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Call Off the Search

Chapter Text

“Red.”

Frank hadn’t meant to say the name aloud, but once it was done, he found that he couldn’t stop.

“It’s funny that I should think of you now.”

He paused.

“Maybe not,” he amended. “Last time I was here, you were here, too. Actually had our first real conversation, one that didn’t involve our fists. So yeah, maybe you are the person I need to talk to.”

Frank felt like an idiot. A bone-tired, numb idiot. He didn’t really think Red could hear him (could he?). People believed that the Devil heard everything. Frank knew that wasn’t true, but the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen heard a lot. He just wasn’t sure what Red’s range was. It was pretty big, a couple of blocks at least. It all depended on where Red was patrolling tonight (because Frank had no doubt that Red was on patrol. Sometimes Frank thought the crime fighting was Red’s real job. The other stuff he just did to keep the lights on). Whether or not Red could actually hear him wasn’t the point. He didn’t expect the other man to drop everything and turn up at his wife and kids’ gravestones. That’s not what this was about.

No. This was about…confession.

“Everything’s all fucked up. But I guess that don’t surprise you.

“Made a mistake, Red. Tactical error.”

Frank shook his head, remembering.

“I got my vengeance. Got it all. Straight to the top of the fucking food chain.” He chuckled humorlessly. “Homeland even gave me a free pass. It was too much of a clusterfuck for it all to come to light. So, the government let me clean up their shit, and then they let me walk. Wanted me to disappear like I didn’t just provide a service to this country. Justice, Red. Sometimes vengeance and justice is the same thing. I know you don’t agree with me,” he added. “Good thing you’re not here to say so.” Frank smiled at the thought, imagining Red’s outraged response. Then he sobered.

“But I was sloppy. Didn’t tie up all the loose ends and now the biggest loose end is gunning for me.” Frank shook his head again. “Should’ve put Billy down, but I thought that was too easy, y’know? Easy to die, harder to live. I know what that’s like, Red. I know all about it. But your God’s got a sick sense of humor. ‘Cos Billy? He don’t remember anything about what he did. Knocked it all clean out of his noggin. And now he thinks I betrayed him. What the fuck kind of joke is that?”

Frank stopped. His throat felt a little dry. He wasn’t a big talker on the best of days. But that’s what confession was, right? Talking. Letting it all out. Same shit as therapy, but cheaper. That got Frank to wondering about Billy and his therapist. Both Madani and Curtis had said something about that, right? How Billy had been working with a therapist since he’d woken up from a coma that all the doctors had said he’d never wake from. Billy had crawled back from hell, one agonizing step at a time. He’d done everything that the experts had said he’d never be able to do again. Even though Frank hated him, he admired that. And he hadn’t been surprised in the least. Billy Russo had been the most gifted marine Frank had ever served with. Gifted, charismatic and a born leader. And that’s why Frank had to put him down. Like a dog, if it came to that. Because with or without his memory, there was no end to what Russo would be capable of now that he was free.

God, what Frank wouldn’t give for a drink.

“Never told you about Billy, did I, Red?” he started again. “Billy was my brother, my family…”

By then, there was no way that Frank could stop. The stories poured out of him like an endless fount: his life in the core, how he met Billy and Curtis, where they’d served, what they’d did.

“You’d like Curt,” Frank found himself saying. “You two have a lot in common. Moral compasses, both of you. Fact is, he’s soundin’ more and more like you everyday. Didn’t mean to get ‘im involved, Red. But this shit, man. It drags the people you care about down with you. It’s like a…whaddya call it? It’s like a tornado. You get in its wake and it sweeps you up.”

Frank ended up telling Red about Amy as well, and the other mess he’d stumbled into. High-powered players gunning for the presidency and the psycho killer that had been sent after them. He smiled at the description. Psycho killer. That’s probably how Red thought about him. He was in this mess because he couldn’t mind his own business. He saw a kid in trouble – some lost teenager way in over her head – and he just had to do something about it. Now look where it’d gotten him.

After a moment’s hesitation, he told Red about Beth, too.

“Could’ve been something there,” Frank said, a little wistfully. “I’m not big on those. One night stands. But there was something about her, y’know?”

Frank wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting there just talking. Over an hour, at least. The dew on the grass had seeped into his jeans and the material had turned cold and clammy against his skin. He could feel his legs stiffening and he shifted, stretching them out to get more comfortable. It was while he was doing this that a voice said:

“You sure sound like you could use a drink.”

Frank inwardly cursed his fatigue and distraction. He hadn’t heard anyone approach. “How long you been back there?” he asked.

“Roundabout the time you started talking about Amy,” Red answered. “She seems like a real handful.”

About fifteen minutes then, Frank thought.

“Didn’t want to interrupt your…confession,” Red added.

Frank could hear the smirk in the other man’s tone, but beneath that snark he also detected sincerity. Red hadn’t come here to pick a fight, and for that Frank was glad.

“Here,” Red said. “Take it.”

Frank finally looked to his right. Out of his peripheral vision, he’d seen the other man holding something out to him. Now, he clearly saw what it was – a finely crafted silver flask. Frank accepted the offering, glancing up at Red as he did so. The other man was wearing all black, his billy clubs strapped to the sides of his thighs, a black mask covering the top half of his face. Frank was mildly surprised and, if he was being honest with himself, slightly disappointed not to see the red suit. It wouldn’t make much sense to tease the other man with the nickname ‘Hornhead’ if he weren’t wearing any, y’know, horns. That and…well…the red suit was form fitting. Not that the black top Red was wearing now didn’t accentuate his form…Frank banished those thoughts.

“What happened to your red pajamas?” he asked instead.

“Why?” Red said, a little nonchalantly as he dropped down beside Frank. “You miss the horns?”

Frank didn’t even try to hide his grin as he swiveled the cap off the flask. “They gave you character,” he conceded, before taking a drink. He savored the burn of the liquid down his throat – expensive stuff to match the expensive case. No way the flask belonged to Red. He didn’t think it was Red’s style and the other man wouldn’t bring alcohol with him on patrol. It meant that Red had picked up the flask sometime during the night and Frank idly wondered what those circumstances had been.

“I retired the suit,” Red explained, settling more comfortably on the grass. “I didn’t feel like it represented what I stood for anymore.”

“That happens when some psycho steals your identity and starts murdering innocent people.”

“Saw that, did you?”

“Hard not to.”

Beside him, Red nodded thoughtfully. Frank held the flask back to the other man, but Red brushed the action away. “Keep it,” he said. “You really do need it more than I do.”

For once, Frank wasn't going to argue with the other man. He translated Red’s words to mean, I brought that for you, and the thought made Frank inwardly smile. They fell into a companionable silence, Frank drinking while Red sat quietly beside him. After a while, Frank would’ve sworn that the other man was meditating. There was a preternatural stillness about him that gave Frank the impression that Red may have been far away. He decided to put his theory to the test and he reached out. His hand was blocked so swiftly that once more, Frank didn’t bother to hide his grin.

“What’re you doing?” Red asked sharply.

“I just wanna know,” Frank said. His answer sounded vague to him, but Red understood well enough.

“You already know.”

“I don't,” Frank countered. “Not for sure.” When there was no response, he added, “C’mon, man. It’s only fair.”

Frank watched the hard line of Red’s jaw. What was fair? he wondered. Fair because he’d spilled his guts to a man he hadn’t really thought had been listening? Fair because Red knew his identity but Frank wasn’t one hundred percent sure about Red’s? Oh, he had his suspicions. But suspicion was one thing, confirmation another. Red was all about fairness. They each had their own codes and they stuck to them.

After what felt like an eternity but was really only a few seconds, Red dipped his head, the hard line of his jaw slackening. Frank took that to be permission and he reached out again. This time, no hand blocked him. Frank grasped the black mask. It was surprisingly soft to the touch. He hesitated for a moment, giving Red a chance to change his mind. When nothing happened, he pulled the material off.

Frank didn’t even realize he was holding his breath until he released it. Matthew Murdock’s face greeted him, eyes cast downward.

“Now you know,” the other man said. “For sure.”

Frank tossed the black mask back at the other man, and Murdock effortlessly caught it with one hand.

“How do you do it?” Frank asked. “The blindness. It’s not an act.”

“No,” Murdock confirmed, folding the material neatly before tucking it into his pocket. “It’s not an act.”

“So?” Frank prodded. “You got superpowers?”

“Heightened senses.”

“Superpowers,” Frank repeated.

Murdock chuckled at Frank’s stubbornness. “It’s not like I can shoot lasers out of my eyes,” he countered. “Or fly. Or heal myself when I’m injured. That would be a nifty superpower,” he added.

“What do you have?” Frank asked, his curiosity piqued.

Murdock shrugged. “Fancy hearing,” he said, off-handedly.

“Fancy enough that you heard me talkin’ to you from god knows how far away.”

“Fancy enough that I can tell when people are lying to me.”

“Now that’s a nifty trick,” Frank said, leaning slightly towards the other man.

“It has its moments.”

“What else?”

“I told you,” Murdock said patiently. “Heightened senses. Just like my hearing is magnified, the other remaining senses are magnified as well.”

Frank considered this. “That would drive me nuts,” he eventually said. “Can you switch it off?”

“No,” Murdock replied, and he sounded a little rueful. “It’s a 24-hour package deal.”

“How the hell do you sleep?”

“I manage.”

Maybe this was the reason Red went out at night and beat up criminals, Frank thought. Just so he’d be tired enough to catch some ZZZs.

They fell into another companionable silence, Frank still mulling over Murdock’s superpowers. The heightened senses explained a lot, but they didn’t explain everything like how Murdock learned to fight. Frank knew that Murdock could take down a unit of marines, had taken down groups of highly trained government agents, and (though he still couldn’t entirely wrap his head around it) about thirty or so ninjas on that rooftop before Frank had intervened. That was the last time Frank had seen Red. (Even then he hadn’t been sure. Murdock hadn’t been wearing the mask at the time, but Frank had never caught a good look at him through his scope.) Heightened senses would give Murdock a massive tactical advantage, but the skills themselves had to be learned. Frank wondered if superior reflexes were part of the superpower deal. He thought there was a decent chance and was about to ask, but Murdock broke the silence first.

“You got a place to crash tonight? Unless you plan on sleeping outdoors?”

“Why?” Frank asked, sounding a little suspicious.

Murdock shrugged. “After everything you told me, it doesn’t sound like you’d want to see any of your...” He trailed off, choosing his words carefully. “It doesn’t sound as if you’d want to see any of your friends tonight,” he finally said.

“You sayin’ yer not my friend?” Frank asked, with surprising good humor.

“I don’t know what we are, Frank,” Murdock replied honestly. “But ‘friends’ probably isn’t it.”

Frank chuckled at that. “No,” he agreed. “Don’t have many of those anyway.”

“But the ones you do have care about you,” Murdock said softly.

Frank glanced at the other man warily, knowing that Murdock would be able to sense the gesture. “Don’t,” he said sternly.

Murdock held up his hands. “Didn’t come here to fight,” he said.

“Why did you come here?”

Frank waited the other man out. Murdock, who rarely gave anything away when he was Frank’s lawyer, looked genuinely lost for words. Frank almost wished he had a camera so he could take a picture. It was a Kodak moment.

“I don’t know,” Murdock finally said. “You sounded so…lost. And you were talking to me. Me,” he repeated, as though he couldn’t believe it. (Some part of Frank couldn’t believe it either.) “I couldn’t just leave you out here.”

“Just a bleedin’ heart good Samaritan,” Frank stated, with only the slightest shade of irony.

Murdock let the jibe slide. “You got a place to stay tonight?” he asked again.

“Why? You offering yours?”

“Yes.”

Frank was caught so off guard by the other man’s reply that he didn’t say anything.

“Unless you prefer wet grass?” Murdock continued, when the silence dragged on.

Frank wondered what his heart was telling the other man. Murdock hadn’t said it explicitly, but it wasn’t hard to put two and two together. If Murdock could tell when people were lying, he was probably doing it through their heartbeats like some human lie detector. Sure, there’d be other indicators – increased respiration, sweat – but a stutter or skip in the heartbeat was a dead giveaway. Frank knew he had a low resting heart rate, but he also knew that his heart had sped up a fraction at the offer.

“Sure,” he said, the word sliding off his tongue more easily than he expected.

“Let’s go, then,” Murdock suggested, getting to his feet. He held out a hand to Frank. “Some of us have day jobs,” he added.

Frank grasped the other man’s hand and allowed Murdock to pull him up. He held onto him, to the other man’s surprise, when he leaned in and said, “It’s not wise for the Devil to show me where he lives.”

Murdock scoffed, freeing his hand from Frank’s grip. “Please,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “As if you couldn’t find out where I live if you wanted to.”

Frank smiled to himself as he followed the Devil out of the cemetery.

* * * * *

Frank didn’t know what to expect of Murdock’s place. Murdock wasn’t a high-powered corporate attorney, though he was certainly good enough to be one. Frank was glad of that. It depressed him to think of Murdock as a soulless corporate shark. (Not that he spent a lot of time thinking about his former lawyer, whom he’d privately suspected was Daredevil, as incredible as that seemed at the time.) The soulless corporate shark didn’t suit Murdock at all. Nah, most of Murdock’s cases were pro bono. He and his partner were all about helping the little guy, and that was something Frank could relate to.

Murdock lived in Hell’s Kitchen (of course) on the top floor of an old walk-up. It was the sort of place that wouldn’t have an elevator, which apparently didn’t matter since he and Murdock entered the latter’s unit through the non-conventional way. Rooftop access – practically mandatory for a vigilante superhero these days.

“Convenient,” Frank said, as they walked down a metal staircase that lead into the living room.

“Worth the extra that I pay in rent,” Murdock agreed.

“How much does a place like this go for these days?”

“Too much.”

“Yeah? So how can you afford it with all your pro bono work?”

“Easy. I put on the suit and beat up the other tenants when they’re late with their rent.”

Frank stopped, but Murdock kept on walking. “That’s some sense of humor you got there, Red,” he said.

Murdock had reached the bottom step. He turned to his right to head into the kitchen. Frank could see the sharp smile on his face when he said, “At least, I have one.”

That was true, Frank thought, resuming his walk. Before tonight, his experience of the Devil was a humorless, moralistic pedant…with a nice ass.

Frank stopped at the bottom of the staircase, surveying the area. The loft was spacious, much bigger than he would’ve guessed. On his left were the sliding doors (Japanese-style, Frank noted) that led into what must be the bedroom. The bathroom was behind those doors as well. Murdock hadn’t bothered to turn on the light and Frank understood why. The opposite wall was lined with ceiling to floor windows and the room was flooded by the lurid purple, green and gold lights from a billboard across the street. Only a blind person would be able to put up with that monstrosity, Frank thought, even as he came to the realization that he liked Murdock’s place. A lot.

Murdock was in the kitchen, filling a glass with water. “Want one?” he asked Frank.

“Okay,” Frank said, heading over to join him.

Murdock filled another glass and handed it to the other man. “Hungry?” he asked, as Frank took a drink. “Haven’t been able to buy groceries,” he admitted. “But there’s probably enough in the fridge to scrounge up a sandwich.”

Frank couldn’t help but chuckle. He’d been about to turn down the offer for food, but then his stomach growled. Loudly. Murdock didn’t need super senses to hear that.

“Yeah, yeah. I can fend for myself,” he said, stopping the other man when Murdock went to open the fridge.

Frank put his glass down on the counter and went to the fridge himself. Murdock hadn’t turned the light on in the kitchen either, even though the ceiling to floor windows didn’t extend here. Still, there was enough light to see and when Frank opened the fridge, the light inside automatically switched on. Murdock hadn’t been kidding when he said that the fridge wouldn’t be well stocked. Frank noted the six-pack immediately before zeroing in on the sliced bread. He pulled that out, together with the butter and the last two slices of cheese (which thankfully weren’t stale).

“I’m pretty sure there’s some leftover turkey,” Murdock told him.

Frank found the leftover turkey in a Tupperware container and he brought that out as well, together with the jar of mayonnaise, the last tomato and a bit of lettuce. It was just enough to scrounge together a sandwich, as Murdock had said.

By the time Frank turned around and dumped his trove on the kitchen counter, Murdock had switched on the kitchen light.

“I was starting to wonder if you had any of those,” Frank commented. “Not that you need them,” he added, after a moment’s thought.

“Don’t want you slicing off a finger,” Murdock replied. He handed Frank a large knife and then went to the cupboards. Frank watched as Murdock ran his hands over the wooden surface, counting the cupboards until he found the one he wanted. He opened it and pulled out a plate, which he also handed to Frank.

Frank, on the other hand, was openly staring at the other man. It was too easy to forget that Murdock was blind, and he sure as hell didn’t think of Red as blind, not with all the crazy stuff he could do.

“Frank,” Murdock said, when Frank didn’t take the plate.

“Right,” Frank replied, a little distractedly. “Thanks.”

He hated being caught off guard by the other man. It felt like giving Murdock ammunition to use against him in the future. He turned back to the counter and set about making his sandwich. Behind him, Murdock had gone to the fridge. Frank heard the door opening and then shutting. There was the pop of a bottle cap opening. Then another. When Murdock returned, he placed a cold bottle of beer on the counter next to Frank. Frank nodded his thanks. The other man settled somewhere on Frank’s right, leaning against the counter as he drank his beer.

This was weird, wasn’t it? Frank thought. How did he wind up in the Devil’s kitchen being domestic?

“You always cut the crust off your bread?” Murdock asked curiously, breaking Frank’s train of thought.

Frank glanced down. He hadn’t even been aware of doing that, but Murdock was right. He was automatically cutting the crust off the bread.

“Just a habit I got into,” he said gruffly. “Frank Jr. wasn’t big on crust.”

Frank could feel Murdock’s thoughtful silence beside him, but he didn’t push and Frank was grateful. Amy would’ve pushed. Sometimes she pushed too hard. Maybe Murdock didn’t feel the need to push, not after everything Frank had already told him that night.

Frank finished making the rest of his sandwich in the same comfortable silence that had fallen between them before. It was easy, Frank reflected. After everything each of them had been through, it was easy now to be in each other’s company.

Frank would’ve been content to eat his sandwich standing up at the counter, but Matt insisted that they move to the table. He was hospitable like that, and Frank didn’t argue. They sat at the table, continuing the surreal domesticity of the night. Frank could imagine that same table crowded with papers and folders when Matt was working, maybe filled with take-out boxes when Matt didn’t have time to go to the supermarket. It meant a lot to Frank that Matt had opened his home to him. And somewhere during the course of his sandwich-making, he’d stopped thinking of the other man as ‘Murdock’ and now thought of him as ‘Matt.’ Huh.

With beers and a turkey sandwich, they tried the novelty of holding a conversation, a normal one that didn’t involve pedantic preaching or opposing philosophies or twisted moral codes. Frank didn’t think they’d get very far, but Matt had proven him wrong on more than one occasion tonight. Frank was learning that it was easy to talk to Matt. Shooting the breeze with the Devil. The thought made Frank smile.

When the sandwich was gone and the bottles were empty, Frank knew the moment when Matt was going to stand up. He circumvented the action with a hand on the other man’s knee, as he shifted his chair closer. “Hey,” he said in a low voice.

Matt stilled beneath his touch, tilting his head slightly as though he were looking at where Frank was touching him. Frank wasn’t sure what he was doing when he leaned forward and brushed his lips against the other man’s. The action could hardly be called a kiss, but Frank felt a slight thrill go through him nonetheless.

“What was that for?” Matt asked, an amused smile playing at the corners of his lips.

At least he wasn’t mad, Frank thought, which was a more encouraging reaction than he could’ve hoped for. “Thanks?” he offered uncertainly.

The semi-amused smile transformed into a genuine one. “There are other ways to go about it, Frank,” Matt told him.

“Seemed like the best one,” Frank replied.

Matt chuckled and dipped his head a little lower. It was almost a bashful reaction. “Sure you’re not mistaking me for somebody else?” he asked. “Maybe somebody in Michigan?”

“Pretty sure,” Frank said. “And I don’t…” he hesitated. “I’m not one to pick up people in bars. The one night stand, it’s…it’s not who I am.”

Matt’s expression softened when he said, “Are you propositioning me?”

“Are you accepting?”

There was a moment of tense anticipation between them. Frank was a little stunned by his own boldness. He gave Matt’s leg a gentle squeeze, and the action seemed to jolt the other man out of his stillness. This time it was Matt who leaned forward, his right hand cupping Frank’s jaw. Frank didn’t hesitate. He knew what he wanted, and he took aim. This kiss was no gentle brush of lips against lips. It was full, deep and open-mouthed, and Frank was left a little breathless by it.

“I guess that’s a ‘yes’?” he prodded, noting how his hand had moved higher up Matt’s leg during the kiss, now resting on the inside of his thigh.

“It’s a ‘yes,’” Matt confirmed.

When he stood up, Frank didn’t stop him. Matt reached down and grasped Frank’s hand, and like a good soldier, Frank followed the other man to the bedroom.

Chapter Text

The second time, Matt woke up alone. The room still smelled of Frank, particularly the sheets. Less blood lingered in the air than Matt had expected, but that was probably because he’d talked Frank into taking a shower with him. Last night, he’d wanted to wash off the grime of the streets before they got into bed, and Frank had positively reeked of blood. Matt knew that none of it had belonged to him. The blood was proof of Frank’s futile search for Billy Russo and the unfortunate individual(s) who had felt Frank’s wrath.

“Showerin’ together?” Frank had teased. “Ain’t that something that comes later?”

“Do you know how impossible it is to get blood out of silk sheets?” Matt had retorted.

It wasn't the greatest response because it only gave Frank the opening to tease Matt for having silk sheets in the first place, but by then Matt had shoved him in the shower.

For all his protests, Frank proved to be quite amenable to showering together. After the sort of day he’d had, Matt thought Frank welcomed the sluice of warm water. It was also a nice way to get to know each other’s bodies, and Matt tried not to preen at Frank’s obvious admiration. (Just because he was blind didn’t mean he couldn’t feel somebody staring at him or the almost reverential way Frank had scrubbed his back.) Matt had ended up giving Frank a handjob in the shower, while Frank had tried to kiss him senseless, pressing Matt against the shower tiles as he thrust into Matt’s hand. Afterwards, Frank returned the favor by dropping to his knees without being asked and taking Matt in his mouth, still pressing Matt against the tiles, his hands anchored at the back of Matt’s thighs.

It was the best shower Matt had taken in a long time.

* * * * *

The first time Matt woke up, Frank was moving about the room. Matt knew he was getting dressed. For a big man, Frank moved with stealth. He was quiet, but nothing could get by Matt’s senses. Matt thought about feigning sleep and sparing Frank any sort of awkward goodbyes. He didn’t want Frank to regret what they’d done. It’d been a good night. But Frank must’ve known that Matt was awake (the other man was beginning to understand how Matt’s senses worked) because he simply asked:

“You mind if I borrow a shirt?”

Matt grinned to himself and answered. “Top drawer. Bureau.”

He was sleeping on his side, his arm tucked under a pillow and facing the door. He listened as Frank went to the bureau and opened it. Frank hadn’t bothered to turn on the light in the bedroom, even though it wouldn’t have made any difference to Matt. He was going by the moonlight that filtered into the room. Matt had learned from previous partners that the bedroom, thanks to the position of the window, was the one room not affected by the billboard across the street.

“I’d offer a pair of jeans,” Matt added. “But we’re obviously not the same size.”

“Yeah, I’m not the one with the tight ass.”

Matt began to laugh. “Frank, that’s terrible,” he admonished, in between laughs. The Punisher and double entendres. The Punisher and puns. Really, who would’ve guessed?

“It’s pretty bad,” Frank agreed, not sounding the least bit apologetic. He sat down on Matt’s side of the bed to lace up his boots. Matt moved a little so the other man had more room.

“I can offer you fresh socks,” Matt said, when he’d stopped laughing.

Frank paused in lacing his right boot, considering. “Yeah, okay,” he agreed, after a moment.

“Same bureau, bottom drawer,” Matt instructed.

He felt the bed shift when Frank stood up and went back to the bureau. A few seconds later, the bed dipped again when Frank sat back down. Matt continued to listen as Frank finished lacing his boots. He heard the rustle of Frank’s clothes as the other man bent to his task. He could smell the dried blood on Frank’s jacket; the residue of gunpowder, the metal of embedded bullets, more blood and the chemicals of spray paint on the heavy Kevlar that Frank wore. It mixed now with the scent of his own shampoo in Frank’s hair, and his soap on Frank’s skin. Under all that was the thin layer of dried sweat from when they’d had sex in his bed. Matt liked Frank’s smell. Masculine, but clean. Fresh, despite the blood. Most of all, he listened to Frank’s steady heartbeat. It was a heartbeat that he would recognize anywhere now.

Matt was still amazed at how comfortable they were with each other, how easy everything had been since he’d snuck up behind Frank at the cemetery. So much had happened to each of them that Frank chaining him on a rooftop to try and teach him a twisted lesson seemed like a lifetime ago. They still didn’t agree with each other’s philosophies (Matt didn’t think that would ever happen), but gone was the animosity, if it had ever been there in the first place. What was left between them now was…respect. And maybe something more…

Matt put an end to that train of thought. It was too soon to be thinking like that anyway, too soon to try and define things. Not everything (or everyone) fit into neat little boxes. He was well aware of that

Frank was finished lacing his boots, but he didn’t move. He just sat at the side of Matt’s bed, thinking. (Even Frank’s thoughts carried weight.) Finally, he turned to look at Matt. “I should get back,” he said. (Matt detected a hint of reluctance there.) “Curt and Amy, they’re prob’ly wonderin’ where I am.”

“Wondering how much trouble you’ve gotten into,” Matt translated.

“Yeah, prob’ly,” Frank agreed. Matt could hear the smile in the other man’s voice. “So…uh…”

The reluctance had transformed into something else. Matt sensed it in Frank’s hesitation, in the slight flutter of his otherwise steady heart.

“Thanks for letting me stay over.”

“Yeah, well.” Matt grinned. “The cemetery’s my go-to place to pick up guys.”

He obviously meant that as a joke, but Matt quickly picked up on his mistake. He heard the sudden spike in Frank’s heart, sensed the fine line of tension that shot through the other man’s body. To Frank, what had passed between them wasn't a joking matter.

“Hey,” he said, reaching out and grasping Frank’s arm, forcing the other man to look at him again. “I know this isn’t a one night stand,” Matt told him in all seriousness. “I don’t actually know what this is,” he admitted. “But I know it’s not that.” He paused, letting his words sink in. “Okay?”

Frank exhaled, something close to relief in the sound. “Okay,” he agreed.

Matt’s hand was still on Frank’s arm. Even through the material of the jacket, he could feel the tension draining from the other man.

“Maybe,” Frank began slowly. “Maybe when this thing with Bill and Amy is over…maybe I could cook a real meal for us.”

Matt was a little stunned by the suggestion, but not so stunned that he lost his wits. Whenever he was uncertain, he aimed for humor. “You cook?” he asked, unable to keep the disbelief from his voice.

“Yeah, I cook,” Frank replied, and there was definite indignation there. “You haven’t tasted real spaghetti Bolognese until you’ve had the Castiglione family recipe.”

Matt chuckled, giving Frank’s arm a gentle squeeze. “That kinda sounds like a date, Frank,” he teased.

Frank didn’t take the bait. “Yeah,” he said in a quiet voice. “It does.”

Matt understood the gravity of the situation, how someone as guarded and closed to the world as Frank Castle was putting it all out there, how much Frank had been putting it out there since last night. It touched him, and he didn’t hesitate.

“I’d like that,” he said, clearly.

Warmth bloomed from the other man, a faint blush that faded quickly. Matt’s radar sense picked up the barest hint of a smile. Despite the direction of their conversation, he was still a little surprised when Frank leaned in and dropped a quick kiss on his temple before standing up.

“See you around, Red,” Frank said, and then he was gone.

* * * * *

There was no earth-shattering change in Matt’s life after his night with Frank. As the days went by, Matt could almost believe it was a dream. When he reflected on it, everything about that night was tinged with the surreal. But he couldn’t take away the knowledge Frank had shared with him, couldn’t erase the humanity that Frank had shown him. He wasn’t foolish enough to think he’d be able to change Frank, just like Frank wouldn’t be able to change him, but they were closer to understanding each other than they had ever been.

Matt went about his usual routine, but Frank would inevitably cross his mind, especially when he heard the news reports…

In a bloody 24 hours here in the New York area, three separate targets…

The rise in New York of multiple fatalities…

Witnesses report seeing a gang in frightening masks…

According to police, the men in masks gunned down everyone in the building and made off with more than half a million dollars in cash, drugs and weapons.

Some of the experts were saying that it was the start of a gang war. In a way, they were right. Billy Russo had formed a gang of former war vets, but they weren’t like the other gangs on the streets. They didn’t care about establishing territory or finding their own niche in the underworld. No, all they wanted to do was steal from the other gangs. They were after easy money and they had no qualms about gunning down whoever stood in their way. It was almost primal: Take what you want and not pay for the consequences of your actions.

Matt knew that wasn’t true. Frank was out there, and he would make them pay. That’s what the Punisher did.

Matt was tempted to intervene. He couldn’t let those senseless killings go on if he could do something about it. But he also knew that Frank wouldn’t want that. They hadn’t discussed it specifically, but after everything Frank had told him about Billy Russo, Matt understood that Russo was Frank’s personal mission. This was something Frank had to do himself. Matt knew that there was only one way Billy Russo’s story was going to end, and he wrestled with the idea of helping Frank. Because that’s what intervening would do. He would be helping Frank kill Billy Russo even if he wasn’t the one pulling the trigger. Did Billy Russo deserve to live? Probably not, but did Frank have the right to decide that? No. Matt had to believe in the justice system, in the law. That was what he fought for. For him, there was a line that he wouldn’t cross, no matter how close Wilson Fisk had come to pushing him over it. But Frank Castle and Billy Russo had both crossed that line long ago.

As conflicted as Matt felt, it didn’t stop him from putting on the black suit one night and heading to the area where the raids were taking place. Billy’s gang was systematically raiding a five-block radius. Five blocks was well within Matt’s range. He camped out on a rooftop and waited. He’d have to get lucky. Russo didn’t discriminate. Some of the raids took place during the day, others at night.

Matt waited for over two hours. At the first sound of concentrated automatic weapons fire, he sprung into action. Two groups of men were methodically moving through four floors of a low-rise building. By the time Matt arrived at the scene, the raid was almost finished. Matt gritted his teeth and forced himself to stay put. He was on the roof of the adjacent building. He could hear the police sirens and emergency services on the way. It was a good response time, but they would still be too late. Matt wasn’t. He was ready.

When the gang members filed into their getaway cars, Matt followed them. He tracked the sounds of their vehicles, memorized the voices of the men inside. They were loud. Laughing. High from their take. They were heavily armed, but that was to be expected. Matt used the rooftops to shadow them, and they led him to an abandoned warehouse in Queens. The warehouse was like a mini fortress, bordered on three sides by water. The only entrance was the front.

Matt didn’t breach the perimeter. He stopped on the roof of a building across the street, a fair distance away. It was a good location, some place Frank could use to do his recon. Matt was doing a little recon of his own. He counted the heartbeats of the men inside the building. There were twenty in total: eight from the men who had just arrived, a dozen already inside. Billy Russo was there. The other men were cheering him. Women would be arriving in a little while for a party. The way the men spoke that seemed to be a regular thing.

Matt stayed a while longer, gathering what information he could. Almost unconsciously, he pulled out his phone from his pocket. He’d found, the morning after Frank had stayed over, that a new number had been saved in his contact list. The name was simply listed as ‘Pete.’ There with no last name, not even Castiglione. But Matt knew that it was Frank. Clever, he’d thought. Frank had given him a way to reach him. Might as well use it. He opened a new message and dictated: What you’re looking for is in Queens. Then he rattled off the address of the warehouse and hit ‘send’ before he could change his mind.

* * * * *

Queens was out of the Devil’s regular territory and it took Matt some time to get back. He stopped a few crimes along the way – an attempted mugging on the street, a hold up of an all night convenience store, a robbery in progress. When he neared his own building, the sound of a sure, steady heartbeat greeted him. It was waiting for him on the rooftop of his building, sitting on the concrete block along the stairs that marked the rooftop access. Matt pulled off the black mask as he approached Frank.

“Been waiting long?” he asked.

“Nah,” Frank replied. “About an hour.” He was wearing the same jacket (Matt could still smell the dried blood), hands shoved deep into its pockets. “Kinda nice out here,” he said, as Matt took a seat beside him. “Quiet. Peaceful. Haven’t had that in a while.” He paused, considering. “Maybe not for you,” he added.

Matt sort of shrugged. It is what it is, the action said.

“How’d you find out about Billy?”

Matt grinned to himself. Frank Castle, always direct.

“Followed his gang back to their base,” Matt explained. “They didn’t see me.”

“Using those ninja skills of yours.”

“They come in handy.”

“And your superpowers.”

“Heightened senses.”

Beside him, Frank sighed. He sounded tired. “Your info matches mine,” he told Matt. “Got it from a bartender who was brought there. They call it ‘Valhalla’ or some shit like that.”

“Valhalla,” Matt repeated. “The hall where dead Norse warriors go to live in glory.”

Frank snorted derisively. “Bill always had a self-important sense of self,” he muttered. “Haven’t seen the place yet. Been busy.”

“Amy?”

Frank sighed again. “Kid can’t stop gettin’ into trouble,” he said. “A bounty’s been put on our heads. A cool five mill.”

Matt gave a low whistle. “You’ll be popular.”

“Tell me about it.” Frank shifted his weight and Matt wondered if the other man realized that he was leaning towards Matt. “I’ll start the recon tomorrow.” Frank sounded like he was thinking aloud.

“Did a little recon myself,” Matt replied. “It’s a big warehouse. Isolated. Fortified on three sides by water, only one entrance. There were twenty men there tonight, including Russo, but the gang is probably bigger than that. They’re heavily armed.” He paused as Frank absorbed the information. “You’re not going after Russo alone, are you?”

“Why? You gonna be my back-up?”

Matt knew that Frank had meant that as a joke, but the question came out humorless and laced with fatigue. Still, he hesitated, considering the question seriously. He couldn’t condone what Frank was going to do; he couldn’t be a party to so much killing, and he wouldn’t be able to stop Frank. But he didn’t want Frank to go in alone.

“Don’t worry, Red,” Frank said, before Matt could think of something to say. “I ain’t goin’ in alone.”

“Curtis?” Matt supplied.

“He’ll be my over watch.”

Matt breathed a little easier after that.

“I appreciate the help, Red,” Frank said suddenly. “I do. But I don’t want you there. I know you can help, but I–” he stopped abruptly. “I don’t want you there.”

Frank didn’t sound like he could explain why, but it didn’t matter. There was a part of Matt that understood, another part of him that was glad. That side of Frank was…it was the side that Matt struggled with.

“You wanna come in?” Matt asked, after a moment had passed.

There was a beat before Frank answered. “Yeah, okay,” he agreed. They both stood up. “You been to the store yet?” Frank asked, as Matt opened the roof-access door.

“No,” Matt said, feeling a little sheepish. “But the fridge isn’t totally empty,” he said a little defensively. “One of our clients brought a cassava cake and a lot of eggs.”

“That’s real healthy living, Murdock.”

“I don’t think you’re one to talk, Castle.”

Frank chuckled, following Matt down the steps. “You want me to cook the eggs?”

“Believe it or not, Frank, eggs are my specialty.”

“Because you listen to the membranes and shit?”

“No, because I count.”

“Smartass,” Frank fired back, but he was chuckling.

* * * * *

They had a strange after midnight snack of scrambled eggs and cassava cake, which didn’t taste anywhere near as strange as it sounded. Frank also had a beer, which was one step too weird for Matt.

Matt wasn’t the least bit surprised when Frank pushed him against the counter after the dishes were washed, dried and put away. He had been wondering which one of them would make the first move. The tension between them had been building, steadily but surely as they’d eaten.

They’d fallen into bed quickly after that. Even though it wasn’t their first time, Matt was still caught off guard by how gentle Frank was. He didn’t associate those type of words with The Punisher: gentle, soft, caring, kind. Above all, Frank was a considerate lover. But perhaps Matt shouldn’t have been surprised. These days, Frank wasn’t being The Punisher when he was around Matt. And maybe that was part of the reason why Frank didn’t want Matt anywhere near when he finally took Billy Russo down.

Matt stretched leisurely. Frank was on his side, his head propped in his hand. His fingers grazed the deep scar on the side of Matt’s abdomen. Were they there already? Matt wondered. Was this the part where they traded stories about old battle scars?

“Nobu,” Matt found himself saying.

Frank’s roving fingers stilled.

“The guy on the roof,” Matt added, knowing that Frank would understand.

“The one you flung over the side of the building?” Frank questioned. “Hell of a way to go, Red.”

“The fall didn’t kill him,” Matt replied. “Stick did that when he sliced Nobu’s head off.”

“Yeah, that would do it. Interestin’ friends you’ve got.”

“Stick was a complicated guy and we had a complicated relationship.” Matt sighed. “I’ll tell you about him sometime.” He paused, trying to find the right words to say. “Back on that roof,” he began. “When you had my back? You understood that Nobu was mine. You left him for me.”

Frank remained silent.

“I’m not going lie and say that I’m okay with what you’re about to do,” Matt said slowly. “But I also understand that Billy Russo is yours, and I’m not going to try and stop you. But Frank…if you need me, I’ll be there.”

Matt was going to say more, but Frank cut him off with a fierce kiss. There was a harder edge to it, and also a hint of desperation. Frank rolled over so that he pinned Matt down with his weight. He reached down and took himself in hand, while Matt spread his legs, allowing Frank to get more comfortable. Then Frank was sliding in, Matt still loose and stretched from their previous round. He bracketed Matt’s face with his hands, kissing him slow and deep, matching the even roll of his hips. Matt had learned that about Frank. He liked kissing. A lot. It was another detail about the other man that Matt had found surprising. Sex with Frank was slow. Deliberate. Compassionate. His affection burned too brightly that it was plain to Matt that sex with Frank would never just be about the sex. But this time, Matt wanted something a little different. He gripped Frank’s cock so tightly inside him that it forced the other man to suck in a breath, to still his movements.

“C’mon, Frank,” Matt urged. “You know I’m not going to break.”

“You can be a smartass, Red,” Frank replied, straining with the effort.

Despite his protest, Frank gave Matt exactly what he wanted.

* * * * *

“I should’ve known about Billy,” Frank would say later.

“How?”

“I dunno, but I ask myself that a lot now.”

Matt was lightly dozing, his head pillowed by Frank’s arm.

“All that time he spent with my family, all that time I spent with him. I should’ve known.”

Matt wasn’t one for empty platitudes, so he shifted closer to Frank instead, his left hand landing on Frank’s chest. Frank sought out Matt’s hand, holding it lightly in his.

“When I look in the mirror, Red, he’s the person that I see.”

That got Matt’s attention. “You’re not the same person,” he said, suddenly realizing what it was that Frank feared but would never be able to verbalize.

“Aren’t we though?” Frank asked, his voice dropping. “Me and Bill, we’re cut from the same cloth. There’s something seriously wrong with us that we can do what we do.”

“Frank,” Matt said, dislodging himself from Frank’s embrace. He couldn’t ‘look’ at Frank, but he knew that his actions would force Frank to focus on him. “You and Billy Russo are not the same person. Russo is going to die alone, unloved and unwanted because of the choices he made. And you? Try as you might to push people away, you have people who care about you, people who love you. You’re not alone. You’re not alone right now, are you?”

“Nah, Red,” Frank said, tracing Matt’s bottom lip with his thumb. “I’m not alone.”

Chapter Text

Karen was at the courthouse filing paperwork when she heard the news.

Frank Castle has been arrested. The Punisher was caught at a warehouse massacre. Police have yet to release details but it is believed that Castle killed approximately a dozen men and three unidentified women at the scene. He is being transported to a hospital in police custody where he will be treated for severe injuries.

Karen knew there had to be a mistake. Frank didn’t kill innocents. Not women. Not children. Her mind turned over the phrase ‘warehouse massacre’ and she knew, instinctively, that this had to do with Billy Russo. There was no other explanation.

She checked her watch. Matt and Foggy were due in court after lunch. She hadn’t been to the office yet, deciding to beat the crowds at the courthouse before heading to work. There was time, she thought. There was time to go to the hospital and see Frank. She wasn’t even sure what she could do there or how she could help, but she knew that Frank needed her. And this wasn’t something she could tell Matt or Foggy about. They wouldn’t approve. Worse, they wouldn’t understand.

With her mind made up, Karen completed the paperwork and then hailed a cab to Queens.

* * * * *

It was easier than she’d anticipated getting in and seeing Frank. Of course, he was being kept in a private room and guarded by the police. But she’d flashed an old Nelson & Murdock calling card (she, Foggy and Matt hadn’t had new ones made, not when their office situation was still in flux), cited the 6th Amendment, and insinuated the possibility of a mistrial if Frank was denied access to his legal representation. The last one was a bit of a stretch, but it was the clincher. No way did the cops want Frank Castle back out on the street. There was vigilantism and then there was VIGILANTISM; the cops made a distinction between what the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen did, and what The Punisher did.

Karen wasn’t sure she could make that distinction anymore. Not when she still had such conflicted feelings over Matt and his alter ego; not when she felt a bond to Frank Castle that was rooted somewhere deep in her own shameful past. They were different men, and in different ways she felt close to both of them. Karen knew that – in different ways – she loved both of them.

Frank was asleep when Karen entered his hospital room, so she pulled up the nearest chair and got comfortable while waiting for him to wake. His physical condition was difficult to see, but not surprising. She’d mentally prepared herself for that. In fact, she’d probably seen him in worse shape, but it was the incongruity of his helplessness that had caught her off guard. The Punisher, bruised and battered, handcuffed to a hospital bed…it spoke of a kind of vulnerability that Karen didn’t associate with Frank.

What Karen had been completely unprepared for was Frank’s reaction when he did wake up. He refused to look at her. His attitude spoke of resignation, of defeat. This wasn’t the Frank Castle she knew. And when he confessed to killing the women at the warehouse, Karen knew that she’d been unable to hide the shock on her face. Despite her words (“It doesn’t change how I feel about you.” “It should,” Frank had replied.), Karen knew the damage had been done. Frank saw himself differently, and though Karen had meant what she’d said – she truly didn’t feel any differently towards him – she couldn’t help but see him differently as well. She’d stayed with him, despite the rift she could feel growing between them (Frank was good at pushing people away without saying a word) and Frank had eventually fallen asleep again.

When he’d woken up the second time, it was because of a nightmare and Karen had held his hand as he’d told her about the “same godamned dream.” The words spilled out of him, emotional and wrecked, and Karen thought her heart was breaking all over again. This, she’d thought. This was what had brought them together in the first place. Whereas everyone else had seen a violent animal, Karen had seen Frank’s humanity.

Frank was quiet after his outburst and Karen remained by his side. The peace didn’t last. A young woman burst into the room with some monitoring equipment and immediately proceeded to berate Frank. Frank wasn’t pleased to see her, but he obviously knew her. At least, her presence had stoked a fire in Frank, even if it had pissed him off. A pissed off Frank was better than a defeatist Frank. As Karen was trying to piece together their relationship (something about a bounty? About being wanted by every bounty hunter in New York?), Madani entered the room.

“Shit, looks like the gang’s all here,” Madani had said in her typically dry manner.

The crowning moment of the growing chaos in Frank’s hospital room had been the phone call from Billy Russo. Madani had put him on speaker and Karen had seen how the young woman – Amy, it turned out her name was – had recoiled from the voice. Russo’s menace – his bitterness, his gloating, his spite – all came through clearly as he goaded Frank. And Frank? He may have locked his jaw and gritted his teeth, but Karen could tell that Russo had gotten under his skin.

“You’re no better than me,” Russo had said.

Judging by the dimness in Frank’s eyes, Karen knew that Frank agreed.

After the tension of Russo’s call, their little group disbanded. Madani, simmering with frustration, left the room to get some air or have a smoke – Karen didn’t know. Amy had escaped to the private room across from Frank’s, continuing her ruse as a physician’s assistant. But Karen stayed. She didn’t have anywhere else to be, and she didn’t want to leave Frank brooding with his thoughts.

It was during this relatively quiet moment that Frank had his most unexpected visitor, at least in Karen’s eyes. But Frank didn’t seem the least bit surprised when his door opened and Matthew Murdock strode through, his white cane tapping before him. If anything, Karen would think later, Frank had almost expected him.

“Hey Karen,” Matt greeted her.

“Matt,” Karen said, once more unable to hide her surprise as she stood up. Matt walked to the opposite side of Frank’s bed, Frank tracking him with his gaze. “Shouldn’t you be on your way to court?” she asked, a little distracted by Frank’s laser-like focus on Matt. She could feel her heart rate rising. What was Matt doing here? She knew they didn’t get along. (And that was putting it mildly.) Matt wouldn’t pick a fight with Frank now, would he? Not when he was in Frank’s hospital room as Matthew Murdock, attorney-at-law? He was still Frank’s attorney of record, a fact that she had used to get in and see Frank in the first place (and a card that Matt had obviously also played).

“I spoke to Foggy,” Matt answered, resting the cane that Karen knew he didn’t need against Frank’s bed. “Told him there was an emergency.”

“Bet that went over well,” Karen said quietly.

“He wasn’t overjoyed,” Matt admitted. “But he understands. He’ll probably be less understanding if we both don’t turn up,” he added.

Karen flushed at the gentle reprimand. She hadn’t called either Matt or Foggy to make any kind of excuse. Ditching the two of them was completely unlike her, but she hadn’t expected Matt to turn up at Frank’s hospital bed either.

“What’s the emergency, Red?” Frank finally asked, breaking his silence.

Matt turned his head towards the other man. “I would’ve thought that was obvious,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Five million dollar bounty? You can’t stay here.”

Frank shook his head. “Don’t care,” he said dully. “Let ’em come.”

“That’s very cavalier of you, Frank,” Matt said patiently. “But I’d rather not see this hospital turned into a bloodbath.”

Karen’s confusion was growing. “Wait, you know about the bounty?” she asked Matt. “And you,” she said, looking at Frank. “You called him, ‘Red.’” Then it dawned on her. “You know who Matt is? When did that happen?”

There was a beat before either man answered.

“Recently,” Frank said, at the same time that Matt replied, “It’s been a while.”

Karen looked between the two of them, still trying to figure out what she was missing.

“Frank’s suspected for a while,” Matt clarified. “But he only confirmed my identity recently.”

Frank sort of snorted at that, looking more at ease than Karen had seen him since she’d arrived. She could smell a story here – a good one – but she didn’t push. Now wasn’t the time. Everything about Frank had changed since Matt had stepped in the room. He was more alert, more focused, but at the same time more relaxed, as though Matt’s presence had eased something in him.

Matt returned his attention to Frank. “You can’t stay here,” he told the other man. “It’s not safe. They’ll be coming for you and the girl.”

Frank suddenly gripped Matt’s arm. “You get Amy outta here, Red,” he said fiercely. “You can protect her.”

“I will,” Matt said. “But you can’t stay here,” he repeated.

Frank released Matt’s arm just as suddenly as he’d gripped it. He looked away, even though Matt couldn’t ‘see’ him. “You want to know what happened at the warehouse, Red?” he asked in a low voice. He didn’t wait for Matt’s answer. “I killed them. I killed them all. It’s what I do.”

Matt wouldn't be deterred. “I don’t think it’s as simple as that,” he said.

Frank shot him a heated look that Matt could surely feel. “Sometimes it is,” he said defiantly.

“Tell me what happened,” Matt said, in that calming voice that Karen recognized. She could practically see Frank’s resolve crumbling. His gaze was still focused on Matt, his whole body language attuned to the other man. Karen wondered if Frank had forgotten that she was even in the room.

This time, Matt dropped his hand on to Frank’s arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Tell me what happened,” he said again.

The damn broke.

The words spilled out of Frank without hesitation. Karen found herself holding her breath, rapt by his story, knowing that it would’ve been much harder for her to get that same story out of him. They were close, she realized. Really close. Once more the question that came to the forefront of her mind was, When did this happen?

Matt stayed silent, head bent in a thoughtful pose, as Frank relayed the events at the warehouse: how he’d breached the perimeter through an underground tunnel; how Russo and his gang had been waiting for him; how he’d managed to escape their vicious circle and follow Russo onto the main floor; how he’d seen Russo climb a set of stairs leading to an office on the second floor; how there’d been a flash of movement behind the blinds of said office; how he’d let loose a spray of bullets across the office’s façade; how he’d climbed the steps himself and seen the slaughtered women in that room. That’s where Frank’s story ended because both Matt and Karen knew what had happened next.

For a while, Matt didn’t say anything. Karen knew he was running the events through his analytical mind, piecing together details and connections that Frank may have missed, that she may have missed.

“Russo called to gloat,” Matt finally said. “He wanted to lord his victory over you.”

“You heard that?” Karen said, realizing that Matt must’ve already been in the hospital while Russo had been speaking to Frank. It still amazed her that his senses could pick out that one voice amidst the daily cacophony of the hospital’s operations.

Frank chuckled humorlessly. “Don’t you know that the Devil hears everything?” he asked darkly.

Matt ignored both of them. “Russo knew you were coming,” he went on. “He was ready for you. Which also means he could’ve set you up.”

“Don’t you get it yet, Red?” Frank said, his patience wearing thin. “It don’t matter whether or not Russo set me up. The point is, I fell for it. I killed those women.”

“You don’t know that,” Matt shot back, his voice like steel.

“This ain’t rocket science, Murdock,” Frank said, his voice rising.

Karen was about to intervene, but Matt dropped his combative stance suddenly. He leaned forward and spoke so lowly that Karen strained to hear his words.

“Billy Russo said that you’re your own devil now,” he reminded Frank. “What Russo doesn’t know is that sometimes it pays to have the Devil on your side.”

* * * * *

Matt motioned for Karen to follow him out onto the corridor. They stood a few feet away from the police officer on duty, far enough that speaking in quiet tones they wouldn’t be overheard. To his right, Matt heard the rapid flutter of an anxious heartbeat behind the door of another private room. A young woman was standing there, discretely trying to watch the two of them, a clipboard in hand.

Amy, Matt supplied. The patient in the room opposite Frank’s was in a coma. There was no need for a nurse to be in there and certainly not for that long. Matt filed away Amy’s presence and focused on Karen. She seemed agitated, but Matt wasn’t sure why.

“Billy Russo wants to break Frank,” he said quietly. “He knows Frank too well, knows how to push his buttons.”

“Seems like you know Frank pretty well yourself,” Karen said, her tone giving him pause. There was a definite accusation there.

She’s pissed at me, Matt realized. And she’s probably pissed at Frank too. Betrayal wasn’t a word that came easily to Matt, but he felt the undercurrent of it here. Karen felt betrayed, and Matt felt a little foolish that the possibility had never even occurred to him, not when Frank (and Amy’s) lives were in danger.

“It’s a recent development,” he said calmly.

Karen wasn’t having any of it. “How recent?” she pushed.

The undercurrent of betrayal had shifted to a hint of anger. Matt was surprised by how strongly Karen was reacting. What was he missing?

“Recent, as in last week?” Karen went on. “Last month? Last night?”

Matt felt the moment stretch between them as he thought of a response. He wasn’t entirely sure what was happening or how much he should reveal, but all those considerations seemed small in the context of their much bigger problem, which was getting Frank out of the hospital.

“Last week,” he said.

Karen shook her head, frustration radiating off of her. “But how?” she asked. “When? Last I heard you two wanted to kill each other, and now you’re what? Friends? Matt, he knows who you are.”

Since Matt had slept with Frank twice in the past week, he figured they’d skipped over the friendship phase, but that was probably not the best thing to tell Karen at the moment.

“Karen,” Matt said, in his best placating voice. “I know you have a lot of questions, but we both want the same thing here, right? We both want to get Frank somewhere safe.”

Karen took a deep breath. Matt heard her exhale slowly, sensed how her body relaxed as she composed herself. When she spoke again, she sounded more like the Karen Matt knew.

“I suppose you have a plan for that?”

“I'm working on it.” Matt grinned. “Frank’s a stubborn man.”

“That’s just the pot calling the kettle black,” Karen interrupted.

Matt chose to ignore the jab. “The best way to get Frank out of here is of his own volition,” he went on. “And the only way he’ll do that is if he’s convinced that he didn’t murder those women.”

“You really think Frank didn’t kill them?”

Matt could hear the hope in her voice. “I think you need to look at the evidence,” he replied. “Don’t you have a contact at the ME’s office?”

“Yeah,” Karen said. “One of the techs.”

“Go down to the morgue and see if he’ll let you look at the bodies. Ask Madani to go with you. Her forensic background will help.”

“You know Madani?”

“Not personally, no. But Frank’s mentioned her.”

“I’m sure that’s not all he’s mentioned,” Karen said quietly.

Matt let that jab go as well. “I’ll stay here with Frank,” he said smoothly. “Make sure none of those bounty hunters try anything.”

“A regular guardian devil,” Karen said dryly. Then she said, more seriously, “What if the forensic evidence shows that Frank did kill those women?”

Matt sighed. “Then I’ll knock him unconscious and drag him out of here.”

* * * * *

When Matt returned to Frank’s hospital room, the other man was propped up in bed. He seemed more alert, and he was evidently waiting for Matt.

“Where’d Karen go?” he asked, as Matt walked back to his place by the bed.

“To do the investigative stuff that she’s so good at,” Matt answered.

“Still trying to save me, Red?”

Matt shrugged. “Figure it’s worth a shot,” he said off-handedly.

Frank chuckled. Matt could tell that his spirits were lifting. “I think Karen’s pissed at me,” he confessed. “And she’s probably pissed at you, too,” he added.

“’Bout what?” Frank sounded perplexed.

“My guess would be the sudden change in our relationship.”

“You told her about that?”

“No, but I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re not trying to kill each other anymore.”

“No, I meant the other stuff.”

Matt paused. For the second time, he’d been caught off guard. What was Frank expecting here? Was Frank expecting something?

“I’m not entirely sure what’s happening with the other stuff,” he said slowly. “But no, I didn’t tell Karen about that either.”

“You plannin’ to?”

Matt felt amused, as though he were trapped in some kind of telenovella. Relationship talk in the middle of a crisis. Was this his life?

“When there’s something to tell?” he offered, his uncertainty turning the statement into a question. “I don’t know, Frank,” he admitted. “You seem to have a better handle on this than me.”

“You know what, Murdock?” Frank said. “For a hotshot attorney, you can be pretty slow on the uptake.”

Matt chuckled at that. “Why don’t you let me in on the secret, Castle?” he said, the affection bleeding into his voice.

Frank held his left hand out, palm face up on the bed. Now that they were alone, it was a tacit invitation. Matt smiled at the gesture and accepted the invitation, slipping his hand into Frank’s.

“You ever think that maybe Karen’s pissed ‘cos she still has feelings for you?”

“Pretty sure that ship has sailed.”

“I dunno, Red. It’s not like a light switch you can just flick on and off.”

“And what about you, Frank? I thought you and Karen have a special connection of your own.”

Frank shrugged, his thumb running across Matt’s knuckles. “We do, but it don’t work like that.”

“No?” Matt questioned.

“No,” Frank confirmed.

There was a contemplative pause before Frank spoke again. “What if Karen’s investigation don’t go so well?” he asked quietly.

“She asked me the same question,” Matt admitted, Frank’s thumb still running across his knuckles.

“And what’d you say?”

“That I’d knock you unconscious and drag you out of here.”

Frank laughed. “What? You don’t think I could take you?”

“Battered and bruised and without your guns?” Matt shook his head. “Not a chance.”

* * * * *

Things were peaceful after that. Matt eventually pulled up a chair and sat beside Frank’s bed. They talked about mundane things, a feat that would’ve seemed impossible just a week ago, but now, like with so much else, came to them easily. They were still talking in quiet tones – Frank suggesting places to go for a road trip – when the door to Frank’s room opened and the cop on duty came inside. Matt was instantly on alert. He’d listened to the exchange outdoors; he knew that this cop had arrived early to relieve the previous sentry. There was something suspicious about him, and the way he was sweating with his heart rate slightly elevated only confirmed Matt’s suspicions. He stood up.

“Officer,” he greeted the other man. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“Well, that’s a neat trick,” the police officer replied. (Matt heard a spike in his heartbeat.) “Thought you were the blind one.”

“Mr. Castle doesn’t get many visitors and the hospital staff have an antiseptic smell about them,” Matt explained, his cane now resting between his hands. “You don’t smell like a doctor or a nurse, so it was a reasonable guess.”

“Neat trick,” the officer repeated as he approached Frank’s bedside. “But you are blind?” he confirmed.

“Being blind doesn’t make me a less effective lawyer,” Matt said, his grip on his cane tightening a fraction. “Is there something I can help you with?” he asked again.

“Not at all,” the officer said. “Just wanted to meet the infamous Punisher for myself. Might not get another chance.”

Matt nodded, lips turned downward. “Being blind also doesn’t mean that I don’t know you’re carrying a lethal injection in your pocket,” he said quietly. “And that you intend to use it on my client.”

The cop froze, his mouth open in shock, fingers wrapped around the said syringe. It was the smallest of hesitations, but it was all Matt needed. He flung his cane at the man, knocking him into the wall as he used the safety handle of Frank’s bed to vault across. One carefully placed hit and he’d knocked the cop out cold, the syringe clattering on the floor.

Matt stood up. “Time to go, Frank,” he stated. When Frank didn’t reply, Matt walked over to him and said, “A cop just tried to assassinate you in broad daylight.”

Frank was shaking his head. “Maybe that’s what I deserve, Red.”

Matt curbed the urge to grab Frank and shake some sense into him. Maybe knocking the other man unconscious and dragging him out of the hospital was the best option after all.

“This defeatist attitude doesn’t suit you,” he chastised instead. “How many times do I have to tell you – you’re not Billy Russo.”

“That’s right,” Karen said, striding into the room. “He’s not.” She sounded victorious.

Madani was right behind her and the first thing the Agent-in-Charge noticed was the crumpled body of the cop on the floor. “What’s this?” she asked sharply. “And who are you?” she added, her attention shifting to Matt.

“This is Matt Murdock,” Karen quickly explained. “We work together. He’s Frank’s lawyer.”

“You did this?” Madani asked suspiciously, gesturing to the body on the floor.

Matt dipped his head, an automatic gesture of deference to show that he wasn’t a threat. “Got lucky,” he said, knowing that Madani didn’t believe him for a minute. “He came in here and tried to inject Frank with a needle.”

“He was a bounty hunter?” Karen questioned, putting two and two together.

“Shit,” Madani muttered.

“What did you mean?” Matt asked Karen. “When you said that Frank isn’t like Billy Russo?”

“Because he’s not,” Karen confirmed. She turned to Frank, practically beaming. “You didn’t do it. You didn’t murder those women.”

“What?” Frank asked.

This time it was Madani who spoke. “They were dead before you got there,” she explained. “Billy set you up.”

Matt had already bent down to retrieve the keys to the handcuffs from the unconscious cop as the two women spoke. When he stood up, he passed the keys to Karen who immediately uncuffed Frank.

“We need a plan,” she said.

“This is what we’re going to do,” Matt replied.

Chapter Text

Frank almost made it out of the hospital free and clear. Almost.

Red’s plan was simple but effective. Thank god, Amy wasn’t a part of it. Frank had ordered her back to the safe house, and for once she’d obeyed without protest. Karen, Matt had had to talk into walking away, but she’d eventually agreed, albeit reluctantly. Her role was to create a distraction by setting off the fire alarm. That would lead to a hospital wide evacuation. Frank and the cop would exchange places. They were willing to bet that the hospital staff wouldn’t look too closely at the sleeping (read: unconscious) man in a hospital bed during an evacuation. That left Madani to get Frank out. Truthfully, Frank would’ve preferred Red to take that part, but Madani as a Homeland Security agent would draw far less attention helping a wounded cop during an evacuation. That, and they didn’t want to make Madani more suspicious of Matt than she already was.

“Where will you be?” Frank had asked Matt, as he’d changed into the cop’s uniform. The others had left the room, giving them some privacy.

“Nearby,” Matt had replied.

“My guardian devil,” Frank had teased, buttoning up the black shirt of the policeman’s uniform.

Matt had given him a wry grin. “Karen said the same thing,” he said ruefully. Then his expression had grown serious.

“What’s worryin' you?” Frank had asked. He could tell that Matt was concerned. The other man was cocking his head from time to time, as though he were listening to something far away. Given those super senses, Frank had no doubt that was exactly what Matt was doing.

“Mahoney is here,” Matt had told him. “He’s sharp. He’ll figure out that the evacuation is a ruse.” He paused, evidently listening again. “Tell Madani to take the south wing emergency exit. Fewer cops are patrolling that area. When the evacuation starts, if you’re lucky, you won’t run into anyone. Stay close to Madani. I’ll meet you outside.”

Frank had had no choice but to stay close to Madani. He could hardly walk and though Madani was a strong woman, Frank was a big man and she’d had trouble bearing his weight. Still, they’d almost made it. Almost.

Red had been right to worry about Mahoney. The other police officers had covered the exits or were helping with the evacuation. Mahoney? He was waiting for them in the emergency exit of the south parking lot.

“Freeze!” he’d yelled, his gun drawn. “Freeze, godammit!”

It’d gone downhill after that. Held at gunpoint, Mahoney had disarmed both he and Madani. Then Mahoney had passed his cuffs to Frank and Frank had been forced to cuff himself. After that, Mahoney was shepherding him into a waiting ambulance, as Madani’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Mahoney cuffed Frank to the handrail of the ambulance and Frank took a seat, immobilized by his position as the ambulance doors slammed behind the detective. He didn’t catch Mahoney’s angry words to Madani through the closed ambulance doors, but knew that it couldn’t be anything good.

A moment later, the ambulance was peeling out of the hospital parking lot…

* * * * *

Mahoney was giving their location to the 15th precinct when Frank heard and felt the thud on top of the ambulance roof. He grinned to himself just as Mahoney said, “What the hell was that?”

Frank knew exactly what (or more correctly who) ‘that’ was, and he slid across his seat to the ambulance doors.

“Castle!” Mahoney barked, watching Frank through the rearview mirror.

Frank ignored him and pulled the lever of the ambulance doors. The doors flung open and a second later, the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen swung inside. Matt smoothly took the seat opposite Frank and proceeded to close the ambulance doors behind him.

“What the –!” Mahoney cried when he caught sight of the ambulance’s newest passenger.

“Detective,” Matt greeted him. “You have a tail, approaching fast on the left side.”

Mahoney looked away from Matt to glance at his side mirror.

“Jesus, Red,” Frank muttered, eyeing the other man up and down. “You really are a regular super hero, with costume changes and everything.”

“Seemed prudent,” Matt replied with a wry grin.

Now Frank understood why Matt had said that he’d meet Frank outside. He meant that he’d meet Frank outside as the Devil. He’d changed into the black suit that Frank had become familiar with, down to a more practical pair of shoes and his weapons. Still, Frank couldn’t help thinking about the red suit. It gave Matt far more protection. He wondered if he could talk Matt back into wearing it. He filed that thought away for another time.

The ambulance was careening as Mahoney avoided the slower moving vehicles in front of him. “Don’t know what you’re talking about!” Mahoney called back. “That’s a cop car coming up on our left. About damn time, too.”

“He’s no cop!” Matt replied. “The guy you were telling me about?” he said to Frank. “The one sent after the girl? Pretty sure that’s him in the squad car.”

“Great,” Frank muttered.

“Time to get you out of here,” Matt said.

Matt reached into his pocket and pulled out the keys he’d gotten from the other police officer. He was about to put the key into the lock when the ambulance was hit hard and they were both thrown off balance. A spray of bullets pelted the front cabin as Mahoney veered to the right. Then bullets were being sprayed along the length of the ambulance. Matt dropped to the floor, but Frank was trapped by the railing.

“C’mon, Red,” Frank urged.

Matt steadied himself as Mahoney turned into the lane of the police car, trying to cut off the other driver. He reached for Frank’s cuffs again, doing his best to hold his balance amidst the violent swaying of the ambulance. He knew that they’d entered a narrow overpass, just wide enough for two vehicles. He could sense that Mahoney was losing control, the other car trying to push them off the overpass. Matt heard the click of the handcuffs unfastening just as he felt the ambulance pitch over the edge of the railing. It held there, suspended for a moment, as time seemed to slow down, before the ambulance plummeted over the side.

* * * * *

Matt was the first to come to. His head was throbbing, the pounding pulse of the fall throwing his radar sense askew. The ambulance was overturned, lying on its roof. He could dimly make out Frank beside him, also lying on his side. Although Matt had managed to unlock the cuffs just before they’d tipped over, Frank hadn’t been able to get out of the cuffs as they’d fallen. As the pounding in his head dimmed slightly, Matt could tell that Frank was lying on his right arm at an odd angle. Dislocated shoulder, Matt thought. Caused by the fall and the handcuffs. The smell of leaking gas assaulted his senses and the drip, drip, drip of the gas hitting the pavement. Mahoney was behind them. The front cabin had taken the brunt of the fall, and Mahoney seemed to be in the worst shape among the three of them. He was definitely concussed.

“Frank,” Matt said, getting to his feet. His body protested at the effort. “Frank!”

The other man groaned, his eyes flickering open. “Red?”

“Frank,” Matt said again. “You gotta get out of here. We’re leaking gas. I’ll get Mahoney.”

Frank managed to pull himself into an upright position, cradling his right arm. Yep, definitely dislocated, Matt thought. He was standing up now, rummaging through the upside down shelves of the ambulance, looking for something to cut through the seatbelt that held Mahoney in place. Behind him, he heard Frank use the ambulance wall to slide to his feet.

“Move, Frank!” Matt said, as he found a pair of medical scissors. Matt pulled them out and began cutting through Mahoney’s seatbelt. The detective was murmuring, only half conscious.

Frank was moving all right, but not out of the ambulance. Matt’s radar sense was coming back into focus and the indoor layout of the ambulance was becoming clearer to him. Frank was leaning into the wall, angling his shoulder just right. Matt heard the crunch as Frank slammed his shoulder into the ambulance, trying to set the dislocated joint. By this time, Matt had cut through Mahoney’s seatbelt, and he managed to catch the detective before the other man fell to the floor (or ceiling). There was another thud, followed by a pained grunt, as Frank slammed his shoulder into the wall a second time. Matt heard the shifting of bones, the pop of a joint sliding back into place, and knew that Frank had set his shoulder properly this time.

Matt hoisted Mahoney upright, propping the detective’s left arm across his shoulders. The other man couldn’t stand; he had barely any sense of what was happening around him. Frank staggered towards them. He took Mahoney’s right arm and threw it across his shoulders, supporting the detective with his left side. His right side was still too tender. Together, they half-dragged, half-carried Mahoney out of the overturned vehicle. They’d just managed to clear the ambulance before the gas leak caught fire and the ambulance exploded, throwing them off their feet. Frank grunted as he rolled onto his side. Matt could almost feel the pain from the other man’s injuries, how his body rebelled at the movement. Matt got to his feet again, pulling Mahoney up with him. The detective was doing better, though still not fully focused. He was leaning heavily into Matt, but at least he was standing up and had some of his motor coordination back.

“I got him, Frank,” Matt assured his companion.

Frank nodded, still holding his right arm. The three of them headed for the cover of one of the crisscrossing overpasses above them. Once there, Matt gently put the detective down on the ground, leaning against the wall.

“Detective,” Matt said, crouching before the other man and listening intently to his heartbeat (strong and even) and for other signs of internal damage (none, as far as he could tell). “You’re going to be fine,” he assured Mahoney. “Help is on the way.” He was about to stand up, but Mahoney suddenly gripped his arm.

“You can’t –” the detective started and then caught his breath. “You can’t let Castle go.”

Matt remained perfectly still. Behind him, a few feet to his left, Frank was watching their exchange.

“You can’t let Castle go,” Mahoney repeated with difficulty.

Matt shook his head. “Detective –” he began, but Mahoney immediately cut him off.

“You caught him, man,” Mahoney said, the strength returning to his voice. “That first time. We wouldn’t have been able to catch him without you. I got a promotion because of you. You can’t let him go now.”

“A lot’s changed since then,” Matt said matter-of-factly.

Mahoney released Matt’s arm in disgust. “I can see that,” he spat. “You two are what? Buddies, now? Partners in crime?” He shook his head. “Never thought you were like him. Castle is a murderer. And you? I may not agree with all of your methods, but at least I know you’re on our side. You help us. Castle? He just tears up the city.”

Matt was shocked by how much the detective’s words stung. Even though his relationship with Frank had drastically changed in the past week, he still thought of their professional and personal lives as separate. (And wasn’t that some complicated mental gymnastics?) Frank Castle and Matthew Murdock were not the same people as Daredevil and the Punisher. But that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? When they’d been together in the past week, they’d been together as Frank Castle and Matthew Murdock. Now Mahoney was forcefully reminding Matt that there was another half to the equation. Hell, he was wearing the black suit for god’s sake. He may have visited Frank in the hospital as his attorney, but he was helping break Frank out of police custody as Daredevil. And he was aiding and abetting a known murderer.

Never thought you were like him.

The words rang in Matt’s head. “I’m not,” he heard himself saying aloud. “I’m not like him.” Matt leaned forward, knowing full well that Frank was listening to their every word.

“Detective,” Matt said. “I know you’re one of the good guys. And the force needs more cops like you. And I know you don’t care about whatever deal Frank has with Madani, or whatever his past is with Russo. I get that. You want to do your job. I get that, too. But sometimes you have to let things run their course. Madani learned that the hard way. You can’t stop the hurricane. All that happens is you get caught up in it.”

“That’s the Devil’s advice?” Mahoney snorted. “Let Castle go and let ’im tear up the city?”

“That won’t happen,” Matt assured him. “I won’t let that happen. But Frank has unfinished business, and he needs to take care of that. He’s the only one that can stop the hurricane.”

“You ever think that maybe he’s the one that started the hurricane in the first place?”

Matt shook his head. “Not this time,” he said.

“And what’ll you do, huh?” Mahoney taunted. “You gonna be his guardian Devil? You gonna keep the Punisher in line?”

“If that’s what it takes,” Matt answered. “I won’t let him destroy the city.”

It was Mahoney’s turn to shake his head. “Shit,” he muttered.

“Detective, I need you to trust me.”

“You’re a criminal, too. You know that, right?”

Matt gave him a wry grin. “I’m a different sort of criminal,” he said, with only the slightest shade of irony.

When Mahoney didn’t say anything else, Matt stood up. He glanced behind him and gave Frank a quick nod. Frank took that as a sign that they could leave and he turned around and began walking away. Matt could hear the hitch in Frank’s step, the scrape of Frank’s boots against the concrete. The other man was in a lot of pain, but he kept it all inside.

“Castle!” Mahoney yelled suddenly, drawing his gun. “Stop!”

Frank did. He didn’t turn, but Matt heard his weary sigh. “You do what you gotta do, Mahoney,” he said, and began walking again.

Matt sensed the detective’s heated gaze turn on him, as though Mahoney were daring him outright to stop him. Matt wasn’t about to do that.

“Help is almost here,” he said instead. He’d been tracking the sirens from police cars and emergency services since they’d escaped the burning ambulance. “I won’t let Frank tear the city apart,” he said again, before he also turned around.

Matt jogged a few steps in order to catch up to Frank and then fell into step beside the other man, resisting the urge to put an arm around Frank’s waist to steady him. He knew Frank wouldn't want that.

“Hell of a promise, Red,” Frank said, after a few painful steps of silence.

“Don’t make me a liar, Frank,” Matt replied.

* * * * *

Matt kept track of the police movements as he and Frank sought safety. They needed to regroup and plan their next move. Despite Mahoney’s fighting words, he didn’t set up a police net to try and catch them. Matt was surprised by that, but also relieved. The detective was showing them more faith than they probably deserved.

Matt eventually guided Frank into an abandoned warehouse.

“Here,” he said, pulling out a small plastic sachet that contained four white tablets. “Got this from the hospital. Something for the pain.”

Frank took the sachet from him and opened it. He popped all the pills in his mouth and dry swallowed them.

“I think you’re only supposed to take two at a time,” Matt told him wryly. He could practically imagine the other man glaring at him, but Frank was too tired to actually say anything. He slumped against the wall he was leaning on until he was sitting down. Matt found himself crouching in front of Frank, similar to how he’d crouched in front of Mahoney.

“Hey,” he said, gripping Frank’s wrist gently. “How you doing?”

“When this is over, Red,” Frank replied. “I could sleep for a week.”

“You can do that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

There was a faint smile from the other man, but it disappeared almost as swiftly. Matt sensed the sudden change in Frank’s demeanor. It had become brusque. Professional. Colder. Harder. Matt inwardly sighed. Frank wasn’t going to be able to push him away that easily.

“Appreciate the help, Red,” Frank told him in a short, clipped tone. “But I got it from here.”

Matt didn’t budge. If anything, he gripped Frank’s wrist a fraction tighter. “Listen,” he said, pitching his voice a little lower. It was a tone that he knew Frank responded to; it was the Devil’s voice. “You’re fighting a war on two fronts. I’m no tactician, but even I know that position is untenable.” Matt paused. “Let me help you.”

There was no reply, which didn’t surprise Matt. Frank wasn’t someone who accepted help easily – who accepted help. Period. He’d been a lone wolf for too long. Come to think of it, Matt wasn’t so great at accepting help either.

“Frank,” Matt said, after a long silence had passed, one that Matt knew was falling in his favor. The tension in Frank’s body had eased; his demeanor had softened. “Let me help you,” he repeated.

Frank reached out with his free hand, running his thumb along the side of Matt’s jaw. Matt leaned into the touch, and heard the surprised hitch in Frank’s breathing.

“Okay, Red,” Frank agreed. He dropped his hand. (Matt still hadn’t released Frank’s wrist.)

Matt nodded. It was his turn to become more professional, more businesslike. “What’s your plan?” he asked, assuming that a tactician like Frank would always have a plan.

“It’s time to stop running,” Frank told him in an oddly flat tone. Impersonal. “The only way to stop the assassin that’s been hunting me and the kid is to cut the head off the snake. Go right to the top.”

“And I suppose you know who that is?”

“Damn right I do.”

* * * * *

Aside from Elektra and Stick, Matt didn’t do team-ups. (His reluctant team-up with the other defenders of New York City to take on The Hand didn’t exactly leave him with the fondest memories.) And just like Elektra and Stick, he was working with Frank to help the other man, rather than forward any agenda of his own. Matt could see right away that there would be complications in their partnership. It wasn’t just that he and Frank had opposing philosophies or worldviews when it came to crime and how to deal with it; they had different methods as well. At least with Elektra and Stick, they’d all undergone the same training; they’d used the same tactics and approaches. Frank, on the other hand? While Matt was all about stealth, silence and using the shadows to his advantage, Frank took the direct approach and preferred overwhelming blunt force.

So, it was they approached Senator Schultz’s exclusive high-rise and had very different ideas about how to get to the Senator. (Matt wasn’t even sure what they were going to do once they reached the Senator. Frank had said that he’d wanted to ‘talk’ him, but Matt suspected that he and Frank may have different definitions of the word ‘talk.’) Frank, dressed as a cop, was going to go through the front door. Matt, dressed as Daredevil, was going to go in through the back or scale the building and enter through a window. He hadn’t decided yet. The point was he didn’t plan on being seen.

“A man wearing a black mask entering through a window,” Frank had told him. “Like that’s not going to scare him.”

“It’s supposed to scare him,” Matt had replied. “I may not be able to see, but I’m willing to bet you don’t look like you’re in great shape,” he’d added. Matt remembered one of the hospital nurses talking about the ‘multiple lacerations’ on Frank’s face and body.

Frank had shrugged. “I’ll keep my head down,” he’d said. “You’d be surprised how much you can get away with wearing a uniform and a badge.”

“Nope,” Matt had said, with a shake of his head. “I'm not surprised at all.”

Frank did exactly as he said he would, marching through the lobby of the building and straight to the bank of elevators. He wasn’t stopped. He even greeted one of the residents along the way. Frank had gotten the Senator’s location by calling into police dispatch, giving the operator the name of the cop whose uniform he’d stolen as well as the cop’s badge number, and then simply asking for the Senator’s address. It’d been that easy.

Frank rang the doorbell of the Senator’s apartment, the brim of his cap obstructing the view of his face. The Senator was a trusting man and he opened the door without hesitation saying, “What can I do for you, officer?”

Frank greeted him with a punch straight to the face. Schultz fell backwards, hands automatically flying up to his broken nose. By then, Matt had already entered the apartment (the window in the study proved to be the easiest route), and was waiting for the both of them when Frank dragged the Senator back into the study and threw him onto one of the black leather sofas.

Schultz cowered in fear. “Just take what you want,” he stammered.

“Eh, is that how it works for you?” Frank replied, feigning disinterest as he walked away from the other man. Frank began scouring the bookshelves and cabinets, looking for anything useful.

The Senator had his back to Matt and hadn’t noticed yet that Matt was in the room. Matt listened to the racing heartbeat of the other man; he smelled the fear that was rolling off him in waves. All that was to be expected.

“Just take whatever you want. Kill whoever gets in your way,” Frank said with disgust as he continued his search.

“What’re you talking about?” Schultz asked. He was stunned. Matt could hear the surprise in his voice. Nothing about this was an act.

“That’s what you’re gonna do?” Frank said, affecting a surprise of his own. “Pretend you don’t know who I am?”

Schultz had finally managed to sit up from where Frank had thrown him down onto the sofa. He was tracking Frank’s movements around the room. Matt heard the spike in the Senator’s heart as Frank passed in front of him to inspect the other side of the study. Schultz had finally realized that he wasn’t alone with Frank, and his attention zeroed in on Matt. Matt knew that he exuded his own kind of intimidation, silent and still in the Senator’s study, dressed in black and his face covered by a mask.

“Whatever you think,” Schultz stammered, as Frank moved to his desk and began rummaging around. “I don’t know you. Either of you,” he added.

There was a damning skip in the Senator’s racing heartbeat. A lie. It was the first one he’d told. He may not have recognized Frank yet in the police uniform, but he knew the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.

“This all seems like such a terrible mistake,” Schultz finished, his voice dropping to a whisper.

Frank, on the other hand, was getting more and more worked up. “A mistake, huh?” he said, his voice rising. “What about those kids from Chicago? Was that a mistake, huh? How about that Sheriff’s station you shot up?” Frank went on, walking around the desk and stalking towards the other man. “The Russians. How about that? Does that ring a bell?” He was practically shouting now.

Schultz’s shock and incomprehension was growing by the second. “I am a U.S. Senator,” he said, indignation creeping into his voice despite his fear. “If you think a crime’s been committed –”

“Lemme tell you something,” Frank said, cutting him off. “I ain’t fallin’ for your act.”

“It’s not an act,” Matt said quietly.

Frank’s gaze instantly shot to him. Matt could feel the heat of the other man’s anger, even as he knew it wasn’t directed at him.

“It’s not an act,” he said again. He stepped towards Frank and dropped his voice. “What’s the play here?”

“He’s coming with us,” Frank said, calming down a little.

“We’re going to kidnap a U.S. senator?”

Matt had already considered the possibility, of course. A ‘talk’ with Frank was hardly ever just a ‘talk,’ no matter how Frank proclaimed otherwise. Still, kidnapping was one of the more extreme options.

I’m going to kidnap a U.S. senator,” Frank corrected. “Nobody even knows yer here.”

“Except for the Senator in question.”

Frank finally turned his back on Schultz, secure in the knowledge that nothing would get by Matt’s senses, so that he could talk to Matt more privately.

“I need him,” Frank said in a equally low voice. “He’s the only link to the assassin. That killer just keeps on comin’ and comin’. He ain’t never gonna stop.”

Relentless, Matt thought. Frank might as well have described himself. “You know I can’t let you hurt a senator,” he said.

“Already broke his nose,” Frank muttered. “He deserves a lot worse than that, Red.”

“Maybe,” Matt conceded. “But I don’t think so.” He paused, remembering his promise to Mahoney. There was talk of Schultz running for the Republican nomination, and he had a good chance of winning it too. The man could be a future presidential candidate. Even if he were guilty as sin (which Matt suspected he wasn’t), there was no way Matt would let Frank kill Schultz. That would tear the country apart, not just New York City.

“Frank,” he said. “What if Schultz is just a puppet?”

“Then we use him as leverage,” Frank replied. “He’s valuable enough to somebody to keep’im alive. Either way he comes with us.”

Matt had fallen silent again, thinking. Frank really was a hurricane or a tornado, and Matt had entered his sphere of influence willingly. The trick now was not to let things spiral out of control. Rapid escalation was another one of Frank Castle’s trademarks.

“You still with me, Red?” Frank asked in that same low voice, when Matt didn’t respond.

“Yeah,” Matt answered. “I am.”

Chapter Text

Frank was the first to enter the trailer. Matt had known from the moment they’d arrived in the lot where the trailer was parked that something was wrong. He’d heard only one heartbeat inside (a resting heart rate accompanied by shallow breathing on the floor of the trailer, indicating that the person was probably unconscious) when he should’ve heard two, and he’d warned Frank immediately. Matt didn’t sense any danger, but Frank had insisted that he stay outside with the Senator.

That’s where Matt was waiting now, standing sentry beside the Senator’s car as Frank went to investigate. Schultz was in the backseat, his hands tied in front of him and a brown sack over his head. Matt knew that the other man had no intention of trying to escape. If anything, he’d gravitated closer to Matt whenever he could, understanding that the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen was a less frightening prospect than the madman dressed in a cop’s uniform. (The Senator had good instincts.)

Frank burst inside the trailer with his gun drawn. He found Curtis unconscious and badly beaten up just inside the trailer door. Matt heard Frank help Curtis into a sitting position, and then his quick-fire questions to his friend and Curtis’s pained explanation. The assassin from the hospital had somehow tracked their location through Madani. Matt was a little hazy on the details, but they were unimportant. What was important was that Amy had barged in while Curtis had been having his little ‘discussion’ with that killer. Curtis had been able to fight the assassin off long enough for Amy to get out of the trailer, but Curtis didn’t know what had happened to her after that.

Matt tracked Frank’s retreating steps. The other man had gone into the back of the trailer to retrieve something. Matt knew soon enough what it was when he heard Frank punch the keys of an older model cellular phone. There was a sharp, corresponding ringing somewhere to Matt’s left and he turned his head in the direction of the sound, knowing there was nobody there.

More bad news.

Frank came out of the trailer, a limping Curtis following behind him. They traced the source of the ringing, Frank cursing when he found the abandoned phone.

“Damn,” Curtis muttered.

Matt knew what that unanswered phone meant. It meant there was a good chance that Amy had been captured after all. He stood, silent and still by the Senator’s car. Curtis hadn’t noticed his presence yet. But when Frank began walking toward Matt, his own limp more pronounced by his agitation, Curtis immediately saw Matt.

“Who the hell is this?” he asked Frank suspiciously.

“A friend,” Matt answered, before Frank could.

Frank ignored Curtis’s question, intent on the passenger in the sedan. “Get ‘im out of the car, Red,” he told Matt angrily.

Matt instinctively blocked Frank’s path, placing a hand on Frank’s chest to calm him. “I’ve got this,” he said in a low voice. “Okay?”

Frank paused, taking a deep breath. He exhaled, giving Matt a short, curt nod.

Back in the Senator’s building, Matt and Frank had debated about how to get Schultz out. It was another example of contrasting methods and ideologies, one that Matt knew would not be their last, however long their team-up lasted. Just as Frank had taken the direct route into the building, he wanted to take the Senator the direct way out and straight into the underground parking. Matt didn’t actually think this was such a bad idea, but he had another agenda as well. If possible, he wanted to get the Senator alone. So, he’d pushed for his more covert method, arguing that it was best for the Senator’s abduction to go undetected for as long as possible, and that meant smuggling him out through service corridors and elevators, avoiding the security and CCTV system that ran through the main areas of the building. Frank was highly skeptical of this, pointing out that the Senator’s car would be seen leaving the building anyway.

“Unless you’re planning to roll down the window, they won’t know whether or not the Senator is inside,” Matt had simply said. “It could just be the driver or an aid going out on an errand.”

In the end, Frank had relented but Matt suspected that it was because the other man had no patience for argument, and he trusted Matt enough to get the Senator out of the building and not to double-cross him in any way. Frank was mostly right, though ‘double-cross’ was too strong a description for the talk Matt wanted to have with Schultz in private. So Frank had tied the Senator’s wrists, but it was Matt who had led the way through the service corridors and elevators, avoiding the CCTV system as he’d smuggled the Senator outside. Frank had taken the Senator’s car keys and found out the exact parking location. He’d meet Matt and Schultz in the alleyway beside the building. Matt’s short time alone with the Senator had allowed the two of them to talk, but surprisingly, it was the Senator who had instigated the conversation.

“I know who you are,” Schultz had confessed, as Matt had led him down the final corridor before the exit.

“Is that right?” Matt had asked, stopping briefly and pulling the Senator behind him to avoid the roving security. He’d placed his hand over Schultz’s mouth to prevent the other man from calling out loud.

When they were alone again, the Senator had whispered, “I can’t say that I condone what you do. It’s illegal. But I also know that you help people. You’ve helped a lot of people, so I know your intentions are good. You have to believe me,” he’d pleaded. “There’s been a terrible mistake. I don’t know what any of this is about.”

“I do believe you, Senator,” Matt had said sincerely. “But Frank is also right. You’re his only connection to the assassin trying to kill him and the girl. There are very dangerous people out there doing very dangerous things, and you’re caught up in this somehow.”

Matt had sensed Schultz deflating in front of him, the despair starting to creep around the other man’s shoulders.

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” Matt had said, making his second fateful promise of the day. First Mahoney, now Schultz. “But I’ve promised to help Frank resolve his situation and we need your cooperation for that.” He paused, letting his words sink in. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” he said again. “But I need your help.”

A long moment had passed between them before the Senator had given Matt the faintest nod.

* * * * *

Curtis didn’t recognize the stranger in the black mask immediately. It was odd even thinking of being able to recognize somebody when that person was wearing a mask, but Curtis figured it out quickly enough and their surreal situation became even more surreal.

The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen was standing in his wrecked trailer.

How the fuck did Frank know the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen? Hadn’t they fought before? Wasn’t Daredevil the reason Frank had been arrested in the first place?

“What the hell is this?” Curtis burst out before he could think better of it. He’d had enough of Frank’s bullshit. The whole situation had passed clusterfuck ages ago. “You have your own support group now?” he rounded on Frank. “Vigilantes Anonymous? When the hell did you become friends with Daredevil?”

The Devil actually laughed as he glanced at Frank. “You’re right,” he told Frank. “I do like him.”

Frank, that asshole, was trying not to grin.

Shit, Curtis thought.

Daredevil walked into the living area of the trailer, escorting a man whose head was covered by a sack. Curtis noted how careful the Devil was being with the mysterious hooded man. He hadn’t even let Frank touch him when he’d taken him out of the car. Now, the Devil was gently settling the man onto a ratty armchair. When the Devil pulled off the hood, Curtis immediately understood why.

“Jesus,” Curtis gasped. He turned to Frank, leveling him with an accusing glare. “Is that who I think it is?”

“You mean David Schultz?” Frank asked in return.

Senator David Schultz?” Curtis corrected, incredulously.

“Yeah, so he keeps tellin’ us,” Frank said, sounding wholly disinterested.

“Jesus, Frank!” Curtis exploded, dropping into the seat by the door in sheer exasperation. He was done. So done. Let Frank’s new vigilante partner take care of his shit.

All the while, the Devil continued to make the Senator comfortable. Now, he was slowly peeling off the packing tape that had been placed across the Senator’s mouth. Curtis couldn’t hear what the Devil said to Schultz once the tape was gone, but he saw the Senator answer with a quick nod.

Frank had gone into the back room again. This time he came out with a black duffel bag. He rummaged around, pulling out a stack of black and white photos that Curtis hadn’t seen. One by one, he tossed the photos into the Senator’s lap as he took a seat opposite the man. Daredevil remained standing by the Senator’s side.

He’s a bodyguard, Curtis realized. He was protecting the Senator from Frank just as much as he was guarding him. Interesting. Maybe this vigilante partnership wasn’t as smooth as Curtis had originally thought. He knew about Daredevil, of course; knew how the man in the mask didn’t believe in killing. He apprehended criminals; he didn’t execute them. And Frank? Frank was the most efficient killer there was.

“Are you gonna blackmail me?” Schultz asked, looking down at the photos. “For god’s sake, you burst into my home! You punch me in the face! You keep yelling about murders, and some man, and some girl…I don’t know what the hell all this is! I don’t!”

“No,” Daredevil answered, putting a hand on Schultz’s shoulder. “We’re not going to blackmail you.”

“But the Russians wanted to,” Frank interrupted. “Y’know something, David?” Frank went on conversationally. “These Russians? They paid for these photos. But then somebody found out, and everybody involved? They got killed. Who could’ve done that? Someone with power? Someone with pull? Someone with no mercy?”

Curtis watched as the fear on Senator Schultz’s face transformed into something else, a kind of dawning horror that battled with disbelief.

“You sit there in front of me and say you got no idea?” Frank went on. “But I think you know exactly who it is. Right? Right, David?”

Schultz shook his head, as though by doing so he would dispel the idea. “No, no,” he muttered. Then he looked up at the Devil, his expression pleading. “They wouldn’t.”

“They did,” Frank fired back.

“Oh, god,” Schultz said, with a sob. “How many?” he whispered.

“Too many,” Frank replied.

“I swear to you,” Schultz said, but he was speaking to the Devil. “I’m not part of this. I would never do…this.”

“We believe you, Senator,” the Devil replied, his hand still on Schultz’s shoulder.

Frank stood up. He approached the pair, and Schultz visibly flinched away from him. The Devil kept his hand on the Senator’s shoulder, his grip tightening as Frank stopped beside him. The Devil glanced at him, cocking his head inquisitively.

“It’s time to call mommy and daddy,” Frank told him.

* * * * *

That phone call went pretty much as expected, minus the second punch to the Senator’s face that Matt had absolutely not seen coming. (Pun not intended.) Mr. and Mrs. Schultz didn’t even try to deny Frank’s accusations. They were despicable people. Without their knowledge, the conversation had been recorded, so they now had evidence incriminating the wealthy and influential Schultz family.

“You reach me on David’s phone,” Frank had instructed the Schultzes. “You trace it, you come after us, he dies.” Then he’d hung up.

“Is that a threat? Or a fact?” Schultz had asked with a wince, echoing Frank’s words to his father.

“Neither,” Matt had answered, a little testily. He helped the Senator to sit up from where he’d fallen after Frank had struck him. “Frank is just a very convincing actor.”

Matt could feel Frank’s irritation brushing up against his own. Frank had believed him when he’d said that Schultz hadn’t been lying to them. Speaking to Schultz’s parents had confirmed that. But Frank’s anger still bubbled too close to the surface, especially now that Amy was in danger. David Schultz may have been innocent, but he was indirectly the cause of this entire mess and Frank needed an outlet for all that anger. But Matt intended to keep his promise to the Senator. He wasn’t going to let Frank hurt him…beyond those two punches and a broken nose.

All the while, Curtis remained silent and observant. Matt was acutely aware of the other man, and how he watched them. Curtis was trying to piece together their relationship from their interaction and behavior, but like Karen, Matt didn’t think Curtis realized how ‘personal’ things had become between him and Frank. And Curtis’s clear surprise at seeing him meant that Frank hadn’t mentioned him at all to his long time army buddy. Matt wondered what that meant…

The four of them settled in to wait for the Schultz’s call to make the exchange, Matt handing the Senator a glass of water and a wet kitchen towel with which to clean up his face. Curtis was also cleaning himself up when the phone rang. Only, it wasn’t the Senator’s phone that was ringing. It was Curtis’s personal number. He answered the phone, his surprise palpable, before passing the mobile to Frank…

* * * * *

“Frank, wait. Wait!” Matt called, as Frank stormed out of the trailer.

The phone call had been from Amy, who as it turned out, hadn’t been captured by that psycho. She had, however, followed said psycho back to his hotel and had called Curtis to give Frank the location. Matt had to give the kid credit. She was brave, even though that was probably the dumbest thing she could’ve done. Brave and stupid. It was a common enough combination.

“What, Red?” Frank barked.

“I thought we were in this together,” Matt reminded him. “And now you’re what? Just storming off on your own?”

Are we in this together?” Frank asked, his body language aggressive as he stepped towards Matt. “Maybe you praised my acting skills back there,” he went on, jerking his thumb in the trailer’s direction. “But you’re the one who deserves the award, Red, playin’ good cop and bad cop like you been.”

Matt gave Frank a thin-lipped smile. “I think it’s pretty clear,” he said. “That David Schultz has nothing to do with his parents’ schemes. You don’t need a human lie detector to tell you that.”

“And I told you that he was leverage.”

“And I told you that I wouldn’t let you hurt him.”

Time seemed to stand still as they faced off. Frank was at the tipping point, about to go off on one of his rages. Matt could sense this. He had to find a way to pull the other man back from the edge. He had to be the one to back down.

“Hey,” he said, taking a different approach. “I said I would help you, and I meant that.”

“You been making a lot of promises today, Red.”

“And I intend to keep all of them.”
.
“You don’t see a conflict of interest here?”

“There doesn’t have to be one.”

Frank shook his head. “God damn, you are idealistic,” he said, half amused and half incredulous.

Matt wouldn’t be deterred. “Frank,” he said, taking a step forward now that Frank had calmed down somewhat. “You shouldn’t go after him alone, especially not in your condition.”

Frank was still shaking his head. “You stay with the Senator, Red,” he said. “You promised to protect him, didn’t cha?”

“I don’t think the Senator’s in any danger from Curtis,” Matt said, wryly.

Frank’s jaw had settled into a stubborn line. Matt couldn’t understand why Frank was being so bullish about this. The whole point of Matt offering his help was so that Frank would have back up, but now Frank was brushing that back up aside. There was some important clue that Matt was missing. Now if only he could figure out what that was.

I don’t want you there. I know you can help, but I…I don’t want you there.

“You don’t need to protect me,” Matt suddenly said, recalling that they’d had another version of this conversation recently, standing on his rooftop before Frank had gone to face Billy Russo and everything had gone to hell.

Frank scoffed, but Matt heard the revealing skip of his heart. “Protect you?” he repeated. “Like the Devil needs protection.”

“And yet, you’re doing it anyway,” Matt said softly.

“It ain’t like that,” Frank protested, the fight seeming to leave him at once. He sounded lost, and Matt remembered how Frank hadn’t been able to explain what he’d meant on the rooftop either. He wondered if Frank would fare better this time. “It ain’t about protectin’ you. I know you can handle yerself. Believe me, I know that, Red.”

“Then, what is it?” Matt pressed.

“You ever wonder, Red, if things could be different?”

Matt was thrown for a loop. Of all the things Frank could’ve said, that had not been on Matt’s mind. “Different?” Matt repeated a little stupidly. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you ever wonder if things could be different…” Frank gestured vaguely. “Between us?”

Matt wasn’t sure where this was going or why Frank was bringing it up now, but he said, “I think things already are different between us.”

“No,” Frank said, shaking his head. “I mean, really different.”

Matt was lost. He was fairly certain that they were going round in circles at this point, but Frank persevered.

“That day I came home,” Frank said. “I was goin’ to leave the army, y’know? And Maria, she knew it too. We both did. It was…it was time, y’know? And then everything went to hell and I thought, There’s no comin’ back. You do what you gotta do, but there’s no comin’ back.

Matt fell silent. Now he was the one who could hear the nervous skip of his own heart. Where was Frank going with this?

“But Karen,” Frank went on. “She talks a lot about…” Frank paused, looking for the right words. “Karen keeps tellin’ me there doesn’t need to be another mission, doesn’t need to be another war. She calls it ‘after.’ Never gave much thought to after, Red. But lately, I been wonderin’, y’know?” He shrugged. “What would ‘after’ look like?”

Matt could hear the undercurrent of wonder in Frank’s voice, the astonishment that such an idea might even be possible, and he was suddenly and absolutely terrified of what Frank might say. Because Frank Castle never did anything half-assed. He was all in or all out. No gray areas; nothing in between. And Matt got it. He did. And right now, he wasn’t sure he could handle it if Frank said it out loud. So, to stop Frank from doing that, Matt gripped his hand. Frank returned his grip immediately.

“Go save the girl,” Matt said simply.

He was aware of how closely they were standing, of their shared body heat that warmed the space between them. He sensed it when Frank turned his head, his gaze flicking to the trailer behind them. They were some distance away from the trailer, past the Senator’s parked car, but they could still be seen from the trailer’s windows if anybody was looking outside.

Matt smirked. Sometimes, he could read Frank too well. “They’re not watching,” he told the other man.

Matt sensed Frank’s gaze shift back to him, and his smirk grew a little wider.

“It’s funny you asked me about Karen,” he went on conversationally, the tension between them dissipating to be replaced by something more comfortable, more like it was when they were just Frank Castle and Matthew Murdock. “You haven’t mentioned me to Curtis at all.”

Matt inwardly laughed at Frank’s exasperated sigh.

“You always goin’ to be this much of a shit, Red?” he asked fondly.

“Yeah, probably,” Matt admitted. He gave Frank’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Go save the girl,” he said. "And don't tear up the city."

* * * * *

When Matt re-entered the trailer, the somber atmosphere of the room was a sobering reminder that things were still a shit storm. Schultz and Curtis sat opposite each other not saying anything. Matt closed the trailer door behind him before approaching the pair. Curtis finally looked in his direction.

“Didn’t expect to see you back here,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“Frank is too much of a lone wolf,” Matt replied, taking the seat nearest the door, the one that Curtis had been sitting in before he took Frank’s vacated place.

“I hear you,” Curtis said, eyeing Matt thoughtfully. “Still managed to rope you into his mess, though.”

Matt chuckled. “I volunteered,” he admitted.

“Not too bright then.”

“How about you, Curt?” Matt asked in return. “How did you get roped into this mess?”

“I just wanted to do the right thing,” Curtis said, sounding unbelievably tired to Matt.

“And now?”

“Now I just wanna go home.”

“You and me, both,” Senator Schultz said, joining the conversation.

“How you doing over there, Senator?” Matt asked him.

“It’s been a very trying day,” Schultz answered, with such calm that it made Matt smile. “What happens now?” he asked Matt plainly.

“Now we wait.”

“I don’t want to go to that man,” Schultz told Matt. “The killer my parents hired. I don’t –” he broke off, unable to finish his sentence. Matt understood. He wouldn’t want to meet the person who’d murdered innocent people to protect someone’s twisted idea of the family legacy either, even if that person wouldn't harm him.

“My parents,” Schultz said, a tremor in his voice. “They didn’t deny it. Any of it. All this time I never…how could I not know? How could I not sense it?”

“You were their poster boy, David,” Curtis answered. “They wanted to keep you clean. Plausible deniability. Isn’t that what the spooks call it?”

Schultz shook his head. Matt could almost taste the salt in the air from Schultz’s unshed tears. “I didn’t ask for any deniability,” Schultz said. “And now people are dead because of some…photographs?” The idea sounded incomprehensible to him.

“It was what was in those photographs,” Curtis replied.

“It isn’t relevant,” Schultz shot back.

“You’re right, it shouldn’t be,” Curtis said, soothingly. “But some people don’t think like that.”

“And by some people, you mean my parents.”

“No offence, Senator,” Matt spoke up. “But you sound like you have some really shitty parents.”

Schultz sighed, resignation overcoming him. “My mother always said we needed to protect people from their own prejudices. That was the price for getting me where I want to be to do the most good,” he said, softly. “But now I wonder… I wonder if maybe my parents had all these people murdered simply because they were ashamed of me. They didn’t want anything about me hurting their legacy. That’s all they really cared about.” He looked straight at Matt. “I just want to do the right thing,” he said. “Isn’t that…isn’t that what we all want here?”

Matt nodded, his mind made up. Frank was going to kill him, but Matt was going to do what he believed to be the right thing.

“It is,” he said. “We’re all going to do the right thing, and then we’re all going home.”

Chapter Text

“Frank’s gonna be pissed,” Curtis told him, as he handed over the car keys to Matt. “Really pissed.”

“I’ll deal with that,” Matt assured the other man.

“Better you than me,” Curtis agreed. He turned to David Schultz. “Wish we’d met under better circumstances, Senator.”

Schultz chuckled. “That’s putting it mildly,” he said. He stretched out his right hand. Curtis gave Schultz a firm handshake. “You’re a good man, Curtis.”

“So are you Senator,” Curtis said. “This is just a bad situation all around.”

“A bad situation that we’re going to fix,” Matt reminded them. They were standing behind the bleachers of a neighborhood baseball park. “You okay to make it home from here?” he asked Curtis.

“Don’t worry about me,” Curtis replied. “I’m good. I’m gonna sleep for a week.”

Matt grinned at that. “Frank said the same thing.”

“Well, I’m gonna beat him to it,” Curtis said, not to be outdone. The good humor vanished from his voice when he added, more seriously, “You sure you can handle, Frank?”

Matt nodded. “Yeah, I’ve done it before.”

“I meant without killing each other.”

Matt gave the other man a wry grin. “Yeah, I’ve done that before too,” he said.

Curtis gave a low whistle. “He must really like you,” he commented.

“I grow on people,” Matt answered. Then it was his turn to hold his hand out. Curtis gave it a firm shake.

“Guess I’ll be seeing you around then,” he surmised.

“Maybe,” Matt said, not willing to commit to anything. Though based on his short but nerve-wracking talk with Frank, the answer was probably ‘yes.’ “Get some rest, Curt.”

“You too,” Curtis agreed. Then he tilted his head thoughtfully. “There’s a part of me that thinks the Devil doesn’t sleep,” he added.

Matt gave him another wry grin. “I get a few hours,” he admitted. “You take care.”

“Likewise,” Curtis returned, before disappearing into the night. Matt followed his retreating steps for a while, before turning around and motioning for Schultz to walk with him.

“Mahoney’s already here,” Matt explained to the other man. “He arrived early, and he’s been waiting for the past five minutes.”

“How do you know that?” Schultz asked, wonderingly.

“I heard it,” Matt answered, not giving any more of an explanation.

“And you’re just going to hand me over to him?”

Matt nodded. “It’s the proper procedure,” he replied. “He’ll make sure you’re okay and bring you home. You can tell your story to the police.”

“I’m not sure what story to tell,” Schultz admitted.

Matt sort of shrugged. “Most people go for the truth,” he said.

Schultz laughed at that. “You’re funny,” he said, smiling. “Never thought the Devil would have a sense of humor.”

“I think only God has a better sense of humor than me,” Matt replied with a sardonic smile. A moment later, he could feel Schultz’s good humor evaporate.

“Castle’s going to kill my parents, isn’t he?”

“There’s a good chance of that, yes,” Matt admitted.

He took a deep breath, carefully considering his next words. He’d told Frank that he wouldn’t stand in the way of Frank’s vengeance against Billy Russo. Russo was Frank’s personal mission. Matt understood and accepted that. Frank’s vendetta against the Schultzes had become personal too, but it hadn’t started that way. Frank had stumbled into this mess out a sense of protectiveness for a stranger, a teenager who had been out of her depth and sure to be killed. But still…it wasn’t the same thing. Was it? Matt was finding it hard to draw what otherwise would’ve been a clear line to him, if Frank hadn’t been involved. To Frank, everything was black and white. Right or wrong. Being a lawyer, Matt was used to the shades of gray, had learned to manipulate the law so that it would fall in his favor. Until Frank Castle came along, Matt had believed that he, too, followed a strict moral code; of course, he understood what was wrong and what was right. Frank Castle blew those ideas out of the water.

“Do you want me to stop him?” he asked his companion.

For a long time, David Schultz didn’t say anything. Matt couldn’t even imagine the kind of war that must’ve been going on inside him. To find out that your parents were ruthless murderers. What would anyone make of that?

“No,” Schultz finally said, but the word came out as a strangled sob. Matt waited as the other man composed himself. Finally, he continued. “I want them to be given a chance. To do the right thing. To atone. And if they don’t take that chance…” he trailed off.

Matt could taste the salt in the air again. “Okay, Senator,” he agreed. He stopped and Schultz automatically stopped beside him. “Let me speak to Mahoney first,” he told the other man. Schultz nodded in agreement, waiting in the shadows while Matt strode out to meet the detective.

Mahoney turned at the sound of Matt’s footsteps. “Change your mind about turning Castle in?” he said, by way of greeting.

“Not exactly,” Matt replied. “But I did bring someone else to meet you.” He looked behind him and motioned for Schultz to come out.

“Senator Schultz?” Mahoney said in disbelief when the Senator came into view. Matt could detect Mahoney’s swift change in demeanor. “Do you want me to arrest this man?” he asked, gesturing in Matt’s direction.

“Arrest Daredevil?” Schultz echoed, as though the idea were completely alien to him. “No,” he said with a shake of his head. “No, I think this day might have ended very badly if it hadn’t been for him.”

“Have you been harmed in any way?” Mahoney went on, still in full detective mode.

“No,” Schultz said, even though his broken nose and the blood on his shirt said otherwise. “Considering the circumstances, I’ve been treated very well.”

Mahoney’s growing disbelief and incredulity were palpable to Matt. The detective was clearly at a loss on how to handle the situation. Matt could hardly blame him. Nothing about Mahoney’s day had been orthodox.

“Are you sure you don’t want to press any charges of any kind against anybody?” the detective said in a last ditch effort.

“I’m sure,” Schultz said firmly. “I just want to go home. Can I give my statement in the morning?”

There was a beat before Mahoney responded. “Yes, Senator. That’ll be fine,” he said. Then he turned to Matt. “Is this your idea of keeping Castle in line?” he accused. “Abducting a U.S. senator?”

Before Matt could respond, Schultz spoke for him. “There’s been no abduction,” he said clearly. “This man needed my assistance and I gave it.”

“I suppose he gave you that broken nose, too?” Mahoney asked skeptically.

“No, he did not,” Schultz answered calmly.

Matt was quietly impressed. David Schultz would make a terrific witness on the stand.

Mahoney sighed in exasperation. “Where’s Castle now?” he asked Matt testily.

“Saving the girl,” Matt replied, perhaps a tad too flippantly.

“And tearing up the city?”

“Probably just a hotel.”

“This isn’t a joke!”

Matt thought Mahoney might burst a blood vessel and decided to go easy on the put upon law enforcement official. “No detective,” he agreed, stripping all humor from his voice. “It’s not a joke. I’m going to meet Castle now and we’ll end this tonight. And maybe, if you’re very lucky, you won’t hear from Castle again for a long time.”

“That would save a lot of taxpayer dollars,” Mahoney commented, still skeptical.

Matt turned back to Schultz. “Thank you, Senator,” he said. “For your assistance.”

“Thank you for keeping your word,” Schultz replied.

“Sorry about the GPS on your car,” Matt added. Frank had torn the GPS out before they’d left the Senator’s building.

Schultz shrugged, a small grin on his face. “Insurance will cover it,” he said.

Matt was about to walk away, but Mahoney’s voice stopped him. “When you see Castle,” he told Matt. “You might want to let him know that Madani pumped three bullets into his old buddy, Billy Russo. Russo’s probably bleeding out somewhere. We’ll catch him soon enough.”

Matt glanced back at the detective and gave the other man a quick nod. “Will do,” he agreed.

* * * * *

By the time Frank made it back to the trailer, he felt like shit. Not for the first time, he’d second-guessed his refusal of Matt’s help. Having Red with him as back up was the smart call – the right call. But Frank and his stupid, stubborn pride (and something deeper, something that went beyond what Frank was dealing with now even though he couldn’t put it into words, it was just a feeling) had been certain that he could handle whatever was thrown his way. And the only thing that seemed to happen was that his problems got worse. Having Red with him would’ve changed everything.

Frank thought back to his first conversation with Matt on his rooftop, the night Frank had waited for him after unexpectedly receiving a message about the location of Russo’s headquarters. Matt hadn’t offered his assistance explicitly then, but Frank could tell that the other man had been considering it. So, Frank had cut him off before the offer could be made. Later, in bed, Matt had finally extended the offer to help, and Frank hadn’t been able to deal with it then. He didn’t want Matt to get drawn into his mess; he wanted to keep Matt as far away from it as possible.

But if only Frank had accepted the offer sooner. Russo may’ve been ready for Frank, but he never would’ve seen the Devil coming. The ambush that had caught Frank by surprise would’ve never worked on Matt. You couldn’t blind a blind man. Matt would’ve cut them all down in the dark. And then Russo wouldn’t have been able to trick Frank into thinking he’d murdered those women, and Frank wouldn’t have wound up in the hospital half-beaten to death. So much would’ve been different if he’d just accepted Matt’s help.

Tonight would’ve been different too. Amy wouldn’t have been caught. Red would’ve kept her safe, kept her out of harm’s way. With those senses of his, he would’ve known that the assassin wasn’t in his room. Goddamn, those senses were a tactical advantage. How the hell did anyone get the drop on Red? Simple answer? They didn’t. Together, he and Red could’ve out flanked that psycho before he had a chance to pulverize those connecting rooms with his weaponry. Yep, tonight would’ve turned out differently if Matt had been with him. But Frank had been his usual bull headed self. Instead of saving the girl and killing the assassin, Frank had come back empty-handed. Now he’d have to do the exchange that he’d thought he’d be able to avoid. At least, they still had David Schultz hostage.

That had been Frank’s line of reasoning until he got back and was greeted by an empty trailer. No Curtis. No Senator Schultz. No Matthew-fucking-Murdock.

Goddammit.

* * * * *

It was a race to get back to the trailer. Matt had heard the 911 call for officers to respond to gunshots being fired at a hotel. That sort of call on the police band was common enough for New York City, but what had caught Matt’s attention was the location and the description of the gunfire. Witnesses on the floor where the firefight had broken out had described the place as a ‘war zone.’ That, plus the location, had Frank’s name all over it. The call had been placed an hour ago, while Matt had returned Senator Schultz to Detective Mahoney’s custody. No word on Frank being caught by the police; ditto for a dead gunman. Thankfully, nobody else had been hurt either. But the whole situation rubbed Matt the wrong way. It didn’t feel right.

So, it was a race to get back to the trailer. He’d stretched out his senses, listening for Frank’s voice amidst the cacophony of the city. He knew that Frank wouldn’t back down, even if he no longer had David Schultz as leverage. He’d bluff if he needed to, find a way to draw the assassin to him. What about Amy? What had happened to her?

Matt had his answer soon enough. He’d heard the exchange. He’d heard Frank ask if that killer was some kind of maniac. He’d heard the response. He knew the tenor of the exchange had shifted once the assassin had confessed that the Schultzes had his sons. He could practically feel Frank’s resolve turning into steel. This man who had been hunting him down for weeks was someone that Frank could relate to; was, in fact, a mirror image of Frank himself. Perhaps a truer image than Billy Russo could’ve ever been. Because there was nothing that Frank wouldn’t do for family.

Matt had been leaping across two buildings when Amy had torn out of that junkyard lot in the assassin’s sedan. He’d tracked the car below him as he ran across another building. He was almost there.

* * * * *

Frank was getting his ass beat. Matt had been right again. He was in no shape to go up against this guy. A gunfight was one thing. But hand-to-hand combat? Fuck.

Lucky for him, someone had put a ringer on John Pilgrim because the man wasn’t in great shape either. Blood seeped through his wrinkled white shirt, telling Frank that there was a fresh wound in his abdomen. It didn’t seem to slow Pilgrim much, however.

Frank had been on his knees, Pilgrim choking him with a chain when it happened. The death grip around his neck loosened, and Pilgrim fell to the ground beside him. Frank didn’t need to turn around to know that the Devil was there.

It wasn't much of a fight after that. Pilgrim kept comin’ and comin’, but he didn’t stand any sort of chance against the two of them. Matt by himself could’ve put Pilgrim in his grave, if the Devil believed in that sort of thing.

Frank was going to deliver the killing blow when Matt’s voice stopped him. All Matt did was say his name, but it was enough. Standing over Pilgrim’s prone body, Frank held the tank aloft and felt the sudden weight of it. He was tired, so godamned tired. Pilgrim was coughing blood.

“I know who you are,” Pilgrim told him. “You’re the whirlwind.”

Frank lowered the tank. Pilgrim’s description was eerily similar to what Matt had called him. What had Matt said? A hurricane? A tornado? It was all the same. He was a force of nature. If you didn’t get out of his way, he’d strike you down.

Matt was standing beside him, looking and sounding like he’d hardly exerted any effort. Frank wondered where he’d come from, how far he’d parkoured across the city just to get back in time. He felt Matt’s gentle grip on his elbow.

“Frank,” the other man said quietly. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

“Then what’re we goin’ to do with him, Red?” Frank said. “You heard him. He’s never gonna stop.”

Matt cocked his head, a gesture that Frank was starting to find endearing. “He’ll stop once his family is safe.”

Frank placed the tank on the ground. He understood what that meant.

* * * * *

All considered, Matt thought it had been a relatively normal day at the office. Normal meant court in the morning, depositions after lunch and a meeting with their realtor in the late afternoon. It looked like Nelson, Murdock and Page would finally be able to move out of the top floor of Foggy’s family business. Foggy would miss the free food, but he was also excited about getting proper offices. He’d spearheaded the search for office space and that afternoon, he’d occupied the realtor with his inquiries. It was just the opportunity Karen had been looking for to get Matt alone. Matt could tell that she’d been antsy all day, and he knew why. It was the first time they’d seen each other since the hospital. Naturally, Karen wanted to know how Frank was doing.

“So?” she’d said to Matt without any preamble. It was the vaguest statement she could’ve possibly said, but Matt immediately understood.

“He’s fine,” Matt replied. “He’s taking care of his business.”

Karen wouldn't be dissuaded. “Fine is a relative term when it comes to you two,” she said. “And what does ‘taking care of his business’ mean?”

“It means Frank is getting rid of the bounty on his head,” Matt answered.

“And you’re letting him do that?”

“We’ve reached an agreement.”

“And Billy Russo?”

“Probably dead, but we don’t know for sure yet. Madani put three bullets in him.”

There was a thoughtful silence and Foggy’s voice drifted over to them, praising the angle of the light in one of the offices. Yep, Matt could tell that they were going to get the place.

“What about you and Frank?” Karen finally said.

“What about us?”

“You still haven’t told me what changed between the two of you; why you came to his rescue at the hospital.”

Matt inwardly sighed. He’d been steeling himself for this moment. Answering Karen’s questions was inevitable.

“Frank got himself into a fix,” Matt began. “And one night, he just began talking to me. Confessing, really. I don’t think he actually thought I could hear him, but I could. He was talking to me for over an hour, Karen. Just telling me stuff I never expected to hear, especially from The Punisher.” Matt shrugged. “He was so lost. And he was in the cemetery, sitting beside his wife and kids’ graves. I couldn’t just leave him out there.”

“So, you decided to help him.”

Matt shrugged again. “Maybe not my smartest decision,” he admitted. “But I don’t regret it.”

“I’m glad,” Karen suddenly said. “Things would’ve turned out differently…without you.”

There was another thoughtful silence. This was it, Matt thought. Karen will ask now.

“So, that’s all there is then,” Karen said, hedging. “Between you and Frank.”

“It is for now,” Matt replied.

It hadn’t been a lie, Matt reflected. Not completely. When he was clearer on where things stood with Frank, then he’d be able to tell Karen and Foggy about it. He wasn’t willfully keeping Frank a secret. They’d hardly had any time to talk, much less figure out what was going on between them, though Matt suspected that Frank had a much better idea of what he wanted than Matt did. Their brief conversation in the trailer lot had told Matt as much (and had privately freaked him out.) Frank’s intensity in everything was a little frightening. Frank seemed to want too much, too soon. And Matt? Well, Matt didn’t how much he had left to give.

The familiar heartbeat that waited for him outside his apartment was a surprise for several reasons. First of all, he hadn’t expected Frank back this soon. Secondly, there was still daylight outside. He’d gotten used to the idea of Frank visiting him at night, waiting for him on his roof, even though that had only happened once. The point was, hospital breakouts aside, he didn’t associate Frank with the day. Thirdly, and most peculiarly of all, the steady heartbeat that Matt would recognize anywhere now, wasn’t as steady as it should be. Frank was anxious, hesitant about being there at all, and the thought made Matt smile.

“Hey,” Matt greeted him, as he rounded the staircase and approached his door.

“Hey,” Frank said in reply. (There. Another skip in his heartbeat.)

Frank was standing outside his door, hands shoved into the pockets of a worn hoodie. “Checked in with Karen earlier,” he explained. “She told me y’all were lookin’ at office space. Said you’d be back here around this time.”

Matt nodded. “Karen was asking about you earlier, too,” he said.

“Hope we told her the same thing.”

“I gave her generalities.”

“Yeah, me too.”

There was a beat before Frank did the most unexpected thing, at least to Matt. He leaned forward and placed a quick kiss on Matt’s cheek before leaning back again. The action was so fleeting that Matt could’ve thought he’d imagined it, except he could still feel the after pressure of Frank’s lips against his skin; he could smell the clean aftershave that Frank wore. He was so surprised that he didn’t know what to say, instead turning towards his door and reaching for his key.

“Y’know,” he finally said, as he placed the key in its lock. “If you’re going to stand out here and wait for me to come home, the least you could do is give me a proper kiss.”

It was a smartass remark meant to goad Frank, and it had just the desired effect. Matt had hardly finished speaking before Frank was pressing him up against his door, giving him a ‘proper’ kiss. When it ended, Matt’s right hand was fisted in Frank’s hoodie.

“Proper enough for you?” Frank asked, his voice a mixture of irritation and affection. He was still leaning into Matt.

“Better,” Matt said, releasing his grip on Frank’s hoodie. Frank gave him enough room so that he could turn around and continue unlocking his door. “You’re not much for public displays of affection anymore, are you?” he commented.

Matt sensed Frank shrug behind him. “Private things should be kept private,” Frank said.

Matt finally opened the door and stepped inside. “Well then,” he said. “Let’s keep this private.”

Frank was slower to follow. He waited in the darkened entrance hallway as Matt locked his door again. Even when Matt began walking down the hallway, Frank’s steps dragged behind him. His slow steps were the opposite of the nervous flutter of his heart. What did Frank have to be nervous about? Matt wondered.

Matt headed straight for the kitchen, dumping his bag on the table along the way. “Water or beer?” he offered, walking over to the fridge.

“Whatever you’re having,” Frank replied.

It was an uncharacteristic reply, Matt thought. Indecisive, which was not a word that he associated with Frank Castle. Matt had been planning to get a glass of water, but pulled out two bottles of beer instead. Frank probably needed a beer. He uncapped the bottles, and then placed the second bottle in front of Frank who had taken a seat at the counter. Matt stood opposite him as they drank their beers.

“So,” Matt said, since Frank obviously wasn’t going to get the ball rolling. “I heard the news. Mrs. Schultz of the famed Schultz industrial family died of an unexpected heart attack.”

“Yeah,” Frank said with a sigh. “That’s not how it happened.”

“Figured.” Matt waited for an explanation.

“I did what you asked,” Frank went on. “What David wanted. Gave them a chance, but the old witch wouldn’t take it.”

“And Mr. Schultz?”

“Pretty sure he learned his lesson.”

Matt nodded. It wasn’t the ideal ending, but even he wasn’t naïve enough to hope for that.

“What about Amy?”

“Kid’s good. Packed her on a bus to Florida. Curt and I have a buddy down there. Runs a diving school. He’ll take care of her.”

“And teach her how to salvage for sunken treasure,” Matt said with a smile.

“That’s what the kid wants,” Frank agreed. Matt could hear the matching smile in the other man’s voice.

“And Billy Russo?”

“Yeah,” Frank said, dragging out the word. There was the barest hint of regret there mixed with relief, Matt thought. Underneath all the anger and betrayal, Billy Russo and Frank Castle had been brothers once. They’d been family…until Russo had spit in the face of all that.

“Bill. That’s been taken care of, too.”

Frank didn’t need to explain what that meant. Matt had known from the start that there was only one way Russo’s story could end.

“All your loose ends are tied up, then.”

“All tied up,” Frank agreed.

“That means you’re free.”

“Free as I’ll ever be, I s’ppose.” Frank sounded like he wasn’t even sure what that meant anymore.

Matt held up his bottle of beer in a toast. “To freedom,” he said. “And clean slates.”

Frank mirrored the gesture. “To freedom and clean slates,” he dutifully repeated, clinking his bottle against Matt’s. They drank again.

When the bottles were half empty, Matt found himself leaning against the counter. “What’s next for you?” he asked. The word ‘after’ was dancing in his mind, but Matt wasn’t going to say it aloud.

“Dunno,” Frank admitted. He couldn’t hide the uncertainty in his voice.

“I meant, after you sleep for a week,” Matt added with a cheeky grin. He could feel that peaceful sort of calm settling between them. He was starting to think of it as the norm. Even Frank’s heartbeat had reverted to the sure and steady rhythm that Matt associated with him.

“I was thinkin’ of going on that road trip we talked about in the hospital,” Frank said.

Matt remembered. Frank had the whole thing planned out. But he still couldn’t help teasing the other man. “Because that went so well last time,” he reminded Frank.

Frank grinned. “It’ll be different,” he said, not taking Matt’s bait.

“And why’s that?”

“’Cos you’ll be there.”

“To babysit you?”

“Wasn’t going to put it like that,” Frank said. “But I s’ppose it could be part of the job description.”

“What job description would that be?”

“Do I have to spell everything out for you, Red?”

Matt broke off suddenly, stopping the friendly banter. This was another one of those moments, he realized. What they said next would shape their relationship, would shape their future.

“Planning on visiting Beth?” Matt asked, shifting the direction of their conversation. When Frank didn’t answer right away, he added. “I know you want to. Just to check up on her, make sure she’s okay. That makes sense. You said she was special, that there could’ve been something there.”

“What is this, Red?” Frank finally asked, confusion evident in his tone. “You want me to choose? Is that it? ‘Cos it wouldn’t be much of a choice.”

“No,” Matt said. “That’s not it at all. I’m making the choice for you.”

Frank fell silent and Matt leaned forward a little more earnestly.

“Clean slates,” Matt began. “They’re nothing to sneeze at. And Karen’s right too. There doesn’t need to be another mission, another war. You’ve done enough, Frank.” He paused. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said, about what ‘after’ would look like for you. I’m not sure I know what that is,” he admitted. “But I have an idea of what it probably shouldn’t be. It probably shouldn’t be in the city, and it probably shouldn’t be with me. What we have?” Matt gestured between them. “It works when we’re like this. When we’re just Frank Castle and Matt Murdock. But I’m also Daredevil, and I’m not going to give that up. I know you’re not asking me to do that, but that’s also not the point. The point is my life as Daredevil is a constant shitstorm. I don’t want you to get drawn into those messes, where my problems as Daredevil become your next mission or your next war. That’s what happened with Russo, isn’t it? Pilgrim, too. You didn’t want me to get drawn into your messes. Well, I feel the same way. We don’t work…” Matt gestured again. “…out there. Our methods are different; our philosophies clash. We’d fight all the time. Clean slates are about getting out. Starting over. You can’t do that if you stay in the city or with me. That wouldn’t break the cycle, Frank. And that’s what ‘after’ is. It’s about breaking the cycle.”

“You done?”

“Yeah.”

Frank nodded and finished the rest of his beer. Matt could feel the weight of the other man’s thoughts again. He was seriously considering what Matt had just said.

“So, I guess that’s it then,” Frank eventually said.

“That’s it,” Matt replied. He could hear his heart hammering in his chest. Acceptance. He hadn’t thought it would be so easy. A part of him expected (wanted?) Frank to put up a fight.

Frank nodded and stood up. “I guess I’ll…see you around, Red.” There was still affection there, maybe even longing, but Matt also heard the finality in the statement. “Still like the idea of a road trip,” he went on. “Get out of the city.”

It was Matt’s turn to nod. “It’s a good idea,” he agreed. He held out his hand. A handshake seemed weirdly formal now, but he wasn’t sure what else to do.

Apparently, Frank had other ideas. He gripped Matt’s hand, but only as a means to pull Matt forwards. And then he was kissing him again, one of those deep, open-mouthed kisses that left Matt breathless.

“If I hang outside your door waiting for you to come home,” Frank said fondly. “The least I can do is give you a proper kiss good-bye.”

Matt chuckled at hearing his words being said back to him. The good-bye seemed so sudden, but he shouldn’t have been surprised. Frank Castle, always direct. Yet, when he was standing alone in his kitchen after Frank had left, Matt felt like the biggest asshole in the city.

* * * * *

Matt couldn’t wait for darkness to fall. He was dressed in the black suit and perched on his rooftop long before the heat of the sun’s rays faded. He needed to be out on the streets to quell the ache that he felt in his chest. His encounter with Frank hadn’t gone at all how he’d thought it would. Things had ended too abruptly, too quickly, and it had all been his doing. At the back of his mind, he’d thought they’d have more time; maybe not much, but more than what they’d had. But maybe this was also for the best, to cut things off before either of them got too invested. Frank was already so invested. And Matt? Well, Matt was a human disaster. His personal life was generally a mess, his romantic life even worse. He could probably trademark the phrase, ‘Worst Romantic Partner Ever.’ And after everything Frank had been through, he deserved better than that. Right? Right?

Matt shook his head, as though the action would clear his muddled thoughts. When he heard the first terrified cry for help, he leaped off his building.

He stayed out much later than usual. He didn’t have to worry about work the following day since it was Saturday. It was almost dawn when he ended his patrol, which had included recon on the latest operation of the Algerians. They had formed some sort of partnership with the Russians and were thinking of muscling in on the territory of Hell’s Kitchen. Big mistake.

Still, Matt was stunned to hear a familiar heartbeat camped out on his rooftop when he returned, a thermos beside the man and a mug of coffee in his hand. Matt recognized the mug as one of his own. His favorite, in fact. He wondered how long Frank had been waiting for him.

“How far did you get?” Matt asked, taking the mask off.

“About three hours out of the city,” Frank answered.

“And you came back? On a Friday night?” Matt said, a little incredulously.

Frank sort of shrugged. He was pouring coffee into a second mug, one that he offered to Matt. Matt accepted, inhaling the coffee’s scent. His own grind, but relatively freshly brewed. Frank hadn’t been waiting on the roof for long then. He stretched his senses out, honing in on his own apartment, to hear if there was anything unusual going on. Interesting.

“You ever think of going back to the red suit?” Frank asked conversationally, as Matt took a seat beside him.

“Not really,” Matt replied, taking a sip of the coffee. Oh, that was good. “Why? You miss the horns that much?” he teased after a moment.

“It’s hard ta call ya ‘Hornhead’ without it,” Frank admitted with good humor. Then he grew serious. “I was just thinking. What you do…it’s dangerous, y’know? The red suit gave you good protection. You should have good protection when you go out there.” Frank shrugged. “If ya don’t like what it stands for anymore, get yer tailor to make another one. Don’t it come in black?”

“My tailor,” Matt repeated with a chuckle. “Melvin would get a good laugh out of that.”

“Melvin?” Frank repeated.

“Melvin Potter. He was Wilson Fisk’s tailor.”

Matt settled more comfortably beside Frank. He could feel the other man watching him, a peaceable calm falling between them as if their fraught conversation earlier that afternoon hadn’t happened at all.

“The first time I fought Fisk I was in bad shape,” Matt began. “He’d set me up to face Nobu. By the time I’d dealt with Nobu, I was in no condition to face Fisk. But I did it anyway ‘cos I’m an idiot. I got in one really good strike with a knife, a hit that should’ve done real damage. But all it did was slice through this lightweight armor in the lining of Fisk’s jacket. All his jackets are custom made with that lining,” he added.

“Good to know,” Frank commented.

“I decided to track down the maker of Fisk’s suits.”

“And that lead you to Melvin Potter.”

“And that lead me to Melvin Potter.”

“So,” Frank said, after a moment. “This Potter. Would he make another suit for you?”

“He probably would,” Matt said. “The problem is I don’t know if he can.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, Fisk also got to him. He got Melvin to make the suit Poindexter wore to impersonate me. And then he tried to set me up to take the fall,” Matt explained. “Last time I saw Melvin, he was about to be taken in by the feds, and he’d broken parole.”

“You and Fisk have a real heartwarming relationship,” Frank said.

“There’s a lot of love there,” Matt agreed. He could feel Frank grinning beside him.

“But you don’t actually know if Potter’s back in the slam?”

“No,” Matt admitted. “It’s a reasonable assumption though.”

“Could you help him? Do some of your lawyer shit?”

“I could look into it.”

“We should do that.”

“We?”

Frank took a deep breath. Matt listened to the other man’s heart. It’d been steady as a rock since he’d arrived. No tension. No anxiety. Frank was calm and sure. Certain. This was the Frank that Matt had grown used to.

“I been thinkin’ a lot about what you said,” Frank began. “You’re right about the shitstorm, about me getting drawn into it. I wouldn’t be able to stand by while you threw yourself into danger. And yer right about our methods and philosophies. Hell, we’d be fighting non-stop about how to handle things. You were right about a lot of things, but not everything.”

“Like?”

“Clean slates,” Frank stated. “They ain’t all they’re cut out to be. You know me, Red. The good, the bad, and the really ugly. I don’t think anybody knows me the way you do, not even Curt. That’s rare. And valuable. It means something.” Frank paused, letting the quiet settle between them. “And yeah, our methods and philosophies are different. But that don’t mean we can’t change. That’s what you do, y’know? You compromise, for the people you love.”

Matt was thankful that he hadn’t been drinking his coffee just then, or he would’ve choked for sure.

“You remember when you told Mahoney I was a hurricane?”

“Yeah,” Matt said, finally finding his voice.

“You were right about that, too. But there’s something else you don’t know.”

“What’s that?” Matt said, almost dreading the answer.

“You know what they call the most peaceful part of a storm?”

“The eye.”

“Yeah, the eye,” Frank agreed. “All this chaos and destruction, but when you’re in the eye of a storm, it’s supposed to be the clearest, most beautiful summer day.” He turned to Matt. “That’s what I feel when I’m with you. You make all the noise and the chaos stop. The world makes sense again, even if it’s just for a little while.” He looked away. “I know what ‘after’ looks like, Red, and I know that I want it with you. And yeah, it probably won’t last, but even if we had just a week, or a month, or a coupla months…it would be worth it, y’know? Don’t you think…don’t you think there’s something here?”

Matt had felt his anxieties fall away as Frank had spoken. All that was left was acceptance. He leaned into the other man, inhaling his scent. Frank smelled so good to him.

“Yeah,” he said. “I think there’s something here.” He stood up, holding out a hand to Frank. Frank grasped it, allowing Matt to pull him up. “Those noodles you placed in the hot water might be overcooked by now,” he said, leading Frank to the roof access door. “Were you planning to make the famous Castiglione spaghetti Bolognese?”

“For breakfast?” Frank scoffed. “Hell no. I’ll make that later.”

“Did you really buy groceries for me?”

“Somebody had to.”

Matt laughed. “You’re going to be that kind of partner, are you?”

“You better believe it…Matthew.”

Matt stopped at the sound of his name. It was the first time Frank had ever used it. Not even ‘Matt,’ but ‘Matthew.’ No one had called him ‘Matthew’ since Elektra. He turned, tugging Frank towards him. The other man obliged and stepped closer so that their bodies were flushed together.

“I’m glad you came back,” Matt told him.

“Yeah?” There was a smile in Frank’s voice again.

“Yeah. It saves me going after you.”

“Finally came to your senses?”

“I told you I was slow on the uptake,” Matt reminded him, leaning forward to kiss the other man.

 

Fin.

Chapter Text

The roadhouse was exactly what Matt had expected it to be, or as much of it as his senses could put together based on what Frank had told him. There was its shape: a stocky, rectangular, single-level structure with a triangular roof, its bright neon sign creating an electrical discharge that Matt could read. There were the sounds: peoples’ voices, rough, loud, a little drunk, happy; the music from the band that Frank liked; and all the other countless sounds – the minutia that went unnoticed to ordinary hearing – that came from a place like this. There were the smells: sweat mingled with aftershave and perfume, alcohol spilled on tabletops, mud from boots that had tramped through damp earth, oil and grease from fried food. Then there was a hand at the back of his neck and Frank leaning in to say:

“Too loud?”

Frank was always like that: looking out for Matt, thinking of Matt’s comfort before he thought of his own. Matt had become the priority in Frank’s life, and Matt often found Frank’s unrestricted love and care humbling. He’d never had a partner as thoughtful and considerate as Frank before. Frank put everyone that had come before him to shame. (And since Matt couldn’t imagine anyone coming after Frank, then that was a moot point.)

Matt shook his head. “It’s fine,” he said.

Frank’s unwavering look and body language told Matt that the other man didn’t entirely believe him. Matt leaned closer to him and repeated, “It’s fine. If things get uncomfortable, I’ll let you know.” He paused and then nodded in the direction of the bar. “The bartender’s already clocked you. I’m assuming that’s Beth. Go say ‘hello’ and get our drinks. I’ll go nab the corner table behind us to the left.”

Before Frank could object, Matt had eluded his grasp and was headed toward said corner table. He wasn’t ‘playing’ blind tonight. In fact, for the majority of their road trip, he hadn’t played blind at all. Most of the time, he still carried his foldable cane, but it was more out of a sense of comfort and familiarity (and the fact that it made a great weapon) rather than necessity. Tonight, he didn’t even have the cane.

By the time Matt took a seat at the table, Frank had made his way to the bar. This should’ve been an awkward moment, but like so many ‘should’ve’s where Frank was involved, it wasn’t. Frank was about to have a heart-to-heart with a certain bartender – the whole reason they’d included Michigan on their road trip – and Matt would hear every word of it. It wasn’t as if Matt was purposely eavesdropping, but it wasn’t like he could tune it out either. It was what it was. Frank was never bothered by the idea that a ‘private’ conversation was impossible wherever Matt was concerned. “Ain’t got nothin’ to hide,” Frank had said, a statement so quintessentially Frank Castle that it had made Matt smile.

The truth was Frank had found multiple ways to turn Matt’s hearing against him. (And God help him if he and Frank ever found themselves on opposing sides in a war. No one knew Matt’s weaknesses now the way Frank did, but Matt supposed that went both ways.) That first week had sealed Matt’s fate. Frank had spent that week in Matt’s apartment, sleeping in the first three mornings, and then joining Matt for breakfast for the rest of the week. Matt looked back on that time as their ‘honeymoon’ period. In many ways, that week established what would eventually become their ‘routine.’

Frank spent that week getting to know Matt’s beloved Hell’s Kitchen. Matt had told him some childhood stories about growing up in the Kitchen and Frank visited those places. He explored Hell’s Kitchen, coming to understand why Matt was so attached to his neighborhood. He discovered the second hand bookstore two blocks away from Matt’s building, the neighborhood grocery down the block, the Korean grocery in the opposite direction, the local art house cinema that played classics and foreign fare, as well as the nearby park.

When he wasn’t exploring, Frank liked to read. Matt’s handful of books were all in Braille, which was to be expected. So, Frank picked up a few hardbacks from the used bookstore. Most of the time, he liked to read stretched out on the sofa in Matt’s apartment, which he found remarkably comfortable. (That sofa sure as hell didn’t look comfortable, but it was.) Thanks to those expansive floor to ceiling windows, Matt’s apartment was flooded with natural daylight, the angle of the windows and the buildings across the street ensuring that though well lit, the apartment never got too warm. The other place Frank liked to read was at the park. And if he was reading in the park, then it meant that he was usually picking up groceries too.

Few people would’ve guessed, but Frank Castle was a great cook. Breakfast was Matt’s domain (no way could Frank compete with those eggs), but Frank prepared the evening meal. (Once he made sandwiches for lunch, and Matt had met him in the park for a quick bite.) It was usually while he was shopping that Frank liked to turn Matt’s hearing against him. He quickly learned that the ten blocks that marked the boundaries of Hell’s Kitchen was totally within Matt’s range. (Maybe that was why the Devil was so territorial. He could literally hear everything that went down in his neighborhood.) That meant that as long as Frank stayed in the Kitchen, he could talk to Matt at any time, secure in the knowledge that Matt would hear him.

Most of the time, Frank would simply share his observations with Matt. (And Matt would pick up that conversation later in the day when they saw each other again.) In fact, Frank got used to talking to Matt whenever he felt like it, which, when he was in public, probably made him look a little nuts. But, there were other times when Frank was feeling a little devious that he liked to goad the Devil. Out of the blue, he’d describe what he’d like to do to Matt later that night, or what he’d like Matt to do to him. Frank didn’t spare any detail. He was such a traditionalist when it came to sex (a trait that Matt found both amusing and endearing) that it was a massive turn on to hear Frank talk dirty to him in his deep, gravelly voice. It all came to a head one afternoon in that first week. Matt had called Frank after listening to the other man detail a steady stream of fantasy porn for almost thirty minutes. Frank had picked up on the first ring.

“Something you wanted to tell me, Red?”

“You are a total asshole,” Matt had hissed back. That statement was met by Frank’s deep laughter rolling over him in warm waves. “Do you realize I was in a meeting with the ADA?”

“I was wonderin’ if I timed that right.”

Matt was stunned into silence. “You shit,” he said, when he’d recovered.

Frank laughed again. “How’d the meeting go?” he asked.

“It’s still going,” Matt replied. “I excused myself and left Foggy to deal with Simpson.”

Frank chuckled softly. “Whaddya want for dinner?” he said, changing the subject. He could tell that Matt wasn’t really pissed.

“Depends,” Matt said. “Are you cooking or are we going out?”

“I was thinkin’ of that new Vietnamese place that opened down the street,” Frank commented.

“Uh-huh,” Matt said knowingly. “You just want to see if their thit ko is as good as yours.”

Frank shrugged. “I was thinkin’ more of their pho bo,” he admitted.

“I wouldn’t mind a pho bo,” Matt agreed. “Or a good banh mi.”

“Vietnamese, then?”

“Vietnamese.”

* * * * *

At the end of the first week, Matt casually cleared out two drawers in his bureau and some closet space. It was a tacit invitation that Frank accepted. They never actually talked about it. Frank didn’t have a permanent place in the city anyway, though he did have a few hideouts largely courtesy of Micro. So, Frank got his stuff together (what little he had) and moved in. Matt’s only condition was that Frank couldn’t bring an arsenal with him, which was fine by Frank. He did, however, insist on a single handgun and Matt conceded to that.

By the end of the first month, Frank began looking for a job. A real day job. He was still using his Pete Castiglione alias, an identity that was as clean as Frank Castle’s was not. He thought about going back to construction. He liked the physicality of it, though he didn’t have any more rage issues to work through. He sat down and talked over the possibilities with Matt: what he liked to do, what skills he possessed, what sort of environment he preferred. Frank Castle wasn’t exactly a people person and his best skills basically revolved around killing. He could’ve easily gotten a job in private security or as a PMC, but Frank didn’t want to re-enter that world, and Matt didn’t think it was a particularly good idea either. In the end, Matt recommended an animal shelter in Hell’s Kitchen that Nelson & Murdock had represented before they became Nelson, Murdock and Page. With Matt’s glowing recommendation, Frank got a job with the shelter. The pay was peanuts, but Frank didn’t care. He was able to do something he loved, which was help rehabilitate animals that had been victims of cruelty.

One day, an attack dog named Max was found on the streets near the shelter. Her owner had left her for dead after a vicious fight, probably thinking that Max wasn’t any good to him or her anymore. Frank nursed Max back to health and that was that. He figured that Max was short for ‘Maxine.’ When Max was healed up, albeit with a permanent limp in her right hind leg and deteriorating eyesight in her left eye, Frank brought her home. She jumped onto the sofa, settled herself on Matt’s lap, and that was that too.

Frank also began going to Curt’s VA meetings. He didn’t go every week, but he usually dropped by twice a month. Everybody knew who he was, of course, even if he went by the name Pete Castiglione. Nobody called him out on it, whether it was out of fear or respect. Vets were a tight group, and whatever he’d done, Frank Castle was one of their own.

At the end of the second month, Frank asked Matt if he wanted to swing by once the meeting was over. This wasn’t something they’d specifically talked about either, but Matt agreed easily enough. (It was amazing how much of their relationship was based on tacit understanding. They didn’t talk about the supposedly ‘big things’ because there seemingly wasn’t any need to. They were simply…in tune.)

Frank wanted Curtis to meet Matt officially, though he hadn’t exactly been planning to out Matt as Daredevil. It didn’t matter. Curtis took one look at Matt’s outstretched hand, examined his profile, recognized his voice and said:

“You’re shitting me.”

“We’re really not,” Matt informed him calmly.

Curtis barked out a short laugh and shook Matt’s hand. “It’s good to see you again, figuratively speaking,” he added, eyeing Matt’s dark glasses and white cane. “Are you…?” he trailed off.

“I am,” Matt confirmed.

“Right,” Curt agreed faintly, even though he clearly didn’t understand. He turned to Frank. “I knew you were in bed with the Devil, but I didn’t think that was so literal.”

“The Devil’s been watching over me,” Frank replied.

“You mean he’s been keeping you in line,” Curtis translated.

“Actually, I think Frank’s been watching over me,” Matt broke in.

Curtis shook his head. “Daredevil and the Punisher,” he said. “That’s a tabloid reporter’s wet dream. You two really are your own support group.”

“Join us for dinner?” Matt invited. “There’s a Thai place near here that serves great food.”

“Muang Thai,” Curtis supplied. “I know it.”

“C’mon,” Frank said, nudging Curtis with his elbow. “You know you can’t resist real pad seew.”

“It’s gonna be an interesting evening,” Curtis observed, following the other two out.

* * * * *

That interesting evening led to other interesting evenings, as well as regular Sunday afternoons in the park with Max. Frank had been right when he’d said that Matt and Curt would get along well. They were both thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent men. In fact, they had a lot more in common than Frank and Curt did. But Frank and Curtis were bound by the experiences that they’d shared, by the brotherhood that the military had given them.

Sometimes, on those Sundays, Frank would marvel at the new brotherhood he’d forged with Matt. Bill’s betrayal stung less as Matt filled the hole in Frank’s heart, and then patched over the other parts that weren’t fully healed yet. Before, Frank believed that he’d had two families. There had been Maria and the kids, and there had been the marines. Frank had loved his families equally, but he’d always been forced to choose. And it’d gutted each time when the call of duty had trumped that of staying at home. But Matt didn’t force that kind of choice out of him, and it wasn’t just ‘cos Frank was out of the army. It seemed so obvious now, but Frank hadn’t been able to see it before. Matt didn’t present him with that choice, because Matt was the best of both those worlds. Matt was his family, and Matt was a fighter. Like Maria, Matt understood Frank for who he was, and he accepted him and loved him anyway. It made Frank feel blessed. What were the chances that he’d find two people in all the world who could accept him as he was, even after all the terrible things he’d done in the army and afterwards?

“I get it,” Curtis said to him that first Sunday at the park as they were sitting on a bench.

Matt was buying hotdogs for all of them at a nearby vendor, Max barking happily at his heels. They’d put a harness on her so that she acted as Matt’s seeing-eye dog when Matt brought her out, even though she wasn’t properly trained for it. Truthfully, Max was a terrible seeing-eye dog but it didn’t matter. It didn’t even irk Frank that his dog loved Matt more than she loved him. Frank understood the appeal.

“Get what?” Frank said absently, his gaze fixed on Matt and Max.

“I get why he makes you so happy,” Curt continued. “I mean, look at the way you’re looking at him now. You’re so far gone. I can’t remember ever seeing you like this. Not even with –” Curt broke off suddenly. He held up a hand apologetically. “Sorry, man. I didn’t mean –”

“Forget it,’ Frank cut him off. “It’s okay. I compare them too, sometimes. Even though I shouldn’t, even though it’s not fair…on either of them. And Matt would hate that.”

“It would be a pretty awkward conversation,” Curtis agreed.

“Y’know,” Frank said. “He can hear everythin’ we’re sayin’ right now.”

Curtis lifted an eyebrow. It was an expression that said, Really?

“Really,” Frank confirmed.

“Your boyfriend’s got superpowers?”

“You ever wonder why he’s the Devil?”

Matt joined them a few minutes later, Max trotting beside him instead of in front of him like a proper seeing-eye dog should do. (Matt had clearly given up the pretense of the harness). Frank moved a little to his right to make room for Matt on the bench.

“Not that I’m complaining,” Matt said, as he handed over their hotdogs and sodas. “But the optics of letting the blind guy get the food is pretty terrible.”

“You volunteered,” Frank reminded him.

“Did you really hear everything we said?” Curtis asked, intrigued.

Matt sighed. “You said you understood why I make Frank happy,” he began. “Then you put your foot in it by accidentally comparing me to Maria. And this one,” he said, gesturing at Frank. “Gave you a pass because apparently he compares me to his dead wife as well, even though he knows he shouldn’t and that it’s not fair to either of us. And yes,” Matt said, turning his attention to Frank. “I do hate it.”

Frank gave Curtis a look that said, See?

Curtis gave a low whistle. “Shit,” he told Frank. “Your boyfriend’s got superpowers.”

“Heightened senses,” Matt corrected, as if on cue.

* * * * *

They settled into their personal lives easily enough because Matt had been completely correct in his assessment of that. They worked best as Matt Murdock and Frank Castle (or Pete Castiglione, as the rest of the world knew Frank). Their vigilante lives? That wasn’t as smooth a transition, but Matt also realized it could’ve been a lot worse. They were immediately put to the test by the end of the first month as they worked to break up the partnership between the Algerians and the Russians that Matt had first stumbled upon when Frank’s saga with Billy Russo and John Pilgrim had ended.

It was a long, drawn out fight. A proper turf war. It took them almost eight weeks to strategically dismantle the joint operations of the Algerians and the Russians, everything from arms dealing to narcotics distribution to human trafficking. By the end of the eight weeks, they’d driven the Algerians out of Hell’s Kitchen, had most of their head honchos arrested thanks to Brett Mahoney and put the Russians back in their place. (Meaning, having to start their operations again from the ground up and not in the Kitchen.) It was Matt and Frank’s final raid at the docks that broke the back of the Algerian-Russian partnership. As they’d been surrounded by the broken bodies of the two groups (everyone wounded, some seriously so but no fatalities), a few men managing to escape into the night, Frank had let out a disgruntled sigh, discharging the magazine from his weapon before loading a new one. Matt glanced back at him.

“It’s a lot harder,” Frank groused. “When you can’t kill ‘em.”

Matt chuckled, stepping over the unconscious bodies of two Russians to get to Frank. He knew that they were alone, and that all the surveillance cameras had been disabled.

“I appreciate the effort,” he said, when he reached Frank’s side. He could still sense the other man’s aggravation, the blood lust that flowed through Frank’s veins when they got into prolonged fights like this. Matt sometimes worried that Frank would lose himself in the heat of the battle and forget the agreement they’d reached, but it hadn’t happened so far.

“I’ll only kill when I have to,” Frank had said. “But if there’s ever a question of your life or my life over some scumbag’s, I ain’t gonna hesitate.”

There wasn’t much Matt could say to that. It was a reasonable statement. As Frank had pointed out at the start, compromise was now the name of the game.

But that night in the warehouse by the docks, Matt could sense Frank’s dissatisfaction rolling off of him in waves. They’d succeeded in their task, but Matt knew that it was only his presence that had prevented Frank from blowing everyone to smithereens. There was no more sermonizing between them, no more lecturing, no more taunting, and no more goading. But that didn’t mean that Frank’s silent critique of the situation wasn’t as plain as day to Matt. Matt knew it was totally against protocol, but he had to find a way to soothe Frank, to assure the other man that they’d done the right thing. So, while he counted the distance of the approaching police sirens, he slung an arm about Frank’s shoulders and drew the other man towards him. Frank stepped into his embrace willingly, and then Matt was slotting their lips together amid the blood and the gunpowder and the stale air of the warehouse.

“That ain’t gonna work all the time, Red,” Frank told him when the kiss ended.

“I know,” Matt agreed, still nipping at Frank’s jaw. He couldn’t keep the smugness out of his tone. “But it’s gonna work most of the time.”

Another exasperated sigh and Matt knew he was right.

* * * * *

It was towards the end of the third month that Frank got a call from Madani, offering him a job working for the CIA. Black ops. Wet work. A hired gun. Madani had switched teams, going from defense to offense in the process. She needed someone to pull the trigger, to shoot where she pointed, and Frank was the best at what he did. Frank would be lying if he said that he hadn’t felt the pull of patriotism again, even after the terrible betrayals he’d faced. Fools like him were suckers for the flag. And Frank had to believe that Madani was different, that she wouldn’t let herself get caught up in all the bullshit. She’d be able to block out the noise. After everything they’d been through together, Frank knew he could trust her. He didn’t give his trust easily. It had to be earned. (There was still a part of him that could be as idealistic as the altar boy when it came down to it.)

He brought up the subject with Matt later that night after Matt had done his patrol. He hadn’t joined Matt that evening, but he was waiting for the other man on the roof when he returned.

“How’d it go?” Frank asked, handing Matt a freshly brewed mug of coffee. It’d become somewhat of a ritual between them.

“Pretty quiet,” Matt answered, accepting the mug gratefully. “Which was nice for a change,” he added, after taking a sip.

“No criminals are gonna mess with you so soon after the Algerian-Russian takedown,” Frank informed him.

“No criminals are gonna mess with us,” Matt corrected.

Frank brushed the compliment aside. “Not after the glory, Red.”

“That makes two of us,” Matt agreed. He sipped more coffee. Frank always spoiled him. “What’s on your mind?” he asked after a moment.

Frank bit back a laugh. Matt could read him so well.

“Madani called.”

“Didn’t realize she had your number.”

“She’s with the CIA now. She’s got everybody’s number.”

“Did she offer you a job?”

“You sure mind-readin’ ain’t one of yer superpowers?”

“I’m sure. Did you accept?”

This time, Frank didn’t bother to hold back his laugh. “Nah,” he said. They were sitting on the concrete ledge against the steps that led down to Matt’s apartment. It had become their favorite spot on the roof.

“But you thought about it.”

“For about five minutes,” Frank admitted.

“I wouldn’t mind, y’know,” Matt told him. “If you wanted to go back. If you feel that’s where you belong, if you think that would make you happy.”

Frank shook his head. “Nah, Red,” he said, running his hand down Matt’s leg.

He liked the feel of the lightweight armor of Matt’s new suit. Potter had really come through. The new suit was nearly identical to Matt’s old one except in color (it did come in black) and to upgrades in the joints for greater mobility and protection. It also had an outline of a double D on Matt’s chest in a dark maroon color that glinted when the light caught it just right. The glint of the double D matched the red glint of the Devil’s eyes. It was a true superhero costume. Frank wouldn’t be caught dead in a costume (he stubbornly didn’t think of the skull logo as a ‘costume’), but he loved the whole look for Matt. Red embraced the superhero persona. He should have a costume to match.

Frank reached for Matt’s coffee to have a sip. They’d gotten used to sharing. “This is where I belong,” he said, smiling as he watched Matt remove his mask.

* * * * *

Coming out to Curtis was one thing; coming out to Matt’s two closest friends was something else entirely. Frank thought of it as the last hurdle. What they had was working, and so far, they’d passed every test that’d been thrown their way. Nelson and Karen? They were the last test.

Karen, of course, already suspected. She was a smart cookie. Frank had kept in touch with her. He told her about the job at the animal shelter and how Matt had set him up. Naturally, she’d read and watched the reports about how Daredevil had worked with a partner to take down the Algerian-Russian ring. Just because bodies hadn’t been riddled with bullets and the Punisher hadn’t been mentioned by name didn’t mean Karen couldn’t put two and two together. After the hospital breakout, who else would Matt team up with?

“You’re following Matt’s rules,” Karen told him one day over coffee at their regular diner.

“Your boy’s a stickler for rules,” Frank groused. He stirred his coffee, even though there was nothing to mix. He didn’t take cream or sugar. (Unless he was taking Vietnamese coffee. Then he succumbed to custom and had condensed milk.) “We’ve reached an arrangement,” he added, after a while.

“So, what?” Karen shot him a devious look. “You’re his sidekick now?”

Frank glared at her. “Partner,” he shot back. “Part time.”

That was true. He didn’t go out on patrol with Matt every night. They only teamed up for the big stuff, stuff he didn’t want Matt to handle alone. That’s what back up was for. Then Frank took care of the bulk of reconnaissance. Scouting. Strategy. Red did the covert work, whatever required stealth. Breaking and entering into secure areas was his specialty. Fancy locks and alarm systems were no match for the Devil. If Red ever decided to give up the superhero stuff, he’d make one hell of a thief.

Karen’s smile said that she wanted to say more but somehow held back. Frank was grateful. He was a lousy liar, and no one knew this better than Matt. If Karen asked the right questions, Frank wouldn’t be able to evade her. He wasn’t sure how Matt dealt with Karen every day, but perhaps he shouldn’t have been so surprised. Matt was a pro when it came to the whole sneaking-around-living-a-double-life bullshit. Frank supposed it was just another part of the whole vigilante superhero, secret identity gig. He was living a double life of his own as Pete Castiglione, but he was an amateur compared to Matthew-fucking-Murdock.

What made Karen and Nelson particularly tricky was that they both had keys to Matt’s place. This was understandable. Not only were they Matt’s closest friends, but they also knew about his secret identity. If Matt stopped answering his calls or didn’t turn up to work, they could simply bust in and make sure he wasn’t bleeding out on his living room floor. After all, it’d happened before. Of course, it also meant that Matt’s friends could drop by at any moment. But funnily enough, Karen and Nelson didn’t have to check up on Matt anymore once Frank moved in. (Matt may have kept Frank’s homicidal tendencies in check, but Frank took care of Matt. Period.) That alone should’ve been a giant neon sign that meant something significant had changed in Matt’s life, but once again he got away with it thanks to his living-a-double-life-secret-identity-bullshit.

At the five-month mark (two and a half months after they’d come out to Curtis, and a month after the Algerian-Russian takedown), they decided to break the news to Karen and Foggy. They were strategic about it, or rather, Frank was. He wanted a non-threatening but controllable environment, which translated to Matt’s apartment. Matt also pointed out that the way to Foggy’s heart was through his stomach, so Frank decided to prepare dinner, including the famous Castiglione Bolognese (made with tagatelle instead of spaghetti noodles). Matt chose the wine and prepared a salad, while Frank took care of the wild mushroom soup and dessert.

It seemed like a sound plan.

And it generally worked, with the exception of Foggy completely freaking out at the idea of a domesticated Punisher living with and in a relationship with his best friend. The freak out happened upon arrival at Matt’s place and continued during the wild mushroom soup. When the salad was served, Foggy had calmed down somewhat. By the time he was chowing down on the Castiglione Bolognese, he was relatively chill. Food truly was the way to his heart. That, and the fact that Matt had chosen a very good wine and bought two bottles. Karen spent the entire evening smug, like the perennial cat that caught the canary, but it was only Frank who had to suffer her knowing looks. Matt could sense their exchange, and at one point, patted Frank’s knee under the table to commiserate with him.

It was when Frank stood up to get the dessert that Foggy leaned across the table and said to Matt, who was sitting opposite him and said:

“Matt, buddy. I know you’re my best friend, but you don’t actually expect me to give the shovel talk to The Punisher, do you?”

Before Matt could reply, Karen said, “I’m not sure Frank’s the one that needs the shovel talk.”

“Ouch, Karen,” Matt told her, but he was grinning. It was a good sign that they could joke about something like the ‘shovel talk.’

Foggy leaned back in his seat. “She’s not wrong, actually,” he agreed. “I mean, no offense Matt, but you could probably trademark the saying ‘Worst Romantic Partner Ever.’” He paused. “Well, maybe not ‘Ever,’” he amended.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Matt said.

“Vote of confidence for what?” Frank asked, returning with two decked out plates.

“Oh my god,” Foggy said, leaning forward again. “What is that?”

“Almond butter cake with strawberry compote and vanilla ice cream,” Frank explained.

Matt inwardly laughed at Foggy’s stunned silence.

“It’s meant for sharing,” Frank said, sounding a little uncomfortable as he placed one of the plates in between Foggy and Karen, and the second plate between Matt and himself. He sat down again.

Matt smiled and topped off their wine glasses. They were halfway through the second bottle.

“He bakes too?” Foggy said, finally finding his voice again. “Matt, he’s a keeper.”

“I’m aware,” Matt said, flashing Frank a warm smile. The action had the desired effect as Frank dipped his head, embarrassed by all the praise, but Matt could still see the warmth that bloomed on the other man’s cheeks.

Frank cleared his throat, picking up his dessert fork as he did so. “What vote of confidence?” he asked again in an effort to change the subject.

“We were just giving Matt the shovel talk,” Karen answered him.

“Is that right?” Frank said, amused. “Don’t I get one of those, too?”

“I can give you your shovel talk later,” Karen said, with mock seriousness. She gestured at Foggy. “This one gets a pass.”

Foggy held up his hands in surrender. “You are far better qualified than I am to give the shovel talk to The Punisher,” he pointed out. “I leave it in your capable hands.”

“Uh-huh,” Karen said, unimpressed.

“This is amazing,” Foggy gushed, returning his attention to the almond butter cake. “The texture on this cake…and the mixture of flavors!”

Matt turned his head in Frank’s direction and gave the other man a soft smile. When he reached under the table to pat Frank’s knee again, the other man beat him to it, grasping Matt’s hand easily and giving it a gentle squeeze. The evening couldn’t have gone any better.

* * * * *

At six months, they decided to go on a road trip. There was a lull in the casework at the office, and Foggy said that he could hold the fort down for two weeks. In exchange, Matt would handle the caseload so that Foggy and Marci could have their own downtime.

“Wait a minute,” Karen had said. “When do I get my vacation?”

“Anytime you want,” Matt had replied, magnanimously.

The streets were also relatively quiet during that time. Crime wouldn’t take a night off so that Daredevil and the Punisher could go on vacation, but Frank had been quietly persistent about the road trip, so persistent that Matt had no choice but to relent.

He didn’t regret the decision. It was nice to get out of the city, even though he wasn’t a fan of driving – he wasn’t a fan of enclosed vehicles, in general. But the road trip made Frank happy, and that was more than enough reason to do it.

“Can you drive?” Frank asked him curiously, as they were passing through Pennsylvania.

“If you mean, do I know how to drive, as in the mechanics of it,” Matt answered. “Then the answer’s ‘yes.’ But if you’re asking if I should drive, then the answer’s definitely ‘no.’”

“Somethin’ yer superpowers can’t do, huh?”

“There are limitations in small, enclosed spaces,” Matt admitted. “A car’s windshield, for example, throws my radar sense back at me. It’s the main reason why I shouldn’t drive.”

“So, if I knocked this windshield out, your radar sense would be able to map the road outside?”

“Pretty much.”

“Huh.” Frank sounded thoughtful. “What about a top down? A convertible?”

“Better,” Matt conceded. “But the windshield would still be a hassle.”

“But you’d be able to drive?” Frank persisted.

“You realize that it’s illegal for a blind person to drive, right?” Matt asked in return.

“Altar boy,” Frank said, but he was laughing.

* * * * *

The road trip led them to Michigan, to the roadhouse and to Beth, whom, of course, Frank did want to check up on. But once he was standing outside the roadhouse, Frank had been hesitant.

“Don’t think she’ll wanna see the guy that got her shot.”

“You didn’t get her shot,” Matt had reminded him. “And besides, she was trying to help you. Beth already knew how to handle a shotgun before you came along.”

With those words of encouragement, Matt had opened the door and practically pushed Frank inside. Now Frank was at the bar having a quiet chat with Beth that Matt could hear with perfect clarity amid the din of the crowd and the loud music.

“You look good,” Frank said, sliding onto a barstool. “Sorry about –”

“Don’t worry,” Beth said, cutting him off. She smiled. “You did right by me. That business with the girl? It’s all sorted out?”

“Yeah, it’s been sorted,” Frank confirmed. “I wanted to check up on you sooner. Didn’t really have a chance until now.”

Beth smiled again. “Didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” she admitted. “It’s sweet of you to check up on me.” She paused, tilting her head as she studied him. “You look good too,” she finally said. “Good…but different.”

“Different?” Frank repeated.

“Yeah.” Beth seemed bemused. “You look…happy.”

Frank chuckled at that. “Happy,” he said. Now he was the one amused. “That’s prob’bly ‘cos I am,” he agreed. It wasn’t as strange as Frank thought it would be, saying that aloud.

“Does it have to do with the guy you came in here with?” Beth asked. “The one who’s waiting for you? Mr. I-Wear-Sunglasses-Indoors?” she teased.

“He does that ‘cos he’s blind,” Frank explained.

Beth flushed. “Shit. Sorry, I didn’t mean –”

“Don’t worry about it,” Frank said. It was his turn to brush her apology aside. “Matt makes it hard for people to tell.”

“Matt, huh?”

“Yeah, Matt.”

“And how long have you and Matt been…?”

“Almost six months.”

“Wow. Six months.” Beth sounded impressed. “I guess it’s serious then?”

“It is,” Frank confirmed.

“I’m happy for you, Frank. Real happy,” Beth said, sincerely. “Or are you still going by ‘Pete’?”

“Still goin’ by Pete, but you can call me ‘Frank.’”

“You look like a Frank,” Beth told him with another smile.

“How ‘bout breakfast tomorrow?” Frank invited, on the spur of the moment. “You and Rex, me and Matt? It’ll be our treat.”

Beth laughed. “That’s a little sudden, isn’t it?”

Frank shrugged. “Why beat around the bush?” he asked. “’Sides, I want you to meet Matt. And it’d be nice to see Rex.”

“Rex would be glad to see you, too,” Beth admitted. She flashed him such a devious smile that it reminded Frank of Karen. “Does my approval mean so much to you?” she teased.

“It counts for somethin’,” Frank replied. He stood up, drinks in hand. “Say nine, tomorrow? We’ll pick you up.”

“9:00am,” Beth agreed, wiping down the counter.

By the time Frank made it back to Matt, the band was on its second set.

“Breakfast?” Matt questioned, as Frank placed his drink in front of him.

“Too weird?” Frank asked, taking a seat beside Matt.

“Doesn’t have to be,” Matt told him. He took a sip. The Macallan’s rich tones were a welcome burn down his throat. “You remembered the name of Beth’s son,” he commented, after a while.

“’m not gonna forget the kid’s name,” Frank chided him.

“Do you want kids again?”

Frank choked on his whiskey, shooting Matt an accusing glare that Matt couldn’t see, but could sense. He grinned a little smugly.

“It’s too soon to be thinkin’ like that Red,” Frank chastised.

“It is,” Matt said, apology lacing his tone. But he’d gotten the answer that he’d really wanted. He’d heard the skip in Frank’s heart, and Frank hadn’t instinctively said, No. Frank had no problem saying ‘no’ whenever he meant it. It was too soon to be thinking like that, but kids were something they’d have to consider in the future.

Matt leaned a little closer to Frank, saying, “They are a good band.”

“Not too loud?” Frank asked, the concern back in his voice.

Matt placed a kiss on the other man’s temple, as he slipped an arm under Frank’s jacket and around his waist. “Just right,” he replied.