Chapter 1: Not Human After All
>>> MONTE-CARLO, PRINCIPALITY OF MONACO | 101 DAYS AGO
"Did… did you just… I… I can't believe…" Bedclothes were never going to be a sufficient barrier between Tessa and reality, but she flattened herself out against the headboard and tried to hide herself behind them anyway. "I cannot believe that you just dismissed the having or not having of a penis as a messy detail that was too much hassle to spell out specifically. Are you kidding? I can't tell if you're kidding."
At the end of the bed, the woman-now-not-woman, who had been Luciana not seconds before, let out a belabored sigh and rolled his eyes. They were the same eyes, still piercing, still green, still beautifully smoky in their array of dark eyeshadow, liner, and mascara. But, they were now set in a slightly more angular face. And, that face now wore an unmistakably familiar, smug grin. "Perspective, I suppose, is to blame for that discrepancy between us, Tessie dear."
"No, oh my fuck, no!" Her dress was strewn over the nearest chair. Tessa shot out of the bed towards it and scampered across the room to collect her bra and underwear as well. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no. This isn't happening."
"Oh, it already happened…" He was following her progress across the room with those eyes, the grin curling wider and wider over his face.
"BUT YOU WERE A CHILD!" No wonder Luciana had felt so familiar, her magic had seemed so recognizable. Tessa had seen and felt it all before, just coming from a different package. "You… you… you were a little boy! A little medieval boy child pretending to be a goddamn bird! Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. You're Loki. Loki. Little kid Loki. All the green and the magic and the snipes. How did I not recognize you? And that energy signature, muddling your memories? How did I not pick up on that? Stupid! You… You were blabbering in my head for months! Stupid. Stupid. STUPID! I should have scented the bullshit from the first fucking second!"
Completely unashamed and considerably taller, he stood and stepped in between Tessa and the door, blocking her from the handle and her exit with a swath of bare skin. Then, he had the audacity to casually lean against it and cross his arms. The smirk didn't budge an inch except outward. "I am well-versed in the fabrications and the subterfuge. It is, as they say, my thing. And, I really, really didn't want you to recognize me, so… you mustn't beat yourself up over it. Just concede that you were bested by a master. And, if you can't swallow that pill, I find denial to be an effective out. I've deluded myself into all sorts of horrible mistakes by this point."
"Jesus Christ… Fucking lies and mischief and antlers Loki… You were in the BRIEFING packet for this exact sort of shit. They need to add a whole section to that chapter about the green. The green would've been a big clue I could've actually picked up on. Or how about warning that he changes sex, for god's sake?"
"Gods' sake, indeed. So… you know me, then. Lovely. That sidesteps the boring introductions. I do love talking about myself--as one inevitably does--but where's the fun in rehashing what's already known. A waste of time, I say." He followed Tessa's panicked pacing to and fro in front of the door with a delighted glint to his eye. "And in what manner did this aforementioned briefing packet depict me? Of which me were you warned?"
"'Which me?' I--You… How many--You know what? Never mind. I don't… I shouldn't even be talking to you, though I can't imagine how I could let you any more in than I already have, so the danger there is kind of passed." Under the edge of the bed, Tessa finally found her other shoe. She just needed her bag with her phone in it and she could leave.
Naturally, that bag in all its infuriatingly compact glory was currently dangling from the end of one of his fingers. "As much as I would like you remain in that oblivious bliss, dear Tessie, I simply cannot abide it. Your situation could be ever so much more dire and I could be so, so much more threatening. I chose for this to be a pleasant experience, you see, as opposed to an ugly one. Appreciate the good fortune you have now accordingly."
"Oh, you misled me and had sex with me instead of… of what? Attacking me with an army of alien crickets? I'm supposed to be appreciative of that? Yeah, you said it earlier. You have a notable ability to delude yourself." When Tessa reached for her bag, the stupid accessory that held her only sure tool to contact Natasha, he snatched it away and out of her reach.
"Eh-eh-eh. What do we say?"
"Fuck you!" The pitiful little hop was bound to fail to retrieve Tessa's bag, so she used the momentum instead to lean a little closer towards his face and really spit the words.
"Perhaps… And, you already have. Though, not in this shape. If you'd like to find out how you could let me in even more, we could revisit that option."
At the thought, Tessa literally gagged. "Elch. No, no. No, that ship's sailed. It sailed out to sea and exploded. You're not only a fucking interdimensional war criminal but you're also a child. You're an evil preteen supervillain. I'm… I'm not. No. Your--no. No. No."
He was still holding her purse above her head, though the amusement on his face was quickly waning towards boredom. "You don't truly suppose that I am still a child, do you? That's pitiful. Tessie… if I can change form from female to male and vice versa, what would be the significance of my form being that of a child to you? It's clearly impermanent. And, now that we're on the subject, why would I opt for that over an adult shape at any point? Where's the advantage? Honestly, I thought you were cleverer than that. Though, I'm surprised it is such a point of contention for you. It is hardly as if entertaining younger paramours is a new custom for you."
With the purr of those final words, Tessa immediately knew that she was being baited but, all the same, she felt the heat blooming in the tips of her ears, her lip curl into a snarl. She stopped yanking the dress down over her head and stepped forward to look directly up into his face. "What is that supposed to mean exactly?" She asked through bared teeth.
Lids heavy, his smirk took on a different flavor, something markedly more sinister in its impishness. "You don't… remember?"
"Whatever it is you're talking about, sly guy, it wasn't me who did it. I remember everything I've ever done, in vivid, brutal technicolor. Just… like I'll remember this particular mistake for all of eternity." She wasn't going to give ground to him and the inherent threat behind that sneer, but that didn't mean she had to look at him. Hands over her face, Tessa pressed in on her eyes, wishing it would make this all go away with the tiny little sunbursts in the dark. "I got tricked. You're… not Luciana or… a little boy. You're… Loki, Norse trickster god with an agenda, and… now you're here, with me, spent two evenings with me… as part of your agenda without a doubt. So… This was all just a ruse. An elaborate ruse. But, for what? What do you actually want?"
"I cannot simply want a diverting tryst with another demigod? Must everything be so complicated?"
Tessa scoffed and, noticing the purse just within her reach, snatched it from his hands before shoving his face away. "I'm not a god, first--"
"Physical instantiation of a cosmic force, demigod… same thing."
"--and second… and second you're the physical instantiation of the concept of complicated. So, yeah. There's more to this than you wanting a non-human dalliance."
"It is nice to be around someone of comparable life experiences for a change and the mortals are so…"
"Fragile," Tessa whispered.
"I was going to say 'little' but, yes, that's true as well. You already knew as much, which is why you've embarked on this trip of yours, for distance, for… perspective." No longer blocking the door, Loki handed Tessa a glass and filled it with champagne. "I just wanted a few nights to cavort when I didn't have to worry about all that… messiness their petty little lives bring, all the consequences. You understand."
"Oh… I understand." Tessa pushed the flute away and snatched up her clothing again. "I understand that you are a master of wheedling and knowing the exact words needed to get your way. I understand that there's a ruse behind this ruse and I'm not going to be even remotely close to being a part of it."
"So, that's a 'no' then? I can't interest you in a little re-writing of reality?"
With a bitter laugh, Tessa tugged her dress on and snatched up her shoes, ready to phase out of there, whether or not that would trigger her suit's lockdown protocol. She could pass her clearance exam another time. "I don't revise reality. I preserve memory."
"Well… we both know that's not categorically true, but I'll let it go. The past is the past."
He kept smiling even after Tessa shoved him backwards. She knew he wanted to incite a reaction from her, but her blood was boiling. He was just lucky she wasn't going to smash her fist into that grin. "Listen here, you little lying shit. I don't alter reality and my past isn't your hostage to manipulate me with. Figure out another way to take back whatever you want taken back and keep clear of me while you're at it. I'll recognize you next time and, while fighting's not my strong suit, I'm not too proud to sucker punch you and then call your brother."
"Did you seriously just 'Aladdin' me?" Tessa could feel her eyes bugging out of her skull but couldn't stop them. She could hardly force her lungs to expand enough for her to speak. At this point, she could see the sigils of the binding hex on her beginning to sparkle in tight, closely grouped rings up her body. Whoever this was, real-deal Norse trickster or a really enthusiastic imitator, they had a good handle on the silver-tongued act and some serious mojo behind their magic. The latter was the real danger but the former made the whole situation that much more trying. "'I can show you the world'? Really? BOO HISS BOO. Fuck off! I don't have time for magic tricks or a seduction act. I am good right now. Let me out of this binding spell so I can get back to my happy life."
"Happy life, you say? Hmm." A glance over her shoulder and she simpered back at Tessa. "So happy that you're standing alone in the night, watching a lover past scamper away, yearning for a second's longer glimpse of his smile? A strange definition of happy you have, Tessie."
The way she wove her words sounded close to melodic, the lilt of her accent settling in Tessa's mind like a steady rhythm and lulling her nearly into a stupor. But, Tessa's memory was perfect. She remembered this effect and was prepared to resist it, this time. The package was different but its contents were the same.
"Loki. Wonderful. This is exactly what I need right now--more demigod bullshit!" With its slowly constricting rings glowing more and more brightly, Tessa was now definitely sweating from the effort of straining against the binding spell. With an extra grunt, she tried to lash out at the Asgardian pain in her ass, who was slowly circling her like some harpy, but ended up not even managing a blink. "That's it. As soon as I get out of this binding, I'm wringing the long-lasting life out of your lissome fucking neck."
"Well, that certainly doesn't motivate me to drop the incantation, Tessie dear. You should really consider the effect of your words before uttering them." With a tap on Tessa's nose, she tongued the gap in her teeth and then clenched her fist. The rings of magic tightened around Tessa even more. Her appearance was different, but something else was off with this Loki. The missing tooth, the chips in her nail polish--she wasn't quite as refined as the other version Tessa had met, the lie wasn't quite as compelling a honeypot. It was almost enough to make Tessa feel pity for her, but that was probably a part of the ploy, she realized.
This enraged Tessa even more but proved just how futile her rage was. Through clenched teeth, she threated. "Let me free. Let me free this instant so I can get as far as fucking possible away from you and your… your winsome grins and your…your… your stupidly alluring--probably magical fucking words. You witch. LET ME GO!"
"It's making it rather troublesome to carry on this conversation with you grunting and straining like that. You can't have a proper discussion when a person is thrashing about--nor, apparently, all the same when they're trying but not succeeding to thrash about. You really should stop soon. I don't know how my enchantments will behave if they're broken. I've never experienced that before." If that was meant to be an expression of concern, it failed its purpose. Sounding more bored than uncertain, Loki didn't even look up from examining her cuticles to check the security of her magical restraints.
"Drop it or I'm going to show you what happens. My guess? I'll be fine and you'll be fucked."
Now, she glanced up, delighted mischief glinting emerald in her eye. "Is that your wager, Tessie? You'd risk it? Mm. I suppose convincing you to come of your own volition is officially out of the question. Time for an abduction, then."
With a snap of her fingers and a flash of stars and inky void, Tessa suddenly found herself staring out on an entirely alien landscape. Foreign plants and exotic metallic structures filled her sight and her mind was awash with memories, millions, maybe billions of lives lived without a single experience shared by Tessa. She was, it seemed, in a whole new world.
Tessa could feel a slight breeze across the nape of her neck, a place that hadn't seen daylight or felt anything but a strip of cool metal for months. That meant one thing, she was entirely uninhibited and Loki was fucked. Her prediction was going to be proven right either way. With a little more gusto behind her gasped words, Tessa locked her eyes on Loki and snarled. "I'm going to rip the rest of the tattered memories from your head and then leave. You realize that, right? The moment you drop these restraints, the moment you nod off or lose concentration, I'm exercising all the considerable powers of Mnemosyne at my disposal and getting the fuck out of dodge, regardless of the long-term effects that has on you."
"Mmm… perhaps." Loki shrugged a little and then sank onto a nearby bench. Apparently without a care in the world, she crossed her legs and turned to picking lent off her cloak. "But, unfortunately for you, I placed a blood ward on the veil between realms. There will be no travel from here to Midgard--or any of the other Nine Realms--that is not undertaken by means of the Bifrost. And… I'm afraid Heimdall will not succumb to your demands before mine. You see, he's rather fond of me these days… elixirs being ever so easy to slip into an evening's tankard of mead…"
"Fine. I'll get unbound and you'll get un-alive. I think I can handle the murder of a demigod of lies and bullshit magic on my conscience. Yeah… The more I think about it, the more comfortable I am with shouldering that guilt."
"Odin's beard, Tessie…" Loki sighed and uncrossed her legs, ceasing from the charade of being too bored and underwhelmed to pay Tessa her full and undivided attention. "Has it yet occurred to you that your responsibility extends beyond the insects on Midgard? Perhaps that your services could be well and deservedly rendered elsewhere? Hmm?"
"Oh, so you're an ambassador of Asgard, come to kidnap me for the sake of the greater good for your people? Is that the snake oil you're peddling this time around? Ha." The green of the binding spell flashed more vibrant as Tessa laughed. She found her head tilting backwards when she made to roll her eyes. Little by little, the spell's strength was waning or she was overpowering it. "Yeah… I'm a little slow on the uptake, obviously, about some things, but I'm not fucking stupid. There is a zero percent chance that you abducted me for altruistic reasons."
"Ah, you see, that is where you have assumed incorrectly. Only the deepest of magnanimity motivates my actions at present. I am acting under orders of the All-Mother on an assignment for the sake of Asgard." Bowing deeply, almost touching nose to her knees, Loki stood again and twirled her fingers. To Tessa's utmost disappointment, her mobility was again snuffed out by the re-strengthened magical bonds. Also, Loki's mind remained frustratingly warded from the insistent pressing of Tessa's attention, even with the inhibitor band gone. If she really was less refined, she wasn't less powerful than the last Loki Tessa had encountered. This one was potentially more capable magically and all the more dangerous. It was becoming increasingly more evident that Tessa wasn't going to be able to overpower her and escape through physicality or strength of will, enhanced power set fully at her disposal or not.
Time to give in and just play the Trickster's game. "Yeah-huh… and all those times you stalked me as a creepy bird, whispering in my ear to unlock my full potential… and the not-so-serendipitous run-in in Monaco, when you wanted to convince me to reset reality for you? Hmm? Those were all… obvious manifestations of your deepest magnanimity?"
Words. Words were the weapons of choice for her and they also revealed the chinks in her armor. Tessa would use those to spar from here on out. "Holy shit, the liar can let the truth sneak from between her snake teeth."
"Come now, you'll hurt my feelings carrying on like that. I know I've made some mistakes in the past--"
"Uh, yeah," Tessa scoffed. "Understatement, but yeah, you could say that."
"--but I am, as they say in your world, turning over a new leaf. I'm a new me--quite literally… still getting used to the ears." Loki paused and tugged at the lobe of one of her ears, distaste scrunching her eyes just momentarily. Then, she dipped into a curtsy, green glinting up from beneath her brows as she continued. "And with this new me, I'm trying a different path, a brighter, shinier one."
"Okay. Wonderful. Kudos for you. Shouldn't be hard. Step one: avoid genocide. Admittedly, kidnapping is less damnable than genocide, so I have to concede that you've improved a bit. A step in the right direction, we'll say. Now, let me go and I'll leave you to your new direction with all of your body parts and memories intact."
The more she'd gotten Loki to talk, Tessa had noticed, the more she had been able to wiggle the tips of her fingers. In that second, she'd been forcing her head not to nod menacingly with that final threat. A few more moments of distraction and there was a chance she could break free and make her escape. Just then, however, Loki was too close, being too intimately creepy. All of Tessa's self-control was now being directed towards not jerking away as Loki dragged her nail over the side and back of her scalp.
"Well, that's the rub. I haven't exactly been reincarnated all in one piece. Some things were left fuzzy after this last revamp and I would prefer to operate at full capacity. Moreover, Asgard needs me in top form… seeing as I've been tasked with operating in her interests. With rebirth comes rebuilding and the royal family needs their secrets… collected and squirreled away safely. Goddess of tales and whispers and secrets at their service--except I don't remember everything. You're, as you say, not fucking stupid, so you see the issue here."
"You've somehow made something that's your problem into a whole civilization's problem because you didn't simply tell the All-Whoever that your brain didn't get regenerated properly this time around. Yeah, I see the issue here. It's you." Like an idiot, Tessa had craned her head around a touch to look Loki in the eye just then. In an attempt to distract her again, she added quickly, "Who knocked your tooth out?"
"Not sure. I can't remember… See? I need your help. You do this sort of thing. It's your forte."
"Yeah… but not for you. Sorry."
"And why not?"
"Because I don't like you. And I certainly don't trust you."
"Why? Because I lied to you?"
"No. People lie all the time… because, you manipulated me and took advantage of my weakness."
"Weakness?" Her laughter sounded simultaneously musical and sinister. It stirred memories that Tessa didn't want to resurface. "I happened upon nothing in our last encounter that could be counted as a weakness, dearest Tessie. If you refer to your proclivity towards… carnal pleasure, that was just a pleasant and entirely unanticipated side effect of our meeting, which made the whole endeavor more… worth my while. While I didn't arrive with the intention of seducing you, I'm certainly glad that I pursued that route. What I remember of it was… extraordinary."
Deep in the back of her head, Tessa wondered if she herself had sounded this creepy when she put the moves on Danny that first time. The tune sure sounded similar. When Loki let her eyes drift down, clearly seeing something that wasn't presently there, Tessa just had to shut her eyes, knuckle down, and surrender to it without wriggling. She was so close to being able to move freely. "Enough of the inadvertent seduction ploy. I'm over it."
"I knew the ears were wrong!" In a fit of petulance, Loki threw herself onto the nearby bench and, whether intentionally or not, into a man. Much like his female form, this shape was familiar but just off, a little more angular, a little more battered, a little more shaggy. And, that tooth was still missing.
"It has nothing to do with your ears." Tessa rolled her eyes and kept her other observations to herself. The last thing she needed was Loki being made assured of Tessa's attention to their current state. That they would mistake for concern or interest. "You're a scheming sociopath. You literally give zero shits about the effects your actions have on anyone or anything outside of yourself. I think that actually makes you--"
"--a-- NO. That makes you a psychopath. You killed thousands of people in a temper tantrum. You're a spoiled brat! You're a weapon of mass destruction wielded according to petulance and selfishness. The moment--the very moment I realized who you were in Monaco, I should have called your brother and told him where you were. He had been searching for you, and with good reason I know now. You're a menace--more than a menace. You're a goddamned crisis waiting to happen."
Loki narrowed his eyes and stood again, gaze wandering up and down Tessa. With a dismissive scoff, he clicked his fingers and the last few strands of magic clinging to Tessa popped away. "You're not a fighter. You admitted that yourself last we met if I recall rightly. And now, I must admit that you've bested me this round. You very nearly distracted me enough to free yourself. Well done. Now that we've tested each other's mettle, let's--"
Tessa had, in fact, admitted that she wasn't a fighter. She'd just explained to Jess earlier that day that she wasn't good defending herself on the spot. But, clocking mouthy magic-users in the mouth? Tessa had some experience in that kind of offensive measure. She made sure to put all her body weight behind it, too. The last she saw of Loki before she phased away, he was bouncing backwards on his ass, that sly sneer knocked clean off his face.
"Shit!" Her attempt to phase to Danny resulted in Tessa materializing several hundred feet up in the air, above a gigantic city. It was gorgeous and golden and idyllic from this height, but Tessa wasn't exactly interested in marveling at its beauty that moment. She was more concerned with not plummeting into said city and forming a crater in the center of it and, potentially, being captured again. "Of course she wasn't lying about that!"
There was some kind of block up between wherever she was and home. Tessa couldn't phase through that magical barrier, but that didn't mean she couldn't phase here, within it. The world around her was swimming with memories, countless people and places. She found a locale outside of the citadel, somewhere remote and discrete. There, beside a gigantic pond and just under a foot bridge, Tessa reappeared on solid ground. A twinge of pain radiated over her knuckles, but checking them found no blood, no broken skin, just the memory of the impact. With a satisfied smile, she shook out her hand and turned to assess her surroundings.
"You're angry about the bonds. I don't blame you." A woman again, Loki shimmered into view a few paces ahead of her. She too looked unharmed by the tussle. "I was hoping, however, that freeing you of them would earn me some trust. I suppose I underestimated your vitriol and overestimated your restraint. I sha--"
When Tessa drew back her fist again, Loki held up her hands and stopped advancing. "Get to the point or I'm swinging first and asking questions later."
"Feisty. I like it. However, that is not my point. I was being sincere when I said I need your help. My memory is incomplete and I've been tasked with investigating tidings of something foreboding to this realm. In order to complete my assignment and protect Asgard, I need my mind to be whole with all my spells and secrets at my disposal. In truth, I believe your… other self may be of assistance in my task. She may know better than I or my people the threat on our horizon. This is the other reason I've sought you out."
Loki was hard to read, for good reason, god of lies and all that shit. That said, she sounded the closest to forthright that Tessa had heard from her with that little concession. If she was dissembling still, it was much less all-encompassing than the usual full-tilt production. Hand dropped but still tightly clenched, Tessa nodded. "Fine. Say that I believe you. What is this impending doom you're alluding to so ominously?"
"The fabric of our realms is fraying. Tears are forming in between them that keep splitting further open. Something very old and very powerful is lurking beyond the rips. I need to identify the source of the deterioration and this power so that Asgard can prepare for its arrival or, perhaps, prevent it entirely."
"War's coming and you're essentially an intelligence agent," Tessa sighed and kicked at the pebbles under her feet. "Why couldn't you just be doing something despicable so I could blow you off again without it even tickling my conscience?"
"New me, new modus operandi. I'm thinking of re-branding myself, orienting my shtick more towards tales and stories than lies."
"But still mischief." It wasn't a question. Tessa could still see the puckishness playing around her eyes, even as she put on her most earnest expression.
"A little fun here and there. Tricks and treats in good balance, yes. Right now, I'm aiming for three good deeds a day. But… more seriously, I have a duty that I will uphold this time around. And, that starts with retrieving my memories."
Sucking on her teeth and internally berating herself, Tessa finally unclenched her hands. "Okay. Let's go ahead and say that I'm going to help you. There will be ground rules and, if you break them, I will seek out your brother or, hell, I'll march straight into the royal chambers, or whatever, and demand to be sent back to earth."
"Mm. Agreed." Loki skirted around to Tessa's other side and picked up a pebble from the pond's bank. It skipped, without so much a flick of her wrist, across the water a dozen or so times before landing on the other shore. She seemed to wonder at the ripples in the water for a few moments before turning to Tessa, arms open and head slightly bowed. "Let's hear your terms, then."
"First… I am only here for as long as it takes to help you. This is an arrangement of the most temporary variety, I mean second-to-second basis. I will return your memories to you. I will help you investigate this weird cosmic blight. I will provide whatever information is available to me about this threat, and then, I will immediately be allowed to return home." As Loki opened her mouth, Tessa held up a finger. "In fact, second term: If this is going to take more than a day, I need to go back to Earth now and check in. Because, you may operate on the basis of isolating yourself from the "petty mortals," but I have people who care about me and whom I care about down there. It's important to me that they're not worried, that I don't become a hassle for them. I'm not the center of their universe and I shouldn't throw their shit out of whack."
"Priorities, Tessie… I have only so many resources at my disposal… We'll either be able to operate with expediency or we'll be able to contact your pets. I cannot manage both. They're… diametrically opposed."
"No. No, no, no, no, no." Stepping forward, Tessa shook that finger in Loki's face, her other hand balling into a fist again. "They already have enough going on and, you know what? I'm invested in things down there. I have pregnant friends, sick friends, a lover with unlimited resources and energy who won't stop until he's found me, potentially to his own detriment. Bottom line, I have people who depend upon me and expect me to continue being there with them… and they're my priorities. I can't just up and disappear on them. It's not okay. Since I'm doing this as a favor to you, my priorities just became your priorities. Otherwise… no dice, trickster. I'm no tenderfoot anymore. I'll find a way to circumvent your magical blockade and in a way you won't like, I wager."
Initially, Tessa had been able to see the defiance roiling behind Loki's sneer, but then it abated. In its place a smile bloomed that was brighter and more childlike than Tessa had seen yet. Her tongue fiddled at the gap in her teeth as she considered Tessa again, now out of amusement. Tessa had no idea what was going on behind that expression, but somehow it unsettled her even more than the blatantly scheming airs she put on before. All the same, Loki seemed to concede in her delight, stepping backwards and bowing with a flourish.
"As you wish, dearest Tessie."
"That… That's it?"
"Yes," Loki chuckled, standing upright again. "I know when I've been outmaneuvered. You hold all the cards but one and, as it seems, are well pleased with your hand without it. I shall make do. A concession, though, I must ask of you before I comply with your terms."
There it was. Tessa nodded in her spite. "And, just what is that?"
"I only ask that we retrieve my memories first and then I shall manage a way to return you to Earth. Currently, I have not the means to do so without exacerbating the tears in reality, but there is a chance my other memories hold the key to this dilemma."
"What if they don't?"
"Ah! Such pessimism. I would have thought the influence of that inamorato of yours would have brightened your outlook on things." Loki's eyes danced over Tessa's face, clearly waiting for her to react. When she didn't, Loki clicked her tongue and sighed. "Very well… If I don't recall a more discrete method of fulfilling your request, we shall make quite the splash by travelling via the Bifrost to your home."
"Fine. That's our deal." Tessa closed the distance between them and held out her hand. "I restore your missing memories and then you take me home to my family. After that, I'll help as much as I can with this cosmic crisis on a short term basis, immediate solutions only. I'm not moving to Asgard and taking up occupation as a professional cosmic consultant or anything."
Long, lithe fingers wrapped around Tessa's hand, tendrils of green magic slithering up her arm with the touch. They met at her elbow and locked into place, mirrored up Loki's arm. "I saw this in Harry Potter," she winked. "Deal."
Five minutes and a convoluted conversation about boundaries later, Tessa found herself seated across from a male-again Loki in the midst of a fairly crowded tavern. Or, it was the Asgardian equivalent of a fairly crowded tavern. And, also the occupants inside were both curious and disgruntled by their presence, the reason for which Tessa picked up on very easily, all the surface memories were swimming with it. First, Loki was an infamous presence. Second, outsiders were few and far between besides the official ambassadorial visitors from other realms, and they usually did all their socializing in the Great Halls. The attention made Tessa's palms sweat. The fact that she was being tasked with performing some pretty complicated Mnemosyne maneuvers under the scrutiny of all these people made her ass sweat as well. The hungry mien that Loki was giving off still made her stomach turn. All in all, she wasn't feeling too confident or physically comfortable.
"An--Any chance we could do this somewhere else? It's… a little loud in here for me to concentrate."
"You said that my bedchambers were too intimate. This… is not intimate." Judging by the angle of that eyebrow, Loki had known precisely the meaning that Tessa had intended with that statement and had purposefully taken it the wrong way, just to be a little shit.
Smiling at the passing waitress-slash-barmaid, Tessa ducked her head and lowered her voice. "You know that I refused that particular option because I don't trust you not to take it as an invitation for intimacy."
"Boundaries. Uninterested. Satisfied with your current arrangement. Boring emotions. Blah-blah-blah. I heard you the first time." Loki waved his hand dismissively at her. "If you're unsatisfied with this current situation, I can provide us with a different venue for your pursuits, somewhere less crowded but not inherently intimate."
"Yes, that would be best. The fewer external stimuli I have distracting me, the easier it will be for me to heal your mind." Headaches weren't something Tessa got anymore, but, if she did still, there would've been one humdinger of a migraine settling above her eyes right about then. Making the whole thing a bitterer pill was the realization that, at that precise moment, if this psychopathic alien hadn't abducted her, she could have been having very vigorous, post-crimefighting sex in a semi-public location and the only worry she would've had about other people's eyes being on her would've been if someone recognized her new mask as Mnemosyne's. "And, hurry up with it. Please. I'd like to get home ASAP. I'm late for a few things I'd like not to miss."
"Of course, your current arrangement. Who wouldn't want to return immediately to take another hit of the dragon opiate? Addiction is such an onus. Although, that wasn't the reason that she abandoned those negotiations, you know."
"That's it." Faster and more forcefully than she'd intended, Tessa stood from her seat and sent the chair clattering to the floor behind her. The whole room seemed to fall silent as she yanked Loki by the collar over the table towards her. "I'm sick of the baiting. If you actually know more than you're telling me about Mnemosyne, just out with it. I'm getting really sick of you alluding to it and making snide comments in the process. If you don't know anything else and you don't stop egging me on with crap like that, I'm going to fillet your memories."
"The lady doth protest too little, methinks." Finger by finger, with eyes still locked on Tessa's, Loki began trying to pry his cloak free of her grip. Batting his eyelashes a touch, he added in his smoothest voice that absolutely did not convey even an ounce of innocence. "Not a word in defense of your Immortal Weapon?"
Tessa clicked her tongue, now letting go of his cloak and shoving him away again. "He doesn't need me defending him. Besides, that's just another smokescreen of yours. I want you to tell me what you know about Mnemosyne--after I come back from checking in on Earth. I'm adding that to my list of terms."
"We already made our agreement. You can't amend it."
"It's an addendum." Tessa glared down at the hand Loki had extended her way. She could already see the magic shimmering around it, like fish scales under water. "And, I expect it to be honored. I won't forget. I'll hound you about it in the shape of brutalizing your sense of reality."
"Mm, I look forward to it."
For a split second, Tessa considered slugging him again but decided against it. For one thing, it wouldn't actually do anything. She wasn't strong enough to hurt Loki physically. And for another, she wasn't sure how comfortable she was with all the violent impulses this whole ordeal was eliciting from her. Lashing out impetuously like that wasn't exactly the picture of self-control that Tessa wanted to paint with her actions. "Just take me somewhere less crowded," she grumbled and took his hand.
The world morphed around her, like they passed through a curtain, and settled into the shape of an enormous vaulted-ceilinged hall, complete with countless bookshelves dividing the room and bordering the walls. Between them there still sat a table, but in place of the ale-stained planked benches, a richly oiled single pane of wood stretched under their elbows. The air was thick with scents of candle smoke and parchment instead of roasted mutton and mead and the light was significantly less grimed with smoke. Most importantly, though, it was next to silent in the hall. It was almost a pleasant environment to open her eyes to again, excepting of course the exasperating, kidnapping mischief god sitting across from her.
Suppressing her desire to sigh, Tessa forced her face into something more smile-scorn neutral and held out her hands. "Take that crown off."
"No," Loki scoffed without even a blink. "You're welcome. I'm assuming this locale is an improvement."
"Yeah," now she sighed. "It's a lot better. Great, thanks. Take the crown off. Please. It creates interference with my abilities."
"Oh. … No." A small dagger created out of thin air, Loki leaned back on the bench to trim his nails. "The interference you're feeling is my magical wards preventing you from accessing my memories. Firewall, as the Midgardians call it, a preventative measure against your threats. You understand."
"Mm. Cute, but you're lying. That crown is the magical firewall, smartass." Tessa simpered and waggled her fingers, still held out over the table awaiting the crown. "Take it off. Loki. Now."
"Fine," he sighed and slipped off the golden horned crown. When he moved to set it on his lap, Tessa snatched it away and slid it away from them across the reading desk. From the second it was removed from Loki's head, the canvas of his memories opened immediately to Tessa's awareness. The farther it was moved away from them, the louder the psychic agony gnashed out, like a metal tooth filling accidentally biting down on foil.
Tessa scratched at her new hairline in order to avoid meeting Loki's eye. She felt mildly ashamed at uncovering his pain, particularly after giving him such intense shit, but she also didn't regret it. Still, Tessa wished she was half-naked and pinned against a wall and brimming over with tingly feel-good energy and not abducted by this dickhead, so her shame didn't last very long. That did, however, leave the matter of the awkward silence between them outside their mindscapes.
Clearing her throat, Tessa folded her hands in front of her and shut her eyes. "Alright, tell me about when you met Mnemosyne before she was me."
"I'd rather not distract you," Loki mumbled, significantly less cheeky without his defenses up to hide his weakness. "But, I'm glad to hear I've convinced you of the validity of my baiting material. I suppose that means you'll be filleting my memories should I not expand upon my experiences with Minni."
"It's…" Tessa peeked open one eye and found Loki visibly pouting. She rolled her eyes, now both closed again, and continued. "It's part of my process. You have a lot going on up here and it'll help me find the structure of your narrative. Please, cooperate. Begin with why you just called her Minnie."
"Not as in the Mouse. M-I-N-N-I, our name for her, for memory. I… I met her when I was young, very young. Midgard hardly had fire. They told stories, stories they repeated so fervently I heard them here in Asgard. Apparently, they learned them by heart and attracted your attention. You were… new to mortals, found their span limiting, boring."
Tessa scoffed, losing her place in the chapter list she'd found inside Loki's mind. "I seriously doubt that. She chose Earth for her… domain or whatever."
"You could check for yourself, or… perhaps not? Do you not have access to Minni's own memories?"
Openly acknowledging that this subject was a sore spot would only sate Loki's childlike need to answer weakness with weakness. Tessa just shrugged, without opening her eyes, and continued scanning the multipage long list, tabulating all the 'page breaks' she found in the catalogue.
"Mm. But, nevertheless you showed up and caught me watching the mortals. I was but a lad, my first taste of life still new, small and bright eyed. Minni--or, I suppose you prefer to think of her as Mnemosyne, she found me… adorable."
"That's another lie. You were infuriating."
"Hehe," Loki giggled with impish delight. "You do remember then."
"No," Tessa lied. "You just have a tell, like every other accomplished liar. There's always a chink in the armor. With perfect memory, it's easier for me to find it even if it is microscopic." In fact, Tessa remembered very distinctly in that moment a vague associative emotion linked with the idea of kid-Loki. It wasn't her own memory of his infuriating behavior, although that was available to her as well, but more like an impressionistic bouquet of senses brought to mind by him mentioning the encounter, like smells could often incite. No images, no sounds, just… frustration and impatience and chagrin in the abstract. At the same time, she found the memory in Loki's own mind, oddly out of place for his own accounting, too far in the back, its edges torn and tattered.
Mnemosyne was a sight that Tessa had never seen, not in any corporeal form that wasn't entirely wrapped in purple and white silks. The appearance she held before the eyes of young Loki was something unfathomable almost. She was humanoid with a head and the normal number of arms and legs, but that was where the resemblance with humans ended. Colors made little sense, neither to Loki's nor Tessa's eyes. Her hair, defying gravity and gently floating upwards as if caught in a breeze towards the heavens, was a pearlescent blue, shading on white. In the same vein was her skin, iridescent but more purple than anything else, a deep shade that held its own shadows and glow in different lights. As Tessa had expected, her eyes were that bright violet that now met her when she looked in the mirror, but just the irises. The remainder of the eye was a void black and gave her expression a deep, fathomless mien. Child Loki certainly felt a degree of terror upon becoming the subject of that gaze and, it was in that moment that the memory skipped.
"Geez… You're all fucked up in here," Tessa muttered as she tried to find the threads that had ripped and pieced them back together. "What happened?"
"Internal conflict, a spell, and some time in a place that no mind should suffer. It's rather traumatic when you literally fight with yourself."
The image of Mnemosyne, tall and statuesque, Tessa retrieved and repaired, but she had turned away. The rest of Loki's memory, she never deigned to look upon him again. With some trouble, Tessa was able to stitch this tear up, but she could feel the cold breeze of absence blowing through other holes in the fabric in other places. "Well… you've got some serious damage in here. I don't…" It was difficult finding the sources of the sensation and, just as when one is searching for a hole in a bucket, it was easier for her to close her mind's eye and simply feel for the vacuum. "I'm having a hard time retrieving the missing pieces… AH!"
With a start, Tessa dislodged herself from Loki's mind and nearly hurled herself off the back of the bench. The cold breeze was more than a chill from absence, it was a familiar emptiness, dank and clammy that recalled the singularly terrifying effect of a devourer. This was the third time she'd felt its presence, this one similar but still distinct from the soul devourer in her own chest and the life devourer in K'un-Lun.
"Happen upon something dreadful, did we?"
Tessa glared at him and his out-of-place insouciance. "As a matter of fact, yes, I did. And… it's not something to be taken lightly. Whatever got a piece of your mind… it's… it's far away and dark… and I've dealt with something like it before."
"So… not good news?" For having just received explicitly bad news, Loki really didn't appear all that discomfited by it.
"No, not good news. I think it's been consumed by some kind of devourer."
"With a capital D? Huh. I suppose that would make good sense, the places I wandered into…"
"That's unhelpfully cryptic… Uh, where are you going?" Tessa grabbed the crown from the end of the table before Loki could take it himself.
His face pinched inward momentarily and then he sank lightly back onto the bench. "I was going to leave, but you ostensibly have other plans."
"Yeah, I'm not finished. I can work backwards from the damage and locate the… the thing that's… been munching on you. Then, you can, you know, go kill it or whatever. When it's dead or has thrown up… the bits of you, I can piece everything back together again like Humpty Dumpty." Tessa waved toward Loki's earlier seat at the table, farther away from the crown, and waited until he scooted back over there. "Go on. Tell me what else happened."
There was silence for a few seconds, as Tessa pushed her way back towards the void spaces, but soon Loki began again. "I enjoyed pranks. You enjoyed quiet and had little patience for distractions, but I could spin a good tale, one to remember. Stories and memories go hand in hand, you know. She loved the ones I crafted, beamed with pride when others repeated them, revived them anew again and again. But I was not to be a lad for overlong and Minni was not to be charmed by my puerile endeavors. She soon became more enamored with the mortals and their songs and I… well, manhood found me second to my brother in all things and jealous. The Midgardians loved him and reviled me--for false stories, mind you--"
"Get on with it," Tessa snorted, finding the trail of damage as his narrative picked up, like a line of slime left by a slug or snail. The ooze clung to adjacent memories and made them brittle, damage which Tessa could easily follow.
"Ah, yes… well… I… You were weak by this point. The children had moved past you as a deity, had fashioned newer more exciting gods. Some were even supposedly your children, but they were slowly forgetting you. You were… diminished. It was a shame. Heimdall saw this, reported it to the council, but Asgard had no power over this. You had chosen Midgard as your dominion, as your source of power during the exodus. We could not fashion you a revival, no Ragnorak for Minni. At first, I was horrified. Your shimmering was dulled, small when once it had been bright enough to scare me as a boy. Then, you left Midgard on an errand, and I saw an opportunity--"
"EELCH! Leech!" The trail left Loki's mindscape. Tessa had known that by the change in atmosphere through the gap. Still, she had pushed through only to find the single most horrifying sight she'd ever laid eyes on, real or metaphorical. An enormous leech, approximately the size of a New York City bus, with visible teeth and writhing, weeping putrescent grey flesh, feasting in a boneyard of perforated minds. It left Tessa dry-heaving and leaning heavily on the desk just to stay upright.
"A mind leech? How… lamentable," Loki shivered.
"I'm not quite sure where it was… uh, because I skeeved out before I could pinpoint its location exactly, but I'm thinking it's in another plane of existence. I'm talking different dimension. It felt… extra dimensional in there."
"Yes, I know the place." Loki stood and began to head towards the grand doors at the end of the hall. After a few steps, he turned around and lifted an eyebrow. "Come along then, unless of course, you'd like to remain here and wait. Not the stereotype I had in mind for you, the waiting woman, but--"
"Shut up," Tessa shook her head, shoving his crown into his stomach as hard as she could. "I'll come with you, but then I'm going home. I mean it."
"As you wish, Tessie."
It was a short jaunt from the archives towards what Loki was calling his secret door. The library halls abutted a large, frankly awe-inspiring mountain range and this secret door of his was located within a cavern in those mountains. Up a perilously narrow path, through a maze of metallic trees, and down a winding, water-worn set of stairs Loki led Tessa, eventually stopping before a pitch black chasm in the wall of the cave.
"You're kidding, right?" Tessa sneered up at him, leaning away from the hole as quickly as possible. "That looks like a black hole, as in the super-dense gravity well of a dead star. I'm not going into that thing."
"Well then, I suppose you're not coming with me, then. Enjoy this musty cave. The city patrol comes past here every watch. I hope you have a good alibi for being out here by the time they return."
Tessa stuck out her hand in front of him before he could step into the hole. "I hate you. Is this a trick? Seriously. Because, if it is, when I get back to you--and I will, I'm immortal--I'll eviscerate your mind."
"No, sadly I'm entirely serious. This is a tear in the fabric of reality, one of the ones I spoke of before. I've been capitalizing upon its existence for some time to navigate across the realms without alerting the rest of my family and others to my whereabouts and goings-on. That much I already remember on my own." With that crown back on his head, Loki was entirely unreadable again. Tessa was just going to have to take him on his word, a concept that left her as clammy as the echo of the devourer in his mind.
"Fine… We go in together."
"As you wish, Tessie. I can hold you in my arms if you please it."
"I do not please it. We'll just go through at the same time. I'll hold onto your cloak and you won't touch me in any capacity," she added quickly as Loki reached towards her. He smirked and then promptly lunged through the gap, Tessa tugged along as she held onto his cloak.
Chapter 2: Up All Night to Get Loki
Passing through a rip the interstitial tissue of the universe, apparently, was as painless as stepping through a waterfall.
There was a split second of breathlessness, followed by the cold, moist echoing darkness of a cave. This cave, however, stretched for miles and was open to the air, the sunless, starless, moonless air. All Tessa could see as she looked above her was some refracted light, just shining around the curvature of the horizon and bouncing off of some dull, slowly orbiting meteorites that were trapped in the mineral clouded, dusky red atmosphere. It was hideous and terrifying, a desolate hellscape of nothing but pallid rock and slime.
"This… is pleasant." Even the air tasted stale and dank. Tessa felt goosepimples crawl down her spine and unsuccessfully tried to quash the urge to shiver. Rubbing at her arms, she spun on the spot and made sure their exit was there behind them. Unsettlingly, its void hole was more appealing than this place.
Loki stepped around her, face turned up to the meteorite moons. "Isn't it? Quite the holiday I had here. Inspired some rather regrettable decisions."
"Space crickets. A whole menagerie of cosmic insectoids out here, including a mind leech… somewhere… sucking on a shard of my psyche, digesting my memories."
Tessa paused from watching a rivulet of slime inch up a nearby rock to turn slowly to Loki. Frustratingly, there was no hint of chicanery in his face, just something in between disgruntlement and boredom. "Ooookay. I'm gonna need you to run that past me again. What? I mean, I'm still getting used to non-earthling memory systems, but… first, how did a quote-unquote shard of your psyche end up here and why would it contain your memories. I… That's not how it works in my experience."
"Well, your experience is disgracefully limited, isn't it?" Loki had been turning on the spot for a few moments now, very slowly. Finally, he paused and, turning into his female shape, set off in her chosen direction. She didn't even wait to see if Tessa was following. "A shard of my psyche is trapped here, as it turns out, and that happened because I died here--or rather, a piece of me died here some time ago. I had initially thought that, separated from the dominate portion of me, it would wither and fade away, but the metaphysics of these things aren't always certain. It stayed attached to this place, apparently, and kept an inordinate amount of my memories with it. Dirty little bastard."
"Uh… Loki? Part of you died here?"
"Yes. I just said that, didn't I?" She paused and frowned down at Tessa, crossing her arms.
"Um, yes, but the whole dying part is difficult for me to get my head around. And the whole… part of you… part."
"Ever so eloquent, that," Loki sneered and then shrugged one shoulder. "Regeneration, Tessie. It happens. Hmm… Do you smell old prawns?"
Tessa did, in fact, smell the odor of rotting seafood. Turning, the both of them, towards the source of the stench, they found the gigantic writhing mass of grey slimy, wriggling flesh about forty yards away. All thirty feet of it was covered in a putrid, translucent yellow discharge that caught the gleam of the burning atmosphere and gave it a shiny orange tint. It looked like a city bus had been shoved inside a huge stretch of rotten intestine and it made every inch of Tessa burn to run as far away from it as possible.
"Ho--Holy shit!" She stumbled a few steps backwards and into an outcropping of rock. The fact that the rock seemed to have a pulse and a dull, warm moistness deeply disturbed her, but she wanted more to hide behind it from the leech than to worry about why it had those qualities. "Sorry, Loki, but… this is on you. I'm… I'm not a part of this. I'm not a fighter."
"That blow to my face earlier encourages me to beg to differ, but… well, I just can't be bothered with that right now. I have this well in hand anyways."
Tessa had no idea Loki could have that situation well under control and she didn't stick around to find out. Swinging around the rock, she scrambled onto her feet and darted towards the path they'd followed from the dimensional tear. Problem was, she wasn't exactly paying attention to her feet and tripped over something soft and pliant. Alien dirt in her mouth and eyes, Tessa squirmed away from the thing she'd stumbled over, which she would have sworn moved towards her. By the time she wiped clear her eyes, she was in a full-blown panic and the mangled form laying by her feet left her convulsing in disgust. Unfortunately, she couldn't just kick it away and run, not in good conscience, because she recognized it.
"HEY, LOKI! I found the… rest of you!" For being a shard of their psyche, this Loki-bit sure looked like its own fully formed, autonomous person. It was distinctly a different version of Loki, however, the version that resembled Luciana, and it was riddled with gaping holes. What was left of it was diluted of color and semi-translucent like a ghost and, fortunately, did not seem capable of bleeding out from those holes in it. Tessa decided it had to be a manifestation of that missing portion of Loki's mind, somehow given partial form against the rules of metaphysics. And just now, it was looking at her. Its glassy, pale green eyes were staring at her with a kind of half-intelligence that smacked of recognition.
Swiveling back around, Tessa caught sight of Loki, daggers flashing and magic sparking, attacking the leech. The sight did not inspire confidence and Loki didn't seem to have heard or taken heed of Tessa. The Loki-ghost in front of her was making her uncomfortable, despite the fact that it wasn't moving or doing much of anything. It actually looked like it had died again staring at her, which almost made it worse. Situation what it was, Tessa decided to take matters into her own hands. She wasn't going to be able to go over there and punch through the thing like Danny or Jess, but she was a capable fighter with her own weapons. The thing was alive, it had to have memories. She would just make it forget that Loki was there. Maybe that would give her the upper hand.
Focusing on the leech's mind, though, Tessa instantly became mired in the seemingly endless, murky bog of memories that it was digesting. Or, it wasn't digesting them. It was just storing them inside of itself and using them as an energy source.
"Oh, for fuck's sake." Somewhere in the core of her mind, Tessa was filled with fury. Mnemosyne, asleep though she was, could not abide this affront to her domain. Feeling the onslaught of desperate moments, separated from their provenience and withering without the sustenance of a mind, Tessa couldn't stand by and allow this to continue either. She tucked her feet up underneath herself and shut her eyes tight.
The strategy she employed was easy enough, yank free any memory she could get her metaphysical hands on in that leech's mindscape. And, yank free many a memory she did. Like a kid ripping off the wrapping paper from a stack of birthday presents, she began eviscerating that beast's food source. Across the plane, Tessa heard its guttural roar and smiled. Then, she returned to ripping it to shreds. The moment she pried each memory free, she could feel a tug to them, like they were caught by a current or some gravitational pull. She merely willed them along that path and rested easy in the knowledge that they returned to where they belonged. Hundreds, possibly thousands of memories she was helping by destroying this thing. After a few moments, Tessa actually found herself smiling. After a few moments more, she felt the nest of horded memories beneath her hands falling apart.
Back in the non-metaphysical world, the leech was still screaming, but now it was a primal shriek, full of panic and pain. Tessa blinked out of her trance in time to see it disintegrate entirely, just a pile of slime and flesh before Loki, who turned to glance back at Tessa. She looked a few more times between the leech pudding and Tessa and, finally, shrugged.
"'Tis a good thing you came along. It occurs to me that I didn't do a damned thing in that conflict."
"Power rush," Tessa muttered impulsively, feeling a vibration in her bones. She was still picking up feedback from the multitude of memories that were reasserting themselves in all those minds.
"Indeed, that was most impressive." Loki was suddenly beside Tessa, a look of wary surprise on her face. Another once over and she curled her lip at the Loki-ghost. "And now for this disgusting shell of my former self."
"Yeah… Can we talk about this? This is seriously disturbing." Back on her feet, Tessa found to her horror, that the ghost's eyes had followed her.
"It's a metaphor. Not real."
"Looks pretty damned real. Was real enough for me to trip over it." Pity was the next emotion, after the horror. Tessa dropped to sit on her heels and considered it again. "I mean… though… look at how scared and sad you were. This has been… just stuck here in this state? That's… that's pitiable, Loki, not disgusting."
"Requiring pity is disgusting," she murmured back. "I recall now just how scared and sad I was. Thanks to you, those memories are back where they belong, instead of swindled by this sad echo, this shadow. Come, shall we dispose of this?"
Tessa felt herself frowning but nodded. In all honesty, she wasn't sure how long she could bear this thing's stare. "Yeah. Let's… yeah. Those eyes keep staring at me, I'd like that to stop."
"Yes, well, he's not dead anymore. Can't expect him to just do nothing, can we?" The nonchalance with which Loki said that caused Tessa to fumble and then entirely drop the shoulders of the Loki-ghost that she'd just picked up. "That hurt, dropping me on my face like that."
"Uuhhuhuuhhh," Tessa shuddered and wiped her hands down her skirt. "I hate magic! What do you mean he's not dead anymore?"
"I'm accepting this part of myself again, the old loving, hopeful, vulnerable portion. We need to fully reintegrate it. Memories alone seems like a half-assed job."
At this point, the Loki-ghost had begun to smile and Tessa tried to smile back, looping her arms under its shoulders. It was surprisingly heavy for not being real, and that smile was uncharacteristically non-impish. Instead, it was small and peaceful. Tessa officially felt pity for this part of Loki, felt really bad for it all the way back to the tear and through it. Back again in Asgard, in the fresh crisp air, she let it take her hand as Loki finished positioning it against a tree trunk. Here, it was less pallid and more like a glittery green reflection. The eyes certainly had more life behind them.
"When were you ever… this… innocuous?"
A staff now conjured into her hands, Loki scoffed. "Never, dearest Tessie. That is just the innocuous bit of me. Though, I suppose I was closer to this before, when I was more in denial."
She waved her hand and an array of silvery green chords appeared between her and the Loki-ghost, connecting their foreheads and chests, hands and feet, all their body parts like the shadow being sewn back on Peter Pan. "Well, I'm not of the Aesir, not Asgardian by birth. I'm a runt frost giant, a Jotun prince sacrificed to the wilds to assuage my sire's disappointment. This one, this Loki before me hides that with all his vigor. I accept it."
With a snap, the chord pulled taut and then contracted, the Loki-ghost pulled upright and then streaking, in a green shimmer, inside of Loki herself. A shiver and smile later, she turned to Tessa and held out her hand. "Shall we see to upholding my end of the bargain now?"
"May I be honest with you, Tessie?"
"Yes, I'd prefer it if you were. Always. But… I know to only expect what's within reason… And, while we have a moment, let's talk about you calling me Tessie." Forcing herself to leave off inspecting the hall's long tapestry that adorned the hall of the corridor they were currently strolling down, Tessa turned back to Loki who was picking at the varnish on her nails and very plainly bored.
"Don't. Stop calling me Tessie. It makes me throw up a little in my mouth every time--"
"That's an exaggeration."
"--and I'd like to stop cringing when I hear my name, or a diminutive version of it. I don't want to end up being conditioned into hating the sound of my own name. Now, what are you being honest with me about? God, I'm somehow more on edge with the idea of you purposefully being honest."
"I am not able to transport you back to Midgard at this time."
Tessa sucked in on her lips, but kept the lid on her temper. Deep breath drawn in, she lowered her voice and took a step closer to Loki. "Then, we'll go by Bifrost, like you said. The back-up plan." Even as she said it, Tessa could see in Loki's face that that wasn't happening either. Her fingers curled tight in on themselves and into a fist.
"Mm, about that… I lied to you. I'm not currently permitted use of the Bifrost, except with consent from the All-Mother and she only grants me travel allowance on official Asgard business. She will not consider this to be official business, you see, so… no returning to Midgard." Her eyes flickered down to Tessa's balled fists and she smiled.
"I don't know what I expected, honestly. Then where in the fuck are we going? Why are we trudging down this endless hall in this apparently abandoned wing of the palace. You want me to beat you silly in private?"
"Hardly. No, I'm showing you to your chambers."
"Your chambers. The seat of Muninn's Lady here in Asgard."
Patience now officially worn thin, Tessa stopped walking and shut her eyes. "What? Muninn's Lady?"
"Your avatar for our realm is one of Odin's ravens, Muninn. Muninn, Minni… you hear the coincidence in the names."
Ten, twenty seconds passed while she considered Loki. This didn't sound like absolute horseshit. She'd take the humor in her voice as more or less innocuous. And then, keep on track, focused on the kernel of valid information in each of Loki's responses. Slowly resuming their pace, Tessa answered, "I'm not Minnie. And, why are you showing me to Mnemosyne's room? Are you going to disappoint me even further in there and try something fresh?"
"No," Loki snickered and hooked a right down yet another long corridor. "I'm keeping up my end of the deal. In my own way."
"You don't wish to accompany me to my own quarters for privacy, so I am accompanying you to yours where you will be allowed to communicate with your mortal pets."
Tessa cut her eye Loki's way. "I don't trust you. I want you to know that upfront."
"Who? Me? Nonsense. I am entirely trustworthy. I was honest with you just now."
"Yeah…" Finding her attention wandering to the increasingly ancient and unused doors and decorations, Tessa began to become even more suspicious of Loki and this area. "And, why was that?"
"My first good deed of the day."
"Mm-hmm, sure. And, why are you even bothering with keeping your end of the deal? You obviously have no problem with going back on your word. I mean," she laughed bitterly, "so far as you're concerned, this is your world and we're all just being allowed to exist within it at your pleasure. What's in it for you?"
"My second good deed of the day."
"Okay," Tessa scoffed. "I'll believe it when I see it. And, just how am I going to be allowed to communicate with the people on Earth?"
"I will fashion a messenger for you which you may send away to whomever you please." Stopping beside an ornately carved wooden door, Loki waved towards it and dipped her head. "Your rooms."
"My rooms… Yeah-huh." The door in front of Tessa was beautiful. The wood was old enough and had been oiled frequently enough that it almost looked petrified. The metal details in the hinges and bolts were equally ancient but well kept. Only a slight sheen of patina rimmed the very edge of the bronze rivets. This beautiful door also just so happened to not have a knob or latch or handle of any sort anywhere on it. "My rooms with a door without a doorknob. Lovely. Okay, Loki, you've officially reached the bottom dregs of my patience. You've got ten seconds--"
Rolling her eyes, Loki suddenly grabbed Tessa by the shoulder and shoved her headlong into the door. Tessa found her eyes instinctively closing as she braced for impact. Her arms stretched out, ready to catch her and keep her nose from cracking into the door. They met with no resistance, however. Instead, there was the briefest second of contact between the very tips of her fingers and the cool waxen surface of the door and then nothing. Stumbling forward a few steps, Tessa opened her eyes to find herself inside a dusty but otherwise perfectly pristine bedchamber. Early rays of daylight shone through a set of stained glass windows in hues of purple and left the motes, dancing in the sudden whirlwind of air, a light lavender color.
Tessa took another step forward and let her mouth drop open. Somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind, she felt the sensation of recognition. The dreamcatchers and mobiles of crystals hanging from the rafters were familiar, other hands that were still her own had hung them. The unearthly spheres and statuettes and weavings that also adorned the walls and ceilings, Tessa already knew them to be alien receptacles of memories, like the crystals and dreamcatchers. Then, there were the books. Dozens, maybe hundreds of books filled the shelves of the room. The walls were virtually papered with the spines of books. There were neat stacks of them also in front of those shelves and tucked under the bed, in the corners of the room. Cluttered but tidy, these chambers had clearly been well used at some point in the distant past. It had been long, long ago, though, because the dust covering every surface was easily several inches thick.
Loki strolled in behind Tessa and past her, running a single, long, thin finger across the top of the nearest chair. "Minni's presence has not warmed these rooms in many ages. It is almost disappointing to finally see it but like this." She wiped clean her finger and reached for a book, frowning when she found it empty.
Tessa took it back and carefully tucked the tome back in its place. "Books hold memories in many cultures. Those are probably for the future. I… I remember this. It's safe here."
A sparkle of green and the room was dust-free. Loki picked up a knickknack from the window sill and sank into a chair. "This is a sanctuary of your power. No one can enter it without your permission. Before this, no one had been in here that I know of because you were… so aloof, so elegant, so… solitary… private. It makes sense that you would feel safe here because she felt safe and secure here."
"Safe and secure, yes… but also… so rested." Paintings and carvings covered every inch of the wall not taken up by shelves. Tessa felt a small, content warmth between her lungs just looking at them. The back of her mind, though, was screaming in panic. The universe these pictures preserved was far larger than anything Tessa had ever conceived of or considered and she just didn't feel ready to deal with that. "I think… I think she's… more… here here."
"As I said," Loki kicked back up onto her feet and herded Tessa backwards until she fell back and sat down on the bed. "This is a sanctuary of Minni's power, now yours. She's more powerful here, as are you, but… more importantly, I would not be surprised if some of her primordial essence was returned to you here. Before you descend into an existential breakdown, let us go ahead and satisfy the conditions of our agreement."
"Is… Do you think… Is she going to--"
"Unh-unh-unh, Tessie." One hand clapped over Tessa's mouth, Loki began sprinkling a collection of dust and incense around her on the bed. "Mustn't fret over what we can't know or control. Now, your body will remain here, but your mind will travel there. You need only will yourself wherever and there you will appear. To the mortals, you will seem present but you will have no corporeal form. Keep that in mind to avoid… antics, or to engage in them. Your choice. To return here, you need only think it. Be advised, if you should not regain consciousness here in a half hour's time, I shall forcefully reunite your mind and body. Enjoy."
Loki only smiled, something wicked and satisfied, her tongue just peeking out from the gap in her teeth. The dust had settled around Tessa and was starting to glow. Loki waved her hand and the room flashed like an old fashioned camera popped a bulb. Tessa could feel the dust, now a white hot green and iridescent, burning into her skin and up her nose, in the back of her eyes. Color started to leave her vision and the room paled out into whiteness as Loki's voice rose into a chant around her.
"Ansuz raidho kenaz… eihwaz isa sowilo… ehwaz mannaz dagaz laguz…"
In the midst of the bewildering and disorienting white out of magic, Tessa managed to summon the wherewithal to remember that this spell was driven by her own desire be somewhere. With that in mind, and partially out of instinct, Tessa thought of home, not the place, the people. And, as if waking up from a nightmare, she opened her eyes out onto the rooftop of her building where Jess was leaning heavily against Luke, waving about what looked to be Tessa's inhibitor band at a maskless Danny, Colleen Wing a few steps behind him and Matt, still in full Daredevil garb, perched on the edge listening. The sight made her exhale heavily, as if she'd been holding her breath for hours.
At the sound, Matt swiveled on the spot and quirked his head to the side, adjusting his chin several times, but no one else reacted. Jess sounded like she was on the edge of tears.
"… hadn't turned off your goddamned ringtones or what the fuck ever, you'd all know this already and I wouldn't have to be explaining it hours later. It's nearly fucking sunrise and she's just… gone! Fuck."
"Something's here," Matt muttered quietly and pulled the billyclub that Tessa had given him from its holster. "Shh. Everyone shut up. I heard it breathe."
"H--Hey…" It was lame. It was quiet. It certainly wasn't an explanation, but Tessa was suddenly too tired to say much else.
Luke and Jessica turned on the spot, eyes wide. Danny, behind them, looked up and immediately smiled. Matt, beyond, seemed none the less concerned. He, actually, hopped down from his perch and took a few steps towards Tessa.
"What the fuck are you doing, Red? Back off." Jess was heavily pregnant, but she was surprisingly fast. Hand on Matt's chest she looked over her shoulder at Tessa. "She's got a lot of explaining to do, sure, but no need to devil out on her."
"It's not Tessa. It doesn't have a heartbeat," he answered quietly and made no effort to look less up in arms. He also didn't charge through Jess's barricade. Instead, with a sniff, he shook his head. "No heartbeat, no scent. Not her."
Behind him Danny piped up. "It is her, though. I can feel her."
As he danced around the two of them and towards Tessa, part of the intense relief she'd immediately felt crystallized. She could feel the warm tingles again. Maybe Loki hadn't been wrong about Danny's opiate-like effect, she thought to herself. All the same, it was a soothing feeling and she smiled, but held up her hands to stop him from coming any closer and making this whole situation more confusing for everyone. "It's me and it isn't. You're both right."
"Well, that sure doesn't explain anything," Luke mumbled and stepped over to collect Jess. "You should try again, because at least half of us are on the squad that thinks you're some kind of trick."
At his nod, Tessa followed Luke's eyeline and found that Colleen had unsheathed her sword. Clearing her throat and keeping her hands up, now to signal that she, in fact, was not attacking, Tessa took a few silent footsteps forward and out of the shadows. "Again, it's a little of both. Technically, this is a magical spell that's allowing me to be here, but I'm not really here. The nearest I can figure it, I think this is some kind of astral projection."
"Told you," Matt muttered gruffly and began walking away. "Call me if you need anything. I don't have time to stick around for whatever the hell kind of magical gimmick this is. Let me know when you find out Tessa's actually fine. Please."
"I…" Tessa tried to call out after him, but realized she didn't have anything to say.
Danny closed the distance between them and blocked his departing silhouette from her view. There was still worry bunching up his forehead, but the smile was in place. Eyes dancing between Tessa's he reached out and took her by the shoulders. While Tessa was busy going into shock and wondering how he was able to touch a magical illusion and she was able to feel it, he tried to move everyone past the awkwardness. "Don't worry about him. He's been in a mood since Jess got a hold of us. Personally, I think he's more mad at how worried he is than at you."
"I think it's because we lost track of that whole syndicate," Colleen called out, similarly disengaging herself from the situation, sheathing her sword and pacing over to the roof stairwell. "And, it's fucking four in the morning and this shit was all for nothing."
Danny winced and began pulling Tessa, still thunderstruck into silence by the fact that he could touch her, over towards Luke and Jessica. "It may be because we lost track of all those operatives that… we worked really hard to flush out, but… DD is also pretty bad at emotions, so…"
"It's both," Luke announced with a shake of his head. "Wanna know how I know? I felt that exact series of emotions: worry, panic, relief, and then frustration. I'm going to bed. Jess? Should I change or am I getting on a bus?"
"Go… ahead and get changed." Jess was eyeing Tessa at this point, her relief similarly transformed into a different emotion. For Jess, though, it looked like she'd moved on to suspicious, per usual. "I'll be down shortly." She waited until the door to the stairwell closed and then stepped in between it and Tessa. "You wanna do a little more explaining? Maybe add in some details that actually account for what's happened? Oh, and for this?" She held up the inhibitor band.
Words were still in short supply, now not just because of shock but because Tessa genuinely didn't know what was happening. It was, seemingly, just as possible that Loki had lied and sent her back to Earth but in some kind of undead form that Matt couldn't sense. Or, somehow Danny's dragon mystic glowing fist was able to touch her astral form. Or, maybe she was conjuring up this whole scenario in some kind of elaborate fever dream that Loki had cast on her. She just, flat out, didn't know.
To test just how corporeal she was in this reality, dreamed or otherwise, Tessa stepped towards Jess and reached for the inhibitor band. When her hand passed through it without so much as feeling it, the three of them all fell very still and very quiet. Jessica shook the band a little and then reached, herself, out for Tessa. Her hand found no purchase either on her shoulder, swiping through her without Tessa experiencing any sensation of it outside of the uncanny ordeal of watching it happen. To Tessa's right, Danny looked between his hands and Tessa several times and then laid them carefully on her shoulders again. Those Tessa could feel, just as solid, just as warm and effervescent as ever. That made Jess frown but, still, none of them were able to manage a verbal reaction.
After a beat, Jess poked at Danny, who was solid for her, and then at Tessa in turn. When her finger drifted into Tessa's arm and disappeared behind its opaque illusion, she grimaced and yanked it back. "Okay. I'm fucking confused. What's happening? Why is glow stick able to touch you and I'm not--and if you say it's because of his mystical dragon fist, I'm gonna lose my shit."
"I… legitimately do not know or understand, Jess. Really. I'm just as confused about that as you." For being as confused as she really actually was about it, Tessa still found comfort in grabbing Danny by the hand and holding him next to her. If she hadn't been downright flummoxed, the relief would have led her to dismissing Jess and having him take her in a manly fashion, right there on the rooftop. For the time being, though, she was going to settle for nuzzling the side of her face into his shoulder. "I'm… not even sure that I'm really here at all. This might just be a hallucination or something. Reality is seriously in flux for me right now."
"Are you high?" Jess had narrowed her eyes at her in disgust. "Because, you sound like you're high."
"No. I'm not high… or maybe I am. Uh… I don't know. What I do know, or think I know… shit, I'm really losing my grip. Uh… I was up here, getting the lawn chairs ready. I gave DD some shit about being late to the party and when I turned around Loki was standing over there. She--yes, lady Loki, ambushed me, bound me up in this magical spell so I couldn't phase away, and abducted me to help them with some big multi-dimensional problem in Asgard. I think that my body is currently there, in Asgard. Loki did some spell to send my consciousness down here so I could tell you guys what was going on. I… I may have threatened them with not helping an entire civilization if I wasn't allowed to come here and tell you that I'm okay…"
"Why didn't they just send you down here yourself? In your body, I mean." Danny was considering her hand in his own, fingers sinking into Tessa's palm and, after a slight, almost magnetic push of resistance, passing through it. "This is your soul, your astral form, like you said."
"Answer that and then the three of us are going to address the fact that dragon fist over here can touch your astral soul form." Pulling around one of the lawn chairs that Tessa had successfully cleaned off, Jess eased herself into it right in front of Tessa and Danny. "Go on. I'm listening."
"Another spell? There's a lot of magic stuff going on. I hate it. Yeah… uh…" Tessa had to pause and take in the moment as Danny just went ahead and pulled her into the hug that she really wanted. She could almost smell him, the green tea and jasmine smell with the hint of spice and sweat, but it was just the ghost of the scent, maybe just her conjuring the memory to life. Pressed up against his chest, her arms wrapped around his middle and squeezing just to the point before they passed through him, she opened her eyes and found Jess shaking her head at her. "Uh, yeah. So… Loki came here and abducted me and then, I'm pretty sure, triggered some big spell that sealed the dimensions from one another by magical travel. There's this issue--the reason why they stole me actually-- with the fabric of reality ripping and other planes and realms bleeding through. They put a barricade up to prevent that from getting worse and, of course, to keep me trapped there until I do what they need. As for this, why he can touch my astral form… I really, really can't even begin to explain that."
"How long are you going to be away?" Tessa could feel Danny's hands almost pushing through the resistance barrier around her form. He sounded tense. "Do you know?"
"I'm not sure exactly. I told them I would only stay away for a couple of days tops. I explicitly said that this would not be a long-term arrangement. I'm hoping I can do a few errands, dig in a few cosmic memories and then be back here in the next forty-eight hours. If that's not going to be the case, I'll threaten Loki until they send me down here again like this to update you all." She was saying the words, but the idea of leaving again wasn't quite sinking in for her. She was going to go downstairs and eat chocolate covered pretzels with Jess and then turn on some music, for Jess and Luke's benefit, and take Danny to bed. And, that was that.
Except it wasn't. Jess brought that crashing down around her again with her next question. "And how long does this spell right now last? Should we be doing something more important with this time? Or, is there some flexibility?"
"More important?" Tessa could think of something she'd like to be doing, but it was arguable whether or not that qualified as more important. "Uh… Loki said if I wasn't back in my body once thirty minutes were up they'd forcefully reunite my mind and body, which doesn't sound pleasant."
"Okay… how do we get to Asgard or wherever?"
Tessa pulled her face away from Danny's chest so she could look more carefully at Jess. "Huh? Get to Asgard? Why would you be getting to Asgard?"
"To rescue you, obviously. I won't be able to go… because, like airplanes, I think I'm restricted from interdimensional travel in my third trimester. But… Iron Dragon and DD and… some other people could go and forcefully reunite your body with your life."
"As… heroic as that would be… and, frankly, appreciated, I can't condone you guys trying to do that. Besides the damage that might do to… you know, reality, I can't stomach the idea of anyone getting hurt trying to save me from something this… unharmful. I'll be okay. I'll be home soon and, if I'm not, I'll contact you guys and we'll reassess this plan."
"Are you sure, Tessa?" Danny's hands were around her shoulders and prying her away. Holding her out at arms' length, he tilted his head to the side and failed to smile. "If Loki has this much magical power, are you sure you don't need some help to… make sure they keep up their word and let you return home soon?"
That was a possibility that Tessa didn't even want to consider. Luckily, her mind was quick on the draw with it. "Well, Thor's there…" she hoped but didn't know, "and he'll look out for my interests in all this. I'm not worried." That was a lie. She hoped it didn't show up on her face.
"I'm calling Strange in the morning." Jess held up her hand when Tessa tried to interject. "No. I'm glad you're not worried, chica, but I plan on being ready to fucking siege the damned heavens if you get trapped there for real. There's no risk in being prepared for the worst." It took her three times, but Jess finally stood up from her lawn chair with the last and began waddling towards the stairs. "I'll be in the kitchen if you have time after… whatever it is that you two are going to do up here. Otherwise, I'll see you soon, in the next two days soon."
Danny turned to watch Jess leave, looking back at Tessa in confusion when the door slammed shut. "What does she think we're going to do?"
"Fuck," Tessa said immediately. "I don't have time for that, though, not to do it properly… if we could even manage it. I do have time, however, to tell you how sorely disappointed I am that I missed tonight's big team-up and sexy celebration afterwards because I got kidnapped. That… just… really sucks ass."
"Sexy celebration afterwards? We… we were not doing anything--"
Taking his face in her astral hands, Tessa shook her head and laughed. "No… no, dragon boy, not what actually happened, what I had planned. You know, adrenalin-high fueled romping in the non-hay somewhere nearby the scene of the fight, because… well, because we couldn't keep it together long enough to actually get back to one of our apartments. That's what I had envisioned happening, oh… about now-ish. Such a shame that I got alien abducted instead."
"It's my chi…" Danny said quietly, his hand spread open on her chest and glowing slightly. The more it did, the warmer and more solid Tessa felt under his touch.
"Yeah, I figured… It's always your chi." Their kiss felt like a memory as it happened, not quite really there, not quite immediately present, but still before her mind's eye somehow. Somewhere, thousands, maybe millions of miles away, her heart was left thumping a little harder in her real body. Just there, though, she laid her hand over Danny's and felt the absence of its beat. "Your weird chi that makes impossible things happen, things that I can't even fathom. Hey, make sure Jess doesn't rile everybody up into some kind of mob, alright? I meant what I said. I don't want anyone risking their lives for me. Okay?"
He nodded solemnly and then tried to smile. It ended up more like a pout. "I'll be on Jess duty until you get back. We won't storm the castle unless you give us a signal. Probably."
"Well," Tessa chuckled and buried her face in his chest again. "That's all I can really expect. God, I'm gonna be so fucking livid if I'm away when Jess goes into labor. Okay… I think I better go before I convince myself to make a break for it in my astral form. I… I'll see you soon, dragon boy, and your sunshine. I live for that sunshine--ah, there it is."
As Danny smiled, Tessa put the warmth and brightness to heart and shut her eyes. It was the last thing she saw before pins and needles shot through her extremities and, suddenly, the air around her was warm and stuffy and smelled of books and wood smoke. Tessa actually kept her eyes closed for a few extra seconds, even after she knew she was back in her body in Asgard, just so that she could see the smile a little longer. It floated on the inside of her eyelids, a perfect afterimage, and made her chest ache with longing and anger. Absence made the heart grow fonder. That much Tessa was finding to be true quickly. She really was going to be full-out furious if she missed Jess's delivery, if she missed anything in her life while she was trapped rediscovering someone else's. She may have owed Mnemosyne her life, but that didn't mean she had to repay like with like.
"Alright," she snapped, losing the image as she looked around the room for a sight massively less pleasing. "Let's get this shit over with."
The Loki that looked back at her from the armchair across the room was a male one. The gender-swapping, at least, was losing its shock value. That said, Tessa did find herself battling an iota of confusion, watching him snap shut the book that he'd been perusing and stand.
"Very well… on to grander tasks."
"Question. Why do you keep switching back and forth--from female to male, I mean. Isn't that… I dunno, exhausting? Seems like it would take a lot of magic or energy or both." Tessa was partially speaking from a place of understanding. That astral projection spell had really taken a lot out of her. She stretched her neck back and forth, rolled her shoulders a few times and flexed her legs before trying to stand.
Loki looked down at himself and let out a melodramatic sigh. "I do not do so by my own choice. This shape… the former me preferred it and used it almost exclusively, so it is expected of me here, in Asgard. I have found that I am not so well--if the word can even be applied to my receptions ever--received by my fellows when in my female shape. 'Tis a shame, too. I believe this me prefers the wiles of a woman's form. Alas."
"And… that's officially all I can take of that." Tessa hopped up and pushed passed him to the door. "Let's go. Show me on to the grander tasks or whatever and forget I asked. Learned my lesson. What are these grander tasks exactly, or should I not even ask?"
"This way," Loki chimed, pointing down the hallway they'd not come from and then waiting for Tessa to double back to him. "We shall determine our course of action, for the cosmic threats that I brought you here to address, with advisement from my dearest mummies and daddy. We can find my adoptive parents in the throne room, which we can reach most quickly through this rear passage. It also just so happens to avoid the more frequented pathways of the palace."
"Terrific." Tessa had no qualms about speeding this whole thing along, or avoiding small talk for that matter. She followed his lead quietly down a few flights of winding stairs and then a ways up a long hall that barely accommodated his height. Finally, however, their way met with others as the wing opened into a large, elaborate garden. A few folks stared, their eyes hard, but most took no notice of Tessa or her reviled escort, continuing on with their own business. As they proceeded through the forecourt and into a grand, golden hall, they attracted even more attention. Up the stairs a good number approached and intercepted their paths. Most simply greeted Loki and asked his business or after his recent affairs. Tessa began to gather that Loki had been absent Asgard for some time now, perhaps even longer than Tessa had imagined, back when she had found out Thor had been searching for him.
"Ah, Loki has returned and brought home a mortal lady friend, in the same path as his brother!" Others were less polite, more mocking.
When Tessa frowned a little at the flamboyant teasing of the passing guardsman, Loki shrugged. "I expect it at this point and try to be above it. I ignored his taunt. That's good thing number three for the day. Well! I'm all gooded out, now just naughty left."
"Lovely. Just don't aim any of that nastiness at me," Tessa grumbled quietly, glancing around for the next forced social interaction that she'd be subjected to. There was a woman in full battle regalia heading their way, eyes locked on them, so Tessa tried to speed their steps. It didn't do much good. Giving up on escape, Tessa stepped a little to the side of Loki and added, "We've got company."
Sure enough, the woman caught up to them in no time, a question already on her lips. "Loki… You've returned? With a companion?"
"Yes, it is me and I am returned. This is not just a companion. I've brought back Minni to aid us in our troubles. Though, she prefers the name Tessa."
For a moment, the woman frowned down at her in disbelief, but that cloud quickly passed and was replaced by surprise and excitement. "By Odin, you found Minni? No one has heard tale of her in millennia! My lady, it is my pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am Sif, warrior of Asgard, at your service."
Tessa managed a smile, but had to concentrate more on keeping her balance as this woman took not her hand but her upper forearm and shook it vigorously. "And you…"
"The All-Mother will be most pleased to know that you are returned to fulfill your betrothal." With a glance at Loki, Sif forced her own smile then at Tessa. "The prince has been unpromised for many ages now. It is high time that one of the brothers finds their match."
"One… of the… brothers?" Tessa asked in absolute confusion. There had been no mention of betrothal to either of the fucking brothers, not even when Loki made mention of Mnemosyne breaking her engagement to the Iron Fist. She turned and glared at him with all the ire now boiling in her chest. "I'm sorry-- what?"
"Your vow to wed Loki, here, my Lady… Have I spoken out of turn?" Sif leaned away when Tessa snarled a little bit and whipped towards Loki.
Loki, though, was unfazed. He was actually tickled pink, grinning ear to ear. "No, that's all correct, Lady Sif."
"No," Tessa growled and felt her fingernails trying to dig into the flesh of her palms. "No. That's not happening. I'm here, but we're not together nor will we be."
"I must have been mistaken. My apologies…" Sif correctly appraised the delicacy of the situation and began back-peddling right away from it. Loki, though, Loki kept grinning and charging straight in.
"No, you're quite right, Sif. You're spot on. Minni promised, she swore before us all that, upon her return, she would wed the younger prince. I'm sure she remembers that."
"Ahem. I see now, my lady, that you are changed. We understand the cycle of rebirth. It is renewal but not everything survives. Your new self desires a spouse not and I cannot fault you that change of heart, especially considering the betrothed in question." She flicked a cautious and none too fond glance Loki's way before bowing deeply. "Such things can easily be reneged without issue, I assure you. Will you allow that I introduce you to the throne room?"
Loki slipped in front of her, though, and blocked Tessa's response. "I've got this, Sif, thanks."
"Oh-- Of course, Loki. Don't mire yourself in any mischief along the way."
Once the Lady Sif's bootfalls were a distant echo, Tessa turned slowly to Loki, just keeping her rage below a rolling boil. "You're a lying shithead."
"I did warn you. Only naughty things left--ah!" He clapped a hand to his throat, where Tessa had just punched him, and coughed a few times.
"I did warn you. Piss me off and I swing first, ask questions later." Shaking her hand out, she grinned over at the laughter booming out from the end of the hall. They had an audience that, apparently, enjoyed her performance. Sif was among them. "I'm not marrying you."
"Of that, I am well aware, Tessie." Loki, voice raspy and thin, hacked a little and rubbed at his neck. "The look on your face was priceless, however. This way. My brother, once the hilarity has faded, will want to speak with you before we address our parents."
Tessa had thought she recognized that deafening laugh, but hadn't been able to make Thor out from the crowd initially. Looking that way now, Tessa spied him striding their way, a broad smile on his face. "I expect you to explain how that came about as soon as we have a chance to discuss it. When you do that, you'll also spill everything you know about Mnemosyne in general."
"That can be done easily. It is quite simple. When the All-Father heard of Minni's search for a suitable suitor, he sent word to the Cities of Heaven, where there had last been heard tale of her solicitations, proposing the match between myself and her Ladyship. By his reckoning, the second son of Asgard was a far better match than the champion of K'un-Lun, regardless of whether or not I would ever be in line for the crown. A princeling of the Aesir race was nearer her Eternal majesty than a paltry vessel for dragon fire, more akin to her own immortal being in the very least. Lady Minni appeared to agree, vowing that she would return to Asgard to seal the engagement when I had reached the appropriate age. I came into my own but the Lady Minni never returned. We thought that her power waned precipitously on Midgard as she waited and that she must have diminished to such an extent that she could not muster the energy to make the journey. That is mostly speculation, however. Brother, have you anything to add?"
Tessa followed Loki's gaze and found Thor closing the gap between them, nearly on top of them already. He frowned for a moment and then shook his head. "No, brother, yours was always the mind for stories. I warrant you've told it well and close to truly. Lady Tessa, your presence is a balm in our time of uncertainty. My deepest gratitude that you've come."
"Uh…" Tessa seriously considered ratting Loki out and tattling that she'd been kidnapped, but she decided to save that card for later, in case she really needed it. "Of course. Happy to help. What's going on? I haven't been able to get any details out of this one."
Thor hooked his thumbs under the edges of his tunic and shrugged. "There is good cause for this. Unfortunately, we haven't many details to explain the distress. We only know of its existence and magnitude. Something threatens the wholeness of Yggdrasil and we presume that it is more ancient than our realm since we have no tale of it or its effects in our reckoning. It is the hope of myself and my parents that you will be able to enlighten us on its source, owing to the fact that you house a being older than any other we know."
"Not… Not to sound obtuse, but… how old are we talking here?"
Loki smirked and, turning towards the doors at the end of the hall, waved over his shoulder. "Old, Tessie dear. Older than the Aesir or the Vanir, older than the Jotun and the Outsiders, the Kree and Shi'ar and Skrull. She's older even than the branch on Titan that claims Eternal lineage. She is an Eternal from before the Eternals were run by power cosmic, when they were the power cosmic. This is why you are memory, rather than just manipulating it. An original Eternal, an Old God, a Primal Celestial, an Elder of the Universe… what have you in Minni, or Mnemosyne, or Emeoune is a cosmic entity that the gods consider a god. That should be enough in itself. Now… let's find out what the gods' god can tell us about our looming calamity."
As grand as to be expected, the throne room required that the three of them cross the width of the room under the eyes of the persons occupying the thrones. To Tessa's surprise and delight, the big ass central golden throne was taken by a woman, herself flanked by two other women. The famous Odin, All-Father, sat beside her in a slightly smaller, slightly less imposing throne. Both of these persons sat in complete silence as the whole two minutes passed required to traverse the room. It was a painfully laden silence, thick with expectation and judgment, and Tessa really wished someone would have undertaken some flowery heralding or address to fill the empty air. There was no one present to accomplish this heralding, however. Aside from the three of them approaching, no one was attending to the royal persons at this time.
Consequently, it was Thor who took the extra few steps forward and introduced Tessa. Without hesitation, Loki allowed him that honor, actually standing a couple of paces behind Tessa when they came to a stop. "All-Mothers, Father… Loki has retrieved the Lady Minni, here represented by her vessel, Lady Tessa. Minni herself is in a diminished form, but I trust the Lady Tessa will provide you with what favors you require to the best of hers and Minni's abilities."
"Welcome, Lady Minni, again to Asgard, or, if you should please it, Lady Tessa." The woman speaking cut a striking figure, even seated in the enormous throne. Her dress in white and blue was made doubly magnificent by the intricately wrought golden cuirass cinched around it and the helm, matching in both golden plating and winged theme, in place of a crown. In fact, she was in full regalia arms, pauldrons and gauntlets and grieves and all. The other two women, who flanked her, wore the same embossed cuirass but none of the other armor. They added nothing to her address, but when she nodded her head, they nodded as well. "We, the All-Mother, rejoice at your return. Before we turn to the matters at hand, would you wish to complete the engagement to Loki? I know you were so eager when last we spoke--"
"Mother?" Loki cleared his throat and stepped forward. As he passed, Tessa caught him smirking down at her for just a blink. "I fear Lady Tessa has no interest in a wedding. Neither at this time nor in the future."
The other two women shared a weighted glance and the central one frowned deeply. "Whatever he has done to so dissuade you, my lady, he is repentant and endeavoring to improve."
"I'm sorry, All-Mother. I apologize, but I'm not… the same person I was before, when that proposal was made…" Tessa winced a little as a heavy sighed drifted down to her, Odin dropping his face into a hand and shaking his head. "Nothing against Loki, personally, I'm just… not into the whole marriage thing… anymore."
Again, her flanking aspects shared a glance and, now, a word, but the central woman raised her hand and silence fell once more. "I understand, Lady Tessa, you are different now. Let us, then, turn away from aimless affairs and towards the dire threat at hand. Asgard has faced countless dangers to our realm and recorded each encounter in the annals of our peoples. When the same danger threatened again, we responded with due preparation from our prior knowledge. It has been generations, eons since our realm has been menaced by a threat of which we do not already know. In times long past, our people would consult our gods, the beings older than our recollection, and they provided us with tidings and succor for our needs. True, we have learned and evolved since then, worship has turned to respect, but the spirit of cooperation may still be maintained. We will answer your kindness to us graciously, I assure you, my lady."
"You want information?" Tessa's thumbnail cracked under the strain of her fidgeting with it. She quickly tucked her hands behind her back and forced a regretful smile. "I have to apologize again, All-Mother, but I'm sadly lacking in information about this interdimensional blight. If what Loki has told me is all there is to know of it from Asgard's sources, I'm afraid that I'm just as clueless about it as you."
"The revered and unforgetting Minni has no memory of this shearing of worlds?" Odin sat forward in his seat, hands swallowing the ends of the arm rests and one good eye fixing sternly on Tessa. "Does this portend a final Ragnarok or simply reveal this mortal as a fraud?"
Since Tessa had arrived in Asgard, the foreign memories had pressed in upon her mind and she had resisted miring herself in their endless stories. Now, however, she opened herself to a few, to prove herself, of course, but also out of spite. "I have memory of many things, Odin Borson. I have memory of the Norns as they appeared in golden halls and proclaimed a fate of unheard of power but also of selfsame loss. I have memory of Bor Burison sitting on the highest seat of the hall and accepting on his knee a baby, wrapped in ram's skin, sprinkled with water and named his son, Odin. I have memory of a gift made for your birth, a golden lamp to ward your crib of dangers and a music box of horn and ivory to guard your dreams. I have memory of ancient, lost things, Borson, but I do not have any memory of this shearing of worlds. Whether or not that bodes apocalypse, I don't know, but I do know that I'm not just a mortal fraud."
If the open-mouthed reaction of nearly everyone else in the hall could be taken to mean anything, Tessa may have gone a step too far in proving herself, spitefully. After a moment, she sensed Loki at her shoulder and turned to find him beaming. Up on the dais, the All-Mother collectively switched from shock to delight while Odin's face reddened to a shade of beet. When he suddenly stood and, half-grumbling, half-roaring, stalked to the rear of the hall and out of sight, she also stood with her fellows. They turned to watch him leave and then back to Tessa with a twinkle in her eye.
"Forgive him his ill manners, my lady. He has become such a boor in his old age and… with the decline of his Odinforce. I am confident in your claims to have the memory for which we seek, and less confident that your lack concerning our current threat is necessarily so dire as a final Ragnarok. If you have no memory of this blending of realms, then perhaps it is a new calamity entirely. Perchance, the peril comes from what is new."
"I could search for memory of this out… beyond Asgard, if I can travel. Unfortunately, Odin wasn't entirely off the mark with his comments. I mean, I am just a mortal vessel. I don't have the full consciousness of memory that, I think, you regard Mnemosyne--or Minni as having. I need at least dimensional proximity to pick things up. Alternatively, if it is old and not new… given the opportunity to peruse older memories, I could strike from our possibilities a primordial threat. That includes places, not just people… places can store memories, too."
The All-Mother had nodded thoughtfully as Tessa spoke, but it was Loki who piped up first. "Places? How about items?"
"I… suppose. I don't see why not, though I've never stoked memory from a thing before."
"All-Mother, with your permission…" Loki and the All-Mother seemed to be sharing in some unspoken conversation. Up ahead of them, she nodded slowly and, closing her eyes, sat back down again. Loki stepped forward and turned around to address Tessa and Thor from the bottom step. "I propose a reconnaissance mission to the one place in all the realms that might harbor the widest and oldest receptacles of memory, the gallery of the Collector. He is, in himself, one of the eldest living memories in the universe and his vast collection of items is far older and varied than any other we will find anywhere. If we find no tale nor tidings of this threat there, then it must surely be something new."
The hall fell quiet again and Tessa glanced over at Thor, towards the All-Mother, and then back to Loki. All of them seemed to have their attention trained on her. It finally occurred to her that, for some batshit insane reason, they were waiting for her judgment on the matter. Naturally, she had a veritable black hole in her brain at that moment, sucking in and crushing all words and thought into oblivion.
"If you are uncertain, my lady," the All-Mother eventually said, "have no doubt that Asgard will provide you with an escort. Loki will provide adequate protection and assistance in your endeavor. If his company is not sufficient to your liking, we may send others as well."
Loki was still grinning in front of her, but at Tessa's hesitation, it flickered for just a second. His eyes flitted over to Thor and then back at Tessa to glint mischievously now. When the one eyebrow climbed higher with some lude suggestion, Tessa finally reclaimed her brain.
"Reconnaissance I can do. I just need transportation to this gallery of the Collector. Some magical backup will not go unappreciated, though that should probably be all. I… I don't want to call attention to this little escapade." She didn't particularly want to deal with this cosmic ancient, the Collector, with a capital 'c', but, in reality, it was Mnemosyne's attention that she actually didn't want to attract. Delving too deep into her temporal territory just seemed like a sure fire way to wake her up. "We go in, I search around for any hint of this necrosis eating away at Yggdrasil or the fabric of reality or what have you, and then we quickly and quietly leave. Agreed?"
The All-Mother nodded once and then stood, her two other aspects stepping forward to flank her. "I shall alert Heimdall to prepare the Bifrost for your journey. We wish you safety and success in your endeavor. With good fortune, this will complete our arrangement. I look forward to hearing what you discover. Loki, a moment, please."
As they three walked towards the rear doors of the hall, Loki in their wake, Tessa turned slowly to Thor. "So… Not to be accusatory or anything, but… any reason why you never mentioned my engagement to the psychopathic brother you were searching for those months back?"
"Ah, lady Tessa…" She hadn't known that it was possible until then, but Thor could blush something fierce. "The time was never right to mention it. And, in truth, I forgot. I was but a lad myself, and a one over-absorbed with myself. My hope is that I have not caused any undue confusion with this blunder born of carelessness."
Tessa snuffed out a laugh and shook her head. "Don't worry about it. At this point, it's becoming funny. Hey, if I find out what you all need to know at the Collector's, does that mean the Bifrost will be sending me home next?"
"The Bifrost? You may travel home to Earth whenever it pleases you. It was my understanding you commanded this ability in and of yourself."
"Mm… Loki has a spell up. It's blocking me from phasing back. He claims it's to keep the interdimensional fabric from decaying any further."
Thor frowned slightly and glanced over his shoulder. "My brother is always up to these tricks. If, at any point, you desire to return to Earth, I will ensure you are given transport by the Bifrost. Worry not, Lady Tessa."
"Thanks, Thor…" Tessa wanted to simply ask to be sent home just then but that was the selfishness in her talking. All things said and done, helping Asgard was something she felt obliged to do, if anything, just because it was the decent thing, excluding her responsibility to the universe as a whole. Swallowing the yearning to go home and hide, Tessa nodded once more at Thor as he turned away and hugged herself, waiting for Loki to come back.
"My word to fact, Lady Tessa, anything you require, I will see it done. You need only ask me."
"Oh, my brother… such promises and assurances, ever the gallant knight." Loki's words made Tessa jump a little, sounding from just behind her. Thor shook his head and, with a hail of his hand, strode away. Swinging around into sight, Loki held out an elbow and smirked. "My Lady? Shall we away to the Collector's abode?"
Tessa rolled her eyes at his elbow. "Yeah, let's go. Let's do this as quickly as possible, too. And, no shenanigans, none of this low budget Shakespeare flirt-speak. It makes me want to stab myself in the eardrums."
"As you wish, dearest Tessie."
Phasing was one thing, but transportation via the Bifrost was a whole other nightmare experience. It was like being sucked by an enormous vacuum cleaner into a waterslide full of light that simultaneously pushed and pulled your whole body across space at hypersonic speeds. That was without even factoring in the horrific cacophony of the thing screaming like a billion nails on a million chalkboards. By the time the bridge of light quantum seared a Norse knot into the spotless metal floor beneath them, Tessa was relieved to be in an undying psychotic's hoarder den floating in deep space, even if that hoarder was currently standing not twenty feet away, quizzically staring at them.
"Usually I take my visitors by the front door, appointment only. For such specimens, however… I can make an exception." His jewelers' goggles left him looking ridiculous, his feathers and furs eclectic at best, but as he straighten up from his work bench, all Tessa could feel was dread.
"Oh, dear… such a pickle." Loki was clearly aiming for offhand confidence, but his voice betrayed him, quavering over the vowels. With a bow, he stepped forward and spoke up. "Tanaleer Tivan… may I, on behalf of my traveling companion, apologize for such an… abrupt arrival. Our means of transportation are… far limited in comparison to your own."
The Collector, accoutrements of his title hanging from his shoulders on chains, from his ear on hooks, put aside his precision tools and peeled off his goggles, moving around his bench and towards Tessa and Loki with wide, assessing eyes. A twist of a ring and the Loki now in front of Tessa flickered out of sight and the one beside her reappeared looking like a baby that had just shit its diaper. "Illusions, how novel… A primitive manipulation of quantum physics, but good command of light theory. Not what I expect from a Jotun, miniature though it may be. And, what are you?"
When he reached to run the back of his hand down her cheek, Tessa made to jerk away but found herself immobilized for the second time in twenty four hours. It was even more infuriating the second time. "Ah, that's that resonance… a proto-Eternal, another of my ilk at long last. But… not quite…" He was circling, tilting his head back and forth, narrowing his eyes down at Tessa. "There's that pesky homo sapiens biomatter diluting it. Interesting. Interesting. I will have to look into this further. Such specimens. You'll be outstanding additions to my collection."
The Collector had a number of attendants at his disposal, they soon learned, one of which was some kind of super strong android. That was the thing that toted them, Tessa and Loki both, over its uncomfortably metallic shoulders to a corner of the display floor that was, as of yet, still unoccupied. Another attendant, some alien species made up primarily of tentacles, brought over two discs approximately two feet in diameter and placed them on the ground in the empty spaces. That just left their robotic pack mule to set them down and the Collector to sashay over and activate the pods around them. With a hiss and a flash, Tessa was suddenly watching him happily type up a label for her through a tinted glass tube. He set the labels down near their feet and then, with a flutter of excited claps, pranced away.
Craning her neck, Tessa could just read her placard. "Hybrid Proto-Eternal," it read, with a small footnote below in italics, "under observation for more data." On the tube next to hers, Loki's read "Miniature Jotun, Aesir vestiges." She snorted and looked up at him, hesitant but willing to risk touching her glass. Nothing happened when she knocked, so Tessa pressed her face up against the tube and tried to peer past the aisles of specimens. The Collector was nowhere in sight, so she turned back to Loki and tested her next question about the tubes: sound-proofing.
"Hey. Assface. This is not what I had in mind when I said that we'd get in and get out without calling attention to ourselves. Have your people not heard of subtlety--Why are you turning blue?"
Loki appeared to have heard her, looking down at himself and frowning. "Jotuns, Frost Giants, are blue. I have these… Aesir vestiges, as the placard reads, that make me pink and cuddly. Hmm… I wonder if these chambers put us into animated stasis or if I'm reverting in the presence of Jotun magic. It is nice and chilly in here."
Time for test number three: intermolecular interference. "You know, blue's a good color on you actually, but I have to admit the green suits you better." Tessa smirked, entirely pleased with herself, as Loki looked up and found her brushing the dust off of her knees and outside her tube. "Now… Where is the doohickey. The evil geniuses always have a doohickey, something to countermand all their protocols."
Unlike the Asgardians and their rainbow fucking laser beacon, Tessa knew the art of subtlety. She found the doohickey she desired had been left just fifteen feet away in the Collector's coat pocket, abandoned for another pursuit a few moments before. Since she wasn't entirely sure where that white-haired weirdo had skipped off to exactly, she tiptoed her way around the rows of other creatures in giant test tubes, towards the chair with the coat hanging over it. A quick survey of the reading nook revealed no Tanaleer and none of his lackeys, so Tessa skittered over there and, crouching on the ground and behind the chair, fished the remote control device out of its pocket. A thought and she was back next to Loki, waving the remote smugly at him. His chamber was frosting over before his eyes, it seemed, though he was far from worried, slouched against one side, picking his nails.
"Creezus, he flash-freezing you?" She whispered and then turned to examining this remote.
"So it would seem. I believe he thought I might show best in my natural state."
The Collector knew this remote intimately. It controlled his everything. He also remembered about fifty different sequences for that controlling of everything. Tessa found the button sequence she was looking for and began punching it in. "Huh… well, that's enough of that."
Luckily, the tank unsealed with a silent flicker, the glass simply disappearing with the remote's command. Loki immediately hopped off his disc, the blue already defrosting back to white and pink on the edges, and grabbed Tessa by the face. If the slap wouldn't have alerted the whole compound to their escape, she would have smacked him fully out of his frostiness for kissing her. The remote was also stolen, along with that kiss, Tessa discovered in her recovery. Foregoing any loud violence, Tessa instead kicked out one of his knees and, while he caught his balance, snatched the remote back from him.
"Kiss me again and I'll kick something else, sneakiness be damned," she hissed and then turned her attention to the rest of this immense and, frankly, amazing place. Somewhere in here she'd briefly felt a twang of something to do with interdimensional disturbances. Shuffling the direction of that feeling, Tessa left Loki to climb off his knee and follow her.
"Mmm… this can only go well--or better than it has so far. You know what I haven't done in a while, Tessie?"
"Hush, I'm scanning this place."
"I haven't pilfered anything from an extremely well-guarded artifact vault."
Source detected, Tessa turned back to glare at him. "Why are you smiling like that? It makes me feel unsafe."
"I'm just very excited, Tessie dear, very excited."
"Oh, well… stop." Tessa took the next left, down past yet another upsetting row of living creatures in tubes and towards what the Collector considered his high security vault. With that remote in her hand, though, Tessa didn't really regard anything here as secured. "Tivan sensed the interdimensional disturbances, by the way. He considers them a seism, like earthquakes from interaction between two colliding universes, which is wholly unsettling in and of itself. I'm not sure if that's worse or the fact that he doesn't know who or what could be causing it. That said…"
"Yes, do tell me why we're taking this sneaky side quest somewhere."
Another left, then a right and through two doors before Tessa arrived at the vault in question. "Well, he was worried about things that alter reality, of which he has several, but only one that wasn't already in this here high security vault. I'm thinking… since this one has a small amount of consciousness… we… oh, we relieve Tivan of this cause for concern and we use it to do what he won't, intervene to avoid any reality-based cataclysms."
Loki looked positively jubilant as Tessa paused and began the extremely complicated series of commands required to access this high security vault. "I'm afraid you may have to kick me and disrupt our stealth, dearest Tessie, because I'm going to kiss you again."
"I wouldn't, the thing I'm repurposing from him is called the Shears of Fate. You don't want me doing any snipping around you when I'm pissed, trust me." The giant vault unsealed with a soft hiss, its security disarming silently and leaving a dark cube full of glowing items at their disposal. Tessa pushed Loki backwards and marched inside, heading for the scissors she'd just seen through the Collector's eyes. They were something crudely wrought, hardly with handles enough to earn the label shears. Just two roughhewn blades, one of deep crimson, the other of shadow. Tessa picked them up, with the fabric of her sleeve ripped off as protection from direct contact. Magical items and her didn't have the best track record, particularly ones with sentience.
Loki, as directed, had stayed outside of the vault, his back to Tessa. When she crept back out and resealed the vault he turned around again and waggled an eyebrow. "Success?"
"Yeah. These things are so corny they make my teeth hurt. Really? Shears of destiny? Though… they have been recorded as being capable of cutting through dimensions and realities and being used to change people's destinies, whatever that entails. They kind of deeply terrify me. You ready?"
At his silly display of grabby hands, Tessa handed over the shears to Loki. That was kind of a relief because she wanted literally nothing to do with them or anything they could effect. "Let us depart, then. Shall I call Heimdall?"
"One second," Tessa whispered, tiptoeing over to an empty disc and stepping onto it. A few buttons and she was closed inside the glass with the remote. A moment of concentration later, and she was back outside the tube, the remote sitting in the center of the disc. Beside her, Loki snickered uncontrollably. "I bet you Mr. Collector isn't so snooty when his access to his collection is part of his collection. Heimdall?"
Chapter 3: What If: Analog Love
"I'm not complaining. I'm not, because this jives real nice with my plans to get back home as soon as possible, but… Do you ever sleep? Because, you kind of abducted me when it was nighttime in my parts, and we've done a full… fifteen hours of stuff since then, no sleep. I kind of have to sleep or I become a demonic hell goddess."
Loki didn't bother looking up from the complicated magical apparatus that he'd constructed around the Shears of Fate. He just shrugged a little and answered breezily, "no, the only monster I become is triggered, as you now know, by cold temperatures. You can sleep now, if you so wish. This will take another few hours or so. I believe I just about have the enchantment scaffolding identified, but that still leaves gaining access to its operations and it is resisting me. Take your rest, I will continue without you."
"Great…" Not the news that she wanted, but an answer she could deal with. Tessa left Loki in the workshop and phased to Minni's chambers. She made it just three steps and collapsed onto the bed. The clothes didn't even manage to come off. She fell asleep in them on top of the ancient quilts and blankets, her head not even on a pillow.
When she next was conscious of the waking world, it was groggily. Her face wet and eyes crusted together, she sat up and tried to figure out the source of the banging. It was, naturally, someone knocking on her door. Pushing aside the dream-state version of that, Tessa climbed out of the bed that definitely did not have Danny in it next to her, and answered the door. Even with one eye knuckled shut, she saw immediately the delight on Loki's face.
"The seismic fault line is on Midgard."
"All our concerns about something unfathomable and ancient and the cause of these disturbances is on middling Earth. Some foolish men of science are experimenting with dark matter, creating fluctuations in the fabric of space-time."
"Wait, what? Who on Earth?" Tessa immediately recalled something that Tony Stark had mentioned to her, off the cuff, several months before, as one of the possibilities he was looking into for her re-mortalization: "It was brought to my attention recently that the organic schism caused by a forced rupture of space-time could work something like a quark scalpel. I'm going to do some violence-oriented research on the interdimensional rifts that an extremely irresponsible independent think-tank is undertaking and hopefully extract some data in the process." "Is… Is there an… an independent think-tank involved?"
"Mmm… you might called it that, Advanced Idea Mechanics is the heading I'm getting." Loki showed Tessa her cell phone screen, internet search pulled up to the A.I.M. website. It confounded her how he was getting data service up here. Maybe they had wi-fi? "I suppose that I'll have to unlock the boundaries between our realms again so we can travel there discreetly. The Bifrost is essentially a battering ram through the fragile fabric of reality. Your phasing and my magic would, at least, be more akin to tiny pin pricks. You may want to wash up. While we're in Midgard, you might as well take the opportunity to check in with your pets and discharge that condition of our agreement. I'll be in the library preparing the temporary bandage we will require to keep the tears between realms from worsening while we're traveling."
Eyes closed, Tessa let her head fall back as she sighed. They were traveling back to Earth. The barricade keeping her from phasing there was being taken down. She was done with the hostage portion of this independent consultantship that she'd been contracted into. With any luck, she was almost done with any dealings with Loki and this dimensional blender bullshit.
Clothes popped out and freshened up as best she could manage, Tessa took one more look in the polished silver mirror Mnemosyne had mounted above the wash basin. Those purple eyes had looked into its surface countless times before but had never seen this face before. She looked tired. Tessa poked at the slightly swollen skin under those eyes and then splashed her face a few times. It didn't help with the puffiness but Tessa didn't mind. Tired and purple was better than wired and red. She patted herself dry and ran that same towel over her hair. It was almost a full inch long now and looked hideously ridiculous, sticking straight out from her scalp like she was some black-leafed chia pet. No wonder the Asgardians were having a hard time taking her seriously, she hardly looked the part of some prehistoric powerhouse. That made her giggle a little bit as she pulled her aired out clothes back on. It was good they were returning to Earth, she was getting deliriousness with the outlandishness of this situation, it seemed.
Loki was easy enough to find in the library. Her memories were teeming with the Shears of Fate when Tessa reached out for them. She phased next to her and found herself standing in a large powder sigil that Loki was busy pouring.
"Oh, Tessie. You've gone and disrupted my art. I'll have to fix that now…" She snapped her fingers and the misplaced dust righted itself back into the pattern as Tessa stepped away from it. "Back away, if you would. Any errors in this spell's preparation could end in disastrous results. It is complicated enough as it is without you blundering into it."
Retreating back to the next table over, Tessa hoisted herself on top of it and crossed her legs. From further away, it was clear that Loki was crafting a very intricate web of runes from that same fine iridescent power that she'd sprinkled on Tessa to create her astral form. Right now, it was about five feet across in diameter, a perfect circle on the outside with those runes completed. The interior Loki was still working on filling out, but the runes seemed to be placed in the shape of a leafless tree.
"Yggdrasil?" Tessa asked quietly, watching Loki step over her creation, her foot finding purchase about six inches above the floor.
"Indeed. Good eye, Tessie. The world tree is my subject in this, as I attempt to seal the cracks and crannies of its branches in place. I will drop the arcane veil between its realms and, in turn, lock the fabric of it in stasis. The tears will remain open but they won't degrade further on their own for a short time." Now kneeling half a foot above the floor, Loki began tapping at the dust pattern, refining its edges until they were as smooth as if they'd been drawn in ink.
Tessa made sure to keep quiet and just watched. Within a few minutes' time the gigantic sigil appeared to be completed, shining and flawless like it had been cast in silver. Loki finally sat back on her heels and then stood to survey her work. A long glance later, she pivoted around to the nearest chair and grabbed a small, leather-bound book from the seat. She flipped through the pages and stood further away from the sigil, looking from it to the book opened in her hand.
"Reference guide?" Tessa had to finally ask. The suspense was frustrating but, more pressingly, she was just plain getting impatient.
"Mm. In some ways."
Loki glanced up brightly. "Oh, this spell is of my own invention. I'm checking my references, the spells I have cannibalized to fashion this one. And… they appear to have been fully refitted here. Good, good, good." She snapped the book shut and tossed it over her shoulder, coming to stand with her toes just at the edge of the sigil. A wave over it and the dust began to glow bright green and sparkly.
"So… this is it? This is your… invention?" Tessa edged up just next to it as well and leaned over to look down on it. She could smell the magic on it, like ozone and sage. "And it'll… let us travel without making things worse?"
"Indeed and indeed. Just a few incantations and Yggdrasil will be temporarily frozen, like a creature set in amber. All the swirling mass of reality around it, normally so pliant and fluid, will be set hard and we'll be able to tap through it with minimal… damage…" She nodded slowly, having circled the sigil twice and assessed it like a shepherd counting off sheep. "Yes, I believe this is it, now just a little bit of stardust that makes this blanket of realms what it is…"
Tessa gasped as the dagger bit into her cheek. "What the fuck?" She clapped a hand over the cut, already sealing over, and snarled at Loki.
She merely simpered and sprinkled the blood from her blade onto the glowing sigil. It seemed to excite the magic, sizzling and flashing bright with each droplet. "The best magic needs a sacrifice and what better fuel for a cosmic spell than cosmic lifeblood? Kenaz Algiz Perthro… Othala Dagaz."
With each chanted word, the sigil had burned brighter, changing from green to gold, then blinding white. Tessa had felt it burning, the proximity of it warming her like a bonfire. It wasn't until Loki muttered the final word that Tessa realized it was also burning inside of her, under her skin, behind her eyes, in her lungs. By then, it was too late to react. The last syllable fell and Tessa combusted from the inside out without so much as a scream.
For a few screaming seconds of terror, Tessa flailed around instinctively to put the flames out. When she found herself knotted up in her sheets, sweat soaking them through but not at all on fire, she realized it had just been a nightmare. Another nightmare, she sighed to herself, but at least it wasn't the one where she was shot to death on a rooftop.
Pushing that from her mind, she swung her legs out of her bed and reached for her phone. Even out from under the bed clothes, it was sweltering in her tiny little room. The radiator had to be broken again. No wonder she'd had a fever nightmare where she spontaneously combusted. She was virtually on fire in there. Yet another thing she'd have to bring up with her landlord.
That said, it wasn't the suffocating heat that seemed to have woken her up. The phone in her hand was flashing with notifications. And, now, ringing with a few more. Entering her encryption code, she pulled up the field briefs that had just been sent to her. It looked like SHIELD HQ was expecting her to amp up her recon reports soon, maybe actually turn in some real intel on Manhattan's renegade vigilante population. That's what she got for being friends with one of them. She could resent that, but it was probably the only reason she got the assignment. Personal connection with a known enhanced had really moved her up the ranks of this job quickly and also left her feeling like a dirty double-crossing scoundrel. She'd told Command several times that her personal connection wouldn't affect her work, but that was obviously entirely untrue. She hadn't given a complete report on Jess or the others yet, because of the personal loyalties that came with that personal connection.
Over on her kitchen counter, her work phone beeped loudly--her other work phone. Tessa groaned and, stripping off her obviously unnecessary flannel pajamas, padded over into the kitchen. She had to hop over a big collection of clothing and towels to get there and it was only about five steps in total, which left Tessa thinking that she either (a) needed a bigger studio apartment or (b) needed to stop working two full-time jobs and clean up her life.
The page wasn't a 911, but it did put a damper on her very brief morning. Outside, the sun was just setting but the city was still as bright as day. That was the daylight she'd grown accustomed to with her EMT crew. And, it looked like her squad was going to be a little less flexible than normal without Jay driving that night. HQ would just have to wait a day longer for that really in-depth debriefing. Tracking vigilantes in an ambulance was pretty difficult to do without a driver that turned a blind eye to picking and choosing calls. Considering the fact that SHIELD technically didn't exist anymore and she was working for secret SHIELD, Tessa couldn't just flash her badge and commandeer the vehicle for her official surveillance business. The discretion she regularly got from Jay and Paisley Tessa had to assume came from the fact that they secretly thought she was a Fed.
"Close but not quite right." Tessa sighed and trounced over to her bathroom. Time for a cold shower and a lot of deodorant. It was going to be a long and awkward night.
"What in the world are people doing on the street with nerve agents?" Their sub-driver, Ian, was jumpy. This was only the second call of the night and he already had that cornered animal look on his face. Tessa had a sinking suspicion that he was a little too green to be out on the streets in the City.
She shook her head and tossed the radio to Paisley, heading into the back. "I don't know, but that doesn't really matter. Get the atropine and the pralidoxime ready. No barbiturates tonight, convulsions or not. They exacerbate the poisoning."
Ian dropped the response binder and flung himself into the driver's seat. "How? How do you--"
"No point in asking," Paisley shouted over him. "She remembers everything. Just do exactly what she says and this'll be fine."
"Remember, masks and gloves on. These things can be absorbed by skin, so avoid touching anything directly."
The address rang out over the radio as Tessa braced herself for a high-speed turn. The shots she'd packed up clattered quietly with the ambulance's rock. They had enough treatments for five people, maybe less depending upon their sizes. Their division was not at all prepared for fucking chemical agents. Some light household poisoning, sure, but nothing military-grade like this.
"God, I hate Midtown," Paisley grumbled next to her.
"You shouldn't!" Ian now sounded excited. Maybe he was in the job for the adrenalin high. "I saw Daredevil once down here, back during the Fisk hoopla. Things can get pretty exciting."
"Mm." Looking right at Tessa, Paisley nodded. "Yeah. I know. That's why I hate it. Vigilantes always make for more trouble."
"We're a block out," Ian barked back and Tessa unbuckled herself, hand on the stretcher latch and ready to go. "Oh, shit… I think we hit the jackpot here, guys. Man, I am so glad I got your assignment tonight!"
Ahead of them, Tessa spotted the source of Ian's exuberance through the windshield, lit up in red and blue. Whatever they were actually getting called in for, they had happened upon some kind of drug trafficking ballroom bash. The raid on this club was still in full effect as they careened to a stop. She could still see the raiders doing the bashing and the smashing through the obliterated front window. And, Ian had been right. They had hit the jackpot. Tessa now had sight on not only Jess, but her big Harlem buddy, Luke Cage and his little karate kid buddy. She'd yet to tag a name for him yet, alias or otherwise, but she recognized him immediately. The glowing hand and the dragon motif were hard to ignore.
"Shit. I'm gonna need worker's comp after this." Paisley was already on her feet and reaching for the door latch, but Tessa hopped around her and shoved her backwards.
"Just get the drips ready. I'll handle triage. Ian! Keep the engine on and leave once you're loaded up, I'll stay on scene and stabilize as many as I can, catch a ride back in another caddy." Out in the night air, Tessa could smell something acrid on fire. That was probably the source of the supposed nerve agent scare they had on their hands. By her nose, though, Tessa suspected more strongly that some fear gas was to blame. She'd watched Jess nearly crack a man in half after getting dosed by that. It was all the rage in the underground community, good for getting both pigs and costumes off your ass.
Wheeling her stretcher over and behind a nearby car, Tessa peered over its hood and assessed things. There were no officers on sight yet. They were literally the first responders tonight. That was both good and bad--good for her secret job, bad for her EMT gig. It was hard to get injured out of a fucking Super Mario Smash Brothers Melee without uniforms and guns clearing things out some. Waving back at the ambulance cab, Tessa signaled for the horn and then turned and crouched down again. When the siren whooped a few times, she saw a silhouette moving along the edges of the club and towards her even though none of the action inside had died down at all. Then, almost out of the shadows, a woman and a man in nightclub attire and totally unconscious were set down beside her.
"They're just unconscious. They were all tearing each other apart. We had to knock 'em out for their own good."
"Fuck!" Tessa jumped and scrambled backwards from the devil horned shadow beside her. Then, immediately ashamed of that, climbed back onto her feet and crouched over the couple. "Uh… thanks. I can start treating them here if you bring them out past the danger zone."
"I'll work on that."
He hadn't been lying. Their vitals were stable, they were just unconscious. So, Tessa found herself watching him dart back inside. She'd tracked Daredevil the least of all the others. He was the most discreet, the hardest to pick out from the 911 calls. Now, she saw why. He stayed out of the limelight, worked the dark corners with quiet efficiency. And, he also didn't seem to get along with the others. At least, as she tapped her ear and started picking up her long range audio, she seemed to catch onto that trend in their conversation.
"--I didn't burst into your neighborhood and start this shit show. I don't need you here or the attention you bring--"
"Shut up, ears. We're--hey! I'm not done talking, asshole! Get back here! We're just here to help, devil boy."
"That's fine. That's great, but because of all the noise you three wrecking balls made, we already have EMTs on the scene. Just-- Just take the last ones out and I'll start bringing them out for medical treatment."
Tessa strapped her patients up and sprinted them back to the ambulance to the sounds of grunting, crashing, and crunching. In the cab, Ian looked like he was having an aneurysm. He spun around into the back as Tessa opened the doors and started loading the stretchers in.
"Holy fucking Christ! That was Daredevil. Daredevil made you piss yourself!"
"I didn't pee, much. Just… I'm going to triage like I said, get these two back to MetGen. Their vitals are stable but they may need some other treatment. It's not a nerve agent, that's all I know." Slamming the back shut, Tessa took her kit and jogged back over to her car barricade and ducked behind it.
While she'd been off doing her job, her other job had gone neglected. Two people were already on the ground waiting for her and no Daredevil or other mask was there for her to observe. Her hands were busy checking over these two, but her mind was elsewhere, listening for more crosstalk from the vigilantes inside. It sounded like they were arguing again.
"But the ambulance left!"
"Yeah and one of the EMTs stayed, the one with the comm receiver."
"And just how do you know that they have a comm receiver, devil boy? You're starting to sound super paranoid."
"Jess. Let him talk… This could be serious."
"Thank you! Fuck. Listen, she has some kind of surveillance on her. I don't know what she's doing, but it isn't just for EMT radio, okay? I don't like the way this feels. These people need help, but… I've got people of my own to protect."
"And that's why you wear the mask, yeah we all know the fetishist's conceit. I'm done with this pussy-footing. I'll go sniff this one out. Where is she, horny?"
Tessa was too slow to run. By the time she realized that Jess had been walking towards the parking lot while she'd been talking, it was too late for Tessa to bug out. When the car was peeled away from in front of her like a tent flap, she simply pretended to be attending to these two patients. "AH! Oh god, please-- oh, hey, Jess." It wasn't her best acting, but Jess looked like she bought it.
Rolling her eyes, she set her hands on her hips and turned back to the three guys standing about twenty feet behind her. "For fuck's sake, it's just Tessa."
"You know this woman?"
"Jess, who is she?"
"Yeah, this is my friend… I guess. Tessa, meet these guys. You guys, meet Tessa. Okay. Back to work. Hey, chica… we've got some fucked up people inside and I just want to say that I didn't choose this approach for calming them down."
"That's a lie," piped up the glowy one. "It was actually her idea and it worked."
The dragon boy and Luke Cage seemed to have relaxed, going back to their business with Jess's 'discovery', but Daredevil kept his distance and remained silent. It almost felt like he was watching Tessa as she went about her work. Eventually, she spotted him pulling aside Jessica near the back of the club. They were far enough away that her long range mic almost didn't pick them up. It came in piecey, but the message of their conversation was clear, he still didn't trust Tessa. As expected, when Jess brought her next load of victims over for triage, she had a devil shaped shadow.
"Okay, chica, here's the deal. My pointed eared friend… work acquaintance here seems to think you have some kind of surveillance tech on you, which I know is preposterous because you're an EMT who barely gets enough sleep as it is to have taken up gumshoeing as a hobby. So… do me a favor and tell us that whatever he thinks you have, it's just your boo-boo box radio."
"Uh… I don't have anything on me, actually. No radio, nothing like that. Just my phone. It has a special transponder in it for emergencies. Could that be it?"
As soon as Tessa started talking, Daredevil bent over into Jess's ear and whispered something. However, because Tessa did in fact have surveillance tech on her, she heard that whisper. "She's lying."
"What? Are you psychic or something?" Jess looked incredulous as she craned around to him but when she turned back to Tessa, it had melted into exasperation. "For fuck's sake. Tessa… Are you lying?"
"Uh…" At this point, it was downright uncanny how well he'd sniffed her out and Tessa was running out of her training responses for this kind of situation. If he knew she was lying with that last one, he was definitely going to hear the falseness in this one. So, she gave up. Shoulders slumping over, Tessa reached into her jacket and pulled out her EMT ID and then, from behind it, her SHIELD badge. "Yeah… Yeah, I was kind of lying. Sorry."
Jessica took one look at the card and let her mouth drop open. "Oh, you have got to be fucking kidding me."
It was a good thing that Tessa's cover job was an actual real job, because it was giving her an excuse to not make uncomfortable eye contact with her officially livid, super strong, super emotionally erratic friend during this big confession moment. There were still about half a dozen unconscious victims for her to evaluate during all this unpleasantness.
As Jess took her first pacing lap, Tessa scrambled over to the next patient. "My bad, Jess… sorry. It's my assignment, I'm supposed to maintain my cover for as long as possible--not at all costs but at some costs. It's just surveillance. I know," she added quickly at Jess's embittered snort. "It sounds really bad and invasive, but with the super person situation what it is, they want eyes out to make sure nothing escalates into a cataclysm that would make it even more incendiary and divisive and tense than it already is. It's preventative surveillance, precautionary, prophylactic… I've run out of synonyms. Point is, every operating enhanced individual has an agent tasked to oversee them. I've been… assigned the island of Manhattan, which is you four for now."
"Seriously? Seriously? For how long? Were you Big Brother when I met you?"
Gloves snapped off, Tessa sat back on her heels and finally looked Jess in the eye. It was terrifying, but needed to happen. In the dark, she couldn't quite see the full smolder of rage at least. "God, no, Jess. I'm sorry, really… They recruited me out of the Tower for intel reconnaissance."
"Yeah, I guess you'd be pretty great for all that, wouldn't you?" Stopping mid-pace, Jess doubled back to where Tessa was kneeling and laughed. "Wait! I don't know… Would you? Is that what you're really doing? I can't be sure if you're lying or not because, apparently, I can't trust you."
"No," Daredevil cleared his throat from a few steps back, out of the streetlight's halo. "She was telling the truth about that."
"Enough with the polygraph act, horny boy. I don't even know who you are or what you're about. You could be completely full of shit with this whole lying, not lying thing. So… horn out or I'll make you."
Stepping in between Jess and Daredevil, Luke held his hands up to make sure they stayed apart. "Can someone please explain what is going on right now?"
Jess's lip stayed curled up into a snarl for a few beats, but then she scoffed and returned to pacing. "My backstabbing friend here has a perfect memory and has been spying on us and reporting it, with her perfect memory, back to the government."
"Uh… I mean, I've been spying yes, but I haven't really reported anything of substance back in to SHIELD yet. I… I just haven't been able to bring myself to do it."
Daredevil sighed loudly and turned away from them, earning stares from the others and a downright glare from Jess.
"What? Care to explain?"
"She wasn't lying about that either," he answered over his shoulder and disappeared into the darkness of the alley. "You should all scatter. Cops are less than a minute out."
"What the fuck? Is he psychic, seriously?"
As Jess was asking her questions of no one in particular, Luke's peppy dragon friend darted out from the interior of the club. "Hey, we gotta run. I saw police lights from the back alley."
"Yeah… guess he's psychic," Jess muttered, casting a guarded glance Tessa's way. "Guess I'll be seeing you around, whether I want to or not."
"Jess…" Tessa stood to catch her, but didn't stand a chance in that endeavor. Jess could leap tall buildings in a single bound, superman style, so she was gone in a second.
Luke Cage watched her go and turned to Tessa with a shrug. "I'll talk to her. You don't… I haven't been incriminated in your reports, have I?"
"No," Tessa sighed, turning to shield her eyes from the spotlight shining through the club's new gigantic front window/crater. "I meant it when I said I hadn't reported anything substantial, just updates on your power set and general whereabouts."
"You don't know my name, do you?"
Tessa smiled weakly, "I don't even know you're vigilante alias, dragon boy. I'm… pretty bad at this whole intel gathering thing. You should go… now. I'll have to report this now, you know that. Lucky for you, I can only report on what I witnessed and all I personally witnessed was you hauling fear gas victims out of a nightclub. Go… Go."
With Tessa's final insistent whisper, dragon boy and Luke Cage melted into the night and Tessa was left with the pleasant task of giving her statements to the police and then providing her real witness statements to SHIELD HQ sometime in the wee hours of the morning. The answer to her earlier quandary became crystal clear while she relayed the same five sentence account to four different officers, in response to her bed to kitchen Olympic hurdle event. It was (b) she needed to stop working two full-time jobs and clean up her life.
"You've got to give me something."
It was half past three in the morning already. The parking lot was a freezing wasteland of sludge-blackened plowed snow dunes and burger-paper tumbleweeds. Even with her big sub-arctic insulated jacket on, Tessa was losing feeling of her extremities past the knees and ankles. She, frankly, had no idea how the glow stick was standing there across from her in his green and yellow tracksuit and mask and nothing else. But he was, and with a smile on no less. Tucked behind this 18-wheeler, the light of the McDonald's golden arches couldn't reach them, and yet a yellow glow allowed Tessa to see that smile. Hopefully, her crew inside on their break, wouldn't notice the extra golden aura peeking out from that trailer bed.
"I've got to submit this file, your official SHIELD file with all the trimmings at noon today and that file has to be labelled with something. I'm giving you the choice of what that'll be, an official alias would be optimal. Although, I could just keep calling you dragon boy, or glow worm, I like that one of Jess's, or… you could give me your real name--"
"Oh, no. Please, Tessa? I need to keep my identity a secret--"
"I know you do, dragon boy. That'd create quite a stir, real high profile. So, what do I call you on this form?" She leaned around between the trailer and the cab to peer inside at Jay and Paisley. They were still happily eating, not a care in the world or a thought spared for her, it seemed.
Danny Rand, in all his mystical glory, bowed to her, one hand clenched tight and pressed against the palm of the other, both glowing. "I am the Immortal Iron Fist, living weapon and protector of K'un-Lun."
He delivered that ridiculous and mostly nonsensical sentence with such gravity that Tessa had to reel for a few seconds before snorting loudly and covering her mouth to snuff out the laughter that followed. "You're the what? Oh, I kinda think that 'dragon boy' is way less cringe-worthy, but I'll put that in there, the whole shebang. Fair warning, I'm going to make a sex joke about that at some point."
At his beleaguered sigh, she stuffed her hands into her pockets and checked on her crew one more time. She could probably stretch this out for another minute tops, but then she'd have to hustle back inside, for cover and warmth reasons. "Okay, that'll do us for tonight about you. Now, have you seen/can you contact in some way Daredevil? I have to get something on file for him by that deadline tomorrow as well, even if it's just a voice imprint, or they're going to audit me on my recon tactics and none of you can afford something like that happening."
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and glanced around the parking lot. The smile was a significantly less blinding, that's how Tessa had come to recognize that he was uncomfortable--these damned vigilante masks made it difficult to do much facial reading during recon. "Uh… I mean, he's most likely inside Hell's Kitchen somewhere. I can call him if you want."
"Can you give me that number?"
"So you can track him all the time?" He smiled now, looking up at her from fishing around in his pockets. "No, sorry, Tessa. I can't do that."
"Aw… too bad. You and I were getting along real well for a bit there, Dragon Fist."
The smile broadened even more as he held his phone up to his ear. "Hold on…"
The phone call didn't last very long but, by the end of it, Tessa had a time and a place and an assurance that the Devil of Hell's Kitchen would make an appearance or the Immortal Iron Fist would find him and scold him very soundly and then set up another meet-up as soon as possible. Tessa knew that that second part of the assurance wouldn't do anyone any good but it was pretty cute so she let it fly. Also, her crew was finished eating and looking around for her inside the Micky Dee's, which kind of limited her options.
One shift over and the sun just beginning to rise, Tessa was frozen solid and bone-achingly tired, but she managed to shuffle it over to some random church in Hell's Kitchen--of course--and roll around into its side alleyway--again, of course--and knock on the nearest fire escape exactly three times. She felt stupid and exhausted and very, very cold doing this, but it didn't compare to how stupid and exhausted and cold she felt standing there afterwards waiting for the Devil to show up. At first, she thought that she'd been duped and that a certain dragon boy was going to get a particularly unpleasant visit from his SHIELD supervisor, but then, she heard the distant crunching of boots on gravel and felt an impact on the fire escape that she was sitting on still. A second or so later, the landing above her was populated by a very particular horned shadow.
Tessa stood up immediately and straightened herself out, partially out of surprise but also so that maybe she'd look as official as her position was supposed to be. That was difficult wearing eight layers of jackets, hats, and gloves, but she gave it a go. "Daredevil. Thank you for meeting me. That makes this whole thing… a little less challenging for everyone."
"I appreciated your honesty about the situation. How can I help? I want to make this quick, though. Getting around town in this outfit once the sun's up is an ordeal."
"In that thing? With the red and the horns? No." Tessa realized how flirty that sounded as soon as she said it and cleared her throat. "Anyway, I have to submit your SHIELD file for review at noon and just about the only information on you that I've gathered is that you're a talented hand-to-hand combatant and you wear horns on your helmet. That and they neighborhood calls you Daredevil, or the Devil of Hell's Kitchen. It just… I have to do a better job of making it look convincing that I'm actually trying to gather intel on you, while… not actually reporting anything that would compromise you and your privacy. Any chance you've got a magic power that is embarrassingly called something like the Iron Fist? Because, I'm really making bank with that scoop."
A snickered floated down to her. "No, no magic kung fu powers, sorry."
"But, some martial arts training?"
This time he laughed and dropped from his crouch onto the stairs just beside her. "I guess you could call it something like MMA, yeah. Years of it."
"And, your batons?"
"A billyclub, like the cops used to use." Slipped through the railing, he handed the baton down to her. It was lighter than she expected and metallic, tinted red and silver like his body armor. Tessa committed its features to memory and handed it back. "Well, not quite like they used to use."
Tessa nodded as he split it in half and latched the two separate pieces into the holster on his thigh. "Are you telling me cops didn't used to need a grappling wire between the two pieces of their billy clubs? Incredible. Anyway… and you're wearing body armor made by the same manufacturer who provided you with that not-quite-so-retro billy club?"
"Mm. And, the SHIELD training comes in. Yes, good eye. Same manufacturer. I'm not enhanced with bulletproof skin, so… body armor." For a moment, he paused, words trailing off and his whole body becoming entirely still. Two seconds passed and he quickly hauled himself up again to the lowest landing. "Are you bringing me in?"
"Bringing you in?" Tessa didn't quite follow. She was busy turning and staring off in the direction he'd just been looking. Nothing seemed to be waiting over there to elicit his vigilance. "What's got ya spooked?"
"Can you climb?"
He was already up the fire escape and out of sight before Tessa could ask her question. She could climb those stairs, sure, normally, when her hands and toes weren't frozen numb. Still, her adrenalin running a little high from the suspense of what he saw behind her, Tessa managed to scramble up onto the base of the ladder and then up the steps behind him. Once up on the roof itself, she found him crouched beside the edge overlooking the alleyway and the street.
"Sorry about that…" he muttered without looking around at her. He waited another second, head cocked to the side. When a man with a grocery sack and a suitcase rolling behind him passed the alleyway entrance, he stood back up and turned to her. "I feel exposed down at street level, especially with the sun about to come up and the city stirring."
"People can still spot you up here." Hugging herself, because the wind cut straight to the bone up here without anything to block its icy path, Tessa spun around and nodded to all the facing windows.
"Yes, but I'll know they're coming before they get here."
"Mm. Speaking of, how'd you know that someone was coming? Are you prescient or something? And, with the lying, you knew when I was lying. Are you a telepath? I've dealt with telepaths before, well… one."
Unlike dragon boy, Daredevil seemed susceptible to the cold. As they stood there, he bounced a little in place, popped his hands against his legs, and generally did things that could get blood flowing to cold places. Amidst all of that Tessa's question fell and he stopped moving, a little one-side smirk climbing over his face, or what bottom half of it that Tessa could see beyond the mask. "Ha. No, I'm not psychic."
"But, you are enhanced."
He neither confirmed nor denied that, grin wavering a little as he shrugged and went back to warming himself up.
"No… nothing like that."
Tessa clicked her tongue a few times and ran over the five other occasions she'd had to observe Daredevil's behaviors. He never used any super strength or speed, but he did seem to hit with unerring accuracy and potency. He said he wasn't paranormally empowered to read minds or anything like that, and she got the sense that she could believe him on that. Maybe it was something simpler. Embarrassingly, her brain jumped straight to Superman. "X-ray vision?"
This time, he laughed out loud. "God, no. Though…"
Catching himself mid-thought, Daredevil smiled for her and shook his head. "Nothing."
"Something like x-ray vision? I can't believe you're letting me play this guessing game. I can't believe I'm here freezing my ass off guessing, but I need to put something--" The sky was pink and black and still mostly night covered, but there was just enough light to let Tessa actually look at him without it being a blur in the dark. The mask was a very particular construction, she observed. Earlier in the night, Tessa had noted the oddness of dragon boy using the phone and having to hear through that mask covering his ears. At that point, Tessa had also wondered if he smelled the nearby dumpster any less with the mask also mostly covering his nose. Daredevil's mask, however, with its hard casing only covered the top of his nose and there was no helmet portion over his ears. They looked like they only had a piece of cloth over them.
In her silence, he took a step towards her and tucked in his chin. "Is something wrong?" In that movement, that she'd seen him do on a few occasions, Tessa recognized the act. He was listening.
"Oh my god, were they supposed to be bat ears but you didn't want to get sucked into the whole Batman thing?"
That seemed to startle him. He jerked his head back a little and, with a perplexed half-grin half-frown, reached up for the horns on his helmet. "No. They're horns… Not ears. Wait, what?"
"Do you have, like, echolocation or supersonic hearing or something?"
"Yeah, I was bitten by a radioactive bat," he scoffed and clearly intended to be dismissive, but Tessa saw his shoulders bow up. She'd gotten too close and he was on the defensive.
"Fair enough. You're not going to reveal your full vigilante hand, I get that. I got some usable data that will, hopefully, get them off my back about your file. Anything else you're just willing to give me without me prying it out of you like a tooth?"
Shoulders dropping, he edged back towards her and leaned in. "You're… really not going to press me about my identity? You know who Iron Fist and the others are. You're not going to dig into my private life until you suss out my secret?"
"No… I mean, I do know who the Iron Fist is, but that was only because he seemed more like a bumbling doofus who might accidentally become a liability. I'm not releasing that information to SHIELD, FYI. That's just so I know to be prepared to help. I… don't foresee you being that kind of problem as easily, so that precaution isn't necessary. I believe in what SHIELD is trying to do, which is to keep everyone safe. That includes the vigilantes, who are technically breaking Accords laws, but who are also very literally protecting many people in the process. I recognize that you keep your identities secret for more than the blow back that your private lives would receive. You've put away dangerous people, you're keeping your family and friends safe by covering your face. I get it. And… so does SHIELD. They would never release your files, but we all--SHIELD personnel included--know that that doesn't inherently mean that those files won't get released. So… I don't report in your names, SHIELD management looks the other way."
"Really? SHIELD just… doesn't notice when the Accords are violated?"
Tessa shrugged a little, pulling her hat down lower over her ears. "Yeah. The Accords aren't our legislation. SHIELD is a secret operation at this point and we've been rebuilt to protect the nation, not its federal government. The Feds can enforce the Accords. We'll just keep an eye out on the enhanced community, those in it and those affected by it. That work for you, Daredevil?"
He nodded just a little. "I can accept that. Well, I can believe that you believe that."
"Mmm. Any chance I can get any other non-identity-compromising information off of you for it? The more I bring in, the better I can work for you, you know."
"You can work for me? That… requires a little explanation."
"Oh, yeah…" Tessa leaned in closer, conspiratorially. "You help me out, I can pull favors for you, right? Never hurts to have a man on the inside, someone to make sure a video record gets wiped once or twice. That kind of stuff, you know? More successful I am in the field, the more leverage I'll have with HQ to manipulate things to your benefit. I'm on your side. I started out helping the Avengers when I met Jess. The superhero community is… well, I'm not super, but I've considered them my family since-- gosh, I'm just totally breaking protocol right now to win you over. Can I get anything else from you, or not?"
Jerking his head backwards towards the now rising sun, Daredevil gave a little shrug. "Sorry, Tessa, we're officially out of time. Find me another night, we'll see how that plays out. Maybe I'll be feeling a little more confessional."
With another smirk, he darted across the roof and out of sight. Tessa watched him go, though, until she didn't, sighing as she did. "Damn… that is a nice ass. Can't see that in the dark."
"I swear, it was supposed to be something low-key, just a little… team-up action, the two of us, and then…" Danny stopped talking but didn't stop dragging Tessa behind him. She tripped a little over something she didn't particularly want to ever identify and then, catching her feet again, tugged back.
"And then what? And… where are you taking me?"
He paused and wiggled a little on the spot. With his mask all shredded like it was, Tessa could see his eyes anxiously dancing over her and around this abandoned building's hallway. "And then, we got ninja swarmed. They poison their weapons and I already knew that, so when he went down, I immediately used my… chi… to burn the poison off. The wounds closed but he hasn't woken up. He's… I didn't want to move him without knowing what was wrong. So, he's right through here."
"Shit. You guys find the dankest, nastiest places to brawl, you know that?" Leaving off her brakes, Tessa stuttered along behind Danny and his boundless energy. She tripped a few more times but made a point not to look down at what had tripped her, not after the first time rewarded her with a severed arm. "God, did you film a Kill Bill scene in here or something?"
"Something like that. Colleen was here for a while. Come on. He's there. There he is. I'm… I'm so relieved I found you. Our usual nurse is way across town." He danced around her as she knelt down next to Daredevil and began unloading her kit.
Sweat managed to bead over her brow and upper lip despite the cold. He was breathing and, with a check of his pulse, she found his heartbeat was more or less regular. "You're lucky I'm just off shift. I actually live a block over. I'm going to check for any trauma and we'll lock his neck in a brace… Can you lift him? I'd like to get him inside my place, out of sight, if it's safe to move him."
"I can lift him, yeah, should be able to. Is… is that safe?"
"We need a board, something big enough to put him on that's flat. Did he fall?"
Scrambling around the room, Danny finally jogged back over carrying a door. "No. He was cut up pretty badly but we were on the ground. He managed to kneel before he passed out. I don't think anyone clocked him one over the head, but… I was busy on my end and didn't have eyes on him the whole time."
"Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. I didn't want to do this, but…"
Tessa's hands hovered next to the sides of the red helmet. "I can't do a full check with this on. I need to make sure he's not bleeding from his ears or anything like that. And, I need a look at his eyes, but… Ah! Fuck it." She flung her bag to Danny and hopped around to start wrapping bands around the door-board. "Here, find the--the collar first, the neck brace. I'll put that on him and then we'll slide him onto the door. I'll take the mask off of him inside."
It didn't take long to collar his neck and strap him to the door. In spite of all the shaking that Tessa's hands were doing, it was like she was on autopilot. At some point, they ducked at the red and blue flashing of police lights but, beyond that, their five minutes of hurried emergency backboard and collar improvisation went uninterrupted. Even luckier, Danny was very strong or Tessa had acquired some adrenalin-fueled brawn and they were able to carry him easily around the block and into her building. It made for a cramped and sweaty elevator ride, but four in the morning wasn't a highly frequented time and they didn't have to compete with the other residents for space there or in the hallway. Once they'd made it into hers, the tiniest apartment ever, Tessa found herself hesitating over unmasking Daredevil for the second time in an hour.
"God, it's his life. I'm doing this to ensure his safety. Who's to say I'll even recognize him? Wait!" Sitting back on her heels, Tessa snapped her fingers and waved at Danny as he hovered in her kitchen. "Hand me a butter knife, from the drawer."
"Why?" He still brought one over, regardless of his confusion.
Tessa unstrapped one of Daredevil's gloves and pressed the blunt end of the blade flat against his nail bed, and then pushed. "To elicit responsiveness," she muttered and pushed a little harder.
At her knee, his mouth opened and a hiss of air escaped, but he didn't jerk away from her. Tessa switched fingers and pressed again and, this time, he groaned and tried to pull away.
"Don't move. Don't try to move, you're strapped down to keep your spine stable." Laying one palm flat on his chest very gently, to reinforce her instructions and keep him from fighting the restraints, Tessa checked his pulse. It felt like it had spiked for a second, but was coming down again. "Do you know what day it is?"
"'S Wednesday…" It was a low rasp, but it was the correct answer. He was responsive but apparently still in some kind of drug or poison induced daze.
Tessa tugged at the cowl around his ears and shone her light into them. They were clear and she sat back to watch his facial reactions, what of them she could discern with half his face covered. "Okay. Can you tell me what happened?"
"Sword nicked me under the arm…" he jerked his chin a little towards his left armpit and winced. Tessa's fingers found the thin slice in the armor's fabric but could feel no abrasion underneath. "The Hand poison their weapons…"
"I burned the poison out, though…" Danny was suddenly at Tessa's shoulder. "I burned it out and you didn't wake up."
"It's true," Tessa added tentatively. "I'm concerned you suffered some neurotrauma, a problem with oxygenation perhaps. It's hard to tell without proper hospital equipment, impossible without me being able to do a full check of your head. I wanted to ask you, though, about the mask."
Unable to move his head more than a quarter of an inch, Daredevil seemed lost for a second and then, with another wince, he sighed. "Tessa?"
"Yeah, it's Tessa. Iron Fist found me and you're in my apartment. No one will see you in here. Are you okay with me taking off your mask to finish examining you? I'd like to rule out cranial trauma as the reason for your unconsciousness."
A long moment passed without answer. Tessa was initially concerned that he'd lost consciousness again, but then she noticed his hands clenching and unclenching by his sides. His jaw tensed several times and twice his lips parted like he was about to respond, but he didn't quite get around to saying anything.
Finally, Tessa couldn't sit and wait any longer. "I probably won't recognize who you are. It's your name that has all the information in it. This is a city of millions of people, after all. I need to remove your helmet, regardless, or you could potentially die, but I wanted it to be with your permission and knowledge."
"Fine," he said with a grimace. "I'd like it to be just you, though."
Tessa turned immediately to Danny and nodded to the door. "You can wait in the hallway, or the bathroom. Please don't go anywhere, though. I might need your help."
As soon as he had danced into the bathroom and shut the door, Tessa turned back to Daredevil and began to carefully run her fingers underneath this inside of the helmet's edge. "Are there any latches are things I need to unsnap?"
"No. It slips off. Thank you."
"For what?" Head carefully cradled in one palm, Tessa was able to remove the helmet straight off his head. Without much consideration for the face she found underneath, she gingerly slipped back the cowl and began running her fingers over his scalp, searching for any splits or lumps.
He laid quietly as she did so, almost entirely unmoving, like he was holding his breath. When she moved to check his ears again, he answered, "for helping. For your discretion."
"I know how important the mask is to you… I'd hate to save your life just to have it taken from you because your identity is… ex…posed… Um, I'm a little concerned right now." She flicked the light over his eyes again and watched, for the third time, for a pupil reaction. "I need you to follow my light with your eyes."
To Tessa's absolute astonishment, he smiled. While they didn't follow the movement of her light, his eyes did crinkle at the corners and flick onto her face. "Can't. Sorry."
"That's… that's cause for concern."
"It's not, really. I never can."
"I'm sorry?" Tessa sat back onto her heels and began searching for her O2 mask.
"It's not from a concussion or anything like that, trust me."
Mask dropped, she turned back to him. "You're shitting me. You're blind?"
"Don't put that in my file, please."
Tessa flashed the light into his eyes one more time. Although they didn't dilate, they showed no sign of bleeding, no discoloration and his breathing was steady and even, he had no bruising or secretions, nothing otherwise to cause concern. "Okay… I won't if you can tell me how many fingers I'm holding up."
Without pause, he answered. "None."
"You're probably not concussed," Tessa grumbled, looking down at both of her hands, limp on her lap. Back on her feet, she hobbled over to her counter and yanked a clean towel from a drawer. "I'm going to cover your face so Iron Fist can come back out. I think it's safe for him to go, but I want to keep you here for… let's call it observation, in case you start exhibiting other symptoms. Then, I'll rush you to the hospital… preferably not in your armor…"
Two knocks on the bathroom door and Danny was bouncing back out into the room and over to Daredevil on the door on the floor. "Is he okay?"
"I think so…" Digging through her 'exes' drawer, Tessa pulled out a few of Clint's things that she'd stolen or he'd left somewhere along the way. They were approximately the right size. "I hope you wear underpants, DD."
Danny immediately paused and looked down at his feet. "Are we taking your clothes off?"
"Tessa's right, I can't go anywhere in this armor. Can you run this somewhere for me? If you leave it someplace I can pick it up later. I'm… I'm in no condition to go anywhere right now. I think I can still taste the narcotic in my system."
"Mm. Now that I think about it, and my head's a little clearer… I think that's what the gas was in the room."
"Gas?" Danny was already unstrapping boots, but he paused to look up in confusion. "I didn't see or smell any gas."
"It hung low to the ground. I only tasted it when I fell from the poison and I'm… more sensitive to those things."
Tessa made sure to avoid Danny's eyes as she continued unfastening the restraints around the door. As soon as he left, though, she was going to ask Daredevil all about his special sensitivities. Off the record, of course. It took several long minutes to strip him down, but once he was unstrapped from the door, they managed with a little direction from him, to remove all the body armor and move him onto the couch. He looked beaten to hell but wasn't bleeding anywhere, which was a good sign. Danny stayed while Tessa performed one more once over and then flitted from Tessa's tiny studio apartment, leaving her to a sleepless day of making sure Daredevil wasn't bleeding in his brain.
"I can't keep calling you Daredevil." Tessa grunted several hours later, after fumbling five times over addressing him about whether he wanted ice in his water or not. "It makes me cringe like someone's scraping their nails down a chalkboard. How's Knievel sound?"
He snorted, "like Evel Knievel? You're joking."
"I mean, yes, but I'm also completely serious. It's a joke that I mean. I'm calling you that, unless you have something you'd prefer."
Now successfully sitting up on his own on the couch, he accepted the glass with only minimal swaying. "I can't say that I do. Thank you."
"Mm. Alright, Knievel… You do have an enhancement. It's usually referred to as sensory compensation but I think yours goes a little bit further than a heightened awareness of your four other primary senses. Did you actually get bitten by a radioactive bat?"
"No. There was an accident when I was young that blinded me. The other senses kicked in and super-amplified after that." He paused and shook his head gingerly, a small grimace on his face that also looked to be verging on a smirk. "I think I must be concussed. I can't believe I just told you that."
"I'm pretty sure you're not concussed. You haven't shown any symptoms in the last few hours, so that's not an excuse. Let's call it exhaustion and my unfaltering but unimposing persistence." Tessa smiled and patted his shoulder gently when his chin dropped a little. "Don't sweat it, Knievel, I'm not putting any of that in your file either. It'll still only consist of my hypotheses on your abilities, all of which were wrong by the way. I had my money on a Batman theme… some sort of operating system in that helmet of yours that allowed you to do all that anticipating and forestalling. I like this better, though. So… you can't see but you can… what? Hear a pin drop a mile away? Smell adrenalin? Taste narcotics…"
"Something like that."
"Mm… 'something like that'… I've practically seen you naked, but you're sticking to that enigmatic game. I guess I gotta give you kudos for your persistence."
"My friends call it stubbornness, but I think I'm going to borrow your word from now on. It certainly paints me in a better light." He set down the glass and scooted to the edge of the sofa. "Am I clear for a bathroom trip or does that require supervision as well, doc?"
"Actually… don't flush when you're done."
Frown warping his face downward, he cocked his head to the side and completely stopped moving. "There's reasoning behind that and I'm praying that it's medical."
"It is, I just want to make sure there's not blood or discoloration to your urine. I hope you're only peeing." Tessa cleared her throat loudly and clicked her teeth together. "This just became much, much more awkward. I don't know your name, but I'm apparently comfortable talking about your excretions. God. Just… Just go on and do your business. Try not to fall. There's no guarantee I'll be able to help you if you do."
"That's… reassuring. Uh… I'll just let you know if there's anything unusual happening."
"And then, you'll explain how you could possibly know that without being able to see?" Tessa called after him. He only smiled at her over his shoulder.
A few moments later, a little wobbly but on his own he reemerged. "Everything's normal."
"I'll just have to trust you on that. Is radioactive pee one of your powers?"
"Mm-hmm, you caught me. That's why I didn't want you having to check my excretions."
"Oh, Mister Knievel…" Tessa fanned herself and mimed a faint. "Such language, why I--"
Hand up and eyes scrunching with a smile, he shook his head and interrupted her very poor Southern accent. "I--You can call me Matt, Tessa. I… I don't think I can handle any more of this 'Knievel' charade."
"Alright… Matt it is. I have to admit, Matt, I've kept you here longer than absolutely necessary. Once you passed the threshold for--"
"I know." He nodded a little at her and continued, "I don't have a problem with it. Frankly, I'm never particularly responsible with my own welfare. It's been a nice change of pace knowing that there was someone with me who was."
Tessa hoped he couldn't super-feel the blush on her cheeks and neck. "Well… There was that, and the fact that I wanted to unravel the Daredevil mystery, but it's also that you're hot and charming and I was enjoying spending time with you."
She knew she'd made a mistake when his mouth dropped open and no words came out of it. Just the one sound, "oh…"
"I know, kind of pitiful, like some band's groupie following them around and, that one time they become useful, reading it for more than it is and getting extra invested, but… here I am. God, I'm a disaster. My work is already my whole life, now I'm trying to make a love life happen out of work. That is just massively sad. Listen, while I'm on a roll here, I might as well out with it all the way. I'd love to meet you for drinks sometime, not in a work capacity. I'd leave you a holomask at a dead drop and you could come as Matt, or whoever you want to be, but… It could be fun and low-pressure, I mean… we kind of already know each other's dirty secrets and that big, heavy baggage that is working under an alias. Think about it, would you?"
Although no words ever managed to come from it, his mouth had slowly closed as Tessa spoke. By the time she was finished, it was in a sort of crooked quirk up to one side. Tessa initially thought it was a pity smirk, but then he opened his mouth again. "I can think about it more, if you want, but… that's an offer I'd be idiotic to pass up. I'd love to meet you for drinks, Tessa, as Matt."
"Great… I'll leave the mask at my dead drop by the church we met at that first time. It's--"
"Behind the water meter, I know. You don't have to leave anything, though. Like I said, I'll meet you for drinks as Matt."
Tessa paused. "Wait, that's your actual name? You told me your actual name? Why--not that I don't appreciate the--the everything that that entails, but… Why?"
"I know when you're lying, remember? And you haven't lied to me once this whole morning. I can appreciate that. Jessica Jones is your personal friend. It just so happens that I've had some work dealings with her in my… day job. She'll have introduced us." Water drained, he sat back further into the couch and began to settle down on his side. "Now, if it isn't too much of an imposition on you, I haven't slept in about twenty-four hours and I'd like to do so without the fear of dying in my sleep. If I have your medical blessing, I'd like to catch a few minutes of shut eye before scurrying back to that day job life of mine."
"Holy shit, you work in the day, too… That's fucking insane. I mean, of course you do. No one pays vigilantes--I'm done. Sure. Sleep on my couch, I'll be sleeping just a few feet over here. Nudge me if you need anything." Back turned she pulled off her clothes and then yanked on her pajamas. It only occurred to her afterwards that that was a pointless gesture. Who knew if his super-senses could detect her nakedness, back turned or not? Laying down in her own bed, she found herself watching his chest rise and fall, counting the breaths. A few moments later, his mouth quirked into that lop-sided grin again and, without opening his eyes, he called her out.
"I agreed to the date, but watching me while I sleep is a whole different consent issue."
"My bad," Tessa murmured and immediately turned onto her other side. "It was soothing for some reason. You wanna get into the issue of consent, though, you watched me change."
A little huff of laughter came from behind her. "Fair, very fair. I guess we're even, then."
Tessa was sweating. It was bad that she was sweating. This was a dress that she most definitely was not supposed to be sweating in. She was going to have to walk down that aisle with every person in those pews staring at her ass sweat. She wiped her hands on the nearest piece of fabric that wasn't her dress, which happened to be the gift table's tablecloth. The sound of the door opening made her jump and she almost upended the whole table.
"What are you doing in here?" She snapped over at Danny, now lingering in the doorway, looking fully lost. "You're not supposed to be in here."
"Sorry. Sorry… Do I look okay? I was looking for Luke, but I couldn't find him. Did I get the tie straight?"
"You lost Luke? Seriously?" Tessa yanked him inside the room by the collar and straightened out his definitely not straight tie. "That's among the things you can't do today."
"No, I know. He's not lost. I just didn't find him, I found you. Which works out better."
"You have the ring still, right?" Tessa compulsively reached inside the bodice of her dress and ensured that she did in fact have hers and the vows.
Danny patted his pant leg. "In my pocket, right here. All good. I'm nervous. Are you sweating? I'm sweating."
"It's hella hot in here and… yes, I'm totally sweating. My palms, my ass… everything is sweating. I can't believe this is happening."
"I'm happy for them," Danny beamed and then held out his elbow to her. "Well, now that I've found you… if Jess doesn't need you for anything else, should we go get in line for the procession?"
Tessa glanced over her shoulder at the bridal dressing room. "Probably. Hold on… JESS! Do you need anything else?"
"HUH?" Looking drop dead gorgeous but totally out of her element in that elaborate (off) white dress, Jess threw open the door and stared between them. "Danny, what the fuck are you doing in here? This is… I dunno, ladies only."
"I'm taking Tessa for the procession lineup. It's almost time. Do I look acceptable?"
"You look fine, whatever. Yeah, chica… I'm good. Trish is here, she'll make sure everything is perfect, since she wouldn't be able to stand walking me down with a hair out of place. Would you?"
"Nope!" Trish chimed out behind her and gassed her out with a cloud of hair spray. "Get back over her. I need to seal that makeup before we go. Go on Tessa, Danny! We'll be right out!"
Out in the hallway, Danny pulled out the wedding band and Luke's vows, turned them over in his hand once, and then returned them to his pocket. Then, he proceeded to fidget in every way imaginable until Tessa nudged him in the ribs.
"Sorry…" He winced down at her. "I'm nervous… For them, you know."
"Yeah, Danny. I know. Let's think about something else, to distract you… and my sweating ass."
"Good idea…" There was a long pause during which Tessa heard her heart in her ears and the squeaking of Danny's dress shoes while he bounced in place, all to the background noise of the dozens of people seated in the chapel beyond. "How's Matt?"
Tessa snickered and nodded. "Matt's good. I convinced him to wear a red tie today, as a joke. Luke saw it earlier and laughed, so that was pretty great. How about you? How're things with Misty?"
"I'm great. Misty's great. It's all--"
"Lemme guess… great?"
Danny widened his smile and looked about to answer, but out in the church proper, the organ came alive with sound and the gentle murmur of the crowd died out. Tessa recognized the tune, not the classical wedding march, but also not Nirvana, a happy medium, 'What a Wonderful World.' Above her, Danny's smile almost flickered out. "This is not what we practiced to…"
"No, but we always knew Jess wasn't going to walk to 'Here Comes the Bride'… She's sure not all dressed in white. The baby bump kind of makes that obvious. Relax, Danny. We've got this." Above and ahead of them, the organ reached the mounting chord and the side door opened to reveal Malcolm.
"You're up, you two," he whispered and tiptoed over to the doors. "In three, two… one."
The ceremony passed in a flash -- mostly of sweating and tears, but also littered with smiles and a few sparse bursts of laughter. Those two knew how to deliver vows for a crowd, Luke on purpose, Jess because of who she was as a person, the humor was incidental. Tessa spent the majority of the time at her friend's back just smiling at the back of her head, but she did chance a few glances into the crowd. Those rewarded her with Matt's soft grin and a glint of his glasses. That was all well and good. The ceremony was beautiful and appropriate, but they all knew what it was leading up to -- the party. Jess rushed the photographs and even sent a coordinator flying onto her ass to hurry onto the reception. It was the cake she was after, and the meat.
"Shitting Christ… I am starving," she grunted to Tessa nearly an hour after their sudden departure from the chapel. "This wedding crap really takes for fucking ever and all people want to do is talk to me. Can't they see that my feet are swollen into rafts and I'm sweating through this plastic Trish adhered to my face? Fuck. What's a broad got to do to get some ribs around here?"
Tessa just patted Jess on the back and waved at Luke, still halfway across the room, but headed their way with two plates of food. He was making good progress, but he needed to hurry. "All the formalities are done with, Jess. Now, you can sit and eat… enjoy the cake with Luke and maybe dance to a few songs. Time to enjoy yourself. And… look who's here." Slipping from the other chair at the table, Tessa stepped back and aside so Luke could take his seat.
"Thank you, Tessa."
"Of course… I'll just be over here if you need me." With a pat on Jess's shoulder, Tessa shuffled away to the next table down where her dashingly handsome date was waiting, carrying on a conversation, it seemed, with Danny, Misty, and Trish. "Ah, at last… I'm back."
Matt hummed a little as she kissed him on the cheek. "And your duties?"
"Executed. I'm here for emotional support until I get called and Trish has me covered if I am. Right?"
"That's right… In fact, why don't you go grab food before anything else happens. I'll keep an eye on Jess." Trish waved them towards the buffet and pivoted in her seat. "She hasn't tried to sneak any alcohol yet, has she?"
Tessa had immediately taken Matt's elbow and begun walking with him towards the food. It was over her shoulder and almost at a yell that she responded. "No, but no guarantees!"
"You've done a great job," Matt muttered in her ear and made a point to fumble around in front of him for a plate. "Between Trisha and you, this thing has gone off without any of the hitches I was expecting. Tessa… Jessica married Luke today. It actually happened."
"Yeah, I'm almost as shocked as you." She righted his plate and set the serving spoon into his hand, guiding it towards the dishes of sides. "Except… I guess I'm not. She loves him. I mean… really loves him. I think she's happy, behind all the gruffness and the obligatory bitching. You should have seen her coming down the aisle. I could have sworn she teared up a little."
Lips behind her ear, Matt took advantage of the DJ's popular song choice to seem a little less blind and copped a decent feel of her ass. "I know you teared up. I also know you weren't always smiling because of the charm of the ceremony."
"What? You're a fine piece of ass. I enjoyed looking out at you. Don't get too fresh, though, Murdock. You know I'm on call for that debriefing. I'm guaranteed to stay until they cut the cake, but after that I may have to disappear. No time for what that saucy talk normally gets you."
"Saucy talk?" He snorted and returned to haplessly mis-plating green beans.
"Mm-hmm. You know what you've done. Oh, and remember, no telling anyone where I'm going. There's a reward for your discretion and it's not just a repayment of confidentiality in kind," she added and then kissed him. No one was behind them in line, so she let it linger for just an extra moment.
When she leaned away, he was wearing that lopsided smirk, the one with the single dimple and the crinkles that peeked out from behind his glasses. It made her feel like she'd chugged two glasses of champagne. "Mm, well then… your secret's safe with me. Permanently locked away."
"And yours with me, Mr. Murdock…"
Sixteen parallel realms she had searched and not a one had held the Tessa she was looking for. It was becoming screamingly obvious that she was going to have to report this to the All-Mother. There was a very good chance that she had just earned the enmity of all her fellow Asgardians that she had so painfully shouldered these past few months of her reborn life. Loki Laufeydottir, the destroyer of Memory… it had a catchy ring to it, but it wasn't the legacy she'd been aiming for this cycle around.
"Perhaps…" she purred to herself and turned her grimoire on its end, considering the runic sigil from the side, "she's trapped in an alternative self. A prisoner, assimilated into the nearest thing of likeness by the spell. She'd not be conscious, or in control at the very least, unable to respond to my signals. Yes… I'll have to broaden my scope…"
Chapter 4: What If: Something About Us I Want To Save
"… Brother. I beseech you to calm yourself. Your temper will help this matter not."
Imperiously silent, Thor neither unclenched his jaw nor averted his eyes. Blue and hard they continued to stare down at her mercilessly. If no words were coming from him, she would provide them.
"I have searched dozens of realms, each a splintered echo of our own. The Lady Tessa is not to be found, at least not as we know her. Not a one has recognized me in the same manner, and those that have known me all replay the same chorus of threats and hatred. I believe she may have been… locked away inside the mind of another."
"All these words, Loki, and nothing that helps this matter either. Why have you brought this to me?" For being a bumbling boor, Thor had certainly acquired a keenness of mind of late.
Loki took a step away, in case of boorishness outburst, and pulled out her spell book. "I am devising a magic to locate her, but it may take me some time. I need you--"
"Loki," he growled, more a warning than a boor's roar. "Your homespun witchery is the cause of this debacle already, is it not? Should you not avoid bedeviling this further with your hex-craft?"
"I must concede that point to you, brother, but our options are tragically limited." At the bow of her head, Thor leaned away from Loki and the threat of his nearing hand fell away. She shrugged one shoulder and waved towards the great hall. "We may implore the aid of the All-Mother, but I fear that will complicate our process by bringing it before broader jurisdictions than simply Asgard. Time is of the essence as the longer the Lady Tessa is whisked away, the deeper she may be enchanted into her cage, which may be possibly very gilded, considering the other lives I've seen her leading."
"Speak plainly, Loki. Why are you entwining me in this? What need have you from me?"
Loki giggled a little. Her brother almost impressed her. "You've become more astute in your old age, brother. I shall speak plainly. I do need something from you, I need you to play messenger. They with whom I need communicate are not overly fond of me…"
Somewhere deep in the back of her head, Tessa had always known that this day was coming. Her heart had held out hope, though, that it would never actually arrive. The formality of the whole thing made her want to scream. Hearing them read his rights made her want to vomit and burst into tears and call into SHIELD HQ all at once, but she wasn't going to do any of those things and she especially couldn't do the latter. That would only solidify the DA's case against him.
Instead, Tessa had to stand quietly in the middle of his living room and watch Matt get escorted out by the police in handcuffs. His socks didn't match, she noticed, as they pulled his arms behind his back. The toes were different colors, different types of socks. It made sense, really, they had barely had a chance to sit down with their coffee before the pounding started on the door. His was still sitting on the table, untouched. By now it was going to be cold. The cup they'd pulled out for Foggy didn't even have more than a splash inside of it.
Foggy was there. Tessa knew that Foggy was there, but she'd lost track of him during the commotion, her focus on Matt and the laughable number of police officers there to make the arrest. They hadn't even bothered with a warrant in braille. Daredevil had to be a sighted man, obviously. Foggy's hand found her shoulder as they began to manhandle Matt, as they shoved him towards the door. It held her in place, there beside the couch in her pajamas.
For a second, she saw Matt quirk his ear her way, watched him force a smirk onto his face as he turned back and over his shoulder. "Give her the thing, Foggy. Now's not great, but give her the thing. You can tell me how it goes over later. Tessa? It's more than just a precautionary measure, I promise. I'll make that clear, in person, soon."
"Wha--What?" Foggy's grip on her shoulder made her question mostly futile. Matt was out of the front door by that point. Whatever explanation he had for her was lost to the hallway and the barricade of cops in between them. As the door tapped shut and the stomping on the stairs outside faded, she turned around to him and asked the same. "What?"
Resigned and exhausted, Foggy dropped his hand from her and turned towards the shelf. He found Matt's briefcase there and, after a moment of sifting through it, pulled out a manila envelope, which he handed to her. Without explanation, he fished his phone from his pocket and, when he noticed her just standing there, staring at him, added, "you open that first."
Her fingers felt stiff and numb, so Tessa fumbled with the fold of the envelope. She ripped part of its corner and felt a tear streak down one cheek, then the other, then both. It was through the swimming blur of a whole flood of tears that she finally opened the damned thing. Inside it she found a stack of papers-- two actually. The first she recognized not as blank, but as braille. She set that packet aside and reached for the other, the one she could read. It took her several moments, maybe minutes to process what the black and white type said there.
"A… A civil suit? Against Morris?" She finally managed.
Foggy looked up from his phone and nodded. "We know that SHIELD has him detained and they'll make sure criminal charges are brought against him, but… it seemed like you're owed a little something else on top of all that… from Morris's estate, at least."
Matt's signature stuck out to her, down at the bottom of the page. Collapsing into her chair at the dining room table, she laid the papers out in front of her and ran her fingers over the curves of its letters. She could almost conjure an image of him, sitting in their office, putting the pen to paper and marking it with his name. The envelope slipped from her other hand, when she sobbed, her shoulders heaving so hard she lost her grip on it. It hit with a clack and then a resounding ping, one sound too many for a simply manila sheath of paper. With a pause, Tessa turned and stared at it, lying there on the floor. Foggy was only a few steps away, but he wasn't moving, or even breathing for that matter. They both simply stared at the thing.
"There's… something else in there?" It was half a question, half a statement. "A paperclip? Did I miss a form?"
Foggy didn't respond so, tears still freely falling, Tessa leaned over and picked it up. When she reached inside, she found not a form nor a paperclip nor anything she expected. In fact, to fully comprehend what her fingertips felt, she had to dump the thing into her palm and look at it. Once she had, Tessa stared mutely. It was a diamond ring, simple and unassuming, but a definite diamond engagement ring.
Tessa looked to Foggy for an explanation and found something unreadable. He was somehow frowning and smiling at once and, with a shrug, joined her at the table. "It was supposed to be more romantic than that, I think. He'd been talking with me about it for… well, months now, but things came up that would've overshadowed it--Jessica and Luke having their baby, the firm's grand opening, the Fisk payout, a bunch of… yeah. You get the message. It wasn't supposed to be this. In any case, Matt wants you to be the executor for his estate, no matter what happens in court. As his spouse, you'll immediately receive everything if he goes in, and… other things that, well… that all depends on your decision."
In truth, Tessa had no capacity for making a decision. This was a horrible day, perhaps the worst of her life, and all of a sudden it was also supposed to one of her happiest? Her mind was numb as she turned the little silver band over between her fingers. Emotions turned off, she let the objective side of her brain take over. That was easier. "Good timing…"
"I'm sorry," Foggy now was definitely confused, that's what his expression read undoubtedly. "What?"
"Nothing. Don't worry about it. I'm just being… bitter."
"So… should I tell him… What?"
The band was plain and the single diamond was small. Tessa frowned down at it and just barely made out her reflection in its surface. She hated engagement rings, so it made sense that this one in front of her made her nauseous. She slid it away from her with a sigh. "Yes. Of course, I'm marrying him, the idiot. I mean, all formalities aside, we've been everything but legally married for over a year now. Yeah, I'll sign his legal document, but… I'm not wearing the ring."
"He said you'd say that." Foggy retrieved the ring and pushed it into Tessa's hand.
"Because, I'm not a piece of property purchased with a valuable rock."
"He also said you'd say that. It was more a formality, a symbolic gesture, in case something like this happened."
Tessa dropped the ring and ignored the way it bounced from the table to somewhere on the floor. "He expected to be arrested?"
"Actually…" For the second time, Foggy tucked the ring back into her hands. "This was in case he got captured or horribly injured before he could get around to proposing himself. My idea."
"Good idea, Foggy."
"Thanks, yeah. Funnily enough, arrest never came up during our worst case scenario brainstorming sessions. Some sessions, huh? Here, sign the e-doc."
Tessa accepted his phone from him, now understanding why he'd been so intent upon its screen throughout all this. She didn't bother reading the document, just scrolled to the end and scrawled her name on the dotted line.
"There. Now, everything that's his is yours, well… more or less. We'll get the forms all completed and notarized and you'll be official. Changing your name or no?"
"Hyphenated is fine…" Tessa had just thought she'd been in an emotionally constipated daze before. This was the real, seriously blocked up deal now. It was as if she were half-asleep and in a bubble. Everything just rolled off of her without a reaction.
"Hyphenated it is… Bisho-Murdock, I'm assuming."
"That's a mouthful."
There never seemed to be enough time these days, especially in the mornings. Everything had to be crammed into double and triple booked time slots. Tessa dropped the hair pin from her mouth and, one eye on the mirror to make sure her blouse stayed straight as she tucked it in, turned back towards the bed and the source of the extended silence. "And, what do you say next?"
"That my partner has clearance, but she doesn't disclose anything to me, just like I don't break attorney-client privilege with her." Reappearing from behind the bed, Matt wobbled on one leg as he pulled on his sock. He looked a little worn this morning, but like he was in good spirits. There was tiredness around his eyes, but not defeat. That was a good sign. Also, his answer was spot on, if delayed by the sock search.
Tessa nodded, but couldn't quite smile, as she returned to the mirror to fuss with her collar and pin her badge into place. "Good. Perfect. Super perfect. God… You know, you being in the middle of a big fucking trial really isn't helping me as I go into my review."
Matt stepped into view behind her reflection, a shadow of a grin around the corners of his eyes. "Whoops. I'll miss you in court today."
"No, you won't. You'll be too into the case and defending yourself and your overly complicated identity bullshit." Even though she'd just heard him shave, his cheek was rough under her palm. She pushed his hair off his forehead a little and then fussed a little bit more, this time with his tie and his glasses and his shirt collar.
Matt caught her hands in his and brought them to his lips. "Fair, but… untrue. I'll miss you. It's nice to hear your heartbeat behind me. It's… reassuring."
"That's sweet…" Tessa sighed but had to stop herself from leaning into him. Pulling her wrist away from the mercy of his wiles, she tugged on his ear a little and shooed him towards the wardrobe. "Now, lock it down. You still need a jacket and shoes. You're in a car and on your way to the quinjet pad in under ten minutes. You have to be perfect Matt Murdock then, perfectly keep up the façade that SHIELD is happy to accept as reality. If you give them reason to openly question it, though, then they'll have to and then they'll also be forced to disclose all the intel I brought in on your alleged alter ego last year."
Matt had nodded along as she'd talked, pulling out his jacket and slipping it on. Shoes in hand, he slipped around her and sat down on the bed. "They can't force you to testify, though."
"No, they can't and, luckily, SHIELD doesn't expect me to be non-biased about any of this, so I don't have to worry about conflicts of interest." She followed his progress in the mirror, finally turning right before he stepped from the bedroom. "Wait. Kiss me first."
"I'm going to be late," he teased her, but did as she'd asked. When he leaned away, he lingered even longer to tuck the ring, on its necklace, back into her blouse where it hid these days. He felt it there over her heart and then smoothed her hair off her face and behind her ear. "I've got this, Tessa. Please relax. I'm a pretty good liar."
"Yeah, I know. More than pretty good…" There was a bright chirp of a calendar event reminder out in the kitchen and Matt began to slip away from her again with a squeeze of her hand and a tight smile. Tessa felt her composure slipping away. "I… Matt, wait. I'm acting weird."
"Yes. Yes, you are, but as you've reminded me already this morning, we don't have time to get into it, unless we need to. I thought it was because you were nervous, but… No?"
"No, I have to tell you something, something I… I… I'm actually a little surprised that you haven't picked up on yet." The phone chirped loudly again, this time twice, and Tessa tugged on her sleeves compulsively. She knew she needed to just come out with it and say it, she was running out of time, but it terrified her.
Matt, meanwhile, had stopped fascinating his watch and had frozen mid-step, halfway over the threshold of the bedroom doorway. He twitched his head around, listening to her and, now, suddenly on edge. "Okay…"
Now the final reminder alarm was blaring out in the kitchen. Adding to its melody, the tone of her work phone filled the air, as did the robotically even voice of Matt's call tone, creating a dissonant cacophony serenading the time they had left at their disposal--none. Neither of them moved, however. Matt's head turned slowly, his mouth opening as he absorbed the moment. Finally, he spoke again. "I lost track of the weeks… with the… other things. I guess I hadn't… uh… thought…"
"I hadn't thought about it either. Then, I did. Then, I peed on a stick."
No longer frozen, Matt took a few abortive steps towards her. He stopped about five feet away from her, like he was scared to touch her. "Okay…"
"And, it gave me a plus mark…" Tessa waited for another 'okay' but Matt was done speaking. He hardly moved, either, just shifting his weight to his other foot. Even his hands he left hanging out in front of him. "And then, I went to Simmons at HQ and she drew blood and…"
"Tessa… you're pregnant?" His glasses were on, but she could still see the bunching of his brow. The sadness in his voice cut her deeply.
She nodded, "yes."
As quickly as he'd fallen inert, Matt was back in action. He pushed open the door all the way and jogged into the kitchen, coming back with his silenced phone. "You want me to schedule something at MetGen? Claire knows an OB/GYN who'll do the procedure, no questions--"
"I'm…" She took his hand and set aside his phone for him. "I'm not going to terminate it, Matt."
"I'm not going to abort it. I… I don't want to. I thought I wanted to, but… I realized that I don't want to get rid of it just because I'm scared. I… I have the means. My condition isn't genetic. You're healthy and here and… and Jess is happy and, maybe it's the hormones, but every time I think about aborting it I start getting weepy, and every time I think about a little baby that's yours and mine…" Tessa paused and bit her lip as Matt's thumb wiped away the tear from her cheek. "I also get weepy. So, yes, it's the hormones, but… but… I'll have this baby, only if… if we adopt another child, one that needs a home and a family to… balance this out."
"I… huh," Matt almost barked his confusion, but the smile he couldn't keep from crawling across his face regardless. "I--You want… You want two babies?"
"Not at the same time, no. That'd be like shooting ourselves in the foot. Just… maybe when it's older and wants a sibling, we… we adopt a child to be its sibling, around its age. Babies get adopted all the time. The… the older children, not so much, which--"
"Done." Matt was beaming. His hands wrapped around the sides of her face and he chuckled a little.
"I love it. Done. Whatever you want for this, Tessa, done." He seemed giddy, but then a shadow passed over his face. "What if I go to prison?"
"Oh, now you have no confidence? You won't go to prison, Matt."
"You believe that?"
"I have a strong feeling."
Matt pulled her close, holding her head against his chest as his heart began pounding harder and harder under her ear. "And, if I do?"
"Then, a newborn baby will hopefully add to your case for early release with good behavior." His nerves seemed to be communicable. Tessa leaned away and felt her own heart pounding, her body growing warm and sweaty. Matt, on the other hand, seemed to be converting his nervous energy into another outlet.
He let his fingertips run lightly down the back of her neck and then caught her by the waist. "And, you had to tell me this the morning that we're on an extremely tight schedule and can't waste any time showering and dressing for a second time?"
"Yes… That is what I did. Yes, foolishly, I didn't think that through, but also because--" Clapping her hand over her mouth, Tessa wriggled away from him and into the bathroom. With arm flailing, she just barely managed to throw open the toilet lid before she coughed up the vomit she'd been feeling roiling in her gut. A few more moments of hacking and retching, these with Matt standing behind her, smoothing her hair out of her face and rubbing her back, and Tessa leaned away from the toilet. "Because, I've been feeling that coming on and I didn't want to explain that after the fact when what I really needed to be doing was brushing my teeth."
She felt queasy and weak in the knees but, with Matt's help, she was able to stand back up and smooth out her skirt. He kind of just floated around her, in the periphery as she moved to the sink and pulled out her toothbrush, with a hand on her always, but not quite doing anything. Tessa registered the look on his face as shock when she considered him in the mirror. It wasn't static, though, and within her first few minty strokes had turned to wonderment.
"You're pregnant," he giggled.
Tessa spat and rinsed her mouth out for the first of what she planned on being at least five times. "I am."
"I'm not going out tonight…"
"You're not?" That one surprised her and she almost dropped the toothbrush.
"No, we're going to celebrate this… properly," he added from out in the bedroom, his phone silenced for the second time. "Any way we like, I guess, alcohol excluded. I'll pick up--no. I don't need to pick up anything on the way home. That's nice."
"You're… a weird kind of optimist, but… yeah. No need to pick up any wine or to replenish our condom cache any time soon, whichever you were going to do."
"Well, both, but… condoms were, apparently, not all that necessary before now…"
Tessa stepped out of the bathroom and grabbed her bag, heading for the kitchen with Matt in her wake. "I know, but it seemed like a weird way to tell you -- oh, don't bother capping it tonight, we already had a leaky raincoat! -- and I still hadn't gotten up the courage to make a decision about how I felt, much less tell you--"
"I--I meant that, um, that, as you said, at least one of those was a… leaky raincoat. Not quite the same as this, but… might as well not even have been using them."
"I guess," she shrugged. "But, now we definitely don't need to-- oh, I stopped my birth control as soon as I found out, just so you know."
"You shouldn't have been paying for that. It obviously didn't work."
"It was the ear infection, Matt…"
"The ear infection that I got from that putrid hot tub on Jess's party weekend? That… that's what caused the pill's failing, at least. The antibiotics can counteract it and… well, while I was on them, that's… when it happened."
Matt didn't seem to be listening all that carefully anymore. He had a wistful blankness to his grin as he gathered his briefcase and keys. "I can't wait to tell Foggy…"
"Oh, about that… Can we… can we not tell people for a while, until I can explain my ludicrous and sudden change of heart on the subject?"
"I don't like lying to him, Tessa," Matt sighed heavily.
"You're not lying. You're just not telling him something intimate that I'm not comfortable sharing… yet."
He stopped in front of the door. "But, your work people know."
"No, they don't. Simmons just sent me the results, she didn't read them. No one knows but you and I." Tessa tried to shove him aside and open the door but he wasn't budging. Instead, he'd taken off his glasses and had that special, impish curl to his lip.
"When does the review start?"
"Uhn-uhn. No, Murdock. As much as I'd like that, you know that this is a no wiggle-room situation. The car's outside and we do not even have a millisecond of time."
He let her shift him aside and followed her through the door. His lips stayed close on her ear, however. "Your super classified headquarters still has restrooms, correct?"
"Correct," she chuckled. "Dang… a secret pregnancy is apparently doubly exciting. I will keep that in mind…"
As Tessa had now officially discovered, it took only seven months of pregnancy to achieve absolute physical misery. After that, rounding into months eight and nine, she might as well have been in some non-Geneva convention compliant torture prison. The room temperature was never comfortable and she constantly sweated through her clothes. Sitting for long periods of time was out of the question, but so was too much movement. She couldn't fasten her own shoes anymore or pick up things that she'd dropped without the help of a nearby piece of furniture, and shaving her legs was fully out of the question. Of course, she had no reason to do any kind of grooming these days with Matt in prison, except for that day.
Hurling the razor across the bathroom, Tessa growled her frustration and slammed on the shower. So, she'd go with Sasquatch legs. It was understandable. Everything was harder with her being the size of a walrus, constantly out of breath, and without the aid of her incarcerated husband's helping hands. When Natasha had dropped off a whole slew of slip on shoes, Tessa had actually burst into grateful tears. Now, she slung her unshaven legs out of the bathtub and, using the towel rack and sink counter, hauled her bloated body back onto her feet. There was no hurry, however, in getting dressed or preparing or doing anything.
She couldn't sleep more than five hours a night, since the baby was restless in the wee hours of the morning, so she was always awake before dawn, but for no reason. There was nowhere for her to go, nothing for her to do. Her EMT squad had brought in her replacement before she even made it to her second trimester, out of safety, and SHIELD had moved her from field work to desk work to no work in the last three months. Apparently, her quality of work had become too erratic after Matt had gone into prison and her hormones sent her into disinhibition recursion. So now, she just had to stew in all her desperate longing, loneliness, and boredom alone in Matt's apartment that was now legally her apartment. Her only respite was the days when Jess brought Danni over for her to babysit or when she could immerse herself entirely in a fantasy about Matt's prison body.
Today, however, Tessa had a different distraction to look forward to, one much more immediately satisfying. She just had to wait patiently until Jess picked her up at nine. Those three hours passed with a lot of pacing, even more eating, and a perplexing amount of peeing. By the end of it, she had changed her outfit at least half a dozen times and returned, it seemed, to the days of morning sickness. Thankfully, Jess picked her up with a liter of ginger ale and a trio of hoagies so that Tessa was neither hungry nor nauseous when they arrived at the prison's visitors' entrance. Jess talked her down from panic or anything else particularly rash while she brushed her teeth in the ladies' and then walked her up to the entrance for the non-contact visitation room, as far as she could go.
Tessa lingered beside the closed door, intimidated by the row of chairs and the glass partition ahead of her. There were already several people seated ahead of her, phones to their ears, talking to inmates on the other side. Her first visit had been a little less crowded and had almost felt like it was just her and Matt. Now, she was enormous and going to have a lot of company. Behind her the prison guard waved a hand towards the partition and cleared his throat.
"Ma'am? Do you need some assistance?"
"No, no. I'm… I'm fine, thanks." Wishing Jess was there, Tessa waddled up to the bank of chairs and sat in the assigned booth. Matt wasn't there yet, so she just stared past at the door that would soon reveal him. When he did step through, guard on his elbow, Tessa was almost grateful for the glass partition between them. Maybe there was a chance he didn't hear her heart ramp up with anxiety at the sight of him.
He looked more than a little roughed up and Tessa had a sneaking suspicion that, beneath his jumpsuit, he would have a whole new collection of scars for her to get accustomed to. They were just bruises on his face, though, so the tears that welled in her eyes and immediately flowed down her cheeks were a touch excessive and, obviously, a result of her hormones. The prison guard on her side of the partition set a box of tissues beside her and then disappeared as Matt was sitting.
Tessa was sniffling when she picked up the phone and held it to her face, so of course Matt was immediately frowning when he got a hold of his end of the line. "Hey, hey… it's nothing I'm not used to, Tessa. Everything is fine. I promise."
When Tessa could stop crying to answer, he pulled his chair up even closer and felt out until he reached the glass. Tessa yearned deeply for the chance to feel him through that wall. She felt stupid pressing her hand up to mirror his, but she did it all the same and dabbed at her tears futilely.
"Tessa… what is it? I know I don't look bad enough for all this. Are you okay?"
"No. I mean, yes, but no. Baby's huge and makes me pee all the time and eat all the time and I can only wear shoes that I don't have to tie and that don't have heels and that stretch some, because my feet have also swollen so wide that they don't fit in some shoes. And… and I can't breathe in deeply because the baby's so big it's pressing up on my diaphragm. I had to stop and rest on the second landing of the stairs yesterday because I was out of breath. I'm not working, so I'm bored. And the baby hates sleeping at night, so I'm exhausted. I can't sleep to fill the time so I just tinker around the apartment. I've read all the books I've been able to get a hold of and I've even gone to the movies a few times, before… not for the last month because I can't sit still long enough to get through one. And, I miss you, Matt. I miss you. I miss feeling you beside me in bed… and… and… and I want you all the time."
"The hormones are still giving you grief with the disinhibition?" It was so strange seeing Matt without his glasses, trying to hide his expression of pain. He couldn't do a great job of it. For having no sight, his eyes were so emotive.
Tessa felt her bottom lip shiver and nodded, "yes, but… that's not all of it. I'm also just lonely and sad and miss my… my husband."
"We can have a ceremony, if you want, when I get out. I'm guessing, if you're willing to use the term you may be wanting to get some presents out of it?"
"Saying my partner and father of my baby is just too unwieldy," Tessa mumbled back, fingering the ring inside her shirt's collar. "I do think I'd like a honeymoon, though. Go somewhere, be together, spend all day in bed… ah…"
In front of her Matt's naughty smile vanished and he sat backwards, clearing his throat. "That sounds nice, yeah." Tessa knew he'd heard something so she took a moment to blow her nose again. As she was doing so, like clockwork, guards came to stand beside her and Matt. It seemed too short a visit, way too short, and Tessa was just about to make a big stink about it, when she saw Matt grin and almost jump out of his chair.
"Ma'am?" Tessa couldn't do the same, but she did turn to her guard excitedly. "The warden has had a private room prepared for you and Murdock. If you'll come with me…"
Jess was already smirking out in the waiting room when Tessa stepped back out. She lingered next to her as the guard stepped into the nearest station quickly. "You're so pregnant that they pity prepped the conjugal visiting room for you."
"Whatever works," Tessa whispered back to her, stepping in line behind the guard, almost bouncing with anticipation. She was going to get to touch Matt and see him up close and hear his voice in person, in the same air as it was spoken. The rest was just details she didn't care about.
It was a bit of a hike out to the quote-unquote private room, but the walk passed in a blink and, soon, Tessa was standing alone in what was essentially a cheap motel room. When the other door opened, she almost squealed. If she could have managed it, she would have run over and into Matt's arms. It didn't matter that she couldn't, though, he closed the gap between them immediately and wrapped her in a hug like she'd never felt before. That was primarily because she'd never been hugged with a beach ball in her stomach before, but he was also quite a bit keener with his touch.
"You smell intoxicating."
"Please don't let go," Tessa hummed and nosed harder into his chest. "Actually, do let go and take off your shirt. Quickly. Then, we can get back to this."
"I know I started this, but…" Matt reluctantly allowed her to slip away some. She could still feel his fingers through her shirt, pressing insistently as if he could somehow make them come in contact with her skin just through sheer force of will.
Tessa used the opportunity to really put her hands on him as well. His hair was too long and he hadn't been able to shave as regularly as she was used to, but his face felt normal despite the dulling bruises, not at all gaunt. His arms and shoulders were difficult to determine through the potato sack they had him dressed in, even with her squeezing at him. The true determiner was going to be that ass of his, but she had no chance of reaching it with the belly in between them. She settled for a good run down over his chest and stomach before he finally leaned away. At least he didn't feel any skinnier. "Just take off your shirt, Murdock. I've been imagining you naked for too long now, I need to see the real thing."
"Mm. You need to promise you'll stay calm. I know you're supposed to keep calm and happy for the baby's sake, as well as your own. Please," he insisted further when Tessa reached for the hem of his undershirt, jumpsuit over-shirt now dropped to the floor. She nodded and he peeled that off and over top of his head.
Tessa's immediate reaction was absolutely and positively conflicted. She winced at the bruises and the fresh stitches in his side while her ears started burning and her breaths became even more shallow. Thankfully, she locked her inhibitions in place quickly and turned her attention to something a little more important. "They're shanking you in here?"
"Trying to…" He was, himself, making it difficult for her to keep this focus up, though. Those fingertips of his were practically drinking every inch of her in while she inspected all his new injuries and scars. When she looked up, she found him smirking.
"You're supposed to be proving your innocence in here, Matt…"
"I'm also supposed to be staying alive."
"I know. I just meant… the smugness." She left off internally critiquing the stitch work of his newest cut to lay her hands over his, where they had settled on the belly. For several seconds they just stood there, Matt finally assessing the baby's state instead of just hers. "Your smugness, those smirks, the sly comments… that's the sort of stuff that gets you in trouble, that baits people into fucking with you. Just… try not to be so pleased with yourself."
"Now I know you're upset. Baby's kicking."
"It does that all the time now… kicking, punching, flipping. It's very into baby parkour."
Matt chuckled and ran his hands over her belly again while the baby spun and kicked. "Any updates on the date?"
"No… I should still have three more weeks before it comes."
"Doesn't matter," he sighed, a short gruff sound. "I'll be in here whenever that happens."
One hand over his on her stomach, Tessa leaned up and forward to touch his jaw where it had tightened and locked. She waited until he stilled, until his eyes stopped flicking around angrily. "If that's the case, I'll come here as soon as I can. We'll name it together, too. I can talk to you on the phone afterwards. It's… it's gonna be fine. Okay?"
"That's not exactly my idea of fine."
Following him as he stepped away and found his shirt, Tessa pinched his side and tugged on his arm until he turned back to face her. "Are you not eating? You have lost weight."
"Food's not great, Tessa."
"But it's not bad, either. You've gone from ten to zero percent fat, Murdock. Please eat some more, for me. I'll be distraught if you lose that ass of yours."
"You're just changing the subject now…" He nodded, eyebrows high, and then returned to gathering up his shirt to pull it on over his head.
With a swipe, Tessa caught the edge of it and disrupted his efforts. "Maybe, but you were getting that gloom about you that worries me. Also… my hormones are full-on insane these days. Usually, Simmons said, the whole urge surge calms down around this point, but my shit ain't chill, didn't get that 'normal' memo. Uh… Matt?" She asked, looking around the room and prying even more of the shirt from his grasp.
"Yeah? What's wrong?" He must've noticed the change in her tone.
Tessa used that to her advantage and took the surrendered shirt from him. "Nothing's wrong. I know Jess meant it as a joke, but… is this actually the conjugal visit room?"
"I… think so…"
"Yup. Okay." She hurled his shirt across the room and grabbed onto his arms for support. A good grip with her toe and she pushed off one shoe, then the other. "I'm taking my clothes off--you too obviously, now--and you're doing me real good, on that cot-bed thing over there. I don't care how gross it is in here."
Matt hardly moved. Instead, he held her arms steady and certainly didn't follow her directions and take off his pants. "Tessa, it's… not sanitary… and the baby-- believe me, I can't believe I'm saying this either, after the… months in here, but… no."
"No?" It was a pitiful echo, somewhere in between a whine and a croak. "Come on… Standing?"
"Matt… I'm dying here. I'm all… revved up. My skin is on fire. I'm--"
"Trust me," he breathed, barely a whisper. "I know. But, no… There are cameras on in here--"
"--and I don't want them to have you naked on tape."
"How can you possibly know that for certain?" He was holding her pretty close, to keep her from disrobing either of them, but also to whisper all this in her ear. She snarled at the same level of volume, or tried to.
Matt simply shrugged, leaving Tessa's frustration to mount and overspill with a growl. He kept her steady as she threw her tiny tantrum and then helped her put her shoes back on. With both on them sitting on the nasty little cot, Tessa was at least able to lean her head on his shoulder. They sat that way for as long as the baby would let Tessa and, for a few minutes, she actually felt herself drifting to sleep. The jab into her lungs changed all that, though, and with her back on her feet, Tessa reverted to the hug. This time she just managed to reach all the way around and get one hand on his ass.
"There's my friend."
"I'm taking care of your friend…"
"Mm… whatever you're doing is working. I had this image of you, just… words fail me. But… this is too shredded. Eat more, Matt. Lean and mean is fine, but… I like you a little thicker than this."
"Noted," he scoffed and let his hands travel a little lower than the small of her back.
"Mm… Kiss me?" He did, a long drawn out kiss that left Tessa panting even more than before. "Fuck it. Clothes on, standing?"
Matt was suddenly gone. When she opened her eyes he had his shirt over his head and the over shirt in his hand. He shook his head and offered her a bittersweet grin. "No… As much as I would like that, no. I'll be home… in time and then, we'll take care of this."
"But, there'll be an infant that's pooping and crying and sapping all our life energy there all the time. There will be no 'us' left to take care of this. Just… Just service me a little and I'll be fine."
"They'll be coming back in here soon," he muttered, shaking his head and dropping to sit on his heels. Forehead against her tummy, he felt the baby again, but did do her the favor of swooping a little low on his last sweep. It left Tessa swallowing a moan while he kissed her stomach. "You'd be embarrassed when they walked in. I don't like the idea of that."
As he stood again, Tessa caught his face and held it tightly between her hands. "I miss you, you ass. Keep behaving so you can meet your child sooner rather than later. Kiss me again."
They took their time with this one, and really fell into the moment. So much so that they were still locked together when the internal access door opened again. Neither jerking away nor entirely ignoring the intrusion, Matt gently kissed her cheek and then her forehead and held her close to him until the prison guard cleared his throat behind them.
"Dr. Bisho-Murdock," Matt corrected and paid for it, the guard grabbing him a little harder than necessary and hauling him, stumbling, towards the door. Matt winced a little, but managed a wry smile for Tessa. "We'll finish that soon, Tessa."
It was getting harder and harder every time Tessa had to watch Matt manhandled away from her. She was openly crying as the remaining guard hovered at her elbow and pointed to the external access door. "Dr. Bisho-Murdock, we have to escort you out now. Please come with us…"
"… being out on leave means that-- I'm sorry, can we find you a more comfortable chair?"
Tessa laid her hands on top of her, frankly, grotesquely distended stomach and gave up trying to sit primly. Knees splayed out, she hunched over and slid down in her seat until some of the pressure was relieved from her spine. It felt like her lungs were being crushed and she immediately needed to pee, but the urge to fidget had been quelled, for a hot second. With a shallow sigh, she shook her head. "No, thank you. I'm over full-term. At this point, comfort is entirely out of the question. It's just about which discomfort I feel less like enduring moment to moment."
Coulson, his enigmatic grin in place, stepped around the desk to lean against it. "Well, since you've been out of the base for a while, I wanted to get in touch with you and catch you up on a few things that we couldn't communicate but in person. If you'd be less uncomfortable on a couch, we can move to the break room."
"No, no. I'm making this work. Just excuse my unseemly posture." The cup of water to her left was suddenly horribly appetizing and she reached over for it. As she did, the room felt like it was on fire and she glowered over at the fan in the window, which was to her chagrin not on and blowing cool air on her face. "Any way we could turn the fan on?"
"The fan? All… right." With a click, cool--no, freezing air was blowing on her face and Coulson was seated back behind his desk again. "Bisho… I know you're in a delicate situation right now, so forgive me for making this more of a hassle than you necessarily need right now. Unfortunately, the situation I'm handling is intricate and delicate as well. I recognized your right to be in the know about it, but couldn't risk exposing it outside of this very base. Even a hint about its operation could ruin all the work and sacrifice, but… I think we're in a position to confirm that Project Red-Handed is already in progress."
Tessa swallowed her water fast enough to almost choke her. "Really? You found someone?"
"Several someone's actually. Your husband has… plenty of people on his side. They've been going out the past few nights. Mr. Nelson made sure the necessary accommodations were made, the news outlets are in a frenzy." He tapped the tablet laid out in front of him and the wall behind him lit up with photos of Daredevil in action, some GIFs, a few longer videos. After considering the montage, Coulson turned around and quietly nodded. "The DA has had to resubmit quite a lot of paperwork to keep your husband behind bars, but Mr. Nelson… well, let's just say he was luckily prepared for all outcomes and has a hearing right now."
"Then, why in the world am I here?!" Amazingly, Tessa found her feet and didn't topple over with the effort.
Coulson had leaned backwards as she slammed her hands on his desk, but his comportment was otherwise as composed as ever. He shook his head, tapping the tablet again a few times. "For screening. We need some bioscans, standard things. Simmons will be in shortly to attend to all that, once I'm done briefing you."
"Right now? In the middle of Matt's release hearing? What's actually going on, Coulson?"
"Precisely what I've said. You can't seem to be involved. You're SHIELD personnel. They'd suspect our involvement if you were anything but clueless to the proceedings. The hearing is gagged, so no one actually knows that it is occurring. I'm letting you know as a courtesy right now and so that, in the longer term… we can release him directly to you after we undergo the necessary investigation, for public appearances. We have to seem to be dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's, this way. You know the protocol for conforming to that façade." He stood slowly, eyebrow raised when Tessa seemed to wobble.
"Today?" She whispered it, like saying it too loudly would scare it away.
"Yes…" Eyes flashing to his tablet, he collected it and stepped around the desk and towards the door. "Excuse me, I'll be back in a few minutes. Please sit back down, Bisho. There is an agent outside the door if you need anything."
With the room empty and the footage of fake-Matt on the wall ahead of her, Tessa found herself waddle-pacing. Within a few seconds, her hands were on the belly and she was falling back into that new behavior that made her pretty certain that she was going insane in that apartment all by herself. "Baby… Baby… Matt may be exonerated today. Matt might be here for your birth… Wouldn't that… Wouldn't that be wonderful? Baby… I missed him, so you have to hold on in there for a little while longer so that I can have some time with him first--"
She stopped at the sound of light rapping at the door. "Tessa?" It was Simmons' light, airy voice. She appeared with a tight smile and a whole cart of equipment a moment later.
Waving Tessa towards the cot that had just been rolled in behind her, Simmons helped her step up and lay down on it. The back all adjusted, she rolled up the scanner and began gelling the wand. "Shall I begin your final natal check? Let's see how Baby Bisho-Murdock is doing… Now… How are you?"
"Mm." Simmons had lovely bedside manner, but Tessa had learned to see through it. As she considered the screen and ran the wand over Tessa's belly once more, Tessa could see the concern on her face.
"Wrong? Nothing's wrong. It's simply that… Well, you've carried Baby to full-term and Baby is getting rather large but you're rather stubborn."
"Uh…" Tessa propped herself up on her elbow and glared at her. "Just what is that supposed to mean?"
"You're at forty-one weeks now, Tessa, and Baby is perfect but may be a little too big. I want you to consider the possibility of inducing labor--"
"Oh, you were absolutely right. No." Leaning back again, Tessa closed her eyes and shook her head. "I'm not doing that."
"As I suspected, but I want to present to you the option because I'm worried that, if you continue on in this manner, a natural birth may not be possible. It is a big baby." She tapped her screen a few times and then rotated the monitor around so that Tessa could see the digital rendering of her baby. Against her pelvic bones, it did appear to be horrifically enormous, but her mind was made up.
She shook her head again and crossed her arms over the belly. "No. I'll be fine. I… I want Matt to be there if he can. And… and it's kinda seeming like he can, so… I'll be fine."
"Tessa… The chances of uterine and vaginal tearing are much greater. There are risks to--"
"Is it healthy right now?"
Simmons pursed her lips and blinked her ever so British displeasure, but nodded. "Yes, very."
"Then… I'm waiting. If I have to, we'll C-section it out. Is--Is it too big?"
"No," Simmons chimed back, attitude in her cadence. "Just very… exceptional, like its parents. Let me get you some water. I have a few supplements you could stand to take. Your vitamin D levels are low."
Tessa clicked her teeth and watched Simmons slip from the room, rolling her eyes. Alone again, she struggled into a sitting position and pulled the monitor closer to her. She felt the smile before she realized that she was wearing it. The picture was a heinously hideous alien parasite, but she already loved it. "Hey, baby… lay off the food. You're getting too big for me…"
The flurry of kicks under her hand was even lighter than before. Tessa had been concerned about this at first, but doctor after doctor had told her that it was normal. Babies ran out of space to do all their moving later in the pregnancy. Now that she knew she was housing a ginormous monster, it was even less surprising that its didn't have much windup behind those hits. Tessa sighed heavily and gave up trying to sit up. With the monitor positioned so that she could see it still if she wanted, she laid back and stroked her stomach. When the door opened again, Tessa turned to give Simmons an apology but found the words evaporated entirely from her mind, as did all other reactions.
"What's this about too big?" Matt, not Simmons, stood in the doorway, grinning his ass off, so broad it looked like his cheeks would crack. He was rumpled and too thin, wearing a SHIELD t-shirt and some ratty old sweatpants, but Tessa had never been happier to see him.
If her sheer bulk hadn't impeded her entirely from moving at any pace other than a penguin's waddle, she would have tackled him. Instead, she just managed to swing her legs off the cot and waved wildly towards him. "Come here. Come here. Baby is giant and may rip its way out of my body, but everything's fine. Come here right now."
"Oh…" He did as directed and joined Tessa, standing beside the cot and letting her tug and poke and squeeze all over. "Wow. Is… Is something wrong? Really?"
"Not at all, Mr. Murdock." Tessa had been a little confused as to why he'd asked that without facing her. Simmons reappearance explained that odd behavior, even for Matt. She dropped a horse pill into Tessa's hand and tucked a paper cup of water into the other. "Just a larger than normal infant coming out of a smaller than normal birth canal. Congratulations on your exoneration. It appears that you, a blind man, are not the vigilante Daredevil."
"So I hear. Tell me about the baby situation, what's actually going on?"
"Tessa, here, is being stubborn and doesn't want to induce before little Baby Bisho-Murdock gets too large for her to deliver naturally." Simmons gave her a hard look and skirted around the cot to start removing the feeds from Tessa's arm.
Matt, though, had relaxed, sitting on the cot next to her and leaning over to kiss her forehead. She shrugged when he squeezed her shoulder. "I told you everything was fine. It'll happen when it happens. I don't want to rush it."
"You're stubborn," he said with furrowed brow and a frown, but the admonishment didn't carry through in his tone or last long in his expression. Not a half-second later, he was smirking. "Stubborn."
"It's a family trait now," Tessa chirped back lightly and began helping Simmons to free her from the bioscanner. "Okay, if we're done, I'd like to see my husband naked ASAP."
Simmons dropped her eyes and shook her head, but she was smiling nonetheless. "Alright, alright… just a moment more. Take that supplement and you may leave. You're expected to deliver within the next few days, so let us know if you need anything, if you want to induce, anything. I'll take care of it."
With a tight little squeeze of Tessa's hand, Simmons helped her from the cot and turned to Matt, her hand extended. "Glad you're free and around for this. Congratulations again… Take care, all three of you. See you soon."
It hadn't seemed possible when she'd come there, back to HQ, but Tessa couldn't have made herself move any faster than she did with Matt's hand around hers, striding to the quinjet hangar beside her, as a free man.
There were rare few moments these days when Tessa had the luxury of getting lost in her own thoughts. Never before in her life had one of those adventures within her subconscious occurred while staring into a mirror, and yet, there she was, fixated in front of her own image. It wasn't out of rapture or delight, though. No, it verged closer to the uncanny valley that both captivated her and unnerved her, and it came in the shape of the silvery white, almost humanoid smile that stretched underneath her belly button. She frowned down at it in the mirror, but couldn't yet glower at it on her own body. The ever-present and impossible to lose bulge of her still-swollen belly prevented her from making direct eye contact with it and that may have been for the best. She had this lingering eerie dread that it would smile wider up at her.
Footsteps in the room out behind her, roused Tessa from her macabre reverie and she quickly returned to the task that had landed her in front of the mirror with her shirt up: applying nipple balm to her raw, chafed, gigantic and equally grotesque nipples. She was just finishing up when Matt stepped into the frame of the mirror. The baby was laid out over his shoulder on the little blanket, with the owls on it, that protected his suit jacket from spit up. A bottle of talcum powder in his mouth and a couple of diapers in his other hand, Matt waggled his brow at her, leaving his glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose. Tessa quickly refastened her nursing bra and dropped the shirt from her mouth, smoothing it down and dabbing at the dried food she hadn't noticed there earlier as she turned around to him.
"God, my nipples are killing me. You need some help?"
He let her take the bottle from his mouth but shook his head. "No, I've got this. Diapers? Easy. Providing substantiated proof of something that is categorically untrue? That's difficult." He laid little Jack down on the changing station now crammed beside the wardrobe and the bathroom and began proving the first half of his point. Changing diapers he had down.
Tessa followed him nonetheless, squirming in her bra, and straightened the teeny tiny baby sock that was about to be kicked off yet again. Leaning around, she handed him a wipe and pushed the glasses up his nose for him. "Nothing comes for free, Matt. Early release means proving Joe Blow Agent of SHIELD is not a criminal. Congrats, Murdock, you're SHIELD's law monkey now."
"Mm." He already had Jacky's onesie on again and obviously didn't need her help with all that.
Scratching at the mysterious dried food on her shirt again, Tessa did something that was becoming more and more common for her now. She completely changed her mind and did a one-eighty. With a good, firm pat on the ass for Matt, she turned back towards the bathroom again. "I know I just put that balm on, but I'm getting in the shower. I don't know what food this is and I'm pretty sure I have it in my hair somewhere. That's just too nasty for me to handle. You've got this for now. If you need to leave while I'm in there, I'll hear him from the crib, no problem."
"No, I'm working from home today," Matt called back, causing her to pause mid-step. "Karen will be by in a little while to drop off some forms that we've… let backup. I'll be taking care of that… all… day."
"Aw, Matt… Don't tell me you let this make you a desk jockey." She kicked off her skirt and yanked her shirt over her head, tossing it, along with that wretched bra, at the hamper. Shower on and warming up, she shouted out towards him over the sounds of splattering and splashing. "You don't want to be a desk lawyer. You love the courtroom…"
"No, no, no. I want to be here. Little Jack likes me better than you anyhow."
"I don't know… I'm pretty sure he likes my nipples better than anything else."
"Fair play… And don't worry, I'll be in front of a bench soon enough… for Joe Blow Agent of SHIELD." He stepped around the corner and into the bathroom to kiss her before she stepped into the shower. Jack was cradled in one arm, all dressed in a fresh onesie, and cooed brightly when his eyes settled on Tessa. "Everything match?"
"Yes, little man is handsome in his all yellow. Very matching, well done, Daddy. The labels are working well, I'm glad."
"I think so. Seems so, at least--Mm, run that by me again." He'd caught her hand that had just brushed him across the cheek and, with a deep breath, kissed the inside of her wrist.
Tessa hummed a little and gave his ear a tug. "Well, now we reap the benefits of this working at home thing you're trying. Put Jacky down for his nap and then you can join me in the shower."
"Mm-hmm…" Matt was already out of the bathroom. "We'll have to be quick, though! Karen'll be here in… oh, twenty minutes!"
"And she can play with Jacky while she waits if need be…"
Thunder boomed loudly outside, resonating so violently that it rattled the phials and bottles neatly arranged on the shelves around him. Considering the structure of his home, Stephen knew exactly who had caused such a crack. The scry was already interrupted, so he set aside the crystal and made his way down to the front door of the Sanctum where the booming knocks of his guest was already awaiting him. Stephen hoped deep in his heart that the thunder god brought good tidings, but his rational mind knew better. The weather had been so bad that day, an ill omen. And, ten days straight without word from Asgard was not a good sign either.
"Hail, Stephen Strange!" Thor did not have the cunning of his adoptive sibling. Despite the cordial demeanor of his greeting and the brightness of his energy, a storm cloud hung, revealingly and appropriately, dark and tumultuous about his brow. "'Tis my hope that I have not found you at an inopportune time. I come bearing tidings."
Stephen sighed and waved inside the foyer. "Please, come inside. I would offer you pleasantries and refreshments, but I have a foreboding feeling that now is not the time for such cordiality. I suspect this pertains to Theresa. I would relish being wrong, however."
"Ah… as ever, you have divined correctly, Stephen Strange." The door seemed somehow too small as Thor stepped through it. He paused just past the threshold and gently set his hammer on the console table, beside the key bowl and the mail. If Stephen had not been having such a taxing day, he would have found that amusing. At this rate, however, he was busy dreading the rest of Thor's answer. With a look around the entryway, Thor wiped his boots and cleared his throat, stalling. "My… ahem. Loki has asked me to herald our present dilemma while she strives to solve it. For, the Lady Tessa has gone missing."
He paused, frowning deeply at Stephen's sigh. Waving him into the sitting room, however, Stephen retreated to his sideboard. "Do continue. I need a drink."
With a nod at Stephen's silent offer of brandy, he sat and continued. "In their attempts to return here to Midgard without further rupturing the fabric of Yggdrasil, Tessa fell victim to the side effect of a spell."
Thor shook his head. "I know not, only that it shunted her into an echo of our world tree. Loki knows not which yet, but she is searching. We shall implore the All-Mother for her aid if she is not found soon, but you are aware of the complications such aid will bring."
"Yes… Bureaucracy exists in all cultures. I would not want to seek approval from the Council either." Stephen didn't even bother finding the proper glassware. He poured the brandy straight into the first receptacles he caught hold of, pint glasses, and handed one over to Thor.
"My thanks," he took the glass, his voice subdued. "As you say on Earth, our hands are tied to an extent. Loki has asked me to bear this news to you and beseech your assistance, what aid you can bring. With fortune on our side, we might recover the Lady Tessa without alarming all the realms."
"Of course I will give my aid. Theresa is… of particular interest to me and… is nigh on vital to the community we have built here on Earth. Unfortunately, her going missing couldn't have come at a worse time. The whole city is… reeling from… a narrowly averted disaster and our circle of fellows is scrambling to respond. As it happens, I've just heard this hour that one of our defenders is missing, presumed dead. We were depending upon her imminent return, all-- I--I was relying on the possibility of consulting her to locate him-- I… I… If you'll excuse me, Odinson, I need to make some calls. This will not be pleasant…"
With the news still swimming around his brain, addling it further along with the brandy, Stephen stood and strode from the sitting room. It was not until he was halfway down the hall that he realized Thor was following him, calling after him actually.
"--your mind is astray, but I have others to whom I need herald these tidings."
"Uh… Yes. Yes, of course. I was just about to contact them, to call them. If you wouldn't mind waiting in the sitting room, I will have them here presently. It is Jessica Jones and Daniel Rand to whom you need to speak, yes?"
"Verily, and Matthew Murdock."
"Yes… Uh, about that--ahem. Never mind. I'll have them here presently. This… This will not be pleasant."
Chapter 5: What If: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger Makes Us Over
A/N: mature sexual content ahead, proceed with caution.
Jessica was crying. It made her sick, literally sick to her stomach, but she couldn't stop the stupid tears. Luke had his hand on her back, warm and huge and comforting, but he couldn't help her stop them either. Hell, if she could stop snuffling and gasping, she'd probably have heard him crying as well. He certainly seemed to be shaking a little.
Things had just escalated so quickly, too rapidly for them to even control. Somewhere down the street, the emergency responders were piling in. They had to be at army strength at this point.
"You sound like you're choking. Let me just… find… the Fist. Hey. Where's Danny?" Luke seemed to be asking himself, whispering under his breath. Jessica looked up from the spot on the sidewalk that she'd been staring a hole through. He was pacing around aimlessly, walking to the corner, hesitating and walking back to her. And, repeat.
"He's still by the rubble." Jessica hadn't even noticed Colleen Wing approach. She looked battered and more than a little spooked, but at least she was above ground and breathing. "I tried to tell him he couldn't dig anymore, but… He doesn't listen."
"I'll grab him." Luke didn't wait long enough to hear dissenting voices on that plan of action. He was out of sight in a blink.
Jessica turned back to the splotch on the sidewalk, where someone had recently vomited and the rain had washed the chunks away but left a brownish stain, and went back to staring through it.
"Hey, are you okay? You're… you're…"
"What? Freaking the fuck out?" She snapped at Colleen.
"No. I mean, yes, but… you're pregnant. Don't you need to get checked out?"
"I'm fine. I'm out here. I'm fine." Chancing a glance back at their horror, Jessica immediately regretted it. All she saw was destruction and uncertainty. "Jesus Christ, Tessa! Where are you?! We… We really need you."
Stepping up beside her, Jessica just saw Colleen following her line of sight, looking up into the sky. She looked back down at her a moment later, obviously confused. "Where are you shouting?"
"Don't worry about it…" Jessica scoffed, wiping her nose on her sleeve as she reached for her phone, buzzing persistently in her pocket. "It's not here. Hello?"
Strange's voice was welcome, but only because she was hoping for news. "Jessica. Is Mr. Rand there with you?"
"He's about to be," she murmured back, watching Luke herd him, head hung, their way. "Wait, why? Aren't you supposed to be finding--"
"I was interrupted by something… else. I'm going to open a sling ring portal beside you. If you could just step through, the both of you and whoever else wishes to come, I'll explain everything."
Jessica squinted into the spitting, flickering orangish-yellow light of the fabric of reality tearing open beside her and immediately felt her tears dry once the portal opened entirely. She took one look at the other guest in Strange's townhome and deep, frigid dread filled her, swiftly followed by searing rage. "WHERE'S TESSA, THUNDERBEEF?"
Tessa didn't have a chance to glance at the clock as she jerked awake, but it felt like she'd only been asleep for a mere matter of moments. That said, the reason for her being jarred from sleep wasn't the screaming baby. No, Jack was wailing now because he'd been scared awake by the same thing that woke Tessa, the scraping screech of the window being pried open.
First, Tessa gasped, lunging out of the bed and towards the crib at the sight of the shadow crawling through the window. Then, when her brain engaged and recognized Matt, similarly startled, having almost rocketed back out of that very same window, she felt her whole body turn to jelly. Collapsing back onto the bed, she forced a deep breath into her paralyzed lungs and added her squalling to Jacky's. "Fucking hell! You scared the shit outta me! And, Jack too… Hey, baby… it's just Daddy dressed up for work."
Matt whipped around from shutting the window and pulling the curtain. "Don't tell him, Tessa!"
"What? Your son's going to grow up not knowing what you do every night? That's unlikely, first, and stupid, second. Plus, he's not even a year old. He won't understand the significance for a while…" Hoisting him from the crib mostly quieted the wailing, but he was still fussing, leaning around Tessa's shoulder and looking towards Matt. "Here. Hold him, show him it's you."
Matt reeled backwards a bit, but had to catch the baby in his still-armored arms as Tessa placed him there. "But…"
"No. Hold him. This works out for me. I need to pump or feed him or something. My boobs are gonna explode soon." With the curtains all securely closed, she flipped on the lights and turned back to Matt. "What were you doing coming in the fucking window?"
"Roof was being watched. And the alleyway," Matt mumbled back, bouncing Jacky in his arms, a smile crawling across his face. "Hey, Jack… Hi, Jacky… It's Daddy, hi…" The smile cracked clean open with the sound of the little gurgling baby laughter and left Tessa quietly enjoying the moment. It was possibly a whole minute later when she remembered what she'd been doing.
"How was it out there? Rough still?"
"Oh, it's bad… Danny broke his arm, which… is not good. And, I need you to dig a bullet out of my… butt…"
"Great, lovely, I'm so excited--" Tessa scoffed and then froze from assembling her breast pump. "Wait. What? Danny broke his arm? His magical glowing arm?"
"Yeah, I didn't realize it was possible either. He's with Dr. Strange now. We dropped him there."
"No Jessica again tonight?"
"No, I mean… Who would watch Danielle?"
Tessa glared over at him as she turned on the pump. "Oh… I don't know. A sitter? This is part of who she is just as much as you or Luke, or… any of the others. Hell, she could leave her here with me."
"Maybe you make that option clear for her, then. I don't think she realizes it is an option--" Matt paused, seriousness fading immediately at the tiny pudgy fingers of Jack pulling at his belt and holster. "Hi, yes… That's my baton, buddy. Don't touch it, please." Jack shifted into Matt's other arm, Matt pulled off his glove with his teeth and grabbed Jack's hand, rubbing it, a little roughly for Tessa's liking, between his fingers. "Dirty. Yuck. Come on, I'll wash you up. Momma, could you help me get out of this?"
Pump in one hand, Tessa stood with some difficulty and followed her boys into the bathroom. She knelt and started rummaging around under the sink. "Of course. Of course. I'll just get out that butt bullet digging out kit that Claire gave us for Christmas. Three seconds…"
"Momma's just tired. She isn't being mean, Jack… She loves me."
"Keep telling yourself that." Pump off and abandoned out on the wardrobe, Tessa dropped the first aid kit on the toilet lid and pulled her nightshirt entirely off. Baby wipe taken from Matt and rubbed over Jacky's little curious fingers, she took him and let him clamp onto her as of yet unpumped breast. That earned from her a sigh of relief.
Tessa narrowed her one open eye at Matt, his helmet off and his hair ridiculous, and allowed herself to lean back against the wall. "You wouldn't believe… but, yeah. That means you're going to have to wait until he's done eating. Sorry."
"No, no. I've got this. It's fine." Judging by the rattling and grunting Tessa was hearing beside her, Matt did not have it. When she opened her eyes, she found him gracelessly hopping in place, trying to pull his armored pants down and over his ass without actually touching the bullet-wounded area.
"Who shot you in the ass?"
"Random thug number four. I was distracted by random thugs numbers one through three and their subatomic ray gun, or whatever the hell it was. Oh, also Danny screaming."
Tessa was having a hard time not laughing at him, watching him try to remove the pants without removing the pants. When he switched to the shirt, she was able to speak again without giving away her glee. "Uh… So, they nuked Danny and that's how he broke his arm?"
"Possibly. It all smelled like poison to me. Hopefully, Strange is getting it sorted out for him."
"And they didn't hit you with that?"
"No!" Still stuck in his armor, arms above his head and locked into place by it, actually, Matt turned so that he was facing Tessa. Of course, she couldn't see his face, but if his shocked and affronted tone meant anything, he was probably looking pretty offended behind all that red and black plating. "God, no. If they had… I would not be touching our child, first, and I would have stayed at Strange's with Danny for… decontamination. Ah… My… my pants. Can you get my pants?"
Tessa squinted over at his glorious butt and spotted the culprit. With a wince, she rubbed her hand across his lower back but didn't come anywhere near that silvery tack. "Well… The bullet stapled them into your ass, so… not this instant, sorry. Good news is it's not in there too deep, looks like. I mean, I can see it still. So… yay?"
"I figured," Matt sighed and turned back around, starting on his boots. "Or, I wouldn't have been able to get home as easily. He… eats a lot."
"Tell me about it," Tessa sighed, smoothing the soft baby fuzz hair down on Jack's head. "He's why my nipples feel like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. You know? If you turn back around and stand here next to me, I think I can just yank 'em off you."
Matt blinked a few times and then went back to picking up his boots. "Uh… no. Thanks, but no."
He underestimated Tessa's reach, though, stepping around her and out of the bathroom. As soon as he passed her, Tessa lashed out and grabbed hold of his belt, using his own momentum to help her wrench the ultra-hard, skintight fabric down and over his ass.
"I'll--yow! Tessa…" Matt yelped and swayed to a stop, balancing himself against the door frame with the pants now bunched around his knees tripping him up. They were off his ass, though, and the bullet had come out with them. "That was cruel."
"But effective… You're only bleeding a little." She yanked the hand towel down off the rack beside her and tossed it his way. He caught it, but his jaw was set and his eyes pointed up to the ceiling. He was mad. "Just apply pressure and stop grimacing. It's not that bad. Oh… Daddy's naked, Jack, and frowning at me, because his tushy's hurt. Poor Daddy. That's what bad decision-making gets you, Jack. Remember that… and… he's asleep. He's asleep nursing! What a brat."
"Selfish kid. Now who's going to stitch up my tushy?"
"I'll call Claire."
"No!" Matt jumped up from his trunk, nearly hitting his head on the shelf above it. "No, Tessa! Seriously--"
"I'm joking, Matt. Sheesh." With Jacky sleep-burped and her breasts massively relieved from the nursing, Tessa laid him back in his crib and then returned to the bathroom to wipe off the spit up from her bare shoulder. It should have disgusted her, the idea of baby vomit on her skin, but she didn't even bat an eye at it at this point. That means it also didn't deter her from keeping her eye on the prize. Nightshirt tossed in the hamper, her underwear joined them and then she slipped into the bathroom beside Matt. "I'll stitch up that fantastic ass of yours right after I wash the regurgitated breast milk from my hands."
"Mm." He paused from simultaneously staunching his bleeding and brushing his teeth to turn his chin her way. With a little crook of the corner of his mouth, he demonstrated that he, too, at this point was entirely desensitized to the nastiness of parenthood. Lips suddenly against her neck, he purred a little, "now you're also naked."
"Stitches first, Murdock. Then… I'm putting these hands on that ass for a different reason," she crooned back, around her own toothbrush.
Luckily for both of them, the wound was small enough that it only took one quick cross stitch to seal it up. In under a minute, Tessa was bent over the sink, eyes closed and teeth sinking into her lower lip. Jack was blessedly asleep, so they had to keep quiet. "I have work in the morning," she whispered through broken breaths. It was late and they were tired and she still wasn't entirely certain that they were making a wise choice, acting impulsively like this.
Matt was doing a good job of swaying her, though. He slowed to a stop behind her and whispered back, right into her ear. "I do, too… We'll sleep better when we're relaxed." The hand he slipped around in front of her really did wonders for his argument, but her mind kept wandering back to her fear.
"You're going to pop that stitch, Matt."
"I'll be fine. We'll be fine." He stilled again and kissed the side of her neck gently. "This isn't a risk. You're about to start bleeding, probably tomorrow. I can smell it."
"Ugh. That is so gross for you. I'm sorry." She made to move, to pull away and flounder in the ruined moment, but Matt seemed unaffected.
"Doesn't bother me. The amount of things that I-- you know what? Never mind that. I was… in the middle of something right about… here." Teeth just barely sinking into her ear, he allowed his hands to do a little more investigation than before, really taking his time to trace every curve with care. In a few strokes of his fingers, Tessa had not a thought in her head about anything other than what he was doing to her with those talented fingers. Most everything was back to normal finally, silver smile excluded but even that felt good when he touched it. There was just the nursing collateral.
"Mm! Watch the boobs, please," she hissed when he reached them. "So tender."
"Gentle. I'll be gentle."
Back inside of her again, he cupped both hands under her swollen breasts and began very gingerly massaging them. After half a beat, he also started moving slowly in and out of her once more. The sensation was indescribable and left Tessa gasping for air. Both a relief and a little painful but altogether stimulating, it entirely surprised her. After a second, she realized why. She was lactating.
"Ah, I'm leaking… Matt, stop, I'm leaking."
"Y--You want me to… stop… everything." He was short of breath, trying to keep composed and silent. In the mirror, Tessa could see him squeezing his eyes shut, gathering himself for a beat before continuing. "It doesn't bother me, if--"
A minor shift between them lit her on fire again and, suddenly, the waste of milk didn't matter to her. She arched her back and pressed into his answering thrust. "No, god, don't stop. Forget it."
The counter was sharp. It cut into her fingers as she gripped onto it for purchase. She only held onto it harder as the impulse to cry out strengthened. Her toes curled under against the cold tile and she squeezed her eyes tightly shut, losing the image of Matt behind her but feeling him instead, her head settling back against his shoulder. She had to hold her breath now, or she would cry out. Both lips between her teeth, she listened to his breathing become more ragged, more uneven. Her body tensed and she lost track of her breath as his fingers sank deeper into her breasts, as the whole of her became rigid and then jolted with pleasure, warm, knee-weakening pleasure. The blissful oblivion of that orgasm only lasted a fleeting few seconds, however, as she soon registered the wailing of Jack out in the bedroom coming into tune.
"You screamed," he murmured into her ear and then turned her around to kiss her. "Mm. Loudly."
"I don't remember." It felt like it was Matt's hands alone that were holding her up, but when they slowly, hesitantly retreated from her a moment later, she somehow stayed on her feet.
"I'll get him this time."
She watched him flit from the light of the bathroom, grab some underwear, and disappear around the corner. When the squalling quieted to fussing, she cleaned up their mess and flipped off the light, immediately melting into the bed.
"Mommy's okay, Jack. I promise… shh… go back to sleep." It was to the sound of Matt's gentle crooning for their baby that she fell asleep again. Unfortunately, for the second time that night, she was jolted wide awake again far sooner than she had anticipated, what felt like mere seconds later.
"Seriously? Who's knocking at…" She glared angrily at the clock. "At four in the morning?"
Matt grunted and pulled his pillow over his head. "Fuck 'em."
A few more raps sounded, more loudly this time, and Jack started whining again. With a huff and pure hatred in her heart, Tessa threw herself out from underneath the covers, found a shirt to pull on, and collected Jack from his crib on her way to the front door. When she yanked the door open, it took all her willpower not to slam it shut again in the over-exuberant face of the person responsible for all that knocking.
"What the fuck, Danny?" She hissed instead. Although she didn't step aside for him, Danny managed to slip inside the apartment and down the hall towards the living area.
"Sorry, I just… I needed to speak to Matt."
Tessa didn't have the energy to intervene and try to prevent that train-wreck, so she just shut the door and followed him. "He's in the bedroom. Fair warning: he's grumpy and naked."
For having just been nuked, Danny's energy was good and his arm looked to be fine. He bounced around at the end of the hallway, popping his hands together and looking between Tessa and the bedroom door while she spoke. "Got it! Hey, Jack…"
"Unh-unh," Tessa grunted, swinging Jack away from him. "No radioactive iron fist coming near the baby."
"Go away, Danny! It's sleeping time!" From the bedroom, Matt's voice floated out, an angry bark.
"It wasn't radioactive, though. It was a chi-dampening agent and I just want to make sure they didn't block yours. Is anything off? Do you feel weird… um… listless? More tired than normal? No… drives?" Apparently unable to make up his mind about where to direct his energy, Danny had shouted back all of that while hovering a few feet away from Tessa and in front of the bedroom door. He looked like a confused puppy dog.
Tessa felt compelled to help him out now, before he got killed by that train. "No, he's fine. Trust me. Seriously, Danny… leave, please. For your own sake." She waved towards the front door and then again, in a more exaggerated fashion, when she heard the thumps and shuffling of Matt putting clothes on. "If you're still here when he gets out here, it's not going to be fun or pleasant."
"But, I… I have to check. I just went by Luke's and he was all messed up. I have to check."
Behind him, Matt appeared in the doorway, hair mussed and eyes still closed, a pair of sweatpants just barely hanging on his hips and impatience in the set of his jaw. "Danny. I'm already going to be exhausted tomorrow for this hearing. This better be incredibly important." Sure, his hands were flexing and all that was said between clenched teeth, but the words had been a lot nicer than Tessa had expected.
She closed the distance between them and, Jack set on her shoulder, laid a cautionary hand on Matt's chest anyway. "He's just checking, Matt. For your own good… hear him out."
"It is important. If you have a blockage or… uh…" Danny paused, mid-step on his way over to them. Mouth still a little ajar with his abandoned words, he looked at Tessa, finally for more than a split second, and settled back on his heels, immediately looking away from both her and Matt. "Um, you know what? You're fine. No blockages here. Chi… is… flowing… well and… um… properly to… uh, yeah, all the centers. Ha. Okay, yeah. I'm gonna go now. Enjoy the rest of your… night/morning together. Sorry for interrupting!"
"He… He thinks we were having sex, doesn't he?" Tessa asked once the door had slammed shut.
Matt just shrugged and shuffled past her into the kitchen. "Let him. He's earned that awkwardness."
"He was just trying to help, Matt…" After laying Jack back down, she joined him in the kitchen, pouring a glass of water and putting it into his hands in place of the coffee pot that he'd been fiddling with. "Now, come on. We can get an hour and a half more sleep if we're very quiet and Ms. Vlahos's dog isn't yappy during their walk…"
Like every other place in the city during winter it seemed, the waiting room was at least ten degrees too warm for the clothing everyone was wearing. Jess had already solved that problem by taking off both her jackets. Tessa was constrained, though, to the stupid fashion decision she'd made that morning. There was no taking off her wool sweater. The kids didn't seem to be as affected by the heat, though, thankfully.
Their many, many layers of outdoor clothing had already been stripped and they both sat happily on Jess and Tessa's laps. Danni, perfect, dimpled, with her big, brown eyes and a puff of hair on top of her head, smiled and giggled, bouncing enthusiastically as Jess bobbled her knee. Jack was just as happy that morning, but much less animated as per usual. With his tousle of dark, curly hair and his dad's honey brown eyes, he was the placid yin to Danni's exuberant yang. Pudgy fingers wound into Tessa's sweater, he clung close to her and kept completely still and silent, his attention on the rest of the room and soaking everything in.
Just like they seemed to be largely unaffected by the temperature of the room, neither of them seemed to be suffering from the pre-interview jitters that were tormenting their moms. Tessa was sweating because of the heat, but she was profusely sweating because of her nerves. Jess, on the other hand, kept shifting around and scanning the room like she was guilty of something. After the third time that she reached for the flask that was not in her jacket today, Jess finally sighed and slumped back in her chair.
"I mean… How long can an interview take?" She whispered over at Tessa. "It's friggin' pre-pre-school. They're two… What could they possibly have to ask about?"
"I dunno, Jess--" Tessa paused as the little hand wrapped up in her sweater tugged on it.
Jack looked up at her and pointed at the door. "Momma, man…"
Tessa caught his hand and brought it back from pointing, looking around to see if anyone else noticed. She was just in time, too, as the door opened a half second later and revealed one of the interviewers, a man. Tessa kissed his hair and whispered back to him, "that's a good job, Jack. Remember we have to keep that to ourselves, though. Okay?"
The man glanced down at the tablet in his hand and back up at the waiting room, clearing trying to ignore the very lady-like snort that had just issued from Jessica. Tessa hoped with all her being that he didn't think that Jess was laughing at him. She also knew that there weren't many other things for him to assume she was laughing at.
On her feet, Jess had already grabbed Danni around the waist and was hauling her over to him upside down. "Come on, fetus, time to get you some school-learning."
The interviewer tried and failed to hide his displeasure at the walking disaster heading his way. Face pinched, he looked down and addressed his next question to his tablet. "You must be, Jessica Jones, then?"
"Yup. The one and only. Let's go, sweater-vest." One more eyeroll over her shoulder towards Tessa and Jess and Danni disappeared.
That left just Jack and Tessa in the waiting room, besides the attendants behind the front desk, and Tessa began to feel the tension of anticipation mounting even higher. Scooting back farther on her lap, Jack laid his head against her chest. After a few moments, he cast those beautiful honey eyes up her way and gently touched her chin.
"Why you scared, Momma?"
"I'm not scared, baby. I'm nervous. I really want you to go to school here, so I have butterflies in my stomach." She took his hand in hers and hugged him closer.
He was an affectionate little boy and he hugged her right back, burying his face in her shoulder. "Smells bad here…"
"That's the cleaning chemicals, Jacky. You'll get used to it." He had her nose. She tapped it lightly when he looked back up at her again, and then leaned over to fish her quietly ringing phone out of her bag. "Hello?"
"Hey there…" Matt's voice greeted her and Tessa had to stopped Jack from reaching for the phone. "How's it going? Any news?"
"We haven't even been interviewed yet…"
"Oh, really? Uh… Maybe try to hold off? I'll be there in ten minutes."
Tessa chewed her lip, glancing towards the now empty reception desk. "Hmm. I'll do my best, since it would be ideal if they could interview all of us at once. I'll let them know that you're coming, at the very least, if Jess finishes up too quickly."
"No… Some people have to work during the day, you know." Matt laughed a little weakly on the other end of the line and Tessa's nervousness doubled. "So, is it a bad thing that you're finished downtown this early?"
"Nope, a good thing, actually. I won really quickly."
"Mm. I'm proud of you and so is Jack. Aren't you, baby? Here, Daddy, Jacky wants to talk to you." Finally, yielding to his insistent little fingers on her wrist, Tessa held the phone down to his ear, smoothing his hair while he smiled and nodded.
"Momma nervous," he confidently tattled a moment later, burying his face back into her chest as she took the phone away.
"He ratted you out, Tessa…" Matt chimed in her ear immediately.
"He does that a lot now, too perceptive and smart for his own good. He's right, though, you know. I'll be glad to have you here. You know I'm not good at… public speaking, or… being charismatic, or a human when I'm nervous."
"Five minutes and I'll be there."
Tessa hung up the phone and tickled Jack. "You're a stinker, tattling on Momma again. Daddy needs to teach you how to deal with your gifts, baby…" she added, more to herself than to Jacky. "Things you can and can't say."
As she was talking he sat up straight and looked towards the door intently. This time he didn't point and he made sure to whisper, even cupping his little hand beside his mouth as he spoke and tugged at her sweater. "Danni!"
And sure enough, a few seconds later, Danielle came rocketing out of the door, cackling, Jess scooping her up not a beat afterwards and, again, holding her upside down. "Sorry. She's got a lot of energy and doesn't know where to put it except behind her… She's really fast. Put that in your report. Really fast… So, athletic and energetic."
The sweater-vested interviewer stepped out behind them, still looking pinched but now also looking like his breakfast wasn't agreeing with him. He didn't even look at Jessica when he responded. "Of course, Ms. Jones… Um… Jonathan Bisho-Murdock?"
Tessa stood, setting Jack on the ground where he clung to her leg. "That's us. We're just waiting for Dad to get here…"
"Oh? The father is coming, too…" Sweater-vest looked up, pleasantly surprised, and with an elitist smile glanced back down at his tablet, suddenly one hundred and fifty percent more engaged. "Mr. Matthew Murdock?"
"That's the one. He'll be here in a minute or so… Court today."
"Very well, we'll just take a coffee break, then. Please let the receptionist know when Mr. Murdock arrives." With a curt nod at the room, he spun on his heel and shut the door behind him.
Jess immediately wheeled on Tessa. "That guy is a racist."
"He saw your adorable, ambiguously multiracial kid and was all into it, but he took one look at my beautiful, flawless…" Breaking the super intense eye contact with Tessa for a moment, Jess reached down and covered Danni's ears. "… black baby and wasn't interested. And, also wasn't interested in scheduling another interview when Luke could be here… Racist."
"Very well may be…" Tessa whispered back, then glanced over Jess's shoulder at Matt stepping inside. "Let's wait and see if he's an ablest, too. Hey… Jess didn't like these people, so… heads up."
Jack, released from Tessa's grasp, darted over to Matt and latched onto his leg instead while Danni danced around them, cackling again as Jess swiped at her half-heartedly. Matt allowed the baby dance to go on for a few seconds and then, with a smile, bent over to say hello to each, scooping Jack up into his arms once Danni had been caught. He tapped over to Tessa with Jacky on his hip and kissed her.
"Noted. Let's talk to them and then take Jack to the zoo. It's nice outside-- You wanna come, Jess? I know Danni likes the parrots, right?"
"I wanna fly, Mr. Matt!" Danni crowed and leapt up in a convincing imitation of flight, but Jessica snatched her up before she could really catch any air.
"We'll wait for you… outside. Less cold stares down their noses out there," she mumbled and, scooping up her rumpled pile of jackets, stomped out the door.
Matt turned Tessa's way, eyebrows high, and then pressed the 'service' button on the front desk with a mumble. "I think I smell a suit a-brewing."
Stephen understood Jessica's impassioned shouting, but he wished that she would lower her volume. His head was aching fiercely at this point.
"I offer my apologies, Lady Jessica, but these are all the tidings I bring." Amazingly, all of Ms. Jones's ferocity had managed to back even the thunder god into a corner. He stood with his hands held between himself and her, looking as apologetic as Stephen imagined a demi-god capable of being. "If I knew whereabouts to find Lady Tessa, I would retrieve her promptly. With all my might, I would endeavor to return her here."
Thor's sincerity was convincing. Stephen believed him intrinsically, because he knew his nature. However, his earnestness was so powerful that it left Jessica floundering. Wordless, she backed away and lowered herself onto a chaise and began crying. Stephen had no defenses against such a response, but he was not alone, thank the Vishanti. Mr. Cage and Mr. Rand attended her as Thor recovered from the onslaught. He seemed to hesitate to leave Jessica in distress, but without any apparent means of rectifying the situation, he retreated to Stephen's side.
In lowered tones, he stooped over and offered his condolences. "I know not the crisis to which I have added this woe, but I have delivered my message, and wish not to further foment your misfortune. I shall return to Asgard unless there are other needs I may attend to here to aid your plight first."
"Ahem," Stephen cleared his throat and endeavored to find a response that both evoked 'yes' and 'no' at once. There were none at hand. It seemed Odinson's aid would be gone soon. "Uh… I do not believe so, no. In the event that we require your help or presence, or… the assistance of your wayward sibling, is there a means to contact you that you may give me?"
"Our resources are few at this time and the plight of Asgard also dire," he seemed to admit with a great deal of hesitance. "Nonetheless, you may also invoke Heimdall and make your request. If we have the means, we will answer. Fare thee well, Stephen Strange. I hope we meet again under better circumstances."
"Yes…" After enduring a handshake that involved more of his arm than his hand, Stephen saw Thor out of the Sanctum, standing in the doorway as the Bifrost opened and beamed him up and out of their plane. For a smattering of moments, Stephen considering opening his own dimensional portal and retreating for some solace, but then he recalled the warnings about the fabric of reality tearing, and instead turned back to his sitting room where the unfortunate burden of reality awaited him and his shoulders.
Inside, Jessica was still crying and Daniel was pacing. Only Luke was still. Somehow, that was more disconcerting. A flick of his wrist and Stephen carted over the tea service, making sure they each had a cup, and then sat down as well. "Thor has gone. We now must figure out where to begin."
"Where to begin?!" Stephen winced as Jessica's outburst left his teacup shattered. "WHERE TO BEGIN?! Seriously!? We know where to begin, it's finding all our… our missing people and… and Tessa is our best bet at finding the others, so… we… we have to find… Tessa."
As the tears overtook her and, uncharacteristically, impeded her ability to express any emotion other than grief, Luke sat forward. He held weariness in his shoulders, but his expression spoke of determination. "Jess is right. We figure out a way to help that fooling idiot recover Tessa from whatever… parallel reality it is that she's ended up in and then we track down Trisha and… check for…"
"Oh, just say it, Luke! One of us has to say it!"
Luke, however, bottled up more at Jessica's demand and Daniel, ceasing his pacing, lent his voice. "We don't know either way yet. There's still a chance that we'll be tracking him down, too. Let's keep our energy focused on that outcome, not the other. We can prepare for the other if that arises. First… Tessa."
The chances of the sight before her eyes happening had seemed so infinitesimal, so unlikely not three years before that the fact that Tessa was looking out over the living room, watching a legion of children playing and enjoying it, seemed like a goddamned miracle. To appreciate the magnitude of it properly, stopping with all the prepping and cleaning, she set down the knife in her hands and just took it in. Danni and Jack were essentially inseparable over there, running around the couches and chairs and legs of adults with their matching action figures flying high above their heads. They led the pack, because they had the Rey and Finn dolls, and because Casey, Seb, and Sarah were younger, they naturally conceded to their ideas.
It was the existence of every single one of them, though, that was filling Tessa with wonder. Casey, with her long, black luscious hair was just as unlikely a creation as Jack or Danni, or would've seemed to be when Tessa first met Jessica Drew, but her baby shower and the subsequent birthdays for her prized little girl had come not by accident, but through careful planning. The same could not be said for Danni or Jack admittedly, but the twins, Seb and Sarah had been hard-fought to win. In fact, this party was a belated birthday celebration for them, the adoption having been finalized a few weeks too late to observe it on time. They didn't care, though. They were just barely able to toddle along behind the dynamic duo, much less realize what a birthday was and when they should have it celebrated. And, toddle they did, happily. This was a good home for them, miraculously. Again, it was a goddamn miracle that any of this was happening at all.
Turning away from the marvel, Tessa snuck a peek of Jess beside her. She, too, seemed to have stopped from her kitchen-related task of supergluing BB-8 and was smirking out at the spectacle. Her eyes were on Luke, however, playing along with his daughter and the others. Tessa managed to catch the driblet of superglue just in time with a napkin, before it became the thing that sealed Jess's fingers together. Jess rolled her eyes and shook her head, but set aside the tube and the pretense that that was what she was doing over here.
"Are you as fucked over this as I am?"
"Honestly, Jess? I can't believe this is us right now. This is you and me, Jess… you and me."
"Okay, good. You're as floored by it as I am. On that note, have I told you that I think you're a crazy person? I mean… bat-shit out of your mind insane." She glanced away from the children and over Tessa. "One was a… a literal life-altering thing for you, then… you're having another and… and you add two onto that? You're certifiable and I'm a little worried about you. This is what a hoarder does. They hoard things past the rational amount and need. Who wants or needs four children? I've got the answer: not Tessa Bisho."
"Shut up," Tessa scoffed and, with the spell of the moment ruined by Jess's rain-cloud, returned to cutting vegetables. "I… I changed my mind about it, that's all. I've already said my piece on this. That's all I'm saying about it."
"Fine, whatever. But… just because you're fertile as fuck and apparently don't know how to tell Red to keep his hands to himself, doesn't mean you have to raise your own basketball team. You get an IUD and then you donate to the children's advocacy groups, do some volunteering, something besides sacrifice yourself on this altar of parenthood, chica. You're… you're being chipped away. This isn't you."
"I'm fine, Jess. I'm happy. Matt's happy. This is good for us. I appreciate your concern, but it's misplaced. Seriously. We're making these decisions together and rationally. It… was a deal we made." She nodded out to where Matt had scooped up the twins, hauling them off to separate corners to stop the screaming. "For every one we make, we give another a home. At first, it was just going to be a sibling for Jacky, but… this one happened, so the twins made sense. It's the only way I can fall asleep not feeling guilty and… and we're tired, sure. We're stressed and worn out, but… we're making it work, surprisingly well. Matt… Matt is the happiest I've ever seen him. All that… that emptiness he'd fall into, you know? It's gone."
Jess snorted and, tossing aside the superglue tube, held up the little figurine, now one piece instead of two, between her fingers towards the light. "That's because he's too busy and exhausted to even have a feeling, much less a bunch of complex ones like depression brings."
"You're an asshole," Tessa scoffed in turn and shoved Jess a little bit.
"Yeah, well… you have bags under your eyes that look like grandma titties, and you're getting fat."
"I'm pregnant, you bitch!"
"I know, but your ass is huge," Jess said offhand, smirking over her shoulder as she walked away and into the living room with the repaired android and the sandwich tray that Tessa had been working so hard on. She jostled a little as it was attacked by all the kids, grown men included, but managed to smirk back at Tessa again. Tessa could only glare back.
"Your ass is not huge." Matt stopped in front of the counter, and reaching over it, grabbed Jack's special cup from next to Tessa at the sink. He made sure to kiss her on the cheek as he did.
Little Jack, slung over Matt's shoulder, grinned over at her too, but seemed more concerned with what his dad was saying. "What's a ass?"
Tessa could only roll her eyes and return to her mindless chopping duties. Matt had this one. "You said it."
"Mm-hmm. It's--found 'em!" He emerged from the fridge with the milk and his extra pair of glasses, which had apparently somehow ended up on the top shelf with the juices. "It's a donkey, Jack, or a behind."
Extra glasses set on Jack's nose and milk cup in his hand, Matt shooed him off into the living room again. "Go on, sandwich time." He listened to him go and then leaned next to Tessa, a hand on the belly that was just barely showing in her dress. "I happen to like your ass right now, a lot."
"Jess was right, Murdock. You don't know how to keep your hands to yourself." She abandoned the tomato in front of her for a second to divert his hand from its downward course. That just meant it traveled around back of her to demonstrate the earnestness of his latest statement. She sighed and conceded to it. At least the ass-cupping was more discrete from their angle and the living room's view. "I'm going to become a human water-slide if things keep up at this rate."
"Nah, we're done now, don't you think? Four is just about too many." Now there was some neck-nipping to add onto the ass-fondling. Matt was making Jess's point for her.
"Uh-huh. Jess… who is so right, by the way. Keep it PG!" It took all of her willpower not to just lean into it. Instead, she leaned away and went back to slicing fruit that masqueraded as a vegetable. "Uh, she also happens to think that I've gone crazy. Is she right about that, too?"
"We may have gone a little out of our depth, but… I'm not hating the crazy as much as one might expect."
"Hate?" Tessa scoffed. "Hate? You're flourishing in it, Daddy."
And, with that, Matt finally abandoned his crusade to cop an R-rated feel at a PG event. "That's… confusing. No 'Daddy' unless the kids are nearby, if you could. I'm getting my reactions all jumbled."
"Noted, but on the topic of the human water-slide I'm fast transmogrifying into, one of us needs to… to have a procedure or something--maybe both of us. Because, I know what's not going to stop happening, and that's the thing that makes the thing that needs to stop happen more. Yes?"
"I hear you… I think. There was a lot going on in that sentence--I think it got away from you a little bit--but, I take your meaning. We'll go into off season, only play scrimmages, nothing for points."
"And, with those sports metaphors, you lost me. For recreation not procreation is our new company line."
"Mmm. Recreation… a little R&R&R?" He was back again on the PG-13 path with the kiss on her cheek and then careening past R and into M with the next one on her ear. "Because, stopping the whole endeavor cold is just not an option. Definitely not going to try Catholic birth control."
"Well, we need to use it for now. Back off, I swear…" She ducked down and turned around to him, knife waggling in front of her. Matt leaned away a few inches, but was still smiling devilishly. "I'm literally right here making salad and you're sticking your tongue in my ear."
"Hands off… till bed time--shit. Okay, fuck, uh, Danny's coming over. He has this… Just tell him 'no', okay?"
"No to what?" But that was all of Tessa's line of questioning she could get out before the aforementioned and apparently dreaded smiling face of Danny Rand bobbled up in front of them. Tessa flashed back a smile his way quickly and then turned to regard Matt with narrowed eyes. His forced smile spoke wonders to his discomfort, as did the way he put Tessa in between himself and Danny as he leaned against the bar. Now, she was just plain curious.
"Hey guys, I'm glad you're both in the same place for a sec. So… there's this thing. Tess, you know, well… I didn't get you guys a shower gift this time, but--"
"Hey, no worries, Danny. Seriously. The second one… it's hardly expected." Tessa pushed the plate of half-made cracker appetizers his way that he was eyeing and nodded.
He, of course, took one, and then three and scarfed them down before continuing. "No, but… okay. I bought you a house."
It was a good thing he was the one with food currently filling his mouth and not Tessa because she would have choked and died. Instead, though, she simply froze in place, staring over at him and the excited trepidation on his face. Matt stepped closer to her and, in a demonstration of his good sense, gently took the knife from her hand and set it in the sink.
"Huh?" She finally managed.
Matt had already had some idea of what was coming, so he handled the news with more… tact and eloquence. Anything more than a grunt was an improvement already. "And, while it's really kind, we simply can't accept a house from you, Danny. Can we, Tessa?"
"Well, it's not that--uh…" Danny tugged at his ear, then his hair, then filled his mouth with a few more cracker bites. "I bought it already, you see. I added it to Rand properties so that we'd… have more roof real estate for our… night jobs, but it's here in Hell's Kitchen and it'll look less… uh… conspicuous? Suspicious? It'd look less like I just did it for the roof space if there are actual people living in it. And, who better than a growing family of my friends who are expecting a fourth child?"
Beside Tessa, Matt shifted to his other foot and dropped his chin to respond, but Danny was faster. He held up both his hands and waved around the apartment.
"Please. Please, think about it. You--You know I love you both and this place and I totally support you one hundred percent. But--and I say this out of love and concern--but you're suffocating in this apartment. I mean, it's barely a one-bedroom. You might as well call it a studio and you're housing two adults and three, soon four children in it. You deserve more than this. I can make that happen."
It was a good sale's pitch. Tessa had to give Danny that, especially because the words and the talking were not always where he shined the brightest. She was just about to concede those points to him, but Matt, ever on the defensive, beat her to the punch again.
"We're working on the bedroom set-up. It's problematic, yes, but this apartment… this is our start, the foundation, our home. Right, Tessa?"
She was grimacing. She knew she was grimacing, so she closed her eyes so that she couldn't see Matt's reaction to that grimace when she turned to him. "I love this apartment. You know that, Matt. I do. It's our home and all our memories have been here, yes, but… it was big, then it was big enough, and now… it's just barely enough. I mean, the twins essentially sleep in a closet under the stairs and Jack sleeps in bed with us some nights because his room is our room."
Eyes open again, Tessa quickly looked to Danny and reached over the bar to pat him on the arm. She had more to say to Matt, but first, a holding answer for Danny. "I… don't even-- Danny, thank you for this. It's so thoughtful and kind and we'll talk about it some more. I have to talk with my husband first, though. Take the cracker tray. It's yours."
As Danny made off with the appetizers, Tessa finally faced Matt and his open-mouthed shock. Hand on his elbow, she pushed him away, back into the corner of the kitchen, to where they had a little more privacy to speak unguardedly. "I know, I know. I've betrayed you and your stubborn Irish resistance to change, but… shit, Matt. We could have a room, with a door. A door, Matt, that closes. And Jack and Sarah and Sebby and… whoever this turns out to be? They could have their own rooms and maybe… maybe even space to play. We'll still be in Hell's Kitchen. We'll still be in your home, but we'll have a little more room for them and us. I mean, I'm good in the shower, but some days I just wanna lie there while you go to town on me, okay?"
"Our home?" Matt had taken his glasses off, and now his eyes, distant and undilating, were locked on her mouth. "Our home, not just mine, right?"
"Yes. I just meant that… This is where you grew up, in this neighborhood, Matt. It's in your blood and… and just part of who you are. I know you don't want to leave that. That's all I meant. Trust me… it's definitely my home now, too. My whole life is here." She glanced back over her shoulder to where Luke had all the kids stacked on his arms and back and shoulders to their screams of absolute delight, to where Jess was noshing so hard on a sandwich that she couldn't even fully pull off the not-amused expression she usually wore when she was definitely tickled pink over something squishy like this, to where Danny was running around, snatching the children off and sticking them back on somewhere else, to Simmons on the couch and Fitz and her other SHIELD work associates-turned-friends, to Drew and Clint and Colleen and Misty and Claire, standing by the stairs and nonchalantly getting utterly plastered on margaritas. With a little contented sigh, she turned back to him and took his face in between her hands. "My whole fucking life, Murdock, and I love it. I just want to love it with a little extra space so the kids won't get confused about what's the jello and what's the jello shots at a party like this."
"What a closing statement," Matt smirked down at her, cupping his hands around the belly as he took a step closer to her. This kiss was definitely with tongue, but it meant she'd won. "You're wasted in recon, doctor," he mumbled before patting her on the ass and walking over to grab Danny again.
"My wife, the master negotiator, made some salient points that I've heard and must acknowledge, so…" Matt stopped in front of the counter with him, clicking his teeth together a few times and then holding out his hand towards him. "We gladly accept your offer, Danny. Thank you."
"Well, fantastic! Before you get too excited, though, the place… needs some work."
Matt grinned at Danny's inability to heed his own advice and reined some of that excited energy in with an arm around his shoulder. "We'll make it our own."
"I mean… a lot of work. Maybe too much work for an expecting mom and dad with three kids already, so I'll pitch in to help. I think Misty is on board. I'm sure Luke'll help if we ask him. But… that's my gift to you--oh, here." He quickly pulled out his phone and, after tapping it a few times, set it on the counter in front of Tessa with a picture up. "It's about a quarter mile from here. It's a brown stone, Matt, walk-up like a lot of the neighborhood is, got a little fence and a rooftop with access. It needs central air and could probably stand to be gutted and checked for asbestos and lead and stuff, but… yeah."
Tessa took the phone and smiled down at the façade of the beaten down and graffitied up townhouse pictured. Danny hadn't been kidding, it would need a shit-ton of work, judging by the look of its exterior, but it was enormous and historical and had so, so much potential and character. "It's so… here."
"I can't wait to check it out." Practically bursting with that smile, Matt hugged Danny and then bent over to pick up one of the twins who was crying. "What's going on, Sebby? Hmm? That tooth bothering you again? We'll get you your teething ring and a hug from Mr. Danny, hero of the hour… Say: thank you, Mr. Danny."
"Tank 'ou, mi'er Danny."
"Yeah, thank you, Danny…" Tessa echoed, handing over his phone again. "This could mean a whole world of difference to the kids…"
Renovating and the moving into a house with three kids and one due in just a month or so was a hassle. And, it took quadruple the normal amount of time, it seemed. Today, Tessa had the great joy of unpacking some of their seemingly endless boxes with the few spare hours of time that she had outside of parenting and work. At that exact moment, she had the absolute pleasure of unpacking kitchen crap while on the phone with Matt, trying to solve the great mystery of the vanishing outerwear.
"He had his coat when you all left," Tessa sighed as she sat down heavily on what was definitely Jack's bathroom sink stool and grabbed the box cutter. "I don't know where it ended up in between here and there. I can't even begin to imagine."
"I am literally a blind man herding three toddlers. Something was bound to be lost." Matt was being short with her and that meant he hadn't been able to sleep enough that night, again. But, even that didn't account for something so careless as losing Seb's coat.
"You're more than just blind, Matt. You got distracted, my guess. What was it?"
Tessa rolled her eyes and kicked aside the box filled entirely with random ass odds and ends that didn't belong in a kitchen. "That's just untrue."
"I thought someone was following us, but… they were just dropping off a kid, too."
"You're on edge. I get it. This situation with Fisk is not ideal, but tiny coats are expensive enough as it is, since they grow out of them almost immediately. We have to keep them for as long as they still fit."
"I'll find it. Stop."
With a sigh, Tessa sat away from the baby kitchenware she'd just uncovered. She couldn't deal with it and a completely scatter-brained Matt at once. One of them had to have the wits fully about them or there would be consequences. "No, you have court."
"I'll find it… in a recess."
"It's fine. Focus on the case. We'll figure something out." Tessa could almost imagine Matt's face at that moment, scrunched and stressed. Smile lines were one thing, but Matt's had become more stress-scrunch lines in the last few months. Also, she hadn't had the heart to tell him yet, but he had a single grey hair behind his left ear, and she was pretty sure shit like this was the cause of it. She had to do her part to stop prematurely aging her partner. "Oh, how about this? Jack is almost too big for his at this point anyway. We'll just give Sebby his and move Jack into the next size. I think Danni has a red one that'll fit."
The other end of the line was suddenly a gust of noise--the subway--that almost covered up the relieved little laugh that he'd let loose. "Alright. What are you doing for lunch?"
"I have a debriefing at 11, then… I'm shoving food in my mouth and starting to set up the baby's room."
"Wait--And what about your appointment?"
"My appointment… with Simmons? That's tomorrow. Get your shit together, Murdock!"
"It--It's gotten together, don't worry. I was just checking. I'll be home for lunch. We can shove food in our mouths and start setting up the baby's room together."
Eyes closed, Tessa counted through two deep breaths and then went back to unloading fish-themed silverware. "No… You won't. You have lunch with Foggy, out and about without kids and family. You promised him."
"I did. You're right. Today's Thursday."
"There you go… I'll see you toni--"
There was a pinch in her head, like a rubber band snapping, and then an infinitesimal flash of pain. Then, she felt nothing. Her body fell limp, like the strings had been cut from a marionette, and the little plastic cups and bowls with all their bright colors and happy shapes tumbled to the floor with a hallow series of clatters. Tessa lay, splayed out and scattered about, like the baby dishes, and, like the baby dishes, inert and unfeeling. Her eyes were open but unseeing, glazed over. The phone beside her resounded with tinny screaming.
"Tessa? Tessa. Tessa!? TESSA!"
Curiously, Tessa heard Matt's voice coming from the phone speaker. She had felt the pain of something bursting in her brain and yet hadn't truly felt it. Looking down on the body that had, just a blink ago, been assuredly her own, she found herself in the midst of a compelling existential paradox. She was there, on the ground, dead, and then… she was also not on the ground. There was no evidence pointing to the contrary as concerned her being not dead, aside from the fact that she could hear and see and feel still, but metaphysics were complicated. That said, she didn't and hadn't ever believed in an afterlife. It was a true conundrum she suddenly found herself in.
Was that her on the ground, or was she standing still, or was she both? A quick test told her that she could still interact with the world around her, even if it was sluggish. The radiator cover lifted when she pulled at it and its coils burned her skin when she touched them, even if only for a moment. The realization that she couldn't be harmed awakened a whole flood of known facts in her mind again. There was a whole life that she'd already led, that had deviated from this one at one singular point and never truly realigned: her murder. The scars were gone, but Tessa could recall the feeling of the slugs tearing through her body. That was a moment the Tessa over on the tile floor had never lived and her life had been different on account of it. No man had shot her on a roof. No futurist had reanimated her corpse with a cosmic entity. And yet, she had still died. Her brain had virtually burst and she had fallen dead at Tessa's feet.
Like a cold shiver, a thought raced down Tessa's spine. Mnemosyne embodied memory. She could flash load whole lives into minds with but a thought. How long had Tessa been in this place? She couldn't distinguish between her own original memories, pre-murder, and those of this Tessa's because they were identical. Had she lived years with this other self or had she just met her and, in sharing their memories, in uploading her mind, had she killed her other self? Tessa, for all her efforts, couldn't determine which was the case. And, in all actuality, she was having a difficult time parsing her own experiences from this dead Tessa's. So many were parallel, so many involved the same people, they were almost interchangeable. Worse, she remembered them with the same intensity and vividness and immediacy. They were indistinguishable. In fact, the more she tried to separate them, the more muddled her panicked mind became. Whether she lived them personally or through vicarious memory experience she could no longer tell, and there was nothing she could do about it.
So, she stayed in that kitchen and stared at the body. She stayed and watched the paramedics bust in the door and bustle passed her. None of them seemed to notice the duplicate of the dead woman. None paid her any mind as she stood to the side and blankly stared. One of them jostled her at one point and, with confusion on his face, turned and looked straight through her. For a moment, he looked as though he was going to say something, but changed his mind.
By the time Matt arrived, the body was already bagged and an M.E. was there and speaking to the cops. Tessa watched with bursting lungs as he completely shut down. His stupor only lasted for as long as the emergency responders were there, then he flew into a rage. Tessa followed him, a specter, as he overturned furniture and kicked apart boxes. When he finally broke down into tears, she settled down beside him on the floor. Without the mass of that baby, she was able to curl up on her knees right next to him. The urge to console him was too strong now, with his sobbing and ragged gasps for air that mixed prayer with curses. She reached over and tried to ran her knuckles over his jaw. It felt as she'd expected, moist from his tears and hot with the slight, sand-paper texture of his stubble. What she did not expect was for him, two seconds afterwards, to freeze up and then reach for the place she'd just touched.
"Matt?" Even to her, Tessa's voice sounded like it was underwater and heard from several yards away. "Matt, can you hear me?"
Again, two seconds after she spoke, he turned his head to the side, then to the other. His brow furrowed and, no longer sobbing, he sat up straighter. "Tessa?"
"Oh my god, you can hear me. What--I'm here, next to you. Can you feel me here?" She reached for him, but the place where she laid her hand, on his arm, seemed to cease to exist as she watched herself trying to touch him.
Matt, on the other hand, struggled to his feet and whipped around on the spot. "Tessa? I--Please…" As quickly as he'd started flailing for hope, he stilled. Hands over his face, Matt walked to the other side of the room and sat down on the stairs. He was silent for a long time and Tessa realized he was weeping again. His shoulders shook and heaved and, in the carriage of them, she watched as his determination ebbed away.
"I'm a ghost?" Tessa hadn't meant to say it out loud, but it just tumbled out of her mouth as the thought occurred to her.
A couple beats later, Matt sat up again and turned his head. Confusion flickered over his face and he opened his mouth, but then stopped. A few raps sounded on the front door and, too weary to stand on his own, Matt hauled himself onto his feet by the banister. Wordlessly, he opened the front door to Jess and Luke and all the children. Wordlessly, he wandered back into the kitchen and sat again. This time, he had his Bible in his hands.
Tessa turned and watched Jessica, her face raw and red, carry Jack and the twins up the stairs. Jack, poor baby, was already asleep, even with Sarah and Sebby fussing around him. Tessa could see the stains on his cheeks from tears, the damp spot on the front of his sweater. He was too young to know that pain, but there they were. Luke stayed in the foyer, like his feet were rooted in the wood, Danni holding onto his hand and rubbing at her eyes. When she started falling asleep against his leg, he took her to the couch and continued his silent vigil there. After a few minutes, Tessa could hear the water running upstairs, a bath for the twins, and moved into the kitchen. Matt was still there, so it was Jessica caring for the children now. Actually, Matt was now seated exactly where the other Tessa had fallen. He had one of the baby bowls in his hands and was turning it over and over endlessly.
At some point, Luke ordered food in--Tessa could smell pizza but she couldn't compel herself to leave Matt in the kitchen there in his Sisyphean struggle with that bowl. She heard Jessica and Luke talking quietly and even watched dispassionately as they tried to offer Matt food. But, he was entirely unresponsive. Around two hours into this, with Luke snoring quietly in the front room and Jessica rustling around upstairs with her agitated pacing, he stopped spinning the bowl.
"Tessa?" It was the softest whisper, but he definitely asked for her. "You have to leave. I love you, but you have to leave. Don't… get trapped here. Find your peace."
None of the others had even responded to her calls and she'd not been able to catch them and touch them yet. Maybe she was waning, but Matt had felt her and heard her. She tried again. "I don't have anywhere to go, Matt…"
Tessa waited the two seconds but he didn't react. He remained entirely still, like he was listening, and said nothing. Soon, Tessa realized that someone was standing in the doorway. In the almost pitch blackness of that kitchen, it had been hard for her to even make out Matt where she knew him to be. This new figure took her completely by surprise. As she stared at it, the lights flicked on and Danny materialized. He didn't say anything, but he walked over and knelt next to Matt. For a heartbeat, Tessa thought he looked her way, but his eyes danced away and he folded himself into a seated position there on the floor as well.
She squatted in front of both of them and waved her hands. "Can you--"
The sound was unearthly, like a giant piece of velcro being ripped open and exposing her to the bitter cold of the Arctic Circle. Tessa had only a half-second to react before the air beside her ripped apart and a chasm of darkness yawned open. She chose to freeze in place and stare at her eternal end square on. To her surprise, however, nothing snatched her up or atomized her.
Loki stepped through, in all her green glory, and grinned at Tessa. "Ah! There you are! I've been searching all over for you. What's this?"
Still in shock and definitely not capable of coherent speech, Tessa followed Loki's eye-line over to Matt and Danny. Neither were reacting to the gaping schism in the kitchen yet.
"Did someone die?"
"I--I did…" For some reason, the volume and tone of Loki's voice left Tessa hunched up on herself. She answered her in a reverent whisper. "I mean… the other me? Possibly? I had an aneurysm and died right there."
Loki looked again to the spot where Matt and Danny were still calmly sitting. A little frown played about her lips and then she shuddered. "And you shared this with your other self? You experienced it along with her? How wretched. What an unpleasant feeling."
"Loki… I just watched the love--Matt… I just watched Matt lose me. 'Wretched' and 'unpleasant' don't really begin to cover it." There was a whole tirade Tessa could issue on the indelicacy of the understatement, but Tessa also realized that Loki's appearance and flippantness meant that Tessa could leave this waking nightmare. The fact that this was not her reality left her in tears and jittering with a nervous burst of energy to get away from what she had thought, not minutes before, was going to be her eternal afterlife as a ghost haunting Matt. She unplanted her feet from their rooted spot and skittered over to Loki. "Never mind, just--just get me out of here and back into my own privately owned and operated body, please."
"Privately--" Loki looked down her nose at her, bemusement arching her mouth. "You are in your body--oh! You mean your inability to function here? Yes, funny that. Your physical form is out of sync with this realm, as though it were not properly… configured to operate within its matrix. You see? I suppose while you had a touchstone in the shape of the aboriginal Tessie here--"
"Lesson later, Loki… I don't want to be here anymore."
As Loki shrugged and, still muttering about soul phases and compatibilities, turned to magic open the schism wider, Tessa knelt down one more time in front of Matt and kissed him on the forehead. "I'm sorry…"
"So, tell me…" Loki stood aside and then followed Tessa through the tear in reality. "What storyline did you follow in this one? I assume from the melancholia surrounding the mention of his name, you were tied to the red one there, but how did it all play out? Were you a secret super-villain in this one? That was my favorite so far."
Her words dripped onto Tessa and slipped down and off her, like the eerie misty sensation of the veil between worlds. Tessa was far more focused on the last mistake she'd made in that alternate universe. Now, she had to remember forever the look of horror and hope mixed together on Matt's face as he reached around for his Tessa, now dead and forever gone. It made her throat burn with bile and, actually as she stepped onto terra firma once more, she keeled over and hurled. At least the splattering sounded in time with its impact on the concrete.
"Hmm…" Loki stepped over the sick and tapped at her chin as she considered Tessa. "Some side effect from the prolonged immersion in that splinter-world?"
"Maybe from experiencing my own death in an out-of-body sort of way." Tessa wiped at her mouth and struggled back upright. As she turned, relief swept over her. She recognized these roof-lines. "You brought me home?"
"Yes… It was… for the best, you see. Now, before I alert your little pets to your return, I ought to assess that no ill has befallen you in your little… voyage beyond our universe." Sparkles and flashes of green light were nothing impressive at this point, but Tessa found herself staring all the same.
Her mind was struggling to cope with everything crammed inside of it still. The questions just flowed of their own accord. "If I hadn't been fused with Mnemosyne, that's what my life might have looked like?"
"Ah… well, I suppose you did say you died. Yes, it is one of the possible paths your life could have followed without Mnemosyne as your companion." Loki paused, her eye sharp and glinting as she considered her. "Don't tell me you asked that question with a whiff of regret about you. Do recall that your part in it ended with you dead. No, thank you. Well avoided."
"But, I was happy… Did you just--You just said one of the possible paths. What--How--Loki. Explain. Everything. Explain everything that's happened to me. Where was I? How did I get there? How--How long was I there? Did--Wait, first… Did I kill that Tessa? I have all her memories like they're my own. Could I have fried her brain and killed her--"
Loki altogether ceased her spell-work and curled her hand over Tessa's mouth. In the livid silence that followed, she stepped away and picked up again. "No, no, no. You were in a parallel world. You were shunted there by a… tiny little error in my dimensional stasis spell. You have been missed from our realm for approximately two weeks. And, as I said before, no. You did not kill your other self. I witnessed plenty of Tessas dead by brain bleeds."
"I'll say again. Explain." She may have been confused out of her mind, but Tessa did know that Loki was a slippery fish and never gave you what you wanted the first, or even second or third, time you asked for it.
"In my search for you across the parallel worlds, I discovered many alternate lives you could have led. In dozens of them, you had no bond with Minni and were a simple mortal. Many of them were tediously boring. There was one, though, where you were with your angry, mouthy friend and were killed in a superhero accident. That one was interesting. Oh, and one where you were a frightfully domineering headmistress with half a dozen teachers under your thumb… and your hips. I liked that one, too. I lingered overlong in another world wherein you bonded with a different Jessica, with the hair and the smells, and you were drug-abusing sex monsters together. Fantastic. Hmm. Not all were entirely tedious or entirely interesting. One world, I found you living in a hospital with an egregious number of cats and adopted children, all infirm. In another you were married to two separate individuals, both British, though I don't know from where… Both you and the other female had a child by the male partner. You see? Many different possibilities, but none as good as you being invested with the power of a primordial cosmic entity."
"Loki." Tessa crossed her arms. "You said you witnessed plenty of Tessas dead by brain bleeds. Explain that."
"Oh, it was a theme of a number of mortal Tessa lives--although I did find you in a few where you were with the green one and he noticed your headaches in time to have them treated. The ones where you're with the red one, those had more Tessa casualties--though you did survive in at least two. He's very busy and very self-involved, Tessie. He doesn't always notice something's wrong, which… is ironic considering his skill-set."
"I have an aneurysm in my brain that Mnemosyne is staving off?"
Loki pursed her lips and then nodded, the spell shimmering away. "That is a distinct possibility, yes. I haven't told you of my favorite yet, though. You had been bonded with Minni and with that power you and the Valkyrie of Death quite literally ruled this mortal realm with style and panache, and… quite a lot of sex. You should aim to follow that path more."
There was more that Loki had to say undoubtedly, but the spell was over and Tessa was done listening to the insane things coming out of her mouth. She was still none the wiser about her own situation and wanted, more than ever, to feel a degree of clarity. Terrifyingly, she couldn't work out her own situation from the complex, interwoven mass of memories available to her. The ones that rang clear and true with essences of her immortality were easy to distinguish, but not all did and, frankly, there were aspects of the other Tessa's life that she felt herself gravitating towards and then clinging onto desperately, regardless of whether or not she could pinpoint corresponding memories of them in this reality. For one, she absolutely needed to see Matt again.
"I'll await your return up here!"
Tessa didn't respond. She had no intention of returning to Loki. If anything, Loki could hunt her down when it was absolutely imperative that she have Tessa's help again. In all honesty, Tessa was too fatigued and blurry to recall exactly why she'd spent any amount of time with Loki, only the fact that she had under necessity. That much was enough, though, to justify running away from her without looking back.
Down the stairs, Tessa jogged to the apartment's front door like a person in a dream. Her body knew the way but her mind didn't quite apprehend all the steps taken to get there. When she stopped in front of it, considering the unit label just slightly askew, Tessa realized she didn't have a key on her. In fact, she had nothing on her except for the clothes she'd been wearing for what felt like weeks now. After a nonsensical sniff at her underarm, she knocked. It occurred to her afterwards that she should make this slightly less of a surprise, so she hollered into the crack of the door as she knocked a few more times.
"JESS, IT'S ME, TESSA! COME LET ME IN! I DON'T HAVE MY KEY OR ANYTHING THAT BELONGS TO ME AND I'M KIND OF CONFUSED! OPEN THE DOOR, JESS! IT'S TES-sa…" When the door flew open and not Jessica, but Luke was standing there, it momentarily took Tessa by surprise.
He, though, did not look surprised. He looked relieved and tired. "Come on in. She's stuck on the toilet and it was either let you in or get her up. She chose."
"She's… stuck on the toilet?"
With a nod, Luke disappeared down the hallway and left Tessa reacclimating to her home. Everything was familiar, but looking at it all brought with it the sensation of reacquaintance and rediscovery, like she was seeing it with new eyes. She wasn't entirely sure how she felt about that, but she didn't have much time to assess her reaction due to the fact that she soon heard the lumbering footfalls of a heavily pregnant Jessica waddling her way. Somehow, before Tessa turned to greet her, she could already see in her mind's eye the look of irritated relief on Jess's face.
"What took you so fucking long, chica? I thought I was going to have to… Forget it. Are you okay? Why didn't you, you know, poof back inside?"
After the rib-shattering hug, Tessa felt immediately obligated to pull up a chair and ease Jess into it. She was too large to be doing any kind of exertion, even just the kind required to stay on her feet. "Uh… Honestly? I didn't think about it. I'm… I'm okay, but my head's all… weird. I'm readjusting. It helps being here, talking to you. I already feel… more reconnected."
"Good. Listen. You're just back and… feeling weird, but I need you to do me a favor." Jess's eyes were extra wide and the fact that she reached for Tessa's hand actually made her ass sweat with nervous anticipation. "I need you to check on Trish."
"Trish? What's wrong with Trish?"
Behind them Luke sighed, setting down a basket of laundry and giving Jessica the longest side-eye Tessa had ever seen, in this life or the other one. "You weren't the only one who's been missing all of a sudden, little one. You should probably fill her in on what's gone on, Jess."
Tessa turned back to Jessica, suddenly on ultra-high alert. It was not reassuring that Jess was now pointedly not meeting her eyes. "What in the world has been going on, Jess, that you can't even meet my eye over it? What happened? I--What did I miss? Is everyone--"
"Just shaddup so I can tell you, fucking hell. You disappeared. That was like, what? Two weeks ago, Luke?"
"Give or take. It feels like longer."
Jess nodded. "You were gone, I'd say, a work-week and then shit went sideways. Secret conspiracy, mega-super-villain, 'destroy the world just to watch it burn' kinda sideways. While everything was a huge shit-storm, I lost track of Trish."
Tessa looked from Jess, who was now determinedly looking only at her, to Luke, who was staring at the back of Jess's head with lips pursed. "You're gonna have to give me more than that, Jess. I--I mean, it sounds like… It sounds like I missed some huge catastrophic thing. Am I hearing that right?"
"It could have been huge and catastrophic. We prevented it from getting there, but it was a fucking ordeal. There was some… destruction but not nearly as much as there could have been. Bottom line, I was busy and overlooked not hearing from Trish and now I don't know if she's okay or not. Strange… we had Strange tracking her, but he said there was some interference--static--I don't know. He started talking like he does and I stopped listening."
"I know what you mean. Hold on…" Tessa closed her eyes let her mind reach out. It felt like ages since she'd done this and Mnemosyne seemed to be out of shape even. Actually, her powers seemed inhibited, like they were drunk or something. Still, Tessa managed to focus on Trish Walker and all her boisterous vegan pep and finally felt a ping back. "She's alive and making memories. Last ones are a little… clouded, but that might just be me. Like I said, my head's all weird still. All I'm getting is that she is in a hot, loud, fun place. No pain or anything like that, just… maybe a sense of excitement? Nervousness? There's a little tinge of shame there, but there was also a lot of noise and clinging. I think maybe she was in a casino? That doesn't sound like her, but that makes most sense with all the lights and colors and… sounds. Are you okay, Jess?"
Looking up and dropping her hands from her face, Jess nodded. "Yeah, just… relieved. You're back, Trish is… not lost. You--You could go to her, couldn't you?"
"Yeah… I could…" Tessa set her hands on her hips and stared harder down at her best friend's face. There had been some weird shit that had gone on with her head, but Tessa could still see when Jessica Jones was keeping something from her. She had very particular tells, like the extra flippantness that came with the weak-ass eye contact she was getting right now. "What else happened, Jess? Who's 'we' in this big fucking ordeal? Why won't you give me any specifics? What--What destruction were you talking about?"
Even without trying, Tessa could feel Jess's memories jumping around Hell's Kitchen, to fire and screaming and panic. In front of her, she could see Jess struggling with her words and Luke, behind her, shaking his head. Panic began to set in.
"Did… Did someone die? Jess. Did someone die?" Looking to Luke didn't help. It only assured her that it was bad news, not which news. Her mind jumped to the others that weren't there and she could feel her teeth chattering together. "Who died?"
"We don't know if he's dead," Luke finally said quietly.
Tessa dropped to her heels in front of Jess. "Don't make me dig in your head for it. Who's missing? Is it Matt or Danny? Who is it, Jess?"
"Matt," Jessica replied flatly and didn't meet her eye.
"We couldn't find him. He was in the middle of the… of everything when it went down." Luke, suddenly there beside the two of them, laid a hand on Tessa's shoulder. "It's been about a week and no word yet. We've… Well, Tessa, it's probably time that we all make our peace with it. It's not healthy to keep… Never mind. I'll give you a second."
Tessa hadn't meant to shrug away from him and his condolences. Her body had done it like an instinctual reflex, like a cornered animal trying to escape. Her nose burned and the back of her throat felt dry and raw. The ringing in her ears wasn't fading and her jaw wouldn't unclasp. "No."
"Danny agrees with you. He'll… uh, one of us should tell him you're back. He'll be relieved. You two can… do whatever it is you do. Maybe… yeah. Maybe you can good vibe something--hey!"
"Shut the fuck up, Luke. Jesus Christ."
Tessa had no idea what Jess had done to Luke. She had only the dull thump to inform her and she wasn't paying that any mind or what they were saying. Instead, she was focused again, willing her mind's eye to anything of Matthew Murdock's. Maybe it was the panic. Maybe it was the rage building close on its heels. Maybe it was the residual emotions of that other Tessa's life, but not only did she quickly ping off a distinctively dark memory, but she vanished from her kitchen with the first solid signal.
It smelled of antiseptic and bleach. She already knew that from the memories she'd manifested to, but those were also the first sensations to greet her. Her eyes adjusted slowly to a none too dark room, but rather one streaming with sunlight. It was quiet and peaceful in there, a smallish space to be holding as many beds as it was. And yet, only one was occupied, the one in front of Tessa.
The crucifixes and the first aid supplies made sense when she saw the state of him. It was only when Tessa dropped to her knees next to the cot that she realized they weren't just there for his sake. Jesus adorned the walls as well and votive candles sat on far tables. Matt was in poor shape, but he hadn't just received his last rights. Wherever she had just found him, it was full of Catholicism.
It took all of her willpower not to take his hand, to shake his shoulder and rouse him. A long look found that he was breathing, even if that seemed impossible with all the bruising and bandages. Deprived of the comfort of touching him, for fear of disturbing him and hurting him, Tessa allowed herself to melt into tears, kneeling next to his bed as if in prayer. She was fully aware of the way she looked there and she didn't care. Her entire chest panged with heartache and fear. With all that emotion bursting out of her, Tessa didn't exactly succeed at being silent for long. It was no surprise to her, then--and, actually, it was a shameful relief--when the sound of quickened breathing came from above her head.
Wiping at her eyes and face, she found Matt awake, his eyes open and flicking around, but scrunched with pain. She scrambled upright and carefully took his hand when he started trying to move. "Shh. Matt, I think you have to stay still. Don't hurt yourself. Shh."
"Tessa?" His eyes rolled for a second and he stopped struggling to turn her way. "I'm hallucinating again. First, my mother, now…"
"I'm here. Actually here. Promise. You may be hallucinating, but not about me. One hundred percent Tessa, this." She leaned down and led his hand to shape around her face. "Wha--If you can tell me, what happened to you?"
"Retribution…" He may actually have been hallucinating. That was extra Catholic of him.
"Okay… in the shape of…"
"Elektra. The Hand. My past… I suppose that's why you're here." His fingertips fell limp from her face and he shut his eyes again.
"You're… in one of those moods, then. That's fine. I--I'm just glad that you're alive. Jess and Luke made it sound like… that wasn't a viable option." Now, she was sitting on the edge of his bed, really looking at him. For some reason, it was less terrifying to assess the terrible state of him when she knew he could talk, even if what he was saying was crazy religious nonsense. "You may be high, now that I think about it, all these injuries. You're bound to be on some pain meds. That would explain the… theme of your raving. Hmm? I hope it's not a concussion or something like that."
When she leaned over him, his chin followed her face, so at least he was alert enough to track her movements. She wasn't a paramedic in this reality, but the resonance of this moment with one that her other self had lived rang too strongly not to elicit some EMT instincts. He smiled when she brushed her fingers through his hair and it almost broke her.
"Well, you're not bleeding from your eyes or nose or ears. That's good enough for me. Do you remember people dressing these wounds?"
"No, but they're dressed, so…" He winced some with the attempt to sit up on his elbow. That seemed to break the spell he'd been under. Like he'd woken again, Matt blinked several times, his eyes rolled towards the ceiling and tilted his head to the side. "T--Tessa. You're… Why are you here?"
"Because I found out you were missing, presumed dead. I had to make sure neither was the truth. Is that so unbelievable?" A little voice in the back of her head replied that it was a bit off. Her emotions were in full flux right then, however, and her terror had officially morphed into giddy relief.
So, with warm and happy tears on her cheeks, like she had done for what felt like years before this moment, she leaned over and kissed him. At first she thought she'd hurt him, the way he recoiled and froze, so she was careful and ginger. When he kissed her back, however, she allowed herself a touch of leeway and entwined her fingers in his hair. It felt so natural, so normal that, for the duration, Tessa didn't think about the fact that he was bed-ridden with injuries. His hand on her elbow, the other on her knee helped solidify that illusion. She kept her fingers in his hair, even when she leaned away. Combing it back off his forehead helped erase the last time she'd done so, in that place where he was miserable and she was dead.
"Your hair's longer." He couldn't reach high enough to touch her head without wincing, but he pointed. With confusion on his face, he searched for words. "I--I-- Tessa… are you back? Are you… you again?"
"I… Uh, yes? I don't catch your meaning."
Matt frowned and shook his head like there was water in his ears. "Why did you kiss me? Like that? Why--why did you kiss me like that?"
"I was scared that you were dead. I'd say that's a reasonable response to finding out that you're not. I…" Flashes of sounds and emotions were coming off of him in waves. A breakup. She remembered the fighting, the pain, the agony. Her mind, though, wanted to stay away from it, to cling to the life where she loved him indefinitely. "I… am confused."
"So am I." This time, he managed to prop himself up on an elbow. With Tessa's help and a pillow, he sat up some and took the glass of water from the bedside table. "Did something change? What about… your… predicament? What about Danny?"
"I… I don't know." Her own memories were in conflict, her emotions, too. There was too much interacting and standing at odds. "Am I… under arrest? What predicament? Is it the… Accords again--What about Danny? Danny… Danny. Are we… not together at all? You and I. I need you to say it, because I'm not sure what's from this reality and what's from the other right now. We broke up--I… broke up with you? No. That doesn't seem right."
Matt nodded and, chin tucked to his chest, cleared his throat. "Tessa. Stop. I don't know what is going on, but… I'm not in any condition to play this game with you. I--I can't handle it normally, much less right now."
Watching his face shiver and then crack with anguish left Tessa reeling. She took his hands, encircling them over the water glass. "I'm not playing a game with you, I promise. I… I think I know the answer, we're not together here anymore, but… I… I'm having a hard time coping with that right now becau--because I just left a world where that seems impossible, like the least likely thing to happen. I lived a full life with you there, Matt. I lived happily with you until I died and… and… and I honestly can't fathom not living that life anymore. It was my everything. I… don't know what I had here anymore. It's… swimming around in the background but like it's on mute and grayscale. I can't suss it out and I… don't have any motivation to try to. I--"
"What are you talking about?" He pulled his hands out from under hers and busied them elsewhere, setting aside the glass and picking at the threads on the hem of the sheets. "I'm not following. You sound like the one who's gotten the concussion. What's happened?"
"I was missing, remember?"
"Because… the god/goddess of mischief accidentally shunted me into a splinter universe. Inside that splinter universe, I… think, I shared a body and mind and life with the… native Tessa. That Tessa wasn't… enhanced. She was me if I hadn't died and been bonded with Mnemosyne, I guess. She… loved you and married you and--and… and had kids with you. We… that Matt and that Tessa were so happy together."
"Now, I know something happened to you. Had kids, Tessa, really? Have you been checked out by Dr. Strange? Could you be under some… spell or something?"
He was avoiding her face, not even turning his head to listen to her. So, Tessa took his hand and conjured the memory she had in mind before them. There was a second or two where Matt seemed to seize up and fight against the invasion of his mind, but then she felt him relax, heard him exhale quietly. She started with their first conversation about the pregnancy, then showed him Jack's birth, the first time Matt held him. When she felt his breathing hitch, she lost concentration and the memory movie faded, leaving Matt retracted in on himself. Tessa took that cue and, pretending not to notice the tear, turned away.
"I'm not delusional. I'm not enchanted. Those are real memories I shared with… with someone who I could've been if… things had gone another way. I loved that baby. Ja--Jack we called him and I actually miss him right now. Miss him. He was perfect and beautiful and… so, so smart and just like you. I… He was my baby, Matt, mine and you--the other Matt gave him to me and I wouldn't have changed that ever, in any way. He doesn't exist in this world and that… breaks my… my heart." Tessa choked on the words, wiping at her nose and eyes, but the tears were flowing now unstinted. "We don't exist in this world… not like that… and that breaks my heart. And, I suppose that means I have my answer. I remember all that pain and misery now. I just don't know how I dealt with it all."
After Tessa could no longer produce intelligible syllables, Matt's hand found hers once more. This time he was hesitant but not as reluctant, working her fingers open and holding just the tips of hers in his grasp. "That was… I was being defensive, Tessa. Those wounds, they still haven't healed and you have a way of… showing up at times when they're particularly vulnerable. All this is… I… I don't know. I think it's too much for my mind to absorb right now, but I can say this: we went our separate ways almost a year ago. I can't speak for you, but I'll tell you what you told me. You couldn't bear the thought of… taking away my opportunity to--to have a full life, with kids."
He waited while Tessa sobbed loudly, again wracked with agony over losing Jack and the twins and the unborn baby, at the intense lack that this life presented her in exchange. "I… can't…"
"Not even if you wanted to, that's the party line. So, we're… just friends now. Obviously, I haven't… entirely recovered. I-- never mind. We've gotten better. I'm with… I was dating Karen and you're… in love with Danny. You haven't told me as much, and I don't think you ever would, but I can tell. He… The sun rises and sets for him with you. You're--God, I can't believe I'm going to say this, but… you're a good couple. He's… better for you than I was. I've made my peace with that, at least." Eyes closed and head settled back deep in his pillow, Matt seemed to deflate a little. "At least I had until you came here and… kissed me like that, Tessa. I'll… I'll be going to confession over that for weeks."
Now, he really looked exhausted. Beaten half to death and bone tired, he laid there silently and Tessa eventually thought he'd fallen asleep. When she moved to pull away from him, though, his fingers tightened around hers again. "Tessa. Can you tell me something and, then, we'll… pretend this didn't happen?"
"I'll try… You know how bad I am at talking when there's this much fluid coming out of my face."
"Yeah…" he smirked weakly. "If I told you I didn't want children, would you come back to me?"
"No." Wiping her face again with her sleeve, she stood quickly and stepped away from his bed. Bent over, palm just grazing his forehead, she kissed him one more time. "Because that would be a lie. If I could have children, though… I'd have them with you, Matt. I know I would be happy with that."
When she phased this time, it felt sluggish. The bright, sterile, Catholic nursery seemed to cling around the edges of Tessa's mind, lingering with their smells and feelings and Matt. Tessa next opened her eyes, all the same, to the living room of her apartment and the worried, expectant faces of not two, but three people. The hug took her off her feet and snatched her breath away. Not because he knocked it from her but because Tessa simply couldn't pull enough air into her lungs to answer the drowning wave of warmth and coziness and clarity. The immediate touch of his energy and it felt like her brain had been snapped awake.
"You're back!" Danny was holding her so tightly that she couldn't even hug him back. "You're back and you're safe! I… I…"
Tessa smiled as brightly as she could when he pulled away and looked her in the face, but she knew that the expression couldn't hide the evidence of her tears. She could only hope that the relief of her whole reality straightening out would be a more predominate emotion to him.
"Oh, no… Is Matt… Did you find Matt?"
"Matt is alive. He's… in some Catholic nurses' hall. I don't know, but he is alive and… recovering from some… horrible injuries." Tessa's eyes traveled over the room, finding Jess and Luke there as well. They both seemed incredulous, so she continued. "I think he's broken most of his bones, but I talked to him. Admittedly, he'd probably have been better off if I hadn't spoken to him because--let's be honest here-- until just this second, I was not in any state to be talking to people, but he was well enough to have a… complicated conversation with me, so that's good news. I… actually need to talk to you about that, Danny. Fuck. Uh… I'm glad you're here. I… feel better. I was… oof, confused for a while there, but… you burnt all that other reality hangover right off for me."
Gentle but still almost suffocatingly clingy, Danny set her down and hovered at her shoulder. "That explains the jolt I felt. You had some chi way out of whack there. Whoa--" He let her pull him towards her bedroom, but did tug back a little. "Don't you want to… help Jess and Luke find Matt?"
"He's in no shape to be moved right now. We can find him, but I don't know what we can do to help him right this second. And, I don't think me popping back up on him will do any good, I-- That can wait for five minutes. Okay? I need to talk to you. In private." Tessa shoved one hand into his back and sent him tottering into her bedroom. A glance over her shoulder and she shouted back at Luke and Jessica. "I'll finish explaining and then we'll find Trish and Matt. Just give me five minutes."