They spent the next week trying to find out where he was. They heard from of their other agents that he’d been in the Hub and been transported by to DC and interviewed by one of Talbot’s men, but when they’d seen him on that list, they’d let him go, and he’d taken off to no one knew where. Someone finally said they thought he had a brother in Baltimore, and Karen took a trip up there and came back with five different email addresses; he’d had a thing about using multiple personal accounts. “His brother insists it was probably just to troll people,” said Karen, “instead of anything more ominous.” Matt hoped she had refrained from expressing her general opinion on trolls to the guy’s brother.
It took nearly the entirety of the third week before Agent Havett finally responded, and his first email wasn’t very promising. But Matt and Karen were both pretty good at persuading people do things, and Amanda Connelly was no slouch at it herself, and when she actually got on the phone with him and made her plea, speaking even of how scared she remained for her children and grandchildren, it proved a turning point.
In the middle of May, he finally came to DC, and the four of them sat in the basement, the two women watching and Matt listening as he first took what readings he could off the communications monitor. “Still gathering information,” was the first thing he told them. “That doesn’t really tell us much; it would’ve been much more interesting if it hadn’t been.” Karen didn’t bite her tongue, but Matt heard her want to. A few minutes later: “Been used before. That good; that means I can crack it.” Matt found himself wondering, for the first time, whether or not he actually wanted the information they would get out of this to confirm Karen’s theory.
It had been weeks, he thought, and no one else had attempted to kill any of them. Three days ago, he and Karen had officially gotten word the investigation into S.H.I.E.L.D. had cleared them of all wrongdoing, at least until further notice, and they were free to leave DC anytime they liked. He was already looking into various law schools, and he really wanted to be enrolled in one by the following winter, and that was a process that was going to take a lot of time and labor. Karen had sworn she wouldn’t allow this quest to get in the way of that, but despite their best efforts it might still happen.
And more than anything, he still had that fear that this would all end the wrong way for her.
“I’ll want to be paid,” said Agent Havett.
“I’ll do it,” said Matt’s mother, before either of the other two could speak, and then, before they could protest, “No, allow me to. You both are going to need all your money to start your lives over, and this is for the protection of all our family.”
He heard her head and voice turn towards Karen, and the latter’s heart jump and flutter; the communication made there was obvious. Did she think she might have Karen as a daughter-in-law? It was very possible. But then again, she might be willing to adopt her even without that.
Still, he said, “Honestly, given how much I imagine you’re going to charge us, Agent Havett? We should split this up.”
“Hey, I’m willing to negotiate a price. But I won’t go below a hundred an hour.”
“We don’t need to go above two hundred then,” said Matt. He suspected this young man, who had spent most of his life sheltered in first the Science Academy and then the Sandbox and similar places, had no real idea how much he should ask for, and while he was hesitant about exploiting the guy too much, he feared his mom might ultimately still insist on paying the whole thing, and he wouldn’t have her losing too much. So he added, “Maybe not even above 150.”
“150, then,” he said, in what Matt could tell was his most aggressive voice, which still wasn’t very aggressive. “It’ll probably take me between four and five hours, maybe six. I won’t linger at it to increase the cost, though; as it happens, I don’t want to stay in this city any longer than I have to-you can tell I’m being honest here, right?”
“I can,” said Matt. If went up to $900, he thought, Karen would somehow get his mother to accept a contribution from her; they might even get her to take one from him too. That led him to be nice to the guy and say, “That’ll do?”
The two women agreed, and Agent Havett left with the device, and they were left to wait. It wasn’t that different, all together, from having a member of the science team go off with whatever needed to be tested, except that it was.
Dinner was eaten with Stephen and his wife, which meant the conversation was about his job and her sister, and not about S.H.I.E.L.D. at all. But when they had said goodbye and they were left alone in the house, Karen said, “You really took charge with Havett back there you know?”
“Did you not want me too?” he asked nervously. Had he been most people, she wouldn’t have, unless they’d been above her on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s chain of command.
“Not exactly,” she said, carefully. “You were always the one of us better at talking to people. Just remember, you don’t outrank me anymore.”
This time they sat down in the living room, and he said, “I was able to get it to print out a list of all the messages it has intercepted over the past six months before it killed itself on me. Some of the messages even came with sections of their content, though most it’s only numbers to indicate who they’re from or too. This is the only printout I got, though; if you want a braille version, you’re going to have to type it up yourselves, and that would take a very long time.”
“I’ll filter out what’s important first, then,” were Karen’s words to that. “At any rate I know the numbers I’m looking for; if they’re there, we’ll have confirmed that Mr. Connelly was working against the Goldsmith…” He heard the folder open, and an inhale that told him everything. “He was.” Her voice is colder now, harder, that of the agent focusing in on the situation at hand.
Agent Havett was already on his feet. “No,” he said, “you will not talk about this around me. I worked for five and a half hours. You will pay me $825 and I will leave and you will never contact me again.”
Matt felt sad, that a former colleague felt the need to flee from them like this, but Karen just said, “In cash? We might not have that on hand.”
“You can write a check; that’s fine. Just do it now.”
“Let me contribute at least a couple hundred of that Mrs. Connelly,” she said to Matt’s mom. “I’ll get my checkbook.”
“That’s hardly necessary,” started the other woman.
“No, you’re not arguing about this either,” said Agent Havett. “Reimburse her later. I want one check now.”
“We could do that, Karen,” Matt reminded her. If nothing else, they could leave the money at the house in cash when they departed DC.
So his mom wrote the check while Karen flipped through the binder, and Matt listened to her quiet reactions to what she was reading. Havett’s thank you was curt, his footsteps fast, his slamming of the door behind him loud. Its echoes in Matt’s ears almost threatened to drown out his mother’s quiet, “So what will you do now, Karen?”
“Finish my final mission as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and make sure no one hurts you two or your loved ones, Mrs. Connelly. Matt, are you with me?”
“Absolutely,” he said, and it was only the presence of his mother that kept his answer from instead being Always; she’d take that the wrong way.
“I’ll work on typing this up, then. Although even glancing over it, I can say right away they knew a lot more about the Goldsmith’s movements than they told me. Maybe on purpose-it looked like he’d gotten into the smuggling of weapons and some high tech as well as drugs, much more than he did back when I was working for him, and some of the consumers listed here we now know were fronts for Hydra, and there’s no way Hydra didn’t have someone working with us and probably secretly doing whatever they could to slow us down or red tape us out of getting things accomplished.”
“Then the Goldsmith would expect us to know all this,” said Matt. “He’ll probably do whatever he can to make the information here useless.”
“He might not know exactly what we know,” said Karen. “Unfortunately, right now we have no idea what only your father knew, and what he reported back, or who among those he reported it back too reported it further.”
“He won’t know he’s being tracked now, will he?” pointed out Matt’s mom.
“No, but he’ll be prepared anyway; he’s no fool.” She always said things like that, as if his intelligence remained exaggerated in her head, even after she’d rejected all the other ideas about himself he’d planted in there. “But he can be lulled into complacency; if we wait another month, it might be just as well; he might think the threat is passed, especially if once we start taking actions, we make them unnoticed for as long as possible.”
“That’s not going to be easy if we go up to Vermont,” said Matt. “Do you think he’ll remember our faces?”
“Probably not yours. Mine…” The shrug of her shoulders was accompanied by a rough rustle of hair. “I suppose that depends how much he watches his older home videos.” There was still pain there, over what those videos consisted of.
Both of them ended up walking with her upstairs to what had been his dad’s office, and Matt offered to stay with her as she typed, but both his companions objected. “You should be resting somewhere more comfortable,” his mom insisted. “Come back downstairs and keep me company instead.”
For the first couple of days after her husband’s death, Amanda Connelly had been excused all of the various tasks that had to be done when somebody was dead, especially by foul play, with her children, Karen, and various other friends taking care of them, but once she had stepped up and taken over the funeral arrangements there’d been surprisingly little time when she hadn’t been busy. And with Matt and Karen having been constantly in each other’s company since fleeing the Triskelion together, indeed with them clinging together probably beyond what was healthy, this was the first time the two of them had been alone together without any immediate task on hand that required both their concentration.
She helped him to the couch, and encouraged him to lie down, despite the scratchiness of the cover it was relieving to press into it. “Want to listen to the radio?”
“Anything but news.”
“Agree with you there,” she said, and flipped through a few stations before hitting the soft rock station. It was playing Adele mixed with too much static. Outside rush hour was well underway, and the neighbor’s cat was wandering in front of the house. Mariah had brought her youngest two here when he had been at the doctor; their grandmother had fed them their favorite chocolates. There was definitely going to be a thunderstorm sometime within the next twenty hours or so; the air conditioner was working overly hard try to deal with the heat and humidity.
His mother was planning to make them her meat stew that night; she’d bought the vegetables for it at one of the farmer’s markets in the area she liked to frequent. She wasn’t losing sleep anymore, or even relying on medication for it, and the saline scent that had clung to her for so long was at last fading. She sat down and picked up a book; probably her current reading, a biography of a 17th-century French landscape designer named André Le Notre. She’d read aloud to him at least once a week until he had turned 16, mostly because they’d both enjoyed it. Sometimes he wished she’d still do it; he didn’t usually care about historical landscape designers, but she might have made one sound interesting, and anyway, her voice and her concentration on the words would’ve reassured him both about her caring for him and about the stability of her own mind.
Because he still had some doubts about that point, especially when her heart had taken to quickening and slowing at the most random times, probably guided by stray thoughts that were attacking her. Even now, he heard it, just before he heard the pages shift as she lowered the book; she hadn’t turned any of its pages.
“I used to be prepared for this, you know,” she said. “When…when he was active. But then I thought…”
“I know,” he said gently. She really hadn’t seemed too shocked to learn he hadn’t retired completely, but her being upset about this was understandable; there was an argument his dad should’ve been honest with her.
“I shouldn’t ask this.” Her voice was too low. “A parent shouldn’t be the one asking this advice from their child. But…”
“When I lost my father? My first father, you mean?” He’d been thinking a lot about that in the past weeks anyway, that man he had never, ever forgotten. Geoff Connelly had been his father for so long even the guilt he’d felt when he’d first realized he wasn’t thinking of the man even as his foster father, but simply as his father, was a distant memory, but he’d certainly never been his only one.
“It’s not a fair comparison, I know. You were a child with no one else in the world. Me, well, I’m not at all lost without him; we saw to it from the start that I never would be. But…”
“It’s not going to be the same,” said Matt. “Time will make it better, but it won’t make it the same. Not even if you find someone to take his place.” Which he didn’t think his mother would, although he supposed it was possible; he’d never expected to find a true second father.
“And you know,” she said, “I feel guilty for leaving him in the house. Even though I know I was probably right to. Well, at least you need not blame yourself now; he wasn’t targeted because of you.”
He hadn’t told her he’d been thinking that. But then, she knew him well. She’d spent more than one night when he’d been twelve and struggling to sleep and crying over his dad trying to talk to him about how that wasn’t his fault. He’d heard all sorts of comments to that effect from everyone, from the thoughtless remark of one of his Academy classmates that his father hadn’t been right in the head, to the well-meant speculation by Phil Coulson that he might have had reasons Matt knew nothing about to believe the mob would sooner or later kill him anyway and so decided to go on his own terms, to Karen’s angry declaration that the reasons for doing what he did died with him and they shouldn’t presume to know them. But his mother had made more speeches to him than the rest of them put together.
Karen’s parents, last anyone heard, were still alive. She had always made clear she never wanted to set eyes on them again as long as she lived. They had to both be worried she might now have to, if their mission took them to her home town.
He didn’t try to tell his mother it wasn’t her fault. He knew it wouldn’t help any.
The Adele song ended; the DJ announced the time as close to three. “Are you going to call Jessie’s mother-in-law today?” he asked her.
“In an hour,” she said, and she picked up her book again. Matt waited to hear that first page turn.
Upstairs, he heard Karen gasp and murmur, “Him…well, then, it’s a good thing we’re doing this.”
“You’ll be welcome back anytime,” said Matt’s mom. “In fact, I’d be disappointed if I never saw you.”
“You will,” said Matt. Even if they went up to New York, it was a lot closer to DC than most of the places he’d lived in since leaving home. He could come down for all the holidays if he wanted to. Plus once they finished this last mission she’d probably want to pay at least a short visit to New York just to help them settle in. If he made it into law school she’d probably want to come see the campus; it had always irked her she’d never been allowed to even know where the Academy was. There would be plenty of her in the future.
“Oh, I know I’ll see you,” said his mom, and he didn’t even need the enhanced senses to know she was looking pointedly at Karen.
But at that moment, those senses told him something else, and he barely heard Karen’s reply, or felt the heat that her cheeks radiated out. Initially he told himself he was imagining things, that he hadn’t been in her company enough to be absolutely sure of her heartbeat anyway, or even that she could just be walking by, and he continued to eat his dinner without showing any reaction. But when he recognized her stride too, the same one he’d once heard her keep up for ten minutes nonstop, no, it was her. And he heard her turn up the walk just as Karen asked, “Matt?” he and he realized he’d missed a question from them. “Caught in the senses?” she asked gently; that still happened once in a great while.
His answer was simply, “Maria Hill is walking up to our door.” A moment later the doorbell was rung.
“The three of us deal with her together?” asked Karen.
“Had she said she was coming I would’ve made more stew,” said Matt’s mom, “but I’ll offer her a taste.”
Matt did go upstairs to get his glasses, though, so as he rejoined the women at the door it was Karen opening it, saying, “Good evening, Agent Hill.”
“That’s just Ms. Hill now, Ms. Page.” Her voice was sad, but there was more than a touch of anger in it. “Now what are you and Mr. Murdock doing?”
Matt considered holding back; he wasn’t good at lying. But Karen decided against it anyway, answering, “Taking down the man who used and abused me, nearly ruined my life, and then nearly got me killed. Which I was assigned to do, and just because S.H.I.E.L.D.’s gone doesn’t mean he should get to run around and commit any crime he wants. I’ve been told the mission comes first, and I’ve got one last mission to complete.”
“You do realize,” Hill sighed as Matt joined them by the door, “that you have no legal right to do that anymore. You get caught and don’t ask me for any help.”
“Wasn’t planning to,” shrugged Karen. “And I notice you didn’t threaten to report me there.”
“No,” she admitted. “I won’t. But I’ll urge you to reconsider.”
“Don’t bother,” Matt told her. “When Karen gets her mind set on something, she’ll never reconsider.”
“So I’ve heard. But what about you, Mr. Murdock? Do you really want to go breaking the law before you go off to practice it? The two of you could walk away and have a good life together, and I know you know that. Honestly, I think you should do that, Ms. Page. It’s not like you truly made a choice when you joined S.H.I.E.L.D.; you weren’t in position to refuse, really.”
“If I had had a choice, I would’ve chosen to do exactly what I did. And anyway, someone has to do this, and I don’t think we can trust the government to do it, because Agent Connelly was monitoring far too many CIA agents for me to think that organization isn’t heavily involved, including the Associate Deputy Director.” That had been the name he had heard Karen reacting to earlier that day. Having read all she’d typed up so far, Matt agreed with her assessment there.
And from Maria Hill’s breathing, she was inclined to trust her judgement. Matt pressed it further with, “It’s only logical for there to be some Hydra presence in the CIA. I suppose if they’d actually been completely in control of the agency that would’ve been harder to keep out of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s records, but given the CIA’s general mission and some of the things they’ve done in the past half a century, it’s hard to believe Hydra wouldn’t want to at least have some people there to keep the CIA from interfering in their own activities.”
“I’m aware of all that,” said Hill, the kind of ambiguous statement that would make Matt listen hard to the heart of most people making it, but he knew she had the ability to keep him from reading her. “But do you two really think you can go up against such a powerful government agency all by yourselves?”
“Well,” said Karen pointedly, “you could always help us.”
“Oh no,” she said. “That’s not what I’m doing anymore, and I’ve got very good reasons for that I’m not going to go into. But…”
She stepped into the house, and Matt’s mom naturally asked, “Would you like a bite to eat?”
“Thanks, Mrs. Connelly, but no. If you two are really going to be doing this, it’s best for all four of us I don’t linger here long. But first, again, if you’re doing this, you’re going to need at least a little help. Get me a piece of paper and a pen.” When Matt’s mom when to get it, she said to Matt, “I trust you won’t be terrible offended if I just write one copy of it and let Ms. Page read it out loud to you?”
“Write hard enough and I’ll be able to read that,” Matt offered. “More discreet too.” It looked like he would have to be the nice one, if the way Karen’s breaths were harsh in and out of her nose was any indication.
The paper and pen was brought, and Maria wrote what sounded like a name, a number, and a few more words on it. “Good luck,” she said as she handed it to Karen. “I won’t say it’s impossible for me to be of any more help to you, especially not if you end up in New York, since I think I’m going to be living there, but don’t hold your breath.”
“Good luck to you too, then,” said Matt, and his mom echoed some well-wishing as Maria closed the door. Karen’s saying nothing was probably a favor as well.
At least she spoke after a minute, to recite the name that Maria had left them with: “Sharon Carter. Also known as Agent 13. I thought I heard something about her joining the CIA. She’s left us with both phone and email that I don’t think are the ones she puts down on forms.”