands covering hers as he pressed her torso against the door and pulled her hips back to meet him. Then he was inside, and her hands wanted to make fists, wanted to pound on the door to let her out or in. He was still inside her, his hands worrying at hers until they released, until their fingers were entwined and then he pulled back and thrust into her, the force of his movement raising her up onto her tiptoes though there was no escape, and she wouldn’t want it if there was. Slowly at first but then increasing in speed he battered into her, opening and lifting until all that held her was the door and his body, his motion.

“Claire,” he moaned after what felt like an eternity and not nearly enough time, “I’m sorry, I need—“

“Okay, it’s okay, Matt, you can.” As if her words held their own power he cried out then and scraped their twined hands against the door and came. His hands fell, went around her hesitantly and she sucked in a deep breath and let it out.

He slipped out of her and turned her around, and if he was anyone else he would be searching her face for a clue now and she wished she could give him one, because that would be easier than summoning words.

“Better?” she managed, touching his face. He was still wearing his sunglasses.

 “I’m sorry,” he said. She was not sure he’d ever let himself come first before, and now she knew why: it was clearly not acceptable behavior in the Murdock List of Rights and Wrongs. He looked like he had killed her puppy. She smiled and leaned up to kiss him.

“It’s fine. That was pretty incredible actual. I love that you don’t have to wear a condom, even if it means you have a little less control.” It was possible he blushed at that. She had an IUD, and all their tests had come back clean. It had been a long time since she’d been skin to skin with anyone… or had to deal with the messy aftermath. “Do you have a tissue?”

He swore a little then and carried her to his bed and cleaned her up and helped her get the rest of the way undressed. When she was safely stowed under the covers he touched her face and said, “When I came up to your apartment and there was a stranger inside — I was scared.”

“Yeah, I figured.” He was pretty transparent for someone with a secret identity. But maybe only to her. “You can’t be afraid for me all the time though.”

“I know.”

“I’m fine.”

“I know.”

“Uh, on the subject of Hector… I know we have plans for Saturday night, but my family is having a welcome home dinner party thing, and I kind of need to go.” He looked even more somber, as if her having to spend time with her family was a referendum on his sexual failings (not that he had any, beyond imagined ones). “Do you want to go with me?”

His expression finally shifted as he processed that request. “You don’t have to,” she said hurriedly when he did not immediately respond. “It’ll be a lot of people to meet all at once.”

“I don’t want to steal your cousin’s spotlight,” he said finally. She smiled at that, because it was a ridiculous excuse. Then again, given how long it had been since she brought a man home, his presence might compete with her cousin’s release from prison for excitement value, at least to her mother.

“No lighting at all for you,” she promised.

He smiled finally, a real smile. She loved the corners of his mouth. “I’m good at lurking in the shadows.”

“If you’re really worried, you could wear your old costume, you know all that black. That would be totally inconspicuous.”

“On the other hand, I could really play up the blind man’s fashion thing. Some clashing plaids, maybe. I hear mothers like their daughters to go out with totally nerdy lawyers. Safe, boring types.”

Claire laughed. “Well I will be coming over to pick out your outfit,” she assured him. “Hey, how do you pick out your clothes?” She captured one of his hands, started tracing the lines on his palm.

“Foggy buys most of them,” Matt explained. “I just make him promise that everything goes with everything else. He’s more attached to me looking good than I am, so it works out okay.”

“He is a fashionable man,” Claire agreed thoughtfully. “Maybe I’ll call him and make him come get you ready.”

“Oh no. You are not allowed to suborn my best friend to your purposes.”

“Really?” Claire asked skeptically. She guessed she had her answer as to whether Matt knew that she and Foggy regularly checked in about his well-being. “Are you sure?”

“Fairly sure.”

“Okay then, you are not allowed to make my mother like you more than she likes me. Or to respond to any of her questions regarding your intentions.”

“Deal.” He leaned in to kiss her. His mouth was softer now, gently coaxing her into a slow, open-mouthed caress. She ran her hand down his chest, finally noticing that he was still fully dressed, though he had denuded her of pants and shirt in the shift to the bed.

“Going somewhere?” she asked.

A flash of guilt crossed his face. “I have to go out,” he said. “There’s something happening, something big. I think I have a lead but I need to check it out tonight.”

She rolled away, annoyed and not sure if it was fair or not. “Why bring me over here then?”

He didn’t respond. She glanced over; he was lying on his back, face turned to the ceiling. His profile was supremely unhelpful. She had the argument all alone in her head, since he didn’t seem to want to participate: I could be in my own apartment right now, hanging out with my cousin whom I haven’t seen in a year. But what if Matt got hurt? He couldn’t come to her if Hector was there. But he could call her and she could still come to him. But what would Hector say then? Why would it matter what Hector said, he wouldn’t tell anyone. This was just Matt being selfish, and maybe a little jealous. And she hadn’t even gotten to orgasm for her trouble!

“I don’t have to go right away,” he said finally. “I was going to wait until you were asleep.”

“Because I wouldn’t notice when you never got into bed with me?” Claire responded sharply. “I’m not an idiot.”

He was silent again, because there was really no good way to respond to such a statement. Claire stayed on her side, facing away from him. Finally he pushed himself off the bed and went to change into his costume. In the doorway he paused and said, “I wanted you here where I knew you would be safe. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry for earlier.”

“Don’t be, Matt—“ she sat up but he’d already slipped out, even though she was sure he could hear her. Unsatisfied, she threw a pillow at the wall and flopped back onto the bed. Goddamnit.

 

On Friday things got much worse.

Matt had come in late, but he’d wrapped himself around her in the middle of the night like a drowning man and some part of her sleep-filled mind had liked that very much. He kissed her awake in the morning, hitting all her most shiver-inducing spots. As if making up for his neglect of the night before he went down on her until she covered her face with a pillow and actually screamed — the sexual equivalent of saying twenty Hail Marys. Then he bounded out of bed and made coffee. Basically: the perfect man.

Until, that was, Claire was taking her first sip of coffee —still coming down from the afterglow — and he told her he thought she should call Hector and tell him to vacate her apartment before she went home.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, putting the coffee down very carefully on the counter because she had a feeling continuing to hold it might turn into wanting to throw it soon.

He had showered and dressed while the coffee brewed and was now in his lawyer get-up, all but the jacket and glasses. She was still wearing only a shirt of his. “I saw him last night,” he said, the slight hesitation before the verb indicating that he really meant heard, smelled, felt, “with some of the guys I’ve been watching. Bad guys, Claire.”

“Let me guess, Puerto Rican drug smugglers?” Claire responded, trying to get her tone calm. Damn it, Hector! She was going to smack him upside the head when she got home. But that was her job, not Matt’s.

“For one.”

“Matt, they’re his friends,” Claire said. She picked up her coffee and took a fortifying sip and put it back down. “Just the guys from the neighborhood. Of course he would go see them. He was probably looking to celebrate his freedom. Were they talking business with him?”

“No,” Matt admitted.

“There, you see.” She turned away, feeling like she would like to be clothed for the rest of this conversation. She pulled a pair of clean underwear from her bag and searched for her jeans.

“No, I don’t see,” he shot back, following her into his bedroom. “Claire, these men are dangerous. I don’t want you connected to them.”

“Oh yes, I forgot what a mild-mannered lamb you are,” she responded, finding her jeans and pulling them on. She glanced around for her bra. He did not laugh at her joke, though she was not sure she’d meant him to.

“I’m trying to protect people! I’m trying to protect you.” Sometimes his lines worked on her, and sometimes they didn’t. This morning seemed to be one of the times they didn’t. Just how blind could he be? Claire thought meanly, then hated herself.

“I don’t need your protection from my life,” she said, trying to keep an even tone. “I grew up with Hector. He’s really a good kid, you just have to give him a chance and not leap to conclusions.”

“A good kid? Claire, he’s a drug dealer.”

Claire shot him a sideways look but he was entirely serious. Was this really a kid from Hell’s Kitchen? He had certainly not absorbed the neighborhood policy of looking the other way. Not that she had either, particularly, but she was willing to carve out some strategic blind spots, allow for a little human weakness now and then.

“He sold drugs one time according to the cop — and you of all people do not get to say a word about having faith in cops — and he was punished for it. Even if he did it, that doesn’t define who he is.” The look on Matt’s face upon hearing her defend a drug dealer would have been priceless if she wasn’t so mad at him. Claire gave up on her bra and pulled on a clean tank top and threw her sweatshirt over it. Straightening she looked right at him and said, partly because she believed it and partly just to poke him, “Besides, if he didn’t sell, someone else would. He’s not creating addicts, Matt, and he can’t be blamed for all the consequences of addiction. He’s not the bad guy.”

Matt Murdock did not believe in allowances for human weakness. “How can you defend him? Drugs flood our streets, they kill people, destroy lives. The drug traffickers — his so-called friends — kill to protect their profits.”

Claire almost laughed at that. The hyperbole! The self-righteous hypocrisy! “My god! Hector never killed anyone. It’s not the kind of thing that rubs off on you from hanging out with someone on the corner.” His expression didn’t change and she wanted to gnash her teeth and shake him. “Haven’t you ever cared about someone who wasn’t perfect?”

“Of course I have.” His voice and faced lacked conviction.

Claire felt her heart pounding, but not in a good way. This was going to a very bad place, very soon, but she didn’t know how to stop it. “Someone who fucked up, really deeply tremendously fucked up? No. You never have.” He did not protest, did not deny or confirm. His face was a hard mask despite its nakedness.

 “Even your dad,” she heard herself say. “You had to turn him into a hero so that you can justify your love for him, because if you admitted he was a coward who threw fights and then abandoned his son when he couldn’t take it anymore… well then how could you possibly love him? He wouldn’t deserve it.”

His voice when it emerged was one she’d never heard before: raw and savage and utterly bleak. “Don’t bring my father into this.”

She knew she shouldn’t but her blood was up and she was too upset to stop now. “Valorization is not love, Matt. Love is messy and hard, but of course you wouldn’t know because he was too afraid to try it, and because you’ve been alone your whole damn life since he left you.” Probably this was not about his dad, or Hector, a small part of Claire realized. Probably it was about her and him. But also it truly did make her crazy, this story he told himself and everything he used it to justify.

“My father was a hero. He redeemed himself.” Now there was a note of plaintiveness, a little boy lost coming out through the rage, and a little part of her wanted to stop and comfort him. It was quickly drowned out by all the other parts — the part that said he needed to hear it, and the part that said he was a big boy, and the part that was defensive, and the part that loved her cousin, and the part that was terrified Matt would never love her because he didn’t know how.

“He abandoned you, the son who needed him, so that he could have a moment of glory. He took the easy way out. And now you want me to abandon my family, because they don’t fit your definition of good? No fucking way.”

“He did the right thing, no matter what it cost him!” Matt was shouting now, and maybe she was too.

“But what about what it cost you? The right thing would have been staying with you, protecting you, loving you. But that is hard, it’s a hell of a lot harder than getting up when you’re knocked down.”

There was a crash and a droplet of hot liquid caught her arm, making her flinch. He’d thrown his coffee at the wall. Brown liquid streaked down the white. She clutched at her arm but it wasn’t even a burn. “Get out,” he said quietly.

“Gladly.” She grabbed her bag and made for the door before her rage could wear away to anguish.

 

Hector was still asleep when she got home but he woke up and shuffled into the living room sometime after Claire started to cry and could not stop. He looked like a little boy, his legs sticking out of her far-too-small sweatpants. “What’s the matter?” he asked, wide-eyed at he sight of her tears.

She drew in a shuddering breath and wiped at her eyes futilely. “Matt and I had a fight,” she said.

His face darkened. “About me?”

“No,” Claire lied. It was kind of refreshing to be around someone who took her at her word. He went back into the bedroom and came back with a box of tissues that he handed to her silently. She blew her noise and he sat down next to her, sympathetic but wary too. His presence calmed her a little and the tears slowed, then stopped. Her hand found his. “How are you, Teto?”

“Good,” he said, but she could see it was bravado. He looked over at her, taking in her red eyes and the tissue she still clenched in her other hand. “Want me to beat him up for you?”

“He’s tougher than he looks,” she said with a slight smile. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“I’m tougher than I look too,” he insisted.

“You look pretty tough these days,” she pointed out, making him grin and flex his muscled arm at her. She laughed and darted in to catch the ticklish spot on his side, which soon had him writhing and gasping, “No fair!” Finally she relented, having proven her continued elder-cousin dominance, and sat back against the arm of the couch, nudging him with her foot. “So, what are you going to do now?”

He gave an exaggerated shrug and she kicked him lightly in the leg. “I don’t know!” he protested.

“You should go back to school,” she said. He had been a good student before the shooting. After, he’d been in a coma for a week and then missed months of school while he recovered. He’d had to repeat his sophomore year with a bunch of younger kids and he’d started cutting class, getting in trouble. In the end he’d barely managed to graduate high school. But he had graduated. He could enroll in community college if he wanted.

“Who’s gonna pay for it? I can’t get financial aid ‘cuz I’m a felon,” he grouched, breaking her heart. The fact he knew that meant he had looked into the possibility already, and already had the door closed in his face.

“We’d help you,” she said. He shook his head and she sighed and said, “Well, there’s a ton of new construction work. Maybe you can get a job on a crew. The pay is good. My friend Emily’s husband does construction, I’ll see if he has any ideas.”

“Yeah, that’d be good, maybe,” Hector said nonchalantly, the look in his eyes telling her he cared more than his expression or words let on.

“You’re welcome to stay here,” she said, “but I’m going to want my bed back. You… do have your own room at your parents’ house, you know. They kept it just the same.”

He hesitated, then nodded shortly. “I know. I just thought…” He looked uncomfortable and shrugged, unable or unwilling to articulate fear or a need for some time to process being out before wading into family drama, or whatever it was that had brought him to her door.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You can stay as long as you need to.”

“Thanks, C.”

She thought about him going out the night before to meet up with his old friends. “Just don’t—“ she caught herself.

“What?”

“Just be careful,” she said. “Hell’s Kitchen is a dangerous place these days.”

He gave her a funny look, which she knew she probably deserved — hadn’t it always been a dangerous place? Hadn’t prison been a dangerous place? She squeezed his hand and stood up. “I’m glad you’re home Teto,” she said, touching his hair as she walked toward the bathroom. Time to shower, to go to work, to try not to think about the look on Matt’s face when she’d walked away.

 

Matt didn’t call the rest of the day. Claire hadn’t really expected him to but it still hurt. She cycled between despair that she had hurt him and ruined what was between them and fresh anger that he had tried to tell her how to live her life, whom to love. She and Hector went to the movies Friday night and after, when she went to bed alone she tried not to search for Matt’s smell on her sheets but she couldn’t stop herself. She wanted him there, wanted him holding her, wanted him inside of her, over her, wanted him smiling one of his unfairly sweet smiles and hurting her, but just a little. His absence seemed to be hurting her a lot.

Had she overreacted? Maybe. He hadn’t given her an order, exactly. She could have just told him no rather than escalating it. What would he have done?

Well there was the problem. She didn’t know. She didn’t trust him not to swoop down on Hector in costume and try to warn him away. She didn’t trust him to trust her and her judgment. How could she not trust him? Over the last three months she had let him into her life, her bed, her body, probably her goddamned soul. She was completely in love with him, though she’d not yet told him as much. Still, he was in many ways a broken man and she was afraid that his particular jagged edges would cut her too deep one of these days. Maybe she’d escalated because it was an argument she’d needed to have.

That line of thought provided little comfort though; Claire still cried herself to sleep that night.

The silence continued all day Saturday and even though Claire worried, she couldn’t bring herself to be the first one to reach out. She was still angry, and wary of seeming like she was making up just so he would come to her family dinner with her. Wary, perhaps, of him coming to dinner out of obligation and her having to explain the following week to her mother how they had already broken up. If they were actually breaking up. (But maybe they were already broken up and she just didn’t want to admit it to herself? No, Matt was not that kind of guy. There would at least be a conversation, she told herself firmly. There would at least be an acknowledgement and possibly some break-up sex, once he could bring himself to speak to her again. Oh shit she did not like any of that line of thought.)

So she went to work and she did not call him on her break, and she went home and put on a nice dress for the party, and went early to help her mom cook. The whole family was out in force: uncles and aunts and cousins and family friends of all ages. She greeted a few men she suspected were the kinds of guys Matt was so upset about Hector hanging around, but whom she’d known since they were in diapers. Were they bad? she wondered as she kissed their cheeks. Had they ever killed anybody? Did they create addicts? Had they kidnapped and threatened and hurt people? Or were they just trying to get by like everyone else?

The party was so busy she did not have much time to mope. Rosa was moping plenty for everyone; she was still trying to get pregnant, but the longer it went on the more she and her husband fought, and it seemed like the less likely they were to ever happily procreate. Her aunt Deedee, Hector’s mom, was hesitant at first but as soon as Hector shyly hugged her and agreed to come home, she broke into a brilliant smile and floated around the room for the next several hours hugging everyone and singing funny little songs. Her mother was mostly busy feeding everyone, like usual, but she did take a moment to narrow her eyes at Claire and say, “You don’t look so good. You’ll never get a husband with bags like that under your eyes.” She was at least half kidding, but Claire had trouble summoning a retort that did not involve Matt’s responsibility for both the bags and her lack of a relationship that was going anywhere, ever, and her hesitation made her mother frown in actual concern.

All in all, she was exhausted by the time the party wound down and all the goodbyes were said. Hector went home with his parents, and Claire tried to get a taxi but ended up walking. She had checked her phone several times, as if she might have missed something, but there was still no word from Matt. She half expected him to find her on the street on the way home, and she paused a few times, lifting her eyes to the sky to let him know that she was expecting him, but if he was watching he gave no sign. The streets felt quiet and a little more threatening than usual; she thought about what he had said, about something big happening.

At home she went immediately to bed but could not sleep, thinking about Matt’s face when she had called his father a coward, and whether she was sure Hector had gone home with his parents or was it possible he had gone out with his friends? Finally she got up and dug out the police scanner she had bought one night Matt did not come home. The lines were full of chatter; something had indeed happened, something big. There had been gunshots, there were injuries, perhaps deaths. She put her face in her hands for a moment, feeling the fear ripple through her body, and then she picked up her phone and called Matt.

The phone rang, and then a moment later rang again on the fire escape. “Motherfucker!” Claire yelled and ran to the window. Matt was lying on the fire escape, phone echoing faintly from his pocket. He wasn’t moving.

The next moments were a blur, though she knew she climbed outside and somehow managed to pull his mostly dead weight through the window. It was not until he was inside bleeding all over her floor that the unfairness of it hit her. He could die now, tonight, and the last thing they ever said to one another would had been in anger. He knew that. He knew that and he had gone anyway, not bothering to send her a text message or pick up the phone and let her atone first. If he died now, it would be unshrived, she thought savagely. She would leave him the way he was leaving her: damned forever.

But of course she would not let him die, not even if it was the perfect revenge for the way he was ripping her guts out just now. Of course she would not.

 

When he woke up in the morning, broken but alive, he smiled at her and she thought again that she would like to kill him now.

“Hey,” he said, softly and a little hesitantly, because he must know something was wrong but be too out of it still to remember what.

She could not think of anything to say to that, so she didn’t say anything.

His brow furrowed and he — of course, being Matt Murdock — sat up. Normally she would have cautioned him strongly about that, but this time she let him feel the full pain of it. His face went white but he gritted his teeth and did it anyway. She closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to feel sorry for him.

“Claire?” he asked hesitantly, as if confirming that it really was her there. He could smell her, he knew her apartment now, but it was unusual for her to be silent so long.

“Who else?” she said wearily. She had sat up most of the night watching him, even after her work was done, making sure he kept breathing. Her head hurt and her clothing was still bloody. He had been shot, in one of the weaker parts of his suit. She had had to dig the bullet out. He needed X-rays to make sure he wasn’t bleeding internally, and pain medication, and a different life.

He reached out for her hand but she pulled back. His face settled into somber lines. “I’m sorry,” he said, “about what I said about Hector.”

“That’s not why I’m angry,” she informed him shortly. Was it? She was so tired she wasn’t sure she could sort out the reasons anymore. She had a feeling it was more than one thing though.

“I’m sorry for missing the party,” he said, almost like it was a question.

“Try again.”

“Can you give me a clue?” He made a little attempt at a charming smile, though he seemed to know it would only make things worse. She could feel her whole body responding to that smile, but not in good ways.

“Matt, you were shot last night. If the bullet had stopped in a slightly different place, you’d be dead.”

The smile was wiped completely away. “You know what I do is dangerous. I can’t apologize for that.”

She stared at him, wishing not for the first time that he could meet her eyes with his own. She wanted him to see it in her face — not to smell it or hear her heart beating — but to see the pain and rage and fear in her eyes.

Her voice was shaking when she spoke again, and she hated that. “We were fighting, Matt. You went out into that danger knowing that we were fighting. What if you had died? What do you think that would have done to me? Knowing—“ She couldn’t finish, couldn’t say it all out loud. He reached for her hand again, but this time she let him take it.

“I didn’t mean for that to happen,” he said.

She choked on a sob, or perhaps a laugh. “Of course not.”

“I wanted… I wanted something to show you. Some proof to give you that I was right.”

“If I didn’t think it would actually kill you right now, I would throw a coffee cup at your head for that incredibly stupid and self-centered thought.”

A smile flitted across his face. “I would deserve that.” He cocked his head and then amended, “Not right, not about Hector. I mean that I wanted to do something good, I wanted to show you that I could do good, be good... I know it was stupid.”

“It was really fucking stupid, Matt,” she said. She bowed her head and brought his hand to her face. He immediately found the evidence of her tears and gently wiped it away.

“I’m sorry for that also,” he said, his voice cracking a little also. She felt a sharp surge of pleasure at the signal, no matter how small, that he was feeling all of this too.

“You don’t need to prove anything to me,” she said finally. “I know you are a good man. I know how much good you do. It was never about that.”

“I know it wasn’t. It was an excuse to delay talking to you, and an attempt to give myself some courage when I did. You see I, too, am a coward.”

Claire winced. “I didn’t really mean that. I’m sorry, Matt.”

He shook his head, his hand sliding down her arm and taking hers again. “You did,” he contradicted her. “I could tell. It’s okay. Maybe you’re right about my dad.”

She drew in a deep breath. This making up stuff was harder with a human lie detector. Very carefully, making sure each word was true, she said, “Maybe I meant it in the moment, but it doesn’t really matter what I think, Matt. I wasn’t saying it because I know anything more about your dad than you do. You know who he was and why he did what he did. You know that so much better than anything I could make up secondhand.” His hand clenched tightly in hers and she knew that he believed her, that it was all true. But it wasn’t the whole truth.

Very carefully, Claire slid onto the couch beside him, because she needed to feel the warmth of him. Over the past months she had mostly gotten used to not making eye contact with him, and she’d found that his body could communicate quite well with hers when she gave it a chance — and not just during sex, though certainly then too. Now, to say what she had to say, she wanted as much contact as she could get. He shifted over as much as he could for her, though she could feel his wince.

She kissed his fingers clasped in hers and then kept going. “I said it because I was angry and scared. We can talk about the angry more, because that’s real. But mostly I think I said it because I was scared — I am scared — that you won’t ever love me the way I love you. Because I’m human, and you’ve built yourself into something that isn’t exactly, sometimes, into a hero that always gets up. What if I can’t get up sometimes? How can you love someone like that?”

“Oh, Claire,” he said, and then he’d turned her face toward him and he was kissing her eyelids with their leaking tears, and then her mouth. He tasted like copper from some internal injury she hadn’t been able to sponge off. He was silent for a while, after, their foreheads touching and their shoulders, arms, hands. “I think you’re right about me making myself into something not human. A monster, is what you were too nice to say. But even monsters can love, it turns out. I haven’t said this before because I thought that I shouldn’t, that somehow it would protect you if I didn’t say it. But I guess we’re in deep already, so maybe that’s just cowardice too. I don’t know what I am anymore, Claire, but I do know that I love you. If that helps.”

“I guess we’re both pretty stupid,” Claire said. She wanted to tell him he was not a monster, but she’d said it before, so many times, and it never seemed to penetrate. Instead she squeezed his hand and cast a critical eye down his body. “Do you think you can walk to the bed? I couldn’t get you in there by myself.”

He grinned. “Remember who you’re talking to?”

They slept most of the day, Claire keeping one hand on his uninjured side as if monitoring his breathing. Luckily it was her day off. When they woke up she changed his bandages and gave him another antibiotic pill she had filched from the free samples box at the hospital. “Just don’t do it again, okay?” she said as she stared down at his neatly stitched bullet wound.

“Do what again?”

“Go out to fight without making up whatever fight you and I have first. You can’t, you — it’s just not fair.” She laid a new bandage over and began taping it.

“So we should never fight?” he suggested, and she suspected it was only partly tongue in cheek.

She shook her head. “We’re going to fight. It’s inevitable.” His brow furrowed and she reminded him of her significantly greater experience with actual relationships. “Being in a relationship is not the same as sleeping with someone you pick up at a bar, whatever Foggy says.”

“Okay,” he said, “so we’ll fight sometimes. But we’ll make up.”

“Before you go out and get yourself killed?” she prompted, proud of herself for her steady voice as she said it, almost as if it were a joke and not the terrifying reality.

“Before I got out and get myself at all injured,” he said. “We’ll always make up before that. I promise.”

“Good.” She leaned over him and brushed the hair off his forehead, traced the line of his jaw, his lips, the line of his collarbone. Bending down she kissed him, softly open-mouthed at first and then deeper, tasting his tongue, searching out the sore spot in his mouth.

“I love you,” he said again when she pulled away. And this time his face was open and wondrous when he said it, not like before, and it seemed suddenly a beautiful thing even though he was lying wounded in her bed and they were talking about future fights, future wounds.

Contact, she thought. She lay down on his uninjured side, and pressed her body to his body and her face to his face, so he could feel all the wonder and the joy that she had seen in his expression when she said, “I love you too.”

He tried to turn to her then and take all that lovey-dovey-ness to its logical conclusion, and she had to use strong language and threaten strong action (and promise to let him make it up to her as soon as she was completely sure he was not bleeding internally) to get him to meditate instead and then go back to sleep, goddamnit, or he would be no good to her at all.