Chapter 1: Brave Face Ft. Attorney-Client Privilege
About a week has passed since the abrupt dismissal of Tessa's extremely public, highly controversial trial. Now that all the nitty gritty is worked out with the Senate Committee, it's time for Dr. Bisho to re-enter to workforce --and the world-- in her very own, mostly private memory therapy clinic. It remains to be seen, however, if that means she'll have a chance to return to a somewhat normal life.
A/N: an update/reminder on the timeline for this AU-- 'Trial and Tribulations' lasted through the first arc of events of CA:CW, after the bombing of the UN building and encompassing the several months (a herein altered duration) during which Cap and Co., themselves hunted by Ross's forces, sought out Bucky Barnes. Tessa's sentencing and house arrest was determined and is going into effect while Rogers and his gang are still at large.
Closer to home, Tessa's life so far has fit in snugly between the plots of Season 1 and 2 of Netflix's Daredevil (what of it I've retained), with pieces of Jessica Jones Season 1 worked in. 'Domestic Terror' marks the beginning of Daredevil Season 2's events affecting Tessa's reality, as should be clearly obvious in the first few chapters.
BEEP BEEP BA-BEEP BEEP BEEP BA---
Tessa's hand reached over to her bedside table and swiped across her phone screen. "Ugh… Matt… I had the worst dream. There were--"
The hand, now patting across the bed beside her froze, finding the sheet cold, the space empty. Matt wasn't there. And, that was no dream. Yeah. That's right. I'm living that nightmare. Tessa let her arm fall limp and buried her face into the pillow, hoping to return to the lovely slumber world where this reality was the fleeting bad dream. But she couldn't. Today was a big day.
"Get up. Get up now. … Now. … Now. Up!" But she didn't move, as much as she pleaded with herself. Instead, Tessa laid there for another three minutes until her second alarm went off.
BA-BEEP BEEP BEEP BA-BEEP BEEP--
This time she willed her body to move. And move it did, rolling over, out of her bed, and crashing onto the cold floor. "And… now I'm up. Brave face, Tessa. Put on your brave face."
From her knees she could reach her phone, so she grabbed it and the bottle of painkillers, which now lived beside her at all times, and trudged to the bathroom. "Brave face."
Putting on a brave face, however, was a trifle overwhelming when her head was killing her. So, with her miserable, terrified face still on, Tessa popped four pills into her mouth and checked her phone. There was a voicemail waiting for her.
"Tessa." It was Matt. "I know you're probably worried about today--if you're checking this in the morning-- but I have no doubt that you'll be absolutely fine. Great even, depending upon how open to the idea you are. Also, I'll be right downstairs if you need me at any point… and I have something for you on your way in."
That message made her brave face significantly more feasible. In fact, she was basically smiling at her phone when she checked it for the time-stamp of that voicemail. Three fourteen in the morning. He'd probably left it after daredeviling. Tessa basked in the comfort of that message one more time while gathering her towel and robe. Shower time, step two towards making that brave face a reality.
"But I still wake up. I still see your ghost. Oh lord, I'm still not sure what I stand for. What do I stand for? What do I stand for? Most nights I don't know anymore." Music helped drown out the memories she found herself alone with under the hot water. So, she sang along. "That's alright. I found a martyr in my bed tonight. She stops my bones from wondering who I am." She shut her eyes and turned off the world and sang along. "Some nights I wish that this all would end 'cause I could use some friends for a change. And some nights I'm scared you'll forget me again. Some nights I always win, I always win..."
By the time she stepped out of the shower, Tessa almost felt the part as much as she looked it. In fact, her mind was busy wondering what kind of surprise Matt had in store for her. There was also a bit of fretting there over whether he was hurt or not, but that was nothing unusual, nothing that fracture the facade she'd secured. Out front in the kitchen, Tessa quietly hummed the song, now soundly stuck in her head, and tiptoed around to make some tea. Jess was passed out face down at the dinner table, so Tessa tried to keep the noises to a minimum. Judging by the smell of her, Jess had been out that night singlehandedly making the celebration of the end Tessa's trial into a full weekend event. Chances were, Tessa didn't particularly need to be quiet, but she tried anyway. It was the polite thing to do.
At the table, Tessa munched on some granola and yogurt while setting an alarm on Jess's phone. Dishes washed up, she put on a pot of coffee -- since Jess would definitely need it in an hour and fifteen minutes time -- and then padded back to her room to put on the outfit that matched her brave face.
"Okay… Make it real, Tessa."
The subway hadn't been a shit show. Tessa had remembered her keys and managed not to fumble them while unlocking the building. Even navigating the stairs with her box of stuff had been carried out without a hitch. She had arrived without tearing, staining, or generally destroying anything. Her first day seemed like it was starting out just fine, just like Matt had said it would. Now, to actually get through that first day.
"Making it real," she muttered to herself and bumped open the office suite's door with her hip.
Overall, the place was a dump, but it wasn't rancid. She could deal with it. And it had come with the desk. No chair or shelves or anything, but she would make do with that, too. It wasn't like she had a ton of stuff to put anywhere. With her few things arranged as well as they could be in the office proper, Tessa spent a few moments cleaning up the would-be waiting area and then stood back to assess her work.
"Meh. Give it a B. But still... the real fucking deal… oh! First call…" Tessa scuttled back to her bag and dug out her chiming phone. Sure enough it wasn't a number she recognized. "Make it real, Tessa, make it real… Hello? This is Dr. Tessa Bisho."
"Doctor, good to hear you're a free woman again. More or less."
Tessa's brave face fractured slightly. There was pretending and then there was being another person. Hearing Captain Rogers' voice and acting like she was a-okay would have required the latter. "Uh… Uh… Captain… I didn't expect to hear from you."
"I know you have a lot on your plate right now, doctor, but for once I may have an opportunity to make that lot seem less like a chore. Can you do me a favor?"
"Oh, I--I hope so? I'm not really… in the best position right now. I'm just hanging--"
"Believe me, I realize that. What I'm asking won't require that you jeopardize that sliver of stability. Promise."
"Okay, um…" At the sound of footsteps in the hall, Tessa ducked into the office and shut the door behind her. "Lay it on me."
"I have a prime patient for you. She needs exactly what you can offer and she deserves your help. Her health is fast declining, but we're hoping that your treatments could at least make her remaining time more meaningful for her. Her name is Peggy Carter. She was a founding--"
"I know who she is, Cap," Tessa whispered into the phone, hearing voices in her waiting room. "She's a bad ass. Of course, I'll help her. First thing I'll do after the walk-ins that just came by."
"I'll let you get to that, then. And thank you, Dr. Bisho. I deeply appreciate your help."
"It'll be my genuine pleasure…" Phone tucked back into her pocket, Tessa just barely cracked open her door. What she found on the other side was exactly the sort of thing that was going to destroy her brave face. And, less metaphorically, to cause her to spill her tea down her front.
Tony Stark, bespoke suit looking horribly out of place against her dingy seventies' tile, was quietly bickering with Dr. Strange, whose facial hair seemed to be curling in disdain. Pepper Potts stood a few paces back, eyes dead, and a giant creepy fucking bird sat perched in the window above their heads.
<<My, this is an excellent omen of things to come, isn't it, Tessie?>>
She immediately shut the door again, sliding down it and onto the floor. "Too real. Too fucking real…" This was not what a person wanted on their first day. Not at all. Only one thing to do. Run.
Tessa dropped her shoes onto her desk and then unlocked the door as quietly as possible. If she surprised them, they wouldn't have a chance to stop her. One. Two. Three! She threw open the door and burst through, darting around Stark and Strange and hitting the suite's door at top speed.
<<Oh, you're running away from your problems. Literally. A grand idea.>>
By the time Tessa reached the bottom of the stairs, it seemed like her plan had worked. No shouts carried down after her, no footsteps pounded in pursuit. Running away from her problems was a great idea.
"Hiya, Tess! Good luck on your first day!"
"Yuh-huh…" Tessa leaned against the door of Nelson and Murdock, trying to regain some modicum of calm.
"You, uh… you okay?" Foggy stepped out of his office. "You look a little…frazzled. First day jitters?"
"Something like that."
"Well, we asked Karen to run out and get you flowers-- a flower as a first day surprise, which I guess isn't a surprise anymore… ha-ha... whoops!"
"Uh-huh, thanks, Foggy. Matt in there?" She jerked her head to the left and Foggy nodded.
"Yeah… Matt's in there."
With a weird half-wave, Tessa flung herself towards Matt's office, also shutting that door behind her. He was standing, digging in his bag, glasses sliding down his nose.
"…here. That… surprise I promised--oh!" He grinned as Tessa yanked him away from his desk and into the nearest corner, away from the interior windows. "Whoa. Tessa, I have a few minutes to spare, but not enough for this and Foggy's right out--"
"No. Not sexy. I have to hide. I need to hide."
"Okay. Okay, why?"
"Stark is in my waiting room arguing with Dr. Strange."
"Hu--what? Right now? In your office? Upstairs?"
"Yes. It's a nightmare…"
A chuckle poorly stifled, Matt shook his head and set his hands on her shoulders. "No, it's not a nightmare. They're… probably here to check on you. And even if that's not all, you can handle it." He kissed her forehead and slipped around her and to his desk again.
"Easy for you to say."
"Oh, definitely. But I believe in you. And here… don't drop it, it'll break." He pressed a small brown paper bundle into her hand.
Grateful for the distraction, Tessa immediately unwrapped it, finding a little navy blue tea cup speckled with white, stylized stars.
"The vendor said it looked like heaven…"
"It's… beautiful, Matt. Thank you."
He hummed as she leaned into his chest. "You are more than welcome. And... now you have somewhere to put your tea besides your shirt."
"Ha. Ha. You're hilarious. I hope it rubs off on you." Tessa clung a little tighter around him, to get tea on him, sure, but also because letting go meant going back to the disaster waiting for her upstairs.
"You can do this, Tessa. You'll have to face him eventually, either way, might as well do it now, head-on. Fast and brutal."
"You would say that," Tessa sighed and released him. "Don't hesitate to come check on me if you hear shouts and/or explosions."
"I'll be listening. But, you can do this on your own."
With that last grin of his on her mind and the teacup gently clutched between her hands, Tessa marched back upstairs. There were still low voices snapping on the other side of her suite's door, but they quieted as she approached. When she opened the door, Stark threw her his billion dollar grin and Strange nodded.
"I was hoping you'd be gone," Tessa muttered, stepping past them and pointedly not looking at the magpie in the window.
"Aw, come on, Bichon. Cut me a break, I'm not that bad a guy."
Strange glanced between Tessa's dull glare and Stark's glowing smile and then sighed. "I'll come back later," he said and vanished.
<<One down, one to go. Psst, I can help dispose of the dandy. You need only ask, Tessie dear.>>
Tessa shut her eyes and took a deep breath. "Okay. Let's get this over with, Stark. I don't have any chairs yet, so we'll have to stand awkwardly."
"That's fine. Fine. This isn't really business, anyway. It's more… personal. Look, Tessa, I know that you've had it with me by this point, that you were probably hoping not to see me for a nice long while after the hearing… but, I just… I had to come down and apologize to you again, which, you should know... makes you very special."
Pepper Potts, standing off to the side, crossed her arms. "Maybe make this not about yourself, Tony."
"I--I know, Pep."
Tessa saw an opportunity to not deal with Stark for another five seconds and took it, eagerly. "So, this is the Pepper Potts. I'd been wondering when I'd officially get to meet you, ma'am."
"Yes, this is the Pepper--"
"A pleasure, Dr. Bisho." She stepped around Stark, effectively cutting him off, and shook Tessa's hand. "I'm sorry it couldn't be sooner and under better circumstances."
"Hah. Yeah... About that... When she's not around I tend not to make the best decisions."
As he'd spoken, Potts' eyes had rolled firmly into the back of her head. "Oh, don't pass off fault onto me, Tony. I can't be expected to babysit you constantly and run a whole company."
"No, no that's not what I meant… just… I benefit from her--your influence, Pepper, but you've… been busy--it's no excuse! I know!" Tessa found herself smiling as Stark floundered under Potts' witheringly cold glances. It was a pleasant change of pace to see him off step. "I know that it's not, but… okay, Tess, I apologize again."
There was an odd moment of silence as Stark bent his head a little and then just stood there, bowed. Tessa didn't know what else to do other than stare. When the moment had passed, Stark glanced up at her.
"You got that, right? I've now apologized twice."
<<He's a preening ponce, isn't he?>>
Laughter filled Tessa's head as Ms. Potts rolled her eyes in the real world. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure she got it, Tony… it's the sincerity of it I don't think she got through all that showmanship of yours."
"Okay, okay, I've got this." Stark straightened back up and held out his hand. "See for yourself, Tess, firsthand. I really am sorry…"
With a degree of hesitation, Tessa reached out and took Stark's hand. As promised, she was greeted with an indiscriminate wave of contrition and guilt. That was unsurprising, considering everything Stark was already bent up over being responsible for. But, just after it were several very clear moments of a bottle of liquor and a chorus of Pepper urging him 'to make it right'.
"I believe you," Tessa finally said, nodding. "Thank you."
It was directed towards Pepper, the thanks, but naturally Stark answered it. "You're welcome, of course. Phew, it feels better getting that off my chest. Okay, now, time for the easier part. I brought you something." Reaching inside his suit jacket, Stark pulled out something small and vaguely familiar. "So, I've poured over this thing, taken some of it apart, obviously, and found out next to nothing. It's irradiated with a little more than gamma rays, you see, but just what that is I haven't been able to determine. Anyway… I thought you should have it, what's left of it, that is. The scalpel's locked down, promise. No one will be getting to it. No one even knows it exists, beyond us and Vision and Cho. I'm fairly certain Klaue is responsible for its creation, but I'm also fairly certain that cretin has no clue what it's capable of. With the rest of it in your hands, I figure… you're safe."
Tessa turned the mangled vibranium knife over in her hands. "So, you extracted the alloy from this to tip the scalpel for my… surgery?"
"Yeah. Regret it now. But… well, I seem to regret a lot after the fact these days. Ahem. Anyway, that's yours now and I just need to check on the nanobots." He flicked his phone her way, casting glowing holographic specs around her. "I gotta say, Tessa… you're handling all this really well. I was impressed with how you dealt with everything at the trial and the hearing and all that bullshit-- Huh. The bots giving you headaches?"
Tessa stared at the knife and teacup in her hands for another second before answering. "Yeah… the interference they give off… resonates with my brain, I guess."
"I can see that."
"It was a dull hum at first, now it's a roar, and my brain feels like it's vibrating."
Stark clicked his tongue and then waved away the holographic readings. "That's not supposed to happen. I'll get right on that… Well, anyway, I've gotta get going, other… bridges… still on fire."
"The shores on either side of those bridges, Stark? They're… You're not… planning on razing cities, are you?"
"I'm a mechanic, Tess, I build things, I don't--"
"You were basically a war-monger to begin with, don't act like it's beyond you…" Tessa gripped the handle of the knife even tighter, but gently set the teacup onto her desk.
"My whole goal is to prevent casualties. All casualties, doctor, so… no. I'm not razing cities. I certainly don't plan to, anyway…" His eye flitted from Tessa's hand and back to her face a few times. "Let me know if you need anything, Tess… any help or equipment requests… Anything." He cast one more wary glance at the knife in Tessa's hand before turning for the door, Potts in step with him.
She nodded Tessa's way one more time as well. "Again, nice to meet you. I hope things improve."
Tessa stood there, alone in her waiting room, tea chilling in her blouse, and watched until the door tapped shut. Then, she finally relaxed her grip on the knife.
<<The man makes me feel homicidal, too. Don't sweat it.>> Mostly alone in her waiting room.
"I can resolve the interference with a spell, Theresa…" Not at all alone in her waiting room. Tessa turned from setting aside the knife just in time to watch Dr. Strange drop his glamor. "You can resolve it, actually. In fact… that's your lesson for the day, tuning energies."
"Don't you have better things to do than spy invisibly on me and Stark mouthing off at one another?"
"Usually, yes. But, currently your wellbeing is my priority."
"Aww, doc, I'm touched. If I'm ever wanting for attention, I'll just make a point to assimilate another indispensable entity into my person."
Strange paused from creating the elaborate chalk mess on Tessa's tile that she would inevitably spend over an hour cleaning later. "This is nothing personal, Theresa. You must move past that."
"Trust me, Strange, I'm so past anything actually being about me it's ancient history."
<<I could make it about you, Tessie. In fact, I'm very interested in you, just you. You're quite unique, you know. All that cosmic power swirling around in you, crystallizing as memories. Did you know those memories are the reason why you can perform magic? Truly, the arcane gift is a rare one in its pure form, finite among humans, but your reserves are as bottomless as eternity and as pristine as snowmelt. If you wanted, you could make quite a lot just about you, Tessie dear.>>
Tessa cut her eyes at the window and then knelt down beside Strange, adding onto the chalk mess. "So, don't get me wrong, I'll be glad not to have the robot headache anymore, but… when are we getting to the thing that'll get rid of the magpie?"
"Much later, unfortunately. You've severed the initial link, but… it knows you now. It'll take a powerful warding hex to keep it off of you, which you are ready neither to cast nor to maintain." Strange finished the sigil and crouched just outside it, waiting for Tessa to take her seat inside the circle. "Now… hands locked for incantation… Good. And, repeat after me…"
<<You don't need to shoo me off, Tessie, I can tell you whatever you want. You need only ask…>>
"...හැම දෙයක්ම යහතින් ගලන ඇළ"
"හැම දෙයක්ම යහතින් ගලන ඇළ"
It was a hell of a lot easier to do mundane things when her teeth didn't feel like they were rattling together. Once Dr. Strange left and the magpie eventually tired of being ignored, Tessa was actually able to tidy the place up again. No chalk pentagrams, no mysterious dark stains. She even found some fold out chairs in a storage closet down the hall. She could actually sit down at her desk and do some work.
"… Yes, the treatment is already funded indefinitely… anonymous donor… Yes, very generous, I agree… That's correct, she only needs to be transported here, the rest is-- … Oh, I'm sorry, no. I can't make house calls, federal restrictions… Yes, I am the real deal." Tessa waved at Jess, who was hovering half way inside the office suite. "I'm just about finished with this…" she whispered, hand over her phone. "Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 am, that's perfect. She's all scheduled… Mm-hmm, of course, and tell Ms. Carter I look forward to making her acquaintance, thank you…"
"Hope you're hungry, chica." Jess flopped down across the desk, dropping a slightly damp paper bag in front of her. She looked atrocious. Tessa was frankly surprised she'd come out into the light of day looking as she did, eye makeup smeared around only one eye, hair limp and matted. "I brought the greasiest hamburgers I know of in the Kitchen."
"Got yourself a craving there?"
"Yeah, I feel like trampled shit. This is a world record hangover." Pulling out a wad of foil, Jess glanced around her. "And... this may be the hangover talking, but you need to get some shit in here, chica. It's like a mausoleum."
"But a clean mausoleum."
"Oh, sure… it's clean… just, you know, about as welcoming as a…"
"As a mausoleum. Yeah. I got the idea, Jess. I'm working on it. Thinking, maybe some plants…"
"And some chairs that don't look like they were used for a funeral."
"Okay, I've got it. I work in a place that reminds you of death."
"You know what it needs?" Jess snapped her fingers a few times. "Shitty generic artwork. You know, the usual office décor. Because, the starry teacup and warped dagger thing don't really make the right statement for a clinic. That reads more… 'I'm gonna ritualistically eat your brain' than 'I'm gonna fix your brain'."
"The knife I wasn't planning on keeping here… but I take your meaning. This place needs some warming up. I think I'll just mount a bunch of NASA deep space prints. Keep things fresh."
"Yeah. I like that. Avoid the cultural appropriation you find in the new-agey practices. Just space stuff… keep the brand up. I'm sure most everyone will remember your sparkle suit from the news coverage."
"Also, I think I'm going to paint a canting sigil on the ground and cover it with a rug."
"Sure. Why not? Might as well scare the hell out of the more curious of your clientele. How'd it go with Doctor Mystic?"
Tessa finally managed to fish the other wad of foil and grease out of the paper bag. "Fine. Great. I'm just really getting tired of cleaning up the chalk, you know?"
"Mmm. So, your brain's less between channels now?"
"Crystal clear reception. Also, I accidentally learned how to levitate things."
"Cool. Very cool. You gonna explain the murder knife or what?"
Tessa sighed, her brave face feeling substantially heavier. "It's a long story. You got another half an hour or so?"
Jess snickered, rummaging around in her bag for a moment before clunking a bottle of whiskey down onto the desk. "I got all day, chica."
"…but you made it through, unscathed even."
Tessa squeezed Matt's arm a little tighter. "Maybe on the outside, but my endurance took a beating. It's… well, you know. Putting on a brave face is a ton of work."
"It'll get easier, promise. After a while, it's not a lie anymore… you really will just be okay. Not the best case scenario, but…"
"Yeah-huh… sustainable. I know. And your day?"
Matt delayed answering, kissing the top of her head instead. "Sustainable."
"Foggy still mad at you?"
"He's not mad, Tessa, he's disappointed. But, he'll respond in grammatically complete sentences now. And, the constant stream of potential clients helps, no matter how little they're able to pay."
"Wait… you're not still expecting me to pay for that trial are you?"
Matt chuckled and held open the door of her apartment building for her. "No, Stark's on file for those court hours. And we'll hold him to that."
"So generous. And if he defaults?"
"You can pay however you deem best. We accept food and favors."
Tessa stopped in front of the apartment door and stood up on her tiptoes. "I think I have a few options in mind you will find acceptable."
"Oh, I'm sure."
She dropped to her heels again before things could go any further, fishing out her keys. "We'll wait to see if Stark pulls through."
Matt snickered quietly and followed Tessa inside. The television was blaring the frankly depressing local news of the evening and washing out Jess, seated in front of it, in the most unflattering of lights. She turned to glance over her shoulder at them, spoon dropping back into her coffee pot full of ramen as she did.
"Hi, Murdock… How's it goin'?"
Tessa met her gaze and rolled her eyes. "Night in tonight, Jess? Feeling the last few evenings' revels?"
"Yup." Jess rolled over on the couch to watch them walk into the kitchen. "What're'ya doin'?"
"Matt insisted on walking back with me… You know, in case I was stoned by the angry peasants on my way, the blind guy might deter their full fury."
"Yes," he scoffed. "Exactly my reasoning, exploiting my disability. Do you have roof access for this building?"
Jess's gaze slid wryly between them. "Why, yes. Yes, we do."
"Great. That's within your perimeter, the roof of your own building." Matt accepted the glass offered him by Tessa and then turned back to Jess. "Celebratory drinks for making it through her first day."
"There it is! I knew I squirreled it away in here." Tessa stood up behind him, dusty bottle of scotch in her hand. "Stole this from Stark's when I flew the coop all those months ago. Seems appropriate. Well… I had no one come in, aside from Stark and Strange… and the bird, so celebrating may be a little premature…"
"She made future appointments. Repeating future appointments, that alone deserves celebration. Wait. A bird?"
"Don't worry about it. Drinking time." Tessa pulled him towards the door, shrugging at Jess's raised eyebrow.
"Drink responsibly…" Jess muttered, snorting once the door was shut. "Celebratory drinks, my ass."
"Jessica thinks we're coming up here for sex," Matt chuckled on the stairs.
"Jess think 98% of what people do is for sex. Being a PI has ruined her for that."
"I imagine she's not wrong all that often."
"No, she's not." Tessa breathed in deeply, head flung back as they stepped out onto the roof. "Oh. I miss this…"
"Looking up at the stars."
"I wish I could show you, like before…"
"I'll get by. Enough of this dwelling though. We're celebrating. Right?" Matt tapped his glass. "Let's find out just how expensive Stark's tastes are."
Tessa handed him the bottle then trotted to the edge of the roof. She leaned over, feeling the updraft. "I don't know… there aren't any railings up here. This may not be the best place for a blind guy to get scotch silly…"
"You know," he sighed, at her shoulder. "Way back, when I said you'd been avoiding the subject? That wasn't an invitation to tease me about it every chance you get."
Tessa also sighed. "But, you give me this little exasperated grin every time and it's one of my favorites." Matt sighed yet again and she snapped her fingers. "Yes! That's the one! I love it, with your one dimple."
"I'm glad you're feeling more like yourself." He finished pouring her glass, tasting the drops left on his finger as he handed it to her. "Mm. It's good scotch."
"You just pour like that so you can try the drink before everyone else."
"I have no idea what you're talking about. If you don't recall, Tessa, I'm blind. How else am I supposed to know when the glass is full?"
Tessa shook her head, recalling the last time she saw that particular grin in the moonlight. "You're lucky you're cute, Murdock. Otherwise, you'd be an intolerable hypocrite."
"You're selling me short. I'm also alarmingly charming."
"Tsh," Tessa scoffed, taking the bottle from him and setting it down beside them. "Smooth-talker."
"Foggy. Foggy. Foggy."
Tessa jerked awake, disoriented and confused. What was that infernal racket?
"Foggy. Foggy. Foggy."
Then, she realized just what it was and grinned. An arm waved wildly over her, slapping at the phone until it stopped chanting. Matt rolled onto his side and groggily answered the phone now on her chest.
"Yep. Yep. What's up, Foggy?" Matt was not a morning person. That much had not changed.
Tessa could hear Foggy on the other end of the line. Unsurprising considering the phone's speaker was currently in her face. "What is up, dude, is that I'm at your place, making an effort to make amends with you, with coffee and bagels, like we talked about, but you're not answering the door. Get your butt up and let me in, ass."
Matt groaned, propping himself up on an elbow and rubbing his face. "Can't, Foggy. I'm not there."
"You son of a bitch. You're the worst, Matt."
Just then, Jess knocked at the door and flung it open without pause. She never had been great at waiting for an invitation. "Chica, what is that-- oh… Oops, sorry…" Not looking the least bit sorry, she backed out into the hall, but didn't shut the door. Just held eye contact with Tessa and mouthed 'redheads', while Foggy's tinny voice continued to tell Matt just what a horrible friend he was.
"…believe it. I was trying here, I was. And what did you do? You went to a lady friend's house instead, didn't you? You did. You ditched bagel morning for sexy morning… which… I probably would have done, too, had the opportunity arisen, but I'm still upset, man."
"I'll make it up to you, Foggy, but I gotta go. Enjoy the bagels."
"Aww, screw you, Ma--"
The phone fell silent as Matt dropped his face back into the crook of Tessa's neck. He laid there for a moment and then whispered, "Jessica's still standing in the hallway…"
He took one more deep breath and then rolled over, finding his glasses and slipping them on while rummaging beside the bed for his clothes. When he sat up to pull on a very wrinkled shirt, Jess did the polite, courteous thing and whistled.
"Good morning, Jessica."
"Good roof, huh?"
Unable to endure the mounting embarrassment anymore, Tessa pulled the blankets up around her as best she could and leaned over to shut the door in Jess's face.
By the time the two of them shuffled out into the living room, Jess was sitting at the table, actually grinning. It was unsettling. "Hey, guys… so, does this mean you're still exercising attorney-client privileges?"
Matt winced at the joke and Tessa snorted. "How long you been waiting to say that one?"
"Since last night. I knew you two were on the bang-train, so I prepared accordingly."
"Okay, okay, Romeo… Dial it down… before I can't. This was just supposed to be a coffee break and I have my first official appointment in… ten minutes."
"As usual, Tessa, I have no idea what you're on about." The little crook at the corner of his mouth gave Matt away as the liar that he plainly was. "This is just a coffee break. We're on a bench in broad daylight. What else could happen?"
"The storage closet you recently cleared of the creepy coat racks?"
"What about it?"
"What'd you clear it out for?"
Matt pulled his cane further out of the walk space in front of them as a large group of pedestrians meandered past. "To make space to store things, of course."
"And the fact that it's tucked away in an area of the building that hardly anyone frequents?"
"Means I won't have to share. Are you getting to a point at any time, Tessa, or are we going to spend the rest of this coffee break in some weird round of twenty questions? I won't complain, because it is better than listening to Foggy grumble about title forfeiture, but…"
Tessa scoffed and bumped her knee gently against his. "You're especially rambunctious today. Now quit doing the thing with your thumb and my wrist that you know gives me the feelings. I simply do not have time to christen your creepy sex closet this morning."
"I plan on storing case files in there, I'll have you know," Matt chuckled, releasing her hand. "Which will make for good purchase, I'm sure."
"Mm-hmm." Tessa yanked on his arm until he stood. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, Jess let me know she'll be out tonight through tomorrow afternoon. That means we can make all the noise we want. And maybe have a little fun with food… I bought this ridiculous marshmallow paste recently on a whim."
He sighed heavily. "I can't… I told Foggy I would stay late with him to work on this claim, which I now deeply regret."
"It's probably for the best. You two need some time to right things. A little sacrifice on your part won't hurt. Also, I have this feeling the marshmallow paste would be extremely uncomfortable… especially if it got into any sort of hair. I'm now glad I reconsidered that…"
Matt giggled, stopping in front of his offices. "Drop in before you head home?"
"So you can seduce me with your storage closet? Please, Murdock… Yeah, I'll stop in." Tessa added a little nip to their hurried and totally secret kiss, before sauntering off up the hall. The ass-grab, similarly secret, that accompanied almost made up for the secret sex in the workplace she had to pass over. It hadn't really been a difficult choice, however. Admittedly, a late morning romp in a closet of questionable sanitary-value would have been gratifying, but helping a legend and personal hero recover her life would be immeasurably more rewarding.
Tessa stopped in her waiting room, humming quietly to herself, and laid out a full tea service. Kettle boiling, she made sure the pot was warm and the cream and sugar were full. She wasn't certain that ex-Agent Carter would want a cup, but she was pretty sure having one ready was a safe bet.
"I do hope you didn't go through all the trouble of making that just for me." The voice was feeble and a little worn, but Tessa would have recognized it anywhere, for all the old news reels she'd watched as a kid. The great Agent Carter had always been her favorite of the Captain America era history lessons. To Tessa, she'd been the ultimate example of someone in control of their own life, no matter the circumstances or hardships.
"Well, Agent Carter, I made it with you in mind, but not just for you. I'll be having a cup, too."
"Ha. 'Agent.' You are charming one, doctor… they aren't all these days."
Tessa stepped around her desk and held out her hand. "Well, let's hope I can do a little something about making sure you don't have to deal with anymore of that bad bedside manner. It is a genuine pleasure to meet you, ma'am."
The small woman sitting in the wheelchair in front of Tessa certainly didn't look mentally infirm, nor did she sound it, but just being this close to her Tessa could feel the damage to the pathways of her memories. "Well, I can't imagine for an instant why that would be so, but I appreciate your flattery. Thank you, Rose. I believe I am in good hands here."
Her attendant gave a brief nod and stepped back into the waiting room while Tessa helped to wheel the legendary Peggy Carter up to her desk. Pulling a chair around, she sat down and took the situation in. She was lucid, in most part, it seemed, more than able to fix her own cup of tea. But, there were ticks, moments of pause as her mind fought to stay on track.
"Can you tell me a little about your memory loss, Agent?"
"It comes and goes. And please do call me Ms. Carter. I've not been an active agent for decades, sadly."
"Of course, Ms. Carter. I'm sorry, it's difficult. You've always been… a hero of mine."
A little light caught in her eyes, warming as she looked over at Tessa. "Why, thank you--ehm... Ms. … I am sorry, it seems I've forgotten your name."
"I'm Dr. Bisho, Ms. Carter." There it was, the skip in the record. "You're here in my practice to address your memory problems." And, this was far more painful than anything Tessa had anticipated.
"Oh… I do apologize. I… I can't believe I so lost track of things… I get… confused sometimes, I fear. Rose? Where's Rose, doctor. I believe I need my medication."
The tears in Tessa's eyes burned. The woman in front of her was so fragile, for all her strength of spirit, but worse, her mind really was in shambles. "Your attendant is out in the waiting room. You don't need her, Ms. Carter. I'm going to help you today, as much as I can."
With the warmest smile she could muster, Tessa pulled her chair up closer and shut her eyes. She didn't necessarily need proximity or touch to begin the repairs, but they didn't hurt. After a moment, she had her bearings and saw the trail of destruction wreaked on Ms. Carter's mind. It left her feeling sick. This was no organic dementia, no steady degradation of Alzheimer's. This was insidiously precise, a systematic undoing of her life. And it stunk of chemicals and magic. Tessa did what she could before she was sweating and too queasy to sit up straight.
"My, doctor, are you quite well?"
Tessa took a deep breath and smiled. "Very well, Ms. Carter. We're finished here for today, I think. We can pick up next session where I left off. I'd just like to speak with your attendant, Rose, for a few moments, if you'll excuse me."
"You know, I remember Steve telling me that you would help. It seems that he was right."
"I'm glad. I would've hated to let you and Captain Rogers down, ma'am. I'll be right back." Tessa stepped out into her waiting room, swallowing a groan when she caught sight of that damned magpie in her window. "Uh, Rose, right? Um, I have a few questions about Ms. Carter's condition and treatment."
Rose told Tessa what she knew and her answers correlated with related memories. Whatever had been done to Ms. Carter had not been done through Rose, so far as she knew. If it weren't for her restrictions, Tessa would have hopped from mind to mind until she knew just who had corrupted Peggy Carter's memories. Hell, she would have healed her entirely right then and there, but she was limited in power output by the stupid nanobots and she hadn't had enough practice with Dr. Strange to completely circumvent their effects. She was stuck, leaving Agent fricking Carter with a mostly fucked memory because the imbecilic government was scared of her powers.
<<Frustrating, isn't it? Playing by their rules… Their small-minded, restrictive rules. It would be better if you were free to do as you pleased.>>
"Thank you, Ms. Beazley. I'll finish up with Ms. Carter and then you can be off."
Seeing Ms. Carter leave still in need of so much help left Tessa feeling emotionally vulnerable and the magpie was prattling especially incessantly that day, so she had to find something to distract herself. She settled on hanging up decorations, while her mind drifted away onto more immersive subjects.
<<My, my, my, Tessie. You are a naughty one, aren't you? Such elaborate scenarios, masterpieces of imagination not for young eyes… or are they memories? It is difficult determining between the two with you, all so vibrant… and detailed.>>
Tessa bit her lip and went back to hammering that nail into the wall for the third time. For some reason the Crab Nebula just wasn't hanging straight.
<<He is just below you in this decrepit building. Just go to him… what's stopping you? Though, I can't fathom why you are so fixated on a man who hides how extraordinary he is. … Tell me, why would he pretend to be blind when he can so clearly observe reality on a scale of magnitude beyond those around him? That is a funny kind of lie. Does he have a long game in mind? Some extended ploy dependent upon others underestimating him? Because, if so, it is ingenious and working out perfectly. … Is that what you're doing? Biding your time, letting them believe they've tamed you?>>
"Yow!" Tessa shook out her hand. Admittedly, the smashed vessels and hairline fractures in her finger healed instantaneously upon forming, but there was a brief millisecond in which Tessa felt that pain. "Okay… no more hammering while daydreaming."
<<They can't, though, you know. They can only limit you so far as you allow them, Tessie. Their minds function by your grace. Your pompous magician friend could tell you as much, he knows your formidable power.>>
There were still a few knickknacks to unpack. That was something she could do without smashing her fingers. She headed over to that box and began untangling her red-splattered teacup from its bubble wrap. It had been impossible to get rid of, or give back to Natasha to complete the set. Tessa felt connected to it, a memento of her first life, something to remind her where she came from, to keep her grounded. "This… should go by the pictures…" She set it on her one shelf, alongside some of Clint's most absurd cellphone photos that she'd printed out, and the thank-you drawing from the kids at the hospital.
<<These rules and laws and strictures they're trying to impose upon you, you're above them. You know this, you can feel this deep inside. You could make them forget their fear with but a thought, Tessie. You're a god. An old, scary god that made young gods crap in their shining godling pants once upon a time. Why let these insects dictate your life, limit your freedom? If it's from lack of experience, I could help. Ask me to, and I could show you how to tap your limitless power.>>
"This is where all the devil whispering in your ear myths come from…" Tessa squeezed the bridge of her nose. "Just because someone decides, 'hey, that bird's staring at me, how about I try talking to it with my brain.' Stupid ass decision…"
"Are you talking to yourself now, Theresa?" Strange, in his usual way, stepped out of thin air a few feet in front of her.
"Keeping myself sane. You're early. Tea?"
Strange considered her even more carefully than normal. "I detected an attempt on your psychic barriers. And yes, please. No cream today."
"You got it…"
"So… have you been experiencing an attack?"
Tessa turned on her kettle and cut her eye at the window, now conspicuously empty of the giant creepy bird. "Just some gentle temptation courtesy my avian stalker. Nothing serious."
"Mmm. It has set its sights on you with some fervor, hasn't it? I'll have to look into that… Now, shall we begin?"
TWENTY MINUTES OF FAILURE LATER
"Hey, doc? Quick question…"
"Theresa, as an adult and a teacher no less, you know full well that when something requires your absolute and undivided attention, that means no talking, just concentrating." He didn't even bother to open his eyes when he answered.
"Yeah, but… something's been nattering at me in the back of my head and I can't focus, doc."
Strange sighed heavily, his eyes opening and the gentle glow around them receding. "Well, while we're casually chatting instead of bringing a construct into reality purely through force of thought… I might say that when you call me 'doc' or 'Strange' it makes me feel as though I am your eccentric uncle and you're--"
"Well, you are kind of like an eccentric--"
"--some precocious street urchin I've been saddled with raising, whereas I would prefer to be thought of simply as your peer, Theresa."
"Huh, you know, when you go and use that tone on me, it sure feels a lot like an uncle scolding me." Tessa flicked over a candle, completely aware of how petulant that was.
The candle righted itself immediately and Strange cleared his throat. "Very well, Dr. Bisho, what is your question?"
"Man, when you get pissy, shit gets full-blown blizzard cold… Alright, Stephen… yeesh, uh… Mnemosyne or Emeoune or what have you wasn't actually a god, right?"
"The actuality of godhood is, in general, impossible to prove as it rests on relative terms of belief and convention between cultures. So, the question you pose is a difficult one… But, I can say that, by many reckonings, she was and is a god. The denizens of the infernal realm and the like certainly acknowledge her divinity and even have a particular curse in her name against those who break contracts."
"Do I want to know what it is?"
Strange very nearly smiled. "Most assuredly not. It is horrifically profane…"
"Oh… okay then, thanks?"
"Of course. May we return to the thought construct ritual now, Theresa?"
"Sure thing… Stephen."
"When you shudder like that, it makes the exchange feel no less stilted."
"My bad. I'll get used to it. Eventually. With practice. Maybe."
FORTY-SIX MINUTES OF MORE FAILURE AND ONE SECOND OF RELATIVE SUCCESS LATER
"And what do you do with it?"
"I… well, he didn't stick around long enough to tell me how to use it. But… it's there, I promise you."
"I can't… It doesn't feel like there's anything there."
"Well, there is. It's magic." Tessa pulled Matt's hand a little to the right and into the tiny dimensional pocket in her desk drawer. "There! You're touching it now. Your hand's in another dimension."
"Feels like a desk drawer, Tessa."
"To you maybe… it took over an hour just to make that shiny piss-puddle of a thing appear. I'm… mostly proud of it. … I do wish I knew what it does."
Matt chuckled and leaned over to kiss her cheek. "Congratulations. You made an undetectable dimension portal thing. Do you have time for lunch?"
"Do I look busy to you, Murdock?"
"I don't know. Do you?"
She shoved him, sending his chair rolling backwards. "You can't see it, because my hand's in this other dimension, but I'm flipping you off."
"Actually, that is weird. I can't sense your hand at all right now. It's like it's gone."
"My teeny tiny dimensional portal is a success! I think this is when I'm supposed to do the evil laugh." Tessa smiled at the little shimmery pool and then closed the drawer. She'd have to bug Strange about its purpose later, that is, beside hiding small office supplies where no one but her will ever find them.
"Sure. I'm thinking Italian. I could crush a plate of fettuccini right about now. Or a pizza. Or both." Tessa began gathering her phone and keys before the two of them both stopped. Matt had undoubtedly just heard the source of the memories that Tessa had just picked up on out in the hall. "Or neither… client time. Damned walk-in policy."
"Karen is standing outside your office suite right now… chewing her nails, it sounds like."
Tessa sighed and sunk down into her chair. "Yeah. That makes sense. She's swimming with murky emotions. I'm guessing she's not here for a social visit…"
"I'll see you before you head home, then."
"Uh-huh. Microwave ramen for me again. Yay." She kicked at the legs of her desk, fully aware for the second time that day that she was acting like a bratty child.
Matt stood over her for a moment, very clearly trying not to laugh, then ducked down and kissed her. "I'm sure you'll survive. You've definitely toughed it through worse… I'll just tell Karen you're waiting for her."
"Maybe try not to be pouting when she comes in…"
It was a struggle, but Tessa managed not to act like a sullen asshole when Karen popped her head inside the office. Instead, she was tossing paperclips into her inter-dimensional portal.
"Um… Tessa? M--Matt said you were, uh, waiting for me?" Karen looked even more out of sorts than she sounded. Her normally impeccable outfit was a little wrinkled, hair a little more than wind-blown. The real tell-tale sign, though, were the dark circles under her eyes.
Tessa immediately lost the attitude--and felt it replaced by guilt. "Yes, hi, Karen. I… you know, kinda picked up your unique memory… signature." Nice. Sounded totally professional and lingo-y. "What can I do to help?"
"Heh. I really should have come to you about this earlier. Um… I can't believe that I didn't. I… I have some stuff going on--but that's not what this is about." It suddenly sounded like forced static coming off Karen, the kind of garbled white noise Tessa picked up when people were avoiding memories or had repressed them. Or were trying to hide something from her in particular.
She decided to let that go. "So, ha… What is this about?"
Karen sucked on her lip for a second, hands over the chair. "You mind if I sit?"
"Not at all. Please do. I've got drinks and stuff, too, just behind you. I'm the real deal." The hammy smile didn't lighten Karen's mood any.
"Thanks. So… This is about something that happened before we knew you… but, all the same--not something. Someone. … Y--You heard about Ben Urich, the reporter--"
"For The Bulletin, yeah. I read about that… and the Kingpin."
"Mm-hmm. Well… he… Fisk killed him because of something I convinced him to do, because I manipulated him with a very personal part of his life."
It washed over Tessa then, like a floodgate. She held up her hand, giving Karen a nod. "I'll treat her, of course. No charge, no worries. Just give her caretakers my contact information. Of course, Karen."
"She's a wonderful woman. Doris. I--I can't believe I've been so self-involved…" Tears filled her eyes and Tessa passed a box of tissues her way. "I've been so worked up in my own issues over… things, I didn't mention her situation to you, didn't even think of her."
"But you are now. Don't beat yourself up over this, Karen. I'll do what I can for her this week the same as I would have any number of weeks ago. She will be getting back time either way." Even with all this reassurance there was still a garbling in the air. Part of that may have been Tessa's lackluster comforting skills, but something was definitely still upsetting Karen. "Is there something else that I can help you with?"
Karen turned back, already half way to the door. Her eyes gave away the game, as wide and shifty as they were. "Oh, uh, no. … Thank you, Tessa."
"You got it, Karen. I'm here if you change your mind." If she ever finds out Matt can tell when she's lying she's going to faint from shame.
<<Indeed. Dark past, that one.>>
"Goddamnit," Tessa hissed, turning away from the darkened window.
Tessa waved at Karen's worried expression by the suite's door. "Nothing, nothing. Thinking aloud, is all. … 'Cause I can't think to myself…" She threw a paperclip at the window and then snatched up her phone. "Time to invest in some curtains…"
As she was browsing the wondrously vast selection of boring-as-hell curtains and ignoring another litany on her awesome godhood, Tessa received a battery of texts, all from Stark. The first three she opened only had attachments that just spit out code and opened a collection of holograms around her, all of which began running code as well. Tessa tried really hard not to think where they were projecting from and then opened the last text. In classic Stark fashion, it took over 140 characters to get to his point so a final text came in while she was reading this one.
"So, you're getting a system update via text, huh? Freaky little robots… You bet your ass I'll be telling you if any glitches occur, Stark… especially since you basically guaranteed me they wouldn't." She shot back a response and tossed aside her phone. Now, to while away the remaining four hours in that office alone with nothing to distract her from the damned bird in her window.
"I really need some curtains…"
There was a lovely frozen custard shop within her perimeter and on the way back to the apartment. Tessa stopped there on a whim. She deserved it. Matt had been tied up on the phone when she dropped in. It had been amusing to see him pace that office, throwing out jargon and getting all red in the face for a little while, but she couldn't wait it out. The closet would have to remain unchristened a little longer. She probably shouldn't have been spending money on something like novelty treats after the kiloton she dropped on curtains that afternoon, also impulsively, but she apparently couldn't stop herself at this point. The damned magpie had been wearing away on her nerves all day and she hadn't gotten a single one of the things she'd been looking forward to. But custard? Custard she could make sure she had.
That was until Jess ambushed her at the front door and scared the hell out of her. Then, the floor got the rest of her delicious raspberry cream custard.
"Thank god," Jess hissed and yanked Tessa up from trying to salvage the spill. "Here she is. See? I told you she'd be right home."
"Uh… hi, Jess. You made me spill my custard…"
Jess dragged her further into the apartment, into the kitchen, and Tessa finally spotted just what had her in such a tizzy. Dr. Strange was sitting on their couch, just barely perched on the edge actually, sniffing at the cup in his hand.
"For god's sake, make some tea… I tried and I think I created industrial waste…"
Tessa dislodged her arm from Jess's death grip and ambled over to the couch. "Evening, Stephen… twice in one day, I must present quite the mystical disturbance. Here, I'll get you a fresh cup."
He relinquished the cup with a look of relief and stood to follow her to the kitchen. "Indeed. I was… less than pleased with the time and effort it required to actualize that construct today and realized you could benefit from a way to channel your energies with more accuracy and ease."
"Huh. And what was that… construct supposed to do?"
"Act as a waystation, as it were, for you to access memories more interactively. We'll get it there eventually. Perhaps with this." He held out his hand and in his palm appeared a small box inlaid with mother of pearl.
Tessa took it carefully. "Um… I don't know what to say… Thanks? It's… it's beautiful."
"The box is just to protect what's inside." He tipped open the lid, revealing the biggest, most iridescent opal Tessa had ever seen. "This is a focus. It will aid you in directing your magicks."
"That… looks expensive…"
"Oh, it is, in monetary value and magical." Strange swept a finger over the gem and it lifted from the box, hanging by a mostly invisible string. "This chain of binding will, predictably, bind the focus to you. Only you or I will be able to remove it."
"Magic necklace. I dig it." Tessa took the wispy chain from Strange, only a little astonished by how it melted part the way into her hand. "But… uh, won't it look a little gaudy?"
Strange chuckled. "How low an opinion you have of me, Theresa. Believe it or not, I have fairly well mastered blending in with the mundanity of this world."
"So it'll be invisible or something-- oh…" As Tessa slipped the spell-chain around her neck and the gigantic gemstone came to rest between her collarbones, it shifted shape into a pendent a third of its size and a fifth of its value on a simple gold chain. "Yeah… that's much cooler."
"Hm," Strange smiled, "it is, isn't it? Now, you'll have to charge it every new moon by starlight for three hours, more if its cloudy that night."
"It runs off starlight… but not sunlight? Which is also a star…"
He leaned down, steampunk magnifying glass suddenly in hand and at her neck. "Too strong, will overload the focus. This will work better to regulate your power than the reconfiguration Stark effected on those tiny contraptions today. The opal works organically with your mind. And, as we know, it's untraceable by technology. Once we've worked out how to integrate your magicks and your mnemomancy, you will be able to return to fully curating memory and your paranoid probationers will be none the wiser."
"You're welcome. Good evening, ladies." He disappeared the moment he crossed the threshold out of their apartment, leaving his coffee cup neatly stacked in the sink.
Tessa shut the door and then went back to inspecting the opal. "I knew the tiny robots were a stupid idea…"
"Does he make you feel stupider than normal?"
Tessa glanced in Jess's direction to find her shaking out her hands. "He makes me feel just… extra stupid. My ass is sweating right now and I couldn't stop making bad magic-related puns."
"Yeah, he has that effect on everyone. It's his magically enhanced sense of self-importance. Don't worry though, I found out today that he just wants to be treated like everyone else, which is why you had to endure the awkwardness that was me calling him 'Stephen'."
"Better than me calling him Dumbledore…"
Holy shit, Netflix's Luke Cage just dropped! What're you reading this crap for? Go watch that show! This can't even begin to measure up. Do it. Go watch Luke Cage. Then, afterwards when you're basking in the character and narrative developments, come back and take note that I planned out all this crap before I knew where they were going with him and his world and I won't be able to factor, like, any of it in, unfortunately. Maybe some easter eggs, but that'll be it. *sigh* and the music... *heavy sigh* so wonderful...
Chapter 3: What's In A Name?
It was warm. Pleasantly warm in there. And the sheets were light and soft, barely moving with the breath of a nearby fan. The noise on the street was a dull hum, masked by the fan's lulling, perfect rhythm. Tessa insisted on keeping her eyes shut. She had no idea what time it was, but there was no alarm screaming into her ear. So, there was no reason for her to be awake at that moment. She would just drift back to sleep. And easily. Everything was perfectly serene.
Except for that. What was that? Knocking?
Dunp Dunp Dunp
Definitely knocking. Louder than she was used to and closer. Who was knocking? Where were they?
Tessa peeled open her eyes, then immediately shut them. So bright. She tried instead batting an arm over to her nightstand to find her phone. Her hand swiped through empty air.
Dunp Dunp Dunp
The knocking again. Someone was knocking somewhere and her nightstand was missing. What was happening? Daring the assault on her eyes again, she blearily peeked out from under the sheets. And, found what was not her misplaced nightstand, and then, what was not her bedroom door. There was bare floor and a screen. And that fan? Not her fan. That was breathing. A soft snoring into her hair, actually.
Dunp Dunp Dunp "Wake up, you ass!" The shout drifted through, muffled slightly but not masking Foggy's irritation. "You're not missing coffee and bagels twice this month."
Her brain finally found traction. This was Matt's apartment. No nightstand, no bedroom door. No curtains. Tessa set her head back down on the pillow. Her phone was in the kitchen, charging. Her clothes were piled on the floor beside the bed. Matt was wrapped around her, still miraculously dead asleep. And, Foggy was knocking on the front door.
Dunp Dunp Dunp "I swear to god, I'm going to give up eventually, Matt! My patience has limits, too, you know!"
Tessa winced and carefully rolled out from under Matt's arm. He slumped onto her pillow face first with a little mumble, but didn't seem to wake. For a moment, Tessa considered poking him but abandoned that thought quickly. Foggy would do that job soon enough. And, she needed to escape out the roof access before that happened. Leaving him to snore peacefully for a minute or so more, Tessa instead tiptoed around the bed and began to collect her clothes. She'd only just managed to find her underwear when the chanting started out in the kitchen.
'Foggy, Foggy, Foggy.'
"That's it, I can hear your phone in there. I'm coming in upstairs."
Picking up her pace, Tessa yanked on her underwear and pulled a shirt over her head. But, it seemed like she was still too slow. Foggy was already on the roof by the sound of it. If she could just grab her phone and keys from the kitchen and slip out the front door before--
Tessa froze in the bedroom doorway. Foggy was damn fast. He stuttered to a stop a few steps down the stairs. They both just stood there, staring at each other, deer in the headlights.
"Tessa?" Matt's groggy voice unstuck them.
Foggy seemed to tumble down the rest of the stairs, his gaze graciously averted. "Seriously, Murdock!?!"
There was no escaping now, only salvaging. Tessa yanked down on her shirt, trying to cover her inability to pull on her skirt fast enough. When that failed, she scrambled for the shelter of the kitchen where she could finish dressing with some micron of dignity. But, Foggy seemed to similarly consider the kitchen an escape, so they were trapped in some strange dance in the middle of the room, avoiding each other's eye. Finally, Tessa settled on sitting down at the table and covering herself with her skirt like a blanket. Foggy returned to shouting.
"You forgot coffee and bagel morning again, Matt!"
"I didn't forget." Matt finally emerged, wearing the shorts Tessa was wishing she had stolen. "What makes you think I forgot?"
"Uh… the half-naked woman surreptitiously leaving your bedroom just now. Hi, Tessa, by the way. Sorry for staring."
"'S fine. I would've too."
"Tessa being here doesn't automatically mean I forgot." Matt ambled past, dropping a robe in Tessa's lap.
"Yeah, it does. You and I have a no nipple policy for food-involved ventures, which you're clearly in violation of, and… you don't introduce me to your romantic exploits-- not that I think that's what you are, Tess. You look lovely this morning. Well rested." Foggy was still pointedly not looking at her.
"You know Tessa already. I didn't think you would mind."
"Yeah, but…" Foggy seemed to be attempting to read Matt's mind. Then, he glanced quickly between them, some realization dawning on him. "Wait a second. You two are serious."
Tessa gave up trying to put on the robe while still seated. "No, this is an elaborate joke set up to punk you."
"No, I mean, I saw you… sucking face that night in the alley, but I thought that was endorphins and being forced to spend time together. And that was a while ago. Has this been going on that long? That's insane."
"And why is that insane?" She asked, folding the robe and laying it over the back of the couch.
Foggy looked Matt's way, but he was busy pretending not to notice. "Uh… because Matt's… He doesn't… This is a marathon for him."
"You have no idea," Matt snorted from the fridge, pulling out creamer and juice.
"This is…" Foggy looked Tessa's way instead. "He was at your place last coffee and bagel day?!"
"Holy crap, I'm so happy for you, buddy!" His tackle nearly caused Matt to upend the coffee maker. "I probably should have thought this through a little more, waited 'til after you showered, but I'm just so happy for you. For you both!"
"Thanks, Foggy," Matt patted him on the shoulder as Foggy swung around towards Tessa.
"Ah! Look at this perfect cinnamon roll. I'ma hug you, too."
"I don't have pants on."
"I don't care."
Tessa endured the hug and all the memories that came with it, even giving him a few taps on the back towards the end there. "So, where are the bagels?" She asked once he'd let go. That was answered by a snort.
"I forgot them on the bus…"
"Sorry, I'm just not paying six bucks for a bagel-- one bagel-- when I spent just as much on six bagels, which are now probably feeding someone else on the M50."
"It's fine, Foggy. Coffee morning is just as good."
"Did you all share a cab?" Karen was in the middle of unlocking the Nelson and Murdock offices when the three of them stepped into the hallway. She paused, keys swinging slightly in her hand, and looked them over. "How did I miss that invite?"
"Yes, but it was impromptu. No invites…" Foggy hurried forward, cup in hand. "And, we brought you coffee. Matt made it, so I can't claim that it's good, but…"
"Wasn't today bagel bro day?" Karen accepted the cup, eyes narrowed and dancing over the three of them.
Tessa snorted, "is that the official name?"
"It's what I call it, so…" Karen returned to unlocking the door, this time jimmying it open. "Is there an impromptu explanation coming or am I supposed to guess? I gotta tell you, if I have to guess, it's going to hurt my feelings," she glanced back at them over her shoulder, looking like her feelings were already hurt.
"They're banging," Foggy so helpfully finished for Matt. "And I forgot the bagels."
Taking the wideness of Karen's eyes as her cue, Tessa backed away from the entryway slowly. "Uh… I have an eight a.m. I gotta open my office for. See you!"
"Ho-oh-oh!" Even down the hall Tessa could hear Karen's none too discreet response. "You don't mind shitting where you eat."
"It's where I ate… I think. I'm not sure which part is the shitting in the metaphor…" Matt's voice, much quieter, was soon lost to Tessa as she climbed the stairs.
Probably for the best, too. Karen was proving less cordial in finding out about their relationship this time around. Also, it was time to focus, get serious and be all professional-like. Tessa really did have an appointment at eight.
"Dr. Bisho?" Oh. And apparently he liked to be early. Very early.
"Yes. That's me. Just one sec while I open up." She fumbled with her keys and then opted to put down her tea before wearing it. "This lock… Ha… So, Mr. Duq--"
"Actually, doctor, I'm not Mr. Duq…" Oh. And apparently an early morning walk-in. "And there's no need for us to step inside. I need only to confirm your whereabouts from… seven fifty-one last night until… six forty this morning." Or not a walk-in either.
Tessa stopped what she was doing and turned toward 'Not Mr. Duq'. "You mean… where I was last night instead of my own apartment?" She glanced over the man in front of her: crappy suit, crappier shoes, beaten-to-hell work-issue tablet in hand. Agent Not Mr. Duq. "I called this in with your people on Monday. Spoke with Mona Haro. She cleared me, added that route and destination to my perimeter, and I'll quote, 'as a satellite' because of… conjugal reasons, which even prisoners get in jail. So…"
"Of course, doctor. I'm aware. I only need you to sign and imprint here confirming that was, in fact, where you were during this time."
"Would you also like to confirm what I was doing? I have a witness downstairs…"
"Uh… no, ma'am. Just this."
It wasn't this guy's fault he had the most awkward job imaginable that morning. Tessa sighed and took the tablet from him, signing and pressing her thumb in the appropriate places. "Sorry. I'm just… missing my autonomy."
He gave her a pinched smile as she returned the tablet. "Good morning, Dr. Bisho." Understandably, he was out of there like a shot.
Tessa almost felt bad for jumping down the guy's throat. Then, she remembered that she just had to check in with the government for a night over at Matt's. "Utter bullshit…" she mumbled, propping the suite's door open and circling the office to open the curtains. "Uh, yes, sir. I'd like to request permission to go to the bathroom. Oh, I plan on urinating… Fucking stupid."
Tessa jumped at Matt's question. "Damnit, you're extra quiet today. No, I don't think so. Not unless Agent Not Mr. Duq is also a notary."
"Hmm. I'll have to look into that…"
"Hey, before you go, is everything… copacetic downstairs?"
Matt flashed her a weary grin. "… Foggy and I have managed to stop squabbling."
"So, am I the food or the shit?"
"We determined that you were neither. Because the metaphor was repulsive. You can thank Foggy for that." A peck on the forehead and he melted into the hallway. "If you want, I'll call in today for you, get permission to have you over again tonight. I'll even state my intentions, make an itinerary…"
"Hardy-har-har… Actually, please do that!" She heard a chuckle from the stairwell and decided to go back to her whole getting-professional routine. Windows open, chairs set out, magazines fanned, and drink packets replenished. Everything squared away. Now, she just had to sit and wait for Mr. Duq. For… twenty-five more minutes.
"Should'a brought a book," she grumbled and pulled out her phone. There was just about a one percent chance that Jess was awake at that hour, but she was going to take it. At least typing out the text would eat up, like, a minute.
'Feds made me sign a sex permission slip this morning.' "And… sent. There. Now… still twenty-five more minutes. Is time standing still?" Tessa slumped down into her chair, only to sit right back up. Movement from the window had caught her eye.
<<Your majesty is simply being squandered here, Tessie dear. Shamefully squandered.>>
"Oh, what a wonderfully inopportune time for me to be alone with my thoughts." She turned her back to the large shadow perching on her window sill. It simply hopped to the next one over.
<<I could be your conduit, you know. Transfer a portion of your power to me and I could effect anything you wanted without the fault falling upon you.>>
"Stra--Stephen, if you happen to be listening, now would be an excellent time for one of your surprise visits…"
<<No, no. If you don't want me here, just say so. Don't call in Uncle Fuddy-Duddy.>>
With a soundless flap of feathers, suddenly her windows were darkened no more. "Stephen Strange, avian apotropaic extraordinaire…" Tessa made a mental note of that trick and then proceeded to rehearse the phone call she would be making to the Superhuman Affairs personnel office later that afternoon. She had about eight different scenarios down pat by the time the slouchy little man claiming to be Mr. Duq arrived.
"Please, come on in. There's coffee and tea and… stuff over there." Nailed it. "Help yourself." She waved towards the refreshment table and took a moment to assess this new client.
On the phone, he had described his affliction as something close to what Tessa would expect from a stroke victim. Short term memory problems: black outs, waking up in strange places, forgetting what he was doing while in the middle of doing it. Seeing him in person, though, she began to reassess. He was slouchy and little, yes, but he didn't exactly read infirm to Tessa. In fact, she wouldn't have been surprised if he'd received his memory loss from one of Matt's batons. She found herself even more at a loss when she began her cursory examination, sweeping his surface memories. Before this Mr. Duq even sat down, Tessa had a feeling he wasn't actually there for treatment.
"So, Mr. Duq, why don't you explain to me just what you've been experiencing and then I'll have a look at what's going on, okay?" While he was busy making up symptoms she could probe around deeper for plans to attack or spy or whatever ulterior motive he had for coming there.
"Right, doc, so… I'll be going about my day-- driving my route, eating a meal, whatever-- and then all a sudden, I'll be done with what I was doing."
"You're experiencing time loss?"
"'S right. Like, yesterday, clocked in at seven, grabbed a joe and I look down, it's after eleven. Real freaky."
"Mm. Those are blackouts, sounds like, Mr. Duq. Ha--"
"Call me Evan."
"Evan, have you had any emergency room trips? Maybe a concussion?"
He leaned forward, "can't you just do your mumbo-jumbo and find that all out yourself?"
"I find it's less invasive if I perform a verbal assessment first, makes for a more comfortable therapy experience. But, if you prefer it, I can skip to the mumbo-jumbo." She'd already been fishing around in his head for a good four minutes and she couldn't find any kind of memory corruption or loss. Everything seemed up to muster.
"I gotta friend, doesn't believe you can really do what they say you do."
Tessa paused, withdrawing from her dredge. "Do you agree with your friend?"
"I'm here, aren't I?"
To be patient and professional or to just kick this weasel out? Tessa drew a deep breath. "The process can be quicker if I'm in contact with you. So, if you don't mind, I'm going to touch your forehead, around your temples, and when I do this, I would ask you to focus on one of the time losses you experienced."
"Sure thing, doc."
"Great." Normally, Tessa would have closed her eyes and tried to really buckle down into his memory, but she didn't trust Duq. Not even a little.
Even with her eyes open, though, the moment she made contact with his head, her vision filled with foreign images. Gore and rot, a few flashes of snakes and spiders, a clown. It was like she'd been flash mobbed by someone's phobias. Luckily, not her phobias, so she pushed on and into his memory matrix. It was a mess. Unlike people like Deadpool or most children, he didn't have a metaphorical manifestation for accessing his memories, nor a filing system like other adults with cotangential subjects or chronological clusters. And weirder still, he didn't have any random, incidental memories, the ones that formed more as patterns of human experience than specific moments in a life, like the pain of a sunburn or the feeling of hunger. There was only the moments of his life in a loose approximation of a narrative. Loose approximation was a generous way to describe it. He reminded her of how Jess kept her tax documents organized: dumped in a box. And every once in a while as she was rifling through them she'd unearth some bug or rat or other nightmare image with no context. This guy was seriously disturbed, yeah, but he did not have memory damage.
"Well, Mr. Duq," Tessa sat away from him with a sigh. "I'm afraid I won't be able to send you away with any proof for your friend. So far as I can tell, you don't have any memory loss. I would suggest an MRI, it may be that your brain is losing blood to areas key for memory formation, but that's unlikely. I don't sense any faults in your memory creation faculties, no weak signals or sputtering. However, allow me to look into it more and I will be in contact with you."
Duq gave her a politician's grin. "Whatever you say, doc."
Tessa waited until she heard footfalls on the stairs before she dropped her own incredibly fake smile. "Sleaze ball," she muttered under her breath, ready to move on with the rest of her day and never actually think about creepy Mr. Duq, the liar, again. But, there was something about the way his memory structure was so shallow that really bothered her. Maybe there was something she was missing. Maybe Mr. Duq had some deficiency she'd never come across before and she just needed to tweak a few things to make him less of a budding psychopath.
"Fiiiiiiine. I'll be professional. Damn conscience," Tessa grumbled and pulled open her desk drawer. "Open sesame, or whatever." She waved her hand over the small dimensional rift beside her stapler. Nothing happened. After checking the positioning of her fingers, she tried again. The little pool just continued shimmering, a perfect oval, but a small one. She tapped the pendant hanging around her neck. "Hello? Are you working? Alohomora. Open thyself, thou piece of shit. Ah. Thanks."
Strange had insisted the construct responded to her will, not any magic words, but the archaic instructions sure seemed to do the trick. As she relaxed, the portal rippled to life, its waves doubling it in size, then tripling until it engulfed the room and Tessa was sitting not in her office, but in the pocket dimension she had made all on her very own. Okay, with Strange's help, but she'd been the one to trick it out like a library. It was here that she could engage with memory in a non-abstract manner, could interact with it directly. Tessa could peruse humanity like books on a shelf, open one and scan the index for a particular memory. Strange had commented that it was an outdated construct for information access, that she could have simply visualized an internet of sorts, but Tessa disagreed. It was elegant, fundamentally more interactive and, more importantly, it was more conceptually aligned to how she'd conceived of her memory abilities. Also, it was so aesthetically pleasing.
The D's were before her in a blink, Du's in another. She strolled down the aisle, finger running over spines. "Duq… Duq… Duq. Ah… Yonar Duq, circa 1140. That's an old one… and not Evan. Okay." She stood in front of the shelf that should have contained Mr. Evan Duq and tugged at her hair. "How peculiar. … Almost as if that wasn't really his name…" She exhaled and appeared in front of the card catalogue. "Mr. Duq… I've been in your head, sir… I know your… what would Stark say? Oh, yeah, I know your unique signature. A fake name isn't going to hide you from me, buddy."
Focused on Duq and his weird box of flat memories, Tessa pulled open the catalogue's 'missing' drawer and stuck her hand inside. Only to come up empty-handed again. She picked up yet another random paperclip and then slammed the drawer closed. "Fine. I give. You're an anomaly, you skeezy weasel-man. Ugh. Close thyself, thou piece of useless shit."
Tessa's memory library undulated a tic and then began collapsing in on itself, soon coming to rest as the tiny circle of shiny in her desk drawer. She slammed that drawer closed too for good measure and crossed her arms. As soon as she did, a shudder of movement darkened the window she was facing.
<<There you are. I didn't know where you were. There was a golem and I could not find you. It was hideously rude of you to disappear without-->>
Tessa couldn't take it anymore. Nosy fucking magpie, yammering a bunch of nonsense while she was trying to rage figure out the six different types of weird that was that Duq guy. Her patience could only endure through so much.
She hopped up and stormed over to the window, tapping the glass in front of its eye as aggressively as she could. "What the fuck?! What is your fucking deal, you creepy ass, stalker bird!?! Who are you even? And why do you care? You've been up my ass for weeks now but never say anything useful. And I can't get anything off of you because of your… your stupid spell blocking. Some… oooh la-tee-da next level glamor or whatever! Fucking magic! So frustrating! But! But, you know what? There is something there still, you know, I can feel it seeping around the edges. It's always there… What is that? It's…"
Tessa mashed her fingers together, searching for the right word. The magpie twitched, its head flicking from side to side.
"It's sludgy. Yeah. That little sludgy feeling? That… I know that one… I can't read your memories, nothing that congeals together into anything salient, but I can touch the adjacent emotions, even through that spell. And you know what I feel? Guilt… guilt, you creepy ass bird! Someone's been a naughty bird and they know it." She tapped the glass once more for good measure, actually feeling pretty accomplished for that diagnosis.
<<My… that's a popular assessment of late.>> To Tessa's surprise the magpie flickered--didn't flutter away, but visually flickered, then vanished. A blink later, the image of a boy--or at least Tessa thought it was a boy-- around eleven or twelve and wearing the weirdest ensemble of clothes Tessa had seen in a while, sputtered in its place. After a second, it glowed more steadily with that faint tint of color that Tessa had come to recognize as an astral projection. Green instead of the blue she had come to associate with Strange, but definitely all astral-like. <<I do wonder what vibes I'm giving off to lead people down that wrong, ever so far off path of assumption… and lies.>>
"You--You're just a child?" She'd meant to ask about his steampunk squire's outfit, but the youngness bit seemed more pressing.
<<What?!>> Shock on his little preteen face, he glanced down. <<Oh, Odin's stones… my glamor… S'weak… why is th--this body so… weakkkk-->> His eyes rolled back into his head and then the projection flickered out.
"Uh… that was weird. Oh, look, it's my lunch break. I need to go to Greenwich Village for that one place." Luckily, panini place factored in or not, Strange's neighborhood was a committee-approved destination for Tessa. It was with a giant glowing axe on his shoulder that Strange answered the door one impatient (and expensive) cab ride later.
It was really a testament to how incensed she was about bird-boy that she didn't immediately ask about that axe. "Why has a psychotic medieval child been tormenting me? And why couldn't you just tell me it was a child? I've said some very not PG stuff to that damned bird."
"He's a child now?" Strange ran his spare hand over his chin. "Hmm. How fascinating. Come in."
"Okay, I gotta ask. What's with the axe?"
"Really? You must ask? I thought it was rather self-explanatory. It's for cleaving things."
Tessa let the front door click shut behind her and scoffed. "Yes, of course, silly me. Why would something like that confuse me? You, a master of magic, carrying around a prehistoric device intended for cleaving things? Perfectly reasonable."
"Cleaving magical things."
"Ah, and it all becomes crystal clear." She dropped onto the chair offered her, chuckling at the absurdity her life had devolved into.
"Were I to explain in depth, it would distract from the actual reason you stopped by, Theresa. So, the magpie revealed himself to be a child?"
"More like its glamor failed and then his astral projection went on the fritz. He might have given himself an aneurysm or something."
"That we could only be so lucky," Strange sighed. "It is odd that he is taking the form of a child, though. Perhaps a failed re-instantiation in this dimension? No… they tend to reincarnate on a cycle. Hmm."
"You aren't going to tell me who he is, are you?"
"No, conferring a name upon him, even if just in your mind, only invites further harassment from him, and more thorough. Names are powerful summoners, as I've mentioned before. Besides, it seems he is rather weakened at the moment. His name might be what he needs to return to wreaking havoc. For now, he'll just be a bother, practically harmless as long as you don't do anything he suggests. You must persist in simply ignoring him."
Tessa threw her head back, beginning to wonder if Strange just naturally brought out her latent melodrama. "Ugh! Fine. Can I at least cut something with the glowing axe?"
"No. We can't have you accidentally rending dimensions apart. Tea before you leave?"
"Yeah… since I came all this way. And I don't get to swing the axe… You have that snow bud you had last time? So… it's for rending dimensions?"
"Vishanti, no. It could, but that would be a catastrophic mishandling of it. And, yes, I do have the snow bud… this tin has been especially floral. Where did I put that strainer?"
"I'd check and tell you, but then I'd get detention or something."
Strange wandered off into the other room, axe leaving a trail of wispy, glowing aether. "No, you mustn't draw attention to the nature of our meetings. Ah, there. Why wouldn't I have checked the spice rack first?" He stepped back in, edging Tessa's feet off the coffee table as he passed.
"Absent-minded professor seems like a dangerous archetype for you to fall in, Stephen." Tessa immediately returned her feet to the table. "You could, like, misplace a soul or something."
"That would take quite some doing. Are you practicing your warding incantations?"
"Yes. And you'll be glad to hear, I no longer have ants in my kitchen. Though, that may be Lang doing me a favor… Uh, doc-- Stephen? It's full…"
Strange blinked a few times and then set aside the kettle quickly. "Excuse me, Theresa. There's something urgent I must look into."
"Oh… okay, sure." Tessa was kept from wondering just what flavor of urgent that something was by the flurry of chimes coming from her phone. At least three new text messages, six news feed alerts. "What-- oh, no." She couldn't wait for Strange to return to explain. He probably already knew. And she had to go. Now.
It was just starting to rain as she jogged down the steps of the townhouse. Warm drops, big as grapes, pattered down sporadically around her, onto her. Tessa wiped one from her eyes and began madly scrolling through her contacts. She needed a cab and she needed someone to pick up their damned phone. Waving her arm managed to secure her a ride back uptown, but no number of re-dials was putting Tessa into contact with the mangled remains of the Avengers.
Never one to just give up, Tessa tapped Natasha's contact for the twelfth time. "Come on, come on, come on…" She continued chanting as the line rung back. Again, no answer. Stark's turn. Voicemail. "SHIT!"
"Sommin' wrong, miss?"
Tessa squeezed out a terribly unconvincing smile for the driver. "No, no. I'm fine. No worries." Another reassuring nod towards the rearview mirror and she returned to feverishly calling Natasha and Stark. "Please, someone pick up. Please," she whispered. But she was the only cosmic entity listening, it seemed. And she had no control over cellphones. Time for a new tactic. Vision had his comms in his fricking head. He could only ignore so much.
"Hello, Dr. Bisho. May I be of some assistance?"
Tessa breathed a sigh of relief, phone to her chest. "No--I mean, yes, Vision. Please. Can you get me in contact with Natasha or Stark?"
"They are currently en route to Berlin, doctor. I can transfer you to the quinjet."
"That would be fantastic, Vision. Thank you. Thank you so much."
"Of course. It'll only be a moment."
"You know Avengers?"
"What?" The line was still softly ringing with the transfer. "Oh. Um… no. This is… don't worry about it. Here's fine, thanks." Probably best to have a high security chat not in the back of a taxi.
"Here. Keep all of it." Tessa shoved a twenty through the partition and then scrambled out of the back seat. She was only a few blocks from her office. She could just hoof it there. If she was moving quickly enough, no one would be able to hear what she was saying. Probably.
"Oh, thank god, Natasha. Listen--"
"Tessa. You can't call--"
"I said listen. You gotta appeal to the committee or whatever. I need to be there. I can help. I can sort all this out, I just need to be there."
"Tony's already been on the line with Ross and Regenstein. They're not budging. You're a liability they don't want to add to the mix, no matter how… helpful you could be. Sorry, Bisho."
"Oh, come on, Natasha. You two can do better than that! You know I can help. You know I should be there. I can help with Barnes. I can."
"I know you can. I know that you should be there with us. Unfortunately, it's not our decision. Besides, without Banner here to interpret the feed off of your transponders… let's just say they wouldn't give much credence to your input. And… that's even if they manage to detain him… alive."
"Shit… This is horrible." Tessa was on the verge of tears. She felt so helpless, so useless. And worst, afraid.
"We're hoping Rogers will detain him and come peacefully with the SWAT teams. If not… Tessa? I have to go. We're beginning our descent. We'll be in touch."
"But--" The phone blipped, call ended. Tessa stared at her screen, Vision's contact card fading to black as the screen turned off. Rain was pooling, magnifying random fingerprints and smears across the surface. "FUCK!"
The offices of Nelson and Murdock were bustling with life as she passed. Tessa didn't pause on her way to the stairs, though she should have. They were in good spirits, clients boisterous with their pies and bananas. She wasn't going to rain on their parade. Up the stairs. Upstairs into her empty, silent office suite. Up to the loneliness of failure and dread. The perfect venue to dwell on her regrets and fear.
It still stank slightly of ozone in her office when she stepped inside, a side effect of opening her pocket dimension. Rain streaked down the window as she pulled the curtains closed. At this point though, Tessa would have welcomed the distraction from the bird-boy.
"Uh, doc? Sorry to show up without an appointment and all…"
Tessa whipped around at his voice. She hadn't heard anyone approaching. Matt was usually the only one who could surprise her like that. "Oh, Mr. Duq." The mystery from earlier in the day, the man that wasn't who he said he was. "What can I do for you?"
"I just remembered something, is all, something that might be useful. If you wanna take a peek." He pointed at his forehead, sly smile spreading across his face. "Might clear everything up."
Chapter 4: Nightmare Scenario
WARNING: This chapter is graphic. Without utterly spoiling the plot it is safe to say that, if you have any trepidations about violence, gore or horror of any sorts, you should proceed with caution. Additionally, there may be what some consider to be triggering sexual language.
Just looking at this quote-unquote Mr. Duq set Tessa's teeth on edge. His skeezy weasel face gave her that full-body tense-up that came from nails on a chalkboard. And the long, dismal day had really taken its toll on her. It almost felt like she had a headache, which was of course impossible, so Tessa chalked it up to another symptom of the paranoia that this long, dismal day had created in her. Great, now she was also a hypochondriac.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Duq?" Tessa asked, squeezing the bridge of her nose, wondering if she was actually having an aneurysm or something.
"Oh, nothing, doc. I just thought I owed it to ya to come clean, ya know?"
Man, it felt like her brain was literally squirming inside her skull. Now was not the time to deal with a possible psychopath. "You don't owe me anything, Mr. Duq. If you would excuse me, I'm just…"
"Nah, listen, doc. This is important. Pertains to you." He was smirking when she looked up at him. "I'm not Mr. Duq, ya see? Cool name, but it's not me. That was my problem, I'd forgotten who I was. But, I remember now. And I remember you…"
Tessa ran into her desk trying to back away from him. He smelled like cigarettes and gin. He made her want to crawl out of her skin. Or at least out of that room, out of the building. But, with her heading pounding the way it was, Tessa couldn't get anything in focus well enough to do jack shit. No phasing, no memory access, nothing.
"The name's Lester. You've seen my work… No? Not ringing any bells? Wade's friend… You know…" There was nowhere Tessa could go. She just stared at his hand as it reached up and traced one circle, then another inside it on her forehead. She cringed when he tapped the center. "Bullseye. Boop!"
Mnemosyne's powers didn't bestow Tessa with any kind of super-strength or laser-beam eyes and, up until that point, that hadn't bothered her. Just then, though, Tessa was wishing she'd had someone really teach her some kind of self-defense. There weren't any reachable office supplies turned weapons on her desk, but she did have her knee and his groin was very close. Knee-able close. But, he moved away, almost like he saw her taking aim, and fast, his reflexes like Matt's or Natasha's.
"You weren't my intended target, not the one I was being paid for, you know, but… a hit's a hit and…" He managed to circle her, avoiding a few strikes from knee and elbow, and tapped exactly dead center each of her three gunshot scars. "I sure hit you, even with my pal Wade screaming like a titty-baby about it. He's weird… You're weirder… People I put down stay down, you see… but now they tell me you've got magic up in you. You're up and about… I'm thinkin', I got cheated that death-- can't add it to my tally, you see, if you ain't in the ground, so… I've gotta kill someone else, someone who'll stay down. I'm thinkin' the blind guy downstairs'll do, you're fond of him. Seems a fair trade, square deal. Maybe a little too easy… so… I'll add the PI chick, your roomie. She likes to sit in front of windows… 'll make this easy-- whoa."
Tessa lunged for him, swung at his face, reached to grab him, and missed every time. It was like she was underwater and he was just so fast. She fell back against her desk, her arms feeling like they were lead. "I'll wipe you from this world. You'll drool away the rest of your life." Her threats sounded so weak, barely wheezed out from her lips.
"Maybe. Probably not. I'm thinking you'll be the one who's catatonic, what with all your loved ones dead and gone because of you. Thanks for the talk, doc. Real therapeutic." He stepped away and closed one eye, hand held up, miming a gun. "Pew, pew, pew. Tag, you're it."
Her body was too heavy. Something was wrong, everything was too heavy. Tessa slumped to the floor with a thud, her head bouncing slightly on the tile. Everything was growing dark. Dark and cold. "No," she whimpered, unable to actually hear her own voice. "Not again…"
Tessa's body jolted back to life like she'd been hit by lightning, electrical signals suddenly thrumming through every inch of her again. She frantically felt across her stomach and chest, searching for bullet holes, but found none. Covered in sweat, she scrambled to her feet. The floor felt like it was a giant water bed, but she wasn't bleeding. It had to have been some sort of drug. A serious drug.
Streetlamps dotted her windows, buildings and ads twinkled against the sky. She'd been unconscious for several hours. Several hours she'd wasted passed out in her office.
"Oh my god, Matt… Jess…" She may have fallen down half a flight of stairs as she scrambled down to Nelson and Murdock. It didn't matter, she couldn't feel anything when she got down there anyway. She'd never seen so much blood in her life. "Oh my god, oh my god…" Trying not to think about the fact that she was wading through bodies, Tessa picked her way across the reception area and into Matt's office.
"Matt? Oh my god… Matt? Please… please…" There was less blood in here, no bodies. She tripped on an overturned chair as she tried to check behind his smashed desk. Nothing. That was almost a relief. "Matt? Fuck… Matt!"
No one was breathing in the reception area. Tessa paused to check for a few pulses, but it was pretty clear this hadn't been collateral damage. They had all been killed in an instant. Her hands were shaking now and she couldn't get the blood off of them. She slipped in the gored remains of a pie and stifled a sob. Karen's desk was destroyed, nothing there. She had to check Foggy's office. As she climbed towards the door, Tessa heard something. Sobbing.
"He's not here," Karen's voice was torn and ragged. Tessa could hear gurgling in the vowels.
She kicked the door open and, tumbling over the remains of a makeshift barricade, staggered into the office. She had little problem finding Karen, Tessa had only to follow the ominous blood smear trail. She was propped up in the corner, hair matted into a wound in her shoulder, Foggy lying limp across her legs.
"Wh--What happened?!" Tessa dropped to her knees, ignoring the harrowing amount of blood she was now crouching in, and searched for a pulse on Foggy.
"That… psycho client of yours… came in here… unloaded on all of us… Foggy's… Foggy's…"
"He's alive. He's alive, Karen. Just sit back, you're bleeding pretty bad, too. I gotta… I gotta… get an ambulance or something." Tessa climbed numbly to her feet and rummaged through the remains of the office until she found a phone. "Need an ambulance for you and Foggy…"
"Already called," Karen groaned. "There's a delay… so many shootings… gang war or something… and… and Matt…"
Tessa turned back around, momentarily forgetting about the operator now speaking in her ear. "What about Matt?"
The phone slipped from her hand. "Is he okay, Karen?"
Karen's hand somehow caught hers. "You knew? Of course you knew…"
"Karen, I'm going to phase you and Foggy to a hospital, please don't freak out." Foggy's hand was alarmingly cool as Tessa took it and began visualizing Metro General.
"Aren't you… not supposed--"
"Fuck them! You're bleeding out!" She pushed through into the memory and hoped Claire was somewhere nearby. She wasn't. Actually, nothing was where it was supposed to be. "No… no… I wasn't coming here… I didn't want to bring you here…"
"Tessa? What's wrong? Tessa?"
Karen's questions went unanswered. They sounded like they were coming to Tessa from down a very long, narrow hallway. She could only back away, her feet tripping over nothing, over her terror. She'd visualized Metro General. Metro General with its publically funded, diligently maintained, but clearly in need of repair, service desks. Not here. Try as she might, though, Tessa couldn't blink away the colorful sign in front of her. The pristine wood and glass still lit up 'Jenkins Memorial Wing'.
Footsteps pattered behind her. "Miss? This is the children's unit, we don't--"
"Th--They need a doctor… gunshots…" Tessa couldn't look the nurse in the face, in case she recognized her. Instead, she waved wildly towards Karen and Foggy and then booked it down the hall, away from her old home. She ran and ran, hooking corners so hard she skidded into walls, pounding across the tile until she could feel it reverberating up into her hips. Then, the tile ran out. She was at a dead end.
Air became harder to pull into her lungs. All the fear, all the panic. She must've gotten turned around. She wasn't trying to get here. She was trying to get away from here, from her dead end. She knew what would be there to her right, she didn't need to look over there. Room 2727, her room. And yet, she still looked and did not find what she had expected.
No paisley doormat, no new patient name card. There wasn't even a door left. The frame was fractured and stained, decorated with ripped and fluttering police tape. It wasn't morbid curiosity that drove her to climb through the tape and step inside the blown-out remains of her old home. She was shaking too much for it to be curiosity. Her legs moved of their own volition, stepping onto the carpet of stained papers. Tessa winced at the sight that met her, the litter of her patient charts, plastered on the walls, the ceiling, covering the ground. Years and years of data on her condition papered the room, defiled with curses in smeared blood and ink. Others named her what she was to them, to the ones she'd left behind here, as a traitor or a poser. Worst were the drawings, drawings made for her with love and care, cherished, now ripped apart and left as confetti across the room. Saliva filled her mouth and Tessa could feel her stomach curdling, ready to empty its contents.
But fight or flight kicked in again, and she darted out of the room. Out of the room and away from that shrine of hate. Down the hall, down the staircase and suddenly into a half-lit hallway filled with gurneys, and moans of pain. The stairwell locked behind her. She had to go this way. She had to walk past all the dead and dying, piled into this corridor. The air rang with voices, panic, urgency, misery. It stank of blood and analgesics. Echoed with shouts of 'GSW' every few seconds. She wanted to be anywhere but here.
"Don't look at them. Don't look at them," Tessa panted, squeezing past the cots. It was useless, though. How could she not see what filled her vision? She recognized that man, Yosef was his name--had been his name. She'd helped with his PTSD. And that one, Ms. Brighton, she'd remembered her son. Quinton had recovered from a car crash and severe amnesia just to be killed by a psycho with a grudge. Tessa pushed on, tears falling onto her chest and hands.
She almost didn't notice them. The sheets mostly covered their faces. But she recognized that streak of grey, the perfectly shaped curls.
"Miss… I'm sorry, we need to move these. The--the ME needs to see them."
"Th--That's Dr. Strange… he--he can't be dead… he can't." It was Peggy Carter's gurney that Tessa clung to, though. "I'm sorry, Agent. I'm so sorry… I… I only wanted to help you…"
"Miss… I'm sorry…"
Tessa watched them being wheeled away with a cold stone in the pit of her stomach. If this is what was happening to her acquaintances-- On instinct, she ducked into a security closet. There was always a landline phone in there. She dialed Matt's burner phone and actually prayed that he would answer.
"Can't talk. Being shot at."
Tessa didn't get a chance to say anything, but it was enough. He was still alive. She could find him, warn him, keep him safe. Jess. She had to call Jess. That line rang out. Three times it rang to voicemail. Tessa tore through reality searching for Jess's memories and couldn't find them. Her eyes were already aching and raw from the tears, now they burned as she phased home, her new home.
The sound that escaped her throat was hideous. The apartment was dark and silent. And stunk of rotten meat. "NO!"
She coughed and stumbled over to hurl as her eyes focused. Three hunched silhouettes, blood shining across the kitchen table in the light from the shattered window. Tessa was hyperventilating, choking on mucus and bile as she ran to them, to Jess and Luke and Danny.
"No, no, no, no, no, no… this can't be happening…" She sobbed, chest wracked with searing pain as she fought to breathe. Jess was cold, her eyes clouded as Tessa pulled her to her. She was heavy, too heavy. Tessa collapsed to the floor, Jess's limp body tumbling on top of her. She would have screamed if her lungs had been able to fill with air. Too slowly she crawled out from under her best friend's corpse, rolled her over to attempt CPR. It was a valiant, but empty effort. There was nothing she could do to put brain matter back into her skull.
"Y--You're bulletproof! You can't be dead! It's… it's impossible!" Luke didn't respond. The hole in his forehead dripped instead. Tessa scrambled away from his and Danny's lifeless stares. There were already flies around their eyes.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry… so sorry… I should be dead… not you. Me." Tessa sunk to the floor again, trying to escape their gaze, and cradled Jess to her. "I wish I were dead…"
<<They're mortal, Tessie dear, this is what they do. They die. In a year, in several dozen, they all would have been dead regardless of what you did.>>
The shadow in the window shifted some. Tessa didn't bother looking at it. "Why are you here?"
<<I thought you should know about your patriotic friend… They were killed resisting arrest, all except the metal-armed one… He appears to be mind-controlled… Hail HYDRA or some rubbish like that. Very small-minded, I would have gone grander.>>
Tessa grabbed whatever she could reach from the ground and the table, a jar of peanut butter, a cellphone, and started pelting the remains of the window with them. Glass showered the floor but the items simply glided through the bird.
<<I haven't finished… Berlin? Seems they didn't learn from Vienna… Boom!>>
A scream ripped from her again, her throat seizing as she pushed it to rip with the anguish. Jess's cool blood pooled into Tessa's chest and she held her even tighter. When her breath finally ran out, she heard through her now silent sobs the rata-tat-tat of heavy artillery. One kiss to Jess's forehead and Tessa phased towards the sound. She might still be able to get to Matt first.
Gravel crunched underneath her feet. She'd made it to a rooftop several blocks over. Now the shots were behind her. Another jump and he came into view, Tessa's last remaining loved one. Not too late. Finally, she wasn't too late. Like a shadow, he cut across the adjacent roof, bullets popping into cement and brick where just a moment before had been Matt. He was doing it, he was fast enough. Then, he paused, chin jerking in her direction.
She actually felt the splatter of blood from across the street. It burned into her face like acid. Her knees buckled and Tessa was left to topple onto her hands, the cuts healing before blood could even smear across the gravel. The world was collapsing around her into a darkened tunnel, her ears were ringing, her heart fluttering weakly in her throat. She clawed to the edge of the roof, managed to phase the rest of the way.
He was still warm. Fingers fumbled uselessly trying to unbuckle the helmet. It was slippery. She couldn't get traction.
"Matt… Matt… no…" His eyes were the same, as distant as always, but crying red. She dabbed at the blood, tore off the hem of her dress and tried to staunch the bleeding. No use. It was everywhere, trickling into his hair, over his lips still parted around her name. "No, no, no… why did you-- why did you stop? No… please, no… please… please… please… please… I'll see your priest… I'll… I'll go to mass. Please, Matt… come back to me."
She kissed him and tasted pennies. She ripped off his glove and held his hand to her face, but there was no touch there. His fingertips were cool, stiffening. Rubbing them between her hands did nothing. Wiping the blood from his face did nothing. Tessa could do nothing.
Time melted away. The city noise faded to a dull distant hum. Tessa heard only her own wails, useless pleading words. Felt only coldness, curled around Matt's broken body, sheltering it at least, the last and only thing she could do now. At some point, somewhere through the fog, she heard a familiar voice. There were stars in her eyes when she peeled them open, but still she recognized that suit, those swords. Wade. Wade was still alive.
"Over here, Hawkguy. She's over here." Clint, too?
There he was, bow slung over his shoulder. "Oh… oh, no, Tess…" He knelt beside her, a familiar ache in his expression. "We thought… I'm sorry… he's--he's gone, though, Tess, and we gotta get lost, too. Things are only going to get worse. With Berlin--"
"I heard," it was barely a croak. She refused to allow him to pull her from Matt. "The world's gone to hell."
"Yeah, we're in hell… Let's go."
"I'm not leaving him. I'm not just leaving any of them. This is my bed I've made… I'll lie in it."
"That's crazy, Tess… let's go."
"What are you doing here with Wade anyway?"
Clint gave up prizing her fingers free. "Only so many people around now… Wanda… Wanda… She and Vision--"
"Don't--Don't tell me. I don't wanna know. Go." She shoved his shoulder and then wrapped more tightly around Matt. "Just leave me. They can't hurt me… not anymore."
"Maybe they can't hurt you… but we gotta get you away from people so…"
"So I don't hurt anyone?"
He nodded, frown lines deepening. Deepening too much. His hair greyed and fell away, skin loosening and becoming sallow. Tessa smashed her eyes closed. It was a trick of the light and her grief. But, when she opened them again, he was still aging, dying in front of her eyes. Panic somehow sputtered to life again in her chest and spread. Burning like fire, it cut through the paralysis of her grief and, to her horror, began to morph into an entirely different heat.
"No…" She shoved Clint again. "Go, get away from me. I'm--" She was losing control, the pounding in her ears muffling sounds, red bleeding over her eyes until there was nothing.
It had been a very long time since she had completely blacked out during a disinhibition event. All the same, the feeling of waking from it never changed. It felt like shame and regret. It was sticky and tasted of salt. And it ebbed with relief. Tessa refused to open her eyes. She didn't want to see what she had done, didn't want to confirm what she suspected. So, she didn't. Blindly she waved in front of her, keeping away from the quiet pants and breathing on either side of her, crawling on hand and knees forward.
When she bumped into something, it gave way slightly, textured but not hard. A shoe sole. Matt. He was still there. Tessa allowed herself to open her eyes again. "I'm sorry… I didn't want to… I'm sorry… I shouldn't have left you… I'm sorry…" She was going to hold him again and never let go. She was going to wrap him in her arms and-- Why couldn't she reach him? Every inch she seemed to crawl forward, he inched away. She had only his boot.
"Fuck, Tess… This was… what happened? This is so fucked up."
"Have either of you seen my mask?"
Tessa didn't respond. If she responded, they were really there and what she had just done had really happened. She choked out another withering sob and tried yet again to crawl to Matt. Then, she heard something. A click. She whipped around towards the sound, a terrifying sound, a bullet being chambered from across the rooftop. She saw him behind Clint and Wade and screamed. No sound came out.
For the second time that night, she felt the sick, hot spray of blood. For the second time, she watched a body crumple onto that same rooftop, a body who had just been someone she loved.
"Who's the best marksman now, feathers? Hey, Wade… you're looking uglier than normal." Bullseye shot the gun from Wade's hand and then proceeded to pepper him with the rest of his clip and then another and then another. "There. That'll keep him quiet for a bit." He kicked what was once a limb off the roof and stepped towards Tessa. "So, how're you enjoying my murder spree? Sure teaching you for not dying right and proper, ain't it?"
Tessa had nothing to say. Her brain was short-circuiting.
"This one… this one surprised me with that karate bullshit. Still tagged him though, didn't I?"
That second bullet ripping into Matt sure snapped her out of it, though.
"For good measure. Yikes!" He dodged the swiped she took at him. Still so fast. But he must not have been expecting her to pick up the sword. He wasn't fast enough to avoid it. "OH! Wow… lost a bit of deltoid there… Good thing I'm not pitching anymore! Well… enjoy the rest of the show, girlie!"
Tessa lunged at him again and missed, but this time it was because he had disappeared, just melted into thin air. He was gone, a piece of his shoulder the only thing left, assuring Tessa that she hadn't just hallucinated him. That and the two lifeless bodies. She had never seen Wade regenerate before, but even so, she was pretty sure the horrific spurting sound she heard coming from his mutilated body meant that he was reforming. There was at least that. Exhausted through and through, deep down into her bones, Tessa dropped back onto her knees and gathered Matt to her again. She was done now. She could just give up.
"… had really wanted to, I would have, for you. I guess, if it were with you, it would be worth it." Tessa paused her rocking and glanced up at the sky. The sun hadn't come up yet, it might never have actually risen again and that wouldn't have surprised her. But still, the lighting was different. Suddenly, the world lost its eerie sepia tint. "Something weird is happening, Matt. I might be dying, too."
"No, Theresa. You're not dying."
"Y--You're dead… I saw you dead on a gurney. They wheeled you away."
Though it was pale and transparent, Tessa knew the form in front of her wasn't a ghost. It was Strange's astral projection. "While I daresay it's touching that you are concerned enough about me that I be included in your nightmare scenario, I am happy to assure you that I am not, in fact, dead."
"You're not really here, Theresa."
"No, you're not really here… You're… you're haunting me or something."
"No. No, happily, you are mistaken. A little bird-- well, a large, mouthy bird paid me a visit, alerted me to the fact that and that his avian likeness was being plagiarized and, more importantly, that you were deep in the clutches of a fear demon. And, lo and behold, here you are, drowning in your worst fears…"
"I--I don't… This isn't real?"
"Well, that's debatable. But, our reality is not this one. Now, you should free yourself, and quickly, because if you're here that means there's a rather heinous demon possessing your body at the moment."
"Free myself?" She gestured at the roof around her. "You think, if I could, I wouldn't have done that already?!"
"You didn't know that this wasn't your reality. Now, you do. Oh, but first, I would encourage you to search out the demon's avatar and scour its mind. It did not prey on you of its own initiative. There was a summoning…"
Tessa gently dislodged herself from beneath Matt's body. "And just how am I supposed to do all that?"
"This is a thought construct… merely think it."
"I've been thinking a whole hell of a lot of things and none of them have happened..."
Even in astral form, Strange could roll his eyes like a pro. "There is a vast gulf between the thoughts involved in wishing that something would happen and those involved in willing things to happen. Have you learnt nothing from our lessons together?"
"Hhhch... yeah. That's definitely you, Stephen. Disdainful as usual." Tessa brushed the gravel from her palms and immediately noticed the blood and gore were gone as well. That was something, but it was small time. She glanced back up at Strange, hoping for some tips, tricks, maybe a lesson. He was pretty damned good with the condescending but instructional comments. "Okay, I've got the idea, but... Can't you help?"
"Sadly, no… I'm just a projection, but you could use the axe…" His eye gleamed a bit as Tessa held out her hand.
"Yeah, I like that idea." There, in her empty palm, the giant golden battle axe slowly materialized. Around it, Mnemosyne's suit climbed up her arms and over the rest of her. "I like this big ass axe."
"There… Now, go cleave something."
"I'm thinking legs… harder to run away without 'em."
"Good, and Theresa? Don't dwell on what you see here…"
"Sure thing, Stephen…" She glanced back over her shoulder at Strange's fading projection just in time to see the skin rotting off of Matt's skull. "Not dwelling at all… Now, if I were an entity of fear, just where would I hole up? In the scariest fucking place, of course…"
Tessa hefted the axe onto her shoulder and focused on the last place she ever wanted to go again, opening her eyes inside Dr. Morris's office.
"Huh… Didn't expect to see you lucid this quick… or with a battle axe. Say, is that Stra-- ack!" The thing that had been parading around as Tessa's murderer crumpled into a heap on the ground. It was indeed much harder for it to stand when she cut its knees out from under it. Now, significantly uglier, all slime and spines, it waved its claws up at her, red eyes wide. "Whoa! Whoa! Girlie, we can make a deal, you and me. No need to get slicey!"
"Wrong. I like slicing. Feels good. And, you're a bag of dicks that could stand-- ha… stand--"
"Stand! Ha! That's good--" It shut its greasy lips as she held the axe to its neck.
"Shut. Up. A bag of dicks that could stand to be cut down a bit. Now… who summoned you?"
"What? Summoned me? You got it all twisted, sister."
"Magic battle axe says you're the one's got it all wrong…" She swung the axe down again, this time taking off both its thighs.
"AAAAHHHH! You're good at this. You should stay, apprentice as a torturer, they get good benefits--"
"Who summoned yo-- you know what? Forget this. I'll dig it out for myself."
"You tried that before, sugar, didn't work."
"That's because I didn't know I needed to be looking in other dimensions. Sugar."
The axe nestled itself deep in the demon's stomach with a satisfying squelch and Tessa grabbed either side of its pustule-riddled head. It was horrifically unpleasant, dipping into this thing's memories, an assault on all of her senses, but it only lasted for a moment. The summoning was right on the surface, complete with the face she had been hoping very hard wouldn't pop up. Apparently, her will could only alter reality in this dimension. How unfortunate.
"Morris. Morris summoned you?"
"Y--Yeah… so I used his office… wha--" His head was cleft from his neck with just as satisfying a squelch. Tessa kicked it and then pushed over the mangled trunk.
"That's for making me watch everyone I love die." She swung the axe again, this time through the air, sending a spray of purple sparks. Reality was rent apart. It bled and pulsed and melted. In half a breath, Tessa blinked her eyes to find herself sitting instead in her office. There was no mutilated demon corpse, no giant golden axe. The lights were dim, but not yellow-tinted and there was no reek of old peaches and ammonia. Instead, Strange was sat, sipping tea across the desk from her, and the magpie was perched on the windowsill. Tessa's head was spinning. "Wh--What happened?"
Strange pushed a second cup her way, the soft fragrance of snow bud wafting up to her. "You exorcised yourself. Well done, Theresa… Now, pay attention. Far too much has transpired in the past forty-eight hours for you to not pay attention…"
Chapter 5: Backlash
"FORTY-EIGHT HOURS?!" Tessa made it out of her chair on sheer adrenalin. That adrenalin was not enough, however, to keep her standing. She quickly melted, jelly-legged, back into her chair. "How-- uh… How could I have been MIA for forty-eight hours without anyone noticing?"
<<That would be the fear demon's doing… You appeared normal while it possessed your body.>>
Tessa cut her eye at the magpie. "I appeared normal? What about… I have people in my life, people who care about me, people who should have noticed that I was acting differently."
<<A blind man and a drunk?>>
Strange cleared his throat. "Fear demons are very convincing parasites. It had access to your mind, it could play the role expertly. Though, I fear you may have some explaining to do to your… beau. Romantic relationships are very foreign to demons, at least how humans engage in them."
"That's just… lovely. Lovely. Okay… so, is everyone alright? I need to find Matt and Jess and--"
"You need to wait. You need to recover control over your body. You need to hear what has happened." Strange flicked his wrist, Tessa's chair rolling over to catch her as she stumbled again.
"Fine. Fine… what happ-- wait. If I was acting normal, how'd bird-brain figure--"
<<I know when there's some lowly hell-rat pretending to be me…>>
"He has an alarm spell incanted for impersonation, luckily for you, across multiple dimensions," Strange explained and then held up his hand. "How it happened is less pressing than what has happened while you were possessed. I must prepare you so that you may resume day-to-day life without… drawing attention to what you've suffered. I doubt the government would take kindly to the idea of one such as you being vulnerable to demonic possession."
"Fair point. Alright, what did I miss?"
PICKING UP THE PIECES
There was an eerie sense of déjà vu to the trip Tessa took down the stairs. She even stumbled over the same four steps on the way. Fortunately for her, though, there was a healthy buzz of activity inside the law offices of Nelson and Murdock. The gore she saw painted everywhere was just a trick of her brain. Aftershock images Strange had called them, scars from her traumatized psyche. He'd warned her they might plague her for days or, with her memory, possibly forever.
Foggy was just seeing out a client, crate of bananas in his arms and a smile on his face. No great seeping hole in his chest. Karen was on the phone, talking quickly and agitatedly about something, her hair perfect, complexion rosy. No bullet holes. Tessa carefully edged around the pool of blood she was imagining on the floor and sat in one of the chairs they had set up beside some fans. A glance over her shoulder found that Matt was not there. She had to ignore the knot in her stomach and act like everything's fine, like she hadn't been tuned out for two whole days.
"Mr. Sanchez, I'll be right with you. Hey, Tess. What's up?" Foggy smiled at the other clients and waved Tessa into his office. "I only have a moment. You need something?"
"Uh… actually, I was just here to see if you guys need anything. I'm… uh, going to run some food to Matt. I could pick something up for you as well."
"Oh, don't worry about it, Tess, thanks. Ms. Vennetti has us set up for a few days with this casserole she brought in. Just, uh…" He caught her elbow as she turned for the door. "When you get over to Matt's… he's… he's in a mood. Okay? Rough night. Speaking of, why'd you bail on us the other night for Josie's?"
"Yeah, that… Had some client trouble. You know. But, uh... yeah. Thanks for the heads up, Foggy." She gave Karen a little wave on the way out, smile plastered in place. It was only once she was outside the office that she visibly began to panic. Foggy giving her a heads up about Matt's 'mood' wasn't just friendly, it was a real warning. Matt was in rough shape. "Oh god, Matt… what did you get up to?"
The moment Matt answered the door, before he could even react to her being there, she kissed him. The relief she was feeling almost helped her to overlook just how much he looked like trampled shit. He winced a little as she held his face and inspected him. The bullet hole in his forehead she was seeing wasn't real, but the cut on his cheek was. That was when the tears started.
Matt pulled her from the hallway and closed his door. "Hey, hey… What's going on?"
"I'm sorry… I was just… I was really worried. Foggy used the code word and I thought that I was going to find you unconscious and bleeding or something." She couldn't take her hands off of him, fidgeting with his shirt and smoothing his hair. He was alive and moving and warm. And she might have been suffering from some emotional exhaustion.
"Well, you know Foggy…" He tried to smile, but it withered quickly. The way he was moving, holding his head… maybe Matt was in rougher shape than he was pretending. "But, I'm okay, see?" He moved her hands and pressed them flat against his chest. "Everything's fine."
Tessa wrapped her arms around him and listened to his heart beat, relaxing when he cradled her head there, fingers running through her hair. "You're a liar… but I get it… I'm a hysterical mess, you gotta soften the blow a little bit."
"You did surprise me… crying in the hallway like that… I've been in tougher spots with you before." With a deep breath, he disentangled himself from her and slowly eased onto the couch.
"Yeah, um… I've gotten a lot of bad news today." She saw him pick up on the slight lie of omission there, but he let it pass. "So, what happened?"
"Concussion. Hearing's been… in and out. Not my best day…" He chuckled a little and reached for her hand, but Tessa had noticed his uniform on his bed, was bee-lining for it.
She scooped up the helmet, finger running over the fracture above the eyes. "How'd you manage to bust this? You fall from a roof?" Tessa could hear her voice pitching up, but it was all she could manage not to full-out preemptively panic. Matt was on his feet, eyes rolling a little as he lost his balance.
"No… It's not as bad as it looks."
"Really? Because you just almost fainted. What split your helmet, Matt?"
He snapped off a thread from his t-shirt, grimacing after a moment. "Bullet. I should've heard him--"
If he had anything else to say, Tessa didn't hear it. The was a deafening whooshing in her ears and her vision warped like microwaved styrofoam. She was hyperventilating. And yes, she was definitely suffering from some emotional exhaustion. Hands, warm and gentle, found her and led her to the couch, then rubbed her back and settled on her chest, helping to guide her breaths. At some point she had started crying. Tears dripped down and splattered her skirt. Tessa watched them while the world straightened out, until Matt lifted her chin up.
"…'ll heal. It's not permanent and I'll be more careful. I certainly won't underestimate him again. But, I need you to stop panicking, because if you keep freaking out... my brain's bruised, I might freak out, too, and then we'll be in really hot water. There. There you are… Do you want some water?"
She was no longer having a panic attack, but Tessa was definitely still crying. "No, I'm fine--well, I'm not fine, but I'm also not thirsty." She wiped at her cheeks and picked up the helmet, setting it on the coffee table. "You're not allowed to get shot in the head, you understand me?"
"Trust me, it's on my list of things to always avoid." He wiped away the next round of tears, still spilling onto her cheeks. "I understand why you're upset… but… are you feeling alright? Upset is one thing, panic attack is a whole other. This deserves upset, I'm not so sure it deserves panic attack… I am still up and about…"
"It's… the last few days have been bad… really bad. One thing piling up on another." Just because he couldn't see her face, didn't mean he couldn't sense the grimace fighting it way over her eyes and mouth. Tessa rubbed at the now itching tear streaks on her cheeks and strategically changed the subject again. "Tell me about the gunman."
"Military-trained. Military gear. Fast. He can take a hit and keep on coming. Shoots to kill, so no scruples to keep him in check that I know of. But his gear makes noise and keeps him more stationary than me. And, he likes tactics, makes plans… so maybe I can lure him out. I do know that I can outpace him, dodge him… now that I know how he fights."
"He shot you in the head, Matt… Maybe…" Her voice broke, the dam of tears opening back up again, "maybe this isn't one that you take on with your fists and fury. Maybe you let the--"
"Foggy's already run that one by me. Come on, Tessa, you heard what I just said. Police aren't the answer."
"I need you to be okay. I need you to be smart about this. You're not allowed to get shot in the head." The bullet hole, lurid and glistening was staring at her. She had to look away, bury her face in his chest, and return to letting all her pent up fear and grief come bursting out of her.
"Hey, hey, Tessa. This is what I'm talking about. You're not like this. You don't do distraught, not unless it's damned tragic. What's going on with you? Talk to me." She let him sit back and inspect her face, fingertips barely tracing her features. "You've seemed distracted the past few days. Is this that? Did something happen?"
"Someone's been messing with me. With… our community in the state it's been, death has been… looming. I don't like staring it in the face. I'm scared of it. Not for myself… I don't get to die, but for everyone I love. It's something I don't like thinking about that is insisting I face it-- or someone is making it so that I have a constant reminder of its… ninety-nine point nine, nine, nine percent inevitability."
"Inevitable, but not immediate. I'm not dying anytime soon. I have too much to do and you know how stubborn I am once I set my mind on something."
Tessa scoffed, wiping at her nose. "If only it worked that way."
"It can to an extent if I'm smart. And I will be smart about this. I'm going to get the trigger happy maniac off the streets and shut down the gang wars. It'll be fine. Less death at home, at least. Okay?"
"For fuck's sake, that's what I'm worried about. I'm afraid of you being out there. I'm afraid of you going out there and getting shot again, getting shot in a really serious way. God, I'm tired of being afraid…"
Matt gently pulled her lip free from where she'd been chewing at it. His thumb stayed there, smoothing the dented skin. "Do you want to go see my priest again?"
"No… I have something more proactive in mind, but it'll take some doing and I have other errands to do today. ... Hopefully, I can finish them without breaking down in tears again."
His fingers caught her chin as she turned to stand. "I'll see you in the morning?"
"It better be in the morning… I'll have my… ears out for you, Murdock."
He kissed her lightly. "Thank you for not asking me not to."
"I'm not an idiot. I knew who you were getting into this. Okay… One more for luck." Tessa snatched another kiss, for obvious reasons. But, really, she sat there that moment longer to look him over, to ingrain him whole and (mostly) healthy in her mind's eye over that cursed image of his murder that was still lingering there. "Tomorrow morning."
By this point in the day, it was more likely than anything that Jess had finally made it into her office. It wasn't too far from Matt's and, if she walked, she could stop by that one restaurant and pick up that monstrosity of sandwich for Jess. Fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in hand, Tessa hoofed it up the semi-converted walk-up and to Jess's office.
"Hey, I don't know if I've been weird the past few days or anything, but here's an apologetic King Club, just in case."
Jess pulled out her earbuds and grinned at the paper bag now in front of her. "Very considerate, chica. But… don't you remember? It's Danny you really gotta apologize to, putting your tongue down his throat, getting his hopes all up and hard."
"Wh--What?" If it were possible, the blood would have been draining from Tessa's face right about then.
"It's a joke, chica. Christ…" Jess looked up from the sandwich, which she seemed about ready to make love to, and narrowed her eyes. "Wait, do you really not remember the past few days?"
"I--I don't really have time to explain, but no… I don't… Magic shit."
"I fucking hate magic."
"Me too. So, to recap: King's Club for you and… I didn't actually make a move on Rand, right?"
"Yum and no, you didn't."
"Okay… thank fuck. No more jokes about molesting the dragon boy. They're not funny."
"Noted. Too real. And it's not like he would've required an apology anyway."
"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that comment through the peanut butter." Tessa paused at the door, glancing over her shoulder to make sure her best friend was still in fact alive. She was, and unabashedly diving face first into a peanut butter mess. "Later, Jess. Love you."
"You, too. Especially after this piece of heaven you brought me…"
Her next errand didn't require any particular destination, she could take care of it on the go. So, jogging back down the stairs of Jess's building, Tessa pulled out her phone and dialed a number she hadn't thought about in a long time. Apparently her phone still had the contact saved, though. A bullseye and shit emoji popped up as it began to ring back. And it rang back quite a number of times, but finally a vaguely familiar voice answered.
"Hey, it's the memory lady. Hey, memory lady…"
"Lang, um… is Clint there?"
"He's occupado at the moment. Can I take a message?"
Tessa dragged a hand down her face. "Uh… no… Actually, you can tell me this. Is everything okay, Lang?"
"Yup! Hunky dory! Nothing bad happening right now at all-- oh."
There was a rustling and a few muffled words before the line became clear again. "Tess, things aren't great, but they're not catastrophic. You need something? I've got four minutes."
It actually alarmed Tessa how good it was to hear Clint's exhausted, glum, long-suffering voice. "Oh, I was just checking to make sure everyone was… you know, alive."
"We're all alive. Trying to figure out how to make this life on the run thing work. But, we're waiting for a relay from you-know-who, so I can't be on cell service for long… Anything else?"
"It's a hunch… but, I'm pretty sure, um… arm-guy was… um… sorta mind-controlled."
"That's pretty much what we figure, too. Communication's been spotty, but word is you say the trigger word and poof! got yourself a world-class, brainwashed murder weapon. 'Kay, Tess, been a pleasure, but I gotta go."
"Be safe!" A look at her phone found the end call screen already fading to black. For a moment, she entertained the thought of slamming it into the ground, sending it to join its predecessor in the cellular afterlife. But people had begun to stare at her as she stood there and she was only a block or so away from her office. Couldn't get a reputation for mental instability when she was paid for poking in people's minds. She would just have to cope with the uncertainty of her friends' safety sans phone violence.
"Why is this my life?"
Clint's frustrating vagueness wasn't the only reason Tessa was leaning towards throwing a temper tantrum. She was absolutely loathe to face the chore awaiting her back at her office. She had forty-eight hours' worth of phone calls, messages, emails, and appointments to go over with a fine-toothed comb in order to assess just what kind of subtle, insidious damage the fear demon had inflicted on her life, professional and otherwise.
The universe, however, was not without mercy, it seemed. Though, it had a funny way of dolling it out. And by funny, this really meant painfully sadistic. The first message she reviewed from during her out-of-body hell-staycation absolutely sent this chore to a skidding, tear-filled halt. Tessa was so blindsided by its contents that she had to listen to it a second time in order to actually process its news.
"Hello, Dr. Bisho. I'm sorry to call at this hour, however, I felt it was appropriate for you to be informed, as one of Ms. Carter's attending physicians. I am aggrieved to report that we lost Ms. Carter sometime last night. She passed in her sleep, peacefully. I know it is of little condolence, but she spent her final conscious hours in a state of perfect lucidity. She knew where she was, even what day it was when I helped her to bed. She was happy and calm and I'd like to think her final memories are ones of happiness. Her family wanted that I should extend their thanks to you for restoring to Ms. Carter the fullness of what days she had left. I know you are unable to travel, but a memorial service will be held in London next week. An announcement will be sent to your offices later today. Do take care, Dr. Bisho. Goodbye."
There was no stopping it this time. Tessa did slam her phone to the ground, sending shards of plastic across her tile. It did nothing, though, to soothe the pain and anger boiling up in her chest. The cups of pens and lamp were next, flung from her desk as she lashed out at the unfairness of the world. "I had only seen her twice!" she sobbed to the uncaring aether, "there was still so much she had to give! She was responding! She was doing better! The drug and magic damage was--"
With a squeak of her heel, Tessa stopped pacing and whipped around to her desk. "He knew. That fear demon knew and taunted me with it. How could he have known? Demons don't do future scrying…" Storming back, she ripped open the drawer, the tiny glowing disc already expanding. "But, he wouldn't need to look into the future if he had insider knowledge… if Morris knew this was bound to happen. All that magic and drug interference coming off of her… I should have seen this already! Put two and two together! Not content to just haunt me with nightmares… motherfucker's gotta make me live them, gotta make me responsible for ruining other people's lives…"
The 'Mo' aisle appeared immediately, Tessa's slammed footfalls making no noise as she tramped down it. "If he is responsible for this… " she growled, unable to finish the threat. There was no consequence she could fathom yet that would answer his deeds. The spine labeled 'Orwell Morris' was easy enough to find and Tessa flipped angrily to its index. Anything like 'demon' or 'black magic' or 'Agent Carter' would suffice to prove his guilt. Tessa's search was interrupted, however, by the tinkle of the front desk bell. It rang twice and then rang three more times, more persistently. In a blink, her library dissolved, leaving Tessa sitting in the dark, blinking at Tony fucking Stark.
"…Bisho, I know it's late, I'm sorry, but this is… this is a big thing… Are you here? Hello?" Leaning over, he waved a hand in front of her face.
"Yeah, I'm here, Stark… now."
"You…" Fingers wiggled in front of his face, "had the disco eyes of doom revved up to full glow there. Can we turn on some lights?"
"Sure… better to see the wreck my life has become…" Tessa flipped on the overheads and glanced at the little antique clock on her shelf. "I lost track of time."
Stark hardly gave the shattered remains of her phone a second glance as he stepped over them to sit down. "Yeah, I was surprised to see you pinging here still… it's almost ten. Anyway, here's the deal. Steve has gone off the deep end. He and his dynamic duo escaped UN holding and are… expertly avoiding detection. Ross and his goonies are threatening something way more permanent than a stay in the slammer if they aren't brought in soon and quietly. I've got nothing to go on and I don't want to say goodbye to the old man over a box in the ground. I'm the one who's supposed to go first, in a blaze of idiotic glory. Aiding and abetting a fugitive is not going to be Steve Rogers's final legacy. Can you help me out, Beesh? Can you give me something to work with?"
"Did you know that Peggy Carter passed away the other night?"
His eyes dropped, "I heard that, yes."
"You think Cap will be able to attend her funeral?"
"If he cooperates with authorities, there's a chance…"
"You know that's not true."
He shrugged a shoulder and looked away, leaning over to pick up a sliver of her ruined phone. "I'm guessing that's a 'no' on the tracking."
"For what it's worth, Barnes was brainwashed."
"We all know that, Tessa. Hell, you and I have had this chat already. Are your nanobots glitching your brain again?"
Tessa sighed and set her lamp back on her desk, straightening it's shade. "No, I mean… in Berlin, someone triggered him to return to his Winter Soldier programming. That wasn't him in there. It wasn't his fault."
"And you know that… how exactly?"
"It's… let's just say I have a hunch."
"A hunch?" Stark scoffed, rubbing his face. "Bisho, you know hunches aren't good enough. I can't pull up to Ross's office and tell him 'Barnes is a victim' on a hunch. You gotta give me something real here. … Where is he?"
"If I tell you, then what happens?"
"We track them down and they're… tried for… their crimes."
This conversation was weighing on Stark. Tessa could see the bags under his eyes deepening as they spoke. "He ran. Twice, Tess, they ran twice. They… they have to be held accountable for that… so, no, not like you. They've actually earned this."
"But, Barnes is a victim, like me. Except he's been scared and alone out there for a few years now, picking up his mind and putting it back together like a paper that's gone through a shredder. Not supported by friends, but hunted down like an animal for something I'm damned sure he didn't do."
He had never looked older there, looking up at her like one of her patients, lost and confused. "I have instructions, Tessa… I'm just trying to--"
"Steer into the skid, I know. Your heart's in the right place, Tony. I can't fault you there, but who am I to say that it'll lead us all to what is for the best? Besides, the Accords committee has already had their say in this matter. They want me having no part in this. I have to play the good little guard dog and stay on the leash, muzzle in place."
The shard of plastic spun like a coin on Tessa's desk. "All I want is to keep everybody safe."
"Tony? Why haven't you ever come to me and asked for help… for yourself? I'm good for more than restoring memories. I'm also pretty good at reintegrating the traumatizing ones…" The pain and regret had stunk too sharply for Tessa to just let lie.
"You pulled that one outta left field…" He stood with a sigh. "Right, I know when I'm on the losing side of a debate by now… I'll have a new phone sent over in the morning. And thanks for the chat, Tess." A knock on her desk and he turned towards the door, not a glance back. "Bill me."
"Brainwashed…" Tessa mumbled to herself as the bespoke lines of Stark's suit disappeared into the gloom of the hallway. "Brainwashed…"
Back down the rabbit hole that was Orwell Morris, Tessa discovered several things for certain. The first was that the sick fuck had absolutely summoned that fear demon and sicced it on Tessa. The second was that, for the past half a decade or so, he had been fastidiously cultivating a garden of Tessa's so-called weak points. It was with a list of these possible points of attack that he had approached the fear demon and assigned his task. At the top of his list: her loved ones' (feebly gained and desperately maintained relationships, by his reckoning) mortality, her disinhibition spells, and numero uno, Morris himself. That little bit of psychotic self-absorption almost drove Tessa to rip the page from its book--which would have ripped that memory from him. But, this wasn't what enraged Tessa the most. Nor was it the fact that making her pay for his humiliation had come to dominate Morris's life to an obsessive, homicidal degree. It was the growing collection of things that she couldn't find out for certain that made Tessa the mouth-foaming kind of angry.
"Motherfucker!" She screamed, hurling the reference volume down the aisle. It flipped end over end a few times before skidding to a halt, pages rumpled and spine split open. It was the third appendix she'd sought out from a reference in Morris's index that had turned up gibberish. Brainwashing's entry had turned up an item that was partially redacted and the rest was in nonsensical characters. Others had shown up in similar fashion or had even been blank when Tessa checked. It seemed Morris had cooked up a way to tamper with his own memories, to encrypt them from her.
When Tessa returned to Morris's original text and thumbed through its pages, she found that its own entries had begun to be converted likewise. One even shivered and changed in front of her eyes into outlandish pictograms. "That motherfucker!" With more force than necessary, Tessa shoved his volume back onto the shelf, but that was going to be her last act motivated by anger. Probably. It was most certainly going to be the last thing she did in her memory library for the moment. There was no point in her stampeding through it if she couldn't read the plans Morris had been making. She knew her limits. There were other pathways to uncovering what he was up to, but not while she was this incensed, not while she wasn't properly processing her grief and fear.
No, it was time to stop herself before she did something truly reckless, something that would get her arrested. So, library shrinking back into her desk drawer, Tessa grabbed her keys and marched herself home. No cab ride, no bus. She walked the whole way. Mostly because there was fire in her veins and she couldn't slow down enough to find a ride, but also in hopes of clearing her head with some fresh air.
It was well after one by the time she got to the apartment and, while the walk had cooled her down some, she was in no state to sleep. Jess was out and Matt was sure to still be after the crazy gunman, so Tessa made some tea and a grilled cheese and planted herself on the couch to watch nature documentaries until she calmed down enough to fall asleep. Except she never fell asleep. She was in the middle of a rather inspired call-and-response with David Attenborough when her alarm clock went off. Managing not to smash that, Tessa shut off the alarm and hopped into the shower. She would just be showing up at Matt's that morning yet again without any sleep.
In the mounting seconds that followed Tessa's first knock, a whole host of horrifying scenarios flitted through her head. Matt laid out on some roof, bleeding away the last of his life, crumpled in an alleyway like yesterday's garbage, on a conveyor belt into some toxic chemical bath. She knocked again, harder, before the images of Matt already dead could start cropping up. Shifting her weight from one foot to the other, she let another few seconds pass. Just phasing inside was becoming harder to resist. She wiped her hands on her skirt and then knocked again. At the sound of the locks disengaging, Tessa could finally breathe again.
"You scared the shit outta me," she mumbled.
"I know, I know," he responded softly from the other side of the door. "I was getting changed."
The door opened just a few inches and Tessa slipped inside quickly. "This is why I keep suggesting that you get some proper curtains." She waved at Matt, still in a hodgepodge of Daredevil armor. "Did you sleep in that?"
"If you can call it that."
"Well, you look horrible, but at least you're alive." She reached up and brushed the hair off his face, taking the illusion of the bullet hole with it.
He pressed her palm to his cheek, turning and kissing the inside of her wrist. "I had a hell of a night."
"Tell me about it."
"Are you okay, Tessa?"
She knew she couldn't falter in her response, not a pause before she answered, or he'd pick up that she was keeping something from him. "No, really, tell me about it."
He sighed and slipped past her towards his room. "I'd rather not… I have a funeral to attend in a few hours. Help me choose a suit?"
Who was she kidding? He heard it, her heart-racing. And why lie? People lie to hide things, hide things they're feeling guilty about. Tessa shouldn't feel guilty. She was the victim. She wouldn't be put in this position by Morris again. Never again. "Matt… I'm not okay."
"You're gonna tell me now?"
She followed him to his closet, tugging on her hair, trying to figure out how best to explain this. Nothing was coming to her that seemed in any way 'best'. After a moment, Matt stopped feeling through his hangers and joined her on the bed. For ten beats, they just sat and breathed together. Ten beats until Tessa's pulse quieted. She stared at his hands, counting the new bruises and split skin on his knuckles. Her knee tapped his and she toed over his helmet on the floor, studied the patched up crack. He was looking at her, eyes unfocused and far away, but fixed on her mouth. Yanking on her sleeves, she studied her hands instead. This would be easier if she didn't have to watch his reaction.
"What? Morris Morris? From your hospital?"
"Yes. He's the one who's been fucking with me."
"Fucking with you how?"
"Playing mind games, making me live out my--"
"Yes, you told me that already. What has he been doing to you?" His words weren't snapped at her. They were spoken quietly, slowly, but they had sharp edges. Cutting to the point. The gears were turning in his head, his vigilante hackles had been raised.
This was the part, though, where Tessa had kept getting stuck. How to best explain her trip to nightmare world. How best to spell out her damage without spurring him into protective action. There was always the possible scenario that his route for protection would be to take Tessa out of the equation, either by going after Morris himself, or worse, by having her committed or the like. But, this was Matt, he would listen if she insisted hard enough. She was being paranoid again.
"He literally got inside my head. Now… I am completely and totally aware that what I'm about to say sounds batshit crazy, but… we live in a world where a person who calls himself the Sorcerer Supreme can be a legitimate witness in a criminal case. Okay. Morris found a way to… to… well, Matt, the simplest way to say it is he summoned a demon that possessed--"
Matt held up his hand, mouth dropping open. "I'm--wait. Wh--He did what?"
"He summoned a demon that--"
"A--A demon? My mind is wide open, Tessa, but a de--a demon? An actual, hell-spawn, demon?"
Tessa clicked her teeth. "I didn't even get to the really weird part yet. Yes. An actual demon. I figured we'd breeze past this part, you being Catholic and all. Aren't demons and that shit, like, part of your belief system?"
"Well… yes, but…" Matt was flexing his hands, brow furrowed. He was struggling with this.
"If you're getting tripped up by this part, the next bit is just going to lose you… Okay, then… let's put this in more palatable terms. Let's go instead with: Morris hired a magical telepath that took over my body and trapped my mind in a hell--ish dimension, in which he tortured me by making me live out my worst nightmares. As in, I felt them and heard them. They weren't just some dream. They were real there and I experienced them happening. You dying… Jess dead… everyone dead, actually. I lost control again, and in the… most horrific way and when people weren't bleeding to death, I looked at them and I could see their mortality, I could see them aging. You know… the shit that keeps me awake, shivering at night. But… uh… that's not the best part. Now… now, even though I'm back in my body, in the real world… it still happened, for me. I remember it viscerally. I see it, I smell it still, like it's been superimposed over this reality. Everyone's aging in front of my eyes… cells dying, molecules withering away. I see holes in their heads… in your head. Morris found a way to crawl inside my mind and sow fear and… and… now, I'm afraid all the time."
"Tessa… Tessa…" Matt's hands folded around hers, eyes almost looking into hers. "I--I don't really know what to say… I wish I could help. Say the word and I'll do what you need me to. Do--Do you want to talk about it?"
"No… not really… I want to avoid reliving it in any way, if at all possible, actually."
"We could-- how about Dr. Strange? Or, the other big players… There's bound to be a way to heal what's been done to you."
"I've spoken with Strange. He's the one… uh… who arranged the exorcism. It's some kind of psychic scarring. Nothing he can do and, besides, what I really need to do is to take care of the person responsible."
"Morris? We'll find him, make sure he's prosecuted with extreme prejudice. That I can guarantee. I'm… not so sure if this particular episode will be something we can prove in a court of law, but we can certainly try. He'll be put away forever either way. I can… I'll make sure he has his own nightmares to live with before then, though. If you want."
"No, this is… mine."
"I understand. If I were you I wouldn't want anyone else touching it. I… don't like the idea of anyone else touching you…" He caught a strand of her hair, let it run between his fingers. "But… you can take care of yourself. You don't need me…"
"Protecting me? No… you're entirely right, Matt. I only need you to take care of yourself. You are, however, allowed and… rewarded for caring about me being safe."
His fingers found her ear, tucked the strand behind it. "Rewarded?"
"Mm-hmm… I've been stuck in the dark and disturbing. I'm back here, wallowing in the dark and disturbing when I could be… returning to normal. I mean, I haven't had a normal for some time now, but I know what I would like to be my normal…" She stood up and plucked a suit from his closet. "I like this one. I think I'll join you in the shower."
Matt let her pull him to his feet by his belt. "I… do not mind this being the norm-- wait. Y--You said that you were possessed… When was this?"
"Kinda killing my lady-boner over here, Murdock… but, yes. That was Monday night, Tuesday, first part of Wednesday."
"Aaaand it's dead. That was an ominous 'oh'." Tessa extracted her hands from inside his suit and set them instead on her hips. "'Oh' what?"
"It's just… well, that explains…"
"God, what did it do?"
He was fidgeting, knuckling his eyebrow, scratching his jaw. Anything but answering. "Uh… n--nothing--well… something, but it's not… serious. I just… thought you were trying something new."
"You--it. It want me to… hit you… pretty hard. Among other things"
"Hit me? Like--ohmygod. You had kinky sex with me while I was possessed. … I can't believe I missed that."
"Yeah… I'm processing that, too--wait, what?"
"So, you like, what? Smacked me around a little bit?"
"Nothing… that would leave marks on anyone else. You'd been a little off, I thought you were trying to… spice things up. I'm an idiot."
Tessa shrugged. "I mean… I don't mind a spanking, maybe some hair pulling, and almost everyone likes handcuffs, but I'm not that hardcore. Di--Did you hit me? Did you like it?"
"No. God, no! I did not. I wasn't comfortable with that… But, what did happen... was still rough. I actually still have some bruises. … So, I--I--I had sex with a--with a demon."
"Technically, you had sex with me, but it was a demon driving."
Matt dragged a hand down his face. He looked lost. "I… need to go to confession. I feel unclean."
Tessa pressed the suit she'd chosen into his chest and then headed towards the door. "You and me both, Matt… you and me both. We'll, uh… try for normal later."
Chapter 6: Hit the Books
Nelson and Murdock were closed for the morning, what with funeral matters to attend to. It was just Tessa by herself up in her office, entirely alone, a fact that she felt especially keenly that day. There were no appointments on her books for the morning. None except one that wouldn't happen. She should have been seeing Peggy Carter at ten. Instead, at ten o' clock, she let two cups of tea go cold and stared at the memorial announcement sitting between them on her desk. At ten-thirty, she sipped at the tepid tea. She realized she was crying again when she tasted salt. Unfazed, she drank it anyway. Once both cups were empty, she opened her drawer and stared at the portal. The drawer was left open while she took the cups to the bathroom and washed them, while she watered her small collection of plants, while she scheduled bill payments, and while she finally sifted through her lost hours. Every once in a while, Tessa would glance over at it and try to bite through her cheek.
"Okay, chica, I pride myself on not digging into your dirt, 'cause I'm pretty sure I'd go batshit if I ever snooped down that rabbit hole, but… I gotta ask. What's in the drawer?" Jess was sat in Tessa's waiting room, chewing on a straw.
"Nothing? Huh. Nothing… Alright, so you just keep looking back over at it and what? Planning on things to go in there?"
"How long have you been here?"
She shrugged. "A few minutes. Long enough to notice a pattern. Something's crawled up your butt, and my excellent PI skills tell me that your butt-bug has something to do with what's in that drawer. Or, excuse me, what's not in that drawer."
"It's a magic thing, Jess. Sorry for acting like a shifty asshole just now." Tessa sighed heavily and ran her hands over her face. "For some reason, my first reaction to anyone anymore is to… to cover up whatever I'm doing and pretend like everything's peachy fucking keen."
Jess stood, tossing a bag to Tessa, and joined her in her office. "So, everything's not peachy fucking keen, then?"
"That'd be a solid 'no'." A burger, Jess's second food group besides peanut butter. "Thanks for this."
"I owed you. … This magic thing? It have anything to do with the magic stuff you mentioned yesterday?"
"It does… It does indeed. Morris-- you remember me mentioning him."
Jess flopped into a chair with a scoff. "Yeah. And, I do my homework. I know who that piece of shit is. What about him?"
"He's… pulling a Kilgrave."
Her feet slipped from Tessa's desk to the floor with a thump. Jess leaned in close toward Tessa, eyes hard. "What do you need me to do?"
"I'd say that I need to find him first, and then I'd let you off the leash on him, but... I'm afraid of what he'd do to you. Right now... I need to find him and then find a way to contain him. Normally, you know, I'd be set there. The thing in my drawer, it lets me access memories more easily. I can't use it on him, though. He's… found a way to hide himself from me. At the worst possible time, too. I need to take care of this before he can… do more of his nightmare stuff. He's already… uh-- See, Peggy Carter was a patient here, my patient. And, she was also in the magical bullshit brain trip that Morris cooked up for me. She--She had died there, in the nightmare. I wake up... and she's really gone. I... feel like that's too much of a coincidence, like that had to be orchestrated somehow. That sack of shit was discredited in the medical world, so logic says, if he did do something involving Ms. Carter, he had to do it through someone else. I was thinking about--"
"Don't you think if he could cover his tracks from you inside his own head, he'd do it to anyone else he fucked with or through, chica?" Jess leaned farther over the desk, pointed at Tessa's portal. "My bet? Your little Harry Potter puddle in there isn't going to be worth shit around him now. You've gotta find him the old fashion way. Make a pot of coffee, get on the damned internet, and find the trail he left while he was busy hocus-pocusing his memory out of your reach. Nothing's airtight. There'll be money. He'll have small-timers running his errands. He'll have left a line of shopkeepers and clerks behind who've sold him or his goons something. There'll be at least a few of them who'll remember him. That's where you start if you wanna use your shit, but you can find him without it, too."
"Yeah… yeah, that's a good point."
"You can go ahead and say it, I'm right. Now, you have my database credentials, a delicious cheeseburger, and what looks to be limitless free time. Sure. All out superhero in-fighting is not so good for superhuman business. But, it takes the attention off of you. You've got what you need, chica. Find this motherfucker. … You want me to stay and help?"
"I want you to stay and eat lunch with me. I've been alone too much lately with just this. Tell me how things are going with you."
"Yeah, I noticed your lawyer fuck-buddy was out of the office. Well, fine. I can do girl-talk. You want the PG version of what's been going on or do you want the fun version?"
"Fun version, Jess. Always."
"Done. Let's begin with the fact that I got paid yesterday. And, I didn't have to threaten anyone with bodily harm. Miracle. Second, I found this app. It's called iDrunktext or something and it's got pre-programmed messages in it and it totally self-destructively enables bad decisions. I've apparently already abused the hell out of it with Luke. He's threatening to change numbers. I don't know why he's complaining. I can sext much more proficiently with it. I mean, I can save tit pics as an auto-response, what's not to like? I think he's mad because Rand answered his phone the other night while they were out, though it's only a hunch…"
There was a reason Jess was a complete slob. It was a research thing. Well, that was a contributing factor. Tessa knew that now. When the investigation gets thick, when you're neck deep in the breadcrumbs, it's like shooting yourself in the foot to stop and drop the thread so you can throw away wrappers and take out the trash. You get sidetracked off the line you're following and you lose whole hours getting back on that train of thought. Unless, of course, you happened to have a perfect memory, but all the same, it was an immersion thing.
Four hours in and Tessa's office was a mess. A reprehensible mess. It was amazing how quickly the clutter could mount up. Even with her memory, when she was trying to connect seemingly disparate events, it was easier to write it down. As a result, Tessa had little index cards scattered all over her desk, rumpled ones listing dead ends tossed on the floor. Her laptop occupied a sacred, untouched corner of the desk, but besides it, every square inch was covered in leads and snack wrappers. She felt like she was writing a dissertation again.
So, when Tessa heard Matt's cane tapping out in the hallway, she considered being ashamed and rushing to dump everything into a drawer. But, that was that new impulse to hide, to lie, influencing her again. Instead, she put paused this CCTV clip, and started making some fresh coffee.
"Are you… starting a new hobby? Therapeutic scrap-booking?" Matt stooped over and collected one of her discarded notes. "With… index cards?"
Tessa chuckled, miraculously not for the first time that day. "No, though I might try to make that a thing… No, this is just some… old school gumshoeing."
"Gumshoeing? Did we go back in time?"
"Yeah, Chuckles, we did. You got time for a coffee? I made some."
"I can make time. Fifteen minutes." Matt's fingers wrapped around her hand, skated over her wrist as he accepted the cup. "Since you went through all the trouble of making this… and especially since there probably won't be time for anything else later."
He nodded. "Reciprocation for the open season against gang members lately."
"Ah, yes… Punisher…" Tessa sighed and dropped a stirrer in his cup. "Another night I'll be holding my breath, I guess."
"Seems to me…" Matt tipped his head towards her desk, "you were going to be up late anyways. Morris?"
"Yeah… I've almost figured out how he… you know, got inside my head. He didn't do it himself, he's a scientist first and foremost. If I can pin down his occultist then…"
"You have a path leading back to him. Good call. How are you finding his occultist?" He set aside his cane, sat down. Tessa joined him and, to her delight, earned a chuckle. "If I'd known we'd be sharing I would have sat in your chair."
"That would've been presumptive of you, Matt." She took his cup, left it on the desk. "I'm hoping to find who bought the book. There's only one spell book-- or so Strange has told me-- that contains the spell for the summoning used on me. There are only so many shops on this island that sell those types of books. Fingers crossed someone bought that book recently in order to perform that spell. If not, Strange is doing some Q and A around his circles for anyone who did the spell, in case it's a real professional who didn't need that book. Strength of the demon, though, points to an amateur."
"You're good at this. Wish we could've kept you at the firm."
"You mean, that you could've brought me on, right?"
"Right. I suppose I was just living in this outlandish fantasy where you had never been a part of a traumatic, invasive trial." He slipped the cup from her hands and set it on the desk, too. "You don't have anyone coming in, do you?"
"As a matter of fact, no… Maybe I'll just go lock up a little early… Lemme--"
But, Matt didn't untwine his hand from her hair. "I'll hear any visitors. Don't get up."
"Mm. You got it."
This. This was the kind of normal thing she could get used to, taking a break from research to toy with the definition of an office romance. Long lunch with Jess, a coffee break with Matt. Tessa would fight tooth and nail for this. It might not have seemed like much from an outside perspective, but it was enough. And, it included things like Matt's tongue. At that exact moment, Tessa would have valued that highly enough to justify a fight by itself.
"I'll call ahead next time."
Both Tessa and Matt jumped, like two teenagers caught in a parked car. They scrambled to straighten clothing and free their hands, but there was no recovering from the fact that Tessa was straddling Matt.
"Uh… Stephen… Sorry, I didn't… I wasn't expecting visitors." Into Matt's ear, red as hers felt, Tessa added under her breath, "didn't hear him, did you?"
Matt could only swallow a smirk. He was mostly occupied with still trying to slowly and inconspicuously remove his hand from up her skirt. He was failing.
"Clearly. I suppose I do abuse the privacy of your office at times with my comings and goings." Strange diverted his gaze towards Tessa's desk, skimming her index cards. "As I said before, I'll call ahead from now on. I drop by to inform you that it was no one of note who performed this summoning. I have word, too, from which hell the demon was called. Hellstrom noted a missing harrower from his father's domain. It seems your occultist used a brimstone version of the spell, that should narrow your search significantly."
"Yes, Stephen, thank you… That's… that's incredibly helpful."
"Mm. Yes, of course. Mr. Murdock, a pleasure to see you as always."
"I'll be in contact, Theresa. By phone."
"Bye…" Tessa dropped her head onto Matt's shoulder as soon as Strange disappeared. "Oh, fuck… my heart is racing."
"I know. Do you think he… saw anything?"
"Does it matter? We were very clearly caught in flagrante, no matter what exactly he saw. I'd say I'm embarrassed, but mostly I'm just startled."
"I'm embarrassed," Matt cleared his throat and slipped back on his glasses. "Well… I hate to end it on this sort of note, but… I need to go. I should have been gone by now. Need to stop by Melvin's…"
"He fix the helmet?" Tessa stood with him, hands refusing to cease touching.
"Better. Made me a new one."
"What's the rush? Sun's still out."
"Karen's stirring the pot with the DA. She smells a rat with this Punisher thing-- and she's probably not wrong --but this is dangerous territory. It'll be safer for everyone involved if the Punisher is off the streets and we can question him. That way, it'll just be career suicide territory we're getting into if-- when Karen keeps digging… So, sooner I track him down the better."
Tessa stepped in front of the door, poking a finger into his chest. "Remember your priorities, Matt. You can't keep anyone safe if you're shot."
"Oh, I intend to finish this. And, also… this." He grabbed her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist. "Tomorrow morning."
"I'll be here all night if you finish up early." She watched him hurry down the hall with a sigh. "Hate to see you go, but love to watch you leave… Right. Back to work, Bisho. We're getting close… focus time. Luckily, I now have two cups of untouched coffee to help…"
Strange's tip paid off. In fact, it cut the job ahead of Tessa in half. Knowing one of the specialty spell ingredients meant she could cross-reference customers between the bookshops and the two bulk shops on the island that sold occult items under the table. People weren't necessarily eager to answer questions over the phone about that sort of thing but, with a little encouragement, Tessa was actually able to get a matching description of the buyer. White male, late thirties, light hair and eyes, and get this: a swastika tattoo on his neck.
How hard was it going to be to pin down a neo-Nazi interested in the dark arts?
Surprisingly, more difficult than Tessa had anticipated. Thanks to some HYDRA dipshit in Cap's era, mysticism was a virtual neo-Nazi rite of passage. But, Tessa had rap sheets on a whole slew of just this sort of douche bags at her fingertips. She just needed one to ping with Morris or Morris's tampering.
Two hours in and she was ready to slam her head through her desk. "How many of you asshats are there? For fuck's sake! You. You, Mr. Penrose. My money's on you… Rapists tend to stick together… love that affirmation."
A few keystrokes and Tessa knew where he was living. "You're in the right part of the city and… you're working for a chemical storage company. It's gotta be you. Geez! Who did your background check? There's no way they'd let you work there knowing what you've done… Unless… VeriChem is just as filthy as you are…" Tessa tapped her chin a few times and then made a note of that suspicion. "No PO on file… interesting… Where do you cash your checks? … Also in the right area. Time to see if my fancy little facial recog program saw you outside Baxter's and the Sack… Thank you, Natasha…"
His photo plugged into the very, very illegal program, Tessa meandered off to make herself a fresh cup of tea. Before the water was even boiling, her laptop blipped. A match.
"Gotcha, bitch… Now, lead me back to your boss…" But, a quick trip to her library revealed just what Tessa had been expecting, Morris had encrypted Nazi-Warlock's memory as well. "No shortcuts with you… that doesn't mean that I can't follow you to the mothership. There's a way… someone's seen you and your hate-tag. Someone will point me your way…"
<<A tracking spell, perhaps?>>
Tessa swiveled on the spot, narrowing her eyes at the magpie, but not pulling the curtains shut on him. That was only because he had helped her with the demon. "That's actually a good idea," she grumbled. "Too bad I have explicit instructions not to follow the suggestions of strange birds."
<<And what good would come to me from you performing a tracking spell? It was merely a passing thought. Besides, you're meant for better things than this, Tessie. If the maggot is eluding you, you simply burn it from the flesh it feeds on.>>
"What a disgusting metaphor…" Tea in hand, Tessa returned to her seat. "And I'm ignoring you."
<<Not very well. Perhaps because you know I'm right. I am quite well-versed in such matters.>>
"Oh, shaddup before I call the fuddy-duddy--wait…" She turned to the window, locking him with a searching stare. "I can't take your suggestions, but you are an expert… I can ask you magic questions, hypotheticals, can't I? No harm there…"
As well as a bird could, the magpie smiled. <<Well, yes, you certainly can… I may lie, though.>>
"I would expect nothing less. Okay… let's start with something basic. You seem to know a whole shit ton about me-- or you act like you do. Are there magical approaches to keeping me out of someone's memory?"
<<Now, that's a silly question, isn't it? You have no access to me…>>
"I'm not talking about the warding spell that you use to keep me from picking up ambient stuff. I don't know who or what you are. That's what limits my access."
<<Have you ever tried perusing the fuddy-duddy's memories?>>
Tessa sighed, she saw where this was leading. "Okay, so short answer: yes. But, with this guy it was odd. I can still access many of them, the problem was more about the memories themselves. Like he was encrypting them into some non-language."
<<A sphynx hex could achieve just such a thing easily. If he was able to set a fear demon on you, he already has the necessary components to be-riddle anything he wants for you.>>
"Lovely." Her pen clicked against the table as she considered how to word her next question. "Are there… techniques I could use… to make this encryption go away?"
<<There's always a way, Tessie dear. You, however, are not currently equipped to see it through. If you would only accept your potential and expand your-->>
"Yeah, yeah… embrace my higher calling or whatever it's going to be this time. I've heard that one before but I'm not drinking your Kool-Aid. So, the answer is no, I can't decrypt this… Just fantastic…"
The magpie hopped to the next window, head flicking around until Tessa looked up at it. <<I never said that… I said you were not currently equipped. I could certainly disperse this hex… if you were to-->>
"Again with the broken record, bird-boy. Shit. I'm not channeling my power through you either. That seems like a con if I ever heard one… What about…" She picked up her necklace, "if I used this focus… like it's supposed to be used instead of a background battery?"
<<That?>> It gagged. <<That stinks of the fuddy-duddy.>>
"So… it's connected to Strange?"
<<It's made of Strange, Tessie dear.>>
The pendant seemed to weigh heavier around Tessa's neck. She flicked it and watched the opal wink color as it spun around the chain. "So… if I used it to do something… he would know."
<<Oh, without question. … Is that a problem? Are you… planning to do something naughty?>>
"What?" She jerked around to the window, dropping the opal. "Naughty? No. Psshh. Naughty? Seriously? You're one… kinky kid. I'm just… I'm considering something that might be considered… uh… loop-hole-ish in nature. That's all. Say, on a completely unrelated topic… if I were to… excise a… cancerous body from living memory to… perform a biopsy, of sorts, that would… that wouldn't have any catastrophic effects, would it?"
The magpie's eye glinted extra beady as its quirked its head. <<Quite an ingenious loop-hole, Tessie dear. I must admit, I am stung that I did not come up with it first. However… to your question, that would depend upon how you define catastrophic. It would certainly unwind the reality of numerous lives, any that were connected to that cancerous body, unless you can construct a place-holder for it, as well as excise what it infected.>>
"Hmm… good to know."
<<Whatever you do, the fuddy-duddy will know if you use that.>>
Tessa tucked the pendant into her shirt. "Noted. Now, shoo… I've got a client coming up, I think."
<<I look forward to more of our chats, Tessie…>>
It hadn't been a ruse to get him to leave, Tessa really had heard footfalls on the stairs. A late afternoon walk-in it seemed. She got up and waved at the window until he was just a flutter of black feathers. She watched for a second, wondering where he went, being a glamor-disguised astral projection of a child. Predictably, it disappeared mid-flight. She shook her head and turned back to her desk, to find someone she most definitely had not expected.
"Dude. That was a big fucking bird."
"Uh… hi, Wade. Man, today is the day to visit me, I guess. Did I put out some kind of 'help, I'm lonely and sad' distress signal? You're the--wait. You could see the magpie?"
"Duh. It was right there and it was bigger than most chickens I eat."
"I don't think you're eating what you think you're eating, Wade… So, what can I do for you today?" Tessa nodded, as he happily waggled the instant drink mixes at her, and then sat back down.
He quickly dumped at least four into a single cup and filled it with hot water. "Man, it's good to see you back in business, pretty lady."
"Thanks… though, I was never in business--not this business."
"I made appointments with you, paid you for the brain massages… business." He peeled away the bottom of his mask and sipped at the concoction, immediately spitting it back.
"You never paid me, Wade."
"Uh, then what exactly was the point of all those drawings I made for you?"
Tessa stared at the off-brown sludge in the paper cup, now sitting on her desk. It occurred to her she might not have it in her today to dance this tune with Wade. "Yes, of course… How could I forget? So--"
"How could you forget? You feeling alright, pee-el?" He kicked his feet up on her desk, sipping that same drink again.
"I'm fine. It's nothing, just--" Another thought occurred to her. A neat little solution offered up by Deadpool's insane life. "You know, Wade? Actually, I'm not okay…"
"No? Who do I need to blow up?"
"No, no… It's nothing you can just fix with a pipe bomb… But… tell me, Wade. Your wife, she's got magic, hasn't she?"
He settled back down in his chair and continued nursing that drink. "The old lady? Aw, yeah, she's got all kinds a' higgidy-biggidy at her wonderful, pointy fingertips."
"Uh, right… So, if I were to ask you a favor, a magic favor, your wife could make it happen?"
"Oh, for sure. What'cha need, pretty lady?"
Grabbing the remains of her dagger from its drawer, Tessa slid it across the table to Deadpool. "This is irradiated vibranium. Stark's had a hell of a time trying to figure out what it's irradiated with. I'd put good money on it being something hocus-pocus. … I, uh… I've got a personal thing that requires a… tool that is not my mind and that can handle extraordinary stuff…"
"You've lost me, pretty lady. Why ya' handin' me this broken knife?"
"That dagger can cut me--me, Wade… And, I'm going to be hunting down some world class asshole, who I can't just remove from living memory because apparently that would be messy, and who's possibly like me--"
"With memory powers or uncuttable?"
"Possibly both. I'm gonna wanna cut him, no matter what… Understand?"
Deadpool stopped sniffing the dagger and grinned. "Oh… I understand." Reaching over a shoulder, he unsheathed one his swords and handed its grip to Tessa. "How'ya like the feel of this baby?"
Tessa stood and weighed the sword in her hand. "It's no battle axe… but, it sure is sharp. I love it."
"Consider it done, pretty lady. Tiny, little person like you… should have something to dismantle your nemesiseseses with if they show up, you know?" He sat back and let her swing it around a few times. "I'll even learn you how to use it right, though you're off to a good start. Pointy end out."
"That's perfect, Wade. Thanks. Oh! And one more thing…" She handed back the sword and pulled out her necklace again. With a shake, the pendant reverted to its full size. "See this? I need another one of these made."
"What is it?"
"It's called a focus. It amplifies and aims magical energies…"
"All I heard was Charlie Brown's teacher just then. I gotta call Shiklah for this…"
Tessa chose not to listen in on their conversation. Instead, she returned to researching the Nazi-Warlock on social media sites while Deadpool paced out in the waiting room. The idiot checked-in to dozens of places on a weekly basis. She'd figure out his haunts easily.
"It needs to be psychic magic gasoline?"
"Um… you're talking to me? Uh, yeah, something like that. Like an intuitive… magical accelerant. Yeah."
"That's the one, baby. Yup! Oh, hold please. She can do that for you, she only wants one of your nightmares in return-- a good deal --and she'll need a hair to make it."
"Tell her she can have any nightmare she wants," Tessa sighed, pulling out a hair and handing it to him. "Should I be nervous about the dark magic that that sounds like?"
Deadpool pressed the phone to his chest. "I find I'm happier all around if I don't think about that."
"A fair and popular coping mechanism. It's a deal…"
He gave her two thumbs up and mashed the phone back to his head. "We're a go! Oh, boy… You know it. I'm'a get a brain tune-up and then I'm there. You too, shnookums."
Tessa pushed the dagger into his hands as he turned back around. "For the sword, okay? Don't forget, it's gotta be made with this. Now… let's shake the cobwebs off your memories, shall we?"
Despite all the visitors and interruptions, the day had proven to be a productive one. The evening exceeded Tessa's expectations. Like Jess had insisted, Morris's underlings were where his defenses were weakest. The Nazi-Warlock, in particular, ended up being the rotted link. All that magic the man dabbled in, under Morris's instruction and on the side, corroded the techniques Morris was using to encrypt his activities from Tessa. With the help of his social media accounts, Tessa was able to poke in the right spots and shake free certain select memories. Morris was careful, where he himself was involved his methods were thorough. Tessa hadn't deciphered any of those memories, but she had compiled a list of other underlings from Nazi-Warlock's memories. Their patchy memories revealed a piecemeal portrait of a wide-spanning web of underworld activity reaching from petty things like tax evasion to magic brokering. Morris had accrued a following, either through influence, connections, brainwashing, or some combination of the above. He had seemingly unimpeded access to chemists and pharmaceuticals, suggesting that Tessa's suspicion about VeriChem had been on the right track, and he was getting creative, mixing drugs with magic.
Tessa knew this from two key jackpots. The first was one lowly runner who had happened to see a few things he shouldn't have a few weeks ago as he smuggled some creepy ass substance known only as Viral K from a Fisk underboss to Morris's checkpoint. Morris's memory alteration methods were impressive, but they weren't perfect. A glancing treatment for this kid meant that he retained some key information about the warehouse he brought the chemical compound to, namely, it was a lab. And Morris was testing his concoctions on humans. The second was the book Jess had so generously brought to the office at Tessa's request (and bribing), the Compendium Invocationis Exorcationisque, the other copy of the spell book used by the Nazi-Warlock. By cross-referencing the spell ingredients with the other inventory the Nazi-Warlock had apparently purchased over the past few weeks, Tessa was able to deduce a few other spells he had been cooking. His occultist had been busy. Paltry summonings aside, Nazi-Warlock had been put through his paces. He had enough ingredients to summon and bind a few times over, and more than just little fear demons. Worse, he had the goods at his disposal to brew up some mind-control curses, of all different flavors, none of them good. And then, there were all the purely verbal spells that she couldn't track usage of through ingredients.
Those jackpots didn't exactly leave Tessa feeling good, though, for obvious reasons. In fact, it seemed all the more imperative to uproot Morris from this operation. Also, she really wanted to discuss with Strange the unsettling availability of dark magical components to the general public. And why the hell he wasn't already on top of this nest of snakes operating in his territory. "Probably has something to do with Morris's memory alteration shit…" she mumbled to herself, flipping over to the last page of the spell book. "That's what all this comes back to… is him."
Setting aside the spell book, Tessa opened her portal drawer. Time to do what she'd been avoiding. Put all this evidence together and find out what it shows her. The test subjects Tessa had seen in Morris's lab-warehouse didn't have names in any of the memories she'd dredged up about them. She was stuck sifting through the card catalogue, hoping that by envisioning one of them in his battered state, she'd be able to will his memory to her. Surprisingly, that worked.
Tessa withdrew her hand and found the name Isaac Duong smeared across the card. A quick skimming of his volume immediately exposed the intense abuse his memory had taken. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Isaac…" she whispered, watching the seared, crumping pages float to the floor. The spine of his book was split and tattered. It's pages yellowing and curled, what of them were still bound. And the writing on the pages was mostly dulled past legibility, some was scribbled through with marker. There were things Tessa could make out, but she chose to take a more conservative approach to investigation. In a blink, she was in the 'rare books' section of her library, in the preservation room. There were still things Tessa could do to save this man's memory. She rebound the pages, replacing the ones that had fallen out, treated others with restoratives, sealed others to prevent from rot. With a good bit of time, she was able to remedy some of the toll Morris's experiments had taken, but it wasn't nearly enough.
"Not nearly enough…" She carefully turned through the pages about his time in the warehouse. It was the only place he'd known after the funeral. He'd woken up one day, his family lost, and the next as a prisoner in a place that smelled like urine and vomit. There were constant treatments, IV lines, but poor Isaac hadn't known what they were. He had been awash with fear and pain and then… nothing. There was confusion and exhaustion and then a dull echo, the numbness of brain-death.
With a gentle reverence, Tessa shelved Isaac's volume again. It stood on the shelf, as protected as she could manage, but there was nothing more she could do to save it. Not that she knew how to do. Unfortunately for Isaac Duong, no one had bothered finding out how Mnemosyne worked, no one had put together an instruction manual. Tessa couldn't really cry in her library. Her body wasn't actually there, but back in her office there were tears streaming. Frustration yielded to resignation as she reappeared at the card catalogue. Isaac Duong was beyond saving, but maybe there was another in that warehouse Tessa could still recover.
As it turned out, Morris's stock of experimentees was limited. But, the lengths he would go to test his new drugs were not. Sadly, the human lab rat's mind could only endure so much. Tessa discovered this too late to stop it. She restored whole shelves of memories as well as she could, but in the end all she had was a preservation of a mind now gone. About a dozen brain-dead endings in, Tessa shared a degree of numbness. She was all cried out and none the closer to saving these people. Her search was fruitless, not a single one of them knew where Morris's lab was and she couldn't pinpoint any of their minds when she reached out. The warehouse was still a mystery, a warded mystery. And, Tessa was stuck in a house arrest perimeter. This was the best her searching could do.
It was time to return to the minions. There was bound to be a chink in the armor of one of them, something that would show Tessa where Morris holed up. She would just have to dig her claws into one of them, be a little more aggressive with her search. They'd recover--
"Tessa?" The sound was distant. Her name echoing down a hall. "Tessa?"
"Huh?" There was a touch of mental whiplash as Tessa's eyes focused in the dark. Her office was quiet, moonlight low in the windows. "What?"
"Tessa? What are you still doing here?" A familiar silhouette in her window explained the voice. He dropped to the floor and slid the window shut. "It's late."
"I told you I'd be here all night."
"I didn't think you meant literally." Matt. He brought with him a wave of relief, standing there, all in one piece.
Tessa snickered, "that's what you get for thinking. I like this. The new helmet, especially. Shiny. Less bullet-holed." She slipped over to the window and tapped his forehead lightly. "What're you doing here, Knievel?"
"Well… you invited me--now I know in complete seriousness--here if I finished up early. I finished up early. Why are you still here, though?"
"Tracking Morris." Tessa edged around him and pulled her curtains closed, continuing on to the other windows.
"Won't they… I mean, won't the committee reprimand you for afterhours use?"
"They don't know. Magical interference."
"Tessa…" Matt sighed. "Cheating the system is never the right choice."
She paused and shot him a look. "Says the masked vigilante," came the scoff, harsher than she'd intended. "Besides, I'm not using my active power set… mostly. It's just research, passive stuff."
"Invasive will be the descriptor they use in the charges if they manage to see through your… spell firewall. They'll take immediate punitive measures."
"They won't…" Tessa circled back to Matt and tugged on his arms until he uncrossed them. "Relax. Strange set up my firewall. They're not that good. So, how is it that you're actually finished early? I didn't know that was possible. Is there something we should be celebrating?"
Matt's jaw was still taut. "Are you… feeling alright?"
"Yeah, fine. Why?"
"You're… different somehow."
Tessa sighed. She couldn't spare him from her hours of disappointment and agony, no matter how hard she tried. "I'm… just worked up. I found… some truly repulsive stuff in Morris's metaphorical, and literal, closets."
"You could use a break, then." He pulled off a glove and cupped her chin. "Come home with me. Let's actually sleep in a bed tonight for more than two hours."
"A break is in order, I agree. But, you haven't told me why you're finished early." And, she was stalling. There was no way she could go home for the night when there was still so much she needed to do there. "Let me guess. You ran out of crime to stop."
Matt snorted. "No… but, the Punisher is off the streets."
"You're awfully dour for having just accomplished the thing you set out this afternoon to achieve. I think now is right about the time you agree that we are celebrating something. Ready? Yes, Tessa. We are celebrating. I succeeded. I'm ecstatic."
He shook his head all through her impression. "That's horrible. I don't sound like that."
"I'm the one with the perfect memory. I would know." She poked him in between the plating of his suit and then reached up to stroke his cheek. "Congratulations, though… seriously. I'm so happy you collared him. And you're right. You don't sound that constipated. I'm sorry."
Finally, he chuckled. "Thank you. Now, I'm happy to celebrate. At home. I'll carry you if I have to."
"Ooh. The big, strong man is going to carry me, his little lady, home over his shoulder." She leaned into him as he caught her waist. Matt scoffed. "I'm not going anywhere tonight, Knievel. I can't. I just can't. But… I can take a break and I can spend that break with you, celebrating this fucking awesome thing you did. What do you think? Plus, office sex. Forget that creepy closet. Whole building's closed. We can do it in here. We can be naked right on my desk. All on top of it and under it… How long does it take to get the new suit off?"
"I don't know yet." He wasn't teasing back, but he did let Tessa fiddle around with his helmet. She'd pulled it off and the belt before he finally sighed and started unfastening the top of the suit. "And you give me shit about sleeping enough."
"We've already agreed that I'm a hypocrite. No need to rehash old news. Now, stop acting like you're begrudgingly allowing this to happen. We're celebrating. You're supposed to at least act happy when you're celebrating. You got your guy. I'm gonna get mine, too. Then, you can carry me home and we'll celebrate again there… But, in the meantime... office sex. "
Chapter 7: But With A Bang
"Well, you better hope you don't hear from me again! You won't be getting my service for much longer!" Tessa hit the end call button before the woman on the other end of the line could respond. "Sorry, Ms. Gunderson. I hope you do get better service…" Ms. Gunderson wasn't the first disgruntled customer Tessa had impersonated that day and she probably wouldn't be the last. Utility companies were just a source of the most useful kinds of information and the easiest way to access that information was through their own servers. Managers usually had the credentials to get Tessa what she was looking for.
"Oh, I'm a criminal. I'm so going back to prison. This is it. This is the abuse they were worried about. I'm a criminal. Fuck… Shit. These places have way too much information on people. I'm… I'm moving to a cabin in the middle of the woods when all this is over. Completely off the grid, like some paranoid conspiracy theorist-- there!" She found the list of digits that would open the rest of this operation up like an egg. Nothing quite like a social security number. With it, she could run the worm algorithms she'd used to break into other secure servers once upon a time, way back before Jess ever found her.
"Why, yes. I, Richard Giotto, would like to review my bank statements." Tessa chewed her lip as the pdf's popped up. This was the closest to seeing Morris's operation at work that she'd managed, looking at their spending and deposits. Most of the item lines were familiar. She'd seen that shell company in another memory, or looked over the account from which that deposit was made. Some were new and they only added to the sick feeling in Tessa's stomach.
The most useful part of this particular online bank account Tessa found in the actual 'account' area. The email address attached to the funds. At this point, she had so many passwords on hand that Giotto had used it was more than likely that she'd be able to log in to the account without any fidgeting with the rules.
"Ah. And… I did it without maxing out your password attempts. I'm so going to prison…" Tessa scrolled through his emails, looking for anything that someone had forgotten to delete. "No? Well… let's just go check out the IP address you normally use for this account. Gotcha." She ran the IP address search, came back with a network. "Well, if I'm lucky, this network will dump their garbage all in one spot. Or… ooh. A back-up drive. Delightful."
It was by no means a gold mine, but with the extra information left behind on that server, Tessa was able to further flesh out Morris's disgusting monster. As it stood, she'd found out that Morris had been at this for nearly as long as he'd been missing from the professional circuit, collecting operatives and making connections with other underworld sources. He had deals with Fisk, he dealt to the local gangs across the boroughs, and he'd even been cooperating in some regard with Kilgrave. In fact, Virus K was derived from Kilgrave's spinal fluid. Morris's really heavy deployment hadn't rolled out until after Tessa had become Mnemosyne, though. That's when he mixed in the magic and the enhanced factors. And that was when he'd begun destroying minds on an incremental scale. For the last year or so, he'd been doubling down on his experiments, leaving ruined minds in his wake. Missing persons reports ticked up and so did the memories of brainwashing, of body dumping. The fucker had even bribed a Russian defector to pass him Soviet era files on electroshock therapy and sleeper agents. Mr. Yorgich had been a particularly productive find, since he had some trained-in resistance to Morris's drugs. That was before the magic had been mixed into the formula. Magic from demons and such, yeah. But also that he got from Wanda's casting residuum. Apparently Morris had employed some nutted-out independent think-tank to harvest it across the city for a time.
"Oh, hello…" Tessa flipped back to Giotto's bank account, a new expense just marked pending. "And… just what is PrivCorps? Not… a… real… thing…" She scrolled through the search results and then rolled her eyes. "Another shell something or other. Naturally."
Inside her library, a catalog dump focusing on PrivCorps quickly turned up a collection of people receiving pay checks from the same company. Tessa began browsing their memories, eye out for anything that set off an alarm. About three people in, the alarms went off in a big way. This particular memory pinged not on Morris or Giotto, or the Nazi-Warlock, but on Matt. This person had memories of Matt from throughout the day for the past few days, long-distance scope-focused memories. Memories of tailing Matt.
Tessa slammed her drawer closed, sending an old cup of tea cascading off the desk. It was with a mixture of absolute rage and terror that she stood up and backed away. Her digging was supposed to uncover how she could track down Morris, not how Morris was tracking her loved ones. "Too close…" she muttered to herself and sat back down, pulled the drawer open again. "Too close… you forfeit… that's too close."
Mr. L. Wells was in the process of forgetting every single thing he'd ever seen, heard, or done about Matt Murdock when Tessa heard her front desk bell chiming. As her concentration broke, the library flickered into her office. It was Foggy, leaning into her waiting room, expression like he'd accidentally kicked a dog. Or maybe that was just the illusion of him rapidly aging. Tessa couldn't tell from that distance and her brain was still somewhat caught up in its former task.
"Uh… you heard from Matt lately?"
"I--I'm sorry. What?"
"He hasn't been in yet today. He disappeared last night to take care of another client and we… haven't heard from him. I mean, that's not all that unusual. He's… kind of an ass a lot of the time--not to… Anyway… Uh, he's supposed to review his opening statement with me this morning."
"Oh… and… you haven't heard--nothing?" Tessa flailed for her new phone, checking what time it was, and then what day, because she'd honestly lost track. The light had changed several times since she'd started really plunging into Morris's labyrinth, but it hadn't mattered so she hadn't paid attention. It seemed the days were starting to bleed together as a result.
"… could, but he agreed to this and some things he actually keeps to. Usually. So, you don't know where he is? I figured you would have at least… seen him recently."
"I… haven't. I don't think I have…"
Foggy's whole face dropped. He looked about ready to be done with her. "You don't… What is going on with you two? Did you break up or something? You could at least--"
"No, we're fine. We've both just been busy. He knows I've been… staying here at night. Working." It did occur to her that it was odd that she hadn't seen or heard from Matt in the past day and a half or so. "You saw him last night?"
"Yes. We were working this Punisher case… which I am now dreading down to my bone marrow. Can you check on him, please?"
"Punisher case? Wait. Are you defending the Punisher?"
"Tess. Will you just… check on him? Please?"
The tone of Foggy's question made Tessa's chest tense. "You've been by his place and called?" He nodded through her question. "Any… police reports?"
"My favor reported in an all-quiet. That was my last favor, too… Just listen in, please, make sure he's still… you know."
"I promised him I wouldn't… dig in his head ever… but, I guess I can listen. Yeah… I can feel for him making new memories." With a deep breath, she shut her eyes and let her mind go quiet, waiting to feel that particular, Matt Murdock perception of reality. It took almost no time at all. She was so attuned to him, her own memories cotangent with so many of his now, that she picked up on a blip almost immediately. Then, just as quickly, she wished she hadn't. It was an ambient memory, nothing specific since she wasn't prodding, but it had enough emotional tinges to make her regret attending to it even that fleetingly. A swirl of anger, adrenalin and desire. Tessa yanked herself away from the memory, like she'd put her hand on a hot stove.
Foggy was still standing there, now visibly sweating. "Is he…"
"He's alive, at least. I don't know much more beyond that. Why don't you go call him a few hundred more times…"
"Yeah… sounds about right." He nodded, turning to leave, but then paused and swiveled back around. "Now that I'm not in a state of near panic, it occurs to me you've been MIA a lot lately. Is something wrong, Tess?"
Blinking didn't disperse the aging illusion anymore. But Tessa was getting better at lying. "Not with me. I'm sure we'll find out for certain from Matt himself soon…"
"So? What's the verdict?"
"Tessa is a terrible liar," Foggy mumbled, re-filling his coffee cup.
Karen leaned into the kitchenette doorway, her eyes wide. "What was that? Sorry, the printer…"
"No, no. Nothing's wrong. Just Matt being Matt, I guess. I'm just gonna… call him again. And start preparing my own opening statement…" He knew how this would go down. Matt wouldn't answer. Foggy could call him twenty thousand more times and he wouldn't answer. Instead, he'd just stumble in in an hour so and make up some new set of excuses, give another bullshit explanation for his fresh bruises and split lip. Stupid, pig-headed idiot was going to get himself murdered one of these nights. "And then where would Nelson and Murdock be? Just Nelson?"
"So… no point sitting in here getting angry." Karen paced inside his office, clearly more worried than angry. "Lunch?"
Karen was right, as she had the uncanny ability to be, and they spent their afternoon hunting down delicious food in place of a missing law partner or open-minded clientele. Sadly, the distraction did nothing to solve their problems. After the food was gone, the office was still a ghost town. Foggy was still frustrated with Matt, and Reyes had not lifted her heel from their neck. If only food actually solved problems.
Eventually, Foggy conceded to the gross reality facing him and sat down to pen a back-up opening statement. Alive and making memories didn't necessarily mean not laid up in a hospital and incapable of standing before a jury.
"Matt! There you are. We were--we were getting a little concerned."
And there he was, the man of the hour... just when Foggy was starting to wish that bodily harm was a done deal. He shuffled to his doorway and leaned against the frame. "You look a little worse for wear, buddy. Something happen?"
"Th--That client." Matt was frazzled. Stuttering, sweaty, just generally disheveled. Guilty as hell. "Something came up this morning. I lost track of time." He left his cane by the door and edged toward his office. "I've, uh… got some ideas for that opening statement, Foggy."
"Yeah? Well, I've already got about half of something worked out. Why couldn't you call or answer your phone or do anything other than mysteriously disappear? It makes my ulcer bigger when you do that. Exponentially bigger."
"I… turned it off. Sorry."
Foggy scoffed. "Yeah. I know."
"I'm here now. I'll make it up to you."
"Still not cool, man. Like I said, my ulcer… You even freaked Tessa out a little."
Matt's head jerked up, like he'd been shocked. He was completely still for a moment and then rushed for the door. "Oh, my God, Tessa."
Karen's eyes found Foggy's a few moments later. "Since when does he forget about Tessa?"
Flustered didn't even begin to describe the state Matt was in when he skidded to a stop in the doorway of Tessa's waiting room. If his reckless entrance hadn't spoken to it enough, his rumpled clothes, the tremor in his hands as he felt for a seat, would have. He was downright rattled. Tessa considered him briefly out of the corner of her eye and then returned to explaining Mrs. Havi's treatment plan. Whatever had Matt so worked up, it could wait a minute more. Give him a few breaths to reel it in.
"Well, that about covers it, Mrs. Havi. Do you have any questions for me?"
"Is this covered by my insurance?"
"I… I'm still working out some bugs with, uh, insurance companies, but… why don't you give me your provider info and I'll make some calls tomorrow?" Tessa smiled as the tiny, elderly woman handed her a card. "Thank you, I'll make this work, okay?"
"And how much do I owe you?"
"Oh… don't-- don't worry about it, please. Consider this a free consultation."
Mrs. Havi hardly blinked, wallet still in hand. "I remember my mother's face thanks to you. That is a service rendered to be paid for, not a consultation. How much and do you take personal checks?"
Tessa glanced through her office doors, at Matt fidgeting on the edge of his chair. "Uh… alright. Let's say the usual co-pay, twenty-five. You can make the check out to me, Theresa Bisho, please."
"Dr. Theresa Bisho…" With a little flourish, Mrs. Havi wrote out Tessa's name in beautiful script and handed her the check. "Next Friday, then."
"Thank you, yes. Next Friday. Here, I'll see you out."
Matt stood at the small squeak of Tessa's chair, fiddled with an instant coffee packet as Tessa walked Mrs. Havi to the door. He was behind her the moment the suite's door clicked shut. "Do you have another appointment?"
"No, that's it for my scheduled's, but I take walk-ins."
"Can they wait for a while?" His hand caught her shoulder when Tessa made to step passed him.
For a moment, Tessa was almost petty enough to just tell him no. But that faded quickly and she instead reached behind her to lock the door. "Sure… What's going on, Matt? Foggy came in all concerned this morning. You were off the grid. Kinda had me a bit nervous, too."
"There was… something's happening. Someone from my past… showed up again. It--It caught me off guard."
"Hm. That explains…"
If he hadn't been on edge before, Matt certainly was now. He twitched at her response, stepping in front of her as she tried again to move past him. "Explains what?"
"I dunno precisely. You felt… conflicted, maybe?"
"You… You promised you would respect my privacy."
Tessa watched him listen to her and then sighed. "I didn't go digging through your head, Matt. I just checked to make sure you were alive, like Foggy asked. I think that's fair… considering."
"I… I… Uh, Tessa, I'm sorry. That was… I was being an ass just now. Again. This… probably would be easier if you had done some digging. I should tell you…" He tugged on her arm, backing towards the chairs. But, Tessa didn't budge.
"Matt, um, if you're about to go all confession on me, let me remind you: I'm not your priest and I don't expect to know everything about your life. I… certainly don't think I'm anyone to judge your decisions, so… unless you feel like it's absolutely necessary for me to know, let's skip it."
"It's just… this may not be a fun conversation to have--"
"Then, we won't have it. I don't want you to be defensive or edgy or anything. I'm okay not knowing. Really."
"But you deserve to know."
Tessa blew the hair out of her face and then finally sat down. "Do I deserve to know or is your guilt demanding that I know?"
"I--I--I'm--I'm not," he stammered out and then winced. "… Both."
"Alright. Tell me, then."
"My ex from college is back in town. She's… manipulated me into a few favors, but I'm not--"
Tessa laid her hand on his. "Whatever it is that she has you doing, I know you, Matt. You're not breaking my trust by helping her, you don't have to defend yourself to me. I'm okay. Deal with it, however you need to deal with it. You're not going to upset me. It might be for the best, anyway, you spending some time away from me, with what's going on with Morris…"
"Will you just let me explain? Please?"
"I don't need you to explain. I'm happy to share your--"
"I don't want you to share! That--that's not what this is…"
Tessa waited. She wasn't going to have a conversation with him while he was pushing to make it a fight. When his hands unclenched, she finally responded. "Okay. That's not what it is. All I'm saying is that you don't have to feel guilty for spending your time with her. I haven't left this office in days. It's not like I've been coming over only to be spurned in favor of your ex. And, I have more to do here… Go, be you."
"She's… she's unpredictable. For all I know, I could be… I could be kicking a hornet's nest. I don't know what's going to happen with this, Tessa."
"No… no, you don't know. It's impossible to know for sure what's going to happen… with things like this…" Her mind wandered to PrivCorps, to Giotto, to Morris. It saw pieces locking together and turning too smoothly. Things felt too neatly concerted about this. A mysterious wildcard ex-girlfriend coming into town just after Morris starting getting daily details on Matt stunk too much to be coincidence.
Morris could go straight to hell. He wasn't going to orchestrate a single thing for Matt. As painful as it would be, Tessa could see to that. That was the only option that could assure certainty. She could embrace this temporary, redeemable loss, if it meant that she would absolutely avoid the other permanent loss, the one that would otherwise threaten them until Morris was gone for good. It was hardly a choice, really. Tessa's mind was made up in a moment. "You can't know what'll happen, what you'll do, and neither can I. Pretending like we can guarantee how we'll act in these situations and making promises and assurances opens up the likelihood that we'll make liars of ourselves. I don't want to put you in a position to make yourself a liar, Matt."
He stood as she did. "I don't intend to even get close to--"
"No, but I do…"
"I'm… I'm going to kill him. Morris." Tessa circled the room, lighting candles. "That's always been the plan, I suppose. I may not have admitted it to myself, but the only real end of his game is his permanent end. I'm not willing to sacrifice any more because I won't play this sick game by his rules. So, I'm going to kill Morris and rip his organization up by the roots before he can destroy anything else. I have to. But… I can't afford to risk--I won't risk you being involved. I can't have you trying to stop me to save my soul, or what have you, and I can't have you anywhere near any of this. You won't be a casualty of his mad revenge scheme… because... you're not going to remember me telling you this, or me being… anyone but a client. At least until all this shit is water under a far off bridge."
Matt reached for her, following her into the center of her office, his face fraught with confusion. "What are you talking about? What's going on? The last time we talked about pursuing Morris you were planning to have him prosecuted, not executed. Wh--what's happened?"
"He's been fucking with me, remember? Magic and stuff… nightmares. But, I have this sick feeling that that's just the tip of the iceberg."
"Whoa, Tessa. That's speculation--"
"No. He's the reason my life isn't my own. That's a fact. I've decided I'm not going to just keep coping with that fact, I'm going to fix it myself. He's… he's taken things from me, priceless things that I'll never get back. B--But, he won't take anything else, because… it's time I returned the favor."
"Tessa. Tessa…" Matt cupped her face between his hands, thumbs brushing away her angry tears. She had to look him in the face again, or push him away. Her resolve was too weak to do one, so he continued to gently dry her cheeks. "You've been cooped up here, dwelling over this for too long. Come back with me tonight, please. Let's have a night to think this through together, away from here. I'll tell you about Elektra and you tell me about Morris, if you want. But… we can talk about this. We can--we can talk about--about whatever you think it is that's going to happen. It's been a week since you slept in a bed. Wait until--"
"It's been a week since I slept," she corrected, taking advantage of his shock to slip out of his hands. "Apparently, I don't actually need to."
"I don't know if I agree with that…"
"No. I'm not going crazy. I'm not sleep-deprived and paranoid. I actually feel better. It affords me a sense of clarity about things… things that are too intertwined to be coincidences. Y--You wouldn't understand."
He took a step towards her, matched by her own backwards. The space between them felt like a wound. "Tessa. I know I can't make you do anything--and I don't want to--but please listen. I miss you. Let's go--"
"Matt… Matt, I've told you that I love you. It's true. And, I think you love me in your own way--"
"I told you that I love y--"
"Please. Let me finish. I think you do in your own way and that's why I think you'll forgive me for this when it's all over. I hope you will… because I'll be rid of him, and with him gone I'll get Stark to give me my mortality back and then…" A chuckle bubbled out of her, full of relief. "This is it. This is what needs to happen, because then we can have this life--really have this life together. And make it work, but… but just in case… just in case that's all just some fantasy… I don't want to end this in a fight. I don't want our time together just to fizzle out --"
"--I've always been more of a grande finale kind of person. I like a bang." He didn't move as Tessa closed the distance between them. His expression of concern didn't change as she wrapped her arms around his neck. "This is selfish… I know that it's selfish and short-sighted, but I want this. I want the memory of one perfect moment, for what comes after."
"Tessa, what are you talking about? You're… making me nervous… All of this sounds bad. Don't do something you'll regret--what?" He tried to move away from her, to stop the invasion of his mind, but Tessa was too quick. Too easily she replaced his memory of the last ten minutes. His face fell blank for an instant, only to be lit up by the grin flickering into full, dashing wattage. "You're not coming home anymore, so… I have to bring it to you."
That grin, Tessa drank it in, stored it away for later. The light on his glasses, the kilter of his hips, the soft gravel of his voice, the smell of his chest, the gentle, precise pressure of his fingertips, the blush on the tips of his ears, his pulse against her skin. There was so much to soak in, but it would never be enough to hold her over for what was to come. Not really. "Oh yeah? Well… if we're going there, we'd better go big. Forget the creepy storage closet. Let's christen my whole office."
That sticky, sludgy feeling of guilt dripped through her, pooling into sharp shards that cut and gouged when she moved. She ignored it, though, and pried herself away from him to close the curtains. "Oh, we're entirely capable. We took care of the desk the other night. That leaves… everywhere else."
Matt had turned the circle of the room with her, like he was watching her. As he had though, that grin had faltered some. By the time she was heading back to him, he wore melancholy behind a smaller smile. "Tessa, I have something to tell you…"
Ten minutes should have been far enough back. Should she have revised more? "Can it wait, Matt? I don't wanna spoil the mood." His belt was her goal, but his hands on her elbows slowed those efforts.
"No. It can't. My ex is in town and she's stirring the pot. I have no idea what she's up to, but it'll be trouble and… I'm not at my best around her. I make stupid decisions, always have. I need you to know that, in case… in case something happens. It's not an excuse, but you deserve to know."
Tessa tucked her chin, hiding her face as she returned to unfastening his pants, despite knowing that that didn't hide anything from Matt ever. "Relax. You've told me. I'm fine with it. You'll do what you have to. I know because I trust you. Can we get back to this now?"
"Did you know that I love you?"
"You could stand to say it more, but yeah… I know." The original version was casting shadows on his revised consciousness, but so far not calamitously. His melancholy, at least, was gone. "Now, show me just how much, please… and you'd better hurry. You know I'm good for at less a dozen more cheesy lines if you don't." Tessa backed up to the nearest wall and pushed the sleeves of her dress from her shoulders. "I'm thinking we start here."
Tessa's eyes were open as he kissed her, as his hands searched her over and found their familiar haunts. There was so much to take note of and she would remember it all, every detail and sensation. Matt must have noticed, must have felt the difference as Tessa became more of an observer than a participant.
He leaned back, inhaling deeply against her wrist as she combed the hair around his ear. His fingertips kept searching, though, pausing at pulse clusters. "I've been missing you. You've been distant."
"Can't be much closer than right now."
"Seriously, Tessa. What aren't you telling me? You know you can tell me, whatever it is."
She watched his eyes glitter gold as they flitted around, waiting for her to respond. "Not the topic for this sorta moment… but you're right. I've been budgeting my time poorly. I should've spent more of it with you, hands down. I imagine I'll live to regret that…" It was all true. With the way her life had gone so far, it seemed like that should have been a given, that she would have--should have lived every good moment to its fullest. Now she only had this one left with Matt. Not a second could go to waste.
"Fine… keep avoiding it…" Tessa had always prized the moment she could get his eyes to shut involuntarily. She aimed for it now. "But… I'm here… when you need to talk about it… mm."
The taste of his lips, his voice caught deep in his throat, the heat from his skin, the crinkles beside his eyes. All cemented again in her mind. One last hurrah, she thought to herself once her eyes would stay open no longer. Going out with a bang.
"Put your pants back on, Murdock. You have a firm to barely keep afloat downstairs." Tessa pushed his now horribly wrinkled trousers into his chest. "No more time for canoodling."
Matt's hands slipped from her hips with a sigh and returned to getting dressed, allowing Tessa to finish straightening up the waiting room. "That was… I wanna say... more urgent than normal?"
"You're more attractive than normal, I guess. And… like you said, we've kinda been apart lately." The distance between them now Tessa had to force herself to maintain, like pushing through the burning of exhausted muscles. There was no clinging tight to him in the last moments, no more stingy embraces. It would only get worse from here on out. She had to learn to endure it.
"Come home with me tonight, please…"
She turned back to him at the insistence of his fingers around her wrist. She already knew the quickest way to settle this. "Sure. Why not? Time to rearrange your living room furniture." No point in making the final minutes miserable. And there was that smile again, this one soft and languid. She basked in it despite herself and slipped his glasses back on.
"I want to wake up next to you again."
A particularly brilliant memory flitted before her. Sun just rising, red off his hair and glowing on his cheek. Not an inch untouched, warmth without a blanket. Three words barely breathed, still slurred with sleep. Tessa quickly wiped a tear away and gave everything another once over, checking for a stitch or hair out of line. "I want that too, Matt…" Wanted it too much. It was a knife in her chest. "I, uh… I want you to know, even if only for a moment… --god, this sounds so stupid-- but… you will always be my perfect ending. Even if I can't have it. And then, even so, I found myself while I was with you. I'll always love you… and I'll never forget you. Never."
Whatever reply he was about to give was lost. Tessa took those words from him with a final kiss, his lips stilling as she clasped her opal tightly, as she took more than those words from him. It was tidy and quick work. She gathered every memory of them with a thought and locked them away in a little space in the back of Matt's head. A second thought cast outward wiped them away, every passing memory of the two of them as anything more than lawyer and client. Two thoughts and their relationship was lost. All Tessa had left was her own pain, the ache in her chest from carving out a piece of herself, and the needling throb of regret. The agony of it ripped through her again when Matt stirred from the stupor her changes caused. Confusion marred his face, but only momentarily. The guarded politeness that followed was far worse.
"Um, I'm sorry. What was I saying?"
"The program still isn't working, but…"
"Right. We'll have the actual form up to you soon… I think. It's not a big deal. I don't even know why I came up here to tell you that."
"Because you need money. That's the point of a job usually." The levity in her own voice absolutely amazed Tessa. "Don't worry about it, Mr. Murdock--"
"Matt," he corrected automatically, his brow crumpling. Tessa's heart skipped a beat. She might have underestimated how his mind would accept the revisions. She might have to stick her fingers in his head again and-- "We're friends. Call me Matt."
It was all she could do not to sigh in relief. "Right… Matt. I'll have a check to you by next week, whenever my clients' from today clear."
Actually, it was all she could do to not completely fall apart right then and there. She was sweating and trembling, bile boiling up in her throat, eyes stinging with tears, and the opal in her palm felt like she'd just plucked it from the center of a bonfire. It was a miracle she hadn't collapsed yet.
"Are you alright, doctor? I'm sorry, that's… not my business--" He dropped the hand that had found her shoulder and shook his head.
Tessa was just barely hanging on by a thread. "No, no. It's alright. I'm… not feeling one hundred percent. Taxing day, you know? All this can take a lot out of me."
"That makes sense. I hope you feel better…"
Tessa managed some empty pleasantry as he headed for the door, but most of her focus was on holding her breath. If she didn't breathe, she couldn't hyperventilate, her heart wouldn't beat out of her chest, she could hold back the retching. As soon as she heard the stairwell echoing with quieting taps, Tessa darted from the office, dropping the opal as she did. It clung to her skin for a moment, adhering with the heat, so she wasn't sure where it landed. But that didn't matter to her for long, the next half hour or so was dominated by the lovely experience of vomiting out all of her magma-hot insides.
When she finally peeled herself from the tile floor of the restroom, Tessa didn't actually feel any better. In fact, she felt just about the same as she had before, just without the bile. Several times on her way back to her office, Tessa considered just going home and crawling into her bed forever. But that basically would make the agony she'd just put herself through pointless. She had things to take care of, it didn't matter how broken she was now.
"What did you use it for?"
Tessa jumped at the question. She finished locking her door again and turned to find Strange, opal hanging from his fingers. His expression darkened as he studied her. Suddenly, Tessa felt even heavier. "Something personal…"
"It's not personal…" He spun the opal in the air, revealing charred scars on its iridescent surface. "I gave this to you as a tool to help you here with small spells, but it's a stash of my own magic. Using this, you've included me in it, whatever enormous spell you cast. So, what did you use this for?"
Tessa sank into the nearest chair, her knees unable to carry her any farther. "I used it to wipe my relationship of over a year out of existence."
"And why would you do that?" He didn't sound so much skeptical as taken aback. "You took great pains--great risks to keep him throughout your trial."
"Because…" she shrugged, "he would've gotten in the way."
Strange scoffed, now skeptical. "You're not so callous as that."
"I am, though. Morris won't stop at fear demons, won't be stopped by imprisonment. I have to kill him and Matt would've… Matt would've done everything in his power to stop me from crossing that line, that… religiously charged moral line. It would've ruined our--our… It's just cleaner this way."
"So you removed the decision from being in his power to make? How fascist of you."
"No, no," he stepped forward and dropped the opal into her lap. Disdain curled at his features, but he kept it from his voice. "Far be it for me to judge or sanction, but I do encourage you to take his opinion under consideration, regardless of the religious dogma behind it. Ask yourself if you really must permanently and irredeemably obliterate this human being from our plane of existence."
"He's a ruthless, sadistic mad scientist running wild, who's ruined my life and the lives of many other by manipulating their memories with drugs and torture and magic. He's a monster, Stephen, not a man. I can't be happy and I can't feel safe with him breathing. His very existence endangers everything I've toiled to build here. He threatens the people I love, he will take my life from me if he can and countless other people's too, because he's out of control. He's rabid and he needs to be put down… I'm going to kill him and that's that."
Silence roiled between them. Strange's eyes cut through her but Tessa didn't flinch. She was exhausted and broken, but this was what she had now. She had to endure it.
Finally, he lifted the stare, chin up. "I am not your keeper, Theresa. You've made your choice, I will not stop you. Mind you, I'm not helping you get yourself out of this either. But, keep the opal safe, in case you change your mind about the lawyer."
"Trust me, doc," she whispered, tears distorting his fast vanishing shape. "I'm already wishing I hadn't done it…"
Chapter 8: The Wishing Rock
The laptop was making a grinding, clicking noise. It's fan kept humming against the desk, working to keep it cool. The screen would fade into sleep mode soon, but for now it still illuminated the same page. The site hadn't timed out yet, it continued to display the list of transactions under Giotto's name. A new credit to PrivCorps sat at the top of the log, pending from not twenty minutes before.
The fan kicked into a higher gear. The fluttering noise of pages gently shifting joined its hum. The spell book's paper was oiled and dense, but it still trembled softly in the fan's breeze. If the laptop didn't go to sleep soon, it might even manage to turn the page. Except it was a spell book. There was a good chance that it's pages wouldn't turn unless someone made them, and there was a very good chance that this dispelling incantation wouldn't allow itself to be so easily dismissed.
The index cards had no mind of their own. They were blown by the fan from their spots, floating into the open desk drawer and disappearing. They were not the first of the portal's casualties. A pencil had rolled inside a few minutes before. The pocket dimension's entrance pulsed like a heartbeat inside the drawer, but never expanded more than a few inches outward. Tessa wasn't paying it enough attention to power it up.
Instead, she was pacing around her waiting room, dealing with something much less biddable than the semi-sentient tools waiting for her at her desk. No, she was on the phone with something fully sentient and incredibly opinionated. Tony Stark.
"… I know that you're basically like my parole officer right now, but I need your help with this."
"You know that I want to do what I can to help you, Bichon. This is not a thing I can do. The nanobots were my half-measure, the compromise to afford you a little more freedom. I can't just disable them. That would be more than a compromise, that would be a capitulation, something I'm not known for doing and I definitely can't do in this situation. Damnit, look at what you've got me doing, using war terminology."
Tessa scoffed, "yeah, that's definitely my fault. I'm not asking to never be monitored again. Just… a little… reprieve from the constant surveillance so that I can take care of some business that, by the way, the government would definitely want me to take care of without them having to worry about it."
"Oh, I get it. It's okay for you to ask me to do something that breaks my rules, but, when I need a favor, your rules are unassailable and I'm the dickhead. Got it, Tess."
"Fucking hell, Tony! I'm dealing with a homicidal criminal, not my friend who made a few bad choices!"
"Yeah? Well, unfortunately for all of us, the distinction between those two things has gotten really fuzzy lately. Hang tight and we'll get a task force to look into your problem as soon as the whole world isn't on red alert for my friend who made a few bad choices."
"Oh, sounds fucking fantastic! Gee whiz, thanks, Tony! I'll just sit on my hands and wait for people to die. Hell! Maybe this guy will do me a favor and kill me so I can stop being your Frankenstein's monster!"
The line fell immediately silent. When Stark spoke again, his voice was venomously quiet. "Trust me, Bisho, if you were my Frankenstein's monster, none of this would still be happening. … I have messes to clean up. Anything else?"
"I knew that nice guy shit at the trial was an act, Stark." Tessa's hand was shaking as it held the phone.
"That's-- I have a genuine, honest to god emergency on my hands, Tess! I'm doing the best I can with everybody kicking shit in my face!"
"Great. Fine. I get it. I'm not a priority now that I'm out of the headlines. That's life! But, I better be next on your clean-up list, Tony, or I'll start making headlines again. I'm sick of this non-life you've stuck me with! I'm sick of being forced to see my friends age while I'm frozen exactly the way I was when some asshole shot me up! You're going to make me mortal again. You owe me that."
"Sure, Tessa. I'll get right on killing you slowly, just as soon as I arrest my other friends. I'll be your goddamn villain." He hung up on her.
Tessa kicked a chair over and resumed her pacing. That did not go as planned. It was just that, Stark had been so helpful after the trial. Not so much here. Sure, he had clearly been busy when she had called, but he had answered. Then, he'd kicked right into curt asshole gear and Tessa had been set off. She had hoped to cajole him into helping, but Tessa had never been a talented cajoler. And she'd always butted heads with Stark, one way or another. They just didn't ever look at things the same way. It had been a bad plan.
"Fine… I can still work with this. I can… call Banner. He'll-- no… No, that's dangerous." She righted the chair and then stared out the window, tugging at her hair. "Super, super dangerous for everyone involved. He left for a reason. Shit… Screw it. I'll just go anyway. Fuck 'em. Fuck them and their rules. What are they gonna take from me this time? I'll just… I'll just wipe myself from Jess's life and they'll have nothing on me. Oh god, I'm talking to myself again."
She looked away from her reflection in the window and charged back over to her desk. The laptop was quiet, its screen gone dark. She shut it and stowed it in her bag. Shut the spell book as well and tucked it beside the laptop. The drawer she pulled all the way open and sat down next to it.
This was the move that made sense. It was the lowest risk option, to revise everyone's memory of her and Jess, too. That way, Jess would be protected from catching flak by association, like Matt. No one would ever second guess a pariah like Tessa being a loner. And, this revision didn't need to be so painful, just a slow drifting apart after her arrest, Tessa living somewhere else during her trial, moving into her office afterwards. Clean and simple.
"Better plan," she muttered to herself and scooted closer to the drawer. "Go-go gadget, pocket portal."
The pool of light was no longer energized. It sat inert as Tessa waved over it. "You capricious piece of shit." She grabbed the opal around her neck and rubbed at the burn marks. "Please, just let this one thing work… Open thyself--"
She slammed closed the drawer at the sound of knocks shaking the glass pane of her door. Leaning over, the source of the knocking became apparent and Tessa felt silly for acting like the proverbial kid with their hand caught in the cookie jar. She had been expecting him to show back up at some point.
"You locked your door. Rude," Deadpool shouted when he saw Tessa step into the waiting room. "The sign says welcome, but I do not feel welcomed."
"I was on a sensitive call, Wade. Couldn't risk someone walking in on me asking for Stark to do something illegal for me." She closed the door behind him and locked it again, also drawing the curtains.
"Did he say yes? I've never been able to get the Starkanator to do anything for me."
"So far? Me neither… You, however, you always pull through for me, Wade. Speaking of, did you bring me a present?"
"A'yes I did…" He reached into his belt pouches, trying a few until he pulled out a little velvet sack. "One magic thingy, from my wife to you. It's called Soul Sucker or something rad like that."
Tessa dumped the pouch into her palm, turning over the dark red opal that fell, heavy, into her hand. It was denser than it looked and warmed at her touch. She could almost feel it, like it had memories. "Uh, Wade? Is… is that name… literal?"
"Again, pee-el, I try not to think about it."
"Fair enough… Well, this is exactly what I needed right now. Good job, Wade. You get a cookie." Tessa had turned back to her desk to grab the contact of a possible customer for Wade, but instead she stopped and stared. There, on top of the post-it note, was a cookie. She picked it up and turned it over. A crumb fell onto her bag. It was a real cookie, a real chocolate chip cookie that had not been there a second before. Tessa picked up the post-it and stuck it to Wade's chest, still examining the cookie.
"This… is not a cookie."
"No, but this is." She set it in his hand, still amazed at its existence. "Though, I may have just magicked it into existence, so it may give you some indigestion. That is a man who needs his patents protected. Someone stole his designs in a massive lab heist thing and it's probably best for everyone if he gets the external hard drive back before anyone else figures out what his invention will do. And, he's rich as fuck, so he'll pay you."
"Oh! A cookie and a job! This is why you're my favorite non-demon person, pretty lady." He shoved the whole cookie into his mouth and then tapped Tessa on the nose. "You pay back favors with favors. So considerate."
"Speaking of favors… any update on the sword?"
"Few more days probably. Takes a while to cook up a sword. Plus, they're having a hard time trying to figure out how to melt down that knife of yours. Mm… I wanna 'nother cookie."
Tessa looked down at the gem in her hand. "Uh… you get a cookie?"
"Woot! You're a cookie machine! High five!" Deadpool shoved the new cookie into his mouth and held up his hand. Tessa slapped at it weakly, but was more concerned with the power of the stone in her hand.
"Did she give you a chain or something with it? I kinda need to keep it on me."
"Nah. Guess you gotta tuck it somewhere safe… I have a suggestion. Try u--"
She held up her hand over his mouth before he could finish what was sure to be a colorful tip. "No, Wade… I'm good. I'll think on my options. For now, holding onto it will work. I've got a hand free. Not like I'm going anywhere and doing… anything… Huh."
As she was speaking, the opal grew warmer in her hand. Where it sat, her skin tingled and, below it, muscles and tendons relaxed. The warmth sank into her, bleeding together with her own, until she felt her pulse resounding back to her in the gem. In that pulse, she could feel the tiny zips of electronic relays. The nanobots, the opal had zeroed in the on nanobots. All Tessa had had to do was cast a thought their way.
"Did you give me a wishing rock, Wade?"
"I dunno. Shiklah was pretty happy about it, if you know what I mean." He elbowed her with a giggle. "You like it? If you do, you gotta cackle all maniacally like her. "
"I think I might like it a whole lot more than I expected…" The nanobots had memory. Artificial memory, which normally wasn't within Tessa's reach, but… at right that moment, she could read it. They were a swarm. A microscopic silicon plague in her veins and now she could feel them inside of her. Hear them, see them. Stop them. "How about I just disable the nanobots myself?" Came out the question to no one in particular.
The nanobots, however, answered with their silence. Where there had just milliseconds before been a quiet background hum, noise that Tessa had almost stopped noticing, there was now just the rhythmic thu-thump of her heartbeat. No more zipping relays, no accumulating digits of memory. Just inert specs of disabled tech.
"Well… would you look at that. And… no one will remember this happening." Tessa turned the opal over in her hand, feeling a smile spread across her face. "Who's helpless now?"
"So, you like it? Shiklah was pretty happy about it, if you know what I mean. If you like it too, you gotta cackle all maniacally like her."
Tessa considered Deadpool carefully. He was being genuine. "You're a very literal little jewel, aren't you?" The dull glow that had built up in the center of the opal faded gently away. "Wade Wilson's memory was not just tampered with."
Deadpool stopped in the middle of doodling on Tessa's desk. He stood up again and looked around. "Did I just repeat myself? Am I in the Matrix? Is this a glitch?"
"No, Wade. I'm just figuring out how this focus works. It seems to be… unaware of figurative speech. And indiscriminate. I'll have to be more persnickety about what I say. Or maybe think… I can't tell yet."
"Can I have another cookie?"
"Sure, Wade. But, please, next time, draw on paper, not my desk." Tessa turned from the third cookie-demolition and slipped the opal back into its pouch. Tucking that into her pocket, she pushed the fallen post-it note back into Wade's hands and shooed him towards the door. "Let me know as soon as you know anything about my sword, please. I have some things I'm going to go take care of now."
"Sure thing, pretty lady. Hey, now that you're openly breaking the rules, you should come visit me sometime. Shiklah would love to meet you. We could have a dinner party! Maybe Ellie would want to come over again if you're there…"
"I'll put it on my list of things to do, Wade. Promise."
"Okay, have fun. Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"
Tessa closed her office door and locked it. "That would be almost impossible…"
Improbable as it would have seemed a year or so ago, Tessa had missed phasing. Not just the ease and speed of it, but the sensation. Like being submerged in a bottle of warm champagne. She could always feel all of her body when she re-manifested. Every single molecule. This time was no different. When she traded the bright sterility of her office for the dingy hive of the PrivCorps office, Tessa felt her atoms vibrating. Plus the opal's. It pulled towards her in its pouch, like it had been magnetized, like it missed the contact. There wasn't time to deal with what that meant, however. Tessa had, after all, just phased into the middle of an office full of people. And with that, came the thunder wave of memories. It broke around Tessa and reformed into logical shapes. Those shapes pointed towards her target.
"You won't remember me being here." She looked towards one group, waving her hand at another cluster. "These are not the droids you are looking for…" Like the onslaught of their memories, the men that had been rushing towards her, parted around Tessa and returned to their business as if she had never been there.
Tessa continued her steady march towards the one, the man by the vending machine who had watched Jess change her clothes, peering through a long-range lens, and had touched himself. Now, he was five hundred dollars the richer and Jess's safety was compromised. Not to mention all the other things of hers he had violated. As she neared him, Tessa felt the opal in her hand again. It was exquisitely warm.
"Nathaniel Strickland, you've never heard of Jessica Jones. You've never seen her or been paid to follow her." She watched the man blink rapidly as she finished closing the distance. "You have no memory of orgasm or sexual pleasure." The memories wisped away as she spoke. Tessa could feel them dry up and crumble away, the ashes of them licking around her ankles. Their ex-owner swayed in front of her, still recovering. A slick sheen of sweat had gathered on his forehead, it was clammy under Tessa's hands, his temples soft under her thumbs. "But you do remember something about Morris, no matter how much he poked and prodded."
The opal sizzled as it was sandwiched between her palm and Strickland's face. That was the only sound Tessa's own ears picked up for a good moment. She was too busy willing her way through Morris's codes, feeling their petty mutilations snap and reform properly, hearing garbled sounds clarify into words. It was incredible what a change having access to the original copies made, how much easier it was to clean up Morris's messes when they weren't scattered over backup copies, being dusted at from a distance. Tweaking the living electro-chemical messages was so much purer, so much more effective.
"So, you meet with Giotto? Not anymore." Tessa dropped her hands from his head and turned towards his backpack. "You wanted to be a chef once, Nathaniel. Make your ten year old self proud and remember that ambition. You won't remember me being here."
The camera in his bag had the only copies of the photos. He had been scheduled to meet with Giotto the next day. He'd be missing that meeting. In fact, that meeting didn't exist anymore. No one remembered it being scheduled, nor the purpose of it. Instead, Nathaniel remembered enrolling in a community college class starting around that time and Giotto had an important dentist appointment. He needed a few root canals he'd forgotten about, as had his dentist.
"Good thing that's all sorted out." Tessa dropped the camera into the portal in her desk drawer. She'd find a way to adequately destroy it later. "Not what I was hoping for, though… But, at least Jess will be safe."
It had been days since she'd been in her room. It smelled stale, the light felt dull. Quickly, Tessa collected all her belongings and phased them back into her office. It only took three trips for Jess's life to be free of her. Tessa frowned at the opal as she made that a reality for everyone but herself. She would miss Jess, her horrible hygiene and all. Perhaps in memory of her, Tessa drank the last of the Stark scotch straight out of the bottle while she deleted the call and text history between them from after her arrest. Now, by all accounts, Tessa and Jess's friendship had ended the moment she was carted off to prison. Jess was safe. Tessa had lost her best friend.
"I could really use a win right about now. Could you do that?" The opal didn't answer, but its red glow did seem a little brighter just before Tessa phased into the middle of Central Park. A group of people were momentarily astonished to see her appear, then they weren't. Tessa had just discovered practical invisibility. Not a soul gave her a second look as she found a quiet bench and sat down. None of them would care that there was a woman with glowing purple eyes staring into nothingness for the next ten minutes. To them, she was never there.
Her thought was to find anything, even the tiniest blip, about Morris. Of course, that was not what she felt first.
"This was not the sort of win I was hoping for," she mumbled, reappearing on a balcony blocks away. "This is, actually, the opposite of a win."
Leaning over the railing, Tessa chewed on her cheek and watched Matt struggling with a tic he'd never had before. She settled her chin in her hand and felt out for the stitches in his memory she'd left. They were frayed and his mind was catching on them.
"Cat got your tongue?" Karen's voice floated up.
Matt's glasses winked Tessa's way. He shook his head. "Uh… I lost it. Sorry."
"I think you two are working too hard. You've both been a little… absent-minded today."
Foggy stepped out from behind the food cart, handing containers to Matt and Karen. "We can't afford to not work too hard. Reyes won't let up now 'til the firm's dead. I'd rather not roll over and let that happen."
"I had an opening statement all planned out, Foggy, I know I did… I just…" That tic again. Matt shivered a little and then shook his head.
"It's fine, Matt. I lost the line of mine too… We'll figure something out. I wrote some of it down… don't know where I was going with it… but… it's… you know…"
<<Isn't it upsetting when our toys break?>>
Tessa sighed and turned away from the magpie. "They aren't my toys." She rolled her eyes at the middle aged woman now staring, open-mouthed, at her from the balcony doorway. "You don't remember me being here."
The magpie clacked its beak as the woman continued back inside her apartment, then hopped to the other side of Tessa. <<Well, they are broken, Tessie dear, you broke them… look how they stutter, like their gears are misaligned.>>
"Yeah, I know. I can feel it. It's… some sort of cognitive dissonance. The memories I changed aren't matching up with other thoughts and feelings that I didn't access before, that I didn't realize were linked to memories of me. I wasn't careful enough…" The opal radiated heat as she clung to it more tightly. "Didn't have the right tools."
<<You must be ever so careful when crafting a story… Every single detail matters, even the ones you leave out. Tell me. How does it feel to rip your own heart out?>>
The bird fluttered out of her reach as Tessa swiped at it. "I didn't-- tss… I have exactly what I need now. I'm fine."
<<Don't lie to yourself, Tessie. That's the last person you should lie to.>>
The woman, Gayle, she was humming as she watered her plants. Tessa leaned out of her way and watched her friends round the corner. Her once friends. "Clean up your mess, Tessa…"
Distractions were the new bane of her existence. The super-charged focus in her hand was a crazy awesome help, making things happen with just a thought. Except for when that thought took her forty-miles off course and left her busy cleaning up another mess. This focus ironically required a shit-ton of focus to utilize it effectively. Tessa did not find humor in that.
Nonetheless, finally, so late into the night that it was actually the next morning, Tessa had buckled down and tuned everything else out. She was back in Midtown, laying on top of a roof that she very much wished she was instead under. Well, mostly wished she was under. Jealousy wasn't really a feeling she'd ever been well acquainted with. Childhood what it was, Tessa had never developed a sense of ownership strong enough to begrudge other people having what she thought was hers. Always, she was happy to share. She had felt her share of envy, wishing she could have what other, normal people had, but it was never the ugly sort, just a gentle longing. As such, the emotion she felt herself battling on that rooftop was an odd and, frankly, uncomfortable one.
By all counts, Tessa had no reason to feel ill will towards the woman asleep on Matt's couch. Tessa had always been happy to share, yes. But, this wasn't sharing anymore. Tessa was on the roof, they were in the living room; Tessa was a blip earlier in his day, Elektra was currently the subject of over ninety percent of Matt's surface memories. Matt wasn't Tessa's to share anymore. And that was where the discomfort originated.
"And who's fault is that?" A deep breath calmed the swell of anger and heartbreak. Some. There was still the resentment feeding it, regardless of the reality of the situation. It was simple. Tessa wanted to be down there and she couldn't be. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and take care of something you actually can fix."
Tessa hoped Matt didn't wake up at the sound of her skull clunking against the concrete. A minute or two passed and no angry vigilante burst onto the roof, so it seemed she was safe. Opal resting on her chest, Tessa folded her hands behind her head and closed her eyes. Time to fix what she'd broken.
Her dips into Matt's unique, individual memory had always been just that, dips. They'd been brief and largely unintentional. She'd certainly never waded in looking for something in particular. That would have been wildly difficult, she now discovered. As it turned out, his perception of reality was extremely disorienting for her when she dove straight into it. Naturally, she'd expected to be in the dark, so when his memories weren't pitch black, Tessa was sent reeling.
"Why wouldn't he construct a world around him, Tessa? Idiot." Shaking her head clear, Tessa laid back down. "This isn't a surface skim, you have to go into his processed memories, the ones with the full work-up. Get it together."
The shock of Matt's internal reality faded quickly and Tessa was soon hopping from glitch to glitch. The solution was fast becoming obvious, too. She'd made an impact in his emotional landscape. Some things happened around him because she was in his life, even if they didn't explicitly involve her. When Tessa removed herself from his memories, his mind started struggling to explain the changes it suddenly had no source for. Tessa needed to provide a replacement explanation.
One lay across the living room from him. Elektra had been a part of Matt's life for a long time, she could be easily insinuated into his memory to rationalize things. But, Tessa recoiled at the thought. She'd slipped into their shared memories a few times on accident that morning already. Jealously may have been rearing its ugly, green head, but there was no denying that Elektra had objectively caused Matt too much pain to be a permissible substitute. In fact, the more she skimmed through, the more convinced Tessa became that Matt would be better off without her ever having been in his life at all.
Tessa wrenched her eyes open, set the opal down beside her on the roof, and counted to ten. "No. Come on, get your shit together, Tessa. You do that and you'll rip his mind apart. You're here to fix what you tore up, not shred anything else. Not your decision. Not your business."
Keeping a great distance from anything Elektra-related, Tessa sank back into Matt's memories and carefully stitched in her replacement. It was an obvious choice, really. Karen and Matt already had chemistry. They deserved this. After one more pass to smooth out all the wrinkles, Tessa was happy with her revision. It felt seamless, far less likely to trip him up. Mapping the same new events onto Karen and Foggy's memories, Tessa sat up and brushed the dirt off of herself.
"Done. Now… to let his mind heal, which means… keeping my bat-shit crazy life far, far away from his. So… this is me leaving you alone for your own good. Goodbye, Matt Murdock, hopefully not forever… I love you." Tessa phased away before she could start crying on that rooftop like some sad sop. It made much more sense to cry alone in her office.
"Gee, wouldn't it be nice if I had any friends right about now?"
Across her desk, the opal sat, black in the darkened office and entirely inert. The headlight of a passing car caught the window and blinked off the gem's smooth surface for a moment.
"You just had to be red, didn't you?" She grumbled and pushed away from the desk. "Come on, might as well take advantage of this absolute solitude to get myself into danger. Maybe I should take up Wade's offer for a dinner party tomorrow…"
Memory roulette was the name of the game. Tessa had stepped forward and landed in the first place that pinged back with Morris or Giotto or Nazi-Warlock. If this had been Russian roulette, she'd have a bullet in her head right about now.
"Aaaand welcome to the land of hate and magic…" She spun on the spot, ignoring the quickly recovering mass of exclusively white males around her. "Why is it always the Nazis I end up dealing with? No, I'm not interested in your racist meth." Phasing out of the middle of them left them confused, removing their memory of her being there left them harmless. At least to her, in that precise moment. Then, she had the opportunity to finish grimacing at their despicable decorations.
"You guys actually figured out how to make a swastika worse, you know that?" She edged around the flag emblazoned with a pentagram and some pictograms she immediately recognized as demonic. "Well… while I'm here I might as well clean up, but first… who won the lotto? Ah… Todd…"
This particular piece of shit actually smelled like shit. The result of the concoctions he was charged with mixing. "You're the lucky fascist our dear Nazi-Warlock entrusted with his potion sweatshop… Let's see what kind of secrets he entrusted you with, huh?"
It seemed to Tessa that Todd's skull was a little softer than it should have been. She moved past that thought and combed through his mind. That turned up pitifully little of use. She wiped her hands off on the nearest non-swastika-covered piece of fabric and shook her head at Todd.
"You stupid, hateful pawn… he's basically killing you all in here and you don't care because it means your agenda is being carried out. Well… Todd, you have a family, so... you know what this means. You just remembered that you're terrified of Satan and magic and have always wanted to relocate your kids outside of the country. Too bad that hate's so old, or I'd save the whole family from it. Can't leave Mary with a husband who suddenly thinks he's five, though. Hardly fair. Hmm… Who's next?"
Of the fifteen men in that death box, six others had families that they were technically taking care of. Those received similar treatments to Todd's. The rest Tessa didn't hold back on so much. The ones who's hate was relatively new, she molded into better people. The others…
"Welp, looks like it's still 1985 for you, Jack. It's way past curfew and on a school night!" She chuckled to herself as the forty plus man skittered off in terror. "Oh, Kyle… you hapless bastard. It's your lucky day! You get a second chance at life. I mean, it might be hard explaining why a thirty-six old man wants to re-enroll in middle school, but at least this way you may actually graduate. Off you go! Make better choices…"
Never in her life had Tessa considered committing arson, but this place needed to die in fire so that maybe something untainted could be built in its place. She yanked down another wall-hanging and tossed it into the middle of the room as she moved onto the remaining three men.
"Okay, who among you is redeemable and who gets to revert to-- hello." Tessa bumped into a cluster of dense memories that reeked of panic and featured very prominently a certain trademark glowing hand. "You met dragon boy, Christopher, and remarkably escaped un-punched. Hmm… Maybe he can point me in the right direction. The rest of you… uh, you just remembered that you have a desperate desire to become rodeo clowns, always have. Except for you, Mike, you started this fire, remember? And you were just about to call the cops and turn yourself in. Everyone watching, Mike here started this fire!"
She kicked them out the door, shoved the dialing phone into Mike's hand, and pointed at the mound of hate. "Let there be fire." It went up like a pile of kindling. Crispy fried bigotry. That smelled truly hellacious. She probably should have taken into account the potions they were cooking in there.
"On second thought, this was a horrible idea. Fire is never the answer. … How do you do this, Wade?" She darted back inside and started trying to smother the flames. "There are people around here. Everywhere around here. Because this is a giant fucking city! Where every square inch is crawling with people! What in the fuck was I thinking? Go out! Go… out?" Tessa dropped the slightly sizzling swastika banner and stepped back. "Well, wishing rock, good job. We were able to put out the literal fire that we literally started. That turned out not entirely horrible. … I hate magic-- Oh."
There was a crowd gathered outside the garage when she walked out of it. Firefighters were among their number. And, the whole entire group was staring at her, and the smoking building that she'd just walked out of, in silent shock. Tessa paused and glanced at the scene behind her, then chuckled weakly. "Yeah… this is exactly what it looks like. Um… How do the mouthy ones talk? Oh, yeah… with unwarranted bravado. Ahem. I was never here! You never saw me. The firefighters are the real heroes and… and the neo-Nazis who rent this garage need to pay for all the property damage because they totally started this fire with their hate and… ignorance. Yep, that'll do it. Bye."
A nearby rooftop was a familiar and convenient pit stop to finish cleaning up this completely unnecessary and totally avoidable mess. Tessa sat, feet dangling over the edge and her back to the sunset, and tried not to feel nostalgic. Tried and failed. "This… is the opposite of what I wanted," she muttered and then looked at the opal in her hand. "You keep getting me into trouble, wishing rock. Or… just keep enabling me into trouble that I was already going to get myself into. Is there a difference? And now I'm talking to myself and acting like it's you who's listening. Bad fucking news. Back to business… Um… Okay. Here goes nothing. ... There are no pictures or recordings of me from this event. There are no fumes from this fire. The property damage to surrounding buildings is miraculously non-existent. ... There. Cleaned-up. Kind of. Uh, good job, Wishing Ro--uh, me. Good job, me."
Brushing the dust from her legs, Tessa slipped the opal into its pouch to cool off and then looked towards downtown. There was an acquaintance somewhere in that direction who could possibly help her finally get a bead on Morris. And he was basically the opposite of trouble, pretty much the most harmless goofy rich kid she knew. Actually, the only harmless goofy rich kid she knew. Didn't hurt that he was like a leftover from the life she'd just deleted from existence.
"Time to go see if pajama ninja is for hire."
Chapter 9: Sword?
Turns out, if you go to visit a vigilante friend while the sun is up, you end up with the secret identity version, not the useful masked one. If you go to visit Danny Rand at seven in the morning, you find a man wearing sandals and jeans and the most alarmingly chaotic print shirt you've ever seen or imagined.
"Good god, Rand. You're loaded, buy some fashion sense. Even I know that is atrocious and I've been called lady Urkel." Tessa phased to the next awning, sticking her tongue out at the kid gawking at her from the porch across the street. She had to keep on the move because, apparently, Rand didn't know the meaning of a relaxing morning stroll. He was hauling serious ass somewhere.
"Maybe to work. I hear some rich people work. Though, wearing that… fat chance. Although, on the other hand, when you're that rich…" She popped up again a little ahead of him down the street. This might give her a chance to browse his memories without him power-walking out of her easy-access range. This bistro's marquee, however, was unfortunately extra bouncy and Tessa proved once again just what a bumbling crap-sack she was.
Phasing wasn't enough to save her from the small tumble and, in the limb pinwheel that followed, Tessa lost track of her focus. The opal went plopping along the canvas and very nearly plummeted into the breakfast crowd below. Fumble saved and with a slightly delirious giggle of relief, Tessa flopped back onto the canopy to look for where Rand had gotten off to. She found that Rand had not gotten off to anywhere, but was instead looking right up at her, head tilted to the side like a confused puppy dog.
"Shit!" Snapping her eyes shut--like that would help him not see her--Tessa panicked and did the first thing that came to her, she ran. Or rather, she phased away, back into her office. As she lay on the tile floor, opal clutched to her chest, and waiting for her heart-rate to slow, it became abundantly clear just how absurd her last six minutes had been. "Who're you hiding from, idiot? Danny Rand, the nicest goofball alive? That was ridiculous. This. This is ridiculous."
The opal shivered when she squeezed it. Her phone was around there somewhere and on the other end of it would be the way to un-ridiculous one of these ridiculous things. The other one Tessa would just have to handle by acting like an actual human person instead of whatever that was just now. "Wade? Hi. I need an update on my sword. Or, really I need my sword, immediately if possible. I have this thing."
"I still like my idea better." Deadpool was standing at an uncharacteristically distant distance, his arms crossed. Tessa could even see him frowning underneath the mask.
She adjusted her grip and shifted her shoulders more into line. "You're free to store incredibly powerful magical objects up your own butt, Wade. I'm putting mine somewhere it's less… liable to fall out at inopportune times. Also… less gross. Could you hold the mirror, please. It's not working like this."
"Looks pretty gross to me," he mumbled, picking up the compact from her desk.
"You've literally sliced a person apart like a honeyed ham-- I've seen it in your head --and this is gross?"
"You're filleting yourself. It's weird."
Tessa's grip on the towel slipped and she dropped the sword again. "Damn. It wouldn't be me filleting myself if you did it. Less unwieldy, too."
"I'm not cracking you open like a piñata, pretty lady. I make it a point not to kill people I like. Usually."
"Not killing me. Not beating me open with a bat. It's a precision cut and you're a fucking surgeon with these things. Whatever. You have the focus?"
Deadpool held up the gem in his other hand. "My 'pooley senses are tinglin', pee-el, this feels like a bad idea. And… that's really saying something coming from me."
"I appreciate your concern, Wade, but this is gonna--" Tessa winced as the blade sunk down through the scar in her chest, through skin and ligaments and bone. She twisted the sword some, almost biting through her lip. "--work. Fuck. Stick it in there. Quick."
He whined a little and then lodged the opal into the gash in her chest. "You've officially ruined 'stick it in there' for me. Shiklah's gonna have to come up with something else now."
Gasping a little, Tessa slapped her hand over the gem and slid out the sword. Blade free, she pushed the opal deeper into place, so just one smooth facet was flush with her breastbone, and then sighed. Immediately the pain started subsiding as skin and bone and muscle closed around the focus. "There… 's kinda pretty…"
"Yeah… having a big, red rock lodged in your chest is real pretty. Be the newest fad."
Tessa rolled her eyes, pulling her shirt back up over her shoulders. "Shaddup and show me how to use this giant letter opener."
Learning how to use a giant letter opener from Deadpool largely consisted of rushing the person you wish to split open and swinging the letter opener until there was more blood on the outside than on the inside. Sometimes that blood was Deadpool's. That was just a technicality in his book. Unfortunately, his approach didn't really align with Tessa's needs or disposition. Slaughter machine was not her modus operandi and the new weapon in her hand was just as deadly for her as it was for anyone else. She needed finesse and precision when wielding it and, no matter how many moves Deadpool demonstrated for her, she was not, at the end of the day, exhibiting any degree of finesse or precision with the sword. Half of the time, she still ended up dropping it. The other half she didn't actually land any blows.
Deadpool had assured her she would do better when it was someone she really wanted to impale. Then, he'd left. Another few hours of tediously reenacting the strikes he'd shown her and Tessa still felt as clumsy and inept with the sword as before. So, she took a few minutes to carefully sharpen and polish it. That at least she could do effectively. Regardless of her ability to actually use it, Tessa was very pleased with what Deadpool had had fashioned for her. It was beautiful. The blade itself had taken on the hue and sheen of her knife, unblemished, ebony black metal that seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it. Its grip was a braided black cloth to match and the perfect size and weight for Tessa to hold it. If only she could hold it and use it at the same time.
"Well, you did the thing I needed done," she sighed, turning the sword over again. "We'll work on using you for the purpose you were designed for another time. Some time when I won't accidently drop and lose you. And then get killed by you." Back in its sheath, Tessa hid the sword in her pocket dimension and locked the drawer. "Looks like I'm sticking to punchin-- or…"
Having the thought resulted in Tessa phasing half a city away to the subject of that thought. She ducked down onto the roof of the empty office park, listening for anyone who could have seen her pop up there. "You and I need to have a little conversation about having an idea and acting on an idea, wishing rock," she grumbled once she knew the coast was clear. "When I go to Mr. and Mrs. Deadpool's dinner party, I'm asking Shiklah for an owner's manual."
Even through the thick concrete of the new construction, Tessa could hear the crashing of the scuffle occurring below her. It was a good thing these offices weren't being leased out officially yet. There would be some cleaning up to do the next morning, by the sound of it. She peeked over the edge of the roof just in time to watch some poor numbskull get yanked back inside by his belt. Phasing down, she stepped over the ruined 'available rental space' sign and propped herself against the door frame.
"Aww, no light show?" She asked, kicking a gun away from the nearest guy currently laid out over the floor, groaning.
"Aren't you supposed to be under curfew?" Rand piped back, not missing a beat. Tessa closed her eyes a moment before that kick impacted, out of instinct. "Should I be expecting a truant officer?"
"I may be bending some rules, but it's for a good reason, dragon boy. You know, I have a camera I'd like you to trash compact like that, if you would." She pointed at the tennis ball sized lump of metal in his hand that had once been a gun.
"Sure. That's my day job. Hey, you just happen to be here also looking to root out Tribeca's infamous anti-mutant militants? If you say no, I'm gonna get my hopes up." Even with his mask on, the eyebrow waggle that accompanied that question was visible. Along with the smile that followed, his light-heartedness seemed to change the tone of the room, like it was a weekend picnic or something. And the sun was out and warm. Except it was dark and cool and the air was full of dust and yelps. It was all very dissonant but somehow comforting and charming.
Tessa chuckled in spite of herself. "No, I was actually looking for you, but--"
"Finally! I was giving you space, you've had a rough go of it, these last few months… And, here you are! It was the Keep Memory Alive t-shirt, wasn't it?" It was almost comical, the look of horror and confusion on the man's face just before Rand sent him flailing into a wall.
"You wish… I wanted to ask--"
"Why, yes, I am available for dinner tomorrow." He straightened up, brushing his hands off, last man standing to the accompaniment of groans and wheezes all around him.
Tessa was struck with a terrible and totally identifiable sense of déjà vu. "Ha-ha. Unrelated but suddenly pressing question: you're not a religious person, are you?"
"No… spiritual maybe, but not religious. Why? Are you a reporter now? This is off the record. I only give interviews in restaurants with a dessert menu, or… occasionally, on a scenic park bench--"
"They're flirting. Reg, we're gonna die while these two muties are flirting," one of the men crumpled on the floor rasped.
Rand pulled off another guy's shoe and sock, then shoved the sock into this one's mouth. "It's rude to interrupt while others are talking. Also, that is an insulting term. As I was saying, I'll make an exception for you, though. Say the word and I know an excellent 24 hour diner down the street."
"Stop it." If the tone of Tessa's voice indicated anything, she didn't actually want him to stop it. So, she changed gears. "I'm… dealing with something. I need an outside perspective. Do you… what's your stance on… criminal fatalities?" She was answered first by a chorus of panicked moans and some slurred pleading.
"I'll remind all of you, you each have two feet. That's plenty of socks to go around." Rand waited while there were a few defiant grumbles but soon enough they quieted down. "Well, I try to avoid them if I can-- which is why all of you are still alive --but, when you're fighting like I do, sometimes people fall, they hit a wall wrong, I slip up and… well, it happens. I'm never happy about it, but I know how to deal with the reality of the situation. Sometimes people die. How DD does the absolute no killing thing I don't know-- though, I heard a few of those Dogs of Hell never woke up…"
"Fucking muties! 'S why you need to be put--"
"Sock for you." Rand grabbed this one by the shoulder, ending his squirming, and shoved a sock into his mouth as well.
Tessa covered her mouth. This wasn't funny. It wasn't. "Nice Vulcan nerve pinch… But, uh… what about the really bad ones?"
"Sometimes I don't pull the punch, simple as that…" He pointed at another, this one cradling a dislocated shoulder and crawling towards a piece of glass. "Did you hear what I just said? Sometimes I don't pull the punch. St--Stay down, guy. Thank you. … You need help with something, M? I'm happy to help. Maybe you pay me back with breakfast, eh…?"
"Trust me, dragon boy, you're trying to bite off more than you can chew. Thanks for the chat--"
"Hey. Fist guy. If you're gonna keep at it, knock the rest of us out so we don't have to keep hearing you strike out."
"These guys..." If there was such a thing as an exasperated grin, Rand was wearing one. "Intolerant and rude. They're not scared of me. I gotta figure out what it is DD does to make them shit their pants."
Tessa tossed him another sock. "I think it's the talking. You had them until I showed up and struck up a conversation. Anyway, thanks for that, I'll just leave you to regaining your rep--"
"Were you following me earlier?" More groans. "--That's right, you idiots were beaten boneless by a talky guy. Get over it. Still going to jail…"
"I thought you might have seen me… Yeah, how'd you… know?"
"Just go to dinner with him…"
Rand grinned wider as he shoved yet another sock where it didn't belong. "They may be right about one thing… You know? I think I might start using this sock thing regardless of the situation. But, uh… yeah. You kinda stick out in a crowd. To me. You have a pretty powerful… energy about you. I felt it."
"The Punisher would'a been better than th--"
Tessa stood up from stuffing a sock as well. "Ah, glowing hand stuff."
"Pretty much. Why were you following me?"
With the whole band of dumbasses gagged, Tessa could actually pause and think that answer over in peace. Well, besides the muffled grumbles of exasperation. "Uh… it wasn't to ask you that question… I, uh, I have a problem with some guys you've run into before and I was hoping you could point me their way… now, I'm thinking maybe you can help me by punching their faces in."
"Sounds fun. Alright, lemme just finish cleaning up here."
At that exact moment, Danny Rand was a most welcome breath of fresh air. Tessa's life had been doom and gloom, loss, frustration, failure, and freakish accidents for the last few days. Rand was sanguine and even-headed, droll without verging onto the preposterous, and he was utterly unflappable when it came to mystical stuff. He took the recap of Tessa's situation in stride, like she'd told him the turnout of a sporting event or election. And, he was genuinely interested in helping her and being a friend. At this point, Tessa was beginning to find the flirtations charming. She was probably just really lonely and depressed, but his weird, dragon-themed ray of sunshine made her feel better.
"To be clear, this is not the 24 hour diner I mentioned earlier. I would not recommend this place to anyone. In fact, I would strongly advise against even drinking the water here. All the same, this was the place I followed the neo-Nazis from. I bet they have lead in their pipes, affects brain development…"
Tessa knelt down beside him and squinted at the dingy windows. "Well… it's a start. Thanks, dragon boy. I'll, uh… take it from here."
"Cool." He sat down with her, crossing his legs.
"Um… what'cha doing?"
"Me? Waiting for you to finish doing your memory scan or whatever you're doing. Good chance to get everything all re-aligned before the next skirmish."
"O--Okay…" Tessa tried to search the diner, she did. But, Rand was just there, breathing. "You're just going to sit there?"
"Hmm? Well, I'm meditating as I sit here… technically, but yeah. If you don't mind."
"No… No, that's fine. You do that. I'll… yeah." She turned back towards the windows and took a deep breath.
Inside there were only seven people, three of them employees. The other four were sad and tired and basically whiling away the hours of their life in a place that had air conditioning and cable access. Two of them were on break from a night shift and had no memories that matched Tessa's search. The other two were part of a gang, but not one that had any affiliations Tessa was interested in. The cashier, however, had recently given a discount to a group of men among whose faces Tessa recognized last night's curse cooks. In fact, the cashier secretly hated all the customers in that diner and had memories of rallying to do violence against those customers' communities. The cashier was a racist asshat. And, she just happened to remember a get-together in a nearby apartment that was happening during her shift.
"Alright, we've got a party to crash."
"That was quick."
Tessa stood again and held out her hand. "Yeah. Not many people down there, only one had any relevant information-- Are you going to take my hand or continue staring at it?"
"Am I… your date to this party?"
"No, pajama ninja, I need contact with you to phase us there. It's faster than leaping around these rooftops."
"Phasing, huh? Is that like telepor--" Tessa phased away mid-word, leaving them in a very plain but fastidiously clean hallway. "--ting. Oh."
"I dunno, you tell me." She dropped his hand, ignoring the soft, warm tingle that had curled up her arm, and then headed quietly towards the hive of memories to her right. "We're looking for 7F."
"You should probably warn people before you do that. It felt… not good."
"Sorry. I was in a hurry. So, I'm thinking you'll do actual punching this time, yeah? If you can round up the others, there are two guys who are supposed to be here whose brains I'd like to pick."
"No problem." He glanced around the corner and then stepped up to 7F. "Ready?"
If there was going to be any moment where they had the absolute advantage over this group of armed, angry, magic-wielding fascists, it was when their door literally flew off the hinges and onto their heads. Tessa took the opportunity to melt into the room as all nineteen of them, packed into this apartment like belligerent sardines, focused their rage on Rand. All their ridiculous, pitiful, futile rage.
"Oh, now I get a light show. Lovely." The man Tessa had appeared behind let out a little squeal of surprise as she grabbed him by the hair. "Be grateful it's my hand on your head, Timmy. My hand isn't going to melt through your face. ... At least I think that's how it works… Now, where's Louis? There you are, Louie. You two are in my group. We're going to have a nice little chat and then my friend with the glowing hand over there is going to show you what your large intestines look like. Sound good? Great. Let's begin."
After the first one tried fighting his way out of Tessa's group, there was no more resistance of any kind from either of them. Watching a bullet bounce off of her really left them in shock. Also, Tessa making them remember that they had no legs or arms. That may have been a little over cruel, but she needed them to stop struggling for a few moments while she slashed through Morris's encryptions on their memories.
"How's it going over here?" Rand's voice pulled her out of the third scan of the decoded memories.
"About finished…" Tessa glanced over her shoulder at the startlingly empty room. "Uh… where are the other guys?"
"They were annoying me, so I tied them up and put them out the window. They're hanging there like a barrel of monkeys now. Can I add these two to the chain?"
She waved at them, removing their false memories, and stepped out of the way. "Sure. Sadly, they remember basically nothing that I didn't already know. Another dead end."
"Yeah… These--hold on, guy." Rand stopped one dead in his tracks, leg locked around his neck. "These organizations can get really redundant."
"You learn that in ninja school?"
"I'm… I'm not actually a ninja."
Tessa looked back up from inspecting the weirdest bedsheet ladder in the world. "No, I know the difference… It's just such a mouthful to say pajama martial artist. Second completely unrelated question of the evening: you also learn how to use a sword in pajama dragon martial arts school, pajama martial artist?"
"Sure…" Rand hauled up the bedsheet ladder and its human rungs, leaving them in a squirming pile with Timmy and Louis. "Should I ask why?"
"Well, I just got myself a pretty nice one and I could use some…" She tossed him the phone she'd just caught one guy reaching for. "…lessons in using it that haven't come from someone with a nearly instantaneous healing factor and no morals. But… it's a ninja sword, so…"
"I can look past that if you can… Yes, hello? I'd like to report a disturbance. There were shouts and crashes… Yes, in apartment 7F of-- where are we again?"
"This… is a very nice sword."
"This… is a very nice apartment," Tessa replied, padding carefully around the enormous great room, gazing out the floor to ceiling windows.
Rand took a break from examining the sword to pull off his mask and frown at the room. "It's over the top, I know."
"What do you do again? Something with… suits and ties and briefcases…"
"I… own a company, my father's company, Rand-Meachum. … It's… right there…" He pointed over Tessa's shoulder at a nearby skyscraper.
"Yeah, that's… right. How have I never put that together?"
There was a quiet cough behind her and then the sharp whistle of metal cutting air. "Actually, this sword's kind of perfect. Its weight… the balance. It handles beautifully."
"I know, isn't it? I call her Belle."
"That's… not one I've heard before…"
Tessa abandoned the view of the skyline to find Danny struggling with a response. She scoffed and headed back to him. "I'm kidding, Rand. I don't have a name for it. It's a sword."
"Oh…" The awkward smile dropped from his face, replaced by relief. "Yeah, I'm more comfortable with that."
"I bet. Having the memory lady seem crazy always makes people squirmy. So, wha'd'you think? Can you help me figure out how to use it without cutting off my own arm or something?"
"We should be able to manage something." He sheathed the sword again and held up its straps. "Let's start with... putting it on properly. It makes more sense to wear it-- hence the straps-- for portability, and you also don't want to lose its sheath in a fight… Right or left handed?"
"Both? More left, I guess." Tessa fidgeted a little as he stepped behind her and strapped the sword over her shoulder.
"Nah. I... don't really feel pain anymore. Or, get hurt either, I guess."
He bobbed around in her peripheral, adjusting the sword's position, tugging at straps. "That… is… convenient while learning to use a deadly weapon. Being invulnerable."
"Normally, yes, I follow your logic. Except this one can actually cut me."
"Oh. Okay… Is that a keep yourself humble kind of thing or I should slowly back away because the sword's name is actually Belle kind of thing?"
Tessa laughed, "no. It's for protecting myself from people like me."
"That makes sense." Stopping in front of her again, he ducked a little and squinted over her shoulder. "Looks good. How's that feel?"
"It feels like there's a week old baguette tied to my back."
Danny snorted. "I meant… Can you reach it comfortably?"
"Oh…" She reached over her shoulder and immediately came into contact with the grip. "Yup. There it is. It's in my hand."
"Nice. I've never actually done that for another person before… Right. So, next… you draw it and, I guess, be careful…" He stepped away and nodded as she unsheathed it off her back. "That was easy enough, right? You've got that down… but… your grip is… off and your guard's too open. You're not dual-wielding, so everything has to be tighter. Hm… Hold on."
Tessa pulled the strap off of her boob and onto the opal as he jogged off and out of the room. "So… I'll just stand here, then…"
"Coming!" A slightly broader sword in hand, Danny slid to a stop in front of her again. "Kinda wishing I didn't have this floor waxed this morning. Anyway, show me what Deadpool showed you, half speed. We'll work from there."
Chapter 10: Ride the Dragon
A/N: So... if this chapter were a particular HBO series episode, before the 'last time' montage and credit sequence rolled, there would be a content warning card, and this episode's content warning screen would have more than just the 'Explicit Language' and 'Graphic Violence' tags. That's right. You'd see the 'Nudity' tag. Get ready.
It took less than five minutes for Tessa to demonstrate just what a disaster she was.
"I'm--I'm so sorry. So sorry." She shakily sheathed the sword and took a step towards Rand. "Are you--"
"I'm fine. It's fine…" He held away from his chest what was once the shirt of his uniform, now a sort of vest, split open to the navel. "Really, that's my fault. I should've blocked it. I didn't think you'd come across that way… Now I know: I'm rusty with the sword… But, hey, no blood and I spilled pomegranate juice all over this yesterday. Time for a replacement anyway-- Is something wrong?"
"That's a big tattoo." She poked his chest, at the carbon copy of the dragon insignia from his uniform.
"Yeah," Danny nodded, yanking off the mangled remains of his shirt. "Imagine it being seared into your skin."
"Seared? Ugh." Tessa shivered. "Handy, though… in cases such as these of shirt destruction. No one's left guessing if you like dragons or not."
"Yes, and that's exactly why I have it. It has no mystical or spiritual significance whatsoever."
"Heh…" It was a good thing Tessa was still wearing her mask. She was quipping well enough to cover her ass, but that was literally only because he couldn't see her face. She was still gawking and the staring was proving difficult to stop.
It had escaped her in the insanity of her last few days all the different layers of sacrifice she was making by removing Matt from her life. One that she had completely and idiotically overlooked was the important shelter he'd provided for her more unmanageable faults. Now, she didn't have him to run to, now she didn't have him to focus on to stay in control. Now, she would just keep staring. It hardly helped that Rand was built a bit like Matt. And that it had been a hot second since she'd seen someone other than Matt shirtless, or since she'd really looked. Tessa missed Matt. And, it felt good to look.
She had a few moments to do so unnoticed while Danny tossed the shirt aside and picked back up the sword, dropping again into his fighting stance. "Okay… Let's try that again. I'll keep my guard up and you'll focus on your balance. Power needs a foundation or it falls over and cuts open its friend's uniform."
"You're not going to put on another shirt?"
"For you to accidentally maim? No. I only have so many of those things, and it's surprisingly difficult to have them made without people getting nosy. And, I really only wear it here because people are so uptight about nipples -- oh. Am I making you uncomfortable? Is it a nipple thing?"
Tessa shook her head and unsheathed her sword again. "Nope. I have nothing against nipples. Not uncomfortable. Show me again." This was a thing she could do. Tessa could learn to use this sword, like she needed to do, and she could do it while this person in peak physical condition posed shirtless in front of her. It was totally doable. She would just look at it like an objective observer. Feet shoulder-width apart, knees bent, hips tucked… core… taut-- no, core engaged, shoulders squared, arms up, level with the chest, flexing… veins bulging… muscles… muscly.
"Okay. Your balance is… better. The rest is… not."
Again, Tessa was so glad to be wearing her mask. Her ears were burning. He'd caught her attention wandering. "Don't scold me. Fix it, dragon boy."
He hummed and stepped out of his stance. It was easier when Tessa couldn't just stare. She let him move her around like a modeling doll, doing her best to maintain the position he put her in. A distraction was still probably for the best. Conversation. Focus on talking, not staring. "You're a good teacher."
"Thanks for the flattery," he chuckled. "I was actually thinking of opening a school, though."
"You should." Good job, Tessa. "You can't touch your students like this, though, when you do." Bad Tessa! Abort, abort!
Rand stepped back quickly. "Hah… you caught me."
Too late! Spiraling! Mission failure! Mission… failed… Tessa quickly sheathed her sword and turned around towards him, into the space he'd just created between them. Oh well... fuck it. We're steering into the skid. "Oh, sweet dragon boy… who told you to do it?"
"You're getting my hopes up again," he laughed weakly and took another step away. "I get it. You owe me for the persistent flirting, but--"
"No, you changed my mind here, Rand. Run with it."
"Oh, really?" He grinned when Tessa nodded. "Nice. A--As long as I didn't pressure you. No? Cool. I'll just go get changed. Do you have something you wanna wear? I could find something if you wanted--"
Tessa was left leaning into thin air, utterly caught off guard. "Wh--What?"
"That diner really is pretty amazing, but I also have some friends over in Chinatown who stay open way into the night if you prefer…" His voice faded down the hallway and Tessa turned on the spot, trying to figure out what had just happened. He reappeared a moment later, carrying two handfuls of clothing. "…go there, it really doesn't matter if we go in masks, though, I imagine it would be pretty difficult for you to eat in that full-face number--"
"Shh. Just… shush, for one second." She unstrapped the sword from her back, setting it down on his couch along with the clothes from his hands. "You misunderstood me. I don't intend on going anywhere."
"Okay, I get that. Long night. Don't really feel like being out there in the slog again. I'll put these back." He gathered up the clothing again and hurried back out of sight.
Tessa stared after him, flabbergasted. "I must be… off my game."
"What? I have drinks. You want a drink?" Suddenly, Danny was in the kitchen again, t-shirt pulled on.
"What in the fuck…?"
"Was that a 'yes'? Couldn't hear you, sorry. This place swallows sound."
Tessa sighed then wandered off down this mysterious hallway of his. "Only if it tastes good. I can't get intoxicated." There was another way to go about this. One he would not mistake. Probably. Hopefully.
"I have a 2001 Cab in here… do you want it?"
"Sounds delicious," she called back, slipping into the second doorway. Bingo.
Danny found her a few minutes later. "Okay, it's breathing… " He leaned into the room, baffled smile on his face. "Hi. I see you found my bedroom."
Tessa leaned back onto her elbows, feet kicking off the side of the mattress. "This… is a big bed."
"I kick in my sleep."
Her mask was on the floor at her feet. If she rolled her eyes, he would see. She stood up and began circling the room instead. "But… this is just barely a bedroom. Don't you have any possessions?"
"I like the minimalist approach to life."
"So, that's a no… No… toys?" She stopped by the bedside table, doing her best coquette.
"I just got back… here, uh, last year. I haven't had time to clutter it up," he shrugged, still not actually stepping into the room.
"Mm…" Tessa swallowed another sigh and ambled back towards him. A more direct approach. "Question: That glass out there? It's shatterproof, right?"
"Yup. Building codes--"
"Super. 'Cause, this… this is nice in here, but… floor to ceiling windows and the skyline all lit up… Why miss out on the view?"
Danny considered her for a moment. Taking his hands out of his pockets, he leaned against the door frame and shrugged. "To be honest, I never start in here anyway…"
"Oh, dragon boy… You're finally speaking my language." She closed the distance between them, then continued to do so as he backed into the hallway and up against the wall. "I thought you were being purposefully obtuse. Now… come on. Don't tell me all that flirting was just bluster."
"Some of it was."
He couldn't back up anymore. Tessa squared up to him and reached for his hands, guiding them against little resistance onto her waist and hips. "'Some' is better than 'all'…"
Two seconds, ten seconds passed. Neither of them moved. Danny had opened his mouth like he was about to say something, but never got around to it. His hands remained where she had placed them but did nothing else. Tessa sucked on her teeth, waiting for something, any response. Then, it occurred to her that, although he wasn't responding like she'd expected, that didn't mean he wasn't responding at all. He was staring at her, eyes moving over her face, seeing her.
"Ah… I get it…" She stepped backwards, slipping out from under his hands, and made eye contact with him. Without breaking it, she dragged her fingers down her torso, from neck to groin, and then wiggled out of her suit. The fabric dropped to the floor and Tessa stepped out of it, walking back into the great room in just her underthings. "Maybe you need that drink now…"
This man was not blind. This one did not feel her skin change temperature, or hear the constriction of her vocal chords as her blood pressure mounted. He also didn't pick up on innuendo as well as Tessa had expected. He could, however, see a mostly naked woman walking away from him. That was an erotic cue that worked.
Danny caught up her before she stepped into the kitchen, blocked her path. Tessa smirked up at him, tucking her hands onto her waist, daring him to do something, anything. His eyes danced over her, flashing downward despite remaining largely on her face. "Wait, wait, wait. I was actually hoping for a few dates, you know… maybe more. Get to know each other a little better. That wasn't a bluff." He spoke in earnest. It was cute.
"I don't want to date, Rand."
"Yeah, I get that now."
Danny may have been fast like Matt, may have been built like him, could move like him, but that seemed to be where the obvious similarities ended. He certainly didn't use his hands like Matt did. They didn't skate over skin, trace nerve clusters, or explore much at all. With a bit of encouragement, they finally touched Tessa again, pooling a bubbling warmth wherever they rested, but it took some convincing. And then, they only really went one place and set up shop, on Tessa's ass. His mouth, though, it picked up the slack, once again, after some gentle assurances. There was a generousness to his tongue that Matt never afforded Tessa, which was another warm, tingling surprise. No hypersensitivity to taste and smell meant a bit less temperance. Compounded with an attention to detail and eagerness to listen to instruction, Danny's less hands-on approach won Tessa over quickly. It certainly felt good. She was intrigued to the point of entrancement, with the surprises factored in to the equation. For example, Danny was stronger than Matt. Much, much stronger. She'd have to replace that bra.
"Guess that's what super dragon glow power gets you…"
"Nothing… don't let me interrupt…"
She had distracted him, though. Finally pulling free the bra he'd snapped, Danny dropped it and then tapped the opal between her breasts that he'd uncovered. "What's this?"
"A thing for my powers… You touch me just right and it might glow…"
"Oh…" Biting her lip, Tessa poked that tattoo through his shirt, then pushed until he backed away. "'Scuse, me. I'd like that wine now."
He watched her walk away. Tessa watched him do it over her shoulder. Once she had stopped at the counter, started pouring her glass, he sidled into the kitchen as well, but kept his distance. Tessa got the feeling he was sizing her up, waiting for her next move.
Glancing down at herself, she made it. "You know, this is starting to feel a little unfair. I took my suit off, but then… you obliterated my bra and... What? You're still fully clothed?"
"You did cut my other shirt in half." Nevertheless, he pulled the t-shirt up and over his head. "Better?"
Tessa looked down at herself again. "Does this look fair? Drop the pants, Rand, or I'm finding a way to destroy them as well."
"Alright," Danny shrugged and then unwound the belt from his hips, dropping it and then pushing down the pants, toeing off his shoes. "Ta-da."
"'Ta-da'," Tessa snickered. "Ah, boxer briefs. I knew it. Let's 'ta-da' it, then." She twirled her finger at him. "Slowly, please."
Clothes kicked aside, he spun around on the spot, making sure to sigh loudly as he did. He was grinning, though, when he turned back to her. This was funny to him.
"You really do yourself an injustice, opting out of the skintight spandex gang."
Now he laughed, as cheerful as he'd been intense not a minute before. "I like to keep some things to the imagination."
"Does that work for you?"
"Well, I don't get kicked outta bed often, if that's what you mean. But, they also don't usually make me spin."
"I make a point to fully enjoy an experience. Sometimes, that means ogling a person." She took a sip of her wine, pointedly looking him up and down once more. "Mm. This is good."
"Ah, I haven't been good and proper eye-fucked in a while and, I gotta say, it makes me feel like the extra training sets are paying off. Also, like you might eat me… When you change your mind, you really change your mind." He leaned against the counter beside her and poured a second glass. "This is some high-quality, no-holds-barred titillation."
"Titillation?" She chuckled. "Yeah. What can I say? I know what I want, when I want it. Tonight, I want to have sex and I want the theme of my foreplay to be delayed gratification."
"Alright… I can be patient."
"I bet you can." Tessa slipped the glass from his hand and drained it, finishing off the rest of her own as she ambled off again.
She didn't check to see if he was watching this time. Instead, Tessa just headed for the window to gaze out at the night sky. At just that moment, she wanted one other thing she hadn't mentioned, she couldn't mention. Her eye fell immediately where he was out there in the dark. Out there and far away from her, where he needed to be.
Behind her, Tessa heard the clink of ice in a glass. Danny was still in the kitchen, pouring himself another drink. He glanced up at her as she turned around. "I don't drink much. Dulls senses, slows reflexes, you know, a hand-to-hand fighter's worst nightmare -- don't worry, though, it's pretty hard for me to get smashed. Anyway, when I do drink, I usually avoid wine --makes me goofy as hell with all that sugar-- so, that bottle's all yours." Decanter set aside, he headed for the fridge, splashed something else in. "Luke gives me shit about drinking this… but, fuck it. I like it."
The liquor's scent hit her as Danny joined Tessa at the window. "You like drinking Christmas trees?"
He held the glass out of her reach just before she could grab it. "As a matter of fact, I do. It's refreshing."
"Did you seriously just pour that out of a decanter? You are a rich guy. How much did that cost? It's expensive, isn't it?" She grabbed for the glass with each question, but Danny side-stepped each attempt. The last one, Tessa feinted and then lunged. It didn't even work a little bit. Danny simply rolled out of the way and lifted her into the air by the waist as she passed him. There was a bit of world-spinning and then a thunk. Somehow, Tessa ended up pinned against the window, limbs wrapped around Danny and clinging for dear life, his drink nowhere in sight.
The glass vibrated gently against her back and she chuckled, trying to play it cool. "It is shatterproof."
"You like games."
"Well, yes… and, while I appreciate your creativity and initiative with this new development in the game-play, I'm going to need you to put me back down. I can't have you dragon-powering my underwear apart too." Even after Tessa unwrapped her legs from his waist, her feet still didn't touch the floor. She sat there for a moment, legs dangling, then poked his arm. "Please?"
"Don't drink my gin, please." His hands slid up to her waist and she was gently set on the floor. "Which, by the way, is not at all expensive. I just put it in the decanters to keep up appearances as a wealthy douche bag. You'd be amazed how many people just crow over it, sing its praises. All 15 dollars' worth of it."
Tessa grinned as she wiggled the underwear down her hips and dropped them to the ground. "You're simply devious. Now… let's try that again."
She ran her hands over his shoulders, ready to be lifted again and pinned back against that widow. Never happened, though. Danny leaned into her, kissed her for a fleeting moment and then backed away, grabbing his glass from the counter on the way into the kitchen again. Tessa was left watching him go this time.
He grinned, really proud of himself, when he glanced back to find her staring. "More wine?"
"That's fine," she finally managed with a smirk. "I can take it as well as I can dole it out."
"Good…" He poured her a fresh glass. "Your eyes are really something."
Tessa set her hands on her hips, standing there alone, not a stitch of clothing on her anymore. "Aw, thanks for noticing."
"They weren't this bright during your trial."
"Yeah… guess the spark of joy just wasn't there anymore, what with the torture and imprisonment. You are going to fight tooth and nail for this to be date, aren't you?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about. So, this is you back at full power?"
Tessa accepted the wine, eyes narrowed at him. "You could say that…"
"And, what is your full power? You've got memory-control and... immortality?"
"So far as I can tell. I don't age or change at all and... the only thing that's ever been able to hurt me is on that couch over there… That said, I've never been punched by the Hulk or struck by lightning. The way I look at it, I'm immortal until proven otherwise."
"Wow... well, I'm not the Hulk or Thor, so in my book, yeah. Immortal and invincible."
"Good, that would've been a really weird surprise, but on that topic… maybe don't do the glowy hand thing."
"Thank you for not saying the words 'iron fist me'. I've heard it a few too many times and it's left scars."
Tessa scoffed and turned back to the window. "I wonder how many people are looking in here right now."
"They're getting a free show, however many there are."
The glass was clean enough still that Tessa could see their reflection in it. She snapped the band of his underwear as Danny stepped up behind her. "My turn for questions: are you ever going to take those off and do you have food here? I like to eat after sex."
"Eventually and I've got some stuff. I also know some 24 hour delivery places, as you might have guessed. Here, hold this. Please don't drink it." He waited until Tessa took the drink from his hand. "Thank you. What did you want to be when you grew up?"
"I had a lot of amb--" She'd been too busy contemplating drinking his drink anyway to notice he'd dropped to his knees. The next bit had been a genuine surprise. "--ambitions… Oh. Ohh--Ah!" This was not her plan, but… she wasn't fighting it. Except for when it felt like she was about to be tipped upside down. She let out a yelp as she was hoisted onto his shoulders, then struggled in the air, but only to hold onto the glasses as she leaned back into the window.
"Mm-hmm." She nodded at his muffled admonishment and hugged the drinks to her chest, arching her back. And there against her chest, the drinks remained, locked into place as Tessa's body went rigid, then completely, blissfully weightless. When she finally had the ability to do so again, she gulped down what was left of her wine. Danny's glass was gently pried from her hand once she was upright and mostly steady on the ground again.
"Thank you. So, you were saying, you had a lot of ambitions…"
"Thanks… you… Uh, doctor…" She mumbled, eyes still closed, window supporting most of her weight while her breathing slowed and feeling returned to her brain. "I wanted to be a doctor."
"I expected something like that. You know what I didn't expect? For you to be so quiet. Normally, you have a mouth on you."
"Not normal. Trying not to drop or crush the glasses. Or choke you out with my thighs… so I held my breath."
"Not good for blood flow, doctor."
Tessa found her feet finally and pushed her glass into his hand. "But, it saved your drink. Mostly. The rest you can lick off later."
"Already took care of some of that…"
"Mm-hmm. Alright, yeah. You won round one, but that was just a warm-up."
Danny turned on the spot, looking for where Tessa had disappeared to. "Am I going to have to catch you?"
"Catch me?" Her voice floated behind him, but she was already gone. "You're fast but not that fast, dragon boy. Round two." He found her standing on the couch, his underwear twirling around her finger. "I'm gonna make the dragon glow…"
It suddenly occurred to Tessa that she'd been staring at the blinking light of a smoke detector for upwards of three hours. The sun had been well into its ascent when they'd finally lain down and she had watched its light spread across the ceiling with numb limbs but racing mind. Just then, it was being extremely rude and filling the room with very bright light, interrupting her staring contest with the detector. Her eyes ached because of it and, with it glaring in her face like that, she couldn't continue scrutinizing every little way that night could catastrophically backfire. So, Tessa grumbled and moved to roll over. But, with that smallest stretch of her up until this point limp body, she promptly seized up. There was an unfamiliar sensation zapping through her and she did not enjoy it. Pain, that was pain. Not horrible, injury pain. Just… a long absent discomfort. She was sore.
"Holy shit…" Tessa propped herself up on her elbow, found herself squinting at the headboard. Danny was a bit to her right, still dead asleep on his back, feet on a pillow. Sitting up was worse than stretching. She winced a little at a fresh jolt as she grabbed the sheets off the floor. "What are you, dragon boy?"
The bottle of wine was on the floor as well at the foot of the bed, where she'd left it. Tessa grabbed that too and finished it off. Not feeling any better, she assessed the room. It was a wreck, shit scattered everywhere, one broken lamp. And she looked as rough as she felt. But Danny, there, he was peaceful in his unconsciousness. That seemed preferable to a mess and pain.
"Fuck it," she muttered, scooting over to him and laying back down with the sheets over her head. "Fuck you, sun. I'll just… I'll try to sleep."
And, the sun did leave her alone. With the sheets over her head, Tessa could stare into the dull blue of the fabric and return to micro-analyzing what she'd done. Rand's skin still radiated that same fizzy warmth that made Tessa instinctively relax, like a drug, and she laid back down with this peaceful contentment slowly washing over her. At some point, she sank again into the trance she'd found with the smoke detector and lost track of her body. The next time the reality of her physical form tugged at Tessa, it was in the form of lips on her neck and the familiar sensation of scruff bristling against her skin.
His lips stopped and disappeared, taking with them the bliss of Tessa's dazed mistake. "Uh… my name's Danny, but… you already knew that."
After a few milliseconds of flailing, Tessa sat upright and reached for him. "I--I-- Sorry, Danny, I--"
"The lawyer. Yeah, everyone saw you were partial to him. No big deal," he shrugged. "We all do it. I'll admit, you remind me a little of an ex…"
Tessa sighed and rubbed at her face. "Doesn't mean it feels good."
"Meh. You made it explicitly clear what you wanted out of this. I'm a big boy, I can handle it."
"Still… Sorry, really--oof." Tessa's breath caught as she moved to make some consoling gesture. Whatever that consoling gesture would have been they'd never know. The shock of pain interrupted.
"Me?" She tried to look back at him without moving or shifting or using in anyway her lower body. "Sure. I think I just need to exercise more."
"Shit. Did I hurt you? Shit. I'm so sorry. Wow. I'm sorry, I didn't-- I'll get you an ice pack and some painkillers. I'm sorry--"
Tessa grabbed his arm. "Chill it, dragon boy. I'm fine, just a little… tender. It's not serious. I've gotten used to not really feeling… any kind of discomfort--physical discomfort. It's made me a bigger wimp than before."
The opal thunked dully when Tessa flicked it. It was glowing brightly, pulsing with each twinge of pain. Looking up from what was clearly the radiating epicenter of her pain, she nodded. "Yes, relax, Rand, sheesh. No sex injuries. This is more a case of I need to stretch more in the mornings or something. Maybe actually use my body to get around instead of phasing everywhere. Magic... has side effects, I guess..."
"I highly recommend stretching. I can show you how…"
When Danny started reaching for her, Tessa scoffed but also didn't attempt to move away. "You can try, but I have this feeling that somehow it won't actually end in stretching…"
"Just keep breathing." He wiggled her shoulders until she relaxed them, set her hands on either side of her, and carefully repositioned her legs straight out in front of her. Tessa felt like an awkward rag doll. Then, he pressed between her shoulder blades and she felt like her leg muscles were being ripped up and into her back. "You're not breathing."
"I'm also not a pretzel. Why are you bending me in on myself? It feels bad." Yes, her muscles screaming felt bad. But, also, his touch felt good. Coincidentally, every time Rand did touch her, the opal felt numbed. So... worth it. "It feels like things that should not be stretched are creaking and tearing... like sleeves of a t-shirt that are inexplicably small and have no give. In other words, it feels not good."
Danny laughed a little. "You are not flexible. At all."
"No. I'm a reanimated corpse of a physically inactive hospital troll. My muscles do nothing but hold my skeleton together and they only manage to do that through the cellular metastasis Mnemosyne's cosmic juju provides."
"Maybe," he chuckled, "but you are loosening up some as we speak."
Tessa noticed her face was, in fact, marginally closer to the bed. Also, the Zen tingling had already spread up to her ears and down to her butt. She couldn't feel the opal at all anymore. "This was not the kind of stretching I imagined you showing me."
"That's because I actually want to help you work through your muscle fatigue, whereas you thought I was just going to take advantage of putting you in some sexually charged positions."
"Ooh. 'Whereas,' Rand's getting fancy. … So, you're not going to take advantage of putting me in some sexually charged positions?" Another chuckle, but no other response than the steady increase in pressure against her back. "Are we not going to even touch the fact that our sexual romp was so vigorous and thorough that I, the invulnerable and unchanging host of Mnemosyne, is now sore? That's--That seems like something a guy would be impressed with himself over. There should be a joke here… or a humble brag… No? Wow… Ow. Okay, I'm officially folded in half. What now?"
He let up off her back. Her lungs tightened a little as the blissful warmth abated and the opal's pangs began slithering back outward. "Lay on your stomach, please. Flat, arms at your sides."
Tessa cut her eyes at him and then flopped onto her face. "There, but I'm going to tell you, I don't have ninja cartilage instead of bones. My spine's not going to be able to fold backwards on itself, if that's what you're planning-- What are you doing?" She craned her neck around as he straddled her hips.
"This is called a massage. Have you heard of it? It's where I apply gentle but continuous pressure to the muscles--"
"Yes," Tessa mumbled with a pinch of resentment. Only a pinch, though. The good feeling was back. "It's a thing I know of. You may continue. I like this much better."
"Well, whad'ya know… I was right," Tessa sighed a while later, the top half of her hanging off the edge of the bed, the bottom still mostly disconnected from her brain. "But so were you. I am feeling more limber."
Danny patted her hip and then, climbing over her, hopped off the bed. "I am… so hungry."
She watched him pad out of the room, upside down. "The fact that you're standing right now is amazing to me."
"Stamina's one of my super powers…"
"There's the brag… sorta." With a clunk, Tessa rolled onto the floor and hoisted herself to her feet. Graceless as it was, she only groaned a little. "What's the matter with you?" She asked, looking down at herself, and then tapped the opal. "Quit with the pain and heal already, would you?"
The opal's heart flashed and Tessa immediately felt normal again. All the aches, the fatigue, gone. "Well… okay then," she shrugged and headed out to the kitchen.
Danny was already eating cold leftovers. When she turned the corner, he looked up from his phone, the picture of focus. "I'm ordering brunch. I need to know: pancakes or waffles? Or neither? If you say neither, full disclosure, you're no longer welcome in my home. Actually, there's only one correct answer."
"Both?" Tessa took the fork offered her and started in on the curry.
"Both is the correct answer. I would have also accepted French toast, actually, but that's neither here nor there… Eggs… yes… yes… yes… yeah… all of that, sure." He tossed away his phone and went back to using both hands to shovel food into his mouth.
"Uh… what all did you get?"
"A bunch of stuff."
Tessa made a point to look at all the to-go containers out on the counter before asking her next question. "You do know I only eat as much as a normal human being, right?"
"Yeah, it'll be fine. You know what today is? Today is not a work day…"
"That is accurate and factual, yes."
"Meaning you could stay. We might still be able to get something to glow, and you never actually got around to telling me what happened to your parents."
Curry set aside, Tessa wandered back over to the windows. She did not like the view as much in the daylight. "Sadly, dragon boy, my shit doesn't stop with the work week… As tempting as your invitation is, this has already been an indulgence I really can't afford."
"You've got a lot on your plate, let me help. I'll come with you again. Hell, I'll call Luke, we'll both come with you if that'll help and--"
"No, Rand… I don't want--"
"--with both Luke and I there you'll do things in half the time, maybe less. Then, maybe you and I can actually grab dinner afterwards. Make this a double feature--"
"Danny. I thought you and I were clear. This is just a… a-- I don't want-- This wasn't a date."
"I know. I figured I'd suggest an actual date, in case you'd changed your mind."
"Well, I haven't. I can't."
"Can't? As in, something's keeping you from--"
"Drop it, Rand. Please." Tessa leaned her forehead against the window, trying to close her eyes. Instead, she continued staring out at the converted warehouse nestled in the heart of Hell's Kitchen.
"But you're staying for food, obviously."
She laughed in spite of herself. All that ambiguity and rejection and Danny was still wholly unperturbed. "Yes, I'll stay for the food. … And I should probably shower before I inflict my… smell on other people."
"Plenty of time." Danny tossed an empty to-go box and started in on another.
"You're just about as cool as a… cu…cum…ber…" Looking back out over the city one more time, Tessa caught sight of a flash, a very specific flash of reflected sunlight, that sent shivers down her spine. Only one thing winked like that and only certain people could and would get up to a perch like that. And Clint was overseas. Panic burst into her mind and Tessa whipped around towards the kitchen. "Sniper! Get down, Danny!"
The fork dropped from his hand. "Sniper?"
"Scope flash across the way. It's a sniper. Get down--" Tessa had been running towards him, but the world was moving in slow motion, his fork was falling end over end for what felt like minutes. It took a few seconds too long for her to register the pop behind her, then the crack. It was only when she felt the slug tear through her shoulder that Tessa realized she'd been too slow. The pain was a staggering flare of heat, but what startled her more was the sight that followed. The burst of movement, faster than her eye, and then Danny with his hand not an inch from his stomach, glowing like it was on fire from within.
Time resumed its normal flow. Tessa lurched to one knee for a moment, grabbing at her shoulder, as Danny dropped out of sight. Her hand came away with some blood, but not as much as it should have. She clambered to her feet and felt at the wound again. The hole was already mostly closed. She'd been scared. Terrified out of her skull, actually. But now, now she was goddamned furious. The pain from the shot pulsed outward and fed her rage. Fuck running and hiding. She was going to show them what it felt like to be terrified.
Tessa wheeled around to the window, towards the spot she'd seen the flash. It was dark now, no reflecting scopes. Coward. She jabbed her hand towards the spot, flipping off the air. "Fuck you, motherfucker! Fuck you, you cowardly piece of shit! Come at me again and I'll turn you inside out--"
A hand caught her by the arm and dragged her behind the counter. Danny looked horrified. "That went through you, Tessa." He stared at her shoulder, fingers glowing gently and feeling at the edge of her new skin. "'S already healed…"
"Yeah, it went through me… meaning what I was worried about is a reality and they have the shit to actually hurt me… but, hey, you caught it. I got to see the glowing hand thing again. Excuse me, I have to finish venting my rage." She pulled away from the extra warm tingling of his fingers and stood back up, shouting at the hole in the window again. "I'll find you, shitbag! I'll find you and I'll shove that gun up your ass! … As soon as I put on some clothes…"
"Tessa, there could be more--"
She stopped looking around for her suit. "You're right, Rand, totally right. Can't waste time getting dressed. Give me a second, and keep the hand fired up, just in case." Anger boiling in her gut, she stared at the spot of the scope flash and felt out the sensation of a trigger squeezed.
It was an easy memory to pinpoint. She phased there immediately, buck ass naked and furious. The sniper was still packing up his gear. He hardly had a chance to realize she was there before she'd brought her elbow slamming down over his head. She left him there unconscious. The police could send someone out there to retrieve him. He sure as hell wasn't going anywhere for a while.
Danny was charged up, staring out the window when Tessa phased back into the kitchen. If she hadn't been so viscerally livid, it would have been arousing. "At ease with the glowing hand, Rand. There was only the one and he's out of commission. That said… it was a hit on you. Maybe you should lay low for a while. Seems Morris didn't like your involvement in my little smash and grab last night. I shouldn't have gotten you into this. It's my mess… careless and stupid."
"Not the first time I've been shot at. Won't be the last." Suddenly not glowing, Danny's hand pressed something into hers. Then, he returned to eating. "But, that's your call. Personally, I would like to continue having sex with you--whatever the circumstances-- and roll with the murder attempts, but I can see why you're upset."
Tessa stared at him, turning over what was left of the bullet, crumpled in on itself and flattened down into something like a fat bottle cap. "What are you, dragon boy?"
"Oh, now you ask? Kidding. I'll tell you over brunch."
"…Yeah, but you're not immortal. That's just part of the title."
Danny nodded like that was some small, inconsequential detail. "Sure, yes, technically. But I am pretty damn hard to kill."
"A whole society relies on you for their protection. This is obviously a moot point."
"I'm aware of that responsibility, but I'm not irreplaceable. Valuable, not invaluable. I'm also a fairly competent adult who can make his own informed decision, with super powers to boot. I can take care of myself, Tessa-- which, speaking of, is another reason I could totally handle whatever baggage you're worried about unloading on me if we undertook anything other than casual sex."
"Oh, dragon boy…" Tessa sighed at his all too familiar line of reasoning. "Can I tell you something? Something literally no one else knows anymore? And, before you say yes, you should know that I'll have to erase it from your memory. In fact… I'll have to erase everything you and I did together yesterday and today from everyone's memory… I just--It's--I want to tell someone this and you especially deserve to know it now."
Danny's eyes darted between hers a few times and then he set down his fork. "Alright, this seems heavy. Uh, can I try to convince you first not to adulterate my memory?"
"That'd be a hard 'no'. The thing I'm dealing with could pick it from your brain and then hurt you and me and some other people with it, so… I'm sorry, no. Really, the moment I spoke to you yesterday I forfeited your memories from then on. It was selfish of me and I'm sorry, but I'll explain why I did it. It's… it's… it'll explain a lot actually."
She took a deep breath and tried to look Danny in the eye. That was a mistake. Looking at him was a mistake. She didn't want to watch his feelings get trampled by her words, no matter how many times he'd said they were tough enough to take it. Damn it, she was already fond of him. Looked like she was left talking at the dragon on his chest.
"Matt, the lawyer? I'm in love with him. Not just some sad, unrequited love from the trial either. We've been together for months. He's loved me for-- he loved me, too. Doesn't remember that anymore, but he did love me. I took that from him because it was endangering him. Being around me was endangering him an--and he could take care of himself, too, like you can-- don't ask how, just believe that he can. He's capable and competent but all the same, he's mortal like you and… I had to take our relationship away to protect him. And that almost broke me. I miss him… terribly.
"When I followed you yesterday… it was because I wanted help, yeah, but I didn't need it. Really, it was because you remind me of him and, tch, I'm habitually incapable of coping with my problems if there's an escapist option on the table like sex. The quips and flippantness, the seductress act… that's all a bluff because my life is in a tailspin and I have no idea how to keep it from crashing. I'm just mashing buttons and pretending that I know what I'm doing. So, yeah, I'm sorry for misleading you and violating your head and for-- no, I'm not sorry for the sex. That was worth it. I'm not going to pretend like I would change that if I could. But the rest… I'm sorry about the rest."
When Tessa glanced back up at him, Danny looked remarkably uncrushed. He continued plowing through his breakfast like it was nothing. "I appreciate your honesty, I guess, but I'm going to ask again that you not brainwash me and instead let me help you. I've got a bit more resistance to these sorts of things--and again, I can call Luke, also particularly resistant. It's just… it sounds like, as much as I'm sure you could handle this on your own, you don't need to and it would be a bonus for you to have a fighter or two to keep these asshats off you and distracted while you do your memory thing. Now, as for life disasters, lemme tell you--"
"No, Danny. Thank you, but no. I'm not changing my mind on this. I can't have your or Luke's blood on my hands, same as I can't stand to have Matt's. It's non-negotiable."
"Fine," he shrugged, still remarkably calm about this whole thing. "But, when you're finished with this Morpheus guy--"
"Wait, what did you just call him?"
"Morpheus or something, like the Matrix. That's what the idiots I scared up were calling their boss. When you're finished with him we should--umph!"
Tessa had climbed onto the coffee table and kissed him. "Daniel Rand! That's it! I could just…" She kissed him again. And then slapped him. "Why didn't you tell me that last night?"
"I thought that's what you were calling him. Ow… I'm… confused. Slap me again?"
She kissed him once more and then clambered off the table to collect her things.
"Are you leaving?"
Tessa scooped up her mask, continuing to hoist her suit up over her hips. "Uh, yes. Thanks for this. All of this, the sex, the food, your help. You took it all in stride. A real trooper… In fact, I might hit you up again sometime, but… for now…" She grabbed her sword and broken bra and then looked him over one last time, hand on the dragon. "Forget."
She was gone before he could recover from his past 24 hours being changed. From the sniper's perch, she watched him stick his finger in the hole in his window, turn around to stare at the wreck they'd made of his apartment. He was confused and disappointed, a date gone bad, ditching him while he was getting in the shower. Tessa had been in his head. She knew this wasn't the first time something like this had happened to him. Danny Rand was too sweet, too optimistic, too rich, and too attractive. It made him a target for opportunistic people. It burned him, but he'd recover. Like he'd said, he was made of tough stuff.
Once he'd sat down to finish up their breakfast alone, Tessa decided she had to move on. Finish cleaning up this new mess and then take care of the big one. She'd just erased their time together from the rest of the world, when she received an unexpected visitor.
<<Tessie dear, you are like a ball of snow, barreling down a hill. Growing with every bounce, destroying more and more. I love it. First your blind lover and his companions, now this strikingly similar, nimble vigilante. Who next?>>
"Keep your beak out of this," she mumbled and kicked at it. The magpie melted away, leaving Tessa less than happy about his observation. Or rather, suspicious of the fact that he'd even made the observation. "Yeah… you really need to stay out of my business, bird boy, and that business apparently really needs to follow a less obvious pattern…"
Danny Rand had made a very valid point. Tessa could do with some help. But, it needed to be the right kind of help. Not some mystical city's immortal weapon, not Harlem's best new thing, or the average joe's PI for the weird and terrifying. And certainly not a very killable and righteous vigilante. She needed the opposite of that boy scout brigade.
Birdbrain had also brought up a good point. Tessa needed to do what she was going to do and she needed to do it without steamrolling over her life. So far, she'd been doing the steamrolling and then propping things back up with magic and memory alterations. That wasn't going to work anymore. Someone besides the magpie was bound to notice her crawling back to her old life, and then could start hacking away there, at her vitals.
Tessa needed help and that help needed to come from somewhere besides the life she wanted to return to once all was said and done. Preferably, when all actually was said and done, that life she wanted to return to would be recognizable and not just a smoking pile of ruin. It was time to cut the cord and go off the grid.
It felt stupid and childish, sitting alone in the dark in her office, but this was what Tessa's life had come to, secretly using the computer of the next-building-over's CEO to transfer thousands of dollars of blood money from Morris's many associates into her own account. Boy scouts helped out for free. Mis-calibrated moral compasses cost money.
"Hi there. I just found myself in possession of a great deal of dirty money and I was hoping I could spend it on you."
Amongst the cacophony of sounds on the other end of the line Tessa heard what was definitely the death of Pac-Man. "Pretty lady, you know you never have to pay me for anything."
"This isn't just some favor, Wade. This is a real job and I'll be paying you to not ask questions."
"O-o-oh, say that again. I just got chills and a boner. At the same time."
"I have half a million dollars burning a hole in my pocket here. And it can have whatever the hell name you want written all over it in under a minute. You just have to come when I call and do what I say until I'm done with what I'm doing. You in?"
"Is Joss Whedon convinced he writes great strong female characters?"
"Never mind, Pee-El. Yes. I'm in, real hard."
"Great, what name do you want it under and where."
"Chim E. Changa at Canada First."
Tessa scoffed, hopping to the appropriate page. "Great. I'll put in a cool million, 'cause there's somebody else I need you to track down and also bring into my employment…"
Four hours and still no word from Deadpool. Tessa wasn't worried yet, though. It wasn't exactly an easy task she had set him. Her second hire was bound to be more of a hard sell than Deadpool, all things considered. She pushed that from her mind and focused again on the spell in front of her.
"A name… how in the hell am I going to do this without the damned bird's name?"
She had everything else that she needed set up for the spell. Sigil drawn, candles lit, ingredients mixed that smelled like a wet dog, weird body paint. Everything. Now, literally all that was left was for her to summon the child in his bird projection. Then, finally, she could expel the nosy little fucker from her life.
"Urgh! I could've been sitting on dragon boy's face right now! Instead, I'm here, tits deep in occult shit I don't understand, and incredibly. fucking. FRUSTRATED!" The spell book toppled off her desk as Tessa kicked her chair over. "Why is this my life?"
<<Hel's pits! Tessie dear, what are you angsting about so loudly? Oh. A ring of binding. Charming. Who are you trying to ensnare, Tessie. I can help.>>
Tessa whipped around on the spot. Like clockwork. She'd been miserable and the magpie had shown up. Talk about a calling card. "You! Lying magpie boy! Get inside the sigil."
She pointed at the bird and, with a flash from her chest, the bird disappeared. Instead, there was a shocked and very disgruntled boy inside her circle. He glanced down at himself and then smirked.
<<You're not versed in these magicks, Tessie. You can't hold me here.>>
"Not hoping to hold you here for very long… Consider this a restraining order, bird boy. Not within 100 miles of me in physical or astral form. Buh-bye." Tessa stepped within the sigil and then poured the spell ingredients over herself and the kid's projection.
Before he could even open his mouth to respond, the spell activated. And that fucker had a kick to it. Tessa was sent skidding back into the wall with a crash. The furniture that had been nearby was blasted to splinters. But it worked. The kid was gone, just a rune seared into the tile where he'd been standing a moment before.
"That's coming out of my security deposit," Tessa grumbled, rubbing her thumb over the mark. "Oh, well. Worth it. No more spying, no more manipulation, no more creepy ass bird." She stood back up and, as she did, a little trickle of the spell's concoction ran down her face. It almost made her gag. "And… I need a shower. Still worth it."
Nobody asked any questions of the grimy lady talking to herself in the women's shelter shower. No one so much as gave her a second glance even when she hopped out of the stall to answer her phone. If they noticed the dark red jewel embedded in her chest, they didn't stare.
"Hey, I'm in the shower. Be quick."
"It's done. She's in."
"So, if I'm off the clock can I come join you? A shower sounds nice and Shiklah recently gave you the green light--"
Tessa hung up on him and tossed her phone back onto the bench. She had really been enjoying sudsing her hair. That and replaying some choice memories from the night before over in her head. If she caught him somewhere without witnesses, at home even, she could have Danny Rand again that night. Easy. In fact, she could do the same with Matt if she wanted…
"No… he'll be furious. Dragon boy knew the plan. He rolled with it. 'Cause he's not fucking fazed by anything."
She was even smiling to herself as she stepped from the stall again, toweling off to thought of the night ahead of her. Then she heard the television in the next room.
"…has, in fact escaped and is evading arrest. I repeat, Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher has escaped custody, his whereabouts unknown. We caution everyone to remain indoors if possible and to be on high alert to any sign of a disturbance or any suspicious activity. He is already wanted for the murder earlier today of District Attorney Reyes, the prosecutor responsible for putting him away. Castle is a white male, approximately six one, with dark hair and eyes…"
"Well… isn't that interesting?" Tessa asked no one particular and then vanished from the women's shelter. The event was completely unremarkable to all who witnessed it. In fact, none of them, when questioned later, had any recollection of a woman with purple eyes being there at all.
"Are you really just going to shoot that man in the head?"
"Oh, for fuck's-- Seriously? Another dipshit in pajamas here to question my morals… I thought I met the only one in this neighborhood." He squeezed the trigger. Brain matter decorated the wall of the storage room.
Tessa grimaced a little at the sight, but then continued. "I'm not really a local, just here for you. And, I was really wondering if you were going to just shoot that man in the head. Not question him or anything. He could have known something to help you find the man impersonating you."
Castle snorted, grabbing the corpse by the ankle and dragging it towards the door. "I wait for him to wake up, his crew could find us, he could escape. I can't risk that. He's better dead."
"Really? You couldn't tie him up and take him with you to your secret hideout? You had to kill him right then?"
"How 'bout I not tell you how to do your job and you not tell me how to do mine?"
"This is your job?"
"Someone's fucking gotta do it. Not gonna swim everyday in hot garbage just to live in this city."
Tessa considered the man in front of her. He sounded a little fanatical, yeah, but his memories checked out. He was all there, except for whatever part it was driving him to strip the pants off that dead man. "What are you doing now?"
"Need his clothes. Can't go around in this obvious goddamn shit, can I?"
"Going to kill someone else?"
He scoffed, shaking his head as he pulled off his own boots. "Here it goes. The sanctimonious bullshit."
"I'm not Daredevil, I'm not here to talk you out of what you're doing. I'm just asking questions."
"Yeah, lady, I'm going to kill someone else. Some piece of shit, parading around like they're me, murdering innocent people with their crossfire."
"Why not catch them, bring them in, clear your name?"
"And leave them to the people who allowed me in and out so quickly?" He spat, standing with his back to her and stripping down. "System's corrupt. They'll be out just as quickly. That's bullshit. Then, they're free to go fuck someone else over? Not happening."
"You're… doing more good than suffering harm to persist."
"Sure." He pulled a jacket on and squinted in the direction of Tessa's voice. "Listen, lady, I ain't got time to chat. Got shit to do. So, say your piece and let's be done. I can't have you following me, blowing my shots."
Tessa slipped off the roof of the van she'd been perched on, finally stepped into the light. "I could help you, Frank… for a favor."
"So, what's your deal, lady? You know Red, read my mind? What shit is it this time?" Luckily, one of Castle's gun caches was very close to the mind-bank Tessa had sniffed out a few hours before. She could survey it while he geared up.
"Tsh," Castle scoffed, then held a gun to her head. "Not good enough. If I help you, I gotta know where you stand. Not helping some shitbag."
"You couldn't kill me, Frank, even if I deserved it. I don't die. But, in any case, I'm hunting down my own evil motherfucker. There's a vendetta between him and me. I'm ready to end it."
The gun muzzle dropped from Tessa's temple and Castle went back to loading rounds. "You talking a blood-price."
"It ain't 'possibly', lady, it's yes or no."
Tessa stopped counting active minds and glanced back at him. "Is that what you're doing? Exacting blood-prices?"
"That's why you're the Punisher?"
"Well…" she returned to counting the number of Morris's victims across the block. "There is one who has to die, yes…"
He joined her at the window, pulling out a pair of binoculars. "Then, there I can help."
Tessa finished isolating the victims from their torturers and the guards. Locked in on those running this memory mill, Tessa began creating a net. Unfortunately, Morris was not in attendance at this evening's atrocity. Another time. She cracked her neck and exhaled, imposing a temporary memory over all those she'd singled out. For them, it was suddenly twenty minutes before and they would be none the wiser of what was happening in the now.
"We can go in, they're on loop."
"They're on loop?"
"Memory… That's what I deal in. They're looped into their past memories, like a security camera. Now…" She tapped him on the shoulder, projecting the image of three men into his mind. "Those three have memories of framing you. Punish them, the rest are… just idiots, and their boss isn't here, so I'll spend my time freeing the test subjects."
Castle set aside his binoculars and just glared at Tessa. "This place look like anything other than a cesspool to you? They're all implicated. Implicated fish in a barrel."
After Tessa phased them inside, she didn't look back at Castle. She didn't try to stop his slaughter, even though she knew she should. Many of the men working this mill had been brainwashed. She could have made that clear to Castle. She should have at least tried. She didn't. The problem with that was the distracting anomaly presenting itself to her from the moment she stepped inside. Half a dozen men were not affected by her memory alterations and those half a dozen took one look at her and started slicing test subjects' throats.
"No!" She was too slow to save three of them. That hurt. She watched the blood spurt from their necks, helpless and incensed. But she had one person in this hellhole, in particular, that she was adamant to save. Her nurse, Sophia, the woman who saved her life from Morris.
Unfortunately, these men seemed as aware of Sophia's identity as they had been of Tessa's. Despite phasing to her gurney first, immediately, when Tessa reached her Sophia was already bleeding out. Maybe Rand's instruction had sunk in, perhaps it was just the adrenalin, but the attack on Tessa that followed hardly lasted two seconds. The murderer was swinging at her with a hunting knife. Tessa had no trouble moving out of his reach. She had even less of a problem drawing her sword and removing his head from his body in one smooth motion.
Gun fire popped around her as Tessa gently picked up Sophia from her death bed. Hands were no use in stopping the blood, and that hardly mattered anyway. The light had already faded from the woman's eyes. This wonderful woman, who had been the first person to actually care for Tessa enough to save her from abuse, who risked her job to help her, Tessa hadn't been able to save her. With her eyes closed, Sophia was left to rest while Tessa dispatched the other men. In total, they had managed to kill eight people in front of her. Tessa had saved twenty-two, but it felt like a hollow victory. Sophia was dead all the same, and so were those seven other innocents. Because of her. Because Morris wanted to hurt her.
"You're good with that sword." Castle was suddenly behind her. "Got no distance on it, but I suppose that doesn't matter if you can flash around like you do. She the one you were here for?"
Oddly enough, Tessa wasn't crying. She stood over Sophia, grinding her teeth, a well of anger. Cold, calm, calculating anger. The moment replayed before her eyes, her power's failure on these men, every move she failed to execute, the hesitations that cost this woman and all the rest their lives.
"A fucking shame," Castle finally growled, when Tessa never responded. He paced over to their killers, the headless trunks. He kicked one over. "Vengeance… Was as fair a reason as any. Someone had to get it for this woman, the others. You did that. At least they have that. So, what do I call you?"
"I--I was Mnemosyne…" Tessa's voice was dry and coarse in her throat, like sand.
"Yeah, okay. 'Was'?"
"Mnemosyne was a Greek goddess. Of memory, predictably. There were a shit ton of them, the Greek deities…" she rambled off, feeling her mouth say the words without really thinking about them. "They even had one to enforce the payment of blood-debts… to avenge unanswered crimes…"
Castle paused. Tessa could feel him eyeing her, even without looking up from Sophia's body. After a moment he sighed. "Real fascinating, lady… I'll just toss a coin in a fountain if I want your help, I guess--"
Tessa pushed a burner phone into his chest as he walked past. "I'm the only contact."
"Mph," he grunted, pocketing the phone and walking on. "Your chest is glowing red, lady… Seems like something you might want to get look at."
"Red…" she mumbled, glancing at the opal, burning a deep, blood red through her second skin. "Red."
They were supposed to be meeting her here soon. The text she'd sent had detailed this very roof. It seemed fitting, killing Mnemosyne on the same spot that Tessa had died. She dug her toe into the deep brown stain, still dark in the concrete even under moonlight. Sheathing her sword, Tessa sealed her mask up completely and then took a deep breath.
The glow of the opal still hadn't faded, its light had continued to pulse with Tessa's heart. As she held her hand to it, the tint from the opal's glow spread. It snaked over her chest and down her arms, leaving in its wake deep red where there had been purple, black where there had been flecks of light. She watched the bright beauty of Mnemosyne fade away, watched her die, and felt nothing. There was just the cold, still anger at the base of her skull. And a hunger.
It was time. They should be there now. Tessa felt their memories approaching, up the stairs, through the door. She continued staring off at Hell's Kitchen as the roof access slammed shut again.
"Drew, I appreciate you helping me with this. I know it was a difficult decision with your situation with Barton."
"Hey, it's nothing really… especially for fucking half a mil. Stark had me on lock down anyway, I was getting bored."
"You've got your chemical manipulation under control?"
"Down pat. I can even fly a little."
"Perfect. You heard the spiel from Deadpool. Whenever I call, whatever I ask, no questions."
"Again, for half a mil… I doubt I'll have questions. Maybe that's just my HYDRA upbringing." She snorted and edged up to Tessa. "I know "no questions" but… I kinda turned over a new leaf, you know? I won't be doing anything… you know, nefarious, will I?"
"No, Jessica, nothing nefarious. I'm planning on killing a very corrupt man, though, and any others that get in my way."
Drew shrugged. "Yeah, you do you. Did… did you change your suit?"
"Oh, shit," Deadpool hopped up to the pair of them and bent over to inspect Tessa's arm. "I dig the new duds, pretty lady, matchy-ma--"
"No, Wade. Not pretty lady. Not Mnemosyne or Tessa. I'm Nemesis now… Only Nemesis."
Next: "Mnemosyne: Nemesis"...