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Devil to Pay

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“In my part of the country, when you meet an Irishman you find a first-rate gentleman; but these are worse than savages. They are too mean to swab hell’s kitchen.”

-        Davy Crockett, 1873, referring to the New York slum called Five Points

**

Blood dripped from the gloves that protected Matt’s curled fists.

His shoulders rocked with the effort to breathe, his lungs working furiously to capture enough air to keep his body moving. He staggered slightly as he shoved the last attacker from the dais with the flat of his foot.

Everything stopped. Except the ticking.

Matt became still, tilting his chin just slightly, centering his focus on the sound. He still had time.

He could hear the groans of the men who were conscious, their bones rasping against each other as they tried in vain to regain their footing. He could hear their heartbeats, a cacophony of sound against the hammering current of the Hudson just outside the old church. He could hear their breathing, the blood in their veins, the scrape of movement of their bodies against the cement floor.

He stood on the crumbling dais, still as possible, ignoring his own crashing breath, his own rushed pulse, as he listened for just one heartbeat. A specific cadence, a rhythm he’d learned to pick out from a crowd years ago, just to reassure himself that there was balance in this world, that there was light in the darkness. It would be fast, adrenalin pushing blood rapidly through his system in reaction to the fear stimulus.

There…just, there. Foggy.

He was running, but he was out, away. He’d listened to Matt, for once, and got himself to safety. Matt could hear through the crumbling walls of the church and the distance between them the rattle of a loose muffler in a car that sped past Foggy and the digital tone of his friend making a call—

A mechanical tick once more drew Matt’s focus back to the interior of the empty church.

Plaster cracked and fell inside the walls from where bodies – his and others – had slammed against the crumbling surface. Chips of paint from the arched, once-ornate ceiling peeled slowly away and dangled above him as though the art was clinging to an edge of nothingness.

Amid the noise of the building, the breathing of men, the beating of hearts, there was the tick, a steady cadence that meant one thing: bomb. Matt drew a sharp breath, pain slicing across his torso, the sound of his bones – like old ships – distracting him a moment as he turned toward the ticking.

It wasn’t too far from him. He still had time. He could get it to the river and walk away. Foggy was safe; no one had been killed. He could still walk away, his soul intact.

The roll-click of a .38 Special.

An elevated heartrate.

It was all the warning he had before he twisted sharply to the right, barely avoiding the slam of the first bullet. His head swam slightly – a particularly unnerving fluctuation to the distorted dance of flames his echo-location tossed against the darkness – as he flipped his body around, dodging the second bullet. He heard the lead impact the plaster, digging deep furrows into the wall until their velocity was finally arrested.

“We’ll find Murdock,” Silke’s blood-soaked voice crawled up at Matt from the cement floor below.

“You don’t let me get to that bomb,” Matt growled, “you won’t be finding anyone.”

Silke laughed, then coughed, harsh and wet, and Matt knew the man was a handful of heartbeats away from his death, no matter what he did. “Don’t matter. Damn kid’s on borrowed time. Devil can’t protect him forever.”

The old mobster coughed again and Matt launched himself forward, using the crumbling angel sconces carved into the curved stone spines of the cathedral-like ceiling to propel himself over Silke and toward where he knew the bomb was stashed. Silke fired once more and this time Matt wasn’t able to twist away. He arched as far as he could, but the bullet struck just below his left collarbone, effectively knocking him out of the air as though his wings had been clipped.

He hit the floor, hard, air rushing from his lungs in a mass exodus and leaving him hollow, his weakened ribcage trembling beneath his too-thin skin. The suit protected him against blades and shielded him from the worst damage a fist could exact, but it was apparently not bullet proof. He desperately drew air back into his body, his gasps echoing in the tomb-like church.

The bomb ticked on.

He still had time.

He heard movement in the center of the empty building – men groaning, climbing to their feet, stumbling free, escaping. Silke lay where he’d fallen, his breath slowing, his heartbeats sluggish. No one came after Matt, having seen him plucked from the air by a bullet. Using that to his advantage, Matt reached for the wall, his gloved hand sloughing away peeling chips of paint as he leaned heavily to his right, pulling himself up.

Matt’s low cry of pain was loud against his ears; he could feel the heat of the lead ball burning against the muscle of his shoulder. It sat heavy and foreign inside of him, bringing every ache, every bruise, every trail of copper-scented blood to the forefront of his awareness, making it nearly impossible to hear the ticking.

He staggered forward; he still had time.

“You’re just like him, y’know.”

Matt jerked to a halt, startled. He hadn’t heard him, so focused was he on finding the bomb. He hadn’t realized a portent of death was standing so close.

“You….”

Now that he was aware of him, Matt could hear Rosco Sweeney smile.

“Not as powerful as they say, are ya, kid?”

Matt swallowed. The Daredevil mask was suddenly dense and suffocating. The weight of the protective padding was heavy against his torso and back. The lining rubbed against his too-sensitive skin. He felt like Sweeney could see through the suit, could see him, naked, bleeding, and afraid.

“Your Pop, yeah, he could take a beating,” Sweeney remembered. “Couldn’t take a bullet, though, could he?”

Matt said nothing, but felt his right hand curl into a tight fist. He couldn’t feel his left. Sweeney was blocking the ticking bomb; he was having trouble hearing it over the old gangster’s staggering heartbeat and staccato breathing.

“I knew it was you,” Sweeney continued. “Silke, he didn’t buy it, but I knew. Soon as I saw the papers about Fisk.”

“You don’t want to die? Leave.” Matt ordered. He focused his senses, seeking the sound that had drawn him into this confrontation with his father’s murderer.

There…he could hear it again, the ticking. It was getting faster.

“Nah, don’t think I will,” Sweeney said. “I was born in the Kitchen, and the Kitchen’s where I’ll die.”

Matt could sense it then, could hear death trapped inside the other man’s lungs, large and looming and eminent.

“That bomb—“

“Is gonna end Battlin’ Jack Murdock’s line,” Sweeney broke in, a strange, high laugh chasing the end of his words. “Finally.”

Why?” Matt couldn’t help but ask, feeling blood from his shoulder soak down along the inside of his suit. “You killed him. You ended it, all those years ago.”

“Nothin’ ended, kid,” Sweeney replied, his voice betraying every year he’d lost to hatred and the quest for revenge. “I been watching your Pop fight Creel for twenty years. Waitin’. Just…waitin’ until I could get back what he took from me.”

The words had edges, slicing Matt from the inside, a decades-old image of his father as seen through his nine-year-old eyes shimmering up to stand as real and alive before him as Sweeney. He swayed with the force of the memory, fighting to stay present. Stay focused on the bomb. The ticking was too fast. Matt felt the sound beat against the walls of the church, echoing inside his aching head.

“You won’t win.”

“Already have, kid,” Sweeney chuffed. “I’m taking you with me, and you’ll have to go knowing it won’t stop until everyone you love is as dead as you.”

Matt roared, lunging forward, his right hand at Sweeney’s trachea. “I’ll rip out your fuckin’ throat.”

“I believe you, Devil,” Sweeney rasped around Matt’s grip. “Too bad you’re too late.”

The ticking was fast, urgent.

It penetrated the rage that had all-but dismissed the pain waiting like a specter at the edges of Matt’s perception. He released Sweeney abruptly, casting his senses about for the location of the bomb, having already realized by the scent of the chemicals in the air that it was Semtex and would take out this ruined church and anyone still inside quite effectively.

It was too far away; he was out of time.

Turning from Sweeney, his pulse matching the cadence of the ticking he could hear over everything else around him, Matt ran. His ribs screamed at him, the bones cracking further as he found another gear. His shoulder felt strange and heavy, the bullet like a brand against nerve endings and strained muscles. He ran for the empty archway he could sense in front of him, the flames swimming around the curves in his perception, following the scent of the river, murky and polluted and safe.

There was a snap and a spark just as the ticking turned into a whine, high and demanding, piercing Matt’s ears just as the ground shook beneath him and the air around him was turned into a vacuum, pulling backward against his cheeks in a rush to fill the space the Semtex voided as it incinerated.

Matt felt the press of air first, followed quickly by intense heat and as he crossed the threshold to exit the church, a force knocked him from his feet and sent him tumbling toward the river’s edge midst chunks of plaster and pieces of wood and rebar.

He didn’t hear the roof of the church collapse in on itself.

He didn’t feel the scattered debris rain down around his body.

The world that had always been burning slipped to into the black and Matt Murdock swiftly followed.