But he’d waited too long before using the bread to make a sandwich again. He thought he might have smelled the mold even before he took the wrapping off, and when he did, the smell was pungent. It was possible it was even bad enough it would’ve been visible to anyone who could see, but either way, he wasn’t eating it.
He briefly considered just skipping lunch all together, but finally decided to go to one of the nearby diners. He’d grab something quick, and hopefully it wouldn’t be the one Foggy and Karen were at. He did not need Foggy accusing him of stalking them, not when they were still getting used to the new state of their friendship, almost back to complete trust, but still not quite.
When he entered the diner, he ran through the hubbub of voices, just to see if he could hear either of his friends talking. He couldn’t, and he couldn’t smell them either. They were somewhere else.
Except then he heard another voice he knew saying very quietly, “sold already, but I think some of them must still be going through processing.”
What, he wondered, what Phil Coulson doing in Hell’s Kitchen? Wasn’t he supposed to be on some secret S.H.I.E.L.D. base somewhere? Whatever his reasons, Matt doubted it was good news.
He walked slowly to the counter, but continued to listen as he heard a young-sounding man with a Glaswegian accent say, “And still no report of anyone being killed in any of the plants?”
“Still none,” said Coulson. “I know, if we just had Agent Simmons on hand, she would be able to tell us why noone’s turn to stone there.”
That last sentence had Matt whirling away from the counter, ignoring several confused exclamations, and striding straight over to the table by one of the windows at which the two men sat. Coulson noticed his coming, of course, and called out, “Mr. Murdock! Over here?”
Remembering then he wasn’t supposed to be able to find them that easily, Matt slowed down, and when Coulson stood up and grabbed a chair from the empty adjoining table, he even took his arm and let himself be guided down. Except he was only using one arm; the other was pressed against his chest, Matt thought, and was not leaving it at all, as if it was in a sling. “Glad to see you here, Mr. Murdock,” he said. “We were planning to come see you anyway, if we could. Allow me to introduce, sitting to your right, Mr. Leo Fitz.”
So this was the man Jemma had chosen over him, even when she hadn’t been sure of the exact nature of her feelings towards him. He even smelled a little like her, though Matt wasn’t sure if that wasn’t just that the two of them had spent so much time in the same locations. His voice was friendly as he offered his hand and Matt shook it, but there was definitely an unaccounted for quickening of his heart. He wondered how much Jemma had told him, but he didn’t want to ask in front of Coulson.
But first, he had more important business to get to. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I heard you say something about people turned to stone. My firm has just acquired a client whose wife suffered that fate after taking a fish oil pill, and he’s made contact with some other people who have witnessed the same thing. We’re suing the company responsible.”
“Ah,” said Coulson, and it was kind of unnerving how steady his heartbeat remained then. “I see we have more to talk about than I thought then.”
The lunch definitely ended up being a longer affair than Matt had anticipated, though at least Coulson was wrapping his explanation up by the time the waitress delivered their food. As they dug in, Matt commented, as softly as he could without whispering, “So if I understand this right, if anyone’s responsible for these deaths, it’s S.H.I.E.L.D. We might be on opposite sides, Director.”
“If you really feel you can’t talk to me, Mr. Murdock,” said Coulson, in the same low volume, “well, I suppose I’ll just have to live with that. But surely you realize what will happen if we don’t cooperate with each other, and honestly? My priority is to get those pills out of circulation, because they are going to kill far many more people than they already have if we don’t, and in fact, because there are so many lives are at stake, if you and your clients can force a general recall of the pills, then S.H.I.E.L.D. is willing to do whatever we have to to help you do that.”
It was the quickest his heart had beaten the entire time, and Matt asked the obvious question, “Including letting yourselves be exposed to the public?”
“If necessary,” said Coulson, his surface as placid as ever, though his heart and the tiny gulp in his throat made clear just how much the thought shook him.
They all paused to take bites of their food, before Fitz said, “You’re not going to demand that be our first course of action, are you?”
“Not if one of us can figure something else out,” said Matt. “Although that’s something your organization is the expert at doing.”
“Don’t you have some experience at subterfuge?” Fitz asked, a little too loudly; Matt was glad for Coulson’s shushing noise. There was more hostility here, although Matt wasn’t sure that was all; there was too much pain for a man who had seen the woman he wanted come back to him just because he needed her.
“Not on this scale,” he said simply. Then he lowered his voice more, and said, “And speaking of which, is there something you’re not telling me about Jemma? It sounded to me when I first heard you two talking like something’s happened to her.” Something had; Matt knew just from the smell of salt water that came from Fitz, although the tears did not actually emerge.
“Yes,” said Coulson. “That was one of the two reasons we were meaning to come see you, actually.” His heartbeat didn’t betray a lie there, although Matt was starting to wonder how reliable that was in this man’s case. “We thought you should know, she’s currently in a situation which we are currently working on-”
“She’s been swallowed up by a possibly alien artifact and we’re trying to figure out how to get her out,” said Fitz.
The grief hit hard, surprisingly so for a woman he had known for less than a week. But even in that first potent rush, Matt was well aware his was not the most broken heart at that table. Before Coulson could even scold his underling for disclosing the information, Matt reached out, took Fitz’s hand again, and said as gently as he could, “I am so, so sorry, Agent Fitz. I know how much she meant to you; that was made clear to me even in the short time that the two of us spent together.”
“I’ll get her out,” he said stubbornly, wrenching himself away.
“Agent Fitz,” said Coulson, chidingly. Then he said to Matt, “The other thing we wanted with you I suppose isn’t all that important, at least compared to the rest of our business here, but it’s still something we ought to have done while we’re in the city. It’s about your Index profile. The photo we have of you is the still the one we took when you were sixteen, and really, the whole thing needs an update. I’d like to talk with Mr. Nelson and Mrs. Mardson’s family about all this, and if we do that, then my entire schedule from the time this lunch is done from the time Agent Fitz and I leave New York is booked, but he’ll be free after half past seven, and perhaps the two of you could go over that together?”
At first Coulson actually tried to avoid explaining to the others where he and Fitz were from, but once he gave in and admitted S.H.I.E.L.D. was still around, the story went faster. It wasn’t easier for any of them to take in, though. Matt even worried about Mrs. Mardson’s mother, Mrs. Bellens, and whether or not she might faint, especially in the hot office.
Matt thought it did help everybody’s trust when Coulson took off the sling, and Matt, along with everybody else, was now able to tell he had lost much of his forearm. “I had contact with the same substance,” he explained, “and it was only because one of my men did a very rapid amputation that I’m here right now. I’ve lost people to it, too. Believe me, we at S.H.I.E.L.D. know exactly how deadly this substance is.”
“Still,” Foggy said. “You should’ve gone to retrieve the crystals in the ocean, especially if you have agents you say are immune from the effects.”
“Yes,” said Coulson. “Believe me, Mr. Nelson, I understand that this was an unforgivable oversight on our parts, and I take full responsibility for it.”
“Will you?” asked Karen, quietly, but pointedly, from where she was standing holding Mrs. Mardson’s young nephew. “A lot will have to be done now, and are you really ready to take the consequences, or are you going to try to avoid them?”
“As I told Mr. Murdock,” said Coulson, “we are willing to do whatever is necessary to save all the lives we can.”
“What about those lost already?” asked Mr. Bellens. “Seems to me if you had never contacted these Inhuman people, they might not have been driven to do what they did.”
“Mr. Bellens,” protested Fitz, “that is not fair. We first made contact with their greater community when we rescued one of them from certain death!”
“Agent, please,” said Coulson, and Matt could detect a little strain in him, though it was amazing how steady his heart remained. “If you’re worried about your financial compensation, Mr. Bellens, well, we will do what we can.” That did make his heart pick up, though, unsurprisingly; Matt doubted S.H.I.E.L.D. had the money to make payouts for all the victims this thing was likely to kill. “If you want an apology, please believe, I and everyone else in my organization could not be more sorry for the mistakes we have made.” That, at least, was completely sincere.
The meeting broke up with the family mostly still hostile, though, and when the two of them were alone, Foggy asked Matt, “That Coulson guy, you trust him?” It said something about the seriousness of the whole situation he’d dropped completely his normal squeamishness about Matt listening to clients’ and other people’s heartbeats in legal situations.
“Mostly,” said Matt. “I do believe he wants to save lives, but I also think if he could dodge the legal process and everything else with no lives lost, he absolutely would. The opinions of the outside world isn’t something he’s used to dealing with, never has been, I think, even before his organization went underground.”
There was a pause, and Foggy’s heartbeat quickening, before he said, “Um…that kind of sounds like you know more about him than you could learn over lunch.”
“It’s a long story,” sighed Matt. He would tell him the whole story about S.H.I.E.L.D. visiting him when he was sixteen, he was sure, but he wasn’t up to that at the moment. “Although there was another thing,” he added, because Foggy would probably notice his being sad about this over the next few days. “Remember Jemma Simmons?”
“That girl back in May who ran out on you? Wait, was she involved with these people?!”
“Yeah,” said Matt. “She was another one of their agents. She was thinking of leaving them, but then she decided against it. And now she’s been swallowed up by a possibly alien artifact, was how Fitz described it. He says he’s going to get her out and he’s definitely trying to, but…”
“Wow,” said Foggy. “I really am sorry. I mean, if she was from S.H.I.E.L.D., I have to say I wouldn’t have approved of you dating her anyway, but…she seemed nice. She shouldn’t have gone back, maybe.”
“She felt she had to,” said Matt softly. “There really were some good reasons for that, and that’s all I can say about them.” They were much on his mind, then, the reasons he knew she would never have forgiven herself had she not gone to meet her fate, including the one that made him fear for her soul.
Seven in the evening found him walking into the church. Father Lantom was there, sharing his end of the day moment with Christ. When he was beside him, Matt genuflected and crossed himself, but did not attempt to sit down.
“What is it?” the priest asked gently. “I haven’t seen you so distressed in weeks. Please say you haven’t-”
“It’s not what I’ve done this time, Father. I need to say…well, not necessarily a prayer for the dead, but a woman I care about is currently…I suppose she’s about the equivalent of missing, presumed dead.” Now came the hard part, “Less than month before she was lost, she-she committed murder, though she did repent of it.”
“And do you truly believe she is dead?” Father Lantom asked, though Matt could detect within him the dismay and grief from what else he had said of her.
“I don’t know,” said Matt. “But it’s hard for me to believe she will ever be brought back to us alive again.”
“Either way, it sounds like you really do need to pray for her.” He at least did not insist there was no hope in praying for her, or that he leave to say it entirely in private, for which Matt was thankful. Or even ask any questions about exactly who she was and what was going on with her, but he had gotten into the habit of not asking those questions of Matt much.
“I have already,” he said. “Since I met her. Yet now, it feels…” He shook his head. “I didn’t even know if I’d ever meet with her again anyway.”
“But now you know you won’t,” said Father Lantom, and yes, that was it, and in fact, Matt thought it even more likely now she wouldn’t come to see him again even if Fitz did save her.
Meanwhile, the priest rose, and said, “Sorry I can’t stay, I’ve got a bit of work to do tonight, unless you need me for anything more.”
“I don’t think I will, father. Thank you.”
When he was alone, Matt slowly walked the rest of the way to the alter, then knelt on the floor, concentrating first on the grooves of it under his knee, the sound of his glasses falling and bouncing slightly off it, trying to shut out the sound of the priest still wandering around in the rectory and the traffic outside. He remembered praying for his father as a boy, the sounds of the funeral. He had never really suffered a loss like that since. This, he found himself thinking as he knelt there, little as the time had been during which he had known her, was the closest.
He could have done this in his apartment, he supposed. And he would pray for her there, too, he was sure. But Fitz would soon be there, now, and Matt wasn’t sure he’d even react well to hear a Catholic prayer said for a non-Catholic friend of his whose affections he was fairly obviously jealous of, and also, he wanted her name said before God like this, even if she’d never been religious at all. And more than that, here, where there was no lingering scent of her to haunt him, no memory of her warm voice and warmer hands and arms, his mind felt clearer, free of any wish to go into denial, to desperately hope for a success he could not bring himself to believe in.
“I commend you, my dear Jemma, to almighty God.” He could barely rasp the words out; had his hearing been normal, he might not have even heard himself speak them. It felt as if he had no right to make this prayer for her, to decide on his own that she must be dead, and yet, as he spoke the prayer on, the same one he had once spoken for his father, he felt a finality settle in his heart, the feeling of letting her go. When he reached the end, he felt more than heard his voice break, as the tears came out.
Even when his eyes had gone dry, he stayed there some time.
Leo Fitz was waiting at his door when he got there, silent; Matt supposed he’d read through S.H.I.E.L.D.’s information on him and knew Matt could tell he was there without help. He was holding something small and flat that was faintly humming and vibrating, about what was normal for a computer. His heart was loud, though, and Matt could hear the tension in the way he moved. “Come in?” he offered, friendly as he could. As they stepped inside, and those familiar memories filled his nostrils, he had to remind himself that Fitz definitely could not smell Jemma’s having been in the living room, even though the smell of her somehow seemed stronger than it had been when he’d left in the morning.
When the door closed, Fitz asked, “Did you fuck her?”
It was actually a relief to be open about this. “Once,” he said.
Fitz shook his head violently enough the air outright whished around him. “She danced around telling me exactly what went on between you two; I don’t think she would have had it been a casual encounter, at least not as much as she did. Although we were planning to go out on a date when…” He made those last words biting, but they didn’t really make Matt any sadder. He had already accepted losing her; the rest no longer mattered.
"Listen, Agent Fitz,” he said. “You ought to realize; the only reason it ever happened was because she thought she had lost you and S.H.I.E.L.D. both.”
“I’m sorry I reacted the way I did, okay?” Fitz interrupted. “I was going to apologize to her when…I mean, it even turned out she was right about Grant Ward anyway; after she failed to kill him and he got away, he then went and kidnapped another one of our colleagues and she nearly ended up dead.”
That disturbed Matt, especially since it carried with it the possibility Jemma had recanted her repentance. But, “That’s not my point. My point is, she was considering staying with me and leaving S.H.I.E.L.D., yes, but the minute Coulson showed up at my door and said you needed her, that was it. She chose you over me, Fitz, even when she wasn’t sure how she felt about you, or, for that matter, how you still felt about her. You have no reason to be jealous of me, not when you were always more important to her than I ever could have been.” He’d known that from the moment she’d first mentioned his name, almost. It was the biggest reason he’d kept her waiting that extra night, before he’d heard her talk the following evening, and genuinely believed she might stay.
Fitz went to sit down on the couch, but Matt didn’t hear his muscles relaxing any. Finally he asked, “What was she like?”
“Upset,” he shrugged. “She was especially distressed the first night, when I don’t think she was even thinking straight; I don’t know if she told you that I first met her when she was being mugged and she probably would’ve been raped too if I hadn’t been there.”
“Yeah, she mentioned that, but I mean, what was she like in bed?” His voice was shaking, and he sounded more emotional than angry now. “Please, I’ve been thinking about it. I mean, a lot. I suppose it might kill me to hear about it, but…I want to..t-to...”
"Know?" Matt asked, remembering what Jemma had said about his speech struggles. Fitz made an affirmative noise.
He briefly considered whether he should refuse to talk about that. But he doubted Jemma would have minded, not if it was Fitz. And if Fitz understood how much it might hurt to hear about what Matt had had and he might not get the chance to have, and was willing to take the risk, well, he could honor the request. And if there was even the slightest chance that Fitz could indeed get her out of the alien artifact alive, it was probably even the right thing to give him whatever motivation he could.
But as he sat down on the other side of the couch and thought back, he found himself shaking his head. “It’s...hard to describe,” he said. “I mean, it’s not like we did anything that unusual, really.” Most of the memories that were flooding his mind, the sounds she had made, or the feel of her hands on him, or how it had felt when she’d come with him inside her, simply were things there were no words for.
“Can you think about it a little? We can do the picture in the meantime. I suppose you can keep your glasses on, since you’re wearing them in the old picture.”
At least Fitz didn’t fuss much about it, unlike the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who had taken the first picture and probably would’ve insisted he take the glasses off if Coulson hadn’t been there. There was just him getting up, moving a little bit away, the faint noises of his electronic device doing its work and his fingers tapping commands, and then he was sitting down saying, “Pity I can’t show it to you; it looks pretty good. So,” he said as he sat down. “Feel free to stop me at any time if there are any mistakes. According to this, your full name is Matthew Michael Murdock and you are Enhanced-that means your abilities are artificially created, rather than your being born with them, you are male, your area of activity is here in Hell’s Kitchen…”
It took about an hour to go through the whole thing. Fitz got more relaxed as they went on, even offering what seemed to be sincere sympathies when they reached the details on his parentage. For the most part S.H.I.E.L.D.’s information on him was accurate, and the tabs they’d kept on his life hadn’t really gone beyond the basics when it came to his biography and legal career, although there was a lot more on his sensory abilities and vigilante activities, and a few things he corrected there.
He got the impression from the way his profile referred to Stick and Madame Gao that S.H.I.E.L.D. might also know a few things about them that he didn’t. But when Fitz rebuffed his attempts to get him to talk about them, he didn’t press it. He doubted he was someone who knew much about them anyway.
When they were done Fitz breathed out and leaned back against the couch. “If we had all night I might actually ask you more,” he said. “I…can understand why Jemma was so fascinated by you.” Matt wondered whether or not he should tell him he could tell Fitz was equally fascinated in spite of himself.
But as the memories of her went through his head once again, he found himself saying, “She…was inquisitive. Wanting to touch me. I think she was more interested in my reaction than anything else, because it was different than a normal person’s would’ve been.”
“Not necessarily,” said Fitz. “She’s always liked her men fit, and, well, you’re fitter than you let on, aren’t you?” His body temperature was going up, more than Matt would’ve expected, and there was a very faint tinge of arousal in the air. “Bet she gaped when she first saw you naked.”
“She did have a reaction, yes.” It still shivered Matt to remember it, the intake of breath and tiny grunt of lust that had come out of her. “Even more of one when she first touched. I think she’d been sexually frustrated beforehand; she hinted to me she might have been, and her responses to me were…v-very strong.”
Fitz’s heart was now going very fast, and his breath was getting short, while the smell got stronger. “How?” he asked, and his voice would’ve betrayed him even if Matt hadn’t had the enhanced senses. “H-how was she when you…when you…”
“Loud,” was the first word which came to his mind. “Especially because I was teasing her, I think. I found out she was really sensitive on the back of her knees, and she just…” He drifted off, remembering the sound of her thrashing on the bed, the vibrations of her impact running through his own body. It did not help matters that he was beginning to taste sex in the air, and hear the rustle of cloth against Fitz’s crotch.
And Fitz, knowing he could tell, just said, “Would you react badly if I told you at this point in time that I’m bisexual?”
This wasn’t the best idea, he knew. Arguably it was taking advantage of a man utterly lost in grief. But Fitz, now bold, was scooting closer, and sex had always been a weakness for Matt, even now, when he didn’t have that much of it anymore. There had been a time when he was younger he thought it would be his greatest, before it had instead proved the least of his sins. Fitz, voice thick and urgent, demanded, “Well, I am. Do you have any objections to that?”
“Can’t,” he said. “I…I am too.” He placed his hand on the couch and squeezed it, trying to resist the desire to close what little distance was left between them.
Until Fitz’s next question was, “How did you touch her?”
“Like this,” Matt all but growled, and a moment later they were all over each other.
Fitz’s mouth was uncertain, easily yielding. His hair had curls that twined their way around Matt’s fingers. He was small, and his body was firm, but not hard like Matt’s. Matt cover his hips with his hands, and let out a slight moan. He hadn’t had sex with nearly as many men as he had with women, but when they were like this, slender but not weak, was when he was turned on the most.
“B-Bed?” asked Fitz, when they parted.
“The sheets are saturated with her scent,” Matt said to him. “Although I don’t know if it would still be strong enough for you to smell.”
“I…I hope I can.”
They dozed afterwards, Matt breathing in the scents of Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons now mixed together with that of recently had sex in his bed. Although now it was not memories of sex that haunted him. It was of that morning he’d woken up next to Jemma, and those first few moments before he’d realized Coulson was in the building, when there’s been nothing but her warmth and heart and breath, and he’d thought about how much he’d love to wake up to that every day, to a woman who knew and understood who he was without fear of him, to start the day in her arms. Those few moments had been even better than the sex, honestly.
“What time is it?” Fitz finally asked. Matt tapped the alarm clock, which answered: “9:41 P.M.” He ought to go out.
“When do you have to meet Coulson?” he asked him.
“I should probably leave here around 11:30. Though I wouldn’t mind a nap first. Seriously, these are really nice sheets. Are they satin? I mean, I could tell your skin was sensitive. No wonder Jemma liked touching you so much.”
"Silk, actually. And yeah, it’s because of the skin. I’ll set the alarm.” He climbed out of bed and began setting the clock. “I probably won’t be back by then.”
“You really are dedicated, aren’t you?” Fitz murmured sleepily into the pillow as Matt went to wash off and suit up.
He listened as he dressed for Fitz’s breathing to change, but when he was ready to go the other man remained awake, so he went back into his bedroom to say farewell. He heard Fitz shift to get a better look at him, and say, “I guess this is goodbye, then. I’m sorry I was hostile earlier. I even sort of wish Jemma had stayed with you. Then she’d be okay, after all.”
“Neither she nor you could’ve foreseen what happened,” said Matt, coming back over. He now wasn’t sure whether taking him to bed had been the right thing or not; it had felt during a lot of it like Fitz had really needed the relief. But he’d cried out Jemma’s name when he had come, as if it had not already been clear where his heart still was. Then again, Matt was one of the few people he could've bedded who didn't mind.
“Do you really think,” he asked, hesitantly, “that you can get her out of that artifact alive?”
“Until I have reason to believe otherwise, yes,” said Fitz. His heart also believed it. “You ought to believe it too.”
Matt ignored the accusation there; he didn’t expect a S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist to understand why he just couldn’t believe in such miracles. “Well,” he said, “if you do, please make her happy, because you both deserve that. But also, Fitz, if you don’t? I hope you still find a way to make yourself happy.”
“I don’t know if I can,” was his response. “There’s no woman like her.”
“I know,” said Matt. “But she painted a picture to me of you as an even more incredible person, and I’ve seen nothing today to contradict that.”
“Really?” asked Fitz, a bit of a laugh in his voice.
“Yes. I’ll be wishing you well. Good luck.” And he kissed him one last time, then climbed over the bed to the window, raised the sash open, and alighted away and into the night.